Thursday, March 23, 2017

Table for Two

"Poor guy at table two looks like he's being stood up," my waitressing buddy Hazel said. "I asked him a half hour ago if he'd like to order. He said he was waiting for someone."
I studied the tall, lean man at table two.
I hadn't noticed him before because I'd been busy in the kitchen loading the dishwasher. Most of the Sunday morning breakfast crowd here at the Hickory Grove Restaurant had cleared out.
 Hazel said, "He's cute but looks sad...or hurt. "Then she winked at me. "Why don't you cheer him up?"
"I'll see if he's ready to order," I said, smiling at Hazel.
Married with three kids, Hazel was always trying to set me up with good-looking guys seated alone. She declared it was her mission to get me paired off with a guy before I graduated from college and quit my part-time job here.
I grabbed the water pitcher and approached the man's table. I spotted his cell phone and a bouquet of flowers wrapped in green tissue lying in front of him on the table. Without asking him, I refilled his water glass.
"Thank you," he said, glancing at my nametag. "Crystal...that's a cool name."
I blushed a little. The man's startling blue eyes amazed me, and his crestfallen voice grabbed my heart. "Would you like to order?" I asked.
"I've been stood up," he said, raking his hand through his sandy-brown hair. "It's over—and I'm glad...I guess."
"Um...maybe whoever you're waiting for got caught in traffic."
He shook his head. "This is the last restaurant in town before the Interstate. She told me last night to meet me here at noon. If she wasn't here, she'd decided to leave town. We were finished." He picked up his cell phone and studied it. "She's not answering my text messages." He turned the cell off, shoved in his pocket, and said, "Would you like these flowers."
"They'd look nice in a vase the counter."
"Do that," he said.
While I arranged the flowers, I expected him to leave. But he didn't. Flashing another wink, Hazel said, "I think he's waiting for you. Give me your apron and clock out."
"I think he's hungry and waiting for something to eat."
I was right. He ordered our breakfast special: eggs, pancakes, sausage links, hash browns, and toast. As I sprayed tabletops and wiped them down before clocking out, I glimpsed him devouring his meal. His girlfriend's dumping didn't seem to bother his appetite. When I handed him his ticket, he smiled an awesome smile and asked, "Been working here long?"
"Four years," I said. "I'm a senior at our local college."
His eyebrows shot up. "I am, too—a senior. Photo journalism. Strange I haven't seen you on campus."
"It's a big place."
Then he exhaled a big breath and said, "Could we talk for a second? I'd like to ask you a question. I mean...if you have time."
"My shift's over," I said. "Wait a minute."
After clocking out, I sat at his table, wondering what was up with him.
He said his girlfriend visited over the weekend and insisted that after he graduated he join her father in the family-owned construction company.The disagreement had been a long-standing problem between them. Last night he flat out refused and this morning the girl left town. "The thing is," he said, "I think all of us are given one life, and there's no prize at the end for spending it on something we don't like." He paused. "Do you think I'm being selfish? I'd like an honest answer from a stranger. Someone who has no reason to lie to me."
My lips pursed. "I think we should all be the author of our own story," I said. "I'm majoring in elementary education—my parents are doctors and wanted me to be one, too."
He leaned back in his chair, his eyes crisscrossing me, as if he were admiring me. "That's awesome. What do you parents say?"
"They agree with me. Anyone who really loves you would have to agree."
Silence gripped us for a moment. I think each of us was absorbing what we'd just declared. Finally, he said, "Name's Brady Henderson" He held out a hand and we shook, his grip warm and firm in mine.
"Crystal McCloud."
"Could I walk you to your car?" he asked. "Maybe meet you on campus? We could talk more," he added hopefully.
I thought about it for only a second. "I'd like that," I said.
While we headed for the door, I glanced back at Hazel. The grin on her face was the biggest, lopsided grin I'd ever seen. Then she tossed me a wink.

The End
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Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Miracle

I ignore the Christmas trees leaning against the front window of Handy Hank's Hardware Store. The lovely green trees are for families. Not for me, a childless forty-year-old divorcee. Inside the store, Hank beams his megawatt smile—I love that smile. "Christmas Eve," he says, "and I've still got a few trees left.
Pick one. I'll deliver."
Hank McGrath's smile and his friendly, helpful attitude always warm my heart. If my divorce two years ago, after ten years of marriage, hadn't been so brutal, I don't know...maybe. Just maybe I could be interested in Hank.
But I shake all romantic thoughts from my brain and say, "Can't be bothered. I've got real problems—the water's running continuously in my toilet. I've shut the water off at the meter, but is there something else I can do?  A part I can buy?"
Hank's helped me with tons of problems I've had with the old but charming Victorian house I was awarded in my divorce settlement, so I'm not surprised when he says, "Probably needs a new flushing unit." He scratches his head of tousled, sandy hair. "Got several models in stock. We're closing early. I'll be over after work."
"I can't ask you to do that, Hank. It's Christmas Eve."
"You want to pay a plumber double time on a holiday? If you're lucky enough to find one." His blue eyes lock on mine. "Let me help."
I stopped for advice only, but I realize I'd be foolish to turn down Hank's offer. Perhaps after he finishes, by way of gratitude, I might talk him into sharing homemade pizza and a bit of red wine with me.
"All right," I say, but I'm thinking, Kimberly Stafford, is this really what you want?
On my way home, driving though a light snow, I mull over my situation. After my divorce, it took me nearly a year to realize the emotional roller coaster I was on with my husband was over, and now I'm happier than ever. I love my house. Love my freedom. Love my job as a second-grade schoolteacher. Why would I jeopardize my tremendous, newly found feeling of well being on another relationship?
In the kitchen, I use a bit of water from the jug in the fridge for making pizza dough, and I fry Italian sausage. All, just in case I have the nerve to ask Hank to stay.
While waiting, I'm biting my bottom lip. I'm sure he likes me. When we first met nearly a year ago, I spotted a wedding ring on his left hand. It wasn't until months later that he rather causally mentioned he was a widower. His wife died of cancer. I realized he probably wore the ring in memory of his wife, which I thought was a wonderful gesture. The next time I saw him at the store, though, the ring was gone, a pale white stripe replacing it on his finger.
Hank arrives at four-thirty in the afternoon, snow falling heavily now, the wind outside cold and bitter. He carries two small boxes in a plastic bag along with a couple of tools. "One of these units will surely work," he says. "Where's the bathroom?"
I point up the stairs. "First door on the left. I can't tell you how grateful I am."
"My pleasure," he says, beaming that megawatt smile again. My heart rate spikes, and I say a little breathlessly, "Would you like to stay for pizza after you finish?"
"Love to—thought I smelled something great cooking."
Hank finishes in the bathroom in no time and then strolls into the kitchen. "I'm going out to my truck. You can turn the water on, but wait a second before you put the pizza in."
I nearly fall over when Hank carries a five-foot Christmas tree into my living room, filling the room instantly with a delightful pine scent. "Figured you didn't have a tree," he says.  "And this little guy would've gone to waste." With a hopeful note in his voice, he asks, "You have ornaments? Lights?"
I gulp and feel tears creeping into my eyes. "Yes, stuffed away in a closet."
Laughing and jabbering like school kids, Hank and I trim the tree with brightly colored lights and ornaments—lights and ornaments I thought I might never use again. Like I thought I might never again have feelings for a man again.

But while Hank and I sit on the floor shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the tree, eating pizza, sipping wine, and admiring our work, a warm glow surges through me. I never thought I'd be part of a Christmas miracle.
I look at Hank and ask, "Do you believe in miracles?"
 This time his smile is shy, as is mine. His warm hand slipping into mine, he says, "Yes, I do."

The End
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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lost Grove

I tromped past the carnival rides and the concession stands, looking at all the fun everyone had had tonight at the Lost Grove Summer Festival.
Everyone except me. I still smelled sulfur in the air from the fireworks show that had lit the sky with unbelievable squiggly color, but now gray smoke clouds hung in the air.

This was the fourth year in a row I'd attended our town's summer festival with my girlfriends, no boyfriend in sight. The festivities over, I headed across the grassy park for home; I lived only a fifteen-minute walk away.
I loved this little town of Lost Grove where my folks had gone to school all their lives, had married, settled down and raised a family of three. But my two older brothers had left for the Big City, had married, and started families. So had my most recent boyfriend.
Twenty-eight years old, I remained behind.
Why?  I asked myself. Why not leave like the others?
My trek home across the park took me past the fireworks preparation area. That's when I spotted a fireman in uniform under the tall pole lights. He was piling fire extinguishers into the back of a fire-department red minivan, a huge red light mounted on the roof.
He slammed the tailgate closed. When he looked up, he spotted me. "Hey," he said. "What's happening?"
His huge baritone voice surprised me with its softness.
"Just watched the fireworks," I said. "I'm walking home."
He frowned. "Alone? In the dark? Are you kidding?" He glanced at his watch. "It's eleven o'clock."
"This is Lost Grove," I said. "I'm safe. I know everyone."
He stepped forward, and I found myself face-to-face with a handsome hunk of a man with a square jaw and curly blond hair.
He offered a hand. "Ryan McGee, rookie Long Gove fireman." He smiled a dazzling smile. "Now you really do know everyone."
His hand warm and firm in mine, my heart thumping, I smiled back, and we shook hands. "Erin Wells. Head teller at the bank."
Ryan explained that as a rookie in the Lost Grove department he'd been saddled with the job of monitoring the fireworks tonight. "What did you think of them?"
"Amazing," I said. "Maybe the best ever. I'm an expert. I've been attending this festival since I was a kid."
His feet shifted in the grass. "Got the minivan loaded up. I...could give you a ride home." He bit his bottom lip. "Just say no if I'm overstepping my bounds here."
I tunneled my hand through my short red hair. "Um...all right," I said, then held my breath. I'd obviously let my heart answer instead of my brain. Though this was Lost Grove where nothing bad happens, Ryan was still a stranger.
He must have seen hesitation written on my face because he said, "It's all right. I'm not married, if that's what you're thinking, never have been." He pointed to his silver badge. "I really am a fireman, and I could use some advice about opening an account here at the bank and transferring my funds from New York. And advice about investing."
Ten minutes later, we sat in the moonlight on the steps of my front porch talking as if we were old high school friends who had reunited after years apart. I explained the easiest way to transfer his funds and told him to stop by the bank tomorrow morning about eleven.
Then I pursed my lips and asked, "Why would you leave your family in New York City to settle down in a little midwestern town like Lost Grove, population barely two thousand?"
He thought a moment, scratching the back of his head. "You ever lived in a city of millions?"
"No. Only here."
He blew out a breath. "The noise and confusion, the aggravation, stress, and hassle—I decided after twenty-seven years I wanted something different." Then he looked at me. Our eyes met, and I felt myself blushing. "If you don't mind my saying so, you're beautiful and probably quite talented—why have you stayed here?"
Why?  Hadn't I just asked myself that same question earlier?
I told him my parents lived her. I told him about the camaraderie I felt with my friends and neighbors. About the pride I felt for my little town with its traditions like the Summer Festival. "Maybe most of all," I said, "I feel wanted and needed."
"That's what I want," he said, "Exactly what I want." Then smiling shyly in the moonlight, he said, "Um...after we meet at the bank tomorrow morning, how about lunch? Would that be okay?"
My blood raced, and my face felt flushed. "I'd like that," I said, tremendously pleased again that I'd never left this little town of Lost Grove. "Lunch would be great."
The End
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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Thanks, Grandma!

Never thought I'd become a master gardener on my first try.
On this bright, crisp Saturday morning, the sight of vegetables thriving in my community garden plot dazzled me. Carrots, radishes, onions, beans, tomatoes, kohlrabi—what was I going to do with it all?
But the perfect combination of soaking rains and warm sunshine this spring had resulted not only in a bumper crop of produce but also of ugly weeds.
That's why I was here dressed in cutoffs, t-shirt, sneakers, and straw hat, hoeing and plucking the stubborn little monsters out of the ground.
Five years ago the city converted a vacant lot of several acres into a garden area open to people willing to stake out a small section and grow their own produce. I was sure my grandmother, who had taught me gardening, would be proud. See what I've accomplished, Grandma!
"Looks like you're working hard—and with excellent results."
The male voice startled me.
I stopped hoeing and stood straight. My breath caught as my eyes landed on a tall, handsome man dressed in a yellow T-shirt, well-worn jeans, and sneakers. His curly black hair glistened in the sunlight, and his awesome smile rocked me. I guessed him to be thirty-something, like me.
"That's your plot next to mine?" I asked, my intense reaction to him embarrassing me a bit.
He nodded, his blue eyes shifting from his plot to mine. "You've got a totally green thumb," he said.
I smiled. "Lived with my grandparents on a little farm in Iowa after my folks died in a car accident—I learned a lot."
He nodded. As he eyes scrolled over me in a gentle way, I felt myself flushing and wished I'd done something with my auburn hair besides letting it flow freely to my shoulders. Wished I'd worn a bit of makeup.
He said, "I usually stop here in the evenings, but you must be a morning person. So that's why I haven't seen you before."
"You're right," I said, tilting my straw hat back. What brings you here this morning?"
"Last night's rain. I knew this would be a perfect morning for tackling weeds. Name's Cody McCune," he added, extending a solid, square hand.
I whipped off my glove, and my heart lurched when his warm hand shook mine in a firm but gentle grip.
"Sarah Mitchell," I said, trying not to gulp.
We went to work weeding, but stopped now and then to rest, and we talked freely about ourselves like strangers do sometimes.
He was a dentist, divorced four years ago, single and still unattached. He'd been gardening for three years. He donated most of what he grew to our local food pantry. "Gardening is great physical exercise," he said. "It also gives me a chance to relax, but more importantly, it's an opportunity to donate to the needy, a cause I firmly believe in."
I decided to be honest with him as he apparently had been with me, but I knew it wouldn't be easy.
I was an accountant with the biggest firm in town—that was the easy part. This is the part that was tough: I'd spent the last two years cultivating a relationship that dried up and died on the vine because the man wouldn't commit. I was gardening to clear my head and release excess energy.
Peering sheepishly at my rows and rows of vegetables, I said, "I got carried away with the planting, but I know what I'll do—donate like you do. That'll be perfect."
"Um...would you like to swap some items?"
I looked at him curiously. A stubble of inky-black beard enhanced his handsome good looks. "Swap?"
"I've got lots of zucchini," he said. "But it looks like I'm going to be short on carrots. Tomatoes, too."
"Sure. I've got plastic bags my car."
A half hour later, finished for the day, after we'd completed our vegetable swap, an outrageous thought zipped through my mind. I inhaled a breath of fresh mid-morning air and hoped I wasn't about to make a fool of myself. "Um...when will you be here again?"
His eyes locked with mine, and my heart jolted.
He said, "Tomorrow morning, definitely. There's still work to be done. You?"
I nodded. "Tomorrow morning." Then I cleared my throat. "I have a great recipe of my grandma's for zucchini bread. I'll bring a loaf."
I beautiful smile lighted Cody's face. "I'll bring a thermos of coffee. There's a picnic table by the parking lot."
"Excellent!" I said, and we high-fived.
As we tromped to our cars, bags of produce and hoes in hand, our shoulders bumped. We both felt the bump and smiled at each other. Then I glanced at the blue sky and whispered silently, "Thanks, Grandma!"

The End
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