Read an Excerpt
All the Numbers
By Judy Merrill Larsen
Random House Judy Merrill Larsen
All right reserved.
Good God," Ellen Banks said when she entered the drab, scuffed room that housed the west side Madison branch of the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles. "Could they make this place any more unappealing?"
"What do you suppose they call this color? Sludge?"
Ellen turned to smile at the woman holding the door open for her and answered, "It definitely isn't in the Martha Stewart Collection."
The woman laughed in agreement and exited the building.
Ellen groaned as she wended her way to the line for renewing licenses. At first, she was too busy calculating how long it had been since these walls had last been repainted--she noted the decade-old cigarette smoke stains near the ceiling--to notice the length of the line she was standing in. Then she realized that only one person had left her line so she had barely moved in five minutes.
"I thought getting here early would prevent this kind of holdup," she muttered.
"No such luck."
Ellen was startled to have her complaint answered by the young man in front of her. She smiled back at him and took a sip of coffee from her Badger football travel mug. She looked at the clock on the wall, then at her wristwatch, convinced the time could not be right. Had she really been in line only eight minutes? Both timepiecesmust be lying. She started to tap her toes impatiently, then took another swig of coffee. Thank God for thermos mugs, she thought.
"Excuse me, ma'am," a deep voice barked at her from behind.
"Yes?" Ellen turned eagerly, hoping she was being summoned to a newly opened line.
A stern, uniformed woman with her hair pulled back tightly in a bun glared at her. "Didn't you see the sign?"
"What sign?" Crap, Ellen thought, if I've been wasting time in the wrong line I'll scream.
"The sign that says 'No food or drink allowed.' "
Oh, please, Ellen thought, you've got to be kidding. "I'm almost done with my coffee," she said to the woman, who seemed to see herself in the role of warden. "Don't worry."
"There are no drinks allowed. No exceptions. You'll have to give it to me to throw away or take it back to your car and then come back in."
"Look," Ellen pleaded, "I don't want to lose my place in line. My coffee's nearly gone, okay? I'm just here for my annual license renewal."
"You should have paid attention to the sign before you took your place in line." The warden didn't move. Ellen tried to summon up some friendly feelings. I guess if I had to work in this environment every day I'd be a little grumpy, too, she thought.
People around them had started to chuckle and stare. Ellen wasn't sure the best way to respond to the last statement, but she was pretty sure ignoring it wasn't going to work.
"You're so right. I should've noticed the sign. I'm sorry." Ellen tried to sound sheepish, but her words came out too heavily laced with sarcasm to buy her any leniency.
"I don't believe you're sorry at all. Return the mug to your car now."
The young man in front of her assured her he would save her place in line. Ellen thanked him and started to walk out but couldn't resist first saying to the woman, "Now that you've made the room safe from coffee spills, would it kill you to open up another line?"
Thirty coffeeless minutes later, Ellen neared the front of the line. All that stood between her and release was a heavyset middle-aged woman at the counter and the young man who had saved her place in line. The woman conversed seriously, but quietly, with the clerk. Ellen strained to hear what was holding the line up yet again.
"Oh," the woman whined, "I just don't know what to do. I'm never sure about this."
"It's gotta be your decision," the clerk responded. She appeared bored and tired as she looked back and forth between the woman and the long line stretching behind her.
"What do you suggest?" the woman asked the clerk again.
Ellen sighed and asked her newfound line friend, "What's her big quandary?"
Ellen shook her head and watched them talk quietly. Come on, lady, she pleaded silently, I've just lost thirty minutes of my life standing right here waiting. While the clerk nodded at the woman, popped her gum, and toyed with her hair, Ellen thought she heard the woman ask about being sure she was really gone before anyone started cutting her open to get at her heart. Again Ellen groaned, then said softly, "Jeez, it's not like it'll matter to you if they take anything. You'll be dead."
Apparently she had used too much volume--not only did this elicit laughter from those in line with her, but the woman at the counter turned to her, frowned, then said to the clerk, "Just forget it. I can't decide something this important when I am being pressured."
As the woman left, Ellen smiled at her in an effort to apologize for her rudeness. So far this morning, I've made at least two people angry in this room alone, and I've cost the organ donation program a future donor, she thought. Not a great start to my first day of summer vacation.
Ellen pushed her grocery cart through the produce section and stopped to add lettuce and peppers to her cart. She'd already selected peaches, plums, grapes, and strawberries. One of her goals was to eat more like an adult--she kept telling herself that by the time she was forty her diet should be more health-focused and less like a teenager's, but that deadline was now less than two years away and she hadn't made any major progress. She bought "healthy," but more often than not the vegetables turned to liquid in the crisper drawer before she'd eaten them.
Ellen glanced up to see one of her students shopping with her mom. "Hi, Melanie. Hi, Ms. Monroe."
"Actually, it's now Mrs. Parker. I got remarried this spring," Melanie's mom answered with a broad smile.
"Congratulations," Ellen said, "that's great. I had no idea." She looked at Melanie, surprised that she hadn't mentioned it to Ellen at school. They'd had all those afternoons of unpacking and numbering books while Melanie fulfilled her community service hours for National Honor Society.
Melanie shrugged in response, then said, "I thought I'd told you. Sorry."
"Well, have a great summer."
"We will," Melanie's mom said, then added, "It's going to be an exciting time with Mel starting to look at colleges and me getting ready for a new baby."
"Oh my," Ellen said, "you really are gearing up for some big adjustments. How fun."
"Well, we'll let you get back to your shopping, but it was good seeing you," Melanie's mom said as they headed to the opposite end of the aisle. Ellen smiled and waved, then glanced at the contents of her cart to make sure there were no problematic or embarrassing items. Good thing I haven't gone down the liquor aisle yet, she thought.
Running into students all over this side of Madison was something Ellen wasn't entirely used to, even after six years of teaching. The grocery store was pretty benign; the community pool another experience altogether. There she would have to fight the urge to tell the girls to appreciate their flat stomachs, firm butts, and cellulite-free thighs. They take those things for granted, she thought, and they probably look at me and all the other moms here and vow to never let themselves go the way they think we have. Little do they know that body parts have minds of their own.
As she loaded up her cart with the fruit snacks, Lucky Charms, and Pop-Tarts that her sons, Daniel and James, would polish off within days, she winced at how far she had come--or regressed--from the diligence with which she had policed their diets when they were younger. She had breast-fed each of them for a full year, had even made her own baby food. Now they consumed sugared cereal with abandon. Fortunately they were just as ravenous for yogurt, fruit, and milk. But still, the guilt she often felt wasn't far from the surface, especially when she passed other moms who bought Cheerios and apples and firmly told their toddlers that no, they couldn't have Cocoa Puffs for breakfast.
Lugging the groceries into the house, Ellen heard the boys laughing and wrestling in the family room. She called to them for some help while trying to shoo away Stella, their golden retriever mix, who eagerly sniffed the bags of food. "Sorry, Mutt," she whispered, "no rawhides or anything for you in there today." She hollered again for the boys, knowing that she was competing with the stereo. "Turn it down, guys."
"Hey, Mom, have we got a deal for you!" Her younger son startled her from behind.
"James, can you hold off on the negotiations until we've unloaded all the groceries from the car?"
"Sure. But you'll love our plan. I promise."
Ellen smiled. At eleven, James was at such a great age. Still enough of a little boy not to be blase, but grown up enough to be fun to do things with. He was funny and sarcastic and sweet, and Ellen dreaded the thought of him becoming a moody teenager in a few short years. Daniel, at thirteen, was just on the cusp--some days chatty and happy and friendly, but at other times, with no warning signs at all, he would shut her out, sigh, and roll his eyes at everything she said.
She looked at her sons hauling in the last few bags. Just for a few minutes she paused to try to drink them in without their notice. Daniel was so ready to be independent. He was just starting to fill out. He'd always been thin and wiry, but his shoulders were losing the slope of childhood. By next summer, he'd probably be as tall as she was or taller. How strange it'll be, she thought, to stare directly into hazel eyes exactly like her own. Did he have any idea how handsome he was? She hoped not. And then James--his pudgy toddler body had been such a contrast to Daniel's angles, and now, though he'd never be skinny, he was clearly the stronger of the two. She watched him hoist the fifty-pound bag of dog food with ease; in another few years they'd be young men. How did it all happen so fast?
The clatter of a dish falling into the sink brought Ellen back to the present.
"Good move, idiot," Daniel said to James.
"If you'd put your bowl in the dishwasher I wouldn't have knocked it over," James shot back.
"Look, guys, just stop it." Ellen hated their bickering. "I'll take care of it, okay." She stepped between them, hoping to enable a truce. "Nothing spilled. It's not a problem." Ellen started putting away the perishables. From the dirty cereal bowls on the counter, and now in the sink, and the nearly empty milk carton in the fridge, she deduced that the boys had eaten breakfast while she was gone.
"So here's our plan," James began, having already forgotten the near fight with Daniel. Nothing fazed him. No ill will lasted more than a moment. Daniel, on the other hand, still glared at them both. "We think it'll work great for you."
"Okay, buddy, lay it on."
"Well, you know how you've been bugging us to clear out our closets and get our rooms more organized?"
"Gee, I vaguely recall mentioning that to you a few hundred times this spring."
"Well, see, we agree with you."
"There's a shocker. Could you please say that again?"
"Say what again?"
"That I was right."
"Well, that's not exactly what I said. I said, 'We agree with you.' "
James laughed, and then repeated very slowly and with careful enunciation, "We . . . agree . . . with . . . you."
Ellen smiled. "Okay, now you can go on."
"So here's the deal. We clean up our rooms, you pay us, then you take us down to State Street so we can buy new posters and stuff."
"Good plan. Except for the 'you pay us' part."
"C'mon, Mom," Daniel chimed in. "Please."
Since it was June and Ellen always felt flush from receiving all of her summer paychecks at once, she agreed. As much as she tried to budget her summer money carefully, her checkbook always seemed awfully thin come late August.
"Listen, if you guys want to go today, I've got some things to return to Memorial Library. I could let you shop for an hour or so then."
"Cool," the boys said in unison as they raced off to their rooms.
"Any clothes that don't fit, put in a pile for Goodwill. Don't just throw them out," she hollered after them.
Excerpted from All the Numbers by Judy Merrill Larsen Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.