Read an Excerpt
The phone rings so early on Saturday morning, Rose Forrester tears herself from sleep and runs to the kitchen, the dread of dire illness or accidents propelling her down the stairs to the rhythm of the Hail Mary repeating in her head. "Yes?" she pants into the receiver.
"Rosie? You'll never guess what!" Helen Slezac's voice is squeaky with excitement. Rose hears the swoosh of washing machines in the background.
"Helen? It's only six-fifty. We're sleeping in," Rose whispers. She hopes her descent didn't waken the household. Everett has been looking tired. And Valley came in late from her date.
"I know. I know. But this one can't wait. I had to tell you." Rose tries to chase the edge from her voice. Poor Helen has been divorced so long, she's forgotten the pleasure of drowsing in bed. "Tell me what?"
"I got in early and was waiting for the dryer to quit tumbling to yank Jed Peterson's stuff before it wrinkled — you know how picky he is — when I looked up to see an old friend walking into Millie's."
Rose's heart has slowed to match the glub-dub of the washers. She pictures Helen at her usual post — at the pay phone by the Laundromat's front window, spying on the donut shop. "Who, Helen? Tell me."
Rose mouths the syllables. Her third finger finds her mouth, and her teeth search for loose cuticles. Rob's is the one name she'd hoped never to hear again when he disappeared from town seventeen years ago.
"Rosie? Are you still there? Is something wrong?"
"Everett's calling," Rose says so softly she can barely hear herself. "I've got to go." She hangs the receiver on the hook and lingers a moment, as though still connected to Rob by Helen's voice. Her mouth tastes metallic, as if she's been sucking on nickels. She tiptoes into the bedroom, looks to make sure Everett is still sleeping, slips a dress from its hanger, and hurries to the bathroom.
She must have brushed her teeth, combed her hair and zipped the dress, but she only remembers turning the car key and wanting to hush the engine.
Her Galaxy heads toward town, slowing abruptly where the speed limit drops from fifty to twenty-five. Chief Dudley waits in his cruiser behind the same bush every day, clocking all the residents. She salutes as she passes him, then coasts toward the three downtown blocks of Eden proper, lurching from one corner to the next. It's silly to have so many stop signs in a one-bank town.
In the middle of one block she pauses for old Mr.
Cockburn to cross to Millie's Dunk 'n' Sip from the loading dock at the Feed and Seed. She forces a smile and tells herself to nod and act normal, though stopping directly in front of the donut shop is last on her list. Mr. Cockburn dodders in front of her car, his left hand trailing across her hood for balance. Rose oh-so-casually glances to her left. The hunched backs of the Saturday-morning regulars show through the window, middle-aged men straddling counter stools in their John Deere caps, chugging hot coffee as if June temperatures didn't faze them. She can hear them in her head, chewing on predictable topics between swallows — whether Reagan's new agriculture secretary will favor Ohio or if the plate ump in last night's Reds game was on the take. But even squinting she can't make out one back from the next. Can't tell if one of them belongs to Rob. Helen sounded certain, but Rose needs to see for herself.
At the corner one of Eden's single mothers leaves DudsIn-Suds with a laundry basket balanced on one hip. The woman brushes the hair off her brow, and two raggedy kids with green mouths come straggling behind her, sucking on lollipops. Rose slows, remembering the days when Valley was small and wakened early, when Rose, too, had finished her housework before 8:00 a.m. The woman steps into the road, then stops to make eye contact with Rose. The children bump into their mother's back. Rose takes note of the kids' health, as though she's assigned to watch over fatherless children everywhere. Welfare brats, Everett calls them. Rose winces every time he says it, his judgment slashing at her insides.
There's a parking spot one block up where she'll have a good view of Main Street but Helen can't see her. She turns around in the alley next to the theater and parallel parks facing Millie's. Then she pulls her checkbook and a pen from her purse, so if anyone wonders why she's sitting there, she can pretend to be balancing her account. But no one is outside except for the single mom, who piles the kids into her rusty boat of a Chevy. Rose strains to see if she can make out car seats through the windshield, though maybe the kids are too old for that. The Chevy cruises by, the kids standing behind the broad bench seat while their mother flips through radio channels. "Seat belts!" Rose hollers, but then is instantly ashamed. Everett regularly reminds her what's none of her business. Luckily the Chevy radio is blaring, so no one heard.
The street is quiet for long minutes afterward, and Rose considers where Rob might stay if he were really back in town. His mother's house sold — she saw the sign — so if he's there, he can't stay long. She once heard Phil Langston mention Rob's name in Millie's. She can't remember that they buddied around in school, but those things changed, judging from herself and Helen anyway. The two of them had hardly spoken until after graduation. Helen had smoked in the woods behind the school with the fast crowd, while Rose, who didn't own her own clarinet, had stayed after school to practice in the band room. Everett had hung out in that hallway, so she hadn't really been by herself. Rob had always been on a ball field of one shape or another, with all the girls going gaga from the stands. Since Rose hadn't been one of them, their night together was all the more miraculous.
Just then Millie's screen door swings open. A bunch of the regulars ramble out, turning and talking to the person holding the door, jostling each other and laughing. Then Rob steps onto the stoop in jeans and a tucked-in T-shirt. "Sweet Jesus," comes from Rose's lips unbidden, and she fingers the rayon of her dress, rubbing its silky softness over her bare thighs. Rob stands with his hands in his hip pockets, rocking slightly from heels to toes. She'd know that stance anywhere — a man version of the boy who, in the warm water of Kaiser Lake, first freed her body from more than her bathing suit. Rob's a little broader for all these years, but so is she. Still, gravity's been kind. His hair is shorter now, freshly washed and combed, and he's grown a mustache. He turns from the doorway, waves to the guys going the other way and heads up the street toward her. Her first instinct is to duck, and Rose finds herself sprawling across the front seat, wishing the hot-pink flowers on her dress would die. The plastic upholstery grabs at her legs, and the titillating mix of exhilaration and danger that kept her awake those long-ago summer nights grips her once again. Never mind she's thirty-five and runs a household. Her schoolgirl foolishness is back. He still has that power.
She hears his boots on the sidewalk and can't resist opening her eyes. He glances down. Valley's smile flits across his mouth and eyes. Dimples pinpoint his cheeks. If she looks familiar, he doesn't let on. He walks on by. She blows the bangs off her forehead and assures herself he didn't miss a step. He smiled, yes, but anyone would smile at the sight of a woman lying on a car seat. She needn't feel foolish. It made perfect sense to lie down in your car when you didn't feel well.
But that's nonsense, and Rose knows it.
When enough time has passed that Rose is certain Rob is farther down the street, she sits up and searches her rearview mirror. She can't help noting how Rob's shoulders preside over his narrow waist and firm buttocks. Her hands cup as if around his bottom. Her palms remember.
Rob disappears around a corner, and Rose checks her reflection. She sees crow's feet, but her brow is still smooth. It's the one advantage of carrying a little extra weight. Her skin is young-looking, even if her hips and thighs make it hard to find a bathing suit. She stretches her mouth in a grimace to exercise her neck muscles, then relaxes again. Her chin looks tighter for it, she's sure, and she does the exercise a few more times. A double chin would spoil her looks.
Two car doors slam behind her. She watches Woody Mansfield and his son get out of the Mansfield Plumbing truck and jaywalk to Millie's, Woody catching the sleeve of Billy's Little League shirt to hurry him across. Everett has been working on a new house with Woody this week, making sure Rose has a good life and she wonders when she'll realize that Rob's good looks are no match for Everett's hard work. Whatever brought Rob back to Eden, concern for her welfare wasn't it. He probably doesn't even know Valley is a girl — except that he's been in touch with Phil. She wonders what Phil knows and if he has ever talked to Everett. They've never been close, she's certain of that, but there was no controlling who sat down on the next stool at Millie's. At least Everett isn't in there this morning. She needs to get home before he realizes she's been gone.
Rose starts the engine and pulls out of the parking space.