Read an Excerpt
Falling into Grace
By MICHELLE STIMPSON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 Michelle Stimpson
All rights reserved.
Your account is overdrawn.
Camille Robertson unchecked the e-mail notification box on her cell phone. No need in setting herself up for even more depressing announcements. Bad enough she was turning the big three-oh today. She didn't need to be reminded that she was also broke. Below broke, actually, because by the afternoon, her account would be charged another thirty-four dollars for insufficient funds.
She closed her eyes as the phone's screen dimmed and then went blank. Insufficient. A good word to describe Camille's life for the past eleven years.
The dull beep of her neighbor's alarm clock added another level of ridiculousness to her life. Cheap rent always came with thin walls and bad layout, i.e., adjacent bedrooms. No privacy. Not that Camille needed it. Her life was as uneventful as they came.
She listened to the beeping awhile longer and decided that this fellow tenant must have already left the apartment, or maybe she was dead. Either way, the clock had another fifty-nine minutes to blare unattended.
With the last moments of sleep now forfeited, Camille slapped her dry feet onto the cold tile. Pedicures got laid off a long time ago. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been pumped up in a hairdresser's chair. Boxed perms, homemade hairstyles, and do-it-yourself French manicures had become a way of life now.
Camille steadied herself on the edge of the bed, thinking about her plans for the day. Her father would probably call and wish her a happy birthday in one breath, ask for some money in the next. He still believed that Camille had some kind of money stashed from her brief but profitable R&B run a decade earlier.
"I know you didn't go through all that money that fast, baby girl," he had practically begged at Christmastime. "All I'm askin' for is a couple thousand dollars to put a new engine in my car. Dang! Hate to see what happens if I need a kidney!"
A couple of thousand dollars would have been like ten dollars when Camille was riding high. But now, in the real working-class American world, a few thousand dollars might as well have been ten million dollars, because, either way, she didn't have it.
Three months had passed since that depressing Christmas conversation. Camille had made attempts to contact her father, but he hadn't been too receptive. Probably just as well, though, because she was within an inch of calling it quits with Bobby Junior, as everyone called him. Fathers were irreplaceable, Camille knew. But what good was a father who constantly reminded her of her biggest failure?
Heavy footsteps overhead caused the white, frosted ceiling lightbulb cover to clank. Camille pictured the woman upstairs plodding across the floor, her chunky frame swaying with each flat-footed step. The old Camille would have sworn at the fat woman, said, "It's about time she turned off that alarm, with her fat [so-and-so] self." The new Camille experienced stuffing an extra thirty pounds into her Spanx daily. She literally had no room to resent big girls, because, right about now, Camille might make a good Lane Bryant model.
She stood and opened the center section of the eighties-style French closet doors. Her closet offered varieties of only black and gray. Shades for the self-conscious.
She pulled a knit dress from the closet and grabbed undergarments from her drawer on the way to the bathroom, side-stepping the areas where carpet had worn thin enough to expose the staples.
The bathroom mirror added insult to injury. The under-eye circles could be softened with concealer, discolorations with bootleg MAC foundation. Those off-white teeth, however, required a professional. If she could afford dental insurance, she might even be able to replace the "temporary" crown she'd been wearing so long she'd probably need a porcelain veneer at this point.
After plopping her clothes onto the toilet seat, Camille further surveyed herself at thirty. Nothing was the way it used to be. The whites of her eyes, once bright and shiny, had lost their glimmer, thanks to crooning in smoke-filled nightclubs trying to get rediscovered.
Patches of dry skin lightened some areas on her otherwise caramel brown complexion. Her lips, which had actually been mentioned once in People magazine for their "perkiness," seemed to have taken a permanent downturn at the corners. They reminded Camille of her deceased mother's lips. Momma was always concerned. Worried.
Maybe if Camille worried more, she would get more done with her life. But as it stood, she wasn't concerned enough to worry. Wouldn't make much difference anyway.
Once out of the shower, Camille made a half-hearted effort to make herself presentable for work. Somehow, men didn't quite view Camille as the washed-up ex-beauty she knew she was. A trip to the corner gas station brought a misguided suitor toward Camille's ten-year-old Lexus coupe. Try as she might to dissuade him by avoiding eye contact and pretending to dial numbers on her phone, the tall, thin brother approached her nonetheless.
He took the liberty of resting a closed fist on the trunk. Way too close for a first encounter. Camille might have made a run for the store if he hadn't been wearing obnoxiously loud cologne and cheap transition glasses that barely reacted to the early-morning sunlight. Sure signs of a harmless wannabe player.
"Your man ought to be out here pumping gas for you," he remarked, his silver grill exposing the fact that he, too, resisted the thirty something years racking up on his life calendar.
Camille knew her response was supposed to be either, "I don't have a man," or something to the effect that her man was sorry, which would, of course, give this amateur an opportunity to step in for an unhappy-chick rescue mission. Instead, Camille replied, "He's out of the country handling business."
Undaunted, this smooth operator examined the pump panel. "He must not be handling it too good, got you putting cheap gas in this luxury car. Gonna mess up your engine, you know that?"
Camille dared not reveal her special remedy for saving on gas: alternate regular with premium. She looked the stranger dead in the eyes. Were it not for Miss Norris's super-scary Sunday school warning that we should always be nice to strangers because they might be angels in disguise, Camille might have flat told this guy to leave her alone. Really, why waste his time when Mrs. Loud Cologne might be down the row at pump number seven?
Camille chose a condescending rebuttal. "Well. People handle things well, not good."
"Whichever one it is, sweetheart, he ain't doin' it." He raised an eyebrow. Stood silent. Then his facial muscles jumped an inch. "Wait a minute. I know you."
Thump-thump in Camille's chest as the attitude slipped away.
"You were the lead singer with that group!" He snapped his fingers. "Aw, man, I can't think of the name."
"Sweet Treats," she helped him out, nodding all the while.
"Yeah!" He hollered and covered his mouth as though he'd just witnessed a monster slam dunk in a basketball game. "Man, that CD was the jam back in the day. And you still lookin' good."
Suffocating a smile, Camille thanked him for the compliments. "Meet me, baby, meet me in the hot tub." He crossed his arms across his chest in slow-dance grinding formation as he sang the familiar lyrics from Sweet Treats's debut compilation. "Girl, I think I lost my virginity to that song. Everybody did!"
Camille seized the opportunity. "You want an autographed CD?"
Camille pushed the trunk icon on her key fob. The trunk popped up. She ripped open one of three identical boxes and pried a CD out of its row. She slammed the trunk closed, then fumbled through her purse for a pen.
"What's your name?" She had to get personal before springing the price on him.
"Gary, that'll be twelve dollars."
"Whoa! Twelve dollars?"
Camille smarted off, "Retail was thirteen ninety-nine."
"Yeah, back in nineteen ninety-nine," he matched her wits.
Camille rolled her eyes. "Music never gets old. Plus, this will be autographed to you, Gary."
He pursed his lips. "Eight."
He countered, "Nine."
"With tax, ten."
Gary reached into his back pocket, pulled the bill from his wallet. "This economy ain't takin' no prisoners, I see."
Camille signed quickly, before Gary could change his mind. They exchanged, CD for cash, just as the hands-free gas pump latch snapped, signaling a full tank.
"Shoot!" Camille stomped. Fooling around with Gary, she'd accidentally filled up the car.
"You okay?" Gary asked.
"Fine. Hope you enjoy the CD."
"Straight. Good to meet you. You think we can, you know, get together some time?"
Camille had almost forgotten Gary's original intent. Back to the game. "My man wouldn't appreciate me cheating on him."
"Looks to me like your man doesn't appreciate you period. But I don't want to break up a happy home. Unless ..."
"No, Gary, I'm fine."
Gary went his way as Camille trudged into the store to surrender the ten dollars she'd just hustled out of Gary, plus nine more that she had hoped to use for lunch money the next couple of days. She'd have to brown-bag it now that she'd unintentionally flushed all her cash down the gas tank.
Come on, Friday.CHAPTER 2
Camille clocked in, digitally, seven minutes past her official start time. She calculated she'd already been late by a total of nineteen minutes. Her boss, Sheryl Finkowich, had threatened to start docking them if they were more than half an hour late in any one week. Though her warning was probably meant to encourage timeliness, Camille took it as a license to rack up exactly twenty-nine unaccounted-for minutes between Monday and Friday. She had two more days before the game started again.
Worse than her boss's threat, however, were the watchful eyes of coworkers who would throw one another under the bus for a nickel more per hour base pay. Camille had ratted out her fair share of employees, but not for a nickel. A quarter, maybe, but not a nickel.
The maze of cubicles provided some margin of ambiguity about what time everyone came in to work. Only the electronic record could tell the whole truth. Camille tucked her purse behind her elbow as she breezed past desks, only offering, "Hey, Bob," and, "Hi, Rene," because "good morning" would give her away.
She made it to her space without much eye contact or being spotted by Sheryl. Camille pressed the power button on her computer, threw her purse into the second drawer of her file cabinet. The start of yet another meaningless day at Aquapoint Systems. Really, does the world need another water-filtration company? Why were these losers so cheap they couldn't just fill the office refrigerator with bottled water? No one likes to use stupid paper-cone cups. And beside all that, Camille had read a statistic somewhere saying the only water most people drank in a day's time was what was left over after they brushed their teeth.
Of course, Camille never shared these sentiments with her potential clients. "Yes, Aquapoint Systems provides a less expensive, earth-friendly alternative to bottled water for your employees," she spouted off the sales pitch while responding to birthday posts on her Facebook page in a separate window.
No matter the caller's response, Camille was determined to set an appointment for a field representative to demonstrate the superior quality of Aquapoint System's product. Newer businesses, especially, liked to give the underdog a chance. "We're a small business just like yours, and we would really appreciate the opportunity to grow right along with you." That line was Camille's secret weapon.
By noon, Camille had managed to set up seven appointments with office managers. Not bad, considering she'd made only about a hundred calls. Any telemarketer would be proud of a 7 percent closing rate. Plus, she'd earn ten dollars on top of her eight-dollar-an-hour base pay if the appointments didn't cancel.
Sheryl performed the kind of bad congratulatory routine only seen in chain restaurants, where all the workers lined up and clapped for someone who was celebrating a birthday or anniversary. "Yaaay! Everyone, Camille's almost reached her quota for the day, and she hasn't even gone to lunch! Let's give her a hand!"
Halfhearted applause stumbled through the area.
"Great job, Camille." Sheryl then slapped a puppy dog sticker on the back of Camille's hand.
Is she serious? A sticker? "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Sheryl chirped. "I got them at a dog show last year."
"Mmm." You just gave me something you got at a dog show?
Sheryl gave one last thumbs-up and walked away. Camille removed the sticker, folded it in half, and tossed it in the trash.
Stickers wouldn't help. What she needed was some cold, hard cash, because she had only enough change in her purse to buy a candy bar for lunch. Camille wished, for once, that she was a coffee drinker. People feel entitled to coffee, and everywhere she'd worked in the past few years always provided free java. Maybe, one of these days, orange juice drinkers would rise up and revolt. Until then, Camille was stuck with plain old Aquapoint water.
The break room quickly filled with other brown-baggers. Some health conscious, evidenced by their multiple plastic containers filled with salads and fish. Others were dieting, eating foods that probably tasted like plastic. Janice, a woman Camille recognized from training class only three months ago, pulled up a chair at Camille's two-seater table.
Janice couldn't have been more than forty, but she always looked like she was in the wrong decade. Regardless of clothing or hairstyle, Janice just had that throwback 1970s, Charlie's Angels look.
Janice opened with small talk. "Tell me your name again?"
"That's right. How's it going for you?"
"Okay, I guess." Camille shrugged. "You?"
Janice leaned in and whispered, "Awful. I've been looking for another job."
Another one bites the dust. If enough people left or got fired, Camille might actually be in the running to become a supervisor, then all she'd have to do is push paperwork. Still, she needed to appear sympathetic. Janice might be trying to feel Camille out so she could rat her out. "Why? I mean, the pay isn't too bad."
Janice countered with a hint of sincerity, "It is if you don't make any appointments."
Camille had to nod in agreement. "Have you talked to your supervisor?"
Even people who didn't work for Patrick knew he wasn't the helpful type.
No sense in leading Janice on. Maybe she just didn't have what it took. She sure didn't have Camille's killer closing line, and Camille wasn't about to give it up. "Good luck in finding something else."
Janice unfolded the foil covering her bologna and cheese sandwich. She took a slow, contemplative bite, then asked, with a bit too much food in her mouth, "Don't you ever want to, like, do something that really matters with your life? Something really big and great?"
A laugh escaped Camille's grasp. "I did do something really amazing, back in the day."
Janice's eyes widened. "Really? What?"
What could it hurt to tell Janice? "I used to sing with a girl group. We sold millions of CDs, toured the world. Limos, fancy hotels, all that."
"Oh my gosh!" Janice took another bite, her eyes begging for Camille to go on.
"I mean, that was it. We did it." Camille shrugged, balling up her candy wrapper.
"What do you mean, that was it? What happened?"
Sore territory. "We broke up."
Camille pursed her lips. She'd asked herself that question countless times. Why did Sweet Treats break up? The answer depended upon which Sweet Treat responded. Since there was no one to refute Camille's version, she replied to Janice, "Jealousy. I was the lead singer, everyone was after me. You know how that kind of thing goes."
"So, you all were like Destiny's Child?"
She had to give it to Janice. Maybe she was in this century after all. "You know your R and B groups, huh?"
Janice smiled. "I watch a little MTV now and then."
"Well," Camille continued, "we were better than Destiny's Child. We sang better, we looked better, we had better music. The only difference between me and Beyoncé was that her dad watched out for her and made sure his daughter was always in the spotlight. If I'd had a dad like hers, I sure wouldn't be working here right now."
Excerpted from Falling into Grace by MICHELLE STIMPSON. Copyright © 2012 Michelle Stimpson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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.