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Hanging By A Thread
By Karen Templeton
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThrough a jungle of eyelashes, eyes the color of overcooked broccoli assess the image in front of them. Which would be me, a short, pudgy woman in (mostly) men's clothes, clutching a size eight (regular) Versace suit. Scrambled data is transmitted to Judgment Central while a bloodred, polyurethane smile assures me the saleswoman's only reason for living is to serve me. Whatever galaxy I'm from.
"Would you -" eyes dart from me to suit back to me
"- like to try this on?"
An understandable reaction, since we both know I've got a better chance of finding Hugh Jackman in my bed than shoving my butt into this skirt.
I lean forward conspiratorially. "It's for my sister," I whisper. "For her birthday. A surprise."
The smile doesn't falter - she's been trained well - but I can't quite read her expression. I'm guessing either pity for my apparently having been dredged from the stagnant end of the gene pool, or - more likely - seething envy that I'm not her sister. Not that I would actually buy my own sister an eight-hundred-dollar anything, but still.
"Oh." Smile falters a little. "All right. Will that be a charge?" A discreetly tasteful vision in taupe and charcoal, she leads me to the register, her movement all that keeps her fromblending completely into her cave-hued surroundings. Why is it that half the sales floors in this city these days make me want to go spelunking instead of shopping?
"No. Cash," I say, clumping cheerfully behind in my iridescent magenta Jimmy Choo knockoff platform pumps. When we get to the counter, I dig in my grandmother's '70s vintage LV bag for my wallet, from which I coolly extract nine one-hundred-dollar bills and hand them over. I grin, brazenly flashing the dimples.
She cautiously takes the money, as if whatever's tainting it might somehow implicate her, mumbles, "Er, just a minute," then vanishes. To check that it's not counterfeit, maybe. While I'm waiting, my gaze wanders around the sales floor, checking out both the flaccid, shapeless offerings on display and the equally shapeless women - all of whom put together wouldn't make a decent size 6 - circling, considering. The air hums with awe and expectancy. Their breathing quickens, their skin flushes: tops, skirts, dresses are plucked from racks, clutched to nonexistent bosoms, ushered into hushed waiting rooms for a hurried, frenzied tryst. For some, there will be an "Oh, God, yes!" (perhaps more than once, if they chose well), the heady rush of fulfillment, transient and illusory though it may be. For others (most, in fact), the encounter will prove a letdown - what seemed so alluring, so enticing at first glance fails to meet unrealistic expectations.
But true lust is never fully sated, and hope inevitably supplants disappointment. Which means that soon - the next day, maybe the day after that - the cruising, the searching, the trysts will begin anew.
Thank God, is all I have to say. Otherwise, schnooks like me would starve to death.
My unwitting partner in crime returns, her smile a little less anxious. Apparently I've passed the test. Or at least my money has.
"Would you ... like that gift-wrapped?"
"Just a box, thanks."
My conscience twinges, faintly, as I watch her lovingly swathe the suit in at least three trees' worth of tissue paper, laying it tenderly in a box imprinted with the store's logo, as if preparing a loved one for burial. The irony touches me. Minutes later, I'm hoofing it back downtown in a taxi, the suit ignorantly, trustingly huddled against my hip.
The taxi reeks of some oppressively expensive perfume, making my contact lenses pucker, making me almost miss the days when cabs smelled comfortingly of stale cigarettes. Opening the window is not an option, however, since Reykjavik is warmer than it is in Manhattan right now. It's that first week after New Year's, when the city, bereft of holiday decorations, looks like an ugly naked man left shivering in an exam room. I take advantage of a traffic snarl at 50th and Broadway to fish my cell phone out of my purse and call home, half watching swarms of tourists trying to decide whether or not to cross against the light. They're so cute I can't stand it.
I'm immediately sucked back through time and space, not just to Richmond Hill, Queens, but into another dimension entirely. Instead of feeling connected, I feel oddly disconnected, that the woman in this taxi is not the person my daughter hears on the other end of the line. In the background, I hear Mr. Rogers reassuring his tiny viewers about something or other (my throat catches - how could Mr. Rogers die?). Guilt spurts through me again, sharper this time; I push the box slightly away, spurning it and everything it connotes, as if Fred Rogers is looking down from Heaven and sorrowfully shaking his head at me.
"Hey, Twink," I say to the little girl who dramatically altered the course of my life half a decade ago. "Whatcha doing?"
You would think I would know by now not to ask leading questions of loquacious, detail-obsessed five-year-olds.
"I got hungry so I fixed myself a peanut butter sandwich," Starr says, "but the bread was totally icky so I had cheese and crackers instead, and a pickle, and then I had to pee, and then you called so now I'm talking to you. Oh, and I saw the cutest puppy on TV -" a subject she's managed to wedge into every conversation over the past three months "- and Leo said he'd take me for a walk later, if it's warm enough, and you would not believe the loud fight those people behind us had this morning -"
I elbow my way through a comma and say, "That's nice, honey ... can I talk to Leo for a sec?"
I hear breathing. Then: "So can we?"
"Can we what?"
Breathing turns into a small, pithy, much-practiced sigh. "Get a puppy."
Considering I want a puppy about as much as I want a lobotomy, I say, "We'll see," because I'm in a taxi and this is using up my free minutes and while I basically know more about nuclear physics than I do about mothering, I do know what kind of reaction "No, we can't" will bring. And I have neither the minutes nor the strength to deal with the ramifications of "no" today.
Of course, the little breather on the other end of the line is a poignant reminder of the ramifications of "yes," but there you are.
"Put Leo on," I say again. Breathing stops, followed by a clunk, followed by heavier, masculine breathing.
"Yes, I'm still alive," are the first words out of my grand-father's mouth.
"Just checking," I say, playing along. Sharing the joke. Except my father's father had a quadruple bypass a few years ago. So the joke's not so funny, maybe. I can hear, immortalized through the magic of reruns, King Friday pontificating about something or other. My grandfather is not immortal, however; there will be no reruns of his life, except in my memory. An unreliable medium, as I well know.
"Just checking?" He chuckles. "Three times, you've called today."
"I worry," I say, sounding like every woman stretching back to Eve. Whose real reaction to Adam's nakedness was probably, "For God's sake, put something on, already! You want to catch your death?"
"You shouldn't worry," my grandfather says. "It can kill you."
Black humor is a big thing in my family. A survival tactic, ironically enough. "I'll take that chance."
Another chuckle; I listen carefully for any sign the man might momentarily drop dead. Never mind he's been healthy as a horse since the operation. But at seventy-eight, he's already bucking the family odds. I mean, one glance at my family medical history and the insurance examiner got this look on her face like she half expected me to keel over in front of her.
Excerpted from Hanging By A Thread by Karen Templeton Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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