Read an Excerpt
From Signs of Light
Lorna Hamilton peered out the storefront window of Nana's Gourmet Bakery, watching people leisurely making their way along North Main Street in downtown Woodlake, North Carolina. She scrunched up her face as she eyed the two women standing just beyond the entrance of her bakery.
"Doris, just look at them," she grumbled to the employee standing beside her. "They just left the hair salon across the street. Hair all done up, and look at those bloodred nails . . . long as all get-out. They getting all fixed up on our tax dollars. Money s'posed to be for the kids."
Doris nodded in agreement, muttering, "A bunch of lazy good-for-nothings, if you ask me. Don't wanna work -- just wanna lay around getting a check. I have a job and can't get no help to pay for childcare. Social Services got me on a waiting list. People like them don't have job the first and can get childcare. It's not fair at all."
One of the women outside turned in their direction, as if she could hear them talking.
Lorna quickly averted her gaze. She and Doris pretended like they were discussing the elegant wedding cake displayed in the window.
Outside the shop, one of the women waved off her friend, then walked toward the entrance.
"I don't know why she keeps coming in here," Lorna uttered. "She don't ever buy nothing."
Despite her personal feelings, Lorna's mouth turned upward into a smile as soon as the young woman entered through the double doors. "Good afternoon," she greeted. "What can I get for you today?"
"I'm just looking." The girl grunted, switching her Gucci handbag from one shoulder to the other.
Lorna couldn't help but wonder how she got anything done with those long nails of hers. Long and frosted in a soft pink color.
Lorna didn't take her eyes off the bubble-gum popping, weave-wearing, designer-bag-toting welfare recipient walking back and forth eyeing the cakes and cheesecakes through the marble and glass display counter.
The woman's two-toned copper-colored weave was styled high, and instead of the conservative suits and comfortable shoes most women who worked downtown wore, she had on a pair of denim jeans that rested low on her hips, paired with a pink tank that looked two sizes too small. Assorted rings adorned her fingers, while a thick gold necklace hung around her neck. The focal point of her bare midriff was her belly ring.
Unconsciously, Lorna compared herself to the young woman. She was pleased that at forty-two she could still catch the eye of men half her age. Her caramel complexion was smooth and even-toned. For work, her long, sandy brown hair had been styled into an old-fashioned bun and covered with a hairnet. She'd been spared the subtle signs of aging -- tiny pouches beneath her dark brown eyes, stretch marks, sagging breasts and cellulite. With a measure of pride, Lorna credited her youthful appearance to having never worn makeup and strong family genetics. Her late grandmother had never had wrinkles and looked years younger than her advanced age of eighty-two.
"You have any more of the chocolate cream cheesecake?"
Lorna's head snapped up from staring down at the young woman's French-manicured toenails and high-heeled sandals. "I'm out. Sorry."
"When do you think you might have some more?"
"Maybe tomorrow," Lorna replied. "The chocolate cream cheesecake never lasts long. Most of my customers special order it, or they purchase a whole one."
"How much for a whole chocolate cream cheesecake then?"
"Twenty-six dollars for a two-pound cheesecake," Lorna quoted. "Thirty-six dollars for three pounds and forty-four for a four-pound cheesecake."
Frowning, the young woman muttered, "For cheesecake . . . Y'all too high for me. I can make a whole one at home for about three dollars. Just get one of them kits in the grocery store."
Then go get one, Lorna wanted to shout. It won't come close to one of mine.
A few minutes later, the woman left the shop, still grumbling about the price.
Lorna turned to Doris. "This is a gourmet bakery. She know good and well she wasn't gonna buy a thing when she walked herself into this shop. Coming in here, wasting my time."
"Here comes that Melita Dawson," Doris announced. "With her nasty attitude."
Lorna groaned. "Not today." Melita was their most difficult customer.
"How y'all doin?" Melita said as she stepped into the bakery.
"We're just fine," Lorna responded. "How are you?"
"I'd be okay if your employee wasn't staring at me like I'm from the moon." Melita folded her arms across her chest, eyeballing Doris. "You sho' must like what you see. Take a picture -- it'll last longer."
Doris opened her mouth to respond, but Lorna quickly cut her off by asking, "What can I get for you, Melita?" To Doris, she said, "Could you check on the cupcakes in the oven for me?"
Melita waited until Doris was out of sight, then said, "My boo wants me to pick him up four slices of your white chocolate and strawberry cheesecake. You got any? The last time I came through you didn't. He was hot when I got home and didn't have no cheesecake with me."
"We have plenty today. Will there be anything else?"
"Let me think on it for a moment."
Melita strutted around the shop, fingering the straps of her Louis Vuitton purse. Lorna noticed that Melita wore matching shoes and had on a necklace with the initials LV. Everything the woman had on seemed to have somebody else's name on it, yet she'd never known Melita to hold down a job. Lorna had met Melita years ago when she and her mother had lived across the street from Nana's.
Even as a young child, Melita had been hard to control. Her mother had finally given up and thrown Melita out of the house when she was around fifteen or sixteen.
"Do you have any pecan pie?"
"I do," Lorna responded. "Would you like a slice?"
"Naw. I want to buy a whole one."
"How's your mother doing?" Lorna inquired as she packaged up Melita's selections.
"I guess she all right. We ain't speaking right now. She always trying to be up in my business, like she know what's good for me. Humph. I'm grown."
"It's because she loves you, Melita. Your mother only wants the best for you."
"What she thinks is best, you mean. I don't need her to try and raise me now. I'm -- "
"Grown," Lorna finished for her. "Yes, you've said that."
Melita glared at her. "Why everybody always trying to take her side? Miss Lorna, I don't ask my mama for nothin'. I take care of my three children myself."
"Are you working?"
"Then you're not really taking care of your children by yourself, dear. You're getting assistance from the government."
"You know what I mean."
Lorna met the young woman's gaze straight on. "Melita, you have a good head on your shoulders. Why don't you at least take some classes and get a trade?"
"I hate school, Miss Lorna. I ain't going to no school. That's out of the question."
"Then why don't you get a job?"
"My boo takes care of me and my children."
"What happens if you two break up?"
Melita frowned. "You sound just like Mama. Y'all just don't understand."
"Melita, if you don't get a job soon, you're gonna lose your day-care assistance. You know that, don't you?"
"I just got it extended for another thirty days," Melita responded with a smirk. "I do enough looking to satisfy my worker. I can't help it if no one will hire me."
Lorna wanted to strangle Melita. Here was a young, able-bodied woman who could go out and work, but what did she do? Nothing. Because of her cheating, someone who was really deserving of childcare assistance couldn't get it and was placed on a waiting list.
Lorna totaled Melita's purchases. "Twenty-four dollars and fifteen cents is your total."
Melita handed her a hundred-dollar bill.
"Why you looking at that money like that?" she demanded. "It's real."
"I check all the money that comes across my counter."
"Miss Lorna, don't try to be funny with me."
Placing her hands on her hips, Lorna eyed the young woman. "Melita, why do you always come in my shop with an attitude? Every time you come in here you try to start something."
"No, I don't," Melita shot back. "Y'all just think y'all better than me and always giving me those funny looks. You need to leave me alone. You ain't seen me with an attitude. Humph. I can show you attitude."
Lorna made change and handed it to Melita. "You have a nice day."
"Just because you own this ba -- "
Lorna cut her off by saying, "Bye, Melita." Her tone left no room for argument.
Melita left, muttering a string of curses on her way out of the shop.
Doris walked out of the kitchen, saying, "One day, I'ma take that girl by the throat and swing her all over this shop. She gets on my nerves with that mouth of hers. Acting like the world owe her something when all she do is sit on her rump collecting a check and getting money from that thug of a boyfriend."
Lorna was in full agreement. "I can't count how many girls just like her come in here. I'm sick and tired of our tax dollars going to folks like that."
They fell silent when another customer entered the shop pushing a stroller. Lorna's gaze traveled to the little bald-headed boy with big brown eyes and dimpled cheeks. She estimated his age to be no more than four or five. His sickly appearance was a sharp contrast to the healthy glow of the deep mahogany complexion of his mother. She was thin but didn't look like she'd missed any meals.
Another one of those women, Lorna surmised. She probably spent her check on her waist-length braids, ugly gold earrings and bracelets dangling on her arm. From the looks of it, she spent more on herself than that poor child.
"Can I help you with anything?" Doris inquired.
"Just looking," the girl mumbled.
Lorna suspected as much.
A few minutes later, the young woman checked her watch, and said, "Oops, we gotta go, Kendall. It's almost time for the bus."
The little boy gave Lorna a warm smile and slight wave before his mother whirled the stroller around and headed toward the door.
Doris backed away from the display she'd been working on. "What do you think?"
Lorna eyed the blueberry tangerine fruit cheesecake. It was their featured cheesecake for the week. "Let's place it beside the white chocolate raspberry cheesecake and garnish it with some lemon," she suggested.
She glanced across the street to the empty space facing her. Up until a few months ago, it had been a deli shop. Now people were heading in the other direction in search of food for lunch.
Lorna was thankful for her faithful customers, because they provided steady business for her bakery. Not only did she offer assorted donuts, breads, cakes, cheesecakes and cookies, she also sold gourmet coffees, candies, jarred fruits and vegetables.
A customer strolled inside, forcing Lorna away from her musings.
"Hello," she greeted with a smile. "What can I get for you today?"
"I need to pick out a wedding cake. I'm getting married next month."
Lorna quickly assessed the woman standing on the other side of her counter. She wore a navy blue pantsuit and low-heeled pumps. On her shoulder, she carried a basic navy purse -- one without a designer logo. Her blond hair was pulled back into a severe ponytail.
Lorna guessed she worked in one of the nearby law firms. "Are you looking for something really fancy or more along simple lines?"
"Simple but elegant."
After going through Lorna's portfolio, the bride-to-be selected a cake with faux-embroidery details hand-painted with edible gold leaves, piped in royal blue icing on rolled fondant. She wanted Lorna to use a bouquet of gum-paste flowers for the topper.
Right before her customer left, more people began to head into the shop.
Without looking at the clock, Lorna knew it was noon. This was when Nana's Gourmet Bakery was its busiest. Doris usually left around one p.m., when either Charlotte or Kevin, her part-time employees, arrived.
Promptly at five-thirty, Lorna began closing up her shop. While Charlotte cleaned up, Lorna wrote out the deposit slip.
It was almost six-thirty when Lorna and Charlotte finally emerged from the shop and headed to their cars.
Lorna drove past the Family and Children Services building located in the heart of downtown Woodlake, just one block from her bakery. The bus stop at the corner was crowded with women, men and children leaving the social services building. Lorna couldn't understand why anyone would want a life like that. These people seemed satisfied living off of a check and food stamps. She just didn't get it. And she resented the fact that she couldn't conceive a child while these other women had babies all day long.
Lorna pulled into the parking lot of her bank and drove up to the night deposit slot. After making sure her surroundings were safe, Lorna quickly made her deposit.
Back on the streets and heading home, Lorna's mind wandered back to her musings. She wanted a family more than anything in life. She'd tried adoption once, but the birth mother had changed her mind and come back for the child. Lorna refused to go through that heartache again.
Lorna was an only child and had been raised by her aunt after her parents' death. During the summer months, she'd lived with her grandmother, whom she affectionately called Nana, in Woodlake.
Lorna loved Woodlake, a town for all seasons. The falls were spectacular, the winters compared to scenes from Currier and Ives, the springs an explosion of wildflowers, and the summer months like today, the tenth of June, warm and comfortable.
When Nana had suffered her first stroke, Lorna had packed up and left Philadelphia, where she'd been living, without a second thought. She'd eventually sold her house, and she'd decided to stay in Woodlake after Nana's death ten years ago from a second stroke.
In honor of her grandmother, Lorna had opened Nana's Gourmet Bakery. The corner shop was successful -- so much so that rumors were circulating that her recipes were closely guarded secrets passed from her grandmother, who used to sell her treats out of the house.
But there were no secrets to Lorna's baking. She just followed Nana's advice to take time to nurture each batch of dough as if it were her first.
Business was going so well for Lorna that she was considering opening up a second shop on the other side of town. She had one full-time and two part-time employees. She could afford to hire more employees to run the shop, but Lorna loved doing most of the baking herself. It was her passion. If she went through with opening another shop, Lorna would promote Doris to manager and hire another full-time person. Doris was the first employee of Nana's and Lorna trusted her.
It went without saying that Lorna was pleased with her accomplishments. The only thing missing in her life was the presence of a family.
She had no one to share in her success.
Lorna loved to walk through the rooms of her house, admiring the creative blending of the past with the present.
Nana had left her house to Lorna, who, throughout the years, had taken her time redecorating the rooms, making them her own. She'd added rich, vibrant color to the walls and contemporary art pieces to accent the traditional furnishings.
She was proud of her home and her business. Proud that she hadn't had to ask anybody for a thing.
"God bless the child that's got his own," Nana used to say to her, and Lorna took it to heart. She didn't want anything handed to her. Lorna insisted on making her own way.
She picked up a pillow with hand-embroidered stitching across the front and sat down on the sofa in its place. Lorna's fingers moved lightly across the silk fabric, her mind traveling back to the day she'd purchased the new living room furniture.
It was the day she'd met Walter Reynolds, the owner of Reynolds Furniture Store.
Lorna had been attracted to him from the first moment they'd met. Standing at six feet three inches, with a smooth, tawny complexion, Walter kept his head and face shaved. His greenish gray eyes were the one feature most often remarked on, but what she loved most about him was his deep, sexy laugh. His laughter could ignite a fire within her.
He was fifty years old and divorced, with two children in college. From what Lorna could tell, he was a good father and son. Walter had been his mother's primary caregiver until her death two months ago.
She'd been dating Walter for two years now. He'd never brought up the subject of marriage outside of complaining about how horrible his previous wife had been. Lorna enjoyed Walter's companionship but wasn't sure she could give up on the idea of getting married.
Lorna wanted a family. Her aunt passed last year, leaving her with no other close family ties. She was barren and had accepted that fact as best she could, that there would be no children for her.
Hopefully, she could still have a husband. Lorna didn't want to go through the rest of her life alone. Surely this was not what God intended.
Lorna prayed it wasn't.
Copyright ©2006 by Jacquelin Thomas