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Once Upon a Project
By Bettye Griffin
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2008 Bettye Griffin
All rights reserved.
Early March Lake Forest, Illinois
Elyse slipped into her new lace-trimmed tap pant underwear and matching bra. The underwear pinched a bit — it kept catching between her butt cheeks — but it looked so flattering and sexy with its slight A-line. Next time she'd get one a size larger, and it'd probably be as comfortable as a pair of shorts, which it resembled. Already she was planning the fun she and Franklin would have when they returned home. It was Saturday, and they'd agreed to go to the six o'clock show and have dinner afterward. She'd taken a shower and put on capri jeans and a sweater. What she wore underneath would be her own little secret, and a sweet surprise for her husband when the time was right.
It surprised her how much she looked forward to tonight. Just five months ago she'd been moping around, all dejected because Brontë, her youngest, had joined her brother Todd at the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Now that Elyse had had a chance to get used to the idea of being an empty nester, she found she rather liked it. The kids came home for weekends every couple of weeks. And when they were away, she and Franklin had some private time together to enjoy the life they'd built over twenty-five years of marriage.
At least that's how it had been the first few months, when they'd taken long walks along the path that ran adjacent to the Union Pacific tracks and gone to dinner at romantic restaurants. But lately Franklin needed to be reminded about the meaning of "couple time." He'd canceled their plans at the last minute the past two times, saying he just didn't feel like going anywhere. Well, after the show she planned to put on for him tonight, he'd never cancel again. They'd get through this rough patch they seemed to be mired in, like a car stalled in mud. She'd put on some weight in recent years, but she still had a defined waistline and her boobs had expanded to a C cup. Elyse felt she had everything all those Hollywood actresses had, only lots more.
A few minutes before five-thirty she emerged from the bedroom and headed for the coat closet, fastening the posts to her small textured-gold hoop earrings as she walked.
"Franklin! It's almost five-thirty. We'd better get going. You know how hard it is to get a seat that's not on top of the screen, now that these multiplexes have gotten so tiny."
She stopped in front of the closet, realizing he hadn't responded. Suddenly suspicious, instead of getting her coat she turned and walked to the living room, the two-inch heels of her boots clicking on the hardwood that lined the hallway floor.
The sound of soft snoring drifted up from the sofa.
She stopped in her tracks, wanting to make sure she'd heard correctly. Oh, no. He didn't. Not again.
But there he lay, sprawled on the couch, mouth open, fast asleep.
His body twitched at the sudden loud noise, and his eyes flew open. He looked at her with a scowl. "What's with you startling me like that, Elyse? Can't you see I'm sleeping?"
"It's five-thirty, Franklin," she announced, her tone unapologetic. "The movie starts in thirty minutes."
"It's that late already?" He glanced at the satellite receiver on top of the television for confirmation. "Damn. Last I knew it was three o'clock."
"Well, time marches on. And so must you." Her voice held a warning, and she prayed he would heed it.
Franklin stretched, his still-buff five-eleven frame looking delectable to her. Then he looked at her sheepishly. "Elyse ..."
She anticipated what he was about to say and had her answer ready. "No!"
"C'mon, Elyse. We can always go next week."
"No, Franklin." She crossed her arms over her chest, wanting to show him she meant business.
He swung his legs down and moved into a sitting position. "Elyse, I'm really tired. The movie will still be playing next weekend. It just opened, for Chrissake."
"Next weekend is spring break. The kids will be coming home. You know we usually stay in when they're here."
"Oh, I don't know about that. I heard Todd say something about South Padre Island."
She kept her rigid stance.
Franklin tried again. "Elyse, it's just a movie. Don't make so much out of it. Besides, I haven't been feeling so hot lately."
"You've been saying that for months, Franklin, but I don't see you going to the doctor. Nor do I hear you complaining about not feeling well when it's your bowling night, or when you go out for drinks with your coworkers, or even when it's time to get up and go to work."
"That's because I can't afford to retire until after Brontë graduates."
"That's fine, but the point I'm making" — like he didn't know it, she thought angrily — "is that you're always fine until it's time for you and I to do something together. I'm tired of it, Franklin. So, are we going to the movies and dinner, like you promised, or not?"
He hesitated, and for a moment she thought she might have won the standoff. But then he looked down for a second before meeting her gaze. "I'm too tired, baby."
Elyse let her arms fall to her sides. "Fine. I'm going out. I'll see you later." Don't wait up, she added silently.
"Elyse, where are you going? It's getting dark out."
"I'm old enough to be out alone in the dark," she snapped on her way out of the room.
She confidently put on her coat and left the house. Only after she got in the car and let the engine warm up did she begin to wonder what the heck she would do. She wanted to be gone for several hours, even if she had to sit through two movies alone. Let him worry ... when he wasn't snoring his head off.
She recalled her mother cautioning her so many years ago about the perils of marrying an older man. "Franklin seems like a nice man, Elyse, but he's thirteen years older than you. Right now I know that seems exciting. Man of the world and all that. But you're only twenty-one. There's a lot you should consider. He's going to age before you do, for one. For another, he already has two children to support."
"Mom, Franklin makes good money programming computers. Plus, he has an arrangement with his ex-wife. The court isn't involved. That's when the guys get trampled, he told me."
Jeanette Hughes hadn't been swayed. "Well, friendly ex-wives tend to become a lot less friendly once they find out there's a new woman in the picture. Before he knows it, he may find himself being dragged in front of a judge and ordered to give his ex-wife half of his income. Where will that leave him? And if you marry him, where will that leave you? It'll take time for you to become a licensed physical therapist. Unless you plan on dropping out or abandoning your career plans," she hinted suspiciously.
"No, Mom. I'm definitely going to be a physical therapist. And it's too soon to talk about marrying Franklin or anybody. I've only been seeing him for a few months."
"We'll see," her mother said.
Elyse thought she saw a hint of a smile, which she immediately dismissed as her imagination.
But in the end Jeanette Hughes's instinct proved correct. Elyse married Franklin a year after college graduation, after her first year of working toward her DPT degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At the time she'd been twenty-three, and he thirty-six. She was the first of her close girlhood friends to be married in the traditional way — in church, with flowers and organ music and her three best friends as bridesmaids — just as she'd dreamed about so often as a kid.
The very first of the foursome to marry had been Grace Corrigan. She married her high school sweetheart, Jimmy Lucas, before high school graduation, shortly after Grace learned she was pregnant. Grace and Jimmy's drab City Hall nuptials, with only their parents as guests, were far different from the beautiful wedding and elegant reception Elyse's parents had provided for her.
Grace had been the first to have a baby, too, becoming a mother at the same age she became a wife, eighteen. Elyse used to envy her. Little Shavonne Lucas was the cutest thing, and Grace kept her dressed in pretty ruffled dresses and dainty white lace-trimmed socks, always smelling sweet.
Elyse couldn't wait to have a child of her own. But because she had her education to complete, after her marriage she limited her own experiences with children to Franklin's son and daughter from his first marriage, with whom she became friendly, almost like a big sister. Franklin suggested that she get her career off the ground before they started a family of their own. Her parents, who feared that if she left school she'd never go back, agreed. Elyse's heart used to ache whenever she saw a woman with a baby, but she dutifully went along with Franklin's wishes. She didn't get pregnant for five long years.
In hindsight, she had to admit that Franklin and her parents had been right about not having children right away. Not only did she and Franklin have plenty of couple time before taking on the responsibility of parenthood, but they were also able to build a solid financial base. And having Todd and Brontë changed Elyse's life in the best way possible. She knew that children growing up and leaving home was a normal part of life, but it didn't have to mean the end of it. She liked to think of their current stage as a nice bridge before the grandchildren came. Now she and Franklin were free to do anything they wished.
But they rarely did, because Franklin never wanted to anymore.
As Elyse drove down the slight incline from her garage to the curb, she glanced at her mailbox and realized she hadn't checked the mail today. She pulled over alongside the stone-encased box and got out to grab the contents, then threw it on the empty passenger seat beside her without looking at it. Then she flicked the remote to close the garage door and drove off.
She took a closer look at the mail when she came to a red light. A postcard imprinted with the familiar outline of the Theodore Dreiser Homes caught her attention immediately. She frowned at the black and white image on the card addressed to Elyse Reavis. Who would send a postcard from the projects? Not exactly the garden spot of the world.
She glimpsed at the traffic light. Still red. She flipped the card over and read it.
The Theodore Dreiser Housing Project welcomed its first residents in February of 1957. In the fifty years since, thousands of families have called the projects home at one time or another.
Join us at the Soul Queen Restaurant for an anniversary luncheon, and catch up with your old friends and neighbors over a satisfying meal.
The bottom of the card listed the date, time, and fee, as well as an RSVP number. At the very bottom the card read: Organized by Patricia Maxwell.
Elyse smiled. She'd grown up with Pat. Every day they used to walk to school together, along with Grace and Susan Bennett. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't known them; it seemed as if they were just always there. They called themselves the Twenty-Two Club, because most of them had been born on the twenty-second of the month, although in different months. Grace's birthday, the lone exception, was quite close, on the twenty-first.
Many of the girls at school envied Grace for her good looks, or Susan because of her long, straight-textured hair and because she'd captured the heart of the school's leading athlete. But Pat had been named Most Popular Girl because she was a genuinely nice person. She had something nice to say to virtually everyone, and over the years she'd retained the same winning personality. While not as pretty as Grace or Susan, Pat could never be called a slouch in the looks department, plus she had a figure to die for, all curves. Elyse always thought it odd that Pat had never married.
Elyse felt a little guilty for not keeping in touch with her old friends better than she had. She talked to Pat maybe once or twice a year, and not at all to Grace or Susan. Their contact was largely limited to the annual exchange of Christmas cards.
She abruptly pulled over into a strip mall. She'd call Pat now, right this minute. Hell, Pat wasn't married. If she had no prior plans maybe they could get together tonight, catch up over a meal. Elyse would even drive into the city, which would take a good forty minutes from here in suburban Lake Forest, and closer to an hour to get south of downtown, where Pat lived. It sure beat sitting alone at the movies on a Saturday night.
Not only would that give her the opportunity to spend time with a lifelong friend she hadn't seen in far too long, but it would give her the satisfaction of knowing that Franklin would wonder what she was up to. She'd had it with him never wanting to do anything, and then hiding behind that lame excuse of not feeling well. If her cell phone rang she wouldn't even answer it.
She pulled out her address book and reached for her phone.
"Hi, Pat!" she said when her friend answered. "Don't be shocked, but it's Elyse."
"Elyse!" Pat laughed knowingly. "You must have gotten my postcard."
"I sure did. What a great idea, having a Dreiser reunion."
"Yeah, I thought it might be fun, after all these years. Besides, it gives me an opportunity to make a point."
"A point? Do I sense the famous Patricia Maxwell activism at play?"
Pat chuckled. "Sort of. The people who live there now staged a demonstration that made the news. They're asking for all kinds of improvements that will make it more like the Ritz. They don't seem to understand that living in the projects isn't supposed to be a lifetime thing. People are supposed to progress in life, even if they're stuck in the projects for fifteen or twenty years, like our parents were."
"I agree, but are you sure they aren't just asking for decent services, like heat and hot water and maintenance, or a laundry room where half the machines aren't broken?"
"Hell, no. They want computer libraries and tennis courts and more attractive landscaping."
"Oh." Elyse thought for a moment. "If the projects had all that, nobody would ever want to leave."
"Exactly. The public library has computers. As for parents of Venus and Serena wannabees, they'll have to make other arrangements for court time. My plan is to get as many successful people as I can to attend the luncheon. I'll get the press to cover it and interview attendees — find out how many years they lived there and what they're doing now. In other words, make the point that the projects are only supposed to be a stopgap, not a permanent way of life."
Elyse thought for a moment before replying. "You have to consider that different people live in the projects nowadays. When we lived there, everyone worked, all the men and a whole lot of the women, especially those who were the head of their household. Now the population is made up of a lot of welfare recipients who don't work and have no way out. It's a lot harder to break out of poverty now than it was thirty-five years ago, but I do understand what you're trying to do."
"Good. I hope I can count on you and Franklin to come."
"Sure!" If Franklin doesn't come with me to this, so help me, I'll crown him with a cast-iron skillet.
"Hey, I'm just about to head up to Lincoln Park to meet Grace for dinner. Are you doing anything tonight? Would Franklin mind if you spent a few hours with some old friends?"
Elyse resisted the urge to say, "Hah!" Instead she said, "I'm not doing anything right now. I'd love to meet you."
She got the directions to the restaurant and hung up. Within five seconds her phone rang. It had to be Franklin.
Now that she had a definite plan for the evening, she didn't mind answering the phone. Still, that hardly meant she'd gotten over her disappointment at his letting her down yet again. "Yes, Franklin," she said into the receiver, not even looking at the caller ID.
"Elyse, I just don't want you to be mad."
"I'm sorry, but that can't be helped. You've canceled on me one too many times."
"We'll do something next weekend. I promise. Whether the kids come home or not."
"Sure." He'd stick to that promise until it was time to go, and then his convenient mystery illness would provide him an excuse. She wasn't buying it, not anymore.
He paused. "Where are you?"
"I'm still in Lake Forest, but I'm going down to Chicago."
"I'm meeting a couple of friends for dinner. Pat Maxwell and Grace Corrigan. You remember. We were all girls together in the projects. They were all at our wedding, and then you saw them again at Susan Bennett's wedding up in Kenosha."
"Yeah, I remember. Why can't they come up here? I don't want you to be driving the streets of Chicago at night. It's dangerous. You don't see your friend Susan coming down to the city from Wisconsin."
Excerpted from Once Upon a Project by Bettye Griffin. Copyright © 2008 Bettye Griffin. 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.
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