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Sugar Plums For Dry Creek
By Janet Tronstad
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Janet Tronstad
All right reserved.
Lizette Baker wished her mother had worried less about showing her the perfect way to pirouette and more about teaching her a few practical things, like how to coax more warm air out of her old car's heating system and how to put snow chains on tires so smooth they slipped on every icy patch she found as she drove east on Interstate 94 in southern Montana.
A colder, frostier place Lizette had never seen. Even with a wool scarf wrapped around her neck and mittens on her hands, she couldn't stay warm. It was only mid-November and it was already less than ten degrees Fahrenheit outside. No wonder hers was the only car in sight as she drove along this road hoping to reach Dry Creek, Montana, before her heater gave out completely.
The attendant in the gas station she'd stopped at back in Forsyth had offered to call a mechanic to repair her heater. Another man, with a dirty blond beard and a snake tattooed on his arm, had made a different suggestion.
"Why put out good money for a mechanic?" he'd asked in an artificially friendly voice. Lizette hadn't liked the way he was looking at her. "I'll keep you warm if you give me a ride down the road a bit. I'm looking for my kids." He'd reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn snapshot, which he'd then shoved at her. "Kids need to see their old man. You haven't seen them, have you?"
Lizette would have rather given the snake on the man's arm a ride than the man himself, but she hadn't wanted any trouble, so she'd politely looked at the picture of his two children.
"No, but they're beautiful children." And the children probably would have been beautiful, she thought, if they hadn't looked so skinny and scared. "Sorry about the ride, but I have a car full of boxes. Moving, you know."
Lizette hoped the man hadn't looked at her car too closely. If she'd shifted the boxes around a little, she could have cleared enough room in the front seat for a passenger.
The tattooed man hadn't said anything more, but he'd put the picture back in his pocket.
After a moment's silence, the attendant had finally asked, "So do you want the mechanic to come over to fix that heater? He doesn't keep regular hours, but he can get down here in fifteen minutes flat."
Lizette had shaken her head. "Thanks though." She barely had enough money left to get her ballet school going; she couldn't afford to fix anything that wasn't actually falling off the car. The heater was spitting out just enough warm air to keep her from freezing to death, so it would have to do for now.
She'd looked out her rearview mirror as she'd pulled away from the gas station and had seen the man with the snake on his arm watching her leave.
It wasn't the first time since she'd left Seattle that Lizette had wondered if she was making a mistake.
Her whole life had changed in the last few months though, and she needed a new beginning. Besides, where else could she get free rent to start her own business? Lizette had learned to be frugal from her mother, Jacqueline. Indeed, it had been Jacqueline who'd found the ad for free space.
Lizette had not known until recently that her mother had saved for years with the hope that they could open their own ballet school someday. When Lizette's father had died, years ago, Jacqueline had given up the fledgling ballet school she and her husband had started and had taken a steady job in a bakery. At the time, Lizette had not realized the sacrifice her mother was making to keep them secure, probably because Jacqueline never complained about giving up the school. When she'd first tied on her bakery apron, she'd even managed to joke. She said she wished her husband could see her. He'd say she was really a Baker at last.
Her mother had made the job sound as though it was exactly what she wanted, and Lizette had believed her back then. Maybe that was because Lizette herself was happy. The bakery was a playground to her. She loved the warm smells and all of the chatter of customers. The bakers even got into the habit of asking Lizette to try out their new recipes. They said she had a taste for what the customers would like.
Giving up that ballet school was only one of the many sacrifices Jacqueline Baker had made for Lizette over the years. Lizette hadn't even known about some of them until her mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. That's when she'd started giving instructions to Lizette.
"You'll find fifteen thousand dollars in this safety deposit box," Jacqueline told her as she handed Lizette a key. "I wanted it to be more, but it'll get that school of ours started if we're careful. Then there'll be no need for you to work at the bakery — you'll be free to dance. The money should cover everything for a year. We don't need anything expensive — just something with good floors and lots of room for practice."
Lizette was amazed and touched. So that was why her mother'd never spent much money on herself, not even after she became the manager of the bakery and started earning a better salary. Lizette could see how important it was to her mother to start what she was calling the Baker School of Ballet.
As the pain increased and Jacqueline went into the hospital, she talked more and more about the school. She worried that Lizette had not been able to find an affordable space to rent even though she'd gone out to look at several places. Jacqueline even asked the hospital chaplain to come and pray about it.
Lizette was surprised her mother was interested in praying. Jacqueline had shown little use for God over the years, saying she could not understand a God who took a man away in his prime. Unspoken was the complaint that He had also robbed her of her beloved ballet school at the same time.
But now, at the end, who did her mother want to talk to? The chaplain.
If they hadn't been in a hospital when her mother asked to speak to a minister, Lizette wouldn't even have known how to find one. She herself had never been to church in her life. Sunday was the one day she could spend with her mother, and Jacqueline made it clear she didn't want to go to church, so Lizette never even suggested it.
Yet on her deathbed Lizette's mother spent hours talking to the chaplain about her hopes for a ballet school. Lizette quietly apologized to the man one afternoon when the two of them had left the room so the nurse could give Jacqueline an injection. Lizette knew the chaplain was a busy man, and she doubted he was interested in ballet schools — especially ones that didn't even exist except in a dying woman's dreams.
The chaplain waved Lizette's apology aside, "Your mother's talking about her life when she talks about that school. That's what I'm here for. It's important."
In the last days, the soft sound of the chaplain's praying was all that quieted Jacqueline. Well, Lizette acknowledged, toward the end it was also those expensive injections that kept her mother comfortable. Lizette never did tell Jacqueline that those injections weren't covered by their insurance plan.
It didn't take much money to open a ballet school, Lizette told herself when her mother kept asking about sites. By then, the extra hospital bills had used up the entire fifteen thousand dollars, and Lizette's small savings account as well. Lizette said a prayer of her own when she promised to open the school in the fall.
"You're right. Fall is the best time of the year to start a ballet school," Jacqueline said as she lay in her hospital bed. "We can start our students right out on our simplified version of the Nutcracker ballet, and they'll be hooked. Every young girl wants to be Clara. Plus we already have all of those costumes we made for you and the other girls when you were in dance school."
Part of the deal in the sale of her parents' ballet school had been that the new owner, Madame Aprele, would give Lizette free lessons. Lizette had studied ballet for years, and even though she didn't have her mother's natural grace, she still did very well.
"And you'll be there to watch." Lizette dreamed a little dream of her own. "You've always loved the Nutcracker."
Her mother smiled. "I can almost see it now. I remember the first time I danced Clara as a five-year-old. And later, the Sugar Plum Fairy. What I wouldn't give to dance it all again!"
Lizette vowed she'd find a way to open a school even without money. Then maybe her mother would get stronger and they could run that school together. With all of the praying the chaplain was doing, Lizette figured they were due a miracle.
Later that week Jacqueline claimed she'd found a miracle — right in the middle of the classified section of The Seattle Times. The ad offering free rent for new businesses had been buried in the used furniture section of the paper. Lizette called the phone number from the hospital room so her mother could listen to her end of the conversation.
Free rent would solve all of their problems for the school, and Lizette wanted Jacqueline to share the excitement of the phone call. Lizette hadn't realized until she was halfway through the conversation that the free rent was in a small town in Montana.
Jacqueline kept nodding at her during the conversation, so Lizette found herself agreeing to take the town of Dry Creek up on their offer. She couldn't disappoint her mother by telling her that the free rent wasn't in Seattle.
Excerpted from Sugar Plums For Dry Creek by Janet Tronstad Copyright © 2005 by Janet Tronstad. Excerpted by permission.
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