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By Sarah Addison Allen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Sarah Addison Allen
All rights reserved.
Kate was in the kitchen putting ice cubes on a plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, two glasses of wine on the counter next to her, when she heard the evening news come on. She usually didn't like to have the television on in the evenings. She thought it generated a buzz that made the hot air in the house seem hotter somehow. More crowded. Matt thought she was crazy, but it was true. Everything had a presence. Even small things. Even things you took for granted.
Kate put her fingertips, cool from the ice cubes, to her cheeks as she walked through the kitchen into the living room to look for the television remote. Her long hair was sticking to her neck in thin ropes that looked like tattoos of waves from old maps. She knew Matt liked her hair down, so she kept it down that evening, that special evening when it was going to be just the two of them for the first time in what felt like forever. She hoped he would get there soon, before all her efforts melted away.
Five years ago, back when Kate's mother had been in the hospital, Kate remembered walking out of the building, out of the clinical chill and into the oppressive summer heat, and encountering a woman who was standing on the curb, smoking a cigarette. As Kate had waited for a car to pass so she could walk to the parking lot, the woman had commented that she had just moved from Vermont to Atlanta and that she didn't know how she would survive here without an air conditioner. When Kate had told her that she'd lived in Atlanta her whole life and had gotten by just fine without air-conditioning in her house, the woman seemed appalled. She was a Buckhead lady, no doubt, like Kate's mother-in-law. Matt had grown up in that rich, cool world, that world where nothing ever melted, but he wanted nothing to do with it now. Not that Kate minded. It wasn't like she could miss something she'd never had. She often wondered, though, how Matt felt now in the summers, in this steamy little house they lived in, which Kate had inherited when her mother died.
They had both been nineteen, and Kate had been pregnant, but Matt had still moved in with such ease. Probably because Kate had tried to make it as easy as possible. She was always trying too hard. She knew that. It was starting to weigh on her. Her whole life felt like one long day at work, and lately all she'd wanted to do was fall asleep when she got home in the evenings. She wasn't sure exactly when it happened, when she had realized that she could only make one of them happy. She only knew that she had chosen him.
Kate found the remote in the couch cushions where Matt had buried it. She aimed it at the television, but then she stopped. The reporter on screen was saying something about Valentine's, Atlanta's oldest men's clothing store. Apparently it was closing its doors for good that day. After several recorded shots of the store and interviews with the customers and staff, it went to a live shot with a handsome young reporter. He looked as if he was just out of college. Kate probably wasn't much older than him. She felt older, though, like they were worlds away from each other. The reporter was standing next to a tall, elderly gentleman who was wearing a flawless charcoal-colored suit and a gray tie so soft in color that it almost disappeared. The tie was knotted with precision, like the old man had spent hours getting it perfectly straight. Kate immediately dismissed him as the fussy sort, rich and aloof. Maybe that was why he seemed so familiar to her. He reminded her of her mother-in-law.
"This is Mr. Reginald Donbeet," the reporter was saying. "Valentine's oldest employee. He's been with the company for sixty-eight years and is something of a local legend. Mr. Donbeet can tie a tie ninety-nine different ways. I've asked him for a little demonstration. What knot do you think will look best on me, Mr. Donbeet?" The old man sighed, clearly not impressed by the media attention. "You told me to do this quickly, and given your casual attire, I would suggest a four-in-hand."
The old man stepped in front of the reporter, and soon quick whips of a lavender tie could be seen. Then Mr. Reginald Donbeet moved aside, leaving the reporter with a polished ribbon of cloth around his neck. The knot looked like it had been cut from paper with the sharpest scissors ever made. Kate had pegged him all wrong. He wasn't fussy. He was magic.
"How do I look?" the reporter asked the camera, before turning to say, "Thank you." But Mr. Reginald Donbeet wanted nothing more to do with this travesty, and had already walked away. The camera only caught his back. He was as thin as the shadow of a string.
Kate turned the television off, and the immediate silence reminded her why she had turned it on in the first place. Her daughter, Devin, was at an overnight swim party at one of her classmate's houses. It was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and Kate had been glad to take her. For days Devin had been a ball of zingy yellow energy, darting around the house in fairy wings that were leftover from Halloween. The end of the school year had energized her, and that energy would last the whole summer.
Kate used to be a lot like Devin. With a smile, she felt a sudden kinship with her own mother, thinking of what a trial she'd been to her. Kate used to believe that she could make anything happen. And if the signs weren't there, well, then she would create the signs. If the butterflies she drew on her arms with Magic Markers stayed on her skin for more than two days, they would become real, peeling off her skin and flying away, leading her to her next big adventure. If she had more than three yellow moon marshmallows in her morning bowl of Lucky Charms cereal, it would not rain a drop all day. If her father was late coming home from work, she would hold her breath and stand at the living room window and, sure enough, he would always appear before she ran out of air.
It felt strange with Devin gone, especially with the neighborhood quiet in that way it mysteriously became on holidays, everyone eager for the excuse to be anywhere but here. Kate went to the living room window and looked out. The houses were small and the yards were tired and wilted. There were a few elderly people living here, but most residents wore uniforms to work and caught the bus at the end of the street every day.
Houses were suddenly selling here, and she didn't understand why. They were on a hill behind a mall, and the grease from the food court was sometimes so heavy in the air that it fell like cake frosting onto old rhododendron and lilac bushes. Who would want to live here? But, still, it gave Kate hope. Maybe they could sell this house and move somewhere else. Start fresh.
Kate took her phone out of her shorts pocket and checked for messages. None from Matt. She punched in his number and waited, but it went to voice mail. Holidays were always a busy time at his bicycle shop. Kate would have stayed at Pheris Wheels and helped out like she usually did — she basically ran the place while Matt played with the bikes — but she had to get Devin packed up and dropped off at the sleepover, then she had to pick up the things for her and Matt's inaugural alfresco summer dinner.
Standing there at the window, she found herself holding her breath like she used to when she was young, because that would bring what she wished for. Literally seconds later, she heard the city bus stop at the bottom of the hill. She let out the air she was holding. Of course. Traffic must be terrible. Matt took the bus home instead of riding his bike.
She heard the bus idle, then the sound of the doors opening with a squeak. The bus drove off again and she stood there at the window, waiting for Matt to come into sight.
But it wasn't Matt who appeared on the sidewalk. It was an elderly man in a fine charcoal suit, a sharp tie around his neck that looked drawn onto his shirt. She suddenly smiled in wonder. It was the man from the news, the one who worked at Valentine's. It must not have been a live shot, after all. It must have been recorded earlier, for him to get here so quickly.
She watched him walk by her house, his steps slow but not labored as he ascended the hill. He was so thin he looked like he weighed nothing, like he was floating. He walked a few doors past her own, then turned into a yard with a For Sale sign in it. He took a key out of his pocket, unlocked the door, and walked in.
That was why he seemed so familiar. He lived here. She didn't know her neighbors as well as she should have, but she knew most by sight. This old man, Mr. Reginald Donbeet, had not been here long.
She thought about him coming home after his last day at work. Was he alone? Was he sad? This wasn't a coincidence. This was a sign. She was meant to check on him.
The adult in her, the one who didn't believe in signs anymore, knew that she just wanted to get out of the house. She wanted to stop waiting for Matt, and this was a better way to pass the time than standing in front of the window. She glanced at her phone once again, then walked out the front door, the screen slapping shut behind her.
It was cooler outside than it was in the house. She lifted her dark hair off her neck as she walked up the street to the old man's house. It was the first time she'd ever done this. She normally didn't like to bother her neighbors. They all seemed so busy, with full lives, so full they couldn't accommodate another thing without ripping at the seams. She approached his door and knocked. The yard was overgrown and the blinds were drawn. The place looked abandoned, but she was sure this was where he had gone. As she waited, she tied her hair into a knot. But without anything to secure it, she felt it falling as the door opened.
Mr. Reginald Donbeet had pale skin and light blue eyes and soft-looking, effeminate features that made her want to pat his cheeks. They were about the same height, which surprised her. He looked taller on television.
"Hi," she said, suddenly nervous. It made her laugh. "I'm Kate Pheris. I live down the street, there." She pointed to her pink brick house with the old white shutters her mother had picked out years ago. "I saw you on the news. I knew you looked familiar. Since Valentine's is closing, I figured you might have some time on your hands. I wanted to invite you to dinner sometime."
He smiled. "I appreciate the offer, but I'm leaving this evening. The moving van should be here any minute." He stepped back from the door. She felt the blast of cold air from his air conditioner first, then she saw the stacks of cardboard boxes filling the living room.
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"Whatever for? Come in," he said, with a dramatic wave of his arm, like a magician. "It's nice to finally meet you. I've seen you in your yard with your daughter. She has quite an imagination, that one. And you act as if you believe everything she dreams up. I think you must be a good mother. And, of course, I knew your husband, years ago."
Once inside, her sweat chilled on her skin, making her shiver. Kate stopped and turned. "You know Matt?"
Mr. Donbeet closed the door behind him. "Knew him. When he was younger, I chose his ties for him. As I did for his father, and his father before him. I knew all the Buckhead boys."
Kate crossed her arms over her chest. "I bet you were surprised to see him living here."
Mr. Donbeet smiled, like he knew a secret. "No, not really. You see, I knew his mother, too."
And with that, any awkwardness she felt fell away. Her mother-in-law was a force to be reckoned with. She controlled everything around her with an iron fist wrapped in a perfect white glove. It was the reason Matt had cut all ties with her. He said that he could never do anything right by her. That she never appreciated him. Kate smiled at Mr. Donbeet in sudden kinship. "The stories you could tell."
He laughed. "Why do you think Valentine's kept me on, even though my job became obsolete years ago? It's not because I know how to tie a tie ninety-nine different ways. Which I do. It's because I know all their secrets."
"How old were you when you started working there?"
"I was seventeen. Don't bother with the math. That makes me eighty-five." He shook his head like he couldn't believe it, then walked to the attached kitchen. "Would you like some coffee? I just made a pot. I figured the movers would need some caffeine. It's a long drive to Miami. I have friends there."
She followed. "Thank you."
She watched as he burrowed through the boxes in the kitchen until he brought out two mugs, a cocktail shaker, and a butter knife. He walked to the refrigerator and took out the only item in it: a butter dish. His movements were deliberate. The old man was putting on a show for her. First, he poured the coffee from the pot into the cocktail shaker, then he cut off two pats of butter and plopped them into the coffee. He rattled the shaker for a few moments before pouring the frothy mixture into the mugs.
He handed a mug to her, and she gave him a sideways look, like maybe this was a joke.
"Don't be so skeptical," he said as he took a sip from his own mug. "Butter coffee is a treat. You put milk in coffee, don't you? It all comes from the same cow."
Not wanting to seem rude, she took a sip. It tasted like winter, like a savory, buttered dish from a warm oven. She raised her brows and smiled at him.
"I told you so," he said.
He led her back to the living room, to a couch covered in a white sheet. She wondered what it looked like underneath. Was his taste in furniture as immaculate as his taste in ties? "Sit down, please," he said, lowering himself to the couch with a sigh. "It's such a novelty to me, to sit. I feel like I've been on my feet for sixty-eight years. Sometimes I wake up and I find myself standing in the middle of the bedroom and I can't figure out how I got there. Muscle memory, I suppose."
Kate took another sip of the butter coffee, then wrapped her hands around the mug. She didn't know many old people. She didn't often feel this gap in ages. She almost always felt like the oldest person in the room. "How did you come to work at Valentine's?"
He thought about it for a moment, like he was considering whether or not to tell her. He sat back and crossed his legs, draping one arm along the back of the couch. "Do you remember your first love?"
No one had ever asked her that before. She could remember an almost-kiss with a boy, a long time ago on a family vacation. She hadn't thought about him in years. "Vaguely."
"My first love was the son of the original owner of Valentine's. His name was Laurence Valentine. Everyone called him Lucky."
That got Kate's attention.
"I was seventeen, a day laborer on the Valentine estate. I met Lucky when he was on his way to a tennis match. He was wearing a perfect, crisp white outfit. He looked like a jar of snow in July. I knew then why there was such a fuss about him. He was beautiful. I was trimming the azalea bushes lining the driveway when he and his sister walked out onto the pavement.
"His sister stopped completely and said to me, in a flirtatious way, 'Well, hello. You're new.'
"'Yes,' I said, quite dumbly, as dazzled as I was by them. 'I am.'
"Lucky laughed and led her away. 'Don't pay any attention to her,' he said, then gave me a glance that meant, Pay attention to me instead.
"I watched Lucky and his sister drive away, in awe at how comfortable they were with their wealth. I couldn't imagine the luxury they grew up in. I just knew, at that moment, I wanted to touch it, to be a part of it somehow, in any way they would let me. Have you ever had that feeling?"
Kate hesitated, wondering what he meant by that.
He shrugged when she didn't answer. "I was seventeen. Lucky was twenty-two. He was seeing a woman named Petal at the time, and she was wearing his engagement ring. But he still invited me in that evening. We had martinis in the living room after his family had gone out to dinner. We talked for hours. Then he took me by the hand to his room, to show me his record collection, he said. He undressed and modeled his suits for me instead, then he showed me how to tie his ties like a valet. He wanted my attention. He wanted my affection. And I gave it to him. All that I had. Because I thought he was the only person in the world who saw me for me. Maybe I could finally be who I truly was in that rarified world. And I thought I was helping him become himself, too. But the truth was, I could have been anyone."
Kate felt a jolt of something she couldn't quite explain, like he was aiming for something in her, some reaction, and he'd finally gotten it. That was the kind of wealth Matt had grown up in, too. She had never asked him to leave it. But he'd been looking for an excuse. He didn't do it for her. She could have been anyone.
Excerpted from Waking Kate by Sarah Addison Allen. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Addison Allen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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