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Andrea Wolkowicz realized almost immediately that she'd made a mistake. She'd worn her bright blue Escada dress because she looked so good in it. And it gave her confidence. Confidence was something she was going to need in this next round of interviews. She was on her sixth month of job hunting. So far, she'd been unable to convince any local business that five years of helping an international corporation give away money meant she was more than qualified to help a small company make some.
The designer dress was a serious miscalculation.
Miss Kepper, the person who did the hiring at Guthrie Foods, had given only a cursory glance at her résumé, but she'd looked Andi up and down as if she were the prized beef contender at the county fair.
And it didn't seem to Andi that her interest was fashion. The puny, dour woman with a bad haircut was wearing a gray suit so many years out of style that its gigantic shoulder pads would have put the female cast of Dallas to shame. And her shoes, flats in basic black, looked more like something that would be worn in the gym than in the office.
Andi was explaining herself, with a mix of understatement and Midwest modesty. She had a graduate degree from one of the nation's top business schools. She'd done an internship on the Miracle Mile. And she'd walked away from a successful career as a corporate contributions professional for a Fortune 500 company in Chicago. The question Miss Kepper rightly ought to ask, Andi thought, was: Why would such a dynamic professional with a bright future possibly be interested in a crummy part-time job like this?
Miss Kepper did not, of course, ask that question.
But Andi had asked it of herself often enough these past few months. When her mom died last October, moving home to live with Pop had seemed like the perfect decision, and she had rushed to make it happen. Now, flat broke and out of work, the logic of giving up a good job in a bad economy and moving back to the wilds of the rust belt, didn't seem quite so brilliant.
"My responsibility at Milo Corp meant targeting charitable foundations whose mission clearly aligned with the goals and values of our overall corporate direction. This involved maintaining clear, up-to-the minute assessments of both the operations and the ground level accomplishments of philanthropic organizations worldwide."
Miss Kepper did not look impressed.
"Please contact my former employer," Andi urged. "They have great respect for my work and were very sorry to see me leave."
The woman pursed her lips and made a noncommittal sound that was not at all promising.
"Well, thank you for coming in. We'll certainly keep you in mind," she told Andi, her words dismissive.
Andi wasn't ready to be dismissed. The pencil-pushing Miss Kepper would never have gotten out of the mail room at Andi's former employer. "This is a great opportunity for Guthrie Foods," she stated firmly. "A person with my credentials and breadth of experience doesn't walk into a small local business like this every day. I could be a real asset to this company."
"Yes, well," the woman hedged. "This is a very competitive job market and many, many people have applied for this position, most of them longtime residents of our community. We have plenty of our own looking for work. We don't necessarily need an influx of outsiders."
"I'm not an outsider," Andi insisted quickly. "I grew up right here in town. My dad had a business on this street. I went to high school with Pete Guthrie. We…we were on student council together."
This last comment was a bit of a stretch and Andi made a special effort to look Miss Kepper directly in the eye. Pete Guthrie had been president of the student council. Andi had represented the math club on the council's advisory committee. She had never been one to pad her résumé. She'd never needed to. But that had been high school, it had been ten years ago and she needed this job now.
Miss Kepper's right eyebrow raised slightly, a guarantee she suspected a lie.
"Well, then," she said, too pleasantly. "As Mr. Guthrie makes the final decision, I don't suppose you'll have any problem. Thank you so much for coming."
The woman rose to her feet and Andi had no choice but to do the same. She was escorted out into the hallway where she was directed toward the stairs. She hadn't gotten the job. She knew that all ready. After perhaps a hundred unacknowledged résumés and two dozen fruitless interviews, Andi recognized a door slamming in her face, even when it occurred only figuratively.
As she headed down the corridor, her eyes scanned the scuffed and dingy beige walls, unrelieved by even so much as an advertising poster.
Sheesh! What a miserable place to work, she thought. Not getting this job might be a blessing in disguise, she consoled herself.
That thought lasted until she got downstairs. The store itself was much cleaner, and more modern and cheerful than the office space. And the place was full of food. Even in the worst of economic times, people still bought food.
Even Andi did, but not today. Today she was on her two-dollar diet. That's what she called it. To avoid spending, she'd taken to carrying only two dollars in her purse. That was enough to get her bus fare home, but not much else.
She walked past the line of checkout lanes and the rows of shopping carts, through the sliding glass doors into the parking lot. Going from the air-conditioning to the outdoors was a bit of a shock.
Andi made a huff of surprise, willing herself not to perspire in her best dress.
Was it always this hot in May?
She couldn't remember. It had been a long time since she'd been here for anything but Christmas vacation. But now she was here indefinitely.
She walked across the parking lot toward the sidewalk. Guthrie Foods was a fixture on Grosvenor Avenue, Plainview's commercial main street. And Andi was as familiar with it as she was with her own childhood. At the edge of Guthrie s parking lot, on the corner of Grosvenor and Fifth Street, was a small empty building with a large covered drive-through. On the face of its brick front overhang, the sign was still vividly readable. PLAINVIEW WASH & WAX. Andi smiled as she read it. This had been her father's business. And she'd made a point of spending her childhood here instead of at home. As she walked past the boarded-up windows and the scuffed walls thick with graffiti, she marveled at how much smaller it seemed from the busy, exciting place she remembered.
Now that she thought about it, almost everything in town was smaller and less exciting.
At the corner she waited for the light, surveying the sidewalk ahead of her. The crab apple trees that lined the street were in bloom, their pink flowers a vivid contrast to the unrelieved gray of concrete, and they added a freshness to the line of aging brick buildings.
When the light turned green Andi crossed the street as quickly as her sensible but stylish pumps would take her. Plainview was not so different from when she'd lived here as a young girl. Somehow there was comfort in that.
Taking up much of the next block and looking much as it always had, was Joffee's Manhattan Store. Andi was pretty sure that the word Manhattan had been included in the name to give the locals a sense of foreign sophistication. It must have worked, for the date over the doorway read 1888. Joffee's was to Plain-view what Macy's was to New York, as much a tradition as a shopping destination. Andi glanced at the merchandise in the windows. Sundresses and beach umbrellas seemed a long way from her hometown. In the corner of the display were three torso mannequins in swimsuits. The red thong bikini caught Andi's eye and she smiled. A woman would have to be headless to wear something like that in this town, she thought.
On down the street she passed Schott Pharmacy and then the hardware store. Yes, Plainview was much as it had always been. But if you looked closer, it had changed. The buildings that had once housed little dress shops and five-and-dimes now sold used furniture and cheap electronics. The old men who sat on the sidewalk benches looked more unkempt and a lot more uninterested than the seniors of twenty years ago.
Andi walked past them, making her way to Connor's Diner at the end of the street. Connor's at least, was still spick-and-span. Its blue vinyl decor was original but still in good condition.
"I'm meeting someone," she told the hostess as she stepped inside.
Andi scanned the room until she spotted the person more dear to her than anyone in the world.
The young woman looked much like Andi herself, except her light brown hair was cut in a cute bob that perfectly framed a chubby big-eyed face. She had headphones in her ears and was rocking in place in the narrow booth where she sat thumbing through a photo album. As Andi approached, she noticed the misbuttoned red Christmas sweater. Andi scooted into the bench facing her. She reached over and pulled out her earbuds, unable to stop herself from commenting.
"Jelly, why are you wearing that winter sweater? It's practically summer, way too hot outside for that."
The bright smile of greeting immediately turned into an expression of patient concern.
"Andi," she said in a very serious, almost incredulous tone. "This is Frosty the Snowman. He's a jolly, happy soul."
"Yeah, well maybe so," Andi agreed. "But you need to save him to wear in December."
Jelly frowned. "That doesn't make sense," she said. "We need to have happiness all year round."
Andi didn't argue. "Where's Pop?" she asked instead.
"He had an appointment," Jelly answered.
"He left you here by yourself?"
"It's okay, Andi," Jelly assured her quickly. "He gave the waitress a tip and told her to watch me. I've been sitting right here looking at my picture book and she's been watching me."
As if on cue, the waitress arrived at the table. Jelly was all smiles for her.
"This is my sister, Andi," she told the woman. "We're twins. Andrea and Angela. But you can call us Andi and Jelly. She's the smart one and I'm the funny one."
"Well, I guess you're both the lucky ones to have each other," the waitress said.
Andi eyed the woman suspiciously looking for sarcasm, but she seemed sincere.
"Would you like something? Cup of coffee? Pie?"
"No, no thanks," Andi said.
"She wants coffee," Jelly corrected.
Andi raised her head to protest.
"Don't worry," Jelly said. "I've got money. It's my treat."
As the waitress headed toward the coffeepot, Andi whispered to Jelly. "Why did you do that? I don't need any coffee and you don't need to buy me anything."
"You do need coffee," Jelly answered. "You drank it all the time when you had a job. I have a job. I can buy you coffee."
Andi watched as her sister set her backpack on the table and began rifling through it. To get to her wallet Jelly first had to unload several wads of crumpled paper, a half-eaten candy bar, a flashlight with two extra batteries, a dozen pieces of plastic jewelry and a baseball cap.
"Why do you carry so much stuff?" Andi asked.
Jelly looked at her blankly. "I might need something," she answered.
"When I get a job I'm going to get you a really nice little purse," Andi told her. "It will be a lot easier to carry around, it won't get filled up with stuff and it'll look a lot more stylish, more grown-up."
"No little purse, Andi," Jelly said. "I gotta have my backpack, 'cause I gotta carry my picture books."
Andi hesitated for a moment and then relented with a sigh. Her younger sister, her twin, was born when Andi was just twelve minutes old. Andi's birth had somehow created a kink in the umbilical cord that her sister relied on for oxygen. Twelve minutes equaled a lot of brain damage. And any amount of brain damage can equal a much different life.
Andi pulled out the remains of the Sunday employment section of the paper and spread it across her side of the table. With a definitive X she marked though the ad for Guthrie Foods and began looking more carefully at the other items she'd circled.
The waitress set a cup of coffee beside her. The woman began to move away and then hesitated. Andi glanced up.
"Don't bother with that one," she said, pointing to one of the ads circled. "It's not really a job, they want you to buy products from them that you can go out and sell."
"Okay," Andi said, crossing it off as well.
"And this one is a night shift in a really slimy-looking motel. I felt like I was in danger just being there for the interview."
Andi nodded. "So why are you looking?" she asked. "You've got a job."
The waitress shook her head. "This one is my sister's," she answered. "She's off on maternity leave and she was afraid of letting anyone else fill in 'cause they might get to replace her. She'll be coming back in another week or so, so I'm looking all over town for something."
"Yeah," Andi said. "Me, too."
"I have a job!" Jelly piped in. "I deliver meals on wheels."
"Good for you," the waitress said. "Next week your sister and I both may need for you to buy the coffee."
Andi watched Jelly smile proudly.
"I'm Tiff," the waitress said. "Tiff McCarin."
"I'm Andi. And thanks for watching my sister."
Tiff shrugged and then flashed a smile at Jelly. "She's just sitting here looking at photographs not being any trouble to anybody."
"Still, thanks," Andi said. "And good luck on the job search."
* * *
Pete Guthrie made his way down Aisle Seven, canned fruits, dried fruits, pickles and condiments, his cell phone pressed against his ear. He was a tall guy, three inches over six feet. His long limbs had finally stopped growing, but he retained a lean lankiness that seemed youthful, a contrast from the lines of worry that now appeared permanently etched in his face.
"You've got to give me a better price than that," he said into the phone. "You know I'm being strangled to death by ShopMart and Superbuy."
The response on the other end of the call was apparently less than hopeful. With his free hand, Pete was nervously tugging at a hank of his expensively trimmed brown hair.
"Greg," Pete said, gravely. "You've got to see that we're in this together. Do you honestly think those national chains are going to stick with you if I stumble?"
"Guthrie! Guthrie!" A well-dressed older woman called out for his attention.
Pete stopped in his tracks, gave her a quick half smile and held up his hand as a polite request for her to wait.