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“Where was the shoe the last time you saw it?”
Kelli, my youngest daughter, is like her father: charming, practical and witty, with enough savoir faire to carry her through two lifetimes. She’d misplaced a sneaker. “Not lost, misplaced,” she wheezed. She uncapped her inhaler, took a deep breath, then released it.
“In Sailor’s mouth.”
Sailor. Our family pooch that carried off anything that wasn’t nailed down. I’d warned Neil the animal was going to be nothing but trouble when he brought this...odd-looking creature into our home -- rusty black, short legs, very fast, extremely agile. The dog had a domed skull, V-shaped dropped ears, a nose with a straight bridge and large dark brown eyes.
“What is that?” I’d asked.
“A puli. Isn’t he cute?”
Cute? That long coat looked to me like forty-five minutes a week of professional grooming to prevent matting and felting -- and the thing was only a pup!
When I protested, my husband had dropped a noncommittal kiss on my forehead and predicted I’d be in love with Kelli’s fifth birthday present before the week was out. I’d proved him wrong. Two hours later I was on the floor, wrestling with the heart stealer, falling head over heels in love with the furry troll. Sailor, unfortunately, captured my daughter’s heart, too, but the pet couldn’t be around long because Kelli’s asthma turned out to be a problem. As long as she submitted to an allergy shot once a week, the doctor agreed Sailor could stay until my daughter decided between breathing and having a dog in the house.
I was still uncertain about the outcome. Sailor had been here two months, and the bond between animal and child had only grown stronger.
“Why did you let Sailor carry off your sneaker?” School started in twenty minutes and I still had to pack two lunches and slap on makeup before we left the house.
She lifted thin shoulders. “It’ll be all wet with dog slobbers.”
I swiped a lock of long hair out of my face before I turned and dumped coffee into the sink. “Run upstairs and put something on.”
My seven-year-old appeared, dragging her backpack across the tile floor. Kris wasn’t a morning person. “Have you seen my math book?”
“Not since last night.”
“I can’t find my math book.” She dumped Fruitee Pops into a bowl, grumbling. “Sailor must have carried it off.”
The puli skidded around the corner, his nails clicking against the entry’s hardwood floor. I gave the canine a warning look, glanced at the clock and thought, Great -- now I’m really running behind.
I’d forgotten to put new batteries in the alarm. It had stormed last night, and the power had gone off. Neil and I had dragged the kids out of bed and traipsed over to the neighbors and spent an hour in their basement until the all-clear siren sounded. Never had Oklahoma experienced so many off- season tornadoes, but the weather was freaky everywhere this year. With dead batteries in the alarm, I’d overslept. When I’d awakened and seen the time, I’d thrown the covers back and sprung out of bed. Neil had rolled out on his side, complaining, blaming me for the late start -- like he didn’t know how to replace batteries?
Ten minutes later the love of my life came through the kitchen door muttering under his breath, “Six minutes to shave, eat and get to the station. Fighting fires is easier than getting out of this house on time.”
I handed him a piece of buttered toast and a cup of coffee on his way to the detached garage. He was always cranky during Sooner season. Sooner fever, I called it. The college football team consumed Neil and his friends, and this year the team had an 8–0 record, primed to go for its third league title in four years. Four more wins and the popular Oklahoma Sooners would be one of the teams to play in the Sugar Bowl, the national title game in January.
“Call me!” I shouted to his retreating back. Neil worked a 24-on and 24-off shift. Station 16 was only a couple of miles away, but he would be late.
“And be careful!”
He lifted his right hand, which indicated nothing, and moments later I heard his old pickup leave the drive. We’d been too rushed to kiss goodbye, something that rarely slipped our attention.
Racing up the stairs, I applied foundation, ran an eye shadow stick over my eyelids, lined the tops and bottoms in slate and brushed a hint of color on my cheeks, all the while yelling instructions to Kelli and Kris. “Ready in five minutes! Be in the car waiting!”
Mom had said there’d be days like this, but like so much of what Mom said, I hadn’t listened.
Minutes later I backed the van out of the garage and sped down our residential street.
The usual traffic jam encircled the school yard, so I dropped off the girls half a block from the front entrance. A light rain mixed with sleet coated the windshield and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed the weather earlier. The girls should be wearing boots and raincoats. Kelli lost a shoe -- which I belatedly noticed didn’t match the one on her left foot -- when she piled out, and it took a minute for her to scavenge around and locate the foot apparel. By now she’d noticed the difference in colors and she wanted to go home and change. I couldn’t go back home -- my first appointment was eight forty-five. We had a brief but heated idea exchange before Kris reached down and wedged the shoe onto her sister’s foot. The back door slammed, and I peered in my rearview mirror, feeling guilty as sin. I punched the window button and stuck my head out.
“Be careful -- don’t accept any rides from strangers. Put your hoods up. You’ll catch cold!”
I saw Kelli nod, but Kris ignored me.
“And don’t get your feet wet! You’ll get a...sore throat.” By now the girls had disappeared into the building. I rolled the window up and drove on thinking that tonight I’d stop by and pick up Kelli’s favorite meal -- chicken nuggets and French fries. Nights Neil slept at the station the girls and I bached. We’d eat pizza, tacos -- anything junky -- but when Daddy was home we ate balanced nutritional meals. Neil had started to tease “his girls” -- that’s what he called us -- that we enjoyed his absence, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Neil Madison had been my life from the first time I laid eyes on him at a junior high dance. I didn’t remember how many years I’d loved the husky football quarterback, but it was a long time before he noticed me and even longer before he reciprocated my feelings. But when Neil Madison fell, he fell hard. January 5 we would celebrate nine years of marriage, and I could honestly say that I loved the man more today than I had that stormy winter afternoon I’d walked down the church aisle -- in a practically empty church because an ice storm had paralyzed Oklahoma City traffic. Out-of-town guests and relatives were stranded in nearby hotels. Only the pastor, Neil and my parents made the ceremony. We’d spent the first forty-eight hours of our honeymoon in the airport Holiday Inn Express, waiting for flights to Jamaica to resume.
Those had been the most idealistic days of my life. I smiled and signaled, merging onto the expressway. We were young, in love, full of hopes and dreams. Neil had been with the fire department a little over a year and I hated his job -- hated the risks his occupation involved. I was a born, certified, card-carrying worrywart. I constantly worried that something would happen to him, but he’d only smile and say when the Lord said his time was up, he could be eating a doughnut at Krispy Kreme. Since we both believed in God and the risen Christ, I consoled myself with the knowledge that He would never hand me more than I could bear, but deep down I knew that if God ever took Neil, I would blame Him till the day I died.
I pulled into the parking lot of La Chic, the trendy salon where I’m employed. The salon was located near various upscale hotels and shopping malls, and enjoyed a five-star rating. I recognized a couple of vehicles. The red convertible belonged to my client Rody Haver. High Maintenance Rody, her husband called her. Rody permed her long blond hair one week, and the next she’d be back, sick of the curls and wanting a straight style. I’d cut her hair in a spiky, carefree punk look and when she’d leave she’d give me a huge tip and say she loved it! The next week she’d be back, claiming blond washed her complexion out -- could we do something in red? I’d tell Rody I could make her hair any color she wanted, but I’d advise against putting any more product on an already stressed condition. But Rody would want red, so when she left she would be tinted a gorgeous shade of Amber Flame. She would declare this the real Rody. She loved it!
The next week I’d get a call and Rody would say that her husband, an entrepreneur with unlimited resources, didn’t care for red; she was thinking maybe something in ash. I’d pencil in a new appointment, but common sense told me Rody would hate ash, which she did.
We’d go back to blond -- which she admitted was really her color -- but could I do something about extra conditioning? The ends of her hair felt a bit brittle.
Her hair was breaking at the ends, and the last time I’d shampooed, her follicles felt like corn mush.
Rody was already in my chair, thumbing through a hairstyle magazine, when I stashed my purse at my workstation and flipped on the curling irons. Outside rain splattered the front plate glass and I noticed ice was starting to accumulate on sidewalks.
“I need to get home as quickly as possible,” Rody said, eyeing the worsening situation.
I glanced at my appointment book and saw that we only had a trim, so that wouldn’t take long.
“I love coming to you, Kate. You can fix anything! You’re always so cheery and helpful.”
I smiled, basking in Rody’s compliment. Actually, I was good at my job. Give me a bad color, perm, cut or weave and I could usually send the client out with a smile on her face. I took no credit for my talent, knowing it was a gift, one that I loved and one that gave me more clients and travel than I wanted. A couple of days a week I had to fly to other states to teach classes on perm and color. The remaining three I got to work here in Oklahoma City, and go home to my family at night. I was a born cosmetologist -- about the only thing I couldn’t fix were my own self-defeating thoughts.
At the shampoo bowl, we chatted. Rody said her husband was taking her to Maui over the holidays. I said that was nice -- Neil and I planned to go to Hawaii some day. The trip wouldn’t happen until the kids were older; I needed a new stove and refrigerator before I even thought about grass skirts and Hawaiian sunrises.
Back at my station, I fastened a cape around Rody’s neck and went to work. There wasn’t much to work with, and the improvement would be negligible, but I had a feeling that if Rody wasn’t messing with her hair she wasn’t happy.
“Neil’s talking about retiring at forty-five,” I said. Only last night I’d lain in his arms and we had dreamed of the time when I’d quit work, and he’d leave the fire station. He wanted to move to his grandparents’ farm in Vermont. He loved the east, loved the smell of sap dripping in his grandfather’s woodlot -- and even more, loved his grandmother’s plates of steaming hotcakes and butter, drenched in maple syrup.
“Just think, Kate. I’ll only be forty-five, still considered young, and with my fireman’s pension we can make it. I can help Gramps run the farm, and you can stay home and raise the girls -- go to PTA meetings, bake cookies, play bridge with your friends.”
I’d laughed. I’d worked since I was nineteen and I couldn’t imagine staying home, but it was a nice dream. I’d can from the fruit orchard, and make pickles and jam. I’d fallen asleep listening to thunder and rain rattle our old two-story home in a moderate-income subdivision, dreaming of long, color drenched Vermont autumn days in our new one-story house with dark blue shutters. Neil would build the house next door to his grandparents. His parents lived nearby, so in Vermont the girls would get to see Maws and Paws every day if they wanted.
Mentally sighing, I finished Rody’s trim, blew loose hair off her neck with the dryer, then drenched my fingers with repair serum and ran my hands through the blondish, reddish, ash speckled, shorn locks. In thirteen short years, my worries would be over. No more listening for the phone to ring, no more fear or paralyzing siren wails in the night, no more worrying that my husband, the man who was my life, would not come home.
I would be a woman of leisure -- a mother and housewife whose only worry would be what to do with all that maple syrup.
* * *
I left La Chic around three; sleet had turned to a cold rain, but I stopped at the cleaners before I picked up the girls. Frieda Louis was coming out when I was going in. Frieda lived a couple blocks away, and our kids played together occasionally.
“Kate! How nice to see you.”
“Frieda.” I paused. She always looked as if she’d stepped out of a magazine -- every hair in place, flawlessly applied makeup. I felt like an unmade bed next to her.
“Have any storm damage last night?”
I shook my head. “A little wind. We took shelter in the Fowlers’ basement and were up most of the night. How about you?”
“The wind took off an awning on the north side, but Jim had it back up by noon. Don’t you hate this freaky weather?”
I hated it. Oklahoma had come by the name “tornado alley” legitimately. We exchanged various bits and pieces before I ducked into the cleaners. Tomorrow was travel day: I had to fly to South Carolina and teach a color class to graduating cosmetology students. Except for those awful flights, I enjoyed the brief trips. I handed the clerk my claim ticket and within minutes I was climbing back into the van. One glance at the dash clock, and I realized I still had time for a quick stop by the pharmacy to refill Kelli’s inhaler.
I wheeled into Walgreens, braked, exited the car and dashed into the store. When I walked in I noticed a cluster of sales clerks grouped around an overhead television. A news bulletin blared. I caught sight of a billow of smoke, eerily reminiscent of a similar image from years earlier.
I shuddered, recalling that day with a sense of horror. April 19, 1995, at about 9:03 a.m. on a clear spring morning, a bomb inside a moving truck exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Parents had dropped their children at the building’s day-care center and employees had just sat down at their desks to begin the workday when the blast obliterated half of the nine-story building, killing 168 people, many of them children. It was the most deadly terrorist attack to take place on American soil. Until September 11, 2001.
Neil would have been involved in that tragedy, but we were on holiday. I had thanked God my husband had been spared that awful experience. Any time fire broke out, I panicked, even though right now I could see the fire wouldn’t involve Neil’s station. The pictures were of downtown Oklahoma City, yet a chill slid up my spine. Some other woman’s husband -- some child’s father -- was in turnout gear, dragging heavy hoses and racing up crowded stairwells.
I walked to the back of the store and handed the pharmacist Kelli’s spare inhaler. “I need a refill, Mac.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Madison. I’ll only be a minute.”
I turned, perusing the fall decorations. One counter over, Christmas trees blinked, and a revolving Santa was playing a guitar and singing Elvis’s “Blue Christmas.” I wondered when Fourth of July would collide with the harvest season. I hardly had time to take down decorations for one holiday and put up the next set, which made me think of chocolate chips. Kris needed three dozen chocolate chip cookies for a class party tomorrow, which meant that I had to light the temperamental oven, and the thought sent another chill up my spine.
I left the counter, picked up the chips in the grocery section and returned to see a man kicking up a fuss about his medication.
“I’m telling you,” he bellowed. “I’m running out of room to take my medication!”
“Out of room? Mr. Withers, the dosage says to apply a new patch every morning.” The white-coated clerk held the carton at arm’s length, rereading the instructions out loud. “Says here, one new patch a day.”
“I do that!”
“Is the medication too strong?”
“How should I know? I just do what I’m told, but I’m telling you I’m running out of room.”
I smiled at the pharmacist, who seemed totally perplexed.
“Look here.” The old man suddenly peeled out of his jacket, threw it on the counter, then unbuttoned his shirt and stripped out of it.
A chuckle escaped me, and I covered my hand with my mouth when I saw the problem. The man had at least fifty patches stuck on him in various spots and positions.
Indeed, he was running out of room.
The pharmacist stared at the interstate of patches, and then calmly explained that the man was to remove the old patch and apply a new one.
“Well, why didn’t they say so?” The man slipped the shirt back on and buttoned it. “Doctors won’t tell you a thing.”
A few minutes later I’d paid for the medication and was on my way out of the store when I glanced at the overhead TV. A young store clerk was glued to the set.
“That’s downtown, isn’t it?” I asked.
The young man nodded. “A high-rise office complex is on fire.”
I breathed easier. Station 16 was too far away to respond -- unless the situation needed more men. I left the store, my mind back on cookies.
I picked Kelli up at Mrs. Murphy’s, the woman we called Saint Helen. Retired, husband deceased fifteen years earlier, Helen was a godsend to us. She kept Kelli after kindergarten, and stayed with both girls the days I traveled. I never worried a minute when I was gone; my girls loved Mrs. Murphy as much as Paws and Maws, and Papa and Grandma, and looked forward to the brief visits.
I picked up Kelli, then swung by the school. When Kris got in, her face was somber. “Mommy, my teacher says there’s a really bad fire downtown.”
“I heard, sweetie. But Daddy’s station wouldn’t be involved.”
“Are you sure?”
I twisted in my seat and gave her leg a reassuring pat. She worried as much as I did about Neil’s safety. “Positive. He’ll call us at the usual time tonight.”
When I pulled into the drive I punched the garage door button. Minutes later I carried the chocolate chips and Kelli’s medicine into the kitchen and deposited the bag on the small desk. No light blinked on the message machine.
Stripping out of my coat, I called for the girls to straighten their room before we ate, and then returned to the car for the cleaning. Fish sticks. Fish sticks, macaroni and cheese -- that’s what I’d fix for dinner. Since I’d forgotten to stop by for the chicken nuggets, I’d fix Kelli’s second-favorite meal. I grinned, thinking about Neil and how he was frying hamburger and onions right about now. Tonight was his night to cook, and he’d be making Spaghetti Red, a concoction of onion, hamburger, chili powder and hot pepper.
How the guys’ stomachs survived the monthly gastric workout amazed me, but they seemed to thrive on the challenge. Pete Wilson held the station record for most consumed -- four bowls and two spoonfuls. Neil had said they’d had a trophy made, which Pete proudly displayed on top of his locker.
I sprayed a cookie sheet with Pam and lined a half dozen fish sticks on the cookware. Then came the challenge. I bent over the old oven and tried to light the gas flame, scared to death. As usual, it wouldn’t catch until I’d lit three matches. Then, in a loud whossssh! flame exploded. Usually it knocked me backward several feet and tonight was no different. I jumped back and slammed the door, allowing time for the old relic to heat.
Six o’clock. I grinned, taking a box of macaroni and cheese out of the cabinet.
Neil would be calling any minute.
Copyright © 2005 Lori Copeland