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For a tiny rural town in the middle of Montana, Weck’s Drug has an inexplicably vast selection of pregnancy tests. Not that I need one. It’s my sister, Lacey, who does. Again.
You would think a smart, capable, grown woman would learn that spending a Friday night drinking cheap beer and flirting shamelessly with guys you went to community college with eight years ago almost always ends in regret. Despite this seemingly obvious fact, my sister has sent me to Weck’s Drug more than once (six times in the last eight years, but who’s counting) on this particular errand. Old Mrs. Weck probably thought I was a complete doorknob by now. At ninety-seven, she still rings up every sale in our little country drugstore and probably knows more dirty secrets about the fine folks of Crowell than anyone. Thankfully, she has been steadily going deaf for the last ten years and is getting more senile by the day.
Under the sallow, glaring display lights, I peruse the selection for a kit that seems cheap yet reliable. I can’t count on Lacey to pay me back, even though this seems like the kind of expense you certainly should pay someone back for. Perhaps she could even throw in a little bonus for my efforts and the minor shame that old Mrs. Weck’s quiet tutting would inevitably inspire.
As for why my sister can’t perform this little errand herself? Well, she doesn’t want anyone to think she is a harlot, obviously. Because Lacey has always spent far too much time caring what other people think. Even years later, she wants everyone to think she is still a pious good-girl cheerleader: acting appropriately, smiling on cue, and keeping her legs demurely crossed.
I, on the other hand, was never a cheerleader. I was the teenage girl who read dog-eared copies of Henry Miller and scribbled bad poetry in a composition book. And, in the years since my husband, James, died, I’ve figured out what truly matters in the end. Things like kindness and honesty from a man who really wants to kiss you in the morning before you brush your teeth. Men who grin and watch you when they think you don’t see. The way those kinds of men leave a gaping hole in your heart when they’re gone.
Everything else is a distraction. In the last three years, I’ve wept and trudged my way through the kind of grief that makes everything pale in its wake. So if old Mrs. Weck thought I was floozying it up all over town, so be it.
As if anyone really cares, anyway. In a town like Crowell, gossip is barely a passing diversion. Even the most scintillating tales are half-forgotten before the stoplights in town turn flashing red for the night.
When my cell phone chirps from the back pocket of my jeans, I fully expect Lacey on the other end, whining and moaning to know when I’ll be back.
“Lacey, buying a pregnancy test is a critical decision. Don’t rush me.” I breathe calmly into the phone.
“Pregnancy test? What the hell is going on in that shit-hole town of yours, Kate? Finally found a man that would bed you without his spurs on?”
The voice on the other end bellows with the kind of sarcasm that identifies the caller as my literary agent, Stephen King. No, I’m not kidding. He really is a literary agent named Stephen King, and he doesn’t find it nearly as amusing as I do.
“Stephen. Hello. Pleasure to hear from you.” I pull a box off the shelf, deciding to relent and spend the long dollar for the brand-name test. She’s my sister, after all. If you can’t break the bank on her, who can you do it for?
“Seriously, you’re not pregnant, are you? That could potentially fuck up the plans I’m calling you about.”
Stephen always has a plan of some sort brewing. As much as I usually hate his plans, he did take the book I wrote and sell it. He turned my novel into more than a literary homage to the small town I grew up in: he made it into a bestseller. He even managed to option the movie rights to an indie wunderkind celebrity’s production company, who insisted they would “bring the book to life with beauty, integrity, and passion.” They sounded so damn earnestly excited about the whole thing that, for a second, even I wanted to dress in vintage jeans and ride a fixie bike to work while drinking kombucha out of a mason jar.
I understand, acutely, that Stephen is a big reason my quiet little book has become successful. In much the same way, I know that had my husband not died, I never would have buried myself so deeply into the thousands of words that eventually became a novel. It’s strange how the sucky, terrible, heartbreaking things in life can sometimes sprout surprisingly positive things over time.
I roll my eyes and tilt my head back, then all I can see is the bank of fluorescent lights above me. Staring, I focus my gaze until small black spots begin to cloud my vision. “Of course I’m not pregnant. Last time I checked, I’d need to have sex for that to be a concern. It’s for my charming, lovable, and dimwitted sister.” Then I let my eyes close and give a sigh. “What’s up, Stephen?”
Waiting for his response, I silently brace myself before he inevitably roars into the phone again. It always seems like he’s yelling, which he probably is compared to most people, given that Stephen’s version of an appropriate noise level is drastically off the mark. He also loves to use his speakerphone, which never helps. He’s a big deal. Just ask him.
“Kate, my darling, we are about to make some real money.”
I can almost see his toothy, eager grin in front of me. When I originally tried to find an agent, I figured it would be someone quiet and bookish who liked to watch Colin Firth movies in the dark. Yet somehow I ended up with a guy who is like a caricature of a Hollywood celebrity agent, brash and borderline insane. Our relationship works for reasons that still elude me. Although a mutual appreciation of mockery seems to help.
“Are we going to start smuggling drugs inside my books?”
“No, smartass. Ever heard of The Evelyn Summers Show? Or Hal Abrahms?”
“She’s on cable, right? That overwrought women’s channel? The other guy is a late-night show on after my bedtime.”
“You got it.”
“Isn’t she the one who used to be on some soap opera?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Used to play Alicia on The Bel Air Belles.”
“Christ, what a name. What does this have to do with me?”
“They want you for both shows. One will be a daytime slot; they have a book segment every other Thursday, in between the casserole cooking segment and pointless weight-loss tips. She’s all about tapping into the Iowa housewife’s inner goddess, crap like that. The show’s got a huge following and a great time slot. Right after that horribly irritating decorator guy that makes centerpieces out of other people’s trash.”
“I draw the line at participating in any on-camera cooking demonstrations or makeover segments.” As I start toward the cash register, old Mrs. Weck is already giving me a serious stink-eye for talking on my cell phone in the store.
“Calm down. No cooking, no mascara. All you have to do is go and be the Kate the world will love. Smile and do that wink thing you do. The Bible Belt won’t know what hit them.”
“What about the other thing?”
“After Hours with Hal Abrahms. He’s on after the big guys. LA in two weeks. Then Evelyn’s show ten days after that.”
“Why would the Hal Abrahms people want me on their show? Aren’t they usually about surgically enhanced actresses and pop stars?”
I cringe a little at the idea of being on display again, trying to seem normal in front of an audience, just as I have for the last six months at the endless book signings, web chats, and appearances Stephen has arranged. But these are the opportunities I, like every other aspiring novelist, fantasize about. So even when my country-girl fretting tries to get the best of me, I remember all those times I sat in front of my laptop, bleary-eyed but imagining, what if?
“Let’s not overthink the ‘why’ of it, just do it. Shit like this doesn’t usually happen to people who aren’t named J. K. Rowling. All I know is some producer’s wife read the book and has been raving about it. She met you at a signing with a bunch of other urbanites harboring city-slicker fantasies about a bucolic country existence.”
Stephen laces each word with disdain and fascination. As a man who believes that New York is the epicenter of the universe, and Los Angeles its close and only second, the idea that anyone would want to step one foot in rural America leaves him completely mystified.
“Somebody will call me with the rest of the details?”
I toss the pregnancy test down on the counter and look old Mrs. Weck straight in the eye, practically begging her to tut under her breath just so I can say something off-color about my loose ways with so many, many men. Before she can take the bait, Stephen starts in again.
“Would it kill you to muster some enthusiasm?”
“You’re not the one who has to get on television and appeal to the masses. You’re not the one who’s going to have to answer questions about characters and motive and inspiration. I mean, I know the tragic young widow thing makes for great television, but it’s also my life. Do I have to let every housewife in America in on that?”
Stephen picks up the phone handset. I hear the distinct click and know I’ve hit a nerve—no more speakerphone. He is going to yell straight into my ear.
“Yeah, you do, because it’s the truth. You’ve been stuck in that crappy little town for so long and everybody knows you as the little newspaper girl. But you’re a writer. The women that watch these shows want to be you, even with your baggage. They dream every day of waking up and having half the fucking talent you do!”
He’s breathing heavily now and I have to pull the phone away from my ear. Mrs. Weck is holding her hand out for some money. I dig a twenty out of my back pocket and hand it to her with a smile, then turn my attention back to Stephen.
“OK, jeez, you don’t have to yell. Calm down.”
“Sometimes, Kate, I just gotta yell to get my point across. I’ll have them call you with the details. Get your nails done and a haircut. If I know you, you haven’t gotten it cut since I saw you last.”
Before I can respond, Stephen hangs up. I mutter a few descriptive words under my breath to feel like I’ve gotten the last word in. Mrs. Weck is looking at me expectantly, holding my paltry change in her hand.
“Would you like a bag, dear?”
Propriety would suggest that I should say yes, but instead, I decline. Proudly. Strolling out into the sunshine on Main Street, I toss my reckless baby sister’s pregnancy test in the air and catch it, again and again.
In the bathroom at The Beauty Barn, where my sister works, she sighs heavily and acts as if she hasn’t done this all before. Lacey is the classic overly dramatic prom queen, beautiful in a way I never quite understood, with bottle-blonde hair, full curves, and a lightly freckled nose that is almost too tiny for her face. She is the girl who should have moved away from town but never did. Graduation day was the worst day of her life. She cried for hours, not because she would yearn for Crowell High, but because she didn’t know who she was without it. Junior college in Langston lasted two semesters before she came back. The Beauty Barn was thrilled because nobody can handle the high school prom season rush as well as Lacey.
She isn’t pregnant (never has been, for the record), and once I smooth her hair back from her frazzled face and gently admonish her for being so stupid, I walk back to my office. At the Crowell Times, my official title is assistant editor, although I’m also the office manager, former owner, current mortgage holder, and head writer.
For three generations, our family held court as owners of the local paper. When my father died, Lacey got the life insurance money and I got the paper. When my husband died, I hated everything for a while, including the paper. I sold it out of grief and confusion, yet without regret. It was the right decision, no matter how many people told me otherwise. Because I sold the paper to Herm Stein, my father’s best friend and longtime editor, all I lost was my name at the top of the masthead, which I never cared much about anyway.
Lacey never wanted to work at the newspaper; she worried the press ink would stain her clothes or that one of her friends might see her in the office with Dad dressed in his dorky press apron and green visor cap. I spent every day I could there, loving the smell of fresh ink and relishing the bustling noise of fingers tapping on keys. I liked nothing more than my father smiling at me in the most genuine way on those days, as if he could see the future so clearly, just by looking at my face.
After finishing my day at the paper, formatting some obituaries and trying to fix the copier for the hundredth time this week, I head out, the evening sky rich and dark above. The heady scent of a Montana spring fills the air, signaling impending rain that will likely last only long enough to dampen the dust on the dirt roads. As I drive, the distinct pull of a low tire on my car begins to tug the steering wheel, followed by a loud popping noise that means I’m about to take a long, lonely walk on a country road.
Involuntarily, I make a high-pitched guttural noise like a Saturday-morning cartoon. Think Yosemite Sam muttering, yelling, and groaning. Slamming the car door helps, but I know I’ll still have to walk because I’m on my own, without a spare to change, even if I could remember how. The spare is sitting in my garage, leaning against the wall where I left it a year ago, right after I discovered it was flat. Procrastination at its finest.
The rain starts in as soon I begin walking, before I can even finish cussing about the blown tire. Ducking under a large tree, I crouch down at the base and lean back into the trunk, realizing this is one of those moments when husbands come in so handy. Quiet except for the spattering rain and the sky so murky gray it looks like a tornado might appear out of nowhere, I lay my head against the bark and try to avoid the tears that might escape if I let them. Because if I do, then the sensation of being abundantly alone will be all there is.