I have philosophy that sometimes works, sometimes doesn't: the more I put my writing out there, the more it encourages me to keep at it. So in that spirit, the following is a chapter from a novel I'm working on. It's still in rough draft form, but here you go...
Rosalee double checked the cart of books that put in order, then glanced at the clock. Thirty minutes until closing, just enough time to get these books shelved. She wheeled the black metal cart from behind the desk and headed to the chapter book section of the children’s room at the library. Things were pretty quiet this evening – Mondays often were. Rosalee loved this little library. There were two public libraries in town now, but this was her favorite. It had originally been just a converted old farmhouse. Eventually, the town had added on a nice, modern building, but had left the farmhouse. First floor was now a coffee shop, and the second floor housed offices and administrative staff. Sometimes Rosalee would come to work early and treat herself to a pastry and cup of coffee at the coffee shop. Jessica had even worked there for a while in high school.
Carolyn, the full-time children’s librarian, was laying out material in corner, prepping for Tuesday’s regular story-time. That corner of the room was slightly sunken, with three steps leading down to a good-sized wedge-shaped area with a rocking chair at the point. A pile of pillows sat along one wall. Sometimes the kids pulled them out for story-time, and sometimes they’d just pull them out and read for a while when nothing else was going on. A low table lined the other wall, where Carolyn or one of the other librarians would set up crafts. Some front facing book shelves were built into both walls, providing a place to display books relating to that week’s story-time theme, or just books the librarians wanted to display and highlight.
Stephanie, one of the other part-time staff, was at the desk in the opposite corner doing some work on the computer. Rosalee was about half-way through shelving her cart when Stephanie looked up from her work and called out.
“Rosalee” she said. “Carolyn and I and a few of the reference staff are headed to Brick Oven tonight. It’s Beth’s birthday. Would you like to join us?”
Rosalee turned toward her. “Well…” she said, her first instinct to politely declinje, although she wasn’t sure why.
“I know it’s last minute,” she said, waving her hand. “Beth wasn’t sure her sitter could stay late, so we didn’t have final plans until this afternoon. If you can’t, I understand.”
“Actaully,” Rosalee said, “that sounds great. I’d love to.” After all, she thought to herself. What plans do you have. None, that’s what. And weren’t you just thinking the other day that you had become a hermit?
She finished shelving her cart of books while the other two began getting everything in order for closing. Twenty minutes later, Rosalee was climbing in her car to calls of “see you there!” and pulling out onto the relatively quiet street. She smiled to herself, looking forward to a nice dinner with her coworkers. She made a quick stop on the way at a dollar store, grabbing a cute birthday card and gift bag. At the restaurant she took a moment in her car sign the card and put the bag of coffee she’d purchased that day into the gift bag. It’d been an impulse buy – she’d had a thought of giving it to Celia Blair. But she could always buy another bag; she knew Beth liked coffee as well – she always had a mug in her hand – so it worked out nicely.
Rosalee was the last to walk in, but the other ladies were still taking off sweaters and jackets. They’d snagged a table against the wall, much preferable in Rosalee’s opinion to sitting in the middle of the room. She set her purse down in an empty chair, then dropped her small bag in front of Beth’s place. “Happy Birthday!” she said, leaning in for a quick hug.
“Oh, thank you!” Beth said, returning the hug. “Rosalee, how sweet. You didn’t have to get me anything. This is all so last minute and casual.”
Rosalee waved away Beth’s protests. “It’s not much,” she said, smiling. “But I can still hear my mother’s voice in my head: ‘Rosalee, never go to a party empty-handed.’”
Beth laughed. “My mom says the same thing.”
Rosalee moved back down the table a few chairs to her own spot and, after a quick check to make sure the hardwood floors weren’t too grimy, slid her purse under her chair. There were six ladies of varying ages around the table. Alysia, head of information services, Donna from technical services, Beth, Stephanie, Caroline and Rosalee. Rosalee was pretty sure Donna and Caroline were around her own age, Beth and Stephanie in their mid-to early 40s, and Alysia somewhere between 25 and 35. Rosalee was terrible with ages. She only guessed Beth and Stephanie’s because she knew how old their kids were. Either way, it was a comfortable group. Everyone except Rosalee had been working at the Woodson Public Library for at least 10 years. Rosalee had only been at the library for a couple of years, but the staff had been more than welcoming. This was the first time she’d ever accepted any offer for out-of-work socializing though, and she found herself to be a little bit nervous. But, as she’d been realizing more and more lately, it’d been a long time since she’d done any kind of non-family related socializing. Which, since she genuinely enjoyed the company of her co-workers, was one reason she’d said yes to the invitation.
Rosalee gave herself a little mental pep talk and picked up her menu, glancing around the restaurant as she did. She’d never been to Brick Oven before, although she heard various members of her family talk about it all the time. The décor reminded her a bit of a pub – lots of dark wood, warm light and high-backed booths. Since the restaurant had the benefit of being a stand-alone building, there were a lot of windows. Rosalee could imagine how bright and cheery it looked in the daytime, but with no less warmth. There was a long bar at one end of the building, and behind the bar you could catch a glimpse of the big wood-burning pizza ovens.
She glanced down at her menu, then turned to Caroline, who was sitting beside her.
“Have you been here before?” she asked. “What’s good?”
“Oh, we come all the time,” she said. “My favorite is the carmelized onion, pear and gornonzola; my husband’s favorite is the barbecue chicken; and my daughter usually sticks with the margarita.”
“Hmm,” Rosalee mused. “Those all sound delicious.”
“You can’t really go wrong with anything,” Stephanie chimed in from across the table. “It’s all pretty outstanding.”
Their server arrived a moment later and took drink orders. Rosalee heard Beth ask who was driving her home because she was definitely planning on some birthday drinks. Rosalee laughed along with the rest and joined in the general conversation about wine and beer preferences and which pizza they were all going to order. She and Caroline ended up deciding to split a pizza, and before too long their waiter had slipped off to place orders and conversation turned to other topics.
“So, Rosalee have you always lived in Mapleview?” Caroline asked, taking a sip of her red wine.
“No, my husband and I moved here not too long after we got married. I grew up in Carrolton,” Rosalee answered.
“No way!” Stephanie exclaimed. “My grandmother’s from Carrolton. I didn’t think anyone else even knew where it was.”
Rosalee cocked her head slightly. “Who’s your grandmother?” she asked. “I’m sure I know her.”
“Mrs. Mason, of course!” Rosalee said, smiling. “She lived two blocks from the pharmacy and always had the most beautiful flowers in her front yard.”
“Sounds like Gramma,” Stephanie said. “We used to go visit every summer and every Thanksgiving. What a small world!”
“What about you ladies,” Rosalee said. “Who’s from around here?” All but Donna admitted they’d grown up in Missouri, if not in Mapleview. Donna had moved to Mapleview with her husband’s job. They’d both grown up in California.
Rosalee raised her eyebrows. “That must have been quite a culture shock,” she said. She looked at Caroline with new eyes noting the sleek and expertly colored hair, easy but flawless makeup, and casual but stylish clothing. She could see it clearly – Donna may not have lived in California for 15 years, but she exuded West Coast.
Donna laughed, her brown eyes warm. “In some ways, yes,” she said. “I’ll admit I miss being equidistance from the mountains and the beach. And I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to Midwestern weather. But Mapleview is a great home. I felt welcome the moment we rolled into town, and that’s never changed.”
Rosalee felt proud of her home state.
“So what have you all been reading lately?” Stephanie asked, shifting gears.
Caroline’s eyes lit up, “I just finished the best book! I’ve been in a reading slump for weeks, so I took a chance on a recommendation from Kelly and it was perfect! I’d never have picked up this book on my own. I don’t usually read romance novels, but Kelly assured me that I would enjoy this one and I absolutely did.”
“I love a good romance novel,” Donna said from across the table. “Who was the author?”
Caroline mentioned an author Rosalee had never heard of – not too surprising since she tended to stick to mysteries and historical fiction – but she made a mental note to branch out.
“What did you like about the book?” she asked.
Caroline rested her chin in her hand and thought for a minute. “It was smart,” she said. “Smart and funny, but not silly. And the characters seemed very real. I tend to like character-driven fiction, and this story was as much about the characters as people as it was about their love story.”
Rosalee nodded in understanding. “I try to find those authors when it comes to mysteries too,” she said. “I love a good mystery, but there needs to be as much character development as there is plot development. Fortunately, a lot of my favorite authors write series, so I can usually find something I like.”
Donna asked her if she’d read a certain author and the women around the table kept up an animated discussion about books and authors until the pizza arrived. Rosalee breathed deeply, enjoying the variety of scents coming from the table. Garlic and tomatoes and savory meat. She smelled the tang of barbecue sauce from the barbecue chicken pizza that Donna had ordered, a smell that Rosalee would have expected to seem out of place. It all smelled delicious, though, savory and rich. Her stomach growled and she and Caroline laughed.
“I didn’t realize I was so hungry,” Rosalee said.
The women continued to chat as they pulled slices of hot pizza from the oversized plates in front of them. The waitress refilled drinks and took orders for new ones. Rosalee took a bite of pizza – the crust was thin and crispy, with an almost grilled flavor that she assumed came from the wood-burning oven it had cooked in. She and Caroline had picked simple toppings –tomatoes, proscuto, spinach and fresh mozzarella. It was amazing.
“I think I’ve been ruined forever,” she said after swallowing. “This is amazing!”
Donna smiled at her from across the table. “I felt the same way after my first taste of wood-fired pizza. They’ve been popular in California for a while. That may have been the hardest part about moving to Missouri!”
They all laughed and Rosalee lifted her piece for another bite. She glanced around the table as she chewed, a slight smile on her face. She was so glad that she’d accepted the invitation. Clearly her homebody ways were starting to lose their appeal because she was having a lot of fun, more fun that usually had on a Monday night. She was turning her attention to a funny story Beth was telling when she felt someone walk behind her chair and pause.
“Rosalee?” a deep voice asked. “Rosalee Barnes.”
Rosalee froze, her hand halfway to her face, her mouth hanging open. No one had called her Rosalee Barnes in a long time. And she hadn’t heard that voice in a very, very long time.
Rosalee set her half-eaten slice of pizza on her plate with a trembling hand, and wiped her fingers on the napkin in her lap. She placed the napkin on the table, and slid her chair back. She could see the other ladies glancing behind and above her head then back at her, and she could see them wondering why she still hadn’t responded, why she was taking so long to say anything.
Her knees joined her trembling hands as she stood up, then turned around. She willed her body to start cooperating, and cleared her throat before smiling.
“George Bowen you sure do know how to surprise a person.”
The eyes that smiled back at her were exactly the same midnight blue as they’d been in 1964. The smile lines that crinkled in the corners were deeper and more numerous, but Rosalee noted the same straight nose and strong chin, the same confident grin and lopsided dimple, and the thick blonde hair that had turned a beautiful silver. George was dressed casually in dark jeans, brown leather loafers, and a white button-up shirt with a navy pin stripe and the sleeves rolled up. As she reached out to meet George’s outstretched hand with her own, Rosalee also noted that he had clearly been taking care of himself as he was as trim and fit as he’d been 50 years ago. Men, Rosalee thought, instinctively sucking in her 62-year-old-post-child-bearing belly. The bastards.
“I can’t believe it’s actually you,” he said, his hand lingering in hers, his whole face lit up with a smile. “I heard your voice and it was like a ghost from the past.”
“Ghost…yes, that sounds about right,” she kept a smile on her own face, but inwardly cringed at her response. Her brain felt like that time she and Betty’d gotten her daddy’s car stuck in the mud down by the creek. They’d spent 20 minutes spinning those tires.
“So, how long have you lived here in Mapleview?” George was asking.
“Over 30 years now,” she replied. “How long have you been here?”
The question sounded wrong, and slightly accusatory to her ears, but if George thought so he didn’t let on. He just kept on smiling.
“Three days. My daughter moved here a few years ago. I’ve been coming out to visit now and then, but a few months ago I took early retirement so I decided to move closer to her and the grandkids.”
“Early retirement. Wow, that sounds nice.” Brilliant Rosalee, she thought to herself. He’s going to think you’re getting dementia.
“Well, I’m still doing contract work for the same company,” he said with shrug, “but being an independent contractor is a lot more flexible.”
“Mmm…,” she said, nodding. Rosalee’s sluggish brain was suddenly aware that she was standing in a crowded restaurant, having an unsettling and highly personal experience. People were weaving around them, and although she could hear that the ladies behind her had continued their conversation, it seemed muted. Like they were talking to give her privacy, but kind of wished they were listening in. She didn’t blame them…she’d be curious too.
“I was going to call you next week,” George said.
Rosalee raised an eyebrow, “Really,” she said.
Finally, George looked less than one hundred percent at ease.
“No really,” he said. “I called my cousin before I left Chicago. He still lives in Carrolton, so he was able to get your number for me from Betty.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “See,” he held it out.
Written in slanting print was her name and number.
“Well,” she said, “isn’t it a small world.”
“So…can I call you?” he asked. “I’d love to catch up and it looks like neither of us are free at the moment.” He nodded at the table behind her.
Rosalee hesitated. Why shouldn’t he call her? Her too-slow brain fired off a million reasons starting with “he’s a lying liar.” But somehow, with the words “I don’t think so” poised on her tongue, another part of her realized that particular wound wasn’t…so much of a wound anymore. It didn’t hurt, it wasn’t tender. It was more of a scar really. So the question really was…why not? It’d been a long time since she’d thought about George Bowen, and she found that her overwhelming thought was simply curiosity.
Okay, and maybe, perhaps a slight flush of warmth because good grief, that man was still too good looking for his own good.
“Sure,” she replied with a hesitant smile. “Anytime.”
He started to reach out as thought to touch her hand or shoulder, but she took a very tiny step back. She may not have been hurt anymore, but she hadn’t seen George in decades. She wasn’t ready for that easy familiarity. He must of read her signals because he quickly dropped his hand and settled for another heart-stopping smile.
“Great,” he said. “I’m glad. I’ll call you sometime next week.”
He seemed sincere, Rosalee thought as she watched him walk toward his table, but then again, he always had. She turned away from the crowded restaurant and back to her table, where the ladies were doing their best not to act like anything interesting had just happened. Rosalee sat down, placed her napkin in her lap, and took a bite of her pizza. She chewed, swallowed, and took pity on her friends.
“Go ahead,” she said with a smile. “Ask away.”