I've been working on a novel off and on for the past several years, so the highlight of my 2017 definitely came in December when I FINALLY FINISHED IT (Can you tell I'm excited). Of course, it needs some major editing, and this year I'm planning to dive head first into that exercise in humility known as: trying to find an agent (or publisher). I've got a new creative project I'm itching to start, but in the meantime, I thought I'd celebrate the finish by putting a chapter here. Hope you enjoy it! Happy New Year!
The phone was ringing when I walked in the door. Mama was in the garden, Dad wasn’t home from work yet, and I figured the boys were out in the woods so I threw my keys on the hall table and hurried to the kitchen, hoping it hadn’t been ringing long. And hoping that a certain blue-eyed someone was on the other end.
“Hello,” I said, breathless.
My skin tingled. “Hey,” I said, still breathless, but not from the sprint, “what’s up?”
“I’m taking smoke break. What are you up to?”
I set my purse on the kitchen table and leaned one hip against it.
“Just got home from the Wallace’s.”
“The who?” I heard him take a deep breath, and could picture him sitting on Jim and Ruth’s back porch with his cigarette in his mouth and the phone cord stretched as far as it would reach.
I laughed. “The Wallaces. My standard summer gig. Mr. Wallace manages the gas station and Mrs. Wallace works part time doing filing at the doctor’s office so they need someone to watch their kids in the mornings during the summer.”
I couldn’t quite tell if he was mocking me, but I chose to believe he was making genuine conversation.
“It is. They’re good kids, so it feels like easy money.” I wound the long phone cord around my finger.
“Saving up for your around-the-world ticket.”
I laughed, “You know it.”
We chatted for another minute, then George said he had to get back to work. He asked if I was busy after supper.
“Nope,” I said. “Want to do something?” My hands felt shaky as I said this, completely shocking myself with the bold words coming out of my mouth. Betty would be proud – my mother would be horrified.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Want to just head to the diner for some coffee.”
“Goes without saying.”
I laughed again. George asked if I had a curfew in the summer, and I said 11 p.m., so he said he’d pick me up at 8 p.m. I think I managed to keep my cool long enough for us both to hang up the phone. But then I proceeded to dance and leap around the kitchen, pumping my arms in the air. I called Betty. She squealed, excited as only a best friend can be, and we discussed what I should wear and all the reasons George was so hot. She told me about the latest sweet thing Phillip said to her, and I took my turn listening. We’d been talking for a while when my mom came in, her face shaded with her big straw hat. She’d left her gardening gloves in the mud room, but she still had a few smears of dirt on her face and arms.
“Hi, sweetheart,” she said, smiling. She pulled a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water. “How was your morning?”
“Great,” I said. “We went to the library and the pool for a bit.” I leaned against the counter and pulled an apple from the fruit bowl. “I’m going to go get coffee with George tonight,” I said.
She raised one eyebrow at me and just stared. I caved.
“If that’s all right with you,” I said. Mom was old fashioned, and I found it was better to just roll with it. Fighting Mom just made her dig in.
“Of course,” she said, proving my point. “You’ll be home for supper then?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s coming by at 8 p.m. I told him I needed to be home by 11 pm.”
I went upstairs to tear apart my closet before it was time to help mom fix supper. I was pretty distracted all evening, and I know mom picked up on it. Daddy may have noticed, but he tended to ignore my “moods”, even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t have all that many. I tried to eat, but only managed a few bite of potatoes and half a glass of milk before I was nervously tapping my finger on the table and trying to join in on the dinner conversation. Even with the talking – the boys were full of stories today – I could hear the kitchen clock ticking, like a countdown in my head. Once everyone else was done eating, Mom was quick to remind the boys that it was their turn to wash dishes. They were still groaning and making a racket when I gave mom a quick kiss on the cheek of thanks and tore off up the stairs to get ready.
This time, I was trying to go for a casual “I didn’t really try” cool-girl look. I settled on my favorite jeans, a Willie Nelson tee-shirt, and my red espadrilles. I freshened up my hair and makeup with a quick go at the curling iron and a little more mascara and lip gloss. Mom would probably shake her head at my date attire, but she still thought it was a shame people didn’t still leave the house wearing gloves and a hat. I’d just grabbed my purse when the doorbell rang. I took a deep breath and grinned. There was a crazy good-looking guy downstairs. A college guy. A smart guy. And he was waiting for me.
When I got downstairs, George was sitting and talking with my dad and brothers about the St. Louis Cardinals. My mom wasn’t around, but I could hear her knocking around in the kitchen. I walked into the living room and stood by the door, waiting for Dad to finish his comments on the Cardinals pitching staff.
“Ready?” I asked, as soon as there was a pause in the conversation.
“If you are,” he said with a smile, standing up off the plaid couch.
“You guys have fun,” Dad said, standing up to shake George’s hand. “See you at 11.”
“Sure thing, Dad,” I said, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Bye, Mom!” I hollered toward the back of the house.
It was a perfect hazy and purple late June evening, the air cooling as the sun set. Fireflies were winking under the oak trees and over the vegetable garden, and I could hear frogs singing in our neighbor’s pond. I took a deep breath as I walked to George’s car, smelling the heavy scents of the lilac bushes by the front porch and the honeysuckle that ran along the back fence. We drove the short distance to the diner with the windows down, talking idly about music and our favorite radio stations. There wasn’t much to choose from in Carlton. We only picked up a few Springfield stations and one AM Christian station run out of the basement of the Baptist church. I confessed that I liked the country station best.
“Ah,” George said, grinning and flashing his dimple at me. “So you’re a country girl. Boots and broken hearts and all that.”
I shrugged. “Might as well stay true to my roots, right?” I said.
“Never pegged you for a rhinestone girl,” he said.
“Well, I prefer the more folksy stuff – banjos and mandolins and haunting harmonies.”
“Oh, you mean hippie music.”
I smacked his arm, but laughed at the same time. “Come on, it’s good stuff! And you have to admit, folk and country music have some of the best songwriters around. I mean…some of those songs really tell a story, you know?”
George shrugged. “I’ll have to take your word for it. I’m more of a rock-and-roll guy.”
“Well,” I said. “Challenge accepted.”
George raised his eyebrows. “I’m ready,” he said.
He pulled into the parking lot at the diner, and I thought about how much FUN it was to talk with George. I’d mentioned that to Betty when I’d called her earlier today, and she laughed over the phone.
“It’s called flirting, you goose.”
I thought about that as we slid into the same red vinyl booth we’d sat in last weekend and wondered if Betty was right. I guess I’d never really flirted before. I’d known most of the boys in Carlton since we were in grade school. When I talked to my friends and acquaintances who were boys it was just relaxed and easy conversation – but nothing to write home about. Not memorable. But with George…I felt fully engaged in the converstion. He made me feel funny and interesting and witty. Was that flirting? From the outside, when I’d watched other girls flirt, it had seemed either fake or forced or like at least someone involved was nervous. I didn’t feel at all nervous with George. Well, maybe a little.
“Coffee?” the waitress walked up with her glass pot and winked at me.
“Yes please,” we turned our mugs over on their saucers.
“Anything to eat?” she asked as she poured the steamy, fragrant drink into our cups.
“I’d like a slice of lemon merrangue pie,” George said. He looked at me and smiled. “Rosalee?”
“Umm… any strawberry pie today?”
“Sure thing, honey.” She walked off to get our pies and we looked at each other. We picked up our conversation about music. I told him about some of my favorite musicians, and he told me about concerts he’d been to. I asked him if he worked on Saturdays, and when he said no I invited him to come over Saturday afternoon to let me expand his musical education. Our conversation moved on to more stories of his year at college. He told me about some of his classes, and how everyone wanted to philosophize during class discussions.
“So far,” he said, swallowing a bite of his lemon merrangue pie. “I’ve managed to avoid it in my Algebra class. But one of my buddies says stay out of any of the advanced math classes, because a lot of them get into theory too…which of course leads to some joker wanting to talk about the meaning of life or something. Or you know…Vietnam. It always ends up there.”
We were both quiet. Talk of Vietnam had a tendency to halt any conversation because everyone either had an opinion or a story or both – it was part of everyone’s life. And I read the newspaper pretty regularly, so I could only imagine it’s presence on a college campus. I thought about what to say to fill this particular silence. I didn’t want to blow off the serious topic if it was something he wanted to talk about, but didn’t want to push it either.
“I think people in general just like to hear themselves talk,” George said eventually. “Especially in college. Everyone thinks their ideas are the most important.”
I tilted my head. “And do you enjoy big deep college discussions?”
He shrugged. “Not really. I’m there to learn and get a degree that will help me get a good job.”
He grinned and leaned across the table, lowering his voice. “Well…I’m also there to…socialize.”
I mirrored his movement and lowered my own voice. “You mean…party?” I asked with my own grin.
He laughed this time. “You know Rosalee, I can’t quite figure you out, but I like it. We should definitely keep hanging out.”
Would he still say that if he knew that half of it was pure bravado, that I was forcing myself to act relaxed and nonchalant and…well, cool?
“You know, it’s all an act.” Did I just say that!?
He raised an eyebrow and stretched his arms across the back of the booth.
“What do you mean?” he replied, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“This…casualness.” I waved my hand in the air as though I were trying to illustrate the word. “I’m not experienced with guys.” Again, why was I playing true confession again? Did I WANT him to stop hanging out with me? I picked up my coffee spoon and put it back down again, my eyes focused on a crumb from my pie.
“Rosalee,” George said, reaching out and touching my hand briefly, causing me look up. He was smiling, but in a friendly way. Not mocking like I was afraid it might be.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re not interviewing for a job here. No experience necessary.”
“You’re pretty, and funny, and I was intrigued by the wholesome small-town girl vibe you’ve got going on”
Was that a compliment?
He put his hand on mine again, lightly, “I’m still intrigued because like I said, I can’t fit you in a neat little box. I like talking to you. You have real conversations and actually share your real opinions. You’re not fake, and that’s pretty awesome. I’m sorry if I made you nervous.”
I blushed. “Well…thanks.”
He leaned back again, leaving my hand bereft and cold. “Now,” he said, shifting the conversation. “We have 45 minutes and unlimited coffee. I need some background before you start subjecting me to his hippie music of yours. Tell me about your top three favorite singers.”