Authors: L.B. Dunbar
“I’m Emily Post. This is my grandmother’s home. Your lovely daughter has agreed to help me water Nana’s flowers if that is okay with you. You can see her from there and her slave labor will pay her way to play in the playhouse.” My voice sounded too loud in the sudden silence from the lack of hammering, and despite trying to sound cheerfully light, my voice was shaky as I spoke to him. Shielding my eyes from the bright sunlight to look up at him, he continued to stare at me for a moment longer, then looked at his daughter, and bent down to continue hammering the roof.
Well, that was interesting…and rude
Turning back to my own yard, I found the little girl had already pulled the hose from around the front of the garage and was waiting for me to turn on the water. The knob was stuck and I struggled to turn it. I wasn’t sure I could loosen it, but then a hand covered mine and twisted the knob easily, using my own hand as leverage. White-hot electricity pulsed through me and I jumped backward with the pleasurable sting of it, bumping into the warm bare chest of a man with my own sweaty back. I ungracefully yelped. Turning around, I faced eye to shoulder with bandana man who wore a scowl as his expression. Having trouble controlling my breathing, which was now coming raggedly shallow, I couldn’t find words to speak.
“My daughter’s name is Katie. Katie Carter. She’s six and she doesn’t talk, but she can hear you. I’m almost done fixing the Mueller’s roof, but if you have a problem just yell.”
Frozen despite the heat, I felt like a child as his hard eyes looked me square in the face. I couldn’t find words myself and simply nodded with my lips slightly separated.
Where had he come from so fast?
“You be a good girl and stay out of Mrs. Post’s way. Mind your manners.”
“It’s Emily. Just Emily. No Mrs.,” I blurted out. I had no idea why I said that.
The man walked away through the bushes that brushed his lean, hard abs and my eyes followed the line of green foliage that looked like it was licking his middle. Swallowing hard, I was momentarily jealous of those stupid old bushes. His back was suddenly to me, muscular as I noticed before, and I looked away quickly to face the little girl. Katie.
“Thank you for coming over. You’ll be a big help to me today,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.
“Do you like my music?” I asked and Katie nodded her head with a single yes.
As I bent down to continue weeding, I saw Katie bend her knees rhythmically out of the corner of my eye. I wiggled my behind in the air, following her lead. A spark in her eyes formed as she watched my silly motions and she bounced more enthusiastically, moving the hose back and forth in beat with the music over the flowers. I started to sing again, this time louder despite being off-key. I was basically having a conversation with myself, laughing whenever I messed up the words and commenting on the song lyrics. I felt silly at first, but was assured the girl was listening even though she wasn’t responding to any of my nonsense. Finally, I stood up, motioning for Katie to move towards the garage with the hose. Katie continued swaying while she moved, so I continued to dance a little myself.
At one point, Katie twirled so much she turned the hose onto me and I screeched with shock at the sudden cold spray, regardless of the cool water being refreshing at the same time.
“Did you just spray me?” I asked, trying to keep my tone playful and not angry. Katie stood and stared. It was obvious the girl didn’t know if she was in trouble or not. Rosie’s daughters, my nieces, had the same reaction at times to their own mother’s voice. Smiling broadly, I repeated my question again in a teasing tone.
“Did you just spray me?” I used my best screechy voice as I wiggled my fingers in the direction of the blond beauty before me. I wasn’t certain I could approach the girl in a teasing manner or not, and I didn’t want to frighten her. The rules of touching children were so different now, but the slight smile gave away her pleasure at my taunting. If Katie had been one of my nieces, I would chase her around the yard, pretending to grab for the water instrument. When I finally reached the hose, I would have sprayed them unmercifully to squeals of delight, but knowing Katie couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk, I feared the playfulness would be lost. I decided I needed to switch direction.
“Would you like to see it rain to water the garden?”
Katie nodded her head with approval.
Taking the hose from her, I sprayed the water straight up into the air and droplets rained down on us. The little girl slouched down with her palms upward to protect herself, but she smiled in glee. Eventually, she tried to catch the water in her cupped hands. She didn’t squeal, but she didn’t scream. She smiled, blinking upward, as the water cascaded downward over both of us. Looking at her innocent face, I began to sing another song as my iPod switched playlists. I danced cautiously in a circle and Katie followed my lead, twisting just as slowly under the water. The rays of sunshine reflected through the spray and her little bleach-blond braids glistened in the beams of light.
“Katie?” The deep sound caused me to immediately drop the hose, feeling again like a child caught doing something naughty. I was suddenly conscious of my attire, realizing that Grandpa’s thin t-shirt was now wet and clinging to my body. I was sure the man could see my black bra underneath if he looked, but he wasn’t looking from his side of the bushes. I wasn’t unattractive. I had a slight tan of my own and chestnut colored hair with natural highlights being a signature trademark for me, but knowing that my hair was in a messy bun on the top of my head and was now plastered to my forehead with dirt and water, I became aware of how unattractive I might appear for the second time in front of this man.
“It’s time to go.” His eyes had that hard, cold glare to them again and I noticed his clenched jaw. He ground his teeth in a tense rhythm.
I presented my hand for a good-bye shake to Katie, but she just stared at my protruding hand.
“It was very nice to meet you, Katie. And it was a pleasure to work with you today.”
Knowing Katie did not know how to respond, I withdrew my hand as the girl looked at her father and then looked back at me before walking toward the ragged bushes. When she had finished crawling underneath the brush, the man grabbed her upper arms and swung her upward into a hug. The girl wrapped her arms and legs around her father as I’d seen her do only yesterday. He didn’t even glance back at me, but walked away as I waved to his back and the sparkling eyes that peered over his shoulder.
I returned to the yard work for a few more hours, and the flower beds began to look more like a garden again along the garage and a small section across the back of the yard by the bushes. The weeds were pulled, the dirt turned over to a nice rich brown, and some transplanted flowers filled empty spaces. I had just bent over to finish picking up the final pile of weeds in the yard when Cheryl Mueller leaned over the back bushes and asked Nana and I to dinner.
“You’ve been working so hard out here today. It’s been a shame to see the house fall apart.” Cheryl said with a nod of her head toward Nana’s home.
“I see you made a friend today. She’s a tough one to crack, that little Katie Carter. We’re offering them dinner as well for fixing the roof and decided to have a whole party. You and your grandmother come on over as well.”
It wasn’t a question but a gentle command, and my first thought was to politely decline. I knew there that Carter man felt negatively about me and I did not need to encourage his dislike any further, although his rudeness was getting annoying. On the other hand, exhausted from the day’s work, the idea of taking Nana out for dinner did not sound appetizing. I still had not made it to the grocery store and was afraid to see what her kitchen had to offer.
“We would love to attend. Should we bring anything?” I politely asked.
“Thank you. I’m sure Nana would enjoy the treat and some visiting.”
Cheryl Mueller looked at me with a quizzical expression.
“Alright then. See you at 6:00.”
ENTERING THE HOUSE, I found that Nana had started to make cookies at some point during the day, only to have forgotten them, causing the dough to burn to a black crisp under the too high heat in the oven. While I was at first angry because Nana could have caused a fire, I found Nana sleeping upright on one of the couches in the living room and decided to clean up the whole mess as if Nana had never made one. Unfortunately, she awoke to inquire about the little girl and comment on how she had made cookies, to which I had to admit to Nana that she’d burned them.
A hot shower was a warm welcome to my sore muscles and achy spirit. Letting the water pour over me despite knowing the hot water heater could only keep the water warm for so long, I recognized a strong smell of rotten eggs coming from the steamy liquid, which meant the water softener wasn’t working well. Barely wanting to guess at all the things that weren’t functioning properly in this house compared to all the noticeable things left unattended, I tried to wash my mind free of worry for a few minutes as I prepared for an evening with Jess Carter.
His rude demeanor was bordering on deplorable. He didn’t say hello. He didn’t say thank you. He didn’t introduce himself. Not considering myself a bad person, I couldn’t imagine what I had done to set him off again, but upset him I did. The way he looked at me with those deep blue eyes made me feel like he could freeze my soul in his dislike. He was intense and I couldn’t deal with him and his issues. I had my own.
I wanted to be angry with Rosie for not being present to help make some decisions about Nana. Growing increasing concerned that leaving Nana alone would not be a good idea, I had already thought of a few options that didn’t seem reasonable. A full time nurse would be costly. A removal to Chicago would not be practical. A move to North Carolina with Rosie would be out of the question since Rosie was married with children – three to be exact, and another one on the way. Being four years older than me, Rosie had left Michigan the same year I had started high school, and she’d never looked back. Deciding my next move needed to be a call to Rosie tonight after dinner to discuss some options, I knew deep down inside that I really just needed the friendly voice of reason from my sister after the silent visitor and her angry father from earlier in the day.
I convinced Nana to walk the short distance to the Mueller’s house behind her own, and we slowly strolled outside and around the corner to the opposite corner of the block. It wasn’t a city block by counts of one thousand, but simply one end of a yard to the other end of another yard. If it had been Chicago, an alley would run right through the middle, but there were no alleys here. This was a century worth of independent property and private ownership.
The Mueller’s home had been in their family for three generations. The Carpenter’s next door to Nana had been two generations. Technically, Nana’s had been three generations, although Nana and Grandpa Parrish were the first generation owners. Elk Rapids is a small community that has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but one thing that was consistent was the water that flowed through the edge of town and the harbor inlets that surrounded it. One thing that had drawn Nana and Grandpa to the area was its potential. It was a small town that intended to remain small in appearance and culture. It prided itself on its main street of stores, its close community feel, and its intimate attention. It was not resentful of the visitors and brought comfort to travelers as he or she passed through the area, knowing these qualities would inevitably bring people back. The harbor boasted seasonal fun with plenty of water sports and a beautiful stretch of beach. I hadn’t seen the water in the two days since I’d returned, but I had the feeling of its presence calling me as we walked to the Mueller’s.
We were the last to arrive to this dinner party, which included Cheryl and Dan Mueller with their teenage sons, Robert and Kevin. Sue and Joe Carpenter, Nana’s next-door neighbors, were also there with their oldest son, George, who was in town for the weekend from Detroit, and finally, there was Katie Carter, and her father. The dinner was not formal, but a barbeque out back and I was sadly overdressed in a navy blue tank dress and strappy sandals. I stood out amongst the host and hostess, but I also knew Nana would never have let me wear shorts when she herself was dressed in a skirt and blouse. When drinks were offered, I made another error by asking for a glass of white wine when beer was all that was available. The dinner was grilled chicken, corn on the cob, home grown zucchini, and cornbread. The portions were something I wasn’t used to, nor did I know how to eat my meal neatly.
One thing I did admire was the ease of the company. These people seemed relaxed with their light banter of conversation in a way my friends and I never were with our always trying-to-outdo-the-other comparisons. The atmosphere in the early evening was breezy like the weather, not stuffy and dark like many of the fashionable cafes and dinner places my friends frequented, and despite the unbelievable portions of food, the meal was delicious in a way I only vaguely remembered. There was no elaborate sauce smothering the taste. There was no secret ingredient that a hostess wouldn’t share with the other guests. There was garnish that was unrecognizable as edible. The food was simple and satisfying.
When the meal was over, relief engulfed me that I didn’t have to help with the dishes as I knew would be the tradition here. My hands ached from pulling weeds and since I hadn’t been able to find any gloves, my bare palms felt rough and cut, not to mention my manicure was ruined with several chips in the polish. The dishwashing soap would only irritate my fingers more, but more importantly I needed a moment to talk to Sue Carpenter about my grandmother.