Authors: L.B. Dunbar
“Well, I know just the thing for our little circle. What do you think about a book discussion, Nana?”
“Wonderful idea, Emily, dear.”
I knew right where to find the perfect books and I raced back up the stairs two at a time, and returned out of breath to sit on the faded outdoor loveseat. Nana sat prim and proper in her own chair. Upright and legs crossed at the ankles with her hands in her lap, she was the image of a Victorian educated woman. I, on the other hand, sat cross-legged on the seat and patted the cushion next to me while I looked encouragingly at Katie. Despite her hesitation, I wanted her to sit next to me and I waited patiently before I spoke.
“You can’t see the pictures as well from over there.”
Katie glanced toward the kitchen before looking back at me.
“Would you like to ask permission first?” I asked, uncertain if Katie would feel more comfortable asking her dad for permission to sit next to me. I wondered how Katie did communicate with her father, as I knew she didn’t use her voice.
But Katie surprised me by choosing to sit near me in the opposite corner of the loveseat. I simply showed her several book covers.
“Which fairy tale is your favorite? Do you have a favorite?”
Katie looked at each of the titles and pointed to
. I asked if it would be all right with Katie if I read the story aloud, so Nana could hear as well. As I read the story, I held the book between Katie and me. I noticed Katie leaning over a little, stretching a little closer to get a better look at the pictures as I continued to read. By the time I finished the first book, Katie was sitting right next to me, touching my leg with her own petite elbow.
“You know what’s great about this story? In the end she gets the prince and a great pair of shoes. Girls love shoes.”
Katie looked at her own shoes. They were pink flip-flops with a giant daisy on the top of each one.
“Yes, you have beautiful shoes, too. Did a prince give them to you?” I winked at Katie who didn’t respond other than to shake her head no.
“You know what I always wonder though is why does the girl always have to be saved by the boy? Can’t the woman save the man instead?”
“Oh Emily, dear, now don’t start that again. The prince saves the girl, period. Rags to riches.” Nana waved a hand in the air, pretending to fan her face as she dismissed my modern rant on fairy tales.
“Well, I like Cinderella. But I think she is extra lucky to have a fairy godmother and I think she helps that old prince so he doesn’t have to marry someone he doesn’t choose.”
Katie continued to look at me with big blue eyes.
“Um, okay. Never mind.” I realized I might have gone too far, glossing over the simple joy of the fairy tale.
Beauty and the Beast
? Do you know this one?”
Katie shook her head no.
“Oh my,” I exaggerated, “it’s my favorite.”
I tried to add extra emphasis to the story of a beautiful girl who cares for her father so much she trades places with him as a prisoner of the evil Beast. The Beast is under a magic spell and he is tempted by his servants to treat this girl as a guest instead of a prisoner. When the girl must return to her father who is ill, the Beast becomes so sad without his new friend that he grows weak. When the beautiful girl realizes she must return to the Beast to save him from his sadness, her love turns him back into the handsome prince he once was.
I sighed when I finished the story and hugged the book dramatically to my chest.
“I just love the Beast. He’s all rough on the outside, but soft on the inside once Belle gets past all those layers.”
“But I also love Belle, because she is smart and pretty, and she is tough with the Beast. She doesn’t take his…Well, his abuse toward her.” I almost forgot I was speaking to a child again. Katie had the presence of an old soul.
“Okay, how about a snack? And a check on the Beast?” I wiggled my finger towards the kitchen entrance from the porch. Katie smiled a little.
I uncrossed my legs to stand and noticed Nana was dozing. Turning back to Katie, I made a “sh” sign with my finger extended across my lips. Unfortunately, I knocked into the low glass wrought iron table as I stood because of the shaking in my achy legs. I started to giggle and had to cover my mouth. When I looked at Katie, her little tan hands had covered her mouth in imitation. She looked like she was trying to hold in a smile, or possibly laughter.
I crossed the porch to enter the main house through the doorway into the dining room and almost jumped out of my skin to see Jess leaning against the wall just inside the room. It was obvious he had been listening, but for how long I didn’t know. His head rested back against the plaster with his eyes closed and his arms crossed over his chest. His lean forearms were bare and muscles strained under his tan skin. I stopped to stand directly in front of him. He opened his eyes slowly and stared back at me. There was not the usual hardness I had come to expect in his eyes and for a moment I thought I saw them sparkle as he looked at me, but then I noticed the clenched jaw and I braced myself for an insult. Defensively, I crossed my own arms, but he didn’t say a word.
My patience was a short fuse today in regards to him and I had brushed quickly past him in the direction of the kitchen when his hand gently caught my arm above the elbow. I stopped, glancing down at the hand circling my upper arm, and looked at him over my shoulder.
, he mouthed without a sound. In that moment, my heart could have melted to the floor. My skin burned from this physical contact and I momentarily imagined what it would feel like to have his hands on me in other places.
, I scolded myself, as I nodded my head to acknowledge his gratitude.
When I returned through the dining room with a tray of lemonade and cookies, Nana had awaken and asked Jess to join us. At first he refused her with a shake of his head, but I sensed he felt the pressure not to deny an older woman her request and he consented. I resumed my seat next to Katie, which forced Jess to sit opposite me in another chair near Nana.
“Well, look at this spread. At my age, I love to have cookies before lunchtime,” Nana said with a wink to Katie.
“And who do we have here? You must introduce me to your friend, Emily.”
At the implication of introducing Jess, I felt my face grow warm with a blush.
“Nana, you know Jess Carter. He’s the handyman you had me call.”
I tensed for a moment, worried that Nana’s occasional confusion would cause her to forget, but Nana pulled through.
“Oh yes, how is the sink? Enough repairs needed around here without the children breaking more things.”
“Nana?” My voice was a hushed whisper as I sipped my lemonade, but my tone squeaked with my potential concern.
“Dear, you mustn’t be upset. I know it was an accident, right Emily dear?”
My eyes followed Nana’s gaze and I realized she was not addressing me directly, but Katie.
“Emily, who did your mother say was her friend?” Nana continued to address Katie, despite her questions being directed at me. Of course, Katie did not respond and I could sense the confusion vibrating off the little girl next to me. Jess leaned forward in his seat as I turned to my grandmother.
“Nana, Jess Carter. He came to repair the sink for me, Emily.” My voice had grown strained as I raised it unintentionally while Nana stared at Jess.
“Well, I know women are wearing pants nowadays, but the pony tail with the headband thing does not work for a young lady.” If the tension hadn’t grown so thick, and my concern hadn’t reached a level of pure fright, Nana’s comment would have put me into a state of total hysterical laughter.
Instead, I immediately stood and begged Jess with my troubled eyes to take Katie and leave the room.
“Nana, I think I’ll walk our guests out now. Thank you both for coming to our book discussion,” I addressed Jess and Katie as if they were both there for a social call.
In turn, Nana replied, “Yes, thank you for coming. It was a pleasure to see you again, Jess, and your lovely daughter, Katie.”
The moment had passed for Nana, but I still beckoned Jess to leave with a wave of my hand toward the front rooms. As I followed Jess to the door with Katie leading the way, I noticed again the strength in his arms. When they reached the front porch, Jess turned toward me, and I quickly handed him the check for his work. He looked up at me again with those deep blue eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I hope she’s okay.” I added, motioning with my head toward Katie who was skipping across the lawn to Jess’ truck.
“I’m leaving tomorrow for Chicago. Thanks for fixing the sink. Again, I’m so sorry about Nana.” I was rambling to fill the awkward silence.
Jess took two steps down the porch stairs before he turned around to face me again. I continued to wait for him to say something, but he didn’t. He raised his hand with the check and shook it, saying “Thank you” as he walked away.
I WAS VERY nervous the next day to leave Nana overnight. I had decided I had to return home, grab a month’s worth of clothing, call my editor, and get my laptop. Leaving early in the morning, I would arrive to Chicago with enough time to make the necessary calls within business hours, spend the night in my place, pay bills, pack clothes, and return the following morning. I only hoped the magazine editor would be empathetic enough to let me work from this remote location for a few weeks.
Sue Carpenter had agreed to come spend the night with Nana. She joked that she would enjoy the girls’ night in because she could put the television channel to what she wanted to watch. I’d ordered dinner to be delivered at 6:00 pm and Sue said not to worry about breakfast the next day.
As I packed my small travel bag in the back of my Jetta, Jess’ truck pulled into the Carpenter’s driveway. I casually gazed in his direction, but I knew he would not look back at me. However, Katie was also in his truck, and she was staring in my direction, so I waved before I closed the trunk to my car. I headed back to the porch to say goodbye to Nana, and Sue Carpenter waved to me from her own porch before turning to talk to Jess. Suddenly, Katie bolted across the two yards, running up to me, and stopping directly in front of me. I glanced over her head into the next yard where Jess stood still, staring back at his daughter with quizzical concern on his face.
“Katie, honey, did you come to say good-bye?” I bent down to be on Katie’s level. “I have to go home for a day or two. I have to go back to Chicago.”
“I need more underwear.” I tried to joke, glanced nervously over Katie’s shoulders in the direction of Jess.
“I hope I can see you when I come back,” I addressed Katie again before I searched out Sue Carpenter, who’d crossed into Nana’s yard. I was willing her to help me in what I found to be an awkward situation, but she only shrugged her shoulders in wonderment. I wanted to hug Katie desperately, but I didn’t want to frighten her by grabbing her, so I opted instead for a playful poke to her stomach.
“When I come back, we can read more stories, okay?”
I stood up and locked eyes with Jess. He hadn’t moved. He was still balancing his tool belt over his shoulder with one hand while the other hand remained frozen in his front jeans pocket. My eyes shifted downward at Katie. I smiled, and then turned my body toward my car. Time seemed to move in slow motion as soft words of fear filled the silence in the air.
“Take me. Take me with you to Chicago.”
Flowers should still be presented as a gift to a hostess, as a polite gesture before a date, or as an apology.
“Matters of Manners,” 1978
MY DRIVE TO Chicago became a blur as the clouds in the sky looked ready to release heavy raindrop tears, like I felt. I could still feel the pressure of Katie’s little arms wrapped around the back of my legs in a vice-grip-hold on my knees. When I lifted up the child, she was sobbing and clinging to me so hard I could almost feel each bone of her little body imprint on my own.