Disclaimers: This story is a work of fiction. The title, characters, and locations all belong to me. None of the towns used actually exist, although I did “borrow” pieces of real towns to make my own <g>. If the thought of two women loving each other gets your knickers in a twist, go find something else. Bits and pieces of this one have been kicking around on my hard drive for a couple of years – I’m hoping you’ll like it. Let me know, one way or the other at email@example.com . I’m also posting chapters on my chat list. Check out my website at www.CarrieLCarr.com for details. I’d like to dedicate this story to the one person who completes me – Jan, you are my heart and soul. Forever and always, my love.
Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Royal Academy of Bards, for hosting my stories, and for giving us all a great place to sit back and relax. You ladies are the best!
The hot August sun beat down on the old car as it cruised along the two-lane blacktop. There was almost as much rust as turquoise paint on the 1956 two-door Chevy. Samantha Hendrickson yawned widely. Miles upon miles of fields, bursting with cotton, lulled her into a daze. She hadn’t seen another car for hours, and was beginning to think the flat plains of West Texas had become deserted. Sam twisted the knob on the old AM radio until the static cleared and she could make out the words of Tom T. Hall singing of watermelon wine. She hummed along, remembering the song from her childhood. The vague reference to food caused her stomach to growl, which made her realize she hadn’t eaten for several hours.
Sam had been on the road, one way or another, for most of her adult life. She’d left home when she was nineteen, and hadn’t looked back for ten years. Her grandmother raised her, and after she passed away, Sam saw no need to stay in the small Oklahoma town where she was born. She traveled around the southwest, never staying in one place very long.
Five miles later, the welcome sight of the Kamann city limits sign greeted Sam, and she took the next exit. The first thing she saw was a run down convenience store. A quick glance at her fuel gauge made the decision for her, and she parked beside one of the decades-old pumps. She got out of the Chevy and automatically clipped the keys onto her belt loop, stretching her arms over her head as she walked into the store. Ice cold air hit her in the face, and goose bumps rose on her arms. Her white tank top was a good defense against the summer heat, and the blowing fans helped cool her back, which was damp with perspiration.
The old man working behind the counter barely acknowledged her, intent on the old black and white television that collected dust in the corner. The grainy picture jumped as an eighteen wheeler roared down the highway, and he adjusted the antennae. He coughed several times and spit in the trash can, then blew his nose on a wadded cloth.
Sam shook her head and continued to the back of the store, where glass door refrigerators lined the wall. She picked out a bottled Coke and grabbed a bag of chips on her way to the register. After placing the items on the counter, she took her wallet from her back pocket and took out a twenty. “I need to put whatever’s left in gas, please.”
“All right.” He looked up and noticed her for the first time. The disdain on his face was evident. Not one to pass up a sale, no matter how distasteful he found the customer, he slid the bill off the counter and into the register. “You’ll have to stop it yourself.” With his gray hair sticking up in every direction, he was a comical sight. “Want a bag?”
“No, this is okay.” Sam tried to ignore his stare. She’d encountered his attitude everywhere she’d stopped. With her dark hair cut close to the sides of her head but longer on top, and the old tank top and jeans, most people identified her easily as a lesbian. The wallet on a chain didn’t dispel the stereotype, nor did the heavy black work boots she wore. “How much gas?”
“Sixteen-o-nine.” He hacked again and spit, dismissing her.
Sam took her purchases and left. “Have a nice day,” she grumbled as she went through the door.
After filling her car, Sam realized she’d need more cash before she went much further. At the red flashing stop light, she looked around to weigh her options. To the left was what appeared to be the main street where half a dozen faded buildings lined the road. On her right were more cotton fields, so she turned left.
The lone place that appeared to have life had a painted glass window proclaiming “Maude’s – Fine Home Cookin”. The last letter had worn away, and the glass was so dirty it couldn’t be seen through. Two old cars and an even older truck were parked nearby. Sam took it as a good sign. She parked next to the truck and got out, automatically hooking her keys on her belt again. The heavy door squeaked when she pushed it, and she found herself the center of attention.
Two old men sat at a table near the back of the room with a faded checkerboard between them. They gave her a cursory glance before returning to their game. Another man, middle-aged, sat on a stool at the counter. His nicotine stained fingers wielded a stubby cigar. The cap on his head bore an advertisement of a feed store, and he looked comfortable in the well-worn overalls that seemed to be the universal uniform of the area.
An older woman, her graying hair coming out of the bun, approached Sam. “Are you lost, honey?” She adjusted the dirty apron which protected her blue skirt and white short-sleeved shirt.
“Uh, no.” Sam followed her to the end of the counter and allowed herself to be gently pushed onto a stool. She glanced down at the coffee mug that was placed in front of her. “I didn’t—”
“Don’t argue with old Maude.” The woman poured the coffee and left the pot on the counter. “You look like you could use a meal.”
Sam graced her with a shy smile. “Yes, ma’am. That would be great. I was also wondering if you knew of anyone who needed any temporary help. I’m working my way cross-country to visit my aunt.” It wasn’t the truth, but Sam had found it was easier to get a job if someone thought they were doing a good deed.
“What exactly can you do?” Maude tore a sheet off her notepad and shoved it across the steel shelf behind her. “Give me a number one, Ed.”
Sam hoped she’d like a number one, whatever it was. “You name it, I’ve done it: Sweep, wash dishes, yard work, and even some carpentry. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
Maude studied her for a moment. “How strong are you?” She didn’t bother to wait for an answer, instead nodding to the man on the other end. “Shorty, you still looking for someone to load feed?”
“Maybe.” Shorty set his cigar on the ashtray in front of him and took a noisy sip of coffee. He eyed Sam over the mug. “You ever lifted fifty pound bags of grain? I’m going to need help for the next week or so until my regular guy gets back.”
Fifty pounds didn’t sound too heavy to Sam. “Can’t say that I have, but I’d like to try.”
“Alright.” He stood and held out his hand to her. “Name’s Shorty, and the feed store’s down the street. Fifty dollars a day, for ten hours work. Cash. Come in after you’re done eatin’, and I’ll show you what to do.”
Sam shook his hand. “Sam Hendrickson. I appreciate it.” She turned to Maude. “Is there a motel nearby? Or a truck stop? I’d like to find some place to clean up.”
Shorty grunted. “Ain’t got no motel, but there’s a cot down at the store. Got a shower out back, too. I’ll be waiting for you.” He tossed a few bills on the counter, tipped his hat to Maude and left.
Maude placed a plate in front of Sam. “Don’t mind him none. Shorty’s a good man.”
“He seemed like it.” Sam looked at the plate, which held a greasy hamburger and fries. “Thanks, Maude.”
“Don’t mention it.” Maude went back to cleaning the counter wearing a proud smile on her face.
Sam dropped another bag of feed onto the flatbed trailer and straightened. It was near sundown and her back was killing her. She wiped the sweat from her eyes. Never in her life had she seen so many old men with trucks, all clamoring for a parking space by the store dock.
One of the men flicked a cigarette butt on the ground and crushed it with his boot. He hitched up his dirty jeans causing the western shirt he wore to come untucked. “Hey, girl! You done with my load?”
She bit off a sarcastic reply and tugged off a leather glove with her teeth. “Yeah.” She removed a pen from her back pocket and double-checked the order. “All set.”
“Bout time.” He scratched his belly before lighting another cigarette. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope.” She jumped from the bed of the truck onto the dock. The sudden movement reminded her of muscles she wasn’t accustomed to using. Her thighs and calves ached and she hated to think how she’d feel in the morning. “Can I get you anything else?”
He spit toward the dock and walked away. The truck creaked when he climbed into the cab and slammed the door.
Sam grimaced as she was sprayed by the gravel that flew from under the tires. She was beginning to get used to the small-minded attitudes of the locals, who had shown her nothing but contempt the entire afternoon. She didn’t know if it was because she was a stranger, or if they were uncomfortable with her appearance. A rough hand on her shoulder startled Sam.
“It’s getting late. Take care of Jack Riley’s order, and call it a day.” Shorty handed her two twenty-dollar bills. “After you get cleaned up, go on over to Maude’s. It’s meatloaf night.” He left as quickly as he came.
“Thanks, Shorty.” If Sam wasn’t holding cash in her hand, she’d have thought she imagined him even being there. For some reason, the gruff businessman treated her well, and she wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She tucked the bills into her front pocket and went back to work. Meatloaf sounded good to her.
Two weeks and close to six hundred dollars later, Sam bid a fond farewell to Shorty and Maude and continued on her way. Every muscle in her body was sore. She decided she’d had enough of small towns and headed toward Dallas. It seemed as good a place as any, and with fall coming on, she wanted to find somewhere to settle for the winter.
Her second day on the road was going well. The two line highway led her into the small town of Piperton, whose sign boasted a population of thirty-eight thousand. It didn’t matter to Sam, who was only interested in getting a hot meal. She was admiring the town square when she heard a loud grinding come from under the hood of her car. Unable to find an empty parking space, she drove into the nearest alley and stopped her car close to a rusted dumpster. Smoke billowed from the front of the Chevy, and she had a sick feeling her car was doomed.
Sam fought the urge to check under the hood. There wasn’t much she could do about it anyway, so instead she walked through the alley to the sidewalk.
She started down the street, stopping under an awning, which bore the name, “Danny’s”. She could hear music coming from behind the faded oak door and cautiously went inside.
Tinny music from a corner jukebox mingled with the quiet murmurings of a handful of customers who were scattered around the dark room. A heavy wooden bar stretched across the left side of the room, and a lone bartender stood behind it. Tall and gangly, the man’s dark blue tee shirt hung loosely on his frame. He was cutting up slices of lime and raised his head as Sam approached. “What can I get you?”
“Whatever you have on draft, is fine.” Sam sat on a stool and placed a five-dollar bill in front of her. “Is there a garage close by? I need to get my car checked out.”
He poured her a mug and took the cash, leaving three-fifty in change. “Dell’s is a block west. They do just about anything.”
“Thanks.” Sam took a sip and looked around. There were close to a dozen tables scattered about, and she spied an old baby grand piano in the far corner nearest the bathrooms. She knew it would probably take most of her money to get the car fixed, and was already coming up with a solution to her lack of funds. “You do much business?”
“Enough to get by.” He wiped the counter with a towel, although it already appeared clean. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Sam shook her head. “Nope. I was on my way to Dallas when my car died.” She tipped her head toward the back of the room. “Do you have live entertainment come in?”
“Not for a while. Can’t afford it.”
“Are you the owner?”
“Nope. Just the manager.” He stopped what he was doing and stared at her. “Why?”
“I’m trying to get a little extra cash together for car repairs. Do you mind if I use the piano? I’ll split any tips I get with you.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Doesn’t matter to me. You can keep the tips, especially if it brings in any new business.” He offered his hand. “I’m Ray.”
Sam shook his hand firmly. “Sam.” She finished her beer. “I’ll be back around six, if that’s all right with you.”
“Sure.” Ray didn’t care one way or the other, but he’d do anything to make more money. He went back to slicing limes after she left.
The glass door slammed so hard behind her that Sam thought it might break. Not like she cared. The mechanic had told her it would be at least two weeks before he had the time to even look at her car. “Goddamn jackass!” Sam rested her hands on her hips and fought the tears that threatened to fall. The clearing of a throat caused her to turn around.
The mechanic she’d previously spoken to stood behind her. He brought out a pocket knife and began to clean his nails with it, then folded the knife and dropped it into the front pocket of his greasy overalls. “You got a number I can reach you when I got time to check your car out?”
Sam closed her eyes and counted to ten. It didn’t help. She still wanted to knock the smirk off his ugly face. “No. Can’t I check back with you every now and then?”
“I guess. But it’d be easier if I called you.”
“I’m going to be playing the piano at Danny’s. You can probably catch me there.” She counted silently to ten to get her anger under control. “Is there a motel or something close by? I need a place to stay.”
He sucked at his front teeth and picked at them with his thumbnail. “Nope. The Ramada closed down couple years back. You can probably get a cot down at the Y, though.” He gestured with his thumb over his left shoulder. “It’s back that away on Birch. Right past the library.”
“Thanks.” Sam turned and headed back the way she came. She didn’t feel like expending any more energy on the man.
A hot breeze ruffled the top of Sam’s hair. She seriously considered looking for the nearest bus stop and getting out of the aggravating town. So far, every person she’d met had a rotten disposition. She turned into the alley and stared at the old heap she’d been driving. It seemed safe enough where it was parked. Since it was a small town, and the weather was halfway decent, she decided to forego the Y and sleep in her car. Her distrust of the world around her made Sam roll up the windows and lock the doors. She’d air it out before bedding down for the night.
Once inside the bar, she noticed more people had arrived. Sam stepped up to the counter and tapped the scarred wood.
The bartender turned around. It wasn’t Ray, but a younger man. “What do you want?”
“Mine name’s Sam. I was in here earlier, and Ray said I could sing in the evenings for tips. Is it okay if I park my car in the back?”
He shrugged his shoulders. So this was the woman Ray told him about. “Don’t bother me none. You going to start singing now?”
“I guess. She took the wallet out of her back pocket. “How much for a water?”
He waved her off before sliding a full glass in front of her. “Don’t worry about it. Ray said he’d furnish your drinks as long as you bring the people in.” He frowned when he noticed her slipping the wallet back in her pocket. She was unlike any woman he’d ever known. “You one of those queers?”
Sam’s head snapped up. “What?”
“You are, aren’t you?” His lip curled in distaste. “Ray didn’t say nothing about a faggot being here.”
The glass that Sam had started to drink from hit the bar heavily when she slammed it down. “What the hell is your problem, Bubba?”
“Name’s Fred, not Bubba. And I ain’t got no problem.” He turned away, but not before tossing one last quip over his shoulder. “Don’t be getting no ideas. We got nice ladies around here, not for the likes of you.”
Janie Clarke knelt beside the four-drawer file cabinet, her face obscured by her hair that fanned over her shoulder. She flipped through the files until she came upon the one she’d been searching for. She removed the folder and stood, straightening her navy blue pleated skirt with her free hand. At the doorway, she accidentally bumped into a well-developed redhead. “Sorry, Andrea. I didn’t see you.”
“Obviously.” Andrea held out her hand. “Is that Mr. Garrett’s file? Dr. Reynolds has been waiting forever for it.” She tugged it out of Janie’s grasp. “Thanks, June.” Andrea offered Janie an insincere smile before trotting away.
“It’s Janie,” she quietly corrected. Janie had worked as a clerk for the clinic for three years, yet many of her co-workers knew little about her. She could count the amount of friends she had on one hand, but was fiercely loyal to them.
Back at her desk, Janie began to enter information into her computer. A loud buzzing from her desk drawer made her look around anxiously. She made sure no one was watching before removing her cell phone. When Janie noticed the caller ID, she considered not answering. But she knew it would only be a momentary reprieve. “Doug? Why are you calling me while I’m at work?”
“Hey, babe. I’ll be over around seven. What are you fixing for supper?” Doug Howard was Janie’s long-time boyfriend. They’d been introduced four years ago by her father, and she had somehow found herself attached to him. Neither seemed inclined to get married, although Doug had tried several times to let him move in with her. Her apartment was much nicer than his two room studio, and he coveted the open space.
“I’m not going to be home. I told you yesterday I have a dinner date with Sandra tonight.”
“You spend more time with her than you do me. I miss you, Janie.” Doug lowered his voice. “I was hoping we’d have an early dinner, so I could give you dessert.”
She had begun to hate his kind of dessert. The sex had never been spectacular, and she rarely got any pleasure from it. She often wondered why she was still with Doug. It wasn’t as if she loved him. But her father expected it of her. She never went against her father’s wishes, even if they were opposite of her own. “I’ll call you later to set a day, all right? But I’ve got to go. Bye, Doug.” Janie clicked her phone closed and tossed it back in the drawer.
The faint tinkling of a piano drew Janie into the smoky bar. She was on her way to meet her friend Sandra for dinner, but the melancholy sound lured her in. Janie passed this same bar every day on her way to work but had never gone inside. She stood inside the entrance for several moments, waiting until her eyes adjusted to the cramped, dingy room.
A woman was bent over the piano keys, her eyes obscured by the lock of dark hair that fell into her face. The sides and back of her hair were cut close to her head. Her low voice drifted across the room, as she sang of lost love.
Janie stepped slowly toward the bar, and slid onto the stool nearest the piano. She ordered a light beer from the bartender and placed at five dollar bill in front of her. He brought back a sweating bottle and handed it to her. “Thanks.” She turned on the stool enough so that she could watch the singer, mesmerized by the smooth vocals.
The song ended, and the musician took a deep drink from the glass of water that sat next to a full tip jar on the scarred piano. As the smattering of applause subsided, she said, “Thank you. I’m going to take five, and then I’ll play some requests.” She stood and stepped away from the keyboard, and headed for the ladies room.
Janie waved the bartender back over. “Who is that?”
“Who, the dyke? That’s Sam. She showed up and started playing a few nights ago. We don’t pay her, but she seems to be doing okay with the tips.” The small Texas town wasn’t known for being progressive, and his attitude was more the norm than not.
“She’s got a very distinctive voice.”
“That’s one way to put it. First time she started to speak, I thought she was a guy. With that hair, it was hard to tell.” He shrugged his shoulders and ambled back to the other end of the bar.
A quick glance at her watch told Janie she was going to be late meeting her friend. She was torn between wanting to hear more from the mysterious singer and keeping a dinner date she didn’t want to go to in the first place. She took a few sips from her bottle and placed it back on the bar, half full. Taking another five dollar bill from her purse, she added it to the musician’s collection and made her way out of the bar.
“Where on earth have you been? I thought you might have skipped out on me.” Sandra Wooten squished out her cigarette, and promptly lit another one. “For god’s sake, Janie. You need to get out more. I think you’ve forgotten how to be social.”
Janie waved her hand in front of her face, fighting a losing battle with the heavy cigarette smoke. “I’m as social as the next person, Sandra. It’s not my fault that I have to work late more often than you do.” Her job was full of long days, and little appreciation. She went unnoticed by almost everyone. Her light brown eyes were hidden by her glasses, and her brown hair was parted in the middle and hung straight to her shoulders.
Sandra pointed a nicotine stained finger in her friend’s direction. It was almost the color of her poorly bleached hair. “You know, if you’d listen to me, you’d have to beat guys off with a stick. Contacts and a decent haircut would go a long way, girl.”
“I’ve got Doug. He’s more than enough for me.” Janie stared at the water ring her tea glass was leaving. She’d had the same conversation with Sandra more times than she could remember, and she never won.
“Yeah, right. You and he are so in love. Not.” Sandra reached for her vodka and soda, and took a sip. She waved the glass around as she tried to make her point. “When are you going to realize that lout is using you?”
Janie coughed and pointed away from the table. “Here comes our dinner. You’re not going to smoke through the meal, are you?”
“Of course not.” Sandra mashed out her half-smoked cigarette. “I’ve got better manners than that. Don’t you know me well enough by now?”
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Janie rolled her eyes and said the same thing she’d said for years. “Yes, we’ve known each other since grade school, and I shouldn’t have questioned your integrity.” She quieted when the server placed her salad in front of her. She looked across the table at the chicken-fried steak her friend had. “How can you eat like that and stay so slim?”
Sandra cut a gravy-laden chunk from the steak. “Good genes. My mother is the same way.” She peered at her friend’s meal. “How can you live on that rabbit food? You’re nothing but skin and bones as it is.”
With a quick look down at her food, Janie shrugged. “It’s easier this way.”
“Is your old man still giving you grief?”
“A little.” Janie speared her dry lettuce, and put it in her mouth.
“You’re nearly forty years old. When are you going to stop letting that bastard dictate your life?” Sandra took a soggy French fry and dipped it in the gravy. “You haven’t lived at home for almost twenty years. Don’t you think it’s time to do what you want?”
Janie continued to eat her salad. She knew her friend had a point. They had the same argument since they were in high school. Sandra kept trying to get her to loosen up, and Janie did her best to appease both Sandra, and her father. “I do fine. He has his opinions. I don’t always listen to them.”
“Right. So that’s why you look like a skeleton? Honey, you need to take better care of yourself.”
With a shake of her head, Janie tried to ignore her friend. Sandra meant well, but she tended to think that the world revolved around men, and how to look desirable to them. Janie thought about the relationship she’d been in for four years. Doug didn’t seem to mind how she looked, and that’s what mattered, wasn’t it?
That voice continued to haunt Janie the rest of the week. She heard the singer’s raspy tones at the oddest times. Every morning in the shower, she found herself humming to the last song she had heard. If she closed her eyes, she could almost hear the notes from the piano.
On her way to work Friday, Janie made it a point to walk by Danny’s. She wondered where the enigmatic musician went during the off hours, and then privately scolded herself. The woman was obviously not the type she should befriend, or even speak to. Janie scurried to the office before she was too late.
She was greeted by Andrea, who had no qualms about voicing her disapproval. She flicked one hand in the air, showing off her long nails. “It’s about time you got here. I was going to have to make the coffee myself.”
Janie tossed her purse on her desk. “I’m sorry. I lost track of time.” Inside she was fuming. Who did Andrea think she was? She hadn’t worked at the office as long as Janie yet seemed to be in great favor with the doctors. Janie went into the kitchen and started the coffee maker. It was going to be a long morning.
Sam ended the song with a flourish and raised her head to acknowledge the sparse crowd. Some she knew were regulars. Even in the dim light of the bar, she noticed a familiar face. On the barstool nearest the piano, sat a thin brunette, her eyes hidden by a pair of dark framed glasses. Sam had seen her in the same seat every night for the past week. She pushed away from the piano.
The woman appeared nervous as she approached the bar. To put her at ease, Sam stood a few feet away and motioned to Fred. “Can I get another glass of ice water?”
“Yeah.” Fred set the glass on the bar in front of her and hurried away.
After a few deep swallows, Sam turned to look at the woman sitting close by. “Enjoying the show?”
Janie jumped as if she’d been hit. “What?”
“I figure you must like the music, since you’ve been here so often.” Sam took another sip of her water. “I’m Sam.”
“I know.” Janie fumbled with her purse. “I mean, I heard the bartender call you by name the other night.” She worked the strap furiously, trying to turn it the right direction.
Sam nodded and leaned with her back against the bar. “So, are you into bar music?”
“No.” Janie’s shaking hand grasped her beer bottle. She turned it around until the label faced her. “It’s on the way home from work, that’s all.”
“Uh-huh.” Although she knew it was mean, Sam couldn’t help but tease the jittery woman. “You must be awful thirsty, seeing as how you spend a couple of hours a night in here. Work that bad?”
Janie finally looked her in the face. “No. It’s fine.” She started to peel the label from the bottle. “Is it a crime to have a drink every now and then?”
“Then why all the questions?”
Sam drained her glass and wiggled it at Fred. It gave her a perverse pleasure to make him wait on her. “I’m sorry. I was only trying to get to know you.”
“Why?” Janie bravely finished off her warm beer. She grimaced at the taste. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
“What was your first clue?”
Janie suddenly became interested in the paper napkin that sat beneath her empty bottle. “I’ve never seen you around before.” The sudden laugh from Sam startled her.
“Yeah, I guess I’m not like one of the locals, am I? What is it? The haircut?” She waved her wrist in front of Janie. The plastic men’s Timex was bulky and unattractive. “Or maybe it’s my big ol’ butch watch. How about the wallet on a chain? No? Not used to seeing dykes, huh?” Sam realized how she was sounding. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”
“It’s okay.” Janie scooted off the stool and hooked her purse strap over her shoulder. “I’ve got to go.” She smiled shyly at Sam. “You have a beautiful voice.”
Sam was left to watch Janie hurry out of the bar. She went back to the piano, hoping she’d see the quiet woman again.
Janie managed to avoid the bar for a week. She finally lost the battle with her inner self and returned on a Friday night after work. She found a place at the back of the room, not wanting another confrontation with the singer. She was on her second bottle of beer when someone sat at her table. Her heart thudded double time when she was faced with her boyfriend. “Doug? What are you doing here?”
“You weren’t home, and Harvey ain’t seen you. You don’t got that many friends that I know of, so I checked all the places on your way home from work. Never seen you in here before, or I would have tried here sooner.” He took her beer out of her hand and drank from the bottle. “How can you drink this shit?” He set the beer on the table with a slam.
A new song started and Janie tried her best to peek around his head. “If you don’t like my beer, you shouldn’t try stealing it.”
Doug turned to see where she was staring. The masculine woman at the piano had a nice voice, but she wasn’t anything special. “Is that the reason you’re here?”
Janie ignored him, instead focusing on the music that floated across the room. A firm grip on her hand brought Janie’s attention back to her boyfriend.
“Let’s go. You’ve been here long enough.” Doug got to his feet and tried to bring Janie with him. She continued to sit, angering him. “I said, come on.” He pulled harder on her hand.
“Doug, you’re hurting me.”
Two men at another table turned at Janie’s words. One of them made eye contact with her to see if she needed help.
She shook her head and jerked her hand away from Doug’s. “Would you please stop? You’re causing a scene.” But she stood and gathered her purse; even though it was the last thing she wanted to do.
Doug forcefully led her from the bar. The night air was cooler than the interior of the bar. “It wouldn’t have been a problem if you’d done what I said.”
An unusual anger emboldened Janie. She pried his hand away and raised her purse strap higher on her shoulder. “For your information, Doug, you don’t own me. So stop trying to act as if you do.” She began to walk faster. “I’m going home. Alone.”
“Hey!” Doug had to jog to catch up with her. “You’re not going anywhere I don’t say.”
Janie ignored him until she got to her building. The old two-story home had been split into four large apartments. She spun around when his hand went to open the door. “Go home. I really don’t have the energy to put up with you tonight.”
He started to say something, but instead closed his mouth and walked away.
Once Doug was out of sight, Janie’s bravado faltered and she leaned against the heavy oak door. She brought her shaking hand to her forehead and tried to catch her breath. Doug’s behavior had gotten more and more erratic of late, and had it not been for her father’s continued pressure, she would have ended things long ago.
Sam watched every night for the woman she had flirted with, but begun to lose hope when more than a week had gone by without a sighting. When Saturday arrived it was her busiest night so far. She had to empty her tip jar three times and was almost glad when Ray finally locked the front door. Her voice was hoarse. Not even the cool glass of water soothed her aching throat, and she dreaded having to learn more songs for the patrons. If she had to sing one more Faith Hill song, she’d scream.
Ray handed Sam a damp rag. “If you’ll wipe down the tables, I’ll take care of the glasses tonight.” Part of their deal was if she helped with the cleanup, he’d furnish her drinks and meals, and let her keep all her tips. It worked out well for them both. The bar was doing more business and he didn’t have to hire anyone else, other than the part-time waitress that worked the evening shift on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Thanks,” Sam croaked. She quickly took care of the tables and chairs, and swept the floor. Ray patted her on the back, after he returned from doing the dishes.
“That’s good enough, Sam. Thanks for all your help.” He followed her to the front door. “You sound horrible. Why don’t you skip tomorrow? It’s not like there will be much of a crowd.”
Sam stood on the sidewalk while he locked up. “I just might do that.” She cleared her throat and winced at the pain. “I’ll probably nap in my car tomorrow. If you need any help, come out back and let me know.”
He pocketed the keys. “You really should find a place to stay. That can’t be too comfortable. Or safe.”
“I’ve been sleeping in my car for years and never had a problem.” She walked with him until they reached the mouth of the alley. “This is my stop. ‘Night, Ray.”
Ray watched until she faded into the shadows. He shook his head at her stubbornness and continued home.
Sam was almost to her car when she noticed it sat unevenly. “What the—” She walked to the opposite side and cursed. The front right tire was flat. In the glow of the security light, she could barely make out a large gash in the rubber. A careful once-over of the vehicle didn’t reveal any other damage. She kicked the tire angrily. “Goddamned assholes! I can’t believe this!”
Spring Gardens nursing home had been built in the early nineteen-fifties. Originally built on the outskirts of Piperton, now it was only eight blocks from downtown. Small shrubbery that once surrounded the single story brick structure had long-ago been choked out with weeds. It was the final stop for the citizens who were considered disposable – seniors who had no families at all, or those who were considered to be too much trouble to care for.
The antiseptic smell associated with all hospitals hit Janie in the face the moment she stepped through the door. She wrinkled her nose. No matter how long she’d been coming to Spring Gardens, she would never become accustomed to the stale air. She smiled and nodded to the staff as she made her way down the hall. She’d made this same trek since she was seventeen. It hadn’t become any easier but she never regretted it for a moment.
Room eighteen came into view and Janie peeked around the open door. Her grandmother sat in the electric wheelchair she’d given her for last Christmas, snoring with her chin touching her chest. Before Janie could back away to leave her in peace, her grandmother snorted loudly and opened her eyes.
Lucille Clarke had been a resident of the home for twenty-one years. Following an auto accident in which her son Harvey had been driving, she lost the use of both legs. With no remorse, he shuttled her away to Spring Gardens as soon as a room was available. She’d been there ever since. Her only company was the bi-weekly visits from her granddaughter. “Janie, my girl. I didn’t see you there.” Lucille adjusted the afghan draped across her knees and held out her thin arms. “Come give your Nana a hug.”
Janie happily complied. Once in Lucille’s arms, it saddened her to feel the weakening muscles that had comforted her all her life. She kissed her forehead. “You’re looking good today.”
“Pshaw. I’m looking like a dusty old prune.” Lucille touched her granddaughter’s cheek. “But you look sad, sweetie.”
“No, I’m fine.” Janie sat on the edge of the bed and looked around the small, but well-kept room. “When are you going to come home with me? I have more than enough room.”
“And leave all of this?” Lucille wheeled closer and patted Janie’s leg. “I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I’m happy here. I have my friends, and the staff takes very good care of me. Besides, our monthly social is coming up. I may let Mr. Michaels in room four get to second base.”
Lucille cackled. “You’re so easy to embarrass, child. But honestly, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wasn’t here. This is my home.”
It was always the same answer. Janie never expected it to change, but she’d never stop asking either. “Remember you have another home should you ever want or need it.”
“I do. And I truly appreciate it. But you don’t need an old lady around. I’m sure you and that young man of yours will need a nice place to stay once you’re married.”
Tears pricked the back of Janie’s eyes. She didn’t want to upset Nana by crying, but knew better than to lie to her. “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.”
“Sure it will. You’ve been dating long enough. It’s time to take the next step.”
“How did you know you loved Granddad?”
If the sudden change in subject surprised Lucille, it didn’t show on her face. “It certainly wasn’t love at first sight.”
Not the answer she thought she’d receive, Janie was intrigued. “Really?”
“Heavens, no. Bud was quite full of himself in those days. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.” Lucille’s eyes softened as she thought of long ago. “Even so, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Being in the same room would cause my heart to beat a little faster. He was so handsome, in that rakish, devil-may-care sort of way.”
“Are we talking about the same man? Granddad was the kindest, gentlest soul I’d ever known.” Janie propped her elbows on her knees and rested her chin on her palms. “Go on, please.”
Lucille smiled dreamily. “Back then, he was quite the hell-raiser. My father forbade me to be anywhere near him.” She winked. “Which, or course, was the encouragement I needed to sneak off with Bud on Friday nights. Poppa caught us down by the lake counting the stars.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But when Poppa brought out his shotgun, Bud high-tailed it out of town.”
Janie sat up straight. “No! But you obviously got together.”
“True.” With a shake of her head, Lucille continued her story. “He couldn’t stay away. A few months later, Bud returned. But this time, he had a ring. He even got up the nerve to ask Poppa for my hand.”
“Aww, how sweet.”
Lucille looked at her hand, where the plain gold band still shone. Years of wear and tear had thinned it, but it had never left her finger. “Poppa told him he wasn’t good enough for me and sent him packing.”
“I didn’t care. When your granddad came to my window that same night, I climbed out and never looked back.” She ducked her head enough so she could peer over the rim of her spectacles. “Don’t ever let anyone keep you from your true love. I didn’t, and not once did I regret a single moment of my life.”
“I won’t, Nana.” Janie couldn’t look her in the eyes. She didn’t think Doug was that love, and she wondered if she was destined to grow old alone.
Janie decided it would be best if she stayed away from Danny’s. Her entire life was spent avoiding confrontation, yet all she and Doug had done for the past week was argue. The following Saturday she walked to the library, hoping a new book would help her pass the time.
After entering the library, Janie waved to a gray-haired woman behind the counter. “Good morning, Mrs. Lowry.”
The librarian raised her head and gave Janie a sweet smile. “Good morning to you, dear. I’m so glad you’re here. I held back a new book I thought you might enjoy.” Mrs. Lowry lifted the book from beneath the counter. “It’s the new mystery by that woman writer you like.” She slid it toward Janie and leaned closer. “I could never get into her work, myself. She’s a bit too,” her voice softened, “explicit for my tastes. But, to each their own.” Mrs. Lowry straightened and her smile returned. “We’ve also got a lovely new romance novel.” She gave Janie a wink. “My nephew’s divorce was final last week. Would you like to come over for dinner, soon?”
The book Janie had been leafing through hit the counter with a heavy thump. “Ah, well.” She paused, waiting for an interruption, but the library was quiet. “That’s very sweet of you to offer, but I’m still with Doug.”
The older woman sniffed in disdain. “I don’t see a ring on your finger. Perhaps you’d be better off with someone else.”
“No, really. I’m fine.” The last thing she wanted was to be courted by Mrs. Lowry’s son. The man reeked of garlic, at least the few times she’d seen him. Janie tipped her head toward the back of the building, where a comfortable reading space was located. “I think I’m going back to read for a while.” She waved the book. “Thank you for thinking of me. I’ll stop by on my way out.”
The reading area consisted of several padded chairs and two sofas, surrounded on three sides by tall cherry bookcases. Only two of the chairs were occupied, but Janie pulled up short at the one familiar face.
Partially hidden in the corner, Sam appeared engrossed in the local newspaper. Only the top portion of her face was visible. She hadn’t noticed Janie’s arrival.
Janie didn’t want to go back to her apartment, although she considered sneaking out the way she came. When Sam raised the paper higher, she took the opportunity to hide on the far side of the room. It barely took a page before Janie was lost in her book. When she felt someone watching her, she looked up from the pages.
Sam stood in front of Janie, the folded newspaper held loosely in her right hand. “Hey there.”
“Um, hi.” Janie looked around and was relieved to see that the other person had left. “What are you doing here?”
Sam frowned at her harsh tone. “I come in every morning to read the paper. Imagine my surprise when I saw you sitting here.”
“I like to read.” Janie lowered her voice. “I really shouldn’t be talking to you.”
“Why not? Afraid I’m contagious, or something?”
“No, of course not. I just don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.” Janie closed her book since it appeared Sam wasn’t going to leave her alone. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
The newspaper was slapped against Sam’s leg as she tried to control her emotions. “Yeah, right. Heaven forbid you’re seen actually being civil to me.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand perfectly.” Sam tossed the paper in Janie’s lap. “You might as well take this. It’s about as entertaining as the rest of this town. And almost as progressive.”
Janie felt bad about how she had treated Sam, but was too concerned about how it would seem if she followed her out of the library. She didn’t feel like reading anymore, and folded the paper neatly before leaving.
Sunday evening, Sam had finished a song when a muscular man dropped a quarter into her tip jar. “Do you have a request?”
He rubbed his hand across the top of his head, not disturbing the flat top in the least. Tiny bits of grass and dust floated away, some landing on his dark green tee shirt that bore the name “Doug’s Lawn Care” across the left breast. “Yeah. Don’t you know anything snappier? You’ve been singing some depressing shit.”
“I sing how I feel.” She looked into his dark eyes and became uncomfortable. They reminded her of a shark’s. Cold and menacing. “But I’ll try to come up with something.”
“Good.” He clapped her hard on the shoulder. “Know any Faith Hill?”
Sam exhaled heavily. She was beginning to despise country music. “I’ll see what I can do.” She waited until he returned to his table before she started another song.
Sam finished the song and closed her eyes. Her heart wasn’t in performing tonight. She took a sip from the sweating water glass perched on the piano and cleared her throat. “I think that’s it for me, folks.” She got up and headed toward the back room.
“Hey, where are you going? We’re still waiting for our song,” Doug yelled. The other three men laughed and made rude comments.
“Come back tomorrow.” Sam waved over her shoulder and disappeared through the door.
The heavy humidity hit her in the face when she stepped into the night. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. The earlier scene in the library made her realize how out of place she was in the small town. Her overture of friendship was thrown back in her face and she’d be glad to be rid of them all. As soon as her car was repaired she would gladly leave Piperton. She would try to avoid small towns and small minds in her future travels.
When Sam reached the back of the alley, the sight of her car listing to one side was more than she could bear. “Goddamnit!” The left rear tire was completely flat. Even from where she stood, the jagged slice was easy to spot. “Not fucking again!”
With a heavy heart Sam crawled into the back seat of the Chevy. She punched the foam pillow and covered herself with the ratty blanket she had bought second-hand years ago. She nodded off, wondering when the nightmare would end.
Janie had been sound asleep when she had been awakened by heavy knocking on the door to her apartment. She wrapped her yellow chenille robe tightly around her body and peeked through the peep hole. The distorted figure of her boyfriend stood unsteadily in the hall. She considered ignoring him, but didn’t want to disturb her neighbor, the other occupant of the second floor. She slung the door open with more force than she realized. “Doug, what are you doing here? It’s late, and I have to work in the morning.”
He blinked a couple of times and swayed slightly. “You’re m’glirfend, uh, grillfried, I mean,” he swallowed and tried again. “You know what I mean.”
“It’s after two in the morning and you’re stinking drunk. Go home.” She began to close the door, but he stumbled forward and fell into her. The stench of beer made Janie’s stomach turn.
“Gimme kiss.” Doug slobbered noisily on her neck. “I wanna fuck ya, Jay. Lemme come in.”
Janie tried to push him away but he was much bigger than her. “No. Not like this.” She faltered backward as he leaned heavily on her shoulders. “Stop it, Doug. I mean it.”
“C’mon. We haven’t fucked for months. You owe me.” He pawed at her robe, causing it to untie and fall open. The light blue satin gown was so thin he could see her pink nipples through it. “Nice.”
She cringed when his rough beard scratched against her throat. The harder Janie struggled, the more intent Doug became on his task. “Doug, no!”
Doug grasped the lacy neckline of her gown and pulled on it harshly. The triumphant look on his face changed quickly from surprise to pain, when Janie’s knee connected with his groin. “Ah, fuck!” He fell back into the hall and curled into a fetal position, both hands cradling his damaged manhood.
Janie pulled her robe closed and slammed the door. She fell back against it while tears fell silently from her eyes.
It was a few minutes after seven when Sam came into Dell’s. The office was vacant, which wasn’t unusual. He ran it alone, and spent most of his time in the adjacent garage. She stood at the counter and tapped the bell. Several minutes went by and she tapped it again, much harder.
The interior door opened and Dell stepped inside, wiping his hands on a rag. “Oh. It’s you.” He went behind the counter and tossed the rag beneath it. “I still ain’t got time to look at your car yet.”
“I figured. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m going to need another tire.”
“Wasn’t nothing wrong with the one I got you before.” He popped out his pocketknife and began cleaning his nails.
Sam crossed her arms over her chest. “I know. But now someone cut a different one.”
“Yeah? Who you been pissing off, besides me?”
“No one that I know of.”
He scratched his cheek, smearing a stripe of grease along his jaw. “Maybe you aught to wait to get another tire when you’re ready to leave town. Could be cheaper.”
She moved closer. “You know something I don’t?”
Dell’s laughter filled the small room. “Hell, gal. I figure you’ve probably pissed off plenty of folks.” He gestured toward her. “You could always try to fit in. Dress like a lady.”
Sam’s hands drifted to her hips. Her white tee shirt was tucked into her faded jeans. The wide black leather belt matched her boots, and a chain could be seen going toward her back pocket. “Do I look like a lady to you?”
“Nope. I don’t think even a lacy dress with ruffles would help you.”
She exhaled heavily. “Tell me about it.” Sam rubbed the back of her neck. “Guess I’ll wait for you to call, then. Thanks, anyway.”
“Sure. I’ll let you know.” He went through the side door at the same time Sam walked out the front.
In a matter of minutes, Sam stalked down the sidewalk to return to Danny’s. Her nose led her to a small café. She wasn’t normally a breakfast person but she hoped a good meal and a cup of coffee would sooth her battered nerves. The restaurant looked busy enough to prove its food wouldn’t kill her, so she went inside and searched for a table.
The room was full of people readying for the work day. Few seats were available and those were at occupied tables. Sam had decided to get her order to go when she spied a lone person near the window. She stepped quietly up to the table. “Hey.”
Janie looked up from her bowl of fruit. Her face reddened at the visitor. “Hello.”
“I don’t mean to bother you, but is that seat taken?” Sam pointed to the chair across from Janie.
After an apprehensive look around, Janie shrugged. “I was almost finished, anyway.”
Sam sat and touched Janie’s hand but quickly pulled it away at the quick intake of breath. “Please, don’t leave. I’m not going to attack you, I promise.”
Once the waitress stopped by and took her order, Sam tried to start a conversation with the shy woman across the table. She wasn’t unattractive, although a haircut and smaller glasses would drastically change her appearance for the better. “We were never formally introduced. My name’s Sam Hendrickson. I’m here waiting to get my car fixed.”
Janie smiled briefly before she studied her bowl again. “I’m Janie.” She raised her head and looked around the restaurant. When she saw no one paying attention to them, she relaxed. “Are you traveling on vacation?”
“Not hardly.” Sam took a sip of coffee and hummed in approval. It tasted a lot better than what she usually got in convenience stores. “I guess you could say I’m on a permanent vacation. I go from place to place, doing odd jobs.”
“Oh.” The idea of not having a regular job was foreign to Janie. “How long have you done that?”
Sam shrugged. “Since I was nineteen.” She squinted in concentration while she did the math in her head. “Wow. It’s been ten years since I left home.”
Janie realized Sam was almost ten years her junior, yet had led a much more interesting life. “Don’t you miss your family?”
“My family’s all dead. No one to miss.” Sam’s eyes widened when the waitress placed her meal in front of her. “Thanks.” She stared at the plate, not sure where to start. Two eggs, four strips of bacon, a pile of hashbrowns and four slices of toast covered the platter. “Good grief! Am I expected to eat all of this?”
“You’re lucky you didn’t order the Rancher’s special. It has a stack of pancakes and a steak, too.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No.” Janie watched as Sam began to make a sizeable dent in the food. “Hungry?”
Sam winked and continued to eat. She finished most of the eggs and bacon before speaking again. “What do you do for fun around here? Besides frequenting dingy bars and listening to hack singers.”
“I don’t make a habit of going in there.” Janie speared a chunk of melon and nibbled on it daintily. “As a matter of fact, the night you spoke to me was the second time.”
After swallowing a mouthful of hashbrowns, Sam chased it down with a gulp of coffee. “What made you come inside?”
The blush on Janie’s face spoke more loudly than any words. “I heard you playing.”
Sam grinned. “Cool.”
The afternoon wore on for Janie. It had been frequently interrupted by the cell phone which lay on her desk. Ever so often it would buzz and dance around. She had tired of the constant calls and changed the ringer to silent soon after she arrived at work. The more it buzzed, the more she castigated herself for not turning it off hours ago. Doug had repeatedly tried to reach her all morning, but she refused to answer. She had nothing to say to him and needed time to reassess their relationship.
A quick glance at the caller ID showed her father’s number. As much as she wanted to, she knew it would do no good to ignore him. He would only show up at the office and cause a scene. She steeled herself and answered the phone. “What is it, Harvey?”
“Watch your attitude, Jane. Since when have you talked to me that way? And where the hell have you been?”
“At work. Where I still am, by the way. Why?”
“Doug called me. He says you’re being unreasonable. What the hell’s gotten into you?” Harvey Clarke cleared his throat, the phlegm causing him to spit. “He’s a good man. You need to quit stalling and marry him. God knows you’re not getting any younger, and he’ll probably want kids. You’re lucky he’ll have you.”
Janie gritted her teeth and counted to ten. Harvey always knew which buttons to push with her. “Did he bother to mention what happened last night?”
“He said you acted all high and mighty and treated him bad. That’s no way to act with your fiancé.”
“He came to my apartment last night drunk and practically attacked me. And he’s not my fiancé.”
Harvey coughed wetly. The years of smoking were ruining his lungs, but he kept the two-pack a day habit. “A man’s got needs. It’s your job to take care of him.”
The pen in Janie’s hand snapped in two. “Doug talked to you about our sex life? I can’t believe this.”
“Calm down, Jane. The boy’s trying to see what’s wrong with you.”
“Me? I suppose you think I should have let him rape me. After all, it’s his right.”
“It’s not rape, you stupid girl. He’s the man you’re going to marry. At least I hope so. I’d like to see some grandkids before I die.”
The thought of being tied to a man like Doug for the rest of her life gave Janie the courage to confront her father. “You’ve got a long wait, Harvey. I’m breaking up with Doug.”
“What?” Harvey’s exclamation caused him to go into a coughing fit. “You’ll do no such thing. I worked hard to find you a man, and you’re going to quit being such a little bitch and marry him.”
“Like hell I will.” Janie disconnected the call and turned off her phone. The exhilaration of finally standing up to Harvey’s bullying was short lived. A creeping dread settled in and made her race to the bathroom, where she promptly vomited.
The park’s air was choked with the heavy buzz of lawn equipment. Doug and his three-man crew were scattered around, each handling a different machine. He made the final two passes with the riding mower and drove it to the flatbed trailer. After guiding the vehicle up the ramp, he killed the engine.
A pickup truck with a city emblem on the side parked next to the trailer. The burly man behind the wheel got out and stretched. “Yo, Doug.”
“Hey, Calvin. What’s up?” Doug secured the mower and climbed off the trailer. “Does your yard need mowing too?” He often cut his friend’s grass, who then charged it back to the city as a business expense.
“Nah. Just came by to see if what I heard was true.” Calvin’s dark beard was thick, and several drops of tobacco juice glistened in the sun as he spit on the ground.
Doug brushed the grass from his hair. “What?”
“Bud said he saw your woman at Fern’s this morning, having breakfast.” He stared hard at Doug’s chest. “Nope. Don’t see ‘em.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Calvin spit another stream close to Doug’s foot. “He said she was with some butch. But knowing Bud’s rotten eyesight, I figured you grew tits. ‘Cause we all know that gal of yours ain’t got no friends.”
“You’re full of shit. Is Bud sure she was with a woman? Could it have been her dad?”
“He’s sure, all right. Says it looked like that broad who sings at Danny’s.”
“Fuck.” Doug scowled and scratched his head. It wasn’t like Janie to do things on her own. She’d starting growing a backbone lately, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“You having problems?”
“No.” But Doug couldn’t understand what was going on with his girlfriend. The main reason he dated her was because he knew no one else was interested. She had been an easy lay, at least until the last few months. For some reason, she starting finding excuses to not sleep with him, and he was getting tired of it.
“You sure?” Calvin hitched up his jeans and stuck his hands in the front pockets. He jangled the change, using the motion to scratch his crotch. “Guess if you’re okay with it, that’s all that matters. To each his own, I ‘spose.”
A nearby stick was perfect for Doug to take out his frustration out on. He snapped it in half, and threw the pieces at his so-called friend. “It’s not okay with me, dammit. And as soon as we get done here, I’m going over to Janie’s office and straighten her out.”
There were only two people in the doctor’s waiting room. One of them, receptionist Laura McBride, looked at her watch and yawned. It was barely two o’clock, and she had finished her last magazine well before lunch. With nothing left to do she began to file her nails. She was startled when the front door swung open violently. The force was so great she feared it would fall from its hinges.
A muscular man wearing dusty jeans and a dark green tee shirt stepped inside and slammed the door behind him. He held a small bouquet of mixed flowers in one hand and turned his angry eyes toward the receptionist.
Laura shrank back in her chair as he approached the desk. “May I help you?”
“Tell Janie I need to see her.” He turned and glared at the man waiting in the corner who gaped at him. “What?”
The receptionist’s hand shook as it reached for the phone. “I’m sorry, who?”
Doug slapped his free hand on her desk. “Janie Clarke. She does still work here, don’t she?”
“Of course. But I don’t think—”
“Tell her to get her scrawny ass out here.”
She picked up the handset and dialed. “Janie? You have a visitor.” Laura replaced the receiver and gestured behind him. “Would you like to take a seat, sir? She should be out in a moment.”
Janie stared at her phone once she hung up. She never had visitors at work. Unless you counted the times her father would show up, demanding she go to lunch with him. But Laura always told her when it was Harvey waiting for her. She straightened a few papers on her desk before heading toward the waiting room.
A man’s voice could be heard before Janie opened the door. She steeled herself for the confrontation, recognizing Doug’s gruff tones immediately. Her heart began to pound when she walked through the door. His tense posture put her on immediate alert. “Doug? What are you doing here?” Janie crossed to where he stood in order to keep her voice low. The last thing she wanted to do was share their problems with the other occupants of the room.
“I came to talk some sense into you.” Doug thrust the flowers toward her. “Here.”
Janie took a step back. “That’s really nice of you. But you shouldn’t be here.” She glanced over her shoulder to Laura. “I could lose my job, getting personal visitors.”
“Bullshit. That’s not what this is about, is it?” Doug shook the flowers at her. “Take these damned things.”
“Why the hell not? I paid good money for them.” He threw the bouquet at her feet. “Fine. See if I give a damn. They were your old man’s idea, anyway.”
“What does my father have to do with you being here?”
Doug kicked the flowers out of the way and stepped closer to Janie. “He wants what’s best for you.”
“Please, don’t.” Janie backed further away until she bumped into the door. “I really can’t talk right now.” She swallowed her fear and tried another tactic. “Can we meet after I get off work?”
“I guess.” He took her arm. “I’ll be at Danny’s. You seem to like it there.” After another hard squeeze, he released her and his expression softened. “We’ll have a couple of drinks and talk all this out. It’ll be okay.”
Janie turned her head at the last moment and his kiss hit her cheek instead of her lips. She gave him what she hoped was a sincere look. “That sounds nice.” She rubbed her arm and watched Doug leave. His behavior only served to reinforce her resolve. Although her father would make her life miserable, she was determined to break things off with Doug. Embarrassed, she shared an apologetic smile with Laura and slipped through the door to the office.
Only three patrons were in the bar. One of them seemed determined to drink his way under the table in the shortest amount of time possible. The table where he sat was located in the far corner of the room. To help Ray out, Sam had taken the man’s drinks to him. His belligerence got worse as the day wore on. She placed his beer on the table and removed the empty glass. Before she could move away, he grabbed her wrist.
“Hold it.” Doug raised his bleary eyes and focused on Sam. “Why aren’t you singing?”
“Not enough people. No sense in entertaining an empty room.” She tried to shake off his grip. “Look, buddy. I think you’ve had enough.”
Doug tightened his hold. “I don’t give a damn what you think. Ray’s never complained.” He slowly looked her up and down. “What is it with you, anyway? You trying to be a man?”
Sam pried his fingers loose and took a step back. “Not hardly. I’m perfectly happy being a woman.”
“Don’t act like no woman I’ve ever known.” He picked up the glass, already damp with condensation and drank from it as if he were dying of thirst. A small amount of foam covered his upper lip and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. “Why are you here?”
“Trying to make some money, singing a few songs.” Sam shook her head and walked away when he turned to focus on his drink. He wasn’t the first who questioned her arrival in town. She got tired of answering the local’s questions, but didn’t want to antagonize the people she tried to get tips from. It wasn’t good business. She returned to the bar and placed the empty glass close to Ray. “Shouldn’t you be cutting that guy off? I can’t believe he’s still conscious.”
Ray glanced over at Doug. “Nah. He does that every now and then. The guy has a place nearby, so I know he’s not driving. He gets pretty obnoxious, but doesn’t do any harm.”
She climbed onto a stool and hooked her feet on the lower rung. “It’s your bar. Can I get a coke?”
“Sure.” Ray filled a glass and set it in front of her. “Thanks for passing out drinks, by the way.”
“No problem.” Sam spun her stool around and watched the room. The more she helped out around the bar, the more cash Ray passed her way. It worked for both of them. He didn’t have to fill out the necessary paperwork for an employee and she made extra cash. She checked her watch. It was five-fifteen and the bar began to fill with the after work crowd.
The arrival of a particular woman caught Sam’s attention. She watched as Janie stopped inside the door and looked around the room. A smile lit Sam’s face when she assumed she was trying to find her. She was about to get up from her seat when Janie hitched her purse strap on her shoulder and went to the drunken man’s table.
Janie pulled out a chair across from Doug and sat. “Sorry I’m late. Andrea kept bringing me files to put away.” She placed her purse in an empty chair and was surprised when she noticed Sam standing next to their table. Her heart beat faster at the thought of Doug finding out she knew the unusual woman. “Can I help you?”
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to ask you. Would you like something from the bar?” Sam tucked her hands into her front pockets as she waited patiently for Janie’s order.
“Um, sure. A light beer, please.” Janie turned away, effectively dismissing the singer.
“Be right back.”
Janie couldn’t help but watch her walk away. She was so focused on Sam that she didn’t hear Doug. His angry growl got her attention. “I’m sorry, what?”
He grabbed his glass and drained it. “I said, it’s about damned time you got here.”
“I told you—”
“I heard you.” He turned and waved his empty glass toward the bar. “Worthless dyke.”
Doug glared at her. “Are you even listening to me?” He looked up when Sam placed two glasses on the table.
“Anything else I can get you?” Sam didn’t seem perturbed in the least. Her gaze was focused on Janie. “Miss?”
Janie slowly shook her head. “No, thank you.” She raised her glass in salute. “This is fine.”
“Okay. Wave if you need anything.” Sam left the table as quickly as she had arrived.
Doug finally gathered his thoughts. “You know her?”
He grabbed her arm. “I heard about you two having breakfast together this morning. Since when do you hang out with someone like her?”
“We weren’t hanging out. She happened to come into Fern’s while I was there, and there weren’t any tables available. I had a spare chair, so she sat with me. End of story.” But her hand shook as she set her glass on the table.
The explanation seemed to appease Doug. He released her and took a deep drink from his beer. “Just don’t make it a habit.”
She bristled at his comment. Her newfound courage peeked out again. “I can eat with whomever I please. It’s not a crime to share a table with someone besides you.”
Doug almost spit his beer across the table. He sputtered and wiped his mouth. “I don’t like your attitude, Janie. You’re my girlfriend, and it makes me look bad when you do something like that.”
“You don’t own me.”
“I will, once we get married.” He dug for his wallet and dropped several bills on the table. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
He stood and reached for her. “Don’t argue with me. I said let’s go.”
Janie scooted away from him but didn’t stand. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” She sat up straighter and took a deep breath. “It’s over, Doug.”
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said.” She lowered her voice. “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
Doug seized her arm and pulled Janie to her feet. “I don’t give a good goddamn what you think. You’re my girlfriend, and you’re going to be my wife.”
“Doug, stop it. You’re hurting me.” Janie squirmed ineffectively. She tried to pry his fingers away. “Please, let go.”
“No!” He jerked her closer. “I don’t know what’s gotten in to you lately, but it’s going to stop right now.” He was about to drag her away from the table when someone touched his shoulder. Doug turned and scowled at the intruder. “Back off, bitch.”
Sam hadn’t planned on getting involved, but she couldn’t stand by while the drunken man assaulted Janie. “Hey, come on. Let me buy you a drink. No sense in getting all bent out of shape, man.”
He released Janie and narrowed his eyes. “I don’t need you getting into my business, faggot. Get out of my face.”
“No harm, bud.” Sam saw movement behind the man and tried to keep him talking. “Let’s go over to the bar and I’ll get you that drink.” She tipped her head toward the other side of the room. “Maybe two.”
Janie used Doug’s inattention to make her escape. She hurried out of the bar, feeling guilty that she left Sam alone to handle him.
In his drunken state, Doug allowed himself to be led to the bar. “Yeah, sure. She ain’t going nowhere.” He had no idea Janie had already left.
Janie called in sick the next morning. She was afraid Doug would show up again at the clinic, and she wasn’t in the mood for another fight. She knew there’d be hell to pay for leaving him at the bar. The hard knock on her door scared her. She peeped through the security glass and fought the urge to hide.
Harvey Clarke beat on the door. “Jane, I know you’re in there. They told me you didn’t come to work today.” He pounded his beefy hand on the wood. “I’m not leaving, Jane. Open up.”
She unlocked the door and opened it slightly. “What is it, Harvey? I don’t feel much like company.”
He appeared to have come directly from work. His security guard uniform was wrinkled and a greasy stain on his chest showed the remains of the previous evening’s meal. “Don’t sass me, girl. Let me in.”
Janie opened the door wider and allowed him inside. She followed her father to the living area, where he dropped his considerable bulk onto the red floral sofa. She resigned herself to his company. Harvey would leave when he was ready, and not a moment before. “Would you like a cup of coffee? I recently made a pot.”
“Might as well.” He stretched one arm across the back of the sofa and propped his scuffed shoes on the oak coffee table. “Put plenty of cream and sugar in it.”
She rolled her eyes and went to the kitchen. If she wasn’t so fond of her grandmother, Janie would have left Piperton years ago. She often dreamed of making a new start in a larger city. But as long as Lucille was alive, she wasn’t going anywhere. Janie knew she was the only visitor her grandmother had and the thought pained her. She hurriedly made two cups of coffee and returned to Harvey. “Careful, it’s hot.”
“No shit.” He took a cautious sip before setting the mug on the table. “Doug called me.”
“I figured as much.” Janie perched on the edge of the wingback chair across from him.
Harvey looked at his daughter. She didn’t look any different, but there was something about the way she held herself he couldn’t quite figure out. “He’s pretty upset. Says you got all nasty with him yesterday. What’s up with that?”
“I’m through with Doug, Harvey.”
“Why? You got someone better?”
Janie shook her head. “No. But—”
“Damn it, Jane. It took me forever to find a man who would even look at you. At least Doug isn’t particular.”
“No, he’s a jerk.”
Harvey got to his feet so quickly that the coffee almost toppled over. “That’s enough out of you. He’s a hardworking man who would take care of you.”
She placed her coffee on the table and stood as well. “I don’t need taking care of. Especially by someone like him. Doesn’t it bother you that he almost raped me?”
“Quit being so dramatic. You’ve always stretched things out of proportion.” He pointed a finger at her. “I told Doug you’d apologize. He’s probably waiting for your call.”
Janie crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s got a long wait. If you’re so keen on Doug, why don’t you marry him?” The slap was unexpected and knocked her back into the chair. Janie covered her cheek with one hand and blinked away the tears. The shock on her face was evident. Harvey had never raised a hand to her before.
“I’ve had about all of your smart mouth I can take.” Harvey pulled his pants up higher on his waist and headed for the door. “You’ll call him and hope to hell he’ll take you back.” he turned at the door and looked at her. “Now get yourself cleaned up. You look like shit.” He slammed the door behind him.
Sam sat in the diner, picking at her lunch. Worrying about Janie kept her sleepless the night before. She knew it wasn’t any of her business, but she couldn’t help but be concerned about the quiet woman she had spoken to the previous day. Although they had recently met, there was something about Janie which made Sam want to protect her. She stuffed a cold fry into her mouth and chewed it.
The bell over the door rang as three men came into the restaurant. Doug and his crew congregated around a table in the center of the room. He raised his hand and snapped his fingers at the waitress. “Hey, babe! Bring us three specials, will you?”
The waitress gathered three glasses of iced tea and placed them in front of the men. She tried to slip away but Doug swatted her on the rear. “Dana, you get cuter every day. How about going to dinner with me sometime?”
She muttered something and hurried back to the kitchen. Whatever she said must have amused the two men with Doug, because they both roared with laughter.
Doug turned red. “Her loss.” He poked one of the other men. “What’s the matter, Chuck? Jealous?”
“Nah.” Chuck took off his filthy baseball cap and scratched his thinning hair. “I thought you had a girlfriend.”
“Well, sure. But no sense in making all the other women suffer, right? There’s more than enough of me to go around.” Doug looked around the near-empty room and spotted Sam by the window. He stood and adjusted himself. “Be right back, guys.”
Sam noticed him coming and closed her eyes. She jumped slightly when he knocked on her table.
She opened her eyes and looked into his face. “Hi.”
Doug sucked on his teeth and studied her. “Haven’t seen you in here before. You waiting for anyone?”
“Uh, no. Just wanted lunch.” Sam noticed how the muscles in Doug’s arms flexed as he opened and closed his fists.
“Good.” He leaned over until his face was only a few inches from hers. “I heard you had breakfast with my girl. Don’t do it again.” Doug straightened and chucked her on the shoulder. “Thanks for the drink yesterday.”
Sam nodded, thankful he couldn’t read her mind. The thoughts she’d had of his “girl” weren’t the kind he’d appreciate. “Sure.” She held her breath until he went back to his own table, then released it slowly.
The sight of Janie hurrying down the sidewalk caught Sam’s attention. She quickly left enough money on her table for her meal and a tip, then got up. A short glance at Doug and his cronies assured her they hadn’t noticed Janie, so she waved to the waitress and left the café.
It took Sam half a block before she caught up with Janie. The other woman was walking fast, yet her head was dipped low. Sam jogged up beside her. “Hey.”
Janie ignored Sam. She continued to walk, although she did adjust the dark prescription sunglasses that partially hid her face. She shouldered her purse and continued on.
Sam touched her arm. “Are you all right?”
“Please, leave me alone.” Janie’s voice was apologetic, but she didn’t slow down.
“Look, I’m sorry if I did anything to cause you trouble with your boyfriend. I only—”
Janie shook off her hand and spun to face Sam. Her glasses slipped down and she tried to slide them back in place. “I appreciate your help last night, but I’m fine.”
Sam removed Janie’s glasses and noticed the discoloration beneath her left eye. “Did he do this?”
“Don’t be silly. Doug would never hurt me.” Janie took her glasses and placed them back on her face. “If you don’t mind, I have some things to do.” She edged by Sam and continued on her way.
“Right.” Sam put her hands in the front pockets of her jeans and headed back toward the bar.
Sam had volunteered to mop the floor for Ray since it was too early for the bar to be open. The mindless work kept her from thinking about Janie. Or at least she thought it would. She couldn’t understand why she cared so much what the other woman thought about her. It wasn’t as if they were friends. She shook her head in disgust. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn’t hear Ray calling her name. The damp rag that hit her in the head caused Sam to spin around. “What was that for?”
Ray waved the phone in the air. “Call for you. Didn’t you hear me?”
“No. Sorry.” She leaned the mop against a table and walked to the bar. She handed to towel to Ray and took the phone from him. “This is Sam.”
“Hey, Sam. Dell here. Got some good news for you. I’ve finally cleared some space, and I can take a look at your car, now.”
“That is good news. I’ve got a slight problem though. It’s not running, so I can’t bring it over.” She picked at a scratch on the bar with her fingernail.
“No problem. I can tow you over.”
She closed her eyes and calculated how much cash she had left. “How much would that run? I’m a little strapped at the moment.”
Dell cleared his throat. “Tell you what. I’ll throw in the tow for free. Least I could do since you’ve had to wait so long for me to look it over.”
“You’re a lifesaver, Dell. Honk when you get here, and I’ll meet you out back. Thanks.” Sam hung up the phone and gave Ray a relieved smile. “Things are looking up.”
“Yeah? You finally getting that old heap fixed?” He constantly teased her about the old Chevy.
She removed the apron she wore and tossed it on the bar. “Yep. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out to my ‘old heap’ and wait for Dell.” She walked out the back door, his laughter still ringing in her ears.
Ten minutes later Dell drove up in his tow truck. He got out of the cab and stood next to Sam. “Well, looks like you’ve pissed off lots of folks. That thing’s a mess.”
“No, that’s how it’s always looked.” Sam put her hands on her hips while he laughed. “Hey, it’s gotten me where I needed to go, up until now.”
“True. You usually can’t kill these old things.” Dell patted the fender. “Let me get you hooked up and I’ll head on over to the shop. Want to come with me? Then I can tell you what it’s gonna run you.”
It didn’t take Dell more than five minutes to hook up the Chevy. He and Sam sat in the cab of his truck silently, both absorbed in their own thoughts. He wheeled the rig into the parking lot of the shop. “You can go on into the office. It shouldn’t take me more than an hour or so. There’s fresh coffee, if you’re interested.”
Sam hopped out of the truck and dusted off her jeans. “Great. Thanks a lot, Dell.”
“No problem.” He went about his business, while she walked into the office.
Looking around the tiny area, Sam saw the coffee maker and proceeded to make herself a cup. She sat on one of the three available chairs and propped her feet in another. After taking a sip of the strong brew, she picked up a copy of the newspaper and flipped through it.
An hour and a half later, Dell came into the office and noticed Sam’s posture. Her chin was resting on her chest and her eyes were closed. “Looks like you made yourself at home.”
Startled awake, Sam got to her feet and placed the paper on the table. “Uh, yeah. Sorry about that.”
“Ain’t nothing to be sorry for. It took a little longer than I expected.” He fished a red shop towel out of the back pocket of his greasy overalls and wiped his hands. “Got some bad news for you, though. The engine’s a goner, and the exhaust system is rusted through, too. It’d be a hell of a lot cheaper to find something else.”
“Damn.” Sam took out her wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
“Tell you what. Give me fifty for the diagnostics, and I’ll even haul it to the wrecking yard for you.”
She fished two twenties and a ten out of her wallet. “Thanks for the help, Dell. You got a spare garbage bag? I need to clean out my stuff.”
After taking her few belongings out of the car, Sam stepped into the sunshine and hefted the two black trash bags over her shoulders. She headed to the east, hoping to find the YMCA that the mechanic had told her about.
Fifteen minutes later, one of the bags split, dropping Sam’s clothes to the sidewalk. She allowed the other one to fall at her feet. “Shit.”
“Looks like you’ve in a bit of trouble,” a woman’s voice called from the nearby doorway.
Sam put her hands on her hips and turned to see who was speaking. “No kidding.”
An older woman, her gray hair cut close to her head, held up a finger. “Hold on. I’ll be right back.” She disappeared behind a glass door that advertised a woman’s exercise facility, then returned a moment later, holding an old suitcase. “This would probably work better, dear.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so. But—”
“It’s too damned hot to be standing out here arguing. Clean up your mess and then come inside.” The woman left the suitcase on the walkway and disappeared into the building.
Not sure what she was in for, Sam did as she was told. She hefted the old case and stepped through the door, exhaling as the cool air hit her damp back. She set her baggage next to the door and walked to where the woman stood behind the counter. Upbeat music could be heard in the background, and three women were making the circuit of the exercise stations in one of the two large rooms. “Thank you for the suitcase. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I find a place to stay.”
“No need.” The woman held out her hand. “Name’s Betsy Haley. You looked like you could have used a friend out there.”
Sam shook her hand and smiled. “Sam Hendrickson. And you’re right. I was just looking for the YMCA.”
“What do you want with that nasty old place? Nothing but a bunch of horny old men hang out there.” Betsy eyed the young woman across from her. “Looking for a place to stay?”
“Yes, ma’am. My car died, so I’m stuck here until I can earn enough to get something else. And I can’t afford to spend much on a place to sleep.” Sam normally didn’t spill her woes to a stranger, but there was something comforting and almost familiar about the woman.
“Not from around here, are you?”
Sam chuckled and shook her head. “No, ma’am. I was just passing through.”
Betsy eyeballed Sam over the top of her glasses. “You got a job?”
“Sort of. I’ve been singing at Danny’s, and I was going to check the newspaper for something else, too.”
“Uh-huh. You mind doing janitorial work?”
Betsy sighed and shook her head. “Quit calling me that. You’re making me feel old. My name’s Betsy.” She cut Sam’s apology off with a wave of her hand. “I’ve got a room upstairs you can use, if you’ll clean it out. Then I could use a hand with the general maintenance around here, too. I can’t pay much, but if you help out around here, I won’t charge you rent. You’ll still have time to find another job.”
“That’s really kind of you, but why? You don’t know me.”
Betsy leaned across the counter and lowered her voice. “I understand what it’s like to be in a strange place all alone.” She straightened up. “Besides, you remind me of myself at your age.”
Sam brushed her hair out of her eyes. “Thanks, Betsy. If you’ll show me where to put my junk, I’ll get started.” She enjoyed the laughter from the older woman, as she followed her around the exercise area and through a door at the back of the room.
Two days later, Sam parked a green sedan in the parking lot of the local grocery store. The nineteen seventy-five Oldsmobile Delta Eighty-Eight was the size of a boat, but the engine ran smooth and the price was right. A friend of Betsy’s was willing to take payments on the old car until it was paid for, as long as Sam didn’t mind also taking care of her yard work once a week. Sam thought it was a steal at two thousand dollars.
She hoped her daytime job at the store wouldn’t interfere in her other endeavors, but the manager she had interviewed with had assured her it wouldn’t. The part-time work was the only job she could find. At minimum wage, it would take her a long time to pay off her debts unless she continued to sing at night. She left the windows down and hurried into the store, tying the red apron around her waist.
Half an hour later, Sam was methodically straightening cans of beans, when she noticed Janie at the end of the aisle. Intrigued as to why she wasn’t at work, Sam stopped what she was doing and headed toward her.
Janie picked up a box of instant potatoes and placed it in her hand-held basket. She started to grab a bag of rice when she felt someone standing close by. With a turn of her head, she came face-to-face with the last person she expected to see. “Um, hi.”
“Hey.” Sam slid her free hand into the back pocket of her jeans. She didn’t know why she was always so nervous around Janie. “I figured you’d be back at work.”
“No, I took the whole day off today.” Janie dropped the rice into the basket. “What are you doing here?”
Sam pointed at her apron. “I work here. Just started today, as a matter of fact.”
“That’s nice. Well, I’d better finish up.” Janie began to walk toward the chips and crackers aisle. She took a box of saltines and placed it in her basket. The sound of boots scuffing on the gleaming tile floor caused her to turn around again. “I didn’t realize you were still here.”
Holding up a large bag of chips, Sam shrugged. “I’m supposed to make sure everything’s neat. These don’t belong here.” She set the bag in its proper place and gave Janie an embarrassed grin. “Somebody’s gotta do it.”
Janie started to smile, then noticed an older couple at the end of the aisle studying them carefully. Her face flushed and she realized they were attracting quite a bit of attention. An unnamed fear caused her to snap. “Why can’t you leave me alone?” Her voice was loud. “Can’t you see I could never be interested in someone like you?”
The biting comment hurt. Sam shoved another misplaced bag roughly on the shelf. “Excuse the hell out of me for trying to be friendly.” She stomped away, then turned at the end of the aisle. “You don’t have anything to worry about. You’re not my type.” She brushed by the people who had been watching them and headed for the aisle she’d been working on before.
Janie was on her way home but couldn’t stop thinking about Sam’s parting words. Her guilt at her own behavior was augmented by curiosity. She wondered what kind of woman was Sam’s type, then berated herself for even caring. Nothing made sense to her anymore. Only a few short weeks ago, she was, if not content, at least resigned to her existence. Her life was mundane, but comfortable. Now all sorts of thoughts filled her mind.
She drove her late-model Ford Escort past her apartment. She decided to visit her grandmother. Seeking Lucille’s counsel was second-nature to her. She’d always been able to talk to her about anything, and she wanted, no, needed, her Nana’s wisdom now, more than ever.
Within minutes the nursing home came into view. Janie wheeled carelessly into the parking lot. Usually meticulous, she took up two spaces and didn’t even bother to lock her car after getting out. She hooked the strap of her purse on her shoulder and hurried inside. Halfway down the hall, she paused. How would she broach the subject to her grandmother?
The timid knock on her door surprised Lucille. She turned her wheelchair away from the window, where she had been watching two squirrels chasing each other around a tree. She wasn’t expecting anyone, but beckoned the visitor inside. Her door opened and her heart broke at the look of despair on her granddaughter’s face. “Janie? Come here, honey.” She held out her arms and embraced the upset woman. “Tell Nana all about it.”
Janie shuddered in Lucille’s arms. “I…I…he—” She broke into tears.
“There, there. Everything’s going to be all right.” Lucille lifted Janie’s chin and noticed her bruised face. “What happened?”
Wiping her eyes, Janie managed to pull herself together. “It’s all such a mess, Nana. I don’t know what to do.”
Lucille wiped at Janie’s face with a dainty handkerchief. “We’ll figure it out. Tell me how you got this mouse.”
“My worthless, good-for-nothing son did this?”
Janie lowered her eyes. “I probably deserved it. We argued and I said something I shouldn’t have.”
“Pish-posh. No matter what was said, you never deserve this.” Lucille traced below the contusion with her finger. “I swear, that man is a waste of skin. If I’d known the trouble he’d end up being, I’d thrown him out with the dishwater years ago.” She patted Janie’s unblemished cheek. “After he’d given me you, that is. Now, what set him off?”
“I broke up with Doug.”
“Oh? But I thought you two were happy.”
Janie sniffled. “Not really. I don’t think I ever loved him, Nana. Not the way I was supposed to.” She blew her nose on a crumbled tissue she pulled from her purse. “I didn’t even like him most of the time.”
Lucille’s eyes filled with sympathetic tears. “Why on earth were you with him, then?”
“Harvey wouldn’t have given me a moment’s peace. Besides, he did have a point. Who else could ever be interested in me? I’m plain, at the best of times.” Janie ruffled her hair. “Look at me. I’m nothing special.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, honey. You’ve always been a beautiful girl. And you’ve grown into a beautiful woman.” Lucille brushed Janie’s hair away from her face. She’d never understand how someone as ugly as her son could have fathered Janie. Her granddaughter’s only problem was she trusted what Harvey told her. No matter how hard she tried, she could never undo the impact of his negative words.
Janie had grown up believing her father. As a teen, she’d hidden behind her bookish looks, the straight hair and glasses easily disguising her natural beauty. Without self-esteem, she never cared how she dressed. Her closet was filled with frumpy skirts. The brown dress she wore today was characteristic of her life – dull, bland, and colorless. “Doug said the same thing as Harvey. I’ll probably grow old alone.” She started to cry again.
“It sounds to me as if you made a good decision. Any man who can’t see what a fine woman you are doesn’t deserve you.” Lucille rubbed her granddaughter’s back in a soothing motion. “You’re better off without him.”
“I wish I could be as sure as you, Nana.”
“Don’t worry.” Lucille kissed her forehead. “When you least expect it, Mr. Right will drop into your lap.”
Janie wasn’t so sure. She wondered what her grandmother would say if she knew the thoughts that filled her head. She kept thinking about Sam, and how badly she had treated her. Maybe Nana could help her sort through her feelings. “I met someone.”
“Really? What’s he like?”
Janie shook her head. “It’s nothing like that. She started singing at the bar by my apartment.” She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Nana, she’s so different. I’ve never met anyone like her before.”
Lucille tried not to show her surprise on her face. “A woman?” It was the last thing she thought Janie would have said. She tamped her bewilderment down deep. “Tell me about her.”
“I’m not sure where to start. She dresses so, I don’t know, manly. Tee shirts or tank tops, and work boots. And her jeans! They’re so faded, and tight. And she carries a wallet in her pocket.” Janie lowered her voice. “It has a chain on it, like a biker, or something.”
“Maybe she travels a lot, and it’s the most comfortable way to dress.”
“No, I don’t think that’s it. She’s obviously,” Janie whispered, “gay.”
“And this bothers you?” Lucille prayed silently for Janie’s affirmative answer. She’d hate to think her granddaughter would be that way. Oh, she’d still love her, no matter what. But it would take some getting used to.
Janie stilled as she contemplated her answer. “At one time, it did. But I find myself wanting to be friends with her. She’s really nice, even though I’ve treated her less than kindly.”
“Has she made any untoward advances?”
“No. In fact, she told me today that I wasn’t her type.”
Lucille’s eyes widened. “What precipitated that comment? Were you—” She couldn’t even voice her fears.
Janie realized where her grandmother was going. “No! Of course not!” She studied her hands and began to shred the tissue. “Although I did accuse her of being interested in me. But I think she was only trying to be friendly.”
“And this bothers you?”
“It did, at first. But now, I’m not so sure.”
“Well, I don’t see that it would hurt. Everyone could use another friend.” Lucille hoped she was doing the right thing. All she wanted was for Janie to be happy, and maybe befriending this woman was it. She only hoped it wouldn’t lead to anything else.
Sam ran her fingers down the piano keys with a flourish. She nodded her acknowledgement of the crowd’s applause as she stood. “Thanks, folks. I’m going to call it a night.”
Several people voiced their displeasure. “One more!” a woman at the bar yelled. “I want to hear some Reba.”
“Sorry. My voice is about gone.” Sam accepted a glass of water from Ray and drank half of it before placing it on the bar.
The woman wriggled on her perch. Her black hair was obviously dyed, as it was too dark for her complexion. She took a deep drag from her cigarette and blew the smoke Sam’s direction. “I like the way you sing.”
“Um, thanks.” Sam scooted away from the woman, who was at least fifteen years her senior. She wasn’t looking for any trouble, and this lady reeked of it. “I’m here most nights.”
“I know.” Slightly overweight, the brunette adjusted her short leather skirt, showing more of her ample thigh. “I’ve been in here quite a lot.” She raised her hand and casually loosened the three top buttons of her red satin shirt. “It’s mighty warm tonight, isn’t it?”
Sam glanced at Ray, who gave her the “you’re on your own” look. She quickly drained her water glass and held it up to him. “Could I have another, Ray?”
“Sure.” He looked as if he was trying not to laugh at her predicament. He was well aware of the patron, and wasn’t surprised at her antics.
The woman held out her hand to Sam. “I’m Camille. But you can call me Cami.” She squeezed Sam’s hand and didn’t release it. She leaned over closer and whispered, “You know, I’ve never been with a woman.”
With a hard jerk, Sam regained her hand and quickly tucked it into her front pocket. She wasn’t naive, but the last thing she wanted to do was to get tangled up with a predator like Cami. “Uh, yeah. I wish you luck on that one. It’s been nice talking to you, but I have a few things to take care of in the back.” She hurried to the kitchen as if the room was on fire.
Cami ground out her cigarette and lit another one. She blew several smoke rings and shook her glass at Ray. “Hit me again.”
After running a full sink of dishwater, Sam furiously scrubbed every dirty glass she could find. She wasn’t about to go back into the bar as long as Cami was there.
Two hours later, Ray came into the kitchen and leaned against the counter. Every inch of the room gleamed. “You’ve been busy.”
“Yeah, well. It needed to be done, and I didn’t feel like singing anymore tonight. I hope that was okay.” Sam finished sweeping and placed the broom in a nearby closet.
“Sure. I’ll never complain about you cleaning. I’ve locked the place up, if you want to go back to the main room. You’re safe.” Ray had become fond of the singer. He’d often told her she was welcome to stay as long as she wanted.
Sam tossed the dishcloth at him. “Very funny.” She retrieved the broom again and escaped into the bar.
Since Sam had washed the majority of the dishes, it only took the two of them thirty minutes to get the bar ready for the next day’s business. Once outside, Ray locked the front door and pocketed the keys. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow, Sam.” He patted her on the back. “You look tired. Try to get some rest.”
She watched as he walked down the sidewalk and out of sight. The clouds covered any hint of moonlight, and the humidity caused Sam to break instantly into a sweat. She shuffled down the alley toward her car. Since it was so late, she decided to forego staying at Betsy’s. She didn’t want to disturb the older woman’s rest and felt comfortable sleeping in her car, as she’d done for years.
A sound at the end of the alley caused Sam to stop. She stayed in the shadows and peered ahead, glad for once of the security light that brightened the area behind the bar. At first, she thought she was dreaming. Leaning against the Oldsmobile was the last person she expected to see. She stepped out of the darkness, yet kept a good distance between them. It had been days since she’d seen her. “What are you doing here?”
Janie pushed off the car. She’d seen Sam around town in it, and knew it was hers. “I wanted to apologize for how I acted the other day.”
“Okay, fine. You’ve apologized.” Sam was tired of Janie’s constant change of heart. She felt like she was on a see saw, and she’d never liked the things. “No hard feelings.” She moved past Janie to open the back door of the car. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m tired.”
Sam took off her shoes and threw them in the floorboard of her car. “You’re blocking my bedroom window.”
Undoing her belt, Sam started to slip her jeans down her legs. “I’m going to bed.”
Janie blushed as more of Sam’s legs were unveiled. But she couldn’t stop watching. The smooth expanse of thigh held her interest much longer than it should have. She blinked and met Sam’s eyes. “Um, sorry.”
“S’okay.” Sam stepped out of the jeans and tossed them in the floorboard as well. “Listen. It’s late. Do you need me to walk you home?”
“No, my car’s out front.”
Sam adjusted the waistband on her boxer shorts and tucked her hands beneath her arms. She wasn’t cold, but her confusion over Janie’s sudden attitude change kept her off balance. “Alright. Hey, since we’re speaking to each other again, want to get together for breakfast tomorrow?”
The suggestion made Janie uncomfortable. “I…I don’t normally eat breakfast.”
“I see.” Sam knew a brush off when she heard one. “Never mind.” She climbed into the back seat of the car. “Guess I’ll see you around.” She slammed the door and disappeared beneath an old blanket, leaving Janie standing alone.
Janie closed her door and walked into the apartment. It was dark, and it was the first time she’d noticed the quiet. She tossed her purse onto a chair and headed toward the bathroom.
After putting on her nightgown, she wandered into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of skim milk. She placed the glass on her nightstand and climbed into bed. A quick glance at her alarm clock showed it was three-thirty, yet she was wide awake. She kept going over in her mind her conversation with Sam. No matter how she dissected it, she always ended up sounding like an insensitive idiot. She finished the milk and placed the empty glass on her nightstand. “I was a jerk. No wonder she was so angry with me.”
Tired of where her thoughts were taking her, Janie picked up the remote control and turned on her television. Even with the satellite dish, there wasn’t anything worth watching. She was about to turn it off again when she came across a series on one of the movie channels.
She stared at the program for fifteen minutes and gasped when she realized two of the women were roughly removing each other’s clothes. Although she knew she should change the channel, she instead stared at the screen, transfixed on the way one of the women began to run her hands all over the other one’s body. “Oh, my god.” She sat up in bed, her mouth slightly open in shock. The more active the characters on the screen became, the warmer her bedroom felt. When one of them moaned, Janie felt a sensual heat burn in the pit of her stomach.
As both women continued to writhe and moan, Janie couldn’t take her eyes from the screen. She’d never seen anything like it before. Her heart began to pound, and she started breathing heavily. Suddenly, it dawned on her what she was watching, and she quickly turned off the television. She covered her face with her hands, ashamed of her arousal.
With a shaky sigh, Janie switched off the lamp next to her bed and sat in the darkness, more confused than ever.
Sam came into the gym early the next morning. She looked around for Betsy, but the woman was no where to be found. She started toward the showers to see if she needed to bring down clean towels. The sight of the older woman, kneeling on the floor, scared Sam to death. “Betsy? What’s wrong?”
The gym manager raised her head. “Thank goodness you’re here. I was mopping the floor and my damned back went out. I’ve been stuck like this for almost an hour.” She grimaced as Sam helped her to her feet. “Ugh. I knew I should have opened a video store.”
“Damn, Betsy. You know this is my job. Do you want to go to the emergency room?” Sam guided her out of the locker room, bearing most of Betsy’s weight. The woman was a few inches shorter than she, but outweighed her by thirty pounds or more. “I can run and get my car.”
“No, I’ll be okay. This happens more than I care to admit.” Betsy shuffled to her office and sat gingerly on the leather sofa. “I’d love you forever if you’d get me an icepack, though.”
Sam nodded and popped out of the room, returning quickly with the requested item, wrapped in a towel. “Is ice a good idea?” she asked, while she slid it beneath Betsy’s hips.
“Yep. It’ll bring down the swelling, and I’ll be good as new in no time.”
“Okay, as long as you’re sure.” Sam stood near the sofa. “Is there anything else I can do?”
Betsy opened her eyes and exhaled slowly. “Aaah. That’s feeling better already.” She willed the pain away, to no avail. “Are you real busy this morning?”
“No. I’m pretty much free until four o’clock or so. What do you need?”
“Would you mind watching the gym for me? I know you usually work at the grocery store, but—”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll call the manager and tell him I won’t be in today.” Sam took the afghan from the back of the couch and covered Betsy’s legs. “Holler if you need anything. I’ll finish up the mopping and make sure there’s enough towels out for the morning masochists.”
Betsy held out her hand until Sam took it. “Thanks, kiddo. You’re a lifesaver.”
Sam squeezed her hand and stepped back. “No problem.” She heard the bell over the front door. “Guess I’d better get out there. Hopefully they won’t think I killed you and buried you out back.”
“If anyone gives you grief, send them to me.” Another sharp pain hit, and Betsy closed her eyes. “But wait until after lunch.”
“You got it, boss.” Sam left the door partially open, so she could hear if Betsy called her. She jogged up to the counter and greeted the first customer of the day.
Hours later, Betsy came limping out of the office. The building was empty and she looked around for Sam. She heard a noise in the showers and peeked inside.
With her back to the door, Sam briskly pushed the mop over the tiles. Her gray tank top was plastered to her skin, yet she kept a steady pace. She was barefoot and sang softly under her breath.
Betsy watched the younger woman work. “Nice job, Sam.”
Sam was almost to the door when Betsy announced her presence. She bit back a yell and spun around. “You scared me.”
“Sorry.” Betsy slowly straightened to her full height. “How about we lock the doors and grab some lunch? My treat.”
“I don’t have to be asked twice.” Sam leaned the mop against the wall. “Let me get cleaned up first. I’m a mess.” She started to take off her shirt, but paused.
Betsy tossed her a towel. “All righty. But don’t take too long. I’m hungry.” She shuffled away, chuckling under her breath at Sam’s modesty.
The minute hand on the wall clock finally hit twelve. Janie had been staring at it for half an hour, counting the minutes until she could take her lunch break. She took her purse from the lower drawer of her desk and slipped the strap over one shoulder. She walked by Andrea’s desk. “I’m going out for lunch today, so I won’t be around until one.”
Andrea looked up from filing her nails. “Don’t be late. You only get an hour, you know.”
“I know.” Janie turned away and left the office. She wanted to see if she could find Sam, and maybe offer to buy her lunch. Her flats clicked on the sidewalk as she headed toward Danny’s. Ten minutes later, she stood in front of the bar. She tried the door, but it was locked. With a muttered curse, Janie went down the alley until she was at Sam’s car. She peeked in the windows, but it was empty. Her stomach growled, so she gave up and went in search of lunch.
The closest place to eat was Fern’s. From the outside Janie could see how crowded it was. She stepped inside and looked around for an empty seat. Hearing Sam’s laugh caused her head to turn toward the corner.
Sam sat across a table from an older woman, who Janie recognized. She had gone to the gym a couple of times in the past, until Doug found out. He’d teased and harassed her about going, until she quit and never went back. But she remembered how nice the owner had been. She never would have thought Betsy to be a lesbian. They seemed to be having a good time, and Janie felt an irrational stab of jealousy. Betsy was at least fifteen years older than Janie, which made her even madder. She turned and left the restaurant as quickly as she had come.
She brushed by several people who quickly moved out of her way. “What’s she doing with that old woman? Are they dating? My god, she’s old enough to be Sam’s mother!” Janie continued to mutter under her breath while she walked. “What does she see in her? Am I that grotesque? What’s wrong with me?” She stopped when she realized she’d walked all the way home. “Damn.” Her heart wasn’t in the mood to return to work. Janie walked up the stairs to the second floor and called out sick for the rest of the day.
Sam sputtered, almost choking on the fry she had put in her mouth. “Stop. You’re going to kill me.” She took a drink of her iced tea to force the food down. “Where do you come up with all these stories?”
“Hey, I’ve been around for quite a while. You run a place like mine, you see all sorts of things.” Betsy sipped her coffee.
“Sounds like it.” Sam bit into her hamburger again and closed her eyes at the taste. The homemade patty weighed a pound, and the vegetables that adorned the sandwich were crisp and fresh. “I’m going to gain a ton before I leave, if I keep eating like this.”
Betsy tossed an olive slice from her salad at Sam. “Not likely. You’ve got a long way to go, kid. Now, you were asking how I got started running the gym. What’s the matter, don’t I look like someone who values physical fitness?”
The diplomatic thing to do would be to keep her mouth shut. But Sam had never been called a diplomat. “Honestly? No. I mean, you look great, for your age.” She quickly shut her mouth. “Not that you’re old, or anything. Just—”
Betsy howled at the look on Sam’s face. “I think you should stop while you’re behind. It’s okay. I don’t offend easily. But if you said something bad about my cat, there’d be hell to pay.”
“You don’t have to worry. I like cats.” A devious look crossed Sam’s face. “They taste like chicken, you know.”
“What?” Betsy glared at her, until she realized Sam was pulling her leg. “I’ll get you for that one. Besides, I haven’t had a cat in years.”
Sam shrugged, but didn’t appear too worried. She went back to eating her lunch. “History, please?”
“Oh, yeah. When my husband and I came here back in seventy-one, we wanted to live in the downtown area, such as it was. The only place we could find that wasn’t a total dump was the apartment above the gym. The old man who owned it was getting on and wanted to sell the whole building.” She took another sip of coffee. “It was a lot different than it is now. There was a boxing ring, and the showers were nasty.”
“It was an old-time gym?”
Betsy nodded. “Problem was, no one in town went in there anymore. We considered remodeling into something else, but Jack thought the place held promise.” She sat quietly for a moment, lost in the memory of her deceased husband. “As soon as we opened, business was great. But when Jack passed after his heart attack, I almost shut down for good.” She sighed and wiped a tear from her eye. “Twenty years ago, and it still seems like yesterday.”
“I’m sorry.” Sam usually felt uncomfortable when someone mentioned death, but all she wanted to do was give Betsy a hug and tell her everything was going to be all right. She stared at her plate, at a loss for words.
“Don’t be, Sam. I didn’t have as much time with him as I would have liked, but I cherish each moment I did.” She gazed fondly at Sam. “You know, with your eyes and coloring, you could have been his daughter. Those smoky gray eyes and strong chin. He was such a handsome man.”
Sam wasn’t sure what to say to that, so she wisely kept quiet.
Betsy slapped the table. “Listen to me, going on like that. I’ve probably embarrassed you.”
“No, not really. More like flattered.” Sam spared a glance around the room and realized no one was paying much attention to them. Maybe the townsfolk were beginning to get used to her. Sam hoped so. She was beginning to like the place, bigots and all. “You don’t seem too concerned about being seen with me.”
“Why? I’m certainly not like everyone else.” Sam looked up when the waitress filled her tea glass. “Thanks.”
Betsy leaned back in her chair. “No, you’re not. But, I’m not a believer in strangers, only in friends we haven’t met yet. And you seem like a good person.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “You are a good person, aren’t you? I don’t have to worry about you hitting on all my women customers, do I?”
Sam choked on her tea. “What?”
“See how silly it sounds?” Betsy held her hand out and waited until Sam took it. She rested them both on the edge of the table, not caring what anyone else thought. “I like you, Sam. I believe we’ll be great friends.”
“We already are, Betsy. I like you too.” After Betsy released her hand, Sam went back to eating. The longer she stayed in Piperton, the more she began to enjoy it.
The apartment was only a one-bedroom, although for once it seemed hugely empty and lonely to Janie. She dried the bowl she’d used for her lunch and placed it in the cupboard. Cold cereal wasn’t her usual meal choice but she didn’t feel like anything else. She stared at the soapy water, lost in her thoughts.
Seeing Sam with another woman, no matter how innocent it might have been, left Janie feeling unsettled. Although she’d rebuffed the singer’s attempts at friendship, she still didn’t want to have to share her. Angry at herself, Janie pulled the plug in the sink and wiped her hands on a towel. “This is ridiculous.”
She gathered her things to return to work when her cell phone rang. A quick glance at the caller ID caused her to answer. “Hello?”
Sandra’s voice, rough and loud came through the line. “Hey, girl. What’s up? I tried calling you at work but they told me you were sick. Are you all right?”
“No, I’m fine.” Janie took the phone with her to the sofa. “I didn’t feel like going back after lunch.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” The flick of a lighter, followed by a cough, told of what Sandra was doing. “Since you’re not sick, want to go out tonight?”
The silent apartment she once treasured now felt oppressive. “Sure. Dinner?”
“And then someplace to guy watch. Unless Doug won’t let you.”
“He has no say in what I can, or can’t do.”
Sandra snorted, which turned into another hacking cough. “Since when?”
“Since I broke up with him.” The fear the declaration once would have caused was replaced by pride. The longer she was away from Doug, the more she realized it was the right thing to do.
“You’re kidding! When?”
“A few days ago.” Janie sighed and touched her still-tender cheek. She hadn’t gotten over the surprise at Harvey’s anger, and had done a good job of avoiding him.
“Are you sure? He always seemed so good to you.”
Janie choked back a bitter laugh. “It did seem that way, didn’t it? Believe me, he was far from it.”
Something in Janie’s voice concerned Sandra. “What happened?”
“Let’s just say his true nature came out when he drank. I really don’t want to get into it right now.”
“All right.” Sandra was quiet for a moment, then she could be heard lighting another cigarette. “You still feel up for going out tonight?”
Janie looked around. The floors needed a good vacuuming, and she could spy dust on the furniture. But she wasn’t in the mood for housework. “Definitely. Do you want to meet somewhere?”
“Why don’t I drop by and get you. About six?”
“Sounds good. And Sandra? Thanks.”
“No problem, hon. We single girls got to stick together.” After cementing their plans, she hung up the phone.
Janie kicked her shoes off, curled her feet underneath herself and snuggled into the corner of the sofa. She looked forward to the evening. Sandra was always able to get her out of her funk.
Of the several selections of bars in Piperton, Sandra chose Danny’s. Janie reluctantly followed her inside. The cigarette smoke was unusually heavy for a Thursday night, and she fought the urge to fan her hand in front of her face.
Sandra found a table not far from the piano and led Janie by the arm. “Come on. This is perfect.” She sat where she could see not only the entire room, but had a nice view of the woman singing at the piano.
The musician’s low voice was hard to hear over the room’s din, although Janie understood every word. She placed her purse at the foot of her chair. Her eyes watered at the thick smoke, which was made worse by Sandra’s chain-smoking contribution. She ordered a light beer from the waitress and was soon sipping the cold brew and listening to Sam sing. She leaned closer to Sandra when her friend tapped her on the arm. “What?”
“Nice voice.” Sandra pointed at Sam. “She looks a little rough around the edges though, doesn’t she?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Sandra pursed her lips and stared at Janie. “Please. If her tee shirt wasn’t so tight, it would be hard to tell she wasn’t a man. Kind of scary, if you ask me.”
“Well, I didn’t.” Janie pulled her arm away and tried not to stare at Sam.
“Why are you so snippy?”
Janie forced herself to look away from the piano. “I’m sorry, Sandra.”
Sandra struggled to keep the disgruntled look on her face, but failed. “Just for that, you get to buy the next round.”
“Fair enough.” Janie glanced at the piano again, in time to lock eyes with Sam. She smiled shyly, blushed then turned away.
The move didn’t go unnoticed by Sandra. “Do you know her?”
“Yes. I mean, no.” Janie’s hand shook as she picked up her beer bottle. “We’ve sort of, uh, met.”
“Where on earth would you have met someone like her?” Sandra propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on one hand. A startled look came upon her face. “Oh, my god. Did she come on to you?”
Janie pulled the bottle away too quickly, and beer dribbled down her chin. She wiped at it with the back of her hand. “Of course not!” With a quick look around, she hunched forward to keep from being overheard. “It was nothing like that. We met at Fern’s not too long ago and had breakfast together.”
Sandra’s voice rose. “You’re kidding! You’ve dated her?”
“Shhh!” Janie slapped her hand over her friend’s mouth. “No, it wasn’t a date. It was crowded, and she asked if she could sit at my table, that’s all.” The feel of Sandra’s tongue against her palm caused her to jerk her hand away. “Ugh. That’s disgusting.”
“Ha. Better get used to it, if you plan on seeing much of her.” Sandra’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “I hear they like—”
Taking pity on Janie, Sandra sat back in her chair. “Okay, okay. I’ll be good.” She waited until Sam glanced their way then waggled her fingers at her. “Maybe we should buy her a drink. You could introduce me.”
A deep voice cut off Janie’s reply. “I should have known you’d be here, Janie.” Doug placed his hand on the back of Janie’s chair. “Hey, Sandra.”
Sandra gave him a cool look. Janie had explained over dinner the events that led to the breakup. “Hello.”
Doug caressed Janie’s shoulder and winked at Sandra. “You want to give us a few minutes alone?”
“I don’t think so.”
Janie tried to pry his hand away. “Leave me alone. I’m not interested in anything you have to say.”
“I think you are.” He bent down and placed a sloppy kiss on her cheek. “Your old man said you were ready to get back together. He wants grandkids, you know.”
Wincing under the pressure of his grip, Janie grabbed his thumb and pulled it back until he removed his hand. “Then maybe you two should get busy, Doug. Because I don’t plan on having any children. Especially not with you.”
“You bitch!” Doug took a handful of her hair and yanked. “I ought to take you outside and show you some manners.” He started to pull her out of her seat when the bartender, Ray, tapped him on the arm.
“Hey, man. Why don’t you leave these two ladies alone?” Ray had heard Doug yell and stepped away from the bar. He’d seen Sam start to stand and interfere, but didn’t want an all-out brawl on his hands. “Come on over to the bar, and I’ll give you a beer, on the house.”
Doug shoved Janie away and looked as if he was about to spit on her. “Yeah, okay. I’ll talk to you later, Janie. We’ve still got some unfinished business.”
As soon as he walked away, Janie began to shake. She barely registered Sandra’s arm around her shoulder as her friend led her out of the bar.
Once Sandra had Janie buckled into the passenger seat of the car, she locked the doors. “I’m going to run in and grab our bags and pay our tab. Be right back.” She hurried back to the bar, but was met outside the door by Sam, who held out the purses to her.
“I figured you’d need these.” Sam looked behind Sandra to see Janie sitting in the front seat of the car, with a blank look on her face. “Is she all right?”
“I think she will be.” Sandra made a quick decision, and hoped it was the right one. “I need to run in and settle our tab. Would you mind staying with Janie until I get back?”
Sam nodded and walked to the car. She stood where Janie could see her, not wanting to frighten her further.
Janie noticed her immediately and rolled down her window. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay.” Sam squatted beside the passenger door and propped her arm on the open window. “Are you? Okay, I mean?”
“I think so.” Janie rubbed her shoulder where Doug had squeezed. She knew when she got home she’d see a bruise. “I’m sorry we ruined your singing.”
Sam willed herself not to touch Janie, even though her fingers were itching to do so. “Don’t worry about it. I was pretty much done for the night, anyway.”
“It’s a little early, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but when the smoke is that bad, I have to stop sooner. It gets to me.”
Without thinking, Janie rested her hand on Sam’s arm. The warm skin soothed her spirit. The altercation with Doug was quickly fading into the back of her mind. “I can imagine how bad that gets. Being around Sandra’s smoke is enough to make me choke.”
“She seems nice.”
“She’s my best friend. We’ve known each other since grade school.” When Sandra came out of the bar, Janie reluctantly removed her hand. “I’m sorry about the way I’ve been treating you.”
Sam stood and brushed imaginary dirt from her jeans. “Don’t worry about it.” She was about to step away when Janie gripped her forearm again.
“I’d like to make it up to you. Can I buy you breakfast tomorrow?”
“Are you sure?”
Janie smiled at Sandra, who walked around to open the driver’s door. She tightened her grip before letting go. “Yes. Is seven-thirty okay?”
“Yep.” Sam ducked her head to speak to Sandra. “If you need anything, I can be reached here at the bar, or over at Betsy’s gym.”
“Thanks.” Sandra buckled her seat belt and lit up another cigarette. “Be seeing you around.”
Sam stepped back as the car backed away from the curb. She rested her hands on her hips and watched the tail lights until they were out of sight.
To be continued in Part IIReturn to the Academy