Disclaimers: See Part 1
A Special Note to Our Readers: Hoosier Daddy is a work in progress. You will likely notice a few inconsistencies here and there as you make your way through the online version of the story. We have made some tweaks and subtle adjustments to the plot, most specifically to timelines. For this, we ask your indulgence, and promise that in the final, published version of the book, everything will make sense. If not, we reserve the right to blame our editor.
Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are ours.
Violence/Sex: No violence, but some quirky sexual encounters and lots of big trucks. This story does involve a consensual, loving and romantic relationship between two adult women. It's not graphic, but if sexual encounters in bathrooms or behind lemon shake-up stands offend you, you may want to consider another story selection -- or at least one that isn't set in Indiana.
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Copyright: Ann McMan and Salem West, April 2013. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any format without the prior express permission of the authors.
The next morning, I called El and gave her directions to Grammy Mann's house. I thought it made a lot more sense for us to arrive for dinner separately—and not just because I was beginning to grow wary about too many wagging tongues if we were seen riding around together. I wanted El to have the wherewithal to leave early if she felt too uncomfortable being there. In hindsight, it did seem that maybe I had jumped the gun a little by asking her to come by and meet the most important member of my family. But then, Grammy had pretty much steamrolled her way into the middle of everything, and there was no way I could back out now. Besides, I was more than a little curious to see how well El would hold up after spending an hour or two in Grammy's crosshairs— that was like getting grilled by Judge Judy (one of Grammy's favorite afternoon TV stars).
Fritz and I showed up early to help get things ready—which meant making the iced tea and plumping up the cushions on the porch furniture. It was hot outside, but not intolerable. There actually was a nice breeze blowing in from the west. A couple of times, I thought the heavy, summer air smelled like the Wabash River. On a trellis at the end of the porch, a thick maze of Wooly Dutchman's Pipe provided a wall of cool, deep shade for Grammy's rocking chairs. It was still blooming, and you could see the tiny purple flowers if you looked closely.
Fritz took up his customary post at the top of the porch steps. He seemed more alert than usual. He kept scanning the county road that ran past the front of Grammy's house. Probably, he sensed my agitation. That wouldn't be hard…I'd pretty much been an emotional basket case since running into El last night in the parking lot at Hoosier Daddy. I knew that I was just digging myself in deeper by letting Grammy pressure me into inviting El over here. And that was especially true now that it looked like she and Tony would be pulling up stakes and clearing out sooner than anyone expected. It was clear that I was on another fast track to emotional disaster—and instead of easing my foot off the pedal; I was jamming it into the floorboards.
Fritz started up and climbed to his feet. It always amazed me how he could hear a car coming a full minute before I could. Down the road, I could see a red SUV coming around the bend. El. I glanced down at my watch. Right on time, too . I remembered what Luanne told me the other night. “Honey, one thing about them agitators is how they always show up, pronto.”
I waved a hand at El to let her know she'd found the right place. Fritz flew down off the porch like he'd been shot from a cannon and raced out to the driveway to meet her. What was it with El and dogs? I followed a little more slowly, and tried to calm myself so I could act nonchalant…like having a labor organizer over to eat pot roast with my grandmother was the most normal thing in the world.
El turned off her engine and hopped out. She was wearing a sleeveless, tangerine-colored cotton dress with a scoop neck. She looked fantastic…as usual. One thing was for certain: if El ever got tired of being a union agitator, she could make a fortune modeling for J. Jill.
Fritz was dancing around her like a lunatic. She bent over to ruffle his ears and kiss him on the top of his blonde head.
“Well, hello there,” she cooed. “Aren't you just about the best looking thing I've ever seen?”
I had a hard time not repeating exactly the same words to her.
“I see you made it,” I said instead.
She smiled up at me. It was incredible how even a hardscrabble backdrop like Doc Baker's front yard could resemble a rolling vineyard in Tuscany with El posed in front of it.
“I would have been hard pressed not to find this place,” she said. “It seems that anyplace of note in this county is either one right- or one left-turn off this road.”
I had never thought about it that way. “I guess that's true. We tend to lead simpler lives out here in the Crossroads of America.”
She laughed. “Don't I wish that were the truth?”
“You think it isn't?”
“Not where you're concerned.”
Apparently, Fritz decided that this was going to be a longer conversation. He sat down at El's feet and rested his head against her knee. Fritz was a leaner.
“I'm not that complex.”
El raised an eyebrow. “I don't share that assessment.”
I thought about the conversation we'd had last night while I was changing my tire, and the ways my demeanor toward her bounced around. “I guess I have been acting like an idiot.”
“I think ‘idiot' might be a bit strong—but you have expressed a fair amount of ambivalence.”
“It's really not ambivalence, El. It's more like…” I searched for the right word. “Confusion.”
She was still petting Fritz, who probably would've consented to sit there, plastered up against her leg, until the next millennium. It was hard to blame him.
“What can we do to un-confuse you?” she asked.
“Is that a word?”
El shrugged. “It's more of a concept.”
“Jill?” Grammy's voice rolled out from inside the house. “Are you ever gonna bring that girl inside so I can get a look at her?”
I sighed, and looked at El apologetically. “It's not too late to lay a patch out of here and head for Pizza Hut.”
“I think I'll take my chances.” She brushed at the side of her dress to remove some strands of Fritz's hair. He'd already bolted for the steps when he heard Grammy's voice.
“Don't say I didn't warn you.”
We walked together to the porch. The screen door opened and Grammy came outside to greet us. She was drying her hands on a faded dishtowel. El and I walked up the steps.
“Grammy, this is Eleanor Rzcpczinska.”
Grammy's eyes grew wide. “Zhep- what? ” she asked.
“Sin-ska,” I replied. “Zhep- sin -ska.”
El stepped forward and held out her hand. “Just call me El,” she said, “or The Agitator.”
Grammy stared at her for a moment, then smiled and took hold of her arm. “We're gonna get along just fine.” She led El inside. I could hear their heels clacking along the floorboards as they headed back toward the kitchen.
Fritz stood there beside, me watching them go. Then he raised his brown eyes to my face.
“I got nothin',” I said to him.
He sighed and ambled off to reclaim his perch beside the steps.
“Jill?” Grammy's voice rang out again. “Are you going to join us?”
I looked out across the landscape. Nope. There were no talking animals or caterpillars out smoking behind the barn. It still looked like Indiana. I hadn't somehow fallen down a rabbit hole and ended up in Neverland.
I shook my head and went inside to join them.
“So, tell me about your people.” Grammy was loading El up with enough pot roast to start her own Oxfam chapter.
El watched as she ladled spoonful after spoonful of the thick, pot liquor onto her plate. Her expression grew more panicked as the mound of food grew larger.
“Grammy, she can't possibly eat all of that.”
Grammy paused, mid-ladle, and locked El in her cross hairs. “You look like you could use a bit of fattening up. I don't imagine you get much decent food living out of hotels.” She passed the plate across to her.
El gave her one of those smiles that looked like a million dollars before taxes.
“Thanks,” she said. “I do get tired of eating out of vending machines.”
Grammy clucked her tongue. “Ain't nothin' in a Zagnut bar that can feed a body.”
I didn't bother to tell Grammy that the last known vending machine to dispense a Zagnut bar was probably collecting rust in some abandoned Kentucky rest stop.
“Grammy…” I tried again.
She ignored me. “Have some of this cornbread, honey.” She plopped a brick-sized hunk of it on the corner of El's plate. “It'll soak up some of that gravy.”
I gave up and held out my plate. “Could I have some, too?”
Grammy handed me a slab of the yellow cake without even looking in my direction.
El lifted a forkful of the thick stew to her mouth and tasted it. I thought her eyes were going to roll back into her head.
“Oh my god…this is wonderful.”
I stared down at my plank of cornbread. It sat naked on my white, Corelle dinner plate, surrounded by a ring of tiny blue cornflowers.
“Could I have some, too?” I asked again.
Grammy glanced over at me this time.
“Pot roast,” I added. “I'd like some pot roast.” I pointed at the center of my plate. “To soften up this two-by-four.”
Grammy gave me one of those “people in hell want ice water” looks, and reached out to shift the handle of the ladle so it was pointed in my direction.
“Right. Thanks .” I got to my feet. “I'll help myself. You two just forget I'm here.”
El gave me a look filled with so much affection and amusement that I nearly dropped the ladle.
“So.” Grammy was talking again. “Your people?”
El shifted her attention back to Grammy. “Buffalo,” she said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”
I could see Grammy trying to mentally plot that location on a map. “Is that where they make those tiny chicken wings in the hot sauce?”
El smiled and nodded at her. “Yes, ma'am. Chicken wings and lots of car parts.” She looked at me. “Not necessarily in that order.”
“Brothers and sisters?” Grammy asked.
“Lots of those, too,” El replied. “I come from a big, loud, blue-collar, Roman Catholic family. I'm the youngest of six—three brothers, two sisters, and one bathroom.” She smiled. “On school days, my mother woke us up in five-minute intervals. We had to learn how to work fast.”
“That has to be a benefit in your profession,” I added.
“It does pay dividends sometimes.” She raised an eyebrow. “I have been known to do some of my best work in restrooms.”
I cleared my throat. “Anybody want more tea?” I got up and went to the kitchen to retrieve the pitcher.
Grammy ignored me and stayed on task. “Are any of your brothers and sisters married?”
“All of them.” El explained. “At last count, there were eight grandchildren and at least two more on the way.” She glanced at me. “I appear to be the family's only stalwart when it comes to zero population growth.”
“That's a shame,” Grammy said. “You'd make beautiful babies.”
I choked on my tea.
Grammy was unfazed. “Where do they all live?”
“Mostly in and around Buffalo.”
“That must be very nice for your folks.”
El nodded. “My mom never misses an opportunity to let me know that my rolling-stone lifestyle is an annoying departure from the family norm. She really wants me to settle someplace and put down some roots.”
“Don't you like Buffalo?”
El smiled. “Have you ever been to Buffalo, Mrs. Mann?”
Grammy shook her head. “No, honey. I don't tend to travel much outside the Tri-State. I never did see the reason to go gallivanting all over when everything I need is right here within a stone's throw. Besides, I can get everyplace I need to go without ever having to make any left turns. Things are just a whole lot simpler that way.” She looked over at me. “Now, Jill, here, seems to get all antsy from time to time. I think it was going away to school did that. It put all kinds of ideas in her head.”
“What ideas?” I asked.
Grammy waved a hand at me but kept her attention focused on El.
I looked down at my plate of food. “What ideas?” I asked the medley of beef, potatoes and carrots that stared back at me. I knew that I was about as likely to get a response from it as I was from Grammy.
“Your mama is right,” Grammy said to El. “It would do both of you girls good to put down some roots.”
“I have roots,” I tried again. “ Lots of them. It's my roots that get in the way—not my lack of them.”
El seemed interested in that. “Don't you like living here?” she asked me.
“I like it okay,” I replied. “Mostly. But I get tired of how…unvarying…the social aspects of my life can be.”
“Unvarying?” Grammy asked. “What in the world does that mean? If that's just a highfalutin way to talk about Misty Ann Marks, then I have to agree with you.”
“Misty Ann Marks?” El asked. I wanted to slide beneath the table. “Who is she?”
“Nobody.” I glared at Grammy.
Grammy clucked her tongue. “She's local trash.”
“Really?” El looked over at me and raised an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
I drummed my fingers against the side of my iced tea glass.
“See?” Grammy chimed in. “Antsy.”
I sighed and pushed my glass away. “How about we change the subject?”
El was chewing on the inside of her cheek. I tried again. “Tell us about your parents, El. What do they do?”
She made me wait for what felt like an eternity, but finally, El took pity on me. “My mother is a retired school teacher. My dad died when I was seventeen—in an accident at work.
“Bless your heart.” In an instant, Grammy forgot all about Misty Ann and my antsy demeanor. “You poor baby.”
I was shocked. “What happened, El?”
El shrugged. “It was a classic breach of Lockout/Tagout protocol—one hundred percent preventable. Dad was a machinist, doing repairs on a metal stamping machine. The foreman had refused to allow him to properly lock and tagout the unit before he went to work on it. Apparently, that same foreman walked off to tend to something else, and a line supervisor passed by and turned the machine back on without knowing that dad was still servicing it.” She slowly shook her head. “They say he died instantly, but we won't ever really know what he understood or felt. What we do know is that management in this plant had consistently failed to enforce LoTo procedures.” She looked at me. “And that's the short version of how I became an Agitator.”
“Lord have mercy.” Grammy reached across the table and patted the top of El's hand. “And there was your poor mama with six children to care for.”
“Well, most of us were already out of the home—working or in college.”
“That doesn't change the fact that she was left alone with nothing but her memories to keep her warm at night.”
“I'm really sorry, El.”
She looked over at me. “It's okay. It was a long time ago.”
“I know. But I'm still sorry.”
We sat there staring at each other over our half-eaten piles of pot roast and corn bread.
Grammy cleared her throat. “As soon as you girls are finished making cow eyes at each other, we can go out on the porch and have dessert.”
El's cow eyes quickly filled up with panic. “Dessert?” she asked.
“It's pie. Rhubarb,” Grammy said with pride. “From my own patch out behind the garage. I canned it last spring.”
“Maybe we can share a slice?” I suggested.
Grammy got to her feet and started collecting plates. “Why don't you two go out for a stroll while I clear these things away? It should've cooled off some, and maybe you can work up an appetite.”
Fritz heard the telltale sound of dishes being stacked—a sure fire sign that leftovers were on their way to his food bowl. He lumbered into the dining room with his tail wagging and an expectant look on his face.
“Won't you let us help you clean up?” El asked.
Grammy was already halfway to the kitchen with Fritz trotting along behind her. It was obvious that this was a familiar routine for the two of them. “I'll holler for you when the coffee's ready,” she said over her shoulder.
El looked at me. “Cooled off? She is aware that it's still about ninety-five degrees out there, isn't she?”
I glanced over at Grammy's ancient box fan, whirring away from its perch atop an even more ancient console stereo. It had been blowing hot air past us for the last hour.
“Welcome to the Midwest—where winters get colder and summers get hotter.”
“Hotter than what?” El asked.
“I dunno. What's the hottest thing you can think of?”
“Right now, I'd have to say that it's probably the way your face looked when Grammy mentioned Misty Ann Marks.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hotter than that.”
“Why on earth would people choose to live in a place where they freeze in the winter and fry in the summer?”
“I don't know. Maybe it reminds them of their disappointed hopes.”
“Are you talking about them, or about yourself?”
El laughed and stood up. “Want to show me this famous rhubarb patch?”
I'd been down that road before, but I decided it was in my best interest not to mention it.
El came around the table and took hold of my arm. We walked back through the house and out onto the front porch. It was already well past nine, but the moon was full, and everything outside looked like it had been dabbed with silver paint.
The fall bugs were kicking up a ruckus. The noise they made slammed into us like a tidal wave as soon as we stepped outside the door. It was pretty impressive. Imagine the sound a couple thousand insects could make if they ran a chorus of tiny power tools at full-tilt boogie. Then multiply that by ten.
El turned toward me. In the silver light, her face was like an etching—one of those really good ones on commemorative coins from the Franklin Mint.
“What the hell is that? ” she asked
“What on earth are fall bugs?”
“I think you call them cicadas.”
“Really?” She seemed incredulous. “In Indiana? I thought they generally conducted their high-octane sex romps in the southern states.”
“Nope. We get ‘em every year—but usually not this early, and almost never this loud.”
“Hmmm. Isn't this supposed to be one of the seven plagues of the apocalypse?”
“No,” I shook my head. “I think that's locusts.”
El smiled at me. “You say tomato...”
I became aware of a scuffling noise behind us. Fritz had apparently finished his plate of leftovers and was eager to join us outside. I opened the door and he pushed past me, gaining momentum as he headed for the steps. He vaulted off the porch in a flash of silver light and bounded across the side yard toward the back of the house.
I nudged El. “Still wanna see the rhubarb patch?”
“Try and stop me.”
We left the porch and followed Fritz, albeit with greater deliberation and less speed.
El was looking around. I felt proud of how tidy Grammy kept things. It was a far cry from Doc Baker's compound across the road. His front yard looked like a cross between a junkyard and a drag strip. Sadly, that approach was more the norm than the exception in these parts.
“I've never really thought much about Indiana,” El was saying. “It always seemed more like a punch line than a place—as if the entire state was an unhappy suburb of Dan Quayle.”
“Dan Quayle? Isn't he a little before your time?”
“I've always been precocious and well-informed.”
El was still holding on to my arm, and she gave it a little squeeze. “I'll be sad to leave here—for more reasons than one.”
Her words siphoned the luster right off the silver night. Rolling farmland that had been looking lush and romantic now just looked lumpy and gray.
“When are you leaving?” I asked. I tried to sound casual, but I knew I wasn't fooling El. Or myself.
She shrugged. “By the end of next week, probably. Tony says this game is a lot like playing the slots in Vegas. You don't stay with a cold machine.”
I didn't know what to feel. In all honesty, I didn't give two flips about whether or not our plant got a union. But I did care about not seeing El any more. I cared about that a lot.
“I wish you could stay,” I said. I knew it sounded vague and noncommittal. Even now, I was afraid of saying too much. Hell… especially now.
We'd reached the garage and Grammy's garden. Corn, tomatoes, and peppers spread out in front of us in tidy rows. Next to the garage wall, there were several clusters of big, leafy plants. Their thick, woody stalks looked almost amber in the moonlight. I pointed toward them.
“Voila. Behold the fabled rhubarb…coming soon to a dessert plate near you.”
“My god. Those things look like shillelaghs.”
“Well. They're a bit smaller and more tender when you harvest them in the spring.”
“I sure as hell hope so.” El looked back at me. “Did you mean what you said?”
I was confused. “About the rhubarb? Yeah. It's a lot less tough when you pick it early on.”
El rolled her eyes. “No…not the rhubarb. Did you mean what you said about not wanting me to leave?”
I nodded. “I meant it.”
She sighed. “It's odd. Normally, I can't wait to see the back end of a small town like this. But Princeton seems like a place I could actually get used to.”
I was surprised. “You like it here?”
“Strange, isn't it? It surprises the hell out of me, too.”
“Why not stay, then?” I said it like it was the most natural thing in the world. And as soon as the words were out of my mouth, the idea fell into place right along side those perfect rows of tasseled corn—like it had always been part of this landscape.
“Are you serious?”
I nodded. “Why not?”
El waved a hand. “Well, for one thing, there's not a lot of demand around here for unemployed Agitators.”
That was true. “I suppose there are other things you could do?” I asked, hopefully.
“I don't know. What did you do in Buffalo before you signed up with the U.A.W.?”
“ Signed up? You make it sound like I joined the Army.”
“You say tomato….” I quoted.
“Okay, wiseass. How about you guess?”
“Yeah.” El seemed to be warming to this idea. “Guess what I did before I ‘signed up' with the union.”
I knew she was goading me, but I didn't care. I was determined to get it right. I stepped back and pretended to study her carefully—which was totally unnecessary. I could already draw every part of her perfectly from memory.
“You ran a hookah bar?” I suggested.
She smacked me on the arm. “Be serious.”
I rubbed my arm. “I was being serious.”
“Okay. Okay.” I thought about it some more. “I think you were a teacher.”
When I saw the flicker of surprise cross her face, I knew that I was right.
“That's it, isn't it?” I boasted. “You were a teacher.”
El wagged her index finger back and forth in front of me—just like every teacher I'd ever had. “Not so fast, Einstein. You're close—but not close enough to fire up a cigar.”
“Whattaya mean? I guessed it…you just don't want to admit it.”
“Nuh uh. What kind of teacher?”
“Oh, jeez…come on, El.”
She stood her ground. “Nope. You started it.”
“I started it? You're the one who told me I had to guess.”
“Well,” she shrugged. “You're the one who wants to know.”
This was getting us no place. “Okay. Um…you taught…Driver's Ed.”
“This is your guess? Seriously?”
“Well…I have seen you parallel park.”
“It's true that I have unsung talents. However, this skill would not be among them.”
“How about you just tell me?”
“Tell you? What fun would there be in that?”
“No. You have to guess.”
“I don't want to guess. We've already established that I suck at guessing.”
“You mean you give up?”
“No. First you have to say, ‘I give up.' Then, I'll tell you.”
“Are you kidding me?”
She sighed. “It's easy to see that you didn't grow up with three brothers.”
“Is everything with you a contest of wills?”
She thought about that. “More or less.”
“Okay, then. I give up.”
El cupped a hand around her ear and bent toward me. “Excuse me?”
I took a deep breath. “ Uncle. I give up. You win. I surrender . If I had a white flag, I'd wave it. If I had a sword, I'd fall on it. If I had milk money, I'd give it to you. Okay?”
She looked unconvinced.
“You have to say it like you mean it.”
“You're killing me here.” I stood there, absently tapping my fingertips against my pant leg. El noticed.
“Feeling antsy?” she asked, sweetly.
I looked up at the night sky. The stars were especially bright tonight—and it was worth noting that none of them were aligned in patterns that seemed to be favoring me.
“I give up,” I muttered to any god who might be up there, paying attention to my plight.
“See?” El was beaming at me. “That wasn't so hard, was it?”
“You know,” I glowered at her, “if you taught anything other than showing people how to annoy the piss out of each other, I'd be amazed.”
“Bingo!” El proclaimed. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What I taught. You just guessed it.”
I was confused again. “You taught people how to annoy the piss out of each other?”
She nodded. “In a manner of speaking. I taught Industrial and Labor Relations to pimply-faced undergraduates.”
I blinked. “You were a college professor?”
“Hard to believe, isn't it?”
“Holy shit.” I was stunned. “Where?”
She shrugged. “In New York.”
“State or City?”
“Where?” I held up a hand. “And please don't say ‘guess.'”
She smiled. “Cornell.”
“Don't act so shocked. It wasn't that big of a deal.”
“Why'd you quit?”
“After my father's death, I wanted to do something that I thought would really make things better for factory workers. You may not realize that the U.A.W. has a pretty robust scholarship program for children of union members.”
I shook my head.
“I got lots of help and financial support from our Region 9 local, and that enabled me to go on to grad school right after college.” El gave a wry-sounding laugh. “But I still had to borrow tons of money—and I'll be working to pay off all those loans for a very long time.”
I was still trying to make sense of everything she'd just shared with me.
“So you were a college professor? At Cornell ?”
El frowned at me. “Why is that so hard to believe? Do I drool or something?”
“No,” I added quickly. “It's not that. It's just….”
“I don't know.” I shrugged. “I just don't understand why you would leave a dream job like that to become….”
“An Agitator?” she asked.
“Well.” I shrugged again. “Yeah.”
“I hate to destroy the romanticized view you obviously have of my sojourn in academe, but trust me…life in Ithaca was far from idyllic.”
“Lots of things.” She seemed to consider them all for a moment or two. “Failed aspirations. Failed relationships. Take your pick.”
“So you ran away?”
“I prefer to think that I moved toward something better.”
I felt like a jerk for making such a stupid comment. “I'm sorry, El. I didn't mean to sound so judgmental.”
“No.” I laid a hand on her forearm. “It's not. I'm sorry.”
She didn't reply. We stood there in silence, with my hand still resting on her arm. I could hear Fritz off in the distance, barking at something. It sounded like he was running—probably chasing one of Ermaline's stray cats. She had about a dozen of them at last count, all living beneath a rusted-out, Leer commercial truck cap that reposed proudly on the scrap heap they called a front lawn.
El heard it, too. “Is that Fritz?”
“Do you need to check it out?” she asked.
“No. I just need to be ready with the Neosporin if he comes back with cat scratches on his nose.”
She smiled. “I wish all of our problems could be solved that easily.”
“Well, maybe you can be a Golden Retriever in the next life?”
“It's an idea with some merit.”
I smiled but didn't say anything. El noticed me staring at her.
“What?” she asked.
“It's nothing,” I replied.
She rolled her eyes. “I haven't known you all that long, but I think I can tell when you've got something on your mind.”
“Come on,” she said. “Give it up.”
“Friday, I feel pretty confident that whatever it is you're reluctant to share won't rise to the level of stupid, as I define it.”
I was intrigued by that idea. “You have a ‘stupid' scale?”
“Of course. Doesn't everyone?”
“Um. No . What kinds of things make your list?”
“Oh, that's easy. I'll give you the short version.” She started to tic things off. “Skinny jeans; Zeppo Marx; peanut butter and jelly in the same jar; Justin Bieber with or without his shirt; people who say ‘O.M.G.'; any cable show about bass fishing; three-fifths of the nation's factory workers who believe that labor unions are unnecessary—and the other two-fifths who think they are ; any woman who exchanges text messages with Anthony Weiner, including Huma Abedin; the on-air talent at the Fox News Channel, except Sally Kohn; and the entire North Carolina legislature—no exceptions.”
“That's your short list?”
I was amazed. “Mine is no where near that long.”
El seemed amused. “So what were you not going to say to me because it was stupid?”
“It was just an impulse.”
“Sometimes, impulses can be good things.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Right then, about a dozen impulses roared to the surface. I wondered if I should give in to a few of them and see if El would think they were good ideas. I decided just to come clean instead.
“I was going to say that I hate for you to leave when we're just starting to get to know each other.”
El looked out across the silver rows of corn that were starting to fade into the disappearing landscape. The night seemed to be getting brighter and darker all at the same time.
“I don't think that's stupid at all,” she said. Her voice sounded different. Smaller. Like it was vanishing, too.
“You don't?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“I wish we had more time,” I added.
“I wish we'd met sooner. In another place and time. Before I made so many wrong turns.”
“Why do you sound like you don't like your life?”
“Because right now, I don't.”
“But Friday,” El moved a step closer to me. “Right now is all we have.”
I looked down at her. It wasn't fair. I wanted a thousand—a million—right nows. I wanted enough right nows to last until I was too old or too crazy to care that there were no more to be had. I opened my mouth to try and explain that to El, but she quickly found a way to prevent me from saying anything. She felt sweet and safe, and I knew that I would never want to let go of her. We stood together in the dying light, surrounded by the chattering of the fall bugs and Fritz's sonorous bark. The roaring in my ears grew louder and, soon, I couldn't hear anything but the sound of my own beating heart.
El pulled away. I reached for her, but she laid a hand against my chest. She said something, but I couldn't understand her. The noise in my head was too great.
“Someone's coming,” she repeated. Her voice was like a whisper.
“Oh.” I dropped my hands. They were shaking.
I gradually became aware of a dull, pounding noise and turned around to see Fritz loping toward us. A moment later, Grammy's form materialized from the darkness behind him. She stood illuminated by a sea of tiny, yellow flashes. Lightening bugs…hundreds of them. When had they come out?
“Are you two out here waiting on next year's batch?” she called out.
I had no idea how long we'd been gone. I looked at El, then back at Grammy. “Is the pie ready?”
“Been ready. Come on. It's a lot cooler on the porch.” She turned around and receded back into the night.
“She's lying,” I said.
El looked at me.
“It's not cooler there,” I explained.
She smiled and reached for my hand. “Let's go try it, anyway.”
I didn't argue with her. We slowly walked back toward the house with Fritz in tow.
Nothing had been settled between us, but even the gloomiest outcome seemed brighter when it got served up with a fresh, hot slice of Grammy's rhubarb pie.
To Be Continued…
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