Part XX: Election Season

“You never throw a wrench in it, in society,” says a woman with severely cropped hair, crisp with styling gel, as pure and white as politicians’ promises. “He will, number one, get our economy back on track, number two, reach across the aisle and work with everyone. It’s an obvious choice to me.”

Amber nods, swiveling slowly in her office chair, while the woman hovers across the high partition of the reception desk and pats her palm over a lawn sign promoting her politician of choice.

“Sure,” Amber smiles. “Well, my boss isn’t here, and it’s not my building. I can’t promise he’ll put it up.” The hum of the electric heaters resounds in the tiny office. A brilliant nighttime cityscape of New York City appears on Amber’s desktop screen. The woman clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth, studying Amber.

“What’s your vote, dear? I have bumper stickers in my car.”

Amber laughs, she runs her fingers through her long blonde hair as she responds, “My mom always told me never to tell people who you were voting for. I don’t even know who she voted for in the last election.”

“Your family doesn’t talk about politics?”

“Not really.” The desktop background switches to the skyline of Prague, shrouded in fog. Amber recognizes the somber statues of Charles Bridge, the castle rising above the horizon, the domed ceilings of countless cathedrals.

“That’s a shame. That’s a real shame.”

“Well, it just wasn’t – ”

“It’s such an important part of our daily lives. And you’re the future, aren’t you?”

“I guess.”

Amber’s knee bounces up and down beneath her desk, beneath a sheet of paper scribbled over with notes and lists, all under the heading: “Where to Go.”

“You’ll soon be a leader of this community and look what’s happening, what’s happened.”

Amber skims the name of cities and countries she wrote down in thick black marker on the left side of the sheet, the corresponding notes on the right: Costa Rica (cheap, tropical, who to go with?), New Zealand (work in hostels, one year visa, speak English), Austin (live music, young people), Portland (Martin).

“Do your friends discuss politics?”

•••

“Every time one of them says ‘middle class,’ you have to drink,” says Katie, pouring cheap Pinot Noir in Amber’s wine glass.

“You know what I don’t get – if there’s like a dozen people on the presidential ballot, why are only two debating?” Tyler rests his feet on the coffee table, unzips his black hoodie. “You have a bottle opener?”

“I’m voting Green Party,” says Katie matter-of-factly, plunking down on the couch beside Tyler, who shakes his head. Katie runs her fingers over her black bangs while Amber rises, walks to the kitchen. “Why?” she asks as she sifts through a drawer. “That’s like wasting a vote.”

“No, it’s not,” replies Katie. “I can’t believe you’d think that, and I can’t believe you wouldn’t vote Green Party – they’ve got two women on the ballot. And they’re from the East Coast. They’re smart.”

“That’s your reasoning?” laughs Tyler. “Thanks,” he takes the silver bottle opener from Amber, opens his Spotted Cow.

“Do you know how peaceful the world would be if it was run by women?” asks Katie.

“I’m the only guy in the room,” says Tyler. “I’m not arguing with you two about that.”

“I think it would be pretty peaceful,” says Amber, hugging her knees to her chest. “We like to work things out, laugh and visit, not start firing guns whenever we feel the need to show we’re the alpha country.”

“That’s why I’m voting Green Party,” Katie turns to the television.

“I’m going to lower taxes for the middle class – ” says the lean man with tight tie around his neck.

“Drink!” says Katie.

Amber sips on the wine, pungent and tart. She puckers her lips and closes her eyes as she swallows.

“So you’re voting Green Party, Amber?” asks Tyler.

“Well,” Amber coughs, studies the two men side by side on the screen, one pointing a finger at the other, who smiles and laughs. “That’s just not true. That’s not true.”

•••

“I have a daughter, maybe your age, married, they have a little one, she goes to every school board meeting, town meetings, she gets involved,” says the woman.

“That’s great,” smiles Amber. “Maybe if, or when, I get more established I’ll do more of that.”

“What’s your opinion on abortion?”

“What?”

“I find that’s a clear way to decide what side you’re leaning towards,” the woman scratches the side of her nose. “You seem unsure of your vote. I want you to know the facts and be sure.”

“Well, I think it’s a touchy subject.”

“I’ve made you uncomfortable. Oops, I hope you’ve not personally had to deal with that.” The woman maintains a steady gaze on Amber, as if waiting for a reaction. Amber glances at her list. Thailand is in her head; she forgot to write down Thailand. “Do you just want to leave the sign here, and I’ll let my boss decide what to do.”

“Well, I want to make sure it gets put up somewhere. If he doesn’t want it you think you’d put it up on your property.”

“I live above a yarn store,” says Amber, drumming a pencil on her list. “So, probably not.”

“Who owns that store? You know who they are voting for?”

“No.”

“How do you feel about our military – you support our troops?”

“Yes. Of course. Listen, I’m thinking about leaving, so really, I don’t care.”

“Leaving? The U.S.?” the woman shakes her head. “You don’t care?”

“Yeah – I care, I just –”

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” the woman readjusts the sign under her arm and points the tip of her red fingernail at Amber. “You know there’s sex trafficking going on in a lot of places now. I saw something about it on Nightline.”

“Yeah, I think that happens in the U.S., too.”

Part XIX: The Mouse

6:03 pm: Amber yawns between munching on kernels of microwave popcorn with an extra dash of table salt. She tucks her legs under her on an oversized armchair contemplating switching on the television as she runs her palm over her unshaven calf and lazily sings, We’ll always want, but we’ll never get. But a dreamer’s still a dreamer, till you wake them up…

A tree branch with orange and red leaves taps against the window. She considers a shower and a shave.…and sit them down and explain to them the sky is up and the earth is down, amongst other things, like human beings…A burst of laughter from the ladies knitting in the shop below sounds beneath Amber…they aren’t what they seem…and then a scurrying, a movement, a shuffling across the faded green carpet.

“Oh my, god. Oh my, god,” Amber whispers, dropping a kernel propped between her greasy fingers. “Oh my, god.” A brown mouse pauses beneath the turquoise table on which the television sits.

“What do I do?” She slowly reaches for her black cellphone on the coffee table littered with J. Crew catalogs and random DVDs rented from the library – Hope Floats, Sophie’s Choice, and Tommy Boy. She calls Katie – no answer. She calls Tyler – no answer. She calls her parents.

“Hello.”

“Mom, mom, there’s a mouse.” The critter’s beady eyes gleam from beneath the table. “What do I do? What do I do?”

“Where is it?”

“Right in front of me, under the TV. What do I do?”

“Greg! Greg!”

Amber hears her father’s distant response, “Yeah?”

“Amber’s got a mouse.”

“Oh yeah?”

“What should she do, Greg? She’s scared.”

There’s an exchange of the phone. Amber’s body shudders at the sound of sudden laughter from the knitting ladies below.

“Amber?”

“Dad…there’s a mouse.”

“Why don’t you call your landlord?”

“They’re in Florida.”

“Well, just call your boyfriend – he’ll take care of it.”

“He’s not my boyfriend anymore.”

“He’s a nice guy, he’ll take care of it.”

“I don’t want to call him. Dad, it’s moving. What if there’s more?”

“Call pest control.”

“I don’t know their number.”

“Don’t you have a phone book?”

“I’m not moving from this chair.”

•••

6:27 pm: “So, where did you see it?” Toby smooths his burly, unkempt beard with a calloused hand while Amber stands on the armchair and points below the television. A teenage girl with pouty lips, a high ponytail and volleyball kneepads around her ankles stands at the screen door checking her cellphone.

“Over there,” Amber says. “It went behind the book case when you were climbing the stairs.”

Toby smiles, “It won’t hurt you.”

“Do you think there’s more?”

Toby removes his blue and gold Gibraltar Vikings hat, pulls up his worn blue jeans and grunts as he lowers himself to the dusty carpet.

“Oh yeah, there’s some mouse crap down here,” he exhales. “I have some traps in the truck.” He rises and puts a hand on his daughter’s boney shoulder, “Missy, why don’t you put away your phone and just sit down for a minute?”

“Oh yeah, sit down,” says Amber. The screen door slams shut. Missy half smiles and sits on the pale beige couch. “You have a roommate?” she asks.

“I do.”

“Where is she?”

“I think she and her boyfriend are getting dinner at –”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“I don’t. Do you?”

“Yeah,” Missy crosses her legs and smiles, revealing a silvery row of braces.

“That’s cool,” Amber clutches her legs to her chest and continues to scan the carpet.

“He got me a ring from Claire’s when he went to Green Bay. I don’t have it on because I was practicing, and we’re not supposed to wear jewelry when we practice, but it’s pretty.”

“Yeah?”

“It has a blue diamond – well not a diamond, but it looks like a diamond. There’s a matching necklace for it. I’m going to wear it tomorrow because it’s game day and we dress up for game days.”

“Huh. So, does your dad take you on calls very often?”

“No, he just picked me up when your dad called and said it was an emergency.”

Toby swings open the screen door with an arm full of black plastic objects, hollow cardboard boxes. A pail with green blocks dangles from his elbow.

He explains the purpose of each object as he places them around the apartment. “They’ll go looking for water after eating this – so the idea is that they won’t die in your house. But if they do, they mummify so you won’t smell them.”

“Wow,” says Amber. “Thanks, I feel like such a baby.”

“I’m not scared of mice or snakes or spiders,” says Missy rising from the couch. “I’m scared of bats though. My friend got bit by a bat when she was camping and said that it ruined the entire trip.”

“Huh,” says Amber.

“And these white boxes,” continues Toby, “the inside is layered in glue, so they’ll get stuck and die.”

“Handy,” smiles Amber.

“You should be all set,” says Toby.

•••

6:59 pm: “It’s dying,” Amber cries in the phone. “It’s squeaking and squirming. It’s stuck in this box. Will you come take care of it?”

“Really? You can’t just grab it and throw it off the porch?”

“No.”

“What about the knitters? You could ask them,” laughs the voice on the other end.

“No!” Amber shouts then lowers her voice as the murmur of the knitters’ voices sounds beneath her. “I don’t want them to know the same place they buy their yarn is infested with mice.”

“Why don’t you call Brian?”

“You know why. Don’t be a jerk,” Amber says as the white box shakes and taps against the floral wallpapered-wall. “Please. I called Katie, Tyler – they’re not answering – and I can’t call the pest guy – he just left.”

•••

7:24 pm: “So, what am I supposed to do with it?” laughs Dustin, holding the cardboard rectangle in his hand. The mouse’s pink tail alternates between frigid and slack as it continues to struggle.

“Oh god, I don’t know,” says Amber, standing on the chair. “Just get it away.”

“Where?” laughs Dustin. “The garbage?”

“No, no, just get it out. In the woods.”

The screen door squeaks open and slams closed. Dustin laughs as he walks cautiously down the wooden steps.

Amber inhales and exhales, But now just close your eyes and start dreaming, dreaming…Branches tap against the window. “What is wrong with me?” she whispers, before taking up the song once more…about candlelight, forget about stupid fights.

Dustin brings in a gust of crisp autumn wind, “Do you want me to tell you what I did with it?”

“No.”

“You okay?” He smiles, unbuttoning his khaki coat.

“I have to go to the bathroom really bad.”

“Go, I’ll make sure the mice don’t get you.”

“You want a beer?” asks Amber as she rises, tucking her hair behind her ears. “I think we have beer – it’s Katie’s beer, but she won’t mind.”

“My guitar’s in my car,” says Dustin, rising on the heels of his black Converse shoes. “You wanna – ”

“Okay, sure,” Amber smiles. “Just stay put while I’m in the bathroom.”

______________________________________
Lyrics from Wild Child’s song “Silly Things.”

Part XVIII: The Sunset

The moon was orange. Amber decides she’ll always remember the heavy bulb hanging in the blackness of the sky like a foreboding ornament, a warning signal as her and Brian sit on the edge of a wooden dock:  something isn’t right.

He coughs, “That was fun today.” His flip-flop hangs lazily from his foot, just inches above the water.

“Yeah, it’s so nice to have friends with boats,” Amber says, tapping the tips of her fingers against her sternum still oily and sticky from sunscreen, sweat, and a recent application of aloe vera. “Don’t I smell like summer?”

“What?”

Amber bumps Brian’s shoulder and smells the lake water on his skin, on his short hair lightened by the summer sun – a pungent freshness, like fish and rainwater. “You smell.”

“I…we’re just friends, right?” That’s what Brian says, taking her hand from her chest and placing her palm on the worn, rough edge of the dock, “That’s making me nervous.” He coughs, continues, “It’s just, everyone thinks we’re together and I don’t know. You’re great, but I don’t know.”

Goose bumps spread over her skin as a breeze blows over Lake Michigan. Her instinct calls for escape, to jump in the water, to swim, to leave.

“Okay,” she rises.

“Are you mad?”

She exhales and studies the face of the orange moon, seeming to mock her with its wide, unchanging grin. “No, I’m super happy,” she shakes her head and wonders, if she swam hard enough could she find the sunset, chase it down? But she doesn’t jump, she stands looking down on this man, her leg bouncing as if attempting to release the emotions growing heavier, larger in her gut. “Did I mean anything to you?” she blurts out.

“Yes,” he looks down.

“I don’t know why I asked you that,” she turns around. “It doesn’t matter.” Through a blur of tears she navigates over the cracks of the uneven wooden planks. “It doesn’t matter.”

•              •             •

Sand clings to the bottom of Brittany’s glass bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. “God, they don’t have beaches like this in New York City. That’s what I miss, the beaches and Norzwiches and Malibu Moos and cheap drinks.” Brittany takes a sip and lays back on her faded pink towel. “Do you know how much a vodka-lemonade is in New York City? Not three dollars.”

Amber flips through the recent Rolling Stone. “Do you see these people over there? Go to crazy, big parties?”

Brittany lifts her designer, indigo-framed sunglass and examines various photos – Miley Cyrus carrying Chanel and Prada shopping bags, Jennifer Aniston sporting a baby bump and oversized sunglasses.

“Jake Gyllenhaal was outside my place the other day,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Shut up,” Amber tightens the teal straps of her swimsuit. “Did you talk to him?”

“He smiled. I had the kids with me. What’s nice is celebrities aren’t creeped out by you when you’re with little kids – they smile. But then they might think you’re married, not just the nanny, so…”

Amber laughs, “I can see where that’s tricky.”

“You need to come to N-Y-C, Amber. There is so much to do, we could go on the Sex and the City tour!”

“I have a new job. I can’t leave.”

“You’re a receptionist for Matty Pearson. What fifty-year-old man wants to be called ‘Matty?’” Brittany checks the cuticles of her red nails and Amber envies the aura surrounding her friend, something that gracefully says, ‘I know I’m amazing.’

“But seriously,” Brittany inhales. “There are beautiful, interesting people everywhere. It’s insane…I think about dating Casey, and I’m like, ‘how did I do that?’”

•              •             •

Matty leaves with his manila folder, car keys. Amber runs her fingers through her golden hair, logs on to her email account and begins to type an email to her mother and sister, after a breezy, standard greeting, she types, “So, Brian and I are done.” She stops.

She leans forward and rests her forehead on the cold faux wood of her desk, “Dammit, dammit, dammit,” she whispers, tears forming and dropping on her bare knees, “dammit, dammit.”

Amber exhales, wipes her eyes, studies the sunset photos on the office walls – the brilliant, warm splays of color. She exits the email, ‘Don’t Save,’ and presses play on the YouTube video she’s watched too many times.

She knows the inflections of chatter behind the handheld camera, the glare of the spotlight on Martin’s guitar as he tunes the chords, coughs, runs his fingers though his lengthy black hair before strumming.

“Now I will play my obligatory Bob Dylan cover,” he says. A whoop, a few claps. “This version will blow your mind.” He lowers his head, and as if an afterthought he adds, “This is for a girl I once knew in Wisco. It’s a beautiful place if you haven’t been.”

 

If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine


Part XVI: The Parade

“Excuse me,” Amber squeezes between a busty, freckled woman sipping on a Bloody Mary and a toddler streaked with sunblock crouching over a tossed Tootsie Roll. “Look, look what I got!” he plucks the candy from the scorched, crowded sidewalk and balances with the help of Amber’s leg. “Oops. Excuse me,” Amber says, the boy’s greasy arms clinging to her calf until he spots a mini packet of Starbursts.

The plan was to meet in front of the Yum Yum Tree, under the shaded awning where Amber stands, a fanny pack rubbing against her back, a woman’s hair brushing against her cheek as she rises on her tip toes and scans a sea of strangers. “Where is he, where is he, where is he?” she whispers.

A stream of water strikes a bearded, laughing man a few feet in front of her. “Oh, God,” she ducks behind a line of spectators as shirtless firefighters shoot Super Soakers from the back of a silver pickup truck. A fire truck blares its whiny horn. The Democrats hand out flyers. Horses clip and clap down the highway with straight-faced adolescents wearing cowboy hats on their backs.

“Amber? Amber.” Matty waves, revealing a damp circle of sweat under his arm.

“Hi,” she smiles.

“Enjoying yourself?” He asks, his eyes hidden behind dark Ray Bans.

“Uh – well, I can’t find my friends.”

“Meet my family,” Matty gestures to the blonde woman holding a sweating bottle of Evian. “This is Sarah.”

“You don’t want to shake my hand – it’s so damn hot today,” Sarah says, tugging her hair back into a ponytail. Amber laughs.

“And this is Andrew,” says Matty. “This is Amber, my new receptionist.” A lanky boy with oversized teeth offers a tightlipped smile. “He’s shy around pretty girls.”

“No, no I’m not,” says the boy.

“Matty,” sighs Sarah. “Why do you have to make him uncomfortable?”

“Oh, come on,” chuckles Matty, pulling on the collar of his tight, blue polo, revealing a patch of graying chest hair. “So, how does it feel to not be serving the tourists today?”

“Oh, great. Weird. I honestly feel a bit bad,” she says. “Most of my friends are working.”

“No, no. You enjoy yourself. Remember, you don’t have to be in the office until noon tomorrow.”

•             •             •

Amber exhaled on her cushioned, revolving office chair in an air-conditioned room with beige carpet and framed prints of Door County sunsets adorning the cream-colored walls.

“You think you’ll be okay for awhile?” asked Matty, holding a manila folder to his chest, the keys to his BMW jingling around his pointer finger.

“Yes,” Amber crossed her legs.

“What do you say when the phone rings?”

“Hello, Matthew Pearson’s office; this is Amber speaking, how may I help you?”

“Good girl.”

Amber smiled and logged onto her Hotmail account when Matty shut the door and said, “Be back in an hour.”

“I’m an official career girl,” she typed in a message to her mom and sister, grabbing a complimentary mint from a shallow dish beside Matty’s business cards. “I am at this very moment sitting in an air conditioned building with a pencil skirt and cardigan. I feel like I’m in Mad Men, but not really. Haha.”

•            •           •

“Babe, there you are,” Brian wraps an arm around Amber’s shoulders, the condensation from his bottle of Coors Light runs down her bare back.

“What the hell, I called you like six times,” says Amber. “We we’re supposed to meet at the Yum Yum Tree.” Three men in tan Army uniforms pass between Amber and Brian. “Thanks soldier. Thanks.” Brian says. Amber smiles.

Brian wipes sweat from his tan brow.

“You have a farmer tan,” Amber lifts the sleeve of his blue Milwaukee Brewers t-shirt.

“I am a farmer,” he smiles. “Tyler, can you get a beer for the lady?”

Tyler reaches in an old Igloo cooler, melting ice cubes tinkle as he finds a bottle.

“Where were you?” asks Katie, removing neon-framed sunglasses.

“I ran into Matty.”

“New boss man,” says Tyler. “You two have office talk?”

“I met his family.”

“You’re old boss passed by,” says Katie, rising from her lawn chair and pulling down her khaki shorts. “You seen him since you quit?”

“No,” says Amber. “And I didn’t quit. I’ll still help out.”

“He’s pretty pissed,” says Tyler. “It’s understandable, you quit right before peak season.”

“I didn’t quit,” repeats Amber, swigging her Coors Light.

“What kind of perks do you have working for Matthew?” asks Brian.

“A steady paycheck and no whining customers,” says Amber. “I feel like I can breathe there.”

“I have no more free food or free delivery,” Brian pinches Amber’s side. “What good are you now?”

Amber shakes her head.

“I’m just kidding,” he kisses her temple.

•               •              •

Amber unlocks the office door at noon, the phone rings.

“Hello, Matthew Pearson’s office; this is Amber, how may I help you?” She hunches over the desk, dropping her oversized purse on the carpet.

“Is Mr. Pearson there?”

“No.”

“Well, will you do me a favor and tell him I got his bill and he can shove it where the sun don’t shine.”

“What’s your name?” Amber’s hand trembles as she takes a pen from a silver cup.

“He thinks I’m going to pay $368 dollars to him! What a load of crap. I’m not. You understand? I’m not paying!”

“Okay. What’s your name?” Amber bites her lower lip. The front door opens, a man wearing a red tie enters holding a briefcase. Heat rises up Amber’s neck.

“I tell you what, I ripped that bill right up. I threw it in my burning barrel cause this is ridiculous.”

The man picks up her dropped purse. Amber pulls the phone cord around the desk and sits in her chair.

“Sir, what’s your name?” she holds her palm over the speaker. “Thank you, I’ll be right with you,” she whispers to the man. He nods. Another light blinks on the phone, an incoming call.

“My name Carl Finnel. You writing this down?”

“Yes.”

“C-A-R-L-F-I-N-N-E-L,” the man shouts, and then hangs up.

“Hi, I’m Blair with Smart Mart Office Supplies. What’s you’re name?”

“Amber.”

“Did you have a good Fourth of July?”

“Yeah, it was great.”

The phone rings and rings again.

“Uh – my boss isn’t here and I don’t know if we need office supplies,” says Amber.

“That’s okay, I’ll wait.” He sits on a navy chair. The phone rings. “You going to get that?”

Part XV: Spring Break

“I just want to point out that we are the youngest people in this church,” whispers Lizzie, reeking of Juicy Couture and aloe vera. Amber notices flecks of peeling skin in her sister’s hairline. “It’s like I never left Door County,” she says.

Amber’s mother, Lorie, wipes beads of sweat from beneath her bronze bangs while grandma Margaret purses her pink lips and adjusts the gold-framed glasses sliding down her sloping nose. “Pray for him girls,” she murmurs, fingering the pearl beads of her rosary, gold bracelets jangling. “Damn idiot.”

A sea of white hair shimmers like halos around the heads of the congregation as the priest donning a crisp robe chants meekly beneath an oversized crucifix.

“Why don’t they hand out fans?” whispers Amber. “In movies they always have fans in the South.”

“This isn’t 1940,” laughs Lizzie. The congregation lowers slowly to the padded knee rests. Amber adjusts her flouncy skirt while her mother bites the tips of her fingernails.

“We are probably the only 20-somethings in church…in Florida…on spring break,” says Amber.

“Talk to your father about that,” her mother answers. “I’m ready to go home.”

“One more day,” says Amber.

Margaret leans over Lizzie’s denim skirt. “Remember to take your purses with you for communion. You can’t trust some of these people.”

“It’s hard to pray when others are talking,” comes a curt voice a pew behind.

 •            •           •

Four days prior Amber, Lizzie, Lorie, and Greg, sporting brand new flip flops and Wisconsin white skin, were whisked away from Orlando International Airport to the familiar home of grandma Margaret and grandpa Robert:  the crucifix adorned with tiny seashells still hung between the two twin beds in the guest bedroom, the pool still wafted the scent of too much chlorine, and a pitcher of iced tea still sweated on the patio table. There the adults congregated while Amber and Lizzie flipped through People and OK! magazines poolside, stretched out on neon vinyl chairs. The sun seeped into their pores as they reveled in ‘getting away:’  “I’m just sick of everyone,” said Amber.

“Me too,” said Lizzie.

“It’s the same thing every weekend, the same people and everyone has something to say about everyone,” continued Amber, while analyzing celebrity Oscar dresses. “What makes me sad is I’ll never have a chance to wear a dress like this,” she pointed to Penelope Cruz’s silky blue princess gown.

“They said that was one of the worst dresses,” said Lizzie, closing her glossy magazine, then her hazel eyes, “I brought my advanced chem textbook,” she ran her fingers through her blonde hair, “I don’t think I’ll open it all week,” she inhaled and exhaled, “We should go to the beach.”

“It’s going to be an obnoxious scene  – a bunch of Wisconsin boys getting drunk on Bud Light Lime.”

“Let’s do it,” Lizzie sat up. “Come on, before the cards come out.”

  •            •           •

Robert rubbed his thinning gray hair to one side of his pink skull as he emerged through the whining screen door with a bag of dimpled oranges. “Where you girls going?”

“The beach,” said Lizzie.

“No, no, not yet. You gotta try these oranges – the juiciest oranges. I get them from an ethic family.”

“Hispanics?” asked Lorie, squirting a white dollop of sunscreen in her palm.

“I still don’t know what that means,” laughed Robert, passing out oranges. “Is that Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Cubans or just em all?”

“You got any gin?” asked Greg, sitting shirtless on a plastic chair as Lorie smeared SPF 30 over his freckled back. “This is the official start to our vacation.”

“Hon, your father’s not drinking,” said Margaret, sucking on an orange slice.

“Well now, why’d you have to go and say it like that?” Robert set his half-peeled orange on the table with enough force to shake the legs of the plastic table, tense the backs, arms, and weak smiles of Amber, Lizzie, Lorie, and Greg.

“You’re not,” said Margaret, matter-of-factly.

“Here comes my boy and his family and you got to say it like you’re an AA sponsor!” Redness spread up Robert’s wrinkled neck, up his high cheekbones.

“You gave it up for lent,” Margaret spit out an orange seed, “Now stop with the scene!” She turned towards Lizzie and Amber, “You girls should stop next door. I’m sure Mary said their grandchildren we’re visiting for spring break. There about your age, I think.”

“You gave up alcohol for lent?” asked Greg. “You’re from Wisconsin.”

“You make us sound like alcoholics,” said Lorie, wiping her greasy hands over her narrow calves.

“I’m making us some drinks,” said Robert.

“Fine,” said Margaret, “You break your promise to God, I’ll break my promise to you. I’ll tell them what you did!”

“Don’t do it, Margaret.”

“You’re father got kicked out of his favorite golf course.”

“Margaret!”

“He did. He and his friend Terri were making a raucous after a few too many.”

“Margaret, that’s enough.”

“He insulted the drink lady and then ran the golf cart into a tree.”

“Grazed!” shouted grandpa. “Grazed, Margaret! We said we weren’t gonna talk about this.”

“Well, I’m talking about it. I’m talking about it. I’m talking about it!”

“Can we borrow the car?” whispered Lizzie.

 •            •           •

The ladies knelt and prayed while father and son searched for another golf course. “Pray for him,” whispers Margaret, who spent the last four days in virtual silence, while Lorie read The Help beside a pitcher of lukewarm iced tea, Greg drank gin and tonics with his sinful father, and Amber and Lizzie escaped to the beach, to the crowd of 20-somethings offering them Corona, their sandy beach towels, and free sunscreen applications. “You’re looking a little red on the shoulders, sweetheart.” Exhausting.

Amber studies her sister’s red nail polish gripping the wooden pew on one side and her mother’s wrinkled elbow on the other side. A vibration hums beneath the knee rest. “Crap, sorry,” says Amber, reaching in her purse and opening her phone:  “I’m standing outside our place. A giant bird is inside. Brian and Casey are upstairs with a bat and a fishing net! Come home!” Amber smiles, closes her phone, then her eyes.

“Was that Brian?” whispers Lizzie.

“No,” Amber smiles, “Katie.”

“I prayed for you. I prayed you would one day wear a dress like Penelope Cruz.”

Amber laughs, “I prayed you would pass school. And I prayed grandpa wouldn’t get wasted and crash another golf cart.” Lizzie tries to suppress a giggle.

“It’s hard to pray when others are laughing,” comes the curt voice from behind.

Chapter XV: The Interview

“What can you do for this company that other candidates can’t?”

Amber bit her lower lip, coughed and pulled at the hem of her borrowed black skirt. “Well, I am very friendly and motivated and work really well with others.”

“Okay.”

“And I’m organized.”

The man’s pinky ring clicked against the glass surface of his desk. A faint scratch whined through the office as he scribbled on a notepad. Amber bit her lower lip.

 •            •           •

Flames lick the sides of a massive log resting atop a heap of split wood and glowing embers. Amber holds her knees to her chest in the dewy grass, fixated on the wisps of yellow and orange, “He wore this obnoxiously tight polo,” she says, “and was totally nipping out.” Katie laughs. Brian sits up from a white plastic lawn chair, “Wait…who was nipping out?”

“Matthew. He told me to call him ‘Matty.’ He’s like 50. What 50-year-old man wants to be called ‘Matty?’ It was horrible.” Amber pulls a handful of grass from the dirt and tosses it to the flames. “I had to sit there and tell him why I wanted to be his receptionist, like it was the greatest job in the world, like he was offering me the chance of a lifetime.”

“When is everyone else coming?” asks Brian, rising and fading into the shadows to retrieve more wood.

“What’s wrong with your job now?” asks Katie, tossing her gray hood over her black bangs, “You make a ton of money waitressing.”

“Yeah…I don’t know,” Amber inhales the breeze, cool and fresh as Lake Michigan. “I thought I should try something more grown-up.”

“You don’t need to up here,” Katie turns her gaze to the car lights streaming through the narrow birch trees. “None of our friends have grown up jobs.”

“None of our friends are grown ups.”

  •            •           •

“Where do you hope to be in the next five years?” Matty asked, rolling his office chair back and leaning forward in anticipation of the answer. Amber swallowed.

“You’ll be what, 30?”

“Yeah,” Amber glanced at a framed picture of Matty, his golden tips gleaming in the sunlight, as a teenage boy with over-sized teeth and black sunglasses holds up a silver salmon. “Well, I hope to have a stable income.”

“Okay.”

  •            •           •

“Ladies,” Tyler slams a car door. “I am now officially a kite surfer!” Casey stumbles towards the fire with a 24-pack of Miller Lite. Dustin follows with a guitar.

“I wiped out only like 20 times.”

“That sounds like a lot,” laughs Katie.

“You try it and then tell me it’s a lot,” Tyler cracks open his beer and wraps an arm around Katie’s shoulders. “I am going to be so sore tomorrow.”

Brian tosses another log on the fire. Sparks fly from the embers like miniature fireworks.

“That log is huge,” Casey adjusts his Green Bay Packers cap.

“I’m a man,” Brian says in a deep voice, sinking into his lawn chair.

“Dumb as hell,” says Dustin under his breath, sitting beside Amber.

“What’s wrong with you?” Amber whispers.

“I’m just kidding,” Dustin runs a hand over his beard. “So, you gonna sing along tonight or are you still too good for that.”

Amber rises. “I’m just kidding,” says Dustin. She circles the fire and perches herself on the grass, between Brian’s knees.

“How did your interview go?” Dustin asks across the fire, strumming a few cords.

“Fine.”

“You can’t leave the restaurant,” says Casey. “Suzanne never pours enough whiskey…or gives me free cheese curds.”

“Boohoo,” says Amber.

  •            •           •

“What would you say is your biggest weakness?” Matty smirked.

Amber tucked her blonde hair behind her ears. “These are tough questions.”

“Well, I’m thorough,” laughed Matty. “You’d be my right hand man…I mean girl, woman.”

Amber glanced at the slow moving ceiling fan, turning round and round and round. ‘Not knowing what I want,’ is on the tip of her tongue.

 •            •           •

“Brian, you ever try kite surfing?” Tyler buttons up a green flannel shirt.

“No, sounds crazy.”

“So are you going to call Matty?” asks Katie. “Or just wait for him to call you.”

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” says Amber.

Dustin hums and bobs his head as he strums his guitar. “Any requests?”

Casey shakes his head and opens another beer, “I don’t even care.”

Amber’s phone vibrates. ‘1 Text Message.’ She flips open her phone, a series of unfamiliar numbers shine on the screen followed by a bubble of text:  “I saw a piano with missing keys. I wrote a poem about it, how you’re my missing keys. You’re the only notes I want to hear. I’m such a cheeseball.”

Amber exhales, wonders how sincere Martin’s abrupt end to months of silence could be. Brian pulls at the beaded hemp necklace around her neck, “You’re a wannabe hippie,” he laughs. She smells something earthy on his worn jeans – manure and gasoline – and pats the top of his threaded boots. “You’re a wannabe cowboy,” she says. He laughs and sips his beer, setting a hand on her shoulder.

“Would you ever write a poem about me?” she asks.

“No,” Brian laughs.

“Good, that’s why I like you.”

 

Chapter XIV: Open Mic

Dustin glides his fingertips over the guitar strings. The heat and damp of sweat spreads over his shoulders as he softly lets out lyrics penned days ago. Where in the world did you go? I don’t know, I don’t know. Amber was supposed to be at his side. Amber was supposed to sing along, echo the lyrics.
A platter of carrot cake muffins and a pitcher of water sits beside the open mic sign-up sheet. Dustin scribbled ‘Dustin and Amber’ on the last line, then sent a text:  ‘We’re on in a few. Get here!’
“Dustin, sit down. You’re making me tense,” said his father, running a callused hand over his gray ponytail. His mother’s rings clinked as she wiped her glasses clean with the hem of her burgundy sweater, “She must have got caught up with something – lost track of time or fell asleep. She’s a good friend. She wouldn’t just abandon you.”
‘Seriously, get here,’ Dustin sent another text.
Finally, he gripped the neck of his guitar, inhaled and began to sing on his own.
Katie sits at a Parisian chair, winding an indigo scarf around her long white hands while Tyler’s straight-rimmed cap bobs along to the beat of the song. A few of Dustin’s familiar coffee shop customers make up the sparse audience:  Allen, the antique book collector with frazzled white hair; Margo and Bill, aspiring nature fanatics who explore the Door County parks and shores with vanilla lattes in hand. Suzanne, Amber’s fellow waitress sips a mug of tea while her children drink hot chocolate topped off with whip cream. Amber should be here. Amber was supposed to be here.

•                •                •

Dustin scans a freezer door at the Piggly Wiggly, a six-pack of Spotted Cow begins to weigh heavy on his gloved fingers. Tombstone? Jacks? DiGiorno? He rubs his cap against his itchy forehead.
“Can I ever go here without running into someone I know?” asks Amber, walking towards him with a smile.
“She lives,” mumbles Dustin. He wraps an arm around Amber’s shoulder, squeezing the soft, puffy down of her teal coat. Johnny Mathis croons from the speakers. Someone wants to kiss you and hold you tight.
“I’m mulling over the pizza selection,” he says, propping the six-pack in the crook of his elbow, thoughtfully rubbing his beard. She laughs. He peers in her blue plastic shopping basket – large pasta shells, three packages of rigatoni cheese, a green pepper, Ragu spaghetti sauce. “Pasta night?”
“I just need some Texas toast.”
“You know there’s like 800 calories per piece?”
“Thanks for looking out for my figure.”
“I’m kind of mad at you,” Dustin bites his lower lip, opens the freezer and pulls out a deluxe Jack’s pizza. Someone wants to say hello; I know he’ll never let you know.
“I just – stage fright.”
“Not what I heard.”
Amber exhales. Dustin notices a splotch of foundation over a pimple on Amber’s forehead, scrunched in thought, then the bottle of Sutter Home merlot beneath a generic bag of mozzarella cheese in her basket.
“He’s supposed to pick up the wine, by the way,” Dustin closes the freezer door.
“Now you’re a dating expert?” Amber forces a laugh.
“Amber, I know this guy. I went to school with him. He likes tractors and country music and hunting. He will never, ever leave this place.”
“Maybe I won’t either.”
“He is not…you.”

•                •                •

Weeks after leaving the Madison campus, settling into the apartment above his parent’s garage, Dustin walked down the familiar rickety wooden steps to Tyler’s basement, guitar in hand.
“The ladies love me,” said a brown-haired boy in cargo shorts perched at the edge of a worn blue couch. “I put a few extra cherries in their Old Fashions and bam – love.”
“Schmoozer,” smiles the girl leaning against him, wearing a lemon-colored sundress, the same color of her hair.
“Schmoozer? I’m a salesman,” he removed the cigarette hanging from his lips and pressed his forehead against hers.
“Guys, this is Dustin,” said Tyler. “This is Martin and Amber.”
“Hey man,” cigarette smoke spilled from Martin’s lips. Amber raised her can of PBR.
“A musician, sweet,” Martin pointed to Dustin’s guitar then rested his elbow on Amber’s tan knee.
“Aspiring,” said Dustin. Tyler handed Dustin a beer.
“I’m feeling good about this,” said Martin. “Magic. This will be magic. You live up here?”
“Grew up here, now live up here. I just graduated from Madison.”
“With what?” asks Amber.
“Philosophy,” Dustin sits on a dusty recliner, sets his beer on a coffee table littered with empty bottles of Bud Light, cans of PBR, and an ashtray stuffed with crooked cigarette stubs.
“Deep, man. What do you do?”
“I’m a barista,” Dustin laughed, “a walking cliché.”

Dustin and Martin set the guitars over their knees, played some standards, some Bob Dylan, some Rolling Stones, some Beatles, while Amber hummed and sang along, a sheen of sweat gleaming over the bridge of her freckled nose.

•                •                •

The winter air assaults Dustin as he follows Amber in the dimly lit parking light. She struggles to place the paper bag in her backseat.
“I’m sorry,” he sets his six-pack on the top of her car, the frozen pizza beside it. “You forgot your Texas toast.”
“I know,” Amber stands straight, shuts the car door and pulls keys from her coat pocket.
“Want me to go get you some?”
“No.”
“There is another open mic next week.”
“No, Dustin. No,” Amber shakes her head. “You’re always on my case about doing this and doing that, singing and writing songs. I don’t want to.”
“You did when Martin was here.”
“Oh my God, I am so over that.”
“So now you’re into making crappy plates of pasta for hicks?”
“He’s a farmer. He puts food on people’s table.”
“What a hero.”
“What do you do? Serve overpriced coffee and write sappy songs. You should just go back to Madison.”
“Whatever,” Dustin turns towards his jeep. Amber hesitates, then shuts her car door, turns over the engine. Dustin realizes he is empty handed. The car squeals off – brown glass bottles crash, sending fizzling liquid and foam over the black pavement, over the frozen pizza.

Chapter XIII: The Doctor’s Office

    “Fill this out, and just sign this one,” the woman behind the counter hands Amber a few papers scored with blank lines. “You don’t have insurance, correct?”
“Yeah,” Amber studies the bronze highlights gleaming from the woman’s scalp like sunbeams. She coughs, sniffles. “Correct.” She pulls a navy blue pen from an opaque coffee cup, as opaque as her skin, as the January sky looming outside the brick building.
“Okay, you need to fill out this one too. Have a seat over there,” the woman gestures to a green chair beneath a poster of a square-jawed man and woman with pouty lips beaming with health and happiness.
Amber rubs her blonde hair behind an ear. A man with a thick salt and pepper mustache looks up from an issue of People. “My wife can’t get out of this waiting room to save her life,” he chuckles. Amber smiles and scribbles her last name, first name, and middle initial.
“She talks and talks and talks,” says the man. “Do your boyfriend a favor and don’t talk that much.”
“Okay,” Amber offers half a smile, returns to completing the forms. Her ankles ache as she stands. Her forearms and fingers ache as she returns the papers.
“Deb,” the mustached-man exhales. “You ready yet?”
“Tom and I hosted the kids and grandkids for Christmas,” says Deb, wearing a blue headband over her frizzy blonde hair. She speaks to a young woman, nodding politely, holding a toddler with tortoise shell glasses on his plump, pink face. “We had a big dinner. The kids each made us an ornament.”
“How cute,” says the woman, adjusting the child resting on her hip. Amber coughs, returns to the seat and pulls her cell phone from her purse.
“Though, our eldest grandkid, Sam,” Deb continues, “he nearly started a hymnal on fire during the candle lighting at church.”
“Oh, no!” the woman laughs.
“I told Carrie – my daughter – I told her he was too short to hold that candle.”
“Would you give her a smack in the pants and tell her it’s time to go?” the man says as Amber closes her message-free phone.
“Not sure that’s appropriate,” Amber responds with a raspy voice, applying pomegranate-flavored Burt’s Bees chap stick to her still chapped lips, chapped from kissing Brian what-was-his-last-name? on New Year’s Eve. He wore a red and black flannel shirt tucked into faded jeans, a camouflage cap Amber lifted as the crowd sang along to Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup.”
“I hate Toby Keith!” she shouted. Brian smirked. The glitter from Amber’s lip gloss shimmered on his lips.
“Why?” He took a swig from his bottle of Budweiser.
“He is mean,” Amber’s black heels tottered beneath her. “He doesn’t like the Dixie Chicks because of what they said about George Bush. And I love the Dixie Chicks.”
Brian nodded and leaned closer, Red Solo Cup. I fill you up. Let’s have a party! Let’s have a party!
“Oh, horrible!” Amber laughed.
Katie tugged her tight black dress farther down her thighs as she sauntered between Amber and Brian, brushed her black bangs from her thick lashes and pecked Amber on the cheek, “Happy New Year’s, roomie!” Tyler wandered behind, kissed Amber and placed his plastic “Happy New Year’s” top hat on her head.
“Casey’s harassing strangers again,” Tyler shook his head and moved along to Casey, eyes glazed with drunkenness as he stepped closer to a bald-headed man.
“What did you say about me?” Casey yelled.
“Nothing. Calm down,” the man responded.
“Hey, you like venison jerky?” Brian shouted to Amber.
“Did you end up getting a deer?” Amber smiled. Brian passed her his bottle and held up seven fingers.
“Seven-point buck,” he said. “Hey, you Polar Plunging tomorrow?”

 •            •           •

“Oh, yep, those glands are swollen,” says the blue-eyed nurse who smells as fresh as a dryer sheet. “How long have you had these symptoms?”
“Three or four days.” The paper beneath Amber crinkles as she crosses one booted-foot over the other. She wonders if the nurse would seek out the possible source of the sickness:  kissing a stranger or jumping into frigid Lake Michigan with a crowd of half-naked strangers.

 •            •           •

“How did you even meet Brian?” Katie asks while hazelnut-flavored coffee brews in their meager kitchen.
“I served him at the restaurant,” Amber tightens the fleece blanket around her shoulders.
“That is too weird. His mom used to babysit me,” Katie pulls on the strings of her hooded Green Bay Packers sweatshirt. “They had so many cats in their barn; I loved it. Me and Brian and his brother would go up in his Dad’s deer stand and play. He would pretend he was a soldier and shoot bad guys from the stand.” Katie bites her lip and speaks softly, as if to herself, “I wonder if I have any yearbooks around?”
“I don’t need to see his yearbook picture.”
“Did you see that scar on his face? Down his cheek?”
“Yeah.”
“That was from a snowmobile accident a few years ago. It was bad. Like, he’s lucky. He nearly cracked his head open.”
“I feel weird knowing all these things about him,” says Amber as she reaches for a coffee mug.
“Everyone knows everything about everyone, Amber. Everyone knows you were kissing him. Everyone knows you two shared a towel after you jumped in the lake.”

Chapter XII: The Greyhound

The chilled window of the Greyhound bus rattles against Amber’s skull. She exhales. She tugs off her red mittens and runs her fingers through her blonde hair, wispy with static. ‘8…9,10,11…12…13,’ she silently counts the silos dotting the gray skyline.

A man speckled with age spots turns the page of a paperback book. A woman secures a purple knit hat on her head as she coughs. A little boy with crusty sleep in his eye peeks over the seat in front of Amber. “Sam, turn around and leave the girl alone,” says the red-haired woman beside him. “Sit nicely by your mother, will you?”

Amber skips a Bon Jovi ballad on her navy iPod Shuffle. The violin intro to Dixie Chick’s “Wide Open Spaces” whines through the headphones. She wishes she was in her own car, left behind by the insistence of her mother, so she could sing the female country anthem freely, She needs wide open spaces, room to make a big mistake. She needs new faces.

Amber considers the faces of old, the onslaught of relatives – Aunt Carol, Aunt Whitney, Uncle Todd, Cousin Brittany, Amy, Theresa, Luke, her mother, her father, her sister, all of them – sure to ask dreaded questions over Eggnog and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”:  ‘Dating anyone?’ ‘Still waitressing?’ ‘You took the Greyhound?’

Amber feels the expanding pressure of coffee and 7up in her bladder.

“You want a piece?”

Amber pretends not to hear the voice behind her. She doesn’t want new faces, simply familiar faces. Katie, who sat by Amber in the dank and bare Green Bay Greyhound Station, drank from a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper, swallowed and said, “Oh my God, this is like a ghetto.” Martin, miles and miles away, who Amber imagines would hold her hand just now, if he was on the bus. She imagines his thick, tangled hair on her shoulder while he counts silos too. She bites a fingernail. Then, a tap on her shoulder. She makes a show of removing her headphones, a violated ‘do not disturb’ sign in these public situations.

A wiry boy sporting black-framed glasses and a UW-Green Bay sweatshirt offers a foil-wrapped stick of gum, “You want a piece?” The boy beside him, with thick brown eyebrows and a sparse goat-tee, folds his hands and avoids eye contact with Amber, who smiles, shakes her head, and replaces the removed headphones.

‘I hate the bus,’ she thinks as the colossal vehicle turns into another Shell gas station.

 •            •           •

Women with bright-colored skirts, headscarves, and pea coats flood the florescent-lit bathroom. Amber stands in line behind a plump woman in neon pink sweatpants who sets off the automatic hand-dryer as she moves forward. “What the hell?” she shouts over the sound, “What is up with this thing?” She turns her exasperated expression to Amber, who offers a tight-lipped smile and notices bubbles of saliva at the corners of the woman’s mouth.

“Nobody uses these things anyway,” mumbles the woman to no one. “They’re useless.”

  •            •           •

Amber inhales the scent of cigarettes as she follows a lean man donning a worn denim jacket on the bus. She steps over the feet of a few sleeping passengers, past the pleasant smile of a gray-haired woman in a lavender scarf, to the eager gaze of the boy in black-framed glasses.

“Where you riding to?” he asks as Amber slides into her seat.

“Deer Hill,” she pulls the iPod from her pocket.

“I’ve never heard of it,” he leans closer. Amber can smell his deodorant. The little boy in the front seat climbs his backrest to peer at Amber once more.

“It’s there,” she answers.

“How many people did you graduate with?”

“Like 70.”

“Have you seen Cars?” asks the squeaky voiced boy, missing a front tooth.

“I have,” she answers.

“Do you remember, you remember Tater?”

“Honey,” the woman grips his forearm.

Amber opens her mouth to say, ‘It’s okay,’ but is interrupted by, “What’s in Deer Hill?” asked this time by the thick-browed boy.

“It’s tiny, uh – a gas station, post office, like five churches.”

“Mom? Mommy?” a whimper comes from the back of the bus. A toddler with lopsided pigtails and watering eyes peeks from behind a seat, “Mommy?”

The boy in glasses laughs, “I think someone just left their kid on the bus.”

The girl meets Amber’s sympathetic eyes. “She’s coming, sweetie,” Amber says.

The girl walks swiftly from her seat to Amber and thrusts her head on Amber’s lap.

“Oh my God, seriously,” she whispers, rubbing her hand up and down the girl’s back, thinking of the tears and snot certain to spot her jeans. The man with age spots turns another page.

“What do you do?” the boy in glasses asks as Amber gazes through the bus window, wondering who is parent to the whimpering child.

“I’m a singer,” she lies.

“Whoa, really?”

“Yep.” Heat rises up her neck as she realizes how suddenly she lied, without thought.

“What kind of music?”

“Folksy…my boyfriend sings with me, and plays guitar,” Amber says quickly, rubbing the girl’s back. ‘You’re so insecure, Amber,’ she can hear her mother saying. ‘No one cares what you do.’

“What’s wrong with her?” asks the little boy, peeking from between the blue seats.

“She’s just scared,” Amber says. “It’ll be okay.”

The boy’s mother turns, rubbing her red hair behind her ears, “Who’s girl is that?”

Amber shrugs.

“I hate the bus,” the woman shakes her head. “Unbelievable.”

  •            •           •

“Lily, we got you roast beef,” a man’s voice booms down the isle. The girl raises her head, wipes her forearm against her cheeks and hugs the man’s red wind pants. A woman carrying an Arby’s bag shuffles behind.

“That was weird,” whispers the thick-browed boy, rubbing his palms over his knees. The bus jerks forward.

“I waitress too,” Amber admits, covering her ears with the headphones.

Chapter XI: Open Knitting

Katie sips tea at the counter showcasing new evergreen and Santa-red yarns. Amber sways with a chubby-cheeked, five-month-old baby on her hip, gazing out the knitting shop window.

“Wow, look at those snowflakes,” Amber whispers in a high voice. “Look at those pretty, pretty snowflakes.”

Tessa, the blue-eyed baby, studies Amber’s nose instead. So Amber carries her around the shop, which smells of coffee and rose-scented perfume.

“I have good days and bad days,” sighs Margaret, knitting a sock with charcoal-colored yarn at a worn table with a dozen other white or gray-haired ladies knitting hats or scarves or sweaters with their aged hands ribboned with bluish veins. “I know what needs to be done, but without Bob…or Joanie,” Margaret looks upward – a vain attempt to keep the tears from skimming down her wrinkled cheeks. “And Tessa’s dad is a good-for-nothing.”

“We are here for you,” says Barbara, setting down the start of a green scarf and resting a manicured hand over her heart, over the Bucky Badger logo on her sweatshirt.

“Look at her with – ” Margaret turns to Amber, “What’s your name again?”

“Amber,” Amber bounces with the baby.

“You want her?” Margaret pushes her gold-rimmed glasses further up her sloping nose and shakes her head. “She’d be happier with you.”

“Oh, no, Margaret,” the ladies chime in, “You’ll be fine. Tessa needs her grandma.”

Amber exhales and offers a smile, which many of the knitting ladies return; but Margaret’s attention falls on her yarn, “Damn cat hair all over.”

Amber kisses Tessa’s soft forehead and misses her mother. “Poor girl,” she whispers.

“Well, what?” Margaret starts up again, “She’s just a bit younger than Joanie. Joanie would want a fun mom for her daughter, not this old bag. We don’t have to talk about it anymore. I’m stupid and old and should not have come today.”

“Margaret, of course we want you, you’re going through a hard time,” chime the ladies once more.

Margaret blows her nose while Evelyn, her wrists sparkling with Pandora charms as she pearls a cream-colored cap, tells Margaret how beautiful Joanie was in the white casket, like an angel. The baby grips Amber’s pinkie and Amber hums and taps her palm against Tessa’s exposed, plump calf. “You’ll be okay,” she whispers. “You’ll be okay.” She suddenly wonders who will show Tessa how to shave her legs. Does Margaret even shave anymore?

 •              •              •

Amber’s own mother opened the vinyl curtain speckled with pink rosebuds and set her freckled leg on the yellow bathtub sweating condensation, exhaling steam. Black mascara ran down her mother’s red cheeks as she explained the mechanics of the plastic Bic razor in hand.

“You don’t hold too tight, and go against the grain of your hair,” her mother demonstrated, gliding the razor up the side of a narrow calf, “except where it might be sensitive.”

Amber remembers nodding, invigorated by this new knowledge, and privilege. Who will show Tessa to carefully navigate around her knees?

  •              •              •

“Now, who picked out her outfit?” asks Barbara. “Was that you? It was beautiful.”

“That was me,” Margaret smiles with some pride. “I would have put her in this purple dress she wore as a bridesmaid, but then the…marks, from the accident, would have shown. And she wore that green cardigan all the time.”

“So lovely, very nice, good choice,” chime the ladies.

  •              •              •

“This is kind of awkward,” whispers Katie, pulling Christmas yarn patterns from a UPS box. “I knew as soon as Margaret pulled in that this wasn’t going to be good. It’s only been like three weeks.”

“I want to keep her,” Amber kisses Tessa’s soft head.

“Yeah, she’s so cute,” Katie pulls her black hair into a ponytail and organizes the kits by difficulty. “You have any plans tonight?”

Amber shakes her head, “You?”

“I might go to Tyler’s and watch him and Casey play ‘Call of Duty’ if you want to come,” Katie laughs.

“Sounds like great fun,” Amber says to Tessa with wide eyes. “Last time I watched them play that game I had nightmares.”

“You want me to hold her for awhile?”

“No, I want her,” Amber twirls slowly, and Tessa opens her mouth and blinks rapidly in response to the sensation. Amber sings softly while the ladies discuss pumpkin pie recipes, Baby mine, dry your eyes. Rest your head close to my heart, never to part, baby of mine. “Did you know Joanie?” she asks Katie.

“Not really, she would have graduated when I was in like third grade. Honestly…Tessa is probably better off.”

“With Margaret?”

“Well, lots of people will help out. It’s Door County,” Katie rubs Tessa’s back. “She’ll be fine.”

  •              •              •

The ladies pack up their projects, drain their coffee mugs and hug one another goodbye. “Happy Thanksgiving,” Margaret says as the door bell jingles and chilled wind seeps in the shop.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Amber and Katie respond.

“Don’t pay attention to all my blubbering today, okay? Don’t tell your mother I ruined opened knitting.”

“Don’t worry. You didn’t ruin anything,” says Katie, holding open the glass door while Margaret secures Tessa’s pink cap.

“I think I’m in the anger stage, or whatever. The funeral director gave me some handout. Well…tell your mother I say hi when she gets back from Florida.”