Reads: 3

Jonah’s bags—which had never been unpacked—were placed in the anonymous, but comfortable, hotel room and almost immediately he set off across the parking lot toward the huge, new Target store.

Looking for a bandage, first of all.

But he also had a deep sense of diversion: of wasted time. If he’d just skipped Elsinore, and all this drama—pushing on toward Arizona—he would have racked up a solid and commendable first day of 400, or 500, miles.

One day closer to his new job and his new life.

Now, very much goaded by the idea that he was running a day behind, Jonah’s plan was to pick up supplies and pour it on the next day: only stopping to urinate on New Mexico, while eating and drinking in the car.

I-40 was wide enough, and simple enough (and law enforcement on the road was thin enough), that he could stand on the accelerator all the way—putting as much distance between himself and the Bible culture of western Oklahoma as he could.

For whatever reason the store was very busy: with cars parked out almost to the furthest rim of the parking lot. Because of its configuration, though, there was still plenty of room inside the store.

It being his hometown, he assumed that there must be someone in there he knew. But, even if he’d been interested in catching up with an old acquaintance, he was far more interested in being a ghost of Elsinore’s past. There—and then gone.

The mood he was in, he thought it might be difficult for him to be civil. And the absolute last thing he wanted was to see anyone who might remind his church and all of its medieval ideas (enough was enough).

He stuck grimly to his business of shopping in the food aisles. But gradually did become aware of someone pushing a cart through the adjacent part of the store. The young mother of two very active little girls.

While everyone else shopping in the store seemed to have dressed by throwing on whatever clothes were heaped up on the bedroom floor, this mom was in an attractive summer dress, and high-heeled sandals. And, of course, Jonah couldn’t help but notice her hair: very straight, almost the exact color of honey, long enough to touch the small of her back.

An inconvenient hairstyle, hardly ever in fashion, and was so similar to the way in which Alfie had worn her hair years ago, that Jonah let curiosity get the better of him: circling around so he could get a look at this person’s face.

When she made eye contact with him, he had a sudden sense of alarm, and almost felt the need to run for the door.

Maybe do his shopping somewhere else.

But, by then, it was too late.

Alfie’s arm, heavy with bangles, was up in the air—and her cart was already on a collision course with his.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Where did you come from? How long have you been in town?”

As she embraced him, Jonah found himself suddenly confused. Her tone was far from being disappointed, or irritated (or betrayed). He wondered if he’d gotten it all wrong: planning on visiting town without seeking her out—or even leaving a letter. Following what he thought were her instructions not to have any contact with her.

She kissed him on the cheek, at the same time carefully lowering her voice.

“You look so different now.”

Laughing at his own awkwardness, he shrugged. “I hope I am different.”

Part of his discomfort came from the suddenness of their meeting. But he was also hoping that she wouldn’t notice how aroused he was. Just the touch of her breast had been enough.

That, and the obvious truth that time had only made her more beautiful: erasing what little baby fat there’d been, sharpening the lines of her cheekbones and her jaw.

She hadn’t turned back Time. Time had embraced her.

He was staring at her so openly—and with so little to say—that she felt the need for some distraction.

“We have company, by the way.”

As if on cue, a pair of light giggles came from the far side of one of the clothing racks. Alfie redirected her attention.

“Come here, girls. This is one of Mama’s friends from far away.”

They were Jonah’s first pair of identical twins, and—like many other observers—he found the effect comical, and a little disconcerting. Two copies of the same person, although they weren’t strictly identical. Certainly, one seemed much bolder than the other.

“Do people have trouble telling you apart?”

The leader of the pair (who turned out to be Mary) instantly lifted her arm.

“I have a birthmark on my elbow.”

Alfie laughed. “If you can spot that, you’re OK. Otherwise, good luck!”

“Do you ever pull tricks on your mom?”

The two answered in unison: “No!”

This was just before Alfie stage-whispered: “They pull tricks on me all the time!”

The little girl to Jonah’s right was obviously Martha. Although not as assertive as her sister, most of the questions for him seemed to be coming from that direction.

“Where do you live?”

“I lived in Norman for a long time. Now I’m moving to California.”

“Which way is California?”

“Go out the front door of the store, and then left for about 3 days.”

“Three days in a car?”

“Right. Along with everything that I own.”

“Everything you own fits in a car?”

“Everything I own fits right into a car. I planned ahead.”

“Are you running away?”

“No. California is just where my new job is.”

Finally, Mary caught up to the conversation: swinging on the cart a little flirtatiously.

“How do you know our Mom?”

“We were in the same church. You could say we grew up together.”

Mary had a quick comeback for that: “We don’t go to church. Abner still goes to church. But we don’t.”

Alfie felt it was polite to explain—even though Jonah was too polite to ask.

“We just decided to call him ‘Abner’, instead of ‘Daddy’. It’s a long story.”

Even though Mary didn’t seem to think it was that complicated.

“He’s not our real daddy. He’s just Abner.”

Jonah laughed. “I’d guess that he doesn’t like being called Abner that much.”

Mary gave a little half-shrug in response.

“We don’t care what Abner thinks.”

At which point her sister chimed in as well: “We don’t care what Abner thinks!”

These remarks prompted a predictable frown from their mother.

“That’s enough of that! We can at least be polite about people we know!”

There was a moment of silent communication between mother and daughters before Alfie gestured toward another part of the store.

“Go pick out swimsuits for your sleepover and I’ll catch up to you.”

The twins were on the verge of taking off without another word when Alfie stopped them with a look. Then they regrouped—and formally shook Jonah’s hand—speaking almost in unison.

“Pleased to meet you!”

Alfie sighed after they disappeared into the enormous space of the store.

“Six years old, going on fifteen. And I don’t think it’s helped that much that I’ve shared so much of my troubles with them.”

“Troubles?”

“Abner and I are separated. I would have thought you’d have heard.”

“I did hear, actually. But Mom said it was your idea.”

“It was my hope. But not my idea. No, this is Abner’s deal. Always the odd man out at our house. At least since the girls were old enough to understand how he was treating me. We’re a team, the girls and I. They’ve defended me. And they’ve been fearless. They’ve dared him to try something. To try to hurt us. And, finally, he got the picture. So he hasn’t been ‘Daddy’ for some time. And now he’s not in the picture at all.”

“So, not separated on the way to some kind of reconciliation.”

Alfie shook her head, looking anxiously around the store.

“This is all too much to talk about now. Not while I’m riding herd on these two. I want to get together though. And I’m angry that you didn’t tell me you were going to be here. How long are you in town?”

“I have one foot on I-40 already. After the big dustup at home.”

“Dustup at home?”

“That’s what happened to my hand.”

“You’re kidding. There was some sort of argument, right away, after you’ve been gone so long?”

“Like I never left. Like we never stopped fighting about the same old things. Only I’m not a little kid anymore. I’ll make more money in this California job than he’s ever made in his life. I don’t need him barking at me. Eventually he just crossed the line, and I...um...popped him.”

“Wow.”

“So you could say that I’ve already had my fill of this place. I’m just not quite ready to leave yet.”

“But wait.” Below the level of the cart, where it would be hard for anyone around them to see, he felt her take his hand. He looked at her, puzzled.

“But wait?”

“Wait. Let me ask a huge favor and see if you can’t stay another day. I’m having a barbeque out at the lake, tomorrow. Just a few people. Low pressure. No pressure actually. Nobody from church or anything. Just some small town bohemians. If you can get there early, we can have time to catch up—and I can guarantee you a cheeseburger that will make it worth your while to stick around.”

“But California—”

“Jonah! Jonah, please! California will still be there! And so much has happened!”

A moment of silence passed while Jonah savored the idea of spending some unexpected time alone with the woman he loved. Like everything else in Elsinore, this opportunity had an expiration date on it. Once in California, he wasn’t coming back.

“Well, it is tempting.”

“Am I right in thinking that you’re not at the house anymore?”

“Right. I’m at the Holiday Inn across the way. Which is one reason I’m hesitating. Another night on the credit card. Even though I got a big signing bonus, I’m not in the habit of throwing money around.”

“Problem solved. You remember Lake Lucy. You’re the one who brought me out there, remember?”

“That’s where the party is?”

“I’ve been renting one of the cabins on the east side. Not the side we were on when we...um...well...you remember. But our cabin’s on the other side. It’s set up for overnight. Bring your bags out there, and save the hotel. Free night stay. Free cheeseburger. Free beer. Or wine—”

“Free coffee?”

“That can be arranged. Come out around five. And just enjoy our little town. There are quiet ways to spend the day here that don’t involve punching out your dad.”

Jonah thought for a moment, and then shrugged.

“OK. Great to see Lake Lucy again. Which cabin’s yours?”

“Third from the end. The only one painted yellow. I’ll be there all afternoon, so the earlier you can get there the longer we can talk. And now I’ve got little girls to track down.”

~~~

With another day to spend in Elsinore, Jonah faced what he thought was a problem in spending a day in a place so quiet, dusty, and thin on entertainment.

On a sudden whim, he drove downtown—looking for the funky bookstore where he’d bought that first book that helped him understand sex, and the joy it could offer.

Jonah admitted that he’d be surprised if the place was still in business. And it wasn’t.

So he drove up and down Broadway a couple of times: without the reckless hilarity that “dragging Broad” had made him feel as a teenager.

Dropping a bucket of chicken on the credenza back in the hotel room, he opened his laptop—looking for distraction for the evening—and was immediately introduced to what was going to become the familiar drumbeat of electronic conversation from his new job.

He had no sooner logged into his corporate e-mail than three chat windows opened up: each one containing a very smart person with a lot on his (or her) mind. They didn’t seem to care that Jonah didn’t even have a security badge for their building, yet. As part of the hiring process, he had signed an intimidating confidentiality agreement, and—as far as they were concerned—he was ready to receive confidences.

With California being two hours behind Elsinore, it was almost midnight (but just 10PM on the coast) when the pace of chat started to slow down, and—far from wondering what he was going to do with himself all night—Jonah dropped into bed wondering where all the night had gone.


Submitted: November 25, 2021

© Copyright 2021 churchmouse. All rights reserved.

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