CUTTER PRESS DIDN’T BELIEVE in miracles. Or divine intervention. Or any of those easy, feel-good explanations people used to explain the unexplainable. Not after living under the pragmatic tutelage of Virginia Press these past twenty-nine years. But the woman sitting in front of him made him think that perhaps miracles happened after all—at least small ones.
He studied Gloria. She had never looked so good. And it wasn’t just the way her hair hung like velvet across her cheek or the way her makeup made her face look so contoured and lovely. Rather, it was because of something in her eyes, some inner quietness and confidence that made them sparkle like the zircon earrings Virginia was so fond of.
He knew he was violating all rules of polite conduct, but he continued staring, in a perverse test to see how long her composure would last. To see which of them would break first. But she didn’t fidget. And she didn’t nibble her nails—a sight which always filled him with an urge to dunk Gloria’s fingers in a bowl of his mother’s Clorox-water, the concoction Virginia swore, if applied correctly, kept ants from nibbling the food in her kitchen.
And that was the miracle. Not only to see Gloria Bickford back in his office, but so relaxed, with her hands resting like doves on her lap, her ankles crossed, her feet tucked discreetly under the director’s chair.
Then there was that smile. So sweet it made perspiration pool around his white starched collar and run down his back and chest like raindrops against a window. A smile like that could make a man say something foolish, and Cutter Press had spent the better part of his life trying not to say anything foolish to Gloria.
Tried and failed. A hundred times.
He broke eye contact first when he picked up a dart. The firm metal shaft, pointed at one end and fluted at the other, felt good between his fingers and gave him a feeling of control. He could direct it wherever he chose or hold it as long as he wished. Not being a dullard, he understood that it was just a silly diversion he used whenever he felt the need for one. Like now.
Be a man, Press, and look her in the face.
“I never expected to see you here. Never expected you to leave Mattson Development.” He deliberately focused his eyes on her.
For the first time Gloria looked uncomfortable and shifted in her chair. “It was impossible to stay . . . after learning what was going on, after learning what . . . Tucker was doing. It’s still hard to believe he deliberately tried to stop the development of your Lakes property.”
Cutter grunted. “The environmentalists still have it all tied up. Don’t know what it’s going to take to get the EPA and the rest of them off our backs. My partners are fuming . . . but that’s another matter.” He fingered his dart. “Anyway . . . here you are back in Appleton. I think your mother was the only one who really believed you’d return. You surprised a lot of us.”
“I surprised myself.”
Cutter had heard through the grapevine that after Gloria left Tucker Mattson she took a job in an Eckerd City print shop. He wondered why she had left that job and come all the way back here to this dead-end town. He twirled the dart in his fingers. He couldn’t imagine why she was still smiling like that. Didn’t she understand that coming home was a form of failure? An admission that she couldn’t cut it in the big city? Only . . . right now she looked like she could cut it anywhere.
“If you’ve come for your old job, it’s filled.” He was taken back when he heard light laughter. Strange how everything about her seemed to surprise him. He had spent years trying to figure her out, and just when he thought he had . . .
“I have a job at Appleton Printers. I’ve been there for over a week.”
Cutter had heard that too, but hadn’t believed it. Not in that little mousehole of a business. Even now, after Gloria’s confirmation, it seemed implausible. Why would she want to work in a place like that when she could work at Medical Data? He tented his fingers and glared, as though daring her to explain. “Okay, if you don’t need a job, why have you come?” Strange how disappointed he felt. Had he wanted to see her squirm? Beg even?
Gloria shook her head as though reading his thoughts, her shiny brown hair barely moving. Her hair was different from the last time he saw her in Eckerd. It was longer and fell over one eye, almost like that actress Veronica Lake. That hair had made Veronica a big star, and when she cut it, she cut herself out of a career. Strange how hair could do so much for a woman. Just looking at Gloria’s hair now and what it did to her face made the perspiration soak his collar even more. “If you haven’t come for a job, why have you come?” he repeated, hearing the snarl in his own voice and wondering why she irritated him.
“I’ve come to ask your forgiveness.”
This was one surprise too many. Cutter hurled the dart at the dartboard—the only object hanging on the left wall of his office. As the tip sank into the bull’s-eye, he felt his lip curl. He was wrong to want her to grovel, but this cool-calm-collected manner was intolerable, almost infuriating, as if she thought she were above it all . . . superior even. And yet . . . that gentleness, that composure . . . He searched her eyes. What was that look? Soft and kind and . . . He felt the need to turn away, and that annoyed him.
She had to be playing with him. What forgiveness could she possibly need? He was the one needing forgiveness. The memory of her last visit here still made him cringe. It had nearly rubbed his brain raw from the number of times he had relived it. He had been rough and arrogant—demanding she give an explanation for refusing his marriage proposal. A business deal, he called it. How could he have expected her to sell herself so cheaply?
No wonder she had left town.
“I wanted to see you in person, to tell you how sorry I was about the Mattson Newsletter, and to ask you to forgive my part in it.” She pulled a handful of folded flyers from the pocket of her Windbreaker and put them on the desk. The Windbreaker looked new, stylish, not like one of those cheap folded-up plastic things she used to wear, the kind that came stuffed in a pouch. The rest of her clothes looked new too, and . . . stylish. And he couldn’t help but notice how nicely she filled them out. Must have put on at least five pounds since he saw her last. And all in the right places. He watched that smile come over her face again when the pile of flyers teetered, then watched her push them closer to him. “Here are some of the Conservation & Common Sense flyers Harry Grizwald—my old boss at E-Z Printing— and I have done.”
If she smiles that way one more time . . . He picked up a flyer, swiveled his chair to the side so she was no longer in his line of vision, and began reading.
“I know the flyers haven’t undone all the harm those newsletters did to The Lakes, but they’ve helped. Harry says more and more people are calling him with their stories. And many are letting him print them too, hoping to expose the radical environmental movement. We’re going to continue the flyers, for now anyway. Maybe in time it will force the EPA to back away, so you can build.”
Cutter sat silently in his chair, wondering how he should react. Truth was, he no longer held those newsletters against her. It should be easy for him to just come out and say so. It would go a long way in making him look like a big man. But the words stuck to the back of his throat like wallpaper.
He watched Gloria rise to her feet. Say it, man, say it. When she extended her hand, Cutter smelled perfume and felt his irritation rise. What was that all about? She never wore perfume. Women wore perfume to attract men. And Gloria wasn’t into that sort of thing. Or maybe she was.
Maybe he didn’t know her at all.
“Well . . . I just wanted to tell you how sorry I was and to show you the flyers.” Gloria took his hand and shook it. “And to show you that my remorse extended beyond words, that I was backing it with actions.”
Cutter allowed Gloria to give his hand another shake before he pulled away, lamenting both that the moment to be magnanimous had passed and that Gloria’s perfume continued to linger in his nostrils.
“I know it’s a reach, but maybe we could try to be friends,” Gloria said, still smiling.
Cutter thought he saw a pained expression on her face, as though she were choking over the words, as though someone— like her mother—had forced her to say them. And that possibility irritated him. “At this point, why bother?”
“Appleton’s a small place. There’s no need for it to be unpleasant every time we bump into each other.”
Cutter twisted his heavy Appleton High ring around his finger, feeling the familiar lines of the beveled garnet. So that was it. It wasn’t forgiveness she wanted. It was a truce. She was afraid he would make life unpleasant for her now that she was back.
Well . . . she could stop worrying. The last thing he wanted was to make her leave Appleton again.
Gloria shut the door behind her as she exited Cutter’s office, feeling like an ambassador of goodwill who had not managed to create any goodwill at all. She hadn’t expected it to be so hard, this business of reconciliation. In Eckerd, when she was high on that mountaintop with her Jesus, the thought of coming back and putting things right with Cutter, her mother, and Tracy all seemed so simple. How different things looked from the trenches, where the mud could be ankle deep and coat everything, including your perspective. Here, from this observation post, Cutter was his usual obnoxious self, her mother was still impossible, and Tracy . . . Tracy didn’t even return her phone calls.
Well, I tried. But even as Gloria walked away from Cutter’s door, she knew her lame declaration wouldn’t cut it. Jesus would expect more. He always expected more. That was one of the exasperating things about Him.
Cutter’s secretary, Sadie Bellows, sat in the outer office, wrapped in a floral sarong that made Gloria think of the Caribbean, and frantically filed her nails. Shells, strung together, two inches long, dangled from her ears. Gloria ignored the frosty glare Sadie gave her as she passed.
She had come here for nothing.
It had taken her a full week to get up the nerve to face Cutter. Even as late as this morning, she had to gulp down two Alka-Seltzers to calm her stomach. And that bothered her because she had given Jesus her hurt, passed it to Him like you’d pass the potatoes at a family gathering. But obviously not all of it. There was still more—a deep layer that needed His healing touch. Okay, so be it. If Jesus had taught her anything, it was that He could be trusted—trusted with her life, and that included her past as well as her future. My goodness, she was back in Appleton, wasn’t she? And that in itself testified to what Jesus could do.
Geri Bickford tapped across the kitchen in her high-heeled slippers, ignoring the fact that they were shedding pink feathers all over her nice clean floor. Her eyes never left the phone cradled beside the gleaming chrome toaster oven. One call. Only one call in a week. You’d think a daughter would call her mother more than that . . . just to say hello. Just to make her mother feel loved and wanted and appreciated. And if for none of these reasons, then out of respect. Surely out of respect. But Gloria hadn’t even told her she was coming back to Appleton. Just showed up one day, after she had already found a job and a place to live.
Gloria had always been difficult. Even as a child. How many times did Geri have to force corrections in Gloria’s life? Discourage her when she saw Gloria going the wrong way? Just like this whole Eckerd City thing. At least Gloria had finally come to her senses on that one and returned home where she belonged.
But not without a fight.
Gloria always fought her no matter what Geri tried to do. Look at the way Gloria fought her about her makeup and hair. All Geri ever wanted was to help Gloria improve. Give her daughter a heads-up. God knew Gloria needed all the help she could get with her looks. At least Gloria finally came around on that one too. She was looking a lot better these days. Everyone who saw Gloria complimented Geri on how good she looked. Still . . . if Gloria had come around sooner, life would have been easier for both of them.
Not the important things, anyway. Loneliness was still the only houseguest Geri Bickford entertained. She had wanted to spare Gloria that. But Gloria’s stubbornness had ruined all of Geri’s hard work. Had spoiled probably Gloria’s only chance for marriage and security and . . .
But hadn’t Geri herself been lonely even after she married Gavin? The G&G embroidered on their towels and pillowcases with white silky thread had looked so lovely. So had their wedding pictures, with their arms entwined. It was hard to tell where one left off and the other began.
Too bad that’s as far as it went.
Sometimes Gloria didn’t have a brain in her head. Couldn’t she see what Geri was trying to do? Teach her? Help her over some of those rough spots? With Gloria’s silly expectations, she was sure to be disappointed. And even though Gloria was finally using makeup and not frizzing her hair, and was even wearing more stylish clothes, did she think that was all there was to it? Geri had beauty titles to fill a wall, and tricks and tips that could make even Phyllis Diller look good before she had all that plastic surgery. Yes, if it were that easy, then Geri would never have been lonely.
Geri opened the refrigerator and stared vacantly at the container of nonfat yogurt. What was she doing? It wasn’t food she wanted. With a snap of her wrist, she closed the refrigerator, then stormed over to the phone like it were an enemy. If Gloria didn’t call by tonight, then she’d call her—not to try to talk her into anything. It was far too late for that. But just to guide her, direct her, help her in whatever way she could, to have some input in her life. It was a mother’s responsibility to turn out a sensible child.
If only Gloria understood that you never got used to loneliness.
Gloria pecked the keyboard with exaggerated force and watched the sluggish response on the monitor. “Wanda, you’ve really got to get new computers.”
A thickset bleached-blonde straightened her bent body and moved one step from her inconspicuous place in the corner. “I guess working at that la-di-da city printer has given you airs. This computer’s been doing the job just fine since—”
“Since my senior year at Appleton High! Honestly, Wanda, it’s not even a Pentium, and nobody but nobody uses Windows 3.0 anymore.”
Wanda Lugget patted down the sides of her short bouffant hair, a style even older than her computers, then shoved aside a box of unopened toner with her foot. “Paul . . . Paul, get in here. The little city girl has a complaint.”
A tall, thin man, with graying temples and a bald spot on top, entered from the back, wiping his hands on a small green towel. “Now what?”There was a smile on his face.
“She says we need new computers. Thinks we’re the Rockefellers or something. First she wanted Quirk-whatchacallit; now it’s computers.” Gloria saw Wanda wink at her husband. “For over thirty years we’ve been using clip art, cutting boards, and trimmers. Seems that’s not good enough anymore.”
Gloria pressed one finger down on the letter J and pointed at the monitor with the other hand. “Look . . . look at that! It’s slower than Miss Whittle.”
Wanda laughed. Miss Whittle, the music teacher at Appleton High for the past twenty years, was notorious for moving like molasses uphill. When anyone in Appleton wanted to say something was slow, he would inevitably make the Miss Whittle comparison.
Gloria continued pressing her finger on the J, and only when she heard Wanda snort, “All right already, I see it,” did she release the key. She loved working with the Luggets, even though Wanda could test the patience of Job with her shrill dispensing of orders and hyped-up nerves during a deadline. Once, Gloria had actually heard Wanda threaten to shred Paul’s prized Offset Lithographic Technology book if he didn’t stop dillydallying. Paul was a perfectionist and wasn’t always a good counterbalance to Wanda’s manic side.
But Gloria should be used to it. It was Wanda who had taken Gloria under her wing when she was a senior working on the yearbook and taught her about tints from the Murphy Color Wheel. The Luggets had been helping the Appleton High yearbook staff—gratis—for almost all of the thirty years they had owned the shop. Even back then, there were times when that woman could have benefited from a little Prozac, though Gloria always suspected Wanda’s problem was hormonal.
“If you get the computers now, we’ll have them in place before the Apple Festival.” Gloria tilted back in her chair. It was one of Wanda’s calmer days and safe to banter. “This year we could really knock their socks off.”
“Well, listen to her, Paul. Now she wants to go knocking people’s socks off.”
“Time some people around here had theirs knocked off. Matter of fact, I was thinking that very thing yesterday. That’s why I ordered two new HPs, along with two seventeen-inch flatscreen monitors. Think the little city girl can work now, Wanda?”
“She better. How else are we going to pay for all that stuff.” Wanda winked again, just as her husband flipped the green towel over his shoulder and headed toward the pressroom.
“In that case, I’ll call Charlie Axlerod at the Chamber of Commerce and see if he’d like to commission some posters for the Apple Festival.” Gloria tried to look serious. “I’ll tell him about our early-bird special.”
“What early-bird special?”
“The one I thought we should run so we can get advance orders—at a five-percent discount. You know things are going to start getting crazy around here in a few weeks. I thought the special would help even the workload.” And keep Wanda calmer.
“You learned a few things in that big city of yours, didn’t you?”Wanda said, heading toward the box of toner.
“Just a few.” The smile Gloria had been trying so hard to suppress finally broke through. She thought of Harry Grizwald’s print shop and how it wasn’t much bigger than this, and of Perth and how Gloria had left her so ready and eager to start Eckerd Community College. God had taken Gloria on an amazing journey last year, one that had changed her life. She wondered what He had in store for her now that she was back in Appleton.
Gloria unlocked the door of the little apartment at the back of Sam Hidel’s Grocery and watched Tiger, her new calico cat, the one Clive McGreedy had given her as a homecoming gift, scoot by her on the way out. She made no attempt to stop him. The fresh air would do him good, and he’d come back when he got hungry.
Gloria still couldn’t believe she had a cat. Mother had never allowed pets. They were messy. They carried fleas—and who knew what else. It had taken a year in Eckerd for Gloria to get the courage to do something like this. Mother would be furious when she found out. She’d tell Gloria she didn’t have a brain in her head. And when Tracy found out, she’d probably laugh and say Tiger wasn’t a cat, but a declaration of independence. They’d both be wrong.
Gloria closed the door behind her, then flipped on the lights. She hadn’t been able to get her old apartment back. The subletters had recently signed a new two-year lease. But she wasn’t sorry. Though Sam Hidel’s apartment wasn’t as nice or as big, it was a lot cheaper, and that would help Gloria save for a car. It was one thing not having a car in the city, but here in Appleton, it was impossible.
Gloria thought of her old car, the one Grandma Quinn had named Silver Streak after the movie, the one Grandma had given her when she could no longer drive because of cataracts. It suddenly struck Gloria as odd that both Silver Streaks, her grandma’s 1985 Buick Century and the train in the movie, had the same ending: they crashed.
She only wished hers would have crashed before she spent all that money on a new radiator. She had just had a fight with her mother and wanted to go somewhere quiet to clear her head. The next thing she knew she was on the Old Post Road, along the western perimeter of Clive McGreedy’s farm. The road was slick with black ice, and she had been going too fast. It didn’t take much to slide off the pavement and careen into Clive’s rail fence. The crash splintered one of the rails, causing it to pierce the grillwork of the Buick like a lance, straight through her brand-new radiator.
Life was funny like that. You think you’ve fixed a thing, but it doesn’t always stay fixed. Just like her relationship with her mother. If she had a car now, she’d drive over. God had softened her heart, had made her willing to forgive and forget that her mother had tried to force her to marry Cutter Press. Had made her willing to forgive and forget all the grief her mother had given her. Had made Gloria willing to love her mother even if her mother couldn’t love her back, couldn’t accept the fact Gloria wasn’t the beauty she had hoped for. Jesus had shown her that her mother was a deeply unhappy woman. Although Gloria didn’t understand why. Maybe, in time, Jesus would reveal that to her too.
“Oh, Lord, help me to be the daughter You want me to be,” she whispered as she placed her black leather purse on the kitchen counter. Then, without changing or grabbing a snack, Gloria headed for the phone and punched in the familiar number.
“So, your fingers aren’t broken. I thought for sure they had to be since you haven’t called in days.”
Gloria rolled her eyes, stopped herself, then quickly asked God to fill her with His love. “How are you, Mother?”
“Well . . .”
Gloria had just finished the dinner dishes and was about to hem the bottom of a pair of slacks her mother had bought for her over a year ago and only now fit, when the phone rang. Maybe it was Tracy returning her call. She had been trying to get in touch with her for days. She hadn’t seen her friend since Tracy had left Eckerd City so suddenly. And that was months ago.
She picked up the phone. “Hello.”
“Gloria!” Harry Grizwald’s voice was raspy, out of breath, almost like he had a cold. It took her a second to realize he was just excited. She felt mildly disappointed that it wasn’t Tracy. When was that girl going to call? “You won’t believe this, but someone just phoned saying he has information about The Lakes . . . but for a price. Five thousand, to be exact. First, I thought he was a crackpot. ’Til now, people have been free with their information. But then he mentioned Eric Slone.”
“Who’s Eric Slone?” She pictured the curly white-haired Grizwald in his kitchen, wrapped in his Pillsbury Doughboy apron, and suddenly felt lonely.
“You’re kidding, right? Eric Slone is to investments what Bill Gates is to computer software. Some say he’s got the Midas touch. That when he invests in something, it produces. He’s a bull even in a bear economy. A billionaire. For heaven’s sake, Gloria, he was on the cover of last month’s Time.”
“Sorry, never heard of him.” She heard Harry sigh.
“Well, the problem is I don’t have five thousand dollars. Not to spare, anyway. Not since retirement is right around the corner and since Dorie and I might . . . well, we might make it a permanent thing.”
“Harry! How wonderful.” Gloria felt a tinge of jealousy slither through her genuine feelings of joy, and was disappointed in herself. That issue had been turned over to the Lord. No sense in yanking it back now or second-guessing Him. He would bring someone into her life, or not, as He chose. “Have you set a date?”
“No, we’re just tossing the idea back and forth. Dorie hasn’t said yes yet. Said she’s been a spinster so long she’s not sure she wants to start changing things now. But she doesn’t know how stubborn I can be. Anyway . . . I wasn’t even going to tell you— it’s just too early—so let’s get back on track here. About the five thousand—like I said, I don’t have it to spare, but since this involves that friend of yours . . . what’s-his-name . . .”
“Right. Maybe he’d be interested. You want to run it by him? See if he’s willing to lay out that kind of cash? I wouldn’t even bother with it except that if this guy’s really telling the truth, if Eric Slone is involved, it would be worth knowing about. So . . . what do you think? You want to ask your friend?”
“Ah . . . okay . . . sure.”
Great, now she had to go back to that hateful office.