We’re around 70,000 words on Rocky Start–look, stuff happened/is happening to both of us, and it’s slowing us down–so it’s time to start getting some feedback. Here’s Chapter One. Have at it. (Lian, I stole your name for this.)
I was on Day Three of what was shaping up to be the second worst week of my life when my best friend, Lian, called to see how I was doing.
I was behind the counter where I worked in the secondhand store that belonged to my late boss, Ozzie Oswald. Oddities is the best (and only) secondhand shop in Rocky Start, Georgia and Tennessee, but I’d put the CLOSED sign up because Ozzie had died the day before yesterday and I was not in the mood to have Mrs. Baumgarten come in and try to bargain me down a dollar on a two-dollar tea cup. Most of the time, that’s fun, but today I was tense. I would not be good at customer service. I might start screaming at any minute. Instead, I was trying to glue a doll’s head to a bottle of paregoric with the wrong kind of glue, something I did not notice until much later because I was frantic and trying to pretend that I wasn’t. I have heard that if you fake an emotion, it becomes real. This is not true of calm.
So when Lian asked me how I was doing. I told her I was gluing a doll’s head to an antique bottle.
“No,” she said, patiently. “Not what are you doing, how are you doing? Ozzie died just two days ago—”
“I’m fine,” I lied, getting the glue tube out of my apron pocket to add more to the bottle lip. I always wear aprons in the shop, not the tie-behind-the-waist kind, the kind you put over your head with the straps crisscrossed in back. Camouflage. Nobody pays any attention to a middle-aged woman in a big, loose apron. Also my aprons have huge pockets. Pockets are very important in my life.
“You’re lying,” Lian said.
“Yes,” I said because my life was a mess that involved sudden death, poverty, homelessness, and possible jail in my near future.
That’s when I heard heard somebody rattle the front door to the shop. “We’re closed!” I yelled at the door without looking up (that glue was not working and I was concentrating), and Lian said, “Ouch,” because I hadn’t moved my mouth away from my bluetooth headset.
The door rattled again, and I looked up and saw through the window that it was our next door neighbor, Coral Schmidt. Coral’s shop, Ecstasy, is definitely the best coffee shop/bakery in Rocky Start. I was pretty sure she’d named the shop that so she could say, “This is Coral in Ecstasy,” every time she answered the phone, but she says it’s because her baking sends people into bliss, which is true.
“It’s Coral,” I told Lian. “And I’m making lasagna because Poppy and I are having a private wake for Ozzie tonight.”
“She owns a bakery. She doesn’t need your lasagna.”
“That’s my position, too. I doubt it’s Coral’s.” Then I felt guilty. Coral was a good person who had fed me lots of times, I could spare some pasta. Just not tonight.
The door rattled again.
“Coral has many positions,” Lian was saying. “Most of them under Ozzie and Pike. Did we ever find out what she did before she moved here? Because she’s very limber for a seventy-something woman.”
“No, she never talks about the past.” Much like you and me and everybody else around here, I thought. “I should give Coral some lasagna. She’s a good friend.”
“The woman’s a human Hoover,” Lian said.
“All of Coral’s appetites are strong. But I also want to keep working on this assemblage I just started.”
“You’re making another saint? I love those.”
Lian’s voice sounded different, I realized. Tense. Clipped. “What’s up? You sound stressed.”
“I’m fine,” Lian said, clearly not, but here is a key fact about Rocky Start: We do not ask about each other’s pasts. We don’t volunteer anything, either.
So I said, “I’m not making another saint. I don’t know what it is yet. I started it when I found an old paregoric bottle in the shop. I had to look up what paregoric was, and it turns out it was a medicine that was very popular in the first half of the twentieth century, possibly because it was made of opium, alcohol, and honey. Fifty per cent alcohol, in fact.” The head on the bottle wobbled and fell off. Definitely the wrong kind of glue. “I’ve been thinking about seeing if there was any left in the bottle because it sounded like exactly what I need. And maybe what you need.” I picked up the doll head before it glued itself to the marble counter. “Tell me what’s wrong, and we’ll fix it.”
I heard a key scrape in the lock, and then Coral came in. “What the hell, Rose. Why didn’t you open the door?”
“I was coming,” I lied and then stopped because Coral was dressed head to toe in tight shiny black. She looked like the Angel of Death. If the Angel of Death was a voluptuous blonde in her seventies.
“That’s a lie, you haven’t come in years,,” she said. “I don’t know how you stand it.”
I took a deep breath. Coral was a good person. It would be bad if I strangled her. “That’s what you came to tell me?”
“I worry about you, honey,” she said, coming to stand on the other side of the old marble-topped counter. “It’s not good to go without sex for years. And years. And years. Probably because you dress like an old woman.” She looked closer. “Is that one of Mrs. Baumgarten’s old dresses under that horrible apron? You’ve been thrifting again, haven’t you? Are you braless? You’re fifty years old—”
“Forty-nine,” I said. “I’m not fifty until Saturday. And the shop’s closed, there’s a sign and everything, so underwear is unnecessary. And uncomfortable.” I looked down at the top of my loose apron. “How could you tell I’m braless in this?”
“Things were shifting under there,” Coral said. “Beauty is pain. Put on a damn bra.”
I surveyed her with skepticism.
She was flashing enough seventy-three-year-old cleavage over a wasp-ish waist to cast doubt on her mourning, although I had to give her credit for maintaining her figure or at least corralling it with powerful undergarments. She would have pulled it off, too, except for that thing on her head, resting on her faux blonde upsweep: a wide-brimmed black picture hat full of black tulle bows with a black spotted veil swathing her face.
“That hat needs a crow,” I told her, squinting at it. I would have put a crow on it, first thing out of the box.
“Oh, god,” Lian said in my ear. “Is she in mourning?”
“Yes,” I said to Lian.
“No,” Coral said, rejecting my crow idea, but thankfully moving on from my non-existent sex life and my equally non-existent underwear. “Have you heard from Barry?”
“Oh yeah, just what you need,” Lian said. “A shifty lawyer.”
Lian is the other lawyer in Rocky Start. The good one.
“Why would I hear from Barry?” I asked Coral.
“About Ozzie’s will.”
She sounded breathless and avid, not a good look for mourning. Coral really loves drama. I think it’s the heat from the ovens at her place and all the caffeine.
“Coral, he died two days ago. Give the body time to cool.” I saw her flinch and felt bad because she really is a good egg. “I’m so sorry, Coral, that was thoughtless. It’s just not a good day. No, I have not heard from Ozzie’s lawyer. I don’t even know if Ozzie made a will. I’m pretty sure he thought he was immortal.”
“He was wrong,” Lian said judiciously in my ear. “Everyone needs a will.”
“Let’s not speak ill of the dead,” Coral said at the same time.
I wanted to say, I wasn’t speaking ill, I loved the cranky bastard like the father I never had, but that would just get me into more conversation, and I had a doll’s head to glue to a bottle of opium.
“You should call Barry,” Coral said. “You need professional help to handle Ozzie’s estate.”
Barry was not a professional kind of lawyer, which is probably why Ozzie had liked him. Most of Barry’s local clientele came to Rocky Start from out of town. Usually after dark.
“I’ll talk to him,” I told Coral.
“Don’t you dare,” Lian said in my ear. “You’ll get legal cooties.”
“Ozzie would want you to call Barry.”
Coral looked at me soulfully through the spotted veil, and I wondered how long she was going to be in mourning. I knew she truly missed the old grump. Not like my daughter Poppy and I did, but still, she’d cared for him. Kind of. Well, she’d slept with him a lot.
“Do you think he left anything to me?” Coral went on.
She leaned forward, and her breasts came with her, threatening the black satin that bound them. Ozzie used to call her The Couch because he said she was well-upholstered. “I’m spending the night on The Couch,” he’d say, “If anybody calls, tell them I’m in Ecstasy”, and then he’d head over to her apartment above her bakery. He didn’t call her the Couch behind her back; that was his nickname for her, in front of her face. Ozzie didn’t go in for tact. He didn’t go in for people, either, although he went into Coral with surprising frequency for a seventy-eight-year-old misanthrope.
Pike, her other friend with benefits, was her younger man. Seventy-two.
Coral must be buying Viagra and lube by the case.
That sounds snotty, but actually, I was envious. I didn’t know anybody I’d be willing to take my clothes off for—small town, limited population, much of it weird—and Coral had two guys on the line, both of them perfectly willing to share her. Of course, Pike and Ozzie had also shared a past before Rocky Start which they had never talked about.
“I have no idea if he left you anything,” I lied to her to be nice. Ozzie wouldn’t leave anything to anybody. He accumulated things, he didn’t give them away. As my daughter Poppy once said, ‘If you crossed a pack rat with a raccoon, you’d get Ozzie’. “He didn’t leave me anything, either,” I added.
Coral frowned. “Of course he did. Why would you think that?”
“He said so. He kept telling me to make plans for the future that didn’t include this place.” He’d tried to make it sound like he was doing me a favor, a sort of “You’re better than this place,” but he was also pretty obviously telling me I was temporary and not to get any ideas about permanence. Even though Poppy and I had been there for nineteen years.
“That sounds like Ozzie.” Coral shook her head, making her hat swivel a little on her head. It really needed a crow. “Do you know what this building is worth? If there’s no will, which there probably isn’t knowing how Ozzie was, then Norman is probably going to sell the whole thing.”
“Norman? Really?” Ozzie loathed his brother, I didn’t see him leaving that moocher anything.
But if there was no will . . .
“He’s the only living relative Ozzie had.” Then Coral leaned in and whispered, “But if there is a will and Ozzie left the building to me, I’ll give you some of the money when I sell it.”
“Coral,” I began, about to tell her that I wanted to discuss my lack of money even less than I wanted to discuss my lack of intercourse and undergarments, but then the bell rang again as the door to the shop opened, and a man came in: middle height, pale and dark-haired, slick-looking, probably in his mid-thirties, expensive suit (bespoke cut), air of superiority, a Rolex (a real one, I can tell) your general upper class weasel sharing Coral’s inability to read a CLOSED sign.
“Who’s that?” Lian said in my ear, having heard the bell.
“We’re closed,” I said to Beady Eyes.
“You’re right,” he said. “I was just going to tell you that. My name is Oswald, and this place belongs to me.”
I was so surprised that it took me awhile to react, but once I got my brain working again, I frowned at him. “What?”
He smiled but there was nothing friendly about him.“I’m Ozzie Oswald’s son, Oswald Junior, and since he’d dead, all this is mine now.” He looked around the shop, sneering. “So I’m taking over. I’m closing this place down. You need to get out. Now.”
I just stared at him for a moment, at his feral smile and tiny eyes.
Then he added, “You have no legal standing to be here, honey, and I doubt you ever earned your salary anyway, so you’re no loss. Get out.”
He smirked and I hate smirkers, and he was ordering me around, and if you want to see me go ballistic, try telling me what to do, plus under all that bravado, he was nervous, so this was a scam. I dropped the doll’s head onto the counter, walked around him, opened the door, and pointed outside. “Out, Limb of Satan.”
His smirk got smirkier. “You really think I’m going to let a middle-aged woman throw me out of my own property? Get over yourself, grandma.”
“What the hell?” Lian said in my ear.
Coral was appraising the stranger with narrowed eyes behind her veil.
Junior went on as if talking to a simpleton. “Do you understand? I own this place now and the business is closed for good.” He looked around the shop as if calculating its worth.
“The hell he owns that place,” Lian said in my ear. “And even if he does, you have tenant rights. I’m calling Pike.”
“This is a scam, a truly stupid one,” I said to him. Twelve years traveling with Poppy’s father and then nineteen years working with Ozzie, and I had mad skills for spotting the crooked. Just not for avoiding them. I picked up the only heavy thing on the shelf by the door, a reproduction of the Maltese Falcon, and gestured to him with it. “Get out, Junior, and I won’t beat you to death with a movie prop.”
“Ozzie never mentioned a son,” Coral murmured from behind Junior. “He would have mentioned that.”
“Look.” He reached into an inner pocket, retrieved a picture and held it out.
Coral hustled over to take the picture and drew in her breath. Then she came forward and showed it to me.
A young man with a sharp face, dressed in dull green fatigues, was looking at a tall slender woman next to him wearing khaki with the blackest, straightest hair I’d ever seen, framing skin so pale she looked dead. Beautiful but dead. Morticia Addams in the flesh.
“My mother, Serena Stafford,” he said. “And my father, the man you knew as Ozzie Oswald. We thought he was dead all these years.”
“That could be anybody,” I said, getting even more irritated, but Coral shook her head.
“It’s Oz,” she whispered as if seeing a ghost. “I remember. God, he was so handsome then. Six-pack abs. He could crack a walnut with his glutes.”
I frowned at her, not pleased to know about Ozzie’s glutes and even less pleased that she was supporting Fake Ozzie Junior. “I don’t care if it is Ozzie. He’s just standing next to a vampire, that doesn’t mean they made this guy together.”
“I’ve got a lab sending a DNA test to Dad’s lawyer,” Junior said. “But you need to get out of here now, or I’ll call the cops and have you arrested for trespassing on my property. Women of your age don’t do well in jail.”
“I don’t like this,” Lian whispered in my ear. “Stall him, Pike’s on his way.”
“Nobody does well in jail, you moron.” I opened the door wider. “Ozzie’s estate hasn’t been settled yet, so nobody has any idea who gets what. And I have a bottle of opium that needs a head. Get. Out.”
Junior looked annoyed. He’d obviously thought it would be easy bullying some middle-aged counter clerk in a small Appalachian town. Dumbass.
Coral was still staring at the photo lost in her walnut-cracking memories, but Junior pulled it back from her and tucked it away in his coat.
“Mom?” Poppy said from the doorway, just home from high school, tall and blonde and beautiful and eighteen and not like me at all. Well, I’m tall.
“Hello,” Junior said to her, and then started toward her. “You, on the other hand, can stay.”
I moved around him fast to block him from my daughter, and Poppy’s voice pitched up. “Mom!”
“Rose,” Lian said in my ear. “Be careful. Let Pike handle this.”
Junior grabbed my arm to shove me out of his way, and it was just not the day to do that to me, okay? I shoved him back as Coral reached up and pulled something out of the crown of her hat. Poppy came toward us, and he turned to her, and I swung the Falcon with enthusiasm and whacked him hard on the shoulder.
He yelled and dropped my arm and staggered as I drove him toward the open doorway, swinging the Falcon again and again, yelling “Stay away from my kid, you perv!” as he fell back.
Then he grabbed me, dragging me with him as he stumbled outside onto the steps.
Poppy said, “Mom!” and Junior backhanded me with one hand as he let go with the other.
“MOM,” Poppy yelled.
I slapped my hand on his chest to push him away, dazed from the blow, and started to swing the Falcon again, and when his eyes followed my arm, I slid two fingers onto his wallet in his jacket. Then when he swung back to me, half a second later, the movement of his body pulled it away from the wallet so it was out of his pocket. I pressed closer and dropped the wallet into one of my lovely, large apron pockets as I shoved him away again and swung the Falcon low and hard, aiming up for his hot spot, just like Ozzie had taught me, with only one thought in mind.
The best thing about my week was going to be neutering Junior.