“She’s got it.”
He looked up.
“Vera Wang,” he repeated it in a reverent tone of voice and closed the magazine. “Okay. Let’s get to work.”
“It has to be outside.”
“Ah. A tent. Perfect. We should start with the lighting. . . .”
Meghann barely listened as his voice droned on and on about a zillion details. Lighting. Flowers. Table dressings. Grooms’ cakes, for goodness’ sake.
She had definitely made the right decision in coming here. All she had to do was write the checks.
Joe was elbow-deep in the undercarriage of an old Kubota tractor, changing the oil, when he heard a car drive up. He listened for Smitty’s booming voice, always loud when he welcomed customers to the garage, but now there was nothing except the tinny, scratchy strains of an old Hank Williams song on the radio.
“Anyone here?” someone called out. “Smitty?”
Joe rolled out from under the tractor and got to his feet. He was just putting his baseball cap on, pulling the brim low on his eyes, when a florid, heavyset man walked into the garage.
Joe recognized the man. It was Reb Tribbs, an old-time logger who’d lost an arm on the job.
Joe pulled his cap down lower and didn’t make eye contact. “What can I do for you?”
“My truck’s dyin’ again. I just brought the damn thing to Smitty. He said he fixed it. Some job, he done. I ain’t payin’ for it till it runs.”
“You’ll have to take that up with Smitty. But if you want to drive into the garage, I’ll—”
“Do I know you?” Reb frowned, pushed the cowboy hat back on his head, and stepped closer. “I don’t never forget a voice. Can’t see for shit, but I got the hearin’ of a damn wolf.”
Do I know you? It was the question Joe had heard in every town in Washington. “I’ve got one of those faces. People always think they know me. Now, if you’ll bring the truck around—”
“Joe Wyatt. Ho-ly shit.” Reb made a whistling sound. “It’s you, ain’t it?”
Joe sighed, beaten. “Hey, Reb.”
There was a long pause, during which Reb studied Joe, his head cocked to the side as if he were listening to someone. “You got some nerve comin’ back here, boy. Folks around here remember what you done. Hell, I thought you were in prison.”
“No.” Joe fought the urge to walk away. Instead, he stood there, listening. He deserved every word.
“You’d best get a move on. Her daddy don’t need to hear that you’re back in town.”
“I haven’t seen her dad.”
“Course not. Chickenshit piece of crap like you don’t have the guts. You’d best move on, Joe Wyatt. This town doesn’t need a man like you.”
“That’s enough, Reb.” It was Smitty’s voice. He stood at the open garage door, holding a half-eaten sandwich in one hand and a can of Coke in the other.
“I can’t believe you’d hire this piece of garbage,” Reb said.
“I said, that’s enough.”
“I won’t bring my truck here if he’s gonna work on it.”
“I imagine I can lose your business and still survive,” Smitty said.
Reb made a sputtering sound, then turned on his heel and marched out. As he got into his truck, he yelled out, “You’ll be sorry, Zeb Smith. Trash like him don’t belong in this town.”
After he drove away, Smitty placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “He’s the trash, Joe. Always has been. Mean as a badger.”
Joe stared out the window, saw the beat-up red truck buck down the road. “You’ll lose customers when word gets out that I’m here.”
“Don’t matter. My house is paid for. My land’s paid for. I own a rental house in town that brings in five hundred a month. Helga and I both have Social Security. I don’t need a single damn customer. Ever.”
“Still. Your reputation is important.”
Smitty squeezed his shoulder. “Last Helga and I heard about our Philly, he was living in Seattle. Under the Viaduct. Her**n. Every day I hope someone offers him a helping hand.”
Joe nodded. He didn’t know what to say.
Finally, Smitty said, “I gotta make a Costco run. You think you can handle the garage for the next two hours?”
“Not if Reb is any indication.”
“He isn’t.” Smitty tossed him the keys. “Close up anytime you want.” Then he left.
Joe finished out the workday, but he couldn’t forget the incident with Reb. The old man’s words seemed to hang in the garage, poisoning the air.
This town doesn’t need a man like you.
By the time he closed up shop, he felt empty again. Gutted by the truth of Reb’s observations.
Then he remembered Gina. He had family here now; he didn’t have to be alone.
He went into the office and called her. The answering machine picked up. He hung up without leaving a message.
Instead, he locked up for the night. He was just about to turn toward his cabin when he happened to glance down the street.
The neon Redhook sign in Mo’s window caught his attention.
And suddenly he was thirsty. He wanted to sneak into that smoky darkness and drink until the ache in his chest went away.
He pulled the baseball cap low on his forehead and crossed the street. Outside the tavern he paused just long enough to pray that no one he knew was inside, then he pushed through the scarred wooden door.
He glanced around, saw no familiar faces, and finally breathed easily. He made his way to a table in the back, the one tucked farthest from the overhead lights. A few minutes later, a tired-looking waitress appeared. She took his order for a pitcher, then left. In no time, she was back with his beer.
He poured himself a schooner. Unfortunately, the three empty chairs around the table reminded him of other times, of another life, in fact. Back then, he never drank alone.
Meghann hadn’t been to a bridal shower in more than a decade. Her friends and colleagues lived with their boyfriends for years and then—sometimes—quietly got married. She had no idea how to blend in to this small-town crowd, how to adapt to their coloration. The last thing she wanted to do was stand out.
Yesterday, after her four-hour meeting with Roy, Meghann had spent another hour in Too Many Cooks. Although she wasn’t much of a cook, she was familiar with all the gadgets and gizmos. Sometimes, when she couldn’t sleep, she’d watch cooking shows on TV. So she knew what every kitchen needed. She bought Claire (and Bobby, although she didn’t think of them as a couple, really) a Cuisinart food processor.
She’d been tired by the time she made it back to Claire’s house, and dinner hadn’t helped. As the meal progressed, she’d felt increasingly separate, a woman distinct in her solitude even among her so-called family.
She’d tried to make mealtime conversation, but it had been difficult. Claire and Bobby rarely took their eyes off each other, and Alison talked continually—mostly to her mother and Bobby. On the few rare instances in which Meghann had been able to wedge a word in between the child’s soliloquies, she’d discovered what a yawning silence was.
What? Bobby had asked twice, blinking slowly as he peeled his gaze away from Claire.
Meghann couldn’t remember now what she’d said. All she recalled for sure was that it had been wrong. She knew for a fact that she shouldn’t have mentioned her work. One innocent little remark about a deadbeat dad, and Alison asked loudly, “Will you and Bobby ever get divorced, Mommy?”
Claire had not been amused. “No, honey. Don’t listen to Aunt Meg. She’s the Antichrist when it comes to marriage.”
Bobby had laughed so hard he spilled his milk. That had made Alison laugh, then Claire. It was remarkable how alienating other people’s laughter could be.
Meghann had been the only one not laughing as they sopped up the milk. She’d excused herself quickly from the table—pleaded a headache—and ran upstairs.
But now, nearly an hour later, she felt better. A quick glance at the bedside clock told her it was 6:40.
Come on, Meg. It’s time—again—to celebrate your sister’s decision to marry a three-time loser. Wait! Give them gifts! She went down the hall and ducked into the bathroom, where she twisted her abundant black hair into a knot and applied enough makeup to hide the lack-of-sleep lines around her eyes. Then she went back into the bedroom and opened her closet. It took her a while to figure out what to wear. Fortunately, she’d packed a lot of choices.
In the end, she decided on a plain black dress. Armani was never wrong. She added sheer black hose and a pair of pumps, then went downstairs.
The house was quiet.
Then she saw the note on the kitchen table:
Dear Meg, Sorry you’re feeling sick. Stay home and rest, xxoo, C.
They’d left without her. She glanced at her watch. It was 7:00. Of course they’d left. They were the guests of honor. They couldn’t be late.
She considered staying right here.
I’m sorry, Claire. I—
—lost the directions.
—felt sick after dinner.
—couldn’t get my car started.
Each excuse would work. In truth, Claire would probably love it if Meg stayed away. And yet, it would be one more brick in the wall that separated them.
There were enough bricks already.
She dug through her purse for the pale lavender invitation. It read Couples’ Shower for Claire and Bobby, 7:00. The directions were on the back.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d walked so slowly to her car, or when she’d followed the speed limit signs so precisely. Even so, Hayden was a small town and the directions on the invitation were easy to follow. It took her less than ten minutes to find Gina’s house. She pulled up behind a battered red pickup with a gun rack in the cab window and a bumper sticker that read: Screw the Spotted Owl.
Clearly a member of Greenpeace.
She got out of the car and walked up the slanted concrete driveway that led to a sprawling log house with a wraparound porch. Bright red geraniums and purple lobelia cascaded from hanging pots. Rhododendrons sporting plate-size red blooms were everywhere. She could hear the buzz of conversations through the open windows. From somewhere came the pounding beat of an old Queen song. “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Meghann smiled at the choice. Holding the gift firmly under one arm, she climbed the porch steps and knocked on the front door. You can do this. You can fit in with her friends. Just smile and nod and ask for a pitcher of margaritas.
There was a rush of footsteps, then the door opened.
Gina stood there, her face creased in laughter. Until she saw Meghann. “Oh.” She stepped back to allow entry. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Meghann stared at Gina, who was dressed in a pair of denim capri pants and an oversize black T-shirt. Her feet were bare. Great. “I’m overdressed.”
“Are you kidding? If I hadn’t gained fifteen pounds since Rex left I’d be dressed up, too. Come on. You’re my date for the evening.” Gina smiled. “I thought I’d been stood up.”