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Kiki Lowenstein and the Watermelon Festival — In Its Entirety


Note: This is my Valentine’s Day gift for all of you. I’ll leave it up for a week until Feb. 21, and then I’ll take it down and make it available on Kindle only. Love you! — Joanna

Detweiler smiled at me as I handed him a tall glass of iced tea. “I think you should go.”

I turned from him to our kitchen window.  Summer in St. Louis can be oppressive, and today was no exception. Each morning, moisture condensed on our windows, thanks to the A/C inside and the moist heat outside.  Old washcloths worked well to sop up the liquid and clear the glass so that we could see outside.  The lawn rolled on and on, a thick green carpet, perfect for welcoming bare feet. The happy shrieks of our two older children brought a smile to my face. They loved running through the sprinkler, an activity totally new to our adopted son, but one that my teenaged daughter had enjoyed every summer.

“It’s a long drive.” My face scrunched into a frown. “Three and a half hours.”

“Good. That’ll give you two plenty of time to get caught up.” Detweiler came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “Kiki, you two were friends for a dozen years. I know how much you miss your relationship with Mert. I bet she feels the same about you, honey. She’s offering you an olive branch. Take it.”

“Taking the olive branch is one thing. Driving all the way to Vincennes, Indiana, is another.” I turned so I could look into my husband’s amazing green eyes. “That’s a long, long branch, isn’t it? Okay, she wants to be friends again. Or does she? Is it possible she needs a co-pilot, and I’m the only person available? Maybe she doesn’t really even want me to go along with her.”

“You are over-thinking this. Seriously.” Detweiler leaned in close and kissed me lightly on the lips. “If she didn’t want you to come along, she wouldn’t have invited you. Mert asked you to go with her to Indiana because she wants to spend time with you. Quit being so suspicious. Now tell me—what did she say you two would be doing?”

I opened my mouth to protest, but he had that look in his eyes. He’d already decided I should go. I still had my doubts. Sure, Mert and I’d been best friends since that fateful day we’d met in the cleaning products aisle in Home Depot. But all that had changed when she blamed me for her brother’s involvement in a kidnapping and shoot-out. As much as Mert had loved me, she loved her brother more. I understood that; I didn’t like that she refused to take into consideration the fact that he’d cooked up a scheme that backfired.

“What are your plans?” Detweiler prompted me. As usual, he smelled of Safeguard soap and light cologne. He wasn’t a guy to soak himself, but he always smelled good.

Resistance was futile. I released the tension in my body and enjoyed the comfort of my husband’s arms. “It’s an opportunity to spend time with an old friend of hers who could use a little support. She called it a watermelon festival, whatever that is. Mert assures me that it’s a major big deal in Vincennes. In fact, the town used to be called The Watermelon Capital of the World.”

Detweiler threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Who knew?”

“There you have it. If I decide to accompany my friend, I’ll meet a friend she hasn’t dropped. Oh, and did I mention that we’ll be driving three and a half hours to stuff ourselves with all the watermelon we can eat? Woop-de-do. Do I know how to live it up or what?”

Again Detweiler laughed, but this time the sound was richer. “Lighten up, babe. It’s summertime, and the melons are easy. I predict that you and Mert will have a blast.”

“Right.” I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. In my heart of hearts, I knew he was right about one thing: This was my chance to mend fences with Mert. I missed her terribly, although if I was to be totally honest, I also feared her. What if we became close again only for her to dump me again? It had been hard enough to live through those feelings of abandonment once in a lifetime. Did I really need to set myself up for it to happen again? A dull ache began in my throat as I remembered how much her rejection had hurt me.

The idea of spending three and a half hours in a vehicle with her did not thrill me either. If she got ticked off again, there would be no escaping from her anger.

The festival sounded like it might be kind of fun. At least I’d come away from the trip with great photos for my scrapbook. I like watermelon. I like it a lot.

“Okay,” I said. “You’ve convinced me. Watermelon festival here I come.”

 

**

Mert insisted on taking her truck. This made absolutely no sense at all, because I suggested that we borrow Sheila’s white Mercedes sedan. It’s a dream of a car for highway driving, and because my mother-in-law is still in Texas for rehab, the Mercedes car has been sitting idle in her garage.

“A Mercedes in Vincennes? Might as well get ourselves a bullhorn and announce we’re stuck-up visitors from out of town. No, thank you. No way.”

So instead of riding in luxurious comfort, I climbed into Mert’s candy-apple red Toyota pickup. Looking past the dead ferret she’s tied to the radio antenna, I waved to my assembled family, doing my best to keep a cheerful look on my face. Detweiler, the three kids, and our nanny waved back from a secure spot on our lawn. As we pulled away, I fought a lump in my throat. Yes, I needed a break, but I sure would miss everyone.

Other than to ask, “Are you ready?” and “Is that all you’re bringing?,” Mert hadn’t said a word to me. She took my small overnight bag, tossed it into the truck bed storage locker, and slammed the tail gate shut. We drove the next ten minutes in total silence. I considered asking, “So this is how it’s going to be? A long weekend and hard feelings?” Instead, I told myself to be nice and find something conciliatory that might serve as a conversation starter.

“How’s life, Mert?”

“Fair to middling.”

Right.

As she navigated our way through Webster Groves to Highway 44, I focused on the pretty flowers on porches, window boxes, hanging baskets, and lining sidewalks. St. Louis loves to spruce up with the changing seasons, and Webster Groves is (to my mind at least) the prettiest town in the metro area. I particularly like how joyous the geraniums are this time of year. They have a very patriotic look to them as they burst with color right as we approach the Fourth of July. Even now, four weeks later, the heads were still full of color.

I tried again. “Remind me who we’ll be visiting and how this person is related to you?”

“We gonna see Corva. She ain’t a relative.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t sure how to follow up on that. Ask open-ended questions, I reminded myself. That’s the way to get people to open up. “How do you know her?”

“We was friends as kids. Stayed in touch all these years. When we could, we’d visit each other. Whoever had the money or the time would do the traveling. Mainly, we’ve been pen-pals.”

“Wow. Pen-pals. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of people staying in touch as long as you two have.”

“Yup.”

The sun glinted off the chrome of Mert’s candy-apple red truck, giving me the perfect excuse to put on my sunglasses. The dark lenses allowed me to study my friend without her knowing it. Mert had aged in the past six months. The crinkles at the edges of her eyes fanned out like spiderwebs. The grooves on either side of her mouth had deepened. She owns a tanning bed and uses it year round because she claims it makes her look younger. I’ve argued it also ages your skin. She disagrees, but the proof was on her face with its leathery surface. I moved my gaze down to her hands. She wears Playtex gloves when she cleans, but for the first time, I noticed how knotted her knuckles were and how scarred the skin was.

Mert was getting old. A lump formed in my throat. I remembered how she had reached out to me when we first met. How she had stood by me when George died. She had been loyal as the day was long until she thought I’d endangered her brother. Johnny was younger than she was, and she felt incredibly protective toward him. In fact, Johnny himself had told me that she couldn’t accept the fact he was a grown man who was capable of making his own decisions. Sadness crept up on me the way a cat hunts down a sparrow, and when it pounced, I couldn’t breathe. I pulled out my inhaler and took a puff.

“Asthma getting to you?” She stared straight ahead while we sat at a stoplight, getting ready to pull onto I-64, which becomes I-64-40, but everyone always calls it “40.” The road is the east-west artery that pumps the lifeblood of traffic in and out of St. Louis, only pausing for heart attacks like major wrecks once or twice a month.

“I guess.” I put the inhaler back in my purse.

“That time of year, ain’t it?”

“I’ve been thinking about getting allergy shots.”

“Probably should. St. Louis is a big bowl. All the fumes from cars just sit there. Our air quality stinks. You’ll probably breathe easier in Vincennes.”

“Where are we staying?”

“Holiday Inn. It’s on the outskirts of town. Probably the nicest place in town. Got a pool. Did you bring a suit?”

“No.”

“We can stop at a Walmart on the way, and you can pick one up.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I grinned. “I’m always up for a trip to Walmart.”

That made her laugh.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly a heart-to-heart conversation, but we were making progress. The temperature had changed from chilly to lukewarm. Taking another stab at learning about Corva, would have to wait. We were crossing the state line into Illinois, and the traffic was heavy. Big trucks rode parallel to us, the walls of their trailers boxing us in. While I appreciate all the goods we get from these long-distance drivers, the size of their trucks can be intimidating, especially when you’re sharing the road with them. I glanced over at Mert, as the two semis pulled past us. She was keeping tabs on the rearview mirror. “Look at that,” she said, “Will you? Behind us.”

I twisted in my seat, turning as far as I could against my seatbelt. Out of the left corner of the back window, the Arch gleamed like a silver band embracing the cornflower blue sky.

“It’s so, so beautiful!” My heart squeezed tightly in my chest.

“I know. Ain’t it? I guess it’s purely corny, but I always get teary-eyed when I see it. You’d think it would get old—”

“But it never does.”

“Nope.”

There it stood, majestic and proud, a symbol that only our city could claim. The arch is an example of a weighted catenary, the idealized curve made when you hold a weighted chain or cable upside down by its two ends. Although it looks solid, it’s actually hollow inside. Nine hundred tons of stainless steel form the outside skin. The Arch’s designer, Eero Saarinen, intended this surface to catch and reflect the ambient light. Indeed it does. The Arch is both a monument to the past and a reflection of the changing world around it.

“Did you know you can see that there monument for 30 miles?” Mert asked. “But I think this is the best view of all.”

“I do, too. I love it. I’ve always told Anya it’s a big smile, welcoming us to St. Louis no matter how far we roam.”

“To me, it’s sort of a hug, you know?”

“Yup, I do.”

Who’d have thunk it? Our shared love of the Arch went a long way—30 miles maybe—toward repairing our friendship.

Instead of taking Interstate 64 and staying on the highway, Mert decided we would take Route 50, the back roads, to Vincennes. I enjoyed watching the scenery change. The small towns along the way with their old-fashioned town squares charmed me. By the time we got to Carlyle, Illinois, we both needed a potty break. As we pulled into town, the number of cars towing boats surprised me. Then I saw a sign for Carlyle’s beaches.

“How could that be?” I wondered out loud.

“It’s Lake Carlyle they’re talking about. Illinois’ largest man-make lake. A spillover from the Kaskaskia River,” Mert explained. “Makes it a prime spot for bald eagles to nest. Keep your eyes on the trees. Look for a white baseball. That’s what the top of a bald eagle’s white head looks like.”

I forget sometimes how much she knows about the world. When you’re friends a long time, details fade. Maybe this trip was exactly what we needed to get back to admiring each other. I hoped so.

Walmart’s iconic blue sign beckoned and soon we were inside, grabbing carts. Cruising up and down the aisles brought back another dose of harmony. I tarried in the craft section, seeing what yarns and scrapbook papers were available. Mert disappeared. I thought nothing of that. After all, we weren’t joined at the hip. There was a restroom at the back of the store, so I made a beeline for it. On my way there, I found socks on sale and tossed two pairs in my cart. After doing my business in the john and washing my hands thoroughly, I pushed my cart toward the food section. A bottle of Ménage À Trois wine was on my list, as was a variety of cheeses, crackers, grapes, carrots, hummus, GrapeNuts, cashews, almonds, and a bag of trail mix. By the time I finished, I had enough food to feed an Artic expedition. From foods, I went to the bathing suits. Since it was the end of summer, I didn’t hold out much hope, but I did find a half-price suit, black with big red posies, in a style that I hoped would be flattering. With any luck, I wouldn’t look like a whale who had rolled in wallpaper.

Tossing the suit into the cart my arm, I wandered around the store. I picked up a couple of tawdry magazines, and a bottle of bug spray. Mert was nowhere to be seen. I tooled over toward the checkout lanes. The clerk solemnly rang up the goods, never smiling once, no matter how cheerful I was or how much I tried to engage her in conversation. The purple streaks in her hair brought out the red rims of her eyes. I played my “Benefit of the Doubt” game, offering her the benefit of the doubt and conjuring up all sorts of reasons she was in a grumpy mood. Maybe she had a sick kid at home. Maybe she’d gotten into a fight with a co-worker. We all live such solitary lives, like icebergs there’s more to us that meets the eye. I was signing my credit card statement, when I glanced up and spotted Mert guiding her cart into a checkout lane.

Her buggy was filled to overflowing with diapers, shampoo, baby toys, baby food, canned goods, cereal, popcorn, dried milk, baby powder, deodorant, kitchen cleansers, laundry detergent, fabric softener, and three books for babies. My mouth probably dropped open, but I quickly recovered and helped her unload her haul onto the moving belt. The total on the purchase astonished me, but Mert didn’t seem fazed. She handed over her credit card and went to work tying the tops of plastic bags shut to prevent spillage. I helped too, and we loaded the filled bags back into Mert’s cart.

Blinking away the bright sun, we strolled outside, pushing our carts to her truck. Inside the storage deck went the dry goods. She’d also purchased a small Styrofoam cooler. All our perishables went into that. “We’ll grab ice at the gas station,” she explained.

“Sure.”

“There’s sandwiches here at the Kwik Stop, or we can go through Mickey D’s drive-up.”

“Might as well check out what they have at the gas station.” I added with a shrug. Inside the Kwik Stop was a large cooler stocked with food. I found an egg salad on whole wheat that looked delicious. Mert got a roast beef with Swiss cheese and two bags of Goldfish crackers. We both grabbed bags of SunChips and four bottles of water. Back on the road again, we munched happily. My curiosity finally got the better of me. “Why all the supplies? You certainly bought a lot of stuff.”

“Corva’s fallen on hard times. She’s taking care of her grandbaby, Jillian, who ain’t but a year old. Since she lives on social security, making ends meet is hard. Iff’n it weren’t for government assistance with her healthcare, she’d have to do without her meds.”

My heart ached. “That’s very kind of you to help her out.”

“I got everything in the world going for me. My son’s in school. My daughter is married. I got a good paying job. Corva was married to the world’s biggest butthole. He was a farmer who owned a lot of acreage you see some of it as we drive into Vincennes. Acted like a real big shot, you know? Liked to load up his Harvestore with grain, but then he wouldn’t sell it. That’s real common among farmers, you know? They get sorta personally attached to the grain. Corva nagged and nagged him to sell, but he kept passing up opportunities. Most of that there grain went bad. Then the market had a downturn. He sold what he could, but he lost a ton of money. He had a heart attack while he was out in the field. At the funeral, Corva found out he owed money everywhere. She lost the farm. Like most farm families, on paper the farm included their home and their vehicles. That meant she lost everything. She found a little house in town, and she’s been squeaking by ever since.”

I understood how it felt to worry about money. I’d been through a similar circumstance when my husband died, and I learned what our real financial situation was. Along with the struggle to make ends meet came the more painful realization that he’d deceived me. Frankly, I couldn’t tell you which part was more painful.

“That’s awful,” I said. “What a terrible spot to be in.”

“Yup. That wasn’t the worst of it, neither. Right before her husband died, they learned their daughter was addicted to drugs. She kept using even though she was pregnant. After Corva’s husband died, their daughter had her baby. Guess who’s left to pick up all the pieces? Corva.”

The last hour and a half of our drive seemed to fly by, probably because the tension had gone down a considerable amount. Returning to this safe topic, I asked Mert, “How did you meet Corva? No, let me guess. Another hardware store, another city?”

She laughed. “Nope. Corva and I were in foster care together. We bonded immediately. She’s older than I am, and she looked out after me.”

Mert swallowed furiously. Tears had gathered along her lower lashes. Mert doesn’t often get choked up, but she was definitely on the verge of crying. I could hear it in her voice as she continued, “Matter of fact, I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for Corva. She took a beating that’d been meant for me, and she did it because she knew it would have broken my spirit. I couldn’t have survived it. That whooping nearly killed her, and she’s a tough cookie. Our foster dad, Elmer Dolby, finally wised up and called an ambulance to come and tend to Corva, or she wouldn’t be alive today. His wife got her jollies by smacking us with whatever came to hand and then locking us in an old outhouse for days at a time. Corva was bleeding internally bleeding after Mrs. Dolby got done with her. Old Elmer went out to the garage to get a tool from his toolbox, and he spotted blood on the ground. He took a closer look and realized the blood was actually flowing out from under the walls of the outhouse. His curiosity got the better of him, and he opened the door, and…and…”

She stopped. I opened a bottle of water and handed it to her.

“So he done opened up that door, and Corva tumbled out onto the ground. She was white as a piece of toilet paper and just about as limp.”

“But she lived,” I said, trying to find a positive spin.

“She did. They had to remove her spleen, but she made it.” Mert gulped half the bottle and pinned it between her thighs. “I wouldn’t have made it. She always says I would have, but I wouldn’t have, and we both know it. I’d been thinking seriously about tying a rope around my neck and ending it all. Another beating would have made hanging myself look like the easy way out, for sure. I owe Corva. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be here today.”

“I know what it feels like to owe somebody,” I said, and I reached over and grabbed her hand.

She gave my fingers a squeeze and sent me a weak smile. “So do I.”

Using the back of her hand, she wiped her nose. “This here’s what they call ‘fly over’ country. Land flatter than the backside of an old maid. Ain’t nothing to break the monotony. Acre after acre of corn, almost ready for harvest.”

I watched row after row of golden-yellow stalks as they scrolled past my window. The drying plants reminded me of sturdy yellow soldiers whose feet were planted in rich black dirt.

“I can’t imagine anyone eating that. When I go to the grocery store, I always look for ears with the green leaves still on them.

Mert snorted with laughter. “This ain’t the type of sweet corn you boil and eat. This here corn’s turned gonna get turned into ethanol. Some of it goes to feed livestock. You try to munch on this, and you’ll break off all your teeth.”

To me, corn was corn. I couldn’t believe I’d been so dumb.

Sensing my discomfort, Mert changed the subject. “Let me tell you some about Vincennes, okay? Way back in 1702, a French military man came down from Canada with 34 officers. He and his buddies got to this particular spot on the Wabash River and decided it would be jim-dandy for trading furs. Six decades before the voyeurs crossed the muddy Mississippi and settled what became St. Louis.”

Voyeurs?”

“That’s the French word for fur trader. Sure, there’s controversy about whether Vincennes was really the first permanent settlement in Indiana. The original landing party didn’t stick around for long. But it’s generally agreed that the Frenchie and his group were the first non-natives in Indiana. Thirty years later, the French came back and tried again. They built themselves a fort and named it after their leader, François-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes. Sieur is French for ‘sir,’ and in this case, it means he was a gentleman of the court.”

Mert shook her head mournfully. “Poor François-Marie. He got crosswise with the Indians. During a war between the French and the Chickasaws, he was taken prisoner. They done burned him at the stake down in Fulton, Missouri. Even though his story ends there, the little fort he established kept on going and growing. At one point, Vincennes was the capital of the entire Northwest Territory. Later, it was the capital of the Indiana Territory. The population reached its high point in 1980. Twenty thousand residents. Since then, it’s lost between 2 and 3% a year.”

“Industry?”

“There ain’t much. Employment is health care, manufacturing, and retail in that order. There’s a couple of small manufacturers. Median household income is about $40 thousand. By comparison, three of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs are in St. Louis, and their median household income is four to five times that of Vincennes. Median household income in the whole US is $59,000 or so.”

“That’s very interesting,” I said and I meant it.

Because Mert’s primary source of income is her cleaning business, people assume she’s uneducated. Nothing could be further from the truth. She has a college degree with a major in history, and she is a voracious reader.

“How does Corva keep body and soul together?”

“She gets by on money from an insurance settlement. Ellen—that was her daughter—she had an accident.”

“Is that how her daughter became an addict?”

“No. It’s complicated. Let me back up. Corva and her husband had been fighting over the grain in the Harvestore, and naturally they were distracted. So Corva blames herself that Ellen got involved with a boy who introduced her to drugs. As you can imagine, Corva and her hubby were not happy. One thing led to another and Ellen broke off all communication with her parents. Ellen didn’t even show up for her father’s funeral. Like I told you, it was at the funeral that Corva discovered the truth about her financial situation. The night before ever’thing was to be auctioned off, Ellen showed up at Corva’s door. Middle of a snow storm, which they don’t get often down here, which is why it’s extra memorable. When Corva opened the door, Ellen handed over her six-week-old baby. She said, ‘I can’t cope, and I’m likely to hurt her.’ Of course, Corva took the child. Over the next couple of weeks, Ellen would pop in and out. She would drop by and then leave. I told Corva she needed to get custody, to make sure she had the legal right to her grandbaby, but Corva didn’t agree. She told me that Elle was trying to get her life together. Going to meetings, getting therapy, and such. I guess that’s true enough, because Ellen managed to stay clean long enough to pass the urine screening and get hired on at a local factory, one that makes them tiny homes. It really seemed like that girl was turning a corner. For maybe two months, things were really looking up.”

Mert shifted her weight restlessly in the driver’s seat. Her fingers drummed on the steering wheel. Agitation came off of her in waves. Sharing this story was hard for her.

“Meanwhile, the baby—her name is Jillian—had all sorts of medical problems because Ellen had been using when she was pregnant. See, when a mom is using, her baby can be born with an addiction. After coming into this world, the child goes through withdrawal. There’s seizures, diarrhea, jitters, weight loss, fever, vomiting, and gagging. That’s just the short list. Them symptoms can last as long as six months. Corva really had her hands full.”

“Di she talk to Ellen about custody?”

“Yeah, but only because I pushed and pushed. She called me right after Ellen signed away her baby. Corva was sobbing because Ellen had said to her, ‘There. I’ve done it. I got nothing left to live for.’ Corva told her that she had her daughter to live for. Ellen shook her head and said, ‘Mama, I love her, but I can live without her, and I can’t live without drugs. I know they’re bad for her, but I just can’t give them up. I can’t imagine life without them. I can’t!’”

“Wow.” I shook my head. I’d heard something similar from my mother-in-law Sheila as she was talking about booze. The power of addiction was astonishing.

“I feel guilty because maybe I done the wrong thing. Maybe I made matters worse.”

“How could you possibly think that?”

“Two days after she signed them papers, Ellen walked into the path of a piece of heavy equipment at the factory where she worked. A co-worker said she’d be awfully quiet all morning, and she looked kinda weepy. Shortly before quitting time, she took off her apron and her safety goggles and the ear protectors. The supervisor said she looked like she was in a dream when she walked right in the path of a pallet loader when it was backing up. Corva suspects she did it on purpose so there’d be money for Jillian.”

“Was Ellen on drugs when it happened?” But before Mert could answer, I corrected myself. “She couldn’t have been, could she? If she had been on drugs, they wouldn’t have paid out a settlement, right? The factory wouldn’t have been responsible.”

“According to the autopsy, Ellen was clean, but there’s all sorts of drugs that don’t show up in your system. I figure it was suicide. She couldn’t get off the drugs, she couldn’t stay away from her baby girl, and she’d dumped her baby on her mother. That only left one way out, suicide.”

My throat ached with grief for a girl I’d never met. Sure, I’d heard over and over that drugs were incredibly powerful. But Ellen’s story brought it home to me with a sharp clarity. I knew firsthand how strong a mother’s desire to raise her child was. Yet, drugs had been even more powerful than that instinctive urge. Was it courage or cowardice that propelled Ellen to step into the path of a piece of heavy equipment? Had she stopped to consider the impact her choice would make on the driver of the pallet loader? Or the pain her co-workers would feel? She must have been desperate.

Mert used the back of a shaking hand to wipe her eyes. “Yeah. Tragic, ain’t it? Most of the settlement money has been set aside for Baby Jillian because she’s likely to need extra help as she gets older. Corva lives on practically nothing. Breaks my heart to see her struggle the way she does. Once a month she gets that settlement check, takes out a little to buy necessities, and banks the rest for the baby’s future. Corva don’t allow herself nothing extra. I sort of suspect she’s punishing herself. Thinks she shoulda, coulda been a better mom.”

“Yeah. I imagine so.” I mumbled that one word under my breath. Punishing oneself was also a concept I understood. What a sick puppy that made me!

The closer we got to the Wabash River, which is the dividing line between Southern Illinois and Southern Indiana, the more the landscape changed. It was subtle, showing more and more indications of habitation. All sorts of roadside stands dotted gravel roads. A few were sturdy structures that suggested they had been there for years. Others were makeshift, including a small pop-up canopy that sheltered a man sleeping in a lawn chair. Next to him was a crate and a folding TV dinner tray full of tomatoes. Traffic, such as it was, increased. Now we weren’t the only pickup truck on the road. Billboards sprang up around us like gigantic weeds. A few gas stations dotted the roadsides with neon signs competing for our attention. Mert pulled smoothly onto a cloverleaf marked with several. Vincennes exits. She guided her truck as it banked gently along with the curve that employed centrifugal force to keep us on the road. “I remember when this here interchange was built. They said it couldn’t be done, but then some smart boy figgered it out.”

In short order, we arrived at the Holiday Inn. I stayed in the truck while Mert ran inside the lobby to get key cards for our room. She came back with two key cards and a photocopied map. Marked in pink highlighter, I traced the route to our room. It was on the backside of the building, second floor. Mert parked, we grabbed our bags, and climbed a set of stairs to our room. The place looked very nice, and I admired it out loud.

“They just did renovations,” Mert explained as she put her clothes in a dresser. It took us mere minutes to pee and unpack. We decided to leave any perishables in the cooler and in the truck, since a portion of them were going to Corva anyway.

“Ready to meet Corva?” The lilt in Mert’s voice suggested she was having trouble tamping down her excitement. “It’s almost four now. We can visit for an hour or so and then go get dinner.”

“Sure. Sounds like a plan. Shouldn’t we invite her to come and eat with us?”

“No. She’s got this weird thing about eating in public. Won’t do it.” Mert shrugged. “I guess we all have our weird things, huh?”

“You bet.”

And so we were off, back in the truck, driving down quiet streets, gazing at small houses set back nicely from concrete sidewalks. There was a quiet, small town feel to Vincennes that was appealing, despite the clear indications of poverty. We were driving down 13th Street when Mert turned the truck to the left, pulling over to a concrete curb. The entire block was built on a small hill, giving every house a sloping front yard. Mert had stopped in front of a faded gray and Craftsman perched above a short flight of crumbling concrete steps. Although the place looked broken down, the setting still had a sort of shabby beauty. A sugar maple with generous limbs rose out of the boulevard, that narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. The tree seemed both oddly majestic and out of place. Over the years, the root system swelled up under the sidewalk, causing the squares to buckle and crack.

“Watch your step when you get out. The sidewalk is uneven,” Mert said. She turned off the engine and grinned at me. “Here goes nothing.”

But before she climbed out of the truck, she rummaged around and grabbed one of the two bags of Goldfish that she’d purchased at the gas station. “Jillian loves these.”

She tucked the package into the waistband at the back of her jeans so they could be a surprise. After she locked the doors on the truck, we took the stairs up the small hill to a level spot where there were more steps, these leading to a front porch with an accordion-style baby gate blocking the entrance. Toys were scattered all across the floor of the porch, except for directly under the yellow metal glider. We stepped over the baby gate, and Mert knocked on the front door.

“Coming!” A voice yelled from inside, but it was muffled by a low hum. I listened more closely and realized I was hearing box fans set inside open windows.

“Corva turns the A/C off when she ain’t babysitting other kids in the neighborhood. Costs too much for her to use it all the time. The money she gets from babysitting helps out some but not enough to pay any real bills,” Mert explained.

She pointed to a good sized tree on the right side of the front porch. “That there is a tulip tree. It puts out blossoms shaped like tulips only green and orange.”

“Never heard of that,” I admitted and made a mental note to look up the species on my phone. The tulip tree branches shaded the sparse flat area that passed for Corva’s front lawn. Sad little wisps of grass poked through soil here and there, like the remaining hairs on a bald man’s head, but the lack of sun stymied any real growth.

The front door flew open. A scrawny woman with an odd haircut grabbed Mert and hugged her tightly. The friendly embrace gave me the chance to look Corva over carefully. Her hair had been cut in a sort of Mohawk-style, three inches long on top and shaved at the sides of her head. The color was arresting, as most of it had been dyed a bright maroon. However, the gray roots had grown out a good two inches. Corva’s nails were long and painted a bright yellow. Her cotton shorts were bright yellow and orange, and her sleeveless blouse was a paler shade of yellow. The description that popped into my head was, “Plucked chicken.”

“You must be Kiki.” Corva stuck out a work-roughened hand and offered mine a hearty shake. “Come in. Make yourself at home.” She held the door open for us and encouraged us to walk into a dimly lit living room. The box fan in the front window stirred up a powerful breeze, but it wasn’t enough to truly cool down the living room. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out a toddler sitting in the middle of a braided rug and playing with a stuffed bunny. The little girl looked up from her toy as I took a seat at one end of a sagging sofa. The couch had been covered with a flat cotton sheet patterned in yellow flowers. The floral fabric didn’t match anything in the room, but it appeared to be clean.

Mert crouched down next to the little girl so that they were eye to eye. “Hey there, sweetheart. Don’t you remember me?”

The object of her affection was a plump toddler with skin the color of a caramel macchiato. Her hazel eyes that were bright with intelligence. Adorable braids tied in ribbons formed a halo around the child’s head. Succumbing to an attack of shyness, the child picked up a large stuffed bear and buried her face in its fur.

Corva scooped up her granddaughter, leaving the bear behind on the rug. “Jillian? Aren’t you going to give Auntie Mert a kiss? She drove a long, long way to see you.”

“Hey, sweetheart.” Mert straightened up, reached over, and ran a finger lightly along Jillian’s arm. The child shyly pressed her face into her grandmother’s shoulder.

Mert wasn’t about to give up. She grabbed the abandoned stuffed animal from the floor and offered it to Jillian. “Is this your teddy bear?”

The little girl sent her a sideways glance. “Mine.”

“Does he have a name? Does he like Goldfish? I think I’ll feed him some Goldfish.” Mert reached back into her waistband and pulled out the small bag of Goldfish crackers. The introduction of cheddar-flavored crackers caused Jillian to put aside all her fears. The little girl made a wild grab for the whole bag and threw herself at Mert. Corva chuckled as she relinquished her granddaughter, allowing Mert to hold the baby, the crackers, and the teddy bear.

“Go’fish!” Jillian squealed with delight.

“You can have them, honeybun, but you have to sit next to me while you eat them, okay?” Mert and Jillian joined me on the sofa. There Mert doled the Goldfish out, one at a time, while getting caught up with Corva. The conversation didn’t include me, but I didn’t mind. They weren’t being rude on purpose; they were simply excited to see each other again.

“Where are my manners? How about a nice glass of iced tea?” Corva stood up and asked us after a half hour had passed. “Sweet or not?”

“Sweet for me,” Mert said.

“Iced tea sounds terrific. Unsweetened, please.”

Mert moved Jillian off her lap and tucked her into the space between us. “Corva? While you get us some refreshments, I’ll go grab a few things from the truck. Kiki? You just stay here, okay?”

As Mert left the living room, I asked our hostess, “May I help you get the tea?”

“No.” Realizing how brusque that sounded, Corva blushed. She wrung her hands as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Was it possible she was intimidated by me? I found that hard to believe.

“No,” she repeated, “but thanks but thanks for offering. Let me get it. You just relax, sit a spell, and keep an eye on Jillian. I’ll be right back.”

It felt odd letting the two women do all the work, but someone had to keep an eye on the baby, and I was qualified for the job. At first Jillian did her best to ignore me while she happily fed a cracker to her teddy bear. Rather than push myself on her, I leaned back and soaked up my surroundings. One word came to mind: sad. In front of me was a maple coffee table. The top had been scarred with cigarette burns, water glass rings, and gouges. At the far end of the sofa sat two large plastic bins that held more toys and board books, all in a jumble. The only seating besides the sofa was an old recliner. It, too, wore a floral sheet as a covering. To the right of the recliner was a spindly side table, and on it sat a thick library book by Charles Todd, one of my favorite authors. Faded wallpaper peeled off the walls in big drooping sheets, revealing crumbing plaster and in one spot, wooden slats. A fireplace should have been the focal point of the room, but the hearth had been boarded over with an unpainted sheet of plywood.

The only newish item in the room was medium-sized flat-screen TV perched on a cheap entertainment unit.

Corva reappeared, carrying a wooden tray, three glasses, a sugar bowl, a spoon, paper napkins, Oreos on a plate, and a pitcher of iced tea. Her attempt at being gracious tickled me. I longed to tell her, “It’s cool. I’m not here to judge you.” But that would only make matters worse.

Before Corva could set down the tray, the screen door opened and Mert staggered in, burdened by all her Walmart purchases. A few of the plastic bags dropped to the floor, slipping from her grasp. Frozen in place, Corva stared at the pile. “Mert, you shouldn’t have.”

“I’m that there little girl’s godmother, ain’t I? How come you’re thanking me and getting all mushy? You don’t even know what’s inside all them bags. Could be a lot of nothing you want.”

“I know you. You’re awful kind to me.” Corva put the tray on the coffee table and hugged Mert again. “You shouldn’t have. Really.”

“But I did.”

“Yeah, you did. Let’s drink our tea before all the ice melts. I told Jillian we were going to the Watermelon Festival tomorrow. You still up for it? How about you, Kiki?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good. The kick off for the parade starts at noon, but we’ll need to leave here early. I gotta get down to the bank to cash my monthly check. They’ll close up an hour before the festivities start.” With a sideways look at me, she added, “This is really something worth seeing. People come from all over for our parade. It’s famous.”

We spent the next twenty minutes listening to Corva brag about the Watermelon Festival. I kept a pleasant smile on my face, although her descriptions of the floats and festivities sounded pretty lame to me. Funny. I don’t think of myself as a “big city” person, but I guess I’ve become one after living in St. Louis for nearly fourteen years. Mentally, I chided myself for being such a snob.

While Corva rattled on, I sipped my tea, watching as Jillian climbed down and cruised over to the plastic tub at the end of the sofa. She found a brightly colored board book. Carrying it over to me, she set it onto my lap. “Weed?” she asked.

“Of course I will read to you.” I helped her climb back up onto the sofa. She smelled delicious, a mix of baby powder and traces of cheddar. Side by side, we explored a book about baby animals while her grandmother and Mert talked about local politics.

A little later, Mert suggested it was time for us to leave. We thanked Corva for her hospitality, kissed Jillian, and hopped back into Mert’s truck.

We ate at a nearby steakhouse, one of those chains you find in every town. I felt a little guilty that we were having steak when Corva wasn’t joining us. Mert picked up on my mood. “I think she hates eating out ‘cause I’d insist on picking up the check, and she knows it. She’s got her pride. I don’t want to take that away from her. You saw how upset she got over that junk I bought her from Walmart.”

“Yes, I did. You’re a very generous person, Mert. I only wish I could do more for Corva, too.”

Mert picked up a piece of parsley and nibbled it. “You can keep her in your prayers. That would make a world of difference.”

“Gladly.”

I let Mert pay for dinner as long as she let me pay for a bottle of wine to take back to the room. On the way back to the hotel, I phoned Detweiler. He assured me that all was well at home and the kids were watching a movie. I said I loved him and I wished him goodnight. “You got yourself a good man,” Mert said.

“Yup.”

Back in the hotel room, it felt like old times as we sipped and chatted about everything and nothing until finally we fell asleep.

**

The next morning I wore a pair of cut-off jeans and a red, white, and blue striped blouse. The color matched my new Keds, designed by Taylor Swift in a similarity patriotic color scheme. Mert dressed to “show off the merchandise.” She wore a tight pair of white Capri pants, a white blouse knotted at her midriff. To one shoulder, she’d added a small plastic pin that was supposed to be a slice of watermelon. On her feet were white FitFlops with fake gems on the straps. Rather than waste time eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we drove through a McDonald’s. She ordered the Egg McMuffin Sandwich, a hash brown, and a large Coke. I had the sausage and egg burrito and a large iced tea. By the time we pulled up in front of Corva’s house, we’d finished our food.

Corva met us at the door. She was dressed in a pair of navy polyester shorts and a fluorescent pink top. Jillian wore a sweet pink-and-white striped sun suit with a matching fabric hat. Both were excited, and I was pretty sure they’d been waiting impatiently for us. Because Corva’s old yellow Toyota Corolla already had Jillian’s child seat in it, we took it instead of the truck. I didn’t mind sitting in the back with Jillian. From that cozy spot, I could enjoy the scenery.

Downtown Vincennes brought back memories of a time of innocence. Most of the storefronts were old, ancient even. Big glass display windows were the norm. The ubiquitous big chain operations hadn’t gotten a foothold here. Or maybe they weren’t interested in shoppers who lived in this part of Southern Indiana. Mert and Corva could rattle off the provenance of the local stores, explaining the complex relationships between the namesakes and the current ownership.

The two old friends continued to point out places of interest. They chuckled as we passed the movie theatre that had once showed free films to kids in the summer.  Corva .and Mert explained that the theatre had been their first chance to experience air-conditioned comfort. We progressed slowly down Main Street, until we arrived at a busy corner where Corva pointed out a local bank. At a red light, Mert switched seats with Corva who hopped out. Behind us, a car full of young men revved their motor. We must have found a busy intersection, because one of the boys climbed out of the car behind us at the same time.

“Idiots,” Mert grumbled as she made a right turn with the Toyota. The car full of joyous young men continued to follow us closely.

“I guess that’s to be expected when there’s such a big event.” I was trying to be conciliatory, but I wished the boys would back off. A car is a two-ton deadly weapon and should be treated with respect. The loud music the kids were playing caused vibrations that rattled our windows.

At the next corner, Mert turned right again. “This is a rotten day to be doing her banking, but Corva ain’t got a choice. She closed down her checking account some time ago because Ellen got access to it and drained all the money. That girl left her mama bouncing checks all over town. It took Corva months to straighten that mess out. She swore she’d never use a checking account again. I told her she was being silly, but she didn’t care. Sure, she wasn’t the person at fault, and the bank shoulda noticed that it wasn’t her signature on the withdrawal slips, but shoot-fire. Who cares about a middle-aged woman with a druggie for a daughter? Nobody wearing a suit and tie, you can bet. When you’re flat busted and you’ve got a problem on your hands, folks ain’t very forgiving.”

Having been in similar situations after my first husband, George, died, I totally understood what Mert was saying. However, being a business owner, I also understood the bank’s point of view.

We made several trips around the block, waiting for Corva to come back and join us. Twice, we were treated to the obnoxious roar of that same carload of young boys. Talk about your high spirits! They’d rolled their windows down to make it easier to whistle at pretty girls on the sidewalks. At last, Corva race-walked up to the passenger seat and took her place next to Mert.

“Got it.” She patted her purse.

“Good deal because them boys are stepping on my last good nerve,” Mert said. “I was thinking we could visit the George Rogers Clark Memorial. Kiki loves taking pictures and making scrapbook pages. That’s probably the prettiest building in this here town, except maybe for the Old Cathedral.”

“That’ll work. We can park the car over there at the visitor center, stretch our legs, and walk around. Jillian will enjoy being outside. I got her stroller in the trunk.”

The huge memorial was visible from the street, rising up like a Roman temple from the simple grounds. Concentric rings of white marble stairs led up to a floor that supported a colonnade of 16 Doric columns. On top of that was a smaller, saucer-like dome of marble, sitting like a cap on top of the columns.

“Gosh,” I said as I helped Corva unload the stroller. “This is impressive.”

“Ain’t it?” Mert smiled as she settled Jillian into her seat. “President Grover Cleveland had it built, and FDR dedicated it. We’re standing on the spot where the British built Fort Sackville to safeguard their interests in the Illinois Territory. It was one of several forts north of the Ohio River that the Brits held with help from the Indians. Then the Revolutionary War came along. George Rogers Clark volunteered to lead a secret mission to win back those strongholds. He was right sneaky about how it done it, too. First he sent people ahead to gather intelligence. Kinda like modern day spies. Francis Vigo was one of them. His statue is out there, and we’ll see it when we leave. Vigo loaned Clark money and supplies, but most of all, he told him the British wouldn’t expect an attack during the winter. That was all old George Rogers Clark needed to know. He led 170 men on a 200-mile trek east from Kaskaskia, Illinois, through the snow and ice to get to this here spot. The British were holding Fort Sackville, the fort that protected Vincennes, but they only had 40 soldiers. Clark used banners to make his force look like they was 500 strong! But the real coup de grâce was when a party of Indians loyal to the British returned to the fort from a hunt. Clark had them hacked to death in a public execution. That put the fear of God into Hamilton, the British commander, and he surrendered. Although Clark done this country a great service, like a lot of veterans, he didn’t get what was due to him until too late. Creditors chased him most of his life. Eventually he had a stroke, lost his leg to amputation, and finally died.”

The image of being hounded for money sent a shiver through me. Corva misinterpreted it. “Let’s get outta this sun and go inside,” she suggested, slinging her purse over her shoulder. Mert and I each grabbed a side of the stroller to help Corva lift Jillian up the steps into the open monument. There we marveled at seven floor-to-ceiling murals, detailing Captain George Rogers Clark’s strike at the British in the heart of Indian Territory. Beaming down on us from the center of the Roman-style temple was a seven foot bronze statue of George Rogers Clark.

Even Baby Jillian was quiet as we slowly examined the huge paintings. However, our quiet inspection did not last long. While we stood in front of the scene where George Rogers Clark was reading a proclamation to settlers, a group of rowdy teenage boys came inside. I couldn’t tell if they were the same ones we’d encountered on Main Street or not. Their voices were expanded by the stone surfaces. Moving in a scrum, like a riled up rugby team, they jostled their way toward us.

Mert threw them a dirty look. “There goes the neighborhood.”

Corva giggled.

Without discussion, we left. For fifteen minutes or so, we enjoyed the grounds of the memorial. I couldn’t help but hum “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Our location on the banks of the Wabash River proved amazingly scenic. I snapped a lot of pictures in happy anticipation of making cool scrapbook pages. In between taking photos, I texted Detweiler and told him he had been right to encourage me to come.

Corva glanced at her old flip phone.  “Gosh. Look at the time. We’d better hustle, or we won’t get a good spot.”

She tucked her phone into her back pocket. It was easier for her to grab it from there than to retrieve it from the bottom of her purse. I totally understood that. Inevitably my phone swims to the bottom of my bag.

Corva led the way back to the downtown. Mert and I followed her like ducklings marching behind their mother. The crowd was already gathering. People were setting out folding lawn chairs, marking their territory along the parade route. We found an open space next to a couple Corva knew, the Shambockers. They moved aside to allow Corva to slide in sidewise with Baby Jillian on her shoulders.

The parade truly exceeded my expectations. I love marching bands, and six local groups of young musicians high-stepped their way past us, playing Sousa tunes and pop hits. In between came floats that seemed a bit dated, although those riding them wore huge smiles and many of the riders were kids who seemed to be having the time of their lives. Float riders and their escorts on foot tossed pieces of wrapped candy into the crowd. It was great fun trying to catch cellophane-wrapped treats. Mert must have gotten two handfuls!

In addition to the floats and bands, there were convertibles of every make, color and model cruising past us. Riding on their folded tops were pretty girls dressed in elaborate ball gowns. These fair maidens waved and blew kisses and threw more candy, taffy colored to look like watermelon slices.

For Jillian, the highlight was a variety of costumed characters from cartoons and books. Mert loved the tumblers and baton twirlers from a local dance school. Corva’s fave was a tricycle pulling a display of license plates from all fifty states. At the conclusion of the parade, the mayor grabbed a microphone. Over the loud-speaker, he announced that the Farm Bureau had a special treat for all of us. There were free watermelons being given out in the visitor parking lot where we’d left Corva’s car. Since we were at the end of the route nearest the lot, we were among the first to line up at the pickup truck dispensing the melons. We decided that we didn’t need more than two. One apiece would be too many. I volunteered to hold Jillian so that Corva and Mert could grab places in line. While I watched, volunteers handed down plump green melons to each of my friends.

The two women laughed and talked as they struggled under the weight of the melons. Corva still had her purse slung over her shoulder. “My keys are inside. Can you grab them, Kiki? You’ll have to open the trunk for us.” She rotated to one side, jutting out her hip as a way of underscoring what she needed me to do. While keeping a firm grip on the baby, I unsnapped the flap and dug around in Corva’s handbag. As I did, my fingertips brushed a thick roll of bills, the cash from the bank, but I also found the keys. Because I couldn’t bend over very far with the toddler in my arms, I had to do a half-curtsy to fit the Toyota key into the lock on the trunk. A satisfying click told me that I’d succeeded in unlocking the storage space. I took a step back as the trunk flew open.

As I did, I heard a shout. The noise startled me. A sharp push from behind sent me stumbling forward. I instinctively wrapped both arms tightly around Jillian, pulling her close to my chest.

“Stop!” The scream came from Mert.

My knees almost buckled, but instead I went with the force from behind. For a second, I tipped perilously close to falling. At the last half second, I righted myself.

“Let go! Let go!” Corva yelled from behind me.

Now that I was steady, I did a fast pivot. I turned in time to see Corva throwing her weight to one side, battling someone who was tugging at her purse. Of course, her first inclination was to grip the melon harder, but as soon as she realized she was losing the battle over her handbag, she let go of the fruit that was weighing her down. The green globe hit the pavement with a loud splat.

Surging forward, Mert dropped her melon, too. It hit the ground with a thunk. Pieces flew up as through there’d been an explosion. Corva grabbed her handbag by the straps and pulled. A young man with a baseball cap tugged low over his eyes was equally persistent about keeping a grip on his end. Mert gave a loud rebel yell and aimed herself right at the thief. At the last minute, Corva’s purse straps broke. The guy went flying backwards, but managed to feet on his feet. He was off and away in a flash. In less time that it took to ask, “Are you all right?”, the bandit had disappeared into the crowd.

**

At the police station, I gave my statement first while the two friends cleaned themselves up. They looked pretty silly, because watermelon guts and seeds had stuck to them. There was even a pinkish stain on Mert’s Capri pants. Corva looked like someone had drawn black polka dots all over her.

When I was done, while Mert and Corva gave their statements to the police, I helped Jillian eat applesauce from a small plastic cup. The treat had been provided by one of the women working at the police department, and I silently blessed her for her generosity. Not surprisingly, Jillian was fussy. The whole escapade in the parking lot had upset the baby. Corva had been stoic, Mert was hopping mad, and I was feeling pretty low myself.

But I also couldn’t help wondering, “Why had the thief targeted Corva specifically?” There could only be one answer: He knew Corva was carrying a wad of cash. That meant he either knew her habits, he’d seen her get the money, or he’d seen the cash inside her purse.

Corva and Mert came out of the interview rooms almost simultaneously. They shook their heads in disgust. Rather than ask questions there in the police department, I kept my mouth shut. On the drive home, the two women despaired of Corva ever seeing the cash again. I could see they had a point. The thief had run off with something that couldn’t be traced. Therefore, it was highly unlikely it could be returned.

“I’m an old fool.” Corva sank down into the recliner, holding Jillian who was trying to nod off. We were all drinking iced teas from Wendy’s my treat. “I know better. I should have come back and put the money away the minute I had it in my hands. Even if we got to the parade late, it wouldn’t have mattered. The money woulda been secure enough, ‘cause I got myself a safe bolted to the floor of the closet.”

“Or you should have opened a new account. Now that Ellen’s gone, it should be okay.” Mert didn’t sound judgmental, just weary. “Now I guess you’ll just hafta pray they’ll find that creep.”

“But how did they know to target Corva?” I spoke quietly so as not to wake up the baby.

“What do you mean?” Mert frowned at me.

“There were a lot of people there, grabbing their watermelons. Why did that creep go after Corva’s purse?”

“What are you talking about?” Mert snarled at me.

“Think about it,” I persisted. “Why did he target Corva? He could have gone after other women. Other people. There were a lot of people who could have been targeted. But no. He went Corva’s purse as if he knew what was inside. That tells me he knew what he was doing. Maybe he knows Corva. Or he saw her in the bank.’

“You might have yourself a point there.” Corva’s mouth sagged. “But that don’t do me one bit of good, Kiki. If they don’t catch him.”

I had to admit that was right. My stomach growled. “Have you got any good pizza delivery places here? I’ll buy us dinner.”

We stuffed ourselves with pizza and the chocolate chip cookie that came with. After helping Corva clean up, Mert and I told her and Jillian goodnight. The drive to the Holiday Inn was tense. Mert wore an angry sneer on her face.

“Of all the stupid things to have happen.” She pulled up on the emergency brake. “I can loan her the money, but that ain’t the point.” And to answer her own question, Mert pounded the steering wheel. “I bring that woman nothing but bad luck. Nothing!”

**

The next morning, Mert was not in a better mood. She didn’t say a word to me, and from the expression on her face her silence was the good news for the day. As much as I’d enjoyed myself previous to the theft of Corva’s purse, I now remembered why I’d been reluctant to spend more time with Mert. She could be awfully moody. When she was upset like this, she became totally illogical. Right now, she was a one woman trauma center circling overhead and ready to land on anyone who got too close. I could tell by the way she snarled at her suitcase, the door lock, and the elevator that she was spoiling for a fight. We ate breakfast at the hotel, packed our things, and headed for Corva’s place. As we rode quietly in the truck, I dreaded the visit with Mert’s friend.

I’d spoken to Detweiler briefly the night before. He had promised to call down and talk to the officer who’d taken the report, but honestly, what good would that do? He had no influence here. Even if this had happened in St. Louis, it would be a difficult crime to solve. Random incidents always are. Besides, how would we identify Corva’s money? We couldn’t. Who cared whether a down-on-her-luck woman was the victim of a purse-snatching? She hadn’t been stabbed or shot. Big deal.

Except…it was a big deal. A really big deal.

When she opened her door to us, Corva’s face was blotchy and swollen from crying. She certainly didn’t greet us with any enthusiasm. It was as though we were the last people on earth that she wanted to see. I said hello, but Corva only grunted a reply. Baby Jillian was down on the rug, surrounded by her toys. Before I could take my accustomed seat on the sofa, Corva’s cell phone rang. She answered in one word replies, but as the conversation proceeded, her face brightened. When she hung up, she said, “They got a suspect. They want us to identify him in a line-up.”

On the way to the station, she learned that a group of young men got plastered in a local bar. After acting rowdy, they were asked to leave.  When they refused, the bouncer called the cops. To add insult to injury, the drunks resisted arrest. While processing them to lock them up, a sharp-eyed officer noticed the thick bankroll of cash. Unfolding the bills, he discovered Corva’s receipt.

“But they won’t prosecute unless one of us can pick him out of a lineup.” Corva explained as she carried Jillian. Mert walked on ahead to open doors, and I brought up the rear. A receptionist wearing a police uniform buzzed us into the building.

“Shouldn’t be too hard to ID the creep,” Mert said. Her arms were crossed over her chest as we stood in the foyer.

“Except he had that baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. I didn’t get a good look at him. Not good enough to put him away.” Although she had Jillian in her arms, beneath the hem of Jillian’s sundress, I could see Corva wringing her hands.

“You’ll know. Trust me.” Mert’s comment came out like a growl. “This guy got to be put away. Next time he’ll take someone’s money, and she’ll never see it again. That just ain’t fair.”

I kept my thoughts to myself. Although Mert wanted revenge, and stormed around like a wasp whose nest was under attack, Corva was more like me. She hated the idea of hurting anyone, anytime. “What if I get it wrong? What if I can’t be sure?” Her hesitancy slowed her steps as we followed a female officer down a hallway into a waiting room.

“What’ll I do?” Corva asked.

“You’ll do your best.” I patted her arm gentlly.

The Vincennes police didn’t waste any time. They’d been waiting for us. One at a time we were escorted into a conference room with a two-way mirror. The officer in charge gave each of us instructions. A line of young men walked into the room. All wore baseball caps. First Corva was asked to identify the thief. She came out shaking her head. “I pointed to one of them, but I worry I’m wrong!”

Mert disappeared into the viewing room. When she came out, I could tell she was torn. Her brother Johnny had been sent to prison, so she knew the devastating impact it would have on a young man’s life. Still, she was angry and rightly wanted justice. “I ain’t sure, but I’m pretty confident I picked out the right boy.”

I was last, and a little surprised that my input was even necessary. I had only caught a glimpse of the attacker. However, I realized that if I chose the same man as my friends did, I would help them both feel more confident. As I waited for the men to line up, I closed my eyes. I tried to revisit that moment in time. I opened my eyes and imagined the moment when I heard the yell and—

My eyes snapped open. “Number Three. That’s him for sure!”

The cop conducting the lineup walked over and stood beside me. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” I smiled. “You picked the creep up last night, right? He hasn’t changed clothes since yesterday. Look at Number Three’s pants. Down near the hemline. See? There are three watermelon seeds stuck to his jeans. That happened when the watermelons burst. That’s your guy.”

~The End~

The Greatest Gift: A Kiki Lowenstein Short Story


Our blended family headed into the holiday season full of high hopes and great expectations. I’m a huge believer in traditions, especially those that occur seasonally. Traditions create memories, and memories are the glue that holds us close when tough times inevitably come. Of course, I also admit that I have an ulterior motive for loving memories. As the owner of Time in a Bottle, a scrapbook and craft store, I’ve turned making and saving memories into a business.

“What do you do with your kids’ outgrown toys, Kiki?” Vanessa Johnson asked me. She was working on a fun project, crocheting matching hats for everyone in her family. “I ask because I’m trying to figure out what to do with the toys my son has outgrown. I hate to see them thrown into the trash.”

“Don’t do that!” Clancy Whitehead, my second in command and my BFF, gave a furious shake of her head. “There are so many needy kids in this world. Think of how thrilled they’d be to get those things.”

I agreed wholeheartedly. “Last Sunday we went through all of Anya’s old things and outgrown clothes. I can’t believe how quickly her teen years are flying by. We packed up an entire box. Then I tried to get Erik to do likewise.”

“How did that go?” Clancy raised an impeccably groomed eyebrow curiously. With a tiny shrug, she added, “I know that moving here has been hard on him. He’s probably not ready to give anything up.”

Her years as a teacher have served her well, because Clancy understands children very well. As usual, she’d nailed it in one. Erik had refused to let go of anything he’d brought here, to St. Louis, from California. The prospect of saying goodbye to his belongings overwhelmed the little guy. He burst into noisy tears and threw himself onto his bed. Watching her brother cry, Anya had slipped an arm around my waist. She whispered in my ear, “This is just too much for him, isn’t it?”

I hugged my oldest child and planted a kiss on her forehead. “You’re so right, honey. I’d hoped to make space in his room so when Santa visits, there’ll be room for more presents.”

“Not working.” Anya’s smile was one of compassion.

“Sooo not working.” I sighed, taking a place next to Erik on his bed. “Come here, buddy.”

Reluctantly, he let me hold him.

Erik came to live with us after Detweiler’s first wife, Gina, died in a car crash. Because she was legally married to Detweiler when she had Erik, he’s legally Detweiler’s child. Biologically he isn’t. As the teenagers say, “It’s complicated.”

Over the past year, Erik has settled in, although the birth of Ty, our youngest, caused a bit of a regression for the five-year-old. We’ve been patient and understanding. I’ve done my best to explain why babies need so much attention, and I’ve emphasized their fragility and neediness. At the same time, I’ve explained to Erik that he’s a big brother. He likes that. He’s naturally a sweet and loving child, so taking care of the baby has become a point of honor for him.

In fact, Erik can be quite the little martinet, demanding that we change Ty’s diaper or pick him up or pay attention. From time to time, I’ll ask Erik to watch Ty, which is code for retrieving the baby’s toys and reading to him. Being in charge of someone else has given Erik a sense of pride, a certain glow.

Slowly we’ve noticed that he no longer talks like a toddler. He’s becoming increasingly independent. But, as I admitted to Anya, “He’s not ready to give up his toys.”

“Or his blankie.” Anya pointed to the ratty square of blanket that Erik has slept with as long as I’ve known him. Over time, the red plaid had faded to a dull pink. The edges of the blanket had been worn so thin that Brawny, our live-in nanny, had cut them off and trimmed blankie to a more manageable size.

“Or his blankie. That’s okay, honey.” I stroked Erik’s curls and planted a kiss on his forehead. “Even if you have to take blankie to college with you, that’s cool, sweetheart.”

Anya came over to join us. Kneeling carefully beside her younger brother, she whispered loudly, “I’m going with Mom to take my things to the Salvation Army. Why don’t you come with? That way you can see what we’re doing. Maybe she’ll even take us by Bread Co. to get pumpkin muffies for a treat.”

The old “pumpkin muffie” trick worked like a charm. Erik was willing to ride along with us in return for a “muffie,” which is the top slice of an oversized muffin. Once we arrived at the Salvation Army, he agreed to help us carry bags inside the drop-off area.

“What do they do with Anya’s things?” he asked.

Anya leaned close and explained, “People come here to shop. They don’t have much money, so they buy gifts here rather than going to other stores. Come on and I’ll show you.”

She took him by the hand, marched him out the front door, and around to the other entrance. I followed but I didn’t say a word. I wanted to see how they would handle the situation. Not surprisingly, Erik’s eyes were huge as he watched people make their selections. Anya took him for a quick tour of the place while I spoke to the manager. She helped me find several old wool sweaters that I hoped to turn into felt for future projects.

“In the car on the way home, Erik was quiet. Thoughtful even. I believe that was his first brush with poverty,” I told Clancy and Vanessa. “He’s lived a privileged existence. His step-father was incredibly wealthy.”

Shortly thereafter, we said goodbye to Vanessa. The sign in our front window read that we were closing at three on Christmas Eve. At five after, I locked the front door. Clancy and I hugged, wishing each other Merry Christmas. For me, the holiday had finally arrived.

~*~

Later that evening, after our family had dinner, we bundled up to spend time outside in the cold. Each year the church in our neighborhood hosts a Christmas pageant, a live reenactment of the birth of Christ. Although Anya is Jewish, we all enjoy seeing the nativity come to life. Part of the attraction is that the church borrows Monroe, the donkey owned by our former landlord, Leighton Haversham. When Leighton is traveling, as he often is during the holidays, we take care of Monroe. That means that walking him to and from the pageant is our responsibility. Yet another reason for us to attend and watch the pageantry.

This year Erik took Monroe by the halter. My husband, Detweiler, winked at me over the little boy’s head. Unbeknownst to Erik, Detweiler also had a grip on the donkey’s bridle. Just in case. However, Monroe adores Erik and the feeling is mutual. Last year, Erik was both beguiled and scared of Monroe. Many apples and tummy rubs later they are fast friends. I couldn’t contain the smile that bubbled up inside me as I pushed Ty’s stroller. Anya chatted happily with Brawny, who’s more a part of our family than a nanny. In the space of twelve months, we’d truly become a united front. A family, en route to see the birth of another family, one that promised peace for all mankind.

As we walked, I tried to ignore the stinging slap of cold air against my skin. The weatherman predicted a drop in the temperature, and he’d been spot on. While Erik and Detweiler delivered the donkey, Brawny, Anya, and I took our places in the crowd, using the stroller to secure a bit of real estate. Erik and Detweiler returned, and we huddled together for warmth. I pulled Ty’s blanket up around his face for extra protection. He seemed fine, but I guess the worry showed on my face.

Brawny had been watching me. She shook her head. “It’s getting colder by the minute. I best take young master home. ‘Tis too brutal for a wee tyke.”

Detweiler and I agreed. Reluctantly, I told my littlest one that we’d meet him back at the house. The ever resourceful Brawny guided the stroller through the crowd and headed for our snug home.

Thanks to the nip in the air, the pageant moved along swiftly. Detweiler hoisted Erik onto his shoulders so the boy could get a good look at the event. Erik was fascinated by the show. His bright blue coat stood out in stark contrast to the gray of the winter sky. His little face was intensely interested in every aspect of the Christmas story. We’d been reading books explaining why the couple had taken shelter in a manger. We’d talked about the shepherds and the star. We’d been pointing at angels for six weeks now. But seeing the timeless tale was different. Erik was totally focused on the unfolding drama.

In fact, he was reluctant to leave when the pageantry ended. “I want to see that baby,” he told Detweiler, as he tugged at his father’s hand. We waited until most of the crowd had cleared. Then we made our way to the crèche. Although actors had played the part of Mary, Joseph, and others, the church had wisely decided to substitute a doll for baby Jesus. I knew from experience that they would leave the toy in the manger until they took the makeshift manger scene down for the year. The people would be replaced with statues. The holy family would decorate the lawn of the church for weeks to come while we took our donkey and went home.

~*~

Christmas morning dawned bright and frigid. I awoke to the tantalizing scent of bacon and pancakes. Brawny always gets up before the rest of the household and cooks our breakfast. However, I’d expected Erik to be our alarm clock on this special day. Detweiler rolled over and hugged me. “Merry Christmas.”

I returned the greeting. “I guess the pageant tired Erik out, huh?”

“I guess.” Detweiler chuckled. “But I heard water running in Anya’s bathroom. Squeals of happiness can’t be far behind.”

However, he was wrong. We managed to pull on clothes in silence. I even ran a brush through my hair. Anya knocked politely at our door, and I opened it, expecting to give her a hug—but I froze at the look on her face.

“Erik’s gone! He’s missing. I’ve looked everywhere!”

“What?” I thought I’d heard her wrong.

“He’s probably playing with one of the toys that Santa brought.” Detweiler moved past my daughter and me. His feet galloped down the stairs. “Erik? Erik!”

I raced after him. Brawny and Anya joined us in the family room. The tree was dark. The presents hadn’t been touched. I ran back upstairs to Erik’s room. It was empty.

“He’s probably taken an apple to Monroe.” Anya suggested, breathlessly.

“I’ll go get him.” I heard the back door slam behind Detweiler. Anya and I pounded our way down the stairs.

“I’ll look in the garage,” Brawny said.

That’s when I realized our dog was missing, too. “Anya? Have you seen Gracie?”

“Huh-uh.” Her blue eyes were wet and her voice trembled. Turning away from me, she yelled, “Gracie! Here girl!”

With a sudden flash of insight, I went to the front door. It was unlocked. That meant that Erik had voluntarily left the property. I checked the wall-mounted hanger where we keep our dog’s leash. Empty.

“He must have taken Gracie for a walk. I’ll go get Detweiler. We’ll drive around the block.”

Anya’s mouth had sunken into a deep frown. “Hurry, Mom. It’s cold out there. He’s just a little guy.” With that, she wiped away a tear.

In less than a minute, my husband and I were in his police cruiser with the windows down. He pulled cautiously out of the driveway, doing his best to control his panic. I swallowed my own fears. How could this have happened? We should be opening gifts and celebrating! What if this turned out to be the worst day of our lives? Had someone taken Erik? Had he gone with a stranger? If so, how hand someone convinced him to leave on this particular day when wrapped gifts had such a magnetic pull? I sniffled.

Detweiler took my hand. “Stay calm. We need to think this through. Let’s not freak out.”

But I was freaking out. I was scared spitless. Detweiler cranked up the defroster. The weather outside was viciously cold. Where was our little boy? My husband drove slowly up the block. He stopped at the corner. Looked left and right. Decided to go straight. “I figure we should start where we were last night.”

That made sense to me, although I was too upset to really focus.

“Is that Gracie?” Detweiler spotted the black and white giant dog first. I leaned forward, sticking my head out my window so I could see better.

“I think so.” But my response was slower than Detweiler’s reflexes. He’d already pulled into the circular drive in front of the church. Throwing the police cruiser into park, he bolted out of the door. I was fast on his heels.

Gracie barked a greeting at us, but we looked past her. A small figure in a blue coat was hunched over the manger.

“Erik? Honey?” Detweiler dropped to his knees beside our son. Slowly, the little boy turned. His chocolate brown eyes were wide with surprise.

“Are you okay?” I joined Detweiler on the cold earth. I had to see Erik for myself.

“Uh-huh.”

“Buddy, what are you doing here?” Detweiler snatched up the boy, hugging him tightly. “We were worried about you. You know you shouldn’t leave the house without telling us.”

“I was worried about that baby.” Erik pointed a mitten finger at the Jesus doll. “He was cold. I didn’t want him to be cold. See?”

Following his direction, I bent closer to the manger. Neatly tucked around the statue of the baby was a tattered piece of cloth. Erik’s blankie.

~The End~

 

Note: I hope you’ve enjoyed this short story, and I hope you’ll take time to share a little Kiki with a friend. Right now, you can send a pal a copy of “Kiki and Cara Mia’s Christmas Collection” for only 99 cents. That’s cheaper than you can send a greeting card! Go to https://www.amazon.com/Kiki-Christmas-Collection-Lowenstein-Mystery-ebook/dp/B01MFC9THX/  On the right is a button that allows you to give as a gift. How easy is that? Ho-ho-ho, and Happy Holidays from your friend — Joanna

PS: Here are all the Kiki books in order with links:

  1. Love, Die, Neighbor (The Prequel) – http://bit.ly/LoveDieN
  2. Paper, Scissors, Death — http://bit.ly/PSDKL1
  3. Cut, Crop & Die — http://bit.ly/CutCropD
  4. Ink, Red, Dead — http://bit.ly/IRDead3
  5. Photo, Snap, Shot — http://bit.ly/PSSKL4
  6. Make, Take, Murder — http://bit.ly/MTMKikiL5
  7. Ready, Scrap, Shoot — http://bit.ly/RSSBook6
  8. Picture, Perfect, Corpse — http://bit.ly/PPCorpse7
  9. Group, Photo, Grave — http://bit.ly/GPGrave8
  10. Killer, Paper, Cut — http://bit.ly/KillPC9
  11. Handmade, Holiday, Homicide — http://bit.ly/KikiHHH10
  12. Shotgun, Wedding, Bells — http://bit.ly/SWBKiki11
  13. Glue, Baby, Gone — http://bit.ly/GBG12
  14. Fatal, Family, Album — http://bit.ly/KLFFA13

Meet Larissa Reinhart


Note from Joanna: Once or twice a month, I want to introduce you to my author friends. I hope you enjoy learning about them. I also learn something, even when I’ve known them a long, long time!

Comment on Larissa’s visit and you could win a digital copy of 15 MINUTES. I’ll chose a winner next Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.

Name: Larissa Reinhart

Website: www.larissareinhart.com

Facebook info: Official Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/RisWrites

Friend Me Here: https://www.facebook.com/larissareinhartwriter

Name of Your Series: Maizie Albright Star Detective (My other series is the Cherry Tucker Mysteries)

One Line That Describes Your Series: A former star of a hit teen detective show, Maizie Albright, returns to Georgia (by judge’s orders) to pursue her dream of becoming a private detective and finds Hollywood has followed her to Georgia.

Name of Most Recent Book: 15 MINUTES (but 16 MILLIMETERS launches 10/17 which is why 15 MINUTES is on sale!)

Buy links: Kindle | Nook | Kobo | iBooks

 

  1. What Gave You the Idea For This Series?  I live in Peachtree City, Georgia. Four miles from my house is Senoia, where The Walking Dead film. Six miles in the other direction is Pinewood Studios where major movies (like the Marvel series) are now made. This area is quaint, so movies like Fried Green Tomatoes have been filmed here, but the TV and movie industry has grown like gangbusters in the last five years. It’s all pretty weird for we locals. My friend saw Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones in a restaurant the other night. The most famous person we might’ve hoped to see when I moved here 18 years ago was Alan Jackson, because he’s from nearby Newnan. But I’ve never seen him. I haven’t seen anybody famous!
  2. Which character is most like you? I’d like to say Maizie Albright because she’s optimistic, earnest, and beautiful. She’s also young (26) and I’m not and I have teenagers… So I’m more like Lamar who owns the donut shop below Nash Security Solutions. He’s tired and likes to sit with his feet up on a La-Z-Boy while he listens to Nash and Maizie talk about their case. But Lamar is much wiser than me. And he doesn’t eat donuts, whereas I’d have a hard time controlling myself. But I guess when you own a donut shop, you’d get tired of donuts.
  3. What’s the hardest part of writing? I have the attention of a Jack Russell Terrier (probably why they’re in the books). Getting myself to sit and focus is difficult. Once I do, I’m okay but I tend to bounce around (not literally) before I can get settled back into the story.
  4. What inspires you to keep writing? My readers who ask for more stories. How can I refuse? Also I have constant story ideas popping in my head (part of my Jack Russell qualities). I’ve got to get them down. I’m not sure why but I just have to do it.
  5. What would you say to other would-be writers who have yet to get published? Keep writing and submitting!

Thank you so much for introducing me to your readers, Joanna! It’s such a treat for me, since I’m a fan of yours!
Larissa

P. S. Joanna’s note: Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have shared this…but it made my day! Don’t forget to comment!

Kiki Lowenstein and the Watermelon Festival, Part IV


Part I- Recap: In an attempt to repair their friendship, Kiki and Mert decide to take a road trip. But hurt feelings don’t mend easily, and the two women get off to a rocky road start. http://joannacampbellslan.com/kiki-lowenstein-and-the-watermelon-festival/

Part II – Recap: The sight of the Arch in the rear view window changes their moods for the better, but it’s a long ride. Will the two friends be able to paper over their problems and move on? http://joannacampbellslan.com/kiki-lowenstein-and-the-watermelon-festival-part-ii/

Part III – Recap: After an hour and a half of being awkward with each other, Kiki and Mert stop at a Walmart. Mert buys a lot of staples to give to her friend Corva. Kiki learns that Corva is down on her luck and raising a grandchild. http://joannacampbellslan.com/kiki-lowenstein-and-the-watermelon-festival-part-iii/

We both seemed more at ease when we got back into Mert’s truck after our shopping spree at Walmart. Hoping to build on the good feelings, I asked my friend, “How did you meet Corva?”

“She and I were in foster care together. I guess you could say we bonded. She’s older than I am, so she looked out after me.” Mert paused.

I glanced over and saw her swallowing furiously. Tears had gathered along her lower lashes. Mert doesn’t often get choked up, but she was definitely on the verge of crying. I could hear it in her voice as she continued, “Matter of fact, I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for Corva. She took a beating that’d been meant for me, and she did it because she knew it would have broken my spirit. I couldn’t have survived it. That whooping nearly killed her, and she’s a tough cookie. Our foster dad, Elmer Dolby, finally manned up and called an ambulance to come and tend to Corva, or she wouldn’t be alive today. See, his wife Alma Gene got her jollies by smacking us with whatever came to hand and then locking us in an old outhouse for days at a time. Corva was bleeding internally after Alma Gene got done with her. Old Elmer went out to the shed to get a tool from his toolbox and he spotted a trail of fresh blood on the grass. He followed it to the old outhouse. Alma Gene had locked it by sticking a two-by-four through the wrought iron door handle. Something made Elmer stop and look around, close like. He realized the blood was actually flowing out from under the walls of the outhouse. His curiosity got the better of him, and he opened the door, and…and…”

She stopped. I opened a bottle of water and handed it to her.

“When he done opened up that door, and Corva tumbled out onto the ground. She was white as a piece of toilet paper and just about as limp. If she hadn’t kept groaning, he wouldn’t have been sure she was alive.”

“But he called 911 and she lived,” I said, trying to find a positive spin.

“She did. They had to remove her spleen and one of her kidneys, but Corva made it.” Mert gulped half the bottle and jammed it between her thighs to keep it steady as she drove. “I wouldn’t have made it. She always says I would have, but I wouldn’t have, and we both know it. I was thinking seriously about tying a rope around my neck and ending it all. Another beating would have made hanging myself like the easy way out, for sure.”

“Wow. That’s some story.”

“Yeah, it is. Them groceries and all that stuff I bought? It ain’t nothing compared to what I owe her.”

“I know what it feels like to owe somebody,” I said, and I reached over and grabbed Mert’s hand on the steering wheel.

She gave my fingers a quick squeeze, let them go, and sent me a weak smile. “So do I.”

Using the back of her hand, she wiped her nose. “Okay, now. Let me tell you a little bit about Vincennes.”

~To Be Continued~

Part V

Mert tells Kiki about Vincennes, and especially about the watermelon festival. Of course, a visit with Corva is in order, and Mert tells Kiki what to expect.

 

Meet Maria Grazia Swan–and win one of her books!


Note: Once a month, I’ll introduce you to one of my author friends, and we’ll give away one digital copy of the author’s books. This month’s guest is Maria Grazia Swan.

Website: www.mariagraziaswan.com

Facebook info: https://www.facebook.com/MariaGraziaSwan/

Name of your series: Mina’s Adventures

One line that describes your series:

Name of most recent book: Sniffing Out Murder  — and we’re giving away one copy to a lucky commenter. You have until Monday, Sept. 18 to comment.

Buy link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0741Q35CH?ref_=pe_870760_118561140

  1. What gave you the idea for this series? My divorce. It was a long and messy divorce. I couldn’t sleep and was taking Creative Writing at Saddleback College, (O.C, California) so I made good use of my sleepless nights and the anger brewing inside. I cannot describe the satisfaction of killing off on paper a few of the real life main culprits.
  2. Which character is most like you? Mina a little. Paola a lot. I could have been a Mina, but I was born too early. Different lifestyle.
  3. What’s the hardest part of writing? In my case is the language. At time I’m talking Italian in my head. Other times I know the word, but not sure about the spelling.
  4. What inspires you to keep writing? It’s in my blood. I won my first literary award at the age of fourteen. The old fourteen, before computers, cell phones and social media. Heck, we didn’t even had television until I was seventeen. And when I write I forget all my troubles. And in the morning, no hangover.
  5. What would you say to other would-be writers who have yet to get published? Never give up. Slow and steady will get you there.

Excerpt from PAPER, SCISSORS, DEATH


Get an enhanced version of PAPER, SCISSORS, DEATH for only 99 cents on 8/23/2017 (Wed.) and 8/24/2017 (Thurs.) only!  https://www.amazon.com/Paper-Scissors-Death-Lowenstein-M…/…/

And here’s a short version: http://bit.ly/PSDKL1  Why not “gift” a copy to a friend? Don’t you know someone who could use a little Kiki in her life?

You like paper? We’ve got paper for you! Go to https://www.createspace.com/6922517  Use this code: H2WRCAFM and get $3 off

EXCERPT FROM PAPER, SCISSORS, DEATH

by Joanna Campbell Slan

Author’s Note: Kiki and her daughter Anya were at an event to teach kids how to scrapbook when a policeman arrives and asks Kiki to come with him to the police station. When she arrives, she’s greeted by this horrifying news.

“My husband is dead? Are you sure? Sure it’s George? I mean, you could have made a mistake. Right?” I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.

Detective Chad Detweiler of the St. Louis County Police Department shook his head solemnly. “No, Mrs. Lowenstein. I’m sorry. There’s no mistake. A housekeeper found his body in a room at the Regal Chalet. We’re sure it is — was — your husband. His clothes were hanging over a chair, and his wallet was in his pants pocket.”

I swallowed hard. I’d managed to keep calm on the ride to the police station. I kept reassuring my daughter there must have been a misunderstanding. Now I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. I couldn’t focus. I kept repeating, “Dead? My husband is dead? There must be some mistake.”

“I sincerely doubt it.”

The room swam and turned flips. I tried to process what the detective told me. In my struggle, I focused on the trivial. It seemed more manageable than the big picture. “I, uh, don’t understand. Why were his clothes over a chair? You mean he … he didn’t have them on? Did he … uh … have on any of his clothes?”

The detective shook his head, his eyes never leaving my face. He seemed to be taking my measure, sizing me up.

The large mirror on the adjacent wall of the interview room bounced my image back to me. My hair was always curly, but today it had turned into ringlets. My skin looked blotchy from the cold. And I’d chewed my lips until I could taste the blood in my mouth.

I took tiny sips from the glass of water the detective had offered and swallowed repeatedly to dislodge the lump in my throat. I tried to focus on a far-off object, as I blinked back tears. There were so many questions. Part of me didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to know. But a voice inside reasoned it was better to hear the worst of it here, from an impartial officer of the law, than in a public place from a “friend.” I thought about the mothers I’d left at the scrapbook store and shuddered.

Detweiler sat across from me patiently, silently.

Obviously, someone had made a mistake. That was all there was to it. This man couldn’t be talking about George. Not my George.

“How can you be so sure? I mean … don’t you need someone to identify the body? You probably just think it’s George. As soon as he answers my call, we’ll get this straightened out.” I reached for my cell phone and punched in his number one more time.

The phone rang and rang.

Suddenly, my whole body grew heavy, and I was incredibly tired. All I wanted was to go home and sleep for a million years.

Maybe this had all been a bad dream.

Detweiler sighed. “We got hold of your husband’s business partner, Mr. Ballard. I was there when he made the ID. If you’d like to see the body …”

I shook my head vehemently.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lowenstein.” He didn’t press the issue. He could tell I was queasy. Or maybe he worried I’d make a scene.

Poor Bill. A part of me felt guilty that I hadn’t been the one to take on this intimate and final task of marital life. It seemed, in some way, the least I could have done for George. And Bill had done it for him. For me. For us. It seemed wrong. It felt like one more failure. I put a hand to my stomach and pressed hard to control the revolt within.

A strand of chestnut hair fell over Detweiler’s eyebrow, a dark accent mark to his unwavering gaze. “There’ll have to be an autopsy. The law requires one in these circumstances.” Detweiler took a sip of his coffee and set the mug down gently on the battered Formica tabletop. A circle of brown indicated the depleted level of the liquid. It reminded me of George’s wedding ring.

I fingered my own gold band. I was trying desperately to take in what the detective was saying. George. Was. Dead. What was I going to tell Sheila, my mother-in-law?

“Does George’s mother know?”

I did not want to be the one to tell Sheila her son was dead.

“Mr. Lowenstein’s mother has been notified.” The detective cleared his throat. “Evidently our police chief is an old friend.”

Thank God, I thought. She didn’t have to hear the news from a stranger.

“A woman at your house,” he turned to a page in his steno pad, “Mert Chambers told us where to find you.”

A thought flittered across the tickertape of my mind and fell on the floor in a pile of other ideas. How could we have Thanksgiving? George always carved the turkey. And what about Hanukkah? He loved shopping for his daughter. How would Anya learn about her Jewish heritage? Who would teach her golf? Take her to Cardinal baseball games? Help her cheer on the Rams on Monday Night Football?

An endless stream of problems presented themselves.

“You brought us here? Rather than talking to me at home? Why?”

“We have a few questions.”

I was afraid to guess what that might mean. Time stood still. I was at the top of the roller coaster looking down, suspended, waiting.

In my peripheral vision, I saw Detweiler rub his mouth. He was struggling, trying to decide what to say. I did not look up. I was bracing myself for what was to come.

But I got it wrong.

“Mrs. Lowenstein, did your husband’s partner tell you money was missing from the business?”

My head snapped up. “What?” Stars danced in my field of vision.

Saliva flooded my mouth. I struggled not to bolt from my seat. I looked around desperately for the nearest trash can. Any second now, I’d heave my guts all over the floor. Where was the ladies’ restroom? I swallowed hard.

“Money? Missing? How much?”

“A half a million dollars.”

I jumped up and ran, praying I’d make it to the john.

~Continue~

Remember: The 99 cent price is good for two days only, Aug. 23 (Wed.) and Aug. 24 (Thurs.) 

Kiki Lowenstein and the Watermelon Festival, Part III


Part II – Recap: In an attempt to repair their friendship, Kiki and Mert decide to take a road trip. But hurt feelings don’t mend easily, and the two women get off to a rocky road start. The sight of the Arch in the rearview window changes their moods for the better, but it’s a long ride. Will the two friends be able to paper over their problems and move on?

Instead of taking Highway 64, we took Route 50, the back roads, to Vincennes. When we got to Carlyle, Illinois, we both needed a potty break. As we pulled into town, the number of cars towing boats surprised me. Then I saw a sign for Carlyle’s beaches.

“How could that be?” I wondered out loud.

“It’s Lake Carlyle they’re talking about. It’s Illinois’ largest man-make lake. A spillover from the Kaskaskia River,” Mert explained. “Makes it a prime spot for bald eagles to nest. Keep your eyes on the trees. Look for a white baseball up there. That’s the eagle’s white head.”

I forget sometimes how educated she is and how much she knows about the world. When you’re friends a long time, details fade. Maybe this trip was exactly what we needed to get back to admiring each other. I hoped so.

Walmart’s iconic blue sign beckoned and soon we were inside, grabbing carts. Cruising up and down the aisles brought back another dose of harmony. I tarried in the craft section, seeing what yarns and scrapbook papers were available. Mert disappeared. I thought nothing of that. After all, we weren’t joined at the hip. I found the restroom at the back of the store, then I wandered around, found socks on sale, and pushed my cart toward the food section. A bottle of Ménage À Trois wine was on my list, as was a variety of cheeses, crackers, grapes, carrots, hummus, GrapeNuts, cashews, almonds, and a bag of trail mix. By the time I finished, I had enough food to feed an Artic expedition. Next I went to the bathing suits. There I found a half-price suit in a style that I hoped would be flattering. I also admired the large, bright flowers on a white background. With any luck, I wouldn’t look like a whale who had rolled in wallpaper.

I still didn’t see Mert, but I spotted the checkout lanes and tooled over toward them. The clerk solemnly rang up the goods, never smiling once, no matter how cheerful I was or how much I tried to engage her in conversation. The purple streaks in her hair brought out the red rims of her eyes. Probably the poor child hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before. I played my “Benefit of the Doubt” game, offering her the benefit of the doubt and conjuring up all sorts of reasons she was in a grumpy mood. About the time I handed over my credit card, Mert guided her cart up to the conveyor belt.

I did a double-take. Her cart was filled to overflowing with diapers, shampoo, baby toys, baby food, canned goods, cereal, popcorn, dried milk, baby powder, deodorant, kitchen cleansers, laundry detergent, fabric softener, and three books for babies. My mouth probably dropped open, but I quickly recovered and helped her unload her haul onto the moving belt. The total on the purchase astonished me. Mert didn’t seem fazed. She handed over her credit card and went to work tying the tops of plastic bags shut to prevent spillage. Without commenting, I helped the clerk load the filled bags back into Mert’s cart.

Blinking away the bright sun, we strolled outside, pushing our carts to her truck. I’d forgotten she had a storage deck that locked. Once opened, there was plenty of room for all our purchases. Mert even set my perishables and hers inside a small cooler that held ice. At that point, I retrieved my small overnight bag. “Can I put this in the locker?” I asked. “I’d like to get it out from under my feet.”

“Sure.”

Once finished, we climbed back into the cab of the truck. Mert pointed us toward a gas station. “There’s sandwiches here, or we can go through Mickey D’s drive-up.”

Inside the gas station was a cooler stocked with food. I found an egg salad on whole wheat that looked delicious. Mert got a roast beef with Swiss cheese. We both grabbed a bag of Sunchips and bottles of water. Back on the road again, we munched happily, although my curiosity finally got the better of me. “Why all the supplies? You certainly bought a lot of stuff.”

“Corva’s fallen on hard times. She’s taking care of her grandbaby, Jillian, who ain’t but six months old. Since she lives on social security, making ends meet is hard. Iff’n it weren’t for government assistance with her healthcare, she’d have to do without her meds.”

My heart ached. “Poor woman. That’s very kind of you to help her out.”

“I got everything in the world going for me. My son’s in school. My daughter is married. I got a good paying job. Corva was married to the world’s biggest butthole. He was a farmer who owned most of the acreage you see as we drive by. However, he liked to load up his Harvestore with grain and not sell it. That’s common among farmers, you know? They get sorta personally attached to the grain. Clint did. Corva nagged and nagged him to sell, but he kept passing up opportunities. Then the market had a downturn. Clint lost a ton of money. He had a heart attack while he was out in the field. When he died, Corva found out he owed money everywhere. She lost the farm, which meant she lost her house and car. She’s been squeaking by ever since.”

I knew what it felt like to worry about money. I also knew how it felt to learn your husband hadn’t been honest with you about your finances.

“That’s awful,” I said.

“Yup. Then their daughter got addicted to painkillers. Didn’t quit when she was pregnant. Had the baby. And guess who’s left to pick up all the pieces? Corva.”

~To Be Continued ~

Meet Diane Weiner


This is the second in a new newsletter series. I’ll be introducing you to my author friends. Want to win one of Diane’s books? Be sure to comment. On 8/22 (next Tuesday), I’ll use the random number generator to choose one lucky commenter to win one of Diane’s books. 

Diane Weiner writes the Susan Wiles Schoolhouse Mysteries in which a retired teacher turns amateur sleuth. You can learn more about Diane by going to her website DianeWeinerAuthor.com.

  1. How did you come up with the idea for your series? At the school where I worked, one of the teachers, an aspiring administrator, was always trying to brown nose the principal by bringing her home baked goods. One day I wondered “what if he poisoned that cupcake he’s bringing her so he can take over her job?”
  2. Which character is most like you? In my series, Susan Wiles is the character I want to be: a retired teacher, and a grandmother! She’s much more gutsy and outspoken than I am. I am pretty shy and cautious as a person. Our similarities are that we are both educators, and we both have close families. Our husbands and children are the center of our worlds.
  3. What’s the hardest part of writing? The hardest part of writing is having limited time during the school year, as I am still working full time. I often write in the mornings before school and have to stop right in the middle of what I’m doing to get in the shower and get to work on time!
  4. What inspires you to keep writing? I am inspired to keep writing because my characters and the town of Westbrook are alive to me and I want to be in that world. I also value the joy reading brings to me and there’s nothing more satisfying than reading a review or hearing from a reader that they enjoyed my book and can’t wait to read the next one. It’s like I’m passing on the joy reading brings.
  5. What advice would you give to an aspiring author? To a would-be writer, I’d say to just write. Brainstorm ideas—don’t get caught up in trying to make things perfect from the get go. If you love to write, write. Go to writing conferences if you can, read about writing, and try a critique group. Reading your work to others can give you the confidence to keep going.

Diane’s latest book, Murder is Homework, is now available, and we’ll be giving away a digital copy. It is book 9 in the series. She is currently working on the second book in her Sugarbury Falls series. A Deadly Course, set in Vermont with a married couple as the amateur sleuths, is available on Amazon.

Now tell me the name of a favorite teacher–and I’ll choose one of you to win a copy of Murder is Homework, next Tuesday, Aug. 22.

 

I’m not finished with my coloring page…and that’s OK


Today is Monday, August 14, the day we’re supposed to share our coloring pages. Only I’m not finished. That’s important. Let me tell you why…

Yesterday at noon, I realized I hadn’t finished my coloring page. I panicked. I was in the middle of working on my dollhouse. I was enjoying every minute. Then I thought, “Gosh, I need to quit this and go hurry and finish up my coloring page.”

Nerves kicked in. My heart raced. My back ached with tension. I felt light-headed.

And it came to me how silly I was being.

You see, I’ve totally enjoyed working on this coloring page. A couple of times when life hasn’t gone my way, I’ve taken out the page and lost myself working on it. I’ve delighted in mixing colors and in blending the shades. I’ve kept the page tacked up on the side of my file cabinet where I can look at it often.

Yet here I was on Sunday, trying to turn a fun project into an obligation, a relaxation effort into a stressor, and playtime into work.

I decided I was not going to do that to myself. In fact, I hope I’ll also give each of YOU permission to not finish your work.

We live in a culture where importance is defined by how busy we are. We race around to prove we’re important. We stress ourselves out.

But coloring is a way to de-stress. Let’s not turn it into a chore. Are you with me on this?

By the way, I also need to change how I’ll send out coloring books. I don’t want to judge any of you or your work. I’d rather have a totally random process. I’ve set up a contest page. Enter (starting tomorrow) and I’ll choose a winner monthly to send a coloring book.

If you win once, you can’t win again for a year. Here’s the link: http://gvwy.io/neeu0s3

I hope you’ll agree with me that none of us need more stress in our lives.

Kiki Lowenstein and the Watermelon Festival, Part II


Part I Recap: In an attempt to repair their friendship, Kiki and Mert decide to take a road trip. But hurt feelings don’t mend easily, and the two women get off to a rocky road start. Here’s the link to Part I

Mert insisted on taking her truck. This made absolutely no sense at all, because I could have easily borrowed Sheila’s white Mercedes sedan, which is a dream of a car for highway driving. Since Sheila’s still in Texas for rehab, her car has been sitting in her garage, coming to life only when Detweiler goes there to turn over the engine. Also, Mert’s truck doesn’t have a back seat, which meant that I could only take a small overnight bag, and it shared the space with my feet. I’m short, but I still needed room for my legs. I thought about complaining, but it seemed pointless. As far as I could tell, Mert had no luggage at all. I couldn’t figure out what she planned to do for clothes, but I climbed in and waved to my family, doing my best to keep a cheerful look on my face.

We drove two miles in total silence. I considered saying, “So this is how it’s going to be? A long weekend and hard feelings?” Instead, I told myself to be nice. I asked, “How’s life, Mert?”

“Fair to middling.”

“Remind me who we’ll be visiting and how this person is related to you?” I focused on the pretty flowers on porches, window boxes, hanging baskets, and lining sidewalks. St. Louis loves to spruce up with the changing seasons, and Webster Groves is (to my mind at least) the prettiest town in the metro area. I particularly like how joyous the geraniums are this time of year. They have a very patriotic look to them as they burst with color right as we come up on the Fourth of July. Even now, four weeks later, the heads were still full of color.

“We gonna see Corva. She ain’t a relative.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t sure how to follow up on that. Ask open-ended questions, I reminded myself. “How do you know her?”

“We was pen-pals as kids. Stayed in touch all these years. When we could, we’d visit each other. Whoever had the money or the time would do the traveling.”

“Wow. Pen-pals. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of people staying in touch as long as you two have.”

“Yup.”

The sun glinted off the chrome of Mert’s candy-apple red truck. That gave me the perfect excuse to put on my sunglasses. The dark lenses allowed me to study my friend without her knowing it. Mert had aged in the past six months. The crinkles at the edges of her eyes fanned out like spiderwebs. The grooves on either side of her mouth had deepened. She owns a tanning bed and uses it year round because she claims it makes her look younger. I’ve argued it also ages your skin. She disagrees, but the proof was on her face with its leathery surface. I moved my gaze down to her hands. She wears Playtex gloves when she cleans, but for the first time, I noticed how knotted her knuckles were.

Mert was getting old. A lump formed in my throat. I remembered how she had reached out to me when we first met. How she had stood by me when George died. She had been loyal as the day was long until she thought I’d disrespected her brother, Johnny. Sadness crept up on me the way a cat hunts down a sparrow, and when it pounced, I couldn’t breathe.

“Asthma getting to you?” She stared straight ahead. We sat at a stoplight, getting ready to pull onto Highway 40, which is really 64-40 but no one calls it that. The road is the east-west artery that pumps the lifeblood of traffic in and out of St. Louis, only pausing for heart attacks like major wrecks once or twice a month.

“I guess.”

“That time of year, ain’t it?”

“I’ve been thinking about getting allergy shots.”

“Probably should.”

“Where are we staying?”

“Holiday Inn. It’s on the outskirts of town. Probably the nicest place. Got a pool. Did you bring a suit?”

“No.”

“We can stop at a Walmart on the way, and you can pick one up.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Okay, it wasn’t exactly a heart-to-heart conversation, but we were making progress. The temperature had changed from chilly to lukewarm. I figured I’d take another stab at learning about Corva. I waited until Mert had smoothly merged into traffic heading east. But before I could speak, my friend glanced up at her rearview mirror. “Look at that, will you? Behind us.”

I twisted in my seat, turning as far as I could despite the tightening of my seatbelt. Out of the left corner of the back window the Arch gleamed like a silver band embracing the cornflower blue sky.

“It’s so, so beautiful!” My heart squeezed tightly in my chest.

“I know. Ain’t it? I guess it’s purely corny, but I always get teary-eyed when I see it. You’d think it would get old—”

“But it never does.”

“Nope.”

There it stood, majestic and proud, a symbol that only our city could claim. An iconic shape, the arch is an example of a weighted catenary, the idealized curve made when you hold a weighted chain or cable upside down, supporting it at each end. The outside consists of 900 tons of stainless steel that the designer, Eero Saarinen intended to catch and reflect the ambient light. Indeed it does, in such a way that the arch also reflects the changing world around it.

“Did you know you can see that there monument for 30 miles?” Mert asked. “But I think this is the best view of all.”

“I do, too,” I said.

And oddly enough, our shared love of the Arch went a long way—30 miles maybe—toward repairing our friendship.

~To be continued~

In Part III, we’ll visit Vincennes, Indiana, vicariously. A heat wave is the least of the problems that the two women face. Somehow they get involved in a crime. (Or did you guess that might happen?)

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