Several weeks ago, I started this challenge where I had to write different genres, and you were stuck reading a story about an arm under a bush. This is not that one. This is a straight up small-town romance...no dead bodies included. I hope you like it!
Hometown Heroine, Chapter One
“You’ll never guess what happened,” Marshall said as the screen door slammed behind him.
“No, I’m sure I won’t,” I replied. I could never guess what it was that Marshall was up to. Marshall was the fifteen year-old I hired to help out at the radio station part-time. I did so at the request of his grandmother, my former seventh-grade English teacher. She seemed to think Marshall had too much time on his hands and enlisted my help to keep him out of trouble. Fortunately, he had turned out to be a real asset-- someone to run errands and make coffee and clean up while I concentrated on running my media empire, which consisted of one 1000-watt radio station and a weekly newspaper that had more in common with an informational brochure than it did the New York Times.
“Stacey moved out of Hank’s cottage and in with Frankie Delarosa.” Marshall casually picked the second donut up off the napkin in front of me. I slapped his hand. Nobody touches my chocolate glazed cruller but me. I gave him my “mean look” with one eyebrow raised--this particular look took years to perfect, by the way—and asked the inevitable.
“What? When?” Sometimes my grasp of the English language amazes me.
“Yeah,” Marshall replied, “she just threw a bunch of her stuff in the back of her SUV and left. Yesterday after dinner.”
“Was Hank there?”
“Yep. I guess he helped her with the big stuff. Gram says she took the flat screen TV and the dining room table.”
That was SO like Stacey to take a man’s television. I could see the writing on the wall even before Hank married her. Stacey had never had anyone’s best interests at heart but her own. And the dining room table? A wedding present from Hank’s brother and sister-in-law. And Hank gave it to her. Sheesh.
But that was par for the course with Hank. He was a notoriously nice guy. His first wife, Pam, whom he’d met in college, had left him after only two and a half years. In typical Hank style, he let her have nearly everything but the cottage he had purchased from his parents. (Not that she would have wanted the cottage; it has a “rustic” quality, which is actually being kind.) After she ran off with an older guy—wealthy lawyer, well connected, being groomed by the Republican Party to eventually run for a seat in Congress—Hank continued to live in the cottage, even though the only furniture he had left was a saggy old sofa and a scarred Formica table. I’d been told by my mother (who believes it is her life’s work to know everything that goes on in our little corner of New York State) he spent the following year building a pottery studio off to one side of the driveway, and went through the day-to-day motions of living and teaching art at the local high school. Shortly after his second wedding, I came back to town.
Hank had been my neighbor nearly all my life. He and his family—his parents, older brother Terry and beagle, Tip, lived at the end of our street. Hank was five years older than I, which seemed ancient when I was in elementary school. We spent many summer nights playing “ghosts in the graveyard”—essentially hide-and-seek in the dark accompanied by scary noises—with other neighborhood kids, but I never thought of him as anything other than my neighbor, Hank. It was funny, though, that the older I got, the better Hank looked. He was always a handsome guy, with dark hair and eyes and a swimmer’s build: wide shoulders and a narrow waist and hips. As I became more interested in the aesthetics of the male form, I became aware of his swimmer’s hindquarters, as well. In high school, I waited all year for him to come home from college for the summer. I looked for excuses to walk by his house, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in his yard. Nine times out of ten, though, he was nowhere to be seen. Just Tip, looking forlorn until I scratched him behind the ears.
But neither of us are kids anymore. Tip went to his reward years before I came back home. Hank was thirty-five and had been married twice and no longer had a swimmer’s body. His shoulders were still broad, but now the rest of him was catching up. He started to go silver at the temples. I was thirty and didn’t have time to walk past anyone’s house like a ninny. Thank goodness I was dating Pete and I didn’t have to. It saved me some time.
“What’s first?” Marshall asked, moving to the small refrigerator in the corner and pulling out a caffeine-enriched drink.
“Well, I think we need one more small article. Got any ideas?”
Marshall thought for a moment. “Someone said that Mr. Palmer is retiring. Or maybe it was Mrs. Tanner.”
I wound my light brown ponytail into a knot in frustration. “Okay, Marshall. Who is it, Mr. Palmer or Mrs. Tanner? It’s not like we can afford to make a mistake with that. I mean, for crying out loud. Mr. Palmer is the principal of the elementary school and Mrs. Tanner is a second grade teacher. One is news; the other is a simple retirement.”
“I don’t know. But I know who to ask.”
“Yeah, well, so do I.” I picked up the phone and dialed my mother’s number. Even though she had moved to Florida two years ago to live with her sister, leaving the media empire in my care, she still had a hot line to Wayne County. Sort of like Kennedy and the special phone to the Russians.
I waited while the phone rang several times, and then left a message to have her call. Knowing her, she was already halfway into her day, despite the early hour. I put the phone back into the cradle and looked up at Marshall. “You can start by running down to Marlene’s and getting me a chocolate shake.” I handed him three bucks. My morning sugar fix was an important part of my day.
After Marshall left, I called Hank. He picked up on the first ring. “Hi, Hank,” I said. “It’s Shelby Cunningham. Your nephew told me about Stacey. What happened?”
“She moved in with Frankie Delarosa. He just bought Doc’s old house on West Main. She said that it’s more convenient.”
“Convenient? To what?” My voice was getting louder. “What the heck is that supposed to mean? Why does she need to be convenient? And couldn’t she be convenient alone? Why does she need to be convenient with Frankie?”
Hank sighed. “I don’t know. She’s heard the rumors about the canning factory closing, and she thinks she’ll need to find another job. So she wants to be in town. And Frankie has a house in town. I guess it makes sense.” Hank sighed again.
I was dumbfounded. “No, it doesn’t. What does convenience have to do with Frankie? Unless she’s going to work for him.” Frankie owned the only car dealership in our little community.
“I think that’s the plan. If the factory closes, she can work as a bookkeeper at the dealership.”
How could Hank be so calm? Obviously, Stacey had lost her mind. Didn’t he understand that she was moving in with Frankie as a trade-off for a job? “So you’re telling me that she’s basically prostituting herself in the name of job security? How can she do that?”
“I don’t know,” Hank replied. “I guess she was kind of upset about the job situation and she thought that moving into town was her only chance to find something else.”
“Right. Like it’s so far to drive. You’re all of fifteen or twenty minutes outside of town, Hank,” I pointed out. I could feel the need to be sarcastic welling up inside. I knew I shouldn’t go there. Not until Hank had some more time to process all of this. “Okay,” I continued, my voice softer. “Let me know if I can do anything.”
“Thanks, Shelby. I’m fine. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up.
As I hung up the phone, Marshall came in with my chocolate shake. He also had picked up some information. As I took the foam cup from him, he said “I got some info at Marlene’s. It’s Mrs. Tanner who’s retiring. She and Mr. Tanner are moving to South Carolina. They’re tired of snow.”
“Them and everybody else. That’s why my mom left after dad died. Winter. Who needs it? Maybe that would be a good article. Something about snow.”
“But it’s July,” Marshall commented.
“Exactly. No one’s thinking about it now. We could ask people if they miss the snow.”
Marshall looked at me as if I had completely taken leave of my senses. “Sure.” He shook his head. “I’m going over to the station and see if the bathrooms need cleaning.” He left, taking his drink with him. On his way out, he held the door open for Lily, my right-hand man. Or girl. Actually, ‘young lady’ would be more precise.
Lily Washington had been a good student at the local high school, exuding a quiet confidence and poise, unlike myself. She lived with her grandmother, Cindy, who worked as one of the cleaning crew at the canning factory. After high school, Lily spent a year at the local community college and was now working for me, earning money to go back and finish. She was a hard worker and an eager apprentice. I was lucky to have her.
“Morning, Lily. I have an assignment for you,” I said as she came through the door. I stopped when I saw her outfit. It was gorgeous—a beautifully cut shift in a Liberty print. “Great dress. Where did you get it?”
“You’ll never guess,” she answered.
“Don’t tell me. The church resale shop.” Lily, with her lithe figure, was always able to find things that the wealthy suburban wives “outgrew” at a wonderful resale shop near Rochester. As she was quick to point out on more than one occasion, her clothes might be old, but she made them look good. Actually, she made them look great.
“Got it in one. Now, what can I do for you?”
“I need a short article to fill up some space on page three. Marlene has her usual space, the florist has a half-page ad, and we need something to take up the rest. I have no ideas, but I know you’ll think of something. Mrs. Tanner is retiring, if that helps.”
“She is?” Lily’s eyes grew wide. “She was my teacher. Shoot. That’s six teachers this year. Two at the elementary school, three at the middle school, and Mr. Bates at the high school. Wow. How do you suppose they can find six teachers?”
I thought about this for a moment. “What if you interview the superintendent and ask that question? It can be a two-part article—a teaser this week and the full article next week. I know the superintendent's out at her cottage for the summer, but she still has to come in to work. If I set up the appointment, will you go talk to her?”
Lily stood. “I can schedule it. She knows who I am. And…no offense, but you can tick people off. She might say no to you.” She turned and walked over to the other desk.
I chuckled to myself. No one ever said that telling the truth in a small town would be easy.
The truth was, however, that I liked the superintendent, Jocelyn Jones. She was a commanding black woman in her early sixties who had worked her way up through the ranks to become the superintendent of our small rural school system. She had been a teacher in a neighboring district, and came to ours as a principal ten years or so ago. She had worked hard, driving 60 miles several times a week to pursue her PhD. When the former superintendent retired two years ago, she was the obvious choice. I had heard that she was looking for a bigger district to lead before retiring, but for now, she was ours. I liked her because she seemed to be firm but fair, and kept a tight rein on the budget. The school board, mostly white males, was scared to death of her. In fact I was too, a little, but not enough to sugar coat any news about the school system. Dr. Jones and I had an understanding. If it’s news, I publish it. But I would always get her side of the story. If she could be fair, so could I.
While Lily made several phone calls, I finished reading the articles for this week’s edition of the paper. I had the radio on, tuned to the station I owned. Jim, the only on-air personality I employed, was reading the morning news and farm report. The station was located down the street, and I needed to go check in.
As I walked down Main Street, finishing up the last few drops of my milkshake, I heard a rap on a window. I turned to see Pete Leone, the guy I was dating, inside the small office he shared with his business partner, Carl. I turned and walked back to say hello.
Pete met me at the door. “Hey—how’s it going?” he asked.
“Okay…I’m on my way over to the station. Lily’s working on the final story for this week’s edition. What are you up to?” I couldn’t help smiling as I asked. Pete was gorgeous, in a slick sort of way. He’s tall for an Italian guy—okay, maybe he’s second generation American, but his grandma still speaks Italian and doesn’t wear anything but black dresses, despite the fact that she’s lived here since she was a teenager. Pete’s parents own a small Italian bistro in a neighboring town and he attended the only Catholic school in the county. When I met him in college, I was shocked to find out he actually knew where my hometown was. We re-connected about three years ago, when he became a partner in the small legal firm owned by Carl Jensen, who was interested in retiring. Carl’s wife had been Pete’s teacher at St. Joe’s, and mentioned Pete as a possible candidate to take over Carl’s practice. So far, Pete enjoyed the simplicity of a small town law practice, but I couldn’t help thinking that it would soon grow old. Most of our dates entailed driving to the nearest movie theater, over thirty miles away.
I gave Pete a quick kiss and left again to go to the station. As I walked in, Abby, the station cat, peered at me from on top of the bookcase in the reception area. Marshall was at the front desk, looking through the day’s mail. He handed me a few envelopes. “I think these are bills,” he said.
I looked through them. Marshall was right; they were all bills. “Just leave them on the desk so that Jane can get them when she comes in.” Jane was the administrative assistant for both the newspaper and the radio station. She was in her sixties and had worked for my father for over twenty years when he coerced me to leave my job as an assistant editor at a small specialty-publishing house in New York City. I came home, not because I longed for the breeze off of Lake Ontario—knowing that the breeze brings lake effect snow all winter long quashes any romantic idea about being on the shoreline—but because I felt a kinship to this community and felt I owed it to my parents to at least give it a try. I was sort of surprised that I enjoyed running a small town business. After living in the big city for several years, it was nice to come home to a slower pace and people who had known me all my life.
Marshall grabbed a broom from the closet and started sweeping. On the speaker near the ceiling I could hear Jim finish the farm report. Thirty seconds later, he came in from the studio. “Shelby! It’s good to see you,” he said and greeted me with a hug.
Jim MacDonald had been my father’s oldest and dearest friend. I couldn’t remember a special time in my life that didn’t include him. Jim, a lifelong bachelor, was as much a part of my family as I was. My dad made me promise that there would be a spot for Jim as long as he still wanted to work, and I intended to honor that, even though dad had been gone over two years. Jim spent most mornings at the station and went home after his usual lunch at Marlene’s. “Finished?” I asked him.
“No. Just taking a break. I’ll go get some coffee and get back to look at the Rochester paper. Might be some stuff in there I can use for the eleven o’clock news.” He left and Abby followed.
Marshall went back into the studio to continue sweeping. Most of the radio station programming was computerized with the exception of Jim’s news and farm report. It was easier and less expensive than trying to hire folks to work in the booth. But the locals had come to depend on Jim for their morning news (which occasionally bordered on gossip) and the state of agriculture in the state of New York.
I heard the door open and I looked up to see Lily standing in the doorway. “If you could come back to the office, I have an appointment to meet Dr. Jones at the high school. She’s going to give me all the information to do a big article—three or four installments, probably. I need to be there by ten o’clock.”
I looked at my watch, a beautiful tank watch that was the nicest piece of jewelry I owned. I’d bought it from a rather disreputable jewelry store in the city when I got my first raise from the publishing house. It was probably hot, but I was long gone, and I doubted any big-city detectives would be chasing me into the wilds of Wayne County. “Okay, I guess you’d better get going. You’ll just make it. I’ll follow you back to the paper.” I opened the door to the studio. “Marshall, I’m going back to the other office,” I called. “Don’t leave until Jim gets back.” I left with Lily.
We returned to the newspaper office, where we found Pete standing just inside the door. “What’s up with you leaving the office wide open and no one here?” he asked.
“Oh, for crying out loud, Pete,” I replied. “What’s a burglar going to take? The coffee maker? You and I both know there’s nothing in here worth stealing. My laptop’s in my bag.” I patted the bag that hung from my shoulder. Lily giggled in response to my remark and left, her car keys jangling.
“I just stopped by to tell you that I can’t make lunch today. I’ve got to go to the county courthouse to file some stuff,” said Pete.
“Is that the legal term for it? Stuff?” I enjoy being a smartass when the opportunity arises.
“Okay, Miss Perfect. I just wanted you to know. I’ll call you when I get back.” He kissed me and left.
It was actually fine with me that he couldn’t meet me—I was going to have a full afternoon meeting with some of my advertisers outside of town. I was also going to have to decide what to do with the information Lily collected before the galleys were due at the printer by three-thirty. It was going to be a busy afternoon.