"COFFEE, SADIE?" DODY EXTENDED HER arm with a full pot tipping dangerously close to pouring even though there was no mug to catch it. This morning she wore a mint-green turban with an abundance of fluffy blonde curls springing forth from the top. She looked like a test tube fizzing over.
"Definitely." I pulled a cup from the cupboard, trying to disregard the stained interior, and handed it to her.
Getting up today had been a challenge. The mattress in my room felt like a bag of oranges, and the sound of the rolling waves hadn't lulled me to sleep at all. They just made me need to pee. When Jordan climbed into my bed at sunrise, bringing the dogs and their slobber with him, I wondered again if coming to Bell Harbor was a mistake. But Dody had badgered me with the tenacity of a Jehovah's Witness until I couldn't think of another reason to say no.
"How did you sleep?" Dody handed back the cup after sprinkling cinnamon on the top.
"Great," I lied, wishing I could inject the coffee straight into my veins. I reached past her to straighten the pot, lining it up with the blender.
"That's wonderful, dear. I was thinking after breakfast we could take a walk. There's a trail that leads right to the playground at the elementary school."
My kids were sitting at the kitchen island, their eyes still a little puffy from sleep but hopeful with expectation. I leaned over and kissed their cheeks. Paige kissed me back while Jordan turned his face into his shoulder. He was getting too old for kisses, and my heart stung a little.
"Please, Mommy? I'd like to see the school." Paige smiled her most beatific smile.
"Did you brush your teeth before you came downstairs?" I asked.
Jordan frowned. "I thought we were on vacation?"
"Not from dental hygiene. Brush them after you eat, then we'll go to the playground."
They fist bumped each other in victory, happy until Dody set steaming bowls in front of them. "Eat your porridge, dears."
Paige frowned at the foreign glop. "What is that?"
I nudged her in the shoulder. "It's oatmeal, Paige. Just eat it."
"It doesn't look like our oatmeal. What are all those specks?"
I peeked down at the sludge. Dody's cooking hadn't improved over the years. As kids, my sister and I sometimes made random bets and whoever lost had to eat one of Dody's peculiar concoctions. Her oatmeal was the worst offender, always gummy and discolored. And sometimes you'd bite into something and couldn't tell what it was or why it was in there. I've long suspected Jasper became a chef purely out of self-defense.
"What are the specks?" I couldn't resist asking.
"Flaxseeds. They help you poop."
Jordan's eyes went big and round. "Pooping is funny. One time I pooped a - - "
"Jordan!" This was not the time for that story. "Just eat."
"Yes, eat up, darlings. I have to be back here by noon. Harry is taking me skeet shooting." She pressed a hand to her temple and looked at me. "Oh, dear. Is that rude of me? To go out on a date when you haven't had one in ages?"
She said the word ages as though it caused physical pain. That was harsh, having my sixty-five-year-old auntie feeling sorry for me because her social life was superior to mine. But then again, it always had been. After Uncle Walter died, she'd entertained a constant stream of suitors. It seemed the single gentlemen of Bell Harbor's AARP loved her zany sense of humor and zest for life. Well, that, and the fact that she put out.
"It's fine, Dody. After the playground the kids and I will go to the beach. I want to teach them to swim anyway."
"Hey, toots! Come here," Fontaine called from the deck, doing his best crocodile hunter accent. "Running Man, dead ahead. Crikey, will you look at the sleek hindquarters on that mate."
The runner? Again? What kind of pretentious jerk went running twice in twelve hours? I didn't need to see that. He was nothing to me. Still, I peeked out the kitchen window, where I could see his silhouette fast approaching. I took a sip from my cup. Well, I guess it was a fresh, sunny morning, perfect for enjoying one's coffee on the deck.
And thus began a lazy morning routine we performed each day for the next two weeks. Mystery porridge for my aunt and the kids in the kitchen and dark, caffeinated nectar of the gods for me and my cousin on the deck. Running Man became an unwitting accomplice to our daily ritual. Fontaine discovered that if we slouched down in the lounge chairs and stared between the railings, we could get a really good look at him. But some days we'd stand tall and boldly wave like tourists on a double-decker bus. It all depended on how my hair looked.
"You should walk the dogs," Fontaine declared one morning, just after the runner had passed. "When Running Man sprints by, the dogs will chase him and then you can introduce yourself."
My stomach flipped, like that moment you see the police car behind you and wonder if you were speeding. "I don't want to introduce myself. These two weeks have given me the best relationship I've ever had. I'm not going to wreck it by actually getting to know him."
Fontaine's dark head dropped. "Baby girl, listen when I tell you this, you have got to get back on that pony. How long has it been?"
I took a slug of coffee. It suddenly tasted old and bitter. Like me. "Since I rode the pony? None of your business." I did not want to have this conversation, not even with Fontaine, who, believe me, held nothing back. I rose from my deck chair and tucked it in snugly under the glass-topped table.
"That long, huh?" Fontaine sipped his own coffee.
"Not that long." I wiped a spot off the tabletop with the edge of my shirt.
"Has there been anybody since Richard?" He put out his foot, making me step over him in my haste to go inside.
I'd gone on a handful of dates since kicking Richard to the curb, but each one had been exponentially worse than the one before. The last had gone so horribly awry I nearly flung myself down an open elevator shaft.
Fontaine pounced like a puma. "Oh, there has been. I can tell. Spill it, cupcake!"
I flipped him the finger and walked inside.
Undeterred, Fontaine followed, fast on my heels. "Oh, come on!"
I knew I'd have to give him something. The man was a pit bull in capris.
"Let's just say that on my last date I made a huge error in judgment, and he never called me again. OK?" I picked up a pair of Jordan's shoes from the middle of the floor and set them down next to the ones I'd lined up by the door yesterday.
"Ah, I see." His nod was all-knowing. He plopped down on the sofa in the living room. "But you shouldn't be so hard on yourself. We've all made that mistake. And it's exactly why you need to get back out there! Don't let that guy be the last guy."
I nudged the coffee table over a few inches with my knee. "You are as pushy as your mother. She thinks I should go out with Anita Parker's derelict son! You know, the one who used to throw tent worms in my hair when we were little? No thanks. I am just fine being on my own."
"I don't believe you." He plucked at the fringe of a sofa pillow.
"Why? Don't you think I can take care of myself?"
"Of course you can, but we humans are social creatures and being alone is aberrant behavior. Trust me. I'm an expert on aberrant behavior."
"I'll bet." I tossed a coordinating pillow next to him while dropping Fatso's chew toy into a basket with my other hand. "Anyway, I don't want to talk about this. I'm not interested in meeting new men right now." Or ever, for that matter.
"Oh, fine." Fontaine pouted for a moment, stroking his goatee. I could feel his eyes boring into me as I puttered, trying to bring order to Dody's chaotic collections.
I picked up a speck of fuzz from the carpet and rearranged the magazines until his silence became unbearable.
"Stop doing that!" I said at last. "You're starting to freak me out."
His eyes had a mischievous glint, like the time when we were sixteen and he talked me into smoking dope behind the boat shed and I ended up swimming naked in the lake. Then I woke up the next morning covered in beach grass cuts with a half gallon of melted ice cream on my pillow.
"You are giving me an idea," he said.
I scowled. "I don't like your ideas."
"You might like this one. Check it out. I'm an interior designer, right?"
"Yeah?" I hesitated, another dog toy dangling from my hand.
"When I go into people's houses, I see junk. Tons of junk, everywhere."
"So, you love to put junk away. You're like one of those robotic vacuum thingies. What are they called? A Roomba!" He snapped his fingers. "That's it. You are a human Roomba. You're a...a humba. It's freakishly mesmerizing, I might add."
"You think I should be a cleaning lady?" I tossed the dog toy into the basket and stacked the coasters on the coffee table.
"No, dumbass. You should be a professional organizer."
My own burst of laughter surprised me. "A professional organizer? Damn it, Fontaine. I thought you were serious. No one would pay me for that."
"Pudding pop, they'll pay huge! There are rich folks out there with piles of loot and way too much stuff. But they're too busy making more money to organize the crap they already own. But you have a gift. Seriously, look what you've done to this place in just two weeks."
I followed the swooping motion of his arms. I had made some improvements at Dody's. It was nearly habitable now, with a clear path from the kitchen to the dining room and on to the sunporch. I'd even convinced her to move the Star Wars figurines to a back bedroom instead of displaying them next to her grandmother's antique crystal vases. Now if I could just get her to move the jackalope.
Fontaine went on talking. "I design gorgeous rooms for my clients and they ruin it with papers lying around and hockey sticks and Wii remotes. They don't know how to put things in order. But to you, organizing comes naturally. Like...sarcasm."
It was true. I spoke fluent sarcasm. And I had always been fastidious. I used to drive my sister, Penny, crazy when we played dolls. All she wanted to do was have Malibu Barbie smooch with Beachcomber Ken, but I always made them fold up all their little clothes first and put away all those tiny shoes.
"A professional organizer, huh?" I sank down onto the couch.
"Yes, girlfriend. Use that personality disorder of yours for good instead of evil. Just think about it." He hoisted himself off the couch and left the room, leaving me to ponder.
Hmm. I did love to categorize. And sort, and fold, and tuck, and stack. In fact, the best gift Richard ever gave me was my own label maker. He bought it as a joke, but I loved it. Of course, if I'd had any brains I'd have put a big, fat label on his forehead that said married. But maybe Fontaine was on to something. A job would give me something to focus on, something to move toward, instead of using all my energy to outrun my past. And I liked working. At least I had.
When Richard and I first got married, I was fresh out of college. I had a lovely little job at a bookstore where I met every sort of person. Moms, grandparents, writers, and pseudo-intellectuals. But Richard didn't like that I wasn't home waiting for him. I think he mostly didn't like freethinking individuals out there filling my head with dangerous ideas. Then once Paige was born, I wanted nothing more than to be with her every minute of the day, and staying home seemed like a privilege.
But she and Jordan weren't babies anymore. Soon they'd both be in school all day and I would need something to occupy my time. Maybe having a job would give me some purpose, some direction. Some identity other than Richard Turner's ex-wife. If nothing else, when someone asked, "And what do you do?" it would give me something to answer besides, "I sponge off of my ex-husband's bad judgment."