By the time we check out, I’ve racked up over a thousand dollars in construction supplies for Miss California, though David and Chris are quick to point out that the shack is on my property, so really I’m fixing it up for myself. “You’re really making money on this whole thing.” Right.
We’re headed out of the hardware store to go load everything in my truck when I spot Dotty bee-lining down the sidewalk toward me. She’s the manager of the First National Bank, and she’s been there since I was a little kid.
“Jack! Yoo-hoo! Hold on there for a second.”
I motion for the guys to keep on loading the supplies then turn to greet her. “What can I do for you, Dotty?”
“Brought you a Dum Dum!”
I like Dotty—she helped me open my first bank account—but apparently, she’s another one of Meredith’s new friends.
“Oh, also, I was just hoping you could pass these along to Meredith for me?”
She’s holding out a Tupperware full of cookies, homemade from the looks of it.
“She came in yesterday to open an account, and she tried one of these,” Dotty explains, patting the lid. “I had them out for the patrons—open more accounts with cookies than with sales pitches, y’know. Anyway, she said they were the best cookies she’d ever had and she asked me for the recipe.”
“So you decided to bake her a batch?” I ask, amused.
She bats my arm playfully. “Well, I just felt so bad for forgetting to give her the recipe. She really was such a dear and went on and on about how good they were. Plus, we got a new teller down at the bank, young girl—Patrick Smith’s daughter? Anyway, it was her first day and Meredith was real patient with her. Mr. Rogers had come in just before and was so snippy, so her nerves were jumbled. He nearly made her cry—”
“I’ll make sure Meredith gets the cookies,” I say, cutting her off so I don’t get trapped here talking to her for God knows how long.
“Oh, okay, I’ll let you get to it. Just remember that the recipe card is right there on top. Make sure she gets that.”
I nod. “Will do.”
“It’s real nice seeing you. Oh! And my business card is there too in case she has any questions about the baking…or banking!”
“We’ll make sure she gets the cookies, Miss Dotty!” Chris calls from behind me.
“Thanks boys. I’m sure y’all have a big day ahead of you,” she says, waving and backing away. Then she thinks better of it and steps toward me, holding her hand up like she’s just thought of one more thing. “You know what? Just have her call me. It’ll be easier to walk her through the steps. My handwriting probably isn’t all that good.”
I tip my head, tell her approximately twenty times I’ll have Meredith call her, and then make a break for it. In Texas, people have a knack for turning a simple goodbye into an all-day affair.
When I make it back to the ranch, I pull my truck up right over near the shack so unloading won’t take so long. David and Chris offered to come back and help, but I turned them down. I’m not planning on doing any work today other than installing the air conditioner, and that’ll take me five minutes to set up on my own. I pop the tailgate and start unloading building supplies. Normally, I’d store everything in the barn, but the weather should hold and it’ll be more convenient to have everything at my fingertips when we get started tomorrow.
I expect Meredith to step outside to check on all the commotion, but I’m nearly finished unloading before the door opens.
I peer over at her from beneath the brim of my hat, jarred by her appearance. She’s still in her pajamas—one of my t-shirts with sleeping shorts creeping out from underneath. I open my mouth to demand—yet again—that she return my ill-gotten clothes, but then I glance up at her face. Normally, she’s glowing, one of those women with tan skin and a healthy complexion, like she just got back from a tropical vacation. This morning, however, her cheeks are splotchy and her eyes are a little red and puffy. She sniffs and crosses her arms over her chest.
“What are you doing out here?” she asks, her tone somewhere between annoyed and angry.
“Did I interrupt a call?” She’s clutching her cell phone in her right hand. It’s the first time I’ve seen her with the thing since she moved in. “I didn’t even know you had one of those.”
Even Edith carries hers around all day. She claims it’s so she can call me when she falls and breaks a hip, but we both know she’s addicted to Candy Crush. She’s the highest scorer among all her friends, and she can’t let the title slide. Also, she’s already had two hip replacements. At this point, if she falls, she’s liable to break whatever it is she lands on.
Meredith glances down as if just remembering the phone was in her hand. “Oh, no. It was Helen. She—” She pauses and shakes her head. “Anyway, no. You didn’t interrupt.”
I wonder if she’s upset because she had a bad phone call with Helen or if maybe she’s starting to have regrets about leaving her old life. Helen said it would only take a week or two before she realized her mistake and fled back home.
Either way, it’s not really my business.
I nod toward the stack of supplies. “I’m just unloading a few things. Got you—the shack—an A/C unit this morning.” Her gaze follows to where I’m pointing. “It’s the best one they had.”
“You can take it out of my paycheck,” she says quickly, her words clipped and hard.
I bristle at the response. It’s not exactly the thank you I was looking for. In fact, it sounds like she’s angry with me for helping her out.
“No. I said I’d get you one, so here it is.”
“I hope you didn’t go through any trouble. That thing looks heavy.”
“I can lift a box on my own.”
I don’t know why we’re doing this—why she and I mix like oil and water, why she’s not cheery and upbeat with me like she is with everyone else, why we flare up over stupid shit. We aren’t fighting, but we aren’t exactly playing nice either.
“What’s all that other stuff for?” she asks, pointing to the supplies stacked up neatly beside the shack. “Please don’t say you’re adding on to the farmhouse—that place doesn’t need any more floors to mop.”
A second ago, I’d been excited to tell her my plans for the place. Now, I don’t think I’d be able to stand her reaction. Hell, a part of me wants to load everything back into my truck and drive it right back to the store.
“It’s just building supplies,” I say after clearing my throat, eager to change the subject. “Mind if I install this A/C now? I have other things I need to get to today.”
She nods and steps aside to usher me through the door. I pause on the threshold, shocked to see what it looks like inside. Sure, the shack is still in need of some renovations—there are still gaps in the floorboards and the walls really need new drywall and paint—but she’s done her best to make it a home. There’s a blue rug on the ground that covers most of the floor, and a wooden stool stands beside the twin bed with a delicate antique lamp on top of it. A paperback I saw Edith reading the other day sits face down beside it.
“Did you buy all this with the advance I gave you?”
“Yes,” she answers hesitantly.
I frown, confused.
“Why waste your money?”
What I mean to say is, What’s the point in sprucing up a place you have no plans of living in for much longer? but my words come out twisted and meaner than I intended.
“I found some very good deals, thank you very much.” Then she brushes past, knocking her shoulder into me accidentally (or probably on purpose). She grabs for her sneakers and heads back for the door at an angry pace. “Now if you’re going to get started, I’ll go take a walk.”
I turn to stop her, to smooth over the situation, but the right words fail me. I’m not surprised; that seems to be a running theme with Meredith. Every time I think I’m making headway with her, I end up putting my foot in my mouth one way or another. Part of it has to do with my prejudices, but I see no way around them. Meredith isn’t here for good. One morning I’ll wake up and find her gone just like her husband did, and I see no reason to soften my heart or give her the benefit of the doubt. She might have convinced everyone else in this town to love her, but not me.