Laura twisted around to look at the bar. “Where’s Helen?”
Bear grumbled, “Yeah, where is that woman? Bar won’t tend itself.”
“Don’t know,” Sully said, “and I don’t care to know.” There was a saying for women like Helen: a mess in a dress. He’d spent years trying to find some inner peace, and getting embroiled in the dramas of his coworkers wasn’t high on his list.
The man seated next to Bear at the bar grumbled, “Give the woman a break. I hear her husband’s a real son of a bitch.”
Deputy Marshall McGinn had been seated at the end of the bar, and he stood to put on his jacket. “It’s morning yet, Bear. Pour your own damned coffee. Or Sully can pour it for you.”
Sully shot him a snarling look. “Aren’t you on duty?”
“Watch out,” Sorrow said. “Or Marshall might give you a ticket next time he sees you.”
“Just look at him funny and he’ll give you a ticket,” another said. “Ain’t that right, Deputy?”
Marshall only shook his head at that, and a round of laughter followed him out of the tavern. McGinn was a by-the-book sort of deputy. Former military, with an honorable discharge after getting wounded in Iraq, he took his job in law enforcement more seriously than some folks in Sierra Falls deemed necessary.
Sully went behind the bar to pour the women their drinks. There was no need to ask what they were having—the older ones always had iced tea, and the younger ones their diet colas. The women’s chatter resumed, and he gave it half an ear.
His mind was on one thing: Marlene Jessup’s perfume. It beat the smell of fry grease any day of the week.
Marlene watched Tom as he walked to the bar. The way he’d looked at her…it’d been a look. And she hadn’t had one of those looks in years.
She’d sworn off men. She was going to live as an independent woman who followed her own passions. So if all that was true, then why was she sneaking a peek at him in return?
Ruby leaned in. “If you ask me, it’s not right, not showing up for work. That Helen’s a fast woman. Lord knows where she’s off to.” The woman’s conspiratorial whisper hadn’t been a whisper at all.
“You hush.” Marlene nudged her aunt’s arm. “That’s not our business.”
Pearl ignored her, adding, “Doesn’t pay to be a fast woman.”
At mention of her mother’s name, Marlene felt her cheeks go hot. She looked at her mother as she said, “Good on Mama for getting out of Sierra Falls and living a little.”
Marlene’s grandfather, Frederick Bose Kidd, had been a pinched old tough-as-nails preacher, and he’d raised the Kidd sisters with a heavy hand and a hefty dose of brimstone. It was no wonder they were all spinsters.
Her aunt pressed on and said with a definitive nod, “Fast living is what gave our Emerald the Alzheimer’s.”
But Laura only laughed. “So…having sex before marriage gives you Alzheimer’s in your later years?”
Marlene wanted to say something to hush such inappropriate talk, but froze when she saw that Laura’s comment had brought an unlikely, matching smile to Sorrow’s face. Such sisterly goodwill was just too valuable to censor.
“Emerald’s the one who frittered away her youth,” Pearl said. She and Ruby looked like a matched pair of bookends, shaking their heads in judgment.
Laura looked from Emerald to the other women, amazement on her face. Ma was wearing her usual pleasantly blank expression. “She’s sitting right here.”
Little did Laura know that she and Sorrow sounded just as callous when they fought. Apparently every generation of sisters had its fair share of trouble.
“She doesn’t listen anymore,” Ruby said. “Fast living took its toll.”
Marlene couldn’t keep it in any longer. “Good heavens,” she erupted, “don’t say such things. That’s your sister you’re talking about. And my mother.”
“What’s that, dear?” Mama asked, a smile in her voice. The old woman had spent a lifetime bearing her sisters’ judgment with a mischievous good humor that never seemed to flag. Even now, even with the senility that encroached more each day, she still wore that smile.
Marlene fought the urge to hop up and hug her. Instead, she reached over and put a napkin under Mama’s glass of iced tea where it’d sweat a puddle onto the table. One day soon she’d need to put her in a home. It was the hardest decision she’d ever faced. Some days Ma was the same woman as always, kind and playful. But other days, it was like a part of her was missing. The mind was a funny thing, solid but with blank spots, like Swiss cheese.
Edith finally joined in, speaking with an uncharacteristic edge. “Pearl, Ruby, you’re sounding like your father.”
Ruby sat erect in her chair, looking prim as ever. “Emerald was the one who ran off. Not us.” Her aunt was as stubborn as the day was long, and Marlene wished for once she were disrespectful enough to tell her so.
“Met some man. In Los An-ge-les.” Pearl said, elongating the words. “Got herself in trouble.”
Laura touched her shoulder to Sorrow’s, whispering, “Seriously? Emerald went to LA?”
Sorrow nodded. “Word is, she used to party with Olivia de Havilland.”
Marlene had to unlock her jaw to speak. “You ladies are just jealous.”
She put up with a lot, but this was getting to be too much. She’d used what meager nest egg she had to wall off the porch so the women could have a TV room. She’d put off vacations, and trips, and lunches with friends, always taking a backseat to what her aunts and mother might need. And it had gotten to be too much.
Tom hustled from behind the bar with the tray. “How ’bout some iced tea for you ladies?” He caught and held her eye. There was an earnest look on his face. He seemed anxious to change the topic. For her sake.
She pulled her shoulders back, suddenly self-aware. Earlier, he’d told her she looked lovely. She felt his continued scrutiny and wished she’d gone to the restroom to touch up her makeup before sitting down.
The thought had her gaze breaking from his. What was she doing, flirting? The man’s nickname was Sully, for goodness sake.
“Sully!” Bear’s bellowing voice rose stopped the chatter. “What the hell are you doing? I don’t pay you to pour drinks. Is that something burning? Get on those burgers, man. Beef ain’t cheap.”
“On it.” Sully was back in the kitchen in a flash, but not before Marlene heard him whisper, “I never burned a damned burger in my life.”
He returned a few minutes later with a handful of red plastic baskets, carrying orders of burgers and fries, a couple of chicken clubs, and one grilled cheese.
Marlene couldn’t resist one more exchange. When she caught his eye, she said, “Look at you, Tom. Serving the women. What will Bear say?”
“I don’t give a good God damn what the man says.” His delivery was deadpan, but the wicked look he gave her made her giggle.
She covered her mouth. When had she last giggled? Trying for a little poise, she said, “Cooking, tending bar, and now this? Seems to me you need a day off.”
Her mother looked up at Sully as he served her a club sandwich. The powder on her face had separated, settling into her deep wrinkles, but Mama’s smile was just as bright. “Aren’t you a gentleman?”
He tipped his chin. “A table of gentle ladies requires no less.”
Apparently, she was flirting with the man. She was out of practice, but it felt good.
He put her grilled cheese before her. “More tea for you, Marlene?”
“Any more and I’ll float away.” She made her smile broad and confident, eager to show Sully and the world that her ex-husband was a fool.
Sully put Laura’s lunch in front of her. “Eat up,” he told her, giving the girl’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’m watching you, kid. You need to live on more than just Diet Coke and carrot sticks. You’re wasting away to nothing.”
The man was considerate. He noticed things.
He gave Marlene one last look, and she gave him her most pleasant smile. Maybe she could have a man in her life and her interests, too.
When he went back into the kitchen, Marlene got down to business. “Sorrow, did you bring the letters?”
“I did,” she said proudly, and began to hand a small stack to each woman.
“Those letters belong to the family,” Bear said from his perch at the bar.
Sully poked his head from out of the pass-through. “Bear Bailey. Give the girl a break.”
Marlene couldn’t agree more. Even when Sorrow was just a kid, she’d had those wise eyes that betrayed her as the type who felt responsibilities down to her core. Marlene had known then that someday the girl would suffer for it, taking on chores she didn’t have time for, running errands for folks who, given an inch, would take a mile. Sorrow’s was a dependable nature, and such a thing sometimes led a woman to betray her own heart.
Laura rolled her eyes. “Why does Sorrow need a break? Just because she has the same name doesn’t mean those letters belong only to her.” She turned her attention back to the table. “It’s time to plan, and you ladies need to forget about your past festivals. The Buck Larsen Fair is going to be big.”
“Yes,” Sorrow said with exaggerated patience, “a Buck Larsen festival is exactly what we’ve been talking about. Before you came.”
“I think we should get the lodge involved,” Laura said. “Run a special weekend rate. Include discount festival tickets or something.”