The future is a blank page, but not a mystery.
--A Tinker’s Riddle
(Written on the Wall of Wisdom, Waterbird Bait and Grocery, Moses Lake, Texas)
Is it possible for nine months and three days of your life to haunt you forever? Can memories become like restless spirits, their long, thin fingers always reaching, and tugging, and grabbing? Their fingernails, in my case, would be some variation of floral pink, nicely manicured. Perfectly matched to a shade of lipstick and possibly a purse or some other
accessory. Undoubtedly, this is not the norm for personal demons, but try telling them that. They won’t listen, I promise.
There is no escape from those graceful Moses Lake ladies, with their embroidery-adorned pantsuits and their languid Southern drawls. When they whispered in my mind, their sentences rose and fell and rose again, filled with long vowels, padded and powdered with cheerfulness they couldn’t possibly be feeling all the time. They became the stuff of my darkest recurrent nightmares—the kind that reprised the most awkward teenage years and found me wandering the halls of Moses Lake High School with no idea where I was supposed to go, suddenly aware that I’d arrived in my Pooh Bear pajamas, or even worse, I’d forgotten the pajamas altogether. Yet, somehow, I was just now noticing…
Even from thousands of miles away, after the passage of season after season, the High School dream lingered, along with the feeling that somewhere in the tiny town of Moses Lake, Texas, the ladies were still talking about me. “Such an odd little thing,” they were saying, a purposeful twang on the last word morphing it into tha-ang. “All that eyeliner and that tacky, tacky purple lip gloss. Why, those black T-shirts didn’t help her figure, one little bit, I’m tellin’ ye-ew. But how much can you expect, considerin’ what happened?” I wondered if their conversations turned darker, then—if the women whispered behind their hands about things I was never allowed to know. Did they discuss theories, or facts, as they sat at Lakeshore Community Church, making greeting cards, or knitting scarves for orphans, or boxing cans for the food pantry? Did they know what happened?
In the dreams, sometimes I was running toward a door. I heard the ladies on the other side, whispering amongst themselves. I recognized the door--large, white, with heavy, intricate molding. A double door. It was made to open inward, to allow the crowds to funnel through.
Then the door grew smaller, and it was a cellar door. It was plain and brown. There was a spider on a web in the corner. I reached for the handle.
I’d awaken in a sweat at that point, still hearing the echoes of the ladies chattering in the dusty corners of my mind.
Their voices found ways to carry into the daylight, sometimes. Occasionally, I heard them talking to me, those Moses Lake ladies, whispering in my ear. Suga’, now, sit up straight, they’d admonish as I hunched over the table in some meeting, bleary-eyed while watching a computer create a building in 3D from an architectural rendering I’d been tweaking all night. Oh, Heather, hon, put that foot down. A lady never crosses her legs at the knee. Darlin’, don’t swing your toe like that. Some boy might think you’re a hussy. Mercy! Didn’t your mama teach you any-thang?
How, I wondered, is it possible for such a small part of your childhood to linger so persistently? Do we choose the ghosts that haunt us, or do they choose us? If we choose them, shouldn’t we be able to banish them?
The questions were scrolling through my head again as I sat in a meeting room, watching Mel generate a virtual walkthrough of a big box retail store. He was explaining how customer traffic would flow, how the layout allowed for excellent point-of-sale potential. He laughed and said, “It’s about capturing those impulse buys.” Leaning across the table, he inclined his head toward the Japanese contingent on the client side, as if he were sharing valuable trade secrets with them. “Of course, we all know that sixty-six percent of buying decisions are made in the store, and of those, fifty-three percent are pure impulse buys. Our research shows that with this layout, your percentages could increase to…” he paused, looked down at his notes, tapped the tabletop with the eraser of his pencil.
I was only vaguely aware of the glitch in his presentation. I’d had the Moses Lake dream again last night. The past was floating like a cellophane overlay in front of the video screen, scenes dripping and blending with the reflections from the floor-to ceiling windows behind me. It was raining outside again, typical for Seattle. Not the best weather for a critical presentation that could mean millions.
I’d dreamed all the way to putting my hand on the cellar doorknob last night. I’d curled up on a yoga mat behind my desk to catch a couple hours’ sleep before the office came to life, and suddenly there were the doors. The white ones, then the brown one.
It had been a while since I’d seen the door. Maybe a year or more since I’d awakened with a start and moved through the day wondering what really happened at the bottom of those cellar steps.
“Heather, did you pull together the rest of that research?” Mel glanced my way expectantly, as if he hadn’t already been given the numbers. My boss was slipping. Seven years ago, when I’d started at CTI, Mel was a lion, a giant of retail and industrial branding and facilities design.
“Sure, of course,” I said, and flipped through the paperwork to save face for Mel. In reality, the numbers and I were on intimate terms. “The consumer research indicates a potential seventeen percent increase in impulse purchases, as compared with your existing stores. Considering that we’re discussing stores that are already running at a, brisk I might add, average of $350 sales gross per square foot, that increase would be…” Mel caught my eye and gave me a look that warned me not to start running calculations in my head and spouting figures. This was his meeting. Letting the papers settle back into place, I finished with, “Significant, of course.”
Mel took over the meeting again, but two of the principals were clearly more interested in hard facts than Mel’s sales talk about Environments that perform and Brand iconography. Mel was pushing hard, borderline desperate, but after seven years of paddling in a man’s wake, I understood his nuances. It’d been over a year since Mel had brought a project of substantial size into the firm, and partners must produce.
It was hard to know how to feel, sitting there watching Mel struggle to revive the old magic. On the one hand, Mel had plucked me off the bottom rung of the ladder seven years ago. On the other hand, every time I tried to climb the ladder, Mel’s foot was squarely on my head. I wanted to move up, to eventually achieve what he had achieved—project leader, junior partner, partner. I’d never get there with Mel in the way.
My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I slid it out to look, glanced while everyone was watching virtual customers move through stainless steel checkout lanes. The customers started at a normal pace, then gradually sped up, buzzing by like bumble bees exiting a hive, having sacrificed nectar for shopping carts filled with fifty-three plus percent impulse buys. They smiled and chatted as they zipped through the virtual door, moving so fast, they never even knew what hit them.
The text message on my cell was from Richard. Problem. Call me ASAP.
The phone vibrated with an incoming call as I was tucking it away. Why was Richard calling now? He knew how long these meetings could take. One advantage of dating a guy who was in the real estate business was that he understood. When clients come to town, the clients come first.
I took a peek at the screen. I didn’t recognize the number, but I knew the area code. 510. California. My mother, undoubtedly. Suddenly, Richard’s text message made sense.
My foot vibrated under the table as the meeting slowly worked toward a close. When it was over, I gathered my files and politely excused myself from the room. Somehow, Mel and I ended up on the elevator together anyway.
“They left quickly.” He sit-leaned on the handrail, his head falling against the wall as if he couldn’t hold it up one more second.
“It was a long meeting.” But we both knew what a quick exit usually meant. “They won’t find a more comprehensive proposal than ours, though.”
“Guess we’ll see.” He sighed, letting his eyes sink closed, like he was already trying to figure out how he’d survive if we didn’t get this Itega contract.
The doors opened, and I hesitated. Watching him there, crumpled against the wall, I felt the need to say something more. I pressed the elevator button, holding the doors open, so as not to be ferried to the executive suites along with Mel.
“It’s a good proposal,” I offered. “Slick design. Perfect fundamentals.”
He didn’t react.
Like a pocket puppy, I stood there pathetically waiting for a pat on the head, for some acknowledgement of the countless hours I’d put into the proposal, of the devotion I’d given to managing all aspects of the design package. Finally, there wasn’t much choice but to step through the door onto my floor. The one nicely above the designers in their Spartan cubicles, and squarely below the posh executive level.
“What’s going on with that thing in Texas?” Mel’s question followed me. I pushed the button to open the doors again.
“The thing in Texas. The processing plant… Proxica Foods. What’s happening with that?” Mel cracked an eye open. “Your project.” Was it my imagination, or did the emphasis on your come with an underlay of resentment—an insinuation that I was overstepping my bounds by insisting that, if I could bring this project in, I would be the project leader.
“Everything seems to be right on target. The principals at Proxica are happy with the design concept. The property deals are in the final stages. They’re looking at a state-of-the-art processing plant and six corporately-owned production farms—three for poultry, and two for grain crops.” The phone message crossed my mind, and an uncomfortable sensation crawled underneath my favorite blue blazer. The biggest event in my career, and I was banking on something that involved my mother….
Mel’s lips pursed, smacking slightly, as if he were tasting the potential of the deal. Maybe, now that the Itega bid had soured a bit, Mel was looking to take over my Texas project. Would he really do that?
“Keep me apprised,” he said, rubbing his chest as the elevator doors slowly closed.
“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” I answered, trying to lend a lightness to the conversation. The minute the doors were closed, I raced toward my office, digging my phone out of my pocket as I went, thinking of the Texas deal, and my mother.
A pair of interns, chatting as they passed by with mailing tubes, stopped talking and sidled to the wall as I passed, clutching the tubes like Roman shields. I had the momentary pang of regret that comes from knowing someone finds you humorless and slightly frightening, but it quickly passed. Interns rotated through the firm constantly. If they were here to learn architecture and design in the real world, they might as well see how things really were. No point filling them with the warm fuzzies. It was a long, hard climb before you got to take on a project of your own. Even then, there were customers and suppliers and a half-dozen levels of management to deal with. Those fresh-faced college kids were better off seeing the truth now, and then deciding how badly they wanted it.
I dialed Richard’s number while rounding the corner into my office. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked, an odd little sing-song in my voice. Maybe I just felt the need to be girly and cute, so as not to send him scurrying, like the interns. In the dating world intimidation is not considered a desirable quality. Normal men tended to see me as slightly work-obsessed and hyper-focused. Or, as my friend and former roommate, Trish, liked to put it, married to my iphone.
But Richard was as normal as they came. Normal, and successful, and he liked me. He’d never been divorced, and he was with a respectable law firm. An especially rare find among the over-thirty set, where pickings became slim.
He sighed into the phone, and I knew the news was not good. I loved him for hesitating a minute, as if he felt the need to break it to me gently. In general, Richard hated conflict, which was probably why he was in real estate law, and not prosecuting murder cases. “Well, I know you said she was unpredictable, but…”
I didn’t even wait for him drag through the rest of the sentence. Poor Richard. I should never have brought him into this. My mother was probably lighting incense in his office, hanging crystals, or reciting dark, dramatic, obscure poetry by some writer only English professors had heard of. “What happened? Did she sign the offer?”
“She’s not here. Not coming… well, not today, anyway, she said.”
“What?” My voice echoed into the corridor, and I closed the office door, keeping the conversation inside. No one knew about the Texas project except Mel, Richard, and the real estate broker who was quietly shopping for land he would then resell to Proxica for their new facilities. Proxica had insisted that their expansion plans be kept confidential. Strange things happen when communities find out that a company with deep pockets is sniffing around. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I wish I were.” Richard sounded frustrated, tired, uncharacteristically irritable. He’d put in countless extra hours on this real estate deal and managed to get my family more than the property was worth. He’d sorted out the convoluted deeds for the land that had been in my family since just after the Civil War. Once the property was in Proxica’s possession, my part of the project came in—designing Proxica’s new flagship facility, where big pieces of raw meat would become little pieces of cooked meat, neatly sliced and packaged in deli bags for people like me, who don’t like to think about where meat actually comes from.
“Where is she?” Within reach, I wished. If my mother were within reach, I would… I would… What? What, exactly, would I do? Talking to my mother was like talking to one of those gauzy, diaphanous scarves the street vendors sell in India. Anything I said would go right through, my breath barely creating a ripple in the fabric.
“In Texas, apparently.” I could hear Richard typing on his computer as he replied.
“In Texas? Why?” My mother hated Texas, Moses Lake, and the portion of the family farm that had passed into her hands after my father’s death. “Is Uncle Herbert all right? Uncle Charley?” A mental scenario materialized in which my dad’s uncles had driven to the family farm, fifteen miles outside Moses Lake, and were holed up with shotguns in hand. Even though they both now lived at Uncle Herbert’s place in town, they had grown up at the farm and were sentimental about it.
“As far as I know, your uncles are fine. Your mother is down there with them, apparently. She said they were talking about some things.”
“What things?” I heard the high-pitched whistling sound of a pressure cooker about to blow. No wonder Richard was irritated. He’d worked so hard to convince the broker to take not only the farm property, but to make a package bid for various other real estate holdings, as well. Altogether, my great uncles owned four plots of land and two businesses. Uncle Herbert ran the Harmony Shores Funeral home in town, and Uncle Charley was famous for the fried catfish at his floating restaurant, Catfish Charley’s.
Now that both Uncle Herbert and Uncle Charley were in their eighties, the family farmland and the businesses had to go. That was all there was to it. Uncle Herbet and Uncle Charley had made plans to relocate to Oklahoma to be near my father’s cousin, Donny, and his progeny. Selling the property all at once would allow them to leave Moses Lake behind in one clean sweep.
Why had my mother suddenly decided to swirl her big toe in the pool, muddying the waters? She couldn’t possibly have gotten wind of Proxica’s plans to acquire the farm property, and, quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine why she would care. She’d hated Moses Lake even before we lived there, and she never wanted to see it again after we left. If my father’s portion of the family farm hadn’t been squarely landlocked between Uncle Herbert’s property and Uncle Charlie’s, it would have been gone shortly after my dad’s passing, sixteen years ago. Now, the old dairy farm would be quietly recommissioned as a Proxica location, I would get my first design project, and the town of Moses Lake would see sorely-needed new jobs. It was a win-win, if you didn’t count the fact that everything hinged on my mother’s cooperation.
“I’ll call and talk to her about it,” I said, and then apologized profusely to Richard, privately admiring his composure. He was, of course, accustomed to issues like this. I’d met him while testifying as an expert witness in a case. He was the lawyer for the opposition. My side won. He didn’t hold it against me, fortunately.
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have her here tomorrow.” I had that feeling you get on your first ski trip when you realize you’ve accidentally turned onto a double black diamond slope.
“The drop dead date on the offer is a week away. The broker offer expires February 15th.”
February 15th. February 15th…
The day after Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day was less than a week away, and Richard and I hadn’t even talked about it? That was odd, considering that Richard was a planner, and in Seattle, restaurant reservations on Valentine’s Day were a must. Maybe this little silence wasn’t purely accidental. Maybe Richard had something special in mind, a surprise.
Could there be a certain little trinket attached to the hush-hush Valentines Day… maybe something that comes in a little ring-sized box? We’d been dating six months. Having turned thirty-four last month, alone in my apartment with a cat that wasn’t even my own, I was feeling the nudge. Richard was six years older than me, ready to find someone and settle down. He’d said so sometime early in our relationship. It was one of the things I liked about him. Neither of us had time to play the games that went with dating.
I realized he was waiting for me to reply on the broker issue. “So, the offer expires the day after Valentine’s Day, then, right?” Hint, hint.
He didn’t pick up on the nuance, unfortunately. “Yes. Right. February 15th.”
“Got it.” First things first. Right now, both of us were focused on the property deal. Between all the confusion about easements, lost deeds, discrepancies in ancient surveys, and my mother’s failure to update the deed after my father’s death, we’d come way too close to letting the offer expire.
I took a patience breath, then let it out. “Don’t worry.” Which, of course, is what people say when they are worried. “If I have to go down there and drag my mother back here myself, I’ll take care of it.” The words held a false sense of bravado, like a threat from a schoolyard bully who’s really afraid to fight. The last, last, last part of my life I ever planned to revisit were those terrible months in Moses Lake. I’d shaken off the Texas dust sixteen years ago, and nothing short of the apocalypse would ever drag me back there again....