ack in Longely again, Bernadette Simmons thought as the Lincoln Town Car she was riding in sped up Oak. Could be the title of a song. Only this time she wasn't coming home for a vacation. She was coming to stay. At least for a little while.
She tried not to think of that whole
You Can't Go Home Again
thing as she took a sip of her coffee and looked out the window. At five forty-five in the morning, the shops on Oak Street were shuttered. A calico cat trotted towards an alleyway. It was the only thing moving.
“Works for me,” Bernie muttered to herself.
As far as she was concerned, the fewer people around to witness her less than triumphal return, the better. Bad enough to have to explain to her sister without repeating the explanation to friends and acquaintances. That would come soon enough.
“Stop,” she told the driver, pointing to a store on her right. “No. A little farther up. Yes. Here. In front of the place with the green-and-white-striped awning.”
As the driver pulled up to the curb, Bernie peered at the shop through her sunglasses. It looked perfect. As always. She drained her coffee cup and crushed it in her hand. The geraniums in the planters on either side of the shop door provided just the right splash of color against the dark green storefront. The display windows gleamed.
There was even a robin perching on the arm of the wrought iron and wood park bench outside the store. It was all so . . . so . . . Bernie rubbed the cluster of stars she had tattooed on her forearm while she searched for the correct word. So quaint. So early 1900's, she decided as watched the driver adjust his turban.
“You will be giving me $213.35 now,” he announced, turning towards her.
“I have to get it,” Bernie told him.
“You don't have this money?”
“I will,” Bernie told him.
The driver scowled.
“Where I come from, people do not hire someone if they do not have the means to pay,” he huffed.
Bernie leaned over and patted the man on the shoulder.
“You see. That's what makes America so great. We borrow.”
The driver threw his hands up. He was still muttering when Bernie opened the door and stepped out onto the pavement. The sweet smell of the early June morning mingled with the faint odor of the river a mile away, but Bernie didn't notice as she marchedâwith a slight wobble since her wedges were four inches highâtowards the store. She didn't even flinch the way she usually did when she saw the gold letters spelling out
A Little Taste of Heaven
on the shop door. She was too busy thinking about what she was going to say to her sister.
She took a deep breath and knocked. It would just be her luck that Libby had slept in. That she wasn't baking in the kitchen. Which meant she'd have to go around to the side entrance and chance waking up her father.
She should have kept the store and house keys on her key chain, not put them in a drawer so she could fit all her stuff in that evening bag. She knocked again. A moment later she heard footsteps. A few seconds after that she saw the outline of her sister through the door shade and listened to the sound of the lock clicking.
As Libby opened up, Bernie couldn't help noticing that her sister was looking decidedly matronly. She'd gained at least fifteen pounds and stopped streaking her hair since Bernie had seen her at Christmas. There were smudges of flour on her cheeks and along the front of her T-shirt.
“Oh, my God,” Libby cried, putting her hands up to her mouth when she saw who it was. “What are you doing here?”
“I'm paying you a surprise visit.”
Bernie grimaced. “I'll tell you later. I need two fifty-five for the car.”
“That car.” Bernie gestured towards the Lincoln Town Car parked outside.
Libby's eyes widened. “You took a limo from Kennedy?”
“It's not really a limo. Strictly speaking.”
“It's close enough.” Libby rubbed the corner of one of her eyes with her knuckle. “You could have taken Metro North. Or called me. I could have gotten someone to pick you up and saved that money. I mean two hundred fifty-five dollars . . .”
“Look, Libby,” Bernie said, cutting her off. “I'm tired. I've slept about two hours in the last twenty-four. Can we not discuss this now?”
“But . . .”
“Really. The driver's waiting for his money.”
Libby sniffed. Her mouth pursed in that expression of disapproval Bernie knew so well.
“I hope I have it.”
“This is why God invented ATMs. And don't worry, I'll pay it back.”
“Right,” Libby muttered just loud enough for her sister to hear.
“I will,” Bernie insisted.
As her sister went back inside the store, Bernie turned and waved at the driver.
One more minute,
she mouthed. The driver didn't wave back. Libby returned a moment later with a fistful of one, fives, and tens in her hand. All of the store's petty cash, Bernie presumed as she took the bills and paid off the driver.
“No luggage?” Libby asked when Bernie returned.
“The airline lost it,” Bernie lied.
She nodded. She was too tired to go into it now.
“I've got my mascara,” Bernie quipped. “What else does a girl need?”
“A little common sense.”
“That was a joke,” Bernie said as her sister put her hands on her hips.
“I know what is was, but what I really want to know is when are you going to tell me what's going on?”
“Can we go inside first?”
Libby gave a half bow and put out her hand.
“Be my guest.”
“How's Dad?” Bernie asked as she stepped into the store.
Libby closed the door behind her.
“He'd probably do better if he went out.”
Libby made a face.
“You try and convince him of that,” she told Bernie. “I've given up.”
Bernie sighed. “And how are you doing?” she asked.
“Good. Of course, it would be easier if I had some reliable help, someone who had a stake in the shop,” Libby said, staring straight at Bernie, who got busy studying the sink. “My God,” she said, noticing the tattoo. “When did you get that?”
“Two months ago.”
Libby shook her head.
“Because I felt like it.”
“I just don't get it,” Libby said.
“I know you don't.” Bernie laughed and changed the subject. “Everything looks great. As always.” And she indicated the cooler by the counter and all the shelves stocked with high-end goods with a wave of her hand. “How's the catering coming?”
“I have a big job this evening.”
“I can help if you'd like.”
Libby put her hand over her chest. “Be still, my heart.”
Bernie could feel herself flush. “Do you think we could maybe not fight?”
Libby looked chagrined. “I'm sorry.” She gave Bernie a hug. “This catering job is driving me crazy.” Then she put her hands on Bernie's shoulders and held her at arm's length while she studied her face.
“What?” Bernie said. “What's the matter?”
“Joe's the reason you're here, isn't it?” Libby said.
“Can I get a cup of coffee before we get into this?”
Bernie followed Libby into the kitchen. It had always been her favorite room. Her mother had set it up when she'd opened the store. Bernie fingered the kitchen witch hanging from the window. It had been there for as long as she could remember. So were the pictures of her mother's mother and father on the far wall. When Bernie was little, she'd thought they watched over her.
The kitchen was compact, without an inch of wasted space, yet two or more people in here could turn out a picnic for two hundred without stepping on each other's toes. A kitchen designer who'd come in had offered her mother a job with his firm, but she'd refused, telling him she preferred to be available to her family.
Now, all the counters were piled high with food in various stages of preparation. “So what's the event?” Bernie asked as she poured herself a cup of coffee out of the carafe sitting in the corner and took a sip. Whatever else you could say about Libby, she made a good cup of coffee. Fresh ground beans. Water at the proper temperature. Unlike the coffee Joe made, which despite his name, was barely drinkable.
“Ethiopian?” she asked appreciatively.
“Nice, isn't it? My supplier gave me a sample. I'm going to serve it at the reunion tonight and see what people think.”
“The Seventeenth Annual Clarington High School Reunion.”
Bernie grimaced. “God, is it that long ago?”
“It is for me. Depressing, isn't it?”
The Breakfast Club
was on TV the other night.” Bernie sang a few of bars of “Don't You Forget About Me.” “Remember? That was my prom theme.”
“How could I forget? You went around singing it for three months straight.”
“Let's not exaggerate. So how come you got this job anyway? Usually you do smaller stuff.”
“Working with her must be fun.”
“Oh, it is.” Libby folded her arms across her chest. “It's just wonderful. Like taking a field trip to the ninth circle of hell. And it gets even better. The guest of honor is Lionel Wrenkoski, aka the great Laird Wrenn.”
Bernie groaned. “He's such a . . .”
“Believe me, I know, but what I really want to know is why you're showing up here at five forty-five in the morning with no money and no luggage.”
“I told you the airline lost it.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“It happens all the time.”
“Not to someone who makes a fetish of never checking her bags through.”
Bernie took another sip of her coffee.
“Can't a person change her mind?”
“All right then. How about because I wanted to see my dad and my sister?”
Libby rolled her eyes. “Spare me. Oh, my God.” A look of panic crossed her face. “You didn't kill Joe, did you? You didn't kill him and run away?”
“Don't be stupid,” Bernie snapped, although she'd certainly felt like it. “It's nothing that dramatic. We just had a fight, that's all.”
“It must have been one hell of a fight.”
“Why don't you like him?”
“I already told you. He's a sleaze.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I do.”
“That's not an answer.”
“Sure it is. I felt that way about the last guy you were dating too, and I was right. You know, the one that went around yelling
and clicking his heels.”
“Of course he yelled
and clicked his heels. He was a flamenco dancer.”
“He was a bigamist from Boise, Idaho.”
Bernie started to giggle. “So he was a little absentminded.”
Libby giggled too.
“When the police arrested him he tried to climb over the stone wall in back of my apartmentâin those tight pants of his.” Bernie laughed. “They ripped down the middle. And then my neighbor's Maltese ran out and started pulling at the cuff. And Frank was trying to shake him off and the Maltese just stayed on.” Bernie wiped a tear from her eye. “The police had to pry the dog off.”
“I wish I'd seen it.”
“I wish you had too. His first wife came down and bailed him out. Go figure.” Bernie stopped laughing and picked up a sprig of coriander that was lying on the counter and sniffed it. “It's amazing how you either love this stuff or hate it. In Mexico . . .”
Libby held up her hand. “Bernie, tell me what happened.”
Bernie shrugged. “It's not a big deal really. I just walked into the apartment and found Joe in bed with Tanya.”
Libby put her hands to her mouth.