Read Hanging by a Thread Online

Authors: Karen Templeton

Hanging by a Thread

Hanging by a Thread
KAREN TEMPLETON

spent her twentysomething years in New York City. Before that, she grew up in Baltimore, then attended North Carolina School of the Arts as a theater major. A RITA
®
Award-nominated author of seventeen novels, she now lives with her husband, a pair of eccentric cats and four of their five sons in Albuquerque, where she spends an inordinate amount of time picking up stray socks and mourning the loss of long, aimless walks in the rain. Visit her Web site at www.karentempleton.com.

Karen Templeton
Hanging by a Thread

This book is dedicated to anyone who's struggling with seemingly impossible decisions, and to anyone who's made a few that have come back to haunt you.
I trust Ellie's story will give you hope.
Or if not hope, at least a good laugh.

And to all the folks on the richmondhillny.com message board…thanks for actually believing I was a writer and not some weirdo stalker, and double thanks for answering what I'm sure were some really eye-rolling questions.

chapter 1

T
hrough a jungle of eyelashes, eyes the color of overcooked broccoli assess the image in front of them. Which would be me, a short, pudgy woman in (mostly) men's clothes, clutching a size eight (regular) Versace suit. Scrambled data is transmitted to Judgment Central while a bloodred, polyurethane smile assures me the saleswoman's only reason for living is to serve me. Whatever galaxy I'm from.

“Would you—” eyes dart from me to suit back to me “—like to try this on?”

An understandable reaction, since we both know I've got a better chance of finding Hugh Jackman in my bed than shoving my butt into this skirt.

I lean forward conspiratorially. “It's for my sister,” I whisper. “For her birthday. A surprise.”

The smile doesn't falter—she's been trained well—but I can't quite read her expression. I'm guessing either pity for my apparently having been dredged from the stagnant end of the
gene pool, or—more likely—seething envy that I'm not
her
sister. Not that I would actually buy my own sister an eight-hundred-dollar anything, but still.

“Oh.” Smile falters a little. “All right. Will that be a charge?” A discreetly tasteful vision in taupe and charcoal, she leads me to the register, her movement all that keeps her from blending completely into her cave-hued surroundings. Why is it that half the sales floors in this city these days make me want to go spelunking instead of shopping?

“No. Cash,” I say, clumping cheerfully behind in my iridescent magenta Jimmy Choo knockoff platform pumps. When we get to the counter, I dig in my grandmother's '70s vintage LV bag for my wallet, from which I coolly extract nine one-hundred-dollar bills and hand them over. I grin, brazenly flashing the dimples.

She cautiously takes the money, as if whatever's tainting it might somehow implicate her, mumbles, “Er, just a minute,” then vanishes. To check that it's not counterfeit, maybe. While I'm waiting, my gaze wanders around the sales floor, checking out both the flaccid, shapeless offerings on display and the equally shapeless women—all of whom put together wouldn't make a decent size 6—circling, considering. The air hums with awe and expectancy. Their breathing quickens, their skin flushes: tops, skirts, dresses are plucked from racks, clutched to nonexistent bosoms, ushered into hushed waiting rooms for a hurried, frenzied tryst. For some, there will be an “Oh, God,
yes!
” (perhaps more than once, if they chose well), the heady rush of fulfillment, transient and illusory though it may be. For others (most, in fact), the encounter will prove a letdown—what seemed so alluring, so enticing at first glance fails to meet unrealistic expectations.

But true lust is never fully sated, and hope inevitably supplants disappointment. Which means that soon—the next day, maybe the day after that—the cruising, the searching, the trysts will begin anew.

Thank God, is all I have to say. Otherwise, schnooks like me would starve to death.

My unwitting partner in crime returns, her smile a little less anxious. Apparently I've passed the test. Or at least my money has.

“Would you…like that gift-wrapped?”

“Just a box, thanks.”

My conscience twinges, faintly, as I watch her lovingly swathe the suit in at least three trees' worth of tissue paper, laying it tenderly in a box imprinted with the store's logo, as if preparing a loved one for burial. The irony touches me. Minutes later, I'm hoofing it back downtown in a taxi, the suit ignorantly, trustingly huddled against my hip.

The taxi reeks of some oppressively expensive perfume, making my contact lenses pucker, making me almost miss the days when cabs smelled comfortingly of stale cigarettes. Opening the window is not an option, however, since Reykjavik is warmer than it is in Manhattan right now. It's that first week after New Year's, when the city, bereft of holiday decorations, looks like an ugly naked man left shivering in an exam room. I take advantage of a traffic snarl at 50th and Broadway to fish my cell phone out of my purse and call home, half watching swarms of tourists trying to decide whether or not to cross against the light. They're so cute I can't stand it.

“Mama!”

I'm immediately sucked back through time and space, not just to Richmond Hill, Queens, but into another dimension entirely. Instead of feeling connected, I feel oddly
dis
connected, that the woman in this taxi is not the person my daughter hears on the other end of the line. In the background, I hear Mr. Rogers reassuring his tiny viewers about something or other (my throat catches—how could Mr. Rogers
die?
). Guilt spurts through me again, sharper this time; I push the box slightly away, spurning it and everything it connotes, as if Fred Rogers
is looking down from Heaven and sorrowfully shaking his head at me.

“Hey, Twink,” I say to the little girl who dramatically altered the course of my life half a decade ago. “Whatcha doing?”

You would think I would know by now not to ask leading questions of loquacious, detail-obsessed five-year-olds.

“I got hungry so I fixed myself a peanut butter sandwich,” Starr says, “but the bread was totally icky so I had cheese and crackers instead, and a pickle, and then I had to pee, and then you called so now I'm talking to you. Oh, and I saw
the
cutest puppy on TV—” a subject she's managed to wedge into every conversation over the past three months “—and Leo said he'd take me for a walk later, if it's warm enough, and you would not
believe
the loud fight those people behind us had this morning—”

I elbow my way through a comma and say, “That's nice, honey…can I talk to Leo for a sec?”

I hear breathing. Then: “So can we?”

“Can we what?”

Breathing turns into a small, pithy, much-practiced sigh. “Get a puppy.”

Considering I want a puppy about as much as I want a lobotomy, I say, “We'll see,” because I'm in a taxi and this is using up my free minutes and while I basically know more about nuclear physics than I do about mothering, I do know what kind of reaction “No, we can't” will bring. And I have neither the minutes nor the strength to deal with the ramifications of “no” today.

Of course, the little breather on the other end of the line is a poignant reminder of the ramifications of “yes,” but there you are.

“Put Leo on,” I say again. Breathing stops, followed by a clunk, followed by heavier, masculine breathing.

“Yes, I'm still alive,” are the first words out of my grandfather's mouth.

“Just checking,” I say, playing along. Sharing the joke. Except my father's father had a quadruple bypass a few years ago. So the joke's not so funny, maybe. I can hear, immortalized through the magic of reruns, King Friday pontificating about something or other. My grandfather is not immortal, however; there will be no reruns of his life, except in my memory. An unreliable medium, as I well know.

“Just checking?” He chuckles. “Three times, you've called today.”

“I worry,” I say, sounding like every woman stretching back to Eve. Whose
real
reaction to Adam's nakedness was probably, “For God's sake, put something on, already! You want to catch your death?”

“You shouldn't worry,” my grandfather says. “It can kill you.”

Black humor is a big thing in my family. A survival tactic, ironically enough. “I'll take that chance.”

Another chuckle; I listen carefully for any sign the man might momentarily drop dead. Never mind he's been healthy as a horse since the operation. But at seventy-eight, he's already bucking the family odds. I mean, one glance at my family medical history and the insurance examiner got this look on her face like she half expected me to keel over in front of her.

With good reason. Not only does our family exhibit a propensity for dying young, but without warning. Well, except for my mother. But other than that, it's hale and hearty one minute, gone the next,
boom.
My mother, at forty, from ovarian cancer. My father at fifty-one, massive heart attack. Grandmother, sixty-three, stroke. Assorted aunts, uncles, third cousins—
boom, boom, boom.
Okay, and one
splat,
but Uncle Archie always had been the black sheep in the family.

“Well,” my grandfather says, amused, “nothing's changed since lunchtime, I'm fine, the baby's fine, everybody's fine. Except maybe you.”

By the way, my graduation present was a burial plot. What can I tell you, the Levines tend to be practical people.

I change the subject. “You fix the Gomezes' leaky faucet?”

My grandfather owns a pair of duplexes. We all live in one, he rents out the two apartments in the other. Sure, they bring in extra cash, but speaking as somebody who finds changing a lightbulb a pain in the butt, I keep thinking he should just sell the place, give over the responsibility to someone else.

“This morning,” he says. “Think maybe I'll switch out their refrigerator, too.”

“What's wrong with their fridge? It can't be more than, what? Ten years old?”

“It's too small. Especially with the new baby coming.”

Which would make their third. Sometimes, I'm surprised Leo even bothers to collect the rent. These aren't tenants, they're family. Not that I don't like the Gomezes—or the Nguyens, in the upstairs apartment—don't get me wrong. Mr. Gomez paints his own apartment, just asks Leo for the paint; and Mrs. Nguyen's window boxes in the summer are the envy of the neighborhood, regular forests of petunias. Besides, the Gomez kids give Starr somebody to play with, on those odd occasions when she's in the mood for other children. It's just…oh, hell, I don't know. I just think he should be free by now, you know?

“Don't worry,” he says. “I can sell the old one, it'll be okay.”

My brain's slipped a cog. “Old what?”

“Refrigerator.”

“Oh.” The taxi driver blats his horn, scaring the crap out of me. Nothing moves, however. “Starr says maybe you'll take her for a walk later?”

“I thought maybe. We've been cooped up in this house too long. It's up in the mid-twenties, I'll make sure she's warm, don't worry.”

But this time, even as I smile, I realize the knot in my gut
isn't anxiety (for once), it's something closer to envy. My grandfather will dress my daughter in her leggings and heavy, puffy coat and mittens and that silly fake fur hat he gave her for Christmas—she will look adorable, very Beatrix Potter—just as he did me when I was her age, and take her on the same walk, up and down the funny little elevated Richmond Hill sidewalks, show her the same things, tell her the same stories. Will she listen as I did? Will she be as enthralled with Leo Levine as I was at her age?

As I still am?

“And I think you should get her that dog,” he says, and the sentimental bubble I'd been floating in goes
pfft.
“We could go to the pound on Saturday, let her pick. Something small.”

I shudder. “Small dogs are yippy. And neurotic.”

“A big dog, then.”

“Like either of us wants to pick up a big dog's poop. Anyway, I probably have to work on Saturday,” I add, which is the truth.

“Again?”

“You know Market Week's coming up. Nikky needs me.”

“Your daughter needs you, too,” he says quietly. “So do I, for that matter.”

I get this funny, tight feeling in my chest. “Oh, come on—you two do just fine without me.”

“That's not the point.” I can hear the smile in his voice. “When you're not around, it's like…like ice cream without the chocolate sauce. Nothing wrong with plain ice cream, plain ice cream is fine. But with chocolate sauce, ah…then it's a
party.

I laugh, which jostles loose the funny feeling, just a little. “Great. Now I'm gonna crave an ice-cream sundae for the rest of the day.”

“So. You won't work on Saturday?”

My smile fades. “I'm sorry. I have to.”

“What kind of life is this, that you can't spend the whole weekend with your daughter?”

“It's
my
life,” I say softly, because what else can I say? “The one where I have to work to support my kid, you know? Like you and Dad did your kids?”

“That was different,” he says, with a deep sadness, like a man watching helplessly from the riverbank as floodwaters wash away everything he's known and accepted as real, solid, indestructible.

“Yes, it was.” Up ahead, traffic finally jars loose. I skid across the slick seat like a pinball as the cabby swerves into what he perceives to be an opening in the next lane. “We'll talk later,” I say, adding, “I'll try to be home by six,” before clapping my phone shut and stowing it back in my bag, shoving that part of my existence right in there with it.

I swear, sometimes I feel like Batman, living two lives. Except I'd look totally stupid in that outfit.

We shoot through Times Square and on down Seventh Avenue like a front-runner in the Daytona 500. Something like three seconds later, the taxi screeches to a halt in front of the building that houses Nicole Katz's showroom and offices, way up in the thirtieth floor penthouse.

The cabby nods his thanks at the hefty tip—I'm very generous with other people's money—and I haul myself and the poor unsuspecting garment out of the cab. I can feel the cabby's eyes glued to my backside as I dodge passersby to get to the revolving door. Considering the amount of clothes I have on, the guy must have some imagination, is all I have to say. Considering how long it's been since I've had anything even remotely resembling sex, I'm not even tempted to take offense.

Thirty stories and a major head rush later, the elevator opens directly onto reception. Chinoiserie for days, lots of black lacquer and reds and yellows, don't ask. I'm sure it was cutting edge in 1978. Sprawled across the wall over the reception desk like a row of stoned Bob Fosse dancers, ridiculously large, gleaming gold letters spell out:

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