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by Marianne Banks
Love has kept Avola LeFebre and May Hammond together for over thirty years, but as far as Avola is concerned, the whole world has just gone crazy.
When one of the Keepsake Self Storage units becomes a mysterious crime scene, May’s son abruptly leaves town. But instead of Avola finally being able to share a home with May, the scheming Vera promptly horns her way in. And then the young, way too friendly paramedic Lisa moves in too!
Seems like there’s room under May’s roof for everyone but Avola—and then May seems set on gallivanting across the country in search of her son. With both of them looking at seventy in the rearview mirror, it’s too late to change, isn’t it?
Lambda Literary Review
Tornado-like whirlwind of emotion and chaos... What appears at first to be a crazy "Keystone Cops" type of madcap folly is deceiving. Slowly, the path winds back on itself to become a study in the human condition, and all the ways people seek or eschew healing. Banks has given us a deviously zany story... as the tale progresses, a new story is revealed about deep wounds of the psyche and the harm that can be done in living for appearances.
More Praise for Marianne Banks
GCLS Goldie Awards: Growing Up Delicious — Finalist, Dramatic/General Fiction.
Lambda Literary Review: Banks... a light touch and a heavy dose of humor!
May Hammond stood on the dike overlooking the Connecticut River and wondered what was floating in the water. It was caught in a tree beached on the shore a few months back during a particularly violent thunderstorm. It couldn’t be a body could it? Too bad she hadn’t brought her binoculars. She wondered if she could make it down there. The grade was kind of steep. Maybe she should call the police but she didn’t want to be accused of being a hysterical old lady thinking she’d seen a body when it might turn out to be nothing more than a trash bag full of clothes.
Darn it all but she just didn’t trust herself anymore. On her last birthday she’d turned eighty-three and generally felt fine. Her eyes were as blue as they’d ever been but now seemed to require glasses for everything, not just reading. Thankfully her hair was still thick though as white as dandelion fuzz. It was her knees that caused the greatest trouble, they just weren’t what they used to be. The last thing she needed was to fall in the river. She had plans later with Avola and she had a few things to do around the house before that. In her younger days she wouldn’t have hesitated. Things were different at this stage. She’d just go home and call the authorities, have breakfast, and let them handle it.
* * *
May could see from the dishes in the sink that her son, Earl, had had cereal for breakfast, Raisin Bran from the look of the crumbs on the counter. She popped a sugary raisin in her mouth. Would it ever be possible to get him to put his breakfast things in the dishwasher?
Just as she put the kettle on to boil she noticed the flash of a car pulling into the driveway. Gosh darn it. Now who could be here? She squinted through the crack in the kitchen curtains. It looked like Vera Henderson. What the gracious would bring Vera by on a Friday morning? Vera always cleaned her house on Fridays, no matter what. That kind of cleanliness tired May out. Not that she didn’t appreciate a well-kept home but Vera took it a step, well a lot of steps, too far. Any woman who stripped and waxed her kitchen floor every week didn’t have imagination for the more enjoyable aspects of life.
“What brings you out so early?” May asked, opening her kitchen door just as Vera raised her hand to knock.
Vera burst into tears.
After finding the Kleenex and helping Vera out of her overcoat, which was too warm for the weather, and getting her aspirin and pouring them both a cup of tea and then remembering Vera needed cream and sugar, after all that Vera said, “My Hoover gave up the ghost.”
Vera’s Hoover was a relic from the 1950s when Vera was raising her eight children. Vera’s husband, Chester, was a devout Catholic who believed in habitual fornication without benefit of prophylactics.
“Do you think it can be fixed?” May asked, thinking it unlikely, as there weren’t repairmen around anymore, let alone someone old enough to have ever seen a Hoover Canister with a roar like a cornered bear.
“Oh, May, I don’t know. I plugged it in like usual and turned it on and it was working as good as ever. All of a sudden I smelled something burning. You know that electrical smell? I figured I vacuumed up some panty hose or something when the wall outlet exploded.” Vera took a shuddering breath. “Next thing I knew, my drapes had caught fire. I ran to the phone and dialed 911 but you know that old rotary phone I have? It’s been acting funny lately and it cut out on me after the 91. I had to dial three times before I could get the 911 out.”
May realized she should have made a pot of tea. Usually one cup was enough but she had a feeling that wasn’t going to be the case today.
“By the time I made the lady on the phone understand my draperies were gone and the fire was working on that rag rug I made out of Chester’s old tweed suits, she told me to get out of the house. I just had time to grab my coat, purse and bag of crocheting.”
So much for keeping a clean house, May thought. “How extensive is the damage?”
“Lots of smoke and water damage but the firemen were able to keep it all from going up in flames. I’ll call my insurance company after nine o’clock; I don’t imagine they’re open before then.”
“This is terrible news. Would you like some cinnamon toast, Vera? You need fortification.”
“Thank you, May. But, what I really need is a place to stay. Could I use your guest room?”
* * *
Auction day at Keepsake Self Storage always brought out the weirdos. Fortunately Earl Hammond didn’t mind weirdos. Good thing too because there was a bunch of them milling around the auctioneer, Bill Owens, like chickens pecking for grubs.
“Pursuant to Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 105A, Section 3…”
Earl slurped his coffee and listened to the auctioneer drone on. Bill was a stickler for doing things by the book. Even if everybody there had been to an auction before.
“…Unit number three-thirteen…”
Earl stepped forward and used his master key. He opened the door and stepped back so the prospective buyers could see what was visible. It was against the law to open any boxes or containers but nothing prevented them from shining high-powered flashlights over the contents.
“I see an air-conditioner and some pretty nice cedar boards. A ten-speed bike and a pair of hip boots,” Bill intoned, craning his neck. Before Bill became an auctioneer he had been a regular, bidding at auctions when a unit’s contents looked promising. He’d told Earl that he made more than a little bit of money selling the crap he picked up at auctions all around western Massachusetts, to say nothing of the money to be made in scrap metal. Earl wasn’t sure he believed him. If there was so much money in buying delinquent units why did he become an auctioneer. Earl suspected Bill was one of those big talkers. The type who always got the best deal, ate the biggest steak, screwed the most gorgeous woman.
“Bidding to start at fifty dollars…”
Earl’s mind drifted. As manager of the Keepsake he’d been to many of these. There was an auction every three or four months. Sometimes it was the only way to get people to pay. He felt sorry for some folks and tried to keep them off the list but his boss was a real bitch. Underneath her nice little old lady exterior was an A-Number-One Capitalist. Her favorite saying was, “I pay my bills and they can damn well pay theirs.” Then she’d drive away in her old Caddie, country-western music blaring out of her CD player and cigarette smoke billowing behind her.
So, Earl did as he was told because he didn’t want to lose his job. It wasn’t that he liked the job so much but he didn’t hate it either. Besides, everybody knew looking for a job was a real headache. It’s not like there was a perfect job anywhere on the planet.
Earl had to admit he was a bit bored. There was only one interesting thing about his life and it wasn’t his job and it wasn’t his home. Sometimes that one thing wasn’t enough to keep him interested and he found himself adrift from one end of the day to the other. He wondered how this had happened. It seemed like, last he remembered he was eighteen and ready for adventure and the next thing he knew he’d woken up this morning in a bed with sheets that needed changing and he was forty-seven. What happened to all that time in-between? Where had he been while it was passing?
Whew, the dairy farm up the road was really stinking this morning. They must be cleaning the barn or spreading manure. Some days cow shit was all you could smell though this odor seemed to have a little extra rank in it, kind of like when you got a whiff of road kill as you drove by.
“Sold to Mr. Walker for two hundred and fifteen dollars.” Bill flipped to the next page on his clipboard. “Let’s proceed to unit two-ten.”
Earl led the way, squinting into the morning sun. He’d better adjust the timer for the security lights since it was only a couple weeks or so until the clocks turned back to Standard Time.
Time was another thing. It always bit you in the ass. Even if it was on your side for a while, it wouldn’t stay that way forever. Like when he was in high school. He’d had no trouble staying in shape. He could eat whatever he’d wanted and his Levis always fit right. Now? Shit. Now, he had to take Lipitor for his high cholesterol and stay away from cheeseburgers and fries.
In a way, his father was lucky he died so young. Before some doctor told him to give up this and give up that. Pop just went out and got hit by a Hampshire County Transit bus one Wednesday morning after his standard breakfast from Harold’s Diner. Earl thought of Pop’s Breakfast as The Heart Attack Special. Three pieces of bacon, three sausages, three eggs fried hard because that was how he had liked them, white toast burned black and a quart of coffee with cream. Pop thought oatmeal was for sissies. What would his father think of Earl’s Breakfast Special, Raisin Bran? On Sundays, his one day off, he allowed himself a trip to Harold’s and had Pop’s breakfast and read the Sunday Republican except Harold fried his eggs over easy.
Sometimes he felt hopeless and he didn’t like admitting that especially because you never knew if You-Know-Who was around. Whether she was around or not she always seemed to know what he was thinking. She’d say something like hopelessness wasn’t a worthwhile emotion for human beings. Not very comforting. Next time they got together he would try to explain that he was having difficulty realizing that he was going to die, if not from a stroke or heart attack then surely from this dissatisfaction rumbling around inside him. He’d made a vow to have a heart-to-heart chat with You-Know-Who next time he saw her and see if she could offer any words of wisdom. He knew she had the power.
“Ahem?” Bill cleared his throat. Earl realized he had completely zoned out and he and everybody else were standing in front of unit two-ten. Whew. Something smelled to high heaven, definitely different than Mr. O’Brien’s dairy. Jesus, it was enough to gag a maggot.
He unlocked and pulled up the door. The stench washed out of the unit like a tsunami. Earl fought the impulse to gag.
“What’s that stink?” Bill asked no one in particular as he shined his high-powered flashlight over the contents of the storage unit. Nobody offered a guess though everybody did step back three paces.
That’s when Earl noticed the shoes: cordovan wingtips, sole side out, toes pointing up with two legs coming out of them and disappearing under a twin mattress that had a bookcase and a box of Encyclopedia Britannicas leaning against it. The hairs on the back of Earl’s neck stood up. He’d had a feeling when he got up that today was going to suck. No shampoo, his two percent curdled over his Raisin Bran and Dunkin’ Donuts was out of cinnamon rolls, his special treat on auction days. And now this. Suspicious feet.
“Uh, Bill. Let’s skip this one.” Earl lowered the door.
“What do you mean skip it? Look at that nice Naugahyde recliner,” some asshole with a goatee said.
“Yeah. I don’t think you can stop one of these once they get started,” another asshole said, waving the stem of his pipe at Earl.
“Bill?” Earl locked the door. “We’ll do this one next time around, huh?”
Earl and Bill exchanged a look.
“Certainly. By all means. Well, that was our final unit. Anyone who has purchased the contents of a unit must remand payment to me in cash and clear out said unit by the close of business today…”
Earl walked back toward the office. If he remembered correctly, unit two-ten was owned by a Vietnam War vet who got behind on his payments during a hospitalization at the VA in Leeds. Earl had let him ride for months figuring the guy deserved a break. But, his boss had found out and pitched a hissy fit. Now, what was two-ten’s name? Bob? No. Brad. That was it. Brad Nelson.
* * *
“Al-lo?” Avola had set down her hammer and upholstery tacks and answered the phone on the third ring.
“Hi, honey, it’s me.” May’s voice crackled through the phone line.
“Oh, what a pleasant surprise. I thought you might be Mr. Alberti calling to see if his ugly recliner is ready. What explains a man’s fascination with plaid?”
“I wonder if they like the dependability of a geometric design…” May’s voice trailed off.
“It is hard to ascertain and though I was married to Louie Mr. Big-Boy-Liquors LeFebre more years than I care to admit I still do not understand men. He, too, was very fond of the plaid sport shirt so perhaps you speak the truth,” Avola said.
“Frank was, too. Listen, honey, the reason I’m calling is to tell you that I have an unexpected houseguest.”
“You remember my friend, Vera…we’ve known each other since school.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well, her house…she started a fire with her Hoover…”
“Yes and what with the smoke and water damage she can’t stay there until the contractor gets things fixed up,” May said.
“So, she is staying with you, eh?” Avola thought Vera was a ditzy woman, reminding her very much of her sister Mary Christina, a woman who cared for appearances more than substance. They had never gotten along even as children. Avola’s marriage to and then divorce from Mr. Big-Boy hadn’t improved their relationship. Mary Christina was a nun and disapproved of divorce.
“Does she not have half a dozen children?” Avola turned on the coffeemaker she kept in the corner of her workshop.
“Yes, but only two of them live locally and she’s fighting with those. What could I say? No to a woman who’s lost the use of her home and her Hoover in the same morning?”
“My dear May, you could not say no to Attila the Hun if he asked you for help.” Avola wasn’t sure why she was being so uncharitable toward the unfortunate Vera. Perhaps it was nothing more than feeling ornery because she couldn’t get the box pleat on Mr. Alberti’s chair to hang correctly.
“I don’t know why you’re upset, Avi…I—”
“Upset! I am not—”
“Well, you sure sound upset. I don’t know why I even called to tell you…”
“If you do not wish to speak to me then I will go back to this plaid monstrosity.”
“It’s not that I don’t—”
Avola hung up. Not nice but she was afraid of what she might say. It was easier to apologize for hanging up than to say the wrong thing and have the words take on form and mass and become something no one could forget. Avola knew it was unreasonable to be jealous of Vera but jealousy did not seem ruled by the intellect. It grew like a dandelion, anywhere it could get a foothold. She knew she should call May back and she would, later, after she remedied Mr. Alberti’s box pleat.