A murmur of excitement buzzes through Lane Eight—Addy Tornado’s checkout line. When she scans the customer faces, most of whom are Value Shop regulars, her gaze lands on the famous Princess Meritain of Merutious. She has just joined Addy’s line, right behind Mr. Flanders, who is skimming the latest edition of Guns Around the World. He clearly doesn’t realize he is rubbing elbows with royalty, mainly because he never faces forward, too busy looking at the impulse purchase items available on his left and right.
Princess Meritain takes a step back from Mr. Flanders and his elbow thrashings. Her regal chin turns upward. While she is a diminutive woman, her erect posture and proper carriage creates the impression she towers over all. Perhaps it is her royal training that gives her command of Lane Eight, that or the four-inch, red, don’t-fuck-with-me heels that complement her black, tight-fitting A-line skirt. Addy permits herself one long graze of the princess. She drinks in the shapely calves, curvaceous bottom, thin waist, stellar bosom, red lips, long eyelashes, and eyes so blue she can see them from three customers away.
Her grazing complete, she returns her attention to the MOST IMPORTANT CUSTOMER, the one standing in front of her. Value Shop policy reminds its employees that the customer currently being served is the MOST IMPORTANT CUSTOMER in the store. Mrs. Kaminsky is one of Addy’s favorites, a delightful retiree who has just returned from summer vacation with her son’s family. Mrs. Kaminsky frequents Addy’s line at least four times a week, and she has confided she is lonely and enjoys Addy’s company, if only for a few fleeting minutes while Addy rings up her purchases.
As she regales Addy with yet another story about granddaughter Chloe’s antics in the hotel swimming pool, and a game of Marco Polo gone awry because of some deflated floaties, Addy sneaks a second glance at the princess, who offers a cold, hard stare. Addy immediately looks down, flustered.
“Hey, Addy,” Mrs. Kaminsky says. “You just charged me four ninety-eight for a bunch of radishes.”
Addy gasps and apologizes. She voids the item and focuses on her work. Mrs. Kaminsky leaves with appropriately charged radishes and as Addy’s line moves forward, the princess draws closer and unloads the contents of her little shopping basket onto the conveyor belt with the disdain befitting a task beneath her. She flings a package of overpriced plastic cutlery with such force, it somersaults over the dividing bar and lands in Mr. Flanders’s stack of purchases. He discreetly nudges the cutlery back to the other side, his gaze never straying from the article he’s reading.
Addy frowns at the behavior of the princess. She has a reputation for being callous and insensitive, and her treatment of the cutlery affirms the stories. Addy allows herself another quick glance while Mr. Flanders debates whether or not to purchase the magazine and finish an article on German rifles from WWII.
He finally placed the magazine in his shopping bag, exchanges a smile with Addy, who rings it up and hands him his change.
Princess Meritain steps to the pay station and stares at Addy as if she’s nuts.
Of course, Addy greets her with the required Value Shop smile—while she groups each item by prominent color before scanning it and placing it in one of the Value Shop paper bags.
Addy can’t help herself. When she looks at any object, its prominent color pushes forward, whether that is the color of the packaging, the letters on the label, or the color of the item. It’s like a spotlight turns on and all Addy sees is one color. Thus, bananas are always grouped with yellow squash, banana popsicles and various cheeses, while lettuces, cucumbers and margarita mix journey out of the store together. Her regular customers have learned her system, but of course Princess Meritain of Merutious has not. But how could she? Addy again forgives the princess this understandable faux pas.
As the princess’s luscious lips curl into displeasure, Addy offers,“I’m all about order,” as an explanation for her behavior.
“I’d rather you not touch my things any more than necessary,” Princess Meritain replies, in a breathy voice Addy finds very sexy. “It’s not sanitary.”
“I promise you, I sanitize my hands after I touch the register or handle money or credit cards.”
Princess Meritain raises an already high-pitched eyebrow. “Every time?”
“Every time.” And then Addy leans forward, resting her elbow on the check-writing desk, and whispers, “My hands are so clean right now that I could feed you a strawberry.” It’s a risky flirt, and Addy watches the princess’s response carefully.
The eyebrow descends and joins a face of the creamiest skin Addy has ever seen. She gazes into the extraordinary blue eyes for another second before completing the princess’s transaction.
Princess Meritain gazes into the bag and screams, “What the hell? Why is the Drano in the bag with my tomatoes? That’s disgusting!”
“Well, tomatoes and the bottle of Drano are the only red purchases you have. If you’d bought something else that was red, I could’ve started another bag.”
The blue eyes turn a darker shade. “I demand to see your manager.”
Addy crosses her arms. “No.”
The high-pitched eyebrow returns. “Excuse me?”
“You may not see the manager. I won’t allow it. That will be twenty-seven dollars. Even.”
The princess turns up her regal chin. “I won’t pay it.”
“Then you can’t have your Drano.”
With a swoop, Addy pushes the bags into a corner of the bagging area and welcomes the next MOST IMPORTANT CUSTOMER, Mrs. Delano. While she offers her sweetest smile to Mrs. D., she remains cognizant of the princess’s stare.
So she gives her a show. She quickly lines up Mrs. D’s reusable bags and scans her items, correctly grouped by dominant color. She swipes and taps keys at lightning speed, stealing a glance at the princess, who seems entranced by her grocery ballet, an homage to efficiency.
As Mrs. Delano departs, Princess Meritain steps back to the pay station, licking her lips.
Addy knows that look.
“I’d like to pay now.”
Addy completes the transaction, her gaze locked on the princess’s gorgeous eyes. When she hands her the receipt, she says, “Value Shop encourages you to follow this link and complete a survey regarding my service and your level of satisfaction. Are you satisfied?”
“Not yet,” the princess whispers.
Addy glances at the next customer in line, a young woman engaged in a battle of wills with a preschool-age boy. He wishes to add a candy bar to their otherwise healthy purchases that fill the conveyor belt—and are not grouped by color. Addy sighs.
Suddenly the princess is behind her, pressing into her back. “Meet me in frozen dinners,” she says, in a voice almost as smoky as her blue eyes.
Addy nods and drops the CLOSED sign at the end of the conveyor belt. She completes the young woman’s transaction, including the candy bar, in record time, given the plethora of colors involved.
She scampers toward the frozen food section as the princess makes a quick turn from an adjoining aisle and pulls in front of her. Addy is afforded the luxurious view of Princess Meritain’s ass, her butt cheeks rising and falling with each step.
She stops suddenly, but Addy is so entranced with her backside that she almost plows her over. She grabs a door handle just in time and rights herself. Princess Meritain’s amused look is striking and sexy. Addy is smoldering, but she doubts stuffing a Lean Cuisine down her shirt will help.
The princess faces a refrigerated case and slaps the glass with both hands. She grinds her center against it, right in the Green Giant’s line of sight.
She glances over her shoulder and says to Addy, “Can you satisfy me now?”
Addy presses against her. She matches her rhythm, kissing the side of her neck while her hands and lips explore the princess’s sultry curves, enjoying the continuous undulation of their pelvises. The silk buttons of Princess Meritain’s shirt come undone, as does the clasp of her bra, neither a match for Addy’s nimble fingers. When the princess’s bare nipples meet the cold glass, she gasps and lolls her head to the side. Addy pulls that regal chin up and connects their mouths for a deep kiss. Then she steps away.
“No, please,” the princess whines.
Addy, still fully clothed, adjusts her Value Shop polo shirt and nametag, which hangs askew from her gyrations. The glass is fogged and she wonders if it’s possible to spoil the food from the outside of the case. Princess Meritain’s tiny skirt suddenly drops to her ankles, revealing a sheer, pink thong that matches the bra Addy has already woman-handled. When the princess sloughs off the silk shirt and bra, Addy almost grabs them, protecting the fine garments from the dirty, scarred linoleum floor.
But the princess doesn’t notice. She spins around, stepping away from her discarded clothes toward a fresh case, one that hasn’t been a victim of their heat. She presses her back against the frosty glass, her eyes grow wide and her lips form an O.
“Feeling a chill. Come warm me up, Addy.”
The princess is a sight. Her face is flush, her nipples firm, and the blue eyes have turned a cooler shade of crystal. And she still gyrates, only now her back and buttocks are assaulted by the cold. She spreads her legs wider, beckoning Addy. When Addy doesn’t respond immediately, she caresses her own breasts, splays her fingers across her belly and moves the manicured digits closer to the thong, the only strip of clothing she still wears.
“Let me,” Addy instructs, sliding in front of the princess, disregarding the inevitable dirt stains on the knees of her white pants. She yanks down the scrap of material and brings the juicy center to her mouth.
“Addy? Hello, Addy?”
Addy blinked. Her gaze shot left and right. She was at work, sitting in the driver’s seat of Bus 29, the crown jewel of the Wilshire Hills Transportation Department. It was Thursday in late August. Her bus idled in front of Rhinehart’s Mini-Mart, stop number six on her route. The bus’s front door was still open. Thankfully, the brake was still engaged, but the hot summer wind blew inside and devoured the A/C.
She looked up into the full-view mirror above her driver’s seat to acknowledge the passenger who had called to her. Mrs. Gelpin waved from the second row, a gentle smile on her face. At eighty-four, she was a long-time resident of Wilshire Hills, and one of Addy’s regulars. She understood that periodically Addy took a mental vacation, and it wasn’t always at the most convenient time.
“We’re all on board, Addy. Ready to go,” Mrs. Gelpin called. Then she gave a little cough and her index finger touched her chin.
Addy’s hand immediately went to her own chin. It was wet and sticky. She glanced at her left hand, resting on the bus’s steering wheel. It held a half-eaten peach.
Dr. Ivy Bertrand, dean of the School of Music at Cammon University, stared at Mazie Midnight with a look that could wilt flowers. Mazie imagined Dr. Bertrand practiced the look at home while she stood in front of the mirror and tied—and retied—her trademark bow tie until it was a perfectly symmetrical work of fashion art. Today’s bow tie was a conservative blue and green striped number that popped against her crisp, white Oxford button-down shirt. She’d perfected her stony stare and undoubtedly intimidated thousands of graduate students, because if practice made perfect anywhere, it would be at the School of Music.
“I’m serious, Ms. Fenster,” she reiterated, peering over the top of her reading glasses. The whites of her eyes contrasted with her dark chocolate skin, which only intensified her flinty gaze. “If you don’t complete the performance element of your required program of study for your master’s degree in music performance by the end of the fall semester, I will be forced to enter a failing grade in your performance workshop because you will not perform. Are we clear?”
“Quite,” Mazie said, although in her mind it came out as quit. Something she’d done far too often. She hoped Dr. Bertrand didn’t comment.
She bit her bottom lip. She wanted to share her new name with Dr. Bertrand. She very much wanted to tell her that she’d left May Fenster at the Oregon-Idaho state line. She’d changed her name to Mazie Midnight, honoring Grandma Mazie, the person who encouraged her to sing, and Midnight—the exact moment in time that her new life in Oregon began. She felt an explanation trip across her tongue, attempting to push out from her lips.
“Is there something you’d like to say, Ms. Fenster?”
Dr. Bertrand was intuitive. That was why she was one of the best. Mazie opened her mouth, her tongue moved and her lips parted. Yet no sound escaped. A far too familiar condition. Dr. Bertrand sighed audibly and signed Mazie’s program of study. She closed her fountain pen, set it lovingly in a special mahogany holder, and clasped her hands.
“In the event you have further contact with my old friend, Maestro Larkin Lamond, you can tell her that by admitting you to this program, I consider our past debt paid in full. Can you remember that?”
“Yes, Dr. Bertrand.”
She put an index finger at opposite corners of the Program of Study form and deliberately pushed it toward Mazie, who signed in the box above Dr. Bertrand’s commanding signature. She didn’t look at Dr. Bertrand, remembering Larkin’s advice. She’d said, “Be deferential. She’s really a big pussycat but you’ll never see it unless she drinks an entire bottle of vodka with you.”
Mazie doubted that would happen, but she imagined vodka had something to do with the debt Ivy Bertrand owed their mutual friend Larkin. Perhaps they had been lovers.
Dr. Bertrand reached for a beautiful wooden sphere and rolled it between her fingers. Mazie guessed her hands never stilled for long, as she was an accomplished violinist, a world-renowned conductor, and a brilliant composer, having written some of the greatest composed music of the twenty-first century.
“Is there anything else, Ms. Fenster?”
“No, Dr. Bertrand. May I be excused?”
She snatched her messenger bag and headed for the door. It squeaked open just far enough for her to disappear into the corridor when Dr. Bertrand said, “May I ask…”
Mazie took a breath and turned around. Dr. Bertrand’s face had softened.
“Maestro Lamond sent me a recording. I’ve heard you sing. You have the chops. When did your stage fright consume you?”
“I don’t know.”
Dr. Bertrand’s lips turned up slightly in a conspiratorial smile. They both knew Mazie was lying.
As Mazie traipsed across the Cammon University campus, she felt like an imposter. At forty-one she didn’t belong here. Nearly every backpack-carrying student was half her age, and judging from the topics she overheard them discussing, most were oblivious to the obstacles, pain, and outright cruelty that awaited them in the world outside the university. Their chatter about economic summits, new scientific discoveries, and the age-old question, “But does he really like me?” illustrated the bubble in which they lived, one that Mazie envied and missed.
She’d loved college, bouncing from her bachelor’s program in finance and urban planning to a master’s degree in music. While she’d spent the first four years of college earning a respectable degree that would draw an income, singing was her heart and soul; student loans be damned. And then…
She shook her head. It wasn’t worth rehashing again. “This is my time,” she whispered. “This is my chance. This is my second chance. I will. Yes, I can do it.”
She reached the eastern edge of campus, which hugged the old downtown area of Wilshire Hills, Oregon. Across the street sat the majestic Gallagher Hall, a former theater from the twenties. During its heyday it had been the Orpheum, housing vaudeville, plays, movies, even burlesque, until it closed in the late eighties. Attempts to bulldoze the iconic treasure had been met with such stiff resistance from the local historic society that it had sat vacant for another decade. Then, as the new millennium began, Dr. Ivy Bertrand joined Cammon’s School of Music and the Orpheum regained the spotlight. For years Wilshire Hills politicians and city socialites had quietly suggested Cammon acquire the Orpheum, but the funds weren’t available and no one with enough clout or vision had taken the lead—until Dr. Bertrand arrived. It took another decade and millions of fundraised dollars, but the theater was fully restored and now housed the performing arm of Cammon University. As the Orpheum it lacked a clear identity, so it was renamed Gallagher Hall, in honor of the first female music professor ever to join Cammon University, Katherine Gallagher. Mrs. Gallagher was now a professor emeritus and regularly attended performances, sitting in her reserved seat—third row center.
Mazie gulped. It would be inside Gallagher Hall that she would sing—or fail. The day her friend Professor Larkin Lamond suggested Mazie finish her degree at Cammon, Mazie had laughed at the farfetched notion of acceptance into one of the finest schools of music in the world. Then that night she’d dreamt she was singing on the Gallagher’s stage with her deceased grandmother sitting in the audience listening. The next day she’d talked with Larkin and told her she’d go to Oregon.
Mazie crossed the street to Gallagher’s massive front doors. Of course, they were locked. She peered inside at the expansive lobby. Unique and tasteful glass chandeliers floated over the red and blue carpet. She pressed the side of her face to the glass, gazing at the oak portal doors that led to the auditorium.
“You know, they give tours,” a voice called.
Mazie turned to the speaker, a woman in her mid-twenties wearing an army jacket and a beret, leaning against a bus stop sign. “Oh, really?”
She nodded and pointed at a notice taped to the glass.
Mazie scanned the details as a bus pulled up. “Thank you.”
The woman offered a mock salute and boarded. Mazie’s attention returned to the notice and she took a picture of it with her phone. Perhaps touring the facility, sitting in the seats, maybe even standing on the stage, would help her prepare for her performance. “It couldn’t hurt,” she told herself.
She turned away and noticed the bus was still in front of the stop, its door open. She looked left and right, expecting to see someone charging toward it before the doors closed. She glanced inside at the female driver, a young woman wearing a light blue, long-sleeve button-down shirt, navy walking shorts and an eight-point hat, similar to the ones police officers wore fifty years ago. It looked rather ridiculous on her, especially since it sat askew on her head. She was incredibly skinny and her pasty white legs looked like toothpicks. It was odd to wear a long-sleeve shirt with shorts in August, but perhaps the dress code didn’t allow for short sleeves. The driver stared out the front window as still as a statue.
“Excuse me?” No response. “Excuse me?” Mazie asked louder.
The driver jumped and her hat fell onto the enormous steering wheel. She had an oval face with dimples on her cheeks, which were now flaming red. Her dark brown hair stuck out at all angles, and she quickly returned the hat to her head.
“I’m sorry,” Mazie said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I thought you might’ve been waiting on me, and I’m not getting on the bus. I was just admiring the Gallagher.”
The driver seemed to look through her, or rather, her gaze focused on something below Mazie’s face. She wondered if the driver was staring at her breasts, but when she adjusted her messenger bag on her shoulder, the driver’s gaze followed the movement.
Mazie pulled the bag around to her front, studying it, wondering if a snake was crawling out from under the flap. Seeing nothing except the colorful tie-dyed fabric, she locked eyes with the driver. “Are you all right?” The driver ignored her question, quickly closed the door and drove away while Mazie shook her head, muttering, “Definitely an odd duck.”
As she pulled into the bus depot, Addy checked the time on her phone, six-fourteen. “Crap.”
She was nineteen minutes late, which meant she wouldn’t clock out on time—again. It was the third time in two weeks. Once or twice more and she’d wind up on the district manager’s shit list. Clocking out on time was the most important expectation of bus drivers. Not only did it prevent overtime wages, it signified a driver was staying on schedule. A late arrival home meant the schedule was off.
And her schedule was off, but only slightly, as she never took a lunch and her regulars were sympathetic people who didn’t report her. The infrequent riders assumed the tardiness was a glitch. She knew she was pushing the system, taking advantage of the kind and sympathetic community culture that defined Wilshire Hills. Eventually she’d have to deal with it.
As she turned in to her parking space, she wasn’t surprised to see Jackie Correa, her supervisor, waiting for her. Jackie was ready to leave, her jacket draped over one arm and her lunchbox dangling from her shoulder. She was the only woman Addy knew who looked good in the city-issued polyester pants, which outlined the shapely curves of her buttocks.
Addy had firsthand knowledge of those buttocks, having caressed them once, when she and Jackie had attempted to expand their relationship, an experiment that failed miserably, at least from Addy’s perspective. Still, Jackie was fine about it and Addy had no problem ogling her, an act Jackie appreciated. She’d freed her dark black hair from its traditional bun and taken a moment to freshen her lipstick. Addy imagined she was headed to Lolly’s, Wilshire Hills’s only lesbian bar.
Addy slowly completed her post-shift inspection and collected her things. Perhaps Jackie would get impatient or be summoned to an urgent matter before she debarked.
“Come on, Addy,” Jackie said sternly. “I know you’re stalling. I’m not going anywhere.”
She groaned and hopped off the bus. “Sorry I’m late.” She stared into Jackie light brown eyes, asking for forgiveness.
Jackie blinked and sighed. “I already clocked out for you,” she whispered.
“Addy, it’s getting worse. Do you see that?”
She looked away. She knew it was true, but there was nothing she could do about it. Clicking heels approached, echoing in the enormous bus bay. Another driver, Pratul, sauntered by. He was stout with jet black hair and a mustache that reminded Addy of a caterpillar. He offered a wave and a glance but didn’t stop on his way to the locker room.
“Goodnight, Pratul,” Jackie called in a sickeningly sweet voice.
“I don’t trust that guy,” Addy whispered.
“You shouldn’t. He wants my job and you fired. In that order. You need to stop giving him ammunition. Damn homophobic asshole.” She took a breath and added, “See you at home,” before she walked away.
“See you later,” Addy said. “And thanks again.”
Jackie didn’t acknowledge her, making Addy feel worse. She headed to the locker room to change. She heard a locker door slam and one of the new hires came around the corner. She was an older woman with short curly hair and a great smile that would make her popular with passengers.
“Hi, Addy,” she said cheerfully.
“Hi. Hey, I’m sorry. I forgot your name.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m Quinoa. Like the food. I had hippie parents.” She waved. “Have a nice night.”
Addy headed to the last row of lockers, aware that she was alone. The locker area creeped her out, and many slasher movies included a creepy scene in a locker room. She grabbed her street clothes and ducked into a changing room. Since the locker room was co-ed, private changing rooms were provided. Even if it were just a women’s locker room, Addy would’ve used the changing room. She didn’t want anybody seeing her skinny-ass, as her mama called it. That was part of the reason she’d never connected with Jackie. Well, that’s one part.
She quickly changed and as she headed out, she heard a sneeze. Pratul. He was still in the locker room, possibly watching her. She’d caught him once, and he’d insisted he was looking in her direction but not at her.
She hustled outside and retrieved her bike. Passengers and other drivers often found it ironic that a bus driver didn’t own a car. Addy saw the simple logic. She spent all day driving and had no desire to do so after the workday. And the ride home from the bus depot was therapeutic.
The wise city council had determined the bus depot, like so many other unsightly buildings, would sit on the outskirts of town where the big box stores and large industrial companies had been banished. For decades the various mayors and city council members—regardless of political party—shared the common belief that Wilshire Hills should maintain its quaint and charming status. Consequently, strict urban growth laws prohibited rich entrepreneurs from dotting the downtown with tall buildings. Small business owners were favored over large chains attempting to bully their way into a prestigious college town, and the varying ecosystems were preserved.
One such example was the Willowick Creek Wilderness Area. The “Willy” as locals called this thin artery of the Columbia River, spawned marshlands between the heart of Wilshire Hills and the bus depot. Miles of bike path paralleled the creek that ran to the town of Sweet Home. The six-mile ride to her house provided the solitude she craved after eight hours of smiling, chatting, and sometimes confronting the bus passengers. She’d often veer off the direct route to her neighborhood and go exploring. Sandwiched between the tall grass on her left and the creek on her right, Addy often got lost in her thoughts, and more than once, she’d just gotten physically lost.
In the winter months when the sun set before she finished her route, she had to pay particular attention to avoid crashing into squirrels, possums, and nutrias crossing the path. More than once she’d swerved to miss a creature who froze in place, blinded by the light on her bike. Once she’d actually crashed and broken her wrist. It had forced her to a desk job for six weeks since she couldn’t turn the bus’s enormous steering wheel with one hand.
She felt guilty that Jackie was covering for her tardiness and even guiltier because of the reason Jackie continued to do it: she had a crush on Addy. While Addy had been clear and honest that she didn’t feel the same way, not even after viewing Jackie’s glorious derriere, she knew Jackie wasn’t over her—and had told her as much.
It didn’t help that they lived together, or rather, Addy lived on Jackie’s property in a tiny house Addy had built with the help of three bus route regulars. Since her one-night make out session with Jackie, she had contemplated moving the tiny house, especially after she realized Jackie still had feelings for her. But Addy didn’t know where she’d go.
As she rode toward downtown, she contemplated Jackie’s comment. It’s getting worse. Do you see that?
Yes, she saw it. She’d read lots of articles about daydreaming, fugue states, and hypnosis. What happened to her was all three rolled into one. Different things sent her down the rabbit hole, the name she’d given to the place her mind went. Most often she remembered the scenarios, like today’s tryst with the princess in the frozen food aisle. It was her own movie that she created, but how many movies had pickup scenes in grocery stores?
But what if she lost control of the bus? What if Pratul, who deserved the moniker homophobic asshole, found out about her daydreaming and reported her? What if she didn’t stop at a red light, too busy fantasizing about her dream woman? Sweat dripped into her eyes and she wiped her hand across her face.
Instead of the frozen food aisle, maybe she and the woman of her dreams would be doing it in a steamier place—like a sauna.
This will make an exceptional book club choice. Zany antics by a town of eccentric characters. The nuttiest, most off-beat novel I have ever read. Read the first 3 chapters and you will know if this is the book for you. It does settle down in the last few chapters and deals with some real life hard hitting family drama. There is a huge happily ever after for every one except one guy who got every thing he deserved. so it was a HEA for the reader. Addy Tornado and Mazie Midnight, right there gives you an idea of the story path. Addy is a 29 year old who is a loveable and VERY quirky woman with a resume of jobs 9 pages long, currently driving a bus and occasionally in a fugue state where she doesn’t remember how she got from one stop to the other. Mazie is a 41 year old new to the sleepy college town of Wilshire Hills, she is pursuing an advanced degree in the performing arts, the only thing holding her back is her fear of performing, hmmm. The novel has extensive cast of unconventional and very endearing characters that would give Tales of the City a challenge.