6:00 a.m., September 28, 2008
Sleep had been elusive to the point that trying to find it was more exhausting than just getting up. Untwisting the covers entwined around him, Rock Graham rolled his legs over the side of the bed, grimacing in anticipation of the pain he knew would bark at him. Indecision had never before been an issue, yet it kept him awake nearly all night. It started the day before when Patti rather off-handedly, or maybe not, said to him, “So, tomorrow you’re going to leave us.” There was a certain finality in her voice that he had not challenged at the time. He hadn’t wanted to get into it with her. He was coming back to Flint in the spring. He’d made sure both of them understood that, and, what the hell, they were going to Florida for the winter. So why couldn’t he go wherever the hell he wanted to. Nevertheless, she could practice a kind of Catholic guilt on him like no one else he knew, and her comment had stuck with him. He never wanted to hurt Russ or Patti Sluwinski.
He glanced at his cell phone on the nightstand and then at the clock. If it hadn’t been so early, he might have called and cancelled. Instead, he stood, wobbling slightly as he slowly applied weight to his right leg. In this pre-dawn hour his loft above the four-car garage was still dark, the only illumination coming from a night-light located next to his bed. Limping, he moved with familiarity through the open loft into the kitchen, flicked on the gentle under-counter lighting, put water on to boil, deposited a packet of Earl Grey tea in his favorite mug and leaned back against the counter slowly stretching out his bad leg. Whatever pain he might have felt was pushed from his mind, a tangle of indecision. He couldn’t have said how long he had stood there. It was the teapot’s whistle that pulled his mind back into the room.
Mug in hand, his right leg starting to stretch itself more, the limp slightly less noticeable, he walked into the living area, sat down in his leather easy chair, took a sip of the hot tea and laid his head back into the chair’s buttery softness. His eyes closed, he let his mind’s eye recall the room, bookshelves lining the walls, filled with books he had read or was planning to. Why go away?
Thirty-five years ago, Patti Sluwinski suggested she and Russ build a big, four-car garage at the rear of their newly purchased home. And she suggested above that garage they plan a loft for him. At first Rock thought they were only feeling sorry for him. He was fresh from a divorce that he hadn’t seen coming, but he didn’t need or want anyone’s pity. He caught his wife in bed with a co-worker on the only day he’d ever come home from work sick and that had been the end of that. But Patti and Russ had been patient and persistent with him. Along the way they made good arguments on why the arrangement made sense as all three of them were working an average of sixty hours a week on various General Motors’ assembly lines around Flint. Six months later the garage and his loft were completed. He’d lived here ever since.
This place was his retreat. Lately, however, he had come to see it as the eye of a hurricane, that sweet center of tranquility surrounded by chaos. GM was shuttering every one of its Flint plants. He, Russ, and Patti were forced to retire, but all three considered themselves lucky. They, at least, had pensions. They had been careful, invested some of their earnings outside the company that was now crumpling around them. Even though the market was completely in the dumpster right now, they’d seen cycles like this before. They could afford to wait it out, which was not so with too many others they knew.
All Rock had to do was walk a few steps to the front yard and look up and down their street to see the toll the economic downturn was taking on his hometown. The four new For Sale signs this week brought the number of houses in a three-block segment to eight. Of these eight, six contained the additional banner Foreclosure across either the top or bottom of the sign. He knew all eight of these families. All had young children and either one or both of the parents had worked with him in the plants. No one knew exactly what the unemployment rate was in Flint. The published figure was “over 50%”, but anyone who had worked for GM knew it had to be higher than even that fantastic number. Then there was Bill Kaufman and Larry Sherman, two guys he’d worked with for over fifteen years. He had cried at their funerals. Their wives had been left with mountainous debt, their children without fathers to help raise them. Both had committed suicide shortly after being laid off. He was one of the biggest donors to a memorial fund that would help the two families, but he never felt he had done enough. He wanted to do more; he wanted to help in some way those eight families up and down his street who were living behind those For Sale signs. But what could he do? His desire was infinite, his resources were not.
Just as he felt the anger rising in him again, he heard the footsteps on the stairs first and then the knock. “Rock?” There was a pause and then another knock, “Rock, you awake?”
He took a deep breath and turned his head toward the door, “Yeah, Russ, it’s open.”
Dressed in his usual bib overalls, Russ Sluwinski filled the open doorway, his T-shirt stretching over massive shoulders and biceps. He stepped in.
Rock Graham stood, turning to face his old friend and grimaced again. “You’re up early.”
Sluwinski, who had been there when the leg was injured nearly forty years ago, looked past the grimace, “Yeah, Patti and me, we couldn’t sleep. Today’s the day, right?”
“Yeah, today’s the day.”
Sluwinski just nodded and rubbed his chin. “Patti’s making breakfast.”
Rock moved toward him, “She doesn’t need to do…”
Sluwinski’s big right hand went up. “C’mon, Rock. If I go back over there and tell her you’re not coming, she’ll just be up here. You know how she is, especially today.”
Rock smiled and held up his hands in resignation. “Got a point, buddy. Let me get dressed and I’ll be right over.”
“Rock…” Sluwinski paused, looking for the right words.
Graham finished his old friend’s thought, “She’s going to grill me, isn’t she?”
Sluwinski hung his head, nodded affirmatively and said, “You know how she is.”
“Russ, you know I’ll be back in the spring. This isn’t the end of anything.”
Russ nodded, “Yeah, Rock, I know, but Patti, she…”
Rock looked helplessly at his old friend who had an even more helpless look on his face.
“Yeah. I know. Patti’s being Patti. Thanks for the warning.”
Sluwinski turned rapidly on his heel and reached for the door. Rock saw him take a swipe at one eye the way a bear would brush away a bothersome fly. “She said about fifteen minutes and breakfast will be on the table. She told me to tell you to hurry up. She doesn’t want it to get cold.” They both chuckled as Sluwinski again said, “You know how she is.
9:00 a.m., September 28, 2008
The dramatic violins of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor swept across the bedroom like the wind across prairie grass. Though the piece had immediately driven Flower, her two-year–old yellow lab, from the room, the music perfectly fit her mood. Through teary eyes she glanced at the clock on the mantle above the cold fireplace. 9:02 a.m. “Uh-oh,” she muttered under her breath. Blotting her tears with one hand, she reluctantly closed The Last Lecture, stood and reached for the remote control on the table next to her. The push of a button opened pale teal blinds built into an expansive wall of windows, revealing a brilliant morning. With the press of another button on the same remote, she silenced Brahms and stood, taking in the vista. The sun shimmered off Lake Macatawa as if a billion diamonds had been strewn in front of her. Heavy dew lingered on the grass of the manicured lawn, edged with well-tilled, weed-free flowerbeds. The 50-foot Sea Ray rocked alongside a dock that thrust out into the lake. Reluctantly she pulled her eyes away from the view and checked the mantel clock again.
Late was very much unlike Claire Van Zandt, but as she took stock of herself, she knew she was not going to make her 10 a.m. appointment on time. She found her cell phone on the nightstand and speed-dialed her youngest daughter. Four rings later, Beth’s lilty voice told her to leave a message. “Beth, it’s Mom. Sorry, but I’ll be a bit late. You and Ingrid get started and I’ll get there as quick as I can.”
She showered quickly, just dampening her hair enough that she could give it some shape. She thought she’d put the top down on the BMW and drive it into town. The breeze would dry her hair and also give her a good excuse for it not measuring up to its usual level of perfection. Stepping from the shower to the sink, she noticed a waiting voice mail.
“Mom, I hope you’re not answering this because you’re already on the road. Don’t make me do this by myself. I’m going to call Brides-To-Be and tell them I’m going to be a little late, but that we will still be there. Ingrid will be pissed…sorry…upset… you know how she can be. C’mon, Mom. Please hurry. I love you.”
Claire chided herself for her tardiness, but, almost perversely, she found the desperation in Beth’s voice to be humorous. Ingrid would be pissed. Ingrid Van Zandt Hoffman, Claire’s eldest daughter, five years older than Beth, was every bit as driven as her father had been. An attorney married to an attorney, she and her husband, Ethan, were ambitious junior partners in a large Grand Rapids law firm, their lives driven by their work schedules. Everything had a start and an end time. Beth had joked once that Brian, her five-year old nephew, had the audacity to be born two weeks early and that had caused a ripple in Ingrid’s life that took two years to work itself out.
In the huge walk-in closet, Claire selected a casual slacks outfit and complimented it with a long, silver necklace with garnet-colored glass beads. She finished the look with a light green and dark red, plaid, loosely woven scarf artfully doubled over and placed around her neck with the ends pulled through the loop. It would ward off any chill that might still be lingering in the mid-morning breeze during the top-down trip into downtown Holland. Finally she chose a pair of dark gray, calf-high boots, but as she bent over to pull them on a sudden shortness of breath and dizziness caught her. She straightened up and put her hands behind her, feeling for something solid to stabilize her, but found only hanging clothes. Stumbling, she managed to grasp the shelf behind her on a second try. She took a deep breath. Whatever it was, it was gone as quickly as it had come, and she was late. 9:45 a.m. She shrugged it off, tardiness trumping any reason for concern. She walked over to the full-length mirror that stood in one corner of the closet, looked herself over, patted a few curls back into place and headed downstairs.
Even before she walked into the kitchen, Claire smelled the freshly cut roses in the vase on the dining table. “Good morning, Maria,” she said to the woman at the sink washing some dishes from dinner the evening before. “Good morning, Jesus.” Pointing to the roses, she said, “They’re beautiful. I could smell them from the foyer.” In addition to his current duty as dish dryer, Jesus, Maria’s husband of fifty years, was also the gardener, handyman and former chauffeur. “Good morning, Flower.” The big dog got up and walked over to Claire, tail wagging, looking for a rub on the head.
“Good morning, Ms. Claire,” said Maria with only a hint of an accent.
Jesus, concluding that she was on her way someplace, asked with an edge of eagerness that only made his thick accent even more difficult to understand, “Ms. Claire, would you like me to bring the Mercedes around?”
Claire caught Maria’s quick glance and slight shake of the head.
Back in the day, chauffeuring had been one of Jesus’ primary duties. He’d always taken Alan to the airport and been there to pick him up. When Claire had been working as a middle-school counselor and had to squeeze into her schedule the many duties of an up-and-coming Holland/Grand Rapids socialite, she would have Jesus deliver her to school, pick her up at day’s end and then run her around both towns on errands for this or that charity. She had served on a dozen or more boards and chaired many of them. Alan had encouraged her volunteerism.
There was little chauffeuring to be done now. Alan died in 2005. In that same year Claire retired from public education and from nearly everything else as well. Nothing was as it had been, including Jesus. Never a big man, even in his prime, he now bore the bend of a man who had worked hard at manual labor for most of his seventy years. His eyesight was also dimming. It was almost comical to see him behind the wheel of the big Mercedes Benz S600 or the huge Rolls, with hands fixed at ten and two on the steering wheel, pulling himself forward and up enough so that he could see the road beyond the massive length of hood stretching in front of him. Maria had told Claire, “He looks like Mr. Magoo. He shouldn’t be driving at all, much less these big cars, Ms. Claire.” Each had told the other hair-raising stories about trips they had taken with him over the last few years. Both agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest if Jesus’ chauffeuring responsibilities could be significantly curtailed if not eliminated.
“No, Jesus, but thanks. I’m just going into town, and I’m not sure how long I will be,” Claire said nicely, but firmly.
Maria handed him a plate to dry. “I fed Flower,” Maria offered in a good attempt to change the subject. “She came down about 8 a.m. and seemed hungry.”
“Thank you,” Claire said, very much aware of what Maria was trying to do. “I was playing a CD from the symphony. Flower isn’t a fan of Brahms, or any classical music for that matter.” They laughed as Jesus knelt down in front of the gentle lab and rubbed her ears while reassuring her that mariachi music, he thought, would be more to her liking. The two women exchanged knowing glances. “I’m going to town to meet with Beth and Ingrid about the wedding. There’s no need for you or Jesus to wait for me. Why don’t the two of you enjoy a day with your grandchildren.” Claire saw the sparkle come into both of their eyes.
“Are you sure, Ms. Claire?” asked Maria. “What about your supper? I will…”
Claire interrupted her. “Maria, I’m not sure what I’m going to do this evening. Don’t worry about me. You two go enjoy your family.”
Maria turned to Jesus and said something in Spanish that Claire was able to loosely translate as, “Finish with the roses and cut some for the bedroom. We are so lucky to work here.”
Jesus replied simply with, “Si,” and then turned to Claire and said, “Thank you, Ms. Claire.”
Claire checked her watch. 10:04 a.m. “I have to go. I’m late.” As she turned to head to the front door, Flower followed her. “No, girl, you stay with Maria. She’ll let you out after I leave.”
Maria nodded. This was Claire’s way of avoiding those eyes. Though Flower rarely went with her mistress in the car, it was her habit to sit outside at the intersection of the walkway to the front door and apex of the semi-circular driveway and watch with drooped ears as Claire drove away. No matter which way Claire exited the drive she couldn’t help but see the big dog’s disappointment. It was the eyes. Those eyes could melt cold steel.
She’d loved the dog almost from the moment Beth had walked in the front door with her as a ten-pound puppy. Beth was certain Flower had helped her mother through some desperate days. Claire, on the other hand, had never considered whether or not Flower was a remedy for her grief. All she knew was that Flower loved her and she loved Flower, and those sad eyes could riddle Claire with guilt in a second or less. At the front door Claire patted her broad head and said, “I’ll see you this afternoon.”
As she walked to the five-car garage that was separate from the house, Claire stayed on the walkway and the concrete drive to avoid the heavy dew on the grass. In an hour or two it would be gone, dried by a brilliant sun in a cloudless sky. She estimated the temperature to be about seventy degrees, a perfect, late-September, Indian-summer day. At the middle garage door she punched in the code and the door rolled up revealing the black BMW 650i convertible, her favorite of the five cars garaged there. It was immaculately clean. If Jesus couldn’t drive, his next favorite work, after the roses, was to keep the Van Zandt cars spotless, inside and out. Claire located the key fob in the console, slid it in the slot and pushed the start button. Instantly the V-8 engine roared and then settled into a dynamic hum. As she held the button down to lower the Beamer’s top, she looked up and down the row of cars and shook her head. “I’ve got to do something about this.”
Pangs of social conscience like this had been bothering her for most of the year as the country seemed to swirl further and further down the economic toilet that was recession. It also didn’t make sense to her that two wars were raging in the Middle East. While people were losing their jobs, savings and homes inside the U.S., still others were losing their lives in far-away places like Ramadi, Fallujah and other areas no one had ever heard of before 2003. Yet she was surrounded by opulence everywhere she turned. On her left, in the garage’s first bay was the Mercedes 600S. The second bay contained a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. On her right was a Range Rover Evoque and the last bay was home to Alan’s 2003 50th Anniversary Edition Corvette. It was the one car of the bunch that she wouldn’t drive because the 6-speed manual transmission required too much effort, in her opinion.
She looked at the ‘Vette and, for an instant, thought she could see Alan sitting in it, smiling at her. She put her head between her two hands on the BMW’s steering wheel. She would have given it all up just for one more moment with him. Her heart racing, she lifted her head and looked back at the empty ‘Vette. All that was left were the things that had been their life together. Now, three years after his death, she couldn’t let go of even just one of these things. It would be like letting go of him again.
She glanced at her watch. 10:10 a.m. “Oh, no! Ingrid is really going to be angry.” As she pulled from the garage and hit the remote to close the door behind her, Claire caught her own reflection in the rearview mirror and cracked a mischievous smile. Ingrid… pissed… Beth trying to calm her down… the mental picture cheered her mood so much that she laughed out loud.
Descending the steps from the loft to the garage floor below, he pulled the car cover off of the vintage Sting Ray parked there. “Ready for a road trip, old girl?” He took a rag from the shelf next to the car and wiped off a water spot from the last time he washed it. A few minutes earlier, while pulling on his jeans and sweatshirt, he’d made the decision that he wasn’t going to let Patti guilt him into something. He was frustrated, even angry about the economy, about GM, about the abysmal future that Flint faced without the company. No, he was going to go and that was all there was to it. “Looks like a great day! I won’t be long,” he said over his shoulder as he strode toward the back door of the house.
When Patti made breakfast, nine times out of ten there was an agenda, something she wanted to discuss or get off of her chest. In fact, it was at a breakfast like this that she and Russ had first suggested the idea of building the garage with his loft above. In the past, such breakfasts hadn’t happened often because there simply had not been time when they had all been working. Now, thanks to the free-fall that General Motors was in, time was hardly a factor in their lives. All three were still adjusting, even after six months, to their more carefree lifestyles. In fact, Rock thought it was proving to be hardest for Patti. She had built in her mind’s eye a picture of what it would be like, the three of them, romping through their retirement years. That picture had not included Rock’s current plan for the upcoming fall, winter and early spring. Patti had already made it clear to him that she thought he was nuts. He knew breakfast was a last-ditch effort to change his mind about leaving today for the Lake Michigan shore.
It was her habit at these gatherings to lay out more food than a dozen people could eat as if her power over the matters at hand might be increased proportionally by the amount of food leftover after everyone had eaten their fill. He suffered no illusion that breakfast this morning was going to be easy. He and Russ had been best friends for five decades now, ever since high school. The three of them had been close friends for three and a half decades. So many things had bound them together for so long. Rock knew, though Patti had never said it out loud, that she had convinced herself his time away from them over the upcoming months was some kind of precursor to the end of their friendship. Though he had tried to reassure her otherwise, breakfast this morning was proof to Rock of his failure in this regard.
He knocked lightly on the back door and let himself in. Patti met him with tears in her eyes and a bear hug. Rock put his arms around her and looked across the kitchen at Russ, who stood there shrugging his shoulders as if to say, “You know how she is.”
“Hey, what’s with the tears?” Rock asked.
She pushed away from him and pawed at her cheeks. “Sit down. Breakfast is getting cold. We can talk about this while we eat. Nothing worse than cold eggs.”
He and Russ commiserated about the miserable condition of General Motors while Patti scurried around making him a mug of Earl Grey and serving their breakfasts. When she finally sat down, the two men stopped the small talk.
Her opening gambit left no doubt about where she stood. “So, you’re really going to do this crazy thing?”
Trying to sound confident, he responded quickly, “Yes. Green Girl and I’ll be heading out about eleven o’clock this morning.”
“And how long are you going to be over there?” She knew the answer to this one. They had discussed it. She was just warming up.
“I’ll be back just before Memorial Day.”
Patti acknowledged his answer by shoveling a forkful of scrambled eggs into her mouth. Both men knew this was her show now, so they sat quietly while she ate. When she was ready, Patti asked, “And exactly why in the world are you going to the frozen edge of nowhere when you could be coming to Florida with us this winter?” Patti Sluwinski was a tough, direct woman who had worked in the man’s world of GM assembly lines for as long as either of them. “C’mon, Rock. Think about it. You’ve got enough money you can go anywhere you want, so why in the world did you choose this Little Point Whatever the Hell the Name of the Place Is?”
“Sable, Patti, the name of the place is Little Point Sable.”
“OK. Just tell me why there? I don’t get it.”
Now it was Patti’s turn to wait while he took a bite of his eggs. Her question was the crux of his earlier indecision and, while he hated to admit it, maybe this breakfast and her questions were exactly what he needed at this point to help him, once and for all, resolve any indecision. When he was finished with the bite of eggs, he took a sip of tea and answered, “I’ve got to get out of Flint. This place is dying right along with GM. I can’t sit around and watch that happen any longer.”
Impatiently, as if she were dismissing his answer, she waved her fork in the air. “You’ve told me that. But you still didn’t answer my question. Why there on the frozen edge of nowhere? I have this picture of you holed up in this cabin with only a wood fire to keep you warm, the winter winds howling across Lake Michigan like a banshee, you can’t get out of the place because you are snowed in and…”
He laid his knife and fork down.
Patti continued, “… and I don’t know what other miserable things might befall you over there,” waving her hands around for emphasis.
He slowly swiped his napkin back and forth over his lips, stalling. She was getting worked up and it would be easy for him to get angry at her, but he couldn’t. Her motivation was purely out of concern for him and concern for their friendship. All he could do was answer her questions. He waded into the fray, “Patti, stop it,” his voice holding a firm, yet gentle edge. “You’ve seen the pictures of the place. It’s beautiful.”
“Those are summer pictures, Rock,” she countered. “What’s this place like in the dead of winter? Can you get out to see a doctor if you need to? Or here’s a better question: Is there even a doctor anywhere around there that could see you?”
Russ, who’d kept his head down and was trying to avoid the line of fire, looked up and offered, “She’s got a point, Rock. It may be heaven in the summer, but you ain’t gonna be there in the summer, buddy.”
“Look, you two. I will be fine. I’m going to Little Point Sable, not the North Pole. The Jeep’s in Silver Lake in a storage locker. I’ll put Green Girl away for the winter there and take the Jeep out to the cottage. That thing is built for two-tracking. There’s a hospital in Shelby, ten miles away. I’ll be fine,” he repeated.
Russ took a different tack, “You know, Rock, Green Girl is worth a lot of money these days.”
Russ was right. Rock had paid just under six thousand dollars for her as a new car thirty-six years ago. The Fathom Green, ’72 Corvette Sting Ray was now worth ten times or more that amount at the right auction. Rock had kept her in mint condition. “You gonna just throw her into some storage locker for the winter? I’ll drive you over and bring her back here. How about that?”
Patti harrumphed something unintelligible, having neither an appreciation of vintage cars nor an understanding that Russ’ suggestion was some sort of weak compromise.
Rock appreciated what his old friend was trying to do, but easily recognized the flaw. “Russ, I know you’re trying to help, but the guy at the storage locker is going to supply me with electricity so I can hook up her battery tender. I’ll clean her up, hook her up and put the bag over her and she will be just fine. I can even go into town and check on her periodically. Who’s gonna do that here after you guys leave for Florida in November?”
Patti wasn’t going to give up. “It’s winter, Rock. What the hell are you going to do all day over there when it’s fifty below zero?”
Calmly, as if to imply they should not be surprised, he said, “Read and think.”
Patti shook her head. Russ tried to hide behind a forkful of eggs. As good of friends as they were, as much as they had all helped each other through the good times and the bad over all of these years, there was a distinct difference between them. That difference had placed them on opposite sides of this great divide before. He knew it was their friendship that was driving them to make him change his mind and he loved them for it. But when it came to things like the Great Recession, Rock’s DNA contained an extra chromosome that most working-class stiffs didn’t have to contend with. It wasn’t that stuff like the recession didn’t make Russ and Patti angry. It did. He had never seen either of them as riled up as the day all three got their notices of mandatory retirement. Between them there were over a hundred years of experience on GM’s damned production lines. How could the company just blow off that kind of experience, that kind of loyalty and dedication? But over the last six months their rhetoric had softened, maybe even his had, too. Yet the rhetoric that kept sifting through his thoughts had not softened. Rock Graham always wanted to know, “Why? Why did 58,000 have to die in Vietnam? Why hadn’t he been one of them? Why didn’t we know what Osama Bin Laden was planning? Why did we invade Iraq?” He had come to his own terms with these questions by reading everything he could get his hands on about them. Now with this Recession bearing down on the country, the whys were mounting up again. “Why had credit been so easy to get? Why had the financial markets put so much stock in such risky business? Why hadn’t GM planned better? Why hadn’t Chrysler… or Ford?” And the big one that was really bothering him, “Why wasn’t someone being held accountable?” It looked to him like the middle class was taking it on the chin while the fat cats on Wall Street and in the Board Rooms around the country were still living pretty well. As for the politicians, the government officials, they really got his dander up. Since the Monica Lewinski scandal, public apology seemed to be the accepted cure for malfeasance. But no one was even trying to apologize for the economic mess the country was now in.
Softly, Patti offered, “Rock, you know you can’t change what’s already happened.” It didn’t help. He was in his Why?- mode, and she knew that the only way out for him was to read and think. Patti gave Russ her look that said, “OK, I give up. He’s your best friend. Say something!”
“Listen, buddy, you could ‘read and think’ in Florida and, then, when you got tired of doing that you could go fishing with me. You could take your meals with us. It would save you time if you didn’t have to cook.”
Rock shook his head. It wasn’t working.
Russ tried one more time, “You could help us look…”
“Russ, don’t…” Patti cautioned.
Rock looked up to catch Patti shooting Russ her killer look. “Help you look for what?”
Russ dove back into his pile of eggs. Patti was glaring at him.
Rock smiled and took a guess. “You guys are going to look for some property down there, aren’t you?”
Their sheepishness was all the answer he needed. “Hey, look, I think that’s a great idea. I’ve heard Florida is as bad off as Flint, so that means they must be giving real estate away down there.” He glanced back and forth between the two of them.
Patti didn’t miss a beat, “OK, so call off this cockamamie freeze-your-ass-off idea of yours and come to Florida and help us look for a place.”
For as long as he’d known her, Patti always played hardball, and today was certainly no exception. He leaned back in his chair, forced a smile, shook his head and stuttered weakly, “I…I can’t do that. It’s not you guys. I’d just be bad company.”
Claire, Ingrid and Beth
For most of the twenty-minute drive into downtown Holland Claire pondered Alan’s apparition she’d seen in the garage and whether or not she should mention it to her grief counselor. In Claire’s mind it was a setback after nearly a year of progress. She knew that two days from now, on Monday, the first question the counselor would ask would be, “How was your week?” As she pulled into a parking space about two blocks away from Brides-to-Be, any decision on how to answer that question was overtaken by the reality that she was very late.
She stopped at a Bigsby Coffee Shop on Holland’s main street, waiting in line ten minutes before walking out with three tall, skinny mochas to take as a peace offering.
At 10:45 a.m. she opened the door and stepped into Brides-to-Be and Ingrid’s wrath. “Mother, what is going on? Beth called and said you were going to be late and that she was delayed as well. That was an hour ago. I have been here waiting all this time. I have to be …”
Claire blocked out the rest of the lecture. She was sure Beth would have been here by now and would have diffused Ingrid somewhat, but apparently that task was going to be left to her. “Darling, I am so sorry, but I overslept…”
Impatiently, Ingrid shot back, “Where’s Beth? My God, Mother, this is her wedding! It seems to me that she could be…”
The door opened and Beth stepped into the shop.
“Well, it’s about time…”
Beth looked at Claire and then at her sister. “I… I’m sorry, Ingrid, but…”
“Don’t tell me you overslept. Am I the only one in this family that has an alarm clock?” One of the store’s consultants approached the three just as Ingrid fumed, “I have to leave at twelve. If we can’t get this done between now and then, the two of you will just have to do without me. I wasn’t the one that was an hour late.”
Tactfully, the consultant hung back, waiting to see if there were to be any more exchanges. Claire handed them a mocha and said, “Ingrid, we’re both sorry. Now let’s not ruin a beautiful morning over this…” she wanted to add triviality, but knew that would cause Ingrid to erupt again, so she stopped.
Brides-to-Be was not the bridal shop for those looking to do a wedding on a budget. It was well known across west Michigan as the place to go for all your wedding needs, if your wallet could withstand the strain. The impending nuptials between Beth Van Zandt and her fiancé, Dr. Nathan Hathaway, would be one of the more lavish events of the year, but one that Claire Van Zandt’s wallet could easily handle. The consultant waiting to help them was one of the store’s owners, and she had become wealthy herself by handling these kinds of weddings and catering to every whim of the over-indulged clients who sought her services. Stepping forward, she addressed Claire, assuming she had the money backing the wedding, “Mrs. Van Zandt, welcome to Brides-to-Be. I’m Mary Jane Bielama. Please call me MJ.”
Taking the proffered hand, Claire said, “Good morning. I’m sorry we are so late, but it couldn’t be helped.” In the corner of her eye she saw Ingrid shaking her head, but cut off any further eruption by beginning introductions, “This is my daughter, Ingrid Hoffman, the Matron of Honor.” Claire then turned toward her youngest. “And this is the bride, Beth.”
MJ shook each of their hands, artfully choosing whom to call by their more formal names. “Well, Mrs. Van Zandt, Mrs. Hoffman, Beth, shall we get started? I have taken the liberty to lay aside a dozen or so dresses that I thought you might like, but certainly if none of these are what you are looking for, we have a much more extensive inventory for you to look through. I see you have coffee, but if you’d like something else just let me know. I have made a pitcher of mimosas this morning if you’d like.”
The three demurred. MJ led them through her collection of wedding gowns. An hour later, Beth stood on an elevated podium in an exquisite gown imported from Paris. Ingrid fussed with the neckline while a seamstress listened and nodded dutifully. Beth, from her perch, looked over Ingrid’s head at her mother, who was watching all of this with tears in her eyes.
By the time the seamstress had finished this first fitting, Ingrid glanced at her watch and announced, “It’s 11:50 a.m. We could have gotten more done today. Next time, be on time.” She grabbed the light jacket she had taken off earlier, pecked her mother on the cheek and said, “Next weekend the firm is celebrating its twentieth year in partnership. Ethan and I would like you to go with us to the party. It’s at the Country Club. I’ll call you with the details. It’s important, Mother. We think they are going to offer Ethan a full partnership.” Over her shoulder as she flew out the door, she added, “We could use your support.”
Beth looked at her mother, who smiled at her and nodded, “It’s a beautiful gown, honey.”
MJ escorted Beth back to the dressing room and helped her out of the dress. As Beth finished dressing, MJ asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to look at today, my dear?”
Beth thought for a moment and replied, “Not today, MJ. We’ll be back another time and work on picking out dresses for Ingrid, the bridesmaids and Mom. The wedding is December, 13th. There will be six bridesmaids. How much time will you need to get the gowns fitted?”
MJ thought for a moment, “As long as we have everything picked out and first fittings finished by November 15th, we will have plenty of time. Does that work for you?”
Beth nodded, “I will make sure we have everything done by then.” They shook hands, and Beth walked over to Claire, who was looking into the mirror of a compact and blotting her eyes. “You OK, Mom?”
“Yes, just fine.”
“Would you like a bite of lunch? I could sure use some. There’s a Panera near here. They have wonderful salads.”
Claire nodded. “I’ll drive.”
“How about if I meet you there? Nathan and I are leaving for Detroit at four. He has tickets to a Red Wings game tonight… some skybox thing he wants me to see.”
“I didn’t realize you were a hockey fan.”
“I’m not, but remember those golf trips you used to go on with Dad?”
Claire nodded, “Enough said. I’ll meet you at Panera.”
It took Claire about twenty minutes to walk to her car and drive to Panera. Beth was waiting for her inside. “They have a great Asian chicken salad here, Mom.”
Claire nodded, “Sounds good. What do you want to drink?”
“Oh, no you don’t, I invited you to lunch, remember? This is my treat.”
Beth stepped up to the counter and ordered two Asian chicken salads, a green tea and asked Claire, “What would you like to drink?”
Claire gave a smile of concession, “The same. Thanks, honey.”
They picked up their teas on the way to their table. As they sat down, Beth apologized, “I’m sorry you had to take the blast from Ingrid this morning.”
“It’s OK. I wish she wasn’t so driven…” Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but truthfully Claire so much more enjoyed Beth’s company over Ingrid’s.
“Are you going to go?”
Claire looked at her quizzically.
“To the thing at the Country Club with Ingrid and Ethan,” Beth clarified.
“Oh, that. Yes, I suppose so. If she thinks it will help Ethan.”
Beth smiled and shook her head, “You used to do a lot of stuff that you really didn’t like doing when Dad was alive, didn’t you?”
“No, honey. What makes you think that?”
“C’mon, Mom. I’m not a little girl anymore. The golf trips? Remember? Those dinners with clients at the Country Club? You didn’t even play golf.”
Claire laughed. “No, I didn’t, but your father thought it important that I be there, and I was always glad that he included me.”
Beth paused somewhat apprehensively and then asked, “Well, what about all the times he didn’t include you?”
The question made Claire grimace. “What do you mean, dear?”
“I mean all that time you spent alone, raising us girls, while Daddy was off someplace around the world building some bridge. All of that had to be tough on you.”
Claire didn’t respond, unsure of where this was coming from and what was triggering it. She caught a brief reprieve when their salads arrived and they busied themselves with napkins, utensils, salt and pepper.
“I don’t know if I can do it, Mom.”
Claire sensed a deep foreboding in Beth’s voice, but avoided overreaction. “Do what, honey?”
Claire laid her fork on her plate and looked across the table into her daughter’s eyes, where the first tears were welling up. “Beth, honey, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, Mom. When I’m with him, I love him; I love everything about him. He’s so gentle with me. But…”
Claire sat quietly and let Beth frame her thoughts. Beth, on the other hand, was having trouble finding a way to say what she had to say without hurting her mother’s feelings.
“There’s a side to Nathan that is so much like Daddy and Ingrid, it makes me think I can’t spend the rest of my life with that part of him. It’s a part that I see more and more. I take second place to everything in his work life. I find myself waiting on him to call… and he does… but usually it’s hours after I was expecting him to. Then when he tells me what he was doing, some lifesaving operation or something, I feel guilty, but I also have this overwhelming sense of having been cheated somehow. It’s like you and…”
Claire completed her daughter’s thought, “It’s like it was with your father and me.”
The tears were streaming down Beth’s cheeks now as she nodded. Claire reached across the table and took one of Beth’s hands in hers. “Bethie,” Claire had not called her that in a very long time, “I loved your father with all my heart. He was wonderful to me and he was a good father to you girls, but he was also a brilliant engineer and he built a world-wide business with that brilliance. God, I miss him now that he’s gone.” Then as if reassuring both herself and Beth, Claire repeated, “I loved him with everything I had inside of me.”
They reached for their napkins at the same time and blotted their tears. “If you had it to do all over again, would you marry Daddy, knowing how much he was going to be gone?”
“Absolutely,” Claire answered without hesitation. “Yes, I would.”
Beth just looked into her eyes, smiled weakly and said, “I’m just not sure I can give away so much of myself.”
Claire thought how very different her two daughters were. They ate in silence for a few minutes before Claire said, “Beth, I can’t make this decision for you, but I want you to understand how important it is. I can tell you this, look at yourself and who you want to be and what you want to do, as much as you look at Nathan and who he is. If you want to talk about it, then you know I’m here for you, but only you can decide. I will support whatever decision you make. Know that. Never doubt it.”
When they finished eating Beth looked at her watch, “I’d better get going.”
“Enjoy the evening, darling, even if it is hockey.” They laughed.
“There will be some other docs there tonight. They want Nathan to join their practice in Detroit and to apply for hospital privileges at a hospital over there. I don’t know where he will find the time to…” She hugged her mother tight. “I’ll call you,” she said as she let go and headed out the door.
Claire waved good-bye, knowing that she would be true to her word. Beth stopped home all the time and called her almost every day. Ingrid seldom did either.
By John Wemlinger
Review by Michigan in Books
Where to start? Frankly, this was a book I was hesitant to pick up. The cover art and blurb described the book as “a poignant tale of loss, love, and redemption” involving a war hero and a wealthy widow. Romance and heaps of sentimentality just aren't in my reading wheelhouse. Then I saw the dedication which, in part, reads, “In admiration of the citizens of Flint, Michigan, who endured the incredible corporate and governmental ineptitude resulting in the Great Recession of 2009. Now you must endure the monumental failure of government that caused Flint’s 2016 water crisis. You are America’s most resilient city!” As a Flint native, this was the first time a book’s dedication was the hook that made me turn to page one. Ironically, only a small portion of the book takes place in Flint but it does contribute to one of the book’s major character’s development.
Rock Graham is retired after a thirty-year career as a Flint shop rat. A few wise investments and a lot of 60-hour weeks on the line have provided him with a comfortable retirement in Flint where he lives in a pleasant apartment above the garage of his life-long friend and his wife. And although the year is set in 2008, Rock is not greatly affected by the collapsing economy or GM’s flirt with bankruptcy. Rock is also a Vietnam vet and PTSD is still a constant presence in his life. With his landlords heading to Florida for the winter, Rock decides to rent a house for the winter an hour north of Holland on the Lake Michigan shore. Within a week of moving in an injured, malnourished border collie shows up on his doorstep and is quickly adopted.
Claire Van Zandt lives in Holland and has been widowed for three years and still occasionally considers grief counseling. She is also obscenely rich and although she owns three houses, five cars, and the money still flows in from her dead husband’s company like water over Niagara Falls, she gives millions away every year to food banks and other charities. She is especially aware of how the economic situation is hurting the poor. One daughter is planning her marriage and the older daughter is putting her job before her child and trying to make a go of a stressed marriage. On a whim, Claire decides to spend some time at the family cottage an hour north of Holland with her constant companion, a yellow lab. As fate, or the author, would have it, Claire’s cottage is next door to the one Rock has rented for the winter.
The dogs bring the two neighbors together for long walks on the beach. Rick and Claire enjoy each other’s company and a budding friendship develops. The friendship results in thoughtful discussions of the day’s issues and glimpses into their backgrounds and lives. Each slowly begins to inhabit the other’s life, and love blossoms. And with it come a number of problems, including medical, family, and social. Wemlinger has written an often moving and sensitive book about two aging loners who find someone to share their life with without drowning the story in sentimentality or melodrama.
The author, a retired U. S. Army Colonel, has written an honest book about to two characters and their lives before and after they met. Rock and Claire seem as real as the reader’s next door neighbors. And whether they are discussing the issues and economics of 2008, dealing with friends, family problems, health, or the displeasure of Claire’s oldest daughter on her mother’s choice of a companion the book very seldom hits a false note. This is not so much a modern romance as it is a novel of two single people, on the cusp of old age, who are lucky enough to find someone to enjoy and share their lives with. John Wemlinger has written an impressive and very promising first novel.