Addison sat on a bench in the Maritime Park, unaware of the flotsam of people passing her by. Barking sea lions jostled and jockeyed for position on the nearby pier, much like the pedestrians around her. A young man sitting at the adjacent sidewalk café unbuckled his belt, pulled down his pants, and squeezed a hypodermic needle into his left buttock, but even this did little more than tickle her attention.
An elderly woman carrying a leather satchel with a large golden lock sat beside Addison. Kicking off her shoes, the woman let out a sigh, propped on ankle on her knee and massaged her toes.
“I can always tell when it’s about to rain,” she said. “Arthritis. I didn’t used to believe in achy joints predicting the weather, just like I used to think that people claimed to have motion sickness just so they could sit in the front seat.” The woman slid Addison a glance from under her lashes, probably to see if Addison was paying attention.
Addison thought about moving to another bench, but that would take energy and gumption—two things she currently lacked.
“You’re probably too young to have arthritis. How about motion sickness?”
Addison pulled herself out of her funk long enough to glance at the elderly woman. She wore a velvet patchwork skirt, a silk blouse, and a string of pearls around her neck. The sharp sea breeze toyed with her silver curls and had turned her pale cheeks pink. She exuded a friendly curiosity that made Addison want to crawl under the bench and roll into a ball. But because it would be rude to say nothing, she squeezed out a syllable. “No.”
Addison took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose. “No, I don’t get motion sickness.”
“That’s good.” The woman smiled as if Addison had just informed her the Giants had won the World Series. “Then perhaps you would like to go whale watching.” She fumbled in her satchel and pulled out two glossy blue and red tickets. “I bought them for me and my grandson, but circumstances have changed and that’s no longer possible.” She paused. “He’s a lawyer,” she added with more exasperation than pride.
Addison opened her mouth to protest, but couldn’t find the words. The mid-spring sun, so often hidden behind clouds in Northern California, warmed her skin. Not even the weather could offer an excuse. After a moment, she came up with, “Isn’t there someone else you’d like to go with?”
“No. Landon is my only family, other than my sister Erma. No one likes her. And all my friends are dead.” She said this without a trace of sadness. “It’s nature’s way of punishing me for hanging around so long—I had to watch all my friends die.”
Addison’s lips twitched. An hour ago, she hadn’t thought she’d ever smile again, and here she was, chatting with a stranger. “Sure. I’ll go whale watching with you. When is it?”
The woman let out a long sigh. “You’re a lovely girl. I used to look like you once—willowy with long red hair. Now, of course, I’m gray and more Monterey pine than willow. I hope this won’t offend you, but I no longer wish to go.”
“But you look nothing like a Monterey pine. They’re all twisted and weather beaten.”
“It’s silly to compare yourself to a tree. Why not a cat?”
“I’m allergic.” The woman winked at her. “Would you like to go whale watching or not?”
“Are you sure?” Addison took the proffered tickets, and saw they were for tomorrow morning. She had thought to leave before then, but she’d already paid for the vacation rental for the weekend, so she might as well stay. “Would you like me to buy them off you?”
“Not with money.”
“Oh.” Addison’s suspicion hackles rose. She didn’t like making deals with strangers.
“You can tell me a story. I collect stories, you know.”
“Really? So do I!” Addison perked up, but then remembered her sadness. “Or at least I did.”
“Once a writer, always a writer.”
“No…I am a writer, just not a very good one.”
The woman quirked an eyebrow.
“Not a successful one,” Addison amended, thinking of her collection of rejection letters from agents and editors. “And I own a bookstore, so I collect stories there, too. Or I did.”
“The economy,” a sick anger burned in her belly, “and the ugly tide of self-publishing. I leased out my bookstore last week. Soon it’ll be a massage parlor.”
The woman chuckled.
“I’m glad someone can laugh about it.” Addison tucked a loose curl behind her ear.
“Well, you have to admit, a bookstore and a massage parlor are both in the same business.”
“They’re both used to manipulate moods.” The woman gaze at her with watery blue eyes.
“Is that it?” the woman asked, her gaze growing more intense.
“Is what it?” Addison squirmed beneath the woman’s scrutiny.
“Is your failing bookstore the reason you look like someone drowned your cat and poisoned your dog?”
Addison thought about confessing her mistake to this woman, but she wasn’t ready to admit it, not even to herself.
The woman patted Addison’s cheek with a hand of bones and papery thin skin. “It’s okay to be sad. Here, I have something that will cheer you.” She pushed her satchel toward Addison.
“It’s a story. I’ve been carrying it around, wondering what to do with it. I didn’t feel I could leave until I found the right person to take care of it for me, but you are that person. I want you to have it.”
Addison opened up the satchel and peeked inside at the hundreds of typewritten pages. “You don’t think your grandson will want it?”
“No, he only reads nonfiction.” She said this in the same sort of tone she would have used to say he only eats fried liver and onions.
Addison smiled. “Thank you. This is…so kind.”
The woman slipped her feet back into her shoes. “No, thank you. It’s nice to see a story you love reach a happy ending. Now how about you? You owe me a story.”
“You don’t want to hear my stories.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Well, why would you? No one else does…”
The woman contemplated her. “Perhaps you’re right. How’s this? In payment for those tickets, you need to make sure that this weekend has a happy ending.”
Addison thought about the disappointing beginning of her weekend, and bit her lower lip. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I can promise you that.”
The woman leaned forward to peer into Addison’s face. “Will you try?”
“Huh. Sure. I’ll try.”
The woman pulled herself to her feet. “Goodbye, my dear. Promise me you’ll take good care of my story and write a happy ending for this weekend.”
“I promise,” Addison said, although she had no idea how to do that, or what the woman was asking of her. As the woman tottered away, Addison glanced around and spotted a bookstore. Because she’d learned long ago that her only hope for a happy ending lay between the pages of a novel, she headed for the familiar warmth of a shop full of books. After buying a blueberry muffin and a cup of tea at the counter, Addison found a plump upholstered chair near the window, pulled out the manuscript, and began to read.
By Geneva Leigh
Wanted: A nice, plump, healthy, good-natured looking domestic and affectionate lady to correspond with. Object: matrimony. She must be a believer in God and immortality. She must not be a gadabout or given to scandal, but willing to endeavor to create a happy home.
The Arizona Sentinel, 1875
Poke was playing her song! White-hot anger, as mind altering as any potion or aphrodisiac, flashed through Rita. Clarisse, a virginal vision clothed in white lace, opened her mouth to sing, and Rita grabbed the closest weapon she could find, an occupied wig stand, and headed for the stage.
Clarisse’s high C turned to a squeak and her blond curls bobbed when she saw Rita flying up the stairs wielding the wooden head.
“That’s my song, you little strumpet!” Rita took center stage and swung at Clarisse.
The wig hit Clarisse in the face, but she brushed it away as if it were a large, hairy fly. Clarisse straightened her dress and picked up her tune, leaving Poke, the pianist, a few stunned beats behind.
With the wig stand braced in front of her like a battering ram, Rita charged. Clarisse jumped away, and Rita landed in the curtains. Clarisse climbed onto the piano bench, jostling Poke, who lifted his hands from the keyboard and flashed Rita a startled although amused look. Clarisse, balancing beside the pianist, nudged him with her tiny shoe. “Please continue, sir. This audition is not over.”
“Oh yes it is!” Rita dropped the wig stand, which bounced around her feet as she lunged for Clarisse.
“Now, Miss Clarisse, you know I can’t let you climb on the piano.” Poke, struggling not to laugh, reached for but missed Clarisse.
Clarisse inched across the lid of the upright piano as Rita scrambled onto the bench and, using Poke’s shoulder as a toehold, tried to join the music-thieving Clarisse on the top. Poke grabbed Rita and hauled her to center stage. She kicked Poke’s legs and tried to pry his grip from her waist.
“Can’t you see she’s a complete nutter, Ivan?” Clarisse said from her perch on top of the piano. “We simply cannot have her in the troupe.”
Rita wriggled for a better look at Poke’s good-natured face. “I wrote that song. It’s mine. She stole it!”
“I didn’t steal it. Besides, how can one steal a song?” Clarisse asked. “I simply heard it, learned it—”
“Through the paper-thin walls while I wrote it. Do you want to know what I heard through the walls?” Rita smacked her lips, making kissing noises. “If you get a spot in the troupe, we will all know why!”
Clarisse gasped in outrage, and Ivan, the director, laughed from his place in the dark auditorium.
“I got my position in the troupe because of my gifts and talent!” Clarisse said.
So Clarisse already had a role. Little wonder. “And your willingness to share your...gifts and talents.” Rita wiggled, but Poke wouldn’t let her go.
“Would you like to sing, Miss Ryan?” Ivan’s disembodied voice spoke from the theater seats. Because of the dark house and the flickering gas lights lining the stage, Rita couldn’t see Ivan and wished she could. She longed to read his expression.
Poke didn’t seem in the least perturbed about holding her. Of course, he was built like an ox. He was not solely the troupe’s accompanist but also the “man at large” responsible for assembling and disassembling the heavy settings.
“Set her down,” Ivan said. “Let’s hear her.”
Clarisse put her balled fists on her hips. “I think we have heard quite enough from her!”
Poke chuckled and set Rita down. Rita flashed Clarisse a warning glance. Rita worried that Clarisse might stomp the piano keys or kick at Poke, who was settling onto his bench, acting as if having a blond tart atop his piano was de rigueur.
“You wrote this song?” Ivan said. “Then let’s hear it.”
“Ivan,” Clarisse’s tone turned silky soft, reminding Rita of Clarisse’s many “private auditions,” when Ivan had undoubtedly seen and heard more than a song…or two.
“I’ve heard you, Clarisse. I know what you can do,” Ivan said, confirming Rita’s suspicions that Clarisse had only gone through the formality of the audition for the prime purpose of discouraging Rita from joining the traveling troupe and escaping dreary Seattle.
Poke played the opening bars while Rita stared into the lights. Blood pounded in her head and zinged through her veins. Every nerve tingled, and goosebumps rose on her arms. The Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe was her ticket back to New York City, and she wasn’t about to let a trollop like Clarisse steal it from her.
Rita came in right on cue, her voice steelier than her spine and almost as strong as her resolve.