As I promised on Monday, here is a free shot of horror, 2,500 words of weirdness I have titled…
The flower shop was small and crowded with cold cases and displays but the ceilings were high and the mood was bright. Hanging baskets on five foot chains meant the plants still needed to be watered on a step stool. A teenaged boy was doing just that when she entered. Tall windows, trimmed in white with intricate moldings, lit him from behind. The youth was thin and beautiful, an altar boy tending plants instead of candles.
“Excuse me,” she said to him after the bell on the door stopped jingling. “Is Mrs. McGlidden in?”
“Are you here to pick up an order?” He came down from the stool with a watering can in his hand.
“No, no order,” she said. “I’d just like to have a word with Mrs. McGlidden, if she has a minute.”
“Okay, she’s in the back. I’ll get her.”
“Thank you so much,” she said.
A woman came from the back room a moment later and met her over the wide counter.
“Martha McGlidden,” the woman said. She shook her grey hair and worked her stiff fingers, extended her hand like a man. “Whom do I have the pleasure?”
“Lori Davis. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you too,” Martha said. “What’s the occasion?”
“Occasion? Oh — I’m not here about flowers,” Lori said. “I’m sure you don’t recognize me, but you do know me. I’m the biographer who wrote the book about Jeb.”
“No, doesn’t ring any bells. I’m sure I didn’t read your book. I just don’t have time to read anymore. Which Jeb are we talking about again?”
“Jeb McGlidden, the famous recording artist. He was your husband’s cousin.”
“Oh yes, that Jeb,” Martha said. “I’m sorry, I’ve been stooped over arrangements all morning and I’m out of it. My husband wasn’t very close with Jeb, and I never actually met the man. If you wrote his biography you know that he was quite a rolling stone, never around for holidays or family get-togethers.”
“Of course,” Lori said. “I understand your husband passed away last year. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Martha said. “He was a wonderful man. So what can I do for you today?”
“I’m doing research for an updated edition of Jeb’s biography. My publisher thinks it’s a good idea to, you know, add some new material, more details, that kind of thing.”
“Oh goodness, I mean, I just don’t know much about Jeb. Honestly, I don’t think my husband did either.”
“I understand,” Lori said. “I wonder — do you have any photo albums, cards, letters, memorabilia that I could look at? I know you’re busy. I could meet you later. I’m going to be in town for a few days. Completely at your convenience.”
“I suppose I could take a look this evening,” Martha said.
“That would be fantastic,” Lori said. She picked up one of Martha’s business cards from the counter and wrote down her number. “Give me a call and I’ll come by. Or we could meet over dinner, my treat?” She handed Martha the card.
“Dinner might be good, but let’s play it by ear for now. Who knows if I’ll even find anything.”
“Nothing’s too small. Anything you have about Jeb would be valuable to me. Anything.”
“Okay, well, I’ll keep that in mind, and I will call you. But right now, I really need to get back to work. Let me see what I can find,” Martha said. “I’ll call you.”
“Thanks so very much,” Lori said. “Very very much.”
“You’re very welcome,” Martha replied.
“Talk to you soon.”
“Yes, soon. Have a good day.”
Lori waved to the boy and set the bell jingling again as she went out the door into the street. She bounced down three stone steps cupped in the middle from a hundred years of scuffling feet and turned right on the sidewalk. The clock above the bank next door read five after ten o’clock, temperature fifty-one degrees. There was nobody in sight on the broad clean street, no litter in the gutters, and no cigarette butts blew up in drifts like they did in the city she called home. A few red leaves tumbled around in the sunshine. She drew up her phone and took some pictures of the street and of the signs. She had never seen a place this before, a place this clean and uncomplicated, a place as crisp and fresh as the mountain air.
In the distance she saw a familiar red marquee. Apparently the little town had attracted the attention of a nationwide drugstore chain. She pulled up her phone, went to the website, and verified that even this small town branch offered photo processing. She made a mental note to take advantage of her good fortune later.
At the corner she caught the sign for Dan’s Market on the opposite side of the street. There was no flashing sign to say “WALK” or “DON’T WALK.” Lori waited for a truck to pass then crossed. She snapped a picture of the grocery store sign. An elderly man was exiting the place with a squeaky red wagon holding a cardboard box of groceries. She held the door for him.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
A middle aged lady at the single checkout line smiled at her. “Can I help you find anything?”
“No thank you, I’m not here to shop,” Lori said. “I guess you can tell I’m not from around here.”
“Yes ma’am, I can. I pretty much know all the faces. What can I do for you?”
Lori went through her routine about the re-release of the biography and asked the clerk if she knew Jeb McGlidden.
“Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize he was famous! Well, as much I’d like to be quoted in a real book, I can’t lie and say I know much. He worked here bagging groceries as a kid, two summers running, and we chatted a little bit I guess, you know, the way people do when they work together. That was before I took over running the place for Dan. Back then I was just a cashier…”
They talked. The cashier introduced herself as Jillian Quarles.
“What was he like?”
“He was great kid, you know. You could tell he was going to make something of himself someday. He was handsome, outgoing, and he used to sing when he mopped the floors just before closing time. Boy, he could sing good. He could really sing, if you know what I mean. Not just carry a tune, I mean really sing.”
They talked awhile longer. Lori got out her pad and took notes. When the details stopped coming and Jillian began to repeat herself, she put her pad away and smiled.
“Now Jillian, you said you didn’t know much!” Lori said. “You’re a treasure trove! Is it alright if I quote you in my book?”
“Of course you can,” Jillian said.
“Can I have a picture as well?”
“I’m not really dressed…”
“Not for publication,” Lori assured her. “For my files. I meet so many people you know. And you were so fun, so exceptional, I just don’t want to forget you.”
“That’s so sweet. Well, okay, sure,” Jillian said.
Lori took a picture of Jillian and snapped a few more of the interior of the store as well. They said their goodbyes. There were lots more stops to make. She got out her pad and flipped back to the check list of locations she had to cover while she was in town.
In a window booth at the Ridge Diner, Lori unfolded her map. It no longer crinkled when she spread it out. It was soft and thin, pummeled from paper into cloth by almost constant use. She put her finger on Nashville, Tennessee where Jeb had died five years ago in a dressing room at the Lemondrop Club, his life cut short by a drug overdose. She traced her finger up the blue pencil line she had drawn, up Route 65 to Louisville, Kentucky where Jeb had stayed for several years playing small clubs before going to Tennessee. She followed the blue line further up, tracing Route 71 to Cincinnati, where he had only stayed a few months, then East on Route 32 for a bit before the line got wavy and broken. Those had been Jeb’s soul-seeking months, going from park to park with his yellow labrador and spending nights in his van. The line ended up in Charleston, West Virginia where he had spent a Fall and Winter with his half-sister Marquesa. From there it went down Route 77, out 64 East to 81 North, and up to Luray, Virginia where he was born and raised. She had sailed upriver to the source, from his end in Music City to his beginning in this small town in hill country. There wasn’t much left to see. Tomorrow she would go and take pictures of the house he had grown up in, and if there was time, visit his father’s grave.
It was getting dark. On the idle street outside the diner window a single pair of approaching headlights came to life. From her messenger bag she got her scrapbook, a glue stick, and the pictures she had printed at the drugstore. She pasted them in carefully, drank more coffee, transferred her notes from the pad into the blank spaces beside the pictures. The book was getting full. It was almost complete.
Her cell phone vibrated on the table.
“It’s Martha McGlidden…”
Martha had a few things for her but not time to share dinner. Lori suggested she come and join her at the diner for a cup of coffee. Martha agreed. While she waited for her source to arrive Lori ordered a slice of pie, slipped in her earbuds, and listening to a selection of Jeb’s tunes from her cell phone. The pie was perfect. Maybe when Jeb was a young boy working at the Dan’s Grocery he had sat in this exact booth and eaten pie, had looked out at the road and thought about making his way to Nashville someday.
Martha came in, waved to a waitress she apparently knew, and walked over to the booth. Her face was serious and she did not take off her coat. Lori stood and offered her hand.
“Hello again. Thanks so much for coming.”
“Oh, it’s no bother,” Martha said.
“Would you like some coffee or…”
“No thank you, I can’t stay long,” Martha said. “I’m sorry, but after the day I’ve had, I’m too through. I’m ready to settle into my favorite chair and have a glass of wine. I have a wedding tomorrow, and flowers to deliver by ten, so…”
Martha had brought a small manila envelope of pictures from Jeb’s childhood. Jeb was an awkward looking boy with big ears, but very cute. She pointed to the people in the pictures and Lori penciled the names on the backs. Many of the names were familiar to Lori from prior research, people whose faces she had never before seen. She found it hard to keep from babbling with excitement.
“You know,” Martha said, “I tried to find your book online so that I could buy a copy. I couldn’t find it.”
“Oh,” Lori said. “I guess the publisher must’ve pulled it down in preparation for the second edition. I’ll have to look into that.”
“Funny though,” Martha said. “There should at least be a few used copies available…”
“You’d think the publisher would leave it up to clear out the old edition,” Lori said. She drew a ten dollar bill from her bag and put it on the table to cover the coffee and pie. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“No it doesn’t,” Martha said. “It’s as if your book doesn’t even exist.”
“If I’ve learned one thing about publishing Mrs. McGlidden, it’s that nothing about the entire business makes any sense. Well look, I know you have to get to bed early, so I won’t keep you,” Lori said. She stood up and put on her coat.
Martha looked up at her with squinting eyes in search of focus and detail. “When I couldn’t find your book I called one of my friends, a notorious gossip in these parts. She said she heard that Jeb had a child with some groupie he met in Nashville. You should find that girl and interview her. I’m sure she’d be a wealth of information.”
Lori ignored the woman’s probing, tucked the envelope of pictures into her bag.
“Thanks so much for the suggestion, for the photos, and for coming to meet me. It’s been a pleasure,” Lori said. She shook Martha’s hand. “Good luck with your wedding job tomorrow.”
Lori walked out into the cold dark air. At the next corner she turned off Main onto a side street, cut through an alley, and doubled back to go in the opposite direction. There weren’t many cars on the road. She pulled a stocking cap from her bag and a pair of gloves.
It was a long walk out Route 211 to the camp ground. It took almost an hour, but the shoulder was wide and grassy for most of the way, and the sky was a brighter blue than it was in the city. The foothills of the Blue Ridge were rounded and distant, beautiful, ominous. The bag on her shoulder was heavy. Even with the book almost done, there was still so much to do and so much farther to go.
The sign for the campground was brightly lit. Lori walked up the asphalt drive and down the gravel lane. She unlocked the door and entered the camper, went to the bedroom in the rear. She opened the giant cream-colored dog crate beside the bed and identified the smell. She had left him too long. Her baby had made a mistake inside.
“I’m sorry I was gone so long. Poor Little Jeb Junior,” she said. “Come to Mommy.”
He crawled out and into her arms, big brown eyes looking sad. He was getting so big. Every day he looked more and more like his father.
“Are you mad?” he asked.
“No honey, no! It’s not your fault you made a mess, it’s Mommy’s fault,” she said. “Let’s get you cleaned up, and then we’ll have some dinner, okay? After dinner I can show you all of the great stuff I got for your book, so that you can grow up to be just like your Daddy.”
“Oh honey, you’re welcome,” she said. “Now let’s get you out of those dirty clothes and get started. It’s getting late, and you need to read your book and practice guitar before bed.”