Fiction: Starting Over

A fiction story. First of three installments.

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Josh Marsh struggled for air in the judge’s stifling chambers. The judge’s lips moved, but Josh’s thoughts crowded out all other sounds. His faded blue eyes shifted to his granddaughter, Lacey. Now her lips moved. What was she saying?

“… and if he doesn’t want me, Judge, I don’t want him. I’ll be ten in November, and I can take care of myself just fine.”

Judge Walker held up his hand and said, “Lacey, I admire your spunk, but living on your own is not possible. If your grandfather won’t take you, I’ll have no choice but to make you a ward of the court.”

“I can cook and keep house,” Lacey said, then jabbed a thumb in Josh’s direction and added, “Better than him, I’ll bet. I helped Mother. It’s not hard.”

The judge sighed with a patronizing smile and said, “Lacey, honey, it’s just not going to happen. I’m sorry.”

“Your honor,” Josh said, as he straightened his usual slump and managed to catch up with the conversation. “It ain’t that I don’t want her. I love my granddaughter. Of course I do. But don’t you understand, I’m seventy-eight, and I’ve been batchin’ for nigh on twenty-two years. I don’t know nothin’ about little girls. Besides, I live in a small cabin, and I ain’t got much money.”

“Lacey will get Social Security,” the judge said, then asked, “How much is your monthly check? Do you have a pension, Mr. Marsh?”

“I manage to get by, but it costs a heap to live nowadays,” Josh said.

“How much savings do you have? You do have a savings, don’t you?”

“I got a little in savings, but I gotta watch that close, you know. Two funerals hit hard, too.”

Lacey’s head dipped and turned to shoot a measure of scorn at Josh. A social worker sat by the windows, and the judge’s secretary sat on the opposite side of the room. Both women were wide-eyed and motionless.

Josh looked down at Lacey, who was sitting in a big leather chair with her legs pulled up tight to her chest. Fur ball size, she appeared to be all lower lip, sulking the way she was. Josh looked out the window. It should be storming outside – to match his mood, he thought. Instead, an elm’s sprouting leaves danced in the spring breeze against an azure sky.

But that was outside. Inside, the room was mired in silence, except for the judge’s fingers drumming on his antique mahogany desk. Bushy eyebrows hovered over ominous eyes as Judge Walker studied Lacey, so tiny, yet full of grit. At last he spoke.

“Lacey, it’s not good for you to go to a foster home when you have a grandfather. And Mr. Marsh, I’m confident you’ll find a way to manage. At any rate, I want you two to try it for a month. Then I’ll want to know how you are doing.”

Josh looked back at Lacey. Pinched lips protruded in a granite jaw, but tears streamed down her cheeks. Josh choked down a lump in his throat and pulled out a tattered old bandana. He wiped away the beads of sweat from his brow, then blotted his eyes.

“Lacey, you and these ladies wait outside,” Judge Walker said. “I want to talk to Mr. Marsh in private.”

The social worker put her arm around Lacey’s shoulders and led the young girl out of the office. The secretary shut the door behind them.

Judge Walker stood up and said, “For God’s sake, Marsh, that little girl just lost both of her parents in a terrible accident. Your attitude is not encouraging. Normally, I wouldn’t put any child in your care, but my gut says Lacey is as independent as a rattlesnake, and she’ll manage you just fine. But you, sir, need to suck it up and think of somebody besides yourself for a change. Lacey’s welfare will be your sole responsibility now, and you’re the one we’ll look to if anything happens to her. Is that clear?”

“You don’t understand, Judge.” Josh picked up his Stetson from the floor, and his lanky frame rose out of his chair like a puppet being pulled up by strings. His wrinkled Western shirt had the honor of being slightly cleaner than his jeans.

Josh towered over Judge Walker, and the judge looked up at him.

“I understand very well.”

“Judge, I never saw this girl before today. It’s like, uh, well, she’s like a stranger to me,” Josh explained.

“That’s your fault, too,” the judge said. “You have a nine-year-old granddaughter, and you’ve never even bothered to see her.”

“Me and Ralph, my son-in-law, never cottoned to each other,” Josh said. “And New Jersey is fifteen hunerd miles from Montana. They never brung her to see me neither.”

“Well, now you and Lacey will have plenty of time to get acquainted.”

Josh looked down at the battered pine flooring.

“Just because you’re from out of state doesn’t mean I won’t keep track of you and Lacey,” the judge said. “In fact, I’m going to send the whole story to a judge in your town. You do right by that girl, or I’ll come after you myself. Now, you go take care of the paperwork with my secretary, and then you and Lacey can go.”

Josh ran his fingers through his gray-streaked hair before he positioned his hat on his head. His lean, weathered face drooped, and he rolled his eyes around to face Judge Walker. He sucked in a deep breath of air like he wanted to say something, but after a moment, he exhaled and shrugged his shoulders. His lips twitched in a failed attempt to smile, then he turned and walked out the door.

 

 

Josh’s wrinkled boots shuffled on the sidewalk. A splintered toothpick hung out the corner of his mouth. Lacey followed to his right and behind him a little. Her right shoulder drooped due to a heavy cloth bag she carried. She looked like a lamb being led to slaughter.

Josh stopped beside a 1979 Ford pickup and looked at Lacey, then said, “We’ll stop by your Mama and Ralph’s place to get your things and load some of their belongings in my pickup.”

“This is your truck?” Lacey asked.

“It’s a good ’un. Get in.”

“Nice colors – green, rust and dirt.”

“It gets me there. Get in.”

Lacey opened the door, and an RC Cola can rolled out into the gutter. She surveyed the mess in the seat and balked at getting in. Josh got in on the driver’s side and looked at her, then looked at the old magazines, donut boxes and unopened junk mail in the passenger seat. He put his arm behind it all and swept it onto the floorboard.

Lacey retrieved the soda can from the ditch, then threw her bag in the seat and climbed in. She shut the door with a loud blam. The door drifted open again, and Lacey declared war with it. With the third blam, the door surrendered and stayed shut.

“Where’s the seat belt?” Lacey asked her grandfather.

“I cut ’em out,” Josh said.

“Great,” Lacey replied.

Josh spit his toothpick out the window and turned the key. The starter ummped like that was all there was going to be, and then the engine growled angrily. A lone cylinder fired, then another, and another, until all cylinders joined in with a roar. Josh yanked a lever, and the truck lurched forward like it had been gouged. As they pulled out, black exhaust smoke blew up all around them.

“You drove this all the way from Montana?” Lacey asked.

“Can’t hear you. You’ll have to talk real loud when we’re travelin’.”

“Never mind.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘Never mind!’” Lacey hollered loudly.

“I won’t then.”

 

 

In the house where Lacey and her parents had lived, it was apparent that Lacey placed a much higher value on her parents’ belongings than her grandfather did.

“Look, little girl, we can’t get everything in my pickup,” Josh said. “Besides, when we get to Montana, I ain’t got no place to store it all anyway. My place ain’t that big.”

“We can’t leave Mother’s dresser with all her makeup things in it.”

“You won’t need that, and anyway, I can’t make room for it. You’ve already loaded up books, pictures and a gosh-awful mess of stuff. We’ll have to give the neighbors what’s left.”

“The dresser has to go. My daddy’s tools have to go. And our dishes … and … Well, it looks like I’ll just have to stay here, and you can go on back to Montana without me. I’ll manage just fine,” Lacey said.

“That ain’t what the judge said. He said I have to take you with me. You ain’t takin’ a likin’ to me, and I ain’t takin’ a likin’ to you, but we have to make the best of it. I can take a few more boxes, and then we’ve got to hit the road. Hey, hey, where you goin’?”

“I’ll be right back,” Lacey hollered as she ran out the front door.

“She’s headstrong just like her mama,” Josh muttered to himself. “This ain’t never gonna work.”

He looked to see what else he could fit in the back of the truck. He decided there wasn’t anything they needed, so he sat down on the sofa and dug another toothpick out of his shirt pocket. He flicked a clump of lint off of it, then stuck it in his mouth.

Lacey returned to find Josh sitting down and not loading anything.

“I thought you were in such a big hurry,” she said. “So why are you just sitting there?”

“I didn’t see nothin’ worth loadin’, so I sat down to wait on you.” He raised his chin and spit his toothpick out on the floor, then he rolled his eyes to make sure Lacey saw his gesture of defiance.

 She ignored him and said, “Mr. and Mrs. Jenson next door said if we leave what we can’t carry, Mr. Jenson and their son will haul what’s left to their basement. They have a big basement, and they’ll keep it until we can come back for it.”

“You’re outta your mind, little girl,” Josh said. “That’s a three-thousand-mile round trip. The whole house of stuff ain’t worth the trip.”

“First, don’t call me little girl,” Lacey said, “and second, just as soon as I can, I’m coming back here.”

“Soon as the judge lets you leave, I’ll buy your bus ticket.”

“It’s a deal then.”

 

 

Without warning, Josh swung into the parking lot of a mom-and-pop eatery and said, “I’m hungry. You?”

Lacey didn’t answer, but she got out of the pickup and slammed the door very hard. The door remembered who was boss, and it stayed shut.

Inside the eatery, Josh and Lacey went in opposite directions. Josh sat down at a table, then noticed that Lacey hadn’t followed him. He got up and found her in a booth on the other side of the room.

Disgusted, he shuffled over to the booth she’d claimed, sat down and picked up a menu.

“You got any money?” he asked.

“About ten dollars, I guess.”

“Good, we’ll go Dutch then.”

Lacey puffed up like a toad. She got up and moved to the adjoining booth. She and Josh were now sitting with their backs to each other.

Josh turned his head as far as his stiff neck would allow and said, “I ain’t poisonous. You can sit with me.”

“If I am going to pay for my own meal, then I would prefer to sit at a booth by myself.”

Josh muttered something under his breath just as the waitress walked up to the table Lacey occupied.

“The man in the booth behind me just mumbled something mean about me,” Lacey said. “Will you please ask him to quit being childish?”

The waitress looked flabbergasted.

Josh got up, moved over to Lacey’s booth and said, “Look here, little girl, you and me are gonna have to come to some kind of understandin’.”

“If you are speaking to me, my name is Lacey.” She looked at the waitress. “If this man insists on sitting at my table, please ask him if he intends to pay for my meal.”

“I’ll come back when you two get everything decided,” the waitress said, then turned around to leave.

“No, wait,” Josh said as he gave Lacey a hard look. “All right, I’ll pay for her meal.”

Josh chomped down on his toothpick, and it splintered in his mouth.

Lacey looked at the waitress and said, “See? See how he acts?”

“I’ve seen worse,” the waitress replied. “You ready to order?”

 

 

Josh’s pickup groaned in protest for having to carry a load of furniture. It shared its displeasure with the two weary passengers in the cab. Hot oil and gas fumes penetrated its leaky firewall and caused Lacey’s eyes to burn. The cab grew as hot as a furnace, and as sweat ran down Lacey’s face, Josh wiped the sweat from his neck and brow with his wadded-up, dirty old bandana.

Facing the setting sun intensified their misery. Lacey pulled down the sun visor, and it fell off in her hand.

“Oh, I meant to fix that,” Josh hollered, as Lacey dropped it onto the floorboard with the other stuff.

“What year did they invent air conditioners for cars?” Lacey asked.

“Huh?”

“Never mind.”

“I won’t then.”

 

 

The neon sign that read Sundown Motel, Singles $16 caught Josh’s eye, and he coasted into the parking lot.

“Gotta leave the engine runnin’ until we park for the night,” he told Lacey. “When she’s hot, she might not start up again.”

“Why are we stopping here? I don’t have money for a room,” Lacey said.

“All right. I’ll get the room.”

“Just one room?” she asked.

“Yes, just one room.”

“A lady can’t spend the night in a room with a strange man.”

“Dadburnit. I ain’t no strange man. I’m your granddaddy,” Josh said.

Lacey sulked a moment, then said, “I suppose we can share a room, but you have to promise not to be mean.”

“I promise,” Josh said as he got out of the truck. “Whoooee, and this is just the first night.”

A few minutes later, Lacey entered the room and wrinkled her nose up at the dingy smell. She found a Bible beside the twelve-inch TV, and she picked it up and thrust it toward Josh.

Josh looked at the Bible dumbly. Then he straightened his stooped shoulders, expanded his chest, held his hat over his heart, laid his other hand on the Bible, and said, “Cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die.”

Lacey smiled triumphantly.

That night, Lacey refused to turn the light out, so Josh placed his hat over his face. His hat rim smelled of sour sweat, but he’d smelled that many times. Faint sobs drifted his way, and he wished he couldn’t hear them. Of course, Lacey had reason enough to be unhappy, but he felt trapped in his own misery, and he didn’t have enough sympathy for both of them.

Josh thought of happier times, when Emma, Lacey’s mother, was a little girl. He remembered her as a loving child, but by-doggies, when he thought about it, she always had to have her way, too. Josh was exhausted, but his lifetime habit of accepting the hand he was dealt allowed this stressful day to evaporate into the dense fog of sleep.

 

 

The morning air was cool, so they closed the windows in the pickup. Once Josh completed his gear-changing ritual, he dug in his pocket for a toothpick.

Lacey opened her window.

“Hey, little girl, cold air is whipping around on the back of my head,” Josh said. “I’ll get a crick in my neck.”

“A crick isn’t as bad as breathing in stinky ol’ engine oil.”

Josh opened his window to counteract the air coming from Lacey’s side, but engine heat was already drifting into the cab, so it was time to open the windows anyway.

“You told the judge …” Lacey started to say.

“Speak up. I can’t hear you.”

“Never mind!”

“I won’t then.”

 

 

Over burgers at McDonald’s, Lacey pointed a french fry at Josh and asked, “When we were with the judge, what did you mean when you said you paid for the funerals? Daddy’s insurance covered the funerals. What expenses did you pay for?”

“Shoot,” Josh said. “It cost a plenty travelin’ fifteen hunerd miles, and that’s just one way. Cost again as much to get back home. And I didn’t bargain on payin’ for your eats on the way back neither.”

“You could have stayed home,” Lacey said. “You didn’t even get there in time for the funerals.”

“Drive shaft dropped off and dug into the pavement in Rapid City,” Josh said. “Darn near flipped me over. Lost three days. Cost me a bundle, too.”

“You didn’t call. We didn’t know whether you were coming or not.”

“Phone wasn’t handy, and I didn’t think you’d wait on me anyhow.”

“If you had stayed home, you wouldn’t have had to take me, and I wouldn’t have to be going to Montana. I could have stayed in New Jersey. Mrs. Jenson probably would have taken me in.”

“Hindsight’s clear as crystal chiner, ain’t it?” Josh replied.

“You said you live in a small cabin,” Lacey said. “Tell me about it.”

“Cabin ain’t much, but I got the prettiest parcel of land in all creation.”

“Is there a school close by?”

“Never think much about schools,” Josh said. “There used to be one in town when your mama was goin’.”

“You don’t live in town?”

“Heck no, a feller’ll get clausterphobic in town. No, I don’t go there anymore’n I can help it.”

“How far do you live from town?”

“Seventeen miles, give or take.”

“Will I have my own bedroom?”

“There’s a bunk room in back. Full of stuff now, but there’s a bed under it all somewheres. We’ll find it.”

Josh gulped his cola, then thumped his chest with his fist and belched.

“That’s awful,” Lacey said.

“It’s good for you,” Josh said. “It cleanses your innards.”

“Yuck.” Gloom settled over Lacey like a black cloud.

When they left McDonald’s, the Ford no longer sizzled as it did when first shut down, but heat still enveloped it like a cocoon. Cranking the engine was a skill Josh had perfected, or maybe the truck started because it knew it wouldn’t see peace until it got them to the end of their trail.

Josh and Lacey established ground rules for the next fourteen hundred miles. Lacey outmaneuvered him most of the time, and it boiled down to a touché here and there for four days.

Occasionally, Josh would yell something funny, and Lacey would look out her window so he wouldn’t see her giggling. At times, Lacey’s cackles were so ridiculous that Josh’s only response was to sag his shoulders, droop his head and smile limply.

 

 

With awe, Lacey viewed the gradually changing landscape. Woods, hills and towns melted away, leaving flat expanses of nothing but grass. Eventually, even the grass gave way to sagebrush on land so dry, Lacey wondered if it had ever seen rain. At times, brisk winds manhandled Josh’s pickup, and tumbleweeds sailed across the road mixed with whirlpools of dust. On one occasion, Lacey pointed with excitement at a distant herd of antelope racing across the prairie.

The old pickup huffed, puffed, groaned and rattled, but never faltered mile after mile. Lacey had studied geography, but she had no idea the country was so big. One morning, she watched a strange dense cloud taking shape straight ahead on the horizon. The deep blue sky pressed the cloud down against the land. As the Ford cranked away, a purple mass swelled up under the cloud, and Lacey realized this was her first view of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains. She thought they would soon be close, but an hour later, she wondered if something wasn’t moving the mountains away at the same speed they were traveling. Arid land gave way to distant pockets of evergreen trees that passed in slow motion, and straw-colored grass claimed the open areas.

Eventually, when the mountains loomed high in front of them, Josh yelled, “I’m gonna cut north ahead. We ain’t got turribly far to go now.”

Soon, they saw a small sign that read Bynum, Pop. 72.

“This here’s downtown Bynum,” Josh said, but they were already on the way out of town in the time it took him to say it.

Two miles later, Josh turned west on Sweetgrass Road. Again, they were headed toward majestic mountains.

“Continental Divide’s up yonder on them mountains,” Josh said, pointing.

The houses were spaced about a half-mile apart. All of them were modest homes. White houses with green lawns looked inviting, but others needed repairs and paint, and their yards were cluttered. After ten miles, the pavement ended, and the Ford dropped with a clunk onto a dirt road. A monstrous cloud of dust rolled up behind the pickup, and a chorus of rough road rattles thundered.

The sun had slipped over the Rocky Mountains by the time they arrived at Josh’s cabin, and a full moon was at their back. A long driveway into Josh’s cabin was a one-lane dirt road with grass growing in its middle. Tall grass on either side of the road swiped the truck with a rustling sound. As they neared the cabin, a rusty hulk of a truck was half-sunk in tall grass. Beside it, a buckboard slanted down on one corner, where only spokes remained on the wheel. On the other side of the road was a pile of rotted fence posts.

 

 

The sun was down, but the moon shone bright when Lacey stepped out of the truck. The outline of a barn loomed behind the cabin. The cabin, with its low-pitched roof, had a stone chimney on one end. A door with a horseshoe over it was plain enough, but if there were any windows, they were behind piles of junk stored on the porch.

Moonlight allowed Lacey to identify a few of the items. A grimy oil stove beside a table piled high with truck parts sat to the left of the door. The space to the right was barely big enough for a large wooden chair with canvas cushions and an oil drum overflowing with soda cans. A horse collar, branding irons and spurs hung on the wall behind the chair. Seat belts from the Ford were looped through the horse collar. A semicircle of yard in front of the porch was littered with little white things among a scattering of straw. Lacey bent down and realized they were decaying cigarette butts.

“You smoke?” she asked.

“Used to. Took to chewin’ on tall grass to break the habit. Saved a bundle by not smokin’ – enough to pay for my RC Colas.” He smiled proudly.

“So now you just belch, huh?”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.”

“I won’t then.”

 

 

In spite of being gone for two weeks, Josh hadn’t locked the door. Inside was total blackness until Josh pulled a looped string hanging from the ceiling that turned on a single light bulb. In the harsh light, Lacey scanned the contents of Josh’s cabin. She couldn’t see the far wall for the conglomeration of stuff Josh had accumulated over the last two decades. After a quarter-scan, her face was glum. By half-scan, her face was long and distressed, and her mouth dropped open. She abandoned the rest of the scan and turned to Josh, who was grinning broadly.

“It’s always good to get back home, ain’t it?” he asked, absent-mindedly.

That was the moment when all of Lacey’s recent misfortunes crushed any waning spirit left in her tiny body. She doubled over on the floor, and an animal howl wailed out from within her.

Josh jumped back in stark alarm. What had he said? What had he done? What should he do? What could he do? He felt an impulse to lay his hand on her back, but he didn’t think she would want that. In fact, he thought she might ferociously reject the idea of him consoling her. So, instead, he backed out of the cabin door and plopped himself down in the wooden chair on the porch, as dust poured out around the cushion’s torn cording.

Lacey’s crying came in torrents. Haunting moans and heart-rending sobs drifted out to assault Josh’s ears. His shaking fingers inserted a toothpick into his mouth. Tear-filled eyes sealed compassionate thoughts inside his head – thoughts for Lacey ... and for himself. He tried to put the toothpick back in his pocket, but it broke in two, so he flipped the pieces into the yard, then swiped the back of his hand over his quivering lips.

Finally, Lacey’s crying subsided, and Josh could hear her walking around inside the cabin. A moment later, she came out on the porch.

“Where’s the bathroom?” she asked. “I couldn’t find it.”

“It’s out yonder by the barn,” Josh said. “You can’t miss it.”

Lacey looked at him in disbelief and began crying again. Her hands fell at her sides, and a moment later, wetness glistened in the moonlight as it ran down her legs and onto the porch.

Josh never felt so helpless in his whole life.

 

 

The kitchen light was a small bulb hanging from a twisted cord. There were only a few places the light’s feeble rays could penetrate Josh’s junk well enough to see the room’s dirty walls. Shadows weren’t shadows, they were black voids. Water came from a well, Josh’s only luxury item, but the stacks of dirty dishes were proof that water was used only as a last resort. Lacey turned on the water. The sink drained through the back wall, and Lacey could hear it splashing in the yard.

All they could find for supper were crackers and peanut butter. They ate with not a word to break the crunching sound.

When they were finished, Josh said, “Reckon I’ll mosey into Bynum tomorrow and buy a few groceries.”

Lacey envisioned the groceries Josh would bring home, so she quickly said, “Great. I’ll go with you.”

Josh considered the potential trouble Lacey could give him in a grocery store. He wanted to tell her she couldn’t go, but he knew he wouldn’t get away with that.

So many things had been thrown on Lacey’s bed over the years that some of it had avalanched onto the floor. Josh’s idea of clearing the bed would have been to push everything onto the floor, but there wasn’t much floor available. Lacey carried things out to other rooms and dumped them wherever she could find space. Josh picked up a few things and looked like he didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with them.

Eventually, he disappeared for some time and came back empty-handed. Lacey gradually unearthed a double bed with a deep-dish indention in its center. A faded patchwork quilt covered the bed.

“Dessie Mae quilted that,” Josh said. “I forgot I had it. Purty, ain’t it?”

Lacey was so exhausted she fell face down on the bed. She immediately jerked back up, though. She placed her hand over her mouth and nose to keep from breathing the dust she had stirred up. A moment later, she slowly climbed back in.

“Please shut the door on your way out,” she told Josh.

Four-foot-tall stacks of newspapers slouched against the door made closing it impossible. Josh just shrugged as a gesture of how hopeless it was.

“Never mind,” Lacey said.

“I won’t then.”

After Josh was gone, Lacey got up and pulled the string to turn out the ceiling light. Moonlight penetrated a dingy window to cast a square of haze on the pine floor. A triangular piece of glass was missing, so there was a matching bright spot on the floor.

Lacey knelt at the side of her bed to say her bedtime prayers.

“Lord, You sure got me into the worst mess ever. You let Mom and Daddy die, and You gave me to my grandfather – a stinky old man. He doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him. He dragged me fifteen hundred miles from civilization in a filthy old truck with no seat belts. He’s smelly, and he belches. Oh, and he’s so stingy I might starve to death. The only thing worse than his cabin is his outhouse. I know I’m bossy, Lord, but am I really that bad? Mom always taught me to take care of myself and not ask favors from anyone, but I’m in a fix here, Lord. If You could help me even a tiny bit, I’ll try to pay You back some way. Please, Lord, think it over. I’ll get back with you. Thank You, Lord. Amen.”

Lacey pulled herself onto the bed. She stared at moonlit hulks of Josh’s junk against the wall until her eyes filled with grit. She feared if she closed her eyes she would fall forever and ever down a black abyss, and not a soul anywhere would miss her.

Even the absence of sound engulfed Lacey like a shroud. It was so quiet – so terribly quiet. No New Jersey eighteen­-wheelers braking, no sirens racing by, no foghorn blowing. Nothing. Only two hearts – hers and a lonely coyote, whose mournful howl deepened Lacey’s sadness.

 

 

There wasn’t anything in the house for breakfast, so they drove to Bynum to eat at Opal’s. Josh and Lacey sat down in a booth next to a window. Lacey looked out at the main street, hoping to learn a little bit about Bynum. The Bynum Barber Shop, Crowder’s Drugstore, Williams’ Hardware and the Bynum Rancher’s Bank were located across the street. The only person in view was a man standing in the bank window with his thumbs tucked under his belt. When he noticed Lacey, he waved. Unsure about waving to a stranger, Lacey compromised with an anemic wave, then looked away.

Opal Carter was a pleasant woman. She wore her hair pulled tight into a bun on the top of her head.

“Josh Marsh, I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays,” she said. “Let me guess who this little lady is. You are the spitting image of Emma, so I’m guessing you’re her little girl.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lacey said.

“Well, why didn’t you bring Emma with you?” she asked.

“Emma and Ralph were killed in a car wreck, Opal,” Josh explained.

Opal gasped, then said, “Oh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry. Emma was a good friend. When did it happen?”

“About three weeks ago,” Josh said.

“I didn’t know, Josh. I didn’t see an obituary in the Bynum Weekly.”

“I kind of left in a hurry and forgot to tell anybody.”

“I understand. Will Lacey be living with you now?”

“For a month,” Lacey said quickly, as Josh nodded in agreement.

“If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know,” Opal offered.

“You can tell me what you remember about my mother,” Lacey said.

“Oh, I remember a lot. Emma and I were best friends,” Opal said. “Come to my place some Sunday afternoon. I’m the closest neighbor to Josh. About a mile toward town.”

Lacey ordered a scrambled egg, bacon, toast and milk. Josh ordered black coffee and two jellyrolls. Both watched Opal disappear to the kitchen to fix their breakfast. Josh knew Opal lived alone, and he wondered if Lacey would do better living with a woman.

 

Editor's Note: The second installment of this fiction story will appear on the Web in April.