Jenny re-opened the shop a few minutes before two o’clock, after what she expected to be a brief lunch with Fiona. Conversations with her tenant turned friend left her feeling spent, and she carried a steaming mug of strong chai tea downstairs for an extra caffeine boost to get through the afternoon.
She glanced out the window and took a deep breath, hoping for an adrenalin rush to get her started again. Outside, people walked the streets, barely taking time to look at the spring window display she had created. Instead, they trudged along to their destination without a glance. People did not notice what they saw every day, the very reason she made it a point to change her window display often. Yet, the downtown foot traffic had idiosyncrasies. People took to the streets with a purpose when they had to walk from one place to another during the workday. She could understand that when the weather did not cooperate, but today the sun warmed the streets, not enough to call it a spring day, but the temperature teased it would soon arrive.
Aside from folks in the neighborhood stopping in for lottery tickets and Mrs. Chadwick’s morning visit, there had not been a lot of business activity in the past few weeks. Closing for lunch was not an issue on any given day since she had a sign on the door that instructed customers to ring the bell during the lunch hour if they needed assistance. It also rang in her apartment, and she could walk downstairs to assist a customer within seconds. Quieter times at the store troubled her, but she had several jobs in the works for the DIH women, and expected a strong income flowing in for the next several months because of it.
She inhaled the rich aroma of the pungent tea, and could feel the warmth of the ceramic mug penetrate her skin as she walked to the small office in the back. Nothing more than a decent sized closet when the butcher shop made its home here, Jenny took advantage of the space and turned it into an office. The back stockroom felt crowded with boxes and other supplies, but a closed-door kept customers’ eyes from observing her cluttered secrets. In the file cabinets, she kept her business records as her father had before. She also squeezed in a small corner desk to hold her computer that she used during working hours, with an even smaller chair that looked appropriate for a first grader. Still, she made it work. For most of her personal needs and her column, she used the laptop upstairs in her second bedroom. The store computer contained the shop’s records, and she sat down with her tea hoping to locate the seller of Mrs. Chadwick’s dress. The woman may have been vague with her responses when she asked for the name, but Jenny tracked down information with ease and found what she searched for most of the time.
First, she logged in to check email. Both her personal and business accounts shared the same address. The message from Andrew Gordon stood out instantly among the spam that promised her lucrative work from home opportunities and great rates to refinance her home. She ran the cursor over the unopened email without a subject she and gave herself permission to wish for more than book club news. After several delicious seconds, she clicked through, and her heart leapt for a moment when she noticed that the message contained her name alone, and not others in the club. A personal message for her waited below, and the possibilities thrilled her. Once she could not stand the tension any longer, she scrolled down to read the mysterious message.
“Jenny, would you mind coming about a half hour earlier to our next meeting? I have something I want to ask you.”
She reread the message again and then again and again. Why did the message have to be so vague? What could he want to ask her that he could not write in the email, and what would take 30 minutes to discuss? While she pondered the possibilities with both positive and negative thoughts swimming around her head, and without much thought, she wrote in the reply area, “I’ll be there. See you then.” Once she sent it off, she wanted to change what she had written. She could have said it better, friendlier. Sexier, she heard her mother’s voice say, and this time she would have been right. She could have said, “I would love to,” or even “Yes, that sounds nice”, anything to show interest in what he had to say. However, like her name, her life, and her lunch hour, she stuck to tradition and kept it plain. For God’s sake, she thought, I should have been born Amish.
Her mother and Fiona often told her that she acted aloof when men were around, shutoff to any possibilities that might arise, and that is why they did not pursue her. After all, men needed a signal of interest before they pounced. It is better for their fragile egos, they explained. They rarely agreed on anything, so she had to believe the advice held some validity, even though it didn’t seem right. She had seen plenty of women bothered by men, who gave them no sense of interest at all. Her mother told her that beautiful women did not have to try as hard as she would have to. Another harsh criticism. Another bitter pill to swallow.
She could email Andrew again, and send a friendlier, more suggestive note, but that might come across too forward or worse, too needy. She promised herself to make eye contact when they did speak in person, and smile a lot to make up for her obvious blunder.
Thankful for the temporary distraction, she picked up the ringing phone expecting to speak with one of the distributors regarding the button. Instead, her editor’s voice took her by surprise. Bill Hower had run the “Old City Weekly” for the past three years. Chatting by phone seemed foreign since they rarely did that, and she had not missed a deadline, so what did he want.
“You’re not going to believe this, Jenny,” he said. “You had an interesting fax delivered here today.”
For a column that appeared in a neighborhood newspaper twice a month, at times it generated more buzz than she could handle. Still, she felt more fearful than curious when she asked, “Who is it from?” Keeping with tradition, her gut instinct swung toward the negative, and she believed she had done something wrong.
“The DIH,” he said fueling the fire, and Jenny’s stomach twisted in a knot. They were going to sue her, or send her a cease order demanding that she stop writing about them. They could not get her on slander charges, though. Her words conveyed the truth. Besides, she avoided names, although she did insinuate plenty. Maybe they were demanding Bill to reveal the source, and she wondered if he could keep their secret, even if threatened with jail time.
Coming back earth, she realized her little column didn’t warrant such drama. Only in her mind did that world exist. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “They want me to stop writing the column.” She said it aloud because she figured it to be the most minor of all of possibilities running through her head that ran the gamut from a hefty fine for impersonating a real journalist to a public flogging in Franklin Square.
“Why would they ask you to do that?” Bill laughed, and his tone teased her. “You’re a terrific advertisement for them and they know it. They might not like what you say all of the time, but you’ve done the impossible.”
Jenny unclenched her fist and relaxed. “What’s that?”
“You’ve made the untouchable snobs in this city interesting. That takes a lot of talent, you know. And they see it too, now that they’ve embraced your column.”
“What do you mean embraced?” she asked feeling a little more hopeful. “Did they say they liked it?”
“Not in so many words, but they did invite you, or should I say Carrie Grant, to become an honorary member of the Daughters of the Hall.”
What! Did she hear him right? They did not want to punish her in some humiliating way for all she had written, and they wanted to make her a member of the DIH? Why did that make her feel anxious? Then she understood. She could not accept the invitation no matter how much she wanted to. “Wow,” she said brushing her arm with the palm of her hand, another nervous habit she gravitated to when feeling awkward. “Too bad I’ll have to decline.”
“What are you talking about, Jenny?” Bill asked. His tone, surprising and sharp, startled her. “Why would you do that?”
“Because it would destroy my business.”
“Ah, Jenny, think a little outside the box on this one,” Bill said. “If we play our cards right, we both can build a lot of promotional mystery around this. We could tease our readers Carrie will come forward at the DIH annual gala in May. Our ad dollars could double for the next few months, and you may be able to save a failing paper. It is time to come out, Jenny. You may not get another opportunity to do it on a grand scale like this.”
“It would be an awful big chance to take with my livelihood,” Jenny said, feeling weak in the knees.
Bill laughed. “Are you kidding me? This could be the most exciting thing that happened to the paper in years, and it might draw more customers to your shop. Did you ever think of that? I thought this is what you wanted. You were pretty devastated when they turned you down last year.”
How did he know that? She thought she hid her disappointment rather well. “I’d like to think I got in on my own merits, and not because they are curious who I am. Besides, once they find out it’s me, I’m sure they will retract the offer.” As a businessperson, Bill had to sell ad space to keep the paper going, and she understood his point of view. Nevertheless, this is not what she wanted.
“That’s not likely, Jenny,” he said. “It would be devastating to their reputation. Mull it over for a few days and we’ll revisit it again next week. By then,” he added, “maybe you’ll come to your senses.”
“Hey, what you said about the paper,” Jenny said. “Is it true? Is it in trouble?”
“We’re OK,” Bill said. “I’m sorry for my dramatics. We are not in any more trouble than any other rag in the city. We are feeling the pinch in print advertising dollars, but at least the online ads are strong. I want this for you, Jenny. I won’t lie, I want it for the paper, too.”
Jenny hung up feeling shaken, as if she had appeared naked in front of the entire city. Bill sounded sincere, and she wanted the paper to succeed. Together, they managed to keep the column in the spotlight and remain quiet about its author’s identity. As the mystery grew, they did not want to risk appearing together. Bill told her not even his small staff knew the true identity of Carrie Grant.
It had been an adventurous afternoon. First, she received the cryptic message from Andrew that set her nerves aflutter and now an invitation to join the DIH shook her core. The universe is sending me a message, she thought, poking a little fun at Fiona and her theories. Nothing is an accident, Fiona would likely say. It looked like she picked the right day to defy tradition and take a later lunch. If all things were connected as Fiona believed, what lunacy had that one decision set in motion?
She wanted to believe she could help the paper by revealing herself as Carrie Grant, yet the thought of losing all of her respected customers, or even losing her part-time writing gig frightened her and it did not seem like a chance worth taking. Jenny worked hard to open the shop, against the advice of others who told her she would not succeed for a variety of reasons. She forged ahead anyway, out of character for someone ruled by people’s opinion, and began turning a profit in her second year, all due to the wealthy center city women who could turn a cold shoulder once Carrie Grant’s identity revealed itself the night of the gala. It was much easier to deal with them behind a secret identity, although that didn’t say much about her strength of character.
Pushing this crazy nonsense aside, she turned her mind back to the tasks she had to complete. She had a button to find for Mrs. Chadwick, and an antique curio cabinet to track down that had not yet arrived at Mrs. Walton’s home this morning. It almost slipped her mind since she fielded the call right before Mrs. Chadwick came in. Her day took a strange and busy turn at that point. She decided to start with the cabinet, since it would not require more than a phone call. She picked up the receiver and dialed the number of the trucking company. After she had the appropriate information, the trucking company had delivered the cabinet after all, and had a delivery receipt signed by Mrs. Walton, another member of the DIH, ten minutes after she called to complain, she dialed her customer’s number to make sure everything arrived as expected.
“Yes, it arrived,” Mrs. Walton, said. “I didn’t care for the men who delivered it, but the piece is stunning.”
“I’m glad you like it, Mrs. Walton,” Jenny said, thinking her commission check would soon be on its way. She wished Mrs. Walton had let her know the cabinet arrived, but it did not surprise her. Mrs. Walton had to find some fault in each transaction, no matter how minuscule. “Let me know if I can do anything else,” she said.
“You could report those men to their supervisor,” she said. “I think one of them was drunk. And the other had the nerve to ask to use the bathroom.”
“The trucking company is not one of the vendors I use, and now I won’t with what you just told me,” Jenny said. “If you recall, the seller made the shipping arrangements. I made a few suggestions, but they took care of the rest.”
“I don’t have the time to track down their supervisor. Isn’t it your job?”
Taken back by the remark, Jenny shrugged, although she should have been used to it. This circle of women felt entitled to do or speak as they wished, without any regard for feelings or consequences. She ended the call insinuating she would contact the trucking company to make the complaint, but she knew it would go no further than that. Mrs. Walton had seen the piece on a pawn shop reality program, and called Jenny to track down the owner and make an offer, which she did and she made a fine commission. However, in those types of sales, as the third party she had little to say about the processing.
She crossed the task off her to do list, realizing it would be useless to call the trucking company, and did a google search on Boston distributors who specialize in colonial clothing. Just as she hit enter, the chimes in the front signaled an opening door. A quick walk to the front revealed her customer was Mr. Hiller again, and this time he had his two Scotties by his side.
“Is everything OK with the teapot, Mr. Hiller?” she asked, but her eyes focused on the dogs looking fresh groomed. “You both look mighty spiffy,” she added, bending down to pet them.
“Everything is great, Jenny,” he said. “I picked up the boys from their day spa and we’re out for a walk. It is a fine day for March. I thought I would stop in and buy a few more lottery tickets. Five in all, and this time we’ll let the machine pick the numbers. It’s best to leave some things to chance.”
Jenny smiled, knowing the last part of his comment was directed at her, and wishing she could have the faith Mr. Hiller had, or even Fiona, no matter how misplaced. “Wow,” Jenny said teasing him, “you’re trying to improve your odds to win, I see.” She ran the numbers and took $10 from Mr. Hiller. “I guess I don’t understand the appeal of the lottery.”
“It’s all about taking a chance,” he said. “Sometimes you have to shake things up because you don’t want life to become too predictable.”
She smiled. “I suppose I should listen to these pearls of wisdom you’re sharing.”
He nodded. “I’m not a clever chap, am I? You see right through me, my dear.”
Jenny shrugged. “You are clever and wise, Mr. Hiller. I do need to keep more of an open mind.”
“And also confront your fear on occasion,” he said. “It’s good for you. Did I ever tell you the story about my wife and her skydiving experience? Petrified of heights, yet she still had the desire to jump from an airplane. She decided to take a chance on her 50th birthday, and go for it. I know it took a lot of courage for her to follow through, and she told me she wanted to chicken out, but decided not to let this get the best of her anymore.”
“So, she did it,” Jenny asked. “She jumped?”
“She did,” he nodded. “She also said she never wanted to do it again. Nevertheless, she faced her fear. She enjoyed that part.”
Jenny smiled. The universe was definitely trying to send her a message.