"First things first, babe. Look at all these outdated tofu wieners and sprouted breads," answered Donny from the frozen case, waving her away.
Chick stepped onto the sidewalk, a freed woman. She poked a finger into the soil in the wooden planters to test for moisture. Donny's signature portulacas were gorgeous and bloomed in a rainbow of colors. Soil always smelled like spring to her, but it was full-fledged, mind-boggling summer now, hot and dry. There was plenty of snow pack on the mountains, though, so they might not have to suffer through forest fires this year. That was the worst of living around here; every couple of years the air turned yellow with smoke, and you couldn't go outside without smelling the burn.
Today she was going visiting on her afternoon off like a regular citizen and not a lesbian hippie who'd sold out and worked in a store sixty plus hours a week. She couldn't get over having become respectable. Of course, being respectable out West was different from being respectable in the Midwest, but who's counting, she thought. They weren't getting rich off the store and, until the seniors had started coming in, hadn't known if they would make it, but now they were comfortable enough to consider buying the building they were in.
Donny had told her she was taking the transition from outlaw to capitalist pig too hard. "The world isn't all black-and-white like you and me. It's not like you're selling insurance or wedding dresses."
"Still, I'm a little bit uncomfortable with all this. I probably need to accept what I am-a small businesswoman," she'd told Donny. She'd been doing their quarterly taxes, looking for write-offs to reduce their income.
"Every time I turn around you're giving away cash to some vagabond or to a stranger collecting for charity. And babe-"
"Hush. I'm trying to find the receipt for that check I wrote to the Girl Scouts."
"-you never have to be worried about turning into a small businesswoman."
With a laugh, she'd reached to smack Donny's rump, but she didn't feel that cheerful. There were times she had to wonder if her depression wasn't the symptom of some kind of growing pains, if that's what you called them in middle age. She was growing a new self, and that had to be painful.
She plunged across Stage Street. Through the plate glass windows of Mother Hubbard's Cupboard she caught sight of Sheriff Sweet raising a coffee mug in greeting. The sheriff's big spotted mare Gal was tied outside, next to a planter of lupins, snapdragons, and spicy-smelling carnations. There were a lot more horses downtown since the sheriff had taken to riding Gal. It made up in local color for some of the traffic from the casino. The tribe had their own police and state-of-theart security vehicles for casino problems.
"Hi there, Marshall Dillon!" she called to the sheriff, letting the screen door slam behind her. She hadn't seen Joan since the Fourth of July concert on the green. "Nice barbershop singing last week. Whew! Who's been trying to burn this place down?"
Mother Hubbard, smudged apron tied like a girdle across a plump middle, gestured to a blackened patch of wall. "Grill fire."
"John on the road?" Chick asked, nimbly spinning a blue vinyl stool with one crooked finger, peeking to see if the sheriff noticed her peach-painted nails. John Hubbard usually worked beside his wife.
"He's hauling logs over to the coast today. With the casino taking all my tourist trade, somebody's got to keep food in the Cupboard." Mother Hubbard laughed at her own joke.
"Did you save the town, Sheriff, and put out the fire?"
Sheriff Sweet took a slug of coffee and tipped her hat back. She had the black hair of the local Native Americans and the cornflower blue eyes of her leggy California mother, a frail beauty whose various illnesses had brought her to Natural Woman Foods for herbal boosters when she'd still been able to get around.
"Not much a good cup of black coffee won't cure," said the sheriff.
Chick looked at the dark drippings down the front of the grill. "I see you doused it with the stuff."
"She about put it out too. I didn't even need to use up the fire extinguisher," said Mother Hubbard.
Chick's heart always got a little fluttery around the taciturn, mysterious sheriff who'd been beanpole Joanie Sweet home from college for the summer, shooting hoops in her driveway one day, and disappeared down south to college the next. Five years later she ran for sheriff when her dad, injured during a chase, turned in his badge to care for Mrs. Sweet. The sheriff's smile always spoke of secrets she'd never reveal, but Chick, had she and Joan been free, thought she knew how to get them out of her.
Mother Hubbard scraped loudly at the grill.
Chick announced, "I'm trucking up to meet my grandson-to-be. That is, he'll be mine once my friends get the paperwork approved. Jeep and Cat are trying to adopt him and they've asked me to be one of his grandmas. Can you believe it? I never expected to do the grandma trip."
"Congrats," the sheriff said with a nod of approval.
As if the sheriff didn't know the whole story from Cat. As if Chick didn't know the sheriff and Cat were in the hottest closet in Waterfall Falls.
"Catch you later!" Chick said. Sweaty-faced Mother Hubbard winked and went back to work. Joan sipped her coffee and watched her. Chick gave her a once-over and answered the secret smile with one of her own and a quiet, "Yum." She hoped the sheriff heard, though she knew better than to expect acknowledgement.
Up sunny Cliff Street she stepped, humming a little Pooh Bear song: "Yum, yum, a hot bum on that one. Yum, yum."
Goddess, she felt good. It was only in the mid-nineties today; a lick of light wind cooled her damp forehead. She always looked forward to the four o'clock summer breezes to cool things down, but four o'clock wasn't anytime soon, and she planned to enjoy this little sweat lodge of an afternoon. She wasn't even going to give her depression the time of day. If it showed its nasty head she'd slam it with a laugh or gulp air into her lungs like someone rescued from drowning. "Exercise and deep breathing," Dr. Wu had instructed her. "Breathe in peace, breathe out your cares."
"Señorita Cheek!" her friend Fina called from the doorway of Fina's Finery. They'd met at a Chamber of Commerce meeting and become friends in the drumming group that met after hours in the back of Natural Women Foods.
Chick bent to hug the warm little fireplug and smelled baby talc. Her nerves twanged with anxiety at the thought of babies. She'd never been drawn to them. But little Luke was four. "Any new Guatemalan vests? Donny's birthday is coming up."
"Next month, Chick, I promise, if I have to go down there to get them myself. I ordered some Donny's size." She held her hand up high to indicate Donny's height.
"And Hernando?" They liked to joke about their two "old men." Fina was an ex-biker mama, retired from the Angelino gang she'd run with.
"He looks so slick the way the casino's dressing them up in old-time dealer clothes, like a gambler in a Western movie."
"That casino's putting a bunch of beans in some local pots."
"Thank God," said Fina, blessing herself. "After all the years he couldn't get work because of his leg when he sold firewood off the truck. Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"I'm checking out my grandson today!"
"Did they give him to your friends already?" Fina asked in a shocked whisper. She gestured Chick into her shop doorway under a pink and yellow donkey piñata. "It's official?"
A logging truck laden with thin, uniformly sized trunks from a tree farm shifted gears to climb to the freeway entrance. Diesel fumes filled the air.
Chick explained. "Not yet, but foster parents don't grow on trees, especially when the kid is a disabled four-year-old with parents out on bail and on the lam. I'm so freaked over who he'll act like. Forget me being Grandma if he's a strutting little banty rooster with M.C.'s conniving mind and a rank brown ponytail like his. I'm not even sure I can live with him looking like Pennylane. I remember her when she wasn't much more than ten years older than Luke is now."
"Never mind," Fina said, shooing her along. "You go meet the kid. He'll be your greatest love no matter what he looks like. Take it from me. It broke my heart when my daughter married a redheaded gringo. But their kids? I'm nuts about them."
"I'm not helping to unleash another M.C. on the world."
"No grandson of yours would dare to be an M.C.!"
"This is true," Chick answered smartly, doubting her own words.
She didn't know whether to sail up the next block or to creep. The closer she got, the more nervous she felt. Why hadn't they asked her to be an aunt? That would have been more in line with where her head was at. Jeep and Cat had intended to bestow a great honor by making her a grandmother, but was that how Jeep really saw her the first day she'd stumbled down the steps into Natural Woman Foods? Had she made herself ridiculous flirting with a kid who looked at her and saw a crone? Inside, she felt like a kid herself.
At the Rocket gas station old Regis Rice came gimping over. "How's my favorite big gal?" he shouted. "Can I fill your tank today?"
It was windier up here by the freeway, and noisy from logging trucks and triple-trailers making time on this straightaway. Chick was glad for the bulk of her long dress and quilted, puffy jacket near this retired satyr who reeked of tobacco. Still, at least old Regis thought she was chasing material just as much as Donny did.
She laughed as usual and yelled back, "I'm not driving, Regis!"
"Oh, I can do the driving, big gal."
Poor old goat. She waved him off, amused and not amused all at once. He couldn't hear a thing she said, so they always had the same exchange. What if Luke grew up to work at the BP station, a slick grease monkey who sold cheap chains to drivers headed over the pass and raised the price when it snowed? Chick would struggle by on a walker twenty years from now, old Regis gone, and an oily guy in a BP cap with M.C.'s face would call her Grandma. She couldn't deal with it. No way, she swore, lifting her own tangle of still honey-brown hair off her sweaty neck.
She was already in the freeway's dank shadow, and she almost turned back. Would Jeep and Cat pull a trip like that on her, introduce an
M.C. clone with no warning? If they even saw the resemblance-Jeep had only seen M.C. in the dark in the midst of much confusion, and Cat probably only saw him in the papers when the police were looking for him. Gulp that air! Walk faster!
The traffic thundered overhead, and several purple foxgloves waved at the end of the overpass. Something nagged at her. Was the remembering part of her brain drying up? Had she destroyed something with all those hallucinogens? Pennylane, M.C.'s wife, had mentioned the child's daddy-that the boy had never heard his daddy pick guitar-or was it a banjo that he picked? Jeep said the boy had his father's musical genes. It sounded as if she could stop worrying. M.C. wasn't his birth father. With a little luck the rest of his genes would overshadow M.C.'s influence as a father figure. Some people shouldn't be allowed to raise kids.
Still, it was an honor to get appointed Grandma. Jeep and Cat had invited her, Donny, Clara, and Hector-two sets of grandparents. They'd made a little ceremony of it, presenting fancy handmade certificates and taking pictures so Luke could have them when he was older. This was better, like Grandmama-to-be Donny said, than letting a speck of DNA decide who was family.
Chick emerged from the shadow of the overpass and continued under the wicked blazing sun around a grassy curve. The incline was steady as she entered the moneyed part of Waterfall Falls. She could see Cat's grandparents' home almost at the crest of the hill. The grandfather was a banker, she'd heard. That would give Luke a running start- money for music lessons and a good college once he was cured of not talking. And he would talk. She imagined an M.C. junior in a dark crew cut and double-breasted pinstripe. Would he look like his banker side or like an underground gangster? Or like his birth father? She'd ask Jeep if she could get a photo of him.
By the time she reached the retaining wall that shored up the proud houses, she was wiped out. She paused to catch her breath and pat her face dry with a pink bandanna. The garages here were all at street level, made of concrete that had cracked over the years. Next to Cat's garage seventeen steps led to a landing, then another eight to the porch. She grasped the hot rail, but let go of it fast, and climbed. Sweat ran down her back. She hoped she smelled all right. The house loomed above her, washed pink stucco with gray-blue trim. Two large windows were set to either side of the dark wood door. Living room and dining room, she guessed, dark and cool on a summer's day, but gloomy in winter. The house seemed a little overbearing. Maybe she should have waited until Sunday, when the store was closed, so she could have come with Donny. She could turn around and go back.
Then the door flew open. There was Jeep, bouncing on the balls of her feet, a humongous smile pushing her cheeks up till her eyes were almost closed. Her newly spiked hair looked incongruous in this neighborhood. A small blonde head peered out from behind her, one hand clutching Jeep's black jeans. No, this child looked nothing like M.C. and barely like Pennylane. Luke's open face was round, not sharp-featured, and his broad smile was entirely Jeep's.
"Blonde?" Chick exclaimed. She quickly touched her own light hair. "My grandson is blonde?"
Jeep reached around and tousled Luke's hair. The boy grinned and ducked. "Come out and say hi to your Grandmother Chick."
In that moment Chick felt something new in the vicinity of her heart that reminded her of the way vanilla ice cream must feel under a flow of hot fudge sauce, a surge of warmth and a sensation of melting. Luke looked so helpless. Here was someone that truly didn't know how to do anything for himself.
"I never got to care for such a small person before," Chick said. "He's beautiful."
Luke hadn't yet come out of hiding. "He's a pretty cool bean, aren't you, dude? Let's go inside so you two can get used to each other."
Released, Luke ran ahead of them. A large cream-colored cat with patchy brown markings flung himself down at Chick's feet.
"That's Lump Sum," Jeep explained. "He thinks he's hungry. Ignore him."
Chick laughed. "He looks like a Lump Sum."
"When Cat inherited him his name was Simba."
Luke cast a shy glance back when he reached the first door.
"You need to practice now? Go for it, dude." Jeep turned to her. "Was he stoked when he saw that drum pad. We leave the sound very low because he's in here every chance he gets."
Jeep, despite her hair, seemed to have grown up by a decade. Her energy was smoother, more self-assured now.
"Luke plays drums like his grandmother? Does Luke know what he's doing?"
"I've taught him one riff which he's still learning. Little kids like to do their own thing, though, and Luke's majorly inventive. Sometimes he plays along with the radio or a CD, but mostly he's, like, an explorer. He'll play a simple beat, listen, repeat it. That's the uncanny thing. The kid can remember his moves and repeat them over and over, even the next day. I talked to my dad about it, and he says that's way prodigious."
Jeep started to move away from the door, but Chick laid a hand on her arm. "May I stay here with him and watch?"
"Your call. I'll go chill in the kitchen. George probably wants in by now." Jeep started to leave, but turned back. "Are you sure you're cool with this? You look like you never saw a rug rat before."
Chick forced herself to look away from her grandson. "This will sound very strange, Jeep, but I don't think I really ever did."