The story so far: Carding’s postmaster, Ted Owens, is one of two children. His sister, Allison, left town the day she graduated from high school, and ended up in Los Angeles starring in a comedy called Pretty as a Picture.
The television show has long since failed, and Allison is now a has-been with a reputation for being difficult and unstable.
Allison has a daughter, Suzanna, whose father is unknown. Now broke, Allison brings Suzanna to live with her Uncle Ted. This excerpt describes Suzanna’s first breakfast at her uncle’s house.
GRADE A DARK AMBER
Ted Owens watched sunlight ooze across his kitchen table as he stirred half-and-half into his second cup of coffee. The knot of anxiety in his belly tightened as he watched his niece pour milk on her cereal. When she first arrived at his house, Ted was inclined to think of Suzanna as “that poor kid” but the child would have none of that nonsense.
In their short conversations over a Sunday-night supper of BLT’s and soup—Ted’s culinary skills were limited—the girl expressed no eagerness to see her mother again nor any contempt for Allison’s actions. In fact, Suzanna’s demeanor reminded Ted of the resignation of airline passengers who just learned their flights had been delayed…again.
He’d asked her timidly about school, and was informed that until last Thursday, she’d had a seat in a sixth-grade classroom in Las Vegas, and she expected her mother to drag her back there soon enough. So, Suzanna announced, it would be a waste of time to enroll her in Carding Elementary. Yes, a complete waste of time.
Ted felt his eyebrows rise at this pronouncement, and the hatred he harbored for Allison kindled anew. It was all well and good to ruin your own miserable life but to drag a child through your muck…
“Does your mother do this sort of thing often?” he asked. “Drag you off in the middle of the night, I mean.”
The girl nodded, spooning up her milky breakfast. “Sometimes it’s because she gets fired but sometimes it’s because there’s a new Bruno,” she said.
“Bruno? You mean that man who drove you here?” Ted had never laid eyes on anyone named Bruno before. He always imagined a man with a name like that came standard issue with a broken nose, and biceps the size of full mail sacks. Ted worked in the Carding post office, and moved a lot of full mail sacks so he knew what he was talking about. But the man behind the wheel of that large black car had been skinny with a face like a tack. Bruno didn’t fit the profile.
“Oh, I don’t remember what that guy’s real name is,” Suzanna said. Ted’s eyebrows reached for his thinning hairline. “I call all my mother’s boyfriends Bruno because it’s easier to remember that way. Can you get some Cheerios next time you’re at the store? And maybe some bananas, too? I like fruit on my cereal when I can get it.”
Ted winced. She calls them all Bruno because it’s easier to remember? How could a mother do that to her child? Aloud he said, “Would you rather have something besides cereal? Eggs? Pancakes?”
The girl stopped spooning soggy flakes into her mouth. “Pancakes? Can I have them with maple syrup? I had some once, in a restaurant, from a bottle shaped like a leaf. Mom said it was made here in Vermont but that was before I knew where Vermont was. It was very good.” She stopped moving for a moment to listen intently to a passing car.
“That’s a taxi delivering Lydie Talbot,” Ted said. “She’s takes care of her sister, Millie Bettinger, across the street. It’s not your mother.”
The girl relaxed, and they exchanged their first conspiratorial look. “I kept the leaf bottle. It’s in my suitcase,” she said. “You can see it if you need to know what I mean by maple syrup.”
Ted smiled. “No, it’s OK. We see those little leaf bottles around here a lot. Andy Cooper, over at the store, he sells dozens of them.” Ted stood up, opened his refrigerator then placed a small glass jug in front of the girl. Dark brown liquid filled it to a point where sugar crystals marked the line between syrup and no syrup.
Suzanna pulled the jug closer and tilted it in the light. “Are you sure this is maple syrup?” she asked.
“Yes. I helped make it, in fact,” Ted said. “A friend of mine owns a sugarbush up on Belmont Hill.”
“Maple syrup comes from a bush? I thought it came from a tree,” the girl said.
Ted laughed. “No, though now that you point it out, I suppose bush is kind of a strange term for a place where lots of maple trees grow together and get tapped for syrup. Try pouring a little on your cereal.”
Suzanna looked doubtful. “It’s darker than what was in my leaf bottle. Will it taste different?”
Ted’s eyebrows, which had climbed down from his hairline, now bunched up against one another. Suzanna thought they looked like two fuzzy caterpillars coming together for a kiss, and she quickly put her hand up to her mouth to scratch an itch that didn’t exist in order to hide her grin. She didn’t want her uncle to think she was rude. Since he was now her only friend in the world, that wouldn’t do at all.
“It probably tastes even better than what you had,” he said as he pulled a spoon out of the silverware drawer. “You see, there are different grades of maple syrup based on their sugar content and color.” He lifted the jug, slid its spout open, and dripped a little of the brown liquid into the bowl of his spoon. “I think that the grade A dark amber is the one most worthy of pancakes.” He handed the spoon to the girl. “Here, try it for yourself.”
She obeyed, tasted, and then let a pent-up grin rip across her face. “I can put this on cereal?” she asked.
Ted poured a thin spiral of syrup over what remained of her breakfast. “Have at it,” he said.
Suzanna dug in with relish, and Ted let himself think that maybe this uncling business had a lot going for it after all.
He stood up, and stretched his back. “I need to get to work,” he said. “Since you’re not going to school, you need to come with me.”
Suzanna looked up, her eyes round as buttons. “Why?”
“Well, I can’t leave you here all alone, now, can I?” Ted said.
“Mom does, all the time.”
Ted smiled. “Well, I’m not Mom.”
Suzanna scooped up the last of her cereal. “That’s what I like best about being here so far.”
. . . . . . . . . .
Edie Wolfe always kept a sharp eye out for friends as she and her dog Nearly crossed the Carding Green on their early morning walks. Nearly, an aging but still handsome cocker spaniel, trolled about the path at the far end of the leash he shared with Edie, his nose to the ground as he gathered the latest news. He preferred to keep Edie on a leash because it was easier to keep track of her that way. The woman had a bad habit of wandering off to chat at the most unexpected times. And once she got to talking, well…let’s just say that the leash made it easier to pull her away.
Like most mornings, their destination was the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts. But the way they took to get there, while routine, was circuitous. First they stopped at the Coop for their newspapers. Then they headed over to the Crow Town Bakery for a morning scone (hopefully without currants because Nearly hated those berry things), and coffee. Then the post office because Edie preferred to pick up her mail instead of having it delivered to her house, and then they finally ended up at the academy. Once at the school, Nearly always cadged a healthy chunk of scone before circling his bed for a well-earned nap.
For some reason, this morning’s routine didn’t follow their well-worn plan. Instead of her usual vigorous step, Edie dawdled as if she had a thorn in her paw. Then she stopped beneath the naked sycamores to adjust a boot. Nearly sighed, breathing in the scents of various humans, dogs, and squirrels then shifted his large ears forward. What are we waiting for, he thought. There’s nothing new to smell here.
Suddenly, Edie came over all lively, as if she’d just picked up the distinct odor of a mouse that needed killing. Nearly loved to kill mice, nasty things that got into his food dish at night unless he kept them under control. But the dog knew it was not mice Edie was smelling. Humans could barely detect the smell of a skunk if it stood right next to them.
He turned his head in the same direction as Edie’s. Someone—or rather two someones—moved under the maples. He tilted his nose up to sample the air but couldn’t pick anything special out of the aroma package coming his way. Then he felt a tug on his leash, and Edie murmured “C’mon boy.”
Their pace, though faster, was still off their usual step. Nearly turned his head toward the people he’d spotted, wondering if they had anything to do with this strange start to their morning. Then he and Edie got closer to convergence with the two someones, and his human slowed. Nearly was right. She did mean to cross paths with them.
“Good morning, Ted,” Edie called out. Oh, Nearly thought with disappointment, it’s him, the human who never carries dog treats. How boring. But then Nearly caught a few molecules of something strange…mmm, hard to describe…not illness exactly. But something not exactly healthy either. Nearly put his nose to the ground, and wandered about the humans’ feet.
Ted started when Edie called his name. He’d been mentally rehearsing how he’d tell his sister to get lost if she showed up to take Suzanna away. He sensed Edie’s interest in the girl, and he had an impulse to throw himself in between his niece and the older woman. But then he realized that was absurd. Edie Wolfe had never liked Allison. That fact alone made her a potential ally.
“Edie,” he said. “Good morning. I’d like you to meet my niece, Suzanna.”
“How do you do, Suzanna,” Edie said. “Are you off to help your uncle sort mail this morning?”
The child glanced up at Ted. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” she said in a very small voice.
Nearly stopped his snuffling, and sat on the ground as close to the girl as he could get without being rude. It was his observation that courteous dogs got more treats than rude ones. And Nearly was widely acknowledged as the premier treat-cadger in town.
Ted let his hand rest on Suzanna’s small shoulders. Suddenly he realized it was the first time he’d touched the child since she’d arrived. Have I become that cold, he wondered. Then in his next flash of neural activity, he realized how long it had been since he’d had a reason to touch another human being. That thought stirred up a stew of pain in the area around his heart, and he glanced down at his niece. How hard should I hope I can keep you with me, he asked himself. Then he cleared his throat.
“Suzanna’s just arrived in Carding,” he told Edie. The words came out in a croak, and he cleared his throat again. “I didn’t have time to arrange for someone to take my place this morning so I’m afraid she’ll be stuck with me in the P.O.”
Nearly shifted his position, and tilted his head back to sample more air coming from the small person. She hadn’t rolled in anything dead, of that he was certain. Humans routinely let those opportunities go by. No, this was something different, as if the small person had spent too much time in the presence of something not quite alive.
Nearly turned his nose to draw in air directly from the man, just to be sure he wasn’t the source. The dog sensed uneasiness there, like the smell a squirrel gave off when it edged too far away from a tree in its quest for acorns. But what he smelled definitely wasn’t coming from the man. No, the odor drifted from the girl.
“Why is your dog looking at me like that?” Suzanna asked.
Edie looked down at Nearly and smiled. “My old boy can’t see as well as he used to,” she said, stooping to caress one of the dog’s large, soft ears. “You’re new to him so he’s trying to make a place for you in his people catalogue. That way, next time he meets you, he’ll know you’re all right, that you’re someone who won’t hurt a dog.”
Nearly looked up at his designated person. She senses it too, he thought. Something’s not quite right with the small one.
“He catalogues people?” Suzanna asked.
“Well, that’s what I call it,” Edie said. “Being so much smaller than human beings, Nearly has to know right away whether he can trust someone or not. In my experience, he only needs to meet someone once in order to do that.”
Suzanne nodded slowly. “I do that, too” she said, her eyes fixed on the dog. “Do you think he trusts me?”
Edie and Ted exchanged a flashing glance, and in that instant, they formed a pact to protect the girl. “Oh, I believe he does. Nearly doesn’t waste any time on people he can’t trust, and he’s been quite patient while we chat. He would have tugged on his leash a long time ago if he didn’t want to be close to you.”
“Oh.” The girl uttered the syllable with the finality of a last puzzle piece falling into place. Then she looked directly into Edie’s eyes, and the older woman almost gasped at the hardness she saw in the girl’s face. Was this little one going to turn out like her mother, Edie wondered.
“What do you do with a dog besides walk with it?” Suzanna asked.
She gave her tongue a deliberately sharp edge. You could tell a lot about people if you riled them. That way, you’d know whether you had to hide the next time you saw them coming.
But instead of getting starchy like Suzanna expected, the older woman laughed, and bent down to stroke the dog’s ears once again. “I suppose if you ask that question in very practical terms, the answer would be ‘not much,’” she said. “Nearly and I don’t hunt in the brush for woodcock, which is what his ancestors were bred for. But then, people don’t have pets for practical reasons.”
Suzanna shifted on her feet. The woman’s laughter unsettled her. “So why do you have a dog?” she asked, more gently this time.
Nearly cocked his ears forward. He smelled fresh scones. He stood to signal that it was time to be off. Edie smiled at the girl.
“I believe the more friends we make in this world, the better,” she said to Suzanna. “Nearly and I are friends. We take care of one another in our own ways. He brings a sweetness to my life that it wouldn’t have otherwise, and I protect him, make sure he’s healthy, feed him well. In my opinion, it’s a very even trade.”
Edie wound the slack of Nearly’s leash around her hand. “And right now, he’s letting me know it’s time to get on with our morning routine—scones, coffee, the newspapers, and our mail.” Edie and Nearly started to move off. “So I shall see you at the post office in a little while.” With a wave and a good morning, Edie and Nearly walked off.
Suzanna stood quite still, watching them. Then she looked up at her uncle. “Does she know my mother?” she asked.
Ted nodded. “Edie knew your grandmother, too. In fact, your grandmother and Edie Wolfe were the best of friends.”
Suzanna considered the implications of this bit of information. It felt very odd to think about having a grandmother, and she wondered if they would have liked one another. Then she looked up at her Uncle Ted again. “That woman doesn’t like my mother, does she?”
Ted sighed. “I think that’s probably true. But I want you to understand that that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you. In fact, I think quite the opposite.” He let his fingers rest on her shoulder again. “Do you know what I mean?”
Suzanna nodded. “I think so.”