L'air du Temps
Hide nothing, for time, which sees all and hears all, exposes all
Time has a way of playing tricks on our minds. Sometimes it passes so quickly that it isn't until we look in the mirror and catch a new wrinkle, or an errant hair on our chin, that we realize the future is already here. Other times, it moves slowly … so slowly, that we no longer mark the passing, choosing instead, to hibernate within its languid cocoon.
My time in Masenville has been a bit of both.
The days at Burger are too long, and the nights in Boots' arms, too short.
We split our time between Miss Vicks and his home, but he never leaves any of us alone. When we're not at Miss Vicks, Carlisle and Esme have taken to spend the night; just to be on the safe side.
I spend time getting to know Elizabeth. She is smart, funny, and yes, slightly eccentric. "Just like her crazy Ants,' Boots says affectionately. She loves to be read to and is already becoming a good reader herself. She likes to entertain us with stories that 'pick away at my mind, and they just have to come out, or I'll go crazy." Boots tells her she's already there. I tell Boots that Bip is already a writer – or will be as soon as she learns how to put those stories on paper.
She likes it when I wash her hair. I teach her how to make braids. She starts to call me Mama.
Rose and I are becoming fast friends. Although we seem an unlikely pair, there is something so genuine about her that I can't help but love her. She is frank, honest, and suffers no fools. I tell her about James and how stupid I was not to see him clearly; she brushes my guilt away with a wave of her well-manicured hands.
When I accidentally corrected her use of ain't, she whirled around and told me, "I ain't Elizabeth, and I sure as hell ain't one of your students, either." I told her I was sorry, but she simply hugged me and murmured, "No blood, no foul."
I ask her about Emmett, and her normally vivacious visage turned to stone.
"When he left, he took my heart with him." I don't bring him up again.
She teaches me how to apply eyeliner without making myself blind and how to flat-iron my hair. She likes to watch silly, coming of age movies from the 90's. Sometimes, we have a girls-night, where we eat popcorn and drink wine straight out of the bottle while watching Never Been Kissed or She's All That. On those nights, Miss Vick and Shelly will occasionally sit and watch them with us, although Miss Vick isn't happy when scenes fade to black.
"How in the ever-lovin' hell are we supposed to know what those fools are doing? They might be makin' wild love, or they might be hangin' ugly curtains. Lord … I've got a good imagination, but it shouldn't have to work overtime, and that's the truth."
Mary Alice and I have taken up sitting on the swing where we sip too-sweet-tea and have deep discussions about life, death, and everything in between. She tells me that my coming here was pre-destined and that she's always known I would show up 'one of these days.' I ask her to tell me what the future will bring regarding James, but she only smiles and tells me, "It'll all turn out the way it's meant to, Bella."
She tells me that her time in Masenville will soon be coming to an end. When I express alarm, she only smiles and says, "It's going to be wonderful." She is tranquil and sweet. She never presses for information. I suppose it's because she already knows.
Esme and I share a mutual love for all things Jane Austen. She tells me she spent a year in England as a college student and thought for sure she'd marry a guy with a great accent. She laughs when she tells how she met Carlisle in a London nightclub – like her, he was spending a year abroad. "I didn't marry an Englishman after all, but I did marry a man with a great accent."
Esme grew up in Northern Virginia. She is kind, thoughtful, eloquent, and plays a killer game of checkers. "Chess is too pretentious, and Mahjong gives me a headache."
Carlisle is a medical doctor, but rather than setting up a practice, he took over The Boiling Springs Children's Home. He went back to school in his late thirties and obtained a doctorate in childhood psychology. That he loves what he does – working with underprivileged youth and undeserved students with emotional disabilities is an understatement. The passion he feels for everyone – children and humans in general, is evident in every aspect of his life. He is kind, but he is also direct - he teaches by example and isn't afraid to give a person going in the wrong direction, a hard push towards the right one. He tells me about his early years with Boots and how happy he and Esme were when they adopted him. He also shares his sadness and frustration over the number of times Boots ran away from them, too.
"Even as a kid, whenever we had a fight or a misunderstanding – he'd run. Esme used to say we should have called him Sneakers instead of Boots because he ran like the wind. But he always came home – a little worse for the wear, with promises he'd try to do better."
I asked him why that changed.
'He enjoyed tinkering with cars. I told him if he quit running, I'd give him Esme's Volvo – it was a classic even then. I guess it worked. But I was in the dog house for a while with Esme. Guess she thought I should have given him my Mercedes.'
He asks me to consider helping out at the school, but Boots is concerned that one of the boys might accidentally leak something about me, so I decline for now.
'You know how boys are, Bella. One sneaky picture of the hot teacher, and the next thing you know, ole Jimmy will be following them on Instagram.'
Shelly and I have started quilting together. Occasionally Miss Vick will join us, although her fingers 'aren't as nimble as they once were. Besides, seeing Carlisle's cut-up drawers makes her 'snort like an adolescent boy trapped in a bra and panty factory.'
Shelly tells me how she came to work for Miss Vick.
'I was a foster kid – same as Mary Alice and Rosalie. My grandmother raised me until she died; I never knew my parents. I was passed from church family to church family until I came here to Masenville. Mr. Carlisle's daddy oversaw the Home back then – I was the first black child they took in. Caused quite a stir in these parts, let me tell you! But old Mr. Cullen … he didn't give a hoot about that – if he saw a child in need, well - it didn't matter what folks said. I stayed at the Home until I was sixteen. One day Mr. C asked me if I wanted to sit with an elderly lady and make a few dollars. Told me straight out that she was might peculiar, but he had a notion I'd do fine with her. Lord … I had no idea what I was getting myself into with this one. Still don't half the time. But we got along like peas and carrots. Miss Vick put me through college – I got a degree in social work; used to work at the home with Mr. Carlisle. But my heart has always been here with Mizz Vick. Once my kids had a little age on them, I started working for her full-time. But the truth is … Mizz Vick? She's my family. Guess she's the only real mama I've ever known. But don't you be telling her that, laws – she'll never let that go!'
Boots lives up to his word and starts to court me. I remind him that we're already engaged, but he just tells me to hush … 'I missed a few steps getting here, girl. Let me make them up to you.'
He brings me flowers every day. Sometimes they're from a florist, but often they're flowers he picks from Miss Vick's garden. Sometimes, other people gardens, too. At least, according to Polly Pigg, who swears her Knock-Out Roses have been pruned to death.
'That boy plucks a bloom off my bush every time he walks past my front lawn. I'm fixin' to knock him out, I swanny.'
He takes me to dinner. There's only one good restaurant in town, so a dinner out is often a picnic on the lake. Or in a meadow. Or on his front porch.
I get over my fear of dogs. Bertie or Berty (we argue endlessly over the spelling of this poor creature's name) has proven himself to be a jovial and faithful companion. He follows me everywhere, much to Foghorn's chagrin. I visit with Foghorn every day – offering him bits of corn and fresh water. But he glares at me with those beady, black eyes. I get the sense he misses his master.
I know I do.
Boots and Bip teach me how to roller skate. I fall a lot and have cuts on my knees that Boots kisses better between tumbles. Eventually, I get the hang out of it, although Carlisle says I'm still too big of a liability – what with the cars and my being clumsy and all.
Boots tries to teach me to dance. I tell him over, and over that, I have two left feet. I remind him of how clumsy I am on skates. He just laughs and says he'll 'Soak his dogs later.' Sometimes he'll set up a stereo with speakers in his backyard. True to his word – his taste in music is eclectic. One night he decides it's time to teach me how to shag. I rolled my eyes, thinking he was being silly. Turns out shagging in the Carolina's has an entirely different meaning, and even though I am terrible at it, I do learn the basic steps. And we continue to do the other kind of shagging, too.
One afternoon, while I was helping Shelly dust the front parlor, I notice little black grease marks marring the ivories.
'Oh, that's Mister Boots. Lord ... until you came along, I thought we'd never see his nails clean. But ... I guess he finally found a product that works. He ain't touched this baby grand in ages.'
That night, Boots plays Clair de Lune for me. He tells me he's not 'all that good.'
He's not good. He's great. My eyes and heart were full and brimming over at how good he was.
Boots gives me a bottle of perfume, which he selected himself.
"It's called L'air Du Temps."
His French is terrible. I try not to laugh, but he laughs at himself and then shrugs.
"The salesgirl told me it means The air of time."
I love it. My Aunt Margaret gave this to me on my thirteenth birthday. I haven't worn it in years. When I open the package and spritz a little on myself, I almost cry.
Instead, I wrap my arms around his neck, kiss him long and deep, and hug him as tightly as I can.
We say I love you all the time. Miss Vick says if she hears us say it one more time she'll need to get a new barf bucket, as she's 'plum worn the old one out.'
One night, a few weeks after he proposed with a lug nut, he surprises me and proposes again. This time it's private.
We go to the lake and have a late afternoon picnic. We make love on the same checkered tablecloth we did so many weeks ago. Afterward, when the sun is starting to set, we take a dip in the spring. He takes my hand and slides a different ring on it – pocketing the lug nut, with a little wink and a promise he'll keep it safe. Under the twilight sky, he asks me to marry him. I tell him, "Yes." The ring is old and quite beautiful; a circle of sapphires adorned with a large, round, glittering diamond.
'It was my Grandmother Masen's,' he says, shyly.
I love it.
On Boot's 32nd birthday, I surprise him with a ring.
After he proposed he second time, I snagged the lug nut later that night out of his short's pocket. He never asked, but I saw one of his tells; the vein on his forehead popped out, and he pinched his nose hard. I had to stifle a grin when I saw him fish a lug nut out of his work pants the next day and put it in a box on the dresser. I was reading a book in his bedroom, and the covert glance he gave me as he put the lug nut in the box made me want to jump on him.
So, I did
The very next day, I took the original lug nut down to Arthur's Jewelers and spoke to the owner.
'I'd like to get this made into a wedding band … but, I don't know if it's –'
'Possible? Yes, indeed. We do it all the time. Look … I can show you some examples.'
He pulled out an old-fashioned scrapbook of rings and designs. Sure enough, there was an entire page dedicated to nuts and bolts jewelry.
One week, and one-hundred and forty dollars later, I returned to pick up the ring. It was perfect! He even engraved it for free.
I gave it to him just after midnight on June 20th.
"What's this?" He asked, obviously delighted.
"It's just a little something for you to have – to mark a special occasion. "
He glanced at his phone.
'Well, I'll be dammed.' Followed by, 'Fuck, I'm old.'
We both laughed as he turned the package over and over in his large hands.
I started to feel shy. I hoped he'd like it. I hoped he'd wear it as a wedding band one day in the future.
'It's not for now," I stammered. I mean … it is for now, but it's also for later. Maybe. If you want …'
Ugh. Miss Vick is right – I am a poor example of an English professor. Awkward should be my middle name.
He opened the box and took out the ring. He looked at it for a long time.
'Yep; it's your lug nut; the original one.'
I tell him that I hope he'll wear it as a wedding band one day, but until then I have a chain so he can wear it around his neck if he wants. Or he can stick it in the drawer for now.
It's the first time I see Boots cry.
Well, maybe not sobbing, but his eyes watered. It's hard to say – he wouldn't stop kissing me long enough to find out.
I spend a lot of time at Boot's shop. The parts come in for Jasper's truck, and he and Jake work on it after hours, while I hand them tools and beers.
Jake is handsome – he's tall, tan, and has the whitest smile of anyone I have ever known. He's warm, like the sun. He laughs all the time and makes fun of my accent. He gives big bear hugs and always smells like Old Spice. I call him grandpa, and he chuckles, 'My grandpa did wear Old Spice. That why I wear it – it makes me think of him.'
I tell him I wish I had his complexion.
'I'm half Cherokee.'
Boots laughs and tells me that one hundred percent of the people in Masenville are at least one-eighth Cherokee. Jake rolls his eyes and huffs, 'But I really am, so, piss-off.'
I fall in love with Jake in the way one loves a baby brother. He is uncomplicated, sweet, and loyal. He and Boots have had a 'bromance going on ten years now,' he says. He'd be perfect for Jessica.
I think about her often – wondering if she's worried about me, or if, as James predicted, she simply believes I quit and ran away on a romantic notion. But then I remember how quick she was to notice the bruise James left on my cheek and she was the one who told Jasper to check on me.
I try not to think about him, or I'll go crazy. I push him out of my mind as much as I can.
But he is always in the periphery – waiting to take center stage.
My days are busy and full. I finally get the hang out of making a Witch Doctor and waiting on tables. I can make a foot-long go All-the-Way and construct a perfect barbecue sandwich without breaking a sweat. The townsfolk call me Belle or Yank. They don't ask too many personal questions about my past, but I can see in their eyes that they don't quite believe the narrative that I'm an old friend of the family, come to visit. I make tips and give them to Boots for payment on the truck. He laughs and tries to say no, but I know money is tight for him; he has a business to run, a home to maintain, and a little girl to care for. I want to tell him that money won't be a problem for any of us once I've dealt with James.
Boots and I are stealthy. We scan the computer every day, looking to see if Jasper or James are leaving us clues. We check the newspapers to see if there's any mention of me. There isn't. Boots looks up Jasper's grandmother's number, but when he finally makes the call, we discover the number is disconnected.
We wait for Emmett to text or call, but he doesn't.
We phone The University of Florida and learn my mother is still on her cruise. I don't leave a message. I imagine my mailbox is full of postcards and unpaid bills unless James took care of those too.
I try to push all thoughts of James and his Windex blue eyes out of my mind. Staying busy helps, but sometimes, at night, I wake to find myself crying in Boot's arms. He kisses all my fears away until the next time. I worry that I'll scare Elizabeth, but she sleeps soundly in the way a well-loved child often does - unfettered by worries or doubts or fears.
This life – the new life I've carved out for myself here in Masenville, is too easy to love, and too hard to leave. I'm happily trapped inside a beautiful, rainbow-colored bubble. I allow myself to float aimlessly and slowly through the summer, surrounded by people whom I've come to love, and hope to call, family.
But like all bubbles
No matter how hard you try to hold on to them
Eventually, they burst.
It's the fourth of July. We'll be closing in a few hours, but Carlisle insists we open long enough for folks to get their ice and fireworks.
Until I came to Masenville, I had no idea just how seriously some Americans take these to heart.
If junior gets an A on his test, we'll celebrate tonight with fireworks
Hell, if he passes math with a C, we'll shoot'em off, anyway
I know today's the third … but I gotta make sure they work, don't I?
Boots and Jake sell them under a large red, white, and blue tent that they use every year.
'Time to pitch the tent and blow up Uncle Sam," Jake says, snagging a fry fresh off the fry-o-lator.
An hour later, he and Boots are hot and sweaty, but they've already made more money than a weeks-worth of oil-changes and brake-jobs. The girls and I hop between the shop and tent every hour on the hour, scuttling drinks to and fro. I sneak kisses with Boots between sips and sales.
I've started flirting back with some of my customers, and the tips are piling up. Today, I teased my hair into a bouffant, put on some red lipstick, and started using the term, "Ya'll."
Everyone teases me.
Nice try, Yank
Where did you say you're from; Jersey?
Lord girl ... that hair gets any higher, it's gonna see Jesus
Bless her heart, Junior ... she's trying
Rose laughs at my pronunciation and tries to correct me, but she gives up with a sigh and tells me I'm a "lost cause."
'Just because a dog sleeps in the garage, it don't make him a truck. Better stick to you guys, girl.'
Ali is working the grill, and the a/c is "flat out busted," so we're sweaty and just plain, "nasty," by noon.
The last of our customers file out; bags of ice in one hand and two-hundred dollars' worth of fireworks in the other. Alice shuts the fryer off and heads outside for a smoke. Rose decides to join her. I hear them laughing and singing patriotic songs. Everyone is in a jubilant and celebratory mood. We'll be setting off our own fireworks at Boots' house later this evening.
"And Mizz Bee – I mean, Mama – there's gonna be hot-dogs and hamburgers too. Not the kind that Ant Ali fries, but the kind Daddy puts on the coals. And maybe, if I'm good, Mizz Vick will have chocolate-mint ice cream, too."
I'm fixing Boots the final Cherry-Lemon Sundrop of the day. Carlisle has already hung the Closed sign, and I watch the fluorescent pig, and burger dim to darkness as I shut the drink machine off with a practiced hand. I'm humming; She's a Grand Old Flag. I am happy. I am excited about the fireworks – both the kind Boots will light for our friends and family, and after they leave, for the ones he'll light just for me.
I nearly drop Boots drink when I hear a loud, booming voice behind me.
"I'll take a Witch Doctor, please. Extra pickles, extra limes, extra good!"
I turn to tell the voice we're closed and see a tall, large, muscular man, with deep dimples and a head full of brown curls. He gives me a broad wink and a big grin.
Before I have time to respond, another man comes through the door. He's tall, blonde, and lean.
"The sign says they're closed; is she makin' you one anyway? Tell her to make it two, please. My tongue is so dry it's scraping the roof of my mouth like sandpaper."
My heart beats rapidly, and my eyelids flutter; I'd know that voice anywhere.
The back door swings open opens with a woosh.
Followed by …
BANG as the door slams shut.
The large, muscular guy, with the deep dimples and the broad wink, drops his grin, and runs to the back door.
"It took you long enough."
"Who in the hell-fire are you?"
The lean, blonde man stops in his tracks. His eyes go wide, and his mouth flies open.
The Cherry Sundrop plops to the floor, it's blood red contents pool at my feet.
I blink twice, clutch helplessly at the counter to steady myself, fail miserably, and manage to utter two syllables before I hit the floor.
B/N: Well, ain't this some sheeee-it? Lord. I knew this here chappie was gonna take a turn, but even I didn't know my head was gonna spin into outer orbit. Maybe Mizz J has a BC Powder ... I'm gonna need one after this here mess, and that's the truth.
Well, I think it's fair to say, things are bout to get real interestin in Ole Massenville, and that's a fact.
Ya'll stay smart, and while you're at it - please leave a review for Ole Boots. I ain't got nuthin else to do but read ya'll's thoughts, theories, and whatnots in between Miss Jayne's conjurin, js. Sides, they make Mizz J happier than a pig in shit, and that's the truth.
A/N: Thank you all for reading! A special shout out to Fran for the quick turnaround and her mad-skills with the red pen. I love ya girl! Of course, I fiddle and faddle after she beta's so all mistakes are my own.
Things are going to go pretty fast at this point; I think it's fair to say that a few surprises are in store. I'd love to hear ya'll theories and whatnots. lol!
PS: FF has been a butt-head recently when it comes to posting reviews. Please know I do read every one of them and love them all.
PPS: A reminder: The What-A-Burger restaurants in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina are not to be confused with the much larger Whataburger chain based in Texas. The What-A-Burger in this story is loosely based on the NC chain. When I first started writing this story, I told the "girls" who worked at the one in my town, that I was writing a book based on Burger. When I mentioned it was a romance, they scoffed, "Aw, hell ... there ain't nuthin romantic bout Burger, and that's the truth!" Later I found out that this location was bought as a wedding gift for the bride of the owner. I'd say that's pretty damn romantic!