I figured I’d chat with Victoria at Sadie’s shindig Saturday and leave it at that. So it caught me off guard when she showed up for a Pinewood breakfast Friday. Makes sense, I thought. Sadie wanted to show her off. Not because she was famous, but because she doted on Victoria, always had.
So why was I surprised? And worse, why did it feel like a punch in the gut?
Chill, I thought as my ears went hot. No biggie. I had famous clients. Got tongue-tied with the first few, but as my dealer says, they all put their underwear on one leg at a time. But picturing Vi Masters in underwear didn’t help at all.
It felt like seventh grade. I wasn’t prepared then either. The guys had ragged on me something fierce – those days when all girls had cooties – which meant I stopped hanging with her a few years before. So when she walked into school that fall, I hardly knew her. When did she get so tall and willowy? With these subtle curves that set my imagination reeling? Why hadn’t I ever noticed her eyes were like the river at sunset?
From then on, she was Victoria, not Vicky, not Vee, like I called her when we were kids. Sexy, sultry, worthy-of-worship Victoria. And from then on, my damn ears and tongue were an adolescent nightmare whenever I came within ten feet of her. Smooth, that’s what I was.
Find your smooth now Slick, I thought as she moved toward my end of the counter.
I had more than a few minutes to get myself under control. Every last customer – Dick the retired trucker, George the retired math teacher, Mrs. Briggs and about a dozen more – wanted to shake her hand and have a word.
Working the room, I thought. Like a gallery opening. Coffee instead of wine.
I watched her smile and chat her way through the crowd. A pat on the arm here, a question there, a compliment on Miss Harriet Blue’s tacky old sweater, one I remembered from piano lessons. Miss Harriet puffed right up. She’ll likely go to her grave in that sweater now.
Mrs. Briggs got most of Victoria’s time. No surprise there. Even before we could read, the library was her favorite haunt. Worked there senior year – when she wasn’t bussing tables here at the Pinewood. So it was my haunt too.
That year I finally started acting human around her. Made conversation, joked around. Took till prom before I got the nerve to ask her out. She about knocked me flat when she said, “We’ll have a better time on prom night, don’t you think, if we go to a movie or something the night before?”
Long time ago. I jerked back to the present as Sadie tugged Victoria to the counter.
“Connie, just look at my Vicky.” She giggled as only Sadie can. “Vi, I mean. Oh, I’ll never get used to it.” Sadie turned from Victoria to Ma, “Doesn’t she look wonderful? I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see my baby again!”
Up close, seventh grade memories didn’t hold a candle to this gorgeous creature.
“Connie, it’s so good to see you,” she said. “The Pinewood wouldn’t be the same without you. And you look better than ever.” Actress or no, she sounded like she meant it.
Victoria reached out to squeeze Ma’s shoulder – a simple greeting between old friends – but Ma pulled back, slammed the coffee pot down on the counter, and said, “Victoria Johansen – Vi Masters – whatever you call yourself – I always did like you. But I have a mammoth-sized bone to pick with you!”
Obviously not the greeting Ms. Hollywood expected. A calm veneer slid over her face fast as a lick, but like most painters, I notice things. Her hand dropped to the strap of her handbag, white fingers gripped tight. No wonder. Ma can be a scary lady.
“Do you have any idea what you put my boy through when you ran off?”
I tried to interrupt. “Ma. Let it be.”
She gave me the eye. “I will not. She ought to know what it was like for you to get hauled down to the police station. As if you knew where the silly girl went.” Ma wheeled back to Victoria. “And your father! Son of a bitch hit my boy! Blackened his eye. Worse, he made my Nate feel like a criminal, like he’d hurt you, or drove you away when anybody – anybody with a brain not up his butt – could see the only bad thing Nate ever did was fall for you.”
So much for calm veneer. Victoria’s face went white beneath her California tan, and I respected the maker of that handbag strap. She swallowed hard. Her eyes cut to me for the first time, then back to Ma. She opened her mouth, but it was clear she didn’t know what to say, where to begin.
Ma, on the other hand, still had plenty to say. Or would have, except I interrupted again.
“Ma. She didn’t know. Look at her face. How could she know? Let it be.”
“Well she ought to know.” Ma wasn’t done, but she was running down. Ma’s like that. The woman has a mighty temper. But when she’s said her piece, it’s done. Usually. “You left a mess for other people to clean up, missy, and you ought to know it!” Then, apparently satisfied she’d said what she needed to say, Ma picked up the coffee pot with her right hand, swung her left around for a mug, and said. “Now. How do you take your coffee?”
Victoria sank onto a stool, looked at Ma, at me. “Connie. Nate. I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I…” She swallowed hard again. “I didn’t know. Didn’t think… Oh God. I wish… I’m just so sorry.”
I decided to let her off the hook. “Long time ago. We survived. And so did you, I’m glad to see.”
“Nate. Nate Barlow.” Like she saw me for the first time. “You’re still here. You look…”
I grinned. “Yeah. I know. Like an aging hippy. I get that all the time.” I tugged on my ponytail. “You wouldn’t believe the grief I get from the Freedom Regulars.”
She smiled – less assured, less sparkling than the Hollywood smile she’d dished out on her way down the counter. Softer. A little rueful. A lot like the night I kissed her. “I’ll just bet. Didn’t we always say that the Freedom Regulars would never change? But that’s not what I was going to say. You look good. That’s what I was going to say. Good.”
“Ah, hell. I can’t do it.”
“Can’t do what?”
“Can’t stay mad at you.”
Her smile faded. “Oh Nate. I am sorry. So sorry. I never thought Ben would come after you. Hit you? Oh Nate.”
I waved her off. “No biggie. It wasn’t my first black eye. Or my last for that matter. Can’t pin Ben’s actions on you. Wouldn’t be mad at you for that. If I could.”
The smile was nearly back. “Okay. I’ll bite. Why would you be mad at me? If you could?”
I picked up my coffee. Took a long swallow. Milked the moment. “The prom. You stood me up. For the prom.”
I said it lightly. Like it didn’t matter. Not anymore. Back then? Stood up on prom night? Suspected of something awful. Not the best night of my life.
Now trumps then. I expected a snappy comeback like she zings on TV, but she seemed as much at a loss for words as during Ma’s rant. An odd cast shaded her eyes. Almost like…sorrow. I cut her a break.
“Even so, can’t seem to stay mad at you.”
Funny how the relief on her face made me feel easier too.
“I’m glad,” she said.
Watch yourself pal.
Ma came back with the coffee pot. And a smile. She can’t stay mad either. Just don’t get between her and her cub. As if you could.
“More coffee, you two? Crayons, coloring books? Legos?”
Victoria’s laugh came out low and husky. “Just like when we were kids, Connie? In the back booth? Waiting for you and Sadie to close up? That’s a good memory.”
“For me too,” Ma said. “For half the town, I’ll wager. You two were good for business. Got folks to dig deeper in their pockets.”
“Good old Pinewood.” Victoria looked around the diner. “So much the same. But different too. Brighter than I remember. And those wonderful drawings! Those are new.” She gestured to the framed caricatures that lined the walls. “The Freedom Regulars!” She grinned.
“Those are Nate’s. He’s a very successful artist, you know. He’s had shows in New York, London, all over.”
“Ma. Stop bragging.” My damn ears went hot again.
“Nate! Really? These are yours?”
“They’re wonderful! So fun! So…real.”
Funny. That’s what I was going for. To poke fun – gently – at folks, and still show I like them. Each one has hopes and dreams and sorrows – all important, all real.
“Nate did well up at Ames, even studied in Paris.” Ma came around the counter to stand behind me, hands on my shoulders. A united front. I let Victoria off the hook, but Ma wasn’t quite done with her. “He was gone a long time. I thought maybe he’d stay in New York City, he did so well there. I’m sure glad to have him home though.”
Victoria got the message. “Connie. I really am sorry for…what happened after I left. I wouldn’t have brought on trouble for you or Nate. Not if I could help it.”
“And you couldn’t help it then?”
Victoria studied the inside of her coffee mug.
Ma persisted. “So you’re not telling why you put us through that?”
“Ma. Give the girl a break.”
“No harm asking, is there?”
But there was. I could see it in Victoria’s eyes.
“No.” She said it quietly, dropped her eyes, then raised and leveled them at Ma first, then me. “I had…reasons. Good reasons. Private reasons.”
I know Ma. She wasn’t satisfied. If she chose, Ma could wear you down till you’d confess crimes you never committed. But this time, she only gave Victoria the eye. And when that didn’t produce answers, Ma nodded, and said, “All right then. We’ll leave it at that.”
“Guess she can’t stay mad at you either,” I said.
“I hope that’s true.” She paused. “Friends?”
“Friends,” I said.
Ma nodded. “Friends.”
“Just like that?” Her voice was light but there was effort behind it. The handbag strap wasn’t out of danger yet.
Ma and I glanced at each other and shrugged.
“Just like that,” I said.
“Once a friend, always a friend,” Ma said.
“Thank you.” She blinked, seemed about to say something, but gave her head a tiny shake. She gave us both a bright smile – still sincere, but somehow not quite so personal. Like she pulled on a cape of Hollywood bravado. She glanced over to where Sadie was in full chat with Miss Harriet Blue and said, “I hope maybe you can help me with something.”
Victoria leaned toward Ma. “Connie. You’ve known Sadie a long time. You see her as much as anybody. How’s she doing?”
“Well… Now honey, you know your aunt is an old friend. A good friend.”
“I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”
“What Ma’s trying not to say is that Sadie never was the sharpest crayon in the box.”
Victoria smiled. A sad smile this time and a nod. “Oh, I know. She’s a dear, sweet woman, and I love her. But she’s always been a little…dizzy. What I want to know is…well, is she getting dizzier?”
I was surprised to see Ma’s eyes fill. She grabbed a napkin, turned toward the wall, dabbed. “Damn, damn, damn.”
“Ma? You okay?” Nobody gets between the cub and his mama either.
I saw her shoulders square like they do before she tackles any hard thing like pull a splinter from my finger or face down Ben Johansen. She nodded. “She’s slipping. Not a lot. Not enough so most people notice. But she gets confused. More now. Carleen and I, we’ve been picking up the slack.” She gave a little grin. “Not exactly new. More this last year.”
Victoria nodded and studied her coffee again. And then, damned if her shoulders didn’t square up just like Ma’s. She looked up. “I’m not surprised. Afraid and sad and…royally pissed off. But not surprised.” She paused. “How long can you keep covering for her, Connie?”
“As long as she’s able to get here. To stand upright, to walk. As long as she stays…docile and will follow directions. If it gets to the point when she fights us, well… Then it won’t be good for her to be here. For her – or for us. Till then…” There went the shoulders again. “We’ve got her back.” This was no off-the-cuff response. Ma’d given it considerable thought.
Victoria nodded. “Thank you. I needed to know.” She looked my way. “Nate?”
“Can’t say I’ve noticed much. Not job-related. But…” I didn’t want to say any more than Ma had. “She’s not as careful with her hair as she used to be.”
“Her hair?” I caught the tone. The surprise. And the speculation. Not the first time.
“No, I’m not gay,” I said. “I’m a painter. I notice things.”
Ma looked at Victoria. “I raised a boy who notices a woman’s hair. I’m so proud.”
She is. I know it and she knows I know it. Won’t stop her pulling my chain though. The two of them laughed – till they had to grab and dab. Which was fun to see.
Sadie left Miss Harriet Blue and joined us at the counter with a look that said, “I know there was a joke here. I know I won’t get it. But I like to laugh too.” Classic Sadie. Out loud she said, “Vicky, honey, I’ve got my hair appointment.” Poor Sadie. “What’s so funny?”
Victoria smothered a laugh before she kissed Sadie’s cheek. “You go ahead. I’ll walk over to Lindy’s and meet you. Half an hour?”
“Okey dokey!” Sadie bounced toward the door.
As soon as she was out of sight, Victoria said, “I want to do something for her. Something that will matter later, when… Later. I could use your help. It’s about tomorrow night’s party.” Ma and I listened as Victoria told us what she wanted to cook up.