The woman replaced the vase onto the low shelf that served as a window display and looked up just as a woman dressed in a long leather coat with a leather helmet and old fashioned goggles whizzed by with her thumb in the air. She rode a strange contraption that could have been fathered when a bicycle made love to a junkyard. It was an assortment of bits and bobs that were held together by some strange magic the woman could not understand. The apparition appeared suddenly on the woman’s right and flashed by bare inches from the storefront’s large front windows. And just as suddenly the specter was gone to the woman’s left. She leaned over the display to get a better look and was glad when she caught the vase she had almost tipped over. It was an item of unspecified origin with a mix of garish colors and, while she had not seen one of the You Break It, You Buy It signs other shops had, she didn’t want to feel compelled to pay for something so hideous.
“That woman was driving on the sidewalk!” the woman exclaimed.
"Don't let the crazy lady bother you," the man behind the counter said. "That's just my sister-in-law, Lauralee. She's showing off. She's got another one of her contraptions going. Yesterday it was something that looked like that one but it was electric."
“But Isn’t that illegal? Driving on the sidewalk, I mean.”
“Probably,” replied the man. “So far, we know the sidewalk is wide enough to accommodate Lauralee’s Harley, her Goldwing and her side-by-side ATV. Heaven help us if she ever gets her old 18-wheeler going.”
The man sighed, turned his head to look at the back of the store and, raising his voice, said, "Soph, you'd better get the kettle on. Our resident maniac just went by on another one of her gizmos. That means it's an Assam day I suppose. Better make sure the temperature reads 96C." Then, lowering his voice, he mumbled, "Heaven forbid it should read 205F."
Smiling at his female customer, the man said, "Either run for your life or be prepared to get sucked into the vortex. She'll be here any minute."
The woman seemed to whither back into the same feeble friendliness she’d had when first she entered the store, In a voice that suggested a plea that expected complete rejection, she said, "It's been a while since I was sucked into a vortex. And I'd love a good malty black tea from India’s Assam region." Putting her thumb and forefinger together and extending them toward the man, she peered up at him hopefully and said. "Especially when it's brewed at precisely 96 degrees Celsius."
The man laughed, stuck out his hand and said, “You’re invited. I’m Christopher. Call me Chris.”
Using only her fingers, the woman quickly shook Chris’s hand, dropped it and said, “Rebecca. Call me, Becky.”
Turning his head again toward the back of the store Chris said, “Make sure there’s plenty, Soph, Becky’s here.” Motioning to the back of the store, he said, “Welcome, Becky.”
As she peeked through the beaded curtain that separated the rest of the store from the part that was “For Staff Only”, Becky saw the back of a woman of average height and a few extra pounds pouring water from a kettle into a large teapot on a small counter at the end of a narrow room. The blue numbers on the base of the kettle read 96C.
“It’s a good thing this heats up fast, Becky,” said the woman without turning around from her task. “My sister will be here any second. Chris is never wrong. He can read Lauralee like a book but, even with his warnings, I often have barely enough time to prepare. Come in, Becky. Sit, sit. You can call me Sophia or Sophie or just Soph if you like.”
Becky parted the beads and entered, marveling at how comfortable she was with the way they were already on a first name basis. She stared at two overstuffed chairs and wondered how they ever managed to get such large pieces of furniture into such a small room. The were close enough together that two people sitting in them would soon become friends involved in intimate conversation or enemies who quickly parted. Taking the chair to the right, Becky sank into an exquisite comfort that she couldn’t remember experiencing before.
Sophia put the teapot atop a delicate doily on the small table that touched the armrest of each chair. Three mugs were also placed on the table upon coasters with old women on them uttering quotes like “He said he had erectile dysfunction. I didn’t even know he had a snake.”
Becky heard the front door of the store open with a whoosh that made the hanging strings of beads bend themselves in the direction of an unseen force. Leaning forward to look between the strands, Becky studied the female vortex as she pulled Chris halfway over the counter into a hug.
“How you doing you good-for-nuthin’ brother-in-law? You stop beating your wife yet?”
Chris, hugging Lauralee back just as fiercely, said, “I threw a hand or two to her last night but she still owes me millions. Your sister can’t hold a straight face in any poker game we’ve ever tried.”
“She won you, didn’t she?” Lauralee replied. “That’s the only prize she’s ever cared about.”
Slapping Chris on the back with enough force that Becky winced, Lauralee said. “I love ya, ya big lug. Sophia’s years with you have been the happiest of her life.” She broke the hug and pushed Chris back across the counter. “What’s the tea today?”
“Got me,” Chris said with a shrug. “Better get back there and see if your sister has got anything on.”
Becky smiled and settled back deeper into the chair. She was in on a secret. It felt good to suddenly feel close to someone after such a long time.
Lauralee burst through the screen of beads and, without a glance at Becky, strode to her sister and gave her a hug as intense as the one she had given Chris. “Soph! It worked. I got it running. The thing must be about a million years old but I got it running.”
Breaking the hug, she turned to Becky and stuck out a hand. “I’m Lauralee. You can call me Lauralee. Everybody does.” She laughed at her joke. From the corner of her eye, Becky saw Sophia roll her eyes.
Taking Lauralee’s hand in her fingertips as she had with Chris, Becky said, “Yes, I know . . . I mean, nice to meet you, Lauralee. I’m Becky.” Lauralee was having none of that and retook the young woman’s hand in a grip that was a combination of warmth and pain.
“Don’t believe her,” said Chris as he neared the staff room, parted the beads and fastened them to the two sides of the door jam. “Everyone calls her a strange alien lifeform from outer space.”
Lauralee laughed. “That too.” Looking around, she grabbed a stool and sat herself in front of the two chairs close enough that Becky was made to feel even more a part of something intimate, even conspiratorial. Sophia settled into the chair next to Becky and began to pour the tea. When she handed Becky’s cup to her on a saucer, the young woman held it by the edges of the saucer to let the brew cool.
When given her cup and saucer, Lauralee blew several quick gusts across the top of the tea and took a sip. Becky raised an eyebrow at the woman’s seeming ability to drink lava straight from a volcano.
Lauralee smacked her lips and said, “Perfect, sis. I don’t know how you do it every time. It’s always exactly what I need.”
“Just lucky, I guess,” Sophia said with a quick glance at Becky who herself was pretending to sip some of the tea to hide her smile. Sophia continued to study Becky for a moment before meeting Chris’s eyes and then looking away.
Chris quickly shouldered himself from the door jam. “Well, I guess I better keep an eye on the front of the store. Enjoy your tea, ladies.”
As she was taking a sip of the steaming brew, Becky peered over the top of her cup and noticed the other two women observing her intently. For a fleeting moment, Becky felt the old panic but then her mind cleared and she decided she either didn’t care enough anymore to guard her feelings so closely or wanted to have friends so desperately that she didn’t care what the risk might be.
Becky lowered her cup and placed it on the saucer in her lap. “It’s all over your faces,” she said. “So ask.”
Lauralee stiffened and sat up straighter on her stool. Sophia paused, her cup half way to her lips and stared.
It was Sophia that recovered first. She finished her sip and placed the cup and saucer on the table. Then, placing her arms on the arms of the chair said, “Direct. We prefer that too, Becky. But why don’t you tell us? Then we won’t have to guess.”
“No,” Lauralee said to Sophia. “I’m on it." Turning to Becky, she said, "You’re hurting. Tell us why.”
Rebecca Morse felt self-assured and safe. It seemed natural with the two women for some reason she couldn't understand. But, she was grateful for the feeling and wasn’t going to easily give it up. She took another sip of the delicious tea, proud of the steadiness of her hand.
“Okay,” Becky said, “a quick thumbnail.” She held up a single finger. “One, my parents were a horrible match. Fought all the time, hated one another and only stuck it out for the sake of the child, which is both laughable and tragic, if you ask me. But why would they ever ask me?.” She held up another finger. “Two. Till the age of ten, I had a circle of friends whose circumstances were much the same as mine. We propped one another up. We endured thanks to a friendship as strong as steel. Then, my parents moved us from the small town where I’d been born to LA.”
Becky held up another finger. “Three. I had no friends in the big city. Others, even at my age, had killed themselves rather than face the bullying and stark loneliness of being the odd one out. It was beginning to look like a viable option for me too.” She held up another finger. “Four. Then Lily came along and adopted me.”
“A real mother type,” Sophia said.
“Maybe. In a way. But also something better. The best friend I.ve ever known,” Becky said. “She got me all the way through grade and high school and, when my parents managed to get themselves killed in a car wreck after a night of drinking and fighting, Lily went to college with me. I had to work extra hours waiting tables so I could afford a place that allowed dogs.”
“Ah,” both women nodded.
“I’d had enough of duplicating my parents behavior with drink and drugs and sex with loser boyfriends so, when I went to college, I settled down and studied hard. Turns out, I’m pretty smart. I finished a double major in biology and chemistry in two years and landed a job that paid well and now I’m past six figures as an executive in a research firm. I work at home most of the time and, when I have to go into the city, I ride the MetroLink so I can work on the train instead of sitting in traffic. And, I am enjoying small town life again. Even tried to get in touch with my old grade school friends but they didn’t remember me. So it was just Lily and me. For a while."
“Oh crap,” Lauralee said.
“Oh no!” Sophia said.
The sincerity of the two women brought tears up in Becky that she had repressed for what seemed like ages.
“It’s almost like she came into my life to get me to a place where I at least had a chance at happiness and fulfillment. Then, her work finished --” Becky paused, raised the cup of tea partway to her mouth then stopped. “Cancer, nothing they could do.” She quickly put the cup back on the saucer, her hand shaking. “And we were just starting our new life together. Now, I can never repay her for all she meant to me, all she got me through, all the nights she reminded me of what it’s like to be totally loved unconditionally.”
Lauralee quickly rose and left. To Becky's eyes, the woman was obviously unable to deal with the raw emotion that permeated the room. "I'm sorry," said Becky. "I didn't mean -- "
But Sophia leant forward and put her hand on Becky’s knee and, looking Becky deep in the eye, made some connection that unleashed the crushing grief the younger woman had been suppressing for so long. Her shoulder's heaved great sobs up from her soul.
When Becky began to catch her breath, Sophia offered a hanky and asked, “How long?”
“Six months,” Becky managed to say before she took the hanky and again began to cry. Sophia said nothing meant to stop the tears. There were no words that could be offered to assuage the grief process and she knew the attempt could cause more harm than good.
For what, to Becky, seemed an age. She drained herself of all that she had been holding back. Now, away from coworkers and the few acquaintances she’d met for lunch or a quick coffee once or twice, the dam had burst and she was not ashamed it had happened in front of these women. The poison of pain that had seemed so bottomless for so long began to drain away when she shared some cookies and several more cups of tea with Sophia.
The front door opened to the store opened again with the familiar whoosh and Lauralee form appeared in the doorway.
“Oh, no!” Becky practically screamed but Lauralee paid her not the slightest notice and placed the puppy in her lap.
“Gretchen at the humane society had a rescue deal a few weeks ago. A female with a brand new litter and the lady who owned them had to be put in assisted living. The lady’s daughter brought all the puppies into the society inside a box, the mama whining as she followed her in. The daughter wanted nothing to do with them. All the other’s have been adopted but this is the runt. Gretchen doesn’t understand it really. This one, although so much smaller than the others, seems the toughest. She just wouldn’t stop until she got her share of the teet. She survived.”
“I can’t.” said Becky.
“It’s not about you,” Lauralee said.
The puppy had worked its way up from Becky’s lap and nestled itself into the crook of her arm.
“It’s about the puppy,” Sophia said. “I would have thought Lily taught you better than that.”
At the mention of her now lost best friend, tears again spilled from Becky’s eyes. Wiping them away, she reached down and picked the puppy up with both hands and held it at arm’s length.
“What are you going to call her?” Sophia asked.
Looking down, Becky said, “Well, your right. She’s a female.” As she studied the little creature’s face more intently, it began to pee in Becky’s lap. Looking down at the mess, Becky said, “You’re an obnoxious little thing aren’t you? I think I’ll call you Lauralee."