“Didn’t you used to be Frannie Barrett?”
Francis choked back a sigh at the voice she still recognized from years ago, picked up a couple of not exactly farm fresh tomatoes from the back of the grocery story bin to set in her basket, and gave the woman a half-hearted grin. “How are you, Tana? I’m still Francis Barrett, and I go by Fran. I never did like to be called Frannie, you know.”
“Didn’t you? But we all called you that.” Tana tugged at the bottom of her shirt to pull it out of the indentation between her large breasts and larger stomach as she gave Fran a once-over. “Well, never mind. We all thought you eloped and ran off to ... was it Vegas? Guess that didn’t work out so well?”
“Vegas? Is that what people are saying?” Fran perused the bell peppers that were in about the same shape as the tomatoes. Okay enough for salsa, she supposed.
“It’s not true, then?”
“Not even close. I’ve never been to Vegas and I’ve never been married. I have to run. I’m sure I’ll see you around.” Making a quick escape from The Third Degree, the biggest thing Tana White Berger was known for throughout Storm Lake after her gossip abilities and the way she’d flaunted her figure, which Fran supposed she no longer did, she hustled with her red grocery basket over her arm to the cashier, paid in cash, and wondered again why she’d decided to move back to Iowa, even temporarily.
Maybe she should have let her aunt sell the darned property as is, contents included, whatever they might be, so she could be rid of it. Most of it, she wouldn’t miss. But the little cottage, her father’s escape from it all, as he’d said so often, Fran couldn’t quite let go. Not until she’d come back to see it.
The place was in horrid disrepair. The front porch was unsteady enough Fran tended to duck and move through quickly when she came and went. Queen Anne’s Lace and other less pretentious weeds had taken over the parts of the gardens not densely carpeted with dead leaves. The lemon balm had jumped its retainer in the herb garden and filled the whole thing, spilling out into the grass. Even the hydrangeas were messier than normal. Her father never trimmed them back for winter. He waited until summer after the growth returned and only cut those showing decay. That hadn’t been done, either, for years, or so it seemed. Pale yellow-brown thin bare stalks stuck out everywhere in different lengths, mixed with gray-black dead wood and withered brown leaves that discouraged the darker brown stalks from regenerating the shrubs with new life. Her father would thrash his hands through what little hair he’d had left if he saw his beautiful gardens in such a state.
So she would at least fix them first. The garden shed would help the house get a better price if it looked tidy and usable rather than a run-down eyesore. The exterior mattered most. If she could fool renters or buyers with an immaculate entrance, they would see the inside as nicer than it was. That’s how it worked. First impressions and all.
The place had always been a mess. Except the gardens. The grass was often too long and Fran was never sure if there was much actual grass mixed in with the weeds. If it was green, her father didn’t care what was growing out there, outside his gardens. The shed itself had always been a disaster. Mis-matched. Full of stuff. Not even stuff he used, but just stuff. Piles of stuff. Disorderly...
Fran laughed aloud as she stowed the few groceries in the back of her Explorer, shook her head while she got behind the wheel, and sighed as she veered her car onto the little road to her temporary home. She couldn’t even call it disorderly. It was far beyond disorderly.
Her aunt had at least hauled out a bunch of garbage. Rather, she’d paid to have it done. She’d also called an exterminator in, to rid it of “rats,” she’d said, although Fran was quite sure they were only mice and a cat or two would have worked. Maybe she would get a cat or two. For the mice. For company.
Except she wasn’t staying. A few catch and release traps would work for any mice the peppermint plants she had already put around the porch in big containers didn’t deter. She looked forward to fresh peppermint iced tea. It would help the summer move along faster.
Not that she generally wanted summer to move along fast. Summer was her favorite time in Storm Lake. Or rather, it was the only time she didn’t hate being in Iowa. So she could make do, spend some time out on the beach, maybe go to Lake Fest to see whoever was playing. Give herself time to clear out the rest of the shed. Redecorate. Rent it. Or sell. That decision was still in the air. The only thing Fran was sure of at this point was that she would not stay any longer than necessary.
Possibly, she’d head right back to South Dakota. Or not. Cal was from there. Still there, at least at times. Maybe she’d wander farther. Everything that didn’t fit in her SUV plus the rented pull-behind moving trailer had been sold or given away. She could go anywhere, using the house sale or rent as income until she found something to supplement it. And there was a decent amount of money in her savings account, since her mother drummed it into her head from childhood to save part of everything she earned for doing chores beyond the required basics she had to do as a member of the household. That had carried through to every job she had, and she’d always worked at least one job. Often, she’d taken second jobs simply to fill extra time. All of that income had been added to her savings. Nothing was holding her anywhere anymore.
A heaviness descended on her soul as she drove past the tacky bi-level houses in shades of brown and dark green, all pretty much the same, an easy throw-together floor plan that made them not cost too awful much. Despite her memories in her own house, in her parents’ old house, she liked the tall stone manor-style structure itself and was always erringly proud of not having the same design as everyone else on the street. Of course it was off the street and behind trees enough it was hard to see until you drove right up in front of it, and she never had visitors of her own there. But she knew it was different, the style was artistic and elegant, and she’d loved it.
The only thing she didn’t like was that her mother created the landscaping plan. Symmetrical. Simple. Fake colored wood chips in heavy layers to prevent life underneath from coming through. Made to look like it popped out of a magazine. It was always neat; Fran gave her mother that. But it was boring. Her mother could have let her father be in charge of that one thing with the main house, since it was his thing, after all.
And it wouldn’t have been boring.
Turning off the main side road onto a gravel road, Fran glanced over at the big house, still neat as a pin, and kept going to the shed. The work ahead of her made her sigh again. Such a mess. Maybe she’d hire some yard help. She’d far rather do it on her own, though, or as much as she could before she ran out of steam or patience. She knew how to do it. Her father had always pulled her out to his gardens to help, and he always taught her something while she helped. Sometimes it was about gardening. Sometimes there was a point to it. Often, Fran had to bite her tongue to keep from telling him there was no reason she needed to know whatever he rambled about.
At least it wasn’t gossip. That was her mother’s arena, also, and much of why Fran tried hard to work outside with her father rather than inside with her mother. Maybe there was something wrong with her, as people had always thought, but Fran could not find it within herself to be that awfully interested in other people simply because they lived in the same place she’d been forced to grow up through no choice of her own.
Her father, through his oddities, was at least never boring, and that made him far better company than most people she ran across.
There was, of course, one other shining light in Storm Lake, Iowa. Every day since she’d arrived, Fran had considered driving over to his parents’ house and asking how to get in touch with him. She also thought about looking him up online, but that felt too much like stalking. And she was not at all sure she wanted to see him now. Could be, like Tana, he’d put on a bunch of weight and his age was showing hard, and although she couldn’t fairly fault him for that, Fran thought it might be better to remember him as he was back in school.
Back in school, when they were in the same class. Eons ago, it seemed. Back when the only time he spoke to her was as a joke, although he often looked like he wanted to talk to her.
Twenty-one years had passed since high school. Twenty years since she’d seen him. Could be he’d turned into a huge ass. If he had, she didn’t want to know.
No, it was far better to leave things alone and hope she didn’t run into George McKenry.
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