North of Happenstance: Chapter Nine

Kate stood irresolute, her eyes focused straight ahead on the hotel room door facing back at her: Number 203. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her hand, and, curling her fingers into a tight knuckle, brought it down against the metal surface before her, wrapping hard. Supposedly, this was Pastor Maggie’s temporary residence. Short-term, just until she found a place—or so she’d insisted at the sisters’ ill-gotten dinner party.

Waiting impatiently, Kate wondered, from the umpteenth time, if she was doing the right thing. If Penny found out she was here, if she knew what Kate was about to ask of the Pastor…well, she’d be furious. After seeing how Penny had interacted with the pastor the other night, Kate wasn’t encouraged to pick a fight with the otherwise carefree psychic. If Kate’s presence today got out, well, a fight would definitely be had. On the other hand, what was that saying? Desperate times call for desperate measures?

Before Kate got the chance to change her mind, the door swung open, revealing a slightly bewildered-looking Pastor Maggie. And why shouldn’t she be baffled? Kate hadn’t bothered to call and announce her intention to visit. Honestly, she hadn’t known if she would be able to go through with her little plan until she got here, until her fists knocked against the metal doorframe.

Assembling her features into a grin of welcome, Maggie motioned Kate inside. “Kate, what a wonderful surprise,” she said, leading the way to where a dinky table sat, situated between a boxy entertainment stand and one edge of a queen-sized bed. Pulling out a chair for herself, she invited Kate to take the remaining seat. The faux-wood finish of the oval table was hardly luxurious and the comforter, a thin blanket boasting a splash of brown-and-teal paisley patterns, seemed far from homey.

“Oh! Would you like a cup of coffee?” Maggie asked suddenly, her voice flushed with energy. Before Kate could respond, she was already back up on her feet, making her way quickly to the built-in vanity located just outside the bathroom. A hodgepodge of appliances lined the limited space: hairdryer, percolator, iron, and microwave.

“Uh, yes, that would be lovely,” Kate told her, folding her hands primly on her lap.

“Cream or sugar?” M.T. asked.

“Both please,” Kate said, her own nerves building inside her throat, constricting her airway. Her voice sounded high and wispy, a sure sign she was out of her element.

She felt a little like a double-agent, playing both sides….

“Here you go,” M.T. said then, placing a steaming Styrofoam cup down on the tabletop in front of Kate.

Wrapping her fingers around it, Kate relished the warmth working its way from the inside out. “Thank you.”

A moment of silence descended. Absently, Kate stared down at the strong drink in her hands. She’d managed to get herself all the way up here but now, sitting in front of Maggie, she wasn’t sure how to start.

The pastor seemed to realize this; probably it came with the territory of her profession. “Much as I would like to assume you came here for the fantastic view,” M.T. finally said, pointing toward the room’s front-facing windows, which provided a picture of the parking lot outside, “I have a gut feeling that’s not it.” Her dry tone was rich.

Kate laughed. She couldn’t help it. She knew she wasn’t supposed to like Maggie—she was Penny’s friend and since she didn’t like Maggie, it was predetermined Kate couldn’t either. But she did. Maggie was funny.

“No, that’s not it,” Kate agreed.

“Is it Penny?” M.T. asked, getting right down to it. Her voice was soft, inviting….

“Yeah,” Kate confessed. She paused a moment before continuing. “I’m not sure I should be telling you this. No, scratch that. I’m sure I shouldn’t be telling you this…”

“But?” M.T. promptly when Kate’s voice stalled out.

Sigh. “I don’t know what else to do. I tried. I tried, you know, but all my years in finance, my reputed suave analytical background, hadn’t been enough. Developments, predicted conditions, trends in spirituality and spending habits…all of it, it just landed on deaf ears I guess. I used every trick in the book, but nothing!”

Maggie nodded her head slowly, seemingly content with Kate’s nonsensical ramblings, content to remain patient until that elusive statement was explained. “What happened?”

“I’m not even sure where to begin,” Kate said, her eye closing momentarily. The image of Madame Penny, tears streaking down her face, ruining her cleverly applied mascara, filled Kate’s vision. “That is, it was Monday morning….” Kate began.

She’d woken up to the abrupt sound of pounding at the front door. Trudging down the stairs, a bathrobe thrown hastily around her shoulders, Kate had known, even before peering out a window, that it could only be one person standing outside, knocking with such a vengeance; no one else wouldn’t dared make a house call before 6:00 in the morning.

Throwing the door open with force, Kate had hoped the sight of her scowling face would warn Penny to make it quick. Instead, at the sight of a blubbering, weeping Penny, it was Kate who’d been shocked into rearranging her agenda for the morning. Carefully guiding Penny inside, all thoughts of sleep fled from Kate’s mind as she led the way to the kitchen.

She’d begged Penny to stop crying and tell her what was wrong, what had happened? Putting tea on to boil, because Penny preferred it to coffee, Kate listened as the woebegone tale was thrust forth from trembling lips:

Penny was going to be evicted. She may have been a little late on her rent—try two months late—but the intuitive business couldn’t be expected to perform like other businesses, the psychic insisted. It wasn’t periodic, rather sporadic. Kate had refrained from arguing with her. It wasn’t the time or the place. Penny was obviously not in the mood for a shake-down in economics 101.

At first, Kate had tried to find a solvable solution—a workable compromise, to counteract this dilemma: perhaps Penny would be better off running her business out of her home. (Hey, it’s rent-free!) However, Kate soon lived to regret that comment. Penny wouldn’t hear of it. Her home was too cramped as it was—where would she set up shop? Certainly Kate couldn’t exactly disagree with that sentiment. The three of them had damn near sent the place bursting at the seams with their “sisters’ plus one” dinner party. Of course, a small part of Kate agued silently, if Penny cleaned out her guestroom of its overgrowth of junk, ranging from a fifteen year old treadmill to a guitar with a broken string and a sewing machine, there would be plenty of space…and privacy too; rather more so than that utility closet afforded at the florist’s shop. But, obviously Penny wasn’t interested in traveling down that avenue of options.

“The shop needs to be in the heart of town,” the other woman had gone on to say. It’s central locale brought in a lot of foot traffic. Her house was too far out of town to attract that kind of clientele. She wouldn’t get any more customers than she currently had. Again, Kate wasn’t entirely sure she agreed with this estimation. The discretion of an out-of-sight locale might encourage those who felt bowled over by the weight of public opinion and gossip. Still, she said nothing. It wasn’t her decision to make.

Penny wanted her shop to stay right where it was. She didn’t want to move so much as a foot on either side of it. She had carved out a little niche for herself there. People knew how to find her. She didn’t want to scare off customers with erratic repositioning. Plus, the space held sentimental value. It was her humble beginnings and she wasn’t about to let it go.

Penny had tried to get a loan from her bank. The manager, a slimy specimen of a man, had refused the request offhand. And that’s were Kate came in.

“Maybe you could help me to change his mind? If you were to talk to him, with your background and expertise, it’s just conceivable…I need this application approved. It’s my last option.”

Penny didn’t need much money, just enough to get her by for a few months, and pay her back-rent of course. Her landlord, the owner of Massie’s Flowers, had reached the end of his patience. Penny needed to provide a check, in full, by the end of the week or she was out. So she thought, with Kate’s expertise and all…well, it might be worth a shot

Obviously, Kate had agreed, yielding effortlessly to yet another of Penny’s schemes, unable to find the strength to tell her “No.” All the same, Kate hadn’t been quite as optimistic as her partner, all too aware that this ‘last-ditch chat’ probably wouldn’t amount to much. Banks were really tightening their belts. She hadn’t wanted to dampen Penny’s hopes by admitting it, but she’d doubted if any amount of presentations would be able to effectively show the lucrative earning potential of a psychic’s business. It just hadn’t been likely.

Still, Kate had tried. And she’d been almost as disappointed walking out of the bank, one big fat rejection later, as Penny herself. The meeting hadn’t lasted longer than fifteen minutes. Kate’s pride stung; she’d always fancied herself a silver-tongued devil in the buying/selling market. Kate knew the language to use, the persuasion tactics to turn heads. It’s how she’d landed a junior analyst position straight out of college, a highly competitive field.

Maybe she was getting rusty. They’d barely had time to get comfortable in the plastic chairs provided before they were politely, but firmly, denied. Unfortunately, the bank just didn’t have the faith that Penny would be able to pay the loan back. Her current expenses, debt and credit history pointed to money mismanagement and overextension.

Penny had tried to put on a brave face in the aftermath of this crippling answer, instead telling Kate how much she appreciated the help; she knew how hard the other woman had tried…some things weren’t meant to be. Forcing a grin, she’d told Kate not to worry, and certainly to please stop apologizing. It was Penny’s own fault. She’d figure it out. She always did one way or another.

 

“…I’m not sure what it is I even think you can do,” Kate said to Maggie, in conclusion to this remarkable story. “Actually that’s, that’s not true. I was hoping maybe you could talk to the owner of the florist’s shop? See if you can succeed where I failed with the bank.”

M.T. smirked. “Why me?” The question seemed deceptively simple.

“Well…” Kate wasn’t sure exactly how to answer that.

“It wouldn’t be because of my influential position as the town’s reverend, now would it?” Maggie asked meaningfully.

“I thought it couldn’t hurt,” Kate confessed, sure she was going to hell.

“Lutheran guilt?” Maggie queried, her tone impassive.

.           Cringing, Kate nodded her head. It hadn’t sounded quite that wrong when she’d laid it out in her mind. She blew out a deep breath. “Yeah, you’re right, that’s a horrible idea. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You were trying to be a good friend,” Maggie assured her, placing a hand over Kate’s wrist comfortingly. Looking down at the contact, Kate realized the sister’s were probably more alike than they even knew.

“Yeah, I guess,” Kate said, feeling more and more defeated by the minute. “It’s just, I’ve never had a,” Kate stumbled, “a Penny in my life before. She has a way about her…she just sort of grows on a person.”

“Oh, I know what you mean. She’s a special woman.”

“And I’ve never seen her look so down. I wanted to give back to her. She really loves what she does. No offense to your religion,” Kate was quick to say. “Frankly, I don’t even think I believe in what she does, but…well, I believe in her.”

“I can see that,” Maggie said softly. “Maggie’s really lucky to have you in her life.”

 

 

 

Kate left shortly afterward. She thanked M.T. for listening to her, for brining her back to reality and for the cup of coffee, as well. Waving a last goodbye from her hotel room window, Maggie couldn’t fight back a grin. Kate was a proper young woman. No doubt she and Penny made an odd pair, but nonetheless, a sincere one. In spite of herself, Maggie found herself jealous at the thought. She wanted to be a part of that.

One hand fingering the heart-shaped locket worn perpetually around her neck, Maggie spoke out loud: “Please understand, even if you don’t agree. I have to help. You taught me that.  After all, the greatest is love, isn’t it?” The words, quiet at first, grew louder in conviction.

God didn’t answer back. Not directly anyway, but then again he never did.

Squaring her shoulders, not giving herself time to back out, Maggie reached for her car keys. Perhaps it was time she learned how to be a good friend herself, even if that meant bending her moral barometer a little in the name of the greater good. She knew He’d understand. “Give me grace,” she uttered in finality as she shut the hotel room behind her.

 

 

Ten minutes later, a hat pulled low on her brow, Maggie found herself standing at the entrance to Massie’s Flowers, her reflection painted clearly across the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Her eyes were bright with anxiety and urgency. She wasn’t sure how much time she had.

Canvassing the scene, she’d circled the block twice before finally parking, her car going at a snail’s pace as her eyes spied for any sign of life over at Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—conspicuously adjacent, discretion was imperative. The coast clear, however, the store seemed locked up tight, the lights turned off, a note taped to the window saying the psychic would be out for the remainder of the day. Breathing a sigh of relief, Maggie felt her confidence grow as she pulled the door open to the florist’s shop….

The sole occupant in the building, it didn’t take long for Maggie to be noticed. Smiling in greeting at an approaching employee, Maggie tried to present a calm and cool front.

“Hello ma’am, can I help you with anything in particular?” A youngish woman asked, stopping a few feet from her. It was exactly the kind of address Maggie had been hoping for.

“Yes, actually I was hoping to talk to a Mr. Chesney, the proprietor of this establishment,” M.T. said, her gaze taking in the building vaguely.

“Sure, I’ll go and get him. Just a moment.” The worker worked skipped behind the check-out counter to a door in the back. Maggie could just make out the girl’s voice as she pushed it open, her head poked just inside its depths, informing the occupant of Maggie’s presence…

In response, a fat little man, with balding hair, stepped into view, lumbering out of t his private domain with a determined, if forced, smiled marring the lines of his face. Kicking her own grin up a notch or two, Maggie met him halfway, standing between an aisle of peonies and tickseed, the arrangement of which both overwhelming and colorful.

“Hello, you wanted to speak with me?” the man asked, getting right to the point. This was obviously Mr. Chesney.

Maggie nodded her eagerly. “Well, yes, though I dare say it’s not about your lovely flowers.”

Cocking his head to the side, Maggie noted that this had really gotten the bored man’s attention. “Excuse me?”

“We haven’t met yet. My name is Margaret Thayer. I’m the new pastor in town,” she said, holding out of hand. He quickly shook it.

“Yes, of course. I heard we had a new reverend in town. How do you do? Is this about flower donations?”

“No, no, uh, at least, not today,” she said, making a mental note to call them back and look into that. Another day. Another day.

“Okay…” he said, obviously waiting for her to proceed.

“Actually, I was hoping to talk to you about Madame Penny…”

 

 

 

Walking back to her car half an hour later, Maggie hoped she hadn’t just made a huge mistake. She’d wanted to help her sister, but if Penny ever found out what she’d done, well, she’d probably hate her. It didn’t bare thinking about. Fingers crossed, Maggie prayed it wouldn’t come to that; she didn’t think they could stand to be any more alienated from one another.

With a shake of her head, Maggie ended that line of thought; it wouldn’t do her any good. What was done was done. Besides, the potted plants she was currently hefting into the back of her SUV required special attention or there was going to be upturned soil all over the floorboards.

A small price to pay, she reminded herself. Penny wasn’t going to be evicted. At least, not today.

Kate’s plan had failed. Throwing her title around hadn’t impressed Mr. Chesney—and, God help her Maggie had tried, sinking to that sorry state of manipulation to no avail:

“Penny provides a unique service for this community,” she’d insisted, “supplementing a necessary element of spiritual connectedness. This form of stewardship is what brings communities together. It’s what keeps them together. Perhaps given a little more time…”

In response, Mr. Chesney had informed her coolly, and in no uncertain terms, that he couldn’t afford to run a business on the foundations of Christian charity. He ran it on money. Madame Penny hadn’t paid her rent. Without payment he had to reclaim the property. It was a cyclical process, and he knew she’d understand.

Still, she’d pushed. “Yes, but I’m sure you can appreciate that it isn’t just money that businesses rely upon, but also a supportive and neighborly commonwealth. These are not exclusive principals.”

Kate’s plan failed. Indeed, in the end, it was Maggie who’d capitulated, not the other way around. She’d come to suppose this as God’s unspoken counter to her half-hatched plan—a misguided if genuine desire to protect her family. She’d misappropriated her position in the community for personal gain, and she’d been fully aware she was doing it, too. Worse, she’d gotten nowhere with it.

When Mr. Chesney remained unmoved by her pretty speeches, Maggie amended her negotiation tactic: she would pay Penny’s back-rent. The stipulation: her involvement in the matter never be disclosed. Mr. Chesney would claim a change in faith, expressing a new offer: as long as Penny never found herself in arrears on payment again, her debt would be forgiven.

“Why so clandestine?” Chesney asked, his eyebrows raised suspiciously.

“Clandestine? No, not at all,” Maggie defended quickly. “I just want her focused on the right thing here, which is going forward! Knowledge of my involvement would be counterproductive, only furthering a sense of backward indebtedness. That’s not the point.”

Without further ado, Mr. Chesney agreed, but not before adding his own terms to this parley. He’d keep his mouth shut, find some reasonable excuse for releasing Penny from her debts, but in the meantime, perhaps Maggie wouldn’t mind taking a look at some of Massie’s selections of flowers? They would make a great addition to a new home, or even the church sanctuary….His meaning couldn’t have been clearer.

Swallowing against the mounting price tag of this impromptu trip, Maggie had no other choice but to turn her eyes toward the rows of greenery decorating the building’s interior. “Lead the way,” she choked out, thankful she’d brought her checkbook with her.

Though Chesney had expressed no exception to her interference in the matter of Penny’s lease, seemingly content with her expression of concern for the welfare of the community members she served, he had nonetheless shown a certain amount of curiosity about her intentions per se—particularly with this community member.

“I must admit, it’s somewhat surprising, you, being a pastor and all, trying so hard to keep a psychic’s business alive, since it directly challenges your own work.”

M.T. felt her face flush. She wasn’t sure but she thought he was subtly calling her out—it had nothing to do with her being a pastor, and he knew it. “I chose to believe that all spiritual leaders are professing devotion to the same God, no matter the name, face, or likelihood denoted therein. I believe He comes to us however it is we need to see Him,” she defended herself. “So keeping her business alive is, in a way, keeping mine as well.”

“Huh,” he said, leaning back against the counter. “And here I thought it was because she was your baby sister.”

Guess he wasn’t being subtle after all.

 

Driving home, Maggie felt waves of guilt wash over her person. She’d never used the divinity of her career for anything even remotely self-serving before. But today, well today she’d played it like a bargaining chip, the ace in her deck of persuasion tactics. She, who guided others to states of moral and ethical righteousness, had fallen into the categorical ‘do as I say, not as I do’ trap.

Still, she’d saved her sister. That had to be worth something.

Maggie pulled into the church parking lot, a feeling of foreboding stealing over her body. She’d made the last minute detour, convinced a donation to the

 

This seesaw of emotion is what led Maggie to make a last minute detour on her way back home. Pulling into the empty parking lot of her destination, she felt a moment’s foreboding. She wasn’t looking up at the wooden siding of her hotel, rather the shadowed steeple of Good Shepherd, convinced that a donation to the church was a necessary salve to her sorry conscience.

Climbing out of her rental, she popped open the trunk. The devastating sight which met her eyes, a mixture of English roses, gardenias and bougainvillea—along with a gorgeous potato tree, sparkled even in the darkened evening air, a rainbow of antique yellow, blushed white and pink, and a dusky blue.

She hoped the congregation enjoyed them.

 

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