Walking slowly into the sinking afternoon sun, her feet in no particular hurry to zip home and…do what, exactly?—Cat considered her options: watch more TV? Play solitaire? Darkly comedic as it was, her next thought tugged Cat’s lips up the slightest fraction of an inch. Probably, she should take the opportunity to rearrange her snack and soup shelves, now that she didn’t have doors covering either set of scattered arrangements.
Whoop. Crazy Monday afternoon happening at the Cryer residence.
She felt her lips snarl now. .
“Good afternoon, Cat. It is Cat, isn’t it? I tell you what, old age is nothing to envy…”
At onslaught of what appeared to be a one-sided conversation, Cat half turned to see Margaret McBoy walking up towards her. Directly behind her, parked in front of a carefully worded sigh: Reserved Parking. All Others Towed—was a flashy red sports car. As Cat watched, bemused, Margaret pocked her keys.
It was a car that screamed style, money, and youth. Yet, oddly, Cat had a feeling that Margaret rode in the driver’s with an ease of elegance that belied her age.
“Hello Margaret. And yes, it’s Cat.” She smiled.
Margaret shook her head. “I swear to it, I forget more than I remember now.” She sent Cat a toothy smile; a smudge of her wild pink lipstick was smeared across one of her front teeth. Cat was just opening her mouth to tell her, when Margaret continued. “Speaking of that, did I tell you that no one calls me Margaret?”
Cat’s thoughts stumbled, brought to a scattered end. “Uh, no.”
“I didn’t think so.” Margaret’s cheeks creased as she twinkled in amusement. Cat wasn’t sure she’d ever met someone who infused so much happiness in the air simply by standing in it. “In fact, I think you’re the first person to call me that in years.”
“Oh.” Cat wasn’t sure what else to say. For one thing, Margaret had yet to tell her what everyone did call her. And for another, Cat had met this peppery woman only once before—and it’s not like today’s run-in had been scheduled.
Cat felt her eyebrows rise in amusement. “Birdie?”
“That’s what everyone calls me.”
“Yeah, I know. I mean, I got that. But—why?” There was hardly any connection between the two names.
In some corner of her mind, Cat realized that she and “Birdie” were still standing outside on the dirt-packed parking lot at the back of a hardware store, absolutely blocking the path of any delivery drivers…having a nice little chat as though nothing were amiss about that.
But then again, there was always the chance that Matt would overhear them and come out…
Whoa. Where the hell had that come from?
Still, Cat noticed that she was standing a little taller now, smiling a little brighter now. Just in case.
“You know, I can’t remember!” Birdie giggled again. And that’s what the sound was, too. A girlish giggle about fifty years too young for her body. Still, like the car, somehow it fit. She brought a finger up to her chin, tap-taping it there as she thought. Finally, she turned her large eyes up to Cat, shrugging dismissively. “Been called Birdie almost my whole life.”
Cat nodded, unsure what to say. There wasn’t really anywhere to go with that story.
“How about you?”
“Is Cat your actual name?”
Cat smiled instinctively. “Uh, no. it’s Catherine.”
“Umm, yes, I suppose that’s what I figured.”
Birdie lifted one shoulder. “No. Only, well, I was hoping—”
“That my mother was obsessed with singing cats?” Cat leaned down to deliver the joke.
Birdie giggled again. “Oh, goodness!”
Cat laughed, too. She had a feeling it was the only natural reaction around Birdie. “No such luck. It’s just Catherine.”
“Nothing plain about that name.”
Cat kicked at the loose gravel underfoot. “No.”
Out of her peripheral vision, Cat watched Birdie’s head shift suddenly, her gaze roaming the industrial buildings hugging the hardware store on either side, as though struck by a new thought.
“What are you doing here?”
That wasn’t the question Cat had been expecting. Still, not much about Birdie seemed to be predictable.
Hurriedly hitching her head over one shoulder, Cat pointed toward McBoy’s rear entrance. “I had to drop off the doors for Matthew.”
“Oh, yes. That’s right.” Birdie smiled. “Was he on good behavior?”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“Don’t let that put you off. He’s a good guy. A great one, in fact.”
Birdie leaned in close. “And I just know, despite his growling, he’s absolutely tickled to be working on this project. He thinks I don’t know it, but I do. This business,” she waved dismissively at the hardware store sharing her last name. “It’s not his dream. Of course, he thinks it’d break my heart to hear that. But I know.”
Cat swallowed, her brain sluggish in the whirlwind of information she had no business hearing.
“This is good practice for him. You’re good for him.”
Cat nodded again, slowly, noncommittally (she hoped). Desperate, she looked for another tract for conversation; oddly, it never occurred to her to simply end the conversation. That would have meant going home. Alone.
“What, ah, what are you doing here?”
Birdie started a little at the question, as if shaken out of her own reverie. She looked back at her car, as if the sight of it would remind her. “Oh, it’s Monday. Me and girls always play Canasta down at Julie’s Café on Mondays.”
“Oh.” That sort of made sense. Julie’s Café was about half a block down from here. But it had its own parking lot. Small, granted, but not likely to be filled at 4:45 p.m.
Birdie seemed to understand Cat’s mild confusion. “I spent the better part of my marriage making sacrifices to my husband’s business. Evening hours, weekends, doubles and mountains of paperwork…sometimes, whole days would go by and I wouldn’t even see him.” She looked lovingly then at the bluish-gray of the exterior building. “He loved this store.”
Shaking herself forcibly, Birdie looked back at Cat. “One of my only real recompenses for all those years was the coveted reserved parking spot I’ve secured for myself over there.” With a flick of her head, she nodded toward that red flashy car. “It might not seem it, but it’s prime. I’m within walking distance of the café, the post office, the health food shop, two convenience stores, and a small beauty mart.”
Cat bit her lip. Now she understood. “It would be a shame not to use it at every available opportunity.”
Birdie clicked her tongue. “That’s exactly how I feel about it.”
“Well,” again, Cat felt that insistent realization that her and Birdie’s conversation had come to a natural close. To continue it would only be to delay the older woman from her card game. And though Cat had enjoyed their conversation, she didn’t want to intrude on Birdie’s goodwill, either. “I don’t want to keep you…”
And again, as she’d done with Matthew, Cat took a big step backward, her intentions clear. “Have a good day.” She took another step backward. Only, unlike Matthew, Birdie reached out a hand, the act pausing Cat’s movements.
“Do you play?”
Birdie smiled. “It would be nice to have some fresh blood in the game.” She tilted her head to one side. “Unless, of course, you haves plans.”
It took Cat a moment to answer. “No,” she finally admitted. It wasn’t as humiliating as she’d feared. “No, I don’t.” She shrugged. “But I don’t know how to play—what did you call it?”
Reaching for her arm, Birdie curled hers through the crook in Cat’s elbow. “Well, that’s no bother. We’ll teach you.”
“Isn’t it supposed to be complicated?”
Birdie gave her a sidelong glance. “You seem pretty smart to me. I think you’ll pick it up rather quickly.”
Cat blushed a little as she found herself being led quite willingly up the alleyway until they’d reached the back of Julie’s Café. Edging up the property line to the front of the diner, Cat blinked in bemusement.
She wasn’t entirely sure she even wanted to learn to play cards. Not for another forty or so years, anyway. For a moment, a childish sort of embarrassment filled her person. The only people she could get to hang out with her were people her grandparents’ age. If her college friends could see her now.
Oh God, if they could see her now, she’d probably have to duck under the table.
Opening the front door of the café, Cat let herself be led to a round table near the back of the short, squat building. Peeling, faded wallpaper and dusty overhead lights greeted her. As did four pairs of eyes of varying shades.
“Ladies.” Birdie cleared her throat as if to make an important announcement. “I’d like to introduce you to my new friend, Cat—” Birdie blinked. She shot Cat a look. “You know, I’m afraid I don’t know your last name.”
“Well, there you have. Meet Cat Cryer.” Then she turned to Cat. “Cat, these are the ladies—” and one by one, she pointed them out. “Harriet, Eleanor, Mary, and Erna.”
Cat waved a hesitant hand. “Hello,” she said quietly.
“You played before?”
“What, the last person who joined—what was her name?”
“It was my granddaughter, as you well know,” Harried informed Mary. “And her name is Elizabeth.”
“Yeah? Well, Elizabeth stunk.”
Blinking in surprise, Cat wasn’t sure if she should smile or turn and run. She wasn’t given the chance to do either, as it turned out. Feeling the pull of Bridie’s fingers on her arm, she looked over at the kindly older woman.
“Pay them no attention. Here, take a seat next to me and I’ll give you a quick rundown of the rules.”
“You’ll be just fine, dearie.” This encouragement was given by Eleanor. At least, Cat thought that was Eleanor. They all sort of looked alike: frail, permed, pale, and utterly content.
“Okay, so each card has a number value attached to it. And there are two wild cards….”
Concentrating, Cat tried to take in everything Birdie told her. Just as she’d suspected, the game was complicated. Listening to Birdie shot up Cat’s heart-rate, her nerves giving way to Mary’s rather harsh words earlier: she feared that, much like Elizabeth, she’d probably stink.
“Does that make sense?” Birdie asked finally. It appeared she’d exhausted the list of concepts, strategies, etc.
“Uh. I think so?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out as we go.” This came from Mary. Reaching for a ridiculously thick stack of cards, she started shuffling. “We’ll play pairs, so that ought to help.”
“Okay.” Cat prayed she wouldn’t have to be on Mary’s team.