Slightly South of Simple
the tide rolls in
I love pretty much every quirky thing about my town. The weird people and the weirder traditions, the over-the-top celebrations and beautiful old homes. I love that I can feel like I am completely at the end of the earth but then, two bridges and twenty minutes later, enter an adjacent town large enough to have everything I need. I thrive on the quiet and privacy of the off-season but the summer vacationers who feel free to photograph my home and sometimes even peek in through my windows have never been my favorite thing.
And Caroline has never been my favorite child. I know that’s not nice to say, but it’s nicer than saying she’s my least favorite child, which is really the truth. I love her to pieces. I’d take a bullet for her. I’d sooner die than see something bad happen to her, and I would never, ever want to live without her. But she is . . . tricky.
So I guess that’s why I didn’t answer the first time she called. I was in Sloane Emerson, my interior design shop, which, yes, I did name after my other two, more favored children. It’s a bit of a family joke, actually. When we moved to Peachtree Bluff, Caroline kicking and screaming in her designer jeans the whole way, I acted casual about opening my store. I acted like it was something I was doing to take my mind off of my beloved husband dying, like it was something I was doing to assert myself. In actuality, I’d had to go back to work because, while we were told we would be receiving millions of dollars in life insurance, we hadn’t. I thought it would intensify the general panic and nightmares and PTSD around our new, very large, very potentially haunted home if my girls knew that.
So when I announced that I was getting back into decorating, my darling jewel of a daughter Caroline had said, “Oh, good. I hear the camper-trailer design business is really flourishing right now.”
And when I enthused that the business was going so well that I thought I would open a storefront, my sweet-tempered, well-adjusted child snapped, “If you name it Caroline’s, I will die.”
So I didn’t name it Caroline’s. I named it Sloane Emerson. It was the first thing I had done in quite some time that my eldest daughter thought was funny.
It was quiet around town that January morning, the tourists hiding wherever they had come from, not to return until April, despite it being my favorite time of year. Maybe it was the temperatures in the mid- to high sixties that made me love
the winter so much. Maybe it was that only the locals remained. It was hard to tell.
I was pulling some Pine Cone Hill matelassé samples for two regular clients who needed to spruce up their yachts—in a town of three thousand people, boat owners had become my bread and butter—when the bell above the door rang.
Ah, yes. I would know that beard anywhere. Hippie Hal, reporting for duty.
“What’s up, Hal?”
“Oh, not much, Ansley. You know. The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out.”
“Sure does, Hal.”
This was a part of the morning. Whether it was forty degrees or 140, Hal wore rumpled jeans and a meticulously pressed white oxford. But depending on the heat, he’d layer a few of the shirts. It was his signature look. Hal, who had sold the three McDonald’s he owned in Tennessee and headed for the shore, lived in a small house two streets over that was always a subject of heated debate at town meetings. You see, Hal refurbished bicycles, saved them from the landfill, as he put it. So there were always a few on his front lawn to entice tourists ready to bike around town.
And the historical association, Mrs. McClasky in particular, had a fit about it. Every month.
But it took a lot to ruffle Hal, and until she came over in her crop pants and Keds and made him remove those bikes, they were staying put.
In the meantime, Hal made his morning rounds, said hello
to all the shop owners, and rode one of those front-yard bikes back home. He had a big garage. Biggest in town, in fact. I asked him one time, “Hal, why don’t you put those bikes in the garage, and then we could quit having to talk about them every single town meeting?”
He got a far-off look in his eye and said, “That’s not a bad idea. But you see, here’s the problem. If I put those bikes in my garage, Mrs. McClasky wouldn’t have anything to do anymore. She’d have no purpose. Then she’d be miserable. And I feel like it’s my job to spread happiness wherever I go.” He grinned then.
That seemed about right to me.
I smiled at Hal, and he asked, “Want me to send Coffee Kyle down here?”
I nodded, samples in hand. “Sure, Hal. That would be great. I could use a little caffeine.” He turned to walk out, and I said, “Hey, Hal. Wait a minute.”
“What’s that? You need some produce? I can get Kimmy down here, too.”
“No. I don’t need any produce.” I held up two blue shades of matelassé. “Which one do you like better?”
He pointed to the lighter shade on the left. Hippie Hal might have worn a piece of rope as a belt, but the man had taste.
“Boyfriend Sky it is,” I said out loud, even though he had gone.
I looked down at the sample again, thinking of Caroline and how I needed to return her call. She would love this matelassé. Maybe I would send her one. Things were good between
us now that she had forgiven me for stealing a whole half-year of city life from her, now that she had still married one of the most eligible bachelors in town and had Vivi and this new baby on the way and that big life she had always dreamed of.
I picked up the phone to dial her—my daughters found it hilarious that I still dialed their numbers as often as I searched for their contacts. As I did, I realized that, yet again, my finger joint was sort of sticking when I tried to bend it, like a door swollen from the rain. I had quit doing my Trigger Finger exercises for a couple of days and the annoying condition had come back with a vengeance. I sighed. Aging is not for the faint of heart. Before I could hit the green button, Kimmy walked in. Her hair got weirder and weirder. She had a severe spiky haircut that was half black, half blue. It looked like a Smurf gone Goth.
“Hal said you wanted Swiss chard?”
This was the only problem with Hal. He was really helpful, except that he had smoked away every brain cell he had long, long ago. Kimmy was the owner of a hydroponic farm, but you didn’t have to be part of the Drug Enforcement Administration to put together that vegetables weren’t the only thing she was growing hydroponically. Hence the friendship between Hal and her.
“That wasn’t me,” I said.
“Didn’t think so. You hate chard.”
I do. I thought of my youngest daughter, Emerson, and smiled. She was in LA pursuing her acting dream, like thousands and thousands of other talented, beautiful women and men. I was proud of her for following her heart, but it still bugged me that she hadn’t gone to college. What was she going to do when she got her first wrinkle and lost all job possibilities? She would land on her feet. Probably.
Emerson loved Swiss chard. She put it in the blender with a handful of grapes and half an orange and some ice and thought it was the most delicious thing ever. But that was LA for you.
“That’s OK.” I pulled a five-dollar bill out of my wallet. “Can you leave me something I do like to cook for dinner?”
I knew what she was going to say, and it annoyed me every day. Every single day. But she asked it anyway, like it was a fresh question. “You eating alone tonight, Ansley?”
I pretended I didn’t hear her and said, very loudly, “Coffee Kyle!”
Coffee Kyle was smoking hot. I was a fifty-something-year-old woman whose children would taunt her mercilessly if they heard her utter the phrase “smoking hot.” And it was inappropriate for me to think that way about a kid in his mid-twenties. But he was, and there was no way around that. He looked like one of those really versatile actors in the Hallmark movies Emerson had done. He was tall, dark, and handsome and could play the mechanic in one video, the lawyer in the next, and the serial killer in the third without skipping a beat.
“Well, hey there, Miss Ansley. I brought a skinny soy vanilla
latte for you today.” He winked at me. “Although you don’t need the skinny.”
I laughed in spite of myself. He really was so cute. Something in his good nature reminded me of Sloane’s husband, Adam. I hadn’t seen it at first, but Adam was the perfect man for Sloane. She was kind and loving, my easiest child by far. It had hit her the hardest when her father died, made her afraid and, for a while, anxiety ridden. I worried that a man would overpower her, take advantage of her gentle nature. But Adam knew how to love her, how to make her feel safe and special. I always taught my girls that they didn’t need a man to save them. They needed to be able to save themselves. And Sloane could. But, confident in the knowledge that she could stand on her own two feet, I adored how Adam had positively swept her off of them.
“So what you got going on today, Miss Ansley?” Kyle asked as I handed him his money and he handed me my latte.
“Page and Stage has a new Southern writer coming in today. I thought I’d run down and pick up her book.” I hated TV. I thought it was the downfall of civilization. I didn’t have one. So I read. A lot. I guessed I would have to get one when Emerson’s next TV movie came out. “Other than that, just work. I’ve got two new yachts down there I’m designing if you want to go check in on them. I’m sure they’d love some coffee.”
He saluted me. “Yes, ma’am. I believe I will.”
I was pretty sure that Coffee Kyle was the only barista in the known universe who left his coffee shop wide open and unattended while he made deliveries to his locals. You could buy
regular and decaf on the honor system by leaving your dollar in the basket. If you wanted something fancy, Kyle came back every thirty minutes to serve you. But if you lived in town, he knew what you wanted and was probably going to bring it to you anyway, which made it pretty rare to have people in the shop unless they were there for the atmosphere—which, frankly, the place was a little low on, if you asked me.
Kyle hugged me, which was the best part of my day, sadly.
I looked down to see a text from Emerson. Call me when you get a few minutes. That really was strange. It was only seven a.m. in LA. My little Emmy was never up that early. She had probably started some new aerial yoga or zum-barre-lates something or other. I had started to dial her when I heard the bell tinkle yet again and had to end the call.
At first, I thought the man walking through the door was a tourist, which was rare this time of year. He was a little bit overweight, and had a ruddy, dark complexion, that particular mixture of too much sun and too much alcohol that makes a face look aged yet somehow youthful, as though the wearer of said face was still squeezing every square inch of fun out of life. “I’m Sheldon,” he said. I instantly remembered the phone conversation from the day before and realized that while, no, he wasn’t someone I would call a friend, I had definitely seen Sheldon around.
“Oh, of course,” I said, walking out from behind the counter. “The fifty-three Huckins Linwood. Thanks so much for getting in touch with me.” Sheldon had called to let me know he had a boat coming in for an extensive rebuild. It had
been badly damaged in a recent hurricane off the Florida coast, and Sheldon was one of the foremost experts in the country in its particular make and model. While he was taking care of the structure of things, he asked me if I’d like to come alongside and take care of the, as he put them, “girly parts” of the boat. I would have preferred the term “aesthetic elements,” but, quite frankly, it was winter, business was slow, and I could use the cash.
I could tell already that my new buddy Sheldon was a man of few words. He motioned his head to the door and said, “Well, you want to see it?”
“Oh, now?” I said, grabbing for my jacket and hanging my camera around my neck, thinking that now wasn’t really great, as I had two daughters to call. But this shouldn’t take too long. I could redesign three staterooms and a salon in my sleep.
Little did I know that, after today, sleep wasn’t something I would be getting much of for a long, long time.