Life’s been strange for Olivia Greene ever since her mother, Luna Lee, went to the store for margarine and never came back. Afraid of being sent to live with her terrible uncle—or worse, his children—Olivia carries out elaborate schemes to convince the people of Kumquat that Luna Lee still lives at home. Absolutely no one can find out—except, of course, for Olivia’s best friend, Rosella.
But Olivia’s carefully constructed life threatens to fall apart with the arrival of the incredibly hot Raymond Mooney, whose family just moved back to Kumquat under mysterious circumstances. If he can tell Olivia his secrets, can’t she tell him hers? Or would that threaten the lies Olivia has so carefully woven to protect herself?
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Kumquat May, I'll Always Love You
By Cynthia D. Grant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Cynthia D. Grant
All rights reserved.
It is not widely known that my mother, Luna Lee Greene, has not been seen for two years today, this nineteenth of September.
"I'm just going out for a pound of margarine," she said, and disappeared.
The only person besides me in town who knows is my best friend, Rosella Jensen. As far as everyone else is concerned, Mother is still here.
It hasn't been easy. Fifteen-year-old girls aren't supposed to live alone, which I was, absolutely and abruptly. Grandmother had died the year before, and my father passed on to his reward when I was eleven. A promising lawyer and noted alcoholic, he died of acute procrastination at age thirty-four. So young, everyone murmured sadly, although they'd been expecting it for years.
I remember my father fondly and well through the warm fog of memories and Scotch he exuded with every breath. He could often be found at Iffy Murray's, as surely mounted on the polished bar stool as the ornamental wing on the hood of Grandmother's Hudson.
Our house is large and imposing; they used to call it the Mansion, but since my father never got around to lawn-mowing or maintenance, it resembled a beached showboat in a sea of ivy and hedges. This discouraged prospective clients. On clear days the air rang with the sound of his bouncing checks.
But back to Mother, lost on her mission of margarine ... I can see her in the kitchen, putting on her old plaid coat. We were going to have spaghetti. She was going to come right back.
When she didn't, I wasn't too surprised; Mother was unpredictable. So I ate and went to bed. She still wasn't home the next morning, and that alarmed me, but we don't get many kidnappers in Kumquat, so I held my breath and hoped for the best.
Why didn't I call the police chief that day, or the next day, or the next? I was certain Mother would be home any second, and I didn't want to make a messy fuss.
The next thing I knew, it was two weeks later and I was holding a postcard from Disneyland.
Please don't be mad. It's sunny here. I'll be right back! Guess what: They offered me a job as Snow White, but they want me to dye my hair black!
Of course, the mailman noticed this. He said, "I didn't know your ma was out of town."
"She's not," I replied, thinking fast. "It's a joke; just an old friend of mine trying to be funny."
"I got a friend like that." The mailman smacked his lips. "One Christmas he sent me some socks full of fish. A real practical joker."
"Sounds like a funny guy," I said, and then had to hear about every gift the friend had sent since 1954.
Living alone is not as hard as you'd imagine. In a way, I've always been on my own, as grown-up as my parents. I took care of us; did the laundry, fixed the dinner. When something big came up, I went to Grandmother. But as time went by, although she seldom complained, she had aches enough, and didn't need any extra. Besides, I didn't want her to know what a couple of children my parents really were. I tried to protect them, and I learned reticence early. It comes in handy now.
Only Rosella shares my deep, dark secret, and she wouldn't tell if she were tortured. I was determined that no one would discover Mother's absence, picturing the twilight world of foster homes, or worse, the Twilight Zone of Mother's brother, my Uncle Sargent.
He's older than Mother, by about two centuries. Like his parents, he believes that women are dim bulbs in a dark world. Not that he wants us brighter; he thinks men should lead the way, and if you argue, he says God said it first, and he's just delivering the message. Uncle Sargent always treated Mother as if she were a talking Pekinese. He and Aunt Cece are busily raising a litter of little lunatics.
I was not going to be shipped off to live with them, or to San Francisco and the grandparents I have never met. They probably wouldn't have taken me; they've never acknowledged I'm alive. They disowned Mother when she married my father. As if you could own your kid.
I would hold down the fort until Mother returned, making it appear that she was still here. How?
Every few months I have her skirts and sweaters cleaned. I renew her subscription to the Kumquat Weekly Messenger. At the market I buy the items that were always on her list: English muffins, mandarin oranges, coffee-colored pantyhose and Hershey kisses.
I purchase the books to which Mother was addicted. Come into the world of Harlequin Romances ... Unfortunately, she seldom came out. In her reading room she devoured romance, each finished book a brick in the wall she built around her chair. The pharmacist's wife calls me every month when Mother's fresh shipment arrives.
When pressed, I even impersonate Mother on the phone. This is not something I enjoy. Most of the time my life makes sense, but I have to wonder when I pretend to be Mother; being me is confusing enough. And it makes me feel like a liar, which I hate, because I think of myself as so honest and straight, which is funny, because my whole life is a play.
It's been an odd two years. There have been many close calls. When people drop by to see Mother (they seldom do; she is fondly regarded as a dingdong), she is in the shower, heard gurgling in the background, while her lilac-scented soap perfumes the room. Or she's over in Cedar getting her hair done again, which frosts our local beauticians, Grace Nelson of Grace's Place, and Verda Mae at The Beauty Spot.
Or she's napping or shopping or otherwise indisposed ... Time flies. People are busy with their lives. No one remembers when they last saw Mother. Folks don't come breaking down the door — although the PTA has tried to nab her, once even sending a contingent to surround the house. Mother later regretted (by phone) that she hadn't been home and, alas, was unable to attend the upcoming bake sale. However, she contributed ten dozen of her famous cocoa-cream clusters, which sold out in fifteen minutes and got her off the hook for some time.
I have learned a lot since Mother left.
I have learned to bake cocoa-cream clusters.
I keep the Plymouth running and the plumbing tight. The fireplace gets fed. The window screens are mended.
The house is huge and old and full of woodpecker holes; its tough skin of ivy keeps it standing. The inside is always reasonably clean, meaning dust is allowed to linger but not languish. I sleep downstairs in a bedroom off the kitchen. The second floor has been closed off; no sense heating those empty rooms.
Shortly after Mother left I went a little crazy. I couldn't believe she was really gone. I dug in my heels against the passing days.
They slid by. Dirty dishes piled high. Salad greens composted in the fridge. Bouquets of crysanthemums Mother had picked withered in every room.
I stayed up much too late every night, watching weird old movies on TV. Voices; I wanted to fill the house with sound. Dawn found me chilled and crumpled on the couch.
I ate a bunch of junk; sugary stuff, frosted cereal with chocolate chips. My skin took on an unnatural sheen. My eyes looked like glazed doughnuts.
I didn't do my homework. I fell asleep in class. My teachers were aghast; they couldn't understand it and of course I couldn't explain.
Looking back, I know I thought: If I fall apart, Mother will come back and rescue me.
But she didn't come back, and I didn't fall apart. In the long run you have to save yourself.
Money has not been a problem, thanks to my grandmother, Olivia Shout Greene. Her husband took off when my father was a baby ("Weak men run in the family," she said), but she parlayed a small inheritance from her mother into a tidy fortune in corsets — which my father plundered (the fortune, that is) at every opportunity. Still, it kept us going through my father's perennial unemployment and after he died. He had no insurance. Grandmother paid off his debts.
The house is mine, free and clear. My tastes are simple, my needs are few: food, gasoline, property taxes, new jeans, an occasional tire. Grandmother's money will run out the month after I graduate from high school. I deliver the Messenger for movie money, although our local movie house usually features films you'd watch only if you were tied down. This week's double bill: Fantasia and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I'm not sure what will happen after graduation in June. Rosella and I talked about going away to college; we sent for brochures and planned to room together. Her grades are excellent. She wants to be a doctor. My future is much less certain. I wanted to study psychology, so I could understand my family, but I can't leave Kumquat until Mother comes back or I might never find her again.
She didn't mean to leave me, I know that. She was on her way to Watson's Market. Then, outside in the plum-colored dusk, a light breeze driving dry leaves down the street, and Watson's so close to the Greyhound stop, a gleaming silver coach was probably parked at the curb, its engine throbbing with promise, its open door an invitation ... It just happened. Life was always happening to Mother, washing over her, wave after wave. She loves me. She didn't leave me on purpose. She says she's coming home in every postcard.
They don't come often. Sometimes months go by without a word. Then, when I'm getting scared, when I'm wondering if she's still alive, the Statue of Liberty appears in my mailbox, or it's Midnight at the Carlsbad Caverns, with a message in her delicate hand.
It's autumn again, and Mother's vivid in my mind, as the brilliant leaves whisper and fall to the ground, and the nights are startling with stars. The wind sings her name, Luna Lee, Luna Lee, and I can't help but hope that she will blow through the door, the mythical margarine clutched in her hands, her blue eyes dazzled by the bright kitchen light.CHAPTER 2
School was strange today. There was a rumor going around that Bunky Block got run down by a gravel truck, just outside the laundromat. Or that a gravel truck ran off the highway into the laundromat, where Bunky was kicking the Coke machine. Or that Bunky kicked some gravel at the laundromat window, and was spotted by owner Eugene Long, who tried to hit Bunky with a Coke bottle.
Much to everyone's disappointment, none of this happened. Bunky's case of athlete's foot had reached epic proportions and his mother kept him home.
Stories travel fast in Kumquat; about fifteen minutes from city limit to city limit. What's lost in accuracy is made up for in speed. Put your ear to the sidewalks and you hear them hum.
Like the gold that drew the first settlers, the kumquats are long gone. They couldn't take the winters; we get a little snow, just enough to send the kids running for rusty sleds and building slushy snowmen.
Kumquat's main industry is Kumquat. Big trucks roll up the highway, through the center of town, to the gravel pits, where huge hunks of Kumquat are carved out, loaded up and hauled away to build new towns. Someday all the earth beneath the highway will be gone, and Kumquat will be a bridge across the sky.
We do a little tourist business; the river draws rafters and fishermen who don't mind the wrecked cars half-buried in the banks to keep them from washing away. The sports shop sells duck stamps to big city hunters, and souvenir gold pans to the dreamers.
There's not much to do here. For thrills, the locals drive forty miles to Cedar to shop, or to Sacramento, three hours away. Or they cross the state line and head for the casinos skirting Lake Tahoe. This weekend Cora and Hank Smith won ten thousand dollars at the Midas Club, the first big win for anyone from town. Rosella and I joined the crowd outside the pharmacy after school to hear Cora tell the story.
"We're standing there at one of those big old dollar machines," Cora said. "Hank was dumping in dollars like there was no tomorrow, you know how he gets. And I tell him, 'Come on! The bus is leaving!' And he says, 'Hold on. This baby's going to pay off any second, I can feel it.'
"Well, that ticks me off because we always set a limit, then he's the one who wants to stay until he loses his shirt."
"So anyway," Dave said, trying to speed up Cora's story.
"So anyway, we're standing there and Hank's dumping in the dollars, and I say, 'Let's just break the damn bank!' And I take my last silver dollar and stick it in the machine next to his. ... The next thing I know, some lady's screaming, 'You won! You won!' and the machine lights up, and bells are ringing —"
"How did you feel?" the pharmacist's wife asked, rapt. As usual, she was dressed in purple; a lavender chiffon shirtwaist.
"I felt ..." Cora gave this some thought. "I felt like I did the time Hank rewired the house, and the current was running through the water pipes and I turned on the shower — BAM! It was just like that! People were going crazy and taking our pictures —"
"Did they give you the money in silver dollars?" Tommy Loors asked.
"Sure." Dave snickered and rubbed his bald head. "And a silver wheelbarrow to haul them."
"We had to fill out this form for taxes. Then we got a big check and two hundred silver dollars. You don't find that kind of change in the bottom of your purse everyday! But the thing that made me mad was, I looked so bad! I hadn't washed my hair, and I was wearing that old red dress —"
"I saw you in the paper," Dave said. "You looked like Orphan Annie."
"What will you do with all that money?" Eleanor Brown wondered.
"Get my hair done and buy a new dress!"
"I know what they'll do with the money," Dave said. "They'll give it all back."
The crowd stopped laughing.
"Why would they do that?" demanded his good friend, Joe Pagnani.
"Yeah, why would we do that?" Cora was irate but wary.
"Because that's how it works! They'll invite you back up there, wine you and dine you. Bring the whole family! The club will pay! Rooms, drinks, meals, you name it. And while you're there, having such a fine time, maybe you'd like to gamble a little, just a little bit, then a little bit more ... Wait and see. You'll get an invitation."
"We got one, for next month," Cora said sourly. "But that doesn't mean —"
Dave shook his head. "Those people don't let you go without a fight."
This observation called for a moment of silence. Then Verda Mae spoke up.
"If you don't give the money back, what will you do with it?"
We waited while Cora considered this. Trucks wheezed by on the highway.
"I think we'll move to Florida," she decided.
"Florida! What's in Florida?"
"Not much," said Rosella. "We were there."
"I don't know what's in Florida," Cora admitted, "but it sounds so pretty and warm, and I've always wanted to travel."
"You don't go to Florida to travel," Dave said. "You go there to die. You've got a few good years left."
"My, you're full of compliments today."
"It sure must've been weird, winning all that money." Tommy sighed.
"It sure was," agreed Cora. "I can't explain it."
The pharmacist came to the door in his spotless white uniform to make an announcement.
"You might like to know that the six-ounce bottle of Oil of Olay just went on sale."
"Whoooeee!" Dave said. "That's sure good news."
He spoke for us all.
Cora left for her beauty appointment and the crowd wandered away. Rosella went into the pharmacy to do some shopping for her mother. I sat outside on the Donated by the Kiwanis Club bench with Dave. His big pink hog, Jimmy Dean, stood curbside, contemplating the traffic.
Jimmy Dean comes down from the ranch in the back of Dave's pickup truck. When it's raining he rides in the cab. He's three hundred pounds of pig perfection; more loyal to his master than Lassie could ever be.
Jimmy Dean is the bane of Mayor Bobby Block's existence. The mayor had been glaring at him from the sidewalk in front of his hardware store. At last he couldn't stand it anymore. He bustled across the street. Dave started smiling.
"Dave!" the mayor bawled, inflating his chest. "How many times do I have to tell you to keep that hog in the truck?"
"Jimmy's not doing anything wrong," Dave said.
"We don't need a hog standing around the business district, maybe doing his business on the sidewalk."
"Jimmy always goes before we leave home." Dave was enjoying himself. He's known Mayor Bobby Block since the mayor was a little brat boy. Spoiled rotten, Dave said; always dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy. The other kids would grab him and roll him in the mud. Besides, Dave says, the name "Mayor Bobby" sounds like the host of some kiddy TV show.
Excerpted from Kumquat May, I'll Always Love You by Cynthia D. Grant. Copyright © 1986 Cynthia D. Grant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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