I felt a little silly walking down Springfield Boulevard carrying a traditional two-story American country home, with nine rooms of highly polished wood floors. But parking downtown was impossible, thanks to the construction zone still around a new store, due to open in a few days. SuperKrafts, a giant chain crafts store, had come to town. Walking beside me, eleven-year-old Maddie carried most of the furniture for the newly painted house. A kitchen set, a flowery print sofa and matching easy chairs, and odds and ends of toilets, beds, lamps, and dressers, all piled into a tote bag that bore the slogan "Miniaturists Work as Little as Possible."
"Grandma, why are we taking our dollhouse to the display? I thought you didn't like the new store," Maddie asked.
"I like the store," I said, not quite a lie. I shifted the house in my arms, glad I'd chosen to build in half-scale this time—one half inch of dollhouse for every foot of real house—making it a lot easier to carry than if I'd built in one-inch scale. "I just miss the old shops that used to be on that spot. Maisie's Card Shop and Bebe's Ceramics were there when your dad was not much older than you."
"Dad says you don't like SuperKrafts because you taught English for so many years and they spell crafts with a k."
"He has a point. And don't forget the way they've put an upper case letter in the middle of the word," I added, clicking my tongue and frowning the way Maddie would have at a serving of broccoli.
"My teacher says we could have done a boycott," my granddaughter said. "That means we wouldn't ever shop there and the big stores like SuperKrafts would go out of business and then the small stores would come back."
Ah, the simplicity of life when you're a preteen. I wondered in which part of the fifth grade curriculum political strategies were taught these days and whether Maddie's interpretation was at all close to what her teacher had recommended. Our own Lincoln Point, California, city council had fought hard when the controversial message came from New York last year—SuperKrafts had bought property in town, displacing two of our long-standing small businesses and seriously altering the face of our main downtown shopping district. The idea of a boycott was entertained for a while until the powers-that-be decided that the benefits of welcoming the chain outweighed the negatives. Never mind that two of the negatives were the life's work of two Lincoln Point natives, Maisie Bosley of Maisie's Card Shop, and Barbara "Bebe" Mellon of Bebe's shop "DIY Ceramics." Bebe, a potter herself, accommodated other potters as well as do-it-yourself customers whose work Bebe glazed and fired.
Another factor in the council's decision to welcome SuperKrafts to Springfield Boulevard was the good work of Catherine Duncan, SuperKrafts' public relations emissary. How smart of them to send a woman who just happened to be a native of Lincoln Point to smooth things over. The Duncans had moved to New York City soon after Catherine's graduation from Abraham Lincoln High, to be closer to family. As a native of the Bronx, I remembered being slightly envious at the time that my student was moving back to my hometown, until memories of winter, with frozen toes, barely adequate down jackets, and shivery walks to the subway came flooding back. Better to be a fair weather friend to that climate.
"I'm hot. I hate summer," Maddie said, drawing my attention away from reveries of white Christmases to the current weather conditions. Lincoln Point in June was hot and dry, and would stay that way for months.
"I like summer because I get to spend more time with you," I said. If I'd had a free hand I'd have ruffled her red curls, handed down from the Porter side of the family. All I'd contributed to her genetic makeup was her skinny legs and insatiable sweet tooth.
I'd been thrilled when Maddie's dad, my son Richard, had accepted a position at Stanford Medical Center and moved his family from Los Angeles to nearby Palo Alto. It was now an easy drive for me to pick Maddie up from school and I saw her often, but summers were even better for quality time with my only grandchild. We'd worked together on the pale blue dollhouse that was now headed, albeit grudgingly on my part, for a miniatures display and raffle at the new store. I consoled myself with the fact that the SuperKrafts inventory included more miniatures supplies and accessories than other stores of its kind.
Maddie leaned against me, nearly knocking the cumbersome house to the ground. "Mmm," she said. "I'm glad I have this whole week here with you too."
"And you get to hang out with Taylor," I said.
"Nyah," Maddie answered, pulling away.
Uh-oh, something was up between Maddie and Taylor. The unladylike grunt was Maddie's newest version of "whatever," also known as "who cares?" The girls' play dates and close friendship were very handy for Taylor's grandfather and me—Henry and I had become the adult version of BFFs, our families meshing nicely. I wasn't eager to have trouble on the home front.
"What do you mean, 'nyah'?" I asked, doing a poor imitation of Maddie's response.
"I might not see her so much this summer. School's out but I still have a lot to do. My class has to read a whole book and write a report for September, and I'll be starting computer camp pretty soon, so I'll be spending a lot of time writing computer programs."
All of which Maddie could accomplish sooner than I could fashion a twin bed out of a kitchen sponge and piece of white cotton. I hesitated to query Maddie, but figured I could give it one more push.
"Is something wrong between you and Taylor?" I asked as we trudged in quick succession past Seward's Folly, our local coffee spot, and Railsplitter Nursery, our plant and flower shop.
"Tell me again, who was Seward?" Maddie asked.
She knew as well as I did, but I gave in to her stalling tactic. I explained as I'd done since she was four, that the café was curiously named after what was considered an unwise purchase of Alaska by William Seward, one of Lincoln's former cabinet members. And to preempt her, I added a note that "Railsplitter" was one of Honest Abe's nicknames. It always took a while for newcomers to Lincoln Point to catch on to the proliferation of businesses, streets, and celebrations named after people and events in the life of our sixteenth president, but Maddie was no newcomer, and she was wise beyond her years when it came to manipulating her grandmother.
"It's okay if you don't want to tell me about you and Taylor," I said. "I'm sure it will all work out."
"Nyah," Maddie answered.
I let the matter drop. For now. If things went as usual, before the end of the day I'd hear about the issue that had driven a wedge between the two friends. I could think of a few possibilities—Maddie had spilled liquid crafts glue on Taylor's favorite book, or vice versa. Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle were lost and blamed on one or the other. A jewelry project had come apart and dozens of tiny beads had ended up on the floor, another blameworthy event.
"Nyah, nyah, nyah," Maddie chanted with each step as we made our way to SuperKrafts, as if she were vetoing all of my unspoken guesses.
I didn't want to think about the expressions that were on their way as Maddie grew into her teen years.
With only a few yards to go, we stopped in our tracks as the doors of SuperKrafts flew open and Maisie and Bebe, former shop owners, came out fighting. I stared in amazement as the two women, sixty-something Maisie and mid-forties Bebe, who'd been friends and business neighbors for years, duked it out verbally in front of a gathering crowd of Saturday afternoon shoppers.
"I can't believe you agreed to the idea of a billboard the size of California," Bebe yelled. "SuperKrafts will be the only thing people see of Lincoln Point from the freeway."
"They're nice enough to include us in these meetings. I think we should be supportive," Maisie said.
"They're nice? We should be grateful and supportive? All hail the megastore? That's okay for you to say," Bebe shouted. She stood with her hands on her slim hips, her head pushed forward. "You were ready to sell your shop and retire anyway." She poked her own chest. "Me? I have a lot of years left."
"Are you saying I'm an old lady? That I might as well cash it in?" Maisie's chunky body stood firm while her hands flailed in front of her.
"That's exactly what you did. Cashed it in," Bebe said.
"So did you. And for a pretty penny," Maisie said. She folded her arms across her full bosom.
"Only because I had no choice after you signed off many meetings ago."
It wasn't the first time the two women had had this argument. I'd been present at some of the contentious meetings; but this was the most public display. By now there were about two dozen people, standing around for the show, some using cameras, some with phones to their ears, to cover up their voyeurism, I suspected. I wouldn't have been surprised if there were a betting pool in progress on the side, as to which of the strong-willed businesswomen would come out ahead. Or alive. I tuned into snippets of conversation among the crowd.
"Bebe's right. There goes the town when these giants move in," from a woman I recognized as a clerk at Abe's Hardware.
"They're not all bad. They hired my sister and her boyfriend," from a young woman with a toddler. "It's not like they're bringing hazardous waste to the town."
"They even took over the alley between the old stores. We have to go all around Civic Drive to get to the mortuary," from an older man, hands in his pockets, sunglasses wrapped around his eyes.
"How often do we have to go to the mortuary?" from the woman standing next to him.
"You can still get to the Ten-to-Ten okay." This from a teen who probably made daily trips from Abraham Lincoln High School to the convenience store across the street for energy drinks.
I spotted members of my miniatures group in the crowd, as well as a couple of former students. My family joked that wherever two or more were gathered in Lincoln Point, there was sure to be a former student from my nearly thirty years teaching at ALHS or my ongoing tutoring at the Lincoln Point library. But the two women who were fighting now were not among my alumni or my current high school equivalency students. They continued their back-and-forth tirade, with the body language among us spectators ranging from questioning looks to disapproving frowns. Tsk-tsks filled the air. Yet no one left the area. We really needed more to do in this town on a weekend.
The hubbub of conversation came to a halt when SuperKrafts' doors opened again and a tall, slender woman exited. Catherine Duncan stepped with confidence onto the sidewalk, looking like the PR professional that she was, even without a navy pinstripe. She'd known enough to leave her chic Manhattan wardrobe behind and blended into the crowd with a tasteful summer dress, costume jewelry, and sandals. Nothing too loud or expensive-looking, except her bright red toenails, which screamed "fancy pedicure," and the rich leather briefcase slung over her shoulder. I tried to figure Catherine's age by working forward from her year of graduation. With my strange way of doing math, I placed her as a senior some time after the groundbreaking of the new high school gym and before Maddie's birth. I came up with thirty-three or -four years old for Catherine, and at the same time remembered her B-plus paper on women in the works of William Shakespeare.
"Ladies," Catherine said, addressing Bebe and Maisie in a clear voice. "I wish you hadn't run out of our meeting. Can't we talk about this, please?"
"You," Bebe said, facing Catherine down. "You think you can come back here as if you're God's gift to your lowly hometown?" Bebe's long, narrow face was so red, I feared for her survival. "And don't think I'm alone in my opinion."
Catherine began another plea. "If we could all just take a breath and talk calmly. I'm here to help you."
I cringed. Right out of the playbook for hostage negotiators, I thought. As I expected, Bebe's response was the opposite of calm.
"It's a little late for that, isn't it?" Bebe said, flinging her long hair over her shoulder. She pointed to the larger-than-life SuperKrafts sign atop the sprawling one-story building, with its zigzag letters in crayon colors, and the oversized posters announcing the Grand Opening. "There's nothing to talk about anymore."
I'd stepped back, taking Maddie with me, our bodies pressed against the enormous SuperKrafts window and our dollhouse safely at our feet. Not as invisible as I'd hoped. Catherine spotted me, and waved me over. It was no use pretending I didn't know what she wanted. I'd become the reluctant liaison between her and the good people of Lincoln Point since her first trip back in a professional capacity. She'd wooed me with a line no one in her right mind should fall for.
"Everyone likes you, Mrs. Porter," she'd said, reverting to her student-teacher relationship with me.
At early meetings, I'd managed to get a few concessions from SuperKrafts in exchange for a peaceful transition, but clearly our efforts weren't enough for Bebe. Catherine turned to me now. "Gerry, help us out here," she said. "I've been meeting the merchants in small groups so we can work together on the new look of downtown, and—"
"Our downtown was fine with the old look," Bebe said. "All you want is publicity for yourself and your"—Bebe drew quote marks in the air—"'Grand Opening.'"
Maisie gave me a pleading look. "We need you, Gerry. Bebe's ready to kill anyone who steps foot in SuperKrafts when it opens next week."
"Let's talk about it at Sadie's. My treat," Catherine said, indicating the ice cream shop across the street. Like me, Catherine was of the persuasion that no one could be unhappy while eating ice cream.
But, like Bebe, I wasn't sure what there was left to talk about. SuperKrafts was a done deal; Maisie's and Bebe's shops were history. During the long negotiations, we'd extracted a verbal promise from the corporation to hire locals and sell crafts from our artists, to use green technology for their ceramics classes, and to expand business hours to accommodate crafters who worked nine-to-five jobs.
All that was left was to try to hold the corporation to its promises. Along those lines, I'd picked up hints from Catherine that her boss might not be so easy to deal with, but we could take only one step at a time. I wondered if VIP Craig Palmer III would ever ride into town and face his project and its fallout head-on. So far he was just a name and a signature to me.
While I was adjusting to the idea of yet another meeting—and, admittedly wrestling with whether to order an ice cream soda or a hot fudge sundae—teenager Jeanine Larkin came out of the store, probably summoned by a text from Catherine's busy thumbs. Jeanine, who baby-sat Maddie in the days before she considered herself too old to need one, wore a strange combination—shorts cut so high that the linings of the white canvas pockets hung below the hem in the back, and a narrow, multicolored SuperKrafts apron that reached almost to her ankles. I hoped that her working attire when the store was officially open would be more businesslike. Most likely, not.
Jeanine's slight build was deceiving. Without signs of struggle, Jeanine picked up the dollhouse from in front of Maddie's feet. "Hey, Mrs. Porter. Hey, Maddie. I'll get this set up for you in the display area," Jeanine said. "I'm excited. We already have three other houses."
"It's going to be a great display," I said. "Are you putting the open sides facing out?"
"They're on turntables, so it doesn't matter," she informed me. "Each turntable has its own unique landscaping," she added, a note of pride in her voice. "Like, one has a garden with flowers, another has this stone walkway, and one looks like it's in the middle of a city. Like that." I was impressed. The houses would be raffled off on opening day, the proceeds going to local charities. I had to say, SuperKrafts was making a great effort to be neighborly.
I knew my next negotiation would not be as successful. Maddie was a tougher customer than any big city corporation. I took a breath and addressed my granddaughter. "Maddie, will you go into the store with Jeanine and set up the furniture in our house?"
She gave me an incredulous look. "Now?"
"You're the best at arranging all the rooms."
She looked over at Sadie's and stared for a moment, as if its pink-and-white awning were calling to her. "Now?" she asked again, her voice coming out as a high squeak.
I stood my ground. "Yes, please. Don't forget to place the mirrors over the bathroom sink and the dresser. They're—"
"I know," she said, peeved. "They're wrapped separately and the glue's in the blue zipper bag." She flashed a pout at me, turning her head rapidly from me to Sadie's shop and back again. "I never get to have any fun."
I returned her gaze with a serious look of my own, one meant to remind her of the immaturity of her remark and its inappropriate timing. There were those, including her parents, who claimed that I spoiled my granddaughter. Now was the time to prove them wrong.
Maddie's look went from sullen to pitiful. I braced myself for delivering tough love, but felt myself caving. "We can have ice cream together later," I said. Good thing neither her parents nor anyone else was close enough to witness my weakness.
"It's not just the ice cream," she said.
I knew that, of course. Maddie was as curious as any eleven-year-old, and then some. If something interesting was going on, she wanted to be part of it.
"This meeting is going to be very boring. All kinds of business stuff."
"I don't think so."
"If you want, I'll tell you all about it later," I said. "Now, get in there." I faked a scolding tone and was rewarded with a quick kiss before she ran off, the tote full of furniture swinging at her side. I mouthed "Keep her busy," to Jeanine, who'd already come back from depositing the dollhouse in the store. She gave me a thumbs-up, and I turned to the adults who wanted my attention.
While I'd been in the tug of war with Maddie, the three businesswomen, Maisie, Bebe, and Catherine, had pulled themselves together enough to start across the wide street.
"Let's go before a giant SuperCreamery swoops in from New York, kicks Sadie out, and takes over," Bebe said. "Or, I know, why don't we bring in a casino?"
"As long they offer Sadie a good deal," Maisie responded.
I heard a growl from Bebe, exasperated sighs from Maisie and Catherine, and recalled Maddie's last, desperate, whiny "Have a good time." Four females in bad moods. I followed along toward Sadie's thinking I might be wrong about the healing powers of ice cream and hot fudge.