Bridey’s mention of fruitcake shifted our attention back to the table. There, alongside the proffered dessert were empty cups, crumb-coated plates, crumpled napkins.
Kindred spirits, Muriel, Ivy Leigh, and I reached the same conclusion simultaneously.
The visit had gone as far as it go. They had come to state their case. They had stated it. I had given explanations, whether sufficient or not. At the very least, they were convinced I had their best interests at heart.
The further story remained to be told. A history to be disclosed. Wounds to be reopened. Choices to be explained. An ending to be reached.
Ivy Leigh stood. “Come on, Bridey, we’ll walk you home first.” She turned to Muriel. “You need to get a few hours’ sleep before you open for breakfast.” She glanced at her watch. “It’ll be dawn in a few hours.”
Bridey and Muriel followed her to the door, which I opened.
“Thank you for coming,” I said, wanting to say more, but without the slightest idea of what was an appropriate goodbye.
Have a nice trip?
See you in Chapter Four?
Tell Agnes hello?
Thanks for the memories?
I followed them onto the porch and was still thinking of what to say, when, walking ahead, Ivy Leigh stopped at the corner of the sidewalk and turned to look back. She winked.
Muriel squeezed my hand. “I’m going to remember your cake analogy. You remember: there’s more to a cake than ingredients. Timing is everything. Directions. Oven temperature. Don’t overbake.”
“I’ll remember,” I said.
Bridey steadied herself against the doorframe as she stepped through the door. “Thank you for a lovely evening.” She paused. “Just one favor.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Be gentle with my Asa. He’s a good man. He’s worked hard his whole life. He has no idea I…settled on him as a second choice. No one knows how much I loved Willis.”
I took her by the shoulders. “Don’t worry, Bridey. I’m a big fan of Asa. Always have been.”
The three of them walked down the street and disappeared into the night.
Locking the door behind me, I turned off the porch light.
It was not my habit to wake up to a mess, so, I went straight to the table to gather the cups and dishes and throw away the paper plates and napkins and…
What to do with the fruitcake?
Eating it was not an option.
But sitting there, forlorn, the sincere offering of a well-intentioned heart, the dense candied-cherry-and-pineapple dessert possessed a certain kind of irrepressible dignity.
Sinking down in my usual chair, I stared at it, pondering the complexities of human existence, when there was a firm rap at the door.
“It’s Bridey,” I said aloud. “She came back for the cake. I’m so glad I didn’t throw it away.” I hurried back to the door and pulled it open. “Hi…I was just wrapping up the—”
But it wasn’t Bridey.
A familiar figure, outfitted in firmly creased khaki pants and a blue cotton shirt, smiled, putting me immediately at ease.
“I thought you could use a friend,” he said.
It was Jonas Grinstead.
Familiar with his natural reticence, I did not embrace him, only stood aside to allow him in.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” I said.
“I’m guessing you weren’t expecting the gals either and yet they all showed up en masse. You must feel like you’ve been dragged through a knothole backwards.”
“That’s an accurate appraisal. How did you know they were here?” I asked.
“Ivy Leigh told Margaret and—”
“Ah, Margaret told you,” I said, heart warmed at the thought of my favorite friendship.
He crossed to the table and picked up where I had left off, ferrying dishes to the sink, talking as he worked.
“I have a pretty good idea of what they…reviewed with you,” he said.
“Let’s just say they’re not entirely satisfied customers.”
He stacked the dishes by the sink, spotted the dishwashing soap, turned on the hot water, and sank the dishes under a mound of suds, talking as he washed and rinsed.
“One thing you have to remember about all five of them,” he said, “…the one thing you handled so masterfully”—he cut his eyes at me—“in my own story…they’re all deeply in love or have been. And love always clouds your judgment.”
I carried the fruitcake to the counter, fetched the aluminum foil from the drawer, and wrapped up the leftover dessert.
“No doubt about that,” I said. “No matter what world you’re inhabiting.”
“But love never follows a pattern. I could take the same blueprint, build two identical houses next door to each other, but underneath the sheetrock, the grain of the wood is different.”
Silver-wrapped and gleaming, the fruitcake sat on the counter, a monument to compassion.
I wanted to say, You’ve hit the nail on the head, but thought better of it and kept quiet.
“There’ll never be another house like the Magnolia Arms,” I said.
He drained the water from the sink. I handed him a clean dishtowel from the drawer. He dried his hands and leaned back against the counter.
“However you build your story,” he said, “keep in mind your readers want the same thing from us they want from any friendship. They want to read a line and think, ‘I’ve felt that way, too,’ and then they don’t feel alone.”
We sat at the clean table and talked till just before dawn.
After Jonas left, I locked the door and eased down on the sofa. Thoughts swirling, I leaned back my head and dozed off.
Waking, I blinked at the light and let out a long slow breath.
“What a dream,” I said, and headed to the Keurig to turn it on. “Mercy. What in the world did I eat last night that brought that on?”
I stepped to the dish drainer where my favorite mug waited. Something on the counter by the sink caught my eye. I looked closer and picked it up.
A tiny piece of candied cherry.