LIVING IN TRENTON in July is like living inside a big pizza oven. Hot, airless, aromatic.
Because I didn't want to miss any of the summer experience I had the sunroof open on my Honda CRX. My brown hair was pulled up into a wind-snarled, curls-gone-to-frizz ponytail. The sun baked the top of my head, and sweat trickled under my black spandex sports bra. I was wearing matching spandex shorts and a sleeveless oversized Trenton Thunders baseball jersey. It was an excellent outfit except it gave me no place to stick my .38. Which meant I was going to have to borrow a gun to shoot my cousin Vinnie.
I parked the CRX in front of Vinnie's storefront bail bonds office, lunged out of the car, stalked across the sidewalk, and yanked the office door open. "Where is he? Where is that miserable little excuse for a human being?"
"Uh oh," Lula said from behind the file cabinet. "Rhino alert."
Lula is a retired hooker who helps clean up the filing and sometimes rides shotgun for me when I do my fugitive apprehension thing. If people were cars, Lula would be a big, black '53 Packard with a high-gloss chrome grille, oversized headlights, and a growl like a junkyard dog. Lots of muscle. Never fit in a compact space,
Connie Rosolli, the office manager, pushed back at her desk when I entered. Connie's domain was this one front room where friends and relatives of miscreants came to beg money. And to the rear, in an inner office, my cousin Vinnie slapped Mr. Johnson around and conversed with his bookie.
"Hey," Connie said, "I know what you're bummed about, and this wasn't my decision. Personally, if I were you, I'd kick your cousin's pervert ass around the block."
I pushed a clump of hair that had strayed from the ponytail back from my face. "Kicking isn't good enough. I think I'll shoot him."
"Go for it!" Lula said.
"Yeah," Connie agreed. "Shoot him."
Lula checked out my clothes. "You need a gun? I don't see no gun bulges in that spandex." She hiked up her T-shirt and pulled a Chief's Special out of her cut-off denim shorts. "You could use mine. Just be careful; it sights high."
"You don't want a little peashooter like that," Connie said, opening her desk drawer. "I've got a forty-five. You can make a nice big hole with a forty-five."
Lula went for her purse. "Hold on here. If that's what you want, let me give you the big stud. I've got a forty-four magnum loaded up with hydroshocks. This baby'll do real damage, you see what I'm saying? You could drive a Volkswagen through the hole this sweetheart makes."
"I was sort of kidding about shooting him," I told them.
"Too bad," Connie said.
Lula shoved her gun back in her shorts. "Yeah, that's damn disappointing."
"So where is he? Is he in?"
"Hey, Vinnie!" Connie yelled. "Stephanie's here to see you!"
The door to the inner office opened and Vinnie poked his head out. "What?"
Vinnie was 5'7", looked like a weasel, thought like a weasel, smelled like a French whore and was once in love with a duck.
"You know what!" I said, hands fisted on hips. "Joyce Barnhardt, that's what. My grandma was at the beauty parlor and heard you hired Joyce to do skip tracing."
"So what's the big deal? I hired Joyce Barnhardt."
"Joyce Barnhardt does makeovers at Macy's."
"And you used to sell ladies' panties."
"That was entirely different. I blackmailed you into giving me this job."
"Exactly," Vinnie said. "So what's your point?"
"Fine!" I shouted. "Just keep her out of my way! I hate Joyce Barnhardt!"
And everybody knew why. At the tender age of twenty-four, after less than a year of marriage, I'd caught Joyce bareassed on my dining room table, playing hide-the-salami with my husband. It was the only time she'd ever done me a favor. We'd gone through school together, where she'd spread rumors, told fibs, ruined friendships and peeked under the stall doors in the girls' bathroom to see people's underpants.
She'd been a fat kid with a terrible overbite. The overbite had been minimalized by braces, and by the time Joyce was fifteen she'd trimmed down to look like Barbie on steroids. She had chemically enhanced red hair done up in big teased curls. Her nails were long and painted, her lips were high gloss, her eyes were rimmed in navy liquid liner, her lashes gunked up with blue-black mascara. She was an inch shorter than me, five pounds heavier and had me beat by two cup sizes. She had three ex-husbands and no children. It was rumored she had sex with large dogs.
Joyce and Vinnie were a match made in heaven. Too bad Vinnie was already married to a perfectly nice woman whose father happened to be Harry the Hammer. Harry's job description read "expediter," and Harry spent a lot of his time in the presence of men who wore fedoras and long black over-coats.
"Just do your job," Vinnie said. "Be a professional." He waved his hand at Connie. "Give her something. Give her that new skip we just got in."
Connie took a manila folder from her desktop. "Maxine Nowicki. Charged with stealing her former boyfriend's car. Posted bond with us and failed to show for her court appearance."
By securing a cash bond Nowicki had been free to leave the lockup behind and return to society at large while awaiting trial. Now she'd failed to appear. Or in bounty-hunter speak, she was FTA. This lapse of judicial etiquette changed Nowicki's status to felon and had my cousin Vinnie worrying that the court might see fit to keep his bond money.
As a bond enforcement officer I was expected to find Nowicki and bring her back into the system. For performing this service in a timely manner I'd get ten percent of her bond amount. Pretty good money since this sounded like a domestic dispute, and I didn't think Maxine Nowicki would be interested in blowing the back of my head off with a .45 hollow tip.
I riffled through the paperwork, which consisted of Nowicki's bond agreement, a photo, and a copy of the police report.
"Know what I'd do?" Lula said. "I'd talk to the boyfriend. Anybody pissed off enough to get his girlfriend arrested for stealing his car is pissed off enough to snitch on her. Probably he's just waiting to tell someone where to go find her."
It was my thought too. I read aloud from Nowicki's charge sheet. "Edward Kuntz. Single white male. Age twenty-seven. Residing at Seventeen Muffet Street. Says here he's a cook."
I PARKED in front of Kuntz's house wondered about the man inside. The house was white clapboard with aqua trim around the windows and tangerine paint on the door. It was half of a well-cared-for duplex with a minuscule front yard. A three-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary dressed in pale blue and white had been planted on the perfectly clipped patch of lawn. A carved wood heart with red lettering and little white daisies had been hung on the neighboring door, proclaiming that the Glicks lived there. The Kuntz side was free of ornamentation.
I followed the sidewalk to the porch, which had been carpeted in green indoor-outdoor carpet, and rang the Kuntz doorbell. The door opened and a sweaty, muscle-bulging, half-naked man looked out at me. "What?"
I passed him my business card. "Stephanie Plum. I'm a bond enforcement officer, and I'm looking for Maxine Nowicki. I was hoping you could help me."
"You bet I can help you. She took my car. Can you believe it?" He jerked his stubbled chin toward the curb. "That's it right there. Lucky for her she didn't scratch it up. The cops picked her up driving through town in it, and they brought the car back to me."
I glanced back at the car. A white Chevy Blazer. Freshly washed. I almost was tempted to steal it myself.
"You were living together?"
"Well, yeah, for a while. About four months. And then we had this disagreement, and next thing I know, she's gone with my car. It wasn't that I wanted her arrested ... it was just that I wanted my car back. That was why I called the police. I wanted my car."
"Do you have any idea where she might be now?"
"No. I tried to get in touch with her to sort of patch things up, but I couldn't find her. She quit her job at the diner and nobody's seen her. I stopped around her apartment a couple times, and there was never anybody home. I tried calling her mother. I called a couple of her girlfriends. No one seems to know nothing. I guess they could have been lying to me, but I don't think so." He winked at me, "Women don't lie to me, you know what I mean?"
"No," I said. "I don't know what you mean."
"Well, I don't like to brag, but I have a way with women."
"Uh huh." It must have been the pungent aroma they found so attractive. Or maybe the overdeveloped, steroid-pumped muscles that made him look like he needed a bra. Or maybe it was the way he couldn't conduct a conversation without scratching his balls.
"So what can I do for you?" Kuntz asked.
Half an hour later I left with a list of Maxine's friends and relatives. I knew where Maxine banked, bought her booze, shopped for groceries, dry-cleaned her clothes and had her hair done. Kuntz promised to call me if he heard from Maxine, and I'd promised to reciprocate in kind if I turned up anything interesting. Of course, I'd had my fingers crossed when I'd made the promise. I suspected Eddie Kuntz's way with women was to make them run screaming in the opposite direction.
He stood on the porch and watched me angle into my car.
"Cute," he called. "I like when a chick drives a sporty little car."
I sent him a smile that felt a lot like a grimace and peeled away from the curb. I'd gotten the CRX in February, sucked in by a shiny new paint job and an odometer that read 12,000 miles, Cherry condition, the owner said. Hardly ever driven. And that was partly true. It was hardly ever driven with the odometer cable connected. Not that it mattered. The price had been right, and I looked good in the driver's seat. I'd recently developed a dime-sized lesion on my exhaust pipe, but if I played Metallica loud enough I could hardly hear the muffler noise. I might have thought twice about buying the car if I'd known Eddie kuntz thought it was cute.
My first stop was the Silver Dollar Diner. Maxine had worked there for seven years and had listed no other source of income. The Silver Dollar was open twenty-four hours. It served good food in generous portions and was always packed with overweight people and penny-pinching seniors. The families of fatties cleaned their plates, and the seniors took leftovers home in doggy bags ... butter pats, baskets of rolls, packets of sugar, half-eaten pieces of deep-fried haddock, coleslaw, fruit cup, grease-logged french fries. A senior could eat for three days off one meal at the Silver Dollar.
The Silver Dollar was in Hamilton Township on a stretch of road that was clogged with discount stores and small strip malls. It was almost noon, and diner patrons were scarfing down burgers and BLTs. I introduced myself to the woman behind the register and asked about Maxine.
"I can't believe she's in all this trouble," the woman said. "Maxine was responsible. Real dependable." She straightened a stack of menus. "And that business about the car!" She did some eye rolling. "Maxine drove it to work lots of times. He gave her the keys. And then all of a sudden she's arrested for stealing." She gave a grunt of disgust. "Men!"
I stepped back to allow a couple to pay their bill. When they'd pocketed their complimentary mints, matchbooks and toothpicks and exited the diner I turned back to the cashier. "Maxine failed to show for her court appearance. Did she give any indication that she might be leaving town?"
"She said she was going on vacation, and we all thought she was due. Been working here for seven years and never once took a vacation."
"Has anyone heard from her since she's left?"
"Not that I know of. Maybe Margie. Maxine and Margie always worked the same shift. Four to ten. If you want to talk to Margie you should come back around eight. We get real busy with the early-bird specials at four, but then around eight it starts to slack off."
I thanked the woman and went back to my CRX. My next stop would be Nowicki's apartment. According to Kuntz, Nowicki had lived with him for four months but had never gotten around to moving out of her place. The apartment was a quarter mile from the diner, and Nowicki had stated on her bond agreement that she'd resided there for six years. All previous addresses were local. Maxine Nowicki was Trenton clear to the roots of her bleached blond hair.
The apartment was in a complex of two-story, blocky, red-brick buildings anchored in islands of parched grass, arranged around macadam parking lots. Nowicki was on the second floor with a first-floor entrance. Inside private stairwell. Not good for window snooping. All second-floor apartments had small balconies on the back side, but I'd need a ladder to get to the balcony. Probably a woman climbing up a ladder would look suspicious.
I decided to go with the obvious and knock on the door. If no one answered I'd ask the super to let me in. Many times the super was cooperative in this way, especially if he was confused as to the authenticity of my fake badge.
There were two front doors side by side. One was for upstairs and one was for downstairs. The name under the upstairs doorbell read Nowicki. The name under the downstairs doorbell read Pease.
I rang the upstairs doorbell and the downstairs door opened and an elderly woman looked out at me.
"She isn't home."
"Are you Mrs. Pease?" I asked.
"Are you sure Maxine isn't home?"
"Well, I guess I'd know. You can hear everything in this cheapskate apartment. If she was home I'd hear her TV. I'd hear her walking around. And besides, she'd stop in to tell me she was home and collect her mail."
Ah hah! The woman was collecting Maxine's mail. Maybe she also had Maxine's key.
"Yes, but suppose she came home late one night and didn't want to wake you?" I said. "And then suppose she had a stroke?"
"I never thought of that."
"She could be upstairs right now, gasping her last breath of air."
The woman rolled her eyes upward, as if she could see through walls. "Hmmm."
"Do you have a key?"
"Well, yes. . ."
"And what about her plants? Have you been watering her plants?"
"She didn't ask me to water her plants."
"Maybe we should go take a look. Make sure everything is okay."
"Are you a friend of Maxine's?"
I held up two fingers side by side. "Like this."
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to check. I'll be right back with the key. I've got it in the kitchen."
Okay, so I fibbed a little. But it wasn't such a bad fib because it was for a good cause. And besides, she could be dead in her bed. And her plants could be dying of thirst.
"Here it is," Mrs. Pease said, brandishing the key.
She turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.
"Hell-oo-o," she called in her warbling old lady's voice. "Anybody home?"
No one answered, so we crept up the stairs. We stood in the little entrance area and looked into the living room--dining room.
"Not much or a housekeeper," Mrs. Pease said.
Housekeeping had nothing to do with it. The apartment had been trashed. It wasn't a fight because nothing was smashed. And it wasn't clutter from a last-minute scurry to leave. Cushions were pulled off the couch and flung onto the floor. Cupboard doors were open. Drawers were pulled from the hutch and turned upside down, contents spilled out. I did a quick walk-through and saw more of the same in the bedroom and bath. Someone had been looking for something. Money? Drugs? If it was robbery it had been very specific, because the TV and VCR were untouched.
"Someone has ransacked this apartment," I said to Mrs. Pease. "I'm surprised you didn't hear the drawers being flung around."
"If I was home I would have heard it. It must have been when I was out to bingo. I go to bingo every Wednesday and Friday. I don't get home until eleven. Do you think we should report this to the police?"
"It wouldn't serve much purpose right now." Except to notify the police that I'd been in Maxine's apartment sort of illegally. "We don't know if anything's been taken. Probably we should wait for Maxine to come home and let her call the police."
We didn't see any plants to water, so we tippytoed back down the stairs and locked the door.
I gave Mrs. Pease my card and asked her to call me if she should see or hear anything suspicious.
She studied the card. "A bounty hunter," she said, her voice showing surprise.
"A woman's got to do what a woman's got to do," I said.
She looked up and nodded in agreement. "I suppose that's true."
I squinted into the lot. "According to my information Maxine owns an '84 Fairlane. I don't see it here."
"She took off in it," Mrs. Pease said. "Wasn't much of a car. Always something or other broken on it, but she loaded it up with her suitcase and took off."
"Did she say where she was going?"
"That was it?"
"Yep," Mrs. Pease said, "that was it. Usually Maxine's real talkative, but she wasn't saying anything this time. She was in a hurry, and she wasn't saying anything."
NOWICKI'S MOTHER lived on Howser Street. She'd posted the bond and had put up her house as collateral. At first glance this seemed like a safe investment for my cousin Vinnie. Truth was, getting a person kicked out of his or her house was a chore and did nothing to endear a bail bondsman to the community.
I got out my street map and found Howser. It was in north Trenton, so I retraced my route and discovered that Mrs. Nowicki lived two blocks from Eddie Kuntz. Same neighborhood of well-kept houses. Except for the Nowicki house. The Nowicki house was single-family, and it was a wreck. Peeling paint, crumbling roof shingles, saggy front porch, front yard more dirt than grass.
I picked my way over rotting porch steps and knocked on the door. The woman who answered was faded glory in a bath-robe. It was getting to be mid-afternoon, but Mrs. Nowicki looked like she'd just rolled out of bed. She was a sixty-year-old woman wearing the ravages of booze and disenchantment with life. Her doughy face showed traces of makeup not removed before calling it a night. Her voice had the rasp of two packs a day, and her breath was hundred proof.
"Yeah," she said.
"I'm looking for Maxine."
"You a friend of Maxy's?"
I gave her my card. "I'm with the Plum Agency. Maxine missed her court date. I'm trying to find her so we can get her rescheduled."
Mrs. Nowicki raised a crayoned brown eyebrow. "I wasn't born yesterday, honey. You're a bounty hunter, and you're out to get my little girl."
"Do you know where she is?"
"Wouldn't tell you if I did. She'll get found when she wants to."
"You put your house up as security against the bond. If Maxine doesn't come forward you could lose your house."
"Oh yeah, that'd be a tragedy," she said, rummaging in the pocket of her chenille robe, coming up with a pack of Kools. "Architectural Digest keeps wanting to do a spread, but I can't find the time." She stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit up. She sucked hard and squinted at me through the smoke haze. "I owe five years' back taxes. You want this house you're gonna hafta take a number and get in line."
Sometimes bail jumpers are simply at home, trying to pretend their life isn't in the toilet, hoping the whole mess will go away if they ignore the order to appear in court. I'd originally thought Maxine would be one of these people. She wasn't a career criminal, and the charges weren't serious. She really had no reason to skip out.
Now I wasn't so sure. I was getting an uncomfortable feeling about Maxine. Her apartment had been trashed, and her mother had me thinking maybe Maxine didn't want to be found right now. I slunk back to my car and decided my deductive reasoning would be vastly improved if I ate a doughnut. So I cut across town to Hamilton and parked in front of Tasty Pastry Bakery.
I'd worked part-time at Tasty Pastry when I was in high school. It hadn't changed much since then. Same green-and-white linoleum floor. Same sparkling clean display cases filled with Italian cookies, chocolate chip cannoli, biscotti, napoleons, fresh bread and coffee cakes. Same happy smell of fried sweet dough and cinnamon.
Lennie Smulenski and Anthony Zuck bake the goodies in the back room in big steel ovens and troughs of hot oil. Clouds of flour and sugar sift onto table surfaces and slip under foot. And lard is transferred daily from commercial-sized vats directly to local butts.
I choose two Boston cremes and pocketed some napkins. When I came out I found Joe Morelli lounging against my car. I'd known Morelli all of my life. First when he was a lecherous little kid, then as a dangerous teen. And finally as the guy who at age eighteen, sweet-talked me out of my underwear, laid me down on the floor behind the eclair case one day after work and relieved me of my virginity. Morelli was a cop now, and the only way he'd get back into my pants would be at gunpoint. He worked Vice, and he looked like he knew a lot about it firsthand. He was wearing washed-out Levi's and a navy T-shirt. His hair needed cutting, and his body was perfect. Lean and hard-muscled with the best ass in Trenton ... maybe the world. Buns you wanted to sink your teeth into.
Not that I intended to nibble on Morelli. He had an annoying habit of periodically popping up in my life, frustrating the hell out of me and then walking off into the sunset. I couldn't do much about the popping up or the walking off. I could do something about the frustrating. From here on out, Morelli was erotica non grata. Look but Don't Touch, that was my motto. And he could keep his tongue to himself, thank you.
Morelli grinned by way of hello. "You're not going to eat both those doughnuts all by yourself, are you?"
"That was the plan. What are you doing here?"
"Drove by. Saw your car. Thought you'd need some help with those Boston cremes."
"How do you know they're Boston cremes?"
"You always get Boston cremes."
Last time I saw Morelli was back in February. One minute we were in a clinch on my couch with his hand halfway up my thigh, and then next thing I knew, his pager went off and he was gone. Not to be seen for five months. And now here he was ... sniffing at my doughnuts.
"Long time, no see," I said.
"I've been undercover."
"Okay," he said. "I could have called."
"I thought maybe you were dead."
The smile tightened. "Wishful thinking?"
"You're scum, Morelli."
He blew out a sigh. "You're not going to share those doughnuts, are you?"
I got into my car, slammed the door, squealed out of the lot and headed for home. By the time I got to my apartment I'd eaten both the doughnuts, and I was feeling much better. And I was thinking about Nowicki. She was five years older than Kuntz. High school graduate. Twice married. No children. Her file photo showed me a blowzy blonde with big Jersey hair, lots of makeup and a slim frame. She was squinting into the sun and smiling, wearing four-inch heels, tight black stretch pants and a loose flowing sweater with sleeves pushed up to her elbows and a V neck deep enough to show cleavage. I half expected to find writing on the back of the picture ... "If you want a good time, call Maxine Nowicki."
Probably she'd done exactly what she'd said. Probably she'd stressed out and gone on vacation. Probably I shouldn't exert myself because she'd come home any day now.
And what about her apartment? The apartment was bothersome. The apartment told me Maxine had bigger problems than a simple auto theft charge. Best not to think about the apartment. The apartment only muddied the waters and had nothing to do with my job. My job was simple. Find Maxine. Bring her in.
I locked the CRX and crossed the lot. Mr. Landowsky stepped out the building's back door as I approached. Mr. Landowsky was eighty-two and somehow his chest had shrunk over the years, and now he was forced to hike his pants up under his armpits,
"Oi," he said. "This heat! I can't breathe. Somebody should do something."
I assumed he was talking about God.
"That weatherman on the morning news. He should be shot. How can I go out in weather like this? And then when it gets so hot they keep the supermarkets too cold. Hot, cold. Hot, cold. It gives me the runs."
I was glad I owned a gun, because when I got as old as Mr. Landowsky I was going to eat a bullet. The first time I got the runs in the supermarket, that was it. BANG! It would all be over.
I took the elevator to the second floor and let myself into my apartment. One bedroom, one bath, living room--dining room, uninspired but adequate kitchen, small foyer with a strip of pegs for hanging coats and hats and gun belts.
My hamster, Rex, was running on his wheel when I came in. I told him about my day and apologized for not saving him some doughnut. He looked disappointed at the doughnut part so I rooted around in my refrigerator and came up with a few grapes. Rex took the grapes and disappeared into his soup can. Life is pretty simple when you're a hamster.
I moseyed back into the kitchen and checked my phone messages.
"Stephanie, this is your mother. Don't forget about dinner. I have a nice roast chicken."
Saturday night and I was having chicken dinner with my parents. And it wasn't the first time. It was a weekly occurrence. I had no life.
I dragged myself into the bedroom, flopped onto the bed and watched the minute hand creep around the dial on my wristwatch until it was time to go to my parents'. My parents eat dinner at six o'clock. Not a minute sooner or later. That's the way it is. Dinner at six or your life is ruined.
MY PARENTS live in a narrow duplex on a narrow lot on a narrow street in a residential part of Trenton called the burg. When I arrived my mother was waiting at the door.
"What is this outfit you're wearing?" she asked. "You have no clothes on. How is this to dress?"
"This is a Thunders baseball jersey," I told her. "I'm supporting local sports."
My Grandma Mazur peeked from behind my mother. Grandma Mazur moved in with my parents shortly after my grandfather went heavenward to dine with Elvis. Grandma figures she's of an age to be beyond convention. My father thinks she's of an age to be beyond life.
"I need one of those jerseys," Grandma said. "Bet I'd have men following me down the block if I was dressed up like that."
"Stiva, the undertaker," my father murmured from the living room, head buried in the paper. "With his tape measure."
Grandma linked her arm in mine. "I've got a treat for you today. Just wait till you see what I've cooked up."
In the living room the paper was lowered, and my father's eyebrows raised.
My mother made the sign of the cross.
"Maybe you should tell me," I said to Grandma.
"I was gonna keep it as a surprise, but I suppose I could let you in on it. Being that he'll be here any minute now."
There was dead silence in the house.
"I invited your boyfriend over for dinner," Grandma said.
"I don't have a boyfriend!"
"Well, you do now. I arranged everything."
I spun on my heel and headed for the door. "I'm leaving."
"You can't do that!" Grandma yelled. "He'll be real disappointed. We had a nice long talk. And he said he didn't mind that you shoot people for a living."
"I don't shoot people for a living. I almost never shoot people." I thunked my head against the wall. "I hate fix-ups. Fix-ups are always awful."
"Can't be any more awful than that bozo you married," Grandma said. "Only one way to go after that fiasco."
She was right. My short-lived marriage bad been a fiasco.
There was a knock on the door, and we swiveled our heads to look down the hall.
"Eddie Kuntz!" I gasped.
"Yep," Grandma said. "That's his name. He called up here looking for you, and so I invited him to dinner."
"Hey," Eddie said through the screen.
He was wearing a gray short-sleeved shirt open halfway down his chest, pleated slacks and Gucci loafers, no socks. He had a bottle of red wine in his hand.
"Hello," we said in unison.
"Can I come in?"
"Sure you can come in," Grandma said. "I guess we don't leave handsome men standing at the door."
He handed the wine to Grandma and winked. "Here you go, cutie."
Grandma giggled. "Aren't you the one."
"I almost never shoot people," I said. "Almost never."
"Me too," he said. "I hate unnecessary violence."
I took a step backward. "Excuse me. I need to help in the kitchen."
My mother hurried after me. "Don't even think about it!"
"You know what. You were going to sneak out the back door."
"He's not my type."
My mother started filling serving dishes with food from the stove. Mashed potatoes, green beans, red cabbage. "What's wrong with him?"
"He's got too many buttons open on his shirt."
"He could turn out to be a nice person," my mother said. "You should give him a chance. What would it take? And what about supper? I have this nice chicken that will go to waste. What will you eat for supper if you don't eat here?"
"He called Grandma cutie!"
My mother had been slicing up the chicken. She took a drumstick and dropped it on the floor. She kicked it around a little, picked it up and put it on the edge of the plate. "There," she said, "we'll give him this drumstick."
"And I have banana cream pie for desert," she added to seal the bargain. "So you want to make sure you stay to the end."
Be still my heart. (Continues...)