Excerpt: A Little Ray of Sunshine
“Did I hear someone say I had a date for lunch?” Grandpop asked, wandering in from the bookstore’s back room. “Wonderful!”
“Can you all just go?” Cynthia asked. “This is hardly a professional discussion. And try not to take too long. The rest of us are also entitled to a lunch break.”
“Go ahead,” said Destiny, coming back into the room with a box in her arms. She set it down with a thud. “Hardcover James Patterson,” she said. “Cynthia and I can unpack and arrange.”
"Wish Auntie Harlow luck, Imogen,” Addie said as my niece spat out a chunk of the book cover. “Tell her not to bite her blind date.”
“Pay for that book,” I told my sister.
“I love lunch!” Grandpop said merrily. “And I’m famished! What should I have?”
“A cheeseburger,” I said.
“Too much fat and salt,” Cynthia said.
“So? He’s ninety,” I said, pushing the door open. Grandpop could eat whatever he wanted. My grandmother had been gone for three years now, and if a cheeseburger killed Grandpop, well, was there a better way to go? “Come on, Grandpop.”
The screen door banged behind us. Open Book was that store people dreamed of owning. Housed in the three-story Victorian that had been in the family since 1843, the store had been founded in the 1980s by my grandmother. Inside, it was cheery and snug with lots of alcoves and cozy corners, a fireplace and places to sit, a little coffee bar and gift area. The children’s section was in the sunny, enclosed front porch.
I slid my arm through my grandfather’s, since he tended to wander. Grandpop was my favorite person, and it truly was a beautiful day to be out—clear blue sky, a breeze off the water. Main Street was in peak form…pink, red and white rhododendrons just now coming into full glory, the crooked old buildings awash in character and charm.
For the past decade, I’d lived in an apartment over the bookstore, kept an eye on Grandpop and was happily turning into the clichéd bookish spinster. It was a quiet, good life, and I planned to keep it that way.
“Speaking of dates,” Grandpop said, “I think I want to get married again. I do! Yesterday, I took a nap under the porch for two hours, and no one even missed me.”
“I wondered where you’d gone,” I said. “Why under the porch?”
“It looked very cozy.”
I nodded, understanding the allure. Dark, private, cool…I might have to give it a try.
“Will you help me find someone?” he asked. He’d loved my grandmother, but she’d been gone for more than three years.
“Sure! What are you looking for in a person?” I asked.
“Someone who can talk loud enough for me to hear, first of all.”
“If you wore your hearing aids, we could widen the net,” I said. He chuckled. “You’re serious about this, Grandpop?”
“Why not? Life is short! Actually, life is horribly long, Harlow! I thought I’d be dead and buried at least twenty years ago.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not,” I said.
“Did you know,” Grandpop said, “last week, I went for a drive and forgot where I was!” He announced it as if it were a delightful surprise.
“I got lunch somewhere…Orleans, maybe? That crowded place with all the signs?”
“The Land Ho! probably,” I said.
“Yes! That one! Anyway, after I ate, I was feeling a little sleepy, so I got in my car and took a nap. But it turns out it wasn’t my car! The owners were very nice, though. A little surprised to find me, but they were very friendly. Gosh, it’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” Grandpop asked. “I just love August.”
“Me, too,” I said. “But it’s June.“
“Is that right? Goodness. Time flies.” He smiled at me, making me glad he was coming along. We got to the Ice House, and Beth, the owner and a member of my book club, waved to me. “Just you and your handsome grandfather today, Harlow?” she asked.
“Oh, aren’t you a charmer, Beth,” Grandpop said. “Are you making a pass at me? I am looking to get married again.”
“Are you?” Beth said, grinning. “Well, if my husband leaves me, you’d be my first choice. Where would you two like to sit?
“Actually, I’m meeting someone,” I said, grimacing. “Grandpop, would you like to sit at the bar and flirt with Beth here?”
“I would love that!” Grandpop exclaimed. “I so enjoy talking to pretty girls!”
“And I love talking to charming older men,” Beth answered. “Sit wherever you want, Harlow, and Tanner will be over in a few.”
I took a seat facing the door so I could see…oh, shoot. I didn’t know his name. I took out my phone to text Addison, but she’d beat me to it.
Pete Schultz, data analyst, divorced, no kids, likes fishing, boating, the Patriots. He knows you have four incredibly attractive siblings and dropped out of law school.
What if he’s a serial killer? I texted.
He didn’t look like a serial killer in his profile.
No one looks like a serial killer! That’s why they get away with it.
Relax. Should be worth a second date.
We’d see about that. Thus far in my adult life, I had not had a meaningful, committed relationship. I wasn’t averse to one, but I wasn’t looking, either. If, say, Keanu Reeves dropped into the bookstore one day and begged me to marry him, I would definitely consider it.
But dating? I’d tried it in my late twenties. Ugh. The work, the profiles, the texting, then calling, then meeting, only to find you didn’t hit it off. The longest I’d dated someone was two and a half weeks—Jake, a plumber from Hyannis. That ended when he had to go on an emergency call for an overflowing toilet and left me with his seven-year-old child (previously unmentioned), who needed babysitting because his wife (also unmentioned) was out.
Tanner, Beth’s nephew and my server, came over with menus. I ordered a glass of prosecco to make this meeting more pleasant and the cheeseburger du jour. No need to wait for my, uh, companion. My stomach growled with appreciation.
“Got it,” he said.
Destiny texted me. Anything to report?
He‘s not here, I texted back. Praying for a no-show. Only in this for the cheeseburger.
An average-looking man came into the restaurant. Khaki pants, blue button down, Nikes. His hair was light brown. He’d make a great serial killer, I decided, going with my original instinct. No one would be able to remember that face. “Pete? I called. “Hi.” I gave a little wave.
“Hey!” he said. “Pete Schultz. Great to meet you, Harper.”
“It’s Harlow, actually, but hi. Nice to meet you, too.”
“Harlow, right, right,” he said. “How are you?”
“Doing fine. How are you?” My brain emptied of small talk, something I was usually quite good at behind the counter of my store.
“I’m good. Cool place,” He looked around appreciatively. “Was it once actually an ice house?”
“Yes. Mm-hm.” The building’s history was printed on the menu. Pete could read it himself.
“This was indeed an ice house, young man,” said my grandfather, walking over. “Back in the day, the ponds on the Cape would have ten or twelve inches of ice come winter. The ice man would cut great chunks of it and store them here, then put them on a cart and go around town. The ladies of the house would leave a number in their windows, letting him know how many pounds of ice they needed! Isn’t that interesting?”
“I guess,” said Pete, scratching his head, then examining his fingernails. He flicked a little scalp out of his ring finger nail. Nasty.
“This is my grandfather,” I said. “He’s a whiz with history. You should see him at trivia night.” Yes, yes, I was that dork who loved trivia nights. My team had been All-Cape champs last year, though we’d lost our strongest science guy to a Florida retirement . But Grady Byrne, a marine biologist and a former elementary and high school classmate, had replaced him in January. I was confident we would win the the trophy (again).
“Here’s a dating tip, Harlow,” Grandpop continued. “Talk about topics of general interest. Stay away from money, politics and sexual preferences.”
“Good advice. Thanks, Grandpop,” I said, accustomed to these little tidbits. Beth called him back to the bar, and Grandpop tipped an imaginary hat and left us.
“Your grandfather’s a little…unfiltered,” Pete said.
“My grandfather is perfect.”
Luckily, Tanner arrived with my beautiful, mouth-watering cheeseburger. I took an enormous bite and moaned in pleasure, eyes closed.
“Uh, I’ll have a salad,” Pete said, his voice tinged with disapproval. I looked him in the eye and took another bite. “So you own a bookstore?” he asked as he watched me eat. “It said so in your profile.”
“Mm-hm,” I said, wiping my mouth with my napkin. “Open Book.”
“Thanks.” I swallowed. “Um, do you like your job, Pete?”
The next fifteen minutes were filled with Pete’s description of data integrity as he ate his salad. I tried. I did. Not too hard, because that burger was way more interesting, but I gave it a shot. “I’m kind of known for statistical inference,” he finished up, and I noticed a fleck of carrot stuck to the left side of his lip. “Not to brag, but I’m kind of famous in my world. My predictive modeling is world-class.”
“Wow,” I said.
“I know.” He smiled proudly.
We chewed in silence. Ten more minutes? Sadly, Pete wasn’t ready to call time of death just yet. “What do you do for fun?” he asked.
“I kayak and paddle board,” I said. “Almost every day. I have a dog. Trivia night, as I said. And of course, I read a lot. How about you? What do you like to read?”
“I’m not much a reader,” he said. So he was dead inside. Got it. “But I do write.”
“Most writers I know love to read.”
“I dabble in poetry.”
Unexpected. “Who are some of your favorites?”
“Gosh. Hard to say.” He offered a shy smile.
“I love Mary Oliver,” I said. “Amanda Gorman, Robert Frost. I’m on a Rumi kick these days.”
Pete tilted his head. “I guess I’d have to say I’m my favorite poet, to be honest.”
“Oh. Um…that’s great.” Grandpop had just left—he may have forgotten to pay, as was his habit, so I’d have to check with Beth. I ate a french fry.
“Can I read you something I wrote?” Pete asked. “I’d love to have your take on it, since you’re in the business.”
“We just sell books. I’m not involved with publishing.”
“Sure you are,” Pete said. “Let’s see if you think this is something your customers would enjoy. Maybe I could do a reading at your store.” He lifted his eyebrows suggestively.
Not gonna happen, pal. “Fire away.” I drained my prosecco.
Pete reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn-looking piece of paper. “I call this one ‘Despair.’”
“Catchy,” I said. The date had suddenly gotten more interesting.
“It’s about my ex,” he said.
Did I have time to fish out my phone and record this? Rosie, my best friend, would love it. “Go for it,” I said.
Pete cleared his throat. “You ruined my life. I thought you’d be my forever wife.’”
Definitely should’ve asked to record it.
“But you brought me strife. Like a sharp and hacking knife. Cutting through my heart. Instead of cherishing it like a piece of art. And pierced it like a dart.” He glanced at me to see if I was paying attention. I was. “You are still in my head. But now I dream of you dead.”
I almost cracked on the last line, but kept my expression neutral. After all, the serial killer odds had skyrocketed.
He put the paper away and looked at me expectantly.
“Tanner? Check, please!” I called. “Very powerful, Pete. And terrifying. You might want to reconsider that last line.”
“Too harsh?” he said.
“I’d get a restraining order if I were in her shoes.”
“But what about the rhyming? It took me a really long time to find words that rhyme.”
“It does rhyme. You are correct about that. Tanner? We’re all set here.”
Pete shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t matter,” he said. “My ex, I mean. She’ll be super jealous that I’ve moved on. When do you want kids, by the way? I’m totally ready. I’d like us to get pregnant within the year. That would really chap her ass.”
The name of the restaurant is The Land Ho!, not the Land Ho. The last copyeditor fixed it so all references had the exclamation mark. I know, it looks weird.