- SpeakEasy is the 2013 Community Novel Project of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Read more about the project including the premise, behind the scenes, and the book launch party.
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- A new chapter by a new Topeka author each week at tscpl.org/community-novel.
Downloading SpeakEasy Chapter 4 by Elaine Greywalker
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 4 by Elaine Greywalker
Ronni woke up and gazed blearily at the ceiling. For a minute she wondered where she was and then remembered the drive home through the rain with Pete beside her. His constant grinning was definitely Cheshire Cat stuff. Although she could probably get used to it.
“Ow!” She put a finger gingerly on the top of her head. There was a tender spot. Then she remembered hitting her head on the car door frame as she got out. Through the bedroom door, she heard a clarinet softly running scales. Her cell rang. She sat up and plucked it from the bedside table. She looked at the number, didn’t recognize it, and answered it anyway.
“This is Carl at Casey Oil and Lube. Wondering when you’re going to get your car. We’re kinda busy and need the space.”
“My car is in a public parking lot!”
“Uh, no. It’s not. I can call a tow for you. We’ve got a guy …”
“No! Don’t tow it! I’ll take care of it.”
“Okay. But if it isn’t out of here by 5, it’s off to the impound.”
Ronni thought about yelling some snide remark describing his compassion toward society and then caught herself. She needed time to figure out what to do, and yelling might make him change the deadline.
“Okay,” she muttered and hung up. She punched the keys for Charles.
She listened to ringing on the other end.
“This is Charles. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you …”
She hung up. As a boyfriend he was getting to be pretty useless. The clarinet playing from the next room got louder and more melodious. She recognized Get Happy from yesterday.
Clutching the phone with both hands, she leaned forward on the bed.
“Donna?” The clarinet playing stopped. She got up, opened the door, and moved through the living room between the low table and couch toward the kitchen. It was more of a kitchenette, fitted into a corner of the apartment with a counter overhang long enough for two bar stools. Pete was standing near the sink, a clarinet close to his lips. He lowered his hands slightly and smiled.
“Good morning, Sunshine!”
Pete was shaved and neatly dressed in a loose green tee over distressed black jeans. She became sharply aware of the thinness of her tee shirt and pajama pants. Should have slung on a sweater or something, she thought.
“Hi. Where’s Donna?”
“Class.” He stood the clarinet gently on its bell next to the sink. He picked up a tray she hadn’t noticed. It was filled with what looked like breakfast.
“Where’d you get that tray?”
“Waved a magic wand.” He smiled that blinding smile, and Ronni felt relaxed yet apprehensive.
“Breakfast in bed?” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Uh, no. The counter will be fine.”
He shrugged. “Your loss.” He placed the tray down on the bar end of the counter and adjusted the two bar stools. Then he gave a theatrical bow.
She laughed. What a charmer! She sat at the counter and looked down at the tray: coffee, grilled cheese, and frozen blueberries defrosting into a bed of milk.
“Wasn’t sure if you wanted lunch or breakfast, so I made both.”
“Great. Thanks. This is … lunch?”
“Yeah.” He sat beside her. “It’s nearly noon.”
She hopped off the stool, stood stiffly at attention. Then she noticed Pete and folded her arms over her chest.
“No wonder the repair guy called! I’ve got to get my car, talk to Julia, run to the library …”
“Whoa! Whoa! I’ve been to the library. We have another appointment with Julia in a few hours. And I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with your car.”
“It doesn’t run! … Where’s Donna?”
Pete stepped back, his face dropping into a smooth mask. “She’s at class.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry. I’m not really awake yet.”
Pete gave her his famous soft grin. “Drink your coffee. We’ve got time.”
“No. We don’t.” She picked up the mug of coffee and headed for her room. She turned. Pete was still watching.
“Just a second. I had a thought about your car. Did you get a bill yet?”
She thought a bit, taking a sip of coffee.
“I saw one on the desk, but he never gave it to me.”
“He wanted to charge you more. If the car was in the bay, how did it get there if it doesn’t start? It must start some times.”
She nodded and sipped again.
“Lube and oil places don’t do very complex work. My brother worked in a shop for awhile. Sells parts now. It’s probably your starter.”
“Old Saturns – any old car, really – can have starter engine issues. The starter cranks the engine. If the battery is okay but the starter isn’t, the car will start sometimes. The easiest part to replace is the battery — something they’re good at in a lube and oil place. Starters not so much.”
She let this percolate through her brain while she sipped again.
“So my car might start?”
“But it might still be broken?”
“Okay. Let’s give it a shot and see if I can get my car without a tow. I tried Charles earlier, and he isn’t answering. Can you give me a ride?”
As Pete drove along, Ronni munched the grilled cheese, wrapped in a paper towel.
“Thanks for the sandwich.”
Her cell rang.
“Ronni,” she said. Then listened, the sandwich on her lap. “Uh huh. What? How did … No! I don’t! I’ll be there in an hour.” She hung up and turned to Pete. “Julia’s missing. She wasn’t in her room at lunch, and they can’t find her anywhere. Asked if she was with me!”
“Maybe her son picked her up?”
Ronni shook her head. “She doesn’t have any living children in the area. The only relative is some great-nephew in Richmond, Virginia.” She took a bite of the sandwich.
“So, they called you?”
“To say they cancelled the appointment. I’m going anyway. There must be something I can do.”
“There probably isn’t. Anyway, they might accuse you of over-exciting her with all your questions,” Pete said.
“It’s not my fault she’s gone! Poor Julia! I hope she’s okay.”
“She’s a fighter. She’ll pull through.”
Pete pulled into the repair shop parking lot and switched off the car. Through the plate glass windows they could see Carl on the phone behind an old steel desk. The bay doors were up. One bay was empty. The other was filled with two repair guys, a car on a lift, and an older gentleman in gray suit pants, a white shirt, and blue tie. They were all looking at some greasy, unidentifiable part.
Ronni shoved the last bite into her mouth and mumbled something as she pointed at her car.
“Do you have keys?” said Pete.
Ronni nodded, grabbed her bag and files, and flung open the door.
Her first instinct was to yell at the repair guy. Her second to fling the paper towel at him. Instead, she stomped over to her car and tried the door. She turned her head.
“Hey! It’s not even locked!” she yelled at the big glass window. Carl ignored her, still talking on the phone. The men in the bay glanced over and then quickly went back to looking at the greasy part.
“Arrrgghh!” Ronni growled. She pulled open the door, flopped inside, and threw her bags and files onto the other seat. She put her key in the ignition. There was a strange grinding noise, and then the car started up. She smiled. A shadow appeared at her left. It was Pete. He stood with his hands in his pockets, grinning. He mouthed something.
She lowered the window.
“I don’t trust it,” she said. “I’m taking it straight home.”
Pete shrugged. “I’ll follow you.”
Ronni looked up at him for a minute, and then she, too, shrugged. She pulled out of the parking lot and into traffic, glanced in the rear view mirror, and saw Carl running out of the office. Ooops! She had forgotten to pay him. I’ll call in a credit card number when I get home, she thought. Too late now.
Back at the apartment they sat on barstools, each with a steaming cup of black tea. The coffee was gone. Outside it was gray and windy. The storm door rattled its catch.
She had called Carl. He wanted to charge her extra for storage. Pete had changed his mind.
They had been sitting silently for a few minutes, Pete texting while patiently waiting for Ronni to decide what she was going to do next.
Ronni took sips between rolling her shoulders and gazing dully into nothing.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. Pete stopped texting.
“Being a little harsh. I’ve got a lot going on right now
- what with the dissertation, the job, my mom …”
“That is a lot.” He slipped the phone into his pocket.
Ronni nodded. “It is. I can’t decide on a proposal for my dissertation. Even I am beginning to think it’ll never get done. My mom has some kind of strange high blood pressure. She keeps ending up in the emergency room.”
She sighed. “I don’t find out about it unless I ask her directly or happen to drop by at the right time. I went in with her once. It was horrible. It was like she was dying, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it.”
Suddenly Ronni’s eyes filled with tears and began running down her cheeks. Pete jumped up and snatched some tissues from a box. He held a tip close to the corner of one eye and gently blotted it. She took the remaining tissues from his hand and blew her nose.
“On top of all that, something’s not right at work. Strange conversations behind closed doors. The till coming up short. Weird deliveries after closing. I don’t know! I just don’t know.” She shook her head.
“What you need is a break. How about …”
The outside door flew open and Charles marched in. He stopped, staring at the scene of Ronni crying and Pete standing over her, his arm around her shoulders.
He put the stack of books he was carrying down carefully on the couch. Then he straightened up.
Ronni held the crumbled tissues in front of her face. Pete was somehow standing across the counter from her now. He stretched out a hand toward Charles.
“Hi, guy,” Pete said.
“Hello,” said Charles in a flat voice. Pete dropped his arm.
“Oh, Charles!” said Ronni. She got up and moved toward him, intending to rush into his arms. She tripped slightly just before getting there and slammed into him.
Charles was tall and solid. He caught her with barely an indication of movement. Ronni snuggled into him. He clasped her as if she were a Ming vase, keeping her off his perfectly-pressed shirt. He looked over at Pete.
“What’s going on?” Charles said.
“Just here for the night. Donna’s my sister. Leaving tomorrow. Got a gig tonight.”
“Yeah. I play in a jazz band.”
Ronni sobbed loudly. “My car’s broken … I’ll never get my dissertation done … Mom’s dying!” It all came out in a crumpled rush as she pressed her face toward his chest. He pushed her out at arm’s length. Ronni was used to this. He let her slowly down onto the couch.
“I’m sure it’s not that bad! Got any coffee?”
Ronni shook her head.
“Thanks for lunch, Ron,” Pete said. “Gotta run. Band practice. Look-” He pulled two tickets out of a pocket and placed them on her lap. “Why don’t you and Charlie come by for the show tonight?” He glanced over at Charles. “If you can.”
Ronni looked down at the tickets.
“Thanks, uh …” Charles said.
He nodded. “I can get it from here, ‘guy,’ and it’s Charles, not Charlie.”
“I’ll just get my things,” Pete said. He packed his clarinet carefully in its case and then picked up another one that Ronni had stumbled over. Charles held the door as Pete maneuvered his way out.
“Later.” Pete shot a look at Ronni. She shrugged.
“Bye,” said Charles as he closed the door. He glanced over at Ronni, still snuffling into the mess of tissues, as he headed for the kitchen.
He opened and shut cupboards. “Geez. You really are out of coffee. I was going to get some studying done, but I can see that won’t be possible now.”
Ronni crushed the tissues into a tight ball, dropping it and the tickets beside her on the couch.
“Sorry, Charles. I have a headache, and things just kind of built up, you know.”
“Yeah. I do. C’mon. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. You can keep me company while I read. I’ve got to review before moot court and group.”
Ronni stood up.
“You’re going like that?” Charles said.
Ronni looked down. Her shirt was a bit rumpled but okay. Then she realized her face was probably a mess. She shook her head.
“Can you wait a minute? I’ll get cleaned up.”
“Hurry,” said Charles. Ronni dashed for the bathroom.
Chapter 5 will be published next week at http://www.tscpl.org/community-novel