Back Door to Summer / Part Five

Back Door to Summer

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As you may recall, when we left last week, the voice in her head was giving Kearney Cooper a piece of her mind ...

That is different. I mean, I can hardly talk to her about me and her brother, for goodness sake. That would be downright ... squicky.

There wasn’t much she could say to that. Hell, she could barely think about that period of her life, much less talk about it. So Kearney did what she always did. She pushed those worms back into the can they’d crawled out of and slapped another piece of heavy-duty duct tape over the top.

And then she buried her head in the sand again. Or rather in snow and the shoveling thereof. The passage of the city plows delayed things a bit, erecting two- to three-foot barriers of compacted snow at the base of all the driveways, but long before she was ready to face Jesse again, every drive and every walkway on their side of Maple had been cleared.

She glanced wearily at her watch. 10:49. Not bad, though she was expected at work before noon and she still had to break Herbie out and bring him back to life. When she trudged tiredly back to her garage, however, she discovered Jesse was already on that job, too. Of course. She had cleared the drift from in front of the garage’s old-fashioned shed doors and was tugging gently on the one on the right side. It pulled free at the top, but the bottom refused to budge.

“Got an ice chipper?”

“Sure I do,” said Kearney. “Unfortunately, it’s ...”

“In the garage?” Jesse grimaced. “Ah well, I’ll get ours. I’ve got to put Katy the Snow Plow away anyway.”

There was a good inch of ice at the base of the doors, Kearney saw. She popped inside the house to get her car keys. By the time she’d located them, in the pocket of the dress coat she’d been wearing the last time she’d driven anywhere, Jesse had chipped the first door free and was working on the other. Deciding that adding a second chipper of ice to the mix would be hazardous to someone’s toes, she sidled into the gloom of the garage’s interior and opened the door to her vintage VW.

Uh oh. No dome light. Not a good sign. She stuck the keys in the ignition and tried to turn the engine over. Nada. Well, it has been a week or so since we stretched your legs, eh, Herbie.

“Eureka!” The remaining door slammed back against the side of the garage, allowing a second stream of dim light to sneak into the outbuilding. “No luck, eh? Want a push?” Jesse moved to the front of the 1973 Bug, placed her hands on the hood, and waited for Kearney to signal her readiness. The redhead put the car in reverse and gave a nod, and she began to shove. Slowly, Herbie rolled backwards down the driveway. “You need a jump or ...?”

Kearney turned the key in the ignition and popped the clutch expertly. The stick shift sputtered to life. She pushed the clutch back in and hit the brake, stopping the car a short way from her back door. She rolled down the window. “I think I better let it run and recharge the battery. Will you and the hole in the ozone forgive me?”

“I don’t know about the ozone layer. But I will – since those cinnamon rolls have your name on them, not mine.”

“That’s right,” Kearney said, extricating herself from the car. “Now that we’re done, I should go get ...”

“Oh, but we aren’t, yet. Done, that is.”

“We aren’t?” Kearney scanned the block but failed to see where they might have missed anything.

“Nope.” Jesse grabbed Kearney’s gloved hand and pulled the startled woman toward the sidewalk, stopping when they reached a spot in front of her house. “As Mama always said, ‘It’s not over ‘til the snow angel flaps her wings and sings.’”


Jesse grabbed her firmly by the shoulders, turned her ‘til she faced the street, then pulled her arms out to the side. “Ready?”

“For wha...?”

Before she could finish her question, Jesse had put a hand against her upper chest and, with a gentle thrust, shoved her backward onto the snow-filled incline that led from the sidewalk to the lawn. Surprise rendered her speechless long enough for Jesse to fall backward beside her and begin flapping her arms and legs and singing, at the top of her lungs, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plain, and the mountains in reply, echoing their glad refrain ...”

She paused in mid-song, turning a quizzical gaze on her stunned and silent companion.

“My god, woman. Are you begging for six more months of winter? Sing, damn you! Sing as if summer depends upon it. ’Cuz according to my mother, it does. Winters in Minnesota were once but three months long, you know, and sunny with temperatures in the 20s and just enough snow to keep nature in balance. UNTIL ... until Man, in his arrogance, decided that respecting Mother Nature, paying homage to her, was rank superstition and not fitting for one of his intellect and importance.”

She gestured at the trees groaning with their burdens of snow and at the heavily drifted yards. “You see what that attitude has gotten us – nine months of winter and three months of what my grandpa called ‘tough sledding.’ So sing, woman!”

She grabbed Kearney’s hand and swept her unresisting arm back and forth, getting her started on the arcs that would become snowy wings. “And flap. Flap for all you’re worth!” She returned to her singing and sweeping, closing her eyes and smiling blindly toward the gray morning sky.

“Glo – oh-oh-oh-oh – OH – oh-oh-oh-oh – OH – oh-oh-oh-oh OH ri ah! In excelsis deo!”

When she launched into the next set of glorias, Kearney’s voice joined in, hesitantly at first and then with gusto. They ended the homage with a laugh, then lay in the snow, smiles on their lips, hands clasped, for another deep breath or two.

Damn, thought Kearney. I’d forgotten how good this feels. I’d love to lay here like this for hours, but ...

Being a grownup sure sucked sometimes. She sighed. “Now comes the hard part ...”

“What’s that?” asked Jesse, lazily.

“Getting up without wrecking the angel pattern.”

“No problem.” Suddenly Jesse was standing before her, having somehow catapulted herself to her feet. She stuck out a hand. “Here ...”

Kearney reached up. A quick pull and she, too, was up, though before she was quite ready for it. Overbalancing, she lurched forward, pressing full into the taller woman’s body before strong arms encircled her and held her tight. She clung there as her feet fought for a purchase on the slippery walk.

“Steady there,” Jesse murmured, her voice disconcertingly close to Kearney’s ear. She smelled of spice and good clean sweat and her embrace was firm and comforting.

Embrace! Shit! Kearney got her feet under her and pulled back abruptly, flushing furiously. “Fuck!” She turned her back on Jesse, fighting to get her emotions under control.

“You okay?” Jesse asked anxiously, putting a hand on Kearney’s shoulder, only to have it shrugged off. “You twist something or ...?”

“I’m fine,” bit Kearney, bringing her hands to her reddening face. “Just ...”

Just what? What could she say that didn’t sound shifty or stupid or both? She gnawed on her lower lip, trying to keep her tone even, unobjectionable.

“Just embarrassed, that’s all. I’m such a klutz sometimes.” She froze. Jesse’s hand was on her back now and brushing downward, toward her butt. It fell away as the other woman noted her sudden rigidity.

“Sorry. You had ... um, snow. I was just getting it ... you know. Off.” Her voice trailed away uncertainly.

Kearney spotted Emma Rademacher on her front stoop, a covered plate in her hands. Salvation!

“Sorry. I’m tired, I guess. And experiencing a serious cinnamon bun deficiency to boot.” She waved to Mrs. R. and started down the walk, not daring to look behind her. “I better go get those, huh? Before they get cold or she breaks a hip trying to bring them to us?”

She wasn’t sure what to expect from Jesse. She had every right to be confused by her behavior. Maybe even upset. She had gone only a few steps, though, when she heard an affable voice call after her, its owner’s habitual good humor once again in evidence.

“Don’t let her talk your ear off. And don’t believe anything she says about a certain streaking incident. I was four, I swear. Not 14, the way she tells it. I’ll go tell Frank to pour the cocoa. We’ll be in the kitchen. Just let yourself in the back door.”

Damn, double damn, and damn it all to HELL!

* * * * *

The next thing Kearney knew she was in her office on campus. She didn’t have her backpack or the work files it contained. She hadn’t changed out of her shoveling duds, which were becoming increasingly clammy and cold. And – she looked at the clock – she was missing a little over an hour.

My, how time flies while you’re fucking up friendships. She gave a sardonic laugh.

She shed her coat, pulled off the stocking cap and threw it across the room, then collapsed in her chair. She ran her fingers through her hair, separating the damp, tangled tresses, then propped her elbows on her desk and cradled her aching head in her hands.

“Here.” It was Grit Dittmann, the center’s secretary. Kearney had passed her on the way in, heard her say something about ... purging old records? She didn’t recall saying anything in response. Maybe something about shoveling? Maybe something about royally screwing up her life?

Grit thrust two white pellets at Kearney and then a tall glass of water. “For the muscle aches and the dehydration. Then put this on.” She held out a garish orange sweatshirt that had been living in the Lost and Found box for the last few weeks. “It’s a little large, but it’s dry at least ...

“Not over the damp clothes, dummy.” The fact that she was talking to one of her supervisors obviously didn’t faze Grit in the least. Nor did Kearney’s look of indignation.

“Let me ...” She gripped the sweatshirt and turtleneck Kearney was wearing and began to lift. “Oh, don’t be a prude. You haven’t got anything I haven’t seen and the students are all home for the holidays. Do you want to catch your death?”

When Kearney shook her head mutely, she pulled the garments up and off, revealing the pink thermal underwear.

“Oooh, baby, ooh, baby! Best leave that on, even though it’s damp. It’ll keep wicking the moisture away from your body. The sweatshirt will keep the heat from escaping with it. I wish I had dry bottoms to give you, too, but nobody’s ever left their pants behind after one of their tutoring sessions, thank god. I’ve got a blanket somewhere. Let me go get it.”

She returned shortly, swaddled Kearney in something plaid and dusty smelling, and shoved her toward the overstuffed chair and ottoman in the corner.

“Sit. Snooze if you can. I’ll wake you up when your lips are no longer blue and you don’t look like a feather could knock you over.”

Grit was still bent over the outdated student files, flipping through the pages and running the confidential material through the shredder, when Kearney emerged several hours later from her office, the woolen throw trailing behind her like a child’s security blanket.

“Um, thanks ... Sorry for the meltdown. I guess I kind of overextended ...”

“Ah, a five-syllable word. Looks like you’re going to live.”

Grit ignored the gesture Kearney jabbed at her.

“Still, Dr. Dittmann suggests you avoid anything resembling heavy lifting, either physical or mental. Think you’re capable of running one of these without losing a digit?” She pointed to the paper shredder. Kearney managed a nod in response. “Good. I’ll weed. You feed. Speaking of which, I got you a sandwich at the student union. Your tea will be ready as soon as I heat the water.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon in companionable silence. At five, Grit walked her through the dark to her car, waiting until it started and then opening the door to offer some final words of wisdom. “R & R, Kearney. Rest and relaxation. All weekend. Oh, and B. Bathe. Immediately.”

“Are you implying ... ?” scowled Kearney.

“Implying, nothing. You stink, boss, pure and simple. And you’ve got to learn to pace yourself. It’s a long, long way to summer. You’ll never make it if you don’t take better care of yourself.” She closed the door and rapped on the roof to indicate she was out of harm’s way. She raised her voice above the engine’s clatter. “Now get out of here. Take care, ya hear?”

Dutifully, Kearney pushed in the clutch, cranked the car into reverse and backed out. Then, with a grinding of gears and an embarrassing lurch that testified to her weariness, she shifted into first and pointed Herbie toward home.

Home. For the first time since she’d bought it, the thought of the place filled her with dismay. It didn’t feel like a haven today, a retreat from the pressures of work and the world. It felt more like ...

A prison? No, she decided. Worse than that. Like ... an isolated island in the midst of the Pacific. With landmines buried here and there and sharks circling it.

She shook her head at the overblown metaphor. If she’d read that on a student paper, she’d have circled it in red and drawn a Mr. Yuck face beside it. A face much like the one I’m probably wearing now, she thought. She felt like hell and undoubtedly looked like it. And with each passing block, the ball of dread in the pit of her stomach was growing bigger and icier.

She tightened her grip on the steering wheel until her knuckles showed white. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t just turn the car around and drive until she ran out of gas: Lexie was waiting for her, depending on her, and she wanted -- no, she needed -- to wrap her arms around her old friend tonight, to bury her face in her silky black fur and shed a restorative tear or two.

The question was -- what else might be waiting for her there? She was not at all anxious to find out.

Continued in Back Door to Summer, Part Six,
and, yes, thar be some answers there, cap’n!

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