Writer In Progress; Whiskey and Gumdrops, written by Jean Oram
January 31, 2014 Leave a comment
Welcome to January’s episode of Writer In Progress. To start off the new year, I bring you an excerpt from Whiskey and Gumdrops, the companion novel to Jean’s free debut novel Champagne and Lemon Drops.
Mandy stood behind an elm and staked out the church, her feet turning to nicely pedicured ice blocks due to the slush seeping through her designer boots. The old teak doors swung open and the bride and groom burst into the spring sunshine, smiling at each other as if they were the only ones in the small town of Blueberry Springs.
Mandy turned away to stop the world from spinning, the rough bark of the tree snagging her long, loose hair. Against the wishes of the smart little voice in her head, she peered around the trunk, waiting as the couple kissed and waved their goodbyes before piling into the limo. She took several quick steps to the right and crouched behind a budding bush, seeking better cover as the limo pulled out. The last thing she needed was word to get back to her ex that she’d been wedding-stalking him.
Was it crazy that she’d needed to see proof of his nuptials herself? To see with her own eyes that he had, indeed, chosen to spend the rest of his life with her rival? To slide that knife a little deeper into her soul?
She sighed and wiggled her left foot, which was threatening to fall asleep due to her cramped position. The decent man options were waning and, like the men available, she wasn’t getting any younger. Before long, the only ones left would be used and abused models—divorcés—or the late model lemons nobody had wanted in the first place.
She winced as an idea struck her core. If everyone worth snapping up was snapped up … did that imply she wasn’t worth snapping up? Well, obviously not by the man she’d been with for eight years and had hopelessly chased for the past three and a half. That stupid kiss he’d given her two years ago had given her unrealistically high hopes. She was embarrassed now at how she’d reacted; following him around, setting her kitchen on fire—well, that was an accident—and basically, trying to re-spark the connection they’d once had. Although, if she was being honest, she was only embarrassed because it hadn’t worked. She’d failed. Publicly.
She’d been trusting enough to believe he was The One and that he’d felt the same way about her. But the truth was, you didn’t know if a man was a lemon until you test drove him for a while. And even then, he could still surprise you and dump your ass on the side of the road. Or worse still, you could end up like her parents who hadn’t realized they’d chosen lemons until it was waaaaay too late.
And, God sue her, but the idea of test driving another man felt like way too much work in her current frame of mind.
She sighed and stood, stretching her tingling leg as the limo swung around for another toot-toot drive-by. Son of a …
She dashed behind another shrub and ignored the light rustling beside her as she kept an eye on the car. Another rustle-rustle and she glanced over at Mrs. Everett’s cat, Fluffy, who was prancing as if she had to pee.
The whole outdoors is yours, kitty.
Wait a second …
She stole another glance at the cat, noting the wide, white stripe down its back—a stripe Fluffy did not possess on her all-black body. The skunk aimed her puffy tail straight at Mandy’s caramel leather jacket with the Italian style zipper.
“Shit!” Mandy scrambled backward, the butt of her perfectly worn-in jeans landing in wet, cold slush as the skunk filled the air with its scent, stinging Mandy’s eyes.
“Son of a bitch!” She gagged and choked as she whipped a handful of heavy slush at the skunk, sending it hustling for protection under a nearby shrub. Between gags, she spit out, “You know how much this outfit cost? I’ll never be able to wear it again!”
Not caring if anyone across the street saw her, she stalked deeper into the square, eyes streaming. She’d be lucky if she only smelled into next week and not the rest of her life. She’d be turning off diners at Benny’s Big Burger and getting herself fired from the highest tipping restaurant in town. And without Benny’s, she’d be exactly … nothing. Her status would officially become ‘a small town nobody waiting for true love to come along and save her from a humiliatingly lonely and meaningless existence.’
Sooo not her style, but she could see her future gliding that way as if it was being guided to a runway lit up at night: land here! She needed to do something—anything—to modify that flight plan.
But first she had to deal with the present crisis of eau de skunk.
She slipped through the quiet downtown at a light jog, unable to outrun her smell, thankful the majority of the town was still at the wedding. By her estimation, she had about two minutes to make it to safety before the streets filled again and the ‘closed due to wedding’ signs disappeared from store doors.
Turning onto Plum Street, she headed for the one person who could help her. The one person who had stood by her through all the years and the ups and downs of pursuing and keeping her ex. Frankie.
Everyone believed she’d been cruelly leading Frankie on ever since he fell off the water tower while painting her name on it all those years ago—and earning himself the nickname
Frankie-Fall-Off-The-Tower-Smith—but they had an agreement. They were just friends. And always would be. Nothing more.
She banged on the back door to his ancient, three-room cottage with the cedar shake roof and cracked clapboard siding. Frankie’s dog, Heart, sounded the alarm on the other side of the door before it opened, then slammed shut again.
“Holy shit, Mandy! What the hell?” Frankie hollered through the door.
She turned the knob and pushed on the door. “Frankie, you’ve gotta help me out.”
“Jesus Christ! Stay out of here. I’ll never get the smell out!”
Teary-eyed, Mandy gave the warped door a shove. The lock clicked into place and the sounds of Frankie scrambling on the other side sifted through. She slumped onto the small step.
Now what? Living above the flower shop, she was certain the owner would catch wind of her new aroma and kick her out for stinking up the building—at least until she smelled right again. Nobody wanted their shop smelling like she did. Nobody wanted their anything smelling like she did. And the way her eyes stung, she wasn’t sure she’d ever smell like herself—usually a blend of vanilla and Pears soap—ever again.
“Frankie, you gotta help me,” she moaned, leaning her head against the closed door. “My family will never let me live it down.”
If her older brothers found out she got sprayed and then heard about the scent lingering in the town square, they would put two
and two together. They would then know where she had been and why and would mock her patheticocity until her dying day.
This would definitely top Frankie falling off the tower while declaring his undying love.
Frankie appeared around the corner of the house in a pair of old sweats and a ripped t-shirt he usually reserved for renovating his tiny abode. He carried an old drywall mud pail and large shopping bag.
“Follow me,” he said, pointing to the large garage out back where he rebuilt muscle cars.
Mandy followed him at a distance, watching how he moved, efficiently and with purpose.
Pausing at the garage door, Frankie grinned and clipped a clothespin over his nose. He shoved open the door and drew her into the garage. “Let’s see what we can do about your new outdoorsy perfume.”
Mandy looked in Frankie’s pail. She held up a small bottle of juice he used to mix with cheap beer when his next paycheck was still a week away. “Clamato? Really?”
He shrugged. “You’re supposed to bathe in tomato juice or peroxide and that’s the best I have.”
Mandy looked at it hopelessly. Her voice wobbled as she said, “I’m going to smell like clams.”
“You can pretend you took a trip to the seaside.” He winked as he set down the pail, uncapped the tomato juice and poured it in. It barely covered the pail’s bottom surface. They looked at it doubtfully. Frankie tapped the bottom of the upturned bottle. “I think we’re going to need about eighty of these.”
They looked at each other and started to laugh. Near tears, Mandy plunked herself onto the cold concrete floor amid the oil
stains and fine layer of grit that had blown in. She leaned against the 1969 Dodge Challenger Frankie was currently rebuilding for a client in the city.
“This sucks. Really, really sucks.”
Frankie crouched in front of her with a washcloth dripping tomato juice. “Come here.” Gently, he tipped her face up and dabbed her forehead. “We’ll need to wash your hair and probably burn your clothes.”
Mandy fought tears. She’d worked two weeks’ worth of extra shifts to buy this outfit. It always made her feel good when her confidence was flagging. She’d miss this outfit more than she’d care to admit. She let out a loud sigh supposing it was divine retribution for dressing in her best to be ready with her arms outstretched in case her ex was unable to say, “I do.”
“Sorry, Miss M,” Frankie said.
She nodded and burst into tears. How could she be so pathetic? So weak and needy? Why couldn’t she be that confident, independent girl everyone seemed to think she was? Everyone kept telling her she was better off and that she was so brave, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Frankie rubbed her back and asked gently, “You went to watch, despite your promise, didn’t you?”
She nodded again, crying harder. He drew her into his arms and held her close. “Oh, Mandy.” He smoothed her hair. “Why do you do this to yourself?”
She tried to push him away, but he squeezed her even tighter. “I’ll make you stink,” she sniffed.
He shrugged under her grip. “So?”
She felt a rush of emotion for her best friend and slipped from his grip, wiping her wet cheeks with her hands.
Frankie handed her a towel from the shopping bag. “You can use this to cover yourself as you bathe. I’m going to run out and get more juice. I threw an outfit in there for you to change into later.”
“I’ll pay you back,” she said quickly.
He shrugged off her offer and gave her a skeptical look as she pulled out the outfit. “Maybe change into it after I get more juice, though.” He stepped to the door. “A lot more.”
“Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
He paused, his hand on the doorknob. “If anyone asks why all the juice, I’ll tell them Heart got loose and found a skunk.”
Mandy gave him a grateful smile and turned the red-soaked cloth over in her hands. “Thanks.”
He returned her smile and she felt a whoosh in her gut. He was always so good to her and half the time, she felt as though she didn’t even deserve him as a friend. Sure, she was a good friend, too, but sometimes she wondered why he put up with her chasing another man when he’d made it clear over the years that he was willing to pick up where their first—and only—date had left off.
He stepped closer. A look in his eyes made her tense up. “Why can’t you see it?” he asked, his voice quiet.
“See what?” she asked cautiously.
“How strong you are.” He came closer again. “And that you could have anything you wanted.”
Mandy stood and crossed her arms. Not this again. “Frankie, what you want and what you need are two different things.”
“You’ve got to start giving yourself some credit.” He cupped her chin and leaned closer, intense. “You are more than you know, woman.”
“Frankie,” she sighed, a raw edge to her voice.
She tried to ignore how his proximity was making her body go extra tingly. “You know any woman would be lucky to have a good man like you.” Her eyes prickled with emotion and she tugged herself out of his grip. She crouched and busied herself with washing her hands.
Glancing up, she caught him shooting her that goofy, crooked grin that always made her want to comply with whatever kooky idea he had. More than once she’d found herself racing across the meadow track in her 4×4, trying to outdo one of his muscle cars after he’d shot that grin in her direction. Such a challenge lay behind those lips, and he knew perfectly well how it usually worked.
He crouched beside her. “The same could be said about you,” he whispered. He slowly leaned in and, when she didn’t move away, placed his lips gently over hers. He gave her a deep kiss that awakened parts of her that had been dormant for a very long time. And for a very good reason.
She shoved him away and stood up. “Dammit, Frankie!”
She blinked back tears and moved to the other side of the car, where she’d be out of reach, leaving them both safe. The Charger stood between them, its cold frame protecting her. Frankie placed his hands on the hood and stared at her. She panicked. Panicked the way she had when her truck had lost its brakes on Bear’s Pass. Except now there was no runaway lane to save her from flying over the edge. Her voice crept up a few octaves as she said, “I can’t do this with you, Frankie. I can’t. Okay? Please.” She shook her head. “Our friendship—”
“Stop worrying about me. I’m a grown man.”
He turned on his heel and strode outside, slamming the door in his wake.
Mandy drew in a long breath, the familiar scent of oil and gas barely making it past the choking smell wafting off her in great waves. Only Frankie would kiss her like that when she smelled like this. And only Frankie would think she could give him something she couldn’t.
She plunked herself down and began dabbing her face and hair with the tomato-stained rag. Don’t think. Don’t feel. This will pass and everything will go on as it always has.
But if that was what she truly wanted, why did she feel as though she was losing out on something really great?
Jean Oram grew up on a farm on the outskirts of a small town, inspiring her Blueberry Springs series which centers around small town romances. She’s worked as a librarian and ski instructor and now writes full time–when she’s not chasing her toddler around the house. Jean also loves to ski, camp, hike, and read. She’s also a sucker for a great romantic comedy whether in book or movie form. She lives in Canada with her husband, two children, and multiple pets.