“Forty-three, fifty-eight,” Sylvie said, smiling at Pat Carter. She didn’t receive a smile back, it wasn’t in the woman’s personality.
While Mrs. Carter filled out her check, Sylvie finished sacking the groceries. “Would you like help carrying these to your car?”
That earned her an offended glare. “I can carry my own groceries.”
“Of course. I only wanted to offer.” Sylvie accepted the hastily written check. She knew better than to glance at the list of customers whose checks were no longer accepted at the grocery store. Pat Carter wouldn’t be on there and even the implication that she was would bring out even worse behavior in the woman. Sylvie handed over the receipt, smiled again, and said “Thank you. I hope you have a great day.”
Mrs. Carter stowed her bags in the cart and pushed it out of the store, banging it on the metal frame as she waited for the front door to respond to her desire to exit.
“She’s not having a great day,” Lydia Merritt said as she placed items from her cart onto the conveyor belt. Not that the belt conveyed groceries terribly far like those at the larger grocery stores. In fact, this one had only just been installed. Before this, all they had was an old well-polished wooden counter.
The two, count them, two registers in the store had been upgraded at the same time. Sylvie felt so high-tech now. Credit cards were easier to run and with the advent of the EBT cards, they’d needed to make life a little less embarrassing for people in town.
Sylvie wasn’t about to gossip about her customers, especially not with someone like Lydia Merritt. She was just starting to get to know the woman and while it might be easy to commiserate about the bad behavior of Pat Carter, that wasn’t the way she wanted to be known. “How about you? How’s your day?”
Lydia looked up at Mrs. Carter re-entered with the cart and pushed it just past the entrance. “Much better than that. Excuse me.” She walked over, looked outside, smiled, and pushed the cart to the corral.
“I could have done that,” Sylvie said. “Thank you.”
A young girl about Andrew’s age was waiting patiently for Sylvie to finish with Lydia’s groceries.
“Honey, is that all you have?” Lydia asked, pointing to the small basket the girl held. “Isn’t your mama about to have another baby?”
The girl smiled. “She said she feels like crap and didn’t want to come inside.”
Sylvie and Lydia looked at each other and laughed. Those were probably exactly the words the girl’s mama used.
“Tell you what,” Lydia said. She took a card out of her wallet and handed it to the girl, then took the basket and set it on the counter. “You tell your mama that Mrs. Merritt hopes she feels better.” She added four different candy bars to the basket and said to Sylvie, “Check her groceries onto my bill. Would you do them next so she can go?”
“I have money,” the girl said.
“You give that back to your mama. I get to be the grocery fairy today.”
Sylvie just shook her head. Mrs. Merritt did this type of thing more than anyone in town realized. She also knew that the little girl’s mother was on her own most of the time. She had three children and a fourth on the way and her husband was an over-the-road truck driver. He was always gone. He didn’t make all that much money and she couldn’t afford to work because childcare was so expensive.
The little girl took the two bags from Sylvie, looked at Lydia in amazement, and headed for the door. She stopped, then came back, threw her arms around Lydia and said, “Thank you.”
“Oh, my dear, sweet girl, you’re welcome. Tell your mama that if she needs anything and your daddy isn’t around, she can call me.”
With that, the girl bounded out the door.
“Thank you for not making a big deal of that,” Lydia said to Sylvie.
“You’re amazing. When I grow up, I want to be like you.”
“One of the main reasons I did it was so that you wouldn’t hurry me out of here. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Oh no,” Sylvie said. “What did my boys do this time?”
Lydia frowned. “Your boys? What do they have to do with anything?”
“If someone wants to talk to me, it’s usually because one of the boys got involved in something they shouldn’t.”
“You have terrific boys. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different,” Lydia said. “No, I wanted to ask if you’d be interested in going with me, Beryl, and Andy to visit the new owner of the old school building.”
It still astounded Sylvie that these women had taken an interest in her. They all had lives that were so much more interesting than hers. Lydia knew everyone in Bellingwood. She took care of everyone in Bellingwood. If there was a death or a birth or a celebration, she made sure that the person knew she cared. It usually showed up in the form of a casserole or cake, but she was always there. Her husband, Aaron, had been a big part of saving Sylvie from having to live with her now ex-husband. When he discovered what was happening, he stepped in. Then she was free.
Beryl Watson was a character. Sylvie didn’t know too much about her except that she was an artist. No one in Bellingwood knew much about Beryl. The woman who had been through just before Lydia was Beryl’s sister-in-law. They’d never been seen together.
Sylvie overheard conversations when she was with the ladies about Beryl traveling to the east coast – maybe Boston or something – to work with gallery owners in setting up showings. It hadn’t made much sense at the time, but the more she listened, the more she wondered if Beryl wasn’t some kind of a big deal in the art world.
And then, there was Andy Saner. The first time she’d been with those three women had been a little uncomfortable. Mrs. Saner was Sylvie’s high school English teacher. While she was a nice enough person at school, she’d had high expectations for her students and never allowed them to get away with much.
It had taken some laughter and teasing from Beryl before Sylvie was comfortable calling her Andy instead of Mrs. Saner. Sylvie also had to get used to the fact that Andy allowed Beryl and Lydia to be the stars of the conversation. She always sat back and seemed to enjoy passing the attention to someone else. That hadn’t been Sylvie’s experience with her in class. When Mrs. Saner wanted you to listen to her, you’d better listen. She was in charge of the classroom and didn’t let her students get away with anything.
She had been one of Sylvie’s favorites, even though it had taken until the last couple of years to realize it. And now, here she was, friends with a former teacher. Sometimes life was strange.
“You just want us to go over and meet this person?”
“Yes. Doesn’t it sound like fun?”
“What do you know about her?” Sylvie concentrated on putting groceries into bags. It did not sound like fun. It sounded like she was going to have to get to know another new person. Lydia was outgoing and comfortable in new situations, but it took Sylvie time to prepare herself for those types of events.
“She’s about your age,” Lydia said. “No kids. In fact, I don’t think she’s ever been married. Rumor is she grew up over by Story City or something, but went to Boston to go to college and stayed.”
“Boston?” Sylvie asked. “That’s a long way from Story City. Why Bellingwood if she has family over there?”
“I don’t think she does have much family in Iowa.”
Sylvie frowned. “No sisters or brothers?”
“Okay.” Sylvie didn’t have any of those either. It would have been nice for her sons to have aunts and uncles nearby. They didn’t seem to be bothered by it. As much as Andrew and Jason picked on each other and sometimes drove her crazy with their bickering, they were friends. “Why did she come back to Iowa?”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“Why would she buy that old school building?”
Lydia smiled. “You know, I hoped that someday, someone would see the beauty of that place.”
“Beauty? It was a wreck. The grounds are still a wreck.”
“We have to give her time to do the work. Aren’t you interested in seeing what she’s done inside?”
“I suppose. I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“You hadn’t thought about it?” Lydia laughed. “I’m such a snoopy girl. Whenever I drive by, I have to force myself not to rush right in and demand a tour. After all these years, someone is giving that place some attention. Is she painting the walls wild colors? Did she paint the old woodwork? Did she tear out walls? What about the old auditorium? Did she turn that into apartments or what?”
“You have a lot of questions,” Sylvie said. She lifted the bags of groceries into Lydia’s empty cart, just to give herself something to do.
“I have more questions than those. I can’t wait to see what is happening in there and I believe that the safest thing for me to do is to drag you all along with me. We’ll make a party of it.” Lydia grinned. “Whenever Beryl is around, it’s a party, right?”
“The boys have been talking about the building,” Sylvie said. “It might kill them if I find out before they do what’s going on.”
“Everyone in town is talking about it. I’m surprised she hasn’t been inundated with nosy Nellies from dawn to dusk.”
“Maybe she isn’t very nice and people are scared of her.”
Lydia shrugged. “Could be, but I think it’s on us to find out for ourselves. Tell me you’ll come. I’ll pick you up.”
It was useless to argue with Lydia Merritt when she had her heart set on something. Sylvie nodded. “I’ll go with you. Don’t expect me to take Beryl’s place as the life of the party, but I’ll go along. If I didn’t, Jason and Andrew would be disappointed.”
“They’ll kill you if you do and be disappointed if you don’t?” Lydia asked with a smile.
Sylvie laughed at herself. “They’re pretty hard to get along with.”
Lydia smiled at Amanda Bowen, who hesitated at putting her groceries on the conveyor belt. “I’m finished and I’m taking up Sylvie’s time. She’s too nice to tell me to get along. How are you?”
“Fine, thank you,” Amanda said.
“Ben’s working on the old schoolhouse with Henry Sturtz, isn’t he?” Lydia asked. “How’s it going?”
Sylvie just shook her head as she scanned the groceries. Lydia Merritt could talk to anyone. If she wasn’t behind this counter, she would avoid ever having conversation with people.
“Ben says it’s a lot of work, but they’re getting there,” Amanda said. “It would be hard to bring back an old building like that. Especially since they’re doing all new electrical and that.”
“Who’s doing the electric work?” Lydia asked.
“Jerry Allen’s crew.”
“Another good man.” Lydia put her hand on the cart and pushed it toward the door. “Good to see you both.”
After she left, Amanda smiled at Sylvie. “What would Bellingwood be without Lydia Merritt? She is the nicest woman.”
Sylvie nodded. “It’s hard to believe they live here and not in Boone. We’re lucky to have her around.”
“She takes care of everyone. I’ll bet she’d get lost in a bigger city. She brought us a pot roast when Ben hurt his back a couple of years ago. I didn’t think anyone even knew and then she showed up. It was nice to know that we weren’t alone.”
“That’s it, isn’t it,” Sylvie said.
“That Lydia makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger?”
“Yes,” Sylvie agreed. She handed the bag of groceries to Amanda after checking her out and thought about it. Lydia made people feel seen. She made Sylvie feel seen. That hadn’t happened very often in Sylvie’s life. What a special gift that was.