Moonbeams and Madness
“We might not like each other when it’s all said and done,” she said. “However, I think you will be surprised. And I will be proven that a believer in signs, fate, and possibilities always wins,” Janey explained, a slip of dark hair had fallen over her bright eyes. Her sunglasses were pushed back on her head.
He studied her. Why did she have to come along and disrupt his life? It had been all good, not perfect. But okay. Okay was comfortable. No spontaneous craziness to worry about. No emotions to sort out. No one nearly running you over in her car (which is how they met). No person to think about making time for or wanting to make time for. This was going to be a decision he had to weigh so very carefully.
“Excuse me a moment,” Janey said, slipping out of the booth and headed toward the lunch counter at the ancient drugstore to which John Larsen had come to for most of his life. Even when at college – Georgetown – he would come home to this old place for a burger and Coca Cola just to feel like being “home.” Why would he even consider this? Was he nuts? Disrupt his life for a venture into what? And for how long? Hmmmm. He didn’t know about her art or allowing her space to exhibit in his all-but-dying bookstore. It was crazy. “Crazy” - like the song blasting from her car when she almost ended his life, or at least nearly maimed him. Aerosmith, too. Who at 30 listens to Aerosmith? And who at 30, for that matter, blasts music from her car? Janey McGee did. Does. Will probably do so when she’s 60.
So here he was toying with the idea that he would let this crazy woman, this “artist” place her art in his bookstore to sell. What could it hurt? Just more inventory to draw people in. The Corner Bookstore as it were, not really on a corner but at the end of a street so kind of a corner. It was once the dress shop owned by his grandmother. Dottie’s was the place back in the heyday when the railroad made travel a “thing” in Weston, Virginia, as trains pulled coal from the southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia coalfields. Any lady of refinement or desiring to appear refined could go to Dottie’s and be dressed in the most stylish for the time without coming across as outlandish. Time moved on and dress shops waned (like his bookstore thanks to this new company Amazon and the dot.com era).
It was 2005 and John Larson was trying to build his love of books with the store and keep his sales route afloat. He sold pharmaceuticals. Traveling to doctor’s offices and hospitals in three states, he supplied them with all the latest meds from Perry-Stryder. He hated the selling. He loved the bookstore. The selling made it possible to keep the bookstore, which he had started a year after his grandmother passed. She left him the vacant building. He was the only child of an only child and his father passed before his grandmother. Massive heart attack took George Larson. They called it a widow maker. His mother had left years before. She said she needed her space and she moved to the beaches of the Carolinas. He didn’t really keep in touch with her. A card here and there. No love lost.
Now here he was in Weston. Living in a small apartment over the bookstore because it made the most sense to sell the homeplace and keep his expenses to a minimum. He had no plans for marriage because every girl he came across that might have been a promise of romance seemed to find him “boring.” He liked to read too much. He wasn’t ambitious. He was too formal. He needed to find life outside books and work. He was fine. He was comfortable. He certainly did not want to work himself into an early grave as his father had done working for the railroad. The stress of being an engineer and being gone so much, particularly when one’s wife left for “greener” (sunnier) pastures, was more than his father should have had to face. He had been a good man. A solid man. He was a good father. Thankfully, his grandmother Dottie stepped in to help with raising John from the moment of abandonment from his mother at the age of 14.
“Sooooo, Johny, what do you think?” she asked, her bright eyes just twinkling. Janey McGee was back, sitting right across from him, salting away at her fries.
“Oh, hmmmm. I just don’t think your proposal is right for my bookstore,” he said.
“Why not? You have so much underutilized space,” Janey questioned, a curious look to her eyes. “It might help a little, pull in some customer traffic. Let’s just start with a few pieces in the front window to the right. Just three or four,” she suggested. “I will do all the work, organize that area, not mess with any of your inventory.” He sighed. He had somewhere to be. How did he get into this spot? Because when she almost ran him over and jumped out of her car, he was crouched, having caught himself from falling backwards in anticipation of the hit from her car. She introduced herself and kept apologizing and he told her his name. He was leaving the bookstore to get to his own car in the town parking lot. He had a sales meeting in Roanoke later that day. That event completely disrupted everything.
“I just don’t think so. My shop is about books. We don’t sell art or gadgets or things that distract from the books,” John explained. She was watching him, her sunglasses now in her hands, and she was tapping them lightly on the table.
“I owe you this much, for nearly running you over. I really think my work will bring some foot traffic. That means people will look at your books, see what a fabulous place you have there,” she added, smiling ever so flirtatiously. “You can have a commission,” she added. That word “commission” brought him around. Maybe that would be good for the shop. Maybe a little extra income…
“Let’s see, commission. Hmmmm. I think that might be a possibility. Does 50 percent sound fair?” he asked, thinking that would either get rid of her or her art would not be worthy and it would hang in his shop and not bring a thing, therefore, she would be proven not to be an artist with saleable goods.
“Okay. You’ve got it. I just think I should reserve the right to decrease that after the first 10 pieces sell. I think sixty-forty sounds better after that point,” she added and put her hand out to shake on the deal. He was surprised and perplexed by her agreement. He gave her his hand. She shook it with great enthusiasm.
“Really. All right. I guess we are in agreement,” he said, still kind of dazed, wondering how his business acumen was bettered by this crazy young lady who had nearly ran over him a week ago.
“I will be in the shop with four pieces tomorrow at noon. I think this will be a wonderful partnership,” she said, and hopped out of the booth, and went bouncing off to the doorway to the luncheon counter.
Moonbeams and Madness
New Year's Eve - an excerpt (some months after Chapter 1)
It was a big night of celebration. Jim and Greg did New Year’s Eve at the B&B with all the flourish and class that one could imagine. Any guests staying there were in for a treat. Then there were all their friends who were invited. Janey McGee was especially privileged because after she spent Christmas morning with them, she had their New Year’s Eve party to get her through this difficult time. Christmas was, for her, the least favorite holiday of the year. She had given up so much. She just wanted to get through it and wait for spring. Wait for the first March winds and the crocus flowers that Jim had in the side yard to peep out of the warming soil. Although she had sold many paintings this year since her display began at John Larsen’s bookstore, she still felt lost, that she didn’t know where she was going or what good things were ahead.
She tried her best to be the most thrilling sidekick to Jim and Greg. With a little liquid courage (wine) she was able to feel at ease in the crowd but this year had been particularly trying. This year had weighed heavily on her for some reason. She had turned 30. It had been 15 years since she made the decision that she did, changing her path, changing her possible choices in life. Why now? She questioned. Why not two years ago, ten years ago? Jim came over and handed her another glass of pinot grigio.
“My darling, you must stay in the celebration mode. It’s just 9:30,” Jim said and kissed her cheek. Funny how Jim and Greg were her family, how the little bit of family she had that was blood related never felt like family at all back when she was little.
“Yes, my dear, I am. Let’s go and sing show tunes. You play. That will get me in the spirit,” Janey suggested.
“Marvelous idea, my darling. Let’s do,” he exclaimed and began to announce to the guests in the kitchen it was time for a singalong. “Greg, come my lovely man, come sing with us,” he called. Janey smiled at that. She smiled so much with all the love and friendship she found in this gathering at the B&B. There was so much encouragement from this group. It was as if they were all misfits who found love, trust, motivation, and kindness from each other. Probably because they lacked it in their own families. Normal life changed for her 15 years ago and her life took on a different focus. Actually it took years for all those changes but the transition began 15 years ago.
“Ol’ Man River, first up,” Jim called. She was headed that way when low and behold John Larsen came in the front door. So many were gathered round the baby grand piano it was a wonder that John saw her making her way into the crowd. The singing began and John, stodgy as he was as usual, kind of had a smile trying to break through his serious look.
“John, come this way,” Janey called. He maneuvered through the gregarious crowd to Janey and they slipped into the kitchen. She poured him some punch, non-alcoholic, as she knew his type and he had made it clear once before. He had stopped by back in the summer when she was having mimosas with Greg on the back patio. Greg offered him a mimosa and John said he "didn't partake." “You should really at least have wine,” she said. “It makes the show tunes more fun to sing, especially if you don’t know the words. Which I am sure you don’t,” she said with a giggle. He took the punch, sort of raised his glass in a gesture of a toast, and took a sip.
“I know a few songs. I remember my grandmother loved Some Enchanted Evening,” he explained, almost half smiling. Then they heard the tune in the living room switch over to Cabaret.
“This is one of my favs,” Janey said and slipped back into the living room to join in. John watched the lively crowd, so many with arms around others, Janey by the piano with Greg singing loud and jovially as Jim played. It was festive. It was definitely lively. He never really experienced this kind of New Year’s Eve. Mostly he was home watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Then he went to bed about 12:15. He had stayed up with his late wife to dance to a soft tune she would pick from his collection of vinyl. Time After Time by Ella Fitzgerald was a great one. Then one year she picked Sara Vaughan and I’ve Got the World on a String. They had three New Year’s Eves together before she was diagnosed. Then the dancing did not matter. It mattered that he was by her side through all the chemo and radiation. Two more New Year’s Eve nights were spent with him reading to her as she lay with her head in his lap, Dick Clark’s celebration on mute, waiting for the countdown. She loved for him to read to her and it would bring her peace. She would fall asleep like that. He would not move her. He would sleep sitting up till she moved or awakened and asked for help to the bed.
Next up was Aquarius from the musical Hair. Janey came back to John. He actually smiled this time because the memories had flooded him and he felt sentimental, almost happy for that bit of time he shared with Carol, his late wife.
“Wow, they are so crazy. But such good tunes. Such fun,” Janey remarked, pouring herself more wine. Then Charlie, Jim and Greg’s Golden Retriever came in and pawed her. She bent down and kissed his head. “Good boy. Charlie, you are the best,” she said. John looked at the dog and Janey. He didn’t understand the pet-people thing. He had a cat once growing up. It stayed outside. Its name was Cat. His grandmother fed it and talked to it, but he didn’t know how to act around it. “This is Charlie. Charlie meet John. Now, John, take your hand and rub his head on top. Let him know that you are a fan of dogs,” Janey directed.
“Hello, Charlie,” John remarked with all the feeling of a potato. He reached over to pet Charlie on his head and Charlie began to lick his hand with great gusto and much dog slobber. Janey laughed at the expression that crept over John’s face.
“You don’t do pets!” she exclaimed, then bent down to give Charlie smooches and hugs. Satisfied, Charlie took off to the den where he would nestle in his dog bed by the fireplace. “He’s the best dog, though I think he feels everyone is his family.” John stood there with his hand in the air as if it had been contaminated. “Go wash at the sink. There are some paper towels.” John did as directed.
They would go back into the front living room to listen and watch the festivities till it got close to 11 pm. That was when gold party hats and multi-colored metallic blow horns were set out by Greg. A batch of fresh hors d’oeuvres appeared on the buffet table. John was feeling this might be his cue to leave.
“I think I might go. I am not much of a New Year’s Eve person,” John said to Jim as he came through offering him a hat.
“Nonsense. You can’t be unhappy with our crew of friends,” Jim explained. “Take a hat and get your party on,” he said. John reluctantly took a hat. Janey came back by and stood next to him.
“I think I should call it a night,” John explained to Janey. “Tell Jim and Greg I appreciated the invite,” he offered in a sort of apology.
“You should stay. No one should be alone at midnight. I am a firm believer that being alone at midnight dictates something awful for the new year. Even if it means you kiss Charlie on the head,” Janey explained with a giggle.
“I am used to being alone on New Year’s Eve. And I don’t ever see negative consequences from that,” he assured her.
“Then I will go with you,” Janey offered, slightly inebriated but not completely. “I will not let you be alone,” she said with determination. John sighed.
“I am seriously ok. I am used to it,” he said.
“That’s the problem. You are used to it. You don’t know what it has meant to me to have Jim and Greg and this gathering of people that I love so much,” she said. “Let me grab my coat. I will go wherever you are going,” she said. John waited. He could have slipped out and left but for some reason he waited. She came back with a pink fake fur coat on over her little black dress that every woman must have – he learned that from his grandmother.
“Okay. I guess we are going to watch the New Year in together but then you are coming right back here. We’ll take a drive, get you some air, and look for the constellations,” he said. He opened the kitchen door and allowed her to go ahead of him. “I am in my truck,” he said.
“Your truck?” she giggled.
“Yes, I bought it a long time ago when I first opened the shop. It’s the blue one down there with the camper top,” he said, pointing down the street. “It was a good deal and it has served many purposes,” he explained.
“Always a purpose,” Janey quipped, then she smiled at him. He didn’t know how to take that.
“Let me get the door,” he said, jogging a bit ahead. It was an unusually warm night in December for central Virginia. No snow for the holidays this year as the temps had stayed in the 50s. It was also cool enough at night for the sky to be crystal clear and great for star gazing. John was a bit of nerd in that he was a stargazer. One of his many useless traits from childhood when he buried his head in books – constellations, fault lines, the English monarchy, requirements for college admissions to any college in Virginia, etc. Had the internet been a thing in his childhood, he would never have left the house. Or maybe he would have to go to the library to use the free internet.
They drove in relative silence with the radio playing Big Band from the Weston oldie’s station which would inevitably time Auld Lang Syne for the perfect moment after midnight then switch back to music from the 50s and 60s.
“Where are we going?” Janey asked, her head leaning against the door of the passenger side. “I feel sleepy,” she explained.
“I don’t doubt it,” John said, this time smiling a little. “I am driving out to my uncle’s farm. He used to grow tobacco there. It was the best view of the sky,” he explained.
“Tobacco farm?” Janey questioned.
“Yes. People used to make a living off that. Not so much these days. I can show you the constellations,” he explained. They drove in silence till he reached the farm. Janey’s mind drifted back to that day 15 years ago. The day she gave up her baby boy. That made her dread Christmas every year. He would be 15 this year. She was 15 when she gave him up. The father had been a production assistant on a film that was being filmed in Welch, West Virginia. Filming in that town was the biggest thing in years. It was just three weeks of work that kept the crew there. She had been flattered by him. He was smitten with her. He was 22 and fresh out of college. She had told him she was 18. Who would know any difference? Her mother would never check on her or question where she was at all hours of the night. And so it happened. Six weeks after the crew wrapped on that location, she learned her fate. That was when she decided that McDowell County and her mother and whatever else was left, was not going to help her. She took a bus to Charleston, West Virginia, and sought the assistance of a young mothers home. She asked for help and the opportunity to give up her unborn child for adoption. She would go to school, study to take her GED at 16, and have care through the situation.
“This is it,” John said, putting the pickup in park, leaving the radio on, and getting out. He opened the tailgate and raised the camper top hatch. He spread out an old blanket on the tailgate. Janey watched all this from the window of the truck cab. John came to the passenger door, opened it, and offered her to come out. “You will marvel at the sky tonight,” he said, and helped her to the back of the truck. She hoisted herself up on the tailgate and nearly rolled backwards. She laughed. “Whoa,” John said, helping her to sit up. He popped himself on to the tail gate with ease, a talent he prided himself in. It was awkwardly quiet.
“What are we looking at,” Janey asked, the chill kind of waking her up. She studied John’s profile. He was a handsome man, chiseled nose and chin, strong features. When he actually did smile, which was rare, he had a perfect set of teeth. Why was she analyzing him? John? This stodgy business partner of hers. Business partner in a sense that he let her exhibit and sell her art in his bookstore. She was developing a following. Even a lady from Richmond bought a piece last week.
“We are looking for the asterisms that show in the winter sky. Up there, that bright star is Sirius,” he said, pointing up. Janey watched him and looked. She actually did see the star. It was bright.
“Wow,” she said.
“The winter hexagon is formed by a total of seven stars,” he explained. "Sirius, Procyon, Castor, Pollux, Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel,” he explained, smiling. “I used to think, as a little boy, that my mother was up there watching down on me,” he added. Janey studied him and looked at the sky. “It’s a comfort to know that other people are looking at these same stars. It’s humbling to know we are all under the same roof, so to speak,” John explained. “Even those that aren’t with us. They are part of the stars,” John said. He didn’t mention his late wife, but she was in his thoughts.
“We are all under the same stars,” she remarked, studying the sky. Suddenly a wave of calm came over her. Then she shivered a tad. John looked over at her.
“Here, take my coat over that fur thing you have on,” he said, removing his coat and putting it on her shoulders. “I have layers on.”
“Thank you,” she said and seemed to lean into him, placing her head on his left shoulder. Then the countdown came on the radio…”ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… Happy New Year!!! Should auld acquaintance be forgot…”
“Happy New Year,” John whispered to Janey as he continued to study the winter sky.
“Happy New Year,” Janey whispered back still looking at the stars. She put her arm through his and sighed.