The goat was Connie's idea.
"I'm not so sure about this," Madeline Davis says, frowning. At seventy-five she's trying to make her life simpler, not the other way around. Then again, running a tea salon isn't what most people her age are doing these days. Madeline's days are busy, yes, but she goes to sleep each night happily content, her heart full. And for the past year she's had Connie Colls, her tea salon manager, an unexpected godsend with black spiky hair who has also become her friend and housemate.
Now Connie is tearfully looking at her and Madeline feels herself wavering. Connie has never asked for anything before and seeing this young woman about to cry is more than Madeline can bear.
"Well . . ." she says reluctantly. "Maybe for a couple of days until you can find a more suitable home." She watches as the goat sniffs its way around the garden, then starts chewing on a patch of orange nasturtiums.
"Oh!" Connie wipes her eyes and hurries toward the goat. She waves her hands over the flowers in an attempt to shoo the goat away, but the animal ignores her.
Lord, Madeline knows how this is going to go. She watches as Connie tugs unsuccessfully on the goat's makeshift collar, a frayed rope with a tail that has been chewed through. Well, the good news is that the goat belongs to someone. They just have to find out who.
"I'm going inside," she tells Connie, who's trying to drag the goat into the shade of a walnut tree.
"Thank you, Madeline," Connie says, forcing a bright smile. "She won't be any trouble at all, I promise."
"Hmm. Well, I think she's eating my Double Delights."
Connie turns, stricken. "No! No roses! Bad goat!"
Madeline just shakes her head and walks through the back door of the house into the kitchen.
The morning light streams in behind her, a generous sliver of sunshine falling onto the farmer's table that rests in the middle of the kitchen. Fresh loaves of Amish Friendship Bread, scones, and muffins are cooling on wire racks. Two arugula-and-bacon quiches are in the oven. Her kitchen is fragrant and inviting, and Madeline knows that her customers find these smells a reassuring comfort. They come to Madeline's Tea Salon for that very reason--the promise of good food and an encouraging smile. A kind word and possibly a joke or two, depending on her mood.
If they're lucky they may get more, like an impromptu performance by Hannah Wang, the young cellist who used to play with the New York Philharmonic and who now resides in Avalon. There's Bettie Shelton, too, with her mobile scrapbooking business. She comes in under the pretense of ordering a pot of Darjeeling tea while she indiscreetly sets up her wares at an adjoining table. On the days Bettie is here even the least crafty Avalonian or unsuspecting tourist is sure to leave with a packet of patterned paper and random embellishments. Madeline remembers what happened last month when a group of men had lunch at the salon, hunched over a table as they ate, speaking in low whispers. It was clear by their body language that they didn't want to be disturbed. Bettie, however, had marched up to them undaunted. Less than a minute later the men found their table littered with colorful ribbons and glittery sequins. Two men bought scrapbooking starter kits, dazed looks on their faces as they handed their money to Bettie. As quickly as she had arrived, Bettie was gone, leaving everyone to wonder what happened while Madeline cleared her table with a chuckle.
The small brass bell over the front door tinkles. A pair of women walk in, smile at Madeline, and choose a table by the window. Madeline knows it's only a matter of time before the tea salon will be bustling with people and laughter.
She selects several tins of the chamomile and rooibos tea blend from the large antique armoire that graces the dining room. She's not sure what came first--discovering so many wonderful finds at garage sales and antiques stores and then pondering what to put in them, or knowing that she wanted to sell her own tea blends and looking for an artful way to display them. It was a small thing to help pass the time in those early months when business was slow, but now it's taken on a life of its own. Connie wants them to open an online store but that's more than Madeline is willing to take on right now. At the moment this balance feels just right, however hectic it may be.
In the kitchen, Connie is at the sink, scrubbing her hands. "Serena took off into the neighbor's yard but she's back now," she says, a look of apologetic guilt on her face when Madeline walks in. "She, uh, kind of ate a few heads of lettuce from their garden."
Madeline raises an eyebrow. "Kind of?"
Connie fakes a cough. "Well, she ate them, but then she threw them back up." Connie wipes her hands on a dishtowel, avoiding eye contact. "I'll call the vet later to see if there's anything special we should be feeding her. Maybe Serena has a delicate stomach."
Goodness. Madeline isn't sure what's more concerning, that Connie has named the goat or that the goat has found its way into Walter Lassiter's vegetable garden. His wife, Dolores, doesn't mind the steady traffic of the tea salon but Walter is always looking for something to complain about. Madeline has a feeling that a stray goat may push him over the edge.
"I'm sure Serena's stomach is fine," she says, handing Connie the tea. "Do you mind wrapping these? Dora Ponce is putting together a gift basket for the Rotary Club auction and I told her we'd make a donation."
"Sure." Connie drapes an apron over her head. "I'll use that pretty paper I picked up at the farmer's market last week. Ruth Pavord is selling her whole stock--she's going to start making birdhouses instead." Connie is about to say more when there's a holler from the dining room. It's followed by the unmistakable sound of porcelain breaking.
"Help!" they hear one of the women shout. "There's a wild beast in here!" Connie hurries to the dining room. There's a stern reprimand and then another exclamation accompanied by the sound of more good china crashing to the floor.
To outsiders Avalon may look like a nondescript river town, but Madeline knows better. She reaches for the broom and dustpan with a happy sigh, then heads to the dining room.
Isabel grasps the hammer and pounds the for sale sign into her front lawn. The earth is hard and unyielding, dry from too much Illinois heat, another long hot August that shows no sign of relief. Maybe she should have watered the lawn first. Maybe she should have hired that redheaded kid from down the street. Maybe she should have called a real estate agent to list her house properly instead of trying to do it on her own, like so many things these days.
But Isabel doesn't want to wait for people to call her back, to check their schedules, to haggle a fee. To find the garden hose, wherever that is.
Bang bang bang. The sign shakes and shivers.
Last night, when she was the last person wandering the dusky streets after a seven o'clock showing of The Man from M.A.R.S., Isabel had stopped at the hardware store to pick up some laundry detergent. There they were, right by the entrance, on clearance. Fifteen cans of paint stacked in a pyramid, pointing to the sky.
Isabel thought about her house, of the stove and kitchen table, of the fridge and nubby dishtowels. The living room furniture, the bedroom set, the chipped cherrywood table in the hallway. She thought of her tired walls, the ceilings, the doors. There was a time when she dreamed they'd live in that house forever, have children in it, grow old in it. But Isabel's had to let that dream go. So what's she still doing in Avalon?
"I'll take them all," she'd told the cashier, handing him a hundred-dollar bill. "And some of those brushes, too."
She declined a drop cloth, spackle, turpentine. Too many things to remember. Just the paint, she'd said. And then she saw it. A sign, bent at the corners, leaning forlornly against the bags of organic lawn fertilizer.
FOR SALE BY OWNER.
She bought that, too.
Isabel steps back to survey her work. The sign is crooked, but it's clearly visible from the street. She knows her neighbors will be curious, maybe even nervous that she's selling. Avalon is the sort of place where most people come to settle down, where families spend whole lifetimes. Isabel herself married into this small town, Bill having been born and raised here. Buried here, too, almost four years now.
There's a flutter of curtains from the house next door. It's her neighbor Bettie Shelton, the town fussbudget. Isabel knows Bettie had a hand in spreading the news about Bill's departure and then his death two months later, a wrong turn down a one-way street. Casseroles had sprouted on her porch like mushrooms.
"Isabel Kidd!" she hears Bettie holler from inside her house. Bettie's silvery-blue hair is still in curlers. She struggles to open the window, then settles on rapping the glass, the look on her face indignant. "What the heck do you think you're doing?"
Isabel gives the sign a tap with the hammer.
"Isabel? Do you hear me?"
Isabel pretends to pick at a speck of dust on the sign.
Exasperated, Isabel scowls. "Of course I hear you! Who doesn't hear you?" Catty-corner from her house, Isabel sees Peggy Lively emerge from her house, dressed in her fuzzy pink bathrobe. "You hear her, don't you, Peggy?"
Peggy stares at Isabel and the hammer for a moment before glancing down the empty street. Then she grabs the morning paper from her walk and hurries back inside, slamming the door shut behind her. Isabel hears the lock sliding into place.
Isabel shoots Bettie an annoyed look and then gives the sign one last pound for good measure. She heads back into the house, knowing that Bettie's prying eyes are watching her retreat.
In her living room, the paint cans are laid out like a labyrinth, waiting. Isabel hesitates, tentative, suddenly unsure. Putting up the for sale sign was easy, knowing it could be pulled up at any time, no harm done, a whim put to bed. But this is different. Once done, it can't be undone.
She reaches for the can closest to her, uses a screwdriver to crack the lid open. She gazes at the placid pool of paint. Whisper White. She gives it a stir, the smell tickling her nose.
Her first stroke on the wall is uneven, streaking, her second stroke no better. But still the paint glistens, beckoning, a stark contrast to the tired gray hue that's been there for years. Isabel dips the brush again and swirls it until the bristles are heavy with paint, then lifts and tries again. This time there's a thick swath of white, smooth and complete. She follows with another stroke, bolder this time.
It goes faster than she thinks, and soon the entire wall is done. It's a blank stare looking back at her, giving away nothing. Isabel leans closer, looking for a hint of the past, but sees nothing other than her own shadow as the tip of her nose bumps against the damp wall. Ouch. And then Isabel remembers other white walls.
There, that wasn't so bad, was it?
No, doctor, it wasn't.
Of course he had asked her when she was in a morphine-induced haze, easy and agreeable, happy to talk to anyone and everyone. Bill had been by her side, stunned and sad, knowing that this was it, their last chance. They weren't going to try anymore. It didn't matter, he would try to assure her when she lay in bed, night after night, her pillow damp with tears. It was enough, just the two of them. He'd hold her fingertips to his lips and kiss each one gently. A promise.
It would be a few more years before Bill would leave, that promise forgotten. They had said it wouldn't change them, but it had, and whatever it was they lost they couldn't get back. Isabel wasn't happy but she wasn't unhappy, either. It was tolerable. She still loved Bill and she knew he loved her, and yet a whole chasm spanned between them, pushing them further and further apart with each day that passed. If she had to she could live out her life this way, in polite deference to each other, a peaceful coexistence in the same space, the same life. It wasn't ideal but it was enough for Isabel. Not, apparently, for Bill.
What is it with dentists and their dental assistants? It's an embarrassing cliche that Isabel has to live with. My husband left me for his dental assistant, a woman ten years younger than me. At the time Isabel had thought it couldn't get any worse, that nothing could usurp this abandonment, but she was wrong.
She hadn't been prepared for the baby announcement, had cracked the seal of the envelope without thinking. She thought it was a belated sympathy card, a few months late. She pulled out the stiff card and saw a chubby cherub of a baby with Bill's unmistakable bright blue eyes and Dumbo ears.
So now, at the ripe old age of thirty-eight, Isabel Kidd is alone. No husband, no children. An unsatisfying job as a customer service representative for a corrugated paper company in Rockford, about forty-five minutes away. Some money from Bill's pension. His share of the dental practice went to his partner, Randall Strombauer, a man Isabel never cared for. He's the one who hired the assistant with an eye, Isabel suspects, of having her all to himself. Randall was the single guy while Bill was safely ensconced in a marriage of twelve years. An open playing field with Randall as the only player. But, of course, things have a way of not working out as planned.
The remaining walls in the living room look shabby and lifeless, dull neighbors to the freshly painted wall. That's how it goes sometimes. She could keep it as an accent wall, but she feels for the others. They deserve a fresh start as well. After all, they were all innocent bystanders.
This time she'll do it differently--no need to slap one stroke on after the other. After all, this is her house, her walls. She can do whatever she wants with it.
Isabel dips her brush and begins again.
Yvonne Tate checks the address one last time before shoving the scrap of paper into her pocket. The house in front of her is a modest bungalow with a white picket fence, sycamore trees lining the street. She opens the gate and goes up the walk, noticing the postage-stamp lawn and garden. Flower boxes filled with geraniums and impatiens in a summer burst of colors line the windows, butterflies dancing in the garden. It's a sweet home.
Excerpted from The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society by Darien Gee. Copyright © 2013 by Darien Gee. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.