Monday, March 27, 2017

I'm like you.

So ever since moving abroad, and consequently into a city that is wealthier and more pretentious than anywhere I'd ever lived before, or will ever live again, I've had an overwhelming sense of embarrassment.

Not because I've done anything particularly embarrassing, per say, though...give it time. I'll eventually trip, or burp, or get caught picking my nose, or use the wrong fork, or whatever. And it will inevitably offend someone, because I always offend someone. But...for the sake of this blog post, I am not talking about embarrassing myself.

I'm talking about the embarrassment and shame I feel when I am served.

You see, in South Korea, everyone pays great attention to honor. They don't accept tips, because it insinuates that they are unable to support themselves or their families. They stay at work later than their bosses, even if it means sitting at their desks playing games on their phones, because it looks good for them to stay at work later than their boss--even if their productivity is nil. Getting not just good, but excellent grades and being accepted into top universities is of the utmost in importance, because it makes the family as a whole, especially the parents, look successful, driven, and ambitious. Never mind if the kid wants to become a mechanic, or if they arrived at work at 7am and worked their freaking AZZ off until's all about honor and respect. And everyone wants to be  higher up on the respect ladder.

And that's where my discomfort with all things honor related comes in.

I was raised by a truck driver. He hauled freight all over the inland northwest for the bulk of my childhood, and provided for my family to the best of his abilities. When I was in middle school, my dad put himself back in college, and eventually became a math teacher, which was an equally humble but critical job to fill. My mother was a librarian and a grocery store checker. As an adult, I've worked as a child care provider, a florist, a store clerk, a butcher shop janitor, a house cleaner, a receptionist, a waitress, and an author. Only one of my jobs provoked curiosity and/or admiration in most folks--and that usually wanes when they find out I write romance. (I really hate literary snobs.) I'm not from what most Koreans would consider "good stock." I grew up lower middle class. We ate government cheese, and got free lunches at public school. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs. And when I found myself a single mother of two children, my son's Kindergarten wardrobe came from a clothing bank located above my WIC office. I have never been above breaking a sweat and doing humiliating work

I am not fancy. I am not privileged. I am not part of the elite.

I live in a fancy city filled with wealthy people only because a very well known and wealthy company wanted the specific skill set my husband could provide. When I am invited to cocktail parties and theater outings with friends here, I have lots of fun... but feel like a complete poser. When I carry my Coach purse (that a sweet friend gifted me after deciding the color was just too bold for her--go figure, I loved it!) I always turn it label in, because it feels so weird to have something so fancy, so classy. Fancy? Classy? So not me.

But for the record, I really love my purse.

My point is: "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things is not quite the same."
(please tell me you sang this to the tune from Sesame Street.)

So when I go into a restaurant and a waiter is busting their hump to provide me with excellent service, or when I am at the store, and the clerk is hurriedly cashing out my order, I go out of my way to look them in the eye, and tell them thank you very much. Not because I am polite--though, I like to think I am--but because I want them to know: I am just like you. I am not like everyone else here. I used to sweep floors, too.

Just a few years ago, I was changing diapers for other people's kids, while my own sweet babies were in daycare, so that I would have enough money to get through the month. I was the one hosing the blood and bone chips down the butcher shop drain at the end of a long, crappy day. I was the one putting floral arrangements together for the privileged, while my feet literally throbbed in agony because I'd not sat down in eight hours. I was the one serving filet mignon, while plucking sticky quarters out from under the car seat to afford a value meal from McDeath.

When I see the janitorial staff at my children's school--which is infinitely fancier and more prestigious than my husband and I ever dreamed to be able to send our kids to--my heart pulls. They're busting their humps, cleaning up after children--which is never a gratifying experience, especially when you're from a country that often teaches many (but not all) children not to even acknowledge the janitorial staff. It drives me to look each of them in the eye, to smile, and to bow--lower than usual, a big sign of respect in South Korea--because I am desperate for each of them to know:

I'm like you. I am you. You are me. In America, my husband and I bust our humps, too. We break a sweat, and go home with sore feet. We stay up late to finish the job, and have to rob from Peter to pay Paul. I get you.

It has been the same while on this trip to Guam with my friend. She paid for our trip with airline miles and hotel points. (Expat life affords a few unexpected bonuses: lots of airline miles.) We've only had to pay for food and souvenirs while here, which was proving to be a fairly inexpensive process until I found a Ross Dress For Less. Then crap got real. But that's a blog for another time...

Every person who has brought me a water, or fetched me a towel, or guided me as I snorkeled, or cleaned my hotel room...I have found myself wanting to touch their arm, look them in the eyes, and tell them, "I'm not accustomed to this whole having someone else clean up my mess thing. So thank you. Like seriously. Thank you." I feel compelled to prove to everyone here that my presence at a fancy hotel is as much of an anomaly as spotting a unicorn. I come from working class peeps.

I'm like you.

But for now--for today--I will count my blessings. And they are numerous.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

I can do bold things.

I'm sort of shy.

Usually people who know me laugh when I say that, because my natural demeanor is silly, playful, and sarcastic. But when I am in an unfamiliar, strange, or stressful environment, I tend to withdraw and internalize. Especially when I am facing anger, judgment, or possible ridicule.

I am somewhere in between these two heads.

That's not to say I don't lash out. I do. I'm human, after all, as well as a Taurus and a strong, proud woman--those traits alone make me prone to anger outbursts as much as the average person. But over all, on average, I tend to withdraw. I don't like to be stared at. I don't like to be made fun of or mocked. And I'll walk 14 miles out of my way to avoid tromping past a group of folks who will inevitably do any of those things.

The other day a friend asked me, "If you're so shy, then why do you do dress the way you do?" and it gave me pause. She wasn't trying to be mean. She's not like that. She was just curious. If I consider myself shy and prone to withdrawal when faced with judgement or ridicule, then why don't I work harder at blending in?

I had to chew on that one for a while. Let it marinate. Because she was right. I do dress like a person who doesn't shy away from curious eyes. I wear bold colors and lots of makeup. I change my hair color and style often. If there is a rack of clothes in a boutique, I am drawn like a tractor beam to the boldest, wildest, sometimes tackiest item in the bunch. I don't know why. I just am. I've always been that way.

I fully intend to be this lady when I'm old.

I remember shopping with my mother as a little girl. She has a very classic sense of style. Earth tones, mix and match pieces, lots of respectable dark reds, navy blues, and browns. Simple jewelry with ethnic themes. Fun shoes that also provide comfort and predictability. My mom toes this classy line between geriatric sculptor and senators wife. (She is neither.) And it works for her.

When I was little, she loved dressing me in classic little girl clothes. Ruffle butt tights. Pretty smocked dresses with lace hems. Sailor themed anything. Little saddle shoes. Bonnets. Sundresses to the floor. Anything that looked remotely militant. I don't know why. (Don't judge her--it was the seventies and eighties, fashion was a hot mess.) But the older I got, the more I rebelled against her "classic with an artsy twist" style.

I wanted bold, bright, obnoxious. If it sparkled, I wanted two. If it was neon, I bought it in every color. I remember when she let me take money and go school shopping with a friend before 6th or 7th grade, and I came home having spent most of my budget on an oversized white tee shirt covered in smiley faces in varying neon shades, neon green leggings (seriously, they made my retinas ache) a black belt to cinch around my waist (because it was all about cinching back then) and a long, long strand of eye-melting pink beads to triple wrap around my neck. I'd forgotten about underpants and socks. I'd forgotten shoes. But I'd bought the perfect outfit for just so happened to be alarmingly ugly.

This was me...except I wore them all together. At the same time. With a belt and beads added.

Fast forward a few years, okay...about thirty...and I am not much better. As I write this, I am sitting by a pool in Guam while wearing a purple wig and a straw hat large enough to paddle back home in if I need to. On my body I am wearing a bright teal vintage style swimsuit covered in orange and green Hawaiian flowers. There is a skirt. And when I walk, it swishes very fetchingly, if I do say so myself. I've gotten lots of stares today, and during most of those stares, I've felt sort of embarrassed. I suppose it's because most of the other tourists at the hotel I am at are Korean, and Koreans are, as a whole, very conservative. (Take it from me. I live there.) But nevertheless, it makes me sort of twitchy to be stared at all the time...and yet...

I can't seem to stop putting myself in this situation. Every day I get up and get myself dressed, and I have the opportunity to dress more sedately. To cover myself in browns and greys (though, don't get me wrong, I loves me some greys and blacks now and then) but I always seem to take it a step over the line. It is the same with my hair. I could wear a respectable blonde bob all year long, and look like the respectable Stepford wife my sweet husband deserves, but where's the fun in that? And so, seeking fun (because losing ones hair is sort of a punch in the gut) I change my hair length, color, and style every month or two. Like that old movie, Spinal Tap, used to say, "This one goes to eleven." Well, my style, which would be much more socially acceptable at a 9 or 10...goes to 11.

I can't seem to help myself. I love color. I love bold prints. I love hair. I love bold styles. I love things that just look unique. Or look fun. I don't like classic. I like unique. If something looks joyful and fun...I'm all over it. I like fun. I love having joy. Being joyful and happy is infinitely more enjoyable than being melancholy and downtrodden. Duh. And so....I seek out things that look happy.

I've tried--countless times--to tone down my style. For my kid's sake, for my husband's sake. For the sake of the conservative city in South Korea that I live in. And sometimes for my own sake. It doesn't always "feel" good to stand out. Especially when it can turn into unfair judgement or jokes. But whenever I do that, I feel bad. Not just sad or bummed. But actually deep down in my soul. It feels like part of me is missing, and I wind up feeling like a poser. Like I'm a fakey-McFakerton. Like I am less "Brooke" and more "everyone else," and being like everyone else just doesn't feel right. And so I grab a bright yellow sweater. Or a pair of yard gnome knee socks. Or a hat. Or try a new wig that is leaps and bounds different from the one I wore the day before.

And then my soul feels happy again. Just like that. Like a magical, colorful, brightly colored (potentially neon) Band Aid.

Except, you know...for my soul.

You know, the more I think about my fondness of all styles bold and obnoxious, the more I think about how capable I am, and have always seemed to be, at doing bold things. It's so much more than just wild shirt patterns, or brightly colored wigs. I have stood up to prejudice. I have stood up for women's rights. I have fought and advocated for victims of sexual and domestic violence. I have stood up to my alcoholic parent and shut him out of mine and my children's lives because his chaos was disrupting our peace. I have left a toxic relationship and sold blood to feed my kids while we rebuilt our lives. I have put my hands up and stated "enough is enough, I will not tolerate that" during situations that I could've been complacent, but miserable in. I have had my work rejected hundreds of times, and still wrote more books--eventually getting that first publishing contract, which led to my successful writing career today. I have been told I am not good enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, and not talented enough, and still pressed forward. I have fought and won legal battles. I have lost a child and managed to dig myself out of the grave of grief I'd been buried in. I have faced a fear of flying and a crippling fear of the unknown and traveled the world. I have mucked my way through a cancer scare, and the inevitable diet changes that came shortly thereafter. I have advocated and fought for a special needs child, and then sufficiently stepped back as he became increasingly functional and self reliant. I have cared for an aging parent and remained neutral when I wanted so badly to push my own opinions and beliefs. I have remained Christlike in the face of hate, anger, aggression, and just plain meanness. I have felt the fingers of anxiety grip my throat and squeeze, and still managed to stand up, speak, face folks I would rather ignore, and smile--despite every cell in my body screaming, run away! run away!! I have moved to a country where I didn't speak the language and pantomimed my way through every situation imaginable. I have been rejected by people I admired and respected, and still held my head high and didn't stop being me, no matter how much I was told it was wrong to do so. I have stayed alert, present, and functional, even when everything around me, and life in general, seemed to be crumbling around me.

I can do bold things.

I am not famous. I am not rich. I am not particularly pretty, talented, or skilled. I am not super human or gifted. I am just an average, middle aged wife and mother, and I can do bold things. It took thinking about my bold hair choices and my wild personal sense of style to realize that I've been bold in ways I hadn't even considered. I am so much more than the lady walking around with purple hair, and the Hawaiian print swimsuit with a flouncy skirt. I am strong. So much stronger than I appear. And so, so much stronger than I thought. I do big, bold things. I am bold.

"I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."

Now I am off to see if I can do snorkeling. In a purple wig. Wish me luck.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Have you read book 3 in the This & That Series yet?

Try an excerpt on for size....

“Will you please tone down on the language?” My mom squeaked. “This isn’t a prison yard, you know.”
“I’ve got to go.” I pulled into the coffee shop parking lot and turned off my engine. The cop car stopped behind my back bumper, though the lights stayed flashing.
Why did cops do that? As if it weren’t humiliating enough to be pulled over right in front of the very place I was heading. Now we had to advertise it for the whole world to see.
“What? We’re in the middle of a conversation.”
“I’m sorry. I have to go.”
I heard her suck in a sharp breath. “Don’t hang up on me. I—”
I pressed end and dropped the phone in the seat next to me. “Sorry, Mom,” I whispered as the officer appeared in the window next to my face. When his knuckle tapped on the glass quietly, I pressed the button and looked up as my window rattled its way down. “Um, good morning officer, what—”
The breath in my lungs eked out slowly. It was Mason.
“Good morning yourself,” he said with a smile. Though he was wearing sunglasses, I could see crinkles at the corners of his eyes peeking out from either side of the lenses. “In a hurry today, Candace?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” A few people stared at me through the coffee shop window, and I glanced away. I wouldn’t be joining the writing class today. As soon as I got my ticket, I was heading back home to hide—and wallow—for a while. “I was trying to get to a class here.”
Mason glanced up. “They have classes here?”
“A writing group.” I shifted in my seat, trying to make myself disappear. “They meet once a week. I was late for my first meeting.”
“You’re a writer?” He put a hand against my door and leaned down casually. The smell of cinnamon and aftershave wafted in, and my heart skittered in response. I couldn’t be sure if it was because I was on the verge of getting my first speeding ticket in six years, or because Mason looked so freaking good in his uniform.
“Uh huh,” I said quickly. “Don’t you work nights?”
Wincing, I looked down at my hands. I’d just given it away that I watched his car coming and going from his house. Awesome.
He chuckled. “Usually I do, but we’re short-staffed and I like to pick up some extra cash. Sometimes I like to fight crime in the daylight.”
I glanced up at him. “Fight crime?”
“Okay. Pull people over. So, what do you write?”
I blinked at him, the morning sunlight shining in my eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to ask me for my license and registration?”
“No small talk. Got it.” He stood back upright. “I’m gonna need to see your license and registration, please.”
I should have just chatted it up about writing. Maybe flashed some cleavage. Marisol had shocked us with stories of the obscene things she used to do to get out of tickets. She was the only person I knew who’d gotten out of trouble after going fifty in a fifteen zone just because she discussed felatio with the policeman. There was no way in hell I was stooping to that. And besides, I thought, I was wearing a full coverage tee shirt.
I was going to get a ticket for sure. Groaning, I reached for my wallet and dug out my information. “Here,” I muttered, shoving it at him. This was humiliating. This kid was young enough for me to have baby-sat him when I was in high school, and he was writing me a ticket. “Friggin’ whippersnapper.”
He stopped walking and looked at me over his shoulder. “Did you just call me a whippersnapper?”
I forced a fake grin. “Of course not. That would be disrespectful.”
Watching him as he sauntered to his car—and trying not to notice how lovely his tush looked in his uniform pants—I released a long sigh. This just figured. Now he was not only privy to my birthdate, but my weight as well. What else would he know by the end of this little debacle? My bra size?
A PG13-rated scene in the back of his cop car cropped up in my head.
Ok, R rated.
Wait. Scratch that.
Clearly, I was a bit lonely.

Monday, March 20, 2017

International Day of Happiness

Today is Tuesday, March 21st, but in America--where I am from (I'll live in South Korea as an expat for 15 more months) it is Monday, March 20th, and that means....

It's International Day of Happiness!

Hooray! (*throws confetti*)

I love laughter. I love smiling. I love seeing the positive--even when there's not much positivity around me. I consider it a challenge, one I accept willingly. My life is better when I'm happy. How about yours?

Over the last few years, I've discovered something super cool: I am in charge of my own happiness. Huh! Who knew?? For decades, I've been declaring that when I had more money, I would be happy. When I moved to a bigger house, I would be happy. When ____ said ____ to me, I would be happy. When ___ did ____, I would be happy. When ____ was given to me, I would be happy. When I had __ around of children, I would be happy. When I sold __ amount of books, I would be happy.......and so on, and so forth, etc etc etc....the list goes on and on.

But I had it all wrong. Like, totally wrong. It isn't up to other people to make me happy. It isn't anyone else's responsibility to create joy for me. It's my responsibility to create joy for myself.  Oh, and not only that, but it's not my responsibility to create joy for others. I'm not burdened with the job of making sure everyone around me is happy. That's not my job, just as it isn't so-and-so's job to make me happy. You see?? It's all so basic, but sort of complex, too.

And you know...once I realized all of that, everything else just sort of fell into place.

Now I find joy wherever I need to.

For are the things that bring ME joy:

1.) Good books. (Literally nothing better in the world than a well written book that takes me away from real life for a while--too many folks get stuck on reading trendy, hipster, thought provoking literary fiction, so they can stroke their beards and feel enlightened. Not me. I prefer good, old fashioned romance. I don't care if it makes me smarter, does it make me laugh? Does it make me sigh and hug the book after I'm done reading it? Yes?? Then I'll read it twice.)

2.) When my kids succeed. (My kids are growing up. They don't need me as much, which is every bit as scary as it is liberating. But this week my son made his college choice, and sent his mission papers off. He leaves for Africa for a service trip in less than a week, and will go kayaking and hiking in Australia in May. The kid is just successful, and it gives me joy. He turned out okay, despite a rough start, (they all did!) and it makes me happy.)

3.) My tribe. (When we moved from Washington State to South Korea, I felt like I'd lost all of my friends. <though, thanks to social media, I've managed to keep some of them--woo hoo!> Finding a new tribe here has been difficult, to say the least. The expat community here is tight, but diverse. Finding people to mesh with is about more than going to the same church, or having kids who are friends. It's about accepting and tolerating differing lifestyles, religious beliefs, or political stances. It's about listening beyond accents, and trying to hear the words people are saying. It's about finding folks to lean on, and depend on, despite having only known them for 2 years, instead of 10. When I had my cancer scare in Dec/Jan, I discovered that I had a pretty amazing tribe. Not only back at home in the USA, but here in South Korea, and I'm infinitely grateful for that. They make me feel safe...and feeling safe makes me happy!)

4.) Laughing with my husband. (Every wife will say her husband is her best friend, but when I say it, I literally mean it. This guy...he listens to everything I say, even when it's ugly. He knows everything about me, good and bad, and he still digs me. If something happened to him, it wouldn't just crush me because he is my husband, but also because he's my bestest, closest confidant. The coolest part about our relationship is how much we laugh together. To other people, my husband comes across as stiff, cold, and serious. But to know him well, is to know how dry and witty he is. He is probably the funniest guy I've ever known. Nothing beats laughing with him.)

5.) I'm writing again. (After months--well years-- of unproductive writing, I am finally back in the saddle, and working on some great new books. There's nothing that feels better than creating more stories of humor and romance to share with my awesome readership. Plus...when I'm not writing, it's like having constipation of the brain. It backs up and makes me nutty. But when the words flow onto a page, it is like my brain health increases by 80%! Increased brain health makes me happy.

6.) Warm beaches. (This Saturday I am going to Guam with a friend. She said to me when I was having my tumor removed, "Get a clean bill of health, and I'll take you somewhere sunny!" And sure enough--by the grace of God--I got a clean bill of health. Now we're going to Guam. In my forties, my travel aspirations changed. I used to want to see cities and buildings and skyscrapers and bridges. <likely because I was raised in the country> but I've evolved. Now I want to see sand, feel warm air on my skin, and sit under palm trees while waves lap nearby. Being at the beach fills me with joy!)

7.) Scorched rice soup. (Ok, so this is a new development. When we first moved to Korea, I was utterly repulsed by the food. I thought that most of it stemmed from a dare, otherwise nobody would be eating the stuff these fine folks consider delicacies. I mean, I still don't understand why everything is covered in freaking red pepper flakes!!!! I've learned that if it's red, I don't even try it. I'm a wuss with spice. Blech. However, there are a few foods I've started to enjoy here in Korea. For instance: white kimchee. Still smells like feet, still fermented and gross, but not spicy--and so good for my gut! Second, Korean BBQ. It's just grilled beef. And it's tasty wrapped in lettuce. I dig it. Shabu-Shabu..which is actually Japanese, but Koreans eat it all the time <Korea was occupied by Japan a few times> and it's freaking delightful. Most recently I've become obsessed with scorched rice soup. It's a broth made with the scorched, browned rice from the bottom of the pot. I eat it with spicy soup, adding spoonfuls of the spicy broth to the rice to flavor it. It makes my toes curl, and that makes me happy.)

White kimchee....all the sour, none of the spice. Thank you, LAWD.

Scorched rice soup is my favorite. 

I could eat shabu shabu every single day.

Korean BBQ. Utterly simple. Completely tasty.

8.) Open spaces and wild land. (Basically rural America. I'm enjoying my expat adventure, but I've managed to grow a real appreciation about where I came from. Clear air, the smell of grass, unfiltered sunshine, rolling plains....utter bliss. Home makes me happy.)

What brings you joy? What makes you happy? Why aren't you doing it?? Find what makes you happy and pursue it. Don't pressure someone else to bring you joy, find joy yourself. It tastes sweeter that way.

Happy International Day of Happiness!


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Still haven't read...

The book that started it all?

Check out an excerpt from my first published book HERE:

And if you like it, you can click the link below to get a copy! Happy reading, friends!

Seattle, Washington

“Why are you doing this?”
The desperate, sad look in Henry’s eyes made my heart ache. His brown hair fell across his forehead in rain-soaked waves, and his eyelashes gathered in dampened clumps. Henry’s eyes, the same shade of gray as the weeping clouds above us, searched my face for answers I was too ashamed to give.
“What we have is real, Autumn.” He pulled me against his chest. I felt his heart pounding through the wet fabric of his soft, flannel shirt, and we trembled in unison, standing on the front steps of Henry’s apartment building. “Why do you want to break up? Don't you love me?”
“Don’t do this,” I said weakly. My eyes filled with hot tears that threatened to undermine my brave fa├žade. When he grazed his fingers across my cheekbone, swiping away a tear, I instinctively turned my face into his hand, breathing in the warm, outdoorsy aroma of Henry.
My Henry.
He kissed my cheeks, my temples, my shivering lips. My resolve started to crumble. Strength. I needed to show strength. I needed to walk away before I ruined his life, before I hurt him any more than I already had.
“Tell me that you don’t love me,” he whispered into my drenched hair, tangling his fingers in my curls. “Tell me, and I’ll let you go.”
I choked on a sob. I did love Henry. The past two months had been the best months of my life. Not once had I dreamt of meeting someone who made me feel safe, peaceful, beautiful, and deliriously happy, the way Henry Tobler made me feel. I wanted to be with him—and no one else—forever.
“Of course I love you,” I said.
“Then why are you doing this?” His voice cracked.
I shivered in Henry’s arms, not only from the cold, but also from the burden I bore. Pulling back, I raised my eyes to meet his. “I….I’m pregnant.” My words were barely audible over the sound of the pounding rain and passing traffic.
 His face morphed from shock to anger, then settled on absolute sadness. We hadn’t slept together yet.
“It was from before,” I explained lamely, feeling dirty as the words came out my mouth.      Henry’s shoulders drooped. He released me and a shadow fell across his eyes. That said it all. His girlfriend was pregnant with someone else’s child.
Henry deserved better than me.
I had to get out of here. I backed away, down the cement steps and onto the sidewalk. I rubbed my chest, my heart breaking just beneath the surface.
“I’m sorry,” I said, words quavering. “I’m so sorry.”
I turned and ran. Away from love.

Chapter One

Thirteen years later

“Well, if it isn’t Little Miss Big City herself. You got yourself a flat tire, dontcha?”
I cringed. I hated when people pointed out the obvious. Unfortunately, on this particular road, in this particular county, blatant observations tended to be even more antagonizing.
At least they were to me.
My bitter thoughts matched my mood as I stood on the side of the road. Looking up from my cell phone, which didn’t have coverage clear out here in rural eastern Washington, I almost smiled. Despite my predicament, I appreciated the striking contrast between the sharp, azure sky and the rolling, golden wheat fields.  
“Well, do ya?” Ray Fisk leaned his head out the window of his dented Chevy truck to get a better look at my flat. Never one to miss a spectacle, his wife, Ramona, slid across the seat toward Ray and craned her neck.
I nodded and forced myself to smile, sweat drizzling down my back. My slacks and sweater had been appropriate for the cool, blustery, October morning in Seattle. Not so appropriate for standing in the unseasonably warm breeze on the side of the two-lane highway that led into Fairfield, Washington.
“It’s flat, alright,” I said.
Ray squinted at me in the late afternoon sun. “Seems you blew a tire.”
Again, with the obvious.
“I thought I could limp all the way to town, but apparently not.” I frowned at my deflated tire. “I tried calling my dad, but…”
 I stared at Ray meaningfully. No doubt, the Fisks were still the town’s gossips and knew why I couldn’t reach my dad.
Ray nodded and smiled, his teeth tobacco-stain yellow. “It’s five o’clock. Cheese fries and dollar beers at Smartie’s.”
I grimaced. “Right.”
Why would the return of his daughter after fourteen years keep Billy Cole home when there were flat beer and frozen Ore Ida fries covered in Velveeta waiting? Forget the fact that he’d just been released from the hospital this morning. He should have been at home, resting. But my father wasn’t known for his good judgment.
I looked in my open car window and asked my son, “You all right in there?”
Elliott’s horn-rimmed glasses had slid down his nose, and his expertly tousled hair drooped in the heat. “How long are we going to sit here?”
Twelve-year-olds had no patience. Elliott was no exception. Especially when the batteries in his Nintendo DS had long since died, and he could no longer text his friends because we were out in the hinterlands.
“Working on it.” I faced the Fisks. “Do you mind helping me change the tire? I can’t even lift my spare.”
Ray raised his baseball cap and smoothed his salt-and-pepper hair. “Well, I hurt my back at the grain elevators a few years ago, remember?”
“She doesn’t remember, dear.” Ramona touched his arm. “She left town, and not many folks have heard from her since.”
Ramona was right. I’d left my hometown of Fairfield, Washington, two months after graduating from high school, where my class had consisted of a whopping forty-six students. I’d gone off to art school in Seattle—three-hundred-and-thirty-three-point-six miles away from Fairfield, not that I’d ever counted.
And no, I hadn’t kept in touch. Not until recently, when I’d answered my phone and heard Smartie Guire’s raspy voice on the line. Smartie had found my cell number in my dad’s wallet. He said that my father had taken a spill in the garage behind the house where I’d grown up. Apparently, he’d lain on the floor for twenty-two hours before his neighbor had come over to see why her cats wouldn’t stop scratching at the garage door. My father had spent a couple of days in the hospital and been discharged today.
Smartie had figured it was finally time I knew about my dad’s declining health. And since I was the only child of my parents’ dysfunctional union, taking care of him was my responsibility.
I admit that I’d put off my reunion with my father for far too long. During the fourteen years since I’d left Fairfield, Elliott and I had come back once, for Christmas. After that, I’d sent the occasional holiday card, and made a brief phone call each year around Father’s Day. It had been a long time, yet here I was, almost back in Fairfield, Washington. Population: five hundred. Yes, I said five hundred.
            “People always wondered where you’d gotten off to—why you didn’t stick around,” Ramona said.

My initial instinct was to remind her that living under the small-town microscope as the daughter of the town drunk hadn’t enticed me to stay, but that was a moot point. I gave her a tight-lipped, fake smile. “I’m back, now.”