The sun’s heat hit her hard immediately after the cool shade of the store’s interior. Felt like it could get up to over a hundred today. She thought regretfully about her zinnias back at the house. They’d be wilting soon. Distressed, she instinctively reached for a purse that was no longer there, thought about the twenty-something dollars that had taken a week to earn, now forever gone, as well as the pecan pie that wouldn’t be made anytime soon. After all, she had no flour to make a crust. She did have milk, butter, baking powder, and a whole bag of newly shelled pecans…but no flour.
Teddy walked the edge of the road heading home as she fought tears of frustration. The unseasonably hot April air stifled her breath, sapped at her strength. Her legs were leaden, her body felt ready to drop while beads of sweat dotted her forehead. Still she walked, counting each step…ten, eleven…twenty-two…forty-seven
. Just over a half hour and one hundred and two steps later she stood in front of a yellow two-story house with a white trim and wilting green-and-yellow zinnias lining the walkway leading to four white-painted stone stairs. These led up to a porch with a white painted swing.
It was her haven, this home. As she stood there, she felt a little bit of verve return to her. This house was hers, all hers, passed down from a father to his oldest child. Hard-won and held on to despite the machinations of a city council that had been affronted decades ago by the very idea of such prime realty belonging to a Negro man. There was acreage all around and the nearest neighbors were a mile and half in any direction.
The house consisted of three bedrooms, a parlor, a full dining room, a large kitchen—more than enough room for one body and a few more. At times she rented out one of the bedrooms when someone was passing through town. Even without a boarding sign up, folks knew her name, had put the word out.
Her main pride in addition to her home was being able to provide a meal worthy of any diner she’d ever eaten in. She had hoped to take the pecan pie over to Mrs. Williams. The elderly woman was recovering from a bad flu spell, and her appetite had picked up lately. Although just a tad over seventy, the woman had a sweet tooth to rival any child’s. But now Teddy’s plan had to be scrapped.
Teddy started up the stone stairs, her steps slightly dragging. Damn, losing that money had taken something out of her. It would take another week of taking in washing to recoup her loss. Money didn’t last too long what with bills and food and the expense of just plain breathing.
She’d reached the top stair when the sound of a car coming down the dusty road made her turn. Not many cars drove this way.
She spotted the white-topped blue Studebaker kicking up gravel as it slowly wound down the street. It was a sharp and gleaming monster and looked like it’d just gotten off the assembly line that morning. The car slowed even more as it approached, then came to a complete stop in front of her house.
Teddy waited, curiosity and dread vying for a top spot in her head. In her twenty-eight years, she’d learned that shiny, new things sometimes brought trouble with them.
The driver’s door opened and a man stepped out. White, which was unusual to see in this part of town.
Tall, dark hair bared to the sun, and despite the heat, dressed in a dapper blue serge, double-breasted suit, the man was just as “shiny” as his car. Something about him set her spider’s senses off. Again, she didn’t trust shiny things, especially when they came wrapped in handsome packages.
“Yes, may I help you?” she asked as he took a few steps up the walkway. At a closer vantage, she saw he was even taller than she’d first supposed. His dark hair was slicked back but had wavy contours. His features were slightly hard, his eyes a startling blue.
He looked up at her without a word, and she wondered whether he’d heard her.
“You have something wrong with your hearing? I said, how may I help you?”
She wasn’t about to put up with any more shit, considering what she’d gone through in the last hour.
“I heard you just fine.”
His voice was deep with a slightly detectable cadence. Not a Missouri sound, so he must be a stranger.
“Well, then?” she repeated more insistently.
“I heard you have a room to let. I need a room for three nights.”
That was the last thing she’d expected him to say. Obviously he was a stranger to these parts because what he was requesting just wasn’t done. Not to mention the appearance of it all. Yes, she’d let a room to men before, but they’d had their wives or families with them. No, what this man was asking was out of the question.
“No, I’m sorry. You heard wrong. I have no rooms to let.”
He said nothing for a few seconds, but his stare never wavered. She felt like a trapped fly being considered by a spider.
“I have money…”
“I don’t care about money.”
Even as she said this, her mind revolted at the lie because she definitely could use some money at this point. It would be a salvation. But she could never take money from this stranger. It wouldn’t be right, and his staying here would cause all types of trouble, not least the chorus of wagging tongues.
He cracked a barely noticeable smile. It changed his face somewhat, but strangely didn’t soften it. It played up his good looks, though. He probably coasted on them looks more often than not.
“How about a hundred?”
Had she heard him right?
He broke another smile, this time wider, showcasing the most even, whitest teeth she’d ever seen.
“Yes, a hundred…a night,” he added. And for the second time that day, her breath caught in her throat.
“A night?” she repeated weakly, her resolution quickly falling like broken glass at her feet. She’d heard people say that everyone had their price, and he’d found hers.
Nevertheless she tried to hold on to a shred of dignity, telling herself that the money wasn’t worth the trouble it was bringing with it. Because why would a white man with that kind of money not be staying in some ritzy digs like the Connor Hotel downtown?
She didn’t ask him that question, though. Another of her assets was knowing when to not butt in.
Still, there was one question she had to ask.
“You’re not hiding from the law, are you? Because if you are, I can’t afford any trouble.”
The smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. “No, I can assure you that I’m not running from the police.”
“Well, if you’re trying to be inconspicuous, you’re going about it all wrong because believe you me you will be noticed around this part of town.”
“I have my reasons,” he said with finality that meant he wasn’t going to explain any further, at least not to her.
“Well, if it’s just for three nights, then…” she said with a slight hesitance. What was she getting herself into? Least of all a hit on her reputation.
“Yeah, just three nights,” he repeated, the edge gone from his voice.
“When would you need the room?”
“Right now, if you can take me.”
“Uhm, well I didn’t have time to do much straightening up…”
“That don’t matter,” he said. “I just have a few things, and I promise I won’t get in your way.”
Teddy began to regret her hasty promise, but she wasn’t one to renege on her word. Besides, three hundred dollars would stretch her past these next two months.
Finally she nodded, thinking that these few nights would go fast enough. Not that she had too many visitors, so she might not even have to explain away the fancy car and the white man staying with her. Her reputation would surely take a beating if that word got out.
“Let me get my suitcase,” he said and sauntered back to his car.
Before two blinks of an eye, he was standing next to her on the porch carrying a dark blue valise. She noticed that his shoes were black wing tips, very dressy and very expensive. He towered her by nearly a foot, making her feel shorter than she’d ever felt in her life.
She opened the door and he followed her into the blessed coolness of her foyer. The overhead ceiling fan whirled silently keeping the temperature down in the hall. The slight breeze circulated the fragrance of the picked zinnias sitting in a vase on the small foyer table.
“Well, I guess I better show you around. Through here is the living room.”
She pointed to the first room off the foyer. He stepped over to take a look.
“Very nice,” he said appreciatively as he looked around the space. “Yes, this will do me for a while…”
“You mean for three nights,” she corrected.
She could see him noting the comfort of the room, taking in the pastel floral sofa, the stuffed wingback chairs, the slightly opaque drapes that kept out the midday sun’s vengeance, the bright yellow throw rug, and the yellow vase full of green zinnias set on a varnished mahogany table. Overhead, another ceiling fan fought against the heat.
It was by no measure like the fancy Connor Hotel, but it was hers. This was where she had her nightly cup of tea while curled up on her sofa reading the latest issue of Detective Story Magazine.
Or listening to The Guy Lombardo Show
playing on the radio sitting on the corner table. She preferred Lombardo over Amos & Andy
because the latter just never sat right with her. Too much buffoonery.
“The kitchen is back this way,” she said as she led him down to the end of the foyer. Yellow was her signature color. Yellow zinnias in a green vase set on the windowsill bordered by white curtains featuring yellow daisies. The yellow table gingham cloth was pristine and balanced nicely with the white stove and Frigidaire, which was worlds apart from the icebox of her childhood.
“I provide three meals a day, no extra charge.”
“It’ll be nice to have a home-cooked meal again. It’s been a while.”
She bit her tongue as she started to ask how long, but that was none of her concern. She didn’t make a point of prying into her boarders’ business, and she wouldn’t start now. This was simply a temporary business arrangement so she would keep it that way.
“Once I have you settled into your room, I can fry up some eggs and bacon if you’re hungry. I’d planned on making a pecan pie later, but I didn’t get the chance to get flour today.”
The thought of the robbery was still fresh and raw. And angering. No matter that she could now replace the lost twenty tenfold, she bristled at the thought of that little robber man holding a gun on her. As well the way she’d been treated by that no-count shopkeeper who’d just dismissed her like she was the one who was no-count.
“Well, if you’d let me, I know where the store is. I can go pick up that flour for you,” he offered with a smile.
Handsome and helpful, usually two traits she found good in a man, but she wasn’t sure she was buying what he was selling. She knew the drill about what could happen to a colored woman alone. Her mama and grams had told her plenty of stories about what they’d gone through. Which was why she carried a knife strapped to her thigh. Thankfully, she’d never had to deal with that type of attention, except for the time Charlie Stenson had groped her ass last spring when she’d passed him on her way to the store. She’d turned around and walloped him with her purse, making him fall flat on his own ass to the laughing amusement of his buddies standing nearby. He and they had learned that she wasn’t to be messed with.
Teddy did a mental shake. No need to get paranoid. All he’d done was offer to go to the store for her. Her apprehension was more likely due to how strange this all was. There was nothing normal about a white man standing in her kitchen offering to go to the store for her.
“Well, once you settled in and paid me, I can give you the money for the flour.”
He shook his head. “No. Allow me to pay for it.”
Now she was the one shaking her head.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“No, I don’t, but I insist anyway because I sure would like some of that pie if you’d leave a piece for me.”
“Of course, I will.”
With that said, she led him up the stairs to one of the two guest bedrooms, this one just to the left of the bathroom.
Inside was a king-size four-poster bed meant for a married couple. To the right of it, standing near the one window overlooking the garden out front was a dark wood bureau with three drawers. The curtains were a light green as was the bedcover. The nightstand held a clock and lamp with a green shade. The lime-colored throw rug added a small homey touch.
“Well, make yourself at home. There are guest towels in the bathroom next door, and as I said downstairs, there are three meals a day. I’ll scramble up those eggs and once you get me the flour, I’ll get to making that pie.”
He set his suitcase on top of the bed, then sat down and bounced a bit to test the springs of the mattress. She stood in the door, watching him, trying to read him. His expression was neutral right now. She saw he wore a wedding ring. She realized she had forgotten one crucial bit of information. No time like the present to settle matters.
“I hope you like the bedroom,” she started.
He looked at her. “Yes, this here is fine.”
“Well, good then. By the way forgive me, I’ve forgotten my manners. I should at least introduce myself. I’m Theodora Holliday. Feel free to call me by my Christian name.”
That smile again. He stood and walked over to her and held out his hand.
After a hesitant second, she took his hand and they shook.
“And your name would be?” she asked. She found herself staring at blue eyes framed within a face chiseled like one of them Hollywood actors. In her opinion, he was even better looking than Clark Gable, even without a mustache.
“Louis…Louis Daniels. And just like I promised…”
He reached inside his suit pocket, pulled out a wallet, counted out and then handed her fifteen crisp twenty-dollar bills.
“Here you go, three hundred for three nights.”
Thankfully she had on her lilac dress with the hip pockets. She eagerly rolled the bills and placed them inside one of the pockets. They filled the space nicely. She’d never had that amount of money handed to her at one time. It was a strange feeling, a good feeling. Probably a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.
“I think this is going to work out just fine,” Teddy told him, and she truly believed it. Best of all, she’d be able to take Mrs. Williams that piece of pie after all.