“This is all?” Carter Paxton, technology entrepreneur, frowned at the thin stack of printouts.
“Yes, sir.” Kevin Johnston, able-bodied assistant, straightened his shoulders and waited. He knew from experience not to bother explaining until his boss asked.
The two men were alike in their African heritage, but there the similarities ceased. Paxton, at thirty-four, was just over six feet tall and built like a basketball player, complete with massive hands. Johnston, an undisclosed age somewhere past forty was five feet, ten inches with the solid build of a wrestler. Neither man was handsome in the GQ sense, but both carried themselves with an air of authority which distinguished them from their peers in the Nation’s Capital where they lived.
“Three agencies and a listing at Monster.com and this is all? Why?”
“These are the applications which made it through the initial screening, sir.” Mr. Johnston bowed very slightly toward his employer of three years, as much in deference as to congratulate himself on waiting to be asked.
“Huh.” Paxton raised his chin and adjusted the fit of the Windsor knot. Shrugging into the brown Armani blazer that precisely matched the shade of his skin, he snatched the papers from Mr. Johnston and tossed them into the open mouth of his briefcase.
“I’ll look at them.”
The Assistant stepped aside as Paxton whisked through the door, snapping the briefcase closed as he went.
“Yes, sir,” acknowledged Johnston, “and you’re welcome,” he added under his breath.
Jewelina Schlessinger was not proud of her name.
“But at least it’s something that stands out,” she murmured, twisting her brown hair into a bun and securing it with a blue pen which matched her eyes. She stared ruefully at the ‘Full Name’ box on the application. A little bitty name like “Jen Wu” would make this so much easier! Probably, Jen Wu was in school right now. Doing well. Mid-spring semester at a well-known university.
Jewelina was a drop out.
“Enough of creepy teachers, enough of creepy classmates, enough of computers. Enough! I’ve just had enough!” she told her mother on the phone.
“Well, it’s your decision, but I hope you’ve had enough of eating, too, because no one’s going to hire you without a degree, Ms. Computer-genius!”
“I just can’t do another three semesters, Mom! It’s like slogging through knee-deep sludge, here! I’ll have to find something else to do.”
“You know that means back to being a nanny. You’re good with kids, but the pay isn’t anything compared to a computer tech. You really should talk to Frankie. He works with computer people.”
“He works them over,” she fumed, “like he does everyone else.” The thought of her mother’s always-slightly-inebriated boyfriend irritated her.
“I’m not asking Frankie for anything. Forget it. Forget computers. I’m going to find a real job with real people and live with roommates who don’t throw up on the floor — this is so gross!”
Jewelina had slammed down the phone and stormed out of the dormitory, leaving her roommates to recover from their drunken binge without her having to smell it.
She sat, now, typing on her laptop outside a cafe near the Princeton bus station, her fair skin burning in the bright sun. She slid her grandmother’s Miraculous Medal back and forth on its chain, trying to focus on the application.
Education? Here it was again.
“No! Must… have… break… from… school,” she sighed, pounding her forehead with the heel of her hand. A degree would have to come later. She’d save up some money first. “Which I suppose means I’m going have to do the nanny thing again,” she muttered, surprised at the bitterness in her own voice.
Just to broaden the possibilities, Jewel clicked on a variety of positions available. Two were in education, three more fit in the category of ‘personal assistant,’ and two others were childcare.
She applied for all seven before the upstate New York-bound bus left.
Night fell over the mountains two hours before the bus labored into the secluded valley she called home. She stood and stretched her stiff legs, holding on to the lurching seats before the bus came to a complete stop in front of the Daylight Diner. Smiling at the mom whose toddler had finally fallen asleep, Jewel stepped down into the chilly spring evening.
The bus revved its engine and pulled away, leaving Jewel awash in diesel fumes. She coughed and, covering her nose, turned away.
The Daylight Diner was the only restaurant in the valley, the first building as the road emerged from the woods. A few cars dotted the potholed parking lot, none of them familiar to Jewel. How long had it been? Five years? Two years of nanny work after high school and three years of college.
Her visits home had been confined to day trips where she had seen little of anyone due to her lack of transportation. Those days had been the height of her ‘environmental phase,’ as her Mother called it, in which Jewel had stopped eating all animal products, wore only organic plant fibers, and refused to own a car or cell phone.
“I haven’t changed,” she whispered.
Jewel picked her way through the muddy parking lot and climbed up the wooden steps where the light spilled out of a picture window. A bell sounded as she pushed through the door, but the unkempt woman at the register didn’t look up.
None of the Diner’s three customers were familiar. Climbing onto a stool and wrapping her leg through the strap of her duffle, she waited.
“Nothing vegan on this whole menu,” complained Jewel, wishing the french fries weren’t fried in beef fat so she could order them. After twenty minutes of inhaling smoke from the cook’s cigarette, she wished she had both a car and a cell phone.
At a quarter-to-ten, the waitress announced the Diner would be closing in fifteen minutes. Already, the kitchen was closed and cleaned. Jewel jingled the change in her pocket and wondered if it was worth a third call home. The answering machine had picked up her two previous attempts, and while she had tried to be polite, there is really no nice way to remind your mother she’s forgotten you. Again.
“Well,” Jewel thought, pushing off the stool and wrestling the duffle up to her shoulder, “it’s only four miles, and it won’t be the first time I’ve walked home from here.” She stepped out into the cold air.
“Hey! Hey!” The cook stubbed out his cigarette as Jewel passed near his idling car. “You need a ride somewhere?”
“No, thanks,” she replied casually, hoping to cover the fear which leaped from her stomach like a dog on a rabbit. She didn’t look at him, but turned to walk toward the darkened real estate office next door. She knew the family who ran it. The man stopped calling her as she turned down the hedge-lined path toward the apartment in the back.
There were two types of men, she knew from bitter experience, the ones who used women for whatever they could get, and the ones who ignored women altogether. This one certainly fell into the former category, like her father. She shivered.
She watched through a gap in the hedge while the cook propositioned two other women, including the waitress, who turned him down with a string of ugly words, slammed the door of her car, and peeled out in a spray of mud.
He gave up and roared away.
Jewel emerged from behind the hedge and started home. There was a path near the edge of the road, worn into the grass by countless hikers headed for the High Peaks. She found it easily in spite of the dark.
The trail was muddy with spring thaw, and her socks were clammy and dirty by the time she reached the halfway point. Here, she switched from the trail to the shoulder of the road, hoping to make it home without attracting any attention from the occasional cars.
Soon, however, a car pulled up beside her, its headlights shining into the woods where pockets of leftover snow reflected a brilliant white.
It was a woman.
“Hey, Hon, let me drive you home.” She patted the torn bucket seat beside her, as if it were nothing to roll down a window and offer a ride to a hiker in the middle of the night. Jewel eyed her appraisingly, taking in the rosary swinging on the mirror, the tousled gray hair and the bright brown eyes.
“Mrs. Beaver! Great timing! Thank you!” She lifted the handle and climbed in.
“Welcome back, Jewel. Are you home on vacation?”
“No, I’m just taking some time off from school. Looking for a job, if you know anyone hiring.”
“Ahhh. Looking for your vocation, that’s what you’re doing. Pray, darlin’. Pray, and God’ll send you what you’re looking for.”
“I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for, Mrs. Beaver,” confided Jewel, yanking on the seatbelt, “I just know that school wasn’t it anymore.”
“I know. I know. That’s how God works sometimes. Your Grandmother would have told you that!”
“She was the one who taught me to pray, Mrs. B.”
“I know. She prayed for all you girls for years, trying to teach you the faith. You’re the only one who listened.”
“I miss her.”
“She’s still praying for you, darlin’, from Heaven.”
They chatted companionably until Mrs. Beaver made a right turn into a tree-shrouded lane. “Here y’are.” The gravel drive crunched under the weight of the car.
“You knew my Grandma pretty well, didn’t you?”
“Umm hmm. She and I go way back. She was a very wise woman, and I know you will be, too, if you stay faithful. Is there anybody home here?” She squinted at the dark house.
“I don’t think so. My Mom was going to pick me up, but it looks like she’s out.”
“Your Mom loves you, Jewel. She just doesn’t know how to show it. You just remember that you’re never completely alone, okay?” She smiled and pointed a finger skyward.
“Thanks, Mrs. Beaver! You saved me a long walk in the dark! We’ll see you around.” Jewel climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind her. She stood and waved until Mrs. Beaver chugged out of sight, then turned to the dark house.
Dumping her duffle on the front porch, Jewel fumbled around under the dark steps until she found the hide-a-key.
Letting herself in, she kicked off her muddy shoes and reached for the thermostat, set low, she knew, to keep the electric bill down. The red light on the answering machine flashed. Two messages. She headed for the bathroom.
Not much had changed in the house, she noted when she emerged. Twenty-year-old furnishings, paint, and carpet greeted her like old friends. Even the smell was familiar. The out-of-tune piano, a dusty crucifix, the garage sale furniture. She made her way down the hall past her sisters’ childhood rooms to her own and turned on the light.
There were the vestiges of her youth. Some of them, anyway. The bunk beds and dresser. Someone had taken down her posters and emptied the bookshelf.
She moved the folding chairs and boxes off the lower bunk and stared at the naked mattress.
Empty. Stained. Alone.
“Well, not entirely alone,” she said, her words echoing in the cold room, “because I’m about to snuggle up with you, Mr. Mattress!”
She went to the linen closet and retrieved a mattress pad and sheet set she had used in her childhood. The elastic was gone now, and the sheets nearly see-through, but at the moment, they felt like old friends. She made the bed and crawled in fully clothed. A moment later, she thought about her dirty shoes in the entryway and got up to put them on the front porch.
Digging in her duffle, she produced a notebook and pen with which she wrote:
I’m here. See you in the morning.
She propped it against the salt shaker, flipped on the outside light and went to bed.
Paxton stepped across the two-inch gap separating the commuter train from the station platform, instinctively glancing at his laces. He grinned wryly to himself as his Grandmother’s voice echoed in his head.
“Carter, you make sure those shoes are tied before you get on the train. If those laces get caught, you’ll get your head pulled off!”
Grandma always worried about your head.
He found a seat midway between the doors where his view of oncoming passengers was unobstructed. Grandma would approve.
“You gotta keep your eyes on what’s going on around you, little man,” she had warned. “Look at the people, look at what they’re looking at. Look at what they’re doing when they think you’re not looking.”
Her advice had held him in good stead. Once when two surly-looking men had boarded the car simultaneously through both open doors, Carter had picked up his briefcase and walked off the train without hesitation. He missed the mugging by seconds.
Today, there were very little in the way of nefarious characters in his car. A teenager hooked up to headphones, a housekeeper-looking woman in sensible shoes, and Carter.
He opened his briefcase and drew out the sheaf of papers from Mr. Johnston, frowning at what they represented.
They needed a nanny. Someone steady and trustworthy to help while he pulled the shreds of his family back together. Paxton gazed out at the drab industrial buildings rushing past the train. Mentally, he reviewed the succession of single women who had thrust themselves on him in the ten months since his wife died.
All of them alike. Greed flashing behind eyelashes heavy with mascara. Just like Alexis.
“I’m not shopping for a wife!” he muttered between clenched teeth. He forced his eyes to focus on the resumes in his hand.
This time, he’d get what his children needed. He’d hire out the job, the same way he did with any specialty need in his company. Find a contractor and award a contract. It would be a professional arrangement.
And here were the first fruits of his search.
“Jewel – a romance,” by Sylvia Dorham is available at Amazon.com or www.createspace.com/3770817