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Oh crap. This guy again.
Smoothing the front of my waitressing apron over my jeans, I grabbed the coffeepot from the burner and reluctantly made my way to the two-top the hostess just sat in my section.
The ruddy-faced, bleary-eyed occupant of the table was blabbing loudly into his cell phone, dropping very loud F-bombs in spite of the fact that a family with two toddlers was sitting right next to him.
Apparently, this dude was just as annoying at the breakfast table as he’d been last night pounding vodka shots in the resort bar.
The Grand Vienna Resort was a few towns over from mine, about a forty-minute drive. It was a huge place that drew in tourists year-round because of their convention center, spa, manmade ski hill, stables, and indoor water park. I didn’t work here year-round, but turning down holiday tips wasn’t something I could afford to do, so I picked up the phone when they called yesterday. Over the past several years, it had become something of a sad Thanksgiving-week tradition.
Gritting my teeth, I approached his table to offer him coffee. Last night he’d tried everything he could think of to lure me back to his hotel room—including throwing a wad of cash on the bar—as though sex could be ordered just like the multiple baskets of hot wings he’d eaten.
Ugh, why had I taken the morning shift too? The quarterly meeting of my town’s Small Business Association wasn’t until two p.m., and I didn’t need to open the shop until four. I had no Geek Squad appointments lined up today, and since I’d worked a shift until close last night, I should have just stayed home this morning. I should have taken advantage of a perfectly rare little window of time in which I could have lounged in bed, watching TV and drinking my own coffee.
He didn’t even look up at me. He just waved his fingers toward his empty coffee cup and said, “Bring me a Bloody Mary too.”
Into the phone, he chortled gleefully, “You know it, baby. Hair of the dog! Yeah, I’ll be back in the city in a few hours. Gonna pop in the office this afternoon, but I’ll meet you out around six, yeah? Awesome.” Pause. “Yeah, it was all right. Conference was worthwhile, made some good contacts.”
He lowered his voice, but since I was still standing right there, it was easy to hear the sly lie through curved lips. “Banged a hot townie chick last night.”
I snorted and spoke loudly enough that whoever was on the other end of his call could hear me clearly. “No, you tried to bang a hot townie chick last night. Before you got escorted back to your room on account of being a drunken a—” I caught the eye of the cherubic toddler at the next table “—a-hole.”
The jerk sputtered into his phone, and the toddler said, “Mommy, what’s an a-hole?”
I strode back to the kitchen, hiding a smile at the tiny bit of chaos I’d caused. I wouldn’t get in trouble with anyone else working. Wisconsin winters were long, and this one was just starting. Most of us were always a few bucks short of rent, despite constantly scrounging.
You took your fun where you found it.
Luckily, my shift ended ten minutes later. I threw on my beat-up leather jacket, thick gray scarf, and sunglasses. My spirits lifted a bit in the fresh air on the ten-minute walk to the staff parking lot.
I started my ancient truck and headed home. Avoiding the main intersections of Vienna, I drove around the big lake.
The fall foliage season was well and truly behind us. Most of the big trees were completely stripped, soaring starkly naked to the gray sky. Big patches of farmland looked flat and brown, everything already harvested.
But then you’d turn a corner and the bright blue of the lake through the bare trees could take your breath away. Even from me, who’d lived here my entire life.
Of course, everything would look much prettier once it snowed. The thick white carpet made the farmland look cozy and blanketed. The snow clinging to the trees fattened them up and made everything shimmer.
And in my town, Falworth, the one farthest from the lake, the smallest in the area with its population dwindling every year, the coverage of snow made it look a hell of a lot less poor.
My car circled the Falworth town center. A handful of small businesses squatted around “the square”—an empty lot the size of half a football field. In the middle, a dirty, broken sign read Happy Holidays. No enterprising person had thrown up the message this week to anticipate Thanksgiving, however. It had been up since last year at this time, all through spring and summer and fall. The second Y was crooked and about to fall off.
The town’s Christmas Village would be set up here. There was a rusted gazebo and stage in the center of the square, which had hosted live music, dances, and even pageants, longer ago in the past. There was a separate rectangular area that typically became a skating rink. At least it used to—I hadn’t so much as walked through the square during the holiday season last year, not even when Greta had teasingly offered to win me a teddy bear from one of the carnival games. “Grinch!” she’d accused affectionately.
As always, my chest tightened. Greta, the fiery, fierce grandmother I’d never had, more mother to me than my own, cherished and beloved friend. She’d been gone two months, and although she’d been sick for almost a year prior to her passing, I still couldn’t wrap my head or heart around it.
I parked my car at the edge of the square and hiked to the diner, the one place in this desolate center of town that was always bustling. Carol could be a little talkative for my taste, but she made outstanding coffee, and she kept the prices low. The flocks of summer tourists kept her flush year-round, but she always said the diner was really for the locals.
Carol had been Greta’s closest friend. On mornings when I could barely breathe because of missing her so much, I didn’t want to talk. I just liked to sit in the diner and know that Carol felt the same way.
The coffee was black and strong and filled to the brim of the heavy mug.
Carol dropped the laminated menu that I knew by heart on the table in front of me and raised a pointed eyebrow. “Temp is in the low forties today and getting colder tomorrow. Might want to put on one of your warmer coats, Jane.”
I stared at her, expressionless, over the rim of my coffee mug until she shrugged and walked away. Of all the things I loathed about small towns—and this one in particular—comments like Carol’s were the worst. The fact that everyone knew the minutiae of each other’s lives drove me bananas. Some days I longed to live among strangers and the unknown so strongly that minor exchanges like this could turn my mood sour all day. Which was saying something because I was not exactly a perky ray of sunshine to begin with.
Yeah, I did own a warmer coat. Two actually. Not that I cared to explain myself, but I had a very particular system with my coats. The Wisconsin winter lasted for forever. Let’s say you counted forty degrees Fahrenheit as winter-ish weather. In Wisconsin, the temp could dip into the forties in friggin’ October and still occasionally be down in the forties in April.
In my opinion, it was best to work the system with different outerwear. I wore my leather jacket as long as I could possibly stand it, usually until the temp went into the thirties. Then, I’d switch to my first parka, and I’d feel warm and incredible for weeks. That coat would work until the temp dropped into the teens, and then I’d need to pull on the Big Daddy. The expensive, insulated navy coat Greta had given me as a combined birthday-Xmas present six years ago, our last great tourist year, when the shop had done really well.
“What time are you opening today?” Carol asked after taking my omelet order and refilling my coffee.
I rolled my eyes at her. “Four,” I said. Just like every single off-season weekday.
“I’m going to come in and grab some wine for my book club,” she said cheerfully. “Can you look in Greta’s register and see what I chose when I hosted last year? I can’t remember what it was except that everyone liked it.”
I nodded and forced a smile, grateful for her loyal business, but already dreading the task of poring through Greta’s leather-bound register of sales. It wasn’t really an accounting tool for her; it was more of a diary of her daily thoughts on her business. She tracked every sale to every customer, meticulous notes on exactly who bought what, and each page was also full of color commentary.
“Carol grabbed four bottles of the Pride Merlot for her book club. Those old birds are gonna get tipsy discussing Toni Morrison!”
“Two young men staying in Pete’s Airbnb with their frat brothers bought three cases of Busch Light. I offered them a couple of complimentary Gatorades for the morning.”
More recently, she’d added to the register when there weren’t expected sales.
“The Rotary Club is now buying their monthly meeting drinks from Walmart—that’s gonna hurt the bottom line.”
“The Yacht Club is now getting their reserve wine list from a new distributer in Vienna. Redo budget ASAP.”
That budget had ruined any peace I might have settled into after Greta passed. Although I’d been helping her out in the shop for years, and quite a bit more since she’d fallen ill, I’d had no idea how little money was coming in over the past couple of years. In September, I’d filled the same orders for new inventory that she’d done last fall, and now I was almost entirely out of operating cash. If I understood the entries in her QuickBooks software correctly, it looked like we usually got a boost from the holiday season. I was counting on it.
Running Greta’s store without her was not something I’d ever expected to do, but I couldn’t just let it die after she did. The last thing Greta had ever asked of me was to make a plan for improving my life. Taking over her small business was Step One.
While devouring the omelet, I pulled out my phone and organized my schedule for the next two days: this afternoon I’d attend the Falworth Small Business Association on behalf of Greta, then I’d open her shop for the evening. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving, so I’d open the shop for a few hours early in the day, hoping some locals might choose to run in to stock for their holiday celebrations instead of grabbing their libations from Piggly Wiggly.
The rest of the long weekend? Hmm.
Greta used to love Black Friday: she’d slash prices and offer complimentary wine tastings to the tourists kicking off the holiday season by strolling through the Christmas Village on the square.
I set my coffee cup on the table and frowned. Was I misremembering the timing, or shouldn’t the Christmas Village be set up by now? Didn’t it need to be ready for Thanksgiving so there was something for tourists to do here in the winter?
My eyes roamed over the diner tables. I recognized every single person in here. Not one tourist. Was that normal? Maybe people typically came after Thanksgiving, not the day before.
Yawning, I shrugged my jacket back on. I’d go home for a long, hot shower and relax before the meeting. There’d be at least four representatives from other Falworth small businesses there. They would show me the holiday season ropes.
My apartment complex was half a mile away from the town center. In the summer months, when it was practically light until after nine p.m., I often walked between Greta’s shop and home for my shifts. But now, when the sun went down at four and it was outer-space-black by nine, walking wasn’t an option. Too dangerous; it was difficult for drivers to see pedestrians on the country roads.
My small, one-bedroom was nothing special, but I’d splurged on a wonderful mattress and duvet last year, and the warm comforts still made me happy every single day. I climbed out of my truck, jingling my keys, thoughts of going back to bed for a few hours at the forefront of my mind.
First, though, I needed to pick up my dog.
I knocked on my next-door neighbor’s door. When Sean answered, his face fell. “Oh. Hey, Jane. You’re here to get Bruce already?” Sean was only nineteen. He’d moved in over the summer, unceremoniously and with barely any furniture or utensils. Without exchanging our life stories, we’d quickly and silently bonded. Somehow I just knew that he was also the product of a much loved but damaged and unreliable mother.
Like most of us, Sean struggled to find steady winter employment. He occasionally helped me at the shop, and I was teaching him the tech skills he’d need to get hired as a member of the Geek Squad at Vienna’s Best Buy. But his favorite thing in the world was dog-sitting.
I felt half-irritated and half-guilty at his crestfallen face. A couple of hours of lazing around in bed sounded much better when I pictured Bruce cuddling next to me. He was an awkwardly adorable mutt. His sturdy bear-like long body was much too big for his very short legs; he was not structurally sound. He could barely get downstairs. But his fur was fluffy and soft, and his constantly wagging floofy tail was a pure beacon of happiness.
When I’d adopted him a few years ago, I hadn’t known he was epileptic. The daily medication to keep his seizures at bay—and the occasional vet bills when they occurred anyway—were not something I’d factored into my pet budget. So Bruce’s care necessitated a few more waitressing shifts a month. Not ideal, but it wasn’t like I would give him away just because he wasn’t one hundred percent healthy and perfect all the time.
Too often humans do this: walk away when things are hard or when other people are difficult.
Bruce, however, wouldn’t walk away even if the building was burning down. He’d (stupidly) wag and lick my face until the walls fell. So yeah, he was dumb and sick, but also? Love personified.
Unfortunately for my current desire for dog cuddles, however, Sean’s love for Bruce had grown just as strong as my own. “I could keep him until tomorrow,” he mumbled, shifting his weight. “That way you won’t have to worry about him while you’re at your meeting and at the shop.”
Sean knew very well I usually took Bruce to the shop with me, but I stifled a sigh and looked at him with big-sister eyes. Sean was never effervescent, but he was unusually low-energy and pale today.
I bet this is his first Thanksgiving alone.
“Sure,” I relented. “Keep him overnight.” I jingled my keys and added in an offhand tone, “Bring him over around two tomorrow and we can eat together. I’ve got a turkey breast,” I lied, mentally adding a stop at the Pig to my evening plans. “It’s way too much meal for me. If I have leftovers, Bruce will try to eat it, and turkey is bad for dogs.”
Sean cocked his head slowly, but I’d seen the light flicker in his eyes. “OK. Should I, ah, bring anything?”
I frowned thoughtfully, my mind racing through the list of traditional Thanksgiving items, trying to find the easiest and least expensive. “Maybe some kind of mashed potato?” I said. “The Bob Evans microwavable ones are pretty good.” They were stocked at all the nearby groceries, and they weren’t too costly.
He nodded. “OK.” A quick, rare smile. “Thanks.”
“Yep.” I backed away and headed for my own door. “I’ll see you and Bruce tomorrow afternoon.”
How long did it take to start a meeting?!
For God’s sake. I’d been sitting here for a good twenty minutes, fighting off stilted chitchat from the other members of the Falworth Small Business Association.
No, Diane, owner of the Square Bakery, I am not interested in your new talent of reading tarot cards. I certainly do not want mine read. Also, please stop telling me I should come shop at your thrift store. That’s lovely that some “beautiful dresses” have come in. You’ve known me my whole life. Have I ever worn a dress? Not since senior prom.
To Jim, owner of the corner pub and the town bowling alley, I get it: the liquor distributors are gouging us all, but you need to manage your idiot-kid bartenders better. They’re bleeding you dry with the amount of booze they pour into each drink for their friends.
The one person I wanted to talk to, Michael Perry, had been entrapped in conversation with Carol since the meeting started. Just because I couldn’t talk to him didn’t mean I couldn’t idly stare. Even in high school, he’d never gone through an awkward phase. He’d been a cute little boy who grew straight into cute man, handsome in an outdoorsy and wholesome way.
I was glad he was here, but why did he come to these meetings? The way Greta had described the group to me, I had thought it was only struggling small businesses trying to find strategies—like the Christmas Village—that would mutually benefit them all.
Michael’s businesses definitely weren’t struggling. He owned two car washes in the nicer area towns as well as a few fast-food franchises in Vienna. For fun, he taught sailing lessons to kids during the summer. He was the kind of guy you called when you got a flat tire on a country road and you didn’t have your spare because you used it when you had a flat tire a few months before, and how likely was it to get two flat tires in one summer, anyway?
After he’d rescued me with smiling roadside assistance last summer, I’d started to wonder: why didn’t I date Michael? Wouldn’t being with someone kind and cute and steady be much better than my occasional flirtations with tourists? But then everything with Greta accelerated, and all summer efforts of pursuing Michael in a new way had died on the vine.
In the last month, though, I’d invited Michael out for coffee a couple of times. When the temp dipped below ten degrees one freakish morning last week, he’d called me to check that my truck had started. Now, he raised his eyes over Carol’s perm and offered me a warm smile.
The third suggestion on Greta’s list of items for my life improvement plan had been a relationship with a nice man. Michael certainly fit that description. I smiled back at him.
“Are you going to lead the meeting, Carol?” Michael asked politely.
Chatty Carol paused and flushed. Very uncharacteristic. Everyone, in fact, went silent, and several of the group shifted their weight on the cheap folding chairs.
Oh. In an instant, I knew what was wrong. Greta had led this group for the last twenty-five years. They probably couldn’t even remember a meeting without her leadership.
“I’ll kick us off,” Diane offered, and the group’s attention shifted to her. Especially when she threw her hands up and said, with all the finesse of a charging bull, “We’re in trouble, kids.”
A collective “we know” kind of moan rose into the air all around me, and I sat up straighter. What the hell was going on here?
Diane noticed my bewilderment and sent me a sad shrug. “Things are in bad shape, Jane. You probably noticed the Christmas Village isn’t up. In the past, the association would start to chip in money for the Christmas Village in the late summer. By the beginning of November, we’d have enough of an egg to build it, hire staff to run it, organize the entertainment, blah blah blah. But that didn’t happen this year—most of us couldn’t afford to donate anything to the pot. Because most of us are barely keeping our doors open.”
Michael opened his mouth, but little more than a peep escaped before Carol cut him off. “You already donate more than anyone, Michael. Greta was right to limit your contributions.”
He furrowed his brow and tried again, but Diane got right to the point yet again. “We also know your car wash in Wontana is in trouble. Financially, you’re not exactly at your highest peak either.”
He shut his mouth with a snap, looked at the floor.
Like an idiot, I sputtered. “But there’s always the Christmas Village.” Every year since I’d been born. One of Falworth’s very few traditions. It was the thing that differentiated us from the other towns around here in the winter. Although, in recent years, it had been scaled back. Far fewer booths and decorations. The ice-skating rink only operated on weekends. No live music.
Jim sighed and folded his arms. “Things used to be different. Falworth was never like Vienna or Wontana. They’re right on the lake, so they get the summer tourists with all the money.” Well, duh. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know there. Falworth was a twenty-minute drive from the nearest shore. We still got tourists in the summer, but we got the ones with less money. The ones willing to stay in motels or shitty Airbnbs and drive to the water. There were still enough people to buy gas in our town, eat donuts at Diane’s bakery or eggs at Carol’s diner. Enough to fill their coolers with beer from Greta. Enough to wander into Jim’s pub for their evening entertainment.
Enough to keep everyone afloat until the Christmas season, which brought in just enough to keep everyone afloat until April or May when it got warm enough for the lake season to start again.
Jim took another deep breath, possibly enjoying his role as explainer of the town’s doom. “The big problem started about five years ago. Vienna and Wontana decided not to be content with their huge piles of summer gold. They decided to build up their winter tourism.”
Sure, I’d noticed that. The resort in Vienna was offering sleigh rides and Santa every weekend in December. I’d seen signs for a Winter Festival taking place mid-December but hadn’t bothered looking into it. Wontana had built a huge outdoor ice rink, three times the size of ours.
“So,” Jim went on, “when the tourists from Chicago and Milwaukee want to do a small-town Christmas celebration, they get on Google and they find pretty pictures of holiday celebrations in the other towns.” He shrugged philosophically. “Why would they choose us? We can’t compete anymore.”
No winter tourists? I thought of the inventory in Greta’s shop and the pitiful bank balance in the shop’s account. I inhaled sharply and spoke without thinking. “But if I don’t get the holiday bump, the shop won’t make it through the winter.”
The room went silent, and my cheeks flamed.
Then, Diane said: “Neither will the bakery. Or the thrift store.”
And after a brief pause, Jim admitted: “Or the pub. Or the bowling alley.”
Michael looked at everyone wide-eyed, the hero complex in him wanting to help. But how? He was in better shape than the rest of us, but he wasn’t exactly doing great.
Carol’s troubled expression suggested the same. Her diner might make it because it didn’t depend wholly on tourists, but they had to account for a huge chunk of her business. Her eyes filled with tears. “If most of the businesses on the town square go under, it’s not even our town anymore.”
I had to ignore her whispered drama because my thoughts were running wild, trying to find practical solutions. “Couldn’t some of the bigger businesses in the area chip in for the Christmas Village?”
Falworth did have some industry, although not right on the town square. Just a mile away was a plant that made thermoplastic components. On the outskirts of town, another made pumps and pumping equipment. A food company a bit farther out made frozen vegetables. These bigger businesses kept hundreds of locals employed. Surely, they could help out the town.
A ghost of a smile crossed Carol’s face. “Greta said the exact same thing at our spring meeting. She contacted every place we could think of.”
The group sighed in unison. “Half of them ignored her entirely. The other half murmured something encouraging and contributed amounts so tiny, it was laughable.”
I didn’t understand. “Why?”
Jim crossed his arms over his chest. “Because Vienna and Wontana got to them first. The resorts and businesses over there are the main buyers of those companies’ products. If they asked for donations for their holiday celebrations, of course the big companies would donate their cash there instead of here.”
I almost stamped my booted feet like a little kid. “That’s infuriating.” I looked at their faces. Most of them looked really sad, but also…accepting? I suppose they’d had more time to come to terms with it than me.
Why was I so upset anyway?
When I was a teenager, all I’d wanted was to get out of this town. When that dream died, I’d never really come to like it better. Why did I care if the town center faded away, like so many others in small-town America?
Because of Greta. She’d loved this town, and since she was special, it was a little special. She’d been gone two months, and now the whole place was going to go too? And how was I supposed to fulfill my promise to her, to make my life better, if I couldn’t keep her shop going?
“If there’s nothing else for us to cover, I’m gonna go.” Jim got heavily to his feet. Rumor around town was that he and his wife Nicole weren’t doing so well. Their money issues were likely a contributing factor.
The rest of the group started to stand and pull on their coats. Appalled, I jumped to my feet. “That’s—that’s it?” I exclaimed. “We’re just conceding? No Christmas Village, no tourists, and our businesses all die? This is the end?”
Diane raised an eyebrow at me. “If you’ve got a better idea, we’d love to hear it.”
End of Excerpt