Home Coming Soon Catalog Authors Awe-Struck Hard Shell Phaze Submissions
Subscribe to the feed!
Book Likes!
Book Likes!
Farley Brothers Drugs and Sundries

Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries is a collection of short stories set in small towns. Sissy, tomboy protagonist in the title story, types wills for a lawyer, pitches softball, and yearns for "a life." Her yearnings bubble to spill-over point when not one, but two eligible men move to town and put the moves on her. In "Allie's Daring Adventure," a middle-aged housewife decides to add zing to her love life and plots to seduce her fisherman husband. "Cousin Stan Turns on the Charm" features Stan, who hoodwinks the ladies in his retirement trailer park until his more truthful cousin Roy comes to visit. "Driving Delbert Lemieux's Second-best Hearse" follows the misadventures of two feckless buddies as they attempt to deliver a corpse. In "A Man of Means," the protagonist struggles to become someone important, someone the townspeople admire. Dale, in "My Brother's Wife," moves in with his brother's widow and learns that the wild life isn't always the good life. Twelve stories in all, this collection offers laughter-and a tear or two--at our human foibles.

eBook Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release

Kathryn North

     Minnesotan Kathryn North started writing--shoot 'em up westerns--at age twelve, her literature choice the result of reading her father's Zane Grey and Luke Short novels. Marriage to her high school sweetheart, two sons and daughters-in-law, and three grandchildren later, she is still writing and still a fan of cowboys and all things Western, but writes about people closer to home. Her stories are set mainly in the small town Midwest and peopled with characters who worry about the really important things, such as how does an umpire regain control of a softball game when he's just been attacked and kissed by the shortstop, or where to buy sexy underwear if one is a plus-size woman. Kathryn's first novel, Proud Mari, was also published by Hard Shell Word Factory.


"Kathryn's North's stories are wonderful snapshots of American life. Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries and Other Stories provides hours of reading pleasure. Her unforgettable characters practically leap off the page and warm the heart."

Ginny McBlain, author of "Solemn Vows" and "Bear Hugs"

"This anthology begins and ends with a heart-warming romance. In between, it has something for everyone. The little vignettes are beautifully expressed. Some are funny, some are poignant slices of life. The underlying theme is constant: loving is worth working at because it is essential to happiness. I enjoyed Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries thoroughly. It's going on my keeper shelf. I know I will reach for it again and again."

Dee Lloyd -- www.deelloyd.com "UNQUIET SPIRITS" - lusty ghosts, dark secrets, passion and laughter.

"It's about time--but well worth the wait. Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries and Other Stories by Kathryn North is a most satisfying collection of Americana--stories from the Heartland with the emphasis on heart--whether it's an older one afraid of breaking or a young one ready to take the leap. This is a beautifully drawn, eclectic gathering of characters taken from everyday life, tales of hurting souls finding each other, of old loves refreshed and new ones beginning. Stories filled with the humor of folks living a simpler life, or the quiet tragedy when simple isn't good enough. North's spare yet moving prose is utterly captivating. Grab a copy of Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries and Other Stories by Kathryn North, pour a cup of coffee, put your feet up and prepare to enjoy."

Kate Douglas, "Cowboy in My Pocket", "Last of the O'Rourkes


I'M FURTIVELY READING the latest copy of Modern Bride in Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries. It doesn't hurt to be up on the latest fashions. My bravery doesn't extend to buying a copy. That would be as good as an engagement announcement in the local newspaper, if, when I bought it, Freddy Farley was tending the till.

What Freddy Farley knows, everybody in St. Barnabas knows. What Freddy Farley doesn't know, he makes up.

The good people of St. Barnabas, who rarely agree about anything, are in complete accord about the Farleys. If Freddy, rather than Franklin, was the pharmacist, everyone in St. Barnabas would drive twenty miles to Farmingdale for their medications rather than have their biological malfunctions broadcast to the world. Or at least to Sioux County which, if you live in St. Barnabas, is as much of the world as matters.

While Freddy Farley grills the customers, prying into their private lives, Franklin Farley doesn't speak at all. Franklin can carry on whole conversations by nodding his head or, in infrequent instances of great eloquence, grunting. Opinion in St. Barnabas falls into two camps. The first group maintains that Franklin keeps the pharmacy records locked up tight, to prevent Freddy from snooping through them. The second group, less kind, holds that Freddy can't read the prescriptions.

My perusal of Modern Bride falls more into the realm of wishful thinking than of need-to-know. Eligible single men--Freddy Farley is single but a woman would need to be profoundly deaf to consider him eligible--are as scarce in St. Barnabas as sunstrokes in January. To experience either, a woman has to leave town.

So when the new feed store manager turned out to be thirtyish and good-looking in a square, freckled sort of way, and with no evidence of a wife and kiddies, all the single women in town suddenly found reasons to go to the feed store.

Since the feed store caters to the local farmers, we've gotten creative. The store sold out of sunflower seeds forty-eight hours after it opened. St. Barnabas's birds have never been so happy and sleek.

I, personally, have enough sunflower seeds stored in my garage to gorge every one of our gluttonous feathered friends between here and Fargo.

I suppose I should get a bird feeder.

What I should get is a life. I put down Modern Bride and pick up True Confessions. Instead of virginal, I'll go for trashy. Rats! I can't buy that from Freddy, either. My mother will hear about it before I get out the door and I'll receive another earnest lecture about wasting my mind on worthless reading when we have a library full of the classics. My mother is the city librarian, so you better believe there's nothing in the library that would raise an eyebrow, even at the Thursday night deacons' meeting at the St. Barnabas Community Church.

Maybe I can sneak over to the drug counter and buy my contraband magazine from Franklin. If he hasn't told anyone about my humiliating rash, one sleazy magazine ought to be a safe purchase.

While I'm digging in my purse for change, the bells hanging over the door, chime. Everyone in Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries--which is me, Freddy, Franklin, and Mrs. Purdy browsing over in the Colds and Allergies section--looks up, inspecting the newcomer.

I've never seen her in St. Barnabas. I sidle around the magazine rack for a better look.

The woman is in her late forties, blonde, thin as a rake, artfully made up and beautifully dressed.

"Who is she?" Mrs. Purdy whispers.

"I don't know," I whisper back.

"I'll tell you one thing. She didn't get that red wool suit off the rack at Wal-Mart. I wonder what she paid for it?"

Mrs. Purdy is right about the suit. It's tailored, and trimmed in black, which matches her black leather case, which matches her black leather pumps. Her ash blonde hair is styled in a short, sleek style that displays her heavy gold earrings. The likes of her doesn't come into Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries every day.

"Look at that old fool, Freddy." Mrs. Purdy's chapped, reddened lips stretch in a sneer. "He's acting like a coon hound on the scent."

There is a bounding, tail-wagging aura about Freddy as he approaches the woman. "Well, hel-lo," he says. "I don't believe I've seen you in here before. Are you new to our community?"

"Hello." The woman sets down her case and extends her hand. "My name is Millicent Meriweather. Are you the manager?"

Freddy's grin is so wide, I'm sure the woman can count his fillings, including the ones in his back teeth. "I'm Frederick Farley, the owner." He pumps her hand with hearty good will.

She tells him she represents one of the major cosmetic companies. I lose interest. "Bye," I whisper to Mrs. Purdy. Clutching my magazine, I hurry to the drug counter to pay for it and make my getaway while Freddy is trying to impress the woman in red. Since his idea of a natty wardrobe relies heavily on plaid polyester, I figure he doesn't stand a chance.

I hand True Confessions to Franklin Farley. He rings up the sale on the cash register and holds out his hand for my money. Without a word being exchanged between us, he puts the magazine in a bag and hands me the bag and my change.

Lunch hour is over. Back at Quincy's Law Office, I hang my team windbreaker, which is navy with "St. Barnabas All-Stars" printed in white on the back, and my denim shoulder bag in the closet. I inspect my desk, but there's nothing on it except the bouquet of autumn leaves I brought to work on Tuesday and a note to remind my boss, Harford Quincy, that he has a Rotary Club committee meeting Monday evening. I pull Henry and Clara Anderson's file and turn on my word processor.

Four more hours and the weekend will officially start. Harford never schedules Friday afternoon appointments. Maybe I'll get lucky and he'll visit his lady friend over in Farmingdale and not show up until Monday. Clutching that hope to my heart, I start typing.

Sally calls around four. "Let's rent a couple of movies and pick up a pizza for tonight."

I've known Sally since before we started kindergarten. She was giggly, diminutive, and freckled. I was the tallest kid in the class and could outrun and outfight any of the boys. Sally is a close friend, but I'm darned sick and tired of spending my Friday nights with her, pigging out on pizza and watching films from Rent-a-Flick. I ask her, "Has it ever occurred to you that we both need to get a life?"

"Yeah, but the question is, can we get one here in St. Barnabas?" Sally snaps her gum and hangs up.

I glumly follow suit. In St. Barnabas, even the all-night Food 'N Fuel closes at midnight. Unless I meet some nice farmer and fall passionately in love and raise half a dozen rug rats, St. Barnabas doesn't hold much future.

Why am I still here? It's something I ask myself daily.

My family lives here. Dad is head janitor at the school. Mom, as I said, runs the library. My older sister, Joanie, is married to a local farmer and is busy raising a garden, her husband's consciousness, and three preschool juvenile delinquents-in-training. Our family has always produced over-achievers. Except for me.

Besides my family, St. Barnabas has something else in its favor. Sioux County is one of the most beautiful areas in the western part of the state. We're in late September just now and the hardwoods are turning every imaginable shade of gold and scarlet. I love to ramble in the woods and along the shores of Maple Lake.

I don't know if I can tough it out alone in an urban world and I have a sinking feeling that eligible single men my age might be as scarce as hen's teeth no matter where I live. Last spring, I turned thirty and have been in an acute panic mode ever since.

Although she's tried heroically to hide it, so has my mother.

My father divides his time between running the school--which he is certain is the province of the head janitor--and preparing for fishing season, fishing, or reliving highlights of fishing seasons past. He tends not to notice much that comes without gills and fins.

My mother might despair of her tall tomboy daughter, but my father was happy to turn me into a make-do son. I can throw a curve ball or tie a fishing fly, but the mysteries of eye shadow are beyond me.

SALLY ARRIVES AT six, bearing pizza and a bottle of cheap Chianti. She brandishes the wine. "Girlfriend, do I need this tonight."

Since Sally always says this on Friday nights, I am not seriously alarmed.

The phone rings.

My mother. She never wastes time. "I told Joanie I'd baby-sit for them tonight, so they could go out for dinner. But I'm coming down with a humdinger of a cold and I don't want the kids to catch it. Could you run out to Joanie's for a couple of hours and get the kids to bed? She and Bob haven't been out in ages."

You'll notice my mother hasn't asked me if I'm busy. My family tends to think of my evenings as a barren wasteland just awaiting exploitation. By them. It would be funny, if it weren't so close to the truth.

"I can't. Sally is here and we have plans for the evening." I know that if I say we're going to watch movies, my mother will blithely assume we wouldn't mind watching "Ernest Goes to Camp" for the twenty-sixth time while Joanie's monsters spill pop on the carpet and pelt each other with popcorn.

"Bring Sally with you," my mother says. "She'll enjoy the kids."

Right. Baby-sitting my beloved nephews ranks right up there with my yearly gynecological exam. The little horrors aren't related to Sally, so she's bound to enjoy it even less.

I'm trying to think of what would be even less desirable than having a doctor with cold hands stick a colder piece of steel into my private parts when my mother says, "Joanie will expect you there about seven."

"Wait a minute, Mom! I haven't said I'll go." Yet. It does seem inevitable.

Sally's eavesdropping. Her expressive features twist into a grimace of revulsion. "Not on your life! Don't you dare say we'll baby-sit those brats!"

"Can't Dad baby-sit?" I ask Mom.

"Now, honey, you know the Twins are on TV tonight."

Twins or not, I still don't want to baby-sit. "I'm sorry, but I can't, not this time. Joanie will have to pay a sitter."

My mother sputters. My unprecedented refusal has obviously taken her by surprise.

"I have to go now, Mom. Sally is waiting." I rest the telephone receiver in its cradle.

"Way to go!" Sally cheers.

I eye the cooling pizza. "Let's go out to eat. I'm tired of spending every Friday night at home."

"I wonder what Jack From The Feed Store is doing tonight."

"The heck with Jack." I look down at the pizza with distaste. "We deserve a night out. Get your coat."

"I wonder if he's out with Heather. She's been at the feed store every day this week." Sally sounds snippy.

"How do you know?"

"I can see the feed store from my office window."

Sally works for her family's business, Arneson's Propane, which is right across the street from the feed store. The last time I was there her desk was shoved back in a corner and she'd pinned a photo of Patrick Swayze on the wall next to this year's edition of Arneson's Propane Scenic Calendar.

I ask, "Since when can you see the feed store?"

Sally waves one hand, airily. "Since I rearranged the office last week."

Goodbye, Patrick. Hello, Jack From The Feed Store. I'm not sure Sally has made the right choice. "How do you know how often Heather was there?"

"I just happened to notice."

I groan. "Sally, don't you ever have to work?"

"Certainly. But I have to glance up from time to time, to rest my eyes." She tries for a suitably sober expression, but it breaks up and she giggles.

"You're hopeless. C'mon. Let's go get a decent dinner. I'll just change out of this." I glance down at my faded St. Barnabas Bears sweatshirt.

"Okay, but if I have to go home and change, let's splurge and go to the Grain Bin."

I doubtfully consider my finances and give in. It's been ages since I had a nice evening out. "The Grain Bin it is."

The Grain Bin is the fanciest restaurant in St. Barnabas, with white tablecloths and a real flower in a bud vase on each table. We put our names on the hostess's list and head for the bar. The bar is crowded, but Sally spots one empty table. We rush to claim it, sliding into chairs before someone else can beat us to them.

"Oh, hallelujah!" Sally rolls her eyes. "See who's at the next table?"

I look up from hanging my All-Stars jacket over the back of the chair and see Jack From The Feed Store and Heather. Or Heather the slut, a title Sally bestowed on her when she lured away Sally's eleventh grade steady.

Obviously dateless, here we are. Just what we needed to make this a truly standout, rotten Friday night. Which is saying a lot, given our history.

I would never admit it to Sally, but Heather looks great, in a slutty sort of way. She's wearing a slinky dress that makes the most of her considerable cleavage and dangling sparkly earrings that nearly touch her shoulders. Bronze lipstick coats her lips and her eyelids are encrusted with gold dust eye shadow from Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries. Her blonde hair is piled high on her head. Every one of those platinum locks has been bleached to the brittle consistency of straw, but what man would ever catch on to that?

Jack From The Feed Store probably thinks he's out on a date with Miss World.

I kick Sally under the table and hiss, "Whose idea was it to come to the Grain Bin tonight?"

"Where else were we going to go? The drive-in?" Sally hisses back.

I can see that Heather is as busy ostensibly ignoring us as we're ostensibly ignoring her. Jack From The Feed Store appears to have eyes for no one but his glamorous date.

Trudy, the waitress, stops by our table. She's Joanie's age and Sally and I have known her for years. "Out for a night on the town?" she asks.

"Actually, we're waiting--" Sally begins.

"Waiting for a table," I interrupt. If I know Sally, she is about to say something outrageous. Like we are waiting for our dates. Who will never materialize.

"Want a drink while you wait?" Trudy asks.

"I'll have a martini. Extra dry," Sally announces.

Trudy and I both goggle at her. Trudy says, "Geez. I don't know if the bartender has ever made one of those."

"That's what I want."

Trudy turns to me. "Do you want one, too?"

Sally's reckless air is catching. "Sure. Why not?"

In the back of my mind, I acknowledge that I'm still foolishly trying to impress Jack From The Feed Store, even though he strikes me as a beer and venison jerky kind of guy. Right now, he appears to be contemplating a headlong dive into the plunging neckline on Heather's dress.

At least he'll have a soft landing.

"Two extra dry martinis. Got it." Trudy strides away in her heavy-soled tennis shoes.

Our martinis arrive. I taste mine and nearly gag. "That's terrible! It tastes like pine needles."

Sally swallows and tries another sip. "It isn't so bad." Her eyes water.

By the third swallow my throat is numbing and the drink no longer tastes so forest-y. By the time Sally and I reach the bottoms of our glasses, we are feeling pretty darned sophisticated and blas´┐Ż.

Shaking her head, Trudy takes our order for another round.

I sneak a glance at Jack From The Feed Store, and Heather. "I wonder what Jack would say if one of Heather's false eyelashes came loose and fell onto the table?"

Sally giggles. "It would sit there like a huge, feathery spider."

We agree that would be pretty funny.

The second martini goes down easier. When we order a third round, Trudy frowns. "Are you sure you don't want something else? Maybe a big cup of coffee?"

"Nope. We want extra dry martinis." Sally sounds as decisive as ever, but the reddening skin on her neck looks hot enough to ignite a match.

Part way through the third extra dry martini, I decide it really, really would be hilarious if one of Heather's eyelashes fell off. Besides, it would force Jack From The Feed Store to look below the surface. Or in this case, above the chin. "Men are so damned superficial," I mutter.

Over her martini, Sally stares glassy-eyed at me. "That's news?"

I share my conviction about the eyelash. Sally thinks it's a marvelous, a stupendous, idea. "Let's go over there and do it!"

"We can't." But... "How could we?"

"You distract the lovebirds and leave the rest to me."

A last remnant of common sense briefly combats the gin fumes pickling my brain cells. "Aw, we better not. She probably has it glued on with super glue and you'll tear her eyelid off."

"Haven't you ever worn false eyelashes? They're stuck on with a sticky strip. They fall off on their own all the time." Sally pushes back her chair and struggles to her feet. "I'll just help it along."

She scowls at me. "Well, come on."

We pick up our extra dry martinis and surge over to join Heather and Jack From The Feed Store. Heather doesn't appear thrilled by our friendly overture, but Jack invites us to join them.

"Don't mind if we do," Sally says. Giving me a significant glance as she does so, she picks the chair closest to Heather's.

I mumble something and more or less flop into the fourth chair. As I sit down, my knee brushes Jack's.

"Urg," I say, and take a hasty sip of my extra dry martini.

Jack looks at me like he's wondering what I'm up to. He doesn't move away, though. I decide this is a good sign.

Heather stares at me. "How nice of you to join us," she says. I don't think she means it because at the same time she's giving me the evil eye.

"We saw you two come in," Jack says, smiling. I think he's probably required in his contract to smile at all feed store customers. Even those who only buy sunflower seeds in one-pound sacks.

"Ask them," Sally prods, looking at me.

"Ask us what?" Heather's eyes narrow menacingly.

"Well, um..." I nudge my benumbed mind, hoping for a response. Any response. "Are we having fun yet?" I try for a sprightly tone of voice.

Heather stares at me as if I've lost my mind, a legitimate concern. Jack edges his chair away from me.

From the corner of my eye, I glimpse a blur of movement.

"You...you...look what you've done!" Heather shrieks.

I stare in fascinated horror at the black, hairy object embellishing Heather's strawberry margarita. I could swear I see it move.

"I'll get the manager over here." Jack signals for Trudy.

I feel every eye in the place staring a hole into my back. Across from me, Sally sips her extra dry martini. She sets it down delicately. "What happened?" she asks Heather. "Did an eyelash come loose?"

Heather's face has taken on a neon pink glow which surpasses her glittery dress in wattage output. "As if you didn't know. You did it on purpose!"

"It's your eyelash. Not mine." Sally leans back in her chair.

Trudy arrives at the table, fervent curiosity sparkling in her eyes. "What's happened?"

"A big spider dropped off the ceiling into Heather's drink." Jack's male tones, weighted with accusation, override our weak responses.

Trudy stares at the glass, then at Heather, who is trying to covertly cover her naked eye with one hand. "Come with me. We'll set things to right," she says, looking as if she's struggling to keep a straight face. She picks up the margarita glass.

After one last glare at Sally, Heather follows Trudy from the room. Her back straight, she marches between the tables, looking neither left nor right. You gotta admire her guts.

"Eyelash?" Jack asks. "It wasn't a spider?"

Seeing the triumphant smirk spreading across Sally's face, I search for a way to intervene. "That happens sometimes," I say. "They come loose. When Heather comes back, she'll be okay."

This, I know, is a blatant lie. Heather is so steaming mad her hair spray is probably melting down to a gummy varnish.

Jack frowns. "All this fuss about an eyelash?"

"It was the surprise," Sally offers. She smiles, looking as angelic as only a carroty redhead spattered with freckles can look. She's been trading on that totally unwarranted impression ever since Miss Flora's class.

I long for our table to be ready in the dining room, so we can beat it out of here.

A stir at the doorway draws attention away from us. I'm so relieved I feel as if I could ooze under the table, but we need to make a quick getaway now, while the getting is good.

Sally gasps. "Look!"

In the doorway stands the woman in red, framed by not one but both Farley brothers.

Like a poppy between thistles.

I hear Jack's deep intake of breath.

"Who's she?" Sally asks.

"A cosmetics saleswoman," I answer. "She came in the drug store while I was there."

"I wonder what she paid for that suit?" Sally's tone sounds reverent.

At this inopportune moment, a dining room waiter comes to tell us our table is ready.

We reluctantly trail after him into the next room, where he seats us at a small table pushed against the wall. We make quick work of ordering. The Grain Bin always has a Friday night all-you-can-eat bullhead special.

As he hurries away, a grin spreads across Sally's face. She mimics Jack's voice. "All this fuss about an eyelash?"

I snicker. "It was sure funny."

Sally snorts, trying to contain her laughter. "Hilarious. It looked just like a big, obscene, hairy spider."

Fueled by three extra dry martinis each, we chortle until I notice we're drawing attention from the surrounding diners. I wipe my streaming eyes and try to compose myself. "The next time you buy hamburger, Heather will probably pack it full of ground glass."

Heather works at Full Value Grocery.

"Why me? It was your idea."

"Yeah, but you did it." I swallow a final cackle and sit up straight. "How did you do it?"

Sally giggles. "I just reached over and gave it tug. It came right off and fell straight into her drink. Bull's-eye."

A stir, not of our making this time, ripples through the dining room. The woman in red, with Freddy and Franklin Farley behind her, is winding her way between the tables. The trio stops at the table next to us and Freddy gallops around to joust with the waiter for the right to seat her. Franklin waits courteously beside his chair. The woman in red lowers herself gracefully into her chair and smiles over her shoulder at Freddy. The light from the candle in the hurricane glass catches the gold at her earlobes and throat and it sparkles. I look at Franklin just in time to see the bedazzled look in his eyes.

Whatever she's selling, Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries will soon be stocking.

If she's using what she sells, it looks great. She's made up as heavily as Heather, but far more skillfully.

Now that I'm closer, I can see a hint of the well-camouflaged lines around her eyes and mouth. I revise my original opinion of her age a decade upward.

Our salads arrive, bowls of iceberg lettuce with one paper-thin tomato slice centered in each bowl. To make up for the scarcity of ingredients, the salads are heavily doused with overly sweet French dressing.

The faint taste of pine needles lingering in my mouth does not appear compatible with French dressing. I push away my salad.

The waiter goes to the table next to us. Freddy and Franklin order the Friday Special. The woman in red orders a small chef's salad with dressing on the side.

The waiter asks if they'd like a drink. The woman orders white wine. Freddy, grinning like a fool, says, "Make that two."

"Coffee for you?" the waiter asks Franklin.

Franklin nods.

I'm impressed. Franklin must eat here often enough so the waiter knows what he likes. I didn't have Franklin figured for the man about town type.

Not that St. Barnabas has any.

Heather and Jack come in and are, to my relief, seated across the room from us. If the murder in Heather's expression is anything to go by, Sally should expire, face first, in her French dressing.

"This is good." Sally forks up another sheaf of lettuce, the thick red dressing dripping off it.

I swallow, trying to eradicate the unpleasant aftertaste of pine. "Aren't you afraid you'll get sick?"

"Naw. I never get sick."

Our meals arrive. I pick at my fish. My stomach feels as if a pine forest is taking root there. I feel the roots digging around and edging into places they've no business being. Sally attacks her food with bleary gusto.

A glance around the dining room reveals one more unpleasant facet of this evening. Joanie and Bob are at a table some distance away. Bob is busy eating. Joanie is busy glowering at me.

I look away.

Next door, the Farleys finish their meals and their guest quits pushing the salad around her plate. She and Freddy have been gaily chatting while Franklin observes. Now she lifts her briefcase from beside her chair, clears room for it on the table, and takes out brochures and folders.

I'm disappointed. Here I thought a romantic triangle was in the works and, instead, this has turned out to be a business dinner.

She goes through her pitch, producing various pieces of literature. I listen with intense concentration, trying to block out the sight and sound of Sally eating greasy fried fish and greasy fried potatoes. Freddy continually interrupts the woman and makes witty comments. Franklin sips his coffee. Finally, as she pauses and Freddy once again leaps in with an old joke, Franklin interrupts. "We'll take it."

This might be the first time I've heard Franklin Farley speak.

"How much?" the woman asks. "Perhaps the starter kit, with the countertop display?"

"We'll take all of it. The works." Franklin folds his napkin and sets that and his cup to one side.

My mouth and Freddy's both drop open. The woman covers her surprised expression with a smile. "I'll order it tomorrow. I can see it will be a pleasure doing business with you." She extends her hand to Franklin.

He eyes it, then shakes hands with her.

Freddy leaps in with an invitation for a nightcap. The saleswoman takes him up on it and the last I see of the three of them, they're heading into the bar.

Sally and I leave shortly afterwards. Contrary to my gloomy expectations, she does not upchuck in my car. She saves it until she gets upstairs to her apartment. I cannot watch without my own stomach churning, and flee.

LIFE TRUDGES ALONG in St. Barnabas for a couple of weeks. Aside from my mother's not-so-delicate probing about how much I'd had to drink at the Grain Bin, and Joanie being in a major snit with me, everything goes on as usual. Harford Quincy regularly disappears in the direction of Farmingdale and, as regularly, reappears with a smile on his face. The following Friday night, Sally and I share a pizza at her place and rent "You've Got Mail" and "When Harry Meets Sally."

Saturday night I succumb to parent-inflicted guilt and baby-sit Joanie's boys. They spill grape juice on my carpet. While I'm struggling to mop up the juice, the boys rub half a jar of peanut butter on my cat. This is an endeavor to which Muffy takes explosive exception.

After a flinty-eyed Joanie takes her scratched and bleeding offspring home, I spend three hours luring Muffy out from under my bed and cleaning the peanut butter--which is now liberally infiltrated with dust bunnies--from her fur.

It is an activity neither of us enjoys.

The poor cat spends the next week hiding under furniture and hissing at anyone who comes within five feet of her.

Muffy will recover, in time. The carpet will not.

When I apply to my mother for sympathy, she says, "You should know better than to give small children grape juice."

"Thanks for that valuable, if somewhat tardy, advice," I mutter under my breath.

My mother has ears like Radar in the old M.A.S.H. TV show. "You'll know better next time." She sounds downright cheerful.

My mother is always at her perky best when she's trying to talk me into, or out of, something. This time her objective is to talk me out of presenting Joanie with a bill for new carpeting.

Mother has managed, during her career at the library, to wring additional funds out of the uninterested city council almost every year. She's a heroine to the Sioux County library set, the rest of whom gloomily watch as, year after year, new athletic fields appear and new ice hockey rinks are built while their libraries' roofs leak and they are forced to cut staff because they're under-funded.

I'm not nearly as tough as the council members. I diagram new furniture arrangements in an unsuccessful attempt to hide the awkwardly placed stain. Finally I give up and buy an area rug, vowing that I will never, ever again, no matter what my mother says, baby-sit Joanie's monsters.

The words have a familiar ring.

At work the following Thursday, I receive an unexpected phone call.

"Good morning. Quincy Law Office." I'm concentrating on keeping my place in the will I'm typing and am listening to the phone with only a fraction of my attention. The caller repeats his name twice before I catch it.

"Jack?" For the life of me, I can't think of one client named Jack.

"Jack Harmon." There's a note of irritation in his voice. "I manage the feed store."

Jack From The Feed Store. My voice drops half an octave and takes on breathy overtones. "Jack. Of course I know who you are. Would you like an appointment with Mr. Quincy?"

"I called to talk to you. What are you doing tomorrow night?"

I can't believe I'm hearing this. Afraid to assume anything, I ask, "Why?"

"I thought we could go out for dinner. How does that sound?"

Hot ziggedy dog! I mentally turn cartwheels across the office, trying for a friendly nonchalance as I clutch the phone with sweaty fingers and agree. Friday night.

I wonder if we'll go to the Grain Bin. I sure hope not.

At home, I survey my closet. Nothing, absolutely nothing there comes even close to competing with Heather's slinky little number. I have a real date with a living, breathing male under the age of forty, and not a danged thing to wear.

The doorbell rings.

I fling the door open. Sally stands on the apartment landing, a determined look on her face. "I've come to take you shopping."

"Right now?"

She marches inside. "So, okay, we'll look in your closet. Then we'll go shopping."

I jump back to avoid getting my toes trampled and trail after her into the bedroom. It looks like a rummage sale that's exploded. Clothing lies everywhere: jeans, tees, sweatshirts, sensible slacks or skirts and blazers for work. A couple of what my mother calls "nice dresses," suitable for singing alto in the church choir while wearing an enveloping robe.

Sally pounces on them. "Did you mother buy these for you?" Accusingly, she brandishes one of the offenders, a figured number with short, capped sleeves and a pleated skirt.

"Yes. She says the shirtwaist style gives my figure more shape. I'm too skinny."

Sally snorts. "You aren't skinny. And, girlfriend, you do not have one single garment in this whole sorry mess that's suitable for a hot date."

I hang my head. "I know."

"Get your coat. We have two hours until the Farmingdale mall closes."

Sally aims her car down the highway and accelerates. I cling, white-knuckled, to the armrest.

Once inside the mall, I turn toward the Sears store.

"Absolutely not." Sally grabs my arm. "You don't want to look like someone at every third table."

She marches me down the corridor until we come to a boutique that caters, as far as I can tell, to the high school crowd. Everything is short, tight, colorful, and designed to show as much flesh as legally permissible. I dig in my heels. "I'd never dare take off my coat."

Sally groans. "Oh, all right. I hope you have your credit card."

She herds me along until we reach Della's, a small exclusive store with big outrageous prices. Sally enlists the clerk in our quest. In two minutes I have scrunched my five-foot nine-inch self into a cubicle designed for a four-year-old and am trying on clothes.

I ask for something dark, that covers my knees. Hot dates are few and far between and I'll probably be singing alto in the church choir for the next thirty years. The clerk brings me a black silk dress that is slit from the neck to the waist in front and up practically to my behind in back.

I swallow. "I can't wear this. It's one small rip away from arrest for indecent exposure. Take it back."

A minute later, a martial gleam in her eyes, Sally returns with the dress and hangs it on a hook.

I tell the clerk that I want something that covers me, without the slits. She brings three dresses, all in the same style. It covers me, all right. To a point. Long sleeves. A turtleneck. No slits. But it ends six inches above my knees. All in a knit with a subtle sheen, in fuchsia, black, and emerald green. When I reach for the black, Sally hands me the fuchsia. "This one."

It fits. Really well. Really, really well. "It's too tight. I can't walk in this."

The saleswoman smiles, tired eyes patient. "This is a knit. It conforms to your body shape. It is meant to give the illusion one cannot sit or walk in it. That is part of its allure. This is a very sexy dress."

Sally considers it. "I like it, but let's try a couple of others."

Without consulting me, they both turn and stride away.

They return with a bright turquoise satin slip. A very short slip. I ask, "Where's the dress?"

Sally rolls her eyes. "This is the dress. Where have you been the last few years?"

"It will look fantastic on you," the saleswoman says. "It will complement your slender figure and dark coloring."

I figure her enthusiasm means this dress is the most expensive. I haven't dared look at the price tags.

The saleswoman pins me with a commanding gaze. "This garment is designed so only pantyhose can be worn beneath it. Anything else will show."

"Don't just stand there," Sally says. "Try it on."

I moan. "You could at least close the cubicle door."

"Okay. But don't dawdle."

I strip to my birthday suit and slip into the dress. It slides down over my bare body soft as a whisper and floats into place. I stare in the mirror. The only thing left to the imagination is my shoe size.

One look at me in this dress and my mother would have a coronary.

I wonder what Jack From The Feed Store would think. Then reality intrudes. This is fall, in Minnesota. Winter will soon be on its way. In this dress, with no underwear, I will freeze.

Sally almost has a coronary when I don't take it.

The saleswoman looks at me. "Are you buying a dress for a special occasion?"

"Just to go out to dinner."

She removes the rosy-pink knit dress with the turtleneck from its hanger. "This, then, is what you should buy. In the fuchsia, to make the most of your coloring." She holds up a finger, admonishingly. "Wear only a pair of diamond earrings with this and perhaps a bracelet. The dress does not need ornamentation."

"Okay," I mumble. I wonder if cubic zirconium will work instead of diamonds. I sure hope so.

When she rings up the total, I almost faint. Sally then hauls me to a shoe store where, five minutes before closing, we buy a pair of strappy black pumps with 3-inch heels. "I'm already too tall," I object. "I can't wear heels that high."

"Quit whining. You have legs to die for. That dress and these shoes will show them off." Sally hands the clerk my charge card. "She'll take them."

Sally decides a celebratory drink is called for. We end up in a small supper club on the outskirts of Farmingdale. I remember the martinis. "We shouldn't drink on empty stomachs."

We settle for hamburgers and salad and a beer each, and eat them in the bar. I'm wearing jeans and my faded St. Barnabas Bears sweatshirt and I can't remember if I combed my hair after trying on the last dress. I take comfort from the fact that Sally doesn't look any better and we haven't seen anyone we know.

I feel someone's eyes on me and wonder if that is going to be a permanent condition, after the Grain Bin fiasco. I lean toward Sally. "Who's sitting behind us?"

She looks and her eyes widen. A smile spreads across her freckled face. "Two verrry interesting guys." She sounds breathless. "They're coming over. Omigod, does my hair look as terrible as yours?"

"Worse," I spitefully assure her, having no idea what my hair actually looks like.

A deep voice caresses my ears. "Mind if we join you?"

"Not at all." Sally flutters her eyelashes.

I can't believe it. I've known Sally for almost thirty years and I have never before seen her flutter her eyelashes. Obviously, on Friday nights we've been watching way too many old movies.

The guys introduce themselves. Dan is the medium-sized, clean-shaven one with light brown hair. Tate is taller, at least six feet, suntanned to a toasty brown, with shaggy dark brown hair and a mustache. They're dressed uniformly in billed caps, dark tees, dusty jeans and boots. They look as if they have just come from work.

Sally and Dan are talking a mile a minute. Like it's a contest.

Tate smiles at me and takes another swallow of his beer. Suddenly parched, I reach for my glass. It's empty.

He stands, towering over the table. "I'll get refills. What are you girls drinking?"

After awhile, Sally gets the idea to stick some money in the jukebox. She and Dan push some empty tables against the wall and dance.

Tate and I silently watch them. I'm getting seriously annoyed. He's insensitive and rude, just sitting there like a lump. One little dance won't kill him. I get to my feet and turn to him.

He looks up at me and something in his expression lightens. "Sure. Why not?"

We sway together, more or less in time with the music. I get the feeling that dancing isn't high on his list of preferred activities. Either that or he hasn't done it for a while.

He steps squarely on my toes. I wince. "Ouch!"

He falters, missing a step. His face flushes. "Sorry. Guess I'm out of practice. Do you want to sit down before I cripple you?"

His embarrassment is endearing. I say, "Of course not. We'll get the hang of it."

We manage not to trample each other's feet too badly before the song ends. The two of us even dance a few more slow numbers. All this time, Sally and Dan are out in the middle of the floor, looking like competitors in a dance contest.

Finally, they return to the table. "It's nearly midnight," I tell Sally. "We should leave."

She starts to object. Tate interrupts her. "Us, too. Five o'clock is going to come way too early."

We make our farewells and leave at the same time, Sally and I in her little compact and the guys in a monster truck with halogen lights and roll bars.

"Dan asked if he could see me again." Sally sounds jubilant.

"Are you going to?"

"You bet I am. He's loads of fun."

"Sally, we don't know anything about them. For all we know, they could be married."

She considers that. "I don't think so. Dan seemed too carefree to be married."

"Sheesh. What a thing to say. Like you can't be carefree and also married?" But you can't. She and I have both seen enough of our friends change after marriage to know that.

"D'ya think Tate's married?" she asks.

"No..." I hesitate. "I'm not sure. He was quiet and didn't ask to see me again. Although we didn't hit it off, like you two did." I produce a wry grin. "In any case, I don't think it'll become an issue for me. I doubt I'll ever see him again."

We drive in silence for a while.

Sally says, "We should get out of St. Barnabas more often. Tonight was the most fun I've had in ages."

I don't answer.

THE NEXT DAY on my lunch hour I go to Farley Brothers Drugs & Sundries to get some lipstick that matches my new dress. Inside the door I stop, surprised to see the woman in red. Today she's wearing a red sweater and slacks. She's setting up a display for her cosmetic line. Freddy hovers at her elbow. Franklin is back at the drug counter, waiting on a customer. Everyone ignores me, which is great. I don't need Freddy pumping me while I dig through the lipstick.

The woman spots me. "Can I help you?" she asks with a friendly smile.

"I need a bright pink lipstick. To match this." I pull a square of colored paper from my purse.

"Excellent! This way we'll be sure we get a good match." She opens a box and removes a lipstick display unit. From another box she takes lipstick and begins slotting the tubes into the display unit. "If you can wait just a minute, I have one I know will be perfect."

She does. She also has matching lip liner, plus foundation, eyeliner, mascara, creamy eye shadow in two colors, and two shades of blush that she assures me will go perfectly with my dark hair and olive complexion. She has a good eye, I'll give her that. She spends the rest of my lunch hour giving me an impromptu lesson on how to apply all my newly purchased magic. I'm astonished by the me that looks back from the mirror Franklin silently brings us.

"You don't have a little genie in a bottle that can help me put all this stuff on correctly tonight, do you?"

She smiles warmly at me. "You'll do just fine. Just remember to use the lip liner and do two applications of lipstick, blotting to set them, then apply gloss over the top."

I hand the armload of cosmetics and my credit card to Freddy. "Big date tonight?" he asks. "Anyone I know?"

I squirm. "I don't think so."

"Oh? I thought maybe it was with that young man over at the feed store. He gets around." Freddy leers at me, clearly waiting for me to ask about Jack.

I sign the charge slip and escape without answering.

When I return to the office, Harford has disappeared again. With only momentary guilt, I close the office an hour early and head home to get ready for my big date with Jack From The Feed Store.

Sally arrives a few minutes after five. She grins at me. "I'm here to make sure you don't chicken out about the new dress. I can get ready for my date with Dan at the same time." She indicates the garment bag she's carrying.

"Your date with Dan?"

"Yep. He called me at work today." She dimples. "Dan said to bring my dancing slippers."

"That sounds like fun." I try to infuse my voice with enthusiasm instead of envy. All at once a staid evening at a restaurant doesn't sound terribly exciting.

We laugh and vie for room at the mirror and spill perfume and generally get in each other's way, but by the appointed time we're both ready.

"My mother would say you look cute as a bug's ear," I tell Sally.

She giggles. "Haven't you ever wondered what that means? Who ever saw a bug's ear?"

But she does look cute. Her fitted aqua dress has a slit up one side so she can dance. Silver and turquoise earrings dangle from her ears.

The doorbell rings. We stare at each other. I say, "Somebody better answer it."

Sally sashays to the door and opens it. Jack From The Feed Store's mouth visibly drops open as he gets a load of Sally in her form-fitting finery. I snap out of my trance and invite Jack in for a drink, which he instantly accepts. We've just all sat down in the living room, drinks in hand, when the doorbell rings again.

This time it's Dan, rigged out in his denim best. He clutches his chest over his heart and pretends to stagger as he grins at Sally. "Very cool, babe," he says. "I'll be fighting the guys off tonight." Sally giggles and dimples at him. I can see Jack is taking this all in.

I shake hands with Dan and offer him a drink. He declines, but not before snatching off his cap and fanning himself with it. "You two girls clean up mighty fine," he says. "Mighty fine."

"You do, too," I say. I can see what Sally likes about this guy.

He and Sally leave. After Jack finishes his drink, we drive to Farmingdale. I ask if he's been busy at the feed store. He says he has.

He asks if I'm attracting many birds to my bird feeder. I lie and say I gave the sunflower seeds to my mother, for her feeder.

We comment on the beautiful autumn weather.

The drive to Farmingdale takes a long time. Then it turns out Jack has made reservations at the same supper club Sally and I were at the night before. We are early, so Jack suggests going to the bar for another drink.

The first person I see is Tate, sitting at a table with a petite brunette. In place of work clothes, he's wearing slacks and a knit shirt. He and the brunette make an arresting couple, but they do not look like they're having fun.

Until now, it hasn't bothered me that, in my 3-inch heels, I'm a couple of inches taller than Jack.

I don't exactly walk past Tate with my nose in the air, but I hope I appear so interested in my escort that I haven't even noticed who else is in the bar. I wonder if the woman is his wife or his girlfriend. From the way they're studiously ignoring each other, they obviously aren't casual acquaintances.

Jacks opts for a shadowy corner and stands too close as he seats me. "You look terrific tonight," he says, his voice lowered and intimate.

Through two more whiskeys, he continues with variations on that theme. One compliment and I might have believed him. Now, as he beats the subject into the ground, I decide he's either a lying so-and-so or he puts way too much importance on appearance.

"You are so sexy. That dress is so damned sexy. I could hardly believe it was you." He reaches across the table and clasps my hand. "Baby, you look good enough to eat."

This guy is starting to seriously annoy me. "I'm the same person I was yesterday." I hear the anger in my voice.

"Same chicken. Finer feathers, is all." I recognize the smoky voice.

Tate looms over us and smiles at me. "Hi, again."

I grind my teeth and try for a cool smile. "Tate." I introduce him to Jack.

Jack looks like somebody just planted a stink bomb in the feed store.

Tate shakes hands with Jack. "Nice to meet you."

"Yeah, nice to meet you, too." Jack sounds as if it's been anything but nice.

After he leaves, Jack suggests we order another drink. I haven't touched my second one yet. I point that out to him. I'm saved from an argument by the waiter who tells us our table is ready.

After we order, I look around. "I can't believe it."

"What?" Jacks slews around in his chair to stare.

In a booth in the corner, Freddy and the cosmetic saleswoman are sitting side by side. Freddy is talking. She is listening, looking interested in what he's telling her. There's no accounting for taste.

"Those Farley guys must have a bundle of money. They're older than dust and I bet they've never spent a dime," Jack says. Our meal arrives. Jack is telling me an anecdote about something that happened at the feed store. I'm sitting, eating, and trying to look interested. At least when he's eating, he isn't trying to touch me.

I feel someone looking at me and glance up. It's the cosmetic saleswoman. She smiles and waggles her fingers at me. I wonder if she's looking at us and thinking there's no accounting for taste.

Then I notice there's a third person in the booth, sitting across from her and Freddy. I decide Franklin must be chaperoning the lovebirds. Either that or playing third wheel.

This being a weekend night, the supper club has a band. Jack suggests we dance. He finds us a table in the bar, where a small dance floor has been cleared. The band, a long-in-the-tooth group called Virgil and the Swingsters, plays a combination of golden oldies and vintage country western.

The band begins an old torch song and Jack hustles me out onto the floor. Soon he's taking blatant advantage of the crowded dance floor, glued up against me like we're Siamese twins.

I try to inch away. I don't actually know this man, not beyond a few superficial conversations, mostly about sunflower seeds.

Hardly the basis for an intimate relationship.

As the empty drink glasses in front of Jack accumulate, he progresses from snuggling to blatant groping.

I move his hands. He puts them right back.

I ask him to quit. He ignores me.

"That's it! I've had it!" I pull out of his arms, and stalk to our table.

He's right behind me, his face a mottled red. "What the hell was that for?"

"I don't like being groped. Keep your cotton pickin' hands to yourself."

He half sits, half falls into his chair. "We both know you got yourself all dressed up for me tonight. So why're you whining when I take you up on your offer?" He grabs my arm.

Red haze threatens to obscure my vision. "You jerk!"

I shove at him with muscles conditioned by years of pitching for St. Barnabas's women's fast-pitch softball team.

They're muscles I apparently underestimated. Jack's chair falls over backward and he tumbles against the table behind him.

I gape at the chain reaction I've set off. Glasses teeter, then topple. People leap up, trying to avoid the alcoholic cascade. They bump other tables. The sounds of shrieks, curses, falling chairs and breaking glassware nearly drown out the band.

What have I done? I press my hands against my flaming cheeks.

An amused feminine voice says, "Need a ride home?"

It's the woman in red, an impassive Franklin and a goggling Freddy right behind her.

I weigh a cross examination by Freddy against riding back to St. Barnabas with Jack, and sigh in relief. "Thanks. I surely do."

I ride home in state in the back seat of Franklin Farley's shiny, black Lincoln. Millicent, which she asks me to call her, takes pity on me and rides in back with me, saving me from an intense grilling by Freddy. He still tries, leaning over the front seat, but she firmly interrupts and we talk about clothes and cosmetics and other boring but safe subjects until they drop me off at my apartment.

I thank Franklin for the ride. He nods gravely. The Lincoln moves majestically down the street and turns onto Elm Avenue.

Just as I start up the sidewalk, a car careens around the corner. It skids to a stop, one wheel on the sidewalk. It's Jack's car.

He leaps out, staggers, then stomps toward me. "You sneaked out and left me to pay for the mess you caused!" He shouts so loudly I'm afraid he'll wake up old Mrs. Bertilson, who lives in the downstairs apartment. I glare at him. "Keep your voice down."

"You owe me three hundred bucks."

"If you'd behaved like a gentleman, none of it would have happened. I don't owe you a one penny." I turn to go inside.

Jack grabs me by the shoulder and spins me around. "Pay up!"

"No! Let go of me!"

"Then I'll have to take it out in trade, won't I?" His face twists with rage and excitement. He closes in, shoving the building's front door shut before I can slip inside. Now I'm for sure wishing Mrs. Bertilson would wake up. But truth be told, after she takes out her hearing aids at night, a train could derail in our front yard and she'd never know it. Jack yanks at my dress, trying to pull it down.

An old pickup, brakes squealing, rocks to a stop across the street. The driver's door flies open. Tate crosses the street at a dead run.

Jack looks up, sees Tate, and his hands on me go limp.

I jerk away. With a punch he never sees coming, I lay him out flat. Tate arrives like the cavalry just in time to watch Jack crash land at his feet.

Tate grins at me. "That's some uppercut, lady."

I shake my stinging hand and wonder how many bones I've broken. "Thanks to my father, who thinks women should be able to defend themselves."

Tate is at my side in an instant. He gently touches my reddened, rapidly swelling hand. "You'd better get this x-rayed."

I shiver and wrap my arms around myself. "Jack looked so a-angry and m-mean. He grabbed me. I-I don't know w-what he intended to do." I try to laugh, my voice trembling. "I can't believe I d-decked him, wearing a new dress and 3-inch h-heels."

Tate takes me in his arms and holds me. It feels good.

On the ground, Jack moans and stirs.

I force myself to step away from Tate. "What about Jack?"

"He'll be okay. That was just a bump. Too bad you didn't hit him harder."

My practical side reasserts itself. "We better take him along to the hospital. I don't want him to sue me."

"What guy would admit a woman beat him up?"

"I work for a lawyer. You'd be amazed at the things people start lawsuits over." I cradle my aching hand.

Tate's expression softens. "Okay. We'll haul the SOB along. Do you have a car? We won't all fit in my truck."

I awkwardly dig out my keys and hand them to him. "It's the blue one. There, in the garage."

He chuckles. "The blue one. O-kay."

In a few minutes Tate has none-too-gently helped Jack into my car's back seat and we begin the drive to Farmingdale and the nearest hospital.

We return to St. Barnabas as the sun is rising over Maple Lake, turning the lake pink and gold. A cast covers my right hand. Jack, silent and sullen in the back seat, has an adhesive strip over a cut on his forehead and a bruise darkening his jaw. When we reach my place, Jack climbs into his car, which is still parked halfway on the sidewalk, and drives away, tires squealing.

Tate looks over at me. "Hand hurt much?"

"Not after that pain shot." I smile muzzily at him.

He winks at me. "It's a good thing softball season is over until next year. Do you need any help?"

"I'll be fine. One hand still works and right now, nothing hurts."

"Okay, slugger. I'll call you later and see how you're doing."

"That isn't a good idea," I hear myself say.

"Why not? Did I say something? Do something?"

I stare up at him through a drug-induced sense of detachment. "Are you married?"

He hesitates then says, "Yes. Technically."

"Sorry, Tate, but technically counts. Thanks for the help." I go inside, shut the door and trudge up the steps to the second floor.

The ringing phone wakes me up. I look at the clock. It's only ten. I've been in bed three hours. I disconnect whoever is calling, leave the phone off the hook and go back to sleep.

The next time I'm awakened, it's by someone pounding on my door. I wake up enough to hear my father bellowing in the distance. The painkiller is wearing off; my hand aches ferociously. I stagger to the door and let my father and mother inside.

"What the hell's going on?" my father yells.

My mother takes in the cast on my hand. Her eyes fill with tears. "Oh, honey, what happened?"

My father's voice gains volume. "Did that asshole hurt you?" He spins around. "I'll kill him."

Mom grabs my father's arm. "No, you aren't going to kill anyone. Come into the kitchen. I'll make us all a cup of coffee."

"I don't want any coffee," my father and I say simultaneously.

"Hot chocolate, then. Some toast." My mother believes in forced feeding in the face of crisis.

I start to shake my head but the rocks in it clank around and hurt. "Hot chocolate. No toast." I walk unsteadily to my bedroom.

By the time I've washed up, taken a pain pill and pulled on my sweats, my drink is cooling on the kitchen table. Over lukewarm chocolate, my fears are confirmed. Everyone in town knows all about last night, thanks to Freddy Farley and a gossipy emergency room nurse who farms with her husband just west of St. Barnabas.

I recount a shortened version of the evening and thank my father for the self-defense training.

He awkwardly pats my shoulder. A grin spreads across his face. "I'll be damned," he says. "You knocked the bastard on his ass while wearing those crazy shoes you women wear. Good shot, Sissy. Guess I taught you something after all."

His chest puffs out as he preens. I hold my aching hand and squelch a wild urge to laugh. Eventually I succeed in reassuring my parents and, playing up my fatigue, convince them to go home and let me sleep.

I lock the door behind them and stagger gratefully back to bed. I've just pulled the blankets up to my chin when the phone rings again. It's Sally. "What happened?" she shrieks. "I just woke up and there are 25 messages on my machine. Did you really beat up Jack?"

"I'll talk to you tonight," I promise, hang up on her startled squawk and again resort to leaving the phone off the hook.

I lie back, miffed that I haven't heard anything from Tate until, on the very edge of sleep, I recollect our parting conversation. I'm not going to hear from Tate.