Free First Chapter – Goodbye Mr. 7:45
The day had started nicely.
I had no idea when I left my college dorm that morning that I would be spending the night in a hole in the wall motel in the greater Portland metro area. Yesterday, my roommate Nikki had helped me pack everything into the cavernous duffle bags we had bought one summer from an army surplus store. After we had stuffed everything in the bags, a few of our close friends came over to the room to wish me goodbye. Nikki was staying for another week before she went home to Korea for the summer while I was heading off to Portland to live with my older sister Elisabeth. I was completely starting over in life – just me, my bags, a slim ten thousand I had managed win in a photography contest, and the promise of my framed prints arriving in a few weeks. I was excited.
Elisabeth is well, Elisabeth. She has been living in Portland for the last two years, working as an editor for a large regional high fashion magazine. It was a dream job that she landed after years of hard work. She’s one of those women who seems incredibly put together, who never have to worry about bad hair days, bad breath or flat tires. Her brown hair is always perfectly highlighted and coifed, her trousers crisp and her tan natural. She somehow always manages to look like she’s just come from a holiday at the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. The sweetest thing about my sister is not her personality, but the triple-grande-non-fat-extra vanilla-latte she gets from Starbucks. If she wasn’t my sister, I’d hate her. But as my sister, I tend to idolize her.
And then there’s me. Bailey. I’m the artistic one in the family as my mother would say with a kind smile. I’m the one who has always been a little bit more trendy, creative and spunky than my older sibling. After everyone else left, I stayed and went to the local college a few hours away, double majoring in Art and Art History. The first degree was to indulge my passion for photography and the second to help me pay for it. Perhaps not the most lucrative degree choice but I wasn’t in it for the money. Is anyone who gets a liberal arts degree? If they, they should consider getting their head checked.
When I arrived at the airport, I was shocked to see how much weight Elisabeth had lost since I had seen her the previous Christmas. She’s always been on the slim side but she looked and felt like a tan skeleton when she gave me a hug. She attempted to pick up my bags with her manicured hands but in the end, I was the one who had to lug them to her silver Saab.
“Why don’t we go out to lunch after we drop your things off at the loft?” Elisabeth had said carefully, “I was thinking that you could start spreading your resume out after lunch.”
I shrugged, there really was no point in arguing with Elisabeth anyway. She always ended up winning – she always had. She chatted happily as she wove her car through traffic. Something about how hard it was to find a decent Sushi bar in the middle of the night. Honestly, I didn’t even care. I had never had a deep affinity for sushi and certainly had never had a yen for it in the middle of the night. All I cared about at that moment was getting my clothes unpacked and my resume in the hands of the top fifteen art galleries in Portland. I needed a job to help pull my weight and keep my prize money as a nest egg. When it comes to money, I take the stingy road. Ebenezer Scrooge has nothing on me.
“Bailey, are you even listening?”
I shook myself out of my thoughts and turned to look at my sister. She was staring over my shoulder. A casual glance would make you think she was looking at me directly, but no, there was something on her mind.
“We’re at the loft. Why don’t you leave your bags in the car for now? We can get one of the neighbor boys to take them up later,” Elisabeth said slowly as she turned off the car and got out.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It really wouldn’t be that big of a deal to carry my bags by myself.”
She shook her head, “No. Leave your bags.” She pasted on a large smile, “We can get them later.”
Something was up. There was something dreadfully wrong with her logic and I would soon find out what it was. Lucky me.
Elisabeth grabbed my hand in her birdlike grip and pulled me away from the car. “I’m really excited about showing you my apartment,” she said.
“Is something wrong?” Blunt questions are always good.
She blinked. “Why would anything be wrong?” She swiped her keycard at the base of the elevator. The red light flashed back at her. Elisabeth swore. “It looks like the elevator is out of order…again. Time to get our exercise in on the stairs!”
Such false cheeriness. We had seven flights of stairs to mount. Elisabeth had neglected to mention that she had parked two stories underground. By the time we reached the top, we were both ready for a day at the spa or better yet, a nap.
However, by the time we reached the door of the loft, it became apparent that we wouldn’t be taking naps. Two men in were waiting for us at the door. One of them was uniformed and Elisabeth did not look happy to see either of them. Her eyes kept flitting between me, them, and the door to her apartment.
“Ms. Walker?” asked the police officer, a cookie-cutter copy of the latest hunk on the cover of the gossip rags. Not that I had been looking but I had just been in an airport after all. He looked between the two of us, “Miss Elisabeth Walker.”
“Yes?” Elisabeth asked coyly, arching one of her eyebrows and blatantly checking the officer out. That’s my sister. When in doubt, try to flirt your way out.
“I’m sorry to have to inform you of this, but you will need to vacate your apartment this afternoon.” The officer narrowed his gaze. Elisabeth would have to shift her tactics. This should be interesting.
He continued, “Mr. Lowell has already given you notice,” he motioned to the older man, “according to the paperwork, you are more than three months behind in your payments.”
Elisabeth dropped the strap she had been holding onto and straightened up, putting on the warmest smile she could muster. “I’m sure that there is some confusion here. This is my apartment and my sister is moving in this afternoon.”
The older man shook his head, “No, it’s clear as crystal. You haven’t been able to pay your rent and now you need to move. We discussed this matter yesterday afternoon. There’s no confusion here.”
I glanced over at my sister. Her lips were pursed and her fists clenched. I could tell that she was trying to stay calm and loosing the battle. She couldn’t flirt her way out of three months worth of rent and she knew it.
“You can’t do this to me. I live here,” she crossed her thing arms across her chest. “Where am I supposed to go? My sister just moved here.”
Ahh, the dramatic route.
“Ms. Walker, you were given notification more than twenty-four hours ago. This isn’t a surprise. I’m sorry that it has to be this way but you will need to pack up your belongings and leave the premises within the hour.” The officer turned and looked at me, “I’m very sorry miss.”
I couldn’t tell what he was more apologetic about; having to kick us out or leaving me with a manic sister. Whatever the case, he didn’t look like he was relishing his job. The building owner, Mr. Lowell, onthe other hand, looked like he had been waiting for this day for months.
“One hour Ms. Walker, that’s all you have to get your junk out of my apartment.” The man was actually beaming and I wondered what kind of tenant my sister had been for the last two years.
“What about my furniture? I can’t move all of it within an hour!” she protested.
“Leave it in the apartment and it will go towards your back rent.”
Elisabeth snarled a smart remark right back at him and then pulled out her apartment key. Her hands were shaking. Once she got into her apartment, she shut the door and leaned against it, her eyes closed and her breathing shallow and ragged.
Before Elisabeth could work herself into a deeper frenzy, I asked her where her suitcases were. Soon we were stuffing as much into them as we could.
“My shoes, I need my shoes,” Elisabeth muttered as she flung open her closet doors. She stuffed pair after pair of high heels into the oversized suitcase, flinging silky lingerie on top.
I trained my attention on the rest of her closet; ignoring most of the cocktail dresses and clubbing clothes and reaching for the more practical clothes that would last her. As I did, a small glass cylinder fell out of one of the pockets and rolled out on the floor.
I picked it up. It looked like baking powder. Elisabeth was never a good housekeeper. “Do you want this baking powder?” I asked her, ready to throw it out.
Elisabeth grabbed it greedily out of my hands, “I can’t loose this!” She saw me staring at her, “It’s a very special baking powder. Imported. From France.”
She stuck the container inside one of the pockets of her oversized suitcase and continued to frantically grab all that she could out of her room. Grabbing a jewelry box, she dumped the contents into the suitcase. I couldn’t believe how much jewelry she had amassed; there was a small mountain of earrings that was forming between a pair of high-heeled boots.
I walked out of the room, ignoring Elisabeth’s DVD pile and heading straight for the external hard drive connected to her computer. There was no way that we were going to be able to untangle all the wires. I just hoped that she had remembered to back up all of her work. I kept running back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, dumping things into the open suitcases and hoping that we’d be able to get everything out. Seven minutes left, I thought with a groan when I looked at my watch.
“Don’t worry about anything else Bailey,” Elisabeth said with a wave of her manicured hand as she walked out of her room with her head held high. She seemed to have come to grips with the situation. “I’ve packed everything that I’ll need.”
She walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a jar of pickle relish. She slowly twisted off the lid with a small smile on her face.
“Lis, I don’t think that now is the time to–,” I stopped as I watched her take a spoon and fling the pickle relish across the carpeted floor.
“What are you doing?!”
“I already paid the cleaning deposit,” she said with a shrug, “I might as well give them something to clean up. If you don’t want to be involved, I suggest you move the suitcases over to the door while I finish up decorating the room.” She emptied the pickle relish jar and was gleefully squirting mustard on the white leather couches when I came back into the room.
“I’m pretty sure you can’t do that,” I said, wanting to throw up. I hate pickles. Even the smell makes me nauseous.
Elisabeth just laughed, “I paid for all the furniture. It’s mine to destroy if I so desire. Are you sure you don’t want to join me? It is rather therapeutic,” she flung the mustard container to the floor and rummaged through the refrigerator until she pulled out the ketchup.
She offered it to me and when I didn’t accept it, she just laughed. “But can’t you see Bailey? It’s art!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that ruining an apartment—and a reputation—with condiments hardly made my list of fine art. Her once pristine apartment now looked like the battleground of a grade-school food fight and she was enjoying every second of it. “I’ll just be putting the rest of these bags outside the door,” I said as I shook my head in disbelief. My sister had cracked.
“Do you think the cheese sticks will fit between the slots in the heat register?” Elisabeth yelled as I opened the door.
“You need serious help,” I hollered back, feeling pity for the nextoccupant of the apartment.
The rest of the day didn’t go much better. We left the loft with one minute to spare on the deadline; Elisabeth’s final act of vengeance was to turn the heat on high before she locked the door behind her. She handed the keys over to an equally smug Mr. Lowell, who looked a little disappointed that he would not have to call the police to escort my sister off the premises like he had threatened.
Elisabeth had wanted to stay in one of the downtown hotels but I refused. If she couldn’t pay her rent, I didn’t want to be the one footing the bill for the hotel! We ended up staying in a cheap motel far away from the loft. Not so cheap that we had to worry about our rooms being broken into during the night but cheap enough that Elisabeth was nervous about leaving her car out front.
Dinner was awkward with neither one of us really wanting to face the other. I was upset and she was ashamed. Finally, Elisabeth set down her fork full of noodles and started to talk.
“I, I lost my job,” she said in a hoarse whisper. Her head was still high and I wasn’t sure that I heard her right.
My eyebrow popped up, “You lost your job? When?”
She let out a long sigh, “Three weeks ago.”
My fork fell with a clatter, “Three weeks ago?! When were you planning on telling me about this?”
“I didn’t think that it would come to this, honest Bailey. After I lost the job, I thought that I would be employed by the time you got out here. There was no need to bother you with the details. Besides,” she said with a weak smile, “I’m the older sister. I’m the one that should be providing for you.”
She started to tell me a story about a jealous coworker, a misunderstanding in the office and something about plagiarism. I didn’t pay attention. Providing for me had always been one of Elisabeth’s strong traits. When we were kids the church couldn’t afford to pay our dad for awhile, she had supplemented my weekly allowance with her babysitting savings, so I wouldn’t feel the pains of the unemployment. Sometimes, her providing nature had a dark side. She tended to always want ‘first dibs’ on everything; from my clothes to my boyfriends. If either one was relatively cute, she would snatch them up and forget to return them. She would give me one of her smiles and say, “Now Bailey, I’m the older sister. I need this.”
Amazingly, that excuse worked through high school. It wasn’t until she had moved off to college that I began to realize that I was my own person and not the property of Elisabeth. In my blind idolization of my sister, I had let my personality take the back seat. So when I was a junior in high school, I went a little crazy with the freedom that I had found. I still had a hard time keeping boyfriends — my sister still managed to snatch them up, usually on the weekends when she would come home for a visit. Every other area of my life blossomed. I began to dive deeper into art, discovering that my creative outlet took the form of photography. I became the school photographer but that lost its luster after awhile. I tried photojournalism in college but I could never find the words to express what I saw in my photos. So I gave up and studied art instead.
I looked over at my sister. She was looking at me nervously, more vulnerable than I had seen her in a long time. I could understand why she hadn’t wanted to tell me about losing her job. But something wasn’t sitting right about the rent situation; hadn’t the owner said she was three months behind? I let the matter drop, knowing that I would be able to get more out of her in the days to come. I smiled back at her, saying a quick prayer and asking God to give me the strength to get through whatever my future in Portland held. There was no way that I could go back home. My dad had given up his pastorage, sold our house and he and Mom moved to Arizona to be foster parents on a ranch for troubled boys. Like it or not, Elisabeth was the only accessible family I had at the moment. I didn’t understand why she was three months late on her rent if she had only lost her job three weeks before. She had always been punctual and responsible. Remembering the bulging closet of clothes, I could easily see how she had spent her money. But I still found it hard to believe that she had chosen clothes over sustenance. It just wasn’t her style. Yes, she was a clothes horse but she was usually more practical than that.
“Well, what are we going to do? We’ve got to have some sort of a plan to get ourselves out of this motel and into a real place to stay,” I said with false cheerfulness. “I didn’t fly all this way to redecorate a motel room!”
“I’m trying to get some freelance jobs. I should be hearing back from some of the publishers soon,” she said slowly, fingering one of her rings.
Both of us knew that freelancing wasn’t going to pay for our lifestyle, meager though it was. Maybe in a year or two, but the coming months were going to be lean. This would have been the perfect moment to move back in with a relative or college friend. Too bad we only had each other.
“I’ll make the rounds at the art galleries tomorrow morning. Most of them don’t open until 10 a.m. so I should have some time to try to find us a place to stay. I’m sure at least one of them will offer me a job,” I said, sounding much more hopeful than I felt. I didn’t mention my nest egg. With Elisabeth’s spending habits, I wanted to make sure that it lasted. The only way to ensure that happened was to pretend like it didn’t exist. So job-hunting it would be.
“Were you able to get hold of any of your friends?” I asked.
“What friends?” She responded despondently, “My former coworkers won’t talk to me any more. My clubbing friends don’t care at all. There’s nobody Bailey.”
“What about church? Don’t you know anyone at church who could help you out?” I asked, grasping at straws. She sounded so morose. So forlorn. She had always had a group of friends to help her out.
“I haven’t been to church since I went away to college,” she confessed. “Don’t look so shocked Bailey. At first, I was too busy for church. The weekends were full of parties and later on, they turned into study sessions. I wanted to finish with good grades. By the time I was out, I had done well enough without church that I didn’t see why I needed it. So I haven’t been back. Sundays are my leisure days.”
I didn’t answer Elisabeth. I didn’t know how to respond. Our father was a pastor and going to church had been something that was never optional. It was just something you did.
“Don’t think about it too much Bailey. It’ll look better in the morning.”
I just hoped she was right.