Free Story! – ‘The Off-Kilter Quilt’

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The Off-Kilter Quilt

Part One
Part Two (March 1, 2017)
Part Three (March 3, 2017)
Part Four (March 6, 2017)
Part Five (NEW! March 8, 2017)

By Frances O’Roark Dowell

© Copyright 2017 by Frances O’Roark Dowell. All Rights Reserved.

Of the four Bennett sisters, Melissa Bennett was the most sensible, the smartest and the least likely to marry. She was also the happiest. After all, what did she love most in the world? Books, children and quilts, and as the children’s librarian at the main branch of the Milton Falls Public Library by day and a volunteer quilting teacher at the community center by night, Melissa spent her life surrounded by the people and things that made her life worth living. A husband sounded nice in theory, but where would she put him?

Her own sanguinity about her singleton status didn’t keep family members from playing matchmaker, however, so Melissa wasn’t the least bit surprised when she reached the library Monday morning to find her mother waiting for her on the front steps, clutching a napkin that she waved like a flag as soon as she saw her daughter.

“His name is Jim Burke,” her mother announced, thrusting the napkin into Melissa’s hand. “I met him at a wedding Saturday, and I can’t think of the last time I met such a nice man. And he’s a reader! A reader, Melissa! Which makes him perfect for you!”

Melissa deposited the napkin in her tote bag with a practiced flick of the wrist. This wasn’t the first time her mother had met her before work with the perfect man’s phone number scribbled on a scrap of paper, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. “It depends on what he reads. Is he a Tom Clancy fan? A Dickens scholar? What are his feelings about the fourth Harry Potter? Has he even heard of Outlander? The books, I mean, not the TV series. Because I could never love a man who didn’t love Outlander—the books and the TV series, actually.”

“Oh, Melissa! Isn’t it enough that he reads?”

“If only it were. So am I supposed to call him?” she asked as she started up the steps. “Text him? Send him my resume?”

“Call him, Melissa,” her mother said from the sidewalk, a sheen of exasperation coating her voice. “And when you meet him, wear that pink dress you wore to see ‘Mousetrap.’ It makes you look like you have a figure.”

Melissa didn’t bother with a response. In her thirty-four years, she had never once been at a weight that suited her mother. She’d weighed ten pounds, two ounces at birth, three pounds heavier than Mrs. Bennett would have liked, and then had eventually stretched into a stringbean teen who’d had to endure all sorts of insults about her lack of curves. She’d finally filled out a little in college, but not in a way that drew attention. Oh, if we could just take Maggie’s extra fifteen pounds and put them on Melissa, Mrs. Bennett was fond of saying, and Melissa and Maggie had argued over many a glass of wine about who should take greater offense.

“I’ll call him when I get a chance,” Melissa promised her mother as she reached the library’s entrance. “And I promise to put on a padded bra before I do.”

Mrs. Bennett shook her head sadly and sighed. “I don’t know what to do with you, Melissa.”

“Invite me over to dinner tonight at six,” Melissa told her. “I won’t have time to eat between work and class if I’m the one who has to cook.”

“Roast chicken?”

“And corn on the cob, please,” Melissa said with a goodbye wave. “And potato salad and sliced tomatoes.”

“Oh, your father already has some nice tomatoes!” Mrs. Bennett said, noticeably cheering. “So early in the summer, too!” And with that, she was gone, off to find another daughter to genially terrorize.

As soon as she pushed through the library’s heavy front doors, Melissa felt the conversation with her mother evaporate behind her. The library was her sanctuary and the children’s room was her playhouse. Who would be at story time this morning? It was the third week of June, the week most mothers and caretakers gave up on their beautifully planned summer days of arts and crafts and backyard play and leaned hard on the library for relief.

Melissa could remember being deposited here herself as a child, her mother dropping her off at the foot of the formidable stone steps that led up to the grand entrance. The library’s doors opened to a bouquet of intoxicating scents, the musty smell of ancient tomes mingling with the perfume of new arrivals and freshly polished black and white checkered floors, the aroma of wooden tables rubbed down every night with lemon oil.

After grabbing a cup of coffee from the director’s office, Melissa made her way to the children’s room and happily settled in behind her desk. She took a moment to look over her domain, pleased to see there was a place for everything and everything was in its place, just the way she liked it. Now it was time to check her email and maybe read one or two quilting blogs before the first wave of children rolled in. But wait—was this the latest issue of the Horn Book on her desk? Melissa promised herself she’d only read one article from her favorite children’s book review, maybe two …

“Miss Melissa?”

Melissa, who had been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t realized anyone had entered the room, looked up to see Casey Rawlings standing in front of her desk—scrawny, mostly silent ten-year-old Casey Rawlings, her faded pink tee shirt stained with purple popsicle juice, her fingernails bitten to the quick.

“Hey there. Are you here for big kids’ story time? It’s not for twenty more minutes, but you’re welcome to go pick out some books to check out. You can use the checkout kiosk. You know how, right?”

Casey nodded and then shook her head. “I know how, but that’s not—it’s not what I want.”

“Did you want to tell me something?”

Casey nodded again, but didn’t speak. Oh, the Casey Rawlings of this world! Melissa had met her mother once and clearly the woman was well-meaning. But as she’d immediately confessed, she had a hard time holding down a job or taking care of a child. She’d come into the library to get Casey a card, but one of her many problems was that she lacked a permanent mailing address. “We’re in and out of places, depending on whether or not I can get work, you know how that is, staying with this friend one night, the shelter the next … ”

Melissa had nodded as though she understood, although other than college dorms she’d only lived in two houses her entire life—the house she’d grown up in on Cottage Street, and her own home three blocks away from the library on Orange Street. “I’m sure that can be hard.”

“Oh, it’s real hard,” Samantha Rawlings had agreed. “Especially when it comes to things like this. Here I have a little girl who loves better than anything to read, but I can’t get her a library card.”

“Do you have relatives in Milton Falls? Maybe one of Casey’s grandparents?”

Samantha nodded. “My ex-father-in-law lives over on Hale Avenue. Could we use his address?”

“If he’ll come in and sign a paper saying he agrees to it, then yes,” Melissa told her, improvising a new library rule on the spot.

Samantha had slapped her hand on Melissa’s desk. “Consider it done!”

And sure enough, the next day Casey Rawlings had come into the library holding the hand of an elderly man who smelled vaguely of cigarettes and gin, but who had a friendly smile and was clearly taken with his granddaughter. “This one’s a reader!” he bragged to Melissa. “Two, three books a day. The other day I caught her reading the refrigerator repair manual! She understood what she was reading, too!”

From then on, Casey had been a regular in the children’s room. There was a beanbag chair in the corner of the reading nest she especially liked, and since school had let out for the summer she’d spent most afternoons cocooned in one of Melissa’s quilts with a pile of books in her lap, The Black Stallion, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Great Gilly Hopkins.

“What do you want to tell me?” Melissa asked softly to the girl trembling in front of her now. “I can see that you’re upset.”

Casey took a deep breath. “Grandpop died. He’d been in the hospital all week and then he died.”

“Oh, Casey, I’m so sorry.” Melissa wanted to reach across her desk and take the child’s hand, but she knew Casey wouldn’t allow it. “That’s so sad.”

“And the worst part is, now I can’t check out books any more.”

Melissa sat back. “Why not? Are you and your mom moving to another town?”

The girl shook her head. “No, but now I don’t have an address.”

“Oh, I see.” And Melissa did see. Not that anyone would swoop down and demand Casey turn her card in, but Casey was an honorable person. If her grandfather no long lived at that address, as far as Casey was concerned the address was invalid. But the girl needed a library card like a fish needed water. There had to be something Melissa could do.

And of course there was. After thinking on it for a moment, Melissa said, “I have a plan. You can use my address as your home address. I know we’re not family, but we’re very good friends, and I am the head children’s librarian. So I’m willing to take responsibility for you as a library patron, but you have to promise to turn in all of your books on time.”

“I always do, don’t I?” Casey replied eagerly. “And I never tear pages or eat when I read.”

“You take very good care of your books,” Melissa agreed. “So all we need to do is pull up your card registration on my computer and put in your change of address.”

Casey nodded. “Okay, but can you tell me what your address is? I mean, in case anybody asks or wants to quiz me on it?”

Melissa almost said Casey shouldn’t worry about that, no one was ever quizzed about the information on their card registration form, but she stopped herself. She could see how important it was for Casey to know. “Repeat after me: 1505 Orange Street, Milton Falls, Ohio, 44805.”

“1505 Orange Street, Milton Falls, Ohio, 44805.”

“Excellent!” Melissa said, opening up Casey’s registration file on the computer and entering the information. As she typed, she felt a twinge of—what? Worry? Unease? She did her best to bat the feeling away. It’s not like she’d wake up some Sunday morning to find Casey and her mother camped out there. Would she? Oh, of course not. And letting Casey use her address didn’t mean she had adopted the girl, did it?

Melissa glanced up from her typing. Casey Rawlings was still standing on the other side of her desk, her face shining with undeniable adoration for the head children’s librarian of the main branch of the Milton Falls Library.

Oh dear, Melissa thought. What had she gotten herself into?

♦ ♦ ♦

A buzz of worry followed Melissa throughout the day. As a children’s librarian, she’d had her fair share of admirers over the years, but a kid like Casey? She might keep you at arm’s length, but she was looking for an adult who wouldn’t let her down. Melissa thought of the picture book she read at least once a month to her preschoolers, the one with the baby bird that fell out of its nest and went around asking everything in sight—a bulldozer, a dog, an old car—Are you my mother?

Well, she certainly couldn’t be Casey’s mother, but what could she be? Melissa continued to ponder this as she walked to her parents’ after work. A friend, she supposed, which is what she’d always been, since the first time Casey had wandered into the children’s section, hungry for good stories and a quiet place to read.

Melissa was famished by the time she reached her parents’ house on Cottage Street. Worry did that to her—plus, back-to-back storytime hours. “Please tell me dinner is ready!” she called the moment she was through the front door. “I’ve been dreaming about potato salad all afternoon!”

“Come meet our guest, Melissa!” Mrs. Bennett trilled from the kitchen, and Melissa stopped in her tracks. She couldn’t have. She wouldn’t! Please say that her mother had not invited Jim Burke for dinner.

Her younger sister Ruth came rushing down the hallway into the foyer. “Did you know you were being set up on a blind date?” she asked sotto voce.

Melissa sank onto the bottom step of the staircase. “All I wanted was some chicken and potato salad before I go teach. Why does she do this sort of thing?”

Ruth squeezed in next to her and patted Melissa’s knee. “Because she’s Mom. Besides, this way is better because you have to leave by 6:45, right? So even if he’s awful, it’s a limited window of time and you still get points for being a good sport.”

“So? Is he awful?” Melissa whispered.

Ruth shrugged. “He’s cute at least. I don’t have a read on his personality yet. But apparently he has basic literacy skills and is therefore perfect for you.”

“Melissa, get in here!” her mother called. “You’re keeping our guest waiting!”

“Here we go,” Ruth said, standing and offering Melissa a hand up. “Best of luck.”

Melissa checked her watch. 6:05. She could do thirty minutes with Prince Charming. And as irritating as this was, at least she’d have a good story to tell her Quilt Sampler class at 7:00. You won’t believe the guy my mom tried to set me up with tonight, she could hear herself saying. Bald, frumpy, bad jokes. In other words, just my type.

“Melissa, meet Jim Burke,” Mrs. Bennett said when Melissa reached the kitchen, and Melissa once again stopped short. Jim Burke was neither bald nor frumpy. Ruth was right, Melissa thought, reaching out her hand and putting on her best pleased to meet you smile. She could suffer through a half hour of this guy, especially if potato salad was involved.

End of Part One ♦

 

The Off-Kilter Quilt – Part Two of Five

Jim Burke was sitting at the kitchen table, having a beer with Mr. Bennett. Not only was he attractive, he was dressed nicely, if a little conservatively for Melissa’s tastes—khakis and a striped button-down shirt. She bet he was a lawyer. The problem with lawyers in her experience was that they were so concerned with proving how smart they were that they didn’t know how to have a real conversation. As a rule, Melissa didn’t date lawyers. She also didn’t date bankers because they cared too much about money, and she didn’t date engineers because they were always trying to teach her math.

She wouldn’t mind dating a poet, but so far she’d yet to meet a poet in Milton Falls under the age of eighty-five.

“Melissa, this is Jim,” her mother announced, practically clapping her hands with excitement. “He’s an accountant!”

Figures, she thought, trying to hold onto her smile. “Hi, Jim. I assume you have other interests besides accounting.”

Jim Burke shrugged. “That’s about it. But when you’re as good as I am with a calculator, you don’t need hobbies.”

Was that a joke? Melissa couldn’t tell. If it was, then this Jim Burke had an especially dry delivery.

“Jim was just telling me about a football his grandfather gave him,” Mr. Bennett told his daughter, motioning for her to take a seat. “It’s autographed by Archie Griffin. Jim’s a huge college football fan.”

Melissa sat down across from her father. Okay, so Jim did have other interests besides spreadsheets; that was good. Not that she wanted to date him, but at least somebody might. And he really was cute, she had to admit it, with light brown hair and bright blue eyes. He had that whole boyishly handsome thing going on that some women liked. Okay, that she herself liked, although she preferred it paired with a slightly more pronounced personality.

“I hate to say it,” Melissa told him, “but that name means absolutely nothing to me.”

“I wish it meant nothing to me,” Jim said, clearly distressed. “Your dad and I were just discussing whether or not I should get it insured. I’m having a hard time leaving the house without worrying that something’s going to happen to that ball.”

“You could take it with you,” Melissa said. “Maybe get a special carrying case made for it?”

“Or a bowling ball bag,” Jim agreed. “I bowl, by the way. I think that’s something you should know about me.”

Why? Melissa wanted to ask. What did Jim think was going on here? A job interview? Next thing you know, he’d tell her that his greatest weaknesses were being too organized and giving 110% at all times.

“I was on the library science bowling team in college,” she offered just to see where it would take them conversationally. “They called me ‘The Strike Master.’”

“So you’re not just a librarian, but a library scientist?” Again, the tone dry. Could this be a serious question?

“And a darn good bowler, too,” Melissa said. “I’ve got a million tricks up my sleeve.”

“Tell her about the quilts, Jim,” Mrs. Bennett, clearly trying to shoo the conversation back on course. “I think she’d be very interested. She’s studying for her master’s degree in—what is it again, honey?”

“It’s a master’s in quilt studies,” Melissa explained to Jim. “I’m doing it mostly online, through the University of Nebraska.”

“So you know about quilts?” Jim asked. “Because I inherited these quilts from my grandmother, and I don’t know what to do with them. Some of them she made, others she collected, and I don’t know if they’re worth anything, or if they—I don’t know, have special meaning or symbolism or what. I read about quilts being used for the Underground Railroad; what if these are those kind of quilts?”

“That’s a myth, I’m afraid,” Melissa said. “Although that doesn’t mean your quilts aren’t interesting or important.”

“I have two trunks full of quilts,” Jim went on, sounding as though he were confessing a long-held secret. “I’m an only child, and my dad and stepmom just moved to a condo in Florida, so they don’t want them. But my grandmother—well, she was my grandmother, you know? She took care of me a lot when I was growing up, and she taught me how to keep a baseball scorecard.”

Melissa wasn’t inclined to fall in love with Jim Burke, but her heart softened a bit toward this dry, yet oddly emotional accountant. “I’d be happy to look at them,” she said. “You could bring them over to the library, or I could come by your place this weekend.”

“Oh, you should get together this weekend!” Mrs. Bennett exclaimed, and Melissa could see the train of thought chugging down the tracks of her mother’s brain—an afternoon spent examining quilts would naturally lead to an evening of dinner and dancing, followed by a quick trip to the 24-hour wedding chapel (no questions asked) on Route 96 outside of Ashland. By Sunday, Melissa and Jim would be honeymooning on Lake Erie.

“I can’t do it this weekend, I’m afraid,” Jim said with a sigh. “I’m going to Louisville to visit my—my, ah, friend. She’s at the Presbyterian seminary there.”

Ah, Melissa thought, so he has a, ah, friend. Her mother had clearly not done her homework. “Well, sometime next week then,” Melissa said, “or whenever. I’m happy to help you sort your quilts out. Do you know anything about quilts or find them at all interesting?”

Jim leaned across the table toward her, his expression dead serious. “Melissa, before I got my grandmother’s quilts, I could not have cared less. To me, quilts were blankets. I’m sorry—I know that’s probably offensive to you. But the weird thing is, now that I’ve lived with quilts in my house for the last six months? I think about them all the time. I even thought about making one. Isn’t that strange?”

“Doesn’t sound strange to me. I make quilts all the time,” Melissa pointed out, checking her watch. “And in five minutes I’m going to go teach a bunch of other people how to make them. You’re welcome to join us if you’d like.”

Jim appeared to think about this and then shook his head. “I’m not ready. Maybe later. But right now—it’s just not the right time.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Well, that was different, Melissa thought as she walked toward the community center. While she felt fairly sure she wasn’t going to fall in love with Jim Burke, she could see developing a fondness for him, which wasn’t usually the case with her mother’s attempted fix-ups. But Jim, well, she felt like she wanted to help him. She wanted to be his friend.

Melissa laughed, remembering that Jim already had a friend, one who he was planning to spend the weekend with. A weekend at a seminary, she reminded herself. Talk about your wild times.

As she made her way down Cottage Street, Melissa passed homes so familiar that she no longer saw them unless she forced herself to look. Sometimes she imagined what it would be like to live in one of the newly-sprouted subdivisions on the outskirts of Milton Falls, with their broad streets and history-free houses. She’d grown up in a Cape Cod on Cottage Street, and now lived two blocks away in a Craftsman bungalow. No one she knew lived in a house that was less than fifty years old. Good thing she liked old houses, Melissa supposed as she passed a sagging Victorian guarded by an ancient oak. Besides, the suburbs lacked sidewalks and she was a walker who preferred to stay off the road.

She wondered where Jim Burke lived and then shook her head. No wondering about Jim Burke! Yes, he was nice and attractive and had what sounded like a very interesting collection of quilts. But even if you took his “friend” out of the equation, what about the khakis and the oxford striped shirt? Who could get swept off her feet by an accountant who dressed like, well, an accountant?

Most of her students had already gathered when Melissa reached her classroom in the community center and were busy at work on their Lady of the Lake blocks, which they’d started the week before. Melissa was setting up her sewing station at the front of the room when Faye, one of her favorite students, walked in with a man Melissa had never seen before beside her.

“This is my nephew Jordan,” Faye explained when she reached Melissa’s table, “and he’s hoping he can join us tonight. He’s an architect—a very accomplished architect, I might add.”

Jordan smiled. “Aunt Faye is my biggest fan, which is interesting, since I don’t think she’s ever seen a single one of my designs.”

“I don’t need to see them to know you’re brilliant,” Faye insisted.

“Are you a quilter as well as an architect?” Melissa asked. “I can see how there might be parallels between the two.”

“I’ve never sewn a day in my life,” Jordan admitted. “But my firm is assisting with the Milton Fall Heights construction site this summer, and this seemed like a great way to unwind. Making quilts is just a different sort of building project, right?”

“But one that’s less likely to collapse on you if you make a mistake,” Melissa said. “Well, find yourself a seat and make yourself at home. Faye can get you started.”

Melissa had hoped she might get a little sewing done herself tonight. The Lady of the Lake was a fairly easy block to make, just a center square surrounded by half-square triangles, and they’d practiced their half-square triangle skills in the last class. But several of her students still needed help, so by the time Melissa finally sat down in front of her own machine, she was surprised to see it was 8:15, time for a break.

“I brought cookies, if anyone wants one,” Caitlyn, one the class’s teenage quilters, announced, and then added with typical self-deprecation, “They’re okay, but not great.”

While the class surrounded the cookie platter, Melissa checked her texts. There was one from Ruth with some thoughts about a quilt she wanted Melissa to make for her and three from her mother regarding Jim Burke. He’s very attractive, if you ask me, Mrs. Bennett had written in her first text. And not at all superficial, she’d observed in the second. I wouldn’t worry about his friend, the third text advised. “Friend” doesn’t have to mean “girlfriend,” you know.

But it probably does, Melissa thought, and besides, he was an accountant, remember? And a little odd, to boot. She looked across the room to where Jordan was sitting next to his aunt. Now he seemed like a perfectly nice and normal guy, she thought. Maybe a little on the young side, but attractive and—

Melissa shook her head. She was being silly. Who had the time? Still, she had to admit she felt a twitch of excitement when she saw Jordan walking across the room in her direction. “I come bearing gifts,” he said when he reached her, offering her two cookies wrapped in a napkin. “They’re good.”

“Thanks,” Melissa said, taking the napkin from him. “How do you like quiltmaking so far?

“I’m still learning how to sew a straight line, which is a little humbling for a man who draws straight lines all day, but I’ll get there.”

“You will,” Melissa agreed. “And once you do and then master the quarter-inch seam, the rest is gravy.”

“Listen, would you mind if I came again on Thursday?” Jordan asked. “It seems like a great class, and with my fiance living in Columbus, I have absolutely zero social life right now.”

Melissa felt her face redden, as though Jordan knew that only moments ago she’d been sizing him up. “Is your fiance an architect, too?”

“City planner,” Jordan said. “She’s working on a big affordable housing project this summer, so she doesn’t have time to visit during the week.”

Melissa suddenly thought of Casey and her mother. Was it possible they were eligible for affording housing? Or did you have to have a job?

“I understand if you’re not taking newcomers,” Jordan said. “It’s just this is a lot of fun.”

“Oh, sorry—I was just thinking about a girl I know who needs a place to live,” Melissa said. “I don’t know if she and her mother are candidates for affordable housing, though. I suppose you’re not the person to talk to about that.”

“Probably not, though I’d be glad to ask around. There’s some affordable housing attached to Milton Falls Heights, but I’m pretty sure who gets to live there is up to the Housing Authority.”

“Of course,” Melissa said. “And of course you’re welcome to come to this class. It’s my job to lure as many people into the cult of quilting as I can. Speaking of which, time to get back to it. Thanks for the cookies.”

“Thanks for the class,” Jordan replied. “You’re a great teacher.”

Yes, I am, Melissa thought as she stood to call the class back to order, and great teachers don’t have time for romance.

“Okay, everybody—” she began right as her phone pinged. She glanced at the screen, wondering what her mother wanted now. But the text wasn’t from her mother.

Jim here, she read. Great to meet you tonight. Let’s talk again soon.

Someone needs to teach this guy about emojis, Melissa thought. His text had the same flat affect as his speech. “Okay, guys, let’s get going again!” she called to the class, before picking up her phone to hit reply. Nice to meet you, too, Jim. Hope you have a great visit with your friend!

She hit send and then felt oddly guilty, perhaps because in her mind the word “friend” was in a quotation marks, making it a sarcastic jab that Jim didn’t deserve.

Good think he can’t read your mind, Melissa thought, venturing out among her students and their sewing machines.

Good thing she wasn’t the least bit interested in Jim Burke.

End of Part two ♦

The Off-Kilter Quilt – Part Three of Five

Thursday morning, Melissa woke up early so she could have a long, leisurely spell with her coffee and a book on the front porch before work. She had toddler time at 11 a.m., and while she loved her rambunctious little pre-literates, the very thought of them could tire her out. Best to start the day with an hour of quiet punctuated only by birdsong and the occasional squirrel dispute.

“Are you coming, Simon?” Melissa called to her cat, who apparently was not. She pushed open the screen door with her shoulder, careful not to spill her coffee, and breathed in the sweet smells of summer drifting from her neighbors’ gardens—roses, rosemary and thyme, honeysuckle.

She sat down in her white rocking chair, set her coffee on the table beside it, and opened her book, a Detective Gamache mystery. She loved that these books were as much about the characters as about who done it. Melissa liked a good plot as much as the next person, but if she didn’t care about a novel’s characters, she couldn’t make herself read to the end.

It was mid-afternoon and Gamache was watching a bee scramble around a particularly pink rose when a movement caught his attention, Melissa read, taking a sip of coffee and nearly sighing with contentment. He turned in his chaise lounge and watched as—

“Miss Melissa?”

Melissa jumped at the sound of Casey Rawling’s voice and turned to see her standing at the steps of the porch, a hoe in her hand.

“I was weeding your tomato beds out back,” Casey continued, “and you should know the squirrels are eating a lot of the half-ripe ones. You might want to cage up your plants. That’s what Grandpop always did. Or else spray ‘em with wolf pee. My Uncle Wilson in Toledo said that worked for him. You’ve got to get it online though.”

“Casey, what in the world! Wait, wolf pee?”

“Wolves are predators. The smell of their pee scares the squirrels away. You also need to prune some of the branches. They’re getting overgrown.”

Melissa moved from her rocking chair to the porch’s top step. Taking a seat, she patted the spot next to her. “Sit down, Casey. You sure know a lot about tomatoes. To be honest, my mother planted those. I’m not a very good gardener.”

“I could tell,” Casey said, sitting down next to Melissa. “No offense or anything.”

“None taken. But can I ask exactly why you were out back weeding my tomatoes?”

Reddening, Casey shrugged. “I figured if I’m going to use your address, I should help out a little around here.”

“I see,” said Melissa, nodding. “You know you don’t have to, right? I’m very happy to lend you my address without you having to earn it.”

“I know,” Casey said. “But the fact is, you really could use the help. And I know all about gardening from Grandpop.”

“Does your mom know where you are? Is she okay with you coming over here?”

Another shrug. “Sure. I mean she knows that I’ll be at the library most of the day. I don’t think she cares what I do on my way over there.”

“I bet she does care,” Melissa said, wondering if this was true. “So why don’t you let her know that some mornings you might stop by my house, to help me with my tomatoes? That way she has a good idea of where you’ll be if she needs to find you.”

“She won’t, but okay,” Casey said. She stood up. “I better get back to those tomatoes. You can get cages at Home Depot, if you want. Or you can go to the garden supply store over on East Main and buy chicken wire. If you do that, I’ll build some cages for you.”

Melissa watched as the girl walked around the corner of the house before she stood and stretched and then went to collect her now cool coffee. So much for spending an hour reading on the porch. She felt too scattered to read, and besides, how could she read with a 10-year-old laboring in her backyard? She supposed she had things to do herself, clean the kitchen, fold the rest of the laundry. And she needed to make a sandwich to take for lunch—she had turkey, she was pretty sure, and a nice avocado and some good bread. Should she make a lunch for Casey, too? Well, the girl was weeding her garden; the least Melissa could do was feed her. But then what if Casey felt like she needed to replay Melissa for lunch? She’d end up painting the house.

Melissa had just begun to gather up her things when a voice called to her from the sidewalk. “Good morning!”

Turning, she saw Jim Burke, a paper bag in his hand. “Is this a bad time?” he asked, walking toward the house. “That is, if you accept that premise that time can be good or bad. Time’s just a unit of measurement, if you think about it. Completely neutral.”

He reached the porch. “Hi,” he said again. “It’s nice to see you.”

Melissa felt a bit breathless. “Nice to see you, too. Maybe a little surprising to see you, but nice all the same.”

“Here’s the thing,” Jim said, apparently done with small talk. “I’m on my way out of town, but I’d really like you to take a look at this quilt. I thought maybe it could stay with you for a few days while I’m gone.”

“You want me to spend a little time with it, get to know it better?”

“Exactly,” Jim said. “So would you like to see it?”

Melissa nodded, and Jim carefully pulled the quilt from the bag and then hung it on the porch railing. Melissa stood to take a closer look. It was a log cabin quilt, its blocks a riot of reds, blues, pinks and browns. “Do you mind if I touch it?” she asked, and when Jim held out his hand as if to say, Be my guest, she ran her hand over the fabric—polyester, maybe some cotton blends, so most likely a post-World War II quilt. The log cabin blocks were inexpertly pieced, and many of the strips used to the make the blocks were curved, creating the illusion of movement. Along with polyester, the quilter had used crepe and corduroy, giving the quilt a marvelous texture.

Melissa took a few steps back so she could admire the quilt more fully. How had Jim known this was exactly the sort of quilt Melissa was interested in? Well, he couldn’t know that, obviously; they’d spent a total of what—thirty minutes together? It was a lucky guess on his part, or else he just happened to have similar tastes to hers, an interest in the funky and offbeat, the not-quite-regular. Or maybe he was just weird.

“I love it,” she said, reluctantly turning away from the quilt. “It’s really remarkable.”

“I think it looks cool.”

Casey had returned from the backyard, her face streaked with dirt. “If I ever made a quilt, that’s the kind I’d want to make. Is it okay if I turn on the hose out back?”

“Of course,” Melissa said. “Just don’t forget to turn it off again, please.”

Casey’s eyes widened. “I would never forget that!” she said as though mortally offended, and then she was off again to the backyard.

“Your daughter?” Jim asked.

“No, my gardener,” Melissa said. “She just volunteered for the position this morning. She’s also one of my most loyal library patrons.”

“Ah, I’ve heard of librarians like you. You get the kids hooked on books, and then you make them weed your flower beds.”

“Yeah, we’re a dastardly bunch,” Melissa said. “Although with Casey here, it’s more complicated. I let her use my address for her library card, and now I’m afraid she thinks she owes me something.”

“Why didn’t she use her own address?”

“She doesn’t have one, I’m afraid. She and her mom are in and out of shelters. She was using her grandfather’s, but he just passed away, and she’s such an honorable kid she wouldn’t think of checking books under false pretenses.”

“So she’s trying to pay you back for your good deed,” Jim concluded. “Or else she likes thinking of this address as being hers in some way. Maybe she doesn’t live here, but she can take a little ownership by helping out.”

Melissa sat down in her rocking chair and considered it. “That worries me a little. I mean she’s more than welcome here, and goodness knows my tomatoes could use the attention. But she’s got a mother. She’s got family. It’s not like she’s been abandoned.”

“There are a lot of ways to be abandoned. Physical abandonment is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Give it a few days,” Jim advised. “Things have a funny way of working out—or not. In the meantime, you have the tomatoes to look forward to.”

Melissa couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks, Jim. I feel much better now.”

Jim tipped an imaginary hat. “You are more than welcome,” he said, and then he was down the porch steps and back on the front walk. “Get to know that quilt a little bit, would you? I look forward to a full report!”

And with that, he jogged off, waving at Melissa without actually looking back.

Melissa carefully lifted the quilt from the porch railing and folded it. What a strange morning this had been, one unexpected visitor after another. Her life seemed to be racking up complications—a little girl who she didn’t know how to help and a grown man with a quilt obsession and an unclear agenda.

Melissa didn’t like complications. She liked things to be straightforward, clearly laid out and understandable. What she needed to do was call Jordan the architect and see what he’d found out about affordable housing for Casey and her mom. She needed to tell Casey she should be playing at the park, not working in Melissa’s backyard. And she was going to give Jim’s quilt a good look-over right this minute and get it back to him before he left town.

She took a step toward the house. Suddenly the scent of lavender enveloped her. Burying her nose in the fabric, Melissa found herself in Provence, in June, the sun lifting into a periwinkle sky, waves of undulating purple fields …

Goodness! Melissa lifted her head and looked around. What on earth had just happened?

She wasn’t sure, but maybe she should hold onto this quilt for a little while longer.

End of Part Three ♦

 

The Off-Kilter Quilt – Part Four of Five

A week went by, and then two, without Melissa hearing a word from Jim Burke. Maybe he hadn’t been able to tear himself away from his seminarian friend. Maybe they’d eloped to Morocco and would be gone for years.

Unlikely, Melissa knew, but if Jim had eloped to North Africa, and possession truly was nine-tenths of the law, then she’d get to claim the off-kilter log cabin for her own. As she’d become more and more enamored of it, this idea made her happy, in spite of the strange ping of sadness she felt when she thought of Jim Burke eating couscous in Marrakesh with his lady pastor love.

The longer she lived with the quilt, the stronger her affection for it grew. How would she live without it? There was only one thing to do and that was to make a quilt just like it. Actually, she decided, she would make two—one for herself and one for Casey. She’d been wanting to do something for the girl, especially since it didn’t look like she’d be able to find her a house.

When had she decided that getting Casey a permanent address was the best thing she could do for the girl? Maybe it was the day Casey discovered the seed catalogue in the library, a repurposed card catalogue where patrons could leave packets of saved seeds and take home seeds they needed. It was too late in the summer for planting much besides fast-growing herbs, so Casey filled a small envelope with basil seeds and another with parsley and brought them to Melissa’s desk.

“I’ll plant these by your tomatoes,” the girl said, shaking the little packets so the seeds rattled inside. “I mean, if it’s okay.”

“You can do anything you want back there,” Melissa said. “Have at it.”

Casey’s eyes lit up. “Anything?”

“Just as long as it’s not poisonous to cats.”

“I would never poison a cat,” Casey said solemnly. “I would poison a snake, but not a cat.”

The next morning she was in Melissa’s backyard digging, and that afternoon Melissa found her at a table in the periodical section reading the latest issue of Organic Gardener, a pile of gardening books by her side. This is a girl who needs a yard of her own, Melissa thought. This is a girl who wants roots.

But it didn’t appear Casey would be setting down roots at Milton Falls Heights any time soon, not unless her mother got a decent-paying job, according to Faye’s nephew Jordan. He’d come to quilting class the week before with the news that without steady income, the Rawlings wouldn’t be eligible for even the smallest apartment in the new development.

If Melissa couldn’t find Casey a house, she could make her a quilt, which was her solution to most of life’s unsolvable problems. And since Casey had said she’d liked Jim’s Log Cabin quilt, Melissa set about copying it. She took photographs and drew a pattern on graph paper. Of course to study the quilt, she needed to spread it out on a flat surface, and her bed was the cleanest flat surface she had. It seemed silly to pack it back up only to have to lay it out again day after day, and so Melissa left it where it was.

The first night she slept under the quilt, she dreamed she was beautiful. There was nothing about her appearance that had changed in her dream; when she looked in the mirror her reflection was the same as always: straight reddish-brown hair tucked behind her ears, hazel eyes, freckles, pointed nose. But she realized for all those years she’d thought herself plain, she’d been mistaken. She was in fact strikingly pretty. Could it be? She walked out of her house and over to the library, which in her dream was right across the street, and sure enough, everyone looked at her and smiled. Gorgeous, they whispered to one another. What a stunning girl.

She woke up giggling.

Two nights after that she dreamed that the International Quilt Study Center decided to have a special exhibit of her quilts, and all the quilterati were at the opening reception—Kafe Fassett, Amy Butler, Marianne and Mary Fons, Denyse Schmidt, Alex Anderson, Victoria Findlay Wolfe—oohing and aahing over her creations.

Other dreams came, some fantastical, some just exceedingly pleasant, and Melissa began to worry that now she would never be able to give the quilt back to Jim. Maybe she could buy it from him. Or trade him for one of her quilts? There was her hand-pieced Lone Star that had won a blue ribbon at the Ohio State Fair, or her modern orange and white Dresden Plate that had made it into the first QuiltCon. Maybe after she finished Casey’s quilt, she’d make another one just like it for Jim. Casey’s quilt was coming together quickly, and it wouldn’t take Melissa any time at all to whip one up another one.

Other things were coming together as well. In no time at all, Casey had transformed her backyard. She’d hoed the weeds and mulched the beds, and the tomato plants began putting out new blooms almost immediately. One day she’d shown up with a paper bag full of rocks to make borders with. The basil and parsley sprouted a few days after being planted, and Melissa was surprised by how much the tiny plants pleased her.

She and Casey had fallen into a routine. Casey showed up every morning around 7:30 and headed straight for the backyard to work in the garden. At 8:15, she washed up and then met Melissa on the porch, where the two of them ate breakfast—usually English muffins with strawberry jam and two strips of bacon apiece—and read until 8:45, when Melissa got ready for work. Casey had taken to doing the breakfast dishes and packing their lunches, and together they left the house at 9:20, arriving at the library ten minutes later.

Casey always left the library at 4:50, fifteen minutes before Melissa did, and Melissa suspected it was to avoid the embarrassment of not being asked to dinner. Melissa wondered if she should invite Casey to eat with her, but something always stopped her. It wasn’t that she would mind the girl’s company, it was just—well, Casey had a mother, and it wasn’t Melissa. Melissa didn’t want there to be any confusion on that point.

But now on the nights that Melissa spent at home, nights without classes to teach or meetings to attend or friends to catch up with, the house felt oddly empty. It had never felt empty before. In fact, it had always verged on being overstuffed—with quilts, with books, with sewing machines and comfortable chairs—in a way Melissa found cozy and satisfying. So why did it suddenly feel like when Melissa sat down to sew or read, the other chairs in the room were calling out, What about me? Who’s going to use me?

The furniture had never talked to her before. Melissa wondered why it suddenly had become so needy.

End of Part four ♦

 

The Off-Kilter Quilt – Part Five of Five

She knew the day would come, and so it did. The text popped up on Melissa’s phone the last week of July. Can we meet? Can you come to my house for dinner? 2505 East Liberty Street, Friday night, 7PM. Jim.

Well, what if Friday night at 7 PM was bad for her, Melissa wondered? Weren’t you supposed to ask first—is Friday good for you? If not, what nights work next week?

As it so happened Friday night at 7 PM wasn’t bad for Melissa, and so at 6:40 she set out for East Liberty Street. She’d briefly thought about wearing the pink dress that made her look like she had a figure, and then wondered why she cared. She could barely remember what Jim looked like. Boyishly handsome, buttoned up. He was the anti-poet, and Melissa had no interest in anti-poets, so she wore a denim skirt and a red tee shirt. She thought about leaving the quilt at home and feigning confusion if Jim asked where it was. Quilt? What quilt? Or, You wanted me to bring it tonight? Sorry! Must have gotten our signals crossed!

But she knew he wanted to talk about the off-kilter quilt and she felt duty-bound to bring it with her. Her hope was that she could talk him into letting her hold onto it for a little longer. Maybe she’d claim to be writing her master’s thesis on it. She’d get it back to him in a year—or a decade—or two.

2505 East Liberty Street turned out to be a small yellow cottage tucked back into a lot that sported a dozen tomato plants, a sprawling collection of zucchini and yellow squash, and a pumpkin vine that encompassed the yard’s front borders and boasted one humongous pumpkin.

“I’m growing her for the county fair,” Jim told Melissa when he walked out on his porch and found her ogling the massive squash. “Every year I give it a try, but I haven’t won yet. Two years ago I got third place.”

“That’s an interesting hobby,” Melissa told him. “Unusual, but interesting.”

Jim shrugged. “I spend all day with numbers, so it’s fun to come home and do something—well, dumb. Mindless, I guess.”

“Mindless can be good,” Melissa agreed. “Or wordless. It’s one of the things I like about making quilts. Sometimes even a librarian needs to get away from words.”

Jim seemed to think about this for a moment. “I wonder what pumpkin farmers do to get away from pumpkins?”

Melissa looked at him and cocked her head. “You’re funny, aren’t you?”

He stared at her blankly. “Funny ha-ha? Or funny strange?”

“Both?”

“I think that’s a fair assessment,” Jim said. “You want to come in and eat something? I’m making spaghetti with fresh tomatoes. And bruschetta, also made with fresh tomatoes. And I have a bag of tomatoes for you to take home with you. So I hope you like tomatoes.”

Funny ha-ha or funny strange? Who could tell? Melissa thought as she followed Jim into the house. “So I brought back the quilt,” she said as she crossed the threshold into Jim’s living room. “But I’d be happy to hold onto it a little longer if you don’t want it cluttering up your space.”

Jim didn’t answer. He turned on a lamp next to the couch and another one next to a comfortable-looking leather recliner. “Can I get you something to drink? Water? Beer? A glass of wine?”

“Wine would be nice,” Melissa said. “Red, if you have it.”

After Jim left to get her drink, Melissa took a tour of the living room. What kinds of books would a pumpkin-growing, quilt-obsessed, tomato-rich accountant stock his shelves with? Founding father biographies? Agatha Christie mysteries? Anthropology? Archaeology? Economics?

“It’s mostly poetry,” Jim said, returning with two glasses of wine. “I started out college as an English major.”

“That was quick,” Melissa said. “I’d just begun my snooping.”

“I already had the wine poured. Just to be on the safe side.”

“In case I’d come in waving a pistol and demanding a class of cabernet?”

“This is merlot,” Jim said, handing Melissa a glass. “Are you going to shoot me?”

Melissa shrugged. “No gun. You get to live another day. So an English major, huh?”

“Yeah, I thought I was going to be a writer.” Jim sat down on the couch and kicked his feet up on the coffee table. “Or else a sports broadcaster. But it turns out that what I’m really good at is adding up numbers.”

Melissa examined his shelves. There was a lot of poetry, as well as several volumes of sports writing by poets and other literary types. He also had an impressive collection of books about Buddhism. On the table by the recliner she found a pile of quilt history books. “You really are obsessed,” she said, picking up a copy of Quilts in America. “This is a classic.”

“My mother died when I was ten, and my grandmother raised me,” Jim said. “My father didn’t have the bandwidth to take care of a little boy. He gave my grandmother legal guardianship so she could make all the decisions about school and doctors and that kind of stuff.”

“Is this her book?” Melissa asked, confused as to what Jim’s point might be.

“No. But it’s a book she would have liked. She really loved quilts.”

Jim stared straight ahead, as though he could see through the wall of the house, beyond the tomatoes and the pumpkin vines, straight into the past that held his grandmother and her quilts and the abandoned boy that he once was. And somehow, watching him, Melissa knew that his grandmother’s death was recent and that Jim Burke was still grieving.

“Tell me about the log cabin quilt,” she said gently. “It’s a beauty. Did your grandmother make it?”

Jim shook his head. “She found it at a flea market and fell in love with it. ‘This one’s for your wedding bed, Jim,’ she said when she brought it home, but when I got married my wife didn’t want it on our bed. She didn’t like old things.”

“Your wife?” Melissa fell back into the recliner, nearly dropping her wine glass. “You’re married?”

Was married,” Jim corrected her. “Not for long. Three years into it, my wife—my ex-wife—decided she wanted to go to seminary to become a Presbyterian minister. And I couldn’t do it.”

“Couldn’t do what?”

“Live that life. My dad was a minister and his job pretty much consumed him. He tried to be a good father, but he didn’t have time. That’s why he handed me over to my grandmother.”

Melissa felt dizzy. “So when you talked about visiting a friend at the seminary in Louisville … ?”

“That was my ex-wife. She asked me to do some counseling with her. Sort of a closure thing. It took me two weeks to recover. Are you hungry yet? Because I’ve got the water boiling and the bruschetta in the oven, so all I need to do is throw in the pasta and chop up a few tomatoes.”

“Sure,” Melissa said. “But I’d like to talk more about that quilt.” And your ex-wife, she thought. And all those books on Buddhism. Whoever heard of a Buddhist accountant?

And then the thought struck her: she’d been sleeping underneath Jim Burke’s wedding quilt. She wondered if he’d ever slept beneath it. And if so, had his dreams been wonderful too?

“I was hoping you could tell me something about the quilt,” Jim said as they went into the kitchen. “It seems different from the other ones. Fewer straight lines for one thing.”

“Does that bother you?” Melissa asked, taking a seat on a barstool by the kitchen island. “As an accountant?”

“Accountancy’s just math, and there are all sorts of curves in math. I could tell you a thing or two about curves. But right now I’m interested in the curves in this quilt.”

“Well, the curves in your quilt strike me as improvised, which is to say the quilter cut her fabric without rulers, letting the spirit move her. She clearly wasn’t using a pattern, but she was inspired by the classic log cabin design. And she most likely used the fabrics available to her—probably from worn-out clothes, or scraps from clothes she’d sewn.”

“Which explains the different kinds of material,” Jim said. He threw several handfuls of rotini into a pot of boiling water and then looked at Melissa. “I wonder what her name was.”

Melissa didn’t reply. It was such a marvelous, unexpected thing for an accountant to wonder. For anyone to wonder, really. It was almost as if Jim Burke were a poet. A poet-accountant. Could such an animal actually exist?

“My grandmother’s name was Alice,” Jim continued after a moment. “When my father dropped me off at her house, he said, ‘You’re going to live with Alice in Wonderland.’”

“Was it?” Melissa asked. “A wonderland, I mean?”

“In its way,” Jim said, peering into the oven. “My garden out front is nothing compared to hers. I think I’m going to give this bruschetta another minute.”

“How old were you when you went to live with her?”

“Ten,” Jim said. He turned to the stove to stir the pasta. “Ten is a good age for gardening. You’re interested in watching plants grow—the science of it, right?—but you’re also still a believer.”

“In—?”

“Magic, hobbits, talking rabbits, passageways to fantastical lands.”

Melissa thought about Casey making her own magic in the garden. Just this morning they’d made a list for fall plantings—Brussels sprouts and carrots, purple cabbage.

“I still have my ten-year-old gardener,” she told Jim. “She’s completely reinvented my backyard.”

Jim grabbed a purple tomato and placed it firmly on the cutting board. Melissa watched in fascination as he expertly diced it into a pile of tiny, juicy squares. When he finished, he looked up at her and said, “I’ve been thinking about it. You should adopt her.”

Melissa could feel her eyes widen as though she were a cartoon version of herself. “I’m sorry? You think I should what? Adopt her? But she has a mother.”

“Not really, not if she spends all day in your backyard.”

“She has a mother,” Melissa repeated. “And she doesn’t spend all day in my backyard. She spends a lot of her day in the library reading.”

“In the library where you work?”

Melissa nodded. “That’s where we met. She likes to read.”

“And garden,” Jim added, julienning a twist of basil leaves.

“She has a mother.”

“You could be her guardian,” Jim said. “And then she could stay with you. You could teach her how to make quilts.”

Who was this man? Just who did he think he was? “You’re being ridiculous, and I think I should go,” Melissa said, standing. She could feel the heat in her face. She wanted to hit something. She wanted to hit Jim Burke. How dare he! How dare he—do whatever it was he was doing?

“I think we should have dinner and then sit on the porch and admire my pumpkin,” Jim said. “We could talk more about quilts. And about why my idea isn’t ridiculous. If it were ridiculous, you wouldn’t be so mad right now.”

Melissa tried to think of something to say, something cutting and sarcastic that would bring this conversation to an end. “You don’t know—you don’t know what—”

“What I’m talking about?” Jim poured some more wine into Melissa’s glass and motioned for her to sit down. “As a former motherless ten-year-old who got to live in wonderland for awhile, I’d say that I do. But we can talk about it. And then you can tell me what you dreamed about when you slept under the quilt. Me, I had a dream about a librarian with a pointed nose who was kind to children, and the next day I met your mother at a wedding and she told me all about you.”

Melissa sat down. She took a long sip of her wine. Glancing out the window, she could see bumblebees bobbing among the pumpkin vine’s enormous leaves. “Did you think she was pretty?”

“Who? Your mother?”

“No, the librarian in your dream.”

Jim nodded. “I thought she was beautiful.”

“I guess I could eat something,” Melissa said. “But only if there are tomatoes involved.”

“It’s really too bad I’m allergic,” Jim said, peeling a clove of garlic.

“Funny ha-ha?” Melissa asked, leaning forward to pluck a slice of tomato off the cutting board.

Jim didn’t answer. Melissa watched in fascination as he minced the garlic into a tiny mound and then neatly pushed it off his knife into the bowl with the tomato and basil. Who would have ever thought that right here in Milton Falls she’d meet a quilt-obsessed Buddhist poet-accountant who on top of everything else could cook?

“Care for some bruschetta?” Jim asked as he pulled a tray from the oven, the kitchen filling with the rich perfume of basil and garlic. Without waiting for a reply, he slipped two slices on a small plate and handed it to Melissa. “Sweets for the sweet,” he said.

“I think you mean ‘savories for the savory,’” Melissa said, and then flushed. “Not that I’m savory.”

“Oh, maybe a little savory,” Jim said.

“Okay, maybe a little,” Melissa said, biting into the bruschetta. “Oh, my goodness! This is wonderful!”

“Thanks. That makes two of you.”

Melissa stared at Jim for a moment and then started to laugh. Funny ha-ha! Or maybe funny-strange? She could see it was going to take her awhile to figure it out, but that was okay. She had all the time in the world.

♦ ♦ ♦ The End. ♦ ♦ ♦


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frances O’Roark Dowell’s first novel for adults is the quilting novel Birds in the Air, which Marianne Fons called “a truly enjoyable read” about “the power of quilts to connect, heal, and restore the soul.” To younger readers, Frances is known as the bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Dovey Coe, which won the Edgar Award and the William Allen White Award; Where I’d Like to Be; The Secret Language of Girls and its sequels The Kind of Friends We Used to Be and The Sound of Your Voice, Only Really Far Away; Chicken Boy; Shooting the Moon, which was awarded the Christopher Medal; the Phineas L. MacGuire series; Falling In; the critically acclaimed The Second Life of Abigail Walker; Anybody Shining; Ten Miles Past Normal; and most recently, Trouble the Water. She lives with her husband and two sons in Durham, North Carolina. Learn more online at FrancesDowell.com and OffKilterQuilt.com.