Grace Grows

Shelle Sumners

St. Martin's Griffin

GRACE GROWS (Chapter 1)

day zero: my unravelment begins
(unravelment: is that a word?)

The first time I met Tyler Wilkie, I was dressed like a call girl.

By pure, titillating coincidence, my strategy for work that day was cleavage. The big guns. Or, in my case, the medium, B-verging-on-C ones. Because yesterday, having dressed like a Mennonite librarian for our meeting with the textbook lobbyists from Texas, I'd sat there mute and limp while imagination was besieged by the powers of ignorance.

Forbes and Delilah Webber loved my blouse with the Peter Pan collar. Delilah called me "the sweetest little thing" and "precious." They promised to recommend our middle school Teen Health textbook for statewide adoption if we agreed to:

a) Remove all information regarding condoms.

and

b) Change the word imagine to suppose. Imagine being "too like the word magic--it might upset some people."

They also asked us to get them orchestra seats to The Lion King.

After the meeting, I begged my boss to refuse the Webbers. My traitorous coeditor Edward, who happens to be from Texas, capitulated and offered to do the edits, reminding me that we "don't mess with Texas" and its four-hundred-million-dollar book-buying budget.

We were meeting with the Webbers again today, to show them the changes. I didn't know what I could do to stop the anti-imagine machine. I had tried to come up with a plan all the sleepless night, and I had nothing. This ship was going to sink, but I decided that I, their "sweetest little thing," could at least try to look taller going down. I could project confidence and strength. Defiance. Sex. A tall, cruel, European dominatrix vibe.

It was so not me.

I donned the black pin-striped suit my mother gave me for Christmas two years ago, which I have worn exactly once. To a funeral. Only I hiked the skirt up a couple inches and wore my push-up bra. Found an ancient pair of stockings in the back of my drawer. Then I squeezed into the black, four-inch-stiletto-heeled, pointy-toed shoes I bought on sale at Lord & Taylor to go with the suit. I pulled my hair into a low, severe knot, and put on mascara and lipstick. Red.

I pulled on my raincoat and grabbed an umbrella, my laptop, and the twenty-pound green leather shoulder bag that contained All I Might Conceivably Need, which might include (but was not limited to):

keys

wallet

cell

agenda

lip balm

hairbrush

hair band

big hair clip

tissues

book (Lolita, it happened)

iPod

bottle of water

bag of raw cashews

70% dark chocolate bar

appleblack pen

red pencil

black Sharpie

red cardigan sweater

tacky vinyl zipper bag with photo of fuzzy kitten on it, stocked with:

various-sized Band-Aids

small tube of antibiotic ointment

antihistamine and antidiarrheal tablets

Tylenol

Tylenol with caffeine

Tylenol with codeine

Advil

nail file

tampons

water lily oil

hand lotion

travel-size Shower Fresh Secret

and:

tea light and matches

mini-flashlight

tiny fold-up scissors with needle and black thread

ginger tea bags

earplugs

pocket copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, for grammatical emergencies (memorized, but sometimes a tired mind becomes uncertain)

Oh, and one more thing: the silver pocket angel Edward gave me, wedged deep into a rip in the lining of the bag.

Thus aggressively attired and equipped for any eventuality, I headed down the three flights of stairs to the lobby.

Big dogs, barking.

I came around the last bend in the stairwell and saw them--our across-the-hall-neighbor Sylvia's prize-winning giant schnauzers--tugging at a guy who sat at the bottom of the steps with their sparkly leashes wrapped around his hand. He heard me coming and moved to one side, murmuring "sorry," as I stepped carefully around him.

When I reached the door, God help me, I looked back. Might as well have gone ahead and turned to salt.

He was rubbing his face.

"Everything okay?" I chirped, willing him to say yes so I could go. The dogs shifted their Batman-like ears toward me.

"Uh, not really. She left me a note." He spoke with a slightly countryish kind of drawl that reminded me, unpleasantly, of the Webbers. "Blitzen and uh...Bismarck here have just been groomed for a show and I'm not supposed to get their feet wet."

Clearly Sylvia was even more insane than I had suspected. And the guy looked pathetically bleak.

"Hold on," I said, and went back upstairs. I grabbed a cheap umbrella from the pile of extras in our hall closet and a box of zipper bags from the kitchen, and rooted around in our junk drawer until I came up with an assortment of rubber bands and a roll of masking tape.

I tiptoed back downstairs (the shoes), sat next to the guy, and bagged one of Blitzen's meticulously pedicured paws while she tickled my neck with her beard.

Once I had just about successfully finished the first foot, I looked to see if the guy was watching and learning.

He lifted his eyes from my chest and said, "Oh hey, thanks!" He grabbed a bag and got busy on Bismarck.

It took the two of us about six minutes to double-bag all eight paws. Then I lurched back up en pointe, belted my raincoat firmly across my waist, and picked up my laptop bag. The guy stood too, handed me Big Green, and startled me with a smile that was blindingly sweet. I blinked and lost my grip on the strap, but he caught it and resettled the purse firmly on my shoulder.

"Thanks, you really saved me," he said.

I held out the umbrella. "Here, take this. I think the rain's just about stopped for now, but you might need it later."

He smiled the smile again and tucked the umbrella in the pocket of his army/navy outerwear.

"I'll bring it back to you," he said. "What's your apartment number?"

I waved a hand. "Don't worry about it."

He took up the dogs' leashes and pushed the door open for me. Blitzen and Bismarck pulled him toward the park and I tippy-toed double time in the other direction, toward the subway.

"Hey!" I heard him call out.

I turned around. He was at the other end of the block. He mouthed the words thank you.

I smiled and shrugged. No big deal.

GRACE GROWS. Copyright © 2012 by Shelle Sumners.