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Golden light poured over the little town of Crozet, Virginia. Mary Minor Haristeen looked up from the envelopes she was sorting and then walked over to the large glass window to admire the view. It seemed to her as if the entire town had been drenched in butter. The rooftops shone; the simple clapboard buildings were lent a pleasing grace. Harry was so compelled by the quality of the light that she threw on her denim jacket and walked out the back door. Mrs. Murphy, Harry's tiger cat, and Tee Tucker, her corgi, roused themselves from a drowsy afternoon slumber to accompany her. The long October rays of the sun gilded the large trotting-horse weathervane on Miranda Hogendobber's house on St. George Avenue, seen from the alleyway behind the post office.
Brilliant fall days brought back memories of hotly contested football games, school crushes, and cool nights. Much as Harry loathed cold weather, she liked having to buy a new sweater or two. At Crozet High she had worn a fuzzy red sweater one long-ago October day, in 1973 to be exact, and caught the eye of Fair Haristeen. Oak trees transformed into orange torches, the maples turned blood-red, and the beech trees became yellow, then as now. Autumn colors remained in her memory, and this would be that kind of fall. Her divorce from Fair had been final six months ago, or was it a year? She really couldn't remember, or perhaps she didn't want to remember. Her friends ransacked their address books for the names of eligible bachelors. There were two: Dr. Larry Johnson, the retired, widowed town doctor, who was two years older than God, and the other, of course, was Pharamond Haristeen. Even if she wanted Fair back, which she most certainly did not, he was embroiled in a romance with BoomBoom Craycroft, the beautiful thirty-two-year-old widow of Kelly Craycroft.
Harry mused that everyone in town had nicknames. Olivia was BoomBoom, and Pharamond was Fair. She was Harry, and Peter Shiflett, who owned the market next door, was called Market. Cabell Hall, president of the Allied National Bank in Richmond, was Cab or Cabby; his wife of twenty-seven years, Florence, was dubbed Taxi. The Marilyn Sanburnes, senior and junior, were Big Marilyn, or Mim, and Little Marilyn respectively. How close it made everyone feel, these little monikers, these tokens of intimacy, nicknames. Crozet folks laughed at their neighbors' habits, predicting who would say what to whom and when. These were the joys of a small town, yet they masked the same problems and pain, the same cruelties, injustice, and self-destructive behavior found on a larger scale in Charlottesville, fourteen miles to the east, or Richmond, seventy miles beyond Charlottesville. The veneer of civilization, so essential to daily life, could easily be dissolved by crisis. Sometimes it didn't even take a crisis: Dad came home drunk and beat the living shit out of his wife and children, or a husband arrived home early from work to his heavily mortgaged abode and found his wife in bed with another man. Oh, it couldn't happen in Crozet but it did. Harry knew it did. After all, a post office is the nerve center of any community and she knew, usually before others, what went on when the doors were closed and the lights switched off. A flurry of legal letters might cram a box, or a strange medley of dental bills, and as Harry sorted the mail she would piece together the stories hidden from view.
If Harry understood her animals better, then she'd know even more, because her corgi, Tee Tucker, could scurry under porch steps, and Mrs. Murphy could leap into a hayloft, a feat the agile tiger cat performed both elegantly and with ease. The cat and dog carried a wealth of information, if only they could impart it to their relatively intelligent human companion. It was never easy, though. Mrs. Murphy sometimes had to roll over in front of her mother, or Tee Tucker might have to grab her pants leg.
Today the animals had no gossip about humans or their own kind. They sat next to Harry and observed Miranda Hogendobber--clad in a red plaid skirt, yellow sweater, and gardening gloves--hoe her small patch, which was producing a riot of squash and pumpkins. Harry waved to Mrs. Hogendobber, who returned the acknowledgment.
"Harry," Susan Tucker, Harry's best friend, called from inside the post office.
"I'm out back."
Susan opened the back door. "Postcard material. Picture perfect. Fall in central Virginia."
As she spoke the back door of the market opened and Pewter, the Shifletts' fat gray cat, streaked out, a chicken leg in her mouth.
Market shouted after the cat, "Damn you, Pewter, you'll get no supper tonight." He started after her as she headed toward the post office, glanced up, and beheld Harry and Susan. "Excuse me, ladies, had I known you were present I would not have used foul language."
Harry laughed. "Oh, Market, we use worse."
"Are you going to share?" Mrs. Murphy inquired of Pewter as she shot past them.
"How can she answer? Her mouth is full," Tucker said. "Besides, when have you known Pewter to give even a morsel of food to anybody else?"
"That's a fact." Mrs. Murphy followed her gray friend, just in case.
Pewter stopped just out of reach of a subdued Market, now chatting up the ladies. She tore off a tantalizing hunk of chicken.
"How'd you get that away from Market?" Mrs. Murphy's golden eyes widened.
Ever ready to brag, Pewter chewed, yet kept a paw on the drumstick. "He put one of those barbecued chickens up on the counter. Little Marilyn asked him to cut it up and when his back was turned I made off with a drumstick." She chewed another savory piece.
"Aren't you a clever girl?" Tucker sniffed that delicious smell.
"As a matter of fact I am. Little Marilyn hollered and declared she wouldn't take a chicken that a cat had bitten into, and truthfully, I wouldn't eat anything Little Marilyn had touched. Turning into as big a snot as her mother."
With lightning speed Mrs. Murphy grabbed the chicken leg as Tucker knocked the fat kitty off balance. Mrs. Murphy raced down the alleyway into Miranda Hogendobber's garden, followed by a triumphant Tucker and a spitting Pewter.
"Give me that back, you striped asshole!"
"You never share, Pewter," Tucker said as Mrs. Murphy ran between the rows of cornstalks, moving toward the moonlike pumpkins.
"Harry," Mrs. Hogendobber bellowed, "these creatures will be the death of me yet."
She brandished her hoe in the direction of Tucker, who ran away. Now Pewter chased Mrs. Murphy up and down the rows of squash but Mrs. Murphy, nimble and fit, leapt over a wide, spreading squash plant with its creamy yellow bounty in the middle. She headed for the pumpkins.
Market laughed. "Think we could unleash Miranda on the Sanburnes?" He was referring to Little Marilyn and her equally distasteful maternal unit, Mim.
That made Susan and Harry laugh, which infuriated Mrs. Hogendobber because she thought they were laughing at her.
"It's not funny. They'll ruin my garden. My prize pumpkins. You know I'm going to win at the Harvest Fair with my pumpkins." Miranda's face turned puce.
"I've never seen that color on a human being before." Tucker stared up in wonderment.
"Tucker, watch out for the hoe," Mrs. Murphy yelled. She dropped the drumstick.
Pewter grabbed it. The fat swung under her belly as she shot back toward home, came within a whisker's length of Market and skidded sideways, evading him.
He laughed. "If they want it that bad I might as well bring over the rest of the chicken."
By the time he was back with the chicken, Mrs. Hogendobber, huffing and puffing, had plopped herself at the back door of the post office.
"Tucker could have broken my hip. What if she'd knocked me over?" Mrs. Hogendobber warmed to the scenario of damage and danger.
Market bit his tongue. He wanted to say that she was well padded enough not to worry. Instead he clucked sympathy while cutting meat off the chicken for the three animals, who hastily forgave one another any wrongdoing. Chicken was too important to let ego stand in the way.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Hogendobber. Are you all right?" Harry asked politely.
"Of course I'm all right. I just wish you could control your charges."
"What you need is a corgi," Susan Tucker volunteered.
"No, I don't. I took care of my husband all my life and I don't need a dog to care for. At least George brought home a paycheck, bless his soul."
"They're very entertaining," Harry added.
"What about the fleas?" Mrs. Hogendobber was more interested than she cared to admit.
"You can have those without a dog," Harry answered.
"I do not have fleas."
"Miranda, when the weather's warm, everyone's got fleas," Market corrected her.
"Speak for yourself. And if I ran a food establishment I would make sure there wasn't a flea within fifty yards of the place. Fifty yards." Mrs. Hogendobber pursed her lips, outlined in a pearlized red that matched the red in her plaid skirt. "And I'd give more discounts."
"Now, Miranda." Market, having heard this ad nauseam, was prepared to launch into a passionate defense of his pricing practices.
An unfamiliar voice cut off this useless debate. "Anyone home?"
"Who's that?" Mrs. Hogendobber's eyebrows arched upward.
Harry and Susan shrugged. Miranda marched into the post office. As her husband, George, had been postmaster for over forty years before his death, she felt she could do whatever she wanted. Harry was on her heels, Susan and Market bringing up the rear. The animals, finished with the chicken, scooted in.
Standing on the other side of the counter was the handsomest man Mrs. Hogendobber had seen since Clark Gable. Susan and Harry might have chosen a more recent ideal of virility, but whatever the vintage of comparison, this guy was drop-dead gorgeous. Soft hazel eyes illuminated a chiseled face, rugged yet sensitive, and his hair was curly brown, perfectly cut. His hands were strong. Indeed, his entire impression was one of strength. On top of well-fitted jeans was a watermelon-colored sweater, the sleeves pushed up on tanned, muscular forearms.
For a moment no one said a word. Miranda quickly punctured the silence.
"Miranda Hogendobber." She held out her hand.
"Blair Bainbridge. Please call me Blair."
Miranda now had the upper hand and could introduce the others. "This is our postmistress, Mary Minor Haristeen. Susan Tucker, wife of Ned Tucker, a very fine lawyer should you ever need one, and Market Shiflett, who owns the store next door, which is very convenient and carries those sinful Dove bars."
"Hey, hey, what about us?" The chorus came from below.
Harry picked up Mrs. Murphy. "This is Mrs. Murphy, that's Tee Tucker, and the gray kitty is Pewter, Market's invaluable assistant, though she's often over here picking up the mail."
Blair smiled and shook Mrs. Murphy's paw, which delighted Harry. Mrs. Murphy didn't mind. The masculine vision then leaned over and patted Pewter's head. Tucker held up her paw to shake, which Blair did.
"I'm pleased to meet you."
"Me, too," Tucker replied.
"May I help you?" Harry asked as the others leaned forward in anticipation.
"Yes. I'd like a post box if one is available."
"I have a few. Do you like odd numbers or even?" Harry smiled. She could be charming when she smiled. She was one of those fine-looking women who took few pains with herself. What you saw was what you got.
"How does forty-four sound? Or thirteen--I almost forgot I had thirteen."
"Don't take thirteen." Miranda shook her head. "Bad luck."
"Thirty-four ninety-five, please." Harry filled out the box slip and stamped it with pokeberry-colored ink, a kind of runny maroon.
He handed over the check and she handed over the key.
"Is there a Mrs. Bainbridge?" Mrs. Hogendobber brazenly asked. "The name sounds so familiar."
Market rolled his eyes heavenward.
"No, I haven't had the good fortune to find the right woman to--"
"Harry's single, you know. Divorced, actually." Mrs. Hogendobber nodded in Harry's direction.
At that moment Harry and Susan would have gladly slit her throat.
"Mrs. Hogendobber, I'm sure Mr. Bainbridge doesn't need my biography on his first visit to the post office."
"On my second, perhaps you'll supply it." He put the key in his pocket, smiled, and left, climbing into a jet-black Ford F350 dually pickup. Mr. Bainbridge was prepared to do some serious hauling in that baby.
"Miranda, how could you?" Susan exclaimed.
"How could I what?"
"You know what." Market took up the chorus.
Miranda paused. "Mention Harry's marital status? Listen, I'm older than any of you. First impressions are important. He might not have such a good first impression of me but I bet he'll have one of Harry, who handled the situation with her customary tact and humor. And when he goes home tonight he'll know there's one pretty unmarried woman in Crozet." With that astonishing justification she swept out the back door.
"Well, I'll be damned." Market's jaw hung slack.
"That's what I say." Pewter cackled.
"Girls, I'm going back to work. This was all too much for me." Market laughed and opened the front door. He paused. "Oh, come on, you little crook."
Pewter meowed sweetly and followed her father out the door.
"Can you believe Rotunda could run that fast?" Tucker said to Mrs. Murphy.
"That was a surprise." Mrs. Murphy rolled over on the floor, revealing her pretty buff underbelly.
"This fall is going to be full of surprises. I feel it in my bones." Tucker smiled and wagged her stumpy tail.
Mrs. Murphy gave her a look. The cat was not in the mood for prophecy. Anyway, cats knew more of such things than dogs. She didn't feel like confirming that she thought Tucker was right. Something was in the air. But what?
Harry placed the check in the drawer under the counter. It was face up and she peered down at it again. "Yellow Mountain Farm."
"There is no Yellow Mountain Farm." Susan bent over to examine the check.
"What? That place has been empty for over a year now. Who would buy it?"
"A Yankee." Harry closed the door. "Or someone from California."
"No." Susan's voice dropped.
"There is nothing else for sale around Yellow Mountain except Foxden."
"But, Harry, we know everything, and we haven't heard one word, one measly peep, about Foxden selling."
Harry was already dialing the phone as Susan was talking. "Jane Fogleman, please." There was a brief pause. "Jane, why didn't you tell me Foxden had sold?"
Jane, from the other end of the line, replied, "Because we were instructed to keep our mouths shut until the closing, which was at nine this morning at McGuire, Woods, Battle and Boothe."