“So,” I began, telling myself I was initiating small talk, “do you have any ownership stake in the farm you work for?”
She smiled faintly. “Why does it matter?”
“It doesn’t.” But it did, though I couldn’t put a finger on why. Did I need to feel superior? Did some better part of me want her to have something of her own?
She gestured outdoors, toward Glynnis and Jackie, who sat companionably on the patio. “Do those gals have a stake in the company you work for? Have you ever questioned it, or is it just who I am that’s bothering you? You’re skittish as a cat having me in your house—”
“That’s not fair. I know them. I’m happy to have you over, but I don’t know you.”
“No,” she said, after an uncomfortable beat. “You don’t. I’m sorry. I’ve got a small chip on my shoulder. It wasn’t placed there by me, but for some reason I can’t get rid of it. It’s probably implanted itself by now.”
“I’ve got one, too,” I admitted. “I’m not from around here originally. I guess that feeling never quite goes away.” I knew for sure that feeling never moved on. Jesse always felt the past was something we had to outsmart—if it got the best of us, we’d find ourselves struggling to survive in the world of poverty, drug addiction, and violence that beset both of our families. He succeeded in this by playing by the rules of suburbia, a society that made sense to him. We had good jobs and a nice home, we paid our bills on time, and we gave back to the community in small but significant ways. The one time Jesse let something lapse, it ended in catastrophe—when he died we were in the process of changing insurance companies, and we’d decided to hold off on life insurance policies because I felt we could shop around for a better deal. Taking such a risk truly bothered him, but I’d said it was only a matter of a few weeks. What could happen? So much could happen. Death could happen. I’d apologized to him a thousand times in my head. For Jesse, security was the best thing he could give us, and I’d taken that away from him.
“Your mind is a million miles away,” Mykia said, her voice full of wry humor. Something in her eyes told me she knew what I was thinking about wasn’t all that funny. She began to chop an onion, methodically, precisely. “So, my father is from Jamaica. My mother was German. I’m a halfsie.”
“She’s passed on,” she explained, “but my father is still around. He wants me to go back to dental school. On his dime.”
“You were in dental school?”
“I’m going to ignore how surprised you sound.”
“Sorry,” I said, my face growing hot with embarrassment. “I’m terribly judgmental. Can’t help it.”
She smiled. “There are worse things.”
I thought about all the part-time jobs Jesse and I worked when we were young. How exhausted we were, and how fearful. “Why would you say no to someone footing the bill for college?”
“Because I’m saying yes to this,” she said, gesturing toward the vegetables brightening my countertop.
“It’s tough to get into dental school. You just walked away one day?”
“Because I know what’s what.”
What? I wanted to shout. What is what? I felt like I had no idea what she was talking about, and I desperately wanted to know but didn’t know how to ask without sounding foolish. Instead, I asked, “Did you leave before they could fix your tooth?”
Mykia laughed. “I pulled my own tooth, because it would probably need it eventually, and I wanted to see what it felt like. I haven’t gotten around to doing something with it.”
I just nodded. Usually, when someone said something that highlighted how starkly different we were, it made me take a step back. With Mykia, I wanted to get closer, to keep peeling back the layers of her personality. She was bold enough to yank out a tooth. She was confident enough to call me on my bullshit. I thought she was exactly the right person to help me with the backyard of destruction.
I watched as she worked her magic, taking a box of pasta, some cream I hoped hadn’t gone sour in my fridge, an egg, and a random mix of spring vegetables, and turned it into savory Italian goodness.
She twirled the pasta around a fork and held it out to me. “Try it.”
Wow. Just like Mykia, the dish was a multilayered miracle of taste. “That’s pretty incredible.”
She smiled, self-satisfied. “Uh-huh.”
I helped myself to another bite. “You’re going to help me, aren’t you? With this garden.”
“I don’t exactly know why, but I’m going to try,” she said through a mouthful. “It’s not looking too good.”
Someone rapped on the French patio doors. Jackie stood there, frowning, her French-manicured index finger tapping at the glass. When I opened the door, she said, “There’s some people here to see you. And they don’t look happy.”
Mr. Eckhardt led the charge, followed by a ruddy-complexioned, barrel-chested Willow Falls police officer and two women of about retirement age, one dressed head to toe in symbols—Tory Burch, Chanel, Michael Kors—and one wearing sensible sandals and khakis. Both frowned at me, lips curled in disgust as though I were the dog who pooped on their expensive carpet. Mr. Eckhardt shook with barely controlled fury—it would have struck me as funny had I not been the focus of his outrage.
“Unacceptable,” he spat, gesturing at the dirt pit. “Completely unacceptable.”
Jackie moved next to me, and Mykia was on the other side, so it was a fair fight.
“This is private property,” I said. “My property. If I want to dig, I can dig.”
“You just need to watch out for the gas lines,” said the police officer. He looked faintly amused. “Call Nicor, and they’ll send someone out.”
“It’s not that simple,” the label lover said. Her voice, smooth and confident, had the assurance of someone who didn’t question herself and expected others to follow suit. She placed one hand on Mr. Eckhardt’s forearm, much to the alarm of the khaki-clad woman. “We are longtime members of Willow Falls. This community has standards that were established long before you bought this house. You must abide by those standards.”
Miss Khaki, red faced but determined, stepped to Mr. Eckhardt’s other side, and placed her liver-spotted hand on his forearm. “There are rules,” she said. “And there are consequences for not following them.”
“What kinds of consequences?” Mykia said. Her voice matched her opponent’s—cool and unperturbed.
“Do you live here?” the khaki-clad woman asked.
“Does it matter?” Mykia countered. “I’m just talking sense.”
Label Lover addressed me. “You have a corner house. Anyone walking by can see this eyesore. It’s not good for the community, and we take the well-being of the community very seriously.” She reluctantly removed her manicured hand from Mr. Eckhardt and placed it on my shoulder. “I take our citizens’ well-being seriously as well. Bill has filled us in on your tragic situation. If you need financial help—or if you need to speak to someone—my husband, bless his departed heart, was a renowned therapist. I’m well versed in grief.” She glanced at an uncomfortable Mr. Eckhardt and added, “Though the past is past and I do feel moving forward is important, in every way.”