Shelly Donahue sat at the white plastic table on a white plastic chair outside the Excelo Bakery shop on Water Street. She was eating a “wicked” sandwich — so designated on a hand-lettered placard — consisting of sprouts, tomato, avocado, two kinds of cheese, and Green Goddess dressing on herb-flavored foccacio bread baked on the premises. Her own designation of it was “messy but interesting;” as in, “Will you make me one of those messy but interesting veggie sandwiches?” Shelly would not add a sandwich to a list including murder and child abuse.
She also had a cup of cranberry juice, not further designated.
She was feeling frazzled, and looking a trifle frazzled as well; her hair was coming out of its bun and tendrils of it were lifted up here and there by a cool, vagrant breeze. An all-day pre-school session was underway, and there were new laws and regulations to master, new textbooks (one with several errors of fact) to study, and a new principal full of new ideas. And retirement was twenty years away.
But the morning’s harsh edge was being smoothed away by a bit of friendly gossip. She was sharing her table with Irene Potter, a fellow needleworker, who was not drinking her coffee and was pulling fragments off a poppy seed muffin with her lean, nimble fingers in lieu of eating it.
Irene’s shining dark eyes encouraged Shelly to go on with what she was saying.
So, “You know, you’d hardly think they were sisters at all,” Shelly continued. “Margot’s such a dainty little thing, so sweet and … and … oh, I know the word’s not considered nice anymore, but she’s a lady. A real lady. Betsy’s nice too, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not just that they don’t look very much alike; I mean, that sort of thing happens in any family that doesn’t marry one another’s cousins. But Betsy’s … ” She paused to think of the right words. “She’s … more so,” she said with an air of having at last put her finger on it. “You should have seen her lighting up for Hudson Earlie Saturday night. And Hud was putting the move on her — you know Hud — but Margot couldn’t say anything right there in front of him.”
“Yes, we all know Hud,” said Irene, waggling her eyebrows.
“But did you know Margot hired Betsy to work in the store?”
“She did?” Irene had worked a few hours in Crewel World, and wanted to work more.
“And Betsy doesn’t know anything about running a store, or all that much about needlework, for that matter. She asked the dumbest questions.”
“No!” said Irene, gratified.
“Yes. But she’s trying really hard to pick up on things. And she’s fun to have around, she really seems to like talking with the customers. She sold a whole lot of yarn to this woman by asking her questions about knitting, it was so funny to watch.”
Irene chose to ignore that good news. “I hear she used to live in San Francisco.” Her expressive voice turned the name into a synonym for depravity.
Shelly shrugged eloquently. “Yes, she mentioned that. And London, and New York. As if none of us ever go anywhere. She’s been married a few times, too. But no children.” Her face was disapproving of both those facts, though she herself was divorced — once — and had no children.
Irene said, “Of course, Margot never had children, either. Though I always understood it was Aaron’s fault.” They shared a slightly different expression this time, then smiled to show it was all just in fun.
Shelly glanced at her watch, made an exclamation. She stood and began gathering the remnants of her meal. “Lunch break’s about over. I have to get back.”
“Yes, you only get forty-five minutes, don’t you?” said Irene, also rising. Her job as supervisor in the shipping department of a local manufacturer wasn’t as prestigious as Shelly’s, but they gave her an hour for lunch. “So,” she went on, walking Shelly to the trash barrel, her voice hopeful, “if Betsy doesn’t know much, it seems Margot will still be in the market for a part-timer to help out in the shop?” Irene Potter’s ultimate goal in life was to own a needlework shop, and meanwhile to gain full time employment in Margot’s. Shelly’s news about Betsy’s arrival made her despair for even the few hours of part time work Margot would grudge her.
Shelly, secure in her summer hours in Crewel World, smiled. “Probably not, but why don’t you go talk to her? Meet Betsy, too. Maybe you two would get along. Got to run. Bye-bye.”
Irene stood on the sidewalk in the bright sunshine, staring after her. Irene had a tendency to see everyone as a rival or potential rival, so Shelly’s parting remarks gave her an idea that was positively brilliant. Know thine enemy, that was Biblical, wasn’t it? Or was it Shakespearean? Never mind, if she went over there and made friends, then she might see how to sabatoge this Betsy person. Who, after all, knew next to nothing about clerking in a needlework store, while Irene knew everything; that might nullify the blood connection.
She hurried to scoop up the remains of her muffin and the styrofoam coffee cup and toss them into the trash container. She dusted crumbs off with her napkin, then inspected herself in the window of the bakery. Dark slacks, white blouse, gray vest hand-crocheted by herself with cotton thread in a pineapple pattern, and her favorite earrings, shaped like tiny scissors. She patted her dark curly hair, cropped close to her narrow head. She looked neat and competent. She smiled at the reflection, admiring the whiteness of her teeth. Perfect!
She rose onto her toes before stepping off in the direction of Crewel World, a mannerism she had seen in a musical once and copied whenever she was feeling ebullient. She had twenty minutes left of her lunch hour, time enough to get there and start making friends with her new rival. What fun!
* * * *
Betsy sat behind the big old desk that Margot used as a checkout counter. Her lower lip was sucked into her mouth and held there by her incisors. In her hands were two metal knitting needles and a ball of cheap purple yarn. Open on the desk was a thin booklet that promised to teach her how to knit in one day.
The reason her lower lip was being held in place was that doing so prevented her from sticking her tongue out.
Betsy considered herself very coordinated physically. She could ride, she could shoot, she could thread a needle on the first try. Back when her hair was long, she’d taught herself to French braid it down the back of her head without looking. But knitting was different.
“Casting on” she could do. She’d cast on twenty-five stitches, as instructed, and on the second try done it loosely enough that knitting was something she now could also do, after a fashion. She’d proved that by doing about an inch of knitting.
But purling was not possible. The needle went through the knitted stitch, apparently as illustrated, and allowed itself to have a bit of yarn wrapped over it, but it wouldn’t capture and bring through the purl stitch. Not without the aid of a third hand, which she didn’t have.
Not that she could see why anyone wanted to purl anyhow. It looked like the same thing as knitting, according to the illustration, except up and down instead of across. Which is why it was impossible. One knitted from one side to the other, not upward.
Could it be some kind of secret knitters’ thing? They let outsiders try and try to purl while they, the cognoscenti, the in-crowd, the clique, rolled on the floor snorting and giggling. And after a week or two allowed as how there was no such thing as purling. Sure, it was just a hazing thing they did to people who wanted to join the knitting fraternity — er, sorority. Though Betsy knew there were men who knitted. Sorternity?
Wait a second. If she tucked the end of the empty needle under her arm — Rats, for a second there she thought she’d got it.
She gave up and went back to knitting, slowly easing the needle through, wrapping the yarn, lift-twist-tipping it back, slipping the old stitch off.
She remembered how her mother would sit and watch television or her children play in the park, while her hands, as if with an intelligence of their own, moved in a swift, compact pattern and produced sweaters, scarves, and mittens by the yard.
And she’d watched Margot do the same on Sunday evening up in the apartment.
While here she struggled slowly, stitch by stitch. Still, she was actually knitting. If she kept this up, in a year she’d have a potholder.
Margot hadn’t watched television while she knitted, but talked with Betsy. Of course, there had been the odd pause while Margot counted stitches — knitters were forever losing track, it seemed — but on the whole, Margot had been able to keep up her end.
Evenings had been very comfortable up in that apartment. They’d done lots of catching up — though now she thought about it, Betsy had been allowed to do most of the talking, about Professor Hal (the pig), and the cost of living in beautiful San Diego (the sunlight in April on the white buildings and the endless sussurant crashing of the ocean, the dry, harsh, beautiful desert), and the big El Nino of ’97 spoiling things.
Margot had said El Nino had even reached as far as Minnesota that year, giving them a very mild winter. Betsy, recalling the news footage of snow up to the eaves of Minnesota houses, decided that mild temperatures were a relative thing. Was she up to a Minnesota winter, she who could not knit well enough to produce a pair of mittens? Maybe she should be on her way before the hard freeze set in.
She had asked, “Is living in a small town like it is in the books, everyone knowing everyone else’s business?”
Margot had replied, “It is harder to be anonymous, because there is only the one main street where everyone shops, so even if you don’t know someone’s name, you recognize the face. It’s like when you take the bus to and from work; you don’t know the people who ride with you, not really, but you recognize their faces. And if someone’s been absent for a few days and then gets on with his leg in a cast, you might express concern, even ask him what happened, as if he were a friend.”
Betsy had nodded. Okay, living in a small town was like sharing a commute. She could do that. “And if you get really sick of small town living there’s Minneapolis and St. Paul down the road — and hey, there’s the Mall of America, right? Is it as big as they say? How often do you go there?”
“About as often as you visited the Statue of Liberty when you lived in New York City.”
“But that was different! You go, you climb, you look out, you go home. At the Mall of America you can … shop.”
“That’s true. I went when it first opened, and I’ve been back, I think, twice. No, three times, twice to take visitors and once because they have a specialty shoe shop. You wouldn’t believe it, but I’m hard to fit.” Margot had stuck out a small foot complacently. She counted stitches for a bit, then continued, “But you know, there’s so much stuff there, a great deal of it stuff you don’t really need, like dried flower arrangements and personalized scents for your bath. To be so rich that you can shop as a form of recreation is … sinful. Yet people come from all over the world to entertain themselves by buying things they don’t really need.” She moved her shoulders. “It makes me ashamed somehow.” She stopped to count stitches again, and then twinkled over at Betsy. “I know, you want to go glut yourself in all that shopping anyhow, be sinful for a day. Okay, maybe a week from Wednesday?”
And while they had continued talking, about movies and books and whether or not President Clinton was amoral or immoral, Margot’s hands performed the same compact dance as Mother’s had, and before they stopped to get ready for bed, the sweater she was knitting had become longer and developed a braid pattern.
So if Margot and Mother could do it while talking, by gum Betsy could do it while concentrating. She bit down on her captured lip and sped up to three stitches a minute.
She was concentrating so hard that when the door made its electronic sound, she jumped and dammit, the needle slipped and pulled out of about seven stitches. Before she could figure out what to do, a bony, ice-cold hand covered hers.
She glanced up and saw a stick-thin woman with short dark hair that stuck up in odd-looking curls all over her little head. Like Betty Boop, thought Betsy. Except the face wasn’t Boop’s merry square, it was long and narrow, with deep lines from nostril to mouth. The eyes were dark and intent. The woman suddenly showed bright, patently-false teeth, and Betsy wanted to back away, but was held by the icy grip.
“M-may I help you?” Betsy asked.
“No, my dear, may I help you?” said the woman in a chirpy voice that rang as false as the teeth.
“Help me what?” asked Betsy.
“With what you are doing,” said the woman, the smile slipping a trifle, looking pointedly at the knitting and back at Betsy.
“Oh, this. Why, do you know how to knit?”
The woman laughed a genuine laugh. “Of course I do! I know how to do every kind of needlework there is, except sewing canvas into sails. What seems to be the problem with your knitting?”
With a small effort, Betsy managed to free her hands. “It’s not the knitting, exactly. It’s the purling. I just don’t get how to do it. And anyhow, I’ve spoiled what I was doing, pulling the needle out.”
“Oh, that’s easy to fix.” The woman took the knitting from Betsy’s hands and deftly rethreaded the stitches onto the needle. “See? Now, to purl, you hold the needles like this,” she said, putting them together in what Betsy was sure was the same way she herself had held them while trying to purl. “See, you go through like this, come around like this and off, and through and around and off, and-through-around-and-off.” If she’d continued as slowly as she’d begun, Betsy might have learned something. But she repeated “through and around and off” faster and faster while her hands worked more and more vigorously, until she’d done the row. Then she handed the needles back to Betsy. “Now you try it,” she said briskly.
Betsy took the needles, turned the work around to begin the next row and tried to remember where to poke the empty needle through the first stitch. It went in front, she remembered that, but was it through in the same direction as the filled needle was pointing, or the other way?
“Here, dear, let me show you again,” said the woman impatiently, starting to grab at the needles. Betsy lifted her hands, trying to keep possession.
Bing, went the electronic note as the door to the shop opened.
The woman turned toward the door, and Betsy pushed back from the desk, rising.
It was Jill Cross, the police woman, this time in uniform, looking even taller and broader, probably because of that odd hat police officers wear and the thick belt around her hips, laden with gun and flashlight and handcuffs. She looked very authoritarian, and Betsy was glad to see her. But the other woman was already out into the aisle, one hand lifted in greeting.
“Good afternoon, Officer Jill!” she gushed, touching Jill familiarly on the upper arm. “What are we buying today?”
“Good afternoon, Miss Potter,” nodded Jill swinging her elbow forward to free it. “Hi, Betsy,” she added. “Did that ultra suede order I put in come?” Jill took off her hat, exposing her ash blond hair, pulled back into a firm knot.
“Let me just check,” fawned Mrs. Potter.
“Wait a second, Irene,” said Jill, “Margot’s trying to bring Betsy up to speed on running the shop; so let’s let her find the order for me.”
Irene obediently halted and turned towards Betsy, a malicious gleam in her eyes.
Betsy began trying to think where Margot kept incoming orders.
“Shall I show you?” asked Irene.
“No, I remember now,” said Betsy, and looked in a cardboard box on the floor under the desk. When she came up with the small package, Irene Potter’s superior smile turned into something scary. It may have been a desperate attempt at a broad smile, but there was menace in it. Then she whirled and fled from the shop.
“Is … is she all right?” asked Betsy.
“Irene? Sure. Well, maybe she’s a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. She wants to open her own needlework shop someday. It’s possible she’s been hoping Margot would die of something so she could buy this place. The town isn’t big enough for two of them.” Was there a faint smile on Jill’s face?
“So why doesn’t she move to a town that doesn’t already have a needlework shop?”
“Because her ancestors were among the first settlers out here, and she would never think of moving away. But now you’re here, and it would be too much to hope that both of you die.” The smile showed a bit more clearly.
“Both … ” Betsy hardly knew where to begin her response to that. “She thinks I’m going to take over the shop?”
“She probably thinks you and Margot are going to run it together. At the very least, you have put her out of any chance at part time work here. She just doesn’t realize she hasn’t a prayer of succeeding on her own, even if this place closes. I mean, would you go into a store a second time to buy something from her?”
Betsy grimaced. “She isn’t dangerous, is she?”
“No, of course not. Don’t go getting weird ideas. The only thing she’s crazy about is needlework. She’s actually tremendously talented at it. Museum-quality, most of it; she routinely takes first prize in any contest she enters. Her problem is, she was never properly socialized. A few years ago, Irene begged and nagged until Margot hired her to teach a class, but Irene has no patience with people not as talented as she is, and every one of her students had quit by the fourth lesson.”
Betsy nodded. “Yes, she was trying to show me how to purl when you came in, but wouldn’t slow down enough for me to catch on. Now let’s see if I remember how to open the cash register.”
A few minutes later, Betsy was handing over the correct change. “Where’s Margot?” Jill asked, pocketing her money. “I’ve got a question for her.”
“Upstairs having a bowl of soup. She’ll be back any second; do you want to wait?”
“I can’t, I’m on patrol. Tell her I’ve got a pair of tickets to the Guthrie, and my boyfriend went and switched shifts with someone so now he can’t go. Ask her if she wants to come with me.”
A new voice asked, “What’s the show?”
They turned; it was Margot, coming in from the back.
“‘The Taming of the Shrew.'”
“Oooooh,” sighed Margot. “When are the tickets for?”
“Tomorrow. I know Wednesdays are your day off, so I was hoping you could make it.”
“The Guthrie!” said Betsy, remembering. “I’ve heard about the Guthrie. It’s been written up in national magazines, hasn’t it? It’s supposed to be a great place to see good plays. I’d forgotten it was way up here in Minneapolis — or is it in St. Paul?”
“Minneapolis,” said Jill, and for some reason there was disapproval again in her voice.
Margot explained, “Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t like being mistaken for one another. Jill, I’m sorry, I can’t go. I promised to make a presentation at our city council meeting about next year’s art fair Wednesday evening. Debbie Hart’s going to be out of town and I promised her I’d do it. I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, well, maybe another time. Though I hate to see this ticket go to waste.”
“Why don’t you take Betsy?”
“Me?” They looked at her and Betsy tried to explain the tone of voice that had come out in. “I mean, I like Shakespeare very much, but if this is a grand production, you don’t want to waste that invitation on someone you hardly know. Surely another friend … ”
But some signal must have run between Margot and Jill because the latter said, “Betsy, you’ll have to take a look at what passes for the big city in this part of the world sooner or later. Might as well be tomorrow. So let’s make a night of it; we can have dinner at Buca’s, and you can tell me how awful Italian food is in the upper midwest. Then we’ll go see how badly our legitimate theater compares to the stuff on the Great White Way.”
Betsy took a breath to say no, but Margot had that look that meant she was hoping Betsy would not be rude, so Betsy turned to Jill and said only a little stiffly, “Well, I’ve only seen one Broadway production, so I hardly think I’m qualified to compare the Guthrie to the Great White Way. But on the other hand, I lived just two blocks away from the best Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, so I’ll be glad to come sneer at what the upper midwest dares to call Italian food.”
Margot laughed, but Betsy wasn’t sure Jill was amused. After she left, Betsy asked, “Margot, do you really have to go to a city council meeting?”
“I’m grateful for the ticket, but I’m not sure Jill and I will get along.”
“Oh, nonsense. I’m sure once you get to know her, you’ll like her very much.”
“Well, there’s no need to go out of your way just to be nice to me, when I’m guessing you’d really like to go.”
“You’re right, I would like to go, but I really do have to attend that meeting. The art show is one of our biggest annual events, thousands of people come here for it, and advance planning is very important. Anyway, I enjoy being nice to you.”
“Then I thank you very much.”
Margot went behind her desk to check Betsy’s entry of the sale to Jill. Betsy followed, asking, “Margot, what are your plans for me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I hope you aren’t planning on my being here forever.”
“I haven’t, but all right, I won’t. Why?”
“Irene Potter was in here a little while ago, and she’s very strange. Then Jill came in and when Irene tried to wait on her, Jill said to let me do it, and when I did it right Irene gave me a look that nearly froze my earlobes off.”
“Oh, Irene just has this problem about being nice. She tries, but she doesn’t know how.”
“No, listen. Jill says that Irene knows you are going to teach me how to run the shop. It seems Irene has her eye on this place, and she’s scared you’ve cut her out entirely by giving me her job.”
Margot grimaced. “Hardly. I only hire Irene when all my other part time help has flu, broken legs, and brain concussions.”
Betsy insisted, “Margot, I think Irene Potter seriously hates me.”
“How can she hate you? She doesn’t know anything about you.”
“She thinks I’m taking something that should be hers. And if she hates me for taking her job, I bet she hates you for giving it to me.”
But Margot wasn’t listening; she was examining Betsy’s knitting. “This is very good, Betsy. The knitting is fine, but this row of purling is really well done!”