Truckload of Love
Fifty-four years old and
the only item crossed off Mitch Schroder's bucket list was panning
for gold in Wilson's Creek. He'd done that when he was ten. Before
the stroke. Before law school. Before he spent his lunch breaks
playing chess and listening to George Mannion's constant yapping.
Across the picnic table
George flicked his newspaper straight. "Listen to this ad. 'Adopt
a Grandpa– Gentleman seeks dependable family for caretaking and
light housekeeping. Monthly wage and board. Call for terms.'" He
rattled off the familiar phone number and peered around the edge
of the paper.
Mitch avoided eye contact
and stared at his knight. Of all the people who had to see the ad,
George's low chuckle drifted
through the summer shade and echoed off the buildings of
Centerhaven town square. "What in tarnation crawled under your
Mitch snatched the paper
from George's grasp and smacked it to the park bench. "I don't see
what you find so funny. I'm planning a long missionary trip to
Peru. I'm going to start checking off my bucket list. Besides, I'm
a bachelor, I need the help." Or so it seemed. Between Miss Myrtle
threatening him with some secret project in the hills and his
planned mission trips what other option did he have? "Move your
piece. I'm waiting." Mitch ground his elbow against the stone
George pinched his mouth
shut with his fingers, but chuckles puffed out his cheeks.
"Would you stuff it?" Mitch
glanced around at the other picnic tables. "Judge Carroll is
eyeing us like a bullfrog after a fly. He already thinks I'm one
jurist short of a quorum."
Mischief glimmered in
George's eyes. "You telling me that it's not funny when a
fifty-four year old man moves from bachelorhood into being a
Self-conscious, Mitch rubbed
a finger along his twisted lip and across the frozen features of
his left cheek. "So what's the big deal? You're a grandpa."
"I've been a family man for
thirty-three years. And my granddaughter is no bigger than a
frog's toe. You sound like you're after a grown family."
Mitch snapped his black
knight against the hard surface of the board. "Family means
stability. And if I'm going to be hiring someone, I want
stability. She can keep house, and he can bush-hog."
"And all the little
The children. Of course,
Mitch wasn't sure about children, but as the town's leading
attorney he couldn't discriminate against them, only in his
prayers did he ask for a nice young couple just starting out.
"Will you hurry up and capture my pawn?"
Mitch's longtime friend
hunkered over the board and studied his next move. The shadow of
the courthouse stretched over them, and the building funneled a
cool breeze their way. Sparrows flittered to the ground near a
metal garbage can and chased a drifting piece of popcorn across
the sidewalk. A light flow of traffic, mostly older pickups
intermingled with a few family sedans, slowly motored through the
"Okay." George shifted his
rook. "Your turn."
Mitch focused on the game.
"You know," George never
could keep quiet, "you could always get married and make your
family your mission."
Only George would have the
audacity to mention marriage to him. Mitch raised his good right
eyebrow, his concentration broken. "I've pride, you know. In case
you've forgotten, I'm not much to look at." He bent his face away
from his friend's scrutinizing gaze.
"You've too much pride.
Sometimes you're all hung up on yourself."
Trust George to try and keep
him in his place. Oh well, his pride didn't come completely
unwarranted. He slid his queen diagonally across the board.
"Would you look at that?"
George twisted and leaned against the table.
Mitch turned his gaze to
where George pointed with his chin. He watched a long white cargo
van slowly turn the tight corners of the town's square and make
its way around the block, before maneuvering into a parking space
next to Casey's Coin Laundry. The two side doors burst open and a
truckload of kids stumbled out.
George started laughing.
"There you are. There's your family, 'Grandpa.'"
Mitch grabbed the paper and
whacked his arm. "Will you quit it? Besides, that's not a family.
It's a youth group outing. That's got to be a church van. Look at
the out-of-state-license plates. They're probably headed up to
Timber Creek Gospel Camp."
"Yeah, well I can't see
'church' written on the side anywhere."
Mitch growled in his throat.
"If you don't watch it you're going to be choking on your good
humor. I won't have any problem finding a family to help with the
housekeeping. Now that the pickle factory has started hiring,
there's a lot of new blood coming to the community. I'll find
myself a nice young couple with a baby or two." Mitch swept the
chess pieces into the box.
"No doubt about it. You
always get what you go after. That's the attorney in you." George
rose and scooped up his blue hardware store apron. "Are you
trailing back to the store with me? Melinda brought some cookies
from home. And Callie, my grandbaby, is there. It'd
be good if you held her and—" George stuffed his apron in his arms
and cuddled it like an imaginary baby. "It'll bring out the
grandpa in you. What's that gluing stuff they do now-a-days? Oh,
it's bonding--you can practice bonding. Besides, we can walk by
and see who our new guests are. Give them a proper Centerhaven
welcome and all. They might need directions to the camp."
Mitch stuck the cardboard
chess box under his arm. "Maybe for a minute. I planned to run
into the courthouse, but it's nothing that can't wait."
The two crossed the single
lane of traffic and stepped up to the long white van. Mitch noted
the Illinois license plate and a black-and-white I'd rather be
sleeping bumper sticker.
George shoved his cocked
thumb toward the sticker. "What did I tell you? Sounds like a
stay-at-home-mom to me."
Mitch stopped and peered
through the tinted window. "They have that thing loaded to the
A thin chime from the door
of the Laundromat warned him of the vehicle owner's impending
arrival. Let George get caught snooping around, he wasn't going to
stay for an embarrassing introduction. He darted around the back
of the van and ran smack into the rear cargo door as it swung into
him. A throb of pain crossed his nose. He grunted and grabbed his
face. Scattered sparks flashed in his vision.
"Oh! I'm so sorry." The
silky voice sounded deliciously soft and low. "Did I hurt you?
Here, let me look." Her hand touched his fingers. She almost met
him in height, inch for inch.
He muttered and waved her
off. He shook his head, hoping to clear it, and turned from her
trying to hide his paralyzed features. "I'm fine. I should've been
watching where I was going."
"Howdy." George barged into
the conversation. "I'm George Mannion, owner of Mannion's
Hardware. You must be new in town. Pleased to meet you."
away. He strained to hear her introduction but couldn't make out
her words for the racket of kids that raced around him.
"You heading on up to the
gospel camp north of here?" George practically shouted the
Six feet away, Mitch paused,
and waited for the answer, but the honk of a car horn drowned out
the woman's voice. George's sudden cackle set Mitch to wondering
what she said, then again, maybe he didn't really want to know. He
swiveled on his heel and strode across the square to his
second-story law office.
Josephine McGee stared into
the mirror at the reflection of the cheap motel room.
Chocolate-brown bedspreads and pea-green carpet. Apparently, in
some manager's mind cheap meant ugly. It pained her
to see the baby lying with her skin touching the bed cover.
Jo took the bobby pin from
her mouth and fastened the final hair in place. "What is it,
Her oldest nephew sat on the
edge of the bed banging his feet against the metal bed frame.
"We're not going to stay in this rat trap, are we?"
"Logan, watch your
attitude." Jo stuffed her brush into her purse. Her brother Jeff
married such a sweet woman, so why did the kid have to take after
his father? The familiar ache clenched Jo's stomach. She missed
Jeff and his wife Colleen, especially when the responsibility of
raising their children threatened to overwhelm her. "I want you to
Logan crossed his arms and
tilted his head, just like his dad. "That guy we met in town, he
said we'd find a real nice hotel on the other side of the
"We can't afford a real nice
hotel right now. Your mom and dad didn't leave us much money, and
we have to save it the best we can."
"What about the old cottage
Mom always talked about?"
"We'll try and find it after
my meeting." Jo smoothed a light layer of foundation across her
cheeks. "But keep in mind, Logan, your mom hadn't been there
several years. We don't even know if it's still standing, much
less if it's livable."
"But it's still ours?"
"It's still ours. It just
might need a little repair."
The outside door flew open.
With a screech, Katy Lynne charged into the room. "Don't let it
bite me!" Her five-year-old voice rose with terror. "Aunt Jo,
please don't let it bite." She flung herself around Jo's leg.
Jo fell against the wall and
struggled to regain her balance. "Nothing's going to bite you."
She reached down and ran her fingers through the girl's tangled
The boy peeked around the
doorjamb, his hands still behind his back.
"What's that you have?"
"Just a lizard." Travis
moved his hand forward and popped up a finger.
Jo blew out a breath. A
cappuccino would sure be nice. "Leave your sister alone. Put the
lizard back where you found him, and go get Carl. He's too young
to be in the parking lot by himself."
"Aunt Jo, Tess's diaper
stinks." Logan wrinkled his nose. "Do you want me to change it?"
"I'll take care of it. Run
down to the manager's office and buy me a local newspaper. Then
tell the other boys to get ready to leave." Jo deposited Katy
Lynne on a worn chair, its gold upholstery tattered at the edges.
"Sit there while I take care of your sister." She handed the girl
a broken granola bar and scooped up a canvas diaper bag.
Somehow, in her childhood
prayers asking God to guide her way and give her children, Jo
never thought motherhood would be so abruptly dropped in her lap.
She always imagined it would come after marriage, one child at
time. The image of a house on a hill surrounded by a white picket
fence with a mastiff dozing by the fire gave way to struggles of
trying to keep her brother's five children together while still
earning a living. Instead of a mastiff, she had a little rubber
ducky hanging from her key chain. And forget the house on the
hill, she'd be content with a good job and rented living space. At
least she had the children and they weren't with Bart, Colleen's
uncle, and his live-in girlfriend. She wondered even now, how far
he would go to try and get the kids.
Tess cried for attention,
and Jo seated herself on the bed beside the baby. She leaned over
and rubbed Tess's stomach through the yellow onesie. The baby
giggled. Yet, a tear tickled Jo's nose, and she reached out with
her tongue and licked the saltwater from her upper lip. A second
droplet fell down and splashed on Tess's rosy cheek. Ashamed of
herself, Jo wrapped her arms around the baby's soft body and
pressed it against her chest. God blessed her with the ability to
care for her nieces and nephews. She shouldn't be complaining. Not
when the stinky squishiness of Tess's diaper forced her to handle
the realities of life.
The stark white cement block
building and the bright black of a new asphalt parking lot looked
as out of place against the red-chert rock as a cow in a
steeplechase. The metal sign depicted a caricature of a man in a
straw hat holding a mammoth green cucumber, red lettering spelled
out "Uncle Bubba's Pickles." Jo stared at the sign in amusement.
So Centerhaven wasn't Chicago, it wasn't even Nashville, but had
she really entered Cornfield County? She glanced around almost
expecting to see Hee Haw's Grandpa Jones waving her in.
The company certainly needed
a graphics designer, and there, Jo could help them. She pulled the
van through the open gate, and parked near the entrance leading to
the front offices. She turned toward the kids. "I shouldn't be
long. You guys can each bring a book to read and I want you to
wait for me in the lobby." Jo pulled down the visor mirror and
applied a fresh layer of pomegranate-red lipstick. Lord, if
this is your will. . . .. She grabbed her briefcase with her
résumé and slipped out of the driver's seat, before unbuckling the
baby's car seat. "Okay, guys. Say a prayer. We need this job."
The sun beat down on the
blacktop, and Jo squinted her eyes against the glare. She felt
like a border collie herding the kids ahead of her, and prayed
that no one was watching out the window.
She slowed her step just
enough to glance at her reflection in the tinted glass of the
entry door. Her pantsuit didn't have the sharp lines she
preferred. But after being packed away for a month, it could look
A gust of cool air and a
strong whiff of vinegar hit her face when she stepped into the
foyer. Her eyes adjusted to the fluorescent lighting. Three metal
chairs sat in front of a fake fichus tree, and the kids stuffed
themselves into them.
To the left, she spotted the
receptionist's sign against a thick glass window. A younger woman
stared at her and pursed her lips around the tip of her raised
water bottle. She didn't seem particularly busy.
Jo leaned up to the window.
"I'd like to speak with Tom Mattison."
"I'm sorry?" The girl's
voice barely squeaked through the thick glass. Jo stared at the
silver plate in the wall which presumably housed a speaker. What
did this company expect? Some armed bandits to pop up in the
middle of Nowhereville and rob their receptionist?
Jo raised her voice and
repeated her request.
The girl shrugged and shook
"Tom Mattison!" Jo yelled
through the clear wall. This wasn't the professional impression
she hoped to make, but they drove her to it.
The girl's shoulders drooped
and she plunked her water bottle on the desk. She swiveled her
chair around and disappeared from sight. A minute later she
appeared in the hallway. "That speaker hasn't worked a lick since
they put it in. You sure were a picture screaming your head off.
Now, honey, what can I help you with?"
Jo gripped the strap of her
briefcase and steadied her voice. She eyed the girl's nametag.
"Tracy, I'm here to see Tom Mattison. He's accepted me for the new
marketing position. I'm a graphics designer."
"Awesome. But Tom's gone."
Tracy shifted and twisted her finger through an oversized belt
"For the day?"
"No. Tom is gone." Tracy
stared beyond Jo at her reflection in the glass door.
"When will he return?"
"Tom is gone. Gone for
A flutter rose in Jo's
chest. She must've misunderstood. She'd spoken with Tom barely
three weeks ago. "May I speak with someone from marketing?"
"If you want to." Tracy
disappeared into the office.
Jo checked the time and
glanced at the children. "Katy Lynne take your fingers out of your
The soft squeak of rubber
shoes against the tile floor echoed to her. She watched a man
approach. His jeans and t-shirt testified to the casual dress of
the office staff. Jo stepped forward and extended her hand. "Hi,
I'm Jo McGee. I've spoken with Tom Mattison, who reviewed my
résumé. He hired me for a position with the marketing department."
"Hmm." The man swept
his hand over his wrinkled t-shirt. "Well, I don't know what to
say. Tom resigned two weeks ago and moved to Oregon. All of the
positions are filled."
Jo's stomach flipped. "But.
. . that can't be. He promised me a job. I even moved my family
here from Illinois. What am I supposed to do?"
"I'm sorry. You should've
called before you journeyed to these parts." The man's gaze worked
its way over her blue suit and down to her shoes.
"Are you telling me there
isn't an available position?" She couldn't keep the panic out of
"Um, come with me."
The man led the way around the corner and into the receptionist's
office. "Hey, Tracy, what job openings are still available?"
Tracy raised an eyebrow and
scrutinized Jo's outfit. "Just factory work."
The man turned to Jo. "How's
that sound? It'll keep you in food and clothes, until we have an
office position available. Or at least, you and me can grab a bite
at Missie's Bar-b-cue. Those kids out there are yours? They can
come too. I'll give you an interview and jot down your info."
Goosebumps crept up Jo's
arms. "No, thank you." A chill from the air conditioning sent a
shudder through her shoulders.
His gaze remained riveted on
her lips. "At least leave me your number, and I'll give you a
holler if anything comes up."
"Thanks. I'll just check
back in a few weeks." Jo stepped backwards out of the office and
forced herself to maintain her composure until she collected the
children. Their excited voices all started asking her questions,
but she gathered their books and hurried them out the door. The
sudden heat sucked the energy from her and the realization of
their predicament hit her.
Katy Lynne tugged on her
sleeve. "Aunt Jo, why are we leaving? Did you bring work with
Jo kissed her forehead as
she helped her into the van. Failure never hurt so bad.
Mitch's secretary rapped on
his office door, but even his own Della Street couldn't hold back
the enthusiastic entrance of Myrtle Peacock. Her oversized floral
hat preceded her into the room as she strode in with a vintage
elegance leftover from her days as a rising country music singer.
"Miss Myrtle." He started to
"Mitchell." Her voice
carried a command. "Now you just stay sitting right there. There's
no call to get excited when you've been avoiding me this long."
Mitch rose and ushered
Myrtle to a leather chair. "Now, ma'am, you know that I don't
avoid my star clients." Though Miss Myrtle did call at the most
She arranged herself in the
chair until the flowing sleeves of her blouse draped across her
lap. "Did my manager wire you my papers?"
Mitch paused in his step.
"Wire? Oh, you mean email?"
"Whatever it is they do now
days. They come over wires don't they? I knew it wasn't that
faxing business." She waved her hand and the scent of oleander
floated on the air. "Did you get them?"
What he had read was a note
of apology from her manager, Lonnie Henderson, politely explaining
that Miss Myrtle insisted he be sent the attached information. He
pulled up the email and clicked on the attachment, an engineer's
rendering of— "A theme park?"
"You've looked at it then?"
Miss Myrtle leaned back in the chair, apparently well satisfied.
"It's not just any theme park, young man, it's Miss Peacock's Land
Mitch adjusted his dark
glasses, and for once was thankful his face couldn't betray his
inner thoughts. Apparently the dimming star of his eccentric
client was beginning to shine once again, if only in her own mind.
Visions of trademark violations danced in his head.
But Miss Myrtle didn't sense
his hesitation. "It will be a country music whodunit, based upon
the lives of Miss Wells, Mr. Reeves, Porter, and the others."
A cautious response was the
best approach. "And how do I assist you in this endeavor?"
"Why, I aim to set it up on
Little Piney. You know Otis, bless his soul, he drank away his
inheritance, but when he died he left me a hefty life insurance
policy and thirty acres on Little Piney Mountain."
"Developing a theme park
isn't exactly in my area of expertise. I'm a family law attorney."
"You are family to me. Ever
since Otis died and left me a widow, you're the only family I've
got. That should be good enough. And I trust you. Family trusts
each other you know."
"But a theme park?"
"If Conway Twitty and Miss
Dolly could each have one, I don't see what's wrong with Miss
Myrtle Peacock having one. I need you to negotiate for the
purchase of the remainder of Little Piney Mountain."
He made a note to check on
the ownership of the land and determine the property values, a
hilly timberland frequented with old cabins and hunting lodges. It
was used mostly by the locals during hunting season, but there
were one or two owners from out-of-state that he'd have track
"Wouldn't you rather just
put your savings in a CD, something that will promise you a nice
"Posh. That's for old
people. I want to give back to my fans. I want to do something
brilliant." She rolled the word on her tongue as if it carried a
"'I'll look up these other
owners this afternoon, and drive out to Little Piney later this
In one movement Miss Myrtle
rose, she gripped Mitch's hand with her delicate long fingers.
"Young man, you hide behind those terribly obnoxious glasses, but
I always know I can count on you."
©Janice LaQuiere 2010