Chapter 1: A New Start
Irma had been as excited as a teen looking at her first new car when she stepped off of the plane. We all felt a sense of pride in our part in bringing her back as we saw exactly how much this meant to her. As we waited for our baggage those thoughts running through my mind led me to contemplate my own life. As I reflected it dawned on me just how much my own life had changed for the better over the past couple of months. Less than two months ago my work was the sole focus of my life. That life had been an endless repletion of the same mundane routine.
They say that time moves by more swiftly as we get older. I'm not sure whether that is true or whether it's more that our mind, in overlaying an endless sequence of similar events, creates that illusion. I thought back over the past few years and could think of few things that stood out in my mind as being exceptional. I had made some money but to what end?
I unconsciously smiled at the irony that the house at 101 Bell Whistle had at first only seemed to be an unwelcomed disruption of that boring routine. I was so caught up in my routine that my first thought had been that the house took me all the way across town from the usual work sites; subdivisions where my subcontractors, Hector and Jorge, supervised crews cleaning out foreclosed homes that had been repossessed by the banks.
My business had become successful because I managed to take only those jobs that were straightforward and involved nothing out of the ordinary. This was because the unusual took more effort and time, which translated into much higher costs. My way of insuring that I stayed away from those jobs was making outrageously high bids on those jobs. I laughed as I thought that my original intent had been to pass up even bidding on the house at 101 Bell Whistle; a house I now called my own.
The remarkable thing about the bland routine that I had been drifting along in was that I had managed to acquire quite a few friends; people that I hadn't even realized were my friends. I now realized that those friends were more important than the money that I had managed to squirrel away at several area banks. Faces of those friends immediately flashed into my mind; Hector, one of my faithful subcontractors, was the first. He and Camilla, his wife, had spent more time helping us explore the house than anyone. I remember my surprise when he and Jorge had first volunteered their Saturday to help me move furniture and the interest that Hector had shown in the old house.
Then there was Kelli, the daughter of Mrs. Li, the Vietnamese expatriate owner of a small Chinese restaurant. They both 'knew me when' and I thought of them as two of the hardest working women I had ever met. Mrs. Li ran the tiny restaurant with only the help of her daughter Kelli and an occasional part-time waitress. What I hadn't realized during the hundreds of times I had eaten in that small restaurant was that both Mrs. Li and Kelli were encouraging me to move out of my comfort zone even way back then. Their teasing me about eating something other than the General Tso's chicken that I loved so much was a small part of that effort.
In the end it had been Kelli who had convinced Audra that I was someone she could be comfortable with. Young Kelli, whom I had mistakenly thought to be submissive, had ended up being quite outspoken as she had told Audra "Joe no big shot, he just good guy." Then she had supported that statement by telling Audra of the many times I had come into her mother's restaurant covered from head to toe with sheetrock dust or sawdust. I was embarrassed by that, but Kelli was smart enough to know that those remarks were just the right thing needed to convince Audra that I was not above her social station.
I looked at my watch as the moments ticked by, waiting for the baggage to be offloaded. Audra was sitting down next to Irma chatting quietly. Seeing her sitting there with her feet folded up underneath her reminded me of the first moment I had seen her. She was in a similar pose on my kitchen floor encouraging her cat, Mr. Whiskers. She had seemed so small, so unkempt and so thin that time that I had put her age at around 15. I thought back and remembered that I had been fearful when I first heard the noise coming from the kitchen and how quickly I had overcome those fears when I saw that the source of the noise couldn't have weighed 90 pounds, soaking wet. I had never told her that my first thought of her had compared her gaunt appearance to Twiggy, the sixties model who had paved the way for the anorexic look so common now among fashion models. Knowing her fiery temper, I doubted that I would ever mention that fact.
Still, looking back to that moment, something even then had tugged on my heartstrings. Had my feelings for her begun at that moment or had they come later after she told me her story? I remembered the chase and the bruises on my shins that she gave me as she fought my capture. Her spirited fight had left me winded and yet sympathetic. As I thought about those first moments that we had come together I realized for the first time that I had not wanted her to leave, even before knowing her. Had I been that lonely, that starved for company?
I looked at Elise sitting on the other side of Irma and realized that she had been the first friend to see the change in me that Audra had wrought. The woman I first thought of as the neighborhood busybody was now one of my closest friends. She had given me clues about the house, about Audra and about myself. Clues that without her help, I may have eventually uncovered ... but how much longer would the journey have taken without her friendship and help?
I remembered when half in jest I told her that if I talked to her any longer she would know more about my business than I did. Her discerning nature had certainly made it seem that way. The only mistake I had seen her make was in her assessment of Audra, and I think that mistaken understanding was a case of her not having access to all the facts. She certainly had recognized my love for Audra before I had a clue it was there.
Then there was the house itself. What a gift that was! I knew now that I needed something to take me away from the workaday world and the house certainly seemed to fill that bill. It seemed the more I explored the deeper the mystery. First I had discovered the tunnel running underneath the house to the garage; the tunnel that Audra had traveled into and out of the house. Then I discovered an inner passageway within the walls of the house itself; a passageway that was unknown, even to Audra who had lived in the house her entire life. As I explored that passageway I found that it connected to the tunnel and had possibly been used along with the tunnel to smuggle freed slaves out of the south before the Civil War. As if that was not enough Audra, Hector and Camilla helped me further explore that tunnel and when we did we found that it led through a large natural cavern into the waters of the bay itself.
Our trip to Arizona complete, we now had the means to secure ownership of that surrounding property, at least for the present. Looking over at Irma I could see that she certainly was happy to be back here with us. I was shaken out of my reverie by a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to find Edward, Elise's husband, smiling at me. He quickly walked past me before I could say anything and lifted his wife into a hug. I could see him launch into an animated conversation with Elise and Irma as he hugged his former neighbor. About the time I started over, the luggage suddenly appeared on the carousel. Now we could get home. Edward and I grabbed the four large bags and he led us all out to his waiting car. The large Lincoln was crowded as we all piled in for the trip across town. Edward remarked that we were smart to have most of Irma's possessions shipped separately to Elise's address.
Irma was looking at each landmark on the way home as if seeing it for the first time. As we drove up stately Bell Whistle Drive she started crying again as she exclaimed, "I never thought I would see this place again!"
Several of the neighbors, including many that I had not met, were at Elise's to welcome Irma back home. Edward introduced Irma to Hector and Camilla. Hector had taken my place supervising the various jobs while I had been gone. He also supervised a crew that had begun transforming the old servants' quarters on the first floor of the house into a mother-in-law's suite so that Irma would not have to negotiate the stairs as she grew older.
Since the bedroom suite being constructed in the wing previously occupied by the servants' quarters was weeks away from completion, we put Irma into a guest bedroom on the second floor. The way Audra fussed over Irma you would have thought Irma was still mistress of the house. This didn't surprise me, as I had noticed that Audra had certain submissive qualities that I surmised flowed naturally from her childhood as the servants' daughter. Irma's move into that second story guest room was almost as if she was returning home. Irma pitched right in and helped with the move. She certainly didn't give the appearance of being someone who was used to being waited on by servants.
Moving Irma into that bedroom did have one totally unforeseen consequence, at least for me. Audra moved the few items she had in the master bedroom back into her own separate bedroom. Although I could understand that she wanted to keep up appearances, I felt quite abandoned when it happened and for the first time wondered if bringing Irma into our home was for the best. In fact I spent most of the night brooding about this change in what I considered the natural order of things. Having gained two hours during the trip from Arizona, eleven o'clock seemed more like nine o'clock and sleep was slow to come.
The next morning I awoke to what seemed to be a distant rapping. At first I thought some of Hector's workers had started working early on the downstairs renovations. Then after I had more fully regained my faculties I realized that the rapping was coming from somewhere in the outside hallway. Puzzled, I dragged my butt out of bed and peeked out the doorway into the hall. I was shocked to see Audra holding a small serving tray containing a tea service outside of Irma's door. As I watched I saw the door to Irma's room open and Audra carry the tray inside. I could not hear what was said inside the room. Soon a smiling Audra emerged carrying the empty tray. Before she could see me I stepped back inside my room, pondering what I had just witnessed.
Since I was now wide awake, I quickly showered, dressed and headed down into the kitchen where I was disappointed to find a cold and empty coffee pot waiting for me. At that moment I wondered if I had been replaced in Audra's affection by her former mistress. Just as I had begun to brood, Audra greeted me with a smile saying, "I thought you'd still be sleeping. I looked in on you earlier and you were snoring up a storm."
Not feeling charitable, I muttered, "I don't snore."
I reached past her up in the cabinet and got the coffee filters for the coffeemaker. She tried to take them from me saying, "I'll do that. You just sit down."
Still confused by her actions I continued to the coffee pot and snipped, "I can do it. You don't work for me anymore, remember?"
Then thinking back to a happier morning I asked, "How about we walk down to Dennon's together and get some donuts for breakfast? We can talk along the way."
Audra looked at me guiltily and said, "Mrs. Anderson doesn't eat donuts. I was going to make her breakfast this morning like mom used to do. I thought it would be a nice welcome home gesture."
Frowning I said, "That's one of the things we need to talk about. Since when did Irma become Mrs. Anderson? Why are you acting so differently now that she is here?"
Audra seemed defensive as she answered both my questions. "I'm just not used to calling her Irma. It seems unnatural somehow, and how am I acting differently?"
"Well, to start with, you slept in a separate bedroom last night. In fact you have almost acted as if you don't know me when Irma is around. Then you got up early this morning and carried a pot of tea up to 'Mrs. Anderson' as if she is still the mistress of the house. I come down here and the coffee pot is cold and empty while a tea pot whistles merrily on the stove. That seems a little different to me."
Audra sputtered for a moment. When I almost cracked a smile thinking I had hit the nail on the head, she lit into me, almost shouting. "I didn't warm your bed last night? You went without for one night? I didn't make your coffee first thing this morning? Is that all I am to you? Well, is it?"
I just stood there looking stupid. Once again a woman I cared about had taken my words and twisted them around on me; making me feel like a jackass for expecting some normalcy in my life.
Then to top it off, Audra wasn't finished with me. She softened her tone and explained, "I just wanted 'Irma' to feel welcomed. I was going to break it to her today about us living together. You know we're not married yet, and some people are old fashioned and consider it a sin for people to sleep together before marriage. I wasn't sure whether Irma would understand."
After Audra's explanation I was beginning to think I had overreacted. I was thinking that the Audra that I loved was a much more complex person than I had imagined. As I thought about it my silence must have appeared to Audra as a tacit acceptance of her earlier accusations. One again she shifted moods and glared at me as she asked, "Well, is that all I am to you - a bed warmer and coffee maker?"
Contritely I replied, "Of course not."
A man has to realize when he has been bested. The smartest thing you can do when that occurs is to admit your defeat and hope your lover will show you some mercy. I held out my arms and Audra melted into them. Just as I was about to give her a conciliatory kiss, Irma walked through the door, carrying her cup of tea, seemingly oblivious to everything that had occurred. I could feel Audra tense in my arms as she spied Irma but I didn't let that deter me from our consolation kiss.
Irma just stood there holding her teacup in both hands as if she was lost in thought while we kissed. I'm not sure whether her presence bothered Audra, but I do know that I lost all thought of her being there as I kissed my bride-to-be.
I noticed Irma's smiling face as my eyes came back into focus. She cleared her throat as if to announce her presence and said, "I'm sorry for walking in on you but glad that I did. That kiss reminded me so much of one many years ago on almost that exact spot."
Audra was blushing but managed a smile before she wiggled out of my grasp and headed back for the stove. Seeming a bit flustered she turned to Irma and said, "I thought I'd make us a breakfast this morning like mom used to make."
Irma smiled and moved toward the stove as she said, "That sounds like a good idea. Why don't I help you?"
Audra immediately answered, "No need for that. Everything's under control. I've watched mom doing this so many times I could do it in my sleep. You sit down and keep Joe company while I cook."
Irma looked a bit flustered as she sat down at the kitchen table. I finished making the coffee as Audra began getting out the heavy iron frying pan from under the cupboard next to the sink. I went to get the toaster and Audra said, "You too. Sit down and let me do this."