No one would admit it to his face, and certainly not to hers, but people in town weren’t happy with Todd Brown’s new girlfriend.
Practically everyone had heard that Todd and Stacey Green had broken up. News like that doesn’t just lie around, you know. This was Todd after all, respectable Todd, handsome Todd, Todd who would someday take over his father’s grocery store, Todd who was not above jumping behind a cash register when lineups started spilling up the cracker/cookie aisle. Todd would gladly drop everything to tally up your empty bottles at the courtesy desk, even if the bottles were loose in plastic bags. Todd was a catch, and Stacey Green had caught him, all through high school and then ever since.
And what a delight she was, what a match! She worked at the store too, so sunshiney and bright. Stacey would make a fine second-in-command when Todd took over. A goldmine this place was, the only grocery store in town. Not that the Browns exploited the fact. They were fair people, generous. You could count on the Browns to provide lunch at Founders Day or donate a gift basket for the Rotary Helping Hands Auction. Stacey and Todd were the future of the store, the future of the town, and their coupledom was as comforting as the smell of fresh bread, baked daily right on the premises.
So naturally, when they broke up it was a shock. Apparently Todd dumped Stacey, although some said he saw it coming and landed the pre-emptive blow. It’s really none of our business, though it should be noted that there were rumours of another woman, and, not to give any credence to that, but here was Todd gallivanting around town these days with this new girlfriend, this Alison something. And it just didn’t feel right.
Mitch Farrell, 53, certainly didn’t feel right about it. He was sitting in the grocery store parking lot waiting for his wife, who just needed a jar of gherkins and had been in there 10 minutes, for crying out loud. Tapping his fingers on the steering wheel of his car, Mitch saw Todd walking across the lot with the new girlfriend – Angie, he heard her name was, from out of town, so…. The girl was walking sideways, clinging to Todd’s arm, talking excitedly, like a teenager, which she practically was by the looks of her – gleaming teeth, trim body, beautiful, but nowhere near as beautiful as Stacey, obviously.
Todd was smiling too but not looking at the new girlfriend. Didn’t that say something right there?
The passenger door opened and Mitch’s wife got in. He started the ignition, backed out of his spot and drove out of the parking lot. His wife had a full bag of groceries, and she was talking about how difficult it was to find sweet gherkins (i.e. not sour). That was when Mitch recalled Julia, so many years ago now, almost forty at this point, and how they had been so in love, first loves for both of them, the intensity of those feelings like a kind of irresistible stomach ache. And then Julia had broken up with him, without warning, and for the life of him Mitch couldn’t remember why. All he remembered was the pain and the anger and later – later and lasting nearly forty years – the agonizing nostalgia for what might have been. He had never seen Julia again. She wasn’t even on Facebook. He had asked about her discreetly among mutual online friends over the years but well spaced so as not to seem, you know, creepy. Yet no one could pin her down or offer any information. She was off the gird.
Driving back home – something now about sandwich loaf versus Italian loaf – Mitch had a vision of Julia, still young, still exuberant, still desirable, unchanged by the messiness that forty years will bring. And in this vision, Julia thought every single day about the enormous mistake she had made in letting Mitch go.
Doreen Swift, 42, married, mother of two, was getting gas when she ended up behind Todd and the new girlfriend. Todd was at the pump, the new girl in the passenger street. Doreen noticed that Todd merely stared at the numbers flickering away, didn’t glance at the girl once. And she didn’t look at him either. On her phone probably. That’s not love, thought Doreen, it couldn’t be love. Todd and Stacey had love, true love. What could possibly come after such a grand thing as that? At best, companionship, and that was too incredibly sad to bear. Doreen went home and made do with leftovers for supper. Later that evening, her husband Gary snapped at her for blocking his car in the driveway; didn’t she know he had an early shift? After he went to bed, Doreen walked into the dining room where for days Gary had been working on a jigsaw puzzle. She picked up a piece of the puzzle, carried it into the kitchen and tossed it into the trash.
Gail Parsons, 27, single, had been teaching Grade 5 at the elementary school for four years, her first job out of university, and she felt settled into town now, settled into the job, all those early nerves and uncertainties smoothed away or, in some cases, calloused over. She was supervising recess one morning when she thought of Todd and the new girlfriend. Why she thought of them she couldn’t say. She had been watching some kindergarteners standing in a studious clump at the base of the plastic slide when the new couple just popped into her head along with the sense of how… wrong it was. Todd was plain wrong. People break up, sure, but to pick right up with this new girl? Poor Stacey. She only knew her from the grocery store, but still. Gail knew how it was, how hard it could be to find a partner around here, to find any kind of man who wasn’t into trucks and killing things. Gail hadn’t had sex in seven months, and that had been the kind of sex she had wanted to forget, and, thanks to alcohol, she mostly had. Gail suddenly felt tired, and she sat down on a moulded plastic duck mounted on an industrial spring. She wobbled back and forth as she saw now that the children around the slide were poking at a dead chipmunk. But recess was almost over, so Gail decided to sit there until her strength came back or the bell rang, whichever came first.
Most people kept their thoughts to themselves. After all, it was none of their business. “Awful quick,” they might say, if it came up, though why would it? Or “That’s gotta be tough on Stacey,” as if it mattered, and of course it didn’t. Stacey’s friends, naturally, were livid. “That bitch,” they said about the new girlfriend, whom they didn’t know at all, though they conceded begrudgingly that she did have gorgeous skin.
But if you had gone door to door and asked people outright, you would have found that everyone in town – “everyone” meaning a sizeable majority, and “sizeable majority” meaning quite a few people with surprisingly strong convictions – everyone was feeling just awful about the breakup.
It was a bad time. Church attendance went down. Young people who had been considering taking on work at the factory decided there really wasn’t much to keep them here. Shut-ins stayed even more shut in. Mary Willis confessed to Roy, her husband of sixteen years, that she didn’t like his singing voice, never had, not one bit, a confession that achieved nothing but hurt feelings. Jerry Parsons, who drove a lumber truck, pulled over by the side of the road outside Oshawa and started weeping for no reason. Mellissa Strachan lost all interest in coupons. Garth Mahoney followed the recycling truck one day and it went straight to the dump, confirming exactly what he had always suspected. Betty MacEachern started making sure she had a twenty-dollar bill on her whenever she went out with her husband, just in case she needed to take a taxi home. It was overcast for five straight weeks, during which time the crops did quite poorly, also during which Todd and the new girlfriend – Angela! That was her name! – rented an apartment together, something he and Stacey had never even discussed, or so people said.
(Stacey wasn’t working at the grocery store anymore. She had in fact left town. “I’m going back to school,” she told her customers. “Psychology.” Good for you, her friends and associates said, most of them with that upside-down, pitying kind of smile. Who could blame her?)
And then one week the local newspaper reported that the annual Founders Day was at risk of being cancelled because of lack of volunteers. This was shortly after word got around that Angela Dobson was pregnant with Todd Brown’s child. That’s how they said it too: “She’s pregnant with Todd Brown’s child!” Poor Stacey!
People slowed down their cars when they passed that Angela girl on the streets, walking alone or with Todd, who you didn’t see much at the cash anymore. These days he kept mostly to the manager’s office, and everyone agreed the quality of the produce had gone downhill. And when people spotted Angela Dobson, they couldn’t help but notice how radiant she looked, the slightest smile on her face, so youthful and light on her feet despite the baby bump. And if you happened to make eye contact as you drove past, she would wave, and you would begrudgingly wave back, then immediately accelerate your car, and you felt your heart race a little too. You usually saw her in the evenings or on weekends because apparently she had a job out of town – graphic design or something impractical like that. She drove a pickup, which was surprising.
It was the newspaper, whose sales and circulation had begun to drop, that finally brought the matter into the open with an editorial:
You would have to be living under a rock these days not to be aware of a malaise that has stricken our fair town, and while we are loathe to point fingers or to trade in local gossip, we are obliged as watchdogs of this community to admit that it is high time we talk about the elephant in the room. To wit: the new girlfriend.
Change is difficult, and this town has seen its fair share of history over the years, not all of which has been for the better, though sometimes the better days are difficult to see when there is nary but clouds above. But we have always managed to weather those storms, and this should be no exception.
The new girlfriend will not always be new, and though it’s a disappointment to many, we must rally, embrace it, make it for what it is, and carry on. For better or worse, she is now a part of our community, and we are good men and women here. This too shall pass.
The truth was that very few people actually read the newspaper, let alone the editorials, which tended to be dense and overlong. But those who did read it felt the paper showed extremely poor taste comparing the clearly pregnant Angela Dobson to an elephant, and for the next week or so, people chattered about what a rag that paper was. Some customers threatened to withdraw their advertising, though that was something they’d been thinking of doing for some time.
And then the sun came out, just in time for the charity softball tournament “to Raise Money for Cancer” [sic], which drew a decent crowd throughout the weekend. Todd Brown played for the grocery store team and badly twisted his ankle sliding into second base. He stayed down for a while, and when he stood up and limped to the dugout, people clapped, as they tend to do to celebrate the walking off of an injury. Angela was in the stands, and Doug Fletcher, 36, divorced, leaned over to her and said, “He’ll be okay.”
During Game 3 (Spiro’s Pizza vs Betty’s Batters), Janet Raymond, 15, walked over to the ballpark canteen to buy a French fry with her friend Martha Bean, also 15. When she reached into the change purse slung across her chest, she felt a piece of paper. It was a note. “What’s it say?” Martha asked. Janet read it aloud: “I want you to know I think you’re beautiful.” It was unsigned. Janet’s face went red, and her eyes felt like they were going to spill over. She touched her cheek. “I’m blushing!” she cried. And then she tucked the paper away and bought her French fry, though she no longer had any appetite at all.