Gayla, shocked into silence, took a heavy breath and steadied herself. No need to react haphazardly, she thought. She stared down at the mud-encrusted boot and the clumps of red clay now lying atop the pristinely swept tile entry. She sighed. Greta would not be happy.
After taking her moment to gather her thoughts, Gayla re-opened the door and stepped to the side, waving an arm out to gesture at the long hallway behind her. She decided not to dally on Mr. Palmer’s hypocritical claim of disrespect. “This must be more important than I thought,” she said. “I’m sorry. Come in. I’ll see what I can do for you.”
“Damn right you will,” Mr. Palmer muttered, half to himself, as he trudged into the house. He was not a light stepper. Gayla remembered hearing his heavy footfalls from Cherie’s room at the Palmer home; even there, where fragile Mrs. Palmer had made such a fuss about buying robust carpets to protect the wooden floors, the clop of Mr. Palmer’s harsh gait would stop Gayla and Cherie’s breathing until they heard those daunting footsteps fading as they carried the man into another room. Cherie had told Gayla a number of stories about how her father’s sternness had gotten out of control—of her mother crying and locking herself away, of Cherie’s bruised jaw and cheeks, of even the young male servants running for cover when they heard their tyrant boss plodding down the short gravel road from the house to the barn.
Gayla watched Mr. Palmer walk away from her to assure he was headed toward the main sitting room and, when she was satisfied he wasn’t taking liberties with the house, glanced down. His boots had left a stream of dirt on the floor behind him. The man, Gayla thought, left a better trail behind him than Hansel and Gretel. Greta would definitely not be happy.
Gayla followed behind him into the sitting room and gestured at a forest green high-back chair off to one side of a large red brick fireplace. The fireplace was built into the innermost side of the room and took up nearly the entire length of the twenty-foot wall, from top to bottom. The solidity of the dark brick front stood with gusto in a timeless standoff with a wall of sunshine: contrastingly delicate leaded windows with frosted glass shone with the brightness of a summer’s noon on the other side. Gayla smiled at the windows as they let in their dusty light, doused for a moment in the memory of seeing the fireplace burning from outside on an evening long ago—she had been only five, returning with Greta in a light snow from a late trip to town—and remembered watching the ghostly shapes of her father and mother dancing in the sitting room to the muffled, romantic lull of Mozart streaming from the old wooden Victor which stood in the corner, stoic, like an old butler awaiting instruction.
Gayla glanced over at it, a pang thrusting into her. The gramophone didn’t make music anymore. It was coated in a layer of dust so thick one could barely see the bold engraving of the little dog on the metal nameplate.
It was one of only a few treasures that Widow Masterson didn’t allow anyone to touch, even the beloved housekeeper.
“No thanks,” Mr. Palmer grunted, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’ll stand.” Greta turned back to him from the window; she’d almost forgotten he was there. She shrugged and muttered “suit yourself” as she took up a seat in a matching chair sitting opposite the one she had offered to her pushy guest. She adjusted her dress skirt around her knees and tightened her abdominal muscles to sit up as straight as she possibly could. The chairs were old and the cushioning was losing its bounce; it took some effort not to appear sloppy while sitting in them and, especially with this man, Gayla didn’t want to appear as if she weren’t paying attention. She looked directly up at Mr. Palmer, who was standing in quiet defiance beside his own forlorn seat. He harrumphed again, sounding something like a horse clearing its nostrils of mucous, and stared down his nose at her. Gayla exhaled heavily with some melodramatic flair and clasped her hands in her lap.
“So what is it I can do for you, Mr. Palmer?”
“I want you to bring my Cherie back home,” he said with a definitive nod.
Gayla looked at him, leaning slightly forward and squinting. “Are you very serious, Mr. Palmer?”
The man’s jaw went slack and his mouth opened as he dropped his arms from across his chest. He snortled, looking about him as if for some heavenly assistance, but, when he received none, crossed his arms again, perhaps thinking that the effect of the first arm-crossing hadn’t quite been enacted strongly enough. “Of course I’m serious!” he announced. He had just enough of a pout to his lower lip to give him the effect of a five-year-old having a tantrum.
Gayla tilted her head. She examined his face, his stance, the deep creases around his eyes and the prickly beginnings of a beard growing on his chin, trying to figure out if he were sane or not. When she realized he was—and, in addition, deadly serious—she laughed. She could barely help it. She watched his face turn a beet red. “I’ll do no such thing, sir,” she said through a fit of giggles. When she saw he was not amused, she covered her mouth with a hand and cleared her throat. She started again, this time with as much seriousness as she could muster. “Mr. Palmer,” she said, looking directly into his eyes, “either you can tell me what it is you want—something that I can actually do for you, not some irrational request to control your daughter—or I’ll have to ask you to leave our property.”
His jowls tremored. Gayla thought he might have a stroke. More privately, she hoped he would have one. “Look here, you little bitch,” he growled. Mr. Palmer took a step forward and pointed a dirty, calloused finger in her face. It was so close she could smell the faint aroma of aged tobacco and horse manure caught underneath the chasm of his thick fingernail. “I’ll have none of your lip. If you were my own daughter I’d slap you right now for talking to me that way.”
She smiled sweetly at him, using the back of her hand to brush his away from her face. “Then I suppose the good Lord has done right and blessed you with not having me,” she said boldly. She stared at him, waiting. He said nothing, but simply stood in front of her breathing hard, both hands firmly fisted and trembling at his sides. Despite his bulldogged mannerisms, Gayla knew him, from Cherie’s many stories, for a man not about to argue when the Lord was being mentioned. She stood up and brushed down the creases in her dress skirt. Mr. Palmer made a step back as she did so, giving her barely enough space to stand up straight without toppling over back onto the chair, or onto the floor, or onto him. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave now, Mr. Palmer,” Gayla said. “When you have something civil to say to me, and when you decide to call me by name, then you’re welcome to return so that we might have a reasonable and more mature conversation.”
“How dare you!” Mr. Palmer shouted suddenly. “How dare you talk to me that way, you spoiled little city brat!” He threw his arms into the air and leaned in toward her. Gayla refused to retreat into a sitting position onto the green high-back by the furious tilting of this ignorant brute. As he moved forward, she braced herself at a diagonal with the movement of a quick hand on the armrest of the chair. She was secretly proud of herself for not moving her feet an inch from where they’d been planted. She was sure he would strike her; she wondered where Greta was. As he stood, fuming wild atrocities and accusations at her, sprays of his spittle hit her face as he shouted. She did her best not to reach up and shove him away. She stood her ground as best she could, fighting the urge to abandon all manner of ladylikeness and sucker punch the old fellow in the nose. Or the groin. “You people come out here from your big, fancy city mansion and ruin good, country people’s lives with your far-fetched notions about things out here you couldn’t possibly understand; you dishonor a good, God-fearing girl by letting your numb-skulled boyfriend loose on her; you disrespect an honorable, hard-working man like me. And, after all that, you dare say you won’t help me? You inconsiderate, ill-mannered little…”
Gayla stared at him, speechless. Never in her life had she heard someone talk the way this man did. She blinked in wonderment as he rattled on for his few moments. Then all at once the anger bubbled up inside her and she could no longer stand to hold her tongue. “Disrespect?” she screeched. She was in no mood to be trampled on. Not again. “You pound on my door, demand to speak with me, stomp your dirty boots across our home, and you say I’m being disrespectful? How dare you, Mister Palmer! How dare you come into my home and demand recourse for something not of our doing. How brazen of you to waltz onto this property as if you were owed something by me off of God’s green earth and in ignorance and utmost stupidity claim that I had any intentional hand in your big-talking, wild-eyed daughter’s seducing and running off with my Amrid. I say to you now, Mr. Palmer, please remove yourself from our property. I have absolutely no intention of helping you. You and your family are not welcome here.”
As she spoke, Gayla stepped forward even closer to meet the man face-to-face, to almost touch the point of his chin with the tip of her nose. She didn’t care about any threats of reprimand he might make, didn’t care about his money or his status in the community, which she knew was a lot and rather high. If anything, Mr. Palmer could easily enough have her removed from her mother’s home and jailed for one false charge or another. With the kind of influence he touted the local authorities wouldn’t care much about justice and truth. Money and reputation were the language they understood. But she was in such a rage—so fed up with fickle little men who thought they were big, so tired of silly boys in grown bodies with mighty-minded ideas about what love and manliness was—that her eyes began to well up. Whether in dire frustration for a situation she wished didn’t exist or an incapacity for the level of hatred and disgust she was now feeling for this man, she wasn’t sure. All she realized was that, by the end of her own rant, she could only see the blurred out image of a Mr. Palmer standing before her through her watery vision and feel the warmth of an unforgiving, vile flush come into her cheeks.
Mr. Palmer’s reaction, though, was not quite what she had anticipated.
He leaned his head back and stared down at her over a bulbous, sun-wrinkled nose. “Is that so?” he said quietly, almost gently.
“That is so,” Gayla panted, pronouncing each word with intentional precision. In the corner of her vision she could see Trudy poking her head nervously around the hallway corner to look into the sitting room. Gayla didn’t move a muscle, but kept her fists clenched and her fingernails digging into her palms. The kind of rage she was in, she would not have been surprised if she were to look down and see blood trickling from her hands.
“I see.” Mr. Palmer scratched his stubble and turned away. As he turned, Trudy disappeared behind the corner like a gopher dashing back into its burrow. “I would suggest, young lady,” Mr. Palmer declared as he squinted at her from below his caterpillar brows, “that you reconsider and think yourself up some way to get my daughter back home. Where she belongs.” He emphasized those last three words before sauntering down the hallway back toward the front door. Gayla followed him as he walked, trying her best not to stomp along the way like a perturbed teenager. He opened the front door for himself and motioned to step out. She watched carefully, but he didn’t remove his hand from the handle. She wanted to slam the door on him, but he knew it, and wouldn’t let her. That he played the game better and with such effortlessness, almost pleasure, increased her frustration all the more. “Otherwise,” he began again, one foot out on the landing and the other still inside the entry, “I’ll have to take some responsibility upon myself to assure that you help me in my little, um, predicament.” With that last word the man grinned and Gayla almost lost all her nerve. It was an evil, knowing, and utterly frightful sneer of a smile in which there existed no sliver of kindness, no spark of decency, and all the makings of a man with a plan.
(Ready for more? Read PART III.)