Julia (The Good Life series) by Sarah Krisch

21 Nov

Chapter 2

With his left arm resting on the window frame of his pickup, Brad steered through the last stretch of farm fields before he reached downtown Harmony Grove. He eased his foot off the gas, and as the truck slowed to a pedestrian twenty miles per hour, the dust from the country road caught up to him and swept over the Ford’s faded blue paint.

A hot wind blasted through the open windows, making him wish he could afford to get a recharge on the pickup’s Freon. It felt like the middle of July; the perfect weather for cooling off in the creek next to the farm, followed by a tall glass of home-squeezed lemonade while drying off in the hot sunshine. It might be early in the season for it, but so few people drove by the farm that he didn’t think anyone would even notice if he stripped down and cooled off in the creek. As he pulled up to Madi’s Green Grocer & Deli, he made a mental note to take a walk down to the creek later on, especially if this heat kept up the rest of the day.

After stepping out from the pickup, Brad peeled his sweat-soaked work shirt away from where it clung between his shoulder blades. He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and made his way to the tailgate. He pulled aside a blue tarp inside the truck bed, hefted a plastic milk crate laden with spring vegetables, and then made his way to Madi’s door.

The bells hanging from the door rattled their familiar tune as he stepped inside the cool air-conditioned building.

"Hi, Pauline," Brad said to the cashier by the door. He could remember Pauline clear back to childhood. She had been two years ahead of him in school. Back then, a two year age gap was like living in separate universes, but now it seemed not nearly far enough. Pauline had been crowned the Queen of the Allissippi County Fair as a junior in high school. A week after graduating, she’d married Bryce Horstman, the star of the Harmony Grove High baseball team. When his minor league career fizzled out after a couple of years, they’d returned to the quiet life of Harmony Grove.

"Oh, hi Brad," Pauline said, straightening her blouse. Whenever Brad came in, Pauline lit up and became flustered. Normally he would ignore her or grunt a hello. He didn’t even want to offer that much this morning, not with the way her eyes tended to linger the longer he talked to her. He wasn’t above casual flirtation, just not with a married woman.

"Madi in?" he said, looking around, trying to avoid any more eye contact with Pauline than needed.

"Sure. Been in since five this morning."

"Thanks," Brad said, lugging his crate away from the cash register area.

"You know, Bryce Junior, you should see how he—"

"Sorry, Pauline," Brad cut her off. "I can’t shoot the breeze today. Lots to do…"

As he walked he looked down the four aisles of locally grown groceries but didn’t see his sister. When he came to the last aisle he saw Mrs. Hodges milling about the potato bins. He gave her a quick nod when she looked up, but made certain he didn’t slow his stride as he turned right back around. If he came too close to Mrs. Hodges gravitational pull, he would wind up having to listen to a seemingly endless list of both her latest maladies and a good amount of the town’s gossip. She raised an index finger, getting ready to speak, but Brad put her out of view before she could get a word out. He just wasn’t in the mood for Mrs. Hodges this morning. Well, not only this morning, but any morning.

Even though he saw only a few customers, it was still early. Madi’s business, which she had opened seven years earlier, was already a town staple. A brand new Safeway opened just north of town, but it was struggling to get a foothold in Harmony Grove. People not only wanted to support a local business like Madi’s, but many of the locals also sold their farm goods to her directly.

She’d opened the business intending for it to be like an indoor farmers’ market, but in seven years it had become so much more. Within a year of opening, she had started buying dry goods from locals. The following year she had bought the vacant space next to hers and knocked down the wall between. The new space now held four dining tables, three booths, and a restored 1920’s soda fountain counter with swivel stools. It not only served the best deli food for miles around, but it looked pretty great, if he did say so himself.

Brad pushed through the swinging door leading to the deli’s kitchen. He placed the crate of vegetables that he had just harvested this morning on the prep counter.

"Is that all you have for me this morning?" Madi said as she stepped out from the walk-in cooler. She had her inventory clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. Her reading glasses fogged over from the warmer kitchen air. She tucked the pen behind her ear, using it to keep a long brown curl from sweeping across her forehead, and then wiped her glasses against her shirt.

"Naw, Sis, I have five more in the truck."

"How about I make you an early lunch while you unload the rest?"

"Sounds good. I’m starving."

"Hard morning?"

"About typical. Besides my veggie harvest, I mowed the front lawn and spent an hour mending the orchard fence."

"Is Guy McCarthy working you too hard?"

"Madi, you think this farm work’s any harder than humping a seventy pound pack through the desert for a year at a stretch?"

"So he’s not working you hard enough?"

"No, I’d say it’s just about right," he said, forcing a smile. He knew she was just messing with him. He saw concern in her eyes, even if her words were playful.

They never shared direct conversations, only ones that skirted around the real subjects they were talking about, especially since he left the Army four months earlier. It was better that way. They cared for one another but their words didn’t have to be deeply personal to be meaningful.

"Good. Now, go get the rest of my veggies before they wilt in your truck."

"Yes, ma’am."

As Brad started for the front of the building he called out over his shoulder, "Madi, fix my regular, will you?"

"Sure thing. Roast beef, lettuce, and tomato on sourdough, right?"

"Got any of that new spicy brown mustard left?"

"Absolutely. It’ll be ready when you’re done unloading."

The bells over the door rattled once again as he went out into the hot sunshine.

Julia

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Genre – Contemporary Romance

Rating – PG-13

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