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  • Diana Johnson

Introducing Melinda...

I've started on my third novel, The Value of Miss Em and thought I'd give my fans an early peek at the characters. In this excerpt we meet Melinda...

Melinda folded the hem of her good black dress behind her knees and knelt down in front of the dusty credenza in the foyer of her Aunt Helen’s house. The heavy bottom drawer opened sluggishly, picking her pantyhose before resting in her lap. She reached in and lugged the dried leather Bible from its musty bed. She rose, muscled the drawer half-closed with her stockinged foot, and headed for the dining room table. Brady was clearing away the last of the coffee cups. She picked up the Sun Press from atop the pile of papers in front of her and cut out her aunt’s obituary.

  “It was a nice service, wasn’t it, Brady?” she more stated than asked. “It was simple, and that’s what she wanted. That’s what she was, just simple-no-frills-kind-of-people. She always told me, Minnie, keep it simple.”

  “It was fine, Babe, he answered with a kiss to the back of her head and a quick squeeze of her shoulders. “She would have approved.” He passed through the dining room and lumbered upstairs, banging his big square head on the rickety wooden trim...again. “Damn it to hell!”

  “Watch your head, Brady!” she jibed.

  Melinda held the clipping in her hand and read, “Francis Helen Harper, 90 of Cleveland, died at her home on Sunday, March 28, 1999. Miss Harper, born February 5, 1909, was the daughter of Pete and Margaret ‘Peggy’ Harper, originally of Chillicothe. She was a 1927 graduate of Cleveland Heights High School and attended Cleveland Business Academy, where she achieved the esteemed Isaak Lowell Meyer award for Excellence in Business Communications. She worked for Murphy’s Department Store for 50 years, starting as cashier at the lunch counter in her teens, and retiring as supervisor of the switchboard and public address systems in 1974. Miss Harper leaves behind her great-niece Melinda (Tennant) Garlow and her husband Brady, both of Cleveland. She was preceded in death by her parents, her sister, Dolly Harper, and her niece Lucille (Harper) Tennant and her husband Red, and her cat and constant companion of 18 years, Phinehas. Funeral Services will be held March 31, 1999 at Cummings and Davis Funeral Home on Euclid Avenue. Viewing from 11am to 4pm, followed by a brief service. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Cleveland Animal Protection League.” She let out a long, low sigh. “Cleveland Business Academy, we are a legacy, Aunt Helen.”

She opened the aging Bible and the glossy, gold-lined pages split to uncover another newspaper clipping safely tucked between the parchments. She let a clump of pages cover it and placed her maiden aunt’s obituary smack in the middle of the Psalms.

“116; verse 6; The Lord preserveth the simple; I was brought low, and he helped me. Yes, ma’am,” she thought aloud. “Excellent spot. Aaand that’ll be enough reading for one night.”

  She closed the book and slowly pushed away from the table. She checked the doors, flipped off the downstairs lights, then ascended the creaking stairs to the master.

  Brady was already in bed, flipping through TV channels. “Hey Babe, we send that Private Ryan movie back tomorrow, you want to watch it? I know you like Tom Hanks and that Afflack guy.”

  She giggled from behind the bathroom door.

”It’s not Afflack, goof! And anyway, it’s that guy's best friend. And you know he’s the reason I wanted to see that.”

She emerged from the bathroom in one of her husband’s many Brown’s jerseys, pulled her thick amber hair back in a low ponytail, and crawled under the covers.

  “Oh, is that so?” he teased, pulling her close.

 “I mean I like Tom Hanks like the boy next door you grew up with.”

 “Yeah, like me, sure.”

  “But I like Private Ryan like your best friend’s older brother, you try to get a peak of walking out of the bathroom wearing just a towel when you sleep over.”

  “Oh, you tramp! Whose brother did you catch wearing nothing but a towel coming out of the bathroom?”

  “Susan Rogers!”

  “What? Wally Rogers! You lusted after Wallace Rogers?” Brady busted out in his signature bellowing laughter and Melinda laughed hard at him laughing. Then her laughter turned to tears, and he held his best friend and now twice-orphaned-wife until dawn.

Melinda awoke to the sound of her husband brushing his teeth, readying for work. He poked his head out the bathroom door. “Good, you’re awake.” He spat and toweled off, then parked his heavy carcass on the side of the bed. “Sattler said he had a big announcement today.” She looked worried. “No. Now before you go all ‘half-empty’ on me, Babe, I think it might be good. I think he might promote some people.” An expanding grin spread across his freshly shaven face.

  “But the overseas trends are…”

  “Nope, I won’t let you do this. Not again. We are due some good news and I’m believing today’s the day.” He grabbed her face and mashed her mouth with a hard kiss. “I love you. Call me after the meeting with the lawyers.” And he was off.

  Melinda showered, dressed, and was out the door coffee in hand. Running down her to-do’s she would stop at the apartment and pay April’s rent, then drop by the funeral home, pick up the death certificates and settle her accounts with them, and finally end up at her one o'clock appointment at Gallagher and Ferris, attorneys at law. Dave Gallagher and Nick Ferris had known her all her life. They had facilitated her mother’s adoption by Aunt Helen when Melinda’s grandmother, Dolly lost her marbles. And they were there after her own parents’ death for Act II when Aunt Helen adopted her. She was almost looking forward to seeing them. They had been like family. It might give her respite from the nagging ache of being left alone again.  

  At precisely 1:00pm Gallagher and Ferris came to the lobby and in unison began, “Melinda, so good to see you. How are you bearing up? Brady ok, is he?” The two shrinking, gray men flanked her on either side and grabbed an elbow, escorting her through the big wooden double doors into their inner office. What she mistook for chivalry, she quickly recognized as the tug of their ancient bones and weak joints and soon knew they were using her to steady their own gaits. They deposited her at the long mahogany conference table and collapsed in the seats on either side. Julia, their equally ancient secretary, had followed them in and placed a pitcher of water and three glasses on an antique silver tray just beyond the neat stack of documents before them.

  “Thanks, Julia,” Gallagher acknowledged. “Shut the door, please.”

  Once the three of them were alone, the partners exchanged a look. Taking her hand in his, Ferris began, “Now Melinda, we know you’ve been through a lot in the past couple of years, with Helen getting so bad after her fall.”

  “You know she loved you. She wanted the very best for you. She wanted you to have every one of her worldly possessions,” Gallagher went on. “So of course, you are her only heir and as such you have inherited everything.”

Melinda couldn’t help but pick up on their mixed signals. She knew her aunt had worked all her life and didn’t spend much. She was confident there was a good chunk of money and of course, the house. But these guys were behaving as if they were about to deliver bad news. “Yes. I know Aunt Helen invested some and there’s the equity in the house but just shoot me straight, fellas. What have I inherited? A silver mine in Argentina?"

  The two laughed nervously and then began explaining. Back and forth like a long volley, they laid out the details. Helen had invested poorly and lost most of her savings. What remained liquid, Melinda and Brady had all but exhausted to take care of her in the year since her fall. They could sell the investments for a couple hundred dollars after fees and penalties. She might be better off leaving them alone to see if they did any better in the coming months, though. But the real gut punch was the house. Even though she’d paid off the mortgage years ago, apparently wise old Aunt Helen had roughly $58,000 worth of tax liens against the place. She hadn’t filed personal income tax for the last seventeen years! Melinda’s mind wandered while the lawyers conjectured and theorized. She helped fill out those tax packets herself. Aunt Helen had expressly asked for her help with that. They went over every line item together. She even asked Melinda once if she could claim Phinehas as her dependent.

“Wa-wa-wait, gentlemen, with all due respect, this doesn’t make sense. I did her taxes with her, every year for the last twenty-five years. I helped her file them myself.”

  “Did you file them, Melinda?” Ferris asked.

  “Did I file them?”

  “Did you put them in the mail? Did you send them yourself?” Gallagher followed.

  Stricken, Melinda stiffened and stared off past the men.

“Son of a bitch,” she said under her breath. “No, sir. Some years back, she started sending creepy Kevin from next door. She liked to pay him to do simple chores, like…”

The men finished in unison, “Mailing her tax returns?”

  “They were never filed, honey,” Gallagher continued. “Now, you’re not in trouble per se, Melinda. We just have to sell the house and pay the taxes. Surely you and Brady have discussed selling that house.”

  “Well, we’ve discussed…”

  “Of course, you have. We want you to call Mary Rutherford at Home At Last Realty. A colleague of ours, we serve on the Committee for a Better Cleveland together. Known her for years, she’s the best.” Ferris opened a folder on the table and produced a business card. “Now, Melinda dear, don’t you worry about a thing. You call Miss Mary, and she will get things going in a heartbeat.”

  The two men continued while shuffling her off.

“We’ll probate the will and let you know when to come sign everything. And again, honey, so sorry for your loss. Please give our best to Brady.”

With that, she found herself in the hall outside their offices. She paused for a moment, inhaled deeply to make room in her lungs for the extra stress, then made her way home.

 When she pulled up in front of the house, she saw Brady’s truck in the driveway. She checked her watch and realized he was home hours early.

“This can’t be good.”

She found him sitting in the middle of the couch with the last sip of his second beer in his hand, staring out the window. She tossed her things onto the coffee table and lowered her petite frame into a chair opposite her brawny husband.

He leaned toward her and asked, “How’d it go, Babe?”

“Ummm. Well, Mr. McQuain took our rent check, shared his condolences, and asked if we were finally going to move the rest of our things out of the apartment since Aunt Helen went on to meet Jesus. I told him I’d let him know by the end of next week. He has a brother-in-law that needs a place and would really like us to give him the word A.S.A.P. I paid the funeral home with what I’ve learned may be the last of my dear Aunt Helen’s savings because I found out from old ‘Uncle Dave’ and ‘Uncle Nick’ that the late, great F. Helen Harper owed over fifty-seven grand in income taxes, which results in a lien in that approximate amount against this very address!”

She took his beer and finished it. “How was your day?”

Brady slowly reached into his uniform shirt pocket and produced a thin folded pink paper. He extended his arm above his head and presented it, “You were right! I have been downsized. The decline in foreign production is making the Ford Motor Company, THE FORD MOTOR COMPANY nervous and to pre-empt massive shutdowns, they are laying off in the smaller plants and focusing their attention on increasing production in the biggest ones.”

  “Jesus, Brady! What the hell?”

  “I know! But don’t start worrying, Babe. Me and a bunch of the guys are calling around the other plants. I will not be out of work!”

  “Ok. Well, I’m free to work now too. I mean, I could only do part-time when I had Aunt Helen to take care of, but I could find something full time now to get us over the hump until we sell the house. Maybe we could move away!” she hoped out loud.

  “Yes! You loved the Carolinas when we went to the beach before we got married. And Virginia is nice with the farms and the fields. Remember when we went there after the…” he stopped short.

  Melinda’s face froze, and her eyes filled with hot tears. “Oh sure, I remember. After the next to the last miscarriage. Could this day get any better?”


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