Here’s the story that launched my debut novel, Come Back when Vi wormed her way into my head and insisted I explore what brought her to Opal’s and what happened after.
SPOILER ALERT – ‘Christmas at Opal’s’ reveals the secrets Vi wants to keep under wraps – until she can’t – in Come Back. So read the novel first!
Christmas at Opal’s
Christmas Morning 2007
I hit enter and watched yesterday’s tally appear. Best day ever. Business was strong all year. Maybe I’m crazy to close down now? I shook off doubts and hit save. Coffee.
On my way toward the kitchen, I trailed fingers over polished wood, admired the glimmer of tiny white lights on crystal. It won’t be easy to leave this place, this life, my friends. Not employees any more. Friends.
Sleeping now, the dears. And well they should, hard as they worked all day yesterday. They’d be down directly, my family of women. Like me, they’d head to the kitchen before gathering to paw through the loot under the tree. We’d laugh at the color-coded lingerie our boys thought were such clever gifts. Eyes would shine in genuine pleasure as we shared lovingly-selected gifts with one another. And then I’ll break the news.
I was three sips into my first mug when Vi and Ruby bounced into the room. “Good mornin’! Good mornin’! We hmmed the whole night through. Good morning’, good mornin’ to you!” Vi added lewd gestures as she sang.
“Stop it Vi! You gonna make me pee my britches again!”
“You even wear britches, Ruby, darlin’?”
“Why bother with britches when I have already been severely compromised, as my dear, sainted, boring mama informed me the day I discovered fun?” She raised her coffee in a salute aimed vaguely toward Alabama. “May your days be merry and bright, Mama, and may all your Christmases – be far away from me!”
“God bless us, everyone.” Royal glided in with a swish of silk and a scent of sun-dappled meadows. The serenity that seems to follow wherever our Royal goes, slipped over us like a fuzzy blanket. I watched each woman close their eyes, sigh over their steaming mugs, smile in easy content. We should box Royal up and send her to the UN. I swear, she never met a fuss she couldn’t calm – except for the bastard she married.
And Kelly. So much for calm,I thought as an emphatic oath and a clatter on the stairs signaled Kelly’s arrival. All eyes watched, but no one spoke as she muttered her way across the room. We knew to tread lightly around Kelly till she downed her first coffee of the day. Better if you wait till after her second.
She could be a bear, our Kelly, but of all my cubs, she reminded me most of me. The others liked money for what it could buy. Kelly and I? We liked money for money’s own sake. Today money took precedence over caffeine. “We make a killing, yesterday, Opal?”
Ruby snorted. “I should hope so! All that nookie exchange – in one day!”
“We topped last year’s record,” I said to a chorus of cheers.
“Shopping Day. Best idea ever Kel. Bling and Booty! Absolutely inspired.”
“One-stop shopping,” I smiled. “Our boys got their fun – and gifts to keep the home fires happy. Lindahl made a bundle too. He left you all a little something to show his appreciation.”
“Hot damn. Somebody bring the coffee!” Kelly led the way to our tree, rubbing her avaricious hands in glee.
An orgy of wrapping paper later, amid a rainbow of silk and lace, my friends admired the contents of Lindahl’s itty-bitty boxes.
Vi groused, “Poor Opal, poor me. Only semi-precious stones for us. Alas.”
“Set in diamonds, you pathethic martyred creature,” said Royal whose sapphire earrings flashed as she shook her head.
Vi grinned. “There is that.”
Ruby and Kelly shared a look of smug satisfaction. “Semi-precious or not, Vi honey, that purply sparkle does set off your eyes.”
One hand went to my cheek as I watched and wondered where we’d all spend next Christmas. Buck up, Opal. And take care of your family.
I pulled four shimmery envelopes from my robe pocket. “Here’s something more for each of you,” I said.
“Our Christmas bonus?” asked Kelly.
“Your share of a profitable business.” I took a breath, fought down a lump lodged in my throat. “A business that is permanently closed as of yesterday evening.”
Mouths gaped. Eyes went wide. Silence. Then a burst of protests. “What?” “No!” “What’d you say?” “Closing?” “But, but…”
I held up my hand. “I know it feels sudden. I’ve sold Crescent House. New owners take possession the end of January.”
“You sold the house? But…it’s so beautiful. You love this place,” said Royal.
“I do. And I love every one of you. Still, it’s time to move on. For all of us.”
“But what will we do now?” I hadn’t heard that waif tone from Vi in a long time. Didn’t like hearing it now.
“Anything. Everything.” I gave my head a shake. I wasn’t explaining myself well. Start again, Opal. “Look. I am so proud of you all. So proud of the work you’ve done – and I don’t mean just making our boys happy. Proud that you’ve found…dignity in doing your work well, proud of the choices you’ve made. More proud of how far you’ve come – each one of you. Proud of that work, the tough business of coming out whole from the crap that led you to this life in the first place. My heart…swells…to think I…maybe…helped…”
I held up a hand, dashed a hand over my eyes. “No. Let me finish.” I breathed deep. “We built a good life here. But I want more for you. For me too. So we go out in the world, build better lives, put our skills…and smarts to use in other ways.” I stood and put an envelope in each woman’s hand. “I hope this will help.”
Each woman stared as if I’d wrapped a rattlesnake in flimsy paper. Kelly recovered first. She ripped – and gasped. “But, but…” Wide eyes raised to mine. “This is…this is…too much! I don’t deserve all this!”
The lump in my throat dissolved like sugar in a hard rain. “Hogwash! Don’t let me ever hear you say such crap!” I stood, hands on hips. “You deserve every good fortune till the end of time. And more. You insult me – and women everywhere – when you say you don’t deserve.”
I rose, paced to the fireplace. Patience Opal. “As to the amount?” I waved a hand. “I am a wealthy woman, thanks in no small part to the talents of you four – and the tidy profit I made from this old ark. If I choose to share my wealth with the best people I know, you have no right to deny me that privilege.”
Vi found her voice first. “But…Opal…this is…holy bank account, Batman!” She gulped. “I never saw a check this big! What in hell am I supposed to do with it all?”
“There’s no supposed to here. No strings, no expectations.” I took a breath, softened my tone. “I do have hopes – mostly that you’ll pursue your talents, invest in them, chase your dreams.” I smiled. “And till you catch those dreams, I hope you’ll eat, sleep in a warm bed.”
“But…I never…I don’t know…”
“How to dream?” I nodded. “You know. You might have to dig deep, scrape off the rust, practice… Dreaming’s a skill, after all. Takes guts. You’ll learn again.” I squeezed Vi’s shoulder. “Royal? You know how you’ll use your share, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am I do.”
“Tell your friends here. Show them what it looks like to dream and to shape that dream into a real thing.”
“I’ll rent…” She flashed her sapphires again. “Buy. A house. With a big attic or…oh…” She hopped up from her chair, eyes bright. “A barn!”
“For a studio.”
“Yes! And I’ll paint. I’ll take lessons. And then I’ll paint. All day. Every day!”
Ruby slipped an arm around Royal’s waist. “We’ll come to your first show, honey. We’ll be so proud!”
Royal grinned, “You’ll cater at all my shows. I’ll want the best, the best chef from the best restaurant in…where do you want your restaurant, Ruby?”
“Restaurant?” Ruby shook her head. “I can’t run a…” She blinked.
Light bulb, I thought. A bright idea just flared.
“Charleston. Near the water. Or… DC? Near David?” She blinked again. “What am I saying? I don’t know how to run a restaurant.”
“So you go to the Culinary Institute and learn.”
A smile bloomed and widened as if our little cook saw her first Ferris wheel.
“Restaurants are risky. You’ll need a good business plan. Solid footing, advertising, a hook to get people in the door, an eye toward profit.”
“Perfect! You’re hired, Kelly honey!”
“Hold on. I don’t want to work in a restaurant!”
“Of course, not silly. You’ll be my manager. Vi’s and Royal’s too.”
Vi frowned. “Mine?”
“Why sure, honey girl. Every actor needs a manager.”
Kelly angled her head. “Comic. Impressions, those songs you twist up. You’ll use those for your first gigs. Build up your material till you’re ready for tour. A year or two on the circuit. Then we break into television.”
“But… I don’t know how to…”
I smiled. “You’ll learn. Like Royal will learn to paint, Ruby to make paying customers grateful for every taste bud they got. And while you’re learning – before Kelly makes you all rich and famous – you’ll eat.” My smile widened. “You’ll all be brilliant, each doing what she does best.”
“You knew, didn’t you? What we’d want to do?”
I grinned. “I’d have bet money.”
Kelly snorted. “You did. A pile of money!” She sobered. “But. Opal? Is it even legal, you giving us all this money?”
I leveled my gaze at Kelly. “Since when, exactly, have I ever cared about what was legal?”
“But your taxes?”
“Good girl. Managing already.” I smiled. “My accountant has taxes – mine and yours – all figured out. She’d like to see you all next week. She’ll get you all started off on the right foot.”
I turned at Ruby’s tenuous tone. “Yes, dear?”
“What about you? Where will you go? What are you going to do?
“Isn’t that just like our little mother?” I patted her cheek, turned to address them all. “I’ve set up a foundation – non-profit, if you can believe it. I’ll pay myself a nice salary to run it, because you know I do enjoy my little luxuries.” I fingered the spectacular necklace from my Lindahl box. “The Crescent House Foundation awards grants and low-interest loans to women with a plan to raise themselves up.”
“And we’re your first…?”
“Grantee. Yes. And once you set the world on fire, major donors. So I guess I do have expectations.” I reached for my mug. Empty. A sign. “I want to make a toast. Vi, honey, could you grab a bottle of Dom and some glasses?”
Quick as a wink, she was back and we all lifted crystal flutes. “To new lives for smart women!”
“To Opal!” said Royal, blinking back tears.
“Opal – the founder of the feast!”
“Opal – who’s surely earned her wings!”
“Our Opal – the richest woman in town!”