Agnes’s small living room was dominated by the oak quilting frame set up where most people placed a coffee table; between the couch and the television set. A dizzying assortment of colors and fabrics had been stitched together to form a random mosaic, as if a stained glass window had been shattered and then haphazardly glued back together. Agnes scrutinized the project with an intense scowl as steam from her tea cup wafted over Ned’s framed portrait. He gazed up and to his left from the sterling silver frame, his dark eyebrows raised as if he just heard the punchline of a laughable joke.
“What do you think, William?” Agnes asked the cat, who perched on the back of the floral-patterned couch. Agnes had removed her brown pumps and slipped her nyloned feet into worn yellow scuffs. Her satin-covered sewing box rested next to her. “I need some embellishments to finish this one. Have you brought me anything I can use?”
When the cat merely closed his eyes into slits, Agnes scooted to the end of the couch and retrieved the Longaberger basket from beneath the end table, placing it on her lap. To her dismay, the basket only contained a filthy neon-green shoestring, half of a seven of diamonds playing card and a flattened beer bottle top. With a dejected sigh, she returned the basket beneath the end table and looked ruefully at the tabby.
“Well, if you’re not going to find me anything worthwhile, I’ll have to ask Amy or Mara to take me to Marian’s Fabrics and Notions,” she muttered, scooting herself back to the middle of the couch. “But I’ll have to wait until there’s a sale.”
William yawned and turned his head to the kitchen door as Amy entered the crowded the living room. He jumped down from his perch and stretched before greeting Amy with a perfunctory brush against her bare calf.
“Can I do anything else for you while I’m here, Aunt Agnes?” Amy inquired, bending down to give William’s ears a scratch before the cat trotted out to the mud room and passed through his cat door.
“Not right now, dear,” Agnes replied, examining a seam that joined a square patch of green calico with a swatch of rust-colored corduroy. “This needs some scallop embroidery in white, I think.”
“Do you want to go to Finnegan’s for supper tonight?”
Agnes peered over her rimless glasses and regarded her niece with a critical eye. “Only if you wear something more presentable. You look like you just rolled out of bed. Did you even comb your hair this morning?”
“I will. I rushed out of the house when I heard the sirens and didn’t have time to--”
Agnes tsked, shaking her head as she returned to her work. Young people were so slovenly nowadays! Did Amy even own a dress or a pair of nylons? “I’ll be ready to eat by five,” Agnes said dismissively. “I trust you’ll look more presentable next time I see you.”
She thought she heard Amy sigh. “Of course.”
Agnes offered her papery cheek for Amy to kiss, then resumed her inspection of the crazy quilt after the door shut and she was once again alone with Ned’s portrait and the twelve urns displayed on the book shelf.
She perused the sewing box, considering scraps of ribbon and lace, but finally deciding on ivory embroidery thread. With difficulty, Agnes threaded a needle and proceeded to stitch a row of scallops along a seam between a patch of orange twill and purple paisley. As she worked, her eyes traveled to Ned’s portrait on the end table.
“I did what you would have wanted,” she said, piercing the fabric with the needle. “I tried to mend fences with Harvey Dilwood, but you know how he never lets go of a grudge. William’s just a cat, after all, and cats wander into yards. It’s what they do.” Agnes paused and took another sip of tea. “I know William’s wanderings aren’t even the real issue. Lord knows I’ve tried to forgive him for not attending your funeral, but after today, I’ve washed my hands of him. He was never my partner and friend anyway, but yours.”
Ned smiled silently from the frame.
“Embarrasses me in front of the entire town,” she went on, drawing the thread through with more force than was necessary. Oh, you’d just laugh it off, because you never took anything as seriously as I did. But any positive assumptions I had of Harvey Dilwood dissolved this morning!”
She regarded the photo as if she expected it to react to her outrage. When Ned only continued to smile at her, her narrow shoulders rose and fell in a heavy sigh.
“I miss seeing you sitting in your recliner, reading the newspaper while I quilted,” she said, her voice brittle with sorrow. She even missed the stench of his cigars, and she smiled as she remembered how the manly odor lingered for weeks after his passing. Her eyes moistened and she reached for a tissue from the box next to Ned’s portrait. She dabbed daintily at her eyes, the white tissue coming away stained by mascara and powder. She was glad nobody was around to see her with smeared make-up. Or, given Amy’s attitude toward appearances, maybe no one cared anymore nowadays?
The grandfather clock in the corner chimed five bells just as Amy’s blue Sentra pulled up. Agnes rose and padded to the powder room. Her mascara had indeed smeared, and she would need to clean her glasses as well. She primped, humming to herself as she reapplied both mascara and lipstick. Then she trotted into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Pushing aside a carton of buttermilk, she reached for the bottle of Youth Dew and spritzed herself liberally. All she needed to do was put on her shoes and grab her purse and she was ready.
The muted television mounted in a corner at Finnegan’s was turned to Focus News Chicago when Amy and Agnes arrived. Focus News’s sanctimonious anchor, Ted O’Malley, glowered at the diners as his words crawled along the bottom of the screen. Most of Finnegan’s patrons were elderly, and Focus was their preferred station. Amy couldn’t bear to listen to O’Malley, especially when he went into one of his conservative tirades. So she took the seat facing away from the television, adjacent to the door. If she wanted news, she relied on her phone’s Chicago Sun Times app.
Amy’s mood had soured after the embarrassing incident that morning. To reflect her dark disposition, she had changed into a navy blue blouse and black capris. She pinned her shoulder-length dishwater-blonde hair with a few bobby pins and braced herself for any admonitions from her aunt. But Amy dressed for comfort, not style, and was not about to change for anyone, not even Aunt Agnes.
“Good to see you,” Mara greeted them as they took their accustomed booth. “Do you need menus or--?”
“Just the usual for me, dear,” Agnes smiled. Agnes’s usual was a cup of French onion soup, two saltines, and a cup of coffee.
Mara turned her smile toward Amy. “What about you? The special’s chicken and dumplings. And Helen’s in the kitchen, baking apple pies.”
“That sounds g--”
“Oh, Amy, that’s so heavy,” Agnes chided. “It’s not healthy to eat a heavy supper. Why don’t you have the soup?”
Amy inhaled and counted to ten as Mara gave her a sympathetic glance. If she tells me I need to cut back due to my weight, so help me!
“I’ll have the special, Mara,” she said evenly. Then, turning to Agnes, she added, “and a Coke. And I may even get a slice of apple pie--a la mode-- for dessert.”
As Mara scribbled their order down and left their booth, Agnes closed her eyes, shook her head slowly and started to hum.
Agnes could really test one’s patience, and Amy struggled to maintain a pleasant demeanor as familiar faces smiled at her from nearby tables and booths. She smiled and waved back, finally resorting to pulling out her cell phone and playing Words with Friends while they waited for their supper to arrive.
“Amy,” Agnes admonished, opening her eyes and scowling at the device in Amy’s hands. “That’s incredibly rude.”
“It’s incredibly rude to tell someone what they should and shouldn’t eat,” Amy spat, not looking up from the small screen. Or how they should dress, she added silently.
“Constructive criticism,” Agnes said. “It’s for your own good.”
Amy knew it was pointless to argue. Agnes had her own brand of logic, and there was no reasoning with her. She focused on her game, deftly gliding tiles across the small grid on her phone’s screen until Mara brought their order.
The cowbell jangled just as Amy was about to cram a forkful of chicken into her mouth, but she paused in mid-air when Bill and Harvey came in. Bill was still in his black uniform, but Harvey had changed into a brown blazer and striped tie, adorned with his Korean War Veteran tie tack. Must be a generational thing, Amy thought glumly. This need to dress up to go two blocks from your own home.
Agnes dipped a saltine daintily into her cup of soup, but when the newcomers came into her line of sight, she set the cracker down and shot Harvey Dilwood a belligerent look.
“Aunt Agnes, ignore them. It’s a public place. Please don’t make a scene,” Amy implored in a whisper as Mara brought Bill and Harvey menus.
Agnes’s eyes swung back to Amy. “You sound as if you think this morning was my fault.”
“Just, let’s eat our supper in peace, can we?”
Agnes closed her eyes and began to hum softly while slowly shaking her head from side to side. A few diners glanced in their direction, but most of them were familiar with Agnes’s peculiar ways, and Amy did her best to tune out her aunt’s behavior.
After finishing the chicken and dumplings in uncomfortable silence, Amy felt a small measure of joyful anticipation as Helen approached the booth with a slice of apple pie topped with a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. Helen met Amy’s eye with a smile, but then Helen’s gaze drifted to the television set, and her face grew pale. The pie plate went crashing to the floor as Helen gasped, sending both hands to her mouth. The multiple conversations in the diner ceased.
“Unmute that!” someone demanded.
Amy’s phone pinged with a news notification from the Sun Times. Alarmed, she checked it just as Mara pointed the remote at the television and Ted O’Malley’s baritone intoned the very message Amy read on her phone’s screen.
“An APB has been issued for an escapee from Joliet Correctional Center. Douglas Earl Drinski was reported missing after this morning’s count--”
Amy’s glance, like many others, fell on Bill and Harvey. Harvey’s jaw dropped in apparent shock while Bill regarded the mugshot of his identical brother with a stony glare that made Amy’s blood turn to ice.
The dog’s smell still lingered on the curb from this morning, mingling with the evaporating odors of the humans who had gathered earlier. William ignored them all, intent on the small metal key that winked in the sunlight.
He sniffed it, detecting the dog’s scent. To remedy that situation, the tabby pressed the side of his head against the object, then for good measure, rolled over the key until his own scent obscured that of the dog’s. William was an experienced six-year-old, and knew better than to stay in the street for long. He batted at the key, enjoying the sound it made as it scraped across the asphalt. He would have enjoyed playing with the key more, but an approaching truck broke his concentration. Securing the key in his jaws, William scampered back to the safety of the Peanut House. There he entered through his cat door and deliberately dropped the key into the Longaberger basket.