The evening Mr. Bannock cut the wires that kept all the lightbulbs shinning in the diner, I was surprised as everyone else. Looking back on it, I suppose Dr. Hollins was the only one who wasn’t surprised—but sorting out that story will take as lazy a summer’s afternoon as you can think of. Better hunt up your yarn and knitting needles first, and then I’ll tell you.
Now that I’m telling the story over, I guess Asheville’s gossips had done enough talking first. Sailing around town in those flowery hats that are more flowers than hat, they chatter their fair bit—and then a bit more, so they don’t leave the story half-done. I know it isn’t proper to be saying such things about them, but they did talk. Go on, you can be surprised. Mr. Appleton said something like that, when I was telling him about the gossips.
“Well, Mary Jeanne,” he said, as I was tidying up the barbershop and he was cleaning his razors, “I never thought you’d say such things about the poor ladies—proper Miss Mary Jeanne, of all people!” His eyes twinkled at me in the mirror, but I was still flustered.
“Me, a society lady?” I said. “Oh, no, Mr. Appleton! All I meant to say was—”
“That the whole flock of gossips has no business poking their noses in yours?” He smiled then, and shut the lid of the razor box so slow the hinges squeaked. “That’s what I mean, Mary Jeanne. You’re getting a mind of your own.”
It was my turn to frown then. “I’ve always had my own mind, Mr. Appleton,” I said, giving the duster a last turn around the shelves. “What else would I have?”
But I’m forgetting the story. All this about Mr. Appleton was just to show that the gossips had been talking more than their share—like taking three slices of lime pie at the benefit picnic. No, your slices were peach, and that isn’t the same thing at all. The gossips had fussed enough about me, and I was set as molasses in May snow that I wouldn’t notice their fuss anymore.
So, that’s how I went to the diner. I didn’t sail in exactly like the ladies in their flower hats, but I must have had my society walk on. The Clareson girls were sitting in their corner, pecking away like birds and whispering to each other more than they pecked. Mr. Selzer was eating his usual dinner in the corner by the clock that only chimes at the wrong times. And Freddy Hemlock was sitting all by himself in the corner nearest the door, swallowing enormous pieces of an enormous cake slice.
“Well, Miss Pearce,” said Dr. Hollins. “That leaves the last corner for us.”
He had to bend his head a little to walk under the corner beams, and his hat almost sailed out the back window.
“Dr. Hollins,” I said, catching his hat, “be careful, please. I don’t want to bandage that head of yours, especially not before supper.”
Dr. Hollins took his hat from me and dusted the brim—but then he seemed to forget all about it. I don’t remember exactly, but he must have dropped it under the table. The next thing I do remember is the two of us sitting in our corner, and the doctor looking at me.
“Mary Jeanne,” he said, gentle as he always does, but softer, “I’ve been thinking.”
“Well, of course you have,” I said. “The doctor’s job is thinking, isn’t it?”
You can laugh at me if you want, now. Mr. Appleton does sometimes, when I talk like that. My father would too, before he left for the war. And Mr. Bannock—but Dr. Hollins didn’t laugh. He only smiled.
“I’m sure you know what I’ve been thinking,” he said, “and I—”
Just then, the lights went out. The Clareson girls stopped whispering to scream, Mr. Selzer dropped his silverware, Freddie Hemlock almost choked on his cake, and Dr. Hollins kept looking at me. There were two tall candles burning on our table—on the other tables too—but right then, he was the only one I saw.
“Now you think, Mary Jeanne,” myself says to me, glad and frightened at the same time, “what’s the doctor going to say?”
“Don’t think much,” myself says back to me, right quick, “he wants you to be Mrs. Hollins.”
“I think,” I said, slow and careful, “I would like that.”
Dr. Hollins looked a fair bit confused. “You would like what?” he asked.
“Being Mrs. Hollins, of course,” I said. “That is what you were thinking, wasn’t it?”
Then he laughed, until the candles flickered. “Remind me not to forget just how quick you are, Mary Jeanne,” he said.
“You should know that,” I said, laughing a little too. “How many ice cream sodas have we sat and talked over?”
“Oh, too many to count,” he said, “but most of them strawberry.”
“Speaking of strawberries,” I said, as the lightbulbs went back to shining all of a sudden. “Should we have that pie now?”
The doctor shook his head. “I think I’ll wait until you can make one for me,” he said.
“Oh, I’ll have more important things to do than make pies,” I said, trying to keep my smile in society bounds. “Asheville’s had one doctor long enough, and I won’t have you run off your feet.”
“Mary Jeanne—” the doctor began, but I didn’t let him finish.
“Now, John,” I said, surprised at how easy the name slipped out, “there’s no stopping me from seeing after my share. I haven’t polished all Mr. Appleton’s mirrors for nothing, and I like having things to do.”
Dr. Hollins reached down for his hat, but dropped it and took my hand instead. “That’s another thing, Mary Jeanne,” he smiled. “Don’t let me forget that you—”
Right then, Mr. Bannock stepped out of the back room. “Well, Hollins?” he asked. “Did the candles do the trick?”
I sat straight up in my chair and looked at Mr. Bannock, just like the gossips used to look at me. “Mr. Bannock,” I said, “my mind was made up even without the candles.”
Mr. Bannock smiled an easy smile, a smile that hadn’t seen the sun since before the war, I’m sure. “Of course it was, Miss Mary Jeanne,” he said, “of course.”
And that’s what I came to ask you, Gran Penny. I’m sorry to be leaving the boardinghouse, but I’d like to take some of your orange blossoms—for tomorrow, when the doctor comes to take me home.