Singing softly along with Alabama’s “Christmas in Dixie” while she worked, Dixie Mae Culbertson—yes, her mother had graced her with the most awful, southern, hillbilly name ever—automatically changed the lyrics from “Charlotte” to “Asheville, Caroline” for her hometown as she added the finishing touches to her window elf.
“A pink nose and red rosy cheeks, that should do it,” she murmured with satisfaction as she stepped back and took in the scene she’d created with a critical eye.
It had taken her three hours to complete, but now the eight large picture windows spanning the front of Pete’s Diner where she waited tables six days a week were adorned with everything she could think of that represented the North Pole, this year’s theme. Snow-covered trees, festive garland and wreathes, a busy workshop brimming with toys, Mrs. Claus with a tray of fresh-baked cookies, and center stage, Santa, the fat man himself, stood beside his sleigh. Loaded with presents wrapped in brightly colored paper and bows, he was ready to head out on Christmas Eve.
“Something isn’t quite right,” she mused as she honed in on the sleigh. “There were eight tiny reindeer, not three.” Except keeping to scale, that’s all she could fit. Propping an elbow on the opposite arm that she had folded over her chest, Dixie tapped a finger on her chin as she weighed her options. “Maybe I could squeeze them all in if I have them flying overhead on their way to deliver the toys.”
She’d already dipped into her pocket to retrieve her rag to make the adjustments, when she heard, “It’s lovely as it is, dear. You always do such a wonderful job on Pete’s windows.”
Twisting her head around, she found one of the customers was standing beside her looking on too. It was Mrs. Goodwin, known to most folks in town as Mrs. G., or as Miss Emmaline to those who were more than acquaintances. “Pardon me?” Dixie asked in surprise, not having heard the older woman’s approach, nor had she realized until now that she’d made her observations aloud.
“Your Christmas windows are perfect. Don’t you dare change a thing.”
At ninety, her wrinkles had wrinkles, and her translucent skin was paper thin. Her hair was cut short and curled precisely. The snowy strands weren’t pure white, rather with a blue tint from the rinse that some older ladies preferred for some unknown reason. For Dixie, the color was a reminder of growing up, when her mama, trying to stretch their very limited budget to the nth degree, would cut their real milk with the cheaper powdered stuff, creating the same bluish shade. With five kids putting away at least a gallon a day, it was that or get a cow. Which Mama had threatened to do often, not that it was remotely possible in dollars and cents. She had done what she had to do, despite their grumbling, to see her family taken care of.
Soft-spoken, polite, and a southern lady to the core, her mama was a lot like Emmaline Goodwin in those same ways. And in others, as different from her as could be. Both had no trouble speaking their minds when defending something important, like family. It was done courteously, of course, with a ‘bless your heart’ often thrown in to offset anything that might be construed as unladylike. Because everyone below the Mason-Dixon line knew, said with the right inflection, ‘bless your heart’ could leave someone wondering if they’d been dealt a backhanded compliment or an expression of genuine concern. But they dared not ask for clarification, as that would be considered rude.
With a bittersweet mix of emotions, Dixie was reminded of her mother whenever she spoke with Miss Emmaline, at least the younger version of Mama, before the years of struggling had taken its toll. These sentimental moments occurred with precise regularity, each Wednesday at twelve forty-five p.m. on the dot. Come rain or shine, following her weekly wash and set at Nadeen’s House of Beauty, Mrs. G’s Rolls Royce would pull up to the curb in front of Pete’s and her gentleman driver would escort her inside to her usual window booth. She would spend the next two hours enjoying a late lunch, always ordering the daily special, a tall glass of sweet tea, and for dessert, a slice of Pete’s pie: apple, blueberry, or if they had it, peach, which was Miss Emmaline’s favorite. Her real purpose was to hold court as the citizens of Dry Creek came up to say hello and share a tidbit of gossip, or when the lunch rush slowed down, to watch the hubbub, as she called it, on the busy main street out her window.
One of the many particularly glaring differences between her mama and Mrs. Goodwin was that Mama had always been poor as a church mouse, where Miss Emmaline was purported to be the richest woman in Asheville, not counting the absentee Vanderbilt heirs. Another was their ages with Emmaline at ninety, still spry and sharp of mind. So much so that she attended twice-weekly church services, sat on several charity councils, and was the secretary of the local preservation society. And although she had a housekeeper and chauffeur, continued to live alone. Indeed, she would smack any one of her thirty-some combined children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who suggested otherwise.
Mama on the other hand was about half her age at fifty, but seemed older. Like Mrs. G., she was a fan of jazz music from the swing era, thirty years ahead of her mother’s time, but in what Emmaline called her heyday. And where the older woman had a spark for life at the beginning of her tenth decade of life, her mother was often melancholy these days. This meant she wasn’t very sociable, and it made Dixie sad knowing that she hadn’t always been that way, at least not until her husband went away and broke her heart.
“I must say, now that I think of it, Mrs. Claus needs her wire-rimmed spectacles, doesn’t she, dear?”
Mrs. G’s question snapped her out of her reverie. Immediately, she keyed in on her version of Santa’s better half. She’d done her up with a glowing round face, her silvery white curls peeking out from under the ruffle of her mob cap, and with a twinkle in her blue eyes. Dixie smiled. It wasn’t the shortage of reindeer that made her feel as though something was missing, it was the omitted spectacles and Emmaline had put her finger right on it.
“So she does,” she said while giving her friend’s narrow shoulders a gentle one-armed squeeze.
Leaning over the table crowded with her supplies, her pink-tipped fingers hovered over the rainbow of liquid chalk pens, before selecting one each in gray, white, and red. In seconds, she gave the myopic first wife of the North Pole what she was lacking: round wire-rimmed frames and a red bow to adorn her white cap.
Covering her pens, she put her hands on her hips. “Anything else?”
“Nope,” the older woman said. “Sheer perfection. It wouldn’t be Christmas at Pete’s without your art. How many years is it now?”
“Ten. I started here my freshman year in college and haven’t missed doing the holiday windows since.”
“A full decade,” she breathed. “How the time flies. But why are you still here? I thought you were finishing up your art degree. Shouldn’t you be painting landscapes in Europe, or working with a design company or something?”
Dixie sighed, not wanting to talk about it. “Soon,” she murmured as she began cleaning up her mess and storing her leftover paints. She’d need them for touchups until it all came down the day after the New Year arrived.
“Soon,” the old woman echoed with a grumble. “So you said last year, and the year before that. It’s the tuition. I know it is impolite to discuss money, but have you applied for the nontraditional student scholarship that I mentioned?”
“I did, Mrs. G., though never heard back. Don’t fret, I’ll finish one day.”
“In the meantime, you are stuck here on your feet all day working yourself into a future of plantar fasciitis and varicose veins. Your legs will be like a road map at forty if you’re not careful.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Are you wearing those support stockings I recommended?”
Dixie barely kept from cringing at the mental picture of thick, opaque, butt ugly beige hose beneath her traditional zip-up pinafore uniform dress. Her boss, Pete Rutherford, the namesake and owner of Pete’s Diner, was nothing if not old-fashioned. He thought waitresses should dress like Alice, from some show by the same name from the seventies he was always going on about it. And wouldn’t that be attractive? Her tips would surely suffer. Yet Miss Emmaline meant well, so she gave her a noncommittal reply. “I love the way you grandmother me.”
“Well,” the harrumph that followed this single word was classic, “someone needs to.” Then she got that look about her and Dixie prepared to run for cover, knowing exactly what was coming next. “You need a husband.”
Direct hit! Here we go again.
This same topic came up every week, as unfailingly as her old friend’s visits. The approach each time was different, whether through news of a ‘lucky’ young girl who was recently engaged to be married, like it was the defining moment in every woman’s life, or with some other innocuous opener anywhere from the weather to, of all things, support hose.
“I appreciate your concern, Mrs. G., but this is the twenty-first century. Women don’t need a man to hold their hand to get through life.”
“Don’t you want a family?”
“I’d love to have children. I just don’t want to have to put up with a husband’s bullsh—um, I mean, bull, to get them.”
She almost added that a marriage license wasn’t a prerequisite to pregnancy these days, all a girl needed was an agreeable sperm donor, although she didn’t want to shock the fine southern Baptist who attended twice-weekly worship services and Bible study every Wednesday evening.
Dixie would have liked to have a man in her life. Someone charming, who would come in and sweep her up in his big strong arms, and take her away from the grueling twelve-hour shifts. Her ideal man loved her, married her, and gave her two children, raised by two loving parents in a happy home. She also wanted something that didn’t exist: a guarantee that he would be true and not stray like all the men in her life, leaving her to raise those babies all alone when he decided his responsibilities weren’t the good time he’d bargained for—like her daddy had done.
To keep her friend from seeing how deeply this conversation affected her, she hefted the box with her paint supplies, propping it under one arm and against her hip, then started for the rear of the diner. Miss Emmaline didn’t let her off so easily, though, laying her wizened hand on her forearm as she passed.
“You can’t judge all men by a disastrous few,” she advised, her blue eyes clear and bright as they gazed up at her while imparting her words of wisdom. “My Harvey was a good man: loving, kind, and faithful. We had fifty happy years together.”
Dixie settled her free hand on top of hers and squeezed it gently. “You were one of the lucky ones, hon. In my lifetime, I haven’t been blessed to have good fortune shine on me, so I don’t expect it to change at this late date.”
“Twenty-eight is hardly ancient, dear. And I am an expert on what is. Besides, it’s never too late. I didn’t meet Harvey until I was older than you are now. It was this time of year, only a few weeks before Christmas, and we had a whole lifetime of love and happiness. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Perfect came walking through that door one day soon, as you’ve always dreamed.”
“Who said I dream anything of the kind?”
Her already wrinkled brow furrowed deeper. “I know you, Dixie Culbertson. You’re a lot like me. You put on a good front, like romance and love aren’t important to you, when they’re actually as vital as the air you breathe and the water you drink. In fact, I bet you go home every night, draw yourself a hot bath, maybe pour a glass of wine, and then curl up with a good book that has one of those sexy half-naked hunks on the cover.”
Dixie’s jaw dropped open.
“In my day we had Fabio. Mm,” she sighed dreamily, like a teenager with a crush. “Now he was a hunk. There wasn’t a woman alive who didn’t dream of running her hands over that broad chest or through his gorgeous wealth of golden hair.”
“Mrs. G.! What would Pastor Evans say if he heard such talk?”
She waved off her shock. “What the preacher doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Besides, it’s words on paper, and there’s no harm in that. It’s not as though I’m going out to Highway 26 and lifting my skirt to flag down a trucker.” She glanced around as if checking for spies as she lowered her voice, unnecessary in the empty diner. “Have you read about that Christian Grey?”
Land’s sake, Dixie groaned inwardly, please say this genteel southern lady has not read Fifty Shades.
“Rich, handsome, powerful; if you ask me, that silly girl shouldn’t have walked away. So what if he liked to lay down the law, if you ask me, that’s something men these days don’t do near enough of.” She shook her head. “Take my Harvey. He was all man and didn’t mind showing it. Not that I was a shrinking violet by any means; still, I let him wear the pants, or so he thought. I remember one time, when he was displeased with me, that he didn’t blink an eye about taking me over his—”
The door opened just then and she was literally saved by the bell. Sleigh bells, that is. The jingling sound announcing their timely arrival, the sweetest sound Dixie had ever heard. With unflagging relief, she waved in the young man and woman who had spared her from the retelling of a spanking story from a nonagenarian. Yikes! She didn’t know if recovery from such an event was possible.
“Take a seat anywhere, folks. I’ll be right with you.”
“I should let you get to work,” Miss Emmaline said, giving Dixie hope of a permanent reprieve, then ruined it by adding, “I’ll finish my story next week.” She patted her arm and gave a sly wink. “Be prepared to blush; it’s quite juicy.”
Biting back a ‘heaven forbid,’ Dixie hoped when next Wednesday came around, she’d have long forgotten where she’d left off. Turning to retrieve her purse, Miss Emmaline bumped into her as she passed, but her sleight of hand technique was entirely deficient because Dixie felt her slip something into her front uniform pocket. In truth, she was so quickly onto the sly old woman that she retrieved what she’d left before Mrs. G.’s fingers had entirely come out.
Unfolding the bill, she found Benjamin Franklin staring up at her. “You know I can’t accept this.”
“What? A tip?” She harrumphed again, a common practice. “Every waitress deserves something extra for good service.”
“You had the special and a slice of apple pie, Mrs. G. No waitress deserves a two-thousand percent gratuity.”
“You do. Besides, that tip isn’t only for this meal, but the glorious artwork that I’ll get to enjoy for the next month or so.” She began to walk away.
“I can’t, really.”
“You can, and I’ll not take no for an answer.” In her high dudgeon, it came out as, “Ah’ll not take no fo-ah an an-suh.” Her lilting southern accent was charming and melodic, like the strains of an acoustic guitar. Dixie had often been cognizant of how her own drawl was harsh and far from refined, making her sound like one of the backwoods hicks the area was known for.
Shaking her head, she smiled after her. The woman was as dear and as stubborn as all get-out. At least she knew why Emmaline had taken such a liking to her; she thought they were alike, at least when they’d been of an age, which now spanned over sixty years. Yet Dixie didn’t see it at all.
Where Mrs. G. was a lady, refined and used to the finer things in life like imported champagne and her Rolls Royce, Dixie came from the other side of the tracks, way on the other side. The main staple at her house growing up had been soup beans and cornbread, not lobster and caviar. And when the occasion warranted, their PBR came in a can, not a bottle. And more than a decade out of high school, her circumstances hadn’t changed much. When she left the diner tonight, if the rain was coming down like it was now, instead of a driver pulling up to the curb and holding an umbrella over her head for her to safely, and dryly, enter her vehicle, Dixie would be slogging through the puddles as she walked home from work. Further, instead of heading to a hilltop mansion, her humble abode was a crappy two-room apartment over the flower store four blocks away.
She frowned, seeing Emmaline digging through her purse at the door. Was she searching for keys? Dixie strained to see through the painted windows to the curb and her surprise quickly turned to concern. She didn’t see the Rolls and her driver.
“Did you come here by yourself?”
“Yes, Walter went home early for the holidays to see his first grandchild.”
“But they’re calling for sleet turning to snow and it’s almost dark. You told me you don’t see well with the glare of the oncoming headlights.”
“Not to worry. I’ll be home before it gets dark and well ahead of the big freeze.” Still digging through her grandmotherly type pocketbook, the kind with the two short straps, one of which rested in the crook of her elbow while the other hung free, she searched for something. “Where did I put that darn rain bonnet?”
“Take the umbrella, Mrs. G.”
She stopped and glanced toward the coatrack. “No one ever came back for it?”
“Nope. So long unclaimed, it’s yours for the taking.”
“I couldn’t,” she said, tilting her head and glancing briefly at the lovely taupe umbrella with its lace overlay. They’d taken notice of it over two weeks ago and waited anxiously to see who would return to retrieve what looked more like a sun parasol than a tool for foul weather. However, the lace was made of vinyl—they’d both long since checked it out—and the underlay was sturdy, making it well-equipped to do the job, especially today when the drizzle wouldn’t stop.
Stubbornly, she shook her head and with a small wistful sigh went back to digging. “It’s so pretty, I’m certain someone will come for it. Ah, here it is.”
As she carefully laid the clear bonnet over her freshly done hair and tied the thin plastic strings beneath her chin, a truck went by and sent a shower of water up on the sidewalk, the spray hitting the door with a loud splat. Dixie still wasn’t convinced it was a good idea for her to be driving home. “The roads will be slick; let me call someone for you. One of your grandchildren, maybe?”
“I appreciate your concern, dear, but I’ll be fine.”
“Will you call when you get home, so I don’t worry?”
The old woman laughed, a lovely tinkling sound. “Now who’s grandmothering who?” With a wave, she opened the door and went out into the cold December rain, calling over her shoulder, “See you next week.”