This is a preview of my upcoming second novella, Hewitt & Sons, which is book two of my Meadowlark Series. You can read Patron of the Meadowlark Inn, which is only sale right now for $2.99 right now on Amazon, by clicking here.
Steps from the boardwalk, at the corner of Market Square, the sun emerged in front of the old Hewitt House on a clear November morning. Plenty of people in St. John’s-by-the-Sea felt the need to wake up at sunrise, but that was entirely too early for Gus Hewitt. Blackout shades kept the sun’s rays from piercing through his ocean-front window until he was ready, and that wasn’t until well past 8 a.m. on any given day. Today, however, Gus felt a push to get up and get out early.
Pop would have been eighty-three today. Gus bought his mother Gerber Daisies, dazzling in reds, yellow and orange to celebrate the occasion. The girl who opened up the little flower shop across the square had done a masterful job arranging the flowers just so and tying them with a hunter-green ribbon. Just as she had promised, they had lasted overnight, perfect for this morning’s presentation to Ma.
“Oh Auggie, love, you didn’t need to get me flowers. Our anniversary is next week!”
“No, Ma. I’m Gus. It’s Pop’s birthday today. Gonna put his favorite cut on sale.”
Rose Marie Hewitt smiled, the wrinkles around her face smoothing a moment, revealing a beauty that had faded but never left. Gus could see a brightness come to her eyes. He hoped it was a sign of clarity and comprehension.
“Well? What did you get him? He needs a new wallet, you know. Uncle Mike has been teasing him something awful and I’m pretty sure your father is gonna sock him good. You gonna give it to him now? I think he’s in the shower.”
Gus rubbed his mother’s shoulder and gave her a kiss on the forehead. The flowers needed water. The shop needed opening. “Where does Karen hide the vases, Ma?”
He knew better than to wait for an answer. Stepping around his mother’s easy chair, he started his search in the old armoire to no avail. He started chasing other suspicions, opening random cabinets in the kitchen and finding lost memories instead. He gave a sigh of relief when the front door opened with the jingle of familiar keys.
“Good morning, Miss Rosie! Gus-Gus, you here?”
“Kitchen! Where are the vases, Sis?”
There was a thunk of a heavy purse onto the little desk next to the door, the keys chiming as they went on the hook, a smack of lips as Karen placed her morning smooch on his mother. Only after that did she enter the kitchen, opening cabinets alongside him with a yawn. “That’s what I get for rearranging things,” she said. “Pretty sure I put them right…” She popped open the cabinet beside the broom closet and squealed in delight to find what they were looking for.
“I was going to try that one next,” Gus muttered with a smile. Karen winked at him and laughed. “Can you take care of these for me? I gotta head down to the shop.”
“Sure! What’s the occasion?”
“Pop’s birthday. Would’ve been eighty-three today.”
Karen crossed herself and raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Mr. Hewitt was a good man. Such a good man.”
“Thanks,” Gus managed. They both looked at the floor for a beat of time. “I put a couple of hanger steaks in the fridge. Take one if you want. You know how to cook it for Ma, right?”
Karen nodded. Gus felt gratitude as he watched her bite her tongue. Any other morning, she would have had something smart to say. Pop’s birthday was known for little miracles. He went back to the living room to give his mother a kiss. “I love you, Ma. You have a good day. Karen is gonna make you The Special tonight.”
“What a delight! Karen is such a good girl. One of you boys really needs to marry her!”
Gus stepped out, gently closed the door behind him and took in two deep draws of cold November air. He had to leave the sadness at the doorstep before he walked down to the shop.
Gus spent his seventy-five step commute from the house to the shop thinking about Audrey, a topic only slightly more pleasant than his mother’s ailment. He last laid eyes on her two days ago, and the Phantom should have landed sometime yesterday. His mind wandered toward a plan to see her somehow as he rounded toward the front of the shop. On the corner right before the entrance to the public beach, he and his shop were bathed in early sunlight. The ocean dazzled, even with its November chop and white caps.
A man in khaki pants and fleece jacket with the state emblem embroidered on it sat on the bench next to the shop’s door. He was on his phone, typing something with a frown on his face as Gus approached.
“Good morning, sir. Looking for a nice T-bone to go with your eggs? I’ve got one with fantastic marbling ready for you in the case!”
The man chuckled, rising from the bench to extend his hand. “My name is Jake Parks. I’m with the Maryland State Department of Health. I’d like to perform a quick inspection if you don’t mind.”
Gus took the man’s hand for a hearty shake without even thinking about it. Nerves kicked in after they let go, bringing an icy numbness to his gut. He pushed down the anxiety and maintained his smile. “I’ve never had a surprise inspection before, Jake. Usually Mitch gives me a call and pops in next day. Am I suspected of something wrong?”
“No, no! New administration is makin’ a bigger deal about food safety than in days past. More concerned about the big chains that cut corners, to tell you the truth. Not you mom-‘n’-pop folk. But we have to come out and see ya’ll, too! I know these surprises can make you feel uneasy, though. Want to take a minute to open up, first?”
The shake of Gus’ head came immediately as his hand went into his pocket for his keys. “I’m proud of my shop, Mr. Parks. Come in and have a look.”
He propped the door open and flipped on the lights, revealing the pristine black-and-white checkered tile floor, meat in display cases with spotless glass fronts and meat wrapped in plastic from the night before. He could hear Pop in his ear: “You leave this shop perfect. Every time. No excuses.”
Jake got right to work, starting with the very front of the shop, pen and clipboard in hand.
“Before my Great-Pop came to St. John’s, there wasn’t anything in town but a small general grocer. Wasn’t enough room for a proper meat counter, so people had to make orders in advance,” Gus said as he rounded his display case and went toward the back for his apron and hat. Jake didn’t reply, but Gus thought he heard a click of the pen.
“He and his brothers built this shop first, and the condo upstairs. My Pop-Pop would get around to building the house out back later. Once Pop came along, believe it or not, there were three generations of Hewitts working in here for a while.”
“You don’t say…” Jake said absently as he now moved over to the display case. Gus carefully unwrapped the small selection of yesterday’s unsold cuts. A few chicken quarters, marinated steak tips, four sirloin strips and one pork tenderloin looked ready to go.
“Not for nothin’, and I promise I’m not trying to bribe you, but there is a T-bone in my walk-in back there that is gorgeous and would make a pretty glorious breakfast for a discerning fellow.”
Jake whistled and scratched his head. “I wish I could, Mr. Hewitt, but I’ve got four stops after this one. I’m afraid that steak is gonna have to go to some other lucky customer. Can I check the temperature in there, please?”
“By all means!” Gus stepped back from the case as Jake came around.
Jake took out an instrument that looked more like a laser gun than a thermometer, and pointed it at the case. He nodded as he looked at the reading that came up with a beep. “Thirty-five degrees. Good. Your case is performing well.”
“It’d better be. It’s only six years old! I’m gonna pay it down forever, I’m sure! Couldn’t believe when the old one died…”
“I just need to see your freezer and any other refrigeration units that you have.”
Gus motioned toward the back of the shop without another word, though he made a point of nodding at the pictures of the three Augusts that came before him and crossed himself as he passed.
Clean and uncluttered but for a few boxes stacked in a corner, the back room was a small, cool place that featured a few prep tables, a couple of sinks, doors to the clean-up and supply closets and the doors to the two walk-ins. Jake made his way to the walk-in refrigerator first, noting the thermometer on the outside of the unit. Gus watched the man take note of the reading: thirty-five degrees.
“May I step in?” Jake asked as he put his hand on the handle. Gus shrugged and nodded. The door opened with a slight creak and hiss before Jake stepped in. Gus could see him break out his instrument again before the door closed.
A minute passed. Gus thought he heard two or three beeps. Gus watched the door intently, straining to listen. He thought he heard the beep of the thermometer a few more times, but there was no way to be certain. When Jake emerged, he went straight back to the reader outside the door.
“Can you tell me how old this unit is?”
Gus’ stomach clinched. “It’s been here since I was a kid doing my homework back here. So, maybe twenty years, give or take?”
“And how often is it serviced?”
“Once a year like clockwork. I’ve had few problems with her.”
“Did you realize that your outside reader is off by seven degrees? It is forty-two degrees in that unit right now.”
Gus’ mouth opened and could not close. Jake wrote a few more notes, then moved to step around him.
“Is your freezer the same age, Mr. Hewitt?”
“It is…” His mind was still on the fridge. How long had it been that way? Why hadn’t he noticed? Could there be a mistake? Could he just have it recalibrated? Thank God no one had gotten sick!
Jake had slipped into the freezer while Gus continued to question himself. The minutes passed again. When the inspector stepped out finally, there was no change in his demeanor. “Your reader here reads negative five, but my thermometer is reading twelve degrees, Mr. Hewitt.”
Gus could tell he wasn’t breathing, but didn’t know what to do about it. Jake gave the room one more glance over and then started walking toward the front of the shop, still writing as he went. Gus followed wordlessly. The front of the shop was empty of customers. Still too early in the day, thank God.
“So, I mean… is this it? Do I fail? Can you shut me down for that?” Gus asked after watching the man fill out his form.
The inspector continued writing, looking up for a thought and then going back down to it. Gus patted his apron with his fingers and chewed on the inside of his cheek.
“I wouldn’t close you so easily, Mr. Hewitt,” Jake finally stated. “But we do need to talk. You’ve gotta fix those units in the next thirty days.”
The butcher’s mouth was ajar again. He could keep the shop open and he knew that was a miracle. A thirty-day fix? That could be impossible. He nodded his head in gratitude anyway.
“This next part is gonna be difficult, unfortunately. I’m going to have to ask you to remove all meat that you have in both units and not store anything in there until the units are fixed.”
Gus’ heart stopped. “But that would mean I’ve got nowhere to put my meat but my front display! You are reducing my capacity by three quarters!”
Jake heaved a patient sigh. “Sir, once the units are fixed, I’ll be right back here. Same day, if need be. But those temps are in the unsafe range. Can’t get around it. Just fix the units and we’re all set.” He carefully tore yellow carbon paper copies from his clipboard and started to hand them to the butcher. “These are my initial findings… this is your notice regarding the fixes that need to be made…”
Finally, he handed Gus a paper with bold printed “Provisional Pass” at the top. It read very clearly, “provider may operate, in good faith, for the period of November 12, 2016 and December 12, 2016…”
Jake handed him one last piece of paper. “And this is how to proceed with getting right with the department after your fix is complete. Just call me, basically. I left my cell number at the top.”
Gus held the papers loosely in his hands, swallowing the bile. Jake held out his hand for a finalizing handshake, which Gus answered with less enthusiasm than their first.
The man stepped away, reached the front door, but turned back. “Look, I know this was a shock, but keep your chin up. This is an easy fix. You can have this beat within the week if the stars align for you.”
Gus only nodded his head as the man exited the shop.
By the time Little John’s Refrigeration truck parked in front of the shop, Gus had served three customers and moved most of the meat from the walk-in fridge to the display case. He was running out of space and he was loathe to freeze the red meat that he knew he could sell within the next two days. He was rubbing his eyes, contemplating the next steps when Johnny came through the door.
“You moved your stuff? Didn’t even wait to give me a whack at it first?”
“It’s in the 40s, Johnny! All sorts of no-no, man!”
“Let me get at it. I’m telling you right now, it just needs a re-calibration. That dude’ll be back before end of business day. You pick me two good steaks and wrap ‘em up. Tips for Da, too.”
Gus pointed to the back of the shop and watched his friend go. He looked at the pictures of the other Hewitt men and said a prayer. Taking out a couple steaks and such made room in the display case, which was a big help. He decided to pass the time by finally making the white board sign for Pop’s Birthday Special. He placed the sandwich board just outside the door and looked across the square toward the rest of town. The Market Square clock read 11:15. On a normal day, Audrey would have stopped in by now or called to make an order. He felt a pull toward his phone. Just to check in. Just to share the madness. She’d have some solution.
There was a pop from inside the shop, a “voom” sound, and a bit of crackling and shattering. “Oh shit, man!” Johnny shouted immediately. Gus looked up at the sky with his hands in his pockets, shaking his head.
“Hey Gus! Let’s talk!” Johnny called. Gus tried to read the verdict based on those four words. He took a deep helping of the crisp, salt air and closed the door behind him as he stepped back into the shop.
“What’s the problem and what’s the damage, Johnny?”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, friend, but there ain’t much I can do for you here. Thought it just needed a re-cal, but when I pumped them up to get them going, damned pipes blew. I’ve gotta replace all the guts. And that’s not even the bad news.”
Gus started to wonder how he had managed to piss off God. He knew he should get to Mass more. Why didn’t he get to Mass more? “So how much are new guts gonna cost me, Johnny?”
“That’s the thing… they don’t make these guts anymore. Everything got a computer chip in it now. Nothing looks like this anymore. I could go out and look, but it would take months and then it would be such a hack job, you wouldn’t want none of that stuff in here.”
“You really tellin’ me—”
“—Hey Gus! Gus Hewitt? Are you back there?”
Mrs. Stone never deviated from her schedule. Gus couldn’t believe it. “I’ll be right there, Mrs. Stone!”
Gus made a frustrated time-out sign to his friend and ran to the front display. Mrs. Stone ordered her usual Tuesday pork loin. “And I don’t want that hanger steak. Honestly, Gus! Of all the cuts of meat!”
“If you tried it, you’d like it, Mrs. Stone. I’m gonna send you home with one. Make it for your husband. I know he loves them!”
Johnny came out while he was wrapping the two pieces of meat. “I gotta go out for another call, Gus. You wanna talk about a new purchase really quick?”
“Are you buying a new display case, Gus?”
“No, Mrs. Stone. And I’m not buyin’ a new walk-in—”
“–Two walk-ins,” Johnny asserted.
“Two new walk-ins? Are you shittin’ me, Johnny?”
“August! Watch your language!” Mrs. Stone gasped.
Gus groaned, then finished wrapping the order at hand, tying the package with string just as Pop used to do. He handed the package to Mrs. Stone with the friendliest smile he could muster. “You have a good day now, Mrs. Stone. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The woman bristled at her dismissal and lingered for a moment. Both young men gave her kindly looks, but waited her out. She took her order with a huff, but made her way out of the shop.
“Johnny, what the hell you talkin’ about, two new walk-ins?”
“They both have the same problem. They’ve been runnin’ for twenty-five years! A fix would be a total rebuild and, I’m tellin’ you, by the time I get all the parts and put in the labor, you could’ve bought something new and better and saves you money because they use less juice to run!”
“I’m tellin’ you right now, I can’t afford—“
“Gus! Hear me out! Look, the units you need, normally you lookin’ at twenty for the fridge, twenty-eight for the freezer.”
Gus’ hands went to his head and his mouth opened to protest, but Johnny already had his hands up. “But! But, Gus, you’re family! My Da sold your Pop these units! If you guys didn’t refer us all over the place and hook us up with those awesome cuts durin’ the lean times… we wouldn’t be here. I can’t just give ‘em to you, but I’ll give you the absolute best deal I can. You give me those two units, we’ll call it a trade-in special: twenty-seven flat. And I’ll get all six of my guys in here to install. I swear it. I got two units just perfect for you.”
Gus let out a long sigh. It was an incredible deal. Taking food out of Johnny’s mouth on the units alone, let along the free labor. And yet, “Where the hell am I supposed to come up with twenty-seven grand, Johnny?”
His friend shrugged. “I’m doin’ my part. When you figure it out, give me a call. Those units aren’t goin’ anywhere.”
The worst possible thing Johnny could have done was leave Gus alone with his thoughts. The shop had a silence that Gus wanted to fill with curses. The pristine floors and cases, points of pride just a few hours before, now mocked him. Who was the liar? The clean little shop, the generations of men who built it or the current owner who stood in it now, drained of all energy and ideas?
“I just wanted to sell a few hanger steaks today…”
He walked over to Pop’s photo in search of strength, but his chest heaved and heat came to his face. Twenty-seven thousand dollars. The shop had never had that much money. It ran on a shoestring to serve the community. Pop had said a million times, “I’ve never known a butcher who got into it for the money.”
Well, now what, Pop?
He needed someone smarter than he was and there were two people he could call. Even under the circumstances, he didn’t dare call Audrey. So, as numbers dialed, he prayed that Scott would pick up.
The voice on the other end was downright jovial. “Hey! It’s my favorite meat man! I was just down at the ol’ Meadowlark! Your ears must be burnin’.”
All of his problems disappeared. “Oh really? Why? Does Audrey look ok? Did you see the Phantom?”
There were heavy breaths into the microphone as Scott walked wherever he was going. The pause made Gus hold his breath to hold back the curses. “She looked well,” Scott finally reported. “Like she’s slept in for the first time in her entire life. Eyes bright, body loose, a little sway in her hips… that hair was a little wild, though. Gotta get that woman a better brush for Christmas. What, uh, is a Phantom, anyway?”
Tossed hair? Loose body? What in the world was she doing over there? Audrey had the capacity to sleep in? Even when she is sick beyond reason, that woman beats the sunrise! Everyone knows that! Could that Phantom have—
“Hey, did you need me for something? I’ve got a full docket of client work today.”
“I’ve got an emergency. Can you swing by the shop today?”
“Yup! I can give you some time. I’m on my way.”
Alone in his shop again with his thoughts and his problems, Gus went to the back to find poster board and markers. He thought about a clever name for the flash sale, almost writing down, “The Nothing Lasts Forever Sale,” before thinking better of it. Instead, he simply wrote, “The Four Augusts Sale. All our favorites, priced to sell! Come in and have a look! Starting at 25% off!”
He drew balloons, put stupid orange and red squiggly lines around the edges. They made him think of Audrey and that beautiful hair. Not in a braid, but out and wild. How could that possibly be? She wouldn’t do it, right? Sleep with some man she doesn’t know? Some Phantom she serves but never sees? It was too much on top of everything else. He got tape and put the ugly poster in the window. Then he mouthed a prayer. Let everyone in town see it and spread the word, please!
Except for Audrey. Please Lord, don’t let her come here with her new sex glow and her damn Phantom.
“Lord in Heaven, what in the world is that?” Scott asked through the glass, pointing at the ugly poster as if it were a mouse in a corner. Gus beckoned him in and began the tale. Pop’s birthday, the surprise inspection, the corrosion in the units and the off thermometers. He showed his friend the paperwork, which Scott breezed over in his lawyerly way. Then he got to the numbers. Scott gasped when he heard the deal that Johnny had proposed. “I love this town so much. That is an incredible offer.”
“If only I had the money to take it. Scott, you know I don’t have any savings on that kind of level. We’ve never had that kind of profit!”
“But when we did the paperwork for your big face lift six years ago, I looked at the numbers and we found—“
“Pop told me before he died to take care of Ma. Karen doesn’t cost a fortune, but she costs enough. Even if I fired her tomorrow, it couldn’t clear up the full twenty-seven grand!”
Scott nodded, his eyes going back down to the documents with a serious look.
Gus got to the immediate problem. “The inspector said I can’t use the walk-ins. Only the front display. I’ve got my holiday order coming in next week! Where am I supposed to put everything?” He couldn’t breathe again. He was doing the right things, but getting no oxygen. “I’m going to shut down, aren’t I? This is it. Catastrophe kills the shop under my watch!”
Scott looked up, giving Gus a hard look. “You can’t shut down. You’re the only meat for miles. Besides, you haven’t even tried yet.”
The bell rang at the front door and Mr. Franks and his wife came in. The man pointed at the sign in the window and raised his chin in Gus’ direction. “What would your father say, young man? This kind of sale so close to the holidays! He would never have done this!”
Gus rubbed his eyes, chuckling through his exhaustion. How is it that they always “know” what Pop would do? “You know, if you leave here with a little extra meat and a smile on your face because you got a great deal today, I think Pop would be pretty happy with what I’m doing.”
“You’re a good boy, Gus. Ignore my husband and wrap us up some steak tips.” Mrs. Franks said, hitting her husband on the arm with her purse.
Gus got right to it. When he turned back to Scott, the man was already inching toward the door, waving good-bye.
“Where are you going? What am I gonna do?”
“Serve your customers. Set two ribeyes aside for me and Philip. I’m going to make a few calls. I’ll be back for my steaks in a bit.”
Gus told himself he could relax now. Just a little bit, anyway. Scott was on it. Scott was the master at solving all of the world’s problems. He turned down the worries and turned up the charm. The walk-ins still needed to be emptied, so he had to make room in the case.
For the rest of the day, most customers came in with inquisitive looks, others with excitement. Bruce Childs came in with his thumb pointed out toward the sign. “I don’t think you’ve ever had a sale before, Gus!”
“I have a sale every week! What are you talking about?”
“On the steak tips? That doesn’t count! You know only three people in town eat those nasty things!”
“Watch it! I buy those tips every week!” Another regular hollered from behind.
“My point exactly! We all know you’ve got awful taste!” Bruce bellowed.
There was laughter in the shop as people stopped and lingered. They told stories about Pop, and orders that were made at midnight before Thanksgiving and delivered ready the next morning. People texted their friends right in front of Gus, or got on the phone and told them to come down. “I know! Never before, right?”
“I swear, I have a sale every week! Have you never been in my shop before?”
As folk came and went, he ducked and dodged questions with a smile, though as more people peppered on, it became difficult to deftly dance around it all. Finally, while being grilled, he found an answer true enough to be believed: “Do you know how nice it is to see my shop full right now? There are fifteen people in here! Did you ever think that maybe I get a little lonely? I just wanted to get some laughs on a Tuesday!”
There were still skeptical looks, but he threw most people off the scent. One woman even bought four hanger steaks, garnering applause from onlookers. He wrapped them so they could go straight to the freezer and as he handed them to her, he noticed a man standing in the front of the shop, his back toward the window. The man wore a light brown leather bomber jacket and gray pants, which struck Gus as an odd choice. The man also had a full head of shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair. Gus couldn’t recall who in town looked like that, unless someone had relatives in for a visit. That’s when red curls came into view. Audrey stood beside the man for a moment, pointing and speaking, then she patted the man on the arm before turning toward the shop. The man did not move, though he turned his head briefly to smile in her direction, his frameless glasses casting a flash of light through the shop’s window.
Gus knew it was him. He looked exactly how some creepy Phantom should look. Gus’ feet slid to the side as if he were going to leave his counter and introduce himself, but there were too many people in the store. He didn’t need the hassle. He’d had more than his fair share today. When Audrey stepped into the shop and finally made her way to the counter, Gus’ eyes were still firmly on the man in the window.
“You’ve never had a sale this close to the holidays, August. What’s going on?” Audrey’s voice seemed deeper, more melodic than usual. Was it sleep? Or maybe it was the “sleep?” He cringed at the thought.
“You’re late for your usual daily shopping, Lark,” he stated more coolly than he intended. “Are you feeling ok?”
“I’m as good as a girl can be,” Audrey replied with a smile. Her eyes were on the case. Those lips pursed in concentration. “Can I take four of those bone-in ribeyes, a chuck roast and…” She panned her head to look up and down the case. “Are you hiding short ribs in the back?”
Gus smirked. “Aren’t I always?”
“They on sale, too?”
“Everything is on sale today, Audrey.”
“I’ll take however many you’ve got. You know what I’m looking for.”
Gus nodded and got right to it, going for the steaks first before getting to the rest. Audrey watched intently while he made his selection and nodded her approval. Knowing that he’d gotten the selection right on the first try gave him his first burst of pleasure all day.
“So, you’ve never had a sale like this before, August. Never.”
“I always celebrate Pop. Why are people making such a big deal?”
“Because nothing like this has ever happened before! Oh my God,” she gasped, still looking over the case. She dashed over to the far side with the exotic meats. “Is that a capon?”
“I got a few early before the holiday rush and—”
“I must have this! I’ll… I’ll take two!”
“Didn’t you walk here? You can’t carry all of this. I mean, not without another set of hands…” His eye went to the window. The Phantom was still standing there, staring out at the ocean.
Audrey looked out that way, too. “I’ll come back and pick it up!”
“What? Let me deliver it like I always do. It’s part of the full-service deal.”
She was waving her hands. “No, seriously. I can pick it up later. Right before closing.”
“Isn’t that dinner service for you? You have a guest, right? And you don’t have a car, right? Let me just bring it over. I can have it—“
“But I do have a car…of sorts.” A redness crept up her neck and into her cheeks. Gus felt his own heat rising. “I won’t hold you up, I promise. It’ll be easier this way! I’ll be back before closing!”
There wasn’t much room for argument. Audrey was already fishing through her bag for her wallet. She paid in cash with a smile and sauntered out of the store, her hips swaying wonderfully in that way that they do. Gus looked up at the ceiling as soon as he saw her meet up with the Phantom, a hand coming to the man’s arm again. They came down just in time to see them walk off together. Was he touching her back? Were they holding hands? Did he have a creepy smile on his face?