Emmy Moore sat at the round table and held her head in her hands. This had to be rock bottom. Any lower, and she would be underground.
Even her elbows were sweating with anxiety, something she had no idea was even possible. But sure enough, they were sticky and causing the mound of legal papers and spreadsheets to adhere to her skin.
“Emmy? You haven’t said anything in the last ten minutes. Are you still with me?”
She had trusted him. He was her husband after all. Now, he would soon be her ex-husband, and she would soon be an ex-business owner. Amazing what putting on blinders can do to someone’s life.
Blind trust was never going to be an option for her again.
She’d met Steve in their first year of college all those years ago. He’d always been a dreamer, and he’d told her that he was an entrepreneur at heart. That although he was getting his degree in political science, he wanted to open a restaurant one day.
When Emmy’s career as a physical therapist took off several years later, Steve had talked her into investing money into his big dream. So, together they opened the restaurant two years ago. Until this moment, she had no idea the mess he’d made.
“Emmy? You’re worrying me.”
Emmy finally raised her head up and stared at her friend and accountant, Eloise Donavan. The older woman had done her taxes for years, and she trusted her guidance. She was one of the few people she still trusted in this crazy world.
“Can you just repeat to me… one more time… what is going on?” Emmy asked, staring at the “closed” sign on the front door of the restaurant. It was lunch time. The place should be teeming with patrons right about now.
“The bank has called your loan due, sweetie. Steve hasn’t paid the mortgage on the building in months. And your vendors won’t deliver anymore. He hasn’t paid your meat vendor in about four months…”
“Okay, stop…. Please…” Emmy put her head back in her hands. She wondered how it was possible to have such a massive headache so early in the day.
“I’m so sorry, Emmy. I really am.”
“But you were watching the books, right?”
Eloise sighed. “Not for the last three months. Steve… stopped paying me too.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Emmy asked, looking up at her friend.
“I didn’t want to worry you. Steve always told me you were just the financial backer, but I was to bring all financial concerns to him. I was already planning to talk to you about it when all of these notices started showing up. Steve took the paying power away from me when it came to the mortgage. Said he’d handle that himself…”
Emmy snorted. “Yeah, he did a great job.”
“Maybe you two can sit down and talk…”
“He served me with divorce papers yesterday.”
Eloise’s eyes grew wide. “I had no idea.”
Emmy stood up and walked to the window overlooking the city streets of Atlanta. It was a cool, crisp spring day - her favorite time of year. The sunlight was bouncing off the glassy skyscrapers, and people were busy milling about on the sidewalks surrounding her small restaurant. The sight of it all used to bring her joy. But right now, she wanted to curl up into the fetal position until winter came.
“Things were good in our early years, but not so good since we opened this place. I thought if I kept my career and we didn’t actually work side by side every day that this business wouldn’t affect our relationship. Turns out I was wrong.”
“But I don’t understand. Why does Steve want a divorce? Seems like he’d need you now more than ever.”
“Remember that hot little blond bartender he hired a few months back?” Emmy asked, turning back toward the table. Eloise nodded. “Turns out he needs her now more than he needs me.”
“Yuck. Sometimes men suck,” Eloise huffed.
“Well, today is one of those days,” Emmy said, not even arguing with her friend that women cheat on men too. Right now, she just needed to believe that men sucked and it was okay to say it out loud. “So, what now?”
“Well, I think you need to consult with your attorney about the legal ramifications and so forth. They can help figure out what you owe and what Steve owes…”
“Can’t get blood out of a turnip, and Steve is definitely a turnip.”
Eloise stood up and hugged Emmy. “I’m here if you need me, okay? Any time. Day or night.”
Emmy smiled half heartedly. “Thanks. I really do appreciate it.”
As she watched Eloise walk out of the restaurant, she felt sick. This place had all of her savings tied up, and there was no way to get it back out again. She was a smart woman, and she knew that everything would be liquidated to pay at least some of her debts.
Her mother, before she moved into the retirement village in Whiskey Ridge, had told her that giving Steve her savings to pursue his dreams was dumb. She hadn’t believed her at the time, but maybe she was right.
Just then, her cell phone rang with an unknown number. She normally ignored those, especially now that they would probably be collectors, but she decided to take a chance and answer it.
“Yes…” She wasn’t yet used to being called her maiden name again, but she’d already decided she was changing it back. Her marriage to Steve would be over soon, and she didn’t even want his last name as a reminder.
“This is Catherine at the Whiskey Ridge Retirement Village.”
“Is my mother alright?” Emmy immediately asked.
“Oh, yes. She’s fine. But we need to meet with you about something rather pressing. Can you come by today?”
“I live in Atlanta so it’s about a two-hour drive. But I could come by tomorrow morning around ten. Would that work?”
There was a pause. “Yes. I suppose that will be okay. But please do come. It’s quite important that we speak with you.”
* * *
Driving into Whiskey Ridge was not what Emmy expected to be doing today. In actuality, she needed to get away from her current situation. The city reminded her of Steve and all of the lies she’d believed.
Like the one where he promised to be faithful and then spent their money on his secret girlfriend. Or the one where he promised to be responsible with her life savings but apparently took his girlfriend gambling for the weekend when he was supposed to be away on business securing a new meat vendor. She’d found that one out overnight during a call with her attorney. She’d also learned he wasn’t a good gambler and much of even her small savings had been lost on bad business decisions and gambling trips masquerading as “business”.
Who was this man? And how did she fall for someone who disrespected her and their marriage so much? Her brain was starting to hurt, so she turned her attention back to the passing scenery.
She usually only came back to her small mountain hometown if she was visiting her mother, which she hadn’t done since moving her into the retirement home a few months ago. And even then, she’d crept into town quietly, stayed for the day and then jetted her way straight back to Atlanta as fast as she could.
She loved her mother, but growing up with her hadn’t been easy. First of all, she had no filter between her brain and mouth. She said what she thought, even if it wasn’t politically correct. Secondly, she stood out like a sore thumb among the older, Southern, genteel ladies of the small mountain town.
All of her life, Emmy had been known as “Pauline’s daughter” around Whiskey Ridge. Her mother, an eccentric painter and the loudest dresser she knew, had a personality that overshadowed anyone else Emmy had ever met.
And while a great, big personality wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Pauline often took it to the extreme, wanting the attention on herself more and more as she got older. Which is why Steve had put his foot down when Emmy floated the idea of her mother moving in with them in Atlanta after she started having issues being on her own.
In all reality, Pauline never would’ve agreed to move to the big city anyway. She often said she’d only leave Whiskey Ridge one way and that was in a casket. Although even that didn’t make sense because her burial plot was smack dab in the middle of the Whiskey Ridge Cemetery.
Whiskey Ridge certainly held a special place in Emmy’s heart as it was the place she grew up, but the moment she could fly the coop, she did. There were too many memories, too much pain, to keep her there once she was an adult.
She pulled into the retirement community parking lot and just sat for a moment, staring at the blue tinged mountains behind the building. The mountains towered over the small town like a protector, yet they had sometimes made her feel stifled and sheltered as a kid. Everyone knew everyone else in their town, and gossip was served on everybody’s dinner plate in the evening.
Yet, she found herself missing it all right now. The simplicity. The familiarity. The seclusion. Right now, she wanted to wrap herself up in all of it and block out the world she was currently living in that included legal documents, divorce decrees and a pile of bills that rivaled any mountain.
But she couldn’t run away. Because inside of those double doors lived her mother. Her wild and crazy and untamed mother who was likely causing some sort of problem that Emmy would have to sort out. Like she’d done her whole life.
She stepped out of her compact car, the one Steve had encouraged her to buy and then apparently stopped paying for. Thankfully, she had been able to catch those payments up so at least she wouldn’t be losing her only source of transportation.
Taking in a deep breath, she remembered the smell of the mountain air. So clean and crisp in early spring, she could smell the aroma of tulips growing down near the town square.
“Good morning. Can I help you?” the young woman asked when Emmy walked to the front desk.
“Yes. I’m here to meet with Catherine about my mother… Pauline Moore.”
The woman’s eyebrows raised just a bit, but then she smiled as if she was sorry. “Right. Okay. Let me just tell her that you’re here.” She stepped away into an adjoining office and left Emmy feeling like this might be worse than she thought.
A few moments later, a conservative woman with brown hair appeared in the lobby. She had her hair swept up into a bun and looked way more corporate than Emmy was used to seeing in Whiskey Ridge.
“Ms. Moore? I’m Catherine Jacobs.”
“Nice to meet you. Please, call me Emmy.”
She shook Catherine’s hand and followed her into the office, taking a seat in a floral upholstered chair in front of the desk. For some reason, she felt like she was on a job interview.
“Thank you for coming all the way here this morning, Emmy. I want to say first that I wouldn’t have bothered you if this wasn’t an urgent situation.”
“Is everything okay with my mother? Is she ill?”
Catherine looked down at her papers and then met Emmy’s eyes. “Your mother has to move out of our community, Emmy.”
Emmy stared at Catherine like she had two heads. Her mother was being kicked out of a retirement home? Was that even possible?
“Your mother has been… how do I put this… a bit of a problem here. We can no longer allow her to be a disruption to the other residents and staff.”
“With all due respect, what on Earth could an elderly woman possibly do to get expelled from a retirement home?”
Catherine pulled a paper out of her file and began reading a long list of offenses from it.
“Flooded the hallway bathroom trying to make water balloons after stealing them from the party supply room… Stole Gertrude’s false teeth and put them in a plastic Halloween pumpkin she found in another closet… Prank called local residents from the phone in the office… Called 911 hoping, as she put it, ‘hot’ firefighters would come… Attempted to sneak out and hot wire the van so she could go on an adventure to the local beauty supply store…”
“Stop!” Emmy said, putting her hand up and closing her eyes. She took a deep breath. “Okay, look, I’ll admit that my mother is a bit… quirky. She always has been. She likes to have a good time…”
“Emmy, these things are just the tip of the ice berg. Your mother requires constant supervision, almost like a toddler. We’ve had to pay for more staff just to make sure she doesn’t hurt anyone, including herself. I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to take your mother home today.”
“Wait. What? Today?”
“Yes. We’ve already boxed her things. She doesn’t know yet, though, so…”
“Oh I get it. So I have to tell her too?” Emmy asked, standing up. Could her life go any more off the rails?
“Please try to see this from our perspective.”
“I can’t do this. I live in Atlanta. She’ll never go to the city, and I can’t come back here. I have a career and a home… There’s got to be something we can work out. What about another facility?”
“We already checked into that. She’s not ill enough for a nursing home or even assisted living. But no retirement home is going to take her after her… record.”
“She has a permanent record? Really?” Emmy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She almost wanted to laugh, but it would’ve been one of those crazy, deranged laughs that may have scared poor Catherine even more.
“I hate to cut this short, but I really need to get back to the residents. Today is our spring musical practice.” Catherine plastered a fake smile on her face and waited for Emmy to stand.
Emmy sighed. She would have no choice but to pick up her mother and move her back to her house a few streets over, which thankfully hadn’t sold yet. Whiskey Ridge’s real estate market wasn’t exactly fast paced.
Catherine led her through the maze of hallways to the TV room where her mother was sitting watching some judge show. While the other women around her were knitting or quietly chatting, Pauline was shouting at the TV with her thoughts on some case about an unpaid car repair.
“Throw the book at him!” she yelled, pumping her fist in the air.
“Mother,” Emmy said from behind. Pauline turned and her eyes went wide when she saw her daughter standing there.
“Emmy? Well, I’ll be a hot potato! What in the world are you doing here?” She stood up, and Emmy got quite a show with her mother’s outfit - a pair of hot pink capri pants and a bulky black sweatshirt bedazzled with neon green sequins. Not to mention her leopard print fuzzy slippers that she had begged for two Christmases ago.
Pauline hugged her daughter tightly, although Emmy wasn’t really in the mood to reciprocate. Right now, she wanted to wring her mother’s neck for adding to her already overwhelming stress levels.
“I’ll just give you two a moment to talk,” Catherine said softly before walking away.
“You know, Cathy, you need to let your hair down if you wanna catch a man!” Pauline called back with a loud laugh. The other older women in the room cut their eyes at her, a fact that did not go unnoticed to Emmy. This was just one of the many embarrassing moments her mother had created in her life.
“Mom! Stop it!” Emmy whispered loudly. “Let’s go out into the courtyard and have a talk.”
“Oh good Lord…” Pauline said as she followed her daughter to the door leading to the small courtyard.
When they got outside, Emmy sat down on one of the concrete benches while Pauline sat in a rocking chair next to the koi pond. She pulled some spare croutons out of her pocket - why she had them there, Emmy hadn’t a clue - and tossed them to the waiting orange fish.
She looked at her mother for a moment before speaking. The whole reason Pauline had agreed to move to the retirement home was because she was starting to forget things. She would forget where her keys were. What time church started. That she had put a sweet potato in the wall oven. One day, Emmy had come for a long overdue visit to find her mother’s kitchen filled with a sweet smelling smoke and found the charred sweet potato still cooking while her mother watched Wheel of Fortune.
And then there was the car accident where her mother “forgot” to stop at the stop sign and rammed another car. Thankfully, the other driver was fine, but Pauline had hurt her knee and needed rehab.
It soon became apparent to Emmy that her mother needed someone to watch over her, and given her big personality… well, that was hard to find in their small town.
Most people liked Pauline. She entertained them. But no one wanted to get too close for too long because she was too unpredictable. So when the retirement community opened up last fall - and brought with it outside employees who didn’t know Pauline - it seemed like the perfect fit.
Until it wasn’t.
“Mom, I don’t know how to say this…”
“These stiffs want me to move out. Right?” she asked, looking at her daughter with that determined glare only Pauline Moore could give.
“Good. I’m ready to get back to my house.” Pauline looked down at the fish and tossed the last of her crumbled up croutons. “Bye, fishies!”
“You can’t just go home, Mom.”
“And why the hell not? I’m a grown woman.”
“Because you know you were forgetful. And then the car accident…”
“I don’t have Alzheimer’s!” Pauline would get very defensive about the thought she might have the disease that would steal her memory and eventually her life. So far, doctors just weren’t sure if she was in the beginning stages or it was just a product of aging, so Pauline preferred to think it was just some kind of passing phase that late 60-somethings get.
“I never said you did. But the fact remains that I can’t leave you in Whiskey Ridge at your house alone. We’re going to have to find full-time care or something…”
“No. I don’t want some stranger in my house with me all the time. They might steal my stuff!”
Emmy had to struggle not to laugh at that one. Her mother didn’t have valuables. She had “collections”, and no one wanted them. Collections of doll heads. Collections of tacky handbags. Collections of half-done paintings that were quirky to say the least.
“Mom, you have to work with me here. I can’t stay in Whiskey Ridge. I have a life back in Atlanta.”
“Sure you do.”
Emmy sighed. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“You know, I might be getting a little long in the tooth, but I’m no fool, Emmy Lou.”
Gosh, how she hated her middle name.
“What are you getting at?”
“I know something’s going on with you and Steve.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because mothers know these things. I just have a feeling.”
“Well, you’re wrong,” Emmy said, trying to hide her face because it always gave her away.
“Don’t lie to me, child,” Pauline said sternly as she eyed her daughter. Emmy froze in place and then slouched into her seat further.
“Okay. Fine. We’re getting a divorce, Mom. Happy now?”
Pauline stood and came to sit beside her daughter. “I’m not happy you’re going through that, but I am happy that you’re getting rid of that bum. He never deserved you, Em. And now you can find someone who is worthy.”
Emmy laughed. “Yeah, I’m not interested in finding another man anytime soon. Trust me.”
Pauline took her daughter’s hand. “I want to go home. I know I can be a bit of a pain sometimes, but why don’t you stay with me for awhile? It’ll help both of us.”
“I can’t.” Even as she said it, she knew the choices were few. But the thought of coming home to Whiskey Ridge and dealing with her mother’s craziness was almost too much to bear.
“You mean you won’t.”
“Mom, I have a career in Atlanta. I have a home there, and the restaurant.” No need to tell her about the mess she was really in back in the city.
Pauline looked at Emmy, and it was one of those rare times she was serious. “Did you know that we get moments in our lives where all of the wrongs can be made right? Not everybody gets that chance, but when you do… well, you should take it.”
Emmy wasn’t totally sure what that meant, but she knew that the option of going back to Whiskey Ridge suddenly felt less scary than the option of going home and having her problems smack her in the face on a daily basis.