Julie had less than five hours of sleep. Again she prayed that she would just survive tax season. She attended her pets. Little Baby Blue had made it through the night and greeted her warmly, asking for food. She fed them all and then made it into the office by seven so she could work on her regular accounts. By ten she was forced to work on tax information again.
At eleven thirty her mother stuck her head into Julie’s office. Thomas stood in the doorway behind her. “Time for lunch, Julie. Thomas has lunch right now also. Run along. I’ll catch up,” Katie said lightly before disappearing.
Thomas waited for her. Julie wanted to make excuses, but remembered her mother’s words from the night before. She took a deep breath, stood, and grabbed her purse. “You heard the boss,” she joked. “Let’s go eat.”
They left the building and walked across the highway to a small strip mall with several restaurants. They went into “Annie’s Kitchen” and found a table. The waitress brought them water and took their order right away. Julie took a drink of water as she tried to think of a conversation opener.
Thomas spoke first. “What do you think of the new pastor?”
“He’s just a ruling elder, not a teaching elder.”
“Haven’t you heard? They want to give him the job of assistant pastor. He’s already filling in for Pastor Nat when he goes on vacation.”
“Really?” Julie always started to feel a little disconnected from the church community during tax season. She’d be glad when she could relax and have a life again. But Julie liked Paul. He’d been teaching a Sunday school class since a year after he joined the church.
The waitress came, setting their food before them. After she left, Julie waited. Thomas looked at her as if expecting her to say grace. Finally Julie did.
“You know Paul was kicked out of the military,” Thomas said, going back to the subject.
Julie frowned, as she tried to figure out what Thomas was getting at. “As a hero. That’s how he lost his foot.”
“Don’t you think he acts too proud — never using a wheelchair or a cane? I don’t think someone with that kind of pride should be a minister. A minister should be humble.”
Julie looked down at her food. “This soup is good,” she said, trying to change the subject. If Paul used a wheel chair instead of relying on his prosthesis, Thomas would probably think he was looking for sympathy. She searched her mind for another topic, one that wouldn’t feel so much like gossip to her. “So… what do you do when you’re not working?” Julie finally asked.
He hesitated. “I restore old cars.”
“Really?” Julie never pictured Thomas as a secret grease monkey. She looked at his hands. He self-consciously removed them from the table. They were a little dark around the fingernails. “What are you working on now?”
“A ‘63 Thunderbird.”
Julie’s mind drew a blank, but she smiled. “Oh. It must be nice. What color?”
“I haven’t decided yet.” At Julie’s encouragement he launched into details of the original colors made that year. He wanted it to be authentic. Then without warning he asked, “Do you think Pastor Nat is really dating Nicole Bryant? After that illegitimate child she had?”
“That was seven years ago,” Julie said, angry and surprised he’d bring up the subject. Nicole was one of her best friends. “Nicole has repented and raised her little girl alone to the best of her ability. She’s had to rely on God more than anyone I know, and she has the faith that comes from it. She deserves a good husband.” Julie hadn’t heard anything about a romance between Nicole and anybody, but she wouldn’t let Thomas gossip about her.
Thomas sat back in his seat and took a bite of his sandwich.
“How long have you been at our church?” Julie asked, still upset, but trying not to show it.
“Since July.” Eight or nine months. “I searched for a while. My other church split up a year ago January.”
“And you didn’t go with either side?”
Thomas shrugged. “Did for a while, but you know how it goes.”
No. She didn’t. Julie pushed away the last of her food. “I’ve got to get back.” She flagged the waitress and asked for her bill.
As they walked back to the office, Thomas said, “Maybe we can go out some evening.”
Julie was glad it was tax season, or she would have been tempted to lie. “I’m too busy right now to even think about it.”
“Of course. Maybe after the fifteenth.”
Julie didn’t respond but went straight to her desk when they entered the building. She tried to concentrate on her work. Her mother looked in. “How’d it go?” she whispered.
“You don’t want to know.”
“Oh, Julie, give him a chance.”
“Mom, he….” she shook her head. Now wasn’t the time or place to discuss it.
Her mother agreed. “We’ll talk later.” She placed a pink slip on Julie’s desk. “A Mr. Martin called while you were out. He’s from that pet store you always go to. Maybe he wants more of those fish.”
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll call and see.”
Julie called and made an appointment to meet with Mr. Martin during her dinner hour.
Her mother came to eat dinner with her at four-thirty. “Sorry, Mom. I already have an appointment with Mr. Martin.”
“Is it about getting your fish out of the house?”
“Yeah. If we can come to an agreement, I promise to move all the pets out.”
“You can keep that big tank in the living room. That one is real nice.” Her mother spoke of the 125 gallon aquarium that was well planted and contained two breeding pairs of angels along with various livebearers and a small plecostomus. In other words, she couldn’t keep any of the others.
“I better go. I’ll be back.”
Julie arrived at the shop ten minutes before her appointment and went in to study the fish. She liked the gouramis. If she bought the shop, she’d have them all.
“Did you know that God made the gouramis and bettas so that they breathe air if there is not enough oxygen in the water?” a voice asked quietly beside her.
Julie turned slightly to see Ken, the breeder, next to her. “Yes. God’s creation always amazes me. There are so many different creatures, especially fish.”
Ken turned to her then. “I really must apologize for yesterday. I had a bad day and took it out on you.” He reached into his pocket and held out the five dollar bill. “I shouldn’t have charged you for a dead fish.”
“But he’s not dead — at least he seemed healthy enough this morning.”
“Good. But take your money back. I shouldn’t have charged you that much.”
Julie hesitated. “I should pay something for him.”
“No. Just take the money, so my conscience will stop harassing me about the way I treated you.”
Julie took the money and smiled. “I’ll let you off the hook this time. Should I bring your fish back?”
“You don’t want him?”
“Actually I love him.”
“Then keep him.”
Julie stared at the gouramis. “Unfortunately I have to give up most of my fish,” she said quietly. “That’s why I’m here. I wish….”
“Julie,” Linda called. “Your turn.”
“Gotta go. See ya.”
Ken watched her leave. By the way her mood had shifted when she talked about giving up her fish Ken knew she was serious. He wondered why she would have to. Was she moving? Ken sighed. Just as well.
Linda was busy with a customer when he left the shop, so he couldn’t tease her about the possibility of him becoming her boss.
Ken went to see Jim. He had a clerk on duty and was able to go to the back room and speak with him. Ken showed him the copies of the financial reports with the lists of assets and liabilities. He waited while Jim studied them.
“How much do they want?”
Ken told him. He wasn’t sure where he’d come up with that kind of money, but right now he just wondered if the property and business was feasible. “What do you think?”
“Two full-time employees, five part-time. I’m surprised they have full-time help. It’s cheaper to hire more part-time.”
“Would I have to? Linda and Sue do a great job. They know their stuff.”
“No. In fact in that kind of business, that could kill you. People are probably more loyal to them than the location.” Jim leaned back in his chair. “You could do it. You won’t ever get rich, but you could earn a living. The hardest part will be paying back the loan. Are the buildings in good condition, or will you need to make repairs right away?”
“I don’t know.”
Jim shook his head. “Find out. It is a good location, though. The west side. Things are really building up out there.” Jim tapped his fingers on the desk in a gesture that Ken knew meant his thoughts had taken a new direction. He waited. “Go for it, Ken. And don’t wait. Property on the west side won’t last. Someone may buy it and tear down the store or put in their own business.”
“Thanks, Jim. I’ll make an offer.”
Ken went back to the pet store and caught Mr. Martin and his realtor just leaving. “If I can get the loan, I want the store.”
“Great,” said the realtor. She glanced at Mr. Martin. “May we use your office to write up the purchase agreement?”
“What about that other buyer?” Mr. Martin asked.
The realtor smiled. “Call and let them know that they need their bid in by Monday at noon so you can make a decision.”
Jim was right. This place was hot property. Ken followed the realtor into the office, and they worked on the purchase agreement. She encouraged Ken to make the best offer he could, especially since he had competition. He called Jim, and Jim was able to come down and look over the site with him. Then they prayed together before they made the final decision. Afterward Jim invited Ken to dinner with his family.
Julie didn’t have time to look over all the papers that Mr. Martin had given her until after she’d gone home, attended her pets, and made it back to the office with a dinner from a fast food restaurant drive-thru. She reviewed the papers and then her own financial situation. She had some money saved, but she didn’t think it would be enough for the bank to approve the loan, especially since she had no other major credit. She had even paid cash for her car. The phone rang. Mr. Martin told her that someone else was making a bid now, and if she was interested she had until Monday unless he couldn’t get financing. Julie had thanked him and hung up when her mother came in. “So is Mr. Martin going to take your pets?”
Julie looked up. It was now or never. “I want to buy the pet shop.”
Her mother laughed and sat in one of the chairs across from Julie’s desk. “I thought the idea was to have less pets — not more.”
“That’s what would happen. I’d be able to keep all my fish at the store. They have a large back room just waiting for fish. Look….” Julie shoved the financial documents across her desk toward her mother. “They seem to be in good shape. I know they were worried about the chain pet stores a few years back, but it looks like they’ve been able to adjust.”
Katie simply stared at her daughter without picking up the reports. “You’re not serious. You don’t have time for something like that.”
“Well, I could work less here or leave. It would be my own business.”
“But Julie, this is your business.” Katie stood and stretched out her arms, looking down at Julie. “All of this is yours. You can’t just chuck it all on a whim.”
Julie hated confrontations, and she desperately wanted to appease her mother, but she didn’t know how. “This is your place, Mom, not mine. But… I don’t have to leave completely. Linda and Sue do a great job.”
“Julie, you aren’t thinking. You have no time now. And what about Thomas? He isn’t going to want to have that fish store.”
“I don’t care what Thomas wants,” Julie said in a fierce whisper, more than aware he was working in the next office.
Katie closed the office door and then sat in the chair again. She leaned over the desk and spoke in a low voice. “What happened with Thomas? I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding that we can clear up.”
Julie leaned back and shook her head. “No, Mom. It wasn’t a misunderstanding. He….” She tried to determine how to explain her misgivings about him. Wolves will come in sheep’s clothing causing division and spreading error. “He doesn’t seem happy with the leadership of our church.”
“Well, of course not. Pastor Nat is too busy for anyone, and the list of things that Paul Israel has to answer for is longer than my arm.”
“Well, it’s true. You can’t just follow blindly.”
“But… Is that what you two talk about at dinner? Grandma would be ashamed.” Julie said it without thinking, she had been so shocked.
But her mother must have known Julie was right. “Now, don’t bother your grandmother with any of this. She’s been at that church since she married your grandfather. She wouldn’t understand. We can’t switch churches because it would hurt her, but we don’t have to approve of everything blindly.”
“Mom….” Julie stared at her desk, desperately wondering where this rift had occurred. She’d never heard her mother voice one word of dissent before. Then she knew. She looked up at her mother. “It’s Thomas. He’s causing dissension.”
Katie laughed. “Oh, Julie. You have such an imagination. Thomas isn’t a bad guy. He’s really quite discerning and spiritual. He’d make a good husband.”
Julie shook her head, and her eyes became hot. Katie’s look changed, and she came around the desk to hug Julie. “Oh, Julie, I’m sorry. I know you’ve grown up in that church. I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known it would hurt you.”
“Mom,” she said weakly. “That kind of stuff hurts everyone.”
Katie shook her head. “Oh, Julie. Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand. Now about your pets….”
It had nothing to do with age! She wanted to yell, but instead she numbly let her mother change the subject. If only her father were here. Her father wouldn’t let Thomas talk that way. He would have set Mom straight. He would have… How come it still hurt so much?
“Julie, will Mr. Martin take the fish?”
“No. He’s selling the store.” Julie took a deep breath and then tried again. “I have some money in the bank, but I think I’ll need a little more to get a loan. I wondered if… if maybe….”
Katie stood. “We’ve been over this, Julie. You don’t have time.”
“But what will I do with all my pets?”
“Put an ad in the paper or something. I’ve got to get back to work.” Katie left the office.
Julie had always tried to do what was expected, but it hurt. She wondered if she could get financing with what she had. But should she even try if her mother didn’t want her to? She was twenty-five. At what age should she be independent, and what did independence really mean? Lord, what should I do?
Julie gathered her papers together so that she could work at home. There wasn’t a lot of room, but she guessed her grandmother might like the company. Julie was right. Grandmother seemed eager for her company, so Julie left her work and went to sit in the living room with her.
“You and your mother are always so busy. Soon you’ll marry, and I’ll never see you.”
“Grandma! You and mom are both trying to marry me off.”
“Oh, no. I didn’t mean it that way, but surely someone will snatch you up soon. Your mother has kept you so busy that you haven’t had time to look.” Jonah, one of Grandmother’s two long-haired cats, jumped up on to her lap.
“No. I haven’t.” Julie sighed. “But Mom has. She thinks I should date a guy at work, but….”
“That Thomas? Oh, Julie, I don’t….” Grandmother looked down at Jonah and rubbed his ears. “I shouldn’t speak.”
“No. Please do. Frankly, I’m not too keen on him.”
“Thank the Lord for that,” Grandmother whispered, looking upward.
“I’ve known people like him, Julie. I’m not sure he’s sincere.”
Julie felt relief. “Then it’s not just me. Mom really likes him.”
“I’ve noticed. She speaks of him often.” Grandmother looked at the angelfish. “You have very pretty fish.”
“I’d rather raise fish than do taxes.”
Grandmother gave a small laugh. “I wish you could also.”
“Really? But you want me to give them all away.”
Grandmother seemed pained. “Oh, Julie. Not all. There are just so many. And this house really is the family house. All your aunts and uncles feel they belong here.”
“Maybe I should get my own place.” Julie said it without thinking. There had never been the need before, but now….
“I was afraid you’d want to do that.”
“No. I understand. You’d be leaving if you got married, but you know I want you here, don’t you? It’s just when the others visit there’s no room with all the fish and hamsters and guinea pigs.” Grandmother didn’t mention the cats, Jonah and Samson. But then the cats didn’t need cages that took up room.
Long after her grandmother went to bed, Julie stayed up finishing her paperwork. Even after she went to bed she had trouble sleeping. Should she buy the pet store, or should she get a house? Grandmother was so lonely, and Mom really did work a lot. What should I do, Lord? You wouldn’t want me to give up all the pets, would You? Maybe some, but… Oh, Lord, this is so hard.
Go to Chapter 4
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.