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Her vegetables needed little tending other than watering, so she spent time with the beautiful roses, azaleas, and magnolias. She sprayed for pests and watered on the days Andrew was not there. On Tuesdays and Fridays, he hung around past his work time so they could talk, mostly about the garden, but eventually about other things that young men and women find compelling. Their garden visits evolved into an occasional walk for an ice cream cone, and a few weeks later, suppers at the Cozy Cotton Diner.
“Dating a man you hardly know. What’s wrong with you, child? I remember what my mama told me before I married your daddy: ‘Look before you leap,’ she warned. Wish I had heeded her advice.”
The slur angered Meredith further, but she controlled her voice.
“He’s the only friend I have in this town, Mother.”
“What about our coworkers?”
“There’s no one my age. Some of them have one leg in the grave.”
“Meredith Frances Sullivan! They are all sweet, lovely ladies. They’ve taken quite a liking to you, but you hardly say a word.”
“I’m not in the mood, Mother. I have to get ready. Andrew and I are going to the movies.”
“On a work night! What’s gotten into you?”
“We’ll be home by nine thirty. I promise.”
She regretted that promise. The movie sparked a lively but friendly debate about the Civil War, and their walk from the theater took much longer than expected. As they approached her apartment, she sat on a stone wall to tie her sneaker. He sat beside her, put his arm around her, and gently nudged her ear. “I think I’m falling for the prettiest rose in my garden,” he whispered.
Meredith looked into his eyes, and saw not the color or the shape but the affection emanating from them. She didn’t know how to respond. She had never been this close to a man in her life. Nineteen, never been kissed, never in one spot long enough to be kissed. Once, in sixth grade, a boy named Tommy Sibbald kissed her on the cheek in the schoolyard after recess, but they moved from Arkansas that summer.
“Bloom where you are planted,” so she had wiped out the memory of that first innocent peck.
“Bloom where you are planted,” after they relocated to North Carolina, hundreds of miles from Danny Pierce and his flirting eyes.
“Bloom where you are planted,” after their trek to the Panhandle of Florida and her overwhelming crush on a blond classmate, whose name she never knew.
Five months here, eight months there, never long enough for a man this sweet or gentle to approach her and nudge her for a kiss. Her eyes sparkled in anticipation. He just smiled down at her beaming face.
“Well, aren’t you going to kiss me, Andrew Nuttall?”
“I was kinda hoping you would kiss me. You look like a very decisive woman.”
Her hands gently reached up to his neck, just like the redheaded actress in the movies that very night, and directed him to her lips. Standing in the breeze, they shared their first of many delightful kisses.
It was eleven before she walked into the darkened apartment.
“Thou shalt not fornicate, saith the Lord!”
“Mother, you frightened me to death.”
She turned just in time to avoid the flyswatter, the only available weapon in their sparsely equipped apartment.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Swat, swat. “Repent, for you know not the day nor the hour.” Swat, swat. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Swat, swat.
“He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” Meredith retorted.
Her mother, stung by her own device, was speechless. Unable to formulate an original thought, she sat down. It took several minutes for her next barrage. “Meredith, you are so young. Don’t let this dirty, uncouth man win your heart. Love you and leave you, that’s what he’ll do!”
“Mother, he’s not dirty or uncouth. He is kind and hardworking. I am very, very fond of him. Please let me have this one thing, this one friend to call my own.”