We sit on a bench side by side and watch as the sun wakes, casting its buttery rays against the sky.
I draw my knees under my chin, clasp my now spent cup of coffee, watch the activity at the nearby farm where my grandmother’s neighbors are already hitting their stride for the day.
Therese pats my back, rubs it in circular motions as she has since I was a baby. E arlier, she’d run out to the cab with a to-go cup of steaming hot coffee for my driver and two, freshly baked chocolate chip muffins wrapped in a cloth napkin. “I think I’m in love,” the driver had said, giving her a wink.
I’d scrambled to hide the plastic garbage bag behind my luggage while my grandmother paid the driver, but she’d seen it as I’d lifted my bags onto the porch. “Livy? What is that?”
Rather than sadness or anger, my grandmother’s eyes widened with surprise as she peered inside. She giggled. Giggled, like a girl. “Oh, Livy!” she said, shaking her head. “You don’t think I’ve seen that every time I’ve driven into Nebraska City and back?”
Bewildered, I had let her clutch me to her side. “Just so you know, it did hurt. And not just because driving that part of the road already hurts… garish, isn’t it? Hot orange and pink flowers!”
I’d returned her smile. “I hated you having to see it.”
“And now, I don’t have to.”
Getting my back rubbed is relaxing and familiar and I can feel the last forty-eight hours slide off my body, push down on my eyelids. My head drops onto the top of my knees.
I turn my head slightly to the side and my grandmother stops rubbing my back. My eyes open just enough to see her hands slide into her lap, her smile wobble in place. Sleep flees.
“Grandma…” I say, lifting my head. “What is it?”
“I wasn’t completely honest with you on the phone.”
I can’t remember my grandmother ever being anything but. She pats my hand. “It’s true that the man from Hurst Hotels is here to speak with me, but there’s more. It has to do with your grandfather’s will. It’s time to tell you the whole truth about your grandfather’s wishes.”
A week after my confusing meeting with Audrey and Olivia, Audrey had called, told me that if I was still interested, Therese was ready to hear me out.
“Is there a reason you and your friend are playing the middleman here?” I’d asked. “I am still interested. But this whole situation is very unusual. What’s going on, Audrey?”
With an eagerness that lets me know she’s been dying to be asked, Audrey fills me in. “Therese hasn’t been doing well. She’s always been involved with city planning, with her bridge club, her historical society, running her diner, calling me for scoops on the latest celebrity gossip… she has never been idle but since Nathan’s death… she's given up pretty much everything. It’s like she has no purpose anymore.”
I’d leaned back in my chair, my gut telling me this little project could very well go nowhere. “Is this a waste of my time Audrey? Because this is a good thing you’re trying to do here but I’m not going to spin my wheels. There are a lot of less expensive and lower risk ways to help your friend. If she’s not serious about selling or developing, then I’m going to take this idea and find a new little town to do it in. Preferably one closer to an airport.”
Upon further research, I’d found that while Amtrak had a drop-off just thirty minutes from town, an airport was nearly two hours away. The cost of the real estate here might be cheap, but it was not conveniently situated at all.
Audrey had assured me that Therese Weiss was serious and had given me her phone number so that I could reach out to her directly.
The conversation with Therese Weiss was what had ignited my imagination again, given me hope that this little venture did indeed have legs. She was charming on the phone, even sounding excited about what I proposed. When I mentioned the possibility of buying all the empty lots and buildings outright, she grew quiet. “Why don’t we meet in person, Jake? Would it be any trouble for you to come to Tomahawk Hill?”
So here I was, holed up in the Tropical Palm Motel, which I am convinced was so named because hot flamingo pink was on clearance at the local hardware store when the motel was built. Nothing else about the motel is tropical—no palm trees, no tropical themes inside. There isn’t even a hot tub.
A glance at the motel alarm clock tells me it’s just past eight, which means I’ve been catching up on emails and texts for nearly two hours. I lean back in my chair, close the lid of my laptop. I really needed to get out and stretch my legs.
I tie my tennis shoes, jam my LA Dodger’s baseball cap on my head and leave my motel key at the front desk with the clerk who is about to switch from her late-night shift at the motel to begin her early breakfast shift at the diner. “See you for breakfast?” she says, her red-rimmed eyes the only indication she hadn’t slept all night.
I glance at the menu she slides across the counter. “That bacon and cheese casserole on the menu this morning?”
“You’re in the Midwest now, Mr. Hurst. Casseroles are a staple. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
“When someone says a menu item is a ‘staple',” Cesar liked to preach, “what they mean is that the cook is lazy and has no imagination.”
I doff my cap as I open the front door and step outside. “Then I’ll see you in a couple of hours.” Not that there were any other options for breakfast in town if one wanted to dine out. A perfunctory glance at the “dining out guide” left in my room last night had indicated that the next nearest breakfast option was a twenty-minute drive to Nebraska City.
Despite the early hour, I can already feel the beads of moisture collecting on my skin and accumulating beneath my t-shirt. I complete my usual stretches in the parking lot while eyeing my surroundings.
The Tropical Palm is at the end of Main Street, a bookend on a short shelf of local businesses up and down Tomahawk Hill’s main drag. Across the street is the town’s only bar and next to that is the vacant hotel owned by Therese.
I jog in place for a moment, deciding which way to go. To my right is a mechanic shop, cornfields, and beyond that, the interstate. To my left is the diner, and across from it, a side road that looks as though it ran right into the hills surrounding the town. I like the idea of an uphill run this morning. I’d consider it mental prep for my big meeting with Therese tonight.
I’d spent the day yesterday walking in and out of all the shops, shaking hands, playing tourist. I’d also brought a copy of the map Audrey had included in Nathan Weiss’s portfolio along with me. It detailed the buildings that belonged to Therese and how much of the undeveloped land behind the diner was hers. As it turns out? She owns all of it.
I wave and grin at the patrons watching me with obvious curiosity from the diner as I jog past the bank of windows facing Main Street. A few faces I recognize-- one of the older gentlemen sticking his fingers in his mouth as though making a catcall.
As I turn onto the road across the street, the concrete turns to gravel and I start to kick up dirt as I gain the speed I need to sprint uphill. At the top, I rest for a moment and get my bearings. Although the street below is quiet, there’s a stillness up here that reminds me of mass on Sundays with Cesar. I take a big inhale, then exhale, and begin my run. I enjoy the smell of damp earth and the sound of my shoes grinding gravel into the dirt. I let the rhythm of my body pull me into the familiar space where my mind is devoid of clutter. When I can't swing onto my bike, going for a run is the fastest way for me to get free.
There is no sign that anyone lives up here until the hills fall further away from the road. As the view to my left slants down onto flat corn fields, two brick pillars with matching black carriage lanterns appear to my right, drawing my eyes up a concrete driveway lined with oak trees. At the end of the drive, nestled behind giant white and purple hydrangea bushes is a sprawling white house that seems to call out, “Hello! Come on in!” while managing to keep the aloof exterior of someone more refined and aloof.
Before I’ve realized it, I’ve stopped running.
I’d come to Tomahawk Hill dreaming about building a resort with the feel of San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado but seeing the town spread before me yesterday, I’d had a nagging sense that a Hotel Del would be out of place here.
Now, seeing this house I know why. I slip my phone out of the armband wrapped around my bicep and take a few photos, text them over to my friend Parker Cross at Hurst. He was the one I’d trusted with my first set of drawings and one of my best friends. “The hotel needs to feel a bit more like this, just grander. Can you shoot me a new render by 7 pm my time?”
I turn back toward town, my mind already churning out fresh ideas. I suddenly have a lot more to do ahead of my meeting tonight. As I cut across to the opposite side of the road, I notice the bronze plaque attached to one of the pillars at the end of the driveway. “Weiss” it says.
I grin. Of course, this would be Therese’s house. Before I’ve reached the bottom of the hill, I’ve already got a reply from Parker. “Let’s talk. I want in.”