It was her second chance, and she was in love.

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A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 16

 Nine Years Earlier

It was going to be her second chance, and Maggie jumped at it.

She’d lived in the neighborhood all her life. The plant was down the street, the track around the corner. Everyone worked at one place and spent their cash at the other. She’d worked on the line too, during the summer, next to her best friend Patsy and her cousin Edna. They’d get home with just enough time to clean up, primp, and make it to the last race. Security looked the other way when they camped at the two-dollar windows. Later, when they started to pair up, they’d watch the ponies high up in the stands, letting their boyfriends accidentally-on-purpose fondle their breasts.

But now the neighborhood was slowly dying, like a patient with terminal cancer. After she’d married Richie and had Dusty, the plant pulled up stakes. Cheaper labor and better facilities down south, they said. Richie was out of a job. Just like that.

Maggie went to work as a waitress. Luckily, it didn’t take long before her boss promoted her. Daytime hostess was only a few dollars more, but at least Dusty would eat three square meals every day. Richie was supposed to be looking for a job, but mostly he’d just lie on the couch, smoke dope, and whine about how unfair life was.

She knew the end was near when they started to talk about closing the track. They’d threatened to close down before, but this time it was different. The papers were full of stories about off-track-betting and the lottery and riverboat casinos. How they were cutting into the track’s profits. How they couldn’t make enough to keep it open. No one talked about it much, but everyone knew it was coming. Like that movie Maggie saw a long time ago: “On the Beach”. About a nuclear war that spread radiation sickness all over the world. Everyone had already died except the people in Australia. They would too, once the winds brought it down under. It was just a matter of time.

It cast a pall over everything. Neighbors decided to forego a new coat of paint or repairs on the driveway. She did too. Her house was just too small, too dingy, too hopeless. Then crime started to go up. Nothing heavy, just petty break-ins. But everyone knew the rest would start up when the gangs moved in. And Dusty was almost old enough to understand it all.

So when Greg Champlain walked into the coffee shop, with dark stubble on his chin and a bright smile in his eyes, Maggie took his table and poured his coffee herself. He’d parked his eighteen-wheeler down the street. Tired of truck stops, he said. He wanted a place where they actually set the table for him beforehand. He was rolling through from Pittsburgh to Des Moines—not a long haul, but he wanted to make it home by tomorrow. Maggie asked where home was. Southern Illinois, he said. Carbondale.

She smiled. She’d spent a year there herself, in the late sixties. When she still thought she had a future. Before she got knocked up. She asked Greg if he’d ever eaten at the Moo and Cackle. Laughing, he said it was his second home. He paused, studying her face. Recognition lit his eyes.

“You worked there. At the register.”

Maggie felt the flush on her cheeks. “Tuesdays and Thursdays. Three till eleven.”

They talked all afternoon.

 

 

Maggie and Richie separated. Frankly, Richie seemed relieved when she told him it was over, especially when she said not to bother with child support. Greg had promised to take care of Dusty as if he was his own.

She couldn’t believe her good fortune. Greg was kind, good-looking, and he made good money. The only problem was that he wasn’t around much. The road kept him away the better part of the week. But when he was home, it was a nonstop party. She’d never felt so young, or beautiful, or safe.

The first thing Greg did was look for a new house. He refused to consider the neighborhood, or anywhere in the city. They would live someplace where the air was clean, and the people were too. So he wasn’t the most liberal guy in the world. He didn’t like people who were different. White bread was good enough for him. Maggie could handle that. Look at what was happening in the neighborhood anyway. They had started to move in, and property values were dropping like a rock.

Whenever they could, mostly Sunday afternoons, they’d take a six-pack and some sandwiches and go exploring. One day they were out near Joliet, cruising down a newly paved road, when they came across an empty field. It was a big one, probably twenty-five acres, with a grove of trees in the back. A church steeple was barely visible through them. A bold-lettered sign announced a housing development would soon be built on the site. “If you’d like to live here, call this number.”

Greg braked and jotted down the number. Then he got out his camera and took pictures of the field. He was always shooting pictures. Of Maggie, Dusty, the dog. Said it was his way of documenting his life. Maggie didn’t think much about it. He was a dreamer.

The night Greg got back from a cross-country haul, he took her to Vincent’s, the only decent restaurant left in the neighborhood. He was grinning from ear to ear.

“You just win the lottery?” Maggie asked.

“Better.”

He dug something out of his pocket, wrapped in white tissue paper with a red ribbon. When she opened it, several pictures tumbled out. Pictures of the empty field.

“What’s this?”

“Our future home, sweetie.”

What the hell was he talking about?

“You remember when we passed that place?” He pointed to the sign in one of the pictures.

She glanced at it. Nodded uncertainly.

“Well, I called the number. They’re making loans—practically interest free—if you buy a lot. It’s an incredible deal.”

“We don’t have enough for a down payment.”

“I think we do. If you sell the house, and I take a few extra loads, we could get close to thirty grand. That’s all we need.”

“No way,” Maggie said, but the corners of her mouth lifted.

“We can do it. I’m sure of it.” He folded her hand into his. “As sure as I am that I’m ‘gonna spend the rest of my life with you and Dusty.”

It was that kind of stuff that melted her heart. She felt a smile creep across her face, a smile that said she’d believe him.

Three months later she sold the house, and they got married. A week after that, they put down a payment on the lot.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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