David and I attend a Saturday afternoon event celebrating the opening of The Safe Place, a shelter for families in trouble. A clean new building with a commercial kitchen, a meeting area, a couple of offices, and quite a few dorm-style bedrooms, it’s a community project, sponsored by several churches and inspired by a larger, similar venture in Austin.
We’ve had tours and now gather, eating cookies and socializing as we wait for the speeches of recognition and gratitude. There are probably sixty people in this large room adjacent to the kitchen. I know a few of them, though not well. David, who likes helping people and feeling useful, had a hand in getting the center up and running, so he’s bonded with many, and is all over the place, shaking hands and smiling, glad to be part of this undertaking.
Across the room, I see a friend, Llawela, and her boyfriend, Angus. Because Llawela, a white-blonde, is delicate and petite, and Angus is dark and six-four with massive shoulders, they draw attention. They’re a popular couple here in Marble Falls, mainly because Angus is involved in the community, busy with everything from chili cook-offs to working on Habitat houses. I catch Llawela’s eye, and the three of us begin to gravitate toward one another, stepping around clusters, and coming together at the side of the room. We give hugs and spend several minutes catching up. Always on the lookout for interesting bits to insert into my novels or to blog about, I’m fascinated by Llawela’s occupation—she investigates welfare fraud, and is happy to share colorful tales about sneaky crooks, cover-ups, and nefarious accounting schemes. She also has a sense of humor similar to mine, so we always enjoy ourselves when we’re together.
A woman catches our attention. She seems to know everybody, stops to talk at every clutch of folks, laughs a lot. Nice-looking, too, sixtyish, wiry, and energetic; with an enviable hairstyle, short, professionally streaked platinum. She’s working her way around the room, placing a hand on someone’s arm or giving an air kiss, which leads me to believe she’s probably the organizer of this kick-off party or maybe a member of the board.
She arrives at our little knot, introduces herself, “I’m Bev Whatley, Executive Director of The Safe Place.”
“Jenny Waldo,” I respond, shaking her offered hand, adding, “Congratulations on this new facility. You must be proud.”
She smiles her agreement, then greets Angus, whom she knows, and shakes hands with Llawela, whom she does not know. As always, the name Llawela draws a puzzled look.
“It’s Welsh.” Llawela’s explanation lacks inflection because she says the same thing almost every time she gives her name.
“Yes, I know. It’s just that, I once knew another woman named Llawela, and she was Welsh, too.” Which makes sense, because it’s obviously a Welsh name.
“Did you used to live on Apple Tree Way, in Austin?” Llawela asks as, squinting, she assesses the woman.
They study one other, searching their memories, waiting for recognition to occur. And there it is. Their faces light up.
Thrilled, they throw their arms around each other in a quick hug, then step back.
“It’s been twenty years!” Llawela says.
I’m dubious. If they’re such good friends that they’re overjoyed at bumping into each other, shouldn’t they have recognized one another right away? People change a lot through a lifetime, but not that much in a twenty-year period of middle adulthood.
“And you were married to such a jerk!” The gleam in Bev’s eyes indicates delight in pointing this out.
“That’s true.” The pressing of Llawela lips lets me know she’s not happy that this was brought up. “You moved away.” There’s snide quality in her tone, and I don’t know why.
“And you got divorced.” Bev eyes Angus and, sending him a flirtatious wink, adds, “but I see you’ve found a much better partner now.”
I’m standing to the side, pleased. What a fun vignette, what a plethora of nuances. Friends who weren’t friends. The two discuss old times on Apple Tree Way. It sounds like it was a difficult period for Llawela, who’s still resentful toward her ex. She becomes agitated, almost snarling as she tells how he moved his new girlfriend and her kids into the house while she was still sharing the payments. After a few minutes, Bev thanks us for coming and moves on.
“That was unexpected, the two of you meeting like that,” I tell Llawela. “Sometimes I’m amazed at what a small world this is.”
“Here’s a tidbit you’ll enjoy hearing,” she says, giving me her wicked gossip gleam. Beside her, Angus rolls his eyes, resigned to how we are.
“Tell me.” I lean in.
“I was being tactful when I said she moved away. What really happened was, she went to prison. Huntsville, for two years.”
“What?” Astounded, I track Bev as she turns strangers into friends, a powerhouse for doing good works.
“She embezzled a lot of money from the company she worked for.”
Intriguing. People get themselves into all kinds of situations. Getting caught in a crime, the humiliation of being arrested. Prison and parole. A felon for the rest of her life. How did she get from then to now? Look at her; well-adjusted, a leader. How did she end up here, running a place that aids people in crisis?
“I like her hair,” I say, which is what I say about most people whose hair isn’t mine.