Last week Stephanie showed me the picture: young woman in a yellow sundress, dazzling smile full of teeth and expectation, small child in her arms.
“That’s Mother with me.”
“She hasn’t aged, Frank,” my girlfriend said dismissively.
So when my administrative assistant told me Margaret Folsom Clark was in the showroom, I hurried out to meet her. Of course, I recognized her instantly.
“I’m Frank Zelinka. Call me Skip”
“Nice to meet you, Skip.” She flashed the dazzling smile. “I heard you converted the mall into a bookstore, but I had to see for myself.”
“It’s not all books.”
At Books by the Foot we sold used titles to film companies, interior designers, upwardly mobile illiterates and others, but made our serious money on corporate interior design.
“Do you have a few minutes?” she asked.
“Sure. Let’s get some coffee.”
“That would be lovely.” She took my arm when we entered the mall. “You picked me out of the crowd,” she teased.
“There’s a strong family resemblance.” Her laughter complemented her smile. “My daughter is forty-five, but passes for forty.”
True enough. We walked past Frank’s Independent Books, and the International Book Rack that sold foreign language titles, and Davenport Writer’s Center where high school students got one-on-one tutoring.
“How would you describe yourself?” I asked.
“Sixty-seven, but I pass for…?” Margaret stopped, encouraging me to guess.
Taking in her clear, unblemished skin, tanned shoulders, firm breasts and toned arms, I replied, “I couldn’t say…”
“Guess. If you didn’t know who I was…”
I took a deep breath. No way to dodge the obvious. “Nineteen, maybe twenty.”
We stepped into Hardbounds and Coffee Hounds, an academic lending library and coffee shop filled with college students cramming for finals. I had a reserved table in the rear. We ordered at the counter and made our way to the back.
“I get carded all the time,” Margaret explained after we were seated. “Every couple of years, I have to buy a fake ID with a birthday that makes me twenty-two.”
I looked for signs of plastic surgery, Botox, tucks. Nothing.
“Stephanie never mentioned your…condition.”
“It didn’t used to be a problem.” She smirked. “When my daughter was in high school, boys liked to come to our house. We had a pool. I looked good in a bikini.”
“You were bait.”
“I didn’t mind.”
Our drinks arrived, an Americano for me and an almond milk half-caf, half-decaf latte for her.
She continued, “Stephanie practiced catch and release.”
“And when she went to college?”
“She thought double-dating would be fun. She’d introduce me as her older sister.”
I imagined my girlfriend twenty-five years ago crashing a frat party with the woman sitting across from me.
Margaret would have been the pretty one, the big sister who got hit on, the first to score. Stephanie would get the leftovers.
“We don’t go on double dates anymore.” She sipped carefully at her piping hot latte.
“Because people assume she’s your mother.”
“Of course.” She set down her drink. “My daughter described you as an entrepreneur and bibliophile who writes and mentors writers.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“I want you to tell my story.”
“The woman incapable of aging.”
“Nobody will believe it.”
She reached out to grab my arm gently. “Do you?”
Her touch was electric, and it took me a moment to tell her, “I do.”
Margaret’s condition explained her daughter’s deep-seated insecurities. But that didn’t stop me from considering the proposition.
“What would I write?”
“A unique perspective on aging.”
I noticed the college boys glancing her way, wetting their lips. “Why not just sell the formula to the highest bidder?”
“Don’t patronize me, Skip.” She broke eye contact. “If I had any idea why I never age, I’d have sold the secret long ago.”
“So what do you want me to do, make you famous?”
“Hell no! I don’t want to be a lab rat.” She shuddered. “I don’t want pharmaceutical firms bidding for my genes.”
“But your doctor…?”
“I change doctors every few years. I work in sales, a field that allows me to be transient and switch jobs frequently.”
“You probably interview well.”
“In the right skirt…then they don’t bother too much with the resume.”
“So what exactly do you want?”
She shifted. Her impatience showed, like someone older and wiser, trying to guide a novice through a difficult lesson. “I want you and your writer friends to write stories: romantic, mystery, erotic, science fiction. You’re versed in all the genres. I’d supply the details.”
“What will that accomplish?”
“Someone experiencing what I am might read your stories and reach out on your blog or contact you on Facebook. Then I’d know I wasn’t alone.”
That seemed like a stretch. I couldn’t imagine her ever alone. “Did you tell Stephanie you were coming to see me?”
“I did. And I assured her if you helped, I would go away. I ruined her father and destroyed her marriage… We’re not close anymore.” Stephanie told me her divorce was because of another woman. Now I realized it was Margaret. “I told her once my story was in print, she’d never see me again.”
“What’s in it for me?”
Margaret leaned in. She took my hands in hers. “That’s the beauty of it, Skip. Until the stories are published, and we get a response, or until I’m convinced there is no one else out there like me, I’ll be the smoking hot, hyper-sexed girlfriend you’ve always dreamed of having.”
The suggestion hit me like a fist. I pulled back. “I’m in a committed relationship with your daughter…”
“Is that a problem?”
I took a long, hard look at the woman across from me. I imagined the stories she could tell. “I suppose not.”
“Then after work tonight, let’s have drinks, maybe dinner,” she suggested. “There’s nothing in my fridge, and it might be a long night.”