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From the Grounds Up
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:


'When one door closes, another's probably getting ready to smack you in the ass.'
Nice. My Brookhills coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds, had been reduced to rubble by a freak but devastating blizzard. The very livelihood of Maggy Thorsen was in serious jeopardy. If another door closed on me, I'd need at least a window to jump out of.
'That's a glass half-empty kind of thing to say, don't you think?' I asked, following my friend Sarah Kingston through the doors of another unsuitable storefront located in yet another unprofitable strip mall.
Halfway out I stopped short, the stress of the last two weeks--and a full day spent with Sarah--overtaking me. 'I'd think that you, of all people, would want to put a positive spin on this. As my real estate agent you stand to make money if you find us a new location.'
'If' being the operative word. If Sarah found a new place we could afford. And if gourmet coffee survived the economic downturn. Hell, even Starbucks—
'You are an idiot, Maggy, you know that?' Sarah, who had already been heading to the car, turned back to me. 'I meant . . .'
Slap. The screen door she had just exited slammed shut, trapping me in the 'airlock' between that door and the more solid one swinging closed behind me.
Which, of course, smacked me in the butt.
Sarah opened the screen door to let me out. 'Sorry, but I warned you.'
I rubbed my rump, which was going numb. 'Sorry my ass.'
'Exactly.' She raised her eyebrows at me. 'I suppose you hate this one, too?'
I stepped off the sidewalk and into the parking lot to survey the long, squat brick building, fronted with dark square windows. 'It's characterless. Not to mention,' some feeling was returning to my butt, 'dangerous.'
'It's perfect.' Sarah snatched the listing sheet from me and stuffed it into her briefcase. 'My cousin Ronny is a contractor and he can fix that door in ten minutes. The space is already outfitted as a coffeehouse. Hell, what do you want? You and Caron would just have to move in. No build-out, no new equipment, no nothing.'
'That's because it was a coffeehouse,' I said. 'This is the middle of an industrial park, which is why Perk 'n Stew couldn't survive. Once the people working in the area realized they couldn't really get "stewed" here, the place went belly-up. What makes you think a resurrected Uncommon Grounds wouldn't do the same?'
'This is a perfectly good location,' Sarah said, a defensive tone seeping into her voice. 'Besides, you and Caron know how to market yourselves.'
I looked around. 'FOR LEASE' signs filled the windows of not just the building we'd been in, but half the factories and wholesale businesses on the two blocks I could see. The strip mall itself was set well back, barely noticeable from the street.
The only positive was plenty of parking. Which we wouldn't need, because nobody was likely to find us. 'It's crap.'
Sarah seemed almost--almost--hurt. 'And you're complaining about my attitude? You're not exactly Little Mary Sunshine yourself this morning.'
I sighed and sat down gingerly on the curb, thinking about last night's telephone conversation with my partner, Caron Egan. Caron had been 'too busy' to hunt for new locations with me. After two weeks of ducking my calls, she'd finally fessed up.
Patting my palms on the thighs of my jeans, I said, 'Caron wants out.'
Sarah started to join me at the curb, but glanced down at her usual uniform of baggy trousers and flapping jacket and thought better of it. 'Wants out of what? Her marriage again? Tell her to find another boy-toy and purge the urge from her system.'
Ah, if only it were that simple. A dalliance with an acned mini-mart clerk and Caron would come running back to me and our coffeehouse.
'This time it's Uncommon Grounds she wants to dump,' I said. 'She claims our first year was tough enough, without having to start all over again.'
Three or four murders, a couple of betrayals. The occasional natural disaster. What had Caron expected? We were small-business owners in America's Heartland.
'Maybe they're having money troubles.'
I looked up sharply at Sarah, who was digging in her pockets, likely for a phantom cigarette. She'd given them up months ago, but the reflex was still there.
'Bernie and Caron?' I asked. 'Why? What do you know?'
Sarah shrugged, but didn't answer the question.
Caron's husband, Bernie the attorney (yes, yes--I know), seemed to be doing quite well, even on our country's economic roller coaster. The couple had a lovely home on an acre or . . .
'They're selling?' I asked my real estate friend. 'Did Caron ask you to list their house?'
Sarah wouldn't meet my eyes. 'I can't say.'
'You just did.' Sort of. 'Besides, all I have to do is check the advertisements.'
'It's not on the market yet,' Sarah said. 'That's all I can tell you.'
'FOR SALE' signs dotted lawns all across south-eastern Wisconsin. Milwaukee and its nearest suburbs had been hit hardest, but even Brookhills, farther west, was feeling the cash-flow pinch. The little exurb, as its residents like to think of it, was relatively affluent, but it wasn't recession-proof. Nor was anyone in it.
'Times are tough,' Sarah was saying. 'Good thing you bought that little shit-box of yours and didn't overreach.'
She was right, though I thought 'shit-box' was a bit cruel, despite my blue, stucco walls and puke-green toilet. 'Amen to that. I was just lucky I could pay cash thanks to my divorce settlement with Ted.'
Because I damn well couldn't qualify for a mortgage. There was always that pesky question about last year's income. Negative numbers need not apply.
Which brought me full circle to my current problem. Opening a business had been costly and I didn't have much cash left to draw upon. Happily, I also didn't have many expenses. Taxes, sure. Wine, but of course. And some food. Mostly Frank's.
Frank is my son's sheepdog. A furry stomach on four feet. And he drooled, even when nothing edible was in sight.
When Eric took English Lit, he suggested renaming the sheepdog: 'We should have called him "Dickens". He's the best of times, the worst of slimes.'
True on both counts. I'd given up mopping sheepdog saliva off my glass-topped coffee table and taken to using a bath towel as a table runner. On the other hand, the hairy lug had made the 663 days since Eric left home for the University of Minnesota (and Ted, for his slut in the big house) bearable. Truth is, I missed the kid far more than the cad.
But if something good had come out of Ted's affair and our subsequent divorce, it was that my life had already been forcibly downsized by the time the recession hit.
A cloud with a tin-can lining. Can't lose what you don't have anymore.
The 'haves', though, had lost a lot. If Caron's hesitation at re-opening UG was because Bernie's specialty--trademark and copyright law--was on the skids, I couldn't try to talk her into doing something that might prove devastating for them.
Still . . . 'Caron can't be broke,' I wailed. 'I can't afford her to be. Nobody could do this on her own.'
Sarah started to say something. Then, apparently thinking better of it, she clamped her mouth closed and looked away.
'What?' I got up from the curb and dusted off my tender butt. 'I'm going to have a bruise the size of a grapefruit.'
But my friend had already started back toward her car, a yellow 1975 Firebird.
With a last glance at the loser of a mall, I scurried after her.
'Wait up,' I called.
Sarah stopped short of the car and turned. 'Listen, I was thinking . . .' She paused again.
'Will you spit it out?' I demanded. 'Since when are you afraid to say what you think?'
She blushed.
Sarah. Blushing.
I felt a twinge of unease. Was she sick? Or were Caron and Bernie worse than broke? Maybe one of them was sick. I eyed Sarah. She didn't usually mince words or shrink from bad news. Especially somebody else's bad news.
So I waited.
'Umm . . .' Sarah pressed the toe of her shoe into the asphalt and twisted it, like she was grinding out a lit cigarette. She gave me the impression of a shy kid at recess, staring down at the ground while desperately hoping someone would ask her to play.
She started over. 'I was just thinking. Maybe . . .' Another twist of the shoe.
I waited some more.
Sarah Kingston finally took a deep breath and looked up.
'Maybe I could be your partner, Maggy.'
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