“Right on time,” Sue Len said as she welcomed Pepper Monroe into Chow Len, Walbash County’s only Chinese restaurant. “Newspaper lady always eat at nine every Tuesday.”
“Am I that predictable?” Pepper joked as she rolled her eyes and glanced at her watch.
Like most deadline Tuesdays, the night had gotten away from her. Pepper always promised herself she’d be home by six but it never happened. She’d spend hours reading and re-reading the proof pages … changing a passive verb here, double-checking a cutline there. The Walbash County News printed just 1,000 copies each Wednesday but Pepper took her role as editor as seriously as if it were The New York Times.
“Yes Pepper, you predictable but habit a good thing … especially to my bottom line. What’ll it be tonight?” she asked, not really pausing for an answer. “General Tso’s Chicken, brown rice, no egg roll.”
“God, I boring” Pepper said, only half kidding, as Sue Len handed the order to her husband and screamed something at him in Chinese.
“Relax woman,” he hissed back as he popped up in the narrow window separating the restaurant from the kitchen. “Hi Pep, late night?”
“I guess so. Thank God you stay open until ten.”
“I want close at eight. It get so slow on Tuesday but she say, ‘No way, Newspaper Lady coming.’”
Pepper smiled back at Sue Len, who shrugged.
“What? I like you. You tip well. I bring out food as soon as Mr. Len stop yapping and start cooking.”
The two engaged in another heated exchange as Pepper headed toward her usual table in the back left corner of the restaurant.
You wouldn’t expect to find authentic Chinese food in a sleepy southern town. Pepper considered herself a bit of an Asian cuisine snob. She’d tried restaurants all across the U.S. and Chow Len’s ranked in the top three.
She often wondered how the Len family ended up in southern, middle Tennessee. They showed up out of nowhere five years ago – about the same time Pepper moved back home, still reeling from the failures and betrayals of the big city.
Over the past year, Pepper offered several times to write a business profile on Chow Len’s for the newspaper but Sue Len always demurred. “No way, Newspaper Lady. We no like publicity.” Pepper found the response odd but never pushed for an explanation.
Pepper settled into her usual spot and took a set of folded 11×14 printed pages out of her messenger bag. The first two rounds of proofreading usually happened at her computer back at the newspaper office just off the historic Walbash County Square; but she preferred good old-fashioned printed pages and her trusty red pen for the final mark up. She seemed to catch more mistakes that way.
Nothing upset her more than to discover a factual mistake or type-o on Wednesday after the issue hit newsstands. You could fix the digital version with a swipe of your keyboard and an Editor’s note but printed errors haunted you forever … or at least the next seven days.
She started with a front page, above the fold story about the recent Walbash County Zoning Commission meeting. It happened the third Thursday of each month and usually, it was a snooze fest … but not last week’s meeting. Last Thursday, twenty-something farmer Beau Wilson and some Big Wig investment realtor out of Franklin named Randall Sterling nearly came to blows.
Pepper, who sat in the second row at the elementary school auditorium half-listening, jumped out of the way to avoid getting crushed in the melee.
The gist of the beef, as Pepper understood it, revolved around Wilson’s belief that Sterling misrepresented his intention for a five-acre lot of agricultural land prior to closing the deal.
The lot backed up to Lake Norman on the edge of the Wilson’s 500-acre farm. It’s steep pitch and dense tree line made it pretty useless for farming, so the Wilsons decided to sell it to buy new farm equipment.
“He’s a damned liar,” Beau had said prior to the second reading of the proposed zoning change. “He told us he planned to build a weekend home there. We’d never have sold it to him if we’d known he planned to turn it into a damned lakeside community.”
Wilson ancestors settled the farm after the Civil War. Today, they grew tobacco, soybeans, corn, wheat, and raised grass fed Black Angus beef cattle. Beau’s mother, Rose, also kept bees and raised chickens. Pepper bought honey and eggs from her every Friday afternoon at the Farmers’ Market. The Wilsons, like most families in Walbash County, felt deeply connected to the land and were loathe to sell an inch of it.
But Sterling showed up at the end of last year’s drought and made Gerald Wilson an offer he couldn’t refuse. Gerald acquiesced, in part due to Beau’s influence, and based on Sterling’s promise that he planned to build a single three-story weekend house on the property.
“That tree line’s thick, and he plans to build downhill toward the lake,” Beau argued. “As long as he’s okay with that easement off Lake Norman Road, so we can access the tobacco field, it’s a win, win. We’ll never know he’s there.”
But the Wilson’s hadn’t gotten in writing. They’d made the country folk mistake of a handshake deal … a deal Sterling didn’t plan honor.
A week after the check cleared, Sterling installed a locked gate to the access road. Three weeks after that, he showed up at a zoning commission meeting with plans to built 20 two-story lakeside condominiums plus a restaurant and clubhouse.
When no one showed up to oppose it, the commission members pensively approved the first reading. But Beau spotted the public notice in the newspaper and showed up at the second meeting to voice opposition to the plan and things quickly got out of hand.
The exchange mesmerized Pepper. She’d been watching Beau Wilson from a distance for years. He presented as the typical twenty-something country boy … blue jeans, baseball hat, loud truck … but Pepper sensed something different about him. He carried a burden he didn’t talk about.
Ten years younger than her, they didn’t exactly run in the same circles but in a small southern town, you couldn’t really avoid each other. Beau wasn’t exactly a hot head but he didn’t hesitate to stand up for himself. She’d witnessed him stand down a pool hustler at Ruby’s and an out-of-control fan at the high school football game. Beau Wilson knew how to stand his ground.
In truth, they’d barely exchanged a word but each time she ran into him, they seemed to exchange this intense, prolonged eye contact that unnerved Pepper in the best possible way.
The night of the zoning meeting, he’d tipped his baseball cap to her as she’d walked past him to leave. It felt like a subtle, chivalrous form of recognition. It could mean nothing or everything … you could never be sure with tall, dark, and handsome men of few words types. Pepper had learned her lessons the hard way.
“You stop working. You eat,” Sue Len commanded as she lowered the plate in front of Pepper.
“Yes ma’am,” Pepper replied as she turned the proof pages face down, reached into her bag, and pulled out the new Grisham novel she’d checked out at the Walbash Public Library just that afternoon. She noticed that Mr. Len gave her not one but two egg rolls and she couldn’t help but smile.
“Why you run by here all the time? Why you no eat egg roll? You beautiful as is,” he told her one day as Sue Len nodded in agreement.
Pepper looked up when she heard the front door chime as another customer walked in. Who else eats Chinese food at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, she thought.
“Mr. Beau,” Sue Len beamed. “Why you stay gone so long? Why you so sweaty?”
“Oh yeah, sorry about that,” he said. “I hope I don’t stink. We’ve been hauling hay all day. Just got finished and I’m starving. I’m not to late to get food am I?”
“She no turn down sweaty man,” Mr. Len giggled from the kitchen as Beau laughed. Sue Len yelled at her husband in Chinese before smiling back at Beau.
“Of course not. You want General Tso’s Chicken too … just like her,” Sue Len said as she nodded toward Pepper. “You two know each other?”
“Kind of,” Beau replied as he turned to walk towards Pepper’s table.
“Mind if I sit?”
“Be my guest,” she replied as she noticed the way his bicep strained against the damp t-shirt. Though rugged and decidedly manly, Luke Wilson could also be described as pretty. He used a neatly trimmed moustache and beard to camouflage his baby face and wore his slightly curly brown hair longer than she imaged his ex-Marine Corp Drill Sergeant father liked. It curled around his baseball cap in the back and stayed tucked behind his ears in the front. As he sat, Pepper noticed the edges of a barely-visible tattoo poking out. She’d noticed it before but could never quite make it out.
“What ya working on?” he asked as he nodded towards the face down proof pages.
“This week’s issue,” she replied, knowing he knew exactly what she was doing. “I put the paper to bed tomorrow morning. I’m just fine tuning.”
“Put it to bed?” he asked. “Is that what they call it?”
Flirting won’t work on me, she thought. I’m not giving you a preview.
“You’re kind of a one-woman show down there, aren’t you?”
I have Miss Lila my assistant and Allen the ad salesman. Plus there’s the cat, Murdoch. He’s helpful.”
“I’m sure he is,” Beau said. “Though every time I drive by, he seems to be sleeping in the front window.”
“You drive by and look in?” she asked, giving him a knowing smirk.
“It’s on the way to the Co-Op,” he deadpanned and Pepper suddenly felt foolish.
“I remember you in high school, you know … back when you were a cheerleader.”
“Really? And what exactly do you remember?” she replied, deciding to play along.
“That all my friends and I thought you were the most beautiful girl in the whole world. We used to fight over who would marry you. Of course, we we’re six years old … what did we know?”
Beau smiled at Pepper feeling self-satisfied at his cleverness.
“That has a name, you know. It’s called negging. It’s when a guy gives a girl a backhanded compliment to try and undermine her confidence thus making him more attractive. Does it ever work?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Beau bristled. His cheeks glowed bright red. It gave him away. She’d landed a counter punch. He wasn’t used to that.
“Anyway, can we talk about your zoning meeting article?” he asked, suddenly all business.
“Sure,” Pepper said as she placed her elbow on top of the proof pages.
“Did you talk to Sterling?”
“Not yet. I tried over the weekend but he didn’t return my calls.”
“Well the next meeting’s in three weeks. You’ll need our side of the story before you cover the final meeting. I mean, it’s only fair.”
“Of course, equal time and all. I planned to stop by your folks place this week. What day would be best to catch them?”
“No, they’ll never tell you the whole story. Meet me tomorrow night at Ruby’s … around 7 p.m. All the locals will be in Wednesday night church service.”
“You embarrassed to be seen with me?” Pepper bristled.
“Not even a little,” he replied. “Just though it might be quite. That’s all.”
Sue Len brought Beau’s to go food and he stood up to leave.
“You gonna eat both of those?” he asked, nodding towards the egg rolls.
“I’m not even gonna eat one of them,” Pepper replied.
“Thanks, I’m starving,” he said as he snatched a egg roll off her plate and left.
The two women cocked their heads sideways as they watched him go. Mr. Len shook his head from the front counter. “You two need ice bucket.”
Pepper and Sue Len exchanged a knowing smile.
“Don’t forget to open your fortune cookie,” Sue Len said. “Tuesday night fortunes always true.”
Pepper rolled her eyes and obediently opened the cellophane package. Then she broke the cookie in half, pulled out the paper fortune, and read it out loud.
“The object of your desire comes closer,” she read.
“Don’t forget to add ‘in bed’” Sue Len giggled from the front counter.