When next-door neighbours Carey and Edd’s slowly blossoming romance starts to fray, they’ll both need to use their skills at fixing things to save it.
Edd’s self-expression through pretty dresses and sparkly jewellery leads some people to misjudge him, and his soft spot for strays has bitten him on the keister in the past. But when his shy new neighbour Carey, who turns threadbare fabrics into works of art, seems to need help settling into their new town, Edd can’t help but offer a hand.
Rebuilding their life after a crushing divorce, Carey buys a little house in queer-friendly Clover Hill. Their cute neighbour, Edd, keeps bringing them delicious baked goods, and soon even the sound of his knock on their door makes Carey happy. But Carey’s breakup made it obvious how unworthy they are of a relationship, and anyway, Edd’s probably just being kind. Isn’t he?
Yet Carey begins to flourish in their new life as cheerful, patient Edd shows them around town. Edd finds in Carey a gentleness he’s always craved, and a slow, sweet attraction takes root between the two of them.
Then news from Carey’s ex shatters their fragile confidence. How can they be a good partner to Edd when they failed so badly the last time? Edd is torn between giving Carey comfort and keeping the distance Carey says they need, even when it’s making them both miserable.
Can Carey and Edd work together to mend their relationship? Or can some things just not be fixed?
The tomatoes in Mrs. Bianchi’s garden were red and juicily ripe, hanging there on the other side of the chain link fence between the yards like a Bakelite necklace in an antique store window, and it was killing Edd.
Okay, so they weren’t Mrs. Bianchi’s tomatoes anymore. But Edd had planted them in the spring under her exacting direction, since she hadn’t been up to doing much more than sitting and pointing by then. As they’d grown, he’d watered them and pulled up the weeds and pinched off the shoots that threatened to turn them into bushes rather than vines, and he felt a certain responsibility towards them.
The few times he’d glimpsed the new owner, they’d had the air of being profoundly worn out. Edd had had enough roommates in and out of his extra bedroom to understand how much moving took out of a person. Still. Those were toasted tomato sandwiches practically on the hoof, and it was a crime that they were going to waste.
As Edd turned away from the kitchen window, he heard the thunder of Ozzie’s car pulling up to the curb. He grabbed his bag and keys from the table, and went to the front door to put on his shoes.
“Let’s shake it, O’Leary!” Ozzie yelled from outside.
Edd went out on the front stoop. Ozzie was standing by the open driver’s side door, feet on the sill so he was just tall enough to rest one elbow on the roof of his car with his round chin propped in his palm. Harriet, in the front seat, had her arms folded on the well of the open window. Her straight, dark bangs dipped down to a point over the right side of her cat-eye sunglasses, very mid-Sixties Hepburnesque.
“Cool your jets, Kovacic, it’s not even ten yet.” As he came down the steps, Edd heard the familiar squeal of Mrs. Bianchi’s screen door. When he looked up, he saw his new neighbour stop dead on their own front stoop.
Edd waved, his bracelets clacking. “Oh, hi! We haven’t met yet. I’m Edd.”
His neighbour raised a tentative hand. Their eyes were hidden behind large sunglasses, their smile tired-looking and a little forced. That might have been because of Ozzie, or at least Ozzie’s car; it was certainly something to see, although it was best viewed when you had time to properly take in the colourful plating of trinkets and baubles glued to it. Or it might have been the sight of Edd himself, a five-foot-eleven adult man in a knock-off Marimekko cotton print dress and half an armful of plastic bangles. If the latter, he and they weren’t going to be the best of friends, which Edd could live with, but it would be too bad.
“Hi,” his neighbour said. They were of indeterminate gender, with a black and white checkered cotton shirt worn untucked, dark jeans, pale skin, a haircut grown out into shapelessness. “Carey. Um, hi. Again.”
“Hi, Carey!” Ozzie sang out, and wiggled the fingers of his free hand. Carey bobbed their head in his direction.
“Hello, Carey,” Harriet called. “It’s nice to meet you.” Carey nodded again.
“Anyway, I’m on my way out, but see you around, I hope,” said Edd.
“Me too. I mean. Yes. I hope so.” The door made a noise of protest as Carey vanished back into their house.
Edd jogged down his driveway and slid into the back seat of the car. Ozzie gunned the accelerator and pulled away.
“So that was your new neighbour?” Harriet asked from the front seat.
Edd dug the latch of the seatbelt out from under the laundry basket full of art that took up the other side of the seat. “Apparently.”
She looked back over her shoulder. “I hope we didn’t scar them for life.”
“Nah, we’re teddy bears,” Ozzie said.
“Sure, they could tell that by the gentle and compassionate way you hollered at me.”
“Is it just them?” Harriet asked.
“So far as I can tell.”
“You know what I know.”
“Any good furniture?”
“So many questions! It’s only been three days!”
“Are they new in town? They need to meet people,” Ozzie said. “You should invite them to Sunday Dinner.”
Harriet put a hand on Ozzie’s arm. “Let’s let them unpack and catch their breath before you subject them to the Circus, Oz.”
“She’s right, Ozzie. Sunday Dinner is varsity-level socializing.” From the sixty seconds he’d seen Carey hesitating on the stoop, Edd felt comfortable speculating that meeting a bunch of unfamiliar artists with no personal boundaries en masse wouldn’t be her, his, or their preferred introduction to town.
“Hey, but you could start with—”
“I will start with cinnamon buns,” Edd said solemnly, and Harriet clapped genteelly as though she were watching a golf tournament.
Downtown was predictably lively for a sunny July Thursday. They lucked out and found a parking spot in front of Tea & Cupcakes, where Paxton was dropping off a rideshare. Ozzie honked and swooped in, and Paxton tapped the horn as he drove off.
Edd got out of the car and dragged the laundry basket to the edge of the seat. The iridescent plastic capsules inside shifted like a bowlful of bubbles. Inside them Edd recognized some of Violet’s polymer clay button earrings and Amita’s origami mandalas, as well as pendants Ozzie had made via the ironic use of old magazine ads. Ozzie tucked the basket under his arm, and Edd and Harriet followed him into the tea shop.
“Merrill!” Ozzie did have an indoor voice, but generally had to be reminded to use it.
“Hi, Ozzie,” Tea & Cupcakes’ owner said from where they were transferring cupcakes with swirled purple and pink frosting into one of the display cases on the long counter.
“I come bearing art.”
The vintage vending machine sat in the back corner. On its metal top were balanced a pink piggy bank and a sign, hand-lettered by Harriet, stating that the price of a one-of-a-kind piece of art was $5.25. Arrows indicated where the money went, five dollars into the piggy bank and a quarter to persuade the vending machine to release a random capsule. The clear jar and capsules gave you an idea of what kind of thing you were going to get, but not the exact thing, which according to Ozzie was all part of The Project. The setup also allowed unscrupulous people to grab three dollars’ worth (wholesale) of art for twenty-five cents, which Ozzie claimed was also part of The Project.
Ozzie started to unlock the machine. This tended to be a fiddly process, and Edd had only had half a cup of tea with his breakfast. “Caffeine?” he asked Harriet.
They went to the counter, where Edd perused the chalkboard menu. “What’s the monthly special?” he asked Aspen, who was returning tea tins to their places on the former pharmacy’s grid of wooden shelves.
“The Lavender Pocket Square. It’s a lavender honey tea latte.”
“Awesome. I’ll take that, please.”
They snagged a choice table by the window and watched Ozzie juggle machine parts, cash, and capsules as if they were a logic puzzle.
“Edd,” said Harriet.
“Yes?” After the silence had stretched out for about fifteen seconds, Edd asked, “What’s up?”
She leaned forward, hands clasped on the table. “What would you think if I—”
Aspen appeared and set down two takeout cups. They thanked him, and Edd took a sniff and sip of his latte.
“What’s that like?” Harriet asked.
“It’s about what you’d expect. Milky, sweet, a little flowery.” Edd wouldn’t necessarily order it again, but one of the minor delights of having money was ordering ridiculous drinks and tipping waitstaff lavishly.
Ozzie came over to drop the laundry basket beside their table, and went to the counter. “Merrill, do you want your share of the profits now?”
“Sure, why not.”
Ozzie handed over a fan of bills with a bow.
“Four dollars.” Merrill shrugged. “I won’t say no.”
“That right there is your passive income stream,” Ozzie declared. “All hail capitalism.”
“Sarcasm end tag,” Edd and Harriet both chimed in at the same time.
“You know it. Okay, gang! Let’s motor!”
They followed Ozzie along his usual route through cafés and gift stores, bumping into a few dozen people they knew—which was half the fun of Thursdays—then doubled back to the car to switch out the laundry basket for a Rubbermaid bin from the back.
“Morning,” called Gord as they walked into the Garage. Gord Lawson looked and dressed as though his chief delight in life was to describe to you what was wrong with your carburetor, but he’d run a commercially successful art gallery for over two decades. He painted delicately detailed watercolour landscapes in his spare time.
“Here for a reup.” Ozzie went over to the converted cigarette machine that dispensed his miniature collages and a variety of other small-scale art.
“Harriet, I owe you some cash,” Gord said, taking an account book stuffed with envelopes and torn bits of paper from beneath the counter. “I sold a piece of yours.”
“Mine?” She joined him at the cash register. “I thought you gave me all those back, what, a year ago?”
“I missed one. It was framed and hanging on the wall in the back room, that’s why.”
“Whaaat?” Ozzie dropped what he was doing and barrelled over to them, beaming. He caught Harriet up in a bear hug. “Way to go, girl! I told you there were people who would love your stuff!”
Gord hit a button on the cash register, and the drawer banged open. “Twenty bucks. Put your initials here.”
“Ooh, I guess it’s the large salad for me at lunch today,” Harriet said, working a hand out of Ozzie’s embrace to accept the pen Gord handed her.
Ozzie let her go with an emphatic squeeze. “You should think of doing some small pieces for the machines. People are more willing to spend five or ten bucks than forty. It’s not much per piece, but it can add up and give you some space to work on larger things.”
“I have a job,” Harriet reminded him.
“Sure, but it would let you cut back on that, spend more time on your creative work.”
She made a noncommittal sound. “Maybe we can talk about this later.”
“Yeah, Ozzie, finish up and let’s go. I’m starving,” Edd put in. Harriet busied herself with depositing the bills in her purse.
They dropped the bin back at the car and walked up to the Sunrise Diner on the next block. It was noisy and packed, and they put their names on the list for a lunch table. With some time to kill, they strolled over to Kreg’s Thrift Store.
“Half an hour,” Ozzie said, checking his watch-free wrist dramatically, and they went in.
Kreg’s was the old Kresge’s, a modestly sized department store that had opened at least as far back as the Forties. It had been a thrift store for a while now, its name taken from the surviving letters of the old sign.
“Should I keep an eye out for anything in particular?” Edd asked Harriet, as Ozzie made a beeline for the magazine section, where vintage copies of Life and Good Housekeeping sometimes turned up.
“Not really. It’s not like I have a lot of room for new things.”
Edd stopped twirling the circular rack of newly arrived clothing and looked at her, but she seemed absorbed in the flow of fabric. She pulled a hanger out, made a critical face at the argyle cardigan, and hung it back on the rack. “Oh, look at this.”
“Wow.” Edd had to restrain himself from making grabby hands at the jacket—no, suit; there were trousers too. A print of enormous crimson flowers on a white background, with bright bursts of yellow stamens and electric blue pistils. Harriet clicked her tongue, and then Edd saw it: a large stain splashed across the front of the jacket. It looked like someone had taken a full glass of red wine to the heart.
“It could be salvageable.” He pushed the jacket aside to check the trousers, which were dotted with tiny scarlet spots.
“Be my guest.”
Edd slipped the jacket on. The linen was cool and light against his bare arms. He rolled his shoulders, and the jacket settled smoothly onto them. He turned towards the wall to find himself in one of the many mirrors randomly hung around the store, already imagining pairing the suit with strings of pearls, maybe a white lace shirt.
“It’s a good fit,” Harriet said.
“It feels amazing.” The person in the mirror looked like he owned the world, even if the blot of wine was a little gory. Dry cleaning stains out was always chancy, but if the price was right… Edd checked the paper tag dangling from his cuff. He could maybe—he glanced over to see who was working the register—yeah, Nilima was one of the long-time employees, with authorization to barter. “I need this suit. You know what, I’m going to pay for it and take it over to Rose’s right now so I don’t have to carry it around. I’ll meet you and Ozzie at the Sunrise?”
“Thanks. You find the best stuff.” Edd gave Harriet a quick one-armed squeeze and a kiss on the cheek. She shooed him away with a smile and a roll of her eyes, and he took his treasure and went to line up at the register.
So that was their neighbour.
Carey let their tote bag slide from their shoulder onto the floor. Their neighbour, plus—Carey hesitated. His? Her? Their? Something else? Anyway, plus their neighbour’s friends, who seemed interesting. Carey wouldn’t mind hearing the story behind that car.
They already regretted scurrying back inside like a startled mouse, except that that was more or less how they felt. The street had been weekday-morning quiet, an ageing neighbourhood of small post-war homes with mature trees and a sleepy summer vibe. And then Carey had stepped out into sound and glitter and a bunch of strangers. It hadn’t been unpleasant, just unexpected, and unexpected was exhausting, these days.
The house was still and cool, the only noise the comforting hum of the fridge. Carey didn’t have to go downtown. They had already done most of the unpacking—not that there’d been much to do—but there was always work, answering emails or updating the website or…
No. Not that it wasn’t glorious to have an entire house to themself, even if it was no larger than the condo that—
Ugh. “Just leave the house, already,” Carey said aloud.
Carey had explored the main street when deciding whether to move to Clover Hill, but being a tourist was different from actually living here. Living here meant a need for groceries, for one thing. The care package that their sister, Kennedy, had brought over on the morning of moving day was almost empty and, as much as Carey would have liked to, no one could live on tea alone. And the packages of emergency paper plates and plastic cutlery wouldn’t last forever, so that was an excuse to spend some time in the thrift store. Carey needed to drop into the dry cleaner’s, too, and find the post office.
Just thinking about it all made them want to lie down on the hardwood floor. Rebuilding a life had a lot of moving parts.
“You don’t have to do it all today,” Carey reminded themself, as they had regularly over the past year.
They needed an achievable goal. Okay: start with the dry cleaner’s and the post office, because Carey would need those for work, hopefully sooner rather than later. And then find a place to grab lunch, or at least a cup of tea. After that, they could come home and work.
The thought of work was both steadying and comforting. Carey took in and let out a breath, and stepped out of the front door.
Downtown wasn’t too far to walk, but there was a bus stop on the busier street two blocks over. Carey only had to wait five minutes, standing in the shade of a cherry tree, before the bus came along. They spent most of the short ride fumbling in their change purse for the fare. It would probably be a good idea to get tickets, and maybe find out if there was some kind of taxi service.
The bus dropped most of its passengers off in front of the Town Hall and sat there while its destination sign flipped rapidly through the names of streets Carey had yet to learn. Carey stood by the curb, trying to match the reality of the main street to their memories.
Across the road, something colourful caught their eye. Their neighbour’s friend’s car; it could hardly be mistaken for anything else. There was no one in the driver’s seat, so Carey took the opportunity to stare.
It must have started life as a station wagon. There was probably fake wood panelling underneath all of the…stuff. Buttons—both political and clothing-related—and swizzle sticks and dice and googly eyes and plastic dinosaurs and cookie cutters and Pez dispensers and fake flowers and at least one rubber duckie and on and on. No theme, no colour scheme, just a wild array somehow making a coherent and fascinating whole.
“It’s something, isn’t it?”
Carey turned to face the bus driver, a plump white woman with a long grey braid wrapped around her head, who had come down the bus stairs and was sipping something out of a travel mug. “It really is. Where did all of that come from?”
“About five years ago Ozzie was taking donations from the entire town. There’s some of my grandson’s old plastic farm animals on the other side.”
“He’s just been driving it around like that for five years? Is it an art piece, or…?”
The bus driver laughed. “Everything Ozzie does is an art piece, hon. If you’re in town for more than five minutes, you’ll meet him, and you’ll see.”
“No, I already have.” Was their intriguing-looking neighbour an artist too? Carey wondered.
“Like I said.”
Carey looked up and down the street, still not quite oriented. “Sorry to take up your time, but there’s a dry cleaner’s around here, isn’t there?”
“Oh, yeah, you want Rose’s. That way, about a block and a half.”
“No problem. You have a good day, hon.”
Carey set off, passing an old theatre with the progress pride flag painted behind its neon sign, an art gallery, a hardware store that looked as if it had been adding things to the stack in its front window for a century and a half—there was an actual tin washboard, next to an Instant Pot and more kinds of tape than Carey had known existed—and a store that sold both comics and books. The streetscape was mostly Victorian red brick stores with a few storeys of apartments or offices above, and some more modest neighbours or newer infill where the originals had probably burned down or fallen over.
Rose’s Dry Cleaning was a narrow one-storey building that might have been a garage at one point. A metal sculpture of roses and thorned vines trailed along the side of the building like a trellis. The shop had placards in the window describing its environmentally friendly processes, and, like many of the other businesses, flyers advertising community fundraising dinners and bands coming to a local bar. Carey walked in, and an old-fashioned bell above the door jangled.
“Hi, what can I do for you?” asked the dark-skinned young woman behind the counter, putting down what looked like a travel magazine.
“Hi.” Carey extended the business card they’d gotten out of their pocket before coming in. This was not Carey’s favourite part of the job, but at least they only had to ask at each place once, and then it was over one way or another. “I don’t mean to bother you, and if you’re busy I can come back another time.” The woman made a gesture that could have meant Go ahead, or at least wasn’t obviously Stop talking and get out of my store. “I just moved to town. I do visible mending. If that’s not a service you already provide, would you mind if I left some cards here? I completely understand if you’d rather I didn’t.”
The woman took the card. “We send our repairs out to a place in Baymill. Visible mending? I don’t know if we get a lot of people asking for that, but sure, you can leave some cards on the bulletin board.”
The curtain behind her wavered and an elderly Black woman stepped through, clicking her tongue. “We do our own mending. You won’t find anyone to do it better, not in town or out of it. Tell her, Chrissy.”
“I’m Sharon, Gran,” the woman said gently. “Remember how we talked about this? We want you to enjoy your retirement, not have to work all day.”
“Hmph. I’m not ready to be sent out to pasture yet.” Gran frowned at Carey. “What did you say you do?”
“Visible mending?” Gran sniffed. “Why would you want to do that?”
This was part of the job that Carey did like. “Instead of trying to hide the mend, I make it into something new.” Carey gestured at the checkered cotton shirt they were wearing, where a series of small holes on one side had been covered by calico patches shaped like balloons.
Gran bustled out from behind the counter, grabbed the hem of Carey’s shirt, and turned it up to peer at the inside. Caught off guard, Carey froze with their arms half-raised. Getting into a physical tussle with someone’s grandmother hadn’t been on their mental list of embarrassing things that might happen while introducing themselves around town.
“Gran!” Sharon yelped, standing up.
Gran dropped the hem. “I see. That’s fine work. We don’t need help, but you keep at it.”
Carey took a discreet step back, slowly exhaling. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m glad you think so.”
Sharon reached down to a shelf behind the counter and took out a rolled-up bundle of cloth. “Gran, this shirt is missing a button. Do you think you could go check the button box and see if you can find anything that matches?”
A gleam of triumph entered the elderly woman’s eye. “You see,” she said to Carey, “they think I’m too old to be useful, but if I weren’t here nothing would get done.”
“Thank you, Gran. That’s a big help.” Sharon helped the woman navigate the curtain into the back of the shop. When Gran was gone, she turned to Carey and cupped hands over her own cheeks. “I am so sorry,” she said in a lowered voice.
“It’s not your fault.” Carey took a steadying breath and felt the heat on their face begin to fade. “She surprised me, but she didn’t do any harm.”
“She’s kind of losing her filters. I really apologize for her getting grabby like that.”
Carey shook their head. “My grandad had dementia. It’s hard to go through, but you can’t control everything they do.”
Sharon gave Carey a crooked smile. “Thanks for understanding. But anyway, yeah, you can leave some cards. And I like your shirt too. It’s a really cute idea.”
“Thank you. My website’s on the card, if you want to see more of my work.”
“Cool, I’ll check it out.”
Carey pinned a fan of cards onto the bulletin board between the ads for dog walkers and babysitters. Feeling relief that that was over, they left, the bell jingling behind them like a cheerful omen, and nearly walked into their neighbour.
“Sorry,” they both said in tandem, each retreating a few steps.
“Oh, hey, Carey, right?” he—he?—added. “Is it Cary as in Grant or Carrie as in Fisher?”
A large paper bag swung from the crook of his elbow. He was wearing white Keds along with the colourful dress. His dirty-blond hair was shortish, held back from his face and up from his neck with a handful of barrettes in bright colours.
“Neither.” Carey spelled it for him.
“Ah. Mine’s Edd, with two Ds. I use he and him.”
“Okay.” Now Carey had even more questions, which they pushed aside as not their business. “Um, I usually use they, but she’s fine too.” Being referred to as she wasn’t upsetting, but Carey had been more comfortable once they’d settled on a different choice to use inside their own head.
“Awesome. I’ll remember. Hey, did you know that your tomatoes are ripe?”
It took a moment for Carey’s brain to parse the sentence. “What?”
“The tomatoes in your garden.”
Oh, right. Carey had checked out the backyard on moving day, though they’d been so sleep-deprived that nothing had stuck except the need to put a lawn mower on the infinite list of things that homeownership required one to buy. Having a yard was a luxury, but they hadn’t bought any lawn chairs yet and had mostly just sat with their work on the concrete stoop by the back door.
“Right now they’re just about perfect,” Edd went on. “They’re Romas, and Mrs. Bianchi used to plant half the yard with them and make gallons of sauce, but they’re great for just eating too.”
“Oh! I think there’s still some jars of sauce left in the basement.” Along with numerous other jars of miscellaneous nails and screws, a few half-rolls of linoleum in patterns that weren’t visible in any part of the house, and a blue plastic rosary dangling unnervingly from a hook beside the ancient furnace.
Edd’s eyes went wide. “Oh, no, the cleaners must have missed a few. Do not, I repeat, do not open any of them. I think some of them predate the turn of the century, and they may have spawned new life forms.”
“I’m not touching anything in the basement that I don’t have to,” Carey said. “I’ve watched enough movies to know that’s a bad idea.” It came out sounding more serious than they’d meant it to.
Edd grinned. “You are so right. I can vouch for the Bianchis, but I don’t know who owned the house before them.”
A pack of summer-feral teenagers thronged down the sidewalk, and Carey and Edd stepped closer to the dry cleaner’s window to avoid being mobbed. Edd shifted his bag to the other arm. “Sorry, I have to drop this off before I meet up with Harriet and Ozzie again. Have you been to Flakey Bakey Hearts yet? Their bread makes amazing tomato sandwiches.”
Carey looked to where he was pointing, a ways down on the other side of the street. “Not yet, but I’ll be sure to go in when I pass it.”
“No pressure, but you might want to head right over there. They close when they sell out, and it’s busy downtown today.”
The thought of fresh bread and ripe tomatoes was marginally more appealing than the canned soup they’d been surviving on. “All right. Thanks.”
“Enjoy. See you around,” Edd said, and stepped into the dry cleaner’s. The chime of the bell rang out onto the sidewalk.
Carey followed the street for another block, to the corner where the stores began to give way to deep-porched houses converted into accountants’ and dentists’ offices, and stood on the corner waiting for the light to change. The street was buzzing, most of the parking spaces taken, people standing outside the café opposite with cups in their hands.
The white Walk signal popped into existence. As they stepped off the curb Carey felt a glimmer of hope, like the first glimpse of a lighthouse through the grey of the last year. They didn’t belong here yet, but they weren’t a complete outsider anymore either. Finally, maybe, all the changes Carey had been through had a chance of turning into something good.
- Past divorce, related grief
- Elderly community member with dementia