Tellumo Magnamater is a fresh-out-of-college first-year English teacher at Salt Lick County High School in Kentucky. He rides the bus to and from work, and every day he walks to the gym behind his small efficiency apartment to exercise. Perhaps because of being raised by two lesbians, Tellumo is attracted to older men. He sets his sights on fiftysomething bachelor Oliver Crumbly. But Tellumo isn’t the only resident interested in Oliver.
Peggy Tucker, a widow approaching her sixtieth birthday, is determined to marry again, and she thinks Oliver is her perfect match. Despite Tellumo and Peggy striking up a friendship at the gym, neither realizes they are interested in the same man. But the joke might be on both of them. Oliver, a retired history teacher, is both gay and the original crotchety old man who hates everything and everybody—especially young people.
Chapter One: Snowmageddon
WHERE ARE they? Tellumo Magnamater checked his smartphone for the twentieth time in as many minutes and peeked out between the blinds again. Ice and snow melted from car hoods and rooftops in a cacophony of splashes and trickling water. Sooty ridges of snow the same shade of gray as the late morning sky edged the glistening asphalt.
He hadn’t seen his mothers since August, when they’d helped him move to Fallisville for his first teaching job, three days before the first day of school. He’d planned to visit Cincinnati for Christmas until Snowmageddon—thirty inches of snow in a week’s time—had brought Northern Kentucky to a standstill, putting the kibosh on his holiday plans. Everyone else’s too. Churches canceled Christmas services, and bars remained closed on New Year’s Eve. Until yesterday’s warm front had pushed the temperature into the lower fifties, the mercury hadn’t climbed more than a degree or two above freezing since before Christmas, when the flurries had begun.
As Tellumo checked his smartphone for messages again, a white panel truck with Amazon Home Repair on the side in bright blue letters came into view—sporting noticeably more bumper stickers than the last time he’d seen it. He returned the device to his pocket and glanced around his efficiency apartment once more. Everything looked ready for company.
He ran out to greet his guests. Before the truck had come to a complete stop, the passenger side door opened and Trish bounded toward him, her camel coat unbuttoned to reveal the red-and-green plaid pants and gaudy Santa sweater she’d worn on Christmas for as long as he could remember.
“I’ve missed you so much!” She flung her arms around his neck, kissed his cheek, and held him tight.
He hugged her back, surprised by the tears in his eyes. “I’ve missed you too.” He kissed her cheek, released her, and then turned to Jules, waiting beside them.
“Sorry we’re late.” Jules squeezed him hard. “Roads haven’t been this clear since before Christmas. Everyone and her sister was out.” She let go of him and folded her arms across her chest. The creases in her khaki pants and the long sleeves of the oxford cloth shirt she wore were sharp enough to cut hair. “We made good time once we got out of Cincinnati.”
“I was starting to worry—you’re never late.” Tellumo kissed her cheek. “Need me to help you carry anything in?”
“Nah.” Jules shook her head. “Sorry to disappoint you, but there’s not much to carry.” She gave him a grin and a wink. “I’ll unload the car. You guys go on inside and catch up.”
“If you insist.” Trish grabbed Tellumo by the hand and pulled him toward his apartment. “Give her a few minutes to calm down,” she whispered. “We’ve been arguing since we got off of I-75.”
“About what?” Jules hadn’t seemed the least bit agitated or annoyed. Tellumo hung Trish’s coat on a hook on the back of his front door, leaving it ajar so Jules could get in with her hands full. “The car thing again?”
Trish nodded, plopped onto the sofa, and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “We’ve argued about it for weeks. She wanted your Christmas present from us to be the money for a down payment.” She patted the sofa cushion and motioned for him to sit. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve missed you too, and having a car would make visits home easier, but if you don’t want the responsibility….”
“I don’t.” He sat down beside her and smiled. Though he still sometimes wondered, he’d long ago stopped trying to figure out which woman was his biological mother. Trish and Jules weren’t telling and looked enough alike to make guessing difficult. Knowing when he’d been younger might have made a difference but after all these years was unlikely to alter his feelings for either parent. “I thought about getting a car, but I really don’t want the added expense.”
“Makes sense to me.” Trish ran her fingers through her curly brown hair and looked around. “This place can’t cost much. What do you do with your money?”
“Save it—like you’ve drilled into me since I could walk.” The furnished apartment had come with everything but dishes and linens. His additional needs were few—a smartphone, a laptop, Internet access with Wi-Fi, and a decent video gaming system. He lived on a fraction of his income and banked the rest. “Do we need to have a family meeting about the car thing… again?”
“No.” She shrugged. “Your mind is made up, and I’m not changing my vote.” She looped her arm over his shoulder and pulled him close. “Voting again would be pointless.”
“Thanks, Trish.” He kissed her cheek. His mothers had almost always presented a united front—especially in family meetings. On the rare occasion when they disagreed, his had been the deciding vote.
“Still struggling to keep your head above water at work?”
He shook his head. “The break gave me a chance to work ahead. I’m much more prepared for the second half of the year.” He’d started the school year behind and had never caught up. Except for the occasional grocery run and daily trips to the gym to preserve his sanity, Tellumo had needed every waking moment for grading papers, preparing lesson plans, and otherwise tending to his teaching responsibilities. “Getting home should be easier this term.”
“Good.” She patted his leg. “Not seeing you since we dropped you off in August was hard, but we knew you’d be home for Christmas.” Trish shrugged. “The first without you was rough—especially since we’d been expecting to see you.”
“I really wanted to come home. Snowmageddon messed with everyone’s holiday plans.”
“Yell when you’re ready. Taking a break from work is rarely a problem, and we like getting out of the city, so driving down to visit or pick you up isn’t a problem.” She squeezed his shoulder and pecked him on the cheek. “Jules thinks you’d be better off with a car and is mad because I won’t take her side.” She ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead. “You’re a grown man—I trust you to make your own decisions.”
“I do too.” Jules stood in the doorway with a shopping bag in each hand. “And I’m not mad at anyone, I just think Tellumo’s life would be a lot easier with a car.”
“What about my carbon footprint?” Tellumo smiled. Keeping up with the causes his mothers supported was a full-time job, made only a little easier by the array of bumper stickers covering their van. “The shopping center behind my apartment has everything I need, and the bus gets me back and forth to work or anyplace else in town I need to go.”
“You could still walk or take the bus,” Jules said, dropping the bags in the kitchen. “A car would give you the freedom to take weekend road trips.”
“Like to Cincinnati?” Tellumo had been ready for a change of scenery. Fallisville was close—about an hour from Cincinnati by car—and the principal of his school, Mr. Wyrick, hadn’t lied. Teaching at Salt Lick County High was the job of his dreams.
“Melody misses you and sends her love,” Trish said. “We almost invited her to come with us, but your place is so small.” She glanced around his apartment. His double bed was visible behind the overstuffed sofa that divided the space into living and sleeping areas. “I was afraid one more might be one too many.”
“Mel and I video chat a couple of times a week.” Tellumo smiled. Trish and Jules had been disappointed he hadn’t sprung for a larger apartment, with room for overnight guests.
On the other side of a counter with two stools where he ate his meals and graded papers, Jules unpacked the bags she’d carried in from the car. “What needs to go in the refrigerator and what goes in the oven?”
Trish rose from the sofa and joined her partner in the kitchen. “When do you guys want to eat?”
“It’s almost noon now,” Tellumo said. “Is one o’clock too soon?”
“Yeah—the tofurkey needs to bake for seventy-five minutes,” Trish said, turning on the oven. “Will you starve before one thirty?”
He shook his head. “I think I’ll live. Anything I can do to help?”
Jules folded the empty bags and placed them on top of the refrigerator. “Wait.” She looked at Trish. “Seems like we’re missing something.”
Trish furrowed her brow and examined the items spread out on the counter before her. “Gluten-free rolls, edamame, quinoa stuffing….” She scanned the foil packets and plastic containers before turning to Jules. “No, looks like everything is here.”
They looked at each other and then at Tellumo.
He folded his arms across his chest and shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this again. I’m twenty-three years old!”
“Humor me,” Jules said. “See if I left anything in the van, will you?”
“If you insist.” He took her keys and headed for the vehicle. At five, he’d stumbled upon a cache of not-yet-wrapped gifts intended for him for the upcoming winter solstice. Ever since, his mothers had found hiding places away from the two-bedroom townhome he’d called home from the day he’d arrived from the hospital to August of last year. They’d act like they’d forgotten about buying presents and then send him on a random errand, leading him to discover what they’d bought for him.
A pair of beautifully wrapped, oversized shirt boxes sat in the back seat. The nearest, obviously from Jules, sported thin black stripes against a shiny silver background, topped with a silver bowtie. Trish’s featured a brightly colored tie-dye pattern beneath a riotous mass of thin, loosely curled ribbon in a rainbow of cheerful colors. He placed one under each arm and returned to his apartment.
“Well what do you know?” Jules beamed. “Go ahead—open them.”
“Wait,” Tellumo said. “If we’re opening presents now….” He dropped the boxes on the coffee table, retrieved his gifts from the walk-in closet, and handed one to each of them. “You aren’t the easiest people in the world to buy for, you know.”
Jules ripped hers open and gasped. “A Gladys Bentley CD? Where on earth did you find it?”
Tellumo smiled. “I put it together with everything I could find about her on the Internet—including a couple of videos of her performing.”
“Very cool!” She hugged him.
Trish held up the book he’d given her. “A first edition of All Passion Spent, signed by Vita Sackville-West.” She looked at Tellumo. “How…?”
“Great deal on eBay,” he lied. No point telling her Eduardo Clemente—an older man he’d gone out with a couple of times—had given the book to Tellumo after he’d mentioned her fascination with the author.
“Your turn,” Trish said.
Tellumo opened the silver-and-black box first. Inside, he found a short-cut gray corduroy blazer with black patches on the elbows. In the other box was the same blazer, only in camel with brown patches.
“We couldn’t make up our mind, so we got both.” Jules furrowed her brow. “You like them, don’t you?”
Tellumo shook his head. “Nope.” Their faces fell, but before they could say anything, he added, “I love them!” He slid into the gray coat and twirled around. “Now I feel like a real teacher.”
PEGGY TUCKER couldn’t remember when she’d last washed and set her own hair. Professionals at Holy Snips had tended to her hairdressing needs for a long time. For the last four years, Giorgio Mancini had done the job.
“Look at you!” Giorgio stopped in front of Peggy, placed his hands on his hips, and looked her up and down. “Girl, you’re looking good!” His high heels clicked on the tiled floor as he circled her, whistling like a construction worker several times. “We doing the makeover we’ve been talking about today?”
“No.” Peggy’s face grew hot. “Not until I’m ready for my after photo.” His fawning tickled her. She’d quit wondering if he meant what he said or was buttering her up for a bigger tip. Like the good book says, better not to look a gift horse in the mouth. “You ready for me? My scalp is itching me to death.”
“I’m sorry.” He clasped his hands in front of him. “Please forgive me. Yesterday was the first day we’ve been open since before Christmas.” He waved his hand toward half a dozen women sitting under hairdryers. “I’m running a little behind.” He turned toward the back and yelled. “Ernesto! Can you wash Miss Peggy?”
A skinny young man with pale skin, spiky blue hair, big plugs in his earlobes, and tattoo-covered arms approached them. “Sure, Papi.”
Giorgio cupped Ernesto’s chin in his palm. “Thank you. Ti amo, amore mio.”
“I love you too, Papi,” Ernesto said, and then he turned to Peggy. “You ready, hon?”
Peggy nodded. “Past ready. Snowmageddon caused me to miss my last appointment.”
“You and half of Fallisville.” Ernesto pointed to the changing room door. “Slip into a smock, hon, and I’ll shampoo you.”
The changing room also served as the storage area for supplies and overstock of the products Holy Snips sold to customers. Peggy loved them all, but since she never washed her own hair, she only bought the Heavenly Cloud hairspray. She put on one of the lavender smocks hanging on hooks and found Ernesto waiting for her in front of a washing basin.
“Okay, hon, lean back for me.”
She scooted up in the chair a bit until her neck fell into place on the edge of the basin. Ernesto sprayed water against his palm for a moment before turning the flow to her head. “Too hot, hon?”
“Just right,” Peggy said, closing her eyes. “So Giorgio’s your father?”
The water stopped. Ernesto stepped back and looked at her. “Excuse me?”
“You called him Papi.” She met his gaze. “Is he your daddy?”
He looked at her for a long moment and then nodded. “Yes, he’s my daddy.”
“Lord have mercy! I didn’t even know he was married.” She studied his face. “You must favor your momma because you don’t look a thing like Giorgio.” He pushed her head down and cool glops of Halo shampoo hit her scalp as the familiar citrus fragrance reached her nose. “I didn’t know he had children. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
The young man washing someone’s hair in the next basin over giggled. “Giorgio is my daddy too.”
Peggy gasped and tilted her head toward him. “Really?” As far as she could tell, they were close to the same age. Giorgio was either older than he looked or had fathered the boys in his teen years. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Peggy. Nice to meet you.” Ernesto had fair skin rather than his father’s olive complexion. Derrious was as black as the ace of spades. “I’d never guess you two were brothers.”
Ernesto snorted then redoubled his efforts to scrub and massage her itching scalp. “We have different mothers.”
“Yeah.” Derrious snickered. “That’s it.”
Good grief! She’d seen Giorgio every other week all this time and had no idea he’d ever been married or had children. As Ernesto rinsed the Angel Wing conditioner from her hair, she decided asking if his mother was the current wife would be insensitive. She’d wait and ask Giorgio.
“Perfect timing,” Giorgio said. He held his elbow out. “Shall we?”
Peggy hooked her elbow into his. “Oh Giorgio—always such a gentleman.” He escorted her to his chair. She sat down and he pumped the pedal, raising her several inches higher. “Wish I was thin enough to wear heels like those.”
He lifted his leg and hitched up his slacks. “These?” He beamed. “I got them for Christmas and haven’t taken them off except to sleep.” He turned around and lifted his foot up again. “See the red bottoms? They’re Louboutins.”
The good Lord hadn’t blessed Giorgio with height. Seeing him in women’s high heels the first time had been a shock. “When men’s shoes come with five-inch heels,” he’d said, “I’ll wear them. Until then, I need all the help I can get.” Who was she to judge? She felt the same way about Spanx.
“Giorgio, you sly devil, you. I had no idea Ernesto and Derrious were your boys. For half brothers, they sure do get along well.”
His scissors fell to the floor. “Oh, clumsy me!” He swapped them for a pair he pulled from a comb-filled jar of blue sanitizer. “What did they tell you?”
“Ernesto said you were his daddy. Derrious overheard our conversation and said you were his daddy too.” She beamed. “Fine-looking boys.”
“Thank you.” The scissors whizzed around her head and wisps of hair fell to the floor.
“Which boy’s mother is your current wife?”
He dropped the scissors again. When he stood, his face was beet red. “Uh, neither one, actually. We’re, uh… not together.”
“Oh, I see,” Peggy said. “But the boys live with you?”
He nodded. “We didn’t spend much time together when they were younger.”
“How wonderful, then, for them to want to live with you now.” Peggy wished she had sons or daughters who wanted to spend time with her, but alas, her childbearing years were behind her.
The hot air whooshing from the helmet over her head prevented her from hearing anything. She flipped through the pages of Modern Bride, replacing the faces of the happy couple with herself and Mr. Crumbly, the handsome man who motivated her participation in the grueling Boot Steppin’ classes. She’d overheard the receptionist at the gym greeting him, but didn’t know his first name, what he did for a living, or where he went to church.
He paid her no attention, but then she’d never seen him give so much as a second glance to another person. Besides, except for Walter Addison, whose wife, Virginia, showed no signs of kicking the bucket anytime soon, Mr. Crumbly was her only prospect. His ring finger was bare, and the absence of any telltale tan lines or imprints suggested he’d been single for a while. When she lost a few more pounds, she’d say hello or something.
OLIVER CRUMBLY watched the Salt Lick County snowplow scrape the street in front of his house with a mixture of satisfaction and relief. Ten days of complaining had finally paid off. Two feet of snow had fallen in the day or two leading up to Christmas. A week later, before plows or salt trucks had reached Thoroughbred Acres, another six inches had fallen.
He’d been trapped at home since Christmas Eve. Worn treads had kept his Taurus from getting any traction on the flat street in front of his house. Driving out of the hilly subdivision would have been impossible.
Bill Pinkley, head meteorologist for local Channel 13, said El Niño or La Niña had caused the winter storm. Oliver couldn’t remember which, or why what happened so far away made a difference in the weather in Northern Kentucky, but if Bill Pinkley said so, it must be true. Heeding his advice to stock up on groceries ahead of the first flurries had kept Oliver from running out of food.
Thirty inches was a lot of snow to have fallen in a week’s time, and Calumet Circle was in the back of Thoroughbred Acres. Still, ten days was too long to wait for snow removal. Calls to the county road department had fallen on deaf ears. The surly customer service representative had hung up on him—four times. Miss Bethany Williams, Customer Service Representative II, was about to learn messing with Oliver Crumbly was a mistake. He’d mailed a lengthy letter detailing her incompetence and rude behavior to the director of the county road department with copies to the mayor, Oliver’s representative on the city council, and the Kentucky and U.S. Departments of Transportation.
Too bad Kevin Leonard had missed the blizzard. For eight years, Oliver’s ex had complained about the lack of winter snow. But then, nothing in Kentucky had suited Kevin. He’d grown up in the upper Midwest, where life was better in every way. Eight years of Kevin’s delusions of grandeur, condescending attitude, and manufactured facts had been a good four too many.
Oliver didn’t miss him one little bit. Not anymore. He dropped into his recliner, turned on the television, and flipped to the TV’s channel guide. His forty-eight-year-old ex had returned to North Dakota last February to live with his parents and, according to a mutual friend, was still unemployed. Because Mr. and Mrs. Leonard had often driven their camper down to Kentucky for weeklong visits, Oliver knew them a lot better than he’d have preferred. In his opinion, the sorry son and his parents deserved each other.
The viewing options scrolling on the screen at a snail’s pace failed to keep his attention, and his mind wandered. Falling for the wrong guys was Oliver’s gift. The first time his heart had been broken, he’d believed he would die. But he’d lived to love again… and again… and again… and again. Five times he’d survived a broken heart and the end of yet another relationship gone bad. Getting over kicking men out of his life had grown easier with experience. After Kevin left, Oliver’s battle-scarred heart had healed in record-breaking time.
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