"I can't believe I'm doing this." Motioning for the black dog at her side to jump into the back seat of the blue convertible, Pamela Nolan climbed in beside her best friend.
Rainelle peered over the top of her sunglasses. "What's to believe?" she teased. "We always do comfort food on Father's Day. It's our traditional antidote for 'dysfunctional dad brooding.' "
Pam tucked her hair up into a baseball cap as Rainelle backed the car toward the street. "I wasn't talking about the food and you know it. I was talking about the rest of the morning."
"You mean the watching-my-baby-boy-jump-out-of-a-perfectly-good-airplane thing?" Rainelle shifted into first gear and headed up the tree-lined street.
"Yeah. That thing." Pam paused. "He was so disappointed when I said I just couldn't bear to watch. It'll be fun to surprise him now, but—" She cleared her throat and laid an open palm across her midsection.
"I wish," Pam replied. "Try an entire flock of birds—and they're trying to claw their way up and out." She grimaced. "Let's just head on out there. Now that I've decided to go, I want to get it over with. And I don't think I can eat, anyway."
"Oh, no you don't." Rainelle glanced at her watch. "You said they were scheduled for nine this morning. It's only seven-thirty. I can just see you chewing your nails down to stubs while we wait and you imagine all kinds of things going wrong." She pulled to a stop at a red light. "Listen, honey. You yourself told me all about how Jacob had convinced you that sky diving is safe. Statistically safer than driving a car, if I remember correctly. And I do. So settle back and leave the whining to him." She pointed at the dog in the back seat. When he sat up and chuffed softly, Rainelle laughed. "Sorry about that, Rambo. Aunt Rainelle knows you're not a whiner."
"Aunt Rainelle?" Pam protested. "What would Cicero think if he knew you were kissing up to a poodle?"
"Let me tell you something, girl friend," Rainelle said as the light turned green and she shifted into first gear. "That may look like a dog, and heaven knows it smells like a dog sometimes, but that's all part of a very clever disguise." She peered in the rearview mirror. "I know the truth, Fur-face. Underneath the raggedy black coat there resides a very large cat."
Rambo chuffed again and shook his head.
Pam laughed. "Raggedy is right. He's overdue at the groomer." She glanced back. "Personally, though, I kind of like the look."
"I'm with you on that one," Rainelle agreed. "The pom-poms-on-the-derrière thing never did work for me." She whipped into a parking space at the diner.
Pam got out, but when Rambo started to follow she held up a hand and said quietly, "No. You stay." Another gesture and the dog sat. Pam reached to the floorboard and grabbed her purse. "Let's go," she said and headed inside.
"What was that?"
"Jacob taught me a few hand signals when he was home on spring break," Pam said. "I just told Rambo to stay put." When Rainelle hesitated, she motioned. "Come on. He'll be fine. Trust me."
"Are you kidding?" Rainelle cast a doubtful glance toward the car. "Shouldn't we at least attach a leash to a door handle or something? What if a cute little thing named FiFi saunters by?"
Pam shrugged. "Jacob says Rambo is bulletproof. That means 'trustworthy' in human." She motioned for Rainelle to follow her. "So let's go."
"Is Jacob gonna be home all summer?"
"At least until he and Andy head out to do the next thing on the list." She grimaced. "Rock-climbing, I think he said. Somewhere out west. Some really, really high, difficult-to-scale rock." She shivered.
"Because," Rainelle said as they stepped inside the diner and plopped into a booth. "I'm gonna see if I can get him to spend some time with Cicero—who has taken to late-night chases through the condo. The other night he landed on the pillow next to me. I was half asleep—but I still managed to launch his furry little tush across the room. He's still mad at me about that."
Pam picked up the menu. "How can you possibly tell when a cat is mad at you?"
"You don't want to know," Rainelle said and squeezed her nose between her fingers.
Pam gave an I see nod. "I don't think Cicero would take well to obedience training."
"Oh, he would," Rainelle joked. "He'd have me fetching his catnip mouse in no time." She chuckled and peered out the window at Rambo. "Such a perfect gentleman. If only the rest of the men in our lives would follow his example."
"Amen to that." Pam glanced over the menu before putting it down with a huge sigh. "Really. I don't think I can eat."
Rainelle handed the menu back. "You are going to eat a real breakfast like any self-respecting woman with realities to ignore and things to forget." She smiled. "I will not have you reverting to the good old 'albino pole bean' days."
"Relax." Pam forced a chuckle. "There's no chance of the albino pole bean ever making an appearance around here." She sighed. "For all my efforts not one single thing in my closet is too big ... and I can't seem to get past level four on the recumbent bike." She shook her head. "Hard to believe the two of us used to run six miles three times a week."
"Yeah, well, at least we gave up that nonsense at the same time. I don't think I could stand hearing you talk about your umpteenth marathon over cocktails." She chuckled. "It's thin ice for you and me as it is, what with you all rich and me all normal."
"Oh, yeah," Pam teased. "It's just paycheck to paycheck for you these days." She pointed out the window to the car.
"The deal of the century on eBay. Couldn't resist." Rainelle put the menu in her friend's hands. "Come on, now. I know how you are. You'll feel better with something in your stomach."
"All right, Counselor. You win."
"But when all those trans fats show up on the backside I've been trying to downsize, I'm blaming you."
"I thought you were going to quit the gym," Rainelle said.
Pam shook her head. "I just started going in the afternoon so I don't have to witness my gorgeous husband and his little bevy of pre-dawn Spandex Rangers." She fluttered her eyelashes and struck a pose. "'Oh, Dr. Nolan, could you help me with this machine?' 'Oh, Mikey, could you help me rack these weights?"' As she talked, Pam mimed the flirtatious stretches she'd witnessed, thrusting out her chest and sucking her gut in while she ran her open palm over her rib cage and abdomen.
Rainelle clamped her hand over her mouth, snorted, swallowed, and coughed. "Never do that when I have a mouth full of water—unless, of course, you want a free shower." She wiped her mouth with a napkin. "So—" her voice lowered—"has Dr. America of the six-pack noticed?"
"Noticed what? That I noticed his flirting, that I'm not going to the gym the same time as him, or that I've lost five pounds?"
Pam shrugged. "I made up some lame excuse for why I didn't want to go so early in the morning. He didn't protest. And he'd only notice the weight loss if we were actually—" She stopped herself. "Over sharing," she said. "So ... how's Malcolm?"
"Guarding his heart like it was the National Archives. I can't get him off home base. We have coffee twice a week at The Mill. Other than that, our relationship amounts to longing looks across the law library table."
"Holding. But not each other," Rainelle said, regret sounding in her voice.
"Maybe you should bring out Diva-Ray for him," Pam teased. "She usually gets her man."
Rainelle shook her head. "I'm tired of the kind of men Diva-Ray can get." She looked toward the kitchen. "Where is that waiter?" She called out to a waitress headed toward the kitchen with a tray full of dirty dishes. "Would you track down our waiter and have him hustle his cute little buns over here?"
When the waiter arrived Pam ordered, then settled back to enjoy yet another performance by one of Rainelle's many alter egos. As expected, the one who surfaced was the one Pam called Diva-Ray—an incorrigible flirt with a remarkable ability to get whatever Rainelle wanted. A nearly faultless judge of people, Rainelle had long ago developed the talent to become whatever was required to achieve her goals. It had served her well in life and in the courtroom. Over the years Pam had seen her friend be gracious, loud, sophisticated, down-to-earth, charming, pushy, and a dozen other things in between. This morning, Rainelle's goal was to talk the waiter into bringing her real cream for her coffee, Tabasco sauce for her hash browns, real butter for the pancakes, and to make sure her eggs were cooked according to her own very specific definition of "over easy." Enter Diva-Ray.
"You are amazing," Pam said when the waiter left.
"Moi?" Rainelle spread her fingers and pointed all ten of her elegantly manicured nails toward herself in mock surprise.
Pam laughed and shook her head. "It would take years of therapy to meld all those personalities in your head into one persona."
"What do you mean 'all those personalities'?" Rainelle feigned offense.
"Let's see," Pam said, counting on her fingers. "There's Diva-Ray, the goddess of 'have it your way.' Then there's Ray-Ray the party girl, Ellie the Innocent, and my own personal favorite, Tough Mama."
"When have you ever thought of me as a tough mama?" Rainelle paused. "Oh, all right. But that was junior high and you know that situation required one tough mama."
Pam nodded agreement. Transferred into a nearly all-white school, Rainelle Washington had walked the halls of Clark Junior High with her head held high and her true self hidden behind a bawdy persona who seemed willing to be everyone's token black acquaintance. Referred to—behind her back—as the African Queen, Rainelle revealed not one flicker of her real self to anyone. It was a long time before Pam realized how much the supposedly "only in fun" daily jokes about her skin color and afro hurt and how much Rainelle resented the girls who made them.
"And besides," Rainelle said, leaning forward with a smile, "I may have been doing Tough Mama back then, but you had an act, too."
"Don't I know it. That school could have been Darwin's proving ground for survival of the fittest."
"Speaking of survival," Rainelle said, twisting around and peering toward the kitchen, "does breakfast seem to be taking longer than usual?" Without waiting for a reply, she scooted out of the booth and headed off in search of the waiter. Once she'd located him, she gave Pam a thumbs-up and extended each finger of her right hand in a silent count. It would be five minutes and they'd have their breakfast. With a grin, Rainelle struck a Diva-Ray pose and then headed off down the hall toward the women's rest room.
While she waited for Rainelle and breakfast, Pam reminisced. Her own skin color might not have put up the barriers Rainelle's did in junior high school, but Pam's shyness, athletic ability, and intelligence did. And if that weren't enough, Pam held everyone at arm's length lest they discover the truth about Dottie Fletcher's drinking. Fifteen-year-old Pamela Fletcher would never be accepted by her peers, and she told herself she didn't care. She excelled academically, played tennis like a future champion, and was several inches taller than everyone in her class—until the arrival of Rainelle Washington.
When Pam and Rainelle passed in the corridor, they eyed one another with a wariness borne of their competition on the tennis court and their latent suspicions about just how much of the other girl's personality was fake. In the lunchroom, each girl sat alone. And then one day for no particular conscious reason—although as an adult Pam would come to realize it was an action motivated by desperate loneliness—Pam slid her lunch tray into place at the opposite end of Rainelle's table.
"What you think you're doing?" Rainelle said.
"Eating lunch," Pam said.
"This table is reserved."
Pam looked around her. Shrugged. "Doesn't look to me like the reserves are gonna show today." She paused. "And even if they do, what are you gonna do about me sitting here? It's a free country last time I checked."
Rainelle shrugged. "Who said I wanna do somethin' 'bout it? I don't see any reason to pick a fight with a pole bean."
Pam stabbed a piece of the lime Jell-O on her plate with a fork and said nothing.
"That's what you are, you know," Rainelle prodded. "Jus' a albino pole bean."
When Pam said nothing, Rainelle slid her tray closer and continued the soliloquy of insults. Pam listened, regretting ever making the first move toward what she had hoped might be ... what? Friendship? She chastised herself. So much for thinking they might have something in common. "Suppose you just hush that big mouth of yours," she said, and threw a piece of green Jell-O Rainelle's way.
It landed in Rainelle's afro. Pam stifled a smile and looked away. The Jell-O came back at her, followed by a green bean. Pam answered with a French fry. Aware that the lunchroom had grown quiet and that she and Rainelle were the center of attention, Pam stood up, her hand on the carton of milk on her tray. Rainelle didn't wait to see what Pam was going to do before acting, and two minutes later the entire lunchroom was bedlam. When order was finally restored, half a dozen students had been dragged to the principal's office and a dozen more assigned detention to help with cleanup.
Pam and Rainelle sat next to each other just outside the principal's office while Mrs. Jeffers called their parents.
"Won't do any good," Rainelle muttered under her breath. "My foster parents don't care one way or the other what I do as long as I get home on time to do dishes and laundry and baby-sit."
Pam slouched. "Won't do any good for her to call mine, either."
"Why not, pole bean?" Rainelle chided. "Your daddy too busy at the country club to take calls?"
"That just shows what you know."
"I know what I know." Rainelle lifted her chin and looked down her nose at her.
"My daddy's dead," Pam blurted out.
Rainelle's dark eyes showed surprise.
"And if my mama's even home," Pam added, so quietly only Rainelle could hear her, "she's probably drunk." She looked out of the corner of her eye at the girl sitting next to her. "So don't tell me your sob story, 'cause I've got one of my own. And by the way, you're no different than all those girls you hate for believing the African Queen bit. You just look at someone and think you know what and who they are. Well guess what, you don't know anything about me."
Rainelle fidgeted. After a minute she said, "I know you've got a great right hook. For a pole bean."
Pam turned to look at Rainelle, who had raised her palm to her face and was slowly rubbing her jaw. Her mouth didn't smile, but her dark eyes did. She winked. Pam nudged her arm with her elbow. "That's albino pole bean to you."
And so began the friendship that got Pam through junior high school and beyond. It was Rainelle that Pam called when her mother finally landed in the hospital and the doctors said she would die of liver disease; Rainelle who stood beside her at her mother's funeral and dragged her back to college and insisted she get her nursing degree; Rainelle who arranged her blind date with a cute medical student named Michael Nolan; Rainelle who served as her maid of honor when they married; Rainelle who was godmother to Jacob. And today it was Rainelle who would get her through witnessing number six on Jacob's infernal list.
Excerpted from JACOB'S LIST © Copyright 2011 by Stephanie Grace Whitson. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.