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BEST-SELLING AUTHOR JANET ELAINE SMITH PRESENTS FICTION, FUN AND FACTS

In St. Patrick's Custody Excerpt


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Bank Roll Excerpt

...Get into more trouble than a couple of two-year-olds and more fun than a barrel of monkeys getting out of it

CHAPTER ONE

Grace reached into her jacket pocket, took out a small bag of sunflower seeds and opened them. She carefully threw a few of them onto the sidewalk in front of her and watched the birds as they swooped down to grab them, one by one, in their beaks. They flew off, far enough to feel safe, cracked them open, dropping the shells to the ground and devoured only the insides.

It was cool this early in the morning. She pulled her scarf up around her neck, shivering slightly. She should have put her hat on, but it was March. The calendar said it was nearly spring. She didn’t want to delay the coming of her favorite season by letting Mother Nature think she couldn’t take the weather she was dishing out.

She loved sitting on the benches at the Promenade and Channel Gardens in Rockefeller Plaza. The flowers were just beginning to peek their heads up above ground, and it seemed that each day they got a little more daring as they reached for the warm sunshine. She had a clear view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with its towers reaching up to the heavens, far above the mundane buildings of everyday.

Most of all, Grace loved watching the people as they hustled and bustled by, not stopping to notice her. They were on their way to work and the way they scurried along reminded her of James. They had spent their entire lives hurrying, and now they had nothing to hurry for.

James had been a good husband, but Grace felt guilty. Try as she might, she could not cry over losing him. He had been so ill, she hated to see him suffer. Now he was gone; he was at peace. Her whole life had been one of devotion to her family. She had waited on James hand and foot, as if he was incapable of tending his own needs. She had done her grieving early—while he was still alive.

Off in the distance Grace watched a little girl stoop over and draw the squares on the sidewalk for hopscotch. She hopped on one foot, trying to maintain her balance. She was so frail and thin looking, Grace’s heart went out to her. In her arms she held a scruffy dog who seemed as undernourished as the child. As she tipped to one side, the dog took the opportunity to jump to his freedom. He scurried to the area where Grace was sitting, sniffing at the ground where the bird seed was scattered.

Grace’s mind turned to her own three children. Missy was so near, living just over in Brooklyn, yet she hardly saw her anymore. Her girls were getting bigger, and Missy had them enrolled in just about everything there was for them. They were in dance class, drama class, ice skating, piano, art… The list went on and on. Missy had done well for herself, marrying a lawyer and all. She had her own life.

Grace’s smile turned to a frown. She was sure, for the fourth or fifth time, that Betty Andrews, her neighbor, had been talking to Missy on the phone. There was some good to be said for the thin walls in the little apartment where she lived. Many were the times she had been able to listen to the people on all sides of her apartment through the "rice paper" walls. The thought that they might have listened to her, too, never crossed her mind. Not even nosy Betty Andrews. But now, she wondered if Betty had called Missy or if it was the other way around.

No, she was sure Betty had called Missy. She would have heard the phone ring. She had seemed especially inquisitive lately about all three of her children, but especially Missy. Now Grace realized it was undoubtedly a mistake to have told her Missy’s last name and where she lived.

Jerry popped into Grace’s mind next. Logical, since he was the middle child. He had always been in the middle of everything. He and Wendy had a nice new home in Philadelphia. Their two boys were all wrapped up in football, baseball, hockey and basketball. This, too, was logical, since their dad was a coach at the high school.

"Strangers," Grace said out loud. "All except Bill." She knew, no matter what faced her, she could count on Bill to help bail her out. Not that she was looking for trouble, mind you, but you never know.

She tossed another handful of sunflower seeds to the birds, then glanced up only to see the face of the man who had been at the park every day. They had never spoken a word, but she wondered if he was stalking her.

Grace laughed. Why would anybody be interested in her? It wasn’t like she was material for Good Morning, America.

"Top o’ the mornin’ to you, ma’am," the man said.

"And a good day to you, too, sir," Grace replied, breaking their weeks-long silence. He tipped his hat respectfully to Grace. She noticed that it was a policeman’s cap, although he was not wearing a uniform and he appeared to be too old to be on the force. "A fine one it is, too. The sun will warm the air quickly and it will shine on the Irish soon for the Saint Paddy’s parade."

"Might you be an Irish lassie?" he asked.

"By my mother and father, sure, but I was born in this country. Never could figure out if that makes me an Irish washerwoman or an American miss."

"I’d say, by lookin’ at you, that a washerwoman you’ll never be. Not a lovely lass the likes of you."

"And you’re full of blarney, too," Grace said, a twinkle in her eye.

The man moved over to sit beside Grace. She emptied the bag of seeds into her hand and threw the last of them for the birds.

"You really shouldn’t be feedin’ the birds the likes of those seeds," the man said. "They leave an awful mess on the way, and the hulls are terrible to clean up."

"And you have a better idea?" Grace asked, suddenly irritated that this total stranger was telling her what to do with her life.

The man reached into his own coat pocket and took out a bag of tiny cubes of bread. He began to toss them out, and the birds took them as eagerly as they had attacked Grace’s sunflower seeds.

"See?" he said, grinning. "They like it just as well and there is no mess left behind."

Just as he said that, one of the pigeons flew overhead and left a bird dropping on the bench directly between them.

"You were saying?" Grace asked, laughing at the mockery the bird made of the man’s remark.

"I stand corrected," the man said, joining her in the laugh. "By the way, my name is Patrick. And yours?"

"Grace."

Grace did not elaborate. There was no reason to tell him that she was Grace Johnson. That made her seem so common—so ordinary. Somehow, "Grace" seemed more elegant, more impressive. Although she didn’t know why she should try to worry about what this man thought about her. In a day, or two, or three, he would probably disappear and she would never see him again.

"Do you come here often?" Grace asked, wondering why she was pursuing any further contact with this man. Something in his eyes, she thought. They look kind.

"Every morning," Patrick answered. "And I know you do, too. Or at least you have for the past month or so."

This man knew too much about her, Grace reasoned. It made her uncomfortable, like she was being trailed by a private eye. Maybe it was his hat.

Her mind flashed back to Betty Andrews talking to Missy. Had Missy, for some unknown reason, hired a private eye to follow her? What did she think? She had lost her marbles just because she was getting old and her husband died?

"Since you know so much about everything," Grace said sarcastically, changing the subject, "have you noticed that little girl over there?"

Grace turned to look at the girl and her dog, but they had vanished into thin air.

"Which one?" Patrick asked, grinning at Grace, like he was about ready to agree with Missy.

"She was there just a minute ago," Grace said.

"Uh-huh!" Patrick said, nodding his head sympathetically.

"No!" Grace insisted. "She really was. I swear!"

"Anyway, I didn’t see her," Patrick admitted. "I was too busy watching you."

Grace blushed like a teenager. She couldn’t remember the last time anybody had made her turn red. Not even James.

"She was the most pathetic thing," Grace said, not giving Patrick a chance to say anything else that might embarrass her.

Suddenly Grace caught a glimpse of the little girl running away from them. The dog was once again in her arms.

"That one," Grace said, pointing to the girl.

Patrick stared at her. Grace was definitely right. She was the most pathetic-looking creature he had seen in a long time. She looked like she hadn’t had anything to eat in weeks. But it was more than that. Something about her caused a chill to run up and down his spine. It wasn’t something he could explain; it was something you learned to trust after years on the police force.

* * *

Daily Grace looked forward with more anticipation to her morning trips to the park. Patrick had joined here every day and their friendship was growing. She had learned that he had recently lost his life-long companion, just as she had. He had worked on the New York police force all his life. "One of New York’s finest," he told her proudly. He was a detective when he retired. He had come over from Ireland as a young lad. He did not remember anything about the "old country" firsthand, but his memory had been kept alive by the tales he had heard from his parents. He loved sharing these tales with Grace.

"It’s the luck o’ the Irish I’m here today," he said as he walked up to Grace. "You know, don’t you, what tomorrow is? I’ll not be in the park tomorrow."

"I told you I’m Irish too. Just mine happens to be second generation."

"Second-hand Irish," he said, smiling warmly at Grace. "That’s good enough for me."

"Of course I know what day tomorrow is. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. And that stops you from coming to the park?"

"Anyone who’s lived in this burg for as long as you ought to know that every Irish officer marches in the parade on St. Paddy’s Day—active or retired. Why, I remember one year poor old Regis O’Toole got right up off his sick bed and made his way down for the march. He lasted the whole route, then he hitched a ride back to the hospital and promptly died."

"That’s terrible!" Grace exclaimed. "Someone should have stopped him."

"What? And deprive a man of his dyin’ wish? Why, he died with a smile on his face. And the last words he spoke were ‘I’ve done me part one final time, and now I bid you all a fond adieu.’ With that he lifted his last mug of Irish whiskey to his lips, sipped it and lay back on his pillow, having stepped onto the other side. Two days later the whole force had a wake the likes of which you’ve never seen. Then they tossed his ashes into the river, just like he wanted."

"So, I won’t see you tomorrow?" Grace asked.

"Now I didn’t say that. But it won’t be ‘til after the parade. Then I’ll meet you back here at the park and we’ll do something special."

"I’ll fix a picnic," Grace said, enthusiastically.

"Sounds OK by me," Patrick agreed. "And I’ll pray for a sunny day."

And today, as had become their custom by now, Patrick walked Grace back to her apartment. He came inside and they had a cup of tea, then he was on his way, whistling "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" as he went down the steps and out the door.

* * *

Grace left her door slightly ajar and listened as she heard Betty Andrews hurry to call Missy. She strained to hear, but even with the thin walls she realized that Betty was just barely speaking above a whisper.

"Policeman…" "Home again…" "I’ll let you know…" That was all she could make out. Whatever was Missy up to?

Grace knew by now that Patrick was on the level. She had finally told him about the phone conversations between Betty and Missy. Patrick assured her that he had no part in it, and she found no reason to doubt him. Why, he even promised to protect her if she needed it! And she just knew that he was on the lookout to see if she was being followed. That’s why he had decided to walk her home from the park every day. More and more they were becoming almost inseparable.

* * *

The day was exactly as Patrick had ordered. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a hint of a breeze anywhere.

Grace went to the spot on the parade route that they had agreed she would watch for Patrick. The parade passed by her as she waited and waited for a glimpse of him. She finally sat down on the curb. She wished she had thought to bring a portable chair, but in all the years she had been in New York she had never gone to see a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Now she knew why.

Patrick let out a long, loud wolf whistle.

"Hi, ya, Gracie!" he shouted, throwing a kiss to her.

Grace turned her head, pretending he was calling to someone else. Not to be daunted, Patrick ran from his place and grabbed her by the hand.

"Come on, you can walk with me for a couple of blocks."

Grace tried to pull away, but Patrick was much too strong for her. Finally, finding no alternative, she walked along beside him, her head down, hoping no one she knew would recognize her.

* * *

In Brooklyn, Missy was busily chatting on the phone with Betty Andrews.

"Yes, I think it would be best," Betty said. "She’s really become quite…" She hesitated, searching for the right word. "…odd," she concluded. "This morning she took to the street real early. I mean real early. Like six o’clock early."

Missy listened, frustrated that her mother’s life had become such a maze of confusion. She hated the idea of putting her into a nursing home, but it just wasn’t safe for her alone anymore. And none of the kids had time for her. Why did life have to be so unfair?

She dropped the phone, leaving Betty dangling on the other end with a blur of sound buzzing in her ear.

"Lee!" she shouted at her husband. "Come here! Quick! You’ll never believe this! Never in a million years!"

Lee came in from the den, where he had been reading the morning paper.

"What’s all the excitement about?" he asked.

"It’s Mother! Can you believe it? Right there! Look!"

Missy pointed at the screen, but all Lee saw when he looked at it was a group of young girls dancing an Irish jig as they made their way down the streets of New York.
"That doesn’t look like your mother to me," Lee said, laughing at Missy’s over-active imagination. "She’s looking younger every day. Hope it runs in the genes."

"You’re making fun of me," Missy said, pouting. "She was there just a minute ago. I saw her with my own eyes. Go ahead, kids, tell your father you saw Grandma in the parade."

Michelle shrugged her shoulders. "I didn’t see her," she said.

"Me either," Kim echoed. "I think you’ve been into the Irish whiskey, Mom. But then, I guess it is St. Patrick’s Day."

"I don’t know how," Missy said, "but someway I will prove that my mother has completely lost her sanity. She would never have done such a thing while Daddy was alive."

"Whatever you think, dear," Lee said as he returned to his newspaper.

From time to time the TV cameraman caught a glimpse of Grace on the tape. One little girl, bored with waiting for her mother in Tiffany’s, watched the parade on the store TV monitor. She smiled as she spotted Grace in the middle of the policemen, thinking that she wished she had a grandmother like that. She had seen her in church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral several times, but she didn’t even know her name. All the other kids in school had grandmothers, but hers were both dead. She looks so nice, she thought. If only I could give her a hug.

As the parade was almost over, Grace blinked and rubbed her eyes. There, running to and fro among various bands, was the tiniest little man she had ever seen. He was dressed all in green from head to toe.

Grace thought about pointing him out to Patrick, but decided against it. She rubbed her eyes again. The long walk must be causing her to hallucinate. There’s no such thing as a leprechaun! she told herself silently. Get a grip on yourself! And then she saw him wink at her and wave.

For some crazy, unknown reason, she thought he must be her good-luck charm.

Maybe Missy’s right, she thought. You have lost it, old lady. And with that she squeezed Patrick’s hand as hard as she could. Maybe she needed him to watch out for her.

At the end of the parade route Patrick and Grace went to Grace’s apartment to get the picnic she had prepared earlier. Betty watched through the slit in the door, craning her neck to hear what they said. She simply shook her head as they left, laughing like a couple of young school kids, a basket in one of Patrick’s hands and Grace’s hand in his other one.

"Such foolishness!" she sputtered as she headed for the phone.

"I know we usually walk to the park," Grace said, "but if you don’t mind, I’d like to take the bus today. I think I’m about walked out."

"No problem," Patrick said as he steered her to the bus stop, even though she knew its every station. Truth was, his feet hurt, too. It had been a long time since he’d been on the beat, but today he felt like he was back there.

Patrick helped her onto the bus to Central Park. It was not their usual spot, but they decided it was a better choice for today as the park was always filled with theater players, bands and all sorts of activities.

As they stepped from the bus, Grace pointed to a small empty picnic table. She started towards it when she was bombarded by a little girl, wrapping her arms around Grace’s waist so tightly Grace thought she might quit breathing.

"I know you," she exclaimed excitedly. "I saw you on TV. You’re famous, aren’t you?"

"Jessica!" the little girl’s mother called to her. "Whatever are you doing? Get over here! Right now!"

The little girl whispered to Grace, "I’ve seen you at church, and then I saw you on TV. I like you. I’d like you to be my grandma."

"Let’s just pretend I am," Grace said, kissing her lightly on the top of her head and giving her a big squeeze.

"What was that all about?" Patrick asked.

Grace shrugged her shoulders. "Beats me," she said.

* * *

Safely tucked away in the middle of a clump of bushes, the little girl who had been playing hopscotch several days earlier watched, wishing with all her heart that she could go give Grace a hug, too. She wasn’t so sure about the man, but she thought she liked the lady. In fact, she knew she did.

* * *

When they finished eating their picnic lunch, Patrick reached across the table and took Grace’s hand tenderly in his.

"Bet James never gave you a St. Paddy’s Day like this, did he?"

Grace laughed. "No, but then he was Swedish!"

The only difference between a homeless person and any one of us might be as small as one month's rent check.

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