The Secrets of Dawson Mills
excerpt

Chapter 1
Dawson Mills, Missouri, summer 1973


"I want to do something exciting in this bedroom," Mrs. Greenwald whispered. She sashayed across the room, leaving a heady scent of jasmine in her wake, and sat down on the bed. Kicking off her pumps, she patted the space next to her, and beckoned to the man standing in the doorway.

A provocative smile stretched her lips as she spoke. "Come, sit here, Lehman, and show me what you've got."

Lehman swallowed hard and did as he was told. He figured her to be at least twenty years his senior, but still attractive in a vintage sort of way—and remarkably persistent. The paint salesman and self-proclaimed decorator had spent more time in the bedrooms of Dawson Mills than some husbands and learned to manage any awkwardness with a line of smooth talk. Though in Mrs. Greenwald's case, it was a lot more challenging. She was one of his best clients and the wife of the local banker, a rarefied old bird, who everyone called Colonel Greenwald, including Mrs. Greenwald. Like so many middle-aged women of the 1970s, she was bored with beige and taupe. Truth be known, she was bored with the Colonel, who was the embodiment of beige and taupe. She was ready to enliven the palette of her life anyway she could.

Juggling a mound of catalogs and fabric samples, Lehman plopped down on the bed alongside his well-heeled client. He placed part of the stack between them and the rest on his lap. The barrier provided a safety zone and he needed that today. He opened a bulky carpet book and let one side of it fall onto her lap as he turned to the page he had marked.

"I have some wonderful plans for this bedroom."

"Me, too," she cooed and leaned close to his neck, her sultry perfume wafting around him, sweet and tantalizing.

Lehman slid the cumbersome book further her way and she grabbed it with both hands before it hit the floor. Good move. He had her hands occupied. Now if he could just get her mind occupied with decorating. Before Mrs. Greenwald could make more provocative remarks, Lehman resumed his sales patter.

"We can liven up this bedroom with an avocado shag carpet," he explained, running his palm over a sample to show the density of the pile. "And continue the same look in the master bathroom with a shag toilet lid cover and throw rug."

"Oh, how smooth and cushy," she groaned, stroking the long, plush fibers of the carpet sample. "I want it," she said, placing her hand atop his.

Lehman gasped. Her flirtatious antics were more bothersome than usual. She'd always been a bit forward, as his grandmother might have put it, but today she was pushing the limit.

Seeking to put more space between them, Lehman got up, crossed the room, and opened his briefcase. "I have some exciting photos that might help you imagine what we can do in here."

Mrs. Greenwald perked up. "Oh, really?" She crossed her legs and leaned back on both elbows. "Tell me more."

Holy crap, this woman can twist my words like a braided pretzel. Lehman took a folder from his briefcase and began spreading pictures along the dresser top, a move that required Mrs. Greenwald to get off the bed to view the display.

"Take a look at this. We can capture the new Bohemian style by adding a bright, chenille bedspread and perhaps a wicker chair in the corner and then freshen up the windows with a fabulous Laura Ashley print."

"Chenille bedspread?"

"Yes, they're making a comeback."

"But don't they leave marks?"

"Leave marks? Where?"

"You know, on your face…on your body. For hours."

Lehman scratched his head. "Well…I've…I've never had that problem. But I guess it's possible if you sleep on it too long."

Mrs. Greenwald snickered and gave Lehman an impish nudge. "I'm just kidding. I love your ideas. Let's do it," she said, showing all the delight of a kid on her way to Disney World.

"Great. I'll get started right away," he said and began making notes.

Mrs. Greenwald lifted her heavily-penciled brow and placed a finger alongside her cheek. "Hmm…now what shall we do in my kitchen that's fun?"

Lehman turned aside and rolled his eyes. Good lord, does she ever give up?

"Let's look at the kitchen," he said as he bundled up his catalogs and swatches. He followed her down the hall and into the sunken living room that was ankle deep in shag carpet. Walking across the room was like slogging through swamp grass. Mrs. Greenwald tiptoed gingerly through the dense pile while Lehman trailed along behind her. She paused and looked about the room.

"I want to put an oversized recliner in here. I like having an occasional piece in the living room, don't you Lehman?" He wasn't about to touch that one. Instead, he kept scribbling on his notepad as he trudged across the room.

Once in the kitchen, he stood for several moments, mouth tightened in a thin line, arms folded, eyeing the room from all directions. He took a small device from his shirt pocket and started punching numbers.

"What's that thing?" she asked.

Lehman beamed with pride. "It's the new pocket calculator from Texas Instruments."

"What does it do?"

"Just about anything you'd want."

"Well, I doubt that," she responded with a sly grin.

Lehman ignored the comment and started laying out his plan for decorating her kitchen.

"I want to give this space a cottage look. It needs bright, sunny color. Kitchens should be cheerful, because that's where the housewife spends most of her day."

"Yes," she sighed, "I spend far too much time here. It's not my favorite room."

Lehman cleared his throat and lowered his glasses on his nose like he often did when he was about to say something profound. For a moment, he looked almost professorial, at least, that was the air he wanted to convey.

"A room is a living organism. It lives, breathes, changes with its surroundings." He wasn't sure what that meant, but he had read it in an architectural magazine—or was it Readers' Digest?

Mrs. Greenwald tilted her head like a confused puppy, causing Lehman to explain his decorator jargon.

"Have you ever walked into a room and suddenly felt better?" he asked.

Her face lit up. "Yes, yes, I have."

"That's because each room has an invisible energy field. We want to create the best energy possible for the specific activities intended for each space in your home."

Mrs. Greenwald's eyes widened with excitement.

Lehman continued. "We can activate those energy fields by the proper placement of furniture and lighting and the addition of the right plants and artwork. Does this make sense?"

"Oh, perfectly. Tell me more."

"I want to create a dynamic flow of energy throughout the house," he said, swooshing his arms in the air, "one that brings a sense of harmony to each room."

Mrs. Greenwald fairly swooned.

Emboldened by her response, Lehman strode over to the kitchen counter. "We can start by coloring up this area with Harvest Gold appliances and putting a Mylar covering on the walls. Then pull it all together with something earthy…like terracotta tiles on the floor."

"Magnifico! But what about my new fondue pot the Colonel gave me for Christmas? It's avocado. Will that work in this decor?"

"No problem. It will be a great accent."

"Oh, you've got me sooo excited!"

His first reaction was to say thank you, but he checked the impulse. Instead he continued with the kitchen makeover. "And then we can enliven that corner space with a hanging plant, perhaps a spider plant…."

"In a macramé holder," she added, clapping her hands.

"Exactly. My, my, Mrs. Greenwald, you're becoming quite the decorator. Next thing you know, I'll have a competitor in town," he teased.

There was little to fear. When it came to home design, Lehman Post had no equal for miles around. For the past few decades, he had operated the town's only paint shop, a business he had inherited from his father, who died leaving him the paint formulas and the color schemes for nearly every house within thirty miles. It wasn't what he intended to do with his life, but Lehman had stoically accepted his father's mantle and earned himself a fine reputation among the local housewives.

While he stood out in his profession, there was little about his appearance to set him apart. If ever there was an Average Man, it was Lehman Post. He was average in height, average in weight, average in looks. A plodder, as steady as an old plow horse. The kind of guy picked to serve on every do-good committee in town.

But unlike most men, he had an eye for color, style and design. He spoke comfortably of taupe, cobalt, chartreuse, periwinkle, fuchsia, cerise, and chestnut. He could even form a sentence using the word puce—the ugly purplish color that poets have long associated with emotion. Women trusted his judgment, as well as his advice on whatever was troubling them.

His touch was evident in nearly every middle-class home in the area. Rooms could be interchanged on any block and totally coordinate. He had no problem with repetition; sameness made for harmonious households. He called his decorating style "Country Renaissance" and women loved it. But now it was the seventies and his clients—especially Mrs. Greenwald—wanted to experiment with form and color.

"How soon can you get all this completed?" she asked. "My DAR chapter is meeting here next month for our annual tea and the Colonel has scheduled a reunion of his cavalry unit. I want the house to be picture-perfect."

"That won't be a problem. I'll be at the National Paint Proprietors' convention in Chicago next week, but when I get back, I'll put you at the top of my list."

"Wonderful, I love being at the top of your list. You take such good care of me," she said, giving him a soft smile and pat on the arm. "Remember, I don't want my house to look like all the others in Dawson. I want it to be exceptional, verrry exceptional."

When it came to design, Mrs. Greenwald was the Diane von Fürstenberg of Dawson Mills. She wanted pizazz and service and was willing to pay for it. With money inherited from her uncle, she was financially independent and able to pursue any stylish whim she fancied. She was a client he couldn't afford to lose—or offend.

Lehman nodded and made a few more notes. "I understand, Mrs. Greenwald. I assure you there will be no other home in Dawson like yours."

"Please, call me Betsy. We don't have to be so formal with each other, do we?"

Lehman took out his handkerchief and swiped it across his nose, allowing him more time to consider the invitation. "Certainly not," he acquiesced politely, just as he always did to her demands. "Whichever you prefer."

Despite the likes of Betsy Greenwald, with her flickering eyelids and leggy displays, he always stuck to business. There had never been a hint of impropriety surrounding Lehman Post. No hanky-panky, nothing that would raise an eyebrow in the community. The husbands of Dawson Mills felt as secure with Lehman in their homes as they did the family doctor or minister. Few men with such access and adoration could have shown his kind of restraint.

Lehman looked at his watch. It was nearly five o'clock.

"I think we've done all we can for today," he said as he stuffed loose papers into his brief case.

"Yes…for today," she replied with a roguish grin.

As he stood up to leave, Mrs. Greenwald cupped his hand in both of hers and gave a firm squeeze. "Thank you for spending the afternoon with me. You always make things better."

Lehman grinned and shuffled his feet as he often did when he was uneasy. "I do my best. I hope you feel satisfied when we're finished."

Good grief, he'd done it again. Why was everything he said coming out wrong today?

"Oh, I'm sure I'll be quite satisfied when you're finished. To ensure my satisfaction, perhaps I should go with you to Chicago next week. We could pick out just the right things. Just the two of us."

Lehman gulped. "I'll…I'll think about it," he said lamely, though he had no intention of sharing his Chicago getaway with anyone, not even his wife.

Like an overloaded Sherpa, he trudged toward the front door and made his way to his car. From the porch, Betsy Greenwald shouted after him, "Next time you come, bring me a bouquet from your rose garden."

He nodded without looking back, got into the car, and rolled his shoulders to help relieve the tension. There's got to be a better way to make a living, he said out loud. The haggard decorator took a deep breath, turned the key in the ignition and headed home.


Regardless of his schedule, Lehman pulled into his driveway by 5:15 each evening. He knew exactly how long it took to close up shop and drive the few miles to his "farmette," as his wife, Violet, referred to their half-acre home site on the outskirts of town.

Violet was always home. He couldn't remember a time when she wasn't. Like a good timepiece, his wife of the past fifteen years was true and dependable. Willowy with sky-blue eyes that radiated trust and sincerity, Violet was in her early forties, had a decent size chest, shapely thighs, and a touch of sass. Had she left her looks to nature, she would have been a dishwater blonde, a condition she remedied by occasional trips to the local beauty shop.

Violet was usually in the kitchen cooking a new casserole dish or trying out a dessert she'd found in Ladies Home Journal or Family Circle. Lehman preferred meat and potatoes, so her efforts were often unappreciated. They ate dinner in front of the television while watching Walter Cronkite relate the happenings of the day with a smooth, reassuring voice. Then to bed at ten o'clock and up at six in the morning. Year around, always the same.

Their weekly activities were equally predictable: Monday was for household chores, a task relieved by the help of Felicia, the housecleaner, a single mother with three young kids. Tuesday was set aside for dinner at his mother-in-law's house in the next town. Wednesday was the church carry-in supper, where Violet would take one of her signature dishes. Thursday was grocery shopping day at the Piggly Wiggly. Friday was held for whatever was offered at the one local movie theater. Sex was on Saturday and church on Sunday.

Violet joined in the activities that occupied the women of Dawson Mills. For a few seasons, it was cosmetic and kitchenware parties. Then came the book club fad and various town beautification projects. One Easter she sold a dozen of her crocheted bunny rabbits for the expansion of the community center.

Still, Lehman wasn't sure his wife was content. She never complained openly, but there were occasional flashes of regret. She let it slip during a recent argument that she was bored with him and his paint chips, and that her mother was right when she claimed her daughter could have done better than to have settled for a paint salesman. Violet later apologized, but he never forgot the outburst and the hidden truth it unleashed.

Though Lehman Post spent much of his time in bedrooms and kitchens, fingering fabrics and paint chips, he much preferred being outdoors with his rosebushes. He understood roses. Keeping them alive and healthy was a chore for most gardeners, but for Lehman it was pure pleasure. He loved watching the tightly formed buds burst forth from their thorn-covered stems, filling the backyard with a heavenly fragrance and dazzling color.

Lehman had read a lot about the mysterious flower with the silky, skin-like texture. Cleopatra supposedly entertained Marc Anthony in a room filled with eighteen inches of rose petals. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine the intoxicating, floral fruitiness that pervaded the ancient room, as their warm bodies caused the petals to release their scent. He wondered if his new calculator could figure out how many roses it would take to fill a bedroom knee-deep in petals today, but dismissed the idea as an improper use of the new technology.

Lehman had come by his affinity for roses from his father, who had used rose oil to relieve stress and improve his memory. "Trust roses, not people," he advised his son, "and you'll never be disappointed." Lehman believed him. The thorny bushes with their downy blossoms had more power than most people realized. Their presence insured good fortune and their smell had a calming effect. He beamed with delight when friends and neighbors stopped by to view his backyard display and ask for his advice. Lehman liked to think that he brought color to people's lives or, at least, their homes and gardens.


Violet admitted to a twinge of jealousy. Her husband's life spangled with color, while hers was a drab gray of sameness. She seldom let on, but there were times when she envied the attention he lavished on roses. She wasn't a pet rock, for heaven's sake, or a piece of useless garnish. She was his wife. Violet tried to put a positive spin on his hobby and sometimes joked to friends, "My husband has taken a lover and her name is Rose." It wasn't like he was hanging out in bars with wild women, she told herself. He was right there in the backyard. Still, there were times when she wanted him in their bed, rather than a rose bed.

Violet had read an article written by a sociologist in Redbook magazine, which put her to thinking about her life—or the lack of it. The writer declared that all humans have four basic desires: the desire for security, recognition, response, and adventure. "Like volcanic forces, these desires rage within, urging us toward their expression," declared the writer.

Well, she certainly had security locked down—nice home, dependable income, good husband and friends and a small nest egg in the bank. They had even installed a lightning rod on the roof. If anything, she was overdosed on security.

But recognition—not so much. What was there to recognize about her? Well, there was the blue ribbon she got at the county fair for her quilt entry. And the certificate of appreciation for heading up the town beautification program. She picked up an occasional compliment on the book and film reviews she wrote for the local newspaper. During the school year, she taught a Composition class three nights a week at the community college. But who shows appreciation for a teacher? Like a wife, they're taken for granted. Just job objects.

Even so, Violet took her humble tasks seriously and banked her small income in what she called her Dream Fund. She didn't know what the dream was yet, but if it came along, she'd have the down payment on it.

There were probably other small acknowledgments of her as a person, but she couldn't think of any off hand. None of it worth including in an obituary.

Lehman collected all the accolades. Women blubbered over him just for moving a few pieces of furniture around their living rooms. Like a good wife, she smiled and basked in what little glory spilled her way. Betty Freidan was right about it being easier to live through someone else than be complete yourself. Despite the ridicule of many men—her husband included—Freidan and the other feminist advocates were beginning to make a lot more sense to her.

Violet didn't rank herself any better when it came to the third desire—response. According to the writer, a marriage grew stale when either partner felt emotionally unfulfilled. Weren't marriages supposed to become better over time like a good wine, not grow moldy like a pumpernickel left on the shelf too long. Was that happening to her marriage? When it came to claiming her husband's attention, she ran a distant third to his clients and roses and she wasn't sure what to do about that. A relationship was a two-way street. Why couldn't he figure that out?

And adventure. Humph! No check mark there. How much adventure can you have living in a small town like Dawson with a husband whose idea of fun is perusing a Jackson and Perkins rosebush catalog? The only adventures in her life were the few she lived vicariously through reading. She yearned to break free from the sameness of each day—of each year. Life was passing her by while she frittered her time away like an imprisoned hostage hoping for a liberator. She didn't want her Dream Fund spent on her tombstone.

The final sentence of the article left her with an emptiness in the pit of her stomach. "You cannot feel fulfilled, unless all four wishes are satisfied in some significant measure." Violet sighed and let her mind drift. How could she get back into the game of life? She picked up the magazine again, sat down on the sofa, and re-read the conclusion with its five self-help steps.

1. Leave your comfort zone
2. Take chances
3. Be open to new people and places
4. Attempt something when you don't know quite what you're doing
5. Snatch new experiences from the throes of everyday life

Violet dropped the magazine back onto the coffee table. Something had to be done. She was stuck in a groove, like an old record repeating itself until the needle was lifted from the rut. She needed that lift—but how?


Lehman had put aside any thoughts he had about roses or Violet, or even Betsy Greenwald. His mind was on his upcoming trip to Chicago, where the National Paint Proprietors met each year. It was a week away, but Lehman was already getting excited, even though he always downplayed the event to Violet. He "painted" the convention as being nothing but wall-to-wall lectures and boring demonstrations, a week during which he stayed in a cheap motel to cut costs. The gathering was another bit of necessary nitty-gritty to enable him to stay current with decorating trends around the country, he said.

Violet went with him—once—years ago. The whole thing was boring and hot and loud. She stayed home after that. This year, while Lehman was gone, she planned to catch up on her reading and lay out the pieces for a new quilt. One thing for sure, she didn't want to garden.

"What about the rosebushes? Who's going to take care of them while you're gone for an entire week? You know how much I dislike yard work, especially when it's hot. It's not my thing."

Lehman assured his wife he'd find someone to tend the garden and she thought nothing more about it.


On the day he was to leave, Lehman was up early, whistling happily, moving about with more bounce in his step than a baby kangaroo.

"Excited about your trip?" Violet asked as he paused for a quick cup of coffee.

"Oh, no more than usual. Just got a lot of work to get done today before I leave. By the way, Donnie, over at the garden shop, is sending one of his new Mexican workers to tend the roses. I think his name is Jorge, like George, except that in Spanish it's pronounced ‘Hor-hay.' He'll be here part of every day to help with the garden or whatever you need doing. That should free you to do anything you want," he smiled.

"Yeah, right," she sneered as he got up to leave. She was glad he felt good about the upcoming week, because it didn't look like much for her.

Lehman gave his wife a peck on the cheek. "Take care, sweetheart. See you next Sunday," he said and hurried out the door.


When Lehman arrived at the paint store, he went directly to the phone in his small cubicle and dialed a number he knew by heart. He thumped his fingers impatiently on the desk as he waited for an answer. There was a scratchy sound on the other end of the line.

"Hello, hello," he spoke loudly into the phone. "Is this the Chicago Ritz Carlton on the Park? This is Jack Hyde. Can you hear me?"

"Just barely, Mr. Hyde. Please, can you speak a little louder?"

Lehman took a deep breath. Why is it we can talk to men on the moon, but not to a reservation clerk in the next state. He began speaking louder and more distinctly.

"I'd like to confirm my reservation for the penthouse suite next week. Suite 2209, repeat, 2-2-0-9."

"Certainly, Mr. Hyde. One moment…yes, it looks like everything is in order. And will you have the red roses as usual?"

"Yes, I'll need a dozen fresh, red roses in my suite when I arrive."

"Consider it done, sir. I'm sorry for the poor connection. It will be a pleasure to have you with us again this year."

Lehman hung up the phone and went back to the storage room. From a locked cabinet he pulled out a large, leather suitcase. Using his shirt sleeve, he wiped the dust from the old valise and eased it open. It was already packed with a vintage, three-piece, pin-striped suit, a couple of smartly-tailored shirts, several silk ties, and a pair of black, crocodile wingtips. A small velvet case contained a diamond-studded tie pin, matching cufflinks, and a Rolex watch.

From a small vial he took a whiff of his favorite scent, Rose Otto, the best steam distilled Bulgarian rose oil anywhere on earth. His father had left him the clothes and accessories, as well as the fragrance with instructions on their use. A sealed Manila envelope tucked among the clothing caught his eye. Lehman smiled as he picked up the packet and read the neatly inscribed words in his father's handwriting. "always remove before using suitcase. no exceptions!" He placed the packet on the cabinet shelf just as his father had instructed years ago. Lehman closed the suitcase, slipped out the backdoor and placed the bag in the car trunk. He was about to transition into another world. One where he was no longer Mr. Average, but Mr. Big. He licked his fingers, rubbed his hands, and smiled.

When he returned to the shop, he saw a note on the counter.

I stopped by, but you were
talking on the phone. See you later.

Betsy

Lehman cringed. Hopefully, she hadn't overheard his conversation. But what if she had?


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