An excerpt from

Keep the Ends Loose

I will always remember that exact moment. There we were, in our kitchen: big and square, with black-and-white linoleum. We sat at the red Formica-topped table (Mom is very vintage), and the sun was pouring in from the window over the chipped old farm sink (again, vintage: Mom is a flea marketer extraordinaire). As a matter of fact, the sun was kind of blaring into my eyes and making a big bright stripe down the middle of the table where Mom drummed her fingernails like castanets or something.

Here we were, having what I thought was just a regular afternoon. Mom had put out a plate of my favorite molasses cookies. Sidebar: these cookies are to die for. They are big, soft, and chewy. Just a little bit spicy and full of raisins. She sprinkles granulated sugar on top before she bakes them, so they are both soft and crunchy. I must learn to make them before I leave home.

I thought we’d just be kind of chewing and chatting, you know? Happy teen with her favorite sugary fix, passing the time with her mother. But then Mom hit me with Frank Fletcher and Don Horley and Aunt Iris.

“Mom, Mom, Mom! Back up! I grant you, Aunt Iris seems to have a thing going with Don Horley. Who wouldn’t? For an old guy, he is pretty ripped, and bald men with muscles are very nice. But this is none of our business.”

Winnie straightened up in her chair and adjusted her apron (the one with the cherries and red rickrack on it. You know, vintage). She gave me what I’d have to describe as a very steely look.

“Mandy, your Aunt Iris isn’t getting any younger. This whole thing about being happy living all alone in a gilded cottage is something out of one of her British WWII novels. It’s not enough.”

I had to squint at her through the sun blast. I shifted to get out of the main swath of the sun ray. Mom was staring off into space with her eyebrows bunched up like two small, annoyed caterpillars. She got this look very seldom, so I was getting more uncomfortable as Winnie grew agitated.

“Mom, why on earth is this such a big deal for you? It’s not like you’ve been concerned with your sister’s love life in the past. Who knows if she’s serious about this Horley guy? Has Aunt Iris said she loves him or something?”

Mom slapped her hands down on the tabletop. I have to admit, I jumped.


“Mandy. Let me try to explain this to you. At age fifteen, you think there’s an eternity in front of you. You have a million possibilities. You still get to choose what you want to do in life. You get to go to college. You will have lots of boyfriends. And adventures.”

She swiped a few cookie crumbs off the table and onto the floor. This was ominous. Winnie Heath is a sanitary woman. Our floors have not one single dust speck on them. Clorox is her middle name. So for her to idly spray crumbs onto the floor was jolting, to say the least.


Not even giving the crumby floor by her feet a glance, she went on.

“Iris is a mature woman who has never had happiness! She was abandoned by Frank Fletcher and now she pretends to love her isolated life. So she has a very nice little house. Yes, she and I have had fun going antiquing and filling it with pretty things. But Mandy, honey, living in cute surroundings and giving piano lessons is not what life is all about! Iris deserves to have happiness and fulfillment. You don’t get that from a piano! To answer your question—yes, she has told me that Don Horley is an exciting man.”

This was too much information, and it kind of made my skin crawl.. I don’t want to even consider sex between people over the age of twenty-five. Just not something I want to picture. But back to Iris, the piano, and her love life:


“What on earth can we do?” I knew I had to ask, even though I didn’t want to. Mom had me playing right into her hands (I know, a pun, but it was just too easy).


Mom pounded her fist on the table like a judge with a gavel.

“We have to find out where Frank Fletcher is. If he’s alive. If he is, then we have to convince him to let Iris divorce him, so she can get married if she wants to. If he’s dead, then that will be the end of it, and Iris will be free. This is important, whether Iris loves Don Horley or not. Because she needs to cut the ties to Frank and to the past. She needs to be able to move on!” Those man-killer blue eyes were blazing.

I put my head in my hands. The inside of my forehead felt like there was a rock band warming up in it. Visions of me and Mom on stakeouts, Googling and reading old newspapers in musty libraries came to mind. I thought about those Sherlock Holmes books in the attic. Good grief. But I was trapped by Winnie Heath, the dynamo with the cherry-festooned apron.


“Okay, okay. Let’s not get crazy. Let’s start by looking for him on the Internet.”

Mom and I were now partners, for God’s sake.