When she was a child playing hopscotch on the rectangular blocks of concrete that formed the sidewalk on Ballard Avenue, she would not mark the blocks with chalk as other girls did in other places. She drew the pattern in her mind, a secret for herself.
Uncountable times her footsteps laid their invisible impression over other footsteps, upon the concrete hard as rock that showed no sign of her or anyone else. After she jumped and skipped her way to the end of the sidewalk, to the tip of the triangle formed by two streets that marked the divide of where she could and could not go, she pirouetted on one foot, sometimes the right and sometimes the left, and retraced her invisible steps back to where she had begun in front of Rigmor's store: hours spent in a game with carefully constructed rules that only she understood.
When Grace thought about the little girl on the sidewalk, there was always an ache in her heart for the child, as if the little girl was somebody else, not her, as if the rules the little girl followed were not rules for her. The child had been careful not to step on any of the cracks in the sidewalk. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. It was a silly, cruel, unthoughtful rhyme, but the little girl had not wanted to take a chance. It was difficult enough to skip on the uneven sidewalk where the loose, unfirm, irregular blocks of concrete tilted precariously beneath her feet without placing her mother's well-being into the game, but it wasn't her choice to make. The rhyme had been chanted long before she could make any rules to counter it.
Grace Stevens walked the same sidewalk now, looking for the trouble she had never wanted to find as a child. Beside Grace was her beat partner of five months, Katherine Murphy. Grace's long stride had shortened over those months to accommodate her partner, and
Katherine's had lengthened. Grace could now sense Katherine's presence without seeing her. Wes Mickelsen, Grace's previous and only other partner in the police department, was so big that there had never been any difficulty knowing where he was. But Katherine was different— smaller, not as assuming; quieter, yet more persistent.
When Wes Mickelsen had told her that he was planning to retire, Grace had considered quitting rather than trying to find a new partner.
He had been her partner since she left the police academy; her mentor, the man she had known on Ballard Avenue since childhood.
For her it was always difficult to begin with someone new. Wes understood her and she understood him. She could tolerate his habits and practices even when she disagreed with them. If he lifted a drunk roughly from the sidewalk, she knew it was because there had been too many drunks. If his anger flared in the middle of a bar dispute, she remembered the kindness he had shown her as the little girl he met in Rigmor's store on Ballard Avenue. She still carried the police whistle he had given her; she still remembered the day he had taken her hand, walked up and down Ballard Avenue with her, and introduced her to every business owner on the street although most of them already knew her, or knew about her.
"This is Grace," he had told them, looking each merchant straight in the eye and holding her small hand in his huge one. "She's with me."
In addition to his kindness, Wes Mickelsen was a devious man.
"Call Murphy," he had said after he told her he was retiring. "I hear she's pretty good."
He had smiled his devious smile. Women had never been partners before in the police department: Men had been partners since the beginning of police partnerships, and then came the forced pairing of men and women, but never two women. Wes was gone, and Katherine had taken his place. No, not his place. Katherine had taken her own place, just as she had.
With summer at an end, a few early leaves had fallen to the street. Their dry brittle skeletons crunched beneath her dusty black shoes.
Above her the mercury vapor lights came on one by one as sensors on the poles reacted to the fading light. The lighter blue of the vapor lights stood out against the background of darkening sky, the time of twilight, of light without shadow.
"It's Wes's birthday today," Grace said.
"How old is he?" Katherine asked.
"Fifty-eight, I think. After he reached fifty, he didn't want to keep track."
"So it's not just women who feel that way?"
"Don't tell me that you're worried about getting older?" Grace asked.
A car passed slowly with its headlights on, and Katherine turned away from Grace to watch it. It was the only car moving for several blocks. Headlights weren't necessary yet.
"I'll be thirty pretty soon," Katherine said. "I'm not so happy about that. You're still a baby, so you wouldn't understand."
"You don't look thirty," Grace said. "Anyway, my mother says that her fifties have been the best time of her life. Finally, she doesn't have to take care of anybody. My father has even learned how to do his own laundry. It took some prodding, but he finally learned. And she said that sex is better at fifty than when she was twenty-five."
"Your mother said that?" Katherine asked. "My mother would never say anything like that."
"Does your father know how to do his own laundry?"
"Well, there you have it."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Mom volunteers every Tuesday and Thursday for Planned Parenthood. I think she's getting used to talking about sex. But something happened when she turned fifty. Mom said it was because she was healthy enough and ornery enough to finally enjoy what it took those fifty years to learn."
"Something to look forward to," Katherine said.
Grace looked for a piece of wood on which to knock to ward off envious spirits as her mother always did when she said something to tempt them. There was no wood at hand, only a brick building beside them. At the corner was a light pole, and she would knock on that when they reached it.
Katherine pointed across the street toward the front door of the Shev Shoon Gallery. The door was slightly ajar. Grace recognized the owner's blue and white station wagon parked on the street. The tailgate of the station wagon was open, and there were several cardboard boxes stacked behind the rear seat. It was late for Linda to still be at the gallery.
They crossed the street together, and Grace pushed the door open a little more. The front of the gallery had only the dim light of twilight coming through the large windows, but there was an electric light on in the backroom. Oscar, the owner's Labrador, raised his head from where he lay close to the front door. He recognized Grace and stretched back comfortably on the cement floor. Grace heard a shuffling noise in the backroom.
It was a strange job, Grace thought, always to look for the worst, and never, almost never, to completely believe what she saw. There was or could be something hidden just beyond what seemed evident. It had changed her—this job. Grace knew that she had to change to do her job well, but she didn't like it. At home, with friends, on a simple trip to the grocery store, there was some part of her that remained alert for trouble.
She resisted the change whenever she was conscious of it, resisted it as much as she could, but the change came anyway, slowly and inexorably tiptoeing into her conscious thoughts and finally into the unconscious.
Excerpted from Third & Forever by Lowen Clausen. Copyright 2005 by Lowen Clausen. Reprinted with permission of Silo Press.