I pulled over when I saw the sign: DREAMLAND pop 11,932 and hunched over the wheel of my three-year-old Lexus. Meet me tonight in Dreamland…after the winning goal…Meet me tonight in Dreamland…On victorious we’ll roll…Come with all praise and honor…on every lip and tongue…Meet me Dreamland, great, oh, great Dreamland…There let us all be one.
The words of our high school fight song, a 1910 romantic ballad refashioned to suit our purposes, ran through my mind despite the dozen years since I’d last sung them. In retrospect, they were corny, but as students, we’d thought them quite clever. I closed my eyes and pictured Ned waiting on the thirty yard line, dripping with sweat but smiling as I threw down my pom-poms and ran out to walk him off the field. The football captain and the cheerleader…we were the picture-perfect pair for the entire three years at Dreamland High.
Then I pictured his flag-draped steel casket as it was carried to the open grave at Little Rock National Cemetery. It was the only image I had of him in death, because officials deemed his body not viewable after the accident.
I shivered as I checked my side mirror and eased back onto the highway. Maybe coming back hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Someone could have handled my business. Mother, Grandfather’s attorney, even my father. I’d considered those options more than once. Only when I found myself packing did I realize that going home was inevitable, whether I wanted to do it or not.
Mother’s condo in one of the new developments on the west side of Dreamland reeked elitism. I touched the doorbell with distaste and heard it chime several measures of Mozart, or maybe Beethoven. After a few minutes, when the door opened, I found myself looking at my own mirror image: blonde chignon, blue eyes highlighted with gray and lavender shadow, understated mauve lipstick, and double-pierced ears.
I leaned in and planted a dutiful kiss on her cheek. “I wrote you I’d be here tonight.”
“Well, yes, but…oh, come on in.”
Stepping onto the red-orange Spanish tile, I smelled sandalwood and something else I couldn’t put my finger on, something from the kitchen. My stomach rumbled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“I only got your letter day before yesterday, and something’s come up.”
For the first time I noticed she wore an expensively elegant silk caftan, deep blue and streaked through with silver threads, a diamond pendant and matching drop earrings. “You’re going out.”
` The tip of her long nose, the only thing I hadn’t inherited from her, grew pink. It was the closest she ever came to blushing. “Well, no, but…”
“You’re having someone in.”
“I see. Well, I can stay somewhere else tonight. The Lloyd House is still open, isn’t it?”
“Yes, of course. I’m sorry, Bea.”
“I understand.” I understood too well. When my mother divorced my father a month following my graduation from high school, she’d separated from me, too. Taking back her maiden name—Lloyd—she’d reinvented herself as an independent woman and moved on with her life. I became just an inconvenient reminder of the years she’d spent as Mrs. Clark Collier.
Moving my overnight bag to the other shoulder, I retraced the two steps I’d taken inside the tiled foyer. “Bea, I really am sorry, but as I told you, this trip wasn’t necessary. Parker Aiken already has a buyer for the building, and…”
“It’s all right, Mother. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Yes, tomorrow. We’ll have lunch at the club and discuss everything.”
“Goodnight, Mother,” I called over my shoulder before I stepped into the elevator. The man who exited, a Robert Mitchum type, broad of shoulder and clefted of chin, was probably my mother’s something that came up. After the door closed, I let myself laugh.
The Lloyd House, easily the finest structures on Dreamland’s declining downtown square, seemed more welcoming that my mother’s condo. A desk clerk, wearing the suit and tie my grandfather had insisted on for all his employees in every enterprise, assured me of a vacancy and asked what type of accommodations I preferred.
He wasn’t aware, of course, that I knew there were only two types—single rooms and three suites on the third floor. “A single will be fine,” I said, pushing my credit card across the polished desk. I signed the register—guests at the Lloyd House had never filled out and initialed printed pages such as were common in all other hotels—and handed him the keys to my car. “I have two bags,” I said, knowing someone would bring them to my room almost before I unlocked the door.
He didn’t ask how long I’d be staying. That, too, was verboten at my grandfather’s elegant establishment. A guest was a guest for as long as a guest wanted to stay. While I waited for the single elevator, I observed the people mingling under the brightly-lit chandeliers above the lobby. Despite all the amenities and reasonable room rates, the twenty-three room hotel had never disappointed financially. Often travelers with business in Little Rock or Hot Springs drove the extra miles just to enjoy the old-world ambiance that marked this hotel.
After unpacking, I went downstairs to the small café which stayed open until ten o’clock to accommodate guests and townspeople alike. At eight-o’clock, it was still half full. As I waited for my meal, I considered where I was and why.
When Grandfather Lloyd died four years ago, Ned and I had been in Germany. Mother scheduled the funeral almost immediately, without considering my need for time to arrange travel. But his attorney, Parker Aiken, Sr., had written that Grandfather had left me the building where he’d had his offices and from where he’d run the many enterprises in Dreamland and surrounding Pulaski County, the ones which had made him a millionaire several times over.
Ned thought it strange that my only legacy as an only grandchild was a building, not a monetary bequest. “It’s something he would do,” I said. “He knows we don’t need anything since you inherited a fortune from your own grandparents.”
“We don’t use it,” he reminded me. “We agreed to sock it away for a rainy day and live on my military pay.”
“We’re all right,” I assured him. “Besides, you’ll be a general before all this is over. And then we’ll retire and travel the world.”
I remembered his laughter at the prediction, but it might have come true. He’d received a promotion to major just after returning from Germany. Six weeks later, he was dead. Now I was the sole heir of his grandparents’ wealth, which was well-invested so I could live more than comfortably off the income alone. I’d also opened a successful antique business which generated even more income to invest. On top of that, the bottom floor of Grandfather’s building was leased to two sisters, Stella and Letha Drake, who ran a well-patronized dress shop. They sent me a sizable check every six months.
So why was I here? The junior Parker Aiken, a real estate entrepreneur, had written to advise me the lease had been cancelled due to the advancing age and ill health of the two sisters. However, he assured me he could find a buyer to take the responsibility off my hands. Something nudged my curiosity. I couldn’t explain why I wanted to see the building one more time while I still owned it, but there it was—the reason I was back in Dreamland.