February, Cape Cod
Gracie Camden shuddered as flames the color of a New Hampshire autumn lit up the black February sky, reducing the Barnstable Community Playhouse to gray ash and scorched stone. The raw evening sleet did nothing to cool its fervor—only intensified the stench of smoke.
With fellow cast and crew members, Gracie huddled across the street from where the oldest playhouse on Cape Cod had stood for nearly a century. A few were in tears, some in shock, but all were safe. Thankfully, the fire broke out a few hours before opening curtain, so no audience was present.
She was five when her grandmother, Temperance Camden—everyone, including Gracie, called her “Tempie”—introduced her to acting. She studied her craft and proved herself in bit parts for years. Her first major role at the BCP was young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Season after season of solid performances in this landmark playhouse convinced Gracie she’d be discovered on that very stage.
Today could have been that day.
She’d lost count of the times people told her the role of Kat Hamilton in Bennett Noble’s cult classic Love and Waffles must have been written with her in mind. Two weeks of standing ovations convinced her she’d nailed the part. Even Tempie agreed. And, after a half century working with the BCP, her eighty-two-year-old grandmother’s opinion carried weight and not just with Gracie.
If that wasn’t enough, Tempie had heard a word from God.
Then, one of the stagehands mentioned that his second cousin’s husband’s sister, a drama instructor at The Juilliard School in New York City, was in town and might attend a performance. That’s when Gracie’s hopes went up.
Right. Up in a cliché of smoke.
Being discovered wasn’t the only thing that mattered to her. Working at the BCP was what gave her grandmother purpose. Apart from Tempie’s two grown sons and her three grandchildren, the BCP players were family, the playhouse her second home. In a way, this fire would leave them both homeless.
Ian Quinn showed up with Tempie twenty minutes after Gracie called him. In the three years they’d worked together at the Cranberry Fare restaurant, she and this black-haired, blue-eyed Irishman had become best friends. They’d bonded over their different career dreams—even on the nights they’d talked more about themselves than listened to each other.
Her grandmother wrapped her arms around her. “Are you all right, dear?”
“I’m not hurt if that’s what you mean.”
Staring at the smoking ruins, Tempie said, “I never thought I’d see this day. I expected to be gone long before this playhouse.”
“If you’d been working upstairs in wardrobe, you might have—”
“But I wasn’t, and no one else was hurt either.” She kissed Gracie’s cheek. “Let’s thank the Lord for that.”
“You’re shivering.” Ian draped Gracie’s shoulders with the woolen blanket he kept in the trunk of his car. “This’ll warm you.”
Chin trembling, she pushed the cold and musty blanket off, uncovering a waitress costume, one of her few wardrobe changes in the play. “Thanks, but I prefer the scent of sopping cotton over wet wool.”
Tempie turned Gracie around, “Come. You need to get out of these clothes.”
“Why? Not like anyone will need them now.” She didn’t mean to be unreasonable, but this whole event had been unreasonable.
Ian steered her toward his car. “You’ve given your statement to the fire investigator. They’ll call if they have any questions.”
Her eyes flamed between tears. “Questions? I have a question. What am I supposed to do now?”
Tempie rubbed her back. “We can’t do anything tonight. You’re in no state to drive. I’ll call your parents to let them know you’re spending the night with me. We’ll get your car in the morning.”
At the mention of her parents, Gracie groaned. She could feel the pressure already. With the playhouse gone and her free time restored, her bachelor’s degree wouldn’t be enough. Her mother, a nurse practitioner, and her father, a financial planner with a dozen letters after his name, were all about security and benefits. Her grandmother was her only ally.
“Why, Tempie, why?” She stomped her foot like a child. “I thought you got a word from God? This can’t be from him, it just can’t!”
Three days later, Gracie stood in front of her bedroom closet, choosing an outfit for her first hostess shift at the Cranberry Fare since the fire. This was school vacation week, which made going back to work almost fun. She loved seeing the kids’ reactions when she showed up in character. Today, she’d be Jessie from Toy Story 2.
She put on her jeans and cowhide chaps, then pulled on her boots. Her yellow-trimmed blouse was a near perfect match to Jessie’s. Once she added her braided red wig and cowgirl hat—click!—she took a selfie and posted the pix.
Costumes at the Cranberry Fare hadn’t always been the norm. The idea began innocently enough one Halloween when she showed up for her shift dressed as Lucy van Pelt from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Playing dress-up naturally progressed to other holiday roles for kids, like Priscilla Alden at Thanksgiving and the Grinch at Christmas. One Easter, Gracie came as Moses from The Ten Commandments and told the kids the true story behind the movie.
When grown-ups began submitting requests and showing up to catch her mini-performances, the owner saw the value in Gracie’s quirky sideline. He gave her a raise and a small clothing allowance. Now her closets and drawers overflowed into her grandmother’s guest bedroom.
She checked herself in the mirror one last time. “The show must go on, Jessie.” She tipped her hat. “Even if I have to perform in a restaurant instead of a theater.”
After chatting with a few of her regulars, Gracie greeted a family of four. “Howdy, pardners!” She recited a few of Jessie’s lines from the movie while showing them to their table.
The sandy-haired boy and his tow-headed sister were wide-eyed and giggling.
“You’re Jessie!” the little girl said.
She hung her thumbs on her belt. “Sure am. The rootin’-est, tootin’-est cowgirl in the wild, wild west, missy.”
“I’m not missy. My name is Weighton.” She held up four fingers. “I’m this many.”
Her older brother corrected her. “She means Leighton. My name is Miles. I’m seven.” He studied her face. “And you’re not Jessie.”
The father tapped his index finger on the table. “Son, remember what we’ve told you about respecting adults?” Except for a dusting of gray at his temples, the man’s hair was the same shade as his son’s.
Miles’s mother, a petite woman with an easy smile, didn’t seem much older than Gracie. “Why do you say that, Miles?” The woman pushed her shiny black-brown hair behind her ears. “You know this young woman is playing a role, right?”
“Yeah, but I liked her better as Kat Hamilton.”
The father glanced from his son to his wife. “Who’s Kat Hamilton?”
Gracie stooped, eye level with the boy. “How do you know Kat Hamilton?”
“Mom and I saw you in Love and Waffles the other day. We clapped so much you had to come out and bow three times.”
His mother took a second look at Gracie. “That was you. My son doesn’t miss much.” She extended her hand. “I’m Rachel Adler. This is my husband, Reggie. And, yes, you gave an impressive performance.”
She did a half curtsey. “Thank you. I wouldn’t be much of an actor if I didn’t want to make an impression.”
“What a shame about the fire,” Rachel said. “So much history in that charming, old playhouse.”
“Yes, I’m still in shock.” Gracie wanted to lighten the mood. “So, Miles, you like the theater?”
“Yup. I’m an actor like you. I was in Pirates of the Maccabeans in temple school.”
“I bet you were terrific!” she said. “How about you, Miss Leighton, are you an actor too?”
Leighton was quick to answer. “No, I’m Daddy’s W-Little Princess.”
Miles lowered his head and mumbled, “That’s what Daddy calls her.”
“I see.” Could these two kids be any more delightful?
The bow-tied restaurant manager waved his arms around at his staff as if he were the maestro of the Boston Pops. Gracie caught his signal, indicating there were patrons to be seated.
“Okey-dokey, pardners. I’ve got to mosey along. Ya’ll come back now.” She leaned in to whisper. “But not on Thursdays. That’s my day off.”
The Adler family returned twice that week—on Wednesday when Gracie came in as Anna from Frozen, and on Friday, when she wore a pink tee, purple leggings, and pigtails as Boo from Monsters, Inc. The glee on Miles and Leighton’s faces told her she was the reason they were there.
As the foursome slid into a booth, she handed them menus. “Now that you’ve found the Cranberry Fare, I hope we’ll see more of the Adler family after school vacation.”
Miles shook his head. “We live too far away.”
Leighton nodded. “We have to go on the highway and stop three times to go potty. Then we’re home.”
“Really?” Gracie said. “Where do you live?”
Miles squiggled in his seat. “Manhattan. Like in New York City.”
“Then you live in the greatest city in the world!” She meant what she said. “My dream is to live there one day.”
“Is that so?” Rachel shared a look with her husband before reaching into her purse. She handed Gracie a card. “Call me. My sister’s moving to Los Angeles. We’re interviewing for a nanny. Maybe we can work something out.”
She read the card. “Juilliard: Rachel Adler, Drama Instructor.”
The first free moment she had, she texted Ian and Tempie: “You’ll never guess in a billion years …”