"Hey..." Evan's just-woke-up voice was a gruff whisper. I looked up from my book in time to watch him stretch like a cat, fingers spread and then clenched, twisting his back to get the kinks out as he sat up. "What are you doin'?"
I shrugged slightly and held up my book. "Just reading."
He regarded me silently for a moment, then pushed to his feet and headed for the kitchen. "You hungry?" he asked over his shoulder.
As I watched him walk away, I realized he was irritated with me. I dropped my book on the coffee table and followed him, determined to get us back on track with each other. "Yeah, I could eat."
"Where'd you go?" Evan had his head stuck in the refrigerator so his voice sounded like he was down a well or in a barrel. "Sharon thought you were pissed that she came over."
"I wasn't pissed. Why would she think that?"
"Maybe cause you hardly said a word while she was here?" No mistaking the irritation in his voice.
"You were telling her about Maggie!" I realized my voice was rising, so I paused for a moment and took a deep breath, then continued more calmly. "She came over to hear about your mom. I didn't have anything to contribute."
He stood up and looked at me, deep frown lines between his lowered eyebrows, one hand still holding the door of the fridge wide open, the other fisted aggressively on his hip. "What's that supposed to mean?"
I raised both hands. "Nothing, Evan. Forget it."
"No! Come on.... what did you mean by that?"
"I mean you haven't told me a goddamn thing about what's going on, so I didn't have anything to say!" I shouted, despite my intentions of speaking in a rational manner.
"I haven't told you cause you don't wanna hear it!"
Evan slammed the fridge shut in frustration as he yelled back at me. The precarious pile of cereal and cracker boxes - we keep them up there because we use them so often it seems silly to put them in a cupboard - came tumbling down onto Evan's head. He heard them in time to get his hands up and begin to move away, but a few of them bounced off his back before falling to the floor. We both stared at the boxes of Wheaties, Triscuits, Cherrios, Wheat Chex, Oatmeal Squares, Wheat Thins, and Raisin Bran, and then looked at each other.
Our gazes held, and after a moment, I said softly, "Why do you think I don't wanna know?"
He glanced away for a second, his cheeks coloring slightly, and then said, "You never ask anything about her."
I shook my head slowly and dropped my eyes down to the boxes. "Not because I didn't want to know, Evan, but because it seemed like you didn't wanna talk about it. I was... afraid to ask, I guess... like I was invading your privacy or something."
He was silent until I raised my eyes to his. "Ah, Jeff," he said, his voice soft as he admonished me. "I once told you that you could ask me anything, remember?" When I didn't reply, he repeated, "Remember?"
"No buts. I meant it. Anything. Even this." He sighed, crouched down, made Chewy shake, then fed him a cracker and began to hand boxes up to me. After we had them stacked more carefully on top of the fridge, he stood up and faced me. "At first I couldn't talk about it. I had to... well, I just refused to believe it. First step: denial." He snorted out a breath. "Then it seemed like you were angry or something, and I felt... I don't know... I just couldn't talk to you about it until you asked. But you never did, so I figured you didn't wanna hear it." He stopped and looked away for several seconds, then sighed deeply. "You wanna kill the pizza?"
We occupied ourselves and filled the silence between us by getting out plates, heating up the pizza, opening beers, and then settled in across from each other at the table. After I'd eaten one slice and was reaching for another, Evan cleared his throat. "So where did you go?"
"Just out to the dogs. Seems to be my thinkin' spot."
I pulled a piece of pepperoni off the pizza and made Chewy sit up for it. As I was tearing off a piece of crust for him, Evan's warm bare foot slid alongside mine. My hands stopped moving and I held my breath. When his foot pressed a bit harder and I was certain it was deliberate, I looked up at him. He was watching me steadily, his grey eyes dark and sad.
"I hate it when we're out of sync," he said softly, curving the arch of his foot into mine.
I nodded. "Me, too." The hurt and confusion of the past week were evident in my gruff reply, and Evan reached over to grasp my wrist firmly. After a moment or two, he loosened his grip and slid his hand down to hold mine.
"How `bout I tell you everything I know about what's going on? Then we'll start fresh from there, ok?"
"That'd be good."
So he did. We sat there talking as evening fell, getting up only to put the pizza plates in the sink and grab a carton of ice cream and two spoons. We didn't turn a light on, just sat there as the kitchen got dark, talking and playing footsie and getting past this serious rent in the fabric of our relationship. By nine o'clock, I knew all that Evan knew about Maggie's surgery, her upcoming treatments, and her long-term survival odds.
"So... that's pretty much everything," he finished.
I sighed, sorry that these few hours of togetherness were over, and then nodded. "Thanks."
Evan got up from the table and threw away the empty ice cream carton. "You tired?"
"Not really, no."
"Well... some TV then?"
I found a show about the rings of Saturn and sat down on the couch. Evan waited until I was set, and then settled in close beside me with one hand buried between my thighs. Did you know that Saturn's rings are 60 miles wide but only about ten feet high?
As the credits were rolling an hour later, I looked down at Evan. He'd slowly worked his way down so that now he was stretched out next to me on his side with his head on my leg, sound asleep. The blue flickers of the TV made his pale skin look ghostly and I quickly put a hand on his ribs to make sure he was breathing. Everything seemed so fragile since Evan had told me Maggie was sick, as though it might all just vanish if I looked away too long. His chest expanded slightly as he inhaled, then sunk down, then rose again, and the slow rhythm of it was reassuring. I turned off the TV, lay my head back and dozed off with a fold of Evan's t-shirt snugly in my grip.
Thursday morning I woke up before Evan, eased out of bed and went naked into my office. First I emailed Brendan, gave him a brief update on Maggie and ended with COD at 8? Then I texted Sharon. Lunch? Deli? Noon? Before I even got back to our bedroom, my cell beeped. Yes. Yes. One. I replied I OK, then went in to start the shower.
Evan went to work after speaking with his dad on the phone. Don was staying in the city, at the apartment the firm kept there, and had called to let Evan know that all was well, and that by evening Maggie would be with it enough to appreciate a visit from him.
"I'm gonna go straight from work," he told me as we stood in the kitchen shoveling down cereal. "Visiting hours end at 8:30, so I should be home by 9:15-9:30."
"Ok, see you then."
He put his bowl on the floor for Chewy, kissed me briefly, and then headed out the front door; a moment later I heard the Lexus crunch down the drive. Five minutes later, I heard Bill holler, "Hello, the house!" and I stepped out the back door just in time to watch him lead a dark brown horse through the pasture gate. It was another mare (I could tell that now) and she walked like she was on eggshells, if you can imagine a 1600lb horse doing that.
"Who's that?" I asked as I got closer.
"Bernice," Bill replied in a flat tone.
"Bernice?" I asked with a snort.
"My wife's grannie."
He just waved a hand.
"Is it just me or is she walking like she's on hot coals?"
"Yeah, I just took her shoes off cause I'm not gonna show her anymore and she's a little tender from coming down the gravel road. Take a week or so for her to toughen up. That's why I'm putting her on grass."
We talked for a few more minutes, then Bill headed back to whatever he did all day long on his farm and I left for work. The rest of my day was uneventful other than lunch with Sharon.
"So... did you think I was pissed yesterday?" I asked as we slid into a booth.
"No." She looked at me in surprise. "Did Evan say that? He's the one who seemed kinda grumpy, but I figured you guys are coping with a lot right now, so I didn't call him on it." She studied my face for a moment. "Things ok between you?"
"Yeah, now, I think. We finally talked last night. It's been... weird."
She smiled. "That's what you always say. Weird."
"That's cause it's a good, all-purpose word. It was more me than him, but... I don't know. He was all freaked after he found out, and I didn't know what the hell to do, and it just sort of went downhill from there. We finally yelled at each other in the kitchen last night and that broke things loose."
"Evan yelled?" she asked, eyebrows up in her bangs.
"I know, huh? See? Weird."
While we ate we talked about Norm, or rather Sharon talked about Norm until I got bored hearing about what a great guy he was and cut in.
"I got a fireman joke for you."
She rolled her eyes. "All right, I'll bite."
"A blonde calls the fire department and says, "Come quick, my barn's on fire. Hurry, hurry!!" The dispatcher says, "Ok, calm down, lady, just tell us how to get there." The blonde says, "Ohhh, don't you have that big red truck anymore?"
Sharon kept a straight face until I grinned at her. "Come on, that was a little funny. Ok, how about this one – if a fire hydrant has H2O on the inside, what does it have on the outside?"
"What?" she deadpanned.
"Oh, god..." she moaned, but then she laughed and threw a potato chip at me. "All right, that one was funny."
I spent the early part of the evening wandering around the pasture with the animals, just thinking about the past week. Chewy entertained himself chasing bugs while the mares and Dory ambled along a few steps behind me, knowing I'd come up with carrots sooner or later. Bernice was walking better already and quickly caught on that I was the food dispenser. Then I spent an hour blasting the bad guys to smithereens on COD. Brendan and I had played on the same team often enough now that we were getting to know each other's moves, and between us, we scored the most kills that night. By nine I was on the back porch slowly sipping a cold beer.
At ten after, Chewy raised his head and looked toward the front of the house. A split second later, I heard Evan's car door slam, and I followed his progress through the house. The front door screen slapped shut, his briefcase clunked to the floor, his footsteps went from audible to silent when he toed off his loafers. Then the fridge door opened and closed, a beer went pffft as he twisted off the top, and finally the back screen door squeaked softly as he came out onto the porch and sank into the chair next to me. He upended the bottle, took a long pull, then turned and smiled at me.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi. How was traffic?"
"Not bad. Made it in thirty two minutes coming home."
We caught up on our day and went in to bed around ten thirty, and after we got comfortable, I asked, "How's she doing?"
He didn't reply immediately, and I thought oh, shit – here we go again, but then he said, "Good, I guess... She looked so small... And it was really strange to see her in bed. I don't think I've seen my parents in bed since I was a little kid." He was quiet for a moment or two. "But she's doing good. Supposed to be released Saturday."
Friday was more of the same, minus lunch with Sharon. Kenny and I worked hard most of the day on a proposal for a new client and before I knew it, five thirty had rolled around. Ten minutes after we met Raf at the pool bar for burgers, Sharon wandered in with Norm and one of his fireman buds, so we all played pool until nine or so. Evan was in the kitchen dishing out ice cream when I walked in.
"Hey," he said. "Burgers and pool, I bet, huh?"
"Yup. Me and Raf killed `em. Maggie still coming home tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I'm gonna go over and mow the lawn in the morning and take some groceries - my mom emailed a list - so they don't have to go out for a few days."
"She emailed from the hospital?"
"I guess the whole hospital is wireless now and she used my dad's laptop."
"Huh." God, was there anyplace left you couldn't connect from? "I'll come help you with the lawn."
He smiled at me, the sweet little smile he used when he was pleased with me. "Ok, thanks."
I grinned back. "You're welcome."
We went to bed shortly thereafter and Evan was even more pleased with me about thirty minutes later.
Saturday morning was cool and clear, and it was one of those days where you could tell that autumn was waiting in the wings. Evan took off before me to run by the store. I'd had an idea, so I loaded up all the gardening tools from the barn, and then made a stop at the big nursery just outside town. When I pulled into Don's driveway, I could hear the lawnmower in the back yard. I unloaded all my stuff and went to work, and by the time Evan came around the corner of the house to do the front, I was about three quarters finished replacing Maggie's wilted, overgrown petunias. The flowerbed already a carpet of little purple flowers, and the deep orange marigolds and pinky bronze mums I'd bought made a great contrast. I was on my hands and knees digging the next hole when Evan's feet came into view. I made him wait while I dropped in a plant and packed dirt around it. When I sat back on my heels and glanced up at him, he was looking at me with an expression I hadn't seen before.
"What?" I asked him, worried that maybe Maggie's flowerbeds were sacred ground or something.
"When did you think of this?" His voice was quiet against the neighborhood sounds of lawnmowers, kids shouting, cars driving past.
"Last night while I was fallin' asleep. Well, actually, I noticed the flowers when I dropped you off last week, and then I got to thinking about them and how they were summer flowers and that your mom would probably be changing them out for autumn flowers, but she wouldn't be able to do that herself for a while, so I thought maybe I'd..."
I stopped talking because Evan had knelt down right there in Don's driveway on a Saturday morning in front of God and all the neighbors, and kissed me on the mouth.
"This is one of the things I love most about you," he said, sitting back a bit but keeping both hands on my thighs where he'd braced himself when he kissed me. "You like to think you're such a hard ass, but then you do stuff like this. Planting flowers my mom will absolutely love cause she can't do it for herself. Taking Kenny back to the creek in the Jeep cause he'd never get back there otherwise. Things that no one else thinks of."
I absorbed that for a moment, and then asked, "So you think she'll like them?"
He smiled at me and pushed to his feet. "I think she'll love them."
And she did. Evan and I were there when Don pulled into the driveway a little after five. He came around and opened Maggie's door, then took her hand as she got out of the car. She stretched carefully before taking a few steps closer to the flower bed. Her eyes roamed over the colors, stopping here and there, and then she looked up at Evan. He just met her gaze with a rueful smile and after a moment, she turned to me.
"You," she stated. When I nodded, she tilted her head slightly and studied my face for a moment. "Why am I not surprised. They're gorgeous," she continued, turning back to look at the flowers again. "It's what I would have done."
I felt as tongue-tied as a teenager on his first date. "Uh... good. I was hopin' you'd like it."
"I love it. What a perfect welcome home."
After they went inside, Evan turned to me with a grin and a thumbs up. "I told you.... home run!"
Over the next week, life went mostly back to normal. Evan stopped by his folks' house a bit more than usual, but Maggie was out and about a couple days after she got home, so he stopped worrying a little. I regularly asked how she was doing until it simply became one of our daily catch-up topics, and the tension between us slowly went away completely.
I stopped by Evan's office with lunch one day, and while I was waiting in his office, Tracy came in with some papers. She smiled and said Hi as she put them on his desk. She looked so different from that first day we'd seen her, battered and bruised, slinking down the stairs like a whipped dog. As she turned back toward the door, I said, "Evan said you start school again soon?"
"Actually, classes started last week. Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Evan said I could take daytime classes, but I didn't wanna miss any work." She paused, and then added. "I'm so grateful to him for pushing me to go back."
I nodded, wanting to keep the conversation going, but I barely knew her. She looked young today with her hair back in a ponytail, wearing jeans and a white men's shirt with loafers. Kind of a classic college kid look.
"Well, he knew it was important to you." Lame, Jeff.
Her turn to nod. "He said that... um, that maybe you were gonna enroll?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. Gotta figure out what I wanna be first," I said, trying to laugh it off.
She smiled. "Just go through the catalog of classes and find a couple that interest you. Doesn't have to be toward a degree. It's just cool to learn new things."
I could have told her she was talking to a kid who had barely finished high school and who wasn't at all sure a college would accept him, but I just said, "Yeah, it is."
"Yeah, what is?" Evan asked as he came through the door.
"Going back to school," Tracy replied with a smile.
Evan slid a glance at me. "Gonna sign up?"
"Maybe," I growled, "if you don't overdo it."
We threw a big barbeque at the Farm on the first Sunday in October. Maggie started chemo the following Monday and had requested a get together of some sort before then. We invited everyone we could think of, bought a pile of ribs and chicken and hot links, ordered up a keg from the liquor store, and had a really good day.
I hadn't seen Callie in several weeks, although I'd talked to her on the phone every few days. After Sonny excused himself to go find a beer, she looked me up and down, and then smiled.
"You look content. You and Evan are good, I take it?" I nodded. "Good," she continued, "because I have big news. I'm selling my house and moving in with Sonny."
"No shit," I said, totally surprised. I knew they'd been seeing a lot of each other, but for her to sell her house, they must be serious. "That is big news."
"Yup," she agreed. "I had only one stipulation. No more chickens in the living room."
"God, he lets them in the house?"
She waved a hand. "Just that one, the one he's so fond of. I can never remember her name. Anyway, I like chickens just fine, but they can live outside."
"Well, good luck with that."
We talked some more and somewhere in there I realized that she'd be living just down the street again. Callie and I had been friends for almost nine years, since the day I'd moved into the house next door to her, and it'd be great to have her close by. Before she walked off to track down Sonny, I pulled her into a hug.
"I'm glad we're gonna be neighbors again," I told her.
"You're just glad that cinnamon rolls are moving in down the road."
"That, too," I agreed with a laugh.
Everyone was gone by eight or so, heading home to get ready for the work week. While Raf, Kenny and Evan lounged around the picnic table like visiting rock stars, Kathryn helped me carry the food into the house. We put lids on containers, closed up chip bags, picked bits off the ribs, and when we were finished, she turned to me and smiled.
"Walk me to my car. I have something for you."
Now, I only know Kathryn from being around her when I go see Evan at work, and the time or two we've had her over, so I didn't have any idea what she might have for me. Maybe something to bring inside for Evan? But she'd said it was for me. When we got to her car, she leaned against the fender and looked up at me.
"I know your mother is dead, Jeff, but what do you know about your father?"
I blinked at her for a second, surprised by the question and immediately defensive. What possible business could it be of hers? But she was watching me, waiting for a reply with a kind expression in her eyes, so I answered her truthfully.
"I don't know anything about him," I shrugged. "I barely remember him. Actually, I have no idea if he's even dead or alive."
She nodded as if to herself, and then said, "Well, I can tell you that he's alive because I've met him."
Whatever my subconscious might have thought she was going to tell me, that sure as hell wasn't it. I stared at her while my brain tried to process that information. When she realized that I couldn't speak just yet, she added, "He saw you coming into the office a few times and contacted me about a month ago, just before Maggie got sick. He asked me to... talk to you on his behalf."
"He's here? In Patterson?"
She nodded again. "Since the middle of April."
"Six months?" When Evan looked our way, I lowered my voice to a hiss. "He's been in town six months and I'm just hearing about it now?"
"Well, what did you expect him to do, come knock on your door? He's very unsure of his reception, Jeff, so he asked me to speak with you first. Judging by your reaction just now, that was a good call on his part."
I took a few deep breaths. "What does he want? Money?"
"No, he has a job!" She frowned at me. "No, he wants to meet you, get to know you."
I shook my head in disgust. "He had plenty of time to get to know me all the years I was growing up, but he apparently had better things to do."
"He spent sixteen of those years in prison."
That shut me up. I had imagined all sorts of things when I was a kid, trying to come up with something that was important enough to keep him from living with us, or at least coming to see me now and then. Prison was something I'd only allowed myself to think about as I'd gotten older. My dad was an ex-con. Lovely. One more smudge on my already less-than-outstanding family tree.
"What'd he do?" I asked wearily.
"Involuntary manslaughter. He hit and killed a man with his car. He'd been drinking, but wasn't legally impaired at the time. "
I was standing in my own front yard, a place where I knew every tree and rock and birdsong, and yet, just then, it all looked like a bad dream, and there were no sounds at all except my own hard swallow because I had just remembered something.
"Is he... does he have a big brown dog?"
The old man I'd first seen studying the sign outside Evan's new offices. The old man I'd seen walking away up the block when I'd come out of the gym that time. The old man who'd been sitting on a bench with his dog when I'd driven through town that one day. The old man who'd seemed somehow familiar.
"Does he know who I am?" My voice shook slightly.
"Yes, he does." She gripped my forearm gently. "And he knows that you and Evan are... together." When she held out a slip of paper, I took it without even thinking. A phone number was written on it, underlined once. "That's his cell number. Making contact is completely up to you, he made that clear."
"Jesus H. Christ..."
It was just too much all at once and I could feel my brain starting to sizzle. I held up a hand and backed away from her, then turned toward the house. As I went through the front door, I heard her car start and turned to look. She watched me for a second, then lifted a hand and waited until I returned the wave before driving away. I sat down on the first thing I came to and that's how Evan found me a few minutes later, sitting on the sofa staring into space, the piece of paper crumbled in my fist.
"Hey. You ok?"
"Raf and Kenny still here?"
With Evan on my heels, I got up and headed out to the picnic table where they looked up at me questioningly.
"Either of you guys remember seeing an old man around town, kinda shabby, got a brown dog on a rope?"
They glanced at each other before Kenny said, "Yeah, I've run into him in the grocery store a few times, in the dog food aisle."
I looked to Raf, who studied my face for a moment before saying, "He works for me. I hired him May 5th. I remember cause it was Cinco de Mayo."
"Jesus." I turned to Evan. "You?"
He shook his head, bewildered. "I don't think so, no."
Raf had been watching me hard this whole time and now he said, "It's your old man, isn't it? I knew he looked familiar, but I just couldn't put my finger on it."
Evan was staring at me. "Your dad? You told me he was dead."
"No, I told you that I hoped he was dead, but I didn't really have any idea what happened to him. He just split one day when I was real little."
I looked back at Raf. "You gave the fucker a job?"
"Yeah." He shrugged. "How the hell was I supposed to know who he was? It's not like he had `Jeff's long lost father' tattooed on his forehead. I needed a cleaning guy and he showed up in the lot one day when the roach coach pulled in. He looked kinda down and out, so I talked to him for a few minutes, and then offered him the job. He's been great, the place never looked better." He paused for a moment, and then slowly added, "Jeff, he actually seems like a halfway decent guy."
"Decent guy?!? He's a convicted murderer!" I shouted. That was an exaggeration, but I was pretty shook up. I sank into a lawn chair and dropped my head into my hands. "I don't fucking believe this."
* * *
Thanks to David of Hope for the proofing.
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