by Andrew Wingfield
“Blue birdy, Daddy! I want blue birdy!”
“Hang on,” I say to Max as I fiddle with the straps of his car seat, “blue birdy’s on the way.”
I get myself buckled in and switch on the stereo. Slow slide guitar takes us out of the driveway, and then Hank’s sorrowful voice comes in:
“Is this a sad song?” the boy asks.
“It is a sad song.”
“No it’s not,” he says. “It’s a lonely song.”
“Well, sometimes being lonely can make you sad.” I brake gently, creeping past a stop sign.
“Why is the birdy lonely?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “but maybe your brother does. After all, he is in first grade.”
We both wait hopefully for Nicholas to speak, but he is mum.
“He’s lonely because he misses his birdy friends,” Max says.
“Maybe that’s why.”
“He does miss them,” he insists, threatening tears.
“Yes he does.” I round the first corner and speed up, swinging left to pass a car that’s stopped at the curb, hazards blinking.
“Is Hank going to cheer the birdy up?”
I tell him that’s exactly what Hank’s going to do. Right. At 29, Hank died alone in the back seat of a limousine with a few cans of beer and a handwritten song.
“He’s a blue birdy,” Max observes.
“But not the color blue,” I say, braking. At the stoplight, I swivel in my seat and look back at my boys. Nicholas sits behind the passenger seat, the booster beneath his butt lifting him high enough to use the car’s shoulder strap. He stares grimly out his window. Max, on the driver’s side, is getting too big for his toddler seat. “Get this,” I say to him. “Blue also means sad.”
Hank may be launching into the fourth and final verse, wrapping up this song, but we’re still glossing the first two lines. While Max chews on my last assertion I close my eyes a moment, scanning the family bookshelf for a supporting example. “Think of Curious George.”
“Curious George is brown,” he points out, and the light changes. We’re moving again.
“True, but remember the time he was riding his bike along the stream, looking at all the boats he’d made out of newspapers, not watching where he was going, and he hit that rock?”
“It wasn’t a stream. It was a river.”
“And his bike was broken. And he couldn’t ride, and he couldn’t carry it, and what did he do?”
feeling blue, just like the lonesome whippoorwill.” I pull up to the
curb in front of Cleave Springs Elementary. “Now say goodbye to your
I grab Nicholas’ backpack from the seat next to mine and go around the car to meet him. I remind him that his mother will pick him up. Kneeling down, I take his shoulders in my hands, fishing for some eye contact but not even getting a nibble.
Have a great day, I might say to him if the possibility didn’t seem so remote. Instead I tell him to have a decent one.
I drive Max over to the preschool and walk him inside. Chiming welcomes me back to the car.
“Jambalaya,” I say into the flipped-open phone, and give Harriet a few beats to respond. “You don’t like it.”
“I like jambalaya,” she says. “It’s delicious, when it’s cooked right. But as a name? For a restaurant owned by us?”
“That’s the idea we’ve been toying with.”
On Depot, our first Cleave Springs restaurant, Harriet took the lead because it was her idea and I was still working on Capitol Hill. On Black Iris, over in Beverly, we worked as equal partners even though Nicholas was nursing. But since Max was born she’s focused on the home front while I’ve taken on more and more of the responsibilities for our growing empire. Still, I’m not ready to face this third one alone.
“I got the name from the Hank Williams song,” I say, her silence telling me this information soothes her. “Most of Hank’s tunes are dreary, but ‘Jambalaya’ is about good times.”
“You listen to Hank Williams?”
“Not closely, before now. I was thinking about restaurant names the other day and ‘Jambalaya’ popped into my head. I bought a CD so I could see if it sounded the way I remembered it. Have you noticed that Max is getting hooked on Hank?”
“He keeps talking about some blue bird.”
“The lonesome whippoorwill,” I say, pulling out of the lot. “What’s up with Nicholas? He won’t talk.”
“He’s brooding about something.”
“I brooded too, but when my parents spoke to me I answered.”
“We’ve,” Harriet says again, and I just wait. “What makes you think she knows anything about designing a new restaurant?”
“She studied design in college. This is professional experience for her and a bargain for us.”
“You know who she worked for, don’t you?”
“I know she worked for Big Boss Man.”
“You know what she did, right?”
“Should I ask him? We’re meeting first thing.”
“He’s a rat,” Harriet says. “You can tell him I said so.”
“Consider it done.”
She tells me that Max has a doctor’s appointment at 1:30 today, his three-year-old visit, which means I’m picking Nicholas up from school. “I hope you remembered that.”
“That’s a laugh,” she says, not laughing. “Listen, are you going back out after stories again tonight?”
“Have to. I’m interviewing another chef.”
She sighs. “We need to talk.”
Harriet doesn’t work inside restaurants these days, but she watches the balance sheets like Dutchmen watch dykes. It’s too early in the day for me to hear about a leak.
“Aren’t we talking right now?”
“No,” she says, “we’re not.”
Big Boss Man rules Cleave Springs from the white, four-door pickup truck that’s waiting for me when I pull into the parking lot behind the building. I take a spot near his and watch him climb down from the high cab.
“Hank Williams,” he says, having heard the music through my open windows. “Your cheating heart will tell on you.”
“So I’ve heard.”
He watches me closely from under the bill of his cap, like he’s looking at me—really looking—for the first time. “Hank Williams?”
I nod toward the manila folder in his hand. “You have that lease?”
“Let’s go inside.”
I follow him around to the front of the building and he opens the boarded-up front door. It’s the old bank building, the plum property on the Avenue, and the only space on Cleave Springs’ main drag that hasn’t already been cleaned up and leased to a business that caters to the people who can afford what houses in our neighborhood cost these days. Two years ago I tracked down and tried to do a deal with the owner of this elegant, crumbling edifice, a crazy old woman hooked up to an oxygen tank. She sent me packing without ever naming her price. A few months ago, when I heard she’d sold to Big Boss Man, I instantly saw him standing in the sick room in his heavy brown boots, looming above the old woman’s wasted body, one of his burly hands clutching the fragile oxygen tube like he might start to whip her with it, the other hand offering her the pen she would use to sign the property over to him.
The guy knows how much the space thrills me because I made the mistake of telling him so the first time we came in here together. Even with the tall, arched windows boarded over, even with the mold stains on the walls, even with the only light coming from two naked bulbs that dangle from the high ceiling, I come in here and all I can see is what a happening place Jambalaya will be.
“Another restaurant,” he says.
“Restaurant and bar.”
“My whole plan is predicated on Cleave Springs becoming a destination.”
“Predicated,” he says.
“Depot, the other places on the Avenue, they’re mostly serving the people who live here. But people from everywhere will want to come to this new joint.”
“They’ll want to come because...?”
“There’s a sweet spot between funky and fine. I know how to find it. Now,” I say, reaching toward the folder, “are you going to let me see that lease?”
His phone chimes as he’s handing me the folder. He starts talking and heads for the door, motioning for me to come with him. He locks the door behind us and I walk back toward the parking lot with him, scanning the lease as I go. When we reach his pickup, he flips the phone shut and tells me he’s got to run.
“One minute. These numbers are all wrong.”
He climbs up into the truck and shuts the door. “Call me,” his lips say as the engine roars to life.
“Predicated,” I say. “What’s wrong with the word ‘predicated’?”
“He’s threatened by you,” Crystal says. She sits next to me in the booth in Depot’s front dining room that I’ve occupied all morning. Her fabric swatches, six-inch squares, make a neat stack on the table and her thigh presses lightly against mine. The lunch servers whisk around the room, getting things ready for the noon rush.
“All that fancy education.” She lifts the swatch at the top of her stack, which is way too orange.
I shake my head. “Did you threaten him too? I could see him having trouble dealing with a smart young woman.”
“Secretary is a support position. I played that role, and we got along fine.” These last words are pitch-perfect, no trace in them of the stories that swirl about Crystal leaving her job under pressure from Big Boss Man’s wife.
“And you left because…?”
“Because I don’t want to be a secretary when I grow up.”
“What do you want to be?”
She holds up another swatch. “This is nice.”
“This color,” I say, “or this job?”
“This was our first restaurant,” I say, lifting the salt and pepper caddy off the table, a little steam engine made of homey hammered tin.
Crystal toots like a locomotive. Her mouth is playful, her pale brown eyes as hard as walnut shells.
I set the caddy down. “Harriet wanted the train motif because Cleave Springs started out as a railworkers’ neighborhood.”
“All aboard,” Crystal says.
“My leverage was limited back then. Hadn’t quit the day job yet. But I did manage to put the brakes on a couple of bad ideas.”
She grimaces as if from shooting pains.
“Jambalaya will be different,” I say. “We’ll do it right. You’ll get a lot of experience, set yourself up for another design job. I know you pulled the dinner shift last night. Thanks for coming in this morning.”
“Thank you,” she says, and it’s the weight she puts on you, the suggestion that I’ve already given her more than I know, that sends me back to the lease on the table in front of me. For the third time since we parted earlier, I call Big Boss Man. Straight to voicemail again.
“Could it be a test?” she says after I slap the table.
“How bad do I want it, you mean?”
She nods. “Do you want it more than the other guy?”
“The other guy? Do you know something?”
“Only how he operates.”
“So you think someone else wants to lease the space?”
“Or use it,” she says, tilting her head.
“What, he wants to open a business himself?”
“He’s got time on his hands. It’s not like Cleave Springs has many properties left to flip.”
“True,” I say, remembering how he quizzed me about my business plan this morning. “Crystal, is he thinking about opening a restaurant?”
She raises another swatch, this one the color of kidney beans. “Do I know what he’s thinking?”
I nod, but not because the color is right.
Lunch at Depot is busy. The crowd’s convivial roar travels up the stairwell and through the open door of my office, where I sit reading chefs’ resumes. The phone barely has a chance to chime before I flip it open. “He’s fucking with the numbers.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Harriet says. “Competition?”
“Of one kind or another. Where are you?”
“Just picked up Max. He’s distraught because Hank is in your car. Can you talk to him?” The phone tumbles from hand to hand.
“Daddy?” The boy’s voice teeters on the edge of grief.
“Hi, sweetheart. How was school?”
I was never a good singer, but fatherhood has made me a willing one. “You want goodbye Joe? Get ready, big boy. Here it comes.”
When I sing most artists’ songs, I’m acutely, even painfully aware of my voice’s complete lack of range and color. Hank’s songs are different. Something inside them numbs my critical ear. I’m the one singing this tune, but it’s Hank’s cracked timbre that I hear, as if the jaunty phrases he unfurls, the fresh emotions that set them alight, have welled up this very moment from my own soul.
Knowing my listener as I do, I stop at the end of the first verse for a bit of exegesis. As usual, he wants to know if a pirogue is a boat, and I confirm that it is. He wants to know if the bayou is water, he wants to know if Yvonne is Hank’s friend, he wants to know if there’s going to be a party on the bayou and if Hank and Yvonne are going to the party and if there’s going to be cake. I answer every question in the affirmative.
“Daddy?” he says.
“Where are you, Daddy?”
“At Depot, working. I’ll see you for stories.”
“I’m going to choose a book,” he says.
“And I’m going to read them to you.”
The phone tumbles from hand to hand again. “Remember,” Harriet says. “You’re picking up Nicholas.”
I’m rehearsing monologues as I lean against my idling car. When the herd of first-graders bursts through the double doors and comes rumbling across the playground, I don’t even try to catch sight of mine. I know he’s behind the pack, going at his own pace, this boy who reads circles around his peers but could use a tutor’s help to master the basics of walking. Harriet is probably right to see his gangly, tentative gait as a purely physical problem, his body slower than most at coordinating itself. I take his steps more personally, seeing too much of myself in the walk of a boy who can’t quite trust the earth to support him.
I toss the pack on the passenger’s seat, sit down behind the wheel, and wait until I hear his seatbelt click shut. “Everything all right?” I say, pulling away from the curb. “How was school?” I check the rearview and see him staring out his window.
What, I could say, you want to scare me off so you can get into the restaurant business yourself? It’s a tough business, very tough. What do you know about creating a scene people will like? What do you know about developing a concept, hiring a chef, naming cocktails? It’s nothing like being a contractor, believe me. If you do this, you’ll fail.
Okay, I could say, you want a piece of the action? That’s reasonable. You’ve got the space, I’ve got the concept, the experience. Tell you what, I could say, you put up half the capital, I’ll put up the other half. Let’s be partners.
But you don’t want to collaborate with me, do you? You want to give me a choice: walk away or fail. Either way, you’re still the king. Well, I could say, good try, asshole. I’m not intimidated. I’m not backing down. Get ready to lose your throne.
When I pull up in front of the house Harriet’s wagon is there, back already from the doctor’s. I check Nicholas’ face in the rearview, and something about the squint of his eyes tells me to hold my tongue, to sit tight and give him a minute before I take him to the front door.
“Yes?” I wait several beats, willing myself to stay quiet, be patient, but he’s gone silent as a stone. “What were you wondering, love?”
He releases the seatbelt and opens his door. I grab his backpack and step around to meet him, going with him up the walkway and onto the front porch. “Are you going to tell me?” I say, and the squint of his eyes says he’s still thinking about it.
But Harriet opens the front door, and the moment dissolves.
Crystal, in white blouse and black slacks, dressed to serve, pops into my office before starting the dinner shift. She drops a furniture catalogue on my desktop and rests her hands there, bending at the waist, her pale brown eyes level with mine. “Some nice pieces for the bar in there. I marked a bunch of pages.”
“Thanks, I’ll look at them.”
“We really have to get back in there with a tape measure. I need to be in the space to know if some of these pieces will work.”
“If Big Boss Man wasn’t AWOL, we could try to get the key.”
“Ah, the key.” She reaches into the pocket of her slacks and pulls out a gold key on a white string.
“How’d you get that?”
“He’s not entirely AWOL.”
“Just from me?”
She reaches back and slides the key into her pocket. “The more time you have to wonder, the less certain you get.”
“Here’s what I’m getting uncertain about,” I say. “You.”
“Crystal, who are you working for?”
She lifts her hands from the desktop and stands upright. “You sign my checks.”
“The key,” I say. “Why’d he give it to you?”
She shrugs. “I asked, he gave.”
“Hard to imagine,” she says, nodding.
“Impossible, actually. But here’s what I can imagine. You know one of us is going to open a restaurant in that building. You don’t care who it is. Either way, you’re going to be involved.”
“Half right,” she says.
“Okay, what am I wrong about?”
She plants her hands on the desktop again, this time leaning in close enough that I can smell her shampoo. “I do care.”
We hold each other’s gaze a moment before she backs away, standing upright again. “Will you be here when I finish? I thought we could go over there tonight.”
“I’m interviewing that chef from Serpentine. I’ll hang out till you’re done.”
Harriet has just finished getting the freshly bathed boys into their pajamas when I arrive. It’s her turn to read to Nicholas tonight, so I cozy up with Max on his bed, a head of fragrant brown curls propped on my chest. The child knows every word of the six or eight books that currently hold his interest, and I make sport with his memory while I read, occasionally veering away from the text so he can catch and correct me.
“How about the window song? Haven’t sung you that one in a while.”
“Let’s see if I remember the words.” I close my eyes a moment, waiting for the intro to materialize in my head. I hear the plaintive guitar, and then my being starts to fill with Hank’s forlorn sound:
“Who is Hank talking to?” Max wants to know.
“To a friend, I think.”
“I’m guessing his friend is a woman.”
“She’s going to buy a window?”
“Not exactly. Window shopping means shopping for something when you don’t plan to buy just yet. It’s an expression.”
He chews on that for a moment. “What is Hank’s friend shopping for?”
“She’s shopping for a man,” I say. “But it’s kind of tricky. People can’t be bought like things in a store, so if this woman is looking for a good deal, it’s not exactly the lowest price she wants.” I stand up. “I’m not making much sense, am I?”
“Daddy?” Max says, yawning.
“Is Hank angry?”
“It sounds to me like he’s more sad than angry.”
“It’s a blue song?”
“It is a blue song.” I bend down to kiss his forehead. “Now it’s time for Daddy to say goodnight.”
“I want Mommy to say goodnight, too.”
I go to the doorway of Nicholas’ room, where a familiar tableau awaits me: dim lamplight, books strewn about bed and floor, son cleaving to mother, both asleep. I tiptoe across the floor and touch Harriet’s arm. Usually she awakens instantly, but today, like yesterday and the day before, she doesn’t even move. I shake her lightly, then harder. The eyes open, slowly the brain engages. She yawns, blinks several times, and slithers out of the boy’s grasp.
“He wants the bank building for himself,” I whisper to her in the hall.
“Wants to open his own restaurant.”
“Let him,” she laughs.
“But that’s competition for Depot.”
“I doubt it. The guy’s a contractor—a bad one, I might add.” She glances down the hall toward our bathroom, where we spent 2,000 bucks on plumbing a month after Big Boss Man sold us our “fully renovated” house. “What makes you think he can run a good restaurant?”
“Mommy?” Max calls. “I want Mommy to say goodnight.”
Harriet tells him she’ll be right there.
“We need to talk about this,” I say, clinching annoyance in both fists.
“We do need to talk,” she says gravely. “Wake me up when you come in.”
The chef sports a mane of wavy black hair and a small silver hoop in each ear. The stubble on his face is a few days from becoming a beard. Facing me across one of Depot’s bar tables, he leans in to listen as I weave my Jambalaya vision. It’s not a Cajun restaurant that I’ve got in mind, not some greasy spoon in the French Quarter where you go for gumbo and red beans and rice. No, it’s an inflection I’m after, a Jambalaya spirit of good times, good people, and creative, authentic, down-to-earth food.
The chef sees what I’m saying, or claims to. Halfway through the second martini he begins to speak, discoursing on the versatility of oysters and shrimp, the mysterious properties of andouille sausage, the untapped possibilities of okra. Somewhere in the middle of this Crystal appears, her hair down, the white shirt less buttoned than before. The dinner shift must be over.
She joins us for a drink. I start to tell the chef about the bank space, but before I get very far I remember that Crystal has the key.
We quickly empty our glasses. I grab my briefcase and off we go down the Avenue, where the cool night air on my face and the solid sidewalk beneath my happy feet make me understand for the first time how buzzed I am. I buzz to my companions about Cleave Springs, this blighted little neighborhood that we’ve brought back to life. The big stucco house on our right is a salon and spa called Revive. Thugs used to congregate on the porch of this falling-down place, the thumping woofers in their cars rattling the teeth of all who passed. The Lily Pad Café occupies the ground floor of the neighborhood’s original department store. After the department store closed a series of churches passed through the building. When the last congregation left, it became the crack house it was when Big Boss Man sold Harriet and me our house. These days the Lily Pad bustles every morning with well-dressed babies and moms who hold advanced degrees.
“And now for the next big thing,” I say as we arrive at the boarded up bank building. Crystal unlocks the door and turns on the lights. We give the chef a tour of the space, talking him through the layout—bar up front, dining room in the center, kitchen tucked under the loft we plan to build in the back. He loves our idea of turning the old bank vault into a wine cellar. As Crystal starts to take some measurements I walk the chef out to the street, querying him on the brands of equipment he favors, showing him the kind of owner I’ll be, how I’ll listen, support, facilitate.
Back inside, I don’t see Crystal. I walk around the space a minute before I notice a light coming from the doorway of the vault in the back corner. I find her in the fortified room, sitting on a little ledge that runs along one wall, the catalogue open on her lap.
“I needed better light,” she says.
I go to sit down beside her, but misjudge the height of the ledge and lunge sidelong against her. “Sorry,” I say, but don’t scoot away.
She closes the catalogue. “Well?”
“I think he’s the guy. His references are stellar, he’s ready to run his first kitchen, and he digs our concept. I like him. What do you think?”
“I missed most of the interview,” she says in a voice that might be cross.
“Oh,” I say, “you want to interview chefs with me, too?”
Her face swivels away from me.
I lean in, closing the little gap she’s opened between us. “That came out wrong. I just don’t want to presume anything, Crystal. What I meant to ask is how much do you want to be involved in?”
“Everything,” she says, turning to me again, her eager voice reaching in to shake a part of me that used to come awake whenever I was with Harriet, a part of me made vibrant by the light of my wife’s attention.
Everything. Is that what I have, or is it what I want? It’s what I’m ready to give to be everything to someone again.
“Crystal,” I say, lifting her hand to my mouth.
She yanks her hand away and stands, glaring down at me. “What are you doing?”
I have no answer.
Her neck is scarlet, her eyes murky with affront. “Did you think?”
“But you said…”
“What did I say?”
“That you did care who opened a restaurant here. I thought you were saying you wanted it to be me.”
“Not because I want you to kiss my hand.” She walks to the door of the vault, peering out to the main room.
“Crystal, I’m so sorry.”
She stays in the doorway, looking out.
“I thought you were interested in me. I wanted you to be.”
“I was interested in you,” she says, facing me again. “I am interested in you. I’m interested in working with you.”
The disappointment on her face sends my eyes to my feet. I’m still looking down when she says, “Can I ask you something?”
“Would you ever, in a million years, open a restaurant with plaid table cloths?”
“He likes plaid?” I say, looking up at her again.
She nods gloomily. “His roots are in Scotland.”
“I see it now. Hairy-legged waiters running around in kilts. All you can eat haggis. Intimate candle light dinners with live bagpipe music.”
We laugh a little. She comes back and sits down, leaving a good foot of space between us.
“Not that it’s any of my business,” I say.
She shakes her head. “No, never. He worries about me, like a daughter or something. People see the way he acts around me and jump to conclusions.”
I tip my head toward the rhythmic sound of boot steps thudding across the main room. “He protects you?”
“From wolves,” Crystal says as Big Boss Man fills the doorway of the vault.
“I was driving by,” he says. “Saw the front door ajar.”
I stand up. “You’re out late.”
“You too,” he says. “Hi Cryssie.”
Crystal raises her catalogue. “We were talking about furniture, taking some measurements.”
“Restaurant furniture,” he says. “Can I see?”
Crystal hands him the catalogue and he starts thumbing through it.
“Is your phone broken?” I ask him. “I’ve been calling you all day about the lease.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Only that the numbers on there aren’t the ones we agreed on.”
“They’re not,” he says, his tone falling somewhere between statement and question.
I open my briefcase. “Take a look,” I say, handing over the document before I sit back down on the ledge.
He quickly scans the pages. “Those are the numbers.”
“Pretty high, don’t you think?”
“I’ve got numbers to make too,” he says. “This building wasn’t gifted to me.”
“Of course not.”
He pinches the bill of his cap and adjusts it, making his eyes more visible. “Listen, if this little thing of yours can’t crank those kind of numbers, fine. I’ll work out something else.” He rolls the lease up into a loose cylinder. “That way, the two of you can go home and get to sleep, which is what I’m about to do.” He turns to go, but pauses. “Cryssie, you need a ride home?”
“Oh,” she says, “thanks.”
I stand. “Wait a minute. We’re not done here.”
Neither of them moves as I pull from my shirt pocket the gold pen my mother gave me when I finished law school. “I’ve got some papers to sign.” I take the rolled-up lease from Big Boss Man and sit down on the ledge, briefcase across my knees, heart pounding ferociously as I flip through the pages and scrawl my signature boldly above my printed name.
“I guess that’s done,” Crystal says, pleased.
Big Boss Man smiles. “Not quite.”
“Harriet has to sign it too,” I explain, and Crystal’s darkening face tells me I’ve surprised her a second time.
The three of us walk out together, Crystal locking the door and then handing the key to Big Boss Man. The white pickup sits curbside. After they climb into it, I approach Big Boss Man’s door and his window slides down. “You’re a Hank Williams fan,” I say, intent that he, too, should be surprised just once before this day is done. “I’ll bet you know this one.”
Before he can respond, I start singing the words I’ve already sung once tonight, and they rise up out of me as raw and woeful as when I sang them in Max’s bedroom.
“Know what?” they both ask.
“Who’s got the best deal in town.”
I’m too keyed up to read or watch TV or even to comb the Web for further details of Hank’s biography. I’m about to open the liquor cabinet when I remember that Harriet wanted me to wake her.
Upstairs, I switch on the bedside lamp and find Nicholas sleeping in my place. I lift his limp body and carry him back to his own bed. Harriet is in the grip of the same aggressive sleep I interrupted earlier this evening. It takes me a full minute to rouse her, and when I finally do she regards me with a look that begins in alarm and ends in accusation.
“What happened?” she says.
“You said to wake you when I got in.”
She struggles slowly upward, propping herself on a pillow. “Jesus. What time is it?”
“How was the chef?”
“I liked him. He seems to like the opportunity.”
“What about the lease?”
“I’m starting to think we can make it work. I’ll show it to you in the morning.”
“I have an appointment in the morning,” she says, studying me through eyes that grow more alert, more wary by the second. “You look strange.”
“She was at the interview, wasn’t she?”
“Excited about Jambalaya,” I say.
Her eyebrows lift. “So you’ve settled on that name?”
“Whatever we call it,” I say, “this is going to be the one.”
“The first two were learning experiences. I can’t wait to see what happens with the training wheels off.”
“That’s what I am to you, training wheels?”
“I didn’t say that.”
She lifts a pillow from my side of the bed and places it on the one already behind her, settling back into the stack. “Can’t you concentrate on making the ones we already have as good as can be? Why do we need another?”
“You talked me into this business,” I say, my voice surprisingly fierce.
“You miss the hyenas over on the Hill?”
“I’m just saying that restaurants are what I do now. What I do, I do to the hilt.”
“Restaurants aren’t all you do.”
“They’re what matters.”
She looks at me like my face is melting. “Nicholas. Max. Do those names ring a bell?”
“Hank Williams was a father too,” I say. “Do people remember him because he made children?”
She nods. “To hell with your children, then. Work on Jambalaya, or whatever you want to call it. If it’s really good, some strangers might remember you.”
This is the moment when Hank walks downstairs and out the door, stepping into his waiting limousine and cracking open a cold beer. As the car pulls away from the curb, he starts scrawling the first lines of a new song. What I do is go to the bathroom and brush my teeth.
Back in the bedroom, I sit on the corner chair and reach down to untie my shoes. “How was Max’s check-up?”
“What do you care?”
“You know I do.”
She nods, conceding. “You act like that’s a character flaw. If you didn’t take an interest in your children, think how many restaurants you’d have.”
“He’s fine. A healthy three-year-old boy.”
“Nicholas must be restless. He was in our bed when I came up.”
“He does sense things,” she says. “Do you?”
“Why can’t I look at the lease tomorrow morning?”
I shrug. “You have an appointment.”
“With Dr. Shea.”
“No wonder,” I say, because Dr. Shea’s test isn’t the first test, or even the second. Dr. Shea’s test only confirms the ones taken at home. That’s why she’s been sleeping so hard.
Already on the highway, into his second beer and halfway finished with that new song, Hank misses this moment entirely. This is no kind of moment for Hank. No, this is a moment made to test the mettle of a vain, ambitious, flat-footed performer who lacks the luxury of a limousine.
“No wonder you look so beautiful,” I say, and watch what a few friendly words can do. Her color warms, her face opens to me as it hasn’t in months.
“Oh, I do not,” she says.
On my way to her, I catch sight of the boy who one day, in the middle of his second grade year, will become the eldest of three. How long has he been standing in our bedroom doorway? I go to him, take his shoulders in my hands and gently turn him around, walking with him to his room and peeling the covers back so he can crawl into bed. He lies on his back and I sit on the edge of the bed, stroking his hair. In the nightlight’s glow I can see that he’s actually looking at me.
“I was wondering,” he says, and as I wait for more I press my lips together hard. Harder. “Is this a dangerous place?”
“Dangerous? Why do you ask?”
“I need to know.”
“Did something happen to scare you?”
“Did you see something scary?”
I take his hand. “This is a safe place.”
“Cleave Springs?” A hint of challenge in his voice.
“The neighborhood’s named after the family that owned all the land before there were houses on it. Cleave, they were called.”
“Your dictionary didn’t say that.”
“Cleave is in there.”
“Impressive,” I say.
“It means to cut.”
“Right. Chefs cut meat with a cleaver.”
“And to hold tight.”
“Like when we hug.”
“Did you know that?” he says.
“Why do you ask?”
“I suppose I did,” I say. “But not like I know it now.”
He closes his eyes thoughtfully. I watch the surface of his forehead going smooth, like choppy waters when the wind dies.
Sometimes, after the pump is primed, this boy will release a great gush of words. I wait for him to say more, hoping he will, thinking I can be more patient if I don’t look at him, so I look everywhere else—the fish tank, the bookshelf, the toy chest, the chair—before my eyes circle back and find him asleep, his mouth barely open, the corners raised in a smile that conveys something I can only read as gratitude, as if he’s thanking me for sending him off to sleep at last, letting him leave me alone in this dangerous place.
When I’m sure he’s asleep I remove my hand from his and tiptoe out of the room. I go into Max’s room and pull the covers up to his chin, standing there to hear him draw and exhale two healthy breaths before I head out to the hallway and slip down the stairs.
My briefcase sits on the kitchen table. I take out the lease, roll it up tightly, and light one end of it at the stove. Afraid of setting off the smoke alarm, I carry the flaming scroll quickly out the back door and stand there in the dark yard, convinced, at least for as long as the flame holds out, that the best work is done in obscurity.
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