Joe had the evening off because it was Wendy’s turn to close up. He and the boys would cook this night. For as long as he had them, they would be men alone in their ordinary home. Andy wanted a whole rotisserie chicken. Matty wanted fried chicken legs. The twins wanted burgers. So Joe brought a rotisserie chicken and fried chicken legs home from the deli. He put three ground chuck patties on the grill. The boys all wanted fried sliced potatoes. Joe was proving to be a good cook, as long as the menu wasn’t too complicated. When he had to close up and couldn’t cook for them, Laney would take them to the farm house for dinner, but not until she finished at six in the deli. Mostly after school, Andy was at Nicole’s, Matty with Maddy at the fountain or in her parents’ home, and the twins in the breakroom, goofing off.
Joe watched his boys gobble up the chicken and burgers. Andy ate the entire rotisserie chicken. He bit off the end of the leg and wing bones, sucking out the marrow like a Fire Nation warrior. He cleaned the bones of every morsel of meat. Joe marveled at Andy’s metabolism. Matty was not as thorough with his chicken legs. He left the ends with cartilage intact. The twins never quite finished their hamburgers. The boys’ favorite foods were those that only required fingers.
Joe had gotten them to wash the dishes off and put them in the dishwasher. He told them that their mother would not be around to nag them, so they had to be big boys and clean up after themselves. They had to make their own beds. No one was allowed to have clothes scattered on their bedroom floors. When Joe finished the laundry, every boy had to fold his own clothes and put them away. Joe felt guilty over the little time he had for them. Nicole was a jewel to help with Andy. Basketball season was over, so she could concentrate on homework for her boys and Andy. Jules told Joe that Andy’s grades were slipping again. Andy insisted that he was not concerned over the divorce, but she noticed him rubbing his feet together almost spasmodically as he sat in a chair. She’d never seen him do that in all their after school sessions. Some days Andy would be hanging out in the hall goofing off until Maria found him. She would then gently direct him to her mother’s office. Jules told Joe how Maria was scheming to have Andy live with them if Susan took the boys down to Celeryville. Jules would have laughed at her determination to keep Andy close to her, if she hadn’t sensed Maria’s desperation.
“Dad, Mom talked to us about a…a advocate or sumptin,” Andy said.
“Next week you boys will meet with Mister Nate Panache. He will ask you many questions. He will ask you about where you want to live.”
“That will be easy,” Jimmy said. “We all want to live here.”
Matty stared at the TV.
“We all want to stay up here,” Petey agreed.
“Maria said if it all comes down to custody, I…I could stay with her,” Andy said.
Joe smiled at how naive his children were. In a few months a decision would be rendered by the judge. He knew in his heart, no matter what preference his boys made known to Nate, Judge Goodwin would rule for Susan. Matty had not talked with Joe over the last few days. Matty seemed distant from Joe. “No TV until all homework is done,” Joe announced. “I have your weekly assignments from your teachers. You little weasels can’t fool me.”
“I got everything done with Mrs. Rodrigues after school,” Andy said.
“We shall see,” Joe said. “Your grades are slipping.”
“If I…I get my grades up,” Andy said, “can I stay with you, Dad?”
“Get those grades up, so we can talk about it,” Joe said. “All you kids get to work.”
Andy stayed at the kitchen table to finish his studies after the boys put the dishes in the dishwasher. The twins retreated to the living room to do their homework.
Matty slipped silently to his bedroom and closed the door. Joe heard the metallic click of the lock.
Joe knocked on Matty’s door. “Matty, can I come in?” Joe asked. Joe heard no sound. “Matty, I want to talk to you.” He heard movement in the bedroom. The lock clicked, and Matty cracked open the door.
“I need to finish my homework,” Matty said in a subtle voice.
“I want to know what you’re thinking,” Joe said affectionately.
Matty would not open the door all the way. He looked down at the floor.
“We can talk like men,” Joe said. “Can I come into your room?”
Matty finally opened his door all the way.
Joe walked in. Matty shut the door behind his father. Joe sat on Matty’s well made bed. “Sit, sit,” Joe said quietly.
Matty sat in his child’s chair at his low study desk. He looked down at the floor.
“You wouldn’t say where you want to live out there in the kitchen.”
Matty looked up at his father. “I think I want to live with Mom.”
Joe’s heart sank. He thought all his little men would stand in a block against Susan and her father, but Matty was always so fond of his mother. “That is fine,” Joe said, but his heart ached. “I want you to feel comfortable.”
Matty began to cry. Joe could only remember Matty crying when he was very little. Once Matty fell on the driveway, and knocked out his front baby tooth. Matty was not so upset about losing the tooth, but how he would look to the girls in the second grade. His boys were as tough as nails, but whenever they cried he was still touched.
“Son, it’s okay that you want to stay with your mother,” Joe said. “No matter what happens, you will always have a father and a mother. That will never change.”
“I want us to be a family again,” Matty sniffed.
“We will always be a family,” Joe said. “It will be a little different, that’s all.”
“I want it as always.”
“Think about having two houses,” Joe tried to reason. “One home like a vacation home, the other a permanent home.”
Matty stared at his feet. “What if Mom has a boyfriend?”
Joe was surprised at Matty’s candor. He didn’t know how to answer. “Don’t think about that now.”
“Mom has been yelling about your girlfriend,” Matty said. He would not meet Joe’s eyes.
“I have no girlfriend,” Joe said. “Mrs. Horner is only a friend.”
Matty looked up at his father with a smile. “Tell Mom that she is only a friend. That will take care of things.”
Joe wanted it all to be as before. He felt like he was on that ghost train his mother had told him about as a little boy. No stopping it now. He couldn’t get off this hot piece of metal. Doomed to ride this divorce to the end.
Joe walked down the dog food aisle. An elderly couple walked down one side, looking at canned cat food. Joe had never seen them before. Their clothes were tattered. They smelled musty. The old man used the shopping cart as a crutch. His wife could not see. She held onto her husband’s coat tail like he was a guide dog. When he stopped, she stopped. Their cart contained three loaves of IGA bread, some Eckrich packaged cold cuts, and a bunch of bananas. Joe wondered if the cat food was for their pet or for them.
“Joe, how goes it?” Dan Mallory asked, pushing a cart the opposite way down the aisle. His cart contained two packages of porterhouse steaks, Idaho bakers, two boxes of cereal, three gallons of milk, and a small red package of Gouda cheese.
“You’re off early,” Joe said.
“I have two days off,” Dan said. “Then I drive down to Florida.”
“The watermelons are great this year,” Joe gloated.
“I think, the best crop in some time,” Dan said.
“Van Werts and Vanderloos keep getting richer.”
“I drive truck up to the farms in Michigan, and all the way to Georgia the next day,” Dan explained. “No one knows how big this enterprise is.”
“My wife does.”
“She wants to spread her wings.”
“Her father is a driven man.”
“It is all becoming a blur for me,” Joe said sadly.
“I know what you’re going through my man,” Dan said. “My ex wanted out. She didn’t want Abbey. What mother wouldn’t want Abbey? Goodwin had no choice but to give me my little girl. I haven’t heard from Lucinda in a year,” Dan snickered. “Seems she took up with an artist in the Dutch Antilles. Seems she always wanted warm weather.”
“I lose my boys, I don’t know what I’ll do,” Joe said with a gloomy tone. “I want to reconcile with Susan.”
Dan looked Joe in the eyes. His lips firmed. “I feel responsible for all this, Joe.”
“I doubt that.”
“No, I saw you and Mary alone in Caroline’s,” Dan nodded his head. “I saw you two sitting close.”
“We did kiss.”
“I should have kept my damn mouth shut,” Dan said. “All I said to another driver was that you two looked intense.”
“She kissed me and I liked it,” Joe said. “It’s not your fault. This thing is like fate, bound to happen sooner or later. I think of Mary all the time. What a fool I am. I probably will lose my wife and Mary too.”
“You pick up the pieces and move on,” Dan said. He placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You’ll find another woman. I still love Lucinda, but Annette loves this area and me. Sometimes a man has to take what is, and not long for what will never be.”
The Streeter boys sat in the jury deliberation room adjacent to the courtroom waiting for Mr. Nate Panache, the Guardian Ad Litem. The twins’ feet dangled down from the high wooden chairs at the solid broad table. Matty sat with his legs curled up under him on his chair. Andy sat like he imagined an adult would sit, back stiff against the chair.
A short man with black hair opened the door to the room. He wore a brown sport coat with grey pants. He had a round pleasant face. His black whiskers gave his pale face a two toned look.”My name is Nate,” he said in a joyful voice. “I’m here to fight for your interests.”
The Streeter boys all looked at each other with devilish smiles.
“Can I get you anything?” Nate said jovially. There was already a pitcher of water on the table with five glass cups. “We have lemonade and Seven Up.”
The Streeter boys stared at Nate.
“What TV shows do you boys like?” Nate asked.
All the boys shrugged.
“Kid shows like Sesame Street?”
“We watch football and basketball with Dad,” Andy said not taking his hand away from his cheek.
“Well then,” Nate said, “Let’s keep going. Do you love your parents?”
Matty had an incredulous look about him. Andy rubbed his right hand up against his drooping dark brown hair on the right side of his red face. The twins stared with their mouths slightly open in mock surprise.
“Let’s start with you,” Nate gestured with his narrow hand towards Andy.
“Yeah,” Andy said.
“What about you, Matthew?” Nate asked.
“Yeah,” Matty said.
Nate looked over to the twins.
“Yeah,” the twins said in unison.
“Do you think they love you?” Nate asked, folding his hands on the table.
The Streeter boys all said, “Yeah,” together.
Nate took a deep breath. “Have your parents argued in front of you boys?”
“Not much,” Matty said. The other boys echoed the same thing.
“Have you seen your parents drink a lot of beer or wine?” Nate asked. “What I mean by a lot is more than two drinks each.”
The twins stared at Nate with their mouths more than slightly open. “Mom says that drinking wine makes her f…feel good,” Andy said.
“Dad drinks beer,” Matty said.
“How much?” Nate asked.
“I think two,” Matty said. “Then he squeezes the cans.”
“But none of you boys have ever seen your parents drunk?” Nate asked.
The Streeter boys all shook their heads cautiously.
“Have you ever seen your dad hit your mom?” Nate pressed on.
“Mom punches Dad in the stomach when she gets mad,” Petey broke his silence.
“Yeah, then Mom tells him what for,” Jimmy said with an impish smile.
“But you boys have never seen your dad really hurt your mom?” Nate said, and crouched over the table.
The Streeter boys all shook their heads without taking their eyes off Nate.
“If you boys had to choose who you want to live with,” Nate said, “who would it be, Mom or Dad?”
“Dad,” Andy said immediately, followed by the twins. Matty remained silent.
“Matty?” Nate cajoled.
“I don’t care,” Matty said, biting at the cuticle on his thumb.
“If you boys have to live with your mom, what would you say?”
Andy placed both his hands against his cheeks and said, “W…why do we hafta do this?”
“I wish you fine boys didn’t have to face this decision, but I need some indication.”
Matty’s eyes teared. “Why can’t we get this over?”
“I know how difficult this is,” Nate said with sadness. “My parents divorced when I was five. I lived with my mother. My dad came around some, but stopped after a year or so. I can’t remember my father. Your dad will always visit,” he suggested. “He will always take you to all the places he does now. I just know he will.”
Andy folded his arms and buried his face down on his arms. The twins began to cry. Matty looked off to the closed door.
Maria sat on her bed looking at Andy’s drawing of the Fire Nation village. The precision of the picture was amazing to Maria. She could almost see the people move and talk to each other. She concentrated on the boy and girl running together that Andy said were he and Maria. She now knew what she would do to keep her sweetheart next to her forever.
“Maria, can I come in?” Jules asked at the doorway.
“Mom, come in,” Maria said.”The more I look at this picture, the more I’m in love.”
“In love with the drawing?”
Jules sat next to her daughter on the bed. She surrounded her daughter with her arms. “It’s only a crush, Dear.”
“No, I know it’s love,” Maria said with wonder in her dark brown eyes. “I’m a woman now.”
Jules stifled a smile. “Being a woman is more than loving someone.”
Maria looked with that wondrous stare at the drawing. “I know how Andy can stay with me, no matter what happens.”
“Maria,” Jules pronounced each vowel, “what are you scheming?”
Maria turned so quickly, she almost hit her mother with her chin. “Andy and I will get married.”
Jules would have laughed if her daughter had not been so serious.
“Andrew and I will marry.”
Jules finally got a grip on her senses. “You and Andy can’t marry.”
“I’m serious Mom.”
“You will always see Andy. It’s not like he is moving out of state.”
“No,” Maria raised her voice. “I can’t let him go to Celeryville.”
“If that is the case,” Jules said, “I will take you down there every weekend.”
“No,” Maria persisted. “I don’t want him getting mixed up with those Dutch girls down there.”
“So that’s it,” Jules chuckled before she knew she had done it.
“I won’t let that happen,” Maria glared at her mother.
“True love will take care of that.”
“I want Andy with me every day.”
“You can’t smother him.”
“He loves me.”
“Get this marriage stuff out of your mind,” Jules pronounced every word distinctly.
“All I need is written permission from my parents and from Andy’s,” Maria said excitedly. “I looked all this up.”
“You are as smart as you are beautiful,” Jules said tenderly, “But this will not happen.”
“I am a woman,” Maria demanded. “You said I was a woman when I had my first period.”
“You are a young girl,” Jules said softly. “You and Andy have all your lives ahead of you. Be kids now.”
“Will you and Dad give permission?”
“Never. Joe and Susan will never give their permission.”
Maria pulled away from her mother ever so slowly. She didn’t care. She and Andy would marry like the Fire Nation people did. They would have their own ceremony at their special place down the lane.
Bart and Jude watched the grey Lincoln pull into their stone driveway. Two men got out. They wore long rain coats, and carried briefcases. The Longear boys only had to feed the pigs before dinner. When they were done and entered the house, they saw their mother putting two more place settings out on the dining room table. She had put another leaf in the table. The good china was on the table along with the good silverware. Dorothy had made a prime rib roast that she had Boots cut special for her. The boys found this all so odd.
Dorothy chased the boys upstairs after they took off their high rubber boots. “Make yourselves presentable for dinner,” she said barely audible.
“What’s going on?” Jude asked.
Dorothy looked over to her husband and the two men in the living room. “Those men are talking about a deal to buy property,” she whispered.
Jude didn’t like the idea of losing farmland. He liked farming; the more land to farm, the better.
Mac Longear handed the bottle of beer to Gary Barnes, and another one to Tim Thompson. “Dinner is almost ready,” Mac said.
“Mr. Longear, we at General Commerce have considered your request for per acre,” Tim Thompson said. He was medium height in a blue blazer. His thin lips tightened and relaxed into a smile every second or two.
Mac smiled. Time for a big letdown, he thought.
“Two hundred and fifty per acre is a little steep,” Tim Thompson said, and then spasmed into a smiled.
“That’s the price, gentlemen,” Mac said definitely.
“No wiggle room, Mr. Longear?” Thompson said.
“This land is valuable to me,” Mac said. “It has been handed down for decades in the family.”
“We have an issue, Mr. Longear.” Thompson gestured with his bottle of beer. “Another company wants land from you too.”
“What do you mean?” Mac tilted his head.
“Lowe’s wants to build next to Wal Mart.”
Mac Longear tried to keep his eyes from bugging out of their sockets. “How much acreage do they need?”
“About what we need,” Thompson said. Gary Barnes had not said a word up to this point. He was shorter than Thompson with the same blue blazer. His face was blank except for scar tissue under his left eye like that of a fighter.
Mac’s mind was swimming.
“You multiply this out,” Gary Barnes said, “you’re looking at ten million. That’s steep.”
Mac Longear’s mind was spinning.
“That is if you hold firm on your demands,” Tim Thompson said.
“Why, why, I don’t know,” Mac stammered.
“Do we have some wiggle room?” Gary Barnes asked.
Mac thought of what he had told Boots at the meat counter before picking up the roast for his wife. “I promise you, old friend, I’ll hold firm at two fifty. No one in their right mind will accept that.”
“Well, Mr. Longear?” Tim Thompson asked. Both men had not drunk a sip of beer from their bottles.
“I said two fifty,” Mac mustered the courage to sound convincing. Numbness slowly overcame his body .
The two men placed their bottles on the settee, and walked out of the living room. Mac almost whined out, “Let’s talk,” but the men stopped suddenly and began to talk with hand gestures in the dining room.
Mac Longear couldn’t feel the cold bottle of beer in his hand.
Jude and Bart came down the stairs. They had put on new jeans and red flannel shirts. They wore new Dockers over bare feet. They walked over to their father. Mac tried not to look at Thompson and Barnes in the other room.
The two men entered the living room with solemn looks. “You have a deal,” Thompson said.
Mac nodded once.
“Of course, the fun has just started,” Barnes said. “The next step is to convince the trustees to change from rural to commercial.”
Mac nodded once.
Thompson and Barnes picked up their bottles of beer. They both took long swigs of beer before shaking hands with Mac.
“Dinner is served,” Dorothy called from the dining room.