Thomas taught Abbey how to fish. She said she had never fished before, but Abbey had also told Thomas that she was not very good at skating. She was always making up excuses to be with him. She was the nicest and most interesting white girl he had ever known. She seemed to hang on every word he spoke. Most of the time he had trouble thinking of things to say. They came from different worlds. Why she cared about his world he didn’t know, but she filled a void in the world here in Monroe Falls.
“Girl, you have to use your wrist,” Thomas instructed. “Casting is all in the wrist.”
“I know that I jerk too much,” Abbey said, looking at Thomas as she spoke. “You do this really, really good.”
“My uncle and I fished every day when I was a little kid,” Thomas grinned.
“I got news for you,” Abbey gave Thomas her best dimpled smile; “you are still a kid.”
“Not where I come from. We gotta grow up fast.”
“You have really a lot of time to be little here.”
Thomas laughed. He looked out over the river to the overhanging trees along the river. “I got news for you, Abbey; you sure are gettin’ to be a big girl,” Thomas grinned brightly. “Take a good look in your mirror.”
“I don’t want to grow up. I want to be a little girl forever.”
“We all grow up.”
“Then bad things happen,” Abbey stared off down towards the dam. “You grow up and get married and get divorced.”
“I sure don’t want to get hitched, ever,” Thomas hooted.
Abbey pouted at Thomas, “Ever?”
“Don’t know where I’m gonna be next year,” Thomas said.
“I always thought you were staying.”
“I don’t fit in here.”
Abbey studied the flowing water. She needed to come up with a plan to keep Thomas in Monroe Falls. If she told him how much he meant to her, maybe that would do it? What if she kissed him again? “Thomas,” Abbey hesitated for a few moments.
“Girl,” Thomas shrugged, “what is it?”
“Has a girl ever kissed you other than me?”
Thomas hooted at the far bank. “A cousin once. Didn’t taste too good.”
“What if I kissed you again?”
“You better get ready to run, ‘cause if you think you can kiss me again, then, girl, you got another thought comin’.”
“Don’t be like that,” Abbey said weakly.
“We’re fishin’, not kissin’,” Thomas laughed.
“One little kiss?”
“Girl, your bobber is a bobbin’,” Thomas said with a sigh of relief. “You got a big one.”
“Oh, my God, what do I do?” Abbey squealed.
Abbey’s line cut through the water. It went that way and this way. Abbey held the fishing pole in sheer panic. “Oh, my God!”
“Reel,” Thomas demanded.
Abbey reeled tentatively. Her mouth dropped open. The tension in the pole whip-sawed like it had a mind of its own.
The fish leaped out of the water.
“It’s a bass!” Thomas yelled triumphantly.
“Oh, my God,” Abbey screamed. “Is that good?”
“Damn straight,” Thomas said excitedly. “Reel that sucker in.”
Abbey was getting a little better at reeling and fighting the tension in the pole.
“Closer,” Thomas grunted, getting up on his feet. “A little closer. I got the net.”
The bass’s weight bowed the pole almost in half. Thomas, with one long deliberate scoop, netted the fish.
“You got yourself a smallmouth,” Thomas said, holding the netted flopping bass up in the air. “I bet six pounds.”
Abbey was so excited that she dropped the pole and grabbed Thomas by the shoulders. She kissed him on his surprised mouth.
Esmeralda had luminous ginger brown skin. Her black hair was cut short. The thing that startled Joe the most was her blue eyes. Only his son Andy’s pale blue eyes were as captivating. Emanuel had told Joe that he wanted him to meet his sister. He was so proud of her. She was the only one in his family to go to college, the Instituto Tecnologico Y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. She finally received her green card and would be working with Emanuel at the start of spring planting. But in the meantime, she could help Joe with the boys, clean the house, and cook some meals.
“Joseph, this is my sister,” Emanuel proudly said, “Esmeralda.”
“Mucho gusto,” Joe said.
Esmeralda’s eyes brightened. “Tu hablas espanol?”
Joe smiled shyly. “Un poquito.”
Esmeralda’s smile was that of a curious young girl. “Emmy tells me that you run a big store.”
“Only a little store for little Monroe Falls,” Joe said.
“I have an accounting degree,” Esmeralda said. “If you ever need help with the books, I can do it. Our papa owned a little grocery store,” Esmeralda brightened. “Papa sold sodas and snacks.”
“I think Senor Joseph needs help with his home,” Emanuel said.
“No Senora?” Esmeralda said seriously. Her eyes were sad.
“Not currently staying in my house,” Joe said, and pressed his lips tightly together.
“I can clean the house spic and span, you know,” Esmeralda said. Her eyes brightened again. “It will be perfectamente for when Senora returns.”
“I hope my boys will keep it that way,” Joe said, and smiled at Esmeralda.
“I will keep those chicos clean too,” Esmeralda said. Her laugh was melodious. Her eyes danced for Joe.
“Esmeralda can help keep your home in order,” Emanuel said. “She can come by whenever you need. She can watch the boys after school. She can help with their studies.”
Joe thought for a few seconds. “What do you charge an hour?”
Esmeralda looked embarrassed.
“No, Joe,” Emanuel interjected. “She is my family; she will work for free.”
“I could use the help,” Joe said. “I insist that I pay her.”
“It would be an insult for me to accept any money,” Esmeralda said. “You and Emmy are close friends.”
“Then I will buy the food,” Joe said. “You can eat with us every day.”
“I will make the food,” she said. Her eyes and smile dazzled together.
“We have a deal.”
Esmeralda put out her hand to Joe, and bowed her head slightly. Joe shook her smooth warm hand. When she looked up, her sapphire eyes were crystal clear.
Joe played catch with his sons after nine o’clock mass. The mid March morning temperature was in the sixties. The top of the ground was soaked from the night’s light rain. The ground was still frozen deep from the long cold winter, squishing under his feet. Esmeralda was the help that he needed for as long as he could hang on to his boys. If she could help with the books as an office manager, the easier his life would be. After half an hour of catch, Maria and her brothers came up the lane with mitts. Maria went immediately to Andrew’s side, and kissed him on the cheek. Joe knew all about the Indian wedding where Andy had married Maria. He thought this was cute. As long as Maria did not take it seriously, Joe was fine with it. But Maria was different around his son. She wanted to be with him constantly. Andrew had told him that he was feeling like he was covered close during a basketball game all the time he was with Maria. Even when they played basketball together, Maria looked for every excuse to put her arms around him. She was not serious about the game, always playfully falling into him when she had the ball. Maria even told Andrew that he could stay with her if his brothers had to go down to Celeryville, because they were married in the eyes of God. Andrew was near panic. He told Joe that he would be relieved if he had to go down to the mansion. The women in Joe’s life and those of his sons were dictating how and where they would live their lives.
Laney came by in the early afternoon. The boys’ soaked tennis shoes were in a wet pile in the garage. The twins were playing video games, and Matty was counting his money. Maria lured her sweetheart to Jules and Emanuel’s home with the prospect of cider and powdered donuts. If marriage to Maria was a lifetime of powdered donuts, then maybe it wasn’t so bad, Andrew thought. Andy knew how smart Maria was, but did she always have to guess right on what he really wanted? Laney made Joe turn off the NBA game of the week, so they could talk.
“Joey, how are you coping?” Laney asked with her mouth springing back and forth into a smile and frown.
“Not bad, really,” Joe said, settling back into a fluffy cushion of the couch.
“You seem resigned to the divorce outcome.”
“If it happens, it happens,” Joe pursed his lips together.
“You mentioned that Susan had been different at the last counseling session?”
“She seemed happier with me,” Joe shrugged. “I don’t know if it means that she knows how the judge will rule, or if she has a new man in her life.”
“Heavens to Betsy, that would take the cake, if she had a boyfriend,” Laney emphasized “she.”
“She spoke of running into my lacrosse buddy, Mackenzie, in New York.”
“I don’t understand how all this happened with you and Mary,” Laney looked at her son with apprehension. “Susan seemed so happy here with you and the boys, and then this Mary stuff.”
“I can’t explain my feelings for Mary” Joe said. “It came out of left field. I’ve known her all these years… then boom. One day I looked at her, and my feelings came alive for her.”
“You should show love and devotion to your wife,” Laney said. “Isn’t that what modern women are thinking about? Or am I out of touch?”
“Susan is ambitious like her father,” Joe said. “He gives her new challenges. Her look is different. A big city look. Her clothes. Her hair style. I don’t know. If I did not know her, and I saw her in an independent setting, I would think, ‘that woman is untouchable.’ I would think, ‘what would she ever see in a little town guy like me?’”
“How do you know that she doesn’t still love you, Darling?” Laney pressed closer to her son.
“I think she does,” Joe breathed out. “That’s the thing. She may never stop loving me, but she needs more than what I can give her. If I’m a head coach, my wife would have to subjugate her life to mine. Can you see a competitive and ambitious woman like Susan suppressing her new life to mine? I irritated her to no end just as an assistant.”
“Goodness gracious, she can have her new life,” Laney asserted. “She can come and go. No one is stopping her.”
“She has a taste of that big house and servants,” Joe said
“We’ll get Mel to build a nice home between Monroe Falls and Celeryville.”
“We may need every penny to stay in business if this Wal Mart hits.”
“Do you think Clark and the trustees will give the okay?”
“Mom, I hate to say it, but they have no choice,” Joe pressed his lips and shook his head. “The tax revenue that’s being dangled is too tempting. Wal Mart isn’t asking for tax abatement either. The job creation figures are staggering. Clark can’t deny a family like the Longears from hitting the jackpot.”
“Well, I hope Susan is happy to leave you, and see our business die away.” Laney was angry. Joe couldn’t remember ever seeing his mother so emotional. “I just hope she is happy.”
“Oh, Mom,” Joe reassured her. “Everything will be all right.”
“All we worked for,” Laney said in a determined tone, “could all go down the drain.”
“We need to sock away money for a war chest,” Joe smiled. “That’s it! We have to outlast our current competitors to survive.”
“Outlast Browns. Is that it?” Laney scrunched both her hands into fists.
“I hate to say it, but that is what we will have to do.”
“Larry Brown and his poor sick wife.”
“Only the fittest and well prepared will survive in today’s world,” Joe said cheerlessly.
“I can’t get over Susan waltzing away from you to do as she pleases. Taking the boys, and waltzing away. Is that what today’s world is all about?”
“I will never leave you and Dad.”
“Oh, Joey,” Laney blinked away a tear. “Maybe you and Susan should have stayed in California. Made a life out there. Look at your sister. She has a great life in New York.”
“I’m happy here, in this little town,” Joe grinned at his mother.
“Maybe you can find love again in this little town.” Laney’s face glowed.
“Who knows what the future will hold?”
Susan found her father in his spacious office. He was looking intently at the computer screen, steering the mouse with his right hand. He wore the same brown short sleeve shirt and blue jeans as always. His Red Wing boots had dried mud on them, and sat off to the side of the great desk on newspaper.
“Father, can I talk with you?” Susan asked quietly.
“Anytime, Darling,” Eduard said, staring into the screen.
“Can we talk without any distractions?” Susan sat down on the burgundy leather chair.
“I’m sorry, Darling,” Eduard said, without taking his eyes off the screen.
“I can come back.”
“Done.” Eduard clicked, and looked up at his daughter with a slight smile.
“I need to discuss Joe and me.”
“Don’t think about the outcome,” Eduard said dryly. “The inevitable will arrive soon enough.”
“I’m having second thoughts about this divorce.”
Eduard stared intently at his daughter. “Darling, have you been talking to your husband?”
“Yes, at counseling.”
“This counseling is a formality,” Eduard said firmly.
“All the traveling I’ve been doing,” Susan rubbed at the rich leather, “has given me time to think about Joe.”
Eduard’s eyes softened. “Darling, that is only natural. You will think of him even years after the divorce. You will see him when he visits the children. You are a woman. You will always be emotional about your ex-husband.”
“I’m not emotional.” Susan’s emotions stirred. “I can do your bidding in any boardroom as coolly as any man.”
“I’m impressed with what you did at Chase,” Eduard stated. “But I expected it. I expect even greater things from my exquisite daughter.”
“Then expect my feelings for Joe to never go away.” Susan clenched her teeth. She was always dealing with a man’s condescending world.
“When you find a new gentleman,” Eduard said without emotion, “you will forget about Joe. What do you hear from Mackenzie?”
“He and I are going out to dinner in Columbus next week,” Susan said, “when I meet with Mayflower Dairy.”
“That is the man you should have taken up with from the beginning,” Eduard said nonchalantly.
“I don’t ‘take up with men’,” Susan said with a frustrating tone.
“My daughter deserves the best of everything,” Eduard waved his hand off to the side.
“I know that I still love Joe,” Susan said in exasperation. “I want to save our marriage.”
Eduard stared at his daughter almost humorously.
“I’m going to tell him that I want it all as before,” Susan said proudly.
“Darling, if you do that,” Eduard’s voice was distant, “don’t bother ever coming back to your home here.”
“How can you say such a thing?” Susan could feel the fervor rise through her face. “I am your daughter, not someone that you can manipulate like all the staff. Like all your employees.”
“You have greatness written all over you.” Eduard pointed his finger at his daughter. “Staying in that pisshole of a town is not what a Van Wert should do.”
“Joe will always be part of my life.” Susan leaned toward her father. “How dare you imply that I made a mistake? My boys will be great men because of their father.”
“You must think about what you just said.” Eduard would not back down. “Suppress your emotions to accomplish great things. This husband of yours only wants to be a small town football coach. That is beneath you and this family.”
“Right now, Father, it sounds like the world to me.”
Esmeralda was exhausted and sweaty. She worked all day cleaning the Streeter home. She cooked a grand meal of chile rellenos and soft shell tacos with chicken and ground sirloin. She made her own white creamy cheese like her parents had taught her. Emanuel had told her to treat Joe and his boys like they were the El Presidente’s family. She so wanted to impress Joe. He was the most handsome gringo she had ever seen. He was so shy. His broad shoulders and strong chest reminded her of Emanuel. Joe must be a hard worker she thought. Esmeralda wanted to be fresh when the men got home. It was too late to run down the lane for a shower, so a quick rinse off in Joe’s shower wouldn’t hurt. She took off her clothes and stepped into the shower in Joe’s bedroom. She had cleaned the shower stall and the entire bathroom, so she felt she earned a little pleasure. The warm water felt good. She wanted to stay longer in the hot cascading stream of water.
Susan was excited when she pulled the black Mercedes into the driveway. She couldn’t wait to tell Joe that she had made a mistake, that she didn’t need her father. She would make her own life and be the wife that Joe had fallen in love with so many years ago. Joe’s car was in the garage. When she entered the house, no one was around. The boys were probably with their girlfriends, or at the store’s breakroom, or at Nicole’s. Susan called out for Joe. A delicious aroma flowed out of the kitchen. As she walked through the living room, she could hear the shower running in her old bedroom. The first thought was, should she take her clothes off and surprise Joe in the shower, or wait for him in their bed, naked? She decided to slip into the shower with him. She balanced on one foot next to the sink, taking off her shoes. The silhouette of Joe behind the cloudy glass shower door was wrong. The clothes on the bedroom floor were not that of a man’s.
The shower stopped. The door opened slowly, and out stepped a woman. The steam filled the bathroom in an opaque warm fog. “Is that you Joe?” came a girl’s accented voice.
Susan was in shock. Another woman so fast, she thought.
“Joe, por favor,” the girl said.
Susan wanted to slip out the bathroom door, but it was too late. The steam sucked out the open bathroom door. “You are not Joe,” the girl said in a startled voice.
“I am his wife,” Susan said soberly.
“Where is my husband?”
“He is rounding up the boys on foot, you know?”
“No, I don’t know,” Susan said dully.
“I was so hot,” Esmeralda said, grabbing for a towel.
“Have you cooled off?” Susan said ironically.
The girl had the most unusual blue eyes Susan had ever seen. “I will dress and go.”
“I am the one that must go,” Susan said. “I came by to check on the boys.”
“I have cooked for them,” Esmeralda said, and smiled bashfully.
“I smelled the food,” Susan complimented.
“Joe will be back pronto.” Esmeralda hurried to wrap the towel around her body. She took another towel off the counter and wrapped it around her black hair. “He will want to talk with the Senora.”
“You tell the Senor that the Senora has flown the coop for good,” Susan said. She felt like such a fool. Why did she think that Joe would not move on? He knew which way the divorce was going, so why not find a new companion? Mary had moved on from Joe. Her father was right. He was always right; Joe was happy in this infernal town. She needed a new man and a new life.
Susan hurried to the front door. It banged open, and the twins ran headlong into their mother.”Mom,” they said in unison. “Comin’ home for good?”
Susan bent over, and embraced them. “I miss you little rascals so much.”
“Mom,” Matty yelled from the kitchen; Andy was right behind him, coming through the door that led to the garage.
“Come here you,” Susan cried.
All four boys squeezed into her arms. “Home for good?” Matty beseeched.
“Let me look at you little weasels,” Susan cried. She knelt, and touched each boy’s face. “What have you been doing? Where have you been?” she said over and over.
“They have been good boys,” Joe said, setting down three bags of groceries on the kitchen table. “I now have help around the house.”
“Joe, I will finish dinner,” Esmeralda said, coming out of the bedroom hallway. She was patting her wet hair with a towel.
“Have you met Esmeralda?” Joe said to Susan.
Susan wanted to laugh hysterically. “We met.”
Esmeralda looked shyly down at the kitchen linoleum.
Joe looked at Esmeralda’s passive body language. He looked over at Susan’s loathing stare at Esmeralda. “Why don’t you stay for dinner?” Joe asked Susan.
“Miss Sadie is expecting me for dinner,” Susan said not taking her eyes off the stationary and submissive Esmeralda.
“One phone call will take care of that,” Joe said, studying his wife’s frozen stare.
“I think I have been here too long already,” Susan focused her icy stare at Joe.
“No Mom,” the twins called. “Like old times.”
Susan looked at them, and then at Andy. “Just a bite,” Susan softened her voice.
“I will set another place setting for Senora,” Esmeralda said happily.
“First, Joseph and I will talk,” Susan said.
“Can we walk?” Joe asked, extending his arm to the front door.