Susan walked in front of Joe outside to a temperature of sixty degrees. The sky was clear. The smell of fresh air was mixed with the decaying muddy ground. Susan led Joe to the end of the driveway before she turned on him. “I came here to slow down this divorce.” Susan smiled spuriously, “I should have known better.”
“Esmeralda is Emanuel’s sister,” Joe said annoyed. “She helps with the boys and around the house. Why do you jump to conclusions all the time?”
“I should have known that you were looking for a younger woman.”
“Mary was a mistake.”
“Guess who I ran into in New York?” Susan said to the sky. “Your Mary. We even had a good talk. I believed her. I believed that it was just an innocent fling. No sex. An infatuation. Silly me, I decided to give you a second chance.”
“Slow down Susan,” Joe implored.
“Now you got yourself an even younger bimbo,” Susan chortled.
“That is not fair— ’’
“You will never change.” Susan threw up her arms. “I simply can’t trust you.”
“You are reading things into this.” Joe was frustrated.
“A young woman showering in the same house as your sons.” Susan paced in a circle. “What do you think they are thinking?”
“Your father is poisoning your mind,” Joe begged.
“My father has taught me how to manipulate men,” Susan stared angrily at Joe. “I’m good at it. Those arrogant preppy bankers in New York are like putty in my hands. They look at me, and all they think of is how they can get into my pants. They will agree with whatever I want as long as they get a chance at me.”
“What are you becoming?” Joe pleaded.
“What I am good at.”
“Be my wife again,” Joe said desperately. “Be the mother of my boys. We can work all of this out— ”
“You have lost control of the boys,” Susan put up her right hand. “They run around wild. Jules told me that Maria has married Andy in an Indian wedding. God, what is that?”
“Look at what is happening, Susan,” Joe said, putting his hands on his hips. “The boys are playing out what they think will keep them here.”
“Maria is playing out marriage? She will find out what marriage is really all about.”
“You are doing exactly what your father wants.” Joe was convinced. “All this manipulating is for him. This divorce is for him. He is using you to build his empire. Your life in this town is getting in his way. Can’t you see this?”
“I will get a court order, or whatever I need to get the boys with me until this divorce is final.”
“You and your father might manipulate everyone else, but never me.” Joe smiled thinly. “You know you can’t control me.”
“I never tried to control you, or do anything but love you,” Susan’s voice strained. “I won’t ever try with you anymore.”
“You can’t do any of those things, because you know how I loved you. How I know what you want in bed. How I know when to hold you. How I know when to kiss you. How I know how to talk to you when you’re down. All those other men you have met and will meet will never know these things. They can only guess what you want in bed. What you want as a woman. Those kinds of men you can manipulate easily. They can only guess at your fantasies. I will always be where you can find me, in this little town. You will never get me out of your mind no matter who you are with. Who you are sleeping with. Who you are forcing laughter with.”
Susan could not hold back the tears. “I hate you when you make me cry.”
“I don’t make you cry,” Joe said. “You cry because I’m the only man for you. Because I always tell you the truth.”
Susan walked to the sleek black car. She opened the door, and lowered her head to crook her long body into the plush tan leather seat. She slammed the door. She backed out too fast, and cut the corner too tightly. The car’s bumper caught the steel mailbox pole flush, tilting it in the muddy ground at a forty five degree angle. She put her forehead gently against the steering wheel. Joe was right, but she would be damned to ever let him know that. He knew what her wants and needs were intimately. He knew how to touch her. She felt safe next to him. She could not conceive sleeping with another man. She was not in control around him, and that infuriated her. She saw him out of the corner of her eye as she put the car in gear.
Philip adored his stepsister, Abbey. They were practically the same age of eleven, and in all the same classes at St. Anthony’s. Phil was sweet on Maikayla, Abbey’s best friend. Maikayla was almost as tall as Abbey. She was as thin as a rail with a large head and brunette hair. Her almond eyes were set far apart. She wore glasses on the end of her nose like her mother. She was a carbon copy of her mother in miniature. She had one adult front tooth and one shorter baby front tooth. She was self conscious about smiling too broadly, but Phil told such crazy stories that she couldn’t help but giggle. Phil looked facially much like his mother, Annette, especially in the face. He had the body of a stocky man with shorter arms and thick fingered hands. His hair was unruly like a shoe brush. His thick lips were always in a grin. Phil was concerned about Abbey’s infatuation with Thomas.
“Should you be spending so much time with Thomas?” Philip asked, at the door of Abbey’s bedroom. It was nine in the evening.
“Can’t I pick my friends?” Abbey asked, without looking up from her textbook.
“Just asking,” Phil said.
Abbey was stretched out on her bed. Her hands were clasped under her chin as she read her book. “Thomas is my boyfriend.”
Phil looked at Abbey like she had said something strange. “Boyfriend, really?”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Abbey began to swing her lower legs back and forth.
“I didn’t say there was.”
“Everyone thinks I’ve really, really said the wrong thing when I say boyfriend,” Abbey said to the book. “I really don’t care what people think.”
“The kids are all talking, that’s all.”
“Thomas is so more interesting than all of them.”
“You know that Jude is sweet on you?” Phil said.
“Jude’s okay, but I really, really like Thomas.”
“Thomas is always talking about leaving.”
“I have a plan to keep him here.”
“What happens when you go off to college or something?” Phil asked. He knew not to enter his stepsister’s room without her permission from the time she caught him snooping around one day.
“I won’t leave like my mom did,” Abbey said, and slammed the book shut.
“I didn’t say you’re gonna.”
“I won’t run away from someone I care about,” Abbey rolled out of her bed, and slammed the door shut in front of Phil.
Dan Mallory heard the door slam and walked into the hallway from the living room. “What’s going on in here?” he asked Phil.
“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Phil said. He walked down to his bedroom, and closed the door behind him.
Dan was tired from another long haul up from Georgia. He would turn in early, even though he didn’t have to work tomorrow. Annette was at a booster meeting and would be home soon. He thought about his ex-wife, Lucinda, all during the long drive home. He hoped that she was safe and healthy. What had gone wrong in their marriage? She was from this little town too. They had the same backgrounds, coming from working class families. Their fathers worked over at the GM plant in SandTown. Their mothers stayed home and were content. He and Lucinda never argued. She talked of having more children after the birth of Abbey. Then it all changed. Lucinda grew distant. She wanted her own career, but didn’t know what that was. She wanted out of Monroe Falls. She wanted a more exciting place, but didn’t know where that was. Dan promised to move to Norwalk, or a larger town, so she would be happier. Then came the day he came home from a haul to find her gone. He found the note that was short and to the point about trying to find herself. She would be back as soon as ‘she got her act together.’ That was ten years ago. After a year of no correspondence, Dan got a letter from the islands down in the Caribbean. She had found the place she always searched for. She had found a soulmate, and she was happy. She didn’t want Abbey. She came back only long enough to finalize the divorce. Dan loved Lucinda, but he doubted that he would like her now.
Joe could not sleep so he took a walk through the streets of Monroe Falls. The boys were asleep and safely tucked in. The evening remained warm for middle March, but a light rain began. He walked past Caroline’s. He’d never see Mary there again. A young girl was locking the door. She smiled and waved to Joe. He recognized her as the daughter of one of his customers. A car’s tires swished across the wet pavement. Joe saw a light come on at Frankie’s diner. He wouldn’t open until midnight, so Joe kept on walking. He remembered when his first love, Melissa Stotz, met him at the fountain in Schultz’s Pharmacy every Saturday afternoon when they were fourteen. Pup Weltin talked to them about all the bass fishing tournaments that he participated in since he was in high school. Melissa had rusty red hair and braces. Her skin was a lighter olive color than Mary’s. She told Joe that she had rules. Rule number one was always pray before bedtime. Rule number two was always to talk with her little sister, Mary, before bedtime so she wouldn’t get nightmares. Rule number three was to help her mother, Irma, with the dishes. Rule number four was a work in progress. Joe would never see Melissa again at the fountain. Joe looked over at the Legion hall, and remembered all the fish dinners he and his sister had with their parents. He wanted to keep that tradition going with Susan and his boys. He remembered the stories that Crow Heyman told about D Day, how he and Joe’s dad were eighteen back in nineteen forty four. They were ready to free the world. Joe would never see Susan in the Legion again. Susan could not be serious to think that Esmeralda was more than a housekeeper, someone to cook and watch the boys. Susan had the best of all worlds. The boys missed her. She’d have them soon enough. It was impossible for him to believe that she could not forgive him. It all seemed so silly to Joe for Susan to live in a mansion, and having staff, or servants, or whatever Miss Sadie and Mr. Wickert were. He knew that Susan did not want to be a football coach’s wife. Susan had talked many times to Patty Rheinhart about the duties of a football widow. When the season started, and the season’s preparation was almost year round, the wife had to subjugate herself to the shining light that was her husband’s fame. Susan was always good about all of it, but Joe knew the role of a football wife was not for Susan. She feared the day when Joe would be named head coach. A woman like Susan was never taking a backseat to Joe, or any man. That much was clear to him. She wanted to be free to do as she pleased, to come and go whenever she wanted. The store was just more of the same, more of a stifling environment. A woman like Susan wanted a challenge every day, not the insecurity of a little business, and the constant year in and year out predictable football agenda and schedule. Joe now knew this divorce and split were bound to come. Mary and Esmeralda were just an excuse. All the women in his life left him one way or another. Would he ever find a lasting love again?
He stopped at the edge of the dam and the old mill. The light rain had stopped. The rain clouds had moved on their way, leaving a refreshing clear night. The full moon rose above the tall trees at the bank of the river. The oscillating light of a plane moved among the bright stars. It bisected the moon perfectly. The plane for a moment shone black, silhouetted against the glow of the moon like a cross.
Joe decided to see if Frankie was in. The door to the diner was unlocked. It was ten o’clock. The tiny bell tinkled when Joe went in. Frankie was nowhere in sight. “Anyone here?” Joe called.
“Not open,” Frankie’s voice came from the kitchen. “Can’t you read?”
“Sorry, Frankie,” Joe said. “I’ll come back.”
“That you Joe?” Frankie called, swinging the doors to the kitchen open.
“Sorry, I’ll come back some other time.”
“No, stay Joe.”
“I was out for a walk,” Joe said. “It looked like you opened early.”
“I open for drunks at midnight,” Frankie laughed. His eyes were unfocused, drooping or wandering off.
“Maybe I should go,” Joe said, turning for the door.
“I could use a little company,” Frankie’s eyes finally converged on Joe. “It looks to me that you could use some company too.”
Joe sat down on the stool next to the cash register. He had talked to Frankie in the store many times. He remembered the night he and Melissa came in after a school dance at midnight. They both should have been home two hours before, but they decided to live dangerously. Frankie had told them to get out and go down to Vanson’s, but Melissa pouted sufficiently to weaken Frankie’s soul. He prepared for them eggs and sausage. The Coke was on the house.
“You look like you could use something stronger than coffee,” Frankie said, leaning against the counter.
“Oh, a little down,” Joe said. He tried to laugh.
“I have the tonic for you and me,” Frankie said over his shoulder on his way into the kitchen. In a few moments he returned with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. He put two shotglasses in front of him on the counter. He poured the whiskey up to the top. They overflowed, but Frankie didn’t seem to care. “Salute,” he shouted, and threw the whiskey down his throat. Joe did the same. “It’s a woman.” Frankie nodded.
“Most of the men that come in here have women problems,” Frankie said, and poured two more glasses.
“I heard all about it, paisan.”
“Looks like I’ve lost her,” Joe said, and threw down the warm strong drink.
“You haven’t had much luck,” Frankie said. He grinned, showing his yellow and chipped teeth. “I remember that Melissa. A sweet redhead. I don’t think anyone ever recovers from a loss like that.”
“Funny, I’ve been thinking of her a lot tonight.” Joe cupped his hand under his chin. “I’ve been thinking of Mary too.”
“Son, you’ve had your love stories.” Frankie poured another round. “A man’s heart can only take so much. Throw your wife into this mix of women and you’re talking about a toxic cocktail.”
“You think I’m jinxed?”
“A handsome guy like you will always have women throwing themselves at you,” Frankie pulled out an enormous stogie from behind the bar. He waggled it in his mouth. “You are gun shy now.”
“Did you have a wife?”
Frankie did his best to stare at Joe. “That’s a personal question.”
“Didn’t mean to offend.”
“A good woman once,” Frankie slurred around the cigar. “I met her in East Cicero when I was working for the boys.”
“I don’t need to explain who the boys were,” Frankie pointed his stogie at Joe’s heart. “I had to solve things. I broke bad so to speak. She was a beautiful Sicilian girl. Black hair, brown skin, brown eyes. Real Mediterranean, you know. Her parents were dead set against her hanging around with the likes of me. They so much as picked out a good dago boy for her. We met in private any chance we got. I didn’t always look this bad.” Frankie lit his cigar.
“What do you think?” Frankie looked off. “She married the good dago.”
“You had nothing to say?”
“I did a job,” Frankie cackled. “A flatfoot got in the way. The bastard died. I had to get away. This little town was as good as any.”
“Did you buy this diner?”
“Won it in a card game,” Frankie said with a devilish stare. “Ask your dad. He was there. They needed another player out at HayVana. Your dad got back from the war. Your old man won enough cash on the road to Germany to buy the land your store sits on. He never told you about all this?”
“I must have led a sheltered life.” Joe looked at Frankie with disbelief. “You ever hear from these ‘boys’?”
“What do you think?” Frankie looked at Joe with disbelief. “You never really leave the kind of life I come from.”
“I wish I could get Susan back.”
“You should talk turkey to that babe of yours,” Frankie said. “You’re the best man for her, and she knows it. Don’t let some good dago boy take her from you. You’re enough man for her, and she damn well knows it.”
Susan knew Mackenzie had a lot on his mind as he drove her to Vermilion in his powder blue Beamer. He hardly said a word to her. He was not the old witty Kenzie. It was not yet dark at seven thirty when they reached Chez François on the river. Billy was waiting for them when they walked down the long flight of steps to the main floor of the French restaurant.
“How are you, Mr. Kenzie?” Billy fawned. “And who is this delightful girl?”
“This is Susan Van Wert,” Mackenzie said, handing Billy his Brooks Brothers black overcoat. He helped Susan out of her long black overcoat with a mink collar.
“We are charmed to have you here, Miss Susan,” Billy said with a slight bow.
“Your hair is different,” Mackenzie said. “Are those new glasses?”
Billy put his hand up in the air close to his hair. “You like? The glasses are the latest art deco frames.”
“You look great, Billy,” Mackenzie said.
“Follow me,” Billy said. “I have your favorite table. Private.”
Billy held out Susan’s chair, and gently scooted it back in for her.
“You should always wear a dress,” Mackenzie said. He noticed every man in the room crane his neck to get a load of Susan’s long legs.
“Yes, Miss Susan,” Billy said enthusiastically. “A Venus De Milo you surely are. Drinks first?”
“Stolys on the rocks,” Susan said confidently.
“Macallan eighteen year,” Mackenzie said.
“Very good you two.” Billy bowed deeply at the hips, and whisked off.
“I have your favorite table? Private?” Susan queried. “How many women have you brought here?”
“Not many,” Mackenzie searched for the right words. “I do bring clients here, you know.”
“Now Kenzie, you are a bachelor,” Susan said, and tilted her head to one side with a smile. “I’m not jealous. After all, I’m an adult.” She saw the seriousness in Mackenzie’s eyes.
“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” Mackenzie said, gazing into Susan’s eyes.
“You don’t have to try too hard to impress me,” Susan laughed, and flushed.
“I am serious,” Mackenzie said soberly. “I have never been with a woman like you.”
“You knew me in Columbus long ago.”
“I knew you, but really didn’t know you.”
“Now you know me?” Susan laughed. She knew that Mackenzie was leading up to something. “I want to thank you again for such a wonderful night in Columbus last week. The dinner was fantastic. The Buckeye hockey match was just what I needed.”
“Go Bucks,” Mackenzie said, almost mesmerized.
Billy brought the drinks, and went through the specials. Mackenzie hardly heard anything that Billy said. His mind was on only one thing. Billy finally said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“It all sounds so delicious,” Susan said. Her female intuition told her that Mackenzie would ask her to marry him. He was missing so many opportunities to be clever and smart. He was missing so many opportunities to dazzle her with his wit. She could see it in his eyes. She had prepared herself on how to answer him.
Mackenzie reached into his black Italian made jacket. He revealed that little velvet box. Susan noticed his hands trembling. The top popped open at the prompting of Mackenzie’s thumb and index finger. “Susan, will you be my wife?”
Susan took a deep breath. The ring would choke a horse. “Mackenzie, you have been the only man that I have been with all these years other than Joe. I know we haven’t slept together, but I’m not divorced yet either. I’ve decided not to marry again.” She could see the hurt in Mackenzie’s eyes. He looked like Andy when she had to punish him for something juvenile and petty. She didn’t want to hurt Mackenzie, because he did mean so much to her. When they were alone together kissing passionately, and a moment away from sex, she would think of Joe. Susan felt that she was cheating on Joe and cheating on Mackenzie for the thoughts about the man who would become her ex-husband. “Can’t we continue with what we have now, but without the ceremony?”
“I made this commitment to you; after all I’ve been a bachelor all these years. I could have asked Allison and so many others, and they all would have said yes.”
“You seem pretty sure about that.” she tried to lighten the mood.
“You are the only woman who would reject me,” Mackenzie said, still holding the box and ring out in front of him. “I wonder if another woman in this room would take this ring?” Mackenzie’s wit and charm were slowly coming back, even though it was painful. “Having you as a companion will have to do. Take another look at this ring,” Mackenzie grinned broadly.
“I’m sure,” Susan said, looking Mackenzie in his eyes.
“Joe is a lucky man to have had a woman like you.”
Susan’s lower lip quivered. “I pushed him away. I pushed him to another woman, whoever that may be. He needs to be married. He needs a perfect football wife.”
“Sounds like you need to reconsider this divorce.”
“I’m not a football wife. I don’t belong in that little town. I can’t go back.”
“Then won’t you reconsider my proposal?”
“Mackenzie, you don’t need to give me a ring. You don’t need to put your brand on me for me to stay with you. I care for you, so don’t think I’m leaving. You don’t need my name on a piece of paper.”
Billy was standing at the side of the table with menus. “I can go through the specials again if you need me to,” he said.
“I think you had better,” Mackenzie said, snapping the little box closed.