Joe stopped the old family van, that had been Susan’s transportation when they were married, in the Van Wert’s driveway. Susan told him that she wouldn’t be needing it anymore. Esmeralda had helped Joe pack the boys’ clothing in cardboard boxes from the store. This was the hardest thing Joe had ever done in his life. He told Esmeralda that he could take the boys to the mansion by himself, that she should return to her brother. He could fend for himself. He would always be grateful to her for her help.
It was the second week of June. The fields were in full growth under sweltering heat. Workers in straw hats dotted the landscape as Joe drove over the dirt access road to the long driveway that led to the big house. Mr. Wickert was waiting for them when they pulled up. Joe could see Mr. Wickert call with cupped hands at the open door. Miss Sadie ran out, followed by Susan. The boys didn’t open their doors.
Susan opened the passenger door. “I have your rooms all ready,” she said, clapping her hands with a beaming smile.
Mr. Wickert and Miss Sadie opened the back hatch, and began efficiently loading the boxes of clothes onto a four wheeled cart.
Joe stepped out of the driver’s side carefully. He looked for Eduard. Petey slid the driver’s side door back. He looked right and then left before jumping down to the red stone parking area. Jimmy followed with the same jump. They stood with their father. Andrew sat on the passenger side, staring at his mother. He didn’t know why she was so happy. This was the saddest day in his life. His mother had left his father. That was the way he would always see it.
Matty sat in the far back seat. He wanted to see his mother. It had been two weeks since the last time he saw her. He expected his grandpa to keep his word to allow him to run a business. He could sell lemonade to the workers. He could buy bags of chips cheap and double the price. He didn’t want to live with his father anymore. His dad was acting funny around Esmeralda. Esmeralda was pretending to be his mom, but he knew better.
“I want to show you your room,” Susan said to Andrew. “We’ll have a big meal tonight.”
“For Dad too?”
“He can stay if he wants to,” Susan said, ignoring her ex-husband. “Come with me, please.”
Andrew stepped out of the van like an adult. He was over six foot now. His long arms hung down at his side like an orangutan. Susan took him into her arms and kissed him on his cheek. He hated being kissed by his mother. He wanted Maria to kiss him. He remembered that he told his dad that he didn’t want Maria to kiss him all the time, but she was the only girl he could trust. Esmeralda was trying too hard.
Susan motioned for her boys to follow her into their grand new home. Mr. Wickert and Miss Sadie push pulled the four wheeled cart up the handicapped ramp that ran in a gentle curved incline. Joe watched everyone disappear into the gaping entrance.
“I know this must be hard for you.”
Joe turned to confront Eduard. His movements were like a stealth killer. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”
“You are always welcome in my home,” Eduard said, and extended his hand.
Joe took it. “I want the best for my sons.”
“That is what they will get.”
“I expect them to work hard in the fields and the processing warehouse.”
“They will rise at four thirty, and be on the job at a quarter after five.”
“Don’t let them slough, ever.”
“That is your wish; it is my command,” Eduard said with a slight bow.
“Dad, Dad,” Petey yelled on a dead run. “Jimmy and I got separate rooms. No way.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Joe laughed.
“Jimmy and I gotta stay in our bunk,” Petey said in an exasperated plea.
“Yeah, no way we can stay in different rooms,” Jimmy said, bumping into the back of Petey.
Eduard gave Joe a slight smile, which startled Joe. “Why don’t you give it a chance?” Joe asked.
“You said we could do what we liked down here,” Jimmy said.
“I said you two do the right thing,” Joe said. “There is a difference.”
“We can’t sleep in scary rooms by ourselves,” Petey said. “The rooms are bigger than our house.”
“If your sons want to share a room together,” Eduard said, “I will commission Mr. Wickert and a workhand to procure the twins’ bunk.”
“No need,” Joe said. “I will disassemble the bunk and bring it down in Emmy’s truck.”
“You don’t need to bother,” Eduard said.
“No, this is something I will do,” Joe said, stepping back from Eduard. He walked around to the driver’s side, got in the van and drove off.
“Where is Joe going in such a hurry?” Susan called to Eduard, skipping down the steps.
“The twins want their security bunk,” Eduard said.
“I should have figured that out.”
“All good mothers forget something.”
“I just should have known they would want to stay together,” Susan said with a frown.
“You won’t forget things when the boys are with you all the time,” Eduard said. “What’s going on with Mackenzie?”
“He wants me to move into his new house in Delaware.”
“Are you two talking marriage?”
“Don’t be absurd.” Susan flicked her hand. “I’m not marrying anyone anytime soon. My sons need to get used to your world. They need to work hard. Joe was always too easy with them. Kenzie would be easy with them too. He wouldn’t want to offend me. He would give them everything they wanted just to get a ring on my finger.”
“Lynn Rammell told me that Charlie Resor won the Springfield mile, and looked good doing it,” Eduard said.
“Of all the impossible things in the world, Charlie Resor a champion,” Susan chuckled. “I wonder what Jules thinks about that.”
“Lynn said Charlie dedicated the trophy to Jaki,” Eduard said. “Charlie apparently has become a folk hero in Springfield.”
“A champion and a hero,” Susan shook her head. “Anything can happen in this crazy world.”
“Even you becoming Rammell’s daughter-in- law.”
Susan pursed her lips, and walked back up the steps to where her twins were running and leaping out as far as they could on to the red stoned driveway.
Charlie stood at the Dyno machine, tuning a customer’s Harley. The whine was deafening, but he remembered to turn on the fan. He thought back to Springfield. The young cycle girls in Daisy Dukes and cowboy boots, standing with him, Brooke, and Lance on the podium. He had won a fabled race. He couldn’t remember what he said into the microphone to the cheering crowd; something about Jaki and Vietnam. He shook the beer sponsor bottle, spraying a short spurt out onto the several fans in front of him. Brooke sprayed Charlie playfully, and then kissed him on the cheek. Lance shook his hand. A father with a boy stepped up to the stand, lifting the boy up to the feet of Charlie. The boy was dressed in a racer’s uniform with a small replica helmet of a rider. The boy was bald, with withdrawn pupils. He looked at Charlie with wonder. “Mister Resor, sir. Could you autograph my program?”
“I would be proud,” Charlie said. He knelt down and took the program from the boy’s lily white hand.
“Someday Mr. Resor, sir,” the small boy said, “I’m going to be the next Charlie Resor. I sure hope I live for that day.”
Charlie looked up at the boy’s father. The man dressed in blue jeans and a baseball cap with “Toledo Mud Hens “across the front, nodded his sad face.
“Never give up,” Charlie said. “Never give up, no matter what.”
The man picked up the boy like he was weightless and put him up on his shoulders. The boy waved back at Charlie, brandishing the program like a flag. Springfield had all been like a dream, a wonderful dream this time.
“We got a lot of work before Lima,” Bud yelled, bringing Charlie from his thoughts.
Charlie switched off the machine, pulling down his earphones around his neck. “Not gonna be Lima.”
“What in God’s name does that mean?”
“I did what I needed to do.”
“What you gonna tell Rammell?” Bud asked.
“You can tell him anything you want,” Charlie said. “I’m headed out.”
“Disappointing your fans?”
“It’s time for me to leave.”
“Leave? Where you going?”
“Across this country,” Charlie wiped his hand on an oily towel. “I need to ride for a long while.”
“Don’t tell me; you’ll wind up in Chico,” Bud said.
“Brooke said her name is Holly,” Charlie said. “Her sister, Sloane, works in the salon too.”
“What are you up to, Brother?”
“You said it yourself,” Charlie said. “I could use a good woman.”
“What’s Brooke gonna do on the circuit without you?”
“She and I talked it out. She agrees.”
“When are you leaving?”
Joe disassembled the bunk bed with the help of Esmeralda. She had stayed at the house for Joe’s return. She decided that Joe would have to pull her back to her brother by her hand; she was not going on her own. Joe never said a word through the whole process. She took piece by piece out to Emmy’s pickup until the job was done. Joe had handled each slat, each frame like it was sacred. He worked up a sweat in the dead air room. She brought him a pitcher of ice water in the middle of the job. A half moon of perspiration soaked his T-shirt below his throat. He drank the whole pitcher before he was done.
“Rest before you go,” Esmeralda said.
“I want to get the bunk ready before they have to sleep,” Joe said. “They’ll rise early tomorrow.”
“You have time,” she said.
“I can rest when I get there.”
“You are worked up, you know,” Esmeralda said, taking Joe’s hand.
“You should go back,” Joe said. “You open up tomorrow.”
“I want this as my home,” she said with conviction.
“I think it best.”
“Let me love you.”
“It’s best for you to live with your brother.”
“It is my wish to live with you.”
“I need time.”
“I know you think of your wife when we are together. I don’t care. I want you to be my love.”
“I can’t do this now.”
“When you return, I will be here in your bed.”
Joe held her close to him. “I can’t think through this.”
“Take care of your sons tonight,” Esmeralda said, pressing her head to Joe’s clammy chest. She cupped both of her hands on his face, and kissed him. “I will be here always, Joseph.”
Nicole put the two bags of groceries on the kitchen table. “Thomas, will you please get the rest in the car?”
“I said goodbye to Andy,” Thomas said, nosing around in the refrigerator. “He wants me and Abbey to come down to the Christian school next year.”
“It’s hard to separate,” Nicole said.
“He said Maria is going to the school.”
“I think Jules and Emmy will have something to say about that.”
“Why can’t we all be together?” Thomas slammed the fridge door closed. “Just when we all got to be friends.”
“It will all work out in the end.”
“I told Dad I want to be with him.”
Nicole ran the water in the sink, and washed her hands. “What did he tell you?”
“Sumptin about you and him being more than friends.”
“Your father and I are close.”
“Like you’re really good friends?”
“Like we are more than good friends.”
“What does that mean?” Thomas asked.
“I will tell you at the right time,” Nicole said. “Will you get the rest of the bags?”
“He said sumptin about Jet’s dad and him in the Army too.”
“Silas Smith saved your father’s life.”
“Why ain’t Jet and his dad together?” Thomas asked.
“Sergeant Smith was wounded terribly,” Nicole said.
“Jet said sumptin about his dad missing an arm and a leg.”
“Silas jumped on a grenade to save the unit.”
“He and Jet should be together,” Thomas said. “Jet could help his dad.”
“It’s more complicated.”
“My dad, Jet’s dad, what’s goin’ on?”
“They were Rangers in the same unit,” Nicole said. “They did all the hard stuff around the world.”
“So Jet and I are really like brothers.”
“We are more like a family than what you know,” Nicole said. “Now, please bring those groceries back in.”
Joe stopped Emmy’s truck in front of the mansion. Susan had been waiting for him. Joe had left half cocked with that look on his face. She knew it was no use talking to him in that kind of mood. He acted like his immature boys often. She told Mr. Wickert and Miss Sadie to stay in the house; she would wait for Joe, and help him take the bunk pieces into the twins’ room. They had picked out the room they really wanted, and where they wanted the bunk assembled. Eduard was nowhere in sight. She could tell by the determined way Joe jumped out of the pickup that he wanted to do this job on his own, but Susan needed to talk with him. “I have the four-wheeler,” she called to him, pushing it to the back of the truck.
Joe was sweating heavily. Emmy’s old pickup didn’t have air conditioning.
Susan’s white legs were burnt a bright red on the thighs. “Let me help, Joseph.”
“I can handle it.”
“I want to help,” Susan persisted. “Two can get the job done just in time for the twins’ bedtime.”
“I can get it done, and then I’ll be gone.”
Susan was surprised at the tone in Joe’s voice. “I don’t want you to be gone.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said, stacking the boards and slats carefully onto the four wheeler.
“I mean— can’t you slow down and look at me?”
“The sooner I get done, the sooner I’m outta here.”
“Dad and I want you to stay for dinner,” Susan took a slat from Joe’s arms. “Eduard and the staff are preparing a big meal tonight. Please stay.”
“ Eduard has hired two more people for the house to oversee the boys.”
“They’ll be spoiled like you in no time— ”
“I resent that!”
“You got what you wanted.” Joe was sweating profusely. “I’m sure you got what you wanted as a little girl all the time.”
“I worked damn hard as a girl. I worked hard for you and your family. I worked hard at our marriage.”
“You gave up. You wanted out in one big hurry.”
Sweat poured off Susan’s body. Her shirt and bra were soaked. “I didn’t have to work at my love for you. It was always real.”
“Now that love is gone from my life like everything else.”
Susan jerked the long wooden side board out of Joe’s arms. She felt a twinge in her back. “The catholic martyr. So you will suffer alone.”
“I can hack it.”
“What about Esmeralda?”
“I told her to go back to her brother,” Joe wiped his brow with his forearm.
“I thought she loved that little house…the store….”
“She says that she loves you?”
“She wants to take care of me,” Joe said. “How proud she would be if I become head football coach.”
“I’m sorry. That was not the life for me.” The pain in Susan’s back was becoming acute.
“She’s so different than you.”
“Easy to manipulate.” She sat down on the pile of polished wood.
“Easy to come home to.”
“I worked at our marriage every day,” Susan said. “Don’t pretend that I wasn’t a good wife to you now that we’re divorced.”
“Look, we can argue about what happened, and what didn’t happen,” Joe said, pushing the four wheeler. “I want to get this bunk up, so that I can leave.”
“I will help you, damn it. And you will stay for dinner. You can at least be civil.”
“Being civil is so important to you people.”
“My people?” Susan grunted as she pulled the cart up the handicapped incline. “You could never accept my father.”
“You could never accept my parents— ”
“That’s a lie,” Susan said, putting her fists on her hips. The cart began to roll back against Joe’s shoulder.
Joe’s boots skidded back down the incline from the sheer weight. “Susan!”
She clutched at the upright frame of the cart. Her back was killing her. The cart went straight at the curve of the incline. Joe lost his footing, falling off the side of the ramp. The cart bounced heavily down the side of the ramp’s incline, spewing wooden pieces onto the red stone driveway. Susan tripped over Joe’s outstretched legs, falling face first onto the grassy bank of the incline. Her calves plopped back against her thighs.
“Why don’t you two clean up, and get ready for dinner?” Eduard said, standing above Joe and Susan. “We will all put the bunk together later.”
Two Hispanic men busied themselves picking up the scattered wooden frames. Joe got up on his knees, and extended his hand to Susan. Her knees were scraped and bleeding.
When Joe stepped out of the over-sized shower stall, the room was filled with steam. He had forgotten to put the fan on in the upstairs guest bedroom. His clothes had been picked up and cleaned, dried and neatly pressed. He thought that he had showered for only a half an hour. How efficient Mr. Wickert and Miss Sadie were, he mused. A shaver container with the letters M L R sat on the sink counter. After he dressed and walked into the upstairs hallway, he could smell the food for dinner. Susan sat in a stuffed fabric chair waiting for him. She looked refreshed. Her light hair was full and flowing over her shoulders. The sun had made the freckles burst out all over her reddened face. Her light emerald eyes were full of wonder.
“Still the long shower-taker,” she laughed. “You must have putzed around for an hour.”
“Still the most beautiful woman.”
Susan looked down at the carpet shyly. “All the bunk pieces are ready for you to assemble after dinner.” She crossed her legs with red scrapes on her knee caps.
“I will help, so you can get home.”
“Home sweet home,” Joe said. “I think I will get the job done now and catch something on the way back.”
“I would love for you to stay,” Susan said.
“The boys need to get used to eating without me,” Joe said. “When you are done eating, come up to help finish up.”
“I’ll help you now if you’re going to be this way.”
“And what way is that?”
“Like you. No wonder we can’t get along.”
“We can help too,” the twins yelled on a dead run.
“We want to help too,” Matty said, walking in front of Andy.
“Yeah, the m…more workin’, the sooner we eat,” Andy said.
“Dinner is served,” Mr. Wickert announced at the top of the stairs.
“Keep it warm Mr. Wickert,” Susan said, standing. “We have one more job to finish as a family.”
Joe left off Emanuel’s pickup, and walked down the lane to his house. He hoped that Esmeralda had gone back to her brother’s home. The house was dark when he unlocked the front door and walked into the living room. On the kitchen table was a bowl of Emmy’s salsa and a plate of corn chips. Esmeralda had cut up strawberries on a separate plate with bing cherries. He was starving and tired, because he had not stayed for dinner after his family assembled the bunk bed. He had originally relented to staying. The dinner smelled so good, but who should arrive unexpectedly? Mackenzie. He just happened to be in the neighborhood. Besides, he had left his shaver from last weekend. Instead Mackenzie stayed for dinner with Joe’s sons and ex-wife.
The snack was not nearly enough. Joe felt the bruise on his back from the fall on the handicapped incline. The bedroom was black. His eyes were slow to adjust. He undressed to his boxer shorts as he had done since a boy. Even in the dead of the winter he slept only in shorts. He radiated heat. Susan warmed herself against him during those cold nights. He felt her presence when he slipped under the covers. She draped her body over him. Her silk nightie was cool and smooth against his skin.
She kissed his chest. “I am so happy that you are home, my love,” Esmeralda said sleepily.
“I’m happy you didn’t listen to me,” Joe said. He hugged her tight. “I want you next to me from now on.”
“I will never leave you.”