My goal was to write something that was a little sweet and little romantic. I wanted to create a story where an attraction was evident early but true affection grew slowly. Hopefully, I came reasonably close to succeeding and I’m sure I’ll hear about it if I didn’t. Thanks for taking the time to read Contract Extensions.
Jerry Hernandez was one of the best boxers of his age. He was also my brother and my hero. He was a successful welterweight when the division was at its peak. Jerry moved up and down weight classes but fought most often at one-forty-seven. He went up against all the greats and won about as much as he lost in those fights.
In an era of bangers like Duran and Hearns, he was a pugilist. If I ever needed a lesson in subjectivity, I would read what the sports writers had to say about him. They detailed his defensive genius and his supposed lack of power. The few times I stepped into the ring with him, his punches felt like I was getting hit by a car. Of the three of us brothers, Jerry was the only one who was athletically gifted.
I believe that it was his defensive genius that allowed him to keep his mental faculties. He was as sharp in the post-fight interviews after his final bout as he was the first time he stepped into a ring. Maybe that’s what allowed him to keep most of his money, unlike many of his contemporaries. In spite of stepping into the ring numerous times a year with some of the most dangerous men on the planet, he was the kindest man I’ve ever known.
He put me through college, and as a graduation gift, he bought me a house on the same block he had purchased one for each of our two sisters, my other brother and our mother. We lived a charmed life due to his willingness to have other men try to knock him out for a living. Every summer we would have block parties that he would pay for. If you were family, a friend or a fan, there was always a place for you.
Jerry spent his days in his beloved garden, hanging out with his nieces and nephews or at the gym he founded in a nearby, low-income neighborhood. The gym had an adjacent, smaller building that was set up like a schoolroom. He hired high school kids from the honor society to tutor younger children. Membership at the gym didn’t have a financial fee, but he insisted on seeing report cards and had every kid that came there help out somehow. Some tutored, some cleaned and some mowed the lawn but everyone contributed.
They came to learn to box but what he was really teaching was confidence, self-discipline and the importance of community.
In spite of the normal heartache that enters every family, our lives were happy and without serious strife until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He didn’t have health insurance and I blame myself for not talking to him about his finances and planning. Jerry had a guy that was supposed to take care of it and some of his money but the idiot dropped the ball. Cancer was a hell of a preexisting condition and getting new insurance proved impossible. He was well off, but the cancer stripped him of not only his vitality and eventually his life but also his money.
I effectively moved in with him towards the end. We would talk, watch videos of his fights and tend to his garden. Once or twice a week we would slowly walk to my house where he would sit by the garden and I would tend to it. We had a tradition in the family where we all kept gardens but we alternated what we grew. We’d get together every few days and split the bounty amongst us.
It was the education that he had paid for that allowed me the luxury of spending my time as I liked. I was a programmer and had developed software used, ironically, in the home healthcare industry. I sold it and rolled the money over into a number of tech companies.
I got out before the bubble burst and was left with enough money to live sensibly for the rest of my life or to live like an idiot for a decade or so. I continued to create apps to keep my hands in the industry and to keep my mind sharp. The greatest benefit of the money I earned was that I was able to keep my brother comfortable when his ran out. He received the medicine, treatment and help he needed and I got to pay off some of the debt I owed to the man I loved most in the world.
Although our nieces and nephews came over often, our siblings started to withdraw when they realized that he couldn’t outpoint death with his deft head movement and quick feet. They soon realized that his money was being swallowed whole by his treatment and that hastened their departure from any meaningful part of his life.
How they treated him was almost as painful to me as his dying was. I couldn’t and still can’t understand how a woman as brilliant, caring and generous as our mother could raise people as disparate as my brother and my other siblings. One was as giving as the day is long and the others driven purely by avarice. She was an amazing woman and it certainly wasn’t her fault. I guess that they never realized that what he had wasn’t their due.
I haven’t spoken to any of them since the funeral.
I mowed his lawn and worked on his garden while his home was on the market. It helped me feel closer to him and push off that inevitable feeling of loss I knew was coming when someone eventually moved in.
The breeze coming down from the hills was cool for once. Beautiful weather, an ice cold Shiner Bock and a comfortable chair made my porch a perfect late spring oasis. It was my daily routine to relax before supper and read any new tech articles. As I skimmed through something about problems with Google’s corporate culture, the moving van pulled into the driveway at Jerry’s house. I immediately realized that I would have to stop calling it that, even if it was only in my head. I put my glasses on the table next to my chair and watched as the men moved box after box into the house.
About twenty minutes after the movers arrived a large sedan pulled up with a woman and three kids. She popped the trunk and they all started hauling boxes and some bags into the house. I found them annoying. They didn’t fit in the neighborhood, I could tell that right away. She was beautiful but seemed snooty and the kids would be a loud annoyance. Her husband probably wouldn’t wait a week before trying to borrow some tools.
Yeah, I wouldn’t be thinking any of this if they moved into a different house. I knew that but I didn’t really care. I was annoyed and I wanted to indulge my anger and self-pity. My brother was taken from me. The rest of my family were ingrates. Screw these people. I closed the laptop, grabbed my glasses and beer and went inside.
There was a persistent knocking around seven in the evening the next day. I looked out the window as I made my way to the door and saw the woman that moved into Jerry’s house. She was standing across the street in front of Mrs. Cruz house, and her two daughters were knocking on the Cruz’s door. Her hair fell just passed her shoulders and she kept kept her attention divided between her children.
I opened my door to see a nine or ten-year-old boy standing there with a plate of cookies wrapped in cellophane.
“Hi! I’m Ted Frost! We just moved in over there.” he pointed to Jerry’s house, “We made some cookies!” He might be the most enthusiastic kid I’d ever met. His mother must have told him to be cheerful. Looking across the street I could see the same thing was playing out with Mrs. Cruz and the two girls, one Caucasian, the other Asian. Ted was black.
I plastered a smile on my face, smiled and nodded at his mom. She gave a little wave.
“Thanks, Ted. Tell your mom and dad I said thanks.”
“I’ll tell Mom. Dad’s dead.”
What the hell do you say to that? I had no idea, so I changed the topic.
“Did you help with the cookies?”
“I helped with the chocolate chip ones! The girls helped with the oatmeal raisin.” Ted was way too excited about these cookies. Or moving here. Or life in general.
“Ok, well, they look great. Thanks again.” I started to step back in the house.
“Are there any kids around here?” I guess I wasn’t going inside.
“Ah, not on this block. Sorry.” I didn’t feel like explaining that there were, but my brother and sisters were assholes who moved as soon as their meal ticket was gone and they took their children with them. For the first time, he didn’t seem like his world was comprised of rainbows and puppies.
“Ok. Enjoy the cookies.” He jumped from the porch, skipping the stairs and jogged out to his mom. I waved again and went back inside with my plate of guilt. I guess I couldn’t really hate them too much at this point.
The truck rumbled down the street as I sat on the porch, again enjoying a beer while doing some research. It stopped at Jerry’s house and the delivery men started unloading furniture. Two trucks in three days. There was no way that they were going to fit that much stuff in the house.
The car from yesterday was gone and the moving men staged everything in the front yard, presumably waiting for the woman to arrive. I glanced over occasionally and when I saw where they were putting the last of the items, I jumped up and made my way over.
“Hey!” I called as I crossed the street. “You can’t can’t put that there.”
They both looked at me and then at each other. “On the lawn?”
“No, I don’t care about the lawn. Over here. You’re crushing the plants.”
“Uhhh, who are you?” He was the shorter of the two, bald with a potbelly but he had biceps larger than my head.
“This is ... this was my ... Look, just move all this shit from this line here to somewhere else.”
“That ‘shit’ happens to be my family’s belongings.” The cold, female voice called out from the street I had my back to. I turned to see the kids piling out of her car as she walked towards me.
“Gentleman, continue with what you were doing. Sir, please get off my property.”
She was not happy at all and that was completely understandable. The movers were trying not to be obvious as they were checking her out. I couldn’t blame them. Under different circumstances, I would do the same thing.
“Listen, I was out of line-”
“I need to get the kids inside. Please get off my property.”
So much for my skills as the welcome wagon.
Looking up from the laptop, I saw Mrs. Cruz making her way to my porch. I continued reading as she sat down.
“Good evening, Mark. More computer stuff?”
She didn’t care what I was reading. This was a prelude to some good old-fashioned gossip. Jennifer and her husband Charles were more formidable than covert government agencies when it came to finding out about their neighbors. I had enjoyed their rumors and stories until I started to wonder what they told other people about me.
Gossips or not, they’ve always been kind and they were dedicated to Jerry during those last few months. I avoided their guarded questions, never knowing where the answers would be going, but there’s little I wouldn’t do for them.
“Beer’s in the fridge if you want one.” She got up, went in the house and came back with another Shiner.
“Her husband passed, poor thing. A doctor.”
I offered a non-committal grunt and took another pull on the Shiner.
“They had to sell their home and move here. Sad. And such beautiful children.”
“What’s wrong with here?” There was an unintended edge to my voice.
“Nothing, Mark. They came from Durango. They had money. I don’t know, the kids moving away from friends, downsizing to a smaller house. I think that they have money problems. It’s just sad. It was odd timing, you know? With the kids, I mean. They called Julie their miracle baby. They thought that they couldn’t have kids and adopted Ted and Wendy. Ages didn’t matter. They wanted the kids that needed them the most. Then Maria found out she was pregnant and their family got a little larger. And now they’re here.”
“Jen, do you have their house bugged?”
“It’s strange, Mark but some people are friendly and they like to talk to their neighbors.”
We chatted some more before she went home. I wasn’t all that comfortable with the thought that someone was moving into Jerry’s house out of necessity. There was a bit of guilt nipping at my conscience. I set the bar pretty low for being a good neighbor.
My knocking had barely stopped before Ted and a little girl a few years younger than him stood before the open door.
“Hey, Ted. Your mom around?”
He walked back into the house, leaving his sister at the door. “Mom! The man from across the street is here!” The house isn’t that big, so I had no idea why he was yelling. The little girl was just standing there staring at me.
“Wendy, go help your brother.” Their mother came out from the kitchen and turned her daughter towards Ted. “Set the table, guys and help Julie wash up.”
Hair in a ponytail and wearing an apron, she looked very domestic. I was struck again by how pretty she was. Not opening the door, she looked at the ziplock bags in my hands. “Can I help you?”
“Listen, I ... We got off on the wrong foot. I just wanted to say welcome to the neighborhood.” I lifted the two bags. “Some pulled pork. I pulled them off the smoker this afternoon.”
“That’s very nice of you...”
“Mark. Sorry, I’m Mark Hernandez.”
“Maria, do you have a couple of minutes?”
“We’ve got about five minutes before supper. Will that do?”
“Yeah, sure. So, my brother used to own this place and my other brother and sisters also had homes on the street. We all grew vegetables. It was my brother’s hobby. He was passionate about it. We’d all get together once a week or so and split everything between us. That’s sort of why I was over here yesterday.”
Maria offered a small, hesitant smile. It was more of a ‘I’m being polite but please hurry up with your story’ smile. A petite blonde, she seemed very young to have three children with Ted being around ten.
“I obviously shouldn’t have said anything. It’s none of my business what you do with your property, it’s just that I’ve sort of been taking care of the yard and garden since, well, since he’s been gone. But I’m sorry about that. You don’t know me and feel free to say no, but I was wondering if I could maybe rent the area that your garden is in? I know it’s weird, but it’s sort of all I have left of Jerry, and I don’t know, it’s not that much space. I’d be happy to split the produce with you. Maybe a hundred a week until the fall?”
“I’m sorry about your brother, Mr. Hernandez. Can I have a few days to think about it?”
The faint, acrid aroma of a distant bonfire was alive in the air. It reminded me of awkward teenage fumblings, weed and bad beer. I sighed and felt a million years old. I nodded to Jennifer as she made her daily pilgrimage.
Another day had gone by and Mrs. Cruz was joining me on my porch again. I lifted my beer.
“Help yourself and grab me another if you could?”
She went in the house and came back out with two Shiners.
“Did you hear about the Clark’s grandson? They arrested him at his office. Took him out in handcuffs. I never liked that kid.”
The community updates continued before she got to the reason for today’s visit.
“She’s been asking about you. I guess she has to with three kids. A hundred a week, Mark? For a hundred a week you can have my entire yard. You’re not fooling anyone, you know. You disappeared into your head for a while after Christine and Jerry and then when your nephews and nieces left. I didn’t care for their parents, but they were great kids. It’s good to see you coming back.”
“It’s just money.”
“Yes, it is Mark. And she probably needs it. You sit here on your porch and pretend to be a recluse and curmudgeon, but you’re a good man. I told her that, too.”
She ended with some more gossip and headed home. An hour later there was a knock on the door.
“Mrs. Frost. Care to come in?”
“No, thank you. I was thinking about your offer and I have a counter-proposal. Fifty dollars a week, you’re only there when I’m present and you spend some of the time explaining to Ted what you’re doing.”
I countered. “Ok, here’s what I’m thinking. Seventy-five a week, Ted gets to choose one vegetable that he’d like to grow and we revisit this in six weeks. If we’re both happy then it goes to a hundred a week and if you want I’ll show the girls what we’re doing and talk to them about gardening. Deal?”
She stuck her hand out and we shook.
“Do we need some sort of contract, Mr. Hernandez?” She smiled while speaking, joking about our negotiating.
“I think that was our verbal contract, signed with the handshake.”
I watched her walk away. She was a small woman, but well put together. Her dark blonde hair fell just below her shoulders and her body tapered to a slim waist before flaring out to some generous curves. Her husband had been a lucky man.
As Ted and I dug, tilled, planted, and tended we would see the girls spying out of the windows, catching a peek at what we were doing until we saw them. Once seen, they would scurry out of sight. After the first week, their mother would send them out with water, iced tea or lemonade.
They were cute and friendly kids, but they weren’t as effusive as Ted. I don’t know if anyone was as effusive as Ted. He spent twenty minutes telling Wally, our mailman, about what we were growing and when it would be coming up. I think Wally left with the impression that I was Ted’s assistant.
Maria alternated between calling her daughter Wendy or Wei. Her brother and sister called her Wendy. “Mr. Hernandez, can you stay for supper?” She was holding her little sister’s hand and was using the other hand and arm to clutch the empty water pitcher to her chest.
“Uhhh, thank you, Wendy but you should really talk to your mom about that.”
“Okay, but she told us to ask.”
“Oh. In that case, sure. Do I have time to go wash up?”
After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I was on their doorstep, knocking.
“Come in!” Ted’s voice echoed through the house.
“Theodore Frost! You go open the door and invite Mr. Hernandez in. You know how to behave.”
I could see and hear them through the screen door as he put his game controller down and headed my way.
“C’mon in. Everything’s ready.” He opened the door and held it for me.
“Thanks, Ted.” I turned to his mother. She was very attractive in a girl-next-door sort of way. I guess that worked as she pretty much was next door. “Mrs. Frost, I didn’t know what was appropriate. I have some wine at the house that I can grab.”
“No, we’re good. And Maria is fine, by the way.”
“Okay, then it’s Mark. No more Mr. Hernandez. I’m already old; I don’t need to feel ancient.”
Ted looked at me. “You’re old? How old are you?”
“Ted, you don’t ask people how old they are.” his mother chided.
“It’s alright. We’re friends. I’m forty-one.”
He looked astonished as if it was a thing of wonder that someone my age could make it through a few hours of gardening. It did wonders for my fragile ego to have Ted think I was a contemporary of Methuselah. I resolved to start going back to the gym the next day.
Two weeks had passed since our deal commenced.
Having just finished supper, I was about to bring my plate into the kitchen when I saw Ted bounding across the street. He saw me as he knocked on the screen door.
“Theodore!” Maria used her mom voice. He ignored her call.
“Hey, Mr. Hernandez. We’re going for a walk. Wanna come? I think mom just wants to go around the block.”
“Okay, sure let me just -”
“He says he wants to come!”
Ted seems to run on either conversational, indoor voice or megaphone, ear-bleed volume. They were right across the street, not across the state. I put the plate in the sink and joined them on their walk. The kids talked about school and Maria mentioned that she got another job. She was now the associate editor for a magazine that covered cattle ranches and the beef industry as well as a magazine published by the Colorado Board of Tourism.
The sweet smell of honeysuckle mixed with the aroma of neighbors grilling and smoking. It was one of those nights when the sunset seemed to suffuse the evening with shades of orange. It was a pleasant walk and took us past a schoolyard. We put Wendy and Julie on the swings and let them enjoy themselves for five or ten minutes. Always cautious with his sisters, Ted refused to push Wendy hard enough to get her as high as she wanted to go.
I found myself letting them walk ahead of me a bit. They seemed content where I was melancholy. I enjoyed watching them. Maria seemed to be a good mother and they were a happy family. I’d listen to her laugh at Ted’s jokes and how seriously she answered Wendy’s questions. She treated her children with a respect that many parents didn’t think was necessary. When we made it back they made their way to their house and I made my way to mine.
“See ya’ tomorrow, Mr. Hernandez.”
“See ya, Ted.”
We fell into a rhythm. If we didn’t garden that day we would take a walk. Sometimes it was quick, sometimes it was longer but we always stopped at the school playground.
Three weeks had gone by. Mrs. Cruz was back on my porch, drinking one of my beers.
“So, what are you growing?”
“Here, or,” I tipped my beer towards Jerry’s house. “over there?”
“Well, I’ve got some baby carrots, kale and green onions coming up soon. They’ve got radishes, spinach, and squash. Ted’s got a bunch of hot peppers going.”
“About another week?”
“Tired of the farmer’s markets, Jennifer? Yeah, about another week.”
“Did you hear Phillip is retiring? Between you and me, it’s not voluntarily. He was with his boss’s daughter and then dumped her pretty callously.”
I was surprised. “Isn’t he, like sixty?”
“Yeah, and she’s about forty-two I think. He really got her hooked and then broke her heart.”
“So, she’s single?”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “I guess so.”
“Jennifer, do you have an agenda here? I’m not interested.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Mark. That wasn’t what I was implying. He’s almost twenty years older than her and she adored him. It happens. Age difference isn’t as big a thing as people make it seem. Especially not if both people are emotionally mature.”
Realization dawned and I was struck by her implication. “C’mon, there’s nothing there. She’s just a neighbor. The last thing she wants is the middle-aged guy next door. And I’m definitely not in the market.”
“Keep telling yourself that. Thanks for the beer, Mark.”
She got up, put the empty in the recycling bin and headed home.
Wendy didn’t have much interest in gardening but her sister did. Whenever Ted and I pruned, watered trimmed or cleaned up, little Julie would be following right along behind us. She was a cute kid. They all were. They were almost professionally cute, as if they just stepped out of a commercial for Target.
We put the tools away in the shed and made our way to the house. I was going to tell Maria we were done for the day and head home when Wendy grabbed my hand.
“Look, Mr. Hernandez! I got all A’s!”
I looked at her report card and made sure I gave her the ‘wow, I’m very impressed’ look.
“That’s great Wendy. Nice job. Is your mom going to put it up on your refrigerator?”
“I think so. Did you want to put it up on yours?”
I paused for a second, thinking about my nieces and nephews. It still hurt. I hated my siblings sometimes.
“I’d love to, honey but they only give you one. Maybe your mom can send me a copy and I’ll use that.”
“Mom! Can Mr. Hernandez have a copy of the report card?” Wendy yelled to her mother who was at most fifty feet away.
Maria walked into the kitchen, head tilted as she fastened an earring. “Sure, if he wants one.”
“Mom says we’re going out for dinner and for ice-cream after to celebrate. Do you wanna come?”
“Oh, no. Thank you, Wendy. You guys have a great time.”
Maria looked at my shirt and pants. “No dirt stains. You look presentable, Mark. You sure you don’t want to come?”
“Okay, as long as I get to pay for the ice-cream.”
As we headed out the door, Ted ran to the car and Julie held my hand. It was nice.
“Mr. Hernandez gets the front seat, Ted.”
“I know!” He called out as he moved from the front to the back.
Sardoni’s is a continental grill on the outskirts of Durango. It was an excellent choice. The food was what critics called rustic and there were plenty of choices for the kids. As Ted was asking the waitress if their vegetables were organic, I leaned over to quietly talk to Maria. I wasn’t sure if it was her perfume but she was wearing something with floral overtones.
“Have you ever had him tested? I don’t know that much about it, but I think he’s pretty bright. Maybe he should be in some special program or something?”
“Mark, every class he’s in is advanced. If I put him in any more advanced classes I’d have to enroll him in night school.”
“Oh.” I felt a little foolish. Of course a mother would know that her son is gifted.
The elder kids scoured the menu for dishes that used ingredients that we were growing. Wendy and Ted patiently read the dishes off to Julie who didn’t seem terribly interested. Her dinner choice was written in stone. If they had them, she was getting chicken strips that her mother would cut up and call nuggets.
When the food arrived, Ted wouldn’t allow Maria to start on hers.
“Wait, wait!” He took out his phone and took a picture of the dish. “We can make that.”
“The chicken?” Maria asked.
“No, the green beans almondine. We’re growing string beans next! We can make that. We just need to get a recipe. Can we buy some green beans tomorrow?”
After dinner, we went to Benji’s Freezatory for ice-cream. I sat at a picnic table with Maria as we finished our cones and watched Wendy and Julie in the little playground. The bench wasn’t very wide and her leg touched mine often. We saw Ted walking towards us from the farm-stand next door. He held a bag up high.
“I got some green beans!”
“Ted, you can’t just walk off. You need to ask me if you want to go somewhere.” She looked nervous and it seemed that she was as upset with herself for not realizing he was missing as she was with him for leaving. “Do we owe them money?”
“No, I used my allowance. I showed them the picture. They gave me some good ones.”
He got me thinking.
“Mr. Hernandez, can I hang out here for a while?” Ted was standing on my porch by the screen door.
“Sure. Come on in. Does your mom know you’re here?”
“I left her a note. She was crying, so I didn’t want to bother her.”
Should I pry? If there was something that I could have done I would feel horrible if I hadn’t.
“Is ... is everything ok, Ted?”
“Yeah, she just gets sad sometimes.”
“Where are the girls?”
“Wendy’s helping Julie color.”
I wasn’t comfortable having Ted just sitting around here if his mother didn’t approve it.
“Grab a soda, if you want. I’m going to text your mom.”
Jennifer and I r headed to town. Picking up fertilizer, tools, groceries. I thought Ted should come to the garden center. If that’s ok, maybe the girls can come 2 and we can stop for ice cream.
A few minutes went by.
That would be great. Thanks.
I immediately called Jennifer.
“So, please tell me that you’re free for the next few hours. Don’t make a liar out of me.”
When I explained the situation she was happy to go. Ted got the girls and carried Julies booster seat to my SUV. He also gave me a twenty from his mother for the ice cream.
“Guys, your mom gave us some money. Let’s use it for dinner. What does everyone want?” The vote was two for pizza and one for chicken nuggets. We got both and they brought it home to share with Maria.
Jennifer stopped before walking home.
“Wendy mentioned that today was her parents anniversary. She dropped it in the conversation pretty casually but I could see she was worried. If Maria’s not doing okay tomorrow, give me a yell. You know, she asks about you, Mark.”
“Did you tell her about Jerry and Christine?”
“A little about Jerry. Was that wrong?”
“No. What happened, happened. If she asks, tell her.”
The previous year I had planted a butterfly bush in the corner of Jerry’s yard. I had no idea if it would actually attract butterflies but I wanted to find out. It thrived, growing quickly, and this year it was larger than last with many more buds that flowered.
The workings of the bush and how it attracted the butterflies were a mystery to me but it performed as advertised. I was working with Ted as he carefully watered the garden and heard incessant giggling. Julie was laughing as only a four-year-old can while she tried to catch some of the colorful insects. Maria was walking towards her, explaining that they weren’t pets and they should be watched and not touched.
She picked Julie up and kissed her cheek. As they watched the butterflies, I watched Maria. I didn’t realize what I was doing until I finally heard Ted.
“I’m sorry, what Ted?”
“I said, do we need more fertilizer?”
“No, no, we’re fine.”
I sighed and went back to work.
It took me two rings to find my phone. It was our resident scandal monger. “Jennifer?”
“Mark, you need to go talk to the kids. Don’t tell them I called you. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s serious.”
“Just go. Don’t panic. It’ll be fine, but you can help.”
Less than two minutes later I was knocking on the Frost’s screen door. “Maria?”
“Come in, Mark.”
“Hey, is...” I started asking when I saw Wendy sitting on the couch with her head tilted back and a huge ice-pack on her left eye.
“What happened?” I asked. “Honey, are you ok?” She shook her head.
Maria came out of the kitchen holding Julie in one arm and carrying a plate of cookies. She left the plate next to Wendy.
“Sweetie, I’m going to talk to Mr. Hernandez for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
I followed her out to the front lawn.
“Some middle-schoolers were picking on Ted. Wendy got upset and yelled at them. They laughed at her and it got worse for Ted. She pushed one kid and she says he pushed her back and she hit her eye on a rock. I don’t know if that’s true or she just doesn’t want to say that he hit her. Ted’s in his room and won’t come out. I don’t know if I should call the police or try to track down the parents or, I don’t know. They’re older, they don’t even go to the same school so I can’t go there.”
“What did the doctor say.”
“The x-rays are all good. She’ll be sporting a heck of a bruise, but she’ll be fine.”
“Call the cops, Maria. Get a record of it so there’s a paper trail. This won’t happen again. Tell that to Wendy. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
She seemed concerned. “We’ll take care of it. You don’t need to get involved. Don’t go looking for the kids, Mark. I want to strangle them but they’re just kids.”
“I’m not going to look for the kids. I gotta go. I’ll be back in a bit.”
The drive out to Jerry’s gym took about half an hour. I spoke to Javi, the trainer that works with the kids there. We discussed things for a while before he shut everything down, called the kids in and introduced me. I knew most of them in passing. I spoke to them for a little while and showed them the photos I could find on my phone of Wendy and Ted in the garden.
After receiving some assurances, I headed back. Maria didn’t ask and I didn’t say anything about where I’d been. Ted was sitting with his sisters when I returned.
Maria came over the next afternoon and took the seat Jennifer Cruz usually uses while dispensing her daily neighborhood updates. I put down the laptop and lifted my Shiner.
“Can I get you a beer or anything?”
“No, I’m just going to be a minute. Wendy has a new friend. A twelve-year-old girl. I think Ted’s in love. Apparently this girl scared the hell out of the boy that pushed Wendy. Made him and his friends apologize to Wendy and Ted. Know anything about that?”
“She was trying to show Ted how to throw a punch while he stood there with a goofy grin on his face. You have no idea why a girl four years older than her would become Wendy’s new best friend?”
“I’m not saying I don’t appreciate it and your brother sounds like he was a great man but I don’t want Ted boxing or fighting.”
“Sounds good but you should probably tell that to him. He’s never said anything about it to me and I’ve never brought it up. Tell Annabelle I said thank you.”
“I never told you her name, Mark.”
“She seems like an Annabelle. It’s a strong name. Just a guess.”
A few hours later Wendy brought me some peach cobbler, still warm from the oven.
“Mom wanted you to have this.”
Ted was working with me outside while Wendy was in the kitchen doing her homework. Their mother was on their porch, editing an article.
Wendy’s voice called out. “What’s the capital of New York?”
“Albany.” Maria and I called out at the same time. We looked at each other and laughed.
A while later I went into their kitchen to get a glass of water when I noticed a new photo on the wall. It was of a tall, red-haired man with a receding hairline. He was holding a younger Julie and had his arm around Wendy while Ted leaned into his side. He was beaming out of the photo and you can almost feel the love and pride he had for his children.
I guess Maria was the one that took the picture.
“That’s our dad. He died helping people.” Wendy sounded a little sad but strong for a little girl, as if it was a difficult memory she had learned to live with.
“He sounds like a great man, Wendy. What did he do?”
“He helped people in other countries. He worked for Doctors Without Borders. But not all the time, just some of the time. He died in Africa.”
“I’m really sorry. I would have liked to have met him.”
“He would have liked you. He liked smart people.”
I tousled her hair.
Jennifer switched things up and sat on the rocker I kept on the porch instead of her usual chair.
“So, did you hear about the Malone’s dog? Broke through the fence and killed two of the neighbor’s chickens.”
“Have you reduced yourself to gossiping about pets? Where is your dignity woman? At least give me a scoop about some people!”
She looked at me and smiled.
“Ok, Mark. Here’s a good one for you. You know that woman with the three cute kids that moved next door to me? The ones in Jerry’s house? It turns out that she likes this guy that lives across from me but he’s a complete idiot. He’s lost some people that he cares about, so he’s decided that he’d prefer to not risk winning someone so he can’t get hurt again.”
She stood up and started walking down towards the steps, speaking over her shoulder. “How was that? Good scoop for you?”
The knocking reverberated through my skull as I threw a shirt on and got up off the couch I had been sleeping on. Rubbing my eyes, I opened the door to see Maria standing there looking none too pleased.
“Mr. Hernandez, this is the end of our six weeks and we’ll be ending our contract effective today.”
I was exhausted, confused and had a pounding headache.
“Did I do something wrong?”
She sighed and slumped a little.
“No, Mark. I did. I shouldn’t have let the kids get close to you. It was a bad time for us and I was weak. It wasn’t your fault.”
“What happened? Is everything ok?”
“Mark, they haven’t seen you in ten days. Ted thinks that he did something to offend you. Wendy’s trying to be a farmer pulling out half the carrots trying to see if they are ready. She absolutely hates going into the garden and getting dirty. She’s doing it anyway. Julie’s always looking out the window at your house wondering where you are. It’s not your fault, it’s mine. You were very kind, but they got too close, so thank you but I think we’ll call it quits at this point.”
“Wait, let me explain -”
“It’s not necessary. I’m not being noble or anything. It really isn’t your fault. Truly. You have nothing to explain. We’ll see you around, I’m sure. If you see the kids, just say hi or something so they know you’re not mad.” She made her way off the porch and over to her house.
This hadn’t gone the way I wanted it to. I took a quick shower, put on a change of clothes and drove into town. I spent time thinking during the drive. The haircut gave me more time to think. I was still going over things at lunch.
The florist had three beautiful sets of flowers ready for me fairly quickly. When I went to pay she put a fourth on the counter and placed her hand on mine. “Please leave these for Jerry, Mark. He was a good man. Tell him I think about him.”
I had to wipe my eyes before I could continue. I keep things pretty bottled up but there are times when feelings push their way out. “I will. Thanks, Faith.”