Jennifer placed the large glass of lemonade next to Pete and plopped down on the deck chair. He looked over at her and smiled. “Thanks.”
“Finn went nuts again. Some sort of special lemons he flew in from Florida. We’ve got tons. Drink up.”
The sun was setting, and the water was aglow in shades of orange. Wafting aromas of smoking meat tantalized the friends and family gathered at the Corrigans. Like Jennifer and Pete, some sat around talking. Finn was on the pier checking the diagnostics on the equipment that monitored his oyster farms, and Tommy was tossing a frisbee around with William and little Cynthia while the heavily pregnant Siobhan watched.
“You know, I’ve been watching carefully, and she hasn’t murdered or maimed anyone in at least six months.”
Pete’s eyes immediately went to Siobhan.
“No, not Shiv, Pete. Jean. She’s just a woman. Go talk to her.”
“What? I ... I talk to Jean all the time.”
“Sure, if you consider ‘Hey, can you pass the macaroni salad’ to be talking. Pete, she’s a nice, sad, lonely woman. She’s not some statue that people admire from a distance. Just talk to her. You know, they’re having a 50s DooWop revue at the amphitheater at Bald Hill. I happen to know she wants to go. Why don’t you invite her?”
Cocking his head, Pete looked at his friend. “How do you find this stuff out?”
“Well, I can give you some impressive story about my investigative techniques and our staff, or I can just admit that she told me. Her mom loved those old bands and used to take her to see them when she was a kid. When her mom passed, Jean started listening to that music again. Helps her feel in touch with her mom somehow.”
“I don’t know. It’s not really my thing.”
“It doesn’t have to be your sort of thing, Pete. Okay, why don’t you ask her if she’d like to go to the batting cages by the go-kart park? She was on the high school softball team and her daughter plays for them now. You can bring both of them. You still coach the kids at the orphanage. It’d be perfect.”
Finishing his lemonade, Pete stood while staring at Jean. “Thanks. I ... I don’t think so, but thanks.” Taking the glass, he headed into the house.
Jennifer sighed and watched her friend’s departing back. She’d never met anyone so deserving of love and so terrified of rejection.
Pete wasn’t charismatic, like Tommy. He wasn’t brilliant, like Finn. Unlike Siobhan, Pete wasn’t a trained killer. He certainly didn’t have Jennifer’s aptitude for numbers and her certitude about life.
None of them had what Pete did. Pete was a mensch.
Growing up in Riverhead’s Little Flower Orphanage, Pete had no one for the first five years of his life. He first met Cynthia in 1983. She was with Father Montgomery and she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Shy and withdrawn, he would hide behind the legs of the women who worked there and peak out at this angel with the priest.
She noticed him and his fascination and did what she could to coax him from the prison of his isolation, loneliness and fears of abandonment. Her monthly visits became weekly and she’d bring him little gifts, often books on math and numbers written for children. His reserved nature became a permanent part of him, but she made inroads into his trust issues.
“Pete, I was hoping you could do me a favor.” Cynthia sat on the couch in the lounge with a large bag at her side.
“Sure, Ms. Kallas.” She had been inventing random chores at her house for the past three years as an excuse to be able to slip Pete and his friends some money. He thought she wanted him to help clean the basement or do some weeding, although it was late in the year for gardening.
“Well, it turns out that I have some extra tickets for the World Series, and I need some people to go with me and help root for the Mets and yell at the Red Sox. Do you know anyone who might want to go?”
She had a child size Dwight Gooden jersey, a new baseball mitt and six Mets t-shirts in the bag. Pete wore the jersey every day for a week. His six friends were envious but grateful to be going. Father Montgomery helped supervise the boys and they enjoyed a luxury box at Shea Stadium on the night that the Mets won the World Series.
The only Red Sox player who got cheered was Bill Buckner.
Father Montgomery had staff members come out and carry in the exhausted eight-year-olds, but Pete wouldn’t let go of Cynthia’s hand. She went up with him to his room, waited outside while he changed into his pajamas and wished him a good night.
“Sleep tight, Pete. Thank you for keeping me company tonight.”
“Welcome. Ms. Kallas, how come you keep counting things?”
“Yeah, sort of mumbly. I can make it out once in a while.”
“I don’t know, honey. It helps calm me down, I guess. Good night, Pete.”
She smiled, pausing at the door. “Yes, Pete?”
“We’re having tacos tomorrow, if, you know, you wanna come back.”
“I can’t tomorrow. I leave for Germany the day after. But your birthday is right around the corner and then Thanksgiving, and then we’re right up to Christmas. I’ll be back soon.”
“Thank you. For the game and the jersey and the glove and, and everything. I...” He stopped his rambling speech, afraid to verbalize his thoughts. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Pete. Sleep well.” And I love you too.
He was ten in 1988 when he made his first best friend. As with most friendships of youth, his relationship with Stan Rivers felt as deep and powerful as the Mississippi. Both of them knew in their bones that they would be friends for life. When Stan was 12, Father Montgomery reached out to a friend who was a Rabbi about a Bar Mitzvah. A less than stellar student, Stan had difficulty learning the requisite Hebrew.
For six months, a stocky dark haired and bespectacled Jewish boy in modest clothing was joined by a lanky and quiet black 12-year-old as they both learned enough to read the requisite amount from the Torah and to chant the Haftarah. Cynthia drove them back to the orphanage after their first lesson, stopped to buy them dinner and ice cream, and gave each of them a copy of the Torah and a stack of other books.
“Okay, gentlemen. I expect you to study and do your best. I have a friend in Rome who’s a whiz with languages. Her name is Birgette and if we need to ask for her help, we can, but I believe in you guys. You can do this.”
Pete spent hour after hour helping Stan learn what he needed to step up to the Bimah and participate in the ceremony, as his father did before him. He wasn’t going to let Stan and Cynthia down. The Rabbi mentioned to Cynthia that Pete was a mensch and wanted to know if he would be interested in converting. Father Montgomery squashed that fairly quickly.
Stan’s parents had died in a house fire when he was a toddler. They had been visiting friends and the fire took seven lives. He had been at the babysitter’s at the time and with no other living relatives, wound up at Little Flower. Pete, on the other hand, had no knowledge of his parents. Like Moses in the bulrushes, he had been found in a basket on the doorstep of the orphanage.
After being placed with a foster family at 15, Stan exchanged regular letters with Pete in a tradition that continued for decades. Pete never found placement and was terrified on his eighteenth birthday when he was escorted to the offices at the front of the building. He ran his fingers along the familiar walls, trying to entrench every memory. Bannisters, paintings, plaques and ugly furniture were new again in his eyes, as it all took on meaning and significance that had been previously lacking.
His progress was deliberately slow as he wondered if this would be the last time he saw anything with which he grew up. Pete offered a polite but tremulous smile as staff and other orphans wished him a happy birthday and his traitorous feet eventually took him to Monsignor Torres’ office.
“Happy Birthday, Peter.” The priest extended his hand. Noticing the folder with his name on it on the man’s desk, Pete reached across, and they shook.
He continued speaking. “All right, I know that you’ve been working with Mrs. MaCallahan and Sister Beatrice about your next steps. I’m sure you’re going to make us all proud. You’re always welcome back here to visit, and if...”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry! I got stuck in traffic ... okay, I can’t lie to a priest. I’m a horrible driver and I got lost twice.” As big and loud as a brass band, Cynthia stormed into the room. “Pete, you ready to go home?”
He turned to the woman he had been the closest to for the past 13 years. His voice caught in his throat as he tried to speak. “I ... I ... home?”
“Oh, Pete, of course home. I’m so sorry, honey, I just thought you knew. Of course, home. You’ll always have a home with me. I would have had you with me years ago, but I’m single and not around that often. They’d never let me foster you.”
A confused jumble of relief, shame at his emotions, gratitude and love swept through him as he stared at the floor, tears streaming down his face. Cynthia stepped forward and wrapped him in a hug.
“Let’s go home, Pete. Let’s go home.”
He was determined that he wasn’t going to cry in front of her again. Born of the machismo of every 18-year-old man, he refused to be seen as weak. That resolve lasted until they entered her house and he saw the 12 photos arrayed in the living room. They ranged from a gap-toothed smiling five-year-old Pete to a very serious looking 17-year-old version of himself.
Seven elephant figurines that he had bought her were standing somewhere in the room, a testament to their relationship through the years. None cost more than a few dollars, they were the proud gifts a child could afford to buy. Another child at the orphanage had given her the first elephant. A friend saw it and heard the story. Thinking she was a fan, she bought a framed print of an elephant in Africa in front of some mountains. That started the trend of friends thinking she was an enthusiast and the tchotchke avalanche began.
Most of them were long gone. All that remained were the ones he purchased for her.
He had seen them when Cynthia had some children over to help with gardening or other tasks. They always left with money in their pocket and bellies full. Stan and Pete had been driven over when they were 14, and as the car approached, Pete asked the driver to slow down. Cynthia was outside in the neighbor’s yard with a leaf blower, pushing their leaves onto her property. That was the day he realized that she was inventing work for them to do so she’d have an opportunity to spoil them.
Looking to the mantle running across the stonework wall that held the fireplace, he noticed the stars that he made every year. He had painstakingly crafted each one and gave them to her for Christmas, one per season. She had saved each one, and the significance of that had never struck home. The older ones could best be described as cute, but there was a marked development of sophistication as they went on.
Each one was there, saved, and proudly displayed.
“I, uh, I need to use the bathroom.” Cover down, he sat on the toilet, stared at the tiled floor and let things settle in. Rubbing his eyes a bit, he still refused to cry. Splashing some water on his face, he took a deep breath and went back out.
“Uhmm, where am I staying?”
“Upstairs, first door on the left.”
Pete carried up his belongings, which took only one trip, opened the door to his spacious room and sat on the bed. Looking about his room, he thought about what should go where. A framed copy of the backpage of Newsday from the Mets World Series win could go on one wall of his room. A poster with the cover art for Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt album could go on the opposite wall of his room.
His room. Pete lay back on the bed and thought about what that meant as he felt the tension and fear he’d been holding as his birthday approached fade away. His room. His home. Someone that loved him.
“Pete, I’m ordering Chinese. You want Lo Mein?”
“Yes, thanks. And an extra egg roll?”
Hands behind his head, he lay there waiting for the food to arrive, thinking about his home.
Pete knew that other facilities allowed you to stay until you graduated from High School. He counted himself lucky to be able to stay until his 18th birthday. He had a little money saved, but he needed to find a job.
“Cynthia, can you drive me into Riverhead?”
“Just take a car, honey. What’s in Riverhead?”
“I heard they have job postings at the unemployment office.”
“At the ... Pete, what are you talking about? First off, you’re going to college in the spring. Second, I own seven local businesses. Why would you need to go to the unemployment office?”
“Those are, you know, your places. You’re doing so much; I didn’t want to have you getting me a job, too.”
“Okay, I get that. This is my fault, I guess. We really need to sit down and talk about money. But, Pete, what about college? I have money set aside for your education. It’s all paid for. There’s no problems there.”
“I’m not really the college type, Cynthia. I like working with cars. I thought that maybe I could find something with the County, keeping the vehicles going. They’ve got trucks and cars and everything in that huge lot on Rt. 27. Someone needs to work on them, right? Monsignor Torres taught me about cars and I helped with them at Little Flower. I like it, and I’m pretty good.”
“Well, this isn’t going the way I thought it would. What do you mean you’re not the college type? I, well, I sort of did something I shouldn’t have and went through your records a few years back. Pete, you have an IQ of 127. That’s definitely ‘the college type’. You’re very bright. You can be anything you want to be.”
“Yeah, that’s, I don’t know, I think it was a fluke or something. I’m not really that smart and ... I like working with my hands, you know? I can sort of reach in and change things, make them better. And I don’t ... It’s just me, you know? By myself. No one asking things or expecting things. Just me and the car and when I’m done it’s working better than when I started.”
Instead of going to college, he went to a trade school to become a mechanic. In spite of owning nine cars, Cynthia was a horrible driver who hated the experience. She convinced Pete to become her driver and maintain their cars, and he recognized it as an attempt to keep him close to her. As he grew older, he realized that she was just as alone as he was.
Over their first two years together, he saw that she had more tics than a carpenter had tacks. She mumbled sets of numbers without seeming to realize it, she woke up screaming from nightmares at least once a week and she counted things incessantly. All of that stopped in 1997 when Cynthia’s friend gave birth to her son Finn.
Pete was happy to see it until he realized that he was no longer her priority. As much as she tried to hide it, this baby was everything to Cynthia. He tried to hate the infant and for a while he hated Cynthia, but he couldn’t make either of those stick. It just wasn’t in him to hate Cynthia and he knew it wasn’t Finn’s fault.
A part of him had always expected this. Things were too good. He didn’t belong in the normal lives that other people lived, with those they loved and loved them back. Some piece of him always knew that he was different, somehow. That life was for others and not for him. It was okay. It felt like things were back to where they belonged in his life again.
Within six months of Finn’s birth, Pete moved into a loft over the spacious garage. He converted it into an apartment and signed up for more vocational courses, both in plumbing and carpentry. Spending his time driving Cynthia where she needed to go, taking courses or working on the cars, he hadn’t stepped foot in the house since the first day he moved into the garage.
He was reading a textbook on wood planning when the phone rang. “Hello?”
“Pete, it’s me. They may have a location for the clinic! Can you drive me over there? If we like it, we can break ground within a month.”
“I’ll be right there, Ms. Kallas.”
“Hey, Pete. More work on that apartment?” Evelyn was a good ten years older than he was and had a non-threatening matronly appearance. A little overweight, not too much make-up, and clothes chosen for both comfort and appearance, she was as friendly and comfortable as she appeared. As the cashier assigned to priority accounts at Southampton Lumber and Building Supplies, that was an asset, as she dealt with contractors all day long.
“Yeah, just, you know, adding a deck to the second floor.”
“You’ve been working on that thing for what, two years now? So, you gonna take me out to see it someday?”
“I, uh, you wanna see the apartment?”
“I thought you’d never ask! I’m off Saturday. Does that work?”
“Uh, sure. I coach until about 3:00. Would, like 5:30 work?”
“Absolutely. The address where we send the lumber?”
“Yeah. Same phone number. It’s behind the large house. Use the second driveway. You, ah, you like BBQ?”
“I’m easy, Pete. Whatever you like would be great.”
He felt himself flush at what he was sure was her unintended double entendre. “Okay. I’ll see you then. The grand tour of the never-ending project.”
Pete was whistling and was halfway to the pickup when he realized he left the purchases inside on the cart.
The team from the orphanage won their Little League game and Pete cut short the after-game wrap-up so he could get home and shower. There was a wooded lot on Montauk Highway where a man sold bears and benches he carved out of wood. They lined the street at the edge of the property and behind them aromatic smoke slowly drifted to the sky. Meat was BBQ’d to perfection in a Klose smoker by a transplanted Texan who rented space on the lot. Pete called on Thursday and placed an order for delivery. He then called on Friday to confirm. And called before the game to reconfirm. He thought about calling again after the game but decided against it.
He couldn’t figure out why his palms were so sweaty.
There was a knock on the door as he stepped out of the shower. “One minute!” Throwing on some jeans and a tee-shirt, he hustled to answer the knocking.
Cynthia stood there, large bag from Uncle Bubba’s Down-Home BBQ in hand. “That’s a lot of BBQ, Pete. They delivered it to the house by accident. Hungry after the game?”
“No, I, I have ... Someone’s coming to see the work on the apartment.”
“Ohhhhh! A female someone?”
He again felt the heat in his cheeks as he flushed. “Yes, thank you Ms. Kallas. Sorry they bothered you.”
The pain in her eyes was the same as every other time he called her Ms. Kallas. Pete knew he wasn’t being fair. She loved the toddler and Finn seemed to love her back. It wasn’t the fault of either of them that he had been replaced. But if he pushed it into the back of his mind and maintained an emotional distance, it didn’t hurt quite so badly.
“Pete, I ... Have a great night, Peter.” She reached towards him with her free hand and he stepped forward to take the bag, ignoring her gesture.
“Thank you. You too.”
After Cynthia left, he put the meat in the oven on 200 degrees and put the sides in the fridge. He set the table, changed the tablecloth and set it again. Ten minutes later he decided to remove the tablecloth entirely. He was pacing when she knocked on the door.
He quickly ran into the bathroom, swished some toothpaste around in his mouth, looked himself in the mirror and ran out to open the door. “Evelyn, thanks for coming.”
She was wearing tight jeans, a Grateful Dead tee-shirt and a faded denim jacket. “This is a great place, Pete.” She held up a bottle of wine. “Can we throw this in the fridge?”
“Yeah, of course. Sorry, come on in.”
She seemed to remember every purchase that he had made and commented knowledgeably on his improvements as he gave her the brief tour of the apartment.
“I love that deck. It surrounds, what, three quarters of the building? Is it high enough to see the ocean from here?”
“Ah, yeah, but the best view is from the roof.”
“Can we go up and take a look before it gets dark?”
Evelyn kept the conversation going and helped him carry out the food to the deck when they decided the view would be better outside. After dinner and most of the bottle of wine, he showed her Cynthia’s car collection and his two cars in the garage that comprised the first floor.
She slipped her arm around his and leaned into him as they walked. “You know Pete, I’m pretty good with a hammer and a wrench if you ever need a hand here. You think we could take a look at that roof?”
“Sure, sure. Let’s go.” He wiped the sweat from his palms off on his Dockers and led her back up to the apartment.
Opening his refrigerator, Evelyn grabbed the remaining wine. “Pete, take these.” She handed him two craft beers he had chilling and grabbed two more herself. Smiling at him, she waved her filled hand towards the stairway. “Lead on, good sir.”
On the roof, there were two Adirondack chairs and a telescope on a tripod.
“Very nice! You take all your dates up here? Is this where the magic happens?” She was smiling and he knew she was teasing him.
They admired the view for a while, with the Montauk Lighthouse in the distance to their left and the coast of the Atlantic Ocean as far as they could see. They sat, drank and talked about home improvement projects, the team he coached, her job and favorite movies. As the light faded and the stars made their appearance, Pete set up the telescope, aiming it at celestial bodies as he tried to not notice hers. He felt Evelyn’s arms encircle his waist and her breasts push against his back. “This is lovely, Pete. Thank you.”
“Uh, yeah, of course. Thanks for coming. You wanna take a look?”
She slid in front of him and her butt brushed against his crotch as she bent over to look through the telescope. “Absolutely. I want to look at whatever you want to show me.”
Feeling his arousal growing, Pete quickly stepped back.
“Hey, can you show me how to focus on something else? Maybe the moon?”
“Yeah, okay.” He moved against her again, this time limiting contact, and showed her how to adjust the telescope.
They spent some time looking at the heavens and local landmarks before sitting back down.
“Pete, my mom has the kids tonight.”
“That’s cool. Kids love sleepovers. How old are they?”
She ignored his question. “Yeah, everyone loves sleepovers.” She waited for an invitation that never came.
Staying on the roof for another hour, Pete grew more comfortable speaking with her but either ignored or didn’t pick up on her hints. They eventually called it a night and he walked her down to the ground floor and over to her car.
Opening the door, she turned, stepped to him and quickly kissed Pete “I had a great time. Let’s do this again.” Molding her body to his, she dragged her breasts across his torso as she turned back to her car.
Pete waited until her car was out of sight before going back upstairs and cleaning up. Grabbing a bag of chips, he watched a cheesy movie on HBO before getting ready for bed and brushing his teeth. As he looked in the mirror, he realized he had been smiling for hours.
Pete had three doorknobs, some crown-molding, finishing nails and work gloves in the cart as he walked up to the commercial accounts desk.
Evelyn smiled as she entered his account number into the computer and grabbed the scanner. “Hey, Pete. Your insurance going to cover everything?”
“Well, yeah. I figured you were in some horrible car accident and that’s why you didn’t call.”
“Oh, I, yeah, I just ... I wasn’t sure...”
“I’ll tell ya what, you can make it up to me if you can help me out. I have two tickets to the Vanderbilt Planetarium in Huntington. You got me interested with that telescope, but I don’t know anything about it. Come with me and explain about the stars and stuff and you’ll be forgiven for losing my number. Whaddya say?”
“Uh, yeah, sure. Absolutely. When are the tickets for?”
“Okay, that works. I’ll need your address to pick you up.”
“That’s okay. I’ll drop the kids off with Mom and come by your place.”
“I don’t mind stopping at your mom’s. Then I could drop you off on the way home.”
“No, it’s fine. She’ll keep them overnight.”
“Sure. 3:00 work?”
Pete remembered his cart this time and drove home in a euphoric cloud. After swapping out one doorknob in his apartment, he walked up to the large house and swapped out two for Cynthia.
“Thank you, Peter. Did you know that we have 18 doorknobs between the house and the apartment? Isn’t that fascinating? 18 is the numerical value for chai, the Hebrew word for life. That’s why 36 is often used in numerology to represent marriage or a partnership. Two lives. So, if you add in the sheds and the garage, we have 34 doorknobs. We should find a space for two more. We have a partnership, sort of, right Pete?”
“Uhm, sure. I guess.”
“Our lives are linked. We have each other, right? Pete, I’m not always ... right.” She tapped her forehead with her index finger. “Up here. Some things happened that sort of changed me, but you have to know that I love you to death, right? I only want the best things for you and you’re so very important to me.” She seemed to be rambling. “I sometimes wonder if I make that clear. I mean, it’s clear to me, but everything always is, but not so much to other people. In a way, you’re my favorite person in the world.”
“No, I get it, I guess. I feel the same way. We’re both sort of people that are alone, but we’re alone together if that makes any sense.”
Touching his shoulder, she smiled. “Exactly. Well put, Pete. Hey, did you know that there’s 76 paces from the back door to the door to the apartment? That’s including stairs. Think there’s any significance there?”
“Uhm, no. Probably not.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. So, what’s new with you?”
“Well, I’m going out on Friday. Do you know where I can get food for like a picnic? Like, nice stuff? Stuff a woman would like?”
“Another date? Nice. Sure! How far west is your picnic?”
“Huntington area. Centerport.”
“Oh, then definitely The Barefoot Contessa. Very fancy, but also very good. You’ll be passing right by. It’s in South Hampton. I can call the owner if you’d like. She’s very nice.”
Pete and Evelyn spent the late afternoon and early evening exploring the grounds and gardens of the Vanderbilt Museum. Their picnic consisted of a bottle of white wine from Palmer Vineyards, the makings for lobster rolls separated into different containers so they wouldn’t be soggy by the time they ate, goat cheese from a local farm with artisanal crackers and cookies from Tate’s Bake Shop. Everything was local to the east end of Long Island and Pete found that Cynthia had prepaid when he picked up the food.
In the dark, during the show at the planetarium, Evelyn took his hand and leaned over to put her head on Pete’s shoulder. She stayed there until it was over and didn’t release his hand until they got back to his car. The drive back to Montauk took two hours and when Pete pulled up next to her old car, she quickly lept out.
“Pete, I really have to pee. Can I use your bathroom?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Of course.”
He led her up the stairs, unlocked the door and stepped aside. Pete was at the refrigerator getting them some water when he heard the bathroom door open. He called over his shoulder.
“Hey, you want some water? I’ve got iced tea and maybe some lemonade.”
“Can we drink it in your bedroom?”
Turning, he saw Evelyn standing at the bathroom, one hand stretched out to the top of the door, the other on her hip, nude as the day she was born. He dropped the pitcher of distilled water.
“Pete? Pete, did I read things wrong, did ... Oh, I can’t ... I’m so embarrassed. I’ll just go.”
“No! No, I just ... I didn’t expect, well, I’m not ... It’s just that I’m a little nervous, I guess.”
Evelyn smiled. “No need to be nervous. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
For only the second time in his life, Pete spent the night with a woman. He didn’t have much to judge things by, but their ten-year age gap didn’t seem to matter. Pete started hesitantly and nervously, but Evelyn took charge, showing him what she liked.
On the following Thursday, he was back at the building supply store. He pulled his cart up to her desk and she smiled brightly as she entered his code.
“Ready for Saturday?”
“Yup. You sure bumper-cars is okay? It’s not really, I don’t know, fancy or anything.”
“I love bumper-cars! It’ll be great. What’s with the copper tubing?”
“I want to make a still.”
“Whadda ya mean a still?”
“Like, you know, for alcohol. I want to try to make vodka.”
“Really? That’s so cool. Okay, you’re all set. See you Saturday.”
“Yeah, listen, you have your keys on you?”
“I don’t like the way your car was knocking. Take mine until Saturday and I’ll take yours and see what I can figure out.”
“No, the ... Okay, don’t laugh, all right? It’s the ‘77 Trans Am.”
“From Smokey and the Bandit? Seriously? That’s amazing!” Evelyn came around the booth and kissed him.
He was concerned about her health, especially being a mother, when the Trans Am came back smelling of cigarette smoke. Pete wondered why she felt she had to hide her smoking from him, but he didn’t push the issue.
They dated at least twice a week for the next year and Pete saw her children twice. It seemed that Evelyn’s mother was in poor health, so he wasn’t able to meet her, but he sent gifts for her and the kids at Christmas time.
Cynthia didn’t get out of the car when they arrived at the clinic. They sat there admiring the building that had been little more than a dream a year earlier. It was going to be the east end’s first clinic for low-income women, and she was immensely proud.
“Peter, I have high hopes. Very high hopes. This clinic will have the best of everything. You and I drive places every day. One of our businesses one day, visiting with a politician another and we touch people and help where we can, but this ... I don’t know. This is really something. We did a good thing here, Pete.”
“Well, you did. I just drive.”
“You always put yourself down. You do a hell of a lot more than drive.”
“Cynthia, can I ask a favor? I need advice and I don’t really know too much about these things. Who’s like a really good jeweler, but someone that won’t rip me off and who might have stuff I can afford?”
There was silence for a minute. “What type of jewelry? Necklace, earrings?”
“No, like rings.”
“Rings? I ... Pete, are you thinking about giving Evelyn a ring?”
“Yeah, I think it’s time. Right? I mean, it’s been more than a year, and, well, you know.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this? It’s something you’re definitely doing?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for months. It’s time.”
“Have you met her mom yet? Have you spent any serious time with the kids? What about her ex, the kids dad?”
“No, but that’ll all happen, right? I mean, once we’re together it’ll all work out.”
There was a hint of sadness in her voice as she continued. “Sure, Pete. Absolutely. And I’d be happy to set you up with a jeweler.”
Soon after entering Fellingham’s, Evelyn grabbed a table and ordered a beer. It was a slow evening for the sports bar, and she enjoyed the anticipation of the wait, thinking of what would happen after they left. She sat for 15 minutes before a woman sat down opposite her. Both surprised and irked, she looked at the interloper for a second before speaking.
“You’re gonna have to go. I’m waiting for someone and this table is taken.”
“Charley’s not coming, Evelyn.”
Forehead furrowed, Evelyn paused before speaking. “Do I know you?”
“Yup, you sure do. Maybe not by looks, though. I’m Cynthia. You want the carrot or the stick?”
“The carrot or the stick. Which one?”
“Look, crazy lady, I have no idea who you are. Why don’t you go hang out with the rest of the nutters?”
Cynthia smiled. “Oh, if you only knew. Crazy isn’t too far off. You know who I am. You must have found out about me when you researched Pete. And you did research him. Your whole meet-cute, flirtation and inviting yourself over was well planned. I get it. You saw how pathologically shy he was, how he had a brand-new truck and a couple of cars, never worried about spending money, always had new clothes and a nice watch. You had two kids to feed. Pete was a catch and you were the angler.”
Speaking louder, her voice rose over the ambient noise of customers, staff and the jukebox. “Well, that’s a nice little story, but it’s all bullshit. I love Pete.”
“Maybe. Maybe just a little bit, like a favorite pair of old sneakers or the memory of a childhood pet, but don’t push the love card. You love what he does. You love the SUV he gave you. You love that he’s paying your tuition. You love that he never questions you, so you’re free to meet up with the father of your kids twice a week. You love how he never pushes you to be closer and never asks why your racist piece of shit mother has such disdain for him. You love that he’s so terrified of being alone that you can just string him along.”
“Listen, bitch, absolutely none of that is true. If you’re not leaving, then I am.”
“Keep your ass in that seat. Every word of it is true. You see that man at the bar? Goatee and windbreaker? His name is George. He’s my closest friend in the world and he feels ... paternalistic towards Pete. He’s retired IDF and Mossad and works for me now. He could tell me what you had for lunch yesterday and your son’s batting average. Let’s not pretend that I don’t know what’s happening.”
Evelyn pushed the basket of pretzels to the side and leaned forward. “So, what’s going on, grandma? Looking for a younger guy and want Pete for yourself?”
“I do love Pete, but not in that way. He’s the son I’ll never have. He’s family, and if you fuck with my family, I will burn you to the ground. You’re screwing at least two other guys and I’m itching to bring out the stick, but I’m going to offer you the carrot instead. Leave. Take your kids and your rancid mother and leave. Don’t contact Pete again. I own a medium sized home construction firm in Tulsa. They’ll hire you at twice what you’re getting paid here and the cost of living is much cheaper. I’ll give you $100,000.00 seed money and you just disappear. Pete never finds out about the other men you’ve been fucking and how you’ve played him.”
“You don’t look that scary, lady. If I don’t? You gonna get all badass on me?”
“Nope. I won’t. George will. After the stuff he’s seen and done, you’d be nothing. The guy freaking killed Jack Parsons twenty years after he supposedly died. He’ll talk to you nicely at first. Then bad things will start happening to your family and loved ones until you realize the error of your ways. But here’s my promise to you. Nothing will happen to your kids. Once you’re gone, I’ll make sure they get into Little Flower and they’ll have their college paid for.”
Evelyn, her children, her mother and the father of her kids were gone within the week.
Evelyn wouldn’t take his calls and then her phone number was disconnected. Pete went down to Southampton Lumber and Building Supplies, but they said she’d quit, and they hadn’t seen her since. For two weeks, Pete would go to the beach in the middle of the night, find an isolated area and scream. Sitting on the dunes, he’d wonder how far he’d have to wade and then swim before returning to shore was no longer an option.
Filled with an unspeakable rage at the world that had betrayed him since youth, he struggled to maintain a veneer of civility. Eventually the anger and frustration faded and was replaced with resignation.
Finn was playing a huge part in Cynthia’s life and he now had a sister who was following suit. He had lost Evelyn and was now losing more and more of Cynthia.
In spite of his claims to the contrary, Pete was a bright man and could see what he had done to himself. Brick by brick, Pete felt that he had built a wall of self-delusion and hidden behind it.
Worthy Of Love was the cornerstone on which his delusion was built. He slapped some mortar on there and put Accepted As Part Of A Family on top. Soon Pete added Faith, Trust and Permanence. One brick followed another until he was able to convince himself that it all wasn’t an illusion. He lived with the comforting falsehood that had love, a small family and people who would always be there for him.
Pete never looked too carefully at that wall. Part of him knew that it wouldn’t stand the scrutiny, as cracks and fissures ran through its foundation.
Time went by and Pete matured. He avoided letting another woman get close enough to hurt him again, but he dated on occasion. His detachment made it easier and lessened his anxiety. Pete expected next to nothing from them and he gave the same in return.