Gina reached into the stove to add a baked potato side to the tray of meals she was taking out. Her sister turned the prime rib on the grill, while Denise assembled a plate for Martin. Kaylie, with her auburn hair tied into pig tails, offered to run a tray for shy Debbie, a pale white pretty petite blond who had just started. “Pretty slammin’!” Denise remarked. “Sorry I lost my cool over those dropped salads.”
“Eh, can’t take it personally,” Martin replied, tucking his order book back into his apron. “I’m glad things are picking up lately. We’ll have higher bills and rent without Lewis to pitch in.”
“Your brother’s moving?” Dixie asked, as she reached with tongs into a pan for sirloin tips. “Pardon my natural nosiness; I just butt in where it feels right!”
“Ha! Yah, he said he’s leaving for Colorado in about a week,” said Denise, brushing ash blonde bangs back. “He kinda wants to hitchhike, but I suggested the bus. The days of thumbing it are done.”
“I love a great road trip,” said Martin, as he helped Kaylie expedite the plates. “Danny and I went to a Ren Fest in Texas before I moved in with Lewis. I could make a life of it.”
“Oh,” Denise cooed, cocking her head, “why don’t you and Danny just elope and be Dharma Bums?”
For a second, Gina thought of Martin’s secret, passed in confidence, about his problems with Denise. He had fallen into a similar pattern years before with his mother. His pain had brought out Gina’s own Little Mama instincts. Maybe that had been part of the draw; she wanted to give what she so desperately sought for herself, even though she told no one her problems. Look what happened every time she confessed them before.
Martin smiled and ignored the light-hearted bait. He knew Denise could get a little jealous of his attentions sometimes, but this was just part of her sense of humor. Probably. “Of course, I’ve heard that not even Kerouac thought much of the ‘go on the road and find yourself’ path after he lived and wrote about it. You see a lot of things, but sometimes you lose more than you find.” He turned to Gina and offered to take one of the big trays ready to go.
“Who’s got the party in the Garden Room?” Bud asked. He was tall, and wore a trucker cap and had a goatee. He puzzled over ingredients added, subtracted, and re-added on the print out.
“Uhm, chick…” said Kaylie, snapping her fingers, as she tried to bring the name to mind. “Chick and…dude!” She spoke with a Northeastern accent.
“Chick and Dude…that needs to be the stars of a romance,” Dixie chirped.
Gina shouldered her tray with a faint smile. So Lewis was on the way out. He had been pretty friendly. It was nice to have an encounter of any kind with a guy that didn’t backfire horribly. For a moment she envied the thought of packing up and going out on one’s own. She had never spent a single night away from her family, though. Any idea of where to go was just a fog, anyway. It was a simple pang of yearning to be anywhere else. She imagined people often felt like strangers in their own lives, so she made little fuss over it.
Across the river, Lewis finished garnishing a plate, himself, amidst a flurry of activities. He enjoyed the challenge of working “the wheel.” He didn’t plan to stay long enough to be a waiter at Gunther’s Crab Shack. In fact, this was his last night.
Cheering up people and helping for the simple reward of the task for its own sake had become his guiding lights. He didn’t feel particularly close to his co-workers, but he’d gone out with them a time or two. He’d been drawn aside by an old friend who was now a coach at an area high school. Cody had warned him earnestly that he shouldn’t get comfortable being part of this crowd. They were never going anywhere else. He had settled for whatever he could get, himself, even though he had a very pretty wife, Thea, who had graduated just ahead of Lewis. They wondered what happened to his full scholarship and how he had drifted away from that world of opportunities. Cody apologized for meddling, but the message was warmth in a cold sink of drudge work, a wave, a reminder of the high hopes everyone had felt for Lewis when he was a senior.
He clocked out two hours later, shook Maureen’s hand and thanked her for the holiday work. She expressed concern for him, too, but wished him luck. With his brakes still in need of replacement, Lewis had gotten into the habit of briskly walking to and from work. The honesty of his exhaustion and the chilly air, the self sufficiency of his path without complaint or begging for ease, all appealed to his hungry yet peaceful spirit. He reflected upon the people he’d helped and wondered what the road might conceive ahead.
Without consideration of a further romantic entanglement---he’d always felt the need since adolescence to define himself with some girl of interest, before he realized he needed to be more secure in himself---Lewis valued Art now, Music especially, as his mistress, and his love was now kindness towards everyone he felt needed it. He felt he was finally growing up. Let life be the romance, now; being alive and self-sufficient offered chance meetings and ignored pleasures, free of the selfish circle of dependency that had left him empty inside. Six months with no serious girlfriend contender had become six months of re-discovering his own curiosity. It gave him time to buy and explore learning guitar, though he wondered if lessons might not have been a better choice. Still, he’d just chosen to try a few chords initially, then explore making whatever sounds he could find, in an effort to be original and different.
Even now, as he winded down Riverside Drive in the darkness, a melody quite beyond his ability to play shaped up in his mind. Hard work and new encounters were to be his only companion. Anger and depression fell away, with the self-pity that came about from lost love and confusing paths.
The next day, Lewis walked down to Stefan’s to spend a little time with his sister, who was preparing to get off work when he arrived. Her friend Gina had agreed to take her to do a little shopping, so he simply tagged along. He took a back seat in the Mercury Topaz the Archer sisters shared, and the three passed the multi-story riverside library---the sleeping place, as he thought of it, of all his intellectual fathers--- and rode down Turner McCall Boulevard to pick up a dress in layaway for Hannah, and Turtle’s Records for a used cd Denise had to have. For her, at the time, the harder it rocked, the better. She had all types of interests in music and played piano quite well, but hard-charging music was her present taste. Lewis reflected tongue-in-cheek over how long it had taken him to be comfortable browsing again without buying anything, after he’d been busted shoplifting on his fourteenth birthday with T.J., who slipped three old jazz tapes down his shirt at the K-Mart across from this very store. He watched Gina follow quietly along with Denise, and thought of how she could do with a good smile. She seemed like such a hard-working and giving person, but had a listlessness that matched her too-tiny frame, like a plucked flower. There was a reason you left blossoms in the wild, he thought: once they were cut, their beauty couldn’t be possessed personally for very long. Where had he heard something like that? A plan hatched in his mind.
Once the trio got back to the car, Lewis asked politely if he could stop by Kroger’s across the parking lot. “I have something special I need to check on,” he offered.
“What you want?” asked Denise.
“Just something special. I’ll fill out the questionnaire later.”
“Okay, smarty-pants. But if you take too long, we’ll leave yo ass!”
“Your concern is touching,” he replied blithely. Gina cranked up and gave him a ride to the door, anyway, and Lewis dashed inside.
“Wonder what’s the mystery ingredient?” said Gina, watching after him.
“Tampons!” croaked Denise.
“Condoms,” replied Gina.
“Excuse me,” said his sister in an imitation of his voice, “you got any Preparation H?”
The girls shared a wicked little laugh. They agreed, it was definitely a mission for hemorrhoid cream. At any rate, he was back, with his jacket pulled shut, in a couple of minutes.
The ride under the bridge beside the duck pond and the Civic Center had Gina on Juniper Street in seven minutes. Lewis pondered his six months in this neighborhood, just around the block from where Grandpa Green and Aunt Glenda lived.
He would have to walk over and have supper with them one night before leaving.
Gina pulled up in the driveway, beside Lewis’ sidelined Corolla. At the top of the stairs, Denise made the discovery that Martin had her key, on her keychain, to the apartment. His was locked inside. Lewis fidgeted with his jacket, mildly concerned, cradling his secret to his bosom under a winter-clouded sky.
“I forgot, I left him my car to drive home,” moaned Denise. They stood languidly for a minute before their dilemma. “We’ll have to go back up to Stefan’s and get a key to get in!”
Lewis paused a breathless second. The air pressure itself seemed to twist. “Hell with this,” he muttered coolly, as he reared back on one leg and raised his other one up to chest level. He smashed his foot into the door knob, kicking it open to swing compliantly on its frame, as his sister stood by agape. Lewis then strode up the steps inside to the apartment door, while Denise’s emotional temperature began to build to vaporous portions. Gina’s amazement at this violent if chivalrous gesture began to convert into barely-suppressed giggles. He stepped inside, with her close behind, as Denise cursed and rushed into the bathroom. Gina flopped on the couch.
He stopped at the bedroom door and turned, to reveal a single pink carnation. He turned to Gina, reached over her shoulder, and laid it on her chest. Her face lit up in complete surprise, as he drew his finger to his pursed lips: “Shhh.” She watched his blue eyes blink once, an impish smile of delight passing over his face as he turned, without a word, to his room, walked in, and shut the door.
Dumbfounded, Gina cradled the flower by its stem, looking after him. No man had ever given her a flower before. She wanted to share the moment with Denise. She heard a bottle smash in the bathroom, a plastic one full of Pepto Bismol, as she would soon discover after Denise stormed off into her room. Gina sat and brushed the carnation against her cheek, relishing its fragrance and suppressing tearful titters.