It is a good thing to be rich, and it is a good thing to be strong, but it is a better thing to be loved of many friends.—Euripides
They parked a ways up Darlington, almost all the way to Shady in fact, and the four of them walked the long block down to the corner. Fat snowflakes were swirling in windy gusts, coating their shoulders and settling into their hair. Constantia was nestled close to Fred, smoking a quick cigarette, their arms around each other; Paulette striding in front of them, hands deep in the pockets of her belted leather coat. Ike trotted further ahead, urging them to pick up the pace. It was seriously cold.
Silky’s was packed for Saturday night and all ten TVs, high above the bar, were flickering with sports, videos and news. The jukebox was churning out something from the 80s, the choice of a nostalgic yuppie at the bar, while ahead of them, under the icicle lights, a boisterous knot of people surrounded the tabletop shuffleboard adding to the general racket and excitement. Ike noticed Jay behind the bar—another baseball fan, who wanted him to join the adult league—then motioned the others to his left.
“Let’s go upstairs.”
They went up, threaded along the balcony that overlooked the bar and the TVs, into the back where they settled into one of the shabby, wooden booths. Ike laid his cell phone and keys on the table, as they stripped off coats and bags and gloves. They ordered wings, nachos—Ike wanted a bacon burger—and a round of beer. Their waitress was cool, sensing the celebratory vibe at the table.
Ike took care of the drinks and food as soon as they came.
“My treat,” he said. He did, after all, feel suddenly rich.
Everything was perfect. The food smelled good, the beer felt smooth going down, his friends were all happy, and a quick glance over his shoulder kept the Pens-Sabres game in sight.
Constantia was soon in tears from the Atomic Wings and put a serious drain on her beer to compensate. Ike cocked an eyebrow at Fred, who was still holding the same nacho he’d plucked when the food first arrived. Poor Fred. Maybe beer would take the edge off the emotional shock.
“Are they really that bad?” Ike asked the flushed face opposite him.
“Go ahead. I dare you,” Constantia said, shoving the basket in his direction.
Ike disengaged from his burger. Paulette turned to watch, a laugh suppressed behind pursed lips.
He ignored her and reached for one of the wings, and without ceremony, he stripped it clean, licking his lips contentedly.
“No way!” Constantia complained.
Paulette was ahead of her. She laid her hand over the rim of his glass, pulling it toward her. “You need this, Duckworth?”
In spite of himself, his eyes were tearing up. “Uh, come on…”
“The big man,” she said conspiratorially to Constantia, even as she slid the glass back to him.
He drained it to the bottom. Between the heat of the wings and the rush of the beer hitting his veins, Ike was feeling really warm all over. Time to stop. He was the designated driver tonight.
“By the way, Mr. Architect,” Paulette said, peering at Ike slantwise. “I’ve got a friend who wants to build a house. Can you do that? Or do you just draw?”
Fred looked meaningfully at Ike.
“I can. You do?”
“Really?” Con asked. “Who?”
Paulette shifted on the bench, leaning her chin on her upturned hand, to answer Constantia. With her other hand, she reached across to Ike’s plate and slowly drew the fork toward her. “Lance. He mentioned it the other day—Daisy’s PO’d as usual. I guess the trailer is less than ideal in the winter.”
“Very little insulation in those things I bet,” Ike ventured, hesitating over another wing, taking the fork back forcibly and realigning it to the right of his plate. He tapped the bottom of the knife so it lay even with the recovered utensil. “Especially the older ones.”
Fred watched Ike’s design exercise with a faint smile, realized he had a chip in his hand and ate it.
“How do you know it’s old?” Paulette’s fingers were creeping toward his plate again.
It had started so slowly, he didn’t notice at first that Paulette had insinuated her left foot between his, until that renegade foot began to stroke forcefully over the arch of his loafers, flexing against his toes. He had not paid attention to what she had on her feet, but at the moment, with what it was doing, it had to be nothing. It was an agile foot.
“If it were—new–he wouldn’t be talking about building a house,” Ike said, his breath catching. “Just a guess.”
Constantia stared at him.
A smoky heat seized his throat, completely unconnected to Atomic Wings, his mind racing after its source, which he covered by wolfing down the rest of his burger. A very urgent part of him insisted on an immediate response, though his brain was rather more confused. That is until the foot began to stroke his ankle and threatened to inch higher. The brain was out of there; his right leg bent and dropped, holding her foot captive in a tight lock. Paulette shifted strategically above the table, blinked her hair out of her eyes and spoke to Fred.
“I think you and Con should go away for a hot weekend someplace.”
“Some place tropical,” Constantia added, her eye flashing at Fred. “With a pool and a bar.”
“Perhaps Mardi Gras in February,” he ventured. “New Orleans has long fascinated me, both historically and culturally.”
Constantia pouted. “Can’t we go sooner?”
Fred grew thoughtful. “Perhaps the Three Kings Festival in Puerto Rico? It’s only two months away.”
Waiting to be convinced, Constantia decided Ike’s fries were fair game, which he didn’t mind and pushed the plate in her direction, though he’d lost the train of Fred’s argument in favor of the Big Easy—or was it San Juan?—somewhere around Marxism. He must have misheard. Paulette though had been nodding along with Fred, encouraging him as she sipped her beer. She hadn’t ordered food.
“I don’t see why we can’t go to someplace like Hawaii,” Constantia cut in. “Or Bermuda. Cuba is just ridiculous—there’s no way we could go. Think more like…fun. You should treat yourself.”
She snuggled up closer to Fred, who whispered something in her ear that made her blush.
Paulette’s glass now stood empty. She licked the rim, all the way around. Even Fred noticed this.
But Ike had an answer for her: He took the leg that he had in his power, and by quickly drawing his knees together, forced her off balance.
“What did that number mean, anyway?” he asked Fred calmly, as he conducted this maneuver. He hoped she’d fall into him; instead, just as she should have, she said “Damn it!” and ducked under the table to retrieve an imaginary something.
“It was the balance on my mortgage,” Fred replied, digging into the heavily laden nachos. The beer was relaxing him, at last.
Someone took a playful bite right above Ike’s knee cap, and came up with her cell phone in her hand.
“Must have dropped it,” Paulette said. “I felt it vibrate on my foot.” She turned it on, glanced at something, then stashed it down in the coats.
Stunned, Ike unwound his leg, setting Paulette free.
Constantia winced as he did. “You kicked me, Ike!”
“Oh, sorry, sorry,” he said, unusually flustered. How had she done that? The cell phone she’d glanced at was not hers, it was his. She had palmed it somehow, and none of them noticed, least of all him.
Ike volunteered to get the next round—the waitress seemed to have gotten lost—and Paulette, sliding out of the booth to let him out, said: “I’ll go, too. You need help.”
He scowled at her as he headed toward the stairs. She leaned back over her shoulder and smirked at Constantia, then stalked after the word SELF-DESTRUCT printed across Ike’s shoulders.
Downstairs, Ike edged through the crowd at the bar for round two, Paulette right behind him. Music, the noise of conversations, laughter, the crowd, the lights, snow falling thick outside, someone at the shuffleboard raising a cheer for a friend’s play—who needed booze when you could get high on this? Absorbed in the lively scene, Ike was startled into his own skin by a slap on the ass, that he hoped to hell was Paulette. He snapped his head in her direction and she smirked. Definitely her. Count on that one to be direct, at least, whether it was a variety of invitation or threat, or maybe some mixed up combination of the two, which he had concluded was entirely possible. What he didn’t know was why this had any sort of appeal and no amount of thinking about it over the last two months had offered any clarity.
“Lighten up, lover boy. It’s two playing, isn’t it?” she whispered, her bangs brushing his ear.
“Yeah, sure,” was all he managed, knocked breathless by the surging electricity that always shook him around her, even if he didn’t know why. Tipping his chin to see her brought them nearly nose to nose, close enough for a whiff of cinnamon, the thin red line of her mouth conjured other visions, but this was not late night studio, not a Cosmo quiz, and it was a different woman, a different bar, without a pool table. She simply watched him, scrutinizing perhaps the indefinable mist that hazed his eyes, while acutely aware that the bartender was at the edge of her vision. “Two Bass, one lager, one pale ale and two shots of Jaegermeister,” she said automatically as she continued to study Ike.
“One Bass,” Ike corrected.
“No, it’s two,” she said.
Jay placed the drinks on the counter and she paid him, left a tip, and then handed one of the shots to Ike.
“To self-destruction,” she said and Ike shrugged, wondering for a second in the hallucinatory noise surging around them what “self-instruction” was, realized he didn’t care, and raising his glass sent the cold shot home.
She shook her head like a dog throwing water from its fur. “Oh, yeah. That’ll rev the engine.” She picked up two glasses of beer, her smile a flash of teeth and unexpected dimples in her rawboned face. It changed her when she smiled like that. “What d’ya say, Duckworth?”
Punch-drunk, and not from the Jaeger, Ike picked up the remaining glasses. Was this ever going to be a good idea? But he already knew the answer to that.
“Why the hell not?” he grinned back at her.
Jay was laughing behind the bar, he hoped not at him, though in his place, he probably would. The visions had gone, replaced by the fire of the raw alcohol searing his throat and a sensation of being exactly where he should be. And that was the end of Ike’s introspection because this was Fred’s party and it was time to get back to it.
“What would you like?” Fred asked Constantia, as soon as their friends had gone. “I want to make you a present. Think of something nice.”
“You mean it?” Of course he did. And she knew exactly what she wanted. “The red dress in the window at Macy’s.”
“Good. When’s your next day off?”
He thought a moment. “We’ll go then. Meet at Macy’s, maybe at 5:00?”
Her eyes brightened with pleasure. “All right.”
“I’d like you to stay tonight…that is, if you want to.”
“Of course, I do.”
He nodded, putting all his accounts in order. “And next Friday, bring the shoes you’d wear with that dress. I’ll want to see the whole effect.”
“Whatever you want, Sugar Daddy.”
“Hmmm,” he mused, leaning in to steal a kiss, which amounted to no more than a quick brush of lips before the arrival of Ike, Paulette and the beer broke them up.
Ike slid in, passing Fred the lager, Paulette handing Ike one of the beers she was holding. She stood there, sipping hers.
“Sit down, will you?” Ike said.
She pushed up her sleeves, and slid in beside him. He was just beginning to study the brown and black patterns that covered her arms when he felt her knee press against his, rather insistently. He pressed back. Let the games begin.
Con sipped her beer, watching this exchange covertly. She turned abruptly to Fred. “What was she doing at your house, anyway?”
“Who?” Ike and Fred said together.
“HUH! Esmeralda, who else?”
“Oh,” Ike said, glancing briefly at Fred. “A week ago Saturday, I think.” He smirked. “She was exorcising the ghost of Fred’s rabbit.”
“What?!” Paulette said with an explosive laugh. She inched closer, thigh joining knee.
Fred drew himself up rigidly. “The house was haunted.”
“And this—Esmeralda?—did an exorcism,” Paulette said, even as she dipped her head to suck the last of foam head from her beer.
“She’s a witch,” Ike said, turning to Paulette. He casually let his hand drop below the table and found her knee.
She nodded neutrally, turning back to Fred for the rest of the story.
“Esmeralda asked Hector—my rabbit—to give me a break and to stay in my yard,” he said with exaggerated dignity.
“She’s a what?” Con said, her mouth dropping open.
“And has he?” Paulette addressed Ike.
He shrugged broadly, “Don’t ask me.” He slid his palm caressingly up her thigh, while pulling the nachos closer with his free hand.
Paulette slapped his hand away from the food. “That’s not yours.”
“Listen, I’m the one buying here, so back off,” he shot back, retrieving his other hand from its explorations.
“You’re a rude boy, you know that? Ask nicely.”
They glared at each other for a long second. This boy business was really getting old; if she was older than he was, it wasn’t by much. And how was he any more out of line than her foot was aiming to be? He was just starting to crank up the brain stem, intent on slinging back a walloping retort, because if she really wanted to get into a pissing contest, he was prepared to let her have it. No holds barred.
And then Fred laughed.
Ike didn’t know at what, he’d missed the joke, but Fred was really laughing and that was rare, and Constantia was beaming up at him like her magic trick had worked at last, and Ike couldn’t help but smile at them. Fred didn’t want a lot from life and now he had it, and if Ike was his friend—and he knew down to marrow that he was—then this was what tonight was about.
He blinked and glanced at Paulette. He slid the nachos back to her. “Sorry. Should I order more?”
She shook her head slightly, but made no argument. Ike stretched his arm behind her on the booth and asked Fred what in the world was so funny.
It was a long story.
Hours later, in a thick, wet snowfall, Constantia was steadying Fred back up the street, kicking paths in the thickly fallen snow, their arms around each other. He was happily drunk, tunelessly singing a sad song in French. Ike was up ahead, urging them toward the car. Paulette lagged behind.
Ike had pulled his collar up, a little buzzed too, more than he should have been, as the designated driver, but he was so happy for Fred that he’d let himself go a little bit. That, and—
A cold, wet bullet slammed into the back of his head. Constantia shrieked.
Ike shook like a puppy, and turned back for the culprit. He hardly had to guess who.
Another snowball hit him square in the face, and he sputtered. He was laughing hard as he bent for ammunition of his own.
“You’re going to regret this!” he yelled, coiling to pitch a mean curve ball, high, above the strike zone.
It came faster and harder than she expected, and she couldn’t duck. It hit with a satisfying thump. She roared back at him, as Constantia steered Fred out of the way of the battle.
Paulette cracked another into his back while he bent to scoop up more snow, and after a fast ball hit her explosively in the shoulder, scattering snow in a shiver down her collar, she changed tactics and charged. He chucked another hard-packed ball her way, missed, and a minute later was laid out on his back in the snow, a victorious panther kneeling on his chest.
“Let me up, you nut. It’s fucking cold,” he said, rolling her off. She gained her feet without hitting the snow. Between wheezing breaths, they laughed.
Constantia leaned against the car with a rather wry expression on her face. Ike hurried to open doors all around and they all piled in, as he cleared the windows with a swipe of his sleeve.
“Where to, rich man?” Ike called back to Fred, as he slammed his door shut, and pulled on his seat belt.
“Home, Jeeves!” Fred said, waving his free hand vaguely, the other locked tight to Constantia’s.
After the red light at the foot of Darlington, Ike turned left onto Murray. People were still on the street, scurrying station-to-station through the thickly falling snow.
“We’re supposed to get 6 to 8 inches tonight,” Constantia said dreamily, watching the pretty lights of shops and restaurants in the framing whiteness.
“It’s not that bad out though,” Paulette said, turning in her seat to talk to her friend.
“Not unless you’re soaked through,” Ike countered.
“Two direct hits,” Fred said, enjoying the memory. He grinned at Paulette. “He’s just mad because your arm is almost as good as his.”
She laughed derisively, looking over at Ike. “You played in school?”
He nodded. “Pitched. Three years varsity at Penn-Trafford; had a scholarship for it to Virginia Tech, but studio got in the way eventually and I couldn’t keep it.”
“You were that good?” Her voice had lost its strident tone.
“They scouted him in high school. He won championships—“
“The team won, Fred. The team won.”
“He had offers from two different Ivy League schools—“
“That either had suck-ass architecture programs or no scholarships.” Ike flipped the blower on high, aimed at the windshield. The wipers could barely keep up with the snow.
“But they wanted you—“
“Without a scholarship, there was no way I could afford Yale. Doesn’t matter. I’m glad I went to VPI.”
He’d gone the long way around, so he wouldn’t have to make a K-turn on the hill in the snow, parking smoothly in front of the house.
“Can you handle this drunkard?” Ike asked Constantia, who was gathering her bag and pulling on gloves.
“Ought to be able to. Ready, Freddie?” she giggled, the first sign Ike had seen that she had celebrated sufficiently.
Fred was leaning toward the door. He reached over the seat and thumped Ike’s shoulder. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure,” Ike beamed. “I’ll just chauffeur Miss Paulette home; then I’ll be in myself.”
“I can drive,” Paulette insisted, reaching for the door. Ike hit the lock switch.
“I don’t think so.”
“’Night, Pauli,” Constantia warbled, slamming the car door. The electronic lock clicked as it fell into place.
She grabbed Fred’s hand, and in the magical swirl of fat white snowflakes, each one perfect and unique, they ran for the shelter of the porch and the welcoming warmth of Casa Hector, his true, own home.
Chapters 1-23 are here.