Duck, Duck, Dead Duck; chapter seven, part two

“You have a girlfriend, Henry?”  My mother said, her eyes lighting up.  I could see the vision of plump grandbabies dancing in her thoughts.  Never mind that Hank was only twenty—if he had a girlfriend, then hope sprang eternal.

“Yup, her name is Beth.  I met her in an ethics class.”  Hank attended Century College—a local community college.

“Well?  Tell us more!”  My mother demanded, her food forgotten.  “Is she Taiwanese?”

“No, Mom,” Hank said, rolling his eyes.  “She’s white.  Beth Richardson.  Nice girl, though.  I swear you’ll like her.”

“When do we get to meet her?”  Mom asked, her eyes still shining.  Although she would have preferred for Beth to be Taiwanese, Mom wasn’t too picky at this point.

Hank promised that he would invite Beth to a family get-together soon.  They had only been dating for a month, and he didn’t want to rush things.  She was taking a few classes at Century to see what she liked before transferring to the U.  She hadn’t wanted to go to the University right out of high school, so she had bummed around Europe for a year before returning.  Her parents had agreed to help her with rent for an apartment if she took a few classes at Century and if she promised that she would apply to the U for the spring semester.  She found out that she was interested in medicine, but didn’t want to be a doctor.  She thought she might like to be a nurse.  She liked Clint Eastwood movies and all the ‘Must-See-TV’ hits on NBC.  In short, she was perfect for Hank—the original mainstream maven.  I would have bet my last dollar that she was under five-feet four inches and weighed under a hundred and ten pounds.

“Here’s a picture of her,” Hank said, pulling something out of his wallet and passing it around.  When it got to me, I had to hide my smirk.  There besides a beaming Hank was a petite woman who barely came up to his chest and who looked as if she was about to float away if Hank’s arm around her shoulder wasn’t tethering her to the ground.  The only thing remotely surprising about her was that her hair was a fiery red instead of blond.  Other than that, she was exactly as I pictured her.

“Now, Howie, it’s your turn,” my mother said, casting a stern gaze at her older son, who grimaced at her in return.

“Owen, Ma, please.”  I didn’t know why he bothered.  It had to be habit more than anything because he knew there was no way Mom was going to call him anything other than his given name.  Lord knows I tried to get her to call me anything but Beezus growing up, to no avail.  More than one friend had a good laugh at my expense after spending an afternoon at my house.  “Besides, I am seeing someone.”  I could tell that he wished he could take the words back the minute he said them.  “Sort of,” he added hastily, but it was too late.  My mother pounced on his words with a rapacious smile.

“Oh, Howie, you, too?  This is my lucky day.  Did you hear that, Bob?  All of our children have found someone.  Howie, do tell.”  My father smiled sympathetically at Owen who was turning an interesting shade of pink.  I wondered if it was because the ‘someone’ was male, but I held my tongue.

“Ma, it’s nothing.  I didn’t want to tell you yet.”  Owen bent over his food and began shoveling in the dumplings.  I doubted he was even chewing them before swallowing.  “It’s only been two dates.”

“Why the secrecy, Howie?”  My mother asked, her mouth turning down at the corners.

“Because he knows that you’ll hound him until you have every last detail, Mom,” Mona said, jumping in to protect Owen as she always had.

“I’m not trying to pry,” Mom protested.  “I’m just interested.  It’s been five years since that tramp broke Howie’s heart, and I’m just happy that he’s found someone else.”

‘That tramp’ was Sidney Wong, a girl from Chinese school who was faster than a Lamborghini, so the rumors went.  She liked the boys, and the boys liked her.  She went through them like disposable razors, rarely staying with one for more than a month.  For some reason, she really took a shine to Owen, and they dated for a over a year, Owen’s senior year in high school.  I talked to her once in a while because I liked her.  She was different than the other prim and prissy Taiwanese girls.  She was one year younger than Owen, and on the night before graduation, Owen proposed to her.  She told him she needed to think about it.  The next day, reeking of sex and booze, she dumped him.  Although he dated other girls in college, he never really got over Sidney.  Last I heard, Sidney was married to a man twenty years her senior, had a kid, and was filthy rich—thanks to her sugar daddy.

“So, who’s the lucky girl, bro?”  Hank asked, punching Owen in the arm.  Owen blushed and looked down at his egg drop soup.  He mumbled something that none of us could quite hear.

“What was that?”  Mom asked, cocking her head.  Owen straightened his shoulders, looked her squarely in the eyes and responded.

“It’s Sidney.”  His voice never wavered as he answered, but he dropped his gaze.  He hunched his shoulders again as if waiting for an attack.  He didn’t have long to wait.

“Sidney?  That slut?”  Mona exploded.

“You still whipped over her?”  Hank’s contribution, his tone knowing.

“Oh, Howie, no!  She’s ruined your life once already.”  My mother, of course.

“I thought she was married.”  My father, the most rational.

“Who’s Sidney?”  Rafe asked, his brow furrowed.

Only I remained silent.  I didn’t think it was any of my business to tell Owen what to do with his love life, especially since I haven’t always been so successful navigating my own.  Besides, I was surprised that he was dating a woman after being more than half-convinced that he was gay.  Turned out he was just pining for Sidney.  I kept eating as the conversation raged around me, Owen saying nothing in defense of himself.  Mona was getting heated in enumerating her reasons just why Owen should steer clear of Sidney while Hank was cracking jokes that were inappropriate at best, in bad taste at worst.  My father was trying to be reasonable while my mother was predicting dire trouble if Owen chased after ‘that trash’ again.  Rafe kept trying to find out more about Sidney, but no one would answer him—not even me.

“What do you think, Dodo?”  Owen said, appealing to me.  He knew that I was the only one in the family who could even stand Sidney let alone take her side, and his eyes pleaded with mine for support.  I hesitated, but I knew I owed it to Sidney to say something.

“Anyone can change,” I said finally, looking around the table.  “None of us is perfect, and who hasn’t made a mistake in her love life?  I know I have.  Sidney deserves a second chance.”  Three disbelieving set of eyes met mine, but I had said my piece. What’s more, I believed it.  I continued eating.  Owen mouthed a ‘thank you’ in my direction, and I mustered up a smile in return.

“Would someone please tell me who Sidney is?”  Rafe asked in a plaintive voice.  Taking turns, we filled him in.  Some of us—read, me—were more sympathetic to her than others—read, Mona and my mother—who wanted her head on a platter for what she had done to Owen.  By the time we were through, Rafe knew more about Sidney than I’m sure he wanted to.  He was gracious about it, however, and thanked us for filling him in.

“How could you, Owen?”  Mona asked, her lips thin.  She had been the one to pick up the pieces when Sidney dumped Owen the first time, and she had a long memory.  “Wasn’t it enough to have your heart ripped apart by that-that-tramp—once?”

“Mona, stop,” Owen said softly, placing his hand over hers.  Inhaling deeply, he told us the story of how this strange situation had come about.

One day after work, he was at Fern’s, an odd little bar on the other side of the river that couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to be.  Its clientele was mostly people in their thirties and forties, but there were also younger, hipper people who liked to make a scene.  Owen went there occasionally when he felt the need to unwind and didn’t want to see anyone he knew.  He was enjoying his MGD and watching some guys shoot pool when Sidney walked into the place with a group of female friends.  Even though it had been six years since he’d seen her, Owen recognized her in an instance.  She hadn’t changed much except that her figure which was always slim had filled out some.  It looked good on her.  He had debated whether to talk to her or not, but she made the decision for him by walking over to say hello.

What struck Owen from the first was her demeanor.  Gone was the flirty, vampish attitude she used to cultivate to be replaced with a friendly but slightly reserved air.  She no longer wore those clingy, low-cut shirts and micro-minis she was famous for—instead, opting for jeans and button downs.  She wore little makeup—nothing more than lipstick and blush—instead of the full face she used to apply every day without fail.  No longer did she act as if she was performing for an audience, and Owen found her just as beautiful if not more so than before.

This time around, she paid attention when he talked, really listening to what he had to say.  She revealed that she had divorced her sugar daddy after two years of marriage when he pointed out to her that she had been looking for a substitute for her own absentee father.  She and her ex had parted on amicable terms and still spoke once a week or so when he came to pick up the boy.  She came away with a tidy sum of alimony and a burning desire to be more than who she was.  To that end, she enrolled at the U as a psych major, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in St. Paul, and worked part-time as a checker for the Mississippi Market on Selby.  Her mother watched the boy when she worked or had school.  She even started taking yoga classes to help clear her mind.  She was happier now than she’d ever been.

“That’s some story she’s told you,” Mom said, her voice cold.  “I don’t believe it in the least.”

“Well, you don’t have to,” Owen said wearily, wiping his mouth with his napkin.  “You’re not the one dating her.”

“I think we should have her over for dinner, too,” my father said suddenly, startling everybody.  He tended to steer clear of the arguments, speaking only when absolutely necessary.  As a result, we listened to him more often than we did to Mom.  “It’s only fair.”  He continued to eat as if he hadn’t spoken, but we knew that his word was usually law.  Not tonight, however, as Mom was feeling particularly mutinous.

“I am not having that girl in this house,” she declared, setting down her napkin.  “Not after what she did to Howie.”

“Owen, you can do so much better,” Mona said, pleading her case.  “I have friends I can set you up with.  Just give me the word.”

“Bro, I can hook you up with some fine women,” Hank chimed in.

“Enough,” Owen declared, throwing his napkin on the table besides his plate.  “Sidney and I have gone out twice.  I will not bring her to dinner and subject her to this.”  He glared at Hank, Mona and Mom.  “Now can we please discuss something else?”

“I hate to bring it up,” my mother said, turning to me.  “What is the death of your boss going to do for your job?”

“I have no idea,” I said, my heart heavy.  Not that I much cared about Eddie or was truly mourning his loss, but his death would seriously put a crimp in my lifestyle, and that didn’t make me happy.  Call me callous, but I needed this two-bit job.  Suddenly, I wondered about his will.  Who would inherit the park?  Would it be closed down?  Would we all be fired?  “I should go there tomorrow and see what I can find out,” I said, idly pushing around the rice in my bowl.

“I bet it’s closed,” Hank commented, shoveling in his food.  “I mean, with your boss being offed and everything.  Not likely they could open, right?”

“I still have to check,” I said, setting down my chopsticks.  My appetite was gone, and not even the dough-hu-hua my mother made especially for me—tofu soup with syrup and soft peanuts—could tempt me.  I ate half before giving up; I gave my bowl to Hank who eagerly inhaled the rest.

The rest of the night, I retreated into my shell.  I was physically present and even managed to participate in the conversations, but I wasn’t mentally there.  By unspoken agreement, everybody left me alone.  The family stuck with safe topics such as politics and family news.  My mother had five brothers and sisters scattered around the states whereas my father had seven brothers and sisters in Taiwan.  Each of their siblings had at least three children apiece, which meant tons of relatives to go through.  My mother was the pipeline to her family whereas my father usually had to hear the news of his second or third hand.  Rafe seemed particularly wrapped up in our family lore which made me wonder anew about his family.

“How are you doing?”  Rafe asked me as we prepared for bed later that night.  My sister and brothers had all returned to their homes, and my parents had gone straight to bed.  I had heard them murmuring on their way up and figured they were either talking about Owen and Sidney or about my boss being murdered.  Rafe and I had watched some television before retiring.  Even though it was a Saturday night, I was exhausted and wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow.

“Not great,” I said, finally answering Rafe’s question.  Though I normally didn’t like talking about my feelings, I couldn’t hide them this time.  “What the hell is going on, Rafe?”

“I don’t know, querida,” Rafe sighed, massaging my shoulders.  “What I do know, though, is that this probably means you weren’t the original target.”

“How do you figure?”  I asked, giving myself over to his capable hands.  Rafe gave the best massages in the world and wasn’t stingy about it.

“What connection do you have with Eddie other than working for him?”

“What connection does Lydia have with him?”  I countered.  I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but I needed him to convince me.

“You don’t know,” Rafe said, shrugging his shoulders.  “She lied about her mother didn’t she?  She never told you about Tommy, either.  Who knows what she might have had going with Eddie?  Look, as horrible as it is about Lydia, at least we know it’s not about you.”  Part of me wanted to protest that Lydia had found him as much a slime as had I, but a larger part of me knew that Rafe was right.  I didn’t know Lydia as well as I thought I did, which just made me sad.

“I’m going to bed,” I said, sighing inside.  I wanted to believe him that I had nothing to fear, but I just couldn’t.  Something inside me told me that it wasn’t over.  I kissed him before ushering him out the door.  Tonight, my bed seemed awfully lonely without him in it.


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