I ’d been married to the guy for twenty years, and he still didn’t get it. Crowds. I hated big crowds. He knew that. So why was he asking me again?
“You go,” I said, climbing up the short, wobbly stepladder and pouring birdseed into the feeder dangling from one corner of the garage roof. “Stuff yourself. Have a blast. Just”—I backed down the three steps on the miniladder—“take the cell phone and let me know when you’re on the way home.” I stuck the stepladder into the garage and headed for the back porch of our two-flat.
“Aw, c’mon, Jodi.” Denny sounded like a teenager who’d just been told he couldn’t have the car keys. “The Taste is no fun going alone. And there’s only two more days. I’d take Amanda and Josh if they were here, but they’re blasting their eardrums out at Cornerstone,” he grumbled. “They were gone last summer too. I haven’t been to the Taste in two years!”
I glanced at him sharply. Yeah, the kids had been gone this time last summer—on that mission trip to Mexico. But that wasn’t the reason Denny had missed the Taste of Chicago last year. I’d just gotten out of the hospital after getting banged up in a car accident and the Fourth of July slid right past us unnoticed, like the Energizer Bunny on Mute. But if Denny didn’t remember, I sure wasn’t going to bring it up.
“You don’t have to go by yourself.” I was doggedly cheerful.The prospect of a long, quiet summer evening at home alone was sounding more and more appealing by the second.No kids, no husband even, who, God love him, was still male and took up a large portion of the house and my psyche. A girl needed a break now and then. “Call one of your friends. Take Ben Garfield. He’s probably driving Ruth crazy anyway. She’ll kiss your feet for getting him out of the house.”
I flopped down on the porch swing and reclaimed my plastic tumbler of iced tea, sweating in a puddle where I’d set it near Willie Wonka’s inert body. The rhythmic rise and fall of the chocolatehaired rib cage assured me the old dog was still with us.
I raised the iced tea to my lips, vaguely thinking it’d been fuller than this when I set it down—and over the rim saw Denny still standing in front of me, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, shoulders hunched like one of Peter Pan’s lost boys. “What?”
“I don’t want to go with Ben. I want to go with you.”
I rolled my eyes. Cheater! Villain! My visions of solitude, peace and quiet, that Ernest Gaines novel I was dying to read with only our dear deaf dog and a good fan for company evaporated as quickly as spit on a hot iron.
Denny Baxter knew exactly how to shoot his arrow into my Achilles heel.
“You really want me to go?”
I sighed. “All right. But, mister, you owe me one.”
The dimples on either side of Denny’s mouth creased into irresistible parentheses. “Hey, it’s going to be fun! We need some time together while the kids are gone—not talking about serious stuff or anything, you know, just having a good time. Pick your poison! Jerk chicken . . . ribs slathered in barbecue sauce . . . Italian ice . . . that Totally Turtle Cheesecake at Eli’s . . .” My husband’s eyes closed in anticipatory bliss of sampling the city’s finest eateries, whose yearly ten-day culinary extravaganza on Chicago’s lakefront always culminated on July Fourth weekend. “And we can watch the fireworks tonight from Buckingham Fountain,” he added.
That was tempting. Chicago always did a big show on Independence Eve. I’d heard that the fireworks were coordinated with a fantastic light show at the city’s signature fountain along with a live concert by the Grant Park Symphony. And Denny had a point about “just having fun.” The past two months had taken a huge toll on us—emotionally for sure, but physically and spiritually too. Some good things had happened, like Josh’s graduation from high school and that awesome celebration we’d had last Sunday morning when our church and New Morning Christian met together in their new space in the Howard Street shopping center.
But the recent hate group incidents on Northwestern University’s campus, the so-called free speech rally that had just been a coverup for spewing hate and fear, and the cowardly attack that had left our friend Mark Smith in a coma for two weeks—that had been tough. Tough on Nony and Mark’s family, tough on the Baxter family, tough on the whole Yada Yada Prayer Group.
Though, I had to admit, we did learn a thing or two about “getting tough” spiritually. All of us had felt helpless and angry at the twisted attitudes and sheer evil behind that attack on Mark. But we discovered prayer was a spiritual weapon we could wield with abandon.
Praise too. That was a new reality for me, but it made sense.
As Avis pointed out at one of our Yada Yada prayer meetings, the devil can’t do his rotten work too well in an atmosphere filled with praise and worship for his main Adversary.
I chugged the rest of my iced tea. “OK, so when do you want to leave? Parking’s going to be a nightmare.” I’d heard the Taste drew thousands of hungry palates. I shuddered. Didn’t want to think about it.Threading through waves of sweaty flesh.Trying to ignore all the bouncy boobs in skimpy tank tops. Dreading the inevitable visit to the rows of Porta-Potties . . .
Denny pulled open the back screen door, a droll grin still lurking on his face. “Soon as we can get ready. Don’t have to worry about parking if we take CTA.” The screen door slammed behind him.
“What are you smirking about?” I yelled after him.
The screen door cracked open, and he poked his head out.
“Didn’t want to tell you, but since you asked.” His dimples deepened wickedly. “Willie Wonka slurped up the top third of your iced tea while you were feeding the birds. In case you wondered.”
The screen door slammed again as I let the plastic tumbler fly.
I’D FINISHED REFILLING A COUPLE OF WATER BOTTLES and adding them to the sunscreen, sunglasses, and windbreaker in my backpack when I heard someone at the back screen door. “Hey, Jodi.”
I looked up. “Hi, Becky! And who’s that cutie hiding behind you? Andy Wallace! I see you!”
Our upstairs neighbor—well, the long-term “guest” of our upstairs neighbor—stood at the back door, still sporting her new haircut and color, a rich brunette with auburn highlights swinging chin length in front of her ears and short and feathered in the back, courtesy of Adele’s Hair and Nails. Behind her, a tousled head of dark curls peeked out from behind his mother’s skin-tight jeans.
Little Andy giggled.
“Come on in, you guys.” I held open the screen door. “Denny and I are leaving in a few minutes—kids away, parents play, know what I mean? But I didn’t know Andy was coming to visit this weekend. Is he staying for the holiday?” I felt like I was babbling, but I often felt like that around Becky, trying to fill in the gaps of awkward conversation.
“Uh, that’s kinda why I came down.” Becky cleared her throat.
“Didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but with the heat an’ all, I had all the windows open upstairs, an’ I heard you an’ Denny talkin’ ’bout goin’ to see the fireworks downtown. And, uh, I, uh . . .” Becky cleared her throat again. I tensed.Was she going to ask if she could go with us? But she knew better than that! She was on house arrest for another four months, and that electronic monitor thing she wore strapped to her ankle would alert the authorities quicker than Instant Messaging if she left the premises. “. . . uh, was wonderin’ if you guys would mind takin’ Little Andy with you.” Her left hand fell gently on the little boy’s head as she drew him even closer to her side. “He ain’t never seen no fireworks before.”
A dozen thoughts tumbled around in my brain as I searched for an answer. Becky Wallace had come a long way since she’d first appeared at our front door last summer with a ten-inch butcher knife, desperate for money to spring a heroin fix. Huh. God sure had a weird sense of humor. The woman who’d robbed and terrorized our whole Yada Yada Prayer Group that night was now standing at my back door like any other mom, talking about fireworks and the Fourth of July.
Well, like any other mom who’d taken a detour through drug rehab and prison.
I stalled. Dragging a three-year-old along wasn’t exactly what Denny had in mind when he said the two of us needed to just have fun. “Uh, did you ask Stu?” Leslie Stuart,Yada Yada’s fix-everybody social worker, rented the apartment upstairs and had taken Becky in as a housemate when she’d been paroled. “She’d probably love to take Andy to the Evanston fireworks tomorrow night—they’re closer than the ones downtown. Evanston does the Fourth up big, too, with a parade and everything. Might be more fun for Andy.”
“Nah. That ain’t gonna happen. Stu said she’s goin’ to some family reunion or somethin’ tomorrow. Leavin’ first thing in the morning. I’d take Andy if I could.” Becky looked at the monitor on her ankle and shrugged. “But if it’s too much trouble . . .”
I stared. Stu going to a family reunion? In the entire year-plus I’d known Stu, she’d only mentioned her parents once and had never visited them as far as I knew. I wasn’t even sure they lived in the Chicago area any more. In fact, Stu acted as if she and her parents weren’t exactly on speaking terms, though who rejected whom wasn’t clear either.
“Uh, well . . .” I felt caught between Andy’s big eyes, peering at me hopefully from behind his mother’s leg, and my husband’s expectations. Taking Andy could be kind of fun—except for the extra trips to the Porta-Potties. “Tell you what. Let me talk it over with Denny. Give me ten minutes, OK?”
WE TOOK ANDY.
When I told him my dilemma, Denny rolled his eyes and muttered something that would probably earn an R-rating from Pastor Clark. But we both finally agreed that Becky didn’t have many options when it came to doing things with Andy. House arrest was house arrest. And we still had two more days until our kids came home from the Cornerstone Music Festival to get some one-on-one time together. A holiday weekend at that.
I threw in some antibacterial handwipes for those trips to the Porta-Potties and packed raisins and granola bars in case “curry goat” and “jerk chicken” weren’t on Andy’s list of What Three-Year-Olds Eat. And once Denny shifted gears from twosome to threesome, he took Andy under his wing as we hustled to catch the Red Line.
“Hey, hey, we gotta run, Little Guy, and catch that train!”
“My name ain’t Little Guy. It’s Andy.”
“What? Candy? Whoever heard of a boy named Candy?”
Squeals of laughter. “Not Candy. Andy!”
“Whatever you say, Little Guy.”
On the el train,Andy crawled up on Denny’s lap and the two of them pressed their noses to the window as the train snaked upclose and personal along the backsides of brick apartment buildings.
They made quite a pair. Denny, short brown hair with sexy flecks of gray running through it, looking every inch the athletic coach he was at West Rogers High School. And Little Andy, his skin a milky brown, highlighting his mixed parentage. Definitely “hot chocolate with whipped cream,” as Becky Wallace liked to say.
“Hey, Little Guy. See the flower boxes on those windows? That building is so close! Look, here they come! Should I pick some for Miss Jodi? Huh? Huh? . . . Oh, too late.We were going too fast.”
“Aw. You can’t pick dose flowers, Big Guy. The window ain’t open!” Curly Top dissolved into giggles.
We transferred to the Brown Line at Belmont, which took us around Chicago’s Loop—the heart of downtown—and got off at State and Van Buren, at which point it was only a three-block walk to Grant Park and the lakefront. I trailed along with the backpack as Andy pulled Denny forward, excited to get to “the Paste.” OK, if Denny was going to ride herd on Andy, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
We bought a roll of food tickets at one of the ticket booths and wandered down the long line of eateries lining Columbus Drive, which was blocked off to traffic. Reggio’s Pizza . . . Vee-Vee’s African Cuisine . . . Sweet Baby Ray’s . . .Taqueria Los Comales . . . Jamaica Jerk . . . “Oh, babe,” Denny said, licking his lips. “This is almost better than . . .” He waggled his eyebrows at me, knowingly.
I punched his arm. “Ow,” he complained. “I said almost.”
Andy was more interested in the popcorn vendor and the ice cream cart jingling its way between the long rows of eateries. I said yes to the popcorn and no to the ice cream, while Denny ordered a prime rib quesadilla for himself at the Grill on the Alley, and a grilled lime chicken chopped salad for me. He looked so funny with salsa dripping off his chin that I started to laugh. “You’re a pig, you know that, Denny Baxter?”
Denny stuffed another bite of quesadilla in his mouth, unapologetic. “No rules, no manners, just food heaven,” he deadpanned—though with his mouth full, it came out no ruves, no mannerves, juf foo’ heav’n. I just rolled my eyes at him and tackled my lime chicken salad with a plastic fork.
“OK, next pit stop,” he said, licking off his fingers. “But maybe we better get Andy something first.Whatchu want, Little Guy?” He looked this way and that, then looked straight at me. “Jodi, where’s Andy?”
“Andy? I thought you . . .” I spun around in a circle.Nothing but bodies in front of, in back of, on all sides of me. Big bodies. Skinny bodies. Babies in strollers.Towheaded wailers dragged along by the hand.
But no Andy.