Eli is standing outside the hotel when I arrive, two steaming cups of coffee between his hands. I set my still full coffee mug into the cup holder (today’s mug has a bunny on it with tired eyes and a thought bubble that says, “Go away, I’m writing”). I could tell him later, that I preferred my first cup to be the blend Cesar had shipped to me from LA.
“Good morning, boss,” Eli says, his hair communicating, “I just rolled out of bed,” while his bright eyes say, “I eat administrative tasks for breakfast!”
“I got us some fresh coffee from the diner,” and then turning, so I can see his backpack, “my mom also made us breakfast sandwiches.”
I grin, unlock the hotel doors. “I appreciate all this, Eli.” I gesture to the open door. “After you.”
Inside, the sun works its magic through the tall hotel windows as I part the curtains. Morning light spills onto the dusty wood floorboards, turns the crumbling lobby fireplace into a work of art caught between its more glorious past and its certain future.
“Wow,” Eli says, his eyes travelling from the light toward the darker recesses of the bottom level. “This place could be cool.”
“It will be,” I say, feeling a tingle of anticipation. “Much of it is teardown, but I want to keep as much of the original structure in place as possible.”
The outcome of the next two weeks is critical to the success of my resort, but it will also be fun. Parker and I had meetings scheduled in New York and Nashville with potential partners and Cesar was coming along for the ride. I grin at the thought of being with my brothers again. Hanging out with Dana and Frank over a few drinks last night had clarified how much I missed being in the same room as my family.
Eli follows me into the office, and I point to a piece of furniture wrapped in moving blankets. “That’ll be your desk. I’m not sure what else we’ll need.” I smile ruefully. “I’ve never started from scratch before.”
Eli sets his bag down and uncovers it— it’s one of two antique mahogany executive pieces with leather tops. “Nice,” he says, running his hand over the surface. “Was it special ordered?”
“Used to be Nathan Weiss’s.”
The day Olivia and I had called a truce, she’d taken me to a storage room in one of her buildings.
“When grandfather bought these buildings, he’d often find beautiful, neglected pieces stashed away in attics and basements that the sellers hadn’t even been aware of.” She’d shaken her head. “It kills me how little people in this town seek and value their collective history.”
Eli’s eyes sweep the office, and I can sense his checklist growing by the second. When his gaze returns to me, he says, “I’ve been thinking through a lot of things since our meeting yesterday. I have some ideas I’d like to go over with you about organizing your space and your calendar aaand I’ve lost you...”
I look up from my phone as Eli trails off, “Sorry about that,” I say, setting it back down. “Here’s the thing. I’m going to leave all of that stuff up to you. You don’t need to check with me first. Let’s spend an hour together so we can sync-up all of our information, and you can get what you need from me, but then I’m going to set you loose, with my credit card.”
He grins from ear-to-ear, reminding me of a little kid. “I like the sound of that. Sink or swim.”
“Exactly. First order of business, is...”
“Your meeting with Bud Pederson,” he says, triumph in his eyes. He consults his phone. “You’ve got three hours before he meets us at the diner. I set it up last night.”
I slap Eli on the back. “That was quick work. Alright. Let’s eat those sandwiches, and you can tell me how you’re going to make my life easier.”
I spot Bud and his son Don before they see us. I feel a twinge of disappointment at the sight of Don’s pinched face. I wanted Bud to trust my vision for Tomahawk Hill, but it could prove more difficult than expected with Don here.
At Marty’s last night, Don had made it very clear how he felt about me. I was unwelcome. I had not been expected. Maybe Don and I would have had a chance to hit it off if circumstances had been different, but between Frank’s questions about business and Dana putting her hand on my arm every few minutes to emphasize a point or include me in something, I hadn’t had a chance with him.
“Hello, Bud. Don.” I give Don my winningest smile. “Good to see you again man.”
“Yeah, likewise,” Don says. He gestures to the seats across from them at the booth. “Please. And don’t mind me. I’m just here to listen.”
Bud looks as though he’s lost some weight since I saw him at the town hall meeting, the hollows under his eyes more profound, his hair a whisper, flitting across the top of his bald head. “I’d like to get down to business,” he says now, looking at me, then away. “I’ve gotta get to the theater in a couple of hours.”
“You bet,” I say. I want to ask him how he’s doing but wonder if it’s wiser that I don’t. During the first few months of his loss, Parker had told me how unpredictable his emotional responses had been to peoples’ well-intentioned questions. Sometimes he felt so relieved to be asked about how he was doing without his wife that he’d choke-up. Other times, Parker’s body would surge with anger, his tongue fat, with a catty retort.
Rescue appears in the form of Brenda holding a carafe of coffee in one hand and mugs in the other.
“What can I get you, gentlemen?” She looks pointedly at Bud. “How are you, Bud? I’ve been missing your face around here at lunchtime.”
I clear my throat and make a point of grabbing the menu as Bud surreptitiously swipes at his eyes. “I’m alright, Brenda. Thanks for asking.”
“Well, what can I get you? It’ll be on the house, alright? You are much too skinny now Bud Pederson. Isn’t Donny feeding you?”
Bud laughs a bit and glances at his son, who looks slightly offended. “I think he’s become an expert at ordering takeout out there, in Arkansas.”
I smile at Don as if to say, “you and me both.”
“I’m open to any suggestions you’ve got on good takeout places,” I say. “Know any Mexican spots around here?”
Don gives me a stony look. “I haven’t lived here in six years. No clue.”
“I’d love the macaroni and cheese,” Eli breaks in. “Grilled cheese sandwich.”
“What are you? Ten?” I ask, smirking.
“I’ll have the same thing,” I say to Brenda.
“And you boys?” she says, looking at the opposite side of the table.
“I’ll have my usual,” Bud says, smiling.
“I’ll have the burger and fries,” Don says.
“Alright, I’ll be right out with your lunch,” Brenda says, but she’s only looking at Bud. “Really glad to see you.”
“Well, alright,” he says, flushing a little.
After she walks away, he looks back at me, no longer smiling, but his tone is warmer, a hint of the Bud I’d met this summer. “So, what have you got for me?”
“Well sir,” I say. “I wanted to talk to you about your theater, see if you have any questions about how my resort could impact your business. It’s such a unique theater and I want to be available to you, help you if I can, ensure that it thrives once my resort is built and other businesses come to Tomahawk Hill.”
“Who says it won’t, thrive?” Don says, his tone souring on the last word. “There’s no theater like dad’s for miles.”
“That’s true,” I say, keeping my attention on Bud. “It’s a gem, but my concern is that it might not be able to cater to the sudden influx of people who will come. There is a theater in Nebraska City and they could easily absorb the extra people, or more likely, another theater franchise could see an opportunity and want to build, become your competition.”
“My dad is friends with everyone on that zoning committee. There’s no way they’re going to let another theater build here.”
Just here to listen my ass, I think.
“Now son,” Bud says, holding his hand up, “I’d like to hear the rest of what Mr. Hurst here has to say.”
By the end of the night, Eli has turned my messes into organized piles, taken inventory of the furniture in storage, commandeered my Amex corporate card for an online shopping spree and has mentioned a trip to an office center about thirty minutes away to get the rest of what he thinks I need.
Tomorrow, he promises to get the owners of the local market, and the Tropical Palm Motel tied down to meeting times.
“Next week is just fine,” I tell Eli as he looks dejectedly at his still silent phone. “Enjoy the weekend. Those meetings are not urgent. And in the not too distant future, you won’t get entire weekends off. If I hire you, you’ll learn to leave your cell phone at home when you need time to yourself, and you’ll be spending so much time with me or time thinking about me, you’ll stop considering it, your life, and think of it as our life.”
Eli grins, but I can see how disappointed he is about having no directives from me for the weekend. I know he’s eager to prove himself. He feels he’s failed me somehow by not ensuring Bud and I met alone this afternoon. “If Don wouldn’t have been there objecting to every little...”
“Bud knows what he wants. Maybe he would have asked me for ideas on how to improve his opportunities if Don weren’t there— suppressing the conversation every chance he got— but you felt it too, didn’t you? The sense that he doesn’t see the need to invest in his theater?”
“Yeah, I guess so. But maybe he’ll change his mind? He still has time.”
“He might,” I say, although Bud had said something at lunch that left me confident that he wouldn’t.
“Olivia asked the wife and me to do some work on the theater when she was in college, had some idea about getting it qualified as a historic landmark to attract tourists. Why do we need a certificate that says it’s historical? Anyone can see that it’s old!”
Eli had sagely kept quiet during the meeting, although I could tell he was burning to come to my aid.
I had enjoyed having Eli around today. He was as promised, an excellent assistant but more importantly, a good human. I know I’ll hire him, but I decide not to tell him yet. I want to see how well he performs under the pressure of being on trial for a week, paid not much more than an intern.
Still, I hate the idea of him slumping into the weekend, so I decide to indulge him. “I guess I might as well prep the office for next week. If you’re free tomorrow, why don’t we take my truck down to that office center you talked about and pick-up some items?”
His happiness is so transparent, I laugh.
“It’s not that I think shopping for office supplies is that exciting,” Eli says defensively. “It’s the idea that I’m the Rhodey, to your Tony Stark. Goose, to your Maverick, Spock to your Captain Kirk...”
I pat Eli on the back as I send him out the door. “Let’s not get carried away there, Robin,” I say. “But meet me on time tomorrow. The Batmobile flies at noon.”
On my drive home, I mull over the conversation I’d had with Bud. It was true that Bud didn’t necessarily need to invest in his theater. Sure, the way he runs it barely scratches the surface of its potential to be a real attraction and half of the seats are broken, the balcony seating unavailable because he uses it as a personal storage space, but it could make some money when the tourists come. He could up the price of a ticket, charge for the microwave popcorn and he would be in better financial shape than where he is now.
But Bud doesn’t care about the money. I am surprised though, that Don wouldn’t jump on the chance to build his future.
Maybe Don wants to sit on it until some developer offers them a ton of money to sell? It would become prime real estate after all. I seriously consider this, wondering if other business owners up and down Main Street might have had similar ideas.
Well then hell, I may as well build my own competing businesses. Why shouldn’t I capitalize on the opportunity for myself, if no one wants to be saved?
And then it hits me, this distant thought that I am offering to help these people for reasons beyond just smoothing the waters for my resort and making friends. Olivia. These people were like family to her. Sure, she said my offers would create goodwill, but she’d thought of the idea because she didn’t think people ultimately wanted to be bought out. Even after all the disappointments, she still had hope that her friends would come to their senses and be intentional about their town’s future.
Still, it wasn’t my place to convince people to change their minds. I’d warn them, I’d help if they asked along the way, but I needed to keep my eyes on my purpose; building the resort of my dreams and ensuring it thrived here in Tomahawk Hill.
On Bluff Road, everything outside the reach of my headlights is in shadow, except for the few lighted windows of neighboring homes. I’d been careful about driving on this road at night, heeding Therese’s warnings to be on the constant lookout for deer and other small animals. As I make the turnoff into my driveway, I see a sudden flash of golden tail near my front tire. I slam on my brakes, grateful there is no sickening, “thud.”
“What in the?” I peer into the darkness but see nothing. The flash of tail had almost looked like a... fox?
I roll down my window and a look down confirms that I haven’t hit anything, and I see nothing stirring on the edge of my driveway. Whatever it was, is gone.
I shut the door to my truck then dump my cold coffee from this morning into the gravel. That’s when I hear it, a whimper from the direction of the front porch. It sounded a lot like a dog. I crouch down and turn the flashlight on from my phone, sweeping behind the hydrangea bushes and under the porch’s floorboards.
There, in the beam of my flashlight, is a golden puppy with floppy ears, his yelps now insistent, not looking old enough to be on his own.