Did driving a Dodge Ram make me more of a man?
I grin. No. But did it make me feel more powerful? More capable? I had to admit that it did.
My car of choice would have been something sportier, sleeker, but looking over my options at the rental place near the airport, I had a feeling I’d alienate myself from the people in town with a choice like that. The roar of the Hemi V-8 said, “yes ma’am I can haul that cabinet for you.” And, “why don’t we get the boys together for a BBQ? I’ll bring my grill.” Which of course would look like something capable of cooking fifty patties at once.
The evening breeze whips through the cab of the truck as I drive with both windows down, breathe-in the unfamiliar smell of what I imagine is all the agriculture and animal manure and un-smoggified air. At seven o’clock on a late September evening, the sun is close to setting, making everything glow in a haze that turns dry crops into spears of gold reaching for the sky. About a half mile up the road leading to Therese’s, I see lights twinkling through the trees to my right. In my jog this morning I hadn’t noticed any of the other homes up here, but in the near dark, I can see there are a few properties with a lot of space between them.
I hear nothing but the roar of the truck’s engine as I roll up Therese’s driveway, am hit again by the beauty of the house and its situation on the top of this bluff, surrounded by blooming bushes and mature oaks and pines. The drive is wide, so I back into a parking spot. I cut the engine and face the house, gathering my thoughts. It’s still muggy outside, but the sweat dampening my forehead is not from the heat. After reviewing my ideas with Parker today, I want this project to happen even more than before.
The front porch light is on, creating a ring around the circumference of the house. Ferns and flowers hang from baskets, a swing and wicker chairs dot the spacious porch in cozy clusters. The lady of the house was someone who loved entertaining outdoors.
I reach for the portfolio containing the newest set of designs from Parker, my briefcase and the finest bottle of red I could find at the local market (totaling $10.99 to be exact). My dress shoes make little noise as I take the stairs two at a time up to the porch. As I straighten the collar of my button down, I wish for the second time that day that I’d had the foresight to pack differently for this trip. I’d become efficient at packing for business over the years, and my ministrations had become routine. Unfortunately, this meant I was now suffering in slacks and a dress shirt when I might have been wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It was this or workout clothes.
Before I can raise my hand to knock on the door, it opens, and I’m startled to find myself looking down into a pair of hostile eyes that look nothing like the warm, crinkle-cornered ones I’d imagined and frankly, hoped for.
“Hello,” she says, stepping back as though I might pounce on her. “My grandmother’s in the kitchen.”
I couldn’t believe the guy. I’d heard Therese tell him tonight was about getting to know him casually, yet here he was, practically in a suit. He couldn't have been more obvious that he hadn't come to make friends, that all he wanted was to play monopoly with her real estate.
There had been moments during Jake’s presentation at Hurst Café nearly a month ago when I’d thought he was sincere about honoring the intent of what my grandfather had wanted, but I had been right not to get excited. I knew what happened when people with a lot of money and power bought-up everything. Maybe this town was dying, but I didn’t want Tomahawk Hill to become unrecognizable to the people who lived and worked here.
“Hello,” Jake says, not moving at all and just looking at me as though maybe he got the wrong house.
“You’re in the right place.” I turn my back on him, expecting him to follow. “As I said, she’s in the kitchen.”
A glimpse of my grandmother setting food on the dining room table makes me feel slightly ashamed of myself. “May I get you something to drink?” I toss this over my shoulder, noting that he’s finally stepped into the entryway and set down his portfolio.
“Yes, that’d be great.”
He follows me with a bottle of wine –the label entirely obscured by his hand. “The options were limited, but the staff was friendly.”
“Let me guess? Stringy brown hair, glasses? Asked if you wanted something ‘full-bodied with a creamy, chocolatey finish?”
“That’s his line for every bottle of red wine on his shelf."
“Smart man,” Jake says, as we near the kitchen. “What person in their right mind says ‘no’ to chocolate?”
I’m spared further small talk when my grandmother appears from behind the pantry door, holding a bread basket. She’s dressed elegantly, as usual, her cream-colored slacks and light blue blouse impossibly free of any proof that she’d been cooking and baking since three.
“Why Jake Hurst, aren’t you just as handsome in person as you are in Audrey’s celebrity columns,” she says, moving closer.
I lean uncomfortably against the counter as Jake chuckles, kisses my grandmother on her proffered cheek and hands her the bottle of wine. Therese is flirting, which makes me annoyed and happy all at once. Annoyed that Jake’s charms extended to elderly widows but glad to see her sparkling under his gaze. When was the last time she had been so playful? Seemed so light and happy?
“That’s a very nice gesture, thank you,” she says, examining the label. “You purchased the best our market had to offer, I see.”
Jake gives her a wink. “I wanted to make a good first impression."
"And what have you been doing with yourself since you arrived?"
"It seems everyone who comes to town stops through the diner. Is that true? Because I think I've met every business owner and resident just by taking my meals there. People aren't shy around here, are they?"
"That's small-town life for you," I say. "How many times did people stop by with suggestions on what to order and what not to order?"
When Jake chuckles, it's hard for me not to smile back. "I was mid-order at lunch today and Bud Peterson taps me on the back--he was sitting behind my booth--and says, 'yer not planning on getting much work done today, are ya son?' If you've got work ta do, I'd stick with the chicken salad sandwich."
We all laugh together and it feels good for a moment, the three of us, talking in the kitchen like that. A lump rises to my throat as I recall other conversations, another man who made my grandmother light-up, telling stories.
I distract myself by offering Jake the glass of wine I've suddenly remembered to pour and Jake accepts the glass with a friendly look. "Brenda at the diner told me the only person I haven't met is Marty at Blue Moon Bar? It was closed last night and today."
“Ah yes, Marty Macken,” my grandmother says, smiling. “He had to visit family in Des Moines and decided to close it down for a few days. He should be back tonight.” She looks at me, her smile growing. “Maybe Livy could introduce you? She’s a bit of a night owl.”
I frown. No way. My whole body stiffens at the thought of spending more time with Jake Hurst. If my grandmother knew what I'd already decided, she wouldn't even make the suggestion. His meeting anyone around here had been premature.
His brows scrunch together as he looks down at me. “I’m sure you have better things to do than playing tour guide,” he says, and I wonder if he is as loathe for my company as I am for his.
“I’m sure I do,” I say.
She says my name softly, but I knew what it meant. I feel color rise to my cheeks.
If I'd told Therese my decision before Jake's arrival, maybe this whole night might have been easier. We could have told him my decision together. I'd wanted to wait until Jake brought it up, but I feel as though I can't wait. Not when the entire night would probably go like this:
"Oh Livy can take you...oh Livy can show you...oh Livy knows all the best ways to..."
No. I had to tell them both now. I wanted my grandmother’s happiness more than anything, but what she and my grandfather wanted was not possible. I’d never thought they could ask too much of me, but I’d been wrong.
“I’m sorry, grandma, but I can’t do this,” and despite my best efforts, my throat clogs and I can barely get the words out. I turn to Jake, who looks about as comfortable as a dog, trying to be friends with a cat.
“I just found out today that I own every piece of real estate my grandfather left. So, the person you need to convince to sell it all is me.”
A part of my brain recognizes the fact that I would be enjoying the look of disbelief in Jake Hurst’s eyes if not for the hurt and astonishment in Therese’s.
I clear my throat, grip my hands behind my back. It was harder than I thought it would be to vocalize my resolve. “The only thing is, I won’t be selling any of it. To you, or to anyone. So, you may as well find another small town or another project, because what you want, won’t be happening in Tomahawk Hill.”