Phones and the internet didn’t work but by some weird conjunction of the planets satellite radio was still up though I had a feeling someone would get around to fixing that eventually. Getting to the cabin wasn’t easy under the best of circumstances but at least normally we had the interstate and highways most of the way; but not this time. I plotted and re-plotted routes in my head as more and more major road blocks were announced.
The cabin is located between a small place called Jonesville and an even smaller place called Dot. No, I’m not kidding; the town is called Dot, KY. The Wilderness Road runs between the two towns and from there we drive up into the area around Elk Knob and Buzzard Roost. It’s pretty remote and once you are up there you don’t really want to drive back down if you don’t have to. I’d been concerned that my dad had wanted to move there with his health being what it is but he’d insisted that he’d be fine. They had decided to wait until Ike and James – the twins – had gotten better settled before moving there permanently but they went up there every other month so hopefully we wouldn’t be walking into some major repair issues. That’s all we needed on top of everything else.
Through the night I drove. Sometimes Bennie kept me company, sometimes Lucia. About three in the morning it all finally hit me and I pulled off the road behind a dilapidated building and started puking my guts up.
“You ain’t gonna do any good this way Joey,” Lucia said after handing me a baby wipe for my face. “Let Bennie drive while you eat something.”
I didn’t want to but I knew she was right. “OK, at least until we have to change roads.”
“Sure, sure. Let’s get back in the truck. The freakin’ bugs are about to carry me off.”
So while Bennie drove I tried to eat a Heater Meal of pasta fagioli. It wasn’t great but it put some food in me. I knew from reading the label the nutritional count wasn’t bad – Dad’s health brought us all to a new awareness of what we put in our bodies – but the calories wouldn’t carry me very far. Three hundred ten calories and eighty of those from fat so I added a Peanut Toffee Clif Bar and then munched a Mojo Bar while I used a pen light to look at a map.
“How can you eat those things?” Lucia asked in disgust. “They taste like twice eaten cardboard.”
I shrugged. “Acquired taste I guess. I ate Clif Bars for breakfast more often than not during freshman year and I just kept the habit up. I’m just glad Tony had some packed even though I’ve never seen him eat one.”
Lucia snickered and I asked, “What?”
“You’re so dense.” She snickered again.
“I’m too stressed to play games Lucia. Either spit it out or leave off.”
Even in the dark I could see her roll her eyes. “Geez girl are you blind? All it would take is a little encouragement from you and Tony’d be all over you.”
I sighed and didn’t comment.
“Oh my god, you do know it. Are you crazy?! What are you waiting for? He’d set you up real good.”
Sure, set me up … but the last thing I had ever wanted was to be the kind of girl that had to be “set up” to make her way in life. Besides, how did I explain to her the talk that Dad had had with me while he was still in the hospital after his first heart attack? He thought Tony was too old for me. He didn’t care for some of the connections he had. He wanted me to get my college degree and be able to support myself before I thought about anything else.
At the time I had thought maybe the heart attack had done something to his mind. I hadn’t been thinking of Tony as anything other than an occasionally over protective brother; cool but way older and a little out of touch. I didn’t even have a crush on him. But after “the talk” as I came to think of it I spent a lot of time wondering. I went off to my freshman year of college stilling wondering but unsure what my dad had thought was even real, or if he even remembered it since he’d been so doped up when he said it.
Money was tight and there was no way I could afford to go home for Thanksgiving that year. I spent a miserable weekend in the dorm trying to work out a way that I could afford to go home for Christmas and still afford my books and fees in the Spring. No matter how I added the numbers I couldn’t make it work. I saw Lucia the weekend after she’d come back and broke down crying with homesickness. I spilled the problem but swore her to secrecy as I wasn’t ready to disappoint my family again.
So much for secrecy. The following weekend I walk back to the dorm to find Tony chatting up a couple of top heavy coeds. My hours at the deli had been cut back even further so I was able to say yes to grabbing a bite to eat. I don’t know what I was hungrier for, a Five Guys burger with the works or news from home. I blasted him when he offered to subsidize my income.
“I’m not offering charity Ragazza. That new secretary I’ve got just doesn’t get me. She don’t listen or pay attention. It’d be the same arrangement we had when you were still living at home. I fax you my notes, you put them together so other people can understand them. You email them back to me, I make changes and additions and get the final version done in the office. I’d rather see you get the money than have to break in someone new.”
Suspicious I asked, “Why don’t you just get a new secretary?”
“She’s the sister or something of one of the senior partner’s … er …”
Shaking my head I asked, “Mistress?”
“Yeah,” he admitted after a moment. “Something like that.”
I laughed at his discomfort over his admission and said, “Maybe you should make her an offer. At least you’d be getting attention.”
Tony surprised me by snapping, “I don’t do that no more.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of his reaction as far as long as I’d known him he’d always had a girl or two … or three. “Why?” I asked him curiously.
“Never you mind. This ain’t a fit topic for you no way.”
I rolled my eyes but let it go knowing when Tony got in that particular mood nothing would move him. And in the end I was just plain desperate enough to put my pride on the back burner and accept his help.
I didn’t waste the opportunity and made sure the work was as real as if I worked at Schlotsky’s. I got to know Tony even better than before and the only thing that bothered me was that we kept our arrangement a secret. I had my reasons and he had his, some personal and some professional, but still it bothered me and seemed to make him uncomfortable as well on occasion.
He called me his secret ace in the hole. His firm’s branch in Tampa got to know my face pretty well as he moved up the ladder. They liked that I was “discreet” and sometimes I’d pick up a courier run after dropping off or picking up a package for Tony.
When Tony found out about it he came unglued. “What are you thinking?! What kind of packages?!”
“Geez. Relax Tony. I’m just taking stuff around.”
“Around where?!” he yelled so loud he blew out my Blue Tooth.
Ripping it from my ear I yelled into my cell’s receiver, “Now look what you’ve done!”
“I asked around where Josephine?!”
“Turn your voice down before you wreck my cell phone too!”
“Dammit Josephine WHERE?!”
Disgusted as yelled, “What’s your problem?! The bank and the courthouse and once to this house on Davis Island.”
“You listen careful Joey, you listen real careful. You don’t go to no private house or hotel no more.”
Angrily I told him, “I can take care of myself and you know it.”
“Sure. Sure I know it but those guys don’t and they … they might just put you in a position where you’ll have to do it … so just avoid it.”
Understanding more than Tony seemed comfortable saying I asked, “Be honest with me. Are you being over protective or do I really have something to worry about.”
He was silent for a moment then asked, “They ever call you to carry a package for them?”
I shook my head even if he couldn’t see it. “No, only when I’m already there dropping off or picking up for you. It’s only happened a few times and only when the manager down in the mail room looks like he’s close to a coronary. It’s good money Tony and not cash under the table stuff. Don’t ask me to give it up. I put it aside for grad school.”
I could actually feel him trying to relax through the phone. “Ok. Just … just watch yourself. And don’t go doing no special favors for anyone upstairs.”
“Tony, I’m not stupid.” I didn’t say more because there wasn’t any need to.
Two weeks later Tony shows up out of the blue like he would on occasion and whisks me off to the grocery store where we picked up some drinks (cola for me and wine for him), cheese, crackers, and prosciutto. We drove his rental car to Clearwater Beach, parked, and then threw a blanket out on the sand to watch the sun go down. Something was bothering him but I let him take his time.
Finally he asked, “Anyone bothering you?”
I acted silly on purpose by looking around and told him, “Not at the moment.”
“Josephine,” he said with a warning in his voice. “From the firm.”
I sighed. “No Tony.”
“You’d tell me if they did.”
Seeing how serious he was I put my hand on his arm and said, “Yes Tony, I’d tell you if anyone was bothering me; from the firm or not.”
“Anyone?” he asked in a way that reminded me just how much of the wine he’d polished off.
We sat there for a while and after two years I finally got up the courage. “Tony, can I ask you something?”
He’d relaxed and laid back on the beach blanket. He made a sight with his suit pants rolled up and his dress shirt open so that I could see his tanned body and white tank-style t-shirt beneath it. “Sure, you can ask me anything Ragazza. If I can’t answer at least I won’t lie.”
I supposed that was going to have to be good enough and I asked him about what my dad had said.
He sat up slowly, suddenly stone sober and said, “I hadn’t realized he’s said anything to you.”
“You were just a baby. I wasn’t thinking about you like that Joey, I swear. I don’t know what made him think it. I’m ten years older than you. I wouldn’t … couldn’t … spoil such innocence.”
I snorted in a decidedly unladylike manner. “Don’t turn me into a saint. You act like I’ve been raised in a cloistered convent.” When he gave me a strange look I laughed. “I just mean that I haven’t acted out any feelings but that doesn’t mean I haven’t ever had them. I’ve been asked out. I’ve been pursued when I said no. I just haven’t met anyone I’ve felt like saying yes to. And Dad knows both of us well enough that … well his worrying about it enough to bring it up when he was so sick … it was just … weird. It eats at me sometimes.”
He was upset so I knocked against him with my shoulder and explained, “Not at you … and not in a bad way. I trust you, it just … put ideas in my head that weren’t there before. I just … I don’t know … started wondering I guess you’d say.”
He sighed, “Yeah, your ol’ man caught me off guard too. I explained I’d never treat you … well … with anything less than respect. He seemed to accept it and then it was like we’d never had the conversation. It made me wonder if I’d ever done anything to make him think that … that I’d go after some underaged baby like you were then but I … I’ve never asked him if he still feels that way. I was kinda hoping it was just the medication talking. But …”
“But?” I asked a little breathlessly.
He turned and looked at me with his dark, nearly black eyes and then ran his index finger down my cheek. “It made me look at things. How I was living my life. What I wanted … who I wanted. What I needed to do to get there.”
I was barely breathing. “I … I … I’ve got … things … things I want to do with my life.”
“Shhhh,” he said with another caress. “You want your degree. You want a chance to prove yourself, make your mark, be your own woman before you become someone else’s.”
After a moment I relaxed. This was Tony, he wouldn’t force anything on me. I leaned against his shoulder and said, “This is what I think about. How you know me … understand me … even better than Dad and Mom do it seems. Every time I go home it’s like they have to relearn I’m grown now. They don’t treat the boys that way. I … I worry about losing this.”
“This?” he asked quietly.
“This. This whatever there is between us. Friendship. Being comfortable. Trust. Respect. I don’t want you to think of me like those other women that hang all over you, the ones you eventually trade in on the next model when they get too close or start to bore you. This whatever it is is important to me. I don’t want to lose it. And … and I don’t know if I’m … I’m ready for … for …”
I’d leaned forward and was hugging my knees. He pulled me back. “I’d never treat you like that. You’re not that kind of woman. Stop worrying. I’m a man, not a boy. I’m patient. When I want something I know how to wait for it … savor the waiting. There’s no need to rush. I’ve got things I want to do too. We have all the time in the world.”
His head descended towards mine and a sensation of falling came over me and then I jerked awake still tasting that first gentle, wine-flavored kiss.
“Geez Joey, nightmare much?!” Lucia huffed as she drove along a road packed with cars as the sun just cracked the horizon.