‘Actually,’ I said, speaking before I even really realized what I was doing, ‘I could use some extra money for school. As long as it wasn’t too many hours.’
Heidi looked surprised, then glanced at my dad – whose expression could best be described as annoyed – before saying, ‘Oh, it wouldn’t be! Just, like, fifteen a week. If that.’
‘Auden,’ my dad said. ‘Don’t feel obligated. You’re here as our guest.’
I knew that if I hadn’t heard their argument the night before, this entire exchange would have been different. But you can’t unlearn something, even if you want to. You know what you know.
Later that evening, my dad and I walked up the boardwalk to a place right on the pier, where we ordered a pound of steamed shrimp and sat looking over the water. I wasn’t sure if it was that I couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said, or that he was still annoyed at me taking Heidi’s offer (and, in his mind at least, side), but at first it was a little stiff, awkward. After he had a beer and we both endured some very dull conversation, though, things loosened up, with him asking me about Defriese and my plans for my major. In turn, I got him to talk about his book (‘an intricate study of a man trying to escape his family’s past’) and the progress he was making (he’d had to tear out the middle, it just wasn’t working, but the new stuff was much, much better). It took a while, but somewhere between the second pound of shrimp and his detailed explanation about his character’s inner conflict, I was reminded of everything I loved about my dad: his passion for his work, and the way, when he was talking to you about it, it was like there was no one else in the room, or even the world.
‘I can’t wait to read it,’ I told him as the waitress dropped off our check. Between us there was a huge mound of shrimp shells, translucent and pink in the sunlight slanting through the window. ‘It sounds great.’
‘See, you understand how important all this is,’ he said, wiping his mouth. ‘You were there when Narwhal came out, and saw how its success changed our lives. This could do the same for me and the baby and Heidi. I just wish she could see that.’ He was studying his beer bottle as he said this, turning it in his hand.
‘Well, it could be she’s just emotional right now. Sleep deprivation and all that.’
‘Maybe.’ He took a sip. ‘But in truth, she doesn’t think like we do, Auden. Her strength is business, which is all about results, very calculating. It’s different with academics and writers. You know that.’
I did know that. But I also knew that my mother, who fit both of these categories, had felt the exact same way about his efforts with this exact same novel. Still, it was nice to know he felt like he could confide in me.
After dinner, we parted ways and I headed toward Clementine’s, where I’d told Heidi I’d look over the office and get my bearings before officially starting work the next day. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, for any number of reasons, so I was actually grateful for once for the distraction that was my brother.
‘So,’ I said to him now as the music began to thump again, ‘Tara’s nice.’
‘Tara,’ I repeated. ‘Your girlfriend?’
‘Oh, right.’ There was a pointed pause, which pretty much answered any lingering questions I might have asked. Then, ‘So you got your present, huh?’
I could see the picture frame, which was in my duffel bag, instantly in my mind, those words beneath his grinning face: THE BEST OF TIMES. ‘Yeah,’ I said to Hollis. ‘It’s great. I love it.’
He chuckled. ‘Come on, Aud. You do not.’
‘No, you don’t. It’s totally tacky.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘It’s –’
‘Horrible,’ he finished for me. ‘Cheap and ridiculous. Probably the stupidest graduation gift ever, which is exactly why I gave it to you.’ He laughed, that booming, Hollis guffaw that, despite myself, always made me want to laugh, too. ‘Look, I figured there was no way I could compete with all the money and savings bonds and new cars you’d be getting from everyone else. So I decided at least my offering should be memorable.’
‘It is that,’ I agreed.
‘You should have seen the others!’ Another laugh. ‘They had them with all kinds of sayings. One was HELLO FRIEND! in bright yellow. Also, PARTY QUEEN, in pink. And then there was the one that said, inexplicably, in green, CRAZY PERSON. Like anyone would want their picture in that.’
‘Only you,’ I said.
‘No kidding!’ He snorted. ‘Anyway, I figured the cool thing was that you could keep switching out the picture. Because you don’t want THE BEST OF TIMES to be just one thing, forever. You have to have a lot of bests of times, each one topping the last. You know?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. And just like that, he’d done it again: taken a thought he’d probably come to on the fly, under any number of influences, and somehow managed to make it deep enough to resonate. It was an art, what Hollis did. Never calculating, but it did have its charms. ‘I miss you,’ I said to him.
‘I miss you, too,’ he replied. ‘Hey, look, I’ll send a CRAZY PERSON frame. You can put that picture of me in it, set it next to you in THE BEST OF TIMES, and it’ll almost be like we’re together. What do you think?’
I smiled. ‘It’s a deal.’
‘Cool!’ There was a muffled noise, followed by loud voices. ‘Okay, Aud, I gotta run. Ramona and me are headed to a party. Talk soon, though, okay?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Let’s –’
But then he was gone, just like that. Before I could ask him who exactly Ramona was, or what had happened in Amsterdam. That was my brother, the living, breathing To Be Continued. Like my dad’s book, he was always in progress.
I shut my phone, then slid it back into my pocket. Hollis was a great distraction, but any regret I’d been feeling about taking the job came rushing back as soon as I opened the door to Clementine’s and saw Maggie standing at the register, Leah and Esther on either side of her. There is really nothing more intimidating than approaching a group of girls who have already made up their minds about you. It’s like walking a plank, no way to go but down.
‘Hello,’ Leah, the redhead, said as I came toward them. She was one of those tall, curvy types with milky white skin and was wearing a low-cut sundress and strappy heels. Her voice was neither kind nor unkind, just sort of level as she said, ‘What can we do for you?’