Hank said to Keith, conspiratorially, “Vocabulary like that, you’d never know she’s an English professor, would y’?”
“What do you do, sir?”
“Okay, I can tell you’re doing your best to be polite and put a good foot forward. That’s also smart. But, no ‘Mr.’ and no ‘sir’ please.”
“Now, y’ got it.” He walked up on the patio, waving Keith along. “Come on, treat yourself to a taste. Time you get done meetin’ my wife, you’ll need it.”
He crossed to the rolling bar, took two glasses, put them on the umbrellaed table along with an ice bucket. Reached for a bottle of Dewars. “Pick your poison. See anything you like?”
“Yes s—.” He caught himself. “Uh, yeah. Some of that jug of Jack Daniel’s’ll do just fine.” A jug it was. Bigger than the others by far, a half-gallon of Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. Otherwise known as bourbon.
Hank seemed to make a mental note. Dropping rocks in their glasses, pouring, he picked back up, “Me, I quit teachin’ college. At the same place. That’s where we met — hear tell you and my little girl met under some interestin’ circumstance.”
Keith kind of squirmed. With another warm, easy smile, Hank continued: “Stony Brook University. Not that I didn’t like it — did you know Louis Peterson once taught there?”
“Wrote Take A Giant Step. Damned good play. First Black dramatist on Broadway.” He interrupted himself to hand Keith his drink and hoist his own glass. “To yours and Lesli’s happiness.”
“Thank you, sir.” And caught himself again.
Hank winked. They sipped. “Anyway. I used to teach directing. To students who, most of them, figured they already knew all there was to learn. Between you and me, all but the best of ’em, I wondered how they managed to walk from one end of a stage to the other without falling off.”
Keith laughed. “After enough of that,” Hank continued, “I chaired the department a few years, then said, ’Nah.’ Had written a book that did well enough. A book on directing. And said to myself, ’Self, one more semester of this bullshit while you see whether another books sells.’ If it did, I was gone. If it didn’t, I was gone anyway, but was going to have one hell of an argument with that lady inside there in that kitchen. She’s never been a great believer in going on your own hook. Feels safer punching the clock.”
He shrugged. “Not that I hold that against her. But, it’s never really been my style. Not even when I was doing it.” Keith politely nodded.
The screen door slammed and out strutted Hurricane Mari in full storm. “Henry!”
Hank sipped his Dewars. “Yes, dear.”
“‘Yes, dear,’ my Aunt Fanny. Damned garbage disposal spits up stuff instead of grinding it down.” Evidence of which was on her t-shirt. “How many times have we had to have it fixed?”
“I know. A few times too many. That’s why God invented garbage cans. I’m tired of getting it fixed. We’ll replace it.”
“Good!” She glared at Keith, who tried to stand his ground but wilted before her gaze.
“Meanwhile,” Hank said, setting his drink down, “let me go in and take a look at it myself.”
“Okay.” She rubbed her palms off on her shorts, at the same time assuming a show of dignity. As his ally disappeared into the house, Keith, facing this mean-tempered woman who, as Lesli predicted, disliked like him for the pure hell of it, felt absolutely abandoned.
“Guess”, she grumped, “can’t leave you standing out here alone. It wouldn’t be polite to treat company that way, would it?” Keith didn’t say a word. “Have a seat.” He obeyed. She sauntered over to the bar, turned, looked at the table, grabbed a glass, came back and sat. “Henry drinks scotch. You been in my bourbon.”
Keith shrank into his seat, a comfortable, weatherproof affair of glistening aluminum and brown-plaid, strapped cotton. Hank’s words came back to him as he lifted the last of double-Jacks-on-the-rocks to his lips: “You’ll need it.” He opened his mouth to say something nice.
Mari stared again. He closed his mouth and, again, gave ground.
She poured herself a straight shot of Jack and asked, “Why does my daughter like you?”
Aw, Jesus, Keith thought. He hitched himself up. “Beats me.” Had St. Peter posed the same question at the Pearly Gates, Keith couldn’t have come up with an answer.
She took a beat, then said, “Well, that’s a sensible response.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Who are you calling ma’am?”
“Uh, what?” She crooked a finger, summoning him close. “What do you want with my daughter?” And stared, awaiting an answer.
Next week: Keith survives round one.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.