With Lesli’s mother Mari eyeballing him, Keith somehow summoned the nerve to stare right back. She pressed, “Aren’t you going to tell me how much you love her?” She took a tiny sip of her bourbon. “How much she means to you?”
Keith knew no matter what he said he’d be wrong. Figured what the hell, might as well go with the truth. “No. I’m not going to say any of that.”
She crossed her shapely legs, settled back on her hips. Reminding him again how closely she resembled her daughter. Her daughter resembled her. Vice versa, whatever. Mari pushed: “Why not?”
“Because, Ms. Hall, I can’t begin to say how much I love Lesli. Or explain what she means to me. Because, to tell the truth, I don’t know. Except, I can say this. It’s a lot. It is a hell of a lot.” He felt for all the world like a peeled grape.
Mari’s stare softened, seemingly despite herself. She kept looking straight into his eyes. Smiled. Keith glimpsed a great deal of Lesli’s intensity in that stare. Personal strength. She said, “Why don’t the two of you spend the night?”
Then she got up to go inside. With that same wondrously hip-switching stride that always amazed him about Lesli. It was, he realized, nowhere near an invitation. It was a decided instruction, command, what have you.
“What did I tell you about calling me ma’am?” The screen door shut behind her. If he thought Lesli was a piece of work, her mom was something else again. He finished off his drink.
Mari’s voice: “Is no one going to see to our guest out there by himself?” Lesli appeared at the door. “No, not you. Come here.” Lesli disappeared and, in a moment, Hank came out. Then Mari poked her head out. “Keith, did you bring swimming trunks?”
“That’s okay, sweetie, Henry’ll help you out with that.”
Hank took Keith’s glass and freshened their drinks. Keith was a little stunned. “Did your wife just call me sweetie?”
“Yeah, I know. Can hardly believe it myself. Somebody get a calendar, ’cause I think history, or something close to it, has been made.” He handed Keith his drink. “Welcome to the family.”
“Well, what just happened? One minute she’s giving the third, fourth and fifth degree. Next thing I know, I’m sweetie.”
“You lookin’ a gift horse in the mouth?”
“Oh, no. No, no, no.”
“What do I do now? To say on her good side.”
“Hell, even I can’t manage that. Just be yourself. Seems to work pretty good so far.”
Keith shrugged. “Guess I can do that.”
“She came in, gave our little girl a big smile.” He chewed an ice cube. Somehow, Keith was never going to get next to the concept of Lesli being anybody’s little anything. “She said, ’There’s something about that man I like. He’s sincere.’ Lesli got so happy, thought she might crap in her pants.” They laughed. “Here they come now.” Lesli and Mari looked like they’d swallowed canaries.
The burgers continued to cook — as it happened, everyone liked theirs fairly well burned. Glasses kept getting refilled and conversation was easy to come by. Until Mari, with maybe a bit more Jack in her than she realized, put her foot in it, getting a bit animated in her curiosity about Keith’s line of work.
“So, tell us. Henry and myself, I mean. I’m sure she already knows. What’s it like running all around the country, halfway around the world, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous? You’ve even played for some of them haven’t you? What’s it like, all that glamour. The girl-chasing?”
“What’s Helen St. James like?”
Lesli saw red. Oops, Keith thought. “Daddy,” Lesli said, “do something with her.”
“Already married her, what more you want me to do?”
“Grrr!” Lesli stood and stormed off.
“Oh, come on, I’m just being curious.”
“Mari. Call me Mari.”
“Helen’s kind of a sore subject with Lesli.”
“Oh.” Then, “I’m sorry.” She looked around. “Baby, I’m sorry. Come back.”
She yelled from the kitchen, “No!”
“You might as well. It’s time to eat. Bring that trolley full of food with you.”
“Mari, go tell ’er you’re sorry.”
“I did, Henry.”
“You know your daughter, go tell her again. And I wouldn’t say a whole lot more about women chasin’ after her men when she’s not around.”
“That was thoughtless, wasn’t it?” She got up and went inside.
“I don’t think,” he said to Keith, “it’d hurt any of us to soak up some of this booze with some dinner, do you?”
“Works for me.”
Next week: Much holding forth ensues.
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