Ben Sheppard knocks on my front door instead of ringing the bell. It’s loud and firm and startles me. I’m already nervous and the surprise of his knock makes me a little more flustered.
I’d been thinking of this moment all day. The moment when he rings my bell or, as it turns out, he knocks on my door. I primp myself in the mirror. The night will be cool so I’ve put on a nice pair of black jeans and a turtleneck with a long gold chain that hangs across my breasts. I didn’t want to go overboard. I didn’t want to do too much. I chide the furrow in my brow. It seems deeper in this light. I try to rub it out. I close my eyes and press both thumbs across the ridge of my brow then open them. Nothing. Still the furrow. The rock is still in my belly, but it’s surrounded by butterflies.
I spent the day at an off-site my bank required I attend at a hotel banquet center with about two hundred other bank employees. It is was an eight hour day of being lectured on diversity and its importance for a productive workplace and corporate success. I learned that I’m not supposed to judge people based on their sex, age, race, religion, sexual-orientation or any combination of the aforementioned. It’s all good stuff that most of us learned as kids and if you didn’t learn it as a kid, I can’t see how eight hours in a hotel banquet center is going to teach you to not be an ass.
The entire day my thoughts kept drifting away from diversity and drifting to Ben Sheppard. I used my phone to do a little internet research. There’s not much there. I found a nice general profile on his company’s website. I looked up the letters that are behind his name on the business card. They’re engineering designations, but I have trouble understanding even their definition. I take it to mean he’s certifiably smart.
When our Chief Diversity Officer dismissed us for lunch, I grabbed a muffin left over from the morning spread and a diet cola from a vending machine and tried to find a quiet place alone to eat and think. I found it on the third floor stairwell.
I felt guilty for all those thoughts of Ben Sheppard. I really should have been thinking of Danny. I’m also getting a little pissed that Josh hasn’t called to check in. I want to give them space, to let father and son bond. I have a hope that Josh will stay in Danny’s life and not lose interest and drift off to other things. A boy needs his father and Josh is so likely to drift away from anything that involves work.
I dialed Josh’s number.
“Hello Mommy!” Danny shouted into the phone. “Daddy let me answer the phone. Yesterday we saw a big arch. I wanted to go to the top. I did, but Daddy said we didn’t have enough money and we really had to get to see Grandma and Grandpa in SanCisco… SanFrankco… in California and we’re gonna see mountains soon but now it’s not mountains it’s all flat and there’s farms and farms and a, oh, Mommy, a big truck honked its horn at me.”
I laughed in the stairwell. My Danny is a-okay and he sounds happy and my irritation with Josh subsided.
“Okay, you need to talk to Daddy now.”
I heard the phone handed off.
“Hey,” Josh says.
“You know I don’t allow him sugar or caffeine, Josh.”
“Then I guess the pancakes and Coke for breakfast were a treat for him.”
“Well, he’s bouncing around your car and not mine.”
“He’ll be fine. We’re having fun. He’s just excited.”
I didn’t agree but let it pass.
“I really need you to call or text. I worry.”
“I’m a big boy, Tess.”
“And he’s my little boy, Josh.”
“All right, we’ll text and call more. Hey, I do have a favor. Money is going faster than I expected. Mind if I use that credit card you gave me for a few things? Gas. Maybe a hotel?”
“You’re running short already?”
“You know I’m good for it?”
I don’t know that Josh is good for it. Josh hasn’t been good for a whole lot, but I don’t want to put a damper on Danny’s vacation. Anyway, once they’re on the coast Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson-Bernham will foot all the bills.
“Yeah, no problem.”
I think two things to myself: how did I end up paying for my ex-’s vacation and I’d better keep an eye on that account.
That will have to happen after I have dinner with Ben Sheppard.
I look in the mirror again and I hope I’m dressed appropriately. He knocks again.
Okay, okay, I say to myself and open the door.
The first thing I think is he looks better than I remember. The second thing I think is that we dressed to the same level. He’s in jeans with a dress shirt and a suede jacket. No tie and I see the points of cowboy boots sticking out from under the cuffs of his jeans. I can do without the suede jacket and boots, but they fit him somehow.
He’s holding a small bunch of purple irises. He smiles.
“I saw this on the side of the road earlier today and thought you might like it.”
“Thank you. Come in. Let me put these in some water.”
I walk to the kitchen. I grab a small vase out of the cupboard, fill it with water and put in the flowers. He hasn’t followed me into the kitchen. He’s still standing at the doorway. I realize that he’s the first man after Josh, well, the first man besides the cable guy, who has been inside my house. He’s the first man in my house since Josh that I’ve thought of in a romantic way. Am I thinking of him in a romantic way? Yes, I am, I tell myself.
I admire the flowers then ask loudly, “Anything you need before we go?”
“No, thank you. Only you. We have reservations in a half hour.”
“Where are we going?”
“A place downtown called Nada. You know it?”
“I know of it. I’ve not been there. I don’t get out much.”
“We’ll both experience it for the first time together then. That’s nice. There is one problem, however?”
“Yes. I’ve drove my truck down here from home. Are you comfortable riding in a truck? If you’d be more comfortable driving your car, I’d understand.”
I’ve never ridden in a truck before. Why would a truck make me uncomfortable? I’m afraid to ask.
“No, a truck will be fine if you’re fine,” I tell him coming out of the kitchen.
I pick up a light wrap from the table in my foyer, put it around my shoulders and he smiles at me again.
“Shall we?” he asks.
His voice is deep and the light glimmers off his silver-haired temples. I feel small next to him and he smiles again and blinks his eyes. They blink in slow motion. I like it all and I smile a big, silly, goofy smile in answer.
The truck is big. On the passenger side there’s a chrome step that descends from the body below the door. Ben Sheppard opens the door and holds my hand as I step up and into the cab. His fingers on my hand have a light touch and they feel huge. I watch his shoulders as he walks in front of the truck and gets himself in.
“Sorry about the climb up, but more often than not I end up hauling things around for work...a man needs a truck.”
I don’t say anything and I feel silly for not saying anything. I click through my mind trying to come up with something smart or witty or just something not unintelligent sounding, but I can’t. I’m mute. I sit there saying nothing.
He seems unfazed by my silence. He puts the key in the ignition and starts it up. The thing is a beast. How did I not hear it coming up my street? There’s a low vibration that runs through the floorboard and the seats and into my bottom. I notice a piece of paper, a fragment of a drinking straw wrapper, dance across the floorboard toward my right shoe.
The truck has one of the those stick shift transmissions. It’s long and rises from the floorboard and bends toward him. He grabs the ball at the end in his palm and wraps those fingers around it. He lifts it, moves it to the right and down again. The movements seem sexy to me. How does his putting a truck in reverse seem sexy? He backs out of my driveway and moves the stick shift up, then left then up again. The noise of the truck gets louder and deeper. After a few moments, he changes gears. He stops to turn out of my subdivision. When he moves his thumb off the top of the gear shift I steal a peek. I can see the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and R. He turns right, puts the truck into first gear. I feel a slight movement as we go into second. At third, it sounds like the engine is going to explode before he quickly stops at fourth before resting in fifth.
Once in fifth, the truck seems to calm down and the noise doesn’t seem so loud.
“This looks like a nice part of town,” he says.
“Yes. We like it.”
“My son and I.”
“Nice. Yes, a nice neighborhood is good for a child to grow up and feel safe in.”
I don’t say anything in response. I usually hate silences. I hate the dead air. But not tonight. Not now. I’m starting to enjoy just riding along. If Ben Sheppard feels any discomfort with the silence, he doesn’t show it.
We simply ride along in his massive pick up truck driving west into the setting sun toward downtown.