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How much pride did a man have to swallow to ensure his kids' well-being?
Gabriel Brant figured he was about to find out. As he drove past a sign that read, Welcome to Hennings, Best Little City in New York State, he glanced in his rearview mirror to check on the twins. Justin's eyesfar too old for a five-year-old'smet his.
"Daddy, Jared's hungry." Ever since Hurricane Katrina had destroyed their home and Gabriel's restaurant a little over two years ago, Jared hadn't spoken. With the uncanny sensitivity of a twin, Justin spoke for him.
"We're almost at your grandfather's." The thought worked Gabriel's stomach into knots. "He said he'd have lunch ready." Something out of a can, more than likely. The old man would do it deliberately. To emphasize that a talent for cooking was no big deal.
A third of the way down Main Street, Gabriel turned right onto Chestnut, where the storefronts gave way to residences. Two days before Thanksgiving and still not a snowflake in sight, yet some of the houses were already decorated for Christmas.
"Daddy, we see Santa!" Justin exclaimed, pointing to a large plastic figure next to one front door.
"Does he come to Grampa's, too?"
The twins could remember the motel, and then the cramped mobile home "city," in which they'd spent the past two Christmases. Where charities had provided a holiday chow line and a few presents for the kids.
Outsiders simply did not understand or want to understand how this particular storm had not gone away. Its devastating effects still lingered months and months and months afterward. The enormity of rebuilding and the inescapable red tape involved with the process kept countless lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Gabriel was sick and tired of waiting. Wanting a real roof over his boys' heads this holiday season was one of several compelling reasons he'd finally given in to Walter Brant's appeal to come home. Trouble was, Hennings hadn't felt like home to Gabriel for seventeen years.
"Does Santa come here, too?" Justin pressed.
"I believe he does." Gabriel would make sure he did, even though the money situation was stickier than gum on a New Orleans sidewalk.
He pulled into his father's driveway. Backed by lowering clouds, the squat brick Craftsman-style house with the broad front porch seemed to scowl at him. After the past two years, Gabriel had inured himself to feeling on the outs. Almost.
The return to Hennings galled him, sure, but his sons needed to be in a place that didn't automatically mistrust them, didn't patronize them because of their plight or refer to them as "refugees." As if their misfortune had been their fault.
Whether Gabriel liked it or not, Hennings was his hometown, and he had every right to return. Every rightno, he had an obligationto give his twins a fresh start. Compared to the protracted chaos left in the wake of Katrina, Walter would be a balmy breeze.
Right. "We're here," he said, trying to infuse the words with enthusiasm.
"You think Grampa will make po'boys for lunch?" Justin asked.
"I doubt it, kiddo. Until I can get to the store for supplies, you two will be eating the Grampa Walter special. Which definitely won't be what you're used to. But you'll be real polite, y'hear?"
"Yessir. Polite as curtsyin' crawdads."
Gabriel smiled at the silly reply the last of a string of babysitters had taught the boys. She'd been nice. But like so many others, she'd leftout of necessityfor greener pastures. In her case, a sister's in Fort Worth.
Both boys unbuckled and clambered out of their booster seats as Gabriel opened the back door. But when Walter appeared on the front porch, Justin and Jared remained in the car. Gabriel hadn't told his sons much about their grandfather, because he wasn't sure of the reception they'd receive.
"Come on, you two. Let's go meet your grampa." It was a short but frosty walk between the car and the porch, the November day only partially contributing to the chill.
"What took you so long?" Walter asked as they climbed the steps.
"Traffic," Gabriel replied.
"I mean what took you so long? Your rooms have been ready for two years now."
And so it began. "You know I needed to stay close to New Orleans. To see if I'd be allowed to rebuild the restaurant." Into which he'd sunk every last dime of his savings. Lost every last dime was more like it, if the class-action insurance suit didn't pay off. "The powers that be haven't ruled on that yet."
"If you'd stayed in New York, you wouldn't have been in the path of that hurricane."
The two men eyed each other in an antagonistic standoff.
"Well, am I gonna get a proper introduction?" Walter groused, looking down at the boys. "Five years old, and yet to meet their grampa. Kept away that long, you'd think these kids were in the witness-protection program."
Promising himself he wouldn't rise to the old man's bait, Gabriel put his hand first on one twin's head and then the other's. "This is Justin and this is Jared."
"'Bout time I met you two. Kinda small for five-year-olds, aren't they?"
"Walter " His father's name came out in a low, warning growl.
"You always were touchy." Walter turned to squat before the boys. "You know how to shake hands like men?"
"Yessir," Justin said shyly, holding out his small right hand and nudging Jared to do the same.
"Daddy taught us."
There had been precious few extras Gabriel could give his sons these past couple of years, so he'd concentrated on those small but important things he could provide. Like a firm handshake and the ability to look a person in the eye. Small fries to some folks, but if his boys were going to swim and not sink in Walter Brant's world, they'd need self-confidence.
One bushy eyebrow raised, Walter took each of the boys' hands in turn. "Well done," he said at last. Grudgingly. As if he'd expected to catch Gabriel in some parenting gaffe. "I guess you must be my grandsons, after all. But tell me, how am I gonna tell the two of you apart?" Walter squinted up at Gabriel. "You didn't tell me they were identical."
"That's because they're not, to me," Gabriel muttered between clenched teeth.
Walter ignored the admonition as he turned back to Justin and Jared. "Hungry?"
"Then quit makin' my porch sag and come on in the house. I got SpaghettiOs and fruit cocktail." Holding open the front door, Walter challenged Gabriel with his glance. "And I just got a fresh loaf of Wonder Bread."
Gabriel didn't bite.
The house hadn't changed. The living room still had the same furniture his mother had picked out long ago. Sofa, end tables, TV, Walter's La-Z-Boy, Marjorie's reading chair, her upright pianothe lid closed over the keysand a table with a huge lamp, standing in front of the picture window. The fancy lampshade was still wrapped in plastic. Walter hadn't even removed the knickknacks over the mantel. The small dining room behind the living room was as it had been when their original family of four sat around the old oak table each Sunday for Marjorie's pot roast dinner. Gabriel bet the room hadn't been used at all since his mother had died seven years ago.
Yet nothing looked neglected. Everything was in good repair, in the exact place it "should be," without a speck of dust in sight. The house at 793 Chestnut represented a solid, unchanging universe, controlled, as it always had been, by Walter.
Gabriel was having difficulty breathing. Walter had set the kitchen table for four. "You can wash up right here. I got this out of the attic for the boys."
Gabriel recognized the stool his father had made in his basement workshop. Gabriel and his older brother, Daniel, had used it to wash up at the kitchen sink for years, until Walter eventually had determined they were "man enough" to stand on their own two feet. That was the thing about Walter. He wasn't mean. He just insisted that life proceed according to his timetable. You could be a son of a bitch without being mean.
Gabriel helped his boys wash and dry their hands as Walter dished out four servings of SpaghettiOs. A small Pyrex bowl of fruit cocktail sat at each place, along with a glass tumbler, knife, spoon and paper napkin folded into a triangle. A milk carton, wrapped loaf of bread and tub of margarine were in the center of the table. Nothing more than was absolutely necessary.
"Need phone books?" Walter asked, as Justin and Jared climbed into their chairs.
"We can kneel, Grampa," Justin replied. Gabriel winced. Walter couldn't know just how much the twins had learned to make do since Katrina. With a nod from Gabriel, both boys began to eat with gusto.
"I called the school," Walter said, pouring milk into everybody's glasses. "They wouldn't let me register the boysyou have to do it. Tomorrow. They're expecting you."
"Can't it wait till after Thanksgiving?"
"These two need to be in school. The sooner, the better."
Gabriel knew that. He didn't need to be told. Didn't need to be sitting at his father's table, feeling a lot more like he was seventeen and lacking in judgment than thirty-four and a father himself. Maybe he should have taken one of those positions he'd considered in Atlanta or New York City. Problem was the only housing he would have been able to afford in either place wasn't fit for the cockroaches, let alone his sons.
"You talked to Daniel recently?" Walter asked, changing the subject, as if he'd settled the whole school issue.
"No." Gabriel replied cautiously to this loaded question. "How's he doing?"
"Coming up on his twenty years." His older brother was career army. "But I don't see him retiring. Dangerous as his job can be, he loves it. Plus, we need men like him."
Gabriel had done his own time in the service. The Coast Guard, on Lake Erie, much to Walter's dismay. An even bigger disappointment was that Gabriel had been assigned to the mess and had discovered he loved cooking, even under military circumstances. After his discharge, he'd entered culinary school. Women's work and a waste, in Walter's mind. "Daniel going to be stateside for the holidays?" Gabriel asked, as if the jab hadn't found its mark.
"The more people around, the more I like cooking."
"What makes you think you're cooking?"
"It's the least I can do, if you're putting a roof over our heads." Temporarily. Only temporarily, until the job he was set to start on Monday earned him enough for the deposit on an apartment. Temporarily, while he built up his savings again and looked around for the right town, the right city to start his own restaurant. Again. "I'll shop tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner. After I register the twins."
"It's not going to be highfalutin French stuff, is it? Or worse yet, Cajun. That spicy junk gives me heart-burn. I like my Thanksgiving dinner traditional."
"Turkey. Chestnut stuffing. Cranberry sauce. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. Green beans. Pumpkin pie. Traditional enough for you?"