Sour beef day dawned clear and mild in Baltimore.
Other cities have their spaghetti dinners and potluck at the local parish, bull roasts and barbecues, bake sales and fish fries. Baltimore had all those things, too, and more. But in the waning, decadent days of autumn, there came a time when sour beef was the only thing to eat, and Locust Point was the only place to eat it.
"I'm going to ask for an extra dumpling," Tess told her boyfriend, Crow, as his Volvo edged forward through the neighborhood's narrow streets. The unseasonably warm day had sharpened her appetite, but then a cold one would have done the same thing. Just about everything goosed Tess Monaghan's appetite. Good weather, bad weather. Good news, bad news. Love affairs, breakups. Peace, war. Day and night. She had eaten when she was depressed; happy now, she ate more. Then she worked out, so she could eat again.
But the primary reason she ate was because she was hungry, a feeling she never took for granted.
"You deserve an extra dumpling," Crow said. "You deserve whatever your heart desires. What do you want for Christmas, anyway?"
"Nothing, I keep telling you, absolutely nothing. I have everything I want." She squeezed his knee. "Although if I could have anything, it would be one of those neon signs you see at beauty supply stores, the ones that say 'Human Hair.' "
Crow started to slide the car into a mirage of a space, only to realize the gap was really an alleyway. He sighed philosophically. "Locust Point feels like it's at the end of the world."
"Just the end of Baltimore."
"Isn't that the same thing?" He was teasing her, in away that only he could. There was no bitter under Crow's sweet, no meaness lurking in his narrow face. When they had first known each other, that almost-pretty face had been lost under a head full of purple dreads. Shorn now, and back to his natural black, Crow was a guileless little beacon, beaming his feelings out into the world. She liked that in a man.
Unless the man was her father, standing on the church steps, frowning at his watch. Her Uncle Spike was next to him, chewing placidly on a cigar. Uncle Spike didn't take time so seriously.
"Great, we're late, and we'll never find a parking space this close. Look, even the fire truck is illegally parked."
"Just for carry-out," said Crow, who couldn't shake his bad habit of thinking the best of everyone. "See, there the firefighters are now, with a stack of plastic containers. What does sour beef taste like, anyway?"
"Like sauerbraten, I guess. Not that I've ever had sauerbraten."
"I thought sour beef was sauerbraten."
"Yes, but-well, Baltimore, Crow." Funny how much could be explained with just those four words. Yes, but, well, Baltimore. "If we don't get in soon, there'll be a line. The dinner's late this year, because of a fire in the kitchen. Usually it's before Thanksgiving."
"Why don't I let you out here, and then come in when I find a place to park? Just save me a seatand make sure it's next to you."
Tess leaned across the gearshift for a quick kiss. Crow grabbed her and gave her the sort of deep, passionate, openmouth probe suitable to sending a loved one behind prison walls, or into the French Foreign Legion. Since they had reunited this fall, he was living in the moment with characteristic fervor. Tess found it overwhelming, exhausting, and altogether glorious.
Although the glory faded a little when she surfaced for air and found her father's blue eyes focused on them in a hard, unapproving stare. Tess disentangled herself, slipped out of the car, and crossed the street, wishing she didn't blush so easily. It was the one thing she had in common with her father, one of those red-all-over redheads.
"You went all the way to Texas to get him?" Patrick Monaghan asked, not for the first time.
"She brings 'em back alive," Uncle Spike said around the butt-end of his cigar. His bald head gleamed in the weak winter sun, and his liver spots seemed to have multiplied since Tess last saw him, making his resemblance to a springer spaniel all the more pronounced. "Her and Frank Buck. They bring 'em back alive. He's a good kid, Pat"
"Kid being the operative word," her father said.
"Just six years younger, Dad," said Tess, determined not to let anything mar this annual ritual. "If the sexes were reversed, you wouldn't think about it twice."
But the word sexes was a mistake, even in a neutral context. Her father winced at the associations it raised.
"Has he had any luck finding a job?" Uncle Spike asked.
"The state's hiring," her father put in. "'Your Uncle Donald says he could find something for him at the Department of Transportation. He's got a lot of pull now, since he was posted to the comptroller's office,"
Tess laughed. "Crow as a state employee? I can't quite picture that. Don't worry, he'll find something. He's part time at Aunt Kitty's bookstore through Christmas, playing a few gigs around town. But that's more for his own pleasure than the money."
"An out-of-work musician," her father mused. "Yeah, that's what I envisioned the day you were born, honey. It's what every father wants for his little girl, you know. Does he have a criminal record, too? That would just make my day."
Tess considered and rejected several replies. "Let's get inside, before the line gets too long."
A volunteer, resplendent in a green and red double-knit pants suit, took their money and pointed them to four places at a long cafeteria table in the farthest comer of the parish hall. Tess inhaled-deeply, happily, nostalgicially.