Chapter 8




Bobbi stopped in the school office to pick up her mail, then she led Joel to her classroom. She was grateful to have his company for the day. He would keep things light and, best of all, wouldn’t give her any advice.
“It’s bare!” he said, looking around at the blank walls and empty bulletin boards.
“Now you see how much work I have ahead of me. You may regret coming with me instead of going to Aunt Rita’s today.”
“Nah, it’d just be me and her. This is better.”
Surveying the room, she muttered, “Okay, where to start … Joel, why don’t you get the desks in groups of four while I go through my mail and try to get a plan.”
Joel swept his hand up to his forehead in an exaggerated salute and started dragging desks across the floor. Fighting the impulse to chide Joel for making so much noise, Bobbi turned on the computer on her desk and shuffled through a handful of memos while she waited.
“What is it?” Joel asked.
“I was checking my class list. I have a Kelsey, with an ‘ey,’ a Kelsee, with an ‘ee,’ and a Chelsea, plus I have a Tanner and a Tannen.”
“Mr. Henneke is messing with you,” Joel smiled.
“No doubt. Hey, the desks look good. Now, I’ll put you to work on the calendar cut-outs, the weather cut-outs, and the numbers. Then we’ll laminate them and cut them all out again. You’ll love that part.”
“What’s Aunt Rita’s phone number again?” Joel teased. “Do you have any big people scissors?” Bobbi handed Joel a pair of scissors, along with a stack of construction paper and patterns, then she returned to her computer and began setting up her electronic grade book. Typing in students’ names, addresses, and phone numbers was exactly the kind of mechanical task she needed today. No thinking, no reasoning, just read the name and type it in. She flipped the sheet over to get the last child’s name and she froze.
The last student on her list was Tracy Caroline Wexler. Tracy. Every day, dozens of times a day, Tracy … It wouldn’t matter that the little girl was innocent …
“Mom, did you hear me?” Bobbi hadn’t noticed Joel at her side until he touched her arm.
“I’m sorry, Honey, what did you say?”
“I said I’m done cutting. You can laminate these now.”
“Good … great.”
“Are you okay, Mom?”
“Yes.” Bobbi patted Joel’s arm, trying to reassure herself most of all. “I’m fine.”
“Oh, I looked at your list. That’s Seth Wexler’s sister. She goes by Caroline. Tracy is her dad’s name, too, so it was too confusing.”
“Are you sure?”
“Seth has been in my class twice. I’m sure.”
“Well, thanks for catching that.” Bobbi corrected her list, and thanked God for small graces. “Now, the laminator is around in the next hallway.” Bobbi dropped her voice to a whisper. “In the teachers’ lounge.” Joel gave her a conspiratorial smile.
Bobbi and Joel spent the rest of the morning working on more cutouts and labels. His presence kept her attention on the job at hand and prevented her mind from drifting. A little after noon, Joel spoke up. “So what time is lunch around here?”
“Oh, lunchtime slipped up on me. I bet you’re starved. You want to go for a burger?”
“I thought you’d never ask!”
Settled in a booth at Wendy’s, Joel devoured his cheeseburger and fries, while Bobbi pushed her salad around on its plastic plate. Joel chattered in between bites about a sequel playing at the multiplex he wanted to see, Cardinals baseball statistics, and an Internet rumor about somebody finding a live frog in their salad. Bobbi struggled to stay engaged in the conversation. After he finished his lunch, he folded his wrapper in a tight square, then spoke without looking up. “Mom, I don’t want to upset you …”
“But what?”
“I miss Dad.” He pushed the wrapper out of the way and lifted his head, with the same tilt Chuck had. “When can he come home?”
“That’s hard to say.”
“I don’t think you could be any sadder with him there than you are without him.”
“It’s not that simple, Joel.” Bobbi boxed up her salad.
“I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
“You didn’t make me mad, but I don’t know how I can explain to you how much your dad hurt me. It’s going to be a while before seeing him or even talking about him doesn’t stir it all up again. I need you to be patient with me, because it’s going to seem like forever.” Joel nodded, but frowned.
He doesn’t understand. He thinks I’m being difficult. God, how do I …?
“Here, think of it like this. If a person breaks his leg, and it’s all gross, bones hanging out and stuff, he’s going to be in the hospital for a while, right?”
Joel sat up straight and nodded. She had his attention now.
“Then he gets a cast and has to wear it for weeks. Even after the cast comes off and everything looks like it’s back to normal, he’s going to have to go to therapy and do special exercises. It might take years for him to regain all his strength in that leg. If he’s old like me, he’ll have trouble with it the rest of his life.”
Joel nodded again and slurped the last of his Coke.
“It’s kind of that way for me, only the hurt is all on the inside. Not having your dad around is like putting a cast on and giving me time to heal. Does that make sense?”
“I guess so.” Joel slumped back in his seat and stared out the window. He looked so much like Chuck, with the same irritated squint, the same mouth downturned in a pout. She could never rationalize coping at Joel’s expense.
“You’re right to miss your dad and want to see him. It’s not fair for me to keep you apart, so what if I have Dad come for dinner tomorrow?”
“Really?” Joel leaned up to the table, his eyes wide. “That would be great! I mean, if you’re sure.”
“Not completely, but I think it’ll be okay. It’s kind of a compromise. Can we keep it quiet, though, until I get it all arranged?” Joel nodded as he crumpled the neatly folded wrapper. “I’m glad you spoke up, Honey. We all have to work through this, so we have to be able to talk to each other.” Bobbi took out her cell phone. “Now let’s see if Brad made it to Aunt Rita’s.” She punched the number in and Rita answered on the second ring. “Hey! Did the boys make it to your house?”
“Not yet. Danny called though. They went for pizza. Hey, what are you doing for dinner?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Eat with us then. That’ll save you from having to cook. I’ve got to show a house at six-thirty, so we’ll eat early, like five o’clock.”
“You’ve convinced me. We’ll finish up at school and be over.” Bobbi snapped the phone closed and thanked God for a reason not to go straight home.
The rest of the afternoon, Bobbi sorted through the books she inherited from Mrs. Atwater. She showed Joel how to set the classroom television to pick up regular cable channels. Between TV and the handheld video game he carried everywhere, he had a typical afternoon. Just after four o’clock, Bobbi spoke up. “Hey, let’s call it a day.”
“I was beginning to wonder if I should have brought a sleeping bag.”
“You’ve been hanging around your sarcastic brother too much.”
At Rita and Gavin’s house, Bobbi knocked as she pushed the front door open. “We smelled food and came to investigate.”
“Come on in,” Rita called from the kitchen. “Joel, the guys are out back.” Joel turned and went back out the front door while Bobbi made her way to the kitchen.
Rita stood at the island, slicing carrots amid devastation. Open spice bottles, very few of them still upright, littered the counter. Used bowls filled the sink and random cabinets and drawers were opened. “Everything smells great,” Bobbi said. “Spaghetti or lasagna?”
“Spaghetti. Who has time to make lasagna anymore?” Rita laid her knife down, and looked Bobbi in the eyes. “You look tired. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay. We stayed busy today. That helped.”
“You still sleeping on the sofa?”
“Rita, don’t start.” Bobbi sighed, then curiosity took over. “How was the speech last night?”
“Simple,” Rita answered, slicing a tomato. “He didn’t give any details, was very, um, what’s the word? Contrite.”
“You didn’t believe him.”
“Why would you say that?” Rita never looked up, but slid the knife through the next tomato, clicking it against the cutting board at the end of each stroke.
“I can tell from the way you cut the tomato.”
“Let me put it this way.” She laid the knife down. “I think he believed what he said. I believe he’s sorry. He may even be sorry he hurt you, but he’s not going to change, and I don’t see how he can make this up to you.”
“He agreed to do everything I asked him to when we talked Saturday afternoon.”
“And what did you ask him to do?”
“To counsel with Phil, to see a doctor, and to move out.”
“Do you think that’s wise? He can see her whenever he wants now.”
“He doesn’t want to be with her.”
“He says.”
“Living with me wasn’t stopping him.”
“Do you think Phil will be tough enough?”
“Tough? I want Biblical, wise advice. If I wanted tough, I’d call a divorce attorney.”
“You might hold on to that idea.” She dumped the sliced tomato into the salad bowl. “So is Phil smart enough for Chuck? None of the rest of us ever have been, so I wonder how Phil is suddenly qualified.”
“Just say it, Rita. You hate Chuck, and you think I made a mistake when I married him.”
“I don’t hate him.” She rinsed a bell pepper and began slicing it.
Bobbi decided there would never be a good time to tell her sister. “I’m going to ask Chuck to come for dinner tomorrow night.”
“What?” Rita dropped her knife. “Just like that?”
“Joel and I had a talk at lunch. He needs his dad around. It’s just dinner, two or three hours.”
“So how long before you take him back like nothing ever happened?” It was a rebuke, not a question.
I was the one hurt. Chuck cheated on me. Isn’t it my decision when and how to forgive?”
“Has he asked you for forgiveness?” Bobbi dropped her eyes. “He hasn’t, has he?” Rita tapped the knife on the counter. “Bobbi, you make it easy for him to come back and the next affair is guaranteed.”
“You’re wrong. I know Chuck.”
“You think you know him, but frankly, you’re a little blinded right now. You’re hurting and you’ll do whatever you need to do to ease that hurt regardless of the long-term consequences.” Before Bobbi could respond, the back door swung open.
“Who’s the old man now?” Gavin announced, his arms raised high. Danny and Brad came in behind him, shaking their heads, with Joel following, a broad grin on his face. “Ask these boys what the final score was!”
“Danny, thank you for letting your dad win,” Rita said, with a teasing glance at Gavin. “Wash up, guys.”
Gavin gave Bobbi a hug as he walked by. “It’s good to see you.”
“Thanks.” With the guys out of earshot, Bobbi turned back to Rita. “I appreciate you trying to protect me, but I have to do this my way.”
“What is your way, Bobbi? Letting Chuck take advantage of you? Make a fool out of you?”
“Rita …”
“No! He doesn’t deserve that opportunity. I won’t let you do this.”
“I don’t recall asking you for permission,” Bobbi said.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” Rita backtracked, but it was too late. Gavin and the boys returned, cutting the conversation off. Throughout the meal, Bobbi refused to make eye contact with Rita. After dinner, she kept Joel and Brad close as they gathered their things to leave, denying Rita any opportunity to apologize or explain further.
Rita was wrong. She had to be. Chuck would never cheat on her again. I never dreamed he would cheat in the first place. Now, in his apartment, it would be much easier for him to get away with it. Stop! Don’t even go there. For now, she believed Chuck, whether he deserved it or not.
Chuck stretched and flipped the sheet on his legal pad, ready for the second half of Matthew. His cell phone chirped, showing a call from his home. He dived to answer it. “Hello?”
“Are you alone?” It was Bobbi.
“Of course.” How could she think …?
“Sorry, it’s just, Rita … Never mind. Forget I said anything.” He loved her soft, gentle voice. “Listen, the reason I called … ummm … Why don’t you come for dinner tomorrow evening?”
“Are you serious?”
“Joel misses you.”
“What about you?”
“It was my idea.”
“Will Brad be there tomorrow night?”
“He will. I wouldn’t expect much more than that out of him, though.”
“There is nothing in the world I would rather do than join you for dinner tomorrow evening.”
“Say six o’clock?”
“I can’t wait.” He heard her take a deep breath. She had more to say.
“I’m sorry I walked out of church last night.”
“Don’t apologize, please. I understand.” Realizing how much he missed her, he wanted to keep her on the line. “Thank you … for dinner. I know you’re taking a risk.”
“I thought about that, but I think it’s worth it.” Chuck felt a lump in his throat. “Um, I guess that’s all I needed to talk to you about.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Goodnight,” Bobbi whispered and hung up.
What on earth had changed? Saturday,Bobbi couldn’t speak to him without clenching her jaw, and last night she couldn’t stand to be in the church service with him. Tonight, she asked him to dinner. It couldn’t be over already, could it?
Bobbi stood in her closet, pulling out blouses and holding them up against her, checking herself in the full length mirror. Ordinarily content to let her birthday pass without fanfare, she decided turning thirty-nine was a bigger reason not to draw attention to it, but Chuck wanted to take her out. After the long hours he’d been putting in, she had him all to herself. Brad and Joel were sleeping over at Rita’s house, so there wouldn’t be any excuses tonight.
She heard the front door open and she glanced at the clock. “Good grief, he’s on time.”
“Anybody home?”
She heard him coming up the stairs. “In here.”
He smiled when he saw her, then crossed the room to the walk-in closet. He kissed her and then straightened the strap on her camisole. “I love what you’re wearing.”
“Not quite appropriate.”
“Depends on what you’re talking about.” He pulled his tie loose and dropped onto the bed. “Do you care if I don’t wear a tie?”
“I’m not wearing one.” She settled on a burgundy sweater and gray slacks. It had been an unseasonably warm day for early March, but the weatherman predicted a cold front would pass through later in the evening. “We have seven o’clock reservations at Santiago’s.”
“Bobbi, you made your own birthday reservations?” he whined.
“I was just trying take one little thing off your list.”
“I think I can handle dinner reservations. I set us up at The Stockyard at seven.”
“Fine. Last I heard we were going to Santiago’s.”
“Yeah, I know, but I ate there for lunch.”
“You went out to lunch?”
“Nothing. I didn’t think you had time.” All she heard from him these days was a list of things he didn’t have time for.
“I still have to eat. We started going out on Fridays last month.” He pulled a sweater on over his dress shirt. “Do you care if we make a stop before we get to the restaurant? I’ll try to make it fast.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see.” He grinned.
She stopped him before they headed downstairs. “Hey, I want you to know …” She put a hand on his arm. “It means a lot to me that you got home on time to take me out to dinner.”
“I’m glad it made you happy.” He kissed her cheek and headed downstairs.
She glanced around the bedroom before turning out the light. She thought about suggesting that they take advantage of the empty house, but she was half dressed when Chuck got home. If he had wanted to make love, he would have started something then. No matter. They had the whole night, after all.
As they drove, Chuck tapped the steering wheel and sang to the radio, switching the station any time they played a song he didn’t know. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him in such a good mood. Then he pulled into a new car dealership, a luxury dealer who sold Jaguars, BMWs, Audis, and Acuras. He absolutely was not buying her a car for her birthday.
“I want to get your opinion on something.” He parked the car and hopped out. She had to take long strides to catch up to him. He stopped in front of a pair of convertible BMWs, a red one and a navy one. “What do you think?” He smiled and held his arms out in front of the cars.
“About what?”
“The car. Pretty sweet, isn’t it?” He peered in the window of the red one. “Just two seats.”
“Sounds a little impractical. There are four of us.”
“Well, we’re not all going to be riding in it.”
“We aren’t.”
“No, you always have the boys with you.”
“The car’s for you?”
“Yeah, what’d you think?” He turned and looked at her with patronizing amusement, the same look he got right before he patted one of the boys on the head when they were little.
“Uh … I figured it was for you … I was … I was kidding with you.”
“So, you’re okay with me getting it?”
“Now? You just traded cars.”
“Over a year ago. Besides, we don’t need that monster.”
“At least you can drive that monster in snow.”
“BMWs are known for their handling.”
“But it’s a convertible. We do not live in convertible country.”
“The days we can put the top down will make it worthwhile, though.”
She walked around and checked the sticker in the window. “Chuck! We can’t afford this.”
“We just add a year to the loan for the Lincoln. Besides, I’m expecting a very good year.”
“We can’t spend money you haven’t earned.”
“Bobbi, you don’t have any faith in me.” He stood in front of the cars again. “I think the blue one.”
“You’re not listening. We cannot buy this car.”
“I appreciate your sense of fiscal responsibility, but we can afford the car.”
Knowing she had lost already, she still had to register her protests, just for the record. “What about the insurance?”
“Reasonable, especially for somebody my age.” He waved for a salesman. “Yep, this is definitely the one. A sporty convertible.”
“Chuck, is something else going on?”
“Of course not. I just have a huge client I’m trying to land, and you even said that my car was one the best ways to make an impression.”
“I said …?” She shook her head and walked away while Chuck chattered with the salesman. She climbed back in the Navigator and watched the dashboard clock as seven o’clock came and went.



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