One wasted minute after another passed in a frustrating test of patience as Jimmy practically crawled his way back to Allman Falls, his path impeded first by a tractor hauling hay in the hills, and then by Betty Breuer’s slow-moving Buick in the downtown square, her tightly-permed head barely rising above the top of her steering wheel as she bumped along the aging, uneven brick street. It took every bit of restraint he possessed to refrain from pushing her along faster with the brush guard mounted on the front bumper of his pickup. Still, every time she slowed to window-shop, he revved his engine and drove up close enough to kiss her back bumper, trying to scare her into driving faster, but she only tapped her brakes.
“Bitch,” he grumbled under his breath.
As though she heard him, Betty raised her right hand, arthritic middle finger extended, flipping him off through her rear view mirror.
A grunt of disbelief turned into an involuntary laugh, the surprise of it easing the tight knot of tension burning between his shoulder blades, and he backed off. He didn’t know what he was in an all-fired-up hurry for anyway. Two minutes one way or the other wouldn’t make or break his day. Not when it was already broken.
As Betty continued her sightseeing journey around the square, he relaxed back into the driver’s seat and ate one of Lois’s brownies, the sugar rush a temporary salve to his pounding head. A second brownie helped settle the acid burning his stomach. As he debated a third, Betty inched into a parking space in front of the library. He gave her a wave and rolled the final half-block to Charlene’s.
Barely one step inside the diner, Charlene pounced on him. Tall and thin, with a face as stern as death, she skipped past the pleasantries and dove straight into ripping him a new asshole over the construction trash one of his guys had thrown into her dumpster in the alley the night before. He bit back a retort about the restaurant trash her employees had been tossing into his construction dumpster all summer, apologized, and promised it would never happen again. With her eyes narrowed in distrust, she promised to forward him a bill if it did.
He turned to escape, but she grabbed his arm and pulled him bodily through the dining area, into her crammed, dated kitchen. She pointed here, there, and everywhere, dictating her demands for the next phase of the restaurant remodel in rapid-fire succession.
He struggled to keep up with the specifics of her spout, but he got the gist of her expectations. She wanted a complete overhaul, she wanted it cheap, and she wanted it right now—the same impossible thing everybody always wanted from him. He promised her nothing, except an estimate in a week or two. As soon as she released his arm, he fled the hot kitchen and ducked under the barrier tape they had installed to keep the customers out of the construction area.
“Jimmy! Where the hell you been?” Brent called down from ceiling height, his pneumatic gun continuously firing as he installed crown molding like a mad man whose ass was on fire. “I tried calling you like ten times today.”
“Out at Weise’s replacing the exhaust fan.” Jimmy checked his pocket for his cellphone, came up empty handed. Shit. It was probably still on Kylie’s bedroom floor. No wonder it had been mercifully silent all day. He could only imagine how many missed texts and voicemails he’d have waiting for him by the end of the day.
“You went to Amos’s? I was gonna do that one on my own time.”
“That’s why you put it on the board, huh? ‘Cause you were gonna do it?”
“Yeah—hey!” Brent hooked the nail gun on the ladder and started down. “Guess what?”
Jimmy ignored his brother and checked over the work that had been so far that day. He wished he could go back and re-think his decision from earlier in the morning. The cost had seemed a necessary evil at the time, but Brent’s return had put them light-years ahead of where Jimmy had anticipated they would be. Now, with Jason on payroll, they’d be lucky to break even on the day.
Frustrated with himself, Jimmy turned his hat around backwards and hollered to Dan, “You got some time this weekend to work up a quote on a deck?”
Dan marked the trim he was measuring to cut and tucked the pencil behind his ear. “How big ‘a one?”
“Big. Close to sixty-foot with a pergola and stone supports.”
“Come on! Guess!” Brent goaded Jimmy. The smile on his face was all-consuming and addictive, but Jimmy didn’t smile with him.
“Quit messing around and just tell me.”
“Yeah, I got time. Who’s it for?” Dan asked.
“What does Tom need a deck that big for? Is his house even that long?”
“Hardly. He’s not the one asking for it, though. His new wife is.”
Brent grabbed onto Jimmy’s arm. “Jimmy.”
“She’s going to put him in the poor house before their first anniversary,” Dan said.
“No shit,” Jimmy agreed.
“Aria’s pregnant!” Brent shouted out.
Jimmy whipped around to face his brother. “What?”
Brent smiled, his eyes dancing with giddy pride. “Pregnant.”
“Pregnant?” Jimmy demanded. He needed Brent to confirm what he thought he’d heard but didn’t want to believe.
“Pregnant,” Dan said, his voice even, unaffected, making it apparent he had already known.
Jimmy turned from Brent to Dan, then back to Brent. “For real?”
“I know! I can’t believe it either! We weren’t even trying! Fuck, Jim.” Brent let out a whoop of a laugh and punched Jimmy on his upper chest so hard he staggered backward, almost stepping square in the middle of a tray of Robin Egg Blue paint. “Can you believe it? Cuz I can’t believe it! I swear I gotta be dreaming! Can you believe it? A baby!”
Brent punched Jimmy again and then pulled him in for a bone-crushing hug before hopping back up the ladder, talking a mile a minute in monologue as he nailed trim into place. Dan stood back and watched with an amused smile, throwing the appropriate words in whenever Brent paused long enough for him to get one in. All Jimmy could do was stare. He didn’t know what to feel, so he felt it all at once. Surprise. Elation. Bitter, raging jealousy.
“Just think, nine months from now—or eight—shit, or is it seven? How long is it until March twenty-sixth? March, Jimmy! Oh, fuck, I gotta get busy! I gotta build a crib—”
“Language, Brent!” Charlene scolded from across the dining room.
“Sorry, Char!” Brent called out. A handful of customers laughed.
“Aw, let ‘em cuss, Charlene!” Dan hollered. “It’s not every day a man finds out he’s going to be a father.”
An immediate, powerful wave of congratulations rolled across the dining room from all directions, coming from men and women, young and old, friends and strangers alike. The members of the Women’s Auxiliary abandoned their chef salads and key lime pies en masse, and barreled through the flimsy tape barrier into the construction zone, sweeping Jimmy out of the way in their rush to rain praise upon his brother.
Overwhelmed, Jimmy’s mind reeled in a confusing mess of emotion and old memories. Brent was twenty-five, newly-married, a full-grown man living a grownup life, but to Jimmy he would always be the chubby, little pain in the ass who had kept him awake late into the night, asking an endless string of pointless questions from the bottom bunk.
“Jimmy, do dogs cry?”
“Jimmy, can the moon see me?”
“Jimmy, sing me a story…”
Brent looked exactly like their father, but his spirit was entirely their mother’s. With a head full of dreams that kept his feet off the ground and a permanent smile on his face, Brent was the biggest goof Jimmy would ever know—a perpetual kid—and now he was about to become someone’s father. Brent. A father. Incomprehensible… but he would be a damned good one.
Jimmy was happy for his brother, and for Aria. Truly happy. Ecstatic. A baby on the way was great news on a normal day, and even better after such a devastating loss in their family.
But if it was so goddamn great, why the hell did Jimmy feel as though he had just been kicked in the gut?
Dan clamped a hand onto Jimmy’s shoulder, startling him. “So… Uncle Jimmy… That’s got a nice ring to it, huh?”
Jimmy exhaled, deflated, uncertain if any words carried on the rush of air.
“In case Brent forgets to tell you, we’re all going to Gimp’s later tonight to celebrate.”
Numb, Jimmy nodded and picked up the paint roller closest to him. He dipped it into the tray, methodically coating the merino sheepskin with thick, robin’s egg blue paint and lifted it to the wall. With solid, deliberate strokes, he meticulously transformed the plain, primer-white wall into one alive with a color reminiscent of springtime renewal.
Whenever the roller ran dry, he dipped it again and continued down the wall, desperately seeking comfort and clarity in the simple repetition.
It never came.