Seaport Suspense Series #3
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.
A man reaps what he sows.” —Galatians 6:7
Owen Jones felt a blast of humid air as he pushed open the glass door of the Spartan Hotel and staggered down the front steps, his hand clutching the shiny brass railing. How late was it? He pushed the button on his watch and the face lit up green, but he couldn’t make out the numbers.
“Do you need a cab, sir?” the doorman asked.
Owen grabbed the man’s arm, feeling as though the sidewalk were moving under his feet. “Yeah, thanks.”
The doorman motioned with his hand, and a red-and-white cab pulled up under the awning, the passenger side window down.
The cab driver peered up at him. “Oh, it’s you again. You wanna go back to the Kennett Hotel?”
Owen suddenly recalled leaving tonight’s fundraiser for Senator Poston with a blond bombshell clutching his arm.
“Buddy, you gonna get in?”
“Uh, yeah. Sorry.” Owen slid into the backseat of the cab.
“So am I takin’ you back to the Kennett?”
Owen reached into his pocket and pulled out a valet parking ticket. “Yeah, I need to get my car.” It was all coming back to him: the schmoozing, the martinis, the gorgeous blond in the slinky red dress, the cab ride to her hotel.
The driver pulled to the end of the circle drive and turned onto Honeycutt Boulevard and then right on Sixth.
Owen started to loosen his tie and realized it wasn’t there. He smiled. A nice souvenir for the lady. What was her name: Candy? Connie? Corinne. That was it: Corinne.He pushed the button on his watch again and squinted until he could read the numbers. “Is it really 2:00 AM?”
“Three minutes after,” the driver said.
Owen leaned his head against the back of the seat and let his mind replay the highlights of his one-night stand. He figured the lady had ten years on him, but what a knockout!
“I’ve got to stop doing this on weeknights,” he mumbled.
Owen looked up into the dark eyes reflected in the rearview mirror. “Oh, nothing. My appetite for good-looking blonds is competing with my work schedule. I’m going to be dragging all day. Oh, well. Gotta grab a little gusto, right?”
“Why do I need gusto?” the driver said. “I’ve got a steady job, a roof over my head, a wife who loves me— and three beautiful daughters.”
“I want to get married someday, but I want to have fun first.”
“Marriage isn’t a death sentence. There’s a lot to be said for settling down. So whaddya do?”
“I’m a CPA. I specialize in management accounting.”
The driver chuckled. “Yeah, same here. I make sure whatever I take in lines up with what the meter says. So what’s your hang up with gettin’ married?”
“I’m not hung up about it. Just not in a hurry.” Owen rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Actually, I’m seeing a gal I could get serious about if I’d let myself. Her name’s Hailey. I would’ve taken her to the fundraiser tonight, but she’s away at an HR seminar.” Why am I telling this guy all this stuff?
“Is she blond?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the only thing that attracts me to her. I like hanging out with her. She’s smart. Really sweet. When I decide to get married, it’ll be to someone like her. But I’m not ready to stop playing the field—not by a long shot.”
“So many women, so little time?”
Owen smiled. “Something like that.” He spotted the neon sign on the Kennett Hotel up ahead.
The cab driver pulled up to the front entrance and nodded toward the meter. “The fare is four seventy-five.”
Owen peeled off six dollars and reached over the driver’s shoulder and handed him the money, aware of a silver cross dangling from the rearview mirror.
“Don’t worry,” Owen said. “I’m not driving till I’ve had a few cups of strong coffee.”
“Good.” The driver turned around and looked at Owen. “You seem like a nice kid—remind me of my nephew Eduardo. Why don’t you do yourself a favor and stop tryin’ to sleep with every blond in Raleigh? Find one who’ll make you happy and marry her.”
“I am happy.” Owen slid out of the cab and leaned in the passenger window. “Every guy should sow a few wild oats before he gets tied down. I mean, it’s not like I’m hurting anyone.”
“Don’t be so sure, amigo.”
Owen snickered. “I think you’re jealous.”
The driver’s face was expressionless. “I did my share of bar hoppin’ and sleepin’ around. I didn’t realize there were consequences till I became a Christian.”
“That’s because you never had guilt till then. Guilt’s a byproduct of religion.”
“Or a byproduct of sin.”
Owen swatted the air. “Sin is nothing more than religious lingo. No one has the right to decide for me what’s right and what’s wrong, so don’t waste your time trying to convince me I need to be saved. It’s not gonna happen.”
There was a long pause.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Mine’s Juan Rodriguez. I’m going to be praying for Jesus to change your heart and bring the right woman into your life.”
Owen felt a smile stretch his cheeks. “Hey, knock yourself out.”
The guy kept staring at Owen as if he knew something he wasn’t saying. “You be careful, hear?”
“Yeah, I will.”
Owen backed away and watched the taillights of the cab until they blended into a sea of gleaming red. He put his hands deep in his pockets and shuffled toward the hotel coffee shop, feeling surprisingly sober and thinking Juan the cab driver was about as gullible as they come.
“Don’t eat the candle, son!” Owen Jones was laughing so hard he was sure he had blurred the three pictures he had just taken. “Let Mommy light it so you can blow it out. Honey, hurry! This is going downhill fast.”
Hailey Jones wiped the tears off her face and tried to look serious as she bent down and put a yellow candle in the middle of the red fire truck cake. “Remember what Mommy told you: the candle is hot. Don’t touch it.”
Hailey struck a match and lit the candle and began to sing slowly, until everyone in the room joined in:
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday, dear Daniel,
Happy birthday to you.
“Okay,” Owen said, “blow!”
Daniel’s mouth formed an O, and he produced noise and drool, but no wind.
“Let Grandma help.” Ellen Jones stood behind the boy’s highchair, then bent down and put her cheek next to his. “Ready? One…two…three…blow!” She let out a quick puff of air and the candle went out. “You did it! Good job, Daniel!”
Everyone cheered and clapped.
The birthday boy squealed with delight and grabbed a fistful of icing. He squeezed it through his fingers, then brought it to his mouth.
“Are you going to let Grandpa eat part of that fire truck?” Guy Jones said.
Daniel offered a handful of red goo to Guy, who pretended to take a bite. “Mmm…that’s good. I want more. More! Give me more!”
Daniel giggled and grabbed another handful of icing and held it up.
“Better let me cut the cake before he grosses us all out,” Hailey said.
Owen heard the phone ringing and went out to the kitchen. “Hello.”
“May I speak with Ellen Jones, please?”
“Sure. May I tell her who’s calling?”
“My name won’t mean anything to her. I’m her father’s neighbor.”
“Did something happen?”
“It isn’t an emergency, but I need to make her aware of something. If this isn’t a good time, maybe she could call me back.”
“No, it’s fine. Hold for just a minute.”
Owen went into the dining room and motioned to Ellen. “Mom, the phone’s for you. It’s Granddad’s neighbor. She says it’s not an emergency.”
“How would she know to call me here?”
Guy smiled sheepishly. “I forwarded our calls here. If the tailor calls, I thought we could pick up my suit on the way home.”
Hailey turned to Owen. “Darling, would you get the ice cream? Oh, and the plates, napkins, and forks? They’re on the countertop.”
Owen followed his mother into the kitchen and took the ice cream out of the freezer and listened to her end of the phone conversation.
“Have you ever noticed this behavior before now?” Ellen said. “I didn’t know that…Did you ask him about it afterwards…? I’m sorry. My father can be really blunt…Yes, I can see that…I guess I need to drive down there…No, not at all. I appreciate your letting me know.” Ellen hung up the phone and seemed to be staring at nothing.
“Is everything all right with Granddad?” Owen said.
“Sounds as though his mind is slipping.”
“Mom, he’s what, almost ninety?”
“Eighty-seven, actually, and this isn’t normal forgetfulness. Sybil, his neighbor across the street, found him sitting in her porch swing yesterday afternoon. She went outside and asked if there was something she could do for him. He said no, but for her to go ahead and make herself at home. She didn’t know what to say and went back inside. When she looked out again, he was standing in his own yard, watering the flower beds.”
Owen smiled. “He was probably kidding around. You know how he is.”
“Sybil’s convinced Dad didn’t have a clue he wasn’t sitting on his own porch. She asked him this morning if he liked the new cushions on her swing, and he got huffy. Asked her how he should know since she never invites him over. Apparently, he’s over there all the time. She thought he looked scared.”
“I can’t imagine Granddad being scared of anything.”
“Me either, Owen. This is disconcerting. Unless the neighbor is overreacting, it sounds as though he shouldn’t be living alone.” Ellen breathed in and exhaled. “I’ve been dreading something like this since Mother died.”
“What’re you going to do? He’ll never agree to move.”
Guy breezed through the doorway. “Hey, what’s holding up the ice cream? What did the neighbor want?”
Ellen told Guy everything Sybil Armstrong had said. “I don’t know what we should do. Dad and I wouldn’t last a week under the same roof, but he’s certainly not ready for nursing care.”
“Honey, both our fathers would be better off in Seaport where we can watch out for them. Maybe it’s time to look into assisted living.”
Ellen raised her eyebrows. “Yes, we could hog-tie my dad and haul him here kicking and screaming. I can hardly wait.”
“Too bad they couldn’t move in together,” Owen said.
There was a long moment of silence.
“Why couldn’t they?”
“Mom, I was kidding.”
“They’ve always seemed to get along. It’s certainly worth considering. Dad’s in reasonably good physical shape even if his mind’s slipping. And Roland’s mind is sharp, even if his arthritis slows him down. They might be good for each other.”
“You’re serious,” Guy said.
“It would solve our immediate problem of getting them to move out of their houses and transition from being independent. This could be a huge first step in preparing them for assisted living, don’t you think?”
“Well, I…I suppose they could move in together,” Guy said. “But would they? Better yet, should they? I mean, is it feasible to think—”
Hailey poked her head in the kitchen. “Where’s the ice cream? The birthday boy’s getting antsy.”
“Sorry, I got sidetracked.” Owen picked up the stack of plates and utensils and the ice cream and looked over at his parents. “I really was kidding. But if you decide to go through with it, you know Hailey and I will help you any way we can. It’d be great having them closer, and I’d love for Daniel to have a chance to know them.”
“Well,” Ellen said, “Daniel may be just the hook we need to get your grandfathers to consider this.”
* * *
Ellen sat on the veranda of her home, listening to the crickets and aware of her heart pounding much too fast.
Guy came outside and pulled the other wicker rocker next to hers and sat. “I hear your wheels turning all the way in the living room. You want to talk about it?”
“I don’t even want to think about it, much less say it out loud.”
“Honey, you knew your father couldn’t be independent indefinitely.”
“He’s managed this long, I actually thought he might.” She glanced up at one bright star visible between the tree branches. “I dread the thought of him living nearby, and I feel guilty for feeling that way.”
“Well, there’s a lot of bad history between you two. Maybe that’ll change now.”
“I can’t erase a lifetime of hurt just because Dad is suddenly needy.”
“No, but maybe he’s mellowed. You’ve hardly seen him in—”
“Don’t remind me how long it’s been. I feel bad enough his neighbor had to call and inform me his mind is slipping.”
Guy took her hand in his. “Well, let’s take one step at a time. At least we know my dad is open to sharing an apartment with yours. All we have to do now is convince Lawrence it’s a good idea.”
“Surely you don’t think he’s going to give up his house and move here without a fight?”
“Probably not. But he can’t stay in Ocala.”