Jack and Tina gaped, and Marlene bit her cheek not to smile.
“If money’s tight, you could do ROTC like Bear Junior did.” Sully pronounced it rot-see.
Tina looked like she’d swallowed a lemon. “Only kids with decent grades get scholarships.”
Jack shot his wife a quelling look before calmly adding, “You can join the construction business with me and your uncle. Nothing to be ashamed of in that.”
“It’s not like I don’t want to go to college,” Craig grumbled. His eyes were flat, staring at the table. “I just want to enlist first.”
Tina sat so rigidly, she looked ready to snap in half. “I don’t want my boy to get killed.”
“He doesn’t have to see combat,” Sully said, with understanding in his voice. “There are lots of jobs where—”
“I want to see combat.” Craig glared defiantly at the table.
Tina’s face turned beet red, and Marlene knew a pang of sympathy for the woman. This was clearly a conversation that happened on a regular basis. Her daughter-in-law turned on her, speaking with raw pain in her eyes. “You raised boys. Can’t you understand what I’m going through?”
“Craig might be your son,” she said quietly, “but he’s my grandson. Don’t you think for a minute I don’t understand.” She reached across the table to take Tina’s hand. “I might seem like a dried-up old prune to you, but with age comes wisdom. I know what it is to be protective. But a mother has to let go sometime. The boy’s got to do what he needs to do to become a man. And all we can do is make certain he understands the choices he makes. I don’t know Craig’s heart. Only he does. What I do know is that replaying this same argument won’t do the boy one bit of good. And it won’t change his mind either. In fact, it could very well backfire and push him in a direction he’s not ready for.”
She squeezed her daughter-in-law’s hand, and Tina squeezed back like she was gripping a life raft. Marlene’s throat clenched, and she swallowed back the ache. Tina would discover that, too—how a mother’s job was learning to swallow back the ache.
“Why don’t you let us talk for a while?” Sully said gently. “You and Jack go grab a glass of wine.”
Marlene nodded to the bar, trying to muster some chirp in her voice. “I see Edith running around back there. You two need to ask her about those letters. You still haven’t heard the full story. It’s a juicy one. Don’t worry, you can trust Tom…Sully, I mean, to talk to the boy.”
Tina bit her lip, her chin quivering. Marlene braced for a challenge, and was surprised when the woman nodded and let Jack escort her to the bar, his arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders.
Marlene had faith in her son. There was something in Tina that spoke to him. Someday maybe the woman would let her in on it, too.
As his parents settled on stools at the bar, Craig turned a wary eye to Sully.
“You can still go to college,” the older man told him. “You enlist now, you get free schooling once you’re out. Which branch are you considering?”
Her grandson was struggling not to fiddle with his napkin. “Huh?”
Sully stayed patient. “What branch of the military are you thinking about?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I can be a Marine like BJ.”
Sully nodded slowly, and Marlene could see the cogs turning. The boy hadn’t given this enough thought. She guessed Sully’s mind and decided some humor might ease the growing tension. “Well, Tom, it seems you’ve had trouble convincing any of these boys to go Army.”
The sternness of his expression cracked a bit, and he spared her a half smile. “I suppose I have.” But then he turned back to Craig, and his intensity returned full-force. “This is a big commitment, son. You’re not enlisting just because…you don’t want to do construction, or you think big guns are cool, or it’ll be like a video game, or any nonsense like that, are you?”
“No sir.” Craig laughed. “Though I do hear they give a sweet enlistment bonus.” He’d lingered on the word suh-weet.
Sully stiffened. “That’s not what I wanted to hear.”
The boy tensed, on his guard, and his sullen expression made him seem younger than his seventeen years. “They think it’s a joke. Like I’m a joke. The whole family does. They’ll take it serious enough if I bring home a fat check.”
“The family thinks no such thing,” Marlene said automatically, then checked herself. Craig was still a boy, and boys said thoughtless things.
But Sully kept on topic, pressing him, “People take you seriously when you make decisions like an informed adult. Money doesn’t make you a man. Serving your country is not a path you choose for the paycheck.”
At words like adult and man, Craig snapped to attention, captivated. Marlene decided to listen in silence, letting Sully handle it. He had a way with the boy. Though that made sense, if it was true that he used to command them.
“You don’t join just because you think you’re some tough guy who’s good at shoot-em-up video games. Now, I don’t care if you go Army, Navy, whatever. Wherever you enlist, they’ll chew you up and spit you out. They’ll break you and build you back up again. So you best be serious, son. Now tell me. I’m listening. Why do you want to join?”
Craig paused and when he spoke again, the boy’s voice was gone, replaced by the voice of a man. Her grandson was transforming before her eyes, this child crossing the gulf into adulthood. “Because,” he said carefully, “I want to be a part of something bigger than myself. Because I believe in this country. Men before me fought and died so I could play those shoot-em-up games, and now it’s my turn to serve.”
Sully got that answer and more, and every one of them sounded more articulate than anything she’d ever heard come out of the child’s mouth. She sat and listened, imagining how Sully might have looked in a uniform. In fatigues. In his dress blues. Picturing him at West Point, in Vietnam. He’d probably walked through ranks of uniformed boys no older than Craig, shouting orders. Getting answers.
Marlene sat and watched Tom Sullivan, watched him in a new light.
“No, I said I’m cooking.” Sorrow nestled the phone at her ear as she tried to talk to Damien, chop olives, and sauté garlic all at the same time. “The freezers went down and the food spoiled, so I’m making pasta for everyone.”
“We’ve got reservations,” he said, and she strained to understand across his warbled cell phone connection. “I’m taking you to Silver City.”
“We need to cancel. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” In a way, she was relieved. Not because she was looking forward to cooking, but because she needed to have a conversation with Damien that she was dreading. A breakup conversation.
The kitchen door swung open, and it was Laura and Billy with an armful of canned olives, a big jar of capers, and a few bottles of red wine.
Sorrow whispered an enthusiastic “Thank you!” She nodded to the counter. “Put it there. Could you open the olives?”
The phone slipped, and she inched it back up, crooking her neck to hold it in place. A stitch zinged up her shoulder. “Sorry, but I really need to make this quick. I was saying, dinner and a movie isn’t going to happen with me cooking for a restaurant full of people.”
“Can’t you just get it started, and Laura can dish it out?”
“No, I can’t.” She frowned. This was the chance she’d been waiting years for, and he wanted her to let Laura take over? “It’s not that simple, Damien.” There was a lot these days that wasn’t that simple.
She worried she’d been thinking about that sheriff one too many times a day. It was just that, when she was with Billy, she felt like she could let it all hang loose. That she could be herself, and best of all, he understood.
She held her breath, making an exaggerated grimace she knew nobody could see. She should really break it off with Damien, and tonight. “Why don’t you come here instead? You can have some of my puttanesca.” Her cheek pressed redial, and there was a rapid beeping as the phone redialed Damien’s number.
“Sorry, sorry. This is driving me nuts.”
Billy came up behind her and silently showed her the olives. He was trying to help. He knew how this was her big moment. He got it. He got her.
He’d opened several cans and silently gestured, asking if she wanted him to drain them. He’d turned up the cuffs of his red flannel shirt, exposing solid forearms. His muscle flexed beneath skin as he moved. He was a man.
She had to stop thinking about him. Had to stop her mind from wondering what else about her he’d understand. How those muscles would feel beneath her hands. How he might touch her. Hold her.
She came to, and glanced up to find Billy watching her. He lifted one of the cans, repeating his silent question. She gave him a grateful nod, feeling the heat flood her cheeks. Putting a hand over the mouthpiece, she mouthed, “Save some of the juice.”
“I’m losing you, Sorrow. What was that?”
That was it. This whole situation was just too unfair to Damien. She’d break it off with him tonight. “Come over, you can try my puttanesca. It’s a tangy pasta.” She’d talk to him over dinner.
“Of course you don’t.” She couldn’t deal with this right now. She had a job to do. She began to chop in earnest—her knife slamming against the cutting board like it might save her life. “I really should go. Ow”—she’d sliced her thumb and sucked it into her mouth—“Damn.” Sloppy chopping wouldn’t do her a bit of good—she needed to calm down. She was the one who’d wanted to do this.