Read the 1st Three Chapters of UNPAVED SURFACES published by Kindle Scout

unpaved-surfaces-joseph-souza

Read the 1st Three Chapters of UNPAVED SURFACES published by Kindle Scout

Chapter 1

 

Keith sprang out of bed like he did most mornings, thinking this might be the day. He placed two bare feet on the oak floor and stared at the framed picture of Auggie sitting on the dresser. Claire had placed photographs of their son in every room of the house, making it impossible to go a day without seeing him. The boy was smiling, chapped lips parted ever so slightly, a front tooth missing and another pushing halfway down his striped pink gums. His blond hair was slicked with gel and combed to the side as if he were a miniature John F. Kennedy, and the scar over his left eyebrow resembled a boomerang. The picture had been taken a year ago in an Old Port studio, a week after they’d moved into town.

His optimism this morning felt misplaced. Some days he believed he might never see Auggie again, especially after a year of searching for the boy had proved fruitless. He’d spent months walking through those woods with the police and volunteers, barely sleeping and drinking coffee by the gallon. At night, with a flashlight in hand, he’d searched alone until he couldn’t search anymore. He and his family lived by the generosity of others back then, neighbors sending over casseroles and frozen dinners. Their savings and retirement funds had dwindled to nearly nothing until they were living hand-to-mouth. The money he’d saved to start his own restaurant had disappeared as well.

Yet he never gave up hope that one day he might find him.

Claire grunted as he pushed off the bed. It was early June, and summer appeared this year with a jarring suddenness, spring being the black sheep of Maine’s seasons. He usually loved this time of year. In Maine, summer was contrasted and elevated by the brutal winters, the last of which had been long and particularly bitter.

“Maybe this will be the day,” he whispered, nuzzling his nose into her warm hair.

“Maybe,” she mumbled, tunneling under the blanket.

“I still can’t believe someone could be so evil.”

“Please, Keith, we’ve gone over this a million times. Let me sleep.”

“I love you, Claire.”

“Love you too.”

He leaned down and kissed the back of her head, the smell of jasmine shampoo emanating from her tangled black hair. His wife pressed her lips together and turned away, revealing the butterfly tattoo at the base of her spine. He often liked to stare at it when she slept, mentally tracing around the border. He remembered the day many years ago, after a full year of dating, when she’d spontaneously commissioned it after a few drinks in a seedy Pioneer Square bar. Okay, maybe she had more than a few drinks. But it still looked good, fresh, the wings seeming to grow in stature. And the colors were maturing nicely with the passage of time, as if ready to spring forth from her skin and fly off into space. He and Claire had been so carefree and in love back then, with not a worry in the world.

“Oh, all right.” She sighed.

She turned toward him and peeled off her shirt and then panties. Surprised, Keith knew not to protest, knowing full well that she was doing this for him. Or more specifically, for the sake of their marriage. But making love was the last thing he wanted to do. The few times they’d done it this last year had left him sad and guilt-ridden, especially with the tragedy still fresh in minds.

They moved gently, and he finished quickly so that she could return to sleep.

He took a shower and then made his way to the coffee pot and poured a cup. The morning sun filtered in, segregating the light into bars that stretched across the room. He sipped his coffee and stared at it, thinking it might be a sign.

He went over to the bookshelf, grabbed his tattered paperback copy of Momentary Joy and picked out a random passage. The moment in life in which you exist is the only moment to cherish. Outside of that, nothing else matters. He chewed on the words, letting them settle on the taste buds of his mind like fizzling rock candy.

After draining his cup, he headed to the kids’ rooms and said good-bye to his oldest daughter, Frenchy, kissing her lightly on the forehead. Then he kissed his son, Shippen, and youngest daughter, Beanie, before heading off to work.

Moving through the garage, he tried not to dwell on the clutter filling nearly every inch of it. He lifted the door by hand and heard the wheels squeal as they rolled up on their tracks. The garage door motor had long been broken, but they hadn’t the money to fix it, owing to a growing list of to-do priorities. He pushed his 1965 Benelli Cobra out the door and onto the driveway. Weeds sprouted from the cracks and zigzagged along the hardtop.

As the Cobra’s motor rumbled beneath his crotch, he noticed that his wife’s campaign signs were missing from their front yard. It was the second time this month that someone had stolen them, and he knew that Claire would be pissed when she found out.

He idled in front of the house. It had been a few weeks since the gears of foreclosure had begun to churn, and he found it hard to believe that they might lose it. Claire had argued against buying in this town, but he’d wanted this modest Cape as soon as he laid eyes on it. Holyhead had a great school system, many parks and beaches, and was only a few miles from Portland.

He gunned the Cobra down the tree-lined street, not bothering to look at his neighbors, many of whom were out walking their dogs or tending to their lawns, pretending not to see him. The neighbors had long stopped waving to him, but he’d grown used to it. It made life easier that way. Only when he ran into someone at the market or post office would they try to strike up a conversation with him, fearing that to say nothing would reflect poorly on their character.

Shifting the bike into low gear, he adjusted for the divots and sinkholes he usually encountered along the way. The lights of a large construction sign flashed across the street. In a few hours the road would be down to a single lane and filled with helmeted construction crews. Keith glanced up and saw the words Unpaved Surfaces flashing in orange bulbs. He accelerated onto the clay-colored road. The smell of low tide lingered in his nose as he maneuvered the bike around the rock-filled craters and past the affluent homes overlooking the ocean and surrounding isles.

The unpaved surface required that he keep his eyes out for any ruts in the road, yet he glanced up every now and then to look for any traces of his son. The first time he saw Auggie along this section of road, he thought he was hallucinating. The boy was standing near one of the birch trees, waving to him, and he had to clear his eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. The second time he saw him he knew it was no mistake and that his son was trying to tell him who committed this crime.

The oversized waterfront homes gave way to trees and a labyrinth of hiking trails that meandered through the dense expanse of woods. The trees soon gave way to blue sky, which hung like a drape until it converged on the horizontal expanse of water. The low tide had turned the irregularly shaped cove into a proscenium of glistening mud, rocks and crustaceans.

He shifted the Cobra, letting the wind rush through his hair and allowing the tires to kick up dirt and dust. Behind him the ocean quickly faded from view until only the lingering smell of low tide remained. The breeze ruffled through the canopy of trees and caused the young leaves to flutter like excited children.

He slowed down and searched the woods as he cruised along Bay View Road, careful to ride close to the shoulder. It had been over six weeks since he’d last seen his son standing along this stretch of road, the same location where the boy was last seen alive, walking with his SpongeBob backpack.

He remembered all the good times he had with Auggie, like walking hand in hand with him along the beach or taking him to the Franklin Park Zoo. Auggie would stand against the glass viewing station and stare at the gorillas, and he’d stare at them all day if he’d let him. Keith would try to take his hand and lead him to the other animals, but Auggie would throw a tantrum, determined not to budge. Keith once had to wait ninety minutes before he was able to pull his son away from the enclosure, and that was only because he promised to get him an ice-cream cone at the snack shop.

As he sped along, Keith spotted a small figure standing in the woods and gazing out at him. He parked on the dirt shoulder and shut off the engine, gazing lovingly at the sight of the little boy waving to him. A gust of wind carried up some dead leaves and caused them to spiral around the boy’s body. Keith remained perfectly still, not wanting to frighten Auggie away. His heart beat with anticipation, eager for the boy to make a gesture before approaching.

Auggie stood silently, the SpongeBob backpack still strapped to his back. Keith wanted nothing more than to embrace the boy and tell him how much he missed him. But doing so would be like wrapping his hands around a wisp of air. The movement of the sun changed the angle of light and threw down shadows across the road. Keith didn’t care now that he’d be late for work. All he cared about was this moment, convinced that Auggie was trying to tell him something important.

“Hello, Auggie,” he whispered.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Frances pretended to be asleep when her father came into her room. Although she’d just turned eighteen, she’d come to expect him each morning while she lay sprawled on her back. He’d seemed to grow older in the last year, more grays and wrinkles, lines that resembled the series of canals she used to dig on Sandy Neck Beach as a kid. Yet oddly enough she thought the combination of age and grief had made her father more handsome.

She lay at rest as his warm lips pressed on her forehead. His breath reeked of coffee grinds and onion. He left quietly afterward, tiptoeing out to the garage. The putt, putt, putt of his motorcycle accelerating down the street signaled to her that he’d finally left for work.

She made her bed, flattening the blankets and puffing up the pillows. Moving to her dresser, she stared at the Little League picture of Auggie that had been taken after one of his games. His red cap dangled over his head, and he held the baseball bat half-cocked in his hands, unsure of whether to swing it or drop the bat as if it were a venomous snake. The uniform had the words Bud’s Burgers in white lettering across the chest. Auggie’s expressionless face made him look like he wanted to be anywhere but on that field. His eyes seemed timid, fearful, gazing inward rather than at the camera lens.

She’d loved watching him play baseball and swinging the bat well before the ball arrived to the plate. And he could barely throw the ball to first base, but it made her smile when he’d look up afterward and wave to her as if nothing had happened. And because of his special needs, his teammates were overprotective of him and would pat him on the back and offer up encouraging words.

After tying her red hair into a ponytail, she grabbed her shorts and running shoes, and tiptoed down the hallway. Then she looked in on her ten-year-old sister, noticing that Beanie was sleeping with her stuffed turtle named Shelly.

Relieved at the sight of her curly-haired sister sprawled haphazardly across the bed, limbs pointed in every direction, she closed the door and checked in on her brother. Shippen’s room was a mess. Clothes lay over his video games, Lego, laptop computer, posters and stacks of comic books. Wads of paper lay crumpled along the shaggy red carpet and next to the trash basket, indicating that he’d been either drawing or scribbling his weird poetry last night. The worst thing about his room was the smell, a mix of hormones and sixteen-year-old musk that created an entirely unique odor, unrivaled in its ability to offend.

Auggie’s room was the last one she went into. It had been untouched since he’d gone missing, which was the way she liked it. She knew that being inside the room should have depressed her, but instead it had the opposite effect: it gave her hope that someday he might be found.

She sprinted out the front door and noticed that something seemed different. It took her a few seconds to realize that the two campaign signs were no longer there. The thieves who’d been stealing the signs around town had been relentless, and her mother had vowed to catch the culprits before the referendum was decided by the council. She knew her mother would be in a bad mood all morning once she noticed that her signs had been stolen yet again.

She jogged through the streets, her legs like springs, and turned left onto Bay View Road. Mindful of the early hour traffic, she kept her ears and eyes open for onrushing cars. Deep ruts awaited her like hidden traps. Orange-colored cones stood on guard every ten yards, alerting pedestrians and commuters of the work in progress. She loved running along this stretch of road, especially when it was all torn up like this, an endless maze to be traversed. The dirt was fresh and recently packed, adding an extra bounce to her step. After a rainy night, she usually returned home from her run with her slender calves covered in mud.

Next to the road sat gleaming white PCB sewer pipes, infallible and fresh, like tentacles waiting to be spread under the small town. Her pace was measured and brisk, and her legs strong. The contours of her ankles flexed to the demands of the road. Frances glanced at her watch, knowing that she needed to be back before 8:00 in order to make breakfast for Beanie, and then take her to school.

She ran past Dutch Cove, watching as the tide began to roll into the bowl and cover the muddy bottom. A lobster boat chugged across the channel, smoke billowing from its exhaust pipe. The stern man hosed the deck off as the roar of an engine echoed over the cove, making it sound nearer than it appeared. A large black SUV sped past her, kicking up dust and dirt in its wake, and far exceeding the speed limit on this cut of road. She coughed and waved her hand in front of her face. She’d seen this SUV speeding here before and feared someone might get hurt if this jerk didn’t stop driving so recklessly around town.

Upon reaching the top of the hill, she took a deep breath and charged down it. She turned into the park and ran past the gates and toward the brilliant-white lighthouse up ahead. To her left she saw the rusted red swing sets. A few cars were parked in the lot. She ran past the old military bunker built into the side of the hill. Up ahead, waves rolled in and exploded against the shale ledges.

By the time she reached the small circular driveway in front of the lighthouse, she was surprised to see the offending black SUV parked against the curb. A slender man wearing glasses got out of the vehicle and moved toward the cement wall. He stopped and gazed out at the heaving ocean. Frances pulled up to the wall, trying to work up the courage to confront him about his reckless driving. She half expected the driver to be some spoiled teenage kid. Sweat fell from her face as she jogged in place, alternating her gaze between the exploding waves and this strange-looking man staring down at the abyss.

“Hey, mister, you should really slow down when you drive around these streets.”

He turned and looked at her.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you. You almost ran me over back there on the road while I was running.”

“I often lose track of how fast I’m going in my haste to get here. Please forgive me,” he said in an unfamiliar European accent. “This town desperately needs to put sidewalks along that stretch.”

His words struck home. Her mother was chair of the Share the Road campaign, and in the last month it had capitalized almost all of her free time. Because of her mother’s recent crusade, Frances rarely saw her anymore. And this was her final year of high school, when she needed her mother the most. It was bad enough losing her brother, but to lose her mother as well made it all worse.

She continued to jog in place. The man smiled, completely altering his features and momentarily keeping her from leaving.

“Yes, I’ve seen you before,” he said, smiling.

“You have?”

“Aren’t you the girl who won the state running championship? I remember seeing you in the local newspaper, crossing the finish line a few paces ahead of the others. You had this big smile over your face.”

“Yeah, that was me. And it’s called cross country.”

The man climbed on the wall and sat down, his feet dangling over the edge. It looked to her as if he were about to jump. She estimated it to be a forty-foot drop to the rocks below.

“You really shouldn’t sit there.”

“Oh. Why not?”

“Why not?” She laughed at his carelessness. “Because you might fall and kill yourself.”

“Oh no, I’m not afraid of falling.” He looked down at the rocks getting pounded by the waves. “Sitting here reminds me that the difference between life and death is a matter of degrees.”

“That’s a pretty strange way of thinking.”

The man laughed, taking off his wire-rimmed glasses. He wiped his eyes with forefinger and thumb before replacing the frames over the bridge of his nose.

“I can tell that you have a very strong character for a girl of your age. What’s your name?”

“I’m not telling you my name. I don’t even know you.”

“My name is Finn.” He held his slender hand out to shake, but she didn’t take it. He swept his feet over the wall so that his back faced the ocean. “I come here most mornings and sit on this wall, beneath this old lighthouse, and think about all the immense beauty that I’d miss if I was no longer here.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Maybe so, but being on this wall makes me keenly aware of my existence.” He gazed out at the long rolling waves. “I’d miss terribly seeing all this and feeling so alive.”

“So thinking about jumping to your death helps keep you from killing yourself?”

He laughed. “I suppose when you put it like that it does sound rather bizarre. But now you can see why I’m in such a rush to get here each day.”

“Just do me a favor, mister, and drive a little slower so we can all stay alive.”

She studied the man’s clothes and could see that they were expensively made. He drove a Volvo SUV, the official car of most Holyhead residents. Obviously the man had money, leading her to believe that whatever issues he was dealing with were completely unrelated to any financial difficulties.

“So then why do you come here?” he asked.

“Because it’s on my running route.”

“You could jog anywhere in town. Surely that’s not the only reason you come to this spot.”

“Hate to disappoint you with such a simple answer, oh guru, but that’s all I got.”

She had no interest in opening up to this stranger and telling him the truth. Turning to leave, she now wished she’d never even spoken to him in the first place.

“Look, I apologize for being so forward with you. It’s in my nature to help people and ask questions about their lives. I suppose you can say it’s how I make my living.”

She turned to him. “What, are you like a therapist or something?”

“Something like that.” He hopped off the wall and walked toward his SUV. “It was a pleasure meeting you. Maybe we’ll meet again.”

She shrugged, wondering if this man could help her father overcome his feelings of guilt. “By the way, mister, my name is Frances.”

“Frances. That’s such a lovely name.” He climbed into his SUV and then handed her a business card. “If you ever need someone to talk to, Frances, I hope you would call me.”

She took his card, dying to unburden herself of all that was weighing on her over the last year. She’d been keeping everything bottled up and at times felt like she might explode from the growing pressure building up inside her.

“It’s my father I’m most worried about,” she blurted.

“What’s wrong with your father?”

“I’m not totally sure, but I think he might be depressed.” She suddenly felt stupid for opening up about her father’s personal problems, and she immediately wished she could take it back. “On second thought, just forget I even mentioned it.” She turned and began to jog home.

He pulled the SUV up to her as she ran.

“Why do you believe he’s depressed?”

She ignored him and kept on jogging.

“I can’t help you, Frances, if you don’t tell me what the problem is.”

She stopped and turned to face him. “He’s depressed because my brother disappeared last year and we have no clue what happened to him.”

“Are you saying that the missing boy was your brother?” He looked stricken by the news. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Look, I didn’t tell you all this to gain your sympathy. You said you could help me.” She took off running.

How she hated seeing people’s reactions to her, especially the young mothers in town with their small children in tow. Some of the women broke down upon seeing her, the thought of a missing child too great to bear. At first it touched her. But as time wore on she grew to despise their pity, seeing their response for what it really was: a selfish reaction to their own worst fears.

“I, too, have something to confess,” he said as he cruised alongside her.

“Listen, mister, just forget I ever said anything and we’ll call it good.”

“I encountered your brother that morning he disappeared.”

She stopped and stared at him, not quite believing what he just said.

“Yes, I saw him walking along the road that morning, but I never told anyone about it.”

“Are you messing with me?” She walked over to the driver’s side door, rage filling every inch of her. “Because if you’re messing with me, mister, I’m going to be super pissed!”

“I swear to you that I’m not.”

“And you never told the police?”

He shook his head. “I was driving to the airport when I saw him walking along that wooded section of road. He was carrying a yellow backpack with a cartoon figure on it, and I stopped to see if he was okay. I was afraid that he might get struck by a passing car, seeing how there are no sidewalks.”

She was stunned by this admission. Her brother always carried his SpongeBob backpack to school and would never leave home without it.

“He should have never been walking on that road by himself.”

“That’s because my father left him alone at the bus stop that morning, and Auggie bolted off for no apparent reason. It’s partly why my father has been so depressed. He blames himself for my brother’s disappearance.”

“I tried to explain to the boy how dangerous it was to be out there, but he kept on walking as if I wasn’t even there. I moved closer and touched his arm, and he started screaming—loud, terrible screams as if I was trying to hurt him. But I swear to you, Frances, I didn’t do anything to harm him.”

“So you just left him there?”

“I was worried that someone might think I was trying to abduct him. So I ran back in my car and continued on, praying that he would be safe. I had a flight out of the Portland Jetport that afternoon and didn’t hear about his disappearance until I returned later that month.”

“You need to march right down to the police station and make a statement.”

“Yes, I know.”

She started running again, hot tears pouring down her cheeks. The rumble of engine hummed next to her, yet she wanted nothing to do with this strange man. For a brief moment she even considered that he might have been the one who kidnapped her brother.

“I’ll do anything to help you find him,” he said.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell the police once you knew,” she shouted. “That’s so wrong!”

“I agree. But please allow me to further explain myself.”

“Thanks, but you’ve explained enough already!” She began to sprint as fast as she could, her thighs searing with pain.

“You need to know that I’m a good person and that I’ve dedicated my life to helping people.”

“Just stay the hell away from me.”

“I would never harm a child. Call the number on the back of my card and we can talk once you’ve calmed down. Read it and you’ll see that I’m for real.”

By the time she looked back, she was relieved to see that he’d stopped following her. But she couldn’t go home now. She was filled with rage and sadness, and needed to burn off all the excess energy that had accumulated inside her. His unlikely confession swirled in her head, and she knew that she would eventually call him. Because she needed to learn more about his brief encounter with Auggie in order to discover what happened. This strange little man she had just encountered had been one of the last people on earth to see her brother alive.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Keith sat quietly and waited. After some time had passed, Auggie raised his hand and waved him over. He dismounted from the Cobra and trudged through the dry leaves and twigs, grabbing a flaking birch tree for support. He made his way over to where Auggie stood in the marsh and sat down on the log, waiting for his son to react. The sunlight filtered in through the trees and threw shadows along the landscape. He had so many questions to ask, so many things he wanted to tell his son. The boy stared back at him, neither attentive nor bored.

It felt as if he’d just sat down when Keith heard a man’s voice calling out his name. Damn! He glanced over his shoulder to see who it was, and when he turned back, he saw that Auggie had disappeared.

“Is that you, Keith?” asked Tom Manning, the husky police chief, struggling to make his way through the thickets and dense woods. Trailing behind him was his son, Jason.

“Yeah, it’s me, Tom,” Keith said. “How’s it going, Jason?”

“Pretty good.” The boy looked over at his father. “I’m riding along with my dad today to see if I want to be a cop.”

“If you’re half the man your dad is, then you’ll make a great one.”

“Don’t say that or you’re going to give my old man a big head,” Jason said, laughing.

“How’s the school job going?” Keith asked.

“Thought I wanted to be a teacher someday, but I really don’t think it’s a good fit for me,” Jason said.

“Wants to follow in his old man’s footsteps,” Manning said.

“I’m just thinking about it, Dad, so don’t get all excited, okay?” Jason said, rolling his eyes.

“Saw your bike parked on the shoulder of the road, Keith. Not the safest place to stand it,” Manning said.

“I know, Tom. Sorry about that.”

“No big deal.” The cop rubbed his chin as if in deep thought. “You see your boy out here again?”

Keith nodded, trying to suppress his anger at being interrupted. He’d been the closest he’d ever been to speaking with Auggie before the cop and his son showed up. But he also knew full well that Manning and his officers had spent many of their free hours searching for Auggie in these woods.

The cop sighed, taking off his cap to wipe away the sweat forming on his head. He glanced around at his surroundings as if admiring the beauty.

“It’s a damn shame that we couldn’t find him, Keith, especially after all the manpower we devoted to the case. I’m so sorry we came up empty-handed.” Manning put his cap back on.

“You did all you humanly could to find him,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry about parking my bike out on the road like that. I’ll go over and move it.”

“Just wouldn’t want one of them road construction crews to hit it by accident,” he said. “How’s the family doing?”

“Surviving.”

“My daughter Lily seems to think Beanie is coming around pretty well. They’re in the same class in school, is what she tells me. And I heard that Frances made all-state in track?”

“Every time I turn around she’s getting up to run somewhere.”

“Usually see her jogging up and down this road like a jackrabbit.” The cop laughed, trying to inject some levity into the conversation.

Keith glanced at his watch. “Look at the time. I’m going to be late for work if I don’t get going.”

“Right, Keith.” The cop took off his hat again and wiped away the sweat. “I took the wife over there for brunch the other day. Didn’t see you.”

“I usually stay back in the kitchen; out of sight, out of mind, Tom. Still, you should have asked for me.”

“We were too busy eating.” He shook his head. “I’ve never had corned beef hash like that before. Waitress said you make that with duck?”

“Duck confit mixed in with diced fingerling potatoes, Vidalia onions and baby carrots.”

“Amazing hash. Hell, Keith, you’re like no other short-order cook I’ve ever met.”

“I get bored easily, so I’m always thinking up new dishes to make.” He didn’t want to tell him about his culinary past.

“Sure was tasty, though.” He laughed. “I guess those folks living on Munjoy Hill can afford those hefty prices.”

Keith smiled and headed back to his bike, knowing that the gross family income in Holyhead was probably twice that of the state of Maine. The sound of twigs and vegetation crunched underfoot as Manning tried to keep up with him. He glanced at his watch and realized to his dismay that he’d been sitting on that log for over forty-five minutes, although it seemed more like five. Traffic had begun to pass along Bay View Road as the citizens in town made their way into Portland. Keith hopped on his bike and kick-started the engine. Looking at Manning, his impression of him was a man in full control of his emotions. With two kids and a wife of many years, he was the ideal cop to keep Holyhead safe. Or as safe as humanly possible.

“You should really wear a helmet when you’re riding, Keith. Keeps the noggin safe,” Manning shouted, rapping his head with his knuckles.

“I know that, Tom, but it seems to defeat the whole purpose of riding a bike like this. Claire reads me the riot act about it every day.”

“Sure is a beauty, though. You do all the work yourself?” the cop asked, trying to engage him in banter.

“Took me three years to get the parts and fully restore it. Finished it right before we moved here.”

“I used to have a nice bike before the kids arrived. Old Harley. Once Jason was born, the wife made me sell it and buy a minivan.” He laughed.

“Don’t blame me for you being a nerd, Dad,” Jason said.

“I’m not, son. I’m blaming your mother. Just don’t tell her I said so.” He laughed. “Look, Keith, can I give you some friendly advice?”

“Sure, but you better make it quick.”

“I don’t mean to sound cold, but the more time goes by, the greater the odds are that he’s not going to be found. Now I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad. Christ, that’s the last thing I want to do, being the father of two kids myself. Because I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But it’s been a year now, Keith. Sometimes you just need to let go and get on with your life.”

“Thanks for the advice, Tom. I’ll certainly keep that in mind,” he shouted back.

“Cheese-and-crackers, Keith. We searched through these woods for months, dogs and everything, and found nothing. We did all we possibly could to find your son.”

Keith nodded. “I know and I appreciate all you’ve done.”

“And you’ve got your lovely wife and three kids to think about now.”

Keith couldn’t listen to this anymore. He waved good-bye to them and then accelerated onto the dirt road before Manning had a chance to say anything else. He couldn’t stomach lectures from people who had no idea what it felt like to experience a missing child. The lack of closure, of not knowing, was the worst part of it. If his son had indeed died, it would have been a terrible outcome, but at least he’d have the satisfaction of putting his son’s memory to rest.

The Cobra wailed through downtown Portland before it climbed Munjoy Hill. He pulled up to the front of the diner and parked along the street. Customers lined up at the counter waiting for service. The bell rang as he opened the front door, and although he’d been told repeatedly to enter through the back, he sprinted through the dining room and toward the muffled sizzle of the grill.

“Hey, asshole!” a man’s voice shouted from across the room. “You’re late. Again!”

“I’m sorry, Martin, but—”

“Get in the damn kitchen. You and me need to talk.”

Keith palmed the double doors and leaned against the small prep table, slipping on his apron while waiting to get his ass reamed. Or worse. A chef of his caliber should have been humiliated by such rude treatment. But not him. He didn’t care anymore about his career or any personal ambition he still might be holding on to. And he could only blame himself if he got fired, although he prayed that he wouldn’t now that his house was in foreclosure.

“Do you realize that I had to peel potatoes this morning in my dress shoes?” Martin said.

“I would have been here on time if it hadn’t been for—”

“What fucking good does that do me?” Martin rubbed his whiskery chin. “Don’t tell me you saw your kid again?”

“Yeah.”

He exhaled and sighed. “That’s really messed up, Keith. I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive, but have you entertained the notion that you’re losing your mind?”

“I’m not losing my mind.” Keith looked away. “You want me to turn in my apron?”

“Hell no, I don’t want you to turn in your apron!” he said, punching the stainless steel table. The contents on it rattled. “I got five other restaurants to run and don’t have time to cover your ass every time you’re late for work. Or fail to show up. I can’t afford to hire another retard cook who’s just been released from county jail. As sorry as I am about what happened to your kid, Keith, you need to do your fucking job.”

“I understand.”

“My problem is, I’ve got a soft fucking heart.” Martin sighed. “I should just can your ass.”

“You’re a lot of things, Martin, but soft-hearted is certainly not one of them.”

Martin laughed. “No, you’re right about that. I’ve been a prick most of my life and I’m not about to change now. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Keith. It’s why I’ve been so successful in this business, and I’m not about to stop what’s working.”

Keith smiled, but his heart wasn’t in this conversation. He just wanted to get to work.

“With all your baggage, I never should have hired you in the first place.”

And by baggage Keith knew that Martin wasn’t speaking about his missing son. No, Martin was speaking to the fact that he was way too overqualified to be working as a short-order cook, even though he’d increased the man’s business twofold.

“All I wanted to do was open a nice little diner on the hill. Simple place, you know. Then you start slipping in all these fancy dishes under my nose when I’m not looking: eggs and lobster Benedict; organic tater tots stuffed with farm-raised bacon, shallots and blue cheese; crepes as good as the ones you’d get in Paris. So I Google your name and find out that you won a James fucking Beard Award. Fuck me! Now I think to myself, how am I going to ever replace you, Keith? And one day you will leave this place.”

“I’m trying to pass all my knowledge on to Charlie.”

Martin laughed. “That useless brother-in-law of mine is hopeless, and we both know it. If it wasn’t for my wife, I’d have canned his ass a long time ago.”

“I’m going to make things right here, Martin.”

“I’m telling you this for your own good, Keith, because your family’s gonna end up on the street if you keep this shit up.”

“I swear I’ll be on time from now on.”

“Maybe down the road, once you get your shit together, you and I open a joint downtown, and you take over the kitchen and design the menu. You do good, Keith, maybe you’ll even get a piece of the action.”

Keith nodded, although he had no intention of ever going into business with Martin, the chef-turned-successful-restaurateur.

“Now get cracking. You got a roomful of hungry diners out there.” Martin slapped him on the shoulder and walked back into the dining room.

Keith tied on his apron and moved behind the grill, changing the radio station from country to classical. He took solace in Bach and Mozart before the inevitable switch to AC/DC and Led Zep mid-morning. Grabbing a long spatula, he looked up at the line of tickets on the board and started cracking egg after egg in rapid succession, one-handing them into a large steel bowl before tossing the shells into the trash. He performed the task with such efficiency and speed that he’d not broken one yoke in the process.

Keith recalled the vision he had this morning of his missing son. Then he began to repeat one of the phrases he’d memorized from Momentary Joy.

It is only when the moment opens up and you fully embrace it that you become aware of the inherent beauty that exists within you.

 

 

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