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  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
  • Shadowgod - Almost Home
    Parker Owens
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  • 5,956 Words
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  • 31 Comments

Double Concerto - 17. Prelude and Fugue

Rita and Heinrich Senior warnings are up for the duration of this chapter.

A kind of music sounded through the Ernst and Son machine shop. Rick hummed aloud. It might or might not have been an old Tammy Wynette tune, “Stand By Your Man. His mother had liked that song, and it stuck with him. Whether he was off key mattered very little right at that moment. Cleaning the shop was a joy; his heart skipped a little as he made everything tidy for the arrival of Heinrich Senior.

Memories of the previous night replayed themselves in Rick’s head.

Gus held my hand. Yes, it was just because he’s got a thing about fireworks. He probably didn’t know he was doing it. But still… He held my hand.

He could still sense the squeeze of long, graceful fingers. And when the fireworks ended, Gus had opened his eyes, turned his head, and smiled. Even in memory, the smile seemed as bright as the dawn.

He wondered what it might have been like to end the night with a kiss, instead of waving farewell as they parted in the throng. Imagining a dawn waking up beside Gus had definitely illuminated his morning shower.

“Well, someone’s in a good mood today.” Irene Inksater’s voice carried into the machine shop where Rick was sweeping up.

Rick stopped humming. “Hiya, Irene. Have a glorious Fourth?”

“Sure did. Watched the fireworks from Jackie and Jess Paul’s porch. Better than getting packed into the park with the crowd.” The secretary and general factotum of Ernst and Son appeared in the doorway.

“Oh, I don’t know. Seemed okay to me.”

“You went to the park?”

“That I did.” Rick wore a wide smile.

“I didn’t think Rita went in for that kind of thing.”

“Couldn’t say if she does. I went with Jerry and Cheryl.”

“What? You didn’t take that woman to the fireworks?”

“Nope. Last I saw her was at the Nativity Lutheran strawberry social. She was schmoozing Dan Unser for something. Maybe he’s looking for a new house.”

“They just moved into that big, new place on the west shore. You did the heating for it, remember?”

“Yeah, I do, now that you mention it.” Rick scratched his head. “Maybe he’s figured out the place was too damn big in the first place, and he wants to sell.”

“That’s got to be it. Wouldn’t surprise me.” Irene made up her mind about the subject. She turned to something else. “Your father left me a message on the machine.”

“That’s nice. What’s he want?” Rick was unfazed. Usually, Irene could alter Rick’s outlook just by mentioning the old man.

“You are in a good mood,” Irene remarked. “He said to tell you he and Trudy are flying into Milwaukee on Friday. He wants you to meet them when they land at 1:30 in the afternoon.”

“Friday? Oh, hell. That’s tomorrow, isn’t it?”

Irene cackled. “Sure is, Rick. Why, did you have plans with what’s-her-face?”

“Very funny. No, I don’t have any kind of a date with Rita.” Rick frowned for the first time that day. “If they’re coming tomorrow, then I have a ton of work around the house to get done tonight. There’s laundry, and I have to do the bathrooms, and then there’s the upstairs… “

“Why don’t you ask Rita to help you?”

“You’ve got a case of the snarks, don’t you?” Rick returned.

Irene smirked. “Maybe a little.”

“So why is Dad coming in tomorrow? He usually flies on a Sunday. Why did he pick Friday this year?”

“Why does your father do anything? Probably he saved a couple of dollars on the airfare.”

“Jeeezus. Please tell me that there isn’t too much scheduled for tomorrow.”

“Not anymore. I’m going to move the Shaefer AC repair to this afternoon, the hot water problem at Sacred Heart Church to this evening, and a couple of easy installs to next week.”

“I’m going to have to leave town at what, 9:30? There might be time for a morning job.”

“Quit worrying. There isn’t so much.”

Rick felt the panic rising as the morning’s joy began to evaporate. “What about the end of year accounting?”

“All taken care of. You saw the figures on Tuesday. Friedhaber’s will have the final accounting and financial statements ready for Heinrich Senior first thing Monday morning.”

“So all I have to worry about is cleaning up this place and the house.”

“That’s about it, Rick. Oh, and you’d better be ready to entertain.”

“I’ll have Dad and Trudy’s room ready, don’t worry.”

“That’s not what I mean. Heinrich wants you to host a cookout tomorrow night – Trudy and him, you and Rita.”

“Are you kidding me?” Rick felt his temper rising.

Irene shrugged. “It’s what he said on the message. You’re welcome to listen to it yourself.”

He set down the broom he’d been using and stomped out of the shop and into the office. Gone was the image of a smile which brightened the semi-lit darkness of the park after the fireworks. Vanished were the good-nights and cheerful suggestions to meet again sometime.

He picked up the phone’s handset and savagely punched in the code to get voicemails. Rick didn’t have to listen very long to confirm Irene’s news.

“…and tell that boy he’s making supper on the grill for us and his new lady friend Friday night. It’s about time I met that woman.” The old man’s voice grated over the speaker.

“What do you want me to get? I can pick it up at Kristie’s for you.” Irene restrained her glee with effort.

Rick slammed down the receiver. “Damn it!”

Silence and shock followed. Most of the time, he tried very hard not to swear.

“It’s not my fault, you know.” Irene said in a quiet voice.

“You’re right,” said Rick, breathing heavily. “Sorry, Irene. I just wish -”

“That you didn’t have to sit up and beg every time the old man barks?”

Rick made a sour face. “That, and I want him to lay off the matchmaking with Rita McKee.”

“You mean you don’t want to host supper for the Miracle Maiden of Madison? Half the dumbass Chamber of Commerce thinks she’s come to lead them to the promised land.”

Rick raised his eyebrows. “So I’m not the only one who can’t stand her?”

Irene snorted. “I wondered if you’d gone off your rocker dating that woman. Spending a whole evening at a restaurant having dinner with her? I’d rather have my appendix out.”

“Whew! That’s pretty bad.”

“I don’t think that woman is all she’s advertised. Too much yammer, too much Miz high-and-mighty; a whole lot of show and nothing behind it. And she never pays her bills on time.”

“That reminds me, she did pay up on the last thing she owed us, right?”

“Nope. She’s still part of accounts receivable for last year. Just a hair over twenty-five hundred dollars.”

“Aw, hell. That much?”

“That’s the figure I got after totaling the last week of work on her rentals. It adds up fast.”

“Dad hates having that line be anything but zero.”

“Maybe he can take it up with her.”

Rick stared into space for a moment. An idea occurred to him; a wonderful, wicked idea. His buoyant mood returned, and his face broke into a small smile. “Say, Irene, what are you and Harold doing for supper tomorrow?”

 

“What I can’t believe is that they made us pay for the suitcases.” Heinrich Ernst, Senior, complained for the third time since leaving Milwaukee behind.

“If you’d read the details when you booked the tickets, you’d have known.” Trudy observed from the rear passenger seat.

“American Airlines never used to do that.”

“Well everyone does it now.”

Rick kept quiet and steered the gold Subaru station wagon northward on I-39, running up the center of the state.

“It’s criminal, that’s what it is. I’m never going to fly that airline again.”

Rick’s stepmother refused to rise to this grievance once more, instead choosing to change the subject and her target. “Why didn’t Rita McKee drive down with you?”

“She had business appointments.” Rick made up an excuse. He shuddered at the thought of having to spend almost seven hours in a car with the woman. “At least, that’s what she said.”

“So whose car is this?”

“It’s Caroline Lee’s. She was really good about letting me borrow it.” Rick said nothing about his misgivings in driving the older woman’s car. When did she last take it in for maintenance? At least it’s cleaner than my truck.

“What kind of car does Rita drive?”

“A Lincoln SUV; a Navigator. Red.”

“Well why didn’t you bring that down?” The elder Ernst sounded tetchy.

“Heinrich, didn’t you hear Rick say Rita had business appointments? She must be showing some properties. Business has to come first.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

At least he’s beginning to realize the whole damn world doesn’t revolve around him.

“So give me a full report on you and Rita.” Heinrich Senior laid aside his interest in Rita’s transportation arrangements for a moment.

Rick took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Nothing to report beyond what I’m sure you already know, Dad.”

“Heard you squired her at that fancy party she threw.”

“I was there.”

“Heard you took her home afterwards.”

“Yup. That happened.” Do I tell him Rita drank too much to drive herself home? Again?

“And?”

Rick ground his teeth and maintained a stony silence. Forest and scrubland whizzed by.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Heinrich, give the boy some privacy.” Trudy intervened. “You wouldn’t tell everyone what happened after our third dinner date.”

And I sure as hell don’t want to hear it now.

“Don’t let him weasel out of it. We ought to know where we stand.” But this time, the old man wore a grin.

“I’m sure you’ll know everything you need to know at dinner tonight.”

“I’ll just have to ask Rita herself, won’t I?”

“Fine by me, Dad. Be my guest.” Let Rita be the one to disappoint the old man this time. Then he can yell at me in private afterwards.

“What’s that?” Trudy called from the back seat.

“I said: ‘be my guest.’”

“Oh, yes. About that, Rick. You know we’re not staying with you, right?”

Rick blinked. “Where are you going to be? I’ve got your room ready and everything.”

“I meant to tell you, boy, but it must have slipped my mind,” his father said.

“We’re going to be at the Schunke’s place out on West Shore,” Trudy said. “They’re old friends, and they have a guest apartment over their garage.”

“Is there something wrong with my house?”

“No, no, of course not.” Heinrich Senior protested. “It’s all right as a bachelor pad. But let’s face it, a man needs a woman to keep a house clean.”

“Are you saying my house is –”

“And who knows? Maybe you might need more privacy to do some entertaining of your own.” His father’s eyes were almost merry.

Rick took another long breath. “Well, you should have told me.”

A mile passed by before anyone spoke again.

“Now what about tonight?” The elder Ernst changed gears again.

Nice of you to tell me about that, too, Dad. “It’s under control.”

“You know to drop us off at Werner’s Chevrolet, right?”

“No, I didn’t. I thought you were going to borrow my truck, the way you do every year. I can get along with the company van while you’re here.”

“Boy, that truck is like your house: just a little too much wear and tear on it. Now’s the time to think about upgrading.”

Rick kept his hands on the wheel and his temper under control, just. “This is news to me. For years, your advice was to get as much mileage out of that truck as I could.” And you refused to lend me a penny when I wanted to replace it three years ago.

“Rick, dear, don’t you see? A woman like Rita isn’t going to be impressed with a man who can’t improve himself.” Trudy added from the back. “And she won’t think much of us if we’re driving around your old pickup, now will she?”

“Oh, come on, I know the truck is old, but it’s clean and reliable. I could have driven it down to pick you up at the airport.”

“But you didn’t,” his stepmother said. Her tone exuded sweet reasonableness. “And why not?”

“Because it’s not really comfortable for three people on a four-hour trip back to Eagle Lake.”

“Exactly. It’s not a reflection on you, Rick, it’s just comfort and practicality. And that’s why we’re renting a car this year.”

“Then why didn’t you just rent a car at the airport?” Rick tried very hard to hide his irritation.

“Because they’re charging an arm and a leg down there.” Heinrich Senior rasped. “Werner’s charges half the weekly rate.”

“You realize it isn’t Werner’s Chevrolet anymore? It’s North Country Automotive now.”

“Yes, I knew that. Just can’t get used to the idea of the Werner boys selling out.”

“So after you get your car, then what?”

“We’ll go drop our things off at the Schunke’s place, and then come on over to you and Rita.”

Rick smiled to himself. Guess I’ll forget to mention the other party guests.

 

An hour or so later, Rick parked Caroline Lee’s car in her garage. He emerged and stretched. Time was short, and there was much to do to prepare. He knocked on Mrs. Lee’s door. No answer: not even Vincent’s deep single bark reserved for unseen visitors. This was strange. He frowned. He had better open the door and check to be sure she was all right. Rick looked at the keys in his hand. Caroline’s spare set did not have her house keys attached. He’d have to walk over to his own house and get the set he always left hanging on the pegs next to the fridge.

Crossing the quiet street, Rick let himself in through the door leading in from the garage. The kitchen was not in the same immaculate condition he’d left it. Bags of chips and nachos sat on the counter alongside a pair of bright fiestaware bowls he didn’t recognize. A stack of paper plates, still in its plastic wrapping; a rectangular sleeve of napkins and a box of plastic cutlery graced the kitchen table.

Then a flash of color outside the kitchen window caught his eye. Caroline Lee was back there, and Vincent, too.

Rick smiled. His friend and neighbor had taken her spare keys to his house and had begun getting ready. Some people might have been irritated, but Rick hardly minded. Caroline was a great neighbor.

Exiting by the door to the deck, he waved and advanced across the lawn. “Hiya, Mrs. Lee. Thanks for bringing the chips and things.”

The older woman turned and smiled. “Hello, Rick. You’re welcome. Have a good trip to Milwaukee?”

“It went all right.”

“Where are your father and stepmother?”

“They’re staying with friends of Trudy’s this year. The Schunke’s. You know them?”

Caroline Lee’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Really? Whatever for? They’ve always stayed with you.”

Rick shrugged. “I guess things change. Maybe they’re getting old for my house.”

“Oh, come on, Rick, that’s nonsense. You’re as young as you feel.”

“Well, thanks for coming, and for contributing to the party.”

“I didn’t bring anything. Irene Inksater brought everything over earlier. I just let her into the house. She certainly carried in a lot of things. Beer, potato salad, macaroni salad, and corn. Oh, and Kristie’s pre-soaked the bratwurst, onions and everything. I think your refrigerator is full to bursting.”

“Where’s Irene now?”

“She went home to pick up her husband, and I thought I might get the fire started.”

“It’s a little early, isn’t it?”

“Well, maybe so. But doesn’t charcoal need time to get ready to cook on?”

“I’ve got a gas grill now, Mrs. Lee. Just light it and let it warm up.”

“Oh, of course. I forgot. How long until Trudy and Heinrich arrive?”

“Pretty soon, I think.”

“Is Rita coming with them?”

“No, I think she’s driving herself here right from work. I think she had a late day client.”

At that moment, the door from the house opened, and Irene emerged from the kitchen, followed by her husband.

“We’re here!” Irene called out as she descended from the deck.

Rick never failed to wonder at how these two were matched. She, full figured, brunette, chatty and opinionated; he, iron-grey, slight, tight-lipped yet pliant; they made an odd pair. She loved to talk. She enjoyed her position at Ernst and Son because it gave her the chance to gossip and trade tidbits of information. Harold worked for the State Department of Revenue, Rick knew that much. The man never said more than two words about it. But Harold’s hobby was old-time railroads, and it could be a mistake to get him started talking about that. Irene and Harold had celebrated their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary not long ago. Rick was not the only person in Eagle Lake to be surprised.

“Well, now the party can start.” Rick laughed. “Hello, Harold, thanks for coming,” he added, shaking hands.

“Nice of you to ask us,” he mumbled in return. Rick wondered if Harold’s mouth ever moved.

“I guess I’d better go inside and get things ready. You need a beer?”

“Sure thing. Thanks.” Harold turned aside to greet Caroline Lee.

Rick excused himself and returned to the kitchen. He opened the fridge. Irene had outdone herself – every shelf seemed to groan with provender for the event. Of course, she’d put everything on the company account, so there hadn’t been much reason to hold back.

A tray of brats marinated in beer and onions, Kristie’s summer specialty, sat on the top shelf. The salads were below, along with a couple of dips and several ranks of beer bottles.

From under the counter, he pulled out a styrofoam cooler and started filling it with bottles from the fridge.

The kitchen door opened. “How’d I do?” Irene asked.

“Great. You got a real Eagle Lake cookout.”

“Let’s see how Miz McKee likes it.”

Rick made a wry smile. “Hope she enjoys it. Or not.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“You’ve done plenty, Irene.”

She ignored Rick, and for once, he didn’t mind. “How about I put these dips into some kind of bowl?”

“Okay. Look up there, to the left of the sink.” Rick pointed. More tall brown bottles clinked as he put them in the cooler.

“What about the chips?”

“Don’t suppose we could just eat them out of the bags, could we?”

Irene gave him a withering look.

Rick sighed. “I think they’re some mixing bowls we can use over by the stove.”

Together, they carried things out to the old picnic table on the lawn. He returned to the kitchen to fetch Caroline the tall glass of ginger ale she requested; he always kept some on hand for her. He glanced out the window. His friends were chatting amiably in the evening sunlight.

“Are we late?” Trudy’s voice sounded as the door from the garage opened.

“Nope, right on time,” Rick responded.

“Is she here?” Heinrich inquired, peering out into the back yard.

“Not yet. I’m sure she’ll be here soon. How about a beer, Dad?”

“Sure thing, boy. I’m thirsty.”

This earned the old man a glare from Trudy. “Watch yourself, Heinrich.”

“I’ll be fine. I’m just having a beer.” He looked scornful.

“His doctor wants him to cut down on alcohol,” Trudy explained. “Now what can I do?”

Rick sent her out with paper plates, napkins and other supplies; then he busied himself finding cooking tools for the grill. “Everything all right at Schunke’s, Dad?”

“Just fine.” His father took a swig from the Rhinelander bottle. “What the hell are Irene and Harold doing here?”

“I asked them to come.”

“What for?”

“Seems like I see Irene every day without saying much to her. Thought it would be a nice gesture, what with -”

“This was supposed to be a family thing, boy. You know, meet the parents?”

“You didn’t say that on the message you left in the office.” Rick’s voice was all innocence.

“Oh, for God’s sake, use your head for once. I’m asking your woman over to meet the family, and you bring in Harold and Irene?”

“So you asked Rita?”

“Of course I did! Jeezus, boy, you need supervision! You sure as hell weren’t going to do it.” Heinrich took a long pull on his beer.

“Well, sorry to spoil the party by asking old friends to join us, Dad. You want me to tell them to go home?”

“No, no, you can’t do that. The damage is done. But by God, you have a way of fouling the simplest things up. Good thing you have Rita in your pocket, she’ll straighten you out.”

Whatever Rick might have said was interrupted by the ringing of the front doorbell. Both men jolted, startled by the noise. The front door was for trick-or-treaters and missionaries.

“You’d better go get that,” Heinrich grinned. “The guest of honor is here.”

Rick tried not to roll his eyes at his father. He’d already elevated the old man’s blood pressure nicely.

When Rick opened the front the front door, he found Rita standing on the step, half turned away, with her phone at her ear. She held up a finger, signaling him to wait.

“Of course… Yes, the seller can agree to that… I’ll put it into the contract before the sale.” She was on a business call.

Rick stood in the open doorway, waiting, watching.

Rita frowned, turned, and stepped away. “No. No, absolutely not …” She shook her head decisively. “Because that’s not what we agreed …”

With her back turned, Rick watched her straighten and square her shoulders in the red linen jacket she wore.

“No, that’s it, take it or leave it. Call me back with the answer… I’ll be waiting.”

Rita cut the call and turned. An instant smile appeared on Rita’s face, as if by magic. “Ricky-ticky, it’s so nice of you to host!”

“Glad you could make it.” He tried to smile back. “Come on in.”

He led Rita back through the living room. “We’re all out back,” he explained, opening the door to the deck and holding it for her.

Rick led the way through the house listening to Rita’s heels click on the hardwood floor. “Interesting layout,” she murmured in a professional tone.

“I like it. It’s functional.” They entered the kitchen. “This way, out to the back lawn.” Rick opened the door.

“Oh, how nice.” She stepped out onto the deck, hesitating for an instant. She eyed the house and yard with an appraising glance.

“Let’s get you something to drink.” Rick walked across the deck and stepped down onto the lawn. He waited for Rita to follow.

She wobbled a bit as her heels sank into the grass. Heinrich Senior gave her almost no time to adjust to the unfamiliar terrain, approaching her with a cold bottle of Rhinelander in his left hand, his right already extended. He grabbed her hand.

“You must be Rita McKee! Glad to finally meet you!” The old man exuded welcome and geniality. “Here’s something to wet your whistle.”

Rita took the beer bottle he offered between thumb and two fingers, as if it were something exotic and possibly dangerous.

“Hi, yes. And you’re Heinrich! So sweet of you to ask me over.”

“And this here is my wife, Trudy… “

Rick left his father and stepmother to get acquainted with Rita, while he obtained a paper plate full of chips and salsa to bring back for her.

He smiled at Caroline Lee, Irene and Harold, who stood in a knot, making conversation. He made certain to make a sizeable heap of snack food on her plate, then he grabbed a beer for himself.

Rita pursed her lips when she got a look at his offering a few moments later, but she took the plate from him.

“We’ve been around plumbing and heating longer than anyone in Ojibway County,” Heinrich was boasting to her. “Nobody else like us in the Northwoods. Sent Rick away to college to study the latest methods.”

Rick watched her pick awkwardly at the party snacks on her plate as he sipped his beer. He’d heard this all before; Henrich left out how his college sojourn happened almost two decades earlier.

“And we did the high school and work at the regional hospital, too.”

“Rita doesn’t want a list of every project we’ve ever done, Heinrich.” Trudy chided in vain. Heinrich did like to talk proud about the business. “The poor woman’s here to eat.”

“What kind of ventures do you have now in Arizona?” Rita inquired. She took another experimental sip of her beer.

Rick had to crack a smile. Both he and Rita knew the truth, that Heinrich Senior hadn’t done any significant work in a long while.

Before Heinrich could launch into a reply, Caroline Lee approached the group. “Heinrich, it’s good to see you again. Welcome home.”

“Caroline.” the old man nodded at her. “How are you?”

“I’m okay, no complaints.”

She turned to Rita and extended a hand. “Hello, I’m Caroline Lee.”

Rita, caught in mid-swig, juggled her plate and bottle, trying to manage to catch her breath and offer a partial finger shake. “Hi. So nice to meet you.” It wasn’t clear she meant it.

Irene and Harold soon wandered over with full plates. Harold had a fresh beer in hand.

“Excuse me a second, I’d better get the grill going,” Rick murmured, and left the group to sort out its greetings and introductions.

The actual preparation would be preposterously easy, but Rita didn’t have to know that. Rick took his time. He opened the stainless-steel grill cover, turned the gas valve, and switched the burners on. While these warmed up, Rick pulled the top off the heavy foil aluminum pan of marinating brats. Beer, butter, onions, bratwurst. Kristie’s did it well every time.

He set the open pan over the flame to braise and closed the cover.

The corn needed to be shucked, so he got started on that. He’d gotten a couple ears done when Trudy walked over.

“Here, let me take care of that. You’ve left Rita all on her own.” His stepmother scolded him.

Rick hid a frown. He’d had his hopes of escape. He moved to hand over the task.

“You’d better get her a refill, too. Her bottle looked kind of low,” she added.

“Right.” Grabbing another bottle, Rick guessed Rita had gotten over her aversion to Rhinelander pretty fast. He walked back over to the group.

Rita had already started retailing some of her many experiences in real estate. “You think that’s bad, you should have seen this house in Door County I was buying.” She brayed. “The bathrooms hadn’t been touched since the nineteen twenties – crumbling stucco and cracked tile, and mildew everywhere.” She paused to finish her bottle. “And these people called it authentic.” She spotted the cold beer in Rick’s hand. “Oh, Ricky, thank you!” She turned back to her audience. “Anyway, I told them, ‘authentic my eye.’ I beat those people down by twenty thousand.”

“Anybody need anything?” Rick interrupted.

“I was thinkin’ about another one,” Harold Inksater muttered. “But I’ll go get it.” He withdrew.

“Heard you threw quite a party at Lorelei’s,” Heinrich Senior commented.

“Oh, yes, it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. I wish you could have been there,” Rita gushed.

“Sounded like the whole Eagle Lake business community was there. You working the crowd on this project of ours?” The old man asked in a conspiratorial manner.

“Not directly, not yet. I’m still in the making friends phase, getting people predisposed; you understand, don’t you, Heinrich?”

The elder Ernst frowned. “I guess I do. If you don’t mind my saying so, it seems like a pretty expensive way to get people interested, especially if you don’t tell them what we’re up to.”

For once, Rick enjoyed someone else being on the receiving end of the old man’s penny-pinching, even as Rita ignored the obvious attempts to claim some kind of partnership.

“All in good time, Heinrich, all in good time,” She reassured him. “As soon as the moment is right, I’ll let you and Ricky know what the plan is.” She took a long gulp from her bottle.

“Hell, I don’t see why you can’t let me know what I’m getting myself into,” the old man groused.

“Say, Dad, did you congratulate Rita on the big sale she made recently?” Rick asked.

“No, what place was that?”

“Oh, Heinrich, I brokered the sale of the Kohler estate – you know, Cedarcrest?”

“I hadn’t heard.”

Rick watched Rita take another hard pull at her bottle. She’d need another one soon.

“I found some Chicago people – high-quality art people, okay? They had it to rent with an option to buy. Well, they went for it, totally went for it, and I got the full commission!” Rita’s voice almost squeaked with enthusiasm.

Heinrich’s face worked; he never much liked the Kohler family, or Cedarcrest. Yet he had to admire someone who could sell a place he regarded as an aging white elephant.

“Sounds pretty good,” the old man conceded.

“Good? It was great! I got one-point-nine million for that house.” Rita might have exaggerated a teensy bit.

“You must have made a bundle,” Irene put in.

“Did I? You bet I did.” Rita’s tone was smug.

Just then, Rick felt a tap on his shoulder. Trudy beckoned him out of the circle. “Rick, the corn’s ready to go, and I think the bratwurst are getting ready for finishing on the grill. Why don’t you get that going. Anything else that needs bringing out?”

“Macaroni and potato salads are in the fridge, thanks.” He replied. “Bowls are on the counter.”

He moved toward the grill. The bratwurst would get browned over the fire and the corn would be cooked alongside. He got busy laying things out over the flames. Soon, delicious aromas of grilled meat and roasting ears of corn drifted across the lawn. Snatches of the general conversation reached Rick’s ears as he worked.

“And what a fabulous great room they put in,” Rita blared enthusiastically. “I mean, that room just added a quarter of a million in value to the place, easily… “

Rick listened, but made no attempt to rejoin the group on the lawn. He concentrated on turning the corn so it didn’t char. He ground pepper over it and salted it.

“Need any help?” Harold Inksater murmured at Rick’s elbow.

“Yeah, can you get another beer and take it over to Rita? Trudy said she’d need one. And get one for yourself, too.”

“No problem.”

Rick started the side burner on the big Weber grill and moved the pan of beer and onions over its flame. The liquid would quickly reduce while the onions absorbed more flavor.

“You must have waited a while to get the right buyer on that,” Irene’s voice carried over the others for a moment.

“Oh, no, it sold very quickly.” he heard Rita reply. “It pays to have a network, you know? I knew this man from Madison from years back, and he was looking for just this kind of property. Oh, my god, I can’t believe how many times I’d shown him place after place, only to have him shake his head and walk away. Now he wasn’t going to buy this place …” One thing he’d discovered about Rita: she never tired of talking.

It was time to split open the rolls and spread them out to toast on the grill. Rick moved some ears of corn over to make room. This would only take a few moments – no sense burning the bread.

“God, you must be rolling in the dough,” Irene was heard to comment.

“Well, it has been a good year.” Rita simpered.

The elder Ernst stood in open admiration of this new fire-eating champion of commerce in Eagle Lake. Caroline Lee smiled politely, but her eyes were fixed someplace to the left of Rita’s shoulder, as the guest of honor just kept chattering on and on.

“… which just goes to show you how important it is to keep up with both sides in a divorce. I mean, I got his money one way or the other, right?” Rita grinned.

“That’s real smart business,” said Irene.

“You’ve got to be smart in today’s world. Figure out all the angles and make connections everywhere.”

Irene laughed. “Wow, sounds like you’ve had a record-breaking year, what with your account being past due. We were beginning to get kinda worried.”

For a long couple of heartbeats, all conversation stopped, the sudden quiet broken only by the sizzle and hiss of the grill.

Heinrich Senior glared at Irene, then glanced at Rita with a raised eyebrow.

Put on the spot, the woman first looked pained, then forced a smile and a shaky laugh. “Account? What account do you mean?”

Irene started to say something, but the old man overrode her. “Irene must be talking through her hat. I’m sure it’s some kind of mix-up. We’ll figure it out.”

Rick turned back to the grill, and away from Irene’s astonished expression, with a tight-lipped smile. The fuse was lit; there would be an explosion Monday when Irene cornered Heinrich in the office, and another one when the accountant confirmed Rita owed Ernst and Son money. In the meantime, his father could stew over the weekend.

Not too long after, Rick began to pile up finished ears of corn and bratwurst on serving plates. Before calling his guests over to help themselves, Rick made a plate for Rita. He scooped up generous portions of macaroni and potato salads; added a perfectly turned ear of roasted corn; golden, seared, and buttered to shine in the evening light; a well-browned sausage lay in its roll, heaped with cooked onions and a side of sauerkraut. Rick snagged an extra bottle of beer and walked over to the group with his offering.

“Rita, you must be hungry.” Rick smiled and handed her the plate.

She took it, perhaps with apprehension, exchanging her now-empty snack plate and empty beer bottle for a new one.

Then he turned to his other guests. “Everything’s ready. Let’s eat.”

Fifteen minutes later, Rick couldn’t help but feel an inward satisfaction. He sat in the circle of chairs on the lawn with his visitors; Caroline Lee perched on a folding lawn chair on his left, while Rita sat wedged deep into one of the wooden Adirondack chairs on his right. Unable to rise easily, the latter was trapped in an intense, low-volume monologue about railroads with Harold Inksater.

“Now, the Green Bay and Western was formed out of the Green Bay, Winona and St. Paul…” Even Rita couldn’t dent the man’s enthusiasm.

The polite smile pasted on her face meant the woman knew she was in for a long siege, an ordeal from which Rick had no intention of setting her free. She seemed to be working her way down her current bottle of Rhinelander. Overjoyed to have found an audience, Harold leaned ever closer to where Rita had placed her plate on the chair’s arm.

“It was so nice of you to invite me over tonight,” Caroline remarked. “I hope you think your dinner party was a success.”

Rick nodded. “Oh, I think so. Definitely.”

My thanks go to @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday for their help improving this story. I'm very grateful. I welcome rants, raves, and reflections of any kind. Comments are always received with appreciation. I wish everyone a wonderful holiday!

Copyright © 2020 Parker Owens; All Rights Reserved.
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4 hours ago, Parker Owens said:

Rick got to put Rita in a bind without having to corner her himself. While it’s not a huge victory, Rick can feel satisfied in her discomfiture and in his father’s irritation. He has managed to get a small measure of revenge, perhaps. Heinrich Senior can let his stomach churn over the weekend, and Rick can feign complete innocence. My great thanks for reading, and my best wishes for a nice holiday. 

Happy Holidays to you and yours as well!

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On 12/24/2020 at 9:50 AM, 84Mags said:

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I can’t change others, I can only change myself. Seems like Rick did just that. He made the changes that he could and then at the picnic let the adults ‘do what they do’ and be themselves. I think I’m looking forward to the Monday morning check of the books as much as Rick.
Your writing is so descriptive that on this chilly Christmas Eve morning, I was transported away to a summer evening. Every time I read a chapter I seem to remind myself that you aren’t a neighbor down the road. You had me hooked at ‘supper’ and hungry by the time macaroni salad was served. But that didn’t deter me from noting a Chicago buyer bought Cedarcrest. YEA! 
Merry Christmas to you and yours! 

I wish you a wonderful Christmas too! Your comments are a lovely present to unwrap. I am glad the cookout was evocative to bring you July warmth in midwinter, and to make you hungry.  Rick  concentrated on letting Irene and Harold neutralize Rita while his father seethes with indigestion. What did the old man think, that they’d get to wedding planning or something? Thanks so much for reading!  

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On 12/24/2020 at 10:08 AM, Valkyrie said:

I really like Irene.  She's not afraid to tell it like it is, and I like how she has Rick's back.  I think Rita has met her match.  I can't wait to see how it all plays out.  And we have confirmation about who bought Cedarcrest, so hopefully this means Gus will be spending a lot more time here instead of Chicago ;) 

Irene is fun to encounter in my imagination. Perhaps she realizes that while Heinrich hired her and pays her, Rick is the real backbone of the business. Rita wasn’t prepared for her, that’s for sure. Neither was she ready to hear about the railroads in exhaustive detail from Harold. Hope your Christmas was lovely - your comments certainly brightened mine! 

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On 12/24/2020 at 10:34 AM, Tonyr said:

This was great.

Merry Xmas Parker Owens.

And Merry Christmas to you, too, Tony. Thank you! 

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On 12/24/2020 at 11:30 AM, weinerdog said:

"Account?What account do you mean?" Please somebody get me a shovel. Irene you're awesome.Merry Christmas to you and all the readers. and Happy Hanukkah  

Did you enjoy Irene skewering Rita? Perhaps we just saw her deflate a little. I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday! 

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On 12/24/2020 at 12:43 PM, pvtguy said:

Rick may have found the perfect way to get his father to see has been taken for a fool:  Rita!  Sometimes being patient and/or passive/aggressive works!

Patience and ignoring Heinrich has always worked for Rick in the past. By now, he has honed his resistance skills to a fine edge. Yet Heinrich must plan on winning this siege. Thanks so much for your thoughts. Have a wonderful holidays

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On 12/24/2020 at 12:45 PM, Headstall said:

The chapter started out so sad, and I felt great sympathy for Rick... and then... :D  :D  :D . I loved the turn of events, and Rick finally being proactive. Such a satisfying and well written chapter, Parker! Loved it! Loved Rick showing a more devious side, and loved Irene for having Rick's back. Cheers, and Merry Christmas! :hug: 

Did you enjoy Heinrich getting something completely other than what he expected? Rick played his cards perfectly, and escaped the event with the pleasure of watching Rita get skewered and Heinrich seethe, all while having completely plausible deniability. Hope you have a lovely Christmas! 

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On 24 de dezembro de 2020 at 3:45 PM, Headstall said:

The chapter started out so sad, and I felt great sympathy for Rick... and then... :D  :D  :D . I loved the turn of events, and Rick finally being proactive. Such a satisfying and well written chapter, Parker! Loved it! Loved Rick showing a more devious side, and loved Irene for having Rick's back. Cheers, and Merry Christmas! :hug: 

Happy holidays Headstall.

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Yes - Rick played it perfectly and Rita fell into the trap!!  Great chapter Parker!  Thank you!   NOW - Let's see Heinrich's reaction to the large debt on their books!!!

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