Week 1: Steelers vs. Tennessee Titans (W 34-7)
Jen wasn’t upset that she was twenty-one, unmarried, and unexpectedly pregnant. She wasn’t upset that it was September 11 or that her brother Bobby was in Iraq. She was upset because all of it—the broken condom, her brother’s departure, and the positive pregnancy test—had happened so suddenly this summer, threatening to ruin her favorite day of the year—the Steelers home opener.
All season long, the Steelers tickets were exchanged amongst her dad’s family, but thanks to a poker game about three years after she was born, her dad Larry always had dibs on opening day tickets and extended the favor by hosting one hell of a tailgate for the entire brood.
This morning, they arrived early to set up long folding tables, a network of grills, and a stereo and TV system where guests without tickets could watch the game. Before most people were out of bed, Jen and her mom were securing tablecloths, mixing drinks, and arranging trays of pierogies, hot sausage, and stuffed pepper soup.
With the game only about an hour from its one o’clock kick-off, Jen watched as her dad and his friend Glenn grilled burgers and her mom stood in a circle talking and laughing with a handful of aunts and cousins, each of them holding red plastic cups and dressed in black and gold from their earrings to their socks. Beyond them, a handful of male relatives crowded around the keg, talking about their hopes for this year’s team. On the other side of that, Audrey and Shannon, the bartenders from her dad’s favorite watering hole, Morgan’s, played a friendly game of cornhole with two older gentlemen from a neighboring tailgate. Against this backdrop of festivities, Jen stood beside her boyfriend Dave, holding a cup of orange juice.
“I can’t believe I’m drinking plain orange juice at a tailgate.”
Dave raised an eyebrow. “I thought that you weren’t going to call attention to it.”
“Yeah? And I thought you would have the decency not to knock me up before football season the year I turned twenty-one. But I guess we thought wrong.”
Dave’s brown eyes flashed as bright as the diamond stud in his right ear. He wore a black Polamalu jersey, baggy jeans, and a backwards baseball cap. At twenty-two, he didn’t look a day over seventeen. After the pregnancy test, they’d made a deal not to tell her parents until after this day. Or until he gave her an engagement ring.
Jen poked him in the ribs. “I’m not calling attention to it in front of them, but to you I can do it all I want. And how about that ring, hon? Maybe you can get that ring so we can finally tell them?”
“Finally? We’ve only known for a couple of weeks.” Dave rolled his eyes. “The ring is coming. Don’t worry.” Jen smiled, pretending she was having fun. Across the way, her mom finished her drink and started pouring another. She looked glassy-eyed and nervous. Something about the way her lips curled together made Jen think of Bobby just like she had earlier that morning when she saw his favorite BBQ chips, and then when Dave tapped the kegs, and then again when a cousin set up the stereo system. Bobby was always in charge of sound.
Thinking about Bobby and that missing engagement ring were all she did lately, and she had promised herself that today would be different. She wasn’t going to spend it worrying. Over at the cornhole game, Jen noticed Shannon leaning over to pick up a sack with long, slender fingers and then flick it effortlessly into the hole. Her family had taken in Shannon as their unofficial fifth member for family picnics, dinners, and the occasional wedding. Shannon was nice, pretty, could talk sports better than any man, and had a perfect hourglass figure, to boot. Jen sneaked a peek at Dave to see if he, too, had noticed Shannon’s skills, but he looked more interested in the grill.
Just then, Jen’s mom grabbed her waist and shook her back and forth.
“C’mon Jen, let’s get you a drink!”
Jen shook her head. “No.”
“You’re twenty-one now, kiddo. You can drink legal.”
“I know. I just don’t feel like it. I’m full.”
“Don’t be silly. Whaddya want? Rum slushie? Whiskey and coke? Beer?”
Jen winced. Of course she wanted beer. But drinking in the first trimester could affect the baby’s brain. That was nothing to mess with.
“Nah, I think I’ll pass.”
Raising an eyebrow, her mom slapped her on the butt, then turned toward Dave with a delirious grin. “What can I do you for, David?”
He tilted his head, shrugging his narrow shoulders. “If you’re askin’, then I guess I’ll take another beer.” Jen’s mom smiled, walking over to the keg.
Jen looked at him, wrinkling her nose.
“Ya know, you could at least, like, not drink with me so I don’t feel like such an outcast.”
“But wouldn’t that make it obvious? I don’t know what the big deal is, anyways. My cousin Theresa drank and smoked the whole way through her pregnancy, and her kid turned out just fine.”
Jen narrowed her eyes. “There’s a whole lot of stuff your cousin Theresa does that I wouldn’t do.”
“Like be twenty-four years old with three kids to two different guys and be shacked up with a third in an Armstrong County trailer park.”
Dave looked away from her. They’d been dating for nearly four years now, and she’d never felt weird about his family until she found out she was pregnant. Dave was fine, but her baby would be getting DNA from the whole damn family, not just him. She’d grown up in a split entry house in Shaler Township, and Dave had grown up in ramshackle apartments in Millvale with his single mom. Like most Pittsburgh families, they had bonded over their shared love of the Steelers, Pens, Pirates, and even the occasional NASCAR race. But there was something unmistakable about Dave’s family that just screamed Wal-Mart. Her family shopped there, too, but at least they didn’t look the part.
Not that her mom was too far off at this particular moment, nearly spilling Dave’s drink all over him as she passed it over. Ever since Bobby left, nothing surprised her when it came to her parents. They were stressed and acting out in ways she’d never seen. Her mom drank more and her dad shopped more—for big toys like riding lawnmowers and a hot tub. She couldn’t imagine how they’d react to her news about the baby. There’d probably be a brand new Ford F-150 in the driveway and three pitchers of margarita in the fridge in three hours flat.
Her mom looked at her with eyes as gray and pointed as a cat’s. “You’re acting strange, Jen.”
“You look like you have a secret.”
Jen laughed, nervous. “No secret here. Just excited for the game.”
A few spaces away, another group of tailgaters turned on the “Steelers Polka,” a fight song to the tune of the “Pennsylvania Polka.”
Jen’s mom bobbed up and down, swaying with the music. Watching her move, Jen couldn’t help but imagine what she must have looked like twenty-some years ago, a young mother herself, smiling and carefree, without the weight of a son on duty halfway across the world. As her mom sang along to the song, Jen grabbed her hand, pulling her into a clumsy polka. Immediately, her mom responded, almost like she’d been waiting for her to ask. Around the parking lot they danced, laughing loud and wild. Jen knew people were watching, that nearby tailgaters had stopped to stare, but something about the way her mom’s face flushed pink and her long hair danced in loops made Jen feel okay. Almost proud. She knew it was something that Bobby would do.
Coming back from the bathroom at halftime, riding on the wave of a strong Steelers lead and several Yuenglings, Desiree was irritated to find that a young mother holding a little boy had invaded her seat. In straight-leg jeans tucked into black stiletto boots and a v-neck Steelers shirt, she waited on the concrete step, perplexed. Making eye contact with her husband Tom, she raised an eyebrow. Can you even believe this? Tom shook his head, shrugging as the young mother leaned forward, talking to an older couple in the next row.
“Do something,” mouthed Desiree, pointing at her heels. Her feet were killing her.
“She’ll just be another minute,” he said. Another minute? Desiree didn’t wait another minute for anybody, and she did not like the idea that this woman, whoever she was, probably thought she had the right to take somebody’s seat just because she was holding a little kid. People with little kids were so self-centered—completely insufferable people whose life’s work was to make everybody else miserable by talking about their child’s every bowel movements.
She leaned into the row, pushing past Tom to tap the mother’s shoulder. Tom’s brown eyes widened, turning into that What the hell are you doing? expression he usually reserved for condemning her erratic driving or extravagant purchases.
“Excuse me,” Desiree said. “That’s my seat.”
The young mother looked up. Something about her face looked squished, as if she’d been squeezed through a vice. Pity the poor man who had impregnated this ugly chick.
“Yes, I know, we’ll just be another minute.” With a smug expression on her tight little mouth, the mom turned back to her conversation. “Yes, well, he’s two now and we are working on potty-training, but there have definitely been some accidents.” Both women laughed. Oblivious, the blond-haired boy reached a tiny hand into his mother’s hair and tugged. Desiree smirked. Even the kid’s smart enough not to like her.
Desiree leaned in again. “No really, that’s my seat. And I want it back.” She crossed her arms over her chest, ready to slug it out like she was in the parking lot of Shaler High School about twenty years ago. “Now.”
The woman looked to Tom, huffy, like she expected an apology. He offered none. She grabbed her son and pushed past Desiree, clicking her tongue and shaking her head.
Desiree rolled her eyes, pushing into her seat and pulling out her Coach hobo handbag. Time for lipstick and powder.
“I wish my face wasn’t so oily, I mean I know it keeps me from getting all wrinkly but—”
Tom cut her off. “Desiree, do you know how much you just embarrassed me? How could you treat that lady like that? She had a child.”
“A child? Please. First of all, who the hell brings a baby to a Steelers game? And second, just because somebody has a kid, are we just automatically supposed to make exceptions for them? It’s not my fault they didn’t use birth control.”
Tom shook his head, his teeth clenched. “I’m a father. So what are you trying to say about me?”
Desiree waved him off. “Parents of teenagers, I’ll excuse. Now those are people who need exceptions. I’ve seen how dramatic Kristen and Robbie are, and I’ll give you that one. But little kids are just about showing off.” She put on a falsetto voice, “Oh look at me, I had a baby, aren’t I sooooo special?”
Tom shook his head, but she could see behind his sunglasses that he was trying hard not to laugh. “You’re unbelievable, Des.”
Desiree shrugged, going back to her mirror and powdering her nose. Tom leaned into her ear and whispered, “Can you honestly tell me you don’t want one?”
She bit her lip. “Yes. Do you know how hard I work to stay in shape?” She slapped her solid abs and laughed. Just then, she noticed the young mother and little boy standing at the bottom of their section. As the quarter started, they headed back up the steps to their seats. From behind her sunglasses, Desiree watched as the little boy struggled to climb the steep concrete steps. As they slowly passed, he locked eyes with her. His eyes were a light shade of blue, watery in the midday sun. His chubby cheeks were streaked with a stripe of sunburn. Desiree shifted, uncomfortable. His gaze felt accusatory. As he walked past her row, she stuck out her tongue, real fast so Tom wouldn’t see. The little boy smiled, looking away and laughing merrily into the distance.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, the Steelers led 34 to 7. The outcome was clear. And in a corner table at Lot 17, it was also clear that Megan’s roommate Emily had drank way too much and was becoming overly friendly with Mike, a clean-cut kid with dark hair, blue eyes, and a cleft chin who was just some rando about three quarters ago, when Emily had first pointed toward the group under a flat-screen television.
“Mm, those ones are cute,” she had said. Megan leaned past her, trying to get a look. There were four boys, but she could only see the faces of two. They were okay, but their short, styled hair and freshly shaved faces were pretty mundane. Some days it felt like every guy in this town looked exactly the same—especially on game days, when they were all wearing black and gold.
Megan shrugged. “You can have’em. They look kinda lame.”
Emily laughed. “You’re so hard on everybody. What’s boring about them?”
“For starters, one of them is wearing a Steelers polo shirt. Unless he’s over the age of forty-five, that is completely unacceptable. This isn’t corporate black-and-gold day at the office.”
Emily flashed a quick smile in the directions of the randos, her bright white teeth as blinding as the midday sun on the PPG building, those green eyes of hers as cool as mint and condescending as a Philosophy major. At twenty-five, Emily was only three years younger than her, but sometimes she acted super boring, like a totally old lady. They met about two years ago when Megan answered Emily’s ad for a two-bedroom house in Friendship. Their place was great and, so far, cohabitation had been good. But Emily was pretty uptight, not even down for a casual hook-up.
Megan cleared her throat. “So I suppose you want me to go over there and talk to him?”
Emily blushed, shaking her head. “You don’t have to. I’m fine without looking for boys. But they are cute.”
Emily was always fine without boys. But what she really needed was a good lay. One good lay might be the final step to dislodging that stick from her ass.
But this doofus Mike attempting to explain the finer points of football? He did not seem like a candidate for a good lay, no matter how dreamy Emily looked. But at least Emily was distracted, making it a lot easier for her to find her own rando for the afternoon. None of these boys made the cut and one of them, a Kevin, who it turned out recognized her from the restaurant, kept trying to talk to her, even when the ball was in play. She was so glad her dad had taught her the right way to watch football. Not like this Kevin asshole. Of course his name was Kevin. He couldn’t be more boring if he tried. She noticed him eyeing up Emily and Mike and tried to look away before he could make another attempt at conversation.
“Looks like they’re hitting it off,” he said.
Megan bit into an ice cube, not taking her eyes off the TV. Too late. This dude didn’t quit. “Yep,” she mumbled, wondering if it was possible to be any more disinterested.
“So, you’re a waitress, huh?”
“Yep.” She spit the ice back into her glass.
“So, where do you go to school?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Kevin smiled, his hazel eyes lighting up. Megan zeroed in on his dimples, immediately reminded of a little boy she used to babysit in high school, a little shit who used to take a dump in the bathtub and then laugh the whole time she cleaned it up. Dimples couldn’t be trusted for a minute. Still, in spite of his standard-issue dude haircut, there was something strikingly handsome about him. Had all the whiskey gone to her head or were his eyelashes quite possibly the nicest ones she’d ever seen?
“It wasn’t supposed to mean anything. You look young. I thought maybe you were in school.”
Megan had a feeling she was older than him. She didn’t like to tell people her age, and, besides, she knew if she told him, she’d get that same blank stare her mother gave her when they talked about her job.
She lifted up her glass, biting another ice cube with her front teeth. This was exactly the kind of thing she’d feared in coming over to this table—an in-depth discussion on something boring like the state of her career, or lack thereof. Kevin here might be cute, but she had more important fish to fry than explaining to him why she was perfectly content being a waitress. She stood up, nodding toward the table. “Anybody need anything?”
They shook their heads. She walked to the bar with perfect posture, pushing out her chest, which was already popping out of her faded shirt. She liked to go to thrift stores and find old Steelers gear and create her own masterpieces. This particular one advertised the ill-fated 1996 Super Bowl when the Steelers lost against the Dallas Cowboys. She had sliced it along the sides and sewn it together with gold shoelaces, then cut it off just above her navel. At the bar, she slid her glass toward the bartender, Todd. He was new at Lot 17 and had been flirting with her for weeks.
He winked. “What can I do ya for?”
She leaned toward him. “First, you can get me another whiskey. And second—” She lowered her voice, looking at the length of the bar. “You can have sex with me tonight.”
Todd’s brown eyes widened. He wore a starched white button-down shirt stretched tight over his muscular torso. Orange and black tattoos peeked over his collar: the tips of flames, like a fire raging on his back.
“Maybe,” he said. He held his hand to his neck, swallowing. And that’s when Megan noticed it, the gold ring on his left hand. She blinked. She wasn’t drunk, but she definitely felt tipsy. She hadn’t noticed the ring before. She really hadn’t. And he was the one throwing her free drinks and winks. He had given her that sign, that devious sparkle in his eyes indicating interest. And she wasn’t one to let an opportunity pass her by, no matter how ill-conceived it might be.
“I don’t believe in maybe,” she said. She wrote her phone number down on a napkin and slipped it across the bar with a quick kiss in the air.
Monday morning, Angela swung her red Chevy Cavalier into her best friend Robbie’s driveway and honked the horn. It was seven and already shaping up to be a beautiful day. Robbie lived in a cul-de-sac in Whitehall, a small suburban street filled with brown and red brick houses with small, tree-lined yards. On a crisp morning like this, with barely a cloud in the sky, the whole scene looked picturesque, like something straight out of a movie except with way smaller houses. While everybody else she knew liked, hell, loved these kind of days, Angela was already looking forward to three months from now—the whole city barren and snow-covered, potholes marring the roads and thick gray clouds blocking out the sun. She liked gray days, the rainier the better. The sunshine made her feel like she needed to be accomplishing something. Gray days lent themselves to long afternoons spent by the record player, surfing the internet, drinking coffee, and drawing with charcoal. There were a lot of those days in Pittsburgh, but it still wasn’t enough. For college, she had decided to start looking at schools in Seattle. From what she could gather from the internet, movies and music, Seattle epitomized everything good in the world—coffee, music, and rain. It didn’t hurt that it was on the opposite side of the country. This time of the year especially, she could use some distance between her and the proverbial state of Steelers Nation that this town entered at the end of July and didn’t leave until some time in January. Football. The only good thing about football season was that the roads, malls, and movie theaters were mostly empty during game time.
When Robbie & Kristen still hadn’t come out, she lay on the horn again. Just then, the front door opened. Kristen loped down the sidewalk, her dishwater blonde hair just grazing her shoulder. Her round moon face and permanent grin wasn’t so much happy as it was oblivious, like a puppy dog wagging its tail as its owner berates it in a very soothing tone of voice. Angela didn’t care for Kristen, but Robbie’s mom Patty was a stickler for fairness: “If Robbie gets a ride, so does Kristen.” Approaching the car, Kristen scrunched her face, and Angela felt pleased, thinking that Kristen was most likely reacting to the chop job she’d done on her hair over the weekend—a fake black bob longer on the left side than the right. Angela liked making people feel uncomfortable, especially generic people like Kristen. Just like every other girl at Baldwin High School, she wore a cut-off denim miniskirt and a spaghetti strap tanktop under a hoodie. No creativity or imagination. Angela didn’t exactly feel like her ripped black Nirvana t-shirt and skinny gray jeans were particularly cutting edge either, but compared to her classmates, she was downright counterculture.
“Angela,” Kristen said, climbing into the backseat. “Mom said to tell you not to honk the horn this early in the morning. It’ll make the neighbors mad.”
Angela backed out of the driveway, biting her lip ring. “Mm, does she really think I care about the neighbors?”
Robbie buckled his seatbelt. Tall and thin, Robbie wore his shoulder-length brown hair in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Today he wore black Dickies and a faded KISS t-shirt they found this summer at the Red, White and Blue thrift store. Angela smiled, remembering how excited they were to find that shirt. It was uncommon to find an authentic band shirt that wasn’t some hackneyed country or classic rock act. This KISS t-shirt was the real deal. It looked way cooler than all those faux-vintage shirts any moron with a credit card could pick up at Hot Topic or Urban Outfitters. This was authentic, worn by a real fan. Angela had a feeling that the former owner was a local, the kind of guy they’d call a yinzer. The kind of dude who had a thick Pittsburgh accent, either currently did or at one time had sported a mullet, couldn’t eat a salad without adding some french fries, wore socks and sneakers with shorts, thought dressing up was wearing a gold chain with a Steelers, Pirates, or Pens polo shirt, and drank cheap beer like Coors Light or the local favorite, Iron City. Basically, anybody who was like her dad or his buddies down at the Clairton Steel Mill. Every last one of them was a yinzer and completely proud of it.
Robbie leaned forward, fiddling with the radio, turning it through every station on the dial. None were playing any music, just shrill laughter and grating voices.
“Put it on KISS-FM,” demanded Kristen. Angela shook her head and pushed in the latest Postal Service CD.
Kristen groaned. “You guys listen to the most depressing music ever.”
“No, Kristen, we listen to real music. You just don’t know because none of the stations around here play anything that was recorded since, like, 1998 because they all suck. If I have to listen to one more Alice in Chains song, I swear I’m gonna kill somebody.”
“Whatever. I like Alice in Chains.”
Angela turned onto Route 51, and they began their slow crawl to the school, red light after red light of suburban staples—drug stores, doctors’ offices, beer distributors, and chain restaurants. She drummed her hands against the steering wheel. “Why was your mom home anyways? Did she have to take the day off for your first day of school?”
“Shut up,” said Robbie. “She always takes the day off after the first Steelers game.”
“Why? It’s not like she’s getting drunk like Dom and Nancy.”
“I don’t know. Geez, Angela, it’s just something that she does. But I really hope she does some baking today.”
Angela nodded. Patty baked cookies all the time and they were delicious—probably the best chocolate chip cookies she’d ever tasted, and a pumpkin roll to die for. Patty was a sweet lady and a great mom, but Angela had known the woman since she was five years old and couldn’t think of one interest she had other than eating and the Steelers. And considering those two interests described about three quarters of the population in Western Pennsylvania, they didn’t exactly make her unique. At the next traffic light, Angela made the dreaded left into the high school’s parking lot. This location always made her stomach hurt, even when she drove past on the weekends or during the summer. Just the sight of the purple-and-white marquee and the knowledge that the building was a few hundred yards away made her nauseous. Except for Robbie, the people at her school were pretty awful. Not awful in the sense that they picked on her or made her life miserable, but awful in the sense that they all seemed so much the same, like a million little clones who dressed alike and spoke with bad Pittsburgh accents and didn’t care about things like reading, or philosophy, or good music, or life outside of Pittsburgh. She pulled into the student lot, driving through a flurry of shiny, smiling kids dressed head to toe in American Eagle. When she parked the car, Kristen jumped out. Angela watched her in the rearview mirror, catching up with a group of girls with similar hair and skirts. She looked at Robbie and let out a long exaggerated sigh.
“It’s going to be a long week,” he said, head pressed against the window. Angela nodded. It was going to be a long year.
Patty stood at her bedroom window, peeking through the curtains. She watched Angela’s car pull out of the driveway, then begin its slow descent down the street. In the backseat, Kristen’s ponytail bobbed up and down. Patty smiled to herself, sure that Kristen was chattering nonstop, much to Robbie and Angela’s chagrin. That girl talked so much she changed her own conversations. When they finally disappeared, Patty turned around, flooded with relief.
They were gone. They were finally gone. At least one of them, and sometimes one of their friends, had been at home all weekend. Patty loved her kids, but she loved her privacy too. And with kids, you seldom got any of that. There was always some crisis to fix or fight to resolve.
She crossed the room, not wanting to think about that at all.
Football season was here, her favorite time of the year. She approached her dresser, kneeling to open the bottom drawer. Underneath a pile of sweaters, she pulled out a metal box. Opening it, two pairs of panties popped out. She picked them off her comforter and dangled them in front of her. A sheer pink thong and powder blue lace boyshorts. Looking at them, she blushed. She held onto the boyshorts, pushing the other pair into the box, and fished out a stack of red, heart-shaped cards.
She already knew who was going to get the panties this week. There was no doubt about it. Number 36, Jerome Bettis. He was a big old running back nicknamed “The Bus” for his ability to barrel through defensive lines. He hadn’t even played in yesterday’s game due to an injury, but it didn’t matter. He was her favorite player. And this was probably going to be his last season. After last year’s loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, Patty was afraid he might retire. She hated thinking of him going out that way, with such a terrible loss. She wanted to see him go out on the top. He deserved that much. And his teammates felt the same way. In a melancholy post-game interview last year, wide receiver Hines Ward had openly cried as he explained to reporters how badly they had wanted to win for The Bus. Eight months later, that image of a crying Hines Ward still haunted her.
Picking up a purple gel-tip pen she printed: Dear Jerome, I believe in you and the team. The Super Bowl trophy is coming back to the ‘Burgh. Love Always, Ginger Mae. Patty shut the envelope, sealed it with a lipstick kiss and filled in the log sheet where she recorded the game final score, date sent, recipient, and type of panty.
She started shutting the box fast like she usually did, then remembered the kids weren’t home and she didn’t have to be at work. She smiled, running her fingers through the panties. They were tiny, every last one of them an XS. Patty was a size 16, and she didn’t know anybody who could fit into something so small, save for her ex-husband’s new wife, Desiree. Desiree was about the skinniest person she knew. And perhaps the prettiest, something Patty certainly didn’t want to think about right now.
She pushed the panties back into the box, pressing them deep into the drawer and then shoving it shut, eager to head to the post office.
In the parking lot at Chili’s, Shannon looked at her watch and groaned. It was already noon. Darla was fifteen minutes late. Habitually. And sometimes, she didn’t show up at all. “It totally slipped my mind,” she would say later when confronted with her absence.
Shannon slammed the door of her Ford Explorer and pulled out her cell phone. She’d told Darla that she had to be back in the office by one for her weekly staff meeting, but Darla had insisted.
“I feel like I never see you,” she’d said on Saturday when she called to ask her to lunch. “I miss my sister.”
A familiar powder blue Hyundai raced into the lot and pulled crooked into a parking space. Darla jumped out of the car, wearing a navy t-shirt and a jean skirt. She ran toward Shannon, the wind blowing her chin-length hair and bangs around her heart-shaped face.
“I’m sorry, babe,” she said, breathless. “It totally slipped my mind I was supposed to meet you.”
Shannon pushed open the door to Chili’s. In the tiled lobby, there was a small huddle of dayjobbers in suits and shoppers from the nearby Waterworks Shopping Plaza.
Shannon pushed through them to put her name in. “Smeltzer. 2. First Available.”
Darla wrinkled her nose. “Ew, I hate smoking.”
“Well, you’re stuck with it now, I have to be back at the office at one, so we don’t have much time.”
The hostess sighed. “You could sit at the bar if you’re in a real hurry.”
Shannon nodded. “Yes. We’ll do it.”
Sitting at the closest stools, Shannon flipped through the menu even though she knew she’d order the black bean burger, just like always.
“So how are you, sis?”
“I’m kind of pissed right now.”
“Because you were the one who insisted on meeting for lunch and then it almost slips your mind just like always. You need to start using a calendar or something. We don’t all operate on Darla Standard Time.”
Darla laughed, thumbing through the menu. Shannon watched her, thinking that they couldn’t look any more different. Shannon was tall and lean—with olive skin and black hair. Darla was short and petite. She had fairer skin and dark blonde hair. Dark brown eyes were the only trait they shared.
“Oh, you. You sound like Jack.” Darla pointed at a picture in the menu. “Yum, the burger looks good. I think I’ll have a burger.”
Shannon shrugged. Jack was Darla’s latest boyfriend. They had been dating since last March. By age twenty-eight, Darla had two broken engagements and one live-in boyfriend under her belt. In the same timespan as those, Shannon had one failed three-year relationship.
“So what’d you do yesterday?”
“Mm, Audrey and I went down to Larry’s opening-day tailgate. It was fun. Do you know that Jen is twenty-one now? Isn’t that wild?”
Darla shut the menu and turned toward Shannon. “I guess, yeah. I always think of her as such a little kid. But don’t you ever get sick of hanging out with the Morgans’ crew?”
Shannon groaned. “No, I don’t get sick of them. Don’t you get sick of always riding my back about every goddamn thing?”
Darla frowned, her pink lips pouty. “I’m sorry. I just, you’re my big sis and I want to see you happy, and I just wonder why you want to spend all your time with a bunch of old people. But anyways, I wanted to hang out with you, so I’ll try not to pick. You know I like to pick. I have a big mouth. Just ask Jack. He’s totally mad at me because of this stuff with the house.”
“What stuff with the house?”
Darla had recently bought her own place, a fixer-upper in the city’s Morningside neighborhood. It was a two-story brick house with two bedrooms and a spacious porch and deck. She’d got it for below sixty thousand dollars, a steal within city limits, but the house had been in disrepair since the early 1990s. It needed to be refurbished and brought up to date. Fortunately for Darla, Jack flipped houses for a living and could do all the remodeling she wanted. Shannon had been renting the same one-bedroom apartment in Blawnox for the past five years. She hated the idea of throwing her money away on rent, but she didn’t make enough to save for the down payment or repairs of buying.
“He’s just busy all the time. I mean, I bought this house thinking he was going to help me, and it’s been two months and nothing has gotten done.”
“Maybe he’s working on his own house.”
“That’s exactly what he says!”
“Maybe that’s because it’s true!”
“I guess,” said Darla. “But I want him to work on my house.” She emphasized the word “my” and for a second she sounded just like she had as a child, always begging for her own way.
“He’ll get to it eventually.”
The waiter stopped by, taking their order and their menus. Shannon sat back on her hands.
“I know he’ll get to it eventually. I want him to get to it now.”
Shannon turned away, scanning the room. She happened to think Jack was a really great guy. Of Darla’s many boyfriends, he was one of the few that she actually liked. And she hated hearing Darla complain about him or something he had done.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Darla. Just be lucky you have him, okay, and I’m sure he’ll get around to it in time.”
Darla smiled, a mischievous sparkle in her eye.
“Wow, you sound exactly like him, Shannon. I mean, seriously, it’s like scaring me that he gave you this script to you to tell me. You guys aren’t dating behind my back, are you now?”
Darla laughed. It was a tinkling laugh that made other people along the bar look at her and smile. That was Darla. She had a way about her that drew people in. Shannon looked away, uncomfortable. She glanced up at the television above the bar. Channel 4 was recapping yesterday’s game, meaning that it must have been almost twelve-thirty. The food couldn’t come fast enough.