“Doritha, Kid,” Melanie Simmons greeted them excitedly. “It’s so good to finally see y’all. How was your flight? Y’all must be starving after the horrible food they serve on those flights. I hope y’all saved room for some good old-fashioned Southern cooking.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kid answered.
“I’m just looking forward to spending some time with you and Daddy,” Doritha said. “Where’s the birthday boy?” she asked, linking her arm through her mother’s.
“Where else? Golfing at the club. He’ll be back any minute for lunch.” Entering, the familiar smell of Ruby’s famous Brunswick stew, spicy and smoky, brought a smile to both Doritha’s and Kid’s faces. Upon hearing the door close, a tall, thin elderly woman in a housekeeper’s uniform came rushing from the kitchen, drying her hands on a tea towel.
“Ruby!” Kid and Doritha chorused.
“My goodness, you get prettier every time I see you, honey,” Ruby cried, hugging Doritha closely.
“And you, young man…” she hugged Kid next, before she turned her face to Doritha, while still holding onto Kid. “If you don’t watch it, someone will snatch him. If I was thirty years younger,” she said half jokingly.
Kid smiled at the compliment and kissed the old woman. He always felt a strong connection to her, ever since the first night he stayed with the Simmons after his mother died. He was young, and had no one else in the world, and while Melanie was kind, she was hurting too, and it was Ruby who hugged him as he cried himself to sleep in her arms. She used to sneak him extra snacks and took special time preparing his favorite dishes.
“Lunch will be ready in half an hour,” Ruby said. “I made chicken Brunswick stew. Especially for you,” she added in a whisper to Kid. Her reward was the grin on the young man’s face.
Jeff Simmons arrived at home just in time for lunch, and after washing, they all sat down. Ruby carried in a tureen of the aromatic stew. She set it down with a flourish in the center of the table, and began ladling out servings, passing them to Kid, who passed them in turn to the others before taking his own. Ruby smiled and set the lid back on the tureen, and hurried into the kitchen.
Kid picked up his spoon to dig in, and Doritha kicked him lightly under the table, offering him her hand with a lift of her eyebrows.
“Oh. Right,” Kid said, taking her hand and grasping his future mother-in-law’s in his other hand. The four of them bowed their heads.
“Heavenly Father, we thank you for this food,” Melanie said. “And for the gift of good health, for which we are truly grateful. And, of course, we thank you for seeing fit to bless Kid with some success as an actor, after all these years of persistence. But most of all, Dear Lord, we thank you for bringing our children home safe to us today, after such a long, long, time apart. Amen.”
“Amen,” Kid muttered along with Doritha and Jeff. He released Doritha’s and Melanie’s hands and picked up his spoon again, just as Ruby came in backwards through the door, her hands full with a plate of buttermilk biscuits in one hand and a pitcher of sweet tea in the other. She handed the plate of biscuits to Doritha with a smile, and started pouring the glasses.
“Ruby, I sure missed your home cooked meals,” Doritha sighed in contentment.
Melanie sipped a spoonful of stew. “Yes. I imagine it’s all bean sprouts and wheat germ out there in California. But whenever you get a hankering for real food, you know our door is always open. No need to wait … so long before your next visit.”
“It looks wonderful, Ruby,” Kid said with a smile. “And it smells even more wonderful.”
Ruby ruffled his hair affectionately, like she used to do when he was a boy, before she left the dining room again.
“Well, Sweet Pea, I guess now that Kid’s working full-time, you’re probably enjoying the rest and relaxation for a change,” Jeff said. “I’m sure you deserve it after working so hard at all those jobs of yours.”
“You didn’t tell them?” Kid asked with a grin. “Jeff, your daughter is taking riding lessons.”
“Riding lessons?” Jeff gaped. “Doritha? Now I can say I’ve heard it all.”
“Daddy, don’t make such a big deal out of it.”
“Not a big deal? Kid here has been trying to teach you how to ride ever since he came to live with us, and it never seemed like you were interested. In fact, I remember you yelling at him and me that you never wanted to set foot in the stables, ever again.”
“Maybe a boyfriend isn’t the best teacher,” Kid said. “I think finding the right teacher may have made the difference.”
“Maybe … my teacher is really great. Super patient and knows everything about horses that’s worth knowing,” Doritha enthused. “He –“
“He sounds wonderful, dear. Oh, I forgot to tell you the big news. You know your cousin Tara got married last weekend. Of course you sent your regrets.”
Doritha blushed. “Yes. Kid was working. I can’t believe Tara is married! What’s her new husband like? Is he nice?”
Ruby came in with pecan pie and a stack of small plates, and started busily cutting the pie into slices at the sideboard.
Melanie coughed delicately and raised her eyebrows. “I suppose so,” she said in answer to Doritha. “But …Susan and Bill are … concerned. He’s different. And from a different part of town. Market Street,” she said, mentioning the primarily black neighborhood in their small town and inclining her head slightly, behind her, toward Ruby’s back. “If you know what I mean.”
Kid saw Ruby’s face in the mirror turn stiff and stony, and Doritha turned scarlet.
“Melanie, I think you interrupted Doritha’s story,” Jeff said. “You were about to tell us about your riding teacher, honey?”
Doritha looked troubled. “No. No, I was finished talking about that,” she said.
“Well then, Kid, tell us about the show you’re on now,” Jeff said. “I hear it’s a Western. I always did love a good Western.”
Doritha put a hand over Kid’s. “Oh, Daddy, it’s going to be great. Kid has the leading male role and he’s so good.”
Kid smiled at his fiancee’s enthusiasm. “The show is premiering Sunday night.”
“That’s wonderful, so we can all watch it together," Melanie smiled. “At the party. What fun.”
Kid looked incredulously at Doritha, who avoided his gaze.
“I thought Doritha would have told you, Melanie, Jeff …”
The two looked at each other, then at Kid.
“We have to head back to Arizona right after church on Sunday morning.”
Melanie looked crushed, and set down her spoon with a clatter. “Oh, what a shame! I thought Doritha said you’re having a week off before shooting started again. I simply assumed … but I must have misunderstood your schedule …”
Kid felt the sweat breaking out on his forehead. “Well. We are off for the week.”
Doritha sat innocently sipping her sweet tea and gave him a limpid, challenging look over the frosted rim of the glass.
Melanie blinked slowly. “Then I’m afraid I don’t understand … why are you expected back Sunday?”
Kid motioned with his spoon. “Well. The producer is having a party to watch the show when it airs.”
“I see.” Melanie picked up her spoon. “I do see that watching the show and going to that party is more important than a silly party for just a fiftieth birthday. Under the circumstances, I’m so grateful you managed to make it here at all. And I’m sure you feel the same way, don’t you, Jeff?”
“Of course,” Jeff said. “At my age, birthdays aren’t that big of a deal. Just means another year older.”
“In this case, a half-century, of course, honey,” Melanie reminded Jeff. She turned with exaggerated concern in her voice toward Kid. “Oh, but that’s just a number. Of course, work always has to come before family, I suppose … after all, it did take three years to get this job. We wouldn’t want you to jeopardize it out of concern for our feelings.”
“Mama - -“ Doritha finally intervened.
“No, Sweet Pea, that’s okay. I’m just grateful to see you at all even for part of my birthday. After all this time,” Jeff cut in, patting her hand.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
After lunch Kid and Doritha went out for a little stroll in the garden. They found a hidden spot and Kid held her tight and kissed her hungrily, fondling her over her blouse.
“You’re a little stinker, throwing me under the bus with your parents,” he chuckled. “You enjoyed that a little too much.” He slid another hand down her backside.
“You know you had it coming,” Doritha said. “I figured I’d let you explain to Daddy and Mama - -” she gasped as Kid flicked a thumb over her nipple, through her clothes.
“Kid,” she panted, arching into his touch. “We shouldn’t…”
“Come on, baby, it’s just like we sneaked around when we were kids.”
“Hon, we’re not kids anymore, and we need to respect their beliefs, at least while we're here."
He released her and they continued walking through the woods, until they reached a clearing and Kid paused.
Doritha followed his gaze and her heart broke a little at the sight. It’d been years since they wandered this far, and Kid usually led in the other direction, but now they were standing on top of the hill overlooking his childhood home. The house was in a bad shape. A couple of windows on the first floor were broken and the railing around the porch was gone entirely. The paint was peeling in large pieces all around the building and the tree that used to cast shade on his room’s window had grown so much that one of the branches entered the room.
Doritha looked at his face and saw that he was fighting back tears. She hugged him. “Do you want to go down there?”
“I don’t know,” he replied hoarsely. “It’s been six years since I’ve been there. After my ma died and I came to live with you I never came back here. Not even to see if he… not even…” He broke down in sobs and Doritha held him close.
“You still think he’s alive? After all these years?” she asked when he calmed down.
“I’m so confused about how I feel about him. He left us without even a goodbye. And the way he was the last couple of years before he left, drunk and miserable….”
He sighed and broke a twig off a nearby oak tree, twisting it in his hands before tossing it aside.
“But before he started drinking, he loved my ma so much. He worshiped the ground she walked on. And he was such a great dad. He spent a lot of time with me just the two of us, hiking, shooting, camping. It’s like he was two totally different people.”
He turned and looked into Doritha’s eyes. “I guess what I want is to know why he left the way he did. If it was something I did…” His voice was breaking again.
Doritha rested her head on his shoulder. “Whatever the reason, it wasn’t your fault, Kid. I’m certain of that. You were just a boy.”
Kid kissed her head. “I’m not sure I’d be able to forgive him anyway. Or understand it. Leaving your wife and child to fend for themselves, never even bothering to check how they are… I remember all those times your mother came with groceries because we couldn’t buy them ourselves. No, I’ll probably won’t ever be able to forgive him.” He breathed deeply before he turned around with Doritha hugging his waist and headed back towards the Simmons’ house.
Ruby was picking flowers in the back garden when they arrived at the house and she immediately noticed their faces. “What on earth made you two look like that?” She reached Kid and touched his arms. “Have you been crying, honey?”
Kid knew he had nothing to be ashamed of in front of Ruby. She could never find fault in him. “We reached the hill over my house. I guess it just brought up a lot of memories.”
“Come with me to the kitchen. I made you your favorite cookies.”
“Ruby, I’m not a child anymore,” he half heartedly objected.
“Oh, and grownups don’t eat cookies, is that it?” She feigned being insulted, but smiled as he dutifully followed her into the kitchen. “I suppose you being an actor now, you have to watch your figure. But these are healthy. They’re oatmeal.”
“I’m going to take a shower.” Doritha sneaked a cookie before she went upstairs.
“Tell me,” Ruby said softly, sitting across from Kid at the kitchen table.
Kid’s eyes were glazed with unshed tears. “It’s been seven years since my pa left, six years since ma died, and in all this time I haven't heard a word from him. I don’t know anymore if I wish he was dead. At least that would explain it - why he didn’t make any contact with me.” A lone tear dropped from his eyes as he blinked and he wiped it angrily. “I hate feeling like I’m still a child, in need of a father. I’m twenty one, engaged. I shouldn’t be feeling like I need him.”
“Honey, we need our parents, no matter how old we are. I still miss mine. I wish my mama was here sometimes, to help we figure out things, and I’m nearing seventy.” She put her hand on his. “But I have a confession to make, honey, and I can only hope you won’t hate me afterwards.”
“I could never hate you, Ruby. You know that.”
Ruby nodded sadly and rose. “Wait here.”
She returned from her room near the kitchen two minutes later, carrying a small parcel. She unwrapped the red cloth to reveal a stack of envelopes. He could see his name written on the first one and looked at her puzzled. Ruby handed him the stack and he fingered through them. His name was on all of them.
“They started to arrive a few weeks after your ma died and you came to live here.” She started. “They… The Simmons… they were trying to protect you.”
“Protect me?” Kid asked incredulously. “Ruby, protect me from what? From who? Are those from him? These letters are all from my father?”
“Why would I need protection from my own father?”
“They wanted to protect you from the truth, I suppose. About the kind of man he really is.”
Kid felt the anger rising. “He’s still my father! You had no right keeping these from me.”
“I know, honey. That’s why I kept them for you. I know it doesn’t make it right, but I always intended to give them to you someday. I’m retiring in a month … so now I guess I’m doin’ the right thing, finally. I hope you can forgive me.”
He looked down at the letters, and his eyes bulged in disbelief. The return address was a prison. And not just any prison … the high-security federal prison … in Tucson, right where he’d been living the last few months.
Kid kept quiet, his knuckles turning white around the letters. “I forgive you, Ruby.”
He got up and went directly into Doritha’s room, bursting in without knocking
“Kid!” She exclaimed and wrapped the towel around her quickly. “What’s gotten into you?” she asked, worried. “What are those?”
Kid lifted the letters. “These? These are six years of letters from my father that your parents hid from me. Did you know about this?”
“Of course not, Kid I still don’t have any idea what you’re talking about?”
“Apparently my father did write me, constantly, but your parents wanted to throw all his letters away without me ever knowing about them.”
A knock on the door interrupted them.
“Doritha, honey. Is everything okay?” Melanie asked from behind the closed door.
“Yeah, mom. We’ll be down shortly.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Kid hissed once they heard Melanie stepping away.
“Kid,” Doritha said sternly, “I’m sure there’s a good explanation for this. You know my parents love you like their own. I’m sure if what you say is true…”
“If? You don’t believe me? Look!” He threw the letters on her bed. “Look, Doritha! Then tell me you don’t believe me.”
“I didn’t say I don’t believe you, Kid,” Doritha stammered, watching the many letters scattered on her bed. “But they are my parents. I’m sure they had good reason to keep these away from you.”
Kid looked hard at her. “Good reason to keep my father from contacting me? Who the hell gave them that right! I plan on giving them a piece of my mind right now!” He started toward the door, but she darted in front of him and blocked his path. “Doritha, get out of the way, now!”
She shook her head, red-faced and furious. “No. And you know what? I don’t like your tone. I had nothing to do with this, and what’s more – my parents deserve better than this ingratitude.”
Kid started to protest, but she cut him off fiercely.
“Is this the thanks my parents get for taking you in when your father was nowhere to be found after your mom died? Or do you blame them for that too? For that matter - - what kept him from coming home the whole year your mother was dying of cancer? Where was he when my parents took care of her medical bills? Of your rent? He sure wasn’t there when my mom held your mother’s hand in chemotherapy all those months. He didn’t even bother to show up for her funeral, for God’s sake.”
She grabbed the letters and held them up. “Letters are great, Kid. But when he didn’t get an answer, tell me, why didn’t he pick up a phone? Why didn’t he come to your mother’s funeral? Why didn’t he come to get you or at least visit? Are you blaming my parents for all that too?”
“He – he was in prison,” Kid blurted out, finally.
“Oh, that’s totally different!” Doritha snapped, sarcastically. “That’s a great excuse! I see now that my parents are the bad guys in this, giving you a roof over your head and taking care of you for years was just an evil plot to keep you away from your helpless incarcerated dad!”
He backed up, spluttering and stammering in helpless frustration, while Doritha flipped through the sheaf of letters. “Wow. Federal prison, for six years. The Tucson facility at that. That’s a high security prison, isn’t it?” She tossed them on the bed. “You know who goes to those places, don’t you, Kid? Murderers, drug dealers, kidnappers. Which one do you think your dad was? And how can you blame my parents for not letting him communicate with you if he’s like that? You were their responsibility! My mom was your mom’s best friend and promised to take care of you!”
Kid numbly stood, clenching his jaw and trying to think of something to say, someone to blame for this that wasn’t his still-beloved father. “They still shouldn’t have interfered. They had no right! He had a right to explain - - “
“So read the letters, then. Or better yet, find out when visiting hours are and go see Dear Old Dad when we get home,” she said, still clearly furious. “But so help me. If you fight with my parents over this. If you ruin Dad’s birthday. I will not forgive you. You have the information right there, if you want an explanation, nobody’s stopping you now.”
She whirled and stomped into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
He listened to the water running, and sat down on the bed, trying to collect his thoughts. He put his hand over the letters. The answers were here, she was right. He looked at the dates again, the address. His father was a criminal. It must be for some terrible crime, why else would he be at that facility … and she was right, he realized, defeated. There was no point in blaming the Simmons family, forgetting what they’d done for him. And the fact was … they weren’t to blame for this mess. They hadn’t run his dad off in the first place. It was all in the past, anyway. The big question was … did he want to make contact again? Did he want to know what his father was guilty of? Did he want to open the door that had been shut for him all those years ago, and let this man he knew nothing of back into his life just when things were starting to look up? He gathered the letters together and stacked them in a neat pile.
As he thought it over, he heard the water shut off in the bathroom and after a moment, Doritha appeared at the door, her face sad and remorseful.
“Kid. I’m sorry about … about all this. I know you must be upset … I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I want to support you, but when you criticized my parents for this I - -“
“It’s okay. I’m sorry too – I was just upset … this is a pretty big shock.”
She tightened the towel around herself. “So what do the letters say?”
“Haven’t opened them yet. I … I think I’m going to wait until after the premiere … maybe look into why he’s in prison. Decide if I want to see him again.”
Doritha sighed. “Well, at least this time it’ll be your decision.” She stood beside him and he turned and pressed his face against her waist, feeling her arms around him tightly.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~