On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.
He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.
“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”
Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.
Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.
A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.
“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.
Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.
The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering. They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.
Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.
“Hey, you going on a trip?”
Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”
The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.
“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’
“Eben. Short ’e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”
“It’s just water, Eebean.”
Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.
“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.
“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.
“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”
“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.
“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”
Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”
“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.
Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”
“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”
Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben, damp fingers cool on his arm.
“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”
“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.
Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.
On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.