Mark usually made a point of visiting his mother and brother on Easter Sunday. June usually joined him but declined that year and went to visit their father instead. Mark decided not to make an issue of it, and also decided not to spend too much time at Harold’s house. Just long enough to connect with Matt.
But Shawna saw to it that he and Matt were never left alone, and with Mark’s knee still healing, it was all but impossible to get around. Matt grumbled and glared at his mother but let things go.
Finally, Mark had to leave. He met June back on board Air Force One, in his office.
“You look like hell,” June said as the plane took off.
“Shawna wouldn’t let me talk to Matt,” Mark grumbled, shifting in his desk chair. “It’s almost as if she’s afraid I’m going to corrupt him.”
“That may be her rationale, but I think she’s more worried about you stealing his affection away from her,” June said.
A young Marine came in with a salad on a tray. “Can I bring you anything, sir? The galley cook says he has French Dip on the menu.”
“Sounds good,” Mark replied. “Thanks.”
June picked up her salad and began eating. “May I have a sandwich, too, please?”
“Yes, ma’am,” replied the Marine, who remained at ease and waiting.
“And you’re dismissed.” Mark suddenly remembered the protocol. He shook his head as the Marine left, then looked at June. “You’re eating a lot. Things went well in L.A.?”
June nodded. “Just dealing with some issues finally. And then spending time with Sharon’s family. Her mom is pretty special.”
“Yeah. She really made me feel like I was part of the family. Which is why I decided not to go to Shawna’s. I was feeling so good, I didn’t want to ruin it.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t say I blame you.” Mark toyed with his iPhone.
“Listen, about Matt,” June began as the desk phone rang.
“I’d better get that,” Mark sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. If you get busy, I’ll see you Wednesday. I’ve got to go to New York as soon as we get done with the egg roll in Washington.”
“Okay.” Mark turned to the phone.
Late the next day, Mark called Sharon into the Oval Office for a conference on their upcoming trip to Mexico. It had been a full day, thanks to the traditional egg roll event on the White House lawn. Mark had been annoyed to find that his sour mood from the day before was still with him and made it hard to enjoy an event he’d been looking forward to even more than usual. In the Oval Office, Sharon could see that Mark was distracted and not in the mood for a briefing.
“Uh, June hinted that the visit with your mom and sister-in-law did not go well,” Sharon said, finally.
Mark looked up, surprised. “When did you talk to her?”
“This morning before the party. I had some questions regarding that reception next week for the Nigerian Ambassador.”
“She didn’t say much about it.”
Mark smiled softly and shook his head. “I don’t care what you know. And, yeah, the visit sucked. Shawna refused to let me be alone with Matt and he had something to tell me. I just don’t know what.”
Sharon chuckled. “Believe it or not, I think I do. My niece Jodi and her friend Tiffany have been busy little conspirators.” She pulled a cell phone out of her pocket and handed it to Mark. “It’s a pre-paid phone, but when you call anyone, the caller ID shows up as Jasmine Thomas, with Jodi’s picture. June said I should give it to you.”
Mark winced as he shifted his knee. “I don’t like going behind Shawna’s back.”
“It’s the only way you’re going to talk to Matt,” said Sharon. “Jodi told me she’s got the clamps on him but good, and he’s not a happy camper.”
Mark nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
“Oh, and here’s his new email address. Jodi hacked around the parental control software on his laptop.”
“She is a very nice kid.” Sharon shrugged. “I probably shouldn’t be encouraging her, but she does not approve of parental spying. And her mom let her do all the hacking to see if it was worth paying for the software to spy on Toby. She’s Jodi’s older sister.”
Mark nodded sadly. “There is something fundamentally wrong about parents spying on their kids. I could understand it if Shawna wanted to spy on her girls. I’m pretty sure DeeDee is using drugs and I have some sources saying there are some ugly rumors floating around about Tracy. But Matt is a straight arrow. A bright kid. And I don’t want him in trouble.”
“I know,” said Sharon, smiling softly. “For what it’s worth, the girls did say they thought Matt was pretty cool.”
“That’s encouraging, I suppose.”
“Say, you want to come over for dinner tonight? I can pick something up from the market on the way home.”
Mark grabbed his cell phone and checked his schedule. “I should be able… Yeah. I can. That’d be nice. Thanks.”
“I’ll get the chessboard out. And how about some plain old mac and cheese?”
“No! I’ve been eating straight-up American fare all week.” Mark sighed. “It’s been good stuff, even had some good spice to it. But fried. Sometimes fried twice. At this point, I’ll take a New England boiled supper.”
“Hm. Don’t think I have time for that.” Sharon gathered her laptop, pen, and notepad together. “How about I bring in some sushi and a salad?”
“Sounds good.” Mark stood. “And thanks. I really appreciate everything you’re doing. For Matt and for me.”
Sharon looked everywhere but at him. “I… Uh, don’t mind at all. A good friend is worth it. Anyway, I really need to get back to the office.”
“Oh. Yeah. Please.” Mark gestured at the door.
In New York, Michael Wheatly slid into the back of the shabby auditorium, breathing a small sigh of relief. Most kids his daughters’ age didn’t recognize him. But he didn’t want any teachers spotting him, either.
Toby was onstage, doing her audition for the High School of Performing Arts. Michael wasn’t sure which play her monolog was from, but it sounded very good. Then again, he wasn’t sure how much of his appraisal was paternal pride or cool recognition of a genuine talent. Worse yet, the kid had been playing games again. It wasn’t anything Michael could put his finger on, but something about their exchange earlier that day did not feel right.
Toby had talked him into the two of them going to a new restaurant in the Village and meeting Inez there. It was not the sort of place Michael liked very much and he’d been a little surprised when Toby told him that afternoon that Inez had not only okayed going there but had made the reservations. It was possible that Inez had okayed the restaurant to be nice to Toby, and Toby seldom lied outright. But Toby had an uncanny ability to dance around the truth and Michael couldn’t confirm with Inez because she was in meetings all day with his record company and the gallery where her latest photo exhibition would be. Which left Michael muttering, like Farmer Tweedy in Chicken Run, “them chickens is up to something.”
Toby finished a few minutes later and came skipping up the aisle toward him.
“You made it!” she gasped.
“I told you I would,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders. “You sounded really good.”
Toby grimaced. “I guess. I kinda messed up the middle part – I wanted to get some more righteous anger into it, but I think I pulled back.”
“Well, it sounded fine to me.” Michael glanced around, then steered Toby toward the street. “We’ve got some time. Why don’t we walk back to the apartment?”
“Dad, it’s, like, fifty blocks!”
“It’s not even twenty.”
“Then can we shop?” Toby asked. She was too old to be bouncing up and down, but her excitement made it seem as though she were.
Michael chuckled and pushed her northward. “We’ll see. Didn’t you tell me you already had a terrific outfit for tonight?”
“That doesn’t mean I won’t find some cool stuff for home.” Toby shrugged. “And I might just find something to bring back for Jodi.”
Michael didn’t think Jodi was at the top of Toby’s list but chose not to say anything.
“We’ll see,” he said, finally.
To her credit, Toby did buy Jodi three different tops – made out of organic cotton – before she bought anything for herself. And while she complained about the tight limit Michael put on her spending, she didn’t push back too hard.
Michael remained suspicious and decided he had good cause when he saw the tight, extremely short skirt and shoulder-baring outfit that Toby put on back at the apartment to go to dinner in.
“I think you need to find a skirt that has more fabric,” he told her sternly.
“Come on,” Toby groaned. “I was with Aunt Sharon when I bought it. You think she’d let me buy something that made me look bad?”
“Did she see you in that?”
Michael shook his head. “Did she say it was okay to buy and/or wear?”
“Well.” Toby huffed and rolled her eyes.
“Go change. Now.”
The new outfit Toby put on wasn’t quite as sexy or revealing, but only just. Michael suspected Toby had put on the other outfit to make this one look good, but decided that confrontation was a battle not worth picking.
The restaurant was in the Village, and Michael called his car service for a small limo instead of taking a cab. Toby fawned over his outfit and all but bounced out of her seat in the car. When they pulled up in front of the restaurant and Michael saw the velvet rope, he was not happy.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a line yet. As Michael walked Toby to the door, a flash went off. Grumbling, Michael practically pushed Toby inside the club.
As Michael checked in with the hostess, he spotted Inez waving at him in the dining room. The décor was dark – smooth black paneling with white accents. The tables had white tops with chrome legs and black and chrome chairs to match. Black square plates adorned the surfaces, which boasted tall narrow vases with single orchids in them. Spotlights, some colored, provided sporadic light throughout the room, switching here and there erratically as hip hop music thumped, just loud enough to drown the clatter of eating and conversation.
Not that there were many patrons. It wasn’t even eight p.m. yet. Michael sighed, feeling vaguely like a senior citizen. The hostess followed as he led Toby to the table where Inez was sitting. Michael kissed Inez, then got himself and Toby settled. A waiter appeared immediately to offer drinks, which Michael declined. Inez ordered a glass of wine and Toby asked for sparkling water. A minute later, they had ordered their food and Toby asked to be excused to visit the ladies’ room.
Michael leaned over to Inez. “You approved this place?”
“Actually, yes,” Inez said, all but hollering over the music. “I know she’s acting like she’s getting away with something, but she isn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“She tried to do her dance yesterday. I let her know, flat out, that I wouldn’t put up with it. So this morning, she played straight with me and told me she really wanted to do at least one hot club so she can brag to her friends back home. I checked around and this place isn’t so hot all the paparazzi are hanging around, but still hot enough to be a real New York club. So I let her know that in exchange for playing straight, we could compromise on the club.”
“Oh.” Michael sat back, slightly bemused. “Someone still got a shot of us at the door.”
Inez shrugged. “We’ve gotten shot at the grocery store before. It happens. Cameron’s just going to have to accept that.”
Toby came bounding back to the table. She was barely seated when a medium-sized man wearing horned-rim glasses and hair gelled into standing attention approached the table.
“Well, hello, Michael,” he said, offering his hand while leering slightly at Toby. “I’m Frank DeWoz, the columnist.”
Michael held back. “I’ve heard of you.”
“I’m so glad to see Inez is here,” DeWoz continued, pulling up a chair and sitting down. “From what I saw at the door, we all thought you had a new girlfriend.”
He grinned at Toby, who looked confused.
“She’s my daughter,” said Michael through gritted teeth. “She’s visiting on spring break and wanted to see some nightlife.”
“Ick,” said Toby.
Michael signaled the waiter. “Mr. DeWoz, we are trying to have a quiet family dinner, so do you need anything else?”
DeWoz looked over at Inez, whose eyes were burning, then back at Michael, who was sitting up straight and proving that he was considerably larger than DeWoz.
“Well, that’s sweet.” DeWoz grinned weakly as he got up. “I am intruding abominably. Pray, forgive me.”
“No problem,” said Michael, still sitting up. “I know it’s a slow news night, but there’s no news here.”
DeWoz’s eyes flickered over to Toby and back to Michael again.
“No,” he sighed. “I’m afraid not.”
Toby shuddered as he left. “He thought I was dating you? Eeeuw!”
“I don’t think he’s so bad,” said Inez, smirking.
“Even grosser!” Toby groaned.
Michael chuckled, even as he kept one eye on DeWoz. It was a slow news night, and while Inez probably thought that it wasn’t such a bad idea to be seen, given that his new album was due for release in a couple weeks or so, Michael did not want to deal with the fallout from Toby’s mother.
Inez winked at him and he smiled back. She was proving to be better at handling Toby than he was. Which made Michael shudder. The baby she wanted so suddenly. They hadn’t spoken about it, but Michael knew it was on her mind. He was happy she was proving to be so good at the parenting thing but did he really want another child?
Hey, Uncle Mark –
Thanks for texting me your email address. Did Tiffany and her friend set up one sweet workaround or what. All the guys at school say my mom is totally whack. I’m glad you think so too. How’s it going at the white house?
It’s good to hear from you. While I agree your mother’s behavior seems inappropriate, I am still a little concerned about going behind her back. She is your mother and we both owe her some respect for that.
That being said, I’m glad we’re able to communicate at last. How’s school going? What are you doing these days for fun? Are you playing basketball this year? Let me know.