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It’s Not Summer Without You Chapter 36: My mother was right. The shower helped. I tilted my face toward the shower head and let the hot water wash over me and I felt much better.
After my shower, I came back downstairs a new woman. My mother was wearing lipstick, and she and Conrad were talking in low voices.
They stopped talking when they saw me standing in the doorway. “Much better,” my mother said.
“Where’s Jeremiah?” I asked.
“Jeremiah went back to the store. He forgot the grapefruit,” she said.
The timer went off and my mother took muffins out of the oven with a dish towel. She accidentally touched the muffin tin with her bare hand and she yelped and dropped the tin on the floor, muffin side down. “Damn!”
Conrad asked if she was okay before I could. “I’m fine,” she said, running cold water over her hand.
Then she picked the tin back up and set it on the counter, on top of the towel.
I sat down on one of the counter stools and watched my mother empty the muffin tin into a basket. “Our little secret,” she said.
The muffins were supposed to cool a little while before you took them out of the tin, but I didn’t tell her that. A few were smashed but they mostly looked okay.
“Have a muffin,” she said.
I took one, and it was burning hot and falling apart, but it was good. I ate it quickly.
When I was done, my mother said, “You and Conrad take the recycling out.”
Without a word, Conrad picked up two of the heavier bags and left me the half-empty one. I followed him outside to the trashcans at the end of the driveway.
“Did you cal her?” he asked me.
“I guess I did.” I waited for him to call me a baby for calling my mommy the second things got scary.
He didn’t. Instead, he said, “Thanks.”
I stared at him. “Sometimes you surprise me,” I said.
He didn’t look at me when he said, “And you hardly ever surprise me. You’re still the same.”
I glared at him. “Thanks a lot.” I dumped my garbage bag in the bin and shut the lid a little too hard.
“No, I mean …”
I waited for him to say something, and it seemed like he might have, but then Jeremiah’s car came down the street. We both watched Jeremiah park and then bound out of the car with a plastic grocery bag. He strode up to us, his eyes bright.
“Hey,” he said to me, his bag swinging.
“Hey,” I said. I couldn’t even look him in the eye. It had all come back to me when I was in the shower. Making Jeremiah dance with me, running away from Conrad, him picking me up and dropping me in the sand. How humiliating.
How awful that they saw me behave that way.
Then Jeremiah squeezed my hand, and when I looked up at him, he said “Thank you” so sweetly it hurt.
The three of us walked back to the house. The Police were singing “Message in a Bottle” and the stereo was very loud. Right away my head started pounding and all I wanted was to go back to bed.
“Can we turn down that music?” I asked, rubbing my temples.
“Nope,” my mother said, taking the bag from Jeremiah. She pulled out a big grapefruit and tossed it to Conrad. “Squeeze,” she said, pointing at the juicer. The juicer was Mr. Fisher’s, and it was huge and complicated, one of those Jack LaLanne ones from the late-night infomercials.
Conrad snorted. “For him? I’m not squeezing his grapefruit.”
“Yes, you will .” To me, my mother said, “Mr. Fisher’s coming to breakfast.”
I squealed. I ran over to her and wrapped my arms around her waist. “It’s just breakfast,” she warned me. “Don’t go getting your hopes up.”
But it was too late. I knew she’d change his mind. I knew it. And so did Jeremiah and Conrad. They believed in my mother and so did I—never more so than when Conrad started cutting the grapefruit in half. My mother nodded at him like a drill sergeant. Then she said, “Jere, you set the table, and Bel y, you do the eggs.”
I started cracking eggs into a bowl, and my mother fried bacon in Susannah’s cast iron skillet. She left the bacon grease for me to fry the eggs in. I stirred the eggs around, and the smell of the eggs and the grease made me want to gag. I held my breath as I stirred, and my mother tried to hide a smile as she watched me.
“Feeling okay, Bel y?” she asked. I nodded, my teeth clenched.
“Ever planning on drinking again?” she asked conversationally. I shook my head as hard as I could. “Never, ever again.”
When Mr. Fisher arrived half an hour later, we were ready for him. He walked in and looked at the table in amazement. “Wow,” he said. “This looks great, Laure. Thank you.”
He gave her a meaningful look, the adult co-conspiratorial kind of look.
My mother smiled a Mona Lisa kind of smile. Mr. Fisher wasn’t gonna know what hit him. “Let’s sit,” she said.
We all sat down then. My mother sat next to Mr. Fisher and Jeremiah across from him. I sat next to Conrad. “Dig in,” my mother said.
I watched Mr. Fisher pile a mound of eggs on his plate, and then four strips of bacon. He loved bacon, and he really loved it the way my mother made it incinerated, almost burned to a crisp. I passed on the bacon and eggs and just took a muffin.
My mother poured Mr. Fisher a tall glass of grapefruit juice. “Fresh squeezed, courtesy of your eldest,” she said. He took it, a little suspiciously. I couldn’t blame him. The only person who had ever squeezed juice for Mr. Fisher was Susannah.
But Mr. Fisher rebounded quickly. He shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth and said, “Listen, thanks again for coming to help, Laurel. I appreciate it.” He looked at us kids, smiling. “These guys weren’t too keen on listening to what I had to say. I’m glad to have a little backup.”
My mother smiled back at him just as pleasantly. “Oh, I’m not here to back you up, Adam. I’m here to back up Beck’s boys.”
His smile faded. He put down his fork. “Laure—”
“You can’t sell this house, Adam. You know that. It means too much to the kids. It would be a mistake.” My mother was calm, matter-of-fact.
Mr. Fisher looked at Conrad and Jeremiah and then back at my mother. “I’ve already made up my mind, Laurel. Don’t make me out to be the bad guy here.”
Taking a breath, my mother said, “I’m not making you out to be anything. I’m just trying to help you.”
Us kids sat absolutely still as we waited for Mr. Fisher to speak. He was struggling to stay calm, but his face was turning red. “I appreciate that. But I’ve made up my mind. The house is for sale. And frankly, Laurel, you don’t get a vote in this. I’m sorry. I know Suze always made you feel like this house was part of yours, but it’s not.”
I almost gasped. My eyes darted back to my mother, and I saw that she, too, was turning red. “Oh, I know that,” she said. “This house is pure Beck. It’s always been Beck. This was her favorite place. That’s why the boys should have it.”
Mr. Fisher stood up and pushed out his chair. “I’m not going to argue about this with you, Laurel.”
“Adam, sit down,” my mother said. “No, I don’t think I will .”
My mother’s eyes were almost glowing. “I said, sit down, Adam.” He gaped at her—we all did. Then she said, “Kids, get out.”
Conrad opened his mouth to argue but he thought better of it, especially when he saw the look on my mother’s face and his dad sat back down. As for me, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. We all hustled out of the kitchen and sat at the top of the stairs, straining to hear.
We didn’t have to wait long. Mr. Fisher said, “What the hell , Laurel? Did you really think you could railroad me into changing my mind?”
“Excuse me, but fuck you.”
I clapped my hand over my mouth and Conrad’s eyes were shining and he was shaking his head in admiration. Jeremiah, though, looked like he might cry. I reached out and grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze. When he tried to pull away, I held on tighter.
“This house meant everything to Beck. Can’t you get past your own grief and see what it means to the boys? They need this. They need this. I don’t want to believe that you’re this cruel, Adam.”
He didn’t answer her.
“This house is hers. It’s not yours. Don’t make me stop you, Adam. Because I will. I’ll do everything in my power to keep this house for Beck’s boys.”
Mr. Fisher said, “What will you do, Laure?” and he sounded so tired. “I’ll do what I have to do.”
His voice was muffled when he said, “She’s everywhere here. She’s everywhere.”
He might have been crying. I almost felt sorry for him. I guess my mother did too because her voice was nearly gentle when she said, “I know. But Adam? You were a sorry excuse for a husband. But she loved you. She really did. She took you back. I tried to talk her out of it, God knows I tried. But she wouldn’t listen, because when she sets her mind on someone, that’s it. And she set her mind on you, Adam. Earn that. Prove me wrong.”
He said something I couldn’t quite hear. And then my mother said, “You do this one last thing for her. Okay?”
I looked over at Conrad, and he said in a low voice, to no one in particular, “Laurel is amazing.”
I’d never heard anyone describe my mom that way, especially not Conrad. I’d never thought of her as “amazing.” But in that moment, she was. She truly was. I said, “Yeah, she is. So was Susannah.”
He looked at me for a minute and then he got up and went to his room without waiting to hear what else Mr. Fisher said. He didn’t need to. My mother had won. She had done it.
A little while later, when it seemed safe, Jeremiah and I went back downstairs.
My mother and Mr. Fisher were drinking coffee the way grown-ups do. His eyes were red-rimmed but hers were the clear eyes of a victor. When he saw us, he said, “Where’s Conrad?”
How many times had I heard Mr. Fisher say, “Where’s Conrad?” Hundreds. Millions.
“He’s upstairs,” Jeremiah said. “Go get him, will you, Jere?”
Jeremiah hesitated and then he looked at my mother, who nodded. He bounded up the stairs and a few minutes later, Conrad was with him. Conrad’s face was guarded, cautious.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Mr. Fisher said. This was the old Mr. Fisher, a power broker, and negotiator. He loved to make deals. He used to offer trades to us kids.
Like, he’d drive us to the go-kart track if we swept the sand out of the garage. Or he’d take the boys fishing if they cleaned out all the tackle boxes.
Warily, Conrad said, “What do you want? My trust fund?”
Mr. Fisher’s jaw tightened. “No. I want you back at school tomorrow. I want you to finish your exams. If you do that, the house is yours. Yours and Jeremiah’s.”
Jeremiah whooped loudly. “Yes!” he shouted. He reached over and enveloped Mr. Fisher in a guy hug, and Mr. Fisher clapped him on the back.
“What’s the catch?” Conrad asked.
“No catch. But you have to make at least Cs. No Ds or Fs.” Mr. Fisher had always prided himself on driving the hard bargain. “Do we have a deal?”
Conrad hesitated. I knew right away what was wrong. Conrad didn’t want to owe his dad anything. Even though this was what he wanted, even though it was why he had come here. He didn’t want to take anything from his dad.
“I haven’t studied,” he said. “I might not pass.”
He was testing him. Conrad had never “not passed.” He’d never gotten anything below a B, and even Bs were rare.
“Then no deal,” Mr. Fisher said. “Those are the terms.”
Urgently, Jeremiah said, “Con, just say yes, man. We’ll help you study. Won’t we, Bel y?”
Conrad looked at me, and I looked at my mother. “Can I, Mom?”
My mother nodded. “You can stay, but you have to be home tomorrow.” “Take the deal,” I told Conrad.
“Al right,” he said at last.
“Shake on it like a man, then,” Mr. Fisher said, holding out his hand.
Reluctantly, Conrad extended his arm and they shook. My mother caught my eye and she mouthed, Shake on it like a man, and I knew she was thinking how sexist Mr. Fisher was. But it didn’t matter. We had won.
“Thanks, Dad,” Jeremiah said. “Really, thanks.”
He hugged his dad again and Mr. Fisher hugged him back, saying, “I need to get back to the city.” Then he nodded at me. “Thanks for helping Conrad, Bel y.”
I said, “You’re welcome.” But I didn’t know what I was saying “you’re welcome” for, because I hadn’t really done anything. My mother had helped Conrad more in half an hour than I had in all my time of knowing him.
After Mr. Fisher left, my mother got up and started rinsing dishes. She invited me to join her as we put them in the dishwasher. I briefly laid my head on her shoulder. Then I said, “Thank you.”
“You were a real badass, Mom.”
“Don’t cuss,” she said, the corners of her mouth turning up. “You’re one to talk.”
Then we washed the dishes in silence, and my mother had that sad look on her face and I knew she was thinking of Susannah. And I wished there was something I could say to take that look away, but sometimes there just weren’t words.
The three of us walked her to the car. “You boys will get her home tomorrow?”
she asked, throwing her bag onto the passenger seat. “Definitely,” Jeremiah said.
Then Conrad said, “Laurel.” He hesitated. “You’re coming back, aren’t you?”
My mother turned to him, surprised. She was touched. “You want an old lady like me around?” she asked. “Sure, I’ll be back whenever you’ll have me.”
“When?” he asked. He looked so young, so vulnerable my heart ached a little.
I guessed my mother was feeling the same way because she reached out and touched his cheek. My mother was not a cheek-touching kind of person. It just wasn’t her way. But it was Susannah’s. “Before the summer’s over, and I’ll come back to close the house up too.”
My mother got into the car then. She waved at us as she backed down the driveway, her sunglasses on, the window down. “See you soon,” she called out.
Jeremiah waved and Conrad said, “See you soon.”
My mother told me once that when Conrad was very young, he called her “his Laura.” “Where is my Laura?” he’d say, wandering around looking for her. She said he followed her everywhere; he’d even follow her into the bathroom. He called her his girlfriend and he would bring her sand crabs and seashells from the ocean and he would lay them at her feet. When she told me about it, I thought, What I wouldn’t give to have Conrad Fisher call me his girlfriend and bring me shells.
“I’m sure he doesn’t remember,” she’d said, smiling faintly.
“Why don’t you ask him if he does?” I’d said. I loved hearing stories about when Conrad was little. I loved to tease him because the opportunity to tease Conrad came up so rarely.
She’d said, “No, that would embarrass him,” and I’d said, “So what? Isn’t that the point?”
And she’d said, “Conrad is sensitive. He has a lot of pride. Let him have that.”
The way she said that I could tell that she got him. Understood him in a way that I didn’t. I was jealous of that, of both of them.
“What was I like?” I’d asked. “You? You were my baby.”
“But what was I like?” I persisted.
“You used to chase after the boys. It was so cute the way you’d follow them around, trying to impress them.” My mother laughed. “They used to get you to dance around and do tricks.”
“Like a puppy?” I frowned at the thought. She’d waved me off. “Oh, you were fine. You just liked to be included.”
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