A thin plume of smoke danced away from the glowing end of a cigarette butt.
Tom Keller took a deep breath, squared his shoulders then marched up the walkway. Mr. Everett was sitting on his front porch swing puffing away.
“I brought some lunch for you, Mr. Everett.”
Mr. Everett brought the cigarette to his lips. Nostrils flaring, Tom snatched it out of Mr. Everett’s fingers.
“You’re fired,” snapped Mr. Everett.
Tom threw the cigarette on the ground, grinding out the butt with his heel.
“Seriously? You haven’t quit yet?”
Mr. Everett picked up the pack and tapped it gently. A fresh cigarette slid out. He set it between his lips and reached for his lighter.
“You’re still fired,” Mr. Everett grumbled.
Tom reached for the cigarette.
Mr. Everett swatted his hand away.
“Stopping now ain’t gonna save my lungs, Son.”
Seized by a coughing fit, Mr. Everett bent over, gasping for air. Tom pat his back and Mr. Everett waved him away.
“I’m fine now. Nothing a smoke won’t fix,” said Mr. Everett, reaching for his pack of cigarettes.
“You should eat before this gets cold.”
Tom held up the bag. ‘Bon’, in large black letters, dominated the pristine white paper bag.
“Mikey made it himself,” he said, placing the bag next to Mr. Everett.
“I’m shutting down the shop,” announced Mr. Everett as he placed the cigarette between thin lips.
“I can run it for you,” he offered.
Mr. Everett lit his cigarette.
“I got six months. Maybe less.”
Tom rubbed the back of his neck. Any platitude he came up with would be met with a ‘take that and shove it up your—’
“Damn shame I never had any kids. At least that I know of.”
Mr. Everett took a deep pull, savoring his guilty pleasure. Then his shoulders slumped.
“The shop will gather dust and fade away. Before long, people will forget it was ever there.”
Tom shoved his hands into his pockets.
“You could sell—”
Mr. Everett’s sharp bark of laughter interrupted him.
“No one will buy old equipment.”
Mr. Everett’s dull eyes shone briefly.
“Bet that land is worth something. Prime real estate.”
Slumping against the bench, Mr. Everett said, “Be dead before the sale goes through.”
His throat closed up, rendering him speechless.
Mr. Everett was dying. Dying. The man he considered his father would be gone. So would his job. He’d be left with nothing.
“I’ll buy your shop,” he declared.
“I’ll keep your legacy alive, Sir,” he vowed.
Mr. Everett rubbed his brow.
“I don’t know, Tommy. You’re a good mechanic but—”
His stomach clenched. He stared at his sneakers.
Mr. Everett shook his head.
“—running a business is a serious commitment.”
He set his jaw and straightened to his full height.
“I can do this, Sir.”
Mr. Everett tipped his head to the side, studying him.
“If you can come up with a hundred grand by the end of next week, the shop is all yours,” Mr. Everett said.
After leaving Mr. Everett, Tom drove to his bank to pick up some loan papers. He spent all night filling out tedious paperwork. The next day he returned to the bank. Once he secured his small business loan, he would be the new owner of Everett’s Auto Body Shop.
Tom took off his sunglasses and set them casually on top of his head. He blinked rapidly as his eyes adjusted to the fluorescent light. Tellers were busy helping customers and there was a long line by the counter. Every seat in the waiting area was full.
He glanced at the clock hanging above the row of tellers.
If I go to lunch now, I’ll get stuck in yet another line. Better stay put and get this over with.
He leaned against the wall, holding a thin folder against his hip. A pretty woman in a blue business suit walked over to him.
He straightened and nodded, gracing her with a sexy grin.
“I’m Nancy, the Loan Officer.”
She extended her hand to shake his.
“I’ll be helping you today.”
Flushing at the breathlessness in her voice, she turned and waved her hand.
“I can help you over here.”
He followed her to the cubicle and sat across from her.
She cleared her throat then asked, “How may I help you today?”
“I need a small business loan.”
He handed her the folder.
“Here’s the paperwork.”
He leaned back in his chair, studying her as she flipped through the papers.
No ring. No family photographs.
He rubbed his chin. Rough stubble grazed his fingertips.
Forgot to shave. Is she a natural bl—
As if reading his thoughts, she looked up and shifted in her seat.
“You’re a mechanic?”
She blushed and shifted again.
“Nancy. Just Nancy is fine.”
Her eyes darted to the paper.
“You are buying an auto repair shop?”
His voice dropped an octave and he leaned in.
“What kind of experience do you have, Mr. Keller?”
“I’ve been a mechanic for eleven years, Nancy.”
“I-I meant business experience.”
“I’ve helped Mr. Everett when he needed it.”
“Any degrees or certifications that make you qualified for running a business?”
Her eyes sought particular lines on the form.
Lines he left blank.
“You forgot to fill in your education background. What High School did you graduate from?”
When he didn’t answer, she glanced up at him expectantly.
“I dropped out,” he admitted.
“Oh. What about a GED?”
“Is it necessary for a loan?”
“Well, not exactly, but the bank needs to feel confident that you can repay—”
“—My house will be used as collateral.”
“I’m afraid your house can’t be used as collateral for a small business loan.”
Her fingers flew over the keyboard. She clicked on several items then shook her head slowly.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Keller. Your credit score is—” Her ears turned red. “—uh…lower than our requirement.”
“There must be some way for a guy like me to get a loan.”
His innocent baby blues pleaded on his behalf.
She fanned herself with his loan application.
“Do you own your home, Mr. Keller?”
“Yes, Nancy,” he replied in a smoky bedroom voice.
She stared at her computer for an eternity then punched in some numbers on her calculator.
“I could do a home equity line of credit, using your home as collateral.”
Keller, you still got it.
“How much?” he asked.
“Based on the county assessment, fifty grand.”
“You can take my ‘67 Chevy too. It’s a classic.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Nancy replied.
Fifty grand short. I might have to sell my baby after all.
“Have you taken any of the Small Business Education classes offered by the IRS?”
“No, but I will definitely look into it.”
“I still have to submit this to my supervisor, but I think she’ll approve of it. You should know by next week.”
She scribbled something on the back of her business card and offered it to him.
“My cell number. Call me if you have any questions. Any time.”
The offer in her eyes was unmistakable. He gave her a promising smile as he took her card and slipped it into his back pocket.
Bleach. So sterile.
Anjali rubbed her arms as she walked down the corridor.
Why do they keep it so cold in here? The poor babies are going to freeze.
She stopped at the desk.
“I’m here to see my sister. Singh.”
“ID please,” the nurse said. “We have to be extra careful on the Maternity Ward.”
The nurse jotted down her driver’s license number then returned it to her. She pressed a button and the large doors swung open.
“Room three eleven.”
As she neared room three eleven, the faint scent of curry wafted toward her. Bangles jingled. Her shoulders sank. In a moment of weakness, she considered turning around and walking away.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and plastered a smile on her face. She stuck her head in the doorway.
Her mother sat in a chair, holding a small bundle. She cooed and sang softly in Hindi.
“Anjali,” Nandini called weakly.
“Jiji, you look great.”
She leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Some water,” Jiji croaked.
She held the cup so Jiji could sip some water. She set down the cup and walked around the bed. She leaned over and kissed her mother.
“Beti, when are you going to bless me with grandchildren?” Ma asked.
Keeping her voice light and neutral, she replied, “Don’t you have enough grandchildren to spoil?”
“A woman can never have too many children or grandchildren to love,” Ma replied.
Ma’s eagle eyes honed in on every imperfection.
“You will never give me grandchildren if you don’t find a husband.”
Ma shook her head and clucked her tongue.
“A hospital full of single Indian doctors and you don’t wear any makeup. At least put your hair up in a neat bun,” Ma suggested.
She nodded respectfully.
“Your father is downstairs with your niece and nephew. I should go and check on them,” Ma said as she stood.
“Because you are here and it’s getting late, we will take the children home.” Ma returned the baby to Nandini and gave her a kiss. Before Ma left, she said, “Beti, before you know it, you will be too old to have children. Stop being lazy and find a husband.”
It took all her willpower not to roll her eyes or respond with a rude comment. Once the doors swooshed closed behind Ma, she let out a deep sigh.
“I’ll just take out an ad then, shall I?”
“Anjali, you’re not trying hard enough. Would it hurt to wear some makeup? Style your hair? Lose a few pounds?”
To refrain from sharing her snarky response, she busied herself at the sink, washing her hands while Jiji nursed her newborn.
“I’m sure Dinesh could find a good Indian man for you,” Jiji continued.
“Where is Dinesh, anyway?”
“He was at work when I called earlier.”
You are having his third child and he can’t be bothered to show up? Where do I sign up for that?
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from sharing her thoughts. Jiji burped the baby then switched sides.
“Did you pick out a name yet?”
“Like the rice? Oh, Jiji, please don’t name her that. She’ll be teased to no end.”
“I think it’s a lovely name. Dinesh chose it,” Jiji replied.
“I see,” she replied.
Whatever Dinesh wants….
“She’s asleep. Can you put her in the bassinet?”
She reached for her niece, breathing in a mixture of baby powder and sweet milk.
“I’m your favorite aunt,” she whispered before setting her in the clear plastic bassinet.
A nurse brought dinner and she watched TV while Jiji ate. Some time after dinner, Dinesh waltzed in. He kissed his wife on the forehead then stood in front of the bassinet, staring at his newborn daughter. His nose wrinkled in disgust.
“She needs to be changed,” he announced before walking around the bed and taking a seat as if he were royalty.
Surely he doesn’t expect the woman who just gave birth to his child to get up and change a diaper?
Jiji pulled back her blanket. Her face showed strain as she tried to hide her pain.
“I’ll do it,” she offered, not bothering to hide her disgust. She glared at Dinesh who seemed surprised by her response.
What a useless piece of…diaper filler.
She changed her niece then secured the new diaper. After two unsuccessful tries, she wrapped her niece securely in her blanket and rocked her gently.
I’m so glad I’m single. I don’t need a big baby to take care of. Though I wouldn’t mind a little one.