Kenneth was quiet for the next few days. His brow seemed to be constantly knit in thought. Customers came in pretty steady and Oscar was never far from the shop. It wasn’t long before he started helping out and became our unofficial bus boy, paid in denominations of chocolate, vanilla and pistachio surprise.
On Thursday, Kenneth slipped out after we closed for “important work.” He came back to Scoops a few hours later dejected.
I asked him what was wrong but he wouldn’t answer. Normally I would have barreled on through his melancholy till he answered me, but something pulled me back and I waited for him to make the first move.
Much later, once we’d lain in bed for almost an hour in the sweaty heat of the summer, he got brave enough to lay his heart on his sleeve.
“I don’t know what to do, Constance,” he said.
For only the third time in the twelve years I’d known him, I saw tears in my husband’s eyes. The first was our wedding. The second when he found out he was going to be a daddy. And now this. I scooched my swollen belly toward him and took him in my arms.
“There’s no way out,” he said. “The Duke’ll destroy this place if he doesn’t get his ‘gift.’ He’s already scared the whole neighborhood. No one will cross him”
“Your ‘concerned citizens’ meeting didn’t go so well?” I asked.
He looked at me with surprise.
“Mr. Thompson, you’re going to have to do a lot better than whisper if you want to hide something from me,” I said.
He smiled and shook his head. “You’re quite the nosy girl aren’t you?” he said. He reached over and poked at me playfully. I punched him in the ribs. He held me close.
“You going to pay him?” I asked, trembling just a little.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve spent three-quarters of my life trying to make this dream happen. I don’t want to lose it all because of some jerk who thinks he can waltz in and demand protection money.”
“But Kenneth,” I said, “Kenny needs a father.”
“Yes,” he replied, “but how could I call myself a man if I didn’t stand up to injustice, if I didn’t try to protect him and his mom and his neighborhood from creeps like the Duke. Creeps who take what they want and don’t care who they step on. If I don’t try to stop this he’ll have a father, but there won’t be a man in his life.”
“Kenneth Xavier Thompson, you’re an idiot,” I said. Maybe it was the pregnancy talking, but I got mad. “You think the Duke is going to just take being crossed? No, he’s going to kill you and burn down your stupid dream of an ice cream parlor. Is this more important than us? Do you care more about this dream than us?”
He laid in silence for a long moment while I cried.
“Quite the contrary, my love. Quite the contrary.” He turned over and soon I heard the rhythmic sounds of his breathing. I sniffled long into the night. Little Kenny turned over and over again, trying to find some way to hug me from the inside. And with that reassurance I finally fell asleep.