On the appointed day, Dan returned. When he stepped up to the counter, Kenneth pointed to the back room and motioned me to take over the counter. They were gone only about five minutes, but they were some of the longest minutes of my life. At one point I heard a raised voice: Kenneth’s. But Kenneth emerged a few minutes later unharmed. Dan had gone out the back. Kenneth’s eyes wouldn’t meet mine. “It only bought us a month and I don’t know how we’re going to pay the mortgage.”
“At least you’re alive,” I said.
“Then why do I feel half dead?” he asked quietly.
I didn’t have an answer. There was part of me that wanted to keep him away from danger forever, to keep him home and keep him safe. But somewhere deep down I also knew that if I succeeded in keeping him from all harm, he’d no longer be the man I love.
Business was good and by the grace of God alone we made our mortgage, and payroll, but a bus boy who works for ice cream isn’t hard to pay in an ice cream parlor.
The next few months passed much the same way with a quiet back room meeting early every month. Kenneth would wander around like a zombie for a few days after, as if it wasn’t so much his money as his soul he was handing over to the Duke.
Oscar’s Aunt got somewhat better and she came down to the parlor every now and again to check on him. I swelled up till it looked like I’d pop any moment and my feet hurt for hours after a hard day’s work. Luckily, I married a man who could have taught at a masseuse school. If not for his foot and back rubs I never would have made it through pregnancy, I doubt I ever will again.
About two weeks before my due date, Kenneth got a call on the back phone. He didn’t talk very long and spent most of his time agreeing. As soon as he hung up the phone, color came back into his face and his eyes danced in a way I hadn’t seen since we bought our crack house turned ice cream parlor.
Dan came the next day. There were raised voices. Kenneth came out of the back with a black eye and the widest smile I’d ever seen on his face.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I told him I wasn’t paying anymore. These guys have been running this neighborhood for too long,” he said.
“He punched me, but I grabbed the fire extinguisher and whacked his knee. He came up for another swing but I let loose the extinguisher and he ran out the back.”
“Kenneth Xavier Thompson, you numbskull,” I said as I pulled a bag of crushed ice out of the freezer and shoved it toward his darkening eye. “He’s gonna come back with the Duke and all his thugs and murder you.”
“Nonsense, Constance, I came back to this neighborhood to provide a place for kids and families to congregate in safety, to make a haven for people away from the crime and violence of the street. And that’s why you came here too.”
I hated it when he was right. And I was wrong about the Duke. He didn’t come back with his goons that day or even the next. By the fifth day he seemed like a lonely bully who went crying to his mother when somebody finally stood up to him. But I was wrong about that too.
The next night Kenneth headed to the grocery store after we closed to pick up a few items for us. Somehow we’d run out of milk. I don’t know how you do that in an ice cream parlor, but we did. I finished cleaning the counter and locked up for the night. He called me several times to check about prices and brands; he was helpless in a supermarket. On the walk home he called me yet again, “Hey beautiful.”
“Hey,” I said. “You finally make it out of the store?”
“Yes, surprisingly they only sell twelve kinds of lettuce there. I’ll have to write a letter to the manager about increasing variety.”
“Is this your way of saying you got the wrong lettuce?”
“No,” he said, “It’s my way of saying I probably got the wrong lettuce, but I’ve got a one in twelve shot- Connie, I gotta go.”
The tone in his voice was unmistakable.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“Nonsense,” he replied. There was a breath of silence, and then he said, “I love you.” Click.
That’s when the contractions started.