Authors: Pamela Morsi
Mid-October brought a blast of cold weather and two tickets for All- Academics Night
The local schools got together for one special evening to honor their top seniors. Nathan would be receiving a special citizenship award as well as his certificate as a National Merit Scholar.
“Two tickets?” Calla held them up in question.
“I've invited Jazzy,” he told her. “Could you bring her with you? I'm afraid she won't show up if I just hand her a ticket and ask her to be there.”
Calla selfishly didn't want to share this night with anyone. But if Nathan wanted the girl to go, Calla determined that she would.
She was less certain when Jazleen answered the door. Calla had on a conservatively cut wool suit in a chic coral color set off by a felt cloche hat with a matching ribbon.
Jazleen, on the other hand, was dressed in tight jeans, a low-cut blouse and a hoodie.
It was on the tip of Calla's tongue to suggest the girl find something else to wear, but she managed to keep the words from flying out of her mouth. She knew enough about teens to understand that criticizing hair or clothes was an open declaration of war.
The evening together could not have been called particularly congenial. Jazleen spoke when she was spoken to. And after three or four attempts at casual conversation, Calla decided that polite silence was probably better for the two of them anyway.
The auditorium was crowded with happy, optimistic families. The upbeat mood seemed to affect Jazleen adversely. Her jaw was set tightly with annoyance. Anyone who glanced in her direction was treated with suspicion.
What a charming girl!
Calla thought sarcastically. Where was the smartness and sweetness that Nathan saw in her?
“Hey look, it's your neighbor,” Jazleen said.
Calla glanced up to see Landry Sinclair coming up the aisle. He was dressed immaculately in a dark blue suit and blue-and-gold striped tie, a matching handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket.
Jazleen snorted. “He looks like he's decked out for the prom.”
Calla thought he looked just plain gorgeous. The opinion might have been mutual since the man stopped dead in his tracks when he caught sight of her. He stepped purposely in Calla's direction.
“Mrs. Middleton,” he said. “How lovely you look tonight.”
“Ohâ¦thank you,” Calla answered. She heard the silly breathlessness in her voice and chose words to counter it. “My son is receiving an award. So as a proud mama, I have to fix up enough not to embarrass him.”
“You always look wonderful,” the man told her. “It must be the sense of accomplishment that has you beaming.” His gaze lingered on her just an instant longer than necessary, before he acknowledged Jazleen. “I don't believe we've met, but I've seen you in the neighborhood.”
“Uh-huh,” the girl offered lamely. She stared warily at his outstretched hand, then limply accepted the handshake.
“This is Jazleen,” Calla offered as introduction when the teen said nothing.”
The man's eyebrows went up. “Jazleen Coakley?”
The girl's jaw dropped. “Uhâ¦yeah. How'd you know my name?”
“I know all my students,” he answered. “Even the ones who don't show up at school.”
“Your students?” Calla asked.
Landry Sinclair nodded. “I'm school principal at C.A.”
“Cavitz Alternative,” he answered. “We're a small high school, but we have our share of students winning awards.”
Calla was genuinely surprised. “You're a school principal?”
The seats were filling up fast and someone wanted the one where Landry was standing.
“Perhaps I'll see you later,” he said.
Calla didn't have time to answer, but she would have told him no. She had plans to spend the evening with her son. This was a big night for Nathan.
The evening was long as each student was allowed his or her moment in the sun. The teenagers thanked their parents, their teachers, their school counselors, their brothers and sisters and friends.
One young woman caught Calla's attention because she was from Landry Sinclair's Cavitz Alternative.
“I want to thank my teachers, who never gave up on me,” she said. “My baby boy, Keeton, whose sweet smile helps me stick to my priorities. And I want to thank my book group. It's so cool that you came to see me tonight. But then, that's what you're good at, being there for me. Sharing your lives and your hearts with me. Without you, I wouldn't be standing here.”
As the audience politely applauded, a cluster of teenage girls rose to their feet whistling and cheering. Their enthusiasm rejuvenated the crowd.
Calla's long wait was worth it when it was finally Nathan's turn.
He looked so tall and so handsome in his suit. And so grown up.
When had that happened? Calla wondered to herself. When had her gangly teenage boy turned into such a young man? She had seen him every day, but now, looking up at him behind the podium, it was as if he were irrevocably changed.
She watched as his eyes scanned the crowd. When their gazes met, Nathan smiled.
“I stand here, happy and grateful for the future I see before me,” he said. “And like my fellow students, I realize I didn't get here alone. I've worked hard. But the journey to this day didn't begin with me. It began with my mom and dad. Before I could speak my first word, they read to me and dreamed for me and planned for me to have opportunities that they never had. My father didn't live to see this night. But my mother is here and I dedicate this award to her as I say, âThanks, Mom, I won't let you down.'”
The crowd applauded as he stepped off the stage. Calla felt such a lift in her heart. She glanced toward Jazleen beside her. The girl was applauding, but what caught Calla's attention was the evidence of a tear in her eye. Somehow Calla couldn't imagine this angry, stubborn young woman to have a sentimental side. Then she realized that the emotion on the girl's face was not pride, but fear.
At the end of the long evening, Nathan caught up with the two of them in the crowded foyer. He was happy, excited. He offered Calla a dutiful kiss on the cheek. Then he whirled Jazleen in the air. Laughing, smiling, the girl was absolutely radiant. She bore no resemblance to the slouching, sullen young woman Calla had spent the evening beside. Nathan's presence had somehow transformed Jazleen. And when he clasped her in his arms and kissed her, it seemed as natural as if he'd done it a million times.
“Mom, some of the kids are going to make a party of it at Grace Church Coffee House,” he said. “We won't be late.”
He wasn't asking permission and it wasn't at all what Calla had planned. But somehow she found herself smiling.
“Have a good time,” she told them.
The two scampered off like the children they almost were. Calla headed to the door herself.
“Mrs. Middleton!” she heard a low-pitched voice call out behind her. She knew who it was before she turned. She took a deep breath and schooled her expression into casual unconcern.
“Mr. Sinclair,” she said.
He was smiling. “Call me Landry,” he suggested. “I get Mr. Sinclair all day long, and to be completely honest, I get tired of hearing it.”
“All rightâ¦Landry,” she agreed. “I'm Calla.”
“I know,” he answered quietly. “The most stately and elegant flower in the entire garden.”
“Oh my goodness,” she said, shaking her head. “That's a bit over the top, don't you think?”
“Is it?” he asked. “I apologize. I can only blame it on years of writing bad poetry as an undergraduate.”
He was standing very close. Close enough that Calla felt enveloped in the clean masculine scent of him. It was exhilarating. Almost scarily so.
“May I see you home?”
“No? You won't let me see you home?”
“Please don't say that it's out of my way. I live right next door,” he pointed out.
“I justâ¦I just wouldn't want people to talk.”
He grinned at her. “People always talk,” he said. “Sometimes I feel it's almost my Christian duty to give them subject matter.”
Calla laughed aloud. She couldn't help it.
“All right, Landry,” she said. “Why don't you walk me home.”
Calla felt self-conscious while they were inside the school building and in the lighted area of the lawn in front. But once they reached the anonymity of the sidewalk, she relaxed. She made no attempt, however, to take his arm when he offered it. It was better, she was certain, simply to walk beside him.
His hand brushed casually against her own. The idea that he might take it in his was enough to make her fold her arms across her chest.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“No, no, I'm fine,” she said. Hastily, she grasped at a neutral subject. “I noticed that you put in a garden.”
He nodded and smiled. “I think it must be all the farming in my blood.”
“You must be from Florida or someplace. Chicago winters are too harsh to grow things.”
“Originally I'm from out west, but I've been here in Chicago ten years.”
“Then you must know you can't grow a winter garden without a hothouse.”
“Actually, I planted bulbs,” he said. “I do it every autumn.”
“What kind of bulbs?”
“They're a metaphor,” he answered, and then he laughed. “They're daffodils, but I think of my fall planting as being like my students.”
“In what way?”
“I plant them in the fall, and then all winter long when it's cold and miserable and every day is a challenge, I remember that just because I can't see any growth, my flowers are all still making progress, and by the time spring gets here, they will be beautiful. I expect the same to be true of my students.”
Calla smiled at him. “That's a nice thought.”
“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “And in the day-to-day darkness of many of these young people's lives, a nice thought is sometimes the only thing there is to hang onto.”
Calla knew that was probably true. There were teenagers in the neighborhood, guys and girls that Nathan had played games with as a child, who now seemed directionless and trapped in a dead-end existence. But Calla didn't want to talk about that tonight. The air was too crisp and the stars too bright to dwell on the sadness in the world. She changed the subject.
“So is this faith in springtime based on actual farming experience?” she asked. “Somehow it's hard to picture you in a straw hat, holding a pitchfork with a sprig of hay seed in the corner of your mouth.”
“Did you grow up on a farm?” she asked.
“Me? No, I grew up in the high countryâFlagstaff, Arizona.”
“Arizona? I've never met anyone from there.”
“Now you have,” he answered. “My parents were both professors at Northern Arizona University. My parents, my brother and my sister still live there. But I did spend a lot of summers out at my grandparents' farm in Arkansas.”
“Aha! So perhaps there
some mud on your boots. What kind of farm was it?”
“A pretty small one,” he answered. “But they did harvest peaches and strawberries and almost every kind of greens you could think of. It was a great experience for a kid. Teaches you a lot of lessons about working hard and having patience and not giving up in the face of failure. Good things to know in life.”
Calla nodded in agreement.
“What brought you to Chicago?” she asked.
Landry sighed dramatically. “The only thing that can ever jolt a man out of his comfortable little worldâa beautiful woman.” He chuckled.
“I followed her here about ten years ago,” he said. “Our romance didn't last six months, but my infatuation with this city just gets stronger every year.”
On the sidewalk ahead of them, the light from Cal & Cecil's CafÃ© spilled out on the concrete.
“Let me buy you a cup of coffee,” he said. “It will warm you up.”
She shook her head. “It would just keep me awake all night.”
“Decaf?” he suggested. “Or wait, there is nothing in this world more guaranteed to make you sleep than a big slice of Cecil's lemon meringue pie.”
“I should probably get on home.”
“Why? Your son won't be there and I doubt very seriously if you'll get one wink of sleep before he comes in. Coffee and pie, by way of a small celebration.”
Calla was still protesting halfheartedly as he steered her into the small, well-frequented little diner.
They took a narrow booth some distance from the door. Landry ordered a couple of pieces of pie and coffee, decaf for her. The place was warm and cozy and friendly and she had a smart, good-looking man hanging on to her every word. It was hard for any woman not to appreciate that.
“So you know about me,” Landry said. “Arizona boy who sought love in Chi-town and found a career instead. What about you?”
“Me? There's not that much to tell,” Calla assured him. She spoke briefly about working for Dr. Walker.
“What about your husband?” he asked.
“Mark? He passed away five years ago.”
Landry nodded. “I gathered that from Nathan's speech. What happened? Was he ill?”
“It was an accident,” she told him. “He was a postman walking on Grand Avenue making his daily delivery. A woman's car skidded out of control and came flying up on the sidewalk.”
“I'm so sorry.”
Calla nodded as she had a million times before when sympathy was expressed. “He didn't suffer. The paramedics told me that he died instantly.”
“And you've been on your own ever since.”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Making a living and raising a son keep me busy.”
He nodded slowly. “Too busy to make time for a man in your life?”