To Bean or Not To Bean by Ann R. Brown. Graphic shaows a candle burning, sending up a long-stemmed rose made of smoke.

A Sequel to Let It Be Me
(mild R at the end)

 

Roared William, “Get those candles lit! It's dark as the inside of a coal sack in here!”

With a gesture he sent a half-dozen teenagers scurrying up stepladders to light candles in iron wall sconces and chandeliers. It was Friday night, and everything was progressing on schedule. The flickering lights illuminated Father and Mary, sitting close together at the head of a table. Four months earlier, after her disastrous date with Quincy Randall, Mary had given up her chamber and moved in with Father. Her bright blue sweater and smart haircut made her look twenty years younger. Happiness helped, too.

At another table, Vincent pretended to listen to Kipper's account of a tetherball tournament while his thoughts turned to Catherine, who hadn't come Below for a month. His whole body ached for her touch. Lately, though, she had become distant, and it worried him a lot.

Kipper complained, “You haven't heard a word I said. You're thinking about Catherine. I don't ever want a girlfriend. They're nothing but trouble.”

“A trouble I couldn't do without.”

Mouse had a question. “Is it cool, having a girlfriend?”

“You know her. What do you think?”

He thought about it a while and answered, “Yeah. It's cool.”

Little Eric idolized Vincent. “Catherine's so pretty.”

“The loveliest and the best that Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest.”

“Special, huh?”

“You look puzzled.” Affectionately he ruffled Eric's hair. “Some day you'll see a girl with eyes like a child's drawing, and your soul will leap out of your body to meet her, and you'll know what those words mean.”

With the rattle of a triangle, William summoned kids from the adjoining kitchen. Carrying heavy steel pans and platters of garlic toast, they raced around trestle tables set up in the enormous cavern that was the dining hall.

“Watch it! Those pans are hot!”

“What have we got tonight, William?” called Kipper. “Better not be lasagna again.”

William's good humor began to dissipate. He worked like a galley slave and asked only for a little gratitude in return. “You'll eat what I cook and like it.”

“We never get burgers and fries.”

Vincent intervened, “Kipper, be thankful. William works very hard to feed us all.”

Whatever Vincent thought, Eric also thought. “Yeah, he works very hard.”

From the other tables a collective groan arose.

“Not again!”

“I'm sick of this!”

“I'll just eat the garlic toast.”

Stepping up on a bench, William shouted to the whole room. “Guido's Pizzaria gave us ten cartons of lasagna noodles, and I'm using them up, so quit griping. Back in Terlingua, my lasagna was number one.”

Her new-found attractiveness made Mary bolder. She whispered, “It's easy to be first when there's no second entry.” She elbowed Father and made him giggle.

Aloud, she said, “Too much stodge. Also, what is this soft drink? I don't think I like it.”

William's red face turned crimson. “A Vietnamese Helper gave us four cases of soda pop and I'm not tossing it.”

Kipper held up a yellow bottle. “Looks like mouse pee.”

“Hey! Take that back!” protested Mouse.

“The yellow is yam flavor. The green is pine. Drink it and shut up.” He was sputtering with rage.

Someone yelled from the back, “I ain't drinkin' no Pine-Sol.”

Another voice called out, “No mouse pee, neither.”

“William's tryin' to kill us,” Zach declared, and flung himself to the floor, yelling, “I'm chokin'! I'm pukin'! Help, murder, police! I got lasagna poisoning!”

“That's it.” William jumped down from the bench, tore off his apron, and threw it aside. “That's the last straw. I quit. You ungrateful jerks can feed yourselves, because I am officially out of here.” He stomped out of the dining hall before either Vincent or Father could stop him.

Standing side by side in the archway, they watched William disappear around a corner.

“Has he ever walked out before?” asked Vincent.

Thinking back, Father scratched his chin. “Not once in fifteen years.”

“Then I'm afraid he's really angry. Until he comes back, someone in the kitchen crew will have to take over.”

“They're all children and teenagers. Not one of them can organize meals for thirty people. I nominate you.”

Vincent took a step backwards. “You're not serious. I've never even cooked a radish.”

“Don't fret, you'll have two weeks to practice your cooking skills on us before Founders' Day, when all the Helpers will be here for the commemoration, and it will be your job to provide a feast. Last year we had Cornish game hens and wild rice dressing. I wouldn't mind having that again. With lemon meringue pie. Yes, that's the ticket.”

He was stunned. “Oh, Father, pick somebody else. I don't know how to fry jell-o, or boil a head of lettuce, or anything. He must have trained a backup, an understudy.”

“William hasn't trained anyone. For fifteen years he's been the king of the kitchen.” Father patted Vincent on the back, adding, “You're educated, you can do this. Perhaps Catherine will help.”

“She lives on takeout Chinese. Besides, she's working. There has to be someone Below who's willing to take on this job. Appointing me is a terrible mistake. Founders' Day will be an epic disaster on the scale of Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted.”

“Be creative. Have fun with it,” suggested Father. Whistling softly, he went back to the table to finish his lasagna, leaving Vincent to slouch toward the kitchen as he envisioned community-wide calamities: food poisoning, smoke inhalation from burning pies, and mass walkouts.

Eric followed him to the sink, which was piled high with dirty dishes. “We'll clean up this mess. Don't you worry.”

Kipper appeared with a tray of cutlery. “Man up, Vincent. You gottta show these pots and pans who's boss.”

“Easier said than done. Unfortunately, we'll have to live with my lack of skills for the time being. This cleanup I'm leaving to you. I'm heading for the library in search of cookbooks. Let's hope William will get over his sulks and show up to fix breakfast tomorrow morning so I won't need them.”

“He won't if he's mad,” said Eric.

“He has to eat.”

“He's got cupboards full of noms in his chamber. Cheese, crackers, beef jerky, Twinkies, jars of bean dip, and Fritos. I know 'cause we play checkers sometimes.”

With a sigh, Vincent answered, “I'm sinking like the Titanic. Let's hope there's a life raft in the library.”

The library was a peaceful place. Oak bookshelves reached the ceiling: the highest shelves were accessible only by ladders. Stained glass ceiling fixtures cast rainbows of light over wing chairs and a desk centered on an old Persian carpet. He had spent many pleasant hours relaxing in one of those high-backed chairs, reading Tennyson and dreaming. But poetry couldn't help him now. Half aloud, he echoed Kipper's words. “Man up. You're fluent in Russian and ASL, you can learn to work a stove. How hard can it be?”

He found only one tattered cookbook, which he signed out at once. “Hmmm,” he said to himself, flipping the pages. “So that's what they eat for breakfast. How odd. Where exactly is Latvia, anyway?”

After leaving the library, he made his way to Catherine's balcony. With his heart beating hard, he tapped on the glass door. Immediately Catherine emerged from her bedroom, wearing a royal blue cocktail dress. She opened the balcony door but slid away from his open arms.

“I'm meeting friends from work for a drink. Did I forget to tell you?”

His arms fell to his sides. Swallowing hard, he said, “We always meet on Friday nights.”

“Yeah, sorry. Work is ruining my social life. One of these days we'll get together and have a good time.”

“Sure. A good time. One of these days.”

She grabbed up a coat, saying, “Gotta run. See you soon.”

Vincent stood alone on the balcony, looking through the glass doors at a darkened apartment. He experienced anger and despair so great that it shocked him. He couldn't understand how everything had gone wrong so fast, only four months since she had first trusted him with her beautiful body. He couldn't even corner her and demand an explanation. Every time he tried, she darted away like a hummingbird. In his mind, there could be only one reason for her vanishing act. “Narcissa was right. We're star-crossed.”

 

After a sleepless night, Vincent got up very early and headed for the kitchen. Staying busy was the best way to ward off despair. He tied on William's white apron and began to examine the equipment, which had been collected over several decades. Behind a six-burner restaurant stove, the wall was scorched black. An ancient wheezing refrigerator/freezer dripped water on the stone floor. Turning too quickly, he banged his head on one of the skillets that hung from a pot rack the size of an iron gate.

In the pantry he investigated a shelf of exotic spices. “Cardamom? Fennel seeds? Bay leaves? We're eating leaves now?”

By the time Kipper and Eric appeared with the rest of the kitchen crew, he had washed his hands, rolled up his sleeves, and marked a page in the Latvian cookbook.

“All right, we're on the move. Eric, you bring out the liver and the cornmeal. Brooke, you brew coffee in that big urn thing. Kipper, find a box of chopsticks and salad oil to fry the oatmeal. Don't pour the milk on Father's Grape-Nuts yet.”

Kipper took a look. “Umm, Vincent, that's not Grape-Nuts.”

“Sure it is, just look at it.”

“It's yeast. You fixed him a bowl of yeast.”

Vincent rubbed his forehead. Already he was developing a terrible headache. “Pour it back in the pantry jar. I just hate this. I also have to plan a feast for Founders' Day, and I have no idea where to start.”

As Vincent turned away, Eric caught his last words. “Except that I absolutely must get a football.”

Breakfast was not a success. No one ate the liver mush or the oatmeal on a stick. When everyone had cleared out of the dining hall but Mary, he sat down mournfully on a bench. His partially-burned apron dripped with ground liver. “I knew it would be a catastrophe. I don't suppose you can cook, Mary?”

She was wearing sparkly earrings and a sweater with red and white stripes. “Not me. I wasn't built for comfort, I was built for speed. Say, I haven't seen Catherine around for ages. You two aren't having problems, are you?”

He didn't answer, but looked so bereft that she backed off. “Oh, I'm sorry, I had no idea. Really, I wouldn't have said anything.”

He squared his shoulders and did his best to smile. He didn't want sympathy, and resolved to put a brave face on his anxiety. “Everything's fine, she's just busy at work.”

Mary put a kind hand on his shoulder. “You're worried, though.”

“It's just this feast. I don't want to disappoint the Helpers who have done so much for us. I'll think of something.”

“You ought to talk to Catherine. Ask her why she hasn't come Below.”

He stared into empty space. “When I can find the time, I will.” If I ever see her again, I will.

She continued, “Cheer up. Sometimes things don't go from bad to worse. Once in a while a man aims high, and all goes well.”

He couldn't fool Mary, and there was no point in trying. “Two months ago, Narcissa told me that my stars and Catherine's were in a bad conjunction, or something, and she could see nothing ahead for us except bitter bad luck. Her prediction has come true. I've been written off.”

“You sound bitter, Vincent.”

“Can you blame me?”

“Listen. For years I existed without hope of change, just moping along day by day. With Catherine's help, I became what I was born to be, someone who's entitled to receive and give love. There are blessings in store for you, too”

Mary glanced up, saw Father waiting in the entrance, and sped straight into his arms.

Against her lips he murmured, “I like you in that sweater. You look like a candy cane. And the flavor goes on and on.”

She was tickled pink. After so many years of unrequited affection, her dreams had come true. “Jacob, shame on you! You don't get older, you just get bolder. What do you say let's fool around?”

“My dear, you couldn't want that more than I do.”

Arm in arm, they vanished around a corner. Vincent closed his eyes and tried to find a way of bearing what was coming to him. He wanted to be grateful for the time he and Catherine had spent together, but gratefulness was beyond him. A few blissful months out of a lifetime weren't enough.

After a while, he got up and headed downstairs to tackle a problem that could be solved. William had to come back. He just had to.

 

Eric entered the seventh-grade classroom, where Jayson was practicing break-dancing.

“Hey, Jayson.”

“Wassup, Four-Eyes.”

“You have a football, don't you?”

“Yeah, but I don't loan it out.” Jayson had red hair and a foxy face. He was a born entrepreneur.

“Will you sell it to me?”

“What's your offer?” He could calculate even while he was spinning around on the floor.

“I'll give you six of my Batman comics for it.”

“This is a championship football, like from the NFL. You'll have to do better than that, my man. A lot better.”

“All my Batman comics and four Green Lanterns.”

“That's nothing. Why do you want it, anyhow?”

“Just because.” Because I went to pieces when my sister Ellie died, and he got me through it. Because there's nobody like Vincent. Because he needs a football and I'm getting him one somehow. No matter what it takes.

Vincent found William lolling in a hammock and eating pork rinds. An LP of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was playing on his portable phonograph. Eric had been right about the cupboards of snacks. He hadn't mentioned the enormous Lone Star flag that covered one wall.

“William, this morning I pushed liver through a hand-cranked meat grinder and it spewed all over me. Kipper said it looked like I was covered in zombie brains. Then the stove caught fire. I beat it out with your apron. Eric dropped his eyeglasses in the oatmeal and I nearly fried them. I can't do this. Please come back.”

William popped a Shiner Bock and drank it before answering. “No way José.”

“I have one cookbook containing recipes for lard omelets and herrings with prunes. Are there other cookbooks somewhere?”

“Never needed 'em. All my recipes are in my head.”

“I follow recipes, but they go wrong.”

He winked. “As my Pappy used to say, keep doin' it wrong till you like it that way.”

“Don't be like that. We need you.”

“Too little too late. I'm gonna start hitchhiking to Texas as soon as I finish all the snacks in the cupboards. If I'm lucky I'll be in time for the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off the first Saturday in November.”

“You're really going?” His voice was hollow.

“With a backpack full of Ding Dongs and a song in my heart.”

Vincent gripped his hands together, pleading, “Founders' Day is looming like a locomotive aimed straight at me. Can you at least stay that long and help me out?”

William crunched the beer can and threw it into the waste basket. “He shoots, he scores! Texas is beautiful this time of year. None of you appreciated me when I was working seven days a week to put food on your tables. Now you won't have William to kick around anymore.”

The signal for 'Lights Out' clanged on the pipes: Mary rolled over in bed to speak to Father. “I'm sure you've noticed that Catherine hasn't been around. Vincent's creasing up.”

Father's red silk pajamas embroidered with golden dragons were a gift from Mary, and made him feel dashing. “It's a pity, but only to be expected. Most of us are refugees from the world outside, but she has a career, a successful life Above. We have nothing she needs. I feel like the Emperor of China in these pajamas. Care to be my concubine?”

Love games were the last thing on her mind. “You're implying he should give up hoping.”

“He has to face reality. Sometimes hope is more painful than despair. Their relationship was never more than a seed, a weak little sprout that a breath of wind could wither. How long can a seedling be expected to live?”

“If it's a sequoia, it can live a thousand years. I'm not giving up on them and neither should you.”

“Then we'll both think good thoughts and hope they come true.”

She sat up and pushed her feet into slippers. “Good thoughts are not enough, Jacob. It's time to take action.”

He protested and caught the hem of her nightgown. “Come back to bed. There's nothing you can do.”

“Oh, yeah? Watch my smoke.”

 

Catherine was relaxing on her couch, reading a torrid romance that Rita had loaned her. The fluttering heroine had just surrendered to an arrogant, masterful cad who treated her like dog mess. She tossed the paperback on the coffee table in disgust. Submission was not Catherine's style. Just then a knock on the door caught her attention. She was surprised to see that her visitor was Mary.

“Come in, Mary, I'll make tea.”

“Thanks.”

When they were both settled in the living room with cups of Earl Grey, Catherine asked, “Is everything all right Below? Because there's something on your mind. By the way, you look nice. That purple velour suits you.”

Mary smoothed the lapels. “I wouldn't look nice if it weren't for you. I remember the crocheted ponchos and bedraggled dresses I used to wear. I looked like a hippie homesteader. I'm a new woman now. All my happiness with Jacob I owe to you. But I'm here to bug you about Vincent.”

Catherine's expression tightened. “Did he send you to speak to me?”

“No, no, no. This is entirely my doing.”

“Then stop now, Mary.”

“I can't. You haven't been Below for a month. Vincent isn't meeting you on your balcony any longer. He believes you're avoiding him.”

“No, I'm trying to avoid talking to him. I don't want to hurt his feelings.”

“His feelings? You've turned your back on him, and he doesn't understand why. His heart is breaking over this estrangement. And you know the heart he has.”

“Yes, I know,” she answered quietly. “I also know you're on his side. But this is too personal to talk about with you.”

Mary set down her cup and spoke earnestly. “Vincent loves you unselfishly. That's a rare thing. If you want to call it off, he'll step aside, no matter what it costs him. Is that what you want? Have you stopped caring for him?”

“That could never happen. He has all of my always. But I've been unhappy for months, and it's complicated.”

“I love you a lot, Catherine, but I've known Vincent for more than twenty years. I've seen his struggles to accept who he is. I know his courage and his power of loving. You're thinking that this is none of my business, and that's true. Except that I'm living proof that reticence is a relationship killer. Until Jacob and I were open with each other, we didn't have a chance. Now I'm going and I won't bother you any more. Give me a hug and tell me you forgive me for interfering.”

At the door, Catherine gave Mary a hug. “I'll think about what you've said.”

“Well, I could be overreacting. Vincent may just be stressed over this William business.”

“What William business?”

“That's right, you don't know. William is planning to hitchhike back to Texas in time for a chili cook-off in his home town. Vincent has been given the task of preparing a huge buffet for Founders' Day and he's clueless. Yesterday morning he fixed us breakfast banana dogs and turnip smoothies. Thank God, Brooke got rid of the Latvian cookbook. Now for breakfast we get Cheerios. Lunch is canned chicken noodle soup and a cheese sandwich. Dinner is canned tomato soup and a bologna sandwich. There's a lingering smell of orphanage cafeteria.”

Catherine had to laugh. “There's a solution, you know.”

“Deli take-out?”

“No, hold a chili cook-off in the Tunnels. Let the Helpers bring their own containers and have a potluck after the judging.”

The idea totally galvanized Mary. “That's an idea that actually could work. In fact, it's genius. My first question is, who would judge it?”

“Well, Dr. Peter Alcott is something of a gourmet. And in her younger years, Narcissa cooked for the President of Haiti.”

“Bless you, Catherine, you're a life saver. Bye.”

“Bye, Mary.”

Catherine locked the door and returned to the couch, knowing she had to make a tough decision. She owed Vincent the truth, even if the revelation resulted in deeper suffering for both of them. I've been avoiding the issue for my sake more than his. It's such a tricky subject. All right, I'll tell him face to face. But neither one of us is going to like it.

 

Mary, Vincent, Kanin, and Lena sat around the council table in Father's chamber. Several kids sat on the spiral staircase and listened in.

“I say we go for it without a lot of arguing,” said Mary. “We don't have time to fool around with other ideas.”

“This is a departure from tradition,” mused Father, scratching his beard.

Vincent looked awful. He hadn't slept in days. “A chili contest and potluck is a brilliant idea, much better than the alternative, which is banana breakfast dogs.”

“Let's take a vote,” Mary insisted.

“You're rushing into this,” Father complained. “A great deal more discussion is required.”

“All in favor, say aye.”

Everyone at the table voted 'aye,' with the exception of Father, who was still dubious. The kids on the staircase also chimed in with 'aye.'

Kanin spoke up then. “I'll write out the contest rules and mimeograph them. Then they have to be delivered by hand to all the Helpers on Father's address list. Too bad Jamie's gone, she had a bike.”

Eric jumped down from the spiral staircase and ran to the table. “I'll do it, I'll deliver them. I have a bike.”

“You're too young to be biking around Manhattan alone,” said Father.

“I want to do it. I won't miss a name. That job's for me.” Messengers get tips. And I need money for Vincent's football.

He was thrilled to hear Vincent say, “Eric's a responsible boy, he can do it. We also need a prize for the winner, and musicians.”

“Mariachis,” said Lena, bouncing her baby on her lap. “I'll take care of that. And Mexican beers – Bohemia and Dos Equis.”

Father gave up. “Well, then, I might as well make it unanimous. Chili, beer, and mariachis. ¡Olé!



1ST ANNUAL TUNNEL CHILI COOK-OFF
AND POTLUCK
FOUNDERS' DAY, OCTOBER 3, 7 PM

All Tunnel people and Helpers are invited.
Contest Rules:
Bring one gallon of Texas red chili, no beans or pasta allowed.
Entries will be judged on aroma, color, consistency, and taste.
Prizes will be awarded to the top three winners.
Label your entry with a nickname such as No Mercy or Buffalo Breath.
Those not entering the contest are encouraged to bring side dishes or dessert for a potluck to follow.
Dance to the Fiesta Mariachis.
IF YOU DON'T HAVE A GOOD TIME, IT'S YOUR OWN DAMN FAULT

Eric took a handful of flyers, still damp from the mimeograph, and leaped on his bike, calling, “Hi Yo Silver! I'll ride like the wind!”

On the morning of October 2, Vincent rounded up the kitchen crew. “This morning, everybody gets Cheerios again. It's Cheerios until we run out, and then Grape-Nuts for the rest of eternity. Where's Eric? I want him to fill the sugar bowls.”

Said Samantha, “I saw him heading for the boys' dorm with Jayson.”

“Then you fill them. The rest of you, cereal bowls and Cheerios, spoons, napkins, orange juice, and coffee cups. Milk jugs last of all. Go!”

“Will Catherine be coming to Founders' Day?” Samantha wondered. “She hasn't come Below for a million years.”

Just for a second, Vincent doubled over and put his hands over his mouth to stifle a cry. Then he straightened up and fought to speak calmly. “I don't think she'll make it. She's working long hours with the DA. Important cases.”

“When you see her, tell her to come visit. I want to show her my new dress.”
He managed to say, “I will. When I see her.”

Jayson and Eric had the boys' dorm to themselves while everyone else was eating breakfast. The seventh grader lit a cigarette. “Well, whatcha got for me?”

“Fourteen dollars and all my comics. I got Batman, Green Lantern, and a silver age Wonder Woman.”

“That's nothin'. It's a championship football. Joe Montana made a touchdown with this very ball when he was playin' for the Jets.”

Despair clutched his heart. “I got nothing else.”

Jayson took a puff. “Tell you what. I'll trade you this football that William Refrigerator Perry won the Superbowl with, for the comics, the fourteen dollars, and your bike.”

Eric choked and clutched an iron bedstead. “Oh. Oh. My bike? Oh.”

“I got lots of offers for this football, so take it or leave it.”

He closed his eyes and gasped once or twice, for the bike was his prize possession. Then his mind called up images of Vincent's kindness after Ellie's death, when he could do nothing but scream. The afternoon Vincent had taken him around the underground lake in a rowboat and let him pull the oars. In front of the whole council, Vincent had called him a responsible boy, someone who could be trusted to navigate the streets of Manhattan and deliver crucial messages. “All right. I'll do it.”

“That's a smart boy. You got the better of me in this deal.” Jayson pulled a metal box out from under his bed, opened it, and produced a dilapidated football, as flat as a run-over cat.

“Take care of this, 'cause it's vintage.”

“Oh. Okay. What does vintage mean?”

“Means it's an antique worth big money.”

“All right. I'll take care of it. Thanks, Jayson.”

“Any time, I'll be here. No, I take that back. I ain't stayin' in this hole. I'm movin' Topside. My buddy Mitch Denton says there's lots of ways for a sharp guy like me to make a buck. In a few weeks' time I'll be ridin' in a limo with a babe on either side of me.”

“Wow. I guess that's pretty cool.”

Jayson winked and ground out his cigarette butt on a headboard. “I'm the coolest guy you'll ever meet, Four-Eyes. One day you can tell your friends – I knew him when.”

The cupboards in William's chamber were almost empty of snacks. He munched his last Twinkie while Eric pondered the checkerboard.

“King me,” said Eric.

“You're getting too good at this,” grumbled William.

“Your flag's gone from the wall.”

“It's in my backpack along with Ding Dongs and a road map. All I need now is a compass. You'll have to come visit me some day. On the train, so you can bring your bike. Beautiful country, lots of bike trails. Hey, whatcha snifflin' for?”

“I'm not,” he protested. He took off his glasses, wiped his eyes, and put them on again.

“Is that a picture of you and Vincent?”

William lifted it from the shelf. “Somebody snapped it at Winterfest a few years ago.”

“Oh! Yes! Thanks, William.” He held it tight against his chest.

“You think a lot of him, don't you.”

“You're my buddy. But Vincent is something else.”

“You're never said a truer word,” William snorted. “He's not your average Joe.”

“These days he looks so sad. Probably cause you're leaving.”

“That ain't the reason, bud. You'll understand it some day when a dame gives you the air. Hey, you want to help me cook tonight? You can be my sous-chef.”

“Sure, what do you want me to do?”

“After Lights Out, sneak out of the boys' dorm and meet me in the kitchen. We'll show these New Yorkers what a bowl of red means. Tri-tip, beef broth, three kinds of chile, and dark beer. They won't know what hit 'em.”

“No beans?”

“Beans?” roared William. “You a Commie or something? No beans in Texas chili. Let that be the rule you live by.” A little ashamed of his outburst, he ruffled Eric's hair, adding, “You're an okay kid. I'll send you a postcard of a jackalope by way of Dr. Peter.”

“What's a jackalope?”

“The official animal of Texas. You don't know that? What's Olivia teaching you guys in class, anyway?”

 

On the following day, right after lunch, all the tables and benches were pushed to the walls to clear a space for dancing. At the far end of the room, Kanin and his wife, Olivia, hammered together a stage for the musicians. Near the entrance, two tables were covered with oilcloth and labeled Chili Entries. Lena filled washtubs with crushed ice for Mexican soft drinks and beer.

Vincent held a bunch of chrysanthemums for Brooke, who took them one by one and arranged them into a centerpiece for the dessert table.

Shyly, with a beaming face, Eric sidled up to Vincent. “I got it.”

“Hmmm?”

“Look what I got for you You're gonna be so excited! Look!”

From behind his back he produced his treasure.

Puzzled, Vincent looked at the flattened old football. After a second, Kipper let out a hoot and then a howl of mockery. He slapped his knees and laughed like a hyena.

“What a maroon! You dumb bunny, Vincent doesn't want a football. He wants a fruitbowl for the grapes and bananas. A football. That's rich. You're mental.”

Eric was mashed. His lips quivered. Tears blurred his eyes and ran down his face. He turned away, ashamed of his sobs. Instantly, Vincent put an arm around his thin shoulders.

“Kipper, you're all wrong. I do need a football, and this one is just right.”

“It's NFL,” sniffled Eric. “Refrigerator Montana won the Superbowl with it.”

“Easy to see it's a good one. And you're a true friend to find it for me.”

Just then, a group of old friends entered the dining hall: Jamie, Rebecca, and Raaida Jalil, who was wearing a shalwar kameez, an outfit consisting of a black tunic and trousers with a black headscarf. She was frowning, as usual, and holding a crock pot labeled 'Rabble Rouser.' There was a rush to hug Vincent and tell him all the news from Boston.

“Oh, what a time we're having,” said Pascal. “One crisis after another. Fortunately for me, troubles keep my girl happy.”

She bristled at once. “I'm not your girl, Pascal. I'm a friendless, homeless refugee, and don't you ever forget it. I never do.”

Pascal protested, “That's just a knee-jerk reaction from the past. You have friends now.”

“Not one in the world. I hide among you to keep from being deported, but you're not my people.”

Pascal covered his hurt with a light-hearted comment. “Raaida's never satisfied unless she's fighting tooth and nail against an impossible obstacle, like rigging up an unauthorized phone line Below.”

She admitted, “I like a challenge. And that phone will happen. I give you my personal guarantee.”

Said Jamie, “Isaac Stubbs quit and came back to New York, but Catherine's cousin Ned from MIT may join us, at least part-time. He's lining up some Helpers for us, too. I'm working in a bike shop and Rebecca's teaching arts and crafts. We spend the daylight hours Topside and go home to our Tunnel at night. Crazy, but fun.”

“Boston is great. I've met a few Irish guys,” said Rebecca, blushing. “But we miss you. I hope you haven't forgotten us.”

“That could never happen. Would you like to pitch in and help?”

“Sure. Is Catherine here? I want to tell her about Ned.”

The artless question drove through him like a javelin. “Not … not yet. I have some errands to run and I'll see you in a bit.”

He ran back and forth between his chamber and the dining hall, then descended four flights of stairs to the Meditation Room on the lowest level. In that quiet room there were wooden pews and a long stone shelf for candles. On the western wall was inscribed a Jewish prayer.

LORD OF THE UNIVERSE, I FORGIVE ALL WHO HAVE MADE ME ANGRY, AND HARMED ME, WHETHER THEY HURT MY BODY,MY HONOR, OR MY PROPERTY,WHETHERWITTINGLY OR UNWITTINGLY, WHETHER IN DEED OR IN THOUGHT. MAY NO ONE BE PUNISHED FOR MY SAKE OR BECAUSE OF ME.

The eastern wall was covered with wooden plaques commemorating every Tunnel dweller and Helper who had passed on since the founding of the community. They would be used in the ceremony to come.

Vincent lit a candle and sat down in the second row. “I call on every deity who has ever heard and answered a despairing prayer. Be with me, for I'm all in the dark tonight. Catherine would never hurt me in a careless way. She has a reason that seems right to her, although it feels so wrong to me. But how could it be wrong, if she does it? While we're parted, watch over my dear love. Keep Catherine safe when I can't be there to look out for her. I'm praying to all of you now, and beg you to hear me. You know that my life-path has been ... not easy ... but I've tried to be a decent person. To be kind, generous, and tolerant, according to the principles of the Upward Path. If I've earned any blessings, give them all to her. Every single one, until she shines like a constellation. Amen.”

By the time he returned to the dining hall, thirty or so Helpers were laughing and greeting friends, and more were filing in. Already fourteen gallons of chili in various containers had been set out on the entries table, including Gunslinger, Rough & Ready, Four Alarm, and Texas Hold'em. The first judge, Dr. Peter, was deep into a serious conversation with Michael about medical school. The second judge, Narcissa, listened to the mariachis tuning their guitars. As soon as Vincent entered carrying an armful of plaques, she blocked his way.

“Been warnin' you of bitter bad luck for you and Catherine. Nothin' ever go right again.”
“I know. I feel it already. Now I must hand these out, so please, let me do this.”

He walked away, but Narcissa, who was almost blind, didn't see him go, and he didn't hear her say, “Now I'm sayin' the signs have changed. Once in a hundred years stars fly across the night sky an' pour good luck like a shower of diamonds. Tonight they're shinin' for you, so don't miss this chance or you'll have to wait another hundred years.”

From across the room, something stirred within him, like the tightening of a responsive cord, and he looked up and saw Catherine in the doorway, looking heart-breakingly beautiful in a rose pink dress. He forgot to breathe as she crossed the room and took his hand.

“We have to talk,” she murmured. “As soon as there's a break.”

He nodded, and a line from Carl Sandburg came to his mind. I take you and pile high the memories. Death will break her claws on some I keep.

As soon as he spied Vincent, Eric raced across the room to tug his sleeve. “C'mere, Vincent! Hi, Catherine. Come look!” He dragged the two of them to the dessert table. Nestled among the bouquet of chrysanthemums was the football, plump and shining with brown shoe polish. Eric was bursting with pride. “Looks good, don't it.”

Catherine's eyebrows went up, but she agreed at once. “It's grand, Eric.”

“I got that for Vincent, 'cause he needed it.”

“It's just what I wanted.” Before descending to the fourth level, Vincent had pumped it up, polished it, and set it in the place of honor.

Catherine squeezed Vincent's hand. “You're the best man I've ever known.”

He smiled faintly. “If there's any mercy in the universe, you'll never change your mind.”

Father stepped up on the stage and called for quiet. “I welcome all of you to this gathering, which is held every year to celebrate the day on which this community was founded. More importantly, we remember and honor the members, friends, and Helpers who have passed on. Form a circle, everyone, and join hands.”

The ring of people stretched from wall to wall. Vincent was amazed to see William shoulder his way between Jamie and Dr. Peter and grab their hands.

“Hey, I'm entitled,” he mumbled.

Said Father, “First let us recite together the three principles of our spiritual journey, which we call the Upward Path.”

Everyone knew the words and spoke in unison.

“He ain't heavy, he's my brother.”

“While we have it, we have it together. When it's gone, we'll go without it together.”

“There is no us and them. There is only us.”

Father continued, “They worked and fought beside us to build and sustain this refuge. Some have been gone for so many years that their names are only spoken once a year during this ceremony. But that keeps them alive for us, and we will never forget. They're as near to us tonight as they were long ago, when we talked to them face to face.”

Olivia read the name of a man she had never met. “Fr. Joe Feeney, 1970, Our pal.”

Memories caught hold of Pascal. “For Etta, my Mother.”

Catherine's voice was husky. “Katy, 1977-79. Sweet of heart.”

Raaida said, “LaRue, 1910-1981. We'll remember.”

Samantha, who liked angels, said, “Our precious baby. Our Christmas angel.”

Mouse said, “Winslow, a fighter and a friend.”

Father recalled the only thing Paracelsus had ever truly loved. “Sparks, the best cat ever.”

“Ellie, my big sister.” Eric's grief was still raw.

The recitation went on around the circle, until all thirty-nine names had been spoken. Usually the ceremony ended with the singing of, 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken.' However, the mariachis hadn't rehearsed that song, and played 'Vaya Con Dios' instead.

“Now the hacienda's dark,
The town is sleeping.
Now the time has come to part,
The time for weeping.
Vaya con Dios, my darling,
May God go with you, my love.”

Said Father, “Remembering brings tears, but they're good tears. Later tonight, Vincent will rehang the plaques in the Meditation Room and light a candle to carry your good wishes upward with the smoke. Now, my friends, the next event is the chili judging and the announcement of a winner. Then the potluck and dancing. This is the sort of day that builds a life.”

As the circle broke up, Catherine said, “I don't believe we talked at all during September.”

“No, not at all.” Her presence at his side caused him an agony of longing and loss.

“Are you angry with me?”

“I can't manage it. I'm worn out.”

With plastic spoons in hand, Dr. Peter and Narcissa moved down the row, sampling batches of chili labeled Mojo Mama's, Sharkbite, Crimson King, and Hell's Hinges. Because Narcissa couldn't see, Rebecca filled out her judging form.

After tasting all twenty entries, the two judges put their heads together and conferred, then came to a decision. The crowd fell silent, listening for the verdict.

Dr. Peter called out, “Third place winner, Sharkbite!”

Astonished, Laura Williams signed, “Me? Is it me?”

Vincent answered her in fluent ASL. “It certainly is, and you're an official chili champion.”

Jamie and Olivia surged around Laura to share the latest gossip. Lena grabbed four bottles of Dos Equis to share as they found seats around a little table and put their heads together.

“Second place winner, Rabble Rouser!”

A cry of surprise burst from Raaida. “I won?”

“Look around you,” Pascal insisted.

Everyone was applauding her. Their faces beamed with goodwill. The cheers that rattled the rafters warmed Raaida through and through, and something shifted in her thinking. For too long she had thought of herself as a friendless exile. The applause let her know that she did have friends as well as a home place. Although her own country had rejected her, she had found another homeland underground. At that moment she pledged her allegiance to that small corner of the world and its citizens.

She reached out and took Pascal's hand. “Too late to be your girl?”

His smile was even wider than hers. “Never too late.”

“I never thought I'd meet a good man. Didn't think there were any.”

“Look around. There's Father, who bears the burden of this community. That tall, elegant fellow is Dr. Peter Alcott, who's a shadow of a great rock in a weary land. And many others. Of course, I'm the most spectacular of them all.”

She laughed and squeezed his hand again. “You're making a joke, but it's the truth. I give you my personal guarantee.”

Narcissa made the final announcement. “Three fine prizes been donated by the Boston Tunnel Community, and first place winner will have first choice. The winner is – Texas Hold'em!”

A wild cheer rose from the crowd as William shuffled to the front, grinning sheepishly.
“Who are you? I can't see you, mon. It's William, you say? Which prize you want? The pocket compass, the bike, or the duffle bag?”

“The bike,” he mumbled. “For my sous-chef. Too small for me.”

Eric couldn't believe his good fortune. His eyes widened with disbelief. “It's a Schwinn. How did you – ”

“I know more than you think. That Jayson is a no-good punk. And I won't need the compass. I've kinda decided to stick around. Terlingua is a good place, but I don't know anybody there any longer, and this is a not-bad place, too.”

Father rushed forward to wring his hand. “We're so pleased, William. And I promise no more seven-day work weeks for you. You're on a five-day schedule. The rest of us will take turns cooking on the weekends just as we take turns as sentries and dorm parents.”

“About time I get a break,” William snorted. Still, his heart was warmed by the applause. They valued him, and that was all he needed.

Eric wheeled the bike across the room to show Vincent and Catherine. “Isn't it awesome?”

“Totally,” said Catherine.

The mariachis swung into 'Las Coronelas,' and she could hardly hear herself speak. “Now Vincent and I need to confer for a while, and we'll catch up with you later.”

“Okay.” Eric drew Catherine down in order to whisper in her ear. “You like Vincent even though he's not your average Joe?”

She whispered back, “My motto is, people who settle for being average lose their chance to be extraordinary.”

Eric spoke very softly. “Vincent says you're the lovelier and the bester.”

“Ah, he must be reading the Rubaiyat again. I'll know he has overdosed on Omar when he starts calling me the the Moon of my Delight who know'st no Wane.”

Vincent protested, “You two want me to leave the room while you talk about me?”

“Catherine says she doesn't know anybody named Wayne.”

He sent her a glance of wonder and doubt as they left the noise of the the dining hall behind. They didn't meet anyone in the corridor or on the stairs. When they reached his chamber, Vincent closed the entrance curtain and turned to face her.

She took a deep breath and began. “Here goes. I've been unhappy for a couple of months.”

He was stricken. “As long as that?”

“Yes. I should have told you long ago but I chickened out. That's not like me, but that's what I did.”

His shoulders were squared, his arms at his sides, as if he were facing a firing squad. “Tell me.”

“I'll give it to you straight. Vincent, you blame me for making myself scarce but I'm not the only one who's opted out. I've been disappointed – I am disappointed – in our lovelife. The first time we ever made love, in this bed, you let yourself go a little bit. It was fantastic. I left footprints on the ceiling. But after that, you retreated. You've been cautious and lukewarm and that's not what I expected from you. Either you're disappointed in me or else I don't know how to turn you on. I only know that instead of volcanoes and boiling lava our lovemaking is a box of damp matches, and I'm not satisfied with that.”

He paced the room, one hand pressing his head. “Catherine, that's not fair. It's true that I let myself go a bit, that first time, and my wilder side almost took over. It cuts me to the heart to know you're disappointed in me when I've battled myself to a standstill to keep you safe. If you want, I'm willing to go back to the time when we were simply friends, even if it means you turn to someone else for a more passionate encounter. And if you could know what it costs me to say that, you wouldn't accuse me of being lukewarm.”

“So that's your story?” Her eyes sparkled as she recalled the romance novel with the submissive heroine. She knew a game worth two of that.

“I want you so ferociously that it terrifies me. Can't you understand that?” Anger jagged through him as he saw her face brighten. He choked, “Oh, how did it come to this, that I have to urge you to seek out another man in order to keep you in my life at all.”

“I want to talk to him. Stand still.”

“What?” He gasped and backed up until his shoulders struck the wall as Catherine began to unfasten the buttons of his linen shirt.

“What are you doing?”

Pulling his shirt open, she spread both hands on his furry chest. “Hush up, I'm not talking to you. Hey, other side, this is Catherine. Show yourself.”

“Don't, I'm not safe.” Appalled, he tugged at her wrists, but she wouldn't budge.

“Vincent's only half himself without you. I want all of you. Hear me, wild thing?”

“Catherine, stop it, now.” He turned his face away from her kiss.

“I want to feel what you feel when you move inside me.” She moved her mouth across his chest, stirring the fur with her breath. He was horrified to sense potency rising in him like a tide.

“I won't do this,” he said, with a groan. Four months ago, when he felt the madness rising, he had gone out into the corridor and beaten the wall with his hands until the stones were smeared with blood. This time she had him cornered and his defenses were crumbling.

“Yeah you will,” she whispered, and moved her hand along the front of his leather trousers, feeling his length. “I crave your body.”

He thought his heart might explode as he threw his head back and bared his teeth. “Angels – saints – hold me back.”

Catherine slipped an arm around his neck and pulled his head down for a fierce kiss. Her other hand slid inside his trousers and gripped him.

He felt himself going. He had no control over a supernova of shock waves that blasted through his body, filling him with power that was more than human. His arms clamped around Catherine, lifting her without breaking the kiss.

As her feet left the floor she dropped her head back, laughing with exaltation. The sheer strength of him thrilled her. “That's it – that's it – give it to me.”

He dropped her on the bed, made a sound that was not a word, for he was past speech, and tore her dress off with his teeth while she urged him on with wriggles and breathy cries. He couldn't get enough of the sight of her, the feel of her, the taste of her. He blinked, and just for a second, seemed about to regain his sanity.

“Cath – ?”

She didn't want that. With an agile twist of her body Catherine eluded his grip and slid off the bed. Dressed only in pink tatters, spreadeagled against a wooden wardrobe, she taunted him. “Come on, big man. Spin me like a propeller.”

The faint impulse of sanity was lost in an explosion of animal madness. He didn't even notice that his boot smashed the stained glass window as he leaped like a jaguar off the bed. Roaring, he jumped over a desk to get at her, and pinned her shoulders against the wardrobe. Using both hands, she wrenched his trousers down. Once again she found herself lifted, then impaled. The thin wood of the wardrobe splintered with the force of his lunges. They both lost balance and toppled into a tangle of clothing and coat hangers. Laughing, she crawled out, trailing his cloak and her blazers. He disentangled himself from the wreckage and made a leap to seize her. The stone floor was cold and rough; on all-fours she scurried to a throw-rug and turned on her back just in time as he straddled her. She clamped him tightly in an explosive coupling, matching her urgency to his primal force, and found herself growling, too, as the bond that connected them vibrated like cello strings to his driving compulsion. They quaked and shuddered together as if an earthquake had hit: he howled his climax while she screamed.

When Catherine came to, she found Vincent beside her, face down, half on and half off the throw rug. His face was hidden in his arms. She stroked his back and realized that his shoulders were shaking. She pressed her lips against his arm. “You don't need to cry. You didn't hurt me. Didn't dominate me. I was with you all the way. I matched you move for move. You don't remember?”

His voice was muffled and ragged. “I remember. I attacked you. Look at your dress.”

“Eh, pink is not my color. Listen, I wanted this. Couldn't you tell?”

“What have you done? Now I'll have to send you away and it will kill me.”

“I never was in danger. Your other side is part of you, and he loves me, too. Even at your maddest moments, I'm safe with you.”

At last he rolled over and stared at the ceiling. When at last he found the courage to look her in the eyes, he found not accusation, but only truth and faith. Relief turned him weak. “I wish you hadn't done it.”

Brushing hair out of his eyes, Catherine murmured, “If you really think I was wrong, then I ask you to forgive me. Please don't think of sending me away. Will you forgive me, Vincent? ”

“Oh, completely. Always. But what are we going to do now?”

She propped herself on one elbow and traced little circles on his stomach. “More, I hope.”

“You want me to lose myself in madness every time?”

“Not necessarily. But extreme caution isn't necessary, either. You're not nitroglycerine.”

“Only sort of,” he said, and managed a small smile.

“Say, do we have to stay here on the floor? It's not very comfortable.”

“I'm not sure my legs will hold me.” He got to his feet and looked around at the broken window, splintered wardrobe, and overturned table. “I made a mess out of this place.”

At some point he had lost his trousers as well as both boots. His linen shirt was in tatters. They made it to the bed and curled up together. A moment later he began to chuckle. “Spin me like a propeller?”

She grinned, too. “Over the top?”

“Just a little.”

“The clash of the Titans just now was exciting, though, wasn't it.”

His answer was heartfelt. “Oh, yes. Epic.”

Catherine was growing sleepy. Yawning, she said, “Thank you for loving me the way you do.”

“Because of you, I'm a man rather than a curiosity, and you're thanking me?” He kissed the top of her head. “Ah, Moon of my Delight who know'st no Wane.”

She smiled sleepily. “Speaking of moons, I wish you could have seen what I saw when I was walking across the Park tonight. A sky full of shooting stars as brilliant as a rain of diamonds. They seemed to fall all around me like a shower of blessings. Does that sound foolish?”

“Not foolish at all. I believe in blessings … now.”

They snuggled closer, if that was possible, and slept.

 

THE END



WILLIAM'S “TEXAS HOLD'EM” CHILI
Serves 6-8


6 ounces breakfast sausage, broken up
3 pounds tri-tip beef, cut small
2 teaspoons oil for each pot (skillet and stockpot)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 fourteen ounce cans beef broth
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
3 tablespoons Texas cumin (milder, less bitter)
7 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons hot chile powder
1 tablespoon mild chile powder
1 eight ounce can organic tomato sauce
1- 2 chipotle chile peppers in adobo, pureed
1 teaspoon brown sugar
12 ounces dark beer
2 tablespoons masa corn flour (or use ordinary flour)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a stockpot. Gently saute onions and sausage. Add minced garlic and saute an additional minute. Sprinkle the beef cubes with salt, pepper, and flour. Add 2 ounces of oil to a big skillet, sear the beef in small batches, add to stockpot as you go. Add the beer to the skillet, scrape up the browned bits, add to stockpot along with tomato sauce and broth. Stir to combine, then add cumin, oregano, hot and mild chile powders, pureed chipotles, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. Add more broth as needed and cook until meat is tender, about two to three hours.

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