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‘The Duke’ Part IV

By web

Section: Arts

March 18, 2011

Graphic by Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot

Previously in “The Duke:”

After loner Veronica informed Tim that his mother was having an affair with her mother, he agreed to try to catch them in the act …

All week, Tim had carried the camera around with him in his backpack. He couldn’t stop unzipping his bag and looking at it, nestled among his school things. He practiced taking photos at the reservoir. On the camera’s memory card were pictures of runners, partial images of Tim’s thumb and one of a goose splashing—Tim was proud of that one. If Veronica’s plan worked out, there would soon be one of his mom in the arms of the Duke.

When he saw his mom warming up a cup of coffee in the kitchen that Friday morning, Tim’s thoughts immediately went to the camera he was carrying. He felt itchy with guilt. How could he agree to a plan that could destroy his family? She peered at him with half-lidded eyes and held an empty mug imploringly to the gurgling coffeemaker.

“What’s the Duke up to?” he asked, scrambling for something to say, his mind still on the camera.

She blinked at him.

“I don’t really want to talk about the Duke right now,” she said.

Tim nodded. His mother usually couldn’t stop talking about the Duke. He still turned pink when he remembered his 13th birthday party when his mom had a loud conversation with Mark’s stepmother about a scene from “Deadly Duke.” Tim had stuffed his pale face with the blue-frosted cake his dad had made for the party as he listened to his mom (even over the happy chatter of his friends) talk about a scene when Duke, on the brink of death, still manages to deflower the book’s heroine on his sick bed.

“But how could he … you know,” Mark’s stepmother had asked, gesturing with her hand. Tim had intervened, leaving his cake half-eaten to ask his mother to bring out the piñata.

Silence meant that she had writers’ block and all members of the household should tread lightly.

She sipped her coffee, eyes closed, then thumped it down on the counter with a satisfying smack, “Would you be upset if we lived somewhere else?” she asked.

Tim jerked backwards, feeling worse than if she had hit him over the head with the camera.

“Why? Do we need to move?” Tim said.

She shrugged and Tim noticed a brown coffee stain on her shoulder.

“It might happen, is all that I am saying,” she said.

Tim tried desperately to think of what the correct response would be. Every conversation was like this now with his mother. He thought that anything he said would impact her decision. Lately, she had been keeping Tim on-edge with bizarre non sequiturs, popping her head out of the office to ask Tim if he thought it would be weird to live in California, saying that she would like to go on more camping trips (at this, Tim and Dad had exchanged a look full of horror) and once Tim had caught her with a stack of papers and a calculator, doing figures. His mother, who hated math!

“I like this house,” he said, “I want to stay here.”

His mother nodded, but said nothing. She disappeared into her office, coffee issuing a faint trail of steam in her wake.

The last person Tim expected to see at his father’s bakery was Veronica’s dad. He walked in, pushing the front door open with his suitcase and looking out of place among the streusal muffins, fried dough and bundt cake.

The bakery’s cashier, Laura, gave him a toothy grin. “Welcome!” she said. She went to Tim’s high school, but they might as well be strangers; when he visited his dad, she only mumbled a brief hello at him and at school she ignored him altogether.

The Duke smiled in return and Tim felt a twinge when he realized that the Duke was handsome. Laura was bright-eyed and she spoke in a softer voice than she normally used. Tim scowled when he realized that she was flirting with the Duke.

“Tim, is your father here? I need to talk to him,” he said, all curt efficiency. Tim pointed to the backroom where his dad, who was superstitious, was blessing an oven before he put in the dough of a customer’s wedding cake.

The Duke walked behind the counter and went swiftly to the door before Tim thought to stop him.

“Wait—I’d better get him,” he said. While it was true that his dad didn’t like to be interrupted when he was performing his self-described “silly ritual,” the real reason Tim stopped the Duke was because a putrid, nasty feeling had erupted in his chest. He didn’t like the Duke in the bakery; there was something wrong about him being near the cupcakes, the delicate sugar cookies, the strawberry-rhubarb pies—the products of his dad’s labor and his affection. Tim wanted the Duke gone.

The Duke glanced at his watch and waved his hand at Tim.

Tim knocked on the backroom door and entered, sweating slightly as the heat from the ovens blanketed him. Although the bakery’s air-conditioners were working, the paper streamers that Tim’s dad had attached to them fluttering, nothing could combat the combined heat of Mother Nature and his dad’s huge industrial-sized ovens.

His dad was making the sign of the cross in the air before one of the ovens, his arms, up to his elbows, were coated with the white ghost of flour. On a tray next to the oven there were multiple moons of dough, cut in various sizes.

“Good. Give me a hand with this, will you?” he asked, beckoning Tim over to the tray.

“Mr. Dent is here,” Tim said. He handed the circles to his father who quickly slid them into the oven’s mouth.

“Is he?” he said. Tim couldn’t see his expression. Tim’s dad looked into the oven for a moment, his hands resting on his hips.

He turned around in a quick movement, clapping his hands together and sending a cloud of flour into the air, “Right, then!”

The Duke looked up from his blackberry when Tim and Dad re-entered the room.

“Mr. Dent, I was hoping to speak with you about a matter that concerns both of us,” he said.

“It’s a nice day,” Tim’s dad said, eyes twinkling, “Let’s step outside.”

Both men walked through the door, the bell jangling.

Laura raised her eyebrow at Tim. “That’s Veronica Dent’s father? I bet he doesn’t know that his daughter is hooking up with the coach.” Tim wasn’t paying attention to her, though; he was too concerned with what was going on outside.

Two men could not have been more different in appearance. While Tim’s dad was formed of soft lines that concealed strong muscles, Veronica’s dad was thin and constructed of hard right angles. Tim’s father wore a white pristine apron, a t-shirt and jeans, the Duke was dressed as if he were about to argue a case before a judge in court. His short, plump father presented an almost comical figure standing next to the coldly handsome Duke.

He didn’t seem to notice though that, while the Duke was making wide sweeping gestures with his thin fingers as if he was making a point, Tim’s dad was wearing a half-cocked smile.

Tim’s dad was still wearing that smile when he walloped the Duke in the face with a right hook.

“I think he went out to see her,” Veronica hissed in Tim’s ear.

It was 7 o’clock on a Saturday night and Tim had been going crazy. His father had hit someone! He had punched someone with a gleeful smile on his face!

Tim couldn’t understand it.

When Tim was in elementary school he had been an easy target for bullies. They had taunted him for being overweight and called him “Daddy’s doughboy.” One day Tim snapped and had hit one of his bullies over the head with his superman lunch box.

His father had driven him home from school.

“Don’t be that person, Tim,” his father had said, “You’ll end up being mean and shriveled like Grandpa Alex.” Tim sniffled and his father added, “I know it’s hard, but nothing is solved by hitting someone.”

His father knew about the Duke and Tim’s mom—that had to be the explanation.

“Where?” Tim asked.

“That French restaurant, meet me there in 30 minutes.”

“Chateau noir” was an upscale French restaurant with valet parking and a clean red carpet rolled out from the entrance to the sidewalk. Tim stood gaping at it for a minute before Veronica shoved him.

“Did you bring it?” she asked, fiddling with something in her purse.

“Yes … I-” Tim stopped, taken aback, “What are you wearing?”

Veronica was dressed in a black skirt and red top. She looked very different from the Goth girl who had bullied him at the reservoir.

“How do you think we’re going to get past the host?” she said, she pursed her lips. She was wearing red lipstick! “Tuck in your shirt and comb your fingers through your hair and you’ll almost be presentable.” She strode into the restaurant and Tim had no choice but to follow her.

The restaurant was a small place with tiny two-person tables, dim lighting and waiters wearing uniforms that were so well-made that Tim anxiously attempted to pat-down his springy hair. Veronica, confidently following the host to their table, acted like she ate at restaurants like this every day, and after seeing her house, Tim knew she very well could have.

She flipped open the menu. “Have anything you like, courtesy of my dad.” Her smile had a bitter edge.

“I’m going to go to the bathroom,” Tim said. He was feeling a little over-whelmed—the menu was in French.

“Smart, take a chance and look around, maybe you’ll spot them,” she said.

Tim bumbled around a potted plant and almost tripped over himself when he saw his mother and the Duke at a table in the corner of the dining room. He fingered the camera in his pocket. How did the zoom work again?

But then the Duke got up and left the table and Tim’s mother alone, presumably to use the restroom. Tim stared for a moment. His mother looked very pretty with her hair down and in loose curls, her features were softened in the candlelight.

He dropped the camera back into his pocket. He couldn’t do this.

He didn’t hate his mother, not like Veronica clearly hated her father.

He couldn’t take a picture of this version of his mother as an adulterer, a version of her that he wished he had never seen and he wanted to forget.

He walked over and took the Duke’s vacated seat, “Hey, mom.”

She glanced up, startled. “Tim, what on earth are you doing here?” she said. Her cheeks were pink and Tim realized that he was seeing his mother embarrassed for the first time. He had heard her use the word “engorged” while talking to a book club filled with women old and stern enough to be his grandparents—and she was embarrassed only now.

“I know about you and Mr. Dent, Mom,” he said.

“What?”

“I know you are going behind Dad’s back,” he said.

His mom fiddled with the napkin in her lap, “That is true,” she said.

“Tim, what are you doing?” Veronica whispered, standing behind him. Tim was relieved to see the angry girl he talked to at the reservoir again.

“I’m talking to my mom, like I should have done in the first place,” he said.

“He’s going to get away with it, again!” Veronica said and stomped out of the restaurant. Tim barely had time to register that she said “again” when Mr. Dent returned to the table.

“I’m surprised to see you, Tim,” he said, each word dripping like ice. His shirt was rumpled and the skin around his eye was soft like and the color of an over-ripe plum. Tim had the satisfaction of sensing that he was the exact person Mr. Dent didn’t want to see.

“I was just talking to my mom,” Tim said, “I should probably see if Veronica is OK.”

“Wait,” Tim’s mom said, rising from her chair, “I don’t think you understand.”

Tim paused even though he had already decided that he never, not in a hundred years, wanted to understand.

“The end of my contract with my publisher is coming up for review. Mr. Dent works for them, he just wants me to renew the contract—that’s it,” she said.

Tim stopped and rested his hands on his knees, a band of heat scorched his face. The wave that had been threatening to destroy him had broken across his back and he had survived.

“Why did Dad punch him?” he asked, when he had wrapped his mind around the fact that his mom wasn’t a cheater.

His mom’s cheeks turned a more vibrant shade of red, “He did that?”

“Yes, and I’m considering whether or not to take action,” Mr. Dent said.

“Your father and I have been having problems over my work,” she said.

“He thinks I should stop writing the Duke and write my own novel.”

“You can do that and continue your contract with us,” Mr. Dent said.

Tim’s mom shook her head. “I love the Duke, I really do. But lately, he’s gotten on my nerves. He’s just so damn needy.” She smiled at Tim. “I think it’s time to let go.”

Veronica was at the bus-stop. Sobbing, her head in her hands. Tim hugged her, she was tiny and he held her against him she felt like a small, trembling bird.

“I was so sure that I finally caught him,” she said.

Tim patted her awkwardly on her head.

“He’s cheated on my mom before,” she mumbled into the growing damp spot on Tim’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry your plan didn’t work out.” He felt like that wasn’t enough, but he couldn’t think of what else to say. He didn’t have his mom’s skill with dialogue.

And so he kissed Veronica. She tasted like salt and crying and when she pushed him away he felt like he had done something terrible.

“I’m dating the coach,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone.”

For one fleeting moment, Tim wished he was like the Duke. He wished he could be the hero and rush in and save damsels, fall in love with them, seduce them and do it again and again, like the Duke did in each chapter and each book of his mother’s series.

He studied Veronica’s face. The thought of the stubborn and fierce girl being a damsel was so ludicrous—he had to keep himself from laughing.

She didn’t need a hero, she needed a friend.

They went to Tim’s house, ate cheesecake and read aloud sections from his mother’s books.

“The Duke slew the evil pirate with a mighty thrust of his sword. As the pirate lay dying, the Duke wiped sweat from his manly brow and, winking at Lilly (who was lashed to the ship’s mainsail), he said, ‘After this, I will need a vacation.’”

End

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