Derridelle Kraus, the boy’s own grandmother, she tried to warn me. God bless Shu’s mom in her navy and white Brooks Brothers pantsuits and her cocktails-at-four – she tried to warn me about Bernard, but I was determined not to prejudge the boy.
I should have considered the source.
At the first big meet-up with Shu’s family, he and I hadn’t been in his parents’ River Oaks home for ten minutes before Derridelle cornered me by the refrigerator (a Northland, absolutely totally gorgeous).
“Oooh Shu, I like herrrrrrr.” Derridelle said, cutting herself another sliver of my Texas sheet cake (same recipe as on the Hershey’s can, just throw in some pecans). She winked at me and said, loud, “Son, you bring this one back any time.” Then suddenly her mouth was so close to my head that I later found lipstick in my ear.
“YouwatchoutforBernardnow-” Derridelle pulled back then, looking to make sure nobody was looking at us. “He’s…gifted.” The downstairs was all big open spaces, the enormous country-style kitchen flowed right into the comfy family room, but there was a Cowboys football game on in there, Derridelle and I would have gone unnoticed even if we’d been wearing pasties and popping champagne corks with our lady-whatsits.
“Beg pardon?” I asked her, just barely managing to squeeze out of the trap she’d get me into. She followed me anyway, and was right back up in my face. Derridelle does not put much stock in the notion of personal space.
She caught my arm and whispered, eyes wide: “Giffffted. Takes after his moth-ther.”
“Well.” I kept a smile on my face and looked for Shu. He was on the couch with brother, his back to me. No way to catch his eye. I could feel cold sweat running down my spine. “Bernard is clearly a very smart boy.”
“NO WAY!” “GOD DAMN– NO WAY!”
Both Derridelle and I startled at the outburst from the football-watchers. Apparently, a referee had done something very unpopular. I acted like I was very interested in whatever it was, hoping that Derridelle would take the hint. She did. But before she moved on, she leaned towards me and said, out of the side of her mouth, singsong, “Gif-ted.”
The room went back to relative quiet, and after a kiss on the top of Shu’s head, I went back to the kitchen to begin pre-pre-prep for chicken enchiladas. (I no longer share this recipe, as someone who claims to be a “Christian” and who was visiting from Dallas and who will forever remain nameless had my chicken enchiladas once at a church potluck and went on and on about them and asked for my recipe, then put her own name on it and turned it in as her own creation and won first place in the Texas State Fair and second place in a Pillsbury Bake-Off! And now no one believes me when I say I invented it! I am not one to take things lying down, I just am not, but what could I do? It wasn’t like the FBI was going to be willing to take my little stained up recipe card and dust it for prints. So, I ratcheted my recipe up a notch or two, and now everyone – including many, many Mexicans – says that my chicken enchiladas are the perfect chicken enchiladas. Fresh tomatillos and tons of garlic. That much, I will divulge.)
I stopped chopping…(hidden ingredient)…for a minute, and in looking up saw Bernard. He was as he’d been for most of the afternoon, sitting quietly at a small writing desk near the wide patio doors, his back to the room, studying the TV guide that came in the Sunday newspaper. I knew that’s what it was because Bernard had knocked on our door at 6:39 a.m. to insist he needed his own newspaper because Shu’s father had claimed the one from the front lawn as his and would not give Bernard the TV guide.
All right yes, it was weird to me that an eleven-year-old boy would be going over a TV guide like it was a battle plan, with three different colors of highlighters, a ruler, and a Uniball fine-point pen.
And yes, it was odd that a boy would not eat the food that I was killing myself to prepare for the family, but instead ate his same three precisely-balanced, bland meals, the same foods he ate every day at the same time every day. And that he took vitamins and supplements, and ate two prunes a day for extra fiber. Shu and his ex-wife Deborah swore that Bernard’s preoccupation with “preserving and maintaining excellent gut health” was something the boy had been obsessed with since he could speak.
The digestive system, and classic movies, nobody knows more on these two subjects than Bernard Kraus.
These things were odd, but they didn’t bother me. What I found hard to take was the accent. Bernard was born in Texas, had lived in Texas his whole life, was obsessed with Texas history and his Texas heritage — and he sounded just like Woody Allen. If Woody Allen was a surly nine-year-old Houston child with a fake New York accent.
Such a put-on, and nobody ever said anything about it, or said “Okay, knock it off, Bernard.” It irritated the snot out of me.
And still, I had – and still do have – sympathy for the boy. The longer I knew him, and the more oddball as he seemed, I felt that much more of a kinship with Bernard. One square peg to another, I guess. I mean, here’s this pale, skinny, near-sighted, temperamental kid plopped down in the midst of all these rosy-cheeked, good-natured Bavarians. Nobody beats the Krauses in having a good time. They were descended from generations of cheerful alcoholics who, through hard work and excellent constitutions, excelled at both making money and enjoying life. Bernard would never have to worry about money, but like me, he did not easily come by the joie de vivre.
“Don’t worry.” Shu had told me on the car trip down to Houston. “Just don’t fuss over him, and you’ll be fine. Just let him come to you.” I laughed out loud but did not tell Shu that I’d once had the exact same instructions from a friend who’d wanted to introduce me to her neurotic dog.
That whole weekend, I did not approach the boy and did not try to engage him, other than to put a pleasant smile on my face when he seemed to be looking in my general direction. It worked out fine. I enjoyed my visit, and Bernard ignored me. Mostly. There were times (three confirmed, one suspected) that I caught him, out of the corner of my eye, looking at me like, well…. I reserve a similar facial expression for gas station bathrooms.
No matter. Things went well enough, for a first time. Shu was very encouraged because when the girlfriend before me had first met the family, it was during Christmastime and Bernard responded to her overtures by accidentally drinking a cup of spiked eggnog and fainting. That got the desired attention, including a trip to the emergency room of just him and Shu, and so Bernard continued to “faint” throughout the weekend until he accidentally fell on the fireplace hearth and had to go back to the emergency room and get three stitches in the crown of his head.
“See!” Shu said, squeezing my knee. “I told you you’d do great. Everybody loved you.” We were driving home. “It was perfect. Everything was perfect.”
I had to take my eyes off the road and give him look. I drive most of the time because I do not trust other people behind the wheel. I am a very good driver. Shu and Tee – mix the two of them together and you still get the worst driver in the world. Terrifying.
“It wasn’t perfect, Shu.”
“Near enough, honey.” He let his hand roam a little, until I had to put the kibosh on that business. He laughed, “It’s a loooong drive home, Vashti.”
“Nobody will see.”
“NO. Truckers will see you!” I moved his hand away and he stuck my thumb in his mouth. I could feel his tongue going around and around, and the pull of –
“Stop. It.” I said, “I mean it! Behave!” But I was laughing by then. He told me he loved me.
We held hands and were quiet for a few miles.
“…I think we’re ready for Bernard and Penny to come to us.” Shu said. “The four of us, together for a weekend – they’re ready, I think. I know I’m ready to have the people I love most together under one roof. How about you?”
Now, what was I supposed to say to that? I wanted to say No, I don’t believe that I quite am. But how in this world or the next was I ever going to say that?
First off, to be fair, Bernard and six-year-old sister Penny were barely off the Southwest Airlines plane before Shu busted out with the news. The children came out of the jetway with their rolling suitcases trailing behind them. The airline person made sure Shu wasn’t a kidnapper, and then we headed toward the exit. Except that Shu suddenly grabbed the suitcases, one in each hand, and took off running, yelling over his shoulder “FOLLOW ME! HURRY!” He was laughing and running, and soon all four of us were running through Love Field giggling like lunatics. I cut my eyes over at Bernard, and he looked sweet, just a boy who loved his dad more than anything in the world. Sweet.
Shu brought us to the entrance, to the big world map set into the floor, and yelled “ALL STOP!” We stopped on the United States, but not before Shu could scoop up Penny and hold her wriggling and giggling under his arm like a sack of potatoes. He hugged Bernard with the other arm, which Bernard allowed until he noticed me there. He quickly disallowed it.
“I love you, and I love you.” Shu said to each child. “I want you to be the first people that I tell.” Penny was giggling. Bernard was now standing like a hipster dude, his silver Starbucks thermos in hand, mouth turned down, face pinched, looking all the world like he was taking a dump.
“I want you, and you, to know how much I love somebody else. I love Vashti, and I’ve asked her to move in with us and she’s said yes! She’s already living with me in our house! Isn’t that GREAT?! LET’S GO TO EUROPE AND DISCUSS IT!” He leaped over the Atlantic, pulling us with him.
I shushed him, laughing. I really didn’t mind too much. Shu gets like this sometimes and it’s adorable. He’s usually pretty low-key…but every once in a while you can see that deviousness working behind those eyes and then WOW, he does something unexpected. The results often take my breath away. Like, in this instance, how he couldn’t stand it another second, he just had to make a declaration to his children, when he and I had both agreed that it was best to take things slowly “for their sake.”
“OH MY GOD! I LOVE IT!” said cutie-pie Penny. She threw herself at me. “OH MY GOD I JUST LOVE IT!” She kissed my hands, going “Mwah! Mwah! Mwah, mwah, mwah, MWAH!” Shu was laughing and I was laughing and Penny was laughing. It was such fun.
Until I looked up and saw Bernard. I poked Shu.
Shu squeezed me tighter and murmured, “Ignore him. Don’t worry.”
Why hello, Big Red Flag, what are you doing here?
Penny, Shu and I were hugged up together on Italy. Bernard stayed to himself on Greece. He flipped the lid on his Starbucks and drank it down, staring at Shu.
“…Is there something you need to say, Bernard?” I asked, very quietly.
“YAY! I SAY YAY BECAUSE I LOVE YOU! YAY FOR VASHTI!” Penny interjected. She threw herself into my arms again, too boisterous, faking it now. I hugged that sweet girl back anyway. Penny had been on my team since the day at Shu’s parents when I’d made a big breakfast that included rainbow-color pancakes. (Which Bernard refused to eat, declaring that white flour is poison and food coloring – all additives – are a carcinogen. I bit my tongue then, which doesn’t come easily for me mind you, and did not ask Bernard what-all he took in his Starbucks because I knew very well that he drank his Grande Americano with two Splendas, four shots of sugar-free vanilla syrup and a ton of Half & Half. )
“I love yoooo!” Penny said to her father.
“I looooove yoooo toooo!” Shu said, teasing, making her laugh. Shu turned to me. “And I love yooooo!” Then he made the terrible mistake of kissing me.
“STOP!” Bernard screeched. “Oh my god!” He shoved his thick glasses back up on his nose, then made a show of calming himself, and then made a show of losing his cool, hissing Shu like he’d been goosed with a red-hot cattle prod.
“Oh, my, god!” He said. With his fake New Yawk accent it sounded like this: “Ew moey gawd!”
Bernard did not so much as glance at me, aiming both barrels at his father. “Could we show a little decorum, please, huh?” What kind of nine-year-old boy knows the word decorum, and uses it correctly?
Penny sniffled. I fought against the tears that were burning my eyes. All the love had been drained out of Love Field. World map fun was ended.
Unfortunately, furious Bernard was just now getting wound up. “I am ashamed of you, Peter!”
“HEY!” Shu began. I held my breath and held onto Penny, waiting for the explosion. Which didn’t happen. Shu took his time, then exhaled slowly, more like a sigh actually, and then said, “…Well, dude, I guess I don’t get you. I thought we were having fun here.”
If real life came with sound effects, WHOOSH would been the sound of my head whipping around to Shu.
“I guess you don’t – ” Bernard made quote-marks with his fingers “get me” but but but obviously you’re been getting plenty of something from some thing.” He turned on his heel, actually turned on his damn heel, and then headed to the ticket agent where he pulled out his Buffy The Vampire Slayer wallet, and then his debit card, and slapped the counter.
“First flight back toHouston!” Bernard barked. “Get us on it! Two unescorted children, abandoned by their father! Here’s my mother’s cell phone number, call her to verify.”
From there, the negotiations began. Not discipline. Not correction. Negotiating.
No matter what Shu said, no matter what Shu – or his mother -promised him (promised him! made me ill), Bernard would not consider staying, and he would not listen.
“I guess I don’t understand why you’re upset.” Shu said for about the hundredth time.
Bernard laughed, a raspy “a-ha-ha” Rosalind Russell kind of laugh, and took a long swig of coffee.
“Maybe you wanna switch him to decaf?” I whispered to Shu, who then had his own WHOOSH towards me.
“Not funny.” Shu said in a whisper that was a hair too close to Bernard’s hiss. “Inappropriate. Okay? Inappropriate!”
Wow. Well, at least somebody got disciplined today. Words thought, not spoken because I reacted not as myself, but as someone who was suddenly very ashamed of herself and scared to death of losing the man she loved. I froze.
Bernard, meanwhile, had switched from Rosalind back to Woody Allen. “Fine, Peter, okay, okay, you want me to spell it out, fine, fine. Everything’s just fine. And not that you’re worried about Penny, or me, but hey, we’re fine too. And by “fine” (He made more air quotes.) “I mean, disgusted beyond belief, okay?”
Penny said, “I’m not disgusted.”
Bernard ignored her and kept on at Shu, saying “You’re dating the cook? The cook is your your your girlfriend?” He jabbed his thumb towards me. I stood there, still holding Penny’s hand, still trying to pick my jaw up off the floor. “You’re…doing it…with the cook? So now she has to live with us?” Air quotes and italics all around, flying everywhere. “Do you even get what’ll happen when this gets around at school, because it will, Peter. It will get around. And everybody will know! Everybody!”
“Okay, okay, okay.” Shu said carefully. “I hear you. I hear what you’re saying.” He paused a second like he was in a board room, refiguring the promotion of a new line of truck tires.
Bernard looked around. “Does this place even have a Starbucks?”
So, Shu led us all to the Starbucks. He and Bernard continued to “discuss” as Penny and I walked a good ten paces behind them, her gripping my hand tighter and tighter. She talked nonstop, calling out to all of us in her sweet little voice like if she tried hard enough she could distract us and everything would settle down, and everyone would be okay. I barely heard what Penny was saying, just kept trudging along, staring at the back of Shu’s head, pole-axed, wondering what planet I’d set down on.
Up until very recently, it had been my experience that, unless they had a death wish, children never spoke to adults – especially not their fathers – like they were very stupid dogs.
Shu paid for Bernard to have his thermos refilled with a coffee drink that was so complex that even if I’d written it down, I couldn’t repeat it back.
Shu, bless his heart, he never stopped trying. He said to Bernard, “I hear you, I do. But again, I’m really not understanding the depth of your concern here.” He gestured to a table for four. “Could we take a minute here to discuss it?”
“Oh, for – ! Just let me get on the PLAYYYNE, PETER!” Bernard bellowed.
People were not only stopping and staring, they were taking cell phone pictures. (Remember “UberBrat Does Dallas?” It went viral, and was on the top-ten on YouTube for six solid months.)
I could see that, despite Shu’s measured “manager” tone, and his passive body language, that he was ramping up and on the verge of losing it, and I feared we were headed for an explosion that could lead to a referral to Child Protective Services.
“Ummmm, y’all?” I said quietly. “Let’s all take a minute and just ratchet this down a notch. Okay?” Bernard turn to WHOOSH. He turned on me, and I took two steps back. His face was dark red and his eyes were bulging. He screamed. “SLATTERN!”
I figured out what the word meant, but I still had to look it up the next day.
“Shu?” I said, wishing that the emotional wobble in my voice would stop. “Is he calling me a whore? Bernard, are you calling me a- ” I shook Penny’s anxious grip off my hand and shoved up my sleeves, ready to take the boy out. Our audience there in the terminal was egging me on, some of them whistled and applauded.
“…Vashti. Honey.” Shu said, stepping in front of me. “Bernard isn’t calling you anything.”
“True.” Bernard said, faking a yawn, badly. “Because It is nothing.” He picked up his coffee teat, and went into the bathroom.
Shu turned to me, desperate, begging, “Please, love, help me here?”
Sure thing, just give me a gun. I so very nearly said this, but there was so much pain on my beloved’s face that I backed way down. I was so angry I was shaking, breathing hard, feeling cold sweat on my scalp, under my arms, down my spine.
When Bernard returned from the restroom, he strode right past us and towards the concourse. Once again, we were all on the run.
“Please.” Shu said to me again, and then to the boy. “Please. Bernard, stop.” I could feel my heartbeat in my fingertips as Bernard pointedly ignored Shu and studied the Departures board.
“I get your concern, Bernard.” Shu said. “And I might feel the same, if I were you, at first. Because you don’t know Vashti, not yet. And by the way, just so we’re clear on this, she’s not on the payroll now, okay? Vashti’s decided that that wasn’t – ”
“Whoopie.” Bernard interrupted. “Big whoop.” He dismissed Shu with a wave of his hand and another absurd badly faked yawn. “You’re still effing the effing cook.”
Except Bernard did not say “effing.” He dropped the f-bomb, twice.
WHOOSH, again. My spine popped all the way down to below my shoulder blades, I turned so fast to Shu. If I’d said the f-word to my father when I was nine, I’d never of seen ten.
Shu responded by clearing his throat about a dozen times, and keeping the lid down tight. “Bernard.” He finally said, and took hold of my hand. “This is the woman that I want to spend the rest of my life with. If she’ll have me, I want to marry her.”
I wanted to cry, just explode like one of those Water Weenie toys turned on full-blast. He had just proposed to me to his son. He had said the words that I had waited to hear a man say, my whole life long, to a vile little troll.
“Shu..?” The trembles were back in my voice.
“I meant it.” Shu said to me. “Hell yes, I mean it. Vashti, please, will you –“
And right there the smelly really hit the fan.
“WELLLLLL, FINE!” Bernard said, slapping his hands hard against his thighs. “Penny! Come! Come with me!”
And on and on and on it went.
And let me just say – before anybody assumes that Bernard’s meltdown was the result of a “gifted” andn sensitive child’s heart breaking at finally realizing that his parents would never reconcile – Bernard had no problem at all with the fact that his mother, Shu’s ex-wife, had long ago remarried, to Gio, a gorgeous and wealthy Italian stockbroker, the same man that she had walked out on her marriage for. And did Bernard hate Gio? No, he did not. He worshipped Gio. So please do not be looking and me and thinking, Serves her right, just like Vicki in The Parent Trap.
“Vashti! Vashti! Vashti! Hey!” Penny was jumping up and down in front of me. She had the frantic expression of a small excitable dog, going on and on about was I for Edward or Jacob, and their teams, and I don’t know what-all. Penny grabbed hold of my hand and twirled herself around and around, breathlessly asking “When you and Daddy are married, can I call you “Mom Too?” My best friend Caroline? She calls her stepmom “Mom Too,” and oh my god, Vashti – I just love that!”
I pulled myself together and gave her a hug. “Girlfriend, call me whatever you want, just don’t call me late to dinner.” Penny laughed and laughed at the corny old joke that she didn’t get, and Shu mouthed I love you.
I swear I felt something like burning at the back of my head, and when I turned there was Bernard Kraus looking at me, really looking at me, for the first time ever, looking at me instead of through me.
“Get your fat hands off my little sister, you effing blue-collar sock-tucker!”
Bernard did not call me a sock-tucker.
Tee, after I had related all of this to him, the first thing he asked was “So when’s the funeral?” assuming that Shu had laid Bernard out.
“Tuesday noon, wear your pearls.” I said, and we laughed, or Tee did.
I was so ashamed to admit that what Shu had done was nothing. Nothing. What happened after Bernard called me a blue-collar sock-tucker was that Penny exhaled, a little squeak of “Oh!” and then buried her face in my side, breathing in hard little sobs. I went back to frozen in time, feeling like every atom in my body had just been detonated. Shu stood there, blinking. Then he walked Bernard walked to his gate.
At dinner time, we sat at the counter at The Purple Cow, Penny’s favorite restaurant, her between us chatter-boxing away, both of us super-cheerful and oh so fake, unable to meet each other’s eyes.