Doubtful Relations

Excerpt from Doubtful Relations by James M. Jackson

Doubtful Relations

Chapter One

Momentum, obligation, and a speck of hope pulled me down the Masonic Hall stairwell and out the door. On the back stoop, I reread the text message. Good News. Call ASAP Urgent. The more I considered it, the more I was not reassured at nine thirty on a Friday night by the juxtaposition of “good news” with “urgent.”

“Happy June first,” Karen Miller, my real estate agent, said once we connected. “We’ve received a full-price offer on your house. It comes with a few conditions. Naturally. Inspection, which we know will be fine.”

Her tone struck me as overly cheery. I caught myself chewing my inner cheek. “You’re telling me the good stuff. What’s urgent?”

“That’s the Seamus McCree I appreciate. Always to the point. The buyer insists on meeting you face-to-face. I have absolutely no clue why, and I don’t think her broker does either. Makes me nervous.”

I wasn’t nervous; the worst that could happen was I didn’t sell my house to this buyer, which wasn’t a change from the current situation. The unusual request made me suspicious. I had never heard of such a thing. Why did the buyer need to see me? What could she want to talk about that only I could answer? Was she someone looking for the inside skinny on the shootings that had occurred there? My son’s partner, an investigative journalist, might pull such a stunt to get access to a story—but the shootings were three years ago.

Thinking about that night still gave me the willies. “Aha!” I said and chuckled. “This has all the earmarks of a surprise party. Paddy hinted he was contemplating doing something special for my birthday, but it’s a month and a half past. Did he put you up to this?”

“I’ve never met your son.”

“He knows our schedule, so he knows we’re in Ohio, only a half day from Cincy. It would be just like him to cook up something like this. You didn’t answer my question. He could arrange something without you two actually meeting.”

She laughed. “Sounds like fun, but no, I’m not part of some master family conspiracy. Buyer’s name is Beth Cunningham from the East Coast. Seems motivated. Wants closing in thirty days. I pretended to object and let them persuade me.”

Something about the name tweaked a nerve. I tried to chase it down focusing on my East Coast days, but came up empty. “She’s in town?”

“Leaves midday Sunday, which is not much of a window, but if you’re only a half day away Lady Luck is on our side. Can you do it?”

“We were planning a leisurely drive down to Mom’s next gig in Nashville. That’s not until next weekend.” All I’d need to do was change some motel reservations. “Tomorrow afternoon?”

“Saturday is perfect. I’ve already notified the two previous prospects—”

“I need to get back upstairs for Mom’s finale. Tell me a time and we’ll be there.”

“Four thirty. By then I’ll know how serious the other prospects are, which will determine our negotiating strategy.”

“Tomorrow then.” Maybe Lady Luck was going my way. This trip with Mom would be complete in another month. She was doing well enough that I could get her permanently situated in Boston and begin getting my own life in order. With Mom settled and shucking the millstone of the Cincinnati house, I could decide where I wanted to live when I didn’t want to be at my camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I squeaked open the outside door and, feeling energized, hustled up the concrete steps, my footsteps echoing from the plaster walls and ceiling. I muscled the fire door open and heard chanting.

“Tru-dy. Tru-dy. Tru-dy.”

I eyed the scene from the far corner of the auditorium. The chanting reverberated in the spacious room with its fifteen-foot ceiling and hard­wood floor. To my left, the bar area was doing a brisk business. Most of the cheering crowd sat in folding chairs ordered to provide access from right, left, and center aisles. Mom beamed from her position on the low stage at the front.

Standing next to her was her most recent victim, a mid-thirties guy with more ink on him than The Sunday Times Magazine. A chalkboard stage right indicated she had polished the guy off with her third dart of the throw, a double seventeen, reaching the required 501 score on the dot.

I do not understand how a woman in her seventies can inspire largely male audiences to love her even as she beats the stuffing out of the local darts players. Wherever we went, and in the last three months we had traveled all around New England, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and now Ohio, the same thing happened. Excusing my way through the chanting crowd, trying not to interfere with the exchange of crumpled bills settling side bets, I parked myself against the center of the back wall and waited for my mother to call me to the stage.

She quieted the crowd and, as was her routine, challenged the last player to a match in which she’d throw lefty. She neglected to mention that she’s ambidextrous. After winning with her left hand, she beat the guy a third time employing unusual techniques: hiking her darts, throwing them over her shoulder, standing on one leg, sitting, or doing whatever came into her mind.

We were set for her finale. She introduced the blindfolded challenge with a speech. Alone on the stage, she spoke into the microphone so softly people leaned forward to hear her. She told the story of my father’s death—a cop killed on duty when I was young. She spoke of her struggles to get her children through college, and how once I had graduated she had retreated to silence for more than two decades. Two years ago she resumed limited verbal communications and now you couldn’t shut her up—the crowd always laughed at the line.

I was unprepared the first time she made her speech, and bawled. Partly because she spoke of my father’s death. Partly because she exposed her vulnerabilities to a crowd of strangers, something I could no more do than don a cape and fly like Superman. It had taken me a while, but I could now listen to her story without getting teary.

That night, no one talked, no one moved, no one even drank their beer while she spoke of loss and redemption. Applause pulled me from woolgathering about what tomorrow would bring. I should have been focusing on the task at hand, steadying myself instead of worrying myself into what was quickly becoming a throbbing headache. Not good, and no time for a pain reliever. Mom waited for the applause to die down before she spoke.

“I have one final proposition for you tonight. A small wager, should you choose to participate. But first, I need to accessorize.”

On cue, the emcee came on stage and tied a bandanna across Mom’s eyes. She tapped the microphone with her finger and at the sound the audience settled. “Give me five darts and I’ll bet I can hit the bull’s eye.” The crowd’s murmur swelled. Mom raised her hand and they quieted. “I’ll throw an exploratory dart. My son, Seamus—oh, Shay-mus, where are you?”

[Chapter One continues.]

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