Annie walked into the kitchen, the door closing swiftly, leaving Double-J alone in the cold winter night’s air. His body arched over the main sink, Jimmy looked up at the sound, smiled at Annie – “Are you a fan of the Tigers?”
Annie looked at him, confused. Jimmy pointed at his body, over his heart. “Your shirt.”
Annie looked down, saw the white of her fencing jacket, needing a moment to fully understood Jimmy’s reference. Under her jacket she was wearing a baseball shirt with the Detroit Tigers’ logo; Jimmy must have seen her wearing it before she started fencing that evening. Annie nodded, then shook her head. “Not a fan, no. I just like that old English D.” Jimmy nodded, began washing his hands over the sink as Annie walked into the dining room.
The large marble-floored room was surrounded on three sides by large bay windows. The silky white curtains were drawn back this evening, offering in the soft moonlight a clear view of the rear yard of the Hutchinson estate, covered this evening in a smooth layer of undisturbed snow, resembling a base layer of white frosting on a layered cake. The lights in the dining room were hung close enough to the high ceiling to avoid glare on the bay windows. When thick clouds covered the moon, the windows acted like mirrors against the darkness of night.
Annie looked across the dining room to her silver-haired father, smiling as he spoke with Paul Banks, his yellow tie unraveling from his neck, a glass filled again with icy scotch in his hand. Annie looked beyond them to their reflections on the wall-length windows behind them, counted the number of reflections she saw, her father and Paul Banks talking once, twice, three times.
She felt a hand on the back of her shoulder, knew from the touch it was her mother. “Dear, I thought you said your friends were sharp, perceptive.” Annie scanned the room quickly, saw savory steam rising from the uncovered serving trays, a stack of white plates undisturbed at the start of the line.
“Yes – ” she stepped forward, away from her mother, firing one last comment back – “and they’re polite as well” – before taking another step forward, lifting her chin – “Everybody, please, let’s eat!”
Carl Hutchinson turned his silver hair to Coach Dan as the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team descended on the buffet. “She’s a natural leader, isn’t she?” Coach Dan nodded in agreement – “Her facility in working with people like she does, that isn’t innate. It’s something that has to be nurtured. You and Laura have a lot to be proud of.”
Butch approached the buffet line, his reflection in the empty white plate he was holding almost as vivid as his appetite. A voice beckoned to him behind the table, and Butch looked up at Jimmy’s serene face. Butch’s answering smile was visibly calculated, noticeably uncomfortable; Jimmy responded with a question that spoke of his ability, culled from years over experience, at breaking awkward silences.
“Chicken or pasta?”
Butch’s reply got caught in his throat, coming out as krrc before he cleared his throat. “Chicken. Please.”
“Excellent choice.” Jimmy held out a hand to Butch as he looked down and reached with his other hand for the serving spoon. It wasn’t until Jimmy beckoned with his fingers that Butch realized he was asking for his plate.
“Have you been doing this long?”
Jimmy stopped, looked up at Butch. “Pardon?”
“Oh! Just – curious. Have you been a – waiter, all your life.”
From behind, Butch heard Rex clear his throat, then felt the tall teen lean down and whisper in his ear – “He’s the caterer. He owns Squisito.”
Butch looked up at Jimmy, whose face retained its calm demeanor. He laid the serving of chicken on the plate.
“Oh! Sorry, I just – ”
“Enjoy your meal.” Jimmy handed the plate back to Butch.
Butch took the plate with both hands. Then looked up at Jimmy. “So – have you been a caterer, all your life?”
“Not yet.” Jimmy looked off to Butch’s right, making eye contact with Rex.
As she was about to pick up a plate at the end of the line, Annie heard her silver-haired father laughing, and turned to see him patting the shoulder of Paul Banks, who made an effort to smile, succeeding with apparent difficulty.
“I just hope you’re finally able to build that damn bridge.” Paul Banks shook his head aggressively, as if to dislodge a napkin that had landed on his scalp. “Let the chips fall where they may.”
“But Paul, there’s so many parties involved in this process.” Annie could sense her father reverting to the campaign tone he had been developing in his young political career. “It’s not going anywhere until the county planning board gives approval, and they’re not going to budge, they still want to fix the Minimal Bridge. And no matter what route is approved, it’s eventually connecting to the interstate, so the feds have to be involved too. State funding’s only a small part in this.”
Paul’s yellow-tied smile was now uninhibited, full of what he imagined to be secret knowledge, as he pointed to Carl with the plate he held in his left hand. “Really, you don’t have to put on this act, Carl. I’d vote for you anyway, just to get rid of that fossil Stephens.”
“Lee Stephens has – ”
“– been in the fucking state senate since I was a kid!” Paul raised his unencumbered right arm in the air, brushing in flight under his yellow tie which now flew up and pointed at Carl Hutchinson’s silver hair. “He was barely competent when he first got elected, now he’s just a blithering idiot,” yellow tie dancing as Paul continued to gesticulate.
Annie took a step toward her father, who now seemed coolly concerned, but halted when she saw Jenna Banks and Rune walking hurriedly towards Paul with his dancing yellow tie, which had become a slashing sword, swinging from side to side as if he were warding off any attempt to bring him down from his soapbox.
“I used to believe,” tumbler raised high above their heads, “that our politicians should be honest, and competent. Like there’s these two big – I don’t know, bottles, one of them filled with Integrity and the other, Efficiency. And the leaders we elect to public office, they were supposed to drink from both.
“But I’ve learned over the years that it simply ain’t gonna happen, that there’s no way anyone who’s both honest and competent can hope to get anything done. That’s not how our system works. The best we can hope for is a politician who drinks from at least one, who is either corrupt but efficient, or honest but incompetent.
“Stephens, he’s been the most dangerous type of politician, the one who ain’t drunk from either. A corrupt boob, a dumbshit.
“But you, my friend – ” he stepped back, raised his glass in the direction of Carl Hutchinson – “I ain’t figured out which one you are, of yet. But you seem both clever enough to know that you need to drink from one of them bottles, and wise enough to know you can’t drink from both. And so, this spring, you will have my enthusiastic vote.”
Paul Banks lowered his glass, and with a quick nod to silver-haired Carl Hutchinson, who had maintained his cool unsmiling reserve throughout Paul’s speech, raised his glass and drank, the Scotch flowing quickly past his mouth, down through his yellow-tied throat. He finished his drink, and was quickly escorted to the side of the room by Jenna Banks, a look of concerned disdain on her face.
As he returned to the buffet line behind Annie, Rune stared straight down at the marbled floor. Annie placed a hand on the outside of his shoulder, waited for him to look up – “Is he going to be OK?”
Rune shrugged, his long hair waving over his acne-scared forehead. “We just need to get him home. Before he embarrasses himself any worse.” He finally looked up at Annie – “What he said, I’m sorry.”
Annie smirked. “He told me over the summer, just before he started his campaign – politics is a dirty business, so get used to seeing mud on my face.” She reached down for a plate, handed it to Rune. “He can take it. So can I.” She winked. “We’ll be OK.”
As the two teens spoke, Carl and Laura Hutchinson engaged the other dinner guests in polite conversation, Paul Banks’ profane diatribe forgotten like a painful insect bite. Paul would return, his face flush with apology, followed soon by Double-J.
The dinner proceeded without further incident. Several times Annie found herself examining her friends and family – Rex and Butch taking full advantage of the buffet’s abundance (she would later force on Rex a doggie bag filled with enough food to feed his family for several days, despite his objections), The Bird engaging her teammates in her distinctly reserved manner, Rune displaying none of his characteristic reserve, Double-J dominating whatever conversation in which he cared to partake, Coach Dan interacting with the members of her team not so much as coach or teacher but rather as a nurturing friend – and her parents gliding among all of them, enjoying the company of their daughter’s friends as much as her friends enjoyed the magnificent meal prepared on their behalf. It was, Annie realized, the fulfillment of all her ambitions for the evening.