This was enough teenage attitude to earn a lecture later, but if she let us out into the fresh air, it would have been worth it. With a tiny flick of her wrist, we were dismissed.
We didn’t wait for confirmation: both Sam and I were up and bolting from the dark, subdued restaurant before either she or Luther could change their minds.
There was a bocce court in the back garden of the restaurant, and a few small tables with chessboards. The bocce court was occupied, but Sam pointed to a chess table and I followed him over, hoping my rusty skills would return quickly.
I sat in front of the white pieces; he sat in front of the black, looming over the table. With a tiny tilt of his chin, Sam smiled over at me. “You start.”
I moved my king’s pawn two spaces and opened my mouth to speak, but stopped when I heard Luther’s voice just on the other side of the window. All of that internal flailing over our boredom, and we’d only managed to move three feet away.
Sam laughed quietly, shoulders pulled up to his ears, and he was so adorable I wanted to stretch across the table and put my mouth on his. The day before was still a fresh, singing echo in my thoughts and all over my skin.
I think he could see the memory in my eyes, too, because his attention dropped to my lips and he rumbled a quiet, “We could go make out in the bushes.”
My reply that making out would be way more fun than chess but also way more punishable by grandmother-inflicted death was cut off when Nana’s voice filtered out to us: “No, actually. My husband died when I was thirty-five.”
Across from me, Sam’s flirty smile seemed to dissolve.
“On the one hand,” Nana said, “I had a six-year-old daughter to raise alone. But on the other hand, I was no longer being yelled at for not keeping the house clean enough.” I heard her pause and imagined her lifting her cup, inhaling the coffee before deciding it was still too warm and putting it down again. “I have the restaurant, and it makes enough to support us. So, no, I never wanted to marry again.”
My chest pinched in, and every thought seemed to slow in my head. Nana never liked to talk about anything longer ago than the previous weekend. Said it did us no good to live in the past. I always knew Mom was raised without her father, same as me, but it didn’t seem to sink in until that moment that Nana didn’t seem bothered by it in the slightest.
“That’s how my Roberta was,” Luther told her. “Didn’t want to marry again. Even with a young son, she was stubborn as all get out to do it all on her own. I put on the hard sell. Told her nobody was telling her she needed a man, but if she wanted one, I was throwing my hat in the ring.”
I looked across the table at Sam and could tell he was listening just as intently as I was, and it made me wonder how much he could know about their past. I imagined Luther was in his late sixties; if he and Roberta met years before Sam was born, it couldn’t have been easy for a black man and a white woman to be together in a small town.
Nana grew quiet, and I wondered if the same question was said too quietly for us to hear, or maybe just communicated in her eyes, because Luther added, “We went through a lot in those early days. Lot of folks didn’t appreciate me walking around town with her.”
“She didn’t care one iota.” Luther laughed again. “Even when they set the barn on fire.”
They what now? Sam didn’t seem at all surprised to hear this; he just lifted his brows and nodded at me like I know, right?
“You raised Tate’s mom all on your own?” Luther asked, turning the conversation back to us.
Sam studied me, and it was a little like being stuck in quicksand. I wanted to escape, but couldn’t. I’d never heard Nana talk about this before.
“We did fine, the two of us. Emma was a good girl,” Nana told him, using Mom’s new name. Emma now, not Emmeline. “She married too young, though. Met a boy when she was only eighteen, and it just moved too fast.”
Sam’s eyes snapped from the window back to mine, and I knew we were both wondering what Nana would actually divulge to Luther.
On the other side of the window, the old man hummed sympathetically. “I worry when it happens, Sam will fall too hard, too fast,” he said quietly. “He wears every feeling on his sleeve. Always has.”
Sam turned a bright tomato red and reached for his piece on the table, mirroring my opening move, king’s pawn. “You know, we could turn this into strip chess,” he said awkwardly, too loudly.
I leaned forward. “If we can hear them, they can hear us.”
He paled, whispering, “Do you think they heard me ask you to go make out?”
“Or plot how to get me naked?” I asked, stifling a laugh.
Nana’s voice returned, and our questions were answered in the obliviousness of her tone. “He’s a sweet boy, but strong. He’ll be fine.”
“I hope.” A pause, and then, “If you don’t mind me asking, is Tate’s father still in the picture?”
“Oh, Emma’s ex-husband? He was awful,” Nana said. “Cheating all the time. Could barely be bothered to spend time at home with his girls.”
A knife slowly worked its way into my chest, and Sam abruptly stood with a look of urgent sympathy, gesturing for me to follow him away from the table. But I couldn’t. My entire life Nana had been a stony vault when it came to Dad. Other than that, she just answered every question with, “You’re better off here.” I felt like there was some information I could glean in eavesdropping, something that would explain why Dad never came for me, or why Mom never let him.