Authors: Nita Prose
It’s true, Gran. Very true indeed.
The muffin is delightful. It melts in my mouth. It feels good to eat. It’s something so human, so satisfying. It’s something we all have to do to live, something every person on Earth has in common. I eat, therefore I am.
Rodney’s head is pushed down into the backseat of one of the police cruisers. Several of the officers who ran into the hotel a few minutes ago are standing guard at the bottom stair. Nervous hotel guests huddle on the landing, seeking comfort and reassurance from their doorman.
Detective Stark climbs the stairs, says something to Mr. Preston. I see them both look my way. There’s no way they can see me, not with the late-afternoon light hitting the shop window.
Detective Stark nods my way, almost imperceptibly, but still, it’s a nod. It’s meant for me. I’m certain of it. What I’m not certain of is what it means, this small gesture from afar. I’ve definitely had my fair share of trouble interpreting Detective Stark, so all guesses are just that—suppositions, not certainties.
I have never been one for gambling, mostly because money has been so hard for me to earn and so easy to lose. But were I to place a bet, I’d say that Detective Stark’s nod carried a specific meaning. And what it meant was:
I was wrong.
I walk at a leisurely pace back to my apartment. It’s funny how when you’re feeling the impact of stress, it’s hard to appreciate the small, inspiring things around you—the birds chirping their last lullabies before puffing up for a night’s sleep, the cotton-candy sky as the sun sets, the fact that you’re on your way home and unlike every other day for the last several months, when you open your front door, there will be a friend there waiting for you. It may be the first time since Gran’s death that I feel such a sense of hope.
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
My building is up ahead. I quicken my pace. I know Juan Manuel will be desperate for news, real news, not just a thumbs-up emoji.
I glide through the front doors and take the steps to my floor two by two. I turn down my hallway, take out my key and enter.
“I’m home!” I call out.
Juan Manuel rushes my way and is standing much closer than a trolley-length away from me, not that his proximity bothers me. I’ve never had an issue with people being near me. My issue has always been the opposite—that people keep their distance.
you’re home,” he says, his hands together. He opens the closet, grabs the shoe cloth, and waits as I take off my shoes.
“Did it work?” he asks. “Did they catch the fox?”
“Yes,” I say. “I saw it with my own eyes. They caught Rodney.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you. You must tell me everything. You’re okay? Tell me—you’re okay?”
“Juan Manuel, I’m fine. I’m very well indeed.”
“Good,” he says, exhaling. “Very good.” He grabs my shoes and rubs at the soles as if a genie were going to materialize from them. His aggressive polishing mercifully concludes and he puts my shoes and the cloth away in the closet. Then he hugs me. I’m so surprised by this sudden display of affection that my arms flail out and I forget that the correct thing to do is to hug back. Just when I realize this, he lets go.
“What was that for?” I ask.
“For getting home safe,” he says. “Come. To the kitchen. I prepared a small dinner for us. I tried to have hope, Molly, but I was worried. I thought maybe the police would come and take me away or maybe you would never come back. I had bad, bad thoughts about if they…” He trails off.
“If they what?” I ask.
“Rodney and his men,” he says. “If they…hurt you the way they hurt me.”
I feel the room tilt thirty degrees at the very thought, but I breathe deeply to settle myself.
“Come,” Juan Manuel says.
I follow him to the kitchen, where he’s laid out a spread. It’s the leftovers from the Olive Garden, put together beautifully on plates for each of us. He’s even lain Gran’s black-and-white-checkered tablecloth for additional Italian ambience. The effect is charming. Our tiny kitchen nook is transformed into a scene on a tourist postcard. It feels as though I’m in a dream, and it takes me a moment to recover my voice.
“This looks so lovely, Juan Manuel,” I manage to say. “Do you know that for the first time in a long time, I think I can eat a full meal?”
“We eat, and you tell me everything,” he says.
We sit down together, but no sooner than he’s seated does he spring to his feet once more. “Oh, I forgot,” he says.
He hurries to the living room and returns with one of Gran’s candlesticks and a matchbox. “Can we light this?” he asks. “I know it’s special, but today is special, too, no? Today, they catch the right man?”
“Yes, they drove him away in a police car,” I say. “And I hope this means good things for both of us.” Even as the words leave my lips, doubt creeps in. One thing is to have hope; another thing is to trust that all will end the way it should—for Juan Manuel, and for me.
He places the candle between us. Just as we’re about to pick up our forks, my phone rings in my pocket and I practically jump out of my chair. It’s Charlotte. Thank goodness.
“Charlotte?” I say. “This is Molly. Molly Gray.”
“Yes,” she answers. “I know. Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m quite well. Thank you for asking. I’m here at home with Juan Manuel and we are about to take a Tour of Italy.”
“It’s not important. Can you tell me how things went inside the hotel? I saw it happen, from the coffee shop, but did the plan work? Did they catch Rodney in flagrante?”
“Things went very well, Molly. Listen, I can’t talk much now. I’m at the police station. Detective Stark wants me in her office. You and Juan Manuel stay right there, okay? Dad and I will be your way as soon as we can. This will probably take a couple of hours. And I think you’ll be very pleased with the results.”
“Okay, yes. Thank you, Charlotte,” I say. “Give my regards to Detective Stark.”
“You want me to…are you sure?”
“There’s no reason to be impolite.”
“Okay, Molly. I’ll say hello from you.”
“Please tell her I can read nods.”
“You can what?”
“Just say that, please, exactly that. And thank you.”
“Okay,” Charlotte says. Then she ends the call. I put my phone away.
“I’m terribly sorry for the interruption. I’ll have you know that it’s
not my usual practice to take calls during dinner. I don’t intend to make a habit of it.”
“Molly, you worry too much about ‘this is right’ and ‘this is not right.’ I just want to know what Charlotte said.”
“They caught him in the act. Rodney.”
En flagrante delito
“In flagrante, yes.”
A smile spreads across Juan Manuel’s face and into his dark-brown eyes. Gran once told me that a real smile happens in the eyes, something I never really understood until right now.
“Molly, I never had a chance before to speak with just you, to say sorry. I never wanted you to be involved in any of this.”
I have picked up my fork, but I immediately put it down.
“Juan Manuel,” I say, “you tried to keep me out of this. You even tried to warn me.”
“Maybe I should have tried harder. Maybe I should have told the police everything. The problem is I don’t trust the police. When they look at people like me, sometimes all they see is bad. And not all police are good, Molly. How can you tell who is who? I worried if I talked about the drugs and the hotel, maybe things would get even worse—for me and for you.”
“Yes,” I say. “I understand. I’ve had my own troubles telling who is who.”
“And Rodney and Mr. Black,” he continues. “I no longer cared if they killed me. But my mother? My family? I was so scared they’d hurt them. And I was scared they’d hurt you too. I thought, if I just take the pain, if I stay quiet, maybe no one else gets hurt.”
His wrists are on the table, not his elbows. I’m struggling to focus on his face because all I can see are the scars on his forearms, some healed over and one or two still raw.
I point to Juan Manuel’s arms. “Was it him?” I ask. “Did Rodney do that to you?”
“Not Rodney,” he says. “His friends. The big ones. But Rodney gave
the orders. Mr. Black burns Rodney, so Rodney burns me. This is what I get for complaining, for saying I don’t want to do Rodney’s dirty work. And for having a family I love when he doesn’t have one.”
“It’s so wrong, what they did to you.”
“Yes,” he says. “It is. And what they did to you.”
“Your arms. They look sore,” I say.
“They were. But today, they’re okay. Today, I feel a little bit better. I don’t even know what will happen to me, but I still feel good because Rodney is caught. And we have a candle to light. And so there’s hope.” He takes a match out of the matchbox and lights the candle. Then he says, “We shouldn’t let the food get cold. Let’s eat.”
We pick up our forks, and we enjoy the meal. I have ample time, not only to chew the correct number of times but also to savor each and every bite. Between bites, I recount every detail of the afternoon—how I sat at the coffee shop, how I waited and worried, how I saw myself on TV, how the cars screeched to a halt, how it felt to see Rodney’s head being unceremoniously pushed into the backseat of a cruiser. When I tell him about the woman at the coffee shop recognizing me from the news, he starts to laugh out loud. For a moment, I’m frozen. I can’t tell if he’s laughing at me or with me.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
“She thought you were a murderer! In her shop. Drinking tea and eating a cake!”
“It wasn’t a cake,” I say. “It was a muffin, a raisin-bran muffin.”
He laughs even harder at that, and I don’t know why, but what becomes clear is that he’s laughing with me. Suddenly, I find myself laughing, too, laughing at a raisin-bran muffin without even knowing why.
After dinner, Juan Manuel starts clearing the dishes.
“No,” I say. “You were very kind to serve dinner. I’ll clean up.”
“Not fair,” he replies. “You think you’re the only one who likes to clean? Why do you take away my joy?”
He smiles again in that way of his, and he grabs Gran’s apron from behind the kitchen door. It’s blue-and-pink paisley with flowers, but he doesn’t seem to care. He loops it over his head and hums to himself as
he ties the string. I haven’t seen that apron on anyone in so long; even Gran herself was too ill to use it in her final months. And to see it become three-dimensional, to see a body give it shape again…I don’t know why, but it makes me look away.
I turn to the table and gather the remaining dishes as Juan Manuel prepares the sink with soapy water.
Together, we make quick progress on the mess, and in just a few minutes, the entire kitchen is perfectly gleaming.
“See?” he says. “I’ve worked in kitchens all my life—big ones, small ones, family ones—and at the end of the day to see a clean counter makes the heart jump with joy.”
joy?” I say.
“Ah yes. Jump for joy.”
I look at him in the glow of Gran’s candle, and it’s as if I’ve never really looked properly. I’ve seen this man every day at work for months on end, and now, suddenly, he is more handsome than I’ve ever noticed before.
“Do you ever feel invisible?” I ask. “At work, I mean. Do you ever feel like people don’t see you?”
He’s taking off Gran’s apron, replacing it on the hook by the door.
“Yes, of course,” he says. “I’m used to this feeling. I know what it’s like to be completely invisible, to feel alone in a strange world. To be afraid for the future.”
“It must have been terrible for you,” I say. “To be forced to help Rodney even though you knew it was a bad thing to do.”
“Sometimes, you must do one thing bad to do another thing good. It’s not always so clear, so black and white like everyone thinks. Especially when you don’t have choices.”
Yes. He’s absolutely right.
“Tell me something, Juan Manuel,” I say. “Do you like puzzles? Jigsaw puzzles?”
“Do I like them? I
Just then, there’s a knock at the door. I feel my stomach sink and find my legs are glued to the floor.
“Molly, can we open?…Molly?”
“Yes, of course,” I say.
I force my legs to move. We both reach the door. I unlock and open it.
Charlotte and Mr. Preston are standing there, and behind them, Detective Stark.
My knees weaken and I brace myself against the doorframe.
“It’s okay, Molly,” Mr. Preston says. “It’s okay.”
“The detective is here with good news,” Charlotte adds.
I hear the words, but I’m unable to move. Juan Manuel is at my side, keeping me upright. I hear a door open down the hall and the next thing I see is Mr. Rosso standing behind Detective Stark. It’s like a party at my front door.
“I knew it!” he yells. “I knew you were no good, Molly Gray. I saw you on the news! I want you out of this building, you hear me? Officer, get her out of here!”
I can feel the rush of shame burning into my cheeks, robbing me of my voice.
Detective Stark turns to Mr. Rosso. “Actually, sir. That news report was misinformed. There’ll be a correction issued in about an hour. Molly is entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. In fact, she’s tried to help with this case, and that wasn’t understood at first. That’s why I’m here.”
“Sir,” Charlotte says to Mr. Rosso, “as I’m sure you’re aware, you can’t simply evict tenants with no cause. Has Ms. Gray paid the rent?”
“Late, but yes, she paid,” he replies.
“Ms. Gray is a model tenant who does not deserve your harassment,” Charlotte says. “Also, Detective Stark,” she says, “did you notice any elevator in this—”
“I’m sorry, I must go,” Mr. Rosso says, and begins to rush away.
“Goodbye!” Charlotte calls after him.
The hall is quiet. We’re all standing at my door. All eyes are on me. I don’t know what to do.
Mr. Preston clears his throat. “Molly, would you be so kind as to invite us in?”
My legs rouse themselves from their torpor. As I regain my strength, Juan Manuel’s grip releases.
“My apologies,” I say. “I’m not accustomed to receiving so many guests. But it’s not unwelcome company. Do come in.”
Juan Manuel stands like a sentinel to the side of the door, greeting each guest and asking them to take off their shoes, which he wipes down with shaky hands and neatly places in the front closet.