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Darnell and Carmela-Chapter two

As the Bard said, All's well that ends well.
The job was cook's assistant: ten bucks an hour. I learned the ins and outs of the kitchen fairly quickly and the rest of the business piecemeal as I went along. I was determined to do a good job and not embarrass myself. Plus I wanted to more than earn the $400 a week the job paid me. I got a small cut of the tips on my shift too; that added another twenty to thirty a week extra to my check.

The apartment she'd set me up in was small. It reminded me of the old place I'd had when I'd found her that night twenty years before. Nothing fancy, but serviceable. Oh, and the envelop she pushed across the table to me? It had $2,000 in it: my $400 plus $80 interest for each of the twenty years. She wasn't being extravagant, but she was being fair; I appreciated that. If she were only obtainable, I would love to have been able to take her back to Ohio and rub her in Jenna's face. That would have been the crowning achievement of my entire miserable existence. But delusions of grandeur that extravagant were not to even be contemplated. I wondered though, who her lover - husband, fiancé, whoever - was.

******

Cal Whitley was my boss. He was a genuine chef, not just some fairly talented cook. He'd studied Culinary Arts in New York many years before and had even done a stint at Delmonico's in the early eighties. I'd been working at the CR for almost nine months before I saw Carmela again. It was a strange meeting.

"Darnell, someone out front wants to see yuh," said Cal.

"Me?" I said.

"Yeah, go on, I'll cover," said Cal. I wiped my hands off and headed toward the front. It was 11:00AM, the breakfast crowd had already cut country and we were getting ready for the lunch bunch.

I rounded the counter where the register was and saw her. She looked fantastic. "Carmela, you look great," I blurted, then bit my tongue. She was the boss and I didn't want to mess with her or make her feel weird.

She smiled brightly. "Thank you, Darnell. A woman needs to hear that once in a while," she said.

"Yeah, well if you're not hearing it enough, shoot your husband," I said. Okay, I was fishing.

"I'm not married, Darnell, but thank you again," she said. "Are you busy?"

"Well, I mean, no. I mean there's the lunch crowd that's gonna be here soon. I mean you know," I said.

"Well, I'm the boss, and I'm giving you the rest of the day off," she said.

"But . . .?"

"I'm taking you to lunch, but not here. I want to talk to you. Would that be all right?" she said.

"Well, of course, but I have to tell Cal. I'm kinda leaving him in the lurch. I mean the lunch crowd . . ."

"I've taken care of that. Cal will be all right. His wife's coming in to help him. She used to work here. She was your predecessor before she decided to go to school," she said.

"Oh, okay," I said. "Sure then."

Kong, a.k.a. Albert drove us to small bar and grill on the edge of town. The ride took seventeen minutes. I knew because I kept looking at my new forty dollar watch. Not a word was spoken between us. Every once in a while, this beautiful woman would look at me and smile. I couldn't meet her eyes for any length of time; well, I was nervous; I felt like a teenager on his first date.

We pulled into the parking lot and Albert let us out of the back seat.

We headed inside the semi-darkened, overly cool, bistro.

We took a booth against the far wall. A girl approached with menus. "You can order for us this time," said Carmela.

I looked askance at her, but she just waited for me to make the decision. "Two burgers, no fries," I said. "Oh, and a couple of light beers." The girl nodded, noted it all down, and disappeared.

"Good choices," said Carmela. "I guess you're wondering why I asked you here today."

"That would be close to being true," I said. "It's been a while. Months actually. I wondered if you were still around. But, but it's none of my business. I mean I didn't mean . . ."

"Please, Darnell, relax. Okay. You're a very special guy to me. You don't have to treat me like I'm queen of the May or something," she said, still smiling all too happily.

"Uh, Carmela, you're clearly very successful and I'm just a cook's helper. A good one though, I hasten to add. Plus, you're super beautiful, and if I were any more average than I am, they'd study me," I said.

She laughed out loud now. "Yes, you are a very good employee, Darnell. I've gotten the reports. And, as for being average-looking; well, that's in the eye of the beholder.

"Darnell, I have left you alone these months because I knew you had to get your bearings. You were pretty much a mental train wreck when I found you. I know what that's like. I knew you needed time. I hope I've given you enough time. Can I ask, how are you; I mean really," she said.

I leaned back in the seat. My hands dropped to my side. I looked at her. It was a true Kodak moment. "Okay, I guess. I keep going back over what happened to me. But, I feel, I guess in control of my life more than before. That's all thanks to you," I said.

"Do you still love her?" she said. "I mean after all of this time."

"No. Frankly, I want revenge. But, I know that's just a pipe dream. Hell, I don't even live in Ohio anymore. If she knew where and what I'd been these past fifteen years. Well, she'd have a good laugh at my expense, her and her lover. Heck she's probably married to the asshole," I said.

She looked at me strangely. "I have more than one business, Darnell. This one, the restaurants is my favorite; but I have several others. I do quite well, but I remain a private person. I don't go out much, and I move around pretty much incognito. It's how I prefer it," she said.

"You travel in an awfully fancy car, driven by a very obvious bodyguard to be trying to be incognito," I said.

She looked serious. "Albert is there because my ex has tried to hurt me. It's been a while since he last tried, but he's out there, and well . . ." she didn't finish.

"Jesus!" I said. "What about the cops! Is there anything I can do?" I felt like an idiot saying that. She obviously had the resources to protect herself without the assistance of a cook's helper.

She reached across the table and touched my cheek. "That's so sweet," she said.

"I have him under surveillance. He's tried to mess with me and my life since the divorce three years ago," she said.

"Surveillance?" I said.

"Yes, I felt I needed to keep an eye on him, and I have. The interesting thing is that the PI I hired to do the job was so expensive; that after a while, I decided to buy the agency. Cost a pretty penny too, but not as much as around-the-clock protection. I still have costs of course, but I make a profit from the company and now it pays for itself and then some. The PI, Howard, is my employee now as are all of his old employees, all five of them: two other PI's and three clerical staff.

"Anyway, I hope you don't mind, but I checked up on you ex," she said. "Nothing obvious or especially intrusive," she said.

I sat bolt upright but said nothing. She smiled. "She did marry the—asshole," she said; "his name is Melvin Goode."

Well, I finally knew the name of the asswipe! "They divorced two years ago. They have a child, a small boy, age five I think. She caught him cheating and gave him his walking papers.

"I checked him out too. He's not really that bad a guy, but he can't keep it in his pants. But, I guess you know all about that. He does visit the kid every month; he has visitation every third Saturday," said Carmela. "But, he's unemployed and doesn't help much monetarily."

"Jesus!" I said.

"She works now. Same job you had at one time as I recall, well, almost. She works for a supermarket. She's a checker," she said.

"So, she's gotten over me for sure," I said. "As if that was any kind of problem for her."

"Actually, she talks about you from time to time," said Carmela. "The good 'ole days she calls them."

"The PI got her to talk about me?" I said, incredulous.

"No, I did. I own the store she works at; well, I have half ownership. I bought it when they hired her. The store was going under. I had my management team put a plan for its salvation together, presented it to Henry Wilson, the then sole owner; and, he bought into it," she said.

"Carmela! Why! I mean you, you didn't, you didn't need the store; we both know that," I said. This whole thing was getting very confusing.

"Because I love you," she said, quite matter-of-factly.

"Huh?" I felt numb, stupid, no, numb and stupid. "Huh?"

"You heard me. I have since the beginning. But you were married when I came back to claim you. I didn't check up on you again, figuring you were still married, that is until I saw you that day coming out the back of one of my places here in Indiana. The rest, as they say in the parlance, is history.

"So, will you marry me?" she said.

No one, and I mean but no one, in the storied history of man, had ever been as stunned as I was at that moment. But, I recovered nicely. I came around to her side of the table and got down on my knees: "Carmela will you do me the honor of marrying me?" I said, ignoring her proposal.

"Yes, dear Darnell, I will," she said smiling down at me. All of a sudden there was clapping all around us in the half filled bistro. I took her hand in mine and kissed it. I smiled, stood and bowed to my audience. I pulled her up from her chair and kissed her very gently and lovingly. The clapping achieved new heights.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation at her place, an amazing condo on the eighteenth floor of a downtown office building. She had maid service because her busy schedule did not allow for homemaker time.

"Okay, so you've been spying on me for months," I said smirking. "You know how unsettling that is? A man gets to have some secrets doesn't he?"

"Hmm, I don't know about that," she said. "I may just decide to keep you on a short leash." She was giggling.

"Carmela, on a serious note, why did you buy that store really?" I said. "I mean, she divorced me and married someone else, and I don't want anything to do with her."

"Darnell, for one thing the store is showing a profit now, and Mr. Wilson is more than grateful. He handles operations, and my staff handles PR and accounting.

"But, to answer your question. I have been checking up on you, just to make sure you were okay. But, well, you have been talking about revenge on her, I mean to other employees. Darnell, I really want you to reconsider that. I know your pride was killed and maybe your heart too. So . . ."

"So you bought the store she works at? It makes no sense," I said, sure that it didn't.

"Well, yes it does if you'll hear me out. You can have your cake and eat it too. Once she sees how successful and happy you are, can you imagine how she will feel? Particularly if you show her that you are way over her and that she really doesn't matter in your life or memory anymore. She will be eating her heart out; you'll have your revenge. But, she won't be left destroyed and ruined; I don't want you to do that to her. She may deserve it, but that would leave a scar on your soul you'd find impossible to erase," she said.

"Wow," I said. "You really are something Carmela Long. You really are something indeed."

******

We were married two months later. A few of my old friends from Bradley's were there, Carmela had seen to that. We honeymooned in Europe, Rome actually; God how I loved that city. We stayed at the Palatino a four star on the Esquiline hill run by an old friend of Carmela's. It was superb.

We returned after two weeks of sun and romance. The love between us was phenomenal. I had been a needy bum with nothing; she had been a woman who had once been needy and homeless but was not so any longer.

Business-wise, I inherited the running of the restaurant chain. I learned that I had been first put in the kitchen, not only to give me a job, but for me to learn the business first hand. It seems Carmela was pretty sure of herself, and wanted all along to have me be operations chief of the chain. She handled all of the other businesses in her not so little empire including the store where Jenna was employed.

I knew that at some point I would be face to face with Jenna once again, but when it happened it was a surprise.

We had just had a business meeting with some city fathers. Leases and taxes had been the main topics. Carmela suggested that we stop at the market and get some stuff for dinner. We ate in most of the time.

We headed into the store. There she was in register number three. It was a moderately busy day, and the owner Henry Wilson, whom I had briefly met at a meeting a few months earlier, was on duty.

"Hello, Henry," said Carmela as we entered. Jenna had not seen us, or if she had, she hadn't recognized me. Well, it had been sixteen years. We talked with the other owner for some minutes and then went to get the things we would need for dinner.

"You wanna go through her register to pay for the stuff?" said Carmella.

I looked at her. "No, I'd like to talk to her, but not under those circumstances," I said.

"Come on, let's ask Henry if he can spare her for a break," she said.

We did and he okay'd it.

I was sitting in the break room with my back to the doorway when she came in. I was well groomed and in a suit, no way she was going to recognize me after sixteen years until I turned around.

"Hi, you from the main office?" she said to my back. I turned around in my seat.

"No, actually," I said.

"Darnell!"

"The one and only, Jenna," I said.

"Wha-wha-what are you doing here?" she said, her voice breaking up.

"I'm here to see you, actually," I said.

"After all of these years?"

"Yeah, it has been a while, hasn't it," I said.

She just stared as if reassuring herself that what she was seeing was not some kind of mirage. She finally found her voice again.

"You wanted to see me? I mean, now? What? Who are you? You don't work for us, but you're here in our break room. What is this?" She was uncertain what to make of it all.

"No, I don't work for the store. I was shopping, and I saw you checking out folks," I said, not quite levelling with her though I had been shopping.

She took a seat across from me. "You look nice, prosperous," she said.

"You look good too," I said returning the compliment. "How have you been?"

"Okay. Work, raise a kid, pay bills. You know, the life of a single mother," she said.

"Single?" I said. I knew the score of course, but I wanted to hear her say whatever she might say about the asshole who she'd cuckolded me with.

"Uh, yes, he left me a few years ago, me and Blaine," she said.

"Blaine, your child?" I said.

"Yes, he's a good boy, but a handful sometimes," she said.

I smiled and let loose a small laugh.

"Uh, Darnell—"she looked down and mumbled something that I couldn't catch. I waited.

"Darnell, I'd like to apologize for what I did to you those many years ago. You didn't deserve what I did, or what the asshole I was involved with did either, and that's for sure," she said. "I have wished a thousand times I could undo that mistake. But, anyway, I'm glad that I was at least able to, you know, apologize.

"But, how come you are here. I mean do you live nearby? Is this really a coincidence? I mean you coming to find me like this?" she said. She was clearly confused. I didn't have to answer; we were interrupted.

"Jenna come on. The boss' partner is here and she's got bonus checks for all of us.

"Uh, sorry mister. Don't mean to interrupt, but . . ." said the interloper.

"No, no. you two go ahead. A body's gotta make a living. I understand," I said.

"Stick around if you want, Darnell. I'd love to talk to you; but I do need the money. It ain't easy these days. You understand." She was being physically pulled out of the room by the other woman. I just nodded as they disappeared.

A dozen employees were hanging around the check cashing booth. There were squeals from a couple of the women as they opened the envelopes that Henry with Carmela by his side was handing out. I slipped out and to the car. There'd be another day.

Fifteen minutes later, Carmela was sitting beside me in the back of the Lincoln as Albert pulled out of the parking lot.

"Bonuses," I said.

"Yes, it's something that Henry and I had engineered some time back. If the store made certain level of profit the employees would share in the rewards," she said.

"And today just happened to be the day you decided to pass out the largesse," I said. "I mean the day that I was gonna see Jenna again for the first time in sixteen plus years."

"Not exactly but almost," she said. "It was slated for Memorial Day. I just moved it up three weeks is all," she said. She giggled. I feigned frustration.

"For the record how much was the bonus?" I said.

"A couple of hundred each. Holiday money for them. They're a hard working and loyal crew," she said. I nodded. I hadn't thought about it, but now I wondered how Jenna was getting on economically. She had a son, Blaine. The asshole wasn't helping out; Carmela had found that much out, or rather her private had. Then it occurred to me; Carmela would know about that too. This woman of mine would know everything; all she had to do was want to.

"Honey," I said, "how's she doing? I mean really."

"She's okay. You worried about her?" Carmela was smiling. She wasn't jealous, but she was smiling.

"Yeah, a little. She was stupid. I was stupider. But, I can't hate her. Hell, I don't even hate the asshole, though I could maybe learn to do that, especially since he is not helping pay the kid's way," I said.

"Well, she's hard up right now. She's got a catch-22. She needs a sitter, so even working overtime has minimal impact on her economically. Like I said, she's hard up: behind on her rent, and her phone is about to be cut off. Power bill's paid, and there's food in the house," said Carmela.

"Jesus! The crazy broad really messed up with that guy, not just dumping on me. Why doesn't she sell the house, I wonder?" I said.

"You've seen what's happening in housing these days? She's lost almost all of the equity she had and the house is worth less today than when you bought it years ago," said Carmela.

"I wish there was something I could do. I feel sorry for her," I said, almost to myself.

"Well then, you'll be glad to know that there is going to be a store Memorial Day picnic. The employees themselves thought it up. Henry is footing for the meat stuffs, the workers are bringing everything else. Oh, and I've been invited along with my husband. I've accepted," she said.

Now I was smiling. This might be fun, and I had time to prepare. Then I had a thought. "Any chance of getting the asshole to show up?" I said.

I looked over at her. I'd surprised her; it felt good. "Why?" she said.

"You know, I don't have a good reason, but I do have a feeling here. I guess down deep; I am hoping this butthead will help her out and do what's right about the kid. Stupid huh?" I said.

"No, not stupid, wonderful. It's who you are mister-help-the homeless-and hopeless," she said.

"Yeah, right, mister whatever you said," I said. I started to laugh, so did she.

******

"Jenna," said Beth, "did you see the partner, Mr. Wilson's partner?" She gushed.

"Beth, she was standing right there beside him handing out the checks. I even shook hands with her," said Jenna.

"No, not that. I mean how beautiful she was. Rich and beautiful. I wonder who her husband is. Probably some movie star or sports icon or something," said Beth.

"Yeah, I guess, money attracts money I suppose. I wonder how rich she is?" mused Jenna.

"Say, who was that good looking guy you were talking to in the break room?" said Beth.

Jenna frowned. "Somebody from my distant past, my ex," said Jenna.

"Jesus-Mary-and Joseph, Jenna, you let that hunk of dynamite get away! I always thought you were nuts, now I know it," said Beth.

"Yeah, you're right; and you don't know the half of it," said Jenna.

******

The thirty-first was a Monday; well, Memorial Day was always on Monday, right? It was sunny and it looked like the day was gonna be a little on the warm side. The good news was that the park where the picnic was to be held was well treed, so there would be plenty of shade.

I wore my Buckeye cap and large aspect sun glasses. It was going to be a little bit difficult to recognize me at first. I wanted it that way. I was going to have a little fun. Both with Jenna and her ex-husband if I could work it; well, that was the plan at any rate.

Carmela had managed to get the man, Melvin Goode, to come. Don't ask me how. She'd gotten somebody to talk him into being there for Jenna and their son Blaine. Maybe he figured he'd play a little catch with his boy or somethin', who knew.

Jenna was among the first to arrive. She brought her offering to the common pot: German potato salad. I remembered how good it used to taste. I planned on getting my share of that one.

By 11:00AM everyone was there. Of course I didn't know anyone except Jenna, but Henry had arrived and announced that it "looks like everyone is here." So the barbecue was fired up; the pop and the beer was flowing, and the two dozen kids or so were playing big time on the jungle gyms and what all.

Carmela and I had seats under a tree near one of the barbecues. The red hot coals were going good and the burgers and hotdogs were coming off fast and furious by noon time. Jenna had so far not noticed me. She was talking to her ex and they seemed to be kind of intent on whatever they had to say to each other. I was sure she hadn't known he was coming. But, once she had spied him; he had all of her attention. Every once in a while they'd look over toward where Blaine, I assumed it was Blaine, was playing and smile pleasantly.

I took a turn at the tongs on one of the barbecues. Carmela wandered a few yards away to my left talking to Henry and one of the employees. I watched her and smiled whenever she looked my way. I noticed some guy, apparently part of the group but kind of off by himself leaning on the bole of the tree nearest me. Something was not right about him. But, he just stood there and watched the goings on.

I was engaged with another of the employees, Max, and together we were creating masterpieces of hotdog culinarity! We laughed and carried on like old friends. Everyone knew I'd come with Carmela, but no one recognized me or made any special effort to play up to me. I assumed they were giving us space, and they were.

My head snapped around as I heard the guy by the tree scream "Carrrrmelllaaaa!." He rushed toward her. She, startled, turned toward the scream, a look of horror painting her features. I rushed to her.

Something glistened above me as I interposed myself between her and her assailant. I looked down at my right pec. A meat cleaver was buried four inches, I would learn later, in me.

I watched in horror as blood spurted from the wound. At that same instant, somebody rammed himself into the perp and they crashed to the ground with a sickening thud. Screams! Everybody seemed to be screaming. I slowly melted earthward. There seemed to be an aura of quietude that began to envelop me; it was all quite natural, but I knew I was hurt real bad.

I had a sense of activity around me, but I didn't seem to be part of it.

It was dark in the room as my eyes flickered open. There was a low pitched sound coming from somewhere, a beep-beep. I was in a hospital room that much was clear. I was very tired. I heard footsteps. "Doctor!"

"Good. He'll be okay, now," said a man's voice. I turned to it; it was a doctor checking me out. "But, it was a close thing," he said to the female on the other side of me.

Next that I knew the sun was up. Carmela was beside me. "Hello, my husband," said my wife.

"Hi," I squeaked. "How long?"

"Three days and two nights, but the doctor says you'll be fine now. You saved my life you know," she said.

"It was the least I could do," I said.

"How are you feeling?" she said.

"Okay, I suppose. What happened to the bad guy?" I said.

"Your ex's ex killed him, my ex, if that makes any sense. He actually killed him. They fought, and that Melvin guy smashed his head in with a skillet," said Carmela.

"There's someone else here to see you," she said.

"Who?"

Carmela turned and waved to someone to come inside of the room.

"Hi Darnell," said Jenna. "So you're the boss' new hubby. Quite a step up from me huh," she said.

"Jenna . . ."

"It's okay. I felt pretty put out at first by your not telling me, but it all seems so—nothing—now," she said. "We'll have to talk sometime.

"Carmela, your wife, hired Melvin contingent upon your approval. I guess he'll he working for you at some restaurant if that's okay.

"Uh, and he and I, well, we're getting back together. Probably," she said.

"Darnell, I am so sorry for all of the pain I put you through. You never deserved any of that, and if I'd had any sense . . ."

"Water under the bridge, Jenna. Long gone. And, your hubby is okay to work for me, no problem," I said. "And, yes, we'll talk sometime. I need that, but not today. Okay?"

"Sure," she said. "I'll leave you alone with this good woman, now. Get well." She turned and walked out.

******

"Yes, I am fine. I got out of the hospital six weeks ago woman. I'm fine now. Just no heavy lifting for the next few months, but for all intents and purposes, I'm fine! Okay?" I protested.

"Well, okay. I'm just concerned is all," she said.

I surrendered. "I know, and I love you for it," I said.

We were sitting at the little table on the back veranda of the condo. Many floors below the people moved like ants about their daily tasks.

"I still can't get over the way things have come together," said Carmela.

"Me either," I said. "Last night was interesting. Their confessions were, I don't know, something."

"Yeah, but I think they were sincere in their apologies. It was all years ago, Darnell; it's time to let it all go. They were young and so we're you. Like you said, I think it was in the hospital, water under the bridge. How do you feel about her now?" said Carmela.

"Strange. I don't hate her. I thought I did once. I blamed everything on her. And, she does get a lot of the blame for what happened to me, and him too. But, part of it was me. I didn't have to let myself fall apart like that. If it hadn't been for you, well . . ."

"I'll take some credit, Darnell, but you saved me, twice. I figure we are more than even. Someday I'll probably be able to figure it out, maybe. But, like you said, it is just too strange and too complicated to make any sense for now," she said.

"Yeah, for sure,” I said.

"Where are you going to have him work?' she said. "You know he hasn't had a job in months. He was ashamed to even be around his kid, Blaine, because of his not having a job."

"I understand why he needs to work. I mean his pride and of course the practical side of it all. But for us?" I said.

"Well, he did help me, sort of," she said. "I no longer have to be looking over my shoulder for that nutcase ex of mine. Anyway, he'll do fine. So where?"

"I'll leave him where he is at Chez Robards, of course," I said. "He's been there for weeks now and Cal says he's doing an okay job, not as good as I did of course."

"Of course. I knew you'd choose there. You sure you're okay?" she said, changing the subject.

"Carmela!"

"Okay, okay," she said, smiling. "I'll be quiet about it."

“Hopefully!” I said.

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