Son of a Preacher Man: Part Sixteen

Every table in the dining room could be seen from all the others. They designed the space that way intentionally to keep it from becoming pretentious and cloistered. It wasn’t too hard noticing all the patrons were wearing the same basic expression as he stood up to take a bow. Other than the family, they were dumbfounded by hearing him, completely on the fly, turn a popular Beatles tune into the gayest love song of all time. After nearly ten years, he’d found his voice again. 
 
Finn got his payback toward the end of the evening when Harry refused to do an encore unless “BoyFinn” sang their long-forgotten duet with Elijah first. How he’d come into possession of that arcane bit of knowledge, only Cindy and Jill could say with any degree of certainty. 
 
Vocal cords are odd little critters. Even without exercise, they have an elastic memory and can pop right back into place. Since she was there, as his last song, Elijah sang the one he’d composed for Alexis after introducing her. To my ear, his pipes sounded better having lost the last vestiges of that boyish quality. He sounded like a man, albeit a highly-gifted one as the words flowed effortlessly from memory to mouth to every ear in the place. 
 
Jason came out of the closed kitchen, placed a hand on Finn’s shoulder and they stood there in silence until he’d hit the last note and closed the lid of the piano. “Dude, that was seriously beautiful. And so is your sister by the way. Think you could hook me up?” 
 
“Pimp your own ride, daddy. I’ll introduce you, but that’s as far as I go, stud.” 
 
Nicole was asleep on the futon in Piglet’s room when they crept in to check on their reason for living. Finn quietly closed the door and they were both asleep in short order after an exhausting, but exhilarating opening night. Sometime around four, Elijah felt tiny fingers taking his ear off as Matthew David used it to pull himself onto the bed and carved a place for himself between his reasons for living. 
 
Sundays were Nicole’s days off. She was gone when they were stirred awake by their son stating quite clearly as he shook Elijah’s shoulder, “Hungwee, Dada.” 
 
“You’re also wet, Piglet. Let’s get you a new diaper. Then we can… Oh my God. Wake up, Finn. Your son just told me he’s hungry in berry, berry plain Engwish. Michael David, can you tell Poobah what you want for breakfast?” 
 
He blinked a few times thinking about it and exclaimed, “Egg. Gum bear.” 
 
‘Gummy bears’ were what they called his dried fruit, nuts and raisin snacks. The battle of the bottle had been epic, but they’d managed to wean him off two months previous. Finn was elated as his son toddled away in search of his sippy cup. Neither he nor Elijah connected the incident to someone else having found their own voice again… 
 
They’d showered, dressed and even managed to bathe Aiden before Connick’s film crew arrived. Piglet had discovered the wonders of showering with his dads tossing him back and forth like a beach ball. Other than swimming, it was his favorite activity. 
 
Boy did that kid remember uncle Harry. When he walked in the door, Matthew David went screaming from the room and brought back his fire truck. I thought they’d never stop laughing until the female producer picked him up and said, “I’m not feelin’ the love with this guy having a speaking part. You’re a trip, kid.” 
 
Uncle Harry was tripping out over the fact of them not having a piano. “Dang! I was hoping to get another song from you, brother Elijah. You had Jill in tears last night.” Finn didn’t dare mention the two untouched keyboards gathering dust in the attic when his husband shot him the evil eye. 
 
Four hours later after pitching a fit when he realized the film crew was packing it in, Piglet and his Poo Bear sippy cup went down for a nap. Poobah made his first of three trips to Hoffman’s for the day. After an early supper at six, he went again and came home at eight. Elijah asked why he hadn’t stayed when Finn picked up his keys to leave once more at ten. 
 
“Because I want them to understand I could walk through that door at any time. But hear me good, Elijah Ballard. We’re not going to do this the way my mom and dad did. Once the staff figures out we mean business, I’ll back off. You and Piglet won’t be spending every night home alone. And by God, when that baby is fourteen, he won’t be slinging salads in a commercial kitchen. He can make them for us at home.” 
 
Midnight had rolled around by the time Finn came home from the third and final tour of duty. Elijah was drinking hot cocoa and scribbling on a note pad. “Hey babe, how’d it go tonight?” 
 
I don’t know yet. I’m still reeling over last night. Take a guess how much we made? What are you doing there?” 
 
“I’m just playing around in my head. Thinking about song for Matthew David. I have no idea, Finn. Maybe $10,000?” 
 
“Hell no. We made more than that downstairs. People seem to really like expensive wine to go with expensive food. Try $15,000 downstairs and $14,000 upstairs.” 
 
“No shit? Yuppies and hipsters spent all that money on shrimp balls, crab dip and sushi?” 
 
“Babe, we sold out of Korean BBQ. I wish pot was legal. Those people had some serious munchies. Kevin said we were pouring 400 drinks an hour. That hot bartender, Nate, made $600 in tips. At the staff meeting tonight, Jason told them to be on the lookout for another Greek God to sling cocktails. I hate to tell you this, but half the clientele upstairs was gay, is gay. It was the same way tonight.” 
 
“My love, I could care less as long as they have opposable thumbs and disposable incomes. You and Jason done real good, baby. How are we on reservations?” 
 
“Try January 15th to get a table downstairs.” 
 
That’s crazy. We’ve been open two days and we’re already booked six week out?” 
 
“You have Matt to thank for that. We should do something really nice for him.” 
 
“See if he wants a Volvo. I know a guy that can totally hook us up.” 
 
“Hooking up reminds me. Guess who’s got the hots for Alexis?” 
 
“Any straight guy with a dick and a pulse?” Elijah replied laughing. 
 
“Blow me, bitch,” Finn said while slapping him. “It’s Jason. Gimme a kiss. I’m going to bed, Dada, if you’d care to join me.” 
 
Hoffman’s downstairs is closed Mondays. It was a damned good thing it happened to be closed that first Monday after opening. Matt was the point-man fielding the calls about the Waco properties from the business broker and Realtors. He got a whopper mid-afternoon. Some snow bird with money to burn, was offering exactly $4.8 million dollars cash for the entire package, minus the Hoffman name emblazoned on the building. 
 
Cindy was at a doctor’s appointment when Dave accepted the offer and hung up so Matt wouldn’t hear his voice cracking at the thought of a stranger sleeping in his bedroom or cooking in his kitchens. It made the joy of the news bittersweet, but life isn’t for the faint of heart. 
 
Carlos took the news well when informed he was out of a job. They’d been together a long time. “I’ll come down to tell the crew myself,” the boss offered. 
 
“Don’t do that, Dave. Don’t put yourself and Cindy through it. Everyone knew it was the end of the road when you left. I’m not worried about it. I know you’ll take care of me. But let me take care of this. When it’s over, I’ll bring Marcella up and those crazy kids of yours can buy us dinner. We looked at the menu on-line. She’s dying to try the Million Dollar Meatloaf. 
 
They couldn’t call it Kobe beef legally. Cindy had decided on the new name because she understood how Texans think. The more it cost, they better it had to taste. Even Matthew David knew that. In no uncertain terms, it was what he preferred for his din-dins. I had to look away when one of the boys would put ketchup on his plate. I also looked away when Dave signed the papers selling the house, two acres of land beneath it, and the four others under the restaurant after Christmas. 
 
Trudy wasn’t able to make it. Her vacation time had been used up with London and a quick trip to Dallas weeks before. She sent gifts along with sincerest apologies. Matthew David’s present may have been prescient on her part, but it appeared to be an innocent gesture. She was delighted to hear he liked it. 
 
Clever device, the keyboard would light up where little fingers were supposed to follow. If he hit them in the correct order, it played a children’s song. The lights could be switched off and it had to be done from repetition, memory and most importantly, the driving interest in making music rather than simply noise. 
 
Shortly before New Years the phone rang. “Sir, the invoice says it’s to be delivered to 104 Carillon Circle. Are you Finn Hoffman? We were given your number as the contact.” 
 
“But I didn’t order a piano. Who did? This must be some sort of mistake.” 
 
“I doubt it, Mr. Hoffman. People don’t usually send this nice a piano to someone by mistake. My purchase order is signed by a Jill Connick. I can have the office call and say you refused it.” 
 
“No, don’t do that. Can you come tomorrow morning?” 
 
He’d been off the phone ten minutes when someone knocked at the door. Peering out the window he saw a pair of great legs jumping in a Fed-Ex truck and driving away. It was a Christmas card only a few days late. ‘Happiest of Holidays from our family to yours. May your home be filled with love, laughter and the sounds of the season. —Harry and Jill.’ At the bottom of the card were three stickers of red firetrucks neatly lined in a row. 
 
“Babe, I know we have to pay it forward. Send them a fat check made out to the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, mon chéri. Harry’s been fishing for a donation to the Musician’s Village. We have to go down there soon and take a tour, Finn. Piglet and Aiden have never been on a real road trip. By the way, have we done anything nice for your brother yet?” 
 
“I’ve fished around, Elijah. He doesn’t seem to want anything.” 
 
“Then he’s a lucky man, lover. But don’t you find it weird none of them are married except us? And we’ve been together how long?” 
 
“Including all those trips you made to the salad bar?” 
 
“Yeah, including the salad bar.” 
 
“This is absurd, but I think about fourteen years. Can that possibly be right? It only seems like…” 
 
“Yesterday. Yeah, I know, Finn. I thank my lucky stars when I wake up next to you every morning.” 
 
Shows what the hell I knew. I thought Elijah would be waking up next to Alexis. My aim had been off by a narrow margin, but dealing with time, space and unique personalities, it may as well have been the broad side of a barn I’d hit with my quiversful of arrows. Nobody would remember beyond myself and Elijah eons in the future my best shot piercing the tiny diamond embedded in his beating heart. Karma told me I’d gotten lucky it hadn’t shattered into a million pieces. 
 
“It’s been broken before. Elijah will survive. He and Finn are going to get through this. Chaos isn’t amusing anyone but herself.” 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Fifteen

Cindy’s eyes rolled back in her head at the first bite of mouthwatering meatloaf. “This sure as hell doesn’t taste like what I used feed you kids, Finn. It’s so buttery and smooth. How on earth did you do this, Jason? I’ve eaten a lot of meat in my life, but nothing close to this.” 
 
“It was Finn’s idea, Mrs. Hoffman. I just seasoned the ground wagyu beef and put it in these cast iron ramekins to bake. The dipping sauces cost virtually nothing and take five minutes to make a whole batch. But that quarter-pound of beef cost $15. We’ll need smaller ramekins to control the potion size, but I think we’ll be able to get to keep the total cost per plate under $20, and that isn’t bad for a $60 worth of food.” 
 
“No it isn’t, Jason,” Dave added. My food costs were higher than that. But what I want know, son, is how the Sam Hill did you get the southwestern corn casserole to stand up like this? Mine always tastes like a moist cornbread. I can barely taste the cornmeal. What did you do to make it so light and fluffy?” 
 
“Whipped potatoes, sir. Cheap, fast and not enough flavor to interfere with the other ingredients. Those are all fire-roasted fresh. None of that canned Rotel crap in my kitchen. I didn’t have the equipment here to do it, but for the restaurant, I’d like to swirl it to a point like an old-fashioned ice cream cone and brown it in an oven. It’ll make a nice presentation to dress up the plate.” 
 
Elijah had eaten and heard enough. “This exceeded my expectations. Piglet wants to know what’s for dessert?” 
 
The toddler squealed, banged his spoon on the high chair and yelled, “Fire Fuck!” 
 
Everyone but Cindy was amused. “Elijah Ballard Hoffman, you are not letting my grandbaby use the ‘F’ word!” 
 
“Yes, I am, mom. It’s the first two intelligible words he’s strung together. I’m not about to discourage him. Matthew David should be talking by now. If he isn’t getting past the baby gibberish by his birthday, we’re going to take him to a speech pathologist.” 
 
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Alexis didn’t speak hardly at all until she was three. Now, you can’t get the girl to shut up. Excuse me for interrupting. Mama wants to hear all about the dessert. Jason, you have my undivided attention if you can lose the Mr. And Mrs. crap. It told Elijah many moons ago it’s either mom or Cindy, Dave or dad.” 
 
He laughed good-naturedly and said, “You got it, Cindy. And Dave, if you don’t like the dessert, I’ll hang up my chef’s hat. This little jewel is my own creation. When I graduated from cooking school, it landed me at the top of my class.” 
 
“Well Lordy, child, don’t keep us in suspense. Ain’t nobody around here on Weight Watchers,” she fired back gleefully. 
 
“Let me clear these plates first.” Matthew David wasn’t ready to surrender his and started to pitch a walleyed fit until Elijah gave him a good thump up the side of his head. “Alrighty,” Jason laughed. “Guess someone wanted seconds. Now I see why you guys call him Piglet. Gimme just a minute to drizzle the chocolate syrup and we’ll be in business.” 
 
He carefully turned his back until the desserts were ready, making sure there was enough anticipation and salivation at the table. “Ta da! Behold! I give you the Easter Basket!” 
 
When he sat Dave’s in front of him, the man couldn’t help himself. “What the fuck is this? Even the goddamned basket looks edible. I swear, the green grass looks exactly like the stuff we used to put in the kids’ Easter baskets!” 
 
Jason wasn’t surprised at the compliment. He’d spent months perfecting the recipe, and hadn’t gotten much of a chance to use it since graduating. “Dad, that basket is edible. Pretzel sticks covered in white chocolate and woven together. That screaming green grass should take you back. Once I got it down, it’s pretty simple. Candied glass noodles dyed to look like the real deal. It only takes a second to flash fry them on a hot grill. Makes them crispy and softens the Easter eggs without melting the chocolate.” 
 
“The eggs, Jason, they look so real, down to the black speckles. I’d swear there should be yolk inside. I’m almost afraid to eat it,” Finn added while clinking the hardened shell with his fork. 
 
“Pick it up. I won’t bite you. Taste it and tell me what you think, Finn. Those specks are one of the world’s finest peppercorns, only grown in and around the city of Tellicherry off the Malabar coast in India. It’s pricey stuff, but the sweetness makes it what I like to call sophisticated without being pretentious. And a very little of it goes a long way. Sweet without the heat.” 
 
Finn bit one and gave the other half to his gape-mouthed son. “Oh my gosh. Delicious. This is giving me flashbacks to childhood. The white chocolate coating, that crunchy layer of malted milkball. The dark chocolate inside is almost gooey. And dear God, does it pair well with these drizzled strawberries. I’ve died and gone to Heaven, Jason.” 
 
It was odd trying to get a fix on what was happening in Elijah’s mind until he asked Jason, “Everything has been wonderful. Would it be an imposition to ask you to take Aiden for a short walk and let us talk? His leash is right there hanging on the wall.” 
 
“You bet. Is there a bag in case he craps in somebody’s yard?” 
 
“Inside the door under the kitchen sink. Thanks so much, Jason.” 
 
Mom was the first to speak when they heard the door closing. “Boys, I think you’re slap-ass crazy if you don’t hire this guy. Dad, what do you have to say?” 
 
“He’s even-keeled. No question he knows his shit, even if he is young. I understand it’s a risk because he doesn’t have a reputation or following. I like him, but this isn’t our call, guys.” 
 
“If we do this, dad, I’d sleep better with a strong front-end manager,” Elijah told him. 
 
Finn seemed to be on the same page. “I’m more concerned with the bar manager. We all know the upstairs is going to be a circus, but, babe, I think we should make Jason an offer.” 
 
When Jason and Aiden came back, Elijah asked him to pull up a chair. He turned it backwards which pleased Cindy to no end. “We’re not very formal as you can probably tell, Jason. We’ll have our attorney put it in writing, Chef Riddick, but we’d like to offer you the job as Hoffman’s executive chef.” 
 
“I don’t do dishes,” he laughed breaking out in a broad smile. 
 
“Fire Fuck!” Matthew David shrieked before banging his head on the highchair’s plastic tray in a fit of perfectly-timed comic relief. 
 
Once everyone dried their eyes, Elijah knew he was making the right choice. “How does a $10,000 signing bonus and $8,000 per month sound? We’ll sit down and reassess the situation after a year.” 
 
“It sounds like $8,000 more than I’m making now. Folks, you have yourselves a deal if I can sit down and talk with your General Manager.” 
 
“You’re talking to him now. That would be me,” Finn said. “The only thing you need to understand about me, Jason, is I grew up in a restaurant kitchen. Putting out grease fires between prima donna assholes is not my idea of a good time. The first sign of that Gordon Ramsey garbage, and heads will roll. This isn’t going to be a reality show. It’s a family operation. The last thing any of us want to see or hear are food fights bleeding over from the kitchen into the dining room.” 
 
In bed that night, Elijah was heaping praises and kisses on his lover. I walked away to afford them some privacy and didn’t hear the ‘discussion’ over Nicole. According to Karma, Elijah wanted her gone. Finn was more pragmatic about the situation. “Babe, it took two months to find her. Finding a good nanny is harder than finding a chef. Let’s just get the restaurant open. We’ll deal with Nicole later.” 
 
Harry called from New Orleans wanting a favor while they were sitting the kitchen and bar fixtures at Hoffman’s. “I’m trying to put together a talk show pilot for NBC Universal. It won’t be the typical fare of Tom Cruise melting down on the sofa. Jill and I want something more family oriented. We need some real star power, Finn. You guys and Matthew David were the first to come to mind. Any chance of me bringing a film crew to Dallas and shooting something casual, very softball at the house with Aiden?” 
 
“We’d love to help you out if we can, Harry, but things are beyond crazy right now. I can’t make any commitments without talking to Elijah first. Let me talk to him and see which way the wind is blowing. I’ll get back with you tomorrow or the next day.” 
 
Finn was shocked when Elijah agreed right out of the starting gate. “Sure, I’d love to… make a trade. If he and Jill will have dinner opening night, and Harry will do a couple of songs for his supper, we can shoot the segment at the house the next day. If he balks, tell him I’ll sing for my supper, too.” 
 
They’d hadn’t been planning live entertainment downstairs opening night. Finn had to do some last-minute improvising when Connick agreed to the terms. Matt had worked his magic with months of teaser advertising. A very full house was expected according to the reservations book. The first pair of dry-runs had gone reasonably well with little fanfare, fireworks or fuck-ups because nobody was paying and everyone was either friend or family, with the two crisscrossing in interesting ways. 
 
For Elijah, the second night’s trial run convinced him it could actually work. Table mingling was not something usually done in fine dining. One of the waiters complained, “They all keep moving around. What am I supposed to do?” 
 
“Either follow them with their orders or apply for a job upstairs. You’ll be fine, Robbie. Grace under pressure. Things should start to calm down after tomorrow night.” 
 
That was a pipedream. People would still be making their own seating arrangements weeks later. Reservations only meant a ticket to get in the door. But the lucky few who did get in downstairs dining room opening night were treated to far more than they’d bargained for. Finn called his marker in and announced Harry was in the house as if everyone didn’t know already. 
 
“Thanks, Dallas. And a very special word of thanks to my good friends who invited us to be a part of this tonight. I’d like to dedicate this song to two of my fave peeps, Elijah and Finn. Amazing place, amazing food and amazing family. Thanks, guys.” 
 
When he’d finishing singing ‘Only You,’ while everyone clapped, Finn took advantage of the situation with a huge hug and several kisses for his husband. Harry saw them and said, “See, if I’m lying, I’m frying. There’s a lot of love up here in Hoffman’s tonight. And I’d love to hear Elijah sing. Did any of you know he’s not just a gold medalist? I didn’t either. Bring him up here before he can take a dive and run on us.” 
 
“Stop pushing me, Finn! I’ll pay you both back, I swear. Harry, you’re a dead man walking. And don’t go anywhere, lover. I’m not done with you yet, Finn. I wrote my first song for him when we were fourteen. That seems like forever ago, but in my heart, it feels like… Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away… Now I’m twice the man I used to be. There’s a treasure dangling over me… Oh, I still believe in yesterday, because I know he’s here to stay… Just why, I couldn’t say, but I believe.”  

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Fourteen

“Mom, Piglet pooped his pants again. And you look pooped. If I’m going all the way down those stairs, we’re going back to the hotel for a bath and a nap. Why don’t you come with us?” 
 
“I think I will, son. I forgot how long it takes to give somebody a damned medal at these things. But I’m so happy for you and Elijah. Hell, I’m happy for myself. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to make it to London. But these new doctors in Dallas, they’ve made a world of difference.” 
 
For Finn’s purposes, what he’d noticed was her increase in the will to live. It was a question for him whether that was attributable to better healthcare or having Waco out of her hair. 
 
Cindy noticed Jill’s accent the next day when the two families were visiting. “Girl, are you from Texas? You sure do sound like it. I know where this handsome devil is from,” referring to Harry. 
 
“My momma is from Lubbock. They say it’s in the water. Think Elijah can hit the water like he did yesterday?” 
 
Finn showed her the baby’s sign. ‘My Dad Is A Perfect 10!’ Jill laughed and pinched Matthew David’s nose for luck. “From the mouths of babes, straight to God’s ears.” 
 
God didn’t need ears when Elijah stepped onto the 10 meter platform. Finn knew he had it. So did I. The look of sheer determination and supreme confidence were evident in his face and body movements. When he did a backward handstand and launched himself from the edge of the diving platform, it was as if time stood still while his long torso soared out over the water and flipped into a blizzard of twists before flipping backward again as he hit the sparkling blue water. 
 
Matt looked bewildered and grabbed Finn’s arm. “Did I count an extra twist that wasn’t in his program?” 
 
“Yeah, I saw it, too. He didn’t do that yesterday in semi-finals. I hope to fuck they don’t penalize him for it.” 
 
After a huddle among the judges, they came back with four 10’s and three 9.5’s. Throwing out the two highest and lowest scores. That extra twist earned him gold and a place in the record books, but he was still sorely disappointed they hadn’t rewarded the effort with a perfect score. 
 
“I was afraid of that,” Finn told the others. “I know Elijah. He won’t see this as a win. He keeps the silver he won in Beijing in a desk drawer. Who else in this world would be crushed winning a gold medal at the Olympics? Sometimes, I do not understand how the man’s brain is wired.” 
 
He couldn’t, and never would understand the peculiar burdens of being born under the Star of Dominion. His first child would forever remain the same kind of impenetrable mystery to Finn. There are things in the firmament of the heavens that can’t be evidenced by the human eye. His husband and son were only two of them in the infinities of space. 
 
Before his third and final dive, Finn managed to speak with Elijah on the phone. “Babe, I know you must be disappointed.” 
 
“I was, for about ten minutes. I’m over it. It was a stupid risk on my part. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But tonight, no surprises. Tell Piglet daddy is bringing home the bacon.” 
 
That required a sign change for Matthew David. ‘Dad, Bring Home the Bacon!’ was a crowd pleaser. So was Elijah’s perfect 10. The U.S. took 46 gold medals. China, after a powerhouse performance in Beijing, took a paltry 38 in London. Great Britain beat out Russia for third place with 29. It was the best performance by the United States since the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, which had been a very sad affair thanks to the machinations of Chaos. 
 
In spite of winning three gold medals, Elijah was completely upstaged by the miraculous performance of Michael Phelps in Men’s Swimming. Four gold and two silver made him the most decorated medalist in Olympic history with an astounding total of 22, the exact number I’d been shooting for when I inserted that star into what would become his body at the last possible second to ensure he’d be born under a 22, one of the four irreducible master numbers. They were hard marks to hit. That’s why I’d waited so long to put Elijah back in the game. An 11, 22 or 33 were finer than fine, but he needed and deserved to come in under a 44, the prize of prizes for a truly ascendant being. 
 
Karma called me an ‘old rascal.’ She understood what I’d been trying to do by giving Phelps all the right stuff and then some. It was meant to free Elijah up to walk as a man among mortals. Diving and medals, Olympic glory, those were a means to an end. Mastering the highest and rarest of the master numbers, not even Phelps was ready for that. And I doubted he would be for a very long time toking on that bong. 
 
Hoffman’s was really beginning to take shape when they got back. The accursed front wall had been sandblasted, stabilized and remortared. The boys’ personal life felt much the same. They’d been buoyed by Elijah’s sweep of diving events, but quickly began to relish watching Phelps take all the media heat while they concentrated on a chef for the kitchen. 
 
Quickly, it became apparent top-tier, available chefs were in short supply, and most had shorter tempers than anyone cared for. “I’ll need an ownership interest.” “I want complete control.” “Nobody tells me what to cook.” “This menu is too big. Pare it down by half and we can talk.” 
 
Those fruitless conversations lasted through September. Some British asshole offered to lease the building for $6,000 a month. Finn shook his hand and told him that was an unlikely scenario. Elijah didn’t understand it. “Why are they such dicks? Is there no one left on this planet who wants to cook simply for the pleasure of cooking? This has been a colossal waste of time. I’d rather go with a complete unknown. No more famous people. All celebrity chefs will be executed on sight if another one steps onto this fucking site, buddy boy. I mean it, Finn.” 
 
Eight days later, Finn was talking to the construction foreman about the super-smart dumbwaiter they were installing between the main floor kitchen and service bar upstairs. “That would save an amazing amount of steps,” someone offered from behind them. Finn turned around because he didn’t recognize the voice. Nor did he recall ever seeing the pleasant young face. “Excuse me for intruding. I was hoping to speak to the owner.” 
 
“You’re looking at him. We’re kinda in the middle of something.” 
 
The guy was completely stunned and didn’t quite know what to say when he realized who he was talking to. “Wow! This must be the right place. I’ve been looking for it two days. I had no idea you and Elijah…” 
 
“And we’d like to keep it as much a secret as possible. Is there something I can help you with?” 
 
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I was just a bit star-struck. I’m here to apply for the job.” 
 
“What job? We aren’t advertising for staff. Come back in two months.” 
 
“By then, you will have already hired your Michelin man. I was hoping to get an interview.” 
 
“Surely you can’t be serious?” Finn asked incredulously. When he saw the hurt look on an otherwise attractive face, he checked himself. “I’m sorry. You caught me in the middle of something. What’s your name?” 
 
“Jason Riddick. Here’s my résumé. I apologize for barging in. Maybe another time would be better.” 
 
“It doesn’t get any better in my world, Jason. It’s too fucking loud down here. Let’s go upstairs.” 
 
Seated at a plywood table with folding lawn chairs, he glanced over the two pages and handed them back to Jason. “Okay, you know how to cook. You went to cooking school. You’ve had two jobs since. I’m not sure that…” 
 
“Look who’s here, Piglet! There’s poobah,” Elijah said from the landing. “Go give your dad a kiss.” He sat Matthew David down, who immediately tackled his father’s lap. “Hope we’re not interrupting. We just came from the dentist.” 
 
“Babe, this is Jason Riddick. He’s applying for the job.” Finn didn’t expect what he got in response after they shook hands. 
 
Elijah pulled his ringing phone out of his pocket, said, “Watch Satan. I’ll be right back, gentlemen,” and walked downstairs. When he came back, he handed Jason one of the mock menus. “I have one question. How many of those things do you think you could cook?” 
 
“All of them, plus or minus a couple of items. Most of this would be ordinary food if you were someplace else. Kobe beef isn’t ordinary food. There are maybe eight restaurants in the country who serve the real thing. I can source Wagyu beef, the Americanized version, but real Kobi, I wouldn’t know where to look for it.” 
 
“Then you’re a step ahead of me. Are you currently employed?” 
 
“No, I’m not, Mr. Ballard. I just came back from New Mexico a few weeks ago. I’m still trying to get a feel for things.” 
 
“Then get a feel for this. Take the menu home, give it a good look, and create a side of your own, Jason, something to go with fake Kobi beef meatloaf worth $60 a plate. You’re cooking at our house tomorrow night. Make sure he has the address, lover. Satan and I are headed to a meeting downtown.” 
 
It was one thing which really stood out with them. If it was plausible, Matthew David went with one or both whether anybody else liked it or not. They asked themselves more than once why they were paying Nicole to be his nanny. She spent more time at their house than any of them… and she didn’t live there. 
 
Fortune begets fortune. Part Chaos and her elixir, a bit of Karma’s weighty hand, I’d placed a wager on Jason Riddick long before his birth and had no choice but to let it ride. Troubled kid from a troubled home, the only constant in his life had been his grandmother, a jovial old woman in spite of her plight… plump and pleasant… a woman who enjoyed cooking for the sake of cooking and eating good food. 
 
“You guys seem so normal. I’m not used to being around normal. Everyone always screams in my world, gay, straight, ambivalent or just completely fucked up. I have no idea about famous. Are you always this calm? I could get used to that,” Jason observed. 
 
“Elijah’s calm, Jason, because he knows where he wants to go. Don’t try to understand it. That would be a waste of time. I’m the one who first opened my mouth about Kobi meatloaf. Just give the man what he wants. It makes life much simpler.” 
 
To some extent, Jason did make things simpler by hauling in six bags of groceries to feed three people… and only an hour early. Nicole let him in, gave a quick tour of the facilities and prayed for five o’clock before the lord and masters got home, finding their kitchen in disarray. 
 
Dispensing with the niceties, Finn asked him, “What time did Nicole leave? We weren’t expecting you until five. It’s five after. Everything looks great, but you didn’t just get here.” 
 
“Hope it isn’t a problem? She checked out about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes ago. I didn’t steal the silver.” 
 
“My husband doesn’t care about the silver, but he may want to check your pockets for the gold, Jason. It’s nothing personal…” 
 
“You guys know I’m straight…?” he tried laughing, wondering what he’d gotten himself into. 
 
“Not until you told me. It was a joke about the Olympics. Not everyone gets our sense of humor. We’re an acquired taste, no sexual innuendo implied. Relax, have a glass of wine. Elijah rarely drinks, but I might join you in a few minutes. He and Satan are supposed to be right behind me.” 
 
“How can you be so nonchalant about it?” Jason wanted to know. “That’s twice you’ve called him Satan. Don’t you get enough of that from the media?” 
 
“It’s a family joke. Excuse us for finding things to laugh about. He’ll be playing one of Santa’s elves for Volvo at Christmas. Learn to anagram, Jason. That’s the way it works around here. Life is a puzzle. And that’s a muzzle up my ass. This is Aiden. You might recognize him.” 
 
“No, it can’t be. You guys aren’t real?” He bent over stroking happy pup’s head. “Hey boy, I thought you were an actor. I didn’t recognize you without the sunglasses… This is really your dog, Finn?” 
 
“Yeah, and these two are the loves of my life… Hey, babe, Jason got here a bit early. He brought enough food to feed an army. We should invite mom and dad.” 
 
“That’s fine, Finn. Where’s Nicole?” 
 
“She left half an hour ago. Is there a problem? I just got home myself and asked the same question.” 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Thirteen

Rome turned out easier to build than a simple restaurant. When they did finally settle on a design-build firm such as Dave had suggested, the city fought them tooth and nail over the upstairs deck, service bar and bathrooms. Once they finally came to an agreement, Matthew David was eight months old and trying to walk. It was also late in the year for breaking ground on a new construction project. 
 
“Babe, this is horrible timing for me. Why don’t we wait until March?” Elijah told Finn. “If we wait until then to begin, the London Olympics will be over before they finish. We can come home, start searching for a chef and not have an empty building sitting there,” he huffed while doing squats with a laughing baby. “That’s it, son. Jump for daddy!” In another month, they’d have to Velcro his Pampered ass to the couch. 
 
My little star of Dominion was already diving. He’d been swimming for five months and wasn’t the least bit afraid of the water. In fact, the first two intelligible words he strung together were in a hissy fit to go outside with Aiden. “Dada, wawa,” made it pretty damned clear he wanted to go swimming and wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Like father like son. 
 
Finn would read him his favorite book, ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ and acquired the name, “Poobah” while Matthew David was trying figure out all the other names for subjects and objects in his wondrous magical kingdom. That wasn’t too far from “Umpa” which granddad Dave taught him during the holidays. 
 
With everyone there and talking over each other, he wanted more attention and got it by squealing from the bottom of his preternaturally developed lungs. The kid could shriek, finding any and every reason to do so as he neared his first birthday. 
 
Poobah threw he and dada a joint party. Two cakes were too many temptations. They’d turned away for the briefest second when he stood up in his high chair and took a delighted leap of faith, landing head first in the middle of Elijah’s cake. It was undoubtedly his best photographic moment since playing Cupid, and earned him a cover on Parents Magazine proudly sporting his father’s German chocolate icing like a laughing tar baby. 
 
Dada had done very well at the World Championships and the FINA Diving Cup. Afterward, there was little question who the man was to beat. Still, he wanted to hide out the week of March Madness in case they decided to fuck him over again. Nestled in a mountainside retreat in San Miguel Allende because Elijah felt so completely waterlogged from training, he never wanted to go near another ocean again. 
 
His name was the first announced. It was as if no one else mattered to the sportscasters. The pressures of great expectations were an immediate, tremendous weight on his shoulders. Of all the contests he’d fought, won and lost… London was the only one that would matter in the end, the only one people would remember. If he didn’t bring home the gold, all he could carry, the one under his belt, along with Elijah, would become footnotes of Olympic History. 
 
The restaurant, a fearless one-year-old with more energy than the sun, endorsement offers flying in from every corner of the globe, all he and Finn could do was hold each other in the late of night and tell themselves it was going to be alright. 
 
Along with Dave and Cindy, they signed their lives away for another million dollars to reconstruct a wall and actually build something behind it. There would be life after London if they could meet their target and open the damned place by the first of December. The whole enterprise hinged on finding the right chef who could make little asparagus fries with wasabi mayonnaise. Elijah was told to call them ‘les petite pommes frites’ because they would cost ten dollars a plate and set the restaurant back two bucks. 
 
The cost of food wasn’t necessarily the issue. It was all the Volvo trucks tearing hell out of their backyard with Aiden’s assistance. The company had sent all these toy trucks, bulldozers and miniaturized giant earth haulers as a Christmas present. Matthew David exhibited a tremendous knack for rearranging the landscaping with his one dog excavation crew. When Aiden unearthed enough grass, Piglet would find some means of getting water in that hole, caking himself and a very white lab in the black Texas landscaping soil commonly called Armadillo dirt. 
 
He was such a handful, there was talk of leaving him behind when they all migrated temporarily to the British Isles. Elijah wouldn’t hear of it. “Whether he remembers it or not isn’t the point. I will. My son is coming. He was only a sign the first time. If I could get away with it, Aiden would be sitting in the stands, too. At least that way, the two of them wouldn’t be digging up my effing yard.” 
 
Alexis was the only hold-out. First year medical students were supposed to spend that one, almost-normal last summer immersed in something field-related to their interests. Hers was family medicine. She was curious to find out how the British delivered care under a more universal system. The idea bought her the time to please two masters, family and faculty. 
 
The mother of Satan was the first to arrive on her mostly-self guided tour. It went largely unnoticed until the fireworks started when Elijah showed up. He and Alexis were in a secret relationship Finn didn’t know about. He also had no clue about the affair Elijah was having with the openly gay male Swiss skier. There was no end to Matthew David’s ability to move dirt… or the press’s capacity to find mountains of it that didn’t exist beyond a few bored, limpid pens that considered their ‘work’ a mission from God. That didn’t include the journalistic geek squad which thrived on Mountain Dew and conspiracy theory click-bait. 
 
Volvo’s ‘Creative Lab’ had wanted a commercial featuring my little Star of David and Aiden for their featured sponsor slot at the Olympics. It was very clever and beyond cute. I’d never driven a car, but it made me want to rush out and buy one. They were pimped-out in sunglasses, and Aiden looked like a street thug in all that gold bling. Matthew David, in diaper and a Hawaiian shirt, absconded with dad’s key fob to start the vehicle. 
 
After getting the door open, he climbed up and Aiden grabbed the back of his diaper to give him a little power assist into the seat. They were off with the dog driving and thumping out rap on the twelve-speaker surround sound. Their heads bobbing up and down were done with CGI, but David had to master the now-iconic peace sign flash when a car would pull up next to them at a light. 
 
One such light, someone ran through the intersection. The Volvo stopped itself by locking the brakes. Aiden’s leg and paw reached for David’s chest like any parent would’ve under similar circumstances. It was high silliness, but a tremendous hit when it started airing the day before Elijah’s much-anticipated first dive from the three meter springboard. 
 
Finn and his little superstar were mobbed by the press and adorning fans trying to touch the golden child who’d absolutely stolen the show along with a billion hearts. Not bad for a kid a year-and-a-half old. All afternoon the cameras at the Aquatics Centre in Olympic Park kept panning on he and Finn. Each time his dad or grandma would point to the cameras, David would laugh and make the ‘V’ shape with two tiny fingers before clapping wildly. It was his move, and the boy was nothing if not a complete showoff in his Captain America shirt and navy cargo shorts with his Texas Rangers baseball cap. 
 
Unbeknownst to the Hoffmans, there was another famous family sitting two sections up above them, Happy Connick, Jr., his wife Jill and their three daughters, all considerably older than David. Cindy saw them waving on the big screen and felt the faint stirrings of a long forgotten memory.  When Harry and Jill came down the steps, she waved and so did Michael David. 
 
Jill laughed and waved back, pointing at the baby and flashed him back with her own peace sign. When they came up from the concession pavilion, Jill wanted to hold the baby. “Oh my God, we saw the commercial last night, Finn. That was so precious.” 
 
“Baby, it wasn’t just precious. It was nine kinds of genius,” Harry injected. “How many commercials does that make for you now, tiger? Three, four?” 
 
Finn shook his head. “It makes three, Harry. We have another one to do for Christmas again. There’s no telling what Volvo will come up with next. Oh, and congratulations on the Horchow Award. Elijah and I both love what you and Branford have done with the Musician’s Village. When all the craziness is over, let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.” 
 
“Absolutely, BoyFinn. Will do. Let me ask you a personal question if you don’t mind. Are the rumors true that Elijah can sing?” 
 
“Oh yes, and he plays anything with strings or keys, too. You guys definitely need to hook up when we get home.” 
 
One of the peculiar things about celebrities meeting each other in chance encounters is the fact that no one needs an introduction, phone numbers or addresses. They also don’t need a reason to call when someone is already a part of that very small, sometimes overly-cloistered world. 
 
When Jill tried handing the baby back to his dad, Matthew David gave her a kiss on the lips and forged a bond that would be very long-lived between the two families. David was like Cindy in that regard. They both knew good people when they saw… and once in a great while, even kissed them. 
 
Elijah’s first dive was one he’d worked on tirelessly for a year in secret. The 4.5 somersault in a pike position had never been attempted at the Olympics from either the high or low boards. He certainly hadn’t wasted it on the Pan Am Games. From the 3 meter springboard, it carried a difficulty degree of 4.8. Anyone who could pull it off was assured of taking home gold. Finn knew he could do it. He’d done it a dozen times, though not with a billion people watching. 
 
Stepping onto the diving board, he looked to the stands along with half the cameras. Matthew David was in BoyFinn’s lap doing squats and holding up his sign, ‘You’re My Hero, Dad!’  
 
Soon as Elijah’s last toe was in the water, Finn stood up screaming. “Mom! He did it! He fucking did it! Baby boy, your daddy just won us a gold medal!” 
 
Alexis was trying to look bored when she took the baby away. “Don’t piss your pants, Finn. Did you ever have any doubts? Who else would be insane enough to try that dive? The man is a God when he’s wearing a Speedo.” 
 
Her brother looked at her with a sly grin. “Girlfriend, he’s a God out of that Speedo, too.” 
 
“Don’t rub it in, star fucker. Here, take Satan back. I need to pee before the medals presentation.” 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Twelve

Dave drove he and Cindy back to Waco in near silence. Neither of them wanted to spend the hour-and-a-half arguing. His wife was a true Texas girl. When she made up her mind ‘bout something, it ended the debate. He couldn’t stop her. She had the credit, assets and moxie to do it. 
 
We truly entertain ourselves with small things. Otherwise, we’d all be mad. Karma had her own ways of coping. “The Volvo was my idea, O.  Mamie didn’t give a flip. Your boy deserved it after the crap he tolerated from that woman. You don’t owe me a thing. We’ll call this one even. Wait until you see the Christmas commercial with the baby and dog. Budweiser and the Super Bowl had better beware.” 
 
She’d killed the Volvo, but wasn’t the one who sprayed Cindy’s Lincoln Navigator with bullets. The McLellan County Sheriff knew the gun well. He’d fired it himself with his son at the range. “Are you out of your mind, boy? Leave those damned people alone! They haven’t done anything to hurt anybody. That preacher’s kid will make you look like a domestic terrorist.” 
 
Some survived Columbine. Bryce Calhoun survived shooting himself and his father in the foot just outside the Waco city limits. Dave called Matt to come get Cindy before she could call him herself. Finn came along, and not just for the ride. “Don’t look now, dad, but…” 
 
“Don’t waste your breath. I’m right behind you and your mother. None of this is worth being carried out in a pine box.” 
 
A man being swept from his ancestral home, his business, the only community he’d ever known… why did it all sound so familiar? Unlike Lot’s wife, Dave’s didn’t look back. It wasn’t the Texas way. 
 
Two days later when he made it to town, Cindy looked exhausted. “I’m here alone with Michael David. I was about to put him down for a nap. You look like you could use one too. Come lay down with me.” 
 
She woke up having the strangest dream when Finn came in. “Sorry to wake you, mom. Let dad sleep.” The fleeting sound of those dueling pianos faded quickly in Cindy’s mind. It was the baby’s voice she’d heard so clearly, yet he’d never spoken a word or taken a step. The only face she saw belonged to Harry Connick, Jr. It was the same vision Karma shared. ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ was the song. What she hadn’t noticed through the misty fog had been her son-in-law at the other piano. The three of them had voices so much alike, it was difficult telling the difference. 
 
Aiden took his responsibilities toward Matthew David very seriously. He saw Elijah pushing the baby carriage of his younger brother and wanted to help. It became a ritual on their daily walks. Aiden would push the stroller on two hind legs. Dad would hold the leash and pretend the world wasn’t noticing.  
 
It was an attempt at normalcy for Elijah. Finn thought it was adorably sweet until two idiots drove by in a truck one day shouting, “God hates fags!” and pelting them with eggs. What the brain surgeons failed to realize is that Highland Park, a tiny 2.3 square mile city within the city of Dallas, had cameras about every fifty feet, an exorbitant tax base and a police force that verged on para-military preparedness to fend off nearly any assault on its 9,000 citizens… even gay ones. 
 
Like everything else in their lives, it made the papers. Dave groused, “What a damned shame. You can’t even walk your kid and dog down the street. My wife gets her car sprayed with bullets. What if the next assholes aren’t throwing eggs, Elijah?” 
 
Cindy apologized to he and Finn. “Your father is obviously stressed. We all are, though that sill isn’t an excuse for his behavior. Can you call your real estate friend, Finn? Maybe something short term or month-to-month? Dad needs his space. We’re all cooped up here together. If I know my husband, he’s going to be mean as a rattlesnake for a while. You boys don’t need to be subjected to this. He’ll come around. But right now, he’s spitting enough vinegar to make a big batch of sauerkraut. For everyone’s sake, let’s get him out of here, and your hair.” 
 
Over the next few weeks while everyone played musical houses, it became apparent Carlos was in no position to buy Hoffman’s even if they owner financed. A business broker was hired to sell the operation, land and building, fixtures and furniture, everything but the name. The land on the interstate across from Baylor turned out to be worth as much as the business itself. They set an asking price of $4.25 million. On the parcel of land outside the city limits, their Realtor priced the house and twelve acres on the river at $2.1 million. Encroaching development and the explosive growth of Waco had been very kind to them. Dave was looking at $6 million, enough to salve a lot of wounds. 
 
Matt objected strenuously to the price of the house. “Dad, that’s stupid. Let me subdivide the land into two-acre lots. The property is worth more parceled out than as a whole. Can I keep anything over $2 million?” 
 
“I thought you had a restaurant build, marketing guru? I’ll make a deal with you, son. Sell Hofmann’s, and if the house hasn’t sold by then, I’ll give you a shot. Mom, you care to weigh in on this?” 
 
“Yes, dad, I do. I’m not tryin’ to poor piss in your boot, but I say let him have it all. Matt knows what he’s doing, baby. Let him do it. If I had my druthers, I’d a whole lot rather see you focus on the new restaurant. The boys have been talking to some architects, but they’re afraid to tell you because you’ll bite their damned heads off. Go make nice. They need their daddy. Matt doesn’t.” 
 
Out of options and then some, the practical, German part of Dave’s brain took over. He threw in all the towels, came out angry because he saw it as a loss, and steeled himself to retake his castle’s keep and manhood. 
 
“Fifteen percent for soft costs. That’s it, guys. This bid is bullshit. These architects are estimating twenty. I’ll pay to preserve the damned wall myself. It’s a fucking wall, not the Taj Mahal.” That was Dave’s version of playing nice. “Get some young, hungry design-build firm. They need to make a buck, not steal one. Make sure mom is there when they pitch their ideas. I know grease fires. She knows when something is a flash in the pan.” 
 
Finn and Elijah didn’t dare misspeak to their good fortune. My prince nearly bowed at the knee. “Thanks, dad. If you come up with anyone interesting… we still have a lot to learn. I bet you felt the same way when you…” 
 
“Elijah, blow me! And Finn, do my nuts while you’re down there. Crush it or go home. You don’t have five generations standing behind you in Dallas. This is the big leagues. There are no gold medals, only gold coins, the realm of every crown. Neither of you were happy leaving well enough alone. Squander your fortune or make one. I’ll show you how to flip steaks. Grilled Maji tuna tacos with aioli sauce are somebody else’s department.” 
 
Finn was thrilled with his father’s words. Elijah wasn’t so sure. “Babe, don’t sweat it. This is all good news. Dad isn’t throwing us under the bus. You and he don’t always speak the same language, love of my life. I’m not sure that’s anyone’s fault. You’re both pretty indomitable forces. He’s taking a step back. For dad, that’s a huge leap.” 
 
“I know you’re right, lover. But now, on top of everything else, we have to find an executive chef? I was hoping he might be a bit more ‘hands on’ in this phase.” 
 
“Trust me, Elijah. He’s out of his element here. I don’t see salad bars and fried shrimp baskets on our menu. I love my father, and he’s super at what he does. That isn’t what we need. We just dropped two million on a piece of dirt. He was right when he said to go big or go home.” 
 
“I’m sorry, Finn. I thought when we had a place, he’d be more excited. I hear the baby fussing. I’ll take shitty diaper duty. Will you let Aiden out? I have to put in an appearance at Hillcrest High School in an hour before training this afternoon.” 
 
“Why do you sound angry?” 
 
“I’m not angry, Finn. I’m frustrated. Everyone acts like I can be six places at once and perform miracles. Call Nicole and see if she can take care of our little bundle of joy tonight. Pick someplace expensive for a late dinner with your brother. We may as well start sampling the competition. And while we’re both busy doing nothing, call Am Ex and get us a credit card we can charge all this fine dining to.” 
 
Finn chose a Korean BBQ joint. “Why? I said something fancy, Finn. That place is in an old military Quonset hangar. I’d hardly call that fancy. What the fuck is Korean BBQ anyway?” 
 
“Will you get off my ass, Elijah? Emily had her birthday party there, which we missed by the way. She said the place is really cool and the food is great. They serve it Japanese style at low tables on a sizzling hibachi. I thought it might be something interesting we could offer as an appetizer with pickled vegetables and dipping sauces.” 
 
“My apologies, my gastronome. But, yeah, I get it. Some little splashy looking and smelling tableside presentation people can share like that ridiculously priced $14.95 guacamole they make such a big deal out of at Laredo Grill. You know that shit doesn’t cost them three bucks to make.” 
 
Matt, as was the usual family custom, exclaimed, “Oh my God! This shit is great! We have to do something similar. Jeezus, I can see the ads. I’ll bet you could charge $40 for an appetizer for four, send out a $10 grand-opening coupon…” 
 
“And whet their appetites,” Finn agreed. Elijah’s mouth was on fire from getting carried away with the hottest of the five sauces. “Maybe five or six bucks for the food costs. Minimal prep time, big presentation, fits with the ‘steak’ theme. A smattering of Korean, maybe a touch of Brazilian, Kobe beef meatloaf or some crazy shit nobody else has… and don’t hit me for saying this, but sides and veggies people will go home and dream about. Dad’s were a cut above cafeteria food. And Matt, I’ll kill you if you repeat that.” 
 
“BoyFinn, you are so right about the veggies,” Elijah added. “Lower Greenville is full of yuppies. Half of them are probably vegetarians or don’t eat red meat. I don’t want to get all hipster about this, but we need their business, too. Maybe a rooftop deck with a munchie food menu and bar.” 
 
“I bet you could have downtown and north Dallas views. Would the city let us do that? All those buildings are single story,” Matt asked. 
 
“We’ll find out, that is if we ever come up with an architect. But it would be the ticket for keeping them away from the fine dining downstairs. I wouldn’t pay $100 for a plate of food if I had to sit and listen to a bunch of drunken millennials arguing over the latest arthouse films at the Greenville Avenue Theater,” Elijah pointed out. “That place we went in Mexico had rooftop drag queen bingo, remember, babe? Straight people would eat that shit up.” 
 
“Yeah, I remember, asshole. You wouldn’t take me because it sounded so gay.” 
 
“It still sounds gay, lover. But if it keeps them entertained and drinking, I’ll take my payday, gay or no gay.” 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Eleven

“Thanks for coming, dad. I’ll hate this DQ Blizzard tomorrow. I gotta tell you. Mom is dying of a lonely heart. Don’t ask me how I know. I just do. I saw it in her face the very first time I came to the house the day after Christmas when I was fourteen. I guess the good news is, you have the means and power to heal her. But right now, the restaurant and Waco are a noose around everyone’s neck.” 
 
“And that wouldn’t have anything to do with you and Finn would it?” Dave asked. 
 
“It has everything to do with us, dad. When we were just getting started, you were our number one supporter. I haven’t forgotten. Now let us be yours. I’ve never said another word to you about the new restaurant after I mentioned it once. Matt is in Dallas now. Finn and I are both graduating. Trudy isn’t coming home, not to Waco, anyway. The nest is empty, dad. Mom has no one, not even you for the most part.” 
 
“Sell the restaurant. Sell the house. Move to Dallas. Help you boys open a new restaurant. Spend more time with my wife, and lest we forget Matthew David, my grandchild.” 
 
“That is kind of the idea. But gimme a break for a minute. Keep Hoffman’s or sell it. Just keep the name. Let Carlos run it. We don’t care, dad. The house, do whatever makes you happy. The horses are already gone. Mom isn’t. We’re trying to save her, not destroy what you worked so hard to build.” 
 
“The rest of them put you up this, didn’t they?” 
 
“No, sir. There’s not a soul on this planet that knows I’m here right now. I’d prefer we kept it that way.” 
 
“Elijah, son, you are a piece of work like no other I’ve ever seen. Twenty-one –years old, not even out of college, you gay-married my other son twice, used my daughter as a birthing vessel for our family’s first grandchild. You really don’t ask much out of people, do you?” 
 
“Only what I think they’re capable of. Does that make me a bad person?” 
 
“No, Elijah, you’re not a bad person. It’s just that every step you take, the ground seems to quake under your feet. You do have to realize, or I hope so, that isn’t normal. This world is filled with ordinary people. You’re not one of them.” 
 
“Dad, I’m not God. All I’m trying to do right now is… keep us all safe. We’re not the Branch Davidians, but we still need to get out of Waco. It isn’t safe for anyone anymore. And I’m not sorry to say this, but none of us are coming back. You and mom have the only power to make these decisions. No one is trying to force anything on either of you.” 
 
“Sorry, that’s not what it sounds like to me, Elijah. Sell everything and leave Waco, or in a de facto sense, stay and kill my wife if someone else doesn’t beat me to it first. Those sound like pretty stark choices to me.” 
 
“Dad, lots of people start over at fifty. Finn and I started over at nineteen when they ran us out of Baylor. The reason Matt didn’t want anything to do with the business wasn’t about running a restaurant. He wanted out of Waco. We wouldn’t have to wait until after the London Olympics to start building if you’d come to Dallas and help run the show. I have to get back to town now. Will you at least give it some thought?” 
 
It was no small wonder the Germans had lost two Wars. They weren’t worth a shit at keeping secrets. Within three days every single one of them knew Dave and I had spoken. I tried downplaying the situation as an ‘exploratory conversation.’ They all understood there was nothing playful about it and launched their own full-court press to extract mom and dad from the bowels of an evangelical small-town hell. Dave wasn’t budging from his 6th generation homestead. Everything shifted to an uncomfortable standoff. 
 
Elijah felt it was all his fault. I couldn’t blame him because essentially it had been. He’d been in similar situations dozens of times and had a deeper memory than most that a house divided cannot stand. No crown could be a crown with two men vying to wear it at the same time. What they needed was a softer hand, not a hammer, and I couldn’t provide it, not directly. 
 
I had no choice but to take the case to the only real court of appeal in existence. “You have to help them. These are good people, Karma.” 
 
“That’s laughable, O. You have two Dominion stars in this House of Hoffman, yet they can’t make it stand up? I’m not about to insert myself in this. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Last week I saw some really terrible things happening to the best people. Princes turn tragedy into triumph. That’s how they become kings. Elijah is acting like a coward. He should put himself out there and exercise his Dominion if he has any left. Stars do burn themselves out, you know. Maybe it’s the baby. Maybe he needs glasses. His answer is right in front of him. I’ll even show it to him just for fun. Of course, it’s going to cost him.” 
 
She wasn’t being cruel. She isn’t capable. I’m the only one who can be truly cruel in assigning a birth that also serves as a death warrant for someone a presumed innocent. The problem with innocents… they don’t exist. No past is ever forgotten; no future ever written in stone. But Chaos can fuck up even the best of days. She’d certainly ruined more than one of mine. 
 
Things were so disordered. Cindy was slowly getting worse. All the siblings, including the one he’d married, were piling on Elijah to do something. None of them in their own attempts had been able to get through to Dave. “Trudy, I talked to him before any of you. What the hell else am I supposed to do? You’ve always been the level-headed one. I thought I could count on you?” 
 
“And I thought I could count on you, Elijah. Dad’s not going to listen to anyone else. Mom would rather lay there and die than tell him to sell. I love my parents, but I’m washing my hands of this. Screw a bunch of family dynasty. I’m sick of playing their game.” 
 
They were at each other’s throats out of sheer frustration. Matty happened to overhear his sister shouting through the speakerphone. When she hung up, he told Finn, “Why don’t you guys go get dinner? I’ll watch slugger, here, until you get back.” 
 
It turned out to be a fortunate accident. Finn wanted to eat at the Texican on lower Greenville. He’d been asking for it. Elijah never wanted to go because it would be a mob scene as soon as they got out of the car. Finn suggested calling for a ride. 
 
“No, that’s ridiculous. We can be there before the taxi comes. I’ll drive. But don’t say I didn’t tell you so.” 
 
For a Tuesday night in the bustling entertainment district full of young people, they would’ve blended in had they been anyone else. The hostess saw it turning into a commotion in the short line outside the front door and found them a table on the patio out back. For the winter of their discontent, the weather wasn’t too bad. Elijah couldn’t understand why the lights were dark next door when Finn went to pee, stood on his chair and spied over the wooden fence separating them from a brighter future. 
 
When he tried to look in the front windows as they left, the old sheets of plate glass were covered with a reflective film. Hoping to be less conspicuous, Finn pulled at his shoulder and made a dash down the side street separating the two buildings from the next block. Walking to their car in the next block behind the main drag, it was Finn who said, “We should’ve looked for a place back here. I didn’t know there was parking.” 
 
There were a lot of things they didn’t know. People like them don’t get out much for casual nights on the town. Celebrity has a price. So do seven-year-old Volvos. It saved his and Finn’s life as they pulled onto the expressway and someone changing lanes slammed them into the wall while six or seven vehicles played bumper cars in the aftermath of that must have photo. 
 
The car meant something to Elijah. It was the last shred of anything tying him to his parents other than a birth certificate. That, like everything else, had a certain value. Evey picture of him in or near a car, it was the trademark black-and-white Volvo. 
 
In his statement to the press, they asked how he felt about the loss of the car. “It gave its life to save ours. That makes them the God of cars in my book. I say go team Volvo.” He flashed a smile for the cameras and gave them a peace sign. That simple gesture and his face quickly became ubiquitous for the safest, family-friendly car on the road. An innocent, heart-felt comment had done for Volvo something all their advertising had never been able to accomplish. It made them sexy. 
 
Ford owned Volvo at the time of the accident. Elijah was still in school. They knew the NCAA rules and didn’t want to run afoul of the law. Two months before graduation, Zhejiang Geely, a giant Chinese holding company, bought the brand. The new owners had no such compunction about bending or breaking the rules. Lawyers huddled and came up with a solution. Volvo donated one million dollars to his and Finn’s charitable trust for the rights to that now-famous ten seconds of advertising gold. 
 
Once the boys walked the stage in hats and gowns, the Chinese made it official by marrying he, Finn and Matthew David to a multi-year contract as the face of the brand. Aiden happily came along for the ride. 
 
Elijah hated doing it behind Finn’s back, but he’d quietly put the building and lot next door to the Texican Cafe under contract. The Hoffmans couldn’t keep secrets. He could and did until the family gathered for a graduation lunch at the crowded eatery on lower Greenville. Finn’s first hint that something was up came in the form of Elijah taking a sip from his margarita when glasses were raised in a toast. Finn snatched the straw back and laughed. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re definitely not driving now.” 
 
“No, I’m not, babe. There’s a limo waiting outside. I wanted to take you guys for a ride after lunch. There’s something I’d like to show you.” 
 
Connie knew that impish grin so well, even though she felt like warmed over dog shit, it lifted her spirits enough to chuckle heartily knowing he’d been up to something. The only thing he said as they left was, “The limo is back here in the alley.” 
 
The driver took them up near Northpark Mall to Morton’s, nearly five miles away from the Texican. “This is arguably the nicest restaurant in the central city, guys. Their cheapest steak is $49.95 for a petite filet.” 
 
Next they drove across the freeway to Highland Park near the boys’ house. “This is La Esperanza. Finn and I have eaten here once. French-Mexico City infusion food. Look at the cars in the parking lot. This place ain‘t cheap. The Christmas Shrimp set me back sixty bucks. Dad, you gotta try that stuff. Outta this world. They have two steaks on the menu. Don’t ask the prices. There’s one more place I want to show you downtown.” 
 
Dave sounded somewhat annoyed. “Elijah, why are we doing this? We just finished having Tex-Mex. Now you’re taking us on a tour of Dallas’ finest dining?” 
 
“One more, dad. I promise that’s it for show-and-tell. Everything else worth mentioning is a private club.” They drove downtown and circled the Renaissance Bank building, an ugly skyscraper recently renovated by an architect that should’ve lost his license for malpractice. “Down in the basement, this place is called the Dakota. I was across the street a couple of months ago, went inside and nearly died. Dad, the place is unbelievably horrid. No windows, no carpets, the acoustics are like a noisy echo chamber. Every word bounces off the walls. I could barely hear the maître de telling me to wait in the bar. At tops, I’ll give this place another year. Most terrible concept for a restaurant I’ve ever seen. The food is supposedly very good and pricey, but you couldn’t pay me to eat there.” 
 
Matt was as confused as Dave. “This is all very interesting, Elijah, but what’s your point? If we’re just joyriding, can we stop someplace for another drink?” 
 
“That’s the end of the tour, my impatient brother. Driver, could you take us back now? Thanks. Oh, and drop us in the front.” 
 
The chauffeur opened the doors in front of the shuttered building sharing the Texican’s block. Cindy hadn’t said a word the entire hour-long trip. She was tired, but knew Elijah hadn’t held everyone hostage for an hour pointlessly. “Okay, baby. Mama is done tuckered out. What was this all about?” 
 
“Mom, Dad, oh gang of mine, you are looking at the future home of Hoffman’s Steakhouse. Finn and I are buying the lot and building, what’s left of it.” 
 
“This is bullshit, Elijah. I didn’t buy a damned thing. Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked angrily. 
 
“Because nobody in this family can keep a secret. If the owners knew it was us buying it, or why, they would’ve jacked up the price. I had to go in under the radar. It still cost us a fortune. They aren’t exactly giving away prime real estate on lower Greenville these days.” 
 
Dave’s first sign of life or interest came in the form of a carefully-worded question. “All these buildings are historic, Elijah. Will the city let you tear it down?” 
 
“That was the issue, dad. We wrangled over this for two months. They finally agreed we could take down everything but the front facade. Finn and I will be cashed out by the time we close and clear the rest of the lot. We need a partner with experience in the business. Otherwise, you’re looking at our life savings invested in a piece of dirt. Two banks have already said no without someone who knows the ropes coming in with us.” 
 
Cindy surprised them by stepping forward. “I’ve owned a restaurant for thirty years. Is that enough experience, Elijah?” 
 
“Mom, I’m pretty sure it would be any day of the week.” 
 
“Good. Then you and Finn have yourselves a partner, pardner. Let’s saddle up and get this show on the road, boys. 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Ten

I could never be sure why he chose that particular battlefield. He’d just come home and was being hailed as a hero. But he couldn’t be content. The entire world knew about their Netherlands marriage. Not good enough. Beijing was Beijing. The Netherlands were the Netherlands. He had something to prove. For Elijah, there was no better place than home to do that. 
 
It was the equivalent of throwing a Molotov cocktail in the middle of a white sale for the Klan. Elijah had some serious balls. He struck Waco right in the living center of its heart, completely symbolically, in mid-afternoon, nice weather and a pretty sky, ringed by campus and city police. One of Waco’s finest wanted to write them a ticket for criminal mischief on top of the one for criminal trespass. I loved my boy… even if he was costing me the next Olympics. 
 
Any court appearance with a celebrity can be a circus, but Elijah was launching all-out open warfare. “I brought an attorney, Your Honor, but I’d like to speak for myself.” 
 
The man looked at him with venom in his eyes. “I’m sure you would, Mr. Ballard. How about you, Mr. Hoffman? I know you must have a few words? How about a sign that says, ‘Can Daddy Make Bail?’ Both of you get out of my courtroom before I put you in jail. Case dismissed.” 
 
He was crucified for his comments in the mainstream press. Conservative media, the kooky and creepy contingencies pushed back with two pictures of Alexis at the Olympics and again at the Waco wedding. “This isn’t cool, Elijah. They’re calling our baby the Anti-Christ. Alexis is the mother of Satan. What does that make us?” 
 
“The proud parents of an angel fallen from Heaven. Stop worrying about all this, Finn. He doesn’t have a name yet. What would you like to call him?” 
 
“Correct my Biblical scholarship, but wasn’t the pretty boy who sang and danced in the streets, the gay one…” 
 
“David, you mean David. Let’s tell dad we named the baby after him.” 
 
“You tell him anything you like. I’m naming my baby after the first queer king in the Bible.” 
 
“Dad always gets left out of everything, Finn. So does Matt. Can we name him David Matthew, or Matthew David?” 
 
“Matthew David. The other way sounds like we were stoned, Elijah. I don’t even like the Dave Matthews Band. I’ll call mom. You call Matty. Coming from you, he’ll love it. Coming from me, he’ll say it sounds pedestrian and want something British like Alister or Elton.” 
 
“Alister, definitely not. He was some sort of weird Satanist. The press would love that. I’ll call your brother. He’ll want to design a marketing campaign to go with the birth announcements. And they think we’re queer.” 
 
Finn had never really been the type to make high-drama demands. “I don’t care what you’re doing. Get your ass in the car. I’m already at the house. Bring a generous attitude and your checkbook. The agent says they’ll have multiple offers by tomorrow. And she can’t be lying. I’ve seen everything on and off the market. There’s nothing like this, not remotely.” 
 
“Fine, Finn. I’ll stop everything I’m doing, hop right in the car, and bring you a check for two million dollars. See you in twenty minutes. Is there anything else? Maybe a milkshake from P Terry’s? Torchy Tacos? They’re both on my way.” 
 
Secretly, Elijah was already in love without ever laying eyes on the place. He knew Finn had good taste, exactly like his mother. Neither of them ever really went for show. They weren’t trying to impress anyone. Quality over quantity, substance over style, they both enjoyed, appreciated and navigated toward tasteful modesty, one of the qualities he admired about them both. 
 
Sitting in front of the cul-de-sac, pie-shaped lot, he asked God to bless his home and went in for a look. “Hellloooo…? I’m the pool salesman. Is the homeowner available? I need to speak to the man of the house.” 
 
After a kiss and possibly the warmest embrace he’d ever felt, he told Finn, “I don’t need to see the rest. I’m sure you’ll show it to me anyway. Brandi, offer them whatever you need to. Do it tonight. My baby and his daddy need a house. Truly superb, babe. This looks like a great place to raise Hell’s angels. The neighbors will just love us I’m sure. There’s nothing quite as exciting as the circus coming to town.” 
 
There wasn’t a lot to the opening ceremonies. They moved in quietly, smiling for the cameras, unloading boxes from the moving van, and walking them in the house like any average American newlyweds… happy to have a home. The media put them through the ringer anyway. ‘America’s sweethearts settle into tony new love nest in posh Highland Park awaiting the birth of their first child, Matthew David Ballard-Hoffman.’ 
 
“I am so bored down here in Waco. Your spawn of Satan and I can’t leave the house. They either want to pray for me or stone me. I’m going stir-crazy, Elijah. Can I come up there and help you guys get situated? With finals and a new house, you must be coming apart at the seams. I’m just sitting here on my big fat ass doing nothing anyway.” 
 
“That would be super-duper extra spectacular. Please, go spend our money. Buy some furniture for God’s sake. We don’t even have a bed for you to sleep on. And we could use some help with the nursery.” 
 
“Anything but the nursery. That needs to come from you and Finn. You have plenty of time off for the holidays. The baby isn’t due until mid-February.” 
 
“I still think that’s so cool, Matthew David born under the same star sign as me. I don’t know how it could’ve worked out any better if I’d planned it myself.” 
 
He was close enough for my purposes. I liked their idea of the wide black-and-white stripes for the nursery. Not something I would’ve thought of, but it went nicely with their old-meets-new, Neo-classical sensibilities. Maybe a bit more formal than Dave and Cindy’s ranch style, they were still trying to find a happy medium between gay celebrity and comfortably human. 
 
It was wonderful watching them go through their paces at Christmas as a remarkably well-functioning family. Cindy brought all her heirloom ornaments for the tree, passed down from her mother and grandmother. So much of it was a handing-off ceremony, a passing of the torch. She told them after two days of preparing an elaborate feast, “I’m hanging up my apron after this year, kids. Next year, I’m going to play with my grandbaby. But first, I need to do something for myself. I’m checking into rehab the first of January. I need to be clear-headed when the baby comes. I was a terrible mother… I want to be a better grandmother.” 
 
While everyone else protested her claims of bad parenting, Dave quietly applauded the decision. He wanted his wife, his whole wife, not a narcotics-addicted former Texas beauty queen. She wasn’t a trophy like the ones cluttering the walls of Elijah and Finn’s study. Cindy was his partner in life. For better and for worse, she was the binding agent of their family. And it was about to grow in a very vivid season of change.  
 
Mom was in good enough shape to be in the delivery room with Alexis when Matthew David was born February 14th at 6:22 a.m. Just in time to be dubbed ‘America’s Valentine’s Day Baby,’ they were besieged by congratulations, a few death-threats and a viral pic of David and dads leaving the hospital in the six-year-old family Volvo. 
 
Nobody except Dave recognized his wife without the aid of narcotics. Cindy had begun taking the pills after Trudy’s birth. With Matt, they increased. By the time Alexis and Finn had come along, her husband was the only one who could recall her being someone different. Those pills had been a very effective mask for thirty years covering up a great many things. Elijah hadn’t known the extent of the problems or the addiction in his early years with the Hoffmans. Still, it didn’t come as any great surprise, he was the one to point out to Trudy and Dave both that mom was anything but okay. 
 
“Trudy, I have no idea what’s wrong with her, but she’s in pain nearly all the time. I don’t think that pain is her mind trying to get her addicted again. Maybe there’s some reason we don’t know about that caused this. She has constant headaches, muscle pain, fatigue. She isn’t sleeping worth a flip. I don’t know what kind of doctor to send her to. Maybe you could talk to dad and give him some suggestions.” 
 
“Elijah, every one of the symptoms you’re describing could be attributed to long-term withdrawal symptoms, or there could be some underlying causal factor that’s been there all along. Let me look into some stuff and speak to dad. I’ll get back with you guys. How’s Matthew David doing?” 
 
“He is awesome in every way, sis. The nanny is a big help. It’ll get better when the semester ends. One more year and we’ll both be done with school. Senior year is supposed to be a cakewalk compared to these others. Our pediatrician said we can start giving him swimming lessons in three months!” 
 
“With you two as parents, I so would not want to be that child.” 
 
In actuality, Trudy would’ve loved to be that child. Matt even said so aloud. “Dad was never there for me or Trudy. He was always at the restaurant learning the business from Opa Hoffman. Grandpa was a mean old man, old school German. He worked dad like a dog, Elijah. I hope you and Finn will never do that to Matthew David.” 
 
“Matt, my father did the exact same shit to me. There’s no way we’re doing that to this little angel. Did you see his cupid outfit in his first magazine cover?” 
 
“Are you kidding? It’s the screensaver on my computer. Call me when you have time to talk, Elijah. I wanted to put a bug in your ear about something else.” 
 
“I’m between catastrophes right now. Bug my ears.” 
 
“I don’t think I’m happy here. The west coast isn’t very welcoming to us Texans. I get the same treatment at work, in my social life, and dating. We sound and act funny to them. It’s a sort of low-grade subconscious discrimination. I thought it would change after they got to know me. It hasn’t. I’ve never had anything here like I have with you guys at home.” 
 
“Matt, I don’t think you have any real idea how deeply those words resonate with me. If you’re remotely hinting you’d like to come home, you know our door is wide open. I can’t tell you what to do, though this seems like a really opportune time to bust a move if you’re going to.” 
 
Three months later, Matty was present for that first swimming lesson of David’s. Except for Trudy, we were all present when the doctors diagnosed Cindy with Lupus and Fibromyalgia. The specialist in charge said there was no way to be completely certain, but she’d probably been triggered by having children in the first place, then doing it again ten years later. 
 
Dave was the first to sign off on the diagnosis. He’d seen what it did to her body and mind when each of them had been born. There really wasn’t much they could do. Neither condition had a cure. Back on the pills she went, some of them the ones she’d already been taking, some completely new. 
 
But that revelation was also a revolution. In large and small ways, it changed everyone’s thinking, behaviors and attitudes about where they were going individually and collectively. 
 
Elijah spent a week assembling his speech to Dave as if it were a carefully, meticulously-worded sermon. It had the potential to harm his ‘brand’ in the family, but it was risk he felt justified in taking to save that same family and keep them intact. It was precisely the way a prince should think and act. He’d willingly abdicated the Throne of Ballard. Elijah was nowhere near surrendering his other, more important principality. There really wasn’t a choice. The House of Hoffman would stand as one, undivided. It was time for him to exercise his dominion. 
 
“Hey, dad. I was wondering if we might talk? Can you meet me at the Dairy Queen in Hillsboro? This is kind of important. I’m coming down by myself. For the time being, I’d rather keep this conversation between us. Loose lips sink ships. Just for right now, can we agree to keep this off the record?” 
 
“Elijah, why would we be meeting at the Dairy Queen in fucking Hillsboro?” 
 
“No distractions. What I have to say is for your ears only. And I’d rather say it in person, Dave.” 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Nine

I could appreciate Finn’s unbridled optimism and unwavering support even if I didn’t share in it. After some sleuthing and snooping of my own, it was obvious two of the diving coaches hadn’t wanted him on the team at all, not because Elijah lacked the skills, but purely out of disdain for his lifestyle. They also didn’t like the fact they’d been overruled by the Selection Committee in trying to blackball him. Humans and their damned religious convictions. It was enough to make me want to set my hair on fire. 
 
Alexis called later in the evening to congratulate them. She also had a tad of news to share. “Guys, I’ve been thinking about it since we talked at Christmas. I graduate in May. It’s too late to apply to medical schools since I made the big switcharoo. I’m going to have to sit it out until next year. And since I have absolutely nothing else to do, I’d like to make you a baby.” 
 
They had her on speaker and both of them died laughing. It was Finn who said what they were thinking. “Sis, we love you, but there isn’t chance in hell you’re sleeping with my husband. Even with invitro, that would still make my son my brother. The media would eat us all alive.” 
 
“Finn, grow a fucking brain. I’m mean seriously get a fucking life. I’m not talking about being some sort of weird-ass sister wife. Find yourself some nice grade-A fresh eggs, spunk in a cup, Trudy can get them fertilized and stick one in me. Why would you pay a surrogate to carry the baby when I’m offering to do this for you? Trudy gave me a top to bottom exam and green-lighted me. I’m good to go. Whoever carries it, we all know, like everything else in this family, that baby will be community property. I’d like to have some part in bringing our little bundle of joy into the world.” 
 
“Alexis, I hope you can understand we’re both kind of on sensory overload with everything that’s happened today,” Elijah told her. “We’re going to need some time to process this, along with a whole lot of other stuff. Can we call you back in a few days when we get home?” 
 
“Certainly, but the clock is ticking on this one-time offer. Either knock me up by September or October, otherwise the doors close on my baby factory, guys.” 
 
I’d always assumed since they’d turned sixteen how completely, woefully off-target I’d been in my vision. Suddenly, the stars were realigning themselves. Karma told me, “See, O, you aren’t crazy. I told you you weren’t. I’ll keep Chaos off your back. Go make sure your other star of Dominion is born, you lucky bastard.” 
 
There was almost no time to prepare. Normally I could take years or centuries to find the exact fit. Sorting through millions of possibilities in six months or less was a rush job by any reasonable standard. I had one chance to get it right. The boys and Alexis had only one chance. They could make twenty babies after the fact, but none of them would be this particular child. 
 
Placing Elijah in Mamie’s womb had been comparatively easy. I’d never interfered in any human’s life after conception. But a second star of Dominion born into the same family called for bending my own rules. 
 
Finn acted like it was an Easter egg hunt when they accepted Alexis’ offer. He had no idea what was at stake. It was more work than I’d thought possible at my advanced age, yet I managed to get inside his subconscious and plant the seeds telling him, “Look north, my boy, to Canada.” Of course, no one was looking toward anything except Beijing. But they were only seeds, and still had plenty of time to germinate. 
 
“Egg brokering? Is that even legal?” Elijah asked him. 
 
“It is in the U.S. I’m not suggesting we make a designer baby, but we can’t take a chance on the luck of the draw. I think we should at least talk to this lady. She’s supposedly the best egg finder in the country. She’d better be. Her fee is $20,000 per match. I don’t know what the donor will cost, if anything. Some women do it for free.” 
 
When they spoke to the egg lady, Sara Michaelson, she had two questions. Did they want fresh or frozen? Did they want to know the identity of the donor or reveal who they were to her? 
 
“Absolutely not on the names exchange, Sara,” Elijah told her flatly. “I’m a very public figure. You obviously know what we look like. Find someone who at least looks something like us. They have to be smart, athletic, and if you can find it, musically inclined. What little I’ve read says the success rate is higher with fresh eggs. I’ll pay whatever I have to for that. Because of our personal circumstances, the window, the only window, is September or October. Finn’s sister will be starting medical school next fall”. 
 
She seemed to know what she was doing for a human. “If I could suggest something. You both have crazy lives. This would be a one-day procedure for all parties. The bigger the window, the more fish in the sea. If your sister, Finn, were to become pregnant in March, April, May, she wouldn’t be showing by the time she graduates. That would give us roughly eight months. That’s more than enough time.” 
 
“Crap, it’s already March. Babe, can we go with that plan for right now? As long as it isn’t August, Sara, I think we’re fine. I’ll talk to Alexis.” 
 
“Works for me,” Elijah said. “For this, I can spare a day.” 
 
Karma did keep Chaos out of it. I would owe her eternally for the momentary respite. I was able to get Sara and Finn’s attention two weeks later when the young woman ‘miraculously’ woke up one day in early May after a strange dream of floating in water filled with millions of tiny bursts of light. I was trying not to overdo it. She saw Sara’s ad while eating a panini at lunch. ‘Compensation available’ caught her attention. 
 
Grad school didn’t pay enough to keep her car running. She could’ve made a fortune dancing in clubs, but she wanted to be a pianist, not suck on them to keep a roof over her head. After a long run the next morning she called for more information. Sara’s assistant looked at her social media while they were talking. “We’ll need a copy of your transcripts. And when is your next ovulation cycle?” 
 
“I’m pretty regular. I’d say two weeks. I just had my period.” 
 
“Then get your medical records together with your last gynecological exam. Ms. Michaelson will want to interview you before making a solid offer. But if the clients like your profile, we typically pay between ten and twenty thousand plus your expenses for the one-day procedure.” 
 
“Would I have to come to L.A. for the interview?” 
 
“No, Ms. Michaelson will come to you in Seattle. We still make house calls.” 
 
She was our girl. Beautiful as she was, I chose her soul over the body. It had a song in it I could hear. Two qualities stood out to me most. She was nearly always happy, and almost never content. 
 
Her answers were neat and tidy, like her apartment, when Sara flew up. The interview lasted two hours. “I like you. I know my clients would too if they were here. I’m going to recommend we move forward. If you can make yourself available on short notice like this, $25,000 if the procedure takes. $5,000 if it doesn’t. In that event, we’d want to try again at your next ovulation period.” 
 
Four days later the boys found themselves arguing in a bathroom at the Genesis Fertility Centre in Vancouver. “Come on, baby. If you’re going to watch, you could at least help,” Elijah joked wiggling his cock around in his hand. “Honest, it won’t hurt a thing if you get a little slobber on my dick. Look busy, sweet lips, Jesus needs to come.” 
 
Trudy took a blood sample from Alexis nine days later. It came back positive for hCG. She was having my baby! It hadn’t interfered with Alexis’ graduation. Our star of Dominion would be born under the constellation of Aquarius, my favorite sign for people who are crazy, creative and fun. I felt like we’d landed a prefect ten. Karma stopped by and said, “See, I told you, O, you could do this. But now, my friend, you know I have to unleash the beast. Don’t expect her to be none too happy, pappy. She’ll be on the warpath.” 
 
Two by two they came to Beijing. Elijah and Finn went with the team. Alexis came with Trudy. Matt brought Cindy. Dave and Aiden got two high-quality weeks of face time. Aiden would undoubtedly be a better dog for it if he survived. Finn had him spoiled rotten.  I saw the same terrible future for that boy Alexis was carrying in her belly. 
 
Only Trudy knew. Alexis didn’t want to when they did the ultrasound the day before boarding the plane. “Wait until we’re all together. Elijah wants a boy. Finn wants a girl. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if my brother might be gay.” 
 
The rules were so strict about the Olympic Village where athletes were housed, even Finn had difficulty getting to Elijah in any way except by phone. Beijing was a perfect place to wreak a little havoc. The family wasn’t willing to wait for Elijah. They wanted to know, and wore Trudy down. “It’s a fucking boy, for God’s sake! Not that any of you assholes can keep a secret, but can we at least try until we see him person?” 
 
Hans took the gold in their first event. Elijah took silver. That would’ve meant the world to anyone but him. He smiled and waved, gave two thumbs up, but inside he felt mortally wounded. Everyone was thrilled beyond imagination for the medal. Finn understood our boy saw it as a defeat instead of a victory, yet all he could do was watch from the cheering section like myself. 
 
In the second event, obviously the coaches had known his routine. Hans had a better one, his best performance of the Olympics. Elijah watched him hit the water perfectly. It wasn’t a question if he’d won gold. China took silver. Austria took bronze and my golden-haired child finished a paltry fourth.  
 
Finn knew he had to do something. I thought it was inspired. He came up with four posterboards for the final event. ‘Babe, it’s a boy!” he wrote out, one giant word on each. “Wait until he gets to the platform. He’ll look at us before he takes the first step.” 
 
Cindy wasn’t so sure. “Baby, I understand what you’re trying to do, but this is his best event. He can’t be thinking about two things at once.” 
 
‘Mom, no disrespect intended. But you don’t know my husband as well as you think you do. Sometimes, he needs a little push. Just like he did that first time I used your vibrator on him.” 
 
“Ewww. That is so gross, and kind of hot at the same time,” Alexis mused. “Since I’m the one having the baby, I get to hold up the part that says ‘Boy!’” 

Matt, of course, thought it was a stellar idea. Everything was always stellar in his constellation. Elijah did glance long enough to read the news. So did the television cameras projecting the message seen round the world. His first three steps seemed uncertain as the judges announced he was about to attempt a two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists. “This was not in his original routine, ladies and gentlemen. Ballard didn’t medal in the last event. If he doesn’t get enough…” 
 
“He’s airborne! I’ve never seen a jump like that! What a thing of beauty! Those twists were so crisp, the landing precision perfect, razor sharp! This is solid gold! Elijah Ballard has just taken the sport someplace it’s never been. Seems he’s really excited to know he’s having a son. Look at ‘BoyFinn’ in the stands grinning like a madman. There’s a lot of love in Beijing tonight. Yes! a perfect 10. Germany must be crying in their beer right now. The U.S. takes the gold!” 
 
Just as his father had, Elijah made a baby out of wedlock. He also took care of it the same way his dad had. He married Finn in the Netherlands on their way home. That one was legal, the ceremony they decided to have at Chapel on the grounds of Baylor was anything but sanctioned by the church, school or state. Elijah didn’t care. 
 
“The first time I spoke here, you told me your doors were always open. We’re not asking for your blessing, Reverend. But unless you and this church want to be called liars, you can leave the doors open Saturday, the 27th. We’ll clean up our own mess.” 
 
“Elijah, don’t do this to me,” the good reverend begged. “I’d marry you myself…” 
 
“Sorry, I have to call bullshit on that one. You threw me under the bus when I was fourteen years old to score political points against my father. Don’t waste your breath denying it. I paid the price, not you. Either open the doors on Saturday the 27th, or we’ll break them down. Finn mails out the invitations tomorrow.” 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Eight

Being no stranger to early rising, the very nervously excited Elijah quietly crawled out of bed at six the next morning for a cup of coffee, his usual half-hour run, fifty sit-ups and a slew of vitamins washed down with his protein shake. He felt like it was a vacation pushing the grocery cart through Central Market. Going to the store was a rare event. Finn did nearly all their shopping. Yet this was one trip Elijah was thrilled to be making. 
 
He had the groceries in the car sitting in the parking lot waiting for Kohl’s to open in fifteen minutes when Finn called. “Babe, I thought you were out running until I saw your shoes. Where are you?” 
 
“At Old Towne buying groceries and picking up stuff for our picnic. I was trying to beat the crowds. I should be home in half an hour. Max was still asleep. I haven’t fed him.” 
 
The queen at the jewelry counter was all agog when Elijah walked up and asked to see men’s rings. “This wouldn’t be for your ‘BoyFinn’ would it?” 
 
“Who else? Can I see that one? I’m in a bit of a hurry.” He ended up with four of them since he wasn’t certain how big Finn’s fingers were if there weren’t in his mouth or wrapped around his cock. 
 
Max wasn’t able to jump in the backseat of the Volvo any longer. There were times he couldn’t even jump out of the car. I knew it was crushing to them watching his muzzle turning snowy white, though he had a very pleasant afternoon at Lee Park with his head next to Finn’s in Elijah’s lap. 
 
“Babe, I was being serious that day when I asked you to marry me. Have you given it any thought?” 
 
“It isn’t legal anywhere except Massachusetts. I don’t really see the point. Of course, I’ll marry you, but why are you so hot to trot about this?” 
 
“Because I think we should be married if we’re going to have a baby?” 
 
“A baby? Where the hell is that coming from?” 
 
“I know we’ve never discussed this, but I want a family, Finn. And I want it with you. After the Olympics next summer, I want to start thinking about this seriously. I don’t want to wait until we’re as old as Max to start a family. Let’s enjoy our children while we’re still young. I’d really like the baby to be walking before the next Olympics. We’ll have four years to graduate, figure out where we want to live and make a baby.” 
 
“You said you wanted to talk about the future. Man, you were seriously not joking. Where do we want to live?” 
 
“I was thinking we might stay in Dallas. It would be convenient for me, and this is a great market for restaurants. I think we should discuss it with dad at Christmas. You’ll have to do something with that MBA, Finn. To me, this is what makes the most sense.” 
 
He cleared the heads out of his lap and dug into his backpack for one of the rings. “Finneas Hoffman, will you marry me?” 
 
Laughing nervously, Finn tried it on. “Sorry, bud. The ring doesn’t fit.” 
 
“In that case, try this one. I’m not taking no for an answer, lover.” 
 
The second one was too big. “No problem. I’m a Boy Scout, Herr Hoffman. Always be prepared.” That ring he put on Finn’s finger himself, it fit perfectly. “This is where you say yes, Finn, and I don’t see your lips moving.” 
 
People had left them alone to that point because they were both wearing baseball caps and sunglasses. When Elijah’s soon-to-be husband took them off to kiss him, they drew a crowd and started packing up the picnic to leave. Them on the blanket with Max and the scattered ring boxes were enough, the Dallas morning News ran a photo with the caption, ‘Are America’s sweethearts about to get hitched?’ 
 
Their friends at school razzed them incessantly until Max died three weeks later. SMU put his pic and a nice obituary in the school paper. Within days, people they didn’t know ran obits in the major papers and set up a Facebook page to find the boys a new puppy. 
 
They were still grieving and didn’t want a puppy of any flavor or breed. But it was impossible to say no when Elijah’s swim team showed up on December 12th with a white Lab puppy in a basket sporting a red bow around his neck at their condo. “We didn’t know what to get you guys for Christmas,” Toby, the team captain said. “I hope it isn’t too soon. We just hated the thought of you guys being all sad through the holidays. This ball of fur can’t replace Max, but he sure is a cute little fucker.” 
 
Finn was the one who let them in. Aiden had a name and a home before dark when the three of them ventured out to PetSmart in procurement of puppy supplies for Finn’s baby, which wasn’t exactly the kind Elijah had in mind. Santa happened to be at the store for doggie pics. The one of the boys and Aiden all sitting on his lap in their red hats made the papers, too. At least when somebody posted it on their puppy social media page, people stopped bombarding them with offers of Yorkies and Great Mastiffs. Bonnie the Buxom Baptist even stopped claiming she was carrying their immaculately conceived twins. 
 
Other than the puppy upchucking all over Connie’s carpet in the entry hall at the sight of three much larger dogs, she was the doting grandmother in completely spoiling her first fur grandbaby when she could pry it away from Alexis. 
 
Matt and Trudy were no better when they flew in. Dave was the only one not smitten by the puppy’s gangly, bumbling charms, but the puppy was usually sacked out when he got home from work. On Christmas day when the restaurant was closed, Elijah and Finn sprang the rest of their news on the family. 
 
“Hey everybody, can we all land in one place for a few minutes? Elijah and I have some stuff we want to talk about other than Aiden. You’re better at this than I am babe, so the floor is yours.” 
 
After a quick kiss for courage, he punched Elijah in the arm. “Tell them, chickenshit. This was your idea.” 
 
“Mom, dad… we’re going to have a baby.” 
 
I thought fucking Dave would have to pick Connie up off the floor. “Gee, mom, thanks for the show of support. We told you we’re getting married next year,” Elijah said not understanding her reaction. 
 
“I’m sorry boys. But I can’t get my hat around this right now. You just got a puppy for Christmas. Be happy.” 
 
“Oh my god! Mom, I didn’t mean right now. The Olympics will be over. We’ll be graduating. But we’re serious; this is something we want to do while we’re still young. We need to buy a house first. We can’t raise a baby in that condo. So the next event on the horizon is where we’re going to settle and buy a house.” 
 
Dave shrugged and asked, “I’ve been assuming you’d stay in Dallas. It seems to work for you. We’re not telling you where to live, but where else would you go?” 
 
“Nowhere. Waco is almost a suburb. It’s an easy drive. Austin is about the only other choice. Dallas has a better airport, and I think it would be a prime place to open an upscale version of the restaurant.” 
 
Matt was all over the idea. “Dad, guys, that’s a fucking awesome idea. We have a big reputation in Dallas. I agree about doing it upscale because they’re all snobs, present company excluded, but that shit would be money in the bank. It’s beautiful. We can start doing strategic targeted advertising maybe a year before, get everybody all stoked about it.” 
 
Finn laughed at him, and said, “Slow down there, advertising tiger. Let’s look for a place to build it if dad agrees. We’re not opening anything until after Beijing and London for the next Summer Games. That’s nearly five years out. Let’s just all get through this next year. We’ll know the week of Spring Break if Elijah made the team. All plans are on hold until then.” 
 
“What do you mean, ‘if,’ Finn?” Trudy asked. “Our boy wonder took first at the World Championships and the FINA Diving Cup! I’ve already scheduled my vacation for August. There is no if about it.” 
 
Elijah thought it was funny. “Sis, I’ll put you down as a major fan. But we still have to survive March Madness. There are only eight slots, and four for men in my events. None of us should be getting our hopes up yet. I’m keeping the faith, but we shouldn’t count our chickens before they’re hatched. Dad, you haven’t said a word about the restaurant.” 
 
“I’m still processing the grandbaby and the house. No offense guys, but I thought Alexis or Matt might take those plunges first. Trudy is too busy delivering babies. I can’t blame her for not wanting one. You and Finn are the youngest. Excuse me for being dumbfounded. I don’t mean to come off sounding disappointed, I’m not. I’m thrilled, but right now I’m just thrilled beyond words.” 
 
“Dad, if you can handle one more shocker,” Alexis added, “I’ve decided to go to medical school. Trudy will have her own practice by the time I finish my undergrad next year. I know I said I was going to teach, but after this semester of being in an actual classroom, I doubt I’d make it five years. I love the idea of us having a baby. I’m just not cut out to have twenty-five of them every day for the next thirty years.” 
 
They absorbed individually and as a family over what remained of the holidays. There’d been enough talk of it all by the time everybody went home, Aiden was beginning to wonder why he wasn’t the only center of the only universe. He was really miffed when his dads announced they were burned out in late February and he was given the option to go stay with granny or go to a doggy hotel for a week. He chose the country life, and the boys chose a pricey, private beach house in Ixtapa, Mexico to hide until the announcement of the final four for the U.S. diving team. 
 
Neither of them tried to hide their anxiousness when ESPN announced the decision. Three, two, one, then there were none. All four names were familiar. Elijah’s wasn’t among them. He sat there in stunned silence as Finn tried to quickly find a different face which wasn’t as cracked and broken as mine. 
 
How callous and short-sighted. I was completely over ever putting one of my own into another orbit of that sun by the time the commercial break ended. “We’re just getting word the U.S. has chosen Elijah Ballard as their alternate. Vegas was betting it would be Danny Allred in the Men’s Relays. They must be expecting miracles and worried about medals. It’s anyone’s guess if Ballard can deliver. He’s got some incredible competition from Hans Lohann of Germany. Lohann didn’t have to compete in the World Championships. He proved himself in Athens four years ago by sweeping pure gold. Ballard may be a pretty face and a world-class diver, but he’s never faced this kind of competition. And the United States has never sent a more controversial figure to the Olympics. Get ready for some fireworks. We’ll be right back.” 
 
He was furious, and rightly so. “Those fuckers sat me up! They passed me over, and now this? Lohann wasn’t supposed to be competing. Germany is trying to put a stick up our ass… and I’m supposed to take the fall. Somebody had to know. I could’ve qualified for other events. They did this on purpose, Finn. I heard repeatedly from two different Olympic coaches if I perfected these particular dives, I’d take home the gold.” 
 
“Babe, I’m not completely sold on your conspiracy theory. I understand this is very political, and the environment is super-charged. We can’t do anything about that. Don’t let Lohann get under your skin. He isn’t God. I’m still in this to win.” 

Son of a Preacher Man: Part Seven

“Elijah, what did you think when your father called your lifestyle an abomination?” the incessant reporter asked. 
 
“It’s a free country. My father is entitled to his opinions like everyone else. No further comment, dude. Now you seriously need to get out of my face. You clowns are blocking the hall and people need to get to class.” 
 
The school and his fellow students gave him a pass for the most part. The athletic department was ferocious about protecting him. To be sure, there were some stupid homophobic jocks, but they were a serious minority and most of them kept it to a whisper campaign or made the random joke only a true moron might make.  
He and Finn had very little time together when they weren’t exhausted. Those were the most prized moments in their lives. Beijing was only a year away. There were only eight slots for American men. That made Finn more nervous than he’d ever been. Elijah qualified in the FINA Diving Cup, but that didn’t qualify him for that one-in-a-million spot. It only guaranteed the U.S. a place, not the diver. Even if he did well at the World Championships, they could still pass him over for the team. Finn lived in fear of that very real possibility every single day. 
 
The talk and entertainment shows loved them both. Elijah had very little time for breathing, much less all that nonsense. Finn was the one in charge of cherry-picking which few offers to accept. They understood it couldn’t become political or else Elijah could kiss his dreams adios. That was a consequence neither of them were prepared to live with. 
 
Whoopi Goldberg, and I’m sure Karma wasn’t absent helping her with the choice of words, asked Elijah, “Do you love him?” 
 
“If you mean Finn, that’s a silly question. Of course I do. Babe, if you’re listening out there, would you marry me next year after the Olympics?” 
 
“Awww, that is so sweet!” she growled in that deep voice. “You guys are America’s sweethearts.” 
 
He tried laughing it off. “Maybe in some quarters.” 
 
“I know you don’t like talking about your parents, Elijah. I respect that. But I do have one question, and this is about you, not them. Do you still love them after all the nastiness?” 
 
“Whoopie, I don’t hate anyone, not even my parents. I’m capable of divorcing their words and actions from the persons themselves. I’m sorry they feel the way they do, but I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings. I still love my God with all my heart, just like I do Finn, my family and my country. My father can go to his River Church. I’ll go to mine.” 
 
That did it completely for old Joe. He was beyond and beside himself, shouting at his attorney. “Do something to put a button in that boy’s lip. I want him out of my estate, Howard. I’m serious. Pay him off, but shut him up. If you can’t, he’ll ruin me, that kid and his damned mouth.” 
 
Howard had no trouble finding Elijah coming out of a math class. He just followed the cameras. My boy saw him and asked, “Mr. Abernathy, what in the world are you doing here?” 
 
“Elijah, you already know who sent me. Where can we talk?” 
 
“Simple answer, we can’t. Not until tonight. Give me your card and I’ll text you the address. How are they?” 
 
“Don’t ask, Elijah. The same as always. I’ll see you tonight.” 
 
From inside a toilet stall, he called Finn. “Hey handsome. How’s your day going?” 
 
“It’s been stellar so far. No one is dead and I haven’t used the ‘F’ word even once. But I’m sure you didn’t call to chit-chat. What’s up?” 
 
“My father’s fucking attorney just caught me coming out of class. He wants to discuss something. I have no idea what. Don’t ask, just be there at eight-thirty. Love you, bye.” 
 
Dad’s legal eagle had already landed when Elijah got to the condo. Howard could see Elijah was worn out. He cut straight to the chase. “Your father has his dick in a twist because people are leaving the church. He’s blaming you. Off the record, I don’t necessarily share his view.” 
 
“That still doesn’t tell me why you drove all the way to Dallas, Howard. I do have a phone.” 
 
“This is better said in person. We’re both in a delicate situation.” 
 
“I’m not in any situation.” 
 
“Yes, you are, Elijah. He wants to cut you out of his and Mamie’s will, and pay you $100,000 to sign an NDA.” 
 
“The man must not be too bright, Howard. You surely know I never talk about them.” 
 
“You did the other morning on that show. You even mentioned the church by name.” 
 
“Oh shit! You’re right, I did. He’s actually put out about that?” 
 
“Put out enough he’s willing to pay you $100,000 not to say it again.” 
 
Elijah shook his head first, and then laughed. “Finn, should we take the money?” 
 
“Babe, if I were you, I’d ask for more. We don’t talk about him anyway. This must be really important to the man. 
 
The man ‘representing’ Joe wiped his brow in relief. “You don’t know how glad I am to hear you say that, Finn. I’ll go back and tell Reverend Ballard the price is $500,000 for you both. Good call, Finn. Now about the estate. Remember, I’m just the messenger gentlemen. Don’t shoot me, but he’s offering you $200,000 to void any past, present or future claims to anything and everything. You’d be out completely, even when he and Mamie die. If you need time to talk to an attorney…” 
 
“Howard, I’m talking to an attorney. You can quote me on this. My father can go fuck himself.  I worked my ass off to please that man for eighteen solid years. I’ve never disrespected him once, but if this is how he wants to play it, my price is two-million. I earned every cent, and I won’t take a penny less. I appreciate you driving all this way. Be careful going back. I’d invite you to stay for dinner, but that would be cavorting with the enemy. And we know how dad hates his enemies.” 
 
Dominion surrendering his throne was a costly, but profitable campaign. Elijah knew he’d never speak to his father again. In spite of everything, he still felt a loss at every small comment he or Finn made. Joseph went to three million at Howard’s urging. “You don’t have a choice. The church is hemorrhaging money and members. You started this, Joe. Now it has to end.” 
 
Finn and Elijah only had two bank accounts, one for speaking fees, appearances, the parts of them not owned by the NCAA, SMU or the IOC. Those monies went into a blind charitable trust Dave insisted the boys set up. The other money, their personal money, financial aid, the checks Cindy sent, that went into a personal account. 
 
“Just let it sit there, babe. We don’t have time to deal with this right now. I am so busy, Finn. I promise as soon as the World Championships are over, we’ll sit down and have a real talk about everything… all of it. I have to focus right now.” 
 
He was focused on Day One when he placed first in his event for the three-meter spring board. It qualified the U.S. for another spot on the Olympic roster. When he came out of the restaurant with Finn, Cindy and Matt after dinner, they were swamped, mobbed and otherwise assaulted by the media and blinding, flashing lights. 
 
“Elijah, is this pay for play? Who paid you to win for the U.S. today? SMU has been penalized before for paying players. The football team had to sit out an entire year…” 
 
Pushing through the cameras, he grabbed Connie’s arm. “You’re hurting this woman. You people are insane. I haven’t taken any money from anyone. Matt, help me get mom to the car.” 
 
Day Two was far worse. Not a word of what they were saying was true. It didn’t matter. It still fucked with Elijah’s head. One fourth and another sixth-place finish gained the U.S. two additional slots. He should’ve been a hero, but Chaos wasn’t happy Howard squeezed the boys that extra blood out of Joe’s turnip. 
 
Media frenzies come and go. They released a carefully worded statement two days later along with the necessary documents to prove the origins of the three-million. After half the free world was satisfied he hadn’t taken the money from some illicit source, the press still hounded them about the ‘family secrets’ they were surely hiding. 
 
I lost hope where Finn didn’t.  My worry was with long-term consequences. Finn couldn’t see that far, fortunately. He couldn’t see past Cindy’s highly-intuitive nose. She came out swinging like a mamma bear slinging her cubs everywhere. The entire family went on the offensive. Trudy was busy with work. She had no time or patience. “The media needs to get this through their heads. I’m not under an NDA. Neither is anyone else in my family except my brother, Finn. If the Ballards had any deep, dark secrets, I’m certain somebody in my family would know it. We’ve never kept secrets. That isn’t who we are. If you really need a story, you’ll have to look for it someplace else. Now excuse me, I have a baby to deliver.” She spun around, went back in the hospital and mostly ended the quest for Ballard family secrets as they related to Dave Hoffman and his family. 
 
Prince Smitten had made a deal with the object of his nearly every desire, Finn. “I have a window tomorrow. Maybe until three. Why don’t we go someplace quiet for a picnic? I promised you we’d talk about everything, including the future. You owe me an answer. I’m going to expect it tomorrow.” 
 
“About what?” 
 
“I proposed to you on national television months ago. You never gave me an answer.” 
 
“Babe, I thought you were clowning it up for the cameras. We’re not even twenty-one. We haven’t finished school. Only princes and first cousins get married this young.” 
 
“Would we qualify under the Brothers In Arms Act?” 
 
Finn tried to kiss that gregarious smile off Elijah’s face. It was an abysmal failure. Forty-five minutes later it was still quite visible, even from the deepest recesses of space. Our prince had a plan. Even in that dim bedroom light, I could see it in his eyes.