Chapter 12: Chowderheaded Wisdom
taken by Daniele Florio
|Story Type: Original
Content Cautions: None.
Critique: Very, very welcome.
Summary: Leigh's fallen in love with a stationside lad, but there are a lot of unspoken secrets between them. Things will come to a head shortly ... but not quite yet.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to born_to_me for Hal Newham's name.
Early on in Leigh's quest for new and interesting cuisine, she happened upon a charming place called 'The Yankee Doodle.' Not that it was particularly hard to find; it was only a few corridors from the edge of what was generally referred to as the 'Transient Sector' (where most of the businesses cater to the needs of the station's non-permanent residents). In fact, the 'Doodle' was even listed, however briefly, in the station's rather slim tourist pamphlet. "Dine in rustic surroundings," it enthused. "Founded in the very same spot over thirty years ago -- and still run -- by a local hero of the Uprising."
On her first visit, she was mildly disappointed to find the 'local hero' a slouch-shouldered, weatherbeaten, ancient-looking man named Hal Newham. His manner was determinedly ordinary, and he refused to let her call him 'Mr. Newham,' insisting instead on just plain 'Hal'. The restaurant's signboard showed a sketched clipper ship in full sail; Hal had drawn it himself, and named the restaurant 'The Yankee Doodle' after it in a characteristically self-deprecating piece of humor.
He was personable enough, and when he had few other customers to tend, he would sit with her and chat about this-and-that. He talked mostly about food, with especial attention to the ingredients one can and can't get in circum-Mars orbit. He was particularly miffed that, though lobsters turned out to be good at keeping the fish farms' ecologies properly balanced, nobody out here was farming shellfish. His clam and oyster dishes (though he invariably pronounced that latter 'URR-ster') had to be made with vat-grown proteins of one kind or another instead of the real thing. Unfortunately, her attempted joke about 'errrrsatz errrrrsters' fell rather flat, but other than that he enjoyed her cheerful sense of humor.
She talked about work, and Earth. She remembered, for him, learning to bodysurf in Lake Michigan, and spending several childhood summers on the Jersey shore. Hal had been born Down East in Vermont, and he missed oceans most. Mars wasn't planned to have even decent-sized lakes of free-flowing water for a hundred years or more, and he was certain he wouldn't live to see it ... or to return to Earth.
Universal Interplanetary had extensive interests on Terra and she was often on shifts more attuned to Earth's day than that of Mars; her 'lunch hour' was often highly variable in comparison to the station's three standard work shifts. Hal didn't mind, though. When her lunch happened to fall in a slow period of the station's daycycle, he was often quite pleased to sit with her and have a cup of coffee in a neighborly fashion while she ate her food.
The first time, she went because of the tourist writeup. Subsequent trips were sparked by Hal's excellent company, and the quality of the food, which was excellent. The restaurant specialized in thick, warming, 'rustic' food, with a specialty in what Hal Newham called 'chowdah'. She found his soup-and-salad lunch combo to be invariably filling and tasty, and so went there for her mid-workday meal several times a week.
It was to Hal she had gone when she first started considering cooking a proper Thanksgiving feast. He had lots of useful suggestions, both about ingredients and about how to get the best out of her quarters' limited cooking technology.
She became quite fond of him, like a favorite eccentric uncle, and so the Doodle leapt to mind as a perfect venue for her first dinner with Jak after That Night. She was a little worried at what she may have inadvertently done to their friendship, so she wanted to be somewhere she felt safe and comfortable. Besides, she had a yen for 'chowdah'.
On the appointed evening, she arrived a little early, scrubbed and primped within an inch of her life. She'd debated clothing and jewelry choices, and finally went with a simple blouse-and-skirt combination, the blouse blockprinted in darker blue on aqua, the skirt flowing black. She wore her hair tucked behind her ears, because Jak seemed to like it so much that way, and also because it showed off the pale, handcarved wooden bird-in-flight earrings he'd gotten her last month on a whim.
Hal greeted her as she entered, getting out her usual single menu, but as she sat she told him she had a date coming. He smiled knowingly, with an amused waggle of his bushy white eyebrows, and said, "Ahh, stepping out with a gentleman caller, are we? I approve." He got her a tall glass of his home-squeezed lemonade while she waited.
Just as her little inner voice of failure started to get loudly worried that he wasn't going to show at all -- in other words, about five minutes late -- he stepped in. A brief glance around the half-empty restaurant finds her, and he got a reflexive, decidedly-smitten smile, crossed to her table, and settled himself opposite.
"Hi," he says, depositing a small cubical box on the table between her.
"Hi!" she replies, hoping that her sudden leaping, heart-pounding excitement didn't show *too* much.
"Sorry I'm late," he says. "I got held up at work."
"It's ok," she shrugs, dismissing it as of no account whatsoever.
After a moment, he says, "Here," and gently pushes the box a centimeter or so closer to her.
She grins self-consciously, and pulls it close. After a moment's fumble with the cardboard tabs holding it shut, she gets it open. Inside, on a diminutive nest of crumpled pale-blue paper, rests a gorgeous sphere of dark-blue blossoms. "... Oh," she breathes.
A little nervously, he says, "I hope I got it right. There isn't much call for corsages around here."
"... Oh, my," she says again, then swallows and tries to look a little less like a doofus. She glances up at him, then back down, grinning like a fool. "No, no, it's perfect!" And it even matches her shirt. She lifts it, and hands it to him. "Here," she says, leaning one shoulder a little closer to make his reach shorter.
He fumbles the pinning a bit, but doesn't prick her, so she's definitely had worse. "Thank you," she says. "That's *very* sweet."
"Oh, it's no trouble. We do botanicals, remember.. My cousin Mhair's working in the florals division this month, and I asked her to keep an eye out for a little this-and-that that wouldn't be missed." His bright-green eyes twinkle mischeviously. A little more seriously, "I'm glad you like it, though."
"I do," she confirms, and is about to gush further when she's rescued from making herself look more like a fool by Hal's approach with a second menu and glass of lemonade. "Hi!" she says up to him, then turns back to Jak. "You're totally going to love this place. Everything tastes so good!"
"Hello, Sir," Hal says as he passes Jak the menu, rather more stiffly than Leigh usually finds his habitual manner.
Jak, not being a regular, doesn't notice. Instead, he smiles and accepts the menu, then goes back to his conversation with Leigh. "I want to apologize about the other night," he says.
She shrugs that off lightly with a grin and a headshake as she opens the quite-familiar menu to read the extra stuck-on sheet listing the specials of the day. "Oh, no problem. I was probably being a little too pushy all at once."
Now it's his turn to shake his head. "No," he says, but then drops it in favor of thinking about food, since Hal's still towering over the table, his pad in hand, ready to take their order. He decides on an eel pie, with roasted veggies and baby potatoes, and clam chowder to start; Leigh has a bigger bowl of chowder, and a green salad with spicy chicken for her main course.
It's a perfectly lovely dinner, though they both seem to have agreed, without talking about it, to avoid the subject of That Night. It's almost as if they've going back before that, pretending the awkwardness never happened. Only after the fact does Leigh realize that, throughout, Hal'd been treating her like a total stranger ... like any other random dirtsucker come in for dinner.
On her next lunchtime visit, he's still a little cool. The restaurant is largely empty, so when he brings her food she does press him, politely. "So ... what's with you? No smile for me today?"
"You stay away from that boy," he says, with a hard look in his eyes.
Surprised and confused, Leigh says, "Jak? ... Why?"
She's never seen him this forbidding. His usually-charming bushy eyebrows are lowered, making his friendly-fisherman persona come off as far more of a crazy-mountain-man. "He's Family, isn't he."
"What's his last name, girl?"
"Uh ... Dunne, I think."
He blinks, rocked back slightly by this. "Just Dunne?" he asks, with a deadly intensity.
"... I think so?"
He sits at her table, and sighs. "Damn. It's worse than I thought."
Leigh notices she's twisting her napkin hard between her fists and slowly spreads it out against her knee, taking deep breaths. "Hal? I don't understand. What's wrong with Jak?" She's a little proud of how steady she manages to hold her voice while she says it.
The proprietor looks, somehow, older, as he scrubs his face with his hands and considers his words carefully. "Do you *really* not know what the name Dunne means on this station? Or what it means when it's not got another name stuck on the back of it?"
She shakes her head, mutely, but then something occurs to her. "Well, there's Dunne-Salazar Botanicals ... and isn't Quality Proteins owned by Alicia Dunne-Rogers?"
"A good start, but only the tip of the iceberg. The Dunnes own probably two-thirds of this station, and most of the rest of it, the Coughlins own. And the same thing is true on every other circum-Mars station. The names change, but the game's the same. Your boy? Your boy is Family."
"So, he comes from old money?" she asks, attempting to put this into terms she understands.
"No. The Families own the stations. The Families ARE the stations, in a very real way," he reflects. "Have been since th'Uprising." He sighs again, then glances at her food. "If yer not goin' t'drink it, c'n I have that lemonade? I'll get y'some more."
She's suddenly in no mood to eat. "Yeah, sure," she says, pushing it across the table.
He takes a hearty swig, then shakes his head a little. "How in the worlds did you manage to meet a boy like *that*?"
"I ... I don't know," she says, a bit confused. "Like you meet anyone, I guess. Over tea?"
"How long have you been stepping out with him?"
"(Insert Time Reference Here)."
Hal looks grave, fingers lacing about his glass of lemonade. "Hrm." He sips. "And are you ... serious about him?"
Leigh looks down at her plate, pushing carrot coins about with her fork aimlessly. "I want to be."
Hal sighs, lifts the glass, then sets it down without drinking. "There's things y'ought to know about those people, before you get your neck in that noose."