STANDING AT THE KITCHEN ISLAND, I tried hard not to think about the phallic implications of the big, thick carrot I was peeling. I strained to hear Dody and Des's conversation over the standard dinner-making ruckus. The two of them sat across from me, on the other side of the island.
"Des. Is that short for anything? Like Desi?" Dody asked.
"It's short for Desmond, but only my grandmother is allowed to call me that. Please, just call me Des."
"I knew a Desmond once. Desmond Arnaz. I think he used to do our taxes." She picked up a handful of pistachios from a bowl in front of her.
"You're thinking of Desi Arnaz, Mom," Fontaine said from his spot next to me. He wasn't really helping with dinner. He just liked the view. Jasper was at the counter behind us whisking up some kind of sauce, and the kids were coloring at the dining table.
"Desi Arnaz did our taxes? Oh, wait, that was Lucy's husband," Dody said. "She didn't really have red hair, you know. But yours has a little red, Des."
"Does it?" He touched it absently, as if red had a texture.
His hair wasn't red. It was brown. Thick and chocolaty brown. And kind of wavy. I nicked myself with the peeler.
"Desi Arnaz was Cuban, you know. Are you Cuban?" Dody batted her lashes in much the same fashion as Paige had, only on my aunt it looked like she had something in her eye.
"I thought you said you were." She popped a pistachio into her mouth and cracked the shell with her teeth. Then she spit the shell back into the bowl.
I watched his eyebrows rise and fall. "I don't think I said that."
To the uninitiated, a conversation with Dody was very much like playing whack-a-mole. You just never knew what would pop up next.
"What are you then?" She pushed the bowl of nuts toward him. He declined.
"Scottish. I was born in Glasgow, but we moved to the States when I was seventeen."
"Ah, that explains the red."
"And that delicious accent," Fontaine added.
I looked at Des and smiled weakly.
He winked, and I nicked my finger again.
Dody and Des continued talking, but Fontaine turned his back and closed his eyes.
"What are you doing?" I whispered.
"If I listen to his voice, he sounds just like Gerard Butler," Fontaine whispered back.
"Who's Gerard Butler?"
Fontaine's eyes popped open. "Who's Gerard Butler? I thought every straight woman had a thing for Gerard Butler."
"I don't know who that is. Now would you be quiet? I can't hear them."
Fontaine made a girly sound in his throat.
"Don't make me stab you with this peeler," I hissed under my breath.
Paige appeared behind us. "Mommy, may I have a carrot? I'm dying I'm so hungry."
Fontaine handed her a carrot and nudged her back toward the table. "Go sit over there, Paige. Mommy's got a knife and she's itching to use it."
"Shush. I'm trying to listen."
I needed to hear what unappetizing morsels Dody was pulling from her basketful of crazy to share with our guest, not that it really mattered. Even if he wasn't gay, which I had yet to rule out, he was too good-looking and too smooth and undoubtedly too certain of his lady-killing prowess for me to have any interest. I'd already shopped at that store. Besides, I couldn't imagine what lack of judgment, or element of starvation, had made him agree to eat with us.
Whatever. He'd be gone soon, taking his big, sexy hands and his thick forearms, and that damn delicious accent. And once he was out of here, I could curl up with my bottle of wine and watch Stephen Colbert and put this day behind me.
"Glasgow? Isn't that in Sweden?" Dody was asking.
He shook his head. "Scotland."
"Oh, yes, Scotland. Why, you must know Sean Connery then? He's Scottish. Or is he German?"
Des bit back a smile. "He is Scottish, but no, I never had the pleasure."
"Really? That's surprising. Sweden is such a small country."
"What? Oh, yes. Scotland. Why did you move from there, dear? Was it because of the potatoes?" She patted his hand sympathetically.
"Potato famine was in Ireland, Mom," Jasper said, banging the oven door shut.
"In the 1840s," I added, wanting to show off a little of my vast wealth of useless, esoteric facts. Things like what year the first woman graduated from medical school, how yak milk is collected to make yak cheese (you don't want to know), and the definition of words like reticule and pusillanimous.
"My dad was in the military," Des said, beginning to go with the flow of Dody's random questioning.
"Really? A soldier?"
"Corps of engineers."
"Fascinating!" Dody turned to Fontaine, who was once again facing them. "Fontaine, when were we invaded by Scotland?"
Des laughed. "It wasn't much of an invasion, Mrs. Baker. It was just our family. My dad left the service and took a job over here."
"Oh, thank goodness. I thought I'd missed something. My mind is a steel trap when it comes to history." Actually her mind was more like a booby trap.
"So he worked on a train?" She spit out another nutshell.
"Yes, you said he was an engineer."
"That's a conductor, Mom," Jasper corrected automatically. He dropped a few spices into a pot of something that already smelled heavenly.
"Oh, yes. So did he drive trains?" Dody nodded at her own question.
"No, Mrs. Baker," Des said. "He designed bridges."
He smiled. "No, mostly for cars."
"You should call me Dody. When was that?"
"How long have you lived in the States?"
He shook his head. "Oh, um, let's see...about twenty, um...nineteen years."
I tried to tabulate his age in my head. Seventeen plus nineteen is...twenty...wait, nine plus seven is...fifteen, then carry the one is twenty, no...
The strain of computation must have shown on my face.
"Thirty-six, you moron," Fontaine whispered.
"And have you always lived in Michigan?" Dody asked.
Des shook his head. "No, we lived all over the place at first. But we settled in Illinois about twelve years ago. My mum and sisters still live near Chicago. That's where I was before I came here."
"And what brought you to Bell Harbor, then? Your job?"
Dody's questioning was so persistent I thought she might pull out a little clipboard and start jotting notes. But our guest seemed unfazed. Maybe his time in the emergency room had taught him how to deal with loony little old ladies.
"Yes, but I'm only here for a few months, then I'm back to Chicago or somewhere else," he answered.
"Why is that?"
"Right now I'm doing something called locum tenens. It's like temp work for physicians."
"How fascinating. And your father? Is he in Chicago?"
Des shook his head. "No, he died when I was in med school."
"Oh, dear. That's so sad." She nodded knowingly and patted his hand again. "I suppose he was an alcoholic?"
"Dody!" I gasped.
She looked at me with indignation. "What? You know what they say about the Scots!"
Des laughed, causing an unfamiliar sensation to swirl around my insides. That was just the kind of comment that would make Richard angry. But this guy seemed to think she was funny.
"I'm sure my father drank more than his share, but technically it was the tobacco that got him."
"I'm sorry, Dr. McKnight," I said, as much for his loss as for my aunt's lack of social graces.
"That's OK. And please, call me Des." Then he winked at me again.
Damn it. If he didn't stop doing that, I was going to peel all the skin right off my hand.
Dinner proceeded without incident, and the dreamy Dr. Des McKnight appeared to take it all in stride. He rolled along with our story fragments and Dody's gross mispronunciations. The conversation blended into a sort of anecdotal jambalaya, with bits of our history woven in with pop culture trivia. Ours was the kind of dinner conversation one might expect to find in an English-as-a-second-language course or in the babble of a Pentecostal church.
During the meal, Des praised Jasper's cooking and laughed at Fontaine's jokes. He answered each of Dody's progressively impertinent questions, such as what size pants did he wear (thirty-four), had he ever been to a nude beach (no, but it sounded fun), and had he ever performed breast implant surgery (yes, during residency). He hardly even batted an eye when she asked, "And do you have any children?"
"No, I don't."
"Not even any bastards?" she persisted.
He just shrugged and took a bite of asparagus. "Nope. None that I know of."
He also talked to me. Not at me, the way Richard used to. Des actually asked me questions and then let me answer without telling me why my answer was wrong.
"Sadie, did you say you're just visiting Bell Harbor too?"
I nodded, hoping there wasn't chicken wedged between my front teeth. "Yes, for the summer. But we'll go back to Glenville in the fall when the kids start school."
"I can't wait for school," Paige said, waving around a whole chicken breast on her fork.
"What grade will you be in?" Des asked her.
She sat up straighter. "First grade. I want Mrs. Lewis for my teacher."
"Is she the nicest?"
Paige nodded and took a bite before adding, "And the prettiest and smartest."
Des laughed. "Those are all very important. You know, my mum was a teacher, and now so is one of my sisters, which is kind of funny to me because my sister used to be a real troublemaker."
Paige's eyes went round, and even Jordan slowed his chewing to listen.
"Why? What did she do?" Paige's voice was solemn.
Des leaned toward her. "When we were little, she'd sneak up behind me, just before we left for school, and spray me with her perfume."
He sat back in his chair and looked to the rest of us. "She'd do it at the very last second, so I wouldn't have time to change my clothes. So I'd spend the entire day smelling like a little girl." His cheeks went pink. "And let me tell you, my pals back then teased me like you wouldn't believe."
He turned to me. "My nickname all through primary school was Posey-boy."
I pressed a hand to my mouth, not sure if we were supposed to laugh. It was hard to imagine him smelling like my daughter's Tinker Bell toiletries. Because I'd gotten close enough to him to know he smelled delicious, like cinnamon and moonlight. And not very gay at all.
"Did you get even with her?" Jasper asked.
Revenge lust ran deep in our family.
Des's smile broadened. "You bet I did. One night I snuck into her room when she was asleep and cut off big chunks of her hair, right in the front. The next day she looked ridiculous. It was awesome!"
Now everybody laughed. A zing and a pop burst somewhere deep in my chest.
"It sort of backfired, though," he added. He turned back to my kids. "My mum was so furious she took me straight to the barber and he shaved me bald. I was the only twelve-year-old in town with a shiny head. It was not a good look for me."
After dinner, Des helped clear the table while talking with Jasper about properly matching wine to the entree. Dody, having decided this new stranger in town trumped a night playing poker with her friends, lounged on a cushioned chaise like Cleopatra.
Paige sat next to her, playing with a doll. "This is how you did it, Aunt Dody," she said, providing a dramatic reenactment of the fall. "You went, step, step, step, wahhhhhhh!"
Then Paige whacked the Barbie's head against the arm of Dody's chair.
"Oh, that's lovely, dear."
"Can I see your snitches again?"
"Stitches, Paige. And Dody needs to keep her bandage on. Stop pestering her," I said.
Des looked over from the kitchen. "I'll stop back tomorrow to change the bandage, Paige. Then you can see the snitches."
Fontaine gave me a discreet thumbs-up. I turned away. What difference did it make if Dr. Delicious came back? He was only coming to check on Dody. It didn't have anything to do with me. And I didn't care anyway. I wasn't interested. Nonetheless, the elastic in my underpants suddenly got very itchy.