When Scooter comes home, she is surprised to see him, but absolutely overjoyed.
But then she has to scold him because of the young man he’s brought along. After all, if she knew he was bringing a guest, she would have at least cooked them something!
Scooter apologizes about it, makes some excuse about not wanting to bother her, but she waves it off. She’s much more interested in the young man he’s brought home.
He’s thin, far to thin. Obviously, she would need to cook several meals just to get the boy back to an acceptable weight. His hair has obviously been attacked by a comb, but won the battle, flopping unruly under the bright red hat he was fidgeting with. He’s handsome, but veiled behind that smile is something that she has been trained to pick up on- fear, apprehension, and the desire to bolt. She’s dealt with enough young kids around this neighborhood to understand.
So she smiles her best smile at him, beckons him into the house. He follows a little hesitantly, but gains confidence after her son growls at him to stop heating the outdoors. She scolds him again for rudeness, but her heart’s not in it.
“Now you boys just sit right down. I’ll get you something to drink. I got some milk for my baby, but what do you want Mr.-?”
“Murdock. No Mr. Just plain old Murdock, ma’am. And I‘ll just have water, thank you.”
“Murdock. What a nice name. Here you go, Baby.” She places a glass of water in front of him. The boy - Murdock - seems to look vaguely confused about being called baby, but doesn’t say anything.
Another glass, this time milk, is set in front of her son. “Drink it all up, Scooter.”
“Yes mama-fool, why you laughin’?”
“S-sorry. Scooter.” The young man had been laughing, but quickly sobered up and went back to being the strained polite creature. That was a pity. The boy had a nice laugh, if not just a bit strange.
“Scooter.” She scolds gently. “Don’t be mean to your friends.”
“Aw, mama, you know I don’t like being called that. Nobody calls me that anymore.”
“You will always be Scooter to me, young man. Ain’t nothing going to change that.” She pats him fondly on the head.
Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpses a strange look on Murdock’s face. Like he’s seeing something he remembers, but doesn’t understand.
She decides that she doesn’t particularly like that look, especially not in someone that her Scooter likes enough to bring home to meet her. And as the conversation progresses, she discovers more and more things she doesn’t like about Murdock.
How he flinches when she reached a hand out to his shoulder to get his attention when Scooter isn’t in the room.
How he seems scared to open up to her, like he thinks she’ll just up and throw him out. That’s a little irritating, because if she was going to do that, she wouldn’t have let him inside at all.
How he seems to bury himself in niceties that are just this side of rehearsed.
How he seems to be afraid to speak unless spoken to, like he’ll be slapped down as soon as he opens his mouth.
No, she doesn’t like that about Murdock. Here was a young man who was so busy trying to hide himself that she could see right through him.
The boy is in obvious need of a little bit of family comfort, which she happens to be an expert in. And Scooter likes him enough to bring him home, so there must be a gem hiding under those self-conscious layers. She didn’t raise her boy to settle on anything but something special.
So, first things first-cook a good meal.
After all, no one could stay tense after they tasted her Famous Three Cheese Chicken Casserole.
Normally, she doesn’t allow her guests in the kitchen. After all, she is the host and guests should do nothing at her home except enjoy themselves.
She quickly makes an exception when Murdock starts to show interest in her cooking. It’s the first thing she’s seen that’s truly Murdock, so she beckons him in and Scooter settles into a chair in the eating area and turns on a small TV. She almost asks why he doesn’t go into the living room to be more comfortable, but Murdock seems to lose confidence when he’s not around, and she can’t give up a chance to see how the boy really was.
So she hands the boy some mozzarella and a big bowl and he starts to grating.
“So my boy tells me you’re a pilot.”
“You call me Mama, everyone does.”
“What do you fly?”
“Really? Well maybe you can help Scooter get over his fear of flying so that he can visit me more often.”
Scooter growls from his chair. A tiny smile slips across Murdock’s face before he’s back to concentrating on the cheese.
“I, uh, may be the reason for that fear, M-Mama.” There was a tiny hitch as he corrected himself, but he seems to be more comfortable.
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Crazy fool almost dropped me outta helicopter.”
“To be fair, I had no way of knowing that door was not secure. And Facey pulled you back up, and everything was fine.”
“One flight with you, man. Now I gotta fear of flying.”
“Scooter! You didn’t tell me you almost fell out of a helicopter!”
“Aww, Mama, it was nothin’.”
“How long ago this happen?”
“About one year, Ma’am.” Murdock finishes grating.
“Didn’t I tell you to call me Mama?” She scolds a little harder than intended, stressed that her boy could come so close to death and not tell her. She regrets it when Murdock flinches.
“I’m sorry baby, I just get real worried about my Scooter sometimes.”
“It’s alright Mama.” The way he makes sure to address her properly this time does no escape her. Right. Need to head into friendlier territory.
“You did very will with that cheese. Do you cook?”
Aha! There was a break in the armor. Small, but a gleam in his eye that told her that this, this was the right topic.
“Scooter loves my Triple Cheese Chicken Casserole. I’m always afraid he isn’t eating well in the army. I mean, I’ve seen what some of them army boys around here call food. He also like some sort of sweet, spicy dish, what is it-”
“That’s right! Can you cook that?”
“Don’t be modest fool. Mama, he cooks it good. Even with toast points.”
“Really?!” She smiled at Murdock. “Well, don’t that beat all. You know, we need to swap recipes. I’ll let you in on my secret casserole recipes if you show me how to cook that tampenade.”
She’d bet money that the smile he flashed right back at her was more valuable than the recipe by far. They spend the rest of the time talking about recipes and different ingredients, though she has to admit that his comment about using powdered plaster as a gravy thickener was a little too adventurous.
But she was beginning to see why Scooter liked him.
The morning after swapping recipes with Murdock, she finds herself calling up some of the ladies from her church. The dinner conversation they had last night made it painfully obvious that while Scooter was doing his best to help Murdock open up and become comfortable, the problem was a little too big for him to deal with alone. And while she could do it, she needed more than the week Scooter told her they have.
So, she calls an emergency meeting of what her late husband would call ‘the cooking and gossip brigade.’
She tells them over the phone that her son and his friend have come over from the base and she wants to cook them a big meal with plenty of foods to take back. They all know this as code for ‘there’s someone here that needs good home cooking and something else you’ll discover when you arrive.’
It’s a remarkably good system. And like any good leader, she’s made sure to call in her A team for this-she wants to make good progress today.
Scooter is up first. Scooter has always been an early riser, getting up to help her with chores before running off to school, college, the military. He just seemed to fall back into old habits.
“Is Murdock awake yet?”
“Naw, mama. I think he took a pill last night.”
“Yeah, he gets insomnia real bad sometimes. He takes sleeping pills every once in awhile.”
There is more to that statement, but she doesn’t push. After all, when she was walking past Murdock’s room, she did see an open bag of pharmacopeia, but acted like she hadn’t seen it. Some things are meant to be private until such time as they are talked about.
“I invited some of the ladies over. We’re going to cook for you boys, maybe have Murdock show us how to cook that curry tampenade.”
He chuckles as he pours himself a glass of milk. “Bringing out the big guns early, Mama?”
“Like you didn’t know I would.”
“I knew you would. That’s why I brought that crazy fool here.”
“Oh, you and always calling people fool.” She considers him for a moment over her coffee. “You said he’s asleep?”
“And how long you been crushin’ on this boy? Don’t look at me like that. I’m your mother, I knew everything about you before you came into this world. You don’t take a boy or girl home unless you thinking’ about making it serious and you want my opinion. I still remember Deborah. And the Duke*.”
“I took some of the guys from my regiment home when I was in the army the first time!” Scooter protests. She gives him a look.
“Note the word, ‘some’. Don’t think I don’t see right through you, young man. I know you better than you know yourself.”
“Don’t sass. And answer my question.”
“I just…aw mama, I don’t know.” She can see the confliction in her poor boy’s eyes, but she lets the topic go. For now. Because she can hear, with that finely tuned Mother radar, that her other guest is sleepily stirring. This can wait until later. For now, she needs supplies.
She had intended for Scooter to go alone to the shopping mall to get food (they always needed something on these marathon cooking meetings), but it seemed like a better idea to send both. After all, shopping is better done with an actual cook. And it would give Scooter some alone time with Murdock, which he probably didn’t get very often at the base.
Of course, it would also give her time to prep the other ladies on her plans.
When they return, Murdock and Scooter are so bogged down by bags they cannot see the wave of interest, curiosity, and motherly instinct about to crash into them. They manage to wrestle the bags down on the counters before it hits.
“Oh! You didn’t tell me Scooter’s friend was such a handsome young devil!”
Murdock has a priceless look of surprise on his face. He’s looking down at Mrs. Anners, a tiny woman, head coming up below his chest. The little woman grins up at him, winking flirtatiously.
“Now, now. You’re still married, Beatrice.” She reminds her friend with a mock air of scandal. This triggers the voices of the other three women in the room.
“Oh, move Beatrice, I want to see.”
“I’m so short you can see over my head. Don’t need to move.”
“Is that Scooter? Boy, I remember you when you were this high-”
“This boy is pencil thin! When was the last time you ate?”
“It’s that military food, my husband went over to wherever and came back thirty pounds lighter.”
“That’s alright, he could have stood to lose it, as I remember.”
She took her time and watched Murdock during the exchange. Currently, Beatrice was wrapped around the young man’s waist, her white hair a startling contrast with the bright red top he wore. He seemed to be a little nervous, eyes darting about, but the women chattering around him fussing and complimenting him seemed to be having a calming effect.
Mrs. Alison Mathers leaned forward and asked him something. She didn’t catch the startled reply he made, but the other women exploded into laughter. Alison pursed her lips, then started laughing too.
After that bit of ice had broken, and the groceries were set up and cooking surfaces cleaned, it quickly became a cooking free for all. Usually they had an even number of women, and paired up, but she purposefully made an odd number today so that they would have to rotate and request Murdock to come in and help. Scooter sat back and took on his time honored position as taster while they worked.
And like most of her plans, this was working beautifully. Murdock was quickly into it, and pretty soon the ladies were making sounds of approval and going on about how it was about time a man knew his way around the kitchen. The combined threat of cooking and sincere praise was breaking down that defense he’d made and pretty soon, real Murdock was sitting in the kitchen with them, flirting with Beatrice and mixing early morning mimosas with Mrs. Irene Donovan, and swapping Indian curry recipes with Mrs. Nipa Kadarre.
She snuck a glance over at Scooter and found her boy smiling and laughing when the conversation was pitched his way, but always watching Murdock. Had a look in his eyes, mostly hidden, but still there.
She’d seen that look before. She also wondered if Murdock knew.
She turned her attention back to said young man just as Beatrice opened her mouth.
“You cook, you clean, you don’t have an ounce of fat on you…may I have an affair with you?” Beatrice was sixteen years older than she was.
Snorts turned into outrageous peals of laughter when Murdock returned with, “I’ll put you on my list, Ma’am.”
The day went on much the same way, with Murdock somehow covering himself with flour, which was not surprising considering Alison was helping him at the time. He impressed them all by making a cinnamon glaze out of Red Hots candy, and was surrounded by interested parties when he cooked his curry. Sometimes he’d ramble, sometimes his mind would come up with something strange that made everyone skip a beat, but he was quick with a joke or a humorous observation and she got the feeling that half of them would be going home to sore ribs.
By evening, everyone went home with full bags, stomachs, and gossip, and Murdock looked happy while he and Scooter cleaned up in the kitchen, joking around and sometimes standing just a bit close. They looked good together.
She had five more days to see if that couldn’t end up a bit better.
On the third day, she took them around town to see the sights, reminiscing with Scooter and filling in all sorts of history for Murdock. The boy had the decency not to look bored, and even seemed excited to learn things about Scooter.
That night, she woke up to movement in the house. She got up, picked up a heavy old bat that used to be Scooter’s, and went looking for the prowler.
She found Murdock looking at pictures in the hall, looking far too awake for two fifteen in the morning.
“Do you usually walk around at night with a baseball bat?”
“Only when I think there are burglars. I clocked the last one pretty good.”
“Do they come often?”
“Naw. My reputation gets around.” She looks at him carefully. “Can you not sleep tonight, baby?”
“Pills didn’t work. Had nightmares.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Come on, I’ll brew you some tea. I have a special recipe for nightmares, makes me feel better every time.” She gently takes his elbow, relieved when he doesn’t flinch, and leads him to the kitchen. He seems to be walking in a fog.
She sets him down and brews the tea. Before the silence can become tangible, she speaks.
“You wanna tell me what the dream was about?”
“Why not? Make you feel better to get it out.”
“I can’t. That’ll make it come true.”
She considers that for a moment while she watches the young man. The pills he’s taken are affecting his movement, and he seems to be awake by sheer willpower. This can’t be healthy.
“What do you mean? Come now, you can tell Mama.”
“Are you real?”
“About as real as I can get at this age. Is that the new slang they got in the army now?”
“N-no. Are you here? Are you speaking to me? Cuz I don’t wanna be in that dream anymore.”
“I’m right here. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Sure you can. This kitchen is a sanctuary. You know how many talks I’ve had in this kitchen? Late night and early morning? You’ll feel better if you let it out. Drink this.” She presses finely brewed tea into the young man’s hands.
He takes an unsteady sip, and she gets an idea.
“You said that talking about it will make it come true. Did you have a dream you were talking to me?”
He pauses, then hesitantly nods.
“And let me guess…you said something in that dream that made me upset…made me not want to be around you anymore?”
Another unsteady nod.
“Well, I can tell you right now that won’t come true. I haven’t kicked you out yet. Probably not going to now. I doubt whatever you think is so terrible in your dream will have the same effect here.”
“I’m certifiably insane and I think I have feelings for your son.” He blurts out. Then he looks absolutely horrified. She might have laughed if she wasn’t so taken aback.
As it is, she has to take a drink from her cup of tea to marshal her thoughts.
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised about that second one, the way you two carry on. And as for the first, well, you don’t seem all that insane to me.”
“I have invisible friends. I have delusions, sometimes I cook with ingredients that shouldn’t be used in food, and I once convinced a major that a helicopter could only fly if you asked it politely.”
“Was your nightmare that once I found out you were crazy I’d treat you like those other people did?” She asked quietly, cutting sharply into Murdock’s fledgling hysteria. His mouth snaps shut, and a tiny nod escapes him.
“Well, I’m not sorry to disappoint. And I still don’t think you’re crazy. At least, not as bad as you and some of those others think. Did you know, when Scooter’s father died, I talked to him every night? Still do, every once in awhile. And I figured with the food when you listed plaster as an ingredient. But that goes both ways. That cinnamon glaze was delicious, and I would have never thought of it. And from what majors I’ve met, yours probably deserved it.”
He laughs, tension starting to work itself out. His eyes were drooping. He wasn’t long for sleep. She carefully took the mug from his grasp, still half full, and pulled him into a hug.
“You feeling better now, Baby?”
He doesn’t answer. It takes her a minute to realize that its because he’s fallen asleep against her.
On the fourth day, she allows Murdock to sleep in. The early morning talk seems to have taken a toll on him. Scooter is up again early, helping make breakfast.
“So Murdock and I had a talk this morning.”
He looks up, surprised. “You and him were up? When?”
“Early. Baby, where did you find this boy? I have never seen someone so…hurt before. It’s like he expects-no, he knows the world is out to get him and break him down.”
“Hannibal picked him up in Mexico at a psyche ward. He was committed there.” Scooter is hesitant now. “Mama I understand if you’re upset, but, you know-.”
Oh, she knew. She’d seen that look before.
Alright…psyche wards were not an ideal place to find a boyfriend, but she had often believed herself to be a progressive, forward thinking woman-there was no reason to stop now. After all…even people in psyche wards needed love, most of the time more than others.
And that boy sleeping like the dead in the guest room needed it more than anyone she’d ever seen.
“You know this will be difficult, right? You try an enter into a relationship with this boy, he’ll need more than the others.”
“I know that Mama.”
“Alright. Long as you know what you’re doing.” She busies herself with the eggs. “For the record, I think he’s cute.”
“What? Your Mama so old she can’t find somebody attractive?” She teases.
“Mama…” He adopts a look of long suffering that happens to be so similar to his father that it causes a little pang, gone just as quickly.
“He told me he thinks he has feelings for you.” She said, looking sideways at him. His expression has gone serious for the moment.
Later that morning, when Murdock shuffles out of his room at half past ten, Scooter throws an arm around his shoulder and tells him that they’re going down to the Recreation Center he used to frequent. She approves- it will be good for them to get out of the house, just the two of them.
And it will give her time to think about what she’ll do next.
When they return at Five Fifteen in the evening, Murdock is bright eyed and happily chattering to Scooter about something that happened regarding police cars and someone named Ricky. Since police cars and people named Ricky are actually quite abundant in this part of the city, she decides not to worry about it too much.
Instead, she meets them at the door with her purse and coat.
“Mama, where you goin’?”
“Well, I have to meet Mrs. Walker down at the end of the street. Probably be there for a few hours. I’d invite you along, but you know how she gets sometimes. But don’t worry, I left you some food and ingredients in the fridge, and I’m giving Murdock full reign over the kitchen while I’m gone. There are movies in the living room, and I’ll see you boys later. Don’t wait up.”
She plants a kiss on both of their cheeks, choosing to ignore the startle from Murdock before she steps out onto the street and walks away.
Mrs. Walker greets her with surprise and a knowing look when she knocks on the door. “I should have known you’d show up here sooner or later. I’ve heard all about your new boy in the house from Beatrice. Apparently, he’s a handsome young thing.”
“Yes, well, that’s true.”
“I also hear from Nipa that he’s a smart, intelligent boy that cooks.”
“What’s Scooter doing to keep hold of that one?”
There were a great deal of women living in this area between the ages of fifty and ninety-five. Strangely enough, as they hit that age, they became much more accepting of…unconventional relationships. She still remembered when Alison stopped turning up her nose at those couples, only to turn around the next year exclaiming how adorable they looked together. She still didn’t know how that happened, but she was thankful for it-it meant that she had a strong support base.
“He’s doing what he can. Poor boy’s skittish.”
“Needs a bit of the Baracan touch?” The old women snickered, lighting a cigarette. At eighty, she was making it her personal trial to outlast her doctor’s expectations by doing everything she shouldn’t.
“Very rarely ever fails. I need to waste about four hours. What’s on tonight?”
“The Duke. Mule for Sister Sarah. Prop up your feet, I haven’t heard much gossip this week. Did you hear Mrs. Santari’s boy, Ricky, got arrested today? What was that all about?”
“I heard it had something to do with cop cars.”
Later that night, she left Mrs. Walker in her chair, covered in a warm blanket. She made sure all the doors and windows were locked and the stove was off, then let herself out.
The path back to home was walked quickly with her purse held close. Her steps were deliberate and her head was held high. More often than not, this allowed her to be recognized by most of the hoods. The others would suffer the wrath of mace. She made it home unmolested.
Entering carefully and quietly, she passed the kitchen, where everything was tidy, dishes soaking in the sink.
She looked into the sitting room next, were Scooter was sprawled out on the couch, snoring. The boy had a snore that could shake the heavens. This didn’t seem to upset Murdock, however, cuddled up next to him on the couch. They looked peaceful.
She carefully made her way to the couch, covering them up with a blanket as quickly and quietly as possible before turning to the television. The movie, whatever it was, was just ending. She shut it off as the credits rolled. She turned to leave only to see Murdock watching her sleepily, but with a knowing glint.
“How was Mrs. Walker?”
“Fine. Go back to sleep, baby.”
“Good night, Mama.”
She left them alone, shutting the door. The dishes could wait till morning. She was smiling when she retired for the night.
She wakes up later to voices giggling in the kitchen. She dresses and walks out, finding Murdock and Scooter doing dishes.
They haven’t seen her yet, so she stays back as they laugh and talk about nothing in particular. There is a comfortable closeness between them, and Murdock seems to have no qualms invading Scooter’s space as he tries to whisper his conversation. But she raised Scooter, and at times watched her sister’s children, and remembers how hard it is for them to actually be quiet.
Then Murdock leans up and kisses her boy on the cheek. Or would have, if Scooter had not turned his head to make some shushing sound at him. He ended up getting a peck on the lips. They both seemed shocked by the development, heavens knew why, they’d been dancing around it long enough.
But the shock doesn’t last long, and she disappears back to her room as Murdock goes back in for a real kiss.
She gets back into bed. Her hard work the last few days deserved a little rest.
An hour later, she gets back up, feigns surprise at the dishes done and coffee brewed, uses it as an excuse to plant a kiss on her boys again. The thought of ‘her boys’ causes her to pause for a moment, because it means that she has already become attached to that boy.
Looking across the table at him as he teases Scooter about his nickname, totally relaxed and happy, she decides that it isn’t an unwelcome development.
She listens them chatter on about what they should do with the last two days, planning to drive on the last day. Murdock is interested in the museums in downtown, something Scooter agrees to take him too, even to the zoo. Scooter usually turns his nose up at any sort of zoo. He did have a distrust of chimps. The fact that he said yes without a second thought, and the way Murdock’s eyes light up, she suddenly has no worries about the way their relationship will end up.
Still, five days was a new record. Usually it isn’t so hard to open up the people Scooter’s brought home. Perhaps the harder to get, the better to have.
“Watcha’ thinking about, Mama?” Murdock peers at her, across the table.
“Oh, things. Why don’t you boys go, museums make me dreadfully tired, and I have a church meeting this afternoon.”
He fixes her with a quick knowing glance before being encouraged out of his seat by Scooter, only too eager to jump on a chance to be alone with Murdock. She follows them to the door, still chatting away as the boys put on coats, Scooter going out to bring the van around.
She barely has time to be surprised when she’s wrapped in a pair of arms. Murdock’s.
He hugs tightly for a minute, then steps back. “I, uh, just wanted to let you know…I appreciate everything. The cooking party, the other ladies, the movies, the casserole, and the tea- especially the tea. Your help. Calling me…you know. Letting me call you…you know.”
“Baby and Mama?” She blinks.
“Yeah. And…thank you for helping. With me and Bosco. I know I’m not the best choice, but I promise, I’ll do everything to be perfect…for him and you-” His voice hitches slightly.
“He don’t need perfect and neither do I. Baby, you are wonderful just how you are. You are the best choice. Except you need to eat more.”
The last part startles a laugh out of him. She hugs him this time. “Now you go on and spend the day with Scooter. When you come back, we’ll try our hand at the tampenade. But I want you to go out and have us much fun as possible. Alright?”
“Yes Mama.” And he turns his head and plants a kiss on her cheek before running out the door just as Scooter drives up. She waves at them until they are gone.
And congratulates herself on a job well done.
*I totally just went there.