There was an island in the center of the strip mall where Darko and Cynnie worked. It was grassy with two trees on either end. In the center was an old wooden bench. This is where Darko sat with his saxophone in his lap. His fingers lay over the holes tentatively. His mouth was turned down in a frown and his eyebrows were creased.
Then he lifted the instrument to his lips and began to play. His fingers moved quickly as beautiful music filled the area. The case lay open by his feet. Some people stopped to listen to the skilled playing and tossed in quarters and dollar bills. Darko certainly needed the money, but that was not why he played. He played to release the pent up tension and emotions. His saxophone made him feel light and free, if only for awhile.
He barely heard the applause that ensued when he finished playing. He looked up and saw Cynnie standing there with small smile on her face. He gave her a nod of acknowledgment. She waited until everyone else had left before speaking. “That was amazing,” she said.
Darko shrugged. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t know you played the saxophone. It’s so Louisianan of you.” She grinned.
Darko glanced down. He wished she had not reminded him. He had initially wanted to leave everything about his old home behind, but this one thing he could not give up. “I reckon so,” was his mumbled response.
“How long have you been playing?” she asked curiously. She seemed genuinely interested in the answer.
“Since I was five,” he replied. It was no big deal. His parents had insisted on him learning an instrument and the saxophone had sounded much more interesting than the piano. Back then he had been proud of the state he lived in and its culture. Now anything related to it pained him. He could not let himself miss it. It was no longer his.
“Wow, that’s a long time,” Cynnie said, sounding impressed. “I wish I knew how to play an instrument.”
“It takes a lot of practice,” Darko said. He looked her over in a calculating way. Why was she still there? Had he not pushed her away twice? Why did she think he was worth the effort? “I’m sorry about Sunday.”
Cynnie shook her head. “Stop apologizing. It’s fine. I should not have interrogated you like that. Everyone says I’m too curious for my own good.” She shrugged.
A slight smile formed on Darko’s face. He agreed with that statement. Maybe that was why she was still interested in him. “Perhaps you should take their advice.”
Cynnie just smiled. “But that would not be nearly as fun.”
Darko chuckled and shook his head. “Wow. What if you get into danger?”
She shrugged. “I’ll get myself out of it.”
Darko raised his eyebrows. She was a bold one, that was for sure. He liked it. He liked her. “I see.”
She smiled brightly again. “I don’t think you and my brothers got off to the right start. They’re really great guys once you get to know them. So… I was thinking that you should come over to my house for dinner.” She flashed him a reassuring grin.
Darko blinked in surprise. “Dinner? At your house?” He hesitated. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
Cynnie frowned. “Why not? I know they’ll like you.”
Darko rolled his eyes. “How can you know that? You don’t even know me.” She did not even know the him everyone else thought he was.
“That’s why we have to get to know each other,” Cynnie said. She was smiling again. “Family is very important in Green Bay. Since you do not have your own here, it would help you fit in if you got to know a different one. Since I’m supposed to show you around, why not mine?”
Darko let out a heavy sigh. He was afraid of this. At this point, he doubted he could ever fit into Green Bay. He seemed to do everything wrong. But he had made a commitment to try, so he would try until he failed. “Ok,” he agreed reluctantly. I’ll go.” He could feel his hands begin to sweat at the thought.
Cynnie seemed oblivious to his concerns. She just beamed at him. “Great!”
The sun shone down on the neighborhood, but dark clouds loomed in the distant. The clouds were gradually getting closer and closer, threatening a storm. The houses were nice, white-looking, and on the larger side. Cynnie’s house had a bright yellow sign on the door saying ‘welcome.’ Despite this, Darko did not feel very welcome.
Cynnie was there to greet him. She rushed him inside. “We’ve got everyone over,” she said. He could see her brother’s, their partners, and Vince in the living room past her. There were some other people he did not recognize. “This is my father, Antonio.”
The friendly-looking black haired man grinned as he struck out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Darko awkwardly shook his hand. “You too, sir.” He should have known what to do in this situation. Before the incident, he had been a Southern gentleman. That was how he was raised. But that had long been erased out of him. It was not because of who he was and what he had done. It was because how everyone else treated him and who they thought he was.
“This is my wife, Molly,” Antonio said.
The woman nodded. Her lips were tightly pressed together. “Hello.”
Suddenly, yapping was heard. Before he knew what going on, a white Scottish terrier was jumping at Darko’s feet. He stepped back in surprise. Cynnie chuckled. “This is my boy Taz,” she said. “The family dog is Cupcake.” She nodded at the chocolate lab lying near the couch.
A girl with straight brown hair came up to stand next to Antonio. “This is my youngest girl Megan,” the father said. “Megan, this is Darko.”
“Hi,” the girl said shyly.
Antonio slapped his hands together. “Well, shall we eat?”
The dining room was very elegant. There were cupboards on opposite walls filled with china and glass decorations. A long wooden table graced the center of the room with a chandelier hanging over it. The table was set with white plates that had a blue trim around the edges. The Milwaukee beer seemed oddly out of place. Darko tensed when he saw it. Luckily, someone must have told the family that he did not drink, for he was not offered any.
Antonio sat at the head of the table with Molly adjacent to him. Next to her was Megan, followed by Darko and Cynnie. Ben sat on at the other edge. On the other side of the table was Vince, Helen (across from Darko), Daisy, and John. The meal that was being served consisted of beef, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob. Darko poured himself some water.
“So, Darko,” Antonio began in a cheerful tone. “Cynnie tells me you’ve traveled around a lot. Which cities have you been to?”
The question was innocent enough, but it still filled Darko with trepidation. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him, causing his palms to sweat, though his voice came out calm and cool. “Besides Montgomery, I’ve lived in New Orleans; Austin, Texas; a small town in Texas; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; a small town in Michigan; and Detroit.” A ripple of surprise broke out and everyone began to murmur. Darko glanced down at his food, his throat growing tight.
“What time span was this in?” Molly asked, her voice having an edge to it.
“Three years,” was Darko’s mumbled reply. He could feel more surprise at the table.
“So, we can expect you to leave Green Bay in six months?” Ben said. He gave an “oof” as someone nudged him.
“Why have you traveled around so much?” John asked.
Darko looked up. The stares he was receiving were not hostile. Not yet. “I have my reasons.” There was an exchange of glances.
“What reasons?” Helen pressed.
“Oh, don’t interrogate the boy,” Antonio said. He flashed Darko a grin. “Do you have any political views?”
Darko shifted uncomfortably. This topic was not much better than the last. But at least with this answer he was in company. “I don’t like the government,” he began. “I think it needs to stay out of people’s business and let them do as they please as long as they’re not hurtin’ nobody. And the criminal justice system is messed up and needs to be heavily revised.” He gave a small shrug of the shoulders as if that could explain away his views that many people considered radical. They were only radical is you didn’t understand the reasoning and arguments behind them.
Antonio’s smile had finally fallen. He exchanged a frown with his wife before looking back at Darko. “So, you’re a libertarian, then?” he asked more cautiously.
Darko blinked. His face betrayed no emotion. He had to act like he did not care. That was the only way out of this. He had to be honest though. He refused to lose any more of his integrity. “I don’t like labeling myself, but if that’s how you’d describe one, then I reckon I am.”
“What about religion?” John asked carefully.
Cynnie shot him a look. “John.” She looked around the table. “What’s with you guys?” She crossed her arms and rolled her eyes.
“These are important questions,” Molly said. She nodded at Darko. “Continue.”
Darko suppressed a sigh. There was no getting out of it now. He tried to buy time by chewing, but he knew that it would not last long. “I grew up Catholic, but now I don’t affiliate myself with any church. I believe in the teachings of Christ, but I do not think any one religion should be telling people how to live.”
Molly’s eyebrows knotted together to form a deep frown. “The Catholic Church is rich in tradition. It offers guidance to those who would otherwise be lost. It is a great gift. Do not spit on it.”
Darko had to fight hard to hold back his agitation. “Yeah, but I don’t like how your Christians act all high and mighty like you’re better than everyone else and look down on those who fall short of your expectations.”
Molly put her hands on the table, making a small sound. “Good people need to stay with good people. Messing with the wrong crowd will only bring them down. It’s their own fault if they choose to live in sin.”
John crossed his arms and leaned back. “I think he just has a problem with authority.”
Cynnie slammed her hands onto the table, getting the attention from everyone. “That is quite enough.”
Vince began to cry.
“So, any new opinions?” Cynnie asked after Darko had left. She was smiling weakly; she knew the night had not gone well.
Cynnie’s smile was nervous as she faced her brothers in the living room. The girls had gone home early. Antonio said he trusted Cynnie’s judgment and she had to figure this out on her own. Molly huffed and left for her room. Now it was just Ben and John. They sat on one end of the couch, while Cynnie was on the other.
“Great idea bringing him out here,” Ben said sarcastically. “At least he didn’t insult Wisconsin.”
John rolled his eyes. “There are worse things than that.” He sighed and looked at Cynnie. “I don’t think he’s a good influence on you.”
Cynnie frowned. “Why? Because he’s not a Catholic Republican?”
“It would be better if he were a Jewish Democrat. That’s not the point, Cynnie.”
She crossed her arms. “Then what is the point?”
“He’s crazy,” Ben said.
John gave him a sideways glance. “He means he doesn’t have values.”
“How do you know?”
John shook his head. “I think he showed it tonight by his answers to our questions. Even if he does, they’re nothing worth dying for.”
Cynnie rolled her eyes. She was beginning to get really irritated with her brother. She knew he was just trying to protect her, but why did he have to be so judgmental? He did not even know Darko! “And I do?”
John pursed his lips. “That’s my point. You can’t make up your mind about anything.”
Cynnie put her hands on her hips. “That’s not true!”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “Yes, it is.”
“You need to find better friends,” John went on. “Ones that will help you become good and virtuous. When’s the last time you went to church? Father Luke has been asking about you.”
Cynnie bit her lip. Father Luke was her parish priest and John’s spiritual director. She used to talk to him often as well, but this had slowly faded after she went off to college. “I’ll see him sometime,” she mumbled. She felt a bit guilty, but she just did not see the point. She was a good person. She did nothing terribly wrong. To be honest, Darko’s view on religion seemed perfectly reasonable.
Ben frowned. “Has he been asking about me?”
John raised his eyebrows. “I think he considers you a lost cause.”
Cynnie dropped her arms and clenched her fists and teeth. Maybe dinner had been a bad idea after all. Could her brothers be right? No, they did not have enough information to come to those conclusions. “Look, guys,” she began in an agitated tone, “I don’t know if Darko is someone worth being around or not, but I will not know until I get to know him better.”
John shook his head. “Trust my instincts on this. Stay away from him.”
Cynnie narrowed her eyes. “No. You can’t make me.”
John sighed. “I know I can’t, but please listen to reason.”
Cynnie rolled her eyes dramatically. “Because you’re always right, huh? Well, guess what?” She stood up so that she was towering over both of them. “I have values, and they say that everyone deserves a chance. So that is what I’m going to give Darko, whether you like it or not.” She stormed off without waiting for a response. She was distressed about being at odds with her brothers, but she was determined to continue seeing Darko.