The wind was picking up as Rhinehart stepped into the kitchen, bearing a bouquet of wildflowers as usual. The screen door chattered behind him.
“Getting breezy,” he observed. “We may get some weather in a bit.”
Rhinehart was wearing blue polyester slacks instead of his customary farmer bibs, and from the iron-on patches and the single streak of motor oil, Molly guessed these were his best pants.
“You dressed up for dinner?” she asked.
Rhinehart shrugged. “Didn’t want to come over naked,” he said. “Not on Sunday.”
“Well, you look better in ketchup and grass stains, like you usually wear to dinner.”
“Guess I did kinda put on the dog tonight, didn’t I.”
“Nope. But you probably haven’t seen it.” Rhinehart glanced down at his shirt—a cowboy plaid with pearly snaps where all the buttons should have been. One pocket flap was bent upward, and Rhinehart tried to press it flat with his hand. “Fact is,” he said, “this shirt is older than you are.”
Molly snickered. “I hope you have newer socks than that.” She took the wildflowers from him. “Wipe your feet,” she said automatically, reaching for a vase.
Grandma Claire’s voice floated in from the living room. “Is that my boyfriend, Molly?”
“Yes. And he’s all dolled up, too,” Molly shouted. “He must want something.”
“Dolled up? Oh, dear . . .”
“I know,” said Molly. “Probably needs money again.”
Rhinehart chuckled. “A man can always use a little cash.”
Aunt Sonia appeared in the doorway, a ready smirk on her face. “Rhinehart all dolled up?” she was saying. “This I have to . . . Oh, my god! Mother!” Sonia never missed a chance to ridicule another person, and of course she considered Rhinehart ridiculous on his best days. She laughed out loud now. She guffawed. She snorted.
“I’m coming,” said Grandma Claire in her patient voice. She was shuffling in from the living room.
Sonia was having trouble catching her breath. She gave up laughing and went to squealing. “His hat, Mother!” She leaned on the wall and squealed in sharp little bursts, like the brakes on a freight train.
“Sonia, I hardly think it’s worth . . . Oh, my goodness, Rhinehart. That is quite a hat.”
On Rhinehart’s head perched an Indiana Jones fedora, flame-orange. From beside the crown protruded not the discreet single feather you might be expecting. This was no Robin Hood chapeau. On each side, an entire pheasant wing reached up and back. And these two wings were held in place against the orange felt by a wide silver band of the handyman’s secret weapon: duct tape.
The hat (if “hat” isn’t too small a word) was balanced between Rhinehart’s bushy ponytail and his bushy eyebrows at an angle that could only be called jaunty. The whole effect—the fedora, the orange and silver, the wings—was both heroic and rakish. It was a work of art. It was the headgear of a god. It was an orange Indiana Jones winged helmet.
Sadly, to the untutored eye—including Aunt Sonia’s—it made Rhinehart look like a refugee from an opera written by Bugs Bunny.
“Rhinehart, what in the world?” said Grandma Claire, one hand fluttering at her throat. She seemed torn between hilarity and fear.
Rhinehart swept the hat from his head and bowed awkwardly. “At your service, ma’am,” he said, and he gave Grandma Claire a broad wink. Sonia squealed again, and then she began to sneeze.
“Take that godawful thing out of here!” she gasped. “My allergies . . .” Sonia sneezed three times rapidly. Soon tears were running down her cheeks.
Molly stood with her back to the sink and her arms crossed tightly. “Well, I think it looks brilliant,” she declared without cracking a smile. “There’s only one thing I want to know: what’s the occasion, Rhinehart?”
“Yes,” said Sonia. “Before we call for a straightjacket, what’s the occasion? Braaa-chooo!”
“Can’t tell you that,” said Rhinehart, winking again at Grandma Claire. “Our little secret.”
Molly could barely suppress herself now. “Oh, I love secrets!” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘our secret,’ Rhinehart?” Grandma Claire asked, her eyes widening.
Rhinehart laid his hat carefully on the table, and pulled at his ear. “Oh,” he said. “Sure.” He smiled at Grandma Claire. “Right.”
Grandma Claire pressed her temples briefly with her knuckles. She had been raised among polite and stoic people. It was against her nature to laugh openly at anyone, or even to get very excited. She was trained to take things in stride. And not to rescue a friend from an awkward situation was unthinkable. She shook her head.
“So,” said Grandma Claire. “Well. All right, then.” She smoothed her apron with both hands. “Molly, you need to get the plates on the table, and then would you pull the roast out of the oven?”
Molly gathered plates cheerily and clanked them down on the table. She set the paper napkin holder beside them and moved to the silverware drawer. Molly could feel the moment beginning to snowball, but she couldn’t resist giving it a little push. “I still want to know why you told Rhinehart to make this lovely hat,” she said, holding up the feathered artwork by the brim.
“Now, why would you think I had anything to do it?” asked Grandma Claire, switching off the oven.
“Braa-chooo!!” said Sonia. “Just get it out of here!” She stabbed one finger toward the door. “My allergies! Does no one care about my allergies?!”
“Rhinehart, dear,” said Grandma Claire between firm lips. “Now that we’ve all seen it, maybe you would put your hat in the truck.”
“Oh, no!” said Molly. “We have to hear the story first!”
“Braa-choo!” shouted Sonia, doubling over. “I don’t care about the story. Just get the damn bird out of my sight!”
Grandma Claire was suddenly quite firm. “Molly, I have no idea what Rhinehart’s story is, but we’re getting ready for supper now.”
Rhinehart was looking from Grandma Claire to Molly and back, with a half-smile frozen on his lips. In his eyes, what looked like a small uncomfortable decision began to form. He cleared his throat quietly.
“So you really have no idea,” he said to Grandma Claire. It wasn’t a question. He stroked his hair back from his forehead and tugged lightly on his ponytail.
“No, dear,” said Grandma Claire impatiently. “I can’t imagine what you’re up to. The hat is magnificent, of course, but would you just set it outside so Sonia will stop her sneezing?” She turned back to the oven.
“Braa-Chooo!” said Sonia. “Great hat, Rhinehart. Now get it OUT of here!” Rhinehart seemed to reach a conclusion.
“So then this . . .” he began, as he fumbled in his pocket. “Wait,” he said, not finding what he was looking for. “Hmm . . .”
Molly knew her moment of triumph was coming at last. She smiled brightly, innocently, while Rhinehart dug for the letter. Outside, the wind was picking up, and thunder tumbled out of the clouds a few miles away.
Rhinehart checked his snap-down shirt pockets; then he dug into other pockets, and then others. Then he started at the top again. He looked like a man frisking himself. Finally, from the back pocket of his polyester pants, he produced a worn sheet of paper, carefully folded.
“So this,” he said, unfolding it “didn’t come from you?”
Molly held her breath.
Grandma Claire accepted the page and glanced from it to Rhinehart’s face, with concern in her eyes.
“No, dear,” she said. “I believe this is your electric bill. From April 2006.”
“What??” exploded Molly. “It can’t be! What happened to the letter??”
“Braa-Choo!!” said Sonia. Her tears were running freely. “Out!” she screamed. “Get the bird out!!”
“Where’s the letter!” Molly demanded.
“Sonia!” said Grandma Claire. “Leave the room. Molly, control yourself. What letter?”
“My mistake,” said Rhinehart. He looked at Molly directly for the first time, and there was something she couldn’t name in his face. Something she’d never seen there before. Something like sadness, maybe.
“Braaaaa-Choooooo!!” said Sonia. Her eyes were starting to puff and stream. She pounded the wall with her fist, and then she began swearing as percussively as she had been laughing before. Sneeze! Swear! Sneeze! Swear! She careened out of the room, pounding the walls as she went.
“Well, since Molly knew it was a letter I was looking for,” said Rhinehart producing the letter from inside his hat. “Then this must be Molly’s writing.” He handed it to Claire.
Molly crossed her arms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied.
Grandma Claire sat down quietly and read the letter twice through. “Molly,” she said, “I can’t find the words to say how much this hurts me.” She reached into her sleeve for a tissue.
Molly was confused. “You?” she said. “No. It’s only supposed to hurt Rhinehart.”
Grandma Claire wasn’t listening. “I know you want Rhinehart and me to get married, Molly. But I’ve already explained how things are. You can’t trick us into doing it.” The screen door chattered a little in the wind.
“No,” explained Molly, a little crossly. “You don’t get it.” This was not going according to the plan.
“I don’t get it?” snapped Grandma Claire. “It’s all right here in the letter.” She spun the page on the table and pushed it toward Molly. “What exactly am I not getting?”
“No, Grandma Claire, listen,” said Molly. She sat down at the table and leaned forward. “I know you don’t want to marry Rhinehart. Who would? That’s why this was so brilliant.”
“Yes! It was perfect. Rhinehart comes in looking like a dork in his orange hat, which you hate, with feathers, which Aunt Sonia hates. He begs you to marry him. You say no, and everybody laughs. Rhinehart goes away, just like he chased off my Greg. Perfect. See?”
Grandma Claire frowned. “But I don’t want Rhinehart to go away,” she said coolly. “Did that ever cross your scheming little mind?”
Molly scowled at the back of her hand. She shrugged. “I guess not. But I didn’t want Greg to go away, either. That’s not the point.”
Grandma Claire slapped the table heavily. “The point?!” she demanded. “My feelings are beside the point??”
Rhinehart had been standing quietly for some time. He cleared his throat now. “Molly, what’s this about?” he asked quietly. “I must have did something, right?”
“Rhinehart, you stay out of this,” said Grandma Claire sternly.
Molly was about to burst. “Must have done something!” she shouted. “Oh nothing really—except scare off every boy I’ve ever brought home! Especially the one boy I really really cared about, who now won’t speak to me because he thinks I live with a maniac geezer convict in a ponytail!”
“Oh, that’s ridiculous,” said Grandma Claire.
“The story is all over school that this crazy bozo killed someone in a knife fight and had to go to prison. Nobody believes me that he made it all up. Nobody wants to come over, and nobody wants to do anything with me if they think Uncle Nut Job here might show up. He’s ruined my life!” Molly shrieked. “I hate him, and you always take his side!”
“Molly, that’s enough! You may go to your room!”
“I have no problem going back to my room!”
“Claire,” said Rhinehart. “Just let’s hold on a minute.”
“Don’t you tell me to hold on, Rhinehart! You’re just as much at fault here as Molly is.”
“I know I am,” said Rhinehart.
“You two are like children!”
“I know it.”
“You’re exactly alike. You could be twins, joined at your tiny reptilian brains. You have the same irritating self-righteousness, the same idiotic ideas. And you can’t stop pestering the biscuits out of each other!”
“You’re right,” said Rhinehart.
“I am damn sick of both of you!”
“Language!” said Molly.
“Claire,” said Rhinehart.
“You’re right.” The amazing winged hat dangled from his hand. His eyes were fixed on the toes of his boots. “But this here ain’t Molly’s fault,” he said.
“It isn’t?” said Molly.
“Nope,” said Rhinehart. “I done pushed her too far. At my age, I oughta know better.”
“You’ve always pushed her too far, Rhinehart. I don’t know what you think you’re doing half the time.”
“I don’t know, neither. My fault completely. What she done with the letter—I had it coming.”
“Wait a minute,” said Molly. “Don’t you try and cover for me. I’m still so mad at you, I could spit nails.”
Grandma Claire turned in her chair. “Oh, don’t think you’re out of the woods, young lady,” she said. “You’ll be lucky if I don’t ground you for the rest of your life.”
Molly crossed her arms and set her jaw.
“Claire,” said Rhinehart. “Let’s don’t overdo this. I really did have it coming.”
“I know you did!” snapped Grandma Claire. “You’re both in so much trouble, it will take me a week to decide what to do with you. Molly, this might have seemed like a fine trick to you, but you brought my love life into your little schemes, and that is way over the line. It is beyond belief how you could think this was okay.”
“Well, he brought my love life into it!”
“Then you should know how wrong it is!”
While Grandma Claire held forth in this vein, Rhinehart and Molly stood silent, regarding each other across the room. She didn’t know what she should do with them. They were acting like children—both of them—with their constant battles, their needling, their petty revenges. They were two sides of the same coin; they would be best friends if they could only stop this foolish competition for Knothead of the Year. Blah, blah, blah. Outside, an occasional clap of thunder punctuated the tirade.
Molly asked herself how things had gone so wrong. Don’t misunderstand: this was not the remorse of a scolded child. What she felt was more in the way of a field commander reviewing a broken battle plan. She had underestimated her opponent—a classic mistake. And, on reflection, the whole forgery thing might have been a bad idea. Molly could manage Grandma Claire’s signature no problem, but forging a whole letter . . . that might have been reaching too far. Probably Rhinehart had seen through it from the first. She had to admire his control, too: the hat, the pretend confusion, the “missing” letter. Yes, he had her coming and going. Brilliant technique, really, Molly thought. Give the devil his due. She glanced down at the winged hat in Rhinehart’s hand, and she almost giggled.
Rhinehart turned the hat slowly in his hands as he listened to Claire. What had seemed like a great comic counter-strike against Molly’s badly forged letter now just seemed childish. He was too old to be childish. He’d known for years now that Molly was no threat to him, but the banter and competition for Claire’s attention was so deeply written into their relationship that he wasn’t sure how to change it. He was afraid it might be too late. He knew one thing: he’d much rather have Molly liking him than hating him the way she did now.
“But the first thing you’re going to do,” Grandma Claire was saying, “is get out of my house and into that truck, and you're going to drive down to the store. I need some ice cream, and I need a lot of it.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Rhinehart.
“I’m not going anywhere with him,” said Molly.
“You most certainly are!” Grandma Claire rose carefully to her full height, which was head and shoulders above Molly. She took Molly’s elbow and marched her gingerly through the door. Rhinehart was outside already.
“Okay okay,” said Molly.
“And while you’re gone,” Grandma Claire said, “you are both going to apologize. Then you’re going to discuss how you’ll make it up to me.” She slammed the screen door.