I HAD TO PARK MY COROLLA ON MY FRONT LAWN when we returned home that night because my brothers’ cars were in the driveway, and my brothers were heading out. I glanced at Joe Mooney’s house as I climbed out of the driver’s side door. It was dark.
“Call me Tuesday if it warms up,” Josh said as he started his truck. Josh and I were the brothers that stayed in Sheffield, and we played golf on Tuesday nights all summer. We were hoping to get out that week, but it was ice cold out that Easter, and Josh was skeptical of the weathermen who told him that temperatures would reach the low 50’s in a scant 48 hours. I told him I’d call him and he backed out, leaving me with the house to myself for the first time in three days.
I walked to the mailbox, knowing that it would be empty, buying time and giving myself an opportunity to continue to scope out the house that I was now sure belonged to Joe Mooney. I stood on the sidewalk for maybe a minute, my hands drawn back into my coat sleeves, my breath foggy in the cold, before I decided that it was Easter, and what the hell? I walked to his front door and knocked. No answer. I knocked again. No answer. I rang the bell and waited for another minute before deciding that I had done my neighborly duty. Ninety seconds later, I opened my own front door, entirely unprepared for a tuxedoed Joe Mooney to tell me that the ham was “almost ready.”
“I ALMOST GAVE UP ON YOU,” Joe Mooney said as he slipped a plaid oven mitt onto his chubby paw.
Every light in my house was off, but there were four candles ablaze on the dining room table. The candles didn’t look familiar, but the white tablecloth was one I kept in the linen closet for special occasions. The table was set with two plates, two wine glasses, two sets of my good silverware, and two burgundy cloth napkins. A large bowl of salad--the kind that comes in a bag--sat to one side, and another smaller bowl with half a dozen baked potatoes sat to the other. A bottle of Charles Shaw wine--“Two Buck Chuck” we used to call it--had been opened and looked about half-empty. Joe Mooney’s tuxedo--a standard black and white with a cumberbund rather than a vest--looked a little snug.
“Remember this?” he asked.
“The tux. I noticed you noticing it. It’s the one I wore to your wedding.”
“Joe, what’s going on?” He hadn’t introduced himself, but by this time there could be no doubt that it was indeed Joe Mooney standing in my kitchen.
“I brought wine,” he said. “Pour yourself a glass.”
“What’s going on?”
Joe Mooney paused for a moment as he pulled a glazed Virginia ham garnished with pineapples out of my oven.
“Is something going on?” he said.
“How did you get into my house?”
“I used your spare key.”
“What spare key?”
“The one you gave me in case of an emergency." I'm sure that I looked puzzled. Joe Mooney took note. "Oh, I know this isn’t an emergency, but I thought it would be a nice surprise,” he explained.
“I’ve never given you a spare key to my house.”
Joe laughed nervously, awkwardly. “Who’s the crazy one now?” he said. “You gave me that key years ago.”
“Joe, I’ve never spoken to you before today. I wasn’t even sure who you were when you called me this morning.”
Joe Mooney looked hurt, like a child whose father has just told him he’s too tired to play ball. He reached for a knife, which made me nervous, but as he began to carve the ham, he smiled.
“I can never tell when you’re being serious, Paul. You had me going there for a minute.”
“Joe, I’d like you to go.”
“I hope those potatoes aren’t overcooked,” he said. “You said you’d be home around seven.”
“Joe,” I said more harshly than before.
“But I don’t think you can overcook potatoes. I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere.”
“Joe!” I shouted.
“Don’t yell at me!” he shouted back. I was still standing in the hallway in my winter coat, and I took a small step toward the front door. Joe Mooney’s bottom lip trembled, and he closed his eyes tightly as he spoke. “First, I invite you over for lunch and you back out at the last minute. Then you invite me over for dinner, and I make this beautiful meal, and you don’t even want to enjoy it. Well, you know what Paul? I think you’re being an asshole.”
He was probably right, at least partly. I was being a little bit of an asshole--he clearly needed something, and I was trying to blow him off--but I was nervous, possibly terrified.
“Joe,” I said. “I appreciate what you’ve done here, I really do. But this isn’t the best time for me. Would it be possible for me to take a rain check?”
I didn’t believe that Joe Mooney was a violent man, but it was a relief to see him set the carving knife down on the counter anyway. He stepped back and stared blankly at his hands as he wiped them with a dishtowel. He chuckled in a way that didn’t make me feel better.
“Sure,” he said. “Rain check. You got it.” Then Joe Mooney set down the dishtowel and walked toward me. He stopped, and without making eye contact, he hugged me. It was an awkward hug, and I did not reciprocate. Then he walked to the door, opened it, and turned to face me. He stood for a moment, opened his mouth as though he were going to say something important, then smiled and shook his head. “See you, Paul.”
I locked the door as soon as it was shut, then I sat in the dark and watched Joe Mooney through my front window for ten minutes. Clad only in his tuxedo, he stood in my front yard staring into the ice cold night sky. Finally, I called the police.