The corner of Hardwood Street and Pecan Avenue was the closest Sydney could get to Graham’s neighborhood by bus. Hardwood Street ran perpendicular to Pecan Avenue, which was the street that was mostly a hill that led directly to the gates that led directly into the subdivisions that was the home to Graham and Brian.
She crossed Hardwood on foot, and started into her hike up Pecan, her backpack bouncing quietly against her back as she walked. No side-street offshoots, just this one street that dead-ended at the large wrought iron gate visible in the distance, the kind she’d seen at some of the more expensive apartments complexes. Beautifully fenced in was so much better than plain fenced in.
It was pretty up here, she thought, following the sidewalk that followed the road, scanning the area as she walked. Not a speck of anything out of place, clean. A median filled with all types of flowers, decorative rocks, a nifty waterfall, and some pretty delightful hedges, shaped in what looked like dancing or prancing deer, ran down the middle of the road.
As she drew closer to the top, both sides of the streets gave away to the hillside. Deep green grass, neatly manicured lawns with equally neatly manicured homes dotted the hillside on the right, facing the street below. The other side was all green valley, peppered with trees, surprising for this time of year, usually laid low by the Texas heat.
She stopped when she reached the top, just to take it all in. Spectacular and impressive summed it up perfectly. You could see forever from this vantage point and forever was beautiful.
She continued, eventually arriving at a small house that was a security guard station. It was built from that stone she associated with homes in California—not brick, but stucco. Yes, a light beige-colored stucco, she thought.
The door was open, and a man in his guard uniform sat in a chair behind a small desk. A book lay open in front of him, some kind of novel, which is exactly what she’d do were this her job. She imagined it got pretty boring around here.
“Hello. May I help you?” he said. Of Latin heritage, she thought of his light brown skin, head full of straight black hair shorn short, and mustache. It was also the lilt to his speech; slightly musical it sounded to her ears.
“Um, hi. I’m here to see a friend. Graham Garrison,” she said, hoping Graham had remembered to tell them she was coming.
“And you are?” he asked.
“Sydney King. He’s expecting me,” she said.
“One moment please,” he said. She watched as he scanned a list attached to a clipboard. He smiled. “Here you are,” he said, smiling at her. “So, entry is through that smaller gate off to the side. See there?” he asked, pointing toward the gate. “To the left of the larger one.”
“Yes, I see,” she said.
“I’ll buzz you in. My notes tell me you’ll be here often. I’m Jesus.”
“Nice to meet you, Jesus.”
“The same,” he said, his eyes twinkling with humor. “It’ll be either me, or my brother Fernando, that you’ll see working here.”
“On the other side of the fence, Clear View, the name of the neighborhood’s one and only street, splits into two. Clear View A forks to the left and Clear View B forks to the right. Mr. Garrison’s home is on the Clear View B side to the left. Just need to follow the sidewalk, as it veers to the right. You can’t miss it. Third house from the corner.”
“Thank you,” she said.
She waved to him once more from the other side of the fence. She followed the sidewalk, which veered right just as Jesus said it would. Like the rest of the neighborhood, it was a beautiful street filled with twenty or so large homes, with equally large yards. Shiny expensive cars were parked in the drive, or behind the garages, she imagined.
Across the street from her were more well-coiffed lawns and homes to match. Wow, no more Kansas, she thought. Who knew people lived like this. Of course, she knew, but it was one thing to imagine it and another to be so up close and personal to it. See Sydney, what happens when you don’t give up, she told herself, another of her grandmother’s truisms playing in her head.
She walked past two homes before she reached Graham’s. It was exactly as she expected it to be, now that she knew what to expect. Grey brick, white-trimmed windows on what looked like two big-ass homes stuck together and anchored by a garage, was the best way to describe it. Okay, wow, she thought again.
She took the right turn, following the drive past the garage, built in the shape of one of those old barns she’d seen in movies, only nicer. His home had the same serious landscaping as the rest of his neighbors. Same flowers out in front, same expertly trimmed bushes and yard.
She continued up the sidewalk reaching to the porch, with its two columns on either side. She stood in front of a really tall black door. Two small windows on each side gave her a glimpse of the inside, which looked the same grand as the outside, she thought. She rang the doorbell and waited, feeling more than a little overwhelmed.
“You made it,” Graham said, opening the door wide for her to enter.
“Yep,” she said. He was cute, smiling back at her, dressed in his athletic gear of shorts and a t-shirt. His feet were bare. Whatever and whenever this dude was impressive to her. It would take a lot of talks with herself to get past this crush, she thought.
He laughed. “Come in. I was just about to eat breakfast. You hungry?”
“I could eat,” she said, mouth watering at the smells that filled the house.
“Follow me then. How was the bus ride here?” He asked.
“Good. Ordinary,” she said, trying her best not to stare at the inside of his home. Formal was her opinion of the interior of his home and somebody liked white.
“It’s good to know the bus comes out here,” Graham said, moving down the hall.
“It doesn’t, really. Not all the way. It drops you off at the bottom of your hill,” she said.
“It’s not my hill,” he said, chuckling, entering the only door to his left. It was the kitchen. It was huge, and very white. White cabinets, white backsplash, with a few blue diamonds mixed in with the white square tiles. In the middle of the kitchen was an island, big too, with a small sink on one side and three chairs under the bar that was the other side. Across the room behind them was a small breakfast nook, with a table and blue cushioned covered chairs. A smaller living room was to the right of both the kitchen and breakfast nook. The floors was wide-planked dark wood.
“I meant your neighborhood.”
“I know what you meant. Just messing with you,” he said, turning his gaze to the tall African American man wearing an apron, standing in front of the stove. There were a couple skillets on the stove, and tortillas and cheese on the counter, so he must be the creator of the good smells she thought.
“Ross, this is Sydney King.”
“The young lady you’re tutoring?”
“Yes. She’ll be here a couple days each week and on Saturday mornings.”
“Hello there,” Ross said, smiling back at Sydney. He was handsome in a fatherly way. Bald head, taller than Graham and with a muscular body, built like a heavy weight boxer.
“Hi,” Sydney said shyly.
“I cook for this one,” he said, nodding his head in Graham’s direction. “You want me to fix you a plate, too?”
“Breakfast tacos,” Graham said, meeting her gaze. “And she wants,” Graham added.
“Only if it’s not too much trouble,” she said, glancing at Ross, who smiled back at her. She didn’t know what she had expected, but a tall African American cook was not it.
“Manners. She has manners. I had given up hope,” he said, smiling at Sydney as he said it. “And it’s no trouble at all, miss,” he said.
“Thanks then,” she said.
“We’ll leave this here,” Graham said, removing Sydney’s backpack from her shoulders and dropping it onto one of the bar chairs. “Come on, let me give you a quick tour of the first floor, show you where the bathrooms are.”
“Sure,” she said, glancing once more at Ross. He was back to work, back to moving the pots around on the stove.
“You take the bus a lot?” he asked, hoping she’d relax. She was nervous, he could tell, his young fourteen-year-old nerd.
“Yes,” she said.
“This is the formal dining room,” Graham said, waiting for her to enter. “We can study in here sometimes if you want.”
The color scheme was the same in here too; same blue on the wall, curtains on the window, some striped with blue in them, a white rug under the table too, and that could be trouble. She would have to be careful to not drop anything.
“I like the colors,” she said.
“My mom’s favorites,” he said.
The same wood flooring from the kitchen ran throughout the house. Past the dining room was the foyer, large and square-shaped. To the left of it was a room complete with bookshelves and a piano in the middle. “Also, my mom’s.”
“Is that her?” Sydney asked, staring at a portrait of a woman, hanging on the wall above the fireplace.
“Yep,” he said.
She moved closer to the picture. “She’s beautiful,” Sydney said of the picture of a woman, tall, standing in front of a fountain, smiling. Dark hair touched her shoulders. “You look like her. Same smile and hair. Or you could have your dad’s hair,” she said, looking around the rooms for a picture of his dad.
“My dad’s hair is dark too, so I could.”
“Is she here?”
“Nope, she died when I was ten.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, most people don’t.”
“It’s just you and your dad then?” she asked, scanning the room for pictures of his father.
“He’s alive, yes, but it’s just me that lives here,” he said.
“The formal living room is through here,” he said, back in tour guide mode with Sydney following him, wondering why Shelby hadn’t bothered to tell her something so important.
It was beautiful in here too, with its tall ceilings and windows overlooking a pool with some of the same serious landscaping she’d seen everywhere. An escape from the world was what the backyard looked like to her. The living was the same grand, with white couches that she would never sit her butt on. White and blue rugs covered the floor.
“There’s a bedroom and a bath through there,” he said, pointing to the door to the left of the living room, watching her take in his home with appreciation and wonder. He’d so grown used to it, didn’t really see it anymore.
“It’s beautiful,” she said to his back as they entered a less formal living room. She recognized the kitchen to her right. They had approached it from the opposite direction.
“Your mom has good taste,” she said, gazing around the home. It was a lot to take in.
“Had good taste. My mom had good taste.”
“Right,” she said, watching him, not sure what to say in responses to that except, “You seem okay about it.”
“Seven years, and I had some time to adjust. What can you do, right?”
“How much longer, Ross?” Graham asked.
“It’s ready and waiting when you are.”
“Thanks,” he said, taking a seat at the counter, pointing to the one beside him. “What time do you have to be home?” he asked Sydney.
“You taking the bus home?”
“Want me to give you a ride?”
“A ride to the bus stop then? I can drop you there if you want.”
“No, really. You tutoring me for free; it’s plenty without you having to drive me home.”
“I don’t mind, either way,” he said. And he didn’t, but he could see the pride underneath her response. It prevented her from asking for more. He was sure he’d do the same in her position.
“Nope, really, no.”
“If you change your mind.”
“I won’t,” she said.
“Okay then, what time do you need to leave here to catch your bus?” he asked, giving up.
“No later than eleven fifteen.”
“Okay, we should start then. We can work and eat?”
“Sure, okay, if you don’t mind.”
“Here you go,” Ross said, placing a plate in front of Graham, piled high with breakfast tacos. “He can be a pig,” Ross said, smiling at G, so Sydney knew he didn’t mean it.
“Growing boy,” G said.
Ross placed a plate in front o her with half the amount of tacos he’d given G. “There’s more of where those came from,” he said.
“In case I want to be a pig too, which I might be if these taste as good as they look. I love breakfast tacos,” Sydney said.
Ross laughed. “I like her. What can I get you to drink Ms. Sydney?” Ross asked.
“My friends call me Sydney, and water’s good.”
“Water it is, Sydney,” Ross said, smiling, placing a glass filled with water and ice in front of her.
“Nope, thank you. It’s nice that he has someone to study with. Too many friends not going in the same direction as him, and he has dreams,” Ross said.
“I have dreams too,” Sydney blurted out, not sure why.
“I can see this,” Ross said, and winked.
“So, what classes beside geometry do you have problems with?” Graham asked, nodding to the book bag that sat on the floor.
“All of them, but geometry is the worst. I love math. I thought I was good at math. I don’t understand what my problem is.”
“Geometry can be tricky. Hand me your book,” he said, recognizing it from his freshman year. “What chapter?”
“Three,” she said, handing it to him. She pulled out her notebook next, while Graham flipped through the pages.
“Let’s start at the beginning and work our way to three. Just to be sure you understand the basics. There no use moving forward unless you do. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said. And so, it began, her eating and listening as he mostly talked in and around eating his tacos. He was serious when it came to studying which she appreciated. No joking, no nothing beyond explaining and eating.
He could eat, and eat fast. Good thing she had geometry to distract her or she’d spend most of her time staring at him and his pretty mouth and not learn a thing. Not really. She wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this, another reminder to keep her feelings to herself or risk the chance of losing her very smart and handsome tutor.
He explained geometry while Ross moved about the kitchen, putting away the food, washing up the dishes. It was background noise, soothing in a way, as she listened to Graham make sense of her math. What felt like three minutes was actually thirty, and then Ross was interrupting them.
“I’m out. Call if you need anything,” he said. “Miss Sydney. Until dinner on Tuesday. Bring your appetite with you,” he said, tipping his imaginary cap to her.
“Yes sir, and thank you again for breakfast,” Sydney said for the third time, watching him disappear through the back door.
She so wanted to ask questions, like who was Ross and what exactly did he do here. Where was Graham’s dad? Did he really live alone? As much as she wanted to know everything there was to know, there was no way was she going to muck this up, with questioning him to death, or crushing him to death. Nope, all of that she would suppress, at least for now. There was nothing more important than this—the education of Sydney King.
* * *