She didn’t tell Lamar what she had actually seen in the woods till later that evening, in his studio. Taurus — no, Hilo now, she remembered — was sniffing the finished canvases in the corner, happily wagging his tail.
“I suppose you want to keep him at your place,” Lamar said.
“Yeah,” Devin replied. “But you can come over any time you want. I can… I’ll give you a key.”
He met her eyes and smiled. “Okay. Yeah, I’d like that.”
Devin looked away. Stared out the window at rows of pampas grass growing between apartment buildings. Lamar fell silent, but she kept her head turned, unwilling to meet his questioning gaze.
“I saw something,” she said at last, still gazing outside. “Through those trees.”
“Something like what?” Lamar asked.
Devin sighed. She wasn’t sure how to say it out loud. Instead she turned, stepped toward the portrait he had made of her, the seafoam painting, and studied it. She shook her head, glared.
She choked back a sob. Her throat quivered. The tension snapped, and she whipped her arm across the canvas, knocked the easel over. The painting flew. It hit a can of paint, knocking it over, busting open its poorly-secured lid. Drops of cotton candy pink spattered over her portrait.
Lamar shot to his feet but said nothing. He watched as she breathed, and took a step closer. “Devin,” he murmured, eyes intent.
This time she did leave.
Later, when she had calmed herself, he came and sat with her on his sofa. She hugged one of the cushy brown pillows to her chest. “I’m sorry I ruined your painting,” she said.
“You didn’t.” His head tilted toward her. “You couldn’t. That’s what I wish you could see.”
She swallowed. Nodded, not fully convinced. But the nod was something.
“I’ll try to clean it off for you.”
He smiled. “Naw, leave it. It looks good this way, too.”
Before she left for the night he signed the painting for her in the bottom corner, L. Rivers. “I want you to have it,” he said. “So that you know.”
* * *
Sunday morning the next week, Drew Leefair texted Devin. She called the number right away; for nearly a month now, since Lamar had given her his name, she’d been waiting for him to reach out and had almost given up hope that he would.
“Yeah, sorry I didn’t called earlier,” said Leefair when he answered. “This is short notice, but could you do the wedding? I looked at your website, your gallery. We both like your work. Listen, it’d really make my day if you could make this happen.”
“Yes, sir,” Devin laughed drily. “July 12. I’ve had the date blocked off for you.”
“Well, yeah. Lamar gave me the invitation a while ago.”
“Oh. Yes. Well. Right. So, looking at our budget…” She heard the sound of papers shuffling before he named a figure. “That sound fair?”
It did, but she felt bold. “Add another hundred and you got a deal.”
“Well, I think we can swing that. Listen, thanks a million, Ms. Smoak.”
“Call me Devin.” She smiled as she hung up and whooped. Hilo raised his head, expectant, and she ruffled his ears.
She called Lamar to invite him for dinner, her treat, to celebrate the news.
“Aww, I can’t,” he groaned. “I’ve got plans with my moms and dad. They’re having barbeque tonight. I’m sorry. But…you know what? You should come!”
“No, no. I don’t want to intrude.”
“No intrusion. They love people! They’ll love you.”
“Lamar…” She really did not want to go. But being firm with him, excited as he sounded, was hard to do.
“Okay,” he said after a moment’s silence. “I just texted them. Told them I’m bringing you. So that’s settled—you’re coming.”
She sighed. Her excitement was gone; she felt drained already, imagining the ordeal. She could still say no, but that would cost even more energy she didn’t have.
“Lamar,” she said again.
“Hey, you know, you don’t have to. How about I leave early and we’ll get dessert somewhere after?”
Now she felt guilty. “No, look, it’s fine. I’ll come. It’ll…be fun. I’m sure your parents are great.”
He texted her the address. Devin paced, then sunk into her sofa, gripping her phone. She thought of napping, but stood quickly and went out for a drive, Hilo in the backseat, streaming Shovels & Rope in her earbuds as she coasted up Morgan Road toward the coffee shop. Then, cold brew in hand, she drove to a dog park and sat on a bench, alone, watching as Hilo played with black labs and a little silver schnoodle.
It felt like a mere hour later when she pulled up to a brick house on the east end of town, a mile or so from the peninsula. Devin sat in the car alone, steeling herself. She breathed. Let her mind drift in its own current, a refuge from the world. A long moment passed. She shook her head, sighed, but didn’t feel as drained now that she was here. Part of her was excited. She smiled and climbed out of the car, strode the few stairs to the cramped porch. Above its eaves lights were strung — not the LED kind, the ones that looked like little medicine droppers; rather, they were large, garish colored bulbs.
She knocked and Lamar let her in. “Christmas lights?”
“Long story,” he laughed. “I’ll tell you later.”
They went inside and Devin handed the pie she had brought to a woman who stood in the kitchen cooking. The woman offered a hug. “Well, you must be Devin,” she welcomed her. “Oh, key lime. Good choice! Thank you, baby!”
“It’s just Publix brand, Mrs. Rivers,” she laughed. “Nothing special.”
“Hey, we don’t turn our noses up at any kind of pie around here. Call me Anney or Anette, just don’t call me Netty—only one I let do that is Lamar’s daddy.”
Devin laughed. “All right, Anney. Good to meet you.”
“The others are outside if y’all want to go out and meet everyone. I’m just waiting on the mac and cheese to finish up and we’ll be about ready to eat.”
She smiled at Anney, waved, and followed Lamar to the backyard where a small group was gathered. Apart from a young girl, nine years old or so, the two of them were the youngest there. Near the back, beneath the shade of a live oak, a lone man tended the grill, not seeming to mind that he stood apart from the others. For some reason, Devin’s eye was drawn to him.
“What’s up, y’all, this is Devin. Devin, this here’s my Uncle Oscar, and this is Miss June, the next-door neighbor, and that little firecracker running around is Jadine, her granddaughter.”
Devin smiled at the two older people. “Nice to meet you both.”
“That’s my nephew, always with the pretty girls,” Oscar said, tilting his head, eyes glinting. Lamar coughed. “Hey, that hair’s looking good, boy. Real good. You just start locking it?”
“Yeah, I did.” Lamar grinned with pride. “Thanks, unc.”
Devin glanced at his hair, eyes widening. She’d noted the tight fade earlier but hadn’t paid attention to the short, tight locks until now. She looked him over more closely now, took in the black button-up shirt patterned with red roses, the sleek black jeans and brown boots.
“I’d have grown my own when I was your age, but my daddy would have skinned me,” Oscar chuckled.
“Well, things were different then, Oscar,” Miss June’s brow arched. “Jadine! Stop climbing that fence! You’re gonna bring it down on your head!”
Oscar suppressed a smile, ran his hand through his short-cropped grey goatee, the only part of his hair not a solid black. He seemed much older than Lamar’s father somehow, though she couldn’t tell from this distance. Devin wondered why Lamar didn’t take her to the grill to meet the man, or why the man gave not so much as a glance their way or a yell hello. He seemed to regard the grill in something like Zen meditation.
Finally the food was ready, arrayed on a long folding table on the patio, across from a glass-topped table where Anney set seven places. Devin made a plate of pork spareribs, mac and cheese, collards, sweet potatoes, deviled eggs, and cornbread, making sure not to load up so much that she wouldn’t have room for pie and Miss June’s banana pudding. She settled in a chair on the inner side of the table between Lamar and Miss June, with Lamar’s parents at each end.
“Dad, this is Devin,” Lamar introduced her when his father had slumped into his seat, sighing in deep contentment. “Devin, my dad—Erlon Rivers.”
Erlon gave a tired smile, then lowered his gaze to the steaming ribs. She’d barely heard him speak a word so far — to herself or anyone else. Yet somehow his slow, quiet energy reassured her. Like Lamar, the man had dark skin with nearly bluish undertones, but Anette’s features were warmer, almost like clay, or the heat of magma welling up slowly beneath dense basalt layers. The two of them intrigued her, and through them she felt she could see a new side of Lamar, too.
“So, um…Devin,” Anney’s buttery voice spoke. “I’m sure we all want to know: how did the two of you meet?”
She froze a moment, met Lamar’s eyes, then put down her fork. “Uh, well, kind of a long story. We, uh…”
“We met at Red House Creek,” Lamar offered. “On the water.”
“My son, the waterman,” said Anney drily.
Lamar shook his head, grinned. “Hey, don’t front like you ain’t the one that gave me that gene.” His eyes flashed at Devin. “None of my friends, none of my family or cousins swim or go out on the creeks, but my mom has always loved the water. Seems like she thinks there’s something spiritual about it, way she talks.”
“Maybe there is,” said Anney. “Maybe there isn’t. I just know how it makes me feel is all. So…you two sweethearts now?”
Lamar choked. “Mom.”
“Leave the boy be, Netty,” said Erlon.
“Nothing wrong with asking,” Miss June smirked as Devin sunk her teeth into a lemony, peppery, smoky rib.
“Nothing wrong, nothing wrong!” Jadine sung and stabbed her cornbread with a knife.
Devin managed to have seconds before going back for dessert. She ended up eating more of the pudding than her own pie, much to her surprise. “I don’t usually like banana desserts,” she groaned, full to the edges now. “But that was another level of delicious.”
Miss June bowed her head. “Well, thank you, baby.”
When they had all finished, Lamar went with his father to clean the grill. Devin followed the women inside to help with the dishes, against their protest.
“That man can sure smoke some ribs,” Miss June crooned as she dried the plates.
“It’s the only time he ever cooks anything,” Anette chuckled. “It’s the slow pace of it, the deep smell of all that smoke. Makes him feel at home, I think.”
“Well, good for him. I couldn’t stand all that time in one place. Not anymore.”
“Why don’t you go out and chat with Oscar, Miss June. Devin will help me with all this. We’ll be done in no time.”
“I thank you, honey.”
Devin watched her through the sliding door, sitting beside Lamar’s uncle on the patio chairs. Anney turned on hot water and she felt the steam rise, flushing her cheeks. The dishes clanked lightly as they worked together, speaking little.
“I can tell the two of you share something from the way y’all look at each other, you and Lamar.” Anette turned off the water. She sank into a padded wooden seat at the kitchen table, and Devin followed suit. “I don’t know what it is, and I don’t need to. I don’t know if y’all even know yet.”
Devin’s head tilted. She wasn’t sure quite how to respond.
“So I want to tell you something, honey. I know you probably mean well. But don’t use my son. Don’t take advantage.”
She blinked, swallowed. Her shriveled fingers felt suddenly dry. “Why…why would you think that?”
“Come on. I’ll show you something.”
Anette rose and sauntered out of the kitchen, down the narrow hall. She vanished into a side room, but Devin halted out in the shadows, unsure if she should follow. The woman emerged, holding out a small canvas for Devin to see. “Let’s go out,” she murmured. “Out into the light.”
They went not back into the kitchen, but to a cozy-looking den where Anette drew aside sheer green curtains, letting the last of the golden hour sun into the room. It fell on the glossy painting: Lamar’s work, of course, though the style was rougher, looser, less well-developed. More hesitant. A bright yellow starfruit on a light teal backdrop.
“One of the first of those portraits he did,” his mother said. “When he moved out, got his own place, this was one of the few he left behind. Threw it out, actually, but I saved it. Don’t tell him I still have it.”
“Okay. Why, though?” Devin asked.
Anette sighed. “This is Lakendra. His first girlfriend. That boy was crazy for her, did everything she asked and twice as much. Went to the stars and back for her.”
A shiver ran over the back of Devin’s shoulders. “What happened?” she asked after a long moment.
“She broke his heart.”
Anette’s eye met her own. The glance was sad, but not accusatory as Devin had feared it would be.
“She used him,” Devin ventured.
“No. Well, yes, in her way. But that ain’t the thing. He’s easy to use. Selfless, thinks of others before himself.”
The house seemed to sigh. A long, empty space opened between them. No sound came from out on the street, nor the backyard where the others still talked and shuffled a deck of cards. A worn rocking chair in the corner seemed to creek.
“I bet he’s already stuck his neck out for you, put himself on the line a couple times. No?”
“Well, yes, but…he hasn’t done anything he didn’t want to do himself,” Devin said. She crossed her arms, then thought better and uncrossed them. “We’re both in this together.” She didn’t say what this was — as Anette had said, she wasn’t even sure if she knew.
“Mmm. Well, I hope that’s true. Just be careful with him, okay? Don’t take advantage.”
“I won’t—I wouldn’t. Ever.”
Anette nodded, smiled, then turned away and slipped back into the kitchen, out the sliding door, leaving her alone. She stood in the waning gleam, wondering.