Old habits are the hardest to resist, especially when your heart and hope don't want to give them up.
Tank, Camille and T.J. were munching on pulled pork sandwiches and sweet potato fries as they crossed the causeway to Galveston. Their milkshakes were quickly turning to soup in the Texas gulf coast heat. They were laughing as they turned onto the street that held Irene’s house. There was a for sale sign in the front yard and Tank swallowed his trepidation that soon his son and exwife would be living in home paid for by another man. T.J. scowled at the sign as he got out and stomped toward the house, his startled shout drew Tank. The house was completely empty. T.J. was shouting profanities that should only be expressed by afar older man about how he didn’t want to live with Paul.
“Enough, Thomas,” Tank scolded, his son glared at him and then stomped back to his room.
“Tank?” Camille called his attention to a set of papers taped inside the front window.
He stepped out to read them and was shocked. Irene’s house had been foreclosed on nearly a month ago. He pulled out his phone and hit call on Irene’s number; a message played that it was no longer in service. Frustrated and with a growing sense of dread, he swiped through his contacts until he found her brother Isaac’s number.
As soon as Isaac said hello, Tank interrupted his small talk, “Isaac, we were fine until we got here for the wedding. Irene’s house has been foreclosed on and her phone is disconnected. Where is she and what in the hell is going on?”
Isaac groaned the said,“Lordamercy, she didn’t call you? He sounded disappointed. “I love my sister but her pride is her biggest sin.. She just can’t...”
“Isaac, what is going on?“” Tank interrupted.
“There isn’t going to be a wedding. You need to come over to my place and we’ll talk, she’s living here.”
“What about her house? It says it was foreclosed on a month ago. She had enough money to pay for it in the accounts...” Tank started.
“Tank... Tank... just come over. That guy Paul was a liar, a thief, and a gambler. He’s in jail and Irene is bankrupt. Just come over. See you soon.” Isaac hung up before Tank could argue further.
Back inside, Camille was holding a crying T.J. in the door of his room. She was murmuring soothing things.
“Why would mom move and not tell dad we were moving? What did she do with all my stuff?” the boy lamented.
“Well, weddings are a very busy time for everyone. Maybe she forgot to call or something, we’ll figure it out. Until then we’ll just stay at the hotel while your dad sorts it out.” She glanced at Tank and gave him a tight smile. “So, there is a big pool at the hotel, and an ice cream bar. We’ll hang out until it is time for the wedding tomorrow.”
“She’s right kiddo, lots to do. Your Uncle Isaac needs me for a few things so I am going to take you to the hotel and we’ll figure it out ... You two get to play and I have to work as usual, maybe Miss Camille will show you some of her famous dives.” Camille nodded over T.J.’s head. “Load up, kiddo.”
Camille whispered as soon as T.J. was out of earshot,” What’s going on?”
“There’s no wedding, the groom is in jail and the bride is bankrupt...” he scowled and rubbed his hand over his face. “I am sorry to drag you into my family drama, Camille.”
She just shrugged as they walked back to his truck, “Is there any other kind?”
Leaving Camille and T.J. poolside at the hotel, Tank drove over to Isaac’s house. His ex-brother-in-law greeted him at the door before he had a chance to knock. Isaac wore a sad smile as he said, “Irene’s asleep, she’s been working 16-hour shifts and every on-call day she can get. Let’s talk in the study, there are a lot of things Irene needs to tell you, but I don’t want her to catch you off-guard again. Please, come into my study.”
Isaac’s beautiful Vietnamese wife served them iced tea and some kind of sesame cookie that Tank had never tasted before. The silence was uncomfortable then Isaac sighed.
“Thomas, I owe you an apology, I know I wasn’t the best example of forgiveness and I need to ask you to forgive me, you have been nothing but the perfect father and husband...”
“Ex” Tank corrected. “Ex-husband”
Isaac sighed again, “It was a one-time thing that wasn’t your fault, and my sister behaved wrongly against you. You don’t act like an ex-husband, you send her money, make sure she and T.J. had everything. And taking the blame for something that wasn’t truly your fault is... well.. it makes you a bigger person than anyone in my family. I’m so sorry for the way we all treated you, especially after you were hurt.”
Tank did his best not to crush the glass of iced tea in his hand. The resentment he felt against Irene’s family burned like a hot coal in his heart, he didn’t want to have this discussion, so he nodded his head in acceptance then he asked in a level voice. “What do you want Isaac because I feel like you are buttering me up. What happened with Paul? Did he hurt her? How much did he steal from her?”
“He didn’t steal anything from her. She lost it all on her own, I’ll let her tell you the details, but it’s all gone, Thomas. Her savings, T.J.‘s college, the house, everything. Paul got her into gambling. She went with a group from work on one of those weekend casino cruises. That’s were they met and pretty soon... pretty soon he was flying her to Vegas and Atlantic City. She almost lost her job. She maxed out her credit cards, took out a second loan on the house, fell behind on everything. Your child support was the only thing keeping a roof over their head and groceries on the table."
Isaac paused to take a sip of tea then sighed in a sound of resigned failure. "She stopped coming to church after T.J. left, I mean, when you picked him up for the summer. I knew something was wrong but not what, then she called me to help her get home from Vegas. Paul had been arrested as part of some identity theft ring and she was stranded, broke and heart-broken. That was July Fourth. We got home to find her house foreclosed on, so we put everything in storage and she started going to Gamblers’ Anonymous meetings.” Isaac folded his hands and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Now you know.”
Tank stood up and walked over to the window. He started out at the lush yard filled with tropical plants. His brain could not accept that Irene had lost it all. “She used to play Tuesday Bingo and Third Thursday Poker in college. A few times, we went up to Blackbear for Slots and Blackjack, but we never had much money to play. She always got so excited when she won. I... I never thought she would get addicted to it. T.J.’s college account had over thirty thousand dollars in it.” He breathed out his disbelief in hesitant words.
“She is truly sorry, she told me she didn’t know how it got so out of hand, but evidently she’s been gambling a long time.” Isaac explained.
“Since you got drafted by the NFL...” Irene was standing in the doorway. “Isaac, could you give us a few minutes?”
Isaac rose as Tank had turned to look at the woman he still loved so much it was painful. She looked tired, and her short hair made her face look thinner. They said nothing for almost a minute then both tried to speak at the same time.
“I’m sorry.” She said.
“What do you need?” He said.
They both were quiet, Irene slumped into the chair her brother had just left. “I... I’m so sorry Thomas. I gambled it all away, everything you gave me, everything you set aside for T.J., just everything. Every time I would win enough to catch up, I’d lose double. Then I met Paul, and he was like a lucky charm, even when I wasn’t winning, he made sure I had a little bit to put toward the bills.” She leaned forward and put her face in her hands and cried, “Just enough to keep me on his arm and in his bed like some gawddammed hooker... I have a Master’s degree in Nursing and I ended up just like one of my dad’s mistresses. I was so, so stupid.”
Tank didn’t even realize he had crossed the room until he knelt down in front of her. “I’m sorry I didn’t realize you had a problem.”
She put her arms around his neck and wept. He just held her. She smelled so different, like cocoa butter soap and hand sanitizer. He missed the smell of her braids, but he knew it costs several hundred dollars every month for them to be maintained. “What can I do to help, Irene?”
“I don’t know anymore. Isaac is letting me live here until I can afford a place. I’m filing for bankruptcy. All I do is work, the only thing that keeps me from jumping off the Causeway is knowing T.J. needs his mom.” She confessed into his shoulder and he swallowed the suggestion that he take T.J. back to Colorado with him before the words passed his lips and thought about a Plan B. “I just... I’m sorry.”
“Darlin’, do you want to stay in your house?”
“What are you saying?” Irene looked him with red-rimmed eyes.
“I texted Yvonne on the way over. She is looking into how much it would cost to put T.J. and you back into the house.” Tank offered. He remembered all the things in his A.A. meetings about not enabling an addict and his mind formed a plan. He had to be stronger than his need to pamper her.
“Thomas, I... I couldn’t...” She stammered. Her eyes wide with gratitude.
“Yes, you can. It’s T.J.’s home, close to his school, his friends, and your church. It’s ten minutes from the hospital instead of an hour.” He stood up and stepped away from her. “I am not doing this for you so don’t look at me like that. It will just be until you get back on your feet, then I am cutting you off, so I can rebuild T.J.’s college fund. How much was it, Irene? How much did you lose? Was it worth it? Because your son stood in your empty house and cried today.”
“It was everything,” she repeated. Tears created glistening trails down her cheeks. “Does he know?”
“Only that you moved out of the house, not why. But he will soon enough unless we resolve this quickly. So, I am asking you again, do you want the house back?” He hesitated before adding, “Or would you rather come back to Colorado? And maybe we could work something out there?”
Her chin trembled as she thought about it, “My license isn’t valid in Colorado without me taking the state board exam again. I only kept my C.E.s up in Texas. I couldn’t work for months.”
Tank shrugged and suggested, “You could always live with me on the ranch or move in with your mom.” He hoped she would agree. “It would just be for T.J. until you got on your feet.”
Irene rubbed her face. “I can’t face my sister, and if I went back like this... She’d never let me forget it. I’ll stay here if... if you can help me.”
Tank nodded as his hope crawled back into the place where it refused to die. “I only want you to be happy.”
“You’re too good of a man, Thomas.” Irene chewed her lip as he looked down at her and he almost kissed her. She was still so beautiful to him, but he wouldn’t let it sway him. He couldn't let his old habits free her of the consequences.
“When is your next meeting?” He asked, and she scowled, stepping away from him. He dug in his heels and reminded himself of the twelve steps. “If I am helping you keep this from our son, I expect you to get help. I am doing it all for him, not you.”
“I’m going before work,” She answered, ashamed.
“Then you better get going,” he said harshly, and his heart cracked at her look. “I am heading back to the hotel, I’ll do what I can tomorrow. Call me when you wake up.”
Tank started to leave, then he stopped, “What do you want me to tell him?”
“Just tell him...” She cried again for a little bit, shaking her head helplessly.
“I’ll tell him it didn’t work out and you need a few days,” Tank offered.
“Thanks, Thomas.” She stepped forward and hugged him, clinging to him the way she had when they were married before she left him. He reminded himself that she was willing to marry another man rather than forgive him.
He stepped away from her, “I’m doing it for our son.”
Camille fixed T.J.’s tie, “If your dad doesn’t hurry up, we are so going to bail on him and eat all the hors d’oeuvres ourselves.”
“Not a chance,” Tank laughed coming out of his room, the deep navy suit made his eyes a deeper shade of blue. “My tie is next.”
Camille giggled as he bent down on one knee, she expertly wove his tie into a neat Windsor knot. He made a choking sound, “Ack help me T.J., she’s choking me.”
T.J. just laughed, “Yeah, more food for us.”
“Oh... betrayed by my wingman,” Tank sounded wounded and fell over on his side.
“Heck, yeah. All I can eat and the world’s hottest mermaid as my date.. Die, dad die!” T.J. jumped on top of his father. They wrestled for a moment before a knock drew their attention.
Camille opened the door and a shocked looking Irene stepped in. “You must be Irene. I’m Camille Wallace, I never got the chance to meet you when you came to Pagosa but my Grandma Doreen loved you and your mom.”
T.J. rushed forward to hug Irene. "Mom!"
“I... Uh... Nice to meet you...” Suddenly a light went off in Irene’s eyes and she seemed to sag in relief. “You’re the Olympic diver T.J. is so crazy about.”
Camille grinned, “He better be, he borrowed my horse all summer.”
Tank stood there, looking confused. “I wasn’t expecting you, we are about to leave to the Olympics sponsor dinner.”
“I just came by to say thanks. Yvonne called and everything will be back in the house tomorrow. T.J. and I can go home.” Irene revealed.
Camille clapped her hands, “That is so great. See, I told you, T.J.. Your dad and mom would make sure that bad man didn’t take your house away. He’s going to spend a long time in jail.”
T.J. suddenly looked like he was going to cry he was so relieved, but Tank scolded him, “Chin up, don’t cry, we got a public event to attend.”
Irene looked between them and Tank explained, “I told him how Paul tried to defraud you of your house, but I pulled some strings to get it back. I’m sorry Irene, but we have to leave now or Camille will be late.”
Everyone was shocked to see the famous Blue Butterfly, Camille Wallace, arrive with Thomas ‘the Tank’ Tanner and his son. The father and son were wearing identical suits of a silk navy linen, and between them, Camille looked like a real mermaid in a screen-printed silk Vera Wang dress with her butterfly tattoo on display. They all laughed when a reporter asked if they were dating.
“No... no... Thomas and I grew up in the same county in Colorado, our grandfathers both own ranches. Thomas and Thomas Jr are just very good friends of the family. T.J. is almost my godson,” Camille assured the reporter.
Tank nodded, “We’re practically kin. I was bringing T.J. home after the summer, and Camille had this event so she offered an invitation. T.J. was excited to meet so many Olympians. I am grateful for the opportunity.”
The evening went smoothly, T.J. and Camille danced when he wasn’t eating. Tank talked to many other athletes and, for a few hours, he was reminded of his old life. The only thing missing was Irene. Out of habit, he picked up a glass of whiskey and ice off a passing tray. He paused after he took a sip, realizing what he had just done. A hand rested on his arm, Camille’s hazel eyes spoke all of her concern.
“Just one,” She murmured.
He nodded, swallowing. “I’m fine.”
“You had a bad couple of days. If you need our arrangement, T.J. goes home tomorrow.”
He set the empty glass aside and swept her out onto the dance floor, looking around he saw his son at the desert table. T.J. grinned at them and went back to piling his plate. Tank’s voice almost broke as he confessed, “I don’t want to leave him here. I want to take care of both of them. I miss her. Why can’t she just forgive me and come home?”
“I don’t know, Tank. I don’t know.”