The sharks were circling.
Bobby Patterson had been at the party a total of three minutes. But half that time was all it took for the smell of fresh blood to circulate among the single women.
“Hey, you must be Bobby. Patrick told us you were coming. I’m. . .” (fill in the blank with a female’s name).
He shook hands, smiled, greeted, laughed, introduced himself, and promptly forgot the names of the couple dozen women who continued to circle around. . .as if there weren’t a couple dozen other guys out on the back deck supervising the few men in charge of the grills.
“Diesel Patterson!” The masculine voice boomed through the room, and Bobby started to relax.
“Mack Truck Macdonald.” He accepted Patrick Macdonald’s hand for a vigorous handshake, which turned into a back-slapping hybrid embrace. A bro-hug, they called it back in California. Here in Nashville, Tennessee, he wasn’t so sure. Having been gone for sixteen years, he had a lot to relearn about his hometown.
“I can’t believe you actually came back, man. When you left the day after graduation, I thought you had shook the dust of this place off your feet for good.” Patrick led him through the large gathering room and the open french doors to the expansive deck attached to the back of the house.
“I thought it was for good, too. But, you know, once your parents and grandparents get to a certain age, it’s nice to be nearby.” The edge of annoyance caused by the excessive female attention began to dissipate when Bobby was once again surrounded by men. Quick surveillance gave him a count of twenty-two men, in their early twenties to early forties, well-dressed --- though they all wore jeans or shorts, they were high-end and new-looking --- and with only a slight diversity in ethnicity, just as the women had been.
“Hey, y’all.” Patrick raised his voice to get the attention of the majority of the guys standing around drinking sodas from red plastic cups and cans. “This is Bobby Patterson, my high school football buddy I was telling you about. He’s just moved back to Nashville and will be looking for a church home, so let’s make him welcome tonight and convince him he wants to rejoin Acklen Avenue Fellowship --- because we could really use him on the softball team next summer.”
After Bobby met a few of the guys, Patrick cuffed his shoulder. “I’ll leave you to it, then. I’ve got to go back in and help in the kitchen.”
“Thanks, Mack.” Peripheral sightings informed him the women had grown tired of the segregation and were infiltrating the formerly all-male encampment outside.
One of the men standing near Bobby nudged the guy beside him. “Hey, pressure’s off us. New meat.” He jerked his head toward Bobby but grinned at him. “The gals in this group are great…once they get used to a guy. But don’t worry. We’ll try to protect you as best we can.”
Bobby returned the guy’s smile --- he’d identified himself as Steve --- and stifled his frustration. One of the reasons he’d left California was that the undercover work he did for the California Bureau of Investigation made it impossible to become an active member in a church, to be a part of a community, to meet someone.
Yeah, that last one was laughable. Ever since leaving New Mexico fourteen years ago, the possibility of meeting someone he’d want to spend the rest of his life with had been pretty much nil.
“So, Bobby, what brought you to Nashville?” Someone --- the guy with the mole on his jaw…Chris --- handed him a can of soda.
Though already the Saturday before Labor Day, the heat of summer lingered on, so Bobby really didn’t care what flavor the drink was, as long as it was cold and wet. “I’m an agent with the Tennessee Criminal Investigations Unit.”
“Oh, yeah?” The pronouncement drew quite a bit of interest. “Like. . .are you out there busting the drug dealers and murderers and stuff?”
Bobby shook his head. “No, I leave that up to guys who have a higher threshold for excitement than I do. After two tours in the Middle East, I prefer chasing the guys who commit crimes from behind desks --- fraud, conspiracies, political corruption, and stuff like that.”
As he suspected, the others picked up on the mention of war and his involvement in it.
“What branch?” the former marine asked. Had to be former --- wasn’t in great shape, but still wore the jarhead haircut.
“Army --- infantry. You?” Might as well get it out in the open.
“U.S. Marine Corps, baby.” He raised his sleeve to show the USMC tattoo at the top of his bicep. “Did my tour five years ago. Afghanistan.”
“I got back six years ago. A year in Afghanistan and a year in Iraq.” To keep the conversation from turning to politics --- as it had always done when the topic of the war had come up out on the West Coast --- he cast around for another; his gaze came to rest on the orange baseball cap of the slender twentysomething across from him. “How’re the Vols looking for this year?”
It turned out to be the perfect diversion. With the University of Tennessee’s first football game of the season tomorrow, the entire group surrounding him jumped into the conversation --- and warded off all but a few of the hardiest women --- until the grillers announced the meat was finished and carried the pungent platters, piled high with hot dogs and hamburger patties, through the crowd and back into the house.
Bobby’s new acquaintances ushered him inside. The forty-some-odd people all crowded into the house made it feel much smaller than before, even when split between the family room and living room.
He turned to Ryan --- only to find the former marine had been replaced by one of the generic-looking females he’d met on his way in. She smiled up at him expectantly.
Her expectation fell into disappointment. “Past the kitchen and to the left.”
“Thanks.” His hands had been touched by so many people tonight that he wasn’t about to use them to touch food that was destined for his mouth until he had washed them.
Unlike the houses he’d been looking at online, most of which were new or recent construction, the kitchen in this older home was cut off from the rest of the house by walls. Not the best setup for holding parties like this. Something to consider as he planned to get involved in the singles group at whatever church he decided to join and would love to host gatherings.
He rounded the corner and headed down the hall between the kitchen and dining room.
Someone zipped out of the kitchen, mitt-covered arms laden with an aluminum pan so full it sagged in the middle.
Both of them stopped short --- and Bobby jumped back as a wave of baked beans sloshed over the side of the pan.
“I am so sorry!”
Bobby, who’d reached out to steady the woman, froze at the familiar voice. He dragged his eyes up from the mess on the floor to the face that had haunted him for fourteen years.