Chay found his cutie exactly where he thought he would, the exact spot where they had kissed after the meal at Cass' restaurant. His heart broke at the sight of the teen in tears though. "Aren't you the one that keeps worrying about my health climbing stairs?" he asked as he walked up and wrapped his arms around his Chipper. "If I'm in such bad shape, why do you make me chase you up and down the levee?"
"What are you doing here? You should be with your mom," Keagan fussed in confusion. "She came all the way down here…."
"She came all the way down here to meet you," Chay interrupted him with a smile. "My mother wants to get to know the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. She's been making notes on all the most embarrassing stories about me to tell you. I've never seen her so happy and eager to meet anyone in my life. I was pretty excited to see you, too, you know. Claude said you had nightmares the whole time I was gone. I was scared I would lose you too. You see all those college hunks at school all the time, and I keep thinking that one day you will come home and tell me I'm too old and boring for you."
"I don't think you're too old, PawPaw would be too old for me," Keagan insisted.
"Oh, well at least I'm not equated with your grandfath… Hey, what about the boring part?" Chay sputtered indignantly.
"Weeeeeell," Keagan said drawing the word out as if having to think about it.
"I'll show you boring," Chay pouted. "Next time there's a food fight, you'd better watch out, Little Chipper."
"I'll still win, that is if Officer Frank and Mrs. Pernell don't interrupt again," Keagan said proudly, but then seemed to crumple. "Oh, see, that's why I should go away."
"What are you talking about?"
"I keep thinking you will see how much trouble I am, and what a dumb little kid I am, and you do wheeze and huff a lot around the shop and home. I'm too hyper for you and you want someone calm and settled down…."
"There you go calling me old and boring again. How about you let me decide what kind of person I want in my life?" Chay asked as he looked around to ensure they were relatively alone and unobserved before kissing Keagan on the cheek softly. "I thought my life was as good as it would ever get and suddenly in walked a scared, sad, young man. When I was lucky enough to be able to make that guy break into a happy smile, I realized that everything I thought was good in my life was actually lonely and gray. Now I see more sunshine every day than I ever knew existed before. Instead of gray, my world is every color of the rainbow and it has candy sprinkles and caramel chips because they're your favorite and I don't know how I ever got lucky enough for you to find me and even luckier for you to like me. Now let's get back to Cass' place because if we stay here any longer I will kiss you again and that will get us in trouble in broad daylight in public."
"You know about me eating the caramel chips, don't you?" Keagan asked with a blush.
"All that romantic confession and that's what you focus on?" Chay laughed. "Yes, I know you snitch all the caramel chips you can get your sticky little fingers on, you mischief maker you. I buy four times as many of those chips as I did this time last year, and I would buy a hundred times more as long as I get to see that face you make when you eat them."
"Good gracious NO!" Keagan squealed and slapped at Chay playfully. "If you bought that many I would be bigger than Aunt Dixie," he blurted and then gasped. "Don't tell her I said that," he whispered in horror.
"According to my mother and my childhood best friend who is now my brother, I am a very dumb guy, but I am not so dumb that I am suicidal," Chay defended himself. "Now let's go let Cass' employees cook our dinner so you can find out what a horrible child I was from my mother. With any luck, she won't have unpacked the picture albums just yet."
"Hey, you already saw the pictures of me as a baby that were in Grandma's hope chest," Keagan pointed out.
"That's true, fair is fair, I suppose," Chay grumped, but Keagan could see the smile he was trying to hide. "Although you won't get to see any bare butts on the furry carpet as I did. You will get to see my cross-dressing phase, though."
"Your what?" Keagan gasped.
"My mother took thousands of pictures of my christening into the Eastern Orthodox Church, and babies being christened wear long white lacy dresses, even if they're boys."
"Awww, I'm sure you made it look very butch," Keagan attempted to console his boss, but it was spoiled by his snickering for several minutes.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up," Chay pouted. "Bet me I don't come up with a waitress outfit for you to wear one morning in the shop."
"A nice short pink one with frilly petticoats?" Keagan teased.
"You…. Wait, you know what, never mind the waitress outfit. Oh look, you can see LeVeau's from here again," Chay desperately redirected the conversation.
"Hey, maybe we'll get to eat the whole dinner this time," Keagan smiled as he practically bounced along the top of the levee toward the restaurant pulling Chay along by the hand.
As soon as Keagan and Chay walked into LeVeau's, Ma grabbed Keagan to sit right beside her. "I know from my son and your nice family here that you lost your parents when you were just a baby. I don't want to make you uncomfortable in any way, sweetie, but you're my family now, so if you want to and feel able to, you call me Ma from now on, all right, little Sunshine?"
"You want me to… You really mean… Oh, thank you so much," Keagan sniffled as he hugged the woman.
"Now, your Aunt Dixie tells me that your place is too small for me to stay in with you, so she's offered to let me stay with her, and your PawPaw has offered his place as well, but they haven't told me which one lives the closest to you," Ma continued as she looked from her son to the elders she had mentioned.
"My place closer, but Henri's place out in the country a bit so it more peaceful and quieter," Aunt Dixie informed her.
"I'm not sure about peace and quiet," Ma mused aloud. "I've lived in an apartment in the city so long, I don't know that I would be able to sleep without some noise."
"Oh, there's still plenty of noise, Mrs. Anthony," Claude told her. "PawPaw lives on a working plantation, so there's tractors and trucks during the day, and at night you can hear the bull frogs and the cicadas and such."
"No more of this Mrs. Anthony from you, young man. Your little brother is my new son in law, and your alzawj, that is your husband, already calls me Aunt Jesenia, so you will as well, yes? Good. Now that's settled, we can eat. Oh and no offence, Mr. Henri, but I think I will stay with Ms. Dixie. It sounds like it would just be too quiet for me at your place."
"The welcome still yours anytime you want to visit, madame," PawPaw said with a smile.
Things settled down rather nicely after that. Ma stayed with Aunt Dixie until they found a small house a few streets over from the bakery. Ma came over every day to help out in the bakery. Keagan and Claude worked the bakery as Chay, Miko, Sandy, and Cass supervised the renovations on the Dixie Magic. Keagan and Chay had planned to hire someone to help with the bakery, since both Keagan and Claude were in college and needed time for their studies as well as the work, but after Ma threatened them both with a wooden spoon and her purse as weapons, they agreed that she would help out instead. To be fair she only threatened Chay with her handbag and technically all she did was wave the spoon in Keagan's general direction before walking over and hugging the teen and kissing his cheeks then turning pleading eyes on her son which were joined by Keagan's puppy dog look and, needless to say, Chay was a goner.
"Man, you collapsed faster than an outhouse in a hurricane," Cass teased the older baker.
"Like you ever say no to the baby blues of your blond," Chay retorted.
"Yeah, well…. You right; I'm shutting up now," the big black man mumbled before going off to give some more orders to the crew working in the dining hall theater of the riverboat.
It wasn't long before there were a number of Lebanese and Middle Eastern specialties offered at the Lagniappe bakery, such as Ma's secret family recipe baklava; maamoul, which is date-filled cookies; shaabiyat, rather similar to baklava, but with a cream filling; and of course, Aish el Saraya, the Lebanese bread pudding. Word got out about the new offerings, as well as the new face, and a whole new set of customers started frequenting the shop. Being a port city, there were internationals from all over the world living in New Orleans, but the shop started to become quite popular with men from various Middle Eastern countries.
It was the Halawet El Jibn that made the most impact however. The name of the dessert roughly translates into English as sweet cheese and is generally more Syrian than Lebanese, which is how it garnered the attention of one Mr. Farhan Assad, a very nice man of Syrian ancestry who came for the desserts and stayed to watch Ma. Naturally Keagan and Claude kept a close eye on the man, even after they noticed that Ma was watching him as well. Sadly, that seemed all that either of them was willing to do for some time; just watch each other. He wouldn't even speak with her to order, he always made sure that he dealt with one of the boys, but his eyes never left her. Once the man overheard Keagan and Claude calling her Ma, his looks became even more guarded, though. It was like he wanted to look, but was trying his best not to, and Keagan finally got fed up with this.
"Excuse me, sir, but some people might find it offensive that you refuse to make eye contact with them as you speak with them to give your order, not that I don't already know your usual," the teen told Mr. Assad one day. "And I don't mean me, because I've seen where your eyes go, and I've got a good feeling about you. Why don't you talk to her? She doesn't bite, but she has made a lethal weapon out of that wooden spoon."
"A good mother always has the spoon to keep their son in good behavior," the man obviously quoted as he chuckled.
"Oh we're not her sons," Keagan corrected with a giggle. "She's going to be my…. Well anyway, she's not our Ma, but we call her that."
"A boy who needs a family, his heart will show him the family he needs, even if they aren't what other families look like," Mr. Assad said with a smile. "I see the way she looks at you when you aren't looking at her. She's your Mama, even if you already have another. So tell me, the bakery is hers?"
"The shop belongs to my son Chayton," Ma said walking up to them. At their embarrassed looks, she added, "What? I'm supposed to just let you talk about me like I'm not in the room? Please."
"A thousand pardons gracious lady," the man said as he bowed his head. "I mean no disrespect or dishonor to you or your husband."
"My husband is with God these past thirteen years," Ma told him as she made the sign of the cross.
"You are Christian?" Mr. Assad asked softly.
"If you are here to start a jihad, you will find that I can use a lot more than this spoon as a weapon," Ma warned.
"Please do not misunderstand, I am no Muslim," the man said quickly. "My older brother was ordered to be executed by the men of our village because he was found to be lying with another young man. The two of them had been my parents after our own were killed in wars that never seem to end. My brother, his lover, and I escaped in the middle of the night and came to America."
"You did not support the village?" Ma questioned.
"He was my brother, and I was a child. We were the only family either of us had left, except his French paramour, Jean-Michel. I loved him more than there are words," Mr. Assad told them with tears on his cheeks. "I was the one to steal the keys so they could escape the jail cell. He and Jean-Michel raised me here in New Orleans until I was grown, and graduated from high school. I left for college and my career, but returned two years ago to help Jean-Michel care for my brother when he had a stroke. I found this shop and this delicacy that reminded me of my young childhood last month on the first anniversary of his passing."
"You have no other family, then," Ma said softly.
"Only an ex-wife in Seattle, may the fleas of a thousand camels torment her forever," Mr. Assad hissed. He then apologized, "I should not speak so in front of good women and children."
"I'm not a child," Keagan pouted and stomped away to wait on another customer.
"My future son-in-law is sensitive about his youth," Ma whispered.
"Truly, the most childish of children are the toddlers and the teenagers," Mr. Assad laughed softly.
"He does not want people to think my son a monster. They are good boys, though. They wait for his birthday in November before they do anything more than kiss," Ma explained. "Do you have time to stay for a while? We could talk more of family when it is not busy," Ma suggested.
"For you, I would have all the time in the world," he smiled even more. "But I must return to my home soon to resume care of Jean-Michel. I wish that I could hire someone to care for him, but everyone is afraid of his disease. I am sorry, I have spoken too much. Please forgive me, and do not worry. Now that you know, I will not come back to your shop to contaminate it."
"What foolishness are you talking? I expect to see you here every morning for your special treat," Ma ordered sternly.
"Oh, but beautiful flower, he who was a second mother to me has what the government calls the gay plague," Mr. Assad whispered so only she could hear. "It must not be known that I live with and care for him or I could lose my job at the university, and my students do not deserve to lose what they work so hard to achieve. Jean-Michel and I would soon be homeless as well."
"Your secret is safe with us, but you must tell me something," Ma assured him. "You come in every day and you eat the Halawet El Jibn here, but just before you leave, you order the éclair and beignet to go with you. You take them home to share with your Jean-Michel?" At his nod, she turned and called out for Claude.
When he arrived at the table, Claude turned to Ma and gave her his best pleading puppy eyes. "Aunt Jessie, that scary woman is back."
"Well, then it is best to do as I say then. Go hide in the kitchen and sprinkle the beignet with the sugar, my dear one, but you must send Keagan out to me. Mama will protect you from the naughty old lady," she said with a slightly sarcastic pat to his cheek. When he ran to the kitchen, she rolled her eyes. "He fears the pinching from Mrs. Pernell," she whispered to Mr. Assad.
"I remember the plight from the old women in my village before we came here to America," he replied as he covered his cheeks with his hands at the memory.
"Ah, but those are not the cheeks she pinches," Ma laughed softly.
"Oh…. Oh my," Mr. Assad said with a cough of embarrassment.
Claude burst into the kitchen and called out to his brother. "Keag, Ma wants you out front, but be careful, Pervy Pernell just came in."
"Don't be mean, Claude," Keagan scolded. "That nice little old lady hasn't touched you since she found out you are… what was that word again… oh yeah, betrothed to Crown Prince Cassius."
"DUDE! She licked stuff off me after our food fight. She's pervy," Claude insisted as he hid behind one of the prep tables glaring at the door to the sales counter and dining area.
"That's the cost of losing the fight," Keag teased as he went through the same door. He quickly handled a customer at the counter and then joined Ma and Mr. Assad. "You two look cozy," he teased with a smile.
"Don't be impertinent," Ma said with a smile of her own, but then she got serious. "Keagan, cutie-in-law boss boy of mine, do I have any perks as the mother of owner of the shop?"
"Well of course you do, Ma, and I keep telling you that I'm not your boss," the teen responded with a bright blush, and then he got an impish grin. "Do you want to take the rest of the day off and go someplace romantic?"
"Stop the matchmaking already, little Cupid," Ma laughed as she scolded. "I think I might want to do just that, though, but first…. From now on, this man does not pay in this shop. Can I do that?"
"You just did," Keagan smiled. "I'll let Claude know after Mrs. Pernell leaves so he can quit hiding. Oh and Ma, he called her a naughty name."
"You tell the tales on your brother?" Mr. Assad asked with a chuckle.
"I'm the little brother, I'm supposed to get him in trouble with Ma. Chay's brother Miko told me that's how it works," Keagan shrugged and gave his best innocent impersonation. Mr. Assad laughed loudly and Ma grinned.
"Miko would know, but what he doesn't tell you is that he's only two days younger than Chayton, so it hardly counts," Ma revealed with a wink. "Now, are you sure that you and Claude can manage the rest of the shift? Oh, he has class this morning, doesn't he?" She turned back to Mr. Assad, and said, "I am sorry today is not the day to go to your home with you and meet your Jean-Michel."
"Jean-Michel better be an actual person." Everyone turned to see Chay standing behind his mother scowling. Miko was glaring next to him as were Sandy and Cass.
"So you think your own mother is some loose woman that goes to the home of a man I just met?" Ma demanded as she stood up and turned the glare right back on her older sons.
"But… Ma… you said…." Chay stammered.
"You are the owner of this delightful shop?" Mr. Assad asked excitedly. He then bowed deeply to Chay. "I must thank you from the depths of my heart for bringing a taste of my childhood back to me after so many years. Your mother is truly a gifted and blessed woman to not only have such skills in the kitchen, but to have so many young men ready to battle for her honor."
"I uhh… well… umm…."
"He means thank you," Keagan said with a roll of his eyes.
"My Jean-Michel is the man who raised me with my older brother after we came to this country many years ago," Mr. Assad explained to everyone. "He is unwell and confined to our home, so on my morning break from caring for him, I come here to get us both the treats from our childhood; Syrian desserts for me, and French for him. It is his only joy at the end of his life."
"You have my most sincere apologies and sympathies, Mr. Assad," Chay said with a humble bow. To his mother, he said, "Ma, if you wish to go and meet this man's family member, I can stay here and work my own shop for a change. I really don't see why Cass insists that I be the chef that oversees the construction of the Dixie Magic's kitchen."
"If you gonna cook in it, it should be yours," Cass said with a shrug.
"I would agree with you if I were going to be the head chef, not the pastry chef," Chay pointed out. "At any rate, it would seem that I am needed more here today than there."
"You are the men restoring the steamboat in the river?" Mr. Assad asked excitedly.
"Yes sir, we plan to open a restaurant on board, but dinner theater, not just the restaurant," Cass explained.
"A true showboat in New Orleans once again," Mr. Assad blurted as he was practically shivering. "Oh, it's a dream come true."
"Not only that, but we'll be doing occasional trips up the river and back for like three-day weekend tours," Sandy pointed out.
"Be still my heart," Mr. Assad practically squealed. "I'm sorry, it's just ever since I came back to town, I've had the idea of writing a new novel, a historical piece, about a touring showboat. I've never been on one, though. I can hardly wait for you to finish with her so I can maybe see some of it."
"How about you come take a guided tour this weekend?" Cass offered.
"Oh I couldn't be away from Maman, I mean Jean-Michel that long," the man said sadly.
"Well that gives me the rest of this week to get him comfortable enough with me for you to not have to worry about that," Ma said firmly. "Now, let's go get started, shall we?"