Authors: Jessie Bishop Powell
After an awkward silence, Stan laughed out loud, and beside him, Gert blushed and smiled. Where Matt the clerk had treated our failure to prepare with something like contempt, the Oeshles thought it was funny.
Gert said, “Stan and I almost forgot to get the license entirely, didn’t we?” Now I understood her slightly embarrassed reaction and his contagious amusement. I laughed, too, relieved that other couples made this mistake also and had been married for some time in spite of it.
“We have it now,” Lance said, holding up the document we had paid forty-six dollars and thirty-five cents to receive. Then he went on, “You would not believe the morning we’ve had.”
This was not the time to make nice for the board. Now that my own wedding focus had been restored, I knew that if we didn’t get to Mama’s house soon, she would start calling my cell phone to harass us. But Lance was describing the orangutan to Stan, and I knew we would be on the steps a while longer.
I turned to Gert. “How have you been?” It seemed a safe enough question.
“Oh, you know,” the older woman replied. Beside me, Lance waved a wild arm in imitation of the smack the ape dealt Art, and Stan boomed more laughter. Gert looked at the ground.
“Nervous?” I had an idea that they were here to visit the family judge.
“Well, I just want to see it finished.”
Gert and Stan had been married nearly as long as the center had been in existence, but it was a second marriage for Gert nonetheless. By the time Gert met Stan, her daughter Linda was already a rebellious young woman. Linda’s exploits had been the stuff of much late-night gossip with my mother when I came home on college breaks. Then, after her mother remarried, Linda quit high school, got pregnant, and ran away with the baby. Over the years, she let Gert and Stan see Natasha only sporadically, mostly when she needed money. Consensus (which meant my mother and grandmother) held that she made a living as a prostitute in Columbus. When Linda died from a drug overdose nearly a year ago, Natasha came to her grandmother and Stan permanently.
“Of course she’s nervous,” Natasha muttered. “She hasn’t eaten a thing all day.”
“Hush,” Gert said.
“You have to eat,” Natasha said. “How will you get . . .”
“Natasha,” Gert said, “I’m going to be fine.” Gert turned to me. “My stomach’s been a little troublesome. I’m sure it will settle down once everything is finished here.”
“And as soon as you can get out of town to take care of Aunt Gretchen.”
“Natasha! I’m sure Noel doesn’t need a rundown of our problems.”
“You want me to tell the truth! All the time, you say, ‘Tell the truth, no matter how bad.’ But she asked how you’ve been, and you’ve answered . . .”
“There’s a difference between dishonesty and observing social niceties.”
Natasha sighed and looked back at her hands.
Lance had reached the part where Art was stabbing fruit and waving the knife like a pointer. I said to Gert, “I didn’t know your sister was sick.”
“Oh, she fell again.” I suddenly remembered that Gretchen suffered from MS, and I looked away.
Gert looked to the men as Lance pantomimed my perfect shot at the cantaloupe. She caught Stan’s eye, and he stepped toward her.
I found myself examining Natasha. This was probably the first time the young woman had any stability at all in her life. What Lance and I were offering each other was a small act of dedication compared to the courage and trust this girl had to be showing every day.
In an effort to derail my fiancé, who was now reenacting Olivia’s flight to safety by running up and down the courthouse steps. I asked, “When is the adoption hearing?”
“Half an hour.” Stan’s rich baritone contrasted with Lance’s nasal imitation of Olivia’s voice. “I can’t thank you enough for writing us a reference. I really wanted someone from a younger age bracket to tell social services we were fit for the job.”
“You’ll be wonderful. You
Stan moved to stand beside Natasha, who finally looked up and smiled at him. The smile softened her face and lifted the appearance of boredom from it. In spite of my own urgency, I couldn’t help but see the beauty there. She sank quickly back into inspection of her nails and prodded the corner of one step with her toe. I had seen the moment of transformation, and I’d seen the dullness settle down around her again.
Even though it was her adoption under discussion, she was demonstrating studied indifference to the topic. Not so unusual for her age group, I supposed, but it made me doubly grateful for my own teenaged nieces, who had greeted my invitation to be bridesmaids with joyful cheers.
“Tasha’s had a hard time of it these last couple of years,” Gert said. Natasha looked up again, and the smile she exchanged with her grandmother was something wonderful. Her eyes softened, as well as her mouth. She walked away from Stan to hug Gert. She did not resume her study of the ground, but instead leaned into the older woman and closed her eyes.
I felt like a voyeur watching them, and turned my head to Lance, who was looking at me. He had finally stopped talking apes. Natasha and Gert’s relationship must have been complicated, but the love in their faces was obvious, and it made me feel like everything Lance and I had put into worrying about this wedding was trivial. Here we were fretting over a commitment that had been real for a decade, while these two were looking forward to a relationship they had only enjoyed for a comparatively little while.
Seeing them put my own wedding jitters in perspective. But Natasha and Gert’s fretful exchange earlier had also increased my certainty that my own mother’s worried state about tomorrow’s ceremony would be approaching a high. If we didn’t get to her lunch soon, she would very likely spend the first ten minutes of that lunch telling us off.
Lance wrapped his arm around my shoulders. I put mine around his waist and started edging him down the steps. He smelled good, like sweat, the barn, and an Ohio forest.
“Congratulations,” I told the Oeschles. I tried to remember if I was supposed to give any kind of a toast tomorrow night. Surely, yes. I wondered how I could mention Natasha in it.
Lance allowed me to pull him along, and we were about to turn away when Stan said, “Do you think Art needs any help out there? I’d be glad to lend some muscle if it would do any good.”
“I don’t think muscle is what he needs,” I said, still tugging Lance away. I didn’t add,
And your muscles are a little past their prime.
Lance shook his head and added, “But if you get a chance to call him and tell him to stay out of trouble for us, it would really help.”
“Glad to,” Stan said. “I’ll give him a ring before we go in here.” He looked into the courthouse building as he spoke, like he thought they might miss their hearing time standing talking to us.
“Thanks,” I said. “We won’t delay you any longer.”
“I hope it all goes smoothly,” Lance added as I finally got his feet moving in the right direction.
“The problems are all behind us,” Stan called after us. “It’s smooth sailing from here on out.”
Stan’s problems might have all been behind him, but Lance’s and mine were only beginning. “Drive fast,” I said as we got into the truck. “Before Mama works herself up into a swivet.”
Lance drove in silence for a few minutes. Then he said, “There’s something you should know.”
“What? With Art?” My mind was already back at the center.
“No. With Bub and Mom.”
“What?” I said again. I did not have time to worry about Alex and Sophia right now.
He said, “I was trying to tell you right when things went crazy this morning.” Even as he spoke, he was flying down the road, guiding our pickup out of town and back toward my parents’ house. “I meant to bring it up as soon as things calmed down, but they never really did, and I got preoccupied driving to get the license.”
“Lance, what is it?” Wasn’t it enough that Alex was here at all?
“Mom thinks the wedding is a bad idea,” Lance told me.
I clucked my tongue against the roof of my mouth. “That’s not new.”
“She’s decided it’s cursed.”
new. “Oh, no. I know she doesn’t like me, but that’s going a little far.”
“It isn’t you. Or she says not,” Lance explained. “It’s the location. She wants us to use our own house or go to a church. Now that she’s been over to your folks’ place, she swears it’s got bad karma.”
“Your mother wouldn’t know bad karma from bad lunch-meat!”
“I know, I know. I didn’t say
But I wasn’t finished. “She doesn’t like it that my parents’ house used to be a funeral home? It’s a little late. If she wanted a say in it, she should have come and helped us pick a venue that suited her. What business does she have voicing an opinion about any of this now? We’re getting married
Couldn’t she have spoken up sooner? And I don’t know if . . .”
Lance interrupted me. “It gets worse.”
“It what?” I stared holes into Lance’s right ear while he went on speeding down the road.
“Gets worse,” he repeated. “She called in Bub to throw the whole thing off.”
“Oh, she did
! Lance Lakeland, they can both go . . . sleep in a hotel for all I care. How dare . . .” I suddenly thought I might cry.
“And I wouldn’t know any of it if Bub hadn’t warned me. He’s not going to do it. Not going to mess us up. She called him yesterday and practically ordered him to come in. Fed him some line about her own stress level. But then when he got to our place this morning, she had some scheme to crash everything. She was going to blow up your parents’ house.”
Stunned, I started to ask, “How?” But I stopped myself. “You know what?” I said instead. “I don’t care. Not even a little bit.” The need to cry was even stronger now. “They can both go straight . . . home.”
Lance blew air out his nose. “They can’t and you know it,” he said. “Or she can’t, anyway.”
“I know nothing of the
” I shouted. My voice echoed around the pickup’s little cab and I deliberately lowered it. “If she doesn’t want to see us get married,” I hissed, “she knows how to book a hotel room and airline ticket for herself. And as for him . . .”
“And he offered to leave, and I told him not to.”
“Why?” Our rapid drive abruptly turned slow as Lance exited the bypass and we came up behind a giant combine. It stretched so far across the little two-lane highway that cars going the other way had to pull almost into the drainage ditch to avoid getting broadsided. There was nothing for us and the three cars ahead of us to do but slow down and follow until the combine reached either its destination or a pullout long and wide enough that it could let us pass.
“I wanted to tell you all this earlier, but we got interrupted,” Lance continued. “Alex sees the same things you and I have been talking about ever since Mom got here. She goes off on these irrational tangents about things nobody can understand. She isn’t eating right, and she doesn’t seem to really realize where she is half the time.”
“Oh, no.” My anger with Sophia turned suddenly to concern. I had interpreted all of the things Lance was describing as symptoms of my mother-in-law’s dislike for me. “I thought when you and I agreed she made no sense, we were saying something different.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought we were saying her behavior was rude and inappropriate. I didn’t think we were saying she might be ill.”
“Not might,” Lance quickly corrected me. “Alex thinks her meds are off.”
“Her insulin?” A lifetime of obesity had left Sophia with diabetes, even though she was comparatively thin right now. She also took thyroid medication.
Lance nodded. “And . . . others,” he said. “Bub’s waiting for Dad’s flight to get in, and they’re going to get her to a doctor this afternoon. He offered to take off and let Dad handle it, because he knows how much of a problem it is for us to have him here right now.”
“You mean because he doesn’t want to deal with it. And what
? Do you mean her thyroid drug?”
The combine finally pulled off and we took our turn to pass it. Lance shook his head, but he didn’t answer me.
I demanded, my voice low.
Lance shook his head. “It’s . . . a longer conversation than we have time for right now, OK? I’ll tell you tonight.”
I started reviewing every word Sophia had said in the last week with a new ear. Perhaps Alex could be useful in his stay after all, but I was skeptical. And I was still far more concerned right now with my own mother and her notoriously high stress level. I leaned against my window and let the topic of Alex and Sophia drop. We would deal with them later. “Right now, we have to talk my mother down from completely resewing my dress or having a crisis about centerpieces in the next twelve to twenty-four hours.”
“Ah yes,” Lance said. “The dress.”
Lance wasn’t comfortable with my dress. He had only been introduced to it once, two weeks ago, and the meeting had not gone well. I had worn it downstairs into my parents’ back parlor. Instead of gasping with amazement when I walked in the room, he said, “I don’t like it.” In an instant, I understood why brides traditionally kept their grooms in the dark about such decisions. But I wanted him to see this dress, wanted him to see me in it, wanted him to
and it wasn’t working at all. It was yet another decision we had left until nearly too late, and his reaction had been anything but complacent.
My folks had a front parlor, a back parlor, and a room we had labeled the living room, though it had probably started life as yet another formal parlor area. I envisioned myself stumbling from room to room, posing in different lights so that Lance could evaluate me until he liked what he saw. The idea didn’t make me happy, especially since Mama and Daddy had a
of rooms to choose from.
He had studied me wearing it and said, “You look like a kid playing dress up. The arms are too long and it sags in the chest.”
I tried to show him how it would appear when alterations were finished, twisting up a handful of fabric to get it pulled tight across my breasts. But the chiffon slipped out of my grasp, and the sleeves got in my way. Finally, I gave up and said, “It’s what I
Lance. And it was my grandmother’s.”