Hey look it’s a short story!!! (I’ll explain where this story came from at the end.)
THE THUNDER HAD GONE
Kate swallowed the square before anyone could see her do it. She went for another one and chewed it slowly, all the while working on the one she had stuffed in her mouth. She was bare foot. Seemed like she could feel the residue from yesterday’s steam cleaning. Her guests wouldn’t know. They were all wearing shoes and assuming the carpet always looked and smelled so fresh. If they only knew.
“You’re Angel’s mom?” Kate nodded. The woman was fifty, maybe more, and had on a red dress that came with its own cleavage. Her heels were sticking to the carpet, leaving little dents all over where the freshly cleaned carpet had only hours before been smooth and untouched. She swallowed some champagne. “Tell me, why did you name her ‘Angel’? That’s a unique name.”
“It has a precedent.”
“Oh. That’s funny.” The woman looked around, her eyes flitting about everywhere but on Kate’s face. “When did your husband pass?”
“Oh. Well, that’s not so funny. What happened to him?”
Kate explained. Clearly, this woman wasn’t from Barrie’s side of the family. She explained in time that she was married to one of Barrie’s cousins.
“Nice house,” she said. “Won’t you come over and have a drink with us?” She was actually looking at Kate now, instead of straightening her hair or showing concern for the relative exposure of her very handsome bosom. Kate tried not to look at that bosom, and failed. She blushed. “Saw you standing alone. It’s your party, isn’t it? Why not enjoy it?”
“It’s Angel’s party. But thank you.”
The woman – Veronica – touched her hand and smiled. Then she went for another champagne.
Kate stayed in the corner, concerned for the well-being of her carpet and the lack of cleavage that she was able to expose from behind a dress that would have had nothing to do with cleavage if it had been ripped from top to bottom and made transparent. Around the great room, guests milled, and more entered all the time. Angel was at the doorway, greeting them. A few came over and said hi to Kate, but not many. These were Barrie’s relatives, and they had come here for Angel’s wedding. Still, it was funny how the spot of silence in the corner that Kate occupied managed to contract on her, the one place where light would not go and the laughter in the room had no reason to be.
She picked up another square and took it down in a single bite.
“Mom!” came Angel’s voice. “Those are bad for you.”
“Harumph,” replied Kate, chewing madly.
“Have some juice,” said Angel, handing over her glass. “Mom, this is my fiancé Mark. Mark, my mom.” Angel had her hand on Mark’s back and pushed him forward, bringing him within inches of his future mother-in-law. He smiled at her but found no words to cross the short distance. Instead of the routine “Nice to meet you,” all he could think of was whether she would turn out to be nice or mean, a bitch or a saint, or something altogether unexpected. He did his best and smiled again, afraid of how the jumbled words in his head might come out if he spoke, he opted for silently reaching out to shake her hand.
“Harumph,” said Kate, lips upturned at the taste of orange juice mixing with thick caramel. She started to choke on a nut. “I mean shit… sorry. Mark, nice to meet you. I’m Kate.” She extended a hand, and finally looked up from the carpet.
Angel spun away to greet new visitors.
Mark was at least four inches taller than Barrie had been, and Barrie had been a tall one. He was wearing a blazer. His handshake was crushing, and his eyes petrified with the fear of meeting the mother of his future bride.
“Call you Kate?” asked Mark.
“Mrs. Januskiewicz might be a mouthful.”
He glanced at the room. “Your husband has a lot of family.”
“The Smithsons are very tight-knit. You’ll figure it out. Stop being so nervous.”
“Can you introduce me to some of them?”
“No. I don’t know them well. They liked Barrie and they love Angel, but I’m a Januskiewicz, the very first of my kind in this family. You’re on your own.” As Kate talked with him, the fear faded away, as she knew it would – replaced with questions about this greying lady in the cheap blue dress and the bare feet, the one with a smudge of caramel on her nose.
“So are you, it seems,” he replied, surveying her little corner next to the dessert table.
“Have fun,” she said, giving him a little push towards the party. At once, people pounced on him, patting him on the back as several hands tried to give him a drink at the same time.
Kate ducked back into the corner. When she was sure no one was looking, she took another square and put it in her mouth. Then she picked up a second one and started chewing on it very, very slowly.
When he was a child his father told Mark that he should always look a person in the eye when introduced for the first time. And repeat their name – as in, “nice to meet you, Ms. Smithson.” It went without saying that a solid hand shake should accompany the greeting and a hearty laugh at the first opportunity.
Of course, that Mark’s parents abandoned him for a New Age retreat deep in the mountains of Northern California just as he started college — a retreat where he had no doubt his father never had to shake somebody’s hand, whether firmly or as limp as a fish, which required the loss of all worldly possessions, and which likely involved frequent trips down the cannabis highway – went a long way to explain how Mark found himself where he was. Dressed in faux clothes purchased with his 30% off coupon from Kohl’s and trying to figure out how to relate to a bunch of botox-injected, Nordstrom’s clad country clubbers.
Like the woman who was standing in front of him. Her hair was plastic platinum, her face a frozen mask. “Honey, this is Georgia. She was my babysitter when I was little.”
Georgia placed her hand on Mark’s arm and peered up at him. “You’re quite the lucky man, Mark. Angel is an incredible young lady.”
“Oh, yes, I agree. It’s like I found the golden ticket.” He couldn’t help it. Whenever the name Georgia reminded him of the name Georgina which took him to Willy Wonka and Charlie’s Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina. Before long, he was singing the Oompa-Loompa song in his head, Georgia and Angel were looking at him with their eye brows raised, and Kate was at his elbow.
“I love that story,” Kate laughed.
“Mother . . .” Angel whispered.
“Oh, please, dear. It was a harmless movie. Why don’t you go make sure the food is ready for everybody to sit down.” She looked around the crowded house and peered through the open doors that led to the back yard where more crowds gathered. “Well, I guess a sit down dinner isn’t quite right.”
Angel sighed and stomped into the kitchen. Georgia faded away and it was just Kate and Mark again. “She hated it, you know?”
“What?” Mark had lost track already, lost in the look Kate gave him. The one that said that she knew something about him he didn’t even know about himself. It was the way her lips curled up and her eyes gleamed and Mark knew that he would have no secrets with his mother-in-law and that she wasn’t a bitch or a saint. She was going to be that something other.
“Willy Wonka. Angel hated the movie. I think Veruca Salt hit a little too close to home.”
“Yes. The spoiled brat.”
“Oh yeah. She wanted a Golden Goose . . . and she wanted it NOW!”
They began to laugh and for a split second Kate leaned into Mark, resting her head against his shoulder. Just as quickly, she backed away and looked down. “I should go help Angel. Must keep the guests happy,” she said with a wink.
Mark watched her walk away and thought a thing he shouldn’t have. Her hips slid in her loose dress and her calves were muscled and firm. He noticed for the first time that she was barefoot.
He went for a beer, ditching the glass of wine Angel had handed him moments before.
Kate swallowed three of the French fries and stared at the platter. She ate three more. They were burning hot, freshly-liberated from the cooking oil that one of the guests had brought from Malaysia. The fries tasted like diesel fuel, but that didn’t stop her from eating a few more before taking the platter to the dining room.
Angel was speaking to Barrie’s three sisters, pouring them wine as she told them stories about her trip to Denmark. Uncle Reggie was sitting at the end of the table, drinking Drambuie. One after another glass-full of the stuff vanished into his throat, washed down with the occasional green bean or more often, a pat of butter that he pretended to apply to his asparagus. He smiled broadly, listening to Angel’s stories, smiling as though he knew what she was talking about, as though he had been on the same trip a long time ago and was remembering it through her. Occasionally, his eyes rested on her breasts and stayed there until they dropped a bit further and found the Drambuie again.
“Delicious,” lied Mark, eating a few of the fries.
“You look like you’re enjoying them,” lied Kate, right back. “Ready for the rehearsal tomorrow?”
“Why are so many people coming to the rehearsal? Why does it have to be so formal? Who ever heard of a formal dinner after a wedding rehearsal?”
“Drink up,” said Kate, pouring him some wine. “Welcome to clan Smithson. You really don’t know what you’ve got yourself into.”
“I’m sure it will be OK. I love your daughter, Kate.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.” Kate reached out and patted his hand. “And if you think that’s all it will take to get through life and ward the Smithsons away from you, maybe we should talk some more.”
“What . . .”
Kate interrupted him before he could continue. “I’m sorry. Please forget what I just said. I’m just a tad bit bitter about the whole family. They’re all . . . just . . . I’ve . . . never felt . . .” She stopped talking and wiped at her eyes, looking at Mark as her face heated.
“What’s your job on Saturday?” he asked.
“Let’s see,” she said, picking at the guacamole. “Dress conservatively. Look dour. Tear up but don’t shed any liquids. Try not to yawn or soil my thong.”
“Best kind. You don’t speak much.”
“Only to you, it seems. Wanted to ask you about your husband…”
“Do you ever visit him?”
Mark waited for more. Uncle Reggie was laughing hard. There was something coming out of his nose that one of the sisters pointed out.
Kate held the boy’s stare for a while, before finally saying, “She doesn’t want kids, you know. And she’s spoiled rotten. Always has been. But she’s my girl. She’s my girl.”
“We’ve had the kid talk. And we’ve had the spoiled brat talk too. I heard Barrie’s in a hospital not far from here, do you want to come with us to see him?”
“More ribs?” she smiled. But he wasn’t playing anymore; he was serious, no matter how much wine she’d fed him or how horrible the food was. “The dessert’s going to be worse,” she muttered, but he didn’t flinch. “No, I’m not going with you. Before he got sick and went all catatonic, Barrie was going to divorce me. He had some girlfriends. Rich lawyer’s girlies. Know the type?” She let that sink in. “You want to know why I can’t stand this? The Smithsons were high on him dumping me. But then his liver went rancid, and his brain afterwards. You can’t divorce someone when you’re a vegetable. It’s a law. I checked. And they’re all here for Angel. No, I don’t begrudge her that. She’s theirs just as much as she’s mine and she deserves this – all of it.” As she said the final words, she glared at him, the light from the candles reflecting off a dark coldness in her eyes.
Mark was sweating. He looked at Angel, a quick gaze that Kate supposed was meant to ask her about all the things she hadn’t told him: how she’d ended up here, a single child with a father in the hospital and a mother who blended in with flowery wallpaper she refused to give up. But to Kate, the paper on the walls smelled like Barrie, his cigars and scotches, the only memory she wanted of him, the only one that made sense to keep.
“I want kids,” he said, finally. He chugged his beer and asked for some wine.
“That’s a problem then. We’ll make this glass a big one, okay?”
“Yes ma’am. Join me?” he said, looking at her with wide eyes on the verge of contracting with his drunkenness. She wondered what his smell would be one day, what scent he would leave behind that her daughter would want to keep.
“Sure,” she said, and poured herself some. She chugged it down and took another as his eyebrows shot up. “I was kidding, by the way.”
“The thong. I wasn’t planning on wearing underwear.”
For the first time all night, Mark smiled.
The rehearsal had gone as it must. Nobody taking it seriously, the best man arriving stoned, Angel nervous and laughing. The preacher, who had baptized Angel twenty-six years before, whose cheeks offered a patchwork of burst capillaries that would distract Mark the next morning, and who kept looking at Georgia with a most unholy leer, presided over the event with indifference.
When Angel and Mark met with him for the obligatory pre-marriage counseling, every difference was glossed over. Instead, he emphasized their commonalities. “But, you two kids are in love and have a life ahead of you,” he said more than once. He didn’t ask about their plans for children. Or notice Mark’s grimace when Angel mentioned moving to the Pacific Northwest. “Be sure to never go to bed angry. Talk. Communicate.”
Mark left the last session convinced that the right Reverend McAllister had no idea what either he or Angel had said, instead speaking from a memorized script that was no different from the hundreds of other couples he had “counselled.”
“Well, that was a waste of time,” he offered to Angel as they walked out of the church.
“Really? I thought it was great.” Angel giggled. “I think he agrees we should move.”
Kate spent the rehearsal in one of the pews, whispering into her phone – directions to the caterer back at the house; instructions for the DJ who was setting up on the veranda; and managing the last minute details Angel had forgotten. She barely paid attention to the walk-through, but when it was done, she was there.
“Ready for the big day?”
“It’s like you’re about to find the secret to the Everlasting Gobstopper?”
“What? Oh, right, Willy Wonka.” Mark looked at the crowd that was leaving the church ahead of them. “I guess so. A marriage and a piece of candy that never goes away. Any chance Barrie can make it tomorrow?”
“No,” Kate replied, frost dripping from her tongue. “No. He most certainly will not be here.”
“You shouldn’t be. I’m not.”
They reached the door and stepped outside. With the wind whipping through the trees and blowing leaves across the grass Kate shivered in her thin dress. “Here.” Mark held his jacket to her and she put it on. By the time they got to the car, Kate knew what his smell was. Old leather and mint gum.
“Keep the jacket.”
“Hurry along to my daughter. She’s waiting.”
He smiled at her. She dipped her face down and smiled back.
Kate stood in the rain. There were people in her house. Three times, she’d tried to go in, but there had been people in the entranceway, pulling off their coats but not their shoes. Now they were inside her house, sloshing about the carpet, expecting dinner, drinks, and celebration of the next day’s events
She stood in the rain. Lightning visited, and thunder wrapped its presents. Water drizzled down her hair and crawled up her feet, soaking the bottom of her dress. She could have gone in through the back door. She could have rang the doorbell or tried the garage. She should have gone in, because the house was alive and the music was loud, and it was her house. It was her house. But no one had come to look for her, some lowly immigrant Januskiewicz who had married above her place and narrowly avoided a ruinous divorce by virtue of a couple of ill-timed over-the-counter drugs that her cheating husband had popped late one Friday night while watching horror movies. No one had come to look for her, and no one would, and no one inside would even know that she was not there, not even the daughter for whom this party had been organized.
She stayed off to the side, under a tree sure to attract the lightning. Out of the light, she stared at the windows.
“Drambuie,” came a voice. Mark skidded to a stop under the tree, bottle in hand. “Sweet mother, where have you been all my life?” he laughed. He took a long drink and handed her the bottle.
She drank. “You should go back in. You should also stop drinking. Tomorrow’s the wedding.”
“Yes it is. Yes it is,” he confirmed. He took another drink. “But I put in my time. And I kept trying to get to Angel in the center of it all, but there was some kind of force in there pushing me to the sides. Every time I tried to go in, it grabbed me and sent me to the walls. You know what I mean? Good thing I found the bar. I left an hour ago. I’ve been out back. No one noticed.”
Kate took another drink. “You’re talking a lot more now.” Then another. This was a night of lightning. It would come, and she would duck as though it had targeted her. But she remained alive and whole, soaking wet under a tree in the middle of the night as the cars roared past, spraying water onto her lawn. “Maybe you should stop.”
“I’m not sure I should. I’m afraid of what might happen if I stop talking to you. The silence, you know. What would fill it?” He took the bottle from her and drank deeply. “You know, that force that kept pushing me to the sides in there, that’s the Smithson thing, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it’s the Januskiewicz thing.”
She found herself next to him. Pressed against him. Then she found herself in his arms. Why wouldn’t she have? Didn’t she know this was what would happen the moment she opened herself to him and he didn’t run? Didn’t he know it, too? She had seen it in his eyes, in the curve of his lips, in the hesitation in his words. He was lost, too, and what do two lost people do when they bump into each other? They find themselves or flee.
Lightning came, and she kept waiting for the thunder to follow. But he held her as though he meant it. He didn’t run. As though he wanted to keep her dry, to keep the sound of the cataclysm that was tearing the sky apart away from her, he swallowed her in his arms.
He tasted like alcohol. She didn’t care. “I’m not going back in,” he moaned, and then repeated it as she opened him up and splayed him against the tree. She inhaled him. His smell changed from old leather and mint gum to animal heat and longing. Acids and electricity were all she could sense as she felt water on her body, every part of her, desperate fingers reaching for answers and warm things that they were not entitled to, not allowed to have under the rain or on any other day. But desperate they were, and found the way through to some spot against the roots of the tree, in the full force of the mud and the strangest sensation that they might sink, might vanish, if they kept going. Lightning came. But there was no thunder. Lightning came, without thunder. And he kept telling her that he was not going to go back in, to that light, that there was nothing there for him; and she answered him with her lips and her hands until he had nothing left to say, nothing to do except lie beneath her and see her in the flashes that continued to rip apart the heavens.
The music inside the house grew louder. She could hear voices. But he only heard hers. And for each love and grief she could conceive, she took every part of him, every thought too, including all the suggestions that said this was wrong, or that something like morality or family or anything of the kind could get in the way of a moment like this, there under the tree with the lightning splashing its own concert lights on shadows no one else could see.
How do you go back in when you said you never would? Mark did it because he had to and where he didn’t think anything else could rip inside, another rip formed and threatened to split him apart. And then he got through the wedding the next day, even though he could still feel the mud and rain mingling in his clothes and feel the skin of his mother-in-law under his hands and her mouth on his and what it all felt like. It was all right there, bursting in his head throughout the whole god damn thing.
And he said “I do,” at the right moment, and smiled and kissed the bride. Maybe she didn’t notice how he pulled back from the kiss and how tentative it was. Maybe she didn’t. But he felt like it was obvious.
And the reception flew by in a profound quiet in which he didn’t hear the music, or the toasts, or anything else other than the thunder that boomed outside and with every flash of lightning that rebounded through the dining room, he saw the wet strands of Kate’s hair hanging over his face and felt her lips on his.
And he looked at Angel and thought how beautiful she was and how lucky he was. Or should be. Or, maybe not. He realized there was something just not quite real about the whole thing. About the Smithsons and their clan and he started to think he never really had a conversation with Angel, one that went beyond the standard catch phrases and slogans. Maybe there was a reason she liked the preacher and he didn’t. Mark had entered a plastic world he wanted nothing to do with. He preferred bare feet. And oompa-loompas.
And so he wondered. What would it be like in ten years or twenty? Will she have botox’d her cheeks and puffed up her cleavage. Will she call people “dear” and talk about afternoons at the country club. Will it be considered a part of the whole thing that she will have affairs and so will he. But is it OK if that affair is with her mother? Or would that be just a bit too close?
And even though she doesn’t want kids, she’ll have one any way. For him, of course. And it will be apparent in the years that follow that she meant it.
And then he saw Kate. Sitting at a table in the corner, while others were dancing and milling about, she was alone. Drinking a glass of wine. She looked fresher and younger than she had the last couple of days. And Mark thought that he did that to her. Brought her back to life.
And then he’s there. And the lightning flashes and the thunder booms. He’s sitting next to her, but he’s not. He can’t. In the hours of the day that followed the night, he cannot go to her. He is married now. To her daughter and how can he explain that. What doesn’t need to be explained because she knows it. Of course, she knows it, but still there is something that could be explained, isn’t there?
That he loves her. And it doesn’t make any sense. But he does. In a way that he never thought possible. Earthy and real and deep.
And when the party is over and the last guests have left, he makes love to his wife. The thunder had gone, the lightning with it.
Trent Lewin suggested that we could try co-writing a story together. I jumped at the chance, scared shitless at the idea, because Trent is an amazing writer. He posts short stories on his blog. Stories that frequently leave me stunned and amazed and begging for more. He is an artist with words.
I thought that what he meant was that he would write the opening piece of a story. I would write the next piece and then we would alternate as the story went along. A couple of weeks after he made the suggestion, his contribution showed up in my in-box. He had already written his three alternating pieces, inviting me to fill in the gaps. OK. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I struggled with it for a bit because I kept wanting to go places that were cut off by the subsequent pieces he had already written. Then, I finally figured it out and what is above is the result.
Parts 1, 3, and 5 are almost entirely Trent. I did some minor tweaking to avoid continuity problems with what I contributed to the story. Parts 2, 4 and 6 are entirely me. Question is … could you tell that two different writers wrote this?