It all started on Tuesday night. Tom and I were having dinner when the phone rang.
Let me stop here for a minute. I want to revel in that sentence. Tom and I were having dinner. It almost sounds like this was something that happened regularly. In fact, my husband, who is a public defender, had made a career of eating peanut-butter-cheese crackers from the vending machine in the Raleigh courthouse while he went over the testimony of guys named Spit one more time. I had been teaching adult tap classes in the evenings to young women who didn't have a date after work and were trying to improve themselves. That was not to say I was never home or Tom was never home, but it was hard to make it home simultaneously, and it was nearly impossible to be home alone. Our two oldest sons, Henry and Charlie, were married and gone, but George, our youngest, was still down the hall while he went to law school. Kay, our daughter, found her way over most nights to review cases with her father. And if none of the children were here, you could count on the fact that Woodrow, our contractor, and a couple of the plaster guys who worked for him would be sitting on the back porch having some fast food in the evening. Originally, Woodrow had come to build a glassed-in porch on the house, what we called a Florida room, but halfway through the project he discovered that our foundation had shifted, and suddenly the cracks that were deep below the ground were spreading across our walls like ambitious ivy. The Florida room was abandoned in favor of the more pressing problems, and now stood as a naked frame of skinny poles on the side of our house. We had been under construction for six weeks, and I had come to think of the workmen as distant relatives who wanted to leave but had no place else to go.
But tonight the house was dark. When Tom and I called out no one answered back. Woodrow was gone and George was gone and the drop cloths were neatly folded and stacked. To further raise the odds on the rarity of this evening, I had actually bought the ingredients to make a pasta dish with olives and real tuna that I had seen in a magazine. So when I say, "Tom and I were having dinner," I mean it was hot food, and we were alone together. Tom had been so hopeful as to put on a Stan Getz record, and "Girl from Ipanema" laced the air. The whole evening was a kind of far-fetched coincidence. There was potential-for-romance written all over it.
But there was a second half to that sentence: The phone rang.
Tom answered it and for a while after hello, he said nothing. He just listened with a puzzled expression that could mean he'd been snagged either by someone who wanted to steam-clean our carpets or by a very distant cousin whose kid was in jail. Public defenders were modern-day priests in a sense: If someone had done something wrong, they were quick to call Tom and confess. Then he started to say, "Kay? Kay?" and then listened again. He said, "Honey, are you all right? Take a breath. Try to take a breath. Are you all right?"
Words to make any mother put down her fork and jump to her feet. I gestured for him to give me the phone.
"Kay?" Tom said. "Do you think you could talk to your mother? I'm going to put your mother on the phone." Tom's voice sounded frightened. He had a better sense of the terrible things that can happen in the world than most people do. "She's crying," he said, holding his hand over the mouthpiece. "I can't tell what she's saying."
"Kay?" I said. "Kay-bird?"
From the other end of the line there was a great deal of sobbing and snuffling, and immediately I felt my shoulders drop with relaxation. It was a sobbing and snuffling I knew. I can't explain how. It was as if I came equipped with the secret decoder ring that made me capable of distinguishing the intent of my daughter's cries. Even when she was a baby, I could tell from the other side of the house when she was hungry and when she needed changing and when she just wanted to be picked up and brought along for the ride. I could separate the cries of our three sons, too, but the difference was they stopped crying when they hit a certain age and Kay remained weepy by nature. Even now that she was thirty and a lawyer herself, she would find herself tearing up over an article in the newspaper or a commercial for long-distance service and have to excuse herself for a moment to go into another room and pull it together.
This crying, the subtle combination of gasping and a low, mucousy rattle that meant she wasn't even taking the time to blow her nose, I knew to be a cry over love. I mouthed the word to Tom, "Dumped." He raised his eyebrows and gave a sage shrug. Although it was a shame to think that such a thing had happened, neither of us was exactly surprised. Portraits of both Trey Bennett's great-grandfather and his great-great-grandfather hung in what they called the library of the country club. I had seen them over the years at wedding receptions and other inescapable social obligations. All the firstborn Bennett sons were named Conrad, though the grandfather was called Sergeant and the father was called, even on the most formal of occasions, Sport, and Trey was called Trey, indicating, one would think, that he was the third when in fact he must have been the sixth or seventh. The Bennett family was exhausting and inescapable in Raleigh, huge and recklessly blessed. They all had perfect teeth and Mercedes SUVs. They flew their own planes to their own summer houses and ski chalets. Their name was chipped into the marble of every hospital, art museum, and social register in the tri-city area. From what I could track in the paper over the years, they tended to marry young and reproduce enthusiastically, so Trey Bennett was a bit of an anomaly, being single at thirty-five. He was considered by everyone, especially his mother, to be the very definition of eligible. What he had been doing dating a thirty-year-old public defender who didn't even know any debutantes, much less been one herself, was a mystery to all of us, and now poor Kay was sobbing, her heart having been skidded across the pavement at top speed yet again.
"Baby," I said. "Deep breath. Come on now, try to relax."
Tom sat back down at the table and started to eat the dinner that was already halfway to cold.
"I-baaa," Kay said. "I-baaa."
"It's okay," I said. I pointed at my plate and Tom slid it over to me. The pasta was getting stiff, but I managed to force a few pieces into a twirl around my fork.
I settled in and listened to Kay cry. Sometimes that's all a mother can do. Truth be told, Trey had made me a little uncomfortable. Not that he wasn't nice. He was extraordinarily nice. His manners would have made Cary Grant feel inadequate. But whenever they stopped by our house, I was always aware that a family dog long since dead had peed on our only Oriental rug and left an irregular stain. When Trey was in the house, I wished I hadn't come straight from the dance studio in my leotard and warm-ups. I wished I'd showered. The few times he came to dinner, he complimented everything lavishly, but I was always plagued by images of matching serving utensils and Venetian water glasses. After the third time, Tom and I decided it would be less stressful to take them out.
"Do you want to come over?" I said to Kay. I looked at Tom, mouthed the word "Sorry."
He shook his head. "No, no," he mouthed back, and then he made a beckoning gesture with his hand for her to come on over. Tom was a good father.
On the other end of the line I could hear Kay put down the phone and blow her nose, which was a sign that she was in the first stages of pulling it together. Then she picked up the receiver and inhaled hugely. I didn't make a sound for fear of distracting her. "Married," she said, and then began to cry again.
"Trey's getting married!" I said. Tom leaned over the table. "I can't believe that. Oh, sweetheart, that's awful. That's too much."
"Me-e-e-e-e," she wailed. "Marry me!"
I stopped and cocked my head toward my shoulder as if this might make me hear better. "He married you?" I asked quietly.
Cry, cry, cry. "Asked," she managed to gasp out. "Asked me."
I clamped my hand down over the mouthpiece. "Mother of God," I said to Tom. "He's asked her to marry him."
The blood slipped away from Tom's face. Who knew where it was going. We saw it all in an instant, the way they say you review your life as a milk truck swerves into your lane of traffic. But in this case what flashed before our eyes was the future: anniversary dances at the country club, invitations to sail in the Caribbean, severe pressure to attend fund-raising dinners for senators who opposed school lunches and gun control. The phone rang.
It was George's phone, what we still referred to as the children's line even though three of our children were grown and gone and George was twenty-five years old, in his first year of law school, and less of a child than Tom or I had ever been. Under normal circumstances we would have let the machine pick up, but these were not normal circumstances. Tom rose, pale as Banquo's ghost, and floated down the hall toward the ringing.
"Kay," I said sweetly, trying to make my voice that same voice that had soothed her as a baby. "Are you going to marry Trey?" For some reason all I could think about were their names, Kay and Trey, Trey and Kay. Marriage was hard enough without rhyming.
The crying stopped abruptly and I could hear the scratchy brush of Kay wiping the phone with a Kleenex. "Of course I'm going to marry Trey."
"Caroline," Tom called from down the hall.
"One second, baby. Yes?"
"Minnie, it's your sister on the other line."
The statement was redundant, since my sister was the only person who called me Minnie and the very word, like my sister herself, brought up a sharp, prickling sweat on the back of my neck. I didn't know why Taffy would be calling without a birthday or holiday to pin it on, and I didn't know why she was calling on George's phone. I didn't care. "Tell her I'll call her back."
There was a long pause, Tom was saying something I couldn't hear, and then he called out to me again, "I can't get her to understand me. She's crying too hard."
That didn't make any sense at all. I hadn't seen Taffy cry since we were in high school and our mother machine washed her white angora sweater that was clearly labeled Dry Clean Only.
"Kay," I said, "there's something going on. Taffy's on the other line."
"Call her back," Kay said, the last vestiges of snuffle clearing from her voice. "I'm getting married."
"Your father says there's something wrong." Tom was back in the kitchen now, working a thumb over one shoulder, which meant that I had responsibilities on the phone that was behind him. "Here, tell Dad about what happened. I'll be right back." I handed Tom the phone and hustled down the hall to George's room.
Dear George. Everything was so neat, the picture frames were dusted, no shoes on the floor. Even the papers on the desk were perfectly stacked. He had felt guilty about moving back home to go to law school, but I knew for a fact that he raised our standards. I sat down on the edge of his twin bed. "Taffy?"
On the line there was crying, and suddenly I could see from the vantage point of close comparison that there was in fact a huge difference between the crying done by a broken heart and the crying done by a heart that cannot believe its own good fortune. "Taffy," I said, "what is it?"
"Holden is in Cannes," she said, gasping like a trout that had just been thrown from the lake. "I can't find her."
My niece, Taffy's daughter, was an agent for movie stars in Hollywood and no one could ever find her. The best anyone could hope for was to locate her secretary, and even that was something of a trick. "Why do you need Holden?"
There was more crying, crying so real and deep that I felt for the first time in so long I can't remember a stirring of genuine love for my sister. I wanted to be there with her and fold her in my arms. Kay cried at everything, but if Taffy was given to crying, I would be the last person to know it. I could only imagine how bad things must have been for her at that moment if I was the one she was turning to. "Is it Neddy? Is Neddy all right?"
She put the phone down. Far in the distance of Atlanta I heard my sister blowing her nose. "Neddy left me." She sniffed and cleared her throat. "There. What do you think of that?"
I didn't like Neddy, but that was hardly the point. I only saw him once a year. Taffy saw him every day. "What happened?"
She sighed, which I read as her being bored by such an obvious question. "What always happens: He took up with some junior executive. It isn't even a secretary they leave you for these days. Neddy has to tell me she's a junior executive. She's thirty-four years old. Do you know what that means? Holden is thirty-six."
I closed my eyes tightly, remembering Holden's second birthday party. Holden in a white linen dress with yellow daisies embroidered across the front, blowing out two candles stuck on top of something that looked like Queen Elizabeth's wedding cake. Taffy was wearing sling-backs and diamond studs with her Lilly Pulitzer, making sure everybody had champagne. Neddy was talking too loudly about golf and forgot to take the pictures, which had been his assignment. On the day of Holden's second birthday, the junior executive, my sister's rival for her husband's affections, had yet to be born.
Excerpted from Step-Ball-Change by Jeanne Ray. Copyright © 2002 by Jeanne Ray. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.