Two years ago I didn’t think I’d live long enough to make it to my next chemotherapy session, let alone see my widowed sister-in-law happily remarried. But God had been gracious, sending good health my way and Dennis Rutherford to Connie.
Nothing less could have persuaded me to appear at St. Philip’s that bright Saturday afternoon, to stand in the brides’ room in front of a full-length mirror wearing an idiotic grin and the matron-of-honor dress from hell. Connie cheerfully assured me I would be able to wear it later on, but I secretly doubted that outfit would ever make it out of the plastic dry-cleaning bag I planned to hide it in once her wedding reception was over.
While Connie hovered nearby, fussing with the veil on her Jackie Kennedy—esque hat and looking radiant in a white linen sheath topped with an elaborately embroidered bolero jacket, I zipped myself into a dress with defensive shoulder pads that made me look like a wedge of lemon meringue pie. Frankly, with her artist’s eye, I’d expected better from Connie, but for some reason she’d set her mind on this particular number, a cocktail dress in a bilious shade of yellow that turned my olive skin a sallow green. I leaned toward the mirror. I smiled. At least the low-cut bodice showed off the swell of my newly reconstructed breast to ad- vantage. The short, narrow skirt made the most of my ankles, too, slim above dyed-to-match T-strap pumps. But my daughter Emily was right: Even with camouflaging pearl-tone panty hose, my knees were not ready for prime time.
Veil adjusted to her satisfaction, Connie picked up the bouquet of stephanotis and gardenias she would carry down the aisle. I had a single gardenia clamped to the side of my head with four hundred bobby pins, and my brownish hair had been tortured into a twist with so much hair spray that if a hurricane had swept through the church just then, leaving nothing of St. Philip’s standing but its eighteenth-century pulpit, I’d have been found miles away in a tree, stone cold dead but with nary a hair out of place.
A trumpet fanfare blared from the organ in the sanctuary. I shivered. I’m a sucker for trumpets. Even the Hallelujah chorus from The Messiah
makes me swoon.
I pulled a tissue out of my sleeve and handed it to Connie so she could blot her lipstick. “Ready?”
She gave me a hug. “Hannah, darling, I’ve been ready for this day for over a year!”
My sister-in-law’s parents had passed away years ago, so she had dispensed with the usual giving-the-bride-away bit. It was just me, marching down the aisle to Jeremiah Clarke with Connie trailing stunningly behind.
I was so nervous — Did I have the ring? Was everything set with the caterers? It wouldn’t dare rain, would it? — that the ceremony itself remains pretty much of a blur. I remember how yummy the best man looked in his tuxedo — of course, I was married to him — and holding my breath when Reverend Lattimore got to the speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace part. But the pregnant pause was filled only with the intrepid hum of the heat pump trying to warm up the church on that crisp November day, until Connie, hearing no objections, curled her free hand into a fist and pumped it toward herself: Yes!
I couldn’t suppress a nervous giggle.
During the homily, while Reverend Lattimore droned on about Perfect Love, paraphrasing heavily from Hosea, Ruth, and Song of Solomon, I noticed Dennis’s daughter, Maggie, looking like a daffodil perched on the edge of her pew in the first row on the groom’s side. With her black hair and pale Irish skin, the color so complemented her that I began to suspect a conspiracy in the nuptial color scheme department. Connie’d do anything to keep Maggie — who had a long way to go before completely accepting her father’s choice of bride — happy. The two rows behind Maggie were occupied by men with commendable posture whom I took to be police officers, colleagues of the groom.
On the bride’s side of the aisle sat my sister Ruth, her rapidly silvering hair intricately braided. Next to her, eleven-month-old Chloe squirmed happily on her mother’s — my daughter, Emily’s — lap. Emily’s husband, Dante, whose given name is Daniel Shemansky, had moved his family back east from Colorado to accept a job at New Life, a health spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia so exclusive that if you didn’t Know Somebody, you had to have reservations years in advance. I was delighted he’d be massaging bodies closer to home. And until they found a place of their own, they were staying with Paul and me in Annapolis, an equally delightful arrangement.
In the row behind Emily sat my sister Georgina and her husband, Scott, distracted. No doubt they were reconsidering the advisability of bringing children under the age of ten to a wedding. Both were trying to retain control of their twin sons, Sean and Dylan, now eight, who were being encouraged to draw pictures on their wedding programs, while five-year-old Julie perched primly, cradling her toy rabbit. Abby’s poor, fur-free ears had been coaxed into a white lace doll bonnet, its strings tied under the rabbit’s chin in an enormous, untidy bow.
And behind them, Daddy. By the prismatic light streaming in through a stained-glass window, Daddy looked flushed and happier than I had seen him since the death of our mother. He wore that sappy half-happy, half-solemn look you get at weddings, where your mouth smiles but you have to keep hauling out the tissues to dab at your eyes.
I gazed around the sanctuary, imprinting these joyous faces on my brain, praying they’d erase the painful memory of my previous visit to St. Philip’s on the occasion of young Katie Dunbar’s funeral. That sad day would never fade altogether, of course, but my heart soared when the organist swooped into Charpentier’s trumpet tune, her feet in black lace-up oxfords pumping up and down like well-oiled pistons along the pedal board.
As Paul and I recessed behind the bride and groom past the row where my father sat, he whispered an aside to a frizzy-headed blonde sitting in the pew next to him, then smiled broadly in my direction. He winked. I sent a thousand-watt beam back. Not hard for someone wearing a sunshine suit.
Although I had worried about it, too, during the exchange of vows, the stretch limo Paul had arranged was dutifully waiting at the curb. After posing on the church steps for an untold number of photographs, Dennis extracted his daughter, Maggie, from a private conversation with Reverend Lattimore, I waved a see-ya-later to my daughter and her little family, and the wedding party settled in behind tinted windows for the three-block drive to historic Dulaney House, picking grass seed out of our hair and clothes. “If it rains,” I commented cheerfully, “I’m going to sprout like a Chia Pet.”
“Do you believe that nonsense about the rice?” Paul asked as he adjusted my hairdo and poked a few more bobby pins into my sagging gardenia. At the rehearsal, Reverend Lattimore had forbidden rice, citing a wedding where the out-of-town guests had thrown Minute Rice. The seagulls, he said, had swooped down, eaten it, puffed up, and died in the courtyard of the Hillcrest Nursing Home across the street.
“Urban legend.” The limo eased to a halt. “Or at least a village one.”
Connie leaned across the seat, her hand resting lightly on Dennis’s knee. The new half-carat diamond-and-platinum ring she wore caught the sun, sending a dot of light ricocheting across the upholstery. “Speaking of legends, Washington actually slept here, you know.” She indicated a second-story window on the far left of Dulaney House. “He was coming from Virginia to resign his commission at the Annapolis State House and he waited here for the weather to improve before crossing the Truxton by ferry.”
I ducked my head and stared at the spot where Connie was pointing. An ordinary window. “You sure? George Washington didn’t live enough nights in his whole life to sleep everywhere attributed to him. When would he have time for Martha at Mount Vernon?” We unfolded ourselves from the vehicle, Connie and Dennis first, and entered the house.
If old George had actually stayed at Dulaney House on that cold December day in 1783, I doubt he’d ever seen it looking so beautiful. Constructed solidly of brick with generous windows and bright white trim, the central three-story house was flanked by identical one-story wings, connected to the main house by passageways called hyphens. An ornately carved doorway led into an entrance hall where a central stairway curved up and away to our right. We passed straight through into the ballroom, where a string quartet had arranged itself on a fine Oriental rug near a wall of French doors leading out into the garden. They were playing one of Vivaldi’s seasons — “Winter,” I think, appropriate to that fine November day two days after Thanksgiving. In contrast, baskets of flowers screamed spring. Arrangements of tulips, daffodils, and lilies decorated tall pedestals flanking the doors. Smaller arrangements had been placed on circular tables covered with white damask tablecloths. Servers in black pants, white shirts, and festive bow ties snaked smoothly through the crowd bearing platters of crab balls, egg rolls, and shrimps, while two bartenders near a walk-in fireplace at the far end of the ballroom efficiently mixed drinks.
Daddy was already there, standing at the bar, holding a glass of wine in one hand while the bartender handed him what looked like a super-dry martini on the rocks. While Paul disappeared into the cloakroom with our coats I hurried over to greet my father.
“Two-fisted drinker?” I forced a smile.
“No.” He kissed my cheek. “It’s for Darlene.” He gestured with the martini. “Over there.”
I sighted along his arm until I saw, at the end of it, the blond woman who had been sitting next to him in church. I pasted a smile on my face — what Paul calls my perma-grin: stretched lips, full teeth, like rigor mortis had set in. “She doesn’t look like the martini type.”
“She isn’t.” He waved the glass under my nose and I caught the unexpected odor of mouthwash.
“Yuck. What’s that?”
“Peppermint schnapps.” He raised a bushy eyebrow. “Want one?”
“Daddy, I’d rather drink battery acid.” I tipped my wineglass to my lips and took a sip of cool, crisp chardonnay, studying his lined but still handsome face over the rim.
“I’d have to agree, but Darlene says it’s not a special occasion if she can’t have her schnapps.” Daddy planted a light kiss on my forehead. “Save a dance for me, sweetheart?”
“Of course, silly.” But I was speaking to his back as Daddy turned and glided off to the lady-in-waiting, leaving me stranded by the bar, feeling like a wallflower.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Confirming my suspicions about the lemon meringue pie, Paul said, “You look good enough to eat,” and nibbled on my neck in lieu of an appetizer.
“So do you. I wish we were sailing off to the Caribbean along with the happy couple over there.” I gestured with my glass in the direction of the hallway where Paul’s sister, Connie, was standing with her new husband in the curve of the staircase, manning an informal receiving line.
“Maybe on my sabbatical next year.”
“Hah! That’ll be the day! What’s a math professor going to do on a sailboat that will count as research?”
“The parabolic arcs of flying fish trajectories.”
I laughed out loud. “I can’t believe that anybody would pay you to do research like that.”
Paul led me over to the bar where we joined a short line. “Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, my dear. It’s rumored that someone’s about to offer a million-dollar prize to the first person who can prove Goldbach’s Conjecture.”
We wandered over to our table and sat down. “Goldbach stated that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes.” Paul patted the breast pocket of his tux jacket and I worried that he’d pull out a pen and start illustrating this for me on the tablecloth, but fortunately the only thing in his pocket was a decorative handkerchief.
“That seems fairly obvious,” I said, “even for a French major.”
“Ah, yes,” Paul replied. “But nobody’s ever been able to prove it.”
“I see.” I sipped my wine. “It’s like extracting the square root of pi. It could go on and on and on.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure out something, and when you do — sweetheart, honey lamb, sugar pie” — I grinned at him, toothily — “I’ll be sure to sign on as first mate.”
“How about chief cook and communications officer?”
“That, too.” The way he was looking at me, I thought he might have a second honeymoon on his mind — starting that night.
“Look, there’s old Mr. Schneider!” Paul kissed the air next to my cheek. “Let me say hello to the old boy.” He loped off in the direction of a tuxedoed gentleman in a wheelchair being pushed by an attendant up a ramp from the garden and into the ballroom. Mr. Schneider was the father of Dennis’s deceased first wife.
“Oh, my poor ears and whiskers!” The bride, looking flushed, materialized on my right so suddenly that I nearly spilled my wine.
“Dennis deserted you already? The cad!”
Connie flopped into a chair, removed a punishing high-heeled shoe, and began massaging her toes. “We gave up on the receiving line. Dennis is off in the library, back-slapping with his buddies. Get me a drink, would you?”
“That would be lovely.”
“White or red?”
Connie indicated the pristine white landscape of her wedding outfit and made a face. “Duh!”
I returned from the bar with a glass of white wine for Connie just as Daddy’s new friend cut loose with a high-pitched cackle that carried over the sawing of the strings launching into “Spring.”
“Who’s that?” I asked Connie, pointing toward the cackle.
She shrugged. “And Guest.”
“That’s all I know. When your father RSVPed, it was for two: Captain George Alexander and Guest. I forgot to tell you.” She cast a fashion-critical eye over Darlene’s cocktail dress, a lacy froth of Pepto-Bismol pink with a flouncy skirt that hovered three inches north of her knees and a bodice that plunged a couple of inches too far south of her generous bosom.
“I hope she doesn’t sneeze,” I said. Darlene held the stem of her glass between her thumb and forefinger, laughed again, then pirouetted away toward the meats table on dainty toes stuffed into size five sling-back, open-toed stiletto heels. “That’s Daddy’s date?”
“But it’s only eight months since Mother died,” I managed to croak around the lump in my throat.
Connie started to say something but ended up grinning me an apology over her shoulder as she was whisked aside by a sophisticated couple in their late seventies, immaculately dressed and carrying a large, beautifully wrapped wedding package.
I looked around for Paul and found him at the antipasto table, stacking his plate with marinated mushrooms and asparagus spears while talking to my sister Ruth. Ruth wore an ankle-length, multilayered caftany thing in a sheer natural linen. I snitched an asparagus spear from Paul’s plate, bit off the bud end, then pointed the stem at Darlene. “Daddy has a date.”
Ruth turned to look where Daddy was holding forth with Darlene and another woman whom I recognized as Ellie from the nearby Country Store. Ruth’s eyes brightened. “The lady in blue?”
“I wish. No, the lady in pink.”
Ruth sputtered into her wine. “Oh, gawd! Where’d she buy that dress? Togs for Tarts?”
“Well, at least your father’s not sitting at home feeling sorry for himself.” Paul slipped an arm around my shoulders. “Nothing is going to bring your mother back,” Paul continued reasonably with a sympathetic one-armed hug that squished air audibly out of my shoulder pads. “Let the old guy have a little fun.”
It was hard to think of my father as old. A 1950 graduate of the Naval Academy, he’d given the Navy thirty years, then worked another nineteen years building airplanes in Seattle before retiring to Annapolis last year. The month Mother died, he had turned seventy.
“That doesn’t look like fun,” Ruth said. “It looks like trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with D and that stands for fool.”
Paul nibbled on a carrot stick and stared in Darlene’s direction. “You can’t judge a book by its cover, girls.”
I groaned. “May I write that down, Mr. Shakespeare?”
“Maybe she’s a great conversationalist. A Harvard grad running a multinational corporation. A scholar with an advanced degree in comparative literature from Yale.” He turned to Ruth. “How come you don’t know this woman, Ruth? You see your father every day.”
After Mom died, my divorced sister had given up her poky, overpriced apartment on Conduit Street in downtown Annapolis and moved into our parents’ home in the Providence community. Daddy, she discovered, barely knew how to balance a checkbook or file his income taxes. Mother had always taken care of the bookkeeping. And cooking? Forget about it.
Ruth shook her head. “He’s never mentioned her. Probably too embarrassed.” She sipped her wine. “But he has been spending more evenings out lately.” She snorted. “He told me he was bowling.”
Daddy must have said something funny because Darlene threw her head back, open-mouthed. He would have had time to count her fillings. I was beginning to recognize her laugh, full and deep-throated, ending in a giggle.
“I think I have a very good idea where her talents lie,” offered Ruth, sourly.
“Take a pill, Ruth.”
Ruth smiled at Paul, sickly sweet. “I do believe I will, Mr. Ives.” She reached around him, selected a fringed toothpick from a silver cup and speared a crab ball, then dredged it through the cocktail sauce.
“Why don’t you go introduce yourselves, girls?”
I displayed my empty wineglass. “First, I’ll need another one of these.”
Ruth, still chewing, speared another crab ball and sailed off in the opposite direction. “I think it’s his job to introduce his girlfriend to us,” she called over her shoulder. “I’m going to find Georgina.”
“Last time I saw Georgina, she was in the tent in the garden fixing fruit-and-cheese plates for the kids,” Paul said.
Ruth, her mouth full of crab, nodded, waved, and disappeared outside. I watched as she weaved among the boxwood hedges, then strolled down the well-manicured lawn which sloped gently away from the historic mansion toward the Chesapeake Bay.
Paul took my elbow and steered me toward the bar. We had just refilled our glasses when the music died.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” The first chair violin, a painfully thin bleached blonde clad entirely in black, had trouble being heard over the celebration. Paul tapped a fork against his plate and after several seconds the room grew quiet and guests began drifting into the ballroom from the adjoining rooms and from the garden. The waif lifted her bow high, like a baton. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Rutherford!”
Connie and Dennis appeared from the hallway, holding hands and beaming at one another like starstruck teens. The skinny violinist, who could have put a heaping plate of crab balls to good use, set her bow to the violin and played a few introductory chords before turning to her musicians and segueing into “Mexicali Rose.” Paul leaned toward me. “‘Mexicali Rose’?”
With my lips close to my husband’s ear I whispered, “Maybe there’s a Mexican holiday we don’t know anything about.”
At the end of the second bar of music, Dennis swung Connie wide, twirled her into his arms, then waltzed her around the dance floor in graceful, sweeping circles. They could have been on wheels.
I turned to Paul. “Holy Toledo! It’s international ballroom on PBS.”
“Dennis told me they’ve been taking lessons.”
I watched, admiring and amazed. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. “It’s so beautiful!” I jabbed Paul with my elbow. “I’ve been trying to get you to take lessons for years, you bum!”
Before I could extract a promise to that effect, our daughter, Emily, appeared. She looked beautiful, too, in a slinky, floor-length slip the color of caramel that she proudly claimed she’d bought for fifty cents at Goodwill. Since leaving home for Colorado Springs, she had let her ragged, badly dyed hair grow out. Now it hung, sleek and smooth, the color of dark molasses, just touching her shoulders. She’d applied light touches of makeup to her eyes and cheeks and exchanged the black lipstick of her rebellious years for a burgundy gloss. Dante loomed tall behind her, dressed in black slacks and a white shirt. I doubted my son-in-law owned a suit. If it hadn’t been for his colorful tie, I might have mistaken him for one of the waiters.
“I’m trying to get your father to dance,” I explained to Emily, who was balancing Chloe on her hip. The strings swung into “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the floor began to fill with other dancers. Suddenly, twenty-two pounds, all of it Chloe, was in my arms.
“C’mon, Dad,” Emily said. “Let’s dance.” Without waiting for a reply, she seized Paul’s hand and dragged him onto the floor. Smiling crookedly, he held her, stiffly at first, then with more confidence as his elbows unlocked and his arms relaxed. He began rocking from one foot to the other, leading his daughter around the ballroom with a skip, half shuffle, skip, slide.
Leaving me with Dante.
I always managed to put my foot in it where conversations with Dante were concerned. Chloe saved me the trouble of having to think of something to say by grabbing my earring, a string of dangling pearls, and yanking — hard.
“Ouch!” My hand shot to my ear. “You little imp!”
Dante, who had been watching Emily dance with her father with a grin on his face, turned to see what all the commotion was about. “You OK, Mrs. Ives?”
I laughed, pried Chloe’s fingers from the earring, and slipped it into my pocket for safekeeping. I attempted to distract my granddaughter by making faces and talking to her like an idiot. “Widdle Chloe want something to eat, huh?”
Dante held out his arms to his daughter. As his cuffs crept higher on his wrists, I could see portions of the elaborate tattoos that decorated his arms — the business end of a rattlesnake; the talons of an eagle. Until I had had a nipple tattooed on my reconstructed breast, the artwork on Dante was the closest I’d ever come to a tattoo. “Here, Mrs. Ives. Let me take her,” Dante volunteered. “She’s going to make a mess of your dress.”
“That’s OK,” I said, thinking there wasn’t much Chloe could do that would break my heart over this dress. But in a few minutes, my granddaughter metamorphosed into a writhing sack of eels. I handed her back to her father gratefully. “Thanks.”
Dante settled his daughter on his hip and plugged a pacifier into her mouth. When a vigorous sucking motion signaled that Chloe had a firm grip on the nipple, he turned to me. “I’d ask you to dance, but one of us...” He jiggled Chloe up and down.
I was relieved. I was still working on my relationship with Dante. It had not started out on the best of terms when he’d dropped out of Haverford College just a semester before graduation to move out west, taking my besotted daughter, who had graduated from Bryn Mawr with honors a year earlier, with him.
“Just look at your grandfather-in-law,” I said at last.
“Who?” Looking puzzled, Dante’s gaze drifted from Chloe’s plump face to the dance floor. After a moment, he chuckled. “Oh, I see.”
Daddy was squiring Darlene around the floor like a pro. Darlene’s skirt swirled away from her body, revealing shapely thighs encased in hot pink panty hose. I willed their label to say Queen Size, Super Support, but there wasn’t a chance of that. Although she must have been well over fifty, Darlene had the legs of a twenty-year-old.
I scowled in my father’s direction. “Acting like a teenager.”
Dante nodded sagely, his ponytail wagging. “Whatever.”
“I think it’s disgusting.” Dante’s head swiveled in my direction and I immediately regretted my candor. “Sorry.” I smiled apologetically. “It seems like just yesterday that Mom...” I took a deep breath and held it, then turned my eyes back to the dance floor where Daddy and Darlene were sharing a sprightly fox-trot. “She’s certainly peppy, I’ll give her that.”
“She’s not so bad.” Dante shifted Chloe to the other hip and repositioned the pacifier, which had fallen into the folds of the hand-smocking on her white piqué dress.
Someone snapped a picture and I flinched at the flash. I squinted up at my son-in-law. “You’ve met her, then?”
“Briefly. Emily and I talked with her for all of two seconds back at the church. She’s a widow living over in Chestertown.”
Chestertown was a community over the Bay Bridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, about an hour’s drive from Annapolis. “Chestertown? How’d Daddy hook up with someone way over there?”
Dante shrugged. “Don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.”
I was thinking about this when the music stopped. Paul and Emily reappeared, looking flushed from their efforts at contemporary ballroom. “The musicians are taking a break,” Emily said, sounding disappointed. Too bad. Now that Emily had broken the ice, I was hoping Paul would trip the light fantastic with me while the force was still with him.
Behind Paul’s back I watched Daddy as he led Darlene from the dance floor over to the bar. They picked up refills, then wandered out to the garden. I saw them again briefly, participating with enthusiasm when we toasted the bride and groom with chilled champagne. My backbone stiffened by wine, I was headed in their direction with a million questions on my mind when Paul asked me to dance and everything else flew out of my head.
When I thought about Daddy and Darlene again, it was cake cutting time, but they were nowhere to be seen. I waited until the last notes of “Good Night, Sweetheart” had died away, until the caterers began wrapping up the leftovers in heavy-duty aluminum foil, until the flowers had been loaded into a van headed for the nursing home, but I never got that dance Daddy had promised me.
I emerged from the bathroom with my hair still damp from the shower to find Paul waiting, propped up on two pillows. He whipped the sheet away from my side of the bed and patted the mattress. I smiled, slid in next to him, and snuggled close, my cheek resting comfortably on his chest.
“Sorry it’s so goopy.”
He nuzzled my neck. “What’s goopy?”
“My hair. All that hair spray. I brushed it hard, but...”
“You can wash it in the morning.” His kiss began near my right ear, meandered down my cheek, and finally found my mouth. I wrapped my legs around his and melted into him.
The end of a perfect day.
In the past two years, I’d learned the fine art of appreciating perfect days whenever they came my way. And it was a good thing Connie’s wedding was an eleven on a scale of one to ten, because it was the last perfect day I would see for a good, long time.
Excerpted from Occasion of Revenge by Marcia Talley. Copyright © 2001 by Marcia Talley. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.