Carolyn Flynn : Improvising
Southern Legitimacy Statement: My Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am a native-born Kentuckian with a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky and quite a few past newspaper lives in the Bluegrass State and one in Mississippi, which is where I really learned what the South was about. I also received my MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville.
Though I am a Southerner-gone-Southwest, living in Arizona and now New Mexico, I believe in writing about the South early and often.
I rushed to the curb of the Den of Sin with a satisfying squeak of my tires, right on time
Dusk was falling on our square of Bible Belt suburbia, and in a blink, the twilight blue sky was alight with a green olive over my head, bobbing up, up, up the length of a neon pink toothpick on the lip of the martini glass that tilted ever-so wobbly from the dull-as-duck-feathers rain-soaked shingles of the Cape Cod roof of the Den of Sin. I wondered if I should get out from under its tipsy self. But there I sat, waiting and waiting some more, neon throbbing and muffler rattling, wondering where my sister was, when I spotted her with the singer, engaged in a long full-throated, wet-kiss goodbye.
Lord, I rolled my eyes upward and fixated on the grid of neon tubes above my head. Just then the olive mounted the top rim of the glass and exploded in a bright rhapsody, shattering into a shower of sidewalk chalk colors. Each time, it reconstituted into a green dimpled oval and persistently resumed ticking on its upward climb, like maybe this time, it would be different and this time, when it got to the top, it wouldn’t explode. I bristled at the olive’s naiveté.
The Den of Sin lurked just down the road from our church, as I suppose Satan would have it, because it certainly earned him a lot of attention. It was a symbiotic marketing strategy that no one could have planned better for either side. Satan got himself a little spotlight, and Millpond Baptist Church got headlines in the local newspaper. For as long as I could remember, the Den of Sin had been assailed from our pulpit, which had only served to pique my attention during my teen years until it became too uncool to care at all. The nightclub where my sister worked sat unapologetically in proximity to Millpond Baptist Church, mere inches beyond the one hundred yards stated in the city ordinance that protected faithful churchgoers from coming too close to such sinful things. This planning and zoning cleverness alone had earned the place the top honor as Den of Sin, squeezing out all the other enclaves of iniquity in our city.
The faithful and captive (I considered myself in the latter) congregants of Millpond knew well the nightclub’s history, more thoroughly than all the begetting and begotting recorded in Numbers. For instance, we knew the nightclub at the end of Old Towne Plaza had undergone several facelifts over the years, starting out, ironically, as a martini bar in the 1950s when the word suburbia was shiny and new and quickened the heart of evangelicals everywhere across the South – a new market! – ushering in a wave of capital projects and planted mission churches that surely society would need because, as anyone could see, it was all falling apart. By the late 1960s, sin was firmly entrenched in suburbia, too, an export of modernization from the city center and certainly a boon for growing churches. The location became a go-go bar, where (the preacher had told us, having toiled through the microfiche archives of the newspaper to compile the nightclub’s complete sordid history, complete with police blotter reports and evidence photos) girls wore white boots and danced in cages. At this revelation, he had been wheezing with fury and had to stop to catch his breath.
(I had once observed to my sister after Sunday dinner that Brother Boswell seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on research on this place, but she had been in her French cooking phase and only had thoughts of coq au vin and needling our mother with the idea that the alcohol might not all cook out of the wine and so my sister never allowed her attention to rest on this. “C’est la vie,” she was fond of tossing off then, standing on the steps of our mother’s house gripping her Le Creuset pot. “Bon voyage” I had said, because I wanted her to leave me alone and not because I had anywhere to go. She left for her apartment, and I walked back up into our mother’s house, furrowing through my mind for the French for “I will never understand you.”)
After the sixties, the nightclub had lost its shock value, and it fell on hard times, assuming new identities every few years: country-western, heavy metal-fantasy rock, stripped-down blues and country-western again, this time with a riding bull. For a brief period, about the time I was born, it had been a disco bar.
Yet despite this place’s identity crisis, which some might have ferreted out as evidence of bad business practices, our mother had followed Brother Boswell at every turn of resistance to this small, dark place at the end of Old Towne Plaza. Now, with the turn of a new millennium, it was a martini bar again, sleek and medieval at once, and my sister was there, working every night and lost in love with a crooning singer who could transport her back to a pre-fundamentalist, pre-hippie, mid-century fantasy world when people had wet bars and castles. And, apparently, neon olives. This one fact changed everything I’m about to tell you.
“Oh, you’re here,” my sister sang out as she reached for the door handle like it hadn’t been twenty minutes of one hot reel underneath the eaves of the Den of Sin. “Huh, and it’s raining.”
“Yes, it’s wet,” I said.
First of all, the Den of Sin isn’t its real name. Its real name is the Camelot, complete with a medieval castle/JFK-and-Jackie-O theme with flashing mod Andy Warhol images of English castles and sexy knights on the plasma TV, and yes, there was a moat, a crème de menthe sort of diluted green river that you can dip your 1960s barware in and slurp or sip from, and drink whichever form of Arthurian primitive or American royalty you so desire. This time, I was in, many thanks for my sister’s broken-down car, which was I suppose the bone she threw me for all those rides – a bone, I say, because I was underage so she had to use her pull to get me in.
My sister played Lady Guinevere the cocktail waitress with a doomed Jackie O flair of lost elegance in her eyes that I was never sure how she achieved. A braid curled on her head, with the rest of her flaxen hair falling to her waist, but she wore tight culottes and fishnets and white go-go boots. (I searched my mind to remember if she had seen the newspaper clipping Brother Boswell had mounted on a foam board and propped on an easel – because we deserved to know the TRUTH – just about in the same place we had displayed our father’s portrait on the altar during the funeral. Which had come first in my sister – the fiery sermon or the impulse to don go-go boots? I pondered. But then I went back to mulling whether I was in an Arthurian or Kennedyesque mood tonight because it was time to order my next drink.) My sister bustled around the nightclub wearing a silver blue corset that jammed her breasts together and a gauzy white cape that suggested her skin was silky and sultry and too hot to touch. Her boyfriend played Sir Lancelot, and he sang Sinatra and Nat King Cole covers for the customers, who sipped on martinis with names like ‘Another Round’ Table and Shining Armour. The place was packed.
During this time of her life, my sister wrote jazz poetry that blended “thee” and “thou,” verbs that ended with “eth” but still had a Langston Hughes-meets-Shakespearean-sonnet kind of feel. Tonight Camelot was launching Poetry Open Slams, and my sister was all over it, and to top it off, she was in love. Required to listen to her first reading, then her public reading, I conceded I was enraptured by her jazzy cityscape poetry and the way it was populated with medieval images like rose thorns and blood on the snow. Looking at her face under the spotlight, I could see my sister was swept in a crusade of passion that I knew I would never quite get. Her whole affair with the singer sounded romantic beyond reason, yet our brother the silent one had gone out of his way to send an email from college (for him, this was quite an exertion of communicative effort) just to tell our sister her job was boozy theatrical kitsch, which was as articulate as I had ever known him. My mother, on the other hand, minced no words: She thought it was all a sin.
I could get no consensus on what our father would have thought, had he still been alive. My dormmate Jillian, a psych major, believed my sister was acting out a melodrama of grief for our father just to get the family’s attention.
It had worked. Every Sunday when we were supposed to meet at our mother’s for dinner after Millpond’s service, my mother would exhaust herself dissecting the relationship and applying Bible verses that I wasn’t sure were real, me her only audience, the day stretching into 3 o’clock, when studying for my calculus test started to seem appealing. Then my sister would come bursting in, carrying a silver bowl of white carnations from the Camelot. As she arranged them on the stand by the piano, she apologized profusely for missing our mother’s home-cooked dinner. “I’m famished,” she would proclaim, entering the kitchen, and our mother would hurry to set out a plate with microwaved honey-roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and peas. While my sister inhaled the warmed-over food like it was her first meal of the day, my mother loaded the dishwasher and wiped the counters clean. “Sorry I’ve got to rush, honey,” my mother said as the dishwasher hummed behind her. “I’ve got to get ready for choir practice.”
You see our mother had been a singer, too, and our father had accompanied her when she performed solos in church. Our father was a master arranger and pianist who sometimes performed at the symphony. Occasionally, he filled in for the regular pianist for Sunday brunch at the Hyatt downtown, or more infrequently, Friday happy hour. This is the only time he and our mother ever fought. In fact, this was the way my mother led my father to the church. When they first met, he played at the piano bar in the Springs Motel. She objected to his support of a liquor-based enterprise, so, he said, “I loved your mom, so I had to improvise,” and he became a man of the church. He performed regularly in our church for thirty years.
Our father, though, still reveled in coming up with little ditties on the spot, the way he once had at happy hour at the Springs and he had a following. When we were children, we would each throw out a word and he would make up a song. My brother would say “toilet” or “slug-slime.” I would say “butterfly” or “bunny,” which inevitably drew a disgusted look from my brother. My sister, on the other hand, preferred the abstract, (rebellious oldest child, Jillian would say), challenging our father to a game of “stump the composer.” Her words might be “deferred gratification” or “arrested development” or “existential angst.”
Our father took this all in stride. One song might be, “You might think this song is existential, but it’s clear to me it is residential. And we’re all going down, yes, bunnies and all, we’re all going down the toilet.” Of course, my sister pointed out, this song was rather nihilistic.
My brother’s suggestions evolved over the years, progressing from bathroom humor (anal retentive, Jillian would say) to oversexed (typical male, Jillian would say). For instance, “bug shit” was replaced by “breasts.” Once, just to shock our father, my brother said “cunt.” My sister played off that and offered “fellatio.”
“This is a family song,” our father said.
“We’re a family,” my brother said. “These are our words.”
It was hard not to see my sister’s fling with the singer at the martini bar as some sort of family experiment to see if she could summon someone to intervene, like when she’d threatened to join the Marines or took up the cause of Mexican migrant worker rights. Lightning didn’t strike, though, not like before, and by fall she had given birth to the singer’s son. But alas, Sir Lancelot had long since left on a crusade of unspecified nature and unknown destination, leaving my sister to persevere alone. After the birth, my sister had vowed to remain chaste until the right man came along to play father to her son. She took to wearing prim flowered dresses, though my brother pointed out they frequently boasted necklines that showed off her cleavage, which had improved considerably upon the birth of her son, whom she breastfed. She placed icons of the Virgin Mary around her apartment, and my mother worried she would become Catholic. With her newfound zeal for the virtues of motherhood, the self-sacrificing and all, my sister took to addressing our mother as “the Blessed Mother.” This my mother found more distressing than my sister’s Zen Buddhism phase.
My sister proclaimed her vow was in honor of our deceased father, and she set about on a mission to find a father for her son with the same fervor I saw her pursue tickets for my brother and me to a sold-out Nirvana show in her teen-age years.
I wanted to bottle this, but I didn’t know how. She was the next great venture for new capital, always, my sister, knowing the next big thing, the bubble of fizzy neon, when all you saw was a toothpick.
Along about the time Sartre was seven months, she had dropped the babyproofing consultant business and was wavering on the vow of chastity with a college senior with an as-yet undeclared major whom she had met in a continuing ed class on preserving organic jams and jellies. Along about this time Lancelot showed back up in her life, in the form of a lawsuit. He was suing for custody of Sartre, claiming our sister was unfit to be a mother.
It wasn’t just my mother’s Sunday table filled with this tedium; now it was Sunday nights with my housemates. My sophomore year, Jillian and I had moved into a house near campus with another girl (Myrt, elementary education, a knack for an earnest belief in the best of humanity) and a guy (Jake, business administration, a penchant for Machiavellian marketing strategy). I had become a psych major like Jillian. And my sister had become the leading distraction from any late-night cramming or cutting-and-pasting of hastily researched papers. Our discussions of my sister’s reckless theology usually took place in the kitchen and revolved around the plastic tap at the wine in the box.
That vow of chastity caused my housemates grave concern, albeit mostly for Jake, who fixated on my sister’s drought of sex at the expense of considering more pressing issues such as our mother’s intolerance for turbulence, or for that matter, the welfare of my nephew. The wind was blowing, and it was certain my sister’s vow of chastity was going to crash in a glorious way. She was pushing thirty, had a son named after an existential thinker and was wooing a young, muscled and virile admirer seven years younger and a blank slate, shall we say, intellectually. “Maybe it’s a Lady Chatterley’s lover fantasy,” Jillian said, but my sister already had the edge on spin. Sir Lancelot had been her “lyrical fantasia relationship,” until the breakup, then he became her “paternal transference interlude.” The new lover was simply her “lust slave.”
“She’s an absolute fruitcake,” Jillian said.
“Yeah, she sounds whacked,” said Myrt.
“I’d like to meet her,” said Jake.
My sister was as fascinating as one of the soaps they watched instead of going to the library, only her melodrama bore the thrill of possible improvisation. Any of us watching could have thrown out an idea – Himalayan trek! acupuncture! bald men! – and my sister would have tried it.
I began to wonder when someone would find me fascinating, given the limited number of boyfriends I had through high school and most of college. I started hanging out in pool halls, learned to put a little English on the ball, switched to microbrews and never drank wine out of a box. I bought a black leather skirt at a secondhand store. I told Jillian I was thinking about dyeing my hair red. I considered changing my major to anthropology.
“You’re acting out, too,” she said.
But, she added, eyeing my magazine clipping of a girl with tomato-red hair, “if you’re going to go off the deep end, at least be original.”
Jillian wasn’t the only one who caught something in the air. Jake was checking out my ass when I was on dish duty. One night as I munched popcorn on the couch, I wore a white eyelet trimmed top that buttoned low so that if you sat to one side, it would gap open, exposing the top of most of one breast, almost to the nipple. Jake kept stealing glances as we watched The Matrix.
That night Jake pinned me against the refrigerator and jabbed his tongue down my throat.
“I prefer older men.” I pushed him away.
I was learning to be mysterious. A week later, in the middle of the night, I cornered Jake in the hallway by the bathroom. I unbuckled his belt, grabbed his beefy buns and gave him a blowjob he would never forget. The next day I told him it was a mistake. “Sometimes I’m impulsive,” I said.
I continued meeting Jake for chance three-in-the-morning hallway encounters – but only at random, every two weeks or nine days, no pattern he could detect. For the first time in my life I felt I was being true to my father, who always said of his life, “I’m just making this up as I go along.”
I had no better explanation than that for Jake, who after a few encounters asked me where I thought this was going. This was on a Saturday afternoon after I had teased him by sitting on the couch with one leg over the arm of the couch, wearing no underwear, and I baited him into giving me oral sex. Myrt walked in on us. All the better.
Sometimes I didn’t show up at our mother’s for Sunday dinner and didn’t explain until Tuesday, even then leaving doubt as to when I would be able to make it next Sunday. One day – I was so proud – my sister said, “We’re all so worried about you.”
You would have thought this would be just what I wanted. Now I could let these new developments about myself dribble out for the entertainment of all. But I was mastering unpredictable and on my way to mercurial when I heard the next news about my sister. She had taken to wearing tailored navy suits with polka dot scarves and sensible pumps. And she was keeping long hours rehearsing for depositions with her custody lawyer. All of my moves seemed too choreographed. A lawyer? Polka dots? Give me a million years, I would have never thought of navy blue and sensible pumps.
All this left me bobbing like a gin-soaked olive. I had just mastered wild, and my sister was moving on to conservative. It flashed in my mind that I could really outdo her and join a nunnery in the remote mountains of Bulgaria — taking a vow of celibacy — but I was starting to enjoy these random encounters with Jake. In fact, it was starting to be nearly every other night, and once, twice in the same day. It pleased me that Jillian and Myrt considered Jake the embodiment of male chauvinism and found his presence as our roommate and my lover a daily source of irritation. Every beery belch that emitted from his throat made me want him more.
Then there was my sister. “I’m disgusted by your boyfriend,” she declared on the eve of our mother’s sixtieth birthday brunch. “I can’t fathom your taste in men.”
It had been talked about for months. We would meet for brunch at the Hyatt downtown. Our mother proclaimed it possibly the dawn of a new era in our family – a new era since our father’s death is what she meant, but the millennium was around the corner and the idea of a better day was in the air. Our mother waxed rhapsodic because not only was I bringing Jake, my sister was bringing her custody lawyer, who had nearly wrapped up the case for her, and there was talk of marriage. They had even looked at houses together. My sister, a suburbanite.
Then there was my brother, who was coming in from Columbus with his girlfriend Clarice. What our mother didn’t know was he had quit school, and he was shacking up with Clarice, who wasn’t in school either. She was working at a coffeehouse, and she sang folk music. My brother had been majoring in chemical engineering and – surprise! – found it boring, even with the carrot dangled before him of unlimited job offers and starting salaries that were tens of thousands more than either my sister or I could ever hope for. This part was surprising, because my brother, after he got over the “bug shit” phase, had always been obsessed with money. Jillian always found his materialism odd, given our family’s predilection for being unconventional and, when it came to money, either faith-blind (my mother), foolish (my sister before she went postpartum) or nihilistic (me). But Jillian said there was always one oddball in a family.
My sister had been goading my brother for months to fess up to our mother, certainly before the birthday brunch. The spotlight was bobbing dangerously in his direction should this news explode out in the open like that. It made me nervous.
I warned Jake ahead of time.
“My family is dysfunctional,” I said.
“Whose isn’t?” he said, and there seemed nothing more to say.
My mother seemed quite pleased with all the preparations and arrangements swirling about her as the brunch day neared. “This could be the beginning of a whole new chapter in our family,” she said. “I’m meeting all of my potential sons- and daughters-in-law. Before you know it, there will be grandchildren.” She seemed momentarily to have forgotten about little Sartre.
It was hard to predict which future in-law my mother would be more disappointed in – the lawyer, who we learned at just the last minute was graying and pushing fifty (our sister let it leak so we wouldn’t be too shocked) and “a little on the portly side;” Clarice, who sewed her own clothes and was pierced in a thousand different places on her body, including her eyebrows (like THAT hasn’t been done before); or Jake. With Jake’s worst sin being that he belched a lot, I was casting about for some other ideas – Zoroastrianism, pink hair …
Finally, my sister and I formed an alliance that we must keep a lid on our brother’s secret. It thrilled me in a way I had never thought possible. The idea of my ideas being considered consumed me for days, though in the end, my thoughts yielded no concrete action plan. It took my sister to say that what we should do would be to have Clarice sit at the end of the table, the farthest from our mother, to limit conversation. Of course. It was obvious.
“Oh, I just wish your father could be here to see this,” our mother proclaimed almost daily now, clasping her hands together. “What our family is becoming.”
We ordered a corsage of pink orchids for our mother, but we left it at the house, and our brother had to run back for it when my sister and I informed him that as he was the remaining male in the family (momentarily forgetting Sartre), it was his role to pin the corsage on her dress. My mother wore a deep-pink wool Evan Picone suit. She had been shopping for months, buying at least three (mint green, delphinium blue, this one), letting them hang in her closet for a few days, then returning each until she settled on this one, the perfect suit.
As we entered the Hyatt, a tuxedoed man rose to greet her from his black grand piano. A friend of our father’s, the one who called him to play here when he needed someone to fill in. This always met with our mother’s disapproval because Sunday brunch occurred during the time when decent people went to church, and champagne was served here, which in our mother’s eyes tainted the whole establishment, except not today. The pianist clasped his hands over hers and bowed ceremoniously, remembering our father. “Yes, I remember so fondly,” he said, “You are Bertram’s lovely wife.”
“Widow,” she corrected, though this seemed unnecessary.
He turned to us. “What instruments do you play? I would imagine any progeny of Bertram’s would be very musical.”
The three of us vaguely shook our heads. None of us had ever played a note.
“I’m a musician,” Clarice piped up, extended a slender hand from her bell-shaped sleeve. “I am a singer-songwriter. Hello, I’m Clarice from Columbus. It’s a pleasure.”
He seemed to dodder in confusion for a moment. Then, brightly, clapping his hands together, like we were small children, he said, “I will play a request in your honor.”
The three of us doddered with him. I sensed my brother and sister restraining the impulse to shout out “bug shit” or “existential angst” and summon something that reflected our maturity, but I was no help. All I could think of was “bunnies.” Finally, Sartre said, though it was the heart of spring: “Jingle Bells.”
At this, the pianist, just as relieved as we were, brushed back the tails of his tux and began to play a jazzy version of “Jingle Bells.”
Neither my sister nor I had the presence of mind to body-block Clarice as she swished ahead of us in her caftan, hooking her arm in our mother’s and taking a place right next to her, cooing about her pink suit. Clarice ordered a Bloody Mary. My sister and I met in frowning gazes across the table. I read her thoughts: Hadn’t our brother at least prepped Clarice for THAT? That our mother was a teetotaler? THAT was basic. In our mutual disgust for our brother, I felt a swell in my heart for my sister that was something like warmth. Neither of US would mess up this way.
Jake had even worn a suit, though it didn’t fit him, flipping out stiffly from his derriere and binding across his biceps. Beneath the table, he reached underneath my napkin and slipped two fingers under my wrap-around skirt, pressing my secret spot, as I called it, a prim term that always drew Jake’s amusement. “Secret, so you like to think,” he would say. “You, my woman,” at this he would grunt like a wild boar, “are a trumpet,” a reference to my proclivity for vocal affirmations of his sexual proficiency. So he twiddled me as the custody lawyer began to drone on about the Mozart effect. The friction was unbearably exquisite. I smiled weakly at our mother. The pianist was playing “Just One of Those Things.” She seemed to be lost in thought, a faint smile on her lips. Clarice continued to direct the conversation, purring as she spoke, expertly taking turns drawing each of us out.
In the ladies’ room, I was still too glowing to downshift myself to my sister’s hissing anger. All I could think about was my pleasure center, the secret spot that Jake touched that had me in a spiral-glow-vertigo sort of whirl, what with the champagne mimosas and all that we had slipped past our mother. My sister seethed. “Clarice is going to blow everything. We can’t let her talk so much. By the way, I take back everything I said about Jake. What do you think of Horace?”
Horace. I kept forgetting my sister was dating – and possibly marrying—a Horace. No more glow for me.
Back at the table, dessert and coffee had arrived. Nearly homefree. All I needed to do was steer the conversation for a little. Sartre had been let down from his booster seat and was running around the dining room. Just as my sister returned, he leaped up on the planter and started walking the edge like a tightrope. “Sartre!” she screamed. This startled him, and he fell, tumbling over the back of a man seated by the ferns, causing the man to toss his fork across the carpet. Sartre’s face turned a deeper pink than my mother’s suit. He held his breath for what seemed like five minutes, long enough for every set of eyes in the dining room turn to the scene at the planter. I think the pianist stopped, too, just then. Maybe it was just the end of the song, and before Sartre could let out a wail, I heard Horace droning on, leaning over to Clarice and my mother, and with split-second of silence in the room, caught in the stream of his conversation, the words, “at our synagogue.”
Then Sartre released a high-pitched shriek, followed by an unceasing bawl. My sister rushed to him and wrapped her arms around him.
Horace was Jewish?
I waited for something to happen. But instead, we all reassembled at the table, with Sartre in my sister’s arms, sobbing and panting quietly. And it seemed like I hadn’t heard it. Yet, it had seemed to me like the parting of the Red Sea, ha-ha. Secretly, as the check arrived and my brother began to tally it, I began to fume. My sister had triumphed. A man who wasn’t sure Christ was the real thing. Zoroastrianism – that was wild, and weak, compared to this. Judaism was both mainstream AND rebellious. This I would have never thought of.
My mother smiled sweetly as my brother sent the leather folio off with his charge card. “Thank you, my dear family,” she said, but a sternness I imagined underneath her smile made me stiffen, or maybe it was Jake, whose thick fingers were once again probing beneath my skirt. I resisted the urge to fling his hand across the room. “Such an honor,” my mother repeated.
She turned to my sister, who still had her arms wrapped around a trembling, whimpering Sartre. The pianist launched into “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”
My mother said nothing. When I looked at her, she was just basking in the glow of being the center of our attention for one day, a simple smile on her lips.
I fixed my gaze on my sister. There must have been a ferocity in my gaze because my sister’s soothing coos of Sartre grew fainter and fainter, withering to a whimper under my gaze.
“What kind of family are we?” I said, finally.
My mother darted anxious looks around the table, bewildered, like she’d sat down at the wrong table.
Jake’s thick fingers continued to probe. I peeled them from the rim of my panties and threw off his hand, smacking it against the table. He stifled an “ouch!”
“I mean, jiminy, we’re a Christian family,” I continued. “A fine upstanding Christian family. But my sister is going to marry a Jewish man – no offense, Horace, it’s just what we believe – and my brother’s a college dropout, and he’s shacking up with a hippie. For Pete’s sake.”
“Dear …” my mother reached to pat my hand. “Dear, dear.”
I fought back the tears as I met their stunned expressions.
“Dear …” my mother said after a while. “I admit it’s not ideal that your sister is marrying a man of another faith. But …” she sighed heavily “… like your father always said, we have to be open-minded. And as for your brother — ”
As she turned to him, I looked for recrimination in her eyes and saw none.
“ – youth is about exploration, finding out who you will be. That’s how I would put it,” my mother said.
“So you knew?” I said.
When my mother turned to me, she reached for both of my hands in hers, and she was smiling. She was so happy! I nearly shrunk in horror. Would I never understand these people? “I accepted it a long time ago,” she said. “Our family is … shall we say … a little unconventional. I mean, what could I do to top this act? Why, I’d have to run off with the piano player!”
As my sister reached for the linen napkin to wipe Sartre’s nose, I considered that my mother could be quite happy with the piano player. He seemed, actually, quite elegant and capable of making her glow. Just then, Sartre batted my sister’s hand back, sending a bowl of remoulade flying from the table. A droplet smacked my mother in the corner of her eye, where a sentimental tear seemed to have formed, and the whole mess fell in her lap, leaving a greasy stain on her pink wool suit.
No one moved. Then it was Jake on his feet, stepping around all of us with a napkin clamped in his fist, dabbing at my mother’s lap. Clarice patted my mother’s hand, “I think we can get it out. It will be all right.” And there was Horace kneeling beside her, asking the waitress for club soda and saying he knew a dry cleaner that could take care of just such a thing. My mother – why, my mother — was laughing, laughing like a young girl in love.
I stood still, watching all these new people between us and our mother. I looked at my sister, and she shrugged. Then I looked to my brother, and he winked.
Next thing I knew “Our Love Is Here to Stay” was over, and the man in tux and tails was standing at my mother’s elbow, bowing gallantly. “Would you like me to take your picture before you leave? This is a special occasion.”
Horace stood up against the wall of ferns with open arms, beckoning all of us to join him. Everyone was talking at the same time, saying my mother should hold Sartre in front of her so the stain couldn’t be seen in the photo. So, we assembled. My sister’s green paisley scarf was askew. Clarice brushed an imaginary hair away from the silver ring on her eyebrow. Behind me, too close, Jake tugged down his suit, then yanked me by the hips. My brother seemed intently interested in the metal framework of the atrium ceiling. Among them I felt small, the little girl who only wanted songs about bunnies.
“Now, everybody smile,” said the pianist. He held the camera to his face, hunched over and smiled broadly beneath the umbrella of the camera. “Smile …” he coaxed. “…on three … everybody smile.” When he counted to three, nobody’s faces moved. The shutter clicked. Befuddled, he said, “Let’s try this again.”
Sartre kicked me in the funny bone. “No, I don’t want to be in the picture! You can’t make me!” He burst from my mother’s arms and streaked across the dining room. My sister scooped him up. She stepped back in our ranks. My mother’s grease-stained suit was front and center now. My sister turned and looked at the pianist, ducking as Sartre’s arms and legs flailed. “This is our family,” my sister said. “Take the picture.”