Renee shifted the cold cloth covering her eyes. She was worn out. Three days with those people was too much. She felt as if she had been chased by wolves through a burning forest. Now, back in the quiet of her own home, her exhausted mind struggled to figure out just why the events of the weekend had left her such a mess.
All those years ago, they had been the perfect family; stable, attractive, talented. They were ridiculously talented; all of them, in all sorts of ways. She was a gifted actress from the time she was in elementary school. And if it was a musical, she stole the show. She was never the instrumentalist that each brother was, but vocally she could bring down the house. And make people weep. Something neither of the boys, with all of their training and expertise, could do. Oh, people enjoyed it plenty when Dane or Wesley played. Audiences would smile and applaud and call for encores; they were that good. But when Renee sang, it was as if time stood still. There would be a deep, almost reverent hush come over the crowd. You could feel people stop whatever they were doing; fidgeting, looking around, distracted, thinking. You could feel it all pivot and stop. About the third note was when it would happen. It was arresting, captivating. A collective, “We weren’t expecting this.”
The brothers were as much alike in their personalities as they were different looking. Dane was small. He almost didn’t get into the Air Force Academy because he didn’t meet the height requirement until the month before he was supposed to be in Colorado Springs. He was blond and blue eyed with Northern European features. The Irish and German branches of the family tree contributed most to his looks. Wesley, on the other hand, looked like an Italian prince. Long limbed and tall, he had a flawless olive complexion and deep chocolate brown eyes. There were jokes their whole lives about the milk man fathering one of them. But in their mannerisms, gait, tone of voice, sense of humor, they were identical. They were brothers.
They were all together that convoluted weekend for the wedding of the fourth Bauer, their baby sister, Peyton. She was the auburn-haired, grey-eyed darling of the family who seemed to make beauty appear out of thin air. She could decorate a room with just a few yards of exquisite fabric and some eclectic touches and make you feel like you were having a religious experience. She could arrange flowers in such a way that you grieved when they died. She could make a meal that was so perfect in its balance of tastes and colors and aromas that you considered never cooking again because you knew the memory of that soul stirring meal would mock you. She had all of the music lessons and opportunities her siblings did, but her true talent was in cultivating and lavishing beauty on the world. She was magical.
Renee was pouting. “Why did I even come down here a day early? I should have known there would be nothing I could contribute to bouquet making.” Peyton was grabbing fresh flowers and arranging them into bunches so fast and in such deep concentration that watching her made Renee feel a little woozy. Her sister was in the zone. It was an amazing thing to watch.
“You are so good at that Peyton. You really should do it for a living.”
“I did. Don’t you remember? Right out of high school, at Cooper’s. Denise says people still ask for me. Says I put her on the map. She’s so funny. But that was the hardest work for the least pay I have ever done.”
“Yeah, but that was 12 years ago. Things are different now. High end shops make a killing in the city.”
“Renee,’” Peyton sighed her sister’s name, “You know I cannot live in the city. Besides, Jimbo’s work is here and his boys are growing up here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Renee’s stomach did an involuntary lurch at the mention of Jimbo. Her beautiful, talented, intelligent sister had waited until she was 30 years old to marry a man named Jimbo. Jimbo came with four, ill-mannered sons. And to make matters worse, in true redneck fashion, his mother and grandmother lived with them. It was almost too much to bear. But in true Bauer family fashion, Renee said nothing about the way she felt. It was her sister’s life and she did seem truly happy for the first time since Justin. At least she wasn’t marrying Justin. “The Justin Years” as Renee called them, were officially over as of four o’clock tomorrow afternoon in
. Their mother interrupted
her thoughts by screeching something from the kitchen about someone leaving a
glass on the counter. Weatherbee
Peyton walked through the living room holding the bouquet of flowers she was working on. Even before she reached the kitchen she started talking in that warm honey tone she used on babies and old people. “Now, Mother, there are going to be a lot of people through the house in the next couple of days and you just cannot overreact to everything. You'll make everyone nervous. That’s my glass and I'm not finished with it. Go find Sonny.”
“How does she do that?” Renee thought.
Renee usually just seethed and remained silent when their mother went into banshee mode—which wasn’t so much a mode as a lifestyle. Mitzi Bauer Caldwell was a study in contrasts. She was the belle of her own ball and believed she should be treated like visiting royalty wherever she went. The four Bauer children were taught to call her Mother, not Mommy or Mama or Mom. She was beautiful, charming, a good conversationalist. She was loved by everyone except her children. The country club folks never saw her as she was at home. Impatient, exacting, overbearing, it was her way or the highway. Joan Crawford could have taken a lesson.
“Mother said that Dane is still about nine hours away.” Peyton relayed the information absentmindedly as she walked back in the room. She was staring critically at the flower arrangement in her hands.
Renee shot back, “Have they ever been early to anything? It seems like we hold our breath at every family function wondering when Dane and Patty will arrive. They are just as likely to stop somewhere tonight to sleep and have us all on pins and needles tomorrow morning. It’s just inconsiderate, that’s what it is. At least Wesley is already here.”
“Wesley’s not here.” Peyton said matter-of-factly, again without looking up from her work.
“What do you mean Wesley’s not here? I saw his dog in Mother’s back yard. Tell me he didn’t just drop that dog off.”
“He just dropped that dog off. Went to the beach. Said he’d be back in the morning.”
Renee stomped off to find her mother. She knew of no good reason she was doing so, because complaining to her mother about Dane or Wesley was like telling the Pope that Jesus and the Virgin Mary were not all they were cracked up to be. In her mother’s eyes those middle-aged men, whom they all still called “the boys”, had descended bodily from
Not that either of them appreciated her blind worship of them. Growing up watching
her fly into a rage on a daily basis, even though it was never directed at
them, had left them with no respect for her. Mt. Olympus
Renee had come to realize that she resented her brothers for this. If they had truly loved their mother for all of the attention, praise and money that she had lavished on them, Renee would have understood. But the boys didn’t love her. They used her in spite of hating her. Used her to get what they wanted out of life and then mocked her behind her back.
“It’s not all Dane’s fault, you know.” This had been her mother’s remark last spring when it had all hit the fan.
“Oh, really,” Renee had responded bitterly to Mitzi’s absolution of Dane’s behavior. “Exactly who held a gun to his head and forced him to fool around with half of Patty’s friends? He never mentioned a gun being involved in all of that sordid crap he unloaded on me. No, I’m sure there was no gun mentioned.”
Everything after ‘Oh, really” she had only said in her head. Renee said a lot of things to her mother in her head.
The sharp yapping of Wesley’s little Boston terrier brought Renee’s attention back to the matter at hand. Ridiculous, she thought. If she had even tried something so inconsiderate, her mother would have never allowed it. But, because it was Wesley, there was now a puppy digging up the marigolds. Renee realized that the worst part of it was that she would be the one to hear her mother gripe all weekend about it. Oh, not a word would be said to the dog’s owner – that would make too much sense. No, sometime tomorrow in addition to making sure her sister ate breakfast and picking up her grandmother from the airport and directing a wedding, Renee would be replanting marigolds. Well, she was not going to remain silent this time.
“Mother!” Renee did a little barking of her own as she reached the middle of the house. She knew it would be easier to start this conversation without actually looking at her mother. “Mother, where are you? If you think I am going to look after that little black and white gremlin this weekend while Wesley works on his tan, I am not.” Renee was looking around corners and through the French doors out onto the patio. Her mother was nowhere to be found.
And then she heard it. Giggling. Muffled and several rooms away, there was the unmistakable sound of her mother giggling. As she cautiously moved towards the master bedroom, Renee could also hear a man’s voice interspersed with her mother’s. It was Sonny’s voice, low and playful. An emotion akin to terror engulfed her as she inched towards the open bedroom door. The thought of actually seeing her mother cavorting with her new husband made Renee feel weak. Her intention was to quietly close the door without looking in. As she put one shaky hand on the door’s handle, something primeval forced her to peer into the room. The bed was neatly made and empty.
“What the—?” Renee muttered. She could hear the disembodied voices clearer than ever. And water running. Realization started in her toes and crept up her body until it crystallized in her brain. They were in the shower. Together. Two old people.
“Ew, ew, eww,” was all Renee could say as she scurried out of the room and closed the door behind her. About that time, Peyton walked towards the door that Renee had just closed. “Is Mother in there?”
“No. I mean, yes, but she’s not, um, dressed.”
“I’ve seen her not dressed, Renee.” Peyton reached for the door.
“Trust me Peyton, if you value your sanity, do not go in there.”
Peyton pushed past Renee and went into the bedroom. She looked around the empty room. When she heard the voices from the other side of the bathroom door, she stepped over to it and knocked. Renee gasped.
“Hey Mother, where are your good scissors?”
“The third drawer of that little cabinet in the guest bathroom, baby,” Mitzi answered, cool as a cucumber. Peyton walked past Renee with a crooked little grin on her face. Renee heard her mother and Sonny erupt into gales of laughter.
“Ick,” said Renee.
“Oh, grow up, Renee” Peyton said over her shoulder.
Mitzi had met Sonny Caldwell at Bill Bauer’s memorial service. He had been a school chum of Bill’s and had read about his death in the newspaper. Sonny's wife had died two years earlier and most of his time was spent organizing his tackle box and attending the funerals of his friends. He asked Mitzi to have a cup of coffee. They had coffee every day for three months and then told the children they were getting married. Renee had burst into tears.
“Daddy’s only been dead three months, Mother. Three months. It’s just not—appropriate. What will people think? What is the hurry, anyway?” Renee was afraid of what her mother’s answer to that last question might be.
“The church is having a retreat in two weeks and Sonny and I want to sleep in the same room. Pastor Mark said he’d marry us next Tuesday after the Senior Citizens’ luncheon.”
“Mark knows about this?” Renee practically shrieked. She could feel her face getting hot. Mark Foster had been Renee's friend for 25 years. He had been a studio musician in the days when Renee was doing backup vocals. She had encouraged him to go to seminary and he had convinced her to marry Keith. Five years ago, he had moved back to Linley and was now Mitzi's pastor.
“Mother, you should have told me before you asked Mark to get involved in this. He probably thought you were kidding.” Renee grabbed her purse and started fishing for her phone. She intended to ask Mark a thing or two. Beginning with just why he had not called her immediately after her mother presented this preposterous idea to him. Seventy year old people had no business getting married and sleeping in the same bed at church retreats. Ridiculous.
“Renee, what is so wrong with your mother having a companion?” Mark had calmly reasoned. “If nothing else, it will be a distraction for her. Do you want her bored - with your number on speed dial - for the next ten or fifteen years?”
Mitzi and Sonny were married the following Tuesday in a small, tasteful ceremony witnessed by the four Bauer children and Sonny's daughter, Kim.
“Peyton must have gotten inspired.” Mitzi had said when Jimbo and Peyton were engaged the week after. In spite of her reservations about Jimbo, Renee spent the next six months helping Peyton plan a storybook wedding. The emails flew back and forth and trips to bridal shops and caterers were a weekly occurrence. Now with less than twenty-four hours until the “dog and pony show” as Jimbo irritatingly called it, Renee was pleased that there was so little left to do. If the rehearsal was an indication, tomorrow they would witness the world's most perfect wedding.
They were watching the late news for Saturday’s weather forecast.
was plan A and the
church social hall was on standby in case it rained. Renee and Peyton were
laughing at the anchorman’s obviously store-bought hair. Jimbo was sprawled out
in the recliner, snoring. Renee struggled to not comment on the fact that the
bottoms of his feet, which were pointed right at her, were as black as coal. Finally,
she could take it no longer. Weatherbee
“Peytey, don’t you think you better wake him up so that he can go home? It looks like he might need to bathe.”
“Huh?” Peyton rarely picked up on sarcasm. Besides that, Renee had observed that Peyton did not seem to notice Jimbo’s many flaws. “Well, ain’t love grand,” Renee muttered to herself.
They shuttled Jimbo off to his house and gathered up linens and pillows for Renee. She would sleep on the couch. Peyton had the guest bedroom. She was staying at their Mother’s house because Pastor Mark had required the couple to spend a couple of weeks apart to reflect and contemplate the future. Truth was the church board of elders had forbid him to marry couples who were cohabiting. Peyton and Jimbo didn’t question the requisite time-out. Good southern people didn’t argue with preachers.
About three a.m., Renee’s eyes popped open. Was that the click of the front door? She decided she had dreamed it. Settling back into her pillow, she heard a floorboard creak. Must be Dane and Patty, she thought. She started to call out to them when she saw two crisscrossing flashlight beams coming down the hallway. It was the oddest thing she had ever seen in the middle of the night. Renee started to feel anxious. Who would be in the house with flashlights? Her heart started pounding. She considered shouting out, “Who is that?” in her best burly man voice, to trick them into believing that a burly man was awake and pissed off that they were in his house, but reasoned that startling them might cause them to shoot in her direction. They were most certainly armed. Who would break into someone’s house in the middle of the night without a gun? She decided she would just pretend she was asleep until they were gone. Someone walked past the couch where she lay hyperventilating.
“Dane?” she whispered, breathlessly.
The man walked into the bathroom without answering. Now serious panic took over. Renee was convinced that it really must be a break-in. Her head started to throb. I’m going to have a stroke, she thought. I am going to lay here and have a stroke while my mother’s house is being robbed. Just then, whoever was in the living room made another sweep through the house with a flashlight. Renee resolved that she had to make a break for it. She was going to try to get to her mother’s room undetected. Shaking with fright, she quietly moved a few steps from the couch and started through the kitchen. In an instant, a beam of light blinded her to everything but the faint outline of the shadowy figure behind it. The shadowy figure spoke. In an Alabama accent.
“You up, Naynay?” It was Patty. Renee’s whole body went limp and she just sat straight down on the kitchen floor. About that time, Dane walked in.
“What are you doing on the floor, Renee?”
“Flashlights? Really, Dane? Flashlights? Why would you come into someone’s house in the middle of the night brandishing flashlights?” Renee didn’t bother to get up.
“We didn’t want to disturb anyone.” She could tell Dane was grinning, even in the dark.
“Well, you nearly scared me to death.”
Patty was still holding the flashlight on Renee.
“Oh, Nay, I never knew you were such a nervous person.” The pity in her voice was the last straw.
“Crap,” Renee said, a little too loudly.
Mitzi called out from her room, “What’s going on in there?”
“Dane and Patty are here, Mother.”
“Well, you kids can cut up in the morning, Renee. People are trying to sleep.”
Renee quietly muttered, “Crap,” again, this time through clenched teeth. It took her over an hour to get back to sleep.
A little while later, little streaks of sunlight sliced through the blinds. Renee woke up, feeling surprisingly well-rested. The morning had arrived a tiny bit chilly and without the normal, oppressive humidity. Peyton had wanted to be married on the first day of spring since she was a teenager. Renee was happy for her that it looked like it was going to be a perfect day.
“Good morning. Weddings Are Us,” she answered, laughing.
“Hey, Renee…” It was Mark. Something in his voice made Renee nervous. “Listen,” he started, “I have a little bit of a situation here. I'm at the hospital.”
Renee cheerily replied, “Well, you tell whoever called you to come hold her hand that you have a wedding to officiate, in exactly, um...” Renee looked at the clock. Yikes, was it nine already? “…seven hours, so she needs to...”
“I'm not here for someone else, Renee. I'm being admitted. My arm has a pretty bad break, a compound fracture, actually, and they are going to have to do surgery. I fell into the baptistery this morning at the church. It's a long story.” He was talking so fast it seemed he didn't pause to take a breath. “Now, before you fall to pieces, let me tell you what I've already worked out. I called Jim Torrance and he is able to fill in for me.” He didn't tell her that he had called nine other ministers first. “It'll be fine, Renee. I'm so sorry. Tell Peyton I'm sorry, please? Jim is the Methodist minister, remember? It will be fine. I have to go. There's a cute nurse heading this way and I need to act pitiful. Don't panic, Renee.” The line went dead before Renee could respond.
“Jim Torrance?” Peyton was trying to assimilate the information that Renee was relaying.
“What do you think, Renee? Do you think it'll be all right?” Peyton searched Renee’s face for reassurance.
Renee didn't have the heart to tell her that Jim Torrance had spent forty-five minutes at the class reunion regaling her with his collection of conspiracy theories. He also had less than ten teeth. But, he was a minister and they needed a minister.
“Sure, Peytey, it'll be all right. Now, what do you want for breakfast? Let's get it started in here!”
Renee ignored Wesley when he came in from the beach, badly sunburned. Patty had made pancakes and Dane and Peyton were eating. Sonny and Mitzi were slowly pressing through their morning routine of coffee, medications, a little bit of breakfast and more coffee.
Renee was glad the wedding was not until four o'clock. The old folks would have never made it otherwise. When Renee started discussing the minister change with them all, Wesley immediately started giving orders.
Dane stopped him. “Third in birth order - you're lucky we let you sit on the furniture.”
Dane had already figured out that Renee was irritated so he was trying to run interference. “I think Renee's got this one, little brother.” He looked at Renee to see if she appreciated his efforts. She was obviously still mad about last night. Or something.
“Wesley, you have two songs to worry about,” Renee said in her best big sister voice.
“That will be enough. Why don't you go practice? Dane's right. Everything else is handled.”
Renee was proud of herself for not telling him off about the dog. She was saving a couple of conversations for after the wedding.
The Reverend Torrance read the words of the wedding ceremony from a laptop perched on a 1970's swivel barstool he brought from home. Other than that, the wedding was the thing of beauty that Peyton had planned. Renee cried through the whole thing. Dane escorted Peyton through the winding pathway that led to a gazebo in the middle of the park. Wesley sang with passion and tenderness. The reception was a relaxed, happy time for all of their guests. Jimbo's boys were disappointed there was no liquor for them to sneak, and told everyone so.
Renee surveyed the remnants of the reception. Most people had gone home. She watched Dane dancing one more dance with Patty and wondered how Patty had stayed with him after all the things he had admitted last year. Renee couldn't get past it and she was just his sister. Renee looked at her mother and Sonny, obviously exhausted, sitting on a bench, holding hands. It still hurt. It still made her sad. Actually, it made her mad. Mother has only lived for herself all these years, Renee thought. She was hateful and demanding while my father was alive. Why does she deserve to be happy? Mitzi saw Renee looking at her. She got up and left Sonny on the bench. She made her way over to where Renee was standing and took her hand.
“I'm so proud of you.” she said looking straight into Renee's eyes.
“Really, Mother? For what?”
“For turning out so well in spite of how awful I was to you when you were growing up. I was too hard on you. I told the boys, you know. I told them they had all the advantages and attention that you never got. I'm sorry, Renee. Please forgive me.”
It took Renee a minute to find her voice. “Why now, Mother? What made you see this after all this time?”
“Xanax.” Mitzi laughed at herself. “No. I don't know. Age. Love. God. Something. I just know I was wrong and you deserved better. I am truly sorry.”
“Wow.” It was all Renee could say. She went home the next day without berating Dane and Wesley as she had planned. Now, sitting in her living room, she couldn't wrap her brain around what had happened. It didn't really change anything and yet it changed everything. It was like her mother's apology had poked a tiny hole in the anger that had filled her up and it had all slowly leaked out. And in its place was a strange new feeling. It felt like forgiveness. She got up from the chair. She had some phone calls to make.