<<<Hi all, apologies for not having visited of late, I have been travelling like mad. Below is a new story with a couple points of view (one Kate, one Mark). I originally wrote the Kate parts and handed them over to Shards (http://shardsofdubois.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/culpepper-pipe-a-strange-collaboration-of-sorts/; her version is posted under this link) and Mark (http://markpaxson.com/2014/06/01/the-thunder-had-gone/; his version is posted under this link) to fill in the Mark parts. They did that, and you can read the results on their blogs. I also wrote out my Mark parts, so basically we have three versions of the same story. Bit of an experiment with a couple of great writer friends>>>
Kate hid the square in her mouth before anyone could see her do it. She went for another one and nibbled on it, all the while working on the one she had stuffed in first.
The carpet was appalling. It was twenty years old, and hadn’t been properly steam cleaned in that time. She was bare foot. Seemed like she could feel the dirt in the fibres, lurking there waiting to offend her guests. But they, she remembered, were all wearing shoes.
“You’re Angel’s mom?” Kate nodded. The woman was fifty, maybe more, and had on a red dress that came with its own cleavage. Her heels were sticking it to the carpet, leaving little dents all over the place. She swallowed some champagne. “Tell me, why did you name her ‘Angel’? That’s a unique name.”
“It has a precedent.”
“Oh. That’s funny. When did your husband pass?”
“Oh. Well, that’s not so funny. What happened to him?”
Kate explained. Clearly, this woman wasn’t from Barrie’s side of the family. She explained in time that she was married to one of Barrie’s cousins.
“Nice house,” she said. “Won’t you come over and have a drink with us?” She was looking at Kate now, instead of straightening her hair or showing concern for the relative exposure of her very handsome bosom. Kate tried not to look at that bosom, and failed. She blushed. “Saw you standing alone. It’s your party, isn’t it? Why not enjoy it?”
“It’s Angel’s party. But thank you.”
The woman – Veronica – touched her hand and smiled. Then she went for another champagne.
Kate stayed in the corner, concerned for the well-being of her carpet and the lack of cleavage that she was able to expose from behind a dress that would have had nothing to do with cleavage if it had been ripped from top to bottom and made transparent. Around the great room, guests milled, and more entered all the time. Angel was at the doorway, greeting them. A few came over and said hi to Kate, but not many. These were Barrie’s relatives, and they had come here for Angel’s wedding. Still, it was funny how the spot of silence in the corner that Kate occupied managed to contract on her, the one place where light would not go and the laughter in the room had no reason to be.
She picked up another square and took it down in a single bite.
“Mom!” came Angel’s voice. “Those are bad for you.”
“Harumph,” replied Kate, chewing madly.
“Have some juice,” said Angel, handing over her glass. “Mom, this is my fiancé Mark. Mark, my mom.”
“Harumph,” said Kate, lips upturned at the taste of orange juice mixing with thick caramel. She started to choke on a nut. “I mean shit… sorry. Mark, nice to meet you. I’m Kate.” She extended a hand and finally looked up from the carpet.
Mark, last name to be determined, was at least four inches taller than Barrie had been, and Barrie had been a tall one. He was wearing a blazer. His handshake was crushing, and his eyes petrified with the fear of meeting the mother of his future bride. As Kate talked with him, the fear faded away, as she knew it would – replaced with questions about this greying lady in the cheap blue dress and the bare feet, the one who had a smudge of caramel on her nose.
Kate spun away to greet new visitors. “Call you Kate?” asked Mark.
“Mrs. Januskiewicz might be a mouthful.”
He glanced at the room. “Your husband has a lot of family.”
“The Smithsons are very tight-knit. You’ll figure it out. Stop being so nervous.”
“Can you introduce me to some of them?”
“No. I don’t know them well. They liked Barrie and they love Angel, but I’m a Januskiewicz, the very first of my kind in this family. You’re on your own.”
“So are you, it seems,” he replied, surveying her little corner next to the dessert table.
“Have fun,” she said, giving him a little push towards the party. At once, people pounced on him, patting him on the back as several hands tried to give him a drink at the same time.
Kate ducked back into the corner. When she was sure no one was looking, she took another square and put it in her mouth. Then she picked up a second one and started chewing on it very, very slowly.
Mark Shuler stood in the backyard with a family album. There was a tree in the middle of the grass, and from it hung a swing with ropes so long that the kid on it was swinging from nearly one end of the lawn to the other. Mark could picture the little girl getting pushed harder by her cousin/brother/whatever and gaining enough height to be propelled over the hedge that formed the border of the world into which he was about to marry.
He read. Barrie Smithson, as it turned out, had been a good lawyer with a great practice, until he had decided one night to drink heavily at a bar and to stumble to his car. But that was not the end of that story. He had been smart enough to wonder why he couldn’t grasp his keys properly, so he’d called a cab instead. He’d stumbled to the street corner, easy fodder for anyone who might have wanted to take some cash off this large man in the expensive suit that was fumbling about with his wallet – but that was not the end of the story either. He’d taken the cab home and entered his house, fully determined to have a nightcap while falling asleep in front of some aimless movie. On the way to the basement, he’d fallen down the stairs, enough to give him bruises on body parts he hadn’t known were able to bruise. But this too was not the end of the story of Barrie Smithson. As he’d sat there watching a double feature initiated by a tale of mutant sharks and then capped with a rousing epic about a deep-sea something-or-other eating people on a cruise ship that had just been taken over by terrorists, he’d decided to swallow some acetaminophen. That, neatly, did end Barry’s story. The drugs mixed with the alcohol that had already saturated his liver, opening up direct routes to his brain for a number of interesting chemicals that instantly set to shutting down various important components of his once-sharp mind. And that was that.
“Mark, wanted to talk to you about biopolymers,” said Uncle Reggie. The burly man put an arm around him and drew him to a lawn chair.
“Do I look like Dustin Hoffman?” Mark muttered. But he sat down. “I’m a teacher. I don’t know anything about industry.”
“No problem,” returned Uncle Reggie, who proceeded to tell him everything that anyone would want to know about plastics made from plants. “Teacher, you say? We’ll get you a different job, no problem.”
“I don’t really want one…” said Mark, as Uncle Reggie rose and patted him hard on the back. Mark tried to finish his thought, and Uncle Reggie hit him harder. Each time Mark started to speak, Uncle Reggie smacked him.
“They want me to quit my job,” Mark told Angel, later. There were three kids on the swing now, and the ropes were groaning under the stress as the branch bent and swiveled with every push of momentum.
“So? Smithsons are entrepreneurs. Any number of them could give you a job.”
“Don’t want one. Where’s your mom, by the way? This is her house but I hardly see her. Someone said she’s staying at a friend’s house. That seems odd.”
“She doesn’t like crowds. Don’t worry, she’s fine.”
Mark nodded to the family album. “I read about your dad. Sad story. Should we go see him?”
“If you want, sure.”
“We should. One other thing – that guy over there in the ballcap, why does he keep staring at us?”
The man was doing it again, peering through his glasses. When he saw them watching, he smiled and waved. “That’s cousin David. I told you about him.”
“That’s the guy?” said Mark, not believing it.
“Mark,” said Angel, taking his hand so that David would see the gesture, then leaning in for a kiss to get closer to his ear. The smell of her, the heat from her skin, was like a spark, as though Angel were not completely a human being in the sense that the rest of the people here were. “Relax. Enjoy yourself. Get to know the Smithsons. You need them. I need them. They’re my family. And don’t for a moment worry about cousin David. That was all a long time ago. Besides,” she smiled, beaming at him as though she were exactly what her name implied, “it was only a blow job.”
Kate swallowed three of the French fries and stared at the platter. She ate three more. They were burning hot, freshly-liberated from the cooking oil that one of the guests had brought from Malaysia. The fries tasted like diesel fuel, but that didn’t stop her from eating a few more before taking the platter to the dining room.
Angel was speaking to Barrie’s three sisters, pouring them wine as she told them stories about her trip to Denmark. Uncle Reggie was sitting at the end of the table, drinking Drambuie. One after another glass of the stuff vanished into his expansive throat, washed down with the occasional green bean or more often, a pat of butter that he pretended to apply to his asparagus. He smiled broadly, listening to Angel’s stories, smiling as though he knew what she was talking about, as though he had been on the same trip a long time ago and was remembering it through her. Occasionally, his eyes rested on her breasts and stayed there until they dropped a bit further and found the Drambuie again.
“Delicious,” lied Mark, eating the fries.
“You look like you’re enjoying them,” lied Kate, right back. “Ready for the rehearsal tomorrow?”
“Why are so many people coming to the rehearsal? Why does it have to be so formal? Who ever heard of a formal dinner after a wedding rehearsal?”
“Drink up,” said Kate, pouring him some wine. “Welcome to clan Smithson.”
“What’s your job tomorrow?”
“Let’s see,” she said, picking at the guacamole. “Dress conservatively. Look dour. Tear up but don’t shed any liquids. Try not to yawn or soil my thong.”
“Wedding rehearsal thong?”
“Best kind. You don’t speak much.”
“Only to you, it seems. Wanted to ask you about your husband…”
“Do you ever visit him?”
Mark waited for more. Uncle Reggie was laughing hard. There was something coming out of his nose that one of the sisters pointed out.
Kate held the boy’s stare for a while, before finally saying, “She doesn’t want kids, you know. And she’s spoiled rotten. Always has been. But she’s my girl. She’s my girl.”
“We’ve had the kid talk. And we’ve had the spoiled brat talk too. I heard Barrie’s in a hospital not far from here, do you want to come with us to see him?”
“More ribs?” she smiled. But he wasn’t playing anymore; he was serious, no matter how much wine she’d fed him or how horrible the food was. “The dessert’s going to be worse,” she muttered, but he didn’t flinch. “No, I’m not going with you. Before he got sick and went all catatonic, Barrie was going to divorce me. He had some girlfriends. Rich lawyers girlies. Know the type?” She let that sink in. “The Smithsons were high on him dumping me. But then his liver went rancid, and his brain afterwards. You can’t divorce someone when you’re a vegetable. It’s a law. I checked.”
Mark was sweating. He looked at Angel, a quick gaze that Kate supposed was meant to ask her about all the things she hadn’t told him: how she’d ended up here, a single child with a father in the hospital and a mother who blended in with flowery wallpaper she refused to give up. But to Kate, the paper on the walls smelled like Barrie, his cigars and scotches, the only memory she wanted of him, the only one that made sense to keep.
“I want kids,” he said, finally. He chugged his wine and asked for more.
“That’s a problem then. We’ll make this glass a big one, okay?”
“Yes ma’am. Join me?” he said, looking at her with wide eyes on the verge of contracting with his drunkenness. She wondered what his smell would be one day, what scent he would leave behind that her daughter would want to keep.
“Sure,” she said, and poured herself some. She chugged it down and took another as his eyebrows shot up. “I was kidding, by the way.”
“The thong. I wasn’t planning on wearing underwear tomorrow.”
For the first time all dinner, Mark smiled.
“There’s not enough chairs for everyone,” said Mark, surveying the room. He was standing next to Angel at the top of the steps. The pastor was directing people, putting the important people up front and telling the rest to stand to the sides, next to the old wood and the painted glass. He was a little man, bald and wispy, and Mark had the strange urge to punch down on his head to see if that would make something pop up somewhere else.
“Look, Donald and Veronica are here! I wasn’t sure they were coming to the rehearsal.”
“There’s too many people here,” said Mark. “Maybe we should ask some to leave.”
Someone belched. “That’s Uncle Reggie,” smiled Angel.
“Where is my family going to sit tomorrow? Aren’t there too many Smithsons?”
“Remember your lines? We’re starting.”
Mark looked out on the crowd. It had become quiet. It was staring at him. A thousand eyes, it seemed, belonging to old people and little people and disinterested people and overly-attentive people, all staring at an elementary school teacher from Iowa who had grown up wanting to be a baseball star and had instead found himself working fast food to help his parents with the bills until he could save enough to get to college and convince someone that he was good enough to teach the next generation of kids.
But the eyes were staring. And they were asking if that was all that he was going to be.
He repeated words. He should have forgotten them, been overcome by nerves, but somehow they came to him without trying, as though the many eyes watching his lips and the sheen of sweat on his face were so strong in their expectations for him that they would not allow him to fail. Angel’s voice was sweet. She was like a cake. He had found her in a coffee shop, her pretending not to put far too much sugar into her coffee, he trying to make as though he hadn’t a single other place to sit except in the chair across from her. She’d been reading a book, “Culpepper Pipe”, that she’d told him all about in that one sitting – and which he had refused to ever read, because he thought she had told the story in a way that the book could never live up to. They’d argued about it in the coffee shop, and he’d promised that one day, after they had been married for many years, he would lie on his death bed and finally read it, the last thing he would ever see other than her sitting next to him.
He repeated the words. The crowd pierced him. Culpepper Pipe, he thought, a novel that had kept people up late at night for years – a story that had been told to make people want a more that had never come. The book had just ended, on that lonely beach with the young woman kneeling on the sands and looking out over the waves to watch her dreams sailing away from her. What had Angel said… what words had she used to describe that scene, as though she’d been there, not the girl in the sand but the girl who had come before her, who’d already lived that scene and braved it to tell the tale to him in a coffee shop, over an argument that had turned to smoke and then to a promise and then to love. Culpepper Pipe, he thought, searching for the strands of the tale as the words he’d been rehearsing began to slip away from him.
“Son? Son?” said the ridiculous pastor. “Do you remember what to say?”
“Mark,” whispered Angel, supplying him with his next lines, “come on. You can do it.”
“I didn’t write this,” he said, quietly.
Angel managed a smile. “Try anyway. You can, you know. You can.”
At the back of the room, behind everyone seated and behind all those who stood too, a hand raised itself. And it waved. There was no stained glass light in that part of the church, no reasonable expectation that the colours of the illumination intended to nurture the piety of churchgoers would have such an effect in that location; it was a dingy spot under the balcony, not far from the doors, and it was as forsaken as though the devil lived there. Still, a single solitary hand waved anyway, back and forth, like a sail in a wind on an ocean at the edge of a beach where a girl knelt in the sand.
“It’s my mom,” said Angel. Her smile had not changed, not one bit.
Mark took a breath.
Kate stood in the rain. There were people in her house. Three times, she’d tried to go in, but there had been people in the entranceway, pulling off their coats but not their shoes. Now they were inside her house, sloshing about the carpet.
She stood in the rain. Lightning visited, and thunder wrapped its presents. Water drizzled down her hair and crawled up her feet, soaking the bottom of her dress. She could have gone in through the back door. She could have rang the doorbell or tried the garage. She should have gone in, because the house was alive and the music was loud, and it was her house. It was her house. But no one had come to look for her, some lowly immigrant Januskiewicz who had married above her place and narrowly avoided a ruinous divorce by virtue of a couple of ill-timed over-the-counter drugs that her cheating husband had popped late one Friday night while watching horror movies. No one had come to look for her, and no one would, and no one inside would even know that she was not there. Not even the daughter for whom this party had been organized.
She stayed off to the side, under a tree sure to attract the lightning. Out of the light, she stared at the windows.
“Drambuie,” came a voice. Mark skidded to a stop under the tree, bottle in hand. “Sweet mother, where have you been all my life?” he laughed, then took a long drink and handed her the bottle.
She drank. “You should go back in. You should also stop drinking. Tomorrow’s the wedding.”
“Yes it is. Yes it is,” he confirmed. He took another drink. “But I put in my time. And I kept trying to get to Angel in the centre of it all, but there was some kind of force in there pushing me to the sides. Everytime I tried to go in, it grabbed me and sent me to the walls. You know what I mean? Good thing I found the bar. I left an hour ago. I’ve been out back. No one noticed.”
Kate took another drink. Then another. This was a night of lightning. It would come, and she would duck as though it had targeted her. But she remained alive and whole, soaking wet under a tree in the middle of the night as the cars roared past, spraying water onto her lawn.
She found herself next to him. Pressed against him. Then she found herself in his arms. Why wouldn’t she have? Lightning came, and she kept waiting for the thunder to follow. But he held her as though he meant it. As though he wanted to keep her dry, to keep the sound of the cataclysm that was tearing the sky apart away from her. He tasted like alcohol. She didn’t care. “I’m not going back in,” he moaned, and then repeated it as she opened him up and splayed him against the tree. She inhaled him. Acids and electricity were all she could sense as she felt water on her body, every part of her, desperate fingers reaching for answers and warm things that they were not entitled to, not allowed to have under the rain. But desperate they were, and found the way through to some spot against the roots of the tree, in the full force of the mud and the strangest sensation that they might sink, might vanish, if they kept going. Lighting came. But there was no thunder. And he kept telling her that he was not going to go back in, to that light, that there was nothing there for him; and she answered him with her lips and her hands until he had nothing left to say, nothing to do except lie beneath her and see her in the flashes that continued to rip apart the heavens.
The music inside the house grew louder. She could hear voices. But he only heard hers. And for each love and grief she could conceive, she took every part of him, every thought too, including all the suggestions that said this was wrong, or that something like morality or family or anything of the kind could get in the way of a moment like this, there under the tree with the lighting splashing its own concert lights on shadows no one else could see.
Mark stood before a crowd. Beside him was a woman. She was staring up at him, smiling, telling him words that she had perfected by now. He said words back to her. He never faltered.
“But by grace or through any other means that I would be separated from you, or sent away,” she said, repeating lines from Culpepper Pipe. “That even if this ocean covered all the earth and the entirety of existence that it would be possible that we should not meet again. Oh my love. Stand still and wait for the light that even in this place must surely shine, for that light is mine and this shining is what we are.”
Mark repeated his lines. He looked out over the crowd. “Stand still and wait for the light,” he said to the people who watched him. “That even in this place must surely shine.”
The great roar that overtook the end of the ceremony saw hats tossed in the air and flowers thrown in every direction. Mark stepped on petals. Beside him was his wife. Around him was a family, and a coloured, painted light that did not let any shadows survive – except in that one place underneath the balcony at the back.
“Mom,” said Angel, hugging her.
“Darling,” she said, and then was forgotten. Mark hugged her too, listened to her words. Lightning crackled. It spun and soared about the church, bright shocks of it that informed lives and how they should be lived, lightning that entered and prescribed the substance of souls, of love and how it got to this place, right here and within this time. Lighting everywhere, a perfect energy that doted on the mystery of need and loneliness, on the maelstrom that they made when they were left in hearts to grow. Lighting, certainly that. Lighting, but no thunder.