Light of Dusk Ch. 02byMused©
Thanks to Chargergirl for all her help.
Jeff slipped into a bone-white linen sport coat and checked his appearance in the mirror. The suit looked a little off without the silk tie, but on a sticky summer evening, he didn't dare dress too formally.
Reaching into his pocket, he discovered that his wallet was missing. Jeff searched the pressboard dresser, so graciously provided by the Autumn Inn motel chain; he searched the equally chintzy nightstand. No luck. He was about to call the front desk when he spotted the brown leather wallet on the center of the bed, exactly where he had set it before changing. Jeff silently cursed the fact that only one person could frazzle his nerves so severely.
A knock at the door startled him. It couldn't be the taxi. According to the clock radio, an hour remained before the wedding rehearsal began. Jeff opened the door to a familiar face, Vince Kramer, his father. "Dad?"
His father smiled uncomfortably. "Your sister wanted to make sure you hadn't skipped town."
"Skip town and miss meeting my future brother in-law." Jeff buttoned his jacket, and then just as quickly unbuttoned it. He fiddled with the beige handkerchief in the breast pocket, unable to fold it properly. "What kind of man would that make me?"
"A completely normal one," his father answered.
Normal? No, that isn't the right word. Not even close. With a huff, Jeff stuffed the golden handkerchief in his pocket. "Yellow Cab is on the way. I don't need a chaperone."
Vince Kramer extracted the handkerchief and carefully refolded it on the bed. He slipped it into Jeff's breast pocket as Jeff smothered a nervous yawn. A quick glance in the mirror revealed a perfect three-point fold. "God, look at you." Uh-oh, he's about to get sentimental. "When did this happen?" He took one of Jeff's long arms and squeezed the bicep.
"High school, I think."
"High school my foot; you were a beanpole when you played for Curtis High. They must be feeding you something up north."
"No, the food in Calgary is just like the food down here, except they call ham bacon."
Vince chuckled. He and Jeff maintained a tense sort of peace. After Mom died, they were so hostile to one another for so very long. "You know, if you want to save on that taxi you can ride with me. Wouldn't hurt to get there early. Dawn could sure use the company."
"I'm sure Dawn won't be hurting for attention. She is the bride, after all."
"Nosy relatives and jealous friends aren't the kind of company she needs. The poor kid has been all nerves lately. When she came home from lunch this afternoon, she actually looked almost happy. That sunny smile of hers has been missing for such a long time."
"At least one of us had a good time," Jeff said.
"Jeff, I know how you feel." Vince thrust his hands in his pockets. "Losing someone you care about is difficult." Vince had four older sisters; it was safe to assume he hadn't felt the same at any of their weddings.
"Dad, it isn't the same with you and your sisters. Dawn and I, we---"
"I was talking about your mother."
Suspecting his father might know the truth about he and Dawn was both terrifying and liberating.
"When Claire died I thought my world was over. I was so depressed for so long, and I let that depression affect the people I loved, especially you." Jeff remembered the last time they'd talked about Mom. He'd ended up with a bruised cheek and a bloody nose. "Claire, your mom, she was everything to me. It hurt so much when she died; it still does. What hurts even more is that I was there for your sister but never for you."
"Dawn was so young. She needed you more."
"I never thought you hurt as much as she did."
"They told me not to cry. I had to be strong for you and Dawn, Grandpa, and Uncle William, and everyone else said so. But I missed Mom so much it hurt. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know anything except that I couldn't cry. There were nights when I couldn't sleep."
"Jesus," Vince Kramer rubbed his temples. "What kind of terrible father am I? I should have been there for you. We should have spent more time together, talked." They could have done all that. It would have made a pretty Hallmark Cards commercial, but it wouldn't have made Jeff happy. It wouldn't have brought Mom back.
"She would be proud of you. You know that?" Jeff looked at the floor. He loved praise but only where merited. "It took a little while, but you turned out to be the kind of man she always wanted you to be."
"Mom wanted me to be a marginally successful quarterback in the Canadian league?"
Vince chuckled. "She wanted you to be brave, and you are, Jeff, braver than any kid has a right to be." Vince Kramer opened his arms. When Jeff made no move to engage the hug, Vince extended his hand. "I'm proud of you," Vince said, as they tensely shook hands.
Jeff made little attempt to reconcile with his father. What was the point? He didn't know about Jeff's relationship with Dawn after all; he most certainly wouldn't have been proud of that.
"Are you ready?" Vince asked.
"Not really." Jeff checked his hip pocket, ensuring his wallet was accounted for. He gave a sideways nod toward the door.
Vince touched Jeff's back and smiled, pretending to understand.
Jeff hopped in the passenger seat of his father's minivan. After a short drive, they ended up not at the expected banquet hall but in front of a very familiar house.
"Why did you bring me home?" Jeff asked.
"Because we need to talk some more. And not in some motel room or crowded banquet hall." Vince reached up, pressing the garage door opener that was clipped to the visor.
"There's one problem with your little kidnapping plot, my cell phone. I have the taxi company's number."
"Too bad you left your phone on the motel dresser. Let's talk in the garage."
Jeff settled into the role of hostage. The van door slowly creaked open and he climbed out. "No offense, Dad, but when we talk bad stuff happens." He did the best to chase the sarcasm from his voice.
After mom died, they attempted to maintain the illusion of a loving father and adoring son, for Dawn's sake, if nothing else. Jeff went so far as to join the high school baseball team his father managed. The illusion of their relationship was irreparably fractured when Jeff abruptly quit baseball to focus his talents on football. Ignoring Jeff's obvious talents, his father had taken the move as a personal slight.
Vince flipped on the garage lights. Beneath the hundred-watt glare of a naked light bulb was the canvas-draped silhouette of a very familiar machine. Vince lifted the canvas veil from the exterior of the canary-yellow Thunderbird. Jeff had worked so hard to restore that car. If he wasn't at practice, or out with some girl, he was under the hood.
The Thunderbird looked different, very different. A fat purple stripe now ran the length of the exterior. Another thick stripe blemished the hood and top.
"You had it painted?" Jeff could think of nothing to say. He just stared, mouth agape.
"That's pretty much the same reaction Dawn had." Vince Kramer sighed. "I wanted her to drive it, at least until you came back."
Once the initial shock wore off, Jeff decided it wasn't so bad, different, maybe, but not bad. "Purple?" he asked, "What were you thinking?"
"It's plum, actually."
"She can't drive a stick."
"I know, even after all those lessons you gave her."
Jeff thought of the many afternoons he and Dawn had spent together. As brilliant as she was, she never could quite grasp the many nuances of the manual transmission. That was okay; the driving lessons were more of an excuse to spend time together.
Jeff nodded. "And you bring me home because you somehow think you can make peace between us?"
"We need to make peace; it's long overdue."
Jeff felt his stomach churn. Those pesky emotions would wreak havoc if he didn't suppress them. His heart slowed just a bit and his breathing steadied. You cheated on Mom. He wanted to scream. Was his father so thickheaded he couldn't understand the consequences of infidelity? Marriages are ruined; entire families are ruined.
"Why would I ever forgive you?" he asked.
"Because you are your mother's son." Vince Kramer licked the pad of his thumb and cleaned a smudge from the hood of the Thunderbird. He didn't make eye contact.
"Oh no!" Jeff said. "If you want forgiveness or unconditional love, you're talking with the wrong Kramer child. Wide-eyed innocence is Dawn's thing, not mine."
"I see a lot of her influence in you; you know that?"
Was he talking about Mom?
The Thunderbird was unlocked. Jeff opened the door and sat inside. He sniffed the warm, stale air. Every distinct odor carried a memory: the ammonia of glass cleaner, the woodiness of air freshener, and the pungency of sweaty football pads. Commanding his attention above all the rest was the amalgamation of demure feminine odors. He leaned over to the passenger headrest and inhaled the sweet scent of strawberry shampoo, and lilac perfume. Dawn's scent clung to the upholstery, refusing to let go. He remembered the many nights she had sat next to him in the darkened corner of Corrigan Park and the way her freckled cheeks tinted pink when he leaned in for a kiss.
Jeff leaned back against his own headrest. Dawn wasn't with him; she was halfway across town, eagerly awaiting her soon-to-be husband in a rented banquet hall.
His dad opened the passenger door and climbed inside. "You know, your mom---"
"Shut up, Dad. Just, shut the fuck up!" Jeff's head thumped against the headrest three times. "Stop pretending like we're still a family. It's a delusion. Mom is dead; yeah, I get it. Let's all move on.
"Do you know what's happening? Do you have any idea?" Try as he might, Jeff just couldn't bury his emotions deep enough. "No, you're probably glad. Once she's gone you can concentrate on your true love, being a miserable old man."
Jeff shrugged the reassuring hand from his shoulder. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel as the first humiliating tear dripped from the bridge of his nose.
"Come on," Vince said. "We don't want to be late. Your sister would kill me."
All four aunts were at the rehearsal dinner, Grandma too. All gushed when they saw Jeff in his sharp sport coat. They told him how handsome and grown up he looked. He wanted to remind them he'd been handsome and grown up for quite a few years, but he bit his tongue. Let them gush, he thought. The abuse he received, the hugs and smeared lipstick, would be nothing compared to seeing Dawn in the arms of that other man.
Lovely as always, that particular night Dawn could have been the poster girl for unabashed femininity. Her long red hair had been teased into very loose coils. Pink polish ornamented her fingernails and a light layer of makeup softened already soft features. The dress though, a little black number that accentuated her ivory-fair skin, that's what drew stares, even from the old men. He could see a bit of her fiancé Roger in all of them, wishing, hoping, drooling beside their own wives, each man longing for a young, lithe, twenty-one-year-old bride of his own. How disgusting.
She was never alone, not even for a moment. Well-wishers constantly haloed the blushing bride. He recognized his own family: Grandma Len, Mom's favorite cousin Eddie. Dad's sisters were all there, and their kids, and their kids' kids.
He also recognized two of Dawn's little girlfriends, though neither of them were girls anymore. Tara was still a tiny thing, but she'd finally filled out, proving that the Wonder Bra truly was a wonder. And Jenny, is that really Jenny?, had slimmed to the point of being barely recognizable. More than once he heard a low, throaty laugh from across the banquet room and realized that, yes, it truly was Jenny.
He spent a little time with them both. Tara remained as adorable as ever. Her blond hair had been cropped ultra short and a cluster of silver rings dangled from her little ears. She would be a sophomore this fall at Iowa State, where she had been named captain of the women's soccer team. There were whispers that she was a serious candidate for the women's Olympic team, whispers she had no doubt started herself.
Tara remained passionate about her sport. He could tell as much while she regaled him with tales of headers and last second bicycle kicks. As much as Jeff liked sports, soccer had always been an unappealing game. He didn't know a yellow card from a Christmas card, so he attempted to steer the conversation in a different direction. Tara would have none of it. God, am I this obnoxious when I brag about football games? Jeff inwardly groaned and decided he probably was.
Jenny was more accommodating, to the ears as well as the eyes. She had always seemed attractive in a rubenesque sort of way, but now she was pinup material. The extra padding she once carried around her belly and hips had melted away. Her chest, however, remained untouched by the weight loss, seeming even more impressive on such a slender body.
The exterior may have dramatically changed but on the inside, she was still the same shy Jenny. They had slept together on two separate occasions, the second time ending in disaster when he called out his kid sister's name during orgasm. The ring on her finger reminded him just how long ago that had been.
She was married to a great guy who worked in financial planning. They were happy and in love and had already named all of the children they would be having. His name was Mark, and he would have been on her arm had he not had an allergic reaction to a bee sting that afternoon.
A bee sting? What a great excuse to miss out on the fun of the rehearsal. Jeff wished he'd thought of it first. It looks like finances aren't all this Mark guy plans.
Time and again, Jeff cursed himself for coming home, and he cursed himself for attending the stupid wedding rehearsal. Dawn appeared relaxed as she shook hands and exchanged pecks with her guests. She looked happy; the realization made him feel foolish for ever imagining he could change her mind.
He checked his watch: eight o' clock. The rehearsal was scheduled for seven. He wondered what kind of groom couldn't clear his schedule long enough to do a walkthrough wedding. Jeff sighed, wishing he was back in his hotel room, not sitting at the bar filling his bladder with warm ginger ale.
A commotion raised in the crowded banquet hall. Jeff glanced to the door just in time to see Dawn leap into the arms of a short, thick-bodied man, her Roger. She squealed as he spun her twice. As the hem rose dangerously close to her panty line, Jeff became keenly aware of just how little her little black dress truly was.
The happy couple's kiss was long enough to make Jeff queasy. People he didn't recognize gathered around. They shouted, hooted, and hugged the groom-to-be. Roger's people, he realized. Jeff spun on the barstool and asked for another glass of ginger ale.
He was sick of soda and sick of weddings. For the billionth time since going sober, he was seriously tempted to ask for a shot of whiskey or tequila or anything that would numb his brain. He didn't though. He spent the next half hour watching the ice cubes melt in his ginger ale, taking only the occasional sip.
"And just who is this guy?" The last lingering thread of Jeff's patience severed. The happy groom smiled down on him, one thick arm wrapped tightly around Dawn. Roger looked just as he had in the picture: stocky, unremarkable and way too old. Jeff climbed off the barstool to shake hands. From his vantage point, he could see more than a few gray hairs sprouting from the top of Dr. Roger's head. "Wow! She told me you were big, but I had no idea. Good to finally meet you, bro." Jeff nearly choked on ginger ale when Roger called him that.
Dawn wriggled from Roger's hold to smack Jeff's back, as he coughed up a lungful of soda. "Got to watch it, bro. That Canada Dry is some heavy stuff." Roger bellowed as Jeff's lungs finally settled down.
"Yeah," Jeff said, massaging his burning throat. "Normally I drink 7-Up. I must..." He coughed one last time. "I must be a little homesick."
The words soared over Roger's plump head, but Dawn giggled at her brother's oxygen-deprived attempt at humor. "Dawn tells me that you play football."
"Yeah, I'm in the Canadian league at the moment."
"The Canadian league?" Roger ruffled his graying hair and smiled. "Isn't the Canadian League where they send the guys who aren't good enough for the NFL?" He never gave Jeff a chance to respond. "Well, you'll always have your number-one fan right here." He put his arm around Dawn and roughly squeezed. "Every Saturday she's at Daddy's house, watching Big Brother Jeff play on the plasma screen." That bit of news raised Jeff's spirits but seemed to dampen Dawn's. "She's told me everything about you."
"Everything?" croaked Jeff. His throat still burned from the soda.
"Oh yeah, everything, your records, your stats. She won't shut up about her big brother, the football star." Jeff sighed with relief. She clearly hadn't told Roger everything. "If you ever need someone to be president of your fan club, my little Dawn here would be the perfect choice."
The corner of Jeff's mouth lifted in a smirk he directed at Dawn. "Won't shut up about me, huh?" She bit her lip, and her face went pink.
"You know how sisters are," Roger said. Jeff nodded. He knew how his sister was. "My sister Jesse practically worships me. She went to medical school just to follow in my footsteps." Roger pointed a stubby finger at a well-dressed brunette across the room. "She's a real beauty isn't she?" Jeff nodded. Roger's sister was actually quite lovely, in a buttoned-down, pant-suit-wearing-professional sort of way. Roger waved his arm and beckoned his sister over. "I want you to meet her." The woman excused herself from the guy she was chatting with and started over. "I hope you don't think she's too old for you." Roger's elbow poked Jeff's ribs causing him to cough up another mouthful of soda.
"Jesse!" Roger grabbed his kid sister in a bear hug. The display of normal sibling affection made Jeff feel just as uncomfortable as Dawn looked. Roger released his sister and motioned towards Jeff. "Jesse, this is Jeff Kramer, Dawn's great-big brother."
Jeff offered a hand and a smirk. "I'm not that great."
Jesse flashed a smirk of her own. Her complexion was dusky, almost exotically so. "That's not the way Dawn tells it." She turned to Roger and scowled. "When is this damned rehearsal supposed to get started? Unlike some people," she poked her brother in the chest, "I have work tomorrow."
This time Roger scowled. "I have a bit of a situation. My buddy, Bennett, is supposed to be the best man, but he was called to the ER because some schmuck swallowed a chicken bone. I'm having a bit of trouble finding a replacement."
"What about Stretch Armstrong here?" Jesse touched Jeff's shoulder. "He's the best man I've seen all night."
"No," Dawn said, "I don't think---"
"What do you say, bro? Are you up to it?" Roger cocked his head.
"You don't have to," Dawn said, smearing a bead of sweat across her brow. She was supremely rattled by the prospect of her big brother playing the part of best man. How could he refuse?
Exhibiting his best behavior, Jeff played his part and played it well. Once the rehearsal ended the buffet line was quick to form, too quick for Jeff. He kept a safe distance, watching curiously as the banquet hall transformed into a battle royal of grumbling stomachs and hungry mouths. He was not the only straggler. The groom's younger sister, Jesse, waited her turn beside him. She was the very definition of casual, checking the finish on her fingernails as two old women argued over the burnt end of a brisket.