|I'm sitting there on Mona's lumpy old
couch, watching the women stomp in. Each one marches in place for a few
seconds on the mat outside the front door, stamping the wet snow off her
boots with a heavy thud, thud--these mostly heavy women. Then they shuck
off their parkas and hand them to Mona, who is no sylph herself, I must
say, even if she is my sister. Each one gives her a kiss.
Most of them have short, boyish hair--some shorter than mine--and a lot of them are wearing button-down shirts and neckties. It makes me think that I should have worn a tie too, but Mona and Barb had said "casual."
So there I am in my good jeans and button-down shirt, being introduced by Mona to each woman as "Bill, my brother." I keep thinking: should I stand up? But it seems pointless to jump up and down each time one of them approaches, and these women don't seem to expect it. Each one smiles and gives me a hearty handshake. Their plump, Midwestern faces are ruddy from the cold and friendly enough, but drab. None of them wears make-up.
I keep hoping a guy will stomp in, any sort of guy. So far, it's just me and Whiskers, the overfed furball lounging next to me on the couch. But he's just a cat--a lazy old neutered tom.
I know I'm the only one, male or female, from Mona's side who's going to show, but Barb supposedly has family coming--including a dad and a brother. They all live there in the Twin Cities, so they have no excuse, while our relatives are all in the East.
The parental units had said it was too far to travel--sure, sure--but not me. Living in New York the past few years has broadened me, made me more tolerant, I think. And I love Mona, no matter what, even if we did fight like fury as kids.
I'm thinking maybe I can bring Mom and Dad around someday. They take me a lot more seriously lately, probably because they think I'm the only one who's ever going to give them grandchildren.
The living room is filling up, and some men begin to arrive: thin, obviously gay dudes with too perfect hair, and then some straight, Midwestern guys with big paunches. They all give me a quick, quizzical look, as if trying to figure out what the hell I am.
I decide it's time to circulate and drift over to the punch-and-cookies table in the dining room, where most of the crowd has gathered. I get a drink and a brownie, then look around for someone to talk to. They all seem to know each other, and they're all jabbering away about people and things I don't know or can't fathom. There doesn't seem to be any way to cut in, so I munch on the brownie, trying to look relaxed. Thank God the punch is spiked.
After a while, a thin old lady with long gray hair and a gypsy-type outfit comes over to rescue me. She smiles and says, "So you must be Bill."
"Yup. I'm Bill," I say. "Mona's baby brother."
"Mona told me about you," she says.
"Oh really," I say. "Good stuff, I hope."
"I'm Celia," she says. "I teach classics at the university. Barb was one of my students."
"Ahh," I say.
"Mona tells me you're in publishing?"
"Well . . . sort of," I say. "I write for a trade magazine. Chemical Dynamics."
"Uh-huh. Is that interesting?"
"No. Is classics interesting?"
She laughs. "That's about all it has going for it," she says. "It's interesting to me. And beautiful: 'In the true mythology, Love is an immortal child, and Beauty leads him as a guide: nor can we express a deeper sense than when we say, Beauty is the pilot of the young soul.' "
"Emerson," she says.
"Excuse me. Nice meeting you." She moves off toward the other end of the table and begins to fill a paper plate with carrot sticks.
I feel awkward again, standing there munching and staring into space. But then one of the pudgy Midwestern guys strides up to me, pumps my hand, and says, "Howdy. Steve Sanders."
"Hi," I say. "Bill Conley. Are you one of Barb's relatives?"
"Her brother," he says. "You must be Mona's."
"You from the East Coast?"
"Not used to all this snow?"
"Oh, we get it. Not this much, usually, though."
"Yeah. Well, I guess we're, sort of . . . related now," he says. "Strange world."
I laugh, and then he begins to laugh, too--a little too loudly.
Someone in the living room rings an old-fashioned dinner bell. "Come on everybody. It's time," one of the women calls.
Mona and Barb are standing together in front of the fireplace, grinning. They're dressed alike in maroon corduroy pants, lacy white shirts, and paisley vests. With their close-cropped hair, they almost look like twins.
Everyone forms a half circle around them, and several people begin to snap pictures. "Let's wait for pictures till after," Barb says, raising her hand.
The room falls silent. Mona holds up a silvery, braided ring and pushes it onto Barb's finger.
"With this ring," she says, "I promise that, from this day and forever more, you shall not walk alone."
Barb puts a similar ring on Mona's finger. "With this ring, I entrust you with my heart . . . ."
My mind begins to wander. I look over at Whiskers, who is now sitting up on the back of an overstuffed chair. He stares at me and cocks his furry head a little, and I'm reminded of the Cheshire Cat. "How do you know I'm mad?" Alice says, if I recall the book correctly. "You must be," says the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
Everyone begins to clap when the ceremony is over. Then Mona and Barb are prodded out onto the front porch to have their pictures taken. Most of the guests flow back to the dining room and begin to eat and gab again. I look around for Steve, but he seems to have already left.
I want a cigarette, bad, so I zigzag my way through the crowd and out onto the back deck. It's cold out there, but not unbearably so. I sit on the wooden railing, which has been swept clean of snow, and look out at the park behind Mona's house--Mona and Barb's house, now.
There's a round stone tower poking up through the bare trees, with a pitched roof on top that looks like a witch's hat. Mona had told me earlier that it's an abandoned water tower, and we joked that it looked much like a huge penis.
I'm trying to calculate how tall the tower might be when I hear the back door slam. I whisper "shit" under my breath, because I really prefer to be alone just then.
A tall, slim, twenty-something woman, about my age, all dressed in artsy black, is standing just outside the doorway, digging around in her purse. She pulls out a cigarette and sticks it in her mouth. I notice she's wearing lipstick and has a pretty face--the first one I've seen all afternoon. Maybe I don't want to be alone after all.
"I never can find my fucking lighter," she says, still rooting in the purse.
"Can I light your fire?" I say, fishing a book of matches out of my pocket. She gives me a sour look, then strides over and takes the matches out of my hand before I can strike one for her. She mumbles "thanks" as she lights up. "Amy."
"What?" I say as she hands the matches back.
She blows a cloud of smoke. "And what's your interest in all this?"
"I'm Mona's brother. From New York."
"Oh, yeah. She mentioned she had a brother. Where's the rest of the Conley clan?"
"They decided it was a little too far for them to travel."
"Oh, uh-huh. Well, at least you came." She flicks an ash over the railing. "What do you do?"
"I'm a reporter," I say.
"Really? Me, too. Who for?"
"A trade magazine called Chemical Dynamics."
"Oh." She sounds disappointed.
"Well, who do you write for?" I say.
"The Minneapolis Star Tribune. I won the Audrey Sisson Award last year for a series I wrote on public housing. And I've been a stringer for the Washington Post."
I'm jealous. "Cool," I say. "How do you know Mona and Barb?"
"I worked with Barb on the breast cancer runner's marathon committee."
"You run--and smoke?"
"Ha! I only smoke at parties. I ran the New York Marathon in four hours last year," she says. "You run?"
"Yeah, but just around the local track. No marathons yet. And I work out at a gym."
"Me, too," she says. "I can bench press over 100 pounds."
"Wow," I say. "I can . . . uh . . . almost bench that much."
She smiles and begins to hum a tune. I recognize it as a kid's song: "I Can Do Anything Better than You Can."
"Yeah, well . . ." I say.
She stops humming. "I don't know. No offense, but I can't see why the world even needs men anymore."
"Well, the human race would disappear pretty quick without them," I say.
"I'm not so sure. Mona and Barb have been talking about starting a family. All you need is a test tube these days."
"Starting a family?"
"Oops. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything."
I throw my cigarette over the railing and stare out at the tower. "Phallic, isn't it?" I say after a while.
She shrugs. "It's a tower."
I'm starting to shiver. "I think I'll go inside now," I say. "Nice meeting you."
"Uh-huh," she says. "Thanks for the light."
The party is going full blast. More people--mostly women--have arrived, and I can hardly move through the crowd. I bump into Mona and give her a kiss on the cheek. "Congratulations," I shout over the hubbub. "I think I'll go upstairs and lie down for a while."
"Thanks, little brother. You feeling okay?"
"Yeah, just a little tired," I say.
The doorbell rings. "Could you get that?" Mona says.
When I open the door, a skinny, teen-aged delivery guy in a T-shirt is standing there, holding a huge stack of pizzas. "Where you want them, dude?" he says.
"Follow me." We snake through the crowd and into the kitchen, with several of the guests trailing behind us. He dumps the pizzas onto the table, and Mona and the other women begin to tear into them.
"How much?" I ask him.
"Uh, how much what?" he says, looking around at all the big women.
"Money," I say.
"Already paid for," he says.
I give him a five-dollar tip. He says, "thanks," and then begins to look for a way out of the kitchen. More guests are coming in to get their slices, and the doorway is blocked. He looks at me and raises an eyebrow. I notice he has a little beard--a dark little goatee growing in. "Come on, let's get out of here," I say.
We shove our way through the wall of women--"excuse me, excuse me"--and I open the front door for him. "What's with the beard?" I say.
"Why are you growing a beard, man?"
"Dunno. Because I can, I guess. So long, guy. Enjoy your party or whatever this is."
I really do want to lie down. I start to climb the stairs, but Whiskers is blocking my way. He stares at me from where he's curled up on the fifth step and seems to nod a little. I pat him on the head, then rub my chin as I step over him. I shaved only a few hours ago, but already I can feel some stubble there. And then I make the decision.
I figure it's only going to take me a week
or two to grow a full, manly beard.
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