Friday
May102013

+1

By Katherine Bucknell


Odyssey Editions
April 2013


 

It was a Roman Catholic wedding. Alice felt this made it more serious, and they all knew it was more of a commitment on Leo's part. He had attended classes with Lisa, spent hours with priests in Lake Forest and in New York, and even gone to mass. Alice knew he would have agreed to anything that was asked of him in order to marry her. Rituals, disciplines, initiations.

She felt suddenly chilly as she walked with Richard into the dim, unfamiliar church. The organ was playing softly. The pews stretching in front of them were full of hats, dark suits, clean shaves, muted voices. White flowers and ribbons abounded on high brass pedestals and hung from twisted Romanesque columns. There were mosaics and richly colored paintings high up on the pale green walls; shining gold halos and wings spread onto the ceiling. The air smelled like talcum powder.

As they stood in the arched doorway, she clutched Richard's arm and looked for a sign that she could understand.

Up the aisle came Dick, in a nearly black tail coat and striped grey pants. He seemed taller and thinner than ever, his face white, his eyes flinty. His wiry black hair looked as if it had been raked and varnished. He held out his left arm to his mother, turning elegantly with his heels together, waiting. Alice thought it was like starting a figure in a square dance. She raised an eyebrow at Richard, letting go. Then Dick, with Richard following, walked her slowly all the way up to the second pew on the right where Alice saw her mother in a dark red wool dress with her diamond brooch, already seated. The front pew was empty.

Richard insisted that Alice sit on the aisle so that she would be able to see everything. He put his hands firmly on her hips and stepped past her, then slid along the polished wooden seat between her and Mrs. Thompson. When Alice sat down, he took her hand and squeezed it.

"You look really marvellous," he whispered.

"I think the boys are all hung over," she whispered back.

"They'll cope," said Richard. "They're young and they're healthy. Don't worry. Just enjoy it. This is a very special day."

She laid her little black handbag on her lap and sat up straight, eyes forward, looking at the altar. It was covered in an ornate white openwork cloth on which stood two huge, gold-colored candelabra. Just like a table being laid for a meal, she thought.

Now Gloria, Mother of the Bride, was escorted up the aisle by Lisa's twenty-year-old brother, Tim.

Tim was red-faced and smiling broadly. His skin looked pimply and chafed; there were red spots on his jaw line and flakes of white down his neck. His blonde hair looked stiff, and it shone in hard clumps, like matted straw. He swung his mother around toward her seat with enthusiasm so that she had to shuffle her tiny feet quickly.

Alice saw Gloria snatch at the pew to steady herself. Flower petals from the arrangement attached to the end of the pew drifted onto the stone floor. Gloria settled gingerly in her seat on the aisle, looking hollow-eyed and indignant. Her skin and her hair were auburn colored, and she was freckled all over with tiny mauve spots. She was wearing emerald green silk and a mink stole and hat. Heirlooms, according to Lisa.

"Supposedly, my grandmother wore them at my parents' wedding," Lisa had laughed, her thick blond hair shimmering with it. "Mom likes things to go just the way they've always gone. Otherwise, she freaks out."

Alice smiled at Gloria, hoping Gloria would smile back. For better or for worse, she thought, we're going to be connected now. To Gloria, and Ned, and Tim. Tim who seems to find all this a little boring, reflected Alice.

Tim's unbuttoned morning coat flapped open across his broad middle as he spun past her back up the aisle, and Alice thought she saw the bulge of a flask in his pants pocket.

When she looked up again, there was Leo, standing right in front of the altar. His familiar sunny smile, his glowing blue eyes, his thin golden hair all topping the white tie, the starched shirt front, the formal vest and morning coat of a man about to be married. Pinned to his left lapel was a white blossom, stephanotis, for good luck. Dick, Best Man, darker, taller, and in every way more restrained, stood beside him.

They took up an identical wide stance, shifting their feet as if to find an exact foothold, clasping their left hands in their right at the groin, lifting their chins to look out over the congregation, all the way to the back of the church.

They don't even see me here with their father, thought Alice; they are looking right past us. For what comes next. She had a sudden sensation of water running over her. She lifted her hands a little in the air thinking she could catch it. The water was time. It had already passed. I never felt it going, she thought. What should I have done? Why didn't I see? And then she thought, But it's so obvious. Now, it's so obvious that it would come to this.

The priest sailed in on a tide of altar boys like a galleon fully set. His glittering white vestments swayed as he walked, and the gold crucifix dived and plunged up the aisle before him.

Then, the organ struck up more loudly and a little faster, and Alice smiled again, unable to resist the mounting excitement. She twisted around in the pew, feeling the hard seat through her thin dress.

Tom was first up the aisle, escorting Lisa's minute red-headed cousin in luminous orange-yellow silk.

Tom's walk was stately and slow, as though someone had put weights in his shoes or he were walking under water. Alice tried not to giggle. His long brown curls were slicked back soberly. There were dark shadows under his brown eyes. His expression was deathly still. Alice caught his eye, glimmered, turned away. She knew that he had stayed up most of the night with his older brothers. All through lunch, she had wondered what they had let him drink. But she had managed not to ask.

The cousin looked like an autumn rose on Tom's arm. Her full-blown skirt rustled and swayed like a bell around her fairy calves. Her high platform sandals were gold. As they drew closer, Alice could see the wreath of miniature orange and yellow roses on her red hair.

Then came Tim and another cousin, taller than Tim, with her large, beautifully manicured hand clenched knowingly on Tim's careless forearm, guiding him, insisting.

Such different figures in the same clothes, thought Alice. And she felt that she saw the shapes and colors stretching and changing before her very eyes. A slim brown-haired boy metamorphosing into a stocky, fair young man; an elfin redhead transformed into a bold brunette. Each filled the same role, thought Alice, Member of the Wedding Party. We are all in Gloria's hands. It doesn't matter where we come from or what we go to afterwards, as long as we play our part in the ritual.

Alice's forearms prickled. She shivered. Richard silently laid his warm, black-haired hand on her thigh.

Now Lisa's college roommate, the Maid of Honor, processed step by solemn step to join the others. The bell of her orange-yellow skirt swayed just like the two bridesmaids'; the same wreath of roses bloomed on her upswept dark hair; but she carried a bigger bouquet in her hands, and she walked unescorted. It seemed to Alice like a sacrifice, walking in alone. The Maid of Honor took up her place by the altar, and turned her head, alert, as if she were ready to offer support, counsel.

Despite everything, Alice was not ready. She felt shocked when she heard the organ strike up "Here Comes the Bride." She gave a little gasp and touched her cheeks with her hands.

There was the vision at the back of the church, the veiled beauty on her father's arm, floating towards them in quivering white tulle, orchids spilling to her front hem, a train of lace behind.

Half visible through the long veil, Lisa's figure was a slender hourglass tightly cased in silk, the womanly shape that walks down the aisle forever in the wedding of so many dreams.

Watching Ned's face, Alice could see the flicker of emotion at the top of each cheek, as if tears might break free from the corners of his eyes and run riot over his robust smile.

After they passed between the front pews, Alice rounded on Gloria, unexpectedly looking her full in the face. And she saw satisfaction kindle in Gloria's spectral blue eyes.

Ned gave up his daughter to be married, then, scarlet-faced under his tuft of white hair, manoeuvred his portly figure in beside Gloria.

Alice watched it all through a haze of incense and tears. She concentrated intently on every word spoken, whispered, or sung, as if she could memorize it, as if she could make the ceremony last forever. But it ran away from her like the waters of her life. The readings. The rings. The vows. The homily.

Except when Leo and Lisa kneeled down on the embroidered pillows to pray and to be blessed.

That's marriage, Alice thought, as if she saw the institution crystallized before her eyes. That awkward, voluntary posture of humility and hope. It pierced her heart. How old-fashioned, she thought. How innocent.

Each time they kneeled, the Maid of Honor fussed over Lisa's train, pulling it away from the heels of her shoes before Leo helped Lisa up again.

Sometimes, there is nobody there to help, Alice thought. And she felt a terrible pain at the difficulties they faced. A child grows up, pairs off. But it's not a culmination. It's a beginning. Leo and Lisa have the world all before them, she thought.

Suddenly, around the church, she saw couples, some old and frail, side by side, attached to each other in the shadowy pews. Each couple is renewed by this public avowal, thought Alice. And she wanted to say to Leo and Lisa, We all have to come back here to the wedding ceremony and go through it again so that we can try to remember what we promised each other. You will have to come back, too. And kneel again.

The altar boys, like half-sized surpliced waiters, fetched and carried oil, wine, bread. The congregation filled the aisles, then silently melted away again. It was all so strange to Alice, so mysterious. She didn't take communion. She didn't know how. She watched Richard take it, or at least she watched the broad back of his smoothly fitting dark blue suit, his elbows flickering as he made the sign of the cross, the grey and black coils of his hair wandering over his brilliant white shirt collar as he bowed his head and lifted it. He remained just a little taller than any of the boys, heavier now, but still somehow glamorous, thought Alice, with his erect bearing, his precise grooming that she loved because it spoke more of duty than personal vanity, his unshakeable self-confidence. It came to Richard as easily as good manners, to smile and engage with everyone and everything, as if only good might result.

 She knew that he took communion because Leo was taking it, and this made her glad. In all the years of her marriage, she had never seen Richard take communion. It was a whole world of his that she had never entered—St. Mark's Church, the Armenian sisters. Left behind long before we even met, she thought. Would I have converted to what he believed, wondered Alice, if he had asked me?

She glanced at her mother, sitting serenely alone. Everything about Mrs. Thompson's tall figure was set at an angle, the splayed joints of her hands, the razored layers of her white hair, her square, sharp-nosed face. Mom doesn't wonder what they're up to. She's separated herself completely from that kind of anxiety. She's so sure of who she is, what she believes.

How does Leo know how to take communion? Alice pictured the kitchen table at home, the five of them gathered around it at supper, after school. The center of my world, she thought. Was it the center of theirs? Was it ever?

When the priest at last permitted the bride and groom to kiss, Alice thought her knees might buckle.

"God, I'm so relieved!" she said to Richard. "The ceremony was so--scary!"

Richard turned to her in surprise, his brown eyes warm with pleasure. Then he laughed. He took her face in both his hands and gave her a quick kiss on the mouth. "You're just not used to all the incense and muttering! You like a nice clean-cut Protestant service. But look at them, just look--" and he flung a hand toward Leo and Lisa, their arms still laced around one another at the altar, their bodies softly meshed, their faces transfigured.

"That crazy intoxicated feeling," he said in a tone of playful excitement that seemed to pretend he and Alice were abetting a scandal, "allowed out in public right here in the church! Announcing itself as an official social intention. It needs a bit of ceremony, don't you think? Otherwise, it might burn us all up! You don't want to be too close to that without some religious supervision."

Alice laughed, "Is that what you think?"

"I recognize what I see in that young couple. That's love. It deserves all honors and all sacraments." He looked at Alice with a rogueish smile, as if to say, You recognize it too, don't you? Admit it.

"Yes," she said out loud, feeling suddenly shy.

"It's a beautiful thing to see. And to share." He put his arm around her waist, drawing her into an intimate, familiar posture, their flesh immediate. Then, loosening his hold only a little, he jostled her towards the end of the pew as the bride and groom now walked past them smiling, waving, followed by their wedding party, two by two.

 

The receiving line at the country club was the last vestige of order that Gloria managed to impose on the celebration.

Tim was hardly through the line before he began to rearrange place cards on the elaborately laid round dinner tables. Alice watched him on the far side of the dance floor. He pocketed a card or two from each table, then circled around again, replacing them according to his own design. Once or twice, he paused to study the names, then gave his pile a little shuffle. Alice stood her ground between Leo and Richard in the receiving line, smiling, holding out her hand to strangers, kissing old friends.

"You think Tim is okay?" she asked Dick when he walked up to take Lisa and Leo away for photographs.

"He's more than okay," laughed Dick. "I hope he makes it through his speech! You and Dad better come join us pretty soon. We need you in some of these pictures."

"I want a photograph of your mother in this irresistible dress," said Richard.

Dick smiled back at them as he walked away. "I'll try to care of it Dad. All the ushers think she looks totally hot."

"All the ushers?" said Alice half under her breath. "Tom and Tim? I'm older than both of them combined!"

"Well, don't forget Dick," teased Richard. "I'm sure you can count the Best Man."

After the last hand had been shaken and Alice stood beside Gloria smiling for the photographer, she leaned down close to Gloria's big pearl earring and said. "I see Tim was making some last minute changes to the seating plan."

Gloria kept smiling. "You mean at the dinner tables?"

"Well, I think so—was he doing that for you?"

"Oh, no. He wasn't doing anything for me. It's always best not to pay too much attention to anything Timothy does. He likes pranks. Boys are all the same. But then, you've got three, so I expect you know boys. A force for chaos. When I was a young mother, I used to lay down the law. Now I just leave them to it."

 "Right." said Alice. There must be a master list, she thought. And someone will help people find their seats.

As they walked back toward the party, Gloria took from her navy blue silk purse a gold box the size of a fifty-cent piece. She held the box in her right hand and pressed up on the lid with the back of her dark pink thumbnail until it snapped open. "I've given up smoking," she said. "It's become socially unacceptable."

Alice suddenly recognized in her voice the smoker's rasp. That's where the gravelly sound comes from, she thought. Gloria's a smoker.

"So now I take these when I need to." Gloria pinched a little round blue pill between her long nails. It had a V cut through it. "Maybe one of the boys will get me something to wash it down with."

But she didn't wait to ask the boys. She laid the pill on her brown tongue and flicked it back between her lips like a snake. Alice saw her throat swell as she swallowed it.

"There," said Gloria. "Things are all set. It's going to be a lovely party." Gloria's mouth spread wide in a peaceful smile. She didn't show her teeth. Her eyelids spread the same way, horizontally, and her blue eyes nearly disappeared.

"You're next to Ned. And of course, I'm next to Richard. That's how we've always done it here. Don't worry about a thing."

A waiter passed with a tray of filled champagne flutes.

"Cheers," said Gloria huskily, lifting a flute slowly in the air, then quaffing deeply.

"Cheers," responded Alice, taking a glass.

Then Gloria turned and walked away before Alice could take a sip.

Alice watched her sleepwalk to her table. Gloria identified her seat without consulting any place cards. She subsided into it, slapped her purse down on her plate, and held her empty champagne glass in the air. Another waiter stopped and filled it. Alice was awed.

Better find my own seat, she thought. She pictured a life preserver rather than a chair. Then she thought, What about the kids?

She threaded her way among the tables, trying to read the opulent calligraphy on the place cards. At last, she took a sip of her champagne. Then she opened her little black bag, resolutely took out her glasses, and put them on, glancing around self-consciously.

There I am. She spotted her name almost right away. And there's Tim, she noticed, on my left. And Bill Foster. On my right.

She stood with her hands on the back of her gold filigree chair, considering. So which one of them isn't supposed to be next to me, she wondered? Gloria said, Next to Ned. Ned would have me on his right. So—Tim must have swapped his own card with his father's. Or was it Bill's card Tim had swapped?

She began to look for Ned's card. It wasn't on the table at all. Alice remembered that Tim had wandered from table to table with his trail of mischief. Maybe he moved my card from another table, she thought, rather than moving Ned's.

But as she hunted among the other tables, reading card after card, she realized that if she moved any of them, she might only be mixing things up further. I can't put anything back if I don't know where it was to begin with.

For every name to which she could attach a face, she tried to picture a tête à tête. Would these two like to spend the evening beside one another? Talking, eating, drinking, perhaps dancing together? And what about the third person, on the other side? Is that a fit, too? The names and the faces moved around inside her head, smiling, laughing, shouting, questioning.

Oh, god, she thought. Lisa and her mother and Leo must already have spent hours on this. Discussing each person. All the suitable pairings. I don't even recognize some of these names, she said to herself, even if I did stand in that receiving line.

Then she decided to take a leaf out of Gloria's book. Don't worry about a thing.

It hardly matters where anyone sits, Alice told herself. It's a wedding. Every guest is a family member or close friend. Long-known, loved, wanted. At the very least, they all have Lisa and Leo in common.

I'll just sit here, where luck has put me. Or maybe where Tim has put me. If it's really important, I can move. Ned will come and get me. Or when we're about to sit down, I'll ask Tim what he did with my place card. Maybe he'll remember.

She took off her glasses and put them back inside her purse. She laid the purse beside her plate.

It was a long time before all the wedding guests gathered at their seats. Talk filled the room and loud laughter. Again and again among the milling, buzzing crowd, Alice saw Lisa bend forward to embrace or be embraced, her veil spilling around her soft bare shoulders. Again and again, she saw Leo put out his hand for shaking, circle someone's back with his arm, slap the back fondly. The bride and groom inched around the room. Dick urged them toward their places, gesturing, exhorting. Older people began to sit down. Little plates of smoked salmon and brown bread were flung onto each place like frisbees, and the white-jacketed waiters paced around impatiently, waiting to bring the main course.

Alice eyed her salmon hungrily. She pulled a crust off the bread and nibbled it. She saw Richard standing near Gloria's chair. She waved at him but she thought that he didn't see her. He didn't wave back. He sat down and inclined his head gallantly toward Gloria's, talking. She didn't see Ned.

Tom arrived at her table, carrying a glass of champagne. He raised it toward his mother, smiling. "You got the kids' table. Cool, Mom. Lisa told me we'd have Gran."

His bridesmaid partner sat next to Tom. And Bill Foster, Dick's godfather, sat between the bridesmaid and Alice. Across the table were two other young cousins of Lisa's.

"So great of you to fly out, Bill," said Alice.

"Wouldn't miss this for anything," said Bill. "Leo and Lisa tying the knot. And you in that dress, Alice! You don't look like anybody's mother, I can tell you that!"

Alice flushed; she wasn't getting used to the compliments. "Lisa helped me choose it. How's Barbara? Where's she sitting?"

There was a little silence. Bill glanced at Tom. Tom was turned away, talking to the cousins. "Barbara didn't come, Alice."

"That's too bad. What is it—marrying off the next generation reminds her you're a decade older than she is?" Alice grinned in friendly sympathy. "I hope she didn't mind you leaving her alone for the weekend?"

"We've split, Alice. I thought you knew."

Now it was Alice who looked at Tom. Then she looked back at Bill and spoke more solemnly. "I didn't know. I'm sorry to hear it."

He shrugged. With a pale, long-fingered hand, he flipped his lank brown hair around on the top of his head and then smoothed it down again. "So that's my news. Tell me what you've been up to."

"I'm back at school."

"Oh, yeah." Bill nodded. "Richard told me. What was it—nursing?"

Alice laughed. "Nursing the psyche."

"But you did nursing before, didn't you?"

"It was something I thought about once, a long time ago."

Bill turned and looked at her more closely, peeling something away between them. "I used to know everything about you, Al. So maybe now I only remember what I used to know."

Alice smiled. "I hadn't thought about it for years," she said. "Nursing would have been good for me. I guess it was the hours. It must have looked too demanding. Or maybe that's what Dad thought."

"Remind me how you ended up in that New York job? Where you met Richard?"

"Kids. I majored in psychology. Then I went into kids' publishing. Picture books, you know?"

"So now we've covered my two worst subjects," said Bill. "Marriage and kids. How's your tennis?"

"My tennis is good."

"I saw that you're still playing for the team."

"I'm pretty sure I'm the oldest one out there now," said Alice. "Ever since my mom had to quit."

Bill guffawed. "God, your mom. I can remember her slaughtering me once or twice when I was fifteen or sixteen! I think she was trying to warn me to watch my step with her daughter! She must have been on to us, Al."

Alice laughed, brushing it aside. "Mom grew up with men like you, Bill."

"It's great that you're still in shape, Al."

"You, too. Richard says you always beat him."

"Richard's not bad. He works too hard. Doesn't play enough. But I don't have to tell you that. I'll bet you beat him, too."

"No," said Alice uncertainly. "I can't remember the last time I beat him."

Bill laughed. "You're succumbing to the slice meister. Don't let him do that to you! You have a beautiful game, strong and true and steady. If you really wanted to beat him, you would! I love Richard, but ask your boys. He spins, he slices, and his line calls are not exactly generous. Not always gentlemanly." Bill coughed. "I guess that's not a nice thing to say about someone, is it? Especially not to his wife. But it's something I've always known about Richard. Something you just have to accept."

Alice felt embarrassed.

"I guess you know?" Bill went on gently.

She didn't say anything.

"I'm sorry, Alice." He looked thoughtful. "My marriage produced absolutely nothing and now it's over. Yours produced absolutely everything, and it's still going strong. So who can argue with that? I shouldn't be raising any questions about your husband, in tennis, or in life. Tell you what. When we get home, let's hit a few like we used to. I'll give you some tips, hey? Be fun to help you out. Call me when you're done with all this. When you have time."

"Okay. Sure. I'll call you."

They were half way through the chicken and cream sauce before Tim weaved in to take his seat. He leaned heavily on the table with both hands, poising his big rump over his little gold chair and backing towards it. The table top creaked and the cutlery jumped. Bill and Tom both leaped up, gripping the table in their hands to steady it.

Tim smacked down with a sigh, waving his arms at them. "Sit down, sit down!" he cried. "Relax."

He pushed away his chicken and took two pieces of crumpled lined paper out of one of his pockets. He began to unfold the paper on the pink table cloth. "Have to finish writing my speech," he said. His hands went back into his pockets, rummaging. "Anyone have a pen?"

No one did. So Tim hoisted himself out of his chair and went in search of one.

By the time he came back again, his raspberry sorbet had made a puddle on his plate. Affectionate, crowd-pleasing toasts were being offered by the fathers of the bride and groom. Ned drew laughter with his tales of Lisa's precocious sporting talent and her love of dressing up. Richard was equally sentimental, and he only half disguised it with drier wit.

"Everything today looks like a photo spread in a magazine. I don't want to spoil the effect with embarrassing realities that might have prevented this picture perfect moment in Leo's life—romantic rejections, acne, bullying, broken ankles, lap tops dropped in swimming pools. Thank god he has an unquenchably glad disposition and a genius for happiness—they led him to Lisa and won her heart. Lisa knows how to style absolutely anything and anyone, but I think we can all agree that the physical perfection of this occasion in fact expresses an authentic interior bond, a match, as perfect and profound as love matches can be.

"Today we celebrate inner and outer worlds in harmony. John Donne wrote a very beautiful poem describing how two bodies and two souls become one, how they see the world through a single set of eyes, how they share the mysteries of the spirit and the knowledge of the flesh, as true lovers should. It's called 'The Extasie.'

Richard has read this poem to me sometimes, thought Alice, listening. How unexpected to hear it now.

 "Our eye-beames twisted, and did thred
Our eyes, upon one double string…."

The poem created an atmosphere both sober and optimistic, erotic and joyful. It captured the seriousness of love, its fearfulness and intensity. And to Alice it also sounded flirtatious.

"Loves mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke."

The wedding guests caught their breath, fell silent, exhaled.

Richard turned to the bride and groom, bowing quickly, almost imperceptibly, from the hips, smiling benevolently. "The two of you may sometimes sense, like Voltaire's Candide, that this really is not the best of all possible worlds. Yet it behooves you, in the privilege of your love and your upbringing, to live as though you innocently believe that it is. You are two of the lucky ones, because you have found each other."

He has such a gift for this kind of moment, thought Alice proudly. Finding the words. Showing how it's part of a long train of similar moments, part of something that matters. Lots of people have had the same experiences, she thought. They've thought about them, written about them. Richard knows what everyone said and what they felt; he draws on it so easily that he makes us feel as if we know, too. As if we know exactly what we are doing. That we're not just imitating what others have done. That it belongs to us. That we're creating it now, fulfilling it.

Richard raised his glass, beaming with good spirits. "And how lucky we are to share the day on which these two make a public institution of their love for one another. A voluntary bond is the strongest kind, and we are all strengthened and inspired by witnessing it and participating in it."

Chairs scraped as some of the men stood up; glasses clinked as they were lifted.

"Leo and Lisa," said Richard. It raced around the room in a syncopated relay of whispers and shouts. There was a silence as the wedding guests sipped and swallowed, then solemnity and attentiveness dissolved into a general murmuring and rustling. The band began to play.

"Can you stop the music?" Tim asked of nobody in particular.

Alice leaned toward him sympathetically. "The bride and groom are just starting their dance," she said.

Tim looked at her blankly, the lids drooping vaguely over his watery grey-blue eyes.

"So it might not be a great idea to stop the music," she explained.

"What about my toast?" asked Tim.

"Well," said Alice. "The only people who made toasts were your dad and Leo's dad. In fact, the Best Man didn't even make a toast. So—maybe you shouldn't worry about it?" She called across the table, "Tom? You and Dick aren't making toasts, are you?"

Tom shook his head. Then he narrowed his eyes at his mother, enunciating loudly and slowly. "Just the fathers, Mom. That's what was—decided. Nobody else, Mom."

Alice got it. She nodded. She gave a thumbs-up between herself and Bill so that Tom could see her and Tim couldn't.

She leaned towards Tim. "What were you going to say in your toast? I'd like to hear? Why don't you tell me?"

"Well you know the old joke, don't you?"

"Which old joke?"

"The one about faking?"

"No," said Alice. "I don't know the old joke about faking."

"So." Tim leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. He levered his beefy hands up and down in the air. "So what's the difference between a man and a woman?"

The band played "You're the Top." Leo was dancing with Gloria now, and Ned was dancing with Lisa.

Bill repeated patiently, "What's the difference between a man and a woman?"

Tim nodded confidentially at Bill. Then he smiled at him. "You know the joke?"

"Don't think so," said Bill.

"Goes like this. A woman can fake an orgasm, but a man can fake a whole relationship."

Alice laughed out loud. Nobody else did.

"She gets it," said Tim, opening a palm toward her.

Alice was very red in the face. "It's a great joke," she said. "It's very funny."

"I know," said Tim. "So why don't they stop the music?"

She put a hand on Tim's arm. "Maybe it's a little colorful, Tim, for, you know, for a wedding."

"But that's not the whole toast."

"I'm sure it isn't," said Alice.

"That's just the beginning."

Bill pushed back his chair and stood up. "Would you like to dance, Alice?"

She felt a little startled. "Okay. Thank you." But she didn't get up.

Tim said, raising his voice, "Lisa and Leo are the real thing. There's nothing fake about them."

"Hear, hear," said Bill noncommittally.

"So the point of my toast is that they will have a lot of sons. It's a toast to fertility. To the rites of love. Tonight's their night."

"Of course," said Alice. But she wasn't sure whether she really understood.

Tim said, "You know all about it Mrs. Gregory. You've got three sons. Anybody could tell just by looking at you. And how you dress and everything. Holy moly!"

Now Richard was dancing with Lisa. "The Street Where You Live." Dick was dancing with the Maid of Honor. Leo handed off Gloria to Ned and walked over to ask his mother to dance.

 "Mom? You ready?" he stood by her chair, holding out his hand. Alice smiled and stood up, feeling relieved. Leo so often had that effect on her, a feeling of relief. "Sorry, Bill," she said. "I hope you won't think I'm rude? If I dance with the groom?"

"Of course not. Maybe later." Bill sat down again.

Suddenly, Tim launched himself at Leo, knocking his chair over backwards. "Sons, man, just like your dad." He flexed his first two fingers in the air and licked his lips. "You can do it, man. Real fucking. Not just with your dick, man. You make my sister happy and you'll have sons. She deserves it. She's the most beautiful girl there ever was. If you don't give her an orgasm, you're going to get all girls. And the whole world will know. We'll all be watching."

Bill was up again, angry. "That's enough, young man. You don't talk that way in front of ladies."

Leo threw his arms around Tim, hugging him, pushing him down into Alice's chair. "Okay, Tim. I think you should just sit right back down." His voice was soft and patient. "Just take it easy."

"Is there somewhere we can take him?" asked Bill, "And get him on a sofa? Or can I drive him home?"

"It's okay, Uncle Bill. We've got a driver arranged," said Leo. He looked over at Tom. "Hey, bro, can you get Dick? And tell him to find the manager, that guy Gary? Be cool. Don't rush or anything, and don't shout."

Tom walked off in a subdued hurry, like a child on a pool deck who's been ordered not to run. Alice watched him go, thinking, Tim and Tom. Chaos and order.

Leo said, "Don't let Lisa see. Mom? Make sure? Go stand near the dance floor? Please? Uncle Bill can stay here with me. Okay, Uncle Bill?"

She turned to them, trying to catch her breath. Bill was nodding gravely.

"Of course," Alice said.

 "I don't want Lisa to get upset, Mom. This should be a perfect day. And we're all going to dance. That's what she wants."

"Don't worry, Leo. Everything will be fine." But she was really thinking about Tim. It sounded completely gross, what he had said, she thought. But it's love. The boy can't stand to let go of his sister, and he just wants everything to work out differently. That's why he rearranged the place cards. Deep inside, he wants to be the groom, instead of Leo. Even without her glasses on, it was perfectly clear to Alice, how much lay just beneath the surface, like some kind of mirror image.