March - May 2001

Disclaimer: oh, no. Thanks to elynross, for never losing patience with my idiosyncratic ways when it comes to punctuation, and to Dawn Sharon, for giving me several things to choose from; all errors are mine. This vignette is for Jessica and Dorinda, who love Leo even more than I do. Do not archive this story without permission.

One of these things

One of the attendants had been sick behind a corner of the big tent — not Cathy or Bonnie, but the old college friend, and Leo could never remember her name, who had surfaced miraculously a couple of months earlier and spent this whole day looking as though she regretted it. Her love affair with the punch bowl had ended badly, but at least he couldn't smell it from where he was. Leo sat down on the edge of the small raised stage, where a lone violinist was playing something slow and sweet, looking lost in his own world. His right knee ached, and he rubbed absently at it. The long side walls of the tent had been rolled up to let in the summer evening air, and if he leaned slightly to one side, he could see the first stars come out in the bruise-colored sky.

The taste of cake lingered in his mouth, and he wished he had something to wash it away with. Anything. When he looked the other way he saw the house, the brightly lit windows, some of them open. The lawn was crushed by hundreds of feet, dotted with stiletto-heel holes, and strewn in at least one place with the expensive crystal of a champagne glass.

The music sounded like something he ought to recognize, but he didn't. CJ and Toby were dancing in the center of the tent. She swayed like seaweed in a changing tide, and he held her steady. Leo thought neither of them was as drunk as they were pretending to be. CJ's speech earlier had been perfect, and now he couldn't recall any of her phrases, any of the things she'd said that had made Donna blush, that had made even Toby laugh. They'd been good. All the speeches had been good. When CJ stood next to him earlier, he'd noticed that she was wearing a different perfume, something innocently floral. Maybe she'd bought it for the occasion.

Leo heard a cheer go up, and then an abrupt blast of sound from the house. The violinist faltered, then stopped, as a different kind of dance music came pumping out of the open windows. Toby and CJ shuffled to an awkward halt. They stepped apart, not quite looking at each other, and walked out of the tent and across the lawn. The violinist started to pack away his instrument. CJ stumbled on an uneven patch of ground, and Toby's arm came up to catch her.

Leo stretched his legs out and waited. He heard the violin case snap shut and the violinist step down off the other side of the stage. The moon hung under the edge of the tent roof, round and white, like a drop of milk about to fall. When he looked towards the house he saw a stocky dark silhouette, a man walking closer.

Jed and the violinist passed each other on the lawn. Leo shifted a little to one side, even though there was a whole stage to sit on. He looked at his shoes; it was too dark to see, really, but he knew the high gloss had been dulled by dry earth and grass fragments. The stage creaked as Jed sat down, heavily, next to him.

It seemed wise to speak first. "They finally left?"

"In the middle of some very valuable comments about not going to bed angry. I suppose they were worried that they wouldn't get to go to bed at all. Did you know that my wife has an almost inexhaustible supply of good advice for newlyweds?"

"After today, everybody knows. Josh didn't put his hands over his ears again, did he?"

"No." Jed leaned back, locking his elbows. After a moment he added, "Donna did, though. Josh put his hands over his eyes. She was driving. Maybe we should have—"

"They'll be fine."

"You know I don't like to be interrupted in the middle of a sentence."

A chair tumbled over at the other end of the tent, where a few tables had been left for anyone who wanted to sit and watch the dancers. Leo looked over, his view unobstructed now that the dancers had departed for less green and more modern pastures, and saw Sam stand up, lean against the edge of a table, and fall, taking the tablecloth with him. It settled over him like a shroud, spotted with red from someone's overturned wine glass. His shoulder and part of his hand were left uncovered, fingers curving up in an empty grip. He didn't make a sound. From the house, several voices screamed along with the 80's Greatest that they were walking on sunshine.

Sam's speech had been the best of the lot, Leo thought. Emotional without being sentimental, funny without scoring any intrusive points off the couple. Afterwards, he had sat down and picked up his glass, and Leo knew, beyond a doubt, exactly how the wine had tasted on his tongue.

"Yeah. I know." Leo turned his head. "Do you know what your voice sounds like when you say those words, 'my wife?'" He gestured at the sky, at the stars growing there, little bursts of perfect brilliance. "Like that."

"You used to talk about Jenny that way, too."

"I still do." He got to his feet, slowly. "But not right now. I'm going inside."

Jed got up, too, even more slowly. "No, I'll go. I think you should stay here and," he glanced over towards the other side of the tent, "perhaps say something."

"There's nothing to say." But he stayed where he was, and Jed touched his shoulder, and then walked away again, and Leo wondered without turning around if Jed was walking a little more carefully, a little more uncertainly, than he ever had before. A rustle ran through the tent canvas and the trees beyond the lawn. Leo thought about buttoning his jacket, but it wasn't that cold. Not after a day like this. Thirty-five years ago, there had been strawberry slices, and too much sweet fruit punch, and a flowerbed of pinks, the sharp clove scent of their crushed stems rising into the summer air, the petals whispersoft against the skin. Dianthus deltoides, Louisa Bartlet's voice said in his memory. He couldn't remember what the sky had looked like after sunset, but he could still feel strawberry seeds stuck between his teeth.

In a while, he'd go over and check on Sam. The night was growing cool. If Sam had passed out completely, the Secret Service guys could make themselves useful and drag him up to the house. There had to be a corner somewhere for people who were not walking on sunshine.

The stars seemed very far away, and the moon looked close enough to touch.

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