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Joel’s walking our mother down the aisle. They’re slowly working their way along a purple paisley runner rug laid down for the occasion and leading straight to the living room picture window in front of which the bridegroom awaits in his skinny blue suit, his forehead speckled with sweat. Our mother’s in an off-white, knee-length dress beaded around the collar and hem, complemented by a lace frontispiece that stops just short of being a wedding veil. Her lipstick is a bright red halo around her mouth. Her hair’s up, per her instructions to Aunt Karen to fix it as high as it’ll go without toppling over.
Joel moves along beside her looking as if he’d break free and run if he could, except his arm’s linked with hers so he has no choice but to stay in formation. He’s in a plain white shirt, untucked, and his tie is conspicuously absent even though he promised to wear one. When they reach their destination, our mother gives him a theatrical kiss with an audible sucking sound, as if that might transform him into something other than a surly 13 year-old, while P.J. – that’s what her fiancé insists on being called even though his real name is Edward – thrusts out his hand, which Joel seems to study for a moment before turning away.
There are about 20 guests crammed into the living room, half of them standing due to the dearth of folding chairs. It’s the house on Mayhew Street with the railroad tracks running behind the backyard. The ceremony has been carefully timed to avoid a train passing, but just as the minister is about to begin, there’s the oncoming rumble of an unscheduled run so he has to wait for the house to stop shaking and the windows to stop rattling before he starts the service. After the vows, there’s the cutting of a two-tier yellow cake topped by a decorative white tulip, our mother’s favorite flower. When our mother and P.J. take their first dance as man and wife, they have to straddle two rooms because there’s not enough free space in either one, so P.J.’s in the living room while our mother’s feet, even as she leans into him, are on the kitchen floor. The stereo plays and everyone seeks out a little piece of real estate to dance. At the height of the celebration, P.J. beckons Joel and me into the kitchen and pulls us into a tight little circle.
“Well boys, I have something to say,” he says. Seeing him up close like that that, I notice how his eyebrows sit angled on two different planes, like they’re fighting each other. The whites of his eyes are bloodshot. “Now that your mother’s the new Mrs. Edward Facini – sounds real nice, doesn’t it? – I just want you to know I’m offering you that same opportunity. That’s right, you got it, to join the team and become a Facini.” He brings us in tighter, as if to rein in our excitement. “What do you say? Would you like that?”
To me it’s like he’s holding open a door behind which lies a shiny new future, a bright new beginning, and all we have to do is walk through and it’s like the past never happened.
“Yeah!” I shout.
I don’t see the punch coming. It lands flush on the side of my face, the knuckles hot and knobby. I fall sideways onto the floor and the next thing I see is Joel’s reddened face inches above mine, his teeth bared, his arm raised for another blow. P.J. yanks him off me before he can strike again, and even then Joel’s trying to wriggle out of the chokehold without ever taking his burning eyes off me. Finally, the two of them tumble to the floor, P.J. on top.
“Seriously, you do this on your mother’s wedding day?” P.J. hisses. “On your mother’s goddamn fucking wedding day?”
People rush into the kitchen. There’s blood all over the front of my new blue dress shirt, and when I try to stand up, I sink down again. Our mother screams, “What did you do?” although it’s not clear who she’s yelling at, who the “you” is for, unless it’s meant for all of us.
She throws herself over me, as if to fend off any further attacks, and blood stains the center folds of her perfect dress.
“I think his jaw might be broken,” P.J. says, having rolled off Joel and now attending to me.
He lifts me up and carries me out of the house, across the lawn, towards his car, not exactly in a straight line. Our mother’s running behind us, telling him he’s had too much to drink and is in no shape to drive, ordering him to give her the goddamn car keys. He stops and turns to face her and that’s when I get a brief, full-on view of the house. The wedding guests have congregated at the front door, not sure if they should stay or leave, continue gawking or look away. The Congratulations banner still flutters over the garage, though the wind has weakened the tautness of the string and bunched up the letters so the whole word is no longer legible. Then there’s Joel, standing at his open bedroom window, shouting something I know is meant for me and no one else, the same word over and over.
About Peter Gordon
Peter Gordon is a fiction writer living in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, The Yale Review and elsewhere. His work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, cited numerous times in the Best American Short Stories series, and appeared in several fiction anthologies. His first book of stories is titled Man Receives a Letter.