Neither Leah’s sister, who had just finished her sophomore year at Ohio State, nor Miri had ever attended a wedding, let alone been bridesmaids. They were seated together at lunch—chicken à la king with crispy noodles and rice. Pamela joked that the restaurant must be part Chinese, part ladies’ tearoom, making Miri laugh, but it reminded her of going to lunch with Frekki before the play at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
After the wedding cake was presented, after Leah fed a piece to Henry, and Henry fed a piece to Leah, and the couple were toasted with Champagne, and the photographer, Henry’s friend Todd Dirkson, captured it all, it was time for Leah to turn her back to the crowd and throw her bouquet over her shoulder. Rusty and Miri stepped out of the way. The bouquet landed in Irene’s hands, who treated it like a hot potato, quickly tossing it toward Leah’s friends, where Harriet Makenna caught it and promptly passed out. She was rescued by the photographer, who had met her when he’d covered the holiday party at the Elks Club.
Once upon a time Miri had planned to wear her bridesmaid dress with its detachable organza overskirt to the ninth-grade prom, but she’d decided against going. When her friends saw the depth of her sadness they accepted her decision. In the same once-upon-a-time she’d thought she’d wear the dress to Mason’s junior prom, at Jefferson. She wondered if he’d go without her, if he’d go with someone else? She doubted it. Or maybe that was just what she was hoping. She couldn’t imagine ever wearing the dress again.
Polina kept her job working in the kitchen at Janet, but Mason avoided her like bad food. The kid, too. He was done with all that. No more girlfriends. They wanted too much from you. They expected you to make them happy. Even when they said they wanted to make you happy. Maybe someday he’d feel ready to see Miri again but he couldn’t think when that might be. He’d fucked up big-time. He didn’t expect her to forgive him. The question was, could he forgive himself?
Jack wouldn’t let it go. Begged him to come with him and Christina to Las Vegas. Mason finally said, “Don’t ask me again, Jack. I’m staying here, at Janet. I’ll be fine.”
“At least come with us for the summer.”
“I can’t. I’ve got a job. You know that. You’re the one who set me up with your old boss. He’s going to train me to be an electrician. Just like he trained you.”
“Mason—you can’t live your life avoiding Miri.”
“Don’t say that name around me. And yes I can. And I will.”
“There’ll be other girls, believe me.”
“Cut it out, Jack, because you don’t know.”
“I know you’re seventeen.”
“That doesn’t mean shit.” He hoped Jack wouldn’t cry. He looked like he might. So Mason gave him a bear hug. That way they didn’t have to look at each other. Jack patted his back for too long.
“Hey, brother,” Mason said, to get Jack to let go. “I’ll write.”
“Every week,” Jack said, sniffling. “I need you to promise.”
“And I’ll call every two weeks,” Jack told him. “On Sunday nights.”
Mason nodded. Then he asked what he’d been thinking all along. “What about 1-A, Jack?”
“No word yet. I’ll see you for Christmas, okay?”
“Yeah, sure, Christmas.”
The morning after graduating from Jefferson High, Steve went downtown to the army recruitment center on Elizabeth Avenue and enlisted. He filled out all the paperwork, set up an appointment for a physical that afternoon, and he was in. It was that easy.
Phil was apoplectic. “Are you crazy? We’re going to Lehigh, not Korea.”
“You’ll have to go without me.”
“Do your parents know?”
“They’re going to go ape-shit!”
He told his father first. He went to his office hoping to catch him before he left. His father was staying at the Elizabeth Carteret hotel these days, in the same room where Joseph Fluet, the guy who’d investigated the airplane crashes, had stayed.
“Hello, Steve,” Daisy said. “Congratulations on your graduation.”
“I have something for you.” She pulled out a package wrapped with manly paper and tied with a brown ribbon. “I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“Thank you, Daisy.”
“He’s with his last patient of the day,” Daisy said. “I’ll tell him you’re waiting.”
When the last patient left, his father joined him in the waiting room. “How about supper at Three Brothers?” his father said. “I’ve been eating there a lot lately.”
“Your girlfriend doesn’t cook for you?” His father gave him a sad smile. So Steve said, “Sure, I like their burgers.”
Steve waited until his father finished his moussaka, then the baklava he’d ordered for dessert. He’d never seen his father eat Greek food. Steve didn’t like baklava—too sticky for him. He was off desserts anyway, trying to get into shape before basic training. When he broke his news his father didn’t take it well.
“Now?” he said. “You’ve enlisted now, when we’re still fighting in Korea? No, son. I’m not going to let you do this.”
“Too late, Dad. It’s done.”
“I’ll get you out of it. I’ll tell them you’re not yourself.”
“But I am myself.”
“No, Steve. You haven’t been yourself in a long time.”
“How would you know?”
“I know my son.”
“Not anymore. You don’t have any idea who I am.” Steve stood up. “Thanks for supper.”
“Sit down,” his father said. “We’re not finished.”
His father grabbed his arm. “You can’t tell your mother about this.”
“Says who?” Steve shook off his father, saluted him, then marched out of the restaurant. Hup two three four…hup two three four.
His father followed him out the door and down the street, calling, “Steve…I mean it, don’t tell your mother. Not now.”
Steve stopped. “You’re not going to be able to fix this, Dad. I’m telling her.”
“Then I’m coming with you,” his father said.
“That should make Mom happy.”
HIS MOTHER WAS in the den, sitting in her favorite chair, working on a needlepoint canvas. What was she making this time? A pillow for him to take to college? Fern was on the floor in front of the television watching Hopalong Cassidy. Natalie was probably locked in her room.
“Steve! I thought you and Phil were going to a graduation party tonight.”
“I had something more important to do.”
His father stepped into the den.
“Daddy!” Fern ran to him, jumped into his arms.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” his mother said to his father. “Steve…I’d like to talk to you privately,” his father said.
“Sorry, Dad.” He faced his mother. “I have some big news…”
His mother’s face changed. Was she scared or expectant?
“I’ve joined up.”
His mother put down her needlepoint. “Joined what?”
“You’re in the army now,” he sang, marching around the room. “You’re not behind a plow, you’ll never get rich, diggin’ a ditch, you’re in the army now.”
“What is he talking about?” his mother asked his father.
“He enlisted,” his father said.
His mother jumped up and lunged at his father. “You put him up to this!”
“Corinne…” his father said, setting Fern down.
“He’s supposed to go to college, not the army,” his mother shouted.
Natalie appeared in the doorway. “This sounds interesting.”
“Did you know?” his mother asked his father. “Did you?”
“I just found out,” his father said.
“He can’t do this. He’s a boy. He has no experience.”
“Take another look, Mom,” Steve said, pulling himself up to his full six-foot height, shoulders thrown back, eyes straight ahead.
“No!” Corinne cried. “I won’t have him throwing his life away.” She ran out of the den with Steve’s dad right behind her. A door slammed. Voices were raised.
“Nice going, Steve,” Natalie said.
“I figured you’d appreciate the drama.”
“Will you wear an army suit?” Fern asked.
“It’s called a uniform,” Steve said. “And yes, I will.”
“Will we have a cake to celebrate?”
“I doubt it,” Steve said.
“How about a gun?” Natalie asked. “Will you get a gun?”