All Shapes, Chapter 4 - The Wedding

Here's a chapter from a novel I'm finishing and submitting for representation soon-ish:

4 – The Wedding

Break Creek spilled out in straight lines of green lawns and off-white houses under I-23, the uniformity only broken by big box stores, chain restaurants and retail, a thousand black SUV's and luxury pick-up trucks moving in and out of the perfectly paved parking lots. Case felt the clutch of old, bad memories in her chest like the congestion in one of any of the dozen fast-food drive-thrus. Not everything was the same, of course; the constantly shifting occupants of plug-in strip malls, the cookie-cutter mansions popping up over old farm fields, the interchangeable but equally as repulsive fundamentalist billboards; these things kept the place fresh. She sniffed and shook her head. Not so different, she thought. The whole thing is a fucking cancer.

Her parents lived in the outskirts on a country highway, which was some relief. They passed the suburb proper and Win navigated Case's wagon onto the last Break Creek exit. The woods out here were where she'd made the only good memories she had of the town. Oh, there were terrible things that happened, that she did, that were done to her . . . that she participated in. But those things weren't as bad as the landmarks of helpless little agonies going by her window. Besides, the big terror, the true holocaust, had always been at home.

Today, Frank Smith Junior, the oldest living child of Frank and Lois Smith at Terry Lane off of Highway B in Washburn County, was finally getting married. Again.

"It's a joke, right?" Win said as he parked the car behind a line of other, nicer cars in the Smith's winding driveway.

"No. This is just the Smith family legacy. Marry a woman young enough to be your daughter, live in isolation until driven crazy, divorce, repeat," Case said as she unbuckled Simon from his car seat. Win laughed and straightened his tie. He ran his hand over his sweaty forehead. He took a drink from his water bottle. His back was soaked. "Are you nervous?"

"No," he smiled, fixing the baby's suspenders that had fallen from his shoulders, "I'm just glad – no, I'm fucking ecstatic - that no one asked you to be in the wedding party."

"Tell me about it."

Her parents had set up a tent in the backyard next to the old barn and balloons billowed from stakes in the cool spring breeze. Folding chairs with slim programs on their seats had been arranged into two neat rectangles in front of a wooden podium, where the minister would perform the ceremony. The house itself was alive with flowers and the sound of a what seemed like a hundred voices pouring from open windows.

"Don't drink too much," she said to Win, quickly, to prevent him from arguing with her, "And don't avoid everybody. They'll just think you don't like them."

"I don't like them," he said, running his hands through his slicked-back hair. He looked disgustedly at his fingers, now coated with pomade. Case balanced the baby on her hip while she dug inside her purse for a tissue. He wiped his palms before stuffing the greasy clump of paper into his navy slacks. "I feel like an idiot in this get-up. I wish you would have let me wear my striped tie."

"You look like you just got off of work in that tie. You look fine."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Never mind. Let's go."

Case adjusted Simon in her arms while Win strapped on the baby carrier. When the baby was secured on 
Win's stomach she smoothed out her dress where his chubby little legs had wrinkled it on her hips. She'd bought the thing from Value-Thrift yesterday: a cream sheath dress with a red floral print. Her breasts barely fit in the bodice and she straightened the cardigan on her shoulders in an attempt at modesty. She hadn't been able to wear anything like that dress for a long time. She wasn't used to it. Before they'd left home Win had said, "I'm glad you wore that. You look beautiful." She'd turned to see her back in the mirror. A little skin hung over at her shoulder blades. She stared herself down, sneering at the idea she was this kind of girl anymore. What does it matter, she thought. You're a mom now. She left her hair down. It had a new copper luster and she'd let it grow to her clavicle since the birth even though her hair always used to grow at a nearly imperceptible, agonizingly slow pace. She picked it up and let it fall against her temples. Thicker, too, she thought. She wondered what her students would think when she returned. She clucked her tongue at herself and threw on the cardigan.

Outside her parents' house Simon hiccuped and mewed, and Win talked to him in low tones so the baby could enjoy the rumble of his baritone through his rib cage. He said:
"Aren't you a little monster . . . Ha! Look at mama's butt. She has a nice butt don't you think? You stinker." Baby and man both squealed. She slowed a little to let them pass, and so they could bear the brunt of her family's enthusiasm. "Do you think they have the game on, little Simian?" Win called his boy by their pet name. Case smiled, enjoying the sun on her skin, until she saw the people on the porch.

Her parents had a massive front porch, only surpassed by the vast rear deck that stretched twenty feet back to the barn. Three people smoked cigarettes under the white wood trellises that framed the front of the house, two women and a man. She recognized her sisters April and June, and June's husband, all by the different angular twitches of their hands to their lips. Suddenly Case craved a smoke. She knew she'd have to sneak away if she didn't want to suffer his mother's judgment.

April saw them first. She was only eighteen but looked nearly as old as Case – she'd lived high school with a desperate intensity, like a solider at war. That must be what it was like to be home alone with her parent's, Case thought. April tossed her cigarette into the bushes and picked up the trail of her dress, a blue gown that was tight at the ankles. To walk she had to scuttle forward on her four inch heels like a hobbled insect.

"Oh my God! The baby!" she cooed. She gave Case a hug, digging her chin into the crook of her neck before spinning away. She jutted her long finger-nailed hand towards Simon's face. "He's so cute! Hey Simon Smith, what does Simon say?" June, the next oldest of the three Smith sisters, shouted from her perch in the old rocking chair next to her husband:

"Don't hog him! Just because you're too busy carousing to visit him doesn't mean you get him all to yourself!" she said, though she didn't move. Instead she took a short drag from her smoke and jettisoned the exhalation away from them and towards her husband, who waved his hand in front of his face.

"Gee, thanks," said Raymond. He put his cigarette out in the bird bath that had been converted into an ash tray filled with sand. "You know you shouldn't smoke around the baby."

"Sure, Ray." She didn't bother to look at him, she hardly ever did. June was five years older than Case but could have been fifty. She had three kids to Davis' four and her one. Case leaned down to hug her oldest sister.

"What's the haps, Junester?" she said.

"Same old, baby girl. It's good to see you again," she said, before cupping her mouth to Case's ear, "I hope the bleeding isn't too bad," June whispered, mouthing the words with her lips just playing at secrecy.

"Fine. It's just a trickle now."

"And just in time too," she said. June must have noticed her eyeing her cigarette and she offered it to Case.

"Thanks, but no. If Mom found out . . ."

She watched Win as April doted on the child strapped to his chest. His eyes were black. They bored through the top of his sister's blond head like he could set her on fire with his gaze.

"Right," June nodded, "It would be a huge deal. Better not stir the pot."

"Come on, let's get this over with," Case said to her husband, who nodded and braced himself.

Inside, the white spread out before them in stainless, soft expanses. Walls. Carpet. Furniture. Picture frames. 
The people in the pictures. Fixtures. Occasionally the void was broken by a gaudy gold framed mirror, or a faux African statue. A jangle of dishes and trilling voices drifted down the hall from the kitchen. The stairs to the second floor echoed with stampeding children at play in the bedrooms. Case's nose tickled with the acidic sting of lemon cleanser. A whiff of strong perfume made her throat seize up.

"This is going to be hell on my sinuses," she said hoarsely, "And I don't like Simon being subjected to this chemical factory. My relatives, I mean." She wiped some spit from the baby's chin as Win absently bounced him in his arms.

"What are we waiting for?" he said.

Her head had started to pound. She decided in that moment she wanted to leave. She leaned close to him and whispered, "I don't want to do this anymore. Let's go."

"Auntie Suitcase?" A small voice came from the living room. Davis' kid Stacy stood on the couch, leaning over the back in a yellow sun dress. She was holding a cherry-red freezer pop that had painted her mouth a sloppy pink. Her braids were woven together over her shoulder and she tugged on them as she sucked on the pop. "Are you leaving because you hate us?" she said, trying to climb over the top of the couch. The pop glistened in the light that streamed in from the front window. Case saw the first drop emerge from the bottom, ready to run down the stick and over her hand. She grimaced reflexively. She wanted to say, "Be careful!" She didn't.

The drop fell onto the girl's hand. It dribbled over her knuckles slowly, pooling and spilling over in agonizing arcs, nearly stopping when it hung from her pinky. Another drop sped down on the trail of the first. In a sudden eruption splashes of red struck the couch, the carpet, and the little girl's dress as she mounted the furniture. Case hissed, dashing to grab the pop. She tore it from the girl's hand. Stacy sat stock still straddling the couch as if frozen in glass. After a second, she started to cry.

"Mommmmmm!" The whine became a wail. Simon took up the tune in stuttering sobs.

"Oh, shit."

An impossibly tanned Kelly stormed into the living room.

"What the hell is the matter with you?" she said to her daughter. She saw the seeping red sugar water on Stacy's dress. "What have you done to your dress?" She spotted the carpet and covered her mouth, "And the Armenian weave . . ."

Case's mother must have heard her, because she flew into the living room from the kitchen, eyes wild and lips tight.

"Damn it, Cassandra! Why the hell are you eating that in here?" she said pointing at the pop in Case's hand. 

"What?" Case looked at the treat like a smoking gun. She passed it to Win reflexively, who promptly licked away the melting juice. Her mother recovered her wits when she saw that Stacy had ruined her dress. She leaned over Kelly and the girl, her curved nose and leathery skin making her look like a bird diving for its prey. She didn't bother apologizing to Case, of course. She let it all pass, this time, to shush her grandson still wailing in the hallway.

"Hello to you too," Case said, taking Simon from the carrier so her mom couldn't see her rage.

After the ceremony, Win disappeared with the boys while the catering company cleared the chairs out from under the rented tent. Kelly did Case a favor and showed off Simon for awhile.

"You sure it's okay?" she asked.

"Oh, my pleasure. I'll find you at dinner. I don't think I could feed him with these little puppies," she said, cupping her breasts with a grunt. Case laughed until her belly hurt.

Alone, she navigated her way around the carts of hot food and the movable bar to the barn. Her dad had converted the bottom into a garage, and the walls were replete with silver tools and red toolboxes all shining and unused. In the center of the space, covered in a blue tarp but just as recognizable for it, was his 1967 white Mustang convertible. She lifted the heavy tarp and touched the body, slick but dull in the dark of the barn. She envisioned it gleaming in the sun. The top was down. She climbed in the backseat where the smell of the upholstery enveloped her, pure, as if forever untouched by human hands. She remembered how the vinyl used to pinch her thighs.

He'd let her drive it once, when she was seventeen. Early one Saturday morning he'd knocked on the door to her room. She'd been out all night with one of her boyfriends and had barely closed her eyes when his voice came from the hall. She knew something was wrong right away. Usually when she was out carousing, he'd let her have it with his booming voice, the volume part of her punishment. That morning he was so quiet.

"Case? You awake? It's your father."

Of course it's my father, she thought with her brain still swimming. Intoxicated, yes, but as much from the celerity of the night life and the energy of her friends as the two-thirds liter of gin she'd consumed. She was in her underwear and the ceiling spun her to a sweat, sticking to the sheets, feeling like a massive rock hurtling towards the center of the earth despite her bare ninety pounds.

"Yeah," she said, her voice insignificant in the gray space of her room. He cracked the door open. His silhouette confronted her at the slit. She pulled her covers up to her face and shielded her eyes so he couldn't see how red they were, how unfocused.

"Get up, Case. I want to show you something." Odd, she thought, why does he sound so odd? Like he's worried . . . like he's hiding something.

"No, Dad. I want to sleep in," she said, her whole body blushing, wondering if he could detect the slur in her speech. She flipped herself in her bed to face away from him and nausea gripped her.

"Yes, Case. Up and at 'em. We're going for a ride."

"Oh, Daddy," she said as tears came to her, "I drank too much."

"No helping that now. Get dressed."

She wrestled herself into shorts and a Nirvana t-shirt and met him downstairs. He had the keys in his hand. 
The barn was just a barn back then, filthy, mouse-ridden, full of rotted boards and covered by a damp, sagging roof. The double doors were old, original by Frank's estimation, and he had tasked Junior and Davis to come down some weekend the next summer to reinforce them with new wood. That job was yet to be done, and the doors creaked brutally as her father swung them open. The damp air inside gave Case a chill, but that was quickly overtaken by another hot wave of nausea.

"Dad, where are we going?" she said as she climbed in next to him, shaking.

"Just-" His voice caught. He cleared his throat and adjusted the mirrors, "Just a quick ride. The stars are out in a big way."

The country roads were black and dusty like a mole's tunnel through soil, winking stars lining the gap between the pines like precious stones. The Mustang hummed under her with a comforting consistency, embracing her, containing her drunkenness. Case let her head roll and bounce with the road, losing herself in the wind flowing over her face, letting her hand be battered about as it hung out the window. Her father didn't say anything for awhile, just kept driving, until they came to the bridge. Case knew dawn was coming because her flesh took on a bruised pallor in the crevices of her palms, her bent knees, the lines from her mouth in the side mirror. You're an old hag, she thought. I'm so old already.

Frank parked the car near the center of the bridge. He sat silently with the motor running. His hair had been swept back by the wind into a mad swoop, gray growing like a star burst from his craggy face, his hands white-knuckle tight on the wheel. He looked straight ahead, eyes on the empty road. Finally Case asked him what was wrong. He turned his head slowly towards her. She saw tears vibrating in his hard blue eyes. He spun the key in the ignition and the throb of the engine stopped. The night filled with sound in the absence of its roar. The river flowed deliberate and ancient below the bridge. From everywhere came the rattle of insects, and her own breath rising and falling. She swore she heard their hearts pounding together, each in their own rhythm like an anxious drummer finding the beat. Her father turned away again. He licked his lips.

"I got a call today."


"It's was about your brother. It's about Walter."

Her heart froze. Her breath caught in a painful swallow. What about Walter? Her father must have been waiting for her to say something, but she stayed quiet.

"He's dead," he said. His voice had begun to quaver but he hardened it and looked at her again, "He killed himself."

"What?" she said. She shook her head incredulously, squinting as if she could see through him, find the lie deep inside. "That's not possible." Adamant, she looked at the water.

"Yes, Cassandra. He was hanging from a rope. His landlady found him. It'd been a couple of days."
Her whole body flared up in a burning anger. She thought she might burst into flames. The seat might melt underneath her. This car might explode and do them both in. She opened the door. She walked to the railing so the heat wouldn't kill them.

"Case!" her father said, coming after her.

"Oh my God. Oh my God," she said, over and over. Was it her, speaking? Was she praying?

He took her in his arms. His big chest was like a wall of ice and the heat left her. She cried. Her body shook with hysteria. She pounded on him. Her voice tore into the sky, peeling laughter, screams of despair. So loud she couldn't hear his own sorrow, though she felt him shaking along side her.

When she settled down, he gave her the keys.

"You drive back." His pockmarked cheeks from old razor scars were shiny with tears. The keys felt good in her palm. Real. Orienting. When they were in the car he took her hand and squeezed it in his.

He leaned closer before she started the engine.

"Listen," he said. He looked desperate not to be misunderstood. She didn't know this man, eyes open to everything in their grief, heart seeking common comfort. "Listen. I know about you two. I got a letter."

She sniffed in surprise.

"Oh?" It didn't really matter if he knew now. Nothing did.

She started the car.

"Looks like he tore down the loft." A familiar voice broke her from her reverie. She sat up in the backseat of the Mustang. A man watched her from the doorway with his hands behind his back, a blue handkerchief jutting out of the pocket of his tux. Brian Williamson was in her oldest living brother's wedding party, but he'd been only a year ahead of Case in school. They'd gone together senior year after she had started to straighten herself out.

"What happened to your hair?" she asked him, yawning and rubbing the drowse out of her arms.

"Oh, this?" He patted his head where a bald spot crept up from the back. "I'm thirty you know!"

"Yeah, I guess. But I always liked your long hair! Silky and smooth." She laughed and gave him her hand to help her out of the car. She eyed the upper portion of the barn where the loft used to be. The walls were still set with the brackets that had held the floor in place. Two thick pillars of wood that used to support it had been stacked against the back wall.

"He tore it down after Walter died. You know, he was the one always playing up there when he was a kid. At least that's what Dad tells me," she said. Brian shuffled his feet in the dirt. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

"I didn't know him," he said popping a smoke in his mouth.

"Oh, not here," Case said grabbing him by the elbow, "Daddy will smell it for sure. Follow me."

She led him out of the barn around the back to where the woods met the yard. She paused a moment to take off her shoes, which were killing her. The tall grass cooled her sore feet as they walked in a curve around the tent and the guests milling there, drinks in hand, one leaning on the next in comfortable cliques. 
She led them to the huge oak tree she used to smoke behind, at the farthest point north where the yard turned into something resembling wilderness.

"Can I have one?" she asked, pointing at his cigarette.

"'Course." They smoked in silence as the other guests began to gravitate to their tables for dinner. That silence was nice. Case forgot about Simon for a moment.

"Cassandra! Cassandra!" Her mother called to her from the back porch. Somehow she'd spotted them in the tall grass. Perhaps it was her dress. "Come here and do something about your husband!" She waited at the railing with Simon in her arms. Watching and waiting like an indefatigable sentry. Christ, what has he done? she thought.

She ditched the cigarette and gave Brian a smile.

"I appreciate that," she said bending to collect her shoes, "You remind me it wasn't all bad. Back in the day."

"It wasn't?" he joked. He nodded and said goodbye as she left, with the kind of wistful helplessness one might have if wishing someone luck in battle.

"What is it?" she asked her mother. Her face indicated they were on the verge of a major catastrophe. She practically dropped Simon in Case's arms.

"He's blind drunk."


"Excuse me? Shouldn't you know? If your father ever behaved like that-"

"He did. He has." A tiny hand touched the skin over her dress. She looked down at her wiggling son. He seems drunk too, she thought.

"Don't you dare!" she started in on Case, but her shoulders tensed and she made a motion with her hands to cut herself off, "No, never mind, not now. Just do something."

"Where is he?"

In the bedroom she used to share with her youngest sister, April was trying to get Win to lie down. Case spied on them from the doorway as April pushed him towards the bed. His arms flailed dumbly and he slipped into her, almost knocking her over with his weight. His face had that drooping, inhuman look. He leaned away from her again, trying to apologize. Syllables splattered uselessly out of his mouth.

"Gosh Win, what the hell did you drink?" April said, just able to get his legs to bend. He sat heavy on the edge of the bed. Too close to the edge; since she had to keep him propped up by holding his shoulders. She sat next to him so he wouldn't fall again.

"Drink? I haven't had any. Want some?" He produced a deflated bottle from his pocket with a little juice swirling at the bottom. A plain plastic water bottle. April took the bottle and sniffed.

"Whoa!" she said turning her nose away. Then she tipped it back. "Wow, that's strong!" Win leaned in to her, kissing her exposed neck.

"Hey baby, no one's around, the pup's asleep."

"Win, you dumb-ass. I'm not Casey," April said pushing him away. He fell back onto the pillows, hard cock distending his pants from zipper to belt.

"I'll take it from here, Apes," Case said slipping into the room.

"Oh Jesus, Case! You scared me," she said with her hand on her chest, eyes closing in relief. "Your husband is quite the handful."

"Don't I know it."

When she was gone, Case laid down with the baby between her and her husband. His eyes were closed but she knew he was awake.

"Winston?" she whispered.


"How long has this been going on?"


"The water bottle."

He said nothing. She let the silence hang for a moment, petting her son's head as his eyes fluttered groggily, trying to find a way to tell Win how disappointed she was. But the sun began to set and the dusty comforter got warm beneath their bodies and she felt her concern dwindle as sleep came. Serves the lot of them right. 

They couldn't be contained. Win rolled towards her suddenly and she came to, fearful at first, but reassured when she saw his half-shut but clear eyes staring into hers.

"Cassandra," he said. He never used her full name. "I'm going to take you and little Simian on vacation. I promise. But I have to tell you something first-"

"Shush," she said turning away from his gaze, looking down at the boy nestled between them. "He's asleep."


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