The blood slipped away from Tom's face. Who knew where it was going. We saw it all in an instant, the way they say you review your life as a milk truck swerves into your lane of traffic. But in this case what flashed before our eyes was the future: anniversary dances at the country club, invitations to sail in the Caribbean, severe pressure to attend fund-raising dinners for senators who opposed school lunches and gun control. The phone rang.
It was George's phone, what we still referred to as the children's line even though three of our children were grown and gone and George was twenty-five years old, in his first year of law school, and less of a child than Tom or I had ever been. Under normal circumstances we would have let the machine pick up, but these were not normal circumstances. Tom rose, pale as Banquo's ghost, and floated down the hall toward the ringing.
"Kay," I said sweetly, trying to make my voice that same voice that had soothed her as a baby. "Are you going to marry Trey?" For some reason all I could think about were their names, Kay and Trey, Trey and Kay. Marriage was hard enough without rhyming.
The crying stopped abruptly and I could hear the scratchy brush of Kay wiping the phone with a Kleenex. "Of course I'm going to marry Trey."
"Caroline," Tom called from down the hall.
"One second, baby. Yes?"
"Minnie, it's your sister on the other line."
The statement was redundant, since my sister was the only person who called me Minnie and the very word, like my sister herself, brought up a sharp, prickling sweat on the back of my neck. I didn't know why Taffy would be calling without a birthday or holiday to pin it on, and I didn't know why she was calling on George's phone. I didn't care. "Tell her I'll call her back."
There was a long pause, Tom was saying something I couldn't hear, and then he called out to me again, "I can't get her to understand me. She's crying too hard."
That didn't make any sense at all. I hadn't seen Taffy cry since we were in high school and our mother machine washed her white angora sweater that was clearly labeled Dry Clean Only.
"Kay," I said, "there's something going on. Taffy's on the other line."
"Call her back," Kay said, the last vestiges of snuffle clearing from her voice. "I'm getting married."
"Your father says there's something wrong." Tom was back in the kitchen now, working a thumb over one shoulder, which meant that I had responsibilities on the phone that was behind him. "Here, tell Dad about what happened. I'll be right back." I handed Tom the phone and hustled down the hall to George's room.
Dear George. Everything was so neat, the picture frames were dusted, no shoes on the floor. Even the papers on the desk were perfectly stacked. He had felt guilty about moving back home to go to law school, but I knew for a fact that he raised our standards. I sat down on the edge of his twin bed. "Taffy?"
On the line there was crying, and suddenly I could see from the vantage point of close comparison that there was in fact a huge difference between the crying done by a broken heart and the crying done by a heart that cannot believe its own good fortune. "Taffy," I said, "what is it?"
"Holden is in Cannes," she said, gasping like a trout that had just been thrown from the lake. "I can't find her."
My niece, Taffy's daughter, was an agent for movie stars in Hollywood and no one could ever find her. The best anyone could hope for was to locate her secretary, and even that was something of a trick. "Why do you need Holden?"
There was more crying, crying so real and deep that I felt for the first time in so long I can't remember a stirring of genuine love for my sister. I wanted to be there with her and fold her in my arms. Kay cried at everything, but if Taffy was given to crying, I would be the last person to know it. I could only imagine how bad things must have been for her at that moment if I was the one she was turning to. "Is it Neddy? Is Neddy all right?"
Excerpted from Step-Ball-Change by Jeanne Ray Copyright 2002 by Jeanne Ray. Excerpted by permission of Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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