The Fourth Season
Parental Advisory Rating: L, N, AC
Break out those V-Chips, everyone!
Created, Produced, Written and Directed:
Episode Thirteen: The Last Dance
Forty years. Five kids.
Forty years. Five kids. Five spouses of kids.
Forty years. Five kids. Five spouses of kids. Sixteen grandkids.
I stand at the top of the second floor landing and look at the photographic journal of our family. Theres Gerrards baby picture. I swear he has the same slicked back hair that he had then.
My fingers drift over my smiling face, my arms thrown around Robie and Luc. Were standing on the back porch, covered in mud, teeth and eyes really our only identifiable features. We had gone fishing with Papa that day, and spent more time in the mud than crawfish ever do. God, that was a good day.
Jean was slim in his wedding picture. Years of Elaines good cooking have plumped him up. Funny, five kids have kept her slim. Their latest family portrait is gorgeous, their kids spilling all over them in their backyard. Its a sweet photograph.
I see an old photo of Kate, when she was in her late teens and dating Gerrard. Shes been in our family so long, it seems like shes always been here. I was only nine when she married him. Shes my older sister, and her marriage with Gerrard has been a model for me since I was a kid. I hope to be as successful at it as they are.
Rachel and Luciens wedding photo always makes me laugh. She smeared as much cake as she possibly could over his face, and we caught the moment on film. Poor Luc looks so shocked, and her head is thrown back in glee. A photo a little further down the wall shows the same mirth in her eyes and she holds Jake and Stevie for the first time.
Mama protested, but the picture of Robie and Rene smoking cigars and looking like a gangster and his moll are displayed. That was a fun night. It was my twenty-first birthday and we went out to enjoy our seven deadly sins: pride, sloth, gluttony, alcohol, nicotine, dirty dancing and lust. So a few overlapped, we didnt care. It was a great night.
Theres a great photo of Kels and I on the porch swing, snuggling and talking softly. We didnt even realize the photo had been taken until it appeared on the wall. I have a lot of fond memories of that swing.
Of course, our family portrait is on the wall. I stand there smiling at it, loving my life. Are there things Id like to change? Sure, but I suspect thats true for everyone. Overall, I am loved, by so many, and get to love so many. I am blessed.
I feel slender arms wrap around my waist and a warm, soft body cuddle up behind me. I lay my hands on top of Kels and squeeze them.
"What are you looking at?"
"Good looking crew, too." She kisses my shoulder blade and slides around in front of me. "Which brother is that?" She points to Robie as a toddler, his hair pointing in every direction uncontrollably.
"Cant you guess? Robie, of course. Weve only been able to get his hair to lay down flat for the last couple years." I chuckle and bend down to kiss my girl. "You smell good." I sniff her neck like a puppy does, moving up and around her ear, sniffing it too.
Kels laughs and struggles against me playfully. "Harper! That tickles!"
I, of course, continue, until I sniff around her throat, under her chin and up to her lips. Once I arrive there, I find better ways to spend my time. After a few heated moments, I pull back. "Did that tickle?"
Kels reaches up and removes a smudge of her lipstick from my lips. "Nah, Im used to you by now."
"Good," I smile. I pull back and look at my girl. Wowza. Shes wearing a dress so deep green its almost black. Its only when the light hits it just right that you can see the color in it. A long green, cream and burgundy patterned scarf winds its way around her neck and trails down her back. Her hair is beautifully arranged, framing her features softly. "You look gorgeous, baby."
"Youre not bad yourself."
I smile. I had this evening suit custom made and am inordinately pleased with it. Finally, something that perfectly fits my long arms and legs. My shirt is a crisp white linen and has French cuffs and black pearl studs for buttons. My girl bought me new cuff links to wear with it nothing like a two carat diamond set in platinum to make me worry about my sleeves all night. Boy, do I feel snazzy. "Thanks. So where should we hold our fortieth wedding anniversary reception?"
Kels winds her arms around my neck and gently scratches me there. "Hmm so many places to choose. Maybe that little plantation we stayed at last weekend."
I laugh. "Chér, I dont think well be allowed back even by then. What about our house?"
She kisses my chin. "Think itll fit all our grandkids and nieces and nephews, and your brothers and the Conspiracy?"
I pretend to consider. "Probably not. I guess well have to go to the Pontchartrain too."
I get a kiss for the right answer. "Very good. Its beautiful there, and I love the garden room."
"Ill keep that in mind."
"You kids ready?" Mama calls up the stairs. "We should be going."
I steal another kiss, taking my time to enjoy it. "Okay, Mama," I manage around Kels lips. "Well be right down." I take one final sniff, earning myself a swat, and I give my girl my hand. "Come on, darlin, lets go. We have a party to go to."
* * *
The Pontchartrain is a gorgeous hotel at the edge of the Garden District. Like the lake, its named in honor of Count de Pontchartrain from the court of King Louis XIV of France. The count was the minister of finance for the court, so it makes sense that the hotel named after him is expensive.
The interior ceiling is painted sky-blue, and the floors are marble. Exquisite chandeliers hang down like stars from the sky, and highlight works of art mounted on the walls. Weve rented out the Caribbean, Fountain, Garden, and Patio rooms for the evening so that our family and two hundred of Mama and Papas closest friends can celebrate their anniversary in style. We have cocktails, dinner, dancing and more on the menu for tonight.
The Kingsleys know how to throw a good party.
Mama and Papa look terrific as we step into the room. Papas also in a tuxedo, as the evening called for formal wear, and he looks jaunty with his bright red bow tie. The tie, of course, perfectly matches Mamas dress. The dress, of course, perfectly matches her nails and purse. I might have to get a picture of Papa holding that purse later tonight then see if I can get a picture of it in the Times-Picayune fashion section.
As they enter the ballroom, people stop speaking and applaud. Kels and I fade into the background, content to witness the good will and affection my parents have earned. Theyve been good friends, good neighbors, good citizens for a long time. From his early days as an election volunteer, going out into the Bayou to register voters of all races, Papa has been a crusader in an investment bankers clothing. It was while registering Mamas brothers to vote that he first met his bride-to-be. Mama, surprised at her sudden wealth by marrying into the Kingsley family, immediately took to social activism as a way of ensuring she never forgot where she came from. For the last forty years a number of causes have benefited from her spirit and fire to see the right thing done the first time.
I glance over at Gerrard and Katherine, who I notice are talking to the president of the Louisiana state senate. Go, Gerrard! I squeeze Kels hand. "Chér, I think my brother may be making an important announcement soon."
Kels looks over and nods. "I think youre right, Tabloid. Kates a little nervous about that. She doesnt like politics much, and shes never envied the spotlight."
"Itll be a change, thats for sure. But Gerrard has the whole package - smart as hell, good-looking, gorgeous wife, photogenic kids, good judicial record, wealthy parents "
"And gay sister," Kels teases.
"Well, I hope Im gay. Otherwise, I married the wrong girl." We both laugh and I steal a kiss. "Besides, darlin, were very trendy these days."
"I couldnt care less about being trendy," Kels slides her arms around me, squeezing me tightly, "I only care about being with you."
"Thats my girl."
We stand there, and I am struck by how much life is different in two years. Not only do I have all the things I wanted - wife, family, home, two Harleys in the garage, but Kels is finally free to be herself. As much as I know she enjoyed being an anchor for Exposure, it was such a pain to not be free to express ourselves in public in New York. I understand the network being skittish about our being lovers, since television news is ruled by the almighty advertising dollar, but the pressure and limitations it put on us were ridiculous. As proud owners of our own production company, we can be as out as we want to be, and joyously turn away business that doesnt like it. Even better, I get to roll on the floor with my kids whenever I damn well feel like it.
"Come on, lets go mingle," Kels says after a long moment, tugging on my hand.
"Ill be right with you. I want to make sure that Jims got the camera set up right in the other room." I kiss Kels on the cheek and hustle off. Weve hired Jims to be our camera guy and his first assignment is to be a series of interviews with various people at the party. We have a small room off the ballroom where people can go in and sit down for a few minutes and talk about Mama and Papa. Well edit it all down to a reasonable length later and give it to them as a remembrance of this date.
The room is a small conference room, but Elaine, who has a natural flair for decorating, came in and helped Jims get it fixed up to look more homey than corporate. Jims did a great job on the lighting and I am confident everyone will look and sound good in the set up. He looks up from his snack and smiles. "Hi, boss."
"Hows it going?"
"Weve got about a dozen so far, mostly your fathers business partners and associates." He looks at his track sheet at the names. "Your dads a real player, eh?"
I nod. "Hes the real thing."
"He seems too nice."
"He is." I hear the band start up and I want to go dance with my best girl. "Do you need anything, Jims? You doing okay?"
"Ill be fine. Thanks for asking," he says around the food hes just tossed in his mouth. Some things never change. The back of our truck at the network was always littered with junk food wrappers and crumbs. Ill have to be sure the waiters keep bringing in more food and, more importantly, clearing the old stuff out throughout the night.
* * *
Gerrard crosses his legs as he considers Jims question. "The first thing I remember about Papa is him holding T-Jean. We had gone down to the gulf for the weekend and were playing on the beach. I was building a sand castle with Mama. I remember looking up over to the water and seeing this huge wave coming toward Papa and T-Jean. My mouth hung open and I remember bringing up my finger to point out what was happening to Mama. I swear, Ive never seen a bigger wave in my lifetime even since. This thing came up and I thought that would be the last Id see of either of them.
"Of course, the wave broke and soaked them. It even managed to get up high enough on the beach to erode some of my castle. I looked back up and saw Papa standing there, dripping wet, laughing, and T-Jean not very amused by it all.
"It was then I decided Papa had to be some kind of super hero. I have to admit, Ive never been wrong about that." Gerrard smiles for the camera.
"I think its safe to say that Ive always wanted to be just like Papa. Hes a quiet man, but when he speaks its because he has something valuable to contribute. I dont know that Ive ever heard Papa waste words. Yet, I know that theres never been a time that I didnt know my father loved me. He always told us kids that. He made sure those words were spoken. I always knew he loved Mama, because hed tell us that too. I guess thats what I appreciate the most - security. Papa always made us feel that our house was the strongest in the world because we were in it together. Just like T-Jean was safe in his arms at the gulf. Big waves, little waves, none of that matters. We take it and laugh."
* * *
I stand in the ballroom and soak this all in. I am now related by marriage to a quarter of the people at this little party. Theyre the loud quarter. I gaze fondly at my brothers who are all laughing uproariously together. They are all so handsome in their tuxedos. Looking at them, I am overwhelmed with love for my family.
And they are mine. For better, for worse, I am now a Kingsley. Since I cant imagine anything worse than growing up in my family, it can only be better. Although my father is coming around nicely. Hes here too, with Amanda. Little Claire is over at our house with the twins and her New York nanny. Dad was thoughtful enough to bring down their nanny so Brian could attend tonights party with Doug. Its so weird to think that my sister is at home playing with my children. At least, shes a cute kid. I wonder if Ill ever feel like shes a sibling. I highly doubt it. Kinda like how Ill never consider Amanda another mother. My own is bad enough, thank you very much.
"Ma petit!" Mama calls to me, waving me over. Now this is a mother I want to be when I grow up.
"Oui, Mama?" I murmur as she takes my hand and pulls me over into the circle of friends shes speaking to.
"I wanted to introduce you to Sister Clarice. She taught Harper when she was knee high to a grasshopper."
I laugh at the thought of my tall spouse ever being quite that small. I hold out my hand to the nun. "Hello, Sister. Its a pleasure to meet you. Harper told me she was quite a handful when she was at your school."
The old nuns eyes crinkle as she thinks back to Harpers antics. "We often wondered if she would live past the twelfth grade. Rumor has it, she has."
I smile, grateful beyond all measure that Harper is alive and well. I remember the events of last fourth of July all too clearly. "She has. Shes over there," I point out my spouse who has now joined her brothers, "and shell be surprised to see you here."
"No doubt. I think we finally managed to get all the chicken feathers cleaned out of the orchestra pit this year." I smile, remembering that story very well. It was very funny. "Although the doorframes have never been quite right since the incident."
Oh, this should be interesting. "What incident?"
"Harper had taken to carrying a lighter around. We never caught her smoking, but she would often pull out the lighter and light things."
Uh oh. "Such as?" Oh, Tabloid, Im gonna start writing down these stories so that when you rant and rave at our kids, theyll have some ammunition against you.
"The attendance slips on the door. At the time, the teachers would mark absences on a sheet of note paper and post it on a clip on the doorframe. During the period, one of the office aides would come by and collect the slips. One day, Harper went down the hallway setting them all afire."
I burst out laughing, and quickly cover my mouth to muffle the sound. I would have loved to have seen that. I can imagine it quite clearly. "Was anyone hurt?" I finally manage to ask.
"Oh no, she helpfully pulled the fire alarm at the end of the hallway."
I definitely starting a journal. Collin, Brennan, you two are going to thank me for it later.
* * *
Lucien sits in the chair and rubs his jaw, thinking about the question. Fatherhood has recently aged him, for the better, giving him a maturity and substance previously lacking. "Some of my earliest memories are of us as a family at the dinner table. We never ate a meal anyplace other than the dining room table. No TV dinners on trays in our household. Thats something Raich and I are trying to do with our boys.
"I remember that we always had to say grace before every meal. Mama would make each of us boys say a prayer thanking God for our dinner. One night, Mama served red snapper, rice and green beans. There wasnt one thing on his plate that Robie liked. He was only three at the time, and he wasnt very good at hiding his feelings. Harper was just a baby and exempt from prayer time.
"So before we start eating, Mama makes us all pray. Gerrard prays and says, Thank you, God, for this fish and rice. T-Jean goes next and says, Thank you, God, for green beans. It was my turn then and I said, Thank you, God, for the fish and beans. Robie was last and he prayed, Thank you, God, for beignets." Lucien laughs, the moment still fresh in his mind.
"Mama wasnt very happy. But I recall Papa was trying to keep from laughing. Robie has always had a lot of Papa in him. Papa always tells it like it is, no matter who might want to hear it differently. Over time, I think all us kids have come to respect the faith Mama has, and share it. I dont know that Id be considered a good Catholic, but Id like to think that Mamas ethics have spilled over on me. Thats something Id like to impart to Jake and Stevie."
* * *
I go to Nonnys table and lean down to kiss her cheek. It feels as thin as parchment under my lips, and I worry that my kids might not remember her. She pats the cushion of the seat next to her and I drop down onto it.
"How are the beautiful babies?" she asks smiling, knowing how much new parents love to brag on their kids.
"Perfect. Both of them are rolling over and starting to try to crawl. Soon nothing in the house will be safe."
Nonny laughs knowingly. "I remember. One day, when your Mama was very young, someone came to the door. It was Sister Agnes from the local parish. I went to talk to her and brought her back into the kitchen, where I had left your Mama. But when we came into the room, we couldnt find her. I was so scared! She was just a baby, could only crawl, couldnt speak but a few words. I looked at the backdoor, terrified a crocodile have come in and taken her back to the bayou. I was about to run out to the cane field to find your Grandpere when we heard a banging of pots. Your Mama had crawled into the lower cabinet with the pans and was sitting in one of them, playing happily."
Go, Mama! "Thats partially why we bought locks for all our cabinet doors, Nonny."
She pats my hand, her fingers cool on my skin. "You are a good mama, Harper."
"Im just trying to love them. That seems to be the most important thing."
"That and feeding them."
I have to laugh.
* * *
"What are my first memories of Mama and Papa?" Rene frowns and thinks back several years. Her family lived near Mamas in the Bayou, and she was around our family a great deal before Robie had the sense to make her a part of it. "I remember Mama over at Nonnys house. She was there to help with the harvest and Uncle Remy had asked her to drive the cart hauling it in. They had this huge horse, Antoine, who pulled the cart. Mama was sitting up there on the full load and yelled, Pull, Herbert, pull! Antoine just stood there. She then yelled, Pull, Pierre, pull! Antoine still stood there. Then she yelled, Pull, Antoine, pull! Spitfire began pulling the cart, and took the harvest up to the barn."
Rene shakes her head and chuckles at her memory. "I followed her up there and asked why she kept calling Antoine by the wrong name. Mama laughed and patted the horse affectionately. She said, Ol Antoine here is blind. If he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldnt even try."
Crossing her legs, Rene smoothes out the fabric idly. "I think Mama used the same psychology raising her brood."
* * *
My father comes over and extends his hand. I am impressed by how good he looks each time I see him. I think a happy home life agrees with him. Im glad to see him get a second chance. "May I have the pleasure of this dance?"
I take his hand, noticing how small my hand still is in his. Suddenly, I feel like the little girl I never got to be with him. He leads me out onto the dance floor and I am almost tempted to place my feet on top of his, feeling as if I need to learn how to dance with him. "Im so glad you were able to come down for the party, Dad."
He glances over toward Mama and Papa, a wistful smile on his face. "Anyone who can stay together forty years deserves a party. I only wish I could be around for yours and Harpers fortieth."
My heart clenches at the mention of his mortality and I dont want to think about it. "Dad," I protest. Intellectually, I cant argue with him, but for the first time in my life, I want my father around for as long as I can keep him.
"Sorry to get all maudlin on your, sweetheart." He kisses my forehead. "Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if your mother and I well, if we hadnt made a mess of it all."
I dont think I can even imagine a normal childhood. What would it have been like to know my parents? to be around them for extended periods of time? to not be sent off to the next school that caught their fancy or impressed the right people? "We cant change the past. But you have a good life now, Dad, with Amanda and Claire."
"And with you, too. Right?"
I smile and hug him. "And me and Harper and Brennan and Collin."
He lets out a long breath, and I realize how much it meant to him to hear those words. "I like being a grandfather better than I thought I would. I expected it to make me feel old, but instead I feel young."
"Really? How so?"
"Everythings new. Brennan and Collin dont know what a terrible father I was to you. Im just the guy who spoils them rotten. Plus, Claire has made me start looking at things from a new perspective. Everythings fresh."
"Shame though about your mother."
I falter and nearly step on my Dads foot. "What do you mean?"
He flushes and looks away, uncomfortable. "Dont you know about her plea bargain?"
I decide to stop dancing altogether. "Whats going on?"
"The Manhattan DAs office accepted her plea bargain to a third degree felony. Shes been sentenced to four years at a minimum security prison. It happened last Friday."
Great. My mother gets to work on her backhand for two years until she gets paroled. Somehow it isnt surprising, but it is disappointing.
Warm hands settle on my shoulders and I recognize the feel of Harpers body against mine. "You okay, chér?" she burrs. Her voice is calm, but I can hear the protectiveness right below the surface.
I lean back against her, grateful for her presence. "I am. Dad just gave me some bad news."
"At a party?"
Dad hears the reproach. Harper wasnt very subtle, Ill admit. I love that across a crowded dance floor she could tell something was wrong and immediately came to my side.
"Im sorry, Kels. Harpers right, I shouldnt have said anything right now. This is a celebration." He holds his arms out from his side. "Forgive your old man?"
I give him a hug. "Of course, Dad."
Dad squeezes me and then turns me around and places me in Harpers arms. "Sorry, Harper," he says, patting her on the back and exiting quickly.
"You okay, darlin?" Harpers arms tighten around me. We are still in the middle of the dance floor and arent even pretending to dance.
I start moving us gently to the music so we dont continue to attract so much attention. I dont want my dad to feel worse than he already does. I figured the bitch would get out of this somehow, but I didnt want to really know about it. I just wanted to accidentally run her over with my car one day. And back up a few times. "Mother cut a deal. Shes at some country club prison."
"Well, good," Harper replies, surprising me. "Maybe someone will stick a golf club up her -"
I reach up and cover her mouth with my hand. "Shh, Mama will hear you. Or worse, Nonny."
My spouse is unrepentant. She licks my palm.
It doesnt phase me. Im a mother now.
She changes tactics and tries a kiss and a nibble.
* * *
"I remember meeting the Kingsleys for the first time when they were a young family. In fact, their youngest, Harper Lee, had been born on a few months before. Had I been told then that the little one would grow up to steal my girls heart, I would have laughed. And I would have been terribly wrong to do so." Matthew shakes his head.
"Jonathan was trying to convince me to sit on the board of directors for his investment firm. Part of his charm campaign was to invite me over for dinner at his house.
"So, on my next business trip to New Orleans, I went over to eat with Jonathan and Cecile and their five. During dinner, I happened to mention that my father had recently been admitted to the hospital. I was shocked when Jonathans youngest boy, Robie, began clapping at the news.
"Cecile was horrified and Jonathan looked like he might pass out. I was curious, though. The boy didnt seem like a bad fella, so I figured something else was going on. I asked Robie why he was clapping. He smiled and pointed to little Harper, sleeping in a nearby bassinet, and said, Hes going to have a baby too!
"Fortunately, since then, Jonathans done a better job of managing his firm than explaining the birds and the bees to his kids."
* * *
Kels and I stay out on the dance floor. The band is in a mellow mood at the moment, so I get to hug my girl close. "How you doing, sweetheart?" I ask, my lips near her perfect ear. I kiss behind it, drinking in the scent of her shampoo and a trace of her perfume.
"Never better. Its a wonderful party. See, what we need to do is adopt two or three more so they can all get together and throw us a party like this in forty years."
I spin us around and dip my girl, surprising her. Pulling her back up, I steal a kiss. "I like the way you think. Though, dont you have any cousins we could get to help us out?"
I think Ive managed to bewilder Kels. She blinks a few times and finally manages, "Huh? Cousins? Yeah, Ive got two or three, but "
"Are they boy cousins or girl cousins?" I try to ignore the grin tugging at the corners of my mouth.
"Ive got a couple of each."
I nod, considering the information. "Are they good-looking?"
"Theyre from my Dads side of the family, so theyre not bad."
I tighten my arm around Kels, bringing her closer. "Not bad as in they dont have three heads? Or not bad if you like men?"
"Harper, okay, Im totally confused. Are you saying you want to have a baby?"
I guess I am. Probably not the right time to raise this particular issue, but, what the hell? The cats out of the bag, so to speak. I nod tentatively. "I think so. I mean, yes, I do. I really wanted to experience what you did. God, some days I was so jealous as you felt Collin and Brennan growing inside you. To create life, with someone you love, I cant imagine anything more amazing, more fulfilling." Suddenly, Im embarrassed to have brought this up at all, especially here and now. "But we dont have to talk about this right now, if you dont want to." I start to step away from her and lead us back to the cocktail room.
"No! Now is good." Kels holds me tightly, despite looking dazed by my admission. "If you really want to do that, I think its wonderful. Well find a way."
"Really?" I stop trying to leave the dance floor as Kels has a death grip on me. "You wouldnt mind?"
"Mind? No, I wouldnt mind. Id love to have other babies, and I would love to share that with you." She gently rubs circles on the small of my back, comforting me. "I simply never got the impression that you would want to have a baby."
"Too butch?" I chuckle.
Kels joins me. "Yeah, too butch."
"I never wanted to, Kels, before now." How to explain this? "I never thought of myself being pregnant. Didnt quite fit with my bad biker and renegade journalist image. I didnt think they make leather jackets that big, you know?" Kels smiles at my joke. "Ive always been great with kids, favorite Tante Harper, and all that. But I thought that would be it, that my nieces and nephews would be as close as I would ever get to having my own. Then I found you. When you said you wanted to have a baby, I was so happy. And now we have Brennan and Collin and Im wild about them. Id love for them to have a couple brothers and sisters, and Id like to be the one to give that to them. I consider my brothers to be the best gift my parents ever gave me. I want Brennan and Collin to experience having a big family as well."
If New Orleans were to suffer a power outage right now, wed all still be able to see by the light of Kels smile. "Sweetheart, you tell me when and well start trying to make a baby."
I lean down and capture her lips, enjoying the sweetness of this moment. "Practice makes perfect," I whisper against them when we finally part, not wanting to move very far away. Truthfully, Id like to go home right now and start practicing.
"It certainly does. Harper, your Mama is never going to believe this. When are we going to make this grand announcement?"
I pretend to think this over for a long moment. "Sometime around the twins first birthday?" Kels slaps my arm playfully. "I dont know, chér. I suppose we should talk to your cousins first and make sure theyre willing. Id hate to raise everyones hopes if it wont work out."
"Harper, sweetheart, even if they arent, there are other methods. But well wait, and I think Brennan and Collins first birthday is a wonderful plan." Kels reaches up and caresses my cheek, and I lean into her tender touch. "Thank you so much."
"For what, Little Roo?"
"For wanting this. I wanted a big family and I felt well, I felt like maybe I " She gives up and smiles. "It doesnt matter now because were going to have one. One way or the other."
I bend my head down so that I capture her eyes. "Chér, what did you feel? Tell me, please."
Kels pauses, closing her eyes, I assume to work up her courage to speak. "I felt like a failure," she says at last, softly. "I wanted so much to give us lots of babies. When they said I couldnt, I felt like I had done something wrong and that I wasnt supposed to be a mother. I think thats why Im so protective of Collin and Brennan. After all weve been through, I couldnt lose them. Thats why I ran home, why I came home to family."
"Oh, chér," I breathe, my heart breaking. How could I not have known this before now? What type of jerk am I? "Sweetheart, you are a fabulous mother. My God, you make it all look so easy. Our two babies love you so much. I cant imagine doing this with anyone else." Even the thought of that terrifies me. "You havent done anything wrong."
She nods and sniffles. "I know that now, and Im so happy. We have a wonderful family surrounding and supporting us, and we have the most beautiful babies." She nudges me playfully. Even if none of my brothers will admit it, we do have the best looking kids. "For awhile there, I was scared, but look at this." My girl gestures to the party which has continued around us unabated. Everyone on the dance floor has been gracious enough to let us have this talk in as much privacy as the forum allows. "This can be our future, Harper, and I am looking forward to walking every step of it with you."
That declaration deserves another kiss. "Will you still feel that way if one of our kids wants to run for the Louisiana state senate and the rest of them are also," I mock shudder, "lawyers?"
"The two things Ive learned through all this, Harper Lee, are: one, you can always count on family to be there for you; and two, it never hurts to know several good lawyers. Im telling you, though, I think youve correctly pegged Brennan The Girl Who Wants To Rule The World, and Collin is going to follow in my footsteps." My girls eyes shine with fun.
"Oh, he is, is he? Did you play quarterback for the Tulane football team?"
"No, and neither did you," Kels points out reasonably, forestalling any further argument from me. For the moment, at least. "But there is nothing better than being a multi-award-winning journalist who finds happiness and true love, and who gets to spend the rest of their life doing what pleases them." She leans upward and whispers in my ear, her breath sending pleasurable chills down my spine, "Including, but not limited to, spending lots of time trying to create little brothers and sisters."
Warmth infuses my body and it takes all my willpower to not take my girl home right now and work on this baby thing. Later tonight, however, well have to make a few attempts. Maybe Ill even buy a home pregnancy test to inspire us to greater heights. "So youll still love me when Im big and fat, eh?"
"Sweetheart, Ill even go out in the middle of the night and find whatever disgusting thing it is youre going to want to eat when the baby starts getting all demanding. Youre going to be so spoiled no one will be able to stand to be around you. Youll be like an old womans prized fat cat."
"Now theres a terrific side benefit. So, how many are you thinking? In total, I mean. Four, five, six?" Six sounds damn scary, to be honest, since that would mean four for me.
"Mama and Papa did all right with five, but I could live with four. Its a nice, round number."
"Think well get lucky with another set of twins?"
This amuses my girl, and Im so glad to see her so happy. "Anything is possible, Harper. I really think youre going to be too cute for words when youre pregnant."
I scowl. "I dont do cute."
Kels ignores me and pats my flat stomach. "If you have twins the first time, we may just have to go for five."
"Need I remind you, the fifth is sometimes the best of the whole lot?" I wag my finger in front of her. "Where would you be if Mama and Papa had thought four was a nice round number and quit at that?"
"Lost. And very alone." Kels regards me seriously, looking into my very soul. "I love you, Harper. I refuse to think of my life in terms of you not being a part of it. There is a reason that the two most stubborn people on the planet were brought together and I intend to spend the next seventy years trying to figure it all out."
"Im going to hold you to that." Whew. What a night. Who knew wed be discussing my getting pregnant and us having a whole brood of kids at my parents anniversary party? "So do you want to go rejoin the party and mingle? Or do we go out on the balcony and neck for awhile?" Im only half-teasing in my proposition.
"I think we should go out on the balcony and neck for awhile."
We immediate leave the dance floor in search of a quiet and secluded spot. I lean down and whisper the only words that come to my mind right now, "My God, I love you."
* * *
"I remember the first time I tried to pull something over on Mama." Robie has to shake his head in amusement. None of us were ever able to get away with anything for very long. "My friend, Bobby, attended parochial school with me. His mama made the best lunches. To this day, I remember the taste of Mrs. Boudreauxs poboys. So ol Bobby would bring his lunch and he and I would eat it during recess.
"Since we lived near the school, all us kids would walk home for lunch. I would bring Bobby along because he never had anything left after we got done at recess. Mama would feed him with us, and send us all back to school.
"I guess having Bobby over every day for lunch made Mama worry about the Boudreaux family. One day, she goes over there to speak privately to Bobbys Mama and see if they need anything. Thats when she found out about Bobbys lunches."
Robie laughs. "She must have figured out what we were doing, because the next day when we all came home for lunch, Mama made up her special jambalaya. I love that stuff. Ooo la la." Robie looks hungry just thinking about it, in fact. "We all sat around the table and Mama gave big portions to Gerrard and T-Jean and Luc and even Harper, who was just a little thing at the time.
"Bobby and I were given a half a sandwich each." He pats his trim waistline. "Thank God, Mama did that. Id hate to see how big Id be if I had continued that trend all the way through twelfth grade.
"Love you, Mama," he blows a kiss at the camera. "And I love that it was your heart for people that led you to discover our little scam."
* * *
Kels and I join my brothers at their table. Most of them have, by now, removed their ties and taken off their jackets. The majority of the guests have left, and only the core family remains. Mama is holding court with the Kitchen Conspiracy over at another table, but I want Kels with me. I dont want to share her with my sisters, right now. I pull Kels down onto my lap and wrap my arms around her, nuzzling against her soft body.
"How goes the war?" I ask.
Robie sighs and takes a long drink from the bottle of beer in front of him. "Its hard work being witty and charming all night."
"Especially for you." Luc winks.
"Yeah, yeah. At least, I was out there drumming up support for the Senator."
"Its not good to go calling me that before I win the election."
Kels reaches out and fixes Gerrards lapel which has somehow managed to fold over wrong. "You decided to run?"
"I dont know how I can turn it down gracefully at this point."
T-Jean snorts and rolls his eyes. "Right, older brother, youre only doing this to be polite. Not an ambitious bone in your body. Nope. Not a one."
"To civic-mindedness," Robie toasts.
All of us hoist glasses.
Gerrard has the good grace to blush. "All right, fine. Of course, I want to run and win." He looks over at Katherine for a long moment. "I only hope the rest of the family doesnt mind."
Im surprised Gerrard would consider doing anything like this without talking extensively to Katherine. It seems like a huge step to undertake without spousal support. Given that Gerrards always been my mentor in this area, I am surprised. "She didnt agree to it?"
"Harper Lee! Bon Dieu! Naturally, Katherine and I, and the kids, talked about it. They all agreed to let me try to win. Naturally, Joseph thinks hell be able to use my position to pick up girls." He smiles, knowing his eldest is a bit too much like himself at that age some days. "I just dont want to walk into this with the wrong idea. Its a lot of work, even at the state level. Gonna need to call upon my family to help out."
"Sure enough," Luc agrees amiably. "As long as we dont have to build another deck off your house. My back hurts for weeks after last summer."
"Poor baby," T-Jean makes kissing noises in Lucs direction.
"Maybe we can do a documentary about your campaign," Kels offers. "The Man From the Garden District." We all laugh. "Doesnt quite have the right ring to it, does it?"
"Well," Robie suggests, "if it were Brian running for office, itd be perfect." He ducks as Gerrard flings a cloth napkin his way.
"It doesnt really make me sound like a man of the people, Kels," Gerrard admits. "Perhaps we can come up with something better."
"How about we name our house something sad like Squalor? Then you could be The Man From Squalor." Robie is trying to be funny. Really, he is.
Gerrard shakes his head. "Tell you what, we can do it, if you are the one to tell Mama that her beloved house is named that."
"Or we could go with Elect Judge Gerrard."
"I thought so."
We all make clucking noises. No one wants to mess with Mama and her house.
* * *
I take my turn in front of the camera and try hard to remember this is family, not work.
"Im not even sure where to start. I know that thank you isnt enough. Youve both given me so much in such a short time. Im always overwhelmed at your generosity and the love that seems so endless for all of your children.
"Never once have you ever made any of the spouses feel any less important in your lives than your own flesh and blood. For me, youve opened up a whole new world, for which I will be eternally grateful. Youve given me the things I never thought I would have. And you opened your home and your hearts to me as if you had known me forever.
"I celebrate this day with you, my only regret being that I wasnt around earlier, for your thirtieth. But, rest assured, Ill be here for the rest, and I hope that when you are celebrating your seventy-fifth anniversary, were all surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
"The only thing left to say is I love you both."
* * *
I walk over to the band leader and speak to him for a moment. Hes tired, I can tell. His shirt is damp with sweat, and his group have the same slightly rumpled appearance. Were a family that likes music and likes to dance. I dont think they expected to work quite so long and hard tonight. I slip the leader a hundred dollar tip and am rewarded with one last song.
"Get your girls, brothers," I admonish the boys, as I take Kels hand and lead her back to the dance floor. Forty years from now, when were dancing on this same floor, Ill look around at all our kids and grandkids, and realize that we made decisions tonight that made a difference. And here I thought I was merely going to a party.
The lead singer begins singing the melody. His voice rough with the sound of whiskey and cigarettes and longing. I asked for an old Sammy Cahn tune. It seemed appropriate.
"It's the last dance, we've come to the last dance.
"They're dimming the lights down, they're hoping we'll go.
"It's obvious they're aware of us, the pair of us, alone on the floor.
"Still I want to hold you like this forever and more.
"It the last song, they're playing the last song.
"The orchestra's yawning, they're sleepy I know.
"They're wondering just when will we leave, but till we leave, keep holding me tight,
"Through the last dance, each beat of the last dance.
"Save me the first dance in your dreams tonight."
* * *
"I remember singing." Its hard to try to think of a first time you remember your parents, I realize when Jims asks me the question. I also realize how much I enjoy producing and how I never wanted to be the talent in front of the camera.
"Mama was always singing around the house. She loved show tunes, and I think all us kids know more Broadway musicals than the Gay Mens Choir. Mama sang because she was happy. We all were happy.
"I remember some nights waking up and sneaking downstairs. Most often, I was going for a snack, especially if there was any dessert left at dinner. All us kids would be sneaking down, in fact. Sometimes thered nearly be a collision in the kitchen from all the activity.
"A few times, Id hear Papa singing to Mama. Id creep around and look out on the back porch and there theyd be, dancing and singing together.
"Thats why I sing to Kels all the time. Why I sing to Brennan and Collin. It reminds me of how well loved I was and still am."
* * *
Home and tired, but changed into comfortable sweats, Im taking time to be with our babies while Harper showers and gets ready for bed. All three of us are sprawled on the bed, laughing and playing. Of course, they should already be asleep, but keeping them up a bit later will mean there is less chance of them interrupting my playtime with their Mama.
I laugh when Brennans head slips forward and she snuffles into the comforter, then sneezes. She still hasnt learned that doing things like that will make her sneeze. Collin is content to lay on his back and play with his feet, watching the bathroom door. Hes waiting for his Mama. He knows where she is.
"So, my little ones." I tug on Brennans foot and she laughs. Her face reminds me of a cherub. "What would you say to a little brother or sister?"
Brennan seems okay with the idea, but Collin opines with a loud raspberry.
"Ooo, you simply dont want to share your Mama, you jealous thing, you." I tickle his tummy and he curls his hand around mine, trying to pull it to his mouth to chew on it. "I hate to break this to you, but your Mama wants to have a baby. So, sometime, not too far off, I would imagine youre going to have a little brother or sister."
"Younger," I am corrected as the bathroom light is clicked off and my loving spouse joins us on the bed. She scoops Collin up and snuggles him close. "Youre gonna be an older brother, buddy. So youd better get a grip." He does so, completely tangling himself in Harpers hair. "Kels?"
She doesnt even need to finish the request before I reach over and begin the process of untangling them. "Youre welcome," I tell her with a quick kiss. Looking over at Brennan, I see her rub her eyes and I know its bedtime. "Come on, Tabloid, lets put them down for the night and then come back here and work on that making a baby thing."
"I really like the way you think."
* * *
I remember once reading the book The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. I forget if I read it for fun or for a class. I liked it, though, and parts of it have always stuck with me.
I remember his description of the first kiss shared by Byron and Natalie: "The brown wool dress was scratchy in his hands. The perfume in her hair couldnt be daydreamed, nor the moist warm sweet breath of her mouth. Above all gleamed the inconceivable wonder that all this was happening."
I felt the same way in that carriage not two years ago. Inconceivable wonder.
In fact, I wake up every morning with that same feeling. Except now it extends beyond merely having Kels in my life. My two angels astound me daily, as I watch them grow up before my eyes, hoping they take the best qualities of the two of us and none of the worst, wondering what our next one or two or three or four will be like, and what they will add to our lives. And what I can add to theirs.
Safely home from my travels, I managed to somehow achieve my dreams. I snuggle closer to Kels who sleeps peacefully beside me. I trace the curve of her arm with my fingertips, watching the effect my touch has on her even in sleep. She curls against me, until we truly are one flesh. In her sleep, she reaches out for me, and I give her my hand willingly. Why not? She has everything else that is mine.
As I drift to sleep, I remember my other favorite passage by Wouk, glad to finally understand its meaning: "The human predicament sometimes seems a gloomy tapestry with an indistinct, baffling design that swirls around and inward to brilliant naked lovers. The Bible starts with this centerpiece. Most of the old stories end with the lovers married, retiring to their sacred nakedness. But for Byron and Natalie, their story was just beginning."
Thats what theyll say about us forty years from now: our story was just beginning.
Thanks to everyone for joining us on this fantastic ride! See you at the movies!
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