By Molia Dumbleton
It took her a second to recognize him, coming at her with a glass of champagne, but just as she was about to open her mouth, he said “I thought that might be you.”
Kenny must have been all of eighteen the last time she’d seen him, and sweeping Judith off somewhere, the way he had almost every day that last summer, before he and Judith and all of their friends had packed up and left for school. She had loved that summer. It was the last time things felt right. She looked at him now, in a suit, almost thirty, and said “Kenny, my god, honey, look at you.”
She thought he might hug her, or offer a lingering handshake—but he waved instead with his glass, so she waved back, and then they stood there in the bright light of the outer gallery, searching for details they once knew, buried in these new, older faces. Eventually he laughed, and she crossed her arms, and they turned to look out over the cocktail hour at Judith’s rehearsal dinner.
“I was sorry to hear about your mom,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry about Mister Janney, too.”
“Yeah? Well. Thanks.”
Allen had died a few years ago, after the divorce and more than a few years of not speaking, so she still felt guilty when people expressed their condolences as if she were a proper widow. Still, the one consolation of being back in town was that at least people here had known them then—so no matter how things ended or how they felt about it, here, at least, they would be forced to look at her and face what had been lost.
She smiled and tried to will a tray of champagne to pass. “I guess you and Judith have both had a hard couple of years,” she said.
A swell of jazz pushed out from behind the door to the main gallery. Kenny tossed his head in that direction. “Art history, this guy.” He bottomed his champagne and set the glass precariously on a windowsill. “What a prick.”
She hadn’t made it to the main room yet, hadn’t yet faced Judith. She hadn’t even gotten a drink. It was only minutes ago that the airport shuttle driver had flicked a hand toward the building and said “Modern. Can’t miss it,” and been right. The perfect, glowing gallery had appeared around the corner: tidy and geometric, with nothing left to chance.
It wasn’t hard to guess what the wedding would be like, nor the boy. He would look the way he was supposed to look and say the things he was supposed to say, and later tonight, he would tell Judith the things she would need to hear about how hard it must have been having a mother like that, and how brave it had been to invite her after all these years, and of course, sweetheart, of course, princess, how much better it would have been if her precious father could have been here instead.
The gallery was just so. The music was just so. And the boy would be just so, of course—and she would love him, as she loved Judith from the instant she’d conceived of her. But looking around, she also knew. No matter how the weekend went, she would never again be allowed to know Judith the way she once had, or share her secrets, or watch movies with this young man under a blanket at their perfect house, or be invited to breakfast on Thanksgiving.
“Smoke?” Kenny used two fingers to reveal a pack of cigarettes in his jacket’s handkerchief pocket.
That last summer, sweet, lovesick Kenny had come by almost every day, just to sit on the couch with Judith arm-to-arm in the heat, with thick course catalogs or lists of dorm room supplies. He’d come almost every night, too—to fetch Judith out to a party, or down to the quarry, where the kids did god-knows-what, except everybody in town knew what. Had known for generations.
And then they’d gone. All of them at once, leaving their tidy rooms and beds empty behind them.
And how could a mother not miss the nights of worry when the kids snuck out, with their tangled hair and their beautiful skin, reeking of youth, as the short hours of their perfection ticked away?
And how could she not be surprised to find herself tiptoeing into those rooms to smell the t-shirts of the children she had lost, and the prom dresses and baseball mitts left behind in their closets.
In truth, it was only Allen who had turned away, and only he who turned the children.
Couldn’t they see: it was only heartbreak that could cause a mother, of all people, to start going down to the quarry. Only love.
But by the time Allen asked her to leave, the quarry had gone cold anyway, and the buzz in those old rooms had gone flat. And by the time the children finished and came home from college, nothing smelled right anymore, not even them.
She hesitated, eyeing the door to the reception, and Kenny’s sweet fingers in his pocket.
Molia Dumbleton’s fiction and poetry have appeared in New England Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Witness, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and others. Her story, “The Way They Carried Themselves,” was awarded First Prize in the SeÃ¡n Ã“ FaolÃ¡in International Short Story Competition and nominated for a Pushcart. Her story, “If She Were to Lay Down,” was featured in Huffington Post’s “Read 15 Amazing Works of Fiction in Less Than 30 Minutes.” Her website is www.moliadumbleton.com.