Saturday, October 9, 1971
The music abruptly changed. Cheryl Day glanced up to see her youngest daughter headed her direction.
Windy beamed with her long white-blonde hair crowned in a wreath of baby’s breath as she floated toward her. Cheryl’s grown-up little girl was dressed in a soft ivory gown of antique lace while the autumn-colored decorations of the carriage house cast a bygone-era feel to the lovely wedding reception.
The last of her daughters to marry, it meant another span of her life drew to a close. She’d missed far too much. Thank God she didn’t miss this.
Then she realized Windy wasn’t looking at her, but past her. Over Cheryl’s shoulder. She turned to spot her ex-husband, Aaron.
He raised his head and caught Windy’s grin, returning one of his own.
The song, the look, the outstretched hand. Now it made sense. Time for the father-daughter dance.
Cheryl blinked to abate the tears. She wasn’t a father. Dancing with her daughter at this wedding was a right belonging to Windy’s dad. It had nothing to do with being a mother. No need to get all weepy. She pulled a hankie from her clutch and stuffed half a stick of Juicy Fruit in her mouth.
“The Way You Look Tonight” drifted from the speakers while Aaron twirled their youngest onto the dance floor, holding her with practiced skill and guiding her through the four-four tempo. He always was a great dancer.
There was a time they’d danced great together. Drat, not where her thoughts needed to meander.
The tears returned but now for the beauty, the poignancy of what she viewed. She’d watched the same thing unfold a few months ago when their eldest, Sunny, married. Back then Cheryl had just started making inroads toward healing with their relationships. By now, she’d hoped she wouldn’t be such an outsider. Yet still she observed, almost as if an audience member while the play unfolded on stage. Always the observer, never a part. It had been too much to hope.
The itch grew. She chewed harder on the gum. If she made it through this test, maybe she’d finally believe she’d quit smoking for good.
“Looks like they’ve done this before.”
Cheryl startled at the speaker who’d rolled up next to her in a motorized wheelchair. His oxygen hose hooked over his ears, snugged beneath his chin. Windy’s new father-in-law. She masked her surprise and nodded. “Yes, Aaron always did enjoy dancing with his girls. When they were little, he had them stand on his feet.” The words sparked a memory, and she winced.
“I guess you and I were meant to watch. Kris will dance with Ellen next.” His voice came out melancholy despite his smile.
“The kids are excited that y’all made it to the wedding.” Cheryl decided to attempt conversation for the sake of her daughter, and to steer things toward a cheerier topic. “How long can y’all stay?”
“We leave for home in the morning. The girls need to get back to school on Monday.” He sighed. “I’m glad to learn Kris is doing fine. Dad…” He shrugged. “Gene?” Like he hoped she’d get he was speaking of Aaron’s mother, Hazel’s husband. “He’d told me, but I needed to see for myself. He chose well with your Windy. She’s a lovely girl.”
“Thank you.” The compliment warmed her cheeks and neck. She had nothing to lay claim to that had any bearing on Windy or her sisters turning out as wonderful as they did. Still, why unlock the family’s skeleton closet, especially on this beautiful Indian summer evening?
The music ended and the dancers embraced while Aaron dropped a kiss on Windy’s forehead. So sweet it squeezed her heart. They appeared to be centered in a musical snow globe, waiting for someone to wind it up and start the dancing all over again. Just so Cheryl could watch.
The next song, “Try to Remember,” brought her new son-in-law, Kris, out to the dance floor with his mother. Not as adept as Aaron, she noted, but she doubted Kris’s mom cared about that. Ellen gazed up at her tall, handsome son and chuckled at something he whispered in her ear.
A short while later, the new Mr. and Mrs. Norman cut their cake, followed by Windy tossing her bouquet. Sunny’s sister-in-law caught it. Cheryl had a feeling it was planned, especially when she spotted her middle daughter, Stormy, next to the girl with her hand at her back.
Everyone returned to their tables for the toasts. Sunny, the matron of honor, and her husband, Pat, started them off. Then Aaron made a toast followed by Kris’s father…What was his name again? Too much to remember, and she had enough on her mind with the champagne so near. Her water glass would have to suffice.
Soon the event drew to a close. Thank heavens. Not that it wasn’t wonderful—it was—but between the pinching shoes and the flood of memories that drenched her in shame, Cheryl was ready to get home and be by herself. As if anyone would miss her if she headed over now.
No, one of the girls might look for her. So she’d stick around to the bitter end. Her bitter end. Everyone else was having a blast. The way it should be.
Sunny wandered over carrying eleven-month-old Heather. She and Pat would babysit while Windy and Kris went on their honeymoon. The darling girl squirmed, looking for her mother.
Stormy followed, holding her six-week-old Bobby, who slept with a milky look of satisfaction on his precious face. “These cutie pies sure hung in there today. Not bad for as young as they are.”
“Ah, my angels.” Cheryl reached for Bobby as Heather made a grab for her. “Hang on, lovey. I can hold you both.” She tucked Bobby in with her left arm and scooped Heather up with her right. Then she buried her nose in the little girl’s white-blonde hair, so like her mother’s.
Aaron startled her from behind, patting her shoulder while he made silly faces with their granddaughter. “They sure love their me-maw.”
Did he really mean that? Well, they were babies. They had no clue about her shattered past, the mental illness she’d worked so hard to overcome.
Or how his touch sent shock waves up her spine.
Sunny cleared her throat. “We’re all going to head to Gramma and Gene’s after this. Our crew can get the important stuff done. Stormy and I will finish up the rest after church tomorrow.”
Her daughter’s look told her she’d be expected to make an appearance. For her girls, she would. Whatever it took to rebuild the relationships. “Are y’all sure I can’t help put things away?” Keeping busy always helped.
“No, but thank you. We’ve got the kids well trained.” Sunny hired the youth group from church as wait staff and clean-up crew to fund activities. “They’ll have the tables and chairs put up fast. Then it’s a matter of sweeping and hauling the dishes to the kitchen. I made an extra key for Thea. She’s going to supervise and lock up. The rest can remain for tomorrow.” Thea Carpenter was the newest addition to the Weather Girls’ staff and a god-send considering the other employees all took part in the wedding party.
“Then, if y’all don’t mind, I think I’ll run next door and change clothes before driving to Hazel and Gene’s.” She ended with an unspoken question.
“Sure, great idea. I might get out of these shoes while I can too.” Sunny smiled and headed out of the carriage house toward her home—Ferguson House. She and Pat lived above the business, the Weather Girls Wedding Shoppe and Venue, in the beautiful Victorian.
“Then, if you’ll excuse me.” She handed Bobby back to Stormy.
Heather struggled, reaching out to Aaron. Yup, he was the favorite again. And she hadn’t even screwed up with this baby. Yet. Drat his magic touch.
She shook her head to loosen the clinging thought and trudged next door. Her apartment was actually the top floor of the small neighboring Victorian that Pat purchased when he’d left his corporate law practice in Indianapolis to open his own defense firm on the bottom level. He’d lived upstairs until he and Sunny married, but once the space was vacant, it was the perfect place for Cheryl, so she no longer had to live in her former mother-in-law’s home. Not that Hazel wanted her to move out, but living alone was a way of life now. And she valued her privacy.
Getting into something presentable yet comfortable wasn’t nearly the battle as was convincing herself to go meet with her family. Sometimes it was simply overwhelming. They’d call her Sarah Bernhardt, like that silent film star, if they realized what raced through her mind.
But for her girls, she’d make an appearance.
Charged with that determination, Cheryl headed out to what served as her car, a 1957 Renault. Scraping the cash together for it had been a challenge. Keeping it running was proving to be another. All her budget could handle was chewing gum, duct tape, and prayer.
She slipped behind the wheel and turned the key. At first there was a click-click. “C’mon, Pierre. You can do it.” But after a few more tries, even the clicks grew silent. She sank forehead first onto the steering wheel. Now what? She could hoof it, but the walk home would be dark and chilly. She’d walked alone after dark before, but that was supposed to be in her past.
She heaved another breath and tried again.
A tapping on driver-side frame caused her heart to skip. “Oh!”
Aaron stood there, motioning for her to crank down her window.
She did. “You scared ten years off me.”
“You can fight with that or let me give you a ride.” He peeked in as if seeing the inside of her car for the first time. In all likelihood, it was his initial glimpse.
“I don’t want to impose.”
He opened his mouth to say something and closed it fast. Paused, then tried again. “No imposition. We’re going to the same place.”
“That’s where you’re staying. I still have to return here.” She didn’t want to be alone with him any more than he must want to be alone with her. Truth was, he made her nervous.
“It’s not as if you live across town. Come on, Cheryl. We can do this.”
Even though his words propelled her to give in and try it his way, she doubted either of them believed what he said.
Aaron almost chuckled to himself, but Cheryl would catch him. Offering her a ride to his mother’s house was no biggie. Besides, talking with her used to be fun.
Only now there wasn’t a lot of talking. She practically hugged her door for the five minute drive. Did he really make her that uncomfortable?
Did he really need to ask himself that question?
He turned into the driveway, just barely keeping his trunk end from hanging onto the sidewalk. The one-lane entrance was long, and everyone had pulled in ahead of him. Apparently, they were the last to arrive. Guess it was a good thing he needed to drive Cheryl back home so the other cars could exit.
Aaron rounded his rental to get her door.
Her eyes rounded as though stunned.
“What?” He’d always opened her door for her. It was how he was raised. Why was that so shocking?
She shrugged and glanced away as she climbed out.
And now he was nervous. Dare he guide her with his hand at the small of her back? Be yourself, Day. You don’t need to second guess every move.
Though the old Victorian had a large porch, it also had several steps leading up to it. Not a big deal normally, but Gene’s son—Kris’s dad—was in a wheelchair. Kris built a ramp, giving a new look to the place where Aaron grew up.
They found everyone in the dining room. His mother was pouring coffee while plates of cookies got passed.
Mom glanced up after topping off Stormy’s husband Rob’s mug. “Hey, you made it. Wondered where you were.”
Aaron kept his hand at Cheryl’s back. Somehow, he had the impression she’d turn and bolt if he didn’t. Well, there was precedent.
They slipped into chairs, the only two left at a very full table.
Frank—who was now Windy’s father-in-law—had his wheelchair wedged in with the crew. It was a tad strange that Mom’s new husband—okay, so they’d been married a little over a year—was the grandfather of Aaron’s newest son-in-law. Talk about a close-knit family. But that was how Windy and Kris met, through Gene. And he’d been very good for Mom, so Aaron wasn’t about to complain.
Kris’s sisters seemed excited to have been part of the wedding party, chatting with Sunny and Stormy as if long-lost friends. They’d been junior bridesmaids and lit the candles before the ceremony.
Rob held Bobby, and Gene bounced little Heather on his knee. Took all of Aaron’s reserve to not reach for her. That precious princess wound herself around his heart the moment he met her. So like Windy at that age. Did Cheryl recall?
All talk ceased and gazes turned toward Sunny.
“What’s the matter?” Stormy voiced for all of them.
“The microphones. We borrowed some from the church because we thought ours had died at the last minute, remember? Pastor said we could use them if we returned them right after because the mics are needed tomorrow for the service. But Rob got ours working, and I forgot to get them back.”
Her eyes scanned the group until she landed on him.
And he knew his little girl hoped he’d help. “Where are they?”
“They’re in the trunk of the car. We’ve gotta run. Gramma, will you call to have someone meet us at the church so we can return them?”
Aaron stopped her. “Hang on a second. You’re blocked in. Just give them to me and I’ll…” He glanced at Cheryl. “We’ll drop them off.”
Cheryl peeked up, her forehead furrowing as her eyes grew large.
He winked at her. “Let’s do it. Mom, make the call. Sunny, go get them out of your trunk. Cheryl, you don’t mind, do you?” He’d put her on the spot, but an idea was forming.
“Ah, no. I, um…” She stood.
They’d avoided being alone for the past year, always making nice. Easy to do when he lived in LA and only visited on occasion.
As much as Aaron tried to help ease Cheryl’s path toward getting back with the girls, he was limited by what he could do. Holding onto the bitterness got him nowhere. And yes, he still had moments. But his daughters needed their mom. He knew it. It wasn’t a matter of picking out a replacement. For better or worse, Cheryl was their mother. They had to accept and move forward.
He held out his hand. “Ready?”
She glanced about before allowing him to assist her through the obstacle course of chairs. “As I’ll ever be.” Her Texan twang still colored her speech after all these years.
They followed Sunny to Pat’s Mustang where she popped the trunk and handed over the microphones.
Then they climbed into his rental and were off to Wabash Community Church.
“Why did you need me to come along?” Cheryl’s question broke the silence of the first mile.
He shrugged. “I’m your ride.”
“I know better than that. Besides, with Sunny and Pat living next door, I could’ve asked them.”
“But you wouldn’t. Your pride won’t let you.” Yeah, he knew her well enough to figure that.
They pulled into the parking lot where the pastor waited in his car. He got out as Aaron shut off his engine.
“Thank you for returning the mics this evening. I guess I could have taken them when I left the party, but it looked like things were still going strong, and I had to get home to put the finishing touches on tomorrow’s message.” Pastor Mussing smiled as he bridged the distance between the cars.
Aaron retrieved the box and handed it over. “We appreciate you letting us borrow them. It all went off the way Windy hoped. Thanks.”
“Good, good. So I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, right Aaron?” He bent and peeked in the window. “You too, Cheryl.”
Aaron nodded and glanced at his passenger. Nothing like being cornered. She’d pasted a smile on her face and mimicked his nod. “Good night, Pastor.”
After Pastor Mussing headed inside the church, Aaron put his rental into drive and pulled out, sneaking a peek at Cheryl. “Guess we got told. I’m not leaving until Monday afternoon anyway, and you know Mom.”
She chuckled. “Yeah, I do. I better figure out a ride until I get my car fixed.”
“I’ll stop by for you.”
“No need. Sunny is next door and Stormy across the street.”
Aaron glanced her direction. “Didn’t we just establish that you most likely won’t ask? It’s no imposition and will make my mother happy.” He took a left onto Sycamore and headed west. “And when Hazel Day is happy, life is sweeter.”
“You mean Hazel Norman.” She tossed him a wink.
“Yeah. Hazel Norman.” He had a forty-seven-year habit to break. Somehow, he wasn’t sure his mom’s name would ever change in his brain.
“Where are we going?” She stared his way, her voice growing tense.
“Thought we might grab some coffee.”
“They have coffee at your mother’s house.”
Aaron kept driving. “Probably all gone by now. Besides, the dining room was stuffed to capacity.”
He saw her jaw working something—he’d bet money it was Juicy Fruit—and figured her nerves were taut enough to pluck like a guitar. It was against his better judgment to push her. “There’s a restaurant I discovered a few years back. I had fun taking the girls out, one at a time to give them undivided attention. They each got a turn per trip. This place was a favorite of Windy’s. It’s called Krieg’s Sycamore Village Inn.” He braved another glance before pulling into the parking lot. “Have you checked out many of the places around town?”
She shook her head. “Not really. Watching the babies keeps me busy enough.”
He didn’t really believe her. Not Cheryl Ann Webb, the starlet he once knew. She was head-over-heels in love with life. Or was when they married. But then she’d spiraled into that hole and trapped herself in their bedroom for days, sometimes weeks on end. Was she heading for another fall through the depression looking glass? More reason not to push too hard.
“Are you doing okay?” If there was going to be a problem, he’d better be prepared.
She glanced over, her eyes unreadable. “I’m fine. Taking it one day at a time.” Her jaw worked harder on the gum.
That put an end to his line of questioning. He braked into the parking spot.
The hostess showed them to a table, leaving menus while she filled water glasses.
“The sugar creme pie is wonderful.” He peeked over the top of his menu to catch her reaction.
“Oh, Aaron, you still have a sweet tooth? I can’t imagine what with all we had at the wedding. How do you do it, staying so lean and eating all those calories?” She chuckled, deep and throaty, and it was like music. At least she’d relaxed a little.
Her voice had deepened with maturity, but he was betting her cigarettes also contributed. Speaking of which, he hadn’t seen her light up once since she’d replopped in their lives. Back in the day she’d thought it made her look more sophisticated. He wasn’t fond of it. Maybe she had quit.
“No idea where it goes, just grateful for not having to buy all new threads.” He winked. “What looks good to you?”
Cheryl sighed and set the menu on the table. “I know better, but you talked me into the pie.”
“We could split a piece. Then you wouldn’t have to worry so much.”
There was a startling in her eyes, for the briefest of moments, before she nodded. “Sure. Okay. Good idea.” Was she afraid sharing a dessert would cross some line? Oh, the questions he wanted to ask her.
The waitress arrived to take their order. She acted miffed in the beginning that they weren’t ordering more. Poor kid. Probably lived on her tips. But she did end with a smile and brought the pie with an extra fork and two cups of black coffee.
Aaron added a spoonful of sugar to his, and then another, because he could, and allowed Cheryl the first taste—after she’d wrapped her gum in a piece of napkin.
“Oh, wow. This is fantastic. Glad I didn’t get my own, or I’d have eaten the whole thing.” Her eyes closed as she slowly pulled the fork from her lips of her second bite.
“You will save some for me, right?”
“I wouldn’t count on it. You should’ve warned me.” She smirked and took another bite.
“If I remember correctly, I’m the one who told you it was wonderful.” In fact, he’d told her a lot of things she didn’t seem to believe. Aaron cut a forkful for himself and enjoyed it almost as much as watching Cheryl’s pleasure with the treat.
Stop. This would only open old wounds. “So tell me what you’ve been up to.”
She paused, eying him as if for motive. “I’m keeping the babies while the girls run their shop. Heather is getting active and will be walking soon. Makes me nervous about the stairs, but I’ve got a gate at the top, so we pretty much stay on the second floor. Besides, during business hours, I never know when Pat has a client, so I need to keep away from that part of the house.”
“That’s not what I was asking. What about the eleven years before this one?” It was out before he stopped himself. He was pushing again, but he couldn’t help it.
Even though she’d been in town now for nearly a year, they’d never had an alone moment. Too many questions remained bottled inside, and he’d waited as long as he could.
“You don’t want to hear about all that.”
“Yeah, I do.” He reached for her hand.
She pulled back so fast it knocked her spoon to the floor, and she slipped beneath the table to retrieve it.
And probably to be away from him.
He shouldn’t have tried, but it was important. And if he were honest with himself, she still had some power over him. He wasn’t out to judge, just get some answers. Finally.
“Hey, Aaron, good to see you. What brings you to town?” Marshall North stood at their table.
“Oh, Marshall, hi. Our daughter Windy got married this afternoon. Have you met my wife?” She popped up like a Jack-in-the-box, her cheeks just as rosy too. “Cheryl, this is Marshall North, who, among other things, directs productions for the Kokomo Civic Theatre.”
Cheryl’s face blanched the moment he spoke the words, slapping the utensil on the tabletop. But she didn’t let that hold her back, extending her hand. “It’s lovely to meet you, Marshall.”
“Same here. You look familiar. Cheryl…You aren’t Cheryl Ann Webb are you? Aaron, you never said you were married to a movie star.” The man covered her hand with both of his. “You know I’m always recruiting for our group. Are you staying in town awhile?”
“She is, I’m not. Gotta fly out tomorrow.” Did no good to tell the guy that. His back was turned to Aaron while he stared into Cheryl’s eyes, still holding her hand.
“Well then, Cheryl, come check us out. We’ve just cast our current production, but we’ll be having tryouts again soon. Oh!” Marshall snapped his fingers and posed as if he’d discovered method acting. “Our spring musical is Applause. You’d be perfect for Margo Channing.”
“Y’all were able to get licensing for that show? I thought Lauren Bacall was still doing it on Broadway.” Lauren? Back in the day, Cheryl called her old friend Betty. Hmm. Seems she kept up with the theater world.
Marshall grinned. “I know some people. Plus we had a couple things in our favor besides my connections. Our group, though amateur, is exceptionally well thought of for the shows it produces, and there’s that line in the song ‘Welcome to the Theatre.’ You know, ‘from New York to Kokomo’?” He sang it. Perfect pitch. Drat.
Cheryl shook her head. “Makes it tempting. Thank you for offering. I’ll look forward to seeing your shows, but I think for now, I belong in the house rather than on the stage.” She slipped her hand from his.
“Think about it. I’d better get going. The family’s waiting in the car. Nice meeting you, Cheryl. Take care, Aaron.” He headed out the front door.
“You really don’t want to do any acting?” That was a shocker. He thought she lived for the spotlight.
She shook her head again, keeping her hands in her lap. “I’ve worked hard at my…” Her eyes grew wide, and he could tell she almost shared something private, but she recovered and met his gaze. “And I’m not your wife.”