***Chapter Twenty-One***
Word Count: 3,820


"Jesus," John said. He hadn't at all been expecting the interruption. "How about a little warning you're back here when I'm standing on a ladder and can fall and kill myself."

"Sorry. I assumed you heard me."

"Obviously not. And no I'm not hiding. Why?"

"Aren't her grandparents coming into town today?"

"Yeah. Her parents are picking them up at the airport. We're going to their club for dinner."

"You getting used to that?"

"What? Meeting her relatives?" He'd met too many to count over the past month. He hadn't understood why he had to meet them before the reception, but evidently no one wanted to be embarrassed by the fact they'd have to admit they hadn't met him before then or something. As if he understood the way of people.

"That, too, but no. I meant dinners at her club," Ronda said.

"Uh, no."

"You're a member now, too, aren't you?"

"I guess, by way of her membership. It's not like I have time to take up golfing or anything."

"She'd probably teach you."

"Maybe she would," he said. The idea of standing on a golf course for hours hitting a little ball with a metal club didn't appeal to him at all. She'd mentioned teaching him, too. He'd probably do it, but he was almost positive he'd hate every bleeding minute of it.

"Why are you still here?"

"Uh. A customer wanted a particular backdrop for their sitting. I had to find it. It wasn't with the other Christmas ones for some reason."

"The Petrella's?"

"Yes! This is, what their third Christmas sitting?" They'd done their first one to announce she was pregnant since she was due in January. "They want the same background they used for their oldest for some pictures with the new baby." It was weird to think he had repeat customers. Loyal customers. He'd started out doing someone's engagement photographs which turned into wedding photographs, which turned into first baby pictures, and so on. It still floored him he'd accomplished that. A name. A reputation. A quality product.

"Ah. Well, there's someone here to see you."

"And you're just waiting until now to tell me that?"

"I'm not sure you want to see them."


"I don't know. Just a feeling I get."

"What? Is it the cops? A reporter?"

"No, nothing like that. She just doesn't look like she should be here."



"It's not an ex, is it?"

"Uh, no, that's not the impression I get."

"Because I swear to God if you're setting me up for some uncomfortable thing where I have to explain to someone I'm married just so you can see me squirm a bit."


"All right," he said. "I'll be right there then, I guess. Maybe a break from searching will help me remember where I put the stupid backdrop they want."

He made his way up front. Ronda wasn't up there, but he heard her in the kitchen so he knew she was around. His eyes fell to the small waiting area he had, regarding the woman sitting there. A myriad of emotions went through him as their eyes met. He'd had a few years of not seeing her so she caught him by surprise and he knew that surprise was evident on his face. He couldn't hide it no matter how hard he tried.

She looked tired. Worn. Worse than he remembered. Then he hadn't given her much thought since he'd left.

"What do you want?" he asked.

She stood then and he noticed she had a package with her. She regarded him as intensely as he did her. He was doing it out of morbid curiosity. He remembered what she looked like. She hadn't changed that much in the few years since he'd seen her. He'd changed, though. He wasn't anything like the guy she'd last seen.

"This came to the house."

"You're opening my mail now? That's against the law, you know?"

"It was addressed to me and your father."

"Then why are you bringing it here?"

"Because clearly it's not for us."

"What are you talking about?"

She set the box on Ronda's desk. He glanced inside the box and saw the large gift wrapped box. Wedding bells on the wrapping paper and the ribbons and bows were white. Yeah, clearly a wedding gift. He looked at the flap on the box that was opened, noticing the label was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. John Bender. He supposed he could see where the post office might have delivered it to them by mistake.

"Why'd you bring it here?" he asked. His correct home address was on the box. She could've brought it there. She might have seen Claire, depending on traffic. That bothered him a lot. He wanted Claire as far away from his parents as he could keep her.

"I knew here you'd at least see me."

"Not for long. You brought me the box. Thanks. Now get the fuck out."

"Johnny," she said, reaching to touch his hand still on the flap of the box.

"Don't. Don't even go there," he said.

"You're married, Johnny. I'm your…"

"You're not. It takes more than giving birth to give someone the right to call themselves that. Cats make better mothers than you were. At least they kill the ones in the litter they don't think will survive or don't want."

"That's not fair, Johnny."

"Stop calling me that. Life isn't fair. I really don't want you here. Any other presents get sent to you by mistake, send them back. Don't bring them here or to my house."

"Don't you want to know why I'm the one bringing you the package?"

"Uh, no. Who else would bring it to me?"

"Your father's in prison."

"This is supposed to surprise me?"

It was kind of surprising. John was surprised he hadn't heard about it through someone. Charlie still knew people who would have that kind of information.

"It's just me now."

"Yeah? Maybe you should've thought about that being a possibility years ago. People who treat people like shit usually end up alone. It seems to me that's probably the way it's supposed to be."

"Is she pretty?"

"What? Who?"

"Your wife."

"I'm not even talking to you about her. Ever."

He wondered how long his dad had been gone. How long had she been alone? She hadn't worked ever. She'd tried at first to be a housewife, but hadn't succeeded too well in that endeavor. She had no skills that he knew of beyond doing drugs and drinking his old man's paychecks away. Of course, his old man helped her do that. She'd even slept with one of his friends in exchange for product a few times. She didn't know he knew that, but nothing surprised him about her. He hadn't found that bit out until after he'd moved out not that it would've made a difference in his life if he'd known while he was still living there.

"Listen. You brought the present. Thanks. I appreciate it. I'm sure it was tempting for you to open it and see if it was something valuable. I won't forget that for once in my lifetime you did something honest and right. Thanks. Now, really. Just go. I don't know what you want from me."

"I want…"

"No, you don't. You gave up the right to want anything from me a long time ago."


"You know. If you'd come here obviously not strung out on whatever you're using these days I might think you were actually sincere. You want money from me? You want me to pay you for delivering my mail to me? Is that it?"


"Yeah, you say no, but your eyes just lit up like a Christmas tree. I'm not paying to support your habits. Go see Chris or is he too old for you now?"


"I know lots of things you probably aren't aware I do. Now please go. Don't make me embarrass you or me by having to call the police over a present."

"You'd do that?"

"If you don't leave my building I will."

"When did you get married?"

"Not answering you. I don't want you to know anything about me or my life. I hate that you know where I work. Even that much information bothers me, but you do. You haven't come around here before today so it seems you understand I don't want to see you."

She wasn't happy with his response. He couldn't blame her, he supposed. What did she expect, though? Four years of not seeing her would make him forget? Not likely. He supposed he didn't hate her as much as the old man, but he had no fuzzy feelings toward her either. He watched as she left, surprised now that he thought about it that neither of the cars was parked out front.

"Your mom I take it?" Ronda asked from the doorway to the kitchen about five minutes later.

"If you want to call her that. She walked here?"

"Yeah, came from the direction of the bus stop. Why?"

He shrugged, running a finger along the mailing label on the box. "No reason."

"John," she said cautiously.

"Just wondering what happened to her car. They had two cars. He took care of them."

"If he's in prison…"

"Yeah, no one's there to take care of them anymore. She couldn't have driven two cars into the ground. He hasn't been in prison that long. I would have heard about it if it was years or something."

"What do you suppose he did?"

"I have no idea. I don't care."

"Has other mail been sent there?"

"I have no idea. I imagine maybe. We both have the same name."

"You don't look much like her."

"No. I've been told I'm the spitting image of him."

"He was obviously handsome then."

"If you say so."

"Good looks don't equate to good people, John."

"I know. Yet even not looking like her you know it was someone I wouldn't want to see."

"It was just a feeling I had."

"You have good feelings."

"Yeah. I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "It's all right. It was bound to happen at some point."

"She really wanted money?"

"I don't know. She wouldn't have turned it down. If she's taking the bus here who knows what's going on with her."

She walked up to him then, sliding a hand over his.

"You know while you don't owe her anything no one would think you're a bad person for being curious about her situation."

He flinched a bit at the contact and at her words.

"I have no business…"

"No, you don't, but you're human and a caring one at that. It's natural, I think to be curious."

"Yeah, well, I can't think about it now anyway. I have a few hundred people to impress this weekend."

"I know! I can't wait."

"Thank God you and Bill are going to be there. At least I won't be completely alone."

"You can't sit with us and drink the night away."

"It would sure be tempting to try."

"Are there really going to be hundreds?"

"Yes. The last guest count was over three hundred. Claire insists she doesn't know who probably half of them are."

"Marrying into rich and powerful families can have its downsides."

"I guess."

"Speaking of."


"Your rich and powerful in-laws."


"I heard rumblings that our little strip mall here is going to be sold."


"Yes. I was talking to Lou down at the convenience store and she said someone had been around the past few weeks."


"You don't know anything about it?"

"Why would I?"

"I'm wondering if your father-in-law is going to give you a place to work."

"Give it to me? I don't want him to give me anything. I'd still pay him rent."

She patted his hand.

"I know you would because you're you. Don't be surprised if it happens and if he won't take the money, though."

"Great. I don't want his help. I've done fine without it."

"You're not his child. Claire is."

"I know."

"You have done well. I won't deny when I took the job I didn't count on it lasting this long. No overhead. John…"

"Yeah, I know," he said.

God what he could do without having to pay rent. He could hire another photographer and pay them well enough to be competitive with other agencies. That had been a huge reason he'd hesitated to do it to this point. He just couldn't be competitive. Not year round. Yes, the wedding season kept him busy every weekend, but during the winter there just weren't weddings every single weekend. So, he couldn't justify bringing someone else on, the expense of another employee. His frugalness had allowed him to buy a house so he couldn't complain while others might have seen him as being stingy or something. He wanted some things for himself before he worried about things like expanding his business to warrant more employees.

Another photographer would also mean that John could concentrate on other things, like the pictures he took and sold elsewhere. He hardly had time this past summer to do anything. Part of that was his own fault, learning to balance a consistent social life with what he wanted to do. The idea, though, of being able to focus on that instead of just taking endless family pictures was pretty awesome.

Of course, he was getting ahead of himself. Ronda didn't know anything for a fact, and even if Claire's dad had bought the building that didn't mean he was doing anything beyond ensuring John's place of business was in stable hands.

It was nice to think about. Certainly better than thinking about his mom. He realized that was probably Ronda's intention, changing the subject.

"Thank you," he said.

"You're welcome, hon. Take that gift home to your wife and see what it is."

"None of it is stuff we'll ever use."


"Okay, some of it. A waffle iron came earlier this week. Really?"

She chuckled softly.

"I bet Claire's mom used a waffle iron."

"She said something along those lines."

"And I bet Claire will use one, too."

"She can barely warm milk without burning it!"

"She's learning."


"Well, she'll learn. You'll probably eat some burnt waffles in the process, but she'll learn."


"Or you'll learn. Maybe you'd like to use a waffle iron. Claire says you seem to like to cook."

"I guess I do."

"There's nothing wrong with that."


"A man doing the cooking. You don't have a commute to work. She does. Who says she has to be the one to do the cooking?"

"I don't make her do any cooking. She wants to learn, I show her stuff. She asks me questions, I explain stuff to her."

"I'm just saying. Whatever works for you two is good for you two."

"I know. I don't mind cooking. Maybe a waffle iron was a wrong example. Crystal. Linen napkins. Real silverware."

"You'll use it when you have Christmas at your house one day."

"My house isn't that big!"

"China, crystal, and silverware can be used for a party of two, too."

"Really? You and Bill sit around your dining room table like that every day?"

"Not every day, no, but I won't deny sometimes we do it for something different and nice. Sometimes I like to surprise him when I know he's had a tough week."

"Huh," he said.


"Nothing. I guess I've just never thought of you two as being like that."

"Being like what?"

"I don't know. People who have tough weeks."

"Well, my weeks are rarely that bad."

"That's good to know."

She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. "Do me a favor?"


"Don't fret about your mom."


"I know you. It's going to bother you that she came here on the bus. She's made her bed. You've gotten this far without her. I don't know the whole of it, your experience, but what I saw. Well, no one would blame you for going home tonight and never giving her a thought again."

"I know."

"Did you ever find that backdrop?"

"No, I'll come in early in the morning and look for it."

"Good. You should go home. See what's in the box."

"As long as it's not another waffle iron."

"At least you haven't gotten ten toasters."

"No, we haven't gotten any toasters."


"Two. One is pretty nice, though. Claire seems to think it'll make good margaritas."

"She'd know."

He chuckled a bit at that. "Yeah, she would."

He went to his office to get his coat and things while she checked the kitchen. He waited for her, locking the doors behind them. He glanced in the direction of the bus stop. He couldn't help it. Why the hell was she taking the bus? Was there something wrong with the cars? Had she lost her license? Was she just trying to trick him into getting involved with her? He wouldn't put it past her. He wouldn't put anything past her. Or his dad.

Claire wasn't home yet when he got there, which wasn't unexpected. He checked the answering machine. Ninety percent of the messages left on it were for her versus him these days, but the last one was the one he was looking for anyway. It was her telling him what time she was leaving work. She'd gone in on Sunday, went early and stayed late on Monday and Tuesday, and gone in early today, too, knowing she was going to have Thursday and Friday off this week because of the reception and her grandparents coming into town tonight. Staying late tonight wasn't an option.

No one could accuse her of slacking or assuming she deserved days off.

He showered and changed into clothes worthy of her country club. He'd never asked her if she wanted him to learn to do things like golf. He couldn't deny the idea of using the pool their club offered wasn't abhorrent to him, but golfing and tennis just weren't his thing. Then, he'd never been exposed to them. She had mentioned him learning but hadn't asked specifically if he was interested. She wouldn't have this past summer. They got married in September and there was still golfing at her club then but they'd been kind of busy. She hadn't done a whole lot of golfing herself.

He had to admit as much as he still wasn't convinced a tailored suit was necessary, the dress shirts her father's tailor had outfitted him with were outstanding. They were well made, comfortable, and they fit him as if they were made just for him. The cufflinks were an adjustment, but he was getting kind of used to things like cufflinks and matching stickpins for his ties.

"Wow," she said when she came into their bedroom. "You look very nice."

"Well, it's your grandparents. I figured I should go all out."

"You did very well."

"Short of the suit, yeah."

"I'm glad you're waiting until Saturday for that."

"I know. How was your day?"

"Oh, you know. Busy, but I think I left everything in a good spot to be off until Monday."

"Good. No working from home tomorrow and Friday then?"

"Not if I can help it. Christopher has said he could handle things if he has to."

"That's nice of him."

"He's getting used to this, I think."

"I think we all are," he said.

"How was your day?"

"Other than seeing the other, older Mrs. Bender it was fine."

"I'm sorry. What?"

"Yeah. Did you see that present on the kitchen table?"

"I did."

"Apparently it was delivered to their house instead of ours."

"Oh," she said, biting on her lower lip as she did when she got nervous sometimes. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault the post office can't read. Our address was written correctly on it."

"Well, I still feel as though I'm somehow responsible."

"You? How?"

"I don't know. This reception and everything is for me. My parents."


"If I'd just left it alone…"

"Claire. I told you I could deal with my parents."

"Yes, but you don't need them walking into your life again!"

"I told her to leave."


"I mean, I tried to be decent about it. I thanked her for bringing the gift by. She could've opened it, returned it to the store for money and we'd never have known. Whoever sent it would've wondered why we never sent them a thank you note, though."

"I suppose."

"She tried asking me about you, but I wouldn't engage. I can handle it."

"All right."

"She did tell me he's in prison."


"Don't say it. Yes, him."

"You didn't ask why?"

"I don't care!"

"Are you sure you want to go to dinner tonight?"

"I'm dressed and ready to go, aren't I?"

"Yes, but you just saw your mom for the first time in years, John."

"Yeah? I figured it'd happen eventually. I just figured it'd be because she wanted something from me."

"If you're sure."

"I'm sure. I'm fine. Just kick me under the table if I start to sound like my usual smart assed self."


"I'm fine. I'm not going to embarrass you or your parents in front of your mom's parents. I swear."

"Okay. I'll change and then we can go."

"All right. I'll be in the kitchen."

"You're sure you're all right?"

"Yes. Why?"

"I don't know. Usually you'd offer to help me or at least to watch me."

"We have to be there in like twenty minutes!"

"That doesn't usually stop you."

"It's your grandparents. I'm not asshole enough to accost you minutes before having dinner with Grandma and Grandpa."

"I think accosting suggests an unwillingness on my part."

"Yeah, well, I still have better manners than that. After dinner, though…"

"Thank you. That makes me feel infinitely better."

"Really?" he asked, regarding her for a minute as she slid her dress over her head and off.


"You suddenly worried I don't want you anymore or something?"

"Well, no, not that."

"All right. I assure you I enjoy watching you dress and undress anytime I can. I'm just trying to be sure we actually get out of here and to dinner on time."

"Thank you."

"I'm not sure why I have to be the responsible one when it's your grandparents, but you're welcome."

"Because you've been having sex for years!"

"I haven't been having sex with you for years."

"That is true."

"Trust me when I tell you there is a difference."

"You're just saying that so you'll get lucky later."

"No, I'm saying that so that I'll get lucky for the rest of my life."

"Good plan."

"I thought so."

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