by Paula Gail Benson
This story, which takes place between Christmas and New Year’s, was previously published on the Writers Who Kill blog.
On December 28, I returned to work, hoping to hide out in the holiday-hollowed halls of academia. No such luck. The first of the three dastardly “Ds” in my life, my ex-wife and fellow faculty member, Daphne, anticipated my strategy and beat me there. She stopped me as I reached my office door to ask if I’d decided on the song I wanted.
Saturday Night Fever’s “How Deep Is Your Love” and Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” had been playing in my head. “All by Myself” from Bridget Jones’ Diary would probably embarrass Jessica.
Movie music wasn’t always the best selection for a father-daughter wedding dance, but, as a tenured film professor, that’s my frame of reference. My department seniority grated on Daphne, a Victorian literature specialist who had just been promoted to full professor status.
“Ham, you have to choose music Mrs. Dutton can play,” Daphne informed me.
I wondered why the Dean’s secretary’s ability determined the music at our daughter’s wedding. As a contributor to the costs, I should get what I wanted for the one moment of the evening I might enjoy.
“Don’t even bother protesting,” Daphne said before I could open my mouth. “Mrs. Dutton is playing the wedding and reception music as her gift to Jessica.”
“Will Mrs. Dutton be playing at the rehearsal dinner, too?” I wondered if there might be a song to convince Jessica that Gordo was absolutely the wrong choice for a life partner. Maybe the Dixie Chicks’ “Ready to Run” from The Runaway Bride?
“She’ll be a guest. The rehearsal dinner is the groom’s family’s responsibility.”
I hadn’t met Gordo’s mother yet and still hoped she could be recruited to help halt the nuptials. From Daphne’s expression, I suspected the mothers hadn’t bonded.
“Mrs. Humphreys is a piece of work,” Daphne told me. “I hope Jessica can steer clear of her.”
Another reason to call this shindig off. Except that Jessica was convinced she was in love and I’d promised to be supportive.
Hal Montgomery, the professor whose office was next to mine, had just arrived, barely nodding to us before ducking inside his refuge. Since I would rather talk with him than Daphne, I said, “I need to check with Monty.”
She frowned. “Just don’t tell me that you two are planning Gordo’s bachelor party.”
I had no desire to attend, much less plan, any celebration for Gordo. “Department business,” I replied.
That made her frown deeper, probably wondering what business the Dean could have entrusted to us. She left me with one final instruction. “When you pick up your mail, show Mrs. Dutton some gratitude, and for God’s sake, don’t antagonize her. We’d never find a replacement at this late date.”
Jessica had intended to hand me the invitation to her New Year’s Eve wedding on Christmas Eve as my gift–which actually would have been quite awful, not only as a Christmas present, but because New Year’s Eve had always been my favorite holiday. Our having thwarted a robbery at the Study Break Café led her to present the invitation to me two weeks before Christmas, thus increasing my agony over the impending tragedy, and giving Daphne more opportunity to involve me with wedding tasks and bills.
At least we had managed to have a remarkably civil holiday so far. I remained staunchly pleasant at the Christmas party Daphne hosted for the department with the second dastardly “D,” her boy toy spouse, Dorian. Or, as I thought of him, Dorian, the usurper, who rubbed Daphne’s back like he meant to burp her, and insisted they drink egg nog from a pewter German wedding cup as joint slurpers. After getting through that horrendous evening without becoming violently ill in front of my colleagues, then navigating our split-family version of Christmas Day, maintaining detente through the waning days of the year should have been a gingersnap.
Except for dreading the abhorrent wedding.
I slipped inside Monty’s office, closing the door behind me, and slumped in the chair before his desk. “Did you know Mrs. Dutton was a musician?”
“Sure,” he replied, placing items in neat stacks on his desk. “Lizzie started taking piano from her this year. Didn’t you write the checks to her when Jessica took?”
Depending upon his home climate, Monty alternated being grateful and mad at me for bringing Selma Grant, his former student and now wife, into his life. Their daughter Lizzie just turned six and would be Jessica’s flower girl.
His response made me feel more guilt and shame about knowing so little of Jessica’s life after her mother and I divorced. All my checks had gone to Daphne, like my wedding contributions.
I left Monty’s office, excusing myself to get my mail from the department office.
The third of the three dastardly “Ds,” Millicent Dutton, called to me as I entered her domain. She never referred to the faculty by last name, except the dean. Crooking her finger, she motioned for me to approach.
“Yes, Mrs. Dutton?” I hoped that she wasn’t going to demand I name a wedding song at that moment.
“I understand you’re good at theft,” she said.
The student newspaper with the Study Break Café robbery story lay on her blotter.
“Well, not stealing, but preventing theft,” I responded.
I assumed this was not the skill she was hoping I possessed.
With a sigh, she continued, “You might be able to help me anyway.”
“Hi, Professor Richards.” My research assistant Wendy walked in and headed for the mail cubicles to retrieve the contents of my box. If only I had just slunk into my office after leaving Monty’s.
“Do you know the oversized rocking horse that the Nu Beta Tau fraternity house always used to put out in its yard as a Christmas decoration?” Mrs. Dutton asked.
Since I was clueless, I was glad Wendy answered.
“I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard about it. People could ride on it and have their picture taken beside it.”
Mrs. Dutton nodded. “You’d have to use a small ladder to reach the saddle, but it offered a great photo opportunity. And, the boys never charged for it, even though it could have been a money maker.”
“What about this rocking horse?” I asked.
“They don’t put it out anymore,” Mrs. Dutton told me.
I wondered where this was going, when Wendy said, “Wasn’t there an accident with a child and they were forced to take it down?”
“That’s what I want to know.” Mrs. Dutton focused her laser eyes on me. “What happened to that rocking horse, and where it is now?”
I was about to open my mouth to say I had enough assignments from Daphne when Wendy took my arm and steered me to the door.
“Probably I can help you research that, Professor,” she told me.
“Before the wedding,” Mrs. Dutton called after us.
“Wendy, I can’t justify having you research something for Mrs. Dutton’s curiosity when we have course work and film festival planning to do,” I whispered as we made our way down the hall.
“It’s not a problem,” she assured me as she withdrew her grip from my arm and handed me my mail. “Leo’s the fraternity’s historian.”
Her Goth boyfriend Leo was the last person I’d consider for fraternity membership, much less being an officer.
She smiled. “Just let me handle Mrs. Dutton’s question. I know you’re swamped with grades and tasks for the wedding.”
Probably I should have put on my stern professor face and insisted that she concentrate on my research needs, but Wendy could wind me around her little finger like Jessica. The two girls had become good enough friends that Jessica asked her to greet those attending and keep the guest book at the wedding.
Wendy left me at the door to my office. I entered, put the mail on my desk, and was about to start into a stack of papers when I got a text from Jessica. She had become adept at texting since I bought her a new phone for Christmas, and I never ignored her messages.
She sent me an address and asked that I meet her there in two hours. I figured the directions and shut up the office to stop for a cup of coffee first.
Two hours later, I parked on the street behind Jessica’s Rav4 at a two-story Tudor style home in a downtown community near the university. As I rang the bell, I wondered if this might be where the newlyweds planned to make their home. Within seconds, Mrs. Dutton answered the door with a scowl.
“You have an answer to my question?” she asked.
“I was working on it when I got Jessica’s message to come here.”
She shook her head before stepping back to let me inside. “Jessica’s upstairs.”
It was rather terrifying to think we’d been left alone.
She pointed to a bench in the central hallway, the seat of which looked shiny from years of waiting students’ bottoms. She left, exiting through the open French doors into a room with comfortable furnishings and a fireplace.
“Thank you.” I sank to the firm seat, glad we did not have to spend time in the same room. I looked around, noticing the layout. Another set of French doors opened into a room directly opposite to the one Mrs. Dutton had entered. A stairway, to my left, led directly to the second floor landing. I peered down the hallway where a door seemed to open on a lighted room, perhaps a kitchen. I wondered about all the times Jessica must have come for lessons, sitting right where I was now, without me even knowing.
“I’m ready,” Jessica called from upstairs.
As Mrs. Dutton played the traditional wedding march, I watched my daughter descend, a true vision in white, floating from above to the earth below. For a moment, I felt a flash of relief it wasn’t her mother’s dress. This gown was uniquely and beautifully her own.
I rose as she approached, unable to smile or speak, my heart felt so full. I wanted to take it all in and was afraid I couldn’t appreciate enough this moment Jessica had planned, just for us.
A clap of hands made me realize that Mrs. Dutton had stopped playing and was standing in the door watching, breaking our reverie. I’d never seen such a delightedly wicked grin on her face.
“Oh, you look just like Caroline Kennedy,” she exclaimed. “Only her dress had those appliquéd shamrocks.”
Her words brought a piercing sting to my already overwhelmed heart. All I could think of was John John and his bride being lost forever in a terrible accident. Was it a premonition of what lay ahead for Jessica if she married Gordo?
Somehow, Jessica always had been able to read my mind. “She means John Jr.’s sister, not his wife,” she said softly. “So, what do you think?”
I couldn’t help myself. “Gordo doesn’t deserve you.”
“Ha,” Mrs. Dutton responded.
I wasn’t sure if she was agreeing with me or laughing at me.
Jessica played the diplomat by changing the subject. “Why don’t we try a few steps to see if you can maneuver around this skirt?”
“Have you figured out what you’re going to dance to?” Mrs. Dutton asked as she headed toward the piano.
I hoped I sounded conciliatory instead of perplexed. “Perhaps you have a suggestion?”
I was fairly certain that second “ha” was mocking me.
Mrs. Dutton began to play and Jessica positioned her hands at my shoulder and waist. My own appendages seemed to have taken on some grotesque sci-fi creature proportions. I tried to be more suave than I felt, always a mistake.
Jessica leaned toward me, the hint of a smile at her lips. “It’s chopsticks, Dad.”
I held my hands up in surrender. “I’m afraid I’ll embarrass you.”
Her arms entwined my neck. “No, you won’t. I don’t want a choreographed show, just a quiet dance with my father.”
For a few moments, we went back to our circular pacing in time to the music. I felt all gawky, as if Jessica were cotton candy that might dissolve at my touch, but she was confident, poised, perfection. I was right. Gordo definitely didn’t deserve her.
“The name of a song would be nice,” Mrs. Dutton called.
Jessica got that funny look on her face that I had come to recognize as my child humoring me into facing the fact she was an adult. “Try ‘Born to be Wild.’”
Mrs. Dutton launched into it with gusto.
Jessica forced me into a livelier move. “You see? She’s very versatile.”
I preferred to think of her as cantankerous. “She wants me to find out what happened to Nu Beta Tau’s Christmas rocking horse,” I panted as I tried to keep up.
Jessica beamed. “That’s a great idea, Dad. Why don’t you concentrate on solving Mrs. Dutton’s mystery? I’ll pick out the right song for our dance.”
Within minutes, I was pushed out the door, leaving Jessica and Mrs. Dutton to scheme against me. As I got into my car, I began feeling quite depressed that Jessica and Wendy, the two women who had some modicum of respect for me, seemed determined to divert my mind to other endeavors besides the grand wedding plan.
Jessica sent me a text as I sat stewing. Along with her message, “Found on Mrs. D’s bedside table,” was a snapshot of a photo featuring a couple standing in front of the Nu Beta Tau Christmas rocking horse. It couldn’t have been more than five years old. The man was older, distinguished, and familiar to me from university functions. The woman smiling up at him, in an adoring and not fanatical manner, was Mrs. Dutton.
The next morning, as I approached my office deep in thought, I heard Monty say, “Here he is,” and looked up to find him with Gordo in the hallway. Monty reached out to clasp my shoulder and keep me from bolting.
As he faced me, Gordo looked as if he’d taken a large bite of unsweetened grapefruit. “I wanted to hand deliver the invitation to the rehearsal dinner, ah, sir.”
“Thank you.” I accepted the envelope, raising my shoulder to bump off Monty’s grasp. I was pleased Gordo remained formal, calling me “sir.” I wasn’t yet prepared to use the “s” word when mentioning him, even if it would be followed by “in-law.”
“My mother recently returned from Europe, so we just finalized the plans today.”
“You mean, she hasn’t met Jessica yet?”
“No, they met last summer, and Mother’s had several Skype conversations with Jessica’s mother.” He reached to loosen the knot in his tie, as if it suddenly had gotten very tight. “She’s looking forward to meeting you tomorrow night.”
Gordo turned back to Monty. “So, I’ll see you at the Nu Beta Tau house later.” He nodded stiffly to me and left.
“Why don’t you like him?” Monty asked.
“You never had him as a student.”
“Because I was faculty advisor for Nu Beta Tau, and I told him if he took his English elective course from me, I would fail him.”
“I wish I’d had that option.” Gordo ping-ponged from Daphne’s to my classes, trying to find the one requiring the least work. I don’t know how mine won the prize. “He doesn’t even like film.”
“But, he loves Jessica. Why don’t you come to the gathering at the frat house this afternoon? Some of the alums are coming by to wish him well.”
I shook my head. “Papers to grade.” Then, it occurred to me that Monty might have the answer to Mrs. Dutton’s question. “Ah, isn’t Nu Beta Tau the house that used to put out that oversized rocking horse as a Christmas decoration?”
Again, Monty clasped me on the shoulder. “Ham, if you value our friendship, don’t even go there.”
Sighing, I entered my office and found Wendy and Leo waiting for me. They sat in the chairs in front of my desk. Leo held a scrapbook tightly to his chest. I sensed he didn’t want to divulge its secrets, but Wendy was insistent.
“Leo, spill,” she said before I could greet them.
“Okay,” he replied. “So you want to know about the rocking horse. Well, the official story was a covered up scandal. A five year old kid climbed onto the horse’s saddle, then fell and hit her head against the rocker.”
“Was she seriously injured?” I asked.
“That was part of the cover-up. No news leaked, other than the accident occurred. The next day, the horse was gone.”
“No word about what happened to it?”
Leo shook his head. “There’s a sealed agreement between the family and the fraternity.” He shifted and scratched, sure signs there was information he had not disclosed. I’d seen too many guilt-ridden students.
I crossed my arms. “Give, Leo.”
He sighed. “The guy who could tell you the details is Gordo. He was the fraternity president when the deal went down.”
Oh, great. The last person I wanted to talk to about anything, except leaving Jessica at the altar.
I ended up scouting out the gathering for Nu Beta Tau that afternoon, trying to sit low enough in the seat of my car so no one recognized me. Most of those coming and going were Gordo’s age, but the distinguished gentleman from Mrs. Dutton’s photo did show. He didn’t stay long and didn’t seem to notice that I trailed him as he left.
He stopped at a house near Mrs. Dutton’s where a sweetheart of a little girl, maybe about ten years old, danced out into the yard to meet him. Her mother stood in the door waiting to give him a hug before they all went inside.
Just as I was ready to give up the surveillance, he came out and returned to his car. I followed him to a large home on the outskirts of town. He parked beside it, glancing at a separate garage behind the house.
Once he was inside, I risked trespassing to have a closer look at the separate garage. Its doors were padlocked. I opened the doors as much as I could and shined my penlight inside.
“May I help you?”
I turned to face the gentleman, looking at me with hands on his hips. Involuntarily, I held up my hands, as if submitting to arrest.
“Ah, I know this appears odd.”
“It appears that you’re trespassing.”
“Yes, sir. I suppose I just should have come to the door and asked instead of coming on your property.”
“Well, you appear harmless enough. Put your hands down, and tell me what you want.”
“Could we talk for a few minutes, as fathers who are willing to do anything to make their daughters happy?”
The next day was the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. Mrs. Humphreys took an immediate shine to me, suggesting that I sit beside her at the wedding since Daphne and I were divorced. She grasped my knee as tightly as Monty had gripped my shoulder. Somehow, I was able to respond that I felt the father and step-father should show solidarity by sitting together, which made Dorian extremely happy. Gordo also looked relieved.
After Mrs. Dutton saw that I brought the gentleman from her photo as my “date,” she spent the evening focused on him, so I assume that he told her about his daughter being so jealous that he might remarry that she made up the story about his granddaughter being hurt on the rocking horse to break up his romance. After all, how could he continue to see a woman he’d proposed to in front of a horse where his granddaughter had been injured? He had sacrificed his own happiness with Mrs. Dutton to keep his daughter satisfied, but he kept the rocking horse in his garage. Maybe now he and Mrs. Dutton could have a second chance.
I wish my expertise at preventing theft had extended to keeping Gordo from stealing Jessica away in marriage, but then a father has to know when his or his daughter’s happiness comes first.
Daphne and Dorian insisted that Gordo and Jessica drink a toast from the German wedding cup. As I led Jessica to the dance floor, she whispered that she hoped Mrs. Dutton and her beau might give the cup a try before the evening was over.
Then, as the music began, I felt ill.This couldn’t possibly be our song. Mrs. Dutton played the Van Morrison tune from the last scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary, when Colin Firth wrapped his coat around a nearly naked Renee Zellweger, standing in the snow of a London street.
“Gordo needs to be here,” I said, pulling away and looking for the groom.
“No, Dad,” Jessica replied, drawing me close. “This is the song I wanted for our dance. Because I knew I could never be married until I found ‘Someone Like You.’”
And, hearing her say that, New Year’s Eve became my favorite holiday all over again.
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