Wonders, Worries, and Surprises
Pat met them in the foyer. “Was sh-”
She cut herself off as if only at that moment noticing he was there.
Not the least bit curious about the aborted question, Jonathan used the moment as an opportunity to part from his wife. Apparently, she and Pat needed to talk, and he could do with his own minute or two, away from Jennifer’s discerning eyes and ultra-sensitive radar, to recoup.
Excusing himself, he continued into the great room where it appeared everyone had gotten the message to report outside. Most of their guests were up and either leaving the room via the den door or appeared on their way to do so.
Bill, in the last group with Fee, Brenda, Carolyn, and Marcus, must have read something in his face; he hung back to wait for him to cross the room.
“So?” Bill asked when they were close enough together to speak discreetly.
“Yeah, he showed.”
“The little son of a bitch. You and the hairdresser said he might. That kid really doesn’t know who he’s fooling with, does he?”
Bill faked clearing his throat, alerting him to Jennifer and Pat heading in their direction. Once the women joined them, they all moved toward the den behind the others on their way outside.
Concentrating on Jennifer’s leather pants, Jonathan worked at smothering the flickering embers of fury he had been struggling to mask from her. It would not do to let her know what had gone down out at the curb, and she really did look good in that 80’s get-up. For her to find out about Wesley’s persistence, despite the legal barrier in place, would definitely become a case of “Color Wesley Dead”. The lengths Jennifer Hart was willing to go when it came to protecting her child from an ill-intentioned male had already been demonstrated, and he never wanted to see that side of her again if it could be helped. In fact, she didn’t need to experience that side of herself again if it could be avoided.
That other stalking incident directed at J.J-
-this boy just doesn’t know.
Wesley Walker Singleton… just like those guys in that long-buried school memory shared with J.J. on the night she took off in Jennifer’s car to rescue the little girl.
Wesley Walker Singleton…. just like those jerks who turned on him that night in the gym.
…arrogant, privileged, pompous, their parents’ financial positions self-perceived reflections of their own worth.
… elitists, thinking themselves entitled to the best of everything while lacking any concept of genuine best being earned.
… cowards who couldn’t fight fairly, who stooped to any method or means to win.
… predators who viewed girls as objects, mere items to boost their own egos in whatever way they chose and then toss away.
He had grown up fighting, literally, for his and the other not so fortunate kids’ right to exist, to grow and to thrive equitably and in peace. Although his, at the time, had been a largely religious, supposedly benevolent environment, those components hadn’t mattered much against deeply entrenched attitudes and established pecking orders.
At present, it was high-end Los Angeles, and he had since earned his place here, but now it was his daughter doing battle with arrogance and entitlement. Fortunately, J.J. Hart was every bit the fighter both her parents had to be. Despite his misgivings and his apprehension over her going out to that car, he admired her determination when insisting to him that she alone be allowed to face that asshole and for how she followed through on it. Too far away to hear what was said between her and Wesley, he could tell from her body language- and Wesley’s- that her position had been clearly communicated. It would be on the boy to receive and accept the message.
Because the promise had been made long before his child arrived in the world- long before she was even conceived- long, long before ….
If that idiot ever comes at her again, and I get wind–
“Darling, are you okay?”
It was only then that he realized he had his arm around Jennifer’s waist.
“Me?” he said, easing his tense grip on her then letting go completely to guide her in front of him, through the door, and onto the deck. “I’m fine.”
“Um-hmmm,” was all she said as she started down the stairs.
He ignored the skepticism he heard in her response and instead focused on keeping up his shield of outer cool as he followed her down the stairs and into the yard.
Outside and seated, Jennifer felt Pat lean in, pressing her shoulder to hers as she pointed toward the stage.
“Hey, look. Isn’t that J. up there? In the white, by the keyboard, see?” Then she abruptly stiffened. “Hold on. Wait, whoa, is the girl stripping?”
Also taking in the action onstage, Jennifer tipped her head toward Pat. “Yes, that’s our child up there. It looks as if she’s going to play.”
In her mind, the final pieces fell into place as to why they had all been summoned from the house. A word or two had been dropped on the way to the stands about ‘music’, but now it was all making complete sense.
“And if so, as to your question about her stripping, J.J. doesn’t like performing with sleeves. She claims long sleeves are too restricting to her reach and that short sleeves tend to ride up and bind while she’s playing. At their school concerts, all the other girls in the band will be playing their instruments wearing matching short or long-sleeved blouses; J.J. Hart, alone, will be up there in a sleeveless top. And like most people she deals with, her teacher accommodates the alleged idiosyncrasy.”
Then she leaned to the opposite side to speak close to Jonathan’s ear. “I think you knew all about this set beforehand.”
Jonathan winked and smiled in handsome profile. “Yeah, I did. Washington phoned me to say he and the kids wanted to do it as a surprise birthday gift for her, but I wasn’t really sure at what point during the party it would happen.”
“J.J. told me, when we were planning the itinerary, that Mr. Washington and his group were playing,” she said.
“They are. But as far as I know, J.J. had no idea that this was the group he was talking about. I don’t know how the kids all kept it so quiet; I don’t think J.J. had an inkling- even after we managed to remove her personal keyboard from her back room upstairs for her to use tonight.”
He cut his eyes down to hers, “But then, she probably did have a more distracting matter on her mind all day that kept her from focusing too much on the party details.”
At that comment, she sat back.
She and J.J. had indeed not yet spoken on the troubling matter between them. And despite his cavalier attempt at diversion at the front door, she had picked up on a vague undercurrent of tension in her husband. It was one she thought she had sensed in him earlier in the day after they returned home from their breakfast outing.
Where had he and J.J. been coming from in that golf cart? Why had J.J. taken off in one in the first place? She had been moving pretty fast in that thing and going away from the house at the time. Had she been chasing him? And why that strange visual exchange between Bill, Marcus, and Salvatore as they were all leaving the house to come outside?
The adults had been escorted to the sound stage area for the jazz band’s performance. She, Jonathan, Pat, and Bill had been directed to second row, center of the tiered horseshoe stand of bleachers. Their adult guests filled in around and behind them. Kids, some carrying drinks, some with plates of snacks, noisily climbed up on both sides, getting situated for the second musical performance of the night.
She caught it from the corner of her eye when Jonathan briefly closed his eyes and sighed as Sydney, in all his glory, showed up. The boy greeted both of them, then he carefully slipped out of the gossamer wings and placed them on the grass before he took the seat right in front of Jonathan’s feet.
Chance Barnett slid into the half-filled the empty space saved by the girls’ crew, who were all front row center, just below them.
Pat reached out and tapped Chance on the shoulder. He immediately twisted around to see who wanted him and appeared a little shook to see it was Pat.
She had that kind of effect on the unsuspecting.
“Oh hey, Ms. Hamilton- I mean Mrs. McDowell.”
Pat nodded once in acknowledgment and asked, “Where is Marnie?”
“She’ll be here in a minute. She told me she had to take something up to J.”
Pat went right to what she really wanted to know. “So what was she wearing?”
He shrugged. “Gee, I don’t know.”
“Oh, like hell, you don’t know,” Pat countered. “As if you weren’t looking.”
“I mean, okay, well yeah, I saw her. I think she had on a skirt or something. Some sparkly cat ears, too, I think.”
Pat pursed her lips and hard-eyed the boy. “You think that’s what she had on.”
Bill nudged her, telling her to leave the boy alone. But then Carolyn Barnett, seated on the row behind them squeezed herself between Bill and Pat to get to her son.
“Where in the world is your brother?” she asked him. “Hasn’t he gotten here yet?”
Besieged, Chance twisted farther around and shrugged, fairly whining at this point. “I don’t know, Mom. I haven’t seen him. He said he had to do something before he came here. I think he said he had to pick somebody up on his way.”
“It had better not be some little random, airhead, fast-behind girl that he’s out there sniffing after and dragging over here. I’ve told him about that.”
Chance frowned. “Jeez, Mom, why does it have to be a ‘airhead, fast-behind’ girl? And random? And why does Chase have to be sniffing and dragging her?”
“Because I know my child,” his mother huffed before being eased into sitting up by her husband, Chuck, who admonished her to, “Just relax.”
In the meantime, Marnie appeared onstage. Jennifer took quick note of the girl’s skirt change; the first one had been molded to her tiny, but shapely hips. This one was layers of short flouncy tulle. She heard Pat mutter, “Better still be in it,” and it made her chuckle that they were both on the same train of thought, albeit different cars. It had always been that way with them when they were together.
Marnie headed straight over to J.J. and handed her a hat, a stylish white fedora. J.J appeared surprised and said something to Marnie that made Marnie laugh. Then both girls hugged and Marnie walked off into the left wings.
J.J. fitted the hat over the ponytail and tugged it snugly to her head, down low over her eyes. With dramatic flair, she threw the ends of the blue scarf, still loosely draped around her neck, over the back of her shoulders and out of her way. Watching her do that, pride pricked at Jennifer’s psyche; like Pat said, J.J. really did have her own tastes, her own sense of style, that definitely fit who she was, the woman she was becoming.
… but that particular scarf…
… a recurring motif …. ‘comfort object’, perhaps? Hmmmmm….
A few minutes later, Marnie slid into the empty space next to Chance on that front bench just as Mr. Washington approached the mike. He removed the unit from its stand to speak into it. The instruments warming up behind him went silent and the young people in charge of them sat or stood to casual attention.
“Good evening, all!” he managed to call out over the rising crescendo of cheers and calls from the kids and parents from the school and friends of the band members that momentarily stopped him from continuing.
He thanked them after firmly waving for a few seconds for quiet to allow him to go on with what he was attempting to say.
“First of all, I’d like to give a shout out to the person most responsible for our being here tonight. This individual wanted to give the ultimate gift- the opportunity for the birthday girl up here-” he gestured to J.J.- “to indulge in her love of music- her absolute gift for it- for the enjoyment of her family and her friends.”
With his index finger, Mr. Washington appeared to send a signal, and the huge electronic screen behind the band lit up with a running-light framed, blinking, “Happy Birthday!” message to J.J. from “Much Love, Marnie”.
J.J. sprung up from the bench in delighted surprise pointing down to Marnie, who Chance lifted up to stand on the bench. Marnie blew J.J. a kiss before turning around to curtsy to the cheering, clapping audience.
The drummer struck a beat, and the band began chanting, “Go shorty, it’s your birthday!”
The audience immediately chimed in, some of the kids climbing up on their seats to dance. For a few minutes, the bleachers rocked, reverberating from the gyrating bodies and dancing feet.
Pat nudged Jennifer, “Did you ev-ver think, when you and Jonathan bought this place-”
“No Patricia, I did not. Not one time, did I ever fathom.”
“Who would have thought, Jen? From cake and ice cream, clowns and ponies, kids’ pool parties, to full-on rock concerts.”
Jennifer chuckled and briefly lay her head on Jonathan’s shoulder when he laughed and wrapped an arm around her after apparently overhearing the exchange.
Down front, Marnie was getting friendly hugs and pushes from all around her including a big delighted hug she got from Chance once he helped her back down and she was seated. Clearly, she had held out on everyone- almost.
Without turning around, she reached a hand back and shared a very quick high-five with Jonathan.
Catching that small gesture, Jennifer side-mouthed, “Got her colluding now, too, huh?”
“Little fart would have made a liar out of me,” Pat said before reaching across to affectionately thump Marnie in the back of her head with her finger while Bill stretched across to gently squeeze the girl’s shoulder, “if I knew beforehand and had a bet on it. I didn’t think she could hold water, much less a huge secret like this.”
Marnie patted Bill’s hand, but didn’t in any way acknowledge Pat’s love-tap; however, they could all see her delighted, satisfied grin.
Mr. Washington took to the mic again. “Then I would like to thank Mr. And Mrs. Hart for allowing us to come and then making a way for us all to be here.”
He motioned for Jonathan and Jennifer to stand. When Jennifer hesitated, insisting, “I didn’t have anything to do with arranging this; I didn’t know,” to Jonathan, he pulled her up with him telling her, “She’s yours, too, remember. Ours.”
“J., I gotta tell you,” Mr. Washington said, turning a little to speak to her directly. “Your parents are fantastic for doing all-l-l-ll of this for you tonight” Then he turned back to the audience, “not to mention all the things Mr. and Mrs. Hart do to benefit the community, quietly, without fanfare, often even refusing acknowledgment of any kind.”
There was another surge of standing applause.
He pushed on with his greeting when the cheers died down again and most were reseated.
“I have been a musician most of my life, and a music teacher/ band conductor now for almost twenty-five years. I’ve performed with and given music instruction in various venues all over the country, on all three lower academic levels, but this, by far, is the best bunch of kids I have ever worked with. So much talent, creativity, dedication, and heart in this one group. Seriously, I could take them on the road, and we’d bring home a Grammy or two or three.
“Sadly, a few will be graduating this year, and I’m sick over losing them, but fortunately, I’ve got a couple in my B jazz band waiting in the wings, itching and ready to move up. Two in this A band are going on to pursue their musical endeavors on the college level- scholarships already in place.”
He gestured for Hector and one of the girls on strings to stand and be recognized. The girl popped up, waving with a bright smile while Hector took his time stepping forward from the horn section, looking a whole lot less than less than pleased for the attention.
Down front, Marnie explained it to Chance that Hector wasn’t keen on the idea of college, but how the two scholarships he won, one athletic and the other fine arts for his musical endeavors, had pretty much cemented his immediate “future-slash-fate” as far as his ‘Papi’ was concerned.
Mr. Washington continued speaking. “Next year I’m going to lose the best student pianist- shoot, who am I kidding- one of the best young pianists I have ever worked with. No brag on the young lady, just fact. Talk about an ear, such an eager learner, a generous spirit, not to mention some awesomely gifted hands. Thank you, Marnie, for coming to me with this suggestion and looking out for your girl, giving her a chance to let everybody see what she and this band can do.”
With that he turned and addressed his students who immediately straightened into their performance postures. “Alrighty, this ain’t no school concert. It’s J.J. Hart’s birthday, and we gone let it rip tonight. Your call, J.”
The man still on the mic reported “Mr. Magic , by Grover Washington- ‘no relation’,” as the honoree’s choice for the first selection, “she says for her father and her godfather.”
J.J. and the rest of Mr. Washington’s students moved their instruments into position as he stepped onto his conductor’s stand, assuming the traditional raised-arms stance.
When she felt Jonathan smugly nudge her, Jennifer smiled; she already knew.
The only thing unexpected about J.J.’s dedication was Bill’s being included in it. That cut had always been one of their favorites, and from the time she learned to play the tune, J.J. had associated it with her father who embraced the compliment from his daughter completely.
When those first distinctive opening chords from the electric piano rang out into the night, Jennifer again rested her head on Jonathan shoulder, pondering once more those recently observed leaving and returning scenes on the driveway, the possible immediate reason- perhaps reasons- for J.J.’s choice of that song at that particular moment in time.
… but then, why am I even getting into that? He has always been your ‘Mr. Magic’.
Jonathan’s dream from that morning flashed back, specifically the ending of it.
…him, suddenly there, standing over her as she sat on the beach in the south of France trying to forget him.
… the look on his handsome face as it dawned on him that the sunhat–wearing, sand-engineering little one at her knee was his baby… his child… his daughter.
… truly a dream because not even for one moment, Jonathan Hart, would I have kept her from you, or you from her.
… the two of you togetherrrrr… never a dull moment… e-v-v-ver….
Before they were even halfway through that first tune, the A Band had the audience swaying, clapping, toes tapping, some even up on their feet again, dancing in the stands. A few couples, among them some of the adults, danced together out on the grass.
J.J., shoulders and upper body rocking, intense facial expression reflecting the raw intensity flowing through her nimble fingers, appeared lost in the music and the moment up on the stage.
“He wasn’t lying about those kids,” Pat shouldered her again to comment. “I knew J. was good, but oh my God. I’ve never seen this juke joint side of my girl. I’m beyond impressed.”
Jennifer nodded; so was she with her sleeveless girl.
Fee bent forward from her spot behind Jonathan to say to both of them, “That is truly a gifted child up there. In so many ways. She does you both proud.”
For Jennifer, the recollection of that precociously agile, relentlessly curious girl-baby floated in again. She was seated on the piano bench this time, her tiny body rocking in time with the ticking metronome she had switched on herself and become mesmerized by.
Seventeen years. It didn’t seem so long ago, but seventeen years it had certainly been.
Justine Jennifer Hart, nearly grown now.
… in years, anyway …
… trying to jet-set without permission ….
She shook her head at the thought of that night in the club. In the green room…
… itching to be independent, but too young and naïve to know-
… way too clever. Oh, so quick… but then …
She checked her watch.
“Mr. Magic” was followed up by “Linus and Lucy”– or as Teddy had called it, “The Snoopy Song”. Segueing from that, Mr. Washington led them into Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Get Give it Up”, all J.J.’s particular favorites to perform.
Ending that last number, Mr. Washington signaled to her.
“Let’s do your new one, J. The vocal.”
Stunned, J.J. swallowed and asked, “Which one is that?”
He eyeballed her- hard. “Which one? The one I’ve heard you messing with a lot lately. The one you all were playing the other day when you were fooling around in the studio. It’s really good.”
She noticed the others who had been with her at that time nodding and waving, urging her to agree to it.
Just how much of her business had Marnie given away when she was setting all this up? Funny Mr. Washington would be wanting her to sing- and that song in this setting.
Imma wring that girl’s neck when I get to her.
Without waiting for her consent to go along with the suggestion, one of the guys came over and adjusted the mic near her to allow her to sing into it.
Oh God, please.
She wasn’t at all shy about singing in public; she had a decent voice, and they had practiced the song together at least once. It was just-
Aware of the break in the program, and left without much choice, she swallowed again and set her hands on the keys and prayed her nerve, as well as her voice held up.
After all, given recent circumstance, there was a whole lot of personal meaning and truth for her packed in Jann Arden’s, “Good Mother”.
More than anything else, she hoped her own mother would hear the sincerity of the lyrics and not see it as an attempt on her part to suck up or get on her good side. The song really did fit the three of them- her mother, her father, and her.
Well, all except for the part about the car….
On Mr. Washington’s cue, she pressed out the first chords, the lead-in to the lyrics of the song she had taken to heart. Then she leaned into the mic and sang the first line with her own entire heart.
He had known ahead of time about the set, but Jonathan was totally unprepared to hear his daughters voice through the sound system. Where on earth had she found that song? The lyrics could have been written just for her, for the three of them.
“… I’ve got money in my pocket. I like the color of my hair….”
That voice, less seasoned and not as rich due to her youth, most definitely another gift inherited from her mother.
“… a good father… and his strength…”
Damn, she’s is going to have her daddy crying in front of all these people.
The hard lump forming in his throat made it even harder to swallow and hold back the emotion.
For just a moment, it crossed his mind if it would be him, a year or two down the line, stalking his kid, after finding out she’d slipped off and was singing or playing in some sleazy dive when she was supposed to be studying on University of Somebody’s campus.
Hell, as it is, I’m already walking up on her in the jazz clubs- in another state– when she’s supposed to be at a high school prom.
Next to him, Jennifer sniffed and he looked that way just in time to see a hand go to her eyes. With the arm he still had around her, he hugged her close and kissed the top of her head.
“Only one,” she had told him all those years ago, and a hell of a one they finally got. Never a dull-
“Darling, I have to go see to something,” he heard her say, slicing into his thoughts as he felt her move to slide off the bench.
The band wasn’t quite finished with the number, so it confused him that she would be leaving just then. “What? J.J. will be-”
But she was already up, easing her way past the others on their row. Pat fussed as Jennifer squeezed by her. “Where in the world are you going?”
When she didn’t get an answer, Pat turned to him, face full of confusion, but he had nothing for her.
When Mr. Washington gave the signal for the band to end the set, J.J. removed her hands from the keys and dropped her head to catch her breath. While pleased with the performance, she found herself oddly drained. Going from that one dark extreme to the polar opposite other in such a relatively short span of time left her with a slightly dizzying aftereffect.
It was even a little difficult rising from her bench to take the customary bow to the audience with the rest of the group. For her to do so, she had to step forward some from her more off to the side position. To steady herself, she kept one hand on the keyboard and prayed the hat was on tightly enough.
The bleachers appeared full, and it warmed her heart to see so many people come to celebrate her birthday with her. The stage lights behind them, combined with the darkness of night in front rendered most of the clapping and cheering bodies faceless, but it was easy to make out her crew down front and her family right behind them. Her father, standing at his seat, blew her a kiss.
The spot next to him was empty.
Mr. Washington beckoned, summoning the band to come together just as the recorded music started up from the house speakers to fill the gap between live sets. Fighting back her crestfallen confusion, she turned away and joined the group moving to the inner stage.
After complimenting and thanking them for their performance, the teacher dismissed everyone to make room for the next music group that would be taking the stage. In turn, J.J. thanked him and her peers, initiating a group high five for successfully keeping that secret from her for all the time they had to have been holding onto it.
“Yeah, it was real hard ‘cause you nosy as hell,” Hector said when it was his turn to speak to her as the others paraded by with their instruments. He gave her hug. “I can’t believe your girl didn’t break down and tell it, even though she’s the one who made it a secret.”
“Marnie? Hector, I can’t either believe it either. This is definitely one for the books. She didn’t even give me a clue it was her behind it all when she came up here with my hat.”
Then she noticed Hector’s cousin, Orbicio, standing right behind him, carrying his trumpet, too, and grinning.
“ ‘Bicio! You’re not in our band! How did you-”
Orbicio cut her off by hugging her. “Aw girl, you know if somebody playin’ for you, I was gonna to be in on it. I hit Washington up, and he said for me to come on and sit in, especially since my band is on the lineup tonight, too. It was the bomb. You all are good, and you got some pipes, J. I ain’t know all that about you. You want to do vocals with us when we go on?”
“I like keeping folks guessing,” she laughed, patting him on the back. “And ‘no, thank you’ on the vocals. I appreciate the offer, but I need to get back to my guests. It was really great your being here for me, though.”
Now that she was finished playing, the night air felt cool to her arms, so she retrieved her jacket from where she left it. Mr. Washington called over to assure her the keyboard would be removed and returned to the house before the next group came up to play. After pulling the jacket back on and rearranging the scarf, she left the stage herself.
Some of the crew were waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Marnie, hands on both hips, fronted the group, and J.J. playfully pushed her on the shoulder.
“You little sneak. You held on to that one real good, didn’t you?”
“Sure did,” Marnie crowed. “And it like to have killed me. I didn’t know what to get you for your birthday, then I thought of this. It was so hard to not say anything and to get everybody else to stay low, too. I about died when they were sneaking the keyboard out while you were in there closed up with Pat earlier. I just knew once she got through with you, that you would go in there to play it to calm down and get your nerves back in order and then find out it was gone.”
“Nah,” J.J. said with a wave of her hand. “Pat wasn’t- isn’t the one jangling my nerves.”
She peeked past Marnie and the others, grateful at that moment for her height which allowed her to pan the general scene beyond. Despite the wonderful party, the presence of her family and friends- despite everything- it was painfully obvious nothing was going to be right again in her world- or her gut- until she got right with that one person.
Odd they hadn’t crossed paths all day. Was her mother avoiding her?
Spotting her father striding across the yard, moving in the direction of the catering tent, she excused herself and caught up to him on the inside, just as he was ordering, “Two chili-dogs. The works.”
She crept up behind him and fussed over his shoulder, “Daddy, you know good and well those things give you indigestion.”
“Light on the onions,” he advised the young man filling his order before turning around to her. “It’ll be worth it, sweetheart. Been thinking about getting in a couple of these all day. Just don’t tell your mother you-”
He stopped to look her in the eye. “- but then, I guess I don’t have to worry about you doing that either, do I? Seeing as how you two aren’t really-”
Immediately catching his drift, she dropped her eyes from his and held up her flattened palm. “Don’t, please.”
He one-arm hugged her and kissed her cheek. “Okay, okay. I’m sure you’ll handle it. On another note, though, you were absolutely wonderful up there on stage. I knew you were good, but to see it happen in person, wow! Made me so proud. You always do.”
“Thank you. It was a nice surprise to find out I was part of the night’s entertainment, and it was a lot of fun playing at my house with my friends. I’m sure you were probably in on how some of it went down.”
“Maybe,” he said with a wink. “But you do have some real talent, kid, no fooling. And I loved the song you sang. Where’d you find that?”
“You know Mr. Washington keeps that huge music collection in his classroom that he lets us listen to and use as inspiration. He pointed that recording out and told me to take a listen. It’s kind of old, but the very first time I heard it, it spoke to me- out loud.”
“I’ll bet it did. ‘the color of your hair’, that’s certainly you.”
“Not to mention having a friend who loves me.”
“In your case, friends. Lots of them.”
His hotdogs ready, he took the plate and motioned her over to a nearby table. “And a good mother,” he added, sitting down after she did. “The thing you sang about her voice.”
“Absolutely. And definitely heart in hand right about now. So, where is she, Daddy? I didn’t see her when we took our curtain call. Did she even hear the song at all? If so, why didn’t she stay? Is she that mad at me?”
“She was there,” he said, lifting the first loaded hot dog to his mouth. “She saw the whole thing, but got up around the end saying she had something to do. She’s been running most of the show out here, so at the time, that made sense to me.”
The fingers of one hand in her lap twisting at the emerald ring on the other, J.J. sighed. “I guess. Well, I’d better get back out there.”
She got up, went around to her father’s side of the table, and bent to kiss his cheek as he wolfed down his snack. “I love you, Daddy. Thanks for having my back out front earlier. And you are gonna pay for those dogs in spades later on this evening. You’ll be sick, my mother will get it out of you that you ate all those onions and chili and relish and crap, and you’re gonna catch straight-up hell from her.”
Even though his mouth was full, he attempted to check her. “How many times have I told you about saying that word?”
She patted him on the shoulder. “Lots, but it’s too deeply ingrained in my vocabulary now for fussing about it to do any good. I’m just keeping it real, looking out for you and those sideburns ‘cause there’s still some hope for you with her.”
She straightened to rearrange the scarf around her neck. “As for me, see, I’m already seated, belted in, and waiting for takeoff on that doomed, flaming direct flight to Hell with my mother at the controls.”
It felt good to hear him laugh as she walked off; no matter what, she and Daddy had always had that kind of connection.
That one with her mother, though….
Outside, Andre, the DJ, had taken the stage and was announcing a 50 Cent tune for “ ‘Shawty’, J.J. Hart”. She had barely made out of the tent door before Deon approached from her left.
“Been looking all over for you,” he said, grabbing her hand to drag her over to the dance floor. “Let’s go. Fiddy about to be ‘in the club’.”
There was nothing left to do at the point but give in to the music. After all, it was her party, her night, the song was a jam, and Deon was her favorite dance partner- next to Tommy, who wasn’t there.
And she sent private thanks to the heavens that it was the cleaned-up version of the song.
It would just be one more deadly strike against her to have her mother hear that despite his singing, “Go shorty, it’s your birthday,” Fiddy was looking for some Bacardi, was “into having sex… ain’t into makin’ love,” and looking for a hug and somebody to rub …. even if the song did have a great beat.
The Duchess wouldn’t give a rat’s behind about that.
While escorting a first-timer at one of J.J.’s parties, Jennifer caught the song currently riding the airwaves in the party area, and shook her head. She sensed the girl next to her stiffen a little, glance over at her, and then train her eyes straight ahead.
Oh yes, my dear. I heard it. But your clever little friend knew full well to have that one cleaned up before it was played in my back yard.
Then she snickered to herself about herself.
Who in the world could EVER have convinced me that I’d know the full lyrics of a filthy rap record? Or to so many of them?
But then, I am a language expert, as well as J.J.”Loophole” “Keep-Up-With-Me- If-You-Can” Hart’s mother.
Lord, help me. Just one more year.
At that very last thing, her heart skipped a minute, painful, beat.
She pointed the young lady to where she could likely find people she would know and departed from her after wishing her a good time.
On her way back to the front, she gave a last once-over to the papers in her hand before refolding them and returning them to her jacket pocket. ________________________________________________________________
J.J. left the dance area exhilarated but parched after dancing two songs with Deon. She snagged a Coke from one of the roving attendants and decided to wander a bit, to mingle among her guests and check out the scene.
Kendra and Percy appeared to still be hanging in there.
Sidney and his entourage- a spectacle all their own- at the photographer’s booth, vouging to a delighted audience.
Quite a few people from school, the greater Los Angeles area, and the club were gathered over by the pool, talking and eating. It was good to see the social lines erased, if only for just this little while, and people having a good time without labels and preconceived notions getting in the way.
She walked up on Brittany, Marnie, and Chance snacking on the back porch/patio. With them was Ramona “D’Moana” Eastman and a guy she assumed was there with Ramona; the two of them looked mighty cozy with each other.
Could he have been the one on the other end of those phone calls Aunt Pat caught Ramona making? If so, he didn’t look the part. Truth told, they both appeared too nerdy for that sort of thing, especially him with the horn-rimmed glasses and gelled crew cut hair. It was their eighties gear, but for Ramona, it could have been current.
Then again, though, hadn’t Ramona put that presumption to ‘bed’, so to speak?
She had to bite her bottom lip a quick moment before attempting to go up the steps to speak to them.
It was nice that Ramona and Marnie had developed a friendly relationship despite the two of them seeming, on the surface, to be polar opposites.
Since the Equations trip fiasco, she had been more than aware of Ramona giving her a wide berth at school. Despite that unfortunate episode, she had never disliked Ramona on a personal level or got the sense from Ramona that she disliked her. Aside from having a couple of classes together over the years, they simply hadn’t operated in the same circles. Marnie recently revealed to her that Ramona had admitted to actually being a bit scared of her.
It wasn’t the first time she’d heard someone say that about her.
No big deal.
But whatever the case, she would not ever be rooming with the likes of ‘D’Moana’ again. Trips, even school field trips, were meant to be enjoyed- and occasionally exploited. One couldn’t do either with a roommate that went to bed before it got dark outside, who insisted that her roommate do the same or stay out of the room altogether until ready to go to bed herself- and then tiptoe around to do it.
I was mad as hell that Daddy wouldn’t come get me.
Recalling that phone conversation, she laughed at herself. Although she had been close to hysterical at the time, he stayed calm, talking her into hanging in there. She later realized he had to have been cracking up on his end with no intention whatsoever of coming to his crazy daughter’s rescue.
After all, the kid was out of the way on the field trip for a couple of days, giving him a clear and sustained shot at-
Stop it, J.
I’ll bet he even took off from work…
After greeting Ramona, being introduced to Ramona’s friend, and thanking them both for coming to her party, they all shared a few pleasantries. Ryan turned out to be a pretty funny and seemingly congenial guy.
Then Tiffany and Ollie walked up, Tiff grinning like an idiot with her arm wound all serpent-like around his.
It had been a while since she’d seen or spoken to Ollie, who had always occupied a special place in her heart. His first year away at college seemed to have served him well; that “Marnie Makeover” still in place, bulked up some, he looked better than ever. She hoped he didn’t feel as trapped as he looked at that moment. Summer break would be coming up soon, and he would be honed in on by Tiff for real.
Accepting Ollie’s “Happy birthday”, his quick kiss to her cheek, and his compliment on her musical performance, she avoided making eye contact with Tiffany. That was her longtime friend, but the obsession with Ollie…
Just too, too much for me.
Anyway, the full story on her and Ollie would, no doubt, be coming from Marnie in the not too distant future, so there was no immediate need to feel them out even if she might have felt so inclined.
Overcome by a sudden need to move on, J.J. left the patio area.
Before she could make it too far back onto the lawn; however, something caught her attention- a shadowy couple on the side of the house, about halfway down the walkway.
Straining some, a discreet peek revealed it to be Mrs. Steele, Tommy’s mother and her Uncle Marcus, slowly strolling toward the front- holding hands.
Nope. Nope. Not messing with that.
She snapped back around, propelling herself in the opposite direction. Moving through the yard, she could almost hear her brain clicking as it furiously worked at at deleting the sight from her mental clipboard, filing it away for later consideration.
Maybe. Perhaps. What if-
Just leave it alone, J.
Meeting up with a few people she hadn’t yet spoken to, holding a couple of short conversations, and sharing a laugh or two along the way, she meandered over to ‘the spot’ with the hope of getting in a quick couple of hands before the next event on the docket.
For a moment, it struck her as odd that with all the people she had spoken to, she hadn’t run into or even caught a glimpse of Chase. But just as quickly, the sight of someone else diverted her from further consideration of his absence.
“Tina!” she screamed, throwing open her arms. “You made it this time!”
Past invites extended to the coffee house waitress, who had become so much more to her, had been politely declined; another event scheduled or “couldn’t get a sitter” had been her excuses. J.J. suspected, though, that Tina being a couple years older and having had a baby might have had more to do with it. She really hoped it hadn’t been the difference in their backgrounds that kept her away; people sometimes found her address and zip code intimidating.
Tina sort of confirmed that last thing when she stood up from her chair to hug her. “Didn’t want you to stop inviting me, so I got up the nerve, asked my mom for the car, and drove out here. Girl, I knew your parents had it going on, but they got you out here living in a castle, gardens, moat, everything.”
“Not a castle,” J.J. laughed. “It’s just a house.”
“Just a house, my foot. The thing is turning corners, J.! I saw it. And got the nerve to have a baby house sitting right beside it. Shoot, it took me fifteen minutes just to get up here from the gate after I got checked in. And your own bridge over your own river? I never would have made it back here from the front of the house if I hadn’t run into your mother when I was walking up from where I parked.”
J.J. laughed again. “It did not take you that long to drive up here from the gate, and it’s a pond, not a river. You say my mother was out there? Out front? Doing what?”
“Yeah, she saw me and brought me to the back. Slick 80’s outfit she has on, I must say. She’s always so pretty and dresses nice, but I didn’t know she was stacked, too. Has your father seen her in that leather getup?”
“He’s seen her,” J.J. assured her friend. If the Duchess was in something that showed off her physique, it was for sure he had. However, Tina’s question made her realize once again that she still hadn’t lay eyes on her own mother. But still, “What was she doing out there, I asked you?”
Tina shrugged. “I don’t know, J. She had a bunch of papers on a clipboard. I think she might have been handling some- Look, I don’t really know. I’m just glad she saw me and got me around here to the party. I’d have been wandering and lost forever if she hadn’t. I’ve heard of spreads like this, seen them in pictures and movies, driven past some of the gates and dreamt of what went on behind them, but I never, ever thought I’d ever be back here, actually invited to one of them.”
Amused, and a tinge self-conscious, J.J. hugged her again. “I’m just so glad you came.”
“Where’s your cute prom date?” Tina asked. “I know he flew out here after you flew all the way to Boston for his shindig.”
“He’s not coming. He’s got a lot going on at home, and graduation is coming up for him so-”
Deon brushed past on his way to the card table. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. What’s up, Tina? Good to see you.” He slid into his former spot and continued talking. “You playing this hand, J.? You missed the first rounds.” Then he raised his eyes to Tina as he took up the cards. “What about you?”
“What’s the game?” Tina asked.
Deon nimbly shuffled and laced the deck through his fingers. “Bid.”
J.J. eyed Tina. “You play? And if so, are you any good? You know I don’t do this just for fun.”
“I’ve seen you play at the shop,” Tina said, returning the fish-eye. “You’re vicious. But I’ve been playing since Jr. High. I’m savage, too. Partners?”
J.J. high-fived Tina, “Bet,” and they quickly took seats opposite each other to go against Deon and Charmaine, two of the three most formidable bid whist players at L.A.’s GT West High. J.J. and the cousins were notorious on the Junior/Senior patio at school due to their fierceness of play and the raucous hilarity that went with it.
A few others gathered to watch, eager to take the chairs relinquished by the potential losing pair.
The first furious hand unseated J.J. and Tina. When Deon and Charmaine made book and ran over Philly and her partner, J.J. and Tina regrouped, resumed positions, and boisterously bested the cousins as well as the set of players who replaced them. The next standing-over-the-table and card-throwing hand had just begun when the announcement sounded directing everyone to report to the stage area for the next act and the annual slideshow.
“Dannnnng,” J.J. griped, dropping her cards onto the table, thus stopping the game, “We were on a roll.”
“What’s the act? What happens at the slide show?” Tina asked.
“My friend, Hector. You know him- Philly’s brother. And his cousin Orbicio’s band. Tejano music mostly. They’re good.”
Tina nodded her recognition of the people involved. “And the slideshow?”
“It’s like a visual yearbook of my life,” J.J. said as she rose from her chair with a sigh. “No telling how embarrassing this is going to be. Every year it gets worse. You know, more stuff to include because there’s another year to add. I never have any clue of what’s going to show up on the screen. I have no say in putting it together.”
Tina snickered. “Knowing you, then this should be good.”
“My folks can be very creative when it comes to stuff like this.”
Charmaine clapped J.J. on the shoulder. “But it’s always pure entertainment for the rest of us. And by the way, I’ve seen your father, looking like a disco pimp. Can’t wait to see your mother standing up. I know she’s in leather. Those two usually clown you good at this segment of the party.”
No truer words. J.J. shook her head.
Soooooo many sketchy possibilities from just this one year alone.
And she inwardly shuddered as she led the way out of the spot, headed for the stage area.
Having finished and satisfactorily belched behind the first two chilidogs; Jonathan ordered a another one and sat back down to make quick work of it as he thought things over.
Although he tried to quell her anxiety some and laughed at her parting statement while she tried to play it cool, his concern for his daughter remained. That tell-tale sign, those fingers in her lap twisting fitfully at that emerald ring had not escaped his notice.
J.J. was well aware that slipping off- on a plane– to another city, no less- without permission was tantamount to sacrilege in her mother’s eyes when it came to her, the daughter. The girl had no idea how she could even begin to redeem herself to her mother.
And Jennifer wasn’t making that task any easier for her.
Not that he thought she should have made it any easier; J.J. had pushed way past the line with this one. But it was beginning to needle at him how Jennifer was stretching out the silent- and absent-treatment on the kid as it seemed she was.
He understood her not letting J.J. have it on the spot when she found her in that back room at the jazz club; a classy, considerate woman, she didn’t believe in publicly embarrassing her child. But surely in the time since they returned home there had been at least a moment or two for, at minimum, a quick private mention to J.J. of how she felt.
Figuring his daughter to be silently stewing in her built-up apprehension, he had made the attempt to slip in his own chat with her earlier that day. However, he was thwarted from that by Pat who, despite being freshly arrived in town, managed beat him it to it. Since then, J.J. had made her way to him on her own. Even Bill said he had briefly spoken with her.
But, as far as he could tell, Jennifer had not.
For J.J., her mother’s continued quiet would be the most worrisome aspect of the current troubles. The two of them normally talked about everything. So much had gone into making this night special for J.J. Why wouldn’t Jennifer have brought it to a close before now? Why would she leave it like that so the kid had to suffer through her own party?
Was that the punishment?
Nah. Jennifer’s a lot more creative than that when it comes to this sort of thing.
Like most mothers and daughters, Jennifer and J.J. didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but despite whatever contentious matter might be on the table at the time, Justine Hart remained devoted to and respectful of Jennifer Hart.
And vice versa.
But they could both be so very doggoned stubborn.
What exactly was going on in that older red head? Even he was on the outside of this one. The only thing he was sure of was that younger red head could definitely rule out having been issued a total pass.
But then J.J. already knew that. Hers had been too serious a transgression, too brazen a tap dance on her mother’s nerves. This, on top of having taken off in her mother’s car prior to, even if it had been for a justifiable reason.
As he washed down the last of his snack with the unsolicited, but welcome refill of his soft drink, he wondered just where had Jennifer gone once she got up and left the performance? Despite having been on the absolute lookout for her at the time, hoping not to run into her, or her into him, before he successfully completed the chili-dog mission, he hadn’t spotted her in the crowd on his way to the dining area.
He cleared his table and made ready to go, but was twice detained from leaving completely by a few of J.J.’s guests, kids of his friends who noticed him and stopped to speak.
When he finished with them, since he was out in the yard, he decided to have a look around. He could make a few checks with security, and perhaps, run into his wife.
The turnout for the party was impressive, but then J.J.’s parties were always well-attended. As usual, since back when she started junior high, it was an eclectic mix of kids, socially, culturally, and ethnically diverse, representative of the way his daughter conducted her life. It was interesting, the way J.J. maneuvered her various situations. An uptown girl by birth, she had a way of making herself at home and fitting in wherever she happened to land.
A chameleon. Like her old man had to learn to be.
It would serve her well in life. Again, like her father.
He radioed the front for a report. According to Chris, things had quieted down considerably with the arrivals. August chimed in, backing up that there was nothing unusual to report on that end.
I guess there wouldn’t be, not with the two of you out there- together.
They were keeping it very quiet, but he knew. One of two important pairings within his inner circle at Hart. His hope was this one wouldn’t result in another loss of a key person; it really didn’t have to.
Coming upon the dance area, he noticed Marnie out there with Chance. A slow song was playing and the two of them were wrapped up pretty snugly. He stared at the back of the boy’s head until Chance picked up on it, turned, saw him, and immediately relaxed his hold on his partner.
Slowly passing, taking in all the swaying couples, Jonathan smiled to himself, remembering what that had been like. Then he recalled his own youthful encounters with girls’ fathers, those talks and the ‘looks’ he got. They generally kept him in line.
But those fathers seemed to forget that sometimes it could just as easily be the girl who…
He looked back one more time to find Chance still watching him. When their eyes met, Marnie was eased back one more time, and from the resulting shoulder twitch and head roll, it was clear she wasn’t happy about it.
Snickering, he kept going. Chance was on his own with that little firecracker.
It was okay. Being that Marnie was now residing under his roof, under his supervision, Chance was more than well aware of the possible consequen-
“Hey, Mr. Hart!”
Constance McLemore, aka “Connie Mack”, J.J.’s good friend and extremely popular young socialite, waved to him from where she sat with a small group at one of the tables. He stopped to speak with her and her friends. She complimented him on the party, and as he walked away, he felt oddly gratified by her praise. Connie would know. Be it birthday, holiday, home from vacation, change of season, school is out, school’s back in, or simply ‘it’s going to be unseasonably warm’ this weekend; that girl would throw a party- and reportedly the best in the area- for any occasion under the sun.
But at least hers were parent-sanctioned, unlike Ted’s girls, Tiffany and Brittany who he spotted over by the low stone wall with Ollie and a couple other kids. They waved to him; he waved back. Now those two were a mess.
Marnie claimed the sisters weren’t doing the sneak parties anymore, and reportedly things had been rather quiet at the Landers’ estate; however, summer break was coming up. That meant their big sister, Audrey, the empress of mpromptu unsupervised gatherings, would be home from college.
Only time would tell.
But that might not bode too well for his summer, considering the current state of affairs between his wife and daughter. So far, J.J. had somehow managed to not get swept up in any law enforcement or parental busts of suspect adolescent gatherings; however, how long would that luck hold out? No way did he believe she would be staying away from all of them, should they happen. Truth told, he doubted his slick offspring had opted out of all of them in the past, but somehow…
I know my child. If she can get it done without getting busted at it….
Unfortunately, Lady Luck had not been along for the ride on her most recent junket, the one from Boston to New York. From that incident, though, came the realization that with her increasing age, J.J.’s ever-adventurous nature was taking on even stronger dimensions.
Just as he sensed someone coming up too close behind him, an arm cozily coiled itself around his shoulders, and posh Manhattan cooed into his ear. “Penny for your thoughts, my friend.”
He shook his head at not noticing her sooner. “What are you doing out here still?”
Pat squeezed him a little with that arm she kept around him. “Have to keep check on Miss Marnie Elaine to make sure there aren’t any further wardrobe changes that she hasn’t gotten approved. And-” she bumped him with her hip, “to make sure you were out here and hadn’t slipped off in a car to chase down a certain somebody to get him straight, man to stupid little jerk.”
He rolled his eyes. “Now what ‘certain somebody’ would I be going after in a car during my daughter’s party?”
She hip-bumped him again, this time a little harder than the first. “Don’t play with me. You know full well who I’m talking about. Bill told me what happened.”
He sighed at having neglected to tell Bill to keep it to himself and dropped the attempt at subterfuge. “Have you said anything to Jennifer? I didn’t really want her to know.”
“Are you kidding? Jen’s crazier than you when it comes to that girl of ours. I don’t care for that little son-of-a-bitch either- and I mean that last thing literally- but I do not want to see him dead, at least not by one of any of our hands.”
“As he will be if he keeps playing with me about J.J. I will be getting with Herschel first thing in the morning to let him know the kid’s not keeping to the order in place to stay away from J.J. and from here. Hopefully he’ll put a couple officers on it, light a fire under him some while the boy is home from school this summer.” He looked directly to Pat. “Have you seen Jennifer lately?”
“Not since she cut out on us at the end of J.’s performance. I kind of thought she might be out here with you.”
“Nope, haven’t seen her. At least not yet.”
“Yeah well, you weren’t looking for her before now. I saw you slip into the catering tent. How many of those chili dogs did you have?”
At the announcement that everyone should report to the soundstage, he saw Pat grin in an odd way as she abruptly turned him loose.
“I think I’m going to head on over,” she said. “You going to keep looking for Jen?”
J.J. inside a group of her friends, swept past in the not too far distance ahead of them.
“You go ahead. I’ll stay back a minute to see if I can find her. We shouldn’t be too long.”
He watched Pat walk away until she was swallowed up by the crowd. Then he turned around and headed back toward the house.
Onstage, the band was warming up, getting ready to play. J.J. caught sight of Marnie and Chance about four rows up in the middle section of the bleachers. She tapped Tina’s arm, signaling her to empty spots in that area, and they both climbed up. When they slid in next to them, Marnie immediately leaned past J.J. to hook baby fingers with Tina.
“Girl power! So glad you made it this time.” Then Marnie nudged J.J. with her shoulder, a devious grin dimpling her cheeks. “I just love this part of your parties. They always find the best stuff to use against you.”
“Um-hmm,” J.J. said, “But don’t forget you’ve been meshed into the family fabric for a good while, too. Might as well be my sister. And another daughter, if you will, which means you’re probably going to be prominently figured in some of these “best stuff” clips.”
Chance started laughing, “Yep, J. I hadn’t thought about that. These should be real good then, with Marn in ‘em, too.”
He yelped like a wounded pup when Marnie elbowed him in the side.
J.J. introduced Tina to Chance and then asked him about his brother.
“Where is he? Should I send out a search party? He better not have skipped out on me for one of his little filthy hookups.”
Chance shrugged, “I thought he’d be here by now. I called him again a while ago, but his voice mail clicked in right away. I left another message. He hasn’t called me back yet.”
J.J. rolled her eyes and rocked her head one time. “Hmph. She must be good then.”
He laughed. “I don’t know about all that, J. But even if it is a girl, I don’t think he would be crazy enough to completely ditch your party for her, seeing as how he’s got to deal with you again.”
J.J. nodded, “Um-hmm, with his prom and all coming up. He might not want to mess with me.”
“I’ll second that,” Marnie chimed in. “ ‘Cuz if he is that crazy, there’ll be Grade A hell to pay on his part. An insanity or in-too-deep plea won’t save his sorry ass from J.’s foot- or mine, for that matter. Ow!!”
That hard thump to the back of her head whipped Marnie around to check the offender. She checked herself when she saw it was Pat sliding in on the row directly behind them, admonishing her to, “Stop all that damned cussing.”
Then she immediately stretched forward, past J.J., to extend her hand. “Hi, I’m J.J.’s Aunt Pat. You’re Tina, right?”
Tina, appearing a bit caught off guard at first, accepted Pat’s hand and confirmed her identity while J.J. processed the exchange.
How does Aunt Pat know her? Or even of her?
There was no telling with her Aunt Pat, but still.
She was cut off stopped from pondering it any further when the lights dimmed and Hector’s horn crooned the start of their set. It wasn’t long before the band had folks swaying or up on their feet bouncing to their sexy Tejano beats, J.J. and her Immediate crew included.
Since he hadn’t run into Jennifer out back, once he parted from Pat, Jonathan’s first thought was to check for her inside the house; Jennifer had a lot she made it her business to keep up with during J.J.’s birthday parties.
He got as far as the steps of the patio porch outside the kitchen and changed his mind. Deciding instead to kill two birds with the one stone, he turned back around.
Doubling back into the yard, he stayed on the walkway and continued to the far side of the house. Although he hated missing out on any part Hector’s band’s performance or the slideshow, it had been a while since the incident with Wesley, and some residual agitation remained on his part. The last report from the guard’s booth said everything was fine, but he wanted to check for himself, to at least show his face on that end.
From there, he would go inside to look for Jennifer, and once he located her, they would go over to the soundstage together.
J.J. was greatly impressed by Ariana, Orbicio’s pretty younger sister, the band’s recently-added vocal lead. Only about fifteen, maybe sixteen now, she had a great voice and an unusually powerful presence for such a young girl. It was also evident she was a fan of the vocal artist, Selena.
After three rousing numbers, the band unexpectedly segued into an old school soul number. To J.J.’s delight, Hector took the mike to croon the opening lyrics to The Temptations, “My Girl.” The screen behind the onstage group lit up and the scripted words, “Justine Jennifer Hart,” began slowly scrolling against a background of dusky sky and a picturesque expanse of sandy beach.
Then an object out in the water bobbed into view. A figure. Someone swimming, gliding with the slowly rolling tide toward shore. At a point, the person began to wade toward the camera, seemingly oblivious to being watched. From the form and from the familiar languid manner in which she raised her arms to push the mane of hair back from her face, J.J. recognized her mother.
As she rose from the froth, the camera honed for a closeup, the late afternoon sunlight glistening off the wet, one-piece swimsuit that covered her distended belly.
“That must be you all up inside her, J.” Marnie leaned in to whisper from her right.
J.J. rolled her eyes. “You think, Marn?”
“She was so-o-o-o-o beautiful, carrying you,” came Tina’s wistful comment from J.J.’s other side. “I was a washed-out hag when I was that pregnant with Brandon.”
J.J. smiled. “I highly doubt that. You probably just felt that way. I bet you were real cute.”
Her eyes still fixed to the screen, J.J. focused hard on maintaining the game face. She didn’t want to look or sound to anybody around her as awed as she felt. She had seen still pictures of her mother while she was pregnant with her, but she had never before seen that video footage.
… went swimming in the ocean when she was that far along?
It had to have been kinda cold. I was born in May- the very first part of May- so that had to have been like right before.
Striding in from somewhere off to the right of the scene, her father appeared in the frame. J.J. sat forward a little, straining to see the expression on his face; she thought she picked up on a hint of aggravation- that subtle line splitting his left eyebrow. He carried what first appeared to be towel, but turned out to be a full-length terry robe when he held it out to her. Her mother smiled, and he snugly wrapped her up in it, hood and all, before holding her close and kissing her.
The thoughts took off.
Max had to have been gone from them by the time that film was taken; from what she’d been told, he died before her mother found out she was pregnant. The filming was well-done, but that didn’t seem to be the kind of photo session her mother would have professionally commissioned at that time in her life. Way too personal, too familiar. The shots had to have been taken from the house in Malibu, from the rear, upstairs balcony most likely, judging from the angles.
At the point her father kissed her mother, a huge, “Awwwwwww,” went up from the crowd, which set J.J. cheeks aflame.
Way-y-y-y too personal.
Among her peer group, she was the one most often ribbed for having parents who still “did it.”
Stuff like this won’t help.
She twisted around to Pat. “Was that you on the camera?”
Pat grinned and nodded. “Not long before you came into the world.
“I was going out of the country for a minute, so I stopped in to see her and your father before my flight. I had gone onto the deck to get the sunset on film and caught her out there instead. I wanted to wring her neck because it was too early in the year for her to be out in that water in her condition, but she’s always been a tough nut when it comes to doing whatever she wants to do.” She stared down into J.J.’s face “I guess that mess must be genetic, huh?.”
J.J. turned back around to the screen.
The next few frames were baby pictures and a few clips from when she was a little older, but still very young- with her parents, Aunt Pat, Uncle Bill, the twins and their parents, Aunt Sabrina. Shots from former parties, going back to when she was quite small with the horses, the pool, balloons, games.
Marnie nudged her. “That was the time you got ejected from your own party by the Duchess for getting smart over Diddles, the clown.”
“I still say he was lame,” J.J. side-mouthed back. “And anyway, Daddy snuck me some cake when he came up to tell me about myself. It was all good.”
“Well, I cried because you got in trouble, and they wouldn’t let me go upstairs to be with you. It was your birthday, your party, and you got put on lockdown. Then I got in trouble for going and telling Diddles off for being lame and getting you in trouble.”
And surely enough, there was a shot of a very young Marnie in the midst of an outdoor party setting, arms folded, tiara askew, looking highly distressed.
“Too cute!” squealed Tina through her laughter at Marnie’s timely story. “J., your mother has not ever played around with you, has she? I love it!”
“I remember you always wearing those little crowns when you were little,” Chance said to Marnie. “All the time. Then you all of a sudden stopped. How come? Outgrew ’em?”
“Sort of,” Marnie said. “Somebody, a real queen, told me that real royalty didn’t have to announce itself; royalty just is, and people just know.” She discreetly reached behind J.J. and lightly thumped Pat on the knee like Pat had twice done her head.
There were several more photos and video clips of J.J. at various times in her life- some people in the crowd cheering and hooting even harder when they saw themselves included- in school, traveling, participating in school sports competitions, tennis matches and social events, at the country club, at city and state competitions, being honored at academic and civic ceremonies, just relaxing at home- Marnie in a lot more of them this year- some of them funny, a couple a little embarrassing, many of them touching.
The whole thing left J.J. close to tearing up. Being grown and on her own, that thing she thought she wanted so badly a few nights ago on Duncan’s plane, seemed to be breathing uncomfortably hot and close on the back of her neck.
The sound of screeching brakes startled her when the subtle, jazzy tune from the band abruptly switched to a recorded version of “The Stripper”.
The screen filled with a collage of snapshots of J.J. and Marnie posing with the collection of furs from Pat’s cold storage closet accompanied by single word, “BUSTED,” that slowly sauntered along the bottom, big enough to be clearly seen, but not large enough to obscure any of the photographed shenanigans.
“Oh my God,” Marnie moaned, hand to her brow, while Chance and the rest of the crowd whistled and howled, “That doggoned memory card. I thought we were done with that.”
“Dang girl,” Tina nudged J.J. with her elbow. “some kind of playroom you and Marnie have there. Talk about dress-up.”
Peeking out between the fingers of both hands pressed to her face, J.J. was relieved to see the pictures blur and “The End” finally fade in on the background of California evening sky and rolling ocean, this time without her mother. She sent up a quick prayer of gratitude for that one photo Marnie took of her, draped in that sumptuous sable, looking naked from the waist up, not having made the cut.
Daddy did not need to see that.
As if she’d intercepted J.J.’s ethereal entreaty, Pat’s arm appeared beside her cheek and wrapped itself around her shoulder, and apparently the other went around Marnie as the two girls were pressed into each other.
“Got you good, didn’t I?” Pat said close to their ears. Then she squeezed J.J. harder with that one arm. “I do still have that one, you know. So, I’d advise you to not get on anybody’s nerves again anytime soon.”
J.J. dropped her head and sighed. “Blackmail, Aunt Pat?”
“Sweetie, you know me. I will resort to whatever works to get what I want from a person. And what I want from you is for you to behave, at least until you’re good and eighteen.”
Head still bowed, all J.J. could do was nod; her Aunt Pat could indeed be crazy and unpredictable, and her photoshop and video skills were impressive for somebody that old. Although she didn’t think Pat would out her in that manner, who could be sure of it?
On the screen and over the speakers, it was announced that the next event would be taking place immediately, but at the front of the house.
J.J. and Marnie snapped around to each other in question.
“What event is this?” J.J. asked.
Manie held up her hands. “Beats me. I’m in the dark just like you on this one. I don’t think- in fact I know it’s not on the itinerary; I was in on putting that together. Nothing was planned for happening out front. At least not in print.”
They both turned to Pat who shrugged before standing up and smoothing the pants of her jumpsuit. “I guess we’d better go and see.”
Back on the ground, they met up with Uncle Bill who was helping Ms. Fee down. They were with Tommy’s mother, Uncle Marcus, and Mr. And Mrs. Barnett. They teased J.J. and Marnie about the coat pictures before they all started off toward the front.
Sort of dropping back after a minute, then breaking off from the larger group altogether to look around, J.J. slowly realized neither of her parents were anywhere to be seen.
Bill noticed J.J. slow up and drift away from her guests headed for the front. The sight bothered him.
It was her party, her upcoming event they were headed to, but the subtle impression he had been getting from her was, even though it was her night, she didn’t seem all that enthused about it. In fact, to him she seemed to be more than a little distracted. In further fact, except for when she was onstage and into her music, that strange vibe seemed to have been strongly emanating from her from the moment he ran into her in the den.
He nudged Pat. “Where’s Valentine and Jennifer? How come they aren’t out here?”
“I don’t know. I left him in the yard right before I went to the bleachers; he was looking for Jen then. Said he was going to find her. I kind of looked for him during the music; he loves live performances. I thought for sure one, if not both, would show up for the slide show. I put a lot of work into that.”
“Well, she didn’t come out of the house with the rest of us when we got word of the show starting.” Bill said. “I didn’t see her at all inside.”
Pat took hold of Bill’s hand. “I was up in the stands with the kids and didn’t see them up there. I figured them for perhaps being down on the lawn or somewhere in the stands with the rest of you.”
Still picturing J.J. in his mind, Bill slowly shook his head. “Jen is milking this one for all it’s worth. I think she’s got Beautiful Junior a mental wreck, which is a shame. It’s her birthday party.”
“Yeah,” said a small voice at Pat’s elbow. “J.’s not having a good time at all, I don’t think. At least not as good as she should be having. She’s still worried about her mother and what she’s going to do to her. Mrs. H. should just go ahead and get it over with, whatever she’s going to do.”
Pat sighed at the intrusion. “Who asked you? You are always somewhere eavesdropping into my business.”
Taking hold of the back of Marnie’s jacket collar, she moved the girl to walk in front of her. “You just get up there with your little friends.”
She reached back for Chance, “You, too. Get on up here with her and keep her occupied,” and placed him in front of her and Bill, too.
Bill tapped him on the shoulder. “But not too occupied. Don’t make me have to come after you.”
“Come on,” Marnie huffed as she tightly coiled her arm around Chance’s to pull him along as she sped up their steps. “I can see my concern over my best friend is not appreciated.”
Amused by Marnie’s sassy exit, Pat peeked over Bill’s shoulder to check on her goddaughter.
She had fallen even farther behind the crowd.
Satisfied that everything was in place, Jennifer thanked August and Russell for their assistance. As the two men walked away, she checked her watch. Despite her plan playing out so smoothly, she couldn’t help feeling a little antsy about the passage of time. After his inevitable trip to the catering tent, and scarfing down the illicit objects of his pursuit, Jonathan would be wondering where she had gone and what was keeping her there.
Aside for paying for it all, he had never gotten too involved in the minute details of the yearly birthday party planning outside of what she ran by him or those things for which she specifically requested his help. This particular detail, though technical, had not required any assistance on his part; it was her little secret, and she was proud of having pulled it off on her own.
After all, there was a first time for everything.
And although it hadn’t been part of the original plan, this would also serve as the ultimate trump card.
Do not mess with your mother, little girl. She loves you, and she admires your adventurous spirit, but she is not having it out of you.
At least, not just yet.
Then she chuckled to herself when her own father’s face popped into her mind. That night as he was driving her back to school after catching her singing in that “dive”. For her, it had only taken getting caught and being fussed at by Pa to slow her down. It would take something a whole lot more concrete and tangible to apply the brakes to J.J. Hart now that the gadfly bug had bitten and infused her with its sweet serum.
A quick second glance at her watch and she decidedly headed for the front. In all this time, Jonathan had surely completed that hot dog run and would now be on the hunt for his wife.
As Jonathan rounded the side of the house, he first spotted Chris talking with a couple of the uniforms at the top of the bridge hill. Things out front seemed to have quieted down considerably from his last time up there. Traffic over the bridge had been brisk at that point and the uniforms had been busy guiding the arrivals to parking spaces. Now, three of the four commissioned golf carts sat idle and silent in their spaces across from the front of the house. Parked vehicles of all kinds lined both sides of the drive and continued along the lawn all the way over to the guest house. It appeared the bulk of the invited were already in his back yard.
Chris must have seen him; she waved, so he headed in her direction. He was about halfway to her when her noticed August and Russell together, coming from the back and down the walkway on the other side of the house. To his knowledge, all of them had been on duty out front all evening even though they didn’t have to be.
“Have any of you had something to eat?” he called out. “To drink?”
He thought for a second that August and Russell looked a little too surprised to see him out there.
“Ah, no,” August called back. “We were about to, though. Just waiting on things out here to quiet down.”
“I see they have,” he said as the three of them met at the end of the walkway.
Chris had started in their direction, and they all came together in the middle of the drive. He couldn’t help noticing the quick visual exchange between August and Chris and how Russell made that quick look behind himself before joining the group.
“The show’s started out back,” Jonathan advised. “Everyone was on their way to the soundstage when I came out here. You should go on to the back and catch it. There’s enough presence out here and at the gate. Ken still down there?”
“Radio him, and tell him to come up and eat. I’ll have some food sent out here and down to the gate for the others.”
“Alright,” August said, and he and Chris stepped away with August speaking into his unit.
“Have you seen Mrs. Hart?” he asked Russell, who remained.
Russell did that look-back thing again before admitting, “I- I saw her earlier.”
Something about the boy wasn’t right. Something about his demeanor. Russell wasn’t one for nervousness. In fact, nervousness was completely out of character for him.
“Uh, no, boss. Nothing. I-”
But just then, over Russell’s shoulder, he saw her.
Jennifer, the lamplight glinting off her leather outfit, walking down the same walkway from the same side of the house that Russell and August had just come.
Russell looked back and saw her, too.
“I’m going to just go and get something to eat like you told me,” Russell said before leaving him alone on the pavement.
Jennifer saw him, smiled, and came right over to him. Something was going on, but he wouldn’t have gotten that feeling from just looking at her. She was smooth with it- whatever it was she was into that was keeping her away.
“Hey there, sailor” she cooed coming to stand right in front of him. “So, what are you doing in this neck of the woods?”
“Looking for you. What are you up to?”
“Up to?” She placed a hand to her chest in feigned disbelief. “What in the world would I be up to?”
“Come off it, Red. You didn’t skip out on your daughter’s party to just get some air. If you’re out here, not out back checking on the goings-on or not in the house seeing to our guests, then you’re up to something.”
Not to mention the coincidence of August and Russell coming from where it seemed she had to have been.
But she kept to her defense. “Up to something? Why do I have to be up to something? Why can’t I just be out here checking on things?”
“Because that’s my job. That’s the part I play at these shindigs, not you. What’s with you? You got up and left J.J.’s performance without so much as a ‘bye’, ‘see you later’, ‘I’ll be right back’, nothing.”
She leaned in to him, cozily wrapping her arms around his waist. “Jonathan, I’m sorry. I had something I really had to see to. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
He had to admit, rude was not her.
Those eyes. She’d dropped them from his as she spoke to him, but he had a hard time not giving in to the look that must be in them and just letting her off the hook.
“Yeah, well, tell that to your daughter. She’s suffering under this silent treatment you’re giving her.”
“Suffering? I should think with all of this, she’d be celebrating.”
He shook his head. “She’s not. She’s worried about you being so quiet about things.”
“Darling, I’m not giving her the silent treatment. I’ve just been very busy, she’s been very busy, and we just haven’t been in the same places. With all that’s gone on since we’ve been home, there simply hasn’t been time for the kind of talk we need to have.”
He heard her, but he wasn’t buying what she was selling. His wife and his daughter were two of the most stubborn people he knew, his wife having had a much longer time to hone hers.
“She loves you, Jennifer. Absolutely, she does. It’s your opinion of her that she cares about more than anyone else’s. Despite what you might think, it always has been. Now you’ve got her in limbo.”
“Well, I have to tell you, darling, that was probably the best place for her to be when things first went down. It’s really not the case now.”
Then she raised her face to his, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Can you keep a secret if I let you in on it?”
“Yes. All mine.”
“You’re keeping secrets from me now?”
“I love keeping you guessing. You know, I’ve never believed in being too obvious.”
How often had he heard her say that to him? How true had it been over their years together?
“I’m pretty sure I can,” he finally said.
“Then come here with me.”
She took him by the hand and practically dragged him back to the walkway and in the direction from which he had seen her come.
J.J. managed to linger and hang back until she was able to watch the last of the crowd turn the corner on their way to the front. Mindful of her white pants, she opted out of taking a seat on the bottom step of the patio porch and instead leaned against a banister.
She was tired. The weariness she had been trying to ignore was catching up to her big time.
It was her party, but she was ready for it to be over. Whatever was going on out front could wait. It would have to wait. She wasn’t ready to face anything new, anything exciting, anything. Anything.
Nothing. Not. One. More. Thing.
Removing the fedora from her head, she placed it on the steps, closed her eyes and covered her mouth with her hands.
She wasn’t ready for another challenge to her nerves. She’d had enough of the faking to save face. What she really wanted to do was go up to her room, get out of her clothes, climb into her bed, and pull the covers way up over her head.
And start all over in the morning. Even if it meant sitting across the breakfast table from her mother who was going off on her for being so sneaky, insensitive, and careless. At least they would be talking. Well, she would be talking- her mother, that is.
At least she would know where her mother stood on it all. It wouldn’t be a guessing game any more. It wouldn’t be walking on eggshells any more.
Why did all that even matter? After all, she was seventeen now. Almost grown. One more year, and she would be able to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted.
It did matter. It did matter who cared.
Call me a baby. I do care.
“Something told me- What the hell are you doing still back here?”
She jumped at the sound of her Aunt Pat’s voice right next to her. How did she get so close without her noticing her coming?
“Huh, hell,” Pat said, both hands on her hips. “Everybody is out front and you’re back here. What’s wrong with you? What kind of host are you being? Your parents have gone to all this trouble to give you this party, all these people have come, and-”
J.J. placed a hand on her godmother’s shoulder. “Don’t, Aunt Pat. I can’t do that right now. Look, I’m sorry. I was coming. I just needed a minute.”
Pat immediately lay a palm to her cheek, then her forehead. J.J. gently moved the hand and held on to it as she lowered it away from her. “I’m okay. I’m not sick. I’m just a little overwhelmed, I guess. Like I said, I just needed a minute.”
Pat took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye. “It’s going to be fine, J., this thing with you and Jen. It’s in your nature to think deeply about things; I know this about you. But right now, I want you to try to set your troubles aside and come on with me. Can you do that?”
“What’s going on out there that’s so important?” J.J. asked.
“How would I know? I’m back here, trying to see what’s going on with you. Are you coming or not? Why am I asking that? ‘Let’s go’, is what I should be saying to you.”
After a deep sigh and a shrug of her shoulders, J.J. tipped her head in concession before hooking her arm on Pat’s. They made their way down the side of the house in silence.
She knew there were an awful lot of people at the party, but out in the smaller area of the front of the house, it seemed like so many more, like hundreds. Still arm-in-arm with Pat, she made her way inside the noisy, animated crowd, weaving through toward the front of the house.
As if reading her thoughts, Pat spoke into her ear, “Look at all of these folks here for you. It is your responsibility as host to show them your best face, regardless of whatever else is going on in your life. What have I always told you about to whom much is given?”
“Much is required,” J.J. answered.
Indeed, she had been given much in her lifetime, including the gift of her mother’s faithful backup, Aunt Pat aka Cruella, who had always been her constant and unfailing support.
She squared her shoulders and adjusted the scarf to loosen it at her neck and flow over her shoulder. When Pat used a hand to the small of her back to urge her forward, she continued into the crowd on her own, game face in place, smiling, and expressing as she passed through her curious guests her own confusion as to why they had all been called out there.
Her parents were together, standing at the front door of the house with several of the other adults in their crazy 80’s outfits. That brought to her a welcome genuine grin. That black leather her mother had on really did look good, especially compared to the other, tackier and dated outfits.
Oddly, though, a large area right in front had been cordoned off with brass poles and a velvet rope, like at the movies or some formal event.
Upon seeing her, her father gestured and pointed for her to come forward and enter that area. A uniformed guard released the rope to let her through right where Marnie and the rest of their crew were anxiously pressed together, waiting for her to get there, questioning what took her so long.
The same guard signaled to another uniform out on the driveway in front of the guest house. She watched until a couple minutes later, truck appeared- a flatbed bearing a pearl-colored Mustang with a tan convertible top, wrapped in a huge gold bow. A surprised cry went up from the crowd as the truck made the curve and drove right up to where she stood. The lettering on the bow read, “Happy birthday, J.J.”
Wide-eyed, she looked to her father, and for some reason, her hand went right to the new necklace she had just gotten from him. “For me, too?”
He shook his head, mouthing, “Not me”, and pointed to her mother.
Unbelievable. After all that happened.
Without even waiting for the car to be off-loaded for her to check it out, blinded by tears she hoped nobody would see, she went straight to her mother and into her waiting arms.
“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed. “Was it just too late to cancel it?”
She felt her mother laugh as she hugged her. “No. You deserve it. Totally. We’ll talk about the other later.”
“I love you, Mom. So much. I don’t ever mean to be such a pain.”
“I love you, too, Justine. Like I said, we’ll square things up later.”
Then it hit her. She knew. “You’re coming for me with the car, aren’t you?”
“Yes, baby. I am,” her mother confirmed, “but we will discuss the terms later.”
It was the only thing to do.
From somewhere her mother came up with some tissues, which she held up between them, telling her to wipe her eyes before turning back around to go look over her new car. Leave it to the Duchess to understood how much her daughter hated letting anyone see her cry and to be prepared to help her out. It was only as she discreetly dabbed at her moist eyes that she became aware of her father’s hand patting her back.
To whom much is given….
Through the sound of the truck’s machinery lowering the car came the roar of a motorcycle engine, getting louder and louder . That turned her around.
“Better be Chase,” she heard Mrs. Barnett declare.
The bike raced over the bridge and made the curve, appearing to carry two darkly dressed figures. Instead of heading over to the parking area, the driver aimed right for the house, pulling up a short distance behind the flatbed, leaving room for the vehicle being removed.
“That is Chase,” she said aloud, leaving her mother and father to go to the end of the porch for a better look and to confront him about his absence. Chase parked the bike and, still seated, removed his helmet. He had the nerve to be grinning at her.
“S’up, J.? Happy birthday. Snazzy, new ride I see you got there. Somebody must really love you.”
“Well it obviously isn’t you. Where have you been? You couldn’t answer anybody’s call? Chance says he’s been calling you all night.”
“Had to make a run to the airport,” he answered with the same aggravating grin on his face.
So focused on getting with Chase, it took her a couple of seconds to notice the dimples and that smile when the other helmet came off.
“Oh my God! Tommy!”