As I was telling you earlier, much earlier, I made the plane with at least twenty seconds to spare. And no, the kid with the donut problem didn't throw up on me. That turned out OK ... about the only thing that did, as I recall. Forty minutes into the flight to Bloomington-Normal, the captain's voice came over the speaker. Captain, hell, on a plane this size the pilot is probably a corporal at most. "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that the runways are nice and clear at Bloomington. The bad news is that it's Bloomington, Indiana. Go Hoosiers!" Funny guy.
Most of Illinois was snowed in tonight and that was the best the airline could do. It turns out warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico was moving up the Mississippi Valley and colliding with cold air masses from Canada. Why can't the Pentagon do something about the true threat to Middle America, cold air masses from Canada? Who did that routine? Steve Martin? George Carlin? Henny Youngman? I don't know and don't much care.
Well it turned out that in Bloomington, there was a plane to West Lafayette, Indiana, with a continuation to Ann Arbor and East Lansing Michigan. Now West Lafayette is not far from Chicago but they were pretty sure West Lafayette would be closed down soon. So the ticket agent thought I would be better off going all the way to Lansing. The storm might pass south of Lansing since it was expected to track up the Ohio Valley, hit Pittsburgh and then dump two feet of snow on, wait for it, Buffalo. At Lansing Airport, they said, I could change to a plane to Madison, Wisconsin. The snow might have passed through Madison by then.
Well, Madison is less than two hours from Milwaukee and somehow I would get myself down to Chicago from Milwaukee, hitchhiking if I had to. At least I would be moving, not camping in some miserable Midwest airport.
I remembered an issue of Playboy, "Girls of the Big Ten." This was "Airports of the Big Ten" and not nearly as sexy. Either that or I was starring in a remake of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I could hardly wait to meet John Candy. Well, as it turned out, the flight planned for the Indiana basketball team had been cancelled and the team was rerouted via the flight to Ann Arbor. No, I wasn't bumped. They wedgedme into the window seat next to a 6'10" power forward who had John Candy's waistline. "A guy my size has to have the aisle, man," he announced, and I wasn't going to argue. Go Hoosiers!
Late Friday morning I phoned Mom from the Lansing airport. After all, it was my birthday and birthdays mean a lot to Mom. She told me she was in the kitchen and judging from the echoes, I was pretty sure she had the phone on speaker phone setting. For sure, I could hear her move about the kitchen and I could picture her measuring and pouring ingredients.
What? She can only open bags of Chips Ahoy? – you remember that? That was just a joke to make Amy laugh. Mom is more of a first course person than a baker but you seriously imagine that the loving and caring mother of five children and nine grandchildren can't cook, Catholic or not? Never happen! Mom wasn't a near gourmet chef like Amy but no one can rustle up solid, nutritious comfort food like my mom. If you look up "home cooking" in an illustrated dictionary, there's a photograph of my mother.
"Son, we are so glad you can come home for your birthday party this evening. Frank's coming down from Green Bay and the twins are bringing the grandkids..."
Home??? Milwaukee? I was on my way home to Chicago! What the hell had happened here? A moment's thought dialled in the frequency. Liam had asked whether I would be home for my birthday and had passed on the word to Mom that yes, I would indeed be home. I think of Chicago as home but that's not the way the mother of an unmarried son under thirty sees it. Until thirty, home is where Mom lives, in his old bedroom with the posters on the bedroom wall and the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. Mom was expecting me in Milwaukee and I needed to be in Chicago, to rescue Amy. Shit! Liam was messing me up even when he didn't intend to!
"Mom, I'm sorry. I don't think I can make the party."
I could feel the frost coming over the phone. Mothers whose sons tell them they can't get home for a family birthday party are the world's second leading producers of cold air masses ... after Canada.
"Mom, I'll tell you the truth and I know you'll understand." I was so desperate I was going to do something unheard of; I was going to tell my mother the truth about my love life, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Oprah.
"This had better be good."
"Mom, is Dad there?"
"Or Frank, or the twins or anyone else in the family?"
"Or any of the neighbors, or your bridge friends?"
"No, but I really should tell you..."
"Mom, they may call my plane any minute and my cell is almost out of power. I need to tell you why I can't come home and I need to do it right now!"
"OK, son, but"
I drew a deep breath. They'll kick me out of the sons' union for this but here goes: "Mom, I'm in love." That worked. I heard only a faint "eek," like the sound of a stricken mouse emoting, over the speaker phone. Long pause...
"Is she, is she by any chance that sweet Amy girl I talked to on the phone the other day?"
"Of course she is!"
Mom likes Amy! Big sigh of relief, whether mine or hers, or both, I can't tell. This was working but still, time for the sales job. There's nothing that sells as well as the truth so I decided to go for it.
"Mom, she's the sweetest and kindest girl I've met in my life."
My mother is big on kindness, probably because if you check out kindness in that illustrated dictionary while you have it out, there's a photo of Mom on that page too. "You probably could tell she is sweet and kind, even over the phone."
"Yes, Charlie, I could." I could hear gentle sniffling over the phone. Either mom had a bad cold or she was getting really emotional. Probably a good sign.
"And I desperately need to see her as soon as possible, to tell her I love her."
"But why does that mean you can't come to the party?"
"Because there's this ass... , this nasty, self-centered person named Liam, and Amy's been hoping for years that he would notice her.
"Liam, your roommate? The one who looks like Brad Pitt?" I ground my teeth.
"Yeah, Mom, but he never realized how wonderful Amy is because she used to dress a little funny and her hair wasn't so fashionable. But now she looks as beautiful on the outside as she always has been on the inside. Liam has noticed her. Mom, he told me she's doable and I'm afraid..."
Normally, I wouldn't even speak the word "doable" in hearing distance of my mother, just in case, but this was sudden death overtime in the Stanley Cup finals and I had to end this.
"Charlie, are you telling me that you fell in love with this sweet young woman once she had a makeover and now are afraid someone else might want her? I always hoped that none of my children would be so shallow!"
"No, Mom, I swear that I loved her all along. I love her because she has the capacity to care for other people like nobody else I've ever met and I hope with all my heart that she will care for me." I decided to go for broke, "and for my children."
More sniffling from the phone, even maybe some crying. "I love the way she smiles at me. Mom, she smiles at me the way you smile at Dad when you think we aren't looking."
And it wasn't a line, it was true. I suddenly realized didn't love Amy because she reminded me of a cat. I loved her because she reminded me of my mother. Every heterosexual male raised by a loving mother, wants a wife who reminds him of his mother. I wanted someone who could love with all her heart, like Mom can, like Amy. Go smoke a cigar, Dr. Freud. I don't give a shit about your opinion. Though I am still going to call Amy "Peanut." "Mom" would be too weird.
"If Liam gets her into bed, Mom, I would have to really work not to go postal. Do you remember when I caught the teenager next door torturing Peanut and went for him? He had a knife out and was cutting at me to make me let go? And you had to pull me away from him, all cut and bleeding? That's the way I feel when I think of Amy in bed with Liam. I just get sick to my stomach."
"I just need to find Amy as soon as possible and tell her I love her. The moment I have any hope that she loves me back, I'll ask her to marry me and keep on asking until she says yes." By this time the sniffling stage was long past. It was outright weeping over the phone, in fact, it sounded like weeping in stereo.
"Charlie, you don't know if you can even get back to Chicago tonight or even if Amy is in the city. Tomorrow you can go looking for her. I promise you there will be somebody here who can drive you back into the city whenever you want."
"If this Amy smiles at you the way I smile at your Dad, you don't have to worry. Nothing in heaven or earth or hell besides would get her into bed with anybody but you."
"Mom, how do you know that?"
"Not good enough."
"Secret knowledge of the Sisterhood of women who adore their man. Charlie, believe me on this one. I absolutely know."
"Charles McKee! Do you think I would cheat on your father?!"
"Of course not." What did that have to do with anything?
"Well then, trust me on this. Amy won't go to bed with Liam. Now promise me you will show up for the party. Promise!"
I know when I've been beaten. "I promise."
"And besides, it's your birthday. There'll be a present waiting for you."
Dear God! Mom always went overboard in the present department. She believed in quality but that quantity never hurt. The chance of me being able to fit whatever she gave me into carryon were in the Bambi vs Godzilla range. "Nothing big, Mom!"
"Nothing very big, I promise."
After I hung up, I decided that Mom was right. Amy probably did belong to the Sisterhood of women who adore their man. It's just that I was afraid that Liam was her man. Of course, she had gone to bed with me, now that I thought about it. Did that help? Or just make the prospect of losing her to the asshole that much more painful. Sitting in the waiting room in Lansing, I recalled a poem from Bonehead English for Math and Science Geeks at Notre Dame. For some reason, I could recall the entire poem.
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add
Jenny kissed me.
The poem worked just as will with "Amy" as with "Jenny." I hoped Amy wasn't jumping for Liam. And that Liam wasn't jumping Amy's bones.
The rest of the day would be interesting only to someone who actually would lust over the Airports of the Big Ten foldout, but by late afternoon, with the Midwest winter darkness already drawing on, I arrived in Madison. Madison is easy driving distance from Milwaukee, even in the snow ... if you can rent a car. It took me an hour to find Rent a Lemon, only a mile and a half walk from the airport. I didn't know until then that you could rent a Yugo, or a Skoda or a Lada in the United States. Where did these people get their stock? From Berlin Wall Motors? Only a rusted orange Yugo was left. One wiper worked but the heater didn't. Oh and the one wiper was on the passenger side, which made for a very peculiar driving position. I couldn't care less about heaters or wipers or driving position, as long as the wreck took me towards my Amy. Or at least, I hoped she might be my Amy
Three frozen hours later, I pulled the Yugo across the mouth of the driveway of my parents' home, blocking the three cars already in the drive, but poised and ready to take off for Chicago the moment I could do so without suffering a mother's curse. Oh, and thawing my fingers would be a good idea too. I could see the curtain on the living room window part slightly as someone checked out my arrival. Good thing this wasn't a surprise party. The McKee family party discipline was slipping and the gaff, as they say, would have been blown. (What's a gaff and why would anybody want to give it a blow job?) I could even hear bodies scurrying about as I mounted the steps and rang the doorbell. My mother opened the door before I could even ring. By Mom standards, the hug she gave me definitely qualified as perfunctory. Normally, a famished python releases you more quickly than Mom. She took my coat, folded it once lengthwise and threw it on a pile of outerwear stacked on the couch in the den. Obviously, there was a full house.
Tugging me gently by the elbow, Mom led me to the entrance to the living room. OK, just as expected, there was the whole family, brothers, sister, in laws, grandkids, strangers off the street. But no "Happy Birthday!" Nothing. Not a word. My three year old niece, Pammy, ran towards me with her arms out, "Uncle Charlie, Uncle Charlie, there's a..." But my sister in law Meg scooped her up and hauled her, protesting loudly, into the kitchen. Mom didn't say a thing and usually the fundamental rule of the McKee household is, "Grandchildren get to do whatever they want, provided it won't cause serious injury." Weird.
"Good to see you, son." My dad was seated on the couch with an older couple. I could swear I had never seen them before. The husband was just about round and could have been hired as a stand in for the Michelin Man. His wife, if that's who she was, wore what looked like a collection of burlap sacks, but not quite so fashionable. They must be the new neighbors Mom had told me about on the phone. Just like when I was a teen; everybody and his neighbor, had been invited to my birthday party.
"Charlie," Dad continued. "Your Mom has told us why you're in a rush and we don't want to delay you." Told everybody why I was in a rush? Thanks, Mom, for keeping a confidence. I would never live this down with my sisters.
"Your birthday surprise is waiting for you downstairs. Pick it up and then you can go about your business. Don't let us keep you."
"Downstairs," Mom replied and pointed, one hand on hip the other directing me to the back stairs. Her pose reminded me of Mrs Meyers, my kindergarten teacher, about to break into song, "Here is my handle, here is my spout," but a good deal more determined to have her way. Though, when I think about it, Mrs Meyers usually got her way too. Never mess with a woman with her pointer out. Just do what she wants.
I pivoted smartly, followed the direction of Mom's index finger and headed for the stairs. I negotiated the left hand turn at the back door, managing, even in my state of airline induced exhaustion, not to trip over the party guests' winter boots stashed there for the evening. Jesus, if Napoleon's army had that many boots, they would have made it safely back from Moscow.
I descended past my favourite life sized poster of Michael Jordan in his red number 23 Bulls jersey. Dad had wanted Kareem Abdul Jabbar in his Bucks uniform from the championship year, but he was in LA long before I got interested in basketball, so Dad gave in. Besides, the ceiling was too low. I turned right into the TV room at the foot of the stairs. The room was dim, lit only be the angle poise reading lamp by Dad's Lazyboy in the corner. Vince Lombardi gazed out of the autographed photo that hung over the left shoulder of a slight figure in the Lazyboy. Vince looked disapproving.
"Whaaa ... Amy!"
Amy was perched on the edge of the seat. I could understand that. If she had sat back, in the Dad sized Lazyboy, her tiny feet would have been swinging in the air. Her hands were folded in her lap, the left anxiously stroking the fingers on her right. She was wearing the pink sweater and tight blue jeans from our day at the mall. Her dainty feet were encased in light brown leather calf height boots with a heel that could pierce the heart of any heterosexual male under eighty. The Lazyboy was covered with a green and yellow throw rug decorated with a giant embroidered Green Bay Packers helmet. The color scheme clashed.
"Charlie, I missed you."
She missed me? Who gives a damn about the color scheme and to hell with you, Vince! I crossed the entire room faster than Michael Jordan on a breakaway dunk, fell onto both knees in front of her, seized her hands and stared into her eyes. With me kneeling before her, they were just about level with mine.
"Amy! I lo..." No, careful, I didn't want to scare her off. It was a promising sign that she was here but what if she still loved Liam? I had better take it slowly and carefully.
I paused. Amy's shoulders had lifted when I began to speak but now they dropped the tiniest fraction of any inch. "This is a wonderful surprise! But, but, what are you doing here?"
"It's your birthday. I wanted to drop off a present for you and your mother invited me to stay."
I blessed my mom. "But how did you know it was my birthday? How did you find out where my parents..."
"The bank where I work ... it's your bank. An auditor can access just about any file in the database. Your file includes contact information for next of kin, in case of emergency, you know. And date of birth, of course."
Amy folded her hands primly but with the faintest tinge of nervousness. "I violated company policy and your privacy by accessing your file for personal reasons. You can report me, if you want."
"You can violate my privacy every day for the rest of my life, sweetheart." I thought. Aloud, I said, "Peanut, I'm just so glad to see you. Best birthday present I ever had!"
"Charlie," she hesitated. "Your mom thinks I need to tell you something important."
"I'm starting to realize she's probably right about these things. Go right ahead, I'm listening." I shifted my weight to relieve a cramp in my left hamstring. This kneeling business may be romantic but it's hell on the joints.
"I, I can't just come out with it. Charlie. It's hard for me. I think the man should say it first. I'm a traditionalist."
I had spent enough time up in the air the last two days that my plane was three rows short of a full passenger manifest. What did this have to do with what my mother thinks?
Oh thhhattt! Rising from my knees – thank God for that – I slipped into the Lazyboy, planted my butt squarely on the Packer helmet – forgive me, Vince Lombardi - and pulled her dainty form onto my knee. She folded into my chest. "Amy, I love you with my whole heart. I love what's inside you and I loved you long before Guido helped you look just as beautiful on the outside."
Amy snuffled and buried her face into my neck. She was crying hard enough that I expected I would have to blow dry my collar before I could appear in public again. Then she looked up at me. Her eyes were dark pools large enough to drown Milwaukee, maybe even Chicago. "I love you, Charlie!"
"Me? Not Liam?"
"You." And she burrowed deeper into my chest.
"But Peanut, I thought you wanted Liam for years and would give anything for him to notice you!"
"Charlie McKee!" Amazingly enough, she managed the same tone of voice as my fourth grade teacher when she caught Johnny Sample and me trying to smoke our first cigarette behind the school portable. "You have to stop underestimating me! Do you think I'm too stupid to know the difference between a self-centered, egotistical jock who treats me like his personal slave and the sweetest, kindest man in the whole world who makes me feel I'm wonderful? My friend, Miriam says any man who will sit and wait while a woman is in the hairdresser is a keeper. Not to mention that you gave me sex so good, that if I have any better I'll probably die and go to heaven on the spot!"
Wow! She was right about the sex though. Sex any better should definitely carry a health warning, "Better orgasms may cause sudden, ecstatic death!"
"But he's a good looking jock."
I had always wondered what the sound is when someone gnashes her teeth. Now I knew.
"Amy, you dropped maybe a couple of grand at the mall for that makeover, just so Liam would notice you!" Amy bobbed her head like an enraged Chickadee. God, she was cute!
"Charlie, I swear you're five receipts short of a clean audit. Whose idea was the whole makeover business? Who said he would take me, so I changed my mind about even going? Who did I want to notice I looked so good in the new clothes?"
"Whom," I said.
"Excuuuse me, Mr. English Major! I didn't do it for Liam, I did it for you. Idiot!"
"But a loveable idiot."
Amy smiled. "True."
"Forget Liam?" I asked.
"Forget Liam." Amy folded her hands again and waited. I kept her occupied while she waited but then I remembered there was a party upstairs.
"Peanut, I couldn't possibly be happier than I am here with you, but maybe we ought to head back upstairs to see the family ... and those other people. Who are all those folks upstairs, by the way? There's a couple of people there I swear I've never met, like a little old lady dressed in the rejects from the Salvation Army Thrift Store."
Amy frowned thoughtfully, "I really should make her come with me next time I go to the mall when Guido trims my hair."
"She's your Mom???" So the round man was ... Well that explained those tent sized sweat pants Amy had lent me that night in her house. Her father had left them behind because they were getting a little snug.
"Amy, I'll be glad to see them and all but what are they doing here, and on a night like this?"
"My father makes balloon animals for birthday parties?"
"Nahhh," I shook my head.
Amy looked a little anxious, like a wren caught pecking at the wrong birdfeeder. "Your mother wanted to meet them and she was absolutely sure they would want to meet you."
"Meet me?" I echoed.
Amy paused, flushed slightly and hesitantly continued, "Charlie, I ought to tell you that I was ... already here when you called your mother. I was in the kitchen and she had you on speaker phone. Your Mom did try to tell you."
"Tried to tell me?
"I heard everything you said."
"Everything I said?" My echo problem was getting really tiresome.
"Charlie," Amy paused. "Did you mean it? What you said? Everything? I won't hold it against you if you got carried away and now you want time to think about it."
What did I say in the phone call? Ahhh, yes, that's what she was talking about.
I grasped both her delicate hands, looked deep into her eyes which were dark pools, each the size of Lake Michigan. "Every word, I swear it."
A long, exhaling sigh of contentment, like the sound of a happy teakettle, escaped Amy. "Then I can tell you the real reason. He's here so you can ask him a question."
"A question?" Enough with the echo, I told myself. Who do you think you are? The chorus in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?
"Not really a question, more asking permission, really. My dad's a traditionalist. I got the tendency from him."
My brain still hadn't been returned from wherever airlines send lost luggage but at least I didn't do the echo bit this time. Though I have to admit I goggled at Amy.
Amy leaned towards me, took my face in both hands and kissed me, her little tongue momentarily pressing between my lips. "You just might have some reason to hope that I love you back," Amy said briskly. Then she sat back in the chair, folded her hands and waited. I couldn't seem to take in enough air for speech.
"Charlie, the truth is, I'm waiting for a question too." Her eyes were dark pools, large enough to swallow all the oceans of the world.
My elevator might have been stuck on the ground floor with the power off most of this evening but OK, now I got it. Amy was a traditionalist, was she? I slipped from the chair and knelt once again before her, this time on one knee only. I reached for her hands to take them in mine.
"Just a second!" she said. She arched her delectable little butt, shimmied her hips and reached into the wonderfully tight front pocket of her jeans. Watching her wiggle to release the tension in her jeans enough to open the pocket dramatically increased the tension in mine. She pulled a ring from her pocket. It was the deep yellow of old gold, with a central diamond and two flanking rubies.
"This was your grandmother's. Your mother thought you might need it. She's a traditionalist too."
I took the ring, reached for her left hand and held the ring to the tip of the fourth finger. Grandma had also belonged to the Sisterhood of women who adored their man, and she had wasted away almost to nothing after Grandpa passed. She must have had the ring re-sized because it slipped over the knuckles and sat snugly in place on Amy's delicate finger.
"Amy, I love you with my whole heart. I admire you and respect you as well as love you. I know that you are the woman for me and hope that I am the man for you. Will you marry me?
"Yes, Ohh yes!" she shouted. She jumped from the chair, throwing herself into my arms. I staggered to my feet, embraced her delicious form and she kissed me. Then, looking into the eyes of the man I knew she adored, my eyes,