Dust: Chapter One

Chapter One

Allison October 1977

When I think back on it, I realize I never received a formal proposal of marriage. Not really, anyway. He never got down on one knee, never presented me with a diamond ring sparkling above a blanket of black velvet, prisms shooting out in the moonlight. There was no sweet scent of honeysuckle wafting from my mother’s garden. No violins playing in a quiet Italian restaurant while candles flickered atop checkered tablecloths. He never said the words women—especially those reared in the South—dream of. Never said, “Will you marry me” or “Will you make me the happiest man in the world and be my bride” or “my wife” or any of the phrases that accompany dreams.

He never promised me a perfect life. He never promised me forever.

What he said—if I remember the words clearly after all these years—was “Well, that sounds good.”

And, I suppose, it was.

We had been alone in his parents’ home that afternoon in 1977, the two of us, neither one having to go to work that day. I don’t remember why. Maybe it was a holiday—Columbus Day, perhaps, what with it being the middle of October. His parents had gone to the grocery store—fabulous cooks that they were. Gone to pick up necessary items for the dinner they’d whip up in the oversized farmhouse-style kitchen where miles of Formica countertops stretched over and under tall white cabinets.

I’d been invited to stay.

I may have driven out there earlier in my ’65 Mustang (already a classic) or Westley may have made the forty-five-minute drive in his ’74 Pinto to pick me up. Again, these are the things I cannot remember. Not that it made any difference to the end results.

The day was warm, and Westley had gone outside to pull a few weeds from his mother’s flower garden while I stayed indoors to watch Match Game ’77. I’d always been a sucker for television game shows. My youth had been spent watching Password and Concentration. Let’s Make a Deal (with the lovely Carol Merrill). General Hospital and Peyton Place. The latter two, of course, not being game shows but television dramas my mother didn’t mind me watching.

For the life of me, as I write this, I don’t know why not. Her sole goal in life when it came to me, I often thought, was to protect me. To save me from any form of scandal, whether real or perceived.

So, there I sat, watching Gene Rayburn in the comfortable but overly decorated home of my boyfriend while he worked outside on a day I cannot recall, and while his parents shopped at the local A&P for a meal I cannot remember. At some point, during commercials, I took my own break and wandered around the rambling house, which I found as easy to do as wearing a pair of old house slippers. I had no fear of being “found out,” although I should have. I’d only been dating Westley six months and was hardly a member of the family.

But I’d imagined it. The first time I came to his home for dinner and saw the long formal dining room table draped in linen and adorned in crystal and silver and the most stunning pattern of Noritake china I’d ever seen, I knew this was the family for me. This was the family my father and especially my mother would happily approve their youngest daughter leaving their fold for. Not going to college for. In fact, my mother would be downright giddy at the prospect, especially considering the bum—and a religious one at that—my sister had married.

I walked to the front of the house where the formal living room—Victorian and polished—sat dark and lonely, drapes pulled to keep the sunlight from fading the velvet. I ventured to guess that—other than myself and the weekly maid—people rarely came into this room with its low ceiling and thickly carpeted floor. A baby grand piano sat in the far-left corner, draped with a fringed silk scarf and topped by a satin-and-lace hurricane lamp that, when turned on, cast faint light on a cluster of silver-framed photos of family members long-ago dead and buried. Women in high-neck collared dresses and men with the hook of a walking cane draped over one arm. Babies sporting button noses and cupid-bow lips, donned in flowing white christening gowns. I touched the ornate corners lightly, wondering who they may have been and thinking to ask Westley when he returned inside. Or . . . someday.

Across a narrow foyer, the room Westley’s father used as a study and office beckoned me to enter. I stood then at the wide doorway and looked in, taking in the antique rolltop desk, counting the nooks and crannies and tiny drawers filled with who-knows-what. A tall stack of books sat willy-nilly to the right while papers and files and pens and pencils scattered across the top blocked every inch of the oak grain beneath.

Against the back wall, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase rose and yawned, its shelves nearly buckling from the weight from volumes of tomes. I wondered if Dr. Houser had read them all. Or any, at all.

I stepped across the hardwood floor to the front window to peer out, to see if Westley was anywhere around, then caught sight of him ambling from the mailbox at the end of the lane leading to the white clapboard house, correspondence held tightly in one hand. He was a handsome man—an odd sort of cross between Barry and Robin Gibb minus the beard, which I still find hard to explain really. It was as if he had been cut from the same mold but had somehow been lost in the transfer from heaven to earth and, instead of landing in England, found himself in a crib along the coastline of Georgia. Now nearly twenty-eight years of age—almost nine older than me—he was tall and well-built, with soft brown curls he meticulously styled, and a thick moustache that tickled my nose when he kissed me, which was often and well.

The voice of Gene Rayburn called me back to the family room, so I scurried in, more than anything not wanting to be caught prying. I had only barely gotten back to the sofa and crossed my arms and legs in a “I wasn’t doing anything” fashion when Westley stepped in from the door leading to the kitchen.

“Hey there,” he said, smiling. “I should have changed to jeans and a tee.”

He wore a pair of tan corduroy bellbottomed pants that fit him scrumptiously. He had unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt—polyester and quite stylish for the time—and was already at work on the mother-of-pearl snaps going down the front. I averted my eyes, allowing myself only to look at Charles Nelson Riley, who quipped a line toward Gene Rayburn. Safer there by a mile.

I’d seen Westley bare-chested, of course. We’d spent hours upon hours soaking up sun on Tybee Island that summer. But the oddness of his coming out of his shirt in the privacy and sanctity of his parents’ home—while altogether acceptable at the beach—struck me. After all, we were innocent in our relationship. Innocent and alone . . .

“Hey yourself,” I said. The contestant with the Farrah Fawcett hairstyle kissed Richard Dawson for his role in her win of $500 in prize money as Westley flicked off his shirt.

I glanced over, noting as quickly as possible the tan of his skin, the flat of his belly, the pink of his nipples, and a small tuft of hair between them that formed a V. “It’s hotter out there than I thought it would be,” he said. “I’m going to take a quick shower and change into something a little cooler.”

A new contestant came on the show and Gene Rayburn announced that they’d return after a word from their sponsor. I cast my eyes toward Westley’s, careful to stay focused on the green of them. “Yeah. Okay,” I said. My leg—the one crossed on top—began a furious pump of its own accord.

He chuckled, then plopped beside me. “Excuse the sweat,” he said before reaching over to kiss my ear. Down my throat. Back up again.

“Westley,” I breathed. “Your parents . . .”

He ignored me. Instead of going for the shower—awkward as that would have been with him down the hall splashing around naked as the day he was born—he slid his arm around my shoulder, cupped my chin and kissed me so soundly I felt as though I had been dropped into a tunnel. Although common sense shouted otherwise, I allowed myself to sink into the rough fibers of the sofa, keeping my palms flat on my thighs, all the while allowing him to press harder while kaleidoscope colors exploded behind my eyes.

Westley had that effect on me.

And then . . .

“Westley Houser!”

I jumped, wiping my swollen lips with the back of my hand, blinking furiously to clear my vision and to access the situation. I was in the Houser family room . . . Match Game ’77 . . . the show had gone to commercial. Westley had taken off his shirt . . . tuft of hair . . . kiss from heaven . . . and now . . . his father stood in the doorway holding a brown paper bag full of groceries, his face aghast while mine blushed furiously.

But not Westley. He only grinned and said, “Allison Houser,” combining our names so seamlessly as to suggest I’d always been known as such.

I sucked in as much air as the room held, my chest exploding from the pressure.

And that’s when it happened. Westley looked from his father. To me. Said, “Well, that sounds good” and beamed back up at his father. “What do you think, Dad? Should I make an honest woman out of her?”

An honest woman? “I-I—never—” I stammered. “Dr. Houser, we’ve not—I’ve never—”

“Better get used to calling him Dad,” Westley said, standing. He displayed his shirt to his father. “I was about to shower. Pulled those weeds like I told Mom I would and got a little warm . . .” He winked in my direction. “Then a little sidetracked.” He smiled at his father. “Isn’t she adorable, sitting there all red and flustered?” He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he started for the dining room, which led to the hallway, the bedrooms, and baths. Then, halfway into the dining room, he added, “Oh, and the mail is on the kitchen table,” then disappeared into the hallway.

But not before I noted the envelope jutting out from his back pocket.

And just like that, I was engaged.

Westley’s father leaned over, the paper bag crunching, kissed my cheek, his horn-rimmed glasses pressing into its flesh, and said, “Welcome to the family. I hope you can do something to tame that son of mine,” before calling out, “Mom, we’re going to have a new addition to our family.”

Westley’s mother entered the room, her hair the same wispy curls she’d passed on to her son, her eyes just as bright. Just as kind. She’d been a slender woman once. I’d seen the photos the night I had my first meal with the family. That night when I saw the linen and crystal and silver and Noritake china and determined I wanted to become a part of this family. That night when, after dinner, his mother entertained me with stories of Westley’s youth while showing me photo after photo of her firstborn son.

“He was the daredevil,” she told me as she pointed to another black and white photo. “See him on that bicycle? I don’t care what it was, he’d jump it. Never feared a thing.”

“Not Paul,” Dr. Howser said of Westley’s younger brother, only fourteen months his junior. “Paul was more sensitive. A reader. A thinker. Westley never met an obstacle.”

A “baby sister” named Heather, now away at college, born years after Westley (she and I were only a few weeks apart in birth and, so far, got along famously), rounded out the family and, in the process according to the photos, his mother’s frame. Not fat or flabby by any means, but when she hugged me, I felt as though I’d wrapped my arms around a bowl of warm pudding. Smooth and sweet, like vanilla. She also smelled of powdery perfume; it lingered on my clothes long after her embrace and drifted through her home like a friendly ghost.

Now, she stood in the doorway, her purse in her hand as though she’d been about to deposit it somewhere, staring at her husband—bespectacled and amused—and asking, “Who on earth are you talking about?”

Dr. Howser nodded toward me. “Allison. Westley asked her to marry him.”

Mrs. Howser threw her hands up in the air, the purse hitting her bosom, and expelled a shrill I suspect was as much shock as joy. “Well, if anyone can tame him, it’s you, my darling,” she said, reaching for me.

I realized then I hadn’t moved from the sofa since the kiss but had instead practically grown roots in the tweedy fibers. I hugged my future mother-in-law, being careful of the purse she continued to dangle. I breathed in the scent of her, thinking I could die in this woman’s arms right then and there, completely unmarried, still as much a virgin as the day I was born, and I’d be all right.

Perhaps it was then I realized I would soon marry not a man, but a family. Well if I didn’t realize it then, I certainly did later.

More than that, I was also about to marry a challenge.

Tame him, my foot.

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