Notes: Wow, so, it’s going to take me a few long posts to get through Maydays, I had to stop this one at 2500 words in order to get to work on time. There’s just a lot of ground to cover. I hope you guys enjoy the journey. A lot of this stuff is based on interactions with my very own family (and I’m not dissing southerners, I love the south, I just happen to have some disturbed relatives down there—I can’t even go into it, you’ll think I’m exaggerating when I’m not), so. Anyway! The start of Maydays.
Title: Love Letters
Part Twenty-Seven: An Auspicious Beginning
By the time Ben got to Concord on Friday night, it was already too late for him to go anywhere but his hotel. Because Maydays corresponded with the long Memorial Day weekend, most of the guests would be randomly arriving on Saturday. The giant birthday party was set for Sunday, and then a lot of people planned to stick around for a Memorial Day barbeque on Monday. It would be, in a word, hectic, and Ben wasn’t sad that he got an evening to himself before the plunge. He didn’t have a long commute this time, his hotel room was fifteen minutes away from the Kuzniar’s enormous house, and he’d already promised Ryan he’d get there relatively early in the morning to help distract Brody’s kids.
Which, ha. Ben had no idea what that was going to amount to, but he was determined not to be as insular around Ryan’s family as he’d been around his friends. He could do this, he could be supportive and friendly and present, and surely he could do it without losing his mind.
Oh really, said mind taunted Ben as he lay on top of the hotel’s slick comforter, absently flicking through the TV channels. Because you’ve got so much experience hanging out with kids, right? Sure, this’ll be a frickin’ breeze. Keep thinking that.
“Shut up,” Ben muttered, staring blankly at a baseball game for a few moments before he turned the TV off. He’d be okay. Kids had to be easier than adults in a lot of regards. Heather’s advice on the subject had been short and to the point: “Do what they want to as long as it doesn’t involve bodily harm or getting away with murder and you’re good to go. You’re just there for the weekend, you don’t have to worry about discipline. You get to be one of the fun adults.”
Ben wasn’t sure he’d ever been a fun adult before, but he’d get the hang of it. Right. Of course you will.
Ben grabbed the book he’d brought with him, for once not one he needed for research but pure pleasure instead, a huge volume of Sherlock Holmes tales. He turned on the bedside lamp and tried to focus on A Study in Scarlet, but his eyes kept jumping to the clock. Ten-fifteen. Ten-twenty. Ten-twenty one. Shit.
R u sleeping yet?
Oh, thank god his phone went off. Ben grabbed it up and texted back quickly. Not even close.
Good. I dont feel guilty thenJ Be glad you have your own room, Im sharing with Joey and I love him but something so small shouldnt snore so loud. Physical impossibility, and yet.
You don’t have your own room? That was news to Ben.
Mom made mine into a guest room. The house has six bedrooms and well use all of them before weekend is over.
So Ryan was sharing space with his nephew. No wonder the kid had assumed it was okay to do whatever he wanted to Ryan’s paintings, those were probably crammed in there too. Speaking of that…
Make any progress on the new paintings?
Not much. Joey says my colors are wrong. He gets antsy when I paint in front of him and someone has to watch him.
Why not his mother? Ben wanted to ask, but he didn’t. It wasn’t his business, or at least only insofar as it made Ben happy or sad it was, and even then…whatever, it was just for a weekend. He and Ryan signed off a few minutes later, and Ben pressed his face against the pillowcase and hoped sleep would come fast.
It did. In retrospect, Ben should have asked for more of a delay.
He showed up at the Kuzniar house at ten the next morning, parking his rental further down the gravel drive where hopefully it would be out of the way. The two-story Victorian looked enormous in the bright morning light, glowing white against a backdrop of blue sky and green grass. It looked like the kind of house that got featured on the cover of magazines, and probably had been. Stately houses Ben could handle, he lived in one, but this thing could have just time-travelled straight from the late 1800s, it was so well preserved.
There was no one outside. Ben walked up the steps and used the lionshead brass knocker to rap on the door. He heard a sudden rush of feet, and the door opened abruptly. Ben found himself looking down at Joey, whom he’d barely seen during Brody’s funeral but had heard so much about. The kid looked a lot like his father, except for the solemn expression on his face. “One,” he said, more to himself than Ben, before letting go of the door and turning away. Ben stood on the stoop and wondered what the hell had just happened.
“Joey, you have to invite him in,” a familiar voice said gently before appearing in the door. Ryan immediately pulled Ben into a hug, much more demure than his last greeting, but his arms were just as tight around Ben’s shoulders. “It’s so good to see you,” he breathed.
“You too,” Ben replied, kissing the side of Ryan’s head, which was all his mouth could reach.
“No, really…it’s…” Ryan pulled back and shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t mind me, I’m just kind of tired.” He finally caught sight of the yellow roses in Ben’s hand. “Those are nice.”
“They’re for your mom.”
“Nice call,” Ryan said appreciatively. “She loves roses. Come inside.” He led Ben into an entryway with a parquet floor and a vaulted ceiling, complete with a crystal chandelier that cast rainbows around the room as it caught the morning light streaming in through the large front windows. Wow. Fancy.
“Should I take my shoes off?”
“Nah, it’ll be okay,” Ryan assured him. “Come on, mom’s in the kitchen. She’s been baking since Wednesday.” They walked down the hall, took a few turns and ended up in a room that was overwhelmed with the smells of fresh bread, yeast and something roasting in the oven. DeeDee Kuzniar bustled around the kitchen, far less put together than the last time Ben had seen her but still neat and tidy in a yellow and blue sundress protected by an apron. (The only cook in the house is my mom. You can’t try to do something yourself, can’t even try to help. She knows how she wants things done and that’s that. This is why I’m shit at cooking anything not out of a box: I never got the chance to learn, not at home, not at college, definitely not in the army. I think my mom always liked the fact that being a good cook gave her the authority to kick my dad out of the kitchen if she wanted to. It’s the only place she had that kind of power.)
She turned to smile at them as they came in, and Ben tried to focus on her instead of on the most telling thing Brody had ever written about her. “Benjamin! You’re here!” She walked over and made “come hither” motions with her hands, and as soon as Ben was within reach she grabbed him and pulled him down so she could kiss his cheek. “Welcome, honey! I’m so glad you could make it for Maydays.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kuzniar.”
“Oh honey, call me DeeDee,” she told him. He thrust the bouquet at her like a shield.
“What beautiful flowers! Let’s just put them next to the cakes.” She filled a vase with water and put the roses in it, then set them down on a table with…one, two, three…six cakes on it? Each one was a little different, some of them on elevated glass cake plates, others covered with saran wrap.
“How many birthdays are you guys celebrating?” Ben asked. He was sure Ryan had mentioned it, but holy shit.
“Seven, honey!” DeeDee beamed. “Well, only six are actually in May, but Grace was born on June second and it would be strange not to include her too. Me, Ryan, Joey, Uncle William, Sissy, Melinda and Grace. Sissy is my cousin, Melinda is Pam’s oldest and Grace is Bill’s new grandbaby, she’s just turning two!” DeeDee gently patted one of the smaller cakes. “This one will be hers, just vanilla with some buttercream frosting I’ll whip up tomorrow morning. Mine’s the cherry cheesecake in the fridge, Joey’s is chocolate and Ryan’s is pineapple upside down cake!” DeeDee patted her son on the cheek. “He always has to be different.”
“I’m just teasing, honey, calm down,” she chided him. “Shouldn’t you be looking after Joey? You don’t want him to get into your things again.” She turned to Ben with a smile. “He was so upset when his paintings got a little messy, but he didn’t even yell at Joey! Ryan is so good with kids. You should have been a teacher, honey,” she added pointedly. “You could even have been an art teacher, if you had to have that, and you’d be working toward a good pension right now.”
“Let’s go and see about Joey,” Ryan said before his mother could continue, and turned and walked out of the kitchen. Ben gave Ryan’s mother a weak smile and followed his lover out.
“Now there’s no need to be rude about it!” DeeDee called after them.
Ryan stopped in the foyer and just breathed for a moment before turning to Ben, a fake smile plastered to his face. “So, that’s probably the best things are going to be this weekend. My family is kind of opinionated, and they all have to say their piece about everything you’re doing, and it’s going to be especially weird this year because Brody isn’t here. He was the only one everyone listened to, and the kids are still having a hard time, so…please, just do your best to ignore it. They’ll probably be all right with you, you’re a guest, but try not to let it upset you, okay? I really don’t want to rock the boat, not while things are so mixed up with Cheryl and the kids are so fragile.”
“I’ll do my best,” Ben said, and he meant it. He wasn’t here to make things harder on Ryan, although he was beginning to wonder how exactly he could do that, if that interaction with his mother could be considered the least offensive one of the entire weekend.
“Great.” Ryan leaned in and kissed Ben, a gentle press as tender as it was cautionary, a kiss that said: Don’t let go here, don’t get too excited. They separated after a moment and Ryan took another deep breath. “Okay. Let’s go find Joey.”
Joey was in the living room—one of them, Ryan informed Ben, the one intended for the kids because the furnishings were second-hand. He was lying on the floor with a pile of colored pencils spread out before him, meticulously shading a giant color wheel. He was doing all the intermediate grades of color, too; he colored in a thin line of green, then a line of blue on top of it, followed by grey. “Hey, Joey.”
The kid didn’t look up. “Hi.” Ryan knelt down next to him.
“Can you look at me for a moment?” Joey looked up. Ryan pointed at Ben. “That’s Ben DeWitt, he’s a friend of mine. He’ll be visiting us for Maydays.”
Joey looked at Ben. “Are you an artist too?”
“No, I’m a writer,” Ben told him. Joey immediately went back to work on his color wheel.
“That means he’s really good with words,” Ryan said. “I bet he could help you find the names of a lot of these colors.”
Now Joey looked interested. “Really?”
Ben knew a cue when he was fed one. He sat down on the couch near where Joey was lying. “I can try.”
“Okay. What’s it called when you mix these three colors?” Joey held up the light green, dark blue and grey.
“I don’t know for sure. It looks like a lichen or moss to me.”
Joey scowled, a strangely adult expression on such a young face. “No, there has to be a specific name for it. The right name.”
Ryan looked ready to intervene, but Ben could handle this. He remembered reading dictionaries as a kid, and marveling at the idea of synonyms. Multiple words that meant the same thing? Crazy.
Ben pulled out his smart phone. “Here, we can look it up.” He put in color wheel with names and came up with— “Whoa.”
“It gives you too many options,” Joey groused, looking down at his own color wheel with dissatisfaction. “There should only be one name for every color.”
“Some sources agree, though,” Ben pointed out. “These two both call that color,” he checked the screen, “Cambridge blue. Huh. It’s one of the oldest names for that particular shade, so it’s probably fairly authoritative.”
Joey looked at the screen, then back at his color. “It’s not quite right.”
“We can keep looking.” Eventually they decided on cadet blue for the color, and by then Joey had abandoned his own color wheel in favor of pulling out his own computer and starting a spreadsheet to categorize the various names they found for each different color.
It was a slightly strange but not unpleasant way to spend the morning. It was really just research, and Ben was good with detailed, exhaustive research. Ryan sat next to him on the couch and worked feverishly in a sketchbook, and the only interruptions came when on the couple of occasions the doorbell rang. Joey dropped everything he was doing and ran for the door, and the second time he did Ben asked Ryan about it.
“He has to be the one to get the door. Joey likes to count the number of people in the house.” That explained the “one” when Ben had arrived. “It’s one of the things his therapist is working on with him. He used to do it at school, too; he’d shout at kids who came into the classroom without giving him a chance to count them. He’s gotten a lot better about it.”
“He seems pretty good to me,” Ben offered.
“He’s having a good day. There haven’t been a lot of disruptions yet; Joey likes to have a routine. It’ll get a little harder this afternoon when the rest of the family starts to arrive.”
“We could take him out,” Ben said. “Maybe go to a hardware store and get color swatches that he can use for comparisons.”
Ryan looked a little taken aback. “You don’t mind?”
“This is the sort of thing I like,” Ben said, completely truthful. He could think of far worse ways to spend his time than with a generally quiet, orderly kid and Ryan.
“Sure, that would be great. We can get Molly too while we’re out, she’s got swim lessons after ballet so she won’t be ready until around three.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
***I know, this is a terrible place to stop writing, we're not even through Saturday, I'm sorry! I had to go to work. I'll try to post again later this week, especially since next week will be hellacious.***