“I’m sorry about my parents, Mike.” Tom gave the two people in question a look of resentment. “I’d hoped—” He broke off, sighing faintly. “I’m sorry, I really am. You spent a lot of money on all this.”
Mike Stearns followed his gaze. Tom Simpson’s mother and father were standing near the far wall of the cafeteria, some fifty feet away. Their postures were stiff; their faces, sour. Their very expensive clothing was worn like suits of armor. They were holding the cups of punch in their hands by thumb and forefinger, as if determined to make as little contact with the surrounding festivities as possible.
Mike repressed a smile. Ah, yes. The dignitaries from civilization, maintaining their savoir faire among the cannibals. They’ll hold a cup of blood, but damned if they’ll drink it.
“Don’t worry about it, Tom,” he said softly. Mike’s eyes moved away from the haughty couple against the wall and surveyed the crowd. The gaze was filled with satisfaction.
The cafeteria was a very large room. The utilitarian gray and cream walls had been festooned with an abundance of decorations, which made up in cheerfulness and festive abandon whatever they lacked in subdued good taste. Many of the cafeteria’s plastic chairs had been moved against the walls, providing a bright orange contrast—those few of them that were not holding someone. Long tables ranged near the kitchen were laden with food and drink.
There was no caviar, and no champagne. But the crowd which packed the room wouldn’t have enjoyed the first—fish eggs, yuk!—and the second was prohibited by high-school regulations. Mike was not concerned. He knew his folk. They would enjoy the simple fare which was piled on the tables, thank you, even if it was beneath the contempt of wealthy urban sophisticates. That was true of the adults, even, much less the horde of children swarming all over the place.
Mike gave the younger man standing at his side a little pat on the shoulder. It was like patting a slab of beef. Tom was the first-string nose guard for West Virginia University’s varsity squad, and looked the part. “My sister married you, not your parents.”
Tom scowled. “Doesn’t matter. They could at least— Why did they even bother to show up at my wedding, if they were going to act like this?”
Mike glanced at him. For all Tom’s immense size, Mike didn’t have to look up. Tom was barely over six feet tall, about Mike’s own height, even if he outweighed him by a good hundred pounds.
Tom was back to glaring at his parents. His own face was as stiff as theirs. Unobserved, Mike studied his new brother-in-law.
Very new brother-in-law. The wedding had been held not two hours earlier, in a small church less than a mile away from the high school. Tom’s parents had been just as haughtily rude at the church as they were being now at the reception. Their son should have been married in a properly discreet ceremony in a proper Episcopalian cathedral, not—not—
This yahoo preacher! In this yahoo—shack!
Mike and his sister had abandoned the stark faith of their ancestors in favor of quiet agnosticism. Years ago, in Mike’s case. But neither of them had even once considered having Rita married anywhere else. The pastor was a friend of the family, as his father and grandfather had been before him. The Calvinist fundamentalism of the ceremony had bothered them not in the least. Mike choked down a laugh. If nothing else, it had been worth it just to see the way the pastor’s fire and brimstone had caused obvious constipation in Tom’s sophisticated parents.
His humor faded quickly. Mike could sense the pain lurking within Tom’s eyes. An old pain, he thought. The dull, never-ending ache of a man whose father had disapproved of him since he was a small boy.
Tom had been born into one of the wealthiest families in Pittsburgh. His mother was old Eastern money. His father, John Chandler Simpson, was the chief executive officer of a large petrochemical corporation. John Simpson liked to brag about having worked his way up from the ranks. The boast was typical of the man. Yes, he had spent a total of six months on the shop floor, as a foreman, after he retired from the Navy’s officer corps. The fact that his father owned the company, however, is what accounted for his later advancement. John Chandler Simpson had fully expected his own son to follow in those well-worn footsteps.
But Tom had never fit his family’s mold and expectations. Not when he had been a boy, and not now when he was of age. Mike knew that John Chandler had been furious when his son chose WVU over Carnegie-Mellon—especially given the reason. Football? You’re not even a quarterback! And both his parents had been well-nigh apoplectic at their son’s choice for a wife.
Mike’s eyes scanned the room, until they fell on a figure in a wedding dress, laughing at something being said by the young woman at her side. His sister, Rita, sharing quips with one of her bridesmaids.
The contrast between the two girls was striking. The bridesmaid, Sharon, was attractive in a slightly heavy and buxom sort of way. She was very dark complected, even for a black woman. Tom’s sister was also pretty, but so slender that she bordered on being downright skinny. And her complexion—very pale skin, freckles, blue eyes, hair almost as black as her brother’s—betrayed her own ethnic origins. Typical Appalachian mongrel. The daughter and sister of coal miners.
Poor white trash. Yup. That’s what we are, all right.
There was no anger in Mike’s thought. Only contempt for Tom’s parents, and pity for Tom himself. Mike’s father had a high school education. Jack Stearns had worked in a coal mine since he was eighteen, and had never been able to afford more than a modest house. He had hoped to help his children through college. But the mine roof-fall which crippled him and eventually caused his death had put paid to those plans.
The quintessential nobody. On the day he finally died, Mike had been like a stunned ox. Years later, he could still feel the aching place in his heart where a giant had once lived.
“Let it go, Tom,” he said softly. “Just let it go. If it’s worth anything, your brother-in-law approves of you.”
Tom puffed out his cheeks, and slowly blew out the breath. “It is. Quite a bit.”
Abruptly, he shook his head, as if to clear his mind for other concerns. He turned to face Mike squarely.
“Give it to me straight, Mike. I’m graduating in a few months. I’ve got to make a decision. Do you think I’m good enough to make it in the pros?”
Mike’s reply came instant and firm. “Nope.” He shook his head ruefully. “Take it from me, buddy. You’ll be right where I was—the worst possible place. Almost good enough. Good enough to keep hoping, but . . .”
Tom frowned, still hoping. “You made it. In a way. Hell, you retired undefeated.”
Mike chuckled. “Sure did. After all of eight professional fights as a light heavy.” He reached up and stroked the little scar on his left eyebrow. “My last fight I even made it to the second card at the Olympic Auditorium. Pretty big time.”
The chuckle came again—more of an outright laugh. “Too big! I won—barely—on points. The kid demanded a rematch. And that’s when I finally had enough sense to quit. A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Tom was still frowning. Still hoping. Mike placed a hand on his thick arm. “Tom, face it. You’ll get no farther than I did. Realizing that you only beat the kid in front of you because you were a little more experienced, a little savvier, a little luckier.” He winced, remembering a young Mexican boxer whose speed and power had been well-nigh terrifying. “But that kid’ll learn, soon enough. And the fact is that he’s a lot better than you’ll ever be. So I quit, before my brains got scrambled. You should do the same, while you’ve still got healthy knees.”
Again, Tom puffed out his cheeks and, again, blew out a slow breath. He seemed on the verge of saying something, but a motion caught his eye. His brand-new wife was approaching, with people in tow.
Tom was suddenly beaming like a child. Watching that glowing smile, Mike felt his own heart warming.
Hell of a sweet kid, to come from such cruddy parents.
Rita arrived with her usual thermonuclear energy. She started by embracing her new husband in a manner that was wildly inappropriate in a high-school cafeteria—springing onto him and wrapping both legs around his thighs. Wedding dress be damned. A fierce and decidedly unvirginal kiss accompanied the semi-lascivious embrace. Then, bouncing off, she gave Mike a hug which, though it lacked the sexual overtones, was almost as vigorous.
The preliminaries done, Rita spun around and waved forward the two people lagging behind her. Outside of the accompanying grin, the gesture resembled an empress summoning her lackeys.