Don’t Sweat The Petty

By Thisbe Nissen

They dispatched Georgia to fetch the best man. The Midwestern humidity was relentless; she fiddled futilely with the car’s nonfunctional AC controls. John Smith had flown in from California to Iowa on the same flight as the groom’s father, step-mother, and half-sisters — über-blond 17-year-old triplets, each more gorgeous than the last — and Georgia had to wait in the old Subaru with the blinkers on while John lingered outside the baggage claim flirting shamelessly. The girls were only a few years younger than Georgia, but made her feel particularly spinsterly as she watched them chit-chatting in the rear-view mirror.

Finally, John bid them all an obsequious farewell and made his way toward the car. He tossed in both his backpack and himself with exaggerated desperation. “Will and Carolina are still driving this piece of shit?”

“Guess so,” Georgia said. “They think of their Subaru more like a child than a motor vehicle.”

“I’m John.” He flashed a quick, toothy smile, his eyes still on the blondes being herded into the back seat of a rental car by their impatient and overheated mother. “Groom’s best friend, best man, best all around.”

Georgia shook his hot hand. “Georgia,” she said. “Baby sister of the bride.”

“Ah!” John sighed. “Caro…a bride!” and he fluttered a palm dramatically to his heart. “How long do I still have to steal her away from this Will guy?” He stared out at the landscape in dismay.

Georgia glanced at the dashboard clock. “About twenty-seven hours.” Will and Carolina had been together since boarding school, eleventh grade.

“Well, let’s get going…” John’s voice was mournfully resigned. He made no move to put on his seatbelt. “There is truly nothing here… That’s fucking incredible! Nothing!”

Georgia started up the engine. John still made no motion to strap himself in. She waited another moment, then finally reached over, grabbed the buckle of his safety belt and secured it herself. He succumbed without resistance.

They pulled out of the airport turn-around and onto the two-lane highway. “That’s not true anyhow,” Georgia said. She’d arrived the day before, surprised to find herself quite taken with the endless rolling green, and now directed John’s gaze to one side of the car and then the other: “The tall stuff is corn, the short stuff is soybeans, anything else is a cow.”

“Man, I don’t know how they’re making it…”

They drove in silence.

“No,” John said suddenly, emphatically. “Now I’m in love with Will’s sister.”

Georgia shook her head. “You mean the triplets? Walter and Regina’s girls? They’re Will’s half-sisters,” she told him. John was Will’s best friend; that he did not know Will’s relation to the triplets was virtually inconceivable.

“Whatever,” said John.

“Which one?” asked Georgia.

“The gorgeous one.”

“Justine.” The gorgeous one was what Will and Carolina called her too.

“Justine…”

A school bus stopped on the road ahead of them, its lights flashing, and Georgia braked cautiously. A child jumped from the steps and scampered down a dirt road of rust-eaten mailboxes. The bus door slid closed and the driver continued on. Georgia could never remember the exact rule about passing school busses. She followed at a respectable distance.

In the passenger seat, John bounced his legs like a hyperactive teenager. And then suddenly, like he was under attack, he flung his arms in front of his face for protection. “Holy fucking shit!”

Georgia concentrated on not driving off the road. She tried not to panic. “What?” she demanded.

“Look,” John pointed desperately at the bus’s back window, pointing and punching the air with his finger.

Georgia craned to see. “What? I can’t … what are you seeing?”

“Someone just passed a machine gun across the aisle of that school bus! There’s a fucking AK-47 in there — this is where it happens. Out here in the middle of nowhere, on a goddamn school bus!”

“Je-sus,” Georgia said. “Paranoid much?”

John looked sheepish. “Maybe it was an umbrella…” He shook his head. “Man, this is going to be more than I can handle…”

“You haven’t been here before, I take it?”

John shook his head again. He and Will had been college roommates in California, an odd-couple, but fiercely devoted to one another. Will was the hippie, the intellectual: mild-mannered, and bitterly funny when he got a few beers in him. John was the playboy, the showman who’d gone on to L.A., “The Industry.” He waited tables for a living and had landed, in the two years since college, a walk-on bit on “Friends” and the lead in someone’s undergrad thesis at USC — a ten-minute film about date rape, Jesus, and goldfish. John was good-looking, irresponsible and neurotic, a guy who showed up at college parties not with the usual six-pack of Rolling Rock, but bearing whatever he appeared to have found in the house: unshelled peanuts he’d dumped into an empty marshmallow bag and secured with a twistie tie, half a block of cheddar cheese Will had bought to make nachos the week before, an open liter of Coke. But Will spoke of John with the greatest affection, and Georgia felt inadequately prepared for the mess of nerves she was now chauffeuring through the Iowa farmland.

John gazed out the window at the passing cornfields. “That’s cool,” he conceded, “the way the wind makes the corn look like waves, like water…”

Georgia turned off the paved road and a cloud of dust bloomed in the car’s wake. They passed a dilapidated farmhouse, its old stone silo looming like a lighthouse.

“It’s fucking In Cold Blood wherever you look,” John said.

“Don’t say that around my mother,” Georgia advised. “She gets upset.”

“Fucking Children of the Corn…”

Rocks banged the car’s underbelly, then rolled off into the ditch. A bullet-pocked sign for “FUNK’S Fertilizer” bent backwards like as if pummeled by a heavy wind. Snagged in the cornstalks, a white plastic bag shivered as they passed. John said it looked like a bride’s veil, lost as she fled the altar and disappeared into the corn.

Part Two

The weekend forecast — “Thank god for small favors,” said the bride’s mother — was not for rain. It was, in fact, for sun. Lots of it. “Lows in the eighties,” said the weatherman. “Highs in the upper nineties, humidity bringing the heat indices up to a hundred and five.” It was an amazing thing about the Midwest, Georgia thought: They had real people on the news. The anchor was overweight, in a flowered dress and big, round, purple-framed eyeglasses. The sports guy looked like he’d set his beer down backstage and slipped into his suit as an afterthought. The weatherman smiled a gap-toothed smile and wiped the back of his hand across his forehead as though he too, in that air-conditioned studio in Cedar Rapids, were subject to the dramatic heat.

“Join us for our wedding,” Carolina laughed, “in hell.”

They held the ceremony and reception in an 1883 octagonal barn that felt more like a cathedral than a hay loft, shards of colored light filtering in through a stained glass cupola at the peak of its great arching dome. The buffet was nestled in beds of melting ice that dripped from old horse troughs and streamed across the sawdusty stable floor. It was six in the evening and the temperature hadn’t dropped below ninety-five. In an attempt to compensate, the bride’s parents, Jake and Genevieve Osterman, had gone and rented four enormous fans from an industrial supply company in Cedar Rapids.

“My wife wants me playing God,” Jake boomed. “I’m supposed to regulate the outdoor temperature.” From a table by the corncrib he kept up the hollering even as Carolina’s Grandpa Harry stood to make a toast. “He’s going to make the same damn speech he gave at my wedding thirty years ago!” Jake shouted.

“Thirty-one,” his wife corrected.

“You betcha I am.” Grandpa Harry was a fiscally conservative son of a bitch, with eyebrows like great clumps of alfalfa sprouts which small children were often unable to refrain from grabbing onto and yanking gleefully. He cleared his throat: “When I married my beautiful wife,” he gestured to Grandma Maxine who waved away the attention, batting her eyelashes modestly, “my own father, rest his soul, had a few pieces of advice for me. He said there are two things you need to check before you go and pledge the rest of your life to this woman: her teeth and her brassiere straps. Now, we’ve already taken care of the orthodontia — look at that beautiful smile!” He stuck a hand in Carolina’s direction. She and Will were curled on a hay bale, grinning and sweating. “And just in case your old ones are getting ratty,” Grandpa Harry reached into the inner pocket of his suit coat — he’d only put it back on to make the toast and it was already soaked through with sweat — pulled out a damp envelope, and handed it to Carolina. “There’s a little something to get yourself some new skivvies.”

“It’s the same goddamn speech he made at our wedding,” Jake kept saying.

And Grandma Maxine said: “His father really told him those things, you know. A real bastard, my father-in-law, god rest… And now, who’s the one with dentures, Harry? Who’s the one without a real tooth left in his head?”

*   *   *

The barn smelled of hay and sweat and sweet hydrangea. By sundown everyone had shed shoes, socks, ties, even shirts. The temperature dropped a few blessed degrees. Cake was cut and served. John took a slice and a fork and strode to the table one over from Georgia’s where two of the triplets picked at the same pink bakery rose.

“May I?” John asked, sitting.

One of them nodded; the other gestured disinterestedly toward the chair.

“So which ones are you?” John filled his mouth with buttercream.

“Justine,” said Justine.

“Jade,” said the other. “Aren’t you hot?” she asked John, who was still clad in the dark wool suit he’d insisted on wearing despite its profound inappropriateness to both the season and the occasion.

He shook his head noncommittally, as though the heat had not crossed his mind. “So, I have a question,” he said, swallowing. “This might sound kind of silly, you know, but I was wondering: When you wake up in the morning, how do you know that it’s you waking up and not one of your sisters?”

Jade rolled her eyes, pushed back her seat, muttered an insincere excuse, and stalked away. Justine rolled her own eyes in turn. “Don’t mind her, she’s having a selfish time.”

“A selfish time?” John asked.

“Oh, you know,” Justine waved her hand vaguely. “She’s into proving her individuality or whatever.”

“Do you all go through that sort of thing?”

Justine looked bored. “Jade more than me and Jos.”

John pulled his seat closer to hers. “How come?”

“We always thought it’s because she was the last one to get boobs… but who knows?” Justine shrugged.

John choked on his drink. “Who was first?” he ventured.

“Me,” she said, unfazed.

“Hm,” said John.

“It’s really annoying,” Justine said.

“What is?”

“Everything.”

John’s face lit with an idea: “I’ll go get us some drinks!” And he stood and got sucked into the dancing crowd, party guests swimming in a fog of their own humidity.

Justine sat alone, her face a plain of utter disinterest. Then Tex ambled over. Tex: brother of the bride. His real name was Austin, though no one ever called him by it. Like Georgia, Tex had not brought a date to the wedding, and economy of housing space had forced them to share a room for the weekend at the old converted orphanage across from the barn. Georgia thought her brother to be an insufferable prick, and as if to prove her right, Tex had characteristically rented a car for the weekend but then refused to help shuttle guests from the airport or even to lend the car for the job. It was his name on the rental contract, he argued. The rest of the family generally agreed that Tex was his mother’s fault. Willfully oblivious to Tex’s egocentrism, Genevieve Osterman appeared to think her son shat sunlight. Yet it had surprised even Genevieve that he’d bothered to make the trip to Iowa for the wedding.

Something had happened to him, at least since Georgia’d last seen her brother. There was a new air of desperation. Once a strapping football player, cocky and loud and mean, Tex had morphed into a thirty-year-old bachelor with thinning hair who was weathering poorly the effects of twelve years of steady binge drinking.

Tex stood awkwardly by Justine’s table for a minute. Was he thinking about tipping it over and running away? Instead, he asked her to dance, and Georgia thought — or rather hoped — that maybe she’d underestimated her brother. Maybe he’d grow up one day after all. She watched as he took Justine’s hand with princely attention and led her to the dance floor.

A few minutes later John reappeared with two shot glasses, limes clamped to their lips like little green Pac Men. He held a salt shaker tucked under his arm. “Your brother stole my triplet!” he cried.

“Two more where she came from,” Georgia suggested.

John cocked his head: very funny. “But that one was mine,” he whined.

“Isn’t it a little soon to get possessive?”

John held a shot glass toward her.

“That was awfully nice of you.”

“It was for Justine,” he admitted.

“You poor thing,” Georgia said. She plucked the salt shaker from him, dashed herself out a lick and drank her shot down.

Suddenly John brightened. “You’re not available by any chance, are you?”

She pulled the lime from her teeth and winced.

Part Three

John left to smoke a cigarette, making room for Grandma Maxine to lean provocatively over from the next table. “Georgie,” she said. “How’s my Georgie these days? There’s a man in your life, my beauty?” She nudged her head toward John, as he headed out the barn door.

“Not exactly, Grandma.”

Maxine’s eyes lit at the intimation of intrigue. “Oh there is someone, now, isn’t there? Come on, Georgie, make an old woman’s day. Who’s your fella?”

“No fella, Gram. Sorry.”

“No? A beautiful girl like you should have a companion. Now, I know someone maybe you’d like him…? A man from the synagogue, very clean… You’d like me to introduce you, maybe…?”

Georgia was exhausted. She felt like a boiled turnip. “Actually I already have a companion.”

Maxine’s mouth opened in an O of joy. “You’re holding out on me, Georgie! Come, tell me about your friend…”

Georgia sighed. “Maybe when you get a little more liberal, Grandma…”

“What’s not liberal? I voted for Gore…”

Georgia chuckled again. “A little more open-minded then…”

Maxine’s face froze. She leaned closer, laid a hand on Georgia’s arm, and spoke as though wary of spies. She said: “He’s not a Jew?”

“Not a Jew,” Georgia repeated. “Not even a he, Gram.”

Maxine’s brow furrowed in confusion. “A girl?” she said, and then her eyes widened in surprise.

Georgia nodded. So this was how it felt to come out to your grandmother. She’d gone too far to backtrack now.

“She’s British. I met her when I studied in London last spring. She’s in med school there…”

Maxine’s eyebrows shot up, her chin drew back into the folds of her neck, and her face spread in pleasure. “Oh,” she said. “A doctor!”

*   *  *

On his way back into the barn John passed Will’s father and his wife, Regina, who were pressing a set of car keys into the hands of Joslin, the third triplet. “Not too late, young lady, OK?” said Regina. They were not staying at the orphanage with most everyone else. Reggie had insisted on booking what passed for a suite at the Well-Come-Inn a few miles down I-80, with an adjoining room for the girls.

“Yes Mommy Dearest,” said Joslin.

“Don’t call me that,” Reggie said. Joslin snickered.

“You drive, Jos,” Walter instructed. He looked to Justine thumping on the dance floor with Carolina’s hulking brother. “Keep a watch on your sisters, OK?”

Joslin rolled her eyes dramatically.

“Watch it, miss,” said Reggie. She kissed her daughter quickly and took Walter’s arm to make an exit.

From their table, Georgia and John watched them go. “Why do people have children?” Georgia said.

“So they can look like that,” John said, his eyes on the dancing Justine.

*   *   *

Tex hustled Georgia outside the barn, away from the celebrants, and demanded her full attention. “Listen to me. And you have to tell me honestly, OK?”

Georgia nodded reluctantly.

Tex was sweating profusely, and fidgeting, kicking out his legs like he was trying to get the circulation going. He made a few false starts, then sputtered: “Would Mom and Dad… do you think they’d kill me if I tried to get with one of those triplets?”

Georgia burst out laughing.

“Don’t be such a bitch,” Tex whined. “Come on, shut up, really, would they kill me?”

The barn seemed to heave in the heat, then sigh and settle back down. Georgia looked at her red-nosed brother. “I’d kill you,” she said. “One of those orphanage beds is mine, if you haven’t forgotten.”

“Aw, fuck,” Tex said, kicking dirt, “you’re no help.” He turned away and left her.

Georgia shook her head, then shut her eyes. “Un-fucking-believable,” she said aloud. When she opened her eyes again she saw Will’s Grandma Elsie being herded toward the parking lot by Will’s mom. Elsie was eighty-seven and riddled with Alzheimer’s, but when she noticed Georgia there in the shadows of the barn, a look of recognition crossed her face and she raised a gnarled hand to wave. The Alzheimer’s had rendered her like one of those retarded boys who packed bags at the grocery store and said hello to every single shopper like they’d found a long lost brother. Georgia waved back, and Elsie flashed her a grin like a watermelon wedge. And then, grandly, she winked. It was such a sober gesture, such a knowing and portent look on Elsie’s face, that for a moment it seemed plainly clear to Georgia that the woman had been getting the better of her family with this Alzheimer’s ruse for a good long time.

*    *   *

Following a lengthy diatribe from Grandpa Harry on the importance of retirement funds and an unfortunate run-in with a friend of her mother’s who had apparently very strong feelings about the trajectory of Georgia’s college career, Georgia finally bid her good nights to Will and Carolina and found her way back to the orphanage. She climbed the steps to their room. Tex’s tie — a terrible pig-pink foulard — was draped over the knob. Georgia had the vague notion this was some sort of a fraternity signal. She knocked loudly.

“Go away,” Tex hollered.

“What?”

“A-way!” he called again.

A good and benevolent person, Georgia knew, would storm in there and save that poor girl from a night she’d probably regret the rest of her blond-born life. Georgia slammed her fist into the door, which gave half an inch — there were no locks at the orphanage. She grabbed the knob and pushed, but the door wouldn’t budge any further. “What — do you have her captive? You are not seriously barricaded in there with a fucking seventeen-year-old?”

From inside, a high-pitched giggle, then Tex booming: “Go away!”

“You are fucking unbelievable!” Georgia yelled.

Down the hall, a door opened. John appeared in the corridor. He was still wearing his wool suit, a bottle of Jim Beam in one hand, a glass in the other. He held his arms out to her, offering either the liquor or a bear hug, it wasn’t clear which. “Need a place to stay?” he asked.

Part Four

Georgia was beyond tired. And somewhat drunk.

John stepped aside and held the door for her.

He wiped off the neck of the whiskey bottle with the end of his tie (still knotted at the neck, though it hung down his shirtfront like soggy crepe paper), poured Georgia a glass, then refilled his own.

John raised his glass: “To… the happy couple.”

“Will and Caro?” Georgia asked, “Or the fuck-bunnies down the hall?”

“To happy couples and fuck-bunnies everywhere!” He paused. “Should we maybe join them?” he said carefully. “This being a wedding and all…?”

Georgia laughed. “Join them?! That’s a little incestuous, don’t you think? Tex being my brother and all…”

John looked dismayed. “No, no, not join them,” he stammered. “Join in the whole thing of it, you know?” He couldn’t seem to find the right words for what he wanted to say and was growing increasingly pained with the sad, futile effort.

“No, I…” — and it was Georgia stammering now — “It’s not…”

“I’m not your type,” John nodded solemnly. “I understand. I understand that…” He seemed to drift away, then partially return. “Do you mind… could I…? Can I ask what your type is, just, you know, out of curiosity…?”

“Well,” Georgia said, “mostly just a little more on the not-male side I guess you’d say…”

John’s face twitched like he’d been suddenly awakened. “Oh! Ohhhhhh…” He drew it out, as if to meditate on the syllable, delve deep inside its koan of meaning. “Ohhhhhh, wow. Wow.” He wagged his head, shaking off the disbelief. “Wow. Sorry,” he said finally. “I totally didn’t realize.”

“That’s okay,” she said. The magnitude of his reaction was actually a little bit charming. “It’s not really a big deal.”

“That’s cool,” he said, and then he began to rock himself back and forth on the floor, knees curled tight to his chest. “That’s totally cool…”

When Georgia started yawning uncontrollably John stopped rocking and gestured grandly to the single mattress on which she sat. “My bed est su bed,” he told her.

“I’m happy to take the floor,” she argued, but he just wrapped his arms protectively around his knees again, near-empty glass in hand. He looked confused, or curious, like maybe he was stoned as well as drunk, his brow wrinkled like he was watching a wild animal to determine whether it was dead or just sleeping. He took his eyes from Georgia, looked deep into his drink like he was going to give it one more chance to save him, then downed the last of it, set his glass on the window sill and took a deep breath. He reached an arm over his head and flicked off the light switch. And then he literally tipped himself over sideways to a fetal position on the floor.

Georgia sat dumb for another moment. “At least take the pillow,” she said finally.

*    *    *

Georgia woke early. Still in her maid-of-honor dress — a rayon spaghetti strap number that had doubled nicely as a nightgown, not even too wrinkled — she sneaked past the sleeping John and made her way downstairs to the orphanage porch. Her hangover loomed like a vague and nonspecific regret. She had some memory of leaving her shoes near a silo. A heavy dew had fallen, and Georgia laid a stray towel over a boxy wooden rocker that heaved under her weight as she sat. Steam seemed to rise off the cornfields. The morning air wasn’t stifling, yet, and the sun felt nice on her face, though in another hour she’d undoubtedly be ready to sell her liver for a dark room with air conditioning.

The screen door creaked open. John looked like he hadn’t slept at all. His wool suit looked like he’d gone over Niagara Falls in it and baked himself dry on a rock at the bottom. His shoes were old, the black leather deeply creased with brown-bleeding cracks. His face was heavily shadowed, though Georgia could remember him being freshly shaved — nicked, even — for the ceremony. On the porch, John tried to light a cigarette from the crumpled pack in his jacket pocket, but the matches were limp and waterlogged. He patted himself down for a lighter but, finding none, pitched the cigarette over the railing, took a glance at his surroundings, steamy dew rising off the green-green fields, shuddered, and began to pace the creaking floorboards.

“You’re probably not a smoker, huh?” he said.

Georgia shook her head. “Tex might have a lighter upstairs…”

John crushed the pack vigorously to show her it was empty. He pitched it, too, off the balcony and into the grass, then rested his head against a peeling white column, his eyes cast out. It was the stillest Georgia’d seen him. She felt sad for John. But then he was back to pacing, which made Georgia want to shove him down and inject him with a sedative.

“You want to go into town?” she asked him suddenly. “We could get some breakfast. You could get some cigarettes. And a lighter.”

John stopped pacing and turned to her, his face a wash of sheer relief, and he looked younger then, and kinder. “You are my angel,” he said. “You are an angel from god.”

“I’ll steal Tex’s keys,” Georgia said.

*   *   *

She was able to push the door open just wide enough to slide through before it hit the oak dresser that Tex had hauled in front of it. The girl was gone, the twin beds pushed clumsily together, Tex across them, belly down, passed out, breathing hard, his red face smushed sideways, skinny white legs poking out from his thick middle like two sticks in a candy apple, his little white ass pointed up like it was seeking sunshine. Georgia slipped on some tennis shoes, fumbled through Tex’s pockets until she hit on the car keys and didn’t look back.

Part Five

They found a diner. John bought cigarettes at the counter. By the register, a drowned-looking man in a sweat suit was picking up cookie packages and inspecting ingredients. John and Georgia got a table, and coffee, and he smoked, something he said you couldn’t do in California anymore. It was the first appreciative thing he’d said about the Midwest since his arrival. They ordered breakfast and sipped their coffee, weak and too white with tubs of non-dairy creamer, and Georgia felt the sun warm her shoulder through the window. The front door heaved open and a small, prim woman entered, dressed in neat pastels with sturdy shoes. The cookie-package man turned to look at her, and she greeted him with curt, churchly politeness, then strode to the counter, sat, and ordered coffee and a poached egg, white toast. The man followed and seated himself on the stool beside hers.

Georgia excused herself. She splashed her face at the restroom sink, then blotted her cheeks with a wad of coarse brown paper towels. The air-conditioning in the bathroom was delightfully frigid, and Georgia sat for a time in the toilet stall reading graffiti.

I want you’re pussy.

Women don’t sweat the petty things, just pet their sweaty things

Here’s to the guy who wears red boots. He drives your truck and drinks your booze. He took your cherry, but ’twas no sin. He left you with a cigarette and a big ol’ grin.

When Georgia returned to the table their food had arrived. John was waiting for her to begin.

“You didn’t have to,” Georgia said.

“That’s ok.” He shrugged. He was smoking another cigarette and didn’t seem to have much interest in his breakfast.

The food made Georgia feel good, and chatty, and as she ate she told John about the graffiti in the bathroom. He laughed, like it reminded him of something he didn’t like to think about.

John took a few bites of omelet, then flattened his hash browns with the back of his fork. “You ever hook up with someone at a wedding?” he asked.

Georgia nodded, her mouth full. She took a sip of coffee and swallowed. “Lost my virginity at a wedding, in fact.”

“No way!” John’s face lit up, then crumpled in confusion. “To a girl?”

Georgia shook her head. “Noah Schnackenberg.”

John smiled, as though relieved.

Georgia laughed. “I was so scared I kept forgetting to breathe, and then my head went pins and needles — literally from lack of oxygen — and he tried to convince me I was having an orgasm.”

John was smiling, nodding his head like he’d caught a good groove and wanted to ride it. He lit another cigarette. At the counter, the sweat-suited man was talking to the woman beside him, who seemed clearly too Christian to turn him away. He spoke loudly and fast, hardly pausing to breathe.

“I’m a real extrovert,” the man was saying, “but I don’t have the good looks to go with it. Sometimes I’ll be around people and I’ll be talking and I forget that I’m not physically attractive. I’m forty, but I’m told I look young. It’s the lack of a fat stomach and facial wrinkles. I don’t eat cheese. People that don’t smoke eat more than people who do. I get a lot out of smoking. It’s an appetite suppressant. Someday I’ll quit. I did good with Nicorette back in ’93, but you need a doctor. I’d be in better shape if I didn’t smoke.”

John raised his eyebrows at Georgia. She shrugged back.

“I’m totally in love with your sister,” John said with a sudden, mournful honesty.

“Will’s sister,” she corrected him. “Half-sister.”

John shook his head. “No, your sister.”

“Carolina?”

He nodded, clearly pained.

Of course he was! Why not? Will was in love with Caro — plenty of people probably had been. But why would John be in love with her? Carolina was low-key, not flashy at all, certainly pretty, but nothing like Justine. Georgia spoke her first thought: “Why?”

John shook his head: Why not? “She’s so good, you know? She’s like the perfect girl. The perfect woman. She’s like the epitome.” He paused. “Will seems so happy with her. Always has. She just seems to make him so happy…”

Georgia squinted at John until she could feel the crease between her eyebrows.

John nodded. “It’d be nice to be Will,” he dreamed. “Don’t you think it’d be nice to be Will?”

Georgia shrugged. The fold in her forehead deepened. But John looked so miserable, she felt a kind of piteous affection for him. She reached across the table and riffled his hair encouragingly. “Buck up there, young friend,” she said.

The waitress passed by with coffee and stopped to offer some. She smiled down on Georgia and John like they were her own kids. “You two married?” she asked. “You make a nice-looking couple, you know.”

Georgia snorted. John smiled up at the woman. “Five years next week,” he said, nodding with irrepressible pride.

“Well, congratulations,” said the waitress, her grin unwavering. “That’s just great. You just keep on.” She smiled off to peddle her coffee at the counter, where the man’s monologue was still in full swing, the church lady beside him, resigned.

“I was in peak condition back in ’90, ’91. Fast walking keeps you in good shape. I bundle up and jog — not really jog, but… around the block two times a day. I’ve got a big appetite. I only eat before I do physical activity. I don’t eat after eight at night ever. But if you were a night person…”

John turned to Georgia, fear in his eyes. His voice was phlegmy. “Do you think Carolina finds me attractive at all?”

“Caro?” Georgia balked.

John nodded, embarrassed but desperate.

Georgia was caught somewhere between compassion and disdain. “I don’t know…”

An idea seemed to seize John: “Do you?” he asked. “At all?”

He looked so pathetic, Georgia couldn’t deny him. “I can say,” she said evenly, “that for a little while I did honestly contemplate sleeping with you last night.”

“Oh!” It was too loud a cry of surprise. “I wish you’d said something…”

“It probably wouldn’t have been a very good idea.”

“Why?” he asked, though he didn’t really seem to expect an answer. He looked like he was drifting back in his mind to someplace distant and dreamy, remembering something pleasant from long long ago. “I don’t know. It might’ve been nice…”

Georgia was at a loss. John was far off in reverie. A few booths down, the waitress began her coffee rounds again, smiling her diligent, unwavering smile, as though she benefited personally from each cup she managed to refill. She held the pot at ear level and listened to an animated couple talking at her, then tried them once more, forcing the woman to cover her cup with her hands, shake her head solemnly, no, no more, before the waitress, defeated, moved on. Her smile pressed wider; she approached the next booth, a true salesperson, a woman unprepared to take no for an answer. Georgia almost couldn’t bear to witness such determination. She turned away, back toward the counter where the sweat-suited jogger’s monologue continued, no end in sight.

“I don’t have good enough running shoes,” he was saying. “You got to have really good running shoes, else you’ll blow out your ankles. Mine crack when I get up in the morning. When you turn forty your whole metabolism changes. I’ve been in this town since ’81. I’m single, and as long as I live here I probably won’t meet the right woman. Women don’t like beards. Tall and clean they want. If I want to meet the right woman I’ll probably have to move. Or shave. But I like this town. It’s a pretty good town. But to meet the right woman I’ll have to move away. I’ve studied the occult and physics. This town looks down on Christian people who try to live in a certain way. It’s not a real Christian town. Cedar Rapids is a Christian town, but they’ve got more violent crime.”