Chapter 53 ~ Off Course

off-course“I’m gonna puke.”

“You’re not going to puke,” Jimmy assured his brother, but he watched with a wary eye as Brent anxiously paced the tight confines of the basement Sunday school classroom where they had been sequestered to dress for the wedding. “What you’re going to do is put your clothes back on, march your sorry ass up those stairs, and say ‘I do’ before Aria realizes what a dumbass move it is to marry you.”

Horror widened Brent’s eyes. “You think?”

“Relax.” Jimmy laughed. “I’m just giving you shit.”

Not five minutes earlier, the guy had been calm, cool, and as impeccably dressed as one could expect to be in a rented tuxedo. But as the scheduled start of the ceremony drew closer, Brent’s anxiety had risen. And his clothes had started falling off.

He’d lost his jacket first, immediately followed by the royal blue vest. He’d toed off his shoes, unbuttoned his shirt, tossed his cufflinks into a bin of broken crayons. He still had his belt buckled, but at the rate Brent was shucking his clothes, Jimmy wouldn’t be surprised to find his brother buck ass naked when the first strains of Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” played.

Jimmy glanced at the clock, unsure whether he should be praying for time to speed up or slow down. “We’ve got about ten minutes before Pastor Tom comes looking for you.”

Brent braced a hand against the wall and hooked a finger into the collar of his undershirt, tugging the fabric away from his throat. “Sweet Jesus, I don’t feel good.”

“You’re fine.”

“Why’s it so hot in here?”

“It’s not hot,” Jimmy assured him, but Brent had already wrestled off his undershirt, revealing perfectly toned shoulders and pecs, the first hint of a beer belly underneath. “Damn it, Brent! Quit taking off your clothes!”

It wasn’t a good time to remind him, but Brent had stripped naked in church once before. It had been Jimmy’s fault that time, as well.

During a particularly long Sunday morning service, three-year old Brent wouldn’t stop squirming. Jimmy had been tasked with the responsibility of taking him to the restroom. James Rogan’s instructions had been precise: Go straight there. Come straight back. Don’t screw around! They had gone straight there, and Jimmy’d had every intention of coming straight back, but Brent had sat singing on the toilet for so long Jimmy grew bored, and restless.

Wandering out into the hall, he pulled a Hot Wheel from his pocket and knelt on the floor. A ’65 Mustang Fastback, the car was sweet, the tires super fast. When he pushed it down the long hallway, the Mustang took off like a rocket, gaining speed as it zipped across the heavily waxed tiles. Jumping to his feet, he raced after. Both he and the car crashed and burned against the far wall, bouncing around the corner, toward the church office.

The overhead fluorescents in the narrow hall had been turned off, but a soft glow beckoned from Pastor Tom’s office, the door standing slightly ajar. On his knees, Jimmy pushed his car across the threshold, into the warmth of the room. Burgundy fibers from the plush carpeting collected on the wheels as Jimmy raced a quick lap around the office before launching the car up the smooth mahogany finish of the desk. Over loose paperwork and open books, through a maze of pens, pencils and paperclips, he skidded to a stop beside a glass candy dish.

Jimmy tried to resist, but he was weak. And he was hungry. Fast as lightening, he stuffed first his mouth and then his pockets with chocolaty, peanut butter treats, and bolted from the room. With his heart dancing from his first foray into sinful guilty pleasure, he ran the length of the hallway, voicing a mean engine noise around the sweet candy melting in his mouth as he raced his car along the bumps and dips of the horsehair plaster wall.

The entire adventure couldn’t have taken any longer than two minutes, three tops, but when he opened the stall door and hollered for his brother to hurry the heck up, all that remained of the kid was a pile of discarded clothing on the cracked tile floor.

Crazed with panic, he’d scooped up Brent’s tiny socks and shoes, his khakis and striped polo, even his Scooby-Doo Underoos, and took off in a dead run, hoping to cut him off at the pass. But he was too late. Just as he rounded the corner to the sanctuary, he heard his mother’s startled gasp, and watched in horror as Brent’s chubby, naked bum streaked up the center aisle.

Fifty shades of furious, James Rogan shoved Jimmy into the pew and lunged after Brent. Up the aisle and around the pulpit, father and son played a potentially deadly game of angry cat and squealing mouse before Pastor Tom swooped to the rescue and captured the giggling renegade.

With a calming arm around James’s shoulders and Brent on his hip, the minister further defused the situation—and most likely saved Jimmy from getting his ass kicked through his ears in the parking lot—by leading the congregation in a rousing, impromptu verse of “Down in My Heart.”

At the time, the ladies of the church had found the midget exhibitionist to be adorable. It was highly unlikely those same women would find Brent’s bare bottom nearly as endearing twenty-some years later.

Slipping off his perch on the teacher’s desk, Jimmy picked up Brent’s castoff clothing. “How about we take this one step at a time and start with putting your t-shirt back on?”

Furiously shaking his head, Brent’s face paled and his skin took on a clammy sheen. “I can’t do this.”

“Yes, you can.”

“Remind me again why we can’t wear clip-ons,” Dan interrupted, his voice coming as a deep grumble from the corner of the classroom.

“Aria won’t let us,” Jimmy said.

“Well, that’s just stupid.” Standing stooped and twisted in a doomed attempt to crunch his six-foot-plus, former-linebacker frame down to a child’s height, Dan peered into the cloudy mirror hanging over a miniature sink as his large fingers struggled with the silk bow tie. “It’s not like anyone’s going to know the difference.”

“Aria will.”

“Screw Aria.”

“Stace’ll know.”

“Huh…” Dan furrowed his brow as he considered the consequences of Stacy’s wrath. Standing barely five feet tall, she was a good foot shorter and hundred pounds lighter than Dan, but she had been born feisty as hell. And now she was pregnant to boot. “Well, I’d hate to disappoint Aria…”

“That’s what I thought.” Jimmy laughed, but his own tie still hung loose around his neck.

Brent wandered closer to the trashcan and belched. “Oh, shit.”

“You’re fine, Brent.”

“He’s far from fine,” Dan said. “You might want to do something about that.”

“Like what, exactly?”

“Hell if I know.” Dan pulled the tie from around his neck and sat on a child-sized table. It bowed under his weight. “You’re the best man. You figure it out.”

At a loss for anything else, Jimmy said, “I’ve got some beer in my truck. We could get him drunk.”

Dan lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I know it would help me.”

Outside, the Nebraska sun shined bright in a cloudless sky, perfect for both a summer wedding and the Fourth of July holiday. In perfect formation, the American flags adoring the light poles of the downtown square danced in a light breeze carrying the scent of spent firecrackers and backyard barbecues. Below, the streets had been swept clean and planters overflowed with vibrant red and white blossoms nestled in deep green foliage. Wedding guest had started to arrive, dressed in summer sundresses and crisp khakis, their smiles free and spirits high as they called out to each other in greeting.

The only blemish on the landscape sat parked out of the way, under the shade of a Linden tree, Rogan-Handley Construction spelled out in vinyl letters under a thick layer of dust and grime on the doors. Five minutes was all Jimmy would have needed to hit his truck with the power washer at the shop, but his schedule had been so busy in the days leading up to the wedding, he hadn’t thought to do so.

Careful to keep his tux clean, he dropped the tailgate and shoved aside cartons of fireworks for the reception later in the evening at Chelsea Lake. Unearthing the cooler he had hidden under a paint-stained tarp, he pulled out three bottles of beer. Two, he tucked into his jacket for the other guys. Twisting the cap off the third, he took a long pull before fishing his cell phone from his pocket.

“Hey, Ma,” he said when she answered. He’d tried to keep his voice light, but Mary Ann Rogan had always been able to read his every thought, even from a thousand miles away.

“What’s wrong, Jimmy?”

“I need you to call Brent on his cell. But don’t let on that I asked you to.”

She let out a soft laugh, easily relieving the weight of his stress. “Is he freaking out?”

“A bit.”

“If I know your brother, it’s more than a bit.”

“Oh, he’s completely lost it.”

“Poor thing. I wish I could be there for him.”

“I know you do,” Jimmy said.

The sorrow she couldn’t quite hide from her voice made him regret calling her. It had been selfish of him to do so. Though Brent and Aria planned to fly out to Florida and spend their honeymoon with the Rogans, it didn’t erase the disappointment everyone felt over the fact James Rogan’s failing health prevented them from attending the ceremony.

“I’m sure just hearing your voice will help,” Jimmy said. It had already worked wonders for him.

“I’ll give him a call—oh, hang on a second…” Rustling and murmured voices filled the background before she returned. “Dad wants to talk to you.”

“I don’t have time for that right now.”

“You can spare a minute for your father. Here he is.”

“No, Ma,” Jimmy tried to stop her, but his father was already on the line.

“Did you get that new roof put on the church yet?” James Rogan demanded.

Jimmy clinched his jaw, bit back a curse. “We had this conversation yesterday, Dad.”

“Bullshit.”

It wasn’t worth the argument. Jimmy repeated, “No. It’s not done. I’m still waiting for the shingles to come in. But I’m standing here looking at the church right now. The roof’s in great shape.”

True to his word, Jimmy looked out across the parking lot and appraised the building and grounds of the Gothic revival church his father had meticulously maintained for thirty years, donating his time and materials as though the property was his own. The roof didn’t need to be replaced. The sidewalks didn’t need repaired. The windows didn’t need sealed. The plumbing didn’t need updated. Whether the building needed repairs or not didn’t matter. If James wanted it done, Jimmy made it happen.

“What the hell are you doing at church? Don’t lie and tell me your ass remembers what it feels like to sit on a pew on Sunday morning.”

He couldn’t argue that one. It had been over ten years since he’d last attended a service, and he couldn’t foresee a reason to ever attend one again. “I’m here for Brent’s wedding.”

“For Brent’s what?” James fell silent, making his confusion evident. With every stroke, he lost a little bit more of his life. His memories became more jumbled, his concept of time virtually destroyed. “Your brother’s getting married?”

Jimmy softened his tone. “Yeah, Dad. Brent’s getting married. You remember Aria? You met her a few months ago, when we all came to visit you in the hospital.”

“I know who Aria is. Don’t patronize me, boy,” James snapped.

“Sorry.”

“I could’ve swore you told me you had football practice today… Or was that just a lie to get out of work so you could screw around with the guys?”

“I don’t play football anymore.”

“You quit that, too?”

“I didn’t quit. I grew up.”

“You quit everything, Jimmy. You’re the laziest goddamn kid I know!”

“Yeah, okay. Whatever you say.” Jimmy ran a rough hand through his hair in frustration over the entire situation. Life just fucking sucked sometimes. “Dad, I’m going to let you go. I need to get back inside and check on Brent.”

“Fine. Go. Don’t let me keep you.”

“Love you,” Jimmy said, but James had already hung up.

Leaning back against the Linden tree, he drained the rest of his beer and took a moment to calm his trembling hands before grabbing a second bottle for himself and heading back inside.

 

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