By Missy

SERIES: Vignettes

SEQUEL TO: Cheshyre's Couplets



PART: 1 of 1

RATING: NC-17 (Adult thematic material, M/F sex, language, mild drug content)


DISTRIBUTION: To LW, Myself  so far; any other archives are welcome to ask, but disclaimers must be included, my email left intact. send a URL, and provide full disclaimers as well as credit me fully. Please inform me if you are going to submit my work to any sort of search engine.  Please do not submit my work to a search engine that picks out random sets of words and uses them as key words, such as "Google"


Please contact me in order for this story to be placed on an archive, or if you want know of a friend who would enjoy my works, please email me their address and I will mail them the stories, expressly for the purpose of link trading. MiSTiers are welcomed! Please do inform me that you'd like to do the MiSTing, however, and send me a copy of the finished product. I'd also love to archive any MiSTings that are made of my work!

CATEGORY: Romance, Drama



Spoilers For: Cheshyre's "Couplets"

SPOILLER/SUMMARY: After every earthquake, there is an aftershock.

NOTES: Please read Cheshyre's Couplets first, or this won't make sense.






He winces when she touches his goosebump-covered right arm.  The eyes stay closed, and every muscle in his body seems to strain up for the whip crack of the rejection he knows will come.


Her heart beats frantically against her ribcage, loss nibbling at her heels.  "Lenny," she whispers, as if saying his name for the very first time.  "I love you," she confesses, before pressing her mouth against his.


When she breaks their second kiss - their second real kiss, she thinks - his eyes are open and hazed with confusion.




"Summer wedding?"


She clings to her boyfriend of two years, to his strong neck as he swings her up against his body.  It's mid-May, the Fifth Annual Shotz Picnic, and she can feel every inch of his form sweating against her own as they canoodle under the near-privacy of a tree in Pfister Park.  "Len," she giggles - he has a way of making her giggle - "it's summer now!  We got to go through pre-cana and look for dresses, and..."


"I don't need none of that, Laverne," he says.  Looking into her eyes as he puts her feet on the ground, his hands holding her tightly to his front.  "I'll marry you anywhere, any way you want to.  I just need you."


His words make her melt as the real world begins to intrude.  She sees from the corner of her eyes Shirley and Squiggy and Carmine, sitting on a blanket further up the field, excitedly interpreting Lenny's jumping and yelling and their twirling and giggling between the three of them.  She looks up into Lenny's eyes and he gives her a pleading grimace.  She smiles and nods.


"Hey Squig!" he bellows.  "She said yes!"




She watches in stupefied amazement from the top of the counter as Eleanor Steffeneck and Shirley wrestle on the floor of the Pizza Bowl for her bouquet of tea roses.  They're tearing it into shreds, and she doesn't know if she should interfere or watch the action when Shirley's arm comes up from the fray, holding the majority of the tattered roses in her right fist.  The left holds a handful of Eloise's red hair.  Carmine comes between the women and cheerfully, brashly, instructs everyone to say goodbye to the new Mister and Missus Leonard Kosnowski.


Goosebumps crawl down the back of her neck as she hears her married name for the millionth time in one day - she doesn't think she'll ever get used to the way it sounds.  She refrains from further bruising her inner thigh.  This is real, she reminds herself.  Possessively comes the thought,  He's all mine.


Her father parts the crowd, handsome in his outmoded suit.  His walrus mustache tickles her cheek and she can feel the wet of rubbed away tears.  "Be happy, Muffin," he instructs her.  "Take care of each other - but don't let him hurt you.  If he hurts you, I break his neck.  Got it?"


Laverne smiles at Frank's gruffness.  "Uh-huh, Pop."


He holds her hands in both of his.  "Here he comes," Frank mutters, still not quite ready to cede her to another man.


She smiles automatically at the sight of Lenny - handsome in the plaid tuxedo he'd picked out for the occasion, which Shirley had tried to talk him out of wearing but he had insisted was perfect for the mid-autumn day.  Over his shoulder, Squiggy watches with a grave expression on his dark face - he still isn't quite over "losing" Lenny to Laverne.  They've tried over and over to explain it is no loss - they'd only be upstairs, in a slightly bigger unit at the very top floor of the Knapp Street building - but Squiggy is taking Lenny's marriage hard, and is already trying to find a new roommate.  Taking it harder than Shirley was Laverne's, the bride thinks, as she recalls Shirley's very unsubtle hinting to Carmine that she'd make a lovely spring bride.


The world seems to fall away when he pries her hand from her father's grip.  She melts into the arms reaching up for her and says,


"Ready to come home, Laverne Kosnowski?"




He's still inside of her.


Laverne marvels at this for a moment as she tries to catch her breath.  He mind, perfectly blank less than a second before, is filled with a million questions at once.  Is it always like that?  Did she yell too loudly in his ear when she...?


She opens her eyes to see nothing but a pale chest covered with invisible blond hair, his raspberry-jam colored nipples too far for her mouth to reach.  If she has questions, Lenny seems to have none.  He breathes harshly against the top of her head, panting her name softly there - in this position, she can hear his heartbeat slowing back to its normal rhythm and feels momentarily lulled.  She cuddles him in gratitude, and he cradles her against his body with both arms as an answer.   She can't resist kissing his chest, lapping away the sweat collected at the hollow of his breastbone.  He moans ardently and tries to roll off, but her thighs - unsteady they may be - hold him fast to her.


"Uh - uh," she whispers. 


He shifts against her slightly - lining up their faces.  His soft mouth brushes hers before he manages to ask her, "did I hurt you a lot?"


He knows he hurt her, then - she recalls some small bit of pain at his entrance, how, she isn't certain, because he had treated her with such loving gentleness, gentleness that was characteristic and yet uncharacteristic of him..   She analyzes the sensations emanating from between her legs - there is a very slight rawness, but not enough to make her want him out.  "Not at the end," she giggles, squeezing him with her arms, legs and inner muscles.  His blue eyes flare before he closes them. 


"You're gonna kill me before the night's up," he groans.  "I'm gonna die in the saddle at twenty-seven!"


"It's not a bad way to go," she says reasonably, stroking his back 


He grins down at her, eyes watching every move with intensity.  "Yeah, but you don't wanna be the Widow Kosnowski at twenty-eight."


She feels blood drain from her face at the very idea - she knows how easy it is to lose - and suddenly his eyes turn serious.  "Hey," he whispers, "I ain't going anywhere."


"Good," she sighs, feeling his lips kiss her nose, eyelids, cheeks, and chin.  His head comes to rest against her shoulder, and they lie in the silence of their wedding bed. 


Laverne takes a good look around herself - at the bedroom of their apartment.  She and Lenny had insisted that they didn't need a honeymoon that it would be a waste of money - even a room at the Hotel Pfister seemed like an extravagance that they nor his or her father or their friends could afford.  When she and Shirley had been laid off the line in August, Laverne felt very sure that their marriage might never happen at all.  Thank God Lenny had passed that dispatcher's test in September....


Shirley had been bitterly disappointed that there was no trousseau to prepare, no honeymoon to book.  To make up for it, she, Squiggy, Carmine, Edna and the Debs had moved everything Laverne and Lenny owned into their new apartment after the rehearsal dinner, setting up their bedroom with fresh new sheets, sprinkling it with carnation petals and flickering candles.  The posters of the second-hand bed had been draped with lace left over from her wedding gown - she recognizes it now, as she stares up beyond Lenny's slim shoulders to the cracked plaster of the ceiling.  It all looks beautiful.  Even the dingy green of the walls.


Her eyes rest on the dresser, where Shirley had framed several old pictures and propped them against her vanity mirror.  One of the white tallow candles had melted down to the root in  its holder during the course of the evening and was dripping on the polished surface, but Laverne won't move for anything less than a natural disaster.


This is home, she thinks to herself, squeezing him again.  She grins like an idiot and feels him stirring inside of her.  One blue eye opens and gives her a comforting smile - with a little leer to it.


Promise and goosebumps spread within her skin.  "Len?" she murmurs.


"Mmm?" he asks. 


"When can we do it again?"




Laverne looks down at the little red-faced bundle the nurse has just placed in her arms and can't figure out what to say to it.  Wrapped up like a bread loaf, a tiny blue paper cap on the crown of its soft head, it wails at her, face bunched and angry and bee-swollen - a wiggling, crying present.  It was nothing like the rag babies she nursed as a little kid, so alive and moving and light as to be insubstantial in her arms. 


When she presses it to her milk-swollen chest, the little face unscrews, suddenly stops crying and looks up at her.  Her goose is cooked.  Her stomach and heart flop over simultaneously as the little left fist curls around her right index finger and the baby mews.  She had been so knocked out from the ether that she doesn't even remember what its sex is until she looks at the little bracelet looped around its tiny wrist. 


Baby Boy Kosnowski.  Lenny was right all along.


She looks up the foot of the bed, where he now stands, alternating between taking pictures of her holding the baby and glaring at the head nurse.  He had fought his way into the delivery ward, and when they tried to throw him out he had just snarled at them.  Until he started crying.  Between the sobbing and the yelling, the doctor in charge had decided this maniac could be a danger to his laboring wife, but Laverne had clung to Lenny when they tried to call security.  She was so adamant that he ended up staying the entire time.


Good thing, too.  She needed him, wanted him nearby.  It had somehow made the pain easier to bear.


When the nurse finally leaves them, drawing a curtain around their bed and secreting them to privacy in the public hospital ward, he puts the camera down and looks at them, only looks, his hand tentatively caressing her foot through the sheets. 


"C'mere," she urges softly, but he hangs back.  At last, he speaks.


"If I touch the baby, will I wake up?"


Laverne snickers, a low, soft sound.  He seems relieved to hear her laugh.  "Len, this is real.  Very, very real," she grimaces, feeling the lingering, fiery effects of childbirth within her body.


"You need something?" he panics.  "More medicine or water or something?"


"Len, sit," she orders, and he complies automatically and straddles a bedside chair.  "They gave me some stuff to help the pain go away, so no."  He relaxes visibly, and she reaches out with her free hand to touch his cheek, and he nuzzles her.  His face is still damp when she strokes him.  "Wanna hold him?"


His eyes light up - apparently, he hadn't heard the doctor's announcement, either.  "A boy?" she nods.  He giggles, an expression of the disbelief in the air.  She held out the bundle and he carefully takes the baby into his arms. 


He makes a soft cooing noise, looking up into Lenny's face drowsily.  Laverne simply lies back and watches; exhausted, filled with love.  "My boys," she murmurs out loud, and Lenny looks up, a joyous smile on his face, before looking back down at what he'd helped to create


"Hey, little Lenny," her husband murmurs to the bundle.


"Len," Laverne whines, "I said 'no' to that name..."


He frowns at her.  "What's wrong with Lenny Junior?"


"If I say 'Lenny'..."


"What?" he answered.


"Get what I mean?  Two Lennys in one house is too much."


He makes a face.  "You think of a better one?"


She closes her eyes.  After a moment of thought, it comes to her clearly.  "Tony," she says out loud.


"After your cousin Anthony?"


She nods her head, resting her hand against his thigh.  Lenny's thumb cautiously stokes the butter-soft cheek of their firstborn while he watches the face of his wife.  "Anthony Kosnowksi." He weighs the name on his tongue.  "You're right, Vernie.  It's nice."


She opened her eyes again.  Lenny's cuddling the baby like it's a precious doll, Anthony making tiny cooing noises at Lenny's own, instinctive, monkeylike response sounds.


"Where's Shirl?" she wonders finally.


"Last time I saw her, outside crying." Lenny shakes his head.  "She's almost ready to pop, Vernie.  I think we scared her."


Laverne shook her head.  She'd gone into labor at the final Shotz softball game of the year - the championship, too.  Laverne had insisted on participating, much to Lenny's worry.  The whole game had gone well for her, and she'd managed her catcher's position with only the slightest sense of ungainliness. They'd designated Lenny as her substitute for base running, but she'd been allowed to bat for herself.  He'd been sliding into third when she felt a pop, and ended up counting contractions all through the fifth inning.  By the sixth, when they were ten minutes apart, she decided it was time for the hospital.  Shirley, big as a house herself and only a few months away from delivering Carmine Ragusa's first child, had been frantic at Laverne's pain as Lenny ran red lights from Pfister Park to Saint Catherine's.  If she had seen the delivery - fairly rapid though very painful - she would be begging Carmine for a cesarean, Laverne thinks to herself. 


"Hey, did we win?" Laverne asks Lenny suddenly.  She can tell from his alarmed expression that he could care less.  "Shir'll be fine," she says.  Shirley and Carmine had barely been married for a month before Shirley announced her pregnancy.   So much for waiting 'til the wedding night, she thought with a smirk.  "I wanna see her," she adds.


"I'll go find her," Lenny says, handing his son back to his wife, parting with a kiss to each smooth forehead.  "See you, Tony.  When I take you home, I'll show you where you was made..."




"What?  We gotta take him home in the truck!"


"We don't know for sure that that's where it happened," Laverne complains, recalling their lunch break idylls in Squiggy’s truck.  Maybe they had been trying a little too hard to get pregnant, she thinks with some self-recrimination.


Lenny cocks his head smartly.  "Laverne - don't ruin a good story," he tisks.






"I love you.  I just want you to know that."


"I know," he smiles, and parts the curtain, letting the midday sunshine into their enclosure.





He pulls each candle from the frosting with ginger ability, leaving only the tiniest pockmarks in the bright white surface.  The last pink waxen stick he sets aside, licking away the creamy white frosting with a catlike and private smile in his face.  Her back prickles with Goosebumps, and she smiles a promise. 


Birthdays aren't Laverne's favorite "holidays" - not anymore, not after eighteen years of endless planning and drunken clowns and puking six-year-olds and tantrums.  Not now that she's officially an old lady - officially forty.


"Mom!  I need to borrow the car and Johnny won't give me the keys!"


Laverne swivels around in her seat to confront the sight of her pint-sized sixteen year old daughter, Rita, trying to grab the keys of their Dodge from the fingers of her gangly eighteen-year-old brother, Johnny.  It's Johnny's last month home before shipping out to college -  off to a culinary arts school, scholarships had made Laverne's mind muddier than usual this past year - and he's taking advantage of his position as defacto head of their kid set, now that Tony was off serving a hitch in Alaska with the army. 


"Where are you going?"  Laverne accuses.


Rita sighs, pulling down her faded Led Zeppelin tee shirt over her nearly-revealed stomach and trying to take Johnny by surprise.  Nothing doing - he tosses them underhanded to the next-oldest child, nine-year-old Melinda, who's far more enthusiastic about the cake her father's slicing.


 "Keep away!" yells Johnny, but his little sister rolls her eyes and ducks the flying keys - which miss their target and bounce off of the middle of her Aunt Shirley's forehead.


Before Shirley can whine, Laverne grabs the keys to the Dodge and is on her feet.  "Okay.  What's up?"  she asks Rita.


"Nothing," Rita says, peeling her left sandal off with the right and wriggling her pink painted toenails. 


"She's gonna go see Mikey," Johnny announces, as Rita's eyes bug out. 


"You a-hole!" she bellows.


"Language," Lenny scolds mildly without looking up.  Laverne gives him a little glare - Rita is his undeclared favorite, though she knows he loves all of the children.


"Jonny, sit," Laverne orders, and her second-oldest grumbles, his long hair swaying in the breeze as he straddles the chair backwards and rests his chin against the slat of his usual chair - exactly his father's reaction when chastised. 


"Mikey?" Shirley wonders, still rubbing her forehead, "Mikey - my - son?"


Rita blushes and murmurs something inaudible, playing with the hem of her tee-shirt.  "Yes, ma'am," she finally manages, an extra note of politeness in her voice.


Lenny looks up from his task and regards his daughter with an up-and-down glance.  "You ain't in that outfit."






"Laverne!" he gives his wife a pleading look.


"We're just going to sit in Aunt Shirley and Uncle Carmine's basement with Loma and Christine and groove on some tunes.  He's got the new Zeppelin single!"


Laverne winced.  Loma and Christine were Squiggy's wild, sophisticated twin daughters - they had conveniently absented themselves from the party because Squiggy was in LA scouting auditions for their kid sister Ruby with his wife Marjene, leaving  them to watch baby Eva just as Mikey was left to baby-sit  his sick kid sister Mara. 


"Tell him I better not smell lemon Pledge and incense down there when I get home," Carmine says, some chagrin in his voice.  Shirley shakes her head and gives Carmine a bit of a look while Lenny's face goes pale and he starts to say something out of horror.  Before any further statements can be made, Rita pecks his wife on the cheek.


"You're the best, Mommy.  Happy birthday!" she cries, grabbing the keys from her hand and disappearing out the back door.  Laverne is left watching her daughter's retreat in disbelief.


"I gotta go after her," Lenny mutters, rising from his seat at the end of the table.  Laverne's hand on his wrist stops him.


"Let her go."




"Let her go.  She's sixteen now, Len.  It's different for her than it was for us." 


Lenny bites his lower lip and looks down the table at her.  She sees the worry, the fear, and can only give him a comforting smile.  She's learned to let go through Tony, and it's something Lenny still can't manage.


She watches his eyes go from face to face - Melinda, shoveling in her cake - Her shyer brother, six-year-old Nicky, eating the frosting off of his cake and nothing else - the baby, their final child Rose, daintily eating her piece with all of the dignity a four-year-old can muster - Carmine, doing the same - Shirley, picking at her mini-rose and glancing over at her best friend, probably wondering if Laverne thought she was a bad mother for the whole pot thing - their six-year-old daughter, Emily, swinging her feet in the air as she pokes at Johnny's shoulder with her fork.  Finally to his wife, his love. 


"I want the big rose," Johnny says impetuously.


"You know tradition, kid," Lenny says, as he chops off the slice containing the biggest rose and slaps it onto a plate, oozing lemon filling over the top with the spatula as he hands it over to Laverne.  She smiles seductively as she splits the rose in half with her fork.  The world slips away.  He smirks and pretends to pay attention to Carmine's latest complaints about Marjorie Wards.


Hours later, she watches Nicky and Rose sleep in their shared room, stuffed to the brim with sugar and yet dozing in the mid-evening darkness.  Johnny and Tony had shared this room until Tony shipped out, while Rita and Melinda shared the third of their three bedrooms.  What she and Lenny slept in, Laverne knew with a little grimace, was a made -over attic - reminiscent of the boys' apartment in years before.  It was their private sanctuary, which was why it was home to Laverne, even more of a home than their first apartment.  In a show of independence, Johnny had tried to move himself into the top floor of the garage, which lasted until his first encounter with a field mouse.  His understandable cowardice forced him to share space with Melinda for his senior year, his parents having already promised Rita the room he had vacated.  Laverne was antsy at first about an eighteen-and-nine year old of separate sexes sharing a room, but Melinda and Johnny got along exceedingly well, and Johnny had been protective of his asthmatic kid sister from her birth on.  Soon, Laverne would shuffle Rita into Melinda's room, leaving the babies together and finally giving Tony and Johnny somewhere to bunk together, should they ever visit.  Three bedrooms, six kids, twenty years and endless hours of wining, Laverne thinks. 


When Lenny's arms wrapped themselves around her middle, she relaxed back into his embrace, her eyes drifting closed.  "Is she back?"


Lenny shakes his head.  "Not yet."


An irritated sigh.  "I'll kill her.  She knows her curfew is eleven."


"Shirl and Carmine are keeping an eye on them," he kisses her earlobe while his fingers part the front of her robe.  "They didn't know Mikey was smoking, Laverne.  Carmine nearly beat Mikey's butt off when he found out..."


"Len," she moans softly.  "Wouldya stop letting Rita get away with murder?"


"I don't," Lenny says softly, brushing the back of her neck with his lips to hear her gasp.  "She's just  better at lying than the rest of the kids."


She smirks.  "Yeah.  A chip off of the DeFazio block."  She knows that's why Lenny admires their daughter a lot - sometimes she's an exact copy of her mother, which is exactly why she butts heads with her progenitor.  Lenny's lips go lower, and she carefully closes the kids' door.  "We can't until Rita's here."


He freezes and groans.  "That sounds so wrong."


"Lenny," she turns and fixes him with her sternest glare and he backs off.


She feels the weight of his heavy chin against her shoulder as he peers around her at the kid's bedroom.  He opens the door just a crack and peers into the darkness.  "They're so cute when they're asleep."


"Too bad it doesn't carry over to when they're awake."


"I dunno.  Nicky's cute when he's not trying to shoot Mara with his finger."


"Is that why she told Shirley that she hates Nicky Poo Poo Head?"


Lenny snickers.  "I think I remember you calling me something like that when we were that age..."


Laverne rests her chin against his chest.  "How the time flies..."


"How it flews..."


She brushes his lips, feeling the fine lines there, the fleshy impertinence of them.  He'll be forty next year, but he doesn't look it yet.  His mouth tastes like cake and licorice as he laps at her tongue and pushes the door closed at the same time.  Her hands play with the collar of his robe as they step toward their bedroom...


"Mom?  Dad?"


Rita stands in the hallway, tentative, a sheepish expression on her face, clearly embarrassed to have interrupted them.  Laverne adjusts her robe as she moves toward her firstborn daughter.


Rita's arms slip around her mother, and the two women simply hold on for an infinite amount of time.  "I'm sorry I left," she admits.  "Mikey told me at lunch that he felt left out 'cause Shirley and Carmine wanted him to watch Mara.   He's having a hard time being by himself, now that Shawn's in art school in Massachusetts..."


"So this isn't about the Zep?" Lenny asks innocently. 


Rita looks at her father's bold expression and sighs.  "Daddy!  Mikey and I are just friends.  That's all - JUST friends." 


Lenny and Laverne share a look that speaks volumes - a look that's nothing but Greek to their daughter. "Did you save me some cake?" she asks.


Laverne smiles.  "The piece with the rose on it."


She leans against her mother's shoulder as they head to the kitchen.  "I don't deserve you guys.  I'm sorry for wrecking the party."


"Nah - you didn't wreck it.  Four hours of hearing about Carmine's gall bladder surgery wrecked it," Lenny intones, ducking down and opening the refrigerator door, pulling out a carton of milk.


Laverne snorts.  "You loved it."


"I did, and you didn't," he hands her three small plates of cake carefully hidden behind some leftover fish.  "It wasn't the worst birthday ever."


She laughs.  "Yeah, you weren't throwing up this time."


Rita winces.  "Throwing up?"


"The worst birthday your mom ever had, your brothers and us was all sick with the stomach flu.  We spent the whole day holding each other up over the toilet..."


"Eww!" Rita winces - but, being her father's daughter, keeps eating the cake.


"But I promised God that if I lived through it," Laverne explains, "I'd never let getting old get me down again."  She realizes she's broken her vow and decides to be a little bit lighter.  "What's worse, anyway?  Being old or being dead?"


She catches sight of her husband's thoughtful face over the table.  Her hand finds his knee beneath the metal surface and she gives it a squeeze.  He grins, finds her hand and squeezes back, his touch saying what he cannot in front of their daughter.


Rita shakes her shaggy blonde head.  "Being old," she decides, and takes a long draught of milk. 




"Do You Have Any Reservations?"


"Not a one."


He's never had them, but she does.  Sock skating on Jell-O?  Reservations.  Driving cross-country in a rented bus for a summer vacation?  Reservations.  Spend their retirement money on a Winnebago so they can go see the kids whenever?  Reservations.


She had held reservations about this house - the soft gray split-level clapboard ranch built on a once brand-new subdivision in suburban Milwaukee - but he had held bigger reservations than she.  Neither of them had lain claim to something so fanciful before - material land, their own home forever if they saw fit.  The night after they signed the deeds at the bank she held him as he cried.  "I never thought this'd happen to me, Vernie," he kept saying, between bouts of cautious lovemaking.  She knew the feeling.  She never believed it - any of it -  would happen to her, either.


He had just been incarnated a dispatcher for years then, and she had just been fired permanently from the Shotz line.  Carmine gave her a job as an instructor at Carmine's Marjorie Wards - something she excelled at.  Between their two jobs, they managed to sock away enough money to pay for a house six years into their marriage.  They needed the room by them - their tiny newlywed's nest had been overrun by then by Tony and Johnny, their two walking toddler tornados, and Laverne was pregnant with Rita.  The neighborhood had been sad to release them, but Laverne remembered only excitement at knowing that this would be her final home - that she was really and truly home to stay. 


Shirley eventually bought a house across the lane, settling in with her new husband while trying to hide her a-little-too-ripe-for four months along belly.  Inevitably, Squiggy arrived last, setting up bachelor quarters with Hector Kestenbaum at the foot of the block, becoming an instant concern to responsible parents everywhere when he started a fake ID making side business while waiting for the permit for his knife sharpening shop to come through.  Eventually, they picked up two leggy showgirls and started families of their own - without moving out of their communal house.


Lenny had been jealous, but tried not to show it.


The fall chill penetrates her bones more easily these days, if she decides to leave the house.  Lenny's begun hinting to her that maybe it's time for them to retire, to head to warmer ground, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.  She still runs her suburban branch of Laverne's Marjorie Wards, and can retire whenever she sees fit - unlike Lenny, who's a year away from getting the gold watch treatment from Pabst - nee- Shotz.   Despite this, he doesn't look any more like an old man to her than she does an old lady, and she doesn't want to move to Florida and rot away.  Hell, when she stares into the mirror, she doesn't think she looks sixty-three.  Only when she looks at her grandchildren does she remember how long her life's been - how happy, how full.


She sneaks up behind him and wraps her arms around his plump belly, causing him to yelp and start against her until he realizes who she is. 


"Hello," she purrs.


"Hello," he sighs back.  She plays with the sparse hair at the crown of his head with her right hand and he frowns - the answer to her oft-spoken riddle of "When did you know we were forever?" has lately become "you didn't leave me when my hair started falling out."


"Ick," three voices chorus from the swingset.


"Mind your own business," Laverne sing-songs, scampering over to give Dakota Ragusa - Rita's first baby with Mikey - a firmer push as her swing starts to slow down.  Lavonda Janis and DeShawn Ayden Kosnowki - Johnny's babies with Christine Squiggman - occupy the plastic wading pool that serves as the grandchildren's sandbox. 


It was hard for Laverne not to make fun of the children's names within her mind.  Johnny knew how to spell - she had taught him how to do so - so the mysterious origin of her granddaughter ans grandson's name had caused some confusion.  But then, at least they were original names - at Dakota's sixth birthday party, four of the ten other girls at Chuck E. Cheese's were named Dakota, too. 


What can she do?  They weren't her kids.  She feels nervous enough just giving parenting advice to Rita, who's lived on edge after Mikey decided to enlist in the Army in the aftermath of 9/11.  He had been deployed to Iraq after the invasion, and now she lives for his emails and phone calls.


Laverne knew they had a right to be worried.


Tony had come home ten years before from the Gulf missing his right leg and with an honorable discharge.  The loss had made him reclusive, despite what his family tried to do to give him comfort, and  inevitably, he decided that it would be best to get out of Milwaukee.   Tony moved to Las Vegas and set up a pawn shop somewhere off the strip that did well for him.  He dated a succession of showgirls and strippers, none of whom his mother approved of.


That she can't approve surprises Laverne even now.  She thinks of herself as open and none-judgmental, and counts people of all stripe and orientation her friend - she was the first person to open her arms to Christine and Squiggy's interracial marriage - yet hasn't blessed one of Tony's girlfriends since the war.  Then again, she only wants the best for her children - children who took Tony's leaving as a sign that the nest was ripe for abandoning and began moving from Milwaukee en masses.  They live everywhere now, from Las Vegas to California to Sydney to two doors down the road.  They were doctors and pawnbrokers and food writers and musicians and tattoo artists and housewives - things her mother had never imagined for her children when she day dreamed away her teenage years beside Shirley.  So many changes, so much tumult, so many ties left undone...


She feels the arms of the man who acts as her true magnetic north encircling her, and gives a small sigh of relief.


"What's wrong?" he asks.


His warmth makes the earth slow its spin.  "Nothing now," she responds, and means it with her whole heart.




Rita Ragusa folds her mother's thin arms over her chest, her stiffening fingers carefully arranged into a praying position.  She pauses a moment before turning around and switching off the heart monitor burring behind her, then sits bonelessly down beside the corpse of the woman who had raised her.


She can't believe that she's an orphan now.  Fifty-nine, and she still felt like an abandoned child as she stares into her mother's calm face.  She would look there forever for some sign of peace, but the hysterical moaning of Melinda draws her back to the present.


"She can't be gone!" her middle sister cries out.  "She just can't be!"


"It's a blessing, honey," says Nicky.  Rita glares at her baby brother, the Christian rock star whose conversion post-rehab for a meth addiction had both relieved and amused their parents.  "Mom's with dad and Jesus now."


Melinda's expression melted into a more pleading one - the blue eyes she had inherited from their father flashing darkly.  "Jesus doesn't need mommy - we do."


"But daddy does," Rose pointed out, as always the calm within the storm.  "When I get to heaven, I'll be shocked if he hasn't accidentally broken  a few halos already." 


Rita smiles through her tears - her daddy could fix a car with one hand tied behind his back, but he had been frighteningly uncoordinated and had tended to fall off of roofs with regularity. 


It was five years ago that Leonard Alexi Kosnowski had died - peacefully, without a struggle, and unexpectedly in his sleep of what the coroner pronounced a massive heart attack.  Her mother awoke to his cold body and a frozen smile on lips that would never move again.  It was what would have been his seventy-eighth birthday. 


Laverne had been consumed with guilt and grief.  For  six months after her husband had died, she slept in Rita and Mikey's guest room, unable to see her home without thinking of her lost husband and breaking down.  She spent hours crying in Aunt Shirley's arms, wailing and moaning her frustrations and pains.


"I should have treated him better, Shirl," Rita heard her mother saying as she passed by one day, and didn't know what she meant.


Rita would find out soon enough, as she spent many sleepless nights between shifts listening to Laverne pour her heart out.  The words haunted Rita, as she listened to her mother castigate herself for her cruel treatment of her husband before their marriage, then accused herself of not taking care of him, of allowing him to die through integument.  "I should've married him when he asked me the first time," she would say quietly, looking out the window and into the deserted streets outside the cul-de-sac.  "I wasted six years.  I could have had six more years with him."  Rita doubted it was time truly wasted, but the real Laverne was lost amid the pain of self-flagellation. 


The family knew that there was nothing that even she could do to stop her father from soothing his sweet tooth - he was a sneak when he really wanted something, and his consumption of chocolate and lard and sugar and sweets and beer had been a long-term love affair, predating even his desire for his wife.  To force him to live on salad, even for his own good, would have made Lenny miserable. 


Time passed away slowly, but eventually Laverne's heart began to heal.  She moved back into their house six months after Lenny's death, with one small change - Rita had to dispose of her antique bed, the one she had kept for as long as her daughter could remember.  It broke Rita's heart to think of someone outside of the family sleeping in the bed where she had been coddled as a child, the bed that they cheerfully refused to place as it sagged lower and lower to the floor while the years paraded by, so she stored it in the guest room. 


Laverne filled up her time with classes at senior centers, trying to learn new skills and cheerfully failing to retain information much as she had in her youth.  She spoiled her great-grandchildren - eventually her great-great grandchildren - with attention and love.   Frequently, her Uncle Squiggy would stop by, banging into the living room with his cheerful "hello" and making the world palpably livelier.  Though his pride would never let him admit it, Squiggy clung to her mother and her family, seeing in them the last remnants of Lenny - his last anchor in a world that was stripping their friends away, person by person.  Her house had been filled with visitors at the end; her Aunt Shirley and Uncle Carmine and their family, mostly. 


There was one brief, shocking exception.  While spending time at her mother's house one afternoon with a pregnant Dakota, Rita had been stunned by the appearance of a dapper, gray-haired gentleman in a leather jacket at her mother's doorstep one afternoon - and even more stunned by the giggly, girlish reaction her mother gave to the man.  While Rita pretended to dust and straighten the living room, she listened as her mother traded pictures and stories with the most famous Senator Milwaukee had ever birthed - Arthur Fonzarelli.  They parted hours later on a kiss and a hug, and Rita watched with some amusement as Laverne leaned out the window to watch him race away on his motorcycle.


"I didn't know you were a Democrat," Rita teased.


She smirked, closing the window and keeping out the stifling late-afternoon heat.  "I gave to the party a long time ago."  Rita realized her expression must have shown horror, because her mother sighed impatiently, tossing her dyed-red head.  "Your father was the love of my life, but I wasn't dead before I was with him, and I ain't dead now!"


Rita bites back a wave of sorrow at those spirited but long-ago uttered words.  She thought she was used to the battle between life and death - her position as a general practitioner at the new San Angeles Hospital forced her to confront the world's polar opposites every day.  She felt Johnny's eyes upon her, heavy and sharp - he was pissed off because she wasn't crying, and Rita knew she couldn't force out any tears when she had finished shedding them a year ago.  She had cried when the hospital's best oncologist had proclaimed her mother's throat cancer terminal, shed a million more on the shoulders of her Aunt Shirley and a million more against Mikey's chest in their shared bed.  Now, staring at the birdy, fragile frame that had once held the spirit of her lively mother, she felt only an oceanic numbness, like an injection of botulism toxin had pierced her heart.


Pain brings her back to life, with the realization that she would have to tell her Aunt Shirley, who had been put to bed by Carmine early in the afternoon after forty-eight hours of round-the-clock vigil over her lifelong best friend's bed.  They hadn't said goodbye - they had tried during the agonizing months of Laverne's final illness and found it impossible. 


Rita stands and moves away from the coldness of her brother's stare.  "I have to go call Uncle Carmine..."


"Don't.  We need you here..." Johnny says.


"Someone needs to be practical," Rita mumbles.  When she opens the door, she bumps literally into her missing, prodigal brother.


She looks up into Tony's face - so like her father's - as he takes in the sight of their dead mother.  "Oh God," he whispers, color draining from his pale face.  "Is she..."


"I'm sorry, Tony," Rita says, wrapping her arms around the solid weight of her brother's chest.  He trembles against her skin in a convulsive expression of sorrow.


"You're late.  But we expected nothing less from you," snaps Johnny. 


"Don't start in on me," Tony barks.  "My plane was delayed.  There's this big fuckall thunderstorm rolling in over the Dells..."


"Don't give me any more of your bullshit excuses!" Johnny responds.  "Mom asked for you three times before she went.  You knew she was dying..."


"Tony, come on - I need someone to help me finish making arrangements," Rita soothes, taking her favorite brother by the hand and leading him out of her mother's room.


They find privacy in their large backyard, where the two siblings idle in silent tumult.  Laverne had two final wishes when she understood her illness to be terminal - she wanted to die at home, and she wanted to keep her hair.  Both had been granted.


Rita watches Tony grope through his hunting jacket, trying to find a match to light his cigarette.  He balances so well on his prosthetic leg that she barely notices it's a new one - ornately painted over with ivy and cherubs, work done by Rose during her last trip to Vegas.    Rita watches the red-black flame of Tony's cigarette flicker in the night; she's been on the nicotine bandwagon since her mother's diagnosis, but the scent of burning tobacco nearly sends her to her knees with want.  She's as weak as her father was, and she glories in it - anything to distract her from the reality of her new orphan hood.


Rita looks over the overgrown garden and let out a long, shuddering sigh.  Her parents had brown thumbs, but tending their patch of land was a post-church springtime ritual for the both of them.  She bites back a smile at the memory of her father's huge white-rimmed sunglasses and loud Hawaiian shirts, his skin turning red under the sunlight as he fertilized while her mother pulled weeds in a tank top.  Rita understands that their activities were less for the fruitfulness of the land than for the privacy they shared in those hours.  She kicks at the weeds and wonders what will happen to the place now that the love is gone.


She realizes that Tony's been looking at her expectantly for awhile and turns to face him in the light.  "I'm sorry..."


"I just asked if she suffered at the end."  He turns away from her, as if he doesn't want to know.


Rita smiles and shakes her head.  "She looked happy to go.  Her whole face lit up before she took her last breath." Rita lowers her voice to a conspiratorial level.  "Promise me you won't tell anyone this..."


"When have I ever told on you?" Tony smiles - bitter sweetly, he knows there's no one to tattle to now.


"She grabbed onto me, and she grabbed onto Melinda, and she looked at all of us - we had our hands on her, and we were saying it was all right, that she could go, we'd take care of each other...her eyes got really glassy and they got this far-away look in them."  she looks searchingly to Tony, daring him to prove what she said to be fact.  "She looked out past all of us, and I swear, Tony, I swear on the name of Saint Anne, before her heart stopped she said dad's name."


Tony's face turns pale as he rocks back on his heels at the impact of her words.   Laverne's voice box had been riddled with cancerous tumors - it had been removed to halt the spread of the disease which consumed her mercilessly in the end.  She hadn't been able to physically speak a word for months and had communicated through pieces of paper.  For a woman whose piercing whine was legendary, it had been a crippling blow to Laverne.


"I'm not making it up, Tony - she said 'Lenny', smiled and died."  Rita closes her eyes against the darkening sky.


"Guess all those novenas I prayed on the plane didn't got to waste after all," Tony lowers his head.  "I fucked up one last time for her - Johnny's right.  I don't disappoint."


"They loved you, Tony," she says softly.   "We all love you."


"I broke their hearts."


"That's what kids do - they break their parent's hearts."


"Not funny."


"Life's not meant to be funny.  We all did our best to make them happy, and sometimes they were, sometimes they weren't.  But they never stopped loving us, or each other," she loops her arm around his shoulder.  "Tone?  If you need to cry - don't be afraid to.  There's no one here to see but me."


"Mom and dad wouldn't want me to cry," he says quietly.


She knew they wouldn't, and she didn't falter either.  And as darkness began to fall around them, dimming the blue-gray glow of the falling night sky, Rita swore that she saw two stars winking right over their heads, so close as to nearly be touching - one flashy as a roman candle, the other dim but pulsing with an energy that was not of this earth.