Standard disclaimers... Thank you kindly!
After the Ball is Over
By Diane Trap
Just that quick, Frannie stopped having a good time. Ray could tell. Frazier was dancing with the Dragon Lady, not even a slow dance or anything like that, but some sort of square-dance kind of thing with bagpipes and fiddles. "It's a reel," Frazier had been explaining when the music started, "A traditional--"
The Dragon Lady had come up behind him, grabbed his arm with a short "Constable!" and hauled him out on the dance floor. It looked like all the muckety-mucks were dancing this one, so Ray guessed Ms. Thatcher had needed a partner, but that wasn't all of it; the expression on her face might be saying 'I'm only dancing with you because I have to' and Frazier's face might be saying 'Understood' but every time their eyes met, every time their hands touched, the air crackled between them, strong enough that Ray almost expected the lights to flicker.
Frannie was watching them, and if Ray could tell Ms. Thatcher hadn't picked Benny to dance with 'cause he wouldn't trip over his boots during an allemand-left or whatever it was they were doing Frannie must be feeling it like a kick in the pants. One second his baby sister was looking like a kid at Christmas, the next second she was looking like someone had poured a drink down her dress. Just that quick. Her chasing after Frazier was kind of embarrassing, but jeez...Ray poked her in the arm.
"This must be some kind of weird Canadian thing," he muttered in her ear. "You wanna get out of here?"
Frannie swallowed hard. "Yeah."
Ray caught Frazier's eye and gave him a see-you-later wave. The mountie was startled enough to miss a do-si-do but Ray was headed for the door. The ballroom of the Pick Congress was crowded, but it was crowded with Canadians, so it wasn't hard to push a way through. Ray looked back; Frannie had got caught behind a knot of embassy types and was just standing there looking lost, like she didn't remember anything he'd taught her about crowd management.
Ray went back, grabbed her arm, hauled her out. She kind of stumbled over her feet, bumping into an elegant couple dressed in black and white. The woman rolled her eyes and said something in to her date, low enough that Ray didn't catch the words, just that she had a British accent. *Penguins do Masterpiece Theatre,* Ray thought, giving Frannie a second to get her balance back.
"I thought I was going to melt in there," Ray said. Frazier hadn't been sweating. The Dragon Lady hadn't been either. Maybe Canadians were born without pores.
Frannie ran her hands over the skirt of her pink taffeta dress and hitched up her big puffy sleeves. In the living room at home Ray had thought she'd looked kind of cute--for a sister, anyway--but the penguin lady looked her over and said the word "Bridesmaid" just loud enough for them to hear.
Ray turned on her. "Yeah. And everything on my body but my underwear is rented. You got a problem with that?"
The penguin lady tittered. Her slinky black number hadn't come from Dominick's Discount Bridal, and her pearls hadn't come from J. C. Penney's. What would the Chicago PD do to a detective who belted a woman at an official function of the Canadian consulate? Frannie grabbed Ray's arm before he could find out. "Let's just go, okay?"
"Sure." Ray glared at the penguin lady. "The food was better at cousin Carmelita's wedding anyway."
The penguin lady tittered again. Frannie kept a tight grip on Ray's sleeve as she dragged him down the hall.
"I mean it," Ray said. "Did you taste that caviar? Yuck! Do you know what people pay for that stuff?"
"You can be so dumb!" A month ago Frannie had made it clear; Frazier was going to the Queen's Birthday Ball and she would be too or Ray could forget having children. She'd kissed him when he brought the invitation home and gone with him to the tux shop to nag the clerks herself. Now she just looked like her pink dyed-to-match high heels were giving her a blister.
"What?" Ray demanded. Frannie just kept marching, her eyes fixed on the big glass lobby doors and her lip bit between her teeth. "Would you toss a few fish eggs on toast and call it a party?"
Frannie reached for the door. Ray grabbed it and let her go through first, one hand on the small of her back to usher her through 'cause it was something guys wearing tuxes did and maybe giving a little shove 'cause she was his sister. He waved at the doorman, who was wearing an Abe Lincoln hat with his red uniform. "Hey! Can we get a cab here?"
The doorman cocked an eye at him blew a short blast on his whistle, calling down a Checker from across the street. Ray stepped aside as an old guy with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter on his arm came out of the hotel. The cab pulled up. The doorman opened its door and smiled at the old guy.
Ray pulled Frannie toward the curb. "Hey! That's our--"
The old guy loaded the girl into the cab and got in behind her. The doorman shut the door and slipped a folded bill into his pocket. From the smug look on his face it had to be a twenty at least.
He looked down at his sister. The blush on her cheeks was still bright Fiesta Pink but her forehead was blotchy with shiny patches of sweat. Her eyeliner looked kind of melted, like it was going to start running down her face any second. She wouldn't look him in the eye. "We can walk back to the car."
"Frannie--" She started walking down the sidewalk. Ray pointed at the doorman. "You got a stupid hat, pal!"
The car was a good twenty-minute walk away, over in the parking lot of the Field Museum, because Frannie hadn't wanted the Pick Congress parking valets to see her climbing out of the Riv and Ray sure as heck wasn't going to spring for a cab to drive them all the way from home. Frannie was at the corner, waiting to cross Michigan Avenue when Ray caught up with her.
"You want to walk through Grant Park at this hour? Are you crazy?"
She didn't answer. The light changed. She started across the street. Ever since she'd learned to walk Ray'd had to work to keep up with her; she was usually running around at speeds normal humans considered unsafe and liable to change direction at any minute besides, but tonight she was walking like a little robot, with her back straight and her eyes pointed straight ahead.
"You're dragging your skirt," Ray said when they reached the other side. "Hey! Wait a minute!"
She stopped, heaving her shoulders with a little sigh. Ray knelt down, bunched up some of the material and tied it in a knot to keep it off the ground.
"It doesn't matter," Frannie said.
"It's...you know, pretty." He stood up. "You'll have to tell cousin Carmelita you found a place to wear it again--"
Frannie started walking. He'd told her, and told her, and told her, stay out of dark places, don't walk alone, keep your head up and look like you're going to bust the chops of any guy who looks at you funny, but in the trance she was in tonight she might as well be carrying a sign that said 'Mug me please.' Ray took off his tux jacket so any yahoos out tonight would be able to get a good look at the gun in his shoulder holster and fell into step beside her.
The night was hot and sticky, like a wool sweater you couldn't take off. Every yellow streetlight had a haze around it. There were some guys out on the basketball courts, playing slow. One of them had a boom box playing old Motown, sad songs sung in tight harmony.
"You okay?" Ray asked.
Frannie kept walking. Back in high school, she'd been a freshman, he'd been a senior, and the night of the Homecoming dance he'd scored a date with Rosalita Buscotti, Italian-American Dream Girl 1981. During the last dance of the night Rosalita had taken one look at Gino Vasselli, the boyfriend she'd said she'd broken up with, and left Ray standing on the dance floor, looking like a jerk. Frannie'd come up and finished out the dance with him, not saying a word, just put a hand on his shoulder and went around the floor with him like they were dancing to Grandma Vecchio's old Sinatra records. It hadn't stopped Ray from feeling like a jerk, but hey, dancing with your sister was better than dancing alone.
Frannie'd been so excited tonight, chattering away to anyone she met, even telling some old guy all the ins and outs of the American cosmetic industry and just why you couldn't mix any old eyeshadow with any old eyeliner. The old guy had smiled and nodded, looking a little lost, like a lot of people Frannie talked to did, and Frazier had stood by, looking not pained, exactly, but incredibly patient, waiting to explain till the old guy had gone off to get a drink that he was the Romanian ambassador and couldn't speak English.
They'd met up with the Dragon Lady later, catching her for just a second as she'd been working the room, cool and sophisticated, saying just the right thing to every person she met, wearing a dress that Nancy Reagan would send back for a little livening up. That was the woman Benny had the hots for? Ray tried to imagine Ms. Thatcher with her head thrown back, moaning in passion, and shuddered involuntarily. Nope. Never happen.
What was wrong with Frazier anyway? Frannie was kind of goofy, yeah, but she was okay...of course, if Frazier laid a finger on her, friend or no friend, Ray would have to break him in two. He figured Benny would understand. There was probably a similar custom among the Inuits.
Frannie stumbled a bit, straightened up, and kept walking, a little slower than she had been. They were in sight of the Field Museum now. Behind Shedd Aquarium the lake was dead still.
"I think I might get promoted to shift manager," Frannie said. "Did I tell you that?"
"No." Ray glanced back. No potential muggers were following them. "That's great, Frannie."
"I'll get a raise." She squared her shoulders. "Maybe even enough to move out, get a place of my own, you know? Sheila--that's my supervisor--says I have a real future with the company, like I might even be able to get out of sales and into the office or something--"
Ray had seen people being brave before, face disaster, pick their chins up off the floor and just keep going. From Frannie it was like she was lying to him. He punched her in the arm. "Hey, shut up, okay?"
She went quiet. Ray didn't know what she saw in Frazier--well, he didn't know what any woman saw in Frazier, but it seemed like a lot of women saw a lot in him. What did she think, that Frazier would settle down and be a good husband, come home from guarding the Consulate and sit down to a plate of pasta every night? Not that Frannie didn't make good pasta. Benny seemed to like Frannie well enough, but then, the way he was dancing with the Dragon Lady... even Frannie couldn't argue with that, and Frannie could argue with anything.
One more street to cross. The Riv was sitting all alone in the big parking lot. Ray got his keys out of his pocket.
"I'm okay," Frannie said.
Ray unlocked the passenger door, and even opened it for her. It took her a minute to stuff all of her skirt in the car. As he was going around to the driver's side Ray saw a bottle cap on the ground, bent and picked it up.
He got into the car, shut the door, and put the keys in the ignition. "Hold out your hand," he said.
"Just do it!"
Frannie rolled her eyes and stuck out her hand. He put the bottle cap in it. "There. Don't say I never gave you nothing."
"You're out of your mind." Frannie slumped against the seat. "You're really out of your mind, Ray, you know that?"
Ray started up the car. The Riv's eight cylinders purred like kittens. "'Kay, Frannie. Put your seat belt on. Let's go home."