“Hello, Mr. Wallace.”
Jeremy swallowed hard, glancing up at the tall, gray-haired man in front of him. Mr. Wallace wore a tweed suit and an Armani smile, but what was it that Jenny had said? He starts out nice, then he turns vicious. That was what she said.
Mr. Wallace turned and shouted up the stairs.
“Jenifer! Your suitor is here.”
Jenny’s voice came back muffled.
“Daddy, I told you not to call him that.”
Mr. Wallace turned back at Jeremy with a warm grin and he gave a slight shrug of his shoulders.
Jeremy raised his eyebrows and nodded. Forget the fact that he was the same age as Jenny. Actually, she was a month older.
“Come on in, son.”
Mr. Wallace led the way, and Jeremy thanked him as he walked inside.
The entryway was beautiful. A tasteful weave lay beneath their feet, and an artful chandelier hung above, drawing the eyes up the spiral stairway, where Jenny’s head appeared for a moment. Her hair was pulled back and she frowned.
“Daddy, be nice to him!”
She smiled then- a real, genuine smile. A smile you could believe in.
“I’ll be down in a minute, Jer.”
Jeremy couldn’t help his heart fluttering a beat as they locked eyes before she vanished. She was way out of his league. She always said the same thing about him. That was what he called an ideal situation.
The fact that he had never seen the inside of his girlfriend’s house in the year and a half they had dated, for the simple reason that she didn’t want him to meet her father, was not.
The things we do for love.
Jeremy was still looking around at the décor when a large, Scottish hand landed on his shoulder, almost making him stumble forward a step.
“Come on, Jeremy! I’ll give you the walking tour.”
The way he said it made it sound like “Walken,” like Christopher Walken, and the thought of the old actor leading him around the house, pointing things out in a New York accent like, “Hey, and over there are some ferns. I do not like the ferns, but the, uh… the manangement. See, they say, “hey, you’ve got to keep the ferns.” Stupid-’ and then a New York blue streak. Jeremy had a vivid imagination, and the mental image made him chuckle.
“Something funny, son?”
Jeremy snapped his head up, suddenly mortified.
“No! No sir, not at all. I don’t think it even makes sense for Christopher Walken to be in here.”
Mr. Wallace raised an eyebrow. Jeremy panicked inwardly. He laughed nervously.
“No, that came out funny. I mean, why would he live here? It’s your house, not some random movie star’s.”
Mr. Wallace frowned.
“You don’t like my house, Jeremy?”
“No! No, I do. It’s very nice.”
Mr. Wallace gave Jeremy a funny look, then continued walking. Jeremy had a vivid imagination. He could see entire scenes as soon as he thought of an idea. He had a vivid imagination, and a bad way of expressing himself. Not a great combination for dinner with the parents.
“Margery! Come meet our daughter’s suitor.”
They headed toward the kitchen, where an older, duller version of Jenny stood, wiping her hands on her apron. She had the same twinkle in her eye as her daughter, and she greeted Jeremy warmly, making him relax a bit.
“Such a pleasure to finally meet you Jeremy. Jenny says such good things.”
“When you can wrangle them out of her!”
Mrs. Wallace gave her husband a look. He seemed immune.
“Margery, according to Jeremy here we need to get a new house. Ours isn’t good enough. He seems to think it’s some sort of a dump.”
“No! No, I never- I don’t think that at all. I wish that I could-”
“That’s enough out of the chatterbox. Come on, Jeremy, I’ll show you the den.”
They left Mrs. Wallace in the kitchen with a confused expression on her face, Jeremy with a horrified one. What else had Jenny said? Jeremy could see her in front of him, right outside of the Monday/Wednesday lecture they had together. The image was crystal clear in his mind as she said, “He has this way of bringing out the worst in people. Don’t let him get to you. Not if it goes badly, but when,” she sighed. “I’ll still love you, okay? Even if the house burns down. Then we never have to go over for anything other than Christmas.”
A warning like that sure puts a guy at ease.
“Have a seat, Jeremy.”
The den was very nice- and if there was one thing Jeremy appreciated it was a good piece of furniture. The couch was plush, covered in real leather, and the cushions had fine impressions of artful designs on the surface. It was cool in the room, and it made him feel a little better. He could hang out with dad for a few minutes, and then he’d have Jenny around to help him out if he stuck his foot in his mouth. The couch received him like a body of water, enveloping him in comfort. All discomfort was banished in such a fine sofa.
“Mind if I call you Steve?”
The discomfort was back.
“Steve.” Mr. Wallace repeated the word like it was a natural thing to ask. “I don’t like the name Jeremy so much; mind if I call you Steve instead?”
Jeremy fidgeted in his seat a bit. Suddenly the beautiful, perfect piece of upholstery was a medieval torture device.
“Well, that’s not my name, and I was named Jeremy for a pretty specific and neat reason, so yes. I do mind. I could tell you the back story if you-”
Mr. Wallace sank down heavily into the couch disconcertingly close to Jeremy, and he let his arm flop across Jeremy’s shoulders.
“Whew, that’s a relief, Steve, thank you. It’s a much more sensible name, Steve. I’ll tell Jenifer that you prefer it.”
“No, please don’t.”
It was like he wasn’t even there.
“Say, you a drinking man, Steve?”
Jeremy glanced at the Scotsman’s ruddy face, only an inch or so to his left.
“Well, actually, no. I prefer to avoid it for a lot of reasons. When I was a kid, my neighbor’s-”
Mr. Wallace leaped up from the couch and crossed the room, opening a cabinet covered with etched glass in the likeness of a brown bear.
“That’s what I like to hear, son! A man does a few things, and drinking good, strong liquor is one of them. You take your whiskey neat, Steve?”
“I still would prefer not to. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of-”
“Quit jerking me around, Steve. Ice or no ice?”
Jeremy put his hands out diplomatically.
“Okay, if I had to drink, which I’d really rather not do, I suppose with ice, because it would dilute it some, but I’m very firm on-”
“Neat! That’s a man’s choice, Steve, I’m proud to know you. No ice it is. Straight up.”
Mr. Wallace returned to the couch and crashed into it heavily again, now holding two tumblers and a fifth of highland malt whiskey. He set the tumblers on the coffee table before them and opened the bottle.
Right away, Jeremy said when. Mr. Wallace kept on pouring.
“When. When. When! That’s good. When. When!”
Mr. Wallace chuckled.
“Well, you can’t accuse me of being heavy handed, Jeremy. It’s your own dang fault if your eyes end up being bigger than your stomach. Of course, you know it’s a fighting offense to accept whiskey from a man, then disdain to finish it.”
The glass was full. Not mostly full, not halfway full. It was up to the brim. Jeremy stole a glance at the bottle. 90 proof.
Mr. Wallace handed the glass to Jeremy, and poured himself a more reasonable dose. He clinked the glasses together and forced the tumbler into his hand.
“Bottoms up, son.”
Jeremy did the calculations in his head. He was not a large man. He was six feet tall, a hundred and forty pounds, and since he didn’t drink he had about a zero tolerance for the liquor. A full glass would either kill him or put him under the table. Or he’d die under the table. He could see exactly how his corpse would look in his mind.
“I’d really rather not, sir. I have a…”
Mr. Wallace’s expression turned sour as he removed his glass from his lips.
“Are you refusing a man’s gracious hospitality, son?”
This was the most frightening sentence Jeremy had ever heard. He looked away from Jenny’s father for a moment, then glanced at the overflowing glass of brown death in his hand. How could such an angel like Jenny come from this man?
He sighed and brought the liquid to his lips. Mr. Wallace tipped the glass as he did, and instead of an easy sip, he ended up downing a mouthful.
“Spit one drop of that stuff on my floor, my couch, or on yourself, and I’ll have your head. This whiskey’s gold.”
Somehow, Jeremy managed to swallow. He felt like he had been struck in the face with a baseball bat, then like someone was pushing in on his ears from both sides. He coughed, and some whiskey went up into his nose.
“There you are, Steve. Now tell me about your plans for my daughter.”
Jeremy wasn’t sure if the big man was actually crazy or just pretending, but it was an impressive display of bullying, coercion, selective hearing, and outright dominance either way. In the five minutes it took for Jenny and dinner to get ready, he had managed to get him to drink the entire glass of whiskey. He was chewing on an after dinner mint and drilling him with questions that made his head spin when Jenny and her mother mercifully came in to fetch them for dinner. The whiskey and the glasses were mercifully already gone. Mr. Wallace had stowed them a minute before.
Jeremy wasn’t sure how he got to his feet, but he managed somehow. His head was swimming already, and he knew the stuff had barely begun its effect. Already he had only just stopped himself from trying to describe the bizarre scenes that went on in his head. He would have sounded ridiculous doing so sober, and sober he was not.
Jenny smiled at him, and her father put a big arm around his shoulders as they walked into the dining room.
“Jeremy.” So he was back to calling him Jeremy now. “Jeremy, son, you remind me a lot of myself.”
Mrs. Wallace turned around and grinned.
“What a nice thing to say.”
Jeremy’s heart warmed a bit at this- though that may have just been the whiskey. Maybe Mr. Wallace was just a bit of an odd character, but with a heart of gold that would accept anyone who partook with him in the things he loved. Mr. Wallace leaned into his ear and whispered, however, making Jeremy forsake this thought.
“All of the things I hate about myself, that is.”
The color drained from Jeremy’s blushing face. He was glad for Mr. Wallace’s arm around him now, because he was afraid he couldn’t keep his feet alone.
Jenny had said that no matter how much of a disaster tonight was, she would still love him. Not if it went wrong, but when.
Mr. Wallace sniffed at the air as they reached the table and adopted a quizzical expression.
“Jeremy,” he said loudly, incredulously. “Have you been drinking?”
He really hoped Jenny was telling the truth.