Rita’s Finger

The groom’s mother fawned over her 25-year-old son. Rita McKay was dressed in a pale pink skirt suit, looking like Jackie Kennedy without the pillbox hat. She set down her enormous, matching purse and stood in the spot reserved for the best man. Rita straightened and restraightened her boy’s boutonnière and licked her fingers to paste down his stray poke of cowlick. She even gave his rump a pat before taking a pew, slinging the rose-trimmed leather satchel to the seat beside her.

Rita McKay approved of Miriam, for the most part. The bride-to-be was a few years older than her son, neat, attractive and always attentive to Lawrence. Miriam was slim and tall and fit nicely into Rita’s old wedding dress. The only tailoring needed was to let out the bust.

Good for Lawrence, his mother thought.

Had Miriam’s parents been alive, Rita probably wouldn’t have taken such an active role in the wedding. She made it clear that this was Miriam’s day, that her future daughter-in-law had final say in everything being planned. So long as it wasn’t lavish or unorthodox, Rita was happy to foot the bill. She even ceded to Miriam’s request for a string quartet. Rita’s only stipulation about the music was that Here Comes The Bride play when Miriam entered.

Miriam, as it turned out, said she wanted that too. It was difficult for Rita to tell if Miriam was being honest. Miriam tended to be a bit standoffish, never really saying how she felt about things. So when it came to the wedding, Rita didn’t know if Miriam was being straightforward in her opinions or just playing along to appease Lawrence.

The one part of Miriam’s ceremony that Rita McKay truly did not like was the ring warming. She didn’t know what it was, for one thing, and if Rita didn’t know about it, it couldn’t be traditional. Secondly, when she found out that complete strangers would be fondling the wedding bands, Rita put her foot down. After all, it was her own wedding band that Lawrence would slip on Miriam’s finger. It was only after her son pleaded on Miriam’s behalf that Rita finally gave into the ring warming.

Miriam should have the wedding she wanted, Rita thought. Even if white gardenias weren’t Rita’s first choice, the decorations turned out lovely. The quartet sounded exquisite. Miriam looked beautiful in the dress. And Lawrence was beaming as the couple stood before the altar.

“As you know,” Pastor Slocum said, “The McKays have been part of our congregation for three generations and we welcome Miriam to the family. I presided over the marriage of Lawrence’s parents and he was baptized in this church. I only wish Clayton, beloved father and husband, was still with us to enjoy this special occasion.”

Rita could hear the restlessness of the crowd hush when Clayton’s name was spoken. And she hoped she had made the right decision by giving Clayton’s ring to Lawrence. No, she had. The ring would bless her son’s marriage just as it had Rita’s. She wanted her son to be as happy as she had been with Clayton, which is why she insisted that Lawrence give the ring to Miriam. It would bring good luck.

“For those of you wondering,” the Pastor continued, “Lawrence and Miriam are passing around a little pillow. Their wedding bands are bound to the pillow with two ribbons, which symbolizes the paths that have brought these two together. Please pass the rings forward, and as you do, Lawrence and Miriam invite you to touch the rings, say a brief prayer or silently give good thoughts to the happy couple. Warm these rings with your best wishes, so Lawrence and Miriam can take your blessings with them onto their new path together.”

Rita McKay suddenly became distracted, hearing that whisper again. She didn’t need to crane her neck to see where the voice was coming from. She knew. She didn’t understand it, but she knew. It started the day she removed her wedding band and gave it to Lawrence.

It was a special ring, one that Clayton McKay had made himself. A friend of his was a metalsmith, and showed Clayton how to make the mold, melt the gold and craft the finished band. He’d done all the work himself and his inexperience showed: it took six attempts before he got anything resembling a simple circle and another half-dozen before the ring was as good as it was going to get. Truth told, it was too thick and a bit lopsided, but Clayton had put all his love into making it. Rita felt a bit selfish keeping it for herself. After all, Clayton’s ring deserved to be treasured, to be part of a couple’s love once again. Which was why Rita asked Lawrence to give it to Miriam.

At first Miriam balked, wanting a ring of her own. It wasn’t until Lawrence came up with the idea that kept both women in his life happy. He would get it inscribed for Miriam. The fact that Miriam accepted this compromise so easily should have been a warning sign for Rita. In the short time she’d known Miriam, her future daughter-in-law always avoided conversation, and when she was forced to talk, seemed shallow and uninteresting. But Rita gave the ring to Lawrence anyway, to show how much faith she had in her son’s decision to marry.

That was when Rita first heard the whisper; the day the jeweler etched L + M Forever inside the ring. Rita shuddered at the memory. She remembered feeling sharp, crawling pain with every new letter, as if they were being scratched into the skin around her ring finger. She had dismissed it as fantasy, an imagined reaction to that naked space on her finger that was no longer wrapped in Clayton’s love.

Then when Lawrence brought the ring home, showed it to Rita and lovingly caressed the new inscription, that was when the whisper started. She couldn’t quite make out the words, but she heard a man’s voice when Lawrence touched the etched letters. What was even stranger, as Lawrence rubbed the inscription, Rita felt a distinct tickle on the skin of her ringless finger.

Now the whisper was back. Rita McKay shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden bench. She felt her ring finger tingle again and a voice—female this time—whispering in Rita’s ear. More than anything she wanted to get up and move around, distract herself by putting her body in motion. But she couldn’t do anything but sit there, couldn’t draw attention to herself, not on Lawrence’s special day. Rita closed her eyes, trying on concentrate on Pastor Slocum’s words. As she squeezed her eyelids together, the inscription on Clayton’s ring burned in her mind:L + M Forever blazed in molten letters so bright it made Rita’s eyes pop wide open.

She felt panic sweat the edge of her scalp. Rita pawed through the purse, jangling and clanking through the contents until she found a pack of tissues. She dabbed her eyes as if she’d been crying, then surreptitiously mopped her brow. She glanced back to see if anyone had noticed, but all eyes in the congregation were fixed on Lawrence and Miriam—all eyes except Gloria Johnson’s, whose head was down. She was staring at the little, purple pillow in her lap, fingering the rings, lips moving in a silent blessing.

Silent to everyone except Rita.

Shh shhhhhhhhhh shh shhhhh shh shhhhhhhhhh, came the whisper. Rita concentrated, trying to make out the words. She rubbed at her ring finger as if twisting a knob to help tune-in the signal. Shhhhhh shh shh shhhhhhhh. Rita shut her eyes tight and focused hard.

The etched letters were still there, like they were scored on the back of Rita’s eyes. This time, as Rita focused on hearing the whisper, the letters seemed to ooze a viscous liquid, as if Gloria Johnson’s thoughts had found passage into Rita’s mind. And just as the whisper became loud enough for Rita to make out the words, it stopped. L + M Forever vanished from her mind.

Instantly, Rita knew the pillow had been passed. She wrenched her eyes sideways to see who had it now.

Becky Mannix had her face raised toward heaven. Shhhhhh shh, Rita strained to make out the words, Shhhhhh shh this a happier, more successful marriage than mine. Please, God.

When she heard the whisper turn into words, Rita was also flooded with sadness. When she closed her eyes, Rita could see the inscription again, the letters letting Becky’s feelings seep in. Rita nearly swooned as she absorbed Becky’s heartbreak and desolation. For as long as she’d known Becky, Rita couldn’t understand why the woman stayed with that brute of a husband. But now Rita could feel the darkness and hopelessness that covered Becky like a rancid syrup. Rita could feel an undertow behind this wave of despair and she bit her lip at the thought of being completely engulfed. She tasted blood, but Rita realized the pain was keeping Becky’s despondence at bay.

“Rita? Are you all right?” Pastor Slocum had said the words.

For an instant she didn’t know where she was. “Fine. This is so, ahh, just so beautiful,” she stammered, “I was. Sorry. I was just thinking about Clayton.” Rita began rummaging around in her noisy purse, wanting to look anywhere but back at the congregation who she knew was staring. Rita extracted a fresh tissue, feigned a dab to each eye, then surreptitiously checked her lip for blood. There was a tiny dot of red.

The pastor nodded and continued his ceremonial drone. All eyes shifted back to the pastor, except Miriam, whose scowl lingered on Rita for an extended moment.

Why was Clayton’s ring causing this, Rita asked herself. To say that she missed the ring was an understatement. After she’d given it to Lawrence, Rita felt unfaithful to Clayton somehow. Not that her son didn’t deserve to have it, but that Rita didn’t know if Clayton would approve of the woman Lawrence was marrying. Was this Clayton’s way of saying the marriage was all wrong or Rita’s own guilt playing tricks in her head? Whatever it was, Rita was convinced that the inscription had scratched open a gateway between her and the ring. Somehow she was connected to anyone who touched it.

And that’s when her finger started tingling again.

Rita thought she might go crazy being trapped here in the church. She wanted nothing more than to run down the aisle, go outside and scream. But all Rita could do was sit there, chew on that cut on her lip and use the pain to keep the emotions from overwhelming her.

In her mind L + M Forever appeared again and another whisper invaded Rita. Shhhhhhh shh so tacky, the whisper said, how old is that fucking wedding dress any way? Boredom and contemptuous criticism poured into Rita, no matter how hard she pushed back against it.

She glared at the person with the ring in her lap. Barbara Voight. Why that old biddy even decided to come was beyond Rita’s comprehension. Rita felt nothing but ridicule, pettiness and universal disdain flow from the woman. This spew of cynicism was making Rita nauseous. Then suddenly, blessedly, it disappeared.

The best man had retrieved the pillow. He walked it up to Pastor Slocum, who snipped the ribbon with scissors. Then he placed the pillow on top of an open Bible that lay on a small table between the bride and groom.

“Cutting this ribbon represents a break from the past. The paths that brought these two together no longer matter. From this day forward they travel a new road, which begins their journey of life together.”

The pastor paused. “Lawrence, please place this ring on Miriam’s finger and repeat after me.”

As Lawrence held the wedding band, a gentle whisper floated into Rita. She was hearing her son’s recitation of vows, and he radiated a warmth and love that was overwhelming to Rita. It made her feel whole, fulfilled, like the first time she held her newborn son. For that instant Lawrence held the ring, she and her son felt like one person.

Then the ring slipped onto Miriam’s finger.

A yawning emptiness filled Rita, a hollow chasm, totally void of feeling. Rita could hear what Miriam was hearing, but Lawrence’s loving vows had no internal resonance with the bride, almost as if they echoed in an empty chamber. Miriam was freakishly indifferent, like any emotion a normal person might feel was completely unavailable to her. This wasn’t apathy—that would be disinterest by choice. No, Miriam’s feelings didn’t seem to exist at all. She wasn’t listening to the vows, she wasn’t thinking, she was simply waiting out the moment.

Rita wanted to vomit.

“Miriam, place this ring on Lawrence’s finger and repeat after me,” the pastor said.

Miriam spoke her lines, her voice laced with disingenuous emotion. And inside Rita, the whisper started: Shh shhhhhhhh just say the words. Concentrate. Get through it and everything will be normal. Marriage is what people do. Smile. Try to look normal.

This was all wrong. These were not the thoughts of a rational person. Rita remembered how nervous she was at her own wedding, when she slipped on Clayton’s ring almost three decades ago. She would have understood a bride being hesitant or even fearing the unknown, but no feelings at all?

Then something bubbled up from the bottom of Miriam’s empty well and Rita struggled for a moment to identify it. Arrogance. Miriam was feeling smug, confident this deception was going to work.

Rita’s ring finger chafed as she scratched and twisted at the relentless tickle. It was as if she was trying to fine-tune the radio station that would explain what was going on inside Miriam. If there was anything inside the bride it was hidden, scabbed over by complex layers of lies and fabrications. Rita tasted bile, as if she were sifting through a pile of rotten meat. Besides arrogance, the only other emotion Rita unearthed was vanity— Miriam knew how perfect she looked playing the part of a bride.

Rita closed her eyes, overwhelmed by her own emotion: sadness. Lawrence, her beautiful boy, was about to marry a woman who was completely dead inside. Behind her eyes, Rita could still see the inscription L + M Forever etched in her mind, but this time she saw a gluey, black ooze seeping from the letters. Forever would Miriam be part of her son’s life unless Rita reacted now. Rita felt a tear trace her cheek. Something needed to be done before Lawrence married that thing.

But what could she do? There was no way for Rita to explain all this. How could she stand up now and explain why she objected to the wedding? People would think she was insane— and maybe she was. The one thing Rita knew for sure, Lawrence would never forgive her if she halted the ceremony. But there had to be an answer, for Lawrence’s sake; for Rita’s as well, as she might always be linked to Miriam’s dark interior. Forever.

Her frown pulled at the cut on her lip. It reminded Rita that pain might provide a way to stop the vile desolation emanating from the bride. Rita bit down on the broken skin and for an instant was able to shake off Miriam’s dead emotions. She chewed the spot harder and Rita imagined electric bursts of pain penetrating the black sludge that flowed through the inscription on Clayton’s ring.

Pain seemed to work. Although her lip throbbed, Rita knew it was only enough to keep the glop from advancing. She knew it was still building up behind the etched letters, waiting to gush forth. If she wanted to push the black muck back where it came from, Rita would need more pain. Now. Something excruciating.

Rita knocked her purse off the pew. She caught one strap, causing the bag to tip, its contents clattered and fell to the floor. Using the noise, Rita bent down and grabbed her ring finger, pulling the digit up toward her wrist. A snap, then the blinding bolt of pain shot to her brain. Rita squelched the scream and bent forward to hide her agony. She pushed hard against the tar-black pus, forcing it back where it came. Her mind witnessed the pain’s white heat as it unclogged the letters on the ring, then Rita turned her scream inward to force a singular thought back through the inscription:

I see you.

“Do you take this man…” Pastor Slocum never finished the sentence, interrupted by the din of junk hitting the floor. He looked up to see Rita bend over in an attempt to keep her purse from falling. The pastor was waving his hand in benediction over Lawrence and Miriam when the bride shrieked. One moment she held the groom’s hands, in the next she was shaking her left hand as if it were on fire.

“Nooooooo!” Miriam keened, then as both pastor and groom took a concerned step toward her, she growled, “Get away from me.”

Rita only heard Miriam’s reaction. Doubled over, Rita forced herself past the pain, back to the inscription in her mind. She could feel Miriam’s panic as it seeped back through the engraved letters. It was a mixture of fear, indecision and weakness, but most of all, Rita felt that Miriam was most frightened at her loss of control. There was no way for Miriam to handle this situation, that everyone was looking at her and had somehow found a way to see into her. Then the whisper came to Rita in rush, like Miriam was having a thousand internal debates at once, trying desperately to sort them and, at the same time, dismissing each one. Shh shhhhhhhh they’ve found me out. I don’t know how. The ring, it burns. Don’t know how to feel. Don’t want to feel. Take this ring off and run. Just get it off

And then the sensations stopped, the inscription disappeared. Rita heard Clayton’s ring strike the floor, like a shrill, musical bell sounding above a rising clamor in the church. Its chime made Rita open her eyes and she sat up.

Miriam was running down the aisle. Her hands hiked up the folds of the wedding dress and she shouldered past people rising from the pews. She barked out terse snippets of anger, “how could I let this happen” and “all I wanted was normal.” Her bridesmaids followed her from the church. The congregation, some standing, others stunned in their seats, didn’t know what to do.

Lawrence staggered a moment, then sat down hard on the step below the altar. Pastor Slocum had the bible tucked under one arm, the other hand resting against the groom’s head. Lawrence had a glazed look; didn’t seem to be staring at anything in particular. Then he dropped his head and saw the ring by his feet. He picked it up and slipped it on the pinkie of his right hand.

Immediately, Rita was awash in her son’s sadness and confusion. She closed her eyes and saw what looked like tears pouring through the ring’s inscription. Lawrence was a tangle of shock and despair.

Rita was feeling her own emotion as well, the effervescence of relief. Although there was no telling the future, Rita knew Lawrence was safe for now. He and Miriam would have to decide for themselves what happened next. But for now, the ring was off Miriam’s finger, so Rita was content.

Still, she felt the pain well-up inside Lawrence. In her mind, Rita tried to take her son’s tears and cradle them in the relief she was feeling. As much as she wanted to console her son, the thing he needed most right now was solitude. Rita could feel him through the ring.

Rita stood up. The throb in her hand was awful, but she forced it into a fist so that no one would see her broken finger. She would tolerate the pain to give Lawrence what he needed.

“Pastor?” she said, “Can I have a minute with my son?”

The pastor nodded and began walking down the aisle, encouraging those who remained in the church to accompany him to the exit.

Rita never spoke to her son. As quietly as possible she clawed a few essentials back into her purse and made her way to the back of the church. She looked at Lawrence, slumped on the steps of the altar. And as she turned toward the door, Rita squeezed her fist. A fresh bolt of pain shot into her brain and with it she sent the words I love you.

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