We were pulling into the entrance of the restaurant where Roger's parents had organized my official fiancée-meets-fiancé's-family party when Roger leaned over and said, "I told you my family was peculiar, but now you get to find out how strange they really are. I should have told you more about this group a long time ago." He gulped as if he were trying to swallow an entire pot of hot soup.
"Hey, no family is perfect. When you met my little brother he acted as if he were interviewing you for the dork of the year award."
"He's twelve and I made allowances. Besides, he was just showing off. By the time I left he had invited me to his soccer tournament. I'll give you an example: one of my aunts owns 27 cats."
"Domesticated or safari-variety?"
"Tabby, calico, long and short-haired. In a trailer park."
"As long as you don't harbor serial killers."
"Nobody truly mean -- well, Uncle Coot. He likes to argue just to make people angry, about anything. He'll tell you sugar isn't sweet and a concrete block is made of illusion. But, he won't be here tonight. He's recovering after an appendectomy."
"His name is Coot?"
"Not really. That's what my mom nicknamed him years ago. He seems to like it. Coot fits him better than Fred."
A buzz rose from Roger's pocket.
"Please, don't tell me you are on call."
"I'm not. Jake is."
"Jake's been with the company three weeks."
"I'm sure I can call and tell him just what to do. He's new, not stupid. He was hired because he can build a computer out of spare parts. Let me introduce you to a few of the crew, and I'll slip out and come right back in."
I sighed and put on a performer-with-stage-fright smile as Roger's sister met us at the door. "Come on in. We have a hall-sized room in the back. Mom's got it decorated in the colors you chose for our bridesmaids' gowns. You're going to love it! We have yellow and green streamers, potted paper flowers, flameless candles."
Roger's mom waved to us from the buffet. She and his dad appeared to be overseeing the set-up.
Roger moved ahead, probably to escape my glare, as his sister took my arm and began the introductions he had promised.
"Right back," Roger mouthed, thumb and baby finger to his ear as he backed away toward the entrance.
"And this is Miranda Williams," Roger's sister said as Miranda raised her right hand and a few hundred transparent hairs floated around her. I sniffed cat. The feline lover had been identified. But her conversation seemed normal, even borderline boring: What kind of paper cups did I like most? Did I think summer would linger through October this year?
Conversation hummed in the background, nothing out of the ordinary.
Come on, Roger. How long does it take to make one phone call?
"Hello." A bone-slender woman who appeared to be at least ninety wheeled her chair toward me. "I'm Great-Grandma Tilly. And you are as sunshiny-bright as the decorations your almost mother-in-law chose for you. Gold to show off your honeymoon-trip tan?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Well, pull up a chair and tell me all about yourself." She leaned forward. Her dress fit as if it were still on the hanger, loose, too large for her feeble frame. Otherwise Grandma offered good company.
I relaxed. So far I hadn't met anyone who made me feel like running out the door, even if I was slightly irritated at my fiancé. Where was he anyway? I told Grandma Tilly about the company where Roger and I worked, a little about my family -- the basics, and then asked about her youth.
"Things were much different in my day," she said. "Not better, just different. I'm not sure I know what a computer is now. Not sure I could figure it out anyhow. And we sure didn't have anything like that when my Joseph and I were young.
"We had an orchard, apples, all kinds, and we sold them at markets around town. Never made much money from that kind of life. But Joseph wanted his Tilly to have the best someday. So, he scrimped and he saved until he had enough to buy me a ring, the most beautiful one he could find. And even though he died twenty years ago, I never take that ring off. It would be like throwing my Joseph away. I could never do that."
She extended her left hand; it was bare. I tried to swallow a gasp, but it was useless. Perhaps she meant her right hand. Nothing there, either. I didn't know what to do. Maybe there never was a ring and Grandma Tilly was one of those peculiar people Roger had warned me about.
"My ring, it's missing!" Tilly screamed.
The noise in the hall stopped.
"Grandma, we'll help you look," a little boy of about seven said.
In the darkened hall, finding a dropped ring would not be easy -- if Tilly had dropped a ring. At that moment I wasn't sure what I should do, but I looked down anyway. All I saw was a well-swept floor with a few reflections from the overhead lights. All I really wanted to find was my wayfaring almost-husband. And at that moment, I wasn't so sure he wasn't crazy.
When I looked up Roger stood at my side. "System crashed throughout half the state. It took a little more explaining than I expected, but Jake has everything under control. So, what's going on here?"
The child who initiated the search answered Roger's question. I was grateful because my response would not have been appropriate for his ears.
Roger nudged his sister. "Sis, got a quarter? I'm sure I have fifty cents. I saw ..."
"Where?" his sister interrupted.
"By the side door. That's where I made my call to the office."
"You're a lifesaver, bro."
"What?" I asked.
She fished a quarter from her purse. "We'll explain it all in a jiff. In the meantime, keep looking. And here's a hint. If you find precious rubies, they don't belong to Great-Grandma."
I glanced around the hardwood floor, but really I watched the family as some people climbed on their hands and knees and others comforted the older woman. Sure, it was a scene from a comedy show, but there was some real love going on, too.
Then Roger came back. I watched him as he opened what looked like a plastic egg from a vending machine and he pushed the plastic into his pocket.
"I found it! I found it!" he shouted.
Then he knelt down in front of Tilly's wheelchair. "This has to be done right, Miss Tilly. On behalf of the late Joseph Baring, will you love him and his family for the rest of your days?"
"I will," Tilly answered.
The entire group cheered.
I held my breath as she looked down at the plastic on her finger. She didn't seem to notice she wore a toy. She must have seen her past reflected in Roger's words.
"Is there another plastic ring on the floor somewhere?" I asked Roger in as soft a voice as I could and yet be heard over the family's enthusiasm.
"Maybe. Or it could be in her bed at the nursing home, in my sister's car. It's hard to say. There was a ring. Once. With pearls and diamond chips. Nobody knows what happened to it. We think it was stolen at some time after Grandma was diagnosed with dementia. Usually we have another ring on hand. We slipped up this time."
"Then again. Maybe you didn't. I reached my arm through his. "Do you, Roger Baring, 'promise to love me and our someday family all the days of our lives?'"
"Only if you can handle a nice kind of crazy."