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Meet My Sister, Jess
By Kristin Billerbeck
Truly YoursCopyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Tess Ellison nervously checked her appearance in the small mirror next to the front door. She had left her full, dark brown tresses to dry on their own, and they had curled up into childish ringlets. "I can't believe people pay to have their hair permed. What a mess," she grumbled, lifting the mass into an oversized barrette to keep it off her face.
She noticed the reflection of her brother. He was sitting in his usual position before the blaring television set, carefully threading an ancient reel-to-reel tape player and watching the shiny brown ribbon as it escaped one rotating reel and entered the other. He would continue the procedure until the tape was completely wrapped around one of the reels. Then he would reverse the rotation and start the process again, mesmerized by the circular motion.
Seeing him so relaxed when she was so uptight exasperated her. "Robby, you need to get your shoes on. Clark will be here soon." He ignored her and began making clicking noises to drown her out. "Robby, if you don't get your shoes on, I'm leaving you here!" she screamed. Just then the doorbell rang, and Tess inhaled deeply before answering the door.
Clark Armstrong, Tess's fiancé, appeared in the door frame. His smile abruptly disappeared when he noticed Robby in the background. "What's he doing here?" Clark demanded, crossing his arms. "We had a date, Tess."
"I know, but Robby got kicked out of his group home yesterday. I tried to call you at work but they said you were in court all day. He's here until I find him a new place." Tess knew Clark had little patience for her adult, developmentally disabled brother and even less for Tess's taking care of him. Tess hated being caught in the middle.
"He's a grown man. You can't drop your life every time he gets himself into trouble." Clark looked at her expectantly, then went on. "I put aside my work to be with you tonight. I've got cases ready to go to trial."
"He's autistic, Clark. You can't have the same expectations for him as for a normal adult. Where's your Christian compassion?"
Clark raised a palm. "Don't try to turn this on me. Sugar-coat your terms all you want, but your brother's retarded and needs to be in a home with professionals who can care for him. You've got to work to support yourself, and someday you will be raising our family. I'm not trying to be a villain here—I'm trying to do what's best for you in the long run." He stroked her cheek and walked past her into the living room. Robby soon noticed Clark's presence and rushed toward Tess's fiancé.
Robby was thrilled at the sight of someone new.
"Clark! Clark, why you wear suits? You like ties? You got a secretary, Clark?" Robby's burly frame approached and hugged the clean-cut lawyer with the force of a full-grown bear. The smaller Clark struggled to free himself, but Robby would have none of it. He only increased his grip and mussed Clark's carefully coiffured blond hair.
"Robby, stop it!" Clark yelled. "Tess, could you do something, please?" Robby eventually lost interest in the struggle and released the distraught man. Clark straightened out his suit and sighed repeatedly.
Tess shrugged. "He's just saying hello. He hasn't seen you in a while." Robby never did this to anyone but Clark.
"You have no control over him." Clark used his hand to smooth his hair into place while he glared at her expectantly.
"Of course I don't; he's thirty years old." Tess knew that wasn't exactly true; usually Robby minded well. But when Clark was around, Robby's behavior worsened. Something about Clark made her brother increasingly more enamored of him. "Look, let's just go somewhere casual for dinner and make the best of it," Tess suggested. "I'll get Kelly to watch him this weekend, and we can go out alone then. Okay?"
Robby was ecstatic at the prospect of going out to dinner and stepped into his black-leather zip-up boots without so much as a word from Tess. Robby gripped Clark's upper arm and spoke closely, and because Robby was slightly deaf, loudly. "I want to go to Rockin' Rolls; they got a jukebox."
Tess smiled and Clark turned around to chastise her. "I fail to see the humor in this. I had reservations at Le Maison."
"I don't think Le Maison would welcome us tonight. Besides, I'm not exactly dressed for it." She spread out her arms and let her fiancé see her worn jeans and T-shirt. "I had to take the afternoon off to collect Robby's things from the home. I haven't had a chance to change or shower."
"All right, then, the burger palace it is." Clark shook his head and grinned, breaking away from Robby. "But Tess is my date, okay?" He took her arm and whispered, "I'm sorry I was so angry; it was just the timing. I wanted to discuss our wedding plans. We've only got six months to go, and a lot of details remain."
The countdown made Tess even more nervous. In only six months she would be Mrs. Clark Armstrong. She hoped she was doing the right thing. She nodded and tried to appear excited about the wedding plans. She took Clark's arm, and the couple followed Robby to the car.
Because of Robby's girth, he elected to sit in the front seat of the sports car, so Tess climbed into the back, patting her fiancé's shoulder to help him control his rising blood pressure.
* * *
The restaurant was loud and boisterous: children cried, the jukebox belted out tunes from the fifties, and waiters shouted food orders to the cooks behind the enormous steel counter.
The host came forward and Robby immediately perked up. "What's your name?"
"Uh ... Jim," the host replied, obviously uncomfortable with Robby's interest.
"Jim, meet my sister, Tess." Robby motioned toward her and she smiled politely, the way she always did when Robby introduced her to everyone nearby.
"How ya doing?" Jim asked.
"Jim, you like Buddy Holly or Elvis?" Robby asked. He cocked his head and waited expectantly, moving closer to the host when the answer didn't come immediately.
Robby's speech was loud, fast, and slurred, and strangers often could not discern his words. Nearly always, they looked to Tess to decipher his questions. She either would do that or reprimand her brother, depending upon the situation.
"Robby, step back and let Jim work," Tess pleaded. "He likes Elvis," she added, answering for the host. Robby backed away, ready to find someone new. They sat in a family-style booth, with Tess seated across from her brother and Clark, who sat on the outside to keep Robby in his seat. The busboy delivered ice waters to the table.
"What's your name?" Robby asked, tossing aside his menu.
"Okay, Robby, no more questions," Tess said. "If you ask any more questions, we're going to have to leave. You need to let the people work."
"It's all right. My name is Michael," the busboy said as he placed the waters and silverware on the table.
"Michael, meet my sister, Tess," Robby said, gesturing proudly toward his sister.
Michael shook hands with Tess while Clark rolled his eyes. "Is this necessary?" Clark muttered. "I mean, do we have to meet absolutely everyone in the place? Because I think there might be some employees in the back we forgot to greet."
"You like my Buddy Holly glasses?" Robby inquired.
Michael nodded, and Tess shot her brother a threatening stare. Robby put up a hand, knowing his sister had reached her limit. "Okay, okay." He opened his menu and hid behind it while he assessed everyone in the restaurant.
"Robby, they have hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried shrimp. What do you want?" Tess questioned.
"Uh, I want a hamburger, french fries," Robby responded, lifting his hand to summon the waiter before Tess pulled his arm to the table.
Clark sank further into the red vinyl seat. He had removed his suit jacket and tie, but he still looked out of place in the nostalgic burger joint. Tess felt sorry for him; she herself had had a lifetime of dealing with Robby and his public escapades. Nothing surprised or embarrassed her anymore; it was just a way of life. Clark seemed to feel that everything Robby did was a direct reflection on him, and Tess had no idea how to alleviate her fiancé's uneasiness.
"I have to go to the bathroom," Robby broadcast loudly.
"Fine, Robby." Inwardly, Tess cringed at the announcement, but she turned to Clark, an innocent look in her eyes. "Clark, do you mind?" she asked softly.
"Taking Robby to the bathroom. One time he got slugged for talking to someone in the bathroom." In truth, Tess never really knew if Robby needed to use the bathroom or not. Usually he just wanted to pose questions to bystanders, and since Tess couldn't enter the men's room, it was a perfect opportunity.
Clark threw his menu on the table. "Fine. I'll do it." He leaned in closely, whispering in Tess's ear. "You're pushing it now. Order me a veggie burger." He took Robby by the arm and handled several conversations Robby had along their route.
Tess sat sipping her Pepsi and tapping her foot to the music. Minutes passed. After the pair had been gone awhile, she allowed herself a flicker of hope; perhaps Clark was trying to accommodate Robby. Tess had hoped that as her fiancé spent more time with her brother, Clark would grow to understand Robby and be less annoyed by his idiosyncrasies. But the opposite seemed to be happening. Tess found her stress level rising every time her two men came into contact. She only felt uncomfortable with Robby when they were with Clark.
She dropped her head into her hands and muttered a heartfelt prayer. "Please Lord, let Clark see the good in Robby."
Robby returned to the table with his spirits high, while Clark was clearly distraught. Suddenly Robby turned and bounded away, and Clark yelled in exasperation, "Robby, get back to this table—now!" Clark gestured sharply, as if he were directing a wayward puppy. When Robby ignored him, Clark slammed his hand on the table, causing the silverware to crash noisily.
Everyone in the restaurant glared at Clark. All could see that Robby was different, but a professional, educated man should know better.
Robby came back to the table tugging one of the most handsome men Tess had ever seen. It wasn't like her to notice good-looking men, but this one was hard to ignore. He was tall, raven-haired, and had blue eyes the color and clarity of a Sierra stream. Tess felt herself being drawn into their depths. His jawline was sharp, and his nose mirrored the perfection found in classical sculpture. His expression was open and inviting, and the crinkles beside his eyes and mouth promised a ready smile. He was attired simply: well-worn jeans and a Stanford sweatshirt.
Tess was mesmerized. Abruptly, she realized she was staring and dropped her eyes to the floor, but they were immediately drawn back to him.
"Meet my sister, Tess," Robby announced in typical fashion. Tess shyly looked the stranger in the eye, keeping her chin low. The thought that Robby should introduce her to more handsome men like this stranger entered her mind, but she immediately chastised herself. She was, after all, getting married in six months.
To her surprise, the man threw an arm around Robby and held out his other for a greeting. "Tess," he said. "What a pleasure to finally meet you. Robby has told me so much about you. He said you are beautiful, but I figured he was probably being kind since you are his sister."
Clark rolled his eyes again. Tess stood and felt tiny next to the tall man. She held out her hand and he took it firmly. "It-it's nice to meet you," she said. "You know Robby?"
"I'm Robby's new social worker from the Bay Regional Center. I spend two afternoons a week with him. We come here all the time—great burgers." He slapped Robby's back gently. "I think all Robby cares about is the jukebox," he added.
Tess laughed, and the social worker's smiling eyes seemed to warm her. Tess heard Clark groan.
"The name's Greg Wheaton," he began again. "What a nice surprise. I was planning to call you tonight to discuss home options for Robby."
"Amen to that," Clark interjected.
"What?" Greg asked, and Tess turned to glare at her fiancé.
"Greg, this is my fiancé, Clark Armstrong."
Tess stepped out of his way, but Clark simply gave a half-salute and muttered, "How ya doing?"
"Do you mind if I steal your fiancée for a moment, Clark? I'd like to discuss the case with her, since I have this unexpected opportunity."
"Be my guest," Clark replied sarcastically. "I was just enjoying the ambiance here anyway." Tess felt leaving Clark alone with Robby was exactly what Clark deserved for his childish behavior.
Outside the restaurant, a loudspeaker trumpeted Robby's music choices. Realizing Greg Wheaton was the type of man who must attract women like a magnet, Tess found it odd that he would be dining alone at Rockin' Rolls. Does he have a wife waiting at home? she wondered. She tried to fight what she was experiencing—a strange attraction that wouldn't let her take her eyes off of him. She knew he probably was used to being stared at due to his stunning good looks, but Tess also knew that staring wasn't proper. Try as she might, though, she didn't seem to be able to control her gaze.
"I apologize for interrupting your dinner," Greg began, "but as you know, your brother has been getting into some serious trouble lately. I've been dealing almost daily with the group home management throughout my entire two months on the job. They told me my next step would be to talk with you, but I assumed they'd let me know before they kicked him out. I'm sorry. I-I feel like I failed Robby."
Tess was stunned. Normally, social workers spoke legalese and covered themselves in all ways possible to avoid lawsuits and paperwork. Not so this man. She found herself being equally open with him.
"There's a young woman who has been in various programs with Robby since they were children," she said. "They are volatile together, and when she moved into the group home, I knew Robby's days were numbered. I'm not trying to blame her, but you'd think with their history, the county would know better than to place them in the same home. Don't they keep records? I mean, what's this constant parade of testing and questions if no one's going to look at the records?" Realizing she was allowing intense emotion into her voice, Tess paused to gather her thoughts.
"Don't be discouraged," Greg said kindly. "When you're dealing with someone like Robby, you have to take it one day at a time. I'm sure I'm not telling you anything new." His tone wasn't patronizing—it was gentle, concerned, sincere. She felt he really understood Robby, and that was a first among Robby's various social workers.
Tess found herself wishing Clark possessed a little compassion where Robby was concerned, but then realized it was due to Clark's stable personality that she thought he'd make an excellent husband.
"Look, I'd like to meet with you tomorrow and give you some of Robby's options for homes in the area. I assume you work. . ."
"I do, but I'm willing to take the day off. When Robby's bus is late for his day program, I'm late for work. So my boss is as anxious as I am to get this resolved. Robby's been kicked out of three homes in the last two years. My boss is pretty understanding, but you can imagine that his satisfaction with me is really being put to the test."
"Do you mind if I ask what you do?"
"I'm an executive secretary at the Nob Hill Hotel in San Francisco. My boss is the general manager."
"That sounds exciting. I bet you get to meet a lot of interesting people."
"Oh, I do—Tony Bennett was there last week," Tess said enthusiastically.
Clark's friends were all so well educated, they failed to see the glamour in a secretarial position of any kind. So she was always reluctant to talk of it. During Tess's second year of college, her mother passed away, and Tess dropped out and took a secretarial position while she tended to her mother's estate settlement and her brother's care arrangements. It was a decision she never regretted, except when asked about her university education. People were well-meaning, but they always made her feel so stupid.
"I'm going to quit work and go back to school when I get married," she added.
"Why?" he asked innocently. "Is there something you'd rather do?" His gaze locked with hers, and she bit her lip self-consciously.
"I don't think so. I like being a secretary."
"Oh." He nodded, and Tess suddenly felt even more stupid than she did when around Clark's associates. "So, is tomorrow okay then?" he continued.
"Uh ... what time?" she asked.
"How's 8:30? I thought you might let Robby stay home from his day program. We could spend the day out of his routine, discussing his needs. That would give me a better understanding of his independence skills. We could do something fun; maybe we could go roller skating in Golden Gate Park?"
"Roller skating?" she asked, astounded. "With Robby?"
"Why not?" He shrugged. "He'd love it, and what better way to meet the people of San Francisco." He laughed, and she watched him curiously. He knew Robby.
She couldn't think of a reason to say no. "That sounds great. Robby will love it. I've been so busy lately, I haven't taken him out much," she admitted, a hint of guilt in her voice.
Excerpted from Meet My Sister, Jess by Kristin Billerbeck. Copyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Truly Yours.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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