Everyone has at least one weakness. Mitch Wilder’s is women. He has always been fussed over, coddled and protected by them. As a teenager he was the star football quarterback, always surrounded by girls, as he used his good looks and popularity to his advantage. By thirty-nine years of age, he hasn’t slowed down. Mitch still sneaks from bedroom to bedroom.
When his father dies in 1967 Mitch’s world starts to fray at the seams. His father’s will states that Mitch has inherited the shipping company, which Mitch has been running for eight years, ever since his father retired. But up until then the company had remained in his father’s name. While the inheritance isn’t a surprise, the stipulation that Mitch must hire his stepbrother, Tom Fleming, is. On top of this, Tom will own half the company within five years. If this doesn’t happen the company will be sold and the proceeds will go to charity. Mitch sees no choice but to hire his brother.
He had only gone to the funeral for one reason, to make sure his father was dead. Mitch Wilder waited in his rented Mercedes across the street from Wharton's Funeral Home and watched the people fight the blustery wind to go inside. What a hell of a day for a funeral. He took stock of who showed up for his old man’s service. He certainly didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be...home. It had taken him twice as long to drive from Hamilton than usual. Wind blowing snow across the highway slowed traffic significantly. But by the time he'd gotten to Highway 15 and driven into Port Shetland the wind had eased somewhat.
Mitch picked up the single red rose on the seat beside him and held it up to his nose. With eyes closed he inhaled the sweet fragrance and brought the image of his mother to his mind. Her arthritic hands were what he saw first, disjointed fingers curving over her thumbs. He could hear her labored breathing as she pushed her heavy body out of a chair. Her knees would crack. A tear dampened his cheek. He wiped it away with the back of his hand.
Mitch remembered the last time he was inside this funeral home. It had been fifteen years ago when his mother died. Then: a week after his mother's funeral, he'd been drinking---which gave him courage---and walked up to his old man. “So, you going to move in with Stella?”
Len took a step back. “How do you know about Stella?”
Mitch glowered. “I've known about your mistress for years, Dad.”
Len eyed Mitch for a few heartbeats before he said, “I hope you don't hate me, son. I'm going to move in with her.”
Mitch's eyes were cold as he raised his chin...then hit his father. It had taken his old man by surprise.
After he staggered backward Len wiped the blood from his nose. “That’s the last time you hit me, Mitch. The next time you’ll be written out of my will for good.”
“I don’t want your damn money.” Mitch held his clenched hands at his sides.
“Watch your step, Mitch.” His father glared at him. “I can take the company away from you.” “You were the one who kept begging me to work for you.” Len nodded. “And I'll make sure you don't inherit it too. Maybe...”
“Maybe what?” Mitch finished his whiskey and set the glass down.
Len took several breaths then said, “Maybe I'll leave it to your brother.”
“What?” Mitch blinked several times. “What brother?”
“You have a brother, Mitch. His name is Tom.”
Mitch clenched his hands again, then thinking better of it, he let them hang loose at his sides. “Well, I don't want anything to do with your bastard.”
Len held onto Mitch's sleeve, his eyes glistening. “I'm sorry, son. But your mother couldn't... I needed...”
Mitch stormed out of the house and despite his father's attempts to reconcile throughout the years Mitch kept them from getting close. Even as they worked together. After that day, every time Mitch had a few drinks they'd end up in an intense argument. More than once Nora’s husband, Joe, stepped in between them. Then Mitch and Len would come to an uneasy truce until the next time Mitch had a few too many.
Mitch sighed as he opened his eyes. The rose in his hand didn't seem to be as bright as it was when he bought it that morning. He twirled it back and forth between his thumb and forefinger. The idea was to place it on his mother’s grave after the service. But as a gust of wind shook the car and made him shiver he decided not to go out to the cemetery. “This stupid little flower would just blow away, anyway.” Scowling, Mitch whipped the rose against the back of the seat beside him. Three petals flew off. “Sorry, Mom.”
Mitch set the rose back on the seat. A quick glance at his watch told him he couldn’t delay this any longer. He checked his image in the rear-view mirror and straightened his tie. After a deep sigh Mitch forced himself to open the car door.
He stepped into the lobby of the funeral home. JT Wharton, the owner's son directed him to the room on the left. To get his bearings, and to delay this for as long as possible, Mitch picked up one of the announcements and read it. In Loving Memory, it said. He scoffed. Maybe in Nora’s loving memory but not his. Leonard J. Wilder passed away March 25, 1967. Mitch stuffed it into his pocket before he took off his coat, hanging it up on the rack where dozens of others mingled with his tailored one. It surprised Mitch to see so many people there, he didn’t think his father was very well liked. He forced himself to walk through the double doors and down the aisle, between the two rows of seats, toward the front.
Claire Lester sat in her seat wondering if Mitch would show up today. It was late, the service was about to start. She thought about four years ago when her mother died, and how disappointed she was that Mitch hadn't been there. He had been close to her mother. Maggie was the nurse who attended his mother with her arthritis and swollen knees.
Even at a very young age Claire had a crush on Mitch. She used to follow him around the house, so he'd pay attention to her. Mitch was a charmer. Maggie could sit for hours and watch him eat or play, or tease Claire and his sister, Nora. And he'd grin up at her as if he knew how cute he was. Then he'd say something about his mother's crooked hands and the tears would flow. Maggie would give him a hug and rub his back. Not that she ignored Nora. She didn't. But Claire knew that Mitch had been her favorite of the two. And as they grew older, Mitch would give Maggie flowers and never forgot her birthday. “He's such a nice boy,” she'd say.
Mitch always stopped in to see Maggie after he grew up. He'd peck her on the cheek and she'd blush. Then Claire's father would let out a harrumph and say, “He's just schmoozing with you like he does with all the pretty girls.”
But Maggie didn't care and told Bud he was jealous. Bud would shake his head and walk away. He never argued with Maggie. He'd only argue with Claire in the way Mitch treated her. Mitch walked past the row she sat in. Claire must have sucked in her breath because her father put his hand on her lap. She didn’t need to look at him, she knew what she'd see: his brow would be deeply creased, eyes dark and narrowed, his face flushed and mottled. His “Mitch” look.
Yet, she knew even then where she’d be that night. Whenever Mitch Wilder was in town, she was his. It didn’t matter if she was dating anyone else; that man was supposed to step aside. Any man interested in her soon found out who owned her when Mitch came home. She suspected that he threatened them. Claire bit her bottom lip as she watched him walk up to his sister and knew her current boyfriend was next in line. She wondered if Stan knew Mitch had come home and if she could head off a fist fight.
Mitch stood beside Nora and looked down at the casket. Claire felt the wetness between her thighs and the heart palpitations. Besides being very well hung, Mitch knew how to please her like no one else could. She squirmed in her seat at the thought. Why did Mitch always do that to her?
“Sweetheart,” her father whispered in her ear, “stay at my place tonight. You don’t have to be with him, you know?” He patted her lap. “You're with Stan now. Remember it.”
“I know,” she said as she watched Mitch. The mention of Stan made her feel guilty. What about Stan? She was very fond of him. He was easy to talk to, they liked the same kind of music. Stan was gentle and considerate.
But she had been in love with Mitch since high school. They'd date, have a fight, he'd take off. Sometimes for years at a time. Then when Claire thought she'd gotten over him, she'd start dating someone else only to have Mitch show up, sending her into a whirlwind. In the last five years she hadn't dated at all until she started seeing Stan. And now Mitch was back, and her heart ached for him.
Mitch stood an even six-feet, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, like a football player. In her mind, Claire could feel his rippled abs and long lean legs around her. He was what women dreamed about. She knew too that Mitch would screw around on her. But she couldn't help what the heart wanted. And as Mitch stood up front, Claire found herself pining for him.
Mitch heard someone whisper as he walked up to the casket. “There he is, he did come home after all.” He looked neither left nor right but kept a steady gaze on his sister until he stopped beside her. “I’m sorry, Nora,” he told her as he gave her a hug. “For you, I'm sorry.”
“Oh Mitch, I’m so glad you’re here.” Nora lifted her face up so he could give her a kiss on the cheek. He took her hand and nodded over his sister’s head at her husband. Joe returned the nod then looked back down at the casket. They were probably the only two people glad to see Mitch there.
He forced himself to follow Joe’s gaze and looked down at the waxen man who lay before him. Len’s face was transparent, with purple-black spots that looked like bruises. Snakelike blue veins ran along the tops of his hands. He wore a navy suit Mitch had never before seen. A pair of glasses sat on his face. There was no wedding ring or any jewelry. His father looked old and gray, much older than his seventy-six years. Mitch had an urge to wipe a strand of white hair from his forehead. Not out of sentiment, but because it didn’t belong there. Len looked like he was grinning. Even in death his father looked arrogant. There would be no tears, not from Mitch. He didn't harbor remorse or guilt. Whatever he had thrown at his old man throughout the years, Mitch thought he deserved it.
You don’t preach to us about your high morals only to screw around on your wife! That was the hatchet. He couldn’t let go of it. His father had expected him to welcome his brother, Tom. Not going to happen. Tom can go to hell. There he was, in the corner. Mitch glared at his half-brother. Tom just sat there with his head down and wouldn’t even look him in the eyes.
After Joe led them to their seats, the minister started them in prayer. Mitch didn’t believe in prayers. Instead he looked past Nora and Joe to their son, Todd. He had begun to fill out and Mitch bet the seventeen-year-old had plenty of girls after him. Todd looked just like his mother with dark hair, high cheekbones, and a pouty mouth. The last time he saw his nephew was four years ago. That was how long it had been since he was home. Even then Mitch only stayed for a couple of weeks, enough time to turn this town upside down before he left again.
Mitch still hadn't shed a tear as he looked over at the casket during the third prayer and wondered what his father had done during the last four years. He knew Nora had forgiven Len a long time ago. Daddy’s little girl. Mitch could picture Len pushing her on the swing when she was little. Higher, Daddy. Higher. And Len would smile and push harder. Then he'd turn to Mitch and say, “Put that frog down. You aren't going to scare her with it.” Nora even had a relationship with Tom, sort of---they exchanged Christmas cards. He didn’t though. Even after all these years he blamed Tom for taking his father away from him. And Mitch blamed his father for the man he himself turned out to be.