Wedding

w.t. pfefferle


Clare and I were married in the spring, the one time in the year when Phoenix occasionally gets some rain, short severe showers that come down water and end up as steam on the concrete.
Her parents had set up the backyard of their house in Phoenix and we got married and had the reception right there. They had two large tents in case it rained. Everything set up under the tents like a party. A podium for where the minister would stand. There was one table with the cake on it, and number of plates and napkins, the napkins with both our names on them. Another table farther down that had gifts on it, and in the middle a book where people signed their names.
 In the middle of the yard, there were folding chairs, all white. Clare's mom had taken a great deal of time getting forty white chairs. She had rented them from two different rental agencies. They were all exactly the same. You couldn't tell which ones were from which agency unless you looked underneath on the bottom of the seat. She had done a nice job.
I told her my mother had flown in from Seattle for the wedding. None of us knew where my father was. He had been gone for over a year by then.
Before the wedding, Clare's parents had taken it upon ­themselves to make me feel like one of theirs, fussing about me. Clare's dad, Hugh, took me to his barber to get my hair cut. As we sat and waited for the barber to get though with the guy ahead of me, Hugh kept telling me things about his dad. How the old man had beaten all the kids as they were growing up.
“Probably better if he would have just gone off by himself,” he had said to me. He told me about one time his father had blackened both of Hugh's eyes when Hugh had come in late from a social at a school friend's house. Hugh had laughed at the end of the story.
“Ice cream social. Whatever happened to those?”
When I was in the barber chair, and the barber had gone back to get a phone call, Hugh came up to me.      
“Forget what I said about my dad,” he started. “Everybody's different. My dad, your dad. Hell, I've made mistakes. I just don't want you to think you're alone, you know. Your mom is real proud of you. Did I tell you we talked to her on the phone a couple of weeks ago? She sounds real nice. Sounds like she's doing just fine.” He put his hand on my shoulder and when the barber came back Hugh went back to his chair and kept reading his magazine, looking up every once in a while.
“Looks good,” he had said to the barber once.
When my mother arrived at the Phoenix airport, I went alone to pick her up. With her was a man I'd never met. She introduced him and we shook hands. He was a big man, like my dad. He threw one large arm around my shoulders and told me a dirty joke. He laughed very hard and I suppose I did, too. My mom went to check on the luggage and he asked me where he could buy cigarettes. We walked through the terminal until we got to a newsstand. He bought three packs of American Spirits, lighting up a cigarette before we had even left the store. We found my mom at the baggage claim, standing there, looking at claim checks.
I recognized her luggage. Three small brown pieces. All of them a soft cloth material. They had her and my dad’s initials on the handles, and looked to me the same as I remembered them. To her side was a large, red suitcase. Hard body. Pebble finish. She was looking at the claim tag on it, comparing it to the check in her hand.
“That's it, honey,” John had said, reaching past her and yanking it up off the ground. “Hey, boy, you going to help your mom, or am I going to get stuck with them again?” Then he laughed.
My mom had kissed me on the lips when I met her at the gate, but this time she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
“I'm tired,” she said. “Let's go meet the in-laws. They sound like dynamos on the phone.”
§
When the three of us arrived at Clare’s parents’ house, we were welcomed like at a family reunion. Hugh took John out to the bar on the patio. They seemed to strike it up quickly. Once I saw them out at the shed looking at Hugh’s fishing rods. John had one and was talking loudly about a trip he had made to Ketchum, Idaho. When he finished the story Hugh slapped him on the back and one of them kicked over a can of beer that was sitting in the grass.
My mom and Clare's mom sat quietly at the kitchen table and went over a long white piece of legal paper. Clare’s mom would stop at a name, a relative on her side, and tell my mom something about them. An interesting story sometimes. One of the women on the list had two sets of twins, none of them could attend. One of the married couples had been divorced and then married again. The two women sat there drinking tea and reading though lists like that for three hours. After they had gotten all the last minute arrangements out of the way, all six of us, the two mothers, Hugh and John, and me and Clare, had all sat down at the dining room table.
Hugh had cooked ribs on the barbecue. Every once in a while during the afternoon, Hugh or John would pour some beer on the ribs as they smoked outside. They would laugh. But we sat there at the table and ate. Hugh at one end, Clare's mom at the other. Me and Clare on one side, my ­mom and John facing us.
As we ate, I looked at my mother. She was sitting there with another man, and I felt as if I was looking through a fine dusting of smoke. I could see their faces, and I could understand the words they were saying. But none of it made sense. Suddenly I felt orphaned. As if those two people, one my mother, were intruders. Duplicates. A family to stand up for my real family, the one that wasn’t here.
 I felt myself staring often during that meal, but the beer John had drunk, and the wine that Clare's mom had opened for her and my mom obscured their recognition of my eyes. I looked at them, during that meal, and I saw nothing.
§
But the wedding took place on a damp and hot April morning. I dressed in my motel room, at the same place where my mother and John were staying. The mirror in the bathroom had a long, diagonal crack that separated the mirror into two separate pieces, with a small, half-inch crevice in between. No matter where I stood, part of my face was always in that crevice. I had to crouch slightly as I shaved, to see my head, resting my back against the cool side of the shower stall.
 ­The tuxedo I was to wear had been rented by Clare’s mom. It was black, of a somewhat English style, she had told me. When Clare and I told her we were getting married she began sending us photos copied from brochures and catalogs of dresses, tuxedos, tents, chairs.
As I was combing my hair one last time John came through the adjoining doors, his suit on, his tie knotted badly around his neck.
“Hey, boy,” he had said. “You look all right. Hey, Diane,” he had called to my mother. “The boy looks great.”
“Thank you,” I said.
He sat down with a cough on my bed. “Dammit,” he said. “You smoke?”
“No,” I said.
“Good. Don't start. Thirty years of this shit is enough, know what I mean?”
I finished with my hair in the bathroom, this time standing tall, the extra height of my shoes lifting my head slightly above the crack. I went out into the room and looked at John. He was bouncing up and down on the bed.
“Hey, Diane,” he had called. “He's got one of those Magic Fingers, too. “ He winked at me and kept bouncing.
I picked up the plastic box that contained the flower I was supposed to wear. I looked in the mirror and pinned it on myself, just a little lower than the hole in the lapel of my jacket.
“Well, boy,” John had said. “You're a man now, huh?”
I looked at him and for some reason I thought to myself that maybe he looked a bit like my dad. Maybe John was a little taller. Not quite so big, though. His hair was a different color. Maybe that was it. But I knew then, in that instant, that my dad would not be coming back to me and my mother.
 Sometimes things come to you in a flash, as if they're destined. That was what this was like. I looked into his eyes and saw that he was a good man. Not a great man. He ­was not my father. I knew at that moment, that he was all we'd ever have.
“Hey, boy,” he had said. “Is there something wrong with this tie?”
§
When we got there, Clare's dad met us in the driveway. He took me into the house and left me in a bathroom, out of the way of the bridal party. I could hear John outside telling someone the same joke he had told me at the airport. When he finished I was surprised by how many people were laughing. Above all the laughing, though, I could hear John's laugh best, louder than the rest, still.
When Hugh had put me in the bathroom, he had just opened the door and showed me in. When the door had closed, I realized that I didn't know where the light switch was. Just coming in from the severe light of the spring morning, my eyes were having trouble adjusting anyway. I felt my hand along the wall nearest the door. The wallpaper had ridges, cloth, I thought. But no light.
I felt near the mirror in case there was a switch there, but there wasn't. I think that my heart even started to beat faster as I looked. I began running my hands on all the walls, knocking some towels off a rack once. I spilled some cologne or after-shave out of a small, thin glass bottle, and the smell in the small room made my head spin.
I found the edge of the tub and I sat down, still in darkness. The after-shave smelled like my dad. I don't know why I thought that. I ­don't even know what kind of after-shave he used, but whatever this was that I had spilled, this is what it was like. He would have been here had he stayed with my mother.
He would have come into my hotel room in the morning and would have said something to me, and he would be there next to my mother when I was married. ­He had been leaving us for as long as I could remember. I would come home from school and my mom would be standing at the top of the stairs. He's gone. Gone for good this time, she'd say.
No, he's not. He'll be back.
Not this time. He took everything. He took his clothes, his rifles, his fishing stuff.
My mother would be standing at the top of the stairs, and I always knew that she was wrong. I would tell her that ­my father, like always, would come back. He'd be drunk, or­ just getting over being drunk. His truck would be dirty, covered in mud, like he'd been up in the hills around Wenatchee, just driving around on logging roads.
I was always sure that was how it would turn out, because that's the way it had been. But this time I was in college, and when my mother called me on the phone, I felt that this was different. She told me she had been waiting for two days, and all she had done was sit in her chair in front of the ­TV.
“He'll be back,” I had said that last time. “I guarantee it.”
As I sat on the tub in the darkness, I reached out and my hand found a smooth plastic handle. As I turned it in my hand, I could tell it was some sort of hairbrush. The bristles were very stiff, and in the spaces between the bristles, I could feel hair. As I passed my fingers along it, I could pick up single strands of hair, and I decided that they were Clare's, and I could even make out the color there, I thought, in that room. I don't know how long I sat there touching them.
“You ready, son?” Clare's dad whispered at the door once.
“Yes,” I had said.
Shortly after, I heard music start outside. A Viennese waltz selected by Clare's parents, and played by three men, two of them twins, on violin, viola, and cello. The sound was nice, soothing. I could hear it clearly in the bathroom. I could hear people shuffling past the door. I knew Clare was out there somewhere. I wanted to reach my hand out, touch her. I might just ask her where the light switch was.
Finally, John opened the door. He motioned for me to­ follow him and I walked through the house, now empty, all the guests were seated outside in the white folding chairs.
I went through the patio doors and along the red gravel sidewalk. The brightness of the outside, and the brilliant white tents startled me. I felt as if I would fall if I did not watch my feet take each step. I found the minister and stopped where his hand pointed. The three musicians stopped for a moment. Then they started up with something else. I took a deep breath. The air was muggy, but it was unscented.
§
I could taste the new mown grass from the little patch of lawn in the air. I thought to myself of the date. It was April 23rd. Clare could tell me something about spring. She knew something about it. She knew the seasons, how one went into the other. She knew where the planets were at a time like this, and could point them out in a frightening blue sky. She could tell me what those clouds were high above our white, wedding tent, and if it was likely they would bring us rain. Seeing those clouds ­made me feel better. In a few moments, Clare would be there, and I wouldn't be standing alone.