Louise Farmer Smith
Louise Farmer Smith
Louise Farmer Smith is an award-winning short story writer and the author of One Hundred Years of Marriage: A Novel in Stories. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The Southeast Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Narrative Online, and several other other journals. Four pieces have been anthologized and one has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her essay, "On Betraying Family," will appear in Glimmer Train's October Bulletin.
The wedding was tomorrow, the first Saturday in October, at our Methodist church right here in Magnolia Grove, South Carolina, a beautiful town and true to its name. It was full of huge, ancient magnolia trees. They made the grand houses look even grander and hid the pokey little houses behind their broad, shiny leaves. I loved the ivory-colored flowers that bloomed in late spring and early summer. But I liked the fall better, like now, when it wasn't so hot, and the magnolias lost some of their long leaves, which had turned brown and crisp and crunched when you walked on them.
My dress was a pretty white pinafore. Aunt Rose, who expected brides to wear something shiny and stiff, opened her eyes big when she saw it. "Glory, that get-up looks like nothin' but a sundress some girl from the other side of the tracks would wear."
I had been a burden to Aunt Rose ever since I turned twelve and learned from Rev. Weems that "God loves you just as you are."
"He didn't mean you should be a stubborn mule," Aunt Rose said often. She came to live with me here in our house, which was neither grand nor pokey, after my mother died having a little stillborn boy named Ronnie. Daddy moved to Mexico. He sends us money every month.
Aunt Rose had set up her ironing board in the dining room and was pressing her dress for tomorrow. "And why, if you're so proud of your groom, wouldn't you have a big wedding that would make us all proud?"
Aunt Rose wanted a big wedding to lift up the whole family. Her sister's daughter, Lizzy, could be a bridesmaid in a long dress, and her sister's son, Roland, Jr., would have to wear a suit and tie for the first time in his mean, ugly life. And she, Aunt Rose, could show off to the whole town what good taste she had.
"You're rushing it, you know." She ground the iron against her navy-blue Sunday dress. "You're just infatuated. You don't really know this man."
"Aunt Rose, this is 2003, and a girl in South Carolina can marry who she wants as long as she's at least fourteen" I was nearly eighteen and had graduated from high school last spring.
The poor dress was growing shiny under Aunt Rose's iron, but she kept after it and me. "You're just shutting out my whole family." Lizzy was all right as cousins go, but Roland, Jr. was a snake, and he and his tough crowd were the main reason I was keeping everything small, so that things wouldn't get out of control like they did at the wedding of my best friend, Mary Ivan Carter. After a lot of whiskey and mint juleps at the rehearsal dinner, the bride's brothers and my cousin Roland, who had arrived uninvited, got into a fight with a couple of ushers from Durham, aided by a Mexican waiter.
Roland, Jr. started nosing around me as soon as he heard about the wedding: "Hey, aren't ya gonna invite me, your own cousin?"
"After what you did at Mary Ivan's wedding?"
"That was the fault of those jackasses from Durham."
"Get away from me, Roland Junior."
A week later he'd start in again about how much he wanted to come to my wedding, but he didn't fool me. Roland thought weddings were just folks showing off. The idea of sacred nuptials was beyond his hairy mind. That fight wrecked the VFW hall, and no pictures were taken the next day at Mary Ivan's wedding. Her mother said she didn't ever want to be reminded of how bunged up everybody looked.
Aunt Rose was still mad when she started making the wedding cake, beating egg whites with all the fury she wanted to turn on me. "And why you would choose a stranger is beyond me with so many fine boys around here wanting to marry you."
"Hell, Aunt Rose, no one around here wants an uppity girl like me." It was hard for Aunt Rose to argue with that. She went right on punishing the angel food. She'd been mad at me for weeks because I wouldn't allow a shower or a bachelor party or let her give a rehearsal dinner.
"This little bitty wedding just looks like you're hiding something," she said as she poured the batter into the tube pan. "Even the folks across the tracks are whispering you might be expecting."
"I didn't know you had a lot of contacts with folks across the tracks."
"You hush up!"
This last was very strong language coming from a woman who prided herself on her gentility. I did hush. Arguing with Aunt Rose was, to speak harshly myself, just pissing in the wind, and I knew I mustn't provoke her or she would haul out her big cannon, which always split my heart: Your mama is looking down from Heaven, helpless to prevent her only daughter from letting everybody down.
Dan was a tall, slim, quiet, high school science teacher I met near the end of August. He was visiting with family at the state park, and I was on a church picnic. You just know when someone's right. You bend over twin water fountains and come up grinning at each other. You sit on a park bench, and even though you haven't figured out what to say yet, you feel comfortable 'cause being a little embarrassed was something you were doing together, the blood rising in both your faces.
Dan looked me right in the eye that day, and even though I wanted to duck my head, I didn't because I owed him my courage to be a grown-up because it was clear he was a grown-up, the kind of man who wouldn't back down from what he believed, the kind of man who would think about things.
When I think about Dan being a teacher, it makes me so proud I hug myself. If he'd been my teacher, any of my teachers, I would have been the best student in the world. I love to listen to him talk, especially about controversial topics like evolution and global warming. He makes me feel like he's letting me in on secrets no one else in town knows. I just fill up with yearning. I grew up with plenty of yearning. I just never knew exactly what I was yearning for. But now I know. Life with Dan. To build a deck and put up curtains with him. To be the one who goes to the high school games with him, watches television with him, listens while he talks about his students. In all the hours we'd talked, he'd never been snide about his students. It wasn't that he didn't see them for what they were—he called the tough guys on the back row of his science class "my crafty thugs," and he'd bailed more than one of them out of jail. I wanted to be the wife of that man.
After we met in the state park, he drove to our house the next morning, and we sat in the porch swing and talked all day. I tried to tell him all my faults so that there wouldn't be any surprises later to disappoint him. He said he knew he wanted to marry me when he saw me playing with some little kids, cousins of mine, swinging them and singing "Old McDonald." He had watched me and then headed for the fountain when he saw me go for water. We met four times more, every weekend in September. Mary Ivan drove me up to a Comfort Inn halfway to Columbia. And Dan drove south over five hundred miles from Alexandria, Virginia. The first time he brought me a cell phone so we could talk. I told Aunt Rose that Mary Ivan and me were taking a series of crafting workshops.
I couldn't believe that I, Glory Flannery, was doing this sinful thing, but the doing was a whole lot easier than I thought it would be. With Dan guiding me, and my body taking over the way it did, my worries just got burned up in the fire.
Dan was coming in tonight. He was going to stay with Aunt Rose's sister, which is stupid. I mean here, at the last minute, for Aunt Rose to make a show of protecting my virtue in front of a town that had already decided I was pregnant. Talk about your barn door.
As Aunt Rose and I climbed up the stone front steps of the church for the wedding, the broken muffler in my cousin Roland, Jr.'s rusted-out Ford came belching around the corner. Three of his worthless scumbag buddies were in the car with him. He hung his head out the window and raised a beer bottle. "Here's to the bride!" he hollered. Aunt Rose put her arm around me. He'd love to humiliate both of us for knowing what an ignorant mess he was, thrown out of school, barely able to read. It was a relief to know that driving around drinking beer was what he had planned for his afternoon.
I was a little surprised that Dan wasn't already in the church. Each time we'd met at the Comfort Inn, he arrived up to half a day ahead of me. He was now five minutes late for the ten o'clock wedding. Why didn't Dan call me on his cell phone?
The eleven of us waited at the back of the church: Aunt Rose, Aunt Jean, Jean's husband, Stan, my cousin Lizzy, Reverend Weems, three neighbor ladies Rose felt she couldn't leave out, Dr. Ruffin, who'd delivered me, Mary Ivan, and me.
"Glory, where is Dan?" Aunt Rose's bosom was heaving and rolling her glass beads around. "Jean, Jean, go back and tell him to get a move on!"
Jean, who always obeyed her sister Rose, headed back to her car. She had left her house before Dan this morning so she could get over here to arrange the flowers, two bouquets of late-blooming, purple delphiniums that stood on the chancel at the front of the church.
We waited. The neighbor ladies all agreed my dress was sweet. Cousin Lizzy leaned her elbows on a windowsill, keeping her back to the rest of us. Mary Ivan stayed at my side. She had bought a new, baby-blue pants suit for the occasion. She talked about picking out the little white purse she'd given me and said how nice married life was. She got out her wallet to show me a new picture of little Galt, her baby boy. Rev. Weems kept giving me little sympathetic smiles. His wife had run off years ago.
Finally I realized I should invite the neighbor ladies, the doctor, and Lizzy to make themselves comfortable on the front pews. I wanted Aunt Rose to go down with them, but she would not be moved, and the waves of worry that rose off her began to make me sick.
Finally Aunt Rose's cell phone made its little Dixie jingle. She spoke softly. "Uh-huh, uh-huh." Her jaw went rigid.
"What did she say?" I asked.
Aunt Rose just looked at me, shook her head no, and folded up her phone.
"What exactly did Jean say?"
"He's not there."
There was a good explanation for this. I should just remain calm. We all waited an hour for Dan to show up before the wedding guests decided to leave and get on with their Saturdays. Rev. Weems went back to the parsonage next door. "You just knock," he said. "I'll keep my tie and coat on, so I'll be ready when you and your groom come over."
I went out to sit on the front steps of the church to get away from Aunt Rose's explosive sighs. Mary Ivan sat with me and chattered until late afternoon, hardly taking a breath. "Are you sure your phone is on?" she asked a dozen times. Finally her voice got squeaky, and tears ran down her face. "I am so sorry," she sobbed. "Of all the good people in the world, I can't believe this is happening to you. I could strangle that Dan!" She patted my shoulder. "I really have to go pick up Galt at the sitter. I'm two hours late as it is."
With her gone, there was nothing to distract me from how I was shaking.
"There you are!" Aunt Rose found me on the steps. She'd been sitting alone in the church. "I thought you'd hanged yourself," she said.
"Why would I hang myself on the day I'm going to marry the man I love?"
My aunt crouched down next to me. She took a few long breaths and then said, "Glory, darling, he's not coming. He is long gone."
"No, he isn't."
"Has he called your cell?"
"Honey, I think you're sort of, you know, in denial."
"No, I'm not. He'll come."
"You don't know that much about him."
She was trying to be gentle, but I turned my head away.
"I didn't want to tell you, but Jean said he's cleared out over there, his car, his clothes, everything."
"Of course, we're going to leave straight from the church. He will bring his bag with him here."
"Jean said he made his bed. Not like a man who's going to be part of the family." Aunt Rose paused, then shook her head. "I guess everyone in town knows by now."
Poor Aunt Rose. The tiny ceremony she'd been allowed had turned into a huge embarrassment that the town would chew on for years. "Glory, please! Give this up."
"Look, Aunt Rose, something's happened to Dan. I don't know what, but he'll come. We trust each other."
"Oh, Glory. You can't make out like he's had an accident on the highway. He slept here in Magnolia Grove at Jean's house, only six blocks from here. If his car didn't start this morning, he could have walked. Jean said he ate a big breakfast and joked about how you two only had four dates. Jean told him, joking of course, that he might not recognize his bride at the church, and he said, 'Wow, the suspense is killing me.' So there he was, thinking about how you two hardly knew each other and were about to take this big step, and sure as shootin' he was having second thoughts." She took a quick breath and sobbed, "Please stop sitting out here for every passerby to see. You look pathetic."
"Yes, ma'am. I look pathetic." I sniffled. "But I don't feel pathetic. I just feel very, very worried." About that time, as though knowing I had him on my mind, Roland, Jr. revved his clunker past the church again. He was alone and slowed to give me a big smile.
"Listen, Glory, I'm not going to sit here and be entertainment for that idiot!" she sobbed and leaned on the stone banister to stand. I walked with her to her old Buick, and as I gently closed the car door, I leaned in the window and kissed her cheek. She was bawling out loud, and I truly did feel sorry for her.
I sat back down at the top of the church steps and looked across the long shadows on the church lawn. I would wait until midnight, then come back in the morning. It was around five o'clock now, and I could hear the big, falling, brown magnolia leaves fluttering through the green ones. Through the parsonage window I could see Rev. Weems banging around in his little kitchen, fixing supper for one. Tears were falling down my cheeks. I had to do something.
I took my phone out of the little white purse and called the sheriff. I should have done that as soon as I got to the church and didn't see Dan. I had been in denial. Fear swelled my head so bad I saw black for a moment. I knew what had happened to Dan, and I had been trying to block out something that was far worse than a groom with cold feet. Roland, Jr. and those scumbags had him, locked in the trunk of a car or tied up in a cellar. Tears dripped off my chin. Roland, Jr.'d like nothing better than to ruin my wedding, but dear Lord, surely he wouldn't actually kill Dan. On the other hand, he was not bright and could easily kill him by accident. The phone rang and rang. Please, please pick up! Finally the sheriff's machine came on. I left a message.
Oh God in heaven, who was going to help me rescue Dan? No one in town was gonna believe me. They all thought I'd been left at the altar and become a crazy person. That message I'd just left was going to add to the hilarity of the story. Bride sends out an APB for reluctant groom. I had to think. It was no time to cry.
Suddenly, there at the foot of the steps in the fading light, stood Dan. He was filthy. His pants were torn at both knees, and one eye was swelling shut. I could hardly breathe, but my heart did a little hop, seeing his knuckles were bleeding. I hoped Roland, Jr., that raggedy-ass bastard, was lying face-down somewhere, sucking mud.
"Does anybody here still want to get married?" Dan asked.
I raised my hand. "Me, teacher. Pick me."