There was enough light from the great window for me to see Tone’s lips moving as I glanced over. He was mouthing the names of the constellations as he plucked them out of the milky wash of the other stars. This was just an internal test. A game. Proving himself to himself. He had nothing to prove to anybody else. I could also faintly hear him, as he pronounced Lyra… Cygnus… Aquila… Hercules… He was in his own private swirl, dealing with the incessant burden of his brilliance.
I turned back toward the great window, and waited. The woman with the orange hair would finish up with the bride and we would ride home in a Mustang convertible, and I would try to catch a glimpse of the great burning window-furnace in the rear view mirror when we first headed home.
We finally left around midnight. The tinny speakers spilled out aria after aria and I worked on the great rebuttal, rationalization, and apologia about my voice infatuations. Just in case I needed to make a public statement, you know. Because you don’t want people to go around thinking you’re weird or crazy or both. And the opera just played into my evidence.
It went something like this. Think about popular music. We all collect these little 3-minute belljars that we play over and over. That voice, it sings to us or for us, sonic seductions. And we crawl inside that little capsule of time that becomes predictable and safe — even if the song itself is distressing. So don’t get on your high horse about me and the Burger Chef girl. You’ve got your collection of CDs, or mp3s, or cassettes, or LPs, or 45s, or 8 tracks, or 78s. Caruso, Holiday, Sills, Jagger, Sinatra, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. You may even have a more elaborate vox fetish than I have – my voices just haven’t released any albums, and I mash them all together into one (that is, mom, Burger Chef, Tone’s sister, etc.). So, if we’re comparing crazinesses, I win. I’m more efficient than you. And you have all the technological conveniences, while I have to lurk around a fast-food parking lot.
I admit, it did tend to get a little strident toward the end of those ruminations. But, it was, you understand, just the first draft of the affidavit. Maybe I’d run it by Tone when I got the chance. I just needed to be on the look-out for a convenient place where I could shoehorn all or some of that into a conversation.
I revved up the Mustang, and we slid back toward the city, Wednesday into Thursday. We three silent musketeers, or, a strange parody of The Mod Squad, where Linc is a genius, Julie is a middle-aged floral designer on the cusp of her greatest triumph, and Peter is Peter-Peter-Pumpkin-Eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her.
Flashbacks are literary devices. You know, tricks of the trade. Re-juxtaposing elements of a story for some type of effect. Or affect. Take your pick. I just forgot to tell you some things. They may not even be that important. So, these next few sections are loose ends, they’re not flashbacks. Except, perhaps, in the PTSD sense of the word.
So when we walked back to the van, after Cadney’s explanation of the ruling on Tuesday afternoon, we held our peace down the elevator, through the lobby, around the corner, down to the parking garage, and into our respective seats. It wasn’t really a vow of silence kind of thing and it really wasn’t difficult for me. I just didn’t have anything to say. Tone had hung back, just on the edge of my peripheral vision, as we had walked. Positioned just like a good wingman, but he thought he had messed up.
I was just wondering what else Tone was wondering. You were right about at least one of your lawyers. She was gorgeous. Can M.C. even write a card or letter of his own? He certainly can do it in the place of other pathetic souls. Delaware and Nebraska and the 19-year-old majority. Who you trying to impress?
“You done good,” I offered as I slid the key into the ignition.
“I don’t know.”
“You didn’t talk too much, if you’re wondering.” Tone glanced over, with a tiny I’m-relieved grin and raised his eyebrows which asked, So, we’re okay? The old van grumbled to life. He was still just a kid after all. “Don’t worry about it. Glad somebody is interested.”
“So, what’s next?”
“We go to Burger Chef to celebrate.” That’s not what Tone meant, but it seemed like a way to get back to not talking. After all, we had missed lunch, in order to try to catch Cadney and I was re-running the tape in my head from the meeting we had just wrapped up.
We bounced around in the van for awhile, and Tone finally said, “Wouldn’t a phone call to Molly be just as difficult?” Picking right up with my internal monologue about the ruling.
“Maybe. But at least you get some immediate feedback. Silence. Tone of voice. Laughter. Something. A letter is like very slow water torture.” And maybe that was the whole point of Judge I-Won’t-Brook-Jackdaws-in-my-Courtroom 19th century ruling.
“I get it.”
“And I don’t think I’ve ever written Molly a letter.”
“Sure. But that amounted to signing it, Love, Dad. Wasn’t exactly the test that the Good Judge has set up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Part of it is this. I was prepared, I think, for the motion to just get denied like it always had. After over 6 years I had gotten used to this new status quo of no house, no wife, no Molly.”
“O.K. I get that. I guess.” Here I’m going again. Why has Tone become my Father Confessor (do you capitalize it?), and I don’t really even know what it’s like to visit one anyway. I’m pathetic.
“Don’t you want to air some of your dirty laundry?” It was a pathetic gambit.
“What makes you think I have any clean laundry?” And Tone, with his wolfy grin, totally asymmetricked me. Okay. It’s a new word. But you get it.
“Surely, in that mysterious house in the woods, there are some secrets.”
“And you’re just dying to tell your good friend M.C.”
“Dying. But not dying to tell you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. I ain’t got some dread disease. That I know of. Just a universal truism. Tell me more about the water torture.” Who talks likes this? Do your co-workers talk like this? Ain’t in one breath and universal truism in the next. Tell me the truth.
“Okay. Everybody’s dying. You’re part of everybody. So, you’re dying, like everybody else is dying. Kum bah yah. Pass the ammunition. So, in summary, you don’t have any laundry at all?”
“That’s about it.” Then Tone restarted the original line of conversation, “So, you were ready to go with the status quo.”
“Yeah. I was used to that. And I had imagined and rehearsed the other scenario where we finally got a favourable ruling. I could call. Maybe eventually visit. But this. This was a whole other game. With a whole new set of rules.”
“And it feels like a test. Maybe an unpassable test.”
“You got it there Mr. Tip-Toe.” And then a long-lost memory broke in. Softer than a flashback, I suppose. Flashback connotes the end of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - and the searchlights at the Berlin Wall. At least I was thinking about Molly, now. In the past, I had gone for days or even weeks without thinking about her.
I remember laying my ear against her left side, her body strong. Her heart beating like the sound of an athlete descending, down-stepping, carpeted stairs. Both feet touching each step: right-left, right-left, right-left. The first foot heavier, the second light, systole-diastole, systole-diastole. The sounds of her breathing were almost scary with their clarity: the sound of a baseball fastball right past your head. And my hand falling, inevitably, across her head — raking through her always-tangled hair.
“Don't pull my hair, Daddy.”
“Sorry. I love you sweetie pie.”
“Go to sleep punka-dunk."
Sometimes I remember that breathing sound, my ear against her side ribs, and I wake up, startled, shaken, scared. I billow up the covers, if it is summer (sheet-only), as I did over her, and I am solaced for a moment.
It’s a wonder there aren’t more wrecks on the highways, what with memories and the minds to replay them and all. Who needs an in-dash DVD player? Tone tries to break in.
“You still there?”
“Yeah. I’m here. My most recent memory of Molly is almost 7 years old.”
“You’re in a tough spot. You’ll figure it out.”
“Not so sure.”
Thursday and Friday slipped past quickly. There were the final arguments over the phone between Rufina and the caterers about the table settings. She wanted to know details about the table cloths and the dishes and the napkins and they thought she was just getting in their business and they treated her inquiries as impertinences which just made her more angry. Didn’t they realize she needed this information? It didn’t matter that no other florist in world history had ever asked such things and thought through such details. But, the Flackette was relentless.
We got our final glimpses of the various bouquets Friday night. She and Lizzy had finally settled on the bridal bouquets. Yes, plural. Rufina constructed three - just in case there were any issues on site. She was a NASA engineer when it came to redundancy on this project. Each one contained 23 smallish white roses with one red one, not dead center, but in the midst, spectacularly placed — with one pearl-topped pin glistening as a highlight. The very long stems, de-thorned of course, were wrapped in white linen. All the bridesmaid bouquets were also hand-held — not the silly dangling fobs that had become the fashion in some circles — they were 11 red roses with 1 white one in the midst. The 40 table centerpieces were in tall hurricane glass. Again long-stemmed red and white and cream-coloured roses with silver and red and the occasional gold Christmas tree ornaments forming a wonderful spangly base inside the glass.
Flack had hired a couple of mercenaries to cover our deliveries on Saturday and he was scheduled to get up there in time for the ceremony, along with Flora (the Flack daughter, remember). I wasn’t planning on holding my breath till they got there.
“I’d really like for y’all to be there.”
“We’ll really try. You never know, though, about new help and all.”
“Just please be there.” If your husband can’t be there for your wedding, then what’s the use.
Saturday finally came. Tone and I rode up together in the afternoon. Rufina had been up there since early morning. There was a lot of bustle around the house. And workmen were unloading a truck and rolling the reception dining tables down to their staging area in a room back of the “sanctuary area” where the wedding was going to take place. The wooden tables had a silver metal edge and they made an awful grating sound on the brick walkway. Other than that, it was a beautiful day for a wedding or a fishing trip.
About an hour before the scheduled ceremony launch, Tone was standing with a very large man dressed like Johnny Cash. That is, all in black. He was an imposing figure, the size of a defensive end.
Tone looked like he was standing next to his hero — his face was beaming.
"This is Praylo Pruitt." If I was making it up I'd have to change it. “He’s presiding over the wedding.”
I extended my hand and he shook it firmly. If he'd wanted to, he could have squeezed all the lemon juice out of my hand, and I'm not even a lemon. But, he could've done it.
"I’m M.C. Nice to meet you, Reverend."
"No need to call me that. If you need to call me something besides Praylo, just call me the preacher at Lizzy's wedding." He pulled a tattered pocket-size Bible from his hip pocket with his left hand — a sort of homespun, ah shucks, I.D. gesture, I guess — and let go of my hand with the right. Just as quickly, the holy flask was back in his pocket. I liked this man.
We small-talked for a bit about the room and the decorations and the weather and how me and Tone worked together. And then the preacher shifted the conversation over into some actual meat and potatoes.
“I've known Ant'ny here his whole life. His daddy’s the best preacher I ever heard.”
“That so?” You could tell Tone was getting a little nervous. Maybe there was some laundry, after all.
“That is so. You gotta go find him, though. But you won’t find him from a pew or on a radio dial.” He winks at Tone.
I try to decipher what's going on. No need scrambling and floundering around in ignorance. “What's going on?”
Tone, toward me, “Never mind,” shaking his head “let it go” almost imperceptibly. Guess he was determined I flounder for awhile.
“Have Ant'ny tell you about tent-making some time.” The big man grinned like a lighthouse.
I called him Tone. I guess others had their nicknames, too. Like "Ant Knee." Guess it's a diminutive, also. Maybe in the same realm of “knee-high to a grasshopper.” And everybody was a grasshopper in Praylo’s eyes.
We were then infiltrated by a fourth party, who swooped in with a hand on Tone’s shoulder. “Introduce me to your daddy!” The fake jovial voice belonged to a well-dressed young man. Actually, he was dressed in wedding clothes and he was only well-dressed from his neck to his ankles. His hair was spiked up with gel and he smelled like one of those men’s colognes that have that plasticy aroma of an artificial fishing lure. I immediately didn’t like him. And that was before I saw his footwear. My father said you could always tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wore. This character had on neon-green Vibram foot gloves. He looked like a tree frog
“Praylo and M.C., this is Bradley.” Tone, the gentleman, made the introductions.
“My friends call me Biff,” cloyed The Frog.
“Praylo here is presiding over the ceremony,” I offered.
“Oh, I met him before at the rehearsal. I’m the Best Man.” I groaned. I think I kept it all inside.“Good to see you again, Reverend.” He held out his hand (now removed from it’s perch on Tone). It was well-tanned like the rest of his gel-tipped above-the-neck area, and he had on one of those string friendship bracelets.
“Don't be calling anybody Reverend. Are you reverend?" He said it with a friendly upbeat lilt in his voice, but you could tell he considered The Best Frog a slow learner. And you could also tell he was giving The Frog some extra juice on the handshake.
So he confessed that he was, indeed, not worthy of reverence, "Nossir." I think he was blushing but it was hard to tell with the well-tended tan, and all. He did turn a interesting colour of tangerine though, and his eyes were watering a little. A veritable tropical jungle — on the polar ends anyway.
“He doesn’t like to be called Reverend,” I slipped in, before changing the subject. “So, Brad, how do you know Tone?”
“Tony and I were at Princeton together for three years.” His grammar was perfect, of course. And we now had 9 titles for three people on the table (Reverend, Praylo, Preacher, Ant’ny, Tone, Tony, Bradley, Biff, and Brad), not to mention the interior Froggy Went A-Courtin’ riffs. I was safe, apparently and for the time being, with my initials. There was something to be said, I guess, for the idea that how we use each other’s names is a way of wielding power and/or bestowing respect and/or displaying intimacy. I guess I should have started getting suspicious when the Cupcake (remember, the Wife) groaned out “Dudley” in her sleep, months before the infamous bedroom scene. So, where did that stray thought come from? They’re all stray, you imbecile.
“Bradley graduated a year before me,” added Tone. “He’s now at Harvard.”
I began imagining The Tadpole brought home from the birthing pond to a nursery and a live-in nanny, both trimmed in crimson, and Tom Lehrer’s “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” playing in an endless loop while he napped. And I bet he did call a football a “spheroid” without being ironic. And he was probably introduced to terms like “satire” and “non-rhotic” before the age of 7. What can I say? I didn’t like him, and my $11.75/hour-plus-tips-and-trailer-curator brain was noodling on all the rich kid stereotypes. Okay. I guess they can’t be stereotypes if they’re just strange esoterica flying around in my head only. “What are you studying?” was the best I could do.
“I’m in the Law School. I couldn’t get into UVA.” So, The Frog was a ferret. A close cousin to the weasel.
“Bradley’s just being modest. He could have gone anywhere his daddy was willing to write a check.” There was obviously some bad blood between Tone and The Frog.
Praylo slides in as peacemaker. “Besides the law, I hear you’re a poet, also.” So, The Frog is also John Donne.
“Yes, I’ve published a few pieces in some small journals.”
“Yeah, Bradley actually published a poem about me and his imagined rendition of my father.” So much for the peace process.
“Well, I tried to meet him for three years. Does he actually exist? Or, is he like Big Foot?” I was thinking Mr. Froggy shouldn’t be making any comments about feet.
“He’s clearly more real than you, Biff.” So. Me and the preacher are now officially on the outside of this strange and elliptical conversation. Tone quickly noticed, of course, and shifted his attention to the preacher. “We’ll be needing to get back to work.” With that, Tone slipped away from the group, and The Frog changed back to his role as Best Man in the wedding party.
“I guess you’re feeling some pressure with the big wedding,” he addressed Praylo.
“No pressure on me. But Lizzy? She has to play the Bride of Christ today. I just have to be a mountain.” The Frog just looked cold-blooded and flat-footed and confused, with a cute little crinkle on his forehead.
I almost asked, So who's the groom, but that would have been rude, even by my standards. So, I asked, "Mountain?"
"I get to fade into the background, as I should.” The big man glanced down at The Frog’s please-notice-me feet. “You'll see later."
“I better go help Tone.” So, I left the big man and the little boy to find Tone. He’s fished out a Coke from the Igloo cooler Rufina had stashed in the way back of the building.
“So what was all that about?” reaching in for a drink of my own.
Tone answered, doodling in the condensation on his silver and red can, “Just our own private national conversation on race. And our preferences for different tanning salons.” We both cracked up, and people milling around near the great window peered back into the shadows trying to detect the source of this crazy and spewing and irreverent laughter. I loved Tone.
Epiphanies are hard to come by. Go into the desert wilderness. Take on a humiliating and emasculating role. Is that redundant? Follow your sheep around. Strike that. It’s more demeaning and emasculating than that. Follow your father-in-law’s sheep around. You know, your wife’s daddy’s sheep. Pull burrs out of their wool. Pray for rain. Pray for dry. Get the picture? Do this for forty years.
So, mine came relatively easy, all things considered. There she was, in the centre aisle, inside her very own creation — carved out in this strange wilderness of tradition and expectations. (She had re-arranged the room again since Wednesday night. The centre aisle that we had made was not long enough she said. Lizzy needed 48 tiny steps.) On her hands and knees, wearing the kneepads that carpet installers or tile men wear or in-line skaters — she was switching on the little artificial tealights she had discovered at Wal-Mart earlier this week. The final technical issue solved.
The ceremony was scheduled to begin in exactly T-minus 45 minutes, and there was the woman with the burning hair putting the finishing touches on the aisle decorations, lining both sides like elaborate movie theatre floor lights — rose petals floating in a little bowl of water placed over another, inverted, clear glass bowl that busheled the tealights — she used 2 — a redundant system in case one burnt out or malfunctioned. She had apparently received her floral training at Cape Canaveral.
Guests were already starting to trickle in and I was now on guard duty. I had two tasks: 1) Look out for people in wheelchairs, with walkers, or canes — i.e., folks who could not easily stand up when the bridal procession started. Rufina had carved out a corridor bordering either side of the centre aisle where these should be seated. 2) Keep people out of the centre aisle. For now, the cellists’ cases were dropped there to discourage interlopers, but she wanted someone to be a guard dog. That was me. Tone was posted at the other end, near the great window. So, we were Rufina’s 2nd and 3rd fiddles, but that was fine with us.
I remember going to the community orchestra concerts when I was a kid. And the cellist in the long black dress. Beautiful woman. I imagined being inside the cello, nestled between her black-draped knees, and the resin flying off of her bow like a spring-time snow, and inside the body of the instrument like the bowels of a great wooden ship, the snow falling into the hold and the cold sea air wafting in, and the music, not the cold, making me shiver.
I went AWOL from the head of the aisle at around T-minus 20 minutes, and strolled toward the back of the building. The wedding planner was there, trying out her air-traffic controller headset. She was plugged into the pianist and the lighting guy, I found out later. She was beaming, because she knew that all of Rufina’s excellent work would redound to her and her business. The tension of Wednesday night was long gone.
The dressing room door was ajar at the very back and I peeked in from a safe distance. The Flackette was placing the garland of tiny white roses on the bride’s head. Her hair (Lizzy’s) was like the wild wavy hair of Renoir’s portrait of Irène Cahen d'Anvers. I am catapulted, of course, back to Molly.
My daughter is learning to swim. Learning to float. She is insistent, any more, that she not tie back her hair. She floats on her back and her hair floats out before her, a beautiful liquidy fanning crown. Steady. Stretch out your arms. She steadies herself and I push her away from the side of the pool where I am sitting, my feet dangling in the water. I push her away, not unlike a canoe. Except that she is in the shape of a cross or an airplane (or both if you can bear it), with a glorious nimbus that will be tangled in the morning — impossible to comb or brush. Not without pain and resistance and wincing, by both of us.
Rufina is whispering, “Easy!” and the bride is giggling. They have become fast friends. Actually, more like mother and daughter. I turn away, figuring I’ve spied enough and head back to the aisle, where the cellists are readying their instruments and bows. My hands are sweating and my chest feels tight. Probably not a good time for a heart attack, I tell myself. I looked up toward Tone, and I figured he was smiling, but I really couldn’t tell because he was backlit by the sliding down sun.
Here’s the thing. Sam Goldwyn purportedly said that a wide screen just made a bad movie twice as bad. In this case, the screen was watching the motion picture: us. And I knew in my bones, and Rufina clearly knew, this was not going to be a bad movie. It may even be a spectacular movie. And the credits were about to roll.
And so I stood on the edge of shadow and light, guarding the encampment against late comers and other intruders, and the overhead lights were barely brought up by the lighting guy. Yep, there was a lighting guy. He was pretty unobtrusive, like a lighting guy should be. And no one noticed when the faint overhead light was gradually oozed in, as the sun slid down the green-black hills out the great window.
Finally. The music begins. Four. Simple. Stately. Notes. D. A. B. F#. On the viola, front right. What was that tune? And then, taken up in harmony by one cello, as the sequence continued, G. D. G. A. It was just the stripped down chords of Pachelbel. No counter melodies, just the ostinato in exquisite simplicity and open harmony. The music was dispersed, in turn, to various instruments about the room: viola solo, cello and piano, piano solo, all four instruments. So, as the grandmother of the groom and the mother of the groom (Mrs. Rotero had been out the picture for some years I learned later), walking in turn down their assigned outer aisles, were seated on the front rows, the music did its work. The same chords, but different. New harmonies gradually leak in. And there are various fragments of melodies now strewn into the strings. I recognize first, I think, faint whispers of Für Elise, and then notice various members of the audience — is it an audience at a wedding? congregation? is that a distinction? — light up with joy as they recognized the tune also, especially the children. It is a lovely game. The music cajoling and delicately tripping the machinery of memory.
The groomsmen and the bridesmaids make their way, two by two, toward the great window. And the musical sport continues: fragments and feints toward Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Be Thou My Vision and shreds of old hymns I couldn’t attach titles to, all the while embedded in the same soft breathing of the undertimbers of the familiar Canon. It wasn't a medley, it was far more subtle and stately than that. I found out later this was all scored by Lizzy and her father.
Tone and I and Rufina are standing in the back. No sign yet of the rest of the Flack family, and the music settles back down to the ostinato alone as the maid of honor and best man (now in borrowed dress shoes) take their places up front. The father and the bride move toward the top of the centre aisle as the sequence of chords gradually shifted over to another progression, the sun half obscured by the now-blue-black hills.
The father leaned over and whispered something in his daughter’s ear, and peeled off to the left, taking the outermost aisle to the front, disappearing near the piano. He had passed her a note, which she reads, the bouquet in one hand, and the note tucked in behind it like a catcher trying to hide a signal. She is smiling and crying at the same time.
She is solo as she stands on the precipice of that aisle set apart for her alone, the cellists like two sentinels on either side, plucking the strings of this new sequence. What is it? The older congregants recognize it first, and elderly lips begin to move to the words, as Elizabeth Ann Rotero takes her first processional step. This movie was a combination of King Arthur, and a fairy tale, and Joan of Arc, and the solemnity of a military honour guard, and the magic of an imagined princess. No man in that room deserved her. No man on the planet.
The rose-petal-floating-lights trembling with the cellos and piano. Making wonderful dancing shadows on the ceiling. I presume I was the only person in the whole place to glance up at the ceiling. But, since time had stopped, I had the moment to spare.
Right. Left. Small, delicate, but firm steps. One per measure. Left. Right. I had to catch up. And then, finally, in my own heart where I had learned them by heart, the words began to come, as I backed up to her first step in order to gather up the whole verse. Some. day. And the disc of the sun was now totally covered by the black mountains. When I’m aw-f’ly. Low. And the only people seated were the folks in wheelchairs and the very reverend Praylo Pruitt who had now, I noticed, sat down on the stool he had stashed for this very purpose: to disappear as one of the mountains as he had mysteriously stated an hour earlier. When the world is. Cold. I could hear some of the guests actually singing the song, in tiny whispy voices.
Her gown was white with quilted accents. Silver-threaded embroidery stitched by angels who had created miniature pillows of intricate shapes all about the fabric. I will feel a. Glow just thinking. One sliding step. Stop. Another sliding step. Stop. Of. You. You couldn’t see her feet, but you could detect the steps by her soft swaying. And the way you. Look tonight. One old lady actually reached out to try to touch the texture of the gown. And hearts sped up and hearts halted, as she walked.
The bride, as she passed, was in the light and you could see her face, her hair, the roses. You could attend to colour. But as she overtook you, and approached the window, she fell into silhouette, like the paper cut-out of her childhood portrait.
Rufina reached out and took Tone’s hand as she watched this exquisite flower unfold. You could see her lips counting the steps of Lizzy, the glint of tear-streaks on her face, her hair put up, sort of, onto her head — like a disheveled and gorgeous geisha, which means, appropriately enough, “art-doer.”
And the sky was the colour of her hair. Not the other way round.