Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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A Wedding at Clonmel

In the dirt parking lot outside the Clonmel township hall, the youngest guests caroused. Little boys in clip-on ties and Sunday jeans played rodeo and little girls in rainbow party dresses made dust trails, scuffing the prairie silt so that a fine haze, rosy with the setting sun, drifted toward the chapel, its doors still open from the earlier nuptials. Inside the hall itself—a massive post and beam barn—the bride and groom had cut the cake. The band was in full swing. Leaning against a rough-hewn post to watch the dancing, father of the groom, Charlie Welch, tapped the foot of his good leg and plotted an escape route should his ex-wife Verna take a notion to cross the dance floor and put him on the spot.

It sank his gut to think of it. He couldn’t count the many times she’d pestered him to dance with her at other weddings, as if history didn’t matter. That they still got along after fifteen years of marriage and well over a quarter century of divorce was sometimes a burden, if burden was the right word. Not burden, exactly. Embarrassment was more like it.

Whatever the word, dancing was a bridge too far. Charlie considered it to be enough that he’d thrown the rehearsal dinner. He’d gone all out, planted dozens of mums around his farmhouse so they’d bloom in yellow riot for the big day, dished out bison chili under an arbor he’d built of peeled cedar logs, made a bonfire on the riverbank. The evening had been a success, though he’d had to spend the next morning picking up Red Bull cans and burned-out sparklers.

While he’d been nursing his grievance, Verna, laughing and carrying on with the same sassy swing she’d once had while threading her waitress-way among tables at the Clonmel Corner, had worked herself closer to where he stood against his post, minding his own business. He was a man of few words and he didn’t care for small talk, but to throw a wrench into her works, he turned to his pal Bill Doffing and offered that he’d given quite a bit of thought to trading in his little brush hog for the new zero-turn he’d seen in the Grainger’s catalog. When again he checked Verna’s twenty, she was a safe distance away. Still, he didn’t trust her. Queen of whiplash one-eighties, she had been unpredictable as far back as high school. One minute a bouncy cheerleader swallowed in his letter jacket and the next a hippie chick, all beads and buckskin and bad posture. Apparently she’d made a Hail Mary dash, for here in front of him, he saw now with a jolt, she was, the livewire who had been his wife, smelling high of mixed nuts, butter mints, and J’adore.

“Dime for a dance, sailor?” she grinned. A shade too luridly, he thought.

“Verna,” he said, pretending surprise. “Didn’t know you were still here.”

Up went the corners of her lips in a look calibrated to show the exact degree to which his fakery had failed.

To move past the moment, he said, “You look nice.” This was true. Usually Verna crossed the loudness line on every front—hair, make-up, jewelry. She fancied herself artsy, all dangling earrings and clattering bracelets and ice-pick-headache colors. But this night she looked half-sane, a sedate mother-of-the-groom in a plain lilac dress, her silver hair pinned neatly rather than flyaway and wild. Still, he couldn’t forget her politics. A few days before the wedding, as he had driven past her house, he saw right there in her front yard, for the whole town to see, an election sign for Hillary. I’M WITH HER, it read. He’d nearly run his F-150 into the ditch.

“Dance with me,” she said.

He gestured toward his bad leg. “Can’t.” It was well known that he had a bum knee from a long-ago motorcycle wreck out in the sand hills with some buddies, two six-packs of PBR, and a quart of Everclear.

“Can’t, or won’t?” Verna reached for his hand. “Come on, Charlie. It’s not every day our son gets married. It’s the right thing. It’s expected.”

The urge leapt up in him to punch low, to say something pointed and mean about right things, but he tamped it. Pregnant out of high school, they had done the right thing. In a way, an argument about doing the right thing was what had clinched their divorce. The right thing, by Charlie’s lights, meant staying together for their boys no matter what, and because, for all their differences, he and Verna had sworn an oath.

But that wasn’t enough for her. There had to be love, she said, and she didn’t feel it anymore. Neither, she’d said, eyeing him, did he. Feebly, he’d tried to protest, but she was right. She further said that he was stubborn, that he hadn’t grown. She liked books and art and music and travel, and she had wanted their lives to expand beyond the metes and bounds of backward, one-horse Clonmel, Kansas. For his part, Charlie was happy enough driving his tractors around the farm and meeting his cronies at the Corner and watching cable news on a channel that made her want to hurl a hay hook through the television screen. And in the past, there had been what she called his Long Season of Lowenbrau. That part of it, the beer drinking, he knew was on him.

Her voice went low, and through gritted teeth she said, “Don’t make me look like a fool.”

I’M WITH HER flashed in his mind’s eye, but he squelched his impulse, which was to say that she did fine on the fool front without any outside help. “All right,” he finally said, “but no fast ones.”

When the band announced a slow-down and the lights dimmed, she led him onto the floor. He wasn’t sure if he was putting on a worse limp to make a martyr’s show of being a good sport, or if his good foot had gone to sleep, but he squared his shoulders and put on his game face. It would be over soon enough.

The selection was “Unchained Melody.” Not their song but of the same era, their senior year in high school, and he felt bushwhacked. Possibly it was the song to which they’d conceived their firstborn, the groom, now standing on the sideline with his bride and clapping Charlie and Verna toward the center of the floor, and it was a minefield.

From the first O, my love, my darling, he’d known the dance would be a slog, and by the point the singer got to how time went by so slowly and time could do so much, he felt like he was trying to wade waist-deep through a vat full of cold Valvoline. The tops of his ears grew hot and his head began to sweat. From Verna’s stiffened posture, he could tell she too was thrown off. True to form, though, she tried to make light of it. “Could be worse,” she muttered into his shoulder. “Could be ’96 Tears.’”

How she could think straight enough to make light during their ordeal, he didn’t know. The Righteous Brothers song seemed a rebuke, their dance a mockery and the two of them a spectacle, old fools moving to a tune whose words they no longer felt. How, he wondered, had they come to this, the years gone by and his once young self now shuffling toward the brink of old man days? Same for her, though somehow he suspected spry little Verna had yet to feel the slow murder of her senses. Wedlock, he thought. Marriage. Matrimony. What was the word for who they were to each other now? Not blood, not partners, not really even friends. Exes who saw each other at graduations, weddings, funerals. Still, when he was stricken with kidney stones, it was Verna he’d called to drive him to the hospital. When her mother died and she’d walked around like a lost child, he’d been there, tending to things she couldn’t face. Two things struck him as the singer’s tenor swelled and a trumpet blared a heroic-sounding crescendo: that he might, embarrassingly, mist up, and that no matter the word he put to it, whatever bound them to each other was no less holy.

Whether it was a sudden welling of fondness, or his old bugbear desire to please her, or maybe just relief, he decided to try a dance move she’d once tried to teach him, and he pulled her closer, signaling with the pressure of his hand on her back and the lifting of her arm that he was going to twirl her.

“You wouldn’t,” she said, but he would, and she followed through without a hitch. They swung apart. Surprised, they laughed. “At last,” she said.

He wasn’t sure if she meant that at last the misery of the dance was over, or that at last he’d tried a new move, or that at last they’d done something that worked out right. He couldn’t gather his thoughts to say anything deep or meaningful, but he saw that at this late date there wasn’t any need, and so he echoed her, “At last,” and then let go of her hand so they could reclaim their separate lives.  

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