A Plain Man
by Louise Farmer Smith
The minister’s schedule included a wedding this morning. 9:30. Absurd! Sacrilegious really, to arrange a sacred nuptial around an American Airline’s flight departure. He had a good mind not to put on his best suit. If the bride and groom were in such a rush, he might as well run out of here in his pajamas.
“Tommy?” His wife’s sweet voice called up the stairs. “Time to get moving.” Janet, whose graciousness and energy had made it possible for him, a natural cynic and grump, to have a career in the ministry, had been ready since dawn.
“I’m not going,” he said.
“But you would be missed. Come on now. I just got back. Everything is in order. He’s already picked her up.”
That was another slap in his face, the groom taking the bride to the church when it had always been the role of the father to hand off the bride, a cherished daughter who had not seen the groom on the appointed day, whose dress was a surprise, whose veil symbolized her as an unopened package.
Oh, Thomas, what century are you living in, old man! Your own parents had undoubtedly opened the package themselves since theirs was a rushed affair, shotgun being the crude word in those days. Thomas sank down on the side of the bed he shared with Janet in spite of the fact she got up and down all night long, waking him each time. That was marriage.
I come to you with a heavy heart. Wait, that’s how he started funerals. Get hold of yourself. He glanced about the bedroom for some distraction. His shoes were shined and ready beside the chest of drawers. His best suit, still in the shining plastic from the cleaners winked at him through the open closet door. At least his daughter hadn’t demanded he buy a new one. Uncharacteristically, she hadn’t demanded much, her needs, he supposed, satisfied now by her chosen life partner.
He stood up and walked to the closet to take out his best suit, six or seven years old now, a touch shiny in the seat, threadbare but only on the right cuff. He took it out and held it up. He always felt charged once he slipped on the jacket just as he had when it was new. It would help to hold him together today. He was, after all, a leader among the Methodist clergy in Southwestern Oklahoma, a man who had tried in every way to live uprightly after the chaos of his parents’ life.
When he and Janet peered in from the back of the little church, they heard Mrs. Jenkins churning the organ and saw that the sanctuary was filled to capacity even though it was 9:20 on a Thursday morning. Janet let out a little sigh of relief as though she’d doubted that their friends and other parishioners would come. But he’d been sure they’d come, every prying eye in town would show up to see him let Veronica go to that out-of-state head-shrinker.
He left Janet with an usher, his nephew, and went around to the entrance to his little office, so he would be able to arrive at the front of the congregation. Once inside the office he was steadied by the sight of his desk and the familiar texts from his seminary days, erect and in order on the bookshelves with the boxes of manuscripts of his sermons. Before he could settle in, a gentle knock came at the door. That would be the groom, his arrival being the first traditional event of this topsy-turvy wedding. Thomas opened the door to see a man in his thirties wearing an expensive suit with a pink rose bud pinned to the lapel. “Hello, Chris.”
“Hello, Reverend Matthews.”
Thomas and his prospective son-in-law had eaten supper together last night. And although Thomas hadn’t pumped him for information, Chris had run on and on about himself, his job as a psychotherapist, his education at Cornell, his family, earnings and bank account. Thomas had tried to be cordial and feel comforted by this man who seemed to hide nothing, but this dinner was after a hasty rehearsal during which Veronica kept saying, “I don’t know why we’re rehearsing since I have no attendants and all the ushers are my cousins who’ve done all this before.”
And why the hell don’t you have any attendants? Thomas wanted to ask. It was the company of friends that gave weddings that supported look, the community behind them. His daughter had done everything she could to shave the glory out of the wedding.
“May I come in?” Chris asked.
“Oh.” Thomas stepped back and held out his hand to a chair for Chris.
Chris chuckled. “You don’t want to let her go.”
“No man wants to let his daughter go.”
“Oh, I imagine a few are glad to unload expensive shopaholics and manipulating little b--.” Chris grinned.
“Where did you put her?”
“You mean the bride? She’s in the vestry dressing. She’s going to ring my cell as soon as she’s ready.”
“That’s just great.” Thomas walked to the window and looked out at the overcast day. “What are we doing here on a Thursday?”
“Oh, that’s Veronica,” answered Chris. “She worked it all out, counted backward from when her next case would come up in court, the flight back, the days in the hotel, the flight—“
“I’ve got it.” He remained at the window, his back to the groom. The day was completely out of his control. Would there be anything sacred about it? He sighed. Nothing to do but get through it in as dignified a way as possible.
“She must have been an adorable child,” Chris offered.
Not for the first time Thomas wondered if he should add anything to the traditional ritual, any extra words about this being his own daughter.
It was quiet now between himself and his future son-in-law, a relief. Thomas let his mind drift to a scene he hadn’t thought of in years, the nasty vision of Janet’s father standing on the porch in his ugly bathrobe and black socks, reaching out to take by the shoulder his twenty-year-old daughter and shove her into the house while giving him, the date who had returned her on time, the kind of glare deserved by a kidnapper.
“Does he keep a gun in the house?” he had asked Janet when they passed briefly at church the next Sunday. She’d looked at him wide-eyed even though he’d tried to make his question sound like a joke.
He thought he had left nothing to chance that August thirty-seven years ago. As soon as he had in hand the letter accepting him at the seminary, he’d signed up for married student housing, bought their bus tickets, the marriage license, arranged their escape for a day when the old man was going to be away and Janet’s mother would have the car to go shopping. In spite of all his plans everything had been against them. The old man changed his mind about not needing the car. Janet had no way of contacting her fiancé where he waited at the bus station—no cell phone, no emails in those days. He had paced the smelly depot and watched as their bus departed. Meanwhile, Janet had taken that huge old green Samsonite suitcase out of the car’s trunk where she’d hidden it, and after her father was gone and while her mother hung the wash in the backyard, she set off on foot for town. Four miles in the August heat she’d lugged that heavy bag that contained the wedding suit she’d made herself and a castoff iron skillet she’d found in the attic.
It was late afternoon by the time she made it to the bus station. Rather than wait there where they would be sitting ducks for her enraged father, they’d hitched a ride with a chicken farmer into Wichita Falls where they caught a bus to Dallas.
They arrived at Southern Methodist University Seminary around dusk and were directed to Married Student Housing, but Thomas led Janet straight to the chapel. He introduced himself and asked the minister to marry them, but the license Thomas had was for Oklahoma, not valid in Texas. Consulting his course outline, he sought out each professor who was ordained. None felt they could help these unlicensed runaways. Finally, long after dark the Dean of the Seminary chuckled at their predicament and agreed to marry them. Afterwards, though it was late, he invited them to have cake with him and his wife in their beautiful home. As the old Dean made out the marriage certificate, he said, “This will serve God for tonight, but tomorrow you must get a license to serve Caesar.” Thomas remembered the Dean’s wink and his own deep blush on what he now counted as the first happy day of his life. He had known by instinct that Janet was his salvation. They would serve God together.
That night after the little wedding and the wild fumbling of first sex, he had lain staring at the ceiling, exhausted and amazed that God would grant him, a plain man, such ecstasy. Then, suddenly, with no prompting from him, Janet had pushed his shoulder to turn him away from her. She had wrapped her arm around his ribs and pulled him to her, her knees behind his, her breathing slowing into sleep against his back.
Thomas touched his finger-tips to the cool window pane of his office then bowed his head. Dear Heavenly Father, who was that brash, romantic boy with so much confidence in the future? Janet is still herself, lavishing kindness, generosity and good humor on the world. But I have shrunk, Dear Lord, my courage now is nothing more than a querulous whine, always the first to have my say in meetings, the first to speak of any weakness in other’s suggestions. That isn’t courage. Dear Maker, is there any tiny ember left in me of that daring love-stricken lad? He opened his eyes and looked at his fingers on the windowpane.
Chris’s cell phone rang. “Okay, lover,” he said, “I’ll see you at the altar.”
Thomas clenched his fists. He knew these two had been sharing a place in Chicago for two years, but weren’t they going to leave a poor father even a shred of denial? He turned from the window. Chris was holding the door for him leading into the sanctuary.
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and man ...” already he felt himself losing his usual smooth delivery. He cleared his throat and went on, wanting at every point to say something gracious to his beautiful daughter on her wedding day. She came down the aisle with a woman’s grace, none of the silly girlish grins he so often witnessed on the younger brides. Veronica’s dress was also perfect, not the strapless, bosomy getups that seemed to be the fashion for brides these days. But he had not managed to veer one moment from the standard service to say anything extra for his daughter’s wedding.
He always offered a prayer at the end, asking the Lord’s blessings on the home that was about to be created. “Let us pray,” he said and raised his arms. “Thank you Heavenly Father, for this happy day when our beloved daughter has joined her life to that of a man worthy of her love.” He felt the heat in his face and was about to say Amen, but went on. “May their union be as–“ where was he going with this? “As comforting, as tender—” Stop! “As joyous for them as mine has been for me. Amen.”
After Chris and Veronica had dashed away from the reception on the church lawn, Thomas sank down on a picnic bench amidst the debris. Plastic cups and paper napkins blew across the grass gathering into the ankles of the rosebush hedge. A few ladies from the Circle Guild hustled about cleaning up. He was shaken, and remembering the personal nature of his prayer, he felt embarrassed. What had the congregation thought of this unstoppered self. It was partly the dress that had moved him, that simple, sleeveless affair with a flowing skirt that fluttered as the couple came out of the church for the reception. She must have been thinking of him when she bought it.
Janet came now to sit beside him and kiss him on the cheek. “She was a beautiful bride, wasn’t she.”
Thomas sighed. “I guess it’s just us now.”
“Yep, Tommy. It’s just us now that she’s married.” She patted his thigh. “That’s what marriage is, separate worlds.”
“It isn’t all a bad feeling.” He smiled, and she looked surprised. “I kept thinking about us,” he said.
“You were so…” His voice faltered. As usual Janet didn’t coax him, just waited.
“I just feel so lucky,” he blurted. Tears floated up, and he looked at the sky, hoping to let them slide back down inside. He wasn’t hurting the way he’d expected. Veronica and Chris had had it all planned just as he had planned his own escape into a separate world. They were just two different visions, theirs not even as defiant as his and Janet’s had been.
His heart filled remembering Janet lugging that terrible green suitcase, red-faced and dripping sweat as she kicked open that bus station door. He let the tears slide and drip off his jaws. Every night. Every night for 37 years he had counted on that swell of comfort each time she climbed back into bed, folded herself against his back and put her arm, now softer, over him to pull him to her. What a lucky son-of-a-gun he was, blessed beyond all deserving. A Scrooge who every night was visited several times by a forgiving ghost who enfolded him in a loving embrace, asserting her possession, a comfort that would outlast sex and perhaps still be there in senility, the central delight of his life.
He would do better. Try to deserve her.