A domino of yawns circulate around the barn. The bride—fueled by caffeine and everlasting hope—tries to entice her guests back onto the dancefloor but her frolicking and twirls do little to inspire enthusiasm. People just want to go home.
I try to resist, but I can’t. I yawn. And it’s a big one. I have to cover my mouth so the bride isn’t further reminded that her night is coming to an end.
“Can we leave yet?”
Charlie, on the other hand, has no shame. The yawn I pass onto him is deadly. I can see all the way down his throat. I marvel at the symmetry of his tonsils.
“We’ve only been here three hours,” I tell him.
“Only three? It feels much longer.”
“They paid us for five.”
“Five?” Charlie consults his watch, as if subtracting three from five tells him nothing, “Christ.”
“Are you in a rush?” I ask.
“Then what is it?”
He starts to pace alongside the fence, “I’m worried about Henrietta.”
Two squirrels chase each other no more than ten feet from our alpaca. They must pick up on her weariness from having to put up with guests tugging on her fur and commenting on her marvelous ironic appeal. I can hear the squirrels taunt her for being tricked into the life of a novelty act.
“She seems fine to me.”
“But she hasn’t peed since we got here.”
“So don’t you think it’s bad for her kidneys to hold it in that long?”
The DJ segues from Otis Redding to a jaunty Mumford & Sons number. The tempo change brings out an even more fervent attempt from the bride to keep the party going. But her plea fails and she is forced to give a tired couple a goodbye embrace.
“Then what do you suggest?” I ask, running low on patience.
Charlie takes Henrietta’s leash off the fencepost, “I think she needs to be walked.”
“Charlie. She’s not a dog. If she has to go, she’ll go.”
“She probably feels exposed with all these people rubbing their dirty hands over her.”
Against my better judgement, I follow the two of them into the nearby forest. Part of me wants to ask Charlie what the hell is going on, but honestly, I don’t have the strength anymore. I sneak one more glance at the bride before we slip off. Her swaying has slowed down to the point of stillness. She looks so lost on the dancefloor. Poor thing is probably wondering if the choices she’s made in life have been the right ones.
Somebody should remind her it’s only a stupid wedding. She’ll feel much better when it’s behind her. But it won’t mean much coming from me. I’m paid to be here. The groom should be the one to tell her. Only he can put things into perspective.
There’s just one problem. The groom? I haven’t seen him since he and his wife flaunted their love by shoving cake into each other’s face. That was over an hour ago. How long does it take to clean yourself up?
A thick layer of dead twigs and leaves crunch under our feet. Somehow among all this noise, I hear something up ahead.
“Stop for a second.”
My husband spins around, “What?”
“Do you hear that?”
We both stand still. There it is again. Flowing water, “That.”
A few more feet and we come to a river that has seen better days. The dried-up banks reveal skeletal tree limbs contorted into unnatural positions. Trash as ancient as the Depression—rubber tires, garbage bags, even a stroller—has surfaced to offer their thanks to the great moon goddess for a second chance at life. I wouldn’t be surprised to trip over the rotten boot of a dead drifter.
I look up and down this sepulcher and a sense of familiarity descends upon me, “Is this the Musconetcong?” I ask.
“It can’t be,” Charlie says.
“Why can’t it?”
To humor me, he gives the river another hard stare. He peers upstream and then down before that placating look on his face gives way to recognition, “You know what? I think it is the Musconetcong.”
“See? I told you.”
“It’s not that I didn’t believe you. It’s just that…”
He stares into the river, confused this same body of water changed everything for us. I help complete his sentence, “I know. Has it ever been this low?”
Charlie gives the leash some slack to let Henrietta dig her front paws into the dust that was once a force of destruction. He then adds, “I heard Sam Champion say we’re going through the worst drought in a decade.”
“Well, if Sam Champion said it…”
Henrietta grazes in the riverbank without any follow-up release. Charlie yanks on her leash and says, “C’mon. Just pee already.”
Seeing the Musconetcong limping along, practically gasping for air, I don’t know. Call it silly, but if my fourth graders were here and they knew how many lives this river ruined, they’d think the same thing. Justice. I turn to my husband and ask him, “Charlie, does it feel weird to be back up here?”
“Why would it be weird?”
Henrietta kicks up some dirt, does a quick circle around a rusty can of Old English, but ultimately decides the spot isn’t for her. We must wait.
“What Taryn?” he groans, frustrated that Henrietta is jerking us around in the dark.
“Do you ever wonder how our lives would’ve turned out if that flood never happened?”
Charlie picks up a pebble. It’s got good heft, and when he casts it across the river towards our past lives when not only anything seem possible but it was our birthright to have whatever we coveted, the pebble has no trouble reaching dry land. I need Charlie to tell me I’m being ridiculous. I need him to look me in the eye and affirm that what we have now is better than anything that could’ve been. Unless I’m mistaken, that’s what a husband is supposed to do. But of course I get none of that. Instead I find a man tired of pretending, “I think about it every day,” he says nearly in a whisper.
Charlie picks up another pebble. This one is much tinier than before. I don’t know how he expects to throw such a puny thing with any distance. He’s ready to chuck it but doubt takes over and sucks him dry of confidence. He merely flings it over his shoulder and adds, “Don’t you?” I want to ask Charlie what else comes to mind when he thinks about Hurricane Floyd but the sudden rush of fluid flowing out of Henrietta makes it hard to keep the conversation going.
“Good girl,” Charlie says, overcome with relief that his struggle is finally over. He then rubs her head like a proud father, “You really had to go, didn’t you?” The stream gushes out of her. Charlie has to step back to avoid getting splashed. The parched dirt beneath her welcomes the deluge with gratitude.
The soft ballads of Tom Waits make way to dim lights and droning trance music. Despite the DJ’s proficient spinning, no one is dancing. Even the bride—previously the night’s sole survivor—has retired to a hay bale with a beer to keep her spirits from plunging any further. Caterers orbit around her like the satellites of Jupiter as they ransack tables of empty plates and cups. Not one of them bothers to ask the bride if they can do anything to help.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Charlie.
“Where are you going?”
“I want to see if the bride needs any help.”
“Whatever it is, it’s not our problem.”
A strong breeze passing through the farmyard brings with it the distinct smell of weed. I start to fear the groom slipped off somewhere to smoke a joint and lost his way back. Don’t these hipsters know this isn’t Brooklyn? One errant flick of a match can engulf this whole malnourished region into a giant inferno. Not to mention the bears. I then ask, “What kind of man abandons his wife on their wedding?”
Charlie peers over my shoulder to assess the situation inside the barn. He takes stock of what he sees before offering, “Maybe he’s throwing up somewhere.”
“And that makes it better?”
“Taryn, it’s not for us to interfere.”
“If not us, then who?”
Charlie reattaches the leash onto the fencepost, “Do what you want.”
“Don’t get angry with me.
“I’m not angry.”
He lays both of his hands on my shoulders. If the music wasn’t so goofy, I’d swear he’s getting ready to dance, “Everyone has their problems,” he says with all the seriousness of a minister wrapping up his sermon; “They’ll figure it out. Didn’t we?”
It’s hard to say how long the caterer has been standing next to us. I only notice her after she clears her throat and pretends not to have heard our talk about the bride. She hands one plate of wedding cake to Charlie and another to me and says, “There’s plenty more left if you’re still hungry.”
It takes a certain amount of balls to serve cake at your wedding covered in chocolate frosting and rainbow sprinkles. I get the whole non-conformist shtick and even like most of the touches, but this goes too far. Wedding cake is special—a once in a lifetime opportunity to throw caution to the wind. It’s not meant to look like something your mother made for your third-grade birthday party.
I’m about to pitch this mess into the nearest trashcan when the bride breaks herself out of her catatonia and starts heading directly towards us. The bottom of her floral-print dress is stained brown from being dragged along the scorched earth. She looks like a zombie in desperate need to be put out of her misery, “Hurry up and eat the cake,” I tell Charlie.
“But I’m not hungry,” I bark through my teeth; “Just eat it.”
After Charlie follows my order, I jam my fork into the cake and shove a large chunk into my mouth. I put on a smile to show the bride how thankful we are she decided to share her special day with us.
The bride reaches us without recovering any of the grace she paraded around up until the groom’s disappearance. I try to lift her mood by saying, “It’s been such a beautiful wedding.”
“Thank you,” she says, her voice barely registering above a whimper.
“And this cake!” I wipe off frosting from the corner of my mouth, “Out of this world.”
The bride tries to be cordial by offering a weak nod of appreciation. But a certain pressing matter forces her to cut to the chase, “Have you seen my husband?”
“No, I haven’t,” I answer and do my best to hide what I truly think about the man she chose to spend the rest of her life with, “I’m sure he’ll turn up any second.” The lies! How I hate the filth that spews from my mouth like a tapped faucet. The truth shouldn’t be so shameful yet I silence the very part of me that could save the bride from a life of delusion.
“I know what you need,” The voice is not mine. I can’t even speak anymore lest further falsehoods slip from my tongue. It is my husband—Charles Heyward—who steps forth to rescue me from my turmoil, “You need an alpaca in your life,” he adds. We both turn to this alien intruding upon the most intimate of dramas. Who is this man? “Would you like to pet Henrietta?” this stranger asks.
I watch in amazement as the bride shakes the cobwebs out of her head. She approaches our alpaca and runs her hand—the one with a shiny new ring—over Henrietta’s backside. Soon both hands disappear inside her thick, wooly coat, “She’s due for a shearing,” Charlie tells her and grabs a chunk of fur to show how much we’ve let things go.
“I’d love to watch,” the bride says; “I bet it’s very beautiful.”
“If you really want to see some magic”—Charlie points to a spot on Henrietta’s head—“She likes to be scratched right here.” The second the bride’s fingers reach Henrietta’s pleasure portal located halfway between her ears, a cat-like purr is released into the air and helps the bride forget all about her lost husband. For all the work that accompanies owning an alpaca, you sometimes forget that moments like this are possible.
“She’s really taken to you,” Charlie tells the bride, and for the first time in a long time, I’m proud to call this man my husband.
A mass exodus commences in the barn. Guests filter outside looking for fresh air and their cars. The wedding coordinator valiantly tries to direct them to the party favor table containing small sunflower bouquets. But few show interest in bringing home a remembrance of this affair.
The wedding coordinator’s trek across the dirt field is filled with exhaustion. Like the bride, the bottom of her dress could use a good dusting. Her hair—once arranged into an intricate set of braids—has unraveled into a heap of tangles. After wiping the sweat off her forehead with a napkin, she says to the bride, “It looks like things are wrapping up, Delilah.”
“It’s been a long day,” she replies, still clutching onto Henrietta’s coat.
“Will you be needing anything else from me?”
The primitive power of our alpaca—first harnessed by the Incas, then passed down from tribe to tribe like the secret of fire building—provides the bride with only a fleeting distraction before her twenty-first century anxiety kicks in. She asks the wedding coordinator, “You wouldn’t know where my husband is, would you?”
The coordinator points towards a field of cars predominately with New York license plates, “Isn’t that him over there?” she asks.
Once the bride spots the groom zig-zagging around parked cars with the sleeves of his lumberjack shirt rolled up to his elbows, exposing arms covered in grease, her relief quickly transforms into anger, “Where the hell have you been, Everitt?” she yells. His saunter is bad enough. But it’s his smile, revealing a perfect set of untarnished teeth that advertise his obliviousness to the distress he put his wife through. She ignores the kiss he plants on her cheek. “Well?” she asks.
His smile doesn’t waver. “Well what?”
“Where were you?”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“You told me nothing.”
“I’m so sorry, Delilah. I thought I told you. Lulu’s exhaust pipe was falling off. She was afraid to drive on the Verrazano with it dangling.”
I caution women everywhere. Watch out for Lulu, this temptress of the plains. If you see her, call her what she is. A skank, or if that word is too degrading, a threat to us women who think we’ve got everything planned out.
The bride crosses her arms across her chest. “And?”
“And Roman and I decided to lend her a hand.”
Something happens. It starts with thunder behind us. It erupts a good five miles past the Musconetcong but it’s loud enough to dismantle the bride’s fury. Then a streak of lightning brings to her face the unmistakable look of forgiveness.
“Did you fix it?” she asks, her eyes glowing with impunity.
Everitt wipes his greasy hands on his jeans. He answers, full of cockiness, “Of course we fixed it.”
The bride reels in her husband with a grasp for the ages. Then, for some reason, she turns to me. No one else comes within her field of vision, as if she’s found an audience of one. She gloats, “I’ve got quite the man here.”
I’ll let the bride have her moment. It would be wrong to take it away from her. But if I wanted to be particularly spiteful, I would tell her that the world is chock full of great men. Sure Everitt can fix a car, but so what? Would he let an alpaca drink straight from his own water bottle? Because that’s what my man is doing. And boy, is Henrietta thirsty. Her tongue nearly penetrates the opening of the bottle to get at the water trapped inside. But Charlie’s hand is steady. He won’t let a single drop go to waste.
We made love that night. To be honest, I was really looking forward to going to bed. The wedding took more out of me than I was expecting, and I needed time to let my brain wind down. But you go with it. Somewhere around my second orgasm, the skies open up. Man, you should see it come down. The rain is so intense I can barely hear Charlie grunt before he convulses and falls into my arms. I cradle him and tell him everything is going to be okay from here on out.
At this rate, we shouldn’t hear any more nonsense from Sam Champion.
Christopher Acker is a husband, father, and full-time clinical social worker living in Bridgewater, New Jersey. His work has appeared in the Fictive Dream, Spelk, Firefly Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and No Extra Words, as well as in an upcoming issue of Inwood Indiana.