The bride is late.
She’s late, and so is the groom, and since the wedding is on the beach, guests are shuffling restlessly up and down in the sand eyeing the surf, which is how I find myself talking with a stranger who is wearing culottes and is a childhood friend of the bride. They both went to my high school but that was ages ago, or at least seems like an age. Anyway it was before I went there, which already feels like a million years. This beach is in my hometown and I don’t live here anymore and I don’t know anyone here anymore except my mother and her friends who volunteer alongside her at the charity shop. So when I come to visit, which is only once a year, the wide blue salt-perfumed days are spent in the shop chatting with old ladies about Sunday brunches and macular degeneration while watching pregnant girls and shiftless skateguys and leathernecked old sailors shuffle past the plate-glass window. And sad because I am from here, I was here, and where did everyone I once knew go?
I never knew the bride. My mother knows the bride. My mother knows nearly everyone in town, because she cannot bear to sit at home as every room in it reminds her of my father, the very carpet exhaling his death, whispering up to her in its mockery as the wheels of her wheelchair drive ruts into the green shag like wagon trails, he’s gone! he’s gone! His last footprint, made as he was walking to the kitchen from the hallway wondering why his head felt so odd, before everything went blank: his last footprint which he never would have guessed would be his last, has been trampled over again and again since then, how many thousand times? She cannot bear to sit around the house. She volunteers. You would be surprised to see how many customers come to charity shops. Some come just to pass the time, nipping in from the harbor-scented street outside, that salted bitter tang of tar and hawsers, for a browse and a free paper cup of coffee: Living there, they can afford to take sunshine for granted. When they depart the shop after an hour spent there the sun will shine as brightly and warmly on their cotton-sleeved arms as it did when they came in. Living in my hometown, they can take or leave an hour of sunshine and always have more.
The bride’s friend works at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant three towns away, near the shopping mall where we all used to go for prom dresses. She is the manager of the restaurant, but sometimes in a pinch, she explains — “like when someone’s out sick” — she has to put on the furry costume with its snout and whiskers and caper for kids eating pizza, portraying Chuck E. Cheese himself.
The tide is low, dragging over the rocks with a sucking sound. This is my hometown and I don’t live here anymore and I don’t know anyone. I’m just visiting my mother, and she was invited.
A pair of surfers is bobbing in the small swells. They straddle surfboards the happy pink and yellow of Chiclets gum.
“Is Chuck a mouse,” I ask the bride’s friend, “or a rat?”
My mother not only knows the bride, she also knows the groom. She knew the bride and groom, who are now pushing fifty and yet to arrive, long before they met, when they were both married to other people. My mother knew the people to whom the bride and groom used to be married. She sold them gifts at the charity shops: gifts to them and for them, from each other, for years. She knows what sort of earrings the groom’s ex-wife likes. She knows what color the bride and her ex-husband’s bathroom walls were, because she sold them a soap dish or a trash can or an ashtray to match. She also knows the bride’s children and the groom’s children: two separate broods, Brady Bunch-like, who are now all here together waiting for the wedding to start. Two of the boys are fat and three are thin; one walks with a limp; one has long sleek hair and another has a mohawk. One of the girls has a peachy teenage bust and the other looks around six,. In faux-Renaissance garb, flowers tucked into their hair, they are arranging items on the altar with quick irritable movements. On the altar is a brass chalice and a carafe of wine which must be sweet wine because wasps are divebombing the rim. This makes the smaller girl balk. The stem of the chalice is forged into the shape of a Greek snake-goddess statuette, and it is flanked by a pair of white candles, one shaped like a naked woman and one shaped like a naked man.
The bridal couple’s children keep sighing and flicking their hair, as we do in my hometown, all staring with the same want-to-die look toward the parking lot. You can almost hear them thinking, in our hometown accent, My damn mom and My damn dad and Fuckeen late as usual. The kids roll their eyes. There are so many other things they clearly wish they were doing. They cross and uncross their arms over tightly strung bodices and gaudy jerkins, and cross and uncross their legs in thick hot tights. The bride’s eldest son is a college student named Isaiah who during his freshman year confided in my mother that he was failing his engineering courses. She persuaded him to change his major, to follow his dreams. All very funny coming from her, who begged me to get a real job and not marry the man I married. Isaiah chose culinary arts. Now in his jerkin and tights and ankle-boots he is down on one knee before Mom’s wheelchair, telling her about the wedding cake, which he baked and which is now awaiting all of us on a long festive table at the steakhouse a few miles away along the coast road where the reception will be. The restaurant’s neon sign depicts a cartoon admiral, with epaulettes.
Between the cake’s three white sponge layers, Isaiah is explaining, he spooned raspberry coulis. For the frosting he applied a thin coating of peanut-butter mousse.
Mom remembers when Isaiah’s mother was clerking miserably at our town’s only bookshop — and then made a career move, quit the bookshop and started working longshore at the harbor. That was where she met the groom. Before this engagement, though, she had another one, to a gigantic biker called Tiny, who was great with her kids but died in a crash last Christmas on the freeway near Tustin. Mom knew Tiny too. She was sad when he died. Mom can talk for hours about Tiny and the bride and Isaiah and nearly everyone else in town, living or dead: the fisherman who lost an arm to a shark; the fat lady who collects novelties shaped like hippos (so that naturally she comes around quite frequently to the charity shop to ask: Good morning, do you have any new hippos?). She can talk about Austrian Lotte who was born into a circus family and for thirty years was a professional clown on the European circuit. Mom is more interested in any of them than in me, a fact which I must accept. She does not ask about my friends and she does not read anything I write. Not the articles, not the books. Is this a terrible fact? Is it good? My books lie in piles around her house like monoliths, poised atop dressers and end tables, the varnish slowly leaching around them through the long sunny daytime silences and the shouting-TV evenings, Please, Dr. Phil, help me stop buying lotto tickets! I feel so awful when I give her a copy of a new one and she promises to read it but she won’t. Can’t? It’s not as if they are pornography or VW-repair manuals. Actually an even worse thing is that sometimes she claims to have read one of my books. How can she imagine anyone believing this? She has a master’s degree. Surely she knows that no one, not an idiot, not I, would be fooled by her chirping By the way, I read it and it was very nice? Sometimes for an extra flourish, to further seal what she assumes is her credibility, she will add in a husky tone You’re really very talented, do you know that?
I do not push it when she makes those claims. I learned to stop. I learned years ago not to wax all sharp: not to splutter, Oh really, you read it? Then which of the saints in Chapter Six do you think died in vain? or Who do you think actually strangled the dancer? Because that line of dialogue always ends in tears. Mine. Hers. The choked voice, through the phone: Why must you interrogate me? Why must you turn everything into a test?
I only asked a simple question, I used to say but not anymore.
So I am a cypher of little detail, like a mountain range viewed from afar, but she is keenly aware of everyone in town, of whose father-in-law died of pleurisy and where and when, and whose nephew is in second grade at Banfield Elementary School where his favorite subject is geography. She knows. She knows. She knows that Sondra who waitresses at the Koffee Kup used to be Samuel. Oh she knows so much. Three Christmases ago I made my mother a little decoupaged and jeweled box with a clever sliding lid, and in the box I placed a folded copy of an article I had written, clipped from the big-city newspaper. It was partly to show how clever the box’s sliding lid was — look, there’s something inside! — and partly because I thought, It’s such a small article and so interesting, it’s about Lewis Carroll, how absolutely simple to read it. And partly I did it because you shouldn’t give people empty boxes. She slid the box open, drew out the clipping, unfolded it and smoothed it flat on the coffee table. Oooooh. She nodded. She read its headline aloud in a singsong voice, as if addressing young campers at camp. Then she read its byline aloud. I wanted to die.
Oooooh, I’m going to save this! She refolded the clipping and pushed it back into the box, then patted the box and said, It’s special, I don’t want to spoil it by reading it right now. I don’t need to tell you. I don’t! You already know how the box stands lodged on the glass top of the coffee table between the blue vase and the ivory pear, at the exact odd angle where she set it down that day, never opened (I can tell), a furze of dust banking its four sides, building up, like silt.
Now she laughs riotously in the noon glare with Isaiah. And I am thinking, Oh fiiiiine, take HIM home and complain to HIM about how the neighbors ought to bring your daily newspaper up the driveway and place it on your porch out of kindness but they don’t. He crouches on one knee in the sand. Seated beside my mother on a folding chair and feigning interest in this talk of cakes is Cristal from Heartwise Homecare Agency. Cristal’s job is to drive Mom around in the maroon Mustang that Mom can no longer drive, and cook for her and help her in the bath. Cristal sleeps in the guest room where Dad used to keep his rock-tumbler and spare luggage and where now Cristal’s Palm Pilot and curling iron and a framed playing-card-sized painting of Jesus Christ flank the clock-radio on the black lacquered nightstand that Dad made with his own hands.
Because of the terrorist threat to the harbor, helicopters patrol the waterfront constantly. The bride’s friend in her culottes must shout to compete with the propellers’ bapbapbapbap.
“A mouse, I prefer to think,” she shouts. “But I have to admit, the snout’s kind of long for a rat.” She bends to hold down her culottes, which are wild in the warm huffs of wind rolling in over the sea.
A large woman in a full flouncy skirt and gauzy top with big bell sleeves, pink carnation garland pinned to her hair, is climbing out of a Camry in the parking lot. As she turns to slam the car door, a sword in a leather scabbard at her waist swings wide and smacks her thigh. With a pink hand she rubs the sore spot.
“Yeah.” The bride’s friend draws a disposable camera from her pocket. “The priestess.” Then she sees a man she knows and rushes over to embrace him.
I drift back to Cristal. We get along, Cristal and I. She was an engineer in the Philippines before becoming a U.S. citizen, getting rich in Silicon Valley during the dot-com years, then losing everything in bad investments.
“The bride’s a witch,” I tell Cristal.
Cristal regards the altar with intelligent, syrup-colored eyes.
“Oh. Okay.” She lays her warm hand over mine, riffling with the other hand through her purse, pushing past the pocket-size New Testament and Coach wallet to fish out a salt-water taffy with a red smiley-face design, which she hands up to me.
Overhearing this much, the woman in the folding chair on my other side wants to know more. Small towns are like this. Past fifty, with green eye shadow and long curls L’Oreal-black against the bleached sand and sky, she introduces herself as Verlinda. Her pretty face is riven in two by a thick diagonal scar.
“How interesting,” she says, pronouncing it, as we do here, intrusteen.
“A witch-wedding, what’ll I tell my mom,” Verlinda bubbles. “She’ll light a novena for me.”
She will. This is a Catholic town, founded by fishermen from Krk, Brac, Ulcinj, and Capri, some of whose descendants still run boats out of the harbor, drying their rope-nets, between voyages, in the sun on the docks. A Catholic town, where the weddings I attended that first summer after high school were held in a red-brick church called Mary, Star of the Sea, whose gold-limned plaster Virgin, poised on the roof, keeps vigil for the fleet. It’s Mary Star for short, because we like nicknames here. The town’s name itself is two words but we call it by just one. That’s how you tell an insider. We squeeze its Spanish “e” into a long flat American “e,” as in geek.
We knelt at those teenage weddings. Rise. Kneel. Rise, with Father Cracchiolo none the wiser that the brides and grooms had been making it for months already at the Gull Motel.
“Well, I’m for all religions, though,” Verlinda says. She points with a pearlfrost-nailed finger to her face, tracing the scar that bisects her forehead then slashes between her eyes, mercifully missing her nose. Cleaving her right cheek into two satiny cushions, it races down her neck into the collar of her dress. Verlinda works longshore. That’s how she knows the lucky couple. One night on Verlinda’s shift a torn steel cable split her face. Blood shot from a neck artery. Before the ambulance arrived, Verlinda’s coworkers gave up. A lasher named Johnelle recited prayers for the dead as Verlinda felt her blood raining onto her chest, sloshing hot in her armpits.
“But I lived,” Verlinda says now, “because I had this.” From her purse she pulls a pewter keychain shaped like a menorah. “I didn’t know what it was but I bought it at a yard sale the morning before my accident. I don’t know what this means” — she runs her finger over the Hebrew inscription on the back — ”but it was in my pocket when I was waiting for the ambulance and I held it.”
After emergency surgery that brought back from the brink, she didn’t convert or anything. She still attends Mass every morning after dropping off her three grandsons at the Mary Star school.
“It’s just that I realized,” she says, slipping the keychain back into her handbag, “that all religions can save you sometimes.”
The bride has arrived. She and the groom are scrambling out of a yellow Corvette. His tights are tucked into cowboy boots and he looks, as my mother will say later, a bit high. The bride wears a diaphanous ecru gown through which white thong underwear — we tan dark here — shows vividly. The priestess draws her sword, which sends out harsh glints in the sunlight. The priestess works longshore too; that’s why her hands as she unsheaths the sword are so pink and raw. Salt-and-pepper plaits swish the plump tiers of her back. Holding the sword out before her, she leaves the altar and circumambulates the whole group of us, drawing a magic circle in the air. She doesn’t say that’s what she’s doing. I just happen to know. Because by coincidence I have seen a magic circle drawn in the air by a priestess with a sword before, years ago and hundreds of miles away in Berkeley, where I was naked in a room full of naked men and women with their arms upraised only they didn’t call it naked, they called it “sky-clad.” At first I thought they were saying guy-glad: As they got undressed, saying Let’s get this guy glad, but then one of the pagans beamed at me and intoned pedagogically, Sky-clad. Clad in nothing but the sky. Only we were indoors then, not outdoors, and does living-room air count as the sky? It was nighttime and the room was lit only by candlelight, but it was bright enough to see a censer and short knife on the altar and tiny Dungeons & Dragons figurines on a shelf, and certain things I did not want to see and I wondered if my butt looked fat.
Kicking up white fanlets of beach-sand as she goes around the wedding guests, full skirt swishing around her sandaled feet, the priestess chants: “I conjure a world between the worlds.” The helicopters’ bapbapbap lends an electronic, hip-hop sound. Can the pilots, far away in their uniforms, see us? The problem with hometowns which you only visit sometimes is that everything you see there either fills you with outrage — What the hell is that? That never used to be here or else forces you to remember how you once were and what you did here, on this very spot, and why. This sand for instance. Here. One night which was New Year’s Eve at the dawn of a new decade, I will not tell you which decade, I parked in that parking lot with a boy named Neil and we locked the car and walked down the ramp to right here. I was carrying a bag of takeout Chinese food, sweet expensive shrimp in lobster sauce which was my first choice, either because I knew that everything else meant to happen on that night would really matter or because I knew it would not. Under one long ropy arm Neil toted a sleeping bag. We unrolled the bag and sat on top of it and with wooden chopsticks provided by the restaurant we ate the shrimp and watched the waves rising, cresting and slapping back into the moonlit froth and then we —
See, we —
And he said after doing a certain thing, You like that, don’t you? as you would when teasing a dog, jerking a toy. I wanted to die. And later that night I said, You are very very important to me. It sounded ludicrous hanging there in the night air, like the voiceover on a public-TV program, High temperatures and high humidity are very very important to the rainforest lemurs. I tried again, his face pointing straight out to sea shimmering like rayon in the moonlight:
I mean, I said, I think we’ll still be together when the NEXT decade comes.
Oh God, did I say that? Yeah, for sure, for sure, and the sand knows, the sand under my shoes says Yes you did, how does it feel to be back home?