Late Saturday morning—a warm day with an armada of big white clouds overhead—Audrey and I head up to a wedding I’m playing in Glenview. I can’t afford to turn down a gig and I can’t afford to give up one of my days with her, so I sometimes impress her into service as my roadie. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to mind, maybe because she gets to wear her frilly white dress with the green sash and her shiny Mary Janes, or maybe because she gets a roadie’s prestige without having to perform any of a roadie’s tasks.
Today, for example, she’s only carrying her stuffed unicorn that had its electronic guts removed one grim day, just before I was asked to leave the Rogers Park apartment, when Milena apparently heard the unicorn’s song one time too many. Now, rolling my 85P harp up a broad concrete walkway to the church entrance, with Audrey and her mute unicorn in tow, I can’t help but feel we’re a pair of refugees from the land of nuclear families, making a bid for repatriation.
St. Patricia’s church, built in 1975 according to its cornerstone, looks like a sombrero: it’s a circular mass of stucco and metal that gives way to a ring of stained glass windows right under a Superdome-like roof with a rounded steeple rising in the center. As we approach the entryway, a young man in a white button-down shirt and blue jeans holds the door open for us and the dollied harp.
“Thanks, dude,” I say.
“You’re welcome,” he says, with a touch of passive-aggressive stiffness.
I settle Audrey in a pew close to where I’ll be playing, tune, warm-up, and meet the large wedding party. Heading behind the chancel looking for a restroom, I run into the doorman again, now dressed in green and white vestments, straightening up at the drinking fountain. His hair is short on the sides but makes a pleasing dense wave across the top of his handsome head, JFK-style. I’m struck by how young he is—I’d heard they’d stopped making new priests. His white collar cuts a clean demarcation on his neck. His sacred garments drape and conceal his torso, giving the impression that his elite noggin is traveling like a jewel set on a green and white pillow.
“Oh, hello,” I say.
“Hello again,” he says. “Do we need to work anything out?”
“Sorry I didn’t recognize you when I came in, Father.”
He smiles and shakes his head, once, to dispel the notion. “I’m Fred,” he says, extending a soft hand, and he proceeds to enlighten me on my major entrances: the tricky segue from prelude music to “Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus’” (he’s not about to call it “Here Comes the Bride” like a civilian), the unity candle ceremony, the recessional. Stagecraft under control, he sighs.
“Weddings just don’t pay, do they?” he says, one vendor to another.
“How so?” I ask.
“Well, you’re here all Friday night for the rehearsal. Saturday everyone wants to come early to get dressed and take pictures and so on. Then they have more pictures and the reception afterwards. Someone has to stick around and lock up.”
“And that would be you.”
“I can’t attend the reception, even if they invite me. I can’t stagger into church Sunday morning for the 8:30 mass.” He laughs incredulously.
“Yeah,” I say.
“I guess you have to look at it as a labor of love,” he concludes and lapses into a thoughtful silence.
“Well,” I say, “I’ve got to make a pit stop before we start.”
“See you in a few,” he sighs.
When I exit the restroom, the bride bustles by, holding her skirts up in her fists, all stifled tears and white crinoline. She dives, arms outstretched, into the nearby women’s room. The door threatens to close on her train, and she turns and grabs up cloth in one hand while holding the door with the other. I stare stupidly: her eyes are full of tears, yet they suggest an intensity capable of lifting a car to free a crushed child. I bow my head and turn away. Her sobs echo against the tiles. On my way down the corridor, the Maid of Honor bursts through a backdoor and scurries past me, carrying a small purse in two hands like a first aid kit. She’s followed seconds later by the bride’s mother in a yellow dress with a huge corsage roosting below her clavicle. The mother’s measured nod to me says: “You are hired help and will not speak of what you have seen upon pain of death.”
I re-straighten my tie and head back into the church where the first guests are being seated by the ushers. The pews are arranged in a broad arc with several aisles to the front, creating a sort of altar-in-the-round feel. I take my seat at the foot of the steps of one approach to the altar, pull the harp into my arms and jauntily plink out prelude tunes.
The bride appears on cue during the processional, arm hooked against her father’s elbow. She’s a pale blonde whose up-do has been piled and knotted extravagantly. It’s hard not to call out “Let’s hear it for the bride’s hair!” Her make-up has been well-restored, but her lips quiver slightly. The groom is an anvil-headed jock with an appealing grin. He wears a sharply tailored black tux with long tails and a white bow tie. As if to best display these beautiful humans, someone has decided to give them seats and kneelers in front of the congregation, on the dais to the right of the altar.
With a tiny black microphone clipped to the neckline of his chasuble, Father Fred barrels through the first half of the liturgy at an exhilarating pace, like a downhill skier on the very edge of control. There’s something old school about the way he reduces the service to a mere verbal sequence, shorn of emotion and sense. You’ve got to admire his enunciatory chops, at a minimum. Then he takes the podium for his homily. Done playing for the moment, I am sitting in one of the front row pews off to the side, with Audrey next to me. I’ve promised her an ice cream cone if she can keep still during the ceremony.
“What a beautiful day!” Father Fred begins, in a much slower, more cornball tone. “And it’s so exciting to see Jennifer and Todd looking their best on their big day.” He pauses ever so slightly, as if to assure himself that he’s used their correct names. “And Jennifer and Todd, I know you couldn’t have prayed for better weather—I know… I know I couldn’t have.”
He looks down at the lectern, absorbing the stillness. Maybe he botched a weather joke? He lifts his head and troops on: “You’re young, you’re with family and friends, on this, your most exciting day. You can look forward to a delicious meal, dancing the night away. And this celebration of God’s love for us will seal your love for each other. Magnificent!”
He wags his head in happy disbelief at their good fortune, yet as he prolongs this gesture, it acquires rueful overtones.
“But I hate to break it to you,” he continues. “Just you wait, because it’s not always going to be so magnificent. Not always so perfect.”
Father Fred pauses to let his bold gambit sink in. A new sort of silence settles on the congregation, as before a verdict is read in a courtroom.
“Jennifer and Todd, there are going to be trials down the road, rain when you want sunshine. Disappointments. Bummers. Sometimes the dog makes a mess and we step in it. That’s a part of life, too.”
Titters pass over the pews, and he nods. Audrey pulls on my sleeve and whispers “dog poop” in my ear. I nod thoughtfully and pat her leg to keep her quiet.
“And those are the times I want to talk about with you today,” Father Fred continues. He looks over to where the bride and groom sit rigidly with their hands on their knees, staring at him like a pair of pharaohs. He smiles warmly as he proceeds:
“I know it’s hard to believe right now, but little habits of your spouse will get to you: Jennifer doesn’t squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom; Todd always tracks mud into the house. You won’t have as much to say to each other as you used to. You’re going to have terrible fights, where you’ll say things just to be hurtful. You may not even be true to each other. Oh, I know you’re not thinking of that now, but, you Jennifer, you may be tempted by a handsome fellow at work who gives you a lot of attention. And Todd, you’re going to have some wild oats. You may go out to the bar right after dinner instead of helping with the dishes.”
An odd look appears in the couple’s eyes.
“But these are just the everyday challenges, and in any strong marriage we need to meet those challenges. But let me tell you a little story about a couple I married before I came to St. Pat’s.
“Aaron and Beth started their married life on a magnificent day very much like today. Right off the bat, God gave them two beautiful children. Aaron had an excellent job, and Beth stayed home to raise the kids, something she had always wanted to do.”
The bride looks down in her lap.
“Then one day Aaron was playing softball and got hit in the head with a line drive. The impact damaged a formerly benign brain cyst that began to swell, causing terrible nausea and occasional seizures. Aaron started to struggle at work. There was an economic downturn, and Aaron was ‘downsized.’
“With no salary coming in, Beth was forced to take a telemarketing job, using her home phone so she could keep raising her children. Meanwhile, after the cyst proved to be inoperable, Aaron had a reaction to an experimental medication and lost sight in one eye. Then one of their children, two-year-old Sarah, suddenly came down with a very high fever that just wouldn’t go away. It was caused by a mysterious virus. The doctors said it was one in a million—Sarah died in the hospital a month later.”
The bride stares saucer-eyed at Father Fred. Her mother sits straight-backed in her pew with her eyes closed. The bride’s father has the crotch of his meaty hand wedged under his nose, his eyes apparently fixed on a hymnal holder. A stream of tears suddenly rushes down the bride’s cheek, and she brushes her face with a gloved hand.
“Beth hung on,” Father Fred affirms. “But it was hard. She was honest with me: she told me she wanted to run. Pick up and go. Get out of her marriage. Abandon her family to Social Services. She had even lined up a job as a cook on a cruise ship. And do you know what I said? I said, ‘This is a time when your love for your husband can be truly magnificent, when your love for your husband can be truly perfect.’”
The bride covers her nose and mouth with both hands, as if to muffle a scream. Audrey sits forward in her seat, watching intently, her unicorn in her lap.
“The stress was getting to Beth. She suffered migraine headaches and hallucinations—but she stayed. After years of living off social security insurance and the generosity of friends and relatives, Beth and Aaron moved into subsidized apartment housing with their remaining child, Jared, who hopes to start kindergarten next year. Though often bed-ridden, Aaron takes calls on a helpline for a computer company and spends every waking moment of his free time with his wife and son, hoping for a miracle treatment that will halt the growth of the cyst. Meanwhile, Beth cooks and cleans and loves them all—and with a smile on her face. Now that’s what I call a marriage.”
With a strangled cry, the bride rises from her seat, says something half-under her breath, negotiates the carpeted stairs, and runs down a side aisle.
Father Fred clutches the lectern and gazes after her, his mouth drawn in a slanting line. Murmuring rises from the congregation. The Maid of Honor goes in pursuit, but the bride’s mother sits stonily for a time, until a nudge from her husband rouses her and she drifts out of the pew. The groom looks around, ashen-faced. Then he leaps to his feet and jogs down the steps to seek his betrothed.
Meanwhile, Father Fred gathers himself and speaks:
“Let us all spend a few moments in quiet reflection.”
He looks at me, nods meaningfully, and withdraws to his chair behind the altar. I slip over to the harp and fire up “Claire de Lune,” which I know by heart. A feeling of intermission descends on the church, but no one gets up to leave. After I finish the song, I notice Audrey looking very upset.
I want to go to her, but find myself looking at Father Fred, waiting to be excused. Meanwhile, I’m playing nothing, and centrifugal force threatens to hurl everyone out to the parking lot.
Father Fred takes the podium again: “As we reflect, let us pray for the hearts of Todd and Jennifer, that they may see God’s truth.” Then he gives me another nod.
Just as I pull the harp back, the bride’s mother pokes her head in the doorway through which everyone has been disappearing. Father Fred, re-seating himself, pauses and lifts his chin expectantly. Before the congregation can turn to see what’s going on, she shakes her head emphatically, no. Father Fred calmly returns to the lectern.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he says, “the vows of holy matrimony will not be celebrated here today. This mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
When I get over to Audrey in the pew, she is fighting off tears. “Is he going to be OK?” she asks.
“Who? The groom?”
“I hope so. The doctors are helping him.”
“Are they going to get a divorce?”
“Aaron and Beth?”
She nods. She is working very hard not to cry. Every time her chest begins to swell into a sob, she stops it, like holding back a sneeze.
“They’re staying together, looks like.”
“What about Jennifer and Todd?”
“Well, they didn’t quite get married,” I say. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with them.”
I’m waiting for her to mention Sarah, the two year old. Her chin flexes in a trembling pout that suddenly breaks and she starts to cry and then it seems her inability to stop herself from crying makes her cry even more. I hug her.
“Sweetie,” I say. “Sweetie, it’s OK.”
“It’s not OK,” she says, which is something Milena started saying around the house after she was in therapy for a month, just before we separated. This replaced Milena saying “That sucks wind” to describe a bad thing.
I hold Audrey. She cares and feels, and this shouldn’t be a bad thing. She fights with her sobs, until she lets out a tremendous hiccup.
“Oh, now, hey, that was some hiccup!” I say.
She hiccups again.
ANDY MOZINA’S first story collection The Women Were Leaving the Men (2007) won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His second collection, Quality Snacks (2014), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Prize and other awards. His debut novel is Contrary Motion (March, 2016, Spiegel & Grau/Random House.) Mozina’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s: The Small Chair and elsewhere. His work has received special citations in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the Midwest. He is a professor of English at Kalamazoo College and lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Lorri, and his daughter, Madeleine. Visit his website to learn more.
Adapted from Contrary Motion, by Andy Mozina, Copyright © 2016 by Andy Mozina. With the permission of the publisher, Spiegel & Grau.