When the groom failed to walk down the aisle at the appropriate time, the ushers launched a brief search. After not finding the groom in the bathroom nor in the vacant Sunday school room the men in the wedding party had used as a dressing room, the ushers widened their search to include the rest of the small church. They did not find the groom.
The best man tried to call him on his cell phone, but he was connected directly to the groom’s voicemail. “We’re here at the wedding,” said the best man as the bride hovered over his shoulder. “Just, uh, wondering why you aren’t.” He hung up.
The one hundred guests sat buzzing in their seats while the wedding party, the pastor, and the parents of the bride discussed the situation at the front of the church.
The bride waved her bouquet at the best man and said, “You’re his best friend. Where is he?”
The best man looked around for a sympathetic face. There were none. The groom was not a Multioak native. He was a transplant from another state, all the way from the West coast, in fact, and none of his friends or family from home had made the trip for the wedding. The four bridesmaids were all friends of the bride. The other groomsmen were the bride’s three brothers. Even the best man had only known the groom for a little over a year, and even then just as a coworker at Bluejay Body Shop.
“I don’t know where he is,” said the best man. “He seemed fine when I picked him up this morning. He was fine in the dressing room. He seemed fine in the foyer right before I walked down the aisle.”
“I will not be jilted,” said the bride. She was a tiny, pale young woman with severely arched eyebrows.
“Honey,” said the bride’s mother, a full head taller than her daughter. “I think you already have been jilted.”
“No,” said the bride. “I’m staying here. The pastor’s staying, the guests are staying. We know he’s on foot. He can’t have gone far.”
“Unless he hitchhiked,” said one of the bridesmaids.
“No,” said the bride. “He was too cowardly to hitchhike.” She turned to the groomsmen. “Go,” she said. “Find my groom and bring him back to his wedding. And hurry! We only have the church rented for another hour and a half!”
The bride’s oldest brother Arnie drove straight to the groom’s tiny rented home and pounded on the front door. The groom couldn’t have made it this far on foot already, but when the bridesmaid had mentioned hitchhiking, it had given Arnie the idea that the groom might have had someone he knew pick him up and drive him home. There was no response to Arnie’s knock. The curtains in the front window were drawn. He considered going around the house in case there was anything to see through the bedroom or kitchen windows, but he had the feeling it would be fruitless and he didn’t want the groom’s neighbors to call the police.
The day was hot and when Arnie got back into his car, he took his black tuxedo jacket off and draped it over the passenger’s seat. Arnie wasn’t surprised that the groom had fled the wedding. He’d always struck Arnie as a flake. The groom’s work schedule at the body shop was always too demanding for him to come to family gatherings and Arnie had only hung out with his sister and the groom as a couple a handful of times. The groom had seemed nice enough, but Arnie wasn’t thrilled about making him a permanent, or even temporary, part of the family. He reminded Arnie of a guy he’d known in the Navy who claimed he had a wooden molar and then wept when the other guys held him down and pried his mouth open to prove he was lying, which he was.
Arnie knew that his family fully expected him to be the one to find the groom and probably even rough him up a little. Growing up, he’d always been the one to intimidate his sister’s boyfriends when they didn’t behave like gentlemen. Once, one of her boyfriends had playfully pushed Arnie’s sister off of a small cliff at a swimming hole they used to frequent on hot, summer evenings. She hadn’t even been upset, but Arnie had felt that the boyfriend had crossed the line, so he shoved him into a gully filled with poison ivy. The story had become family legend.
That kind of thing was more Arnie’s style. The mission his sister had for him this time felt more like a chore. Yes, the groom had embarrassed Arnie’s sister by fleeing the wedding, but Arnie was a lot more comfortable with driving boyfriends away than he was with dragging them back.
Arnie drove back in the direction of the church, scanning the sidewalks for the missing groom. A family of five out on a bike ride was stopped at an empty intersection waiting for the youngest boy to catch up. His bike still had training wheels and he was pedaling furiously. Arnie stopped his car next to the family and stuck his head out the window. “Have you seen a guy in a tuxedo? He was probably on foot? Probably in a hurry?”
The father, straddling an expensive-looking road bike, unclipped the chin strap on his helmet and said, “We passed a graduation party about a mile back.”
“Did you see a guy in a tuxedo there? Maybe trying to blend in?”
“No,” said the father.
“Then why did you mention it?”
The father didn’t answer. He just refastened his chin strap.
Arnie drove to the gas station nearest the church and went into the convenience store to buy a bottle of lemonade. The air conditioning in the convenience store was cranked way up. Two teenage girls in shorts and tank tops stood shivering in front of the candy rack trying to make a selection before they froze to death. The radio was tuned to a station playing a commercial wherein the whispering pitchman’s words were almost, but not quite, audible. It was unnerving. As Arnie was paying for the lemonade, the cashier, a fat man with a flattop haircut and shaky hands, said, “Lots of people in tuxes today.”
“What do you mean?” asked Arnie. “Did someone else come in wearing a tux today.”
“Yep,” said the cashier. “Probably a half hour ago. Didn’t buy nothing. Just looked at the fitness magazines for a while and left.”
“What did he look like?” asked Arnie.
“All I really noticed was the tux,” said the cashier.
Arnie sat in his car in the gas station parking lot and sipped his lemonade with the windows down. If the groom had been at the convenience store half an hour ago, then that meant…that meant…
Arnie didn’t know what that meant. And he didn’t know why the groom would have been hanging out in a convenience store only a few blocks from the church and flipping through fitness magazines.
He decided it wasn’t worth considering. He thought that what he should do was drive back to the church and give a stirring speech to his sister, his parents, and the assembled guests about how his sister didn’t deserve a husband that would leave her at the altar and how the groom’s shameful flight could very well be one of the best things that had ever happened to his sister.
But Arnie wasn’t a very good speaker and as much as he relished confrontations with individuals, crowds kind of freaked him out. Time was running out but he had no intention of returning to the church empty-handed to face his family’s shattered expectations. So he unbuttoned his white dress shirt to the waist and decided to keep driving around until the groom fell into his lap or a better idea came to him. But first, another lemonade.
When the bride’s second oldest brother Mick left the church, he’d already resigned himself to the fact that Arnie would certainly be the one to find the groom, shake him up, and return him to their sister, contrite and ready to wed. Or else no one would. Well, anyway, Mick knew that he wouldn’t.
Once when he was a kid, Mick’s parents had taken him and his siblings to an Easter Egg hunt in the park. When the Parks Department official who was running the show blew his whistle, all the other kids went tearing off over the lawn and through the bushes, filling their baskets with Easter Eggs, but Mick wandered over to the beach and tried to lure some ducks ashore. He’d had a very distinct and pleasurable mental image of a duck nestled peacefully in his basket, snoring like a cartoon duck while Mick taxied it around the neighborhood on his bike, the handle of the basket hooked over his handlebars. But no ducks had come ashore and when the Easter Egg hunt was over, Mick had zero eggs. He didn’t care. He didn’t understand the appeal of Easter Eggs. The kid with the second fewest Easter eggs had four and he bawled like a baby.
Mick walked to the gas station a few blocks from the church and, on a whim, went into the convenience store. It was frigid inside and he was happy to be wearing a tuxedo. The cashier gave Mick a nod and a curious look. Mick returned the nod and headed for the back of the store to examine the bottles of cold drinks for something that wouldn’t stain his teeth. But as he walked past the magazine rack, the men’s fitness magazines caught his eye and he stopped to examine them. There were three different titles and they all advertised tips for strengthening one’s core. Mick wondered how much overlap there was between the three magazine’s tips. He flipped all the way through one of them and never found the cover story. He didn’t understand how he could have missed it. He picked up another one, flipped halfway through it and suddenly decided he wanted to go to the park. He set the magazine back on the rack and left the store.
In the park, a group of young children swarmed over the playground equipment and shrieked at every bit of stimulus they encountered. One of the kids was wearing a tuxedo jacket large enough for a man. Another was carrying a pair of shiny, black dress shoes exactly like those that Mick was wearing. As the kid with the shoes ran past, Mick said, “Hey, where’d you get those shoes?”
The kid stopped and looked at him, one hand inside each shoe. His parents had shaved his entire head except for his bangs which curled down onto his forehead giving him the appearance of stupidity.
“Where’d you get those shoes?” Mick asked again. “Did someone give those to you?”
“I didn’t steal ‘em,” said the kid. “We found ‘em in the changing room!” He handed the shoes to Mick and backed away. Then he turned and ran, disappearing back into the mob. Mick didn’t know where the kid with the jacket had gone.
The changing room was actually just wooden shack painted yellow with a tin roof that the Multioak Parks Department had erected near the 20-yard strip of sand that functioned as the park’s beach. The door to the changing room was ajar. Mick poked his head inside, but there were no tuxedo components left.
With one shoe in each hand, Mick walked down to the edge of the water. There were two young boys digging a hole in the sand with metal garden trowels that they had probably pilfered from their fathers’ sheds. They had their shirts off and their pale skin seemed to be turning pink right in front of Mick’s eyes.
Mick looked out over the lake. It was a weekday, but there were still plenty of pontoons chugging back and forth from the sandbar. A few jet skis zipped along behind the pontoons, jumping the wake with sputtering roars of their engines. Mick was tired of carrying the shoes. He didn’t know what he was going to do with them anyway. Without thinking, he gave the one in his right hand a hard toss out into the lake. It splashed down a good thirty yards from shore. Then Mick remembered that his parents had rented all the tuxedos for the wedding. “Hey,” he said to the two boys. They looked up at him, squinting so their eyes were just slits in their faces. “I’ll give one of you ten dollars to swim out and get that shoe.” He pointed to the shoe floating half-submerged in the greenish water.
“I can’t swim,” said one of the boys. He pointed at the other one. “And he’s not allowed to talk to you.”
“OK,” said Mick. “Then I’ll give you ten dollars if you can throw this shoe and hit the other one.” He handed the boy the second shoe. The boy stood up, backed up a few steps, and then executed a running overhand heave. He wasn’t even close. Mick gave him the ten bucks anyway.
The bride’s third and youngest brother Faris left the church bent on finding the groom and roughing him up whether he agreed to come back to the church and get married or not. Faris jogged past Arnie, who was headed for his car, and got into his truck. He squealed the tires as he sped out of the church parking lot, a sign of his eagerness to restore his sister’s honor. He hoped Arnie got the message. Mick wasn’t going to be any help, obviously, but Faris knew everyone expected Arnie to save the day. But Arnie wasn’t working with any more information than Faris was, and with some luck and determination, Faris believed that he could become the central character in a new family legend. The Day Faris Saved the Wedding. Or, maybe, The Day Faris Blackened the Eyes of the Cowardly Groom.
Faris figured that in his tuxedo, the groom would stand out wherever he was, so if he was smart, he’d get off the street as quickly as possible. Maybe he’d install himself in a restaurant booth for a while or pretend to browse for knick-knacks in a nearly-invisible antique store. Faris wasn’t afraid to make a scene. In fact, he very much hoped there would be a scene. The more people who saw his valiant assault on the groom the better. Word would spread on its own and he’d be able to adopt a noble, faux-humility about the incident that would only further cement its place in the family lore.
Faris drove to a nearby strip mall, just past the park and easy walking distance from the church. The parking lot was deserted except for a few vehicles that probably belonged to the stores’ employees. Faris was hoping to just cruise through the parking lot and look in through the stores’ big front windows for a glimpse of the groom, but the glare of the sun on the glass made it impossible to see much beyond a wavy reflection of his own truck. He realized he was going to have to at least poke his head into every store if he wanted to see who was in them.
He swerved his truck into a parking space at the far end of the strip mall, pounded the steering wheel once in frustration, and jumped out, running up to the glass door of the nearest establishment, a café with a faded sign that read simply “Home-Cooked.” The seemingly deliberate refusal to include the necessary third word put Faris even more on edge than he already was. He pulled the door open and stepped into the café, a bell tinkling apologetically over his head. There were dark green shades pulled down in the café’s windows and it was very dimly lit. It smelled like varnish. Faris stood on the welcome mat and closed and opened his eyes over and over, waiting for them to adjust to the low light after coming in out of the blazing afternoon sun.
He had heard voices when he came in but they had stopped now. There were human shapes at a table in the back corner of the dining room. All he needed was one good look at them and he’d be on his way. Why was the café so dark? How could that be good for business? He heard whispering, sensed more than saw movement, heard light footsteps. The sun streaming through the door behind him cast his lanky shadow across the café’s dusty tile floor and up against the base of the deserted front counter. It was not necessarily an intimidating shadow, but it could be. It all depended on what happened next.
The best man left the church and headed straight to the café where the groom had told him to meet in case he couldn’t go through with the wedding. When he stepped inside, all he saw for a few moments was a blur of color as his eyes fought to adapt to the sudden plunge into dimness.
The best man recognized the groom’s voice.
“Here, in the back corner.”
The best man made his way across the dining room, colliding with a few chairs along the way. “Sheesh,” he said as he sat down at the groom’s table. “It’s really dark in here.”
“I know,” said the groom. He sighed. “Thanks for coming.”
“I kind of figured we’d end up here,” said the best man. “Once you start with the ‘if I can’t go through with it’ stuff, you’re sunk.”
“I know, I know,” said the groom. He stuck his forefinger into his glass of ice water and pushed an ice cube to the bottom. “So everyone was mad? They all went home?”
“No,” said the best man. “They’re still there. Your lovely bride dispatched all us groomsmen to find you and bring you back.” His eyes had adjusted enough to see that the groom looked bothered.
“I figured she’d do something like that,” said the groom. “I’m not going back.”
“What happened to your tux?” asked the best man.
“I had these clothes stashed in the changing room at the beach. I left the tux there.”
“That’s pretty inconsiderate,” said the best man. “And I’m a little disturbed by how much forethought went into this.”
“I was really nervous,” said the groom. “I needed an out.”
The best man leaned back in his chair and felt a twinge of pain in his lower back. It was taking forever to heal. “Why did you have me meet you here?”
“To plan my next step,” said the groom. “I need your advice.”
“I think you wanted an out for your out,” said the best man. “I think you want me to talk you back into getting married.”
The groom said nothing for a while. The best man realized that he had yet to see an employee of the café. He wondered where the groom had gotten the glass of water. Then the groom said, “I folded up the tuxedo and tucked it under the bench in the changing room. You’d have to get on your hands and knees to see it. I’m sure it’s still there.”
“Go back to your wedding,” said the best man. “And do it without one of her brothers dragging you by your ear. It’ll be a lot more romantic that way.”
At that moment, the bell over the door tinkled and a man stepped into the café. The groom and the best man stopped talking and looked at the man. All they could see was his lean silhouette against the brilliant light shining through the door. The man didn’t move. It seemed like he was waiting for something that would never come.
“Thanks for trying,” the groom whispered to the best man. “You almost convinced me.”
“Where are you going?” the best man whispered back, not sure why they were whispering.
“Through the kitchen,” said the groom. “There’s a back door. I checked before you got here.”
“An out for your out for your out,” said the best man, but the groom was gone.
The bride sat crying on the front steps of the church while her parents tried to console her and the pastor hovered over them saying, “I’m sorry but the church steps are really not the place for this. We have a youth group activity here very soon and young men and women will be arriving at any moment.” The guests trickled away in uncomfortable silence, not knowing what to say.
Mick wandered up as if he just happened to be passing by, his jacket thrown over one shoulder and his shoes untied. “Did I miss the wedding?”
His mother glared at him and shook her head as his sister sobbed.
“Where’s the groom?” asked Mick. “Where’s Arnie and Faris?”
“They’re not here,” said his father. “They aren’t answering their phones.”
“I’ll find them,” said Mick, and he strolled off down the sidewalk, probably already well on his way to devising a strategy that would be both futile and time-consuming. Fortunately for him, he had plenty of time and he’d never had a problem with futility.