“We almost lost him,” is the way Carla, the mother-of-the-bride, put it. She’s referring to her future son-in-law.
“Lost him” could indicate his near death in a car wreck or bar fight. Or, less drastic, picture him meandering in a dark forest on his wedding eve. Better yet, imagine the truth. “Almost lost him” as a son-in-law. Lost to another woman.
That’s the truth. On the eve of his wedding to Cynthia, Ronald left a rose—where does one find a rose in February in the tiny town of Leesville? Anyway, he found and left a rose on the front step of the porch of our local home-ec teacher, Miss Holmes, Miss Linda Sue Holmes, who was and still is eight years his senior.
“We almost lost him” was not the way others in Leesville describe the event. “No surprise” is one wag’s opinion, referring to the fact that Ronald has always preferred older women, beginning with his mother who suckled him until his third birthday.
“A bad omen” is old man Johnson’s prediction. But then, he sees everything as a portent and a warning, especially clouds and crows, a murder of crows having chewed through his last corn crop.
In spite of the town’s collective commenting, the single-minded Cynthia takes it—and Ronald—in stride and in matrimony the very next day.
The crowd of well-wishers is larger than expected as people have come to see if the event will actually happen. Or happen with an added attraction such as a slug fest between Ronald and the bride’s father or the bride and Miss Holmes. Everyone in town aspires to be a witness rather than hear a watery second-hand telling, as the best storytellers in Leesville tend to trail off into wider territory than stick to the actual event.
So, at six o’clock on Friday night, Cynthia and her father perform that stilted march down the aisle of Leesville’s Second First Baptist Church. The original church had burnt a decade ago and the architect of the new one, being male and having no marriageable daughters, designed the sanctuary with no middle aisle, so Cynthia and her father come in from the left. Cynthia is a bit more red-eyed than usual, and Ronald won’t meet anyone’s eye, even that of Pastor Roberts.
Cynthia is wearing white, now that that no longer signifies a virginal condition, her dress purchased off a big-box-bridal rack. Her veil is her “something new,” created with netting and hot glue by her Sunday School class. Overall, she is as lovely as any other bride in Leesville’s collective memory.
Miss Holmes is not in attendance, as noted by everyone in the audience. Their rubber necks are sore and relieved to face the front. The organist, Miss Holmes’s boyfriend, hits several sour notes as the procession proceeds, beginning with Sue Ann Thompson, Cynthia’s maid of honor, who has counseled Cynthia agains going ahead with this marriage. Cynthia accuses her of envy, as Sue Ann’s boyfriend joined the Marines to avoid further entanglement.
Freddie Watson, Ronald’s best man, offers no opinion on the matter, but secretly agrees that Miss Holmes is a looker. Later, he will ask Ronald about access to roses in February in case he ever needs one.
Following Sue Ann is the flower girl, Sissy, who is Cynthia’s little sister except everyone in town knows that Sissy is Cynthia’s niece, spawn of her older sister who spent five months with their aunt in Atlanta four summers ago. It is a pastime in Bell’s Café to debate at what age would be the best to let Sissy know her true story. For such a young child, Sissy is adept at distributing the fake rose petals as she drifts left, then right, down the aisle.
Alas, the scattered rose petals underfoot trigger Cynthia’s latent anger at being the butt of the town’s latest joke. Halfway down the aisle, she halts, pulling her father to a stop. Her tears of joy dry. Her eyes become steely as she focuses on Ronald, who is staring at his freshly shined shoes.
The audience inhales a collective gasp. No one moves, but all are pleased to be present, to witness whatever happens next, already memorizing details to embellish their telling of the event.
Cynthia drops her arm from her father’s elbow, drops all pretense of being a glowing bride. She plucks a red carnation from her bouquet, her colors a nod to tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day, and continues down the aisle, alone, sauntering instead of the bridal two-step.
Nearing the altar, she ignores her about-to-be-husband and approaches his best man, Freddie, dropping the flower from her ravaged bouquet at his feet. Freddie looks fearful. If he accepts the carnation, will he now be engaged to Cynthia? Will Ronald kill him or be relieved to be released from his vow to Cynthia? Freddie seems frozen, so Cynthia gives him a tender pat on the cheek and whirls to face the startled audience.
Her mother whimpers, “Oh no.”
Cynthia cackles out an unnerving laugh. As she heaves the bouquet over her head, a shower of red and white carnations scatter over Ronald, Paster Roberts, and the organist—Miss Holmes’s boyfriend—who begins to play Ode to Joy, the recessional chosen by Cynthia at his suggestion/insistence. The red-and-white-variegated carnations block various organ keys, filling the church with a scary-movie music vibe.
Cynthia, grinning, feels her power. She is suddenly freed from the strictures of small-town life, free to follow her dreams and become . . .
As with many teenage girls, Cynthia has never thought past her wedding day. Oh, she had designed several options: elopement, a destination wedding, the biggest bash Leesville had ever seen. None of these have come to pass. However, she has fantasized about the number and gender of the children she’d have, as if she had any control over that. In her more dramatic daydreams, Ronald has died in a fiery car wreck or during an appendectomy, and she is a young, still-vibrant widow with children. In this scenario, Cynthia determinedly becomes a real estate agent or beautician to feed her family.
Now Cynthia’s eyes focus on her future. Her new career is there, sitting in the back pew, in the person of Ivy Worthington, local landscaper. That’s gilding the lily a bit, she’s a gardener, planting, weeding, mulching for the older or lazier residents of Leesville. In an instant, Cynthia decides to apprentice/assist Ivy in her rounds, learning what nourishes and flourishes in this climate, and what dies, sere and shriveled and desiccated.
And Cynthia will make sure that every rose bush in town dies a slow, anguished death.
Jeannette Brown‘s work has been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Southwestern American Literature, Descant, Steel Toe Review, and other publications. She is the co-editor of Literary Lunch, a food anthology. She has enjoyed residencies at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Rivendell Writers’ Colony, and Hedgebrook/India. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her novel, The Illusion of Leaving, was recently published by Texas Review Press.