by Rob Ross
The phone receiver floated down onto the large rosewood desk for a moment. From the open balcony a large freighter could be seen leaving port and heading to sea. No clouds, but smog enveloped the tall buildings in pink haze on the other side of the harbour.
Such scenes had become increasingly distracting – cars cautiously backing out of driveways, elderly people with walkers crossing streets, things that appeared to move in slow motion, as if time had stopped marching to a consistent beat.
Leon put the receiver back to his ear.
“You know what to do?”
“Yes sir. An envelope on every table.”
“And the written instructions?”
“To be opened by request of the groom.”
“Good. Thank you.”
Great Aunt Agatha’s silver tray sat on the desk with a croissant and squares of butter on a white china plate, next to a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a carafe of coffee, and a silver cream decanter. The white bowl with Etruscan figurines in cobalt blue, inherited from his great grandfather, held a variety of sliced melons. He took it, slid the melons onto the tray, went onto the balcony and threw it as far as he could.
With a slice of cantaloupe, Leon rested on the rail. In his cotton pyjamas and a silk housecoat, the air felt warm. The melon was exceptionally sweet and he wondered where such ripe cantaloupe could be from in May. Another slice was soon in his mouth and he returned to his desk to break apart the croissant.
There was a knock at the door as Richard let himself in.
“There’s the big man.”
Leon raised himself from the chair, still chewing croissant, and offered his hand. Richard punched him in the arm, hard.
“A little jittery,” he lied.
Taller than Leon, shoulders accentuated in the fine black suit, neck broader-looking from the bow tie, chestnut hair combed on either side of his brow in thick waves, he looked distinguished, robust even. Leon realized he had always hated Richard.
“As you should be. Sit down. Finish breakfast.”
Obediently, Leon took his seat and grabbed a slice of honeydew. He offered coffee to Richard, poured in all the cream, and heaped two spoonfuls of sugar into the cup.
“Glad to see your appetite isn’t affected.”
Richard sat in the leather armchair facing the desk, gazing onto the bay absentmindedly.
“Should it be?”
“Well, I guess some people’s would be. Wouldn’t they?”
Leon spit out the black seed onto the plate. “People like you?”
The tinkling of the spoon in Richard’s cup stopped. He brought the steaming liquid to his mouth, his eyes still intent on the scene outdoors. Leon waited as he blew into the mug and took a careful sip.
“And how’s the best man? You left the rehearsal dinner quite early yesterday.” Leon gulped some orange juice and began to put on his suit.
“Ate a little too much of that wonderful spinach dip. Ate a little too much of everything, in fact.”
Eight hours of chopping, stirring, blending, baking, and frying. His mother with flour on her ear. His older sister with a band-aid around the self-inflicted knife wound on her thumb. Twenty-three friends and relatives to serve. Resentment, petty rivalries, and open derision silently put away for a few hours of dishonest civility.
Leon buttoned his cuff links. With his bow still untied, the clock struck nine.
“We better get going.”
“Before we do, I brought you a little something.”
A silver flask appeared from Richard’s breast pocket. He unscrewed the cap.
“Glenlivet 18. Your favourite.”
Leon had a long pull, taking from Richard as much as he could.
“Don’t forget the rings.”
“All men get cold feet.”
In the limousine, his mother’s and sister’s profiles confronted him while Richard flicked over radio stations beside him on the back seat. His mother held the schedule in her hand, muttering its sequence silently. The interior was dark, a maroon plush, with inappropriate neon lights that ran along the ceiling towards the driver. Sad-looking champagne glasses, with rose paper napkins stuffed into them, were clipped along the side panel.
“Your own father almost drove all the way to Mexico before stopping to call.”
Familiar lawns with smug picket fences and imposing stucco garages passed by along the boulevard.
“I’m fine. Really.”
“And your Aunt Joan found your Uncle Fred down at the depot trying to catch a bus to San Francisco. Good thing she had all the money then.”
Richard was looking at his palms, clearly not listening. Carie was adjusting the corsage wreathed around her wrist. “Well, he better not be late for this one.”
“He has business.” His mother swatted away Carie’s hand and started adjusting the flowers herself. “But he’ll be there.”
The limousine merged onto the highway into the city. Traffic was light for Saturday morning. With the corsage fixed, his mother patted her daughter’s hand and turned to Leon.
“You should fix your hair.”
“I want it this way.”
“It looks messy.”
“It’s supposed to.” Leon ran his fingers over his scalp, pushed the curls back and pressed down the sides.
“Not really.” From her purse she handed him a comb. “Part it to the side.” She gestured with her hands, showing Leon how she wanted it done.
Leon clenched the comb and felt its plastic teeth bend to the pressure of his thumb, until it snapped in half.
Carie smacked his shoulder.
“What the fuck, Leon?”
His mother frowned.
“I hope you buy her a new one you spoiled brat.”
“Easy now,” she wrapped her arm around her daughter. Leon took a deep breath, amazed at how easily his anger overtook him, how simple it would be to sabotage himself.
The limousine turned onto a busy thoroughfare, allowing his mother to try and shift the conversation.
“Well what do you think, Richard, do all men get cold feet?”
Richard’s mumble could neither be understood as agreement or contradiction. He went back to the radio dial and changed to a country station. Leon took a Pantera CD from his pocket, reached over Richard and stuck it in the player.
“It’s my wedding after all.”
When the church appeared, its gothic limestone arches gaped above the wide set of shallow steps, the big wooden doors carved with saints propped ajar. Familiar men with light-coloured suits and equally familiar women in bright summer dresses loitered before the doors in groups, clutching purses nervously, or slouching with hands in deep pockets.
The reverend took several digressions from the agreed-upon sermon to offer anecdotes of failed and successful marriages, as if every Bible passage somehow reminded him of a particular union and its tragic or triumphant outcome. The air conditioning was broken, and people in the pews used the wedding program to fan their faces in the swelter.
Throughout the fugue, his eyes not focused on anything particular, Leon thought about the weekend a month ago.
Two sets of cutlery lay on red cloth napkins in his parents’ dining room. A bouquet of orange Gerber lilies, left by Mrs. Eggertsen, lilted in a tall vase on the table. Store-bought garlic bread was turning black in the oven. Cheese bubbled and browned along the edges of a lasagne, its noodles hardened and stale. The salad was in the bowl, ready for its dressing, the leaves shrivelling.
The next morning they were to drive to George’s diner for breakfast, park and meander on foot through the market to buy lunch at a food stand, a quiet weekend before the busy Big-Day preparations.
Francesca walked in from the rain. Her blond hair glistened in the hallway light.
“Coming down in buckets.” She struggled to pull off her knee-high boots while resting on the stairway.
Leon wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed the back of her neck. “Finally.” He kissed her again.
“Yeah.” Francesca patted the side of his head and released herself from his arms, taking off her suede navy jacket. “Smells good.” She entered the kitchen, leaving Leon standing in the hallway, savouring the botanical smell of her hair.
In his mother’s cow oven mitts, Fran took out the garlic toast and placed it atop the stove.
“I’m cooking,” Leon protested.
“Whatever.” Francesca went for the tray of lasagne. Leon stopped her.
“No I’m serious. Let me do this for you.”
“Leon…” she said, expectantly. He let go and went to the cupboard to get the serving dishes.
“I just wanted to do something nice.”
“Why is it so hard…”
“Let’s not, okay?” She grabbed his forearm, softly, and pleaded.
Leon handed her the dishes. “Right.”
At the dinner table Francesca cut up the lasagne with a large knife and smothered the slices with parmesan cheese. Leon mentioned the heavy workload of his recent corporate cases. Francesca explained that a waiter didn’t show, forcing her to stay late.
“But why did it have to be you this time?”
“Because it’s always me, isn’t it? What movies did you get anyway?”
“A comedy, a romance, and a western. Take your pick.”
Francesca’s purse rested on the table next to the Caesar salad. When Leon went to grab more wine, it fell on the floor, spilling its contents across the rug.
“Sorry.” He bent and collected her things: her make-up kit, her cell phone, two tampons, a condom, lip gloss, lipsticks, a notebook, and her keys with the keychain from Puerto Vallarta. The trip had been a gift from his parents, for graduation. He stood up and held it in his hand, remembering the beach and Fran’s bikini, staring at all four keys – the one for her house, the one for her car, her locker key at the gym, and another one. He could not remember what it was for, but it was familiar, distinctive with its red plastic guard. He was about to ask when she snatched them away and dropped them back inside her purse.
“Which movies?” Fran asked, impatiently.
As she went into the living room, Leon went to the cellar, taking another Chardonnay from his father’s collection. With two crystal wine glasses from the cabinet in the dining room, he started to pour. That was when he remembered the key, with a half-filled glass of Chardonnay before him on the table, its chill already forming condensation on the glass.
At a loft studio in the warehouse district, they posed in front of a crumbling plaster wall lit with four large lights, a mint green Victorian chaise-longue to sit on: the bride and groom, the groom and family, the bride and family, the best man and bridesmaid, the bride and mother, an endless variation of awkward poses and forced smiles.
The Charivari evolved separately in several European communities. For some it was a form of coercion, a way to force unmarried, sexually active couples into socially recognized relations. For others it was a form of protest, against widowers who remarried younger men, or old men who married young women.
In some colonies it was simply tradition: The guests followed the wedding couple home and made consummation as awkward and difficult as possible. Sometimes windows got smashed or a barn burnt down. Deaths were rare.
The tradition mutated into more creative practices in some communities: filling the honeymoon cabin cupboards with puffed wheat and barley, putting honey between bed sheets, packing the groom’s vacation bag entirely with speedos, or bribing the hotelier into saying the reservation was lost for a few hours. Punishment for any union in matrimony, any public declaration of intimacy. Ritualized connubial sabotage. Leon still heard stories – distant cousins, friends of friends – where shenanigans went to far, leading to separations, divorce.
In some ways he was merely adding to tradition, taking something old and making it new.
The reception hall, with its neoclassical columns and gold flake decor, was booked to impress his father’s business partners: a gaggle of indistinct, middle-aged men in expensively understated suits accompanied by well-maintained women in extravagant dresses, who commented without fail on how better-looking Francesca was than he. Servers with red cummerbunds and trays of champagne and hors d’oeuvres navigated between guests. A string quartet playing softly at the back of the room made the opulence complete.
Leon was at the bar, ordering a gin and tonic. Francesca was across the room, embracing another long lost cousin with feigned and wearying enthusiasm. Her dress was pale muslin, ethereal, making her a ghost, the type that floated through walls into hidden catacombs.
“A pretty good gift to a son for his wedding, wouldn’t you say?”
The jovial pat on the shoulder came down softly, the pride abashedly displayed for all those around to note its modesty.
“Regal,” Leon acknowledged, noting how the chair covers and table clothes matched the delicate orchid displays at their centre.
His father chuckled mirthfully.
“Well you know what they say: happy wife, happy life.”
The cocktail in Leon’s hand was faintly luminescent from the bar light shining on its surface.
“Your mother sure could make my life hell sometimes.”
His father’s suit, thin silver pinstripes on a gun-grey background, was custom fitted by Vincenzo, his long-standing tailor at Arbuckle & MacAlistair. At the top of the left lapel, a fleck of salmon mousse stuck persistently to the fabric.
“Was that why you were so eager for this wedding?”
“Of course. Your mother wants grandchildren.” With a twirl of his two fingers a bartender came with a bottle of Oban 25 to refill his drink.
“To you, my boy. To your future.”
Clinking his father’s offered glass, he savoured the delicate balance of sharp citrus, sweet tonic, and stiff gin.
Leon squished the blueberry down with his fork, watching the delicate pastry flake into pieces and filling ooze out across the plate.
In the toast to the groom, Richard had reminisced about Leon’s acne problems in school, about how he had always come in last at track and field, and was always nervous around girls – but was still a great guy, and a good friend, someone who was there when you needed them, someone who asked for little in return. Good old Richard, he thought.
About to eat a gooseberry from the garnish, he was finally called, and grabbed his champagne on the way to the microphone.
“Well, as you all know, it now falls upon me to thank you all for celebrating this event, and tell you how much it means for you all to be here.”
Amongst the crowd, the jaundiced pallor of his Great Aunt Agatha became prominent. In a mauve dress that had stagnated for decades in some closet, and a matching pillbox hat, she scowled at him, an unwavering glare, maliciously locked onto Leon as he stood at the podium.
“And some of you have no doubt been wondering about the envelopes…”
Her senility prevented her from concealing disdain, and her dementia presented any number of possibilities for its cause. He looked to Francesca next to him, waiting her turn to speak, to both their parents and siblings, looking on with smiles amidst the splendour of the head table. Even Richard was smiling.
“If one of you at each table would care to do the honours.”
The seals were torn open and the photographs emerged, gasps erupted, heads snapped up in disbelief and darted from him, to Francesca, to Richard, and back again. Leon held out his champagne in toast, emptied the glass, and dropped it onto the floor. He took a martini and headed for the exit, walking slowly through the tables, his eyes focused on the door.
In the photograph, through a pair of poorly drawn curtains, Francesca was naked on her knees, her back arched and her head thrown back. Behind her, bare-chested, Richard looked down, his bottom lip dumbly jutting out in concentration. The date stamp in the bottom corner read May 12, two weeks before the wedding.
He did not know how long it had gone on for, nor how it had happened, but the evidence gathered by the private investigator was conclusive, from meeting places to phone conversations, the details of the affair carefully documented at Leon’s expense.
In the limo, Leon took one of the plastic champagne glasses from its holder, dropped it on the floor, and replaced it with his martini.
In his other hand, he still held the gooseberry from dessert, its paper-lantern skin peeled back to reveal the bright yellow fruit. It made him realize his plan did not punish Richard enough. He would have to prevent his livelihood somehow, or burn down his house. There was time though. The honeymoon tickets would be traded in for a flight to Thailand. The presentation cards had been neatly packed in the trunk by his mother.
Rob Ross lives in Fredericton where he occasionally takes care of cats and lives with a poet. He once wrote a review for Numerocinq and got a story published in Nod magazine. Recently he was the arts editor for Qwerty magazine. One day he will have a PhD.