The Wedding

Fiction
Mike Carlson


I turned the rental into a parking lot littered with potholes. I missed three but caught the fourth. The car bottomed out, driving my head into the roof. The visor of my dress cover slid over my eyes, while the rim of the mammoth white hat bent my ears double. I slammed on the brakes.

“This is not improving my mood in the slightest,” I said to Alison.

“It’ll be over in an hour,” my wife replied. “Now let’s pry you out of that hat.”

“It’s a cover. You must use the correct military terminology,” I said.

“Yes, sir, mister-cover-wearing-handsome-man, sir!” She pried the hat off my ears, then snapped a mock salute.

I eased the Toyota into a spot next to the limo. “Remind me. What am I doing at the Church of the Sainted Pothole in Calgary, Canada?” I asked, shifting into park.

“You’re providing the muscle for my-brother-the-missionary’s wedding,” she said.

“That’s why I’m in this blue monkey suit with the impossibly high collar and the medals jingling on my front?”

“You are correct, sir.”

“And why we spent the last two nights sleeping in airports because of some hurricane blowing up the East Coast, delaying every flight in its path?” I continued.

“In the Chinese culture, family is worth any sacrifice, even spinal injuries caused by airport benches,” she said. “I think Confucius said that.”

“Confucius my ass,” I said. “You’re about as traditionally Chinese as a fortune cookie.”

“So I’m a banana-yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” she said. “But I believe you like bananas.”

She managed to crawl over the parking brake and wrap her arms around me, nestling her head against my chest. Her light dusting of Chanel made my nose twitch. I closed my eyes and waited.

The doctors told me about the flashbacks—how smell, the strongest of the five senses, would almost always open the doors to dark memories. Sudden physical exertion was another common cause, they said, especially lifting a heavy weight.

I prayed for a mental picture of a meadow or a mountain vista, something natural and pure. The hole appeared instead. Dark. Mud-filled. Lance Corporal Johnson snored next to me, his rumbles muffled by the gas mask.

Alone and on watch, with the squad asleep around me, I would leave my right hand on the grip and trigger while my left would snake inside my flak jacket and grasp her perfumed letters. Every night, for seven sleepless months, I risked Saddam’s gas and my sergeant’s wrath by breaking the seal on my mask for the scent of her.

*

The trip to Canada had begun with a phone call.

“Mike? It’s Tom! I’m finally getting married!”

Who the hell was Tom, and what time was it?

“Hello?” I muttered, freeing my legs from the bedsheets.

“It’s Tom! Sorry the connection is so bad—I’m calling from Peru!”

Synapses clicked. Tom equaled my wife’s brother, a missionary who was currently helping lepers or worse in South America.

“Tom!” I said with all the false enthusiasm I could muster. “What’s this about a wedding?”

“It’s at the end of the month! In Calgary! She’s Irish! And wonderful! Do you think you can make it?”

“Uh, well, I’ll have to ask Alison. She’s at work right now,” I said.

“I called her already! She said it’s a go! She said she’ll look into tickets over lunch!”

In addition to always speaking in annoyingly perky exclamations, Tom had the ability to get exactly what he wanted by sidestepping all possible objections.

“Well, that’s great, Tom. Terrific,” I said.

“Isn’t it! I need a favor!”

“What?” I dreaded the answer.

“Nicole—that’s my fiancĂ©e, she lives in Calgary—has this old boyfriend who’s been threatening her. He calls all the time. Could you come in your uniform and sort of stand around the church and look out for him? Stop him from disrupting the service? He somehow got her parents’ phone number, and they told him all the details. I guess he pretended he was invited or something. Oh, the money’s run out. Talk to Alison—she’s got all the info. ‘Bye!”

Dial tone.

I flopped back onto the bed. I was on convalescent leave. I was supposed to avoid confrontations. I spent my time in a drug-induced sleep, or reading until the headaches got too bad, or drinking decaf at the Starbucks and watching the civilians. Now, thanks to the inherent machinations of the Lim family, I’d ended up as the bouncer at my brother-in-law’s wedding.

*

The pastor was a moon-faced, genial guy who suffered from verbal diarrhea: “We are gathered here today, in this beautiful church, on this gorgeous day, to pay homage to God and His will—that magnificent power that has brought Tom, who looks so absolutely resplendent, and Nicole, a vision in white, to our church to be united in the sacred rite of holy, holy matrimony, in the sight of all of you, the congregation, by the power vested in me, Pastor Will, and the might of the words in this, the Good Book, which holds the key to the everlasting happiness of not just Tom and Nicole, but everyone seated in front of me here today.”

I was standing at parade rest in the back of the church, passing the time by watching the pastor’s face get redder and redder as he tried to shoehorn more and more words into each sentence without taking extra breaths. His longest stretch without inhaling was 215 seconds.

The ex had not made an appearance. I’d stood out front, shaking hands, my eyes roving, until the last guest had taken a seat. Then I’d staked out the door.

“Pssst!”

I turned to see Walter, the other usher, gesturing frantically. I slipped through and joined him in the entry hall.

“Can you help me lift that?” he hissed, pointing down the stairs that led to the front doors of the church.

The cake sat at the bottom of the stairs, resplendent on an ornate and enormous silver cart that looked to weigh at least 60 pounds.

“What the hell is that thing? A tank?” I whispered.

“Nicole’s family brought it. Some sort of heirloom. It’s tradition to serve the cake on it, they said.”

I shook my head. “We’d better get to it.”

The cart weighed more like 80 pounds. Maybe 90. I was in the back, Walter in the front. I was carrying most of the weight, trying desperately to keep the cart level so that the cake wouldn’t slide.

Lifting a heavy weight—that familiar feeling of fighting to struggle forward under an impossibly heavy load—will often take you back to a similar time in your combat experiences, the doctors said. I recalled their warnings as the cake cart morphed into the Squad Automatic Weapon, basically a belt-fed M16, and the steps turned into the berm in Iraq.

The SAW’s 10-pound additional barrel flopped at my side. I also humped a 50-pound pack and enough ammunition to buckle my legs. I was running up the side of a low ditch. Behind me, my Humvee was burning. We’d taken a rocket-propelled grenade through the windshield. Lance Corporal Johnson and another Marine I’d never met were dead. I’d been thrown out of the back. I couldn’t find my squad. I was scrambling for cover.

I crested the berm. About 10 meters in front of me was a low wall. Crouched behind the wall were a dozen Iraqis, nine AK-47 rifles in a loose pile and two RPG launchers, one loaded. They were all peering over the wall, apparently waiting for a signal.

Sweat stung my eyes. I blinked it away to an explosion of Arabic shouts and a blur of motion as they scrambled for their rifles.

The doctors don’t believe me when I get to this part. They say I should feel something different, some sort of human emotion. The training works that out of you. As I pulled the trigger, all I thought about was how I wouldn’t have to carry the rounds I fired out to the extract point. Like any good grunt, all I thought about was the weight.

*

I’d done my duty and made it up the stairs. The cake was in its place, and I was in the head, splashing my face with water and trying to stop shaking. Someone rapped on the door.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Me,” my wife said. She slipped in and closed the door behind her. “You okay? Walter came and got me.”

“I may need a pill,” I said.

“They’re in the car,” she said.

“Okay. Where are they with the ceremony?”

“Pastor Will is in the home stretch, I think. Almost time to kiss the bride.”

“Go on up, and I’ll slip in by the back door after I get the meds.”

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too.”

I dried off. My reflection: eyes surrounded by deep crow’s feet, a Roman nose red from sunburn, a mouth unused to smiles. A dusting of hair sat high and tight atop my skull.

I stepped outside. The day was indeed glorious. The sun warmed my face. I took calming breaths on the way to the rental. A pickup truck drove by, slowed to a crawl, sped up again.

I was rummaging around in my wife’s purse and had just found the pills when I saw the same pickup. This time it stopped.

The door opened, and the ex got out. He was big, about six-two. He had five inches and 40 pounds on me. A beer gut barely reined in by soiled jeans was topped by wide shoulders in a dirty T-shirt and a walnut of a head: big, round, and scarred. He started making his way to the church doors.

I could not get past the childproof cap.

He was halfway to the doors when they opened. Tom and Nicole came first, beaming. Alison and her parents came next, then the rest of the guests. Rice flew.

The ex shouldered his way past Alison’s aged mother, knocking her down. He grabbed for Nicole’s wrist. Tom, all 110 pounds of him, swung, missed, and went down after another shove.

I dropped the pills as I watched Tom fall. Moving out of the car took an eternity.

The ex said, “You’re coming with me.” He pulled Nicole toward him. She stepped on her hem, tore her wedding gown.

I sprinted across the lot. I heard each individual thread rip.

I hit him the way the instructors taught us, driving the left shoulder into the gut and lifting with the back and legs. The momentum carried us into the trees in front of the church.

Sergeant Gutierrez said fighting was like playing pool: It’s easy if you plan your shots.

The ex slammed into an oak. I backed up and fired a left into his face, my hand cocked at the wrist, fingers splayed and pointing skyward. The heel of my hand flattened his nose. I raked my fingers down, gouging the eye sockets. My right fist snapped forward as my left sprang back. My knuckles drove into the ex’s throat.

The eye gouge sets up the throat punch, you see, as it tips the chin up and out of the way. The throat punch sets up the left elbow to the temple. You finish with a right uppercut to the solar plexus. Gutierrez demanded 100 repetitions every single day.

As my fist sank into the gap between the ex’s sternum and his belly, a wheeze rocked his body, and then he vomited. Flecks of scrambled eggs spattered my spit-shined shoes.

I am America’s pit bull, I thought. I smiled.

Then I looked up. Alison just stared at me, eyes wide, her gaze blank with shock. The full lips I had worshipped every night as I shivered in the hole now formed a thin “O” of horror.

Every expression in the wedding party mirrored hers.

I thumbed my nose with my left hand, noticed the blood. “It’s what you said you wanted,” I said. “It’s what I was trained to do.”

pencil

“I was honorably discharged from the Corps in October 2004 and am currently pursuing admission into graduate programs in creative writing. My experiences while in the military spurred me to write about the complex issues that Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors wrestle with every day, especially in the aftermath of combat.” E-mail: michal_carlson[at]comcast.net.

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