Thursday, 19 February 2015

Marriage by Robert Knox

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2014
3rd PRIZE WINNER (2500 word category)

After months of intrigue, careful planning, tense interviews with rigid parents, some tears, and more than a little ambivalence on the part of one of the principals, Penny and I were married by a criminal judge in her chambers, barely surviving a fiasco at the gates of the Nassau County Courthouse.

“We don’t just take people off the street, you know,” the Assistant Clerk of Courts told us.

The Assistant Clerk of Courts was a thin man with slicked back hair, a beige seersucker suit, and the defensive sneer of a middle-aged gangster with an inferiority complex. He looked more likely to offend the law than we did.

Penny stiffened at this figure of authority's callous and wholly unanticipated brush-off.

To her, we were hardly "off the street." We were dressed up for our big day. My teenage bride-to-be still liked to put her jeans aside occasionally and wear dresses. The one she wore this morning was off-white, a little tight and fashionably short. Not a mini; but straddling the line between respectable and every-male-eye fetching. Knowing me, the me that was, I probably neglected to comment on it.

I wore my best dress-up clothes, tied a colorful tie (not very well) and managed to comb my hair. But inwardly I was in my shell even before we were shocked.

To add to the looming disaster, a small posse of similarly attired friends of both sexes clumped into the clerk's office after us, the guys in paisley ties, the girls in colorful peasant dresses, ready to cavort on the courthouse lawn and shower us with rose petals. They had been "invited" to our "wedding," to use these terms loosely.

So here we were, the age's new people, on our way to changing everything in the dull brown used-up world we'd inherited from the older generation so that people like the assistant clerk, an aging greaser given a patronage job because his sister was married to a pol, would no longer exist. All we wanted from him was a bit of the old status-quo bureaucracy, a piece of paper, and here he was filling us up with his rules, showing us that we lacked decorum, that we lacked status and connections, and that exercising the little bit of authority life had given him was what he did. And making clear that the rules did not include special favors for self-important college hippies dressed up for Tomorrow Land.

"But we've got everything," Penny pleaded.

We had our properly authorized marriage certificate. We’d taken our blood tests. We were, finally, old enough. New York State required that a man be twenty-one to marry without parental consent; a woman a mere eighteen. I had turned twenty-one a week and a half before. Penny had reached her mark over a year ago.

The clerk shrugged and turned his back on us.

"So make an appointment," he called negligently, walking away.

Penny's face filled with tears over the petty bureaucrat's insult.

She had planned this day for months. It was the payoff to a series of nervy calculations designed to get her out of her house and away from her control freak mother that included talking me into the idea, confronting her incredulous unconsenting parents, abjuring her childhood Roman Catholic faith, consummating the pairing in advance in a Yale dormitory with the aid of a see-through negligee (and a determined sense of humor); and, finally, researching the marriage laws of the entire Eastern seaboard until giving in to the strictures of the State of New York for logistical reasons.

So she was not about to take "no" from a court underling simply because she had neglected to make an appointment for an act that would determine the future course of her life -- as if she were going to the dentist to get her pearly whites shined up. Lawful marriage in a civil ceremony wasn't a consumer choice, she thought, it was a right.

Besides, our crowd of eager witnesses now spilled out of the assistant clerk’s doorway into the corridor after us. Unseen hands closed the door.

I stared at the bouquet of flowers in the hands of my former college roommate Dana.
I recognized these flowers. They had been bobbing in the sunshine on the courthouse lawn when we walked into the joint twenty minutes before.

"Flowers," Dana said hopefully, pointing the blossoms at me.

But his red-head's face turned redder when my stony response indicated a knowledge of their provenance.

A female office serf, squeezing past us in the hallway, harrumphed her displeasure at our presence. Humiliated by the greaser bureaucrat's rejection, I half expected somebody to charge us with misappropriation of public property.

Seething at having the door to the future closed in her face, Penny glanced at me for support, but wasn't surprised by my look of blank-faced withdrawal. Everything about this day, even the idea of people watching us get married -- an invasion of intimacy just short of inviting people to watch us have sex -- made me uptight. I did not make scenes; I preferred standing in a crowd and commenting wryly rather than striking poses on stage. Only in my daydreams did I tell off figures of authority (however much they looked like aging greasers), a failing I have often lamented.

So if anyone was going to save the day, her big day, the bride would have to be her own hero.

Fortunately Penny, the person among us with perhaps the least impressive social background, was also the only one of us who understood best how these games were played.

She bit her lip, sucked back her tears, and flipped through her mental rolodex for someone with pull. A light bloomed in eyes bluer than the flag irises Dana and friends had ripped off from the courtyard.

She whispered a name to me, and when I shrugged evasively, turned away, swung her straight hair back, knocked on the door and intruded once more, alone and with elbows out, on the hidebound clerk's office. Some motherly type took pity on her and allowed her to use a phone. She placed a call to a Hofstra College professor who was not only a good history teacher but turned out to have a judge in his pocket.

A few minutes later -- miraculously, like the deus e machina in the ancient comedy -- we got word that criminal court judge Alicia Bernstein would see us in her chambers at the next break in her hearings.

“Where’s Judge Bernstein’s chambers?” Penny asked the greaser clerk who had given us the bum's rush, failing to keep the smirk out of her voice.

Mr. Big left off scratching his armpits and pointed down the hallway.

“Better hurry,” he said, between bites of a custard doughnut. “She’s got a full docket today. "

The judge fit us in between armed robbery and criminal assault.

Dressed in her dark blue county robes, careful in speech and manner, an evidently fair-minded middle-aged woman – judicious, I thought, was just the word for her – Judge Bernstein told us that weddings weren’t usually her line, but she was willing to do a favor for “Sam,” the liberal history professor who kept one foot usefully in the present day.

The judge started a bit as our small horde of followers crowded into her chamber doorway; then sighed and waved them all in.

"Who are your witnesses?" she demanded, needing to cull this mob for somebody useful.
I singled out Dana and Penny called on Liz, another Long Island lass who was a friend to both of us.

"All right," the judge announced, opening a small black book and eyeing a wall clock, "let's get started."

The judge read a few dryly unspiritual sentences. Little poetry in civil law, I thought. Penny and I spoke our lines, brief affirmations of eternal devotion. It was "I will," I was surprised to learn, rather than "I do," my familiarity with the procedure being limited to pop songs and screen references.

And then the thing was over and done with before I knew it, finished in a New York minute. I remember feeling vaguely disappointed, after so lengthy a build-up, that the laws of eternity required so little in the way of ceremony.

Did we even remember to kiss?

The judge's pronouncement of our new legal status was followed by one of those foolish and terrible "now what?" moments.

After so much furtive arranging to get the deed done, we had no idea what to do with the various representatives of our separate lives gathered to wish us well in a judge's chambers

Good Judge Bernstein cleared her throat, signaling it was time for us to begin our new life together somewhere else.

David Weller, a North Shore kid -- in Long Island terms that meant closer to the Jay Gatsby side of things than to the modest subdivisions where people like my parents "moved out" after World War II -- stepped forward to save the day by inviting everybody over to his family's "place" where we could hang out by the pool and drink green champagne.

Another new experience, I thought with a grateful, but ambivalent sigh. It wasn't enough to get married this fine June morning. I had lived twenty-one years without dipping a toe in anybody's "built-in" pool. Green champagne?

The next phase of our secret manipulations to rescue Penny from the bed and board of her "old-think" blue-collar parents kicked in.

To transport Penny and her fat suitcase up to a sublet in New Haven I had borrowed my father's car, a reasonably reliable but oversized Dodge, giving him some story about a day trip. We persuaded a younger friend of ours (Larry) to drive the car back and leave it in front of the house, under cover of deception. Unfortunately, Larry collided with a toll booth on the way back to Long Island and blew his cover by having to explain the incident to my father, as youthful honesty required. Honesty did not however extend to explaining to Dad where the hell I was. He then hightailed it off on foot, refusing the offer of a ride from my father -- one of the most decent people I've ever known, even though he too was an old-fashioned, conventional thinker who would fail to understand why we couldn't wait a year for me to graduate before we got married.

Penny's call, Dad. Chick couldn't wait.

That evening Penny and I walked to a telegraph office, a surprise to me that such things existed, to send telegrams to our parents, because neither of us wanted to spoil the day with a difficult long-distance phone call.

Our telegrams began: "Congratulations are in order to Mr. and Mrs...."

My poor parents. 

I still cringe remembering how callous youth can be.

The party wasn't over. More college friends found their way over to our new place, the sublet apartment in the nice part of town we got because it belonged to a good-hearted Yalie who didn't need it until fall and embraced our New Day way of thinking by casually reducing
the rent to zero. Although this last assortment of friends had chosen not to go all the way to Long Island to spend a few minutes in a courthouse, a reasonable enough decision, they figured the least they could do to mark the great event was hang out in our place and get us stoned for a few hours.

I had never figured out how to mix my loose-living, doper college friends with my old life in modest, ordinary-people Long Island, the principal representation of which was now my wife. My friends hadn't figured out yet how to relate to people who had just got married, a mind-blowing idea so far away from their own understanding of life it might be happening in another galaxy. And they didn't really know anything about Penny except she was a chick who wanted to tie the knot even though she wasn't knocked up. In this respect their attitude mirrored that of my parents exactly.

Nevertheless, probably because none of us figured out how to relate to my new status as a married man, the evening stretched on awkwardly long. The last two of these friends fell asleep on the living room floor, no doubt because it took less energy than to get up and walk home. Penny had long before excused herself to go the bedroom and try out the double mattress we had "borrowed" from a Yale dorm and installed on the floor there.

With my friends asleep, the apartment grew quiet. Penny emerged at last from the bedroom, wearing my brown bathrobe in deference to our visitors. She looked around the room -- a last cigarette burning in the ashtray, the scatter of empty soda cans and snack plates, two bodies crashed out on the floor -- and asked, "Is that cool?"

'Cool' covered a myriad of unspecified issues, from official (would the landlord mind?) to personal.

But her look plainly said, If this is your idea of romantic, it's certainly not mine.

I shrugged. I had no opinions. I remembered having some once, but where did they go?

"You want to come to bed?" she said.

But I hadn't decided whether it was "cool" to wake up my stoned out friends and make them go home, or let them sleep there undisturbed. It would be easier to leave them there in the hope that they would wake themselves up in a while, recognize the redundancy of their presence, and take themselves home.

"Not yet," I said. 

But the sleepers did not wake. I smoked more cigarettes until I got tired at last of sitting there in the silence of my new status, which felt less like a youthful embrace of freedom than an age-old paralysis. I turned off the lights and slipped away to the bedroom. My bride was, of course, already asleep.

I told myself this was not a conventional wedding night -- after all, we had already done the deed -- and decided not to wake her. It occurred to me to wonder, however, what two people said to one another after they said "I will." Or how to begin.

We slept back to back that first conjugal night. I didn't lie awake too long thinking about it, but I was beginning to suspect that all the planning we had done to get ourselves married without her parents' consent, and all the luck we enjoyed (and the pluck Penny demonstrated) in getting the civil authorities to play nice even though we hadn't followed their rules, was really the easy part. The hard part was just beginning.

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