Two Excerpts from Midnight Champagne
Elmer Liesgang usually wasn’t inclined to cast stones. If a couple wanted to get married in an old whorehouse, well, let them. He didn’t pretend to understand half of what went on in the world these days. But this wasn’t just another Chapel wedding, unrecognized by any church. This was the wedding of his oldest child, April, just twenty-two years old, with a newly-minted college degree and her whole life still ahead of her. It was unthinkable. It was unbearable. And it was happening, like any accident, in terrible slow motion. Angrily, he paced the length of the lobby, ignoring the attempts of the desk clerk to engage him in friendly conversation. Outside, a light snow had started to fall. Most of the guests had already been seated, but as the light dimmed to an uneasy twilight, those who had not secured reservations at the Lodge were slipping out of the ballroom, one by one, to phone the nearby Budgetel. The reception was scheduled for five o’clock, immediately after the ceremony. At six-thirty, there’d be a sit down supper; at eight o’clock, a dance. Ten-thirty bouquet toss. Midnight champagne. Nobody wanted to get stuck driving home in a winter storm.
Elmer checked his watch: already ten past four. He opened the door leading to the game room, in case April was waiting downstairs. She wasn’t. Perhaps she was having second thoughts. Perhaps she had realized she was making a mistake she’d regret for the rest of her life. Perhaps her mother had managed to talk some sense—but no. Through the ballroom doorway, he could see Mary Fran chattering amicably, even happily, with the groom. Caleb Shannon had grown up in Nashville: his father, a minister, had founded a church called the New Life Christian Joy Fellowship. Caleb was twenty-six years old. He had red, wiry hair and freckled skin, dimples so deep they looked as if they’d been made with a nail set. Other than these features, he seemed like any other young man you might see on the street and not particularly notice. There was, of course, his Southern accent, which Elmer understood was something women found attractive. It allowed him to say things like Yes, ma’am and No, sir without the slightest hint of condescension. He did not consider himself particularly religious. He liked to cook. He never watched TV. Sports? Well, he’d played some tennis as a kid. These were the facts, and the facts explained nothing. The couple had been dating for fourteen weeks, sharing Caleb’s condo for ten.
There’d been only one bedroom in Caleb’s condo. There’d been only one bed in the bedroom. Up until his surprise visit, Elmer had been willing to give April the benefit of the doubt. Had he seen a small cot, even a sleeping bag rolled up in a corner—but no. Just the bed, a double bed, with a masculine pine frame. It was nothing like the twin bed with the quilted white headboard that April had claimed, only months earlier, from her bedroom at home. This bed reclined massively beneath one of April’s paintings—something new—which depicted the suggestive shapes of a man and woman ensnared within a purple web. Stepping closer, he squinted at the title.
There could be no doubt after that.
So what had gone wrong? Elmer didn’t understand. After a protracted and theatrical adolescence, April had pulled herself hand over hand into adulthood, and he’d dared to hope that she’d really turned out OK. True, she’d broken off her long-standing engagement to Barney Lohr—a disappointment to everyone—but she’d redeemed herself by graduating from UW-Madison with highest honors (and the art department’s annual prize) and moving to Minneapolis, where she’d landed a job at a cooperative gallery. She’d recently sold two of her own paintings to museums, each for a fair amount of cash; new work was on display in group exhibitions in Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville. She’d quit smoking. She’d even removed her nose ring and allowed that distressing little hole to close. She came home to visit less and less, though when she did, she spoke energetically about her responsibilities at the gallery, describing in bright, laborious detail the squabbles between the directors, the outrageous behavior of the other artists, the ways in which the “exposure” was helping her gain perspective on her own work.
Looking back, Elmer could only wish that he’d paid closer attention during those visits, rather than opening the Journal-Sentinel and leaving Mary Fran to supply the uh-huhs and oh, reallys. For the gallery was where she had met her new fiancé. He’d arrived in search of paintings to liven up the walls of Maple, Curry, Pederson and Tauschek, the law firm where he’d worked for the past five years. Not as a lawyer, either—now that Elmer might have understood. But no, Caleb Shannon had majored in Liberal Arts at a small, experimental college outside Minneapolis. In fact, he was considering law school. He was also considering a Masters Degree in Art History, and a welding apprenticeship. The Peace Corp had also occurred to him, but he wasn’t sure, he just didn’t know. For now, he was happy as a company gopher, an errand man, the one to whom the lawyers handed their keys when their BMWs needed an oil change; the one who picked up their shirts from the cleaners, their prescriptions from the pharmacy; the one who brewed their coffee, fetched their lunches, arranged the flowers in the lobby and generally made certain the office atmosphere was, in every way, a pleasant one. And that day in the gallery, when his eye had swept over countless floral bouquets and pastoral landscapes to rest upon one of April’s own bright, turbulent paintings, she had known—just like that—he was the one.
Just like that. Elmer sank into one of the twin leather couches, stared up at the head of an enormous moose, which was mounted above the fireplace. He tried to gauge the expression in the creature’s glassy eyes. Embarrassment, he decided. Embarrassment flecked with dread. Life was never just like that. It was complicated, and painful, and never the way it seemed. Just like that he’d gotten engaged to Mary Fran. Just like that he’d become a father. Just like that he’d woken up to discover he was yet another middle-aged man. For twenty-five years, he’d worked for the city of Holly’s Field, trimming the grass in summer, plowing the streets in winter, and he ran a bicycle repair shop on the side. At night, he watched TV until long after Mary Fran had gone to bed. Then he eased himself gingerly between the sheets, as if sinking into an uncomfortably warm bath.
“Are we ready?” Ralph Bamberger ducked out of the back office, fixing Elmer with a polished smile.
“Not yet, no,” Elmer said, but with that, the door to the game room opened, and April stepped up into the lobby, wearing her mother’s wedding dress. Hastily altered, the dress was still too big, and her small, cropped head emerged from all that fabric like a child peering out of a snow bank. The sleeves and hem were tinged with yellow, and as she turned to untwist the train—nearly dropping her bouquet—a couple of fake pearls pinged from the beaded bodice, bounced across the parquet floor and disappeared.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. Her face was flushed, nervous. Not pretty—to Elmer’s regret, none of his children were particularly good-looking. But today, there was something appealing, attractive even, in her excitement. “Another button popped off and I had to find a safety pin—”
“Excellent,” Bamberger said, and he pointed to the ballroom door. “As soon as you hear the music, start walking down the aisle.” Then he hurried back into his office. Elmer studied his daughter, saw his own dark eyes staring back. She had his narrow chin, his slight build, his long hands and feet. For once, her hair was its natural color—a dusty shade of brown—instead of blonde, or black, or streaked with pink.
“Well,” he said.
“A deep subject,” April said. It was Mary Fran’s tired line, and Elmer hated it.
He said, “Maybe down the road you’ll think about a church service.”
The fire in the fireplace hissed and spat.
“Look,” she finally said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, resigned. “I don’t expect your blessing or anything like that. But you could, you know, say something nice.”
From the ballroom came the sounds of a microphone, the scratch of a tape clicking into place.
“Well,” he said again.
April sighed. “There’s the music,” she said, and now there was nothing he could do but take her arm, guide her into the ballroom. Together, they began the long walk down the aisle toward the base of the balcony stairs where Caleb stood waiting, those dimples deep as buckshot. Elmer tried not to think about the lovely church wedding she’d have had if she’d married Barney Lohr. He tried not to think about the Chapel photographer, who walked backwards just ahead of them, the bright eye of a video camera balanced on one shoulder. He tried not to think about the cherubs, fat as buzzards, patiently circling the crystal chandelier. He tried not to think about the guests, who sat in crowded rows on metal folding chairs, or the noise those chairs made—a shrill symphonic lament—as people twisted in their seats to stare out the windows at the snow piling up on their cars. Pete Lapenska, justice of the peace, waited on the balcony with all the enthusiasm of a commuter waiting for a train. He and Elmer had gone to school together. Pete had been popular, good-looking, confident. Elmer had been none of these things, and neither man had forgotten. The sight of him made Elmer’s jaw pop; he tightened his grip on April’s arm.
“Dad,” she whispered.
Startled, he let go. Something was wrong with Mendelssohn. The familiar melody modulated into a low, erotic moan before the tape died altogether in a thunderous roll of static. They walked on in silence. A few of the guests tittered. “Give it a minute,” the photographer whispered. “They’ll fix it, they always do.” But to everyone’s amazement, Caleb turned to face the crowd and, in tones clear as a mocking bird’s, he started to whistle in tune. One after another, guests joined in. By the time Elmer ferried his daughter’s hand into Caleb’s, everyone in the ballroom had puckered up to complete a frail, fluttering round of Here Comes the Bride. There was applause, general laughter. April was laughing, too; she threw her arms around Caleb, who kissed her long, hard, happily, until Pete Lapenska’s voice boomed down upon them like the voice of God.
“None of that till you’re legal.”
Elmer sank into the reserved folding chair beside Mary Fran, who was snorting into her hand. Eight year old Margo was giggling, too, fingering the paper flower in her hair. Only Elmer’s son seemed to share his humiliation, but Stanley was a pale, wizened thirteen, and nearly always humiliated, regardless of the circumstances. Still, Elmer tried to catch his eye.
Stan stared straight ahead.
“April and Caleb,” Pete Lapenska intoned, deadpan. “Approach the nuptial canopy to be conjoined.”
More laughter. The pump had been primed. Even Caleb’s mother released a few small, unhappy chuckles—though she blotted her lips with a handkerchief, after, as if she had tasted something bitter. The rest of Caleb’s family had remained in Nashville, offering vague last-minute regrets: the distance, the weather, a rash of sudden illnesses. Corrine Shannon’s only companions were two half-grown grandchildren, a boy and a girl. Their mouths, too, were set in adult smirks.
But Elmer knew, without turning around, that his mother wouldn’t be laughing. The odor of Hilda Liesgang’s disapproval was distinctive as the odor of her corsage, which was roughly the size of a popcorn ball, made up of red roses and pink lilies. (“Call 911,” Mary Fran had said when she’d first seen it. “Your mother’s just been shot.”) Hilda had arrived at the Chapel an hour early, carrying a box filled with candles she’d purchased at Holy Hill retreat, crepe paper flowers blessed with holy water, and a two foot tall hand-carved crucifix which, according to family legend, had come over on the boat from Luxemburg. While she’d scotch-taped the flowers to the top of archways—like Elmer, she was just over six feet tall—he’d hung the crucifix behind the nuptial canopy in place of a large, heart-shaped mirror.
Pete Lapenska had taken one look and shaken his head. The crucifix, he said, violated the non-denominational spirit of the Great Lakes Chapel. “If you want a Catholic service, Elmo, take your girl over to Saint Michael’s,” he’d told Elmer, and the tips of Elmer’s large ears pinked with rage, for Pete knew—everybody knew—that Father Bork had refused to marry April in the church after learning that she and Caleb were, in his words, shacking up. There was a way around that kind of thing: a couple could agree to live apart for awhile, to attend pre-nuptial counseling sessions, to rededicate themselves to the teachings of the church. Or, they could have done what most people did; they could have simply lied in the first place. But April had decided it was all too much of a hassle—that had been exactly how she’d put it—to marry in the church. She and Caleb would simply elope. Or else stop by the courthouse. It was no big deal.
And when, at Christmas time, Elmer had treated her to a nice dinner out in order to talk about her wedding plans, to let her know how much it meant to him that she have some kind of ceremony, something witnessed and shared by family and friends, what had she gone and done? She’d taken the check he’d given her and put down a nonrefundable deposit at the Great Lakes Chapel and Hideaway Lodge. A last minute Valentine’s Day cancellation! she’d told him, phoning with the happy news. Wasn’t that the luckiest thing? The bride-to-be had discovered her intended, a long distance trucker, had a wife in another state. And the Chapel was so retro, so totally kitsch! Those tacky theme suites! Their friends would die laughing! He’d been right to insist on a wedding! It was going to be a blast!
“No crucifix,” Elmer had told Pete, smiling helplessly, “no check.”
“No check,” Pete said, smiling too, “no ceremony.”
Hilda had finally volunteered the compromise. She’d climbed the stairs in her grand, unhurried way and draped the crucifix with a pretty silk scarf. Now, as Caleb and April climbed the narrow stairs to the balcony, fighting the bulk of the wedding dress, Elmer saw Jesus’s toes peeping out, looking every bit as cold as his own toes felt in his fancy wingtips. The blessed candles—which Pete had overlooked—had been snuffed by Bamberger, who claimed they were in violation of the fire code. The anointed paper flowers mutinied as soon as the guests arrived, drifting down from the archways. Children had scavenged for them, fought for them, carried them away like trophies. And Elmer had watched unresisting as these last scraps of his hope were scattered, piece by piece. He’d wanted something better for April, something blessed, something of another world. Because this world, well, it could only disappoint you. Nothing was ever what you thought you’d been promised. Nothing was ever quite enough. Here he was, surrounded by relatives and friends, his wife, their children, and he’d never in his life felt so lonely.
He uncrossed his legs, crossed them again; his folding chair yipped twice. Mary Fran put a strong hand on his knee.
“Done is done,” she told him. “So you might as well just relax.”
Out in the Hideaway Lodge, the hall lights flickered. The wind shaved the fat, marbled icicles from the eaves, and the sound was like so much breaking glass: plates and cups and silver thrown during the most bitter and foolish of arguments. By now, the wedding guests were all at the Chapel, and most of the suites stood empty: hot tubs steaming up the windows, ice from the machine in the hall thundering down into the holding bin. But wait—there was someone in suite eleven. A retired couple traveling from their weekend cottage back to their home in Oak Park, Illinois. When they’d heard the travel advisories, they decided to hole up somewhere. What else did this couple have but time? So they arrived home on Sunday, or even Monday? The days of morning rush hours and harried weekends catching up with household chores were long gone for them both. These days, they tooled around on their pontoon boat. They fished. They watched the birds. And each time they passed the billboard advertising the Great Lakes Chapel and Hideaway Lodge, either going to the cottage or heading back home, the man put his hand teasingly on his wife’s firm knee and said, “Maybe we ought to try out one of those hot tubs sometime.”
And she said, “You know what those little places are like. They probably don’t even change the sheets.”
But today, with the storm coming on and that coaxing hand, she’d agreed that dip into a hot tub might be just the thing, and they were settling down to business in the Frank Sinatra Memorial Suite when the wind picked up—surely it was the wind!—sudden as a woman’s scream. “Dear Lord, did you hear that?” the woman whispered, groping for her towel, and the man whispered back, “I’m sure it’s nothing.” They didn’t hear anything more. But the suite’s cozy feeling had soured, and neither the man nor the woman could relax until after the man had pushed the small breakfast table in front of the door and piled their luggage on top of it.
In connecting suites twenty-six (Deep Space) and twenty-seven (Music of the Spheres), a mother and father and their two teenage children were playing cards. They, too, were waiting out the storm. When the father rose to open the door, the mother told him to sit back down, you never knew what went on in a place like this and, besides, it was none of their business. She turned up the television so they wouldn’t hear anything more.
In suite thirty-one, the Hunter’s Suite, a salesman slept with an open bible on his chest. His wife would have gladly testified that even a train wreck could not wake him. But the wide-eyed bucks on the wall pricked up their ears with concern. After all they had witnessed over the years, they were not easily deceived. They’d been watching on the night a well-known senator, dressed in a batman costume, had leapt from the dresser and knocked himself out while attempting to save his sweet young wife, tied prettily to the bed. They’d been present when that boy from Ohio had written letter after letter—to whom? If only they might have craned their necks to see!—then torn them all up, swallowed two bottles of pills, and shot himself in the head. They’d seen great sex and lousy sex and lots of sex that fell into that nameless category in between. They’d heard flamboyant fights and lean conversation, belly-laughs and long deliberate nights of weeping. They’d seen hundreds of suitcases unpacked and repacked, their contents—like the contents of the human heart—both identical and unique.
And in suite thirty-three a man and his wife were arguing. At least, they had been arguing. Now the man was talking to himself, for the woman had fallen asleep. Or maybe she was only pretending to the sleep; the man could not be sure. They’d been married three years, and the man’s wife often pretended to sleep when she was tired of listening to him. She lay on her back in the bed, the pillow covering her face as if she could no longer bear to hear another word. But the man kept talking anyway. He’d made this reservation months earlier, and he’d had such high hopes for this Valentine’s Day weekend—for the two of them, together—that he was reluctant to admit that nothing was working out.
Suite thirty-three was the Western Suite. The headboard was shaped like a wagon wheel, and there were oil paintings of cowboys rounding up dusty cattle. The hot tub gurgled like a fat, happy baby, and whenever the timer wound down with a ding, the man re-set it so that the water would be nice and warm when his wife woke up. He speculated on how much that hot tub had cost, how much energy it took to run it. There was a carved wooden sign on the bathroom door that said, Powder Room, and the man wondered how old it was. Another sign hung in the kitchenette, and it read, Rustlers Will Be Shot. The man thought this second sign was particularly funny. He’d made his wife read it several times when they’d first checked into the room. That had been—when? Somewhere around four? He couldn’t exactly say. It was already snowing pretty hard by then. Anyway, she hadn’t thought the sign was all that amusing. She said she loved him, she truly did, but things really weren’t working out between them, and she thought it would be best if they separated for awhile.
The man had sighed and, since they were going to get into an argument anyway, he’d opened the bottle of brandy he’d smuggled along—there was a nice box of chocolates, too—concealed in the ski sweater she’d given him last Christmas. He didn’t particularly like the sweater, but he’d brought it along to please her. The Lodge brochure had talked about a natural environment and country roads and walks on the beach, and he’d had an image of the two of them, hand in hand on some snowy trail, dark green pines all around them, tall and strong as guardian angels. Her nose would be pink, her dark braid undone; snowflakes would sparkle in her hair. He’d say, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” He’d bend to the kiss her and she’d kiss him back, her hands all over that sweater.
But he guessed none of that was likely to happen now.