Chapel

J Thomas Murphy

J Thomas Murphy

The bride is sobbing. She is slumped over on a bench wearing white pumps and a borrowed veil that is torn in the corner near her left eye. Around her the room is full up with people standing close, trying to speak over each other. They have come in as pairs and don’t break apart once they’re inside. They stand together, some close together, others only maintaining proximity so as not to lose each other in the crowd. Each couple takes a number and they wait for it to be called. In the back, two wooden doors separate the waiting room from the chapel. It is now late afternoon and the skyline is bleeding to death over the flashing neon signs of the strip. A man in army fatigues stands outside the door, scanning the blood-red sky.

A boy comes over and props the girl up on one of his shoulders. She continues her slow, toneless sob into his worn suit jacket. The room is so busy with excited life that no one seems to see the couple sitting on the bench, expanding and collapsing into each other with every heavy sob. An outside observer could mistake them for refugees from before the war. But not this war, one of the other ones.

She shows the signs of worn beauty, the kind that has come and gone as a flash of lightning on a hot day. It illuminated her once, with its light, but it has passed and what is left is sagging and bruised. Her hair is bleached blond and haggard from too many chemicals. Her cheap mascara runs down her eyes like the scorch-marks of tiny explosions. She wears a white dress with no stockings.

The boy is not much better. He is shorter than her when she wears the white pumps. Their toes are like the points of his untamed canines: sharp and yellowed by time. The borrowed clothes he wears are three sizes too big on him. He is fighting a losing battle against tweed and cotton, sporting a crew-cut that looks like either he, or the barber, was drunk during the procedure. It sticks up oddly on one side and manages only to draw attention to his oddly-shaped head.

He is trying to comfort the girl on his arm by rubbing her back with a closed fist. His eyes are watery and nervous as he scans the room full of anxious young people trying to get married. Anyone can tell that he is doing a terrible job of comforting her, or at least there is nothing that can be done and his blunted affection is pointless. Should they one day fall back through time and find themselves here, they would see themselves as they really were: a picture of perfect, incorruptible misery. But for now they are stuck in the moment, unaware of anything but the din of indecipherable conversations and a rapidly expanding future which they cannot comprehend, never mind see themselves in.

“Do you want to do this?” he asks her.

“Oh I don’t know.” She pauses. “Yes, I do.”

“I can find another way, there are other ways.”

She doesn’t say anything. The room is small and crowded. Everyone is talking at once. The doors open, then close and another ceremony starts. No one quiets down; they just keep talking to each other and wait for their number to be called. The sound of a low rumble passes through the room and everyone goes quiet for a minute. But it is just the generator coming on to power the little Christmas lights that serve for decoration around the room. Conversation picks up again, this time louder.

The boy gets the attention of the hostess, “What number are you on?”

“Forty-five.”

He is sweating through his white shirt. The girl is sobbing into his shoulder. The hostess is smiling blankly at both of them.

“What if we go get something to eat? Do we have time?”

The hostess looks at the clock, “Maybe an hour, maybe less. It takes a lot of time unless it doesn’t.” People are still pushing in, taking tickets. Some are trying to buy their way to the front. He is trying not to panic. Her sobs come and go in little waves like a nervous, stuttering tick.

“There’s a little place across the street that will serve you. Give them this.” She hands them a square paper ticket, blue with a stamp on it of a cartoon couple winking knowingly at the audience, holding champagne glasses. It says ‘This One’s on Us!’

He takes the little slip of paper and coaxes the girl by his side off of the bench and they go across the street to the little bar there. The bartender takes the ticket with a smirk and a wink. The boy orders two cocktails that are mostly carbonation with lime wedges. He squeezes the lime wedges into the drinks. The girl drinks hers in one long swallow but the boy just leaves his in front of him and looks around nervously at the half-empty bar. A television flickers between white noise and a man gripping a pistol in his fist. Somewhere someone lights a cigarette.

“What if I don’t?” She asks.

“Then we don’t and we get back in the car and go home.”

“And that’s it? What happens if you get called up?”

“I can shoot myself in the foot.” He looks at her then back down at his drink. “Probably.”

There is a lull in conversation. He tries to sip his drink but it tastes bitter and sours his stomach. At the window a man tries to look up past the edge of the roof to the sky, absently tapping his knuckles against the glass as he waits.

“I don’t want to do it.”

“Okay,” he says and gathers their things.

She takes off her veil and they go to his rented car. He is looking a little green.

“But what if you go and you die?”

He looks at her. She is just standing outside the car looking out at the strip across from the parking lot.

“That’s a possibility.”

“Then I’ll never see you again.”

“You could die here while I’m gone. That’s a possibility too. We could die here both of us before I even get out of the country.” Absently, they both look up, scan the sky.

They don’t say anything for a minute. Here in the dust and crushed-rock of the parking lot he looks much younger. Even with his shitty crew-cut she can’t help but see in him the boy that grew up down the street from her. There is very little chance, she realizes, that he will grow up to be a man: thick-shouldered and squarely jawed, handsome, confident. As he is he will always stay, for her and for everyone. Even in death he will be slight; a wispy ghost to haunt the occupied rooms of her future-tense.

“Today is the last day. After that, it’s no good and you’ll have to go,” she says finally.

“Only maybe. The war could end before I get called up.”

“But if it doesn’t? There won’t be anything you can do to escape it if we don’t do it now.”

“We could go to one of those places you’re always talking about up North. We could take the car and just drive up there and wait it out. You know if we – if you decide you want to.”

“No we can’t anymore, they’ve closed the borders. There’s nowhere for us to go but to war or to Hell.”

“Now don’t say that. I don’t like it when you talk like that.”

“There are not too many ways out of this for us.”

“No more, please. For me.”

In unison they look at each other as a church bell begins to mark the hour. When it finishes they are quiet for awhile. People are coming out of the chapel at regular intervals. He can still taste the liquor on his tongue and it makes him sick.

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll do it” and puts her veil back on.

He stares at her for a minute then moves around the car towards her. She thinks that he cannot know, but something in the way he’s walking says he does. He comes closer and puts his hand on her face. Ten years ago he was not the kind of man that she thought she’d end up with. But now there is a chance to do more than marry him.

Before they go back into the chapel she wipes the sweat from his forehead with a napkin smeared with mascara. She brushes his cheek with a gin-sloppy kiss and they go inside to wait their turn. In the room with the minister are a dozen people who are paid witnesses. A radio turned to an emergency station chatters quietly in the corner.

When it’s over they come out leaning against one another, holding each other up in the dark. He leaves her at the stairs and trots to the parking lot to get their car. The street is full of boys and girls drunk on complimentary champagne. She watches a couple cross the street, laughing and passing a bottle in a paper bag between them as they go. On the horizon spotlights can be seen arcing across the sky. A church bell strikes the hour, ringing slowly and mournfully in the night. The sound reverberates off of the buildings around her for a minute before it is swallowed up by sirens and traffic and the low dull hiss of neon.

1 Comment

  1. I keep coming back to this story, it is so compelling.

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