Excerpt from The Wedding Machine

~ September 17, 1969 ~

Sis never had a feeling that something would happen to Fitz until the day she and her mama drove to Atlanta to try on the dress. She was an only child so her mama wanted to go all out for her wedding. They had reserved Magnolia Plantation for the reception because it would take place during the peak of the azalea blossoms. Her mama had hired a caterer from Charleston and a florist from Atlanta, and Roberta and their generation of the wedding machine were handling the rest. Fitz’s mama was a wonderful baker, and she invited Sis over several times to taste-test a variety of flavors for the wedding cake.

They had ordered the invitations―Crane’s, no less―and Sis’s mama had sent off to get the Mims family crest which is a handsome coat of arms with a knight’s helmet and a shield with three stars and a lion standing up on his hind legs. The dye is what the stationery lady in Charleston called it, and it would be imprinted in the center at the top of the wedding invitation. It cost an absolute fortune, but her mama wanted everything to be just so.

Sis is not one that worries. She inherited that disposition from her mama. Sis’s daddy, on the other hand, always worried about everything. Her daddy worked for Hilda’s father as the personnel manager at the mill, and he was constantly worried that the union would get in when his back was turned.

He worried about accidents, too. Once he stepped on one of the kittens from their house cat’s umpteenth litter. Sis will never forget her poor daddy picking up that limp kitten and cradling it in the palm of his hands. He literally wept for hours. Then he wouldn’t even go into the den where the litter was. He made his way to the stairwell from the kitchen and went to bed without smoking his pipe (like he enjoyed doing in the den each evening) until all the kittens had been given away.

Well, when Sis’s daddy heard that Fitz was enlisting, she could see by the sagging jowls on his long face that he was concerned. He would watch the evening news reports of the war with a great intensity, and turn it off whenever she came through the room.

Sis and her mama were in Atlanta, and she was trying on a wedding gown. The dress was glorious. It had an elegant off the shoulder bodice with lace and beading and a silk A-line skirt with beading all along the edge and the train. Sis was always a little person, and it didn’t overpower her. It was just right.

Then her mama brought out the lace veil with scalloped edges Sis had bought in Italy the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college. She leaned forward and as soon as the sales lady helped her mama fasten the veil with bobby pins, they turned Sis around to face the three-way mirror, and she looked herself in the eye and thought, “He’s not coming home.”

Eight days later they got the call. Sis and her parents were taking a break from going over the guest list. They were sipping Co-Colas on the back porch when Mr. Hungerford’s Chevrolet pulled up in their driveway. It was the one that Fitz and Sis had spent countless hours in the back seat of throughout high school and college. She knew its leathery smell and every curve of the upholstery from the humid nights spent making out on the edge of town.

Sis’s mama looked at her. Her daddy grabbed the glass out of Sis’s hand and nodded for her to greet Mr. Hungerford. She walked down the steps and met him as he stepped out of the car. His lips were gray and pursed, and she noticed the loose skin beneath his chin wriggle like a gizzard’s as he said, “Sis, honey.” And that was all he could say.

Yes, Sis thought. Yes, of course he’s gone, but she said, “No.” And she grabbed Mr. Hungerford’s arms and tugged at them hard as she fell down on her knees. The poor man shook his head briskly back and forth and knelt down beside her and let her fall into his tall, thin chest as Sis’s mama came up behind her and rubbed her back with her gentle, little hands as if she’d failed a math test or fallen off her bike. Her daddy seemed paralyzed in his porch seat with his large hands around his head. She could hear him weeping into his soft, white handkerchief. Later Sis would learn that Fitz had stepped on a land mine less than a mile away from his base.

The dress arrived a month later. Sis’s mama had cancelled the reservations, the caterer, the florist and the invitations, but she had completely forgotten about the dress. Sis was walking a piano student to his bicycle when the postman arrived with the package. Her mama was driving up from a trip to the grocery at the same time, and she tried to intercept it. Mrs. Mims left her car door open and waved at the postman to get his attention as she ran toward him, but she was too late.

Sis grabbed the package and ran up to her room and tore it open. She just had to try it on. It was glorious. The bodice was snug in all the right spots and the beading on the silk skirt was exquisite. She had a little trouble fastening the silk covered buttons, but she contorted her arms in all sorts of ways to get the center ones fastened as her mama knocked and knocked on the door. She could hear her daddy weeping once again as she put on her makeup and her white kid gloves and positioned the veil just so.

Then Sis phoned Kitty B. and Ray and Hilda from the closet in her bedroom and they raced over at once to see her in it. Kitty B. was already pregnant with Cricket by that time, and she could hardly get up the stairs.

“This is not a good idea, girls,” Sis’s mama said as Ray and Hilda pushed Kitty B. up toward Sis’s room. “This is only going to make it worse.”

“Oh, just let her show it to us, Mrs. Mims,” Hilda said. She pushed through Sis’s mama and banged on her door, “We’re here, gal.”

Sis unlocked the door and Hilda opened it and her mama and daddy gasped as she turned to face them. Kitty B. burst into tears and Hilda smiled and Ray shook her head and said, “It’s magnificent, Sis. You’re the most stunning bride I’ve ever seen.”

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