Published in Panhandler Issue 5
Manoli Kouremetis was born in Versailles, Kentucky. He earned his BFA in Theater from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Old Dominion University. He currently teaches literature, drama, and creative writing at a private school for students with learning differences. He also is part of the adjunct faculty at his alma mater. His fiction has appeared in The Southeast Review and his poetry has appeared in Boxcar Poetry Review. He is currently he is working on new fiction and a full-length play. He lives with his wife and daughter in Chesapeake, Virginia.
The Man in Tan
Forks on glasses once again, and the groom held his bride’s face in front of his. All the aunts hooted and uncles rapped the tables. This was Clay and Janelle, man and wife. By night’s end any guest would have been proud to kiss both of them.
“Kiss me,” Janelle told him, but Clay held back. She loved the magnetic breaths between them. How far they’d come, and she’d made it with him. Thoughts of buckled hoods and Linda Spangler persisted, and she let them pass. They kissed.
All the courses were out of the way. Servers in paisley offered guests champagne amid the clatter of dessert forks on china. The lights dimmed; soon there’d be dancing. Every man’s hand had a date’s shoulders to caress. When the conversation lagged, and even when it didn’t, all eyes turned to the man in tan.
He wore a tan suit and a purple shirt. His glasses hooked on a black lanyard like grannies wear. Sporty grannies. When the servers refilled his glass he spoke warmly, just as he did with bride’s cousins sitting around him. He ate like a calligraphist setting flourish to a serif. Most guessed he was from somewhere north. He was a dead ringer for a crasher, a crasher in tan.
Whispers about him swept through the room.
“But he sure looks comfortable. Is he Blanche’s boy?”
“He’s a Bergeron all right.”
Janelle turned to her new husband. “I’ve never seen that man in my life.”
Guests came by to wish the new couple well. Clay nodded out of turn, mumbled thanks here and there. When they asked Janelle if the man in tan was one of her professors, she changed the subject quickly and hoped her new husband would save her. His eyes stayed on the stranger. The man in tan stared back.
Around them the liquor was doing its job as conversation popped its clasps and sneaked toward the racy. Everyone leaned in close. The photographers worked in tandem between the potted ferns, one snapping the shots while the other angled the blasting flash toward the corners and out the windows. Janelle watched the New Orleans skyline quiver. She wished there were more stars.
Southern stars, as Janelle’s father referred to them in his toast. Southern stars wink slower, he explained to any Yankee guests. They streak longer, burn hotter, and they stay lit up later along the horizon at daybreak.
“They are lights to come home to,” her father said, his Crown highball swirling wildly but never spilling. “Granted, doesn’t mean you won’t be in any trouble when you get yourself there.”
Chuckles came from all over the room. Even the waiters nodded.
“She’ll be up waiting for you, boy,” her father drawled. “You won’t like it and all your unmarried friends will make fun of you, but she does it ‘cause she loves you.”
An awww sprawled thick. His mushy speech was getting to Janelle, even though she hadn’t wanted it to. She sniffed back her tears and shook her head.
“My papa,” she whispered to Clay. “The madman.”
Clay nodded, but she couldn’t tell if he had heard her. She couldn’t tell where he was looking. It was the expression he’d get when talking about upstate New York, headaches that still plagued him, the icy Thruway. She hoped she was mistaken.
“My wish for Janelle and Clay is that in your life together, through all the laughs and catastrophes, the peaks and the valleys,” her father finished, “you both look back at this night as the moment that the two of you loved each other the least.”
Toasts begat toasts. Clay’s three brothers told jokes and Janelle’s drunken aunts floundered through nostalgia while they pawed the hunky groomsmen. College roommates hedged torrid details but kept it clean. Waiters popped more corks and refilled the flutes. Each table huddled together. All were hopeful, and all were flushed.
“We’re gonna dance until we’ve gotta be carried off.” Janelle growled it more than said it. She always claimed that she made moments stick to her by dancing through them. If she could keep up with the moment, then it would likely keep up with her.
“I hope I have what it takes,” Clay whispered back.
“Just keep moving,” she said. They kissed.
The next guest who reached for the mic was the man in tan.
Everyone hushed. Curiosity got the better of them. It had gotten the better of Janelle as well. To her surprise, Clay stood and waved his hands like a football referee would. Despite his protests, the man in tan who may be a Bergeron was set to speak.
“I’ll be quick, Clay.” In a few steps the man in tan was on the dance floor.
Janelle stood beside her new husband. After all the pranks that Clay’s family had pulled on him over the years, she assumed this stranger was part of some practical joke set up by his brothers. After all, they were all standing as well. But once on her feet she felt that she wasn’t standing beside Clay as much as she was standing between him and the man in tan. His coonass brothers had Jack Daniels revving up their systems, and they were moving in.
Janelle flirted. “Introduce me to your mystery man.”
A little laughter from the crowd defused some of the tension.
“Everyone relax,” Clay said.
He took Janelle’s hand, and only then did she begin to worry. The man in tan pulled an invitation from beside his plate and held it out for all to see. He did so with as much panache as he had eaten.
“I was invited,” he said. “I only have a few words.”
Southern manners demanded an open bar and hospitality. Both fathers told everyone to sit. Only Clay and Janelle stayed standing as the speech began.
“None of you know me, and none of you should,” the man in tan said. “My name is James Spangler.”
He tapped the invitation softly with the microphone. “And I shouldn’t be here.”
She whispered to Clay. “Linda’s—”
Spangler continued. “As some of you might know, but I’m sure most of you don’t, my sister was the groom’s girlfriend for quite a few years.”
He sipped his water, dabbed his mouth with his napkin. “Clay was part of our family. We laughed and drank together up in Rochester the way you do down here.”
Janelle squeezed Clay’s wrist, pressing more than she’d meant to. She wanted Spangler to vanish. Bring out the cake, strike up the band. The whole night teetered like a stack of dishes. One slip and all could smash.
“Clay here and my sister were in a terrible accident several years ago,” Spangler said. “Clay lived. My sister died.”
Spangler sipped his water again, spilling some. “And now he’s married!”
He clapped the microphone hard into his palm. Feedback squeaked. “Why the hell was I invited to this?”
Clay’s brothers surrounded Spangler again, and this time the fathers didn’t protest. The crowd seemed less captivated and more captive. The grapple in suits jostling before her, Janelle couldn’t take any more. She pushed past Clay. The brothers stopped pulling the man in tan toward the door but kept their grip on him.
“Let him go,” Janelle said.
“Do you know what’s monstrous?” Spangler continued. “My parents actually felt bad that they couldn’t make it down here themselves.”
Janelle held Clay back, an open palm on his chest. Later, she’d wish the photographers got a shot of that moment, that connection. Imminent disaster shone as clearly as Clay’s description of the wreckage on that icy stretch of highway. She could take anything coming her way.
Spangler shoved something into Clay’s hand. His water glass hoisted high over his head, he finished his toast.
“Here’s to Clay on his wedding day,” the man in tan concluded. “Here’s to my sister’s old flame who didn’t even bother to come to her funeral.”
Janelle kept her hand on Clay. Through the humidity and slouching, and now this invasion of his past, Clay’s tuxedo had somehow kept its shape. He looked dapper. Spangler’s words should have shrunk him, but instead his shoulders seemed to broaden as his chest filled with deeper breaths than Janelle had ever seen him take. Inside his rented shirt was the gall to leave a loved one like that. The idea sickened her, but what took her breath was her speculation that he might still have whatever it took to stay away. Janelle wondered how she could get through her next conversation with him. Still she kept her hand steady on his chest, the chest that had been holding this secret.
In Clay’s hand was the program to Linda’s funeral, creased as if kept in Spangler’s pocket during that long night at the cemetery and all of the long nights that followed. The program survived in preparation for this day years later.
“Where were you?” Spangler asked him.
“I couldn’t take it.”
“So you hid?”
“I did,” Clay said. “I did.”
Janelle had heard enough. She took the program and handed it to a passing waiter. Before she spoke she glanced to her parents. There was her papa, the madman. Just minutes before he’d had the crowd eating out of his hands as he spoke of southern stars. Janelle hadn’t expected their first catastrophe to come while she was still trying to keep on her bridal tiara. Some brides never get a bite to eat at their reception because they have to say hello to so many guests and smile for so many pictures. Janelle had to save her husband.
She snapped at Clay’s brothers. “Mr. Spangler doesn’t need you,” she said. “Clay does.”
She led him to them. He pushed back a little at first, but eventually surrendered into their embrace.
Inappropriate applause blipped through the crowd, as did some laughter. Anything to break the tension. The brothers brought Clay to the parents’ table and sat him down. Janelle asked the band to play. They went into the song they’d left off with before the speeches: “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Janelle followed Spangler into the stairwell. Once again she flirted.
“Not so fast.”
“I’ve done all the damage I’m going to do,” he said.
She was close enough now to put her arm around his waist. She pointed toward a door around the corner from the stairs. “This way.”
He pulled off his glasses as if to clean them. “I should go.”
“Yes, you should.” She pulled him toward the door. “But first you’re going to dance with me.”
Spangler had probably worried that she was dragging him back into the hall. But the door led not into the reception but into the bangs and gushes of the kitchen. On long steel tables the crew wrapped the last of the food. The servers clamored around the swinging doors with trays stacked with plates of banana strips awaiting bourbon and flames. “The band is playing,” one waiter said. “They’re dancing!”
Janelle turned to Spangler. “Listen.”
The band finished the tune to applause. In unison the crowd clapped like sports fans. “To Clay!” erupted the guests. Finally came Clay’s voice. “Play Sarah Vaughan,” he said. “Janelle’s favorite.”
The band jumped into “Broken-Hearted Melody.” Janelle took Spangler’s hands. He was reluctant to move at all at first, but eventually Spangler took the lead. As the two danced through the kitchen the servers moved boxes and rolling carts from their path.
Spangler spoke first. “What are you doing?”
While she twirled along with him she held her head perfectly still. Tiara on tight.
“My husband hurt you,” she said. “I can’t make it go away, but at least I can give you the first dance.”
“That’s an important dance.”
“It was an awfully big hurt.”
They spun past the dishwashers and refrigerator until they got to the oven in the corner. There was nowhere else to go.
“Everyone wants to kiss the bride, right?” she said. “Well, I’ll kiss you.”
Janelle brought her cheek to his. This man had Clay to the point of groveling. But when she felt the creases that met at the corners of Spangler’s eyes, the anger tightly furrowed, she knew she had more in common with him than she wished.
She kissed Spangler’s cheek.
“If you wanted it off your chest, then you’ve been successful.”
The servers watched.
“But if your aim was to crush him,” she said, “to make him into a fool in front of his people, well—”
The crowd hollered in the hall and the dancing became more of a stomp. She imagined Clay on their shoulders.
She let go of his hands. “Then you have failed.”
“It’s time for me to go,” Spangler said.
“You bet it is.”
Spangler wove through the crew toward the door. Before he was out of earshot, Janelle called out to him one last time.
“Stay away from my husband.”
By the time Janelle returned to the hall the dancing circled the tables. Neckties littered the floor and high heels hung on chair backs. The band played a peppy swing number she’d never heard before. She pushed passed the hugs and kisses toward a patch of tuxedo black huddled together. In the center was Clay.
Janelle rocked her hips as wildly as she could. Her shoulders scooped so low that her dress straps slipped. Once Clay had his hands on her waist she pulled off her tiara. Janelle gave her crown to a passing guest and hoped to never see it again.
She let the music toss her. Clay’s moves weren’t half bad and she slid along with him. Less than ladylike, she knew. The next song was faster yet. She hoped they could keep up.