from Issue 73
A day before Cheniere’s Womanless Wedding, my older brother Ashley was supposed to drive me and our mom to my gown fitting since I was fifteen and only had my learner’s permit. When we were ready to leave, I found him standing at the kitchen window, looking like he wanted something, and watching Toddy Boy, Cheniere’s resident half-wit and our across-the-street neighbor, playing basketball on his parents’ driveway with his girlfriend, Rita Lemoine.
The dirty aluminum screen we looked through to watch Toddy Boy and Rita was coated in a black film that rubbed off on my nose, and it put a bitter metallic taste in my mouth and burned my throat, probably because of all the chemicals from the outside air trapped in it. People call Cheniere and the surrounding towns Cancer Alley what with all the chemical plants and oil refineries flanking both sides of the Mississippi River in our little corner of Louisiana. Nearly every family in Cheniere had at least one cancer patient. Mine was spared. We had other problems. But the polluted sky above Cheniere did make for beautiful sunsets, just beautiful, like the one that was backdrop to Toddy Boy and Rita’s playing. Mr. Scalco, my old high school Chemistry teacher, had once said that the chemicals in the air refracted or reflected or bent the sunlight. Either way, I stopped watching Toddy Boy and Rita for a few seconds.
The evening sky looked like my mom’s bowl dessert: clouds for layers of marshmallow cream, lemon yellow sky for layers of crumbled cake, a bright red stratosphere for maraschino cherries, and purple-green layers of mint jelly mixed in. I had thought of taking pictures of it, so I could compare them to the sky of wherever I would end up after my great escape to destinations unknown—sort of test Mr. Scalco’s theory, see if home really was something special.
Ashley turned my attention back to the game of Horse across the street, which soon became a one-sided one on one. “Probably the same way they do each other back in the woods,” he said. Rita then wrapped her meaty arms around the scrawny Toddy Boy, who held the ball close to his stomach. She eventually wrestled the ball away and tried for a lay-up, though it seemed like gravity kept her and her bouncing chest never too far from the ground. “Hey, Faron, man, watch,” Ashley said. He rubbed the back of his heavily-haired neck, which gave the impression that his crew-cut extended down his back like a skullcap tapering into a thin, furry cape. “Big bad Rita’s gonna to give herself two black eyes.” Then Ashley puffed up his stubbled cheeks and said, “What a beast.”
“What a cow,” I replied.
Then Ashley gave me that look. That look that always said, don’t answer me. Don’t you dare, you retard, you woman, you embarrassment, you high-pitched freak. “Look who’s chirping,” he said in his husky baritone. I was never given a respite from his bashing for too long. It had always seemed as if I could be around Ashley, you know—not to do brotherly things together, if there are such things—but to do things like watching TV in the same room or eating at the same table, whatever—as long as I didn’t say a word. If I did, he would be sure to remind me that I should be ashamed of my falsetto voice, especially since I was double his size, double the size of most anyone, and nearly six feet tall.
But his reminders no longer mattered as much because I would soon be rolling along with my master plan, my great escape. If you can’t beat ’em, cheat ’em. The next day, I would put on my gown, grin a little and say thank you, and then I would never see Ashley and my mom, Toddy Boy and the townspeople, any of them, ever again. I would be the first Womanless Wedding bride to divorce himself from the town and strut into the sunset with a satin purse full of money. When you’re fifteen, such escapes seem possible and necessary.
The Womanless Wedding was the finale of Cheniere’s Spring Bazaar, a little outdoor festival held in an empty pasture next to Our Lady of Prompt Succor—the chapel, with accompanying school, dedicated to our patroness against storm and flood and fire. Held since my mom was a girl, the day consisted of a morning parade where the volunteer firefighters would decorate wheelbarrows in crepe paper and take turns pushing each other through town. Mr. Boucvalt, fire chief for over thirty years, would lead the parade as the queen. He always wore a party dress, pantyhose, white socks and sneakers, and a firefighter’s helmet with a tiara glued to the top. Mr. Boucvalt would wave his scepter, a can of Schlitz on the end of a drumstick, and invite the townspeople lining our streets to the boucherie at the end of the parade route.
There, Peanut Volion and his brass band would play under a tent while everyone ate roasted pig and dirty rice. Mr. Castroe sold hot cracklin’ next to Ms. Klibert and her pecan pralines. Old Man tregre would make chain saw sculptures out of pine logs and sell them on the spot: bald eagles, gnomes, and whatever else folks liked to put in their gardens. The buzz of his chain saw would sometimes drown Peanut’s clarinet during “Black Bottom Stomp” and “Sheik of Arabi,” and Peanut would play louder to the point of hurting himself, and the townspeople would laugh when his eyes rolled back in his head. But Peanut’s conniption fits aside, the evening tableau of the Womanless Wedding, with almost all the trimmings of a real one, including the money dance, was everyone’s favorite. And that year’s wedding promised to be extra special since the town had convinced its two mooks to join in on the fun. Me in an extra tight gown, my cheeks rouged up like fuzzy apples. Toddy Boy in a tuxedo, playing my reluctant and dimwitted husband.
Toddy Boy and Rita were still playing basketball when we drove by on our way to Debbie Cassagne’s house for my fitting. “I wonder what breed of babies skinny retards and fatty snackers make,” Ashley said. Then he blew the horn, and Toddy Boy stopped dribbling and waved as we passed. My brother snorted in disgust, “You can wave, you ass.”
Ashley and Toddy Boy were the same age and used to be something like friends when they were little. They used to cut trails in the woods behind our house for riding their bikes. But Ashley had turned on Toddy Boy when he realized his friend would always want to play, when Ashley grew up and Toddy Boy didn’t. I believe that was why his having Rita got to Ashley so. Toddy Boy, the town’s mildly retarded retard, had a girl, but Ashley, a real man from Cheniere, had an old Caprice Classic.
“They always look like they have so much fun together,” Mom said while fidgeting with the rollers in her hair.
“Fun,” Ashley replied quietly, and then we turned the corner.
It was near suppertime, and the town appeared at rest. To anything looking down on us, Cheniere must have seemed like a little lazy snow globe of volatile gasses and dirty slate roofs, crumbling sidewalks like cancer-carrying veins that infected every little cypress cottage, ranch house, and brick bungalow. Moving quietly through town, Ashley’s Caprice must have looked like a little medicinal capsule—past its expiration date and unable to prevent the sleepiness throughout.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to Debbie, okay,” Mom told me as we drove up to the seamstress’s home, the old Cheniere schoolhouse, a little wooden building with large windows and French doors at the front and a little green cupola that used to house the bell.
“All right,” I replied but had no intention of saying a word.
“Goodbye, Darling. Remember to think pretty,” Ashley said when we left the car.
Debbie, a tiny lady with huge glasses on the tip of her strawberry nose and a voice like wind chimes, waited at her front door. “Here comes the bride,” she sang, “all dressed in white.” She hugged Mom and kissed her on the cheek, then grabbed my hand and brought us inside. “Wait’ll you see it,” she said excitedly, “It doesn’t look so bad, considering the changes.” She brought us into the dining room, which was loaded with bolts of fabric piled feet-high and organized by color. The chandelier above the dining room table was swaged to the right side of the room, just above the sewing machine, by a hook and chain. Mom could have hurt herself when she slipped on all the fabric scraps littering the wood floor, nearly falling on one of Debbie’s boys who was playing sword with a long cardboard tube. The room smelled like glue and starch, and a Connie Francis album played on the stereo.
“There she is,” Debbie said, pointing to the gowned mannequin in a corner of the room. “There’s the Lady Caldonia.” Yes, the dress had a name, Caldonia Plaisance, and Debbie was its keeper. She simply made the needed alterations when a new bride was chosen each year, when someone else was granted the fortune of becoming Caldonia for a night. Debbie said I was the twenty-eighth young man to be given the honor, but no one ever gave me an exact reason why. Sure, I was now of age, and my voice would add to the comedy of it all, but the dress had to be torn in half and altered to have a prayer of actually fitting me. Was I really worth the trouble? As far as I knew, I was the largest bride in the history of Cheniere’s Spring Bazaar. The largest bride with the smallest voice.
Mom had come to me almost two months before the fitting and said that Mr. Boucvalt had called and told her that the committee wanted me in the wedding and that she had answered yes before asking. “But the cash—easy cash,” she had said about the wedding’s money dance. “Think of all the money the men will put in your purse,” she defended. “Better yet, Faron. Think scholarship. It really does look like the best kind of scholarship, you know. You and Toddy just help everyone else act silly for a night, and all those dollars add up. Maybe as much as three hundred.”
The decision was ultimately mine, and I, with help from Ashley, who sealed the deal by putting Mom’s lipstick on me when I slept that night, eventually decided to do it, to play along where so many other young men had. The money dance, along with a little extra cash I’d saved, would be enough to fund my escape to someplace. So I resigned myself to one last great humiliation.
I had always imagined running away and living as a mute instead of as a freak who chose to never talk. I would be the kind of person people feel sorry for instead of laughing at. At this somewhere, this someplace, the girls wouldn’t know me as Tiny Tim or Peewee Herman but as the mysterious man of their dreams. Silent but strong.
“Okay, Faron,” Debbie said. “Don’t be shy.” She handed me the dress to slip on over my head. “Now you have to be careful that you don’t sneak too much champagne tomorrow night. Probably better to take the whole thing off if you have to make. Don’t just yank it up because it’ll fall and get dirty.”
Mom sat quietly sipping tea and eating a slice of doberge cake while Debbie stuffed me into the dress. She had always been a great mother, but maybe she loved Ashley and me much too much. Maybe she loved her children to the point of hurting them. To her, Ashley never ridiculed poor Toddy Boy, and I never hated her for letting him do the same to me. Like everyone else in Cheniere, she never seemed to remember the hurtful things, like when Ashley called me Sis in front of his friends or when she had sent him to Winn-Dixie to buy a cake for my fourteenth birthday. He returned with the most girlie-fied cake he could find—Barbie dolls lounging on the beach under umbrellas of pink icing. “To our best daughter and sister,” it read. Mom had cried in her bedroom for an hour, but then she came out laughing about how we boys are just a couple of pranksters and that she’ll never trust us with important things again.
Watching her sipping tea at Debbie’s, I wanted to believe that we finally had some understanding and that she knew and accepted what I was planning to do without me having to tell her.
“It’ll look better once we give you some bosoms,” Debbie said. She turned me around to the mirror where I saw all of my fat was stuffed in a dress for a sausage casing that smelled of age. Debbie had had to add extra fabric to its sides for my torso to fit. The new pieces were a slightly different color but an obvious alteration. While she stood behind me, fidgeting with my shoulders, I could see her boy in the mirror, behind us, playing with the bosoms: two punching balloons, a blue one and a pink one inflated to the size of cantaloupes. He winked at me and then flicked the pink balloon’s nipple with his tongue.
I thought, when a person lives long enough in one place, he becomes inseparable from it for everyone else’s sake. He’s given a script, told where to stand, and he better not improvise. I expected that of Ashley, and Toddy Boy already had his place in Cheniere solidified, but I never expected it for myself. I was given only one chance, I knew, as I looked in the mirror at my lacy bodice and ruffled shoulders. At that moment, I felt no shame. Of course, I was scared, but shame never once dared to nibble at the base of my lilywhite neck.
When Mom and I came out, Ashley was sitting in his car and talking to Jordie, Debbie’s oldest daughter. She was in her regular uniform of tight jeans and low-cut T-shirt—a stem of her sunglasses planted deep within her cleavage, the lenses hanging like a necktie from her collar. Though I wasn’t wearing my gown, I walked out of Debbie’s house as Caldonia. I could feel her in my skin, which tingled, which seemed to remember the unyielding lace of the gown as my blood began to circulate again. Though the physical constriction was gone for the moment and my lungs could fully expand with ease, I wouldn’t be totally myself until after the wedding.
“You ladies finished playing dress up?” Ashley asked.
“Be nice,” Jordie replied, squinting, shading her eyes with her palm, and leaving her sunglasses cradled in her cleavage.
She opened the car door for Mom and then smiled at me, the low westward sun reflecting a sliver of a crescent moon in each eye. But I didn’t acknowledge her kindness. It had always been my belief that smiles—especially shut-lipped, bashful ones like hers—are used to mask pity. And the townspeople in Cheniere were a pitiful bunch, especially when it came to me. They never snickered like my brother, and they never cooed like Mom. We may have cancerous limbs or barren wombs, their smiles said to me. Some of us may have lost our hair and look ridiculous. We may be poor. We may be forgotten. But at least we can pity you, Faron.
“She’s such a pretty and nice girl,” Mom said as we drove away. “And what a body she has on her! Faron, make sure you tell her to dance with your brother at the reception.”
“He’ll be too busy asking for a molesting from those old men,” Ashley said.
“That’s right, Faron,” Mom said, ignoring the obscene gesture Ashley made with the stick shift. “Remember to tell them thank you when they put money in your purse.”
“Um huh. All right,” I managed to say.
“What are you going to buy first, hormones?” Ashley laughed. “You both are a couple of idiots.”
“It’s all tradition,” I squeaked out.
“It’s traditionally stupid.”
Some traditions are stupid, but I never thought that about the Womanless Wedding. It had been nurtured by my family from the start. Before that, Mom had told us, Cheniere used to put on a minstrel show as the bazaar’s finale. My grandpa was the host, Mr. Interlocutor, and my grandma would play the spoons as Mr. Bruder Bones at the end of a semicircle of other white folks in blackface singing “O Susanna.” Times just changed, Mom had said, and women were the only ones left to be picked on. So why not a wedding?
I stood at the back of Prompt Succor School’s auditorium and waited for my cue—nervous, actually nervous. Ashley was at the other side, at the reception area, probably sneaking a few beers before the lines formed. He signaled to me and stuffed a full beer can into the front of his pants and pointed to Toddy Boy who was waiting on the stage. My feet burned in the white and red sneakers Mom had given me, my something new. “I thought these would be more comfortable than those other shoes. Who’d see them anyway?” she had said.
Mom understood me for that much. The shoes were a bit of hidden rebellion against wedding protocol. Private rebellions had carried me a long way over the years. They weren’t necessarily physical actions, but mostly my belief that I still had control over myself, that I was better than everyone else, that I was smarter and more cunning but maturity kept me from using my skills. “When people make you embarrassed, just remember that they’re jealous of you,” Mom used to say. Her words had comforted me for years, but they lost their potency over time. She was the only person I ever spoke to outside of necessity. Everyone else probably thought I was a half-wit, and I was afraid to prove otherwise—afraid that I would be stopped in mid-sentence only to be silenced by laughter or at least by a bashful smile.
“Here Comes the Bride” blasted from a couple of speakers, so I began to walk, bosoms leading me, all according to Debbie’s instructions. The last time I’d been on that stage was when my fourth grade class put on the Christmas Nativity. I had played one of the Wise Men, the one who gave myrrh. Mom had dressed me in a sheet tied with a curtain tassel from her bedroom and topped my head with a Burger King crown covered in gold wrapping paper. It was a non-speaking part, and I thanked God accordingly. No such luck this time.
My wedding guests turned in their seats, all with the same expression: those damn smiles and opened zippers for eyes. The friction of my cleavage made the bosoms squeak as I walked with my nose pointing up to the ceiling. Caldonia was supposed to be a snob. In fact, we all played stock characters just like my grandparents in the minstrel shows. The priest, played by Mr. Miano, over articulated his words. Old Man Tregre, who walked me down the aisle, said to Jimminy, the bridegroom, “You gotta take her, man. She needs to go.”
As Jimminy, Toddy Boy played his part magnificently. He jingled his shackled ankles and started screaming and crying that I’d tie him to the bed and spend all of his money, that I’d be fat within a year and roll over and smother him in his sleep.
When objections were called for, everyone yelled. Then one of the men said, “I love Caldonia more.” A woman then said, “I hear she’s really a man.” “Run, Jimminy, Run,” another one had to add.
Mr. Miano continued, “Jimminy Mudd, do you take Caldonia Plaisance?”
“I already took her, three times or so,” Toddy Boy said.
Then the priest put a finger in each of his ears and said, “Caldonia Plaisance, you must take Jimminy Mudd for your husband. Being that you gave him a piece, the man now owns your furry fleece.”
“But I’m shedding,” I was supposed to say—and did—though I had no idea why. When I spoke, everyone in attendance brought their hands to their ears and howled like pained dogs. Someone was also in charge of shattering a couple of glasses in a paper grocery bag. He missed his cue and ruined the effect.
“Does that mean you agree?” Mr. Miano asked.
“I do,” I said with conviction worthy of Caledonia.
More howling ensued. Another broken glass, this time on cue. And then Toddy Boy did Jimminy’s happy jig, and we walked down the aisle as man and wife with the Looney Toons theme playing in the background.
I hated Toddy Boy’s stupid and unassuming enjoyment. He would live out his life as Cheniere’s resident fool, only his ignorance and Rita keeping him sane. I imagined him having children—normal, sad, and damaged children. Victims of guilt by association. That was also the only way I could understand Ashley’s treatment of me. My brother needed to distance himself, and I was more than happy to oblige.
Anyway, I expected to only miss the evening sky above Cheniere, not so much because of its beauty but because it was the only prompt succor in my life. I could look up and believe that no one else cared or wondered about it; that made it mine. But I would have to give it over to Toddy Boy, who was jump-stepping like a fool in his tuxedo. Hopefully he would learn to appreciate the sky though I never thought he could really know its importance.
Not long before the Money Dance and my feet still burned. The altar was taken off the auditorium stage and replaced by Peanut Volion and his brass band. Peanut’s slick-back hair was now like a mushroom cloud, and his eyes drooped at the corners. It looked as if he had BandAids on the tips of his fingers. The lights above the stage transitioned from maraschino cherry to lemon yellow to mint green, and the reception began.
Other townspeople also took part in the entertainment. Four firefighters, euphoric from a day of drinking and wheelbarrow riding, donned majorette uniforms borrowed from the high school. They first pranced around in these swimsuit-like, gold-sequined outfits—with bright blue capes fastened at their necks—and then went wild when Peanut’s band started to play “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I saw one of their batons fly like a boomerang from the stage and nearly take someone out on the dance floor. Even though their antics amused and made me smile, there was still something desperate in the way these men flailed around. But they didn’t share my problem. They acted as fools only one day a year. I was their fool in perpetuity.
I felt relief when Rita refused to let Toddy Boy dance with me. “She’s jealous,” he said, “Now she’s wanting me to ask her to get married. I told her I was marrying someone else.” But Rita did ask me to shove cake into Toddy Boy’s mouth for a photo. He stretched his neck out and put his face, with eyes closed, in mine. “Feed me, wife,” he said. When I did, I heard a champagne glass chiming over the music. It was Ashley.
“Shut up, everyone,” he said. His fly was undone and there was a little spilt beer on his shirt. “I want to toast my brother.” It seemed like everyone turned to him with the precision of a drill team, glasses in hand, ready to attack. My feet began to burn again, and the sneakers were soiled by wedding cake and champagne. “We have to thank Caldonia, a.k.a. Faron, for one of the best Womanless Weddings ever.” I waited for the punch line. “Salute,” he said and drank his champagne. Everyone else followed his lead. It could have been the beer or the champagne he drank, but I desperately wanted to believe that Ashley had finally made peace with me.
Then, I began to understand. It felt as if they were all calling me out to play. They were thanking me for years of free distraction. Thanks for giving yourself to us, Faron. Let us shake your hand and say goodbye. Thanks for being our patron against layoffs and sickness, boredom and sadness. The silent smiles surrounding me were a show of gratitude, not pity, and I had to admit to myself that being the center of attention is not always that bad.
The wedding was the first time in my young life when I was not a singular fool but one of many. I relished the camaraderie of it. I even laughed when Mr. Chetta, Cheniere’s sixty-year-old butcher, came on stage as Nancy Sinatra—in a teased wig, mini skirt, white leather boots— and danced like he was trying to crack pecan shells under his heels.
I had been having such a time of it, in fact, I hardly noticed when the money dance began, when Peanut and his band started playing “He’s Got You” and a line of frail old men formed to my right. I had expected each dance to consist of a few seconds of two-step and my partners squeezing my bosoms before leaving me to someone else, but it was so much more than that.
Old Man Tregre was first. Pained but happy, he led me in a slow dance with his good leg. “I still got it,” he said. He rested his head on my bosoms as his bald wife took a picture. “People used to say my husband looked like Dean Martin,” she said. “But he sure couldn’t sing like old Dean.” Then Mr. Boucvalt, still wearing his tiara helmet, cut in, put a can of Schlitz in my cleavage for safekeeping, and tried to jitterbug even though the tempo hadn’t changed. Both men added to the little purse tied to my waist, and I thanked them each with a curtsey.
“Show me some leg,” Mr. Castro said. I snapped my garter, and he also made a contribution. “You’re quite the little whore tonight.” He smoothed his oily moustache with an index finger.
“Yes I am,” I replied.
When the purse began to have some weight to it, I knew that the reception was nearly over. Even if everyone but Toddy Boy and me turned back into pumpkins, I couldn’t pretend that I still hated them all. They chose to become us for a night. I wanted to find some respect in that, and I hoped they had found enough joy to last through the rough year ahead. But if not, I’d stay in Cheniere to help them give it another try the following year.
“Good, good job, Faron,” Debbie said. “Bring the dress by tomorrow, and you can sign your name on the inside with all the other old Caldonias.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sign it, to write Caldonia off as merely something I did.
“Let’s go home and count your money,” Mom said. She held the top of the wedding cake, which was wrapped in plastic and ready for the freezer. Ashley stumbled to the auditorium’s front doors and put his arm around her neck. “You’re driving,” she told me. Toddy Boy, with Rita on his arm, said his goodbyes and thank yous at the door as Debbie ushered out the whole of Cheniere, so she could lock up. Toddy Boy would be fine, I thought, because he knows where he belongs.
“Bye, husband,” I said.
“See you later, wife,” he replied. Then he handed to me what looked like a one hundred dollar bill from his tuxedo pocket. “A wedding present.”
“Who gave this to you?” I asked.
“I don’t know. One of the ladies.” Then Ashley began to laugh, and Mom covered her ear with her hand. “You’re just as stupid as his retarded ass, Sis. Do you really think they would give a couple of clowns real cash?”
I checked the purse. It was full of ones, fives, tens—all the way up to one hundred. They were all fake, all novelty money. Probably from the same store where punching balloons are sold. Novelties for the novelties.
“You said they give money,” I told Mom. “Real money.”
“I really thought they did,” she replied. “ I mean, I always gave the groom a couple of dollars, and he never told me anything different.”
“Jesus, Mom, don’t be as stupid as this jackass here,” Ashley said, nearly matching the pitch of my falsetto. “I couldn’t believe you two idiots didn’t know. It was too good. Even the retard knew better.”
“Faron’s not an idiot,” Mom said. Toddy Boy grabbed me at the shoulder. “Yeah,” he slurred, “I would really give you a real one hundred dollars.” And then he began laughing with Ashley. Rita just stood there, confused.
My first reaction was to punch Toddy Boy in the gut. It had taken so little for him to bring everything back to the way it was. “Watch the dress!” Debbie yelled when I lunged. But Mom held me back while Ashley’s laughing went ultrasonic.
“For God,” Mom cried. “Toddy didn’t mean it.”
“Kick his bony ass, Faron,” Ashley said, shadowboxing around us.
Toddy Boy put up his dukes, flexed his neck from side to side, then spit on the floor. I felt so proud of him. He couldn’t hurt me—maybe he wouldn’t even have tried—but at least he stood his ground. How could I hit someone like that?
Really, I had brought all of my miseries onto myself. Maturity is not always a virtue. For me, anyway, it was an excuse to keep real self-respect far at hand. So I chose to do the immature thing and punch Ashley in the gut instead. He doubled over in pain, first seeming puzzled, then slack-jawed and reflective—as if momentarily thinking, Why couldn’t he do this all along? I asked myself the same question. Then Ashley quickly rose and continued laughing again. “My uterus,” he said, holding his stomach. “My ovaries. My poor fallopians.”
“Get him in the car,” I told Mom. She led him out, and I helped Debbie lock up.
“Another good job from you, Faron,” she whispered. “Be proud.”
“Thanks,” I said.
From the driver’s seat, I saw Toddy Boy and Rita as they ambled along their way to his parents’ home. Backlit by the remaining reds and purples of the setting sun, these walking shadows seemed to waltz just before disappearing below billows of carbon dioxide. The reds and purples on the horizon also faded, replaced by flares of heat lightning and the distant, twinkling lights of a refinery. I could never see something so beautiful anywhere else.
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