“Just Married.” That’s what’s written on the back of a ratty tailgate in white shoe polish. The plates are North Carolina. The old Ford Ranger has seen better days.
I’m a younger man. I’m at a gas station when I see the truck. The windows are rolled down. The vehicle is empty. The young couple is inside the convenience store, paying for gas.
I am at the pump, filling my tank.
My friend is nosy. He is inspecting the small Matrimony Wagon. He peeks into the truck bed.
“They sure don’t travel light,” he says. “There must be ten pink suitcases in there.”
Welcome to marriage.
My friend and I are on our way home after playing music in Mobile. It was a pathetic venue, but the music wasn’t bad. And besides, I’ve been playing pathetic gigs since I turned eighteen. What’s one more?
I’ve played some doozies. Bingo parlors, bowling alleys, rundown bars, a shoe store clearance, and the dreaded all-you-can-eat seafood joint.
A girl exits the store, walking toward the vehicle.
My nosy friend is almost caught red handed. He trots away from the truck. He lights a cigarette and pretends to be inspecting my tires.
The girl reaches through the window and grabs her purse. She counts a few dollars, then steals handfuls of change from her ashtray. She counts quarters in her palm. She darts inside.
Money. It’s hard to come by when you’re a newlywed.
My friend tells a story: at his wedding, twenty-five years ago, his sister placed a money tree on the cake table. People clipped dollar bills to the branches to fund the couple’s honeymoon.
“We had ninety bucks on that tree,” he tells me. “We needed that money for our honeymoon, we were flat broke.”
My honeymoon was no lavish affair, either. We went to Charleston on a shoestring budget. I’d hocked a guitar to help fund the trip. We rolled into town on fumes. We ate like paupers, we stayed in motor-inns.
We were on top of the universe.
The phrase of our honeymoon week was: “I can’t believe we’re married.” We said that a thousand times per day in that first week of marriage.
It was the greatest week of my life.
I spent every dime I had. By the time we arrived home, we had no place to live, a truck with a worn out transmission, and my bank account was dry.
But I couldn’t believe we were married.
We lived in the guest room of my wife’s mother’s house. In the evenings, I sat at the family supper table knowing I was the lowest-achieving member in my wife’s clan.
My wife’s brother was a contractor, her father was a famous salesman, her mother was Scarlett O’Hara. I was a fledgling redhead who needed a new transmission.
But marriage. Somehow, marriage made things better. It made me feel like less of a screw-up. After suppers each night, my wife would hold my arm, we’d sit on the shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay. We’d say things like: “I can’t believe we’re married.”
Love is not just powerful stuff. It is power.
My friend has an idea.
He reaches into his wallet and removes two twenties. He tosses them into the just-married truck window. He giggles.
I decide to follow his lead. I only have eight dollars on me, but it’s only a gesture from one human to another. Because I believe in love.
I toss my dollars into the vehicle. They land in the driver’s seat. My friend and I chuckle like idiots.
And we are almost busted.
The young couple is walking out of the convenience store. They carry Styrofoam cups and snacks. They’re leaning so close to each other they look like a four-legged creature with two heads.
I bolt for my vehicle. My friend jogs behind me like the Little Engine That Had Two Knee Surgeries. We slam our doors and drive away.
We don’t talk for a few minutes. We are middle-aged guys with gold-plated memories.
“You know,” my friend says, “I really hope those two have a fun honeymoon.”
I can’t believe we’re married, Jamie.