The wedding was held at an abandoned bank building in small-town Florida. It was a rundown building with old security cameras still mounted on the walls and ballpoint pens on chains. The bride got the venue for a bargain.
I was working as a Sheetrocker at the time. I got off work early and showed up with John Tyler to erect the folding chairs.
There were 40 chairs, the brown kind that every church and civic league used back in the day. We also unfolded old-fashioned card tables with steel legs. The sorts of tables that were responsible for 99 percent of all finger amputations within the U.S. at one time.
Next, the caterer arrived. Although, she wasn’t an actual caterer, she was the groom’s grandma. Her name was Marge. She was gray-haired, wiry, from Queens, New York. And I fell in love with her.
Marge barked orders like a jayvee football coach. She had a northern accent that sounded like submachine gun fire, and everything she said sounded like she was supremely ticked off.
Marge and her daughters prepared so much food they had to rent a U-Haul van just to carry all the casseroles and chafing dishes.
The designated gift area was located at the old walk-up teller windows. When guests arrived they were to bring presents to the windows that were manned by Laney Daniels and her mom. Laney accepted all gifts and jokingly asked guests for valid IDs and account numbers.
Gifts were then stored in the walk-in vault.
The altar was a couple music stands I stole from a local school, both covered in text which read: “Property of Okaloosa Walton Community College.” Which I thought was a nice touch.
And the flowers. You should have seen the magnolias and lilies, Marge did the place up nicely, you would have never recognized the old bank.
Soon, cars began arriving in the parking lot. Before the ceremony, I stood in the safety-deposit-box vault with the bridegroom. I was sick with nerves, holding a book of common prayer in my trembling hands.
“Thanks for doing this,” said the groom, my longtime friend and committed partner in PBR. “You almost look like a real preacher, except for your beer.”
I was not the kind of guy who should be officiating a wedding, but my friend asked me to marry him, and Sheetrockers do strange things for their friends.
So I became ordained within the State of Florida by sending off $52.95 for mail-order ordination papers. A few weeks later, I received a wallet-sized card in the mail which read: “clergy.”
Easy as that.
The groom pointed to my new book. “Is that a Bible?”
I shook my head. “Book of Common Prayer. It has your vows.”
“Where’s you get that thing?”
“Barnes & Noble.”
“They sell those?”
“It’s genuine pleather.”
“You went all out.”
I brushed imaginary lint from his shoulders. “I’ve never seen you in a straightjacket before.”
He thumped his bow tie. “Jim’s Formal Wear. Gotta have it back to Fort Walton tomorrow by seven or I incur late fees.”
The wedding accompanist was Michael Waters, who showed up late for the gig. We could all hear his busted CV axle squealing as he skidded into the parking lot on fumes.
Michael’s sacred instrument was a Fender Stratocaster, hussy red, with a Peavey amplifier. I don’t believe Michael owned a clothes iron.
Finally, it was time for the ceremony. I was so nervous I almost ralphed. I approached the altar with the groom. The accompanist played Sam Cooke’s “Stand By Me.” The bride dramatically emerged from the women’s restroom, slowly walking down the aisle.
And something happened to me. I became immediately swept away in the visual pageantry of love.
We were no longer in a derelict building that smelled funny. We were somewhere else. Somewhere high above Florida, existing in a perfect place where God lives.
The groom whispered: “Feel like I’m gonna pass out, man.”
“Don’t lock your knees,” I said.
The bride wore a dress that belied her humble surroundings, and her elegance caused my breathing to pause. Her bouquet was made from the finest roses Kmart manufactured.
The rest of the ceremony was a blur. I recited from my book and instructed the matrimonial partners to repeat their vows. I botched a few crucial parts, but nobody lost a limb.
Then the groom planted a cinematic kiss on his bride and people cheered. The guitarist played Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is” as the couple paraded down the aisle.
For the remainder of the evening I was caught in a heady glow while everyone ate cheese fondue and meatballs. During the reception, while the band played “Brown Eyed Girl,” and people danced the Mashed Potato, Marge approached me.
The woman placed an arm around my shoulder while we listened to Van Morrison’s anthem to dark irises, and I noticed Marge was weepy. Tears spilled into her plastic stemware glass of Boone’s Farm, and her eyes positively sparkled.
She shouted over the music into my ear. “You did so good, darlin’! I’m so proud of you.”
I wiped my own eyes. I cannot watch a woman cry without throwing my hat into the ring. “Thanks, Miss Marge!”
We hugged tightly and I felt her slender frame in my arms. Mid-hug, I watched the bride and groom holding each other, swaying.
And Marge, with her exotic Long Island accent, spoke over the din of electric guitars and drum kits with sincerity. “Gawd, sweetie, is there anything better than love in this entire world?”
“No, ma’am,” I replied. “There sure isn’t.”
And I still hold to that belief.