“Speak now,” said the clergyman, “or forever hold your peace.”
Silence. Nothing moved in that tiny church save for the dust motes in the beams of golden noon light, and for just that moment all eyes turned from the bride and groom, eagerly watching if anyone would dare. And then, just as everyone was about to exhale, the creak of the door opening juddered through the air. And a man entered the church, his shadow looming down the aisle.
“Yeah,” he drew out. He held a briefcase and he doffed his hat. “Might be, I have a word or two to say.”
The clergyman covered his face with his palm. “Jesus,” he muttered.
“John Island O’Neal!” the bride huffed, planting her hands on her hips. “Just what in tarnation do you think you’re doing?”
John, the newcomer, looked past the bride and at the clergyman. “Sir,” he said, “you can’t proceed with this marriage.”
The witnesses gasped. The clergyman scowled and crossed his arms. “On account of?”
“On account of,” said John, “we’re already married.”
Another gasp from the audience, and Millicent Carson, in her fine violet dress and hat, fainted and slid off her pew.
The bride reddened well past blushing. “John. Island. O. Neal.” Each word, a hammer striking an anvil. “Just what do you think you’re doing here? To crawl into the Lord’s house and claim we’re married? Why, I haven’t seen you in the better part of a year!”
“Well, I reckon I might have been a mite unavailable.”
“A mite! A mite!” The bride threw her hands in the air. “You spend all your time toiling away in your little accounting office, and when you finish there, you go carousing around town with time for everyone but me.”
“Well, I can’t deny that.”
“And you never help around the house. Or,” she narrowed her eyes, “in the boudoir!”
The audience gasped once again, and the Wilmerson Boys let out a saucy “Woo!” from the back pews.
“Well now, I confess that’s true.”
“A woman has needs, John!”
“Well now, I concur that’s so.”
“And you have the gall to come here, and call yourself my husband.”
“Daisy,” said John, “I admit I mightn’t have done well by you. I’ve my flaws, and that’s on me. But all the same, this marriage cannot proceed.”
“Well why ever not, John?” asked the clergyman.
“Because, I am also already married to the groom.”
This time the gathered gasped so loud that Millicent Carson was roused, and once the context was explained to her by Chalmer Chalmers, her on-again off-again groundskeeper – who was paid a wage consisting entirely of freshly baked goods – she once more wilted.
The groom hitched his belt and spat his tobacco onto the floor. “That’s just like you, John.”
“Well now, I reckon it is, Jack.”
Jack, the groom, spat more tobacco onto the floor and bared his teeth. “You know what your problem is?”
“Well now, I figure I’m about to find out.”
“You’re selfish, John!” Jack pointed a trembling finger at him. “You can’t suffer anyone else to be happy. It’s always you who everything’s about. You set your eyes on the pie and just gobble it up, come hell or high water, and you don’t so much as have a thought about the crumbs left for me. It just don’t ever register, do it?”
“Well now, I must admit there is some truth to those deeply hurtful words. My behaviour isn’t always becoming, and it comes from a place of fear, I suspect, though that’s my burden to bear, and not one I ever meant to hang around anyone else’s neck. Would it help if I said I was well and truly sorry?”
Jack spat another load of tobacco. “No, John.” He turned to his best man. “C’mon, Clancy. You wanted this to be traditional, made me buy you a sword and everything. Well, this here jackass is threatening my nuptials. Draw your blade, go out there, and cut him down. Start best manning!”
Clancy looked from Jack to John, and swallowed hard. He took a step down the aisle and drew his antique cavalry saber. He raised it towards John, but his hand shook something fierce – and then he winced and sheathed it again.
“I can’t!” he mewled.
“Well why in tarnation not!?” Jack asked.
“Because that man,” Clancy said, pointing dramatically to John, “is my husband!”
The room erupted with gasps and exclamations. The youth choir fled shrieking, and the mayor tore at his hair. The Wilmerson Boys whistled, and Maybelle Rourke hooted. She got a solid chant of “Jerry! Jerry!” going before the clergyman slapped his lectern.
“Quiet! Quiet all of you!” he bellowed. It took a solid minute for the last of the noise to die down.
Then there was silence again.
And then there was the click of a heel on the old wood floor, as the maid of honour stepped forward. When she tossed a bouquet of flowers on the ground and crossed her arms, the clergyman muttered, “Oh for Christ’s sake!”
“Clancy Lando Sutherford!” she said, withering at the best man. “And just when were you going to tell me – your wife – about this?”
Once more the crowd went wild, and everyone stood up and started shouting all at once. It took the clergyman a solid five minutes of hammering at his lectern with his shoe and screaming “Quiet!” before things settled down again, and by then his sparse hair was plastered to his face with sweat, and his breathing came laboriously.
Only the wedding party and John remained standing.
“Okay,” the clergyman said, between gasps. “Okay.” He wiped his face with his sleeve. “Seems we have a couple snags today. So, let’s do it this way. Would all the people who are married to John, please raise their hands.”
The bride and groom raised their hands, and then the best man too. And then the best man’s wife, and the rest of the bridal party followed suit. Hands rose in the audience, slowly at first and then with conviction. Even Millicent Carson had recovered enough to raise hers, even though – outside of being married to John – she was a staunch spinster.
The clergyman scanned the room, counting off and silently shaking his head. By the time he had counted off the last hand, it seemed that fully three quarters of the town was married to John. And then… he raised his own hand.
The silence deepened. Even the cicadas outside kept their peace. Once more, it was John that broke it. He cleared his throat and shifted his weight, the floor creaking.
“So, now that I have your attention,” he said, turning slowly to address the whole town, “we can’t let this marriage go through. We can’t just keep inter-marrying each other.”
“Well why not?” said Daisy, the bride.
John cleared his throat again. “Well–” he coughed into his fist “–seems like, um, I may have misread the fine print. The spousal tax incentive only applies to monogamous marriages.”
A pause. Then, “What?” said the clergyman.
John scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah, it seems like you can only claim it once. I, uh, kinda, um, missed that part the first time around.” He chuckled nervously. “Honest mistake. Those tax forms are tricky, what with the tiny letters.”
“But you’re an accountant,” said Jack, the groom.
John cleared his throat. “Yes, well. I missed that one, and that’s on me. But long story short, we can’t all be each other’s tax shelter. Looks like we’re not all going to be millionaires after all.”
The bride’s face fell. The groom’s face fell. Then the clergyman’s, and everyone else. John took a step backwards and swallowed hard. “So,” he said, “just thought I’d let everyone know.” He opened the door. “No point in these marriages anymore.” His voice was little more than a whisper. “Probably not actually legal anyway.”
Suddenly everyone rose. John screamed and ran, and the riotous mob chased him all the way out of the town of Loupole.