Here is a short story that I wrote sometime ago and dressed it up in its best grammar and family-friendly prose for the Penguin Newsletter.
This is a true story for the most part and represents an accurate depiction of my role as the Best Man in my best friend’s wedding and captures the beginning of a friendship that has endured for over fifty years.
Although the story setting is not strictly Germantown it plays a “passing” role in the development of the story line, as you will soon see.
Thanks to Judith Callard editor-in-chief of The Germantown Historical Society for the thorough editorial review and the numerous corrections and suggestions she provided that improved the readability and continuity of the work. My daughter Bethany added illustrations that capture the essence and humor of the story in a visually pleasing way.
Thanks to both for their extraordinarily creative efforts.
Please join me at my best friend’s wedding.
Charley paced nervously up and down the sidelines. He stared out across the soccer field, not understanding much about the game but clearly looking for me. I could almost feel his eyes on me as I ran around the field, short of breath, aching muscles and very much out of shape.
That day he was dressed in a dark pin-stripped suit and plain black tie. He looked like he was attending a formal gathering of some kind like a funeral or wedding, not a sports event.
It was Cherry and White Day at Temple University, the one day a year that former players–mostly high caliber but out of shape–returned to play a scrimmage game against the current team and usually won handily. Cherry and White: the school colors to some. To 20-year-old juvenile smart-asses the name was loaded with sexual innuendo; and we were too irreverent to let it to stand and traded jokes about it constantly when no adults were around.
Slung over Charley’s right shoulder and on a thin white wire hanger was a plain dark suit covered with a clear plastic cellophane wrapper that flapped gently in the soft March wind. His left hand was free and he shook a tightly clenched fist angrily at me. “The wedding is at three,” he shouted, pointing to his watch several times with short staccato stabs of the index finger then pointing to me then alternating back and forth between the two, effectively making his point about my tardiness.
Taking myself out of the play and edging nearer to him on the sidelines I replied sarcastically, “What sledding is free?” purposely misquoting him and trying to be funny. I moved away from him as quickly as I had approached him and got back into the thick of the action; I didn’t hear the prolific string of obscenities he hailed in vain at me because I was upwind.
His diatribe created quite a stir around him. Once part of a sizeable sideline crowd, he was suddenly alone and isolated, the center of unwanted attention and detracting from the play on the field. “Why the suits?” I could almost hear and “what’s all the yelling about?”
Charley and I had been friends since eighth grade in junior high, first meeting in the principal’s office on a day when he had been thrown out of his science class and I, accompanied by my father, was enrolling as a new student after having been thrown out of North Catholic High School for failing grades and unruly conduct. We made a perfect match.
He sat down and looked over at me recognizing me from the neighborhood but not remembering my name. We exchanged greetings: he with “yo”, me with a lengthier “What’s happening?” accompanied by both two thumbs up. My dad, in full observance of this standard adolescent ritual, shook his head slowly from side to side wondering what we had just said to each other and whether it meant that we were friends or enemies. He shrugged his shoulders and went back to reading his newspaper while we waited for the principal.
The ring of the school bell ending the period coincided with my completed paperwork. Now officially enrolled at Roosevelt Junior High I waved goodbye to my dad; Charley and I walked out of the office together and into the same classroom. We’ve been best friends ever since.
The two extended blasts of the whistle signaled the end the first half and the end of my participation in the annual spring alumni game. Before joining Charley I checked in with the coach, reminding him of his prior approval of my absence for the second half.
“Oh, yea. Now I remember. You’re having a kidney removed today, right? Good luck and don’t be late for practice Monday.”
What a funny man, great guy and great coach. “I may have to wear diapers till the scars heal,” I said, ”but I’ll be there. Cut me a break on the after-practice laps. OK?”
“Sure,” he chuckled. “Do twenty five instead of fifty on Monday but on Tuesday it’s back to the regular schedule.”
Charley was just a few steps away and heard the humorous exchange but couldn’t work up a laugh for me. He was relieved when we walked across the field toward the locker room; me briskly, he slightly in tow cussing to himself and looking at his watch about every thirty seconds or so.
He didn’t speak to me again until I came out of the shower soaking wet with a towel wrapped around my waist. He was sitting on the bench next to my locker then stood up and held the suit jacket up as if to put it on me as a valet would do for his master. “How about waiting until I get dried off and put my underwear on?” He waited. I slipped the white shirt on and stepped into the suit pants. As I pulled them up I knew that the legs were too short but the waist was fine so I wore them a little lower to compensate. My valet, satisfied at what he saw so far, slipped the jacket on me when I turned my back to him and lifted my right arm as a sign for him to match the right sleeve. I pushed in to the sleeve as he pulled it up my arm. The sleeves were noticeably short but not embarrassingly so; borderline maybe. It was a little tight also. He was loosening up for the first time that day. A half smile came to his face after he looked me up and down.
“Keep the jacket unbuttoned and no one will notice the short sleeves.”
His slap on my back was a sign that he was finally in a good mood.
We small-talked in the car en route to Betty’s house about some old girlfriends and double dates we shared; but he was still a little fidgety. Yep, it was a house wedding. Rare today but commonplace years ago when middle-class women with parents of modest means got married but couldn’t afford an expensive wedding reception. The alternative was to run away and get married, especially if it was of the shotgun variety.
From Temple Stadium we drove over Upsal Street passing endless streets of recently built brick row houses that sat well above the curb. Only variations in the flowerbeds and shrubs distinguished them from each other.
At Germantown Avenue we turned left picking up speed and taking little notice of Cliveden on the left and unaware of its important historical significance during the Battle of Germantown in 1777.
The distinctive uneven hum of the cobblestones beneath us helped gauge our ever-increasing speed; we caught the trolley tracks a few times and waddled some but kept going. The unreliable dashboard clock told us we were already late. Hurry!
At Washington Lane, Charley slowed down a bit and in front of a drug store he interrupted my small talk, pulled over and said, “Brown, I need some rubbers.” then pleading, “Brown?” – my nickname when he wasn’t pissed at me.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll wait here and watch the car so we don’t get a ticket.”
“I need cigarettes, too. Go in. Consider it your wedding present to me, you cheap bastard,” and threw a twenty dollar bill at me.
Inside the place was quiet but there were several blue-haired senior ladies cruising up and down the aisles perusing every item that was marked “on sale” or “reduced.” The checkout counter was clear and I knew from a previous purchase of the same things on my own behalf at a different store but same chain, that both items on my list were available only at the cash register. I went straight there and declared innocently and quietly so as not to alert the morals squad prowling the aisles, “I’d like a pack of Lucky Strikes and two –enunciating the two- packs of your large-size rubbers,” putting emphasis on the word “large”, “if you stock them, of course.” My buddy’s getting married in an hour and he’s nervous.” I winked good-naturedly but received no acknowledgment of my attempted joke or hubris on behalf of Charley.
The cashier, who I discovered shortly thereafter, was both the store manager and the resident pharmacist, found no humor in anything I said so far. That cold, blank stare through thick, black horn-rimmed glasses assured me that he didn’t have much of a sense of humor; but he swung around immediately and grabbed the Luckies.
“What was the other item, son?” he said slowly looking directly at me and waiting for my response.
“Son?” I thought as I caught a glimpse of blue hair out of the corner of my left eye.
“How much are these bobby pins?” she asked gruffly. “I don’t see any price marked. What kind of a store is it that doesn’t mark its products? I should go elsewhere,” she grumbled further and no doubt expected another 10 percent off the price tag that she concealed with her thumb out of view of my protagonist.
“Please stay and I’ll be glad to help you but first let me finish with this nice, well-dressed young man,” he replied unmistakably trying to embarrass me.
“So what was it you wanted, lad? I remember something about galoshes.”
The blue head turned to me and unsolicited started giving me directions to the shoe store around the corner that carried a large selection of rainwear. Counter Man rested his elbows on the counter, barely missing my Lucky Strikes as he did so, and placed his large unattractive head in his small, callous-free hands. He watched me squirm through the detailed verbal road map that was delivered in a voice loud enough to be heard all over the store
Disagreements as to the exact location of the shoe store began about halfway through her confusing and contradictory directions. When would she finally finish a sentence? To add further confusion and unwanted attention on my part, objections and corrections were offered from every quarter of the store by anyone within earshot. This included the entire store. It was clear that all those not in agreement with her directions were converging on the cash register to give me their version of the road map and I suppose to get a glimpse of me, the nice young man.
Checkout Man showed no concern for my embarrassment and repeated his question for the benefit of the crowd of blue-haired traffic cops gathered at the register.
Trying to show some interest in the now-cackling array of babbling seniors and to get out of there with the goods, I leaned over to Mr. Delaney, as he was now being referred to by the ladies and said, “protective devices,” hoping that this code word would not be heard and if it was that it would not become part of the collective memory bank gathered around me.
“What,” she said holding on to her walker tightly and staring at me disdainfully. “This supposed nice young man you see before us wants to purchase … to buy…to use…to violate one of us, excuse me, I mean one of our gender? He is up to no good!”
Now Pharmacy Man seemed to have had his little joke and grabbed 2 packs of large-size condoms and placed them in full view of the ladies who gasped as he asked if there was anything else that I needed. Without waiting for an answer he rung me up, bagged the goods and handed me my change. As I slipped through the crowd of six elderly ladies one chided me for my promiscuity while another patted me gently on the ass, winked and wished me luck.
Of course, the fifteen minutes I spent in there would never be understood by Charley so I told him that the manager had to go down to the basement to get his condom size. He calmed down and asked me what size was his size. I ignored him and told him to step on it or we would be late for his wedding. His response was garbled and incoherent but he obliged.
He took my advice and was now doing sixty miles an hour down Germantown Avenue. We missed the right turn at Wyck House on Walnut Lane that gave us passage to Roxborough where the wedding was to take place. On the left at the next street our alma mater, Germantown High, passed in a blur and Charlie reminded me that in our senior year I was voted “Best Dressed” by my classmates but had to borrow his sport coat and tie to have my picture taken for the yearbook. “Déjà vu, Brown. I’m still dressing you.”
We laughed so hard that we didn’t hear the siren of the police car that had been following us for the last two blocks. The flashing light visible in the rear view mirror was the signal to pull over immediately, which we did. “Jesus! What else can go wrong today?” he screamed. “ Maybe you’ll fall asleep on your honeymoon tonight,” I said sarcastically and jumped out of the car to engage the police officer walking slowly toward us.
He was groomed like a Marine Corps drill instructor: polished shoes, creased pants, medals shined, the whole nine yards. Being a veteran myself and not being able to see his eyes through the stainless steel-rimmed sunglasses I couldn’t get a read on his attitude. I laid out bull story about the getting stuck in the trolley tracks and momentarily lost control of the car but didn’t mention anything about Charley’s wedding. He listened politely nodding his head occasionally but not revealing any sign of whether he bought my story or not.
He was 40 something he said then paused. I was expecting a lecture about when he was my age or something like that but he reached into his back pocket with his right hand and removed his citation book that was wrapped with a thick red rubber band. He turned it on edge and drummed it against the palm of his left hand, sizing me up as he did so.
“Suit’s a little small for you ain’t it, kid?”
“ It’s Charley’s suit and he’s not as tall as I am, Officer Barkley,” I said pointing to Mario Andretti shivering behind the steering wheel and not knowing whether the officer saw me squinting as his nametag.
“So what’s the hurry? Your buddy gettin’ hitched today or something?” he said with a slight southern drawl.
“How’d you guess?”, I said but realizing that he was joking.
I wanted to curry favor with him and tell him how much I enjoyed being stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky when I was in the army and all of the Southern hospitality I was shown by the locals there, but he didn’t seem like the gullible type so I kept quiet. Besides, he may have been stationed there himself.
Trying to think of a credible excuse to be speeding to back up my initial weak argument about the trolley tracks, I remembered that the clock on the dash board, which was never correct, read 2:25pm. It was twenty-five minutes fast not leaving enough time to get to Betty’s before the scheduled ceremony. Time. I needed a good reason for exceeding the speed limit by thirty miles an hour so I told him that we were running precariously late but spared him the use of the fifty-cent vocabulary word that might not have been in his literary arsenal. I looked down at the ground waiting for his response, idly making circles on the ground with my right foot. The constant and increased frequency of the ticket book hitting his hand implied that a thirty-five dollar speeding ticket and a fifteen-minute delay were only a few scribbles away.
“Where’s the wedding?” he asked.
Pointing to my right but not looking up I said,” Roxborough.”
“Lots o’ hills over there, boy. Sort of reminds me of Fort Knox. Ever been there?”
“I think so, sir. New Jersey, right?”
I said a quick Hail Mary under my breath and fixed my gaze on a water-stained cigarette butt in the gutter not risking a look up that would make me bust out laughing in his face. I managed a “not Jersey?” shaking my head from side to side to confirm my ignorance of geography.
“Roxborough ain’t my district but I’ll tell you what, young boy; I’m gonna give you and that sorry ass, lovesick, walkin’ hard on buddy of yours a police escort to the edge of my district. That will git you close to his old lady’s place at the bottom of one of them little mountains over there. Let’s git rollin’ and tell him this is his wedding present from the Philly Pooolice Compartment!” The combination of his long, drawn out mispronunciation of the word “police” and his to reference to Fort Knox, Kentucky, convinced me that he was in fact a redneck - but one with a heart. I thanked him and jumped into the car telling Charley how I just saved him thirty-five bucks and I intended to keep the fifteen dollars change from the twenty he had given me for the cigs and protective devices. “Fair compensation” I said. He high-fived my right hand with his free left hand, pulled it into first gear and followed Officer Smokey at sixty miles an hour through Germantown once again.
In ten minutes we arrived and parked across the street from Betty’s two-story brick row house. It was sandwiched between two large maple trees that were showing some small leaves but not enough to block out the afternoon sun. Congratulatory banners were flapping and snapping all around us in the wind, tied both from house-to-house and from one side of the street to the other. Charley let the motor run for a good minute after we stopped. He stared blankly out the front window and didn’t say a word. Finally he turned off the ignition and pulled up hard on the emergency brake.
Before we left the car to go inside I turned to him and for the first time in our lives began a serious conversation. It was an eerie and uncomfortable feeling but I had to ask him if he really wanted to go through with the wedding. He knew I was being serious and we both squirmed a bit with this first attempt at being adults. He paused then half-looked at me without eye contact; then he shook his head and said, “Sure, everything’s cool.”
“If you want to blow out of here, man, I’m with you 100 percent. I hate this freaking suit anyway.”
He chuckled then looked at me in the suit and said, ”You do look funny, Brown”. The smile disappeared and after letting out a deep breath he said, “Let ’s get it over with.”
An unconvincing endorsement if ever I heard one.
I paused for a minute before I pulled up the door release to get out and realized that Charley was an adult now and I was a frivolous twenty-two year old-still allowed to drink and stay out all night and be generally irresponsible and self-centered. He had responsibilities and was accountable. Things had changed between us now but I was hoping that it would not change too much.
Inside we were greeted by dozens of relatives, most of them unknown to me. After the introductions I immediately grabbed a cold beer and stood next to a guy who talked and acted like the Wizard of Oz. He was tall and wore a white suit and matching wide-brimmed ten-gallon cowboy hat; not your standard preacher garb for sure. Black suspenders clung to his protruding stomach like the longitude markings on a globe, one in London, one in Chicago. A thin ribbon around his large sweaty neck masqueraded as a bowtie and reinforced his Wizard-like appearance. His thick white hair matched Frank Morgan’s - the real Wizard, perfectly. I wanted to ask him where Dorothy was and what happened to the Tin Man’s heart but didn’t feel up to a lengthy recitation and explanation of a movie plot he never heard of.
We finally met when he broke in ahead of me in the beer line. Showing me his St. James version of The Bible he said, ” I’m performing the ceremony. I am Pastor Jones from the First Baptist Church around the corner. Praise the Lord! Are you the Best Man? If so, you will be paying me at the end of the service, right?” Not knowing the answer to his question since it was my first wedding I replied, “of course,” thinking he’d be hanging around the beer supply long after the ceremony was completed.
The words, “Praise this,” came to mind as I listened to him; they were looking for a ride from my smart-aleck brain down to my lips but missed it. I turned away from him to avoid the odor of stale beer on his breath and reached into a large trashcan filled with ice, beer and soda and grabbed a beer for myself.
It was my second beer already; I looked around for Betty’s big-busted sister, Rose, the Maid of Honor. She was upstairs comforting her sister Betty and no doubt telling her that someday marrying an I-talian would be considered socially acceptable. The enunciated “I” in “Italian” reeked with Anglo condescension and near-contempt reserved for those not fortunate enough to have been born with milky-white skin, freckles and red hair. In the meantime she would have to settle for being an outcast and a martyr. A cross to bear; be prepared.
I saw one of Betty’s uncles put on a record. It was the Mendelssohn Bridal March signaling that the show was on. Charley and I looked at each other. He snapped his fingers and walked over and handed me an envelope, simultaneously nodding toward the Wizard. “See that he gets this after the service,” he said somberly.
I took it from him and absentmindedly put it in the inside the pocket of my too-short, too-tight suit jacket then took my proper place as the ceremony began. The Wizard gave some last minute directions repositioning some of the men to make room for the women in the bridal party who were now descending slowly and tearfully down the steps. The sound of crinolines scraping against the narrow winding stairway preceded their entrance into the dining room.
The bridal party consisted only of Betty’s sister and I so the procession was brief. Betty never looked better. I could imagine being with her myself. I remember her pretty smile and full sensual lips. Appearing to read the lust in my mind at that moment, Charley nudged me and signaled me to move closer to Marrying Sam, the Justice of the Peace and part-time Wizard. Sam was outright annoyed when told to put his beer down but started the ceremony immediately. This little diversion allowed my lust for the new bride to go unnoticed. I was relieved but continued to lust for her for many years to come.
With his hat still on he grabbed and positioned the couple a third time to make more room. Then without missing a beat he closed his eyes and looked up solemnly at the ceiling, chanting the all too familiar “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today…”
He went on for another half of a sentence, stammered a bit then cracked open his oversized, worn out bible and read the remaining words from a small plastic-covered sheet of paper about half the size of a regular letter size page. Its well-worn appearance was a testament to his busy schedule.
When he reached the part about “Do you, Elizabeth…?” where some dramatic and flowery rhetorical embellishments might be inserted he seemed impatient when Betty stalled a bit, obviously overcome with emotion. The second she regained her composure and agreed he put the same question to Charley who responded with a prompt and curt “Yea” then reaffirmed with a more proper “Yes”, sealing his fate forever. Well, not exactly forever. They lasted through four children and ten years of turmoil before divorcing.
“I now pronounce you man and wife. The bride and groom may kiss now sealing this holy union forever. The ceremony is over. Congratulations.” Eyeing the beer supply through fixed, bloodshot eyes he walked over to the large trash can containing the cold beer leaving the newlyweds at the foot of the altar to receive congratulations from a long line of family, friends and well-wishers. He continued praising the Lord as he popped open his bottle of beer and again between long protracted gulps. Before he fell into a
drunken stupor I heard him asking another young couple in attendance if they were planning to get married. Without waiting for a response he gave them his business card but first had to cross out someone else’s name and phone number on it replacing it with his own, making the lame excuse that he was having new ones printed up but they weren’t ready yet.
Several beers later and a few swigs from a small metal flask I found myself face to face with Marrying Sam in a quiet isolated corner of the dining room. The crowd had thinned out.
“Fee, fee, fee, “ he chanted. I wanted to respond with, “fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” but by now he was too drunk to get the joke. I took his right hand and placed the envelope with his thirty-five dollar fee in it conferring it upon him ceremoniously as the Wizard himself might have done.
“Hope you enjoyed the food,” I offered sarcastically then turned away looking for the newlyweds to offer my congratulations.
I saw and heard very little of my good friend for some time after the wedding; He was obviously very content and happy in his new role of husband. Eight months had elapsed before I received a phone call telling me that he was a father and the baby’s name was Chuck.
Before offering my congratulations I asked how much did the baby weigh and was he premature? Calculating the weight with the birth date and the wedding date I concluded that Charley was up to no good long before his wedding night. I told him that I would never forgive him for making me purchase those protective devices and all the near-traumatic circumstances surrounding it. “ They weren’t necessary, were they, Charles? It was too late already, right?” He laughed and confirmed my suspicion. “Me and the druggist had a pretty good laugh over your act in there.”
“Congratulations, Pop,” I said sincerely knowing
that we would continue to be good friends for a long, long time to come.