THE NIGHT BEFORE
Kristi laid out her long white dress on the bed and smoothed it with the back of her right hand. She ran her fingers along the fabric from top to bottom a few times. The cut was a little puffier in the arms than she’d wanted, but she hadn’t had much time to shop. It’d do, she thought, looking over at her father, Clive, who was sitting in a rocker.
Clive’s track record as a husband was awful, but she hoped that didn’t have meaning for her. Her father was a serial husband, a four timer, but only three if you allowed that he’d married Kristi’s mother, Linda, twice. Kristi was the product of the first go round. Clive Jr. and James were his sons from his other wives, and both of the boys, now men, had as little to do with him as they could.
The town of Watling knew Clive: He spent most of his time skirting work and the rest working skirts. Apart from that he was an obnoxious, occasionally seething drunk whose temporary bouts of sobriety were memorable more for their infrequency than lucidity. Kristi was lucky this time.
Clive sat watching his daughter. She had Linda’s eyes but his reddish Scot-Irish skin color. He smiled, thinking about the $10,000 he’d won in the lottery twenty years ago. He promptly lost $7,000 at blackjack in the Turning Stone casino in Herkimer, where he’d met Linda, a waitress there. But $3,000 seemed like a good grubstake for a marriage and he took the plunge with Linda, his second and future fourth wife.
It didn’t last long and Kristi was born shortly after the first time he divorced Linda, who’d eventually died trying to keep up with her twice ex-husband’s talent for the drink. Clive, who’d spent plenty of time in the tank for dusting up his other two wives, never touched Linda.
“That’s a lovely dress,” Clive said, sitting in what tomorrow would no longer be Kristi’s bedroom. They lived in a faded yellow clapboard house with a porch missing planks. It kept the rain out.
Kristi didn’t like him coming into her room. When she first moved in, after Linda died, he too often stumbled in like a broken wheelbarrow. She’d had to punch him hard and often in the first couple of months. She kept a baseball bat in her room—Clive thought his daughter loved baseball—for her own reasons. She looked forward to leaving, although she knew he couldn’t take care of himself. He’d die soon enough, she figured.
“Thanks,” Kristi said, not looking at Clive. She searched for the fancy hanger that came with the dress.
“Kristi?” Clive said.
She heard his throat catch. It was so rare an occurrence that the sound seemed to jump up and away like frightened Calico. Kristi did not want a semi-fatherly semi-lecture from a man whose acquaintance with responsibility was thinner than her new veil.
“I know I ain’t been the best Dad,” he went on. Though he was sober, the words fell out of his mouth almost as if he weren’t.
“That’s true,” Kristi said without looking back. She slipped the hanger into the dress.
“Awww,” Clive said. The thickness went out of his throat. It was going to be like that, eh, even though I’m trying, he thought. “Well, I guess everyone knows that,” he said, trying to engage her face to face.
Kristi put the dress in the closet and started straightening things, like she wanted him to leave.
“I’ve not been the best husband, either, though I’ve had some practice,” he laughed. Clive figured he’d just talk to himself if Kristi wouldn’t listen. “Don’t know what I’m gonna do with this room after you leave,” he said, hoping to lighten the mood. He said it as if he were the lord of a great mansion instead of the tenant of a four-room shit hole
“I think it will become the jerk off and drink room,” Kristi said directly, pursing her lips and turning to him.
Stuff like that didn’t hurt Clive. It was not being minded that hurt Clive. And that was coming in spades now that Kristi was getting married.
“You love Wayne, huh?” he said.
“That’s the first time you’ve asked me,” Kristi said, sitting on the edge of the bed and facing Clive. “You know that?”
“I guess I didn’t,” Clive said.
Kristi lit a cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” he said. It was a vice that he hadn’t taken up. They both laughed and Clive knew that he’d broken the ice a bit. “I guess Wayne’s good enough,” he said.
“Oh, Thanks, Big Daddy,” Kristi said. “All my fears are relieved now.”
“Don’t make fun of your Dad when he’s losing you. When he’s trying to be good for a change.”
“As if I could recognize that,” Kristi said. “Well, at least you know your faults. It is one of your good qualities. Maybe the only one.”
“I do,” he said, ignoring the digs. “That’s where I’m goin’ with this.”
Kristi shifted herself to point her knees away from Clive.
“Wayne seems a good fellow but you ought to know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“You trying to talk me out of it?” Kristi said. “Trying to keep your housekeeper…your nurse…your cook around a little longer?”
“No. You might think that, but that’s not it at all. I mean if you wanted to stay, you’re welcome. Hell, you could bring Wayne here, too, but I know you two won’t go for that.”
“So,” Kristi said, taking a drag. “What’s your point, Clive?”
“Little fatherly advice.”
“From a four time divorced boozer who hasn’t held a steady job in ten years?” Kristi said, half-joking, yet half sad.
“Well, I’m experienced. You want marriage counseling from that prissy preacher? What’s he know but three ways to say Hosanna? You need marriage advice from someone who’s been to Paradise and back a few times,” he said.
Kristi smiled at that. He could be funny when sober…sometimes. And he’d done so many things wrong that what he’d said actually made sense.
“So?” Kristi repeated.
“Well,” Clive said, leaning forward, now that he had her attention. His gray eyes were pale but distinct. Most of the time there was a dull glaze to them.
“First,” he said, “don’t have no kids.”
“Thanks, Clive. That makes me feel great.”
“Listen. I understand. I’m trying to help you here. Am I glad you were born? Course I am. But there was a lot of hell in between yesterday and today. Not for me, honey. I know I haven’t been around much. For your Mom, I mean. Kids are lots of work. They come between a husband and wife in ways you can’t imagine. Especially if you don’t have a lot of money. And they are even more work if you’re alone.”
“Thanks again, Pops. Now you’re telling me my marriage won’t last,” Kristi said, already resigned to that possibility. She figured her marriage to Wayne mightn’t last much anyway, though she wouldn’t admit that to anyone. Everyone she knew was either split up or on their way there. “Well, it’s a little late for that,” she said, looking at her stomach and patting it lightly.
Clive wasn’t surprised. He couldn’t help smiling at his impending third grandchild, though it went against his better judgment. He had two other grand pups named Cindy and Wade, but his sons never let him see the kids. The only times he ever even saw his sons Clive Jr. and James were at the Recovery Room in town and they usually left as soon as he came in.
“O.K.” Clive said. “I guess I’m too late for the kid advice. I’m always too late,” he said, staring at the floor and not Kristi. “Anyway, don’t forget to have sex after the kids.”
“Please, Clive. That’s enough coming from someone whose hands I had to pry off my ass more than once.”
Clive swallowed. He was only ever truly embarrassed and sorry for that in his life. He was sorry for those first months, when Kristi, at 15, had moved in with him, after Linda died. He didn’t remember much of it anyway—her pushing him, punching him, him peeking at her in the shower—but enough of it to feel like running in front of a truck when he was sober. Otherwise nothing made him feel that way. Not even occasionally roughing up Lily and Rose, his two other wives.
“I’m sorry about that.” Clive said and wiped his mouth.
Kristi stubbed out the cigarette on the floor, got up and went to the kitchen.
Clive sat there looking at a wisp of curled blue smoke that wafted up from the dying butt. He was parched and needed a drink.
In the kitchen, Kristi noticed it was midnight. Ten more hours, she thought. She returned with a glass for him and one for her.
“What’s second?” she said.
Clive was distracted. He looked at the tumbler, the russet colored sour mash sitting easily in the dark glass. “Huh?”
“No kids’ was your first gem. “What…is…the…second piece of advice?” she
Clive looked up. “Forgiveness.”
Kristi might as well have been smacked full in the face by him for the hundredth time in her life. She’d had never seen her father this earnest. Eyes dark and still. His voice light but unwavering.
“Forgiveness, Kristi girl,” he said directly to her.
“Like in church,” Kristi said sarcastically.
“No,” Clive said. “Like in life. Like you’re Mom. She forgave. I do not. Learn from your fuck-up Dad.”
Kristi took a swig of her drink.
“Wayne isn’t perfect. You aren’t perfect,” he said smiling. “Your child ain’t gonna be perfect,” Clive said. “But if you forgive, life can be more tolerable. It might not be good, like the happy ending of a movie, but livable. Linda forgave me of a lot of things. She didn’t deserve what she got from me. I forgive nobody, and then pay the price.”
“You goin Jesus on me, Clive?”
“I mean it, Kristi. I’m not capable of it,” he said. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her now. He was thinking about the stupid things he’d done in his life, but that could take all night, he realized.
“Uh-huh.” Kristi said, finishing off the thimbleful left in her glass. “Come on, Clive. Got to get up early tomorrow. Somebody’s getting married.”
Clive stood up slightly content, an attitude which evaporated as he bent down to grab the glass and took his first drink since midday.
“That’s right,” he said.
There he was, Kristi thought, the Clive whom she recognized, the Clive of bourbon fueled certainty, the only one she really knew.
“Be a good time tomorrow,” he yelled strutting to the bedroom door. He looked forward to seeing his sons’ faces for a change. Maybe they’d let him sit with the grandkids for a while.
“I can’t wait to see the look of every bastard in town as I walk you down the aisle,” Clive said. He paused and then said to himself, “I hope I can find my suit.”
As he walked out, Kristi thought she’d tell him Saturday morning, after he’d had a few early bracers. She didn’t have the heart to tell him while he was sober. But in the morning she lost her nerve.
Clive woke up hazy at 11 am. Before going to bed, he’d finished off half a bottle left in the kitchen. Kristi had already left, but that didn’t bother him. He knew she had a lot to do that morning. Brides have to get themselves ready and she probably went to her friend Mara, a hair stylist in Watling, who did those extensions.
A few days back, when Kristi had told him she was getting married, she said it would be the Church of the Holy Word at 1 pm Saturday. That’s all he needed to know, she had said. She was taking care of the rest.
He wasn’t hungry but poured himself a nice character builder before showering and shaving. Clive found his suit at the far right of his closet behind a couple of boxes. The last time he’d worn it was for a funeral. One thing he didn’t have to worry about was the size. He’d not treated his body well but he was of the type that didn’t get fat. If anything, he was skinnier, as if 20 years of alcohol had burned it out of him. The collared shirt he took up was wrinkled and he didn’t know where the iron was. He should have reminded Kristi last night. Probably in Kristi’s room, he thought, but he didn’t think to get it.
Passing the mirror on the way out, he admired himself. He walked to his car and picked a red rose from the garden that Kristi worked on during long afternoons. Clive hoped it would match whatever the bridal party was wearing.
When he pulled into the church’s parking lot at 12:55, there were only three cars. Kristi wasn’t having a big wedding, but she had friends. He didn’t see his sons’ trucks either, which he thought strange, too. He jumped out of his car and walked past the gardener.
“Nice day for a wedding, eh?” he said.
The gardener stopped raking the lawn, looked up, and then smiled and said nothing.
“No English?” Clive said. Still nothing.
Otherwise, there was no one getting in a last minute smoke on the church front steps. Nobody gossiping. Clive ran pulled open the front door to an empty set of pews.
“The fuck, did I get the time wrong?” That wouldn’t have been a surprise. No, Kristi had said 1 pm, Church of the Holy Word. This was it.
“Where is everyone?” Clive shouted, the words echoing off the walls. “What the fuck?” he screamed into the quiet.
A moment later Reverend Lane came out from a door behind the lectern.
“You shouldn’t be cursing in church, Clive,” he said. “You shouldn’t even be in church for that matter.” Then thinking better of it, he added, “Until you are right with God.” He walked up to Clive with small steps and his nose slightly averted, as if Clive smelled of sulfur.
“Where’s my goddamn daughter?” Clive yelled again.
“You’re gonna have to calm down, Clive Wilson. Kristi’s not here. What are you talking about?” the reverend said, turning his face away from Clive’s breath.
“She’s getting married for fuck sake…” Clive sputtered. “Here. Today. Now!”
“Not here she’s not, Clive. She’s getting married over in Milford, at Wayne’s church,” he said. “She didn’t tell you that?” And he looked at Clive’s rumpled suit and then the whole thing hit the both of them, like things are supposed to in a church, but don’t. Lane glanced at his watch. Clive won’t make it, he thought.
“Clive, take it easy,” the reverend shouted after him as Clive stormed out. “Come back and let’s talk. You can’t make the wedding, now.”
“Don’t need to talk,” Clive said. He almost stomped the gardener who fell out of his way.
He drove to the house. Inside he went into Kristi’s room and found that all her stuff was gone. Only the baseball bat was left. He took it to every window and door in the house before he collapsed in the rocker, his right hand squeezed tightly round Jim Beam’s neck. Later, when he opened his hand the bottle held to his skin for a moment, before dropping to the floor, where it burst.
Vito J. Racanelli is working on a book of short stories and finishing up a novel, “Blood in the Water,” a thriller set in New York City and Italy, where he lived for four years. He attended the Crime Fiction Academy at the Center for Fiction and has a previously published story in The Literarian. By day he writes for Barron’s, and his nonfiction has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the San Francisco Examiner, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution and the Newark Star Ledger. From 1994-1997, he was the bureau chief for the Associated Press-Dow Jones news agency in Milan. He lives in New York with his wife.