Jane Berg is reading towards an MFA in Creative Writing at San José State University where she is currently a Teaching Associate and was recently the Managing Editor of Reed Magazine, Issue 156.
The Wedding Dancers
For a long while Ali’s view of the horizon had been blocked by a line of trucks moving produce, cement, hazardous chemicals or whatever, but now she turned onto a dirt road and was finally alone. The mid-morning sun slid into a cloud bank, absorbing with it what little charm there had been in the brown fields dotted with tractors and rusting metal sheds. Her car’s wheel hit a pothole. She swerved. Corrected.
Ali drove like shit when she was upset, which is what you were after a two-hour drive headed towards an eight-hour shift as a server for the world’s most beige and boho catering company. Whoever the hell got married this far out in the sticks was either local and poor, or stupid and rich. She didn’t mind working a pauper’s wedding, which were likely buffet, not table service. You could eat right after the guests. No huddling in a back room waiting to be handed a hunk of dry chicken and soggy arugula. But from what she’d seen of the schedule, this looked like the latter kind of event.
All the side roads she passed were named after verbs: weeding, picking, reaping, brewing. She passed a laborer on his bike, likely headed towards a full day of those verbs. It was October and leaves blowing off the orchards swirled over the road like a flock of Monarchs, soon crushed under her car tires.
In some anonymous town, where the gas station doubled as a gift store, a barn style museum boasted a spiffy blue-black ’50s Chevrolet that someone like her father must push outside each day and polish with care. Yeah, this looked so much like home it made her sick, made her bite her nails, gnaw at the calluses made by her steel-string, and she needed those calluses in order to play. Music was an indifferent hobby and/or her sole distraction from this ugly world. But she’d rather wait here than in the parking lot of the venue, where doubtless Dom would pitch up early too and try and talk to her.
Ali didn’t have anything against Dom. In fact, she was nice to him, which was more than could be said of most in this industry where you could be disliked for being old, slow, and dithering. For having skin tinged puce, not unlike all her boozy uncles. For having a balding mullet and ridiculous sideburns, not unlike her dad. Another server named Joan found fault with him for always taking his smoke break the minute any real work had to be done, which was true. And though Joan was equally delinquent, Ali liked her cause she was Texan and said “PEAcan” not “pick-kahn” and was always “fixin” do this or that.
But these days Dom had started to irk her too. He took up the same tasks, hung around. Normally, when people irked her it was no problem; she went cold, laconic, changed shift pattern, disappeared altogether if necessary. But Ali wanted to keep this job, and wanted his help too from time to time; because she did have to be careful what weight she lifted when her heart started skipping. She’d been exempt from most sports in school due to her faulty ticker. And also, wanted him not to gossip about her other problem, which she feared was only getting worse.
The wedding venue was an opulent colonial villa in the middle of an orchard. She put on her bow tie and got to unloading floral centerpieces. Sure enough, Dom decided to help her unload, then helped her wipe down counters and lay out the table linen. He was just so fucking helpful. She concentrated on her breath, anxiety would give her palpitations way sooner than mild irritation.
Linen swaddled the chairs and swaddled the silver in napkins rolled tight as a fist. The wedding party would be swaddled too, with booze, with compliments from their little coterie of makeup artists and photographers. At that moment the women were upstairs making themselves into little cakes, perfuming and curling their hair into ribbons crisp as candy. And the groom and groomsmen were on their way, or so the wedding planner was threatening with the tapping of her heels on the parquet. They were cruising over in the raucous privacy of the party bus and could Ali go tell the bridal party that the bride should stay sequestered until her exquisite moment, the “first look”?
Yeah sure, Ali said, although she had no intention of following though. What did she look like? Let them come. Let them burst into the hall reeking of aged whiskey and see the bride just as she’s scuttling out to the rose garden with the whole bustled dress bunched in her arms, her veil awry and her sneakers showing. Nothing would make Ali happier.
Instead, Ali lingered at one of the dining hall windows watching the DJ and the musicians bicker over the soundcheck. Ali was a musician, like and not at all like her father, who a short time after the cancer went into remission started playing drums in the world’s most unoriginal Fleetwood Mac cover band.
Ali was a musician of the YouTube tutorial variety. Could’nt read music or even keep a 4/4 meter and yet her friends Meg and Sam, her roommates turned chosen family, believed in her. They were constantly nagging her to write, forcing her up onto the stage at open mics. Her music was important to them, it gave her the status of artist like a holy order, as for them, art was a kind of religion. All Ali hoped for was that one day she’d find a band prepared to accommodate her ignorance. That she’d be the singer in the black dress belting out crowd pleasers to the wedding dancers. That would be a more distinguished gig than playing at Meg and Sam’s not at all legally binding Wiccan Hand-fasting at the beach where they exchanged copper rings and took enough shrooms to become one with the sand, sea, and cosmos. And though this, in their circles, was considered a first rate wedding, Ali couldn’t help but feel that her problem had begun just then.
It only became manifest a week afterwards and like almost all of her life’s major mistakes, it started with tequila. Hispanic wedding that day. A homespun affair on the family ranch. The groom and the father of the bride rode up on horses. Now that was something. Barbecue buffet. A Norteño band who must have had fingers made of steel because they played for hours in the icy fall wind without taking a break. And it was hella windy that day: the guests had to keep one hand on their hats during the ceremony. Rose petals took flight with the leaves. Tablecloths whipped back and forth, scattering the glassware.
Ali’s ticker was acting up. She did a longer than usual hideaway in the women’s restroom, breathing deep. While washing her hands, she got talking to one of the guests; black miniskirt, black hair, black leather jacket with tassels.
Shit, I’m freezing my ass off out there, you? the woman said, applying deep burgundy lip-gloss. Well damn, girl, you should have a shot, warms me up! They snuck round to the back of the bar like schoolgirls and chinked their glasses together. It was like that, her bad ticker was counterintuitively a good omen. There was always someone who came to her rescue. Sometimes too late, but they came nonetheless.
The “problem” arose later when everyone moved indoors for the dancing. There was only one door leading out of the kitchen and the crowd soon blocked it as they gathered to watch the parent dances. The bride began to dance with her father who Ali had already taken a liking to because he’d held a door open for her earlier. Had a refined mustache and delicately creased kind eyes. The bride started tearing up. They always do. The old man’s eyes gleamed. His composure remained, but there was a graceful suffering joy in that gleaming.
She didn’t know what song they were playing. It wasn’t, ‘Unforgettable’, or ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, or ‘Because You Loved Me’, or ‘Landslide’. It was a song in a language she couldn’t comprehend. But she knew the sound her chest made when it happened: the big one, the palpitation of palpitations. She staggered past Dom who had been standing next to her, rudely pushed past some guests, and rushed to find her car and crawl into the backseat; curling her whole body around the searing pain in her chest.
Dom followed her. She could see the red ember of his cigarette as he waited beside the car. Was it an hour? Maybe it was only fifteen minutes. Muerto? Dom said when she emerged. She shook her head. From then on they had this secret, and however much it irked her she had to accept his help. Ever since, as soon as the DJ announced the parent dances, she and Dom just so happened to need to take the garbage bags out to the trash. It worked out well for him, because he was always short on weed and they would bounce one of her joints while they waited.
At this colonial orchard whatever wedding the trash cans were quite some way down the tree-lined drive. It was a warm night. Unseasonable. Although what did that even mean any more? On their way back up the drive Dom suddenly grasped her hand, put her arm over his head, and did a twirl. It made her laugh because he was so much shorter than she was. She snatched her hand away and couldn’t resist brushing the sweat off on the side of her apron.
He stood still and challenged her by putting out both his hands. It's just a dance, he said. What? Ali said. He shrugged as if to say, Everything. She put her hands in his and he put them on his chest.
It was impossible to tell, at this distance, what song they were playing and so it became that heartsick Norteño tune, became Fleetwood Mac, became the blues. It became every song she could play and the ones she’d tried but never could. He became every man she’d never loved.