My cousin Josie got married next door, in the backyard, under a canopy of lilacs, white irises and daisies. I was thirteen, too old to be a flower girl and too young to be a bridesmaid, so I sat in the front row beside my grandfather, who was also Josie’s grandfather, each on our mother’s side. Grampa Sam moved his mouth without making noise while the rabbi recited the seven wedding blessings. But before the rabbi finished, Grampa Sam bit his lip and touched his hearing aid. My mother whispered, “A new translation. Things are different between wives and husbands.”
Josie met Shep her first year at the college with the good early childhood department. Everyone was happy about him at the beginning, then he started having to go to the hospital in Boston all the time. For one whole semester, Josie left school to live there with him.
The rabbi was quiet, and the bride and groom promised each other to cherish and protect. Josie was a little overweight, but she had nice dark brown hair and eyes. She wore bangs straight across—that was Josie. My mother used to say to me, “It’s a blessing that your cousin loves children. She doesn’t have your mind, but she’ll do just fine in the child care field.” There was a public kiss, then a private one that lasted longer, behind Josie’s lace veil.
Shep had on sunglasses. That morning my mother had explained to me about his disease. She talked about a special kind of cysts, then said, “His eyes are yellow. There’s not a thing to do for him now but wait for a compatible liver.”
“Where do they come from?”
“Automobile accidents are the best bet,” she said. “It’s a foolish marriage. It’s not as if they’re Catholics.”
“What do you mean?”
“Catholics are better at this sort of thing. “It’s all ‘God’s will’ for them; Josie could plan to see Shep in Heaven.”
While the rabbi talked about love and hope, I prayed for a lucky car; then I took back my prayer. When Shep broke the glass, Grampa Sam said, “Mazel tov,” and stood without leaning on his cane. He couldn’t see Shep’s sunglasses because he was blind, had been for almost a year. My mother led me out of our row.
The best man, Shep’s brother Tom, was greeting people at the end of the receiving line. His face was sunny, even under the tent. I’d kissed him after the rehearsal dinner, for so long it had made me feel dizzy, and when it was time to shake his hand I felt dizzy again. He was laughing with the maid of honor; he kept laughing, then reached out his hand to the person behind me.
My mother whispered, “I have to ask you a favor, Ava. Stay close to Grampa Sam. Keep him company.”
“What if they’re people here I want to talk to?”
“You can still talk. I have to help with the serving.”
“Ava. Please. You have to help out.”
“Oh, all right.” I wished I were skinny and strong like my mother instead of big and soft. My mother was an orthopedic surgeon; she could adjust heavy limbs. Whenever we argued, my mother won, and I got stiff in the top of my back.
“And please, Ava, don’t tell him that Shep isn’t well. Your aunt and I decided it’s not necessary for him know.”
Tom helped the musicians set up their mikes. He’d taken off his jacket and wore short sleeves. I got close enough to be able to see the veins that stood out along his forearms. The night before he’d said that he didn’t want there to be a wedding.
My mother walked Grampa Sam over to the folding chairs near the edge of the tent. The tent shaded the yard from the house nearly all the way to the forsythia bushes that bordered the lawn. A couple of the bushes still had a few yellow branches. I tried not to step on any of the petals in the grass. Almost everyone but Grampa Sam was standing. There were about fifty people, mostly relatives on Uncle Ben’s side who wore more earrings and necklaces than my mother’s friends. Uncle Ben owned a wholesale jewelry outlet that had been robbed once. His mother, Josie’s grandmother, had hair the color of milk and orange juice stirred together, and wore glasses with gems in the frames. I sat beside my grandfather, again, and watched the caterers set up the food near the back door where the ceremony had been.
“Let me guess the instruments,” said Uncle Sam, when the first song began. “Two fiddles and one accordion.”
“You got it.”
“Good. So, do you get to see your cousin Josie much?”
“Not really. She’s been at college, and I go to math camp for the summers.”
“Do they have archery? Life Saving? Your mother was good at Life Saving.”
“There’s a pool. Mostly we do math—at our own pace. The kids are supposed to be smart or something.”
“How many girls?”
“About ten percent.”
“That must be fun for you.”
“Not really. After camp I’m going to stay with my father until school.”
“How is he, your father?”
“He lives with a nurse.”
“I can’t hear.”
Louder, over the accordion, I said, “He’s fine.”
“Josie used to visit me. I’d babysit while her mother ran errands.” Grampa Sam lived in our house, next to Josie’s, before we did. He went to live in the old people’s apartment when my mother and I moved away from my father. “She liked to help me weed the garden.” There was a pool where Grampa Sam lived, and he swam one mile every day, while other old people stood around in the shallow end, talking about interest rates.
“Josie used to babysit for me.”
“Now you’re my babysitter,” said Grampa Sam. “It’s a circle. Do you have a garden? I’ll help you weed.”
“I don’t have one. My father used to, I think. I have a recycling bin in the backyard. People bring me their old bottles. I break them, then a truck from a glass factory takes them away when the bin’s full.”
“I never heard of that.”
Josie danced with Shep. He seemed skinnier than he had the night before. The dancing platform was about a foot high, and I was sitting; Shep seemed far away. Josie was as close to him as you get after kissing for a while. She kept his hand and her hand with the wedding ring close to her face. Some older people were dancing, too, and the ladies’ rings pointed up from their husbands’ shoulders. The maid of honor didn’t wear any rings – I looked at her hand, in Tom’s. He was in eleventh grade, and she must have been in college. Tom told her, “I sent my brother a condolence card when they announced their engagement,” and laughed. Her sundress had spaghetti straps. I had on puffy sleeves.
After dinner the night before, while everyone else was drinking decaf, Tom and I had left the restaurant together. We sat down on the curb in the back of the parking lot, and he took out a bottle of champagne he’d hidden in his jacket. “Tomorrow is going to be so phony,” he said, and took a sip from the bottle. “Here. Sorry it’s flat.”
“That’s okay.” I took a sip. “Why phony?”
“Everyone’ll say how happy it all is and how great it is that Shep will get into fucking medical school and no one will talk about how sick he looks and how sick he is. Jesus. Did you see how happy my parents were tonight? The only time they seem happy is when they’re around Shep – they’re sad about him the rest of the time. My mother sits in his old room and blows bubbles out of one of those dinky plastic wands.”
Grampa Sam said, “Will you dance with me, Ava?”
“I don’t know how to dance.”
“I’ll teach you.”
“Thanks, but I really don’t feel like it.”
“You think because I’m blind I can’t dance?”
“That’s not the reason.”
“For the best dances you have the eyes closed. This is a waltz I know.” He started to bounce his leg to the music. “Ava, girls who dance get asked to dance. Don’t think so much about mathematical equations.” I took my grandfather’s glass, put it on the table, and gave him my hand.
“One, two, three. Can you hear the rhythm, Ava?”
“One, two, three. One, two three.”
“Good. Wrap your fingers like so.” His thumb felt rough but warm, like an unglazed ceramic mug of hot chocolate. Tom’s hands had felt like cool china. “I step forward on my left foot. You go back on your right. Then we go over to the side. Then together. Back, side, together.”
We took small steps, beside and around Tom and the maid of honor. Grampa Sam stood straight and my arm got tired staying as high as his was. One, two three. I hated his white patent leather shoes; I could see myself in them—like in horror house mirrors—and my sleeves stood out like elephant ears. Back, side, together.
“You shouldn’t look down.”
“How do you know I was looking down?”
“I still see shadows.”
When I looked up I heard the music. We went backwards, in a circle. Josie whispered something to Shep that made him pinch her waist and smile. Her mother, who my mother said apologized too much, danced with Josie’s father, whose jewelry store my mother said was in trouble. Aunt Anna rested her head on Uncle Ben’s shoulder. Josie’s grandmother danced with a fat man I didn’t know, and her glasses sparkled. I forget about the ache in my arm and the white patent shoes and the maid of honor until Tom’s glazed hand slid down the back of her sundress and squeezed. I closed my eyes. When the music switched to something faster, I led Grampa Sam back to the folding chair, then got him some fancy meatballs and fruit salad.
“You’re a good babysitter, Ava,” he said, when I handed him a cloth napkin.
“Josie was a perfect babysitter, my mother says.”
“She wasn’t perfect to babysit for.”
“Once I found her in the bushes between the two houses, and she wasn’t alone.”
“Was she with Shep?”
“No. It was a long time ago, before I moved. Tell me about his wedding I’m at.”
“The maid of honor is wearing a lavender sundress that goes down to her knee. She’s dancing with Tom, the best man.”
“Tell me everything else.”
“I don’t know. Most people are just eating.”
“There’re two big bowls of punch with labels. One has a piece of paper taped to it that says SPIKED. The other one has a piece that says NOT SPIKED.”
“Drinker in his family?”
“His parents look sober. His mother seems to be smiling, but I can’t tell for sure. She works with kids, liked Josie wants to. His father is wearing a cowboy necktie – just a string. He owns buildings.”
“Is he wearing a jacket?”
“Maybe it has a rip in the lining.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Something’s not right about this wedding. I’ve sensed it all day.”
“The food is okay, isn’t it? That’s fresh fruit—not canned or anything.”
“Not canned. I taste each melon cube. If you’re careful, you can find one corner that’s riper than the others. But I know there is a problem at this wedding. Is Josie all right?”
“She looks happy, but she always did look happy.”
“Has her skin cleared up?”
“It looks good from here, but the groom is yellow.”
“Something’s wrong with his liver.” I looked for my mother, to see if she could hear me, but she was near the bar, way off on the other side of the dancers. I had to squint to watch her squeeze a lime. She’d told me that nearsightedness commonly got worse at my age, and that I should wear my glasses even if I didn’t want to. She’d never told me that Grampa Sam could see shadows. “Something really bad is wrong. He’ll die unless he can get a liver transplant. Why did Josie marry him? She even picked out a kind of china. They could have just lived together – that’s what my mother says.”
“Your mother just knows the hard things about marriage.”
“Other people think the wedding is a bad idea.”
“It’s not a bad idea. Take me back to your house now. I’m tired.”
I held back stray branches and we walked through a break in the bushes.
“Where’s this old glass-new glass business of yours?” he asked. I walked him to the recycling bin. He said, “It feels like a dumpster.”
“It used to be, but I painted it yellow and red. It says PLEASE COME AGAIN.”
“Sounds like souvenir ashtray. Let me break something.”
I gave him an empty canning jar. “Here.” He moved his fingers around the rim and across the bumpy grape design.
“You could keep flowers in this jar, Ava. I went for a walk with your mother this morning. I picked her some flowers. She told me the flowers were dead, but she didn’t say a word about Josie’s groom. She’s a doctor; it was up to her. She didn’t forget to tell me.”
“She forgets things.”
“She thinks I’ll die soon enough, so why bother me?”
“Here’s a bottle that used to be filled with Diet Coke.” He gave me the jar; we exchanged. “Now, just toss it this way, not too hard.” I held onto his wrist and we threw the bottle. It smashed.
“I like that sound,” he said.
“Want to do another one?”
“I’ll do it myself.”
“Okay. This one was apple juice.”
“Do you make money with this business?”
“No. Glass is made of sand.” I started to throw the jar toward the wedding, but I brought my arm down, broke the glass against the rim of the dumpster, and cut the little finger of my left hand. Careful not to get any blood on him, I led Grampa Sam into the house. When he was comfortable on the same living room sofa that was in the house when he’d lived there, I ran water on my cut.
“Ava,” he called, “go back to the wedding.”
“I’d rather stay here with you.”
“Go. I’d rather be alone. You don’t have to protect me.”
“It isn’t that. I don’t really know anyone there.” I held a towel against my finger to stop the bleeding. “I have no one to dance with.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Ava, go. I want to hear about the rest of the wedding, and I can’t trust anyone but you to tell me.”
“I cut my finger.”
“You didn’t cut it that bad.”
“How do you know?”
“I can tell. Go show it to your mother.”
“It isn’t that bad.”
I went back to the wedding, to the carved-out watermelon filled with fruit salad. Shep fed wedding cake to Josie and everybody started to clap. Tom and the maid of honor had disappeared. I ate honeydew, and looked with my tongue for the ripest corners. Then Josie gave me two kisses and said, “One for Grampa.” Her lips were sweet from the frosting. “We’re planning our escape.” At first I didn’t know what she meant, but I figured it out and walked around the house to see if anyone had decorated the getaway car. Before I got to the garage I saw the canopy, resting on four poles that came up to about my waist; it looked like a table covered with flowers. I twisted the wires to free one white iris and two daisies.
“I thought you were gone.”
I turned around. He was by himself. “Hi Tom.”
“Pretty good wedding, huh?” He squinted, so that his eyebrows touched in the middle. I saw sweat under his arms. “How’d you feel when you got home last night?”
“I puked. You notice how no one talks about physical problems at this wedding?”
“I’m not phony, Tom.”
“Anyway, all I had was three glasses today. How many did you have?”
“I know where there’s another bottle if you want.”
“That’s okay.” I went back to unwiring the canopy, holding out the finger with the bandaid.
“See you then, I guess.” Maybe he left because he saw my mother coming.
She waited until he’d gone to the front of the house then said, “I didn’t mean to drive away your friend.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, Ava, under the circumstances, I must say I think the wedding is a success.” I didn’t say anything. “Is Grampa all right?”
“I think he deserves to be treated like he’s still alive. I told him about Shep. Besides, I wanted to talk to someone about it.”
She put her hands on my puffy sleeves, but I rolled my shoulders, the way I do when my back’s stiff.
“What are you doing to the canopy?”
“Recycling the flowers. I’m going to give them to Grampa Sam. He can smell them and touch them, or give them away if he wants to.”
“To the old people he lives with. But you think that’s stupid. You think it’s stupid to love anyone who can’t never die.”
She touched my Band Aid and held her hand up against mine, palm to palm. “You hand has the exact shape mine has,” she said, “But mine has more scars.”
“I think Josie is smart.”
“I think she is, too, in her field.”
“It has nothing to do with fields. And it has nothing to do with not being Catholic.”
Josie and Shep walked by then. She wore a regular red dress and kept her head down, but I could tell that without heaven, and without champagne, she was cherished and protected, as she had promised to cherish and protect. Before my mother could even ask me to explain, I took off my shoes and raced through the bushes, holding the bouquet like a bride.
Susan Land’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in many journals, including The Alaska Quarterly, Nimrod, and Bellevue Literary Review. She teaches writing to children in Rockville, Maryland, and is delighted to see another one of her stories in John le Carré (TLR, Winter 2015).
“Old Glass – New Glass” was originally published in TLR, Winter 1986.