It was a frosty October day when Bea told her mother of her betrothal. Ms. Holliwell was standing on the back porch, clutching her bathrobe tight around her throat, staring tragically into the North wind as though it were Yankee troops bearing down on her land that were going to kill all her sleeping babies.
‘Mother,’ said Bea, slamming through the screen door behind her. ‘I’m to be married today.’
‘Winter approaches,’ said Ms. Holliwell, and uttered a sort of strangled sob.
Bea came abreast of her mother and handed her a mug of coffee.
‘Who’s your betrothed?’
‘Jeremy,’ said Bea, and her mother slapped her hard across the face, whirled on her heel and marched straight through the living room into her bedroom, locking the door behind her.
‘What’d you say to Mama?’ asked Bea’s brother, Benjamin, who sat on the couch, eating his breakfast. It was a cherry pie. He lifted a forkful halfway to his mouth, and then sprayed it with a mountain of whipped cream from the can in his other hand.
‘I told her I’m marrying Jeremy today, and I am!’ shouted Bea, and her brother’s mouth was a cream-rimmed O.
‘The hell you are,’ said Mr. Holliwell from behind his paper.
‘I am, Daddy, I gave him my word.’
‘You can marry him when you’re fourteen and not a day before that.’
‘I’m marrying him today and not a day later.’ Bea was 11.
Her Daddy put his paper on the table, and looked at her as mournfully as if she were a dead baby.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘I guess I’d best get the preacher.’
Bea crouched down by her mother’s door and scratched at it, while Mr. Holliwell phoned the preacher, and her brother licked the pie pan.
‘Mama,’ she said, trying to sound reasonable. ‘I love Jeremy, and he loves me. Why can’t you be happy for me?’
‘I’ll not have that Goddamn pumpkin in my family!’ screamed Ms. Holliwell, smashing something. ‘You may as well put a knife in my heart!’
‘Mama, be reasonable,’ said Bea, but she was soon drowned out by Ms. Holliwell’s harmonica.
‘You disrespect me daily, Preacher, and I’ll not stand for it – not even from a man of God!’ Mr. Holliwell was saying, meanwhile. ‘From this day forward the Holliwells are pagans! I’ll marry the girl my own self.’
He banged the phone down with a grunt of satisfaction, and the boy cheered, a clot of cherry at the end of his nose.
‘Come here children, come here,’ said Mr. Holliwell, and he took Bea on one of his knees and Benjamin on the other, but then he shifted Benjamin to the floor.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Today your father quarreled with his God and renounced him. Do you children know what the spirit is made of?’
At this point, Ms. Holliwell came out of her room, stark naked. She walked to the porch as if transfixed.
‘The spirit,’ continued Mr. Holliwell, ‘is made of light and dark stuff, and a balance must be maintained. The lightness of man seeks the darkness of God. But today, God laughed at us through his agent here on Earth. God has become lightness and to preserve the balance, we must all become dark.’
‘I think my children are stupid,’ said Ms. Holliwell, looking back through the screen door at her family, where they hadn’t followed her.
‘I don’t doubt it,’ said Mr. Holliwell.
‘When can I fix my wedding, Daddy?’ said Bea.
‘The wedding will go forth at 3:30 this afternoon,’ said Mr. Holliwell, and his wife was back in her room again, the door locked behind her.
By noon, Bea had made her wedding gown. It consisted of her old ballet leotard, with a striped beach towel as a skirt, and tinfoil accents in her hair and around her wrists and ankles. Her mother wept when she tried it on.
‘Oh, my baby,’ she cried, holding Bea to her. ‘You look so beautiful.’
‘I want you to be there, Mama,’ cried Bea in return, clinging to her mother. ‘I want you to see me get married. I want you to be happy for me.’
‘I just wish it wasn’t Jeremy,’ said Ms. Holliwell.
‘I love Jeremy,’ said Bea. ‘He’s warm and beautiful.’
‘He’s an autumn squash and I hate all harbingers of winter,’ said Ms. Holliwell. ‘But if you love him, then I suppose that’s that.’
At 1 p.m., Benjamin had a late lunch of four peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He buttered the outsides of the sandwiches and grilled them in a pan. Then he ate them with a fork and knife, pouring honey over them like syrup on pancakes for babies. Then he made another sandwich, substituting apple slices for the banana. Then another, substituting strawberry jam. Then he took his bike into town for another jar of peanut butter. He told Todd, who works at the Quick-Mart, that his sister was marrying Jeremy, and that the Holliwells were now pagans.
‘Sounds about right,’ said Todd.
‘Would you like to come to the wedding?’ said Benjamin. ‘It’s at 3:30 today.’
‘Can I crash it?’ asked Todd.
‘You can be my date,’ said Benjamin.
At 3:00, Ms. Holliwell did her daughter’s hair. She trimmed it through her tears, using fingernail scissors, as her nice ones had gone missing.
Mr. Holliwell donned his pagan turban.
Benjamin served Todd appetizers in the living room. They were English muffin pizzas. Soon they went to liberate the groom from the pumpkin patch.
At 3:30, everyone assembled in the backyard, and Ms. Holliwell played the prelude on her harmonica.
‘Here ye, here ye,’ said Mr. Holliwell, and Ms. Holliwell concluded with a train whistle. ‘On this day in the year of our erstwhile lord, 2005, in this the month of October – this the 12th day of the month of October, rather – I, Jameson Holliwell, do hereby wed my daughter, the light of my life, Bea Holliwell, to this pumpkin, the hope of my future, Jeremy, in the presence of my wife, the fascinating Denise Holliwell, my son, the placid Benjamin Holliwell, and my convenience store clerk, the effeminate Todd. If anyone here have any objection to this wedding, speak it now.’
‘I object,’ said Ms. Holliwell.
‘Mama,’ hissed Bea.
‘What is the nature of your objection?’ asked Mr. Holliwell.
‘Jeremy is…well, he’s just not a summer squash, is he?’ sniffed Ms. Holliwell.
‘I’m so sorry, Jeremy,’ wailed Bea. ‘I’m so sorry that you have to enter into such a family of bigots and haters!’
‘Benjamin,’ said Mr. Holliwell, holding up a hand for silence. ‘Do you support or overrule your mother?’
‘Overrule,’ said Benjamin promptly, whereupon Bea’s swimming eyes looked upon him in devotion and love, as if he were her first-born baby.
‘Todd?’ said Mr. Holliwell.
‘Uh…overrule?’ said Todd, whereupon Benjamin grasped his hand and kissed it, as if it were a baby he thought had died, but was merely sleeping.
Todd grabbed his hand back, as if it were his baby that some stranger was touching.
‘Then,’ concluded Mr. Holliwell. ‘Denise has been outvoted and the marriage stands. Bea, you may kiss your husband.’
And even Ms. Holliwell admitted it was sweet, the young love. Her tears got into her harmonica, and she had to clean it later, lest the salt water corrode the workings.
At the reception, Benjamin served four-cheese quesadillas, Chex mix, spinach-artichoke dip, take-out Chinese, moussaka, cereal (his special mix), mint meltaways, Ruffles and hurricanes. The Holliwells got trashed and rowdy, though Todd left rather early on. Bea was offended that he did not bring a wedding gift.
It was a lovely wedding, they all agreed, as they retired for the evening.
Benjamin slept on the couch, to let his sister and her new husband have some privacy.
Ironically, it was precisely 3:30 that morning when Benjamin’s appetite woke again. He crept into the bedroom he shared with Bea, and liberated his new brother-in-law from the wedding bed. Taking him into the kitchen, he made him into some nice tarts, the leftovers of which he served at breakfast next morning.
This horrific event, the Holliwells all reported in later years, was really the climactic end to their familial harmony. They were never the same again. Because her brother cooked her husband, Bea broke entirely with the family eight years later, going away to college and never returning. She did not remarry.
Three years after the climactic event, Todd quit his job at the convenience store. Benjamin sought him out at his apartment and asked for his hand and, spurned, tried to drown himself in a nearby creek, which wasn’t very deep, so he went home and he never left again.
Twenty-five years after the climactic event, Ms. Holliwell died of cancer.
And four years after that, Mr. Holliwell sold the house, and made Benjamin move with him to Pennsylvania, where he presently took up with a woman he met one night at Denny’s. Benjamin never got on with his father’s new lady-friend, and after all he’d been through, how could anyone expect it?