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Friday, March 02, 2012

Grounds for Marriage

From the Vault, Homage to P.G. Wodehouse Dept.: A piece of fiction I wrote for a Metroland wedding section in 1987. I don't recall that the magazine ever ran it. My daughter recently asked why I don't share fiction on this blog. This should shut her up for a while.


I THINK I'VE BEEN a happily married man these past several years. I’m not sure that both of my wives would agree with me, though, especially the first one.

But the first wedding braced me for the second. It was important not to get blasé about it: you only get married for the second time once, and anyway this would be my second wife’s first.

There’s an inevitable major problem, and it’s always the same. No matter how ferociously you plan to keep the event of controllable size, this or that relative has a better idea and will be mortally wounded if you don’t follow it.

“We’re going to have to invite my Uncle Dan,” Susan said ruefully. “And Aunt Sally.”

“I’ve never even met these people,” I protested.

“If we don’t invite them, my Cousin Lou won’t come.”


“So Cousin Lou has a lot of money and gives very fancy wedding gifts.” Of course. The loot.

“Let me tell you about my Uncle Ned’s wedding,” I said.

“I didn’t know your Uncle Ned was married!”

“Let me tell you about it.”


Uncle Ned was so confirmed a bachelor (I began) that he all but took Holy Communion in it. He lived completely for the moment. If he was on his last dollar, he’d buy you a cup of coffee. In fact, whenever a dollar fell into his hands he’d seek out a coffee-famished friend, because money was too great a responsibility. The sooner he got rid of it, the happier he was. Until the bills came due.

We grew up in a little New England town where shopkeepers were personal friends and charge accounts were a spike of IOU’s. Naturally there’s always someone who takes advantage of such friendliness.

Uncle Ned ran tabs at all of the local shops, tabs that were regarded as gifts. He lived well on the generosity of others. Ned was a big guy, well over six feet tall, and in spite of his penury he cultivated a protuberant belly. You’d see him each morning at about eleven, making his way down the creaky outdoor staircase that led to his rooms above the Widow Richardson’s house, rooms she rented him for free in return for – well, you can speculate all you want. God knows the town did.

Came the day the widow died and the bank took over the house. And the bank was managed by a bachelor named Beet, a skinny, balding fellow in his forties with the complexion of a peeled onion. Whenever someone had a problem with the bank, that is, whenever a customer came away annoyed after a usurious interest-rate hike or some such, the usual consolation was, “Of course, Beet’s from New York.”

Beet took over the house as a rental property and offered Ned a lease on the upstairs apartment – at a price. I forget how much, but any amount was too much for Ned.

Until Ned caught sight of the new downstairs tenant. This was my first lesson in the “eye of the beholder” definition of beauty because Mrs. Neff was no looker. To 15-year-old me she was all bust and bouffant with a ratty little smirk on a too-pink face, but Ned went gaga over her and next thing you knew he was squiring her all over town.

And she was footing the bill. Neff had divorced her in haste and paid a sizeable settlement for the privilege, so she had the wherewithal to keep up with my high-living uncle.

But signs of domestication inevitably began to creep in. More and more he trudged bags of paid-for groceries back to the house; more and more that's where they dined.

The one dilemma was that Mrs. Neff would not pay Ned’s rent, and Beet was getting increasingly vocal about kicking the guy out. The day arrived one April when Officer Rotundo showed up at Ned’s door in his capacity as process-server to hand over an eviction notice.

That night Ned showed up at my parents’ house to discuss the dilemma (and to cadge a dinner); to find a way to avoid, to steer away from the inevitable solution. Yet it was so perfect, especially from the point of view of easily-embarrassed relations, that you could feel the whole town embracing it.

Ned resigned himself to the inevitable.

I imagine that Mrs. Neff was the only soul who ever saw Uncle Ned on his knees. I can’t imagine she would accept a proposal from a suitor in any other position.

The engagement was announced. Ned strutted down Main Street in a new sack suit, a peacock in grey, suggesting that one and all would be invited to what he promised should be the biggest “do” this town ever had seen.

“Is there going to be a dinner?” Furth the newsagent wanted to know. “The best,” Ned replied, adding, “Prime rib. Mashed potatoes. Turkey. A hundred gallons of ice cream.”

“How about booze?” asked shoemaker Salerno. “Roll out the barrel!” Ned sang in response.

“Are we gonna dance?” Burt Lund the insurance man queried. “We’re taking over the Community Center!” Ned shouted, “There’ll be dancing in every room!”

Then he discovered that he wasn’t the only one doing the inviting. Mrs. Neff, neé Frothingham, had substantial family ties to the Boston area, ties strained by her divorce but resilient enough to bounce back for a fresh round of nuptials.

“I told my parents all about you,” she said to frightened Ned while giving him a day’s warning of their impending visit.

A gang of us hung around the Widow’s House to see what stepped out of the car that Saturday. Ned himself described it best. “Her parents were the worst parts of Carrie Nation and Billy Sunday. They brought barley water, for crying out loud, and sipped the stuff while they ‘interviewed’ me. They did everything but inspect my teeth.

“Mr. Frothingham was ‘distressed’ that I had no ‘occupation,’ but assured me that a job was waiting for me in the New York branch of his Boston firm. His wife had already planned the meal and hired the entertainment. She didn’t approve of meat and she didn’t approve of dancing. We were going to be serenaded by the Boston String Quartet while we ate stewed tomatoes and rice cakes.

“And if the ceremony didn’t go off just right, Grandfather Frothingham wouldn’t give us the traditional $100,000 wedding present.”

Mrs. Neff accompanied her family back to Boston, and during her few days’ absence we saw Ned receive an unknown visitor, apparently in response to a telegram he dispatched.

I think turning down his share of that hundred grand was the toughest thing Ned ever did, but it must have been mitigated by the confrontation he had with the returned Mrs. Neff.

Turns out that stranger was her ex-husband, whom Ned tracked down in New Jersey somewhere. He, too, had gotten the hundred thousand, but left what remained behind when the Frothinghams became too unbearable. “Couldn’t drink around them,” Neff explained. “Couldn’t smoke, couldn’t swear. Couldn’t play cards. Couldn’t relax.”

His ex-wife had moved into town when her money was getting low, on the prowl for a new, harmless husband. This she confessed in tearful contrition.

“Well, why didn’t you say so!” Ned exclaimed. “I don’t really want to get married – I just need to pay my rent. But I’ve got an idea . . . ”


“The wedding went off as planned,” I concluded, “except for the choice of groom. And the Frothinghams were delighted to welcome a prosperous, hardworking teetotaler like Beet into the family. As for Ned, he gets his rent paid as a kind of ‘finder’s fee.’ Of course, that’s a secret Mrs. Beet would never tell her husband. And it’s a secret Beet would never tell his wife. Ned conned them both into paying, so he pulls a nice little income on the side.”

“So what’s the point?” asked Susan. “Am I supposed to pay your rent or something?”

“The point is, you can’t invite everyone in the world to our wedding. If we could just keep it down to, oh, a dozen -- “

”A dozen! What about my Cousin Jack and his wife? We went to their wedding...”

We eloped. The loot isn’t as good but at least you can enjoy the scenery.


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