by Paul Pekin
There was a blonde in our newspaper office who was supposed to be making nice with the boss. I'm not sure I believed this, but I disliked her enough to believe anything. I worked in the shop, washing presses, sweeping up, occasionally running small jobs on the Kluge Press, and she was billed as a reporter, something I could have been if only I'd gone to college.
I'd been working for the paper since I was sixteen. It was my first job and it was fine for what I'd been hired to do, but I was never going to be promoted. Work at this print shop holds its own tales, but what I really want to tell here is the story of my wedding which took place in the summer of 1950, and very nearly didn't happen.
The plan was to be married in July, a bad time of the year in those days before universal air-conditioning, but for a few weeks or so there seemed to be a good reason to get on with it. Then there wasn't, but the plan remained.
At least until we broke up. Mary Virginia, who was to be my wife for the next forty-five years, had a romantic attachment to breaking up. She'd broken up with her high school steady shortly before she started with me, and she must have liked the feeling because she was always talking of breaking up, as if it was something sad that a girl had to do, sad but also quite stimulating.
I blame it on religion. After eight years of parochial school, I "lost my faith" as the nuns liked to put it, and having lost it, had no desire to find it again. But Mary Virginia had not lost her faith, at least not yet. She wanted a church wedding complete with white wedding dress, bridesmaids, Dad in a tux, Mom in a gown, and flowers for all. This meant Mass, Holy Communion, and Confession, and no other possibility would do.
Naturally, we broke up.
There was a touching scene on her parents' porch when we said goodbye. For her, breaking up was almost as good as a wedding. We stood close and whispered our sad farewells. As we whispered she kept twisting a little leather loop that was attached to the zipper of my jacket. When it came off, she gently slid it on her finger and said:
"I guess this will have to be my ring."
Stuff like that kept me married to her till death did us part.
It would be nice if I could remember exactly how, after a sad lonely week, I found myself sitting next to that blonde at a bar. I hardly think I went out and picked her up, or asked her out, or anything like that. She was a plump little thing who strutted around the office, secure in her position, the boss wrapped around her finger, as my mother would have said, and I knew she looked down on me.
But we were together, and we were drinking, and we were both alone. I was a kid, merely 21, but a decent looking kid, even if I didn't know it. How was I to know it? My father always said, "That's Paul, he's tall, that's all." Wouldn't my own father know?
Whatever this blonde and I had to say to each other in this bar, I have no hope of remembering, no matter how interesting it might have been. For God's sake, it was sixty two years ago! But she did start looking and sounding like someone I could be friends with. Didn't I need a friend?
If not her, someone like her—such a thought must have crossed my mind. And with that thought, it became clear that there were worse things in life than taking Holy Communion. What the hell was I thinking? Breaking up with Mary Virginia! Maybe she thought it was glamourous and dramatic to collect these sad, but delicious, failed romances, but here I was, looking at another reality. Very politely, I told the blonde, "I have to go now." I'm sure she soon found another gentleman to sit by her side. I'm very sure she liked him better than she ever could have liked me. I'm even sure those stories about her and the boss were never once true.
And so, the wedding was back on. Arggh, the confession.
"Bless me father for I have sinned. My last confession was . . ."
The priest must have heard this kind of stuff before. Why was I returning to the church, he asked in a dry, priestly tone. Because, I honestly confessed, I wanted to get married.
And would I now be a devout Catholic, the mechanical voice of the hidden priest continued.
Oh, yes, Father, the writhing atheist replied.
My penance, I think, was to say the Lord's Prayer three times, and the same for the Hail Mary. It was a wonder bolts of heavenly lightning did not strike us both on the spot.
But in any contest between love and faith, between love and almost anything else, love always wins. Don't quarrel with me, I know it is so, at least for me. I can't say I was pleased, being put through this process, but, darn it, somebody had to be the adult here and, of all people on earth, an atheist should be able to lie to a priest—or why be an atheist at all?
There was more to come. The reception. Her father, an honest railroad worker, joined the Blue Island Elks Club solely that he might host his only child's wedding reception in the Elk's Hall. Did he not know that my father worked for the Elks, was in fact a lowly janitor, called a "steward," who would have to clean up this very hall the next day? Yes, he knew, but he could not imagine why a little thing like that should trouble me.
Old Fred Klemmer was going to be quite a father-in-law. It was going to take at least ten years for me to learn to love him. He liked his Jim Beam and Dutch Master cigars, and he had regular fights with his wife that I thought were almost comical compared with the battles my own parents had. These people had pretensions. She belonged to every woman's club that would have her, and that seemed to include them all, and he was the same way, trying to run the Order of Railroad Conductors, and the Knights of Columbus, although they never exactly let him do it. You might say he wasn't quite educated. Neither then was my father, but at least my father read books and knew how to play the piano. Never mind, Mary Virginia loved old Klemmer so much everybody wound up calling her "Klem" to the last day of her life. That's how we have it on her tombstone. Mary Virginia "Klem" Pekin. Now that I've told you that, I will stop speaking of her as Mary Virginia which was only some name her mother picked out of the society pages.
The wedding was set for July 15. My mother-in-law to be wanted to set it back into the fall when the weather was more clement. But it was too late. The wheels were rolling.
Much of this stuff is hard to remember. The wedding party, for instance. I'm not sure if my little sister Nancy was the maid of honor, or the second in line to the maid of honor. I know the best man was a friend of mine named Bill, not so much a best friend as a friend who was Catholic, for that was the rule. My real best friend, who did not seem to have a religion at all, could only be an usher. After the wedding Bill and Nancy "dated" a few times, which I thought was wrong of him because she was barely sixteen and he was over twenty and should have been pursuing girls his own age. Never mind, she soon disposed of him, and as she grew older, found much worse choices than good honest Bill. There is really no sense in worrying about the boyfriends your sisters choose. Neither of my sisters ever asked my advice, or had any problem doing without it.
I remember my mother wore a dress that made her look larger than she was. This was usually the case, and no doubt my father did not overlook the opportunity to say as much. My mother and father, that was a sight to see, the two of them dressed up for my wedding, standing side by side, just as if they didn't fight like cats and dogs every chance they got, and were only biding their time before they started again. This is what love does to a young man, convinces him that at least in his case, life will turn out differently.
Because I couldn't drive a car in those days, my friend Archie provided the wheels. This was my true best friend, who just died last summer at the age of 84. He had tried to teach me how to drive, several times, but couldn't do it. I kept turning the wheel in the wrong direction, and that made him nervous. So he drove, and my friends from work tied a bunch of empty ink cans to the back of his car while the ceremony was going on.
The ceremony itself was a full scale Catholic Mass, and the way it was done in those days, with bells and incense and altar boys, was meant to remind you that Mass was more important than your wedding. For some curious reason, before the wedding actually began, the male members of the party were kept out of sight in a little room behind the altar which I believe was called the sacristy. How long we sat there is something that never got fixed in my memory. What I clearly do recall is an open door that looked out on the schoolyard and beyond, all the way down to the east side of town where many green trees gave an illusion of endless freedom to anyone who had courage enough to flee toward them. My last chance, I thought, and then I went where I was supposed to go and got married.
We drove around afterward, and Archie stopped and took the ink cans off his bumper as soon as possible. He was very particular about his car, and feared one might bounce up and scratch the paint. We stopped in my favorite tavern and had a beer with my favorite bartender, who, like every other male friend I ever had, instantly fell in love with Klem. She had a way with men, I tell you. Before we were married my pals would serenade her by singing "Oh, my Darling Clementine." On nights when she stayed home to wash her hair, I would call from the bar, hold out the phone, and they would sing it for her.
Wedding receptions, in Blue Island, were great occasions for people to get drunk. I'd never left one sober before, but this time I made a point to. That old railroad man, Fred Klemmer, made up for me by disgracing himself, or so I heard. He and my mother-in-law had such a row that night they didn't speak to each other for days. My own mother, who always loved a good party, may have become a bit jolly too, and my sister's husband, one of the finest men I have ever known, went down for the count.
In those days, what you were supposed to do after the reception was to slip off to some hotel and consummate the marriage in a fancy room before leaving for your honeymoon. But Klem and I already had an apartment waiting on Grove Street, and we had Archie, sworn to secrecy, drive us there. We would start our honeymoon Monday, and we hadn't the slightest idea where we would go. Serendipity was the thing. We went straight to bed, woke up the next morning and, instead of going to Sunday Mass, consummated our marriage for all we were worth. Then we walked the seven or so blocks it took to get to her parents' home where the old railroad man and his seething wife were sitting in silence on the front porch, thinking we were on our way to some faraway honeymoon place. Suddenly, here we were, as if nothing had happened at all, and there was nothing else they could do but invite us in for lunch.
So, we may have saved their marriage, or at least got them to speaking to each other again. Good old Fred Klemmer. Some day I'll write about the trip we took to Pittsburgh to see his relatives, just the two of us, and how we rode the famous Monongahela Incline.
That was my wedding. Monday morning we went downtown and took the first train out of Chicago which happened to be the train to Detroit. And that was our honeymoon. On the train I ate in a dining car for the first and only time in my life. In Detroit we found a room in a hotel that had seen its best years long ago and had no hope of ever seeing them again. Across the river in Windsor, I was thrilled to find myself in another country. My bride was a much more sophisticated traveler. She'd been all the way to California in a Pullman car when she was only 17, all by herself, playing gin rummy in the club car with a gentleman twice her age. Canada, I feared, might be small potatoes to her, but she eagerly scooped them up all the same. One afternoon in a little pub that had a separate room where women were supposed to sit (and where she most certainly did not sit) we made the acquaintance of a ruddy-faced man who told her he had been, in days gone by, the middle weight boxing champion of Canada. He and his ruddy-faced friends insisted upon buying one round after another of strong Canadian beer until at last everybody was very very drowsy. From Detroit to Canada and back, we had a happy week, as good as, we thought, any tropical isle. On our final visit to Windsor, we bought a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, and carried it back to our little apartment on Grove Street where it sat in our pantry for quite a long time, almost too precious to drink.
Oddly enough, I have no idea whatever became of that blonde.