It is the summer of 2006, I am 20 years old, and my grandfather is marrying my dead grandmother's identical twin sister. My grandmother was Sue. Her sister is Lou. This is my father's family from Tuscola, Texas, population 714, and I haven't seen most of them since Sue died of a heart attack while cleaning a travel trailer eight years ago. As a gay man, I tend to steer clear of family gatherings. I'm running out of believable answers to the question of when I'm going to bring home a nice Texas girl. But my father and his siblings are unhappy about PawPaw's impending marriage. I'm here for their sake.
To get to the wedding, I drive down a long dirt road that connects the highway to a handful of houses and trailers and doublewides that sit in the middle of fields and horse pens. While packing last night, I called my father, who told me not to bother bringing "anything fancy" to the casual ceremony. I'm the visual specialist -- mannequin dresser -- at a Banana Republic near Dallas. The idea of not wearing a tie to an evening wedding is blasphemy. I'm still trying to decide which of three ensembles to wear as I ramble past overgrown shrubs and mesquite trees that scratch at my paint job. It rained throughout the night, and the path is dotted with pools of red-brown slush. When I step out of my Ford Explorer onto the soggy ground, my leather sandals sink into the earth. My attire is impractical. I am wearing Valentino sunglasses and my hair is sculpted into a faux hawk. I am making a statement in my designer jeans. I am well-educated and live in a metroplex. And did you notice my polo is Lacoste? Look at me and envy. Look at how different we are.
The wedding takes place at a carport, currently housing three F150 trucks and a suburban, that sits between my aunt's home and my grandfather's trailer house. A clump of my cousins stands around, chatting. We are all in our 20s, and though I've changed the way I dress and walk and do my hair, they all look pretty much like they did when we buried Grandma Sue, give or take a few pounds. As I approach their huddle I can see their faces crinkle, searching for familiarity in my features. Cousin Amanda is the first to recognize me.
"Holy crap," she says. "Cousin Jeramey."
She hugs me, and I say hello and ask how her kids are, which is the easiest way of making conversation with most anyone I will meet today. Amanda's first kid was born when she was 17. Her youngest child is named Kristian. He was born with 12 fingers and 12 toes and only three chambers in his heart. Amanda likes to remind people that he's in a medical book somewhere.
"I think we're gonna have Kristian's extra toes removed. We can never find shoes that fit right," Amanda explains. "Josh wants to have his fingers removed so he can do baseball when he's older."
She motions to Josh, Christian's father, who is tossing a football back and forth with his son.
"If you don't start catching it, I'm gonna put you in a dress," he yells.
My father stands before an industrial grill the size of an R.V. parked in a field behind the ranch. Beside him is Dennis, his brother-in-law, who intercepts me before I can give my dad the sideways, one-armed hug that constitutes our usual greeting. Dennis' Wranglers are skin tight around his thin legs, disproportionate to the thick chest straining the buttons of his plaid western-style shirt. He has a Freddy Mercury mustache.
Dennis wants to be a cowboy and wears spurs for no utilitarian purpose. Most of what he says is a lie. He explained to me once as he pointed to a scar on his bicep that he had been gored by a bull and sewed up the wound himself using a blunt needle and a fifth of Jim Beam. Actually, this happened while he worked as a pistachio harvester in a suburb of San Francisco. Last year his two preteen sons broke into their middle school, pushed the desks of a classroom together, and set them on fire. This story is true, but Dennis does not tell it.
As Dennis and I talk, my voice starts to change. Around my father's family I adopt a lower, more subdued vocal pitch. My speech becomes less refined, slipping back into the West Texas accent that years of diction and theatrical training worked to annihilate. "Lighter" becomes "ladder," and "hell" is "hail."
"Wut are you gonna do once you've graduated?" Dennis asks.
"I'll prolly stick around Dallas fer a while. Maybe move to New York if I can git a good job."
He lets out a guttural laugh and leans in close.
"If you move up there with all them loonies, you make sure you git all the Texas tail you can while you're here. It don't get better'n this."
My future step-grandmother, Aunt Lou, sits at the food table on the back porch shooing flies from cold hamburger patties and several kinds of potato salad. She yells my name at me as I approach and we hug because we are related. When Lou says my name it becomes a two-syllable word that sounds like she's requesting a jar rather than addressing me. Jar-mee. She's lived all over the South and her accent is a muddle of Cajun inflections and Texas drawl.
She shouts orders to her three 40-something daughters arranging plastic roses and ivy around the wedding and groom's cakes at an adjacent table. Both the fake flowers and the baked goods were purchased the previous evening at Walmart. Lou's children are elated by the joining of their mother and their uncle. For them it means marrying into slightly more money and that someone will be taking care of their mom while they carry on with their lives. Lou's side of the family is often close to destitution. We only visited them once, when I was just a kid. I remember not knowing how to open the front door since their doorknob was a towel with two knots tied in it, strung through the hole where a handle should have been.
A few hours before the wedding, my father and I, his siblings, and whatever first cousins are around leave the house and drive 20 minutes to my grandmother's grave. Someone brings a cooler of Keystone Light.
My grandmother's headstone is a granite double marker with my grandfather's name and birth date etched into the right side. David Clarence Kraatz, November 14, 1932. My father is named after my grandfather, and I narrowly escaped being David Clarence Kraatz III. I cannot imagine the three of us representing three generations of the same name -- a tractor mechanic, an oilfield supply salesman, and a gay liberal arts student. They have wide palms with thick, stubby fingers, all muscle and knuckle. My hands are soft, thin and delicate. I don't want their hands.
In the middle of the marker is the date of my grandparents' wedding: June 16, 1956. Forty years by the time my grandmother died. As I stand there sweating, I begin to wonder: What are we going to do if Aunt Lou dies before my grandfather? Bury her in the grave to the right? I wonder what my grandmother would think of all this: if she'd be dismayed, like my relatives, or if she'd just be glad two lonely people she once loved found comfort with each other.
My uncle raises a beer toward the sky, toasting: "Well, here's to the fact that our family tree no longer has branches anymore. Just a trunk."
Thirty minutes before the wedding is set to begin I stand chain-smoking amid the rows of parked cars and trucks in my aunt's yard. A few cars have wheels coated in a film of cobwebs. They are glorified lawn ornaments. Out of the corner of my eye I see Cousin Brandon walking toward me. As a child, Brandon was my least favorite relative because he was older and easily irritated and didn't pull his punches during living room wrestling matches. Even now I am a little terrified of him. He has a face made for a mug shot.
"Thought you might want this," he says holding out a warm beer. He opens one for himself and lights a Marlboro Red. "My dad and Uncle Dennis have gone on a booze run, so this is all that's here now."
"PawPaw isn't happy that you're smoking," he says with a smirk.
"I think that PawPaw probably has better things to worry about."
Brandon laughs. "Hell, yeah."
I'm thankful for the cigarettes because they give us common ground. Any time our small talk starts to lag, we can stand together with filters between our lips and just breathe.
Guests I do not recognize begin to appear and shake my hand, making references to past meetings at funerals and family reunions that I do not remember. They arrive at the BYOB event with cases of Bud Light and handles of Jack Daniel's. They come in a sea of worn denim: pants, shirts, jackets, skirts. Out of the three possible wedding ensembles I brought, I settled on the most casual -- khakis and a fitted button down, untucked, sleeves rolled. No tie. I am still overdressed.
Folding chairs have been lined up under the carport where trucks sat earlier in the day. I take a seat in the back row beside Cousin Brandon, who makes a crack about how stupid his brother looks standing up beside PawPaw before lighting another cigarette.
Aunt Lou walks down the aisle, from the front yard, to the sounds of idle chatter and beer cans opening, wearing a modest cream skirt and jacket combo. The speaker system plays Pachelbel's "Canon in D," followed by the entire five minutes of Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," the love theme to "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." The ceremony ends with a kiss that is awkward for everybody. Then my grandfather and my new step-grandmother/great-aunt stand there, beaming.
Soon after the reception begins, I retreat to Cousin Amanda's house with the handful of relatives I was close to as a kid. If there is any sport through which I can assert masculinity, it is boozing. Our first shots are Southern Comfort, taken as we toast to the fact that second-cousin Mark is now first-cousin Mark. Despite the expansive liquor collection, all of the boys drink whiskey and the girls drink Malibu and Coke. I lose every round of pool that I play but I blame my lack of skill on the alcohol, which is a lie. Later in the night we sit on the floor playing poker and talking. The room is painted gray with gaudy, gold-framed pictures of Amanda's children sitting in front of American flag backgrounds at various ages. Everything spins slightly. The wife of one of my cousins is an aspiring country/inspirational singer, and when she finds out that I was a big shot in the world of high school choir, she pleads with me to sing with her. She is pregnant and the only sober person in the room, so her persistence eventually wins over my repeated refusals.
"I don't know what to sing," I protest.
"Sing a hymn. Those are easy."
I pick a key at random and sing "Amazing Grace." It is the only hymn I know by heart. She sings harmony, and her voice has a coarse twang to it. When we are finished, everything seems very still.
On the porch, Cousin Brandon and I sit side-by-side on the swing, and he tries in vain to teach me to blow smoke rings.
We talk about old times that we spent together and stories that I have forgotten: locking one another in an old freezer in the backyard; watching horror movies late at night while eating uncooked ramen noodles; huddling together under the covers and pretending to be asleep when we heard our grandmother rounding the corner of the hall, knowing that she was holding a wooden spoon to use as a weapon.
"God, I miss those days, back when we would all hang out together," he says, his eyes focused on some point far beyond the porch. "But I wouldn't want to go back. Life's too sweet now."
They say you can't choose your family, but you can choose how you behave around them. I won't see these people much, if at all, over the next few years, but I'm glad there are still some moments -- even small ones -- when we can be there for each other. "Well, we're all together now," I offer.
"Yes we are, cuz." He punches my arm in jest. I smile without reservation.
Jeramey Kraatz is a student in the MFA writing program at Columbia University. He's currently working on a collection of essays about life and culture in West Texas.