Witness

Rebecca Elswick

     
   

A man and a girl stood beside the fifty pound bags of grass seed. I had worked the check-out register at Smith’s Hardware and Furniture Store for almost a year, and I knew they weren’t here to buy grass seed, or anything else for that matter.
            I busied my hands weighing roofing nails, but my eyes were watching them. The man stood with his legs slightly apart, his arms folded across his chest. He glared at my customer’s back like he could make him move out of the way by staring at him, but Mr. Deskins went on describing how he was going to patch a hole in his roof. The man stepped forward like he was going to interrupt, but the girl put her hand on his arm. I smiled and nodded at Mr. Deskins, who suddenly remembered he needed a ball of twine, so he could tie up his prize-winning tomatoes. As I went off to get the twine, I felt the urgency in the man’s eyes hurry me like a hand pushing on my back.
            When I got back to the check-out, Mr. Deskins had been joined by one of my favorite customers, Old Joe Stacy, as he was affectionately called. Old Joe was a regular visitor and friend of Mr. Deskins, so they were already telling ‘my tomatoes grow bigger than your tomatoes’ stories. When I slipped back behind the counter, I realized they were standing so I could study the girl without her or the man seeing me stare.
            I decided the girl looked like a flower someone had forgotten to water. She was tall and thin, and her head drooped forward like her slender neck couldn’t support it. She wore a baggy dress that had once been white but was now the color of a soggy raincloud. It slipped off her shoulders, revealing razor sharp shoulder blades, and when she raised her arm to wipe the sweat from her forehead, a bra as dingy as her dress showed through the sagging arm holes. The hem, which hit just above her knees, was longer on the left side than the right. On her feet were dirty high heeled sandals with square white heels that were scuffed like she had walked through gravel. It was obvious to me she was trying to look grown up, but my guess was she was about sixteen.
            The girl couldn’t be still. Her big blue eyes darted all around the store like she was afraid somebody was going to jump out and scare her. A sadness I couldn’t explain hit me in the gut. It was the same feeling I got when those television commercials showed dogs and cats in cages at the animal shelter. I couldn’t stop looking at her any more than I could turn away from those homeless animals.
          I turned my attention to the man. His longish black hair was slicked back from his face, accentuating a long nose that had a hump in the middle of it, like it had been broken and healed poorly. He wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt that had obviously been taken out of a package and put on – the fold marks prominent. His faded blue jeans were clean, but his cowboy boots were spattered with mud, even though it hadn’t rained all week. He looked old enough to be the girl’s father, but I knew he wasn’t – I sighed, another one.
          At last, Mr. Deskins and Mr. Stacy said good-bye, and the man immediately stepped up to the cash register. He said, “Is the preacher here?”
          I nodded. “I’ll get him.” I picked up the telephone and pushed the button that connected me to the office. Mr. Smith answered on the first beep. I said, “There’s a man and a woman here asking for the preacher.”
         He said, “Bring them to the furniture side.”
          I turned back to the man. He had both hands resting palms down on the counter, his head bowed like he was praying. The woman had not moved, but her eyes now rested on the man. I said, “Would you follow me?”
          I led the way to the furniture side of the building. I walked through the living room suites, past a row of recliners lined up like silent tombstones, to the back of the store where a rack of giant rolls of linoleum stood against the wall. The man turned and studied it like he was trying to decide what to buy, but the girl stood near me. She clasped her hands in front of her stomach, and that’s when I noticed the swell of her belly.
          She followed my gaze to her stomach. “Me and Craig’s getting married,” she said.
            I tried to smile and said, “Congratulations.”
            “He’s going to find us a trailer before the baby gets here.” She looked up at me and smiled. Her teeth were discolored and a cavity was so prominent it looked like a watermelon seed was stuck between her front teeth, but her eyes shimmered like blue ice and would have been pretty had it not been for the dark circles under them. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days.
            “That’s nice,” I said.
            “We’ve got us a room over Stoney’s Place. As soon as Craig gets a job of work we’re getting us a trailer.” Her voice sounded petulant like a child who’s been told she can’t have candy before dinner. She looked down at her feet and crossed her arms over her stomach.
        I heard the click of Mr. Smith’s shoes and turned around. He was carrying his bible, and since no one was with him, I knew that meant I was going to be the witness.
            The first time a man in an ill-fitting suit had walked up to the cash register and asked to see the preacher, I had stood there and stared at him. It wasn’t until a woman wearing a tight blue dress with a red rose corsage, had stepped up beside him and said, ‘Hon, we wants to get married,’ that I had realized what was happening. I knew Mr. Smith was a minister, but I couldn’t believe anyone would want to get married in a hardware store. I had dreamed of my wedding day since I was a little girl. It would be in a church full of flowers, and I would have ten bridesmaids and a wedding cake with five tiers. My wedding gown would be white satin trimmed with Chantilly lace, and my gossamer veil would be attached to a rhinestone crown.
            I looked over at the girl who now stood next to the man. Her dress was far from being a white wedding gown. She had no flowers, no bridesmaids, not even any family or friends to stand up with her. Instead, the girl and the man were like most of the couples who came to get married at Smith Hardware and Furniture Store, a young pregnant girl and a much older man. Sometimes the bride and groom brought family or friends, but the really sad ones – like this couple – were always alone. The only person to witness their union was the preacher and me.
          The man pulled their marriage license out of his pocket and held it out to Mr. Smith. He studied it and then handed it to me. I wished he wouldn’t do that, but he always gave it to me to hold. I tried not to look at it, but I couldn’t stop myself, not this time, not ever.
            Mr. Smith motioned for the man and woman to stand before him. I stepped next to the girl. Mr. Smith opened his bible.
            Dearly beloved.
          I stared down at the license – Darcy Sue Looney age 15. Craig Lester age 32. The girl had turned fifteen a few weeks ago. Her mother’s signature was on the license, giving her permission to marry.
            If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.
            But where was she? Where was the woman who was supposed to love her daughter and protect her from men like this? My gut wrenched, and I dropped my eyes to the floor. Pregnant at fifteen and living in a room over Stoney’s Place – a bar notorious for drunken brawls and God knows what else. The girl may as well have been going to prison.
            I Darcy Sue Looney take you Craig Lester to be my lawfully wedded husband.
            I wanted to stop her. Save her somehow. I bit down on my lip to keep from shouting, don’t! I looked up and saw Mr. Smith looking at me, as if he had heard my thoughts and was warning me to stay quiet. I glanced at the man. He was slipping a thin gold band on the girl’s finger. And that’s when she giggled. A golden tinkling sound of pure joy.
            Surprised, I dropped the marriage license. It fluttered to the floor, landing at my feet.
            I now pronounce you husband and wife.
            I looked up as the man swept the girl into his arms and kissed her.

     
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Rebecca Elswick, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners, lives in southwestern Virginia where she was born. She and her husband have three children and at last count, five dogs. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently, Broken Petals, a collection of stories by Appalachian women. She has won awards for her work including the Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest. Her award winning debut novel, Mama's Shoes, was published by Writer's Digest; the result of winning their #Pitch2Win Contest.