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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Short Story "Drive By Reception"

*In light of the quarantine and the effect it's having on my niece's wedding, I submit this short story I wrote several years ago but which had an odd relevance now. Happy Quarantine, everyone, and may the odds be ever in your favor.



Drive By Reception
By Josi S. Kilpack
Written  2003

            “Thank goodness you’re home!” Sharon Harkness said as she threw open the door from the garage and pulled her husband inside by his tie. The door slammed shut behind him. Sharon turned toward the kitchen talking quickly as her husband rubbed his sore neck. “Benny’s throwing a tantrum in the basement and we need to go. It’s the Johnson girl’s wedding reception tonight.”
            Henry Harkness raised his eyebrows. “What are they serving?” he asked, no longer concerned with the pain in his neck—meaning the pulled tie, not his wife.
            “Oh, you’re as bad as the children,” his wife said with a roll of her eyes and a shake of her head. “The invitation didn’t say. Now, go get Benny dressed. He’s been naked all day long—ugh, potty training. I’ll get the rest of the kids.” She glanced at the clock and increased her pace down the hall. “We’ll have to hurry if we’re going to get the car washed in time.”
            Eighteen and a half minutes later, the Harkness family piled into the minivan and headed east toward Buggy Bubbles—they gave discounts if you showed your invitation. “What time does the reception start?” fourteen-year-old Josh asked from the back seat.
            “It started at six o’clock,” Sharon said as she put the final coat of mascara on her thickly clumped lashes, using the mirror conveniently located on the passenger side visor. She was dressed in grey sweats and a black T-shirt—perfect for a drive-by reception, which first and foremost was about comfort and convenience.
            “But it’s already 6:10,” Josh whined. “Can’t we skip the carwash? At the Dodson’s reception last year they were out of Coke by the time we got to the drink station. I had to get Sprite zero.”
            Sharon turned and glared at her son. “What does it take to teach kids manners these days?” She shook her bleached blonde head. “You do not go to a reception in a dirty car, Joshua. Didn’t you see how soiled the bride's dress was that night? It was absolutely disgraceful that she had to brush up against so many dirty cars all evening.”
            There was a line at Buggy Bubbles seeing as how it was prime wedding season. As they waited their turn, Henry was wondering what drinks would be served. The last reception they’d attended had only given out bottled water—water! It had been a huge disappointment since it was mostly the booze that Henry was interested in at these things. He remembered with fondness the open bar at the Kirkham’s wedding last fall. He’d gone home with two beers and a mini-bottle of Jack Daniels. He hoped the Johnson’s would be similarly accommodating. It was Friday night and the end of a very long work week. He could use a good drink to get the weekend off on the right foot. 
            “Oh, here it is,” Sharon said nearly twenty minutes later, squirming with excitement as a huge pink and teal balloon arch came into view at the entrance to the reception center. She flipped up the mirror on the car visor again and adjusted her hair for the upteenth time. The kids stopped fighting, or at least turned down the volume, and Henry, realizing he was still in his tie, quickly slipped the knot out and stashed it under the seat. He was still overdressed in his pressed white shirt and dress pants, but after wrestling Benny into his superman pajamas, he hadn’t had time to change. 
            They followed the signs and pulled into the east entrance of the looping outdoor reception facility, the one-way road curving through the immaculate lawns. As they were in the city, this was a more suburban reception center, without woods or themed stops like some places, but its convenience to the car washes proved a valuable aspect. There were no canopies set up along the route, since the weather was so good, but each stop had the old fashioned light post that directed the car to stop and to go in forty-five second increments.
A young man in a tuxedo approached the car at the first stop. His name read “Brandon McCormick—Brother of the Groom.” 
            “Pink means go, teal means stop. Here’s your program.” Brandon passed the paper through the window and stepped back. Sharon thanked him, but he was already out of earshot. She grabbed the paper from her husband and eagerly scanned it as the light turned pink and Henry moved forward. It was a sad crush, but that meant there was plenty of time to read the program.
            “This is odd,” Sharon said after a moment. Henry pulled slowly forward behind a long line of cars. “From 6:00 to 7:00 the parents of the bride will be on the driver’s side and the parents of the groom will be on the passenger side. At 7:00 they switch places.”
            “Don’t they usually have the parents at separate stops?” Josh asked from the back, poking his head between the two front seats of the suburban.
            “They always have them separate,” Sharon said with a click of her tongue. She looked at her husband. “They really should have told us that on the invitation so that we could plan accordingly. We’ll have to manage two different conversations from both sides of the car. Awkward, to say the least.”
            Henry nodded absently as he tried to look ahead of the other cars for a glimpse of the drink station.
            A few minutes later they reached the smiling bride and groom. The bride leaned through the window to say hello to each of the kids, and Sharon gave Josh a triumphant look. She’d been right about the importance of having the car washed. They “oooed” and “ahhed” appropriately and then their forty-five seconds were up, indicated by the station light turning pink. They said farewell and moved on.
            The next station featured the parents of the bride and groom, both couples leaning in from their designated sides. Since the Harkness family was acquainted with the bride, Sharon was forced to make meaningless conversation with complete strangers until their light turned mercifully pink, and the Harkness family said goodbye. Henry was able to talk politics with Eric Johnson—lucky!
            Henry spotted the drink station a few stops ahead. He considered asking Sharon to change places so that he could enjoy his drinks immediately, but the program stated in big bold letters that guests were not allowed out of their cars. He took a deep breath and came to a stop at the guest book station. The book was passed to them by the bride’s little sister, Julia. She was decked out in a pink version of Cinderella’s gown and looked pleased as punch with the whole situation and her vital role at the reception. They spent forty-five seconds at this stop, and she was still going on and on about the ceremony when the light turned pink. The car behind them honked and Sharon scowled into her side mirror; the program expressly stated that no honking was allowed. “How rude,” she muttered under her breath. 
            “When do we get our food?” Clara whined from the back seat. “I’m staaaaaaarving.”
            The next step confused them, there seemed to be no purpose to it—the food station, complete with a kitchen built to look like a charming cottage—was one stop ahead. Food always followed the guest book. A young man stepped forward, “Good evening, I’m Clark, the best man, and I’ll be taking your order for your individual, custom refreshment bags.” He had a headset on like the ones worn at McDonalds.
            “What a great idea!” Sharon said, bouncing slightly in her seat. “What are our choices?”
            Clark rattled off several candy bars and brands of chips. There was also string cheese, snack pack pudding cups, Go-gurt, and surprises for guests twelve years of age and younger. The kids went wild, and each person in the car chose three of the aforementioned treats—not including the surprise. Henry wondered if he’d be able to order from a wine list as inclusive as this snack list. His mouth began to water as the best man relayed their food orders into the headset with each occupants name for proper distribution. He gave them a thumbs up sign at the same time the light turned from teal to pink and waved them on.
            Their refreshment bags were waiting at the food station just a few yards ahead and handed through the window by one of two bridesmaids at this station. The kids cheered, digging into their bags to find their surprises. The boys got miniature water guns and the girls got plastic bracelets—all of which ended up on the floor before the light could change. Josh was very vocal about it not being fair that he didn’t get a prize just cause he wasn’t under the age of 12. He loved water guns. A third bridesmaid with a headset like the best man’s stepped up to the passenger side window. “What would you like to drink at the next stop? Soft drinks or cranberry juice?” the bridesmaid asked. 
            “What about champagne or a beer?” Henry asked in dismay.
            She cocked her head to the side. “We decided against serving alcohol, for safety purposes.” Henry’s face fell. They should have mentioned that on the invitation! He’d have sent Sharon with the kids and had a half an hour at home all to himself.
            The girl continued. “Oh, and we need you to sign this disclaimer sheet stating that you understand the wedding party is not responsible for any injury or accident sustained during the reception.” 
            Sharon signed her name on the clipboard the bridesmaid handed her while Henry continued to glower on his side of the car. He didn’t even want his stupid Nut Roll and BBQ chips anymore. Well, maybe the chips. 
            They pulled ahead as the kids gobbled their goodies.
            “Remember the hot dogs at the Dodson’s wedding?” Josh commented. Henry couldn’t help but smile at the memory, temporarily forgetting his disappointment over the prohibition.
            “That was a very unfortunate decision, even if it did fit the theme of World Series” Sharon said with a shake of her head. “By the end of the evening all the bridesmaids were covered in ketchup and mustard—poor planning, for sure.”
            Josh continued to laugh as he unwrapped his snickers bar. At the drink station, the groomsman began handing drinks through the driver’s side window.
            “Why no lids?” Henry asked as he carefully passed the plastic soda bottles to each person in the van.
            The groomsman leaned in close, as if not wanting to be overheard. “Last summer,” he whispered, “some wedding guests threw lids at the ushers as they exited because they were angry about not having a bar. We decided to remove the caps rather than sign the projectile damage and injury addendum. The wedding couple would be liable for hefty fines and damages if the guests did not behave themselves. No one wants to start marriage with debt.”
            “I think that’s a very sensible decision,” Sharon said. She’d had to lean halfway across the car to hear the explanation. Henry wasn’t above throwing objects in his current state of disappointment. Where were those water guns the kids had received? He could get some speed behind one of those if he took a minute to loosen up his shoulder.
            They chatted for a few more seconds until the station light turned green, then they moved ahead to the gift table. Sharon handed the beautifully wrapped gift to Henry to hand to the groomsman, but the young man put up his hand and shook his head. “Please remove the paper, Ma’am.”
            “What?”
            “To ensure the safety of all guests and attendees, we are unable to accept wrapped packages. Please remove the paper.”
            Sharon scowled, but she did as she was asked, undoing her perfectly looped tulle bow and trying to remove the paper carefully enough to save—she hoped this wasn’t a new fad that would gain traction. Henry handed the set of Tupperware to the groomsman who put it on the table without even looking at it. It was really nice Tupperware.
            “Thank you,” he said. “Now, would you prefer a card, an email, or a faxed thank you?”
            “Oh, a card, for sure,” Sharon said with a nod. “It’s the most personal.”
            The groomsman nodded, pulled a card from his inside pocket, and handed it through the window. Sharon thanked him and opened the card, inscribed with the wedding couple’s names—Ellie and Logan—on the front.
            “Oh, listen, Henry,” Sharon said as they headed toward the exit. She paused to clear her throat in an attempt to keep the emotion out of her reading voice. “’Friends like you are what life is all about. Thank you for your support and encouragement on this, the happiest day of our lives.’ And it’s printed in teal, one of the wedding colors. Isn’t that sweet?”
            “Very sweet,” Henry commented as they stopped at the final group of bridesmaids and groomsmen who hadn’t had a duty thus far. A young man with an acne problem approached the car and handed them a jar that said “Tips” 
            Sharon and Henry stared at the jar with confusion. “Iths a tip jaw,” the groomsman said with an unfortunate lisp. “To Covew the expentheth of the Gwoomthmen and bwidethmaidth.”
            Sharon began scouring the car for loose change. After a frenzied search, she deposited seventy-nine cents in the jar and smiled nervously, her face red with embarrassment.
            “Thank you,” the groomsman said. He didn’t look very impressed. “Youw hewp ith much appwethiated.”
            Sharon nodded as they pulled away and then collapsed against her seat. “How humiliating,” she muttered with a shake of her head. "I'll make sure to have more change on hand next time, or bring some cash. I had no idea."
            Henry reached the street and looked both ways. It was 6:47, the whole reception had taken them less than thirteen minutes. At least he had time to make it to the liquor store before they closed at seven.
            “What did you guys put in your refreshment bags when you got married?” Clara asked as she finished the last of her tapioca pudding cup.
            “Oh, well, we didn’t have refreshment bags back then.” 
            The kids went silent. “You didn’t?” Clara asked once the shock faded.
            “Oh no. Back in the old days the guest had to get out their cars and go inside the building. The food was usually laid out on tables and you filled up little plastic plates with what you wanted.”
            “Gross!” Josh exclaimed. “Isn’t that against health code?”
            “Not back then,” Sharon said with a sigh. “Receptions are much more guest oriented these days—taking into account everyone’s busy schedules. At our reception people had to get dressed up, stand in line, and shake hands with everyone in the wedding party.”
            “You’re kidding!” Clara said with absolute shock. “That is so weird.”
            Sharon and Henry shared a smile. “Well, it had a certain charm to it,” Sharon said as Henry pulled into the liquor store drive thru.
He rolled down his window but a sniffle from his wife stopped him. He turned to see her blinking back tears.
            “What’s the matter, dear?”
            “Oh,” she said with a trembling voice as she began fishing in the glove compartment for a stray napkin. “I just love weddings.”