In this engrossing novel with weddings as the centerpiece, Hart (Adelaide Piper; Grace at Low Tide) explores the relationships between women, daughters and husbands. Four high school girls bond in the small low-country town of Jasper, S.C. Now middle-aged members of All Saints Episcopal Church, they happily plan weddings for their loved ones that bring about unanticipated turns of events. It's a bumpy road: still grieving the loss of her true love, Elizabeth "Sis" Mims relies on her "happy pills" and contemplates dating the minister. Ray Montgomery's daughter wants to marry a preacher's son in a tacky contemporary strip mall church that offends Ray's desire to be exquisitely correct. Hilda Prescott mourns her divorce, and "Kitty B." Blalock wrestles with her husband's lingering maladies. Sis muses, "Well, that's the way it is with weddings and life in general... one near disaster after another and a whole lot of what some call ignorant bliss." Occasionally Hart overdescribes, and there are faint echoes of Steel Magnoliasand Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhoodthroughout, but Hart's writing is lovely, her characters endearing, and humor leavens the darker moments. Midlife women will find plenty to relate to, and the wedding plot line is an invitation to myriad details on food, decorations and points of Southern etiquette. (Feb.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Wedding Machineby Beth Webb Hart
'One of the most charming books I've read in a long, long time...made me laugh, cry, and cheeras all good weddings do.'-Cassandra King, bestselling author of The Same Sweet GirlsSee more details below
'One of the most charming books I've read in a long, long time...made me laugh, cry, and cheeras all good weddings do.'-Cassandra King, bestselling author of The Same Sweet Girls
Read an Excerpt
the Wedding Machine
By Beth Webb Hart
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Beth Webb Hart
All right reserved.
~ 2005 ~
Ray sits in a hospital robe in the examination room of the Medical University of South Carolina's Women's Health Office thumbing through her wedding notes. Durn Hilda, she thinks. I ought to be home right now getting ready for her daughter's Tea and See.
It took three months for her to get an appointment with a gynecologist in Charleston, and the timing couldn't be worse. It's just days before Little Hilda's wedding, and Ray has one million things to attend to. Tonight she's meeting the gals to go over the final details, and tomorrow afternoon she will host the bridal tea and gift display at her home.
A nurse pops her head in and says, "Dr. Arhundati will be with you shortly."
"Thank you," Ray says as she wonders about the name Arhundati.
As someone taps sharply on the door, Ray braces herself.
A tall, young blonde enters the room, thrusts out her thin hand, and says, "I'm Melissa Arhundati."
"You look like you're my daughter's age," Ray says as she puts down her latest Southern Living issue. "In fact, you look like a girl from Priscilla's sorority. You didn't happen to go to UVA, did you?"
"No," the doctor says. "I went to the University of Chicago, and I was not in a sorority."
"Oh," Ray says. "It's just-I was expecting a man."
"Well," Dr. Arhundati says with a tight smile. "My husband is a physician, too, but I'm the only gynecologist in the family." The doctor examines the paperwork Ray filled out in the waiting room. "Mrs. Montgomery, correct?"
"Oh yes." Ray blushes and fans herself with her wedding notes. "I'm Ray. I apologize for not introducing myself."
The doctor claps her hands together and turns toward a chart on the wall. "Let's talk about the cessation of menses."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Menopause, Mrs. Montgomery," Dr. Arhundati says. "From the date of your last period and the symptoms you've checked off here, I think it's safe to assume you're experiencing the cessation of menses."
She points to a chart on the beige wall that lists the signs of menopause and reads them aloud. "Insomnia, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, depression, mood swings, urinary incontinence, and vaginal atrophy."
"That can't be right," Ray murmurs as she straightens her shoulders and crosses her legs on the edge of the vinyl examining table in the flimsy gown with its thin, faded stripes. She feels like a bar code. Or a carton of eggs well beyond their expiration date. Who does this young woman think she is? Pointing to the word atrophy so matter-of-factly with her long, thin index finger.
Atrophy? Doesn't that mean wasting away? Shriveling up? Dying?
Dr. Arhundati adjusts the black square rims of her mod glasses as she flips through Ray's file. "Mmm. You left several sections of the medical history form blank, Mrs. Montgomery."
"Beg your pardon?" Ray says. "Angus Prescott of Jasper, South Carolina, has been my doctor for twenty-five years, and he's never asked me any of those questions."
The doctor furrows her brow and swings her long blond hair back behind her shoulder. She takes a step closer. "Well, it's important for us to know the medical history of your parents and grandparents, especially any illness that applied to them, so that we can be vigilant in preventive treatment." She snaps the file closed and hands it back to Ray. "Why don't I give you a few minutes."
As the door clicks behind the doctor, Ray grabs the pen from her wedding notebook and makes up some names and standard illnesses to appease Dr. Arhundati: a little high blood pressure here, a little heart disease there, and even a thyroid disorder on her paternal grandmother's side so as not to appear too cliché.
But the truth is that the only person from her family tree that she has ever known was her mama, Carla Jones, and the woman somehow managed to keep everything a mystery. She hands Dr. Arhundati the forms when she returns; then she places her feet in the stirrups for her examination.
* * *
Now Ray races over the drawbridge between Charleston and Jasper. Dr. Arhundati sent her to the health food store in Charleston for some strange-sounding herbs, and she's way behind schedule. She's only got a few hours to make the final preparation for the Tea and See and get to Kitty B.'s for the last wedding meeting before Little Hilda's big day.
A reporter stands on the side of the bridge in a dry, bright orange raincoat. He's pointing at the salt marsh reeds, stone still in the August heat. Ray rolls her eyes. Eleanor is the third tropical storm this summer that they've said would hit the South Carolina Lowcountry, but Ray feels sure it will make the same northerly bump the others have and wind up somewhere along the North Carolina coast.
"Lord, protect Little Hilda's wedding day," she prays, then quickly pulls over at Pink's roadside vegetable stand and buys one of the last watermelons of the season to take to Kitty B.'s. Oh, and she just has to get an extra one for Willy. It's a special thing between them all-watermelons-and her husband particularly likes them. Ray loves to roll them over on their pale underbellies, where she thumps them softly with the pad of her thumb, then rubs her hand across the dark green seams.
Once Little Hilda's wedding is over, Ray will go right back to Angus's practice. He happens to be a wonderful physician and believes like they all do that her mama and Laura and Ray just appeared out of nowhere one late summer afternoon before their sophomore year of high school-one hot-to-trot Mary Poppins and her two shy daughters who descended out of the clouds with their three sets of big green eyes and their bright smiles.
~ August 16, 1963 ~
The second Friday after Ray moved to Jasper, the church youth group put a For Sale sign in her yard, which was the joke at the time. Ray didn't know whether to cry or laugh when she woke up that morning and walked out onto the dew-covered grass and pulled the muddy stake out of the ground. She leaned the sign against the side of the house, where it fell over and stayed for years, rusting behind the hydrangea bushes.
Then that night Kitty B. knocked on her kitchen door and said, "Wanna come out?" Ray was trying on a brand-new pair of linen pedal pushers that they had bought in Charleston just before the move. Her mama tore off the tag, pushed her out the door, and said, "Just go on, honey."
Ray looked up at the truckbed full of smiling faces. A boy she'd never seen before reached out his hand to pull Ray up and over the edge of the flatbed of Angus's truck. She took her place nervously between him and Kitty B. on the curve of the warm wheel well while Fitz held Sis on his lap opposite them. Hilda was in the passenger seat by Angus,
"Where are we going?" Ray said.
"To steal a watermelon." Kitty B. giggled.
Willy patted Ray's back. "It's the tradition. When someone new comes to town." He put his short, round hand out flat as if he wanted her to give him five. "I'm Willy, pretty girl."
Ray smiled and lightly slapped his hand. No one in Charleston had so much as noticed her existence. Her blossoming into a young woman. Except maybe Nigel Pringle, who was thankful to be rid of her.
But the Jasper teenagers had sought her out immediately. Probably her mama's doing, if she thought about it. Carla Jones was going to work for Willy's daddy, the state senator and small-town attorney, and she had bragged to everyone about how nice and bright her daughters were.
It was dark on the outskirts of town that night Ray first hung out with the pack. So black she could not even make out the figures of the strangers sitting next to her. The tunnel of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss outlined the pitch blackness until a porch light, usually a single uncovered bulb, lit up a patch of the land for a moment.
She might have been afraid except the thick summer air smelled so sweet and earthy that she couldn't breathe it in fast enough. It was like a warm and balmy laughing gas, and she let go into the intoxicating fragrance of salt air and withering corn husks and tomatoes so ripe she imagined them dropping off the vines around her.
When they reached complete darkness about ten miles out of town, Angus turned off the headlights and quietly pulled off the road and onto the edge of a field. There was the faintest light above the door of a shack where the woods met the field, and she could barely see the waxy tops of the watermelons lined up in tight rows in the open soil.
"Let's go," Fitz commanded in a loud whisper. He and Willy jumped right over the bed of the truck and lifted their arms up toward the girls.
Ray took both of their hands and let them lift her gently down. Fitz grabbed Sis by the hips and hoisted her down before spinning her around. He patted her on the backside, just once, before taking her hand and running out into the blackness. Ray had never seen such affection among folks her own age. She had been a scholarship student at an all-girls Catholic school in Charleston, and when she wasn't in school she was cooped up in the carriage house with Mama polishing silver and ironing linens for Mrs. Pringle.
As the pack laughed and ran into the blackness before Ray, she felt like she was at the edge of the world, and she stood stone still until someone took her hand. "It's all right." Willy led her gently out into the darkness as the soft, damp soil yielded beneath their feet.
"Grab the biggest one you can," Fitz instructed, and Ray could barely make out his outline as he bent down and rubbed the smooth, round melon tops. "It's a contest."
Of course, Ray had no idea about the water hoses lined up alongside the heaped rows, and as she felt from melon to melon, her foot became tangled in one, and she nearly tripped before Willy caught her in his short, husky arms.
Then a dog barked somewhere in the distance, and Angus whispered, "Grab one and get back to the truck!"
Ray knelt down and pulled the first one she could feel. It was heavy and wrapped in vines that were thin but tough, and Willy set his own down to tug hers loose.
"Big 'un." He chuckled as he ripped it from its cord. Then he balanced both of theirs on his hips as she scurried ahead of him back to the truck.
When the dog came closer, Fitz warned, "Look out!" and Willy dropped the fruit, then hoisted Ray up into Fitz's arms before hurling their melons into the flatbed. Just as Willy was about to climb over, the dog nipped his ankle and caught hold of the hem of his blue jeans. Fitz kicked the dog loose with the heel of his sneakers and pulled Willy in by his belt loops as Angus spun them away.
Fitz let out a whoop before planting a long, wet kiss on Sis. Kitty B. laughed as Willy scooted closer to Ray so that their hips touched. Then he rubbed his ankle and said, "That was a close one, y'all."
Kitty B. cradled her watermelon tight in her lap, and said, "Now y'all don't forget to give me the leftover rinds so I can pickle them."
They chuckled at her request; then they hooted and hollered in the blackness all the way to the church gym, where the high school was hosting its weekly summer dance.
When the pack wheeled into the church parking lot, Angus opened the back door of the pickup and lined up the melons. Ray's was the biggest. It was long and wide with deep green seams down its back. Angus inspected their yellow undersides and thumped the ripe edges. "The new girl's is the pick of the litter!"
Everyone cheered over Ray's melon, and Kitty B. hugged her, and little did Ray know it at the time, but she had officially become a lifelong member of the Jasper pack.
One knock on Willy's nubby knee, and Ray's watermelon split open down the center. Everyone grabbed a piece from the heart, sucked on it, and spat out the seeds and sucked some more as the juice ran down their forearms, even Hilda, who had been fretting about the soil on her white tennis shoes moments before.
Then they all ran into the darkened gym, the crevices between their fingers sticky and sweet, and they shagged until midnight when Coach Sanders shut off the music and flicked the lights on and off and on so that their muddy footprints and pink streaked arms were like photos snapped for an album or evidence of a small-town crime.
* * *
As Ray pulls back onto Highway 17, she gets stuck behind a tractor going ten miles an hour. Then she hears her cell phone buzzing in her pocketbook.
"Mama," Priscilla says from the other end of the line. "Where have you been?"
"At the doctor in Charleston," Ray says. "Then to the health food store where I had to buy some funny kind of herbs they want me to take-ginkgo biloba and don quai."
"Ooh," Priscilla says. "Herbs can work wonders. I took these rishi mushrooms last year when I had this awful chest cold, and they cleared me right up."
"Hormones can do wonders too." Ray comes upon an elderly man driving a tractor down the single lane highway. "When does your flight get in?"
"10:05, from LaGuardia."
"And you're coming alone?" Ray crosses her fingers.
"Yes, Mama," Priscilla says. "J.K. has a shoot, so he can't make it."
"Well, all right." Ray tries to hold back her enthusiasm. "I'll make sure your daddy is at the airport before ten."
Yes. Ray snaps her telephone shut. Priscilla's last two boyfriends have been so awful that Ray and Willy have named them Poop 1 and Poop 2. The current one, J.K. (Poop 2) is by far the worst. Priscilla was the valedictorian of William Bull High, but she took a wrong turn in college and wound up majoring in film and television production, of all the inane things. She met Poop 2 on the set of this reality TV show, Knucklehead, where the idiot pins raw T-bones to his clothes and roasts himself over a grill and calls it entertainment. Oh, Ray's got to get her away from him.
"No Poop 2 for the wedding weekend!" she calls to the heavy salt air. This good news is almost enough to cancel out the fact that my private parts are withering on the vine.
Ray claps her hands, presses the gas, and moves out into the two-lane highway to pass the tractor. A convertible sports car comes flying down the road opposite her, and she swerves back behind the tractor and barely misses the giant tires, their wide, mud-encrusted grooves spinning slowly forward.
Excerpted from the Wedding Machine by Beth Webb Hart Copyright © 2007 by Beth Webb Hart. Excerpted by permission.
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