The Best Man
Frank cut out his own tongue so that he wouldn’t have to give the best-man speech. I heard from Kate. She didn’t believe it, either, not until we saw the caterer wringing blood from his apron.
The caterer stood by the big garbage can, right near his vegetarian buffet.
He didn’t even try to hide what he was doing.
These things happen, I guess. I say, you can’t blame the caterer for making public some unexpected violence. Frank did it in the bathroom, after all. And I learned afterward that the caterer was only an innocent bystander. He probably thought going in that he would just pee and walk out again, a little more comfortable than before.
Sometimes comfort isn’t just in and out like that, though.
A beautiful woman once gave me a massage, for instance, only to leave me three years later.
I was voted the one to drive Frank to the hospital, not because he and I are close, but because I was sober. That I was merely a guest, and not a necessary member in the wedding, further qualified me. The plan, brilliantly conceived by the bride herself, was to keep the reception going.
“We’ll say Frank just slipped and fell,” she’d said.
“What, like he cut his arm on the way down?” asked the groom.
“No,” said the bride. “No, he’ll be holding his head when we walk him out the front door. We’ll have to say he hit his head on the sink.”
“What about John?” Kate asked.
“Who?” said the bride.
“My boyfriend,” said Kate, pointing at me, “the one taking Frank to the hospital.”
“Right,” went the bride. “Well, no offense, no one’s going to ask where John went.”
I can thank Kate for first explaining to the wedding party that I never drink. At least, not anymore I don’t. There’s no tragic story or anything. I gave my clothes to a homeless man the last time I drank, is all, just because for a single moment they smelled like someone who wasn’t me. The next morning everything in my closet was gone.
But I shouldn’t be cross with Kate for volunteering me. She told me the day after the wedding that the bride’s plan worked. The chicken dance that night went off without a hitch. Really, I’d been dating Kate for only a few weeks, anyway. And I was hesitant about going to her friend’s wedding in the first place. I was looking for a way out.
Frank and I showed up at the emergency room in the groom’s car. Neither of us had one of our own, that’s why. The cans tied to the rear bumper trailed us the whole trip, like little kids just wanting to ride along.
On the way over I had tried to make Frank feel a little more comfortable, though I’m not very good at small talk, so I didn’t do a great job.
“I don’t know Jim and Rachel,” I said. “I’m just here with Kate. It’s great they’re getting married, though.”
I said, “I guess I really didn’t have a whole lot of people to talk to at the reception. It’s almost nice to get out with someone, and feel useful, you know?”
I looked over at him.
I said, “Kate told me you all met in college? I went to school in Iowa. I just moved out here for a job.”
Like a real sport, Frank pushed noises from his throat to let me know that he was listening.
At the hospital’s front desk some nurses were chatting pleasantly with the secretary. I could hear them laughing, talking about some guy named Joe. I told Frank to lie down on the floor, not knowing why. It was then that the nurses caught sight of him.
The conversation dropped like a roll of quarters.
All the while Frank was bleeding. I didn’t notice it so much in the car, not with its dark leather seats. But on the hospital floors, mopped a perfect dull white, the blood stood out. The paper towels Frank had used to stop the bleeding were completely soaked through then. They were still near his mouth, but now he looked only like he was struggling to eat a plum.
“I’ll get some gauze,” said one of the nurses.
“Help me,” said another, looking at me.
We took him into the nearest examination room. Frank was heavy, so it took the two nurses and me to get him up on the table. The nurses told me then to take off his jacket and tie, which I did. Both were heavy with liquid.
“What are you going to do?” I asked them stupidly.
One nurse gave Frank a shot of something. The other told me it was time for me to leave.
Back in the waiting room I tried to hold Frank’s clothes like they weren’t depressing. I couldn’t help getting wet, though. After a while, I went to the bathroom to try to clean the jacket. The tie would go in the garbage. The jacket, after all, was surely a rental. And the least I could do while waiting was help get Frank his full deposit back.
You always hear that blood is difficult to remove, but the powdered soap at the hospital worked fine. What I was doing there at the sink reminded me of this movie I saw once, where a wife finds out that her husband is a killer. Eventually she takes to washing his clothes and his tools for him at night, out of nothing but pure love. When the cops trace the deaths back to the husband, though, he turns in his own wife. With her fingerprints all over everything, she is blamed.
The movie was about other stuff too. But really I just remember that story.
These relationships are so hard.
I waited for thirty minutes before a doctor came out to tell me that Frank was going to be mostly okay.
“He’s lost his tongue, however,” the doctor said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know that part.”
“He lost enough of it,” he added, “so that he won’t talk again. At least not like he used to.”
“Is that why he was never screaming?” I said.
“No, probably not,” he said. “But you ask me, he seemed without regret.”
He said, “How’d it happen, anyway?”
I wanted to tell him it was a steak knife, but I wasn’t sure that was the right answer.
Before leaving, the doctor told me that I could go back in to see Frank, but instead of saying “Frank,” he said “your friend.” “You can go back in to see your friend now,” was how the doctor put it.
I decided to think first about what I’d say to Frank. It was a delicate situation I was in, delicate enough that I actually considered just walking right out the hospital’s front door. Instead I remained seated in the waiting room, fidgeting with Frank’s jacket.
After noticing a hard edge in the pocket, I pulled out some note cards. Written on the first card, in big black letters, was the introduction to Frank’s speech.
“I want to thank friends and family,” the card read, in all capital letters. “This means a lot to both of us.”
I guess I’d figured before that Frank hadn’t written a speech at all, and that he was just too nervous to improvise something.
The cards went on, “I first met Rachel in college. We met at a park. She was doing yoga in the grass, under a giant tree. Cotton was blowing in the wind. Do you remember that, Rachel?”
Here there was a note for Frank to point playfully in the bride’s direction.
“We didn’t meet the others until later. Kate, Jim, Anne, Eric. Some we met through classes. Others we met at bars. We were sometimes in questionable situations.”
Here there was another note to nudge the person sitting next to Frank, who probably would have been Anne, a bridesmaid.
“I thought about it for ten minutes, pacing back and forth, trying to get the courage to talk to her, that girl stretching out under a tree bigger than any tree I’d ever seen. By the time I summoned the strength, she was gone.”
“Pause,” said the next note.
“Luckily she was back the next week, lying in the same spot in the same grass under the same tree. The wind still blew, and the cotton still sailed on the air. I was covered in white when I finally was standing over her. I remember that she smiled this big wide smile.”
“Point to Rachel,” said the note.
The speech ended with a final card that read, “There it is. She always had this wonderful smile.”
It was Frank’s memory, and a speech like I’d never heard before. I looked for more cards, but couldn’t find any. Seems to me, though, a story like this you can remember without the note cards.
I guess the doctor cleared Frank shortly after fixing him. He told me about it after seeing me, a second time, still waiting in the little room.
“Yeah, we released your friend already, right after I told you he was okay.”
“What’s he still doing in the exam room then?”
“I don’t know,” said the doctor. “I haven’t been back in there.”
“Huh,” I said.
“You should probably take him home, though,” he said. “Or back to wherever it is you came from tonight.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”
Really, I didn’t imagine Frank would want to head back for the reception. And I didn’t want to take him where he didn’t want to go. And the truth is, I didn’t want to go back either.
I didn’t know Frank, but, honestly, he had some grace worth exploring. His voice belonged on a rooftop somewhere, not in a convention center ballroom.
So I put on the best man’s jacket then, right over my own.
I stood outside the examination room, ready to just go.
I knocked twice.