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They Ran Out of Wine: A Short Story

It rained the whole way for the four-hour drive from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to the wedding venue. I was driving a huge beast of a rental car, an oversized pickup truck, the only one-way vehicle the rental car company had available. In bright red, no less. Not exactly my style. I drive a Prius, and often self-righteously extol its 55 miles per gallon that must surely help save the world from overheating.

My iPhone’s GPS provided typically superb turn-by-turn directions to the venue, fed directly into my ears on my AirPods in between classical music downloaded from my monthly Apple Music subscription. It took me a while to figure out the unfamiliar controls in the giant conveyance that would take me into the heart of the Midwestern right-wing miasma, but I felt safe on the high-speed, divided highways surrounded by all that metal and sitting high above the Lilliputian four-wheelers racing around on the wet pavement. The GPS screen said I would arrive at 3:45 p.m., 15 minutes after the wedding was to begin. But I was determined to be present for the event. I was the only family member representing the groom’s mother.

The groom was an exceptionally fine young man — thoughtful, polite, reliable, skilled, gentle. He made a good living as a highly trained technician, and without any financial help had managed to buy a house on a large lot that he shared with the woman who would soon be his spouse. The groom’s mother had been dealt a poor hand in life. She struggled all her life with severe developmental disabilities, and her son had inherited some of her limitations in language. But he was otherwise a smart and genuinely fine young man. And his bride-to-be was articulate and patient and truly in love with him. Our family loved them both.

Tragedy befell the groom’s mother just a year and a half before the wedding. She had become utterly miserable, imprisoned as she was in her disabled life, dependent on doctors’ prescriptions to fight a losing battle against obesity and diabetes. She and her husband, the groom’s father, had divorced many years earlier, after he abused both her and their son.

Eventually, in her misery, she found love online, and escape. For a few short months, she luxuriated in the artificial affection of a love scammer who persuaded her to abandon her medications and tried his damndest to get his hands on her modest retirement savings. When he failed at that, he stabbed her to death and stole her car and credit cards.

The one reliable attribute of a criminal is stupidity, and it took no time at all for the police to nab him. But the groom’s mother was gone, and she would not live to see her son, the only joy in her life, marry the girl he loved. The groom’s maternal grandmother, my sister, was in bad health and unable to attend the wedding. The sister of the groom’s deceased mother also was unable to attend. That left me, the only family member on the side of the groom’s mother, to represent her at the wedding. I was his great-uncle, that was all.

Fortunately, despite all the obstacles fate had placed in my path, including a delayed flight that caused me to miss my connection in Chicago and required a four-hour drive in a rented behemoth, I arrived in the nick of time. The wedding had been delayed for half an hour. As I entered the drafty barn/wedding venue, I encountered a suit and tie near the entrance who introduced himself as the officiant and told me there were no designated sections for family and friends of the bride or groom. “Sit anywhere,” he said.

During the 15 minutes remaining before the wedding began, I began to feel the chill of the 52-degree rainy day that had creeped through the open-air cracks between the barn boards. I was wearing only khakis and a pull-over knit shirt, abiding by the casual-dress directions in the wedding invitation. A blue blazer was my one concession to the more formal style that I was accustomed to for important occasions. My son’s wedding had been a black-tie affair, and I had felt right at home.

I expected that I would know no one in attendance at the wedding except the bride and groom. I was right. The groom’s father was present, but I did not recognize him or any of his family, although I had been present when he married my niece 30 years before. When the brief ceremony was over and the bride and groom had recited their moving and sincere vows of commitment to one another, it was announced that the celebratory dinner would be served in a contiguous area of the barn more than two hours later. I went out to my construction-excavation-sized vehicle and retrieved a sweater I had tossed in my suitcase against the possibility of weather such as this. It was of little help against the cold, so I hung around one of the few propane heaters that were struggling unsuccessfully against the chill of the barn.

I was the odd man out, but I did not feel awkward or uncomfortable standing alone on the perimeters of the gathering. I indulged in feeling superior and aloof from the provincial conversations and encounters going on around me. I took opportunities to express my love and approval to the bride and groom, but I felt no need to engage with their friends or family. Many in attendance were the couple’s contemporary friends of a much younger demographic than mine, and I would have little in common with them or they with me.

If I tried to engage with them, I was sure they would be polite and condescending to an old stranger, and I decided to forgo the effort. So, I stood around on the fringes, certain that I stood out as someone who did not belong in the environment, except for a remote familial connection. My career had thrust me into many circumstances where I was unknown and ignored, so I had well-developed skills in opening paths of conversation that would break through the shyness that virtually all people feel when confronted with strangers. But I elected not to employ those skills, deciding instead to luxuriate in my lofty superiority and sophistication.

Eventually, out of boredom more than grace, I approached a gentleman who was wearing a jacket and tie and seemed reasonably self-aware. He turned out to be the father of the bride, and when he introduced me shortly thereafter to the mother of the bride, from whom he was now divorced, I knew at once why my grand-nephew’s bride possessed such lovely grace. But I disdained any attempt to engage with the family of my nephew’s father. They had mistreated my niece while she was married to their son, and had behaved atrociously through the painful journey of their divorce. To my eye, they were clearly of a lower class, and unworthy of any attempts at conversation.

I asked the bride’s father if I might remain at his table with him and the married couple that were among his closest friends. He welcomed me. They pointed out to me the groom’s father, and even then, I did not recognize him. He wore a black, Texas-size cowboy hat and leather jacket that signaled his affinity for the swagger of that state, where he had moved for some industrial work, and there was a service dog constantly at his side. I asked whether he was visually impaired and was told the dog had something to do with a malady that caused him to have seizures. I asked nothing further and made no attempt to say hello to him and ask after his health.

When dinner was served, our table was among the first to be invited to fill our plates at the buffet. When we finished eating, I needed another beer to wash down my meal and offered to grab drinks for the others at our table. The wife of the good friend of the bride’s father said, “They ran out of wine.” She declined my offer to bring her a water or beer.

After dinner, I found opportunities to talk with my nephew and his bride and watched as the guests, mostly their young friends, crowded onto the dance floor. I chatted up the DJ, who told me about the good money he was making doing 60 or more weddings a year and remarked about the expense of weddings for the families. I said I was well aware.

Before long, I concluded that I had fulfilled my family obligation and satisfactorily bestowed a blessing on the newly married couple on behalf of my deceased niece. I presented my nephew with a small gift, in addition to the one we had sent from their registry, and in his wonderfully gracious, Midwestern way, he said, “Are you heading out? Thanks for coming.” I checked into my nearby hotel and savored the little flask of scotch I had brought with me and turned out the light.

The next day, I said Morning Prayer and had a big breakfast, anticipating that it would have to hold me through lunch. On my drive to the nearby airport, it occurred to me that “those people” were among the kind that Jesus chose to be his followers. He would have chosen those in baseball caps, not in blazers. I had failed to be a healer. I had failed to engage with those who knew at once who I was and why I was standing around on the fringes wallowing in my arrogant superiority. The defensive shields they erected against me were warranted. They stood on higher ground. I was given the opportunity to make peace and heal wounds, and I had refused.

Although I could have, I had not offered to procure more wine.

Carter Keithley is a retired attorney and business executive. In 2022 he earned an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion from Virginia Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife in Washington, DC.

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