HomeSouthern VoiceLiberty Bell

Liberty Bell

by Emily Clemente

It rained on Jane and Alan’s wedding day. Grandma Gigi said rainy weddings were bad luck, but Jane looked so pretty in her dress that I don’t think any of the bad luck could have gotten to her even if it wanted to. The wet drops in her veil looked like little dots of stardust and her eyes bloomed a million different colors in the murky sun. She was a fairy queen, Alan said, and he was right. It was the first time I’d ever looked at someone and decided I wanted to be her.

I got to help Grandma Gigi put out the buttermilk pie before the ceremony started, the one we’d baked late at night in her kitchen while the spice candles burned. It used to be my mom’s favorite. Gilbert Bruckfield and his Auntie Lee made the peach marmalade from their trees, and I watched them as they carried it to the tables in little mason jars lined with fabric bows. Gilbert waved at me, but I was too shy to wave back at him with Missy Lee watching us like that. If she was a tawny eagle, then I was one of those half-tadpoles with the legs growing out of it. Easy prey.

“Did my mom and daddy have a wedding party like this?” I asked Grandma Gigi.

“Your parents were teenagers, Libby,” Grandma Gigi reminded me, combing my hair back with her knobbly fingers. I knew this, of course, but I figured maybe courthouse weddings could be pretty too. I’d seen the yellow pictures, my daddy’s buck-deer eyes and his mottled chin, my mom’s ringed hand pressed over the taffeta crest of her waist where I’d just started to sprout. I don’t know if they loved each other back then, but if they did, I wondered if they knew it wouldn’t last long.

Missy Lee was walking our way with Gilbert’s forearm clamped tight beneath her grip while Grandma Gigi and I finished setting up. “Well, just look at you, Liberty Bell,” she smiled at me.

I straightened my bony shoulders and tried my hardest to smile back. I hated my name. The morning my mom told my daddy she was having me was a sticky day in April beneath the Eaver’s Creek bell tower, with all the chimes going off and the Bradford pear blossoms stinking up the air between them. That’s how they decided who I’d be. Something about timing, Grandma Gigi told me, like that clock tower, like I wasn’t real, like it was too funny to be true.

“They’re getting the cans ready by the church,” Gilbert said. “You wanna come, Libby?”

I nodded. Gilbert looked like a punch-cut doll in his wedding attire, but he always did in some way or another. He was stiff but fragile, like a dillweed, and there weren’t many other people like that in Eaver’s Creek because they didn’t really belong here. Once when we were kids, Gilbert found a squashed frog by his Auntie Lee’s pond, the guts all spilled out onto the grass, and instead of shrieking like me, he knelt down beside it and tried to press the gooey insides back into its flesh. I wanted to be disgusted but I couldn’t because there was a softness to his voice. He just kept whispering, promising he wouldn’t leave, he couldn’t leave, not until he was sure he’d helped it put away the heart.

“Let’s go,” I said. We slipped off from Grandma Gigi and Missy Lee to the gravel lot behind the Presbyterian church, where Eunice Myers and Gary Plack were already tying a whole bunch of orange cans to the back of Alan’s station wagon. The cans were supposed to rattle and make a loud noise down the street when he and Jane drove off. It was tradition, Eunice had told us, to let the whole world know you were married, to set some kind of fire to the tattered fabric of this earth.

“How long are they supposed to stay attached to the back of the car?” I asked. Grandma Gigi said Jane and Alan were honeymooning all the way to Virginia, which was a long way to be dragging some rusty aluminum along the surface of the interstate.

“Virginia is for lovers,” Eunice sighed behind her hairsprayed bangs, as if that came close to answering my question, and Gary winked back. They were going to be a preacher and a preacher’s wife one day, everyone said, with lots of curly-haired babies.

I rolled my eyes because I knew about the two of them by the loblolly trees. Gary had taken out his hunting knife and you could still see the grooves from where they’d carved their sloppy initials into sharp angles on the bark. I wanted to go over there one day and patch up all those marks, press the missing layers of wood back into the trees where they belonged.

“Here, you two take over,” Gary said, tossing the excess cans onto the ground. He stepped away from the station wagon and held Eunice’s hand. “Just don’t ruin Alan’s car, okay? He’ll kill you.”

“Sure.” I said. I hated Gary Plack. If he wasn’t Alan’s cousin, I’d have thrown one of those cans right past his face, not enough to hurt him, but just to make him flinch his eyes. I hated the way that he and Eunice loved each other, out for everyone to see. They were laughing behind the church now, and I knew where they were going. They didn’t have to hide it, Gary with his hunting knife, and Eunice with her hairspray, and those loblolly trees everywhere.

“I like these orange cans.” Gilbert said. He held up one of the strings tied to the end of Alan’s bumper and stuck his nose inside. “They smell like home.”

“You’re crazy,” I said. Only Gilbert would find it a good idea to shove his face into something once filled with crusty fruit and say it reminded him of the place where he lived. For me, home smelled like plumeria and king cake and sweet corn and hamburgers and sugar beets and chicken houses and onion grass. Those orange cans smelled like rot and the back storage room of the J-Mart. “You like everything, Gilbert,” I told him, and he shrugged, because maybe it was true.

I started tying one of the strings onto the bumper, but then the sky made a rumbling noise, and the two of us looked up. It was starting to get cloudy.

“Maybe you should go inside, Libby,” Gilbert said. “I can finish up out here.”

“But not everyone’s here yet,” I told him. “Shouldn’t I wait?”

“Maybe,” he said, picking up a can. “But it’s going to rain. And I think my Auntie Lee would really like your company.”

“But—” I began, just as another crack of thunder ruptured behind the blotted clouds. “Alright.” I gathered my dress, holding the rosy edges so they didn’t scrape the dry grass on the way inside the church.

Sometimes I think Gilbert never wanted to be here in Eaver’s Creek, that the thing pulling him back was just a sadness for the people who stayed. The first time he came to visit for the summer, the two of us sat on the front steps of Missy Lee’s wraparound porch snapping string beans and he said to me, “Wow, Libby, you guys sure must have a lot to celebrate down here.” 

“Uh-huh,” I said, not a clue what he was talking about, until a popping noise came out of the woods and he pointed up at the sky. 

“You hear that?” he smiled. “Up in St. Anne’s, we only have fireworks twice a year. New Year’s, maybe, and Independence Day.”

“Oh, Gilbert,” I told him after that, and I almost felt sorry for him. “Those aren’t fireworks. This is dove hunting season. Those are gunshots.”

“Oh,” he said, and I remember how his mouth fell. When another shot rang out, he winced, like he was going to cry, but he didn’t. I never saw him cry. He just waited there for another long, empty moment until he finally met my gaze and said, “You know Libby, I think I’d like them better if they were fireworks instead.”

Missy Lee was already sitting in one of the pews when I walked into the church, and she gestured for me to come over and squeeze in next to her. The wood creaked when I sat down on it, and I wondered how many people had been here already. How many sermons and weddings and baptisms and funerals had all been in this room, how many people had found the Lord and married and died and grieved and cried happy tears and sad tears right here in Eaver’s Creek. Missy Lee put an arm around my shoulder while I tried to flatten the folds of my gown.

“You think your mom’s coming?” she asked me, and I told her I didn’t know, which was the truth. My mom and Missy Lee had grown up together, and Grandma Gigi had called her on the phone about twelve times to remind her you can’t miss the wedding of your best friend’s little sister, you just can’t, but my mom had her own life now. A man she’d met in the PennySaver. Two stepsons and a daughter. A front walkway lined with painted half-tires and a monogrammed flag underneath the mailbox. She was happy, Grandma Gigi told me, she read Good Housekeeping now, and that was good enough for me. My daddy was a car mechanic in Tacoma. I don’t know if he was happy, but he had a mustache. He looked like me, but harder, surer of himself.

“You know, she misses you, Liberty Bell,” Missy Lee said, and I smiled the way you do when you know someone’s really talking about herself. She tucked a lock of unruly hair behind my ear and sighed. “She wanted to be the one to teach you how to love.”

I thought of my mom and Missy Lee with their bobby socks and pinafores swinging their ankles back and forth in these pews. Just two little girls with their hearts on the outside, dreaming of all the different ways they could learn how to be. Maybe Missy Lee knew why Grandma Gigi and I had made that buttermilk pie. 

Gilbert came in a few minutes later and sat with his cousins. He waved at me, and I waved back this time because Missy Lee was all the way with Grandma Gigi now, talking about my mom and daddy. Eunice and Gary were together on the other end of the chapel, and Eunice kept dabbing at her cheeks with powder, blotting little beads of sweat off the ridges of her collarbone. The air was wet and stuffy in the church and Grandma Gigi kept shaking her head and saying it looked like it was going to rain. “I knew they should have waited to get married. Why does everyone always want to get married in the spring? They should have waited for the fall.”

You couldn’t even see any of the light through the stained-glass windows. The sky was too dark and angry. I wondered what Grandma Gigi said at my mom and daddy’s wedding, if she’d said anything at all. Maybe she’d just stood there, frowning, like she did when I’d asked her how they both fell in love. Maybe she’d been the one who’d taken those empty pictures.

We all stood up when Jane walked down the aisle. I was sandwiched between Grandma Gigi and Missy Lee like breading around a corndog and the humid air was starting to suffocate me, but Jane was so pretty, you just couldn’t take your eyes away.

“Do you think you’ll ever get married, Liberty Bell?” Missy Lee asked me.

“No,” I said. “Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t really think about things like that.”

I did want to get married, but not to a person, not to this world, maybe to something somewhere else. Where things couldn’t hurt as bad, where you could hide things away when you didn’t want people to see them.

“Naw, Libby-girl’s never getting married,” Grandma Gigi said, and she wrapped a flaccid arm around my shoulder. “She’s going to be here forever, with me.” She said it not like she meant it but like she loved me, and something about that made me sad. Too sad to do anything but take her hand in mine.

It wasn’t until Jane and Alan got to saying their “I do’s” that it started pouring hard enough to hear the sheets of rain against the church’s roof. I think that’s when I realized all the ladies in the room were crying. Eunice Myers with her black babydoll mascara running down her powdered cheeks, Grandma Gigi and Missy Lee with their folded purple handkerchiefs, and even me with my rosy corsage starting to wilt, and I was glad my mom wasn’t here, glad she’d never have to see any of it because she wanted to be happy.

When Alan kissed Jane and everyone cheered, they ran down the aisle and I still couldn’t help but think that Jane was beautiful. That’s when Alan called her the fairy queen. She was getting married with all those raindrops in her hair, all those tears in everyone’s eyes, and she was beautiful. I wanted to be that beautiful. 

When she stood on the back steps and said she was going to throw the bouquet, she still looked beautiful. She wasn’t supposed to throw the bouquet until after everyone had eaten the buttermilk pie, but she said she wanted to throw it now, so all the girls stood behind her, with the rain misting in through the doors.

“Here it goes!” Jane said. “Get ready!”

Grandma Gigi asked if I wanted to go up there and I said no. I was just going to watch. Eunice smiled big from the corner and Gary winked at her again. Everyone knew Eunice was going to catch it. She’d get married next, when she and Gary were done with school, in a dress identical to her rosy bridesmaid gown except for the fact that it would be white and just glittery enough to match the stiffness in her hair.

But just as Jane tossed her arm back, something came over me. Gilbert Bruckfield was looking at me. It happened so fast, I can’t even say why I did it. But once I started, I just couldn’t stop. I stepped right in front of all the other rosy girls, my heel pressing down on the curve of somebody’s pointed toes, and reached for Jane’s flowers.

“You stepped on my foot, Liberty Bell!” Eunice yelled, but I wasn’t looking at her, I was looking at that bouquet.

“I got it!” I hollered. “I got it! It’s mine!”

No one said a word. I danced all the way down the church steps, cheering. It was pouring hard now. The rain was catching in my hair, my dress was clinging to my back in ugly wet patches. They all looked at me, Jane and Alan clutching one another, Missy Lee’s eyes wide, Eunice and Gary in disbelief. Grandma Gigi was appalled. “Libby…” she began, but there was nothing for her to say either.

“I’m getting married, Grandma Gigi! I’m getting married!”

Then the sky opened up and I was screaming at no one. It was raining so hard I could hardly see them all anymore. I was Jane now, I was Mom, I was Daddy, I was Libby, I was Liberty Bell, the clock tower, my hair clinging to my shoulders in stringy tails of spaghetti.

I can’t leave you because I’m a frog’s heart! That’s what I wanted to scream, my guts all spilled out so I couldn’t put them back. Let’s go over there, by the loblolly trees! I’ll be the bride, and you have to be my bridegroom! I want you to be the one to teach me how to love!

“I’m getting married,” I sighed. There was no putting back my froggy heart now. I was dripping, sopping, my fingers bleeding flower petals everywhere.

“Get inside, Liberty Bell!” someone exclaimed, but I didn’t even care. I just fell onto the grass, and it was the happiest day of my life.

 

Emily Clemente has spent her entire life living in North Carolina. Though currently a student of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Fuquay-Varina is the town she calls home. Her work has previously appeared in literary publications such as Every Day Fiction and Talk Vomit.

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