Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Elizabeth McCracken about her writing process.
Because Jack didn’t drive—not stick, not on the left side of the road, not at all, ever—Sadie piloted the rental car from the Dublin airport to the wedding, grinding gears and scraping along the greenery and—for a few miles—creeping behind a tractor on a winding road. It was 10 p.m. and raining. If Ireland were emerald, she couldn’t say. She would risk nothing. The tractor was a comfort, lit up with white lights. She planned to follow it as long as she could. ’Til dawn if necessary.
“Pass him,” said Jack.
“You pass him,” said Sadie.
“I’m not driving.”
“That’s right,” said Sadie.
Not their wedding, but Jack’s middle sister, Fiona’s. Sadie would meet the entire family, simultaneously—Fiona and her Dutch about-to-be husband, Piet; Jack’s youngest older sister, Katie, and his oldest older sister, Eloise, and their families; and, of course, his parents, the significant Mister and Missus, Michael and Irene Valert. Jack was the youngest of all of them, the only one born in America—not American, he insisted, despite being mostly raised there. Everyone else in his family was English. He was, too, though he couldn’t pass.
Sadie drove as an act of heroism, though at any moment she might swerve off the road, into a ditch or off a cliff—she wasn’t sure, she couldn’t see. In Boston, where they lived, she almost never got a chance to drive, to perform this act of casual generosity. When she did, Jack was full of gratitude and compliments, passed her snacks and drinks, read to her from magazines. They were still in the early days of their life together. This was their first wedding.
“You’re a little close,” said Jack. “To the side here.”
He didn’t drive, but his body acted as though it knew all about it. It braked and seized up and readied for death. The rental car was small, bright blue, a brand and model Sadie had never heard of, with some sort of winged, scaly mythical creature in the middle of the steering wheel. The wedding would be in a large Irish house near the town of Clonmel. There was nothing for it but to drive. The good news was that the house belonged to Fiona and Piet, who’d bought it for a song after its occupant had died in one of its many rooms, so the whole family could stay there for free, and once there, they could drink without worry. That of course was also the bad news, all those hours she would have to perform as herself in front of Jack’s family. They had flown all day, through the air and through time zones, and now it was the middle of the night.
“We’ll miss supper,” said Jack.
“We’ve missed it.”
“We’ve missed it. That’s all right.”
The Irish winds pushed at the little car and Sadie leaned forward, as though the road itself were a map she couldn’t read—no, not as though. It was.
“How are you doing?” asked Jack.
“I’m fine!” she said in a cheerful voice. The voice of her mother, she realized, who was cheerful when things were dire. From her mother she’d also accepted, unthinkingly, the advice that you should always buy the full car insurance when driving on the wrong side of the road, so she had, thank God, because the car was already scratched down one side and would probably lose a side-view mirror.
The tractor slowed them down, but so did Sadie’s sense that in the dark, Ireland was making itself up as it went along, Jack giving directions at the last minute, sometimes consulting a map and sometimes an old envelope upon which he’d written notes. Finally they arrived and pulled up the long drive. They could make out the dull shape of the dark house amid the trees and mist.
“It’s a mansion,” said Sadie.
“It’s a Georgian cube,” said Jack.
Outside the car, the rain was friendlier than it had been on the car windows—over friendly, wet and insinuating, running its fingers through their hair and down the backs of their collars. They left their luggage in the car and ran for the front door, which had a mammoth Dickensian knocker, ready to morph into somebody’s face, but whose? Jack shouldered the door open. Then they were in a dim foyer illuminated by a night-light: a black-and-white Vermeer floor and five doors. It felt like a puzzle. There was a lion behind one of those doors, Sadie was sure, and a happy future behind another, and a lifetime supply of Rice-A-Roni behind a third.
The Rice-A-Roni door opened to reveal a small woman holding a flashlight, dressed like a stable boy, or in what Sadie imagined a stable boy might wear, corduroy pants tucked into rubber boots, a sweater that surely had been handed down by a careless person with a lot of money: brown cashmere with unraveling cuffs.
“This way,” she said in a stage whisper. “Hello!”
“Hello!” whispered Jack.
“We’ve put you in the snug, just for tonight,” she whispered. “Hope that’s all right. Tomorrow some family is shifting to the hotel downtown to get ready. You can take our room then.”
They followed her to a tiny room in the middle of the house that was almost entirely taken up by a bed. “Air mattress, but it’s a good one. The electric blanket’s on. Poor things,” the woman said. “You must be shattered.”
“We are,” said Jack.
“We’ll meet properly in the morning,” the woman said. “Lenny, your hair’s hilarious. It’s quite big, isn’t it?”
He raised his hands and felt his head. “This is Sadie,” he said.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Sadie. See you in the morning.” The woman went out a door opposite the door they’d come in. The house was silent all around them.
“Why’d she call you Lenny?” asked Sadie.
“Because it’s my name.” He gave the air mattress a kick. “My actual name. Leonard. You know that. My family calls me Lenny. I hate it.”
“I knew it was your name but I didn’t know it was your name,” she said.
“I hate it,” he repeated.
She felt wild with various discomforts. “I need to pee.”
They were in a room with three doors: the one they’d come in, the door through which the woman had left, and a door to the outside with windowpanes. The rain seemed to patter at all of them.
“It’s too confusing,” said Jack. “Go outside.”
“Go outside?” She opened the door they’d come through, only to be faced with half a dozen other doors, all closed. She might find a toilet behind any of them, or a sleeping stranger. Already Jack had opened the back door. “Well, I’m having a slash outdoors,” he said.
“Easy for you to say.”
“G’wan,” he said. “G’wan, g’wan, g’wan.”
Could be worse, she told herself. She was wearing a dress, so she took off her coat and her tights and her underpants and went out in the rain. It was cold but she was cold; she could hardly get any colder.
“You done with your slash?” she asked.
“Here, give me your hand. Is your entire family here?”
“Are they watching me pee in the rain?”
“Without a doubt.”
“Who was that lady?”
“That lady was the bride. Fiona. Did I not say?”
“You did not. Okay. Done.”
Inside Jack found a little lamp to switch on, clamped to the edge of a stepladder. The walls were vivid green, and he looked like a Toulouse-Lautrec lady, lit from underneath, glamorous, sure to die or go blind or mad.
The idea of an air mattress and an electric blanket had sounded like a disaster to Sadie, but she put her underpants back on and took off her wet dress and used it to dry her wet knees and then, cold to the bone, she slid in. She’d never slept under an electric blanket. It was warm, and a comfort, and she felt like a little abandoned animal whose mother had died but who might yet be saved by technology. Incubated. That’s how she felt. Maybe she would be electrocuted and maybe the air mattress would spring a leak and they would sail around the room as it emptied out. For the moment, she had never felt anything more exquisite, this warm little raft heading out to sleep.
Hours later she heard the noise of children, and then a barking voice saying, “No, Thomas, no, they’re asleep; no, Pie, come here, you’ll play piano later.” The daylight was sodden. The rain had stopped, but she could hear water dripping. Next to her was a paint-splattered upright piano. The electric blanket was cold. The air mattress had lost a little air, but they were still afloat.
“Ireland,” said Jack.
“Still?” said Sadie.
“Yes, and for days.”
She fell back asleep.
When she woke next, she heard voices behind all the doors, left, right, at the head of the bed. She was in her underwear, locked in a secret room surrounded by Jack’s family. By God, she should have passed that tractor, been braver, driven right through Clonmel to Dingle Peninsula, on the other side of the country. Dingle. What a name for a beautiful place. She had never been there, but a high-school friend had once sent her a postcard from the beach of Inch.
“Jack,” she said. Jack wasn’t there. He was already out, goddamn him. She said to herself, in a whisper, “Lenny.”
No curtains at the back of the house. But he’d spread out her dress on the ladder, and it was halfway dry, so she put it on and stood next to the mattress—she had to tick her toes beneath it to fit—and listened for his voice. There it was, and the sound of pouring coffee. Or pouring tea. She hoped it was coffee. He was talking to other people. She couldn’t possibly go out there. Perhaps if she went out the door to the hallway, she could find her way to the car and her luggage and her toothbrush.
Behind the door was the black-and-white hallway, and at the front end of it, a barefoot man looked out a window. He turned to her. He wasn’t English—something about the spikiness of his haircut and the severity of his square steel glasses. He had a sandwich in his hand. “Hallo,” he said, and then, in a calm European voice, “Did you mean to leave the car door open?”
“There is a cat and a dog,” he said. “Inside your car.”
Her shoes were still by the door, moist as oysters. She put them on. Awful. “A cat and dog,” she said. It had been raining cats and dogs; she believed he’d spoken metaphorically. But he hadn’t. The driver’s-side door was open, and a Shetland sheepdog jumped out onto the drive. Already a Siamese cat was picking its way along the cobblestones toward the front garden.
“So you see,” said the man, who had followed her in his bare feet. He closed the car door for her. “I’m Piet.”
“Sadie,” she said. “Are—is that your dog?”
“Neighbors, maybe? I don’t know. Not yours? You didn’t bring us a cat and a dog from America?”
In the daylight she could see that they were at the top of a hill, other hills in front of her in various degrees of fog and sparkle. “Do you think they spent the whole night there?”
Piet nodded. “I like to think so, yes.”
“Like a children’s book,” she said. The humiliating feeling of having been so exhausted that she’d left the door open in a rainstorm evaporated. Where else would the animals of Clonmel take shelter? It must be a good sign. An odd and happy marriage, after all. But whose sign was it?
Piet ripped his sandwich in two and handed an unbitten portion to her. “Breakfast,” he said. Dizzily, she bit into it. She had been expecting ham, but it was sweet and delicious and crunched under her teeth.
“Strawberry,” said Piet. “Butter, sugar.” He felt his chin. “I suppose I am getting married and should shave.”
“The wedding’s here?”
“The wedding’s at church,” he said philosophically. “I could be married on a rock, by a buzzard or a bear, but not Fiona. She believes in God. ‘God is everywhere,’ I told her, ‘don’t you think?’ But I am an atheist, and so my opinions on God do not matter.”
He carried her bag into the house and pointed her to the bathroom, which had a toilet unconvincingly attached to the wall and a claw-foot tub belly-up in the corner, awaiting its installation. The sink worked. Her toothbrush had rubbed up against something soapy in her cosmetic bag, and it tasted of mint, perfume, and incompetence. She changed into a clean dress, a pair of leggings, clean socks; stowed the suitcase in the snug; draped her dirty, damp clothing over the top; and went around the long way to follow the sound of voices to a kitchen. There was Jack leaning against a yellow enameled stove, surrounded by English people, all of them dressed like stable hands. He was still in yesterday’s clothing (sleeping in it had achieved the correct level of rumpled). The room smelled of cigarettes and sausage. She studied Jack’s face for some evidence of guilt over abandoning her.
Instead he said, “There she is!”
She went to him but he did not—as he would have in America—put his arm around her. “Sit,” he said to her, his voice full of kindness; she could tell how happy he was to see her. “Sit, sit. What can I get you? Let me make you some coffee. This is Sadie,” he said to the assembled English. They were all women, with the exception of one small boy, who abruptly opened the door to the snug and began to bang on the piano, and a man with giant hands, who was putting dishes away in a cupboard. These were people who called Jack “Lenny.” They looked just the sort. “Sadie, you’ve met Fiona, and here’s Katie and Eloise, my other sisters. That’s Katie’s husband, Paul.”
Together Jack and his sisters looked like the full toolbox: hatchet, knife, spade, trowel. Sadie, having been sat, understood that she was not to make physical contact with any of the people present. She was about to say hello when an older man came through a door in the corner of the room, shaking water from his hands.
Jack’s father—it had to be—with Jack’s thick curls, though whiter and tidier. He was a tall man, serrated—Sadie felt cut already, as she would always feel around him—with extraordinarily blue eyes that he must have been vain about. He wore a sweater one shade darker, peacock, to bring them out.
“Still there!” he said in a jubilant voice.
“For fuck’s sake,” said Jack.
“It’s not!” said the woman who’d let them in. Fiona. The bride. She was washing dishes and smoking a cigarette. “It can’t be.”
“Well done, Lenny,” said their father.
“What?” said Sadie.
“I think it’s a lovely present that Len has brought,” said Jack’s father. Then he winced.
Paul at the cupboards noticed the wincing. “Pie,” he shouted into the snug. “Stop torturing that piano.” The piano stopped for half a second, then started again with more deliberation.
“A work of art, really,” said one of the sisters.
Sadie looked at Jack. He shook his head.
“A very honored wedding guest,” said Fiona.
“Do fuh-kawf,” said Jack, in one of the exaggerated English accents he sometimes slid into. He had dozens of them, similar but for subtly different uses, like the blades of a penknife. He added, “Would you?”
“The lingering log of Len,” said Jack’s father.
Then the little boy was back, and said to Sadie, with the same jubilation, “It’s a turd won’t flush!” He set his hand on Sadie’s knee. She had never been so glad for a human touch in her life.
The assembled Valerts laughed, silently. It was a laugh Sadie recognized from Jack: To make noise would ruin the joke.
“It is tenacious,” said Fiona. “It’s quite a tenacious turd.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Jack’s father said to Sadie, as though noticing her for the first time. He regarded her with an intensity she couldn’t interpret. Kindly? Aggressive? Flirtatious? “Americans don’t appreciate the scatological, do they?”
“We do,” said Sadie, thinking, I don’t. The kitchen table was at an angle to the walls and it gave her a headache. She could feel the sugar from the strawberry sandwich in her molars. How far was town? Could they get out of there? She looked up at Jack. “Coffee?”
“I’ll make some.”
“This is my father,” said Fiona, squinting at the smoke from her own cigarette. “Daddy, this is Sadie. I’m sorry you won’t meet my mother.”
“No?” said Sadie to Jack.
“She’s unwell,” said Michael Valert. “Rotten timing.” It was his eyes that confused things, so startlingly blue that they seemed to hold every emotion and its opposite. “You must be absolutely shattered,” he told her.
“Not too bad.”
“All that driving. I’d be shattered. I am shattered.”
“S’shame,” said Jack. “About Ma.”
“Can’t be helped,” said Fiona. “We’ll video.”
Jack set a cup of coffee on the table. The little plastic jug in front of her was marked milk. “Cream?” she said to Jack.
He shook his head. “I’m going to help Piet set up the tables for the reception. You all right?”
She nodded. She understood that she would be, in some way, abandoned to these English people. “What can I do to help?” she asked the room at large.
“Nothing to do,” said Fiona. She dropped her cigarette down the neck of a beer bottle on the counter, which was already filled with cigarettes. “The Dutch have it in hand.”
“We’re going for a walk, if you’d like to come,” said Eloise.
“That sounds nice.”
“You can borrow a pair of boots and a raincoat.”
As Sadie passed Michael Valert, he said, “It’s a large turd. Impressive. You must be feeding him well.”
The boots wouldn’t go over Sadie’s thick calves, so she put on her wet shoes, a pair of rubber-soled Mary Janes. The coat wouldn’t button over her hips, so she wore it open. By “we” Eloise had meant herself and a small, wild-eyed, disheveled terrier who looked like the dog in The Arnolfini Portrait and whose name was, apparently, Shithead. Sadie followed the two of them out the door, across a field, and then, alarmingly, up a hill.
“It’s an amazing house,” said Sadie, to prove to Eloise that she wasn’t too out of breath to talk. “Why Ireland?”
“Why indeed. Apparently they like the Irish. I think they’re mad to have bought it.”
“It’ll take them donkey’s years to fix it up. Not to mention the cost. They’re not very practical. Here, let’s go this way.” Eloise opened a gate that said Beware of bull. “Come on.”
Sadie pointed at the sign and said, “Bull?”
Eloise’s hat was large and tweed. It had fallen over her eyes; she knocked the brim up with her fist and scanned the field. “Look,” she said. “He’s over there. Come on! Don’t be wet.”
“I’m—they move fast, don’t they?”
“He won’t bother us. Come on, Shithead,” she called in a sweet, threatening voice. “Shitty! Shitty.”
The dog crossed first and they followed, and then climbed through some barbed wire, which caught in Sadie’s hair. She could feel the soggy shoes tugging at her leggings, the waistband of which had fallen below the equator of her bottom. She slid in the mud. At the moment she thought Eloise was purposefully testing or torturing her, but eventually she would learn that this was simply every walk in the country with every English person she would ever meet: mud and injury and a disregard for safety and private property.
“What do you do?” she asked Eloise.
The hat was down again; she knocked it up again. “Really? I’m a doctor. Len didn’t tell you?”
“Of course!” she said, though he hadn’t. “I meant what kind of doctor.”
Sadie looked at her watch. “What time is the wedding?”
“’Tis,” said Eloise.
“Does Fiona need help? Getting ready? If your mother’s not here.”
“The Dutch will do that. They’re very good, the Dutch. Why, are you tired? We can go back. Lenny’s told me all about you.”
“Oh,” said Sadie. “Sorry your mother’s not here.”
“She’s got gout.”
“You think she’d lie?”
“No. I just—I guess I didn’t realize women get gout.”
“Runs in families,” said Eloise, and Sadie realized there was nearly nothing that Eloise did not deliver as a threat. “This way.”
They seemed to be angling back down the hill. She thought it was a hill; it might have been a mountain. “Lucky it stopped raining.”
“Ground’ll be wet for the wedding.”
“Are there roofs over the stables?”
“Yes,” she said. “But for the dancing there’s not.”
“The Dutch will want to dance, surely,” said Eloise. “And you. Americans are always dancing, aren’t they? Shitty!” called Eloise, in a headmistress voice. “Shithead! Get over here.” Then, carelessly, “I hope you weren’t bothered.”
“Oh gosh, no,” said Sadie. “By what?”
“My father. He has a childish sense of humor.”
At the house, they went in a door at the back, yet another one. Eloise bundled the dog in a dirty pink towel the color of a tongue, then tucked him under her arm. “Do you want a tour?”
“We’ll take the back stairs.”
Like servants do, thought Sadie, who’d read enough books about English girls in peril to wonder whether she was about to be shut in an attic.
Some rooms were still derelict and some under construction, but absolutely nothing was finished. Until recently, the house had been owned and occupied by a single old man, who had died alone in one of the bedrooms. Somebody, perhaps the old man when he was a young man, had painted all of the walls with vivid tempera paint, which gave the rooms the intense look of Renaissance frescoes—brand-new, ancient, like marriage itself—and which would, come evening, rub off against the clothing of wedding guests who got too close. The old man’s bedroom was blue. Lapis lazuli, thought Sadie. Had his family died? His wife, his children? But the old man had never married; it had been his parents and brother and sisters who had died or disappeared, one at a time. No man who’d ever been married could have died thus: alone but perfectly happy in his bed, a portrait of the Virgin Mary hung at an angle so he didn’t have to hurt his neck to look at her.
“Sad to die alone,” said Sadie.
“How do you know?” asked Eloise. She set the dog on the ground. He sniffed at the threshold of the room but didn’t go in. “I’m longing for it. But instead I will be surrounded by my children and grandchildren.”
“Oh!” said Sadie. “You have children.”
“Grown,” said Eloise. “Elsewhere.” Then, in an exaggerated English accent, though her own accent was already extremely English, “Gawn.”
Sadie noticed her suitcase in the corner of the room, Jack’s next to it. Her bag had been repacked, closed up. She hoped Jack had been the one who’d done it. She suspected he hadn’t.
The tub in the upstairs bathroom was only partially installed; it was waiting for an exterior wall to hide the fiberglass form. There were unsecured sinks in odd places. The floors were wood, dusty, the varnish worn away. Everything felt precarious but also beautiful—an excellent place, thought Sadie, for starting a life together.
“What did you get as a present?” Eloise asked.
Sadie was happy to say. It had been her idea. “A guest book,” she said. “For the house.” They had ordered it from Smythson, leather-bound, with the name of the house—Currock House—stamped in gold on the cover.
“What?” said Eloise.
Sadie didn’t know what misstep she’d made. Were you not supposed to reveal wedding presents before the wedding? But Eloise had asked!
“That’s what I got,” said Eloise. “You’ll have to get something else.”
“Well,” said Sadie.
“Lottie’s invited,” said Eloise suddenly, as though the matter had been settled. “I’m sure Lenny said.”
At that, Eloise laughed. It was a disconcerting laugh; you could see her tongue move with every peal, a rapid clapper in a bell. “Not a clown, no.”
“Oh, that’s right. Puppets. Right?”
“You don’t know about Lottie! He worshipped her. But I’m sure he’s told you.”
He had mentioned Lottie—that she was older than he was, that they’d busked together on the streets of London. Not a girlfriend; just a woman. He’d been a teenager when they met. When Sadie thought of it, their act was in the jittery black and white of long ago. But he’d never spoken of worship. Her ankles were sore. She wondered if there was somewhere to take a nap, or even time enough.
“You must make him tell you about Lottie,” said Eloise. “It’s important.”
“All right,” said Sadie. She crouched to pat the dog. “Hello, Shithead.”
“His name,” said Eloise, “is Seamus.”
“Oh! I thought—”
“Shithead’s his nickname,” said Eloise, fondly, to the dog.
The wedding was at five, with a reception to follow. Most of the party went to the hotel in town to get ready, but the broke relatives—Sadie and Jack, Katie and Paul and their twins—stayed behind. Sadie and Jack got ready in the blue bedroom, where the old man had died.
“Where’s my bag?” said Jack. They had not been together long enough to pack in the same suitcase.
“Here. Is your family always like that?”
“Obsessed with shit.”
He laughed. “Right. English. That didn’t bother you, surely.”
“I’ve had anxiety dreams that were more relaxing. Shame about your mother’s gout.”
“Gout? No gout. Where did you get gout?”
“Yes, she would. No: The problem is that Fiona converted to Catholicism and is now marrying an atheist.”
“Which is worse?”
“Hard to tell.”
“How’s being Jewish?” she asked. “If she’s against Catholics.”
“You’re not Jewish.”
“I am Jewish. Are you in the wedding party?”
“What’s with the suit?”
He was stepping into striped pants. “It’s my morning suit. It’s what you wear to weddings.”
“You own that suit?”
“Yes,” he said. Then, “Your mother’s Jewish.”
“Yes, my mother’s Jewish, so I’m Jewish.”
“Jews the wide world over. Didn’t you know that? Matrilineal, mate.”
“Huh,” he said. “Don’t call me mate. No, I think she’d be fine with that. You didn’t choose it, after all.”
“But what if I did?”
“Sadie,” said Jack.
“What about Lottie?”
“She wasn’t Jewish.”
“Did you know she was invited to the wedding?”
At that Jack smiled, but he also began to arrange his hair, his major vanity, the dark curls that he wore swept off his forehead. “No, she’s not,” he said.
“Eloise said she was.”
He laughed with some relief. “Don’t believe what Eloise says.”
“She says you worshipped Lottie.”
“Bollocks I did.”
“I love it when you speak British. And you didn’t sleep together.”
Sadie laughed, but Jack didn’t.
“Not often,” he said again.
“Near the start or near the end?”
He took his hands from his hair. “Right near the middle,” he said.
When they drove up to the church, they were already rushed. “Why does the car smell of wet dog?” he asked, and Sadie thought, Was that today? It seemed like weeks ago. She hadn’t had a chance to tell him the story, which she knew would delight him; it had slipped her mind.
She parked the car. “Does it?”
“Remember the emergency brake,” he told her.
“I always do,” she said, though she’d forgotten.
Inside the church they were hustled up to a front pew by a Dutch person in a red-denim blazer. Nobody had to ask bride’s side or groom’s: The English were the ones in floral prints and hats and morning suits, and the Dutch were the ones in long braids and primary colors. Sadie turned to see if she could pick out Lottie among the guests, but all she could see were hats, an armada of them.
The wedding, being a wedding, passed without incident.
Afterward, they had drinks in the checker-floored foyer of the house, with plates of pâté and toast handed around. The tempera paint on the walls rubbed off on people. The twins’ hands were blue. Shithead’s port side was green. The guests who got too close to the yellow walls came away looking pollinated.
“My mother would hate this,” said Jack. “Better she stayed at home.”
“Do you like weddings?” said Sadie.
“No,” he said. Then, “Lucky for us we’re already married.”
Sadie laughed ruefully.
“That drunk guy,” said Jack. “From the bar. Our first date. Didn’t he pronounce us man and wife?”
“I don’t think he was credentialed.”
“He might have been a ship’s captain. Do you like weddings?”
She thought about it. The answer was no, but she thought she might like marriage.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They’re all right. No,” she said. “No. I don’t.”
“I didn’t think so.”
She was crying then.
“Oh, no!” he said, startled. “No! What’s the matter?”
The matter was she felt, all of a sudden, the force of the Valerts, and understood them as quicksand, and didn’t know whether she should get herself out or try to rescue both of them. Eloise, the father, even darling Fiona, even Katie and Paul’s twin sons, with their Rod Stewart haircuts and old-man outfits that matched those of Jack’s family. She’d understood matching clothing—tracksuits, Disneyland sweatshirts, striped pajamas—as a particularly American insanity. She didn’t like the international version any better.
“I’ll ask you one of these days,” he said, fond and irritated. “When I get some things straightened out.”
She was astonished that he understood so little.
After all the rain, they had a beautiful night. The ground was muddy, but the stables were paved and covered and strung with fairy lights. There was no dancing—dancing had been canceled, because it had been planned for the field and the field was muck. “Like the Somme,” observed Michael Valert to Sadie, daring her to get the reference, which she did not. There was no seating plan, just long tables laid out. It had been a small wedding.
Eloise was weeping. She had seen the guest book that Jack and Sadie had bought.
“It’s nicer,” she said to her father.
“No, it’s not, I’m sure it’s not.”
“It is!” she said. Then she was crying into his shoulder, and Fiona was there, too, and they were all comforting Eloise, whose grown gawn children hadn’t come.
“It can be a different kind of guest book!” said Fiona. “Yours is lovely.” She looked at Sadie. “They’re both lovely!”
Michael Valert had to play emcee at dinner, because Piet’s best man was a small, shy Dutch woman named Kick who’d refused. Jack and Kick went off to smoke a cigarette, but Michael Valert didn’t care. He assumed his position at the microphone, and offered a toast that referenced, among other things, the morning shit that hadn’t flushed, a number of jokes about the Dutch, one about the French—it turned out that Eloise’s long-ago-divorced husband had been French—and one about an unarmed American, who, Sadie realized with surprise, was her. “To the bride and groom!” said Michael Valert. She was at a table with the unmarrying sisters. The blond twins played mumblety-peg with a butter knife and their sweet, blue hands.
“Which one’s Pie?” Sadie asked.
“They both are,” said Eloise. “Easier that way.”
Instead of a cake, there were three Dutch cheeses in graduated sizes. Where was Jack? Michael Valert announced into the microphone, “The bride and groom will now cut the cheese.”
Now that, thought Sadie, was funny, and she burst into delighted laughter.
That was how she discovered that the euphemism was only American, and she the only American there. Jack was American, too, of course, no matter how he denied it, but Jack was elsewhere. When Sadie realized that everyone in the stables was looking at her, she began to laugh harder. Her laughter was not silent. She could hear herself shriek.
“What is it?” hissed Eloise, and Sadie could only manage to say, “It means f-f-fart.” Across the stable, Michael Valert stared at her with his exceptionally blue eyes, as amplified as his voice had been, and for a moment she felt ashamed, but then, as though her soul had been turned over with a spade, the shame turned to absolute joy. She could have stood and sung, she thought, though she could not sing. Indeed the bride and groom had cut the cheese. Fiona’s dress was scallion green, and glorious. The Dutch had put too much gel in her hair.
That night they slept in the room of the dead man—what if he’d died in this bed, asked Jack, and Sadie, brave for once, said, “People have died everywhere, you can hardly avoid it, come here”—and tomorrow they would drive to Dingle Peninsula, and she would think, over and over, I am going to drive off this road and ruin everything, but she never did, and she told him about the cat and dog, and explained to him that she thought his father had purposely made a funny joke—the bride and groom will now cut the cheese!—and then they both laughed so hard that she had to pull over to the side of the road, and when they recovered, they drove out to Inch, where they were the only people on the beach, and so quickly and laughingly had sex on the damp sand, there was not a place in all of Ireland that wasn’t damp, but what else do you do when you are all alone, and liberated?
For now, when Jack came back to the table, he found Sadie laughing so hard that she couldn’t speak, and his family arrayed around her. She was crying with laughter, and every time she tried to explain, she laughed harder, and his family looked more appalled.
“What is it?” asked Jack, who felt suddenly the depths of his love for her, like Pavlov’s dogs, all of them in love with Pavlov.
“Why is that woman laughing?” Michael Valert said into the microphone.
“Tell her to stop!” said Eloise. “Make her stop!”
But he couldn’t, and she couldn’t either.
This story is an excerpt from Elizabeth McCracken’s upcoming collection, The Souvenir Museum.