By Alan Swyer
"I think you should be the one to drive down and represent us at the wedding," said Gerber over a Saturday lunch of samgytang at a Korean restaurant he and his wife frequented.
"What about you?" asked Wendy.
"I'll stay home with the pup."
"C'mon, Rory's your nephew, too."
"Who I'd recognize if he walked through the door?"
"Whose fault is that?"
"Certainly not mine. How many times did your brother and what's-her-face drive their family down to Disneyland when Rory and our kids were young?"
"Did they ever once stop to see us? Going or coming?"
"That's not fair."
Wendy sighed. "Let's let bygones be bygones. Give me one real reason why you shouldn't go."
"Other than not having to board Shadow? I don't want to hear Claire whine about the cost of shrimp at Costco."
"That was one night at dinner years ago."
"One too many."
"And she's got more on her mind than that."
"Sure fooled me."
Late Tuesday afternoon, Wendy was pruning rose bushes in the front yard when Gerber drove up. "Know how you always assume the worst from Claire?" she asked as her husband climbed out from the driver's seat.
"Guess who stepped up. In the hope that everyone will come to the nuptials –"
"Her word, not mine. She's arranged housing for all family members, including the one in our house with four legs and a tail."
"What's the catch?"
"Always so cynical."
"Is it going to hurt to be gracious for the sake of Rory and Jolene?"
Gerber responded by shaking his head.
"What?" Wendy asked.
"Other than the old Dolly Parton song, who in the world names a daughter Jolene?"
"Sure the wedding's in San Diego, and not Mississippi?"
Three-and-a-half weeks later, with their six-month old Labrador retriever in the backseat, the Gerbers headed south on the freeway early on Friday afternoon.
"Thanks for being a good sport," Wendy said. "And who knows? Maybe it'll be fun."
"Right, with scintillating talk."
Wendy chuckled. "And intellectual stimulation."
"Now I'll tell one. What do you think table talk at home is like between your brother and Claire?"
"There isn't any."
"What's that mean?"
"Didn't I tell you about the time I visited them?"
"They sit across the room from each other in easy chairs, nibbling in silence while fiddling with their iPads."
Gerber gulped. "Too late for me to bail?"
After making a couple of stops for their puppy to have a drink and pee, the travelers finally reached La Jolla. As they entered an upscale area in the hills, Wendy gazed at the stately homes they were passing. "Looks like Claire's doing it nicely."
"I still say there's a catch," Gerber countered, receiving a playful swat.
They wound their way higher and higher until coming upon an imposing dwelling in the style of a chateau in the Loire Valley.
"This looks comfortable," Wendy teased. But as she opened the passenger door, her smile vanished upon hearing her sister-in-law's unmistakable voice.
"Goddamnit, Rob!" Claire could be heard bellowing from within the house. "Can't you ever do anything right?"
Seeing Wendy flinch, Gerber, who was just then letting Shadow out of the back seat, chose not to utter a word.
"I told you to run the errands before anyone arrives to make us crazy!" Claire continued to scream. "But does my genius husband ever listen?"
As the puppy started to bark, out from the house came a browbeaten Rob Carlson, who cringed at the realization that others might have heard his verbal whipping. "J-just get here?" he asked, doing his best to put on a smile.
"This very second," Gerber lied. Hugs were exchanged by the three grown-ups, then Rob bent over to receive some puppy kisses.
"Should we unpack?" asked Wendy.
"Actually," Rob said somewhat awkwardly, "you're staying somewhere else."
"I thought we were all under one roof," said Gerber.
"Just Claire's side of the family. I've got errands to run, so why don't you follow me first to where you're staying?"
Silence reigned as the recent arrivals followed Rob down from the hills toward a far less desirable area. Then suddenly Wendy spoke to Gerber. "Thanks."
"Not saying anything."
"I hadn't heard her like that," Wendy acknowledged.
Minutes later, Wendy's stomach sank as Rob gestured toward a nondescript apartment complex on a dreary street.
While Wendy held the puppy's leash, Gerber unloaded their gear from the trunk. Grabbing a suitcase and the cushion that would serve as Shadow's temporary bed, Rob led the way into the building. Together they all trudged toward a first floor apartment.
Wendy did her best to stifle a scream when her brother unlocked the door.
"See you at the rehearsal dinner?" Rob asked after depositing what he was carrying.
Wendy nodded, then watched her brother leave before speaking again. "Think it's deliberate?" she asked Gerber.
"Putting us in this dungeon. But I guess it could be worse."
"At least we didn't lean on the kids to come along."
That evening, driving up toward the house where a barbecue was scheduled for the out-of-town guests, Wendy turned to Gerber, who was at the wheel. "I'm just really glad we brought Shadow on the trip."
"So that she's not boarded somewhere?"
"As an excuse to leave early."
"Hey, maybe it'll be okay."
"And maybe you'll wake up 6'8" tomorrow and sign with the Lakers. Do me a favor?"
"Stop me if it looks like I'm about to take a swing at my sister-in-law."
Stepping into the gathering with no great glee, Gerber and Wendy were immediately spotted by Claire. "There they are!" she exclaimed, extricating herself from others so as to scurry over. "Hope you like your digs."
Wendy said nothing, so Gerber answered. "All the comforts of home."
Missing the sarcasm, Claire took each of them by the arm. "Let me introduce you to Jolene's mom and dad."
Weaving her way through groups of people, Claire led them toward a tattooed guy and a tall blonde, both garbed in San Diego Padres jerseys. "Tiffany and Stan, say hello to Rob's sister Wendy and her husband Mark."
"The ones from LA, right?" asked Stan.
"Santa Monica actually," answered Gerber.
"Then we don't hate you quite as much," said Tiffany, who was wearing huge hooped earrings.
"I-I beg your pardon?" murmured Wendy.
"For stealing our Chargers," Stan replied. "Bye-bye not just football, but everything that came with it."
"Stan loved his tailgating parties," Tiffany explained.
Looking for a way to escape, Wendy glanced surreptitiously around the room. "There's Rory," she announced. "How about we talk more later?"
Without waiting for an answer, Wendy led Gerber over to where her nephew was standing with a younger version of Tiffany, minus the Padres jersey.
"Congratulations!" Wendy said to Rory as she kissed him on the cheek.
"Jolene, this is my aunt Wendy and my uncle Mark."
Jolene eyed Gerber strangely. "You're the one who made that documentary, right?"
"I've made several."
"I mean the one about Buddhism."
"Guilty as charged."
"Weren't you worried?"
"That they'd try to convert you."
Gerber eyed Tiffany strangely. "Why would anyone try to convert me?"
"Because it's a cult," she said.
Rather than going on the attack, Gerber took a deep breath. "Actually Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion."
"Not according to my pastor."
"I beg to disagree."
"You can ask him yourself when he officiates at the wedding."
Gerber was spared from having to respond when in swooped Claire, who draped her arms around Rory and Jolene. "Gotta steal the soon-to-be bride and groom," she said merrily.
Watching the three of them wander off, Wendy turned to her husband. "You okay?" she asked softly.
Uncomfortable in the temporary lodging, Wendy was in bed with a novel by Jean-Claude Izzo when Gerber returned after what he called a "pee for good night" walk with Shadow.
"How did this happen?" Wendy asked as her husband started getting undressed.
"That a rhetorical question?"
"Why does my brother put up with her?"
"What do I know?"
"Tell me your thoughts."
Seeing Wendy nod, Gerber sat down beside her on the bed. "There are all sorts of reasons people stay together," he began. "Love. Common interests. Kids. Sex. Any of those describe Rob and Claire?"
"Not as far as I can see."
"Do they golf together? Have a shared love of abstract expressionism? Seek out hidden culinary gems? Work on political campaigns?"
"What's your point?"
"Sure you want to know?"
"Part of it's probably inertia on Rob's part."
"And the rest?"
"Since they basically lead separate lives, he's pretty much free to do whatever he feels like. There's her family's ski house. Scuba trips to the Caribbean. Time for all his hobbies."
"So you're saying it's a business deal?"
"Let's call it an accommodation."
Thinking that Wendy was asleep when he started to climb into bed after getting undressed and brushing his teeth, Gerber was surprised to see her sit up. "Think he's happy?" she asked.
"What do I know. But how many people are really happy?"
"Me? I'm mean, ornery, and miserable. Of course I'm happy, though not necessarily in this dungeon, or when I'm being blamed for no more tailgating parties. You?"
"With you? With our kids? With Shadow? Absolutely. But can we go home now?"
"I wish. Hey, maybe the wedding won't be so bad."
"And maybe it'll snow on the 4th of July."
Hoping that by limiting their time at the wedding they would minimize their suffering, Gerber and Wendy were among the last to arrive, walking in just as the ceremony was about to begin.
As inconspicuously as possible, the two of them took seats among the celebrants, then flinched at the sight of Jolene's pastor, whose slicked-back hair and bulging eyes gave him a reptilian quality.
"Dearly beloved," the pastor began, "we are gathered here today for a joyous occasion, the pairing in holy matrimony of two people about to embark on a lifelong journey. Though never easy, such a journey is increasingly difficult in these ever more Godless times. We live in an age in which the wisdom of the Bible has given way in far too many instances to indulgence, depravity, and sin. Therefore, it is my mission, my duty, and my goal to cite passages from the Gospel that should serve as a road map for Jolene and Rory. Are you ready, Jolene?"
"Yes," Jolene stating firmly.
"And you, Rory?"
"And you, assorted well-wishers?"
Wendy was astonished to see her brother Rob join Claire and most everyone else in an even more resounding "Yes!"
"Let us start with Genesis 3:16," said the pastor. "In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be toward your husband, and he shall rule over thee. Can I get an Amen?"
As the congregation voiced a hearty Amen, Wendy, despite wanting to scream, settled for kicking Gerber, who shrugged.
"But," said the pastor, "there is an even greater obligation for both husband and wife. In these times of sin, where marriage is no longer viewed as a sacrament between man and woman, there is a need to reject political correctness. Consider Leviticus 18:13, which says, If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination."
Again those gathered, with the exception of Wendy and Gerber, shouted Amen!
Nearly apoplectic, Wendy stood, then tiptoed toward the restrooms, with Gerber following.
Only when they were a safe distance from the others did Wendy speak. "I don't know what's worse," she whispered to Gerber, "the gibberish being spoken, or the fact that my kid brother puts up with it."
"If you want to leave, I'm ready."
"Before we go, will you do me a favor?"
"Put Mr. Fire & Brimstone in his place."
Seeing the Pastor say his goodbyes to Jolene, Rory, and their parents, Gerber headed toward the front door to intercept him. "Word is you consider Buddhism a cult," he said, blocking the clergyman's path.
"Why do you think Pope Benedict XVI called it a form of spiritual auto-eroticism."
"Actually, that was when he was Cardinal Ratzinger," Gerber stated. "As Pope, he apologized."
"Not that I'm aware of."
"And of course you're big on Catholicism."
"But cherry-picking? You like that, don't you?"
The Pastor frowned. "What's your point?"
"Aside from turning a wedding into a bully pulpit, which is offensive enough, you cherry-picked Bible passages."
"Says me. If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination, for instance."
"What about it?"
"You left out the fact that it ends with They shall surely be put to death. Was that purely accidental? Somehow I doubt it. Or was it that you thought your captive audience might not be willing to accept what the Muslims call a Fatwa?"
Seeing the Pastor turn beet red, Claire hastened over from across the room and got in Gerber's face. "If you're not happy here," she hissed, "maybe it's time for you to leave."
Instead of counter-punching, Gerber simply smiled. "Best idea I've heard all day," he said, starting for the door.
Claire watched him take two steps, then turned to Wendy. "I hope you understand that –" she started to say, only to see Wendy follow her husband out of the building.
Gerber and Wendy were climbing into their Toyota when Rob came running up. "Guys," he said, "you've really put me in a pickle."
Though there was much Gerber could have easily said, he allowed Wendy to reply.
"Good," she said.
Then off they drove to pick up their puppy and head toward a saner world.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.