September 18, 1981 – Presage, Louisiana
The old doors were barred.
For a moment, I thought of a picture I’d seen as a child. A picture in some storybook of a castle, its drawbridge pulled tight against gray stone. A moat surrounding it with alligators snapping their mouths shut at anything that might try them. I can’t remember the book. But the image stayed with me.
And it colored this sacred moment.
Miss Francine was on the piano. Playing Vivaldi or Pachelbel or maybe Bach? I don’t remember. When faced with a moment like this one, the details all smear together like paint on a palette.
But I can still see her, just off to the right, pounding on that upright piano. Sharp or flat notes occasionally peeking their way out through the melody.
Sweat beaded on the palms of my hands and ran down my fingertips, dripping, now and again, on the brown shag that carpeted the sanctuary.
The little church was filled with friends and family – nearly everyone in Presage was there. In a town as small as Presage, weddings bring folks out of the woodwork. But I couldn’t see any of them. My eyes were fixed on those old barred doors.
My heart pounded in the tip of my nose and through my fingers and toes. And when Miss Francine finally quit playing and right before she hit that first note of the wedding march, it was all I could hear.
Ba-Dum, Ba-Dum, Ba-Dum
Like someone was knocking on that old barred door.
Ba-Dum, Ba-Dum, Ba-Dum
It grew louder. And then, Miss Francine’s fragile fingers hit those first notes. Like magic, the doors flung open. And there she stood. The most beautiful girl I’d ever laid eyes on.
Arm in arm with her gray-haired daddy, she marched toward me. Drawing closer.
My heart pounded.
Ba-Dum, Ba-Dum, Ba-Dum
I’d never been so nervous in my whole life. And it wasn’t even my wedding.
August 13, 1981 – Presage, Louisiana
When I’d left the house and started out for the church it was barely sprinkling. But by the time I turned north on 167, the rain was falling in sheets. If it kept on, it looked to be a gully washer.
I twisted the knob on the radio, searching for news about the weather but found little more than static. When I stumbled on a local station playing Alabama’s ‘Old Flame’ I stopped twisting.
I didn’t know the verses but when they hit that chorus I was right there with them. I sang along, “There’s an old flame, burning in your eyes that tears can’t drown, and make-up can’t disguise.”
The rain came down harder. Soon I could barely see out the windshield – even with the wipers on full-blast.
I turned the volume knob up, drowning out the sound of the rain.
After Alabama finished their song, I would have been happy with an encore but instead got a few commercials for local businesses. Just as I pulled into the church parking-lot, Ronnie Milsap started with ‘No Gettin’ Over Me.’ Unfortunately, Belle was already standing underneath the cloth awning in front of the church. My watch told me I was ten minutes late. I was always late.
“Next time,” I told Ronnie and pulled my key out of the steering column. I opened the car door, jumped out, bolted toward the door, fumbled for my key, and called out, “Sorry I’m running late.”
Belle smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “No big deal,” she said, “I haven’t been here long.”
Her dress, soaked to the knee, betrayed her words.
After trying a couple of keys that looked similar, I finally got it right and the door opened. I motioned for Belle to go on through. She obliged.
“I really do apologize, Belle.”
She took her coat off and hung it on one of the pegs near the door. Then she took off her hat and did the same.
“And it really is no big deal.” She smiled again. “I’m used to it. You’re late. It’s in your blood. Mama told me years ago that your daddy was the same way. It’s the Porter way.”
I smiled as she brushed herself off and walked through the foyer, toward the sanctuary. Before she went in, she detoured and took a sip from the water fountain.
I couldn’t help but admire her. Something about her had always reminded me of Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Even the attitude was the same.
Belle was the kind of woman who turns every head – especially in a small town where everybody knows everybody (and half the time is related to everybody) and the pickings are few. She lived up to her name.
“Thirsty, huh?” I asked as she finally came up for air and looked back at me.
“Well, I have been waiting all morning.”
We both laughed as we entered the sanctuary. I flipped the light-switch, flooding the room with artificial light. The rain continued to fall outside, beating against the tin roof like a toddler on a drum-set.
Belle walked down the aisle and floated onto the front pew.
The church had been built in the early 1940s and had been through a lot: ten pastors, two church splits, and a couple dozen baptisms. We’d both grown up in the church. I’d chased Belle around the pews when we were kids. We’d played tag and hide-and-seek in the field behind the church with the rest of the youth.
And I’d always dreamed that one day, I’d marry her. Right here in this church.
But it wasn’t to be.
“When’ll Dale be here?” I asked as I made my way toward the front of the church.
“Should be here any minute,” she said. “He’s usually not late like some folks in town.” She winked and sent my heart fluttering.
Dale had been one of my best friends ever since he first moved to town in ’69. We’d sat next to each other the first day of school and I’d been the first person to talk to him. We hit it off right away. I invited him to church a few weeks later and before long, we were inseparable.
Lightning flashed and, a moment later, the sound rattled the ground. The sky was growing darker.
Belle shuddered. “How long’s this supposed to go on?”
“Haven’t heard,” I replied. “Weatherman said it ‘might sprinkle’ last night. Daddy always says ‘Being a weatherman’s the only job you can get paid for being wrong 99% of the time.'”
She smiled and looked back toward the window.
“I’m sure Dale’s fine. Probably just got hung up like me.”
We sat there in silence for ten or so minutes. Her eyes bounced from the window to the doorway and back to the window like a pinball.
A thought suddenly leapt into my mind. I jumped up and made my way to the back of the sanctuary where my office was. After trying a few keys, I got in and returned with a small radio in hand. I plugged it in and set it on the pew next to her.
I twisted the tuning knob all the way to the left and then twisted back right but could only get bits here and there of anything intelligible. The glory of living in the sticks, I thought.
As I wrenched it back and forth, a single word escaped that struck terror into Belle’s face: ‘tornado.’
I don’t think I can fully communicate the fear that Belle had about tornadoes. It could have been the way her parents always warned her about their dangers. Or it may have been the fact that her aunt had died in the big F5 out east, at Delhi in ’71. Or it could have just been a natural fear she had, just like some people fear water or spiders or anything else.
I don’t know why. But I know the very thought of a tornado turned Belle stark white.
I fidgeted with the knob a little more and finally got a semi-clear sound coming through.
“…Bienville, Jackson, and Lincoln Parishes. That’s a tornado watch for those parishes.”
We breathed a collective sigh of relief. We were in Harrison Parish and it appeared as though we’d lucked out. But the voice kept going.
“Remember, tornado watch means you should seek shelter because the conditions are right for a tornado to form. A tornado warning has just been issued for Harrison Parish. This means that there’s been at least one tornado spotted. We’ll get news to you about this developing story as soon as we can. In the meantime, if you’re in Harrison Parish, seek shelter immediately-”
I cut the radio off as I noticed Belle’s hands trembling.
“I’m sure he’s fine, Belle. Don’t worry. Okay?” I stuttered as I spoke, searching for any words that might bring comfort. Though I knew in my heart that the only possible comforting thing in that moment was seeing Dale safe.
I walked to the entrance of the church and looked outside through the big glass doors. The rain seemed to be coming in horizontally. The tops of the pine trees swayed and bent, this way and that. And the sky was growing darker.
I checked my watch. 8:30. He was thirty minutes late. And like Belle had said, Dale was not the kind of guy to be thirty minutes late. I searched through my mind for scenarios and finally decided that he’d gotten the news about the weather before he left and decided he’d wait it out.
I returned to her and tried to be an encouragement. She nodded and forced a smile but I could tell she wasn’t convinced.
We sat in silence for a few moments more, listening to the rain and the thunder and the wind. I kept hoping it would begin to die down but it only seemed to grow in intensity.
I flipped through cliche after cliche in my mind but could find nothing worth saying.
Then, a sound rang out and split the silence in two. The office telephone.
We both jumped up but Belle didn’t move forward. She waited for me to make my way to the office and answer the phone. After talking for a minute or two I returned and delivered the good news.
The bridge that Dale had to cross to get to 167 had nearly collapsed and left him with no easy way to the church. While trying to decide what to do, he’d heard the news about the tornado and decided to stay home. He’d called both Belle’s and my home phone but hadn’t gotten either one of us. Finally, he decided to try the church. He’d told us to stay put. The tornado warning was still alive and the rains were coming so hard there was a real danger of roads washing out.
Belle regained her normal, graceful composure and before long we were telling stories and reminiscing.
The storm outside continued to rage but inside we were at peace.
The minutes soon turned into hours and we’d spent half the evening talking about her and Dale: how she’d always known he’d had a crush on her, how he’d asked her out to the drive-in three years ago, how he’d proposed, and on and on.
And then, in one of those honest, thoughtless moments, she said something I couldn’t believe.
“I’d always hoped you’d ask me out. But I guess you were out of my league.”
“Out of your league?”
“Yea, either that or you just saw me as your little sister.”
I didn’t know what to say. I tried to speak but couldn’t make a sound. It was like a snake had coiled around my throat and was closing in for the kill. Finally, I spit something out.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. I’m serious. I’d crushed on you since I was five years old.”
This couldn’t be right. I’d been in love with her since we were kids. How could I have missed this?
I wanted to confess my love for her right there. I wanted to tell her that I’d always dreamed of marrying her in this very church. It would have been so easy to pour out my every wish and heartache like so much old gumbo. But what good would it do other than muck everything up? She was marrying Dale.
What’s done is done.
And so, we kept talking. Not about us but about her and Dale and their dreams. She wanted four kids: three boys and a girl. She hoped the three boys would come first so they could protect their little sister. Then she told me about the house Dale was buying and how she was planning on decorating it and a million other things I didn’t want to hear or care about.
She’d said “I’d always hoped you’d ask me out.” And I couldn’t think of anything else.
What might have been? If only I’d taken a chance, things might be different. We might be planning our wedding and kids and home.
But I hadn’t. I’d been afraid. Nervous. A coward.
I’d assumed she thought of me like a brother. But it was only an assumption. I hadn’t really known. At least, not until now. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.
If only I’d taken a chance.
The sound of thunder woke me up and when I opened my eyes. I blinked.
Where am I?
Then it dawned on me. I was still in the church. But the lights were off and as I wondered who had flipped the switch another bolt of lightning struck and the answer flashed through the window.
“Downed power-line…” I muttered.
At the sound of my voice, Belle moved, pressing up against me. She leaned on my side, my arm draped over her.
She was snoring.
I blinked. And for a flash – one lightning flash – I thought it had all been a dream. I thought my whole life had been a dream and that my reality was this. Like watching a movie but assuming that the movie is what’s real and sitting in the theater is the dream.
In that moment, I ‘remembered’ asking Belle on our first date. I ‘remembered’ going out and our first kiss and a thousand other things. And as the truth slowly dawned on me, I held on tight to those false memories. I clawed and scratched for them. But they passed through my fingers.
And they were gone.
Leaving me alone with the only girl I’d ever loved. A girl that, in just a few short weeks, I’d marry…to someone else.
I lightly kissed the top of her head, whispered ‘Good night,’ and shut my eyes.
I could dream for a few more hours.
September 18, 1981 – Presage, Louisiana
Belle walked down the aisle toward me and Dale. And as she came to the place where we’d fallen asleep that night, I thought once more about what might have been. But then she passed by. She and her father stopped directly in front of me.
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” I recited without thinking.
“Her mother and I.”
I looked at Dale and nodded. He moved forward and received Belle from her father and the two of them stepped forward and faced one another.
For one more instant, I thought about what might have been. Then I went on with the ceremony.
Dale had been congenial enough when we’d told him about what had happened. We’d been upfront about the whole ordeal. We’d told him that we’d talked and talked and somehow, we’d just fallen asleep.
We both woke up the next morning around 6 and Belle nearly jumped out of her skin when she’d realized what had happened. She worried about what people would think but I told her that we’d explain it all. She was that kind of girl.
But the explanation was simple. We’d met, gotten caught in the storm, and fallen asleep. There was nothing else to tell.
Dale said he’d understood. No hard feelings and all that. But something changed that day between us. I know he knew we weren’t fooling around behind his back. But that didn’t mean it didn’t tick him off that it had happened.
So we grew further and further apart. They quit coming to church. Dale quit taking my calls. And then, when I’d see them in Wal-Mart, I’d notice that after a polite wave, they always found some reason to move in the opposite direction.
It wasn’t long before I got an associate job at a big church in Dallas. And I moved away and figured that was the final period in the story of me, Dale, and Belle.
But it wasn’t.
Not by a long shot.