by David Francis

It's a rare but enjoyable experience when a free gift arrives in the mail with absolutely no strings attached. That's why in the past I always loved to receive wedding invitations from my many distant relatives.

Now I'm not talking about the gift of love or anything like that. I'm talking about the self-addressed stamped envelope that comes inside that the inviters expect you to use to RSVP your attendance. Its beautiful. A short application of steam, and that stamp is mine! Pennies from heaven just for being related to someone! I just got such an invitation about a week ago and I was planning on harvesting my thirty two cent treasure this weekend.

Such was my plan until my older and wiser brother intervened and explained to me in a phone conversation that even if I chose not to come to this wedding, I still had to use the stamp to tell the soon to be couple not to expect me.

"Ridiculous!" I said. "I am under no binding obligations to tell them anything. I didn't tell them to send me a stamp."

My brother sighed with disgust and explained it was common courtesy.

"Courtesy?" I retorted. "Is it courtesy to give someone something and then tell them they have to spend it on them?"

"They didn't GIVE it to you." he replied. "They sent you one of theirs to save you the cost of responding."

"Well, I wish they had stated something to that effect on the invitation." I answered, not afraid to reveal my anger. "I mean, if they are just handing out stamps, what do they think people are going to do?"

"Well, I doubt they ever envisioned anyone steaming off one of their stamps, David."

"Seriously? Pretty gullible don't you think? You think two people this naive about the world should really be getting married?"

My brother emitted another sigh. He began to make a reply, stopped, and then asked calmly: "If I send you a stamp, will you mail them your reply?"

"Yeah, sure." I agreed. "But what about all the other people who were thinking like me? Its going to be a pretty sparse congregation at the church."

"Oh, right." he said, (somewhat sarcastically, I thought) "I'll be calling them tonight."

Really, I have to admire my brother for his efforts. Especially considering my performance at his own wedding a couple of years ago. Now this might surprise you, but I actually don't take full blame for what transpired. The guy brought it on himself by drafting me to be an usher. He must have been seriously distracted by wedding plans when he made this decision. I mean, you don't give a guy who until the age of nineteen hid in his room every time a strange car pulled into the driveway, the job of greeting three hundred or so strangers.

I wasn't looking forward to any aspect of this job. I was entirely anti-qualified. The bride-to-be had assigned two of her brothers this frightful task as well, but they seemed to to be in perfect control. They seemed undaunted by the two basic aspects of this work which I feared most: small talk and touching old women. These two guys were masterfully chatty and took each old lady by the arm with the utmost charm and grace and led her to her seat. I realized once they started putting on this manners clinic that I would have to abandon my initial plan of grunting to the guests and gesturing mechanically in the direction of the church seats. Socially skilless or not, I was going to have to participate in this mad ritual. I took a deep breath, and turned to face the onslaught.

I made eye contact with an middle-aged lady who I figured was probably an aunt on my mother's side. Which aunt, I had no idea. My mother's sisters are as countless as alligators in a swamp, and equally as shy. She ran right up to me and began:

"David Alan Francis! I haven't seen you in years! Let's see, you must be a sophomore in college now, and you are majoring in mathematics, you're favorite color is purple, and you have a birthmark on your. . ."

Obviously, she knew EVERYTHING about me, but all I knew about her was that she was an aunt. "No problem." I thought. "If I can just get rid of this frightened and confused complexion, I can fake it that I know who she is long enough to get her to her seat and out of my life for another seven or eight years."

Unfortunately, while I was thinking these thoughts, she finished her brief report on my existence, and stared at me in silence.

"You don't know who I am, do you?" she said at last.

"Sure I do." I replied, never one to cut my losses when offered a chance to go down in complete humiliation instead.

"Okay, who am I?"

"Uh..." I began. "Aunt. . ."

She waited eagerly.

"Aunt. . .Ru..."

She started to frown. Not Aunt Ruth.


Nearly a scowl. Not Aunt Edna.


Rolling of the eyes. Not Aunt Freda.

"Uh...my favorite aunt?" I ventured.

The mysterious aunt coldly turned towards the aisle and stuck out her arm. I linked in mine, and we proceeded to her seat in silence. After this incident, I tried to keep myself to the bride's side of the family--people I was not expected to know anyway.

But I haven't gotten to my real screw up yet. That came shortly after the ceremony. We left the church to go to the reception, and I was just getting over the devistating effects of ushering and was preparing myself for the emotional confusion which is a reception.

Receptions are always difficult for me because they present such opposing stimuli. The lure of free food is not something to be discarded casually, yet the idea that this food would be surrounded by hundreds of people who might make me talk to them, filled me with horror. I felt like a laboratory rat. Every time I took a bite of this free food, I waited nervously for the ensuing electric shock of polite conversation. To avoid this dilemma, I executed my standard plan: keep my mouth so constantly and obviously full of food that conversation seemed not only difficult, but disgusting--if not dangerous.

However, in the early stages of my plan, I was interrupted by a tap on my shoulder by the best man--another brother of mine. He explained that the bride and groom had left their rental car at the church and that he would like me and yet another brother, Rob, to go pick it up so the young couple could take it to the airport to catch their plane.

"NPrbumm" I said, finishing the last of the trays full of sausage links, and soon Rob and I were in his car and on the way to the church.

Of course my nerves were not at their best at this point, what with all this emotional trauma I'd been through, and I suppose by now you are feeling pretty sorry for me. I certainly appreciate your sympathy, and I would like you to direct it now to the understanding of what happens next.

As most people know, I have never been much of a driver. Now I was in Dayton Ohio, which for a country boy like myself might as well have been the Knosses for all the better I would be able to navigate through it. The groom seemed to understand this fact. I discovered later he had begged his best man not to give this task to me. Certainly Rob understood this. As he dropped me off by the rental car and prepared to head back to the reception, he pointed out for clarity's sake:

"Only a complete moron could screw this up. All you have to do is follow me all the way back."

"Will there be any left turns?" I whimpered.

"Jesus Christ! You're pathetic." he responded. "Get going."

My brother Rob is not one to whom one can readily share their fears.

I actually did okay for about three quarters of the trip. The car was a nice one, and I almost felt relaxed as I pursued my brother's car wherever it turned. However, as we turned down the last street before we came to the place of the reception, I suddenly envisioned a possible short cut. I calculated that if I turned left where my brother turned right and then cut back on a side street to the right, I would actually beat him back. Anytime has always seemed like a good time for some sibling rivalry and competition to me, and I thought getting there before Rob would teach him not to be so derogatory of my driving abilities. So, naturally, I turned left, and from that point on I began to experience the city of Dayton in its entirety.

I quickly discovered that no such side street to the right existed. In fact, there were no side streets of any kind. I travelled further and further down the road vainly looking for some place to turn around. In my mind I kept seeing Rob's expression of horror and rage as he saw me turn the other way--I knew I would be facing some serious ridicule sooner or later.

Much later as it turned out. I finally found a place to turn around, but not before I had entirely lost my bearings. As I drove around and around the streets of Dayton I found myself wishing for a few scraps of information. Not only did I not know the name of the street were the reception was being held, I didn't know the name of the place. I didn't even know my new sister-in-law's maiden name so I couldn't even look that up in the phone book and maybe get some directions. Since I had none of this information, there was really no point in stopping to ask for directions. I wouldn't have been able to tell anyone where I wanted to go.

So I just kept driving. I think it was for just over two hours. I figure I probably covered about a 30 mile radius of aimless meandering. Keep in mind the church was about a five minute drive from the reception. I hadn't heard exactly when the honeymooners' flight was scheduled to take off, but I figured I was probably pushing the envelope on time allowed for this trip. Considering the greeting I knew I was bound to receive, its amazing I kept trying to find my way back at all.

Yet somehow I did. I met Rob driving out of the reception building's driveway as I was driving in. I purposely avoided eye contact and headed on up to the building. Heralds in tuxedoes dashed inside to announce my arrival. I heard them open the doors and shout: "HE'S HERE!!!!" and around three hundred people sigh with relief. Immediately the bride and groom came bustling out with their luggage and hopped into the rental car and sped off. Thinking of the three hundred pairs of eyes that would be on me if I walked inside, I figured I would just stay outside until the reception got over--free food or not. Then I saw that Rob had parked his car and was now walking across the lot towards me.

"Hmm." I thought. "The scorn of three hundred plus ordinary people inside, or the uniquely caustic remonstrations of my brother outside?" A second later I had dashed inside hoping to lose myself in the crowd.

Sure I was a bit of a pariah for the rest of the reception, but I didn't care too much. I had no more wedding responsibilities to attend to, and even more important, I had set a powerful precedence for those who might consider putting me in their future wedding plans. Coincidence that my next brother to get married eloped? I don't think so.