This is a true story about a gong, a wedding, and naked pictures of myself. You know me: I?m profane and lustful. I know how to put on mascara and false eyelashes, and I know how to walk in high heels. Once I put on a French maid costume and rocked an electric guitar, in a rock band. I’ve written a play about a minister who seduces nuns. The play was occasionally entertaining.
Also, I am punctual only rarely.
That’s why I was such an unlikely choice to officiate Sean?s wedding. Last Sunday morning, Sean and I cruised up US-1 in Mendocino. As we bolted up 1 we could see the Pacific shouting in the sun, the morning spray of fog burned off and morphed into wispy billowy clouds that scudded and scuttered, the fog’s little cat feet grown to giraffe legs and galumphing along just as fast. Sean dropped it into second as we coasted the coast and drifted into downtown. Young-old women tottered between the low-slung tourist shops. They wore mottled grays and purple knits made of hemp and cotton, their skin sun-worn and free of makeup, their blowzy gray hair flittering in the winds from the sea.
My friend Sean has a rough tangle of curls on his head, and dark, brooding eyes that smile only under extraordinary circumstances. Superficially, Sean’s facial expressions vary only between dour and distraught. But his expressions are a dodge: if you attend carefully to what he says, you will find an active and worldly mind with a devilish sense of humor, buried underneath the classic Appalachian stoicism.
“Some things about our families,” said Sean. “They’re generically warm, and kind folk, but I should inform you that many of them are Protestant, a few Methodist. A handful, strictly so. That’s why it’s important that my wedding, at least, superficially, be a proper one.”
“When do you want the smoke pots to be lit?”
Sean didn’t even blink. “Having you officiate our wedding was Klahr’s idea,” he said. I love Sean.
“Now,” he continued. “I have to caution you. One of my family members Googled you and found your blog. They found… certain pictures. And I?ve received a number of odd questions about you.”
“Don?t concern yourself about it,” I told him. “You and I have improvised together many times before. Your wedding will be magnificent and proper. Regardless of what happens afterwards, if you, Klahr and I show up on that overlook in three hours, you will be married there, and your families will be very happy.”
“Then I suppose the money spent on catering will be put to good use,” he said flatly.
Sean he parked his car in front of a low, squat store that looked as though it might have been staffed by elves. The sign in the front read: Lark in the Morning. We went inside, and the place was a marijuana-induced dream of strings and woodwinds. The music store contained: mandolins in three sizes; a hammered dulcimer tuned to some bizarre East Indian non-linear scale; bouzoukis electric and acoustic; gourds and gattams and goombas; a boingy bastard banjo called a cumbus; African thumb pianos and kalimbas from Bala; and a dozen Krishnas’ worth of other music toys and things.
Framed by a bare wall was a thick metal disc, about three feet wide, hammered and gold. It dangled from a bamboo pedestal. “Come here, I want you to hear this,” said Sean. He picked up a bonger next to the metal disc, swung it gently, and there came from that metal plate a huge holler of sizzling noise that went on for three minutes at least. It was a gong from the mighty Wuhan province, from which all the great gongs in the world come. The gong had a massive, demanding voice, a shout of shimmering authority.
“It’d be thrilling to have this gong at my wedding today,” remarked Sean off-handedly. “To get everyone?s attention before the toasts.”
Sean was joking, but I was willing to take the joke further. I waved to the proprietor, an impish little woman with wisps of gray hair who beamed at me. “How much for the gong?” I asked her.
“Four hundred twenty-five dollars,” she said, continuing to beam.
“Don’t bother, John,” said Sean.
“That’s an expensive gong,” I said. “My friend here is getting married today. We could use a gong. How much to rent the gong for today only?”
“I don’t know,” said the shopkeeper, fidgeting. “No one?s ever asked to rent a gong before. Thirty dollars? Forty?”
“Call it thirty-five and l’ll rent your gong,” I said.
I dropped down my credit card as a deposit. Sean protested lightly, but I reminded him that on his wedding day, a man had a right to anything he wanted, within reason, and thirty-five for a gong was certainly reasonable in any sense of the term. We gently disassembled the stiff bamboo stand, piled the gong and stand into Sean’s car, and drove back to the inn.
The dining room at the inn was a high-ceilinged place with yawning picture windows, opening onto a patio. “We’ll install the gong there, on the patio,” Sean commented, and pointed. “When it comes time to give the toasts, I’ll strike the gong, and it will naturally attract people out onto the patio.”
“Or else drive them home,” I commented helpfully. We set up the bamboo gong stand on the patio and hung the gong from it. From inside the inn, the new aspect, a gong backlit by the electric Pacific ocean, intimated that Sean was now getting married somewhere west of Beijing.
An hour later, I was dressed in a suit and vest and a dashing gray tie, with my grandfather’s pocket watch secured in my vest pocket. My wife commented that I could do with a chain for the pocket watch, a bit of gold on the outfit to round it out, provide some “bling” as the kids say these days. And so she cut a piece from a bit of gold-colored string and tied it to the watch so that it would protrude from my pocket like a gold chain. As I looked in the bathroom mirror, I had a sudden knifelike apprehensiveness that I was an actor dressed the part of a minister. I cut the gold string from the watch without another word.
The actual location of the wedding was a high, dramatic bluff on the sea, surrounded by a ring of California bay laurel trees. My wife scattered flower petals between two regiments of white chairs. Forty East-Coast guests, dressed as though California were a warm place, shivered in the stiff ocean winds. I stood on the edge of the precipice and beamed at them all in what I hope was a ministerial fashion.
Sean appeared first, his brother in tow as his best man. Sean looked fine and pleasantly ruddy from the wind on his cheeks. And then Klahr arrived, her thin white veil flying in the ocean breezes. Sean and Klahr are superficially opposites. While he is a reserved cogitator, she is a red-haired, wide-grinned diva with a chatty, gregarious disposition. She had had her wedding dress constructed to her design specifications. It was not the standard white fitted cloak-dress, but a clever white wrap that suggested a shoulder of white corset.
The bride stood on my right, the groom on my left. I removed a small black book from my vest pocket: “The Star Book for Ministers,” by Edward T. Hiscox. If you search your memory, you will have, in your mental image of a wedding, a bride and a groom and a minister reading from a small black book. This book is that little black book, and it makes for fine late-night reading for insomniacs. Into this particular copy I had pasted eight secret extra pages, all inkjetted into eight-point font. I read from them:
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God — and in the face of this company — to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” A mumble of agreement from the attendants.
The matron of honor read a bit from a handful of text: “‘Why did you say that I don?t know about love?’ the wind asked the boy. ‘Because it?s not love to be static like the desert, nor is it love to roam the world like the wind.’ … And the wind screamed with delight,” she read, her words carried away by the wind, “and blew harder than ever.”
“Marriage is a full and voluntary commitment,” I said fully and voluntarily. “If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together, let him speak now or forever hold their peace.” Sean turned to give a baleful look to the crowd. They shuffled a bit, but no one spoke up, so after an appropriately dramatic pause I had them exchange rings. My wife stood, bearing a small brown reliquary, and brought it to my side. I opened it with what I hoped was properly ministerial form and removed a bit of gold cord. They joined their hands together, and I handfasted them with a bow. That?s when the bagpipes started. A husband-and-wife bagpipe team marched in formation down the aisle, their horns bleating and cawing joyously, in the method exclusive to the province of bagpipishness. I waited a bit for things to calm down.
“What, therefore, God as joined together, let no one put asunder. And so, by the power vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you man and wife! May your days be long and good upon the earth! You may kiss the bride!” He undertook to do so, and succeeded successfully.
An hour later, the wedding party was back at the inn. The guests milled happily, snapped digital pictures of one another, scarfed chocolates and drank champagne. I settled into a chair, in tolerable good spirits, a glass of Chardonnay in one hand.
One fiftyish matron came up to me, “Oh my,” she said, without a shadow of irony in her voice. “When you and I met at dinner last night, and I said those silly things to you… I didn’t realize that you were a minister!”
I laughed. “You need not be concerned over that, dear woman! I’m just a man, same as any man you know… Except perhaps a little more so,” I mumbled.
Until that moment, the family members had been politely talking amongst themselves, but with the presence of this elder woman speaking to me, suddenly I became an object of interest. One by one they came to me, smiling, shaking my hand, forming a loose ring around me.
One woman with pink-gold lipstick and a sparkly purse fidgeted with a glass of champagnge and asked me, “Where did you meet Sean?”
“In school. Back in Harvard. We were in an improvisational troup together. We acted together, on stage,” I told her.
“Is that where you were ordained?” she asked me.
A light on the dashboard of my mind went from green to yellow. “Actually, I was not ordained, there,” I responded. “I actually majored in computer science, can you believe that?”
An old fellow with thinning gray hair grinned genuinely up at me. “A lovely wedding, just lovely, is what I thought. Really, one of the best one?s I?ve ever attended!” The light went from yellow to green again. “So tell me, are you from San Francisco?”
“Actually, I just moved south of Los Angeles,” I said. “But I used to live in San Francisco.”
“And tell me,” he said. “Do you have a regular church service in Los Angeles?”
Yellow light. Don’t lie, if you can help it. “Actually, I?m not providing any sort of service, right now,” I said. He nodded, looked a bit puzzled. “I?m new to the area,” I added.
“Why did you decide to move down?” he asked pleasantly.
“Acting?s one of my hobbies,” I said. “More opportunity for that, down in Los Angeles.”
A tall man, dressed impeccably, glided up to me, beamed down at me. “Mmm,” he said, with a satisfied air. “Goood wedding. Fine, fiiine wedding.” You could hear a parade of vowels as he birthed his adjectives.
The lady with the purse said, “I wonder,” she said. “Which church did you say you were with?”
Must keep smiling. “The Universal Life Church,” I said. “The main tenet of the church is to do right in all things. Kind of like my granddaddy. Did you see this pocket watch?” I asked.
She would not be distracted. “The Universal Life Church,” she pondered, turning the words over upon her tongue like a bit of wine. “Hmm, Reginald, are you familiar with the Universal Life Church?”
“Mmmm,” answered the tall man. “No, I do nawt beleeeve…” he said. “I do nawt believe that I am thusly familiar.”
“Is it a bit like the Methodists?” she asked.
“A bit,” I answered. “And a bit not.”
“Do you permit Christians to visit your church?” she asked.
The yellow light began flashing. I took a gulp of champagne. “What?” I said.
“Christians?” she asked earnestly. “Are they welcome in your church?”
“Oh, well, yes, of course,” I managed. “We are open to every creed, every religion. Many Christians, and those who believe in Christ, are welcome in the Universal Life Church. Personally, I have a long and sympathetic history with the story of Christ –”
“Mmm,” answered the tall man, looking down on me. “Not a stoary. Not a stoary at awl… Reverend. Is that what I should be refurring to you as? Reverend?”
Red light! Danger Will Robinson! Eject eject!
I stood there, my tongue paralyzed.
The tall man picked, I’m sure, what was an imaginary speck of lint off my lapel. He then fondled my lapel gently, as if to admire the tailoring of my suit. “I undastand, from Sean, that you are… an act-er? That’s how yew tew met, then? Act-en? Tell me, then. Are yew an act-er?”
My brain became a frozen grapefruit, and my feet blocks of wood. My improv skills were gone. I had, for the first time in my life, not a damned word to say. And at that moment:
There was such a reverberating, sizzling, authoritative din in the room that all conversation ceased and all heads turned toward the patio. Sean had a large mallet in his hand and he had banged that gong for all he was worth, and the vast Wuhan gong was tipping, tipping over the side of the patio and it was going to possibly roll all the way down into the Pacific ocean unless Sean grabbed it, and grab it he did, and as the gong was sizzling and screaming, the bamboo stand twisted and torqued and there was a muffled crunk sound, and all the people in the inn stood and collected their little plates of hors d’ouevres and went outside to listen to Sean’s toast.
And suddenly I was alone. I pounded the Chardonnay and got a refill.
Early the next morning, Sean and I inspected the gong and the bamboo stand. A large lateral crack ran up one side of the bamboo.
“Of course,” said Sean, “I’ll pay for the damage to this gong.”
“The gong is fine,” I said, “and anyway, I want it.”
“Not a bit necessary,” said Sean. “I’ve wanted a gong for quite a while.”
“That is my gong you’re talking about,” I said. “Where would you put it, in your downtown San Francisco apartment? Do you have space for such a gong? Where would you be able to beat on that gong, without disturbing the neighbors upstairs and down? That gong is mine, more than you know. You may visit it on alternate weekends, if you like, but it?s on my credit card and paid for by me.”
“Ah well,” said Sean. “If you must.”
Sean helped me load the gong and broken stand into the Prius, and the wife and I drove back home to Costa Mesa that very day.
People may say that a gong is an extravagance, something you only use once or twice and then put in the back closet and never bong on again. Though the original bamboo stand is useless, I believe the replacement stand, plus the original wedding gong, will provide our household years of pleasure: