The Short Life of Gary Q. Stuffholder III
  Daniel Perry

Table Nineteen is at the back of the reception hall, near the DJ booth where people will request bad songs all night, and the bar where we’ll overhear slurring cocktail orders through the speeches, all of them, eight a side for the bride and groom, enough for a guys-against-girls ballgame. I was first into the dining room after champagne in the lobby, and by setting down my purse I’ve staked out the farthest-away seat, back to the wall, with a clear view for when the bride’s mascara starts running.

Sarah’s my best friend, but I’ve always known I’m not hers. In a past life we were shooter girls together, but she’s a pretty blonde who took public relations in college and was just working weekends for extra money; for me, the job was it, killing time till I decided what to study. She graduated the spring before I started my accounting certificate, and a downtown firm hired her right away. Steve swept her off feet soon after. They’ve already bought a house and done their engagement photos on the front porch; they’re all over her Facebook, and there are prints on every table. The smiles are almost too big and the Labradoodle Gertrude’s tongue hangs out moronically. If that makes me sound jealous, well, fine. I am. Rob and I have lived together almost two years but when the invite came it said Emily Waters and guest.

*

Most years, wedding season would be over by now, but Sarah wanted it this late because she stood up at four – four – ceremonies this summer: four engagement parties, four showers, and four bachelorettes, one of each in San Francisco, where her best friend Katie lives now. In my minute in the receiving line with Sarah and her new, curly-haired Greek husband, she said she was so glad her day had finally come, that this summer had just been so crazy, and that she couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen me in so long but was so glad I came. She looked around and beside me and then she asked, “Where’s Rob?” Before I could answer, she put her hand on my shoulder. “Oh, Em,” she said. “Don’t tell me.” I nodded. “Well, maybe he wasn’t the right one for you, hon – but don’t worry, you’ll meet him someday.” She smiled and winked. “Maybe even tonight. You know, Steve’s brought a lot of his friends from the law office, and...”

I quit listening. Rob and I didn’t break up. It’s the last weekend of October and he’s dug in again; every year, he and his idiot ball team camp out in one player’s house and watch the World Series, getting smashed and making one WAG’s life hell. It can last ten days if it goes to Game Seven, and it has this year. Tonight’s the finale. Too pissed off to ask him, I used a wire coat hanger to zip up my new black dress while Rob wasted the afternoon on the couch, flipping through the sports channels in his Cardinals jersey and backwards cap as though I might forget he had other plans tonight. He’s never been to St. Louis. I have no idea why he cheers for that team and I’m pretty sure I don’t care.

*

DavidandSylvia join me first at the table. Both are pretty and half-Asian. David articled at the same firm as Steve. Sylvia’s his wife. They’re originally from New York and they go on for a few minutes about how amazing it is that they had to come all the way to Toronto before they met. David asks, “Rye and ginger?” and Sylvia smiles and nods. He walks to the bar and by the time he’s back, Sylvia and I are shaking hands with LeighandChuck. Leigh wears a navy pantsuit and is almost fifty, the receptionist in Sarah’s office – Mother Hen, she says. She laughs at her own joke. I vaguely remember Sarah using the nickname. Her husband Chuck talks in grunts and may have no job aside from eating. He mumbles something when David returns about whether the Cards will take it and Leigh shoots him a steely look that says I told you. No baseball. I excuse myself and head for the bar, wondering if that’s how Rob and I will talk one day. It seems more efficient than actually talking. I return with a gin and tonic and meet our table’s last couple, GregandSam. Sam grew up in the house next door to Steve and played trucks with him, he says – “Until Sam switched to Barbies,” Greg interjects, and the two of them laugh while Chuck gives them cut-eye.

It’s happened again. I’m at the Randoms Table.

*

The chairs fill in except for one directly across from me, its back to the double head tables. At each place setting there’s a cardboard box the size of a coffee cup, though I know Sarah chose better favours. I can picture Chuck still drinking out of his and Leigh’s wedding mugs, and the flat of spares he keeps in the basement for breakage. Sylvia unties the purple ribbon on her box and says, “Candle,” nonchalantly setting it beside her on the empty chair. “Oh,” she says. “Sorry – is anyone sitting here?” All six look at me and I shrug. “I don’t think so,” I say. “Unless someone else is here alone.” Leigh says, “I guess one of ours is home with the flu.” She sounds truly sad about it. Greg snorts. “Or it’s one of Steve’s ex-girlfriends.” I’m the last to start laughing. DavidandSylvia quieten first. They look at me caringly. “No,” I protest, “I’m Sarah’s friend,” and I force another laugh. I’m alone on this one. Sam rescues me by reaching in with a wine bottle; “Who wants red?” he asks. Chuck shakes his shaved balding head and points to his beer. I say, “I’ll have some,” and remove the napkin from my glass, one of three for me, including the G-and-T and one for water. I also have a bread plate, and a regular plate, and three forks and two spoons and the favour; multiply by eight, and add two bottles of red, and white, and water, (sparkling and still), and the table seems suddenly very crowded. Chuck taps his temple and his grey mustache ripples. “Good idea, Sylvia,” he says, leaning a bit to hand her his box. Sam sets the bottle down and hands his box to Greg. Greg hands two to Leigh, who relays three to David, who passes four to Sylvia, one by one. She stacks them on the chair. Sylvia puts her hand out to take mine, but I say, “It’s all right, I’ll just put it in my purse.” She eyes my black clutch and says, “Are you kidding?” I laugh and say, “Right.” I hand it across and she adds it to the pile. Leigh pours herself some white. “Everyone have a glass?” she asks. “Everyone but Gary,” Greg says. Sam raises an eyebrow. “Gary?” he asks. “Yeah, Gary,” Greg says, and points at the box pile: three rows of two with my single one on top – a head like a Lego man’s. A slow laugh builds in Chuck until it’s tumbling out of him in heavy Has. “Gary,” he says, wiping a tear from one eye. “Gary! That’s a good one!” David looks around the table and clears his throat. He raises his glass. “I can already tell this will be a great time,” he says, which makes me think he has a future at an embassy. “To new friends.” We reach in to clink glasses but before we can, Chuck roars, “And to the best of them – Gary the Stuffholder!” Everyone laughs, even me, and we all push our glasses together and take a drink. Greg looks at Chuck and says slyly, “Gary Q. Stuffholder... the third.” The table erupts again. I stop laughing first.

*

Throughout the speeches, staggered between courses, I watch the head tables and the podiums beside them. The Gary Chair – Rob’s chair – blurs out of focus. Plenty of spoon-on-glass racket follows each speaker, or group of them: his friends from home, her friends from home; his friends from school, her friends from school; his parents, and her parents, and – finally – Sarah and Steve. At our vacant setting, the plate hasn’t been replaced since the appetizer, which Chuck ate after his own, crumpling the extra napkin before telling the caterers, “I don’t know, I think he just went to the restroom,” angling for a bonus steak. We’ve been piling our bread plates and used cocktail glasses and wine and water bottles in front of The Gary Chair, and Chuck’s hooted, “Bang-up job!” with every dish sent down, or “My God, Gary, you’re a tank – another beer?” with each empty. I can’t wait for Sarah and Steve to finish their thank-yous and the moment where they compulsorily say “Let’s party!” and the guests take the dance floor like an Elvis movie in slow motion.

My tablemates join the cluster at the bar after dessert. I stay put and slowly drink an espresso, looking at full families on the dance floor, from Grandma and Grandpa Somebody – still holding each other fifty years later, says the DJ in a shout-out – to the twin four-year-old girls in matching purple dresses, each twirling from one of Daddy’s arms, whoever Daddy is. That sure as hell won’t be Rob. I scan the room and realize that Sarah is the only person I know, and that before today I'd only met Steve once, at the engagement party I was invited to for some uncertain reason. I empty the small cup and pick up my purse, and I snatch off Gary’s head before I leave the table. Someone’s drawn a smiley face on the box in blue pen. From the lobby I call a cab. The twenty minutes it will take are plenty to get my coat and use the ladies’ room. On my way out I swing the door open and it almost hits Sarah. Her eyes widen and her mouth droops a bit, in that over-dramatic sadness the bride has to show when you leave.

“Are you going home already?” she asks.

I swoop in and hug before she can challenge me. “It was lovely,” I say. “The food was so good and my table was–”

She breaks the embrace, cutting me off, and mock-slaps me on the shoulder. “I heard,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “Is that where you’re going now?” Her smile grows.

“Where?” I ask. “What are you talking about?”

Sarah laughs. “Come on,” she says.

I look at her blankly.

Gary,” she says in a shouted whisper, grabbing my arm. “David and Sylvia said you totally hit off with this guy Gary! Who is he? One of Steve’s parents’ friends or something? I don’t even remember inviting him.”

I pull away from her and she looks even more hurt. I say, “Gary is so dead when I get home,” and I turn on my heel and I leave.

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