A young couple elopes in Reno, 1974. Some things just won’t ever change, yet some promises can be kept.
JR picked me up at my apartment in the dark, and we got to Sea-Tac in the graying pre-dawn. In the fluorescent light of the airport, I could finally see him. Sporting a brand new haircut. And it was too short. What was I doing eloping with this man whose hair was too short? He was probably thinking, “What on earth am I doing, marrying this woman who fed me black cod and seaweed the first time she cooked for me.”
We landed in Reno and were met by my boss, Ronald English, and his wife, Mary Jo. During the summer, I was a receptionist at Dick Balch Chevrolet. For his TV ads, Dick wore a black devil suit and bashed in the headlights, windshields, and bumpers of brand-new Corvettes with a 12-pound sledge hammer. Through his 6-inch Fu Manchu mustache, he sneered, “If you can’t trust your car dealer, who can you trust?” Sixty salesmen worked for Dick, and 58 of them were liars, cheats, and philanderers. Although I couldn’t trust the salesmen, I could still trust Ronald, the business manager.
When I told Ronald that JR and I— just the two of us—were eloping, he said, “Well, hold your horses. That just won’t do.”
He and Mary Jo arrived in Reno a day ahead of us. They had collected brochures from every chapel in town. There was a white chapel, a pink chapel, a blue chapel. Pick any color of a pastel rainbow and there was a chapel. Veils, plastic flower bouquets, and color-coordinated bibles were all part of the package. The wedding couple could choose music from a box of cassette tapes, and for an extra charge, the tape was theirs to keep. We could also opt for a courthouse and Justice of the Peace for only twenty-five bucks. We went with cheap.
“Get yourselves to the right line,” Ronald said. “Quickie marriage, not quickie divorce.”
Two couples were in front of us. At the head of the line were two kids, barely 16. The guy was chewing hard on a toothpick, and the girl kept her head down and sucked on her lower lip. Her arms and legs were skinny, but her belly stuck out like a beach ball. She must have been about seven months along. A yellow rose was bobby-pinned into her long blond hair, and she was wearing a yellow polyester prom-like dress with a white lace overlay. About six inches of the empire waist had ripped open, and she was trying to hold the fabric over her breast with one hand while signing the papers with the other. She looked terrified, like any minute her daddy was going to bust through the door and shoot them both. The boy was dressed in a blue church suit, a size too small. The pants weren’t long enough to cover his white gym socks. He looked terrified, too.
At first, I thought the other couple immediately in front of us was an old man and his daughter. Except that this was the marriage license line, and that kind of relationship was against the law, even in Reno. Hunched over, the old guy obviously needed a walker. He tottered along, hanging onto the elbow of his fiancé. He was ancient. Ninety wasn’t a stretch. The fiancé was some thirty years younger. Her fried red hair was teased into a beehive on top and rolled into a French twist in back. The roots were mousy grayish brown, and random strands of hair screwed out of her head like rusted steel wool. Her hair looked hard, like petrified cotton candy.
Finally it was our turn. We showed our birth certificates and our Washington State driver’s licenses, answered questions, signed the papers, and headed across the hall to the Justice of the Peace.
The four of us entered the office, and JR was given a number, shoe store style. We sat in metal folding chairs and waited. JR and I sat close with our knees and thighs touching. He, in his tan, gold, and forest green, super-sized, hounds-tooth-checked polyester sport coat, white polyester shirt with green fleurs de lis, striped tie, and gold polyester pants. I, in white bellbottoms and jacket.
A week before the trip, Ronald had sent us to his favorite clothes store to see his favorite fashion expert. Her mission was to get JR out of Levi button fly jeans and Red Wing boots into something more Gentlemen’s Quarterly-like. JR told the expert that he wanted to wear something green. He chose the jacket. I thought it was ugly, really ugly, but I didn’t tell him. The clerk assured us that it was “in”; it was also the only article of clothing in the entire store that had anything much to do with green. She also assured us that mixing checks, stripes, and prints was really “in,” definitely the way to go.
I wore all white except for the tiny pink rosebuds in the pattern of the eyelet jacket. My mother had always said that when I got married, she’d make me a wedding dress of white eyelet with ribbons laced through the holes. Instead of her idea of my dream wedding, I was getting married wearing pants made by my roommate, and mom wasn’t even going to be at the ceremony. In fact, no one from our families was going to attend.
It wasn’t on purpose that we’d chosen a date when our parents couldn’t attend; it was just a naïve, lackadaisical approach to scheduling. Somewhat stupidly, we planned the elopement to Reno for a time that worked for us, but not for our families. My mom and dad were going to Europe, and JR’s mom and dad had crops to plant on their farm in Illinois.
In the place of a veil, I wore a hat. I loved my hat, white felt with a scalloped brim and cut-out flower petal shapes. I pinned a bunch of fake violets to the tiny white purse I had tucked under my arm because my sister, mom, and I had always given each other real violets for special occasions—and sometimes, for no reason at all.
A sleepy-eyed matron called our number, and the four of us single-filed into the chambers. The office was small and smelled of Pine-Sol. There were no windows. The woodwork was dark from layers and layers of varnish, and the alternating squares of green and beige linoleum had faded, and, in some places, worn through to the subfloor. Fluorescent tube lights glared as in a jailhouse interrogation room. JR’s hair looked even shorter, and his jacket looked even uglier.
The JP stood in front of a gray metal desk. He welcomed us, turned to the desk, took a sip of coffee, turned back to us, peered over his glasses, and asked, “Will this be a double-ring, single-ring, or no-ring-at- all ceremony?”
“Single ring,” JR said. He’d heard stories of guys who got their ring stuck in the gears of motorcycles or Ford pickups and had to have their whole finger cut off.
The Justice of the Peace licked his index finger and flipped through a loose-leaf, three-ring binder. “Here it is, ring for the bride only. Repeat after me, sir. I, state your full name, take …”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Wait! You’re not going to say ‘love, honor, and obey,’ are you? I can’t say ‘obey’!”
He smiled and turned the page. “To have and to hold, to love and to cherish …”
Before I knew it, the wedding ring was on my finger next to my emerald engagement ring, and the JP was saying, “By the power vested in me by the State of Nevada, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
I left the room first. I heard the JP saying something. I turned, practically knocking JR over.
“What? What did you say?”
The JP cocked his head, smiled at me, and said, “My blessings once again.”
“Oh,” I said. “I thought you said, ‘Come again’, and, believe me, I’m never coming here again!”
And, so far, I’ve never been back.
Photo by jcantroot