This is it, I thought.
In the frantic fifty-degree weeks before the wedding, I was beginning to understand what James Skipton had meant by “that much work.” We were trying to make Replica Dodge look like the Skiptons’ — clean, warm, perfectly trimmed, lined with blooms, something approximating an actual wedding venue — but this was beyond impractical. It was downright stupid. It was impossible on multiple fronts: one, we could do nothing to normalize Replica Dodge, Bill’s proud western town [replica] standing among the cherry orchards.
Still I toiled, trying to re-create the better stereotypes of rural living for our guests, all bucolic views and field mice, nary a wildflower out of place. I wanted to give them the best version of Michigan I could muster, and the more I worked, the more the effort struck me as both defensive and protective and exactly, I realized one night, what a local would do.
I had done this before, but for Houston. For years I had assured outsiders that the city was far more diverse than people’s dated idea of it. The work for Replica Dodge stemmed from the same place.
A sea of familiar faces descended upon Replica Dodge. Wishes, jokes, and advice seemed to pour forth from everyone. My relatives from Texas elbowed me and joked, Girl, you talk like you’re from Michigan now. My Southern Baptist grandfather called from his hospital bed to say, I hope he is the ideal husband. God’s blessings upon you. If only Mary Ruth were here today… My mother wrapped me in her arms and whispered, My last baby, my last baby.
It was my father’s job to periodically check on me and make sure I had enough to eat. He kept urging me to take a few moments for myself in the midst of the clamor. Those few moments finally arrived in the bathroom of the farmhouse an hour before the ceremony. It was early evening and the house was almost empty, most of the helpers having gone back into town to shower and dress before returning with the rest of the guests. I sighed and sank down into a chair near the window, peeling the clothes from my body. My simple dress hung on the back of the bathroom door, and I was suddenly grateful that I had decided against having any bridesmaids. It was just me now, I thought. Thank God. And that’s when I saw it.
Inside my belly button was a tick.
Chills sprang through me. Lunging toward the medicine cabinet for something, anything, to get it off, I found some tweezers, but when I sat back down and tried to lift it up, the tick’s tiny legs began to wiggle.
I lobbed the tweezers across the room and yanked my robe off the hanger, still struggling into it as I charged out of the bathroom to where the caterer was setting up. “I need to speak to Joe,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “The groom. Right now. Please find him for me.”
Back in the bathroom, I slid down the wall by the cabinet to the floor.
Ten minutes later there was a knock on the door.
“Are you in there? Natalie? You can open up. It’s me.”
I unlocked the door. Joe looked like he hadn’t showered yet. He was carrying a hammer.
“Oh, my God. Why are you dirty and still hammering?”
I untied my robe.
“Ah,” he smiled. “Sure.”
“No!” I pointed. “Look at my belly button! There’s a tick in it!”
Joe bent down. “Huh.”
He squinted and studied the insect for a moment, then stood back up and retrieved the tweezers I had thrown across the room. He bent down again. I cringed.
He pulled the tick off and held it up to the light, examining it.
“It’s nowhere near engorged. That’s good. You probably won’t get Lyme disease.”
“Thanks. That is good news. As a little girl I always dreamed of not getting Lyme disease on the day I got married.”
Joe dropped the tick into the toilet and flushed, and together we watched it circle the bowl until it disappeared. I retied my robe and shuddered.
Joe put his arm around me. “You know there’s a tick species named after your home state. After Texas. It’s called the Lone Star tick. We don’t have them here in Michigan, so actually we have fewer tick species here. Just FYI. Also I’ve decided to wear the yarmulke.”
God. Only Joe would know about some tick species native to Texas, where he had never lived. Only Joe would attempt to educate me on Lone Star ticks minutes before we exchanged vows. Suddenly I started laughing.
For several days earlier in the month, a heat wave had descended on Mason County. The barn thermometer had read eighty-eight, then ninety-seven, then over a hundred. There was zero wind.
“That does it. I’m turning on the air-conditioning,” I told Joe. “At least while we’re sleeping.”
“I would like to invite you to sleep on top of the sheets with me. It’s fine, really. It turns out you really don’t need covers at night.”
I rolled my eyes. Growing up in Houston meant our family’s air-conditioner was flipped on in March and kept cold and blowing into September, and on top of that, the recent long cool Michigan spring had failed to prepare me for its sporadic summer pinnacle. “Are you kidding me?”
“Just wait, okay? This is Michigan. The lake always brings back the breeze. The heat will break, I promise.”
But the heat didn’t break. Two more days passed. On the fifth scorching day, I suddenly recalled what James had told me about our basement, that it stayed cool even during the worst heat. Though we hardly went down there, the basement of the farmhouse was carpeted — “finished,” as Pam had called it — and there was a sliding glass door leading out into the yard behind it. It was well lit, livable, and dry. The only drawbacks were ubiquitous daddy longlegs, but by then I was ready to accept the trade-off. On the fifth night of the heat wave, I heaved the mattress off our bed and shoved it down the stairs.
Joe came home from the college. “Where’s our bed?”
“In the only cool place in this house. Unless you want the air-conditioning on, you’re going to have to sleep down there with me.”
That night, the deep, cool sleep I had longed for arrived …
Natalie Ruth Joynton’s work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Michigan Quarterly and Poetry International. She is the recipient of the 2010 Scholl/Thompson Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, as well as a Quintilian Excellence in Teaching Award from Purdue University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Natalie lives, writes and teaches in rural West Michigan. “Welcome to Replica Dodge” is her first book. Learn more at natalieruthjoynton.com. Copyright (c) 2019 Natalie Ruth Joynton.