Officer Artez watched the situation unfold across the street from his window seat at the freshly minted Bojangles on Route 12. A spotless ’97 or ‘98 Buick Century pulled into the gravel turnaround. After a few moments a tall, elderly man emerged, hobbled to the passenger side, and assisted an equally aged lady out of the car.
The young officer sipped his tea. They were both dressed to the tilt in their Sunday finest: a suit and fedora for him, dress and pillbox hat for her. Even from a distance Artez noticed the tender way in which the man led the woman through the tall weeds and wildflowers. But why were they headed towards the halfway razed clapboard chapel?
Fedora Hat was careful and patient, steering his companion clear of the debris. Broken beams and nails littered the grounds. Shingles from the church house roof that had been removed. Splintered boards and shims lay scattered under the bullet shaped holes where stain glass windows once captured the rising sun. Yet the couple trudged on, as though headed for a Sunday sermon, unperturbed by the rush of traffic, or even the church house steeple laying in the grass.
Reports of vandalism were commonplace, but the geriatric couple did not exactly fit the description. Dementia? Maybe. Tagging a crumbling church, not so much. Artez dumped his tray, keeping a lingering eye on the church through the swoosh of traffic. Dispatches squawked as he stepped into the sun outside. A deep breath. With his twelve-hour shift coming to a close, Artez figured he’d go see what was going on. Five years in and he was no closer to seeing it all.
He pulled alongside the Buick. The old man turned away from the doors and leveled a glare on him, as though he were the intruder. The lady seemed less sure, tucking herself behind the geezer. This ought to be good, Artez told himself.
Burs and needles clung to his trousers as he stepped through the weeds. Artez thought back to his childhood, when Route 12 was a two lane tract, cow pastures on either side, turkey buzzards crossing the road. Now traffic snaked back from the light, the busy intersection humming with commerce, even on a late Saturday morning. He wiped a crumb from his sleeve as he approached. Tossed a wave their way.
The older lady peeked out from her shield. The man let out a grunt, watching him closely..
“You need some help?” he asked, keeping his tone friendly. But the man’s voice caught him with its clarity.
“No. We’re just fine Officer, thanks for asking.”
Artez couldn’t suppress his grin. His eyes shot upward, to the exposed beams of the old church. “I uh, I don’t think this is a functional church. Looks like it’s being torn down.”
“You hoping to make detective, officer?” the man said, again surprising the policeman, this time with his sarcasm.
“Ed,” the lady whispered, just as two pickup trucks slid into the lot, stirring up a cloud of chalk-like dust that settled on the shiny Buick. From the cab, a small crew crept out of the truck, pointing and whispering and in no apparent rush to find out just what was going on.
“Why don’t you come talk to me, Ed?”
The old man ambled down the few rickety steps. Artez put him at maybe around 80-85, alert and vigorous and with three or four inches on him. He cast a deliberate glance at the badge.
“You see, Officer, we were married in this church on this very day in 1952. I was on leave from the service. They gave me two days to get here, marry the love of my life, and then hightail it back to that ship.” He turned back towards the church, where the lady was wrought with embarrassment. “That lovely woman you see right there? I just wanted to come back, to where we said our vows, here, in this church. Before it’s gone.”
With the Buick, the cruiser, and the two extended cab pickup trucks, the small gravel turnaround was full, so much so that the second police car, which must have seen all the commotion at the construction site, whipped into the lot to squeeze in and have a look. The car scraped along the curb, then maneuvered to a patch of grass near the dumpster. The old man smiled at Officer Alvaz, his gray eyes shimmering in the sun.
“You call for back up?”
Artez chuckled. It had definitely been one of those weeks. He’d taken down mother and father team manufacturing meth in the kitchen with three kids sleeping in the next room. Two nights ago it was the yet unsolved drive-by shooting. The ice pick stabbing after a dispute over a single beer in Sheldon. A hit and run on a toddler. The list went on. Last night he’d tucked in his young daughter, Mia, and then squeezed his wife, just like every night, but couldn’t help thinking, what’s the use anymore.
But this, this was just too much. And as 10:59 became 11, thus ending his shift, he could only smile and pat the man on his broad back. Because seeing Officer Freeman, or Pastor Freeman as he was known over at Fairview Baptist, he knew that something–God, Fate, The universe–had put this all together. He shook his head, turned to the sign stuck in the ground, FUTURE SITE OF FLETCHER”S BAR AND GRILLE!
It wouldn’t be long before the calls came in. He’d be hauling out drunks and breaking up parking lot scuffles. A tractor-trailer rattled to a stop at the light. Artez nodded to the older gentleman and his wife, blushing and mortified but still clinging to her purse, her hat, and her dignity fluttering in the breeze.
“I think today is your day, Mr…uh..”
“Willard. Ed and Dorothy Willard.”
A few picturesque clouds hung in the blue sky. Artez huddled up with Officer Freeman, who was all for what Artez had in mind. Together they explained the odd request to the work crew, a few of whom seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
Assured that there were no warrants or summons to be served, the workers jumped in with zeal. A wiry young man, his arms sleeved with tattoos, excitedly pieced together a podium. Others cleared the sanctuary. Artez found himself gathering up wildflowers into a bouquet, for once looking forward to telling Mia what he’d done at work that morning.
By 11:30 the ceremony got underway. The crew stood on the scarred planks where the pews had been removed, hats off, hand-combing their hair in place as Officer Freeman welcomed everyone to the proceedings.
Artez found his place next to the tall man, under the sun, the frame of the church squeaking with each light breeze. Still in uniform, he couldn’t help feeling just a little bit of pride after Ed asked him to step in as best man, before flatly stating that his former best man had died of lung cancer in 1994.
Pastor Freeman welcomed in a few curious salesmen peeking in from the Honda dealership next door. Some foot traffic wandered over and before long the old church was nearly full with spectators. Dorothy and Ed took each other’s hands, all alone in their eyes as they recited what they could remember from so long ago.
When they kissed, Artez smiled, he thought he saw a few tears in the congregation, but it could have been allergies. The dust was terrible.
Ed and Dorothy Willard were married in their church. Again. Officer Freeman, feeling the spirit, broke into song. A small gathering saw them off, tossing dealership popcorn and cheering as the bride and groom hobbled to the Buick. Edwin grimaced at the dust and the cans some of the dealership guys had tied to the bumper.
Two months later all traces of the church were gone. A few weeks after that construction began. The beat went on for Officer Artez. He made his rounds, and the fuzzy moment faded as the darkness of third shift further eroded his hope. But every so often, on those quiet Saturday mornings, he’d pass by Fletcher’s Bar and Grille to see the sun hanging just right between clouds, and it reminded him that all was not lost.
He hoped the newlyweds were enjoying themselves.