The Marriage Proposal

In late November of their junior year, Mary and Derek went for diner at a combination bar/burger joint within easy walking distance from the campus and slightly beyond the one mile no-alcohol radius imposed upon the University by the Legislature.  Neither Mary nor Derek drank beer or much of anything alcoholic, but the dive served great hamburgers and fries.  They had discovered it on a walk in the rain, and had gone inside for sanctuary when the clouds burst beyond even their tolerance.  It had become their private sanctuary, despite being a dive in the truest sense.  They frequented it despite its history of health code violations, for as Herb, its owner, opined in his own defense, “Grease is good for burgers and fries.”  They’d discovered that Herb spoke Truth.

As soon as they were seated, Derek announced, “I sent off applications to the University of Michigan and Harvard law schools today.  Should I apply to the UW as well?  I suppose I should, but I really don’t want to go to law school here.  What do you think?”

Mary parsed her response carefully.  “I think you should.  Those are two great schools with tough admission standards, so there’s always the chance you won’t be admitted.  Besides,” she added hopefully, “there’s lots to do and see here in Seattle.  We’re not quite the backwater the East Coast makes us out to be.”

Derek sensed an undercurrent and a strong echo from his past.  “Which would you prefer?”

“It’s not my education, it’s yours.  You should answer that question, not me.”

“That’s true, I suppose, but I need to know your wishes as well.”

“Really?  Why do they matter?”

He was certain now, the undercurrent having risen so near the surface as to roil the waters.  “Depends on your answer to a question.”

She looked at him expectantly, nervously, and then looked around the drab, dark bar.  “One you want to ask here?  And now?”

“Yes, this fits the needs of the conversation and my budget, after all.  Before I ask it, I suppose I should inquire whether you prefer all of the traditional amenities – except for the place of course, and one other thing I can’t mention yet.”

“If the question is what I think it is, then yes I do.”

So he got out of his chair, knelt in an unexpected pool of spilled beer, grimaced at the result, and asked, “Mary Andrews, will you marry me?”

“Not if the asking makes your face go like that,” she responded with asperity.

“I’m kneeling in a pool of spilled beer, for god’s sake!  It’s cold and slimy.  Give me a break!”  He smiled at the absurdity of place and pool, pleading,  “I really hope you’ll say yes.  ”

Mary looked down to verify his claim, looked up to see a smile instead of a grimace, noted that several other diners were now watching them, and said graciously, “In that case, yes I will.”  After a moments-long interruption occasioned by a lengthy engagement kiss, she opined,  “I hereby declare the traditions satisfied.  Now sit down before the rest of them strain their necks.”

Derek realized they were not only the center of their own attention, but the center of attention for everyone in the bar.  He scrambled upright to applause.  He bowed and nodded yes to shouted inquiries about her answer before responding privately to Mary, “I want to see us through to happily ever after.”  He reached across the table for her hand.

“So do I.”  She smiled and kissed him again.  “But what’s the other thing – the thing you couldn’t mention.”

“I don’t have a ring to offer you.  I thought we’d look together.  I might disappoint you otherwise.”

“You’ll never disappoint me, Derek.  I’m certain of it.  And I won’t disappoint you either, because I’d disappoint myself if I did.”

He sat back in his chair.  “So which is it?”

“Which is what?”

“Which school do you prefer?”

“Good God!  Just like that, we’re back to schools?  How romantic!”

“It’s just that I can’t imagine myself anywhere that doesn’t include you.”

“Good fumble recovery.  Let’s talk about it later, can we?  I thought this might happen in a fancy restaurant, but let’s make as much of this as we can.”  Her arm swept around the room.

“I may be cheap, but I’m all heart.”  He chuckled.  “My real problem is that I’m broke.  Believe me, it would have been a fancy restaurant if I’d had the money, but I’m behind on my house bill as it is.  And this did seem the right time to ask, given your comments.  I’m right, aren’t I?”  He looked at her, seeking understanding.

“Yes, I guess it was.  I was beginning to think you might want to go off and leave me behind.  Not a pleasant thought.  Thank you for rescuing a poor maiden.”  This earned another kiss.

Feeling a tad bit giddy, the hard part now over, Derek, using his best Snively Whiplash imitation, said,  “I think I may be the world’s first pauper to have collected a jackpot in a saloon without the use of a deck of cards,” adding, after a brief, rueful glance at the state of his right pant leg, “and to have at least a quart of free beer thrown into the bargain.”

With this declaration, Derek’s world came dazzlingly alight courtesy of Mary’s full smile.  The smile made him forget his right pant leg was soaked with stale beer – a fact which went unremembered until hours later when he hung up his clothes before going to bed, but not to sleep; when he realized that the smell of beer had followed him home and that his drunkenness had not been occasioned by alcohol.

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About Stephen Ellis

Stephen Ellis is the author of Fortunate Son, a novel of Sahaptin Valley
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