I am a man of simple tastes. I would never have hired personal attendants except that I am also old and infirm. My father would be the first to point out that old and infirm are not inevitably linked, but in my case, by age 90, I had no teeth, my digestion already was shot, and the only nourishment I could tolerate was mother’s milk. Wanted: a dozen lactating women of liberal views. Excellent pay, light duties, some travel required.
Scarcely a week after I had crossed the Rubicon of dependency on others, my father sat down to breakfast, tucked into a plate laden with sausage, eggs, grits, fried green tomatoes, and rye toast slathered with butter, all washed down by strong coffee laced with honey and whipping cream, and announced that he was planning to marry again. He was 106 at the time and had been a widower less than a year. He said, “An active sex life keeps a man young—but not young enough to cruise singles’ bars. The thing is, I need a wife. I’ve asked Ephedra to marry me and she has accepted.”
“Ephedra,” I said and sipped my milk. She was the cook’s assistant. Ephedra means good woman. Or maybe that’s Evandra. In any case, I fervently hoped Ephedra would be a good woman, though she could hardly be considered a woman of any sort at the time. She was barely sixteen. Ephedra would be Father’s tenth wife. “She’s very young,” I said, and took another sip of milk.
Father attacked his grapefruit—broiled with brown sugar—and shrugged. “As old as I was when I married your mother.” He glanced my way. “If I had to subsist on nothing but mothers’ milk, at least I’d get it right from the source.” He waggled his eyebrows at me and chortled. “Grab all the pleasures you can, son, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”
My mother had been father’s first wife. He’d made an honest woman of her and saved me from being a bastard. Twenty–five years his senior, she died giving birth and he was never long without a wife thereafter. Ephedra was just his type—healthy, good–looking, dusky–skinned, with a supple body and a ready laugh. I could see why he would ask her to marry him. But why would she say yes?
Father said, “Did you know that Ephedra is from the Marquesas Islands? No? Well, she wants to go home for a traditional wedding. A woman’s first wedding is a big deal, so of course I said we will. It’s the least I can do. But the thing is this. I have to walk to my father–in–law’s house on a human sidewalk. The wedding guests lie down in the street and I walk to his house stepping from back to back, and if there aren’t enough people to pave the entire route, the people at the beginning of the walk run to the front to be stepped on again. After the ceremony, I eat raw fish that’s been filleted on the body of the best man, we exchange presents and preside over the feast, and then I escort Ephedra from her father’s home to mine—or in this case, to my hotel room—again walking across the backs of the guests.” Throughout this recital, he had been shoveling in breakfast, but now he paused. “I want you to be my best man. Of course we’ll take with us any of your brothers and sisters who are able to travel and want to go. Grandchildren, too, I suppose. But most of them are too old to be part of a human sidewalk. All of Ephedra’s relatives will serve, of course, but she’s been gone many years and has few friends left there now.” He polished off the last of his fried tomatoes. “The thing is, I need to hire some people to help with that sidewalk business. There’s no way my usual allowance will accommodate the extra expenses of a wedding.” He glanced at me, expectation clear in his look.
I questioned him closely about having fish filleted on my body, not that there was any doubt in my mind that I would agree to all he asked. Many of my siblings were dead already. But even if they all still lived, as his first born, Father’s welfare was my duty. Fortunately, I have more money than we could spend in ten lifetimes—even lifetimes as long as ours—so his maintenance was not a financial burden. Wanted: 100 people with broad backs, interested in new experiences. One week’s employment, unskilled labor. Good pay and all expenses. Some travel required.
The wedding was eight years ago and took considerably longer than a week. Ephedra asked the cook to be her matron of honor. The cook agreed with alacrity, in spite of having to have raw fish filleted on her naked body for consumption by the bride. The cook is married to the butler, who refused to let her go naked in public without him there to protect her …