A Bride, Some Beer and 'Great Balls of Fire'
For $6,000, a down-to-earth rockabilly wedding and a good time for all

By Stephanie Booth
Sunday, September 3, 2006

It's an hour-and-a-half before her wedding rehearsal, and Sarah Elkins has no idea where her fiance, Keith Ince, is. He's not at the dry cleaners, picking up the suits he's rented for himself and his two groomsmen. (She'd quickly scanned that tiny parking lot on her way to satisfy a craving for a McDonald's Filet-o-Fish.) And he's not out on the front porch, filling coolers with beer and soda for the party after the rehearsal.

These are, really, the only two responsibilities Sarah, 29, has assigned Keith, 31, over the past year of wedding planning. Now, he's nowhere to be found.

"You could call him," suggests Elissa Pugh-Arguello, 28, one of Sarah's bridesmaids. Elissa teaches at a Montessori school in Nashville and has driven eight hours to be here.

Sarah, a short, curvy blonde with a deep tan, shakes her head. "I can't. He'll get fussy."

After four years of dating Keith, including two of living together, she knows him extremely well.

Her father, Dave, decides to dial Keith's cell anyway. A former employee relations manager, he knows how to maneuver through conversational minefields.

"Hey, Keith. Where are you?"

In a deliberately calm voice, Dave suggests that Keith return to the two-bedroom bungalow the couple shares, to deal with the coolers.

When Keith tries to put him off, Dave's conciliatory tone doesn't change. "Maybe do it sooner," he urges. "Otherwise, there'll be bear traps and [stuff] here waiting for you."

Minutes later, Keith walks into the cheery white kitchen. Six feet tall and broad-shouldered, he has close-cut brown hair and, for now, a sullen expression. He's followed by his brother, Carey, 28, and Adam Leatherwood, 31, both groomsmen who've flown in from Texas. Each is holding a garment bag.

"Oh, good!" Sarah says, instead of hello. "You want to try on your suit to make sure it fits?"

"Not right now," Keith mutters. "I have other stuff I want to do."

Sarah glances at the clock. "Like what?"

"Like, I don't know, Sarah. Mess around and . . . stuff!"

When she doesn't react, Keith disappears into their bedroom to try on his suit anyway, their yellow mutt, Fisher, trotting excitedly behind.

"Just don't mess with him now," Carey advises Sarah, fixing himself a drink from the small bar in the kitchen. "He's in this mood." He reaches over and repeatedly pokes her in the forearm with his index finger.

Sarah shakes her head sympathetically. "He's so stressed. He'll be so happy when this whole thing is over."

"This whole thing" being, of course, their wedding -- a low-key, low-budget event that Sarah has designed to be, above all else, fun.

ALTHOUGH SHE WAS BORN AND RAISED IN OHIO, Sarah has the markings of a Southern belle. She has a subscription to Southern Living and wears Polo shirts with the collar flipped up; her manners are impeccable, and her voice has a soft, sweet drawl. She always thought she'd end up marrying an "Old Virginia gentleman" with an MBA and a BMW, but, while earning her master's in rhetoric at Texas Woman's University, she happened to fall in love with Keith, a friend of her next-door neighbor. It's easy to see why; when not in full-out panic mode about the wedding, Keith, a soil scientist, has an easy laugh and an affable, "Aw, shucks" charm. He can quote every line from "The Big Lebowski."

Last July, Keith proposed to Sarah as a belated birthday present. He was so nervous that he dropped the engagement ring into a gift bag and mutely stood by until she found it, burst into tears and said, "Yes!" Looking back, "I guess I should have dropped to my knee or something," he says wryly.

At first, Keith floated the idea of eloping to New Zealand, a country he and Sarah had always been curious about. Sarah's father approved. "Why waste money on a big splash of a wedding when you could do something more useful?" he says. "She could take that money and use it for the principal of a home. Or invest it." (Dave understands the value of good money management; it's what allowed him to retire from his company at 48. He now owns a small family farm and trains redbone coonhounds for competition.)

Sarah says she wasn't opposed to eloping. Still, the day after Keith proposed, she was on the phone with the place she says is "her identity": Sweet Briar College, the small all-women's school in central Virginia. Sarah graduated from Sweet Briar in 1999 and now works as the associate director of admissions.

Getting married on the lush, sprawling 3,250-acre campus -- where she and Keith now also live -- became, by far, her first priority. Her 150-guest ceremony would be at Memorial Chapel, the reception at an on-campus conference center. "If I couldn't get married here," she only half-jokes, "I don't think I'd get married at all."

When she was younger, Sarah entertained thoughts of an over-the-top "princess wedding." But now, she says, "I'm 29 . . . The same stuff isn't important to me anymore."

What is important is putting together a ceremony that will join together tradition and brevity -- but with "no God," because Sarah's father is an atheist, and she shares many of his views.

In contrast, Keith's priorities are kegs of his favorite beer (Yuengling Lager and Bud Lite) and, because he's a huge fan of rockabilly and punk, "really good music" at the reception. His first choice was King Cadillac, a vintage '50s band based in the Washington area, which he and Sarah had heard play at a local winery. The band, it turned out, charges $2,000 for three sets. That's more than the couple would pay for food and drink -- an array of "heavy appetizers" (including fried chicken fingers, miniature chicken salad croissants and ham biscuits) from Sweet Briar's catering services, plus the requested two kegs of beer. Still, Sarah agreed to the cost without question.

"Good music is important," she says. And so be it if that meant she had to skimp on other expenses. "A big, extravagant, obnoxious wedding is just not me."

"Sarah likes people to think she's fussy," smiles Elissa, "but she's really not."

WITH THE $5,000 HER PARENTS ALLOTTED HER WEDDING LONG GONE, Sarah has decided to pare back on every other expense. Instead of floral centerpieces for the reception, her mother, Peggy, has been scouring garage sales around her home in rural Loudonville, Ohio, for crystal candlesticks, usually 25 cents apiece. Sarah vetoed the idea of a rented dance floor; the guests will just have to shimmy on the carpet. No videographer. No printed programs. ("People just throw them away anyway," she reasons.) No custom-engraved invitations. (Peggy designed and printed them out on her computer instead.) Even for the rehearsal dinner, Sarah has opted to serve her guests cans of generic "Cola" and "Doctor" rather than Coke and Dr Pepper.

"They were leftover from an engagement party my parents gave me in Ohio, so why not?" she says. "They're free."

Her Sweet Briar connections have helped keep costs down. The school's director of academic computing, an amateur photographer, will take the wedding photos for $275. Ice is free from the training room, because one of the bridesmaids is Sweet Briar's athletic trainer. For $200, another co-worker's mother and grandmother are cooking and setting up the rehearsal dinner -- a no-frills buffet of barbecue pulled pork, coleslaw, potato chips and red velvet cake for 40 people -- in the campus boathouse. And, while she and Keith did pay Sweet Briar's professor of music $250 to play both the organ and piano during their ceremony, the check hasn't been cashed yet.

"We're hoping that'll be her gift to us," Sarah says with a grin.

It's not that she and Keith can't manage a more extravagant wedding. Salaries combined, they make more than $50,000 a year -- adequate for this rural area. But unlike many other couples their age, they have a strong aversion to debt. Sarah felt "huge anxiety" when she opened up a store credit card to cover the $400 cost for her bridesmaids' and flower girl's matching azalea-red dresses. (She knew two of the women couldn't afford the dresses, so she decided to pay for all of them.) And she felt sick to her stomach when Keith recently announced he was applying for a Visa card so they could have a "cushion" for their honeymoon week in Asheville, N.C.

"I told him, All right, but I'm not doing it," Sarah says. "It can be your name on the card."

THROUGHOUT THE WEDDING REHEARSAL in Sweet Briar's elegant chapel, Keith nervously shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Having heard of his stage fright from Sarah, the four bridesmaids and even the officiate, a cheery woman named Desi Justis, whom Keith knows from taking classes at Lynchburg College, pretend Sarah's wedding dress is so "poufy" that she'll need to practice turning sideways to reach the altar.

"He thinks my dress will be hideous," Sarah giggles. "He thinks I dress like an old lady." (Keith will later deny this, but his face does register panic as Sarah parodies sidestepping up to meet him.)

The truth is, her wedding dress is the opposite of what she derides as "foofiness." It's a simple, sexy, strapless number -- and, better yet, cost her only $300. But Keith doesn't know this. And hearing talk of what surely sounds like a hideous -- and hideously expensive -- Bridezilla dress, he begins to fidget even more.

"Every day, I think, This is going to cost me a fortune," he acknowledges. "I hear the stuff Sarah's doing, and I think, Why are we doing that? Can't we just buy a piece of paper on the Internet" to become married?

Many people have reminded him that this is "Sarah's show," and he couldn't agree more. "I just hope she recognizes I'm really uncomfortable and am doing this for her." At this point, the couple has gone through roughly $1,000 of their own money, but finances aren't the only reason for Keith's apprehension. While he has no doubt that he wants to spend the rest of his life with Sarah, he watched his late father weather not one but two rocky marriages. And he has an overwhelming fear of not being able to control his emotions during the ceremony. "If I look at Sarah [during the wedding], I'll cry," he says. "I don't know why. But . . . if it starts, it'll be like a dam breaking."

His friend Adam has advised him not to look into her eyes, but to stare over the top of her head instead. This tip seems to calm him somewhat.

"This is a really emotional time for me," he repeats, shaking his head. "I just want it over."

THE REHEARSAL DINNER AT THE BOATHOUSE gets off to a steamy start. A forecast thunderstorm never quite materializes. The lake shimmers with heat, and air in the ancient wooden building is sticky and stale. The food is neatly arranged on folding tables, and the guests pile their paper plates high and complain good-naturedly about the heat. Keith, cold beer in hand, talks and jokes with everyone but his soon-to-be wife.

"He's avoiding me," Sarah observes, amused.

"I didn't want her telling me what to do," Keith will later explain -- although the truth is, there's really nothing left to do before the wedding.

No one else seems to believe it, either. Throughout the night, guests urge Sarah to confess to pre-marriage jitters.

"Look me in the eye and tell me you're not nervous!" someone cries. Another friend presses a beer into her hand and orders her to drink it.

"I'm really not nervous," she says, over and over.

In fact, the only thing stressing her out at this point is Keith. "I don't get it," she'll say later. "Every time I told him something we could do for the wedding, he saw it as something else that could go wrong. So I stopped mentioning any plans, and he took that as me dismissing everything he said."

At 11 p.m., she's ready to go home, but Keith doesn't come to say goodbye. Like she has many times over the past few months, Sarah goes with her gut and writes it off as anxiety, not a sign of cold feet. And sure enough, at 1:30 the next morning, although she's insisted he spend the night at a friend's house so they don't see each other before the ceremony, Keith creeps into their bedroom to give her a kiss goodnight.

IT'S THE RARE WEDDING THAT BEGINS ON TIME, but Keith and Sarah's ceremony actually starts three minutes early, at 5:57 p.m. the following day. Sarah has chosen traditional music -- Beethoven's "Fur Elise," Wagner's "Bridal March" -- not because she's particularly fond of either piece, but because she didn't want the hassle of searching for anything else. Keith doesn't like the music at all, but still, as he waits by the altar for Sarah, he finally feels the apprehension of the past year begin to slide away.

Desi faces him and Sarah away from their guests, so he doesn't feel like a bug under a microscope. And no tears flow, thanks to Adam's suggestion to gaze over the top of Sarah's head.

Not until halfway through the ceremony, while his aunt is singing, does Keith make eye contact.

"You like my dress?" she whispers.

"It's nice," he tells her, and Sarah's already-wide grin gets even broader. In Keithspeak, "nice" is the ultimate compliment.

Out of habit, Desi accidentally makes a few references to God during their vows. Gracie Zeigler, the 3-year-old flower girl, begins hamming it up, trying to steal the crowd's attention. And during the kiss, the groomsmen make a high-pitched noise in unison: "Errrrrt!" It's an inside joke for Keith, signaling that something "cheesy" is happening.

The ceremony isn't particularly solemn or cookie-cutter perfect, but that's not what Sarah and Keith wanted. And besides, the end result is the same: Fifteen minutes later, they are pronounced husband and wife.

WHILE THE CEREMONY WAS NICER THAN KEITH EXPECTED, the reception is "even better." Until midnight, he and Sarah dance to King Cadillac's version of "Ring of Fire" and "Great Balls of Fire," drink white sangria and beer and feast on appetizers. Lit white tapers cast a soft glow over each table, and someone has taken the square boxwood wreaths down from the chapel doors and set them up on the conference room mantel to distract from the lack of "official" decorations.

Keith and Sarah are the last to leave. As they head down the hill toward the Florence Elston Inn, the on-campus hotel where they'll spend their wedding night, Sarah overhears a couple talking about the evening. "They said, 'That was the most fun wedding I've ever been to!'" Sarah beams. "It was the best thing I could have heard."

Keith is equally proud. "Throughout, Sarah had been describing this to me, and I thought it'd be cheesy. I couldn't envision it," he acknowledges. "But she did an excellent job.

"If I had to do it over, I wouldn't change a thing -- except . . . I would try not to be so nervous."

Stephanie Booth is a freelance writer. She can be reached at stephaniebb@gmail.com. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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