The wedding that almost wasn’t

In the courthouse hallway, I overhear the couple’s plight. They had come to the magistrate’s office on the 10th floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse — marriage license in hand, ready to be wed. But a roadblock has appeared: Their witnesses’ car broke down on the way from Charlotte.

Sorry, the magistrate tells them, adding that they need two witnesses to be married. Since it’s late afternoon already, he suggests that they walk over to the 24-hour magistrate’s office at the Buncombe County jail, where there’s a better chance of finding witnesses than in the courthouse’s nearly deserted corridors. The pair step back into the hallway and try to regroup, the man reassuring the woman that everything will be OK.

“That was panic,” the groom says later. “I had no idea what to do.”

The bride had a different reaction: “I was dying of embarrassment,” she admits weeks afterward.

As they wait for an elevator, I devise an opportunistic solution to their problem. Hmm, I think: They need a witness, and I need a story for Xpress’s “Love and Romance” supplement. Perfect. Quickly casting aside journalistic cautions about becoming part of a story, I approach the two to make an introduction and a deal: I’ll be your witness, if you’ll let me tag along and write about your wedding for the paper.

Hesitantly, Steve and Denise agree. No doubt this is the last thing they were expecting on their wedding day. They have only one condition: Since their friends and work associates think they’re already married, their last names can’t appear in print. I tell them I don’t think it will be a problem.

I quiz the Black Mountain couple while we ride the elevator to the ground floor and walk down the hill from the courthouse to the jail. They are holding hands. I tell them I love weddings, and ask why they want to get married on this particular day — Jan. 6, 2000.

“This is the fifth anniversary of the day we met,” says Steve.

“Things are going good,” adds Denise.

They met while shopping for cars, they reveal later (which neither one ended up buying).

Each seems a little nervous, despite this being the second go-round for both. (Steve is in his early 50s, and Denise is in her mid-30s.) And they’re doing a good job of keeping the event low-key. Both worked that day — Denise in her part-time office-management job, and Steve in his hotel-management position.

They have forgone the frills and excess that mark many weddings. Denise is wearing a white turtleneck, a houndstooth jacket, black jeans and black boots. Steve has on a white shirt, a tie, dress slacks and shoes.

The pair enter the blockish jailhouse building, where they’re greeted by the stern proclamation “Buncombe County Detention Facility,” in huge letters at the entrance. It’s a spare, institutional space — not particularly designed for comfort.

Steve walks to a receptionist’s booth and explains the situation. The woman directs him back toward the front door, where two magistrates sit behind a glass window. He tries again.

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