By Friday morning the grieving process is in full swing, and though I am a part of it there are still some things kept from me that lets me know that for most of the time on these days leading up to the funeral, I am to serve as an ornamental husband and would be wise to remember that. It isn't as if I am being dismissed from the circle or anything extreme like that; no, it is understood I have been a part of John Bailey's life through proximity and gender -- being almost the son he never had -- but from the beginning it has been decided somewhere in the stars and largely unspoken, that the celebration of life process would on the most part be a coming together of the women left behind in John Bailey's wake, which would be his wife and daughters and grandchildren, all girls, and the friends of Louise and the daughters coming by to visit, widows and daughters themselves of men like John Bailey who had passed and left these women behind too. I feel as if all the men in my sphere are checking out, and those of us still around with hair on our chests are now simply holding numbers waiting to be called on ourselves.
"I'm probably going to be over at Brenda's most of the day," Barbara tells me over coffee. She is doing her best to be brave and not grab a Krispy Kreme doughnut out of the box in the middle of the dinette, so I take my fork and stab two of the little morsels right through their hot greasy holes and deposit them on the plate in front of her.
"Screw grapefruit," I say. "Screw eating healthy for at least the weekend. It's the holidays and we're in mourning. Let's give ourselves a break for a change."
"Thanks," she says, rubbing her index finger along the edge of one doughnut and then rubbing the sugar along her lips.
"You really ought to eat about three," I tell her. "You'll never know what I had to go through to get my hands on these things. This morning, while you were sleeping -- snoring like a drunken sailor, if the truth were known -- I got out of our warm and toasty bed and donned my clothes and braved the outside world to bring my bereaved wife something to feast upon. The only thing is I'd forgotten, this is the day after Thanksgiving -- Black Friday, isn't that what it's called? -- and the avenues around the mall were packed with commerce. Hell, the line at the drive-thru was at least twenty deep on both sides. I had to sit in the car and listen to Christmas music for a half hour before I could garner the sweets. They've already begun playing Christmas songs 24/7 on all the stations, you know. I heard the damn Carpenters twice before I made it into the driveway. I'd bet the ranch Burl Ives is on right now."
"My hero," she murmurs. "All that time I thought you were just downstairs watching television and being worthless. Now I'll have to gain at least five pounds to show you how grateful I am."
"What you have there on your plate ought to do it," I tell her.
Soon she is off to be with Brenda and I am left alone in the house with only the cat for company. I am not accustomed to having so much time to myself and refuse to waste this blessed lull watching TV or surfing the net, so I decide to take full advantage of the moment by grabbing the newspaper and going back to bed. It doesn't take very long for my eyes to get heavy and start going out of focus, and I am in a coma long before noon.
I have never been one to experience vivid dreams. Normally my sleep patterns are light, always, it seems, like I have my hand firmly on the safety rail that keeps me from falling off the swinging bridge of reality and into the vast chasm where all control is lost and one never knows where he might land. My usual sleep is guarded, safe, controlled almost, and in most instances I will myself to remain alert and not fall prey to the vile fantasies that are waiting to invade my sleeping innermost self.
But on this Black Friday, this second day of a four day respite from work and normal routine, I suppose I have let my guard down. I don't know if it is the leftover tryptophan from yesterday's turkey or the silence of the house with Barbara gone, or just the fact that John Bailey is dead and my own parents are dead, too, and all at once I am the oldest person I know and the juxtaposition of all that -- coupled with the cat suddenly warm and snuggly nuzzling against me in the bed -- has made me tired, so very damned tired I can't go on.
So I close my eyes and let go of the safety rail.
In this dream I'm having I'm a young man again. I am home from college and standing in the middle of my street with a suitcase in my hand. I know where I am. From my position in the center of the road I can look one way to the north and see my house. The arrow is up on the mailbox and the yard could use cutting, and my folks are home because I see the Impala in the driveway. If I turn and look south I can see the Bailey's house. John Bailey is up on a ladder cleaning out his gutters, so entranced in the job he doesn't see me watching him. He would wave if he knew I was here, but I'm frozen out in the middle of the road and I don't know which way to go.
I wonder if because I have been away to school and because of that I am not so much of a dumb kid anymore -- if because I have learned so much from books and new faces and drugs and girls -- and because I have been, well, just out there so far for so long a while there is now no coming back to who I used to be, if there is simply any plausible way for me to walk through the door and inside my own house again and be my parents' son, or should I walk these few feet to the Bailey's house and be accepted once more as a would-be son to John and Louise Bailey or a suitor to Brenda or a mate to Barbara, who is probably sitting in Brenda's room as I stand here debating it all.
But no, I tell myself, Barbara is not here. Brenda is not here. They are both away at college in another state living together as roommates, and they too have probably learned a lot from books and people and drugs maybe too, and perhaps they are both unable to come home either. And I look at it and see how sad it is how our carefree lives had to end so early, for we had all been friends and lovers and like a family once upon a time, and that time was far away as hell now.
I awaken around two, and this is only because the cat has suddenly felt the need to stretch and has planted his claws into my sweat pants during the process. I look around the bedroom, first to decide where I am, then who I am, then why was I where I was at this stage of my life. The last question of the trio takes a little while to address.
One thing certain is I am ravenous, and no amount of Krispy Kreme doughnuts is going to solve the problem. I walk into the kitchen with the cat close behind me and begin opening cabinets and drawers and the refrigerator door. All I come across is wilted Romaine, soft apples, shredded cheese, and a plastic container of restaurant stir fry from an indeterminate date I do not feel recent enough to render the contents non-poisonous. There is a box of Meow Mix, so the cat is happy, but from the hollowness of my stomach I know I am a long way from contentment.
I cringe at the thought of greasy fast food as a solution, but I am equally at odds with the notion of cleaning myself up and sprucing myself into some suitable clothes so I can go out to a decent restaurant and eat among human beings. The thought of seeing live and real people this afternoon is for the moment more than I can bear; I want my only contact to be with some high school dropout at the drive-thru window who will take my money -- correct change, incidentally, since I don't trust these types to be capable of making change -- and hand me a bag through the window, which may or may not be what I ordered, but I will take the chance on that because whatever it is it will at least be filling. At the moment this is about all I can take. After all, I am on holiday, and a holiday means not only do I not have to go to work, but I also have the choice of whether or not to go wading in the Dead Sea of Mankind or not. For once I have a choice, which is a rare thing to come by these days.
I slip on my dilapidated Nikes and head to the car to assume the food gatherer motif, but just as I am about to open the door I see a black pickup truck pull into the driveway across the street and stop by the mailbox to retrieve the mail and pick up the morning paper from the grass, which has been reposing there since it was delivered this morning. I do not know for certain, but it is my guess that the man in the truck is the son of the elderly man who lives in the house. I say elderly because the old coot has me beat by at least a decade, which really makes him ancient, but he still goes to work every day and arrives home at the same time each afternoon, or at least he did until the last month or so. On this one day I recall seeing him I am sitting on my porch reading, and, sure enough, at five-twenty on the nose, this guy -- I've named him Fred, after Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy," because he looks a lot like old Fred, or at least like Fred might look if he'd been wasting away for a year or so -- gets out of his truck to get his mail and paper. I watch him get back in the truck and drive up to his garage with the truck's door hanging wide open, never once bothering to close it because I suppose he figured he'd be at the garage momentarily and what a waste of effort it would be to close the door and then have to open it again. I don't know why I was always so impressed by the sheer economy of such an act, but it made me regard Fred as somebody with a good measure of horse sense. Me, I'd be opening and shutting that door until the damn cows came home.
Anyway, the dude in the truck who I believe is the son of Fred has been coming by every day or so for the last three weeks, picking up the paper, going inside to maybe feed the goldfish, perhaps just making sure the house isn't fixing to burn down. I'm deducing Fred has croaked or something here recently, is maybe checked into a hospital and hooked up to a ventilator with only a little time to go. If I was any kind of neighbor I'd walk over and ask about him to his son right this minute, but I've been living here almost a decade now and old Fred was here before me, and we've never bothered to say howdy to each other yet, so with him dead already or hovering right there on the brink, there doesn't seem to be too much of a call to start getting chatty now.
I think no more about my possibly dead neighbor, preferring instead to gird myself for this upcoming foray into the world of fast food. The lunch rush has passed and it is too early for the supper crowd, so I drive for my destination hoping I can fit inside the vacuum of the two periods and collect my fatty grease without having to suffer a case of the emotional heebie jeebies. All I am asking for is the luck and ability to travel through this world of uncouth impoliteness, grab my sustenance, and drive home to eat in silence and anonymity. I do not wish to rub elbows with the people of this world who are most responsible for my nightmares and recurring cases of acid indigestion.
God smiles on me during this venture, and, except for a glimpse at a bus stop where a bearded man in an army jacket is stretched out either dead or asleep, I do not feel as if I have been forced to plunge into a Fellini movie up to my neck just so I can return to my house with a three piece dinner from the Colonel. When I pull in the driveway I see Barbara's car, so I know my day of bachelorhood is over already. I'm wishing I hadn't gone out and bought food but just waited and had dinner with my wife, and that thought makes me realize how there are a lot of guys in this world who might question my sanity for feeling that way, but I like to think I am not like other men. I am one of those rare cases of husbands who happens to like his wife.
"What did you bring me?" Barbara asks, the second I open the door. "We've been so busy making arrangements and poking through drawers and closets all day I forgot to eat."
"I'll give you a drumstick," I tell her, "but that's all. If I don't get some real food in me within the next minute I'm going to fall out on the floor."
"I wouldn't exactly call what you've got in your hand real food."
"Well, darling, real food is a little hard to find on the day after Thanksgiving. If we were like normal human beings we'd have leftovers from yesterday, but no. Your relatives are like piranhas when it comes to a big meal. They devour everything right down to the bone."
"Why don't we go out to dinner?"
"I'll be happy to consider it right after I snarf down this meal, bag and all."
"I'm serious," she says. "Let's go out. I don't want to sit around the house and think all night. All this stuff with Brenda today has done nothing but mess with my mind. Mr. Bailey dying seems to have opened Pandora's Box for me. I've been thinking about my mom and dad and everybody else I've ever known who's passed away."
"Yeah," I say. "Mr. Bailey was like the last of all of our parents, wasn't he?" I take my greasy bag and put it inside the icebox. I can either eat it tonight or tomorrow or let it become a science project. "I've been thinking some of the same things myself. All our parents are gone or getting ready to go. Pretty soon we'll have nobody to report to anymore. We'll be unchaperoned for sure, and I don't know about you, but the idea is making me feel old, like I'm some kind of grandpa or something."
"That's because you are old and you are a grandfather."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot all about that daughter we have with the husband and the little kid that follows them around all the time. They're the ones responsible for a lot of this mess."
I jump in the shower and am ready to go in record time. See, I know Barbara pretty well by now. We have been married since the seventies, and you just don't hang around with somebody that long without learning a few pertinent things about them, like what makes them happy and what pisses them off and what the signs are when something's trying to bring them down, and I don't need a refresher course in being Barbara's husband to sense that the Old Malaise is threatening to come down on her shoulders very soon.
So we go out to our favorite Mexican restaurant and I urge a few happy margaritas down her throat, and soon she is buoyant again and reminiscing about long-gone happy days in the neighborhood. I listen and smile, not letting her know that what were such wonderful times for her were not necessarily so special for me. As a matter of fact, certain memories she raises in evocation come close to bringing forth from my innermost being a succession of cold chills.
"I never told you this," she giggles, and her eyes dance before telling me her mystery. "I never really wanted to go out with you much from the beginning. I especially didn't want to go to that Junior Prom with you. I wanted to go with Paul Harper."
"You think I don't know that? You kept trying to pawn me off to Brenda, but she didn't want to have anything to do with me either."
"I thought you two had more in common. I still do."
"You didn't think any such thing. You just wanted to hook up with Paul because he was just so damned handsome and I was an ogre. I had to fall all over myself just to get you to notice me."
"It wasn't that. It's just you were so weird back then." She laughs and uses her fork to poke at the remainder of a burrito. "You used to be so quiet, and then out of the blue you'd suddenly break into song and sing something totally stupid, like 'Blame It on the Bossa Nova.' I remember you singing that danged song all the time."
"It's a great tune. Eydie Gorme. She's one hell of a singer."
"So you say," she smiles. "So you always said."
I don't need Charlie Chan to figure out there is sex in the air in the future. Barbara and I don't exactly burn it up in the bedroom anymore, but I suspect our frequency of marital relations is on a higher rate than the rest of our married friends, if, in case, that is anything to brag about. I'll say this, though -- it is a hell of a lot more than I ever figured I'd be doing at this stage of my life. I always thought by this time I'd be in the graveyard myself.
We never talk about these things aloud and we do our best not to orchestrate any scripts. We've always tried to let nature take its course. I think both Barbara and I like order in our lives and feeling like we have some modicum of control about what goes on, but there's a little part in both of us that likes for something out of the blue to suddenly rise up and take us over. This is sort of the way sex has always been between us, then and now, just a delicious little accident.
I don't bother with turning down the lights or searching for my old scratchy Johnny Mathis album, but merely go about my business as if I am closing up shop for the night. I give not the first thought to Mr. Bailey in his casket or my daughter and her family or our dead parents or people I will see tomorrow who once meant the world to me but who now matter only a smidgen more than a whit. I shake out some Meow Mix and the cat comes running. I turn on the outside lights to keep the burglars at bay.
In the bedroom, with the pale light from her bed stand showing me the way, I find Barbara, and our accident is once again as delicious as ever.