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July 15, 2024

Not Dead Again 3

By Ralph Bland


Without the aid of the alarm clock I wake early on Saturday. I wonder if there is something wrong with me getting up before the sun has even thought of rising, but I lay in the bed remembering my afternoon nap of the day before and how early I had fallen asleep last night, and it dawns on me that the reason I am so wide awake is because I am entirely rested, and my brain and my body are not in the least bit accustomed to it. Above me the ceiling fan turns and rotates, its endless pattern creating a systematic clicking sound in the otherwise silent bedroom. I can't recall hearing this before, but I guess because of the newness of the situation, being rested and on holiday and having time to notice such things, I am more aware than usual of what is going on around me.

I start the coffee and ease down the front walk to pick up the morning paper. I check the eastern rooftops for the first suggestion of the sun, but so far the night is still in control. I see my paper in its usual spot, then squint my eyes to see if another delivery has been made for the possibly deceased Fred across the street. There it is in its plastic wrapper, and I sniff disgustedly at such an oversight. Doesn't this flipping son who comes by every other day have sense enough to stop the paper? Or maybe he is just too cheap to buy his own fishwrap and is enjoying a free perk at the expense of his dad's estate. Maybe his father isn't dead just yet, but is hovering at the door hooked up to a machine while his impatient son busies himself delving into his father's bankroll. Whichever way it is, I am glad it is my neighbor who is dead or possibly fixing to be that way, and not me with my own daughter eyeing my assets and waiting for me to dearly depart.

The newspaper is pencil-thin compared to the past two days chock-full of ads and drivel gathered off the Associated Press wire, and I know this is an indication the good folks of the local press have gone on holiday too. I thumb through the pages until I get to the obits, which I scan to see if Mr. Bailey is there or not or if this has all been a dream, but sure enough, there he is, a picture of him in a suit and tie that makes him appear to be running for office or preparing to accept some special award. I try to place the approximate date of this photo but have a hard time doing so. John Bailey could be anywhere from eighteen to sixty in this pose, seeing how he was one of those guys who never seemed to change over the years, and though I try to determine the date by the way he is dressed I am unable to do that either, for the picture does not show enough of his wardrobe to provide a clue. All I can see are the eyes looking straight at the camera and a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, like the photographer or somebody else nearby has done something to amuse him.

"This is one hell of an obituary," I tell Barbara. "There's a lot of stuff I didn't know about him in here. I never knew he was from Wyoming and I had no idea he was a paratrooper."

"He was born in Wyoming," Barbara says. "He moved away when he was a little boy. Did they get the visitation right?"

"Three to seven today and one until eight on Sunday. Burial on Monday at one. Two days of visitation -- they must be expecting a crowd."

"A lot of the family lives out of town, and this is a holiday weekend. You can't just throw somebody in the ground before people get the opportunity to pay their respects."

"I didn't say that. I just said with two visitations scheduled there must be the thought a lot of people are going to show up."

"Well, he was a popular man. The family has a lot of friends."

I decide not to say anything else, for it seems to me the beginnings of an argument are lurking here. For some reason Barbara is a trifle snappy and seems ready to defend the Baileys from all detractors, though why I am suddenly the enemy I know not why. I have no clue how the two of us can go from lovers last night to bristling on the brink this morning after, but that's pretty much the way we've always been. All I can say is my wife is a woman, and that's a solid guarantee I'll never understand her a good percentage of the time.

At three we are across town at Mt. Bethany, the city's most historic cemetery, inside the three chamber building where John Bailey's visitation is held in the farthest room down by a lounge that sells Yoo Hoo in its soda machine. I find this interesting because I once worked for a small distributing company during the summer between my junior and senior year at Ole Miss, and Yoo Hoo was one of the flavors I filled my machines with, along with Orange Crush and something called Kick, and Upper Ten and a deep brown concoction labeled Double Cola. The company I worked for was definitely second-rate, way down the quality ladder from Coca Cola and Pepsi and the other big boys, so the drivers from my company and I were mostly relegated to cheap one-horse businesses that couldn't afford to have a pricey machine in their midst. We were the guys who came in to service the losers at the bottom of the refreshment chain.

I reference those days because I suddenly find myself wanting to hang out in this lounge, and not migrate across the hall to speak to the family and pay my respects and be forced to walk back and see Mr. Bailey all reposed for good in whatever kind of casket Louise and his daughters have picked out for him to amble off into his eternal rest within. Glancing across the hall I see men in suits and women in outfits all dressed up to be here, and it seems to me I know some of these faces from somewhere in the past, but what's disconcerting is I find myself not wanting to remember who they are and where I knew them, but wanting instead to stay in this lounge skipping off into a past life of trucks and vending machines and two-wheelers, hobnobbing with inanimate objects that never had anything to do with growing up or breathing or loving or living or dying, just me in a beat-up truck from long ago with a radio playing, going in and out of places where workers smoked cigarettes and watched you work and never said hello.

Enough, however, is enough. I have to face up to where I am and why I am here, and so I depart from the safety of Mt. Bethany's lounge and walk across the corridor to find Barbara. I see her in a circle of dresses and suits, and I recognize several of the faces and wonder if the reason I don't recognize them all is because my memory is failing. Barbara is right in the middle of this gathering with a smile on her face, so it's not like I can go sit in a corner and wait for whoever wants to straggle over and say hello. I approach the outskirts of the throng and wait to see if someone notices I'm around. Hopefully, no one will.

"Look who's here." Brenda is the first to acknowledge my presence, smiling and initiating the greeting and hospitality bit like the trooper she is. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd decided to not show up."

"I'm here," I tell her. "I started to come with Barbara yesterday but figured I wouldn't do anything but get in the way."

"Shoot, you should have come," Brenda smiles. "I know Barbara told you. We found all kinds of pictures and albums and you, old buddy, were right in the middle of most of them. I was having such a good time I almost felt guilty about it. I felt like I ought to go apologize to my dad."

"I'm pretty sure he doesn't mind." I say this in the present tense like Mr. Bailey is still around.

"Oh, we were having a great time," Barbara says, stepping back from her reunion circle and moving between Brenda and me, her hip brushing against mine. Is this some kind of sign or message? I can't tell, but this sort of silent language is definitely something new. "I felt like getting on Facebook and inviting everyone to come on over."

"Maybe that's what we ought to do," Brenda says. "Instead of having a regular funeral we ought to have a party, like a wake or something like that. I'll bet Daddy would like that idea a whole lot better."

I think it must be prime time at Mt. Bethany, for the room has begun to fill with more and more people with familiar faces. I make eye contact with folks who smile at me and want to shake my hand, clap me on the back and give me hugs. This is a strange experience in itself, because I don't recall a high percentage of these entities who regard me as a friend or lover from the distant long ago, and what is also strange is how these chambers swell before my vision with the major preponderance of this populace being simply my acquaintances and friends and no one much who was actually a crony of John Bailey. Again, I am the representative of the older generation, which is a funny and abstract feeling. I imagine Mr. Bailey with all his friends gone for good, with no one to share his point of context with except Louise, and maybe he and his ravishing wife of all these years in the end had used up all their words too. I feel this way sometimes with my own wife, and maybe we still have quite a ways to go before we get to this stage. I look over at Louise standing by the casket I have not yet summoned the courage to approach, and see her with Brenda's sister and a grandson on each side of her. All these people are smiling and I have to wonder what's wrong with the picture. All it takes is one good look in the eyes of those I knew before and I am at once far away and lost.

There seems to me no better time than the present to get this trial over with, so I make my way over to Louise Bailey and her Jennifer Jones aura to offer my condolences and express my sympathies, and get my face seen for long enough of a time to make an impression in Louise's memory that I was here for this visitation, that although I left the neighborhood all those years ago and never came back, I still think enough of her husband and her to return for this last goodbye. The sister and the grandkids see my approach and part like Moses' Red Sea, allowing me the opportunity to fulfill my obligations before the crowd grows more in numbers and I am forced to wait in line to perform these rites.

"Hi, Mrs. Bailey," I say, amazed at my stunning originality.

"Well, hello, Tom. It's been such a long time. Thank you so much for coming by."

"It's good to see you," I smile, wondering if anything totally sincere is ever going to come out of my mouth again. "For a long time I've been meaning to drop by and see you guys, but I never could seem to make it. I see Brenda all the time so it's easy to keep up, but it wasn't the same as seeing you in person. I wish I'd been able to get by before now."

"Everyone is always so busy," Louise smiles. "I doubt John would have been home if you had come by -- he stayed so busy, right up to the end. He was playing eighteen holes of golf just last week." She smiles again.

"He was the one who taught me how to play golf," I remember. "We played together all the time. As a matter of fact, when I was fifteen he gave me my first set of clubs. They were great clubs too. I used them all the way through college. I finally sold them to a guy about ten years ago for a hundred dollars."

"What I should have done was have his clubs buried with him," Louise muses, "because I know I'll never be able to put them in a garage sale or anything like that. I don't think any of the girls' husbands even play golf." She looks at me with her sky-blue eyes, which are either wet or shining. She is eighty but still a beautiful woman. John Bailey, I say to myself, you really knew how to pick them.

"Come by someday when you can," she smiles, "and I'll give them to you for nothing. John would like that idea. He always liked you better than any of his own son-in-laws anyway." She lowers her voice when she says this.

"I hardly ever play anymore," I say. "My knees are shot and I can't take all the walking. I would like to have the clubs, though, if you're really serious about giving them to me. I mean, who knows? Maybe I'll have knee replacement surgery someday and I'll take it up again."

There doesn't seem to be a lot more to say, so I sort of let myself slide to the side as more people come forward to see Louise. I walk back over to the hub of my own crowd and make a gallant try to act somewhat sociable, failing miserably in my own estimate but still somehow good enough of an actor to pull it off without hurting anybody's feelings. I pump flesh and meet old and new spouses, learn who has retired and who has croaked since our last reunion. I hook up with an ordained minister who was once one of the top hoodlums at our high school, who in his time was a leering sadistic hooligan always on the lookout for the opportunity to intimidate or pummel any of his classmates who might get in his way or raise his ire, and my initial instinct upon our reacquaintance is to grab him by his suit coat lapel and beat whatever supply of Jesus he has acquired since those far off days out of him as payment for the fear he had provided us back then, and the current utter gall he has to show up now with a smile on his face and the frigging goodness of God in his heart and expect each of us to line up and wait while he bestows a message from Heaven we so desperately need to hear. I hug some former cheerleaders who tell me about their grandchildren and greet some one-time super athletes who would love to talk to me some time about investments and several waves of faces needing name tags who shake my hand and smile while I have no idea who they are and if once I knew them in the great long ago or not.

Then Brenda turns to me and says, "Look who's here, Tom. Can you believe it? It's Jennifer Kay."

I turn expectantly, doing my best not to rush so quickly with Barbara here in the vicinity, but I feel like it's to no avail, for the mention of Jennifer Kay and the thought we are both in the same room together again makes me feel -- whether it is noticeable to anybody else present or not -- like I am all untied shoelaces and slippery banana peels and revved-up fast automobiles with stuck accelerators and falling all over myself just to get in position to see this person with the magical name once again. I don't actually think my thoughts and emotions have become manifest, for I am usually a pretty cool customer if I say so myself, and have grown quite adept since my tumultuous youth at hiding the evidence whenever it comes down to me getting shaky quirky or just generally about to succumb to a complete nervous collapse. I am actually slow and methodical, then, as I turn in response to Brenda's prompt, and I congratulate myself on curtailing my initial desire to mess my pants.

"Hi, Tom," says Jennifer Kay Owens dash whoever in the hell she is married to now and is using his last name as a suffix. She gives me the tiniest of hugs while I am beset with wondering if this is indeed who I think it is. The name is the same for sure, but everything else has abruptly changed or just completely left the premises. I take another look in her eyes before completely breaking our embrace just so I'm certain she is who she is and I am who I am and I am not still home in the middle of a nap.

Opening the old memory bank can be so terribly tedious sometimes.

"Hello, Jennifer," I say, sending her a smile and wondering how goofy it looks. "Man, darling, long time, no see."

Now the people who know me very well at all would at this point have it cross their minds that no one has ever heard me or heard of me call anybody "darling" at any point in my life, so for me to illicit this term at this point of my existence almost certainly has to indicate there is a vast amount of slippage occurring within the gears of my finely-tuned machinery. Not only is this a blatant sign of abnormalcy on my part, but I am also at a loss of anything further to say, because I am still astounded at the physical change Jennifer Kay has undergone since the last time I saw her, which is at least three decades in my estimation. I think it was a high school reunion, and the event was so depressing in its content I was unable to go to another one for almost twenty more years, and by the time I did go back Jennifer Kay and others in my class had long since disappeared back into the inky cloak of their lives. Like a goodly portion of my past acquaintances, I had to rely on updates on Jennifer's status closely connected to hearsay and rumor. I heard about miscarriages and marriages and divorces mainly through Barbara and Brenda, who were connected to the gossip trail whether they wanted to admit it or not, and the rest I caught in newspaper blurbs and magazines and an occasional sighting at a charity event here in town. But over the last few years the news had been scant on Jennifer Kay Owens.

Now Jennifer may not have been the prettiest girl in our class, but there's no question she was the most talented. You could watch her as a sophomore and know something was coming for her soon, that before anyone knew it she was going to be famous at something or at the top of her class or just vanished suddenly for the fame and fortune that was getting ready to fall upon her. By junior year, scholarship offers started coming in, music programs, writing programs, anything that had to do with the arts. She wrote poetry and had it appear in magazines, winning awards and cash, and then she took the lyrics and melded them into her own songs and through a friend of the family in a high place she landed a tape with a prominent figure on Music Row, and suddenly she was on the Billboard charts. And with the charts came radio and concerts and before anyone knew it, frigging Bandstand. It was quick and meteoric and about like magic, this becoming a star like she did, and I don't know if anyone else saw this like me, but I picked up on it right from the start.

The business of being a star was easy as hell for her.

For fifteen years Jennifer Kay Owens was on the charts and doing TV shows and on the concert trail, and I saw her name on jukeboxes when we went out to eat, and I wanted to hear a tune or two while we waited for our dinner. I'd watch the Grammys and she'd either be there on stage or in the audience, and I'd know where she was because the camera would always find her. Once, one of her songs was used in a movie and received an Oscar nomination, and I sat in front of my television and looked at Jennifer in Hollywood. There she was, always with her smile, always waving and laughing with some man at her side, a husband or a husband-to-be or just some companion who would never last and would fall out of the running before long. I read about them all the time. Jennifer and her romances were in the papers and the magazines, and I watched her come and go on the news with her new man or the allegations of the absent one left behind in her wake. It was as if Jennifer Kay Owens was always somewhere in front of me, and there was nothing I could do to miss her.

Then, like a morning fog, she vanished. All of a sudden she wasn't there anymore.

At first no one noticed. In her circle of friends left here behind there was no cause to worry, because everyone knew Jennifer was just taking a break, Jennifer was taking it easy, allowing herself some time off to get her head together. She'll be back, everyone said. She just needs to have a little space for a while.

But she didn't come back on the scene, and soon there were other stars and celebrities on television and the radio taking her place, and after some time people forgot to listen for her or look and see if she was around.

I was about the same way. I learned to forget about her for long periods of time. I forgot about her the same way I was sure she'd long ago forgotten about me.

People are everywhere, so I don't talk to Jennifer too awfully long. Instead I walk out of the room and go back to the lounge with the drink machine with Yoo Hoo inside it. I stand by the window and study all the cars parked in the lot, then look beyond them to the expanse of Mt. Bethany and the multitude of tombstones scattered up and down the hills that are disappearing now inside the twilight. I see the statues and the sepulchers and the mausoleums, and I think about what Jennifer Kay Owens had to remember when she entered through Mt. Bethany's gates, what had to cross her mind.

Some things -- and I don't give a shit who you are or how far you've traveled -- you never do forget.

Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-11-29
Image(s) © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
03:38:48 PM
"...my initial instinct upon our reacquaintance is to grab him by his suit coat lapel and beat whatever supply of Jesus he has acquired since those far off days out of him ..."

HOW I wish I had written that sentence. I laughed until tears came when I read that paragraph. I love this story!
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