I didn't feel much like going through my usual Sunday morning routine after spending Saturday night at Mt. Bethany with all the ghosts of High School Past, but a surge of guilt provided me impetus enough to get out of bed and get breakfast buzzing before sitting down and going through the Sunday paper, all the time keeping a watchful eye on the waffle iron and the skillet to make sure Barbara's breakfast didn't get burned.
I've been doing this Sunday ritual for years now, letting Barbara sleep in while I have a little private time with myself, and so to not follow through on this particular morning would be as much as making the announcement that Jennifer Kay Owens was the signal that all that had passed between me and Barbara, our lives together and our acquaintances were all merely filler and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, because with the return of Jennifer the celebrity our lives were suddenly not so humdrum anymore and we were free to walk in the sun. Of course this is not anywhere near the truth, since one night of magic all those years ago doesn't come close to negating our long and steadfast marriage, but on the alternate hand it is still difficult to completely blot out such a happening from the old memory tank altogether. To my credit I've done a pretty good job of suppressing the hot facts of that night for quite a while, but I've always known it would be impossible to keep the whole matter buried and hidden away from my mind's eye forever.
So I decided to cook breakfast in my usual way and try and get a grip on what I'd experienced on Saturday night.
I suppose if I had to swear on a stack of bibles I would confess it's true I was in love with Jennifer Kay Owens for a good chunk of my life. It's never been one of those undying emotions where I was going to jump off a bridge or stab myself with a dagger if she wasn't mine for eternity, but it was the kind of thing where I couldn't dropkick her out of my head for long periods of time, and sometimes sleep wouldn't come because she was always there shooing the sheep away from the fence, and then, when I did mercifully go unconscious, my sleep came equipped with sexual visions of her that made any kind of restful repose damn near impossible. That doesn't mean I'd been obsessed with her right from the get-go and was going to take that obsession with me to the grave years later, because that wasn't the truth at all. I'd grown up with Jennifer, and from first grade to the night in question I always looked at her with the knowledge that she was always going to be out of my strata in one way or another. Because we'd always traveled in different echelons -- hers upper, mine decidedly lower -- I assumed the two of us had little in common other than being from the same neighborhood and attending the same schools and being the same age, and common characteristics such as those could only take us so far. Sooner or later the lack of a common denominator would throw a high fence between us, so why exert such an effort for such an impossible task?
So other than having my head turned around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and having my soul ripped out of its bearings and my heart torn from my chest in that tragic aftermath when I came eye to eye with the realization that my one moment of gold in this life was now in the past, I was basically pretty cool knowing our one and only encounter was now said and done and it was up to me to move forward and carve out some happiness and contentment for the remainder of my existence. It wasn't like I had no other options than Jennifer. I still had two years of school left, and I'd yet to find nothing to do in Oxford. There was still the strange unspoken tryst going on with Barbara that had yet to reveal its contents, and there was no telling what other wild unimaginable nights that might still be in my future before I had to begin worrying about what road to take to get to the graveyard.
What I'm trying to say is I was in love with Jennifer some but not nearly enough to hurt myself over it too much. I'd loved her in the past and I guess I still love her a little bit now and maybe I'll keep it going in the future, but I'm not dumb enough to be a goddamned fool about it. I'm not going to pine or bemoan my fate or start thinking my life's ruined, but what I plan on doing in my rational and mature way is to just go on with my life and never compare what happened with Jennifer that night to what had happened with Barbara or anybody else. If I'm smart I can keep a handle on it for keeps.
What got to me last night, though -- and I would have never believed it would have happened because it came at me straight out of leftfield -- was here was Jennifer Kay Owens from the long ago, and Jennifer wasn't anything like I'd remembered her to be, and not one frigging whit like what I thought she'd be like now. I was expecting, had I known I was ever going to see her again, for her to be this ageless Sophia Loren-type, incapable of losing that certain something that had always made her special, still carrying around an aura and grace that made a guy like me who once had loved her feel pretty good about himself as well, because, yeah, maybe I'd been special a little myself, and maybe I'd been as good as the next guy, and if anyone wanted to doubt those facts, well, here was the living proof of it. Here was this woman from yesterday who had loved only me for one entire night, and all anybody has to do is take a look and see for themselves, and then they'll know who's special or not.
But what floors me so much is the fact that the oft-recalled Ms. Owens is in actuality not so wondrous these days, is, in fact, rather plain and washed-out and a little tired looking, and appears perhaps like she'd never actually approached the wondrous plateau much in her lifetime, and if that is true, then how does that compute in my own personal data bank regarding my own previous trip to the stars on gossamer wings?
Jennifer had returned from the far regions of my memory and imagination with nothing of the stardust I'd previously assigned her, and the stark emptiness she'd brought with her sent a message to my soul that couldn't be ignored. I did my best to overlook it and gaze the other way, but the lesson was impossible to ignore.
This is what it is.
Jennifer Kay Owen is not deserving of her revered elite status in my mind anymore. She is as plain and forgettable as anybody else who has ever walked the face of this earth I've managed to delete, and for me to continue to think of her as superior to anyone else in the daily grind I've ever rubbed elbows with is just a matter of turning away from the truth, and enabling myself with believing in a thing that may not have ever been so to begin with. Perhaps the idyllic past I have for so long believed I'd been a part of never existed. Maybe it never truly happened.
What I'm saying is I never in actuality wanted Jennifer for good. I only wanted to keep the eternal notion of her locked in my brain as some kind of proof I had once led a Technicolor life with a full musical score and a sparkling script. The appearance of Jennifer last night as something not so much as a memory to be prized means my own life just might not stand up to a rigorous examination, that because of its inherent weakness it might wilt and crumble if examined too closely.
And it's with this mindset I am preparing my Sunday morning waffles and leafing through the paper, feeling the normalcy I am trying to regain inching farther and farther away. It is a normalcy unable to take its place with the inclusion of Thanksgiving and death and unexpected entrances from the past and the scary possible loss of that part of myself I always thought couldn't be taken away. I am not looking forward to this day and another session of faces and voices and memories that will not stop pushing me back into a world I am suddenly finding was not so great a place to have lived in after all.
All day I do my best to act like nothing's happened inside me. I try to present a face to Barbara that tells her none of what transpired at Mt. Bethany last night matters much to me, other than the fact John Bailey is gone and I suddenly have an absence of anyone to ask for advice anymore. I try to keep my demeanor jovial and my actions purposeful and not slip off into a moment of wistful nostalgia or appear in the least distressed that the past has managed to sneak up on me and extract a big chunk of flesh out of my subconscious rear end.
What I truly don't want to do is hurt Barbara's feelings. The last thing I need is for her to think I've been in love with Jennifer for all the years we've been married, and if there's any chance she's been thinking such a thing I sure don't want to do anything that might make her think what she's had in her mind is the truth.
We have our usual brunch and read through the paper and talk until it is afternoon and we have to drive back to Mt. Bethany for Day Two of Mr. Bailey's visitation. Because this is a holiday weekend, Brenda tells me, we're going to wait and have the funeral on Monday. That way the people who have been out of town and want to come will have the chance. I don't really want to draw this out, but for her mother's sake and considering the timing we really don't have much of a choice about it.
Visitation isn't nearly so crowded this afternoon, so after standing around for a while I see no harm in leaving the building and going for a walk to stretch my legs and clear my mind. Considering it is late November, it doesn't feel that bad outside, and for a moment I consider leaving my topcoat in the car, but I am going to walk up the hill to the area where all the Confederate soldiers are buried, and up on that hill the wind is probably blowing and I'll freeze my ass off before I have the chance to read a single tombstone.
I am right about the weather being different up the hill. About halfway on the climb the sun goes behind a fat clump of clouds, and before I know it snow flurries start hitting me in the face like it is a full-fledged winter's day. I'm at the path that leads to all the dead rebels and I decide to duck under the roof of a family mausoleum to get out of the wind and the sudden swirling stinging snow.
I step under a marble shelter and I know where I am immediately. I've been here before, right at this very spot, and it surprises me when the memory comes rushing back so fast after it's been such a long time. I'd kissed a girl right here in this doorway. Who this chick was I'm having trouble recalling, but I remember it was a Halloween night and the two of us had snuck away from a group on a candlelight tour. Somebody had fixed me up on this first date and there I was -- Romeo that I was in my mind -- pulling this strange girl off into the darkness for a first exploratory kiss, and I hardly even knew her name at that moment and I for sure don't know it now, but I can see her face so angular and white and Catholic -- yes, I remember she was Catholic, from a private school on the rich side of town -- and I see her hair all light brown and her eyes bright and her face white in the dark of that Halloween night, and I don't know her name then or now or forever but it's love and I kiss her on that Halloween and I keep her out late under the moon and keep kissing her here and everywhere, by a pond and under a tree, in my car and on her front porch when it was so late and the light came on and a door opened and her mother screamed at her and screamed at me because it was way past midnight and where had we been, and I took off for my car, running and laughing -- laughing, I was laughing as the mother screeched and I drove away -- and I never called this Catholic girl back, just went ahead and forgot all about her until this moment standing here, and I wonder now who she was and if maybe, just maybe, she's thought of me off and on through all these years and wondered where I went and why I never called and if I remembered the magic of those Halloween kisses and how we'd been in love for just the shortest of times and did I ever think of her sometimes? Do I remember her at all? When it is all over and said and done and life fell back into its routine and its unceasing progression of years did I ever stop and pause all those years and lifetimes away and think of her?
The flurries stop when I come back down the hill an hour later, and I'm not surprised when I look down and see the lot is sparse with cars. It is, after all, late afternoon on the last leg of a four day holiday, and people are beginning to face the specter of returning to their real lives and their jobs and the prospect of routine waiting on them there to swallow them once again. Routine is setting the alarm and making it go off at the same time every morning, forcing them to stare at a too-familiar coffee cup and commanding them to drive in on a route that could be negotiated blindfold because it has been traveled so many times before. Lunch at the same place or maybe from a paper sack, the evening meal the same depending on the day of the week. I think of them in their homes this minute, finishing up the laundry or pondering the images of the NFL on their high definition screens, and it comes to me how it is more than probable that the passing of John Bailey and the implications of life and death and the passage of soul and body from this world is at this stage in the day and in the grand scheme of it all largely insignificant. It is all people can do these days to inch themselves forward each particular instant in time, inch by inch, little by little. They cannot be expected to scale the highest peaks of compassion and understanding and have genuine appreciation for what some other entity has accomplished in their presence while a part of this planet, and they can't be expected to remain on the high road of admiration forever. People can't help but topple and return to their own personal laws of gravity, leaving behind the legacy of one whose life will soon fade from their memories and become as if it never existed.
Inside I find Barbara and Brenda in my afore-claimed lounge, seated at a table watching the automobiles dwindle in the lot through a big window that looks like it ought to be in someone's living room. They both sip sodas and I try to determine if they happen to be Yoo Hoos, but after close inspection I determine both are drinking inconsequential Diet Cokes. I wonder if from their vantage point by this window they have been able to mark my progress descending the hills of Mt. Bethany, or if the fact I have been gone and have now returned warrants much of a discussion whatsoever. Probably because the two women have known me for so long the consensus is that such forays into strange unpredictable realms by yours truly is neither strange or unpredictable, because this sort of behavior has been my mode of operation since we were all walking on fours ages ago.
"I knew you'd get back sometime," Barbara sighs. "Brenda was worried you might get lost up there in the high country, but I knew you'd find your way back before suppertime. That's about the gist of what we've been doing for the last half hour, waiting for you to tumble down the hill so we could decide where we're going to get something to eat. We're both about of the opinion that the best thing to do is get drunk. We took a vote and decided the situation pretty much demands it."
"I'm shocked," I say, looking to Brenda for confirmation. "Please tell me this isn't so."
"I'm absolutely certain I've done all I can do here," she says stoically. "I don't think I need to hang around with Mother or my sisters or any of the members of their adorable families too much longer or the upchuck factor is going to come into play." She flashes me one of her sweet Brenda smiles. "Daddy and I always liked to get off in a room by ourselves when this group got together in mass. We'd let them have the rest of the house to themselves, and we'd lock the door and roll our eyes at each other. This went on a long time, so the fact I'm bugging out and leaving them all to their own devices for tonight isn't anything they haven't seen before. If Daddy was around he'd be going with us."
"The question is," Barbara says to me, "are you going to work in the morning? I'm not. I'm going to take one of my two jillion sick days and deal with how far behind I am when I get back Tuesday."
"I was thinking about maybe going in for an hour or so, just to make sure the world isn't going to end because somebody doesn't have fresh aprons or soap for the restrooms by opening time."
"Good. Since you have to get up and face the world you can be our designated driver tonight. We can load up in Brenda's van and no one will have to worry. Oh, I didn't tell you. Everybody's going, the entire Magnificent Six. Seven, if Jennifer decides to join us. It will almost be like an unscheduled high school reunion."
"Sounds like a wonderful opportunity for me," I say, though I don't mind the idea too much. "Just think, I get to chauffeur a battalion of women around while they get smashed and discuss the infamous past. It also sounds like as a minority male I have no choice in the matter."
"You could have an operation and change your sex," Brenda says, "then we'd have to find some other poor guy to be our driver. But you may be a little too long in the tooth to try something far out like that now."
Being of advanced age and basically absent from the social circuit for a good while has left me with not much of an idea of where to go when the opportunity arises for a night's revels. Of course, considering the circumstances tonight, this outing with Barbara and Brenda and their old gang doesn't necessarily constitute an evening of pleasure on my part, seeing how there's been a death and grief and sorrow are supposed to be governing everyone's actions, including mine. But because of all these old friends gathering simultaneously after what has been a long social drought, there is present in the air a note of flippancy and frivolity that can't be ignored. It takes me a while to put a finger on this mood, but I am finally able to identify the social juxtaposition that has enveloped us all and is making us behave strangely.
This is a gathering of women. This, because of the death of John Bailey, is an assemblage of ancient living girl friends from ages past.
We arrive at a tavern downtown, an upscale sort of joint where we stake out several tables by the bar so everyone can drink and talk and watch the occasional partiers sway and stumble their way to the microphone and make fools out of themselves at karaoke. Margaritas on the rocks seem to be the preferred order of the night, but sober old me sits adrift with my coffee and watches the progress of the women around me rise and fall. It doesn't take long before the uniqueness of my situation begins to fester within me, and I am immersed with the cast of female characters in front of me.
Forty years ago these women would have been a who's who of entities that had either affected, diverted, or even halted the progression and development of my own peer group, the male components of my class who pursued or attempted to seduce or loved or learned to hate these women before me, and had I been privy then to the private conversations of these women as I am now, I could have commanded a king's ransom in reward for divulging the information I had overheard. It was taboo back then for a member of the opposite sex to be allowed access within the strange society of women, and for me now to sit and observe these females who were once our girlfriends and objects of desire and listen to what they have to say -- well, this is to me an entirely interesting situation to have landed in, even if after all these years it is still a trifle frightening.
Barbara is my wife of many years, but that was not always so, as recounted by the tale of two of my former buddies squaring off in battle over her affections about a year before she and I became a couple. I remember that day and the rumors whispered in the school hallways, how Jerry Morgan and Stan Harris were going to fight after school, and it was all because of Barbara -- they were fighting over her. I recall thinking to myself, how damned stupid can two guys be? What's so great about Barbara Griggs?
And Lee Sanders had come to me once and asked me to fix him up with Brenda, but only, he made it clear, if I wasn't interested in Brenda myself, because he'd seen me talking to her a lot and knew we were friends but didn't quite know what kind of friends really, and if it was that other way then we could just forget it, because he wasn't the kind of guy to horn in, because, see, he liked me and didn't want to be a buddy-fucker like so many guys are. And so I tried to get Brenda to go out with old Lee, but she wouldn't. Lee Sanders is a creep, she told me -- don't you know that? And she never would have anything to do with him and I never could figure out why.
Four more familiar faces, a Judy and a Lynn, a Sandra and a Sharon, laugh beneath my watch. It is foreign and strange to me to see these women reminiscing about the magical things that happened to them during their youths, even though I was around for most of what they talk about and know it definitely happened. I look at them on the edge of womanly attraction now and remember them then and examine again this end result, and it is all I can do to keep my eyes from closing so I don't have to see more. It is true I wanted each and every one of these females back when their fires burned bright; now the desire from those days is as gone as week-old grapes in a dirty bowl. Dry, I think. Withered. It is like these faces aren't alive for me anymore. I haven't seen them all these years and thought of them dead even then because of their absence from my personal sphere, but tonight I look at them in their living states and they are even deader in my vision than before, not dead as I knew them in the past in my head, but dead through and through as they appear before me in the present. How could we boys have loved these women in our magical days of yore if we'd had the slightest portent a day like this was coming? And how could we possibly find it in us to love them now, for to love those you know are approaching death means surely you must have an appointment with the same state yourself.
I don't know how long I sit on my barstool silently contemplating aging and death and fading from memory and sight, or how many times I watch Barbara throw her head back and laugh or Brenda climb on the stage and sing a Motown song where all the girls join in. The Magnificent Six, I think. I also do not know how many times I catch myself glancing at the doorway to see if Jennifer Kay Owens might possibly be coming into this room, and, in the end, how often I try to determine if the real Jennifer walked in now, with her faded beauty and her absent smile and that thing that was her that is her no more walking in with her, would I rather she not enter into this room with me in it at all, just not saunter into my world, but simply remain hidden back in the years and the shadows and never come out in the light where I might see where once was something wonderful is now something no more, and I listen to the music and think how this is the way it is and forever shall be, or at least it is for all I know.
It's hard for me to not get up and approach the bar and get myself something to drink besides coffee. I do my best, though, and sit on my stool like a good boy. I have another cup of the terrible bar coffee and listen to the music of my youth until it's time to go get the van.
It is late when we get home. This is my seventh and final stop as designated driver, and I am glad the evening is over. Other than allowing myself to slip into a foul and morose mood, I feel I have accomplished much of nothing on the night. Listening to the immaturities of women who ought to know better and watching those who have reached grandmother status attempting to regain their previous footing as chicks has not been a pretty undertaking. Of course, I am angrier at myself for adopting my own particular kind of mindset than with the members of the Magnificent Seven -- or Six, since Jennifer never showed up -- for I have worked hard the last couple of decades to become a man who "acts his age" and is capable of putting away childish things so he can view the world through wise and experienced eyes. I thought I was making progress in all these areas and was able to live in the world without lowering myself worrying over physical appearances and who still looks damned good and what it would be like to go to bed with about half the female populace I see every day, but I guess that is not the case. I look strange women in the face and know how I would hate them sooner rather than later if I came in contact with them, yet I look them over in my cold calculating way and wonder if I would be able to cut the mustard sexually with any of them at all, what with them young and what with me old, and I am angry with myself for thinking such absolute crap, because it just means I have forsaken the women with whom I have made beautiful music in this life of mine. It means I think of them as aged and done-for and of no use anymore, and since I am of that bent, what does that say about me? It means I am worse than any man I know, when all my life I thought I was better than the majority. For feeling this way I am ashamed of myself, and I never want anyone to know I am small enough to feel like this. I hope this is just one night's floundering, and when I wake in the morning I will feel differently.
As befits most late Sunday evenings, the neighborhood is out for the count by now. Most houses, save for the porch lights left on to stave off burglars and home invasions, are dark and silent with their inhabitants either fast asleep or muted in the bedrooms watching late news or reading before nodding off. I unlock the door and begin closing down my own house from the long holiday weekend, performing these acts charitably so my slightly tipsy wife can wobble down the hallway and collapse. I smile to myself in spite of my surly mood. Barbara is not used to such nights as this.
My last act of home ownership is to take the trash out for tomorrow morning's pickup. Despite this afternoon's flurries, the night has turned off mild. The sky has cleared and the first of winter's stars have appeared and are doing their best to twinkle. Through the breaks in the clouds the upper sky is almost blue in the great way up there, and I wonder if anyone else in this dark town is seeing the same sights as me. I almost expect to see a tardy witch from Halloween silhouette the moon, or the children from E.T. go by in a processional of bicycles, much less the possible appearance of a UFO or a shooting star I could wish myself to be a better person upon.
A dog barks from the next street over, and I pause at my trash center to take a look across the street and obsessively wonder about my neighbor's status on this earth one more time. His house, like everyone else's, is dark, and with its uniformity it is hard to distinguish if, like his neighbors, he is sleeping or if this darkness in his house is a permanent thing and his lights will not come on with the dawning of a new day. I wonder if soon a For Sale sign will appear in his yard, or if his widow will move back in and attempt to make a go of it alone. I wonder if he knew when he left that he would never come back to his home again, and if there was a moment when his soul took pause to bid farewell to the place where most of his life had passed. If so, what was it he thought? Were there last things he needed to do, like me with my trash, like turning off the lights or locking the doors before he went away?
I think of this night and all the thoughts that have passed through my head, and I know if I stand here long enough my neighbor's shade could tell me more, all the whys and wherefores and secrets we're passing through on the road to where we're going.
I keep standing and staring and wondering how much more I can bear to learn, because a voice in my head keeps telling me enough is enough.