It makes for a short night, what with the chauffeuring and the trash collecting and the midnight musings out by the garbage cans, and when my alarm goes off at six, I want to bury my head in the pillow and ignore its exhortations until it has wound down and goes silent. I lie in bed and come up with all kinds of excuses in my head why I should not go to work this morning and how I should not even go to Mr. Bailey's funeral this afternoon, that what I should do is bury myself here in the bed until this troublesome Monday has passed and I don't have to cope or deal with people and situations I want no part of, but in the end I am a good boy and I am a trooper and I silently disengage from the covers and the cat and Barbara, and plod off down the hallway to the kitchen to irrigate myself with coffee for my brain and Lipitor for my blood, and several Advils for the relief of some unidentifiable pain that has lodged in a minor way all over my slow-to-awaken body.
A hot shower does wonders and almost makes me approach a certain state of chipperness by the time I'm backing the Camry out of the garage and wheeling down the drive. Music plays from the Classic Rock station -- the Kinks singing "Lola" -- and even the onset of half the state returning to work at the same time isn't bringing me down too much. How bad can this day actually get? I ask myself. I'm only going to be at work an hour or so, and how many disasters can occur at a uniform company in so short a time? All I've got to do is make sure we've got enough drivers for the routes this morning and I'm good to go. Fred can watch my end of the stick for this day and I'll make it up to him later. He won't like it, but he can do it anyway. Too bad, so sad, but I'm his boss. He'll get over it.
And surely most of the trauma has to be used up as far as the funeral is concerned. It has to be that the majority of the strangeness and oddities have already passed, the rekindling of ancient grudges and old prejudices, and certainly nothing more mind-altering than the appearance of a plain diluted vanilla true love from the starry past is apt to appear. All I need to worry over is getting a decent knot in my necktie and wolfing down a quick bologna sandwich so my stomach won't make noises during the testimonials. Get myself to Mt. Bethany by eleven to make that last visitation appearance. I've been good about providing a steady presence on this ascent into full-fledged adulthood I'm taking, and I don't want to stumble down the stretch and make a shambles out of any solid foundation I've managed to erect.
For God's sake get me to the funeral home on time.
The crowd is bigger than I've expected, but despite my abhorrence for being in large gatherings, I still deem this a good thing, mainly for the sake of the Bailey family and the way this many people in attendance reaffirms the fact Mr. Bailey was a good man and not some piddling worthless oxygen-sucking jerk who did nothing but take up valuable space on the planet for way too long a time. This is also good for my memories of Mr. Bailey too, for it is nice to know that at least this once I have sided with the team of popular opinion and actually possessed good taste enough to like and admire someone the majority of the world liked and admired too, so perhaps even with my advanced age and my stuck-in-my-ways convictions there may be some measure of hope for me yet.
Mr. Bailey's casket is open, so there is a line of people waiting in line for one last look. Why the casket has just now been opened after being closed the past two days I do not know, but I suspect it has something to do with the family not being ready to see him lifeless until here at the last. But the time is drawing near for the service, so the casket is open and the line has formed, and up by the casket stands Louise and all the daughters, so I know this is one more thing I have to do. I join the throng and look around to see if I can spot Barbara, who at this moment is nowhere to be found.
Something I've done for as long as I can remember when I'm in a crowd and forced to wait for an undetermined time until I can escape the moment and the people is I go off in my head to a place that's not where I am at the moment, a place where I can sing snatches of old songs to myself or quote poetry or even count backward in my head like I am the voice of Mission Control and everything is A-OK and blastoff will be coming around shortly and I'll be lifted away from the situation by a series of mental retro-rockets, and soon I'm gone and the setting I was in grows smaller and smaller until it is only a speck and I am far away in the vast universe troubled no more by the world I've left behind.
So it is now. I am entrenched in my head, willing all of life away when fingers touch me lightly on the arm. I turn and there is Jennifer Kay Owens standing and smiling at me, and I am not really surprised she is here with her sad smile and those tender eyes her runaway beauty has left behind. Somehow I knew I'd see her again.
"I came by for just a minute," she tells me. "I don't think I'm going to stay for the service because I have to be downtown this afternoon, but I wanted to say goodbye. I was hoping someone would be here," she says, dropping her eyes, raising them again, smiling like she is tired of having to explain so much. "I was especially looking for you."
"You should have known I'd be here," I smile. "Barbara and Brenda are like sisters. And Mr. Bailey was like my second father. We all go way back, but hell, you know that. You go way back with us too."
"I used to be a part of everyone," she says, "but that was a long time ago. I went and got lost in a career and left all my friends behind."
"You were never totally gone," I say. "Once you're a member of the Magnificent Seven I hear you're enrolled for life. Things we went through in the old days never really go away. Anybody who was there is always a part of it." I wonder when in god's name I've suddenly learned to become so damned astute.
Jennifer acts like she knows what I mean, though, because she smiles again and halfway joins the line, like she wants to be near me for a moment or something, but probably my imagination is stretching its legs again and telling me things I want to hear.
"I'd really like a cigarette," she says. "Do you still smoke? We could go outside on the porch and talk."
"I never have smoked," I tell her. "You've got me mixed up with somebody else. But I'll go sniff your second-hand smoke if that's what will make you happy. I've got another hour to come back and view Mr. Bailey. It's not like he's going anywhere."
We walk out on the porch where we can see the parking lot and the hills of Mt. Bethany. It's the last day of November, but yesterday's wintry squall has moved east, leaving behind a clear and sunny day that belies what's in store in the weeks to come. I have to shade my eyes when I look at the cemetery grounds before us, and when I turn to look at Jennifer I about have to squint to make her out.
"Everyone is getting old," she states. She blows out a thin stream of smoke in a slight whistle. "Have you noticed that?"
"Everyone but me," I say. "I like to be different so I decided never to age."
"You don't look old at all. I always thought you were just an old man in a young man's body anyway. I guess it was because you were the big thinker with all the philosophical speeches you kept laying on everybody. I couldn't figure out if you were really that wise or if you were just good at bullshit."
"I never have been considered wise, so now you know."
"I'm getting ready to leave, and I don't think I'll be back here again for a long time," she begins. "God, that sounds like a song, doesn't it? I only came in to get with my sister and sign some papers so she can finally get my parents' house on the market. My mother's been dead three years and that house is still sitting there empty. She was going to move in, but she got divorced and the place is too big for one person."
"I thought your sister had kids -- what happened to them? And I didn't know your mother was dead. Nobody told me. I thought she was still around."
"I didn't even make it home to the funeral. I was overseas, opening for I forget just who." She blows out a final cloud of smoke and stubs the cigarette out in a caddy filled with sand. "We weren't exactly close anymore, you know, what with me marrying so many people she didn't like, and it wasn't like her death was unexpected. You don't win with cancer very often. She was sick for a long time and everyone knew it was coming someday. It was more like a relief than anything else. And as for all my darling nieces and nephews," she adds sweetly, "the little darlings all grew up and migrated to the rehab centers of their choice."
"Sounds like you don't hold the old home town in great esteem much. Now I know why you don't get in too often."
"I used to -- I really did. There's just nothing here for me now. I guess there hasn't been for a long time, since my dad died and my mother decided I was a whore. I used to live in a fantasy world and think there was something still here for me, though."
Despite a deep abiding knowledge of myself and a profound familiarity with all my countless flaws and failures from Year Zero to the present, I am nonetheless able to anticipate and ascertain when something bordering on monumental is headed in my direction, and despite a character weakness which eternally yearns for a boost of my ego at any opportunity, I still do not want Jennifer to utter out into this sunny pre-winter day that it is me she has loved down through the decades despite all her husbands and dalliances, and me she has carried a torch for while playing elegant clubs and fancy concert halls all over the world. I don't want to hear it because it isn't true and never has been, and even if she does believe it to be true, it is no good for me now, because this Jennifer before me is not the magical dreamboat I spent one night with long ago, and I am getting of the age where I want the sea I'm sailing upon to not be angry and to not churn so very much, but to be smooth and still like Jesus Christ once commanded it to be. I want to sail on peaceful water to the end of my horizon with the only storms in my mind those that raged and swirled all those many years ago with lovers who no longer exist -- or at least not in the form they once inhabited.
Selfish, I know. Childish to place so much emphasis on youth and beauty and other fleeting matters. But it's not just youth and beauty. It's not that so much whatsoever. It's just that what was once something magical is now merely something that happened once, and if it happens again it's not going to be the same, and so you have to face up to it and say goodbye to all the magic. And when you get to my age you get tired real fast at saying goodbye to the monumental moments in your life, especially the ones that really were truly magic.
"I think a lot about that night we spent together." She goes ahead and says it out loud. "I guess you remember it too."
"How in god's name could I forget, Jennifer?"
"I never have totally forgiven myself for that night. I was in such a bitchy mood when I came by that pizza parlor all I wanted to do was cause some trouble for somebody. There I was the same age as all my friends, and there you all were so happy and normal and all, while I was just nothing but fucked up in my head. It just seemed like everybody was headed toward their wonderful lives, and there I was getting ready to start the first of all my failed marriages, a marriage I already knew was never going to work, and all I could think about was how I wished I'd never written one word, or sang one single goddamned song but had just stayed at home and been a cheerleader and remained normal like everybody else. And then there you were with that smile on your face, and I knew you were right there on the verge of going out into the world and getting any damned thing you wanted, and I was so angry at you and everybody else on the planet I decided right then and there I'd make sure you and everybody like you found out there was something in the world you couldn't have. I wanted to leave you high and dry with a broken heart that night. Don't ask me what I thought I was going to accomplish by it."
"I have to admit you came pretty close."
"But it turned around on me. After it was over you never called me back, and suddenly I wondered if you were doing the same thing to me."
"No," I say, "I was merely facing the reality of it." I scratch my ear and smile. "I knew I'd been lucky being in the right place at the right time and I didn't want to spoil it by tempting the fates. Anyway, you were always on a jet somewhere. I couldn't have gotten in touch with you if I'd tried."
"I started to call you," she says. "I almost did a thousand times."
"But you didn't," I say, "and that's probably a good thing."
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