We stay on the porch long enough for Jennifer to smoke another Vantage and for me to understand how my life hasn't been necessarily ruined because I didn't get the chance to repeatedly consummate this relationship endless times over the last several decades. It is hard for me to figure out whether Jennifer is happy or sad over my lack of personal downfall, but it's for sure I'm not going to confess about the extent my brain has been screwed up by our past comingling just so she might feel better about her actions a hundred years ago. It's not like she is still this absolute knockout who takes your breath away and leaves you no room to think. No, looking at Jennifer here in the present tense gives me ample opportunity to breathe in and out as God intended me to do and causes no buzzing in my head that might interrupt my normal brain frequency.
To be truthful, I have to confess it sort of hurts my feelings that Jennifer -- like I'd tried to convince myself for years -- hadn't fallen in love with me and been forced to carry around feelings of unrequited love in her heart all this time, so I am more than mildly disappointed at this summit meeting of our flawed romance, and when we walk back inside I purposely lose her in the crowd and wander back toward John Bailey's casket for another in what seems like a series of farewells. The last couple of days have held nothing but distractions for me, and I am beginning to get a little anxious as a result. I am ready to get this show on the road, if you know what I mean, get the whole deal over and done with so I can get the hell back to my own quiet personal life that I've learned to be so comfortable in the belly of since Nixon got his tricky self hounded out of office.
All the daughters have vanished and the crowd has thinned out. It takes me a second before I sense visitation is about over and it's almost time for the ceremony to begin. There aren't but about four people left in the room with Mr. Bailey -- Louise, who is talking with another couple, and a woman standing at her side I recognize as somebody's mother from my old group, but I can't determine who she is and I frankly don't want to find out either -- so I think about just doing an about face and going back out the way I came in, but behind me somewhere out in the hall is the present tense Jennifer Kay Owens, the washed-out and faded and magic-deprived shadow of herself, and in front of me is John Bailey, the man who could have been my father, and Louise, who I'm pretty sure is glad as hell he wasn't, and both of them, John in his coffin, Louise standing at his head, both overjoyed that romance never developed between Brenda and me, for the notion of me as son-in-law would have had to have been distressing to these two who had lived such a perfect existence without troublesome me entering the equation.
Not that I am that bad a guy. I am just out there, that's all, and once folks get accustomed to my orbital path everything is fine. I'll admit it's hard for some people to make this adjustment, because they can't get past thinking I'm some sort of a weirdo.
My dilemma ends when I see Barbara appear through a door, obviously looking for me, and when she sees me I get this look that telepathically asks where in the hell have I been. I could ask her the same question, since because I couldn't find her around I've had to endure a soul-searching session with Jennifer, whom I've decided is nothing but a first class nut now and must be avoided from here on out. In the interest of peace and because I need saving from the situation I am in, I decide smiling is a good idea, and I lift my hand in greeting. Wives always like it when their husbands act glad to see them.
"I've been looking all over for you," Barbara whispers. "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten what time the service was."
"I was outside on the porch listening to Jennifer Kay tell me the story of her life, like I really wanted to know. I was going in to view the body and then go into the auditorium to find you. I was thinking maybe you'd save me a seat."
"We won't be going into any auditorium. This is a graveside ceremony."
"Has anybody thought about the fact it's winter? I was up there on that hill yesterday, and I'm here to tell you the wind gets cold in a hurry when you're standing out in it. Hell, half the time it was snowing like I was in Buffalo or something."
"Maybe it won't be so bad. It's supposed to be in the forties."
"At least I'm prepared. I've got my overcoat in the car. I'm like the perfect example of a good boy scout."
"Ha," Barbara sniffs. "I've seen boy scouts before. Believe me, mister, you're no boy scout."
I can't stop myself. I have to walk over and take one last look at Mr. Bailey because I figure they'll close the casket soon and I won't get another chance. Strange how it is when a person is in the world for a long time and looking at everyone and everything and everyone and everything is looking back, and suddenly old Mr. Death comes along and changes everything. Death makes it where a guy has to get in a box and the time comes when the lid gets closed and the thing of it is, nobody ever opens that lid again. I look at John Bailey who was so full of life and now is soon to be shut away and finished with me and everybody else, and although I've been through funerals before I am still astonished at how quickly and sharply the difference between the living and the dead can in a flash come to be. In a few minutes Mr. Bailey will ride up the hill and in the end get left there, and maybe afterwards Barbara and I will go out to dinner. Tomorrow we'll go back to work and start getting ready for the Christmas holidays, and Jennifer Owens and all the rest of the ghosts who've floated by this weekend will go back to where they came from, and from here on out Louise Bailey will sleep alone. And I wonder what John Bailey would have to say about any of this?
I'm going to miss you, Mr. Bailey, I think, but I don't say it out loud. Instead I turn away and take Barbara by the hand because I want to get out of here. Linger a little longer and I'll have to talk to Louise again, and there's been too much of me having nothing to say already.
We enter into a gathering throng in the lobby. People are spilling onto the porch awaiting a cue from one of the funeral officials to begin lining up cars behind the hearse and the furnished black limousine the immediate family will ride to the gravesite in. In the meantime this is an opportunity for folks to exchange pleasantries and breathe in some winter air after being inside for a while.
Looking at this crowd, I'm beginning to realize there aren't as many people here as I'd thought. It could be some folks have come by and left, but that doesn't excuse the fact the parking lot is looking patchy with the lack of cars around. A sad sort of feeling starts creeping over me, not so much because Mr. Bailey's gone, but because the world has already accepted this as the case and is ready to move on even before the rites are completed. It's one of the problems I've eternally had with this business of living -- unless you're fucking Elvis or Ronnie Goddamn Reagan the planet is done with you the absolute second you stop being productive. You can even be not dead and still find yourself a member of the list.
Barbara can tell I've got a few mental fluctuations going on, and by her silence I can sense she's trying to figure out what it is that's got me churning and in an uproar without making a lot of noise about it, but like I've said before, being married for a long time may cause irritation in a few areas sometimes and some complacency in others, but some good things come from it, too. Sometimes a guy doesn't have to waste a lot of time explaining there's a problem and he doesn't have to ask for help either, because, if the wife is as intelligent and perceptive as Barbara, that kind of assistance is already on the way.
"Brenda said the family chose a graveside ceremony because Mr. Bailey liked the outdoors so much," Barbara tells me.
"I'm glad as hell he didn't wait another month to check out," I say, "because I wouldn't want to be up on that hill in the middle of winter. There isn't any place colder than a graveyard," I tell her, realizing I'm echoing my sentiments from my Thanksgiving morning ritual, which seems like about a hundred years ago now. "I've got to get my overcoat. I'll be right back."
Halfway to the car, I realize going to the car is a waste of energy, that if we were in a holding pattern readying ourselves to line up the cars for the procession, I could have waited until then to get my coat, but there is something in me that is glad to have something to do to squander some time and keep myself occupied, so this trek to the Toyota will aid in that. I also am a believer that random acts such as this sometimes occur for a purpose, that the Great Spinner of the Universe up in the clouds has fixed each action in order for certain events or truths to transpire or become evident, which is what comes my way when I see Jennifer Kay Owens drive by in her rental car and give me a farewell wave before she turns right out of the lot and disappears down the long road to who knows where. Will this be the last time I see her in this world? I wonder about this for an instant. Is there something I should have said or done to commemorate such a crowning occasion such as our coupling in this my only life, or is it that Jennifer Kay Owens and her luscious lips of the past have become like the majority of all things in not only my own but everyone's life -- when all is said and done is she just yesterday's news and best carted off to the attic where all such memorabilia resides, to be dusted off only when there is use for this particular memory again? I keep this in mind, and to my reluctance I have to admit this fact is not only true but necessary. It is necessary to let things go, to not live in the past. The past, I remind myself, is not as good as it's generally remembered to be. The past is greatly overrated.
I slip on my overcoat, wondering if I'm going to be overdressed for this occasion. This sort of second-guessing procedure is nothing new to me, since I'm rarely certain of myself in virtually any situation. I remember as a twelve year old hitting a line drive home run over the right-centerfield wire fence during a Little League game and not knowing whether I should leisurely trot around the bases or go full speed as if my life depended upon it, so unaccustomed as I was to feats of sports excellence. I was so absorbed in how best to do the proper thing that I failed to keep my eyes on the base path in front of me and tripped over the first base bag and went sprawling. I recall laying there in the infield dirt with chalk from the foul line wedged up my nostrils, hearing the crowd hooting and cheering the unexpected performance I'd just provided them, and I rooted there in the dirt thinking how it was just about my speed to screw up my one shot at what should have been a moment of glory. I don't know how long I wriggled around on the ground under the lights and the stars trying to figure out how to get up and complete this home run jaunt without appearing to be a total imbecile, deducing, finally, there was no way around it, so what I did was get up and went ahead and got it over with, hoping that maybe in a hundred years or so everybody would forget what a fool I made of myself this night.
They did, but I didn't.
Now I am back up on the porch and through the doors into the semi-crowded lobby. A man in a suit who looks like Whitey Ford would have looked if he'd become a funeral home employee instead of a pitcher for the New York Yankees starts waving his hand trying to get everyone's attention. "Excuse me, everyone! Excuse me!" He waves his hands above his head like he is at a charismatic religious gathering, like something's got a hold of him and it's not love, so it has to be the Holy Spirit. "If I can have everyone's attention?"
The voices subside and shushing is heard around the lobby. At last it gets quiet enough for Whitey to get the game started.
"In a minute we'll be bringing the deceased out for transport to the gravesite," he says. "At this time we'd like to ask all who will be attending the service to form a line behind the hearse and we'll begin the procession."
I do an about face and head back to my car. Barbara walks alongside me, her head down and deep in thought. She has nothing to say all the way to the Toyota, and when I start the engine and move up to join the line she looks straight ahead and offers no comment on all that is going on before her. I have seen her like this several times in the past and know something pretty is not on the horizon. I can only hope the molten lava bubbling up within her doesn't gush my way when eruption time arrives. I try thinking of something I might have done to be considered worthy of being burned and scalded by Barbara's ire, and I am fairly comfortable in my innocence until I consider Jennifer Kay Owens and our earlier conversation, and then I am not so confident. Yes, I think, there's that to ponder.
I debate punching the knob to bring the car radio to life, but now is perhaps not the time to hear Led Zeppelin performing "Stairway to Heaven" on the Classic Rock station or some sports jock talking up the upcoming SEC Championship game. Sometimes silence is a good thing, eerie though it is, and it is only when we begin moving forward and Barbara speaks that I know things are not as bad or dire as I have imagined them to be.
"When this is over and done," she says. "I want to go home and not hear from Brenda or anybody else for a long time. I don't care who's died or what the occasion is. I need a good long break from all of it."
I know Barbara well enough to be certain she is contemplating while we are making the slow climb up the hill to the gravesite whether she has time to have a quick cigarette before we arrive. Most times she is sensitive to my status as a non-smoker and waits to light up when we are not in an enclosed area, but today whatever it is that is gnawing at her is too great for her usual politeness, so she is in her bag finding her lighter and her pack of Winston Ultras she tries to limit herself to five each day, most times failing miserably.
"Anything the matter?" I ask, knowing already something is but glad as hell whatever it is has nothing to do with me, otherwise she would not be speaking to me or be in the same car with me on the way to this funeral. She'd be walking up this hill right now instead of in the passenger seat hissing out medicinal smoke.
"I'll tell you about it later," she says. "I don't have an hour and a half to go into it right now."
Cars begin parking on the narrow lanes in front of us, so I veer off to the right and stop the Camry a little ways off from the crowd. This is an old trick of mine, for it is well worth the longer distance of walking for the reward of being able to escape the traffic tie-ups and snarls and be able to make a fast getaway when it is time to leave. I have always been good at fast departures and hasty exits, generally out of despising crowds but probably because it is one of the few things I learned from my own father, who was inordinately quick to mosey, and from whom I'm pretty sure I inherited my own sense of contempt and disdain for those folks occupying the same patch of earth as me at the same time.
Barbara is accustomed to my quirks by now and has long since stopped insisting on my parking in a convenient place, so she falls in step with me and we follow the meandering silent crowd to the place where John Bailey will take his eternal rest. Already the pall bearing nephews are carrying the silver casket up the steps and down the walk to the prepared plot in front of a tent with chairs for the family and the faint of heart, who might possibly be under such stress they might not make it through the service without swooning. Despite the west wind and the fact I am older than most everyone in attendance, I do not head for the sheltered area but instead opt to stand in the open and people-watch just so I won't be forced into considering the here and now and yesterday with its links to the past and tomorrow with its questions of how to proceed from here. Barbara, in a reversal of her just declared lack of affection for her peers, is nevertheless persuaded by the chilly breezes to take a seat in the tent behind the Widow Louise and Brenda and her sisters and the myriad nieces and granddaughters assembled to pay respects and say goodbye. I am happy for Barbara to desert me at this point in time, for in some weird way I feel the need to be on my own for a while.
First to speak is a folksy preacher sort who offers a prayer to get everything started, then goes into a cheery reminiscence of the high points of John Bailey's life as if he once was a confidante and a friend of Mr. Bailey, which I know is about as false as the promise of December sunshine in two weeks, for Mr. Bailey hadn't graced the inside of a church since his last granddaughter's baptism, not because he was a heathen or a bad guy or anything like that, but mainly because Mr. Bailey never found much in organized religion that could improve his lot or make him a better man than he already was, so he chose to simply not go. He was damned glad to see you if you dropped by his house or ran into him somewhere, and on Sunday mornings he'd always wave at us as we passed his yard on our way to church. He'd have a big smile on his face as he pushed his mower or toted his lawn shears, and there was a light in his eyes for both the work awaiting him and the world that passed by his property. My father would lift his hand and wave, but always kept his eyes on the road before him, while I looked out the rear window and wished I didn't have to be a Baptist again that morning, that I could instead get out of the car and stay behind and hang out with Mr. Bailey with his smile and his laugh and his notion of God that made a lot more sense than what my mother and father and the Baptist church had been shoving between my ears for most of the drab and despairing Sundays of my life.
From time to time this would-be preacher stops and lets a woman sing a hymn purported to be one of Mr. Bailey's favorites, but this doesn't jive with me, since all I ever remember him singing was "The Wabash Cannonball." After a while Brenda comes to the microphone and talks about what it was like for her and her sisters to be "Daddy's Girls." I realize all this hoopla is somewhat necessary when closing the chapter on somebody's life, but I can't keep myself from drifting off from the main gist of the action to examine what is happening on the fringes of this scene.
I focus first on Barbara, wondering just what it is that has set her back from her usual easygoing manner and made her wish to be away from the very crowd she generally finds enchanting. I notice in a strange twist of circumstances she is seated beside Brenda's ex-husband Charles Lee. I find in a solitary way this seating arrangement to be a little strange and off the beaten path of my own moral turpitude, since I have always been an Old Testament old school sort of guy with the natural inclination in my bones for all failed marriages to take separate roads, one high and one low, and to never meet up again. I suppose with my change of heart and new wisdom gleaned from years of experience I can now tolerate the fact the years Charles Lee spent as the son-in-law of John Bailey supersedes eternal banishment into the wilderness and allows him to return like the rest of us to say so long one last time.
I am not the most observant guy on the face of the earth. It only occurs to me at this moment how Charles has been in my periphery vision more than just this once over the past few days; I seem to recall seeing him on Friday and Saturday as well, and didn't I hear his name mentioned at the organized drunk last night? I almost believe I spoke and said hello to him during this time, maybe once waving at him in acknowledgement at some point. At once it comes to me that had I not been so caught up in my own puzzlements concerning the fading of Jennifer Kay Owens from my own personal treasure chest, I might have been the tiniest bit aware of how Charles Lee certainly becomes the focal point of a lot of attention when he happens to come around.
I study him closely while the preacher talks and prayers get uttered and more favorite hymns get sung. I remember Charles as being probably the first boy in my class to have an official girlfriend, plunging in there and actually going steady with a girl before the rest of us even had the gumption to pick up a phone and ask someone for a date. In those days Charles had a heck of a lot more courage than any of us, shunning playing football or basketball or driving around a flashy car as a means of climbing the high school ladder, but instead opting for the more immediate reward of delving among the female populace of our institution, who were as a majority waiting breathlessly for some boy to enter into their hormonal awakenings and whisk them away into a world of romantic fantasy they'd only dreamed about before. Charles was, as we called him back then -- some of us good-naturedly, others not so much -- a lover boy, one of those fellows you just never could tell about. His first couple of girlfriends were weekly affairs that hardly lasted long enough to be noticed, but after those first forays -- after he acquired the knack of how to go about doing such things -- his tenures began lasting longer, going on for months at a time, through Christmas holidays and spring breaks. We heard tales of what a girl bought him for his birthday and how another persuaded her parents to let him come along to Florida on the family vacation, and we wondered how this could be for a boy who was one of us, because we certainly as a group were not receiving gifts from girls or being invited along on trips to exotic locales and given -- as we were certain was the case -- the unspoken permission to have our way with the daughter with no interference or dire consequences from the parents whatsoever. And if any of us were to have designs or affections toward any of the females in Charles' life he was presently tied to, well, there was never the question we could waltz in and perhaps squire them away from Charles -- or Charming Charlie, as we soon named him. We'd call him Charming Charlie to his face even, and there would be no hard feelings or insult taken from it. All we would get from him was a smile, and we suffered that smile along with the knowledge that if we wanted Charming Charlie's girl we'd simply have to take a seat and wait until he moved on to his next stop on the line. As long as he was in the same ballpark with us there was no sense in even trying to compete. There was no way we could win.
Charles is still a handsome guy. His hair has thinned a little, but he looks healthy enough, and his eyes still seem clear and able to see down the road what the pitfalls of growing older are all about. I try to assimilate his steady diet of women back in those days before he finally decided he'd had enough and settled on Brenda, and the procession of faces accumulate in my head like cards being shuffled and placed on a table face up, and somewhere in that dizzying array I spot Barbara, and it comes to me how, yes, Barbara had indeed been one of this myriad deck who'd at one time paired off with Charles at some party, who had gone to a movie or two with him over the course of a week or so, and how it hadn't mattered much to me at the time, because my eyes were on either Jennifer or someone else and the idea of Barbara and me had not nestled into my head yet. Looking at them now, Charles, with a second wife not here on the scene, sitting beside Barbara with his quietly-crying first wife Brenda in the row in front, I wonder how it is I have spent a large part of my life unaware of what is happening to those around me, that, unless it is a comet striking the surface of my own personal terrain, I have always been prone to ignore such going-ons, to allow them to remain unseen and to stroll along as if nothing had ever happened. I think of Mr. Bailey as he is lowered into the ground just as a cage of white doves are released and fly off into the December sky, and I consider the Sundays and the afternoons he spent in his yard. I think of the look that was on his face while he worked, how he would raise his hand in a wave when a car passed by, and how when I walked up to talk he'd accepted my presence and my existence and given me a part of him when what he really wanted was to be deliciously alone in his world once more. I wonder if I am becoming that same way now in my old age, shaking hands and smiling, yet wanting only to be with myself at the end of the day, to not see the entrances and exits the players of this world are making on the stage I am doing my damnedest not to view, and if that is the case, how many storylines and plot twists have I missed by looking away each chance I get?
I watch Barbara sitting beside Charles, looking for the tiniest tell-tale strand of emotion emanating from her because he is near, but I detect nothing. I study Brenda in the row in front of him and wonder if even in her grief there is still some smidgen of attention going out to the lost lover sitting behind her? What are all the things I do not know about the feelings of the people I care for out in the vast world? Is it possible they have secrets much like me? Could it be I am not the only traveler in this world who bears his secrets through time and never stops to tell anyone the truth about them? It is funny to me how life raises up its monstrous head and spooks us all sometimes, freaks us out so much that the only way we can cope with it is silence.
All at once the ceremony is over. The doves, as far as I can tell, are still circling the grounds up in the clouds. The American flag has been folded and handed over to Louise by two soldiers and the preacher is busy going down the line shaking hands with the family. The gravediggers have already performed their scientific and magical tricks with dirt appropriation, and in a few more minutes Mr. Bailey will be everlastingly stowed away. I have been so lost in my thoughts a great deal of visual stimulation has paraded right past my nose and I haven't even noticed.
Keeping pattern, I think, with the rest of my existence.
In reference to what has already transpired in my mind, I hold myself back in the dispersing crowd to see what interaction might take place between Barbara and Charles. The two come together as they rise from their chairs under the canopy, and I remain in my place to determine from afar if the words Barbara speaks are merely out of politeness or if the smile on her face is genuine or fake, or if the light in her eyes is the light that shines when there is something in her territory she truly cares about. It's hard to say whether there's really something to worry about concerning me and my wife, or if it's just my damned negative imagination scampering all over creation again.
"Well, you certainly don't look any the worse for wear from last night."
Sandra Barton stands in front of me, cupping her hands over her eyes to keep the suddenly insurgent sunlight from blinding her. She squints at me quizzically, which makes her look like an aging geisha here among the tombstones.
"I'd have thought you'd have traveled as far away as you could to get over all you heard and saw last night. I was thinking we were freaking you out."
"I guess this classifies me as a lunatic, but I really sort of enjoyed myself." I look at Sandra with some scrutiny and try to convince myself that at one time I had buddies who were actually sexually attracted to her. Moments like this are on the increase these days. "It's been rather gratifying discovering all you women were just as nuts back in the day as I thought you were. The crazy stuff you threw at us almost justifies some of the crap we guys did back to you to retaliate."
Sandra smiles a little at this and then looks me in the eye again.
"I guess the Baileys were close to the last parents of any of our friends still around." She glances back at Louise, who is surrounded by well-wishers in her seat before the gravesite, all of them standing in the way to block the sight of the diggers patting out the dirt over Mr. Bailey to make the ground even. "Mrs. Bailey may be the only one left."
"She'll probably be around," I say, "for quite a while. For somebody her age she still looks pretty damn good."
Better than you, Sandra, I want to add, but I don't. As soon as this passes through my head I'm disgusted with myself all over again, because I've known Sandra almost fifty years and she's not once done anything so bad to me to deserve these sorts of cruel thoughts. What is my problem, I wonder?
Barbara and Brenda finally walk up. I can tell the two of them have been having a private moment, for both have tears in their eyes and their arms are wrapped around each other like they are never going to let each other go. I know this is John Bailey's funeral and this is a sad affair and all that, but this image before me is beyond that fact, because this is not a picture of mourning. I've known these two women for a hell of a long time and I know how they react to things. This is not sadness for Mr. Bailey I see.
I squeeze Barbara's hand and give Brenda a hug, seeing how she is the only first girlfriend I ever had who is still walking the earth. Say what you want about me, but it's the truth -- I'm never disloyal when it comes to history.
"Well, I suppose all's okay that ends okay," Brenda says, blowing her nose on a Scottie folded up in the palm of her hand. "The way I was feeling Thanksgiving nobody could have ever convinced me we would have all made it through to today without a hitch. I would have bet on one or two of us falling out before this ended."
"I knew you were going to be all right," Sandra says. "All you have to do is look at all the people who showed up to help see you through. Things are never so bad when you have friends around watching over you."
I feel like barking out a couple of lyrics from Sgt. Pepper's, but I hold it in with some effort. I don't know what is really going on with me -- maybe it's overkill or some dread psychological shortcoming like that -- but I'm pretty much done with the human race at this point. If there was a bus stopping by right now I'd be on board and already halfway down the aisle looking for a seat.
"Now you guys need to come over to the house and have something to eat," Brenda says. "There's enough food sitting around there to feed the entire city for a week, and anyway, I need some company to keep me insulated from my family. I hate to be anti-social like this with Daddy just buried, but the quicker I put some distance between myself and my kinfolk the less likely it's going to be that I find Daddy's shotgun and use it for more than celebrating the New Year."
I know this is a losing argument, so I try to salvage whatever I can. Even in defeat, if a guy's resourceful enough he can still cut a pretty good deal for himself if he's smart.
"You go along with Brenda," I tell Barbara, looking acutely sincere despite the fact I know Barbara knows what a liar I am. "I've got a few loose ends at work I have to take care of. It won't take long, and I'll be over just as soon as I'm through."
I get out of there before I have to tell any more tall tales.