Of course I don't go back to work, and of course I know Barbara and Brenda both know I didn't. If either one had asked me where exactly I was really going or what I was up to my answer would have been a plain and simple I don't know, and that would have been one of the more honest things I've ever said. But the thing of it neither of them asks me. I guess they both assume I'm weirded out for the moment and because I am who I am and have been for a long time I am just naturally going to go out and do something totally off the wall, but I can't fight City Hall and popular opinion about it at this stage, so I head away from the gravesite with my mind blank as a shaken Etch-A- Sketch and no idea whatsoever where I am going when I get back to the car.
I walk for about five minutes with my head down, making sure nobody is following me and doing my best to not trip over a headstone with about half the world watching, and then it dawns on me I don't know where I am. I was so happy to leave everybody behind at the gravesite that I didn't bother to pay attention to what direction I was taking or what narrow and shadowy lane to saunter down to arrive at my Toyota.
Which isn't parked where I thought it was parked.
One thing for certain though is I am definitely not lost. I know exactly how to get back to where I was with the milling people and the circling doves and Barbara, who knows I'm a big fat liar but forgives me for it anyway. I can do an about-face and find my way to the Civil War shelter where I kissed the anonymous Halloween girl and to the parlor down the hill which is now devoid of bodies to visit, and I can hike on out to the main road and go home by foot if I have to, so it isn't like my compass is broken.
It's just my car isn't where it's supposed to be.
The first thing I decide, seeing how I am somewhat akin to Marco Polo and studied extensively under Lewis and Clark, is I couldn't possibly have made a wrong turn or got myself turned around, so I reason there is only one answer as to why my car is not here where I left it. It can only mean one thing.
The Toyota has been stolen.
For a moment I stand in the lane beneath the trees with an afternoon north wind clutching the back of my neck and the pit of my heart at the same time. I wonder what I should do next, since I have never been the victim of this sort of heinous crime before. I debate if I should take off running for Mt. Bethany's exit and see if I can get there before my perpetrator tries to leave with my vehicle or if I should phone the cops and get them to stake out the area and use deadly force if necessary to secure my stolen car. Maybe I should take a deep breath and ask Providence to send a band of angels to my side for immediate assistance. I am beginning the first of these prayers when I glance to my right and see my car sitting in the next road over, right where I'd parked it an hour before.
Once more I look to see if anyone has been nearby observing my near-meltdown, and satisfied my breakdown has occurred in private I thank God and trudge through the leaves and markers and tombstones to my car. I get in and drive off on my journey to I know not where.
For some strange reason I can't find it within myself to leave Mt. Bethany, choosing instead to steer the car around the vast grounds and up and down deserted trails and past parked Buicks and Fords where solitary widows visit their husbands' graves, and I think of Louise as the widows watch my approach with distrust and fear mingled in their eyes, wondering if I am a pervert or a criminal with evil designs on violating their bodies or stealing their purses. I am neither, I want to tell them; I am just a guy with no place to go, no world where I fit in. Maybe instead of cruising around I should be out in the world cheating on Barbara, perhaps ruining someone else's life along with my own -- maybe then I'll figure I'm alive and accomplishing some of the same things others do. Smile my smile and be content and bothered by nothing. But I do not wish to be hard or unpleasant. Do any of you widows understand me? Ask me and I will stop and tell you nice little stories from my time when I was a human being. If not, I'll keep on going and wave my hand as I pass by.
I don't want Mt. Bethany Security or the regular police called to investigate why an old dude -- aka me -- is cruising the cemetery like he's looking for trouble, so I think it might be wise to leave the grounds and go someplace where my mind can wander. I follow the winding roads out to the exit and try and determine where to go from here. One look at the interstate and I know I won't be getting anywhere near that mess, for traffic is at a standstill, either for a wreck or construction or rush hour getting an early start. My guess is the delay is for a combination of all three; people have left work early in mass and are racing to bars and restaurants to prime themselves for Monday Night Football, only to be stalled by construction projects trying to make up lost ground from the Thanksgiving holiday, and maybe some of these drivers weren't able to slow their cars down enough to keep from crashing into each other. None of this could be the case, but it at least makes some sense of the stalemate spread out before me and gives me legitimate reason not to join the throng attempting to get somewhere stupid, like the Bailey's house, which is where I'm eventually supposed to be but which appears to be creating in my head the desire to travel in the opposite direction.
I cruise through industrial streets and see factory workers taking breaks from the manufacture of crap, leaning against brick walls and smoking. Up this road are convenience marts and meat and threes, storage sheds and a career college where artists and design wannabes enroll and spend all their money so the world will consider them educated. There's a Dollar General and a Pizza Hut, a Publix and a Kroger and a car dealership with driverless Fords parked as far as I can see. A senior citizen center appears and I wonder if I ought to go in and sign up for a program or two. All at once I find myself leaving this hubbub and turning the Toyota around and going back where I came from. It has been at least an hour now, which is plenty of time for the crowd to thin out. I am going back to Mt. Bethany to spend a few solitary minutes with Mr. Bailey.
I'm hoping like hell it will be like old times.
The gravesite is deserted when I return, the flowers askew and stacked up on the new dirt and already beginning to wilt in the December sun. In the space of an hour a major overhaul has taken place here. The chairs have been removed and the gravediggers with their tractors have gone off to get drunk somewhere. I picture them speaking of the dead through smoke and whiskey, carving the caked dirt beneath their fingernails with pocket knives. Some industrious employee has even managed during this interval to dismantle the tent and carry it back down the hill for storage until the next paying customer turns blue. I'm pretty sure the doves have also been retrieved and caged, which to me is a gyp deal for sure. I think about all those white birds up there in the clouds symbolizing the final release of the human spirit, soaring around so high and making a person think about how maybe this death thing might not be so bad at all, and then, just when a guy starts feeling comfortable with the idea of expiring somebody goes and blows a whistle or a horn or comes forth with some kind of signal, then, bingo, all the doves return to their cage and there's no more soaring and a person is in the ground for keeps and all that glorious flying off into the hereafter is all at once over and done, and there's only time left behind, time that goes on and on, and the fellow in the ground is not a part of any of the equation anymore.
I don't know how long I'm turning this over in my head, but in the meantime I manage to get out of the car and approach the mound of dirt and the clump of dying flowers where I believe the nose of Mr. Bailey's casket to be, because that's where his head is and at this point I for damned sure don't feel like talking to somebody's frigging feet, whether they're dead or not. I also don't know if a guy ought to make a habit of talking to somebody's who's just recently bought it, but I've been spending so much time recently fluctuating through the motions of walking and breathing and all that jazz, and it seems all I want to do is just clam the hell up and not see or hear or feel or go through any of that living rigmarole average people experience on a daily basis, and so I stand here now somewhere on the outskirts of all of that, and I don't know what to say or what direction to take when I leave this place, and I don't have faith enough in God or John Bailey to think one of them is going to all of a sudden tell me what in the hell to do to make it go any smoother.
I'll just talk, then, and see what happens.
So, I say to Mr. Bailey, you always were a good guy for advice when I walked up the street to see you in the old neighborhood. Well, this is your neighborhood now and I'm passing through, and if ever I needed somebody wise to tell me how to go about doing something it's now. I don't want you to be put off by the fact my hair has turned gray and I can't see Godzilla destroying the city without my bifocals, because none of that has anything to do with my plight. All it means is I'm older but not a damn whit wiser. And, crap, Mr. Bailey, I don't think it's supposed to work out like this. I thought I'd be a lot smarter at this stage of the game. So I guess what I'm saying is I really need somebody to tell me if what I'm doing is right or wrong, and if you're not the one to do it I don't know who to ask or where to go to from here.
After three minutes or so I can tell there's no answer forthcoming. It's not that I'm so damned wigged out I'm expecting a voice from the grave to speak up and tell me how to go about my business, but I have been thinking that getting away from Barbara and Brenda and Jennifer and all the faces and voices and lips I've had bouncing off of me this holiday weekend might provide me with some measure of inner vision and a smattering of vocal wisdom from the voice inside my soul. I don't feel like I'm confused or unable to make any sense of the jumble I've been looking at, but I have hoped I might come up with some form of concise answer from the aura of Mr. Bailey by simply making myself available here in the quiet with all its lack of distractions. I guess I am, as usual, wrong, and standing here in the open with the north wind blowing down my neck I suppose I have to admit I'm beyond any help Mr. Bailey might have given me, alive or dead. Sadly, Mr. Bailey seems at this moment as useless in the old advice and wise information department as my own father always was, so if this moment has provided nothing else, I can at least freely acknowledge the fact that for most of my life nobody has ever been able to tell me a goddamned thing. My dad, Mr. Bailey, Barbara, you name it. In the end I choose to ignore them all. I go the way I want and show up when and where I please. I suppose in the future I'll do what I think is best, but I think maybe it's time I stopped thinking how everything I do or say is so important and monumental to the rest of the world. I believe I'm starting to realize how most everybody on this planet has something weird happening to them practically every day -- some of it good and some of it really crappy -- and I'm not the only one out here shaking his head at what's just finished going down in his life. This getting freaked out by life is like a worldwide phenomenon and ain't just happening to me alone.
I think this over for a minute, and then I'm on my way back to the Toyota, which I find without having to go on a search this time.
It's not a long drive to the Bailey's house. I take my time getting there, motoring along in silence because I don't want to hear NFL reports or Carrie Underwood asking Jesus to take the wheel or Michael Jackson death conspiracies right now, and it's best to get my thoughts in order before I face god knows who and what at this post-funeral reception.
Reception, I muse, now that's a funny word to use. A reception is a welcoming, a gathering to make someone comfortable, and what this Bailey reception entails is a bunch of family and friends having food and drink and trying to get accustomed to the fact that one of their former number isn't going to be around among them anymore. I can't help but think how transient everybody's life is, how we're all here one day and gone the next, and how it's only when somebody has lived a life worth noting that people take notice when that person isn't around anymore. It's more often people live existences that never register or make a dent, and no one misses them at all when they check out. It must be hard to know you might as well be dead for all the difference it will make, even when you're still breathing and as alive as the next guy.
There are cars in the driveway along with several parked up and down the street, so I suppose this gathering has been as successful as anyone could have hoped for. To my way of thinking this reception seems like overkill -- had it been up to me I would have ordered the mourners and relatives and friends to vamoose and let me cope with the recent events by myself. This, I suppose, is the difference between me and the rest of creation, for I've never been one who's depended on encouraging words and a shoulder to cry on to get me through when the going gets strenuous. I tend to bolt the doors and close the shutters and cope and recover on my own.
Inside there's a party atmosphere present. People perch on sofas and chairs with plates balanced on their laps, and circles of folks hold coffee cups and beverage glasses with clinking ice. I recognize Brenda's sisters flitting in and out of these circles and spot the Widow Louise back in the kitchen slicing helpings of cake and pie to sate the masses in attendance, but I don't see any of my immediate group who might have been anticipating my arrival, namely, Barbara and Brenda and any of the vast array of ghosts who have been saying boo to me the last few days. About the only creature noting my entrance is Artemus, the Bailey's wiener dog, and he is only interested in me as someone who might drop food on the floor and thus provide him with a plundered snack.
Something tells me to pass through the kitchen, which I literally sneak through while Louise's back is turned speaking to a lady helping her with the food, and it is past the outside door where I find Barbara and Brenda off by themselves on the recesses of a deck Mr. Bailey constructed all by his lonesome about a million years ago. I am duly impressed it is still standing, still erect and functioning even if he isn't. Had it been me fashioning such a project it would have toppled and crumpled into ruin long before this.
"Well, you did make it, didn't you?" Brenda says. "All this time Barbara's been saying you were going to be a no show."
"I always arrive eventually," I say. "Sometimes I find it necessary to take the scenic route."
"How was work?" Barbara asks. This is a veiled reference and she has a funny look in her eye. "I take it you were able to swoop in and save the day."
"Actually, I didn't go," I confess, opting for the truth for the shock value that's in it. "What I really did was go back to the gravesite. I wanted to say goodbye in my own way and I've been having trouble concentrating lately with all these weird blasts from the past jumping out from behind bushes every five seconds or so. I had to put off my goodbyes to Mr. Bailey until everybody got the hell out of there."
"That's funny you say that," Brenda says, "because we were just talking about how strange people have been acting. There were some folks who showed up who were like complete strangers to me, and I've known them all for close to forever."
"Some people who came made me wonder if I ever knew them before at all," Barbara says. She shakes her head and takes a pensive draw on her cigarette. She still has a funny look about her.
"Like who?" I ask. I don't really expect either Barbara or Brenda to drop any names, but it's worth a try.
"Lots of people," Barbara says. "Friends who aren't really my friends anymore, just strangers, and I talked to them awhile and found out who they've become and how they're not themselves anymore, and I wondered if they truly weren't just strangers all along -- even way back then -- and I was so dumb I didn't realize it. I didn't know who was who or what was what."
"Men," Brenda smiles. "You're the guilty ones. All you men have turned out crazy."
"Yeah," Barbara says, "especially the men. All those old frigging boyfriends." She gives me a look like I am someone she's never seen before.
"I know you can't mean me," I say, smiling like this whole conversation is one big joke.
"No," she says, "I certainly don't mean you. That's the thing about you. You just never change. You stay the same, and that's where you beat the absolute heck out of every other man in this world."
"What about during the full moon when I turn into a wolf and run around the neighborhood? I change plenty then."
"Not as much as other guys," she says. "You're nuts, but I'm sure glad I ended up with you. I couldn't have stood it this long with anyone else."
This sort of truthfulness, complimentary though it may be, takes me back some and makes me wonder where this is coming from. I'm finding it hard to think of anything witty to say.
"It's too damned bad I didn't marry you, too," Brenda says. "We'd have been one happy little trio. Daddy would have liked it too, having you for a son-in-law instead of the horse's ass I picked out for him."
"I saw your horse's ass this afternoon, by the way. Louise would have hated me replacing Charming Charlie, though. I don't think she's ever liked me all that much."
"You would have won her over," Brenda smiles, "just like you always win over women in the long run. You would have become her favorite."
Barbara smiles too, but I'm wondering if she's all that happy.