I never would have believed it, but I actually start feeling better about everything as the night moves on. I spend an hour standing out on Mr. Bailey's deck with Barbara and Brenda talking over a lot of auld lang syne stuff, and even with it getting chilly as hell we enjoy our time together so much we don't think about going inside until the sun sets and the temperature takes a nose-dive. I eat a roast beef sandwich and drink a cup of coffee Louise brings me on a plate, an act so gracious it about knocks me over. I guess she has decided it is high time she and I buried the hatchet, although I still don't know if there was a war in the first place. But maybe it's just me and my imagination again.
Little by little the guests finish their cake or coffee and offer their condolences one more time while slipping on coats and fishing out car keys. There are hugs and promises to stay in touch, the door opens and the house ever so slightly becomes quieter. It comes to me how very soon Barbara and I will be the only non-family members present in this home -- even though I was the son and son-in-law who might have been and Barbara was the best friend forever from way way back -- and I feel we are on the verge of becoming intruders and it is time for us to go. Barbara seems to share the same thought, for she turns to me and tells me it is getting late.
After we hug and make promises to keep in touch, we are in our separate cars taking the short drive to our house. Once we are home there is an awkward stillness hanging in the air, and I am about to ask as a way of beginning an amiable conversation who was the strangest of the strange during this four day journey into the past, but Barbara switches on the radio in the den and fills the air with the voice of Neil Young and stands there and listens for a minute while Neil tells us in no uncertain terms that only love can break your heart. I watch Barbara as she disappears down the hall to our bedroom, and even though her back is turned to me I still know she once again has that slight smile on her face. I want to know why but I am afraid to follow her and ask the question out into the air, because maybe it is something I really don't want to know.
If I was going to take a chance and ask her, though, this is where I'd start.
I would wait until we are in the bed together, in this house we are only months away from owning outright, and then I would take her hand and look into her eyes. I would tell her I have something to ask and would she please tell me the truth no matter what. I want to know a certain thing about you, I would say. It is very important to me. It may possibly hurt me, I would smile, but I have to know the truth.
Tonight you said you were glad you'd ended up with me. You said it was because I never change and I always stay the same. Do you think that's true? Do you think I am steadfast and honest and loyal and all those things you give me credit for? Is this the reason you chose me for this long haul of life we share together? I wonder sometimes about these things, and there are moments when I think I should not be so honored or esteemed, that maybe I am just a consolation prize in your life, and at some point in the past there was someone else you loved more than me, and it would have meant all the world for you to be with him. It could be I am too romantic and melodramatic with these kinds of thoughts, but I still can't help but think that the possibility exists that at one time in your life your heart beat faster and your blood raced more for someone else. Don't feel bad if this is true, for I confess the same thing for myself. I have felt this way for another person too. I kept it hidden, Barbara, all this time, because I was ashamed. I thought I was the only one in the world who held such a secret, like my own special sin was so unique nobody in the world could understand or share the same feelings. It's only in the last few days I've come to see how selfish and foolish such a line of thinking is.
What I am trying to say is I think there was a time in your life when someone commanded your soul much more than I ever have. It could be you don't want to go into all the gory details and I certainly don't blame you for that, because I know there are things we all want to keep to ourselves. But I will tell you this. Today I saw you sitting with Charles at the funeral, and I remembered then some things I'd forgotten, probably because I'd been living my own lost scenario out in my own head and hadn't had the time to comprehend the real dramas of life taking place right under my nose, because, you see, these real dramas were not of me or about me and were not happening to me and me alone. I saw you look at Charles today the way you had looked at him back then, this Charles, this ex-husband of your best friend, and I thought of how once he had looked at you as he did so many other girls, and I wondered, Barbara, if the look in your eyes held the same feelings for him now as they did in those days long ago. I wondered if time had dimmed the light and cooled whatever flame had perhaps continued to flicker for him all these years ...
If only I could find the words I would ask Barbara these questions, but I have to remember I am an old man now who has seen and heard just about everything by this point, and with the wisdom that comes with years I know there are some things better left unsaid.
I turn the music off and from the other end of the house I hear the click of the lamp on the night table beside the bed and a faint voice coming from the bedroom television. I imagine Barbara laying in bed with her Sue Grafton novel and the TV's channel locked in on Animal Planet, where she will fall asleep watching a wildlife special she's probably already seen at least once. I will come in from closing down the house and switch off the television, take the book from her hands and mark her place. I will turn off the light and get into bed as quietly as I can, and in a minute, in the darkness, she will whisper, "Thank you."
I unload the dishwasher and measure out my coffee for tomorrow morning. The cat, knowing the kitty restaurant is closed for the night, stalks out of the kitchen on his way to the bedroom, where he will take advantage of my absence by burrowing under the covers on my side, not to budge until I pick him up and move him. I take my pills for high blood pressure and cholesterol and wonder again how I managed to become an old guy so quickly, then I tie up the trash bag to take outside to the can, for right now I feel the urge to breathe the night air.
Outdoors, what winds that blew this afternoon at Mt. Bethany have subsided under what looks to me to be a werewolf moon, and despite the crispness of the air and the fact I am in my shirtsleeves I still take a moment to linger in the drive and marvel at such a sky above me. These, I figure, are the same identical stars I've been looking at all my life, so it's not like I am seeing anything ultra-new out here. This knowledge, I realize, works both ways, and the werewolf moon and the accompanying stars are not seeing much different out of me either. We are all the same, only older, although my age seems to tell on me more, seeing how I am a transient in this scene and not something eternal like the moon and stars over my head. You have seen me, I tell this canopy, when I was young and wild and full of myself. You were watching when I made love to Jennifer Kay Owens as she was back then, and you saw me turn away from her all these years later as she is now. I wonder if you are as disappointed as I am that stars are not still in my eyes and Jennifer Kay Owens is old and plain these days and magic to me no more. And though once we lived within each other for a time, now in each other's sight we are dead; though both of us know we are still a part of the world, it is only a world where the two of us exist together no longer.
Night air seeps into my bones. I take a step into the dead grass of the lawn and plunge my hands deep into my pockets. Under the heavens on this night I feel more insignificant than usual. Being stripped of significance is not what I've envisioned for myself, and I think of where I have been when love and magic ruled my soul. How special I believed myself to be, and now I think of Barbara and Charles this afternoon, and wonder if that too was as special to those two lives beneath the moon and stars as I and my own romps with a web of dreams once seemed to be?
All the time I lived believing I knew all about love was wrong. While I was busy creating a make-believe world where I held the leading role, real life was going on and I never saw it happen. There was John Bailey and Louise, Brenda and Charles, and, yes, even Charles and Barbara in that configuration of characters and events, and all these acts were greater in scope than the one I deemed the mightiest -- my one evening with Jennifer Kay Owens. Now I see that night was not that important to her then, and only important now because in her mind I am a witness to the fact that once she was bright and not faded, that once her song was as sweet as those of the birds in the trees, and once those notes never fell and settled back into the frozen dead ground of today. I wish Jennifer Kay Owens had never returned and found me again, because I loved her completely while she was gone. I could have loved her forever if she'd never come back.
The sound of a door opening makes me stop my thoughts and look from my yard to the house across the street. It is midnight, yet I hear the sound of a human voice, and I see the ghostly figure of a man standing in the doorway by the adjoining garage. The man is waiting for a beagle-mix dog to do his business in the grass. Hurry up, Hank, the old man says -- it's late and it's cold. I can tell from his voice the man I thought was gone to the grave is back this night with the living. He is like me, not dead again, and perhaps like me he also knows the time is getting closer. Maybe we are both beginning to sense it a little more each day. But we are still out here in the night, living the moments we have, him and me.
It's time to go inside. Tomorrow is Tuesday and the week will be in earnest. The newspaper and the television commercials will all herald the same message: Christmas is here, a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. The holidays will be on the air and in the mail, in the stores and in the lights up and down the suburban streets. They will be upon all us and they will be hectic once more, yet peace will abide somewhere inside those busy days too, a peace that falls like the soft rain of tears on the cheeks of widows and daughters when a good man has gone away, a peace like the final resolve of the fire departing an old man's heart, a peace like the quiet memory descending on a soul when it knows the storm has ended at last and the lightning will flash no more, the thunder will not rattle the windows again. It is a peace that says you can rest now. All the fury is gone away at last, never to be back this way again.
I stand for several long moments watching the old man I believed was dead, until this Lazarus figure and his dog disappear back inside the dark house that is living once more, and outside of an occasional passing car going to or returning from God knows where, there is nothing else beneath the moon and in the night left for me to see.