I'm not even going to go into why I'm where I am for all this, because it's for sure I could brainstorm all day and still never come up with a clear-cut answer.
The thing of it is I've got to where I've taken up the habit my late mother once reveled in, that being, reading the obituaries in the morning newspaper every goddamned day. It used to drive me crazy how, back when Mother was alive, poring over the death notices to find out who'd succumbed over the past twenty-four hours provided her the most enjoyable opportunity to get her rocks. I mean, some folks like the comics, some people the sports, some even like to read about local and national happenings, no matter how bad and depressing all that might be, but very few rational human beings find pleasure in discerning who's bitten the dust in the past day. Maybe it wouldn't have bothered me so much if my mother hadn't started engaging in this grisly practice until she got up in years and had death looking over her shoulder, or she needed to keep up with who of her friends she didn't need to send a Christmas card to anymore, but that wasn't the case. I can recall being a little kid and watching her spread the newspaper out on the kitchen table with her trusty scissors by her side, ready to clip out an eye-catching obit the second it presented itself. It was almost like an early variation of the Kevin Bacon game, where Mother searched through all the names to find some survivor or organization or area in some dead person's life that in some far-out way somehow or another related to her. I thought it was sort of sick then and I still think so in a way, yet I invariably catch my eyes running down the columns just like she did once I arrive at the obituary page. I have to admit there's something sort of addictive about the process.
Anyway, that's how I came across Rebecca's mother, or the person who used to be Rebecca's mother, as the death notice indicated. I always skim over the last names and don't stop to read any of the gory details unless one of them rings a bell, because I'm trying my best not to make a science of all this, and just the act itself makes me feel a little guilty, like I'm doing something I should be ashamed of and don't want anybody catching me doing it.
Unlike her daughter, Donna Williams always seemed to like me. Rebecca's father, Charles, I was certain despised me, while the family dog, Dolly, a black mutt who resided in the back yard, wanted me dead along with the rest of the human race. Rebecca fluctuated somewhere in her feelings toward me from occasional high-voltage desire to low-grade contempt, but Mrs. Williams always smiled and was polite and offered courteous conversation whenever I came over to pick up Rebecca for a date. We shared snippets of conversation while Rebecca finished doing whatever it was she did to appear ravishing, and as I look back now, the only times I actually sat down in a chair in Rebecca's house was during those chats with her mother. Rebecca never invited me to dinner or to come watch TV or listen to records. It was always me picking her up and taking her somewhere to spend money, and as I look back now, that utter lack of ever being seated should have indicated to me that my relationship with Rebecca Williams was never going anywhere -- except to dinner, or concerts or movies -- only to places where I could blow lots of cash I didn't have on a girl friend who really wasn't in actuality my cut and dried girl friend at all.
So Donna Williams was dead now, all eighty-one years of her, and when I ran across her name in the paper I felt the wave of recognition pass through me like a mild electric shock, a slight tingle just strong enough to jog my memory and spur my brain into gear. I spent a couple of hours thinking about Rebecca and Donna and Charles and Dolly the dog and the relationships we once had with one another, and I knew I had to go by the funeral home or suffer the possibility of going bonkers from the curious voices whispering in my head.
What I really wanted to do was pull in the funeral home's parking lot and case the place, just sit there with the motor running and the heater keeping me warm and watch who went in and out the front doors of the building. I've always opted for the chicken's way out. But I finally convinced myself there was nothing really to be afraid of. Donna and Charles were both dead, Dolly surely had been put to sleep by this time, and Rebecca could be nowhere near the ravishing dish she once was. I could go in and pay my respects without suffering any pangs of regret and loss. Times have changed, I told myself. Years have gone by. Nothing is the same as it once was. There are a lot of things to worry about these days but the past isn't one of them. The past is a long time gone -- long gone like Donna and Charles and Dolly. It has no say-so over what goes on now.
I'd never been in this particular funeral home before. Most of my prior experiences with bereavement visitation had occurred over on my side of town, in my neighborhood, in areas where I felt slightly comfortable, and most of the time I'd gone to those places because someone in my own family had died -- someone older, someone who had already run the gamut and had been leaning toward extinction for quite a while. I usually knew the crowd I was walking into. They were relatives, aunts and uncles and cousins and such, and though I may not have cared for them that much or been close with them, I at least knew their names and faces and had a general working idea where they were coming from. But walking into this new unfamiliar place I didn't know what to expect.
To be truthful I was just there to check out old Rebecca. I wondered what the years had done to her. Mostly I wanted to know if I could still spy something in her that would tell me I was right in my feelings back then and the way she looked would show that now. I didn't want Rebecca to be just another middle-aged woman no red-blooded male had not in the past and would not now ever so much as give a second glance to.
I've always liked to think that the women who spurned me in the past did so because they were so wonderful they weren't allowed in the Wonderful Handbook to have anything to do with a mere mortal like me. I like to think I had good taste back then.
Inside there were three men in suits and a couple of blue-haired white women standing in a group beside the pews. Some of these people were so old it made me feel young again, like I was a college kid once more with my entire future in front of me, which was one hell of a stretch of the imagination. I'm fifty-plus, just so you know. For me to feel fresh and youthful takes a lot of liberal inspiration and boundless imagination.
I walked down about three-quarters of the aisle and just stood there trying to determine if there was anyone in this room who'd ever possessed the spark to ignite the sexual fire that had at one time singed my soul thirty-something years ago. I wasn't even sure I was in the right place until I spotted Rebecca at the front corner of the room, talking to a bunch of grandmas.
It had to be her. I had to look real hard and close and tried to remember her as she was and imagine her as she would be now. Then I tried to resolve if this woman twenty feet away from me was indeed the same person. The hair was shorter with some gray in it, and it was tough to tell from where I stood. Then I heard the laugh and saw the smile and I knew it was Rebecca. There are just some things that never go away.
She spotted me and her eyes grew wide. I guess she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
"Is it really you standing there?" she asked. "I never expected to see you again. I thought you'd disappeared off the face of the earth."
"I saw the notice in the paper and thought I'd come by for a minute."
I'm telling you, Rebecca didn't look bad for an old woman. I mean, she wasn't old -- she was a middle-aged woman, okay? She just wasn't a chick anymore. She wasn't a college girl of the sixties with her hair trailing down her back wearing faded jeans walking across a red-gold autumn campus with my eyes trailing after her and my brain telling me simply, I have to meet this girl, no bones about it, no matter what. This girl I have to meet. And here I am again. And I'm not a boy anymore. I'm a grown man. A year older than her. There are parts of me that don't feel like an old man, but I'm getting there. Maybe I'm not all the way in the autumn of my life yet, but the Fourth of July's a long time past.
"It's hard to believe I'm seeing you," she said. She hooked her arm through mine and pulled me close, an act I never remembered her doing before. "Come on," she smiled. "There are some people here I'd like you to meet."
She led me around the pews and began introducing me to a lot of little old church ladies who were present to soak up everything they could from this important social event. Each one of them gave me a Polident smile and looked at me like I was something far more interesting than I'd previously assumed I was. One woman -- eighty if she was a day -- grasped my hand and solemnly told me she was very glad to see me, for poor Rebecca had certainly been through a lot and needed someone to help her along.
"You haven't told me about him," she said to Rebecca, holding up my ringless hand. "Where have you been hiding him?"
Everybody in the vicinity thought this was real funny, and titters leaked out from a bunch of wrinkled throats. It was the kind of humor Rebecca had always liked, bland and uninspired with no cutting edge wit behind it at all. And it was the kind of moment that made me recall the way I had always felt around her, that we were at different levels looking and talking about different stuff, finding something interesting or funny that the other couldn't have found any less stimulating. It was the sort of moment that had always separated us, that had prevented me from ever telling her anything the least bit personal about myself. I sensed how I had never told her anything really, nothing other than constructed scenarios I wanted her to believe belonged exclusively to me, and I had never learned anything much about her either, other than the fact she grew up well-off (compared to me) and liked to swim at the country club. I had never been to a country club in my life, unless you wanted to count the YMCA in that category. But then, I doubted Rebecca had ever gone to the library to check out a book. I doubted she had ever drunk illegal alcohol when she was a minor or taken a toke from somebody's nickel bag. It didn't matter how much time had passed -- we still didn't have a whole lot to talk about. The only person in the building I could possibly converse with for five uninterrupted minutes was incommunicado now, resting in a casket and bound for a place I hadn't had my ticket punched for yet.
So I was led around with Rebecca's arm hooked through mine and shown off, judged by strangers like I was in a dog show competition or something. Every elderly lady asked the same questions, wanted to know at the gist of it if I was married or not. The prevalent mood seemed to indicate that Rebecca should have a husband and I was the best candidate to come along in a while. This puzzled me, Rebecca not being married, so finally I couldn't help but pose the question to her. I just decided to get right to the point.
"You mean to tell me you've never gotten married?"
"I almost did," she said, choosing her sentences in her careful way, like she was afraid she might be eternally typecast if she slipped up and said the wrong thing. "I was engaged about six years ago, but my fiancé died on New Year's Day. He was in a terrible automobile accident. Maybe you read about it."
I thought about the thousands of folks who'd died in car accidents over the past six or seven years and wondered how I was supposed to recall one particular fatal crash that had occurred. I thought about how that one incident meant the world to this woman from a long time past but didn't matter a thing to me now. It could be none of what went on with Rebecca ever really mattered too awfully much to me back in the past either, for it could have been Rebecca had been nothing but a trophy I tried pulling out of the world at large to fill a space in my life, to take care of a need I had. Maybe I needed a girlfriend back then so I wouldn't glimpse how empty the future might become if I wasn't somehow attached to someone. And maybe I needed this ex-girlfriend right now so I wouldn't have to look back at my golden youth of the long ago and far away and admit how empty and dull it had all actually been, have to face up to how this whole existence hadn't been very exciting or lyrical and anything near what my memory had cranked it up to be. In a fleeting instant I saw the both of us in this moment and in the past, and I saw Rebecca using me to fill up her big emptiness too. I was the one taking her to movies, feeding her at restaurants, picking her up in a car and driving her places. I was the one she needed to have as a representative of her past, a guy she could hook her arm around at moments like these and introduce, but the guy had to be one who couldn't stay, see, who couldn't sit down because he always had to be going. I wondered if it was forever that way with her, if perhaps the dead boyfriend of seven years past had been going somewhere too on that night he crashed, and if just before his farewell trip he'd had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Rebecca's mother, her father? Knowing Rebecca, probably not. Probably the poor stiff had to be going somewhere too and couldn't just sit down and take a load off his feet. Maybe he learned -- like I had now-- that he was only there to be Rebecca's boyfriend, her escort, and his role was to simply be a prop.
I wasn't in a car accident, but I was just as dead to her as he was.
I don't think she really wanted to let go of my arm. I'd met all her mother's friends and exchanged pleasantries with her sister and there for sure wasn't anything left to do but talk to her lawyer slash brother, who I'd met before he was a lawyer and was only a brother I hadn't liked much then, so I figured now that he was a lawyer and still her brother the chances were excellent I'd despise him as fervently as before. I supposed Rebecca and I could walk arm in arm up toward the casket and look at the flowers and look at her mother and blab for a minute about how this woman came to be today not alive, but that would have not been for me and Rebecca to do together, since an exchange like that was real and serious and not the kind of thing we had ever done before, and there didn't appear to be much sense in changing our itinerary at this point in time.
So I left my old flame Rebecca with a kiss on the cheek and a slight hug. Her body elicited a vague response in me when it brushed against mine, but that was only because old Rebecca still looked good and I was between women at the moment and my imagination was trying to convince me here might possibly be a sure thing for a night or two. I decided my imagination might be a good thing to ignore for a change. Rebecca was okay on the outside, but in the end she was still Rebecca and I was still me. There were some things that couldn't be moved out of the way even with a heavy-duty two-wheeler.
If I wanted to I suppose I could have slipped right back into being Rebecca's boyfriend and nowhere in the world would a heart have skipped a beat. After all, she seemed to need me in that role now more than ever before, what with everybody she'd been bolstering herself with all slipping into the deceased category. I would have probably done fine sitting in her living room, sitting at her kitchen table, sitting around and existing in all those places I'd never sat or been an entity in before. I bet I would have fit right in, like a comfortable old piece of furniture. But hell, I couldn't do it.
Rebecca was really never my girlfriend. I'd been more than glad to use her presence to fill up those evenings all those years ago, but nothing was of such high importance today. Everybody had girlfriends back then, and I didn't want to be the only guy who didn't. See, a fellow had to be in college, he had to have a car and a little cash in his billfold to spend on that girlfriend, so with all that in the mix the world could see he was doing okay and wasn't a total screwup. He wasn't going to get weird looks from people because something was lacking in his life. But everyone was gone now. Everyone had vacated the premises for their own lives, where they married and owned houses and sired kids and then maybe gave it all up in a moment of reconsideration. I know because I'd done the same thing. I'd married and divorced, raised a couple of children and been hired and fired a couple of times. And yeah, I was still around and ticking along. I even have the numbers of two or three women to call if I need company for whatever reason that might be, but the fact is I don't really need a girlfriend or a companion too much these days. It's not like I have to be anywhere, you know. It's not like I truly care about where I'm seen or who I'm with. On the average I'd just as soon go home after work and watch TV.
I know what I was doing with Rebecca and her mother was simply checking in. I guess seeing that obituary in the paper set off some sort of whistle in my head, and it became a drill like the old swimming pool game Find Your Buddy. I'm sure I only wanted to feel Rebecca's hand on my arm so I'd somehow know she was still out there and had been out there for me before. It wasn't like I was thinking about anything too serious.
The sun was setting and the rush hour was in full force by the time I finally pried Rebecca's fingers from my arm and made my way across the pavement to my car. Because it was close to suppertime the cars in the lot were sparse and I didn't have to worry if anybody was parked too close or blocking my way out of there. I was free to go and join the swarm on the streets.
What I did was stand there for a minute or two with the car door open and the keys in my hand. I wanted to leave and go through a drive-thru somewhere and go home to my ESPN, but I sort of didn't want to leave old Rebecca just yet. I knew that once I drove away that was it. I'd never see or hear from her again. She had no more parents around to die, and her brother and sister looked fairly healthy, or at least healthy enough to outlast me. I couldn't see myself running across their names in the obits anytime soon. I thought about going back inside and sitting down in one of the pews and staying a while, but there was something in me that knew that would never work. I'd never sat down before and there was no good reason to start thinking about starting now.
So I stood there listening to the sounds of traffic. Brakes squealed and a horn honked. Radios blared way too loud. After a minute or two I came back to who I'd become and where in god's name I was, and I got into my Camry and drove away.