It's a habit I've picked up since I retired, sort of a morning ritual to go along with my two scrambled eggs and five cherry tomatoes and coffee. Since Alan's death I make breakfast and have it while I read the morning paper, which I still get just like Alan and I always did before, even though there's hardly anything in it these days but old news I already know about and advertisements, four thin sections I can finish off in less than a half hour.
I always read the obituaries on A-9, which is the third page before the end of the first section. I look at the names and ages there just to sort of keep track of who's become history lately. I guess I'm getting to the age where I pay more attention to life and death and comings and goings than I used to when I was younger, when I didn't give much thought about who was here one minute and gone the next.
Sometimes I'll recognize a name, but most times everyone listed on A-9 is a stranger to me. If a name does ring a bell, I'll study their age and what city they were from and what funeral home is handling the services, trying to decide if the person mentioned is someone familiar to me or not. Every now and then there is somebody I've known from school or work at some point in my life. Sometimes there are local celebrities or public officials, but usually the news is there's no news at all.
But today it's more than that. Today makes me stop and give pause for a moment.
There's his name. It's the right age and it's an out of state funeral home, and there's the city in Florida, some little town around Gainesville, the same place I heard of him last.
There's nothing but this short listing, no written account of life accomplishments or next of kin or when a service is scheduled, only a tiny notation to whoever might see it that this particular person is no more, a legal mention of his passing whether it matters to anyone or not.
Daniel Patrick Summers. There it is in black and white.
Everything matches with his age and the town and the tell-tale middle name that clinches it. There is no picture to study, but I don't need one. I can see him clearly enough in my mind.
I wash my plate and set it in the dishwasher, pour myself a fresh cup of coffee and sit back down in the breakfast room. I unfold the paper and look at the notice again, just to make sure I have it right. This is going to take longer than the usual thirty minutes. Something like this from out of the blue is going to throw me way behind for the day.
Dan was Alan's friend. He and Alan went to Auburn together from high school, and then they both came back here to Birmingham to work, Alan as a teacher and Dan to go to work for the newspaper. Dan was a reporter, covering the Barons in the summer and high school football and basketball when school was in. Back then he was forever getting free tickets to sporting events all over the state and throughout the South, and when I met Alan and he and I started seeing each other, Dan always seemed to be around and with us more times than not, meeting us at pubs and restaurants, always arriving with a different woman on his arm, always with a handful of free passes and tickets for us to use later, either in town or out of state.
Three years went by and Alan and I said our wedding vows. We gave up our separate apartments and bought a house in the suburbs and settled in, trying to be normal married people. Both of us had teaching positions in the Birmingham secondary school system, me teaching Algebra and Trig and Geometry and Alan teaching Senior English and sponsoring the annual staff. We were working long hours at our schools, so that when we finally did make it home in the evenings we tended to become the world's most boring couple. You would have thought that a mundane existence such as ours would have scared away a guy with a vibrant lifestyle like Dan had, him with his connections in the sports world and his contacts with the media (he was hosting a weekly sports show on one of the television stations and at one time had an affair with one of the meteorologists there, and he was also a frequent guest on radio call-in shows, and the endless stream of women too he'd be seen with for a while who would then always disappear without mention), but that wasn't the case, because Dan was a constant presence on our doorstep, night or day or whenever.
You'd also think that a new wife or a woman in the throes of a developing relationship might crave some privacy with the object of her affections, would want to keep her beau solely to herself so love would have the opportunity to fully bloom, but that wasn't the case for me. After a while I got to where I looked forward to Dan's next visit or any kind of news from him. I was never sure if Alan felt the same way, but I sure did. And I was always convinced Dan looked forward to it too.
It wasn't like there'd been any instant attraction between the two of us, me and Dan, because we could have taken or left each other from the start. Not only did I initially find Dan not handsome or dashing or anything like that, but I thought he was somewhat shallow, the way I believed a lot of men were. Outside of sports and a love of Led Zeppelin and his girl of the week, it didn't appear Dan had much of an interest in anything else. If you didn't see him at some sporting event or sitting in his Supra listening to "The Immigrant Song," then he was generally holed up writing a column or inside some tavern leaning on the bar or parked in a booth shooting the bull with somebody while he downed his body weight in Miller High Life. Sometimes you wondered how he ever got anything done, the way he was, how he ever managed to get to where he was supposed to be next.
I met up with him on a Friday afternoon after school at a tavern called Molly Jo's. Alan was supposed to be with me, but got hung up at his school with some problem with the annual staff and said he'd meet us when he got the train back on the tracks, whenever that was, so I'd come alone against my better judgment hoping Alan wouldn't be too long in showing up. At that time I wasn't all that crazy about whiling away the time and shooting the breeze with Dan Summers about who was playing who anytime soon or if "Stairway To Heaven" was the greatest Rock and Roll song ever written.
He was sitting in a booth toward the back of the room. There was a small stage where lone guitar players played sets on weekend nights, but it was unoccupied on this late afternoon, and there wasn't any kind of a crowd present to have provided much of an audience anyway. The booths in front and back of Dan were vacant, and over by the opposite wall two older men were sitting and talking. It was about as quiet as a bar was ever going to be on a Friday afternoon in downtown Birmingham, and the only sound of any consequence was the Beau Brummels singing "Laugh Laugh" from an overhead ceiling speaker.
"You look like you're lost in thought back here," I said, sitting down opposite him. "That, or you're drunk already and unable to move a muscle."
I noticed he'd pulled the shades on the window so the sun couldn't get through. It made it like we were sitting there in the dark. The lights were on but weren't very bright, and I guessed there was a dimmer switch somewhere and sometime after sunset somebody's job was to come and twist it and brighten the place up so the patrons could see each other. The sun was going down, but no one had come to do it yet.
"Beer, wine, or hard stuff?" he asked. I told him beer was fine, and he motioned to a waitress. "Could we have another pitcher of Miller and a fresh mug?" He turned to look at me. "Alan is coming, isn't he?" He gave me a smile. "I'm trying to remember if I invited him or not, or if I was having bad thoughts and purposely didn't call him so I could get you alone all to myself."
"He's coming," I said. "He had to finish some things up at school."
I was trying not to let Dan's remark about wanting to get me alone fester in my brain, but I was having a hard time keeping that from happening, and real soon I found myself sneaking a look across the table and taking Dan in for what seemed like the first time, his brown hair unruly and long, his John Lennon glasses and unshaven face, his gray sport coat that everybody had seen a couple of thousand times with the elbow patches on the sleeves and the frayed buttons on the lapel hanging by the rotted threads, the whole garment holding on for dear life as if he'd begged it to get him through one more season and then he would let it go to the Salvation Army in peace, and just like that it was as if somebody had flipped a switch inside me, and I began to look at Dan Summers like I never had before and hang on every word he said.
It turned out he had a lot to say. It turned out I did too.
I quickly learned that Dan Summers was not only well-versed in all things Led Zeppelin but was also pretty much an expert on all kinds of music. Whatever song that played on the speaker overhead he seemed to know everything about it, who wrote it and who was singing it and what the lyrics were really saying, all the symbolism and allusions and such. We started talking about where we were when we first heard songs and what we were doing at the time, and I listened to his stories and he listened to mine, and a couple of hours later when Alan finally arrived Dan and I were leaning over the table toward each other, so close our hands were almost touching, our eyes and lips not so very far apart.
By this time I'd had more beer than I was used to, and when Alan slid in beside me I knew it was time to stop drinking, because I was about as high and relaxed as I'd ever felt. I was also feeling guilty all of a sudden. I was afraid to have another thimble of beer, like if I did I might start divulging state secrets or something, and right then was not the time for confession. It could have been I told myself to stop because I might just start revealing how I wished Alan had stayed at school so Dan and I could have more time alone with each other.
Like maybe the whole rest of the night and tomorrow too.
Nothing happened in that vein that night, though, but whatever was in the air kept hanging over all our heads from then on.
I say all our heads, because, you see, Alan was never stupid. He was no dummy. It was like he sensed there was something between Dan and me, some sort of unfinished business he was not a part of and never would be. He never said anything about it out loud or implied anything about it in any way; no, that was not Alan's way. It was like we all shared some kind of unspoken agreement. But still, I could always tell he knew something was going on, that there was a game afoot, but he was wise enough to know there wasn't much he could do about it.
But there were consequences anyway, unspoken or not.
After that night, Alan and Dan, without any illicit act committed or whispered words spoken in passion by anyone, slowly began to distance themselves from each other, until it got to the point where we would see Dan only every blue moon or so. None of us ever said anything about it. I thought about it, but I didn't dare bring it up in conversation.
It was maybe a year or so later when I saw Dan at a backyard birthday celebration. One of Alan's and Dan's college friends was turning thirty that night, so it was a big, raucous, drunken occasion of sorts like we all used to regularly engage in back in our younger, sprightlier days. Alan, in the presence of so many old acquaintances, was unsurprisingly over-indulgent that evening, singing and laughing with an all-male choir out by a huge boombox, serenading the neighborhood and the summer night with renditions of songs that, like he and his friends, had hit their peak a decade before. In the midst of this foolishness, Dan materialized before me with a bottle of PBR in his hand and a small smile on his face.
"I saw you standing here by yourself looking almost as unimpressed with this party as I am," he said, "so I thought I'd come over and say hello. I was getting ready to take off, but I didn't want to appear impolite."
"I didn't even know you were here," I said. "You must have been hiding."
"I saw you and Alan earlier," he said. "To tell the truth, I was sort of waiting around to see if I could catch you alone."
"That sounds like your old line from Molly Jo's."
He laughed at the memory.
"I didn't ever get the chance to finish my plan that night. Old Alan showed up and interrupted my train of thought. My grand scheme," he chuckled.
"Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I've been thinking about that night myself for a while now, and I'm still curious to know what you had in mind. I'm also just as curious now to know about this grand scheme of yours as I was then. Maybe more so."
I was correct when I said I shouldn't have said anything, but it wasn't like I didn't think about it before the words came out of my mouth, because I did think about it, I'd been thinking about that night and Dan and me for a long time by then, and I knew that once I opened up that door and invited Dan inside there wouldn't be any way to take anything back, but at the moment I didn't care. I thought about it the same way I'd been thinking about it since that night at Molly Jo's, and I knew it wasn't going to go away, so I went ahead and said it anyway.
"Yeah, well, I never thought I'd come out and say anything about it again," he said, "but here goes."
He looked around at the partying and the drinking and the laughter, as if he was afraid someone besides me would hear what he had to say.
"I don't know how long it's been, and I can't tell you how it happened, but there was a point in time when I started tuning Alan out when I was around the two of you, and that was when I started concentrating on just you. I don't know if you noticed it at first or not. We'd all go somewhere or meet up someplace and suddenly inside my head it was like Alan wasn't my best friend anymore. I don't know how it happened, or when exactly, but I couldn't stop myself from looking at you out of the corner of my eye, watching the way you sat or folded your hands. I could be with some other woman and I couldn't stop myself from watching you. It got worse the more I went along. It was like I woke up one morning and you were in my head and I couldn't get you to leave. I thought how it was pretty damn crappy for me to be having thoughts like that about the wife of my best friend, so I told myself to back off. I knew the way I was with women, and I thought the best thing for everybody was for me to simply disappear."
"Probably it was good you backed off," I said. I couldn't believe I was talking this way, speaking almost in a whisper like I was in a confessional booth and had to be truthful and careful at the same time, "because I would have said yes to everything. All you had to do was say the words. I can't explain why it came over me so fast like that, so intense. But it was like I'd contracted Russian Flu or something."
"I don't know what I was thinking either. I never had feelings like that before," he said. "And I still do have those feelings. I can't get around the fact I still do."
Right then it was like the fireflies flitting around us were all charged with electricity.
"Well heck, Dan, I don't know what to say."
It sounded funny, me saying his name out loud like that. It almost made it too real.
"I don't think there's anything for you to say," he said, "but there is for me."
He took a sip from his bottle and looked out at the night sky, as if there was some script written there for him to read. It made me wonder if what he was going to say was going to be real or rehearsed. If they were the words I was thinking, I'd been waiting my whole life to hear them, I wanted them to be true, but it was hard to tell what was what out there in the summer night I could believe and hang on, which one of us might be telling the truth and which one was only swearing by the moon.
"This may sound sort of mystical," he said, "like I'm shooting you a big line of bull and all. But I'm wondering if what happened that night between you and me wasn't one of those things you read about or you hear in a song, one of those once in a lifetime happenstances aligned by the stars that only come around once in a lifetime and then disappear from sight as quickly as they came. I'm wondering if that once in a lifetime thing between you and me has already come and gone already and isn't going to come our way again."
"But nothing ever happened really," I said. "We had that night, a couple of hours together, and that was it, and it's all in the long ago now, but here the two of us are still thinking about it, wanting to believe it was a lot more than it really was."
"Maybe you're on to something," he said. "Me, I'm having a hard time figuring it out. A part of me thinks maybe that night was just a lot of talk, a load of intoxicated bullshit like people hand out to each other when the situation permits, you know, but the thing of it is it's still put me into a strange mode of thinking. I've been thinking about how people like you and me spend our entire lifetimes hoping and wishing some kind of wonderful transformation is going to come along and bring us a great magical moment, some technicolor romantic interlude, when the thing is it's really just dumb luck that comes around for everybody in the end, it's just a roll of the dice where somebody wins the game simply by being in the right place at the right time. If you're in the winning circle your lucky star gets its one and only chance to shine, and if you're not you never get your frigging turn and you spend your whole life in the dark."
I was looking at him like I had no idea what he was saying, but I did. I knew exactly what he meant.
"Did you ever wonder what would have happened if I had met you first?" he asked. "If I'd been the guy who decided to be a teacher and the one who got a job the same place where you were teaching? What if I'd laid eyes on you before Alan did, and it ended up with you and me together and Alan being the one on the outside looking in? Do you ever think about crap like that? How everything's just a crapshoot as to whether you end up happy, or if it happens to be that you fall in love with somebody and they just happen to be right there in your path when the big wheel of fortune comes around, that one chance in a million when something like that can possibly happen? And do you ever think about why it is that sometimes you fall in love too late? The wheel got spun and you didn't win. Do you ever think about it, Mary, about why life is the way it is?"
"I think you're a little drunk, talking this way," I told him. "You wouldn't be this honest with me if you were sober." I was trying to act like this was some private joke between us.
"Maybe I am," he admitted. "You might be right. Maybe I'm drunk and maybe I'm on the brink of being out of my tree, but I know what I know, so you might as well hear me out now, because the chances are I'm never going to have the chance to talk about this again."
He paused for a heartbeat and waited for some form of inspiration to visit him.
"I've purposely avoided seeing you and Alan for a while, because I knew what would happen if I let myself get around you. I knew it would be trouble and disaster and a load of shit in the end. I know how I am when I get something in my head, how I don't know how to let anything go, and I knew that was the way it was going to be with you. I wouldn't be able to stay away, and in the end somebody's life was going to get turned inside-out -- maybe everybody's life would go to hell -- and nothing good would come of it. I thought about how Alan was happy, and how he'd been my friend from way back, and I thought about how maybe you were happy enough with him too before I started entertaining the idea of screwing everybody's life up. I thought maybe if I wasn't around everything would turn out okay, and maybe with the exception of a few nights like this, when I run across you two somewhere or start thinking about you when I've had too much to drink, that maybe things would even out over time and one or two of us would even have a fighting chance to live happily ever after."
It was right about this time when I knew nothing was ever going to happen between Dan Summers and me in the physical sense, not in this lifetime, at least, for which I was glad, I have to say, for which I was relieved, because I knew this way that I wasn't going to have to make any kind of big adult decision over which way to go or what life to choose for the rest of my days, because everything would be taken care of for me by Dan leaving and going off somewhere. I knew I wouldn't have to go through the rest of my life remembering how I'd once been unfaithful and an adulteress and another Hester Prynne running loose in the world, and I also knew that all that ethereal passion that had happened between Dan and me on that strange spiritual way that one night several full moons ago was now going to be something I would somehow learn to cope with and find a way to understand until I got too old for any of it to matter anymore. I would simply learn to live with the notion of that night in my mind. It would ebb and flow me in my memory, but the business of living would go on step by step, wave by wave. The memory of Dan Summers and our one night of magic would stay with me for a time, then leave me alone until I began to think it was gone for good, and then it would always return, then it would come back. There would always be something about Dan and that night and what happened and what didn't coming and going within me.
I stayed quiet. I decided to live with it.
He didn't say much more that I can remember now; I recall him finishing off what beer was in his bottle and laying it down on a table, giving me a squeeze on my hand and a soft kiss on my cheek, and then he was gone.
~ ~ ~
Yes, he was gone.
He was gone in the sense that Alan and I rarely knew much of anything about him from then on. We heard virtually nothing of his existence unless it was communicated to us by second parties and hearsay. Months would go by and from time to time Alan would try to call Dan simply to check in, to leave messages that were never returned, and after a time we scarcely spoke of Dan at all, like he was dead or something and we were allowing him to rest in peace. One day we found out he'd moved and taken a job at a newspaper in Florida, had pulled up stakes without a word of goodbye.
Years went by and it was like the times we'd spent together were all imagined. Alan and I stayed together all the way up until he had to retire early, and then he was gone a year and a half later from cancer, just like that. I kept an eye open to see if Dan came to the funeral, but he didn't. I always wondered if he knew about Alan's death or not.
I look at the paper one last time. I think how it's been a while since I thought about Dan Summers this much. I guess now he'll be in my head a while.
I won't go to his funeral. Florida is too far away.
It is funny though, the way things come back. Those feelings Dan and I had were so strong that it felt like we really had made love to each other that long-ago night, like we truly had touched and been together and soared to heights neither of us had ever been to or seen, but the truth is we never touched, it had only happened in our minds, our hearts, and souls where we'd wanted so badly for what we were feeling to be real. And if someone ever asks, I'll tell them that it had been real that far-off night. It had been that elusive thing called love there with us both, imagined or not.
Love. We had seen it and felt it that night when it passed by and left its traces for the two of us to keep forever inside our secret selves, before it traveled to a place faraway where stars and dreams forever abide.