Saturday, July 8, 2006

Obituary of an Unfamous Man (II)

Obituary of an Unfamous Man – 2

One weekend, to celebrate an anniversary, they had booked a room near the lodge at Peaks of Otter. Near, because they couldn’t afford to stay at the resort itself, but they took their meals. Their hikes, and their views there. Watching an orange moon over the lake, Chris began to talk about this final year ahead of them. He looked at their linked fingers as he talked. “We need top be making some plans,” he said in a sober adult sort of voice. “And we need to decide if we are making them together.”

Allison wanted to flex her fingers, but he was holding them too tightly. Clearing her throat, she said, “I’m not much for making plans.”

He rubbed his palm against hers, chafing their fingerprints together. “This year is going to go by quickly and I don’t want to stand at the end of it with my bags packed and no place to go.” Allison watched a dragonfly hover in front of them, then skim past them over their heads. Chris kept talking. “I also don’t want to go off setting up my life and not realize I should be setting it up with you.”

“With you,” said an echo from across the lake.

Chris was a maker of lists. A sorter, stacker, alphabetizer. He liked to play a game called, “which would you rather?” He was interested to know what people valued. “Would you rather be blind or deaf,” he might ask. “Would you rather the world had Monet or Warhol?” Allison would exasperate him by making up corrupt versions of the game: “Oreo or Hydrox?” she would say with seriousness.

Once he’d asked her, “Would you rather be rich or famous?”

“Who’s poor and famous?”

“Ghandi was poor and famous,” he said. “Van Gogh. Jesus.”

“Look where it got them.”

He pressed her to answer: “Which?”

“Unrich and Unfamous,” she said, “I can’t take the pressure.”

Chris asked, “You’d rather live a life of quiet desperation?”

“Better than loud public desperation. Don’t you think?”

As Allison walked into the funeral chapel, she straightened her jacket and decided that Chris had probably known where he stood on this too. Whatever business he may have left unfinished, he had most certainly detailed instructions regarding his funeral. Outside the chapel, older people stood on the steps, discreetly smoking and talking low in their clipped mountain accents. They seemed experienced in these rituals as they waited obediently in the viewing line.

A yard ahead of Allison, the teenaged Wayne nearly danced in his spot. Restlessly, he looked at the open casket, then looked away, his forehead knotted and eyes forced open wide. Allison steeled herself and looked past Wayne to the altar, to where an old man with Vitalis in his hair lay in the coffin beside Chris’s family. Allison didn’t want to look, afraid she would see some unforgettable detail – a stitch in his eyelid, a scar from a drainage hole. Then, for a moment, it was all right to look, because it was so clearly not him that it no longer felt real. Except she knew that it was real, and she stared at his face a long time, trying to find him there. They’d given him a grandfatherly hairdo, and the tie tack was cheap. He skin fell back from his face as if it were too big for him. Allison leaned over and looked at his hands, which lay on either side of his belly, near the points of the outdated vest. The nails were buffed, and the fingers were ghostly gray, arranged stiffly in a wax museum pose. Allison felt punched in the chest; when she looked back at the body, she found Christopher.

Chris’s mother was heavily sedated. She stood, in spite of herself, at the head of the casket, and limply shook hands with visitors as they passed. Her gaze never flickered as one face changed to another. Chris’s stocky little father wrapped his bulging forearms around Allison and smothered her in Old Spice. “I’m so glad you came,” he whispered in a choked voice. “You always took such good care of Chris.” Allison grit her teeth and drew back. When she opened her eyes, she saw Connie in from of her. She held her two hands out to Allison, like girlhood playmates might do, and seemed not at all affected by what her father-in-law had just told the last girlfriend. Chris’s dad clung to an old man behind Allison in line. “I’m so glad you came,” he said, “You always took such good care of Chris.” Before Allison could open her mouth, Connie gave her hands a little squeeze, let them go, and turned her gaze to the next in line.

Allison found a seat far from the center aisle, where the line of visitors had gotten long and slow. People lingered there, sniffling into their hands. Couple clung to each other; old people told their stories of the last time they had spoken to him. Unable to focus ahead on Chris’s family, Allison watched the chapel as everyone recited the Lord’s prayer. Her face draw tight, she listened to them hiss through the line about trespasses, as they closed the lid on Chris.

Their first year out had begun living on the cheap near downtown Roanoke. Chris worked as a commercial artist, and Allison took a job in a bookstore chain. Though they were mostly playing house, they delighted in it. They made love like newlyweds, even falling into bed one night at seven and exhausting themselves to sleep. They didn’t wake again until 2:00am when they ate cereal in the darkened kitchen.

They tried to tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies with endearing smiles. Allison exasperated Chris by leaving her shoes in front of the toilet every night when she came home. She piled newspapers around, saying he was “almost done” with every one of them. Each one had a note or a special fold to the page so he could pick up where he left off. He liked to sit down anywhere in the apartment and have something to read at hand.

When they carried the casket up the hill to the grave, Allison stayed behind. Alone in the pew, she wondered if she owed it to Chris to witness the final act. Unable to resolve the question, she chose what she in the moment needed to do, and resolved to make her peace with it later. She stood outside, thinking she understood why people smoked, and watched a man slip a paper under the windshield wipers of the parked cars. When he got to hers, she leaned on the door as if she didn’t have the key, he handed her one. “Directions to Chris-and-Connie’s,” he said. “She’s inviting people over for fellowship.” Then he moved down the line.

Outside the brick post-war house, the man with the slips of paper now directed traffic, leading people into the driveways of other people’s homes, who seemed to have offered the space. As Allison stepped out of her car, a fortyish woman poked her head out of her bacdoor and called “Afternoon” to her.

This all right?” asked Allison, spread her accent on a little thickly.

“That’s fine, honey. Stay as long as you like.”

Inside, people clustered around furniture and held napkins beneath their iced tea glasses while they murmured their conversations. Allison walked in without knocking, as she had seen other guests do, and was grateful to see a minister there with his hands outstretched. She told him her name, instantly forgot his, then wandered into the living room.

Some middle-aged ladies with purses on their wrists were admiring a painting above a sideboard. It was boldly colored, of an abstract design, not Chris’s style at all. Still, it bore his signature, as did the one on the opposite wall. Orange shards, like lightning bolts, shot across the canvas and stabbed through giant spheres whose colors bled into the murky background.

Allison picked up a plate and spooned out some fruit salad. Looking busy at the buffet didn’t take as long as she’d hoped, so she strolled onto a sun porch adjoining the dining room, where some mismatched chairs had been set up. The oldest ladies were here, fanning themselves with folded paper plates and squeaking about whose boy marries whose girl, and when.

“That one went off to Richmond or someplace,” one was saying. “I don’t believe she has a one of ‘em home anymore.” Allison pirouetted on both toes and returned to the dining room.

On a tea table, between two unlit candles, stood a framed photo of Christopher. He was standing on a scenic overlook, leaning against the dull-grey guardrail, and holding his sunglasses in one hand. There was too much sky in the picture; it made him look curiously small. A shadow of the photographer jutted over Chris’s face. The pointy elbows of its silhouette were barely distinguishable.

Beside it was another frame, holding the obituary clipped from the morning paper. Allison hesitated, then picked it up. She’d read it completely before it was eye-level.

“Christopher O’Halleran, 35, of Perry Road, will be buried the afternoon at Woody Ridge Memorial Garden. Services will be conducted in the Woody Ridge Chapel at 11:00am, followed immediately by interment. O’Halleran is survived by his wife Connie, and by his parents Richard and Bertie O’Halleran of Wytheville. He was a graduate of Pulaski County Regional High School and the College of St Mark.”

“People often like to save them,” said the minister, unexpectedly at her ear.

“Yes,” she said dryly, and set the clipping down, showing it more reverence than the four dollar frame required. “It’s important to have. For family history.” She smelled the peachy fruit salad in her hand.

The minister sipped from his napkin-wrapped glass. “Not long ago we would have taken his picture. But people are more delicate about that nowadays.”

Allison felt her eyes flash, and tried to relax them. She had no idea was she was about to say. “I’m Allison.”

His gaze drifted past her; someone was waving him into another room. “I think I’m needed,” he said, and left her.

Allison abandoned her fork and plate on the buffet table and went in search of the bathroom. Inside it, the silence amplified the echo of blood behind her ears, the whine of the vanity lamp, and the squeak of her purse as she set it on the floor. She closed the gingham-skirted toilet seat and sat down. She looked at her watch, taking no notice of the time. For a while she stared glassy eyed at the end of the toilet paper roll fluttering in the intermittent breeze of the central air vent.

A basket of magazines next to the wall caught her eye. On top of Southern Living and Women’s Day sat a fat paperback, its pages folded and unfolded as page markers, some only a few pages apart. Allison recognized his exaggerated fold, as if marking something in a catalog. Not a simple corner-down dog-ear anyone would choose for a fat paperback, but a fully turned-in angle, manipulated in such a way that the bottom corner would olint to the proper line, perhaps the very word where he would pick up reading.

She thought of him rising sleepless in the middle of the night, folding straight this over creased page. His wide tan hands thumbing the edge of the paper. Shamelessly, Allison turned the book over and smelled its back cover, where it might have rested on his exposed lap. Unfolding the marking page, she read a line, which like everything else today, was meaningless. Closing the book, she put it in her purse.

Allison washed her face at the sink, and stiffly freshened her hair with Connie’s brush. A tightness grabbed her in the middle of the chest and she lunged for the doorknob. Back in the hallway, she nodded hello to a grandfatherly man – not Chris’s grandfather, who was long dead. He slipped past her into the bathroom and locked the door.

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