The day they buried Chris O’Halleran, he wore a brown three-piece suit, white dress shirt, and a striped tie with a silver-plated tack that made him look about fifty years old. In fact, he was 35, and had never worn his hair the way they parted it. He had never been so clean-shaven. Chris’s heavy beard had shadowed over by the hour, yet he lay there now like Young Mr. Lincoln. Most of his visitors gave him a kind of curious stare as they passed by.
For Allison Roberts – once his sweetheart, very nearly his wife – all of her energy in the past two days had been focused only on getting to the cemetery on time. When the moment had finally arrived, and a second later had passed, there was no next step for her to address. Allison sat beneath the high brick archway until someone behind her beeped, and she had to pull inside. Pressing on the brake, she rested her arms on the steering wheel and cocked her head expectantly. Her chest filled with a heavy breath that never exhaled fully.
The high sun was obscured behind a canvas-white sky, which glared without being at all bright. Some distance up a hill, she could make out a gathering folks, then noticed the line of cars moving toward the chapel. It wasn’t difficult to make out in this memorial garden without headstones and monuments, and without any plants and flowers either. She yanked the steering wheel hand-over-hand to bend up a curve and into line with the others, far behind the car that had beeped.
Beyond the chapel, the gravesite was set up, on tops of draped grass-green carpet. Allison thought she could make out Chris’s wife seated beneath the canopy, arms linked through a younger man’s. But she didn’t know Connie very well – could only remember seeing her socially once or twice. The pictures from their wedding were in a box, inside a bigger box, moved a couple of times since she had seen them married off.
Allison had stood right up there in the photo beside the bridesmaids. Though she hadn’t known the bride at all, she had heard loud and clear how “inappropriate” Connie thought it was for Allison to be in the wedding. Everyone who told her the story was clear to choose that word, often adding a cocked brow, rolled eyes, or hooked quotation mark fingers that let Allison know it was Connie’s word, not theirs. Chris had put up a fuss, which only made everything worse. Allison didn’t want to be in the wedding anyway. It probably was inappropriate – or something. In the end, she had read a poem from the pulpit, her dry tongue ticking into the microphone. My voice sounds like a duck’s, was all she thought the entire time she was reading, not looking at the bride, and certainly not looking at Christopher.
She had cried like a dope at the reception, having been moved by a single tear she had seen roll down Chris’s cheek as he murmured, “I do.” She gasped with wonder from her seat in the front pew. She never told Chris how much that had affected her, so he had never clarified that the drop was sweat that had trickled for an hour through his eyebrow. He knew if he wiped it, it would be captured forever on video.
Allison started on foot across the grass toward the gravesite canopy, thinking of something to say to Connie when their eyes met. Connie wore a white angora sweater and a head full of hair. She patted the hand of the boy, (Allison now saw as she tread closer) was a teenager. They sat in the first row of family chairs, in front of the crane that would lower her husband into the ground. Allison licked her dry lips, the abruptly stopped walking. That wasn’t Connie at all, but some woman Allison had never met. Vulnerable now on the open lawn, with nothing at hand she could pretend to be walking to, Allison took a deep breath and hitched up the waistband of her ride-wrinkled skirt.
As her path steepened, she slowed her step to avoid looking awkward. Too purposeful a stride toward someone she didn’t know would only make the meeting more pointless. The woman in the sweater had noticed her and was standing. When Allison was within a respectable distance, the woman said, “Everyone’s meeting at the chapel.” She folded her hands in front of her, as if reciting a piece. “I needed some air.” Allison nodded soberly, and affected a stance of coming for air herself. “I’m Connie’s sister, Sherry?” the woman said, as if asking. “We met at the wedding?”
“Oh sure, I recognized you,” said Allison. “I had blanked out on your name. I’m sorry.”
“This is my son Wayne.”
The boy got older every time Allison looked at him. She finally took in that he was only thirteen or fourteen. He slurred something to his mother as he pointed down the hill, then walked away. Allison watched the fine hairs of Sherry’s sweater wave in a breeze so slight she couldn’t feel it herself. She said, “I’m Allison,” and Sherry nodded. “Did you want to be alone? I just came up to…” she let her voice trail.
“I think I would, yes. Thank you for understanding.”
It was a longer, steeper walk down.
Chris had grown up in this valley, with a love of the land and the stories of the people just passing through. Behind the counter of the Blueveil Bookstore, he had read about everyplace he could ever go, but his sketchbooks were filled with the people of Wytheville and views of the valley. Once, on campus, Allison had found him watching a group of guys playing some corrupt form of rugby on the athletic field. He was tracing the air with broad strokes of a ruddy-colored pencil, then repeating the moves on paper. When she walked down the bleachers behind him, she saw a rustic oak tree losing leave down the middle of his paper.
Driving down from Philadelphia today, Allison had veered from her direct route and that turn-off was what nearly made her late. But she needed to stop on campus before she could say good-bye to Chris. If there were wandering saints and spirits, she wanted to be with the ones who wandered there, and hoped to hear their voices. She had parked in the visitors’ lots by the Old Quad, where Admissions brought prospective students and their parents first. One hoped that the landscaping and neoclassic columns had enough Old Dominion appeal to draw them in, before they realized that most daily campus life happened on more modern grounds several acres away.
The smell of boxwoods and cut grass always took Allison back to Old Quad, and to a time when she simultaneously knew absolutely nothing and positively everything that mattered in her life. Sometimes, on certain streets in her ordinary travels, she was privileged to smell it again.
The Quad was deserted for the weekend, too chilly and damp to be a good study spot. The chapel doors, as always, were unlocked, and eased shut behind Allison with a whispery ssshhh. It would have surprised Chris that she chose this place for comfort, over all the others where they had spent more time. They had not come to chapel together, and Alison had barely come at all. She looked up at the long wooden cross, radiant with gold-painted beams, and tried to gather her breath. Speechless for prayer, she sat listening to the nervous growling of her belly, until it took on the tone of ghostly rattling chains. Then she left quickly.