A woman sounding more sick than old asked, “How are you feeling these days?”
“Excuse me, who’s calling?”
“You’re timid about sex.”
I remembered being quite timid about sex once. A girl with alarming blue eyes wanted to make love in a theater on an old sofa I had bought for a college production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She swallowed me with those eyes.
“Karen, how are you?”
“Cancer creeping around my brain. It’s got knives and guns.”
“Oh, shit. I’m so sorry. It’s been so long. When did we last talk?”
“Not since Calabasas.”
I owned a bungalow in Cape May, New Jersey, where Karen once took refuge, but I had never been in Calabasas. That’s in California.
“You humiliated me, Terry, but I deserved it.”
Terry had been the director of Who’s Afraid…. I had been the stage manager. He said she looked too strong and healthy from her swimming to play Honey. Honey had to look frail and weak. During try-outs he made her repeat Honey’s most pathetic lines many times to see if she could fake it: “I’m gonna to be sick…. I’m gonna die.” She got the part.
I decided not to point out I wasn’t Terry. Didn’t want to embarrass her. “Where are you?”
She was in a hospice in her hometown, Collegeville, Pennsylvania. Glioblastoma. The next time she called she asked if morphine had helped get me through the thing with my leg. I thought she was referring to meniscus surgery on my knee. Didn’t need morphine.
“It wasn’t a big deal.”
“You can walk okay with a prosthesis?”
I said, sure, I could walk okay.
“I’m sorry, Lou. After the amputation, I had to go. It was better for both of us.”
I had heard about a guy named Lou she had been with in Denver. Didn’t know anything about his leg. After Denver she became a high school English teacher and swim coach in Cleveland.
I risked asking about myself. What about Jim?
“That dick? I hijacked his beach shack once and found his journals. A lot of stuff about me and my sex act.”
“What sex act?”
“Never mind. I’m in a room with drafty windows and smelly wallpaper. No sex going on here. What about the morphine?”
Back to the guy named Lou. I played along. “It helped but it took me forever to get over the phantom limb syndrome.”
“My whole life is a phantom limb. I can feel it, but it’s not there.”
I pictured her in a big old house with a black wrought iron fence along a buckled sidewalk. Collegeville wasn’t even a small town, she would say. Collegeville was a stage set for a small town. I asked why she went back.
“Because it’s been easier getting old here. I know the place. I knew the people who lived in this house when I was a girl.”
“Who were they?”
“The Macks. You and Susie, but you never got in her pants. You got in mine. These days it would be called rape, Mike.”
I remembered Mike. He and Karen were childhood sweethearts who found one another again after college and came through Athens, Georgia, my base at the time as I prowled estate sales looking for furniture I could resell in New York. They were going to spend one night with me on the way to New Orleans. Instead, they stayed and opened a coffee house, The Kup, for which I provided furnishings that made the place look a hundred years old. Mike didn’t like me, Athens, or The Kup. He did some electrical work on The Kup that started a fire. After he split, I helped Karen rebuild. Then she started a local radio show from The Kup’s front table that briefly was popular because of her big laugh and shameless repartee with callers willing to make on-air confessions. Open Secrets, she called it. With Mike gone she thought we could make it because we were tumbleweeds perfect for one another. I said we were tumbleweeds, so one of us would blow away, which she did, no warning, no explanation, just did. Next, I heard she was in Denver with the guy named Lou.
The hospice sent me an invitation to her funeral. A lot of mourners came, probably two hundred. She had taught drama at the college in Collegeville (it’s called Ursinus) and knew all sorts of people, seducing them with her lemony aura and hungry blue eyes, which were closed now in her wasted face. Family relations sat in the front pew on the right. Three older gentlemen sat in the pew on the left. To my surprise I was escorted their way.
My seatmate extended his hand. “Jim, I’m Terry, remember?” Yes, I remembered him although he appeared dusted with flour. He leaned back so he could introduce me to the others, a guy with a prosthetic leg and a fellow with a majestic forehead and a substantial gut. “Jim, this is Lou. And you know Mike, I believe.” We nodded to one another.
I overheard Mike whisper to Lou, “Jim’s the guy with the beach place in Cape May like Terry has one in California. She was crazy about swimming in the ocean.”
“No ocean in Denver,” Lou said.
“None here, either,” Mike said, referring to Collegeville.
The service began. There were eulogies, but no one dared or knew how to get Karen right, at least not in a church. When things wrapped up, Mike and Lou were going to the cemetery in Mike’s pickup. Terry needed a ride, which I offered him.
“Did she ever call you, quite confused?” he asked me.
“Yes, she did.”
“It was like she had no idea who she was talking to. Who were you?”
“All of you at one time or another.”
“Me, too. My impression is you were the one who broke her heart.”
“What did she say about me?”
“She said you just gave up. She wished you had tried harder.”
“I wish I had, too. What about you and Karen?”
“We dissolved like sugar in coffee. Sweet but nothing you could hold onto.”
The motorcade entered farm country on a narrow road lined with purple pokeberries. The cemetery was old but didn’t look neglected. There was an awning pitched over a bright green fringe of artificial grass. Rain-washed gravestones bearing Karen’s family name stood around her site. Mike and Lou joined us, Mike trundling, Lou limping.
“If anyone could rise from the grave, she could,” Lou said.
I had a vision of her soaring above us in a long silver gown, nineteen years old again with those eyes and shoulders and hacked-off tomboy hair that looked so good on her.
Mike produced a flask. Terry and Lou accepted. I didn’t want to take communion with them, but Mike waggled the flask at me, insisting.
The sky had been polished bright blue. The trees fringing the cemetery were flickering green and silver in a late summer breeze. Some of the mourning men appeared to be former colleagues, professors with out-of-date ties. Some of the women were professors, too, or maybe local actresses, the women with braided hair and faces like dried flowers. O, Lord, the pastor began, and I tried to listen, but Terry interfered by whispering, “She was kind of a country girl all along.” He waved toward a stream glittering at the bottom of the hill and the lush valley it had spent millennia carving with only a nuclear power plant in the distance spoiling the view.
We watched others throw flowers and dirt on the coffin. Then came the stillness that follows the curtains being drawn after the final act, and people began leaving the graveside. We stayed put, apparently thinking that the one of us who moved first would be losing her first. Mike said we should go to her cousin’s house for the post-funeral reception, but we still didn’t move. I thought about the last time I saw her. I drove up from Cape May to Collegeville and visited her in an apartment she was renting on the second floor of a big brick house. At one point we were looking out the window at a baseball field across the street where two teenage teams were playing. “Let’s go over and watch a few innings,” I said. We sat along the third base line on some blistered green bleachers. The scene—the boys on the field, us in the bleachers, old enough to be their parents—amused her. “We know we’re never going to marry and have kids and live happily ever after. What’s the point of brooding about it?” I said, “Is that what I’m doing—brooding?” “Well, aren’t you?”
For some reason, I mentioned that night. Mike said he had seen us there.
“You had everything you could have wanted, but you let it go.”
I didn’t want to hear that from Mike. “Maybe if you hadn’t incinerated The Kup, I wouldn’t have had the chance.”
“Or if I hadn’t crashed a motorcycle,” Lou said.
“If, if, if,” Terry said. “Let it go.”
Lou said he would go to Karen’s cousin’s house with Mike. Terry and I bowed out, and I agreed to drop him off at the Philly airport on my way to Cape May. We spent five minutes in silence. At last Terry found something he wanted to say.
“The first time I had sex with her was one night after Who’s Afraid…? We were the last ones out of the theater, and we did it on the sofa right there on stage. Can you imagine that?” He began to choke up. “All I have to do is think of her and it’s like she’s still here.”
Somehow, I kept my peace until I got him out of the car, and she took his place for the rest of the drive to Cape May.