Bobby Mathews

Visitation at Nine

Kelly stood alone greeting mourners, covertly casting glances down the line as people moved on. Fifty yards away, in the sanctuary of this cavernous city block of a church, her father lay in his casket while Kelly was stuck with the macabre duty of receiving visitors before they laid him to rest. She recognized me during one of those long gray looks, and I wanted to crawl away. The weight gain and the hair loss, two decades of physical erosion, didn’t matter. She knew it was me.

According to his obituary, Conrad Gilpin was eighty-four when he died, although he’d been an old man as long as I could remember. Mr. Gilpin didn’t walk the halls of the high school where he taught AP English. He shuffled. White-haired and stoop-shouldered, he never raised his voice; he didn’t have to. His quiet sarcasm cut down a classroom troublemaker more viciously than a shout.

His daughter had once been my closest friend, back when I was a half-formed human being in the primordial ooze of public school, the unreliable narrator of my own life. As my friend, Kelly was long-suffering. She made apologies for my behavior when I didn’t know how to make them myself.

The mourners trudged forward one slow step at a time. Andrew Snodgrass, who had sent me the obit two days before, elbowed me in the ribs and put his lips to my ear.

“I don’t see her husband,” he said. “Do you?”

I looked around and shook my head.

“I don’t,” I whispered back. “But I only met the guy once. How would I know?”

Andrew shrugged, and we moved up a space as Kelly finished with one well-wisher and the endless conveyor belt of mourners rolled forward.

Ice-cold air conditioning prickled my skin while the Alabama summer boiled away uselessly outside the car. Ten minutes until nine a.m., already eighty-seven degrees, and climbing. If I shut the car off, I’d have to go in. I’d see people that I’d known a long time ago, but they wouldn’t know me. They would know the boy I’d been, half-formed but full of certainties; they wouldn’t know the man who had replaced that boy, who had traded the cockiness and surety of a teenager for the doubts and insecurities of middle age.

I texted Andrew: “Made it. Sitting in the side lot.” The church was huge, with multiple parking lots, so I had to specify where I parked.

“Want to wait for me?” He wrote back. Andrew was a son-of-a-bitch in high school, but–like me–he’d become something different as an adult, something kinder and fuller than who he used to be.

“We’ll see,” I texted back, knowing full well that I’d wait. It would be easier to go inside behind a shield. When Andrew wheeled into the lot, I stepped out of the rental car, beeped the locks, and ambled over. We faced each other across ten feet of soft asphalt and a wellspring of long years. He still had all of his hair, the bastard. I stuck out my hand for him to shake.

“The hell with that,” he said. “I’m gonna hug your neck.”

So we hugged, a curious thing for grown men who only know each other through social media. But it was comforting, too. Inside the church, the sanctuary was high-ceilinged with a pair of chandeliers–one above the pulpit and one above the long middle pews–hung like burned-out constellations in the empty cavernous space. Stained-glass windows illuminated the room with refracted light. I’d spent many Sundays there, and the weight of the memories made me feel small and compacted.

The casket lay in front of the altar, the lid propped open. I didn’t want to go near the coffin, didn’t want to see the grotesquerie of Conrad Gilpin’s body lying there. But Andrew spotted Jennifer Sanders, a girl we’d both known–and sometimes lusted after–when we were young, and he drifted down toward the coffin with her. I trailed along in their wake like a piece of flotsam in the tide.

Close up, the body didn’t look like the man I’d known. I’d been to enough funerals by then to know that it never does. When I was young, people would look down at the body in the box and say things like “He looks like he could get up and talk, don’t he?” But it wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. A dead body looks like a dead body, and whatever makeup and skills the morticians use can never erase the fact that the spark of life is simply gone from the husk we leave behind.

For a long moment we said nothing, because there was nothing to say. Conrad Gilpin had been a good man, had taught us the basic rules of English grammar and encouraged us to read and write–and think, never forget that part–critically. His influence on me was reason enough to make the three-hour trip from Birmingham.

We retreated from the body, and then Jennifer left us. She was helping Kelly’s family, of course. In times of need, Jennifer would pitch in for just about anyone. It was a defining part of her character. Andrew and I found a place to sit on one of the cushioned pews in the middle of the sanctuary, not too far back and certainly not too close to the front where the family would be seated.

“We did some terrible things in this building,” Andrew said, his voice low so as not to disturb the folks sitting around us. It made me smile.

“I won’t talk about it if you don’t,” I said, and that made him snicker quietly.

An usher came forward with the solicitous manner of funeral directors everywhere, asking if we were members of the family. Yes, I could have said, a lifetime ago. Instead, Andrew and I shook our heads. We weren’t family. After all this time without contact, without even any kind of word from Kelly, we weren’t really friends, either. The best I could have told the man was that we were witnesses. We’d witnessed Kelly growing up, witnessed her wedding. And now we were here to witness her father’s funeral.

By the time those words occurred to me, Andrew had already replied that we were former students of Mr. Gilpin. The usher told us where the family was receiving visitors, and added that he was sure they’d be happy to see us. He was much more positive about it than me. But after a moment, Andrew and I rose and walked out of the sanctuary, down a long hall that had not existed when we’d gone to church here, and found ourselves at the back of a line of well-wishers, mourners, and witnesses like ourselves.

It was Andrew’s turn in line. I had stepped back deliberately, letting him go before me, putting his body between Kelly and me. Stalling. What could I say to someone I’d once known so well? Someone who, once she got married, cut me–and nearly all of her friends–out of her life as neatly as clipping a coupon from a newspaper. A few warm comments passed between Andrew and Kelly, and then he moved on down the line to share his condolences with others in the family. Kelly turned her cornflower-colored eyes to me and smiled.

“Paul,” she said, and reached forward and hugged me with no hesitation at all. “It’s so good of you to come.”

Up close, it was easier to read the passage of time upon her face. Little crow’s feet peeked shyly out at the corners of her eyes, and small lines drew down at the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were pink and puffy where she’d been crying. We looked at each other without saying all of the things that needed to be said.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I managed. My throat felt close and hot. “Your dad was such a good man.”

What else was there to say? We locked eyes, and our joined silence spun out a beat too long.

We didn’t know each other anymore. I’d been out of her life far longer than I’d ever been in it, and whatever had passed in those intervening years had made us strangers. In one world, the one in which we both lived and breathed, the awkward moment lasted only a couple of seconds. Anyone witnessing it wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But somewhere else–in some universe where time has no meaning, where an hour or a day or a second or a year is all the same thing–I could sense that she knew everything that I wanted to say. In that place without time, we would go on speaking without words for eternity.

“Well,” Kelly said at last. “It’s … good to see you.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s good to see you, too. I’m sorry it wasn’t under happier circumstances. Take care of yourself.”

And with that, I moved on down the line.

I caught up to Andrew at the far end of the room. He was standing with a bearded guy and a pair of tall young men who were fighting the good fight against acne and losing. I stuck out my hand to the man with the beard.

“I’m Paul,” I said.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m Will.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t meant to say anything, but he’d startled the word out of me. Will, of course. Kelly’s husband. He’d put on pounds around the middle–hadn’t we all?–and lost some hair on top. His bushy black beard that made him look more fierce than I remembered. And then before I could rein in my tongue: “We met before one time, actually, at Kelly’s wedding.”

I paused. Andrew paused. So did Will and the two tall young men beside him. And into the silence, I blurted, “Of course, I guess it was your wedding, too.”

Andrew’s glib smoothness was no help at all. There was no hand-hold anywhere, no crack in the rock of this mountain of mortification where I could jam my hand into the crease all the way up to the wrist like a piton of bone and stop this hurtling plunge. This was worse than the time I’d confused the anatomical term “philtrum”–that divider space under the human nose–for another anatomical term, “frenulum,” the underside of the head of a penis. I drew in a breath. If I could survive that embarrassment, I could survive this one.

“Yeah,” Will said drily. “It was my wedding, too.” He introduced me to the tall young men beside him. Kelly’s sons. And his, too. Naturally. They had his height and her complexion, so that they looked slightly wind-chapped even though we were in the apotheosis of summer. I shook their hands and smiled my empty smile at them. I learned there was a third boy, but he had enlisted in the Marines and was unable to attend the funeral. He was just as unreal to me as the two boys who were present.

When she moved to Clarksville, things changed. The phone calls–near daily rituals between us–dried up. She had finally been hired as a kindergarten teacher and worked long hours in the classroom, getting things just right. At night I would call and the phone would ring. And ring. And ring. I thought about driving up. I should have driven up. But north Tennessee is a long way from south Alabama. The phone was easier. The phone was enough.

A few weeks later when I finally connected with her, she told me that she’d met a guy. He was in the construction business. No college, just a blue-collar roofer with plans to open his own business one day. I was happy for her.

“What will you do if you get married?” I asked her one time, my voice light and teasing. “Will we still be friends?”

“He’ll have to understand,” she said. “You’re my best friend. We’re kind of, you know, a package deal.”

But within two months, Will started answering the phone at Kelly’s apartment. When I was able to talk to her, things were strained. We couldn’t say things we might have wanted to say. A third person in any kind of relationship changes the dynamic. I stopped calling.

I didn’t get an invitation to the wedding. In those days the only mail I got was overdue notices from the credit card companies and the student loan people. I looked for an invitation every day as the year went on. None ever came. I read the engagement announcement in the paper. Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Gilpin announce the engagement of their daughter, Kelly, to Will Whatever-his-name-was. I stared at their picture for a long time before I read the announcement. It gave the date and place and time for the wedding. Would I go? Of course I would. Invitation or no, Kelly had meant too much to me to miss it.

“I don’t know,” Jacob Reeser told me before the ceremony. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I’d known Jacob just as long as I’d known Kelly. Jacob’s father had money, and so he’d been able to go to the tony private college along with her. While she’d gotten a degree in early childhood education, Jacob had majored in Bible. I was majoring, off and on, in getting laid. Occasionally with a helping of journalism on the side.

“You’re probably right,” I said. We sat on the tailgate of his pickup truck in the parking lot of the town’s library, about three blocks from the church. Jacob was wearing a summer-weight suit, which is about the only formal outfit a man should wear in the Alabama heat. I had on navy blue slacks and a rust-colored tweed jacket. Sweat pooled at my armpits and the small of my back. My hair hung wet and limp over my forehead.

“I heard he’s a real jerk,” Jacob said. “Jen said Kelly wanted to lose weight for the wedding, but the guy wouldn’t even let her go to a coed gym. He got her a membership at an all-women’s gym.”

“Huh,” I said.

“And I was driving through there on my way back up to Wilmore, gonna visit some friends. I asked her if I could sleep on her couch if I got tired on the road, and that was a no-go, let me tell you. A complete non-starter. ‘Will wouldn’t like it.’ Well, I wasn’t planning on forcing myself on her. I just wanted to use the couch for a night.”

In the sanctuary, we found our seats. The sweat on my forehead dried while the organist played. Will and a few groomsmen slipped into the sanctuary from a side door and stood near the altar while the pastor took center stage. Jennifer Sanders was the first bridesmaid to enter, her slim figure clad in a pale peach dress, hair pulled back in an intricate chignon. When she turned to come down the center aisle of the church, everyone gasped at how visibly pregnant she was.

Jacob’s ex-girlfriend, Cindy, was next. Raven-haired and doe-eyed, she was a perfect counterpoint to Kelly’s Irish prettiness. I was the one who had introduced Cindy to Kelly and Jennifer–not to mention Jacob–and even though I keenly felt the sense of loss of my dearest friend, I was still happy to be near people that I loved and who loved me back.

More bridesmaids came out, but they were insignificant. I didn’t know them, and didn’t care to. The music halted for the space of a moment, and we all rose to our feet as the first strains of the bridal march played.

Kelly was beautiful. Her blonde hair had been further highlighted and piled atop her head in a convoluted tower held together with a combination of bobby pins and Aqua Net. Baby’s breath blossoms shone in her hair like a tiara. She wore a lace veil that did nothing to hide her beauty but instead magnified it. Her milky white shoulders were bare and toned. Whatever gym she had gone to had worked its magic. Her figure was a perfect hourglass sheathed in white. The train of her dress spread out behind her, and two small children held it at either corner. Mr. Gilpin was beside her, and the force of his happiness and pride was warm and radiant. Kelly had to step carefully in her dress, so her slow pace matched the shuffle of her father’s walk.

A lump formed in my throat as she approached the altar, and I didn’t understand why. When the music ended, I sat down and was glad that Jacob sat beside me. The preacher began to talk, and I tuned out until I heard the phrase “If anyone here objects to this couple being joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.” Kelly picked that moment to make eye contact with me. There was a pleading in her eyes that I couldn’t read. Did she want me to stand up? Had she been waiting for me all this time, for all these years that we had known and cared for each other? Or was it askance of a different sort? She had made her choice, so maybe the pleading was simply that I stay put and not make a damned fool out of myself nor a farce out of her wedding.

Beside me, Jacob gripped my arm so tightly that his knuckles were white. I tried to shrug away, but he kept his hold. We looked at each other, and I shook my head at him. I wasn’t going to do anything. He dropped his hand and the still quiet silence of that moment for an objection spun on like the elastic and perfectly sad moment after a child’s heart drops on Christmas morning when all the toys have been opened.

Later on at the reception, Will made a big production of lifting Kelly’s skirt and sliding a white garter down her thigh, standing up afterward and twirling the it around his index finger while the guests laughed. Tradition called for the uncoupled young men to try to catch the garter, so we gathered in the foyer of the fellowship hall. Jacob and I found ourselves pushed toward the front of a rowdy, laughing group of overgrown boys. On the second-floor landing, Will held Kelly’s garter taut on his left index finger and pulled it back, hard, with his right hand. He snapped the garter right at me, and I plucked it from the air. It was decorated with white and pink roses. Around us the party whooped with delight. Will nodded curtly at me, and I returned the gesture.

I still don’t understand why he shot Kelly’s garter directly at me. Was it so that I would have a memento from a day that meant so much to her? Was it just another way to remind me that he had won and that I had lost, that my time in Kelly’s life–as her friend–was now over? I’ll never ask him, so I guess I’ll never know for sure. But I kept the garter.

I saved my tears for the ride home. I was driving a little Ford Ranger that year, its body was as dented and scarred and ugly as I felt when I left the church. My eyes brimmed by the time I put the transmission in gear, and I was full-on bawling by the time I pulled onto the street. I parked in an empty lot a couple of blocks away where no one could hear me, and I screamed my loss in great, huge gulping sobs. I sounded like an animal writhing in pain, and in some ways I guess I was.

In the sanctuary, Andrew found some of our old high school friends, but I couldn’t remain still. I kept thinking about the stranger in Kelly’s eyes. The years had erased the days and nights we’d spent together, and the secrets we once shared were now artifacts lost to memory.

I looked down the center aisle of the church to where Mr. Gilpin’s coffin lay. My duty was discharged. I made apologetic noises to Andrew and the people around him, who were planning to go to lunch with one another once the funeral was done. Then I stood and walked away. On the way to the car, I could feel the lump in my throat rise like the tide.

I pulled the car over before I got very far. The frigid AC  prickled the unsprung tears that stood in my eyes and made my cheeks burn. But not one tear spilled, and no cries of sorrow escaped my lips. Not this time. I was older, and the feelings that had once burned so hot in my heart and soul were muted now, like watercolors faded in the sun.

Bobby Mathews is a writer and former journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama. His crime fiction has appeared in The Dark City, Close to the Bone, All Due Respect, Bristol Noir, and Shotgun Honey. His literary fiction has appeared in Southern Discoveries, The Black Warrior Review, Buzzwords, The Alabama Literary ReviewThe River, and Flash Fiction Magazine. His next stories are due out in 2021 with Yellow Mama and Gleam of the Blade. He shares space with his saintly wife, two wild sons, and a menagerie of sassy pets.