Adam Renn Olenn has published stories in a variety of print and online journals, and twice has been anthologized in "Best New England Crime Stories." A two-time Grub Street scholarship winner and Bread Loaf contributor, he is currently at work on a novel.
THE ONE THING WE'VE GOT
You think you know someone, and then they go and get themselves shot in a war. I was seated next to my late husband's parents – though those words are too old, impossibly old, for the man just out of boyhood we were there to mourn. My late husband. My former student, Pine Bluff high, class of '02. No, I never touched him while he was my student. We were only a couple years apart in age, but I believe in professional responsibility. But yes, of course I noticed he was handsome, and the way his blue, blue eyes would glow from within when he would let fly that mischievous laugh of his. And sometimes I wore the jeans that made my ass look good when I knew I'd be doing a lot of writing at the blackboard, but that's as far as it went.
The people shuffling down the aisle smelled stuffy, and their raincoats dripped on the floor as they held them awkwardly, trying to get into the pews while keeping their dress clothes nice. The lights were on in the church because it was so dark out, and the stained glass windows seemed lifeless.
I looked at the simple program for the hundredth time, and turned to see who was coming in. It was an older couple, no one I knew. As I turned back, I saw that my mother-in-law was looking at me, and there was something about the look that stopped me. She gave me a tight little smile and dropped her eyes to her own program, and that's when it hit me: I wasn't just another relative who'd lost him, another lady in appropriate black. I was a widow.
The word flashed an image of myself in my mind, of being lonely and old, teaching schoolchildren for decades and then going home to a cat and lots of sweaters. Of wrapping myself in an afghan on long, lonely Sundays. No, not an afghan. I didn't like that word any more. I'd had enough of Afghanistan.
A drop fell on my program, and I glanced over my shoulder. I thought one of the late arrivals had a raincoat dripping on me, but there was no one there, and discovered I was crying. I wiped my nose, and my pitying mother-in-law handed me a tissue. I took it, and momentarily despised her for her pity.
They closed the wooden doors, and the sound echoed through the church, stilling the shuffling feet and hushed conversation. The priest walked forward to begin the mass, and I heard someone slip into the pew next to me.
She was a blue-eyed blond girl a few years younger than I, dressed in black with a fishnet veil. Her eyes flicked furtively to me and then away, but the priest began to say the mass, and she did not greet me.
It was like any other mass, except that instead of my beautiful husband fidgeting next to me, he was patient and still as the stones of the earth in a box at the front of the church. My mother-in-law had asked if I'd like to do a reading, but I didn't think I could, and one of Robbie's brothers did it instead. It was something from Psalms, and the last line made my heart burn in my chest. I was glad I had the tissue.
Communion was the hardest. Walking up there and receiving the host, knowing Robbie was right there but could not join me – it made him seem farther away than he ever did overseas. Five feet away. I could have leaned over and touched his forehead, and yet we were separated by an infinite gulf. The host seemed salty as it mixed with my tears. When I stepped over to sip the wine, moving away from him felt like a betrayal. There was an irrational part of me that felt like I should stay by him, or what was left of him, forever.
I went back to my pew and my mother-in-law took my hand. The girl to my left said nothing, and nobody acknowledged her, but nobody asked her to move, either. I wondered if she was a late-arriving cousin from out of town. His family all pretty much lived in the area, but it seemed like everyone had at least one relative in Saint Louis or Dallas.
When the service was over, the men picked up his coffin and walked him out of the church. We shuffled behind in a slow, disorganized march, and I saw them close the door of the hearse. Again, it felt like he was moving farther away, going off somewhere in space, and I wanted to call out, to ask him to come back.
I don't remember the ride to the cemetery, other than some blurry scenery through the rain-streaked windows. From the pew to the car to the big hole in the grass, I felt like a balloon being tugged along behind my mother- and father-in-law, like I was watching a movie about someone else's life from inside their eyes.
There was astroturf laid around the hole to cover up the dirt they were going to throw on him, and someone held an umbrella over the priest. It was hard to hear what he said over the raindrops drumming on the umbrellas, and I can't remember it anyway. I just kept looking at the coffin and thinking "Come back. Please come back, before it's too late. They're going to put you in there." Somehow it seemed like it wouldn't be real until he was down there, and then there would be no turning back.
But they did put him down there, and they did put the dirt on him, and I understood why some women throw themselves in, to be buried alive down there rather than feeling buried alive up here. It was like they put my heart in that hole, and now I had to walk around without it.
My in-laws had reserved the VFW hall, and we went there for a reception. The men all clumped in a corner around the keg, except the old ones who sat mutely sipping coffee beside their wives. People kept coming by to tell me how sorry they were. They'd put a hand on my shoulder so gentle, like I was made of ash, like they were afraid I'd crumble. I thought that was silly. I'd crumbled an hour ago when they lowered him down.
After a while, I sighed and stood up. I can only sit in one place feeling sad for so long, and then I need to move around a little. I went over to the table where everyone had laid out their casseroles and brownies and such, and made a little plate of veggies for myself. I munched a couple slices of red pepper, and a carrot stick, and two crackers. Nothing else seemed appealing, but I knew I should eat something.
Robbie's cousin Jeff came over and asked if there was anything he could do. He wobbled a little as he stood there, and I could tell he'd been at the keg awhile. I told him I thought a beer might do me some good, and he ran off to fetch it like he was putting out a fire.
There was a sudden fog of perfume, and I turned to see the girl from church standing there in that satin dress tight as her own hide. She had too much makeup on, and I couldn't tell if the heavy eyeliner was to hide the fact that she'd been crying or to advertise it. There was just something familiar about her, something that set my teeth on edge, but I couldn't place it. She batted her blue eyes and brushed her bleached hair back over her shoulder, and reached out and took my hand.
She gave me that same pitying look I'd seen from everyone that day and said, "It's so hard." She blinked again. "I mean, I just can't believe he's gone."
"I'm sorry," I said, "but who are you?"
Her head tilted sideways like a hinge in her neck had given out. "Miss Michaels, you don't remember me? Ashleigh Dillard? Pine Bluff high, class of '04?"
"Oh right, of course. I'm so sorry, I'm a little beside myself today." I gave her a 'society hug' and pulled back to look at her. I shook my head. "I can't believe I didn't recognize you. How have you been?"
She put her weight on one foot. "Oh, I've been all right. I'm working in a dentist's office up in Little Rock, so that's good." She smiled, and the unnatural whiteness of her teeth was almost too much to look at.
"That's great," I said and took a sip of my beer. "Are you–" the words caught in my throat. "Were you related to Robbie?"
Ashleigh shifted her weight to the other foot and looked at her plate of potato salad. "He uh, he was my ex-husband."
I lowered my party cup. "What did you say?" It felt like another layer of reality had been ripped away and I was floating through yet another awful dream.
She swallowed and nodded. "We were married right after he graduated and I was still in school. After I got out it kinda went south, and we split up."
I stared at her and she stared at her plate. "You're lying."
"I'm sorry," she said, "I thought you knew. I shouldn't have said anything."
My hands started to shake. "What is wrong with you, that you would come here and say a thing like that? I just lost my husband – my husband – and you come in here in your trampy dress and try to tell me Robbie was with..." I looked her up and down, "–you?" My plastic cup of beer made a popping noise as it dented in my hand. I forced myself to relax my grip and thought about throwing it in her face, but just then Jeff came over and put an arm around me.
"I'm so sorry for both of you." He looked at me, then her. "Robbie would have wanted this."
I turned my head and gaped at him. "You mean she was–?"
He cocked his head like an inquisitive puppy. "Well, yeah. Didn't you know that? She was in school with you when they got hitched."
I couldn't find any words to say.
"You really didn't know? Ouch. Today of all days." He gave me an unsteady hug, and my right arm hung limp at my side while my left stayed locked in an 'L,' holding my beer.
He pulled back. "Lemme get you a refill." He turned to the girl and tipped his chin up, wordlessly asking if she wanted one too. "Please," she said, and he veered off to the keg.
"What was his favorite food?" I asked.
Ashleigh thought for a minute. "I'm not such a good cook," she confessed, "so for a while there it was anything takeout, especially Mexican. But a turkey dinner always seemed to be the thing that turned Robbie's crank."
I finished my drink and studied her. "What's his favorite song?" I asked.
Jeff came back with two beers, and I set down the empty cup.
Ashleigh took a sip and said, "It was an old one from the eighties. 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' I think it was called."
I snorted a laugh, and a few droplets of beer sprayed onto the taut fabric of her dress. "Are you sure you even met Robbie? It was a Toby Keith song."
Ashleigh shook her head. "He loved Toby sure, but he always said that old song was the catchiest thing ever written, even if it sounded kinda gay."
When she said that, I felt how cold the beer was in my hand, and I remembered the way Robbie would sometimes say this little catchphrase, 'we both kinda liked it,' in a sing-song way, and I realized she was telling the truth.
"You know," Ashleigh said, "when I was still in school and he was out, he used to ask about you. Never any of the other teachers, just you."
"Huh," I grunted. "He never mentioned you."
There was a little flicker of feeling on her face, and she blinked twice like she might cry. "When I moved in, it wasn't long before I realized something wasn't right. I didn't want to admit it, but I knew it wasn't gonna work. We didn't have anything to talk about."
My jaw was set, but she soldiered on with her babbling.
"It's like, I dunno, I'm just never gonna be the kind of person who reads philosophy for fun. But Robbie was. Like you."
I felt uncomfortable.
"I was sad when we split up, but when I heard he was with you..." A strand of hair had stuck to her lipstick and she pulled it away. "It kinda made it okay. 'Cuz I knew it was right, that you guys like, matched."
I saw the sadness in her eyes, and realized how cruel I'd been. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm not myself today."
She nodded and took a sip of beer. I reached out and touched her arm. "Ashleigh? Really, that was awful of me. You're a lovely person, and I'm so sorry it didn't work out for you."
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and I chuckled. "But then, I guess it didn't really work out for me either, did it?"And then she laughed too, and there we were, laughing together at Robbie's funeral. We toasted him, and talked about the way he held his fork like a boy when he ate, the round swing of his hips when he loved, things no one else could understand, things no one else would ever know.
~Adam Renn Olenn