A teenage boy coming in from a morning of lighting fires along far-flung creeks was the one to find the body. He stopped shock-still, uncertain of what he saw splayed out there on the mud. But the clean white sunlight shone down on it same as it did on the bent weeds and the grass-and rock-stubble field leading up a hill, across a gravel path littered with junk parts and gutted automobiles set on cinder blocks, a white box of a house beyond. What he saw was true. A handful of blackbirds flung themselves up at the sky, crossed over in a shifting amoeba, and lit on a telephone wire, strung over the highway beyond the house. The boy stood looking down the set of silver railroad tracks glaringly bright in the sunshine. The sky above him was made of color so thick, it seemed he could plunge his open hand into its blueness.
He came back to himself and turned, hurrying across the field. The boy, Vincent Bailey, did not feel his feet move over the uneven earth and the bulging roots of old trees. All he could pay mind to was his heart thudding hard against his rib cage and the rush of air coming in and out through his lungs. He reached the house and stepped inside, the screen door clattering shut behind him. His father was in the living room, watching television with a plate of scrambled eggs balanced on his lap.
Vincent told him what he had found. “It’s Percy Harding,” he said.
His father set his plate aside, slow to believe. “Are you sure?”
Vincent was certain, and his father moved to the kitchen telephone to summon the police. They went out front to wait. His father did not speak, though he watched the boy in silhouette, then turned his eyes to the bend of road where the squad car would arrive. Vincent stared into the sun until it smeared purple when he blinked.
Some moments later, a patrol car and an ambulance sloped down the long gravel drive to where Vincent and his father stood. Neither vehicle had its siren turned on, and, to Vincent, it seemed the world had been sucked clean of true sound. Even when his father spoke to him, he just saw the movement of his father’s lips beneath his eyes squinting in the sun. The three men—Vincent’s father, the police chief of Goliath, and the coroner—nodded at one another and then turned to Vincent, who led them out to the field.
He worried the body would be gone, mysteriously up and left, but they came to it directly, and it was worse now, even more still, as if it were possible for a person to grow more dead in a half hour’s time. Though it was the beginning of October, the air felt as mild and new as on a spring day.
The boy stood back with his father, who folded his arms across his chest and leaned over to spit into the mud. The police chief, a patient, solid, grim-faced man who was slow in his movements, and the coroner, a pudgy fellow with a wide forehead that beaded with sweat despite the cool breeze riding across the trees, spoke quietly over the body. It was quickly determined that the deceased, struck by the train, was Percy Harding, just as Vincent had reported. His father stepped forward to hazard a closer look but kept his expression hard. Vincent, wanting the relief he had expected to feel when the situation was safely in the hands of the police, kept his eyes turned away from his father’s. He searched the sky for more blackbirds.
Later, after the body was taken away and the men had left, Vincent sat at the kitchen table with a supper of cornbread and beans, ladled off the stove by his mother. She and Vincent’s sisters had just returned from morning church services, and she was still dressed in pressed pink linen, a summer dress. She set the plate down and lingered a moment, her hand on his shoulder. The girls, all older than Vincent, fluttered about the kitchen, hoping to catch the details of what Vincent had found. Finally their mother shooed them away, and Vincent was left alone with his father, who sat across from him and looked from his own plate to his son to the window.
“It’s going to be a hard thing to forget,” he said. “What we saw today.”
Vincent didn’t answer. Outside, the clouds swept across the sky in quick-time, blossoming orange, then pink, then blue gray.
* * *
The Baileys lived in a ripple of wooded hills threaded with county roads a few miles west of the town of Goliath, where Percy Harding had lived and presided over Harding Furniture Company and where Vincent Bailey, riding the county school bus, had just begun attending high school. There in town it had been a blessedly ordinary summer of modest white nuptials and giant insects and bloated afternoons spent in kiddie pools and backyards, the neighborhoods of Goliath filling with the greasy smells of charred meat and bug repellent. During these months, the heat saturated Goliath and the people sat behind electric fans set on front porches, the ladies’ hair tied back in bandannas. They passed around garden tomatoes, which grew heavy and red on their vines all the way through the end of September.
They weren’t prepared for the sad news when Vincent Bailey found it on the first Sunday of October, the weather just beginning to cool. The sorrow of it went out in glittering gusts like the old-fashioned purple and pink insecticide clouds sprayed through the streets in years past. There was a sheen to a tragedy this grave, this mysterious. It began with Clyde Winston, the soon-to-retire police chief, going out to inform the widow.
Clyde left the Baileys’ house after the body was removed and drove into Goliath, passing the two-pump gas station, the huge gray rectangle of the Harding Furniture Factory, the railroad tracks, the downtown shops, the post office, and the great white Baptist church. Beyond the church, the roads split into narrow neighborhood streets with cracked sidewalks and gray and blue houses hunched over splintered front porches.
The Harding house was a monstrous brick structure sitting atop a hill looking over the residential end of Main Street. The gentle slopes of the Goliath Cemetery—just a few graves shy of full capacity—lay across the street. The house was reached by a private graveled avenue labeled Redemption Lane. A long driveway led up the sparsely treed hill and came to a semicircle a few steps from the heavy wood door, flanked on both sides by intricate stained glass, vine- and leaf-patterned. Years ago, factory workers, called there by Martha Harding, the namer of the private lane and the factory president’s wife during the post–World War II years, had stood waiting in that same spot. They had been called there for a prayer meeting, which Martha herself administered from her leather chesterfield inside.
Lela Harding, Percy’s wife, opened the door clutching a glass of amber-colored liquid, slender ice cubes floating on top. She was a petite woman with glossy black hair and a powdery-white complexion. Clyde Winston pronounced the news, disclosing as few details as possible. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “No.
” She stood motionless for a moment, then turned and stepped into the house, and Clyde, after a moment’s hesitation, followed her.
“I was just about to take the car out,” she said.
Clyde was unsure of what to do or say to console her. They sat without speaking a space apart on a thickly upholstered sofa in a room made of shining brass and gleaming old furniture. She drank and touched her face with her fingertips. Her husband had been the most powerful and the most beloved man in town, but Lela had mostly kept to herself. Few knew her well. The music, a far-off radio, changed from song to song, back to the announcer, back to song. When her glass was empty, Lela held it up to Clyde to refill, gesturing to an unlocked cabinet where he found the bourbon. Returning her refreshed glass, he sat next to her on the couch and she bent a tiny bit closer to him. He thought of Martha Harding, whom he had seen only at her viewing—she was hollow-looking, carefully embalmed. It was the first dead person young Clyde, then fifteen years old, had ever seen.
“It’s too big. It’s like driving a bus.”
She looked at him. “He must have left early,” she said. “I was still asleep.”
The elevator music continued, interrupted again by the announcer’s lilting voice. Clyde did not argue with Lela, but instead let her sit there and come to understanding. She closed her eyes, and he began to move his hand up and down her back. At another time the gesture might have seemed too familiar. Now, though, in the moment of her stark grief, her drinking, the awful, shapeless music, this seemed the only thing for Clyde to do. He was a widower, ten years on his own now, and was unpracticed in the art of offering sympathy. His palm moved slowly against the small knots of vertebrae and Lela Harding seemed more fragile with each passing.
She touched her temples. “I wish we’d get some rain.”
Clyde left after dark, the radio still playing, and unwilling to return home, looped the streets of town and the outlying county roads until dawn. He drove past his son’s trailer, in the woods behind the school, past his neighbors’ houses, past the factory. The downtown shops were silent and dark except for the soft buzzing of the streetlights and the perennial blue glow of the Pepsi fountain inside the Tuesday Diner.
* * *
The body was brought to Thompson’s Funeral Home, and in the morning, Holland Thompson, the undertaker, set about preparing it for internment. Holland was a slow, methodical man who would have been a surgeon except he preferred a cleaner, more exact succession of tasks. He worked alone in a room furnished with only the table and his instruments, the cabinet, the industrial sink, and a portable radio tuned to a station that played covers of old pop songs. His married, childless daughter Celeste came, knocked shortly on the door, and then opened it without invitation. Her father, irritated at the interruption, turned sharply to her, and though Percy Harding was barely recognizable in his mangled state, she knew at once who it was laid out there on the cold steel table.
She gasped. Though the daughter of a mortician, she had never seen such a corpse. The body was so completely dead—simply emptied
of life—and yet so untouched. His skin had not yet turned waxy and unreal, and he wasn’t terribly bloody. Instead, the body was rumpled, a misshapen scattering of broken bones sealed over by skin and a blue jogging suit.
“It was a train,” Holland said unnecessarily—Celeste had already heard what had happened, indeed had been the one to answer the phone. She had known Percy Harding, now dead, was coming to them. Her father shook his head over the particular violence of the tragedy, the degree of technical skill his job now required of him. He turned to his cabinet to select a thin, sharp needle and a spool of wire. He gestured to his daughter with a pair of surgical scissors.
“You keep this to yourself,” he said.
“All right,” she said, and hurried out.
She was still clutching her car keys when she whispered her discovery to the checkout girl at Lucky Grocery. “One hundred percent crushed,”
Celeste told her.
The checkout girl, a can of green beans in her hand, stopped, looking up at Celeste. The buyer of the green beans, a woman with two small children at her knees, asked, “What did you say?” though she’d heard Celeste well enough. She picked up the littler of her two boys and listened: Celeste, in a whisper, described what she had seen.
The news began swirling out, Celeste and the checkout girl and then the mother of the little boys and the bag boy all speaking of it there at the front of the store. Of course many had already heard that Percy Harding had died—it was in the local papers—but few had spoken to someone who had actually seen the body. Celeste repeated again and again, “One hundred percent crushed
,” and nodded at the blank faces, their brows wrinkled, their mouths half forming questions as the image settled in. Those coming in and those leaving heard and lingered; with time, a murmuring knot collected there. There were shoppers who had come off third shift a few hours earlier: the women still had their hair tied back. The men had their work boots on. Some were off work this morning, come in blue jeans and sweatshirts to pick up groceries for tonight’s supper, and a few were in dressy slacks and sweater vests, late for their office jobs, dropping by to pick up coffee and pastries for their coworkers. They listened to Celeste describe what she had seen, and they began to understand: Percy Harding had been struck—destroyed
—by a train.
The shock and sorrow of it clung to them as they stood by the automatic sliding glass doors, too numb to move. After a time, though, they remembered themselves and started to leave, some with thoughts of going to retrieve their children early from school, some to wait for the day-shift workers to come down the hill from the factory at four, and some to go home and sort it out, this horrible thing that had happened here, in their own small realm of church, friends, and work. Each recollected an actual encounter with the man, or at the very least, a sighting, and those remembered moments were absorbingly macabre now. The people recalled what they could of Percy Harding and looked, through time passed, for some foretelling, some hint, of the present disaster.
“He was a rock,” one worker told another, and they both nodded. It was true—Percy Harding had been the town’s single greatest support—but this was also the beginning of the kinds of legends people create after a passing.
“Harding will never be the same. We
will never be the same,” another said.
“It’s true, it’s true,” came a response.
They referred to the incident as an accident, though many went home to confront their loved ones with the chilling uncertainty as to how a man might be struck by a train without either lying down for it or else standing resolutely on the tracks. People speculated. One man recalled a scene in a movie where a woman’s shoe got wedged between the ground and the rail and the woman had struggled to free herself in time.
Clyde Winston stopped by the post office on his way home from the station late that afternoon. Hearing one of his neighbors speak of Percy’s death, relaying a description, largely distorted, of the condition he was found in, he remembered the granite look of Lela Harding’s eyes, how fragile the bones in her back had felt under his hand. From the post office, he went to his son’s mobile home behind the junior high school rather than return to his own dark cave of a house. He leaned against the kitchen sink with a tepid glass of water and said, “It just don’t make sense.” He took a drink, shook his head, and said again, “It just don’t.”
“You’re right there,” his son agreed. “A man does not stand in the way of a train unless he means to get hit.” He was still a moment, thinking, watching his father. “Or unless he’s crazy,” he added. He stood gripping the back of a kitchen chair, opening and closing his fingers to ease the tension in his knuckles. Ray Winston was a large man, his sturdy limbs and broad chest in proportion to his more than six feet of height. He wore his curly brown hair longish, just over the collar of his county-issued work shirt. In a softer tone, he continued, “And no one even guessing at it, not even knowing he was capable of it.”
The two were quiet for a moment, considering the dead man’s intentions. A chill breeze seeped through the slipshod hinges of the aluminum trailer even as sunshine beat through the uncurtained windows, lighting up dirt smudges here and there across the pane. Ray Winston was the groundskeeper for the county, mostly keeping up the yard of the junior high and high school, built on neighboring lots, and the grade schools across the way. He was also a part-time preacher, ordained by the power of the Spirit and none other, bringing the good news to the poor, the downtrodden. He kept his own worldly load light. He belonged to no church and did not do his preaching while lounging on a leather chesterfield in a great house on a hill, but instead stood on the doorsteps of Goliath, visiting the physically ill and the spiritually unwell. Now, also unlike Martha Harding, he kept his silence, waiting to see what else Clyde needed to say. He had learned that much—the ministry of listening—from his father.
Clyde had served the town of Goliath for decades. He had dealt with any number of domestic squabbles, drunken insanities, and break-ins. There had also been acts of vandalism, fits of meanness, and episodes of blatant stupidity. He had seen other suicides. But there was something different in this one. It was as if every person in town had put their own bodies in way of the train and were all broken now, spiritless.
After a moment, Clyde set his glass down and spoke.
“A person goes that far,” he said, “he takes the rest of us partway with him.” He stared squarely into his son’s eyes. “You can’t unsee a thing like that, you can’t unlive it.”
* * *
The Harding family assembled itself in Goliath a day and a half after the Bailey boy’s discovery. Percy’s oldest brother, Anthony, made the unnecessary announcement about Percy’s passing in the factory’s lunchroom at noon; by then, everyone knew. Anthony Harding was a commanding figure, as tall as Percy, yet with a more deeply lined face, his eyes watery behind gold-rimmed spectacles. He stood in front of the employees in a dark blue suit, clearing his throat between utterances of grief and regret. The workers, in flannel and worn denim, stirred. There was sawdust on the shoulders of those who worked in the rough room, and the back of every finisher ached.
“Let us,” he said, “come together during this time of loss.”
The employees were let off early to prepare to attend the viewing, and they moved out in small knots into the breezy fall day. Rosamond Rogers, Percy Harding’s secretary, remained at her desk, her fingers resting on the smooth green keys of her electric typewriter. She had already attended to the tasks the family had asked of her and had supplied a list of phone numbers they could call—business associates and friends, acquaintances Percy’s family might not think to include. She had made a number of the calls herself earlier this morning, and had already given over the list, all the rest. She had thought they might need something more from her, and she had offered to do more: type up the program for the funeral, begin cleaning out his desk—though she wasn’t at all sure she could do that, handle Percy’s things—but nothing more had been required.
Now suddenly Rosamond was experiencing a momentary loss of memory. It was too much, Percy dying; she dreaded the viewing. Dreaded standing in the long, long line with all the others—the ones who felt as though they had known Percy Harding only because they had lived here in Goliath, or even just near Goliath, in the same county—and shaking the widow’s hand, the son’s hand. Offer her condolences, receive the condolences of others.
She had her daughter, just returned to Goliath after a failed college career, and that was all. Her husband, a salesman, had left years ago. Certain material entities were blotted out now in her mind. She knew the thing before her was called a typewriter, but she was unsure about what it was doing there, or what it was used for. She blinked, fearful, then closed her eyes tight, seeking to regain herself, and opened them to find small familiars, the flower-patterned coffee cup, her papers, the manila file folders. Restored, she rose to check on things.
The offices were still, and in the factory beyond sun motes floated over stopped machines. The halls made tiny pings of silence. She returned to her desk and took her coat, a single-breasted orange felt cutaway, and set out, the sidewalks spotty with sunbeams and bits of shadow. There was a bit of time, a few hours, for her to rest up before walking down to the viewing at the funeral home.
Rosamond began down the sidewalk, past the downtown businesses. There was the bank, the diner, the pizza place, the drugstore. One street up from the drugstore was a junk shop that a generation ago had been a department store. Above that, there was a truncated street with a shut-down bowling alley and a dingy bar masquerading as a hole-in-the-wall restaurant—Rosamond had not been inside it in ages. Coming up on the large white Baptist church just this side of downtown, she paused to adjust the collar of her coat. It was barely cool enough for the coat, but she kept it on. Her feet, pretty in their vintage red pumps—circa 1954—were not properly outfitted for so much walking.
Across from the church was the grade school with its great oak looming tall, the branches stretched out across the scratchy lawn as if to protect the children who sat there in groups on warmer days, eating their lunches or awaiting their parents. Rosamond, years ago, used to stroll by on her lunch break to watch her daughter Agnes pick apart her bologna sandwich. The other first-grade girls arranged themselves in a complicated-looking game that involved running and screeching away from some boy who looked both perplexed and ashamed, more than a little annoyed to find himself the unwitting villain. It had always pained Rosamond to watch Agnes playing with the other children, even when they appeared to like her. She was a pretty girl, but disheveled, everything askew, and entirely too serious. Rosamond had never been able to fix Agnes’s hair up right or get her to keep her shirttail tucked in. Throughout her childhood years, and even now, Agnes seemed half complete, a person who couldn’t tie her shoes without getting distracted by her own thoughts.
Rosamond walked down the hill past a string of ordinary houses, all with brick faces and painted cement porches. Below the high school, in a patch of woods, was the site of the house, now gone, where a movie star had lived. Dorothy Blair had grown up here, in these streets, and had run away to Hollywood as a teenager. Rosamond often thought of her, imagined what it was like to be famous and, at the same time, to remember a childhood in Goliath.
Agnes had recently surprised everyone—including her mother—by dropping out of college and returning home. She had taken a job at Lucky Grocery, at the checkout. Rosamond didn’t understand why. There were better jobs to be had, even in Goliath. Agnes had come to live not with Rosamond, but with Rosamond’s aunt, Mia Robins, who had throughout the years taken in a number of wayward relatives.
A few more houses, and she came to her own. A 1957 blue Cadillac sat in the driveway. The car was nearly three decades old and still in pristine condition. She had not driven that car nor any other in more than a decade. She stood at her front door and felt for her house keys inside her coat pocket. She had believed her own daughter might go out and do something spectacular in the world. Rosamond touched the doorknob, and the instant she made contact with the house, empty inside, she discovered she could not enter. She looked toward the house next door, where her best friend had lived before she died several years ago. Her friend’s husband, the police chief, lived there alone now. Clyde Winston, a solitary man. The day was hushed save the thrusts of new autumn wind shaking the boughs of trees, still mostly green, changed at the top as if they had been uprooted, dipped partially in red or yellow paint, and set back in the earth again.
Returning to the sidewalk, Rosamond headed east, in the same direction she’d just come from. The shadows from the houses and the telephone poles were stretched long across the street. The day would soon begin to lose its light.
She arrived moments later at the drugstore, prompting the tinkling of a little bell as she stepped inside. The store smelled of plastic packaging and cleaning liquids. There were no other shoppers inside and the proprietor, Charlotte Branch, was perched on a stool behind the cash register, thumbing through a movie magazine. Charlotte wore her gray hair in short, tight curls; Rosamond pictured Charlotte sitting at her kitchen table in the morning, her hair wrapped in an assortment of plastic rollers, her eyes narrowing to focus on her newspaper as she leaned over to read. She raised her eyebrows now at Rosamond, nodded shortly, and returned to her reading. Rosamond knew, though, that Charlotte kept her eyes on her even as she appeared to study the celebrity pages, their evening gowns and divorces.
Rosamond examined the cellophane-wrapped squares of chocolates and mints, and, on a shelf devoted to Christmas pretties, a variety of plastic snow globes depicting the nativity. October had just begun and Rosamond had not yet begun to think about Christmas. Picking up one of the globes, she flipped it, then righted it, and saw that the baby Jesus had come dislodged and was floating and swirling about in the fake snow, finally coming to rest, upside down, beside the virgin Mary. There were painted wood tree ornaments and, the next aisle over, teddy bear figurines, pocket flashlights, and lingerie drawer sachets. Rosamond picked through the gadgets and flummeries. More snow globes, seashell jewelry boxes, miniature sewing kits. The store was unusually quiet and still for this time of day.
She finally made her selection—a letter opener, its wooden handle carved and painted to look like a red cardinal. Percy, she remembered, had been an admirer of birds. They’re never still,
he had once noted, turning from the window in his office. Even at rest,
he had said, they jerk their heads around, looking. They lift off the branch in an instant. Gone!
She moved to the counter, taking out her wallet to pay.
Charlotte laid her magazine down on the counter to ring her up. She studied Rosamond for a second, remarked, “Awful, what happened.” Rosamond agreed yes, a terrible tragedy. “Pretty,” Charlotte said, picking up the letter opener to examine it, glancing up again at Rosamond and giving her a second to respond. But Rosamond only shrugged. Charlotte punched the numbers into the register, announced the total, and then wrapped it in tissue paper, turning it over and over again. The small, happy energy of the task, the purchase, the idea of bringing a gift warmed Rosamond, and she ignored Charlotte’s questioning look. She picked through her change purse, taking out five dollars and thirty-three cents, exact change, and, accepting the bag, turned to leave. She had never before done this sort of grieving, never sought to comfort a widow who wasn’t so very old—Lela Harding couldn’t be much older than Rosamond.
“The whole thing makes you wonder,” Charlotte continued in a measured tone, “about people. Impossible to tell what they’re really thinking.” She paused. “I’m real sorry, Rosamond. I know this is a great loss to you
Rosamond thanked her and hurried away. She found comfort in the spunky click-click of her heels on the sidewalk. This, she decided, touching the sharp point of the letter opener, wrapped in tissue paper and settled into her coat pocket, was the least she could do.
Main Street was a long stretch of storefronts, houses, and schools. Finally she came to the cemetery and Redemption Lane, but when Rosamond drew close to the start of the long road, it seemed to have come too soon. She hesitated, then set forward again.
As she began the climb, cursing her beloved shoes with every pinching step, she thought of the letter opener, of the tiny bird, that brightly colored ornament, of how it would find its place inside the fancy house up on the hill. She wondered how Lela Harding would receive it, maybe holding it long, for its heft, its solidness, looking closely to admire it, maybe slipping it into her own pocket or leaving it on an end table in the living room. Rosamond had been to the house maybe half a dozen times in her thirty some odd years of working for Percy Harding and could picture the brass and deep wood expanse of the room, could see the letter opener casually left on one of those shining pieces of furniture. The letter opener was pretty and red, a specific item she had chosen and touched and carried. It would live among the Hardings, Rosamond’s own scrambled message to the people inside—the children, the grandchildren, the rest. Rosamond was sure no one knew Percy Harding—in certain ways—as well as she did. God help her for even thinking it, but it was true.
When she was a girl, Harding Furniture had been world-famous. In those days, Goliath was the site of the manufacture of fine handcrafted furniture, a town of skilled artisans. The railroad tracks tied working towns to big cities across the country, and trains carried the furniture away. Goliath had Easter parades, those years. Dorothy Blair, the movie star, was making her way on the big screen at the furniture company’s height of glory, first playing, fittingly, a teenage girl from a small town who finds herself, wide-eyed, on the streets of New York City. After that, she had starred in a string of pictures, portraying everything from a stripper to a nun, and had played opposite all the famous leading men. This was thirty years ago. Dorothy Blair had since turned obscure. Rosamond, who loved her still, once read an interview where the actress spoke of her hometown. A little place called Goliath,
she had said.
Rosamond came to the steep driveway and started up, leaning forward a bit for balance. The house above her was going dark in the small light of late afternoon, its windows glinting gold with the sun’s setting across the street.
She reached the heavy wooden door, narrow panes of stained glass on either side. The house was a mammoth stone and brick structure, impregnable. In Rosamond’s mind, it was overdone, unfit for human habitation. She thought of church, of museums she would likely never visit, of the jaunty, earnest look of Percy Harding at his start. She smoothed the front of her coat, pressed her lips together, checked her pretty shoes. Stepping forward, she pressed the bell.
After barely a moment, the door opened and a tall, thin boy with an untroubled, childish face stood before her. His hair was so pale it nearly matched his skin, and the only distinction of color was his silent blue eyes, so purely blue they seemed unnatural, like colored glass. It’s the family, Rosamond realized. She had, in her fervor over purchasing a gift, forgotten about them, that they even existed out there away from Goliath, that now they had returned, come together from their scattered places across the country, ascending now in a thick plume of opulence, dense in the house before her.
The boy said nothing, simply raising his eyebrows in an unspoken question. Yes?
“It’s Rosamond Rogers,” she said quickly. “I … worked with Mr. Harding.” She stopped. “Oh, it’s you.” She stared. This was no boy, but a man of nearly thirty, some years older than her Agnes. Mr. Harding’s son—his son,
that gorgeous boy. Rosamond gaped for a moment, then, embarrassed, collected herself. “Ryan.” He smiled, but there was still the question on his face. And also here he
was. The sweet pale swag of hair falling down over his eyes, that beautiful man, young now, stepped out of his coffin and across time, come back to her. Ryan was dressed in a navy suit, ready for the viewing. Flushing, Rosamond tried again. “It’s me, Ryan. Rosamond Rogers.” The polite, uncertain look remained, and Rosamond winced at its blankness. “The secretary,” she prompted, her voice coming out shrill and unpleasant.
At this, Ryan nodded. “Of course.” He grinned—his father’s grin—then stepped back, inviting her to enter. “Come in.”
He held out his hand, here’s the way, but Rosamond remained where she was. There was the viewing. The family would be going, of course, and she was holding him back. He needed to finish dressing. Behind Ryan, the house was warm and complete, soft light shining outward, a thin stretch of private grief hanging about his shoulders, and Rosamond crept back inside herself, shrinking away. She shook her head, and Ryan’s face slipped over to confusion, then mild annoyance. Rosamond spoke, apologizing.
“I shouldn’t have come,” she said, stepping back. Her shoe scraped down the first step, and she stumbled, grabbing hold of the wrought iron handrail to catch herself. Ryan stepped forward to help, but she smoothed her coat, said, “I’m all right. So sorry, so…” Smiling, she leaned forward to squeeze Ryan’s thin, warm hand; then, letting go, she turned to leave.
Percy’s boy, standing at the top step, called out to her. “Mrs. Rogers?”
She hurried away. The afternoon was beginning its lapse into darkness as she staggered down the driveway onto Redemption Lane. Down she clattered. The front door finally blinked shut as Rosamond stopped at the bottom of the hill, looking back.
She took her shoes off to walk home, taking the long, zigzag way through the neighborhoods. She would not be attending the viewing, she decided. She couldn’t.
When she finally arrived back on Main Street, her pantyhose were torn through, and the town was absent, gone to the viewing. There was only Clyde Winston there, sitting on his top porch step next door, his neck bent back as if to soak up the last of the day’s light. She had known Clyde for years. Carrying her shoes in one hand, the letter opener a snug weight in her pocket, Rosamond nodded hello as she went up her front steps. Clyde nodded back and didn’t seem to notice she’d been crying, or was too polite to show it, or that her feet were bare, or that she, like Clyde himself, was not in the place she was supposed to be.
Copyright © 2012 by Susan Woodring
SUSAN WOODRING grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her previous publications are a first novel, The Traveling Disease, and Springtime On Mars: Stories. She has been published in Passages North and a variety of other literary publications. She won the 2006 Isotope Editor's Prize, has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and was a notable mention in Best American Short Stories 2010.