We had turned from the highway in the direction of a clearing which, if I remember correctly, we’d been able to see from the road. It was February, the middle of the week, the sky was leaden, as they say, there were no shadows on the ground. The approach took us up the rise of a low hill and as we crossed the top we saw the municipal funerary on the far side, in front of a line of trees. It was a modern one-story structure, otherwise anonymous, with a small cross planted by the road.
We turned and parked, and walked through the door into an empty hall. At the end was a small, badly lighted room. There were no decorations, no pictures, no guestbook. Did we speak? I don’t remember. Across from us at the room’s far end, framed by an amber curtain, they’d laid the casket and the body. He’d been dressed in a suit and given a haircut, his hair had been combed and trimmed, his hands were folded one above the other. We stood side by side for what might have been an hour. Eventually an official from the office, a small woman in a red suit, came in clutching a manila folder; she showed me the paperwork, its terms, and before every line she would briefly pause as if to remind me of its importance. I signed what was needed and we drove back to the city.
When we returned it was evening, about five o’clock. We were under one of those iridescent winter sunsets in which the sun is caught behind a shadow, eclipsed by silver threads. The city was being emptied. At every stoplight lines of people walked past us, going to their cars and buses, ignoring everything, looking downcast, and we were able to proceed only a block or two at a time. But then near Third and Grand, just past the footbridge, we turned a corner and everything was gone. The people vanished, the street became deserted. About one hundred yards away we saw the awning of the bar; I don’t remember now what I was expecting but everything was the same. The window, the sign, the sidewalk. In all those years there had been no effect but time.
We went in and sat with our backs were to the door. I pointed out to you the cowboys and horses on every lampshade, the cowgirls and their ropes, the honky-tonk signs beside the concert posters from fifty years before. The room was not yet busy. The other patrons, mostly businessmen, were all speaking in low voices about the mindless events of the day, and there was a golden light spilling out of the bottles stacked on the bar shelves. I ordered a drink, a whiskey, just as the lights dimmed and song began to play over the loudspeaker, it was a country song of course, the melody drawn out by floating strings. But it was so strange. I recognized it immediately. And the words came back to me as if from out of time. I remember you telling me don’t clutch a rose don’t mourn the sunset… And though I knew that it was a coincidence, I thought how strange it was – since that day was already more than thirty years in the past, and now another thirty more are gone – how strange that of all songs I should hear it would be that one alone, playing at that moment, on that day… And I suppose if I hear the river moaning it’s just the way I’m feeling, the river’s not complaining… But then, too, since time is never really gone but folds ever-onward, layer over layer, the meanings will always change. So I let it happen. When the chorus came, much to your embarrassment, I sang along. And the very next day we woke before dawn and we found the way by the rambling river and we had no dream.
Then with my drink in hand I said, “Do you know when I first heard this song?” You shook your head. “It was more than thirty years ago,” I said. And for the next half hour I told you the story of the trip I had taken with my aunt and uncle to the country, with Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Jerry, and their children, my cousins, Leo and David, telling to you about the day in detail, the songs we heard and the games played at the festival that were so much like the ones you and I had seen that summer, earlier, seven months before. It was just like the fair, I said. And that song I sang to you, believe it or not, was playing over the car stereo while we drove home that evening, sailing over the prairie, I said, in a cold and beautiful sunset, I remember it very well. I think you understood what I meant. I had mentioned the cousins by name. But if I’m being honest there was another part to the story which I left unsaid and which you could not have known, which I did know but had neglected to connect until now to these other points in time, though they corresponded.
Our family always went to church. But it was never anything more than that, never more than practical, I was baptized, I took Communion, but there was no mention of the prophecy and the substance of someone’s faith. As a rule no miracles happened in our day on earth. But for my mother’s sister, Aunt Carolyn, life was different. She was filled with a need for God, and growing up I learned about her secondhand, in stories and in the looks between my parents, about the times she’d run away from home, about the convent she’d been sent to, about the man she’d married. But we never met, she never visited, I didn’t know the family.
So it was surprising when one year sometime before Christmas she, Jerry, and the two boys came to stay. At first I thought it was for us, for the holiday. But then we learned (or I learned, my parents must have known) that earlier in the week there had been reports of something spectacular happening over the border in Nebraska. The Virgin had been seen in the clouds in the middle of nowhere, somewhere on a hillside. The pilgrims (for that is what Carolyn and Jerry were, pilgrims) had taken out space in the Star advertising the Resurrection which without irony they were hoping to turn into an event: bands were scheduled to play the site, people were selling t-shirts, there were rides, they wanted to see what was supposed to happen. Aunt Carolyn, my mother told me, thought it would be a good idea for me to join them. For whatever reason my parents agreed. I can’t imagine the conversation. During the drive I sat between the boys, Leo and David. Leo was younger than me and David a year older, no more than nine or ten; he was already withdrawn, a quiet boy with a sad or tired expression in his eyes that would only deepen through the years. He sank low into the seat and barely looked at me. I can’t remember if I ever tried to engage him. When we arrived in Nebraska we saw that the pilgrimage had been turned into a real event, a true celebration. They’d put up tents and hired rides and vendors for the food and toilets. The totally bare hillside was not very high. At one end a stage had been erected on which every half hour a preacher or singer would stand up to the microphone and proclaim for the somewhat attentive crowd. In the sky it was another matter. I myself saw nothing but a group of irregular clouds, flat and grey, but other people insisted that in a particular corner there was indeed the image of a woman in a veil. What I am sure of was that it was very cold. The wind was incredible. You could not walk more than a step without tears streaming down your face. But everyone seemed very happy. Before we returned that afternoon I was asked to join a group including Carolyn’s family in a circle while we murmured a sort of prayer, and as we all prayed I looked at lights on in the houses in the village about a half mile away, and the cars moving across the empty fields.
I never kept in touch with my aunt and uncle. As I got older I heard about them from my parents, and then about Leo in the Army and about David as he drifted and fell out from altogether. To that end there were only rumors.
When we left the bar it was night and the air was invigorated by a warm breeze. We walked out to the car. Across the street we could see the towers of the city rising upward through an empty lot.
“These used to be apartments here,” I said, pointing at the lot. “And before the houses a hillside. The buildings led all the way up the avenue, all of it was brick.”
The lot was surrounded by piles of dirt and gravel and something else that would never be substantiated and never confirmed except by those who saw it, never to move again.
The last time I had been there, there hadn’t been a view. No one lived in the neighborhood though the apartments had not yet been demolished and everywhere you went it felt as if the shadows were closing in. It is all still fresh in my mind. I remember with perfect clarity how he looked when I walked by him outside the bar, the disaffection in his eyes, I remember the steps I took and how I reached into my pocket for money. We were walking the same route then, you and I, you were holding my hand but let go of it so that you could get into the car. The breeze was picking up and pushing the clouds around, and the color of the night sky was beginning to change. I thought of his restless life, all the wanderings and people he must have known as his former self, all the old relatives and friends whose faces he could no longer remember, reappearing every so often to give him food and money. I thought of the confluence of that time with this one and the other time intersecting, and now that I am saying I will have to think of it again. I remember the dull red color reflected in the clouds at the point where they broke over the tops of the buildings, and on the promontory of the avenue, just before the city, the color of something silvery green just like a block of ice.