The house is yellow, freshly painted, darker than our house but still very yellow. I have never been here before, to Peter’s house in Virginia. It is a rainy morning. We ring the bell. A small dog erupts into yapping, but otherwise nothing happens. Peter knows we are on our way. He is expecting us and we have triumphed by arriving early enough to meet him at the house. It feels like an acknowledgement of closeness – a privilege -- that we were invited not to just show up at the funeral, like strangers, but to come to the house first.
We ring again. Perhaps he has left. But the door opens and there is he – so pale, looking like an old man now, an ill one. His face does not smile. He just looks shocked. Fred steps in. I step in. A few words get said. No one has hugged anyone. I break in, step forward, give Peter a hug.
Fred disappears to the bathroom and I follow Peter into the kitchen where he begins to boil water for tea. He is my husband’s completely unidentical twin and though he and I have only met a few times we are bonded by the family circle.
Peter speaks of this and that. I am sitting on a stool, attentive. I ask him how he is doing. “Well, I’m a falling down wreck,” he says, adjusting the flame, and it sounds genuine, like those are actually his words not somebody else’s.
We sit in the living room, the three of us. Tidy furniture, prints on the wall above a spotless fireplace. I see an old photograph, framed, and ask Peter who it is. “Our mother,” says Peter and I stand, cross the room to examine this picture of a young bride alone. I have never seen a picture of Fred’s mother.
I am watching the time, and suggest perhaps we should go. We stand. We’ve been talking as we probably would on any other day. I see a bunch of flowers in a vase – yellow and white – and ask, “Oh, are those the flowers we sent?”
“Yes,” says Peter but doesn’t warm to the subject.
And I ask to see the room where Rosemary spent her last months because I want to see and imagine and Peter takes us to a large almost empty neighboring room, and shows u the corner – now empty -- where she had lain. Somehow I had expected something – a view, some wide window that she would have looked out of, but there is almost no window in this room. And I stand in the dark empty room and I cannot say anything. I want to say something, but I am so horrified by this bleak room that I cannot overcome, cannot say anything with anything good in it.
We park at the church, our two cars. With Fred, I follow Peter to the door. He walks with a limp, in a pale raincoat that flaps and a pale rainhat. There is something awkward about his movements, like a marionette gone awry.
The door of the church opens from inside. A smiling bleach-blond young woman in a short tight skirt and high black patent stiletto heels says, “Good morning, Mr. Poole.” She must be a friend, I think, imagining Peter a member of some circle of some people somewhere.
We step into the carpeted entranceway. Everything is new, like a school. Although we are not technically late, the church people are acting as if we are – or as if Peter is – the priest, his tall awkward assistant, and the cluster of women who seem part of the team. There’s no time to be lost, it seems.
Before going in, the priest gathers us in front of the coat rack for a prayer. I tune in. I want to feel this. I want to have a good church experience. We have come a long way for this. I meet the priest’s eye for a moment. He is handsome. He seems sincere. I notice Peter reach out and hold onto the wall during the short prayer, and it is as if I glimpse his real life for a moment.
We file into the chapel to the front row, Peter on the aisle, then Fred, then me. We sit, stand, sing, listen. I pay attention, sing heartily, listen to the two Biblical readings closely, but can draw not a shred of meaning from either. Fred and Peter share a hymnal and this sight is touching to me. Perhaps there is actual closeness despite everything.
The priest opens by saying that Rosemary was in the Foregn Service and taught art history – so you know from this what kind of person she was, he says. She is not mentioned again except when her name is inserted into the funeral text when the word “Name” appears.
Near the end the priest puts his hand on what appears to be a box covered in an embroidered church cloth and I wonder if Rosemary has been cremated and if those are her ashes.
Afterwards we stand outside the chapel in a wide sunny corridor, while the team of women move here and there, including the blonde in stilettos who I have figured out is employed by the church. This is her job. It’s like a receiving line and these people are all neighbors, each and every one. They have nice things to say about Peter and Rosemary, and I think maybe he is not alone.
But then at lunch we sit at the circular table and everyone chats and eats – and Peter has a quip for everything. He talks about what publishers want these days and the thriller he is writing. He says he came a few days ago to make arrangements with the restaurant, how they gave him samples of the food all of which were “terrible,” he says, which gets a laugh. He is their old curmudgeon writer.
And then people are standing and saying good-bye. I want to connect. I want him to feel loved, for us to feel something together, but he says good-bye to me the same way he has said good-bye to everyone.
And later, as I stand by the coat check he comes to retrieve his coat. The restaurant is quiet now, almost everyone gone. He puts on his coat and leaves without noticing me, a few feet away, a man walking out alone.