The History of a Secret
I have tried to resist the temptation to present myself, in the context of the history I am about to relate, in an undeservedly positive light. To be a more impartial observer I have sought not to stint on portraying my flaws and foibles in full daylight. I hope that, in this light, I should not turn out to be the villain of my own story, and that the reader will excuse my mistakes and errors as human, and nothing more.
This history, which I will relate, occurred in my twenty-second year, during the brief period of my abortive engagement, and began when I returned to my hometown of Denver and attended the funeral of my former neighbor, Mrs. Beatrice Smith.
In this case, as with most events herein, I have been able to consult my own records, including calendar entries, tickets, receipts, emails and other miscellanea, as well as my unfortunately inconstant journal writing in order to verify the accuracy of the details. I had then started to and still now continue to collect as many records of the important events of my life as possible, bundled together in many stuffed folders and methodically organized computer files, for the possibility that someday, should some biographer (or autobiographer) wish to reconstruct my history, he will have ample and accurate material with which to work. For example, I know that the flight which took me from Chicago to Denver and will serve as the starting point for this history landed at 10:05 a.m. at Denver International Airport on August 22nd, 2011, but I will spare the reader such extraneous details heretofore and focus on the story.
In all truth I hadn’t really known Beatrice Smith that well. Though my parents, neighbors for some twenty-five years with her, had established a close acquaintance, most of my encounters with her had been in the context of spending time with her two grandchildren: Paul, the older (who was about my sister’s age) and Erica, the younger (born about a year after me). Paul and Erica would visit Mrs. Smith during summers, but, after one particularly ignominious incident between Erica and I, they ceased visiting and I tended to try and avoid Mrs. Smith.
My trip to Denver was originally planned as a short visit with my parents and my sister just before the beginning of school and not a chance to mourn the deceased. The funeral was a surprising intrusion on this trip, and only after I learned that my family would be attending the funeral, did I decide to join them.
My beautiful and voluptuous fiancé, Melinda, was persevering in her job search in Chicago, to which we had just moved, and thus was unable to join me in Denver.
She saw me off at Midway airport with a brief kiss and a “Goodbye,” asking me, “Will you miss me, Donovan?” just before I had to leave her behind at security.
I told her, “I’ll only be gone a few days.”
This brought to her face a sour expression, an expression I never liked to see and tried to avoid; so I told her, “Yes, I’ll miss you. And good luck finding a job.”
After a two and a half hour flight, I arrived at the Denver airport to the warm greetings of my parents and my older sister Elizabeth.
My sister radiated warmth as I rushed forward and hugged her first, bending down to grab her in my arms. She asked me, “How’s Melinda. I’m so disappointed she couldn’t come.” She had the sunny disposition she’d inherited from my mother, and I told her, “She wishes she could see you too. She’s doing good.”
I next bent down and hugged my mother, who asked me, “She’s not feeding you enough, is she? You look like you’ve lost a few pounds.”
“The life of a scholar is indifferent to food,” I told her, “We feed on the bread of books.”
She shook her head, and I embraced my grey-haired father, who soberly and respectably kept physical contact brief, and then looked at his watch, saying, “We got to move if we want to get the car out of parking in time.”
We talked animatedly the whole way home, chasing after many subjects in a flurry of excitement. At the house, I set down my bags in the old bedroom I’d for many years occupied as a youth, which was now a guest room and office. On the shelves and in the closet were some of my old things, little trinkets and baubles and sentimental reminders that I rather hadn’t wanted weighing me down in my several new homes since then. The window of the room looked out at Mrs. Smiths house, which had many cars parked in front of it, and people filling its innards and spilling out onto the front porch.
Only a few minutes after I arrived, the doorbell rang. I was down the stairs in a rush, as if I had been expecting someone. The man on the other side was tall, slender and pale. His face was grave and his dress was dour. He had a dark suit and a simple tie, but he smiled politely and offered a handshake, saying, “Let me guess. Donny? Right?” His face did seem familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “It’s Paul,” he said.
“Oh my!” I exclaimed, and pulled him towards me for a hug, which, as we were mere acquaintances, probably wasn’t quite merited, but seemed appropriate for the occasion. I told Paul that I went by “Donovan” now, and he nodded in approval. He then explained, “I saw the car pulling in, and thought I’d say hi.”
When my sister Elizabeth came to the top of the stairs and saw Paul, she stopped and looked on him amazed, saying, “When my mom said Paul was here, the image that popped into my mind was of the little twelve-year-old with his t-shirts and overalls.”
Paul watched my sister in her plain black dress walk down the stairs, and replied, “I guess you’re disappointed then. I’m no longer the adorable little boy.”
“Not at all,” Elizabeth smiled, now standing close to him, and extending her hand for a shake, “There’s no good in being a boy forever.”
“Though it might’ve been good to be a boy a few years longer,” I commented with a smile and a laugh, at my sister shook her head.
Paul filled us in on the details of the burial: “We’re going to leave in two hours, you can follow us. We’ll be going down to the Chapel Hill cemetery. There’ll be a reception afterwards at the house, and we’d love it if you could attend. Though, I’m sure you won’t know anyone but Erica and I.”
“Erica’s here?” I asked. Paul nodded.
I hadn’t really considered the possibility that I’d see Erica when I first made plans to come. I imagined what she’d now look like, tried to age forward my vague memories of her as I lingered in front of the mirror, carefully molding my hairstyle. I thought I was excited to see her because I wanted to know how she’d turned out, but, to be honest, I really wanted her to see and admire me — to see me as a man who’d grown up handsome and successful. The feeling of old friends envying how I’d turned out was appealing.
My family joined the slow procession of cars down to the cemetery, following near the back of the procession, with just the four of us in our cramped sedan. Behind the black hearse vehicle leading in the front, a whole string of perhaps twenty cars drove down the suburban streets behind it, cruising at a moderate pace. The motorcade followed the hearse through the several turn like a linked chain, one after another in succession.
Our windshield wipers swept away the rain that fell from a grey sky, and we had ominous fears of a rain-soaked burial, but fortunately we were mistaken. It cleared up when we arrived at the cemetery, and we stepped into the sunshine and tramped across the wet grass to the burial site.
The sad faces that congregated around the grave were numerous. Mrs. Smith had had many friends, of all ages, most near her age, but also many younger adults and their children with them. I thought to myself, I’d be pleased to have such a turnout at my funeral, though I doubt that I will.
While the sermonizing and eulogizing were going on in the background of my attention, I moved my eyes from face to face to observe the people. Most of them were composed and serious, a few streaming with lines of tears, a few bowed and silent.
When my eyes fell upon the twenty-something woman with short, blonde hair standing next to Paul, they lingered. She had big eyes and wide cheekbones across an oval face. She wore a dark red dress, with a black ribbon wrapped around the waist and a bold black bow on the front. The skirt of her dress flared out in a crinoline-supported bell shape, buttressed by layers of ruffles beneath it. The dress extended below the knees, but still seemed a bit short for such an occasion, especially with its low neckline, and lively colors. She looked around distractedly, impatiently, scanning the faces and the surroundings. I suspected that this was Erica.
She eventually saw me and stopped, once she noticed me staring at her. I turned away out of embarrassment, but she fixed her gaze on me, still looking at me when I looked back. She gave me a devilish smile, and then looked around furtively to see that no one had seen her. She then composed herself in a demeanor of solemn respect, which she only could hold for so long before she started to look bored again.
A prayer was given and a few people spoke up to give Mrs. Smith some final words. They spoke about what a kind and generous woman she was, how happy she was, how she gave to others with little thought to herself, and how she was so compassionate and understanding. Insofar as I knew her, this seemed accurate.
The rain started again when the burial was breaking up and all the people were returning to their cars. People started to hustle back quickly to keep their nice clothes dry, and I started to up my step, until an arm interlocked into mine from behind. I turned to see the woman in red smiling up at me with a sidelong glance. “Donny?” she asked casually.
“It’s Donovan now,” I corrected her, “and I’m guessing you’re Erica.”
“Very good! You were always quite the clever one, Donny, I mean, Donovan. Your family grows ‘em smart, don’t they?”
I laughed politely, then asked, “Don’t you want to get out of the rain? We can talk at the house,” while I started moving quickly towards the car.
“No hurry,” she said, and when I saw she wasn’t following me, I left her and hustled back to our car, where my parents and sister were already waiting. I looked back at Erica, who walked through the rain slowly, savoring the cool touch of the water and letting her dress become slowly drenched.
On the drive back, I asked my sister what she knew about Erica. Elizabeth said she didn’t know much since Paul was reluctant to talk about her. “Every time he mentions her she’s living in a different city and doing something different, if she’s doing anything at all, and always a new boyfriend to latch herself onto,” she said with some disdain. She then added, “I remember Paul mentioned once that his parents were enraged when she dropped out of college. I gather her relationship with her family is rather strained. I would recommend not asking questions about her to Paul, since I don’t think he’d be happy to talk about her.”
At the reception, the four of us kept close, since we knew nobody. I was talking with my sister about her work as a child counselor when Erica swept in, her hair wet and slicked back and her clothes still not quite dry. She grabbed my hand, and pulled me away, saying to my sister, “I’ll take him off your hands for a little while, if you don’t mind.” I apologized to my sister for leaving her alone amongst strangers and told her I’d be back in a few minutes.
Erica led me around the house without speaking, waving pleasantly to people here and there that she passed. When she arrived at a certain closed door, she asked me, “Do you remember where this goes?”
I nodded my head, remembering this door, which led into the basement, vividly. She looked around cautiously before she opened the door and pulled me inside, closing it just as quickly.