“How Kind of You to Come”

Paint brushes, Creative Commons

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve forgotten her face. It’s become a disordered collage: the slope of a nose, the curve of a lip, a glow of brown eyes. Memory no longer assembles them into a face.

So I paint everything else. Her front door. The in-between coat she wore in autumn. Her beagle. The mums that grew in her yard. The grackles that flocked around her at the bus stop. Her clarinet case. Her long, sequined prom gown. Her boyfriend’s motorcycle. The instruments of her destruction.

I paint some nights until two or three, until my eyes are too heavy to see the canvas, and fall asleep a few steps from the easel. Often I wake still clutching a paintbrush caked with prom-dress blue, motorcycle green, chrysanthemum purple.

My paintings look nothing like the objects that surrounded her. I obliterate my attempts with gesso and begin anew. My canvases are thick with failure.

Do you understand how cruel Halloween is to the haunted? We need no midnight on which the stone wall dividing the living from the dead thins to a whisper. When is it ever more substantial? Not even on the brightest noon of summer. Not for me.

Costumes, too, unsettle me. Every day of my life, I’m forced to conceal my naked despair in the disguise of a man at peace, someone who was less than a footnote in the story of her life, someone who barely remembers the girl in the brick Cape Cod up the street who slept in the dormer beneath the white awning. Children eat ghost shaped-cookies and masquerade as dead and undead things. I remind myself again and again not to take it personally.

This is the ninth Halloween night I’ll walk the streets searching for her face, wherever it may be hiding, in light or shadow, among the living or the dead, in case there is something to this ancient festival, after all. Maybe she will let me glimpse her through the veil this year, and if she does, I swear to God I won’t forget this time. I’ll paint her portrait, hang it on my wall, and let her go, at last. I’ll throw away the easel and the paints and get some sleep. Try to go on dates. See a therapist. Take up running. Join a club. A religion. Something. Anything.

I dress in my annual costume–a black frock coat and top hat with white make-up applied to my face and hands, a bearded ghost from the past. I leave it to others to guess which one.

The night is warm for this time of year, and damp. Downtown is alive with crowds and color. Every shop is decorated and open late. Costumed employees stand outside, cupping handfuls of candy to trick or treaters. A few shops invite people in for wine, mulled cider, and doughnuts. The largest art gallery in town is dark within, save for spotlights on the paintings (even the worst of which is several orders of magnitude better than my best efforts) and a disco ball tossing blades of light onto a dancing crowd of ghouls and superheroes.

“Hey, Abe Lincoln!” a voice drawls. “Hail to the chief!”

I turn toward the voice and my tongue turns to ice.

Her face. There it is.

I’ve taken so many photographs of strangers over the years, sure I had her, finally. But this girl is it. The roundness in her cheeks. The narrowness and wit of her eyes. Even her long brown hair. I must stay calm. I can’t scare her off.

“Vote for Honest Abe! He’s your man!” I say. “So what are you? A little Victorian girl ghost?”

She laughs. “Oh my God! Everybody keeps saying that! No one knows who I really am!”

Wrong, I want to tell her. I know exactly who you are. Instead I say, “Who are you?”

She throws her arms out to give me a better look at her full-skirted black dress and white pinafore. She gestures with her long-necked beer bottle toward the floppy black satin bow in her hair. She shows me her stuffed white rabbit. I shrug.

“I’m ALICE!” she cackles.

“Alice in Wonderland?”

“Duh!”

“But doesn’t she wear blue?”

She rolls her eyes and punches my arm. “I’m GOTH Alice! Get it?”

I tell her I knew it all along. An idea occurs to me. “Do you know our costumes are connected?” I ask.

“Oh yeah? Was Abraham Lincoln friends with Alice in Wonderland?”

“No, but they have 1865 in common.”

“Whaddaya mean?” She tries to focus on me, but her eyes skip around the dark.

“Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, the same year Lincoln was assassinated.” I have no idea if this is true.

She punches my arm again. “Get. OUT!”

I assure her it’s true, and reach for the phone inside my vest pocket to check.

She giggles. “I believe you.”

I consider the phone as if just getting the idea. “Hey, we should take a picture together! Abe and Alice, 1865.”

“Alice and Abe! 1865 LIVES, baby!”

I line our faces up inside the rectangle, making sure to capture all of hers. But just as I touch the button, Wonder Woman grabs her hand and pulls Alice’s ear close to her mouth. Alice jerks away from me and dissolves with her friend into the crowd. She is gone, down the rabbit hole.

I try to part the clusters of revelers, calling the only name I have for her. Twenty minutes later, I give up. She’s gone, and with her, my hope of letting the dead rest.

It’s two by the time I arrive home, freezing, my fingers stiff as I tap the picture of my top-hatted face grazing a black bow on chestnut hair. I rub my hands together until they are thawed enough to hold a pencil, and I try to draw the face from memory. But it’s only what I’ve always had: the lip, the nose, the color. That long, wavy hair I never got to touch.

If she’d ever looked me full in the face for a long moment even once, I wouldn’t need to do this. Her face would be marble in my memory. If she’d been mine, I’d have a portrait, or a photo booth strip of the two of us making silly faces, or maybe a snapshot at the beach.

Her mother didn’t recognize me at the wake. She shook my hand politely and thanked me for coming until her husband whispered in her ear. “Ohhhhh, the Harper boy from down the street! But you’re quite a few years older than–. I mean, did you even know–? Well, it doesn’t matter now, does it? How kind of you to come.” I could hardly ask her for a picture. Not then.


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