Right when I got the news that Alvin had died, I told Max that I wasn’t going back to Birmingham for the funeral. I am not a hypocrite. My younger sister JoAnne is the one who called, blubbering the whole time, and her unashamed display of grief put me off further as she spun the details of his passing. I sat up in bed, with the phone’s earpiece squashed between my left ear and collarbone, and with Max’s head, buoyed by pillows, touching the small of my back. I turned the lamp on, which I never do, because I wanted to be certain that I was not dreaming. Max is my husband of forty-two years, and he has shared my displeasure of Alvin Hubbard since our childhoods together. But when he heard my little yelp of glee once the reality of Alvin’s demise had sunk in, he cautioned me to maintain cordiality with JoAnne—and also to go. This he did—right after I had told her no—by stroking my back gently with his good arm; when I turned around to kiss him on the forehead, the right side of his face—the side that still functioned—was animate with displeasure, the way a baby’s face minces when food tastes too sour.
“Oo shuh go,” he said in a whisper that could not have been heard by JoAnne.
Apparently waiting for me to change my mind, JoAnne added, “Petie will be there. And Helen will so want to see you! Please?”
Helen is Alvin’s second wife, who no doubt is consumed by grief, and with whom I get along fairly well. Petie is our younger sister, who has suffered more calamitously than either JoAnne or I, but who carries in her big heart the soldier-on spirit of the Confederacy, and is a kind of adventuress, having learned to pilot a plane in her sixties!
Max’s urging shrank to a simple “Go.”
I must remember to tell JoAnne how delicious her blueberry pancakes are.
Anyway, once I had reluctantly agreed, there was no stopping JoAnne. “Katherine, can you believe it? He was only seventy-four!” For JoAnne, who had been a lifelong optimist and—not coincidentally—an admirer of Alvin’s, seventy-four is young. She is seventy-three herself. I am only four years older, but I don’t think it’s optimistic to think of seventy-anything as young; it’s just foolishness. I’m hoping to go on to the century mark myself, but the fact of it is, we are old. Houses crumble after seventy-five years.
JoAnne says I am a pessimist because I am the older sister. It’s true I’ve always felt older, and wiser, than JoAnne. I also figured out Alvin’s game early on, though there was nothing I could do about it. Most of us grow up considering the consequences of our actions, pausing to reflect upon ethical considerations, like might this or that act result in harm, or have an unhappy consequence for another person. While we’re all pausing and reflecting—that’s when people like Alvin step in. Over and over again, Alvin just, well, acted, and built up a kind of momentum; admired as much for that—misdiagnosed as determination!—as for his actual deeds. Only death can stop someone like that.
“It seems only yesterday we were all in high school together,” said JoAnne, while I wondered how soon I could hang up on her. I looked over at Max’s face, whose right side had returned to a relaxed state. He had fallen back asleep. Raindrops began pelting our bedroom windows, and mercifully provided a needed distraction. “There was Alvin, and you, and me, and Max, and Charlie, and Petie.”
Petie’s seventy now. Petie and Charlie were once beaus, starting in grade school, even though Charlie was three years older, JoAnne’s age. Me and Max were an item since the summer between ninth and tenth grade, when he first kissed me. Max was brainy, with no athletic ability—unlike all the other boys I had dated—but he was reckless, and would try anything. He was the only one to take up Alvin’s dare to climb the eighty-foot tall water tower behind Charlie’s house. Before he started the climb, he told me that he wasn’t scared because he knew he could do his life’s work even if he was paralyzed in a fall. This seemed to me a terribly romantic notion, which I enhanced by saying, You can’t do your life’s work if you’re killed. He said, laughing, Well, then it wouldn’t matter, would it? I said it would to me, Max Stewart. He grabbed me by the shoulders and kissed me. That pretty much did me in, though at the time it didn’t feel sexual, just powerful. After ten years or so of wondering why I wasn’t falling in love with any of the real good-looking, sexy men who kept throwing themselves at my feet, I married Max. I was grateful he was still around.
I do not remember how I managed to end the conversation with JoAnne, but I know that if I don’t push this plate away, I will explode. That’s how good these pancakes are. Now, where was I? Oh yes.
This morning I am going, as they say, to pay my final respects—not the right word for it—and I feel compelled to review my feelings toward Alvin, rather than ignore them as I have for so many years.
All through high school Alvin and JoAnne dated. Alvin told everyone he figured he’d marry JoAnne. JoAnne, though secretly pleased at Alvin’s single-minded pursuit of her, kept her options open, which was wise because once he had gone off to college up north (Traitor! said my father) at the University of Massachusetts, she did not see him again for five years, until just after he’d enlisted in the Air Force. He was by then engaged to a girl he’d met in New York City, who was from Boston, named Arlene Adams, and who was a millionairess.
As things worked out, JoAnne ended up marrying Charlie, and Petie, bless her heart, never found anyone to replace him. Her standards were high, and still are. Petie and Charlie figured out they were too much like brother and sister. That was Petie’s explanation. I think, however, that JoAnne turned twenty-three the year Alvin and Arlene were married, and she threw herself at Charlie—pursuing him the summer between Petie’s junior and senior year of college, when she was off in the Colorado Rockies helping to restore the Continental Divide alongside other young idealists—with a single-mindedness she must have picked up from Alvin. I know for a fact that she got him in bed and more or less tore the hinges from their mountings, as they say, and just like that Charlie and Petie were history.