The Most Obvious Place

21 October 2010

Just after we arrived at St. Gregory’s, my mother said that I should see my older brother in his coffin so that I’d know for sure that he was dead. She sat me down in a pew and explained that for years after her own brother’s death her mind had played tricks on her. “The times I saw Alan on the street, at the beach, in Central Park, on the subway… It was terrible. Then, when I’d rush up to him, I’d see it was only a man who looked like him.” In disgust, she added, “Sometimes not even that. All that misery, all those ghosts, because I never saw my brother dead.”

“But I don’t want to see Harold dead,” I said. “People are different. You needed to, I don’t.”

“You have to!” she said threateningly. “I’m telling you, you have to.”

“No! It’s enough I’m here for the funeral.”

She scoffed. “The funeral is nothing. It’s just the beginning.”

“I’m not looking at him. End of discussion!”

But the casket was open and his nose was pointing up like a bird’s beak. I said to myself that whatever was in there wasn’t going to look like him. But it did. Except for his texture; his face looked like wax dusted with fine powder.

The funeral was held on April 17, 1987. Since that date, I’ve never mistaken anyone on the street for Harold. No ghosts have appeared either.

Instead of being content about it, as my mother though I’d be, I’ve always been disappointed.

She was right, however, about the funeral being just the beginning. Whenever I’d visit her, I’d sit for hours in the bedroom that I’d shared with my brother as a kid. Sometimes, I’d lie back and stare at the ceiling and wonder what had gone wrong. How does someone only thirty-two years old get a fatal disease and end up in a cemetery 70 miles from our old house, in the middle of nowhere?

On these trips home, I’d spend most of my time visiting my brother’s old hangouts. I’d always look around, half expecting to see him.

“Believe me, it’s for the best that you don’t,” my mom assured me once, about two years after the funeral. “So stop torturing yourself waiting.”

“Sometimes I can’t remember what he looked like,” I replied. When she looked at me sceptically, I said, “I can’t. Not really. He’s disappeared.”

“You have photographs,” she replied.

I let the silence accumulate between us because we both knew that I was talking about an internal image that had somehow dissipated.

She took my hands. “It’s scary coming face to face with a dead person,” she told me.

“I accept that, but just a glimpse would be nice.”

Another seven years passed. Just a week ago I finished my second novel. It’s not really about Harold, but if you read between the lines…

Last night, I got up to go to the bathroom at three in the morning. I flipped on the light. And there he was staring back at me from the mirror above the sink. “Harold,” I said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to greet him.

Then I grew frightened; I remembered that he was dead. Yet there he was: his thin face, his dark, knowing eyes, his curly hair.

We stared at each other for a long time; after all my searching, he’d been hiding in the most obvious place all along.

Michael Fieni