By Paul Saevig
They all met each other at the front of the church, the friends from elementary and high school. In the morning sunlight they embraced, kissed, held hands. With the respect required by a funeral service, they talked about old times when this church was new, without the noise of traffic north over the hill to La Habra. The woman wore severe suits of blue and black, or fashionable slacks and jackets, and everyone judged them for lost youth and retained beauty. The men wore dark suits, sports jackets and slacks, a few only dress shirts and good pants. They all stood under the cloudless sky in groups of three, four and five, and conversation turned to families, places of residence since they last talked, and retirement. Of course, it was no fun at all to attend a funeral, but they would make the best of it. Several dozen of them were there.
When it was time to enter the church, the classmates filed inside quietly and took seats in pews toward the middle of the sanctuary, so as to allow family members and closer friends their priority. Girlfriends seventy years old squeezed together four in a row, holding hands, eyes forward. The men sat with or near wives, first or second or later, and with their teammates from boyhood and teenaged sports. They were all accustomed to funeral services now, with deep knowledge of previous sadness. The men scanned the walls and ceiling of the church, the windows and the pulpit, near the sky where they’d played Over The Line by day and drank beer by night, kissed the girls who became their wives, learned to drive on the sylvan streets when the town was small and quiet. The women in church were more attentive to the service as they listened and took on the regretful faces of mourners, some with lace handkerchiefs in their laps. Their keenness did not prevent them from noticing every detail in the clothing and manner of everyone there, the relationships, the new spouses, the elderly not long for this world, the offspring and whether they resembled their family lines, and most of all the abundance of strangers, later residents of their little town, people they’d never seen or met. An observer needed to look quickly and closely to see the women as they exchanged meaningful looks perfected in meaning since they were little girls in kindergarten.
When the wife broke into tears, assisted by daughters from left and right, the classmate women watched in profound empathy, and in the family circle of the first few pews, observed latter-day and more recent women from their own college sororities. As for the men, soon bored, who checked their watches in stealth and tried not stare at the pretty young girls present, the reality of death itself found them uncomfortable and apt to shuffle their feet on the church floor. They were business owners, engineers, real estate brokers, attorneys, dentists, physicians, surgeons, architects, a vintner, a retired drywall specialist, software designers, plumbers, salesmen and others with undetermined careers. They evaluated each other’s wives and girlfriends judiciously and not without envy, for the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, as they say. The wives and husbands each remembered old alliances, slights, feuds, spats and reconciliations, moments of appalling drunkenness for some, tender kisses, fumbling in sin, baseball home runs, bicycle races up and down the hillsides, parties, parents long gone, opportunities lost. Their memories streamed through them as if by gale force wind, until they lunged back by effort into the moment and blinked at the light.
The pastor, eloquent enough, nevertheless droned to them, and yes, the male and female classmates had in many instance been lovers, not all, but some. Time had not extinguished their ardor, only brought the flames low. Each one of them ached with longing at the sight of one or more other, and knew in faint melancholy resolution that only death itself would end their yearning.
Hymns were sung, prayers invoked, testimonials offered to the kindness and worthiness of the deceased. By now the classmates smiled at each other, as if to say, “Good to see you again!” and “We’re almost through!” and “You look great!”, and even a furtive “I wish I had you in a cabana right now!” and “Take me right now, you big stallion!” There were tootles and muffles of suppressed laughter, and kicking reminders to be quiet and behave. These classmates were no longer young but they had not forfeited their savor for life and each other.
The service concluded. In proportion to their relation to the deceased, the mourners remained with the spouse and children, or started tentatively out, or departed in polite boldness. In the parking lot, they arranged seating in the most roomy cars, old friends ready to gossip and laugh, men eager to careen at high speeds, others to drive by houses where they’d lived. The cemetery was five miles distant and they had one hour, enough for a six pack of Corona shared on a shady side street with jacarandas in bloom, or a trip to use the bathroom at an old friend’s house. Some loosened their ties, others smoked joints, a few rode up to the lake and the corral to see the horses. By the appointed hour, they reconvened at the cemetery. Already it appeared to some that a tryst or two had been planned, an assumption met with disgust, envy or indifference. It would not be the first time.
Most of them had family buried in these sanctified grounds. They’d been here from time to time all their lives. What seemed another formality became an urgent wish to leave and get over it all. Only the most ceremonial of the classmates relaxed to watch the burial service. Most of them scanned the horizons once bare with brown and green hills, patches of orange groves glistening green in the sun, and unbound promise everywhere. They were tired now and thirsty. They all had so much to do at home, even if it was only golf or watering in the garden. A few of them looked around and calculated they’d never see some friends again. When they caught each other’s eyes, they willed themselves not to weep. They wanted to say they loved each other, that time had passed too fast, that they were sorry for not being better friends. The lumps in their throats blocked their words.
Their relief at the end of the burial stunned them all into mild euphoria. Once more they offered consolation and handshakes to the bereaved, and tried not to look hurried on their way to their own cars. Enough.
In the infallible way groups of friends decide, their destination became Giovanni’s Pizza, founded in 1955 when the friends were saplings in the little town of groves. Off came coats, jackets, ties, scarves, dress shoes to be replaced by sneakers, and their spirit turned festive. They sang bars of songs from their day, and laughed at their errant pitch.
Gray teenagers again, with arthritis, hairpieces, breast enhancements, pacemakers, ski-wrecked knees, and sore backs, they got out of their cars and went inside the hallowed door again. They ordered pepperoni pizza of immense size, what seemed buckets of Coca Cola, perspiring bottles of beer, and crammed into leatherette booths as if they were back from the beach.
Who was the brunette in the mauve bolero jacket and skirt?
Was the minister the son or grandson of our old civics teacher?
Was that our old piano teacher?
What about that old geezer who kept staring at our boobs?
Did you see those darling twins with little sailor suits?
Funeral services can be too long, you know?
Did you notice the sister in law who looked just like my cousin at Fullerton High?
That niece must have put on her makeup with a trowel!
The classmates competed to see who could eat the pizza in the most dainty fashion. Matronly women insisted they were suited after half a piece. Florid-faced men forbidden to touch pasta picked at their salads and dreamed of beer and pizza busts of yore. More wine and beer came. Discussions became more specific: real estate, orthopedic surgeons, tours to China and Brazil, facial peels, fishing spots in Idaho, precious metal markets, new resorts opening in Hawaii and Fiji, classmates who were ill. They pushed their plates aside and talked.
When 3 o’clock came, the mood turned bittersweet, tempered by promises to get together soon. A cardiovascular surgeon’s wife had already arranged to pay for everybody’s lunch, and they stepped out onto the asphalt feeling logy and tired. There would be reunions to come, but any more they’re uncertain. A few of the women daubed at their eyes.
One pretty blonde woman with a good haircut moved close to her high school best girlfriend, a voluptuous green-eyed clubwoman from Montecito.
“Was the man who died Herbie’s brother?” the blonde asked.
“No relation! I’d never heard of him myself,” the clubwoman answered pleasantly enough, and moved on.
The first women stood bemused and gazed vacantly west across Euclid. After a moment, she heard her husband’s voice behind her, and turned to reach his forest green Volvo.
It was good to see all the old kids again.