When Donna asked me to come to far-flung Aberdare, I thought about the trees in the nighttime – those burnt-bone-looking monsters that made folks huddle together.
In the old days, we’d gather around fires at night, all facing the fire, and, incidentally, each other, and we’d speak. When you see the trees at night, you don’t really see them. The trees’ bark wrinkles like used tissue paper, and catches no starlight. I thought about those trees, darker than space, and I wondered why she was still living there.
Aberdare is the home of my Grandmother’s graveyard. She attended the church in Aberdare, though no one from Aberdare did. Aberdare was not a town, but a township, a twisting mass of homes in the middle of nowhere. About twenty-five homes and a church all huddled together, as if for warmth, and nothing else besides.
I grew up on my Grandparents’ land, just outside the huddle. My father collected rusting cars in the front yard. We used to play in the gold-soaked streetlights and gravel lanes.
Donna and I used to play “Family Mystery.” She was a pastor’s daughter. She’d be the mother, I’d be the father, and our dogs and siblings played the children. We’d head down a granduncle’s long driveway and swing on a long rope in the barn. What I wouldn’t give for a barn. What would my city friends think if I acquired a barn? They’d probably expect me to put in a movie screen or some other coffee-infused nonsense. They’d probably expect a wine-tasting tour of the countryside. They don’t know what it’s like. They never got to play as a family or own a dog, or see a cow outside of field trips.
Donna is dead, it seems.
My hand runs up the licorice-twisted iron handrails outside of Donna’s house. Donna’s sister – my play-acted daughter – stands in the doorway, staring me down like I’ve just told a rotten joke.
Donna told me to come. Rather, now that I think about it, now that I’ve flown two-thousand miles to come see her, she didn’t actually tell me to come. Some words on a screen told me to visit her. An email and some text messages suggested it. She – the messages, rather – said that, if I came, she’d show me a night out in Findlay. Bowling, I presume, and oily food.
Her sister worries that I’ve come all this way for nothing. Of course not. Riding first class may as well cost me bus tokens. I’m a big deal now, though Donna’s sister doesn’t seem to know it. I can forgive that, since, faraway as I am, the great tides of my success have yet to trouble the picture these people must still hold of me. They must still think me seventeen, and limping from the biking accident, just as I thought of Donna as young, beautiful, and alive.
Would I like to go see her, two towns over? Why, yes. I’ve come all this way.
I begin to remember why God invented headlights. In my city night, you can read a newspaper with sunglasses on. Downtown, eyelids turn a translucent red when you close them, which you never do. But out here, the stars shine, and there is no light. I begin to crave this old air. I begin to breathe in the particulate: the grey ash, the red soil, the goldenrod dust in the combines’ wake.
Get that yellow alley-light out of your head. She’s dead.
The parking is marvelous.
We walk the long narrow path to the funeral home. The grass is long and electric-blue, and my ratty shoes squeak like rats in the silent midnight hour. I’ve only showed mild surprise until now. Perhaps this is some sort of joke Donna played on me.
The director of the home is also the mortician. He has no qualms in showing me the body, not even at this late hour, with or without appointment. We make our way to the back, and the director flicks on the old yellow lights hanging from the gaudy chandelier.
Donna’s casket has two sets of hinges, and we open the top half of the casket. This door reveals the torso, arms, and head. I feel a kind of claustrophobic dread. Her legs are trapped.
No one can explain to me why Donna was speaking to me after she died. Perhaps, they muse, someone has cracked her passwords, gotten hold of an unlocked phone or something.
Mind you, I haven’t cried since my brother’s wedding.
The flaxen glow of the room reminds me of bonfires and streetlights. How her face would turn, in the old light, into something unnatural-smooth, like a teacup or polished ring. We weren’t right for one another. We’d agreed on that. But we’d made a pact, regardless. At thirty, we’d settle for one another.
I’m thirty, now. I’d been waiting for her to settle, I think. I’d wanted so badly for her pact to come true.
Tonight, I recall the roaming in far-flung alleyways, the dancing in distant, lonely lots, where I and she were alone. Oh, to be distant from everyone but you.
The houses in the township huddle together around nothing in particular. I stay at Donna’s house, in her old room. I can afford a hotel – it may as well cost bus tokens, after all. But still… one needed to be close to another in the night, when trees were black as coal.
Paul Yoder is the writer of several unpublished novels, which he’s always hoping to un-unpublish. Get in touch at linkedin.com/in/paul-yoder-91556640.