On the Bookshelf: Expiation by Greg Messel

From Chapter 1

I’m picking up a woman at my mother’s funeral because I think she looks hot in black.

Actually it is much, much more. Katie is my long-lost love. I had wondered if I would ever see her again. The way she looks now is beyond my most optimistic fantasy about how middle-age would descend on Katie. Her blonde hair is still blonde, but shorter, trimmed just below her jaw line. The Katie of my youth always had long blonde hair, which bounced freely in the carefree days of our love. Sometimes she had her hair pulled back in a ponytail which, because of her diminutive size, made her look about 13 years old when we were seniors in high school.

Her face was still beautiful, and her sparkling green eyes still looked the same as when I’d stared into them on Friday night dates or at the beach. There were more lines on her face but she actually looked better than ever. Speaking of lines on your face…is Katie sitting back there taking the same physical inventory of me that I’m taking of her?

Is she thinking, “Wow, what happened?” Is she thinking, “Someone has really had a hard life…or maybe he was in some kind of deforming car accident or fire.” I hope I look anything close to as good as she looks. Do I look fat to her? Is she thinking—“I wonder what he has been doing for the past thirty years? Apparently eating!”

I was just over six feet tall and weighed about 170 pounds last time Katie saw me. I no longer weighed 170, but more like 200. My sandy-colored hair was now starting to be speckled with signs of gray.

I need to snap out of it and get back into my mother’s funeral. I wonder why Katie came. Was it to see me? Or am I delusional and she was closer to my mother than I realized? Why did Katie choose this moment to reappear after all of these years? Does this mean she is still interested in me? Could it be? She appeared glad to see me. Who is that guy sitting by her? Is that her husband? Oh, no, I bet it is her husband. Maybe he came to kick my butt because of the way I treated his sweet wife.

Wait, what kind of guy comes to a funeral to beat up his wife’s former boyfriend? Oh, no. I suddenly bent over with both hands covering my face. I then realized that the congregation must have thought I was suddenly overwhelmed with grief.

How could I be doing this to my sweet mother? When I removed my hands from my face, Diane gave me a sympathetic glance and wiped tears from her eyes with a Kleenex. Raymond leaned around Diane and frowned at me as if to say, “What the hell are you doing?”

I tried to put my funeral-face back on and get into the event at hand. Suddenly, as I pulled myself back into the moment and tried to forget about Katie for a minute, I heard “amen and amen” then organ music began. It was over. I don’t remember a single thing about my own mother’s funeral because I was obsessing about Katie. I’m so confused by the sudden unexpected intersection of two divergent events—my mother’s funeral and the startling reappearance of my long lost Katie.

I felt sadness and extreme excitement all at once, which was short circuiting my ability to think rationally. Amid my complete disorientation I heard the clergyman say, “Will the congregation please rise.” Whoa, it’s time to leave. I had to find some way to secure Katie so she wouldn’t suddenly disappear from the funeral and again from my life.

We began the slow march down the aisle to accompany my mother out of the church, to the hearse and then to her final resting place. If my mother is looking on these proceedings she must be rolling her eyes and shaking her head. She must be thinking, “Couldn’t my Daniel give one hour to listen to my funeral? He didn’t seem very sad that I’m gone.”

“Diane and Raymond behaved with dignity but of course Daniel has to be the different one,” she’s telling my father as they are looking down on the final tribute.

My eyes met Katie’s as I proceeded out of the church. As I walked by her I extended my hand and said, “Come with me.” She took my hand and complied. The trio was now a foursome accompanying my mother’s body out of the church. My brother and sister shot me puzzled glances and nodded to Katie. She smiled an uncomfortable smile and tried to not be noticed by the large crowd in the church. I held on to Katie’s hand as we descended the church steps behind the six pallbearers who now lifted the coffin off the wheeled cart. It has been a long time since I’ve held Katie’s hand. She’s letting me do it. I turned and whispered, “Can you come to the cemetery with me?” She discreetly nodded.

How uncomfortable is this moment? I’m asking a woman, “Could you go with me to bury my mother and then we can go do something, okay? Get some coffee, grab something to eat.” This is not at all how I pictured finding Katie again. It’s not how I pictured behaving at my mother’s funeral either. I panicked. I wasn’t much of a church-goer but I am sure there were nice things said about my wonderful mother at her funeral. Too bad I was obsessing about the return of Katie and how I must find a way to not let her out of my sight again–maybe never again.

She followed me to the waiting limousine which would transport the family to the cemetery. Raymond, Diane, Katie and I were in the front limo. Their spouses and my mother’s grandchildren followed in the second long, steel-gray limo. Raymond and Diane were trying to be polite and not cause a scene as they sat in the seat facing Katie and me. All I could think of to say was “You both remember Katie don’t you?”

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