A guy I once knew shared something precious with me one night. He’s dead now. Lived a good long life. Within a year after I met him, his wife up and died. She hadn’t been sick; at least no one knew of any medical problems she might or might not have had. One day living a carefree, retired life; the next, being dressed and coifed at the undertaker’s.
The guy was crushed, naturally. He’d married his wife when he was in the army. A Korea vet. He never looked back. Now, whether or not the wife was altogether thrilled, lo those many years, is an unanswerable question. But she remained wed to him so one might suspect she found the situation at least tolerable.
Anyway, a few weeks after the funeral, the guy came back to the saloon where I met him. Everybody bought him drinks and hugged him or patted him on the back. The night was his. He pulled out a pile of snapshots of his wife and began showing them off to the rest of us, one by one. That is, he’d get each of us alone and share the pix. Finally, it was my turn.
By the time he got to me, he was well fortified. He could hold his liquor quite well and, that night, his capacity to process alcohol was put to the test. Let’s say his pain had been abated for the time being.
As he showed me the photos, he’d linger over this Christmas scene or that birthday or one of the kids’ graduation parties, the kid in cap and gown standing between the guy and his wife, everybody beaming. Once or twice I got the idea he might start crying. Considering we were in a bar in Kentucky where a grown man crying might be grounds for ejection, I wondered how things might play out. But he never did cry, although I’d bet his pillow was soaked later that night.
So, the pictures kept coming. We came to one that, frankly, jarred me. His wife half-sat, half-lay provocatively across their living room sofa, wearing only a negligee. Or maybe it was a teddy or a baby doll. I just tried looking each of the terms up and I still can’t tell one from the other. All I know is what she was wearing was sheer and lacy and it wasn’t some full length thing, if that’ll help you.
I think I may have actually recoiled a bit, not as if I’d seen a poisonous snake but, say, a half dozen one-ounce gold bars in his hand. It wasn’t so much frightening as…, well, odd. He noticed how disconcerted I was. “It’s alright,” he said, as if he figured I needed permission to continue looking at the photo.
What does one say in a situation like that? All I could think of was, “She was beautiful.”
The guy grinned in a way that told me for a brief moment he was happy just to remember how beautiful his wife was and how great it felt to have another guy confirm it. Guys are like that. They need reassurance from each other about such things. Don’t ask me why.
“She sure was,” the guy said. And then he fell into something of a trance, staring at the picture. I understood why, yet it remained an uncomfortable moment for me. Perhaps, I mused silently, he might better indulge in this alone.
Then, he seemed to snap out of it. He grinned again and looked me in the eye. “We had a lot of fun,” he said.
I don’t recall if there were more pictures. I was just touched by that remark. Here was a man mourning his wife. He was pushing 75, relatively vigorous but, nevertheless, a septuagenarian. You wouldn’t have mistaken him for a younger man. She was about the same age when she died. That picture of her in her negligee or nightie or whatever had been taken decades before. I’d bet that little sheer, lacy thing had sat, neatly folded, in her bottom drawer for a long, long time. Or, maybe not. Whatever, had she worn the thing the night before she died, she certainly wouldn’t have resembled the younger version of herself in the picture.
Yet, in that guy’s mind, she’d forever be a young, thirty-something beauty. His eyes were moist. I watched him hold that picture in his big, meaty, weathered hands, carefully, as if it were a fledging bird. He was thinking, remembering. He didn’t have to tell me what was going on in his head. I knew it.
Some other person might have interpreted his remark — We had a lot of fun — differently. That person might have thought it offensive or inappropriate or even an insult to his wife’s memory.
Me? I just saw a man who’d lived a good long time and was lucky enough to have found the love of his life early on, one who still looked ravishing in his eyes even though she was old as the hills. And he wasn’t at all ashamed to say so.