I didn’t go anywhere. There are people who know how to pick a lock and hotwire a car when faced with a sudden enforced lack of mobility; I am not one of them. I need my keys. The missing keys set off a two hour frenzied hunt/panic attack, during which I retraced my entire morning and searched everything and everywhere I’d been and liberally used most of the profane, scatological, blasphemous, and obscene epithets available to the annoyed English speaker faced with such a crisis. Neither the search nor the billingsgate helped me find my keys, and now I was hungry as well, so I went down to the deli for a turkey sandwich. And there, on the shelf next to the bagels and some small packets of Russian dressing, were my keys. I don’t remember putting the keys down on the counter and leaving without them, although that’s what I must have done, but I took the keys and dropped them in my pocket and then, for some reason, I checked the time. The time was 2:35pm, those numbers forming a Fibonacci sequence, as any serious math student can tell you, on Thursday, November 1st, 2007, at which point, if the newspaper account is correct, Carla was about five minutes away from the accident that ended her life.
Carla was nineteen and an art student and as tall as I am, almost, which she did to make me feel old. She always laughed when I told her that, and I knew she was laughing to be polite; even a running gag gets old quickly, but she never let on that it was time for me to come up with something new. She was a little self-conscious about being almost six feet tall at age thirteen; kids that age don’t want to be different from their friends in any way; and when I told her later to stop smoking, she was going to stunt her growth, her usual reply was, too late, and that she already had a mother, thank you.
She laughed at me a lot. The first time, I remember, was at the library. Her grandmother Carmen worked at the library then; she was our bilingual clerk and thought, for reasons I’m not sure I fathom to this day, that I would make an ideal son in law. The trouble with this idea is one familiar to any student of economics: the supply of daughters did not match the demand. In short, all three were already taken, which did not trouble me too much; being a good son in law requires no small degree of personal aptitude for the job and a fair number of diplomatic skills, skills and aptitude I lack in more or less equal abundance. Carla’s mother Julie came in carrying her one day; she needed to speak to Carmen about something or other; I forget the details, if I ever knew them, since they were speaking in Spanish and what little Spanish I know I picked up from John Wayne movies; any conversation that goes much beyond dos cervezas, por favor, or adios, amigo leaves me totally out of my depth. Carla was six or seven months old then and Julie laid her down flat on her back on the front desk, where Carla frowned at me like a bank examiner inspecting a fishy set of books. There were some people waiting to check their materials out and I announced that the library was now checking out infants for one week and toddlers for two, but due to the high demand, the library could not renew these items at this time. Thinking of it now, it doesn’t seem terribly funny, but people laughed, and I suppose because other people laughed Carla smiled and chortled as well. That was the first time.
In my memory, Carla was always happy, except for one Halloween where I made an unkind wisecrack about her Indian princess costume that she heard and sent her crying to her mother. I felt like a louse, as well I should, but by Christmas, all was forgiven. I think one reason why I remember her this way is that I saw her most often at Christmas time, when all children are giddy with anticipation. Christmas was especially exciting for Carla, because there was more of it for her; after the nine o’clock Spanish language Mass on Christmas Eve, there would be tons of gifts to open at her grandmother’s house. And she’d laugh at me when I said she was going to get into trouble, double dipping into Santa’s bag like that. She was in la pastorela too, the annual Christmas pageant put on by the children of the parish, once, if I remember this correctly, as the Blessed Virgin, and the second time as the angel who holds the Star of Bethlehem over the manger. She looked incredibly happy at being the center of attention as she walked slowly down the center aisle of St. John’s while the choir sang soft Spanish hymns and the priest read the Gospel story of the birth of Christ, with the little boy playing the part of St. Joseph trailing after her and looking as though he’d rather be almost anywhere else on this planet than the center aisle of St. John's Church.
That was then. The last time I saw Carla was in the middle of the street during the annual Hat Parade in May. She was still almost as tall as I am and she still laughed when I told her she was doing it to make me feel old. She was excited too; she had a new apartment and she enjoyed her classes at art school, so things were going pretty good for her. We said some other things, the usual pleasantries you say when you haven’t seen someone for awhile; I forget what right off the top of my head, and she laughed again and said, see you. I’m pretty sure I said so long, and I think I told her to enjoy her weekend. And then we went our separate ways. I never saw her again.
On Ash Wednesday, Roman Catholics go to Mass and receive an ashen mark on their foreheads from the priest, who intones, as he makes the Sign of the Cross on the believer’s forehead, remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return. It is a reminder of our common and inevitable mortality, but says nothing of the how and when and why we die. Still less does it explain the death of a young woman with everything to live for. Almost anything anyone can say in such a situation is trite and foolish-sounding, as most things do in the actual presence of death. When the old die, we can tell ourselves comfortable lies to ease the pain: he was suffering so much, it was better this way, he’d lived his life, he’s in a better place now—and then we can repeat those comfortable lies to our friends, who will echo them back to us, the better to get us through the ordeal. What can we tell ourselves about the death of a nineteen-year-old girl that will somehow lessen the pain of the loss? Nothing really, only that God must have a purpose for it all, an argument God makes Himself in the Book of Job. He speaks to Job from the midst of the whirlwind, demanding to know, when Job asks Him why he is suffering, where Job was when the Lord laid the foundations of the world. Job accepts that there must be a greater purpose to his suffering, but, and my apologies to the pious here, the Almighty does not come off well in the Book of Job, and His explanation, whether it comes from the middle of a tempest or not, has always sounded pretty thin to me. The grieving do not want to hear that this tragedy makes some cosmic sense to someone; they want an explanation that makes sense to them. But there is no explanation forthcoming; the Almighty, as Mr. Lincoln said, has His own purposes; and probably none that the grieving would accept. There is only the reality that Carla is gone and we will not see her any more. So that leaves the trite, the hackneyed, and the foolish-sounding things that people say at times like these, and I said those things and saw the people from the several universes of Carla’s life come in to see her family and say them as well, because there are no words that can express what anyone really wants to say at a time like this. Those words don’t exist in any language and they never have, I think.
She was buried yesterday in an old Dutch Reformed cemetery near her grandfather, on the slope of a hill that stretches down to a wide valley dotted with farmhouses and that eventually sweeps up to the long line of the Shawangunk Mountains along the horizon, on one of those perfect New York autumn days where the air is crisp and cool, the trees are bright with scarlet and gold, and huge white clouds drift lazily across a sky too blue to be real. I left after the service, while her family and the other mourners went to the church hall for something to eat. As I made the turn onto the highway, I could see the sextons standing at her gravesite, lowering the casket into the ground. I looked away, as though I were somehow violating Carla's privacy in watching her final moments in the light of day, and turned on the radio. They were playing something by Wagner, the overture to Tannhauser, I think, and I snapped the radio off; I didn’t want to listen to Wagner and his ten ton flummery now. About twenty minutes later, having gotten myself hopelessly lost on what, for me, is the wrong side of the river, I turned the radio on again. Something by Mozart had just ended and the announcer—classical music stations do not have disc jockeys, they have announcers—put on Maurice Ravel’s Pavane for a dead princess. As I listened to the mournful notes of Ravel’s elegiac music and tried to figure out how to find my way home, I could feel the warm sunshine stream through the windows and I thought of Carla again, standing with her mother in the middle of Main Street the last time I saw her, still as tall as I am, almost, and who didn’t, in the end, have to worry about smoking after all, enjoying herself and the day tremendously, and then, for a very long moment, I did feel old.