This was a long time ago, before my first death, and none of us now are the people we were then. Instead we are ghosts: two of us dead, a third unrecognizable, a fourth suspected of murder. It would be easy enough at this hour to have contempt for those young selves, to focus instead on how much cleverer we have become here in the green pastures of the twenty-first century. But over the years I have come to believe that people are usually more deserving of forgiveness than judgment. This is not only because it’s an act of grace; it’s also because most men and women aren’t afforded the luxury of dying more than once.
Unlike some people I could mention.
It was Rachel who got us out of our beds that hot August morning, even though our heads were still throbbing from the wedding the night before. But Rachel was a woman on a mission, and she’d decided she was going to take Quentin to see The Large Bathers by Cézanne, or perish in the attempt. She was all about the Impressionists then. Before they graduated, when she was in her Renaissance phase, she’d taken a crack at painting Quentin’s portrait in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist, but instead of being flattered, he got all sore about it. That’s what you think I look like? he said, hurt that she did not see him the way he saw himself. But hello. Of course he looked exactly like that.
Later, it had been Tripper’s idea to walk from the Philadelphia Art Museum to Eastern State Penitentiary. It wasn’t far. He’d been a history major at Wesleyan, and he’d always wanted to check out the medieval-looking ruins. The prison had opened in 1829, and only closed eight years before, in 1972. Since then it just sat there in the heart of Philly, all boarded up, while the city tried to figure out what to do with it.
Maisie looked at the sketchy neighborhood into which they had strayed. “Do we have to do this?” she said. She had long blonde hair and a mole in the middle of her left cheek.
“When the prison was built this was all green fields,” Tripper said. His nickname contained no small degree of irony, given that he was the most conservative of the group and the only trips he had any intention of taking were ones to the Grand Caymans. At birth he’d been christened Tobin Owen Pennypacker III, though, and his father (Tobin Owen Pennypacker, Junior) had taken to calling him “Triple” for short. Over time, “Triple” had inevitably morphed to “Tripper.”
“It’s not a very good neighborhood,” noted Maisie.
“Will ye not fuck yourself,” inquired Wailer. It was a rhetorical question.
A bottle smashed in an alley behind one of the row houses to their right. “Sorry," said Maisie. "I just don’t like the idea of getting mugged.”
“Hey man, nobody’s mugged you so far,” said Casey. He was a generously obese young man wearing a striped engineer’s hat upon his head. The groom.
“But it’s early yet,” suggested Wailer. She was wearing black fingernail polish. The bride.
“No, we should keep going,” said Rachel. She had a big head of bushy black hair, but even at twenty-two there were streaks of grey. “Quentin has got his heart set on the prison now.” In her painting, Quentin had pointed with one hand toward the heavens. The other hovered over his heart. It was some likeness.
It was August of 1980. Carter was still President, Reagan an unlikely joke. There were hostages in Iran, fifty-two blindfolded souls. The Bicentennial, with its tall ships and fireworks, was a recent memory. John Lennon was alive. Now and again there’d be a story in the news about how The Beatles were going to come together once more, perhaps in order to raise cash for some charity. Everyone figured it would happen, sooner or later. Why shouldn’t they?
They were six in all, plus Krystal and the boy. Casey and Quentin and Tripper had known each other since high school, out at Devon Boys’ Latin on the Main Line. Later, the three of them went to Wesleyan, which is where they’d met Rachel and Wailer. They’d only graduated three months before, June first. Plans for the future were sketchy.
Excerpted from Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Courtesy of Crown.