Albert Ellman didn’t think he would care — he was surprised that he was even aware — that it was Easter.
Easter hadn’t meant much to him since he was a little boy, and not much to him then. Get dressed up. Go to his mother’s cavernous church. Sit on a bench. Listen to a man in a long dress endlessly drone in a tone that would bore a corpse. Try not to fidget. Fail. Get half the flesh on his arm wrenched off by his mother, who took church more seriously than anyone, probably including the Pope.
If it hadn’t been for his father’s steadfast refusal to let his five children be “brainwashed” by religion, his mother would have dragged them all to church not just on Christmas and Easter, but every day to mass.
“If you’re alive, you’re sinning,” she told them. “And you’re alive every morning, aren’t you? So every morning you need God’s forgiveness for the sins you did the day before, and for the sins you’ll do that day.” Then she’d roll her eyes or shake her head. “But your father. He thinks he knows better than God. I pray he realizes before he dies how wrong he is about that.”
It wasn’t likely that Albert’s father, who was rarely home, had realized any such thing before, alone, drunk, and driving on Route 32 in upstate New York, he had (as Albert imagined it) decided to play high-speed chicken with a tree, and lost. When Albert, who had been drafted into the Army two years after high school, found out that his father had died, he was on the ground in Vietnam, learning more about the blaring red area where sin meets survival than he’d ever wanted to know.
Or, later, to remember.
Back from the war and desperate for normalcy, Albert sought out Carol Rodgers, a cheerleader one year behind him in high school, which felt to him like a stranger’s life lived a long time ago. But on a Friday night way back then, when he was a senior and one of the stars of their school’s basketball team, it had occurred to him, right in the middle of a game, that quite possibly the ever-exuberant and almost frighteningly beautiful Carol Rodgers was cheering most particularly for him.
After the game, out behind the gym building, he had asked Carol about that very thing.
And sure enough.
During his two hellish years in the jungles of Vietnam that sure enough had occupied what grew into a sacred place in his imagination, his dreams, and finally his hopes.
He’d even written Carol a few letters. And every time she’d written him back.
“Of course I remember you, silly,” she said in her first letter to him. “A girl doesn’t forget a guy like you.”
When, back from the war, he tracked Carol down at her job as a cashier at Walgreens, he said to her, “You’re single? How in God’s name is that even possible?”
Carol shrugged. “Easy. I just say no.”
But three months later, in front of a preacher, she said yes to him.
And then together he and Carol had learned what Albert so fervidly tried to hide, first from himself, and then from her, which was that his tour of duty had left him incapable of peacefully existing in a world where nobody’s blood or limbs suddenly burst from their body, where nobody knew a violent death was as near to them as their next breath, where everything was so freakishly silent it could only mean that the evil which rips lives from breathing bodies wasn’t just approaching, but already there.
Carol Rodgers had not been ready for any of that. So one Saturday afternoon when Albert had disappeared to wherever it was he went sometimes, she packed her things, and jumped from the ship that had promised her such a lovely voyage, but was clearly going nowhere but down.
And down had Albert continued to go.
And down he had stayed, too — until, by some miracle, the woman who would become his second wife, Ann, found in the submerged wreckage that was all he was something she believed in, something she loved and wanted for herself.
“You can say no to me all you want,” Ann said to him early one morning when he was, again, drunk. “But I’ll always be right here, waiting for you to say yes.”
And, slowly if not all that surely, Albert did say yes.
He said yes to possibly.
He said yes to love.
He said yes to, of all things, hope.
“You win,” he said to Ann, his eyes filled with tears for the first time since he could remember. “I want this.”
Her eyes filled too. “Then it’s yours.”
Ann and Albert were married seventeen years, before their screaming and pleading cries to her stomach cancer were answered with nothing but no.
Lightly squeezing his hand before she slipped away forever, Ann said, “It could have been so much worse. We could have never met.”
“You made my life worth living,” said Albert. He could only mouth the words thank you.
And then Ann had left him, to begin his purposeless life without her.
The confounding thing about lives without purpose is that very often they keep right on going. Albert’s was one of those. The Sunday Ann was no more became his Monday, became his Tuesday, became a whole week and then a month and then years which somehow continued to pile up behind him, whether he wanted them to or not.
Until twenty years had gone by, and Albert, now seventy-five years old, was lying awake in his bed at five o’clock on an Easter morning that came when people all around the world were hiding inside their homes from a virus come to kill them, their neighbors, and everyone they loved.
Advising Albert Ellman to stay inside was like advising a fish to stay in water. He had spent most of his life self-isolating — in large part with Ann, and certainly as much as possible after her.
For twenty years, Albert, when he was all out of food — when he was down to eating rice and nothing else — went grocery shopping. When the growth in his yard was threatening to make his little house disappear altogether, he called the same business he and Ann had always used, and someone came to buzz its wildness back into submission.
He ventured outside to collect his mail. He paid the bills he needed to.
He drank. Too much, he knew. He would then sometimes cry, in moments that ended before the water had fallen from his eyes. So many pretty people, with so many pretty problems.
He also slept, as much as he could, which seemed to be just a little bit longer every day. He counted that as a good thing. Because then maybe, with all that practice, his would be the first death he’d ever known that wasn’t a cruel or violent affront to life itself.
His birthdays, and every holiday, passed like any other day.
Sun up, long day; sun down, long night.
Seemed like a second. Seemed like a day.
Seemed like forever.
But on that particular morning, into the quiet darkness of his bedroom, Albert Ellman said aloud, “Easter.”
After a while he sat up in bed. The whole of his life came before him. His unforgiving mother. The father he’d barely known. His brothers and sisters. Combat. Carol. Ann.
All of it.
It had all really happened.
And somehow, in some way, it was all happening still. It felt like it would all be happening forever.
Albert then saw through a crack in his curtains that the sun was just starting to rise.
“It’s Easter,” he said.