“Hating yourself,” says the celebrity
shrink, “is classic displacement:
Who you really hate is everybody
else.” But this guy I know — well I
don’t really know him but I know a hawk
from a handsaw, weather permitting.
So this guy, with whom I have some
necessary traffic, seems able to hate himself
with a congenial bile and is supple enough
to hate everyone else with the same ease.
As an earnest young know-it-all, he
fell from a branch, hit his head
and became another kind of know-it-all.
With a little shift in the breeze, instead of a smirk,
he might have discovered gravity.
“Hating yourself,” says the celebrity
The summer bike path, dapple and green.
A biker frightens an ancient couple,
not with speed but a warning
(‘On your left!’). Baggy boys
saunter indolently, waiting for dark.
Vaguely bovine young women herd
by the dozen – same green shirts, same
chubby knees, tied together with
ribbon, bewildered, blinking in the
sunny spaces between the big leaves.
And, O! the runners: Flushed dismal
Lolitas, nether cheeks exposed in shorts
labeled ‘Pink.’ Starving gray Furies
grimly huffing into the foul air.
And the dogs. O, the dogs! Many
tiny, these days, and white. And their
walkers, each with his own plastic bag.
My son is a clock,
sitting at the edge of the mantel
of my life.
His face, beveled by the sun,
glinting with joy,
with a strong base,
legs of cabriole and
gilt eyelashes, blinking off the hours.
Lips an intricate burl
onto rosewood inlay mouth
Hair of chestnut filigree-
a veneer always outshining
But his movement
rusted inside of me or perhaps
God forgot a spring…
his second-hand lags-
his bim-bam off,
not like other clocks-
a constant effort to keep
the pendulum swaying-
A veritable army now,
of horologists keeping him
There is no place in this world
for rusted movements.
So there he sits,
broken boy-clock ornament…
Will he slip off mantel’s edge
or wind himself up like the rest of us?
Only time can tell.
After a year, the sex had started to vanish, and the distance between them, and her resentment, grew. At first, it occurred frequently, and unpredictably, anywhere in the apartment. Lucas, at twenty-two, had been a virgin when they met, and had not been with anyone else since. He remembered loving Angie passionately at first. It seemed to him that as work had become deeply problematic, his interest in her had waned, and he therefore blamed his job, not seeing any other reasons. Their income was good, they had a nice apartment, and both got along well with their in-laws. He found himself wanting to go to sleep quickly each night, turning away from her with a swift “Good night,” not allowing her the opportunity for eye contact that would communicate a need for physical closeness.
He closed the book he was pretending to read, giving Angela, sitting across from him with her laptop, a slight smile, and went wordlessly into the bedroom to pack, hoping to do it alone. She followed him in, glum, but ready to help him, getting the duffel bags out of the closet.
“How many long sleeve shirts should I pack?” she asked softly as she placed the bags on the bed. Unsettled by his plan to spend a week’s vacation away from her at a religious retreat, she was trying to be a sport by staying involved, trying to keep her anger in check. She was somber as she went through his drawers, finding socks that were mismatched, something they had once joked about.
“I don’t know,” he said neutrally, without looking at her. “They didn’t say what the weather would be like.” Lucas moved slowly around the bedroom, sometimes just standing still, undecided as to what to pack first, then considering which shoes and socks to pack, counting out the yellowing tee shirts and tattered briefs. He stood and looked at the clothes on the bed, suddenly unsure about his choices, self-absorbed, seemingly unaware of Angie‘s presence.
The monastery of Saint Augustine, on the east slope of a two thousand foot mountain in the Adirondacks, was not far from the Canadian border. Lucas had found it on a web page listing religious communities. He had researched them, thinking he might find a reason for his growing indifference to Angie and their growing unhappiness if he could immerse himself in introspection at a religious retreat. His best friend Charles, now happily married and with a good job, had entered a Buddhist monastery right after college, and had become more focused and settled than any of his other friends, many of them unemployed and living with their parents. When Lucas had contacted the monastery he had been told that, although they did not have guests often, they could accommodate him for a week, given enough notice. There had been subsequently a brief interview on the phone by the monastery’s contact, Brother William, as to his goal. The monk had sounded sympathetic, but restrained. He had not offered any indication as to what life would be like, or what clothing to bring. All he was told by Brother William, he told Angie as he semi-folded, semi-crumpled his shirts to pack, was that the monastery made its income from organic farming, as well as from the production of goat cheese from their own herd, and that he would be assigned either to the care and growing of vegetables or to the tending of goats.
“Well, good luck with the goats. They’re smelly animals,” Angela said testily, finally losing her composure as she folded his torn and stained underwear and put it into the duffel bag. “Are you the same guy who told me last month he didn’t want a cat around because of allergies?”
He went to her, dismayed at her anger, trying to smile, and kissed her quickly on the cheek on his way to the bathroom to get toiletries to pack, but she remained stony. She took some of his torn underwear, wiped some silent tears away with it, and threw it in the wastebasket.
Their first year together had been sensuous, fun and affectionate. Nightly they would pour wine and talk about the day, plans for vacation, who they’d see on the weekend. Sex had been thrilling for both of them that first year, and the whole relationship seemed to work. Lucas blamed the stress of his job in the district attorney’s office, which had seemed at first like a great opportunity for someone fresh out of law school. His father, also an attorney, had used his contacts, and he had been hired readily just before their marriage, but after a year he had developed a growing unease about prosecuting criminal drug users, his main assignment. It had become clear to him, the more he read about it, that drug abuse was really a biological condition, an illness more in need of treatment than punishment. He was finding it increasingly difficult to press for harsh and probably misdirected punishment for the criminals he pursued. This growing awareness had coincided with his disappearing sexual and romantic interest in Angie.
“Are you having an affair?“ she had asked him suddenly one evening as they prepped dinner in silence in the kitchen. “Is that why we’re not having sex?”
“There’s no one else. I think it’s my job. And I need to give this some thought.”
“You haven’t let me near you for three months,” she said, putting the salmon in the oven, not sounding convinced. “And give what some thought? Us?”
He was sure it was only the job, he assured her, and not their relationship. And in fact, he did not look at other women in the office, and ignored their passes. He needed to think about his future, he explained, and how to function normally while working in a profession he wasn‘t sure he believed in. She remained unconvinced. “Do you think,“ she said, “that other men who aren’t happy at work just stop being physically affectionate with their wives?” Afterwards, their evenings became even edgier, no matter how much wine was poured. Like ink from an octopus, the tension between them enveloped and darkened their life together.
“What are you looking for?” Angela had asked him weeks later, when he had told her of his plans to be away. It was the same question Brother William had asked him during their telephone conversation. His vague response about wanting to explore how religion might help him find a path and daily peace seemed to satisfy Brother William somewhat on the telephone, and Angela not at all, who had responded, “You don’t even go to church. What’s going on?”
She now was repeating the question in the bedroom, duffel bags half packed, clothes all over their bed. He closed his eyes before answering, partly from mental exhaustion, but Angie saw that he was also closing a door. “I’m trying to understand myself more, what I want out of my life.” He turned away and went on packing, not having the energy now to rehash it all now, realizing that he would welcome a break from this tension to sort out his job and his marriage.
She dropped her chin on her chest in frustration, her short dark hair flopping forward on her brow. Resigned to being the cause for their unhappiness, he embraced her, gently, sadly, but trying to make it better for her, his wide frame engulfing her small figure, his yellow hair atop her brown. He kissed the top of her head, still scented, since this morning‘s shower, of her pear shampoo, and continued holding her, but she pushed away and went back to the living room, and he finished his packing alone.
The late summer foliage was lush from the window of the north bound train from New York, and the mountains that seemed to rise abruptly just beyond the train tracks lent the landscape an alien, forbidding quality, as if the monastery were accessible only to the most determined. He read a historical biography of Jesus until the conductor announced Hartwell’s Crossing, the stop where Lucas would be met by Brother William. The station was little more than a roof over a wooden platform, a two lane road twenty feet away the only other man made structure amidst the fields of alfalfa and corn. As he got off the train, alone, a thin, bearded man dressed in a loose blue shirt and brown pants, leaning on a pickup truck, began to walk towards him. “I’m Brother William,” he said, smiling, as they shook hands. He helped Lucas with his two duffel bags into the pickup, put the truck in gear as Lucas got into the passenger side, and they began the climb up the mountain toward the monastery. Brother William chuckled as he blew the horn at geese crossing the road, and spent some time naming the various mountain peaks visible from the steeply inclined road.
“You said on the phone you wanted to spend time in an environment that would help you do some introspection.”
“Yes,” Lucas said, looking out over the lower valleys below them. “I want to see if spending a week here can give me answers to some problems I’m having.”
“Why here? Why not explore religion in your own community first?”
“I’m hoping to concentrate on it here, in complete immersion, without distractions.”
“I see. An escape,” Brother William smiled, and Lucas noticed that his teeth were startlingly white against his dark but graying beard. “What problem specifically triggered your retreat here with us?” he pursued, still smiling, but as Lucas began to say something about work, Brother William cut him off and said as they pulled into the monastery, “It’s hardly ever about work. But we’ll talk more later.”
They drove through a gate in a stone wall that surrounded several red brick buildings. Brother William led the way up the stairs of the two story dormitory, then down a clean, white walled corridor with several oak doors. His room was the last one on the right. Brother William opened the unlocked door and stepped in.
“You see we don’t usually lock doors. If you want to lock yours the key is on the dresser,” he said as he opened the simple white curtains and lifted the window to air the room. “We like lights out by ten, and if you’ve brought a radio or music we ask that it be off by vespers at nine.” Lucas sat on the bed, suddenly tired by the trip and the heat. “Afternoon prayers in ten minutes in the chapel. Knock on my door, three doors down on your left, and we’ll go together. Just give me a couple of minutes.”
The chapel was in another square, brick building, its main distinguishing feature being the modest steeple. The inside of the chapel was filling with monks dressed in brown robes, identical to the one Brother William was slipping on over his clothes when Lucas had knocked on his door. Lucas followed the service in the hymnal and chanted along with the monks, although he found the words uninspired and banal. After a half hour of this he wondered whether he had made a mistake in coming to stay for a full week. His wandering mind pictured Angela alone at home, sipping a glass of wine, getting dinner ready, and missed the days when those evenings had been fun.
A stop in the chanting brought him back to the chapel, and responsive reading ended the service, promptly at five. Brother William escorted him to the administrative building, where Brother Carl, who handled the sale of produce and goat cheese made by the monastery, assigned Lucas the weeding and general care of three acres of potatoes, to begin tomorrow.
Brother William and Lucas walked back together to their rooms. Lucas abruptly broke the silence around them left over from the service. “I’m just so unhappy at home. I hope I can find some answers here.” Brother William noted how pained he looked, but said noting until they were close to their rooms. “Dinner will be over by seven thirty, and the hour and a half until vespers at nine will be for your private tutoring and discussion, as well as for your private reading.” They agreed to meet at six thirty, when he’d be introduced in the dining hall to the rest of the community.
The large space that was the dining hall in the dormitory building was filled with monks who were dressed, unexpectedly for Lucas, in brightly colored shirts and jeans. They joined a half empty table that quickly filled up with other monks as trays of roast beef, mashed potatoes and spinach were brought by others assigned to kitchen duty. Conversation centered around the heat and lack of rain, the new litter of baby goats, and local gossip.
“Did you hear about the cheese scandal at the convent?” asked a burly, bearded monk, with a smile.
“Ah, the case of the non organic mozzarella,” Brother William joked, and then to Lucas, “The nuns in our neighboring convent used supermarket milk to make their cheese when their own cows dried up, but didn’t have money to make new labels.” The meal was simple but perfect, and conversation and laughter were abundant.
The tutoring hour after dinner took place in the quiet library, upstairs from the dining room, where he was shown literature that he was expected to read each evening and be prepared to discuss the next day. Brother William sat next to him at the library table as they reviewed the reading material, and Lucas detected an odor of smoke and incense, no doubt the residue from the afternoon service. He felt suddenly comforted by this, although he couldn’t say why.
“You mentioned a dilemma you were having at work when we spoke on the phone,” Brother William said. Lucas went into some detail about his job seeking punishment for drug addicts, which he considered had primarily a medical problem.
“It’s been ruining my life at home. I seemed to lose romantic and sexual interest in Angie when I started thinking about work more and having doubts about it. When I started questioning my career, about the value of punishment, I stated looking differently at my whole life. And that includes my wife.”
The monk listened, looking at him with a calm and steady gaze, something the others in the dining room also seemed to do when talking to him. “I think we will be ready for a discussion on punishment in a few days, after we have gotten some basics of Christianity down,” he said, “and then we’ll talk about your home life.” He gave a toothy smile and stood up, indicating the session was over.
The next day, after seven o’clock morning prayers in the chapel and a breakfast of eggs and hot cereal, Lucas was shown the three acre potato field that he was expected to tend. He was shown how to pick potato beetles off the plants and drop them in a container of alcohol, to recognize diseased plants, and to pile soil around the base of the plants to prevent the potatoes growing above the soil from being exposed to sunlight, which would turn them green and bitter. It seemed to him an enormous job to get through in one day, a boring chore to be repeated daily, without variance, as new beetles, new weeds, and new potatoes emerged, but he embarked on it as instructed. When the bells rang for noon prayer before lunch he had only gotten through half an acre, and the heat and the sun had left him so worn out that he walked back to the chapel wishing he could go directly to lunch. After a half hour of communal prayer, a half hour for lunch, and an additional half hour of private prayer in the chapel, he was back on the field, the heat now even stronger in the afternoon sun, and was relieved when afternoon prayers were announced by the chapel bells. It was beastly hot for August at this elevation, and the chapel steamed with the heat and sweat of the monks, who had all put on their brown robes over their damp work clothes for this, the longest and most formal of the day’s ceremonies. Lucas, as a resident guest, wore a gray, somewhat shorter robe. The ritualistic chanting that yesterday had seemed so banal became hypnotic and emptied his mind of the day’s work and his worries about Angela, and he experienced a sudden buzzing in his head, which he attributed to exhaustion, and a strong sense of commonality with the chanting brothers.
Over the following days the pattern of prayer, work, and discussions with Brother William about Christianity and punishment repeated itself, and although his evening studies became more profound and absorbing, he felt no closer to being at peace either at work or at home.
“Now,” Brother William started on their fifth evening of discussion, “Let’s talk about home and Angie.”
“Something’s changed,” Lucas said, and went on to describe their happy early days, and the gradual souring of their home life as he grew dissatisfied with his job. “This is why I’m here. If I can justify in my mind punishing drug abusers, if I can find something here with you that will make me at peace with this job, I think I can salvage my relationship with Angie.”
Brother William said nothing now, but looked steadily at him, and then said, “I can help you understand punishment within the context of Christianity, but I cannot make the connection between your job and your marriage. Why would being comfortable with punishing drug addicts bring you happiness at home? You need to think about that. I don‘t think your job is ruining your marriage.” He did not wait for an answer, but stood up and left Lucas, confused and embarrassed, sitting alone in the library. He had come to find peace at work and at home, and he seemed no closer now than he had at the beginning of the week.
Lucas, as he worked the fields the next day, thought about the monk’s dispiriting suggestion that there was no link between his role at work with his role at home. And yet his questioning of his job and the issue of punishment had seemed to trigger his distance from Angie. If punishment was a justifiable option in Christianity, wouldn’t he be at peace with it at work? And wouldn’t that heal the rent in his marriage?
At the toll of the bell, at the end of the afternoon’s toil, he walked back to the dormitory, still pondering. It was the hottest day yet of his stay, and he was parched and starved. He passed the orchard of Morceau pear trees, as he did every day, and considered plucking one of the low hanging fruit to quench his thirst and hunger. The pears were ripe for harvesting, unblemished, and he noticed how much this pinkish variety resembled a female human body as Rubens might paint it, with narrow tops and widening, rounded bottoms. It reminded him of how good sex had been with Angie when things had been going well between them. He fondled and sniffed one of the dangling fruit, the aroma sharply reminiscent of something familiar that he could not place. His hunger made him consider plucking it from the branch, but he moved on instead to the dormitory to don his gray robe.
After the afternoon service, and before dinner, he continued to read about and explore the issue of punishment, and though he riffled through the books he had been assigned, he could find no mention of its role in Christianity. He decided to take up the issue at tonight’s discussion session, which would be his last. His week’s retreat was coming to an end. But how to prepare for the discussion? Where could he read about the relationship between punishment and repentance in Christianity? He wondered whether it would be an imposition on Brother William to ask his advice now, before dinner, about what to read in preparation for this evening, then remembered that Brother William had encouraged him to seek him out at any time if pressing questions arose. He took the book in which he had found a brief reference to punishment, Essays on Christianity, and walked down the hall to Brother William’s door. He knocked lightly, then again more firmly, and got no answer. He would leave Brother William a note and the book open to the chapter “Wrongdoing, Repentance, and Forgiveness,” asking him what else he should read on the subject for discussion after dinner. He entered the room, and was struck by the heat, generated by the sun dazzling in through the white curtains and windows.
Brother William lay naked and asleep in his narrow bed, face up, his arms over his head and his legs akimbo, a cooling response to the heat. The sheers over the open windows were hanging still, unmoved by any breeze. Lucas stood by the door for a minute and watched the monk breathe, then lay the book on the dresser and quietly approached the bed after closing the door, studying the man’s thin and sinewy body. He stood next to the bed, careful not to step on the underwear on the floor, and bent over, close to the monk’s body, watching closely as the chest rose with each breath. His nose captured a strong blend of sweat and musk. There was a warmth radiating from his body that Lucas could feel even in the oven heat of the room. His upper lip became suddenly wet with perspiration, and he felt short of breath, both of which he attributed to the intense heat, but he also felt an unexpected throb deep in his lower abdomen and pelvis, which he did not understand. Then, without knowing why, he removed his shirt and dropped it on the floor, and, bare-chested, crossed his arms, his hands tucked in his armpits. He continued to observe Brother William, whose breathing now changed from the slow rhythm of deep sleep to perhaps that of shallower sleep, or dim awareness. He wiped the wetness from his face with his fingers and caught the smell of his armpits on his hands, a different smell from the other man’s, but connected, somehow. He picked his shirt up off the floor, and quietly left the room.
That evening, throughout their discussion about virtue and punishment, Brother William betrayed no sign that he had been aware of Lucas’s presence in his room that afternoon. Towards the end of the evening, he summarized the evening’s exploration of Lucas’s questions: “Punishment is not excluded from Christian principles, per se. Think of Adam and Eve. In fact, when thoughtfully applied, it ideally leads to repentance, and hopefully to a change in behavior.”
“In terms of your marital problem,” Brother William continued slowly, “I think that’s a different issue altogether. All of us have sexual fantasies. It might be helpful to you to reflect on what yours are, and make the necessary adjustments, maybe with Angie, maybe not.”
That evening, his last at the monastery, Lucas went back to the chapel instead of his room after vespers. The chapel was empty, and instead of kneeling in his usual pew, near the last row, he went to the altar and knelt close to the large, looming cross. It was almost as large as he was, carved out of a blond, deeply grained wood, and he saw it as an austere but elegant object, uncomplicated, and unadorned. Lucas considered its strength and immutability a long time. “It is what it is,” he said out loud. When he went back to his room to pack, he found underwear that didn’t belong to him rolled up inside the shirt he had worn earlier, and realized he had accidentally picked up off the floor Brother William’s briefs along with his own shirt. He did not see how he could return it to the monk without an impossibly awkward explanation, and briefly considered leaving it in the closet of his room, but he folded it carefully and packed it in his duffel bag instead.
The trip to the train station the next day was in the company of Brother James, who helped Lucas with his bags into the same pickup Brother William had driven a week before. “Brother William sends his farewell and good wishes. He had to attend to some business today and couldn’t drive you.”
They rode mostly in silence, looking out over the green valleys and blue gray mountains, all alit by a bright and diffuse sunlight behind thin clouds. As they made the final descent into the cornfields near the train station, Lucas said, “Brother James, I was hoping to see Brother William today. I needed to say something to him.”
“Do you want me to give him a message?” asked James.
Lucas thought a moment, then said, “Please tell him I apologize.”
Brother James looked mildly puzzled, and said, “Will he know for what?”
“I‘m not sure. Maybe. But I trespassed on his privacy.”
James chuckled at this as he pulled the pickup into the train station, scattering some geese as he did so. “Brother William is very compassionate, and insightful as well,” he said. “I know that he’s already understood your actions and forgiven you, and he spoke highly of you, said you‘re a man of conscience. He’s also certain that the week you have spent with us will be of help to you.”
The kindness stayed with him softly throughout the train ride home, and disarmed him. He opened his bag looking for his book, and saw the monk’s underwear. As he picked it up to re-fold it and place it among his own, he caught the familiar scent of musky sweat, which filled him with longing, and a sadness that the longing would linger, would dissipate only at its own pace. And he suspected that the road to the changes ahead would not be easy, but he resolved to try to minimize the inevitable pain he would have to inflict on her. He had already, he considered, punished her enough for falling in love with him, and then marrying him. When he arrived home a tentatively smiling Angie, barefoot, wearing shorts and a tank top, stepped into the hallway from the kitchen with a glass of wine in her hand. He set his bags down and went to her. He did not kiss her, but held her in a long embrace.
Allowed to choose again, she’d christen me
baby Tabatha, mother proclaimed.
She loved the name, and, hey, you could say
I was kind of a witch. But let it be clear,
mother dear was no sweet Samantha,
though just as many schemes roiled the seams
inside her sleeves, threaded with jealousies,
ambition, an obsessive/compulsive disposition
with a smattering of ADD, some of it passed
down to me, who as a child began to realize
my true potential. There was the episode,
mom insisted I be placed with the gifted kids,
though all my test scores spelled out
a different answer. Snout twitched into more
of a snarl than wiggle, she faced down the vice
principal, and there I was, snap of the fingers
in Mr. Higgle’s advanced class, where,
let’s face it, I was too dumb to contend. Slumped
in the back row, stewing resentment, humiliation
with applied concepts of retaliation aimed
at the baffled teacher who simply ignored me,
I muttered curses, maledictions, conjured
a wish list of afflictions to befall him.
And when word came the man beloved
by his brightest pupils, revered by colleagues
and staff, left for home after last class, and hung
himself from an attic rafter, I stumbled
from school, lungs constricted, legs buckling
into knotted ropes, throat choked with shame,
sat in view of the TV’s canned groans, wrote down
the name of our favorite show, crossed out
the E’s, the W, the D, and renamed myself.
In the tiny village of Ob, one of many villages that kept their distance from one another in a small country, there lived a poor man. He was so poor he didn’t have a last name. He gave his son the only gift he could: a name that would set the boy apart for greatness: The Stob.
This was the last in a series of final straws for his wife,
–You know this child will be The Stob of Ob? That doesn’t bother you?
She wanted to leave the man and his seven children but, staring into the baby’s narrow grey eyes, she couldn’t bring herself to it. Wasn’t it bad enough to have the stigma of his name, let alone the stigma of growing up without a mother?
The other children saw nothing strange about The Stob or his name.
–The Stob, it’s your turn to take the garbage out.
–I hate you, The Stob.
–Come here, The Stob, I’m going to pound you.
During his babyhood, she tried calling him The Stobbie to soften the barbarity of his name. He was an odd-looking creature. He had the same body type that distinguished their village: long arms, short legs, thin chest. But The Stob had wide meat-plate hands, a lozenge-shaped head with a whorl of dark hair that stuck up in the middle.
The Stob grew slowly which led to the obvious nickname The Stub until he had a growth spurt at 13 and stretched to 6’ 3”. He proved good at running and wrestling. Girls who read zombie romances and listened to Morrissey and Coldplay found The Stob attractive: his clumsy fingers and narrow grey eyes.
He was fond of the eggs that his mother collected from their two old hens, but he craved more yellow, butter, sun, satin cushions, thick wool sweaters. No one wore yellow in Ob. The color worked its way into his morning dreams, interrupted his daydreams, found him when he stared into the early night. Night always came early in Ob.
His secret obsession: The exotic TV ads for cruises. Everyone looked stupidly happy: the passengers, the crew, the cooks, the engineers. The captain wore a yellow flower in his buttonhole and danced with the old, smiling passengers.
The young staff members wore black and white uniforms. They moved efficiently, helping the passengers around the ships, even carrying them in their strong arms down the boarding planks. They carried trays or heavy-looking baskets of fruit and bread. The Stob thought, I could do that.
The harbor at Ob was too small for a cruise ship, but The Stob kept a close eye on the few container ships that stopped once or twice a year. The thin-mustached purser wheedled The Stob into his bunk for a single passionate night. The Stob was more passionate about the bunk and the tiny room. This was what adventure looked like. The purser didn’t think much of the container ship.
–Me, I’m going to get a nice little job on a cruise ship. That’s the life, my son. All the food you can eat, if you know what I mean. Them cruise ships go all over.
–But not from here. I have watched for them.
The purser laughed.
– This is the back of beyond, mate. You wanna get to a big city with a real port.
–Where is that?
–What’s the capital of your own country, you tin-brain? Never heard of Thenia? It’s not major, like Frottomir or Billingjug, but it’s got ships.
–Where is Thenia?
–Blimey. Do I have to teach you everything? Turn over.
The geography lesson was graphic and memorable. Ob was on the west coast. Thenia was on the east coast. It would be a long, hard journey to get from one to the other. The purser made a present of a stained t-shirt and a few dollars.
But for The Stob the world now had windows, doors that could be opened, walked through, left behind. He washed and packed the stained t-shirt along with his best white shirt and the other few clothes he had.
–I am leaving.
His mother stopped scraping a pot and wiped her wrist across her forehead.
–What do you mean?
–I am going to find a place where there is more.
–I don’t know. More than there is here.
She banged the pan with the scrubbing brush.
–We have all the beans we need. We have eggs.
–And twice a year we have a dance on the old green.
– Mother, it is only painted concrete.
–But it used to be a real green, and that’s what matters.
–Even so, I am leaving.
She saw there was no reason why he should stay. His brothers and sisters were too many to care about whether one of them left or stayed. They would probably be jealous that he was going, purely because he was doing something they weren’t. But eventually the Stob would fade from their memory. Why were they so self-absorbed? They were losing their brother, the one who always, who never, who used to—
She couldn’t think of a single thing The Stob had done.
–Where will you go?
The Stob remembered a TV commercial.
–It’s on TV.
–TV is nothing.
The Stob stared at her with his strange grey eyes.
–TV is everything, Mother.
204 miles to cross the entire island. The Stob had no money for a bus or food or a place to stay. And he knew he must become invisible to avoid the men in uniforms who stared at desperate-looking boys who traveled on foot.
When he finally arrived in Thenia, he knew enough about authority to deflect attention, to salute and bow, to walk away but not too quickly.
Thenia. Paradise. Yellow melons the size of footballs. Pomegranates, figs, fresh dates and milky-fresh cashew nuts, picked and roasted straight from the bush. They had so much that they hardly noticed him stealing seeded buns, a green pear. He slept beneath the pier with three drunkards who wanted to cuddle him. The Stob, who had taken the assistant ship’s cook’s knife, fended them off.
He soon found the Nuerika cruise ship office and signed on as a singing waiter. The recruiting officer, recovering from a recent heart-break, liked The Stob’s strange eyes. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief embroidered with violets.
–You’ll have to get cleaned up. They’re par-tic-u-lar about hygiene.
The Stob nodded eagerly, looking around for a sink.
The officer folded the handkerchief carefully and put it away,
–Has anyone told you that you have eyes like Gordon Guthrie? Now, he can sing. Can you sing?
The Stob cleared his throat so he could produce the groaning-shriek necessary for the renowned Ob folk song,
–This is the stone we broke our teeth on, this is the green slime from the old bucket—
The officer stopped him,
–You certainly have volume. I expect you could be heard all over the ship.
The Stob waited while the officer looked him over.
–You’re not fat. I’ll say that for you. And we need some seasonal workers. I suppose you’ll do. Your job is to make sure they laugh. That’s what they come on the cruise for.
The Stob nodded. It wasn’t something that attracted him. On the rare occasions that his family had laughed, they covered their mouths in embarrassment. The Stob was once startled into laughing when a kitten poked its head out from a rusted bucket, the small pink tip of its tongue sticking out. He distrusted something that made him feel so exposed.
The Stob learned that the passengers had to laugh all the time or the staff’s wages would be docked. There was Targeted Laughter: shows, impromptu sketches by the staff, staged trip-and-falls during meal times. Then there was Random Laughter: mail delivery, pre-entertainment, meal and drinks delivery. There was Optional Massage Laughter. These were considered penalty-free. Even the management acknowledged the difficulty of making someone laugh while they were wrapped in seaweed.
Some of the passengers were admitted to Over-Laugh Therapy. These were the ones who complained about SSWL, Sore Stomach While Laughing, VWL Vomiting While Laughing, FOLCWL Fainting or Other Loss of Consciousness While Laughing.
It was a relief to join the other stewards during 20 minute morose breaks (also known as Happy Times) in the ship’s depths, dreaming of cigarettes. Someone loaned him a copy of Pushkin that was more real than the hyenas upstairs who behaved as though life was a tissue to blow their noses on.
The Stob learned “Prisoner” by heart: I’m sitting by bars in the damp blackened cell—He traded the book for the knife.
The Nuerika ship sailed for 38 long, laughter-filled days. After a while, The Stob didn’t hear the cackles, titters, belly laughs. It was just noise, like the ship’s engines.
He stood at the ship’s rails as they docked in Nuerika. Where is our dinner, raven/Under this indifferent heaven? He didn’t have to wonder. There was yellow food everywhere: Mustard and buns and bagels and pizza and cheesecake and donuts and curry. Trucks that drove food around the city: Korilla BBQ, Food Is Love, Tacos El Vagabundo, Veronica’s Kitchen, Uncle Gussy’s. He stared into the window of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. The ice-cream boys waved him in and introduced him to their vanilla, the yellow of pure lust.
Their friends had just lost a roommate to marriage. An hour later, The Stob left with their address. He walked the fifteen blocks to a dirt-grey building, up five flights of stairs to an apartment where Nick and Lame-o, perpetually stoned students, rented him the room and suggested he try pierogis.
–What is pierogis?
–Manna from heaven, dude.
Another perpetually high student joined them.
–Who’s getting pierogis?
–My man, The Stob.
They gave him money to buy pierogis.
Nick and Lame-o, were right. The pierogis were the food he had waited for all his life. They were soft. They had bacon, potatoes and the yellowest cheese he’d ever seen. There was no cabbage. Heaven.
–Stobbo, you rock, dude.
Stobbo. He tried his new name out, chewed it with his pierogi.
–In my place, my name is The Stob.
–You’re shittin’ me.
The Stob shrugged.
–The Stob, like with the the?
The pierogi claimed his attention. He didn’t listen to the rest of the conversation.
Lame-o worked as a night dispatcher with a freight train crew. He got The Stob a shift, coupling and uncoupling the cars, replacing the heavy couplings and air brake hoses. The Stob took easily to the manual work. He sent half his first paycheck wrapped in greaseproof paper to his mother. He included a letter: I am fine. I am working. I like pierogis and Pushkin.
His shift ended as the young moon was fading in the early sky. The saddened crescent, in the morning skies/Meets the young dawn full of the utter gladness/One is in flames, another cold like ice.
He rubbed his hands together. It would take the sun a few more hours before it melted the night cold.
And still he felt a kind of lifting whenever he came off his shift at dawn. The fading moon. The color flooding into the sky.
He began to notice the darting looks from girls heading to the clothing factory as he came off his shift. He thought they were mocking him, but when one in a green coat tried a shy smile while her friends giggled, he understood. He stood in front of the mirror after his shower. Muscles in his neck. Thick forearms. Wide, scarred hands from handling the couplings. His lozenge-shaped head somehow perched on top of all the maleness.
On Friday morning she stopped him.
–Hi. You work the night shift?
–Well, lucky you. You’re going home now.
She smiled again.
He spent the weekend walking around the streets, looking into shop windows and wondering if the dresses, shirts, pants were from her factory.
On Monday, he was ready for her.
He pointed to her pants.
–You look nice.
–You like music? Splitting Bricks are playing this Friday.
–A band. They’re good. My friends are going.
–I buy the ticket?
–You buy the tickets on the door. They’re six dollars.
Relief. A matter of twelve dollars for two tickets.
–I will buy the tickets. For you and me.
He saw her feel his words arrive. You and me.
–I’d like that.
She turned to go. He put out a hand.
–Please. Where is it? Where they will play?
She gave him the address. He said it over in his mind on the bus. He said it as he walked home from the bus stop. He found a pencil in Lame-o’s room. Wrote the address in thick letters on a pierogi receipt and put it on the small table next to his bed: 9pm. Friday night. The Bingham Marsh.
He had forgotten to ask her name. He couldn’t remember the color of her eyes.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: each was a sweating of embarrassment and longing. What did The Stob of Ob have to say to a Nuerikan woman? What if he hated Splitting Bricks? The nearer Friday came, the less he wanted to see her.
What was her name? He couldn’t even call after her on the street. In Ob, the preferred method of calling someone was yelling “Hoi!” or heaving a rock. That wouldn’t work here.
On Friday evening, he dressed in his best white shirt and black pants. The shirt had a small tear under the right arm, but it wouldn’t matter if he kept his arms by his sides. He put on his coat and left for the Bingham Marsh. He walked the twenty-two blocks, his wallet with the $20 zipped in the inside pocket.
What would he talk about with her? He could ask her name, but after that? He had thought of asking advice from Lame-o and Nick, but they were already stoned for the weekend.
Only the poems of Pushkin came to him. It seemed too soon to be reciting love poems. He passed markets, owners taking in their baskets of vegetables, boxes of oranges, racks of newspapers.
He arrived at the address and wondered if he was early or late. But she was already there in a black jacket over jeans and flat shoes. He felt over-dressed.
He stood next to her in the line,
–I am here.
–You know, I haven’t even asked your name. Mine’s Larisa.
–It’s a beautiful name. Larisa.
He didn’t know if it was beautiful. It wasn’t a name he’d heard of.
–The—the, well, some people call me Stobbo.
–Stobbo. The Stob. Just Stobbo.
–Stobbo. I like it.
She turned to her friends and introduced him. They looked startled and turned back to talk to each other, leaving him alone with Larisa.
He tried conversation,
–I like your hair. The same as the color of this rotted metal. Rust. We have much rust in Ob. Where I come from.
Her eyes widened.
–Not yellow, not red, but somewhere in the middle.
The line started moving and soon he was handing over his $20, receiving his change, having his large hand stamped. Larisa’s hand was tiny next to his. A small, white, flat, fish. He was pleased with the poetic thought.
Inside the club the music gouged his ears. Larisa and her friends liked it. When he said something to her, she put her face right up to his.
Everyone bought drinks. He didn’t know he would have to buy drinks. He put his head down and tried not to notice that people were walking past, hands grasping glasses of beer. But Larisa bought him a drink and yelled into his ear.
–It’s only fair. You bought the tickets.
Her voice was different inside the club: hard and bright.
When the first band came on, he thought they were Splitting Bricks, but it was someone else. They all wore black and played loud, sad music.
He tried to listen to what Larisa and her friends were saying, but it was mostly laughter and Larisa didn’t explain anything.
There was a roar and the crowd surged forward to the small stage as a small, hoarse-voiced man announced Splitting Bricks. Larisa and her friends were pushing their way to the front. The Stob followed them.
He had no idea what the band wore. They ran out on stage, picked up their instruments and began screaming. They screamed into the crowd and the crowd screamed back.
He couldn’t decide if he was damp from his own sweat or the sweat of others. Just as he took his jacket off, someone jumped into the air and caught The Stob under his right arm. His shirt ripped all the way around the armpit.
He looked around to see if Larisa had noticed, but she was also jumping up and down with her friends, waving her small hands.
Then the lead singer leaned down and howled right at The Stob. You don’t fool me. Or was it You don’t fail me?
He wasn’t a failure. He had come from the west. He had worked his way. He had a job. He had a place to live with roommates. He almost had a girlfriend.
The lead singer yelled close to Larisa, and she flipped her hair back and yelled back.
And The Stob was tired of it all: the stupid jumping, the stupid music, and Larisa who wasn’t even paying attention to him.
He reached out and grabbed the mic from the singer and bellowed into it.
–Who’s the killer and why did he do this? Who’s the killer and why did he do this? Who’s the killer? Who’s the killer?
The singer tried to get his mic back, but the crowd roared behind The Stob. Hands pushed him onstage. Someone grabbed his torn sleeve and ripped the rest of it off. He gripped his jacket with one hand and the mic with the other.
The Stob’s narrow grey eyes stared into the screaming mob, at Larisa now looking up at him, at the mic in his hand, his shirt ripped open. He opened his mouth,
–Where is our dinner, raven? Where’s our dinner, raven? Under this indifferent heaven? Where’s our dinner, raven?
The lead guitar took over in a storm of distortion.
He bellowed on,
–The killed knight is lying now. The killed knight needs his falcon. The killed knight is lying now. And where is his falcon? And his faithful black mare? And his wife, the young and fair, shouts my god is he alive?
With him, the crowd chanted Alive! Alive! Alive! Alive!
That one word beat hollows into his skull, a great screaming hymn.
He ran out of words and handed the mic back to the lead singer. Hands grasped The Stob floating him around the club. He stared up at the pounding sticky ceiling, clutching his jacket. Finally they put him on his feet.
Someone handed him beer,
–You do this a lot?
–I am new to screaming.
–You’re a natural. All that stuff coming up from inside you.
–It is Pushkin.
–You could be big, like, TV big.
The Stob knew nothing about being big, but he did want to get back on the stage. That feeling, like he was a big metal pipe, the words bounced around inside until they rushed their way out.
Outside in the cold air, people clapped him on the shoulder, You did good, man. You with the band? Off the chain.
He couldn’t see Larisa and thought she must have gone home.
A group of girls shouted from across the street. Alive! Alive! Alive! One of them, dark-red mouth, crossed and stood in front of him, staring at The Stob’s torn sweat-soaked shirt, bare right arm. Her jeans were so low he could see the tattoo on her right hip below the dirty yellow shirt. Short legs. Long arms. A stuttering of scabs across one wrist. She said,
–Long way from home. You.
The tattoo: Ob in gothic lettering. Narrow, green eyes.
He felt the moment waiting. He felt the word fill his mouth,
She didn’t smile.
A rush of something that swept his breath up. He put his hand up to stop his heart shouting. I seem to see your eyes that, in the darkness glowing, meet mine…
She leaned in, the tip of her pink tongue just showing; whispered,
Handed him his name and walked away, her friends’ laughter banging the walls down the street. He watched her go. What means my name to you?
He began walking, his breath-clouds lighting up, disappearing between streetlights. Palms aching-hot, striding thighs tight under his torso, spine lifting, uncurling-up.
In his village, if he’d ever wondered what the inside of his mind looked like, he might have thought slate quarry. Now, the dead-grey rock bowl had been blasted; great jagged holes shot with shining bolts of light. These raw hands, this bare arm thrusting out of the torn shirt: all of it overtaken by the wanting and more that was the flaring rush and the screaming and the sweating crush of bodies.
He saw nothing of the long walk back to the apartment where Lame-o was curled in the armchair, and Nick, half-on, half-off the sofa. Four tomato-stained pizza boxes, thirteen empty beer cans, a few un-popped corn kernels in a blue, plastic bowl.
The Stob stood in the doorway of his room. The hall light gave him his dark reflection in the small, unwashed window. In the morning he would see other apartment building windows; the old woman with her cigar, the middle-aged guy doing his bicep curls, the mother holding her kid up to see the world.
Uneven steps. Lame-o appeared at the end of the corridor, used the walls to help him stumble into the bathroom.
Mornings in Ob. His mother coming in from the garden, transferring brown eggs into a red plastic bowl. His job: to carefully wash each one, feeling the weight, the smooth shells. Maybe this was it: to be new and enclosed and ready to spill.
The toilet flushed and Lame-o reappeared. Stared at the wrecked shirt, sweaty hair, fierce eyes.
–Stobbo, my man. Looks like you just got laid.
Some days, the smell is unbearable.
Of course, if the bodies are pretty old—say, eighty years or more—then you hardly have to worry. Most caskets back then were just cheap lumber, wooden boxes, plywood—and the smell isn’t bad once you get in. It smells hardly different than the earth—the soil itself—that’s been settling around the casket for decades. The wood has decayed, is soft, brittle to the touch. And the body itself—nothing but bones.
But if it’s a recent grave, with those new-fangled caskets that are designed to preserve the body—although morticians tend to exaggerate this—the smell is almost unbearable. What morticians fail to explain to their unsuspecting new customers is that embalming only keeps a body fresh until the funeral is over. And while these new “protected” caskets do keep water out—which sounds like a good idea in theory—these caskets do not keep the body from decomposing. Not at all. In fact, if the casket is sealed as well as advertised, it only interferes with the natural dehydration that would otherwise occur. Fluids and gasses are released from the body as it begins to decompose, and the casket is likely to rust out or rot from the inside. The wealthier people tend to buy these protected caskets more, because they cost more and the poor can’t afford them. Apparently, the wealthy takes solace that their loved-one’s body in death won’t fester—no matter how badly they treated the person when she was still alive. It’s strange. Why anybody would care the way his dead relative’s body is stored is beyond me.
It makes much more sense to go into the older caskets than the newer ones. Even though the merchandise you find in the older caskets may not have cost as much when purchased, it might bring in more in the long run. Of course, the antique factor helps, especially for wedding rings. Plus, the quality is usually better—sterling silver, 24 karat gold, quality diamonds. And, as I’ve said, it’s much easier to get into these caskets, and the bodies are usually nothing but skeletons. Easy on the nose.
What many people may not know is that you don’t have to dig up the entire top of the casket to get into it. You really only need to dig a hole about 36 inches in diameter, about where the neck to navel would be on the body. Then you just take your spade or your HoeDag and break through the top of the casket. If the person was wearing jewelry when buried—which I generally already know from my research—the jewelry will almost always be between the neck and navel. Funeral Directors typically fold the hands of the deceased across her chest, which makes my job much easier.
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. It’s a living. I know it’s a crime. But it’s a victimless crime. I don’t hold anybody up. I don’t threaten anybody. I don’t go into people’s homes. I don’t take anything from anybody who is still living, who had plans for their money or their possessions. I only take things that were buried six feet underground, things that were never going to see the light of day ever again, things that do no good being buried with the body—as if they can use those things once they’re gone. I mean, even if there is an afterlife—and I’m not saying there is—what good would a ring or necklace do those people once they’re dead? The jewelry doesn’t go to the afterlife with them. It just sets there on rotting flesh in the ground. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would bury something with them when they die. Myself, I have a notarized piece of paper that describes what I want to happen to my meager possessions when I die—whether it’s my van, my ring, any cash I have—it all needs to go to the Foundation for Children with Disabilities in my hometown of Laxton, Iowa. That way, it will do somebody some good.
Really, what I do is no different than someone using a metal detector on the beach. Does a person who finds a rare coin or ring with a metal detector feel guilty for finding something of value that was lost by another person? If so, very little. They are on their way to the pawn shop. Just like me.
I really hated cemeteries when I first started out doing this job. The mere thought of being in a cemetery at night, alone, the air filthy with ghosts of the past, terrified me half to death. It was the worst thing I could think of to do with myself. I guess that’s why I did it.
The only thing I’ve ever liked about this job is that I don’t have to deal with people much. Over the past 30 years, I’ve developed a pretty strong aversion to people. They always want to know things about you. They want to know what you “do.” They want to know about your family, your job, how you make a living. They make quick judgments of you, based on whether you are a janitor, a teacher, a banker, a CEO. Who cares? Nobody wants to know what you’re thinking, what you’re reading. I’m pretty convinced that no matter how much we think we know someone, we really don’t. We think we do, but we don’t. We all have secrets. Everyone.
Your mind wanders a lot when you are alone in a graveyard in the dead of the night. A lot goes through your mind—both good and bad. Mostly bad. Sometimes you think about that person—those people—from your past, those rare exceptions of people who made an impact in your life, who made life worth living. But you try to shake that from your mind, just as you shake the layers of dust, of soil, from your hands as you dig into the earth. Or you think in your mind what you might say to that one woman who looks nice, gentle, if she came over to you at the library.
What are you reading?
It’s a spiritual book. Trying to figure out who I am.
And what have you discovered?
Still working on it. How about you? Have you figured it out?
No. Just hope there’s more to life than…this.
I know, I know.
Do you believe in God?
Do you believe God punishes people for their sins?
Maybe—but I think most people punish themselves for their sins more than God ever could.
What about Heaven? Do you believe in Heaven?
I believe in death. I wish I could believe in Heaven.
So, you don’t believe in a soul?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I think of the soul the way that Emerson thought of it, the way the Preacher Jim Casey thought of it in Grapes of Wrath.
Wow, that’s interesting. You mean, like, that the universe is one huge, collective soul, and all living beings are one small piece of it?
In a nutshell.
So that would mean…?
I guess that all of us are connected in some way.
Yes. That’s a really nice way to look at things. Do you think Steinbeck was suggesting that Jim Casey was a modern day Messiah?
Well, the Preacher does have the same initials as Jesus Christ. Coincidentally, so do I.
It’s hard work, what I do—and not just physically. I scope. I research. I scale walls and fences. I dig. I buy equipment. A really good pickaxe costs over a hundred dollars. A good digging spade even more. I can’t use any power tools, of course, due to the noise—I have to use those old-fashioned augers, the ones that you have to crank by hand. It can all get expensive. But unlike businessmen, I can’t write off a thing, which kind of pisses me off. I mean, so-called “legitimate businessmen”—they can write off a trip to the tittie bar or golf course for a thousand dollars a night. And I can’t even write off a digging spade? Is that fair? They get a corporate credit card. They get the entire west wing of their house written off. Me? I get nothing. I pay for it all with hard-earned cash—my tools, my ladder, my van—which is also my house. I spend days, weeks, in libraries doing research, looking up old obituaries, sometimes on microfisch—which is hard to read without proper glasses, which I usually can’t afford. Hell, I could probably write off my eye glasses if I was a CEO or in Sales for a company selling stupid shit, like fine crystal, or golf clubs.
In some towns, I get kicked out of libraries. I guess I look homeless—like that’s a crime or something.
Sorry, Sir—you’ve been here for several hours today. You are making some people…uncomfortable
But most of the time, the librarians are nice, helpful. They help me find what I’m looking for—old obituaries.
Thanks. I’m the Genealogist of my family. We’ve got a family reunion coming up in a few weeks. I hope to have some fascinating new information to share with them.
I don’t spend all my time in the libraries researching obituaries. Sometimes I just read—I like classic literature the best. Or philosophy. I don’t necessarily like to talk to others in the library, but I like it that there are people around. I like it best when there are no less than five, but no more than 25 people in the library at the same time as me. I don’t go to large cities, never more than 35,000. I hate big cities—the traffic, the congestion, the people, the confusing intersections, the difficulty finding places, the one-way streets and dead-end roads. Even though sometimes you can be much more anonymous in big cities, I just don’t like it. I feel claustrophobic.
Sometimes I’ll read old articles in newspapers, very sad articles from the past. I try to avoid them, to fight the urge. But like an alcoholic who keeps a bottle in a cabinet—sometimes it beckons you at your most vulnerable. There are a lot of sad stories out there, making you wonder if there is any good at all in the world.
Two people, a woman and her son, were killed yesterday on Exit 267 off I-80 when their car, driven by the woman’s husband and child’s father, crashed into the metal partition…”
I didn’t set out to be what I am. I didn’t study “Grave Robbing” in college. In fact, I was an English Literature major. Well, come to think of it, I don’t know what else I planned to do with that degree. I once was a Technical Writer for a toy company—I wrote all the “how-to” instructions. So you can blame me if, at Christmas, you saw those three words that everyone loves to hate—“some assembly required”—and you felt the directions were shitty. Sorry. I did my best. But I really wasn’t all that enthused by that job—it didn’t give me any real sense of accomplishment. Forty hours a week, working for other people, getting yelled at or belittled by the boss, bored half to death. But it was a living. It helped me support a family early on.
It’s a lonely job. About ten years ago, I had a cat for a week—or, I should say, the cat had me. She was asleep under the hood of my van. I heard something when I cranked it up, like a high-pitched scream in a horror movie. The engine of the van was so loud I could hardly hear it. I quickly turned off the engine, got out, opened the hood of the van, and there she was. A tough looking cat, orange and white, dirty as hell. Matted hair. One eye seemed infected. She was pitiful. But resilient as hell.
I took her in for a while. Fed her, kept her warm. But the more I enjoyed her being around, the worse I felt. I didn’t want to think the way I did, but I couldn’t help it—I was going to outlive that cat. And the closer I got to her, the harder it would be for me when she died, which we all inevitably do. Of course, it was possible that I would die first, but that would even be worse—the poor thing would have been trapped in my van to die. So I put up a flyer at the library in Woodward, Oklahoma where I found her, and within a week she had a good home. It was nice, too, that I got to meet the people who were taking her in. I got to see the reaction of the little boy when he first set eyes on the cat. He’d never had an animal before, and the cat went right to him, purring as the boy hugged her. I tried not to think about how badly the boy would feel when his cat died on him someday. It’s a shame that in nearly every relationship, one has to outlast the other—inevitably forcing the living one to muddle through life thereafter in a dazed purgatory.
School Gymnasium Packed as Student’s Friends Pay Last Respects to Classmate…
Sometimes I think about the person I’m digging up. Sometimes, I read more about her life than I should. It’s better if I don’t do that, if the person is somewhat anonymous. I mean, yes, you have to read the obituary, and maybe even find out a little more about her than what a standard obit tells you. But it’s best not to learn too much about the person, about her family, about her loved ones—those she left behind, the ones who truly suffer. But sometimes it’s nice to make up stories about the person in the casket while you’re digging. You imagine the person doing mundane things, like cooking in the kitchen with her husband, or washing grass stains out of her child’s baseball pants. It helps pass the time being alone at night in a graveyard, death all around. Sometimes you think of something funny, like I once thought if I ever finally got caught in the act and the judge asked me if I liked spending so much time in graveyards, I would reply, “What? Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.” And then everyone would laugh.
Recently I thought I had the perfect find in a town near Reno, one that would set me up for a while, two years or more. The lady was buried in 1959, was married for 51 years, and the obit said she was buried with her wedding ring, which had been given to her by her grandma, whose husband—an immigrant from Italy—had it made by a famous jeweler there. This would be worth thousands, possibly $10,000 or more. And Reno has a lot of pawn shops, which means it’s easy to haggle. All you have to say is another place already offered more, and they’ll usually tack on another 10% to their offer.
I scoped out the cemetery for days and made my plan—point of entrance, time of night, all that. My arms and shoulders aren’t as good as they used to be, making the job more and more difficult to perform. First, you have to carry your tool bag up the ladder—which weighs close to 40 pounds— and throw it over to the other side. Then you have to straddle the fence or wall—which I use an old folded up towel between my thighs—and pull the ladder up and over so you can use it to get out as well. Then, of course, you have to do a lot of digging. It’s getting harder the older I’m getting.
I am very careful not to deface the property—at least, to the naked eye. Out of respect for those still living, those who may visit, I have a special shovel to skim off the top of the earth, preserving the grass in a layer of topsoil—like sod—and carefully set it aside. I lay out a polyethylene tarp near the hole I’m digging, putting all the dirt onto it to avoid a mess. Once I get what I’m there for, I carefully shovel all the dirt back in from my tarp before putting the sod back on top, packing it all down as tightly as possible. By the time I leave, I’d bet you couldn’t even tell what had happened there. I’m like a phantom in the night, leaving no trace. It’s very important to me that this gets done this way. If I wasn’t able to do it this way, I wouldn’t do it at all.
Escaped Inmate Found at Cemetery Where Relatives Buried, Returned to Prison…
It was a sultry night in Nevada, but there was dew on the grass—which helped because I could get my hands wet from the dew and wipe my face, my forehead, my neck—keeping me cool. The moon was nearly full, which put a faint light over all the headstones and trees, causing some daunting shadows.
As you dig, you sometimes can’t help but look around, where headstones—and, thus, bodies—flow as far as the eye can see. You can’t help but think about the bodies, even so much as feeling a little sad. I’m not so sad for the dead as I am for the living, for those they left behind. Don’t get me wrong—many of the bodies surely belonged to some real fuck-ups: wife beaters, child molesters, cheaters, conmen. Good riddance to them. But most people, I believe, have at least some good in them. Some more than others, for sure. And when those good people die—especially when they die too young—I feel really bad for the living who were left behind; those people who could hardly stand it without them, who desperately try to forget them in an effort to end the pain, but then feel guilty for trying to forget them. It’s an endless cycle for the living.
I was very hopeful that this grave near Reno would fund me for years, possibly allow me to retire altogether as I’ve learned how to live quite frugally ever since I stopped drinking some years back. But as soon as I saw the ring, I knew I’d been had.
It was nice, don’t get me wrong. But it was no one-of-a-kind, Italian original. Obviously, this family just wanted to represent themselves with superiority when this woman died, when the obit was written. Either that, or the Italian immigrant who originally bought the ring intentionally made false claims to his bride-to-be to make himself look better. Either way, it screwed me over. But what are you going to do? It was still possibly worth as much as $1000, but that’s only a fraction of what I hoping it could bring.
Jamie Cloninger Sentenced to Two Years for Vehicular Manslaughter…
The very first Pawn shop I visited, the guy offered $650. I told him I had another place already offer $700 and it was easily worth more. He said he’d give me $700 as well, but not a penny more. I really didn’t want to go all over Reno for the possibility of getting just another $50 or so, so I sold it.
While I looked around in his store, he immediately got on the phone.
“Joel, it’s Max. I think I’ve got something just like you’re looking for. It’s over 100 years old. I’m sure Heather will love it. Well, it’s not quite in your price range, but close. Why don’t you bring her down and take a look.”
I went back to the Pawner. “Is someone going to buy that ring?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He looked me up and down. “Why?”
“Oh, no reason. But can I…well, I’d like to stick around and see if they like it. Is that all right?”
About thirty minutes later, Joel and Heather came in. Max showed the ring to Heather, who literally squealed.
“Oh my God!” she yelled. “It’s just right. Is it, like, 100 years old?”
“And then some,” Max said. He cocked his head towards me. “There’s the guy that brought it in. How old is it exactly?”
I cleared my throat. “It was bought by my Great-Grandpa in Italy in 1866 for my Great-Grandma. When my Great-Grandma died, it was given to my mom—who wore it until last year when she died. I hate to get rid of it, but I don’t really get attached to things. My mom kept a journal her whole life, and that’s worth more to me than any piece of jewelry.”
“It’s from Italy?” Heather asked, her eyes glowing. She looked back to Max. “How much?”
“Oh, I know I can get $1200 for it. But I’ll…”
He sighed, as though it pained him to do this. “I’ll sell it to you for $1000. But I need it within 48 hours.”
Joel and Heather looked at each other.
“Can you give until Friday?” Joel asked.
Max shook his head. “Sorry.”
Heather looked to Joel, her eyes pleading. They were young, maybe 19 or 20. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but they both looked as though life had already dealt them a tough hand, as though they’d suffered more than the average person—and by a long shot. Then Heather turned her body sideways, and I saw the beginnings of a rounding belly, protruding straight out through her tight camisole top.
“Come on, Max,” I pleaded, as if I’d known him for years. “You’ve only had the ring for 30 minutes. Can’t you just sell it at cost? Or knock it down a little?”
Max gave me a look.
“You stay out of this. I’m doing business here. I’ve got to make a living too. I’m behind in my own bills.”
“Look,” Joel said. “I’ve got $500 right now. I can…I can probably get the other $500 by Friday. Will you do that, Max? You know how much this means to Heather.”
Max sighed. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll hold your $500 until Friday. If you get me rest of it—every penny—by noon on Friday, you can leave with it. But if you don’t have every penny by noon on Friday, then I keep your money, and the ring.”
Max then shook his head, sighing. “I can’t believe I’m willing to do this for you, not after the way you’ve screwed me in the past.”
“I know,” Joel said. “I know—I’m sorry. But I did pay you, eventually I did.”
“OK,” Max said, a look of disgust in his chubby, bearded face. “Is that a deal?”
Joel looked to Heather, nervous as hell, his eyes like a puppy.
Suddenly, unconsciously, I found myself walking towards the counter, to Max. Then I looked to Joel.
“So, you two planning to get married?” I asked him.
Joel smiled, seemingly forgetting the precarious position he was in at that moment. “Yes Sir,” he said excitedly. “She’s my girl.”
I looked to Heather, who wiped her stringy, unkempt hair out of her eyes, smiling as well. She had a small piercing on her nose, another one on her lower lip. Her teeth were slightly crooked, somewhat decayed. She grabbed his arm, holding on tight, placing her cheek against his shoulder. I noticed a resemblance between her and Max, possibly siblings.
I pulled the $700 wad out of my pocket. There were two $100 bills, two $50 bills, and the rest $20’s. I counted out $500.
“You say you’ve got $500 right now?” I asked Joel.
His eyes widened, unsure what was transpiring. He nodded slowly.
“Let’s see it,” I said.
He looked to Heather, his eyes narrowing. He reached in his pocket, pulling out money, opening his hand to show me.
“Put it on the counter,” I said.
He put it down, and I put mine next to his.
“Count it up, Max.”
Max looked at me suspiciously.
“Well, it’s not counterfeit, I can guarantee you,” I said. “It’s the same money you gave me.”
Heather and Joel both started to protest, but I waved them off.
“Consider it a wedding gift,” I said.
Max counted up the money.
“You’re five dollars short,” he said, somewhat smugly. But maybe he had his reasons.
I pulled out another twenty, setting it on the counter. Max took the twenty and found a ten and five from Joel’s stash, handing them back to me.
Joel was ambivalent—thankful, but unsure.
“Mister, we just can’t take your money like this. You…give me your address. I’ll repay you, I promise,” he said. I looked to Heather, who had tears in her eyes.
“Max, give Joel the damn ring already,” I said.
“What’s your address?” Joel asked again.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“No,” Heather said. “We insist. We have to give you something. Look,” she said, putting both fingers up to her ears. “These earrings, they’re worth something. Joel got them for my birthday, they cost $60. Max, these are only two months old. How much for them.”
“I don’t need any God damn earrings that people can get at Kohl’s,” Max said.
“Max, don’t be an ass hole. Come on…”
“Look,” I said, putting my hands up in the air. Max still had the ring in his hand. I held out my hand, and Max handed me the ring.
“Come over here with me,” I told them both.
We walked away from Max into a corner. I put my hands on their shoulders, looking back and forth between them.
“Listen, you two. I’m just an aging man, all alone, and I don’t have much time left on this earth.”
“What’s wrong?” Heather asked.
“I’ve got cancer,” I lied. “And the only reason I sold my great-grandma’s ring was because I had no one to give it to, no kids—no family of any kind. And I wanted that ring to go to a nice couple, a couple who are starting out their lives together, a couple who has nothing but each other. I never imagined I would have the chance to see how this ring might bring such joy to other people. I mean, that ring represents nearly 90 years of marriage—my great-grandma for 48 years, and my mom for 40. I don’t want this ring to go to just anybody. I want you two—no, I need you two—to just accept this ring and be happy about it. Do you like it, Heather?”
“I…love it,” she said, her eyes welling.
“Then please—help a dying man out and just accept this gift. Please. It would mean more to me than you could ever know.”
I held the ring out in front of Joel, who I forced to take it.
“Thank you so much,” Joel said, his eyes misty as well. He hugged me. Then Heather hugged us both simultaneously. They were both crying.
“Alright, then,” I said. “Good luck to both of you.”
I turned to leave.
“Wait,” Joel said.
I turned back.
He bent down on one knee in front of Heather, putting out his hand in front of her. Her tears got stronger as she gave him her right hand. He slipped the ring onto her finger.
“I love you more than anything in the world, Heather,” he said. “Will you make me the happiest man ever and be my wife?”
She jumped up and down, literally. “Yes, yes, yes!” she yelled.
Almost brought a tear to my eye.
We hugged again. They thanked me profusely. They promised they would never let that ring go, that it would stay in their family forever.
“You ever been married?” Heather asked.
I shook my head. “No,” I said, offering a slight smile. “I’m too damn tough to fall in love.”
I got on the road immediately. I had a new cemetery to visit, one I didn’t have to research; one I didn’t have to wait until night to enter; one for which I didn’t have to scale the walls; one I wouldn’t need any tools.
I pulled into the cemetery two days after leaving Reno, nearly driving straight through, having eaten nothing but what I could get from gas stations along the way.
I pulled into the Laxton, Iowa cemetery in the early afternoon, the sun hot, a steady breeze hitting my sweaty body as I got out of my van. I walked to two headstones, headstones that hadn’t been visited in ten years or more. Which was a shame.
The names on the headstones immediately caused my throat to swell up. Swallowing became difficult as I was holding back tears.
Jennifer Cloninger, Wife and Mother
Jeremiah Cloninger, Loving Son
I lay on my back between their headstones, looking up to the sky, thinking of Jenn and Jeremiah, of Joel and Heather and their unborn child, their future children. I replayed our conversation over and over again, from the first moment I spoke with them to the last word I said.
And as I looked to the sky, the white clouds racing high above me, the only movement around me the swaying leaves of the tress, I closed my eyes tightly, wishing desperately that everything I had told them was true.
Every last word.
Each day I wear my grief
like metal mesh. I see you
as spirit burdened to speak.
You try to comfort this field
of wounds. You tend the amputees
and bound the screaming with soft song.
But it is hard for you to stay,
to not let go completely into the light.
I let you go. I make this year my bridge.
Though my heart has ruptured and cannot heal,
though forever overcome with this sadness
of our love silenced by brutal, unnamable death,
I will build a new house, dive with both hands
into my yard until the evergreens grow.
I will contain you as more than memory –
in my harvest will bloom many sunflowers
of your great generosity. And your fiery blood
will sprout the roots and flesh of passion fruit.
The maple tree will grow large like you, protecting all
within its strong and tender shadow. And children
will be drawn to this yard, to play there amongst
the tall dramatic grass, and then sit still to watch
with wonder the many shades of sky, reflecting
the warmth of your paternal sun-setting colours.
– Willa Cather
First published in McClure’s, 1905. The story also appeared in Cather’s short story collection, The Troll Garden and Selected Stories.
A group of the townspeople stood on the station siding of a little Kansas town, awaiting the coming of the night train, which was already twenty minutes overdue. The snow had fallen thick over everything; in the pale starlight the line of bluffs across the wide, white meadows south of the town made soft, smoke-colored curves against the clear sky. The men on the siding stood first on one foot and then on the other, their hands thrust deep into their trousers pockets, their overcoats open, their shoulders screwed up with the cold; and they glanced from time to time toward the southeast, where the railroad track wound along the river shore. They conversed in low tones and moved about restlessly, seeming uncertain as to what was expected of them. There was but one of the company who looked as though he knew exactly why he was there; and he kept conspicuously apart; walking to the far end of the platform, returning to the station door, then pacing up the track again, his chin sunk in the high collar of his overcoat, his burly shoulders drooping forward, his gait heavy and dogged. Presently he was approached by a tall, spare, grizzled man clad in a faded Grand Army suit, who shuffled out from the group and advanced with a certain deference, craning his neck forward until his back made the angle of a jackknife three-quarters open.
“I reckon she’s agoin’ to be pretty late ag’in tonight, Jim,” he remarked in a squeaky falsetto. “S’pose it’s the snow?”
“I don’t know,” responded the other man with a shade of annoyance, speaking from out an astonishing cataract of red beard that grew fiercely and thickly in all directions.
The spare man shifted the quill toothpick he was chewing to the other side of his mouth. “It ain’t likely that anybody from the East will come with the corpse, I s’pose,” he went on reflectively.
“I don’t know,” responded the other, more curtly than before.
“It’s too bad he didn’t belong to some lodge or other. I like an order funeral myself. They seem more appropriate for people of some reputation,” the spare man continued, with an ingratiating concession in his shrill voice, as he carefully placed his toothpick in his vest pocket. He always carried the flag at the G. A. R. funerals in the town.
The heavy man turned on his heel, without replying, and walked up the siding. The spare man shuffled back to the uneasy group. “Jim’s ez full ez a tick, ez ushel,” he commented commiseratingly.
Just then a distant whistle sounded, and there was a shuffling of feet on the platform. A number of lanky boys of all ages appeared as suddenly and slimily as eels wakened by the crack of thunder; some came from the waiting room, where they had been warming themselves by the red stove, or half-asleep on the slat benches; others uncoiled themselves from baggage trucks or slid out of express wagons. Two clambered down from the driver’s seat of a hearse that stood backed up against the siding. They straightened their stooping shoulders and lifted their heads, and a flash of momentary animation kindled their dull eyes at that cold, vibrant scream, the world-wide call for men. It stirred them like the note of a trumpet; just as it had often stirred the man who was coming home tonight, in his boyhood.
The night express shot, red as a rocket, from out the eastward marsh lands and wound along the river shore under the long lines of shivering poplars that sentineled the meadows, the escaping steam hanging in gray masses against the pale sky and blotting out the Milky Way. In a moment the red glare from the headlight streamed up the snow-covered track before the siding and glittered on the wet, black rails. The burly man with the disheveled red beard walked swiftly up the platform toward the approaching train, uncovering his head as he went. The group of men behind him hesitated, glanced questioningly at one another, and awkwardly followed his example. The train stopped, and the crowd shuffled up to the express car just as the door was thrown open, the spare man in the G. A. B. suit thrusting his head forward with curiosity. The express messenger appeared in the doorway, accompanied by a young man in a long ulster and traveling cap.
“Are Mr. Merrick’s friends here?” inquired the young man.
The group on the platform swayed and shuffled uneasily. Philip Phelps, the banker, responded with dignity: “We have come to take charge of the body. Mr. Merrick’s father is very feeble and can’t be about.”
“Send the agent out here,” growled the express messenger, “and tell the operator to lend a hand.”
The coffin was got out of its rough box and down on the snowy platform. The townspeople drew back enough to make room for it and then formed a close semicircle about it, looking curiously at the palm leaf which lay across the black cover. No one said anything. The baggage man stood by his truck, waiting to get at the trunks. The engine panted heavily, and the fireman dodged in and out among the wheels with his yellow torch and long oilcan, snapping the spindle boxes. The young Bostonian, one of the dead sculptor’s pupils who had come with the body, looked about him helplessly. He turned to the banker, the only one of that black, uneasy, stoop-shouldered group who seemed enough of an individual to be addressed.
“None of Mr. Merrick’s brothers are here?” he asked uncertainly.
The man with the red heard for the first time stepped up and joined the group. “No, they have not come yet; the family is scattered. The body will be taken directly to the house.” He stooped and took hold of one of the handles of the coffin.
“Take the long hill road up, Thompson–it will be easier on the horses,” called the liveryman as the undertaker snapped the door of the hearse and prepared to mount to the driver’s seat.
Laird, the red-bearded lawyer, turned again to the stranger: “We didn’t know whether there would be anyone with him or not,” he explained. “It’s a long walk, so you’d better go up in the hack.” He pointed to a single, battered conveyance, but the young man replied stiffly: “Thank you, but I think I will go up with the hearse. If you don’t object,” turning to the undertaker, “I’ll ride with you.”
They clambered up over the wheels and drove off in the starlight tip the long, white hill toward the town. The lamps in the still village were shining from under the low, snow-burdened roofs; and beyond, on every side, the plains reached out into emptiness, peaceful and wide as the soft sky itself, and wrapped in a tangible, white silence.
When the hearse backed up to a wooden sidewalk before a naked, weatherbeaten frame house, the same composite, ill-defined group that had stood upon the station siding was huddled about the gate. The front yard was an icy swamp, and a couple of warped planks, extending from the sidewalk to the door, made a sort of rickety footbridge. The gate hung on one hinge and was opened wide with difficulty. Steavens, the young stranger, noticed that something black was tied to the knob of the front door.
The grating sound made by the casket, as it was drawn from the hearse, was answered by a scream from the house; the front door was wrenched open, and a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking: “My boy, my boy! And this is how you’ve come home to me!”
As Steavens turned away and closed his eyes with a shudder of unutterable repulsion, another woman, also tall, but flat and angular, dressed entirely in black, darted out of the house and caught Mrs. Merrick by the shoulders, crying sharply: “Come, come, Mother; you mustn’t go on like this!” Her tone changed to one of obsequious solemnity as she turned to the banker: “The parlor is ready, Mr. Phelps.”
The bearers carried the coffin along the narrow boards, while the undertaker ran ahead with the coffin-rests. They bore it into a large, unheated room that smelled of dampness and disuse and furniture polish, and set it down under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a “Rogers group” of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax. Henry Steavens stared about him with the sickening conviction that there had been some horrible mistake, and that he had somehow arrived at the wrong destination. He looked painfully about over the clover-green Brussels, the fat plush upholstery, among the hand-painted china plaques and panels, and vases, for some mark of identification, for something that might once conceivably have belonged to Harvey Merrick. It was not until he recognized his friend in the crayon portrait of a little boy in kilts and curls hanging above the piano that he felt willing to let any of these people approach the coffin.
“Take the lid off, Mr. Thompson; let me see my boy’s face,” wailed the elder woman between her sobs. This time Steavens looked fearfully, almost beseechingly into her face, red and swollen under its masses of strong, black, shiny hair. He flushed, dropped his eyes, and then, almost incredulously, looked again. There was a kind of power about her face–a kind of brutal handsomeness, even, but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so colored and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there. The long nose was distended and knobbed at the end, and there were deep lines on either side of it; her heavy, black brows almost met across her forehead; her teeth were large and square and set far apart–teeth that could tear. She filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water, and even Steavens felt himself being drawn into the whirlpool.
The daughter–the tall, rawboned woman in crepe, with a mourning comb in her hair which curiously lengthened her long face sat stiffly upon the sofa, her hands, conspicuous for their large knuckles, folded in her lap, her mouth and eyes drawn down, solemnly awaiting the opening of the coffin. Near the door stood a mulatto woman, evidently a servant in the house, with a timid bearing and an emaciated face pitifully sad and gentle. She was weeping silently, the corner of her calico apron lifted to her eyes, occasionally suppressing a long, quivering sob. Steavens walked over and stood beside her.
Feeble steps were heard on the stairs, and an old man, tall and frail, odorous of pipe smoke, with shaggy, unkept gray hair and a dingy beard, tobacco stained about the mouth, entered uncertainly. He went slowly up to the coffin and stood, rolling a blue cotton handkerchief between his hands, seeming so pained and embarrassed by his wife’s orgy of grief that he had no consciousness of anything else.
“There, there, Annie, dear, don’t take on so,” he quavered timidly, putting out a shaking hand and awkwardly patting her elbow. She turned with a cry and sank upon his shoulder with such violence that he tottered a little. He did not even glance toward the coffin, but continued to look at her with a dull, frightened, appealing expression, as a spaniel looks at the whip. His sunken cheeks slowly reddened and burned with miserable shame. When his wife rushed from the room her daughter strode after her with set lips. The servant stole up to the coffin, bent over it for a moment, and then slipped away to the kitchen, leaving Steavens, the lawyer, and the father to themselves. The old man stood trembling and looking down at his dead son’s face. The sculptor’s splendid head seemed even more noble in its rigid stillness than in life. The dark hair had crept down upon the wide forehead; the face seemed strangely long, but in it there was not that beautiful and chaste repose which we expect to find in the faces of the dead. The brows were so drawn that there were two deep lines above the beaked nose, and the chin was thrust forward defiantly. It was as though the strain of life had been so sharp and bitter that death could not at once wholly relax the tension and smooth the countenance into perfect peace– as though he were still guarding something precious and holy, which might even yet be wrested from him.
The old man’s lips were working under his stained beard. He turned to the lawyer with timid deference: “Phelps and the rest are comin’ back to set up with Harve, ain’t they?” he asked. “Thank ‘ee, Jim, thank ‘ee.” He brushed the hair back gently from his son’s forehead. “He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child and the kindest of ’em all–only we didn’t none of us ever onderstand him.” The tears trickled slowly down his beard and dropped upon the sculptor’s coat.
“Martin, Martin. Oh, Martin! come here,” his wife wailed from the top of the stairs. The old man started timorously: “Yes, Annie, I’m coming.” He turned away, hesitated stood for a moment in miserable indecision; then he reached back and patted the dead man’s hair softly, and stumbled from the room.
“Poor old man, I didn’t think he had any tears left. Seems as if his eyes would have gone dry long ago. At his age nothing cuts very deep,” remarked the lawyer.
Something in his tone made Steavens glance up. While the mother had been in the room the young man had scarcely seen anyone else; but now, from the moment he first glanced into Jim Laird’s florid face and bloodshot eyes, he knew that he had found what he had been heartsick at not finding before–the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in someone, even here.
The man was red as his beard, with features swollen and blurred by dissipation, and a hot, blazing blue eye. His face was strained–that of a man who is controlling himself with difficulty–and he kept plucking at his beard with a sort of fierce resentment. Steavens, sitting by the window, watched him turn down the glaring lamp, still its jangling pendants with an angry gesture, and then stand with his hands locked behind him, staring down into the master’s face. He could not help wondering what link there could have been between the porcelain vessel and so sooty a lump of potter’s clay.
From the kitchen an uproar was sounding; when the dining- room door opened the import of it was clear. The mother was abusing the maid for having forgotten to make the dressing for the chicken salad which had been prepared for the watchers. Steavens had never heard anything in the least like it; it was injured, emotional, dramatic abuse, unique and masterly in its excruciating cruelty, as violent and unrestrained as had been her grief of twenty minutes before. With a shudder of disgust the lawyer went into the dining room and closed the door into the kitchen.
“Poor Roxy’s getting it now,” he remarked when he came back. “The Merricks took her out of the poorhouse years ago; and if her loyalty would let her, I guess the poor old thing could tell tales that would curdle your blood. She’s the mulatto woman who was standing in here a while ago, with her apron to her eyes. The old woman is a fury; there never was anybody like her for demonstrative piety and ingenious cruelty. She made Harvey’s life a hell for him when he lived at home; he was so sick ashamed of it. I never could see how he kept himself so sweet.”
“He was wonderful,” said Steavens slowly, “wonderful; but until tonight I have never known how wonderful.”
“That is the true and eternal wonder of it, anyway; that it can come even from such a dung heap as this,” the lawyer cried, with a sweeping gesture which seemed to indicate much more than the four walls within which they stood.
“I think I’ll see whether I can get a little air. The room is so close I am beginning to feel rather faint,” murmured Steavens, struggling with one of the windows. The sash was stuck, however, and would not yield, so he sat down dejectedly and began pulling at his collar. The lawyer came over, loosened the sash with one blow of his red fist, and sent the window up a few inches. Steavens thanked him, but the nausea which had been gradually climbing into his throat for the last half-hour left him with but one desire–a desperate feeling that he must get away from this place with what was left of Harvey Merrick. Oh, he comprehended well enough now the quiet bitterness of the smile that he had seen so often on his master’s lips!
He remembered that once, when Merrick returned from a visit home, he brought with him a singularly feeling and suggestive bas-relief of a thin, faded old woman, sitting and sewing something pinned to her knee; while a full-lipped, full-blooded little urchin, his trousers held up by a single gallows, stood beside her, impatiently twitching her gown to call her attention to a butterfly he had caught. Steavens, impressed by the tender and delicate modeling of the thin, tired face, had asked him if it were his mother. He remembered the dull flush that had burned up in the sculptor’s face.
The lawyer was sitting in a rocking chair beside the coffin, his head thrown back and his eyes closed. Steavens looked at him earnestly, puzzled at the line of the chin, and wondering why a man should conceal a feature of such distinction under that disfiguring shock of beard. Suddenly, as though he felt the young sculptor’s keen glance, he opened his eyes.
“Was he always a good deal of an oyster?” he asked abruptly. “He was terribly shy as a boy.”
“Yes, he was an oyster, since you put it so,” rejoined Steavens. “Although he could be very fond of people, he always gave one the impression of being detached. He disliked violent emotion; he was reflective, and rather distrustful of himself– except, of course, as regarded his work. He was surefooted enough there. He distrusted men pretty thoroughly and women even more, yet somehow without believing ill of them. He was determined, indeed, to believe the best, but he seemed afraid to investigate.”
“A burnt dog dreads the fire,” said the lawyer grimly, and closed his eyes.
Steavens went on and on, reconstructing that whole miserable boyhood. All this raw, biting ugliness had been the portion of the man whose tastes were refined beyond the limits of the reasonable–whose mind was an exhaustless gallery of beautiful impressions, and so sensitive that the mere shadow of a poplar leaf flickering against a sunny wall would be etched and held there forever. Surely, if ever a man had the magic word in his fingertips, it was Merrick. Whatever he touched, he revealed its holiest secret; liberated it from enchantment and restored it to its pristine loveliness, like the Arabian prince who fought the enchantress spell for spell. Upon whatever he had come in contact with, he had left a beautiful record of the experience–a sort of ethereal signature; a scent, a sound, a color that was his own.
Steavens understood now the real tragedy of his master’s life; neither love nor wine, as many had conjectured, but a blow which had fallen earlier and cut deeper than these could have done–a shame not his, and yet so unescapably his, to bide in his heart from his very boyhood. And without–the frontier warfare; the yearning of a boy, cast ashore upon a desert of newness and ugliness and sordidness, for all that is chastened and old, and noble with traditions.
At eleven o’clock the tall, flat woman in black crepe entered, announced that the watchers were arriving, and asked them “to step into the dining room.” As Steavens rose the lawyer said dryly: “You go on–it’ll be a good experience for you, doubtless; as for me, I’m not equal to that crowd tonight; I’ve had twenty years of them.”
As Steavens closed the door after him be glanced back at the lawyer, sitting by the coffin in the dim light, with his chin resting on his hand.
The same misty group that had stood before the door of the express car shuffled into the dining room. In the light of the kerosene lamp they separated and became individuals. The minister, a pale, feeble-looking man with white hair and blond chin-whiskers, took his seat beside a small side table and placed his Bible upon it. The Grand Army man sat down behind the stove and tilted his chair back comfortably against the wall, fishing his quill toothpick from his waistcoat pocket. The two bankers, Phelps and Elder, sat off in a corner behind the dinner table, where they could finish their discussion of the new usury law and its effect on chattel security loans. The real estate agent, an old man with a smiling, hypocritical face, soon joined them. The coal-and-lumber dealer and the cattle shipper sat on opposite sides of the hard coal-burner, their feet on the nickelwork. Steavens took a book from his pocket and began to read. The talk around him ranged through various topics of local interest while the house was quieting down. When it was clear that the members of the family were in bed the Grand Army man hitched his shoulders and, untangling his long legs, caught his heels on the rounds of his chair.
“S’pose there’ll be a will, Phelps?” he queried in his weak falsetto.
The banker laughed disagreeably and began trimming his nails with a pearl-handled pocketknife.
“There’ll scarcely be any need for one, will there?” he queried in his turn.
The restless Grand Army man shifted his position again, getting his knees still nearer his chin. “Why, the ole man says Harve’s done right well lately,” he chirped.
The other banker spoke up. “I reckon he means by that Harve ain’t asked him to mortgage any more farms lately, so as he could go on with his education.”
“Seems like my mind don’t reach back to a time when Harve wasn’t bein’ edycated,” tittered the Grand Army man.
There was a general chuckle. The minister took out his handkerchief and blew his nose sonorously. Banker Phelps closed his knife with a snap. “It’s too bad the old man’s sons didn’t turn out better,” he remarked with reflective authority. “They never hung together. He spent money enough on Harve to stock a dozen cattle farms and he might as well have poured it into Sand Creek. If Harve had stayed at home and helped nurse what little they had, and gone into stock on the old man’s bottom farm, they might all have been well fixed. But the old man had to trust everything to tenants and was cheated right and left.”
“Harve never could have handled stock none,” interposed the cattleman. “He hadn’t it in him to be sharp. Do you remember when he bought Sander’s mules for eight-year-olds, when everybody in town knew that Sander’s father-in-law give ’em to his wife for a wedding present eighteen years before, an’ they was full-grown mules then.”
Everyone chuckled, and the Grand Army man rubbed his knees with a spasm of childish delight.
“Harve never was much account for anything practical, and he shore was never fond of work,” began the coal-and-lumber dealer. “I mind the last time he was home; the day he left, when the old man was out to the barn helpin’ his hand hitch up to take Harve to the train, and Cal Moots was patchin’ up the fence, Harve, he come out on the step and sings out, in his ladylike voice: ‘Cal Moots, Cal Moots! please come cord my trunk.’”
“That’s Harve for you,” approved the Grand Army man gleefully. “I kin hear him howlin’ yet when he was a big feller in long pants and his mother used to whale him with a rawhide in the barn for lettin’ the cows git foundered in the cornfield when he was drivin’ ’em home from pasture. He killed a cow of mine that-a-way onc’t–a pure Jersey and the best milker I had, an’ the ole man had to put up for her. Harve, he was watchin’ the sun set acros’t the marshes when the anamile got away; he argued that sunset was oncommon fine.”
“Where the old man made his mistake was in sending the boy East to school,” said Phelps, stroking his goatee and speaking in a deliberate, judicial tone. “There was where he got his head full of traipsing to Paris and all such folly. What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college.”
The letters were swimming before Steavens’s eyes. Was it possible that these men did not understand, that the palm on the coffin meant nothing to them? The very name of their town would have remained forever buried in the postal guide had it not been now and again mentioned in the world in connection with Harvey Merrick’s. He remembered what his master had said to him on the day of his death, after the congestion of both lungs had shut off any probability of recovery, and the sculptor had asked his pupil to send his body home. “It’s not a pleasant place to be lying while the world is moving and doing and bettering,” he had said with a feeble smile, “but it rather seems as though we ought to go back to the place we came from in the end. The townspeople will come in for a look at me; and after they have had their say I shan’t have much to fear from the judgment of God. The wings of the Victory, in there”–with a weak gesture toward his studio– will not shelter me.“
The cattleman took up the comment. "Forty’s young for a Merrick to cash in; they usually hang on pretty well. Probably he helped it along with whisky.”
“His mother’s people were not long-lived, and Harvey never had a robust constitution,” said the minister mildly. He would have liked to say more. He had been the boy’s Sunday-school teacher, and had been fond of him; but he felt that he was not in a position to speak. His own sons had turned out badly, and it was not a year since one of them had made his last trip home in the express car, shot in a gambling house in the Black Hills.
“Nevertheless, there is no disputin’ that Harve frequently looked upon the wine when it was red, also variegated, and it shore made an oncommon fool of him,” moralized the cattleman.
Just then the door leading into the parlor rattled loudly, and everyone started involuntarily, looking relieved when only Jim Laird came out. His red face was convulsed with anger, and the Grand Army man ducked his head when he saw the spark in his blue, bloodshot eye. They were all afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no other man in all western Kansas could do; and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed the door gently behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the courtroom, ears were always pricked up, as it usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.
“I’ve been with you gentlemen before,” he began in a dry, even tone, “when you’ve sat by the coffins of boys born and raised in this town; and, if I remember rightly, you were never any too well satisfied when you checked them up. What’s the matter, anyhow? Why is it that reputable young men are as scarce as millionaires in Sand City? It might almost seem to a stranger that there was some way something the matter with your progressive town. Why did Ruben Sayer, the brightest young lawyer you ever turned out, after he had come home from the university as straight as a die, take to drinking and forge a check and shoot himself? Why did Bill Merrit’s son die of the shakes in a saloon in Omaha? Why was Mr. Thomas’s son, here, shot in a gambling house? Why did young Adams burn his mill to beat the insurance companies and go to the pen?”
The lawyer paused and unfolded his arms, laying one clenched fist quietly on the table. “I’ll tell you why. Because you drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers; because you carped away at them as you’ve been carping here tonight, holding our friends Phelps and Elder up to them for their models, as our grandfathers held up George Washington and John Adams. But the boys, worse luck, were young and raw at the business you put them to; and how could they match coppers with such artists as Phelps and Elder? You wanted them to be successful rascals; they were only unsuccessful ones– that’s all the difference. There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn’t come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels. Lord, Lord, how you did hate him! Phelps, here, is fond of saying that he could buy and sell us all out any time he’s a mind to; but he knew Harve wouldn’t have given a tinker’s damn for his bank and all his cattle farms put together; and a lack of appreciation, that way, goes hard with Phelps.
"Old Nimrod, here, thinks Harve drank too much; and this from such as Nimrod and me!”
“Brother Elder says Harve was too free with the old man’s money–fell short in filial consideration, maybe. Well, we can all remember the very tone in which brother Elder swore his own father was a liar, in the county court; and we all know that the old man came out of that partnership with his son as bare as a sheared lamb. But maybe I’m getting personal, and I’d better be driving ahead at what I want to say.”
The lawyer paused a moment, squared his heavy shoulders, and went on: “Harvey Merrick and I went to school together, back East. We were dead in earnest, and we wanted you all to be proud of us some day. We meant to be great men. Even 1, and I haven’t lost my sense of humor, gentlemen, I meant to be a great man. I came back here to practice, and I found you didn’t in the least want me to be a great man. You wanted me to be a shrewd lawyer– oh, yes! Our veteran here wanted me to get him an increase of pension, because he had dyspepsia; Phelps wanted a new county survey that would put the widow Wilson’s little bottom farm inside his south line; Elder wanted to lend money at 5 per cent a month and get it collected; old Stark here wanted to wheedle old women up in Vermont into investing their annuities in real estate mortgages that are not worth the paper they are written on. Oh, you needed me hard enough, and you’ll go on needing me; and that’s why I’m not afraid to plug the truth home to you this once.
"Well, I came back here and became the damned shyster you wanted me to be. You pretend to have some sort of respect for me; and yet you’ll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn’t dirty and whose hands you couldn’t tie. Oh, you’re a discriminating lot of Christians! There have been times when the sight of Harvey’s name in some Eastern paper has made me hang my head like a whipped dog; and, again, times when I liked to think of him off there in the world, away from all this hog wallow, doing his great work and climbing the big, clean upgrade he’d set for himself.
"And we? Now that we’ve fought and lied and sweated and stolen, and hated as only the disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little Western town know how to do, what have we got to show for it? Harvey Merrick wouldn’t have given one sunset over your marshes for all you’ve got put together, and you know it. It’s not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he’s been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could ever have from such a lot of sick, side- tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City–upon which town may God have mercy!”
The lawyer thrust out his hand to Steavens as he passed him, caught up his overcoat in the hall, and had left the house before the Grand Army man had had time to lift his ducked head and crane his long neck about at his fellows.
Next day Jim Laird was drunk and unable to attend the funeral services. Steavens called twice at his office, but was compelled to start East without seeing him. He had a presentiment that he would hear from him again, and left his address on the lawyer’s table; but if Laird found it, he never acknowledged it. The thing in him that Harvey Merrick had loved must have gone underground with Harvey Merrick’s coffin; for it never spoke again, and Jim got the cold he died of driving across the Colorado mountains to defend one of Phelps’s sons, who had got into trouble out there by cutting government timber.
Winslow Homer: watercolor
Darker shades of
grey on black,
thickening into an
encroachment of night,
on River Thames;
rowers bent about
their last diurnal
task, unaware of