I Can Hardly Remember
Leaves crunch under the shoes my grandson bought for me. They’re forest green, with accents of gray, and extra wide with cushioned arch support. Long, compression socks accompany them up my calves, stretched thin because the pharmacy only had the size below my regular. You can see the sores through them – it’s alright, not trying to impress anyone with my legs anymore.
I stop at Fran Kowaslki’s grave for a moment and straighten the flowerpot left behind from the last time her granddaughter, Lisa, visited. It’s been months and there are a few weeds growing from the soil that hasn’t been washed out of the pot. I leave them because they’re violets and I refuse to call something that pretty a weed.
When I tell folks I’m a cemetery attendant, and I don’t normally tell them, they usually look curious and full of questions, but then are afraid to ask.
They’ve tried to price me out, dropping wages to get me to retire so they can hire some 17-year-old. What they don’t understand is I’d do it for free. I like it out here. There’s a different kind of solitude at a field full of graves.
Fran was a good friend. We even went on a date once. It didn’t go well – she had a temper that flared up while we walked from the movies to a diner for ice cream and we watched a man snatch a woman’s purse. I didn’t know what the hell to do as he ran away, he was bigger than me and apparently faster. She knew exactly what she wanted me to do, on the other hand. I walked her to her parents’ home, and we let it go the next day at school.
She died of cancer, like most of us do.
It’s not a busy day at the cemetery – and trust me, a hardy flu season or a terrible accident like the train crash in 2004 can make for busy ones – so I decide to take a stroll around and make sure things are kept up. It’s not my job, I know, but the landscapers are teenage boys, and you can
already assume my feelings about their kind. My job is to make sure people can find a grave or direct them to a funeral — it’s a big place — but sometimes it’s boring and I do the jobs of others.
The cemetery is three acres, and I can’t walk that far in one adventure. Thankfully, the three graves I like to visit during the day are within a few football fields of each other. I park the golf cart in the middle of them.
April 24, 1951 – June 6, 1970
Take a sad song and make it better
We were both 19 and fully enveloped in the stage of young love that kisses and never hurts, because there’s nothing evil in either of you. We would listen to The Beatles together on her dad’s Thorens and she’d dream that I was Paul but know that I was, and always will be, a Ringo. Her parents put the “Hey Jude” lyric on the gravestone because they never understood why Back in the U.S.S.R was her favorite song. I’ll admit it doesn’t make for a good epitaph.
On June 5, I remember we sat by the lake, ate peaches and kissed with the juices rolling down our lips and chins. She was wearing a white and black one-piece bathing suit. I remember watching the juice roll down her chest and she gave me a playful slap on the cheek.
“I love the way you look in the water,” I remember I said.
“I love you,” Lilah said back. I don’t remember anything else we said the rest of the night. It was all a blur of the first passionate freedom I’d ever felt.
That night, in a run of firsts, she slept at my place. It was just a tiny basement studio in downtown Merrittsville, under a deli named Mike’s. She told her father there was nothing he could do about it, she was going to stay at her boyfriend’s place because she was 19 for God’s
sake – her words, not mine. And for her father’s sake, after more blurry kissing and more blurry words over some cheap bottle of wine I bought at the deli earlier that day, I slept on the couch that night.
In the morning, I woke her up with a cup of coffee. She complained of chest pains. I told her I’d grab the antacids. I remember coming back with the Tums in hand and seeing her bent over in pain. By the time I could sit down and ease her on to me, she had enough time for one
last look at me through pained eyes.
I asked her what was wrong, like a fool. She never answered. And despite the doctor diagnosing her with a rare heart disease normally found in children, and the painful heartache I was obviously enduring, her father never forgave me.
I kept a bracelet of Lilah’s in my desk and my wife never complained, she understood. She’s buried beside her father, who drank himself to death within five years of the funeral. I leave a flower on his grave, along with hers, every year on the anniversary of her heart attack.
Just a dozen or so yards down the path of gray stone and green grass, I drop a copy of the Town Gazette off at a cheap-looking grave beside a mausoleum for the town’s former bigshot family – the Simmonses. Today’s front page is a smorgasbord of sadness – a shooting near the local daycare, the school board bans a young adult novel about a planet of androgenous characters who love freely, and an ad for the new retirement facility that just opened near my house. It has its own bowling alley, they say.
Before sitting the paper down, I read it thoroughly so that I could recite what I’d gleaned from it while standing there in front of the grave. My father, Henry, loved the newspaper. He’d been a paper boy as a child, running around the downtown square handing them out for pennies that he’d get a commission on. When he’d earned enough to buy a used bike, they upgraded him to delivery boy and gave him a meager salary.
Henry “Hank” Behringer
December 1, 1904 – August 3, 1979
He was editor of the Gazette for nearly my entire life. The reporters called him Hank, which my mother hated for its ugliness, and they loved him because he thought nearly everything was worthy of a story. The editor before had been harsh and only cared to see stories that he felt mattered. Newspaper Hank – the other nickname he received when at a bar – felt a town newspaper wasn’t going to win a Pulitzer with every story and should look to have some fun.
His memory didn’t begin to fail until he made it to 71, but it declined quickly. Soon he forgot my mother Menora’s name or that they met in the grocery store because he couldn’t figure out the difference between normal cucumbers and pickling cucumbers. He forgot everything, really, except for his morning routine of reading the newspaper. He’d pick it up from the porch every morning, most of the time without a shirt, sometimes without pants.
In his final year, his eyesight left with his memory. I would get to my parents’ home early in the morning and read him the newspaper in the kitchen. He thought I was a good young man and hoped I’d have a family someday. It took me a week to tell him about Mariah, over our
morning news routine, and he gave me the first hug he’d given me in two years while I cried. I remember it was our last hug together, as well.
The last grave on my short journey is small. It sits just beside my father’s.
March 12, 1977 – March 12, 1977
It is impossible to describe the love that you will have for your children.
As a kid, and a young man, I believed so deeply in the beauty of art. I cried at the movie theater and recited poetry from Frost – instructions have been left in my will to write on my headstone “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” – and prose from Fitzgerald and Steinbeck.
Art made me unbelievably joyful to be a part of the world. In our early days, Eleanor, my wife, would watch me read sometimes just to see the expressions on my face change as I met a phrase or a sentence that made me feel. I craved that often, to have words make me feel emotion
from only thin air.
And for but a fleeting moment on March 12, 1977, art and words and acting and music and all of the joy that accompanied them was turned gray by the entrance of a wailing, pink girl named Mariah. Her facial features were barely there, she was merely a smush of a future person.
I cried so deeply at the sight of her that Eleanor, in her postpartum stupor, yelled at me to pull it together. I wept at the sight of the finest art I could have a hand in creating. She was so gosh darn beautiful. The doctor let me hold her for only a moment or so. I was in no state to be given the reins to protecting her yet.
We didn’t see her die, the way we saw her be born. I saw the doctor, taking her back from my arms, press his ear to her chest for a moment and cock an eyebrow. I saw him whisper to the nurse if she would step outside with them – he and Mariah – for a moment. Eleanor objected to
it, pulling her creation away so soon, and I simply grabbed her outstretched hand and rubbed it while I silently watched the door close behind them.
I couldn’t tell you how long they were gone. I did not look at the clock. I only stared at the door. When it reopened, it was only our doctor. His eyes sunk near the bottom of their sockets and he no longer held the smile he’d held just minutes beforehand when we were in celebration of the biggest success of our young lifetimes.
“Sir, please sit down,” he said, looking me directly in the eyes. I did as he said.
I can hardly remember what killed her now. Maybe that part wasn’t really important anyways. Something about her heart developing disfigured, but I lose it after that.
Eleanor was silent for days while I handled the arrangements for the funeral. When asked about the headstone, I told them to just engrave the name and date, please. She didn’t get the opportunity to speak words that could capture her essence in stone. Daniel, our son, comes by here before he goes to our house, when he brings his family back home for the holidays. His first daughter’s name is Mariah, and she is sweeter than sugar. Sometimes she stops by and I ask her to tell me her name over and over again, just to hear her say it, and she always obliges.
As I stand here, thinking of how life changes so rapidly and chances close and open when they please, I see out of the corner of my vision two young boys walking slowly towards me with their heads down and a hockey stick in hand.
“Hi there,” I turn and say, wiping a tear away from my left eye, “Is there something I can help you with? I don’t think there are any hockey games here today.”
“No, sir, could we, um,” the boy on the left says, stammering. “We were wondering if we could leave this at our friends’ headstone, but it is very long so my mom wanted us to make sure it was okay.”
“You can leave it any way you’d like,” I say. We walk together and I help them place the stick upright on the grave. He was 14.
“Thank you,” the mother says, staring at her boys’ with a feeling I know too well. She tries to give me a tip and I turn her down. People do that from time to time, tipping out of a feeling of necessity. It’s not necessary.
“I’d do it for free,” I say.
Just then, as she and the boys walk away, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s a young man, he looks familiar.
“Sir, I think you’re doing my job,” he says, a harmless small smile on his hairless face.
“Your job?” I say. “I’m just assisting people, it’s what I do.”
“Mr. Behringer, it’s no problem to me if you’re helping people or not, but I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now,” he says, his smile looking more concerned. “I called the Aboreal and they said they were worried about you, so I think your son is on the way.”
“Okay,” I say. My head spins a bit and I sit back down by Mariah’s grave, using her memory to regain my place in the world.
About the Author
Joshua Trent Brown is a short fiction writer from Raleigh, NC and a soon-to-be fiction editor at JAKE. He has previously been published in a handful of cool lit mags and has work forthcoming in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Mythic Picnic, HAD and others. Trent is also currently revising a novella about a complicated storytelling commune where technology is looming. Find him on Twitter, @TrentBWrites.