John Michael Cummings
They had what they thought was a one-night stand, but when the night became the day, they were still together. More than together, but traveling together, driving down the coast, kids with nothing but her fast car, her credit cards, and the weekend away from the restaurant where they worked. Call it a road trip at daybreak.
They pulled off the highway and up to a McDonald’s, and while he ran in for Egg McMuffins and sixteen-ounce coffees, she checked her cell, which she had happily turned off last night and which now felt as heavy as a rock with messages—most from her mother. She played the last message first, to cut to the chase, and was relieved to hear nothing but background noise, as her ditsy mother didn’t even know how to even leave a message properly.
Soon they were back on 95 South, past Columbia, South Carolina, in the last fifty miles before the Georgia border, where the sides of the road were turning swamplike and foul smells were working their way inside the car, even with the windows up, when she noticed his unshaven face in the bright sunlight and asked, “How old are you? I never asked.”
He looked over with a sly smile that said he had been waiting hundreds of miles to surprise her with the answer.
“Twenty-nine! No way.”
She sat looking at him wide-eyed, all but letting the car drift.
“Seriously?” she said, her voice going up a pitch.
As easily as he nodded, he nonchalantly looked around his seat, then on the floor.
“Where’s the map?” he asked.
Though her snazzy little car was equipped with a voice-activated Heather Quest Navigational System in the dash, full of beeping lights, directional arrows, zoom in and zoom out buttons, he preferred his old-fashioned Texaco fold-out job, which he had picked up at their last stop. Something else she didn’t understand about him, a part-time waiter, part-time Web designer not liking high-tech equipment.
“You’re telling me,” she couldn’t wait to continue saying, “you’re seven years older than I am?”
She sat glancing at him until he finally looked up from his stupid map.
“Yeah,” he said, rounding out the word, “and aren’t you going to ask me if I’m a deadbeat polygamist dad while you’re at it?”
“No, I don’t care about that—seven years older, really?”
When he popped out a laugh, she peered across the seat at his face, trying to see these years of difference. She couldn’t, just stubble she was starting to wish he’d shave off. So she looked back at the road. Twenty-nine? Which meant he would be thirty soon, maybe as soon as next month, or the month after that.
“Get off at the next exit,” he said suddenly.
“What?” she said, looking over.
“The next exit. 17B.”
She sat looking at him.
“Go ahead,” he said.
Reluctantly, she put on the signal and started exiting under the big shamrock-green sign.
“Burrellville State Hospital?” she said, looking up, then over at him. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
He said nothing until they were nearly to the end of the off-ramp, easing up to a stop sign.
She did, glancing over at him, then checking the mirror and speeding up. Down an ordinary old county road they went for a few miles, past intersecting roads, drab houses, and a closed-up Bill’s Gas.
“Turn up here. Next right,” he said, pointing.
“I’m really hoping that you desperately have to use the bathroom here, Thad,” she said, signaling and braking, “and you’re just being super shy about it.”
She glanced over to see him fold up the map, toss it on the dash, sit back, and cross his arms. Not even a smile for her little joke. The road they pulled onto, meanwhile, was curvy and narrower and led past fewer houses.
“Now here,” he said, pointing again.
Ahead on the right was a suspicious-looking smaller road entering a heavy overhang of trees.
“Grandview Pike?” she said.
“Turn—don’t miss it!”
Grandview Pike was more like Badview Lane—collapsed grain silo, empty logging truck sitting dead along the road, scraggly black dogs around it as if they had eaten both the driver and the logs and were waiting for more.
“Now you do know where you’re—”
“Up here,” he said. “At the gate.”
She slowed in front of a rusted brown sign over a sandy, side road.
“West Falmouth Private Cemetery?” she read. “Open till dark?”
She looked over at him.
“OK,” she said, bringing the car to a dead stop in the middle of the road. “I need a little more information here.”
“Just trust me.”
She gave him another long look, shook her head, then eased her new BMW down the rutted, yellow road.
“I guess this is where you kill me, dump my body, and take my car?”
“Yeah,” he said.
She looked over.
“Just drive. Christ.”
She did, over potholes and through low-hanging limbs.
“You know, you could put me at ease by not being so—I don’t know—Robert De Niro about this.”
He was peering ahead through the thinning evergreens, an eager look on his face. When the cemetery appeared, he leaned forward and gaped around, from his side of the windshield to hers.
“What? They’re not keeping it cut anymore?” he cried out, his voice full of outrage, his face full of strain.
“Is a family member buried here? Is that it? Just tell me, Thad!”
He didn’t answer, just went on peering around as if he had expected Noah’s Ark to be hidden back here in this cemetery and it wasn’t.
“A friend? An old girlfriend?” she went on.
She nearly drove up onto a cemetery marker, before jerking the car to a stop. The clump of keys in the ignition rapped against the dash as she sat looking over at him.
“You were a murderer in your last job? Is that it?”
“No,” he said, opening the door, which donged like a department store elevator as he looked over and smiled, “I made headstones.”
Shutting the car off, she hopped out and caught up with him on the drab, weedy grass.
“You made these?” she asked, glancing around at the hard, ugly stones.
He nodded and smiled. But the look on her face was that he was also saying he had landed on the moon and she wasn’t believing that either.
“When?” she asked.
“When I lived in Burrellville,” he said, smiling, as he went on looking around—twirling around, in fact, like a girl in a field of poppies.
Her arms fell straight by her side.
“You,” she said, “lived in Burrellville?”
Again he nodded, all smiles on his little carousel of the moment.
“Right back there?” she said, pointing. “You lived there—when?”
But he didn’t answer. Instead, he squatted down in front of a headstone and squinted in close at the lettering, so close he appeared to be using a gem loupe. She heard him sigh.
“What?” she asked.
“I told them so,” he said, shaking his head. “Blue Pearl granite chips after a few years.” He pointed around at the other headstones nearby. “Sierra White, Paradiso—they’re heat-glazed, so they don’t.”
He squinted again at the engraved letters in front of him.
“See these tiny cracks?” he asked.
But he didn’t wait for her to see. Instead, he stepped a few feet over to a traditional gray stone, knelt in front of it, and started running his fingertip up and down the shafts of letters and numbers, across the tops, then following the curves around, as easily as if writing the name of the deceased on the back of a car window. All the while, he had his ear turned to the stone.
She stood, giving him a puzzled grin.
“You look like you’re listening for something,” she said.
“No, no, I’m feeling.” He glanced at her. “Feel how even these are?” he said, a pleased look on his face as he beckoned her over. “That’s the trick. Even depth. Straight, square sides. Less erosion.”
But he didn’t wait for her to feel either. He stood and, bumping into her, stepped back from the gravestone he was all gaga about.
“You take your sandblaster,” he said, “put the hose over your shoulder like so—” He pretended to hoist a heavy hose over his shoulder, his hands in a rounded grip. “ Then bend at the waist—” He bent. “And, keeping the nozzle plumb to the ground, move the sand spray back and forth across the stone, which of course is placed flat on the ground.”
She nodded. Of course.
Then she watched him sway left and right at the hips, bending only at the knees, like a speed skater moving in place, all the while keeping the end of the hose vertical to the ground.
“Just like a machine,” he said.
Red-faced in his bent-over position, he made a point of looking back at her as if full well expecting her to take over this piece of equipment after his little demo.
The skill to making good headstones, he went on to say, standing up straight, was not in the sandblasting—that was methodical grunt work—but in stenciling and cutting by hand the rubber template that covered the stone. That, and gluing it to the glazed granite, in particular, tapping it flat with a rubber mallet so that there were no air bubbles to cause it to blow loose during sandblasting, especially around the letter openings. Making the layouts on paper took great care as well.
“Oh, my god,” she said, finally stepping up to him, “you really did make these?”
As she stood beaming at him, she saw up close a proud fatherly look, as if all these stones were his children.
“I mean, listen to you,” she said.
She reached down, locked her fingers into his, and pulled his hand to her bosom.
“Where’s your hard hat, handsome?” she said.
He grinned in a way so effortless, so far from how he ordinarily was.
“I can’t believe this,” she said, smiling, looking around. “This is so cool!”
Then, letting his hand go, she turned in a complete circle, her arms out like a helicopter blade.
“You made all these?” she asked, pointing across an expanse of hundreds of different headstones: old and new, tall and thin, short and wide, white and dark, a few pink and heart-shaped. “By hand?”
“Oh, no, just the newer ones. Maybe a dozen on this hill,” he said.
Then she gave a long look around at the trees that surrounded this remote cemetery, and he told her that the monument company was located just a few miles away, if it was still in business. Eight years ago, when he was here, it was on its last legs. Small and family-owned, it was nothing but a barn with a sand floor, an air compressor, a few slabs of Georgia granite, a shack for storage, and a drafting desk with some rolls of layout paper.
The man who trained Thad also owned the company, but he wanted out. As the last in a family line to run the business, as well as a full-time pharmacist in the next town over, he had no interest in making cemetery monuments.
“So why didn’t he just groom you to run it?” she asked.
Thad turned to her.
There were only three employees back then: Thad, the man’s elderly mother, who was the office manager, and an old fellow who hauled the finished stones to area cemeteries.
“Igor?” she said.
Though teasing him, she was absolutely stunned. She sat cross-legged on the grass and looked around at the newer memorials.
“Sarah Jane Pritchard, Born 1943, Died 2003,” she said.
When she hopped up to brush a weed off the headstone, she ended up standing and looking down into the frosty, coarse grooves of the letters and numbers. The longer she looked, the more she saw how alone the name looked on the stone by itself, hammered there forever.
“That’s it?” she asked, looking back at him. “No husband? No mention of children? Just her?”
She even looked around at her feet as if she had somehow missed a second headstone.
“Was she ever married?” she asked.
She glanced back to see him shrug.
“You mean you never met her?” she asked.
His eyebrows shot up in astonishment.
“Excuse me?” he said, grinning.
She covered her face with her hands.
“Oh, my god, that’s so stupid,” she said. “I can’t believe I just asked that.”
She laughed, but soon went on looking at the headstone with the same troubled expression.
“Not married,” she said. “Probably no children. Alone in the world. And you made her gravestone.” She looked over at him. “You were probably the only man in her life.”
“The last one for sure,” he said.
“Oh, my god,” she said, turning to him, “you have the coolest sense of humor sometimes.”
Then she gave the stone another long look.
“What would she say to you now if she could?”
“You spelled my name wrong!” he cried out.
She burst out laughing.
“And you made me too old!” she added.
She stooped and ran her index finger in the same grooves he had, feeling the smooth, even edges he was talking about.
“ ‘Lines on Eternity,’ ” she said to herself.
“That’s called frosting,” he said, noticing where her finger had wandered.
Frosting, he explained, was achieved by lightly sandblasting away the granite glaze, making a roughed look.
“Like a window?” she asked.
“God, you really made gravestones,” she said, shaking her head.
And here she thought all he knew how to do was serve a table of five. That, and complain about chef salads without all the egg picked off.
“Technically, flat and upright markers,” he said.
“And you were happy?” she asked, looking up at him. She didn’t wait for his answer. “I can see you were—look at your face!” She hopped up and stood close to him. “I don’t recognize you. You’re glowing.” She felt her face. “I’m glowing!”
He tried to downplay it all by saying it was hard, hot work, that you had to wear canvas coveralls and a welding mask, but he only looked all the happier.
“God, this is so cool!” she cried out.
He watched her skip out across the cemetery, touching her hands to the tops of the headstones just as he had before, like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
“You ever use—whatta you call it—a chisel?” she called back.
She ran back to him, threw her arms around him, and smiled up into his face.
She was a little disappointed when he said no, but it didn’t stop her from kissing him.
“They’re lovely, Thad. It’s like an art.”
“Yeah, well, not anymore.”
He went on about how the industry was today not only completely automated, but computerized too. Even relief images, like the praying hands, crosses, and floral designs, were designed by software.
“Order your headstone online today,” he said, in a happy, perky voice, “and have it shipped by UPS to your door tomorrow.”
She stood smiling at him.
“There’s a whole other side to you I don’t know.” She came up to him. “You’re—”
But she didn’t answer him, not entirely. She instead gave him an inexplicable look, and, from there, they walked down over the hill, through a quiet crowd of short headstones.
“They’re like little aliens smiling at us,” she said, looking around.
He gave her imaginative thought a smile.
“I can remember doing every stone,” he said.
“You remember their names, too?”
“I can.” She stopped and shut her eyes. “Sarah Jane Pritchard. Donald Howard Baker. Betsy W. Baker. Carlin Lee Bell. A.S. Gresham. Perry Davidson II. Emily—somebody.”
“—Emily Anne Marshall,” he said.
“See, you do remember.”
She gave him an extra look.
“God, you’re so different suddenly. You look—nineteen. If you shaved, you’d look nine!”
She took his hand and pulled him to the ground, where they sat surrounded by her smiling, granite-faced, little alien children.
“Wow, this is definitely so permanent,” she said. “Just think, your work will be here a hundred years from now.”
She looked over at him. She couldn’t believe what she was feeling for him. She wanted to make love to him right on the ground, right on top of one of these gravestones. She wanted to grind herself into him, sandblast the letters of her name into his soul.
“How in the world did you ever end up living down here?” she asked. But she didn’t wait for the answer. “Better yet, how in the world did you ever end up in Saint Claire?”
They lay back on the grass, looking up at the puffy white clouds drifting over northern Georgia. For the longest time, neither spoke. In the faraway world overhead, she saw, as she always saw when she looked up at clouds, the odd, nonconforming faces of a secret heaven society that didn’t exist on earth. When she was a girl, she called this place Marshmallow People.
“I was named after my great-aunt Rose—did I tell you?” she asked, looking over at him. “On Daddy’s side. She was one-quarter Cherokee.”
She sat up and pointed to her nose.
“That’s how I got this nose. It’s a Cherokee nose. And this chin. See how far apart my eyes are?”
Looking up at her, he gave a lazy nod.
“See the Indian in me?” she asked, turning to the side.
When he nodded too easily, she gave his shoulder a light swat.
“Oh, you do not!”
Her great-aunt Rose, she went on to say, lying back on the grass beside him, was a hearty, sturdy woman who worked in the Dryer County cornfields from sunup to sundown, raising eight children.
“With no man around, too,” she added.
She looked over at him.
“And lived to 102.”
She could tell he was listening, even if his head was in the clouds.
“Sometimes I feel—and don’t laugh—connected to her,” she said.
She hoped he would say something, anything, but he didn’t. His silent manner had her lunging forward for him, reaching but coming up empty. Eventually, she looked back up at the Marshmallow People.
“I think about her sometimes,” she said. “Even see her. Or imagine her in the mirror anyway.”
She sat up again and nearly peered down into his eyes to get his attention.
“I mean, she didn’t change the world, but she was hard-working. And long-lived.”
She glanced around at the cornfield of headstones.
“‘Great mother nurturer,’ is how Daddy describes her.”
“Family icon,” he said without warning.
She was so pleased he said that, she sat looking down at him for the longest time, wanting to do something with the moment, to kiss him, to make love to him, or to wait to hear more from him, or even to ask to hear more. The quiet boy had her heart.
Eventually, though, she draped her arms over her knees and looked around at the headstones he had made.
“I mean, why aren’t I good enough the way I am?” she asked. “Maybe God sandblasted my face this way?” She glanced around at the filled-up cemetery. “For eternity.”
When she saw him lying with his head suddenly turned to her, his eyes looking up into hers, she knew this was the moment.
“That’s why I didn’t get this whittled away,” she said, tapping her Cherokee nose, “like soap!”
He chuckled a little and looked back up at the clouds.
“But how can I miss my great-aunt when I never even met her?” she went on to ask herself. “She died forty years before I was born.”
She hoped he would say something about the spirit world, something mystical and Indiany, but he didn’t. So she lay back on the grass beside him, looked up into the endless, indeterminate faces in the sky, gave his hand a squeeze, and said for the two of them, “I’m glad you stayed this morning.”
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