by Shawn Van Horn
Sometimes, on the worst days, I walk the paved trails that snake through Graceland Cemetery. No king rests there, just thousands of us everyday paupers. Graceland calms me when I need to slow everything down. Standing there, I am never sad, never scared. I do not fear the end that we all must face. I accept it. Dare I say I embrace it? It instills in me a respect for life I desperately need. I never feel more alive than when in the midst of so much death.
How morbid it is to even think it, but I fit in there. It is not a hopeless thought. I do not wish for death. But we are the same, the dead and I; all of us quiet and alone and mostly forgotten. I can comprehend their world. My own I think I will never understand. I know what to expect. I know what goes on. The world of the dead never ever changes. This is not the view of a hopeless cynic though, for there is life there also, so much of it, abundant in buried memories.
I’m close to an atheist anymore. I do not blame that on a god. I blame that on a lifetime of living amongst his image. Even if my faith is diminished, still the cemetery is my church. It has a spiritual feel I cannot find anywhere else. And I’ve looked everywhere else.
I doubt I could find it in even the oldest, most famous of churches. I can’t feel religion. The hypocrisy, the politics, the televangelists selling bottles of miracle water on my TV at 5 a.m. I can’t feel any of that. At Graceland, standing on a step to somewhere else, is where I find god in all its brilliant mystery, the mystery you must succumb to in order to solve. It is reality in its purest form. It is not subject to opinions. Winners can’t rewrite history. It is unalterable. And there’s nothing the world can do to take that feeling away from me. They could charge admission at the gate. They could hold political rallies on the steps of mausoleums. The could slap Pepsi stickers on the gravestones, even drop a Wal-Mart right in the middle of the place, and still they couldn’t alter the control it possesses on me. It makes me happy. Dead people make me happy.
Today is another one of the worst days. They come more and more frequently, become harder and harder to take. Three kids died in a fire last night. It’s in the paper, front page, headline in that big, black font reserved for only the really bad news. I show the paper to coworkers, tell them what I think. They do not care. There’s a deadline tomorrow. It’s important, they say. They are lost in computer screens. Walking the halls, I say hi to seven people who do not say hi back. I count them off. Four do not even make eye contact. This happens everyday.
Ellen breaks down over that son of hers. He brings her so much grief. We are alone in the stairwell and she cries. She says sometimes she doesn’t want to live anymore. What am I to do with this? I’m no good at these things. I don’t know what to say. I just say it’ll be okay. Everyone says that. Even the people who don’t say hi would say that.
Frank in Marketing loses seventy-five cents in the vending machine. It doesn’t spit out his Fritos. So he spits. And curses. Kicks a wingtip at the side of the machine, leaving a dent as a reminder of unreceived Fritos. He storms out.
It is building up. I wish it doesn’t. I wish what builds up is apathy. I wish that I only want to go home. But I don’t. I can’t breathe. I have to calm down. I have to go there. I know Jenny will be mad. I never call first. Dinner will become cold.
I drive with my seat belt off, my window down in bitter November. The wind like white noise fills my ears. I love it. My tie tosses about. I am on the road to Graceland. I’m so close. I’m almost there. I can make out the black iron gates in the far distance. They welcome me.
A red light. Damn. Red lights make me edgy. I cannot stand being still. I must always go, must always move. I tap my fingers on the wheel. A big, blue boat of a car idles in front of me. A silver Jesus fish hangs off center on its massive bumper. The stiff curly white hair of an elderly woman barely peeks over the leather headrest. The light turns green. The boat idles still. I honk my horn. Short. Short. Long.
C’mon! Go, go, go!
She goes. She goes oh so slow. I want to pass but double yellow lines on asphalt won’t let me. A barrier of centimeter thick paint traps me. Stay inside the lines my art teacher told me in kindergarten. In first grade. In senior year.
I accelerate to within a few inches of her, then back off. Jesus fish disappears then reappears. This is not who I am. I am becoming one of them. Still…
Such slow motion. Bit by bit we close in on Graceland. I can read its name on the brick wall. My heart pounds hard. I want to be there. And now even slower we go. Break lights on the boat flash on and off. Is this ship lost at sea?
Get off the road!
She is not lost. A blinking turn signal tells me so. She’s going to Graceland too. It comes to me. The captain of the boat is a lonely widow off to visit her husband. I hang my head. I have become one of them. But it’s not too late. I can force the wolf away, become the sheep again. Give me grace.
I reluctantly follow her through the black gates. She veers to the right, I to the left. Let her mourn in peace. Let me find mine.
The cemetery is a barren land save for the gravestones bobbing out of the ground like buoys in a sea. A perfect place for a boat to go. My ritual sets in and I begin to relax. I coast and read the names. Julia Evers. 1908-1998. Was she thankful for her long life? George and Wanda Fields, buried side by side. Wanda died first, George a year later. Of a broken heart? Was their love that strong? I wish I could ask them what their first kiss was like. Dr. Chen. My doctor when I was a kid. Dead at forty-eight. Hanging Christmas lights, fell off a ladder, broke his neck. Brad Raney. I still remember the day he didn’t show up for school. They found his Camaro wrapped around a tree two blocks from home. How did his parents feel? How do they feel now? Does the mourning ever end? Or diminish?
I wonder what final moments were like. In each name I read I try to find the pain or the peace, the fear or the acceptance, the heaven or the hell, the enlightenment or the nothingness that comes with the end. I am surrounded by those who went through the final curtain. I am envious of the secret they carry. Are they envious of me?
My last stop is always the same. Rick Wade. My entire life I knew him, though never too well. He was a family friend. When I was young he would come over and play his guitar for everyone. Beatles songs mostly. I watched him, wishing he was my dad, even as I sat next to my own. To my toys drums I’d go when he left, imagining the band we’d have. Years went by, he came over less and less until he didn’t anymore. That’s how life goes. A few years after he didn’t anymore the phone rang. Good Friday. Mom answered. I watched her face grow sad. She hung up, told me about Rick’s stroke. He was too young for a stroke. I wept. I have lost grandparents. For them I have softly cried. For some reason, for Rick, I wept.
I look out the car window at his gravestone. Is it wrong to say it always makes me happy? He has been gone a decade, still it’s always decorated. Always there are several vases of fresh flowers. Today there are balloons, wind chimes, candles. He is loved. He is celebrated. I step out and walk to where he rests. I speak to him sometimes. Or is it god? Whose face do I see in the granite of Rick’s stone? Am I hoping someone will answer?
Today I am silent. I right a vase of dandelions that has fallen over. I turn and begin to walk back to my car. I trip over something. A rock? I fall, muddying my knees. I get back up, a hole in my Dockers. I’m not going to spit and curse about it. I look back to see what fell me. It was a rock indeed. Smooth and rectangular, a slab lying flat, hidden in high grass. A marker. The simplest one I’ve ever seen. My dog got a better send off. It seems so alone. No flowers, no decoration of any kind. No one celebrates whoever lies beneath. It is out of place. No wonder I have never noticed it before.
I bend down to read the chiseled name. My head swirls at the recognition and I grab onto my muddied knees to stop from falling again. Mary Keller. I knew her once long ago and I know how she ended here. I had forgotten all about her. I am saddened that everyone else seems to have forgotten her too. But this I already knew.
For a few months after high school I worked as a janitor. I had no idea what to do with my just begun life. Mary Keller had plenty of time to figure that out but apparently she never did. She was easily forty and my coworker at a factory in town. And an awful woman she was. She rarely spoke to anyone unless it was to complain. She never smiled. She was lazy as well. No one liked her. Many said bad things about her. I am ashamed to admit that at times even I joined in with the wolves. I went out of my way to avoid her. Mary Keller wanted no friends so she had no friends. She barely seemed to exist.
And then one day she didn’t. Like the boy who didn’t show up for school, Mary Keller didn’t show up for work. And no one noticed. No one cared. I cared, begged my lower case god for forgiveness, when I read the paper the next day. Like today, there it was, that big, black font.
TWO DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE
Here is the apparent: A man came home angry and prepared with a gun in his hand. He ended his girlfriend’s life, then ended his own. The police had been called to the house several times over the years. “Domestic disputes”. The man had a criminal record. He was a mechanic. The girlfriend was a janitor. Neighbors said she kept to herself.
Another story a few days later, in a smaller font, somewhere in the back of the paper. No one claimed the woman’s body. She had no family and no friends. And she was from a different state. Kentucky, I think. There was no funeral. She was no one. She only sold some newspapers.
There really is a pauper at Graceland. Here she is, six feet under where I stand. It feels meaningful to be here. I was supposed to find her.
These are the words that come to mind. I don’t know why. What am I sorry for? For not being nice to her? For being like everyone else? For forgetting her? For being like everyone else? I’m sorry for everything, me and everyone else. I am a sheep. I want now to always remember her. Her life feels worth it if someone remembers. I do not know what to remember. She was simply a mean, quiet woman to me. I think I will remember her circumstance. A lonely woman far from home, an abusive man her only friend in the world. I’d be mean and quiet too. What is the point? Not to judge? To know circumstance? To be a sheep among wolves? I think so.
I feel better. Reconnected. Centered again. I kneel at Rick’s grave, take one of his flowers, and place it on Mary’s slab. I hope that’s okay to do. I pull out the high grass around it. I can see it better now. Others will see it too. Rick’s widow perhaps the next time she comes out to see him. She might notice his neighbor for the first time. But I doubt she’ll remember her. That has become my task. My lesson. I will learn it well.
I walk back to my car. The boat slowly passes me by. The captain looks out at me. She smiles. She lifts a frail hand and waves. I wave back. I smile for the first time today. The smile lingers even after the boat is gone. I sit behind the wheel of my own boat. I am no longer lost at sea. People make me happy.
I take off my tie. I whistle. I can still whistle. How the dead must envy me. I drive away and I am thinking. Tomorrow will be a better day. It’ll be okay. I’ll tell Ellen that again, maybe more. And when I get home I’ll tell Jenny I’m sorry I was late.
About the Author:
Shawn Van Horn currently resides in Sidney, Ohio. He has had stories and poems published in Our Time is Now, Wilmington Blues, Fourth & Sycamore, and The Oddville Press. He has written two novels and just started on his third.