A Paris Wasting, Catherine’s story from Death of Godin

Saint Catherine of Siena 19th century painting (anonymous). She wears a nun's habit and a crown of thorns. Her head is encircled by a halo, and in her hands, she holds a cross and a flower.Catherine had been exalting in out of body bliss but the flesh sucked back. I must get up. She rolled onto her belly and lifted dizzily onto hands and knees. She executed a wobbly circle on the futon that lay on the floor and pointed herself towards the kitchen. A kitchen made for one in a studio apartment made for one on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but just exactly like so many other such solitary places she had sublet around the world.

Catherine opened the little refrigerator and slammed her eyes shut. The lurid light pierced her brain. She groped amongst the cold. She took ahold of the distinct jar. Then in the door, the bottle. She pulled it out. So heavy. How would she get these things over there by the window where she wanted to be? Baby steps. Her favorite coach used to say that the only way to do the impossible is to break it down into its constituent parts and tackle one bit at a time. Of course, in the end, you simply had to forget all and just let the horse jump.

With her eyes still shut, Catherine put the bottle in one hand and the jar in the other and slid them ahead as she crawled behind along the narrow path between the futon and the television. When she felt she could go no farther, she opened her eyes and saw the dim dawn filtering through the pale curtains. Her head felt so heavy that she wanted to drop it and the whole endeavor but willed herself to want food and water instead. If she did not fight her body, her mind would surrender to the calm inevitability.

Thankfully, the bottle’s top had already been opened. It exuded a small sigh. She lifted it and drank an explosive sip. She put the bottle down and held the bubbly water in her mouth, afraid to swallow. She lay back carefully, pointing her knees up in defiance of the desire to be prostrate. She tapped the count, One. Two. Three. Swallow. She waited, fighting with all her might not to wretch. Please stay down. The water felt positively poisonous Trampling along her esophagus. It pushed into her lower organs. This was the crucial moment. Though some would argue with her, she did not want to die. It stayed down. Give that girl a ribbon!

She let go the bottle and, still lying down, took hold of the jar. It was an unmistakable shape, bought during her first exuberant week in Paris. She had been eating then. But as the empty days of writing-avoidance stretched on, the old familiar lack of hunger set in.

A Paris month had barely passed when she’d begun translating Baudelaire, even knowing that, though it was gratifying, it was not her novel, merely a diversion with dangerous pitfalls. Almost as soon as she’d started translating, she’d stopped going out. Catherine recognized the signs, but the feeling that she was accomplishing something became her drug and she would not have gotten out of bed without the dictionary and Le Spleen de Paris to draw her. She rationalized that she was preparing for her reimmersion into University life, but it had all been superfluity. The disgust and fatigue soon weighed her down and pressed her into bed. She stopped visiting her desk. Dangerous time had passed.

This was precisely what they—the doctors, her family, her few friends—had all been afraid of. The decision to go to Paris in the summer so long before her teaching position started, with nothing (as they saw it) to do seemed to them an eccentricity fraught with foreboding. For Catherine, it was the writer’s dream. Three months of solitude in the city of writers!

Eyes averted to the ceiling, she unscrewed the top and stuck her index finger blindly into the goo. Then, extending the soiled finger away from the jar, she screwed the top and let the weight of it drop to the floor. She folded her hands, right over left over her ribs. Except for her knees and the straightened finger, she might have been a corpse.

An unsought memory put her eight-year-old self with her friend Michelle at the kitchen table of her family home surrounded by grey paper and charcoal horse drawing efforts. They were eating Nutella and giggling. It must have been a rainy day. Catherine’s cracked lips parted into a painful smile as she remembered the paces she’d put Michelle to when the days were fair. Catherine would set up hurdles and time her friend over them, all the while judging as she would have been judged herself in the children’s competitions.

It had all been so much fun then. When did it turn ugly? It had been gradual, that shift from love to loathing, but the beginning arrived with puberty, when the coaches turned mean and the friends turned competitive and the competitions revealed their ludicrous pomp. When the dream of starting fresh in New York City became a reality in the form of a Columbia acceptance letter, Catherine quit show jumping, suddenly and without explanation. The insular world had been stunned. Secretly she wanted to be involved in what she naively thought of as the real world. She did not want to move blindly through college as she had through high school, thinking always of the next show or the last. Silently she had planned to reinvent herself as a writer and intellectual. But the triple major and endless clubs and activities put her into a fever pitch of excitement that was not unlike her final years of show jumping so that, if she were very honest with herself, her metamorphosis had been incomplete. The truth became undeniable when grad school was put off for the first of her hospitalizations.

Grad school was reclaimed, but from then on, each time she moved, from New York to Russia, China to Honduras, she would think the loneliness and anorexia were gone for good. It was her fatal flaw to believe she was cured. That hubris that suggested sovereign power over self had been inherited from her father. But what fueled Mr. James Mirth, CEO extraordinaire, consumed his daughter. Inevitably, almost without her being aware, the evil twin pillars would rise again out of the seemingly smooth sea of activity and bar her way to happiness. Finally, again, she would have to be rescued from her far-flung existence.

Her family attributed her troubles to her excitable nature, and constantly tried to dampen it. They were not misguided. She had seen for herself on countless occasions that her enthusiasm was off-putting to people who did not know her well. And worse, though she felt it to be right to be passionate, her passions too easily turned into the flames of an insatiable furnace that burned up all mundane appetites.

Catherine had no religious convictions to speak of, but she sometimes felt like her anorexia had more in common with her saintly namesake than might be expected from the average intelligent, cosmopolitan, twenty-first century woman. As a self-examining humanist type, she hated that she did not understand this part of her. She considered her Nutella dipped skeleton finger. She considered her literary ambitions. She felt a failure. She was thirty-three and on the verge of dying a starved virgin in the city of food and love.

Catherine rolled her burning eyeballs to the left at the neglected desk. Could she ever admit this to her pen? Was it somehow lack of honesty that made writing so hard? Her novel suddenly seemed false, a translation of her show jumping prodigy childhood into a concert pianist prodigy childhood. Was it subterfuge or merely an attempt to write fiction rather than memoire? A lesser genre if you asked her.

Her head ached. She could not figure this all out now. The important thing was to fight the urge to give up. She did not want the story to end here.

Letting go of intention, Catherine lifted her hand and kissed the back of it, as you would that of an Orthodox priest, her hand even more boney than those consecrated Russian ones. Thrice she lifted and kissed and then, thoughtless, she put the Nutella into her mouth. Please. Stay down, she prayed to her body. Beneath the waves of nausea that threatened negation, she felt a feeble acquiescence echoing deep in her hollowness.

 

[First published in Newtown Literary Issue 7. You can read about the investigation into the mysterious death of my childhood friend that gave fuel to this story in “The Detective Story Behind ‘A Paris Wasting'”.]

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Likenesses, A Family History Through Photos, Real and Imagined

My story Likenesses, about love after death, was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of FLAPPERHOUSE.

You can hear a fun interview with me discussing the writing of it with the smart and charming Ilana Masad on The Other Stories Podcast, episode 63!

 

And, if you like to listen to your literature…

 

[1981]

 

When they found Leona’s body it was curled about an old grey cat, also curled and stiff. The funeral director’s assistant (who did all the dirty work with the fluids and convex plastics to keep skin from sagging, while the funeral director–the artist, he called himself–fussed with lipstick and wigs and hands folded just right) said he’d never had such a hard time prying two bodies apart, said he’d almost given up and buried them together, “but of course one can’t find a casket shaped like that.” He was telling his cronies at the bar after work and they all laughed to hear how the cat’s stiff paws would not let go of the human hand. “The thing that gets me is how they must have died at the same damn time,” he said and drank his whiskey dry. “That’s some crazy bond.”

 

[Mama and Papa, 1910]

 

Mama was born Katherina Wiget, of the original Canton Schwyz Wigets who boasted a family crest of gold wheat on a field of blue. If she had been a joyous child, nobody in America knew, for her unhappiness blossomed with her youth when she was unceremoniously shipped off to distant relatives after her father married a younger woman to replace her dead mother (the young wife having no use for her predecessor’s children). At age twenty, Mama found herself working as a seamstress in St Louis, where she met Albert Beynon , another Swiss, but from the other side. He spoke no German and she no French. Their common language was their adopted tongue of English.

A young and charming rake, whom the Americans called Frenchie, Papa worked as a mechanic on the ford Model T for much of Leona’s childhood, first in St. Louis and then in San Francisco. Not the factory type, Papa managed always to steer clear of the assembly line, working independently as a mechanic who fixed cars for the youngsters who’d grown up wanting them, not making them. Having apprenticed in Geneva in the early days of the internal combustion engine, he was a tinkerer at heart. If he had not the temperament nor genius nor entrepreneurial spirit of a Ford or a Benz, he shared with them a great facility for putting things together and taking them apart, as well as a soft spot for the new and ingenious which found expression in his trade of mechanics and his hobby of photography.

In Leona’s photograph of them, Mama dwarfs Papa, whose head is nearly level with (and not quite as big as) her enormous breasts. Dressed in calico, she seems painfully aware of how ludicrous they must appear in the eyes of posterity and hence refuses to meet our gaze. She stares off camera and away from her husband. For his own part, Papa adored posing for pictures almost as much as he loved taking them. Hence he looks directly into the camera, seeming almost to delight in his new wife’s embarrassment. The result is a portrait of a couple whose eyes’ trajectories form an acute angle, symbolic of their married life.

 

[Papa, 1923]

 

Papa left on his first solo sojourn when Leona was thirteen. She cherished the photograph he sent back in which a swashbuckling Papa wearing tilted hat and lace-up boots is surrounded by otherworldly trees with knotted flowered arms that stretch to the sky, on the back of which he wrote, “6 November, 1923, Mojave Desert Love Papa.” Leona felt not the least resentment towards him for leaving (Mama felt enough for the two of them) and rather admired the rugged jauntiness of his likeness, as well as the cleverness of the timer-camera and the hand-built automobile, which, though they did not make it into the frame, add greatly to the charming picture of independence.

As the ’20’s roared along, Papa spent less and less time in San Francisco, so that when the Crash of ’29 hit, his absence was more fixed than his presence. The sporadic letters wrapped around small bundles of cash had also grown scarce then vanished altogether, but by then Leona was a woman. She took jobs cleaning Nob Hill houses to help support the family, which also included her little brother Arthur who, being eight years her junior, was almost more son than brother.

Mama had a tyrannical disposition which, if it were not for Leona’s being her equal as a workhorse on the one hand and impervious to black moods on the other, would have made the double-mother household unbearable. As it was, the two balanced each other out, and raised Arthur with much discipline and coddling respectively. Arthur rewarded their ministrations by being the first in their family and their acquaintances to go to university. Good at math and eager to travel the world like Papa, Arthur studied mining, a subject which had, since the Gold Rush days, become a marvel of science and engineering, while it maintained its adventuring mystique.

 

[Alcidos and Leona, 1939]

 

Working and helping Mama to Raise Arthur had left Leona no time for socializing or finding a husband until Arthur went to work in the Nevada City mines and began sending money home. By then she was no longer young–nearly thirty–so of course she thought herself very lucky when she found Alcidos at the William Tell, where they offered Swiss fare and nightly dancing.

Alcidos Goodin, of French Canadian ancestry, was born with surname Godin, but followed in the footsteps of several of his twelve elder siblings by adding the additional ‘o’ in order to avoid the unfortunate American pronunciation. A construction worker who followed WPA jobs from Minnesota to San Francisco, Alcidos proved a perfect gentleman and a brave worker too. He’d helped build the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as its younger and more splendid sister span, which had opened just before Leona and he met. Alcidos would have good, if dangerous, work for years to come. Best of all, he also loved to dance and wanted lots of children.

Unlike the portrait of Mama and Papa, the photograph Alcidos and Leona had taken at the Golden Gate International Exposition shows two bright-eyed smiling faces, serene and confident in their future happiness together.

Thus, as you might imagine, the first time Alcidos returned, Leona did not recognize him. She was so big, the baby due any day, that she mistook him for an angel. She had been resting for a moment on the little back porch of their new home in Visitacion Valley, when the hummingbird flew to her and hovered, drenched in sunlight. Her heart sang with joy. The baby would be swaddled in love and happiness as voluminous as any babe could want.

It was not long after that, friends of Alcidos who had been working on the job with him, and his foreman knocked on her door. The darkness that encompassed them chilled her. It was an unthinking certainty of doom. Probably the foreman spoke first, clutching his hat, “How sorry we are to have to bring you this sad, very, very, sad, dreadful news…And, especially as you are in your condition, Mrs. Goodin…We are not sure how it happened…” He did not want to say it right out. He wanted to prepare her.

Strangely, she was suddenly the calm one. She asked, “My husband has been hurt?” Their hesitation and furtive glances told her what they could not say. “Alcidos is dead,” she whispered, to herself or them it didn’t matter. They were relieved. They continued as if it had been one of them that had braved the evil words. Leona let them prattle on, condolences and regrets piling one atop the other, a rubble heap as tall as at one of their construction sites.

Others, tongue-tied or talkative, came and went. The parlor filled with the sounds and scents of birth and death. Gifts of baby booties and tiny crocheted hats sat alongside impossibly dense clusters of flowers and baked goods. Cards of happy congratulations mingled with those pronouncing sorrow. Mama took care of her in the four days between death and birth, and remained with her thereafter. Alcidos Goodin Junior (Alci) was born while his father rumbled away on an eastbound train; his family wanted to bury him in their Minnesota plot. Leona was too shocked by the first loss to protest the second, but it developed that his body was inconsequential.

 

[Alci, 1942]

 

Alci’s first years passed while the Second World War raged in Europe, and many in Visitacion Valley (which resembled more closely the ranch it had once been, than it did the rest of San Francisco) went back to their roots to survive. One day Mama came home with a crate of chickens and soon thereafter bartered eggs for goat’s milk from the neighbors across the fence.

In this way, Alci grew up chasing chickens and looking, with his hand-me-down brass-buttoned coat and handmade knit cap, “just like Papa as a boy,” said Arthur chuckling, and snapped a picture of the funny little Old World child. When she saw the photograph Leona thought how her son had been born in mourning and was being raised in calamity, but that somehow his cheeks remained flushed with a happy rosy glow.

It was around then that Leona recognized her husband in the figure of a chicken. He had not been one of those Mama had brought home but rather sauntered into their yard from nowhere it seemed, and made himself right at home, laying more eggs than the other three together. Leona couldn’t say for certain when she recognized the chicken as her beloved husband exactly, but when it came to her, she’d known it as a fact. She’d felt that her dear Alcidos hovered near, watching over them, almost from the moment her son had been born, but now it appeared to her as a comforting and certain truth, as if an unseen hand gathered in all that was good and kept everything else out. From her moment of revelation, Leona lived with the father and the son in a trinitarian paradise, while Mama hung in the background like a reliable, if disagreeable, clock.

 

[Alci, 1958]

 

After the chicken Alcidos returned as a dog. Actually two dogs. Alci found the first on the street on his way home from school. The pup grew monstrous in size and in his devotion to Alci. For a few years he was bigger than the boy, and the two were inseparable. The second, a spotted brown runt, Leona herself found sniffing around her front stoop petunias. Leona realized that although Alcidos wanted to watch over his son, he understood that the boy had become a young man whose every care was not about pups. It was Leona who mostly took care of the second dog and she was grateful that it was small, almost no trouble at all. Her husband seemed to be conforming to their ever-changing situation.

During high school Alci (or as he preferred, Al) was hardly home. When he did come home, he merely patted the dog as he went to his room and on his way out again. He was very popular in school, a yell leader surrounded by other fine young men and a bevy of pretty cheerleaders. He told her, “yell leaders are as popular as football players but without the bruises.”

In his graduation picture he wears a sweet smile and glasses that enlarge his hazel eyes, twinkling with a touch of the devil, just like Papa.

Alci graduated from SF State with a degree in sociology and, after bouncing around the city with a few odd jobs, decided to join the military. Leona could not be surprised; the wanderlust was in his blood, but her future loneliness and uselessness blanketed her in a black fog. She forced herself to play a part, acting happy although her heart was breaking. A handsome young officer off to see the world, She did not want to dampen his excitement. On the day of his departure, his taxi arrived and she kissed him goodbye. When he was truly gone, she crawled back into bed and indulged in self-pity for the first and only time in her life.

All were gone and it was February. The previous February had seen the death of Mama. In February, twenty-three years earlier, her husband had died and her son had been born. How many anniversaries can a person cram into one dark month? She lay in her tiny creaky bed and cried until she could not cry anymore. She watched the ceiling turn gold to black. Looking back on that day with no little shame she thought perhaps she had feared her husband would leave too.

That night, Alcidos visited her as a man. He walked into their room just like he had done in the short precious year they’d had together so long ago and lay down next to her. She nestled into him and he folded her into his warmth. They did not talk for a long time and when they did it was in whispered breathless phrases punctuated by sweet kisses. He told her how he’d been walking the roof of the Rincon Annex, whistling a silly medley of popular “baby” tunes: “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “I’ve Found A New Baby,” and thinking of his wife glowing with their baby inside her.

“I was in bliss over the idea of having two babies to love when my foot stepped onto a loose board in the scaffolding. Heaven knows how many times I’d stepped on just such rickety things before and not gone tumbling over the side like a klutz! I worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and it was a post office on Market Street that did me in!” He chuckled and Leona let out a little laugh that turned right into a sob. He continued, “That time I went flying because my mind was not on my work but on my love. Do not cry darling Leona,” he hugged her tighter, “for it was meant to be. You see, I have been able to stay with you and our boy all these years. I have always been here whether or not you have recognized me.”

“Will you go overseas with Alci?”

“I will be with you forever.”

When Leona woke the next morning, her eyes were burning and she felt bereft of her husband all over again, but then she washed her face and bustled about the house, cleaning and humming those happy songs from between the wars.

That evening, when she opened her kitchen door onto the back porch, a tabby cat came running in meowing. She laughed and picked him up and kissed him on the head. Then she opened a can of tuna for him. That began the age of the cats.

 

[Alci and Demi, 1968]

 

Alci returned home to San Francisco, which he had done periodically through the years, but this time it was for a purpose. He planned “to get hitched.” He had received a promotion and, after five wild years in the Far East, would be living on a base in Virginia surrounded by families. He told his mother, “A wife is vital in a place like that. Everyone will be married. A nice girl will keep me out of trouble.”

He took the old high school sweetheart, whose name was Demi, out a few times, then got drunk one afternoon and called her at The Emporium where she sold cosmetics. Leona almost dropped the dish she was drying when she heard him say, “Do you have a dowry? A dowry, yes. How much will your father give me for you?” The wry smile could be heard in his voice and the woman seemed to understand he was joking, for Leona could hear her laughter through the phone line before she hung up.

She called him back though, and they went for dinner that night. Alci returned home with her and announced to his mother that they would drive to Reno on the weekend to tie the knot.

“You’re eloping? Can’t we at least have a party?”

“There’s no time Ma. I ship out next week. When we get settled, we’ll fly you out.”

In their wedding portrait Demi wears a white lace mini-dress with a hem appropriately short for the times and startlingly prophetic regarding their marriage. The bride appears shy, perhaps embarrassed by the brevity of the dress and the recent courtship, while Alci looks like a rooster preparing to crow.

 

[Michelle, 1976]

 

After five years of military sojourning and the creation of a girl child, they separated. Alci called to say that the marriage was kaput. It was a distant event since they were stationed in Holland, but still Leona felt it to be dreadful: the slow dissolution of her parents’ union by inherent unsuitability, the abrupt termination of her own by tragedy, and now the divorce of her son–Were the marriages in her family under some kind of curse? No, she decided, Alcidos and she were different, for their love tethered them despite universal laws.

One wonderful repercussion resulted from the breakup; the wife returned to San Francisco bringing with her the granddaughter. For that Leona was grateful. Michelle, that was her granddaughter’s name, was as clever and eager to please as Alci at her age and it was a joy to have her around. Whenever she visited, she would ask, “Where’s Kitty?” and would poke around until she found him. (Leona had named all the kitties Kitty so as not to slip up and call them by her dead husband’s name and cause people concern for her.)

Michelle loved to run around the house trailing string for the cat to chase. Leona chuckled at the way Alcidos teased his granddaughter. He clutched at the string and jumped and pounced. Then just as the little girl ran down the hallway, he pretended to lose interest so that she was forced to peer around the corner to see where he was.

Leona had a camera of her own now, a Polaroid Instant that her son had given her, and managed once to catch that sweetly expectant expression. After the image emerged, Michelle asked if she could put it up on the mantle with the other photographs, which stood like sentinels in little gilded frames.

 

[1981

 

Her last cat grew all white about the whiskers while he waited patiently, watching as Leona taught Michelle how to make Christmas ornaments, pancakes and apple head dolls. The little girl grew, but had not yet reached an age to leave her grandmother when her grandmother left her. One evening Leona lay on the couch curled around the cat, the cat curled around her hand, when she whispered into one furry ear, “Please Alcidos, do not leave me again. Take me with you this time.”

Above on the mantle, the family photographs would remain, innocent of death, the likenesses nearly as slender as the life lying coiled before them.

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Where They Lie, A New Orleans Story

 

John sat on his stoop smoking and staring across the street to the neighborhood cemetery. It was small and neglected, not much like the well-manicured parks where the New Orleans tourists flocked. With their wrought-iron gates, famous dead people, plastic flowers, and marble, they were not as haunting as this shabby place. One could not forget death here. Although there were some tombs in the grand old-world style, with winged sentinels standing atop peaked roofs, there were many more crude wooden boxes, crumbling brick mounds and sad toppling crosses. The fence surrounding the Greene Street Cemetery merely suggested security. Garbage more clearly marked the border between the houses of the living and the dead.

A groundskeeper was mowing the same patch of grass for a good ten minutes and John thought that he could do a better job of it. As the guy stopped to smoke, John realized what a perfect job it would be for him. He could just roll out of bed and get to work and it would be during the day so he could easily keep his shift at the Abbey. He could definitely use the money. As a kid in Maine, John had worked in a graveyard for two summers. He liked the work. Mowing lawns allowed his mind to wander aimlessly while his body toiled in the heat.

John walked over to the guy, who had mowed right around a busted garbage bag, bottles and papers spilling out of it.

”hey man. You know if they’re hiring here?” John asked him.

“Can’t say.”

“You know who I can ask?”

“Mrs. Twyman’s the boss, but she ain’t here today. Might be Old Spec can help you.”

“Old Spec?”

“Yeah. Old Spec Samson’s buried every body in this park for at least thirty years.” He smiled slyly. “Knows ‘em all personally.”

“Hmm, then who’s Mrs. Twyman?”

“She’s in charge of all the uptown cemeteries. That’s her office right over there,” he said gesturing.

“Thanks man,” said John, thinking it looked an unlikely shack.

The guy called after him. ”Think Old Spec’s over there on the other side of the park.”

John followed the pointing finger. In that corner stood his favorite tomb, an enormous cement platform looked after by an angel with a demon-beautiful face who seemed to pray for strength to keep the dead put. John liked to lie on the cool expanse at night and watch the clouds fly by between the angel and the moon. One night he had fallen asleep and awoke with a start to find the heaven sent beast looking down at him, its stone eyes questioning his being there.

John almost reached his angel when he saw a tall thin black man walking towards him. He was a little stooped, and held a shovel in his right hand like a staff.

“Mr. Samson?”

Old Spec turned his head towards him and stopped. John walked over and held out his hand, but the gesture was ignored and he dropped it. “Uh, I was wondering if you guys needed any help around here.”

“Help?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for a job.”

“You want to work here.”

“Yes sir. Do you have any openings?” asked John, feeling ridiculous and not knowing why.

“Why do you want to work here?” Old Spec asked without looking at him.

“Well, I live right across the street, and. . .”

“You thought it’d be mighty easy to just roll out of bed and dig a couple graves,” Said Old Spec, seeming to lose any trace of interest he might have had in this stranger.

“Yeah, I thought it would be convenient, but I also thought you might have need for a good worker.”

“What made you think so?”

John regretted his words, but decided to go ahead and be honest, the way things were going it couldn’t hurt. Besides, it sounded like Old Spec Samson was not even the one who would hire him. It was the woman in the office he had to win over.

“I’ve noticed that most of the guys working over here are slackers. They take all day to mow one patch of grass, and don’t even pick up the garbage that’s all over the place.”

“So you think you could do a better job?”

”I know I could do a better job.”

“Mrs. Twyman ain’t here today. In any case, she’ll not see you until you fill out the paperwork. If you’re serious you’ll go to City Hall, fill out the paperwork and bring it back to her tomorrow,” Old Spec said, turning his back on John.

John looked at his watch. He had time. He retraced his steps and saw the guy he had first talked to, smoking another cigarette.

“Find him?”

”Yeah,” John said, pulling out a smoke. He lit it and asked, “How long you been working here?”

“Been working this park for two years. Pretty easy job.”

“Seems like that old guy could be tough.”

“Old Spec? He ain’t any fun that’s for sure, but he don’t order me around unless there’s something to bury. Most times he just wanders about the park and don’t say a word. It’s like I ain’t even here.”

“Hmm. Well thanks.” John said and walked away.

“Arright.” The guy said and started his mower.

John walked over to his house and up the three steps. He picked up the coffee mug and downed the last sip. He took it and the newspaper inside. He lived by himself in a shotgun. The first room was bare. A couch and books were in the second room, then a short hall and bathroom, then the room with the bed and stereo, and last the kitchen with its leaky refrigerator and cockroaches.

He laid the newspaper down on the table and put the mug in the sink. He put on a clean shirt and walked back into the light. He locked the door, checked the mailbox, and put on his helmet. He got on his motorcycle and headed downtown.

At City Hall he found the office closed though, according to the hours on the door, it should have been open. He stepped out for another smoke, and when he returned the door was ajar. A man sat at the front desk. John asked him what papers he needed to fill out for a job at the Greene Street Cemetery. The man eyed him suspiciously then sifted through forms. He handed a thick application to John and told him to fill it out and bring it to Mrs. Twyman.

John took the application to Cauldy’s, and drank another cup of coffee while deciphering bureaucracy. When he was finished, he realized that he should get something to eat. He put the application in his backpack and did not think about it until the next morning.

* * *

John woke up late. It was already noon. Mrs. Twyman would be unimpressed. He gulped coffee with a cigarette and stepped out of his house into another bright muggy day.

He walked across the street to the one room office. He knocked, and a woman’s voice said to come in.

”You are looking to work here?” asked the grey-haired lady from behind her desk and stacks of papers.

”Uh, yes I am.”

”You came by yesterday. Did you complete the paperwork?” she asked holding out her hand.

”Yes, here it is.”

Mrs. Twyman took the application, and looked it over without saying anything. John stood, feeling awkward.

“So you’ve worked in a cemetery before. Have you buried bodies?”

“I dug some graves, but I mostly mowed.”

“Often it happens that, after a good rain, the bodies resurface. Mostly there are just a couple of bones to rebury, but occasionally decomposing bodies must be dealt with. Would you have a problem with that?”

John could not quite imagine it. He figured he would find out when it happened. “No I think I’d be okay with that.”

“You think so? All right then Mr. Conrad. Mr. Samson informs me that you believe yourself to be a hard worker. He also said that you thought the groundskeepers we employ at the present do not do a very thorough job. I cannot argue with you there. So although I have my reservations, I will give you a try. You have another job, is that correct, working at a nightclub?”

”Yes I work at Abbey Bar on Decatur one night a week, but it won’t interfere with my schedule here.”

“Just so long as you show up on time, Mr. Conrad. Find your way to the shed for eight o’clock Monday morning.” She eyed John over her papers a moment and then said, “Good afternoon,” and looked back down.

John hesitated at the door. ”Thank you,” he said and walked out and across the street to his house. He sat on the stoop. He smoked and gazed at the cemetery. He thought he caught a glimpse of Old Spec Samson walking slowly through the rows of tombs. John considered him. He did not seem interested in John at all yesterday, so why had he spoken to Mrs. Twyman about him, and apparently even recommend that she hire him? He doubted the few words exchanged in her office would have convinced her. He supposed they were both tired of seeing the cemetery looking like a mess and were desperate to find somebody who was willing to work. He was not convinced. John thought the lawnmower guy would follow orders if they were given him. John shrugged and went inside. He would begin work on Monday and perhaps things would become clear or perhaps not. In any case, he had a second job, and it was, as far as he was concerned, pretty ideal.

* * *

The weekend passed uneventfully.   John worked on Friday and had a few shift drinks. After he went on to the Hide Out and saw some people he knew. He ended up drunk. The sky was just getting light when he rode to the Verdi Mart for breakfast. Riding back uptown, he was quite sober and tired. He slept and read all day Saturday and went out again that night. Sunday was the same as Saturday only with the Sunday paper as a bonus.

He went to bed early but could not fall asleep. Staying out sometimes well past sunrise had become the norm for him in New Orleans. He could not remember the last time he went to bed before two, and it had been much longer since he had anywhere to be at eight in the morning.

He fell asleep at about three and woke up to a buzzing alarm, a buzzing head, and the remnants of a disquieting dream: He had gone down the steps into a dark pond and was caught up by the serenity of the deep still waters, as if they could pull him under forever.

By the time he got dressed, drank a quick cup of coffee, smoked a cigarette, and walked across the street, the dream and its effects were gone.

As he approached the cemetery, he saw the lawn mower guy loafing around the shed. The shed was right next to the office and was even more run down. “Hey.” said John.

“Got yourself a job, huh? Guess we’ll be working together. Name’s Virgil.” He put out his hand.

“Looks like it.” John smiled and shook hands. “I’m John. Just then Old Spec Samson appeared. He stepped out from between two stone tombs and turned onto the dirt road that cut through the middle of the cemetery. Shovel in hand, he walked slowly past them to the shed and unlocked it.

”Morning sir,” said Virgil.

“Hello Mr. Samson,” said John.

“Good morning,” Old Spec said absently. ”The two of you mow this morning. After lunch, meet me in the south east corner with your shovels.” He turned and walked away.

“See? What I tell you? He don’t say nothing he don’t have to.”

“Hmm, well I guess I’ll start over there.”

Virgil looked at him, sizing him up. John did not think Virgil would understand his eagerness to work hard. One of the reasons John wanted this job was to simply expend energy. Explaining this to Virgil would be like explaining a low-fat diet to a famine-stricken man. John did not have a precise understanding of it himself, but he knew he wanted to tire himself out.

He pulled a mower out of the shed and headed off towards what he figured was northwest. He began by picking up trash then started mowing. Along the fence, the grass was tall and full of weeds. John suspected it hadn’t been mowed in years. He returned to the shed and got a weed whacker. He worked steadily and saw no one. As the sun rose, he sweated, so that his shirt was drenched and his face was dripping. He mowed in straight lines whenever he could. Back and forth, he contemplated his lines. He planned his attacks on the weeds and grass. He felt the motor tremble his whole body. He pondered forming blisters and his muscles working. The smell of fresh cut grass swept memories in and out of his mind like the tide of a bay. Memories rolled back and forth with the weed whacker, back and forth with the lawnmower. They washed over his conscious mind and were carelessly wiped away along with the beads of sweat on his upper lip and forehead. When something snapped him out of his reverie – a car, bird, or yell from across the street—he would be made aware that he had been thinking, but it was lost to him or meaningless now.

John was considering how much he had done and how much there was yet to do when he saw Virgil coming towards him. “It’s lunchtime Tarzan.   We got an hour before we dig for Old Spec.”

“Yeah? Is it noon already?”

“Straight-up.   Come on.”

They walked to the corner store. At the counter, John realized he was hungry. Since summer, he hadn’t had much of an appetite, but right now he was really hungry. It felt good. John followed Virgil’s lead in ordering two cheeseburgers dressed. They stepped outside and sat on the stoop next door.

Virgil evidently lived in the neighborhood and had a greeting and a smile for all. Often the people stopped to chat with him.

After he finished eating, John pulled out a smoke and lit his and Virgil’s. “Is Old Spec from around here too?”

”Old Spec’s been working here since I was a kid and before I was born even. He knows where every body in that park is. Don’t know what else he does but bury and rebury. He don’t help out with the look of the place.”

“Hmm, seems that way.”

“Where you from?”

“I grew up in Maine but I moved here from San Francisco.”

“California? My cousin lives out there. Like to visit some time. What brought you out here?”

“Seemed like a fun place. I guess I move around a lot, and this was my next stop.”

“Strange you moving all the way out here to work in a place like this.”

”Yeah, I didn’t plan on it, but it’s alright.” He lit another smoke and stared across the street.

“It’s a hot one,” said Virgil.

“Mm hmm,” agreed John. The stones of the cemetery glowed with heat. The sun was out full force, and the air was thick with moisture. He had been warned about summers in New Orleans and had joked that it would be like sex all the time. It is in a way. But come summer after a hot spring, it becomes stinky, sticky and overbearing.

Back at the cemetery, each grabbed a shovel from the shed. John followed Virgil to where Old Spec stood. He did not look at them, but as soon as they stopped in front of him he turned towards them and said, “These bones need reburying.”

John looked down at the grave and saw what looked to be a forearm. Where it lay, half buried, he could imagine the rest of the skeleton lying in its entirety under the earth, like sometimes you can see the shadowed part of a new moon.

Old Spec stood by as they pulled the bones. The skeleton was by no means complete and in no formation. They finished pulling them out, then started digging. They dug six feet down, placed the bones back in no particular order, and threw dirt over the top. They worked without talking.

When they finished, Old Spec moved about ten feet away and stood at the foot of another misshapen grave. This was the section of the cemetery where the concrete box was a luxury item, as was the headstone. Here the typical grave was a crude wooden box set in the ground, marked with a slanted wooden cross, transitory testimony. Almost all the boxes were cockeyed, one end sticking up out of the ground a couple of feet, the other end buried. In places, the grass was chest high, the weeds thick and sturdy. John and Virgil walked over to Old Spec, who inclined his head indicating another bone. They repeated their actions. By the time they were done, the old man was nowhere to be seen.

“Get used to it,” Virgil said. “Like this all summer. We bury them and the rain pulls them back up.”

John went home tired, sore, and starving. There was nothing to eat, so he ordered a pizza and lay down. He was woken before he knew he was asleep by the pizza boy, and ate the whole thing while reading the paper. He smoked and did not even think about going out. He did not think, and slept more soundly than he had in a long time.

* * *

Tuesday morning his alarm woke him right up, but he lay in bed for a while, feeling his sore muscles. He made coffee, smoked, then walked across the street to the cemetery. The day was dark, thick with clouds and wetness, pregnant with the storm to come. He got to the shed without seeing anyone. The door was open so he took out his mower. He returned to yesterday’s work and surveyed what he had done. It really wasn’t much. He started up again, and worked hard while the thunder rolled in the distance and dark clouds flew passed bright patches of sunlight.

Suddenly it rained on top of him, heavy and without mercy. Soon he could not see for the drops in his eyes and the mist. He continued mowing until the motor died. He paused and felt the muddy earth shift beneath him. As when standing on a beach one feels the tied receding pulling with it the feet out to sea, he felt the mud, as if it too were under the domination of the moon, pull him in. Slow and firm and heavy, the mud and the earth and the moon sucked him into their obscure and sodden depths. When he understood the pull, he drew his feet out, and walked, slowly and with effort, to the shed.

He felt a little disoriented when he saw his angel above him. Had he passed her earlier? Had she always been a girl? She stood, her figure wrapped in droplets bouncing, her face indistinct through the downpour. He stood still and stared, but not for long. He felt the mud’s determination to suck him into its mire.

Back at the shed, he found Virgil. “Thought maybe you’d gone home for the rain.”

“No,” said John, “I don’t mind the rain, but the mower does.”

”I don’t mind the rain neither. It’s the mud that gets me. Sometimes it feels like they’re pulling you down with ‘em.”

John was watching Virgil who wore a strange smile, when Old Spec Samson appeared in his periphery. ”You go to lunch. Can’t be nothing done now. There will be plenty to do later.” His thin silhouette melted back into the watery light.

John and Virgil sat in a cramped booth in a dark diner and ordered sausage po-boys. They drank coffee and smoked till the rain stopped. The sun brought the steam and the summer brightness. Back at the cemetery, Old Spec waited.

John and Virgil took up their shovels and the three moved through the stone sepulchers with peaked roof seraphim to the uncovered boxes.

Old Spec would bow his head in the direction of a bone or two. John and Virgil would pull them and dig, uncovering more as they moved down. Then there would be nothing. Deeper still, they placed the bones and covered them.

It was odd how some bones resurfaced and others were pulled down all the way, not to be encountered again, even at six feet. John imagined that the bones would continue to resurface until they were sucked down and accepted into the bowels of earth, far under the crust, into the molten foundry of the world, to be reworked into something quite new and inhuman.

The afternoon passed. John went home exhausted and mindless. He ate, read, smoked, drank a beer, though it didn’t taste as rewarding as he anticipated, and finally he slept.

* * *

He awoke with the sensation of having dreamed many dreams, but they left only vague uneasy impressions. He smoked, drank coffee and crossed the street to the cemetery.

He spent the day mowing. He cleaned up a good chunk and went home tired, sweaty, and satisfied. But that night it stormed violently. Great booms drawn out into rumbling shook his little house. He lay on his couch with the lights off and

Looked out the window waiting for lightning.

He thought about the bones that would have to be reburied. It was unsettling. Those people, while on earth alive and whole, reduced to a few bones. Is that it? Life then disintegration? He found it impossible to conceive of a soul flying up to Heaven or being thrust down into Hell. No such thing as a soul? Perhaps he existed as an individual only because of his body? As he fell asleep, he was convinced that the cold black annihilation of existence was far more terrifying than any fiery torture offered by Hell.

* * *

It was difficult for John to wake up on Thursday. He hit the snooze button again and again. No time for coffee. He lit a cigarette as he walked into the cemetery.

He spent the morning mowing. The afternoon he and Virgil followed Old Spec Samson from grave to grave, reburying. At the last grave, he saw no bones, but smelled decay, and his stomach churned. He remembered Mrs. Twyman’s words, and knew that there would be rotting flesh on these bones.

The face appeared a death mask. The spots and patches of mold and worms composed the body. Blues and greens and black and brown mingled together in a putrefying human shape. The stench was overwhelming, and John shut his mind to it all. After it was over, he did not think of it. It was like a nightmare that flies away to nest in the unconscious.

John decided to go out that night. Over dinner, he flirted with the waitress. Then marched straight to the Hide Out, determined to get wasted and laid.

He did not think about the cemetery. He did not think about the decay. He thought only of the booted legs, the belted waists, the gartered thighs, and the wrapped breasts parading by. He settled on a girl with long blond hair and a phenomenal body in white vinyl. She seemed a little self-conscious in her sex appeal, probably because she was young, but he was drunk, and he wanted her, so he moved in.

He felt at once that he would have an easy time of it. Soon enough, in a flash, he saw them having sex and waited, flirting patiently, until it happened.

* * *

Friday morning he crawled out of her bed with nausea and a headache, grabbed his clothes on, and fled to work. He was late, but nobody was there to notice. He worked slowly and painfully throughout the morning. He went home at lunch and fell asleep without eating. He woke up with a start and ran back to work, but again no one was around, and he was thankful. He went to his corner and finished his day without speaking a word. He had seen Virgil down the road a bit and waved, but he did not make a move to talk and Virgil let him be.

That night was his shift at the Abbey. Before work, he ate dinner and drank a few beers while he went through his mail. There were the usual bills along with a postcard from his buddy Denny in Brooklyn. John had planned to stay in New Orleans for another year, but he was beginning to get bored. The biting humor of New York City would be refreshing after the slow sensual stupidity of New Orleans.

He started his shift half drunk and kept drinking. The blond from the night before showed up, but she was not in vinyl. She attempted flirting and he tried to be nice. His longing for her body tonight weighed against his longing for solitude in the morning. In the end, he got drunk and sloppy as he worked and she fled, leaving him sick and sad and tired.

After he closed the bar, he wanted to go home, but felt compelled to move on. He walked down to the Hide Out. He hoped to find her again, but she wasn’t there, so he drank another drink and tried to catch the eye of a beautiful red head, but had neither the focusing power nor the charm to do it. He finally left, got on his bike and did not remember driving home.

* * *

Saturday he spent reading and sleeping. He thought about very little, and was sure that he was not in the mood to go out, but when midnight rolled around, he became restless and rode downtown. He saw the beautiful redhead and flirted. They joked about themselves and their lifestyle. She was a happy boozer too. She had moved here from Seattle, and they made fun of the fog and the cold of the West Coast. He thought that they might go home together, but they both got too drunk to manipulate the situation in the right direction.

Sunday he worked on his bike, then rode to the levy. On his way home, he grabbed a forty-ouncer and a frozen pizza. Finally, he fell asleep.

In the dream, he was waist deep in the dark pond. His angel, walking slowly on the surface of the water, held something glinting and dangerous in her hand. He tried to get away. He moved towards the steps that led out of the pond, knowing that if she reached him she would pull him under forever. Her demon-beautiful face was serene and determined, and he awoke, powerless to stop her.

It was predawn night. He turned on the light and smoked. The dream and the cemetery with its rotting flesh haunted him. Suddenly he thought he might not be up to this job.

* * *

When morning proper came, he went to work and mowed. On his way to the shed at the end of the day, John passed his angel. Her demon-beautiful face, darkened by the sun behind, stared out above him. He remembered his dream, and saw that she might well walk on water.

John went home, read the paper and ate. Later he rode to Checkpoint Charlies. His friend’s band was playing. The show was fun and there were a lot of familiar faces. He drove home sober. Vaguely lonely.

* * *

He woke up before his alarm. He lay in bed smoking. He contemplated not going to work. He figured that he did need the money, so he decided to count on a day like the one before. The possibility of mowing all day comforted, but when he stepped onto his porch he saw the black clouds, felt the thick air, and knew that before long it would be storming.

He went into the shed and greeted Virgil. ”Hey.”

“How you doing?”

“Been better.”

“Job getting to you already?”

“Mm,” John affirmed.

“Yeah it does.   You’ll get used to it.”

“Yeah, I guess I will.”

”Maybe you won’t neither.   Who’s to say?”

John looked after Virgil as he walked down the little dirt road, then he walked in the opposite direction to where he had chosen to work. John mowed until the rain fell. By the time he made it back to the shed, it was as if he had jumped into a pool. He wanted to go home, and thought that he would try to find Old Spec in order to ask if it would be okay.

He walked outside the shed and peered into the water. The old man would probably be coming back soon, but he decided to look for him rather than wait. Before long, he found himself on the other side of the cemetery. Through the rain, he saw the fuzzy silhouette of the tall thin stooped old man. He was standing head cocked atop a tomb, one arm crooked, shovel in hand. John walked towards him, thinking that at any moment the old man would see him, but he didn’t. He moved closer to Old Spec, who seemed to be listening. The din of the torrent was deafening.

John stood directly in front of Old Spec and looked into his eyes. The eyes stared directly at him, but saw nothing. With a creeping sensation of horror and understanding a thought seized him, tugged at his throat and was released in a yell. ”You’re blind!”

Old Spec Samson started slightly and then waved him away. He was definitely listening to something. Or somebody.

Sluggishly John’s mind clicked over the events of the past week. A vision of the old man leading himself and Virgil through the cemetery straight to the risen remains. He always knew where they were. John looked at the old man who was hearing. . . what? The question lodged in his throat with the bile.

He bent over and vomited out the mud, the bones, the putrefying flesh, the alcohol, the sex. All the vile events of his life. When he was finished, the old man was gone, and so, because there was nobody to ask, he screamed his question to the swirling wind and the heavy rain, the swaying trees and the still seraphim, ”How does he find them?”

* * *

Wrapped in rain, tended by his angel, John sat for a long time. He imagined the bones and the decomposing flesh talking to the old blind man, leading him with his staff to the spot where they lie. Perhaps they scream at him until they are reburied. Maybe six feet of dirt merely quiets the screams to low moans. John shuttered to think that these dead piles of bones and flesh would not be silenced until they reached the fiery foundry and were obliterated.

He left the next morning for his new home in New York City, taking with him only what fit in his backpack on his bike. He drove out of New Orleans and left behind what he would not carry. The states flew by, and at each state line he dropped a bone, a bit of flesh. He tossed aside the seraphim, and even his angel. He drove away his past and was thankful he could move.

Every so often he thought of the old blind man, walking amongst the people he buried. The dead are very predictable. One does not need eyes to find them. He wished he had never met Old Spec Samson and tried hard to forget what he had learned. John knew now that he had a soul. His soul, like   all the others, was destined to fall apart and rot with the body, crying for mercy until the good earth gave it the nonexistence it longed for.

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