My mom has spare plots at Red Cedar, the cemetery a little ways down the road from our house. She says if I don't straighten up I'll be in one of them plots soon. I don't take her seriously most of the time. She gets a little dramatic when she's had too much wine. But I am here now, by the cemetery gates, near the clearing where Mercy is buried. There is a pond behind her where the geese go when the weather's decent. It's surrounded by willow trees, and I think she'd like that. But what do I know about her, really?
Excursions of this sort have been common lately—the cemetery, I mean. I sneak in at night, lie down next to Mercy's plot, and watch the stars. I guess that sounds strange. Mercy was my best friend Trevor's older sister. She died when she was fifteen, hit by a drunk driver who drove up onto the sidewalk while she was coming home from school one October evening, on a Friday if I remember right. The mishap has preserved her at fifteen forever. I'm sort of in love with her for it. Is that messed up?
I am home from college for summer vacation. It is nearly over now, and I can't tell you where the time has gone. Into the ether, I guess. I was supposed to get a part time job, but it is pointless now with only a few weeks left until school starts. Of course, I'm rationalizing. I've had all the time in the world to get a job, and I've spent it drinking myself stupid and watching old Japanese horror movies and a lot of internet porn. Might as well be dead. Lately, the days have been blending together like one long purgatorial clusterfuck—the seconds, minutes, and hours all passing without notice, with no particular action to speak of. I have no context in this world. Pops says it's a phase that everyone goes through at some point, better to get it out of the way when you're young. I have to pick a major next semester. As of now, I'm undeclared.
My older brother Ted came home in some kind of drunken stupor tonight. I remember him easing through the front door, being careful to close it gently. It was late, around the time I decide that there's no way that I'll be able to sleep, so I turn on the TV. I was on my way to the kitchen to get my whiskey when Ted passed me in the front room, unaware of my presence. His head drifted from side to side as he made his way upstairs and into the bathroom, passing childhood pictures of us in the hallway. Subsequently, I heard vomiting.
When the sun is down, it's nice here in the cemetery. Once you get over that uneasy, surreal feeling from being around a bunch of corpses, it's beautiful. The moonlight showers down on the hills. Various shades of green comingle in the abyss. Sometimes when the wind blows, you can actually hear the leaves and branches of an old willow tree rubbing up against the wrought iron gates, now flaking with rust. It makes this jingle-jangling noise, reverberating across the clearing.
After Ted threw up, he came down stairs and sat on the couch. He still didn't notice me, standing there in the kitchen. "Ted?" I said, if only to make my presence known. His legs jerked forward and he stood up like a surge of electricity had gone through him. And then he was just standing there, staring blankly through me at some fixed point beyond our shared reality. I snapped my fingers in his face, trying to jar him back to our world.
"Ted, you in there?"
He remained unresponsive.
"Ted," I said, louder this time. He rubbed his eyes and made an unintelligible grunt, all the while avoiding eye contact.
"Man, what the fuck are you on, exactly?" I asked.
"I need to go to work," he said.
And as those words came out of his mouth, the alarm clock on his cell phone went off. It was true—he needed to go to work. Ted's a security guard for a corporate office downtown. He's got the early shift, or he did, I suppose.
Ted started to head for the door to leave. The question occurred to me as to why he even came home. But then I saw his condition, and realized his actions weren't guided by sense. I moved in front of him.
"Woah, woah, woah," I said. "You can't drive anywhere right now."
"No. No, you're not. Sleep it off."
"Dude, I need to go to work."
"Well you should've thought about that before you did whatever the hell you did last night." I stood in front of the door, directly in his path.
"Bullshit, man. Move out my way."
"You can hardly walk. You're not going anywhere. Go lay down on the couch."
"Don't make me hurt you," he said.
"Go sleep. You can't drive. You could kill somebody."
"Yeah, and that somebody's standing in front of me right now if you don't move."
He slouched over, leaning on the wall. Then, suddenly, he burst up and tried to juke around me. It didn't work. I grabbed hold of him and got him in a head lock. He murmured something to the effect of, "When I get out of this, I'm going to fucking murder you." This only strengthened my resolve. "Just go to sleep," I said. "I'll call you in sick. It's not a big deal." I flung him onto the couch pinned him with my knees on his shoulders. I had him down momentarily, and we made eye contact. It was the first time I had ever taken him down. I mean, he's 5 years older than me, and has a good 50 to 60 pounds on me. I could tell this was his personal low. I let up on him, just for a second, and he squirmed his arm free and punched me right in the nose. I fell back on the floor and clutched my face. Tears welled up in my eyes and I felt blood start to pour out of my nostrils. Sound sleepers, my parents are.
"Fine, go. Go get yourself fucking killed," I said. "I don't care anymore."
At that point, I wasn't exactly keen to Ted's movements, but it seemed like he sat up and looked at his hand as if he wasn't sure what had happened. Then he turned to me and tried to talk, but began crying instead. It's a little jarring to see a grown man cry, hard to process while it's happening. Mom says Ted was a very jovial baby, never made much of a fuss over anything. I hadn't seen him cry since he was 11 back when Beth Langley socked him right in the nards.
But now he cried for everything that had happened to him, and more so for the things that hadn't happened. Things he never even knew he wanted until they ceased to be possible. Nothing of value had come to fruition in his life, and he felt it. He couldn't articulate it, but he felt it. Just another broken home, another family ripped in twain by subtle but unstoppable forces. A cycle repeated. I suppose I have a bit of a dramatic streak in me as well.
Ted fell asleep about fifteen minutes later. I sat on the floor, leaning over the couch until I was sure. There was a moment before when I got up to leave, and he started whimpering like a wounded dog. So I waited until he was out cold. And then I went to the cemetery.
Walking through the place, I always notice that the ground is never quite even. Whenever I go over small bumps in the terrain with my heel, I imagine the corpses have been reanimated and are reaching for the surface to reclaim their lives. Not one of us can compete with the dead. No one. They don't have to speak for themselves. Even if they could, I can't imagine they'd have much to say. The dead don't have to do anything; they have nothing to prove to anyone. No ego to fellate, no face to save. And yet we carry them with us everywhere. It always takes a while for my eyes to adjust in the dark. When things are that dark, you really start to see.
I fell asleep in the cemetery on accident. That's never happened to me before. Usually I just lie out under the stars for a while and let my head clear. I guess this time I wasn't exactly dead set on going back home. If anyone knew about my little walks, I suspect they might think I'm one of those kids who's obsessed with death. I'm not really. It's a habit. Something to do. No more significant than going to the mall. Everyone needs an escape; mine just happens to be a cemetery. Sure, it's strange, but it helps me to relax. A lot of the time I feel this strange kind of pressure on my chest. The weight of impending adulthood, I suppose. When I breathe in, my lungs fill with dread. And when I exhale, they shrivel in apathy. The neurons in my brain are choreographed to an ancient Indian rain dance. I don't know why I go here. I don't quite understand what's happening to me.
The groundskeeper found me in the morning. He nudged me with his foot.
"You okay, kid?" he asked.
The sun was in my eyes. All I could see was the man's silhouette. I got up and brushed myself off.
"Did you uh, did you know her?" He pointed down at the grave.
"Not really," I said.
"Well, what were you doing passed out next to her damn grave then?"
I didn't have an answer for him. Not one that made any kind of sense.
"I don't really know. Just visiting, I guess," I said, finally.
"Visiting?" he asked.
I looked down at Mercy's grave, and in the light of day, I saw it for what it was. Nothing. Remnants of a life wasted. I can imagine her doing her hair and make-up with her friends, talking about guys and dreaming of the right one for her. And look what happened. Her grave looked so much more meaningful in the moonlight. I was fucking kidding myself, thinking it was relevant to me at all.
"Yeah," I said. "Visiting."
The groundskeeper scratched his head. I noticed he had a little golf cart behind him.
"Am I in trouble?" I asked.
He kicked at the ground, and after a moment's hesitation, started laughing.
"Is something about this funny?"
"It's just a little weird, I guess."
"I would think you'd be used to it. Kids come in here all the time and get wasted."
"Yeah but, you were just lying there. Like you were dead or something. I thought you might've been dead."
"Well, do you want me to give you a ride back to the front?" he asked.
"No. I can walk, thanks."
He drove off in his cart and I made my way back to the gates, the sun blaring down on me. There's something about that cemetery that makes it a bit sobering in the sunlight. I think it's the stillness. Things are just still. The air doesn't move; the leaves on the trees never waver. Sometimes I wonder if I'll go back there and visit her grave when I'm old and grey. That's the thing about cemeteries. No matter how old you get, the graves will still be there. If it's a well-kept cemetery, at least. Though, I surmise that 99% of the graves don't even get as much as a wreath on Christmas. No matter, I suppose. They're not here. We are.
I made it to the gate and the groundskeeper was in the parking lot, about to get in his truck. There was a bumper sticker on the back that read, "My son is an honor roll student at Lewis Nathan Elementary." I was an honor roll student there once. Something about that made me feel down. I'm not sure how to articulate it. Maybe it's the way I imagine the groundskeeper. I have this narrative about strangers in my head—what goes on behind the scenes. I imagine his wife leaving him for a buff fitness instructor. And I imagine his son, oblivious to the drama, wondering when the next third weekend of the month is going to roll around, so he can see his father again. I imagine the groundskeeper as a child, wanting to be an astronaut. I imagine him seeing the moon landing on television and wanting that for himself. And I suppose that's why I feel down whenever I think about it. He never got to be an astronaut. That's what happens to the dreams of ordinary people around here.
And I have to pick a major next semester.
David Stockdale is a writer from the south suburbs of Chicago. His op-ed essays have appeared in AND Magazine and the Center for Digtital Ethics & Policy. His short stories have been featured in The Commonline Journal and Behind Closed Doors Literary Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his URL is http://davidstockdale.tumblr.com/