Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Summer Voice

When I was in high school, my dad spoke to the priests that ran the school and mentioned that his son was looking for work during the summer break.  I wasn't.  Something to pass the heated months of boredom he said, and something to give me some experience.  They told him I could help out the maintenance crew (a bunch of rough kids whose parents saw summer work as a form of punishment).  We'd be doing things like cleaning the rooms, buff-waxing the hallway tiles of the three-floored school, and sanding and staining every single wooden seat in the auditorium.  My first job was painting the heavy iron doors in the school's boiler room.  It was a good assignment, as it was pretty solitary, and it kept me away from those older kids.  I think the priests knew I was a little different than those guys.  And I think they knew I was grateful for that distinction.

Turns out I really liked the job.  And I liked the structure.  I got up early, ate breakfast, packed my lunch, and headed off to work.  It was only a mile from our house, so I would walk to the high school every day.  A large old cemetery lay between the house and the school, so that became my shortcut.  

Cemeteries are strange places.  They never made a lot of sense to me.  My father used to say that a person should remember deceased loved ones in the comfort of their own homes and not where they're planted in the ground.  We rarely agreed, but I agreed with him on this one. 

Now walking through a cemetery twice every day for two whole months makes a person slightly desensitized to the notion of hundreds of bodies buried all around you.  And numb to the grieving.  I saw a lot of sad people that summer. There was one guy in his thirties, I think, sitting on the grave of what I assumed was his wife, or maybe a sibling.  He was crying quite hard as his two small children played and laughed nearby. 

I saw a woman on her knees and elbows just staring at the grass of the cemetery plot as if willing her loved one to return from the dead.  When she saw me coming, she acted as though she were just clearing leaves from the grass and said 'hello' as I passed.  I saw people placing flowers, flags, sea shells, coins, and candles.  On the last week of the job and the last week of summer break, I saw the old man.

Surprisingly, I never saw any elderly people.  He was the only one.  The grave he was visiting was alone in a very private and secluded section of the cemetery.  It was hidden between thick mature shrubs and an old stone wall.  The gravel path curved nearby, and only for a brief moment could I see him through a break in the wall, where a very narrow set of slate steps led down to this singular plot.  His back was to me, so he never saw me pass.  And this portion of the path was more grass than gravel, so he never heard me either.  

The old man was speaking.  And laughing.  And that made me pause for a moment.  I crouched down behind the wall and watched him.  He was gesturing with his hands as he spoke.  Not in a crazy way, but in a very relaxed and comfortable manner.  I smiled and shook my head, and I started to get up to leave when I heard the other voice.  The voice of a woman.  

He was definitely speaking to someone.  He would tell a story and she would laugh.  He would ask a question and she would answer.  For the life of me I could not see where this other person was located. The area where he was standing wasn't that large, and the tombstone was very low with very little room behind it for anyone to sit or hide.  But this is the weird part - the voice seemed to be coming from the air around the old man.  It was very clear and didn't seem to be affected by the sound of the wind through the trees, or by the birds chirping, or by the loud calls of cicadas.  It was extremely clear, and I could hear it more distinctly than the old man's voice, now that I think about it.  I liked the voice.  I found it to be very kind and gentle.  So I listened.  I listened for a very long time that morning.  I learned that they were once married and had a very long life together.  They talked about holidays and vacations and how they first met.  They spoke of their children.  The stories they discussed went back over sixty years.  

I can't really say why I wasn't afraid when I processed exactly what was happening.  The simple answer is that it was because of that voice.  It was completely and totally soothing.  And it was extremely difficult pulling myself away.  I was very late for work that first morning.

In the days that followed, I made sure I got up extra early.  It became a daily ritual of rushing to the cemetery and crouching down behind that wall.  And listening.  Listening to two people who were, and continued to be, in love.  My parents were never ones to express their emotions or maybe they just didn't show them in front of their kids.  But listening to these two people reminded me of something I heard a really long time ago when I was very young.  It was an early Sunday morning, I was in bed, and I had just opened my eyes.  I smelled coffee in the house and the sun was up.  And I heard my parents down in the kitchen.  I couldn't make out the words, but I could tell they were having the best time.  I heard my dad's voice followed by laughter from my mom.  I would hear my mom's voice flare up and then both of them laughing after.  Sounds odd to say that hearing your parents laughing was a rare thing, and I felt like I was in on the world's greatest secret that morning.  I was never so content being a part of that moment.  And that's how it felt to me now, crouching in an old cemetery.  I was part of a special secret.  Of someone else's intense happiness.  And the world allowed this strange incredible event to occur.  And it allowed the old man, and now me, to be a part of it.  

I listened that day until it was time to head off to work.  I slowly rose from my spot behind the wall.  Making sure to stay low as I usually did, and still listening to their conversation.  But on this morning, I lost my balance for a second and leaned too hard against the old stones of the wall.  I felt it shift slightly and heard one of the larger rocks on the other side of the wall come loose.  It fell onto the slate steps leading down to the old man.  The voice stopped mid-sentence.  And so did everything else.  The wind, the birds, the cicadas.  The only thing that I did hear was the voice of the old man, calling to his wife.  It started out quietly, and then rose to a panicked frantic pitch.  He called her name so many times.  He pleaded her name.  Then he just started wailing.  And I ran.  I ran so hard.   

On the first day of school, I cut through the cemetery again, and walked by the old stone wall, and the steps.  I knew the old man wouldn't be there.  So I didn't even look.

Click the photo when you're done reading the story.


Sara said...

This is my favorite story of yours. The explanation of the beauty of what the character heard. The beauty of those moments he had heard when his parents were still in love. The horror at the reality of what happened in the end. I actually cried. It was written so simply and so well. I love this. Listening to the music now and it’s beautifully perfect. Well done, Rot. Well done.

Rot said...

I REALLY appreciate that, Sara! I am really glad you liked it so much.
I've had this in draft mode for about four years. I finished it this morning before work.

Wren said...

Powerfully written, and tragic. You are a natural writer!

Rot said...

Hey, thanks for that!
Way too kind with the natural writer thing! (But I'll take it.)

Revenant Manor said...

That, sir, is good stuff.

Rot said...

Thank you!
I appreciate that!

Willow Cove said...

Agreeing with everyone. This is a great story. Sometimes seeing is not needed.
Bravo, my friend!

Rot said...

Thanks, W.C.! I'm glad you dug this one!

Mike C(JASONV123) said...

Bravo, Rot! This story had me from the beginning!!

Rot said...

Thank you, Mike!
I really appreciate that.

The Jones Gorgonization said...

Your various talents never cease to amaze me, rot.

Wonderful read.

Rot said...

Thank you a ton!

Raven176 said...

what was really great for me was I wasn't sure it was just a story...
thanks for that.

Rot said...

hey, I appreciate that!
I usually try the fake-out approach!

K.O. said...

AMAZING writing!!! I was hanging on every single word. You really know how to build intrigue, Rot!!! Furthermore, it's quite a moving and poignant piece. I almost cried while reading it! A very touching story, and beautifully told.

Rot said...

Thanks, K.O.!
Really glad you liked it!