The man dropped her at a junction. “Watch yourself,” he said.
She walked into town with her back to oncoming traffic. There wasn’t much. But she liked to imagine what it was like for the drivers. Their radios tuned to stations in far-off cities. Lulled by the static and patter. Their headlights pushing and pushing back the night. Then the dark figure wading through high weeds on the side of the road. That momentary recoil, the foot easing off the accelerator.
Each town was for her a revelation. The wonder of these people, too, in their flimsy shelters against the pitiless sky. The hunkering inside. Like the grizzled woman she saw once on a bus in … Boston, was it? Her folded newspaper with the one tiny eye-hole. Peering through it at the perilous world, vigilant, swatting at the gazes turned her way.
Here now was the auto repair, the beauty shop, the whatsit with the gravel lot, the red-brick church with the white steeple, the clapboard church with the bell tower, the church in what was once a burger joint. She walked on. She had an unerring sense of where they would be, the cemeteries in these little towns. This one three blocks due west of the courthouse square. Enclosed by badly neglected brick walls, one partially collapsed. She stepped over it.
Under a massive elm near the center of the graveyard she put down her pack. From it she took a flashlight. Had the batteries given out? No, it would do. She retrieved also her writing tablet, its spiral of wire barely attached to the ruled paper. The pages soft from so much handling. Her pen was still there, tucked inside the coil of wire. She remembered how she had done the same when she was young, in school. The end flat and milky white from her teeth: “Esther, take that pen out of your mouth. It’s disgusting. Students, don’t you agree that it is disgusting? Come, Esther, stand here beside me and face the class. Now, as I was saying …”
By the weak beam of her flashlight she started her search. Caleb S. Miller, 1890-1955. Edward Lee Morris, 1864-1936. Francis, wife of Samuel Tyler Overstreet, 1900-1988. She paused in front of a grave marked only by a small statue of cherub, one wing broken. Always she listened for the sound of a car, the squeak of an iron hinge, a gruff voice demanding to know what in the name of God she thinks she is doing.
Suddenly she was tired. It had been a difficult day. On the highway the few cars had sped by, the eyes of the drivers moving over her and then flicking away. From early morning until mid-afternoon, she had walked. When the sun was directly above her and the highway was empty, she felt again what she had imagined many times in her travels: that she was the last person on earth.
She lay down upon a lichened marble slab belonging to one Thomas Wiley, whose family congratulated him on being a devoted husband and father deserving of eternal rest. Ah, rest. But she made a promise to herself and to all of them that she would not sleep. Instead, with her eyes closed, she allowed herself to remember:
The little house on the low ridge above the river. The way it made that big, sweeping curve just upstream of them. The myriad little suns as the current played upon the rocks. Or in winter, the gunmetal gray of the water and the eerie mist that she had loved. Wood smoke. The sound of her father reading aloud to her mother. The hobo who camped in the woods behind them every Thanksgiving, who always accepted his plate of turkey and dressing with mumbled thanks and sometimes left on their porch for her a carved fish or bird. The family who lived a mile downstream. They would insist on caroling every Christmas, and her father would make the same joke every Christmas about their not coming inside because they couldn’t find the key.
The cackling of a barred owl roused her. A good omen, she thought, and she was right, because within minutes she found another one. She opened her notebook. This one would be number 112, then. Again she did the arithmetic: 1908-1925, so just 17 years old. Her son, who was buried at her feet, had outlived her by 75 years. And the name? The batteries were finally going. She leaned closer. Esther, beloved wife of John Farmer.
She sat in the grass beside the grave. It was her first “Esther.” She said their name aloud. She said it again. If the dead heard her, they did not say.
© 2014 Jim Abbot