Beyond the Western
For four weeks of the half-gone summer, much of it spent under clear skies her eyes had trouble keeping up with, rain only a scent of promise in the early hours, then again in the evening as if offering what was left of balance, Mavis Trellbottom, the lady in the brown house on the hill, saw the slow-walking man enter Riverside Cemetery. He was never in a hurry and she could have picked him out of the Memorial Day crowd if she had had the chance, but of course she hadn’t been looking for him then.
May, in its haste, had leaped well past June, into July.
Riverside, the only cemetery in town this side of the 18th century, dazzled as a patch of delightful dominoes below her when the sun broke in at the right angles, morning and evening sunlight each making resplendent choices of such angles. Granite faces at the oddest moments became mirrors in some sections that threw uphill their quick reflections. In truth, the cemetery had almost rushed out of breath against the old railroad tracks rusting the path to Lynn and the rest of the North Shore, so many of their friends in its final embrace. More than once Harry had said something about the mad dash to infinity. Many evenings of complete awareness she and Harry had sat here on the rear porch swathed in the truth of silence, the stars in slow orbit, traffic at a minor pitch, watching their beginning again, his pipe smoke wreathing above him in slight gray circles, proving at the last breath to be as deadly as bullets.
It was a special place for them, Riverside. With utmost clarity she remembered Harry coming home from work at the bank that day, taking her hand in the kitchen where the meal was nearly ready, putting little Harrison Trellbottom in his car chair and whipping them out of the apartment. Romantic Harry! Oh, so romantic Harry! They’d driven half the town, on a ruse she guessed, dusk starting but not yet in earnest, when he pulled up in front of the house on the hill, brought her and Harrison through the house and out onto the rear porch where the only piece of furniture left over from the previous owner was a huge glider. Down she looked at the cemetery, as she looked now, to the Godding site, mounded and monumental, the elms stately, where close on her seventeenth birthday their shadows, on a soft piece of grass and a half moon almost swallowing them, for the first time merged forever. On that porch glider, Harrison asleep, her knees against the back of the glider so that she could still feel the knotty grain of the canvas against them, she had placed herself down on Harry as always. He smiled up at her for the thousandth time, her working him with love and energy and moisture enough to embalm his soul, as she said, “Harry, I am your conquest all over again.”
Mavis Trellbottom broke from the reverie with a shudder. She had gotten pregnant that first time. Beautiful and lovely Harrison was born only to slide off the deck of an aircraft carrier almost twenty-five years to the day in far away
Asia. Robert had followed, now a full professor, and then Clarisse, somewhat distant Clarisse. It was her old friend Midge at the other end of the hill who had advised her about her differences with Clarisse. “Mav, you’re a boys’ mommy, not a girls’ mommy. That’s how the cake gets cut. Some gets it all and some don’t.” Midge, as it turned out, had her first lover at Riverside also. Where Mavis kept her first lover, Midge went back to hers in a daily ritual. Riverside was a special place.
Now, on this observant and clear day, Mavis allowed the odd-dressed and slow-walking man to be obedient, loyal, punctual, and as sensitive as a man could be, for she believed some days, though she couldn’t be sure, that he carried flowers in an odd container. That simply warmed her heart, as Harry, she was sure, warmed up when she brought her own flowers on Sundays before she cooked the big meal for herself, half the day in preparation, more of Time consumed than food. A constraint of the aged she could have argued.
Slim this man in the cemetery was, one shoulder appearing to shift above its partner, a felt hat marking him off at least two or three generations removed from most other visitors. No matter what the day was like, or what the forecast promised, he wore a sort of blue-black suit coat, also a remnant of another time. It would prove to be double-breasted, she was willing to bet. No likely recognition of him came to her. Not a classmate, not a neighbor, not a denizen of the center of town she went into once or twice in a whole month, only then in desperation, only when hunger stirred her thin body.
But Mavis Trellbottom came every day to her porch with expectations.
He was steady, she assessed, clock-like, of a routine. Over toast she saw him, over pot roast alone on the porch she saw him, only cooking such a meal to keep herself busy, “making work” as Harry used to say coming home from the bank and bringing stories about the young ones chasing him down the retirement trail. Though strangely dressed, haphazard if she were asked to describe his raiment, his routine did not fall to ground. Where in the cemetery he went she could not realize, the leaves and trees full, now and then a breath of wind showing him through parted leaves still moving towards the older section.
Clarisse called as usual on Monday morning, the dutiful and brittle tone hardly ever missing a beat. “Mother, how are you? Did he come back today? Was he there all weekend?” Oh, she was so joyous there was something to talk about beside the spill of time, her mother going back to her father in such short order of conversation. “Was he wearing the same outfit? I bet someone downtown knows him. Perhaps his wife has been recently buried there. Why don’t you ask Midge Holman if she knows him? She knew a lot of people in town.” The last remark, Mavis thought, was Clarisse at perfection.
“I won’t have you saying that about Midge, Clarisse. It’s not fair, hardly true, and I don’t like any of that kind of insinuation. It does not become you. Goodness knows, we have little enough time to tend to our own affairs.”
There, it had taken her mother less than four seconds to get to the passage of time, on the dying trail. “Oh, Mother, don’t say it again. Wait till I tell you about Sally and the band concert. It was splendid and she had a fine solo. You could have been proud of her.” The could of was not an ax of a remark, it was an ice pick, penetrating, measuring.
“I know she’ll understand why I didn’t come,” Mavis said, relenting. “It’s such a long ride, and I don’t want you or Edgar to make a double trip just for me, even if it were for overnight. And I will call Midge later today. I know she’s seen him from her end of the hill, perhaps as he’s coming from the center of town.”
In the late afternoon sun, she saw him again, moving past a row of particularly bright stones the sun was striking. A decided lean twisted at his shoulders, at his whole frame, as though he carried an unseen weight. Twice he turned and looked behind, once wiping his brow, the dark suit coat making a silhouette of him. Through the balusters the slight wind moaned and touched at her ankles. She guessed the heat down there must be rising around him off the pavement of the cemetery roads. Some days it was so blatant that it shivered for her in stratas.
“I’ll ask Ray if he knows him,” Midge said, “or where he comes from. I’ve seen him before, but only this summer. He looks a little lost if you ask me, perhaps a real loner. If he’s lost his wife recently, she must welcome his visits. But there is absolutely nothing familiar about him.” Mavis knew Clarisse would have picked up on that statement.
Two days later the police car was there in the cemetery, the blue dome light still blinking, half a dozen people gazing on the scene across grass and stone, the elms throwing shadows. Midge Holman’s husband Ray bent at watering his daughter’s flowers. The man in uniform was gruff and demanding. “What the hell are you doing here? We’ve had complaints about you from the Rounding people.” He pointed at the mausoleum door with the name on it. The door was ajar. “You’ve been hanging around a little too much for your own good. Now I want answers and I want them fast.” His voice had risen in its aspect of authority, and carried across stone and grass to his audience.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” said the man in the double-breasted dark suit coat and the felt hat. “And I don’t believe you heard anything from them.” He nodded his thin jaw at the mausoleum. More than a day’s growth of beard stubble flashed on his chin. His dark eyes could have held a thousand secrets, Malaysia in them, Singapore, Sumatra, something strictly eastern.
“You being a cemetery lawyer, now are you? Well, I’ve got a few canards for you, my friend, that we are going to get to the bottom of, you want to talk lawyer talk to me, do you? We’ll get you down town and straightened out in no order. I ask again, what are you doing here?”
The old man, not fazed at all by the gruff discourse or the handling, said, “Tending to my own business.” His eyes continued to hold distance as well as
mystery in them. “It might become apparent to you, if you were a little more observant.”
Ray Holman heard that little knife going under the skin of the officer, like a stiletto. He’d have some juicy stuff for Midge and she would bust all over to get it to Mavis. What the hell else did those two have to talk about anyway?
“Oh, is it parley you want, my man. Well, parley it will be, but not here in the public way.”
“This is not a public way,” the old man said, again nodding at the mausoleum set into the side of a mound of earth. His clothes were worn and thin. The breast pocket of the suit coat was torn, the lapels shiny as a fish’s gills, his shoes nondescript, and one lacing was a piece of spidery twine.
“In the car, old man. You are going to the lock-up.” The officer’s stomach hung out over his belt line. A redness had come to his complexion, and a shortness of breath evoked itself.
“I am not well. I do not want to go to jail. There are consequences if anything happens to me.”
Ray Holman mused on the words of the old man. They did not sound like a threat, but more like a bald statement of fact.
A boy was rubbing a handful of wet grass and sand against the stone of the mausoleum. The name Rounding appeared a number of times. Ray stepped closer to the scene and as he passed by the old man their eyes locked for the space of a mere second. Light was there, down inside, waiting to be found. It did not take very long for Ray Holman.
Another man came over to him. “Little brusque with the old gent, wasn’t he?” Like Ray, he was well into his seventies.
“I’ll tell you this, like I have to tell my wife and her girlfriend,” Ray Holman said, “if anything happens to the old guy, they have to bring him right back here. That’s Swift Rounding they just took to the hoosegow. He’s the last of the lot. I haven’t seen him in years. That’s his name down there.” He pointed to the face of the stone the boy was still rubbing with sand and grass.
The inscription was not finished, but there was promise engraved into the stone. Swift Rounding 1911- it read.
Ray Holman wondered what the ladies would have to say about this, the two of them and this thing they had about the cemetery.