Saturday, November 14, 2009

I Should Be Laughing: Harry At John's Grave


The pines and firs high on the knoll were shadowy figures, blurred behind the swollen fog to look more like grayish aliens sent down from the heavens to stand guard on the hilltops than ancient trees. It was a cold morning, and eerily quiet because of the fog. Outside the cemetery gates Harry took it all in, the cool mist stinging his face, the winds swirling the haze around the gates, up into the trees. He actually liked the graveyard; the quiet serenity calmed him, while the manicured lawns and neatly pruned shrubs reminded him of a private garden. Peaceful; as it should be. He liked to come when it was misty and silent, early in the morning; he liked coming when no one else was around.
Harry wandered up the crooked drive that led from the street to the top of the hill. Where the roadway fractured in two, he went left, and about halfway up, he stepped from the blacktop to the green lawn. The dew splattered his shoes as he hiked among the ancient oaks, their bark damp, drops of moisture dripping from their leaves to land like tears upon his jacket sleeves. Trembling with the cold, rubbing his hands together for warmth, Harry realized he should have worn gloves; instead, he could only shove his fingers into the deep recesses of his pockets. He wore a scarf, and, in fact, had looped it around his neck a few times; and his old coat could be snapped and buttoned and zippered and velcroed against the chill. He should have remembered gloves, but his mind was elsewhere.
Mindful of where he stepped, Harry walked between the graves and pulled his hands from the luxury of his coat to run his fingers over the roughened tops of the burial markers. Those great granite stones, icy to the touch, evoked the names of those who had passed in the early years of this century; the more recent arrivals were near the top of the hill. Harry left the rows of upright headstones and strolled across a grassy meadow where the markers were flush to the ground like postage stamps. He had heard these new stones made it easier for the caretakers to simply run the large mowers right over them. Strange, Harry grimaced, even in death we need to conform, to make life easier for someone else.
Calmly and methodically, without looking where he was headed, for there was no need, Harry walked on. He instinctively knew where to go, which trees to walk around, which hedges were in flower. He knew the graves he wanted to see, the ones that would have fresh flowers, and he knew the names of those he passed along the way: Agnes Nolan, someone’s grandmother; Faye and Ben Holiday, a married couple; Erin and Joey Wilson, a mother and son; Charlie Groves, James Sanford, someone’s friend or son. Harry felt as though he was on a first name basis with these people because he had walked among them so often.
After a leisurely stroll, he stopped, and knelt down to brush away the newly cut grass from one marker in particular; his hand came away damp and covered with lawn clippings. Wiping it on his pants leg, he then proceeded to pull a few of the longer blades of grass that were growing onto, and crowding, the flattened stone. He plucked off the damp leaves and cleared away the rubbish from the chiseled name of his friend.
“My mother passed away this week, John.” Harry said, still crouched down, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together for warmth. “And I keep thinking that I should have told her about you…about us. I wonder how different life would have been if my mother had known the wonderful things you did for her son when I felt so lonely. I wonder if it might have been better for us, too, if we all hadn’t been such liars.”
Harry raised his eyes to the sky, toward the silver dollar sun hiding behind a bank of clouds. He enjoyed visiting John, even with everything that had happened between them. The beatings Harry endured. The times he’d let John move back into the house even though the locks were changed, even though he swore he wouldn’t do it. Harry believed he owed John something.
“I never thanked you,” he said softly, “for what you did for me. God,” he laughed a little. “I was so afraid when I first came to the city and you made everything okay…for a while.” Pausing, Harry remembered the good times, of which there were many to recall, enough to make him smile in spite of the chill and sadness. Dancing with John at The Stud; John, on the bar, threatening to pull his pants down, and then doing so. The parties they had on the rooftop of their apartment building, watching fireworks explode over the bay on the Fourth of July. The times they rented bikes to ride through Golden Gate Park to the beach; laughing over a comic strip in the Sunday Chronicle. Staying in bed all day on a rainy Saturday, watching “Sunset Boulevard” or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
“Why did we lie so much, John? Neither of us would admit it, but we were ashamed of being gay. No matter how we pretended otherwise…acting as if we were so fabulous when we…. I mean, we told cab drivers and store clerks, bartenders and newspaper boys that we were gay, but we never ever told our own families. I realize now that’s why you hit me, because you didn’t like yourself very much. I know that’s why I let it happen. We didn’t think we deserved to be in love and happy…”
Reaching into his pocket, Harry retrieved a snapshot he’d come across inside the cardboard box. He looked at it again. “I brought this for you…something to remember me by, the good times.” He laid the picture on the marker, careful to slide it close to the edge where it would stay until the winds picked up, or when the big mower came by. Harry brought his fingers to his lips and then touched John’s name.
“I’m going now, John. I just came by to tell you about my mother. To tell you I miss you…and Wyatt misses you, too. He sends his love.” Rising, his knees cackling from being crouched for so long, Harry wiped his eyes and then started down the hill, knowing which way to turn without thinking, which headstones to touch. He said goodbye to the others as he passed by.
Up the hill, on John’s marker, the photograph began to stir in the breeze. And yet that snapshot stayed in place on the stone; it remained there through the weekend rains and the passage of the lawn mowers. It was a photograph taken on the beach at LaHaina in happier times: Harry, on the right, his forehead blistered and burned, Wyatt on the left in sunglasses and a straw hat. John stood in the middle, smiling, sipping a Mai Tai.

2 comments:

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

A touching story, well written. It shows how we are all the same.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful.
Neal