[img_assist|nid=252|title=Cosmopolitan Lounge by John Gascot|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=106]In a previous life, my husband was an alley cat in Rome who lived in the Colosseum and whose purrs originated in his scrotum. Now he finds love in the belly of compost heaps and in the folds of Burpee Seed envelopes—fixed and declawed as he is. These thoughts are typical of the private games I play each morning before I visit Karen’s grave. The content of my mental life is the Swiss-army knife of daily cemetery goers: it snips, scrapes, uncorks, screws, and whittles its way to consecrated ground.
I complete another day’s visit and walk the skinny road that
weaves in and out of the gardens. The slight incline interests
me. I wonder if the designers of this place want visitors to
feel the upgrade as they walk away. Feel their losses farther
behind, farther beneath them.
Out the corner of my eye I see a truck on the lawn, workmen.
They are behind me now, at least three men, one in the driver’s
seat, the others swaying in the back of the pickup. I stumble
slightly as I walk, which is very unlike me. Someone whistles
and I know it’s at me because no one else is around. At sixty-six
I’m a tiny woman. No one has admired me in years. It’s the men
in the truck, and now they make other sounds. If I turn around,
show my face, I know they’ll shut up. My age from the front is
white and laced, extravagant as a wedding gown. Excited and frightened
I walk faster. Again someone whistles and I’m glad.
I come to a fork in the road. Left leads to the parking lot,
right to a series of paths and groves. As I veer to the right,
I think of my husband working at home in his garden. He’s a good
man; the old guy worries about me; he’s afraid of losing me since
Karen died. Luckily, he has what I call his scallion diversions.
From his immaculate garden he creates wonderful salads, and I
poke fun at his hobby—annoy the hell out of him. "With
greens like these we’ll live forever, God forbid.” He controls
his annoyance by listening repeatedly to Sara Lazarus’s jazzed "I’m
Thru with Love.” If he were watching me now, I wonder if
he’d let the garden go to seed, actually call a halt to his greens.
But other than making a simple turn toward the trees, I’ve done
[img_assist|nid=253|title=Young Girl Wearing Lace, Tressa Croce|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=94|height=175]
Since I don’t want to turn around and hear no additional sounds, I’m in the dark about the workmen. Maybe they know my age and this is all a big joke. I glance at some headstones, the names are familiar, Yarkas, Luvenvirth, and realize I’ve come this way before. In case the men are watching, I feign interest in a marker by cocking my head left and right. A stone hits me in the back of the head. I spin round, feel something in my hair, and untangle an acorn. Another falls from the tree above me. Now I see the truck at the fork move in my direction. I want to scream my daughter’s name, want her to help me. Mercilessly I whip myself for this stupid, childish desire. The men gain on me. I hide behind a tree.
Elderly bodies of the living lack the dignity of corpses (or so I think as Richard kneels shirtless in the garden, his pasty torso mocking his green thumb). As he digs I watch his breasts—one higher than the other—and wonder how things come to be. The phone rings, but the caller hangs up once I answer. It’s the fourth such call today. Making prank calls was the big thing when I was eleven, and I think back to huddling with my girlfriends and squealing with joy as we clicked on the unsuspecting. But I doubt girls are dialing today. I worry that the workmen have lifted our last name from Karen’s stone. The thought is absurd, but like the trellis my husband is working around to gather his last pole beans, it’s firmly planted. Richard sees me at the kitchen window and winks. Again the phone rings. This time I lift the receiver, but say nothing.
"You there? I know you the one," he says. "Tell
me and I’ll hang up."
I start to hang up, but don’t complete the action and bring
the man back to my ear. Richard leans over something in the garden.
His toneless skin and muscle collapse this way and that.
"Jus tell me."
As though this voice will pump testosterone—something—back
into my husband, I stay on the phone.
"You still on?"
"Talk to me."
A strange kind of pride—a blast of wild music—body-pierces
my lips, eyebrows, cheeks.
"I gotta get off."
I hang up. My husband looks at me and waves with fingers the
color of pancake mix. How does he keep the dirt off of his hands?
[img_assist|nid=694|title=eXpressway, Indigene© 2008|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=126]I frequently wear a turban to the cemetery. That or scarf or rain hat. Something akin to what Henry Fonda wore in On Golden Pond. Regardless of the weather these past few days, my Henry-near-death cap has been my pick. No one will whistle at a sad Henry or awaken old-lady urge. Standing at Karen’s grave, I hear a whistle. She and I make the tiny sound in our noses that always turns into a laugh. Our private joke is the impossibility of life and death, sex and sad hats.
On her birthday my husband and I stand by Karen’s grave. Richard
comes with me to the site a couple times a year. He crouches
down and with a soft cloth polishes a section of the marker.
The moment he finishes, I crouch to rub. Then we arrange and
rearrange our flowers.
"The most beautiful spot in the park," he says. "The
The marker looks brilliant, but I want more shine. I touch
the cloth to Karen’s name much as the mother of an infant dabs
her child’s perfect mouth. Vibrations from a truck pulling up
behind us wind up my spine. I turn my head and they are there,
out of the truck, three men, each with a lawn mower. Like a geisha
on speed, I lower my eyes and quickly turn to more perfectly
service my marble—but not before I notice their smooth,
So this is how it is. Across a road no wider than the root
of an ancient tree stand my dark-skinned lovers. There’s no way
to know if they’ve spotted me. Their mowers scream to high heaven;
I would like to scream. My husband reaches down and takes my
hand—the noise has cut through his peace, and he wants
"In a minute," I say.
"I can’t hear you."
"In a minute!” I yank my hand away. Afraid they’ve
seen me, afraid they’ll let on that I may have—it sounds
so ridiculous—wanted a liaison with gravediggers, I stay
put. Richard grabs me from behind, reaches under my arm, and
pulls me to my feet. The move, his strength, his resolve, surprises
"I can’t stand this noise. Come on."
We walk away, invisible, two elderly people, chimerical as
the parents of every lost child. Richard becomes distracted as
we move toward the fork in the road. His tension and anger transform
into desperation. It’s the familiar kind you see on the faces
of tourists come Sunday in quaint little towns. Richard looks
eager to find diversion in any nook or cranny. Fun, any fun,
to keep Monday at bay.
With wrinkled features that resemble a jigsaw puzzle pressed
into random alignment he says, "That stone, remember that
stone? You know, the one with the weird epitaph?"
"Let’s go, please. You said the noise—"
"It’s in the distance now. What was it? Kiss Me?"
"I don’t know."
"It was," he says, " Kiss Me. "
"Something like that."
"Over this way somewhere."
"It’s abominable. I don’t want to see it."
Momentarily ugly, Richard laughs at me. "’Abominable’?
I’ve never heard you use that word."
"There should be laws, rules. It should be ripped from
"Clare, sweetie, what’s wrong with you?"
"I don’t want to gawk at a stone that says Kiss Me!"
Richard studies me and sees that my lungs have pushed themselves
up and now lie beneath the skin of my face. His words are old-husband,
each, impossibly gentle. "We’ll go home. It’s okay."
I sit on the curb until Richard brings the car. He ejects the
Sara Lazarus CD and pulls my seatbelt around me.
Prior to Karen’s death, the occasional thought that I may be
an absurd woman or more precisely a woman who has her moments
of absurdity never bothered me much. Since she is gone, whenever
I feel the slightest bit eccentric, the sensation takes on an
added dimension. A feeling of permanence as though I’ll always
be odd with nails driven into the silly living coffin I’ve become.
I feel ridiculous at the entrance to the cemetery because I’m
sneaking in today. By this I mean I have no intention of visiting
Karen’s grave. I’m going to the Kiss Me stone instead, and though
I know the feeling is foolish, that I am at this moment laughable,
I sense that I’m betraying Karen by coming to the grounds without
I move toward the fork in the road in search of the grotesque
thing and what it might mean. A workman is kneeling by the goldfish
pond; he’s feeding the fish and does not look up. Another is
raking leaves (I want to tell him I’ve raked leaves forever)
and does not look up. A third is sitting in the back of the pickup
drinking coffee and dunking a doughnut. Dunker looks up, seems
to recognize my age, my sexual obsolescence, and moves his eyes
back to the sweet, moist thing at hand.
The stone is not an easy find. Names surround like impoverished
children begging tourists for pennies—but where’s the chiseled
command? I remember that Richard and I found the thing completely
by chance soon after Karen’s death. Thinking back to my first
reaction to the stone makes my stomach flip-flop. Imagining the
contents of a mass grave spilling out of me, I move toward the
office and the restroom inside.
I stare at the letters cut in the rock as though the thing
used to carve the message is flirting with cutting me. The time
spent searching and the discomfort are meaningless now. Here
is the stone. Kiss Me. Here is the springboard for a thousand
stray thoughts. Elementary school, sixty or a hundred years ago.
I hit a boy who is shocked and hurt by my fury (he asks the crossing
guard to kiss his black and blue). A chubby girl who hums incessantly
bends over the water fountain, and we laugh because her panties
show. Teenagers moon me on route 309 the day after I get my driver’s
license. And in the fun house, the one you move through in a
chair on wheels, the chair that smacks through double doors into
darkness and screams, my cousin, who I barely know, whose skin
is repulsive to me, sticks his tongue into my mouth.
There’s a bench behind me, a cool and uncomfortable slab that
bathes the backs of my thighs and puts them to sleep. John Malson
is the name engraved low and tiny and happy on the stone. I study
the word kiss, dominant, pressing, and experience a new
sensation: my eyeballs bounce in a bucket of flashbulbs—impossible
white lights that prick my optical nerves. Karen’s funeral. Flash.
Choosing her dress. Richard sitting there, helping me to breathe.
Paparazzi snapping at the closing of the box. There’s a whistle
in the middle of this, a ripcord that bounces me out of free
fall. I turn and see a woman on a path close by. She’s thirty-five,
lithe, blonde, a walking Grace Kelly. Someone whistles a second
time. She quickly kneels, places her flowers, and glides over
a hill and out of sight. I close my eyes and see her disappear
again, this time over a hill in my mind. But not before her dress
flirts with the wind, and lawless colors kick up; I fall in love
as her form melts into the horizon.
My husband’s hands on my temples surprise me at first. He stands
behind me and massages.
"How’d you know where I was?" I hear myself ask.
"You’re not hard to find."
"One of the few above ground.” I indicate Malson’s
grave. "This son of a bitch. Bet he was a professor. Taught…let’s
see…Shakespeare? He liked the obscene jigs some players did
to please the crowds after a play. He was that or a pedophile,
with his invitation so low to the ground. Whadaya think?"
Richard sits and tries to smile. "You’re funny today."
"It’s late. Come home."
"I don’t like the way you look. Let’s get out of here."
I get up but not to go. My eyes are engorged Satchmo cheeks
as I blow toward the stone. The ground feels diaphanous as though
the death beneath it were boneless, boxless spirit. Circling
round I come back to Richard. "I want to deface this stone."
"I’m not kidding. I want to deface it."
"Come with me."
I grab his arm. "You carry a knife with all kinds of attachments."
"You belong at home."
"I’ll come back alone with paint or shoe polish. A hammer—swear
"I’m taking you out of here."
"No," I feel my tongue tear at the roof of my mouth,
hear the wrinkles above my upper lip crackle, "you’re not."
"We’re leaving now! You want police here? I don’t know
what to do!” He swings his head away. Tears fly out of
his eyes like a burst from a machine gun. "What do I do?"
"Treat me for once like your prized garden soil."
He shakes his head and starts forming another "what" with
his face. Holding the word half in, half out, he grasps the bench
to brace himself and coughs. He motions with his fingers for
I fish in my purse, find an envelope with a moist towel, and
put it in his hand. He wipes some mucus from his face. I hate
myself for what I’ve done to him and blurt a confused request
for help as I sit.
Richard looks at me as though he’s been told I’ll die in the
next thirty seconds. "How?"
Every nerve in my body stammers. "You won’t like this.
I don’t think you’ll understand. Forgive me for embarrassing
you?” Talking eases my trembling, but a gust of Alpine-thin
air from Davos-Platz—he took me there right after she died—I’ll
never know why—makes it hard for me to breathe. "You
must know I don’t mean to embarrass you.” I look around. "But
no one can see. Richard? No one can see."
Richard looks around and squints at me. "No one can see
wha—” His voice fails for a second. "What do
you want me to do?"
"Something you used to do long ago in the most unexpected
places. I love how your voice cracks when you get excited."
Feeling as insubstantial as the afterlife under my feet, I
beg my husband: "Put your hand up my dress? Quick, before
somebody comes?” I start to cry. "Do it and I’ll come
home with you?"
He shakes his head. "I can’t. Our daughter—"
"Is what? Buried on the other side of the park?"
As though troubled by the thought that the dead watch all our
movements, my husband jerks his head in the direction of Karen’s
grave. He turns back to me, closes his eyes, and sucks in his
lips. Richard moves his hand as far as he can and holds it there.
At the kitchen window I survey the midwinter garden. Richard,
who now shares space with Karen, detested the hard February view.
Too much hunger in the eyes of rabbits, too many icicles hanging
from eaves above windows—he always complained about icicles
and the dull and constant drip. He’s dead four months. Two months
after our open-air adventure he quickly slid. Feeling certain
I’d make it to ninety, he spent his last few days telling me
what a tough old lady I’ll be.
When I visit the grounds, regardless of whose spirit I’m reaching
for, all conversation, intimacy, is now compromised. What’s between
Karen and me bleeds into Richard and vice versa. Our family plot,
like all gravesites, is a compost heap. Here at the window, warmed
by the baseboard heat, I think of the invisible trellis that
lazes above Karen and Richard. How it traps me like the web of
an incontinent spider that no longer eats but spins because it
has yet to learn how not to be. Ninety, Richard said. What a
jazzy old lady I will learn to be by ninety. Even without surprise
whistles, yes, what a great old lady I’ll be.
I can’t bring myself to deface the stone. Instead, I use Richard’s
Swiss-army knife to stab the grass above Malson’s bones and leave
the blade buried there.
Barry Dinerman’s plays have been seen in Seattle, New York City, and Philadelphia. An Edward F. Albee Foundation fellowship supported many efforts. Dinerman wrote scripts for TV GUIDE and published work in The Wall Street Journal. Selections from his prose were recently performed by Philadelphia Readers Theater. Flourtown is home.