He couldn’t tell if it were a hillock or another grave. Bernard stepped up the slight rise, black shoes digging into the mud and wet grass. Streaks of brown already coated the legs of his ashen slacks like flames painted on the side of some jock’s sports car. Luckily though, the rain stopped around twilight, so the rest of his suit and muted paisley tie were dry. “Jackson Arthurson,” he said, looking at the next flat marker buried in the earth. “Nineteen-twelve to nineteen-fifty-one.”
“Horrible drunk,” said the young woman, catching up to Bernard and sliding an arm around him, her tiny fingers draping into the pocket of his suit coat. She had a scent like spring wildflowers barely noticeable above the smells of rain and mud that always reminded Bernard of dead fish. “Beat his wife and kids. Caused one a serious brain injury that probably killed him, though no one could say for sure since the boy didn’t die that same day.”
“That’s awful,” said Bernard.
“Yes.” She leaned her head on his bicep. It stayed there only a moment until the uneven ground they crossed bounced them back apart.
“Eleanor Lynn Ashby,” said Bernard, as he absentmindedly raised a hand to brush the girl’s dark bangs from her eyes. “Nineteen twenty to … I can’t make that out.”
“Thief. Maid to the Danforths. She robbed them blind, let me tell you.”
Bernard shrugged. “What about the Danforths? Are they here?”
She pointed to the treeline where mist oozed like a sickly river.
The cemetery followed that treeline for acres, curving in places like the various holes of a golf course. “Over that way. Several generations. You can’t see them from here, but there are large family vaults.”
“What about them?” asked Bernard. “What were they like?”
“A gambler, a whore, a murderer. Those are the big ones—the names you’d know. There are swindlers and kleptomaniacs, too, and many cousins and uncles who trod and spit on everyone they met. You don’t even want to know about the kids.”
“The kids, too.”
“Sounds like a rotten family,” said Bernard. He felt her fingertips on the nape of his neck, a touch so light and unexpected it sent a pleasurable flutter down his spine like the onset of effects from a morphine drip after surgery. The euphoria passed quickly when her hand pulled away.
“No worse or better than most,” she said. “Just richer.”
Bernard stopped walking and met her gaze. Her eyes wore shrouds in the darkness, though he pictured them brown as good whiskey in the daylight. Tonight though, even the moon wore a veil, its yellow penumbra sometimes showing hints of a bowl-like form.
“It’s true,” she said. “Even the innocent sin. Did you really think you’d find purity here? Really? Of all places?”
Bernard turned and resumed his walk, getting farther and farther from the simple plot where the service had been held. The young woman hesitated just a moment, then picked up her pace and rejoined him. “I wonder,” said Bernard.
“All this talk, all this ugliness….”
“Telling me all this stuff, are you trying to make me feel better?”
“No,” she said. “Worse.”
He nodded. Of course, he thought. It’s not working, though.
The two arrived at a densely packed stretch of graves where more traditional granite or marble markers rose one foot or several above the ground. The first one they came to was black as an idol carved out of coal. “Sister Mary Agnes,” said Bernard.
“A nun in a protestant graveyard. Makes you think.”
“Hmmm. She died young. What was she?”
“A seducer. Your kind of girl.”
Bernard didn’t take the bait. Instead, he moved on, skipping several stones until he arrived at the pointed obelisk centering this cluster. “I don’t see the name,” he said. “Is that it? No, wait….”
The young woman separated from him, went around to the far side of the obelisk and stared at an iron plate affixed to the ground. “Beloved wife and mother,” she said, not reading off the name. “That’s a joke. You wouldn’t believe the crimes she committed.”
“I don’t want to know,” said Bernard.
“No, you don’t. Nobody does. These are the things you won’t learn from the archives of the Lone Oak Historical Society, though you might get some of the truth if you spend a few hours or maybe a week in the morgue at the Lone Oak Weekly Times.”
“Is that how you know so much?”
The young woman didn’t answer. The two watched each other in silence for a moment. Then the girl pointed to a stone seraph eight feet high, very feminine, with exquisitely detailed wings folded around her in a mournful embrace. “There,” she said, leading Bernard to it. “That one’s important. Beautiful and sad.”
“What’s the name?”
“You don’t need the name.”
“Why not? Who was she?”
“It was a he. You might actually find his story somewhere if you looked hard enough.”
Bernard glanced upward at the angel’s face. Traces of the evening’s rain glittered on her head, with just enough moonlight to paint the trail from one droplet streaking down her cheek like a tear. “Tell me,” he said. “This time, I have to know.”
The young woman paused, but only for a breath. “He was a mean one. He beat her—his wife, I mean. Not every day, but often enough. There were police reports and hospitals. He used fists, belt, a broom, a bottle—God knows what else. But she outlived him. His liver was weak, or maybe it was his heart. So, when he died, she had this monument built.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Maybe to watch over him. Some say she forgave him. Some say she wanted him to know she still loved him in spite of everything.”
“What do you say?”
Another pause. “I think she just wanted everyone to remember. Whenever anyone sees that monument, this story gets told, and whoever hears it knows what a cruel bastard that man really was.” Her voice crackled as she finished the tale.
He studied her. Suddenly she seemed to wear the granite angel’s face, mimicking even the tear that arced along a cheek. There was still just enough radiance of moonlight peeking through cloud cover to highlight her features—the bowed head, the dark hair dangling, the hints of bare shoulders more alluring than naked breasts—though not enough to keep her scarlet dress from pretending the black of mourning.
Bernard stepped forward and took her in his arms, enfolding them around her like the granite angel’s wings. He pressed her to him, feeling her warmth and chill at the same time. It had been a while since he’d held a woman so lovingly. It was an embrace born of a different passion than those he so often experienced inside him, cutting with their tiny butcher knives.
Liz. Six-three, about one-seventy. He didn’t know why he chose her. She wasn’t even his type: a bit tall for his taste, a bit thick in her thighs and hips, skin unnaturally tan, hair a patchwork of similar but not quite exact dyes. She was a waitress, too—another cliché in his book. He chatted her up just the same, got her number, took her out for drinks and dancing, then … a meager few hours filled with tenderness and kisses. Only the once. Only….
Before Bernard knew the young woman had moved, she was gone. He saw her walking away from him at a fast pace. Getting himself together, he raced after her, his fine Italian leather squishing into and over the moist earth. For some reason, he felt as if he were swimming in a sea of chocolate. He even smelled a hint of hot cocoa, but that scent vanished when he caught up to the girl and grabbed her by the forearm. Then, he could smell only flowers—whatever bright fragrance she wore.
She stopped moving. “A few more stones,” she told him.
“I hate these stones,” he said. “They all lie.”
“Why can’t they be honest?”
“And say what? ‘Here lies Robert Twist. Raped a girl in college and then married her to wash away the guilt.’ Or how about, ‘David Lee Colquitt. Never said an honest word in his life.’ And you? What would yours say?”
Bernard didn’t hesitate. “Adulterer,” he said.
“Lover of women…”
“…women who weren’t his wife.”
He nodded, remembering.
He came home straight from the Courthouse that day and found her waiting, her pale, delicate hands squeezed into a fist, the panties balled up like a wad of paper headed for the trash basket. The damndest thing was, he didn’t know why he’d saved them. Nothing special about them. Just white cotton outlined and speckled with brown dots. They didn’t belong to Liz. He didn’t know whose they were. He couldn’t even recall where he’d hidden them.
When she confronted him, she never uncurled her white-knuckled fist or let those panties fall from her grip. Nor did she brush the tear-soaked burgundy hair from her cheeks. She attacked, and Bernard denied. She swore, and he argued. She cried, and he pled. She ranted, and finally, he left.
That night, he checked into a familiar hotel, his hands quaking as he slid the electronic key card into the lock. The carpet was the color of dirt, the walls bland and paper-thin. It was a non-smoking room, but the air smelled heavily of tobacco and something else…something sour. He let the atmosphere overwhelm him. He couldn’t sleep at all. In the next room, he heard a woman crying—never the sound of a man, just her—and he imagined….How could he not? The timing….The horrible sense of connection….
“There they are,” the young woman said, “the Suicide family.”
“Uh…,” said Bernard, unsure what words would fit this revelation.
“Melissa Tarquin, suicide by oven gas.”
“Jerry Tarquin, handgun.”
“Geraldine Tarquin, age nineteen, drove her car off a bridge, taking her unborn with her.”
“…a little gruesome.”
“Terrance Tarquin, pills. Maybe suicide, maybe not. What do you think? Was it?”
Bernard couldn’t answer at first. His mind raced and circled and raced again like dogs speeding around the track. He understood that she wasn’t referring only to Terrance Tarquin. Finally, he choked back the sorrowful squawks trying to escape. “Hard to say with pills, I guess. Even the Coroner couldn’t answer for sure.”
“Too many pills,” she said. “Nerve pills. Could be suicide, could be…”
“Wait,” she said, spinning and seeking. She pointed to a small ridge. “There.”
Bernard was disoriented. His mind was stuck on one thing, but the young woman had moved on to something else. “I don’t understand.”
“You wanted honesty. There it is. That’s Hangman’s Hill. Had a gallows up there a hundred years ago. Hanged seven men. Criminals. Dropped them straight into their graves.”
This story felt like a release to Bernard, as if all the pain and guilt were suddenly wiped away with a damp handkerchief and a mother’s gentle hand. He exhaled before he even realized he’d been holding his breath.
“No false advertising there,” said the young woman.
“Still ugly,” Bernard replied.
“It is,” she said. “Oh, definitely.”
“Still very troubling.”
“Makes you wonder.”
“About what?” she said.
“Well, let me ask you something. What do you make of all this?”
He nodded. “All these layers of bad.”
“Hmmm.” She locked arms with Bernard and leaned in close, shivering against him. “You know that crazy preacher down south a couple months ago? The one who predicted the Second Coming?”
“That guy who named the exact date and time, then had his parishioners give away all their worldly goods?”
“Right. Then he threw a huge party, and everybody gathered to celebrate with him and count down the minutes to the end.”
“I remember. Nothing happened.”
“Are you sure?”
Bernard didn’t reply.
“What I think is, maybe that preacher was right all along. Maybe it was the Second Coming, and no one really noticed. Nothing changed. I think maybe nobody made the cut.”
Still, Bernard didn’t speak. His mind was both heavy and light. He stared off at Hangman’s Hill, then lost himself in the mist that still rolled along like a silvery snake. Finally, after many breaths and much silence, he raised a hand and pressed it like a kiss against the young woman’s cheek. He thought he could’ve held it there forever.