- The City of the Dead
The first time I went to visit Dr. Hill at Park View, I brought him a bouquet of flowers. It would be six weeks before the headstone would be in, and the grave was gutted-looking still, like new gardening. It all looked a little vulgar and exposed, and I didn't like to look at it straight—though it was true I'd seen Dr. Hill much more exposed than this. "Don't get used to this," I said, laying the flowers on his grave. Dr. Hill didn't respond, but then he'd never been talkative when I knew him in this life, either. [End Page 49]
In the car, Stephen and Andy were listening to some awful radio, their little heads bobbing up and down like chickens pecking at the ground. After a while I went to sit with them, and we all bobbed together. Nothing happened. I changed the radio to the news, and the boys yelled. There were depressing numbers about Afghanistan. There was classical music.
"Grandma," said Stephen, "why are you making us sit in a cemetery?"
I changed the radio back. It's a nice cemetery, mostly because of the view. The cemetery sits on top of a hill and looks out on a dramatic wash of sea and sky. The cliffs crumble down into the Pacific like they might at the edge of the world—if the world had an edge. And if you're going to sit in a cemetery for most of the day, it's best to sit in one as old as this one. Most of the people here would be dead by now no matter what had happened to them, and that makes the whole project somewhat less depressing.
The boys were getting antsy and mildly violent. They started to kick at my seat, and I told them to quit it. The owlish groundskeeper came by with a rake, and we all waved. She waved back. She'd been apprised of the situation. A woman came with a Christmas wreath, but she wasn't the right woman. A man came and stood in front of a grave with a look of silent fury.
"What is he doing?" said Stephen. Stephen is six and towheaded and has a girlish lisp. Andy is four and floppy-eared and looks strikingly like a mouse. Neither of them will make attractive men, but as boys they are heartbreaking.
"Visiting his daddy, probably," I said.
"Where's his daddy?" said Stephen.
"It's weird here," said Andy.
"Do you boys want gum?" I said.
They did want gum. I wanted a drink. I never drink my first day on a job, and this felt like a new job, though in a lot of ways it wasn't. I wish I could say I never drank when the boys were with me, but that's not entirely true. I can say, though, that I was always meticulous about the drive. I'd stop drinking a full hour before I had to head down the switchbacks to the other side.
"Grandma," said Andy, "I'm cold." That boy was always cold. I turned on the engine, though there was no way I was wasting an afternoon's worth of gas on a child who refused to wear a sweater.
"All right," I said. "Five minutes."
The light grew thinner, and the wind kicked up. The boys played tic-tac-toe on the window panes. We watched and waited, but no one else came. [End Page 50]
I do eldercare, which makes for problematic job security—each job has its own layoff built in. The details vary, but my time with each client follows the same general arc. At first I sit with them for half-days and set up their movies and drive them out to the same cheap buffet lunches and keep them away from the stove. They eat microwaved mashed potatoes, and I daub seltzer when they dribble. I read them items from the newspaper, usually local bits about rescued animals, or schoolchildren doing volunteer work. When I go to full days, I sit...