“I’m going to the cemetery,” Charles said in the darkness. His wife turned on the bedside lamp and wiped her eyes. He knew she’d have to wash her face to get off the oils before going back to bed.
“At this time of night?”
She sat up. “I knew this was a bad idea.”
The couple had recently purchased headstones, and each had engraved an epitaph for the other, in secret, as anniversary presents.
“It wasn’t a bad idea,” he insisted. “I just want to see mine, that’s all.”
“I’m going to have them removed.” She turned off the lamp. “You won’t be able to sleep, thinking about those stupid stones.”
Charles felt his way along the wall to the dresser and took out a pair of beige slacks, shedding his pajamas. He opened the top drawer, put on a museum tee shirt that read “Keep Monkeying Around,” and began to search for his sneakers.
“You’re really going?” she asked.
“Be back in a few hours.”
“A few hours? The lot’s ten minutes away.”
“Sure, by car.”
“You’re walking?” She turned on the light again. “Charles, you’re not walking.”
“I’m walking.” He put on the slacks, found his way to the closet, and took his favorite jacket off a hook. Slipping on some shoes, he grabbed his wallet and keys and headed for the door.
She sighed. “We’ll go in the morning. When it’s light.”
“I’m not asking you to come, Sarah,” he called from the hallway. “Why do you care?”
“It’s late,” she said. “And you’re insane. That’s my reason. Two reasons, in fact. It’s late, you’re insane.”
“Maybe.” He opened the front door. “Don’t stay up on account of me.”
It was a brisk autumn night. Charles meandered past the uniformly spaced streetlamps and freshly mowed yards of their neighborhood, Rambling Meadows. A sick, mundane place, he decided, that only people like his wife thought was paradise. Charles had met Sarah at a bookstore reading, had fallen for her because he had never dated anyone so different; her family was devout to the point of fanaticism, the type who see the face of Jesus in oil stains and breakfast tacos. Sarah wasn’t so crazy, but she did believe in God, and because of this faith Charles had always trusted her. Until tonight, when she had returned from a church group social and he had smelled sex–it might just have been mothballs and formaldehyde. Charles had never suspected his wife of having an affair, though he was confident the epitaph she had chosen would tell him.
Feeling headlights on his back, he moved to the side to let the car pass.
Instead, Sarah rolled down the window of their green Ford Taurus. “Honey, this is crazy. The whole point was not to see them.”
Charles hopped onto the sidewalk and continued walking, forcing her to idle beside him. “Well, that doesn’t make much sense, does it?” he said. “I’ll have to wait until I’m dead, and that won’t do me much good.”
Now he felt trapped. During their better years, he had been her “angelic atheist,” and she his “heavenly opiate.” He wished that he could discover some secret chamber to her, a hidden room of amethyst and emeralds like in that science fiction movie he had seen as a kid. Those scientists had journeyed to the center of the earth and somehow found dinosaurs. He wanted his marriage to be like that, impossible yet exciting. While Sarah believed in the afterlife, he was convinced that consciousness had been an evolutionary mistake and life itself only been chance, a common lump of proteins joined together in mud. No more meaningful than flint against flint. Only this world mattered, and he had to know where he and his wife stood.
“Fine, I’ll drive you,” she offered, braking. “Hell, I’ll tell you what it says–if you want to know that badly.”
“You won’t tell me.”
As he ambled forward, she took her foot off the brake and coasted beside him. “Beloved husband, curious human–I thought you’d like it.”
“Go home,” Charles said. “My back hurts, that’s all. I just need to walk it off.”
Up ahead was the house with the blue door that he had knocked on many times in the last few years, an on-and-off affair with a marginally younger woman. She certainly hadn’t made him feel young again. So why had Sarah followed him? Charles had assumed his wife didn’t know about the other woman. Now he was not so sure. Not that it mattered. The affair wasn’t love or even lust, just a sweaty acknowledgement of mortality. The woman was also an atheist, so at least they shared a common desperateness, clinging to skin that would rot and bones that would turn into white powder. On the other hand, his wife’s holy flesh would no doubt become particles of hallowed light at her death, while if Charles were lucky, his skeleton would be dug up five hundred years later by grave robbers and ground into an aphrodisiac.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did you have another bad dream?”
Finally, he stopped and turned to face her. “Are you having an affair?”
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Charles.”
He glanced around. “There aren’t any stones in this godforsaken suburb.”
“Then no. Forever no,” she insisted. “Though sometimes, I think you want me to.”
He scoffed. “I’ll be back soon. I just need to stretch.”
“Not this time. I’m not leaving without you.”
His nightly walks were common, only not to the cemetery. For the most part, Sarah considered the affair part of his “searching,” because he didn’t have the comfort of the afterlife. In fact, she had argued that the epitaph was a “put in a good word for me,” just in case he needed the recommendation, because “the job is in Heaven and there aren’t second interviews.” When they reached the house with the blue door, she put the car in park. She wasn’t having an affair, but George Patterson, a man smelling of cologne and sporting a bristly mustache, had tried to kiss her earlier that night, and she had to admit she was a little curious.
“Either you come home with me right now, or we’re going to the cemetery together,” she shouted, waking up a dog behind a short fence who proceeded to bark bloodily.
Charles began to stroll down the street. “Park the car then, we’ll walk.”
“I’m in my pajamas. Be serious.” Cursing, Sarah pulled to the curb and told the dogf to shut up.
For the past few weeks, her husband had been waking up in violent sweats, and she had to admit that this recent rash of fear had probably been her fault. After all, the epitaphs were her idea. Charles had always been terrified of dying. After heating a cup of milk and cinnamon for him, she would massage his temple and explain how, even if he didn’t believe in it, a wondrous afterlife awaited him. “First we’ll be judged by an angel in a cowboy hat,” she’d say. “Then we’ll enter the gates. You’ll have eternity to read your history books–Charlie, calm down. Hiking trails around the galaxy, through the Milky Way–take a deep breath. Those Galapagos Tortoises you like will be there, and Darwin would serve you mojitos.”
The two had arrived at the darkened graveyard of Bennington Estates. The cemetery, she noticed, resembled their neighborhood. Only the grass was different. Spider grass, widow’s grass, whatever it was called, that wispy grass. A lone parking lot light illuminated the headstones like a mouth of sharp, angled teeth. When she had kissed George Patterson, it had not been because of any real attraction–the man looked like Geraldo. Truthfully, Charles’ antics had begun to bore her. She wanted a surprise hanging over their heads. That was the drag of married life, how everything about a person could be explored in ten or so years. She hoped there’d be more freedom in heaven. As the couple crossed a line of graves, Sarah knelt to read an inscription: Wife, Cellist, Teacher, Friend. What final message had Charles decided to offer her? Earlier, when Charles had left the bedroom so suddenly, Sarah had assumed he would be heading to the house with the blue door. And for the first time in her marriage, she had decided to stop him, to do something decisive, something passionate.
She pointed. “I think our lot’s over there, dear.”
“I can’t wait.”
Sarah led him down a line of neglected graves towards the back of the cemetery. He had wanted to be cremated, of course, until he read that cremation contributed to global warming, so he had left her to make the burial arrangements. Charles had always despised graveyards, but if the specter of so much death couldn’t spark some brave new fascination, then he might as well just climb in his plot right now and bury himself in worms. Yes, there had to be some rational reason for not ending his life tonight. They owned a gun, which Sarah had purchased after the election, on the advice of her fear-crazed mother. It was stored in a small shoebox on the top shelf of the closet. He calculated the time it’d take to run back to the car, drive home, and get it. The trip wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Charles turned around, noticing that his wife had stopped. “That’s not it–you weren’t planning on showing me a fake grave, were you? That’d be a grave mistake.” He stared out across the endless rows of graves. It was a pun intended not so much to make her laugh as to get his mind off a recent doctor’s visit and the result of a biopsy he had been dwelling on for two week. In the morning, he would find out what was wrong, though he already knew. Pain in his abdomen, nausea, diarrhea, mid-back pain, slowing digestion. He had entered the symptoms on an online diagnosis site: pancreatic cancer. He had even kept the test and appointment a secret, because he didn’t want Sarah to worry. Besides, last thing he wanted was to spend his final days being nagged to go to church.
The moon cast a bluish frost over the graves. Holding her knees, Sarah eased up from the grave. “It’s this way.” She gestured to the back corner, near one of the few oak trees on the lot.
Approaching the headstones, Charles hesitated. “We don’t have to go,” he said suddenly. “We really don’t have to–I just had a bad dream, that’s all.” He kissed her on the forehead and the two embraced. “I’m sorry for dragging you around like this.
She wiped her face. “It’s fine–if it’ll help you sleep.”
“Let’s just go home.”
“Ah, how about we break the rules just this once?”
Sarah tugged him down the gravel path towards the back of the cemetery. It had been absurd to write epitaphs for each other–they might as well have flipped the switch and had the coffins sink into the ground so that the “gravediggers” could pile on the grass plugs. Charles had informed her during one of their fights about burial arrangements that graves were no longer hand-dug, but plotted and then contracted out to construction companies. A hand and shovel were apparently too expensive.
“I don’t want you to see,” he said, a definite twinge to his voice. “It was a stupid idea, now come on let’s just go.”
An abrupt jealousy struck her. What didn’t he want her to see? She wondered how many affairs he had had over their entire marriage. Three? Five? And probably not heavenly bodies. He had always kidded her about her faith, but lately his tone had been more derisive, mocking. Would he have had the audacity to hint at the affairs on her engraving, or even to name one of the women? Locating their stones, she took off.
“No, I want to see now–come on, George.” As soon as she said it, she stopped in her tracks.
“What did you call me?”
Snorting uncomfortably, Sarah pointed to his shirt. “George. Curious George. You know, Curious George. He’s your favorite atheist monkey.”
Charles took a step back. “Who’s George?”
“Sarah, who the fuck is George?
“You are, monkey man.” She tried to get him to walk, but he wouldn’t budge. “My mind’s still asleep, that’s all–it was a stupid mistake.”
“Stupid mistake.” He could take sleeping pills when he got home. He could throw the toaster into the steaming bathtub and fizzle. He had options.
“Okay, we can go now, if you want. It’s been a long night.”
“No. Where are they?”
Sighing, Sarah held out her hand, and together, the two cut through a line of graves, past lumps of plastic flowers. She gestured towards several modest headstones lying on the ground. Approaching the stones, she found herself becoming excited by the prospect of her husband seeing the epitaph she had chosen. He could hate her openly. He could love her unconditionally. Both extremes held promise.
Charles knelt down and pressed his watch-light. There was an emblem of a cat named “Saucy,” followed by the inscription: Saint Peter will fill up your milk dish in Heaven now.
He glanced back. “Is this some kind a joke?”
“Not that one–the next over.”
Charles put his hand to the adjacent stone and traced the engraving, feeling each letter. He meant well. Then he looked up to find her reaction. She too had knelt down beside him, but there was no epitaph. Though dawn was approaching, it was still dark. Unable to tell whether his wife was crying, he began to feel queasy, watching her stare at the epitaph, as though something were written.
“Say something, Sarah.”
“Something Sarah,” she said.
“I’m starting to think this was a bad idea.”
Sarah got to her feet. “Oh go home, Charles.” Digging through her purse, she tossed him the keys.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“But it’s a few miles,” he said. “I can run to the car and pick you up.”
Sarah continued to study the blank stone.
Reluctantly, Charles walked back through the graveyard and out to the parking lot. He thought about the epitaph the entire way back to the car, wondering what she had meant. Turning the ignition, he adjusted the seat and stared at the house with the blue door for several minutes before driving back to the cemetery parking lot. Sarah wasn’t there, and her cell phone was in the cup holder. Turning the car around, he started back home, slowing by the house with the blue door, watching it restlessly as he proceeded past, glancing up just in time to hear a yelp and thud. Slamming on the brakes, he put the car in park.
On the cement was a Doberman. As Charles approached, the dog began to growl, gurgling from the effort, but after a moment it stopped snarling. He reached slowly, and patted the dog’s head, then inspected his tag. No address or number, just a name. Racer’s breath stank of chalky dry food, and his mouth was open, bloody gums, pink teeth. The Doberman let out a low whine as Charles inspected the wound. If only he had been paying attention. He placed his hand on the dog’s stomach, pungent and mushy from the impact. “Easy. It’s okay. How old are you? Six, seven? Lucky for you you’re a dog. Forty-two, forty-nine–not so bad.” Racer exhaled with difficulty, tucking his paws beneath his chest. He whimpered. There was a veterinarian behind the Arby’s near the grocery store–fifteen minutes or so. He doubted the dog had that long. Taking off his shirt, he lifted up Racer’s chest and tied the shirt around it the best he could.
Sarah stood over him, a little sweaty. “God, what happened?”
“I hit him.”
“Poor thing–is there a tag?”
“Just his name. I’m gonna take Racer here to the vet.”
“The vet doesn’t open for hours. Besides, this one is on his way out.” She rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t listen to her, boy,” he said, stroking Racer. He felt for the dog’s pulse, slow, like the end of a drying water faucet. “You’ll be just fine. Look, he’s already calmer.”
Sarah walked around to the passenger’s side. “I’ll call animal control. My phone’s in the car, come on.”
Charles fished in his pockets and held up the keys. “I want to stay with him.”
She sighed. “Why? No, no, it doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want.”
He watched the dog struggle against the concrete. Racer’s eyes were drowsy and barely open. “Sarah.”
“Will you pray, please?”
“That’s not funny.”
“Why don’t you pray, Charles?”
“Maybe I will,” he said. “But you too.”
“This dog is a goner. Any idiot could see–”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Charles snapped.
With that, she opened the door, started the car, reversed, and quickly drove off.
He put Racer’s head in his lap, feeling the blood on his stomach. The dog shivered. Alone, Charles realized that he was shirtless, holding a dying dog in the middle of the street, and that the paperboy would probably be making his rounds soon. “It’s alright–you’re going to a better place. Trust me. No dry food, all the cars you can chase. Saint Peter will bring you Beggin’ Strips. And bones.” Racer sighed deep within his throat, his fearful eyes fixed on Charles. He ran his hand against the dog’s short fur, grabbing a fold of flesh. Racer whimpered again, nuzzling against Charles’ chest. He closed his eyes. “That’s right. Relax. You’ll rest in the cradle of your mother’s stomach, gentle breaths. Do you even remember your mother, Racer? I don’t. Too long ago. But don’t worry, she’ll recognize you.” He lay beside the dog. “Just think, soon you’ll be on a quilt by a warm fire, or running alongside your brothers chasing squirrels, so close you can taste them. Yes, think of those squirrels, scurrying through the fields, running from you. No, you won’t catch them, but you’ll get close, very close. You almost got it. Almost there.”
- Originally published by Failbetter, 2009