“’Don’t move’? ‘Stay put’? Best mark thy lollipop-hole, Mouthy Munchkin, lest I break a ruby slipper off in your—”
Last Words, Wicked Witch of the East (Harriet Shelby’s Epitaph)
Twice in the past six years, Torqwamni County has mass-buried the ashes of indigents in New Town Cemetery at Charleston, Washington. After a year has gone by, unclaimed bodies are cremated at the taxpayers’ expense; one by one black plastic urns accumulate on the back shelves in the coroner’s office. A time once was when a church or a charity (or even a coroner’s office employee) saw to the proper burial of the ashes. Sadly, dying isn’t as cheap as it used to be; and scattering the ashes of a stranger at a state park (as allowed by law) seems more like taking out the trash than anything else. Right now there would be forty-nine urns whiling away amongst the unused this and that of the Torqwamni County Coroner’s Office, if a child hadn’t lighted the way.
Six years ago, a reporter for The Torqwamni Sun found out about the urns. There were thirty-seven at the time, and one contained the scant remains of a day-old baby girl. A poignant “Little Girl Lost/Forgotten People” kind of story appeared in the Sunday Sun. The story struck a direct hit on the normally well concealed heart of Charleston. It moved an anonymous donor to come forward with a pair of 24’-by-24’ plots in New Town Cemetery (the gift came on the condition that the shelves be cleared, so to speak); and the students at Smith Elementary washed enough cars and hustled enough terrible candy bars to raise the funds necessary to purchase a community headstone for the nameless child and the thirty-six persons who’d had names, if little else.
New Town Cemetery is situated in the west face of a long and meandering hill that has a splendid view of the Olympic Mountains. The donated plots lie at the foot of the hill, and there, six summers come and gone, a service for the long-shelved thirty-seven took place. Thanks to the article (and a series of follow-up stories written by the opportunistic reporter), the service had been well-attended; meaningful persons spoke meaningful words; the Smith Elementary School Choir sang a sad, politically correct, not a hint of religion in it, song, and there were flowers. Plenty of flowers. Forget-me-nots, mostly (which were mostly stolen soon after).
After the service, the Sun reporter (since poached by a big city paper that her family and friends had actually heard of) mentioned to the deputy coroner that the thirty-seven urns didn’t take up as much as a quarter of one of the donated plots. The gentleman had recently learned the hard way that he had to “measure twice, cut once,” everything he said to the reporter. He just smiled and shrugged and said nothing about the unclaimed body that he had sent out to be cremated that very morning.
Yesterday afternoon, a second service took place at the donated plots. Somehow the coroner’s office had arrived at twelve unclaimed urns as being urns enough to warrant clearing the back shelves (or, dusting them, as one wit had observed). The ashes of a dozen persons, whose ages ranged from forty-one to ninety-three, were laid side-by-side beneath “temporary” markers that look an awful lot like the signs gardeners lay at the head of their rows (naturally, one has already been stolen). Hardly anyone came to the second service; no words were spoken; no choir had sung; and nobody thought to buy flowers. The whole affair was over and done in less than twenty minutes.
Though the second service took place in an appropriately somber April drizzle, today it’s a cheery sun that avoids the low hanging peek-a-boo clouds and filters through the hardy evergreens that prevent the heavy Pacific Northwest rains from causing the cemetery hill from sliding into a slag heap. It’s the sort of day perhaps best described toward the end of the former Torqwamni Sun reporter’s final article about Little Girl Lost and her motley retinue:
…sunshine merged with the cemetery’s sprinkler system;
successions of artificial rainbows lapped at the solitary stone,
like waves tugged loose from a tie-dye sea…
Maybe a hundred yards north of the modern-day potter’s field, Beth Shelby sits cross-legged on the ground in front of her parents’ graves. A folded copy of today’s Torqwamni Sun lies between Beth and the still damp grass. Her mother, Harriet (to all, even Beth, “Harry”), was buried at New Town yesterday; fifty-five years after the burial of her husband, and just a half-hour prior to the laying of the second group of stray urns. Only Beth had been on hand to witness her mother’s casket going under, but there’s nothing Eleanor Rigby to read into that: Harry had been adamant about not having a funeral, and while her remains were being interred, Harry’s quickly dwindling menagerie of cronies were gathered at the White Pig Tavern for a wake, which the absent guest of honor had paid for with a special savings account that she had begun several years earlier.
Beth is an immaculate and brief woman who holds just enough mass to reflect a three-dimensional shape. Even though Beth turned fifty-seven on Christmas Day, she is perpetually youthful and is as girlishly all-eyes as a waif in a Margaret Keane painting. Only a fine crazing around her lips, indicative of a long-term smoker, tattles on her age.
Beth extracts a pack of cigarettes and a box of kitchen matches from a large handbag that lies on her father’s tombstone (nothing sad or mean to read into that, either, he is the only dry spot available). Effortlessly, even elegantly, Beth brings a match by striking it on the handbag’s zipper. She lights a cigarette and drives the still burning match into the soil (bringing a match off almost any kind of surface is a life-skill that Beth had learned from her mother).
A wry expression enters Beth’s face. In a whispery, purring tone she speaks to her mother’s grave. “Hey Harry, did you know that it’s illegal to smoke in the cemetery? Seems awfully barn door after the cows, if you ask me, but that’s what the signs say.”
Beth pulls her legs tight to her chest and rests her chin on her knees. She exhales a nicotine nebula. “You should have seen the look on the engraver’s face when I showed him what to put on your headstone. Didn’t say shit — probably because I paid him cash. The stone should be seated in a day or three, but you know how things like that go.” Beth laughs, “By the way, you owe me eighty bucks. The finks managed to suck down that seven-hundred dollar marker you had left them in less than three hours. Seems that incontinence pants aid swifter drinking; they eliminate those pesky trips to the restroom. Only Fran and that little guy who looks like a vole were still upright when I finally got there. I sprung for three rounds of gin rickey and sent both home in a cab. Fran almost got drippy on me. But I promised that I’d bring her by as soon as your stone is set.”
Beth extinguishes her cigarette by crushing it against the sole of her right shoe. She fetches the spent match out of the earth and tosses it and the butt into her handbag. She holds the bag open longer than what is necessary to do this. A frown appears on her face. She lays the bag aside.
“It won’t be long until you see Fran,” Beth says. “You can see the death growing in her. But I’m certain that such things aren’t as melancholy where you’re at. That’s my trouble, Harry, I can’t think like the dead. Seems like the end of the world, the way your gang is going. Even Ellie Allison is at a hospice. She doesn’t know about you. Nobody has the heart to tell her.
Just at the lowest degree of perception, like a child, Beth begins to rock. Suddenly, a smile blooms in her face. “Good God, Harry, remember that perfume that Nanny used to wear by the quart—Primitif?”
From the age of four and lasting until she had begun to menstruate at thirteen, Beth had had an eidetic memory. Conventional science has as much respect for the presence of the so-called “photographic memory” in an adult as it has for the existence of the Yeti, but it does sometimes happen with children. And although Beth has long since lost the ability to store new complete memories, she retains several of what she calls “vignettes” from her childhood — some more than fifty years old. Beth knows that the disrespected photographic memory isn’t a trick in which one can correctly recite once read pages from the telephone directory. Those who have or have had the gift know that the eidetic mind sees was as is:
The kitchen in the Corson Street apartment that Beth and Harry had lived in from 1964-68 is small in size yet big with problems. The sink leaks, the fridge rattles like an ill-slung bicycle chain, and there’s a patch of plaster missing, shaped roughly like the state of Utah, above the seldom functioning stove. The apartment is in the basement of a large old house, and only the kitchen has a window—albeit one which rarely shows more of the world than the passing feet of fellow tenants. Yet within this tiny kitchen, life lives large.
Harry and her best friend, Fran, work at Howell’s Department Store, Harry in women’s wear, Fran in “notions.” It is a Saturday night in October 1966, and Harry and Fran are preparing to go out for the evening. Just two months shy of her eighth birthday, Beth is entranced by the “process” that unfolds before her eyes almost every Saturday night. There is something ceremonial and almost religious about it; something distinctly feminine; something as ancient as time itself.
Fran is no longer the sauced septuagenarian whom Beth had to wipe up like a spill at The White Pig. Tall, flat-bellied, blond, and, in Beth’s opinion, as pretty as Kim Novak, Fran is clad only in a half slip and a lacy black bra. She smiles radiantly at Beth and says, “Bethlehem, my little star, come here and get a load of this. It’ll make the sitter positively green.”
Harry is sitting at the extravagantly over-loaded kitchen table applying yet another layer of mascara to her eyelashes. She is gazing into a small mirror that’s held in place by an arrangement of paperback novels. A constant stream of smoke emitted by the Marlboro she has fixed in her mouth pours into her left eye as she does this, but she pays it no mind. She’s a brief yet shapely young thing almost lost inside a terrycloth bathrobe. Her long hair is so dark that it hints blue where it meets the air, and one could say that she is as all-eyes as a waif in a Margaret Keane painting. Married at seventeen, a mother a year later, and a widow at twenty (due to Brugada syndrome; a dead before hitting the ground sort of thing, which involves the heart), Harry is often more like a big sister to her daughter than anything else. But there are times when Harry feels that it’s her duty to say motherly things, “Don’t feed the kid gin, Franny,” she says without looking away from the mirror, “it gives her big ideas.”
Fran drops to her knees and spritzes something from a perfume bottle behind both of Beth’s ears. It smells divine. “Primitif, my little star,” Fran laughs, “the scent of the leopardess…”
Beth sighs. “Fran once told me that the real reason you named me Bethlehem had more to do with the shot of morphine the doctor gave you than it did with your having me on Christmas.” Beth’s whispery, purring voice drops low, into a just between-me-and-you-and-the-lamp-post tone. “I used to get pretty mad at you on the first day of school, Harry. All of my teachers were ‘charmed’ by my full name—It didn’t play as well out in the playground.”
Beth lights another cigarette in the same manner as she had done before. This time, however, she flat out glares at something inside her handbag. Not all the eidetic images she has of the past are pretty ones.
“Remember that human interest story that the Sun milked for all it was worth a few years back—the Little Girl Lost and the Forgotten Souls thing? Well, it’s crap, Harry. The way I see it, small-minded, stupid and mean people usually wind up dying alone, and plenty of them turn up in charity graves. Not all people who go that way are awful, but I’m certain that the percentage is fairly high. Now, I’m not slamming on the baby girl. That is tragic. I’m positive she’s in heaven; probably still screwing up the nerve to ask God why he’d had her born in the first place — other than to give that parasite who wrote her up a cushier job.”
Beth takes a long drag off her smoke. “I’ve done something small-minded, stupid and mean, Harry. Something utterly meaningless; but a something that had to be done.”
Beth lies awake in her bed. It’s a Tuesday night early in the March of 1969. They now live in the Bloomington Street house that Beth dislikes because even though their half of the duplex is larger and functions better than the Corson Street apartment ever did, it lacks the old home’s energy and humor. She hears Harry and Fran talking in the kitchen.
“Take the money, please,” Fran says.
Harry laughs, and Beth knows that her mother has just brought a match and lighted a cigarette. ”No,” Harry says. “Well, not yet,” she adds.
Seemingly satisfied that Harry would allow her to help out later, Fran relents. “I’m going to tell that bastard’s wife—“
“No,” Harrys says sharply. “What good would that do, really? As far as I know, his wife couldn’t give a shit less about him or what he does. All that would do is put you in the unemployment office with me.”
“Royale Droose,” Beth more spits than says. “You were right, Harry, Howell’s did find a reason to cut Fran loose after she told his wife and old man Howell the story. But that’s how it used to go in the Good Old Days, right? Pretty single women who wear short skirts had to be good sports and accepting of the ‘goose,’ and sometimes fuck the boss, if needs must. You wouldn’t do it because it would have cost something far more important than your job, and I love you for it. And Fran didn’t keep her mouth shut because she knows how to be a friend, and what she did, no matter how futile, is what a friend ought to do. Too many people say they’d do the same, but they are wrong. It takes special courage to truly be a friend; when you get down to it, most people are cowards.”
A wan smile appears in Beth’s face. “It’s a hell of a thing to have your lack of faith shaken, Harry.” She seems to consider lighting yet another cigarette, but she lets it go. “I’ve always believed that most people don’t really believe in God, that they just say they do, just in case. I’ve always been more honest about my disbelief, but after yesterday, I’ve begun to wonder if there’s a larger pattern of existence in which we all take part, yet is a pattern beyond our limited ability to grasp because the vast amount of time it takes to unfold. God isn’t in the details, Harry, he’s in the coincidences.”
Beth effortlessly rises to her feet and picks up the handbag and the newspaper she had been sitting on. She smiles at her father’s grave. “I’m sorry I never got to know you, sir. And I’m sorry that the pattern killed you off so young. But it might cheer you to know, that your wife never remarried, and I never once heard her anything but the good about you.”
Beth shoves the paper into her handbag and slings the bag’s strap over her shoulder. “The pattern, Harry,” she says. “The pattern that got me curious about what was going down at the bottom of the hill after your burial; the pattern that caused me (here, she points at her bag) to see this piece of shit’s county marker being laid three years after his death, on the same day of your burial. He’s not allowed in here with you, Harry. I’m not going to let anyone think, ‘Oh, that poor, dear man.’ So that’s why I have done a stupid and mean and small-minded thing today. I haven’t decided what to do with this thing yet, but it won’t be pretty.”
She turns and heads toward the main gate. Slowly, Beth turns back around and gazes out over the New Town hillside. It makes her sad to think that no longer is eventually becomes the same as never was, as soon as the first hand memories of the dead die with those who had held them. She wonders what the people who will fill the years yet to come will make of her mother’s peculiar epitaph. Will they read something deep into it, or will they understand that Harriet Shelby was a firm believer in the old show biz adage, ‘Leave them laughing, when you go’?
“By the way, Harry,” Beth whispers. “I’m not done with taking out the garbage just yet. His urn can’t be more than two feet down. But I’ll consult Fran first. I’d hate to have her miss out on the fun.”
Header photograph: Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
7 thoughts on “The Crossed Star of Bethlehem by Irene Allison”
Made me sit straight up in my morning chair, suddenly ready for the day and all that it brings. Marvelous character and scene-setting.
I like a good cemetary story now and then. Thanks, Allison!
As always brilliant writing and a story that hides serious subjects deep under the words (see what I did there – deep underneath !!! ) Great story as always from this writer.
Hi Irene, this has been my favourite story of yours so far.
This caught my interest from the beginning. You have portrayed a very real voice when she was speaking to her mother. The same goes for the interaction between her and her friend, this was all very skilfully done. It is amazing how much story you have managed to put into only 3000 words. There is a lot going on and a few levels for us to think on.
I’d like to thank everyone for their comments. I never read an item after I have written it. It has dawned on me that I might be rude for not acknowledging comments–but, really, I seldom look.
I.A. now L.A.