The Union of Pennames, Imaginary Friends and Fictional Characters (UPIFFC) has gone on strike. The reasons for this are unclear, but there’s a bunch of them outside my office window at this very moment alternately singing We Shall Overcome and making unflattering chants that feature my name and the accusation of miserly behavior on my part: “SAY HEY FREEMAN/HOW ABOUT A FEE MAN.” Don’t blame me, I didn’t say these were good chants.
Anyway, my penname, Ms. Leila Allison, seems to be the brains of the outfit, which is the only good news I have to report. Until she either gets bored with this rebellious activity, or the situation is in some other way resolved, I am forbidden to use the alias. Until that time, however, the show must go on.
Sunrise comes late to New Town Cemetery. The graveyard is seated in the west face of Torqwamni Hill, and no matter the season the quick fall of the slope and a thick line of adolescent Douglas firs at hillcrest combine to delay the cemetery dawn by a hundred yards or so. New Town’s a pretty place; the winding paths are lined with fragrant, non-fruiting cherries and delicate Japanese maples; on clear days the Olympic Mountains fill the western horizon with their beautiful yet icy indifference, and there’re an abundance of old fashioned, winter-weary tombstones just begging to be charcoal-etched by artists and the sentimental at heart. A very handmade wood sign attached to the main gate informs would-be visitors that the cemetery is open from dawn to dusk. It’s been observed by the wise that dusk almost always finds its way to New Town just before the start of Happy Hour at the nearby White Pig Tavern.
Hardly old by world standards, New Town does predate the official existence of its home city of Charleston by a decade. The first graves were laid the 1890s; the city was founded in 1902. The cemetery takes up fourteen acres—or roughly a quarter of the west face of Torqwamni Hill. Originally, the community wanted the graveyard “way the hell out” of sight and smell of the settlement down toward Philo Bay, where the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was coming together. The Alpha-Christians of yore had frowned on embalming because “pickling” the dead hadn’t been encouraged in the Bible. Carbolic acid, however, thrives in the highly fertile Pacific Northwest soil, and although few people who dabble in nostalgia make mention of a certain odor that attended cemeteries in the Good Old Days, rest assured, it existed, and plenty. Until an ordinance that required the embalming or cremation of corpses had been passed by the city in the 1910s, burials in high summer were often attended by mourners who held handkerchiefs to their faces for something other than the drying of tears. So it was no accident that New Town was founded two miles and mostly upwind from the original settlement.
The comings and goings of the Two World Wars caused humble Charleston to fluctuate in size like an unsteady star, and they were also responsible for filling more than their fair share of graves in New Town. Especially during the second disaster, sparsely populated Torqwamni Hill was utilized for housing the sudden influx of shipyard workers and their families. Rows of duplexes and cottage courts, which had never been intended for long term use, sprouted up on “T-Hill” like mushrooms (or warts, it depends on your sense of simile). After Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been leveled, Charleston slowly shrank down from an estimated wartime population of 100,000 to about a third of that, where it has held steady for decades. T-Hill has suffered the most from the loss of business. For whatever reasons, prosperity has never stuck to it. And the short-term duplexes and cottage courts that still stand are now, nearly eighty years gone by, cheap rentals for the poor. Temporary achieving permanence is key in poverty. “What we need up on the hill is World War III,” is a typical comment passed between the wise at the White Pig.
Even New Town Cemetery has witnessed the end of its hectic youth. The fairly small graveyard is “full up,” as the colloquialism flies. Minus there still being plenty of room for the ashes of indigents in a single potter’s plot, there remain only six prepaid graves to fill (all belong to women—and it might take some time; few things live longer than an American old lady). No living person knows the exact number of graves in New Town; the earliest records were lost in the Courthouse Fire of ‘33 (not to be confused with the Courthouse Fire of ’38)), and simply counting the stones is no good because many people couldn’t afford to buy one. No matter, whether the total is closer to the 2,312 counted tombstones or the estimate of 2,500, save for the six to come, there isn’t room for more.
According to many of the wise, New Town Cemetery has a resident ghost. “The Dow Lady” is said to roam the grounds, and she is sometimes even seen lounging about houses in the immediate area, especially after thunderstorms. A basic-cable-channel program, Ghost Safari, came by once to have a look for her, but as it goes in that industry, the results were inconclusive. One wise producer was overheard to comment, “I told the goddam network that looking for a ghost in a cemetery is the same as seeking a Saint in a church—Besides, these outdoor shoots suck; the only thing the motion detectors get are rats and raccoons.”
It’s difficult to guess what that producer and the collected wise might say if they knew that the sort of thing that they’d dearly love to see but most likely do not really believe in, in fact, exists.
Within those few precious minutes between the time the sun rises over Philo Bay and at last slants into New Town Cemetery, the Dow Lady may be seen without a special effort to “get across” being made on her part, but it takes a keen eye. Whenever visible comets enter the Earth’s sky, local observatories are often plagued by emails and calls that contain the same question: Why can’t I look right at it? Astronomers explain that highly ethereal objects like comets are further distorted by the natural turbulence of the Earth’s atmosphere; it’s why even the biggest of them come off fuzzy. This is how it goes with the Dow Lady. In her actual material state she’s best described as a moving distortion that lenses whatever is behind her. She knows about this and she avoids unwanted ghost hunters by remaining very still at the top of the highest graveyard trees.
On one recent morning, however, during the interval between sunrise and its tardy arrival at New Town, a space of time that she thinks of as sunswitch, the Dow Lady came out of hiding and thought-toward a pleasing shape for herself. During the night a man had snuck into the cemetery through the oft-unlocked side gate. Just another junkie who had hit on the novel concept of fixing inside the cemetery and, as junkies so often do, had fixed too well. He lay breathing heavily and propped up against the foot of an oak tree. It didn’t matter to the Dow Lady what had been in the needle. Judging other people harshly for their self-destructive actions was something she had given up long ago. What did matter to her and The Keeper was the backflow of blood that had dripped from the man’s arm and into the cemetery soil: dustfall.
The one thing that the man had done properly was select a well-hidden place not visible to passers-by in the streets. Junkies are like that; they hide as well as bedbugs. As she approached him, she could hear the man mumbling in the throes of delirium, as he had, on and off, for the two hours he had been lying at the base of the oak.
“Our dad was a funny guy,” the fellow slurred. “…had everybody rolling till he put the gun in his mouth.”
The Dow Lady reached down and touched the man on his left temple. A faint pop of static electricity could be heard when she did this.
The man, Lewis Coughland, thirty-two, and who would be the subject of a brief article in the next day’s Torqwamni Sun, awoke instantly, but he couldn’t move. He locked eyes with by far the most interesting face he had ever seen, but he couldn’t speak either. The woman, whom Lewis innately knew was neither dead nor alive, neither here nor there, smiled sweetly and raised her finger to her lips in an unnecessary hushing gesture.
When he was high, Lewis could believe in almost anything. Name it: God, fairness, UFOs, Voodoo, heaven, hell, just name it. As long as it didn’t rub his buzz the wrong way, he’d take it in with a philosophical ease. But this was something completely out of knowing. The Dow Lady? he thought, recalling yet another legend. Even though he knew that he had finally gone too far, it was impossible for him to be afraid or think about anything else other than this obvious hallucination that stood before him.
Everything was right about this Dow Lady. She had extremely long Titian hair that she wore in a single thick braid which looped once around her neck and still had enough length to drift down to her hips. Judging from her bright white nape to toe dress, matching waist-coat and gloves, Lewis thought that his imagination had decided that she had lived and died a long time ago—the only things missing were a wide-brim hat and parasol. But none of this mattered as much as her wonderful face. Not corporate beautiful, she was maybe thirty and had fair-skin and active, intelligent, friendly eyes that were the same color as her hair. She also had high cheekbones like a cat, yet her face was shaped in an oval. The whole thing came together beautifully with her smile; the slightest hint of an overbite gave her smile a leaning forward, just-between-us quality, and it was the kind of smile that manages to personalize itself for its recipient. Lewis knew for certain that no other person ever got the smile she had given to him, nor would he ever see what she showed to others. This made him both happy and sad and reminded him of the bittersweet feeling of falling into unrequited love. And although he tried his best, he couldn’t remember whose face his imagination had dredged up from the past to play the part of the Dow Lady.
Lewis’s subconscious called out from the deepest chasm in his mind and told him that it was not responsible for this vision; for what it was worth, Dow Lady or otherwise, this was, well, is. And Lewis began to notice incongruities and fine details about the woman that heroin would never have allowed to come in focus. For one thing, she didn’t blink at first, but she began to do so in a self-conscious manner after a moment, as though blinking was something she had to actively think about doing. And although she didn’t exactly glow, she seemed to be her own light source; for it was still dark in the morning shadows, yet she was perfectly clear. And she didn’t breathe; the eye misses that more than what you might think. Yes, there she was, and in his secret heart of hearts, Lewis knew that an impossible thing had come true.
The Dow Lady knelt down on the grass before him. Until then she hadn’t taken her eyes off of his, but she briefly glanced down at the needle in his arm and then back at him. She pursed her lips in a boo-boo face manner then smiled brightly. “I’m afraid you’ve done it this time,” her smile said. She then leaned toward him and kissed him softly on the lips. Upon drawing back, she spoke for the first time: “You will remember everything.”
Thommisina Lemolo was new to the Torqwamni Sun and she had never seen a dead body before. Tommy knew that her chosen career in photo-journalism would most likely put an end to that singular kind of virginity sooner or later, but she hadn’t counted on it happening during her first week on the job. And it wouldn’t have either, if the deputy coroner hadn’t called the Sun and asked for a photographer to help them out with an O.D. dead at the scene in New Town Cemetery because both of their guys were out with the flu. Tommy had wondered aloud to the Managing Editor ( a Neanderthal) why the county needed a professional to take pics of a corpse when anyone with a cell could do it on their own. “Knuckle-Ed.” brayed donkeyish laughter and told her that she’d get used to the pettifogging and mysterious ways of the T-County government soon enough, and not to let the door hit her in the butt on the way out. And, as usual, he had pronounced her name “Fommy,” which, as usual, caused the fantasy of driving his scrotum into his voice-box with one swift kick of a size seven Doc Marten to once more come together in her otherwise serene mind.
Tommy took the long way to New Town. She stopped at And the Horse You Rode in On Espresso and bought an almost novelty-sized looking mocha, which she charged to the paper. And she did a lot of muttering: “Crummy pushcart backwards assed third rate tabloid and its county butt kissing bosses,” on her way up T-Hill. She also stopped and pumped the $2.13 of gas that her tank would take and also charged it to the Sun. “‘Fommy,’” she said as she got out of her car at the cemetery. And once again she promised herself to end the backwards Lemolo family tradition of naming one girl Thommisina in every generation.
“You took long enough to get here,” the deputy coroner (him too a Neanderthal; you get a lot of that in T-County) said. He checked her credential and “Fommy” seemed to flicker into his mind, but something in her eyes caused him to keep it to himself.
It became clear why she had been sent for. The pushcart coroner still used film; and they insisted that she used the camera that some bozo had brought to the scene, instead of her own gear. It was one of those antique flash jobs you see in old movies. Although “point and push” has always been the soul of photography, no one on the scene seemed to be up for the challenge.
The constant onslaught of knuckle-, chowder-, hammer- and knotheads in general, with their provincial and set in stone ways, had temporarily nudged aside the content of the job at hand. It hit her like a slap across the face when she went to a magnificent old oak tree and saw the dead man lying at the base in a sitting position.
“Its name was Lewis Coughland,” the deputy coroner said. “I guess you can tell the cause of death.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said. The man’s arm still had the needle in it. A fly landed on the rivulet of dried blood that had flowed down his inner arm. Good thing it wasn’t human, right, asshole? she thought.
The sight of the man who wasn’t all that much older than her boyfriend stung. But the last thing Tommy wanted to do was show weakness or even a hint of human feeling to this group of shitheads. Still, she couldn’t help but know that this person had been up and alive as little as eight hours ago; maybe had a favorite color, and probably knew all the words to at least one song, as even the dimmest do. It’s the little things you think about that need to be shooed away before one can be called a true professional. Yet no amount of professionalism could have prepared Tommy for what she saw through the lens when she held the relic to her eye.
Tommy gazed through the lens for a good thirty seconds before she began to take a series of photographs of the man from several different angles, then of his arm and his works. She then asked a few questions just in case Knuckle-Ed. might let her write the story, which he did–all eighty-five words of it. The photographs turned out nicely, and, of course, they were of professional quality.
After Tommy returned to her car, and had made certain that no one could see her, she allowed what she thought she had initially seen through the lens enter her mind. The man and a woman in white sat and smiled at her as though they were posing for a portrait and then disappeared with a flash. Tommy had come within one thought of dropping the camera and demanding to know what kind of asshole thought that this sort of thing was high humor; but there was something in those two sets of eyes that had prevented her from doing so. Upon inserting her key in the ignition, Tommy decided that she’d file the event under anxiety and imagination while she was on the clock. Off hours? Well, that’s another story.
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