Today, quicksilver March clouds hug Torqwamni Hill in a multilayered embrace composed of soft kisses and the murmured promise of a twisted-shank thrust below the sternum and into the heart. Both may be interpreted as acts of affection. And it is Tennyson who claims that spring is when young men think of love; yet nothing the Lord says expands well on what the young ladies make of the situation. Perhaps this is because it is less poetic, and concerns what passes from mothers to daughters on the subjects of cows and the price of milk.
The motion of the world no longer carries the soul of Saint Frances Bauer along with it. Seldom is one life more than a passing sigh concentrically echoing until it becomes forever dispersed in the annihilating Universe. Yet here, the ephemeral surpasses the eternal in both quality and purpose. Saint Frances’s spent body now patiently waits in Newtown Cemetery for the return of the Savior. She lies beneath a humble white cross, which might mean everything or nothing at all. Either way, she had been; and if the testimony of those who had known her carries weight in the afterworld, then certainly the gates of Heaven will swing open upon her approach come Judgment Day.
Holly More and Bethlehem Shelby still live. Yet both realize that they are at the age where they have fewer tomorrows than yesterdays. One’s sense of now is attracted to the heavier past the same way distant starlight is lensed and amplified by closer suns. Still, no matter what analogy you throw at it—and no matter how true that analogy may feel, the plain fact remains that such thinking is a trap into once fallen, you may never escape. History stops getting made when you only tell of it. And although you may be in pain and very tired, it’s best to keep moving forward if only for the sake of doing so.
Not far from Newtown Cemetery, a virgin, fretful, non-fruiting cherry has made it through its first lonely winter at Oracle Park. Its shy little pink buds are at a state of pre-opening. Last August, Holly had promised to bring the cherry a sister to love and look after and grow old with side by side; both to thrive and eventually cast wise shadows on lovers in their spinsterhood. Come spring, he had said. And come spring he has arrived. Bethlehem is far less romantic than Holly, yet there she is toting a small spade, a lighted cigarette and an eyebrow that has been cocked and on the ready ever since this errand had begun.
She hands the spade to Holly and says, “You dig and I’ll lookout for cops.”
Holly smiles and nods and lays the tiny sapling he has brought on the ground. Today is Thursday. Holly doesn’t speak on Thursday because it is the day of the week in which people who talk too much talk most. Bethlehem takes advantage of this by giving voice to thoughts that would normally be conveyed in silence. At 57 and 58, respectively, Holly and Bethlehem have been friends since the dawn of memory, since Corson Street.
Saint Frances and Beth’s mother, Harry, had been positively Corson Street as well. Beth remembers childhood rides with Holly in the backseat of Saint Frances’s cherry-red Barracuda, Harry riding shotgun. Both pretty young women wore scarves to keep their hair in place because Fran drove fast with the windows down. Everyone would be talking at the same time and the country music station Fran favored blasted Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare. This almost always happened on payday Fridays, when they would all pile into the ‘cuda and head to Crazy Eric’s for burgers and fries and RC Cola floats. All that is good and kind was found in the foam of an RC float. On the way home they would pass the graveyard and invariably someone would crack wise about quiet neighbors and how everyone was dying to get in. In 1966, things were funnier and the years were larger and friendlier; the kind of years that you could leave the door unlocked around at night. Alas, Crazy Eric’s is now a marijuana shop; RC floats play hell with diabetes; fewer cherry-red Barracudas are spied recklessly tooling down the road, and Saint Frances and Harry have laid aside their scarves and jests and have taken their places in the cemetery and memory.
Beth sits down on Alone Park’s lone bench and brings a match off her shoe buckle and lights a fresh cigarette. “How many times have you been in love?” she asks. A certain purr, nowadays heard only by Holly, enters her voice. “I think six—seven if you count the thing you had for Olivia Newton-John.”
Although he keeps his fast, Holly looks up from his labor and favors Beth with a smile. Years of dissipation have etched deep lines into Holly’s face; yet even in its decline, he is able to convey a wide range of thoughts and opinions.
“Yessss,” Beth purrs, “I think six. I got an average of twenty-five two A.M. drunken, weepy phone calls per failed romance. Maybe a hundred-fifty times I’ve had to talk you out of suicide—even though that would have made my world a more restful place at two in the morning. Man oh man, speaking from a place of respect and love, mind you, I’ve got to tell you that you have the shittiest taste in women. I mean, I can see getting all worked up over losing Olivia Newton John—as if—but those crazy girls—hold up a minute. You’ve got to take the bag off the roots before you place it in the hole. Could it be there’s something you’d like to say that has distracted you?”
Bethlehem can be successfully ignored when you put your mind to it. Holly cuts away the bag and places the sapling into the ground, fills in the hole, and tamps down the fresh earth.
“You could go to one of those dating sites and shop for a new crazy girlfriend,” Beth purrs. “Let me fill out your profile. You see, I miss those two A.M. phone calls. Then again, it may be a bad idea. Remember the old joke—‘Never eat at a restaurant called Mom’s; never play poker with a man named Doc, and never fuck anyone who’s crazier than you are’? Those are words to live by, Sir Hollyhock. I’m going to have them cut into your tombstone.”
Holly approaches Beth and takes both her hands in his and gently pulls her to her feet and has her face Newtown Cemetery, which lies in the next hill. The sun has penetrated a crack in the low slung clouds, and the rows of gravestones that cut against the grain of the slope twinkle in the shine like so many…
“Fallen stars,” Beth purrs. She squeezes Holly’s hand and willfully drives her mind away from the past. “I don’t want to feel anymore ago today,” she says. “You may be right about something after all. People talk too much, especially when they have nothing to say.”