Somewhere along the line it all got out of hand. Somebody was robbing graves at Riverside Cemetery, sitting just above the Merrimack River on a flat hilltop. Stealing coins, too, strange as it seems. That’s the kind of thing can jerk a town right off its feet, even if the spread of the cemetery was closing fast on its capacity and a new site required.
From my perspective, I figure it started more than 75 years or so earlier. That’s when Mr. Zinias, on the side of a steep rise on Main Street, began placing coins into the wet cement of new steps rising from the street, 72 steps in all, to his front door. Never gold, never precious or collectibles in their own right, but often copper pennies and now-and-then silver and knurled, they became midnight targets for us, four kids of the neighborhood as tight as a gambler’s wad.
We’d bring tiny hammers and cold chisels and tap away near Friday midnights for coins for our theater visits on Saturday, The Lone Ranger or Flash Gordon or Buck Jones calling for us. Each of us slipped out of bedroom windows for the thievery, silent as nighthawks or footpads or other prowlers. Often, I have thought that Mr. Zinias sat on his screened-in porch listening to us, miners in our own right, giggling at our clumsy thefts, enjoying the cheap comedy. Oh, there were small curses galore and pinched fingers aplenty, and knees that cement left bruised and memorable, and it only recently occurred to me that he was henchman and plotter along with us. Kind of a Santa Claus in reverse gear. On good days we knew he sat there looking out over the Merrimack River; we could smell his coffee.
Now, a whole half century later, someone’s robbing the graves at Riverside Cemetery, also stealing coins, among other items left in memory. Some of the coins had been set into small cement additions on the stone bases (Oh, we had some hard labor artists in our town) and these had been chipped away from their eternal banks. Probably with little hammers and cold chisels, clinks and pings never heard, but someone, I figured, who knew about the Mr. Zinias’ steps. Our inlaid treasure trove of the old days.
Dirk Edmunds, one of us tight-as-wad four, out of a long and imposing silence since his son’s death, had come to the police station, yelling at Chief Clembeck. “I leave coins on my son’s grave. He was a coin collector. Every time I find something he never had, I leave it on his stone. Not for long, but to let him know I’m thinking of him. Now, someone’s stealing them!” He was a big man, deeply browed, and his arms loomed like separate chassis coming out of a short sleeve shirt. Anger was hiding just out of sight when it came to Dirk. Anger could have been easy with him. “I just leave them on the rim of the stone. Now I’m going to put them down with epoxy, you can bet your sweet ass on that. Son of a bitch, I’ll kill the guy I ever catch him!”
Down the steps of the station he went, at a plod, almost gargantuan, head big as a beehive, wide red suspenders tight on that massive chest, his fists hard against pants pockets. Just through talking more than he had talked in a year.
Not a chance his ever being the brightest apple in the barrel, but Dirk had been one of us. Early on we noticed that he always squinted his eyebrows at every part of a conversation going on around him, as if measuring each word said, each thought proffered. It took us some time to realize that behind his dark brown eyes was a space like a huge garage that had gone out of business, and all the stalls were empty. In most of those conversations, he kept quiet, nodding, squinting, being himself. Of course, we never really got to know him. Silence takes some people out of normal orders, and into strange sanctuaries. But he had been one of our boyhood chippers, one of our pals, though time had long since dropped its strange veil between us.
I was wondering how deep that old bond would find itself these days, lots of spilt milk along the way.
The runner, Mary Appolinaire, came the next day to the station, her voice raucous and strident coming out of such a slight frame. To me she was mostly a stranger in town, becoming nothing more than a slim shadow in local road races, an apparition loping alongside the Merrimack River.
“They’re grave robbers! Nothing but grave robbers! I want that known!” Oh, that lady had a voice.
A fifty-year old school teacher, she’d retired early, and was now given to running long distance races. Her twin sister was buried at Riverside after a horrible accident, and Mary had spent the better part of three years in the cemetery, morose, clinging to the old days, a bag of woes. Running, initially away from her problems, had given her a new liberty and outlook. But her gifts left for sister Margaret were being taken in the night. They were simple things, like Margaret’s first harmonica found in the attic, an old collection of Quaker Oats paper dolls wrapped in Saran Wrap, a white-metal penny from WW II, a small but highly understood page from a dance book three times holding the name of a boy who never came home from some war, things that made Mary ache all over again. “I want the police down there every night!”
Truth is, Mary knew a couple of cops met their quick dates in the dark cemetery but decided to leave well enough alone. Some of the cops wore stripes. Some of the ladies she knew.
The new chief was an old patrolman who had slowly climbed the ranks, like a mountain climber learning on the job, at The Matterhorn or K-27 itself, a long haul. His name was Tutor Clembeck and at a boisterous meeting with some of the victims had made a promise. “I’ll have a patrol car in there a few times every night. No schedule, just a random kind of visit, so as not to frighten away the thief until he’s caught. That place’s going to be full up before we know it.” His patrolman’s eyes, used to measuring intensity or danger or doubt or incredulity in faces, scanned the audience. His round face had a big mouth, bigger ears, and a nose once clubbed into near submission in a small riot. He had no trouble in being unpleasant.
Clinton Mobley was surprised at that dictate. Clint, like Dirk, was one of the old four. “Chief,” he said, “I don’t doubt that you mean well. You do have our respect.”
Everybody in the room knew he was saying, “Even if you’re slow as hell in most things, we respect your determination.” After the modulated pause, Clint continued. “Never has been a sighting. Never has been a light seen in the cemetery to show this crud where he’s going, what he’s at. Does that strike you as odd, chief?”
“Just says he’s real careful, to me. Maybe uses one of them pocket flashlights. Could be a number of things.” The chief leaned toward the audience, which Clint knew was one of his learned but crude reactions, a ploy the man tried to employ.
Clint waved one hand and bounced it off the side of his head in subtle exasperation. “Ever think, chief, we won’t get a look at him at night at all, because he goes in there during the day and sees everything he wants to see and needs to see and knows exactly where to go in the dark. Without benefit of light. Not a single match struck in the outing. Plots his time and target, he does, right under everybody’s eyes.”
“What you’re saying, Clint, is he could be one of us in this room right now.”
“You’re damn right,” Clint threw back at him. “Could be any one of us. We’ve all seen what the hell kind of stuff has been ending up as mementos, and all the time the character of the cemetery, right under our noses, has been changing. That’s not news to any of us. The town is changing. Old, sedate Riverside is no longer sedate. It’s about had its day and we better face that sooner than we thought.”
Mary Appolinaire came right up out of her seat, her voice reaching the rafters. “What do you mean, the character of the cemetery’s been changing? I think that’s ridiculous. My sister is there. It’s the only place left for me to visit her. What are you talking about character for? I think it’s crude.”
Clint was not offended, but you could tell he was ready for her. “Mary, just hear me out. Have you noticed what has happened lately in the cemetery around Halloween time? Just in the last couple of years?”
“Of course, I have,” Mary said, the look on her face saying she thought Clint wouldn’t believe she had an answer. “That’s when the pumpkins started showing up. I think it’s beautiful. It’s a lovely expression of a time that might go unnoticed in the cemetery, if it wasn’t for some thoughtful individuals.”
“Let me tell you what happened, Mary,” Clint said. “One day I’m down at the cemetery, a couple of days before Halloween, and I visit my parents’ stone and I see a beautiful pumpkin right on their grave. Nothing carved, no face, just a healthy pumpkin, and a decent-sized one to boot. In the whole cemetery, just that one pumpkin. One pumpkin! At supper that night, right at the table, I mentioned how nice it was seeing the pumpkin there. I said it had given me goose bumps and I thought perhaps my cousin Emily had put it there because she highly favored my mother who made Halloween very special for us.
My daughter coughed and looked at me with her thirteen-year old eyes kind of shaded and said, ‘It wasn’t Em, Dad, it was me.’ So, I asked her where she got the pumpkin and she looked me square in the eyes again and said, ‘You don’t want to know, Dad.’ Just like that,” and he snapped his fingers, “I knew she had swiped it off someone’s front steps. It was the thought that counted, not the gesture. A week later there must have been a hundred pumpkins down there.”
“What the heck are you trying to say, Clint?” Mary was shrugging her shoulders and looking around at everybody. What she was broadcasting was the thought that Clint was different than the rest of them. He wrote poems, didn’t he? They all knew that. “Give us poor folk a clue, Clint.” The thin runner’s frame was upright in the aisle, like a sign pole at a bus stop.
“I’m saying whoever is doing this stealing has a different agenda in mind. He has another purpose in mind.” Clint Mobley looked around to see if any of it had sunk in. He was thinking it might be the argument about the new cemetery.
Mary finally broke free of herself. “You poets sure have a strange way of saying things, and stranger ideas. What are you talking about? I swear, Clinton Mobley, you throw me right off my stride.” She shrugged her shoulders again in the universal gesture.
Chief Tutor Clembeck was nodding at Clint. “You mean the group who’s trying to close up Riverside sooner than later and start another cemetery someplace else, like in Harry Gnosh’s property, also over against the Merrimack River? Harry’s not been out of the house in a year or more. Never goes to the cemetery, though his Wilma’s there. It sure isn’t him. How would this thieving help in that regard, being three sites under discussion? Looks like a dead ender to me.” His stern look swept over the crowd. “Nothing new here but some swift objections and more noise. You know what I’m going to do about this mess, and all I ask is that all of you keep your eyes open.”
Two mornings later the cruiser passing through the cemetery came across two dozen stones smashed into ungainly pieces. The word spread around town and a hundred-people gathered at the cemetery. The chief came down with a couple of sergeants. One stone was that of Margaret Appolinaire, Mary’s sister. Another stone was that of Dirk Edmunds’ son, Anthony. The method of damage looked purposeful, as if having direction.
The next morning there were two dead dogs and a dead cat right in the middle of the Veterans Section. Nearly the whole town went ballistic. There were meetings at the VFW and the American Legion.
Clint was pretty damn certain there was a hidden reason behind the whole situation at Riverside. He came by the house the next evening. “I’ve got to talk to someone about this, Max. Nobody stealing pennies or nickels or dimes, like we used to do at Mr. Zinias’ steps, wants to get rich. Shoot, we only went to see the movies, cowboy films mostly, Roy or Gene or Hoppy getting more bowlegged all the time. We didn’t even realize they never kissed a girl. All that was beyond us. And who the hell out there wants an old harmonica or goddamn paper dolls even if they are collectibles? Or Syd Welling’s out-of-tune trumpet for God’s sake? Old Syd never finished a tune in his whole life. He couldn’t carry a note in a briefcase. Something else is going on here. I can feel it in my bones.”
I didn’t really know what Clint was getting at, but I knew this much: that whatever idea he had, whatever lurked in the back of his mind, and I was sure that something had cemented itself there, Clinton Mobley wanted that idea to come out of my mouth and not his. He wanted me to be aware of it, as if it were first-hand with me. It was now painfully obvious to me that he had a severe suspicion of someone in town. All his life Clint had worked that way. And he was good at it. I had never undertaken a study to find out why. It was just his modus operandi. I knew I had to watch carefully as the whole thing might unravel itself, right there in front of me.
We pitched ideas back and forth, nothing spectacular or seemingly possible came out of the dialogue. Then, in one sweep, Clint made a move. He said, “Do you have one of those maps of the town that the Bicentennial Committee had printed?”
“The one with all the businesses and municipal locations shown? The green map?”
“Yah,” Clint said, “that’s the one.” Damn, I could see something in his eye, the way he so offhandedly said, “Yah.”
I got a copy from the den and laid it out on the kitchen table. Everything that was anything in the way of business or municipal was shown. That included cottage industry stuff and home quarters for landscapers and whatever you could name. They all had paid a piece of the cost in getting the map done.
Clint leaned over the map, studying it, but I noticed his eyes almost involuntarily zipping back at the Gnosh property, near the Merrimack, where some people said a new cemetery should be located. His eyes were like the platen on a typewriter, going back to the beginning all the time. There was room enough at Gnosh’s for a new cemetery, though it was only one of three sites that came up in discussions. He started pointing out places that I knew as well as he did. I was sure he was being coy about his suspicions to the very end… that would be my saying, with some kind of start, “What about this…!”
And there it was, what he was trying to get me to say, smack dab at one end of the Gnosh property, Beau LeBlanc’s florist shop and nursery. Beau had also been one of us four for the movies. And right there I knew that Clint knew. He knew what I knew, that Beau had the mind and the attitude to do what had been done at Riverside to try to get the new cemetery near his place of business. He’d be way ahead of the other florists if he did. He’d always managed to come out on top, by any means he could. And I suddenly heard his voice, all those years in the past, saying one dark evening as we sat in Ollie Leander’s field watching the fireflies, “I think we ought to get a hammer and chisel some night and get some money from Zinias’ steps. He probably sleeps all night long and wouldn’t even hear us.”
Three nights later, they caught Beau LeBlanc stuffing toy mementos and pictures left for the dead into an old gunnysack. In the trunk of his car they found a ball peen hammer, an eight-pounder, he had probably used to smash the stones, and some of Dirk Edmund’s coins were in a small leather pouch. They found Margaret Appolinaire’s old harmonica and some other doo-dads Mary had left. Beau went that one step beyond, like the old days, figuring how to get Mr. Zinias’ coin free of cement.
After lots of noise, and Dirk almost beating the hell out of his old boyhood pal, and Mary instituting a suit against Beau, the town selected a new site for the new cemetery. It was not near the Merrimack, and not near Beau LeBlanc’s Gay Parisian Nursery. And none of his thousand hours of imposed community service could be performed anywhere near the cemetery, new or old.
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