Graveside Closure (A Short Story)

The owner of the bed and breakfast had no skeletons in his closet, Linda hoped. But he did have a number of them buried close to his backyard. The B&B was right next to the Western Cemetery in Portland, Maine. 

At the moment, the cemetery was haunted by an androgynous teenager dressed in black. From her first-floor room, Linda peered at this specimen of adolescence, who reminded her of herself as a teenager, 14 years ago. Teen Linda had dressed like an honorary member of the Addams Family. She had thought of herself as a cynical witch, drawing black magic out of the wellspring of the world’s miseries. She had been so innocent then.

Adult Linda’s trip from Staten Island to Portland, Maine had no innocence. She hefted her suitcase onto the squealing four-poster bed and fished out a red silk tie belonging to her lover, who had recently died. She hadn’t killed him, though after his death she wished she had. To find out from an online article that he had been survived by a wife… that revelation had robbed Linda of peace.

Soon after his death, she had started to see the ghost of him all around Staten Island: by the fish tanks at the ferry terminal; at the beauty salon responsible for making her a blonde; at Alice Austen House, where, much as she liked the old photos, she liked even more to sit on the lawn, drink beer, and watch the ships pass under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. He had also popped up repeatedly at her home, a roach-friendly studio over a Chinese restaurant.

And damn it if she hadn’t cracked apart in tears at nearly every sighting of his ghost, her one-weekend-a-month lover (sometimes two weekends!), a businessman who was regularly on the road. Even now, she wore the pendant necklace he had given her one year into their two-year relationship, after she had landed her first gig as a part-time jazz oboist. The pendant was a gold treble clef with garnets.

She missed him. But she also wanted him to stop haunting her, the lying SOB. His ghost had never said a word, and she hadn’t figured out how to make him disappear. Not until her upstairs neighbor, a palmistry expert, recommended visiting his grave. “Bring something that belonged to him,” her neighbor recommended. “Leave it there as a parting act.” Apparently all a ghost and his betrayed lover would need was some graveside closure.

He wasn’t buried in the Western Cemetery but in Evergreen Cemetery. She wouldn’t head there now, at the day’s end, when people who didn’t fear the dark or much else felt most welcome among the graves. She would first spend a night in the trenches of an old mattress, listening to the odd car pass and the commotion from the kitchen at dawn. His red silk tie would be balled up on the pillow beside her.

The next morning, a breakfast of coffee, eggs, and cantaloupe was followed by a walk and a bus ride to Evergreen Cemetery. Unlike the Western Cemetery with its overgrown grass, its haphazard trees and air of neglect, Evergreen on a day in early June brought to mind a high-end sanitarium. Everything was neater, brighter. There was even a middle-aged man – a live one – jumping rope shirtless in front of a mausoleum. Maybe he was surrounding himself with death as a motivation for staying fit.

As she passed him, his eyes flicked to her and lit up with the kind of appreciation she was appreciating less these days. Sure, as a statuesque blonde with legs that could bridge Staten Island and Brooklyn, she turned heads, but where had that gotten her? Visited by the ghost of a dishonest lover who had pestered her into visiting his out-of-state grave.

“Hey, there,” said the Jump Roper. “Come to commune with the dead?”

And damn, was that an awful pickup line. She rolled her eyes and sauntered on, a cemetery map clutched in one hand, her lying lover’s tie in the other.

“You have that look about you,” the Jump Roper called after her. “I can help.”

“Uh huh.”

“My jump rope is more than a jump rope,” he confided. “It can get the ghosts to talk.”

It was difficult not to stare at his glistening torso and the way his red gym shorts rode low on his waist. It was a shame he was such a creep.

She located her erstwhile lover’s grave, surrounded by glossy green grass. He had a straightforward headstone. It named his years on Earth and mentioned that he had been a husband.

She stood a few feet away and considered where to deposit the tie, the only thing in her possession that had once belonged to him. She had thought to leave it on the ground. But now she wondered if she should drape it over the headstone as on a headboard.

“Here, let me get you started.”

Linda stiffened and turned around. Apparently the Jump Roper’s gray trainers were silent. Before she could protest, he swept himself into a rapid series of hops. He reminded her of a hummingbird, his rope a blurry cloud like fast-beating wings.

After about a minute, her lover sprang in ghostly form from his grave.

He regarded her with the same solemn, shame-faced, hopeful look he had worn when haunting her all around Staten Island. But all he said was, “Return the treble clef necklace to my wife.” He also managed to add, “Please,” before disappearing.

Linda waited for him to reappear. When it became clear that her hopes about this, as on other matters concerning him, would be dashed, she screamed and chucked the red silk tie at his grave.

“A lot of times people don’t like what they hear,” the Jump Roper observed sadly.

She screamed again, loud enough to start a legend about a cemetery banshee, before storming back to the bus stop.

On the ride back to the center of the city, she clutched at the pendant, as if she could imprint the garnets into her hand. Once off the bus, she walked around for hours, carrying herself in loops past graffitied rocks and docked boats and seafood restaurants, homes with faded paint jobs and colorful flower boxes, the public library and art museum and the severely beautiful Victoria Mansion. 

She knew where his widow lived. After discovering his married status, she had conducted some research and had obsessed over her findings to the point of memorizing the address. She also knew how many years the happy couple had lived at that particular address (eight years) before he had died at high impact on the I-95 between Portland and Boston.

It was a grand home, not far from the Eastern Promenade. Painted a light gray, it had three stories, a conical turret, and a patio with white rails on the second floor. An enormous picture window on the third floor framed a model of a white sailboat. The sailboat was a detail that hadn’t appeared in images of the house online. Linda wondered if he had made it by hand or bought it. Just one of many details that would remain unknown.

She hovered across the street for close to half an hour before reaching back to unclasp the necklace. She dashed over to the mailbox, which was shaped like the caboose of a train, and was about to stuff the necklace into it when the door to the grand home cracked open.

“Can I help you?” called a woman who was older, blonder, and more statuesque than Linda.

Linda froze for several seconds before stumbling up the gray flagstones that led to the front door. “Are you…?” she tried.

The older woman’s golden eyebrow lifted.

“You are…?” Linda tried again.

“Yes,” said the woman, with dark laughter in her deep blue eyes. “I’m Anna.”

Linda nodded. She also knew the woman’s maiden name, place of birth, academic degrees, current job, and preferences in books and swimwear.

“I can guess who you are.” Anna’s eyes flicked to the necklace. “Won’t you come in.”

She stepped back from the door, and Linda helplessly slid into the house, as if under compulsion.

The interior was cool and spacious. It was made up of dim rooms with high ceilings and heavy furniture. Linda winced at a wedding photo she passed en route to the kitchen, where she was told to sit at a table made of distressed pine.

“Something to drink?” Anna asked.

“Beer,” Linda blurted. “If you have some.”

“I don’t.” Anna’s smile was small and humorless. She poured them both some sugar-free iced tea. “So… how did you come by the anniversary gift my late husband gave me?”

Even after an infusion of iced tea, Linda’s mouth remained parched.

“He gave it to me on our first anniversary,” Anna said. “I play the flute. Not professionally, but as a serious hobby.”

“Lovely,” Linda croaked. She held out the necklace. “Here.”

Anna stared at the pendant as it dangled, before finally removing the necklace from Linda’s trembling hand.

“I didn’t know he was married,” Linda whispered.

Anna set the necklace on the table, beside a bowl of green apples. “You never suspected?”

Linda opened her mouth and closed it without a word.

“You didn’t want to know,” Anna said.

Linda nodded, her eyes on the table. “I loved him,” she croaked. She almost added “sorry” before realizing how lame that would sound.

“You know he had another one,” Anna murmured, her hands wrapped around her glass of tea.

Linda frowned. “Sorry?”

“That one brought me back a ring. His gift to me on our third anniversary. For a while, I thought I had misplaced it.”

“Where…?” Linda managed to ask.

“She lives in Boston.” Anna tapped her glass with a fingernail. “A Beantown babe. Where are you from, by the way?”

Linda leaned forward, elbows on knees, and breathed through the storm of anger and nausea. When she straightened up, Anna was rinsing out both their glasses at the sink.

“Bet he saw her more too,” Linda muttered.

“Possibly,” Anna murmured. She scooped the necklace back up. “I want you to take this.”

“What?” Linda stood. “No, I can’t.”

“You know what I did with that ring?”

“Thanks for the tea, I need–”

“I threw it in the ocean.” Anna pressed the necklace into Linda’s nearly numb fingers. The treble clef felt like it weighed nothing.

When Linda emerged from the dim, grand house, the day had already melted into late afternoon, the sunlight more dense and syrupy. She took a meandering route on foot to her B&B and arrived as the sun was setting. Instead of heading inside to her stuffy room, she slipped into the Western Cemetery.

In the lengthening shadows, she searched for a spot that would best suit the kind of grave she had in mind. Between two crooked headstones tipping away from each other, she scooped out some soil with her hand and shoved the necklace into the ground. She filled the shallow hole with the loose soil and brushed a tuft of grass over it.

When she stood, wiping tears away with the back of her hand, she spotted a teenager all in black, watching from under a slanting tree. Was it the same one from yesterday? They were about as easy to tell apart as ravens. A short while later, from the window of her room, she watched the young fool paw through the ground where she had buried the necklace.

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