Jason Phillip Reeser is the author of a non-fiction memoir, Room with Paris View, The Lazaretto trilogy and three other novels. On any given day, a visitor to New Orleans will see, on display in the windows of the French Quarter shops, his collection of short stories, “Cities of the Dead,” a collection reviewed by The American Press, who hailed him as “…a gifted Louisiana storyteller.” The story here – about a homeless man’s experience in the famed, above-ground cemeteries of New Orleans – is from that collection. In 2014, Reeser was a guest panelist of the Louisiana Book Festival. He lives in coastal Louisiana with his wife, the poet, translator and literary critic, Jennifer Reeser. His blog, Room with No View, is found at http://roomwithnoview.blogspot.com/
I’d been very disappointed to discover that Commander’s Palace was still closed for repairs a full year after Hurricane Katrina had assaulted New Orleans. It was my first chance after the storm to return to the city of my youth, and I had been assured by old friends that Commander’s would be open for business. After standing on Washington Avenue, staring at the cacophony of workmen and construction traffic for five or six minutes, I reluctantly faced the fact that I would not be dining on turtle soup at one of New Orleans’s most venerable restaurants for lunch.
The image of that grand old man being brought back from its storm-ravaged condition ruined what appetite I’d had. With little interest in finding other dining arrangements, I turned around and my gaze fell upon the iron gates of Lafayette Cemetery Number One. At least, it seemed, the old bone yard was still intact. I decided I would step inside the gates and get a little exercise. Most importantly, I wanted to cast off the somber spirit I’d felt touring the still broken streets of my city. And the Cities of the Dead could do just that. Strange as it may sound, I had always found a walk through those quiet fields of monuments to be an uplifting experience.
And this was why I had been walking the grassy lanes among the ancient tombs of New Orleans. And that was where I met the old man.
He’d been standing just inside the Prytania Street gates. He was dressed in a wool suit, a bit heavy for the still warm September days, I thought. His hair was neatly trimmed, his face closely shaved. In a word, he looked normal. He gave every indication of being in his right mind. He’d been standing perfectly still.
I had not noticed him right away and likely would have missed him had he not spoken to me.
“Young man,” he said in a clear voice, with that familiar tone that let me know he called everyone young man, “I’d like to have a word with you, if you have the time.”
I said something obscure, trying not to commit to anything. I liked his face. I had always been drawn to older people. I’d always wanted to know what had etched such deep lines upon their lives; what hidden strengths and desires lay dormant under time’s mask of old age. I should have readily accepted his intrusion had I not been so keen on a lighthearted walk under that September sun.
“Still hot,” he closed one eye and tried to look directly into the sun. “I like that. I can’t get enough of it—the warmth of the sun.”
“I can do without it at times,” I said as I read the inscription of the crypt in front of us. Magnolia trees shifted their weight above us in the light breeze as if bored with our conversation. I stepped into their shade as the old man took a deliberate step away from it. He looked as if he feared the cool of the shade.
“I’ll take the sun. The heat.” He sucked in the warm air, as if his whole body were absorbing the heat.
I tried to amble away from him, showing great interest in the crumbling graves. I did not think he had followed me, but as I passed a plot full of high grass and a rusted fence leaning on its perimeter, he spoke to me again. He was only a step away from me.
“You’ve walked straight to it.” He extended one hand and pointed to the grave. “I really think you ought to stay for a little while. I could tell you about this one. The tour guides will tell you no one knows anything about these abandoned plots. While other crypts are cared for by the families, it’s generally believed there had once been a crypt of some kind here but time and neglect have allowed it to fall to pieces. And now, they say, even the pieces are gone. Nothing left but weeds and grass, maybe a foundation of stone under all that growth. The fence here,” the old man lowered his hand to stroke the black iron but stopped short of actually touching it, “once strong and erect with diligent purpose, now only a broken sentinel that has forgotten what it had ever been guarding.”
“I remember hearing something like that.”
“Guesswork. Very poor guesswork. I could tell you the truth. I’m getting too old. And someone needs to know the truth.”
I looked at the sad empty plot. Surrounded by crypts four and five feet high, the little patch of overgrown grave looked like the remains of a forgotten garden. A few bright green fingers of vines had found their way up onto the fence. A few purple blooms were still hanging on. The overall effect was not a garden of life but a waste of decay. Even the insects that flew over it chose to fly on in search of something better. As if to prove the point, the one lone dragonfly that had landed on that plot was now hanging upside down in an ancient spider web, a dry and brittle testimony for all to see.
“Someone should clear this off. It wouldn’t take much effort.”
“Yes,” the old man nodded as if he approved of my remark, “and yet no one does it. They have begun to repair so many crypts. Delicate, difficult work. But here—”
“A gas trimmer would do it.” I kicked at the freshly cut lane beneath us. “Someone’s cutting the grass. Are they not allowed to cut it? Does the family ask that it be left like that?”
“There’s no family. No stipulations upon the grave.” He raised an eyebrow at me.
“But you know why?”
“I did not say that. I only said I know the truth.”
He had me. I could see no way around it by then. My curiosity had been tickled enough that I could not have walked away. I held out my hand and told him my name.
“I’m Kenneth Linaker. I once lived here,” he said, taking my hand.
“I did too, a long time ago. But I haven’t lived in New Orleans for many years.”
“You misunderstand me,” his eyes caught mine, and I could not look away, “I once lived here.” He waved a hand at the tombs that surrounded us.
“I’m going back a long ways, now.” He began to speak as if he stood before a grand audience. In fact, it seemed as if he were addressing the whitewashed tombs instead of me. “Forty, fifty years ago. A very long time. But then, I don’t guess that matters much to a place like this. Fifty years is a summer’s day, I suppose. But not to me. I’ve made each day of each year as long as a summer’s day.
“But not back then. I never did. I worked. Played. All of it without giving a thought to my life. Everything just came to me. A wife. Children. A career. It all came as easy to me as the ruin that followed. And with as little effort, I ended here, amongst the dead.”
I suppose my facial expression gave away my disbelief. He redirected his words to me.
“I’m not out of my mind. I never said I’d been dead. I only said I ended here. I was destitute and sleeping here at night. I’d made this my home. Perhaps I had known from the start how badly I wanted to die.
“I won’t bore you with the details of my misery. How my wife and children died, it makes little difference. Is there a way your heart can die that would make it any more bearable? Don’t ask ‘did they suffer?’ Or ‘did those responsible pay?’ If you’ve ever lost the ones you love the dearest, you’d know it makes no difference! My family was dead. That’s what is most important.
“That would have been enough, but there had to be more. The news of my financial ruin came as no shock. By that time, I had come to believe that nothing good in life would survive. And I was being proved right. The only real shock was waking every morning and discovering that I was still alive. That I was not going to be let off easy with a quick death. No fatal disease overcame me. No absurd accident ended my life. It was evident I was meant to live out my misery for a very long time.
“And so, at the deepest part of my fall, I came here. Alone. I lived as if I were dead. I slept there on that step where you sit. And anywhere else I came to rest. I don’t remember always how or what I ate. There were those who took pity on me. I made no effort to solicit charity, but then I never turned it down either.
“I had lost all track of time. I was not aware of how long I’d been in that state. But occasionally, others would join me. I was never eager to share my home with them, no matter that it was a graveyard. I could see too much life in them. No one shared my nearness to death. At least not until Burt.
“Burt was different. I sensed that immediately. I will not say he had an air of death about him. No, that would be too dramatic—too expected. But there was an absence of life about him. I’m not talking about physical things.” Here he stopped his narrative in order to bark sharply at me. “Don’t do that!”
I had placed a hand on the leaning gate of the abandoned plot. His reproof was harsh enough to make me jerk back my hand. In doing so, I scraped the heel of my right hand on a rough patch of rusted black iron. I wanted to scold him for startling me, but one look in his eyes told me I had better just keep my mouth shut.
“No,” he continued as if he had not just disciplined me like a misbehaving schoolboy, “I’m not talking about physical things. He moved, he spoke, he might even have laughed a time or two. But in everything he did, Burt did it without an inner light. There was a void surrounding him. His words fell from his mouth without power. He could laugh or cry out in a stiff wind and neither the laugh nor the cry would be carried any distance. He had no past. That was common for many of us then. He existed without a future—that was not so rare. But I tell you the truth when I say he had no present. He had never been, he never would be, and he was not at that moment. Burt did not exist.
“And that is the very reason I stayed with him. I was tired of the whiners, babbling ad nauseam about their pitiful lives. I understood their misery. I was, in fact, living with the same regrets and broken heart. But I had no desire to sit mired in the filth of my ruined life. Oh, I had no desire to pick myself up and trudge gloriously ahead into a shining new day. A rebuilt future seemed much more likely to fall down around me than the solid life I had built on the first go-around. And so I liked Burt immensely. I simply had to discover his secret about how to live outside of the present without hiding in the past or hoping for a future. That was the key for which I was willing to wait.
“I watched him. I listened to him. Spent days and weeks with him, just sitting with him and observing everything about him. His relationship to food unnerved me at first. Where many of us look forward to our next meal, talk about it with anticipation, Burt never gave his next meal a single thought. When I presented him with some bit of candy or sweet snack, he never expressed satisfaction or delight. He simply accepted the item and placed it in his mouth. He never commented on the taste, never nodded with appreciation. Neither did he show discontent or distaste. Eating was simply something that happened which demanded no comment. It was all very baffling to me. I was always snacking on one thing or another growing up. It was never long after we ate a meal that I was already asking my mother what we would be eating at the next meal. I could never take a bite without commenting on the taste, or how fresh or stale it was. Even after I married, I was forever speaking about the most routine of refreshments. My wife made coffee in the exact same manner every day of our marriage. And yet watching Burt made me realize I never drank a cup of my wife’s coffee without saying ‘oh, that’s good coffee.’ As if the world were waiting for my running commentary on everything I ate or drank.
“Burt accepted everything around him in the same way. If we were sitting in the rain, I could never detect him acknowledging it in any fashion. The heaviest downpour could crash down upon us out of a clear night sky, and then cease as abruptly—Burt never said a word. Never cast one annoyed glance toward heaven.
“He was affected by nothing. And I wanted it! Whatever he had, I wanted it! I, Kenneth Linaker was tired of life—all of its pain and disappointment, its dreadfully repetitive routine. The pointlessness of a rising and setting sun. Burt had seen as much hurt and loss as I. I had been able to glean that much from him. But he was never bound by it. He did not run from it. He never appeared ready to end his life in abject defeat. He was simply immune to life’s bite.
“And in time, I began to feel it. I began to take a step into Burt’s empty realm. One by one the cares of life and the passions of my soul fell from me as leaves from a tree. But even as I withdrew from the world around me I could still see that Burt withdrew even further. He ceased to speak. It became difficult to get him to eat. As I found peace in my newfound void, I watched Burt grow more and more detached.”
Linaker stopped speaking and stared intensely at the abandoned plot and its overgrown weeds.
“Is this where he was buried?” I asked hastily.
“I’ll tell you. There are waking moments when dreams invade reality. And desperate dreams that reality mercifully interrupts. The former may confuse us for a heartbeat—the latter diffuses the fantastic almost instantaneously. But both are easily distinguishable once they have occurred. The chimera is gone with a shake of the head. We know we have but dreamed.
“What I tell you now was no dream. Although it should only have been just that, a dream. I was sleeping. I don’t deny it. Just over there, a few crypts from here, I was lying on the grass. It was a warm night. Right there. Burt was here, sleeping just a few steps from this plot of ground.” Linaker’s throat sounded dry. He licked his upper lip before continuing.
“I became aware, still asleep, of heat. A great powerful heat. I felt it all over, suffocating, overwhelming. The dry and tangled growth over the abandoned grave shriveled in the heat then bent and collapsed upon itself. It popped and crackled like the crushing of dry bones. And from the center of it, a smoldering glow appeared. The old weeds and grass seethed—as if they were angry and alive. This menace burst into flames and I sat up. I was wide-awake. As the flames grew in size, the plot under this blaze split open with a tearing and rending that bespoke of a great and unearthly pressure. The force of this smashed open the wrought iron gates, which gaped wide in mocking welcome. I watched the earth that had been pushed aside at the creation of the small chasm begin to slide into it. The heat was great enough to make me believe that the edge of the chasm was melting into it.
“All of this had occurred in just a few seconds. It took me longer than that to realize Burt was too close to the wide-open gates. The heat prevented me from leaping to his aid. He lay perfectly still. He was as stoic as ever. His eyes stayed open in half-slits as the lip of the chasm continued to pour slowly over the edge. It dragged easily at Burt, who did not even watch as he was dragged closer and closer to that burning maw.
“And then, from within the flames, a figure arose. I will not describe him. I refuse to. But I will say he was big enough that he almost filled the hole that by then had grown to the size of nearly the entire plot. Cloaked in smoke, this figure rose over the immobile form of Burt. A hand slid out from under the shifting cloak and lightly touched Burt’s head. Burt shrieked as if his head had been doused in flames. I did not shout in alarm. I watched, amazed that Burt had actually reacted to the touch. For the briefest of moments, I felt pride that I could watch such a scene with some of Burt’s detachment.
“That dark master of the chasm closed his fingers over Burt’s throat and pulled him through the open gates. I could no longer watch calmly. Burt’s shrieking had transformed into a wail of primal, feral terror. He was being dragged on his back. His feet already at the lip of the fissure. The feet kicked spasmodically as if they might be able to douse the fiery pit through sheer desperation. Burt clawed viciously at the hand that held him. He jerked his head from side to side, eyes twisting to both sides, straining for any sign of salvation. Once, he twisted enough to catch a glimpse of me. I held my breath, afraid to hear him call out to me; scream my name. He didn’t. He couldn’t. He was already on fire by then. The noise that erupted from him was matched only by the discordant and pitiful screams flowing from the pit.
“I tried to help him. The heat literally pushed me away at every attempt I made to reach him. His black enshrouded executioner ignored his frantic fits and did not stop until he had completely dragged Burt into that burning gate of Hell. I fell to my knees, staring at the rapidly disfiguring form that had been my companion.
“The Black Lord, (for who else could it have been?), grinning at his prey, turned to look at me. The grin turned to cold emotionless stone. Despite the heat surrounding us, I felt a chill run through me. ‘I will come back for you. Fear not!’ He laughed at his own mockery and descended into the melting pool of smoke and terror.”
I waited for Linaker to say more. “And did he?” I prompted him.
“Did he what?”
“Come back?” Even as I asked it I realized how foolish that question sounded.
“I have no idea. Did you think I stuck around to see if he would?” Linaker turned his face to the warmth of the sun and inhaled deeply. “A day hasn’t passed that I haven’t tried to embrace every bit of life I could. I have learned from my past. I embrace my present. And I hope for my future. Will I die? Of course. But for now, I am alive. So very alive!”