There was something about standing over someone’s grave.
Dorothy would never admit it out loud, but every time she saw the mourners standing alone, quiet and eloquent, over the graves of friends and family, she felt a tiny spark of yearning to get to do the same herself. Not that she wanted anyone she loved to die. She was even sort of sad, when she remembered to be, for those people mourning. It was complicated, with Dorothy.
It all started with her mother, poor, newly single, and alone but for newborn Dorothy in the heart of old Chicago. It was not easy to be a single mother then, Dorothy imagined. It still wasn’t, twelve years later, but she imagined it was even less easy back then. Mother had been offered a couple of dollars off her rent if she agreed to take Dorothy- babies were always a nice touch- to one funeral every weekend, to fill space in the pews. Their apartment was owned by one Golde and Schuymann’s Funeral Parlor- Since 1876, and Mother had said yes, why not. Dorothy was pretty sure she wished she’d turned them down flat, now, but it was too late to do anything about that.
So Dorothy had grown up going to funerals every Saturday, instead of to the park or the movie theater. When her mother had been forced to take a job that required her to work on weekends in order to pay the rising rent, Dorothy had been handed the task of attending the funerals by herself, and she had taken to it like a fish to water. It was a lot more complicated and demanding than it looked. She learned the right things to think about to get herself to cry when the service suggested tears would be appropriate, and she figured out exactly how much about the person she needed to know to be able to throw in nostalgic anecdotes, to spark another wave of tears from the relatives. She was, if she said so herself, one of the best.
Of course, if that was all she did, she’d have long since tired of her hobby. As different as people might be alive, they were all the same when they were dead. Funerals had such a dull, sameness to them that Dorothy had begun keeping a score of the really unique ones, as well as a list of Things That Always Happen, to dull the inevitable boredom. Crying happened all the time, of course, as did people turning up out of the woodwork to look good in the eyes of God and get in on the will, but there was the occasional funeral that broke all the rules, and decided to be interesting. (The one she immediately thought of was the man who’d had only three people at his funeral, one of whom being his widow, who’d said that the best she could say about him was that he was determined, and that she’d stop there so as not to speak ill of the dead- but that was another story for another time.) And of course, everyone wore black. Why was black the color one wore to funerals? She sort of understood the idea of punishing oneself for living while the beloved did not, but black wasn’t even the ugliest color. Tan was. When she went home the night after coming up with that brilliant thought, she added an appendix to the detailed plan for her own funeral that she kept under her pillow: ‘Everybody has to wear tan.’
Mother had learned of the list, and began to worry from then on that she’d scarred Dorothy for life by bringing her to so many funerals when she was a baby. Dreadfully morbid, she called her.
Dorothy insisted that scarred for life or not, she liked going to them, and she’d only sneak off to another place’s funerals on weekends if Mother forbade going to this one’s, and wouldn’t Mother like to know where she was, especially since there had been reports of gang violence in the area?
There hadn’t been reports of gang violence in the area, as it happens, but Mother was particularly weak to that line of reasoning, and she always gave in.
A few years back, she’d gone to the funeral of a girl in her class who’d died of polio. It had been the first time she’d ever gone to the funeral of someone she had actually talked to, and it had struck her as funny how different dead Lula seemed from alive Lula. She had had one of those awkward faces that might have looked nicer once she got a bit older, and bony elbows. And she hadn’t even been very nice, only when her mother or the teacher was looking. But they’d managed to find a lovely picture of her that made her face look almost as soft and round as Minnie Parfette from the pawn shop, whom Dorothy had worshipped when she was younger- and they dressed her body up in her best dress, and talked about her as if she had been an angel incarnate. Dorothy had learned that word just before Lula died, and she thought it quite a nice word. Incarnate. It almost sounded sinful. She wondered how many of the people she’d mourned had been like Lula when they were alive.
And then came the only funeral she would ever be expressly forbidden from attending. Her mother got the news by telephone that her long lost husband had died in a bar eight blocks down the road. She put down the receiver with tears in her eyes, but when she saw Dorothy watching her, her back stiffened and her face tightened into an expression Dorothy had never seen directed at her before.
“You’re not to go to this one, do you hear me?” she’d said, and even contrary Dorothy knew better than to argue with that tone.
But it didn’t stop her from hiding in the alley, afterwards, watching her mother stand over his grave. Her mother hadn’t spoken of him in how many years, and here she was, crying, and telling him things like how Dorothy was head of her class in science. It didn’t really make sense to Dorothy. Not that her reasonable, ordinary mother was capable of great grief- she saw reasonable, ordinary people become wailing wrecks every Saturday. But her father had left them to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood and Mother had said it was for the best, and that they were a team now. But she couldn’t begrudge her mother her tears. Dorothy’d never been in love. And her mother was at least, one of the more interesting grave standers.
She wasn’t quite sure why standing over someone’s grave was so important to her. There was something about that person left there all by himself, after the fuss and ceremony of the burial was over and the people had gone away, just him, and the freshly turned dirt. She had hidden in the alley next to the graveyard many times and just watched the people who stood by graves. Countless people had confessed crimes that would have chilled the ears of a devil, and even more people claimed death defying love and eternal loyalty and other such fancy words. These were strange to Dorothy. The crimes she understood. If you waited till now to tell someone it was you that killed their dog when they were little because you’d gotten tired of letting it out, you didn’t have to worry about them being angry or hurt. Dead people can’t feel hurt or anger. But they can’t forgive you, either, so there was still something a bit sad about the criminal confessions. And the love ones were sadder- they couldn’t do anything about it now, even if they might have wanted to when they were alive. Why would anyone wait so long to mention it?
Dorothy settled in to wait, herself.
It wasn’t raining. It would have made the picture perfect if it’d been raining. Actually, the sky was a perfect, crystal blue, sharp and pale with the nip of autumn winds. A swallow darted from the tangled web of branches that shielded the tiny graveyard from the probing windows and glaring brick of the surrounding buildings.
Dorothy’s mother left the graveside after almost an hour, and Dorothy knew this was her moment. She would probably never have a better chance to stand at someone’s grave. Heart pounding a bit, she scaled the chain link fence with practiced ease, and dropped to the ground on the other side with a thud, rubbing her numb fingers together. Approaching the grave, she was surprised to find herself slightly nervous. And then she was there.
She was standing over someone’s grave.
The headstone was fairly typical, not too nice, not too shabby. Her father’s name was all alone with the dates, no ‘beloved husband’ or ‘devoted father’ for him. Dorothy was glad.
She shifted uncomfortably.
What was she doing here? So what if he’d been her father? He’d forfeited the rights to that title long ago. She hadn’t known him. She didn’t really want to have known him.
It looked a lot more romantic than it felt. Dorothy really didn’t even feel anything except a sudden empathy for those grave standers she’d silently judged. It was quite a bit harder than it looked. She tried to imagine herself confessing love to the gravestone of the cutest boy in her grade, Henry Edward Anderson, and shuddered. Focus, Dorothy, she told herself. You’ve a job to do. Mourn for him.
It was awfully cold out here, wasn’t it?
Dorothy stamped her feet against the chill, and blew on her hands. She should try to say something, probably. She tried to think of something to say. Clearing her throat, then wincing as the noise broke a silence she hadn’t been aware was gathering, she licked her lips and spoke.
“I guess I wish I’d known you,” she said, unknowingly countering her thoughts from only a few minutes before. As soon as the words were out of her mouth Dorothy was mentally berating herself. That was terrible, she thought fiercely. She sounded like a stone. Where was her grief? Where were her tears? She’d been grieving every Saturday for as long as she could remember. This should be easy. But for some reason, all the wailing and crying that had always come so naturally abandoned her, and looked enormously terrifying and foreign in retrospect, looming over her like a pagan god she’d unknowingly worshipped now that she was faced with the prospect of summoning it naturally. She wasn’t even sure if she could make herself cry, and she’d mastered that a long time ago. And even if she could- it wasn’t that hard, really- it felt wrong somehow, like cheating. She didn’t want to make herself mourn him. After all, she hadn’t known him. You couldn’t really make yourself mourn someone you hadn’t known.
“You shouldn’t have left me and Mother alone!” she said, and there were actually tears in her eyes that she hadn’t had to conjure. She didn’t like it. It made people happy to know their loved ones would be missed, she was doing them a favor. And this wasn’t nearly as nice as she’d thought it would be. She stuffed down the thought that she had never once missed the people she’d mourned, with the exception of Lula a little bit- this wasn’t the time to think of such things. There were more tears coming to her eyes. This was awful. She turned to go, and the swallow was perched on the fence she would have to scale to get out of the graveyard. Was it looking at her? She was sure it was.
“Shoo! Get out!” she yelled, and her voice was hoarse. She clambered up the fence with fingers that were almost blue with cold, and dropped to the ground on the other side with a painful jolt in her cold ankles. She stole one last glance at the grave. She hadn’t liked it but she’d done it. She’d stood at a real and proper grave of someone she’d had a duty to mourn. One hand threaded through the chain links and half turned away towards the alley, Dorothy looked back at the graveyard- at the headstones and the dried flowers and worn out teddy bear on the grave in the corner, and Dorothy thought about autumn, and she thought about death.
And then she wondered quite suddenly who would stand by her grave, and what they might say to her, once she was dead and in the ground.
Shaking off that unpleasant thought, she turned and marched home, any lingering remnants of the epiphany at the graveyard dashed away by the bicyclist that nearly ran her over and the bustle of the people and the noise of the street. She was already feeling better.