Each December, at the Los Angeles County Cemetery, the ashes of hundreds of people whose remains have been unclaimed or unidentified for three years are buried in a mass grave. Members of the public are invited to attend.
The Annual Burial of the Unclaimed Dead. You’d like the name. Direct and unvarnished. I’d guess maybe a hundred others will join me tomorrow at the grave under the green tarps. As usual, there’ll be no names announced, no life stories recalled: just a few graceful words by a local chaplain. Probably incense swung gently over the dirt. Some music. Usually a guitarist.
I know you’re not among them, but I repeat the stats out of respect for them, the county’s unclaimed, whose cardboard boxes have rested side by side on coroner shelves for three years and who must be buried to make room for this year’s ashes. I think even if you were not a factor in this, I would continue the pilgrimage every year. A more dignified act of kindness I cannot imagine for the poor souls. I’m always moved.
Yes, there are 13 more over whom to sing tomorrow.
The Does. Unidentified. I will be there in case you are with them, my only and wild sister, my own Jane Doe.
Above L.A., the snow blanketing the San Gabriels glows in late sun, Jane. You would not appreciate it. You have no eye for horizons. You’re all about the here and now. The raucous laughter in the bar. Any room that welcomes you for the night. The man of the moment, who offers you nothing and exactly what you expect. The bottle on the table. Later, the needle in your arm. You never look ahead, but you’re always looking, for more “now.” Your here and now is what took you away. But me? Well, you know better than anyone. Despite your demons, you always face forward, no matter how ugly. And you never back off from telling me what you think of my avoidance of anything unpleasant, and my distance from people. You scoff that I’m a sucker for the far-off. I can’t argue. And the pink hue that is cast onto the white of the summits is a worthy distraction now. I raise my eyes high above the concrete of L.A. and pretend whatever I want. I’m so good at this. What a beautiful world.
I’m going to bed. Pretending is hard work. From my room tonight, I watched the sun paint the snow until the mountains became lumpy shadows and lights blinked on buildings, cars, and the hotel marquee. I have turned on the light just to tell you good night.
December 10—Saturday 11 p.m.
Reading my last couple of entries, from what seems like years ago, I wonder if I had begun shedding fantasies even last night. Look, I realize you will never read this. I get it. Still, I have to tell you this last story. It’s all about the here and now. You won’t be bored.
I met someone at the grave today. Tall, not bad-looking, with the most intense brown eyes. When I spoke, his direct gaze made me feel like I was the only one around. Of course, a mass burial service conducted in the shadow of a crematorium is not where I would normally look for a date—oh, let’s be honest, there’s no place I look for a date, so a cemetery’s as good as any. I was nervous at first, but I kept asking myself what you would do. I decided to be in the present, like you. It worked. That’s why I tell you that maybe I had already stopped pretending.
He offered me shelter from the storm. Dramatic enough? Well, he did. Apparently, L.A. is experiencing a drought-busting early season. I should have realized. The mountains are solid white. The last two years I was here, it was as hot as summer. And, despite the new rains, most of the lawn is still brown.
As usual, I was standing off to the side of a crowd that seemed smaller than last year, a few dozen, maybe. We happy few circled the dead, I, of course, facing away from the brick and metal stacks and the chain link, barbed wire fences that surround them. As you know, if I can’t see it, it’s not there. We stood in a corner of the huge county cemetery, on a hill. I looked out across the grave to the city’s sprawl.
The unlovely area where they bury the ashes was not helped today by the tacky tarps sagging from rainwater. Well, unlovely, true, but softened and always granted a rare beauty by the ceremony. Plus, maybe the brown grass will drink up gallons of water this winter and be emerald by spring. There’s always hope, right? There. Do I sound more like me?
As we stood waiting for the chaplain to say his few words, it started to rain. Most of us were caught off guard. Angelenos don’t do wet, I’ve heard. Maybe the mere threat of rain had kept people home. However, no one left. I wouldn’t have expected anyone from that group to leave anyway. None of us attend because we’re obligated to a typical graveside service of family or friends. I’ve often wondered about the others—most of them alone—and their connections to the dead. I think most are there just to honor the forgotten or neglected. But how many know someone who is being buried? Who is wondering why the ashes haven’t been claimed? Who is searching for the missing? Anyone racked with guilt, yet frustrated and resenting the search? I’ve not bothered to find answers.
“Want to share? I think it’s going to get worse.”
I turned toward the voice at my shoulder to see a brown-haired guy, older than I am, maybe in his 40’s, wearing a black overcoat and jeans. He seemed hesitant, which relaxed me a bit. He hunched over, the way many tall men do, yet had an odd way of leaning back even while standing close enough to share an umbrella.
Not for the first time, I wished I were like you. You would have cracked a joke, laughed at it, tossing your shiny hair, and asked him for a cigarette. Me? I said, “Duh. Duh duh. Duh duh duh duh.” That’s what I registered of my mumble. I think I actually said, “Are you sure? Well . . . thanks then.”
The guitarist began “Into the West.” God, it was beautiful. For a few minutes, I was distracted into what probably resembled calm, but when the song ended, it was still me standing too close to a stranger, the seconds stretching as I tensed, trying out useless conversational openings in my head. My hair and clothes were damp, my shoes were getting wet, and I suspected I smelled like wet dog. Here’s the strange thing, though: just when I was sure he would discreetly back away from the social misfit, he asked me why I was there. He smiled and adjusted the umbrella over us, apparently in no hurry. My shoulders relaxed.
And here’s the even stranger thing: I opened my mouth and answered him. I talked about us. Can you imagine? I don’t know if it was because you felt so close or because of the intimacy created by the umbrella that claimed our own space separate and somehow distant from the others—in fact, the whole group, usually crowded around the grave so as to hear the chaplain’s words, had been spread as umbrellas had opened. You know, maybe I just needed a stranger. I think you would understand that. For whatever reason, I shared. He tilted his head a little as he listened, his face composed. His eyes never left my face, even as the speaker began. We moved a couple of steps back and spoke quietly.
I told him I had come for several years in case my sister was there.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But wouldn’t you know? Their names are posted.”
“I do check all of the names. But I have learned that she is probably no longer alive. She fell into some serious trouble here in L.A. I have good reason to believe she died without ID. It’s a long story. Anyway, I . . . I just have to come.”
“Why was she out of touch?” he asked. So simple. No one had asked that before. My words vomited out.
“She was a drug addict. She consumed our lives. Then she left.”
Now that’s reality. See? I was weaving it more confidently among my carefully-constructed fabric of fantasy.
I felt nothing. No guilt. No embarrassment. The overwhelming urge to bolt or apologize and explain my neglect and anger was absent. Plus, his eyes were kind.
Still, the conversation wasn’t pleasant, despite its clean, unfiltered nature. And I cannot change so quickly so as to invite others in. I have spent too long in my fortress. I changed the subject: “What about you? Why are you here?”
“Well, I’m sorry to say I know one of the . . . God, what do I say? ‘Deceased’? Hard to admit. And, actually, I’m not sorry about knowing her. I’m glad.”
Her. Best not to ask, I decided.
I turned my attention to the dead. The chaplain’s words resonated respect for the lives whose remains were beneath the soggy tarp. When he finished speaking, a bearded man in robes walked the length of the plastic, waving perforated silver canisters, enveloping the grave and the edges of the crowd in smoke. A sharp fragrance filled the air. Sage. Clouds of it. It took me home. Our conversation stalled, but we listened in a now-comfortable silence. The rain fell steadily. I didn’t mind. We must have looked like a couple. I didn’t mind that, either.
The service lasted no more than fifteen minutes. After the serenity prayer, most drifted away; a few stood quietly or murmured over the grave. Some laid flowers around the edges, on the newly-turned earth.
“Where are you from?” he asked. “You don’t seem very L.A.” He winced and started to apologize.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” I made a show of primping my hair, immediately amazed at myself. I was teasing this man. Me. I had a quick flash of us sitting in a coffee shop after the service, steam from our cups warming the air between us, rain skittering on the pavement outside. Ah. Dreaming. Still me, Jane. How many times did we argue about this, you claiming, “Life can be ugly, but at least its got life,” and me insisting, “Life is ugly so make something up.”
“I’m going to take that as a compliment because I love where I’m from,” I told him.
“New Mexico. Middle of nowhere. I went to Albuquerque, to the University of New Mexico. Journalism. I was going to become the next Christiane Amanpour. In my senior year, I had to come home . . . to take care of . . . well, because my parents . . . my parents had died in a car accident, and I had gained a child, my sister. I didn’t take well to the role. She was a wild thing, lived for the moment—”
I trailed off, finishing in my head: And you had gotten much worse after the accident you caused. I’m sorry, I have to say it. Of course you went off the deep end after that. Because you did cause it, you and your crisis dejour that always sent them speeding off in a panic to save you. You dragged me into a place I would never have made up. And after you ran off, I piled more gray stones onto my castle walls.
He touched my shoulder. “I’m too nosy. Stop me. I do this a lot.”
“No, it’s fine.”
And it was.
“What’s it like where you live?” he asked.
“Well, if you asked my sister, she would say, ‘hell.’ She felt trapped in a town with one bar and a graduating class of seven. I love it, though. And I love the high desert plateaus, the smell of sage and creosote. It’s like the desert in California, but cleaner and higher. Actually, Jane liked that part, too. We had our best—pretty much our only—times exploring the mesas and washes.”
I smiled, remembering, and reached into my bag.
“We made bouquets of desert plants,” I told him. “She said they were like me, prickly and trying too hard.”
I carefully lifted the nosegay that I had brought to lay on the grave: blue sage, lacy anise, mint, and—our favorite—the yellow Yerba Mansa, already wilted and dried. Bringing it to my face, I closed my eyes. The fragrance mixed with the smoky, herb-infused air lingering above the buried ashes.
“I know,” I admitted. “It’s weird. Jane hated hothouse flowers. She despised roses. Especially red ones. So cliché, she complained. And fake. Only the tough, honest scent of the desert for her. She said roses smelled like grocery stores and funerals and men who didn’t mean their ‘sorry’s. She would know, too.”
Suddenly your loss was all around me. I felt as desolate as if I was with you in the ground. I was certain of your death. My body slumped, no other word for it. My face went slack, my mouth loosened into a frown, and I realized that I had been using muscles to keep a smile on. The sudden ache in my neck told me my head had fallen forward, and my shoulders dropped again with such a release of tension that they pulled at my neck, as well. I turned away when the tears came.
The words were a whisper.
“I know your sister is here. Your journey’s over.”
I couldn’t help it; I leaned into the kindness of the gesture.
“Thank you,” I breathed. “That means so much.”
“No. I mean it. I know your sister is here.”
The certainty of his conviction was a balm. I turned to him in gratitude, my head lifting.
And saw him.
Startled, I flinched and rocked back on my heels, staring open-mouthed. How could a face change so quickly? How had I thought the eyes warm? There was nothing there. Well, darkness. But nothing. Incense smoke curled around us, carried on a sudden shift of breeze, and a sudden vision filled my head: the twist of a shark in murky water and the flat black eye gliding past my face.
He sneered and looked down at me, down on me. He was standing straight; the stoop had disappeared. His attentiveness had morphed into an intensity that scrutinized me coldly. Sharp eyes scanned our surroundings with speed and precision.
“Are you as deaf as you are stupid?”
I could only gape at him. You would have done something. I know it. I could not. He set the umbrella down and took my hands, pulling me closer, his grip a coiled power. How had I not noticed his size? He dwarfed me.
“I said I know your sister is here. I know because I put her here. I knew Cassie. You can drop the Jane. Your little doe has been found. It’s a better name for you, anyway. Weakling!”
His face flushed, and his voice rose with the last word. He caught himself and immediately lowered it, swiveling his head to assess the almost-deserted gravesite.
He continued, hissing the words out. “How can you be her sister? Her colors were so bright I could barely look at the end. You—” he spit the word out, “—you insult my world, peeping and creeping through it, looking for . . . who knows or cares? I’ll admit. I was curious about you. She called you her right hand man, didn’t she?”
I gasped. The familiar teasing phrase conjured your image, and I felt I could touch your lips at that moment. He restrained me with his strength and froze me with his words. The assault continued, and I shook my head, trying to make sense of this sudden nightmare.
“There we go,” he cooed. “That got your attention, didn’t it? Jesus, she talked you up until I was sick of you. I think it’s why I finally shut her up. Did you hate propping her up all your life? Did you want to hurt her for forcing you to deal with her shit? For burning so bright? I think so. She didn’t know you at all, did she? You didn’t know her, either. I always know what they love and hate, and I knew—more than you ever did—what she liked and what she despised.”
He paused to savor his next words. His eyes probed mine, and he smiled wide.
“Best of all, I knew what she was afraid of.”
Bile rose up into my throat, and I jerked back. He countered in a flash, pulling me closer—one hand on the back of my head, pulling it close and turning my face onto his coat lapel, and the other a vise imprisoning my right hand—in a grotesque embrace that no one watching would question. My face turned toward your grave, I was helpless.
He’s so strong. I grieve that you felt it.
The next instant, the world exploded into white hot pain as he broke the little finger on my right hand.
Before I could cry out, he covered my mouth and pulled me even closer with his other arm on my back, as if comforting me. I screamed into the monstrous hand and tried to push away. Suddenly I was free. I staggered from the freedom and the pain. As I righted myself, cradling my hand, he reclaimed the umbrella, and long strides carried him off, his coat whipping around his legs. I managed to keep his tall form in sight, however, and paid for my effort by witnessing his final gesture. He pivoted as he neared the perimeter of the grounds and raised his arm. Then, as if tipping a hat to a lady, he tapped a stemmed red rose to his forehead and tossed it my direction.
He was out the gate and gone.
I’m going, too, Cassie. The finger is set now, but more than that is broken, and I no longer know how to escape the dead or the living. No wonder I was always drawn to invention and dreams. This world is ugly up close. It bites. It tries to break. You were brave to live in it.
I forgot to give you your flowers. But so did he. I’m glad. Mine will stay here with these useless words.
Once I’m away from desecrated ground, I’ll think about what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll try. Maybe I will hit back.
Of one thing I’m sure: I will no longer toss hopeful flowers on graves while evil breathes beside me.
Writer: Marilyn Schultz-Davis teaches writing at California State University, Fullerton. She has written for publication most of her adult life, primarily creative non-fiction. In 2016 she published Green Leaf Places, a book of poetry. She is currently at work on poetry and prose pieces as an assignment for an upcoming anthology of creative writing published by The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Most importantly to her at this time, she is also collaborating with her mother, who is writing for a presentation at her 100th birthday in June, 2018.
Artist: Erika Flores is an art student at Fullerton College studying Ceramics, Jewelry, Sculpture and Art History. She has never shied away from working with different media and learning everything she can from the art world. Her work focuses on naturalistically depicting the human figure and animals. She draws inspiration from Art Nouveau, fantasy and the world around her.