There is a couple two rows down whom I have never seen before. They are first-timers, that much is obvious. You can tell by their sheer material mass, the weight and size and silhouette of everything they’ve brought with them, flowers and pictures and other little gifts for the dead. Watching is probably against the rules here, but I can’t help it. I’m transfixed by the earnestness with which he bends low and makes himself small, as she turns, wipes her eyes, and stares skyward. He lights a candle and sets it on the grave.
The sincerity of their performance is heartbreaking, though, here, that much is unremarkable. The sun droops low and dims and Dodge Street quiets down and I’m the worst audience imaginable, sitting here chatting with my mother’s rock.
Watching is probably against the rules here, but I can’t help it.
My mom wanted to be buried under a boulder. It might have been a Jesus thing. Ma was unique, or trying to be. She picked it out years before she died and U-Hauled it onto our lawn herself. After we’d had the thing a few months, I sort of forgot about it. It was nice to sit and lean against for shade in our treeless subdivision, and it had a mostly flat side that you could sort of play wall ball with so long as none of the neighbor kids were stupid enough to miss. After a while, it was more or less a fact of life, and kind of pretty from certain angles.
I remember she’d talk to it sometimes. I’d be out riding my bike or playing guns and mom would prop her elbow up against the rock and chat away, like she was talking to a classmate’s mom. In the mornings, walking from the door to the car, she’d always brush her hand against it, long and slow. She did this for so many years that eventually the jagged surface was worn smooth, eaten slowly by the oils in Ma’s hands.
After a while, it was more or less a fact of life, and kind of pretty from certain angles.
I’m polishing the rock, like, every month. It’s what she would have wanted. I move my hand in little circles, starting from the bottom of each facet, switching arms every five minutes or so. I’m vaguely aware that the couple in the distance is still crying as I pass the time chatting with Ma. I ask her if she knows the Liberty Bell is a replica and that the real one is locked away somewhere for safekeeping. I ask her if she knows that all the monarch butterflies in the world roost in the same forest in Mexico, but the people who count them say that since 2012 there are fewer and fewer every year. I’m still talking when I reach the top of the northwest face of the boulder, the one Ma would run her fingers down, and I notice what looks like a big scratch all the way across the facet. I stand on the tips of my toes and polish it as hard as I can, and a chunk of the rock the size of a large person’s head or maybe a small watermelon tumbles softly to the earth. I’m not sure what to do. I fall to my knees and cry a little, cradling the newborn fragment in grey polishing cloth.
The man over at the other grave is now screaming at or with the woman who must be his wife or girlfriend or something, and she’s holding him as best she can. She cradles him all the way to their charcoal Chevy Suburban, and I watch them drive away. On instinct, I start walking towards the grave they came to see, the freshly broken chunk still in hand. The headstone reads Michael Lucas Galbraith, 2014-2015.
I return to my knees and pull with all my might at clods of dirt and grass and dig until the dirt pushes so deep under my fingernails that it starts to hurt. As I dig, I whisper to Michael Lucas about monarchs and the Liberty Bell. Soon, there is a hole in front of me the size and shape of a largish head or a smallish watermelon. I lower the new rock into the hole and I bury it so that only its slightest jagged tip breaks the surface. It’s a little monument, but I don’t know to what.