The first stone was one I knew.
Flaking and grey and dusty. A driveway stone – from my driveway. Who breaks a person’s dining room window with a stone from that same person’s driveway? It felt wrong. I had clearly defined what I wanted inside my house – the hair-on-hide rug, New York Times crossword mug, stack of Tom Wolfe serials – and outside – my driveway stones. It felt strange to have a driveway that was mine, everything was mine. Things had not been mine, mine mine, in a long time.
The first stone: OLD FAG. Fag I have done before. In New York in the 80s, 70s. 90s. I have done fag before, with Elliot. I traced my finger over that first word written on the stone in red. When did old happen? Have people been saying this for a while? When were they going to tell me? Now that it was written…. Old is an ugly word to look at. O, an empty old head; L, a crooked old body; D, a fat old belly. I looked in the window glass on the ground. It was stained but reflected enough for me to see myself. Old was not right for me. Not yet.
The fag was also easier to understand. It was because of the bonsai tree.
The tradition is well known but little is known about it. The bonsais are from the government, a magnanimous eccentric, the state police. Your neighbors. Does it matter? Whoever it is or is not, a bonsai tree arrives on your doorstep when you fall in love. What about crushes, romantic flings? One of the men shrugs. It’s a grey area. The pot it’s in is usually really very nice and has a ribbon with it and all. Bonsais are funny things. You have to take care of them, y’know? They die fast. They look like big trees but they’re really very small. This big, a man said and made a shapeless space between his hands.
That is from the conversation I had at my first town function, the private high school fundraiser I had been invited to only three days after my arrival. I had asked if there was anything I should know about the town. Bonsais given to those who fall in love. Fall in love. Who can know that? The government, a magnanimous eccentric…. However they know, they know and they act. A finger was pointed for emphasis. Wrinkly Ms. Nilsson down the road with the gap-toothed grin and the face like a geological formation spends all day clipping and trimming and pruning her little trees. She has at least a dozen, you know. I assume the well-built youngish man who lives across the street from me has a whole collection of his own, but Tom or Tim Duffy shook his head. No, Jack’s a bachelor. The others nodded in agreement. An eligible one at that! Laughter, someone pours more yellow wine into our plastic cups.
A toad-colored van with tinted windows delivers the bonsais and retrieves the dead, the ones that people leave out to die when they no longer want them. The men who drive the van wear masks but they are men. They work for the government. Or your neighbors. They laugh. More wine. They are men, another man echoes. Are you positive? Yes. Positive. It’s the way they walk. They walk like men. What about their affiliation? Who’s doing this? They talk like men. You’ve heard them? Once or twice I reckon. I sipped my cup slowly. The taste of the wine was yellow. I laughed and the other men looked at me.
“So, what sort of hustle were you up to in the biiiiig city?” Tom or Tim asked.
“I wrote.” The bumpkins talk faster than they think.
“What sorts of things you write?” A thin-snouted man asked.
“Mostly fiction,” I said. Some of the yellow-tasting wine was getting to my cheeks and reddening them. “They want me to write my memoirs, but I – ”
“Memoirs? Like a biography?”
I nodded and sipped more wine.
“Yow, what about? You must’ve done something really special for them to want you to write about it.”
“Modesty’ll get you nowhere!” said a man who might have also been named Tom.
“Come on now, tell us!”
“Tell us, won’t you?”
I realized where this was going and thought I could just say it and –
“They want me to write about the death of my partner.”
Partner. The conversation was immediately prodded into a new area – what are you doing for the Fourth of July? Juuuuly, more accurately. The Juuuuly city. Their mouths were big and the words crashed out of them, passengers sucked from a mid-flight airplane with an open door. The door never closes. I backed away from the group of men. I wasn’t one of them. The school gymnasium, crammed with chairs and palaver and bodies, was large and well-funded. They didn’t need my money and they didn’t need my conversation. I felt embarrassed that I even had a dead partner to write about. Old people have the dead. Young people have lovers left alive. Middle-aged people have families. Gay people have partners.
I slinked towards the entrance under the basketball hoop when I heard the school choir start singing. I have not been on my own in a while, made my own decisions for a while. Elliott hates, hated singing. There must be a person in here, the singing boys straining him out from me like an unused muscle. I stopped and turned. At the head of the choir was this boy, a tall boy, the oldest one it seemed. He had hair that puddled like melted butterscotch into the sightly pools of his temples and the slight muscular build of a cross-country runner. He sang loudly, clearly in front of all the other boys. Once, Elliot had been designing a new church for a town outside of the city and he took me along to see the old church, the one that would be demolished for a new community center. I wanted to write about churches briefly for a project that never materialized. They had boys singing there, too, in one voice and I read their faces as Elliot explained all the parts of the church to me in his own voice. They were beautiful boys. Elliot always explained what he was doing when he took me to a job. Elliot cared, and he showed he cared by explaining. Song and explanation mixed. Our Lord was going to build a vestibule just like this one but it would be larger than a simple gift. I cannot remember the children’s voices or Elliot’s in full. The words, however, remain.
“Wonderful, aren’t they?” An older woman in a viridian gown interrupted me from my thoughts.
“He sure is.” She must have followed my eyes because she drew in closer.
“Mathew. That’s the name of the senior boy, the president of the boys’ choir. He sings at church with my husband. He’s very good.” She was the sort of older woman who may have, in my younger days, made me question my choice of partner. I nodded.
“You’re that new man, the fellow from New York. Mr. Wallace, no?”
“Yes, that is I. And please, call me – ”
“My name is Mrs. Ivers. My husband is the reverend.” She pointed a skeletal finger to the stage where a figure closely presided over the choir. I could not quite make him out. “It’s his birthday next Sunday – 82 – why don’t you stop by for a beer? He loves meeting new people. And….” She leaned in even closer.
“Hunting.” She stepped away from me again, touching my shoulder with one of those fingers. “If you want to get him a little something.”
She walked off with a wave leaving me to stand alone at edge of the crowded room with red warmth – lipstick, embarrassment, the yellow wine – on my face.
* * *
I rode the only bus in town to the sporting goods store on the east side of town and went to the hunting section. There was a sign hanging above the aisle that had a young man pointing at unseen prey with a young boy, who I assume was his son, next to him. The man and his boy were both blonde. I bought night vision goggles with a grey camouflage nylon case.
“‘Tis the season, eh?” the young man at the register piped as he rang up my gift. I cannot banter.
“Is camouflage not supposed to be green?”
The young man’s face darkened a shade.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Is it that obvious?” I tried a laugh but it died in my throat. The young man did not laugh. Young bumpkins. They’re better but not great.
“This camo ain’t for trees.”
Silfverburg rests on a steppe near a sheer cliff. According to fossil records the Assiniboine would chase bison over the edge of the cliff by corralling them into lanes that sloped down towards the edge with increasing verticality. (You can still see the stone markers the Assiniboine used to mark these lanes. They are surprising thumbs gesturing upwards.) By the time the bison recognized that the landscape suddenly fell at this divide they had gained too much momentum to stop. It was at the base of this cliff that the Reverend hunted amid the boulders and skeletons of the plain. Mostly jackrabbits and water fowl, always for sport. I learned that all later from a book called the Complete Histories of Silfverburg. Should there not be only one history? Do I not deserve my own history, then? This young man – what is his history – could a shoplifter take it from him – does he keep it in the register next to the dollar coins? The young man at the counter threw my items, hard, into a plastic bag and left it on the belt to help the next customer without saying “good day.”
On Monday, I rang the doorbell of the Ivers household. Dull lavender exterior and a porch with a wicker chair that looked shoddy enough to be homemade. Sitting in the shoddy chair there was a bonsai tree that looked too big for its pot. Mrs. Ivers answered the door with red eyes and a bouquet of tissues and my gift was wrapped a sky blue.
The Reverend’s funeral was held four days later, five days after his birthday, a sunny beautiful day, in the church he once presided over. Mathew, the handsome older boy who had led the school choir at the fundraiser, stood at the front of the chapel choir. Since Elliott, I had felt lonely, but I knew that Mathew was not the answer. He was a child. I was a man. He was a child. I thought about the last choir I had heard singing in a church, how Elliott was there. How he spoke, how the children sang. Our Lord builds a vestibule as a simple gift. The voices thumped in my chest.
I made eye contact with Ms. Ivers, who stood near the boys. When she met my eyes, she frowned through her tears. Floral banners wilted over the congregation, an arrangement of well-manicured bonsais walled off the pulpit that the widow approached to read a speech from a moist clutch of notes.
“He used to read the obituaries in the morning with a glass of orange juice. He always read the obituaries first. And every time he finished he would look up at me and say, with a bit of that wink you all know, ‘Guess I get another day.’ And then he’d kiss me here.” She tapped the space between her eyebrows. The space seemed to push back against her finger.
“I would like to close with the verse that adorned our bedroom wall for nearly fifty-two years. A good name is better than any precious ointment, and the day of death than any day of birth.Amen.”
“Amen,” said everyone else. The verse sounded false to me for some reason I could not place.
I approached the casket slowly. It was difficult to ascertain the respectful speed. Too fast and I was perverse but too slow and I was bored. Or very truly sad. I did not know him well enough to be very truly sad so I went somewhat fast. I tried to think if I had ever been to an open casket ceremony but when I saw the Reverend I knew I had not. I would have remembered the sight. His knuckles were dusted with a fine slate frost, it seemed, closed around the chain of a necklace with a studded golden cross at its end. The vestments encroached his neck, which bulged suspiciously, and the lids of his eyes look thin like an eggshell under the light. Small purple rings marked the area beneath his jaw line and – aside from it all – a feverish sore rash of blisters under his lower lip were masked with shade and the same frost on his hands. Newspaper headlines from this country and others pushed their ways into my sight. Could the Reverend have been..? What did he die from again? I was prodded along before I could get a closer look, but what lingered with me most as I hurried away were his closed eyes that seemed to be looking still.
Ms. Ivers was out in the vestibule as I exited the nave. She seemed more controlled now and she was writing something to someone on her phone. “Thank you so much for coming. I know you two would’ve have gotten along so well.” She shook my hand. It hurt. I wondered if she knew what the rash of blisters was about, if the purple rings overshadowed her wedding ring, the one that touched the place where mine had been just a few months earlier when she shook my hand. I hoped she would take hers off soon. I wished her well and left.
When I arrived at the house, on the porch, a bonsai tree wrapped tightly in a blush of lilac ribbon.
* * *
“What do you want me to do with the broken glass, Mr. Wallace?”
Isaac’s call fished me out of my thoughts on the funeral, the Reverend’s suspect physiognomy, his widow’s suspect behavior. You just want to ruin all things and he used to tell you that so you know it is true, I told myself. You have gotten so cynical of late. But I deserve it, I told myself back. And besides it is this country air! Even the air is boring in the country.
“Mr. Wallace, the glass is really very broken.”
“Throw it out.” This was all the bonsai people’s fault. Was it Ms. Ivers? Was it just gossip?
“That’s a shame, it really is so pretty.” Isaac is a sweet boy. I don’t love Mathew. I don’t know him. I never said anything about it to anyone.
I eased back into the lawn chair, the notebook for my memoirs pressed between my thighs. It was a pleasant enough day – warm sun and a valley chill – save for the glances I had received from the neighbors while Isaac mowed my lawn in high-waisted shorts. A mother with a baby-clad stroller and a young daughter beside her had hurried along. She kept her daughter’s head close to her dress as her legs took their short fast steps. Jack, the bachelor, had taken the longest glance, eyeing me and the plant like it was a menace. He had pretended he was waiting for the light at the corner, stretching his legs and neck and always finding a way to turn back towards me, but there had been no cars coming or going. When he was done with his look, he kept jogging. Word travels fast in a small town especially one where there is little else to talk about. No matter. I would call the people – the masked men in the van, the government, someone – and they would figure out who the bonsai was meant for. It could not be meant for me. Elliot was for me. Had been for me and always would be for me. The glances were not mine either. They were for someone else like the bonsai. To keep gossip at a minimum, I sent Isaac to work inside. Isaac was a fine boy. He had been doing chores – putting the garbage on the curb, shopping, writing letters, clearing window glass– for me since I moved in. All it took were a few flyers around the neighborhood and the cheery scamp was at my door. In his first week I asked him to write a letter to my publicist and when we got to the end he asked me what he should sign it with.
“My name, of course.” I thought then maybe I had picked the wrong boy for the job.
“No, Mr. Wallace, what should I sign: From, Best Wishes, Love.” He looked at me with placid eyes.
“‘Always.’ Write ‘Always.’ That way they know I am always there for them.” I winced at my tone which was demeaning and crude. He did not seem to mind. He happily finished the letter, folded it into the envelope, and sealed it. “Did your father and mother not teach you any sort of decorum?” I meant it to be a joke but his eyes swelled at the question.
“I don’t have a dad. Just Mom.”
I did not have a word I could say. As he affixed the Rothko stamp to the envelope I pet his shoulder lightly. Look at me when I pet you. I am trying. Look. But he did not look, and the distant eyes could have been placid or something else entirely.
I peeked back to the window.
Isaac had stacked the books resting around the window seat on top of the sill so that I could have some privacy. The book-window was several volumes high and smartly constructed, with the heaviest tomes at the base. It was built to last. I guess that was one benefit about Silfverburg. It never seemed to rain. I could have my library and my window, one and the same. I could not see the boy so I got up to inspect leaving the bonsai in the shady care of the lawn chair. Taking a copy of the Nabokov short story collection – a favorite book, with “The Vane Sisters” heavily annotated and scoured – off the top, I peered into the house. Isaac was on the floor reading quietly. I smiled.
“What are you reading?” The book was unmarked and new, shiny and thin. Clearly not from my collection. The white rash of a hastily removed price tag on its back.
“Twelfth Night. Summer reading.” He did not look up.
“You know you should look at your – ” I paused. Be kind, Elliot would say. “You should look at some of his other plays, his tragedies. They are quite good.”
“I heard that we read a lot of Shakespeare next year so that’ll be something.”
“Hey, Mr. Wallace,” Isaac said, tilting his head up. “What does this bit have to do with anything?”
VIOLA: What country, friends, is this?
Captain: This is Illyria, lady.
“If it’s a made-up place, why do we need to know what it’s called?”
“Back when this was performed – ”
“1600s. Early 1600s. Back when this was performed, at this famous theatre called the Globe, the poorer people did not have very comfortable seating. And they were not well-fed or well-cared for, not like such people today. So, when the actors said these lines, these poorer people could forget that they were in England and imagine that they were in Illyria.” I remembered saying something along these lines many years ago, but not to whom I said it.
“Oh….” He looked down at the text.
“It just doesn’t seem like it’d be so easy to forget what a mess they were in,” he said. “If they really were so sad.”
“They were not sad.”
“That is why people love theatre. You can never be sad when you are at the theatre. Have you ever seen a play performed? Outside of school plays, I mean.” The boy shook his head. “Perhaps, sometime, we could go. We can have dinner and a show.” I was grateful that to a viewer on the street it would be impossible to tell that I was talking to a young boy inside my house.
Isaac smiled and nodded slightly, and a grey pause hung over the air. I checked my watch.
“The work day is over, young man.” I fished a crumpled five dollars out from my breast pocket and handed it to him through the missing book-windowpane. Isaac took it and uncreased it, then creased it again and put it in his pants pocket. I wondered if he was trying to read the little words written on the bill, like I used to. I could imagine.
“Now, get out of there.” And I smiled as hard as I could, lifting my eyes and ears with my mouth so that the boy could understand, in a simple way, that I truly did care for him.
* * *
Isaac did not show up for work on Monday.
* * *
I decided to take the bus to Isaac’s house on the east side, near the cliff, to see if he was okay. Perhaps he had gotten sick. I could imagine that a single mother would go to great pains to make sure her child was well before he worked.
I cradled a brown tote containing the short story collection with “The Vane Sisters” enclosed and a jar of strawberry preserve I had purchased from the organic grocer. Isaac was probably used to Smucker’s. He will love the preserve, and the book. It will help him feel better, I thought. The bus was empty save for me and a few older women. They cooed and clucked together in the zig-zag alcoves between seating areas. One of them sat on a big white pillow. When she saw me looking at it I turned away but she turned too and whispered loudly, “For lumbar support,” then swiveled back to her friends. I suspected that she was just saying that she would not bring up my supposed indiscretions against decency. Outside, we passed a sign that gestured towards the cliff, but from the bus there was not anything worth seeing. All you could see was the rocky edge. You had to take the sign’s word that that is where the world suddenly dropped off. A mother handed her camera to a bearded stranger so that he could take a photograph of her family. I touched my own beard and bristled.
As we passed the cemetery, I pulled on the yellow string to request a stop. A light gleamed red and I exited the bus away from the women. I had realized I never made it to the gravesite of the Reverend and thought it would be best to show my respects in a small way. The cemetery was a rambling bricolage of gravestones and obelisks and other stone markers. I hunted for the Reverend’s gravestone amid the mess and, as I stumbled through a corridor of poorly-chiseled monuments, I recognized that, unlike the cemeteries I was familiar with, there were no flowers at these graves. There were bonsais. Each gravesite had its own bonsai tree left by lovers of the buried, bursting from its pot and haggard and dead. There were some that were newer and in better form but those were few and far between. Most bonsais had been forgotten, left to melt into the earth in the shadow of an engraved name. I recognized then as well that I could find the Reverend’s gravestone by looking for the most vibrant bonsai tree. Surely it cannot have perished very much, I thought. Surely it is still alive. I found the Reverend’s gravestone this way, with its green potted tree. I rested a few moments – the walk had been longer and steeper than I had expected it would be – with my hand on against some unknown tomb and caught my breath then looked at the monument to the Reverend. It was an unremarkable stone pillar.
REVEREND GREGORY IVERS
APRIL the Second, 1934 – AUGUST the FOURTH, 2016
HE IS SURVIVED BY HIS LOVING WIFE
I read the words several times but they remained impenetrable. It was a wholly unremarkable stone pillar.
I exited the cemetery and walked the short way to Isaac’s house. I had been by there once before when Isaac had lingered around until after dark to help me with some cooking and I called him a taxi cab to take him home. I felt uncomfortable letting such a young child go home by himself with a strange man so I accompanied him. I remember avoiding the driver’s leer in the rearview mirror on the return trip. The façade was in fair condition and it was painted a pleasant enough hue of maroon. There was no bonsai on the raised porch only a seemly party of orchids. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I knocked. Finally, after several minutes the door opened.
Isaac blinked and his face faded of all colors. I opened my mouth to say something, but he fled up the stairs. Say something, I said to myself. I could hear a door open and close, some rattling some chatter. The late afternoon chill was brisk so I did the impolite thing and entered.
The interior of the house was as tastefully inoffensive as the exterior. Drab couches stitched to keep their insides from coughing, wheezing out, Victorian novels with clean spines balanced on armoires. China cups hanging along the stairway from little hooks. I did not know that people still did that. Hang things.
On a slight table in the foyer there was a knot of framed photographs in the shade of a lamp and a bonsai tree. There was a photograph with a single man in a white baseball cap leaning against a tree. I assumed that this was Isaac’s father, wherever he was now. I wondered if I had passed by him in the cemetery and not noticed. In another photograph, Isaac stood with the man I recognized as Reverend Ivers. It seemed to be from a few years ago. They were both smiling and the Reverend’s hand snaked around Isaac’s neck and gripped his shoulder tightly. Even in the photograph you could tell the Reverend’s grip was tight from the way Isaac’s shoulder twisted back into its socket and the shadows of his shirt bent around the man’s hand. The hand was not as grey as it was at his funeral. What killed the Reverend again? I could not think like that. Elliot used to tell me that I saw the worst in people. I moved on to the several other photographs there to peruse beneath the bonsai tree.
Isaac’s mother clambered down the stairs. I had only spoken to her on the phone but she sounded a reasonable and fair woman.
“What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to make sure that Isaac was okay. I brought him strawberry preserve and a book.” I held up my offering in the brown tote bag. His mother stared at me. I was not sure how to proceed. “You know, he did not arrive for work today. I thought he was sick, perhaps.”
“He was very close to the Reverend. I just told him yesterday about what happened.”
“Oh…when can I expect him back?” I knew the answer.
“He won’t be coming to you for work anymore.” She said her “more” like it ended in an “rr”.
I felt a red heat in my throat. I wanted to shout to argue, to defend myself.
“Why not?” I croaked. Stupid.
“It’s best for a boy of his age not to be seen with people like you.”
“People like you, yeah. Honestly, Mr. Wallace, I had my doubts about an old city queer, but now with the tree and everything – well if you’re prowling, Mr. Wallace, I don’t want Isaac around.”
“I – ”
“Please leave our home.”
I was pushed unceremoniously outside, the door shutting behind me. I could not find any words. I walked to the bus stop and sat down on the bench with the brown tote in my lap. I looked at the crimson preserve. It looked like the inside of a body made to be on the outside. I had seen that once. My face tightened and my eyes turned red. I wished it would rain but the sky remained dry and blue-white.
* * *
The second stone was a softer one.
I heard it from upstairs. I had gotten in bed with the bonsai tree after giving up on the memoirs. Let me write a novel, words without history. The notebook closed on my desk next to an answering machine filled with messages from my agent. I had nothing to write about, no book I wanted to read, nothing to sit with in my bed but this filthy little imposter tree that was not even supposed to be there. And if it was for me? If my looks at the choir boys had sparked the chain reaction among the someones who operated this artless business? I cursed Silfverburg and the bonsai and the Reverend for having a service with choir boys, too, but held on tightly to the pot that surely, someday soon, would begin to crack. And that is when I heard the second stone.
It was a driveway stone and it had tumbled through the window of books causing them to scatter on the floor of the dining room. Around the stone was a little note tied by string. I knew the deficient penmanship well.
Dear Mr. Wallace,
I saw today that the subtilte of Twelth Night is What You Will. I guess the poor people could do that and be happy so you are right.
Feeling a smile wrinkle across my face, I read the words again with a hand over my mouth. Of course, there was nothing to hold in, except maybe that unused muscle, a burp of impolite feeling, but I kept the hand there as I read again, again, and once more. Remnants of the old glass that Isaac missed caught my eye amid the dust, sparkled in the grey like accidental stars. Embracing the bonsai, I knew what I had to do with it. Let the world be as I make it, let me write it away and bury it…one step, down, and down into the basement, thick-aired and unattended since my arrival. Leaking hot gas in the corner, the incoherent water heater babbled, barely sane on function. I set the bonsai on the worktable in the center of the room, found a pen, and wrote FOR ELLIOT – as I can do on anything, now, as Nabokov, Shakespeare, and Isaac designed for me – on the pot of the bonsai tree. On that table in the rank, mad basement, I left the silly little tree to grow too large, to rot and decompose, to fall away in the muttering heat. There, waiting, for the dead.