Robert J. Howe has sailed three of the seven seas and now lives in Brooklyn, where nothing ever happens.
He stands on a January hilltop in Green-Wood Cemetery, chilled in a navy peacoat, and tries not to think too hard. She told him to meet her at the Marcoux family mausoleum, after 3 a.m. He waits motionless in the frigid night, with a long patience cultivated in Rockaway lifeguard chairs.
Back to "Table of Contents"
she has been dancing forever
by Robert J. Howe
Emil Marcoux, the family patriarch interred within, had been mauled to death by a circus lion in Bernardsville, New Jersey, in 1927. Witnesses told the Somerset County Bugle that the lion had bounded up nine rows from the ring, directly at Marcoux Père, who shouted “Karl Friedrich May!” at the moment of his death. Rather more recently, someone painted, “Visit Mordor before Mordor visits you,” in heavy black Gothic letters on the mausoleum’s chalky side.
The mausoleum stands at the high point of a frozen wave of glacial moraine, from which one can see a good part of Brooklyn, the harbor, and most of the cemetery. A setting moon glitters through the icy limbs of trees that have been nurtured with corpse meat for 175 years. The gothic entrance gate is infested with tropical parrots that escaped from Kennedy Airport in the 1970s. The security guards are armed: no one will explain why. The Met’s priceless Duccio--the size of a sheet of copy paper--is guarded by college students in polyester blazers.
The American religion isn’t Protestantism, she thinks, but black-and-white-ism. Good guy, bad guy. Happy, sad. Right, wrong. It’s the worst of the bullshit, like being a five year old forever.
In Russia, everybody has angle. It’s expected. When the police here arrest her father and Yevgeny for swapping out stolen cell phones with counterfeit sim cards, the cops act like they are disappointed, shaking their heads and frowning. She wants to yell at them. Oh please, she wants to say, go beg your fat wives for the sex.
She doesn’t tell him about her family. At least not this. She likes him because he’s tall and he smells good. She likes him because he knows how to be sad, and he doesn’t get mean when he drinks. She wants him to be smart, too.
Concealed in the inky pool of shadow cast by the tomb, he is self conscious as a spy. Twice a security Jeep had cruised by on the nearby path, making his heart race. He is accepted to the academy for the March class, and a trespassing arrest would delay his entry, if not disqualify him altogether. Though she wouldn’t mind that. She had been scornful of his career plans since day one.
The mystery of this date--you should see something, her vagueness about the time they would meet--was all of a piece with her dramatic nature. His older brother, already on "the job" for six years, was definite about her charms. Stay away from her. She’s got a head full of fucking scorpions, that one.
Green-Wood’s "Saved in Time" program raises money to restore and preserve the cemetery’s 167,251 monuments from the ravages of time and weather. The exception is angel statuary, which is by written policy exempt from preservation, and cleaned only by the Brooklyn rains. Preservationists and groundskeepers are instructed to leave detached statue limbs where they lay.
Her given name is Valentina, you know, like the cosmonaut, but she is Zimm--pronounced zeem--to everyone. He assumes it’s a pet name of some kind. His brother kids him that she's named after a fortified wine. She started as his chemistry lab partner and set the hook early, with short skirts, long legs, and camisole tops. She is as tall as him, and in heels, taller. He thinks there was never a time she wasn’t looking down at him.
His every chivalrous move, at the lab bench or otherwise, was met with scorn.
You don’t pay for me! This in a Burger King, everyone staring at them. I’m not child, I’m not your dependent!
Jesus, it’s just French fries.
No, it’s principle. You don’t get used to thinking that!
On the way out a paunchy, middle-aged man in black and red Ducati leathers grins at him and winks. You got her right where you want her, brother.
He has come to realize that she likes him best when he treats her as one of the guys, in his working-class understanding of the sexes. She can compromise without sulking, and say no without rancor. She is eager to learn, and withering in her contempt for the "bullshit," a label she applies to uninformed opinion of all stripes.
The cemetery rents out its chapel, and some people actually get married within. The iron rule is that all the guests must be off the grounds by sundown. In 1998, two members of a wedding party slipped away from the ceremony. A photographer in another part of the cemetery captured a charming picture of them walking hand-in-hand, casting long shadows across a green lawn. The bridesmaid was found by police seminude and hysterical, walking down Fifth Avenue at 3:30 in the morning. Her torn slip was muddy and a patch of hair had been ripped from her scalp. A month later she was released from the locked ward at Methodist Hospital to a long-term psychiatric facility in Michigan without ever having told anyone what happened.
His father died on "the job" in the front seat of a blue and white sector car idling outside the Lincoln Savings Bank. The department surgeon ruled the heart attack service connected. The death benefit was small, but they have a little money anyway, since his father isn’t around to spend it on highballs, ponies and Emerald Society bashes.
The only picture he has of his mother is in her wedding dress, standing next to his father in an old-fashioned uniform coat with brass buttons. He looks like a New Yorker illustration; she looks like a clever teenager. His brother blames the heart attack on his mother and her black depressions. His mother blames no one.
His mother was a quiet presence before his father died. Afterward, it’s as if she’s taken a vow of silence.
His mother is not one of the guys.
The air is dense and cold and perfectly still: necropolis weather. A loud tick--a wooden clockwork sound--makes him start. It’s the sound that old elm trees make as their hearts freeze shut. He waits, and resists checking the time on his phone, for fear one of the guards will catch a glimpse of light.
He thinks she likes being with him, if only because she only ever does exactly what she wants to do. He is confused and hurt by her lack of romantic interest, but he won’t date anyone else. He believes he has a shot. And so he finds himself next to a frozen tomb at four in the morning.
Every so often a gust of wind rattles branches against the side of the crypt. It is a world of ice, rimed stone, and deep shadow. Many of the tombs have windows and doors are glazed with old-fashion Fourcault panes that barely reflect any light.
It's a lie you know, all those books you read.
They are in the library, whispering across a dark wood table.
You know, the way they talk.
She doesn’t look at him.
No one is clever like that when they killing. People, they scared or angry. Both. You can't be fake tough guy bullshit. To kill, you know, it makes a person dumb.
He shakes his head. Every conversation with you is like a séance.
Then she looks at him.
He is a history major. It suits his taste for literature and his unconscious belief in institutions. He believes the battle of Midway may have been the nation’s finest hour. She prefers movies, especially Hitchcock and Coppola, both of whom he tells her are morally claustrophobic. He thinks he’s won the argument.
She arrives on the hilltop from an unexpected direction, her work boots crunching through the sugar crust of virgin snow. Her breath smokes from the exertion. She’s wearing a leopard print skirt over red tights, and a rabbit fur jacket with a hood. Her mittens have Hello Kitty faces on them. She offers her cheek, which is as warm against his lips. He can smell her perfume.
She takes out her phone and checks the time.
Are we waiting for something?
You are not happy to see me?
I am. I just don't want to get arrested for trespassing.
Believe me, the security won't be coming no more.
She looks at him, level eyed, deciding how much to tell. She believes he has potential, though maybe not as a mate. She will probably marry some fat Crimean gangster a generation older than she, when the time comes.
The cemetery owns four Cat 450F backhoes, painted lime green and fastidiously maintained. They are just for show. Excavating and filling graves is still done by three-man teams with shovels, hired per-diem from an agency that specializes in employment rehabilitation for ex-convicts. The agency keeps track of their hours, social security taxes, and little else.
He often dreams about Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. He doesn't tell anyone, not his brother, not her, and definitely not the tired-looking woman who does his psych evaluation for the police department (he doesn't know that she writes acceptably adjusted to service and thinks no more screwed up than most).
He wakes afraid, with images of shivering men staggering through waist-deep snow, head, hands and feet wrapped in jewel-colored rags ripped from the curtains of one of the Czar's country houses. He is disoriented for tens of minutes after these dreams, making him late for class, and blanketing the day with a lingering shadow. He thinks that the strangest part of this is that he is almost entirely ignorant of the Napoleonic wars.
The cold is starting to penetrate through to his skin. He asks. What are we waiting for?
Nothing. If you wait, you will always be disappointed. Just to be here is good.
He believes it is some kind of test. He often believes he is being tested by her.
She doesn't believe in tests: certainly not the kind he hopes he is passing. She believes people are what they are: they may change, but there is no instant of validation.
You know I was in hospital, right, in summer?
He is attentive, keen to be let in. Yes. For a test.
It wasn't test. I was drunk too much. I black out, and I wake up in hospital.
She doesn't tell him this happens a couple of times a year, or that she has no health insurance.
Huh. What happened?
I tell you what happened. She says it matter-of-factly.
I mean were you okay? After the hospital.
Yes, hundred percent. You know why I tell you?
He shakes his head.
Because you don't know everything.
No one has ever been disinterred from Green-Wood. Its slumbering residents are packed together seven times more densely than the population of Manila. New employees report to the main entrance on their first day, at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street; employees who retire, resign, or more rarely, are fired, are escorted by security to the end of Vine Avenue, where they are shown through the Fort Hamilton Parkway gate, which is then locked behind them.
A gust of wind blows a spray of snow off the roof of the tomb. He is chilled through, and about to suggest going somewhere for coffee when she leans against him. She has taken his arm from time to time while they were walking together, but never kissed him nor held hands with him. Even if she is merely trying to keep warm, the contact delights him.
Sometimes when she's with him, she thinks of Max, the family's black and white terrier, looking at the other dog in the mirror with slow tail wags of mild curiosity.
A thought comes to him. Zimm, is someone from your family buried here?
She gives him a long look. No, all my family buried in Russia. Anyway, only rich people buried here.
This is the strangest fucking date I’ve ever been on.
She looks at him. Funny, you.
He doesn't know what the look means, but he knows what it doesn't mean.
They will not sleep together tonight--or what's left of the night. He will not feel her tiny nipples--he has seen her shirtless, shrugging out of wet clothes after a thunderstorm--against his body.
Her look doesn't forestall the possibility that they will sleep together some night, so he stands atop a frozen hill. He tortures himself with possibilities to keep warm.
This is how he's come to see their relationship. Essentially it's an endurance test.
This she has intuited. His desire to please her has come in handy tonight.
He was raised by the television, he likes to say. He was surprised the first time he walked into a bar and it was nothing like Cheers.
He got to know his father by watching cop shows, and from the cryptic hints his father would drop at the breakfast table.
You want to be the guy doing the chasing, not the guy who gets chased.
Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.
Remember, your partner wants to go home at the end of the day, too.
There were no shows about mothers who lay in darkened bedrooms all day.
Looking at all the dead-eyed monuments, he thinks someday he won’t have a mother anymore. He imagines all the sleeping corpses under his feet, and thinks his mother has been practicing for years.
The dense, frosty air on the hilltop has weight and shape. It isn’t like Moscow, but nothing here really is. How could you enjoy summer if it’s like spring all of the time?
She approves of his cloth peacoat. She won’t be seen with a guy who wears those ridiculous American down comforters. Maybe someday she will take him to Moscow. Depending upon how tonight goes. She thinks she is used to being disappointed by men, but she wants him to be different.
The sky in the east is becoming gray. He can no longer feel his feet, and he doesn’t want to try and sneak out in daylight. He is at the point of giving up, despite the feeling of her pressed against his side. But just as he is about to tell her, he feels her stiffen.
Don’t talk. She straightens and takes his hand. Don’t say one word from now.
Nothing happens for a long second, then he hears it.
At first he thinks it’s insects--locusts, improbably. But the noise continues to grow, like the sound of tires approaching slowly over a bed of gravel.
He thinks, then, that he sees a moving cloud, like a flock of starlings separating from the night sky. A part of him believes he is asleep, and that all he’s seeing is random photons firing behind his closed eyelids.
Her hand tightens on his.
His brain rejects what his eyes see. As the cloud draws closer and closer, he is forced to believe he is dreaming it. The alternative—a flight of graveyard angels—would rend the curtain.
The darkness descends again, as though he is looking at the night sky from the bottom of a deep well. There is a deafening clatter of marble wings. He imagines them wheeling over tombs and headstones, then dropping from the sky to perches of frozen stone.
He is silent. He has lost the power of speech. It takes an effort of will not to urinate in his pants.
Something settles atop a child-sized tomb not ten feet away from them. He only sees darkness, but he hears talons clicking against the miniature stone roof.
At this, he gasps quietly, despite her fierce pressure on his hand.
He hears the creak of stony muscles.
He stops breathing—dream paralyzed--his eyes locked on a point in the darkness just in front of him. The strain is unbearable.
All sound and motion stops.
It doesn’t feel like wakening when the eastern horizon is touched with fire. If anything, he has descended further down a stair.
A nightmare light washes over the predatory face. It is anything but angelic, with features blurred and eyes blank from a century of wind and weather.
He doesn’t feel his body. Her hand in his, an unexpected pleasure just a short while ago, might as well be wood. He can’t tell if his eyes are open or shut.
It is the cough of an engine starting that makes time flow again. Brightness and movement resolve into headlights sweeping over frozen grass—green in the cone of light, otherwise black. The security jeep straining up the hill seems like a forgotten childhood toy. His eyes resolutely avoid the stone figure perched atop a child’s grave.
As she leads him by the hand down the back side of the hill, he thinks that sooner or later, she will let go. He wonders what he will do then.