Thursday, July 2, 2009


Some months ago I took a driving trip to Central Illinois to visit my only living relative, an elderly aunt. I had telephoned a week in advance to identify myself, as we had not made contact for forty or more years. Aunt Bobbie warned me she looked older, and I said who did not look older. She laughed and told me to come along.

We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon in her overheated studio apartment reminiscing about the past. We talked about Uncle Earl, her husband who had died of cancer before extracting a promise from her that he would be cremated and have his ashes tossed into the Illinois River because he didn’t want any trace left for moaning and groaning over. We talked about my father, who had had a coronary at age fifty while preparing a breakfast of biscuits and gravy for his then-current lady friend.

Aunt Bobbie was pleased that I had, as she put it, become a “good” adult and stayed out of prison, which made me wonder what kind of youth I had been when she last knew me. I proposed taking her to a fine restaurant for dinner, but she declined, saying she didn’t go out much because of her wrinkles. Instead she served me a slice of freshly baked apple pie covered with Cool Whip, and insisted I eat a second slice. When she started to yawn I said it was time for me to go. We said we would meet again the next year, a pledge I didn’t keep because eight months later Aunt Bobbie died alone in her apartment.

One more excursion on that journey into the past was a visit to my father's grave. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing because my father and I had never been close, and when he died I was halfway around the world, unable to get home for the funeral. Besides, to me death is not a tragedy but a natural process, nothing to be taken seriously. Furthermore, I am perplexed by the solemn attitude of most people to death and to the dead.

But I had promised Aunt Bobbie I would go to the cemetery, so I went.

The day was gray, and a cold rain was falling on Lakeside Cemetery. At the north end of the property was the Abel Vault Monument Shoppe, main office of the burial grounds. That name is blurred in my notes. Could it have been The Able Shoppe Monument Vault? No, that sounds like some sort of Olympic competition held in an English tea room.

The surroundings could have been brought over from Salisbury Plain. Large blocks of stone were arranged in rings and rows, and the grass was close-cropped, re-creating a perfect setting for the enactment of a pagan rite. A series of marble blocks—slick in the rain—formed a corridor that led to the shoppe's entrance. When I pushed against the door the hinges gave out a shriek like that which might burst from the throat of a person whose fingernails were being torn off.

Inside, a crowded showroom displayed open caskets, their satin interiors looking snugly inviting. There were also granite angels, carved prayer books, and rocks of ages, all aimed at lending death a sense of immortality.

A gaunt woman with blue hair and rhinestone eyeglasses greeted me.

"And how can I help you?" she asked, nasally.

"I'm looking for a certain grave," I said, uncertainly.


"Mine or his?"

"The deceased."


"Catholic?" She inhaled the word, as if were distasteful.

"What? No, Mason."

"Mason McDowell?"

My forehead felt damp.

"No Jack. Maybe John. He was a Mason, I think."

"We won’t worry about that,” she said consolingly. “Date?"

"He died some time in the late fifties or early sixties. I'm not sure."

"No problem," she said, patting my shoulder familiarly. "If we got Jack here, we'll find Jack here."

Her self-assurance was encouraging.

She scurried into an anteroom and came back lugging a thick binder that looked like the sort of record book Saint Peter might use at the Pearly Gates.

"McDowell . . . . McDowell . . . ," she muttered, running a fingernail down column after column of handwritten entries. There were many pages for 1959. Apparently that had been a good year for Lakeside.

"No McDowell in fifty nine. Let's try sixty."

She flipped pages. I tried to read the inverted entries, but the effort made my eyes ache.

"McDowell . . . McDowell . . . Jack . . . John . . . ," she droned.

Her tone was soothing. I closed my eyes.

"There he is," she said in a loud voice that made me jump.

She slammed the binder shut.

"Where is he?" I asked.

"For that we go to the cards," she said, and disappeared into the anteroom.

The cards? I wondered if she was going to cast a Tarot. I thought Tarot told the future, not the past.

She reappeared with a dog-eared stack of 4 by 5 file cards. As she sorted through the deck, looking as if she were laying out a chummy hand of solitaire, I studied a placard at the end of the counter.

Shepherd Hooks--Single $10, Double $14

Candles $30 and $40 per dozen

Eternal Lights $65

I wondered what Lakeside patrons (Or were they called clients?) did with Shepherd Hooks, what the difference was between the budget candles and the more costly ones, and how long Eternal Lights lasted.

"Got him!" she said, triumphantly.

She showed me a card. At the top, scrawled in red ink, was the name “Jack McDowell.” Below were more scribbles noting he had died on September 6, 1960, and was buried on September 7.

"That's probably him," I said.

"No probably about it,” she snapped. “His name is Jack McDowell, that sure is him,"

"Well, where is he now?" I asked. "I mean, where is he around here."

"I'll get a map," she said.

She produced a photocopy of the cemetery grounds. It had a brown halo on it, which I guessed came from the bottom of a coffee cup.

"I haven't been out to walk the rows in a couple of years," she said.

I nodded.

"It's my leg, you know."

I tried to look sympathetic.

"But this place is pretty easy to find your way around in."

"I . . . ," I began.

"Not like that Catholic cemetery." She sniffed.

"I was going to say I haven’t had much experience navigating in graveyards. I'm easily lost."

"No problem," she said.

She traced the route with the same fingernail she had used on the binder pages. It was thick and square on the end.

"Go to the mausoleum and hang a right. Go two sections to The Last Supper and hang a left. Jack will be waiting on the northeast corner. Section Eleven."

Section Eleven, I thought that signified bankruptcy. Or was it a dishonorable discharge? And after 33 years my father would be waiting on the corner? I was not sure I liked the sound of that.

"You want some landmarks to nail him down?"

"Anything," I said.

She consulted the cards.

"On the same corner we have Hogan, Long, Vaughn, and Taylor. Marvin Taylor will be right next to Jack McDowell."

I jotted notes on the map.

"Sounds crowded," I said.

"Oh, they'll all be there," she said.

I pictured a jolly group, singing college songs and clinking beer mugs.

"Okay," I said. I picked up the map.

"Remember The Last Supper."

"I will."

She touched the end of her nose with a lacy handkerchief.

"And if there's anything else I can do for you, be sure to come back."

I said I would and thanked her for her help. I liked the woman. She seemed to have a sensible outlook on death.

"Any time," she said.

"Good luck with your leg," I said.

The door screamed when I left.

I found The Last Supper.

I found Hogan. At least I found Hogan's marker. It was where it was supposed to be. And I found Long's marker and Vaughn's marker.

I did not find Marvin Taylor, nor did I find Jack McDowell. Neither one was where it, or he, was supposed to be.

I thought of returning to the office, but decided against it. It seemed a futile gesture. Even in life my father had never stayed long in one place.

I stood on the corner of Section Eleven for a long time, staring through the rain at where Dad should have been and wondering how I should feel. I waited for some emotion to overwhelm me but I felt no different than I would have felt looking at a tree stump in a forest. This was 1993. There was nothing above ground—here or anywhere else—to indicate Dad had ever existed. Even if there remained some trace of him underground, my father was no more "there" than he had been when he was shoveled under on that day in 1960.

However, in the center of Section Ten was a colossal monument bearing the name, "Jack Ripper." For a wild moment I wondered if what ever was left of my father was under that stone, and if it had been his final laugh at a world he considered mad from the start.