You undressed me slowly. I felt your hands fumble at the zipper on my dress. When I was a child, I always looked forward to Memorial Day. It meant the last day of school. And it meant that Monday, the holiday, things would feel different. Mom would let us skip church on Sunday, but we’d always go Memorial Day. The sky would feel like summer, for it was always warm that day. We’d get dressed up, sit through a church service that felt more reverent and more spirited at the same time, and then go out to the cemetery.
My mom and aunts would always cry at their dad’s grave. They set flowers near the stone, where my grandma’s name was etched though she was alive and well, and they drove back to collect them later. We’d leave quarters for one of our favorite old men, who had always reached into his pockets to give us change when he was alive. The quarters were still there long after we’d placed them on granite. We’d always check. And after the guns were fired, solemn and thrilling at the same time, we’d chase the bullets out into the field and run back with empty shells as our warm, smoky treasure. A man with a trumpet would play “Taps” and the sound would echo for miles through the quiet.
Later that day, we’d go to Grandma’s for lunch and my aunts would oil up with suntan lotion and smoke cigarettes as they laid on the deck. My cousins and I would play Annie-I-Over until our feet were black and suck down cold grape sodas from the spare room fridge. I could hear our laughter rumbling through town, bouncing off the buildings.
It was always sunny on Memorial Day.
I looked into your eyes that night and they were wide, full of wonder, glazed over with sheer pleasure. I could read the rhythms of your brain; I always could. You were still for a moment, silent as a field at night. And I waited there for a minute, though my limbs were all around you. You looked at me and in your eyes was everything I wanted to see in the flicker of a moment. It was all there before it was erased in a cruel, short blink.
I used to mow cemeteries in the summer. It was my favorite job because the hum of the push mower and the smell of freshly cut grass lulled me, slowed down my tick-tock brain. I loved the work, maneuvering my mower between ages-old gravestones and memorizing their names, doing the math between birth and death.
I never felt sad or afraid there, but instead comforted by the spirits of those who had chosen this country cemetery for their long, slow sleep. Some had been there a hundred years and there were stories about them, stories my dad told me when I’d finished my part and we waited on the trailer for my brother to finish his section. And I would wonder, don’t the dead wish we’d be quiet? Is our incessant chatter keeping them awake, the whirr of my mower and the vibration of tires disturbing their rest? Do they talk to each other while the rest of us are sleeping? I don’t believe in Heaven, but I do believe in the companionship of spirits. There’s no way the particles of life can settle down that suddenly; they have to make their presence known in some way, though North Dakota weather was much too temperamental for me to ever leave a token to serve as a sign.
On Memorial Day, families would leave tributes of plasticine flowers and pesky little flapping flags on the graves, and it was up to us to clean them off. We’d never throw these memorials away, but instead gather them and leave them on the church step to be collected later. Throwing them away was bad luck. I always felt sorry for the empty graves, and whispered a little prayer as I passed them on my roundabout trip. I felt sad for those who had been parted too early. The groom or the bride had died years before, who really knew how or why, and still they rested together even though mountains of time had passed. I whispered to them too and hoped they were happy.
I saw that look in your eyes, the look I had seen a thousand times, every night in your bed and in mine and in a million other places all around the city and our lives, I saw it. And then I saw it leave. It flitted away to join all the other spirits, haunting the fields and the city and the corners of my room.