This story is by Jerome Koch and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Kneeling before the gray headstone I watch the cold drizzle flow down its face in long rivulets. I place a dozen red blood roses before my parents’ grave, and attempt to straighten the cemetery light. The votive candle inside had long ago gone out; all that remained was a hard puddle of wax. Holding my umbrella with my left hand, I get back to my feet. What am I doing here? I must look ridiculous. I wipe wet leaves from the knees of my expensive paint suit, and brush an unruly lock of hair from my brow. The headstone I now look at now was first laid over forty years ago. It is void of any sentiment or comfort.
A cold gust of wet wind sends shivers down my back. Oak leaves that still possess the warm glad colors of Indian Summer stick to my parents marker. I flew into town just this morning. I felt obligated to make this visit before flying out to Cape Hatteras and my retirement tomorrow morning. Call it obligation, if you will. I can assure you that when I made the decision, I felt nothing. But now, it’s different. The memories, and the pain they bring, come flooding back like a painful abscess.
My neighborhood was not more than four blocks south of here. The old timers once referred to it as Old Town. Neat brick row houses and small shops were packed tightly into perhaps five city blocks. Saint Stanislaus stood proudly on the east side, while the large brick works of Yeoman Tool and Machine flanked the west end. That was my universe for eighteen years. Old Town was the first to feel the wrecking ball. Saint Stanislaus was the last to be demolished. Today, all that remains is a large empty field where feral cats chase vermin in and around broken liquor bottles and refuse. Yeoman Tool and Machinery, once the life blood of Old Town, sits in broken pieces of masonry walls next to the rail yards.
Love is what changed my life. My parents, however, would have called it by its proper name: lust. But, for a year I thought I was in love. Dan Czonka, the son of a Hungarian widow, lived the next block over. We knew each since First Communion. Dan, a year older than me, worked for his mother and uncle, who ran a small bakery. In a way Dan was like my father; he was short, stocky, and well-muscled. The comparison ends here. Whereas my father was cold, taciturn, and humorless, Dan was witty, kind, and warm. They were both products of the Old Country. Both had a sense of duty to family and Church. Dan dutifully assisted Father Szott at week-end masses, and worked every night at the bakery. On Saturday mornings, we’d meet secretly in the alley behind his bakery, and he traded me a free koloch for a kiss. We thought we were in love. We even made plans to marry once I finished my studies. A month before I was to leave for college, I willingly gave myself to him under the canopy of a willow tree in Siegel Park. Excitement, passion, anticipation culminated in a brief moment of pain. Then it was over. Neither of us knew what we were doing. We both felt embarrassed and guilty.
I never knew exactly how my mother got wind of our affair. Nevertheless, I always suspected Dan. Boys have a propensity to brag, and Dan was no different. Details of our tryst made it back to mother riding a tide of salacious neighborhood gossip. Mother, like father, was a cold but dutiful woman devoted to Kinder, Kuche, Kirche. When she wasn’t at home, mother served the Rosary Society, and she volunteered to clean the rectory twice a week. One Saturday afternoon, a week after I lost my virginity, she cornered me in the kitchen. “You had relations with that Czonka boy, didn’t you?” Mother rarely raised her voice in anger. Yet, her words were thick with judgment. Mother’s eyes glared with righteous anger. I never could lie to her. I quietly nodded in affirmation of my sin. She replied, “The whole neighborhood knows about you and that filthy Hungarian boy!” Mother wasn’t concerned about the state of my immortal soul. She was humiliated that I had sex with a Hungarian. Father arrived home shortly afterward from Szabo’s Bar and Grill. He was drunk and furious. He slapped me in the face and called me a slut. I ran upstairs, locked the door and cried myself to sleep. That night, I not only lost my family, but my faith as well. Three weeks later, I took the bus to university. Only Uncle Fritz and Aunt Elsie were there to see me off.
For Dan, his own mother’s anger had become impossible to deal with. Desperate to get away, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He died a year later in Vietnam. The only testament to Dan’s life stood six rows down from my parent’s grave in the form of a lonely iron cross. My first love, the boy who gave me free pastries for a kiss, now lays utterly forgotten.
My years at university were a blur of lectures, lovers, books, and drugs. I never returned home in those four years. I worked at the library during the summer and semester breaks. I devoured books as a glutton devours food. The freedom from the suffocating atmosphere of my childhood was at first exhilarating. In later years, I realized that my behavior was in fact a way of getting back at my cold, miserable parents. They never knew I became pregnant my sophomore year. I aborted their grandson. I almost dropped out of school that year and returned home in defeat. My therapist, a kindly and wise Jewish woman, advised me to grieve, and then concentrate on my History degree. I stayed, and retreated into my books and solitude. The only person who knew about my abortion was the therapist. My son was my sin, my guilt, and mine alone. A day rarely goes by without my thinking of him.
It was near my graduation that Uncle Fritz drove up to college and pleaded with me to return, if only for a party. He and Aunt Elsie had reserved the union hall and wanted to throw their niece a graduation party. Under the pressure, I accepted his offer. The graduation party was a success. I was the first Tobolski to graduate from college. Even father hugged me, and in his own stubborn way apologized. He slurred something in Polish and kissed my forehead. His breath smelled of Lucky Strikes and cheap whiskey. Mother gave me an envelope filled with five one hundred dollar bills. There in the union hall, I wanted to hold them both. I had so much to tell them, especially to mother. Yet, my scars, and bitterness prevented such a display of warmth. I could not utter the phrase, “I love you”. Three years later, we buried mother wearing her favorite summer dress, and holding her rosary beads. Father followed her nine years later. Not once, did any of us ever say we loved each other.
A loud siren of a fire engine interrupts my brooding. I know deep down that I shall not ever again return. This cemetery, and the dirty old city which surrounded it, are best left behind, forgotten. “Don’t be so maudlin. You had a good life I say to myself”. That is true. After mother’s funeral, I decided to apply to law school. Teaching high school students had been a mistake. In law school, I discovered my true-life vocation. For the next forty years I worked as litigator, trial judge, and finally appeals court judge. I found deep contentment, but not happiness. I never married. I found my comfort and solace in the law. Behind my back, my colleagues nicknamed me The Ice Queen. They had a point. I am cold. It’s been years since I enjoyed the embrace of a man. Few ever understood me.
Suddenly tears flowed down my cheeks. I missed them all. I missed home. All that remains of either lies in this graveyard. Today is All Souls Day. It is their day, I thought bitterly. I quietly recite the prayer to a God in whom I no longer believe,
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
The cab takes me away, and I silently say my good-byes. A dirty cold mist falls on the city. It cloaks the empty buildings and dark alleys. I take one last look at the cemetery, but it is hidden. In my mind’s eye, I see them, this Fellowship of the Dead. I imagine I see them wave back.