“The hell is that thing?”
Here it’s not so much a question of what as it is a matter of who. We came without expectation: me because the assignment said to keep an open mind, Myranda because she never asks me to explain myself. We’re here to “Interrogate the Dead”, thought what that really means is still up for interpretation. At its base, it means a six-page paper. At the moment, it means standing with an open notebook trying to discern names in the snow.
Before anything there is the soldier. Silent, austere, his features a contrast of brass only playing at being bone and skin. A young man, beautiful in his own way. One hand is hooked near the wide comfort of his belt, the other open in a gesture of question and I wonder if it has to do with the helmet lost on the pedestal behind him.
“Who’s the hottie?” Myranda asks.
This is our first meeting. Edgar C. Weybrecht, born May 12th 1889, in Alliance Ohio.
Died November 2nd Staden, Belgium.
I’m not sure what I expected tramping around in the snow, underdressed for the cold and more than just a mite hungover. Nothing is just how I wanted. An overwhelming sense of disappointment covers everything, rounding off the edges of built up anticipation same as the snow still covering all but the tops of the most interesting stones. My problem starts with the fact that movies and literature ruined how I view cemeteries. There’s no romance here. No mystery. At high noon on a Sunday morning this place is more Harold and Maude than Night if the Living Dead. Sectioned off into quadrants and rows without so much as a “loving mother” or “devoted son”, it all fells like a matter of utility. Myrrh lights a smoke and hands it to me without asking.
“I can’t see the cars anymore,” she says.
“They’re back there somewhere.” And they are, somewhere, back on the other side of a tangle of mausoleums with all their stained glass broken out.
I know those surnames, big families still puttering around the city claiming all but Manifest Destiny on most of the commercial property, fragile genealogies kept forever above the fracas of the average dead, and I know their stories. All tales about failing grace and lost dignity. Really, it’s just a matter of getting to know the city.
Edgar might’ve understood, maybe, as a local.
At the time of his death the Weybrecht house took up a good patch of land on Overlook, a street not to far from Mount Union University in Alliance, Ohio. The address is still on google, trapped there under the guise of public information on declining property values. Used to be those old houses stood as a testament to Alliance’s roots as a place where hard working men could build lives and fortunes to pass on to their sons. I know some professors live down there. Some doctors. Most of the old houses in the city have been partitioned off into apartments, a sort of tenement project where the buildings are rented and sold over and over, each person leaving more coffee stains on antique wood floors and holes in the historical plaster.
“What if someone takes em’?” Myrrh asks. She butts her cigarette in the snow and puts the twisted bit of cotton into the pocket of her coat.
“The cars, butthole.”
I turn to my friend and really we are friends, best friends for whatever a few words like that could mean in a place like this, but right now I wish I were here alone. It’s not quiet anger that I feel, just a meek annoyance because this is supposed to meaningful and as my boots crash down through a withered mess of snow what I feel like is a troupe from my own bad story, the worst kind of cliché.
“Who Myrrh?”, and I gesture to the empty snow around us. “Whose takin’ the cars?”
“I dunno, zombies.”
Myranda lights another cigarette before she follows me through the snow where I’ve uncovered the grave of a small child on my way to the other side of Edgar’s monolith. Worn almost to an indiscernible nub is the ghost shape of a lamb. No name, only BABY chiseled high and deep. I jot that down for latter because I have the feeling this is not going to be a liner process.
“Zombies can’t drive,” I say. “No fine motor skills.”
Edgars grave is clean, like it was just cut fresh and dropped off.
I’ve notice the graves run on a gradient scale. On this far side, centered between a crawfish riddle offshoot of the Mahoning River and Miller’s Flower Land, all the graves are worn, delicate, though not always simple. Everything is marked only for death and there is no sense of the markers trying to put on airs. Birth date followed by death date. These are like the ones shown in movies: humped over chunks of weathered white stone that run as crooked as a set of bad teeth. But as you move through the cemetery, back toward Rockhill and the senior citizen center, it gets to be more of a competition. Clean marble spangled with glittering pieces of stone, inset to give the effect of a disco ball in the sun. Porcelain reliefs show, in real living color, the person whose head you just happen to be standing on. New graves for a people who don’t believe in forgetting.
Creepy, but not in the way I’ve come to admire.
I do some quick math in my head. Edgar C. Weybrecht was twenty-nine when he died, better than some of the other men who found themselves shipped over to Europe between 1914 and 1918. Most of those guys would’ve had families to worry about. New wives and young mothers who were already morning their men while they were still in line at the draft office.
From what I could dig up Edgar never married.
Myrrh and I, we look over the soldier as he stares off into some unknowable future.
“Do you really think the cars are ok?” Myrrh asks.
“Jesus Christ, give it up about the cars. No ones’ takin’ the goddamn cars. Who’d in their right mind d’ steal a Ford Focus any way?”
“Hooligan zombies,” Myrrh says as she gives me Sage shake of her head.
“For fucks sake.”
“Hey, there’s another name on this side. Charles C. Weybrecht.” Out of our clumsy mouths the surname has too much chuff, too much phlegm.
I trip over another set of low markers, hidden in the snow, to get to where Myrrh is now. “Daddy dearest, you think?” I ask.
Charles C., it turns out, was the esteemed uncle to Edgar C., both of them Weybrecht. Son of a polish immigrant, Charles and his brother took over the family lumber business. That same business housed Edgar after his graduation from Mount Union College. An office job by the subjects own admonition, but “He made a fine businessman”, so who am I to admonish the generational morals of the dead. Edgar was an active member the Delta of Sigma Nu, a military fraternity, and he died a 32nd degree Mason. His uncle Charles was a captain in the Spanish-American war and founded a local chapter of the National Guard before serving as Adjunct General Elect in his home state of Ohio in 1908. Uncle Charles took up his old regiment after WW1 broke out. Of Edgars father there’s no mention. Of his mother, not a whisper.
Charles died in early August of 1919, just over a year after his nephew.
Would a man who made a career out of war come and visit the tombstone of his fallen nephew? I’d like to think so. There’s a little orange sticker with a mirrored V at the center of the pedestal. So Charles and Edgar get atleast one visitor a year. More stones pepper the ground around the valiant soldier. Names without anchor to title and in some cases only the surname followed by an illusive set of sexless initials.
“Hey, who do ya think Lucinda is?” Myrrh asks.
The truth is, I just can’t imagine.
Edgar shipped out for Camp Sheridan in Alabama on May 18th 1916 on a special request rather than draft notice, just days after his birthday, to serve under his uncle in the 146th infantry. In all the pictures of Edgar there is a softness around his eyes, a pampering that says they would not have made him go. Household nepotism kept him out of the draft lines. There’s a smirk on his face that says he’s good at running drills and will like the cut of his uniform over the muscled bulge of his chest. Pressed on by the urgency over seas the boys were given enough time to change out of their civilians before being herded off to Camp Lee in Virginia and eventually to France. From there, it was on to the Belgium forests.
I can’t feel my fingers so I put my notebook away. Most of the names and dates are illegible scrawls in smeared black ink. My toes are numb.
“So whatta you wanna do after this. I was thinkin’ the Goodwill, then maybe Pancho’s.” Myrrh stops to brace her foot against a grave while she reties her shoe. “Will they serve this early?”
“It’s gotta be almost noon.”
We’ve tripped away from the Weybrechts by now. There’s no such thing as afternoon traffic down here on the old side of town. People down here either get up and do their business early or they don’t get up at all, that’s just the way of it.
“Yeah, so I’m thinkin’ margaritas.” Myrrh looks at me and lingers at the blue black bags around my eyes. “Mimosas?”
Myrrh plucks a curl from out of her eyes and tucks it behind the cup of her ear as she smiles at me. Of all the battles to have to fight in the snow and the cold mine is the one fought against that still born daemon expectation. Two hours spent shopping. Another guzzling booze while last night’s gin double feature does a slow tango in my bloodstream. I would rather be gunned down by Germans and left to rot in the forests near Staden.
The battle of Argonne lasted forty-seven days. September 26th to November 11th, which any middle-schooler can tell you was Armistice Day. Edgar would never see the end of it. Imagine the shock of Edgar’s unnamed father when a letter came in the post. His son was dead. As so many other sons of so many other fathers. Edgar took ill in the Belgium forests and he died, not in glorious battle but in a sick bed, of bronchial phenomena. Before his death, Edgar C. Weybrecht wrote a letter to his father detailing the success of his company against the German invaders. No more was he with the valiant 146th but a commander, a leader of his own regiment of men tasked with keeping supply lines open, defenders of artillery shells and pressed packages of biscuits. Seems the son of the unknown Weybrecht found something of his own, a purpose in the burnt out trenches of the front lines. Something tells me as Edgar coughed himself to death on a narrow cot under a military grade burlap blanket he didn’t have that softness around his eyes anymore. In all reality, who there could hold on to something as innocent as pride.
It’s just us in the graveyard, Myranda and I. Funny but right now I’ve got nothing more to say. I don’t mind dead people. They’ve got no hang ups. It’s just them and eternity, them and their stones.
We’re the ones with all the hang ups.
Myrrh stands on tip toe to prance around a large stone marked Coffee, no names, no dates. Just the surname and the understanding that to someone it was important.
“Oh, look. I can see the cars,” she says. “So, should I just follow you back to the main road?”
Myrrh, because she’s my friend, tries to not to look worried. She’s not from here so she doesn’t really know how to get out. I try not to blame her.
“Yeah,” I say. “But stay close.”
I’ll lead. She’ll follow, but I’m not taking any of the main roads. It’ll be side cuts and gravel runs all the way to back to State St. This, because I’m thinking about a hometown boy shipped back from a foreign country in a pine box because he had something to prove.
“Did you say you were buyin’?” I ask Myrrh.
She laughs and we wave goodbye to all the dead people who, for their part, don’t bother waving back.