Len Kozumplik always stuck to a certain type of old-time English mystery novel—Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie—because the murderer was certain to be caught, and at the same time a fresh young couple would clasp hands in a world newly cleared of suspicion and evil. At uneasy moments, Len felt that such books were meant to be read by women; a forty-six-year-old man of business should perhaps read thrillers or spy novels, but those choices did not promise the security he craved. Then again, he could be wrong about who else was reading the English mysteries, as he was acquainted with only a few women—neighbors and co-workers—and had never probed into their reading habits.
The only woman he’d come across in his visits to Lawndale Memorial Park was Delia Schatz, a puffy person with a rounded nose and eyes like pearls. She would come out of the little office in front and guide customers along the rows, picking her way so her heels wouldn’t catch in the turf. He’d heard her throw around the terms of her trade: “pre-need,” “at-need,” “arrangements,” and so forth. The people walking along with Delia seemed either businesslike or miserable. In either case, she kept her voice low and steady. Len doubted she had any inclination to read mystery novels.
He learned Delia’s name one Saturday when he was visiting the two stones that belonged to him. He’d brought fresh flowers to replace the dahlias from two weeks earlier, only the dahlias weren’t there anymore. He looked at the plastic holder spiked into the ground, and peered down into it at a leaf fragment or two—all that remained of his bouquet. He felt strongly that flowers should stay put on the graves, even if they wilted before he could bring a new bunch. He wanted a mark of recognition always in place, a sign to passersby that there were people actually under there—people who had lived and whom Len had known. In any case, he didn’t like things changing without his say-so.
At that moment, as Len was contemplating the flower situation, Delia had come teetering through the grass toward him. She wore a navy blue skirt with a gray blouse, and carried a vinyl notebook that she rapped against her thigh.
“Excuse me,” he said, and gestured toward her with his water bottle so that she would know it was her he meant. Delia came all the way up to him and halted. He saw her pick up her feet and place them carefully so that the heels would rest on the packed earth of the walkway, not on the grass.
“What can I do for you today?” Her tone fell somewhere between pleasant and remote.
“Someone stole my flowers.” He pointed at the empty plastic cone. “I just got here and found them gone.” As he said the word gone, he thought of a stone dropping into water, a bird flying fast into a dark sky.
Delia frowned. The notebook rested quietly at her side now. “Well, it’s a good thing you have a new bouquet with you. The container is all set to go; you won’t need to clear it out, will you?”
“That’s isn’t the point,” said Len, and he thought to introduce himself. By giving his identity, he might get more cooperation. “Name’s Len Kozumplik, by the way.”
“Delia Schatz. I’m in sales, if you’re ever interested.”
He swung back to his grievance. “A minor expediency like that is not the point. I left flowers there because I want flowers there. The cemetery should be concerned that someone is stealing from my aunt and uncle.”
She seemed puzzled until he gestured toward the gravestones. “Oh, I see.” She was sounding less impatient and talking much more slowly. “It might not be anyone stealing, you know. The deer come down sometimes and eat plants here, or maybe your flowers dried out and one of the workers took them away so the site would look nicer.” She picked up one foot and patted the toe of her shoe against the graveled earth of the walkway.
Len could see he would get no help from Delia Schatz. He told her goodbye and went about opening his water bottle and pouring its contents into the plastic cone. He pulled the new flowers from their cellophane wrapping, dropped them in and fluffed them around so that they didn’t all lean to one side.
Sweet peas and daisies from Trader Joe this time, and the blue ones with the peculiar name—love-in-a-mist—against the gray granite.
At home that evening, he microwaved a Salisbury steak dinner and ate it off the plastic dish. Afterward he tried to settle down with an Agatha Christie, but found it difficult going. Every time he managed to read a few paragraphs, he began shifting around, crossing his legs two or three different ways. He knew that Aunt Dora and Uncle Syl couldn’t observe his behavior anymore, but if they could, they would want him to quit fiddle-faddling and show some drive. They would tell him to get off his hind end.
The longer he sat, the less he was able to concentrate on his reading. Getting off the hind end. There was an idea, a short walk in the twilight. It might help him to relax and forget about Lawndale. He got up from his chair, put on a light jacket, and in no time had blundered out the front door into the dusk.
It was quiet and gray, the air cool on his skin. He came to Mrs. Coelho’s rose bushes next door and stopped to examine them; they bore possibly the largest roses he’d ever seen. He touched the petals. But among the soft blossoms there were cut-off stalks, whitened at the tips. Someone had taken off a number of roses. A heat pulsed through him. Judging by the fact that the cuts hadn’t been properly made, where leaflets branched out, someone other than Mrs. Coelho had done it.
He strode on, not watching his feet, and nearly tripped at the place where a sycamore root had buckled the pavement.
Two doors further along, beyond a series of flagstones in a spotty lawn, stood Barry and Jill Holcomb’s place. He had entered that house on two occasions. The first time, two or three years ago, the Holcombs had had the whole neighborhood in for an open house—drinks and chatter, lots of standing around. Then, months later, Barry had spotted Len passing by and asked him in, an agreeable surprise. Those were the two times.
Len looked toward the Holcombs’ door and the pink-lighted doorbell, wondering if he would ever be invited in again. Probably not, he was starting to think, but got distracted in gazing at the spot of pink light. How did that whole doorbell lighting system work; was there actually an incandescent bulb inside the little button? If so, the filament would be like…what, like a mouse hair, or a hair from a thistle leaf.
He started on his way again, only to stop and stare once more at the Holcomb house. Now he saw that Jill sat at the lighted front window, the curtains parted for anyone to see. Jill, alone. She had her back to him, her yellow hair in a braid hanging down. She was in a sleeveless blouse with her bare arm stretched along the back of her chair. He could make out her arm bones—the humerus and the ulna—as well as a few moles. No sign of Barry.
He thought it over as he continued down the block. Jill home alone, without Barry. Could she be having an affair? He turned it over in his mind. No, the raised window shade, the bright light, everything was against it.
The street lights came on, radiating a blue fog. No, it was much more likely that Barry was having the affair. Jill was home making the best of it while Barry was nowhere in sight.
Waves of unease rolled up from Len’s belly and into his arms. A car drove by, its windows shiny black. It looked suspicious—and there was the theft of his flowers, and Mrs. Coelho’s roses. Now Jill, left alone at her window. He passed more houses, all with their shades drawn, closing him out, holding in whatever they had to hide. At the end of the street he turned around, walking faster and faster toward home, where his usual seat and footstool waited for him, and the Agatha Christie.
A scent of sweet tea came to him; it was Mrs. Coelho’s roses. He closed his eyes and breathed in. He felt himself sway on his feet.
“Out for a stroll?”
He opened his eyes to see Mrs. Coelho standing in the aura of her porch light. She walked down the steps toward him. “I just came out to call my cat in. He’ll stay out all night if I don’t.”
She was only a dark shape to him, with the light shining behind her, but she tipped her head so that he knew she was paying attention. She said, “A fine evening, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Len. If he wasn’t mistaken, Mrs. Coelho was wearing some kind of bathrobe. “Yes, I’m only…well, your roses.”
“They just about glow in the dark, don’t they? Everyone says so.”
“What I meant…” He couldn’t bring himself to point out the thefts, the scarred stems. Briefly he considered telling Mrs. Coelho about his own problem at Lawndale, but didn’t know how to work it into the conversation. In any case, she had turned aside and started calling out, “Ozzie, giblets tonight!”
At home once more in his reading chair, Len forced himself through several pages of his book. Unfortunately this section was not about the astute detective character, but about an assortment of hapless people taking cabs at night, checking into lodgings and running into each other in the corridors. One of them was bound to get killed any minute.
He closed the book. People didn’t know what it was like to be, as he was, solitary in the world. To know that death came—that was the kernel, wasn’t it? Sometimes he strained to recall the sound and light of his infancy. Deep in his memory, his parents’ voices, their hands, flashes of cheek and ears and soft hair, must still exist. He had lived through it and yet, it seemed, come away with nothing.
He stood up and kicked at his footstool, more roughly than he should have. The clock showed eight thirty, not really too early for bedtime ablutions.
At midnight, when he awoke tormented by a crease in the pillowcase, Len began to think again about the vanished flowers. He had only tried to show respect for his aunt and uncle, to follow his established custom, and an anonymous party had ruined it. Right there in a graveyard, of all places. Aunt Dora and Uncle Syl had taken the place of a mother and father to him—although he had always called them Aunt and Uncle—and that had been lucky. They’d told him later that no one else…
He drifted off and awoke again, this time remembering the children in his class at school, what they’d called him. Four of the boys had locked him in the janitor’s closet one time, with no light on, and he hadn’t known what to do. There were so many wrong things in the world; right now it was the flowers.
By three a.m., he could think only of wrath and revenge. He recalled Aunt Dora’s methods: If she caught a person lying or thieving, she spanked him with a stick. You could count on revenge with Agatha Christie, too. On her watch, criminals got caught and paid the price—public shaming, restitution, hanging, any of that. An idea came to him then, and he fell asleep with his hands clenched.
The noon light glared down on Lawndale and on Len Kozumplik, who had driven over on his lunch hour wearing his professional garb: light-blue shirt and tie, tan slacks. He was treading the gravel path, on the way to his stones. Normally he came to Lawndale only on weekends—every other weekend, to be precise. Today he was making an exception, returning after a gap of only two days.
As he approached the knoll where his graves lay, he put his head forward, striving to catch sight of the two granite stones and the crucial spot between them. Another minute of effort brought him close enough to definitively note the lack of color, the unrelieved grayness. The latest bunch of flowers, the one he had so recently watered and arranged for symmetry, was gone.
This did not surprise Len—he had practically expected it—but a pang went through him nevertheless. Pinching at the legs of his pants, he bent down and scanned the ground near the plastic holder. A few bits of yellow lurked in the grass: torn-looking daisy petals.
At the crest of the knoll, he leveled the edge of his palm against his eyebrows like a scout, and perused all he could see of Lawndale. Ahead of him, behind, and to the sides, lines of stones and monuments snaked over the endless grass. The sun glanced off the polished surfaces. To Len’s right and downhill, Delia Schatz was conversing with a woman in a wide hat, her words killed by the distance.
When he didn’t see what he was looking for, Len began walking toward the farther reaches of Lawndale. The sun grew stronger. New graves continually came into view. There were marble headstones, sphinxes, stone angels and crosses. He had never explored this terrain before, and the vastness of the place bore in on him.
The walkway made a gritty sound under his feet. His shoes slipped a little with each step. He couldn’t remember when he had last walked such a long way. At last a smudge of color—promising shades of pink and yellow—showed itself in the distance. He hurried forward.
The grouping was unmistakable: sweet peas, daisies, and the blue love-in-a-mist with its hairy bracts like probing antennae. He grabbed the bunch in both hands and started on the path back. This would show them, this would keep them from picking on his graves. Aunt Dora and Uncle Syl would have their due.
A minute later he stopped and turned around. Whose grave was it, anyway, that had appropriated the flowers? He had neglected to check. It was a simple stone, ash colored, with a rounded top. The engraved letters said
MY BELOVED MOTHER
1936 – 2008
This was 2008 now; the grave was a fresh one. No wonder the thievery had begun only recently. He would stop in at the office, find out the name of Margaret Tilden’s scofflaw progeny, and send him (or her) a letter of warning. Perhaps the pearl-eyed Delia Schatz would be the one to assist him.
On the way back to his graves, the sunlight fell hotter and hotter on his scalp. The wet stalks of the flowers rubbed his fingers uncomfortably. He saw by his watch that his lunch hour was nearly over. He had an Accounting Department meeting to attend, and he would be late.
He continued on toward the top of the knoll, toward his two stones. Margaret Tilden. The parting of his hair, the tops of his ears were burning. My beloved mother. The wet feeling spread from the flowers in his hands, into his armpits, along his ribs, and down his shoulder blades. He couldn’t go to a meeting with his shirt drenched in sweat. Could he?
Delia Schatz and the other woman had moved uphill. Len could now hear the mumble of Delia’s voice, the answering peeps of the woman in the hat. He thought of Jill Holcomb, sitting alone with the bones showing in her arm.
He covered the last few yards to his graves and stopped beside them, gasping. In a moment he would put the flowers into their holder, where they belonged, and then he would hurry back to his car and drive away and get to that meeting.
The flowers looked surprisingly droopy now, against the granite. Their freshness had been spoiled by being dragged from pillar to post. Still, they were back in their rightful place. Let Margaret Tilden’s grave go bare, beloved mother or not.
As he was collecting himself for the hot sprint to the parking lot, the memory came to him, of choosing the flowers from the display at Trader Joe’s. There had been several other bunches that were nearly identical, with the sweet peas and love-in-a-mist. Perhaps six others, or seven, all alike in their cellophane collars. He had studied them carefully and picked the bunch he judged prettiest, with plenty of blue to balance the yellow.
He bent to dry his hands on the grass, then glanced back at the graves. Was it possible, after all, that Margaret Tilden’s son had bought one of the other bunches from Trader Joe’s?
She was his mother, beloved. And the torn daisy petals on the ground—Margaret’s son (or daughter) would not have done that. Delia Schatz had mentioned that deer sometimes came to the graveyard and ate flowers. A deer could have chewed on the bouquet and let scraps of it fall, might have left a trail of mutilated petals across the broad grounds of Lawndale, as it carried away its prize.
Len turned his body and picked up the flowers again. Had he righted a wrong, or defiled the grave of someone’s mother?
Delia Schatz and the other woman approached, still in conversation. They passed Len—a quick nod from Delia—and continued onward. He heard the low, clear voice that he recognized from before, saying, “Pre-need is the best way to go. You’ll never regret it.”
He held the dripping flowers and tried to decide whether to walk all the way back, past the hundreds of graves, or whether to keep them. They might be the ones he had bought, or not. The world was rent open with possibilities.
The two women had paused some twenty feet beyond him. He saw that Delia Schatz was placing her feet carefully, so that her high heels wouldn’t get stuck in the soft grass. For the first time, he noticed the pleasing width of her hips.
He squinted his eyes against the hot, brilliant sun, until all of Lawndale blurred through his lashes. The stone monuments loomed around him. For seconds at a time they flashed into clarity, welcoming but fearsome. Something had turned and it could turn back again soon, he sensed that. He stood by the gravel path and contemplated his next move.