He never really thought about what that meant until now. Walking through a cemetery in the hour just after dusk on a bone chilling autumn evening, colder than the time of year warranted, cold, he thought, as the grave. There wasn’t a sound, not the buzz of insects, not the chatter of birds or the whisper and rustle of wind through the drooping branches of trees, heavy with the dry weight of dying foliage. Quiet. No life except for the one he brought through the graveyard gate and that wasn’t much of a life at all. Too quiet for his tattered nerves. Too quiet for a guy with a kilo of stolen cocaine jammed into the pocket of a lightweight overcoat as tattered as those nerves.
Row after row of cold, hard headstones growing out of withered, brown grass. Otherwise forgotten names long ago chiseled in loving memory, untended tributes to mother, father, grandparent, child. He read off the roster of the dead to himself as he trudged through fallen leaves carpeting the paths between graves.
Anything to keep his mind off the truth, that he had come here to join the dead. Except there would be no carved granite monument bearing his name, no reason to memorialize what he would be leaving behind. He’d seen to that by living as he had.
They couldn’t have picked a better place for the meet. The Jewish section of the old cemetery outside of town, its last occupant lowered into the ground more than a dozen years ago, filling the final six foot by three foot by six foot deep piece of real estate. Who came out to an inactive graveyard at this hour, on a miserable night like this? One stop shopping for them: they got back their property and had a place to leave his lifeless sack of flesh when they were through. They told him all they wanted was the merchandise, that he could just hand it over, say he was sorry, and walk away.
But he knew what was going to happen, what had to happen. You didn’t mess with these guys, take what was theirs and not pay for it. Letting themselves get ripped off and doing nothing about it would be bad for business. Examples had to be made, messages had to be sent to the next guy who even thought about taking them off. He would be their billboard warning the whole world to keep hands off. He had hoped that throwing them Rickie, his partner in that sorry town and this even sorrier attempt at instant wealth, would satisfy them, but Rickie had wound up with half his head gone, shoved into the trunk of a wrecked Buick waiting to go through the metal crusher in the salvage yard on the other side of town. Now it was his turn.
The old man was there, standing with bowed head before a weathered headstone. He wouldn’t have seen him in the gloomy silence, would have walked right on by, mistaking him for just another graveyard shadow, if the old man hadn’t spoken, calling out to him, “Hello?”
He stopped, fear squeezing his heart. Were they here already? He had arrived early, why not? There wasn’t anywhere else he could be, no way in hell he could run from them. Besides, a man doesn’t want to be late for his own funeral.
Then he saw the old man, a shrunken figure in black topcoat with sparse white hair framing a withered face with wrinkles that were a roadmap of a long life lived hard. Rheumy eyes glittered at him in the half light. No, this was no harbinger of his own death, merely a mourner of an earlier victim of the reaper. So he forced himself to breath again and resumed walking, head down, back on track to his meeting with the inevitable.
Keep walking, get there and get it over with. He’d been living with the numbing fear of his own coming mortality for more than two days now. Forty-nine hours to be precise, at 4:37 in the afternoon the day before yesterday when he realized there was nowhere to run and Junkyard hissed in his ear that they knew who he was and were looking for him.
“I’d help you, man,” Junkyard simpered, compulsively running his hands up and down the thighs of his greasy coveralls. “You’re my bud, I wanna help, but you gotta understand I can’t, don’t you? They know I did for you, they’ll kill both of us.”
Ray had just stared, a pulse beginning to pound in his forehead. He looked at the neon dial clock over the door of the small service station office. 4:37. The moment his death warrant had been signed.
How had it come to this? How did a life suddenly go from hope to hopeless in the blink of an eye, the tick of a clock on a rainy autumn afternoon at 4:37 P.M.? The scheme couldn’t have been simpler: walk in a door with three bucks to his name, pick up a package, and walk out a minute later richer than he’d ever been, ever hoped to be. It should have been a walk in the park.
The answer was simple, as obvious as every other piece of ill fortune and bad timing that was the story of his miserable life. Born to the wrong parents, friends with the wrong people, consistently being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong idea. He gave nothing, took whatever he could get his hands on and to hell with who it hurt. Like Rickie, the poor bastard. And for all that, what was he left with? What had he ever done that wasn’t selfish and wrong? Whose life had he ever touched who would give a second thought to him when they heard he was dead? Except they never would hear the news. He’d just disappear, and the few who might, for God knows what reason, have cause to remember him, would just assume that he’d moved on to another place, where he could start stealing and swindling and creating misery among people who didn’t yet know, but would find out soon enough.
Forty-nine hours gone. About twenty minutes left to live. Did he want to spend it talking to some old fart in the cemetery? Would be like getting stuck with his senile old grandpa again. Old man had gone seriously nuts when Ray was in high school and had come to live with him and his mom. That was a trip, his boozer old lady and her old man, him shrinking daily under the weight of Alzheimer, her under the bottle, making each other crazy, spending all day screaming drunken, senile gibberish at each other. Good enough reason for Ray to have quit school in his junior year and get the hell out of there.
He burned any bridges back home but good. His mom was passed out on the couch with Sally on TV and grandpa was in his room, talking to dead people. Ray marched right in and picked up anything he could find of any value, watches, rings, a camera, whatever, planning to leave, without a word and with whatever little wealth they had shoved into the pocket of his jeans. His grandfather sat staring at him with those damned vacant, runny eyes of his, his mouth moving without speaking, not even to the imagined dead, for the longest time. But Ray’s last act of defiance must, somehow, have gotten through the vale of fog spread across the old man’s rotting brain and gramps had finally stirred, coming to life and finding clarity again, for just a moment, maybe the last time in his miserable old life.
Ray had stopped, glaring at the hateful presence. His mother’s embittered and brutal father had nothing to give Ray before his illness had forced him into the orbit of his life. He had endured the cruelty, the belittling for six years, watching the old man sink deeper and deeper into dementia, growing bolder in his own life as grandpa diminished in his. The cold-heart never thawed, never gave in. Even sick and dying ugly inch by ugly inch, unable to remember his own name and how not to crap in his own pants, he could still crap on Ray.
Ray decided that not slapping the old bastard to the floor and stomping him into an early grave would be the last act of kindness he ever allowed himself. And even that, he later thought, was a lie. Killing him would have been a kindness. Leaving him alive, a crumbling mind within a shattered body, was punishment. Ray kept the memory of the old man’s misery to remind himself of why he was who he had become. He kept to his faith and did unto others, never allowing anyone ever again the power to hurt him.
“Oh, well, I hope that’s not true,” the old man said, but with such earnestness that it made Ray stop. He didn’t know why he turned around, why he should care. Maybe it was the fear, looking for something else to occupy his mind while he waited to have two bullets pumped into the back of it by some anonymous, stone-faced goon.
“Oh, my god, yes,” he said and laughed. “I’ve got people all over this cemetery. All over.” He looked back over his shoulder at where Ray had first seen the old guy. “That’s my wife. My Becky back there. I visit her all the time.”
“Yeah, sure,” Ray agreed, and they went and settled on the cold, hard concrete bench. The old man bunched his dark overcoat around him and shivered as he pointed at the worn headstone just opposite them.
“Jeez.” Ray’s mother and father had never married, never spent more than two months at a stretch together before his father split for good. He couldn’t envision a relationship lasting so long...lasting decades, even, beyond the grave.
“She was something,” Aronson said and chuckled fondly. “We met, it was right after I was discharged in early 1945. All of the second world war, I never got within three thousand miles of a battlefield so I got shot by another supply clerk with a rifle that’s supposed to be empty doing inventory at Fort Dix. Go figure, right? So I limp back home with a medical discharge, still in uniform, and who do I meet the first weekend at a synagogue dance? That girl stole my heart the second I saw her...and then I ran after her for ten months trying to give her mine. But I did it, finally. I won her.
“Turned out we couldn’t have kids, which was a terrible thing for us at the time. We both came from big families and all around us, our brothers and sisters and cousins were having all these children. It hurt,” he said with a sigh. “I won’t lie. We’d watch these kids with their mothers and fathers and I knew that while my heart may have been breaking, Becky’s was crushed.”
“So we did what we could. We became everybody’s favorite aunt and uncle. Instead of kids and grandkids, we have nieces and nephews, cousins, once, twice, three times removed. Dozens of kids.” The old man smiled and Ray knew he was picturing some pleasant memory, a Christmas morning, or maybe someone’s birthday where all those kids were around him once again, climbing all over him.
Aronson blinked and returned from that long-ago celebration. His shoulders rose in a long, exaggerated shrug. “But kids grow up, get their own lives, move on, move away. And, frankly, after Becky died, I wasn’t exactly in a grandfatherly mood. So, thirty years later....”
“Naw, naw,” Ray said quickly, suddenly aware that he might have hurt the old man’s feelings. “I wasn’t laughing at you. I just...y’know, I just thought here’s a guy like you, did everything right all his life, had a family that loved him and he loved back, right? But he still winds up alone, just like me, only I don’t think I ever once did what was right. Just makes you think, that’s all.”
Mr. Aronson waved his hand in dismissal. “Tough guy. I was forty-five years in the trucking business before I retired from that line of work. I seen tough guys. You like to play tough but I don’t think you quite got the real thing.”
Ray yanked the paper bag from his pocket. “I guess I don’t,” he said. “’Cause every time I grab for the brass ring I wind up with a hand full of shit. See this?” He slapped the bag down on the bench between them. “That’s worth about a quarter million bucks on the streets. Pretty good, right? Lotsa money for a schmuck like me, ain’t it?”
Ray’s arm shot out, his fingers stretched as though grasping for something just out of his reach. “I heard about this drop, guy talking on his cell phone in a stall in the men’s room, must’ve thought he was alone and didn’t hear me come in, right? Wasn’t no one who knew I knew about it ‘cept for one other guy, dude name of Ricky. He was kind’a my partner. We worked it out, Ricky runnin’ interference while I snatched up the stuff. It was right there, duct taped under the phone in a booth in this bar I used to go to. So Ricky makes a little noise, anybody watching the booth looks away for five seconds, all I need, right? Five seconds, the shit’s in my pocket, no one’s the wiser, me and Ricky get outta this shit-hole of a town and set up shop somewhere that doesn’t suck.”
“Things did not,” Ray said, “work as planned. Ricky picked a fight with some guy, got into it nice and loud, took it to the street, everybody watching Ricky and this guy yellin’ at each other like idiots. I reach in, bada-bing, I’m the proud papa of a kilo of uncut cocaine. Except the freakin’ place has all this video surveillance stuff, right? Cameras everywhere and there’s me on video-freakin’-tape stealing their coke.” Ray showed the old man his hand. “There’s me grabbing another hand full of shit.”
“Yeah.” Ray touched the package. “Matter of fact, you should probably go. They’re gonna be here in a few minutes to...y’know, to get this back. They’re not the kind of people like witnesses to their business.”
The other man laughed and patted Ray on the knee. “Thank you. It’s the thought that counts, especially on something like this. I hope it counts for you, too. I’ll remember you. Every time I come to visit my Becky, I’ll think of you and lay a stone on her grave in your memory.”
“A stone,” said Aronson. “A rock, a pebble. Whenever a Jew visits someone’s grave, they leave a little rock on the headstone. It’s a way to show that there’ve been visitors looking after the deceased. The stones are supposed to be a symbol, I guess, of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem that was three times built and three times destroyed by our enemies.”
“Huh,” Ray said. He looked over at the headstone of the old man’s wife. Rebecca Aronson. Wife, Aunt, Humanitarian. June 19, 1925-February 7, 1974. There, atop the weathered granite adorned with a Jewish star sat several pebbles. The stone to the right of Becky’s grave was similarly topped with rocks. Ray’s eyes went to the matching stone to Becky’s left. He read it, confused.
“Never mind,” sighed the old man. “I like to work in graveyards. What can I tell you? It appeals to my quirky sense of humor, although I do admit it makes disposing of the body that much easier. So I pick a grave to work from of someone of about the right age with my wife’s name.”
“Rebecca, yes. Not Aronson, though. Those,” he said, pointing with a hand that now held a gun to the matching headstones, “are the Aronsons. Still, my Becky’s buried far away from here, but this way at least I get to visit with her by proxy. I really do find it quite comforting. I lay a stone on some other Rebecca’s grave but my Becky knows it’s for her.”
Ray thought of jumping the old man. How hard could it be to take out this guy, must be pushing eighty? But his next thought was that he wouldn’t still be in this line of work if he couldn’t handle himself and he’d probably shoot Ray dead before he got two feet. Besides, he didn’t want to hurt the old guy and Ray was tired of losing and tired of trying to run from the demons he had provoked and those that lived inside him.
Ray knelt and he could tell that made Mr. Aronson nervous so he looked up at the old man, past the barrel of the gun, and said, “It’s alright.” Then he brushed some fallen leaves out of the way and, in the last light of the day, located what he was looking for. He clenched it in his fist and rose again.
And Ray stepped up to Sidney Aronson’s grave and bowed his head, addressing someone, somewhere in as close a thing to a prayer as he could devise. Then he reached out his hand and placed a single rock alongside the others on its weather-pitted top.