“She kept the artsy stuff up here and the headstones around back,” the man says out of the side of his mouth. “Maybe she thought that would be more discreet.”
“Whole headstones. Names intact. Dates intact. Dirt still stuck to the bottom.”
The two of them, the man and his new girlfriend, stand alone in the shadowy front yard of a small house surrounded by a quiet neighborhood, hands on their hips in the dark night lit only by fogged streetlights. The yard has the look of an overcrowded memorial garden glowing slightly in the darkness. Tiny green walking paths wind in disorganized circles around stone angels, dry water fountains, and a number of other sculptures, all of various sizes and levels of decay. There’s barely any room to walk, and the yard is fenced in by yellow police tape.
The man points to a knee-high angel with a bulging belly and blank eyes. “See that one there?” The woman walks over to it and kneels beside it. She cups the angel’s head like a child’s and glances over her shoulder at him. “She took that one from the grave of a Civil War vet. Guy was only nineteen.” He takes a few steps to his left. “See this one?” The woman walks to him where he’s standing over a heart-shaped rock engraved with a cursive letter R. “This one here came from two counties over off the grave of a stillborn. And that one?” He points at something almost hidden by the shadow of the house. “Got that one off her own granddaddy’s.”
The woman slips her arm through the man’s. She breathes in the quiet and whispers, “It even sounds like a goddamn cemetery.”
“Ain’t no dead folks here.”
“I know that.”
“You sound disappointed.”
She slides away from him and browses the spread like it’s a Saturday yard sale. He can hear her humming to herself. She’s right, he thinks. He can feel the density of the silence. A kind of weight, heavy and sodden. A humidity of no sound. He grinds his teeth for the noise of it.
“Where’d she get this one?”
The man looks down at an ornate vase stuffed with large granite flowers lying on its side. A bouquet for the dead, such a pale white it glows. “I’m not sure. That one wasn’t mentioned in the article.”
“I think I want one of these one day,” she says.
“What? When you die?”
She’s on her knees by the flowers, the vase sideways on the ground, flowers unspilled. She stands them up. The stone is heavy and discolored with dampness on one side from the wet grass. “Sure. Or before then. It’s kind of beautiful.”
“You want a dead man’s flowers.”
“Not these, necessarily.” She leans her face into the flowers and inhales. “I think they’re roses.”
He shivers. “They’re just rocks.”
She nods and lets them drop with a thump, taking his hand to let him lead her around the corner of the house. She gasps when she sees the neatly lined rows of headstones that fill the backyard. The streetlights barely reach around the house, casting giant shadows that loom over narrow lines of grass crisscrossing through the pale stones. He hands her the flashlight he’d stashed in his back pocket.
He starts to tell her more facts pilfered from the article in the local paper about how the woman got away with selling these artifacts online for years before they caught her. He wants to tell her about how he got the listing on the house after the bank foreclosed and that it’s his to sell once they remove the stones, but she shushes him and heads down the first row.
He hurries after her. The paths are so narrow that they have to put one foot in front of the other in some places. The headstones are separated by type, flat or vertical, wide or narrow, short or tall, creating different sections, giving the yard a kind of engineered overcrowding. Some of the stones are huge, and the man wonders how one person collected these. She would have needed help. “Equipment and time,” he murmurs.
“Equipment and time.”
He follows a few steps behind the woman as she walks up and down each row, mouthing the names and dates to herself, the yellow from the flashlight quivering in front of her. She turns the corners sharply like a soldier at attention, and he has to catch her once because she turns herself off-balance. He starts to laugh, but she shushes him again.
“How long has she been doing this?” she whispers. “Years?” She’s stopped in front of an ancient headstone barely legible underneath stains and fading, the name a blur of half-letters, the dates 18-something to something-73. She runs a hand over the front of it, reading it like Braille, hoping her fingers can see what time has erased.
“Decades,” he whispers back. “At least twenty years. She’s been all over the state.”
“They’re beautiful. It’s kind of beautiful. Don’t you think?” She looks at him, eyes wide, fingers still reading. Lips pursed. He notices a vein on her temple, pulsating in the darkness. She looks like a child.
The man glances around. “This grass is going to take years to grow back after they remove the slabs. It’s going to kill the roots. Hard to sell dead grass.”
She touches his chin. “All you think about is selling things.”
“I brought you here because I knew you’d say that.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
She stares at him. Shines the light in his face. Knocks his hand away when he tries to shield his eyes. “I’m beginning to think you forget to look at things,” she says. “Like you see them but you’re not really looking.”
“What’s that mean?” He grabs the flashlight from her and points it at the ground. She doesn’t answer him and turns in a quick about-face. She hurries off down the nearest row of headstones, tripping and stumbling in the dark. The man points the flashlight at her feet, trying to help her, but she keeps running from the dancing beam. She stumbles. Falls. Gets back up and turns the corner to the front of the house.
The man takes a look around him, at stolen stones and people’s lives, at graveyards crammed into a manufactured imitation, and all he can think about is the state of the dying grass. The pale yellow squares of the transplanted dead and their impact on the resale value of the land. He shakes his head and follows the woman to the front yard, trying to see what she sees in the stones.
She stands bent at the waist with her back to him, struggling with something and taking rapid, tiny steps toward the street. He calls out and hurries to her, and she looks back at him without stopping. In her arms, dragging her down with its damp weight and awkward shape, is the bouquet of rock flowers, the petals glinting slightly in the dim orange light. She meets his eyes, her chest heaving from exertion. Her face dares him to say what they both know he is thinking, that she’s robbing something already stolen.
The man takes a quick look around the neighborhood and exhales. He waves at a car passing slowly by, the passengers all staring, the driver hunched over the wheel to get a better look. Seconds tick as the car disappears, and the man realizes the woman is still struggling with the dead weight of the stone, refusing to drop the flowers. He reaches around her to lift the yellow police tape.
Then she ducks under without a word and waddles away from him, bent over, lurching sideways into the street, off-balance and uneven, but moving ever forward and away from him, leaving him there to wonder if the dead know when their graves are robbed, if they can feel that something is missing.
The man looks back and notices the pale outline where the flowers were, but he can’t tell what was there. It’s just a faded spot in the grass.
Joseph Seale is a Ph.D. student in creative writing at the University of Georgia, where he also teaches freshman composition. He holds an MA from the University of Tennessee and a BA from the University of West Alabama. He comes from extremely rural southwest Alabama and still hasn’t completely shaken the accent. His work has appeared previously in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Emerson Review, and Black Heart Magazine.