September 5th, 2015
Waking up was always a slow process: the feeling of becoming again after such heavy stillness. He would have liked to sleep but duty called out through deep dreams to open the gates and collect. He adjusted his tie – perennially, inexplicably askew – and rose into the morning humidity.
He would be sweating soon, if history and experience held true. But for that morning moment the oaks and cedars shadowed a crispness: a healthy breeze carried cool bay air across highway A1A and into Huguenot. As promised, as they did this Saturday every year, the Presbyterians had left the folding chair and table leaning against the inside wall. Judge Stickney had always been the unanimous choice of ambassador for their rooted little community, notwithstanding the growing acerbity of arthritis and his famed forever sideways glances. Despite the creaks, despite the inconvenience, he folded down the chair and with dry-dust ligaments lifted and stabilized the table in the grass.
He checked his watch out of habit. He marked the position of the sun.
The gates opened at 9 and closed again at 3. That gave him 6 hours to collect $122 dollars (the city, in it’s infinite wisdom, having required all sites of historical interest be accessible to the public for free, or at the very least paid for democratically). Stickney set out the fading yellow coffee tin, then the little hand calligraphed placard:
He popped the padlock and took his seat. The rest of the day would be an anxious watching and, of course, having to, for one more year, swallow a feast of buffoons.
They would begin trickling in around 9:15: their curiosity tempered with self-consciousness, as though afraid the table and the faded man behind it was all an elaborate trap to nab trespassers. He waved them in with put-upon friendliness but the rusted dirty can, the placard, all acted as a strange kind of charm that, upon being noticed, pushed the tourists in opposing directions. Interest was suddenly and politely caught by some other thing: an eroding name, esoteric inscription, or that gaudy granite obelisk J. Hume Simon’s decedents had erected four years before. Inside he’d seethe – little red coals popping in a pot bellied stove – remembering this time last year: laying out on the teller’s counter the little pile of crumpled bills, stray coins, failure. 12 dollars shy. “Chalk it up the recession,” some of his more understanding neighbors had said. “Housing is collapsing all around, no surprise.” Some added optimistic visions: “Next year: the 450th celebration. Think of that. That’s bound to bring in more visitors.” Yet those who lost sleep over the shortage gave secret withering looks and held their tongues.
Remembrances like these dampened Stickney’s inward seething into a smile, but the growing humidity was relentless, smeared that smile, melted his jowls, drooped his brow.
Yes, some did give: the elderly ones with their tour company badges displayed proudly around their necks, they gave something. Probably out of a growing and inevitable sense of pitiful kinship, like visiting the house of an old friend only to notice their roof inviting down a water stain. But those who trundled strollers through the grass and loosened the parental leash always felt the more children they brought with them the more exempt they were from words like upkeep, maintenance, courtesy. Anyone younger than twenty either offered momentary glances or trudged listless around the salt blasted stones as if visiting yet another display at a natural history museum. Oh. This again. Another? Formless and shapeless, some of them, but to Stickney each stone retained the distinct contours of a face anxiously expectant.
A dollar or four here; a tinny clatter; a quick salutation. “How old is this anyway?” “When did they stop burials?” “A half acre.” “61 in total.”
Judge Stickney attempted to keep accurate accounting but his compatriots had been right. The celebration of the city’s anniversary had drawn swarms of sightseers like a lodestone and an inherited sense of impropriety about counting one’s money before strangers kept his eyes off the yellow tin. Impropriety, he thought, not superstition. Anyway, most decided to shorten their visit when word leaked that the King of Spain had come to make a speech and, “I’ve never seen royalty before!” By 2:00, his shirt was soaked through and he was alone amongst his friends. The empty street had tempted him to ease his mind by counting the collection so far. But, with an hour to go, his knowing wasn’t worth the worry should what tumbled out come up short for yet another year. Then, perversely, he would have to wish them in, will them to apparate. He waited dutifully, and then the sun showed three and the padlock was snapped shut.
He approached the can with dignity, deconstructed the table, folded back the chair: everything in it’s proper place. Then, taking the can with him, uncounted, he exited out the back gate, used only by the locals and those who came to mow the lawn. His hands made their own speculations about weight and density as he marched across town, which left his mind free to enjoy a lazy loosing. It was the one treat the day held: alone in those old streets, wider now but still retaining the familiar layout. Tolomato (with a new wrought iron gate, very fetching, ornate and overlarge compared to their low stone coquina wall); Mr. George Coulee’s, with it’s new addition tacked onto the back; the grandiose Ponce De Leon Hotel with it’s Tiffany stained glass windows framed in Terra Cotta. And there, plopped amongst it all, the bank: a short, squat-square modern thing.
He pulled out a fistful of cash with sweating hands, counting down small stacks on the countertop, arranging the Presidents into their respective piles, reading each one as one would read a tarot. Then the coins, like stacking little stones. The teller, a young woman with bold black hair, collected together the piles to herself. “Quarters?” she asked.
“If you’d please,” he said, with a small nod.
When she returned the little brown and orange paper rolls, he pocketed them. All except the two extra quarters she had slid across the counter without their paper coats. Judge Stickney slipped them back towards her. “For you,” he said, tipped his hat, and turned.
Success made swift work of his walk. Though, upon entering back into Hugenot, he slowed, with friendly reverence. He shuffled from headstone to headstone, unwrapping the brown paper of the quarters as he went, handling them as one would a communion wafer. And at the head of each tombstone, he pushed two quarters into the humid rich earth. 50 cents for the son of C. Cromwell, aged 6, who still went red and silent when he thought of his father’s pocket knife which he had lost in the guppy mud of the San Sebastian river; 50 cents for Flora Foster, who still preferred the modest lace caps of the older periods to the frippery of feathers. And here was sleep for P.O Craddock, who had volunteered to go without it last year and so was hungry for each coin; and here for Marie Antoinette Mason, one-year-old but already doing her tetchy namesake proud; and here for Henry Goss; and here for Henry’s brother; and here for Mary Mickler; each set a little quieting in silver. 61 in all and everything in it’s proper place, with still two quarters left over for himself.
As he returned back to his own bed underneath the modest spire his family had built him, he let the soft hum of traffic just beyond their low limestone wall lull him back to the river where, for one more year, he could request a sleep and a forgetting.
The torn brown and orange jackets blew scattered round the graveyard, light now with their own emptiness.