Lewis Love flipped through the catalog he’d received from the smiling boy at the funeral palor. To be so smiley around something as artful as death meant that the young boy had either stumbled
blindly in luck through life, untouched, or else seen horrible, terrible things. Lewis wondered if the parents owned the shop. He imagined the parents either coaching the young man to greet death
like a starched-shirt, emptied-eyed cashier or else inducting him into some insane mortuary cult.
Why deny anyone pleasure?
Regardless, it was the young man who handed over the brochure, which was filled with thousands of gravestones with varieties of shape, stone, etching patterns and fonts, a pageantry of death that excited and terrified Lewis.
But, there was still an element of the mundane. The graphics, the prices and ads—these things ruined for him the loft experience he tried to squeeze from what was, essentially, a commercial interaction. It was hardly different from the numerous other catalogs Lewis had used throughout his life to select furniture and clothing and the ever-increasing array of appliances: radios, refrigerators, records, and the funeral parlor boy had assured him it was only a sampling of the full range of headstones available.
Lewis had no point of reference for the process, as he had never picked anyone’s grave. He worked his hands over the thick paper of the brochure.
“Rest easy knowing your loved one’s legacy is fulfilled,” one bit of text read.
“Tasteful adornment for passing into communion with God,” said another.
Lewis put the brochure down on the side table next to his armchair. A ray of sunlight was pestering him through a moth-mouthed hole in the thin floral curtains that hung over the window above the kitchen sink. He eased himself up with great effort, his legs wobbly in his loose slacks like quivering eyeless beings in a proterozoic cave, pure nerves without the executive.
Years ago, Lewis had visited a liquidation sale; they were happening all the time. Though he moved slowly, his slowness helped him peruse. He would rather stay in the same spot than move, which caused him to linger longer over each box, each rack, than he would have as a young man, excited about the possibilities of each breath.
Pausing over a particularly delicate and dusty crate as the people around him rushed to make the most of their meager earnings in furnishing their crooked, wretched homes or to find something truly valuable that they could sell to a discerning or stupid elite, Lewis found a box of monographs, written apparently by a single man, that cataloged and with great detailed explained the different graves he’d encountered all over Europe.
The author paused noted each lurid or ridiculous detail. The way the photographs had been glued to the pages, with care, but in no apparent order, made Lewis believe that the volumes were never intended to be seen. They had the quality of a mother’s photo book, except for the scrawling handwriting that often trailed off the page and carried over onto scraps of paper stuck into the spine.
Soon, Lewis had the box in his hands, passed a few coins to a broken man in a tattered suit and carried his box home, where he leafed slowly through the pages as the crowds amassed outside, many dying in the street horrifying deaths of pain and hunger that went unmarked by any measure. L He walked confidently, if slowly, down the street with his prize.
Lewis remembered all this as he edged across the room. The depression, as they called it, was over, and his own life was coming to an end. He’d walked the same stretch of city, from where he’d bought his treasured collection of grave books, to his home. where once he’d seen lines of broken people, soulless in his mind and, he was sure, in history, he now saw excited men in crisp uniforms and proud but red-faced wives or workers with healthy arms and bellies walking in haunting unison under the posters that blazed with savage eyes of the German and the Japanese, of calls to arms and glittering depictions of holy engines and factory lines. He hid his hating eyes behind the folds in his face.
Did they not know that they were simply crossing the giant sea that was itself a tomb not just for countless unmarked or harassed bodies but to a millennia of fish and creatures so large and full of solar lust that to even gaze upon their bones would be to make the very idea of god laughable? Or that the whole of Europe was a face pocked with so many graves, those that morphed from twisted horrible forms of hell-to-come to the respectable graves of the thin-lipped clerks who had formed this American country that changed into the simple stone that bore just name and number as if the life extinguished beneath it, fodder for the churning world was simply a cheque made to a penurious god. And worse, the sarcastic and soppy epitaphs of the writer who went into death cleverly like at a dinner party. And all the flowers! The horrible wreaths of fragile life constantly dying in pathetic homage to single life that sat so close to the mausoleums that truly spoke to the truth of the blessed state of death and closer still to the underground pools of bones, the mass graves, that marked the truth of life.
As he stood above his torn curtain, washing his hands for minutes on end, cleaning every detail of the fingernails which had grown innumerable times to protect the nerve endings that defined and propelled the civilizations that had grown from bush to bomb, now trembling and capable only of feeding his body and flipping through the ever-dirtying pages of his books of tombs, he looked out the window at the smiling faces and frowned. His life had not been an unreasonably bitter one. He’d never despised age for age’s sake, he thought. The father’s that watched proudly as their sons went to be ground to dust were no better. And they rubbed their hands as the war machine turned them profit after profit, without realizing that the coordination of the ancient pyramids with the stars that the crazed author of the tomb book had pointed out were directly related to the relationship between the earth itself and the tomb floating in the death field that is space. That their gleeful belief in progress and in justice were no different from the medieval kings who believed the next battle, the next marriage would write the names of their dynasties into the very fabric of the species, of life itself, instead of becoming the jokes of history, their names themselves tombs in the sprawling screaming scrolls that laid had escaped the flames just to become a graveyard of echoing things.
Each confident face would just as quickly kill him as any German for thinking such things. The pessimist was the witch, and those who had just years before looked out from inhuman eyes at the rich who rode in to cast their doomed net of numbers over the material world would just as soon rip him to shreds, to exhume his past and hang that, than to listen to what he had to say. So he stayed quiet. And in his quiet his mind raced on, spinning together his own thoughts together with the craven tomb writer whose book had demolished, one century at a time, one tomb at a time, every bit of illusion that Lewis had kept still as he walked the long path towards his own death.
“Plato believed that forgetting was the true key to man’s philosophical potential,” the madman wrote, “but what truly defines our species is the potential to remember, pointlessly.”
Lewis walked over to his mattress and pulled a box from beneath it. With stiff hands he removed the lid and pulled out the stacks of bills within. He thought he heard a squadron of warplanes fly above, heading out in their cruel parody of thunder. The crowd outside cheered.
Hitler’s beliefs are infantile, he thought. But the result of his actions are the truth of the species, he thought again and his lips turned up into his scrabbling beard. Another round of planes flew and another cheer erupted. He wobbled back over to his chair, his heart beating faster than his fingers could move. As a third squadron flew above, a subway shook the ground and the wreckage of Antietam flashed before his eyes. Nearly a century of American life thundered around him. His own home hummed with electricity.
He picked up again the brochure and hated, with the passion of a crowd, the smiling young man who’d given it to him, and he loved him, loved him like he loved the crazed writer who scribbled on in secrecy, death-obsessed, all death-obsessed. As soon as we could speak its name.
Some time later, the sun having set and rose many times, casting its beam through the ruined window veil, the landlady, a quiet woman, had her young son force his way into the door that bore the name of Lewis Love. The old man sat cold in his upholstered chair. On his lap he held a stack of money and a brochure, open to a page where lay circled a gravestone with a rounded top and written on it in barely legible scrawl were the words “Remember me.”
The landlady, horrified and held up by her stone-faced son, called the police, then the hospital and went back to her room to listen to the war end.