by Anthony Ilacqua
Jules and Thomas still lingered in the cemetery when the sun went down. The darkness fell as quickly as the thermometer. “We should get out of here,” Thomas said.
“No, not yet, I want to see what happens,” Jules said.
“It’s going to get colder and darker, what do you think will happen?”
“Burial grounds. Graveyard. Cemetery,” Jules said.
“Why don’t they call them necropolis anymore?”
“Because this is not a city,” Thomas said.
“But they’re all dead.”
“This doesn’t even look like a city. Not even a small town, you know? Look at it.”
In the dimming light, Jules looked around. Some of the tombstones had taken to sinking into the earth. Lichens and mosses overtook a few of the grave markers. The place stunk of disrepair and abandon. Seldom, if ever, had anyone taken the time to deliver flowers. Here, too many folks have forgotten the dead. “I just want to be spooked,” Jules said. “I know it’s silly.”
“It’s macabre, let’s go.”
“You don’t think the spirits will rise?” Jules asked.
“Unlikely,” Thomas said. He fussed around with the yellowed and gone to seed grasses at his feet. He dropped his hands into his pockets. “Nothing’s going to happen, like nothing’s currently happening and nothing has happened.”
“That’s a macabre thought,” Jules said. She pulled her hair back. She held the heavy braids up and then let the mass of it fall down her back. “What about your father?” she asked.
“What about him?”
“You don’t think he’ll rise again?”
“I doubt it,” Thomas said. He thought about it. It was silly thought. “Let’s go, I need a drink.”
Thomas marched through the grass to the small gravel road with the gait of a soldier. Jules trailed behind him. She was not as prepared to leave, and it showed in her sulking pace.
The gate was open despite the sign which claimed that the place would remain unlocked during the daylight hours only. The days grew considerably shorter and would be shorter still in the weeks to come.
Thomas opened the rusted door of the old Audi sedan. He held the door for Jules doing a sort of impatient dance. She exhaled loudly as she climbed inside. “I don’t see why we’d have to leave just because it got dark,” she said.
Thomas closed her door with a carefulness just under an all-out slam of the old thing. He walked around the back of the car and walked up the driver’s side. From somewhere up the canyon, a cold wind promised the brutality of a November night. He quickly opened his door and climbed inside.
“You know?” Jules said. “Who cares if it’s dark?”
“Caretakers,” Thomas said.
“What do they care?”
“They’re probably keeping the vandalism down. And teenage pregnancies.”
“Vandalism and procreation, huh?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “What else is a cemetery good for?” He cranked the key and with a choreography of automobile starting, pumped the gas and let the car come on like a person lighting a match in the wind.
“So,” Jules said. She tugged at her seat belt. “A drink?”
“What’s harder than vodka?” she asked.
“Where do you propose to get Arak? Pretty esoteric stuff.”
“Here? Forget about it,” she said. “I think you’ll be hard pressed to even find vodka in this town.”
“I know how to find Arak.”
He drove out of the gravel parking lot and crossed three lanes of the county highway. There were few cars moving in either direction. They moved to the primary lane and headed north.
The town of Pine came up quickly. The town of Pine promised very little: one gas station and one traffic light where County Road 84 and Main Street intersect.
“What was it like?” Jules asked.
“Growing up here?” she asked.
“Awful,” Thomas said.
Thomas turned from the county highway onto Main Street. He turned moving too quickly and the tires slid on the dusting of dry sand that remained from an earlier storm. Main Street proved even more quiet than the county road. A few archaic looking street lamps lit the scene.
“Why did your father choose this place?” she asked.
“He was an engineer, there used to be a lot of mines here,” Thomas said.
“But there’s well, who knows?” she said. “He moved your family here because of work?”
“All the way from Syria?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“That he was an engineer and there are mines here, were mines here. What doesn’t make sense about that?”
“Your father was a smart man?”
“He could have gone anywhere in the world?”
“He wanted to live in the States, okay, we came here.”
“I just think it’s weird, that’s all,” Jules said.
“I got this theory about immigrants,” Thomas said. “I think any immigrant who comes to the States goes to the place that most closely resembles home. Eastern Europeans when they came went to Nebraska. Swedes and Danes went to Michigan. Ethiopians and Syrians came here. It looks like home, you know?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t get it.”
Thomas stopped the car at the edge of town, near the end of Main Street. He looked out the passenger window and faced up to the store front on the sidewalk. “Here we are,” he said.
Jules focused on his face then turned to look out the window too. “Beirut?”
“They’ll have Arak too,” Thomas said.
“There seems to be a lot of people in there,” she said. She opened the car door and quickly stepped out onto the sidewalk. The smells of lamb cooking and potatoes frying filled the street. “Is this the only restaurant in town?” Jules asked.
“Why, don’t you want to eat here?” Thomas asked.
“No, I do. But look inside Tom, the place is packed.”
“There’s a Pizza Hut and a Dairy Queen.”
“Are they as busy?”
“Probably not,” Thomas said.
He held the door open for her, and she wandered in with a slow skittishness. Thomas followed and once inside he stepped around her.
A shriek came from the rear of the small restaurant. “Thomas Jefferson Abeneoux!” the voice boomed. The dining room grew quiet. An older woman with messy hair, dirty apron and rosy cheeks moved quickly through the tables. She moved Jules out of her way and embraced Thomas all the while kissing his cheeks.
“Naïm,” Thomas said.
“Oh, Thomas. Thomas. Thomas,” she said. “Welcome home. Are you hungry?”
“Naïm,” Thomas said. “Meet Jules.”
Jules smiled. Naïm looked at the young woman. “Jules?”
“Hello miss Naïm,” Jules said.
“You’re so beautiful. Thomas, she’s beautiful. Your girlfriend?”
“Fiancee,” Thomas said.
“Fiancee?” Naïm said. She grabbed at Thomas’s hand and then grabbed at Jules. She dragged them back into the depths of the restaurant. “Saïd!” she shouted. “Saïd! Come here!”
Saïd practically jumped out of the kitchen and stood in the doorway. His impatient eyes settled right on Naïm with a look which mixed panic and anger. “What is this?”
“Thomas Jefferson Abeneoux has come home to us.”
“Tom?” Saïd said. He opened his arms wide. “You look just like your mother.”
“Hello Saïd,” Thomas said. He embraced the man. Naïm held tightly onto Jules’s hand, and when the excitement overtook her, she hugged Jules again. “Meet Jules,” Thomas said.
“Fiancée,” Naïm said.
“Fiancée?” Saïd said. He held out his hand to her and she shook it. “Come in, come in,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” Jules said. Her smile ever widened.
Once they sat down, Saïd put the bottle of Arak on the table. He explained that Allah forbade it, but a good restaurant must always have it. He explained that Allah understands that brothers and sisters of other religions should not be denied the refreshing libation of Arak. He also said he refused to use pork, not so much for religious reasons than the bad smell it produced in the restaurant.
Naïm doted on Thomas which seemed charming to Jules only because of the discomfort it caused in Thomas.
“Nubian?” Saïd asked. He stared right into Jules’s eyes. This question was of course discordant with the former conversation of Allah and the serving of Arak.
“You look Nubian.”
“Oh,” Jules said.
“You look like a princess from Ethiopia,” Saïd said. “Where do your people come from?”
“Not Ethiopia?” Saïd said.
“I doubt it, I don’t know, I’m American,” Jules said.
“African American?” Naïm said.
“Just American,” she said.
There had been no doubt. There was no contest. Of course, they would stay the night. Of course, they’d stay with Naïm and Saïd. Naïm and Saïd would have it no other way. And after a few glasses of Arak, there would be no other way.
“Tom?” Jules whispered. The house creaked and settled in the stillness of the night. The sounds could be a comfort, if they were familiar. Outside the bedroom window, the mountain air, thin, moved in short torrents and rattled the ancient panes inside of old wood frames. “Are you sleeping?”
“Sort of,” he said. “Drunk.”
“I like your people.”
“My people?” he whispered back.
“Naïm and Saïd,” she said.
“They’re like your family?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said.
The noises stirred in the normal fashion: doors opening and closing, footfalls on the floorboards. Jules inhaled deeply, as one does when sleep loses its stronghold, and the mind begins to move. “Tom?” she asked. She rolled her arm across the sheets of the bed, light blue flowers on pale cotton under the deeper hues of her skin. “Tom,” she called again.
Bolt upright in the bed, she inventoried the room as she inventoried her recollection.
She slowly dressed. She stared herself down in the bedroom mirror. Then she buttoned her shirt as she left the room.
“Jules,” Naïm said. She smiled. She picked up a small glass and held it out. Gingerly, Jules took it. “You are so pretty,” she said.
“Thank you,” Jules said.
“You’re a good student?”
“You’ll get a good job.”
“I hope so,” Jules said.
“A woman must work,” Naïm said.
“A woman?” Saïd said. “Everyone must work, woman, man, everyone. I’m old, we’re old and we must work.”
“Thomas tells us you’ll marry next spring.”
“Yes,” Jules said.
“That’s good,” Naïm said. “Spring is perfect time for marriage.”
“Wedding,” Saïd said. “All the time is good for marriage. Thomas’s parents, married twenty years. Me and Naïm thirty-two years.”
“Wow,” Jules said.
“You’re parents still married?”
“No,” Jules said. She took a deep breath, nursing her thoughts, finding the prepared speech. “They never got married.”
“It happens,” Saïd said.
Naïm sat down at the family table. She sat to the left of Thomas. She gently touched his arm. Saïd worked the table silently adding place settings in front of the seated ones. In the kitchen, he plated food, cous cous and dried fruit.
“She’s beautiful Thomas, you did a good thing,” Naïm said.
“I’m proud of you both,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”
“Everyone thinks we’re too young,” Jules said.
“It’s okay,” Naïm said. “It’s okay.”
“Yeah,” Jules said. “Hopefully.”
Saïd sat at the head of the table. He coughed. He opened the linen napkin with a pop. “Never mind,” he said once all the attention fell on him. “What do you do today?”
“Well,” Thomas began. “I thought I’d show her some sights. Then we have to get back down the hill. We both have classes tomorrow.”
“You been to the cemetery?” Saïd asked.
“Yes,” Jules said.
“He was a good man, your father,” Naïm said.
“Yes he was.”
“Good man,” Saïd said. “And your mother?”
“How is she?” Naïm said.
“I think she’s good,” Thomas said. “I haven’t talked to her in a while.”
“Her husband, not cold in the ground, and she ran home,” Saïd said.
“Call your mother Thomas, she misses you,” Naïm said.
“Heart broken,” Saïd said. “She went home, I don’t think she ever liked it here, no.”
“I always hoped that Thomas would meet a good girl, Jules, you know?”
“Yes,” Jules said.
“Thomas belongs here. He belongs with you.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“I was happy he stayed here and went to university,” Naïm said.
“Better to be a student here than a soldier there,” Saïd said. “It’s enough to break the heart.”
Silence fell over the family table. Only Thomas continued to eat. All eyes fell on the table, all but those of Thomas. He ate with slow movements. He chewed slowly and methodically. He moved the mouthfuls of food from one side of his mouth to the next. He swallowed. “It’s too early,” he began. “To talk about death and war.”
“Thank you,” Naïm said. Even her gratitude soon sunk into a deeper silence.
At midday, Thomas followed Jules through the overgrown grasses of the cemetery. His eyes scanned the whole scene, the lower branches of unruly trees to the sunken tombstones of the 150-year-old Chinese railroad workers who had come from far away to die in a strange land which never really accepted them.
“Here,” Jules said. “Here it is.” She stood at the foot of the grave and faced the tombstone. “Wow,” she said, as Thomas neared her. “You know, I never knew my father?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I wish I could have known yours.”
“He’d have loved you,” Thomas said.
“Would he have?” she asked.
“Of course. You two have a lot in common.”
“I’m not an engineer, or a miner.”
“He loved American football.”
“Steelers,” Thomas said.
“Saints are my team.”
“He loved all things American,” Thomas said.
“I don’t love everything American,” Jules said. “I don’t love the debt, or the substandard education system, the crime, unemployment and don’t even get me started on the drugs.”
“All countries have that.”
“Yeah,” Jules said. “But we shouldn’t. We got the potential to be the best people in the history of people.”
“You see?” Thomas said.
“See? See what?”
“This is why my father would have loved you.” Thomas reached down, took her hand, held it. “Dad, meet Jules. Jules meet dad.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
Anthony ILacqua‘s third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions (2012) and Undertakers of Rain (2013) are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. He currently functions as editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Meet Anthony at his blog: anthonyilacqua.blogspot.com