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Here is a fireside reading of “Girl in White” by yours truly with my trusty companion.
Girl in White,
I was walking in the cemetery with my dog, Maggie. We are caretakers of sorts. Unofficial titles, of course, but the dead see us every day. I tip my hat and make notes. I am not afraid and I like the quiet. It is actually a nice place with hills for calf muscles and names to remember.
We were nearly a mile into our ritual. The heat of the day was still in full effect. The sun blazed off the tar walkways. That was when my dog stopped pulling, about a mile in. She’ll pull in the beginning, want me to run. Today wasn’t a running day. Today was a talking on the phone day. Same shoes, different activity.
That’s what I was doing when I saw you. You were sitting there with your legs sprawled, wearing a white shirt and some kind of shorts near the stairs that led down a row. I could tell you had dirty blonde, mid-length hair with thick, black mascara that had to be running. You waved to me and voiced hello.
I thought it strange to see someone else alive in this place amongst the dead. You don’t see a lot of movement in a cemetery. My dog does get distracted by the occasional squirrel or bird, but you don’t see a lot of human movement. You don’t think you see human movement anyway, or certainly wouldn’t want to. That is not why we go there.
You waved and I waved with my only free hand which held my phone. I waved with my phone. I’m sorry. I didn’t know if you were trying to get my attention or if you needed something. Maybe you just wanted to talk. The phone call I was on was important and couldn’t wait. I’m sorry if I left you there all alone with the dead.
I still wonder why you were just sitting there in the cemetery. Sometimes I see workers but not very often. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas, I can sit on my porch, drink my coffee, and watch the well-wishers drive in, take their moments, and drive out. I don’t gawk at them. That would be disrespectful. I do notice them. I wonder if they ever notice me watching over the place. I wonder if they know that I would report any vandals, that I don’t let my dog on the grass, except at the very top where there are no graves. There’s just an empty field there for future sadness.
You were the only other person alive for miles and I brushed you off with a half wave of my phone. I am so sorry. I should have at least said that I would make another round and then we could have a chat. I would finish up my conversation, come back, and we could talk about things for a bit. If I had just said that, the person who was on the phone wouldn’t have minded at all.
Maybe we could have gotten along somehow. You seemed pretty but in distress. Perhaps we could have walked together. Since Maggie wasn’t pulling, you could have had a turn leading her. You could have tried her out and I could have rested my arm as we had our secret meeting. I should have at least stopped and asked if you were alright.
You were the only one amidst the sprawling mementos of the dead. I thought that anyone there who was just sitting, and not at any particular grave, surely must have been lost. I was marching somewhere with my companion. We had places to be. We had exercise to get in and phone calls to receive.
Twenty years ago, without the contraption, I would have no doubt stopped and heard your entire life story, the way you wanted to tell it. I have that effect on people. They spill their guts all over the floor and ask me how it looks. I tell them they’re okay. They feel better. I feel interested. Twenty years ago, we could have learned something about each other. Instead, I was on the phone.
I walked around and tried to stretch my neck to see if you would stay put. I wanted to see if you heard my mental note that I would be back. ESP doesn’t always work. Must be all the Wi-Fi and cell signals. I lost sight of you over the hill. I went back to the top, back to the grass that I could let my dog walk on, and we made a good jaunt of it, another mile perhaps, maybe more.
My conversation ended and I made a B-line back to where you were. I had the sinking suspicion that you wouldn’t be there, that I missed my chance. I went, circled around and around, looking for you in that white shirt amongst the shiny tombstones, weather-beaten memories, and perfect grass.
I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I couldn’t find you. I circled around and around, searching, hoping, and whispering. I went back up to the top of the hill to gaze down, see if you went somewhere else to find shade and wait for me. My eyes darted for you; maybe you were checking out another grave or family plot. I couldn’t see you anywhere. I looked over my shoulder to see if you were following me but my neck doesn’t turn the way it used to. Not since they cut into me.
I wanted you to be there. I wanted to take that walk with you and learn all about your life. Then, maybe we could have gotten into some trouble. Maggie wanted water but she was still game for whatever and we could go farther. Dogs have a way of suffering for the sake of adventure. If I went five miles more, she would still go on without complaint.
We went to the old side of the cemetery. The one with big oaks and bushy cedars, the side with more shade. I thought if you were waiting for me, you would be over there. You weren’t. I headed for the parking lot of the community pool which sprawls a half a mile away to the west with no luck. I thought I saw a white shirt down the street, at the bottom of the hill, at the dog pound next to the place that sells monuments and tombstones. Engravings just for you.
When I got there, it was just a man loading his car. I got nervous. When I looked back up at the cemetery, the hills, again, I searched for movement. I searched for any sign that you were still there, that you were still waiting for me. I saw nothing but the glinting stones and fake flowers in rows.
I started to panic and cry a little on the inside with the heat. I didn’t want to give up. I marched down the main road and headed for the cow pasture, trekked up the side road with those houses and bamboo. I thought the cows would know where you went but a calf just ran from me like she hadn’t seen a man with a dog before. The older heifers just stared.
There was one that was browner than the others and stood by itself away in the pasture and the small-rolling hills of the thick green grass. I thought it may know where you went off to. Then, I realized why he was standing by himself. It was the bull. He was staring in the distance, picking out his next cow to mount and inseminate.
Is that all I am? Is that all I’m doing?
I stopped halfway down the road and thought about going back to the cemetery. I thought about marching back to where you were, and if you weren’t there again, we would trudge right up to the top and wait. I turned around and Maggie followed, only to take five steps and turn around again. Instead, I thought you might be on the main road, so I continued on.
You weren’t on the main road.
When I cut back up on another side street that parallels my house, Maggie thought we were going home. I wasn’t ready yet. I was still looking.
The wide angle of the cemetery appeared before us again, and again I looked for your movement. I looked for your white shirt. I couldn’t find you.
I cut in front of my house and headed towards town. Maybe someone there would know where you went. Maybe they had seen your face too, maybe someone there was helping you. Maybe you were walking and I could give you a ride or we could go together.
I wanted to know you. I wanted to love you. I wanted to cause problems and find solutions. I wanted to take your problems and make my life complicated. I wanted to wipe your tears, if that’s what those were.
Why weren’t you there?
I made it all the way to the community garden, turned around and headed back. I asked my distant neighbor if he saw anyone that looked like you. He thought I was crazy. He made me repeat where I first saw you. I witnessed goosebumps form on his neck. I could tell he wanted me to go away. My enthusiasm was disrupting his watering of the ferns and trimming of his mums. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He was perfectly fine in his house which was built farther down the road from the cemetery than my house was all those years ago. He didn’t want me to bring anything to his side. Not while the sun was going down and the ferns needed their water.
After I gave him the scare, I figured the only thing I could do was go home. But while we were there, Maggie had sprawled all over his cool grass. Did you know that dogs don’t have sweat glands like us? Did you know they have to pant? Maggie is faster than me but in an all-day race, I would win over the ability to sweat from my pores.
I walked home in sadness which turned to fear. I was afraid that you weren’t real. Maybe you were a ghost. That’s what my distant neighbor was scared of, that you were an apparition who lives in the cemetery. That you would follow me down to his house and give him the night terrors. If you are a ghost, I want you to know that I was not afraid. I’m not perfect, but I have not been so evil that a ghost would turn on me.
We could have a conversation, you could tell me your stories, your history, and I would listen. Then, over some tea or coffee, I could tell you mine. You could learn what it’s like in this era, be baffled by our advances and technical savagery. Mystical wonders of the modern mind. You could see it all. I could show it to you.
My head hung low until I got within eyesight of the cemetery again. I only hoped that you were there after all and you weren’t hiding from me. Is that it? After I was rude to you, did you dive behind some tombstones and wish for your own death? Did I just not see you there in your family’s row?
I looked some more but I had to go through the routines. Dogs like routines and she needed water still. I felt bad on both fronts. We went inside. I made sure her bowl was full and went to my porch which overlooks the grounds. I took out binoculars and searched for you. I looked in the place that I saw you the first time. You weren’t there. My eyes became strained as the sun faded from the horizon. I was upset.
At that point, I wasn’t afraid of you being a ghost, or a vagrant, or a drug user hiding from the cops. I was afraid you were never there at all. That I shrugged off a figment of my own imagination. I just wanted to prove that you were real. I wanted to prove to myself and the world that I was not going crazy, not yet. That I had not slipped from the rope. I wanted to know that you weren’t imagined because that scares me more than anything else.
Please, be there tomorrow.
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