Carved In Stone
By Lynne Hoffman
Former E.A.D.A. Benjamin Stone hated death and funerals, and anything to do with them. Avoided them with the same determination of whites avoiding Harlem after dark. He didn't mind doing his duty, sending a wreath or a tribute or whatever but actually attending? Brrr... The very thought made his blood run cold. He went when he had to of course, like when a family member passed on but otherwise? Not a chance. He truly, unequivocally detested funerals and nothing save God himself ordering him to go could make him go to the interment.
Yet, here he was, strolling uncomfortably along a packed gravel trail in Rosewood Memorial Garden, looking for marker number 156. According to the directions he'd received from the groundskeeper, it was nestled along aisle 4, not far from the corner of row 5. He was feeling confused and wishing to God he hadn't decided to come out here.
Ben had heard a disturbing rumor but was not given to just accepting everything he heard as Gospel. He'd been absent from the city frequently since leaving his job in the D.A's. office, often for weeks at a time. Things change. People move on, accept better positions. He knew that. Ben also knew Jack McCoy, another member of the executive board, had latched onto Claire Kincaid after he'd left the office. He also hadn't been surprised to learn Claire had continued to blossom as an Assistant District Attorney. To Ben it had come as no surprise to see Jack, in a news report, with a new partner. He'd assumed Claire had either moved on to a new position as a lead prosecutor or had moved on to a new position altogether. Lots of new attorneys cut their teeth in the D.A's. office before moving on to private practice.
But dead? How the hell could she be dead?
He looked up at the sound of footsteps scrunch-crunching on the packed gravel walkway. A couple was walking toward him and as he glanced in their direction, the man nodded in generic greeting. Ben nodded back and looked away, hoping they wouldn't say anything about it being a nice day (which it was) or how wonderful the weather'd been of late (which it hadn't). They ducked their heads and passed him, caught up in their own reason for being in a cemetery on such a beautiful day. As he looked away his eye caught sight of an elderly woman tending a rather derelict rose bush. She had pruned it back and pulled the weeds in preparation for the coming winter. He watched her for a moment as she stuffed her trimmings into a grocery bag and tried to get up.
She seemed to be having some difficulty and his conscience bothered him as he stood there just watching her struggle. He took a breath and hoping he didn't startle her, called to her.
"Can I give you a hand?" He took a step toward her and awaited her reply.
She looked up at him, nodded and held out a hand to him. He offered his in response and she grasped his wrist with surprising strength.
"Thank you. My knees... " She offered, apologetically. She bent over slightly to brush the dead grass from her trousers. Then, as though making bizarre introductions, she pointed to the marker stone and said, "My father."
Ben looked politely at the thin, granite slab and noted the man had been there more than twenty years. He'd been 82 when he'd died. He made no comment to the woman he'd helped up. What could he say? I'm sorry? It wasn't a recent loss. She was probably in her 70's herself.
"My mother used to look after him but she suffered a stroke last year... "
Now was the time to offer condolences he thought. He started to say he was sorry but she kept right on talking, "Mother told me she'd be joining him soon. I just thought I'd better come out here and make sure things were, well, you know... " The woman stopped talking then, she seemed to realize the fruitlessness of her actions and Ben noticed a tear trickling down her wrinkled cheek.
He gently patted her shoulder in mute condolence.
She wiped the tear off her cheek with a tissue and asked him, "Dad or Mother?"
"Me? Neither... " He reached into the pocket of his overcoat, withdrew a crumpled slip of paper and using it as a pointer, gestured up the path, "Do you know if I'm heading in the right direction?"
She took the paper from him and squinting at it, read it, "Yes. Just keep going along that way, but when you come to that large ugly statue of Hitler's twin brother, cut across the lawn to the fountain. It should be in there. First thing you need to know: the groundskeeper gives lousy directions."
Ben nodded and took the slip back from her, "Thank-you."
"Thanks for the hand up young man."
He smiled and nodded. Young man indeed, he was in his fifties already for Heaven's sake. He stepped back onto the pathway and made his way to the ugliest statue he'd ever seen. Ben took the woman's advice and headed toward the fountain. It was a newer area of the cemetery. He felt less comfortable here than in the older end.
In the older section, where he'd been speaking to the woman, he found some comfort in the shade of the outstretched boughs of the old growth elms. They kept him from feeling vulnerable. Here in the new section there wasn't that protection. There were shrubs, strategically placed throughout the grounds to separate one section from another. There were a few statuettes along the far boundary but the few trees planted there were young saplings, not yet large enough to give either shade or protection. He hesitated for a minute before firmly stepping out onto the manicured lawn.
The markers were more modern here, the epitaphs far less traditional, some quite personal. Most were well cared for. People loved in life and still loved afterward. People who died recently enough to still have regular visitors. People who knew who they were, knew what they were like, knew their personalities. He started to read the markers. Some of the bodies beneath the ground had been younger than he was when they'd died. Some of them, if they were still living, would still be younger than he was.
She would be.
Maybe he could just go home now. The grave actually existed. The groundskeeper had all but confirmed that by giving him the instructions on how to find it. Maybe he didn't really need to see it to believe it.
Yes, he did.
He kept looking, searching for proof... until, there it was. He'd found it. Her grave. He felt his breath catch in his throat and struggled to swallow the lump that was forming in the back of his throat.
The plot was still settling, the brown earth still mounded in a gentle heap. Tributes still overwhelmed the little area. Some were starting to tip over and needed to be removed, their dry blooms beginning to look out of place amid the newness of the plot. He faltered now that he was so close. Tears stung his eyes and made it nearly impossible for him to read her marker. He dropped to his knees and read the small notation:
Ben groaned and struggled to his feet. It wasn't fair. She was so young... Her life had held so much promise... She should have gone on to really make a name for herself in their shared profession but then, nothing was carved in stone...
Wrong, he thought, correcting himself, some things were. The proof was in the soil at his feet. Claire was dead. It was carved in stone.