Arlen didn’t know that graveyards could close. Yet here she was, idling at the front entrance of Holy Hope Cemetery, iron gates frowning at her tardiness in an all too familiar way. Brick posts blushed and glowed in the sunset, embarrassed on her behalf.
“I want something in time for her birthday,” Mom had said. “It’s just so hard to get out there, with the shut-downs and holidays coming.”
“It’s fine, Mom, I’ve got it.”
Except she didn’t. She tried. She planned. A schedule of useful tasks ending with lunch at a favorite restaurant on the other side of town, and the cemetery in between. Then things got complicated. Things always seemed to get complicated. Lunch turned into dinner, and her quick stop on the way turned into this.
Why hadn’t she thought to check if the cemetery closed?
Briefly, Arlen considered climbing the fence. She wasn’t sure she could find her way in the dark, though, and a night guard had already marked her as he puttered by, the white panels of his security cart turned ruddy with reproach in the fading light. Still, she lingered, and a rose-tinted cherub judged her silently. She stared at it a moment, fascinated by the clever, tiny strokes that somehow turned a formless lump of stone into a face.
The restaurant was forgotten until she stood back in her own doorway. That’s when her tummy grumbled in disappointment. Even her own body was rebuking her. As she rummaged listlessly in a cabinet, she realized she had all the ingredients for Nana’s special stew. Three different condensed soups and an assortment of packages from the freezer, a secret blend only Arlen knew because she had been sneaky as a child. Nana would not have approved. She had painstakingly taught her progeny how to make a rhubarb pie from scratch, an herbed chicken bake that took four hours to prep, and that cake they only had at Christmas. Others had mastered these, but not Arlen. She could do the soup, though.
Like Nana, the blend was sharp and seemed to disapprove of you slightly, and the smell of it filled the purple darkness with her presence. Arlen ate in the dim glow of a screen, trying not to cry. Not for Nana, but for her failure and wasted effort. She had never wept for Nana. Not the night she found out, in a phone call at least 36 hours out of date. Not at the funeral, which she attended dry-eyed from her living room, because live public gatherings had been banned back then. Not in the year since, as the world roiled and burned to the soundtrack of mouse clicks and keystrokes.
She returned to the cemetery at first light. The air was the color of a seashell as she navigated broad gravel paths, inspecting the professional ranks of gravestones with discomfort. Arlen’s idea of a cemetery had always been overgrown hillsides and leaning monoliths, knarled oaks and hidden grottos. Here the understated markers were cool and uniform against a flat open lawn, and the grass was an army, hiding the pits. A handful of stately trees offered no interference to the ordered peace. There was too much space.
Nana’s placard occupied its assigned place stoically. Like the others, it was square and flat, with small neat letters that promised all the anonymous foreboding of a confessional screen. Beyond it, a salmon-colored sheet of cloud spread across the sky, alternately wrinkled and smooth as it draped unseen limbs. It stretched above trees still black against the molten coral light of dawn.
Skittish as a deer in the open meadow, Arlen approached. The flowers she clutched were pink and fake, and the molded plastic stem bit into her palm like a scold.
“Hey Nana,” Arlen said. “Sorry I didn’t make it yesterday.”
She knelt and withdrew the small inverted flower holder from its alcove within the headstone. It slipped out like a secret, turning its mouth to the sky but leaving shadows within. Arlen stared at the empty place for a moment before lowering the bouquet into it.
“Whelp,” She said, sitting back. “Better late than never.”
Nana had said those same words, in much the same tone, when she sat Arlen down to teach her how to tie her shoes. She was ten by then and had never picked up the trick. Nana’s sigh always had a knife’s cruel edge, but Arlen still recited that rhyme to herself whenever she made a bow. Now she ran clumsy fingers through the roses, pushing and pulling, as she’d seen others do, to make them look nice. It didn’t work, but she snapped a picture anyway and texted it to her mother.
It had been different in Nana’s hospice room, nested like a sparrow in the back of a converted house. There death had been a quiet invitation, delivered with a warm smile and a gentle touch. That had been before. Soon the touch pulled away and the smile turned cool, competent, and harried. Masks went on, doors closed, and the world became the size of your television.
Arlen had been the last to see Nana alive, for whatever that was worth. The last family member, anyway, though they hadn’t spoken in some time. They didn’t speak then, either. Arlen had been too late even for that.
It was Rita who had surely been the last one to see Nana alive. The hospice attendant that led Arlen in to the snug, fruit-toned little bedroom had been short, thick, and dressed in hues of raspberry and cream. Nana lay in the bed on her back, her head bent to one side and stretched out almost too far, like an injured bird. Her breath came fast and shallow beneath sheets the color of a peach. She did not move or speak.
“She’s been sleeping a lot,” Rita explained, gazing at the supine form with a slight smile. She laid her hand on an unresponsive leg before turning to leave. Arlen tried to do the same when she was alone, her hand awkwardly resting in the same spot Rita had just touched, trying to feel whatever it was Rita had felt and wondering if there was something wrong with her.
There always seemed to be something wrong with her. Something that never arrived on time or in quite the right order. She was suddenly reminded of when Nana took her to a natural history museum but wouldn’t let her look at the exhibit on evolution. It had been an outdated and grimy installation, ancient and neglected by the staff, and like Arlen it was neither attractive nor popular. Yet she found herself drawn to that confused welter of history and life, with all its late starts and early stops, its snaking hopeless timelines. Life is a hot mess, it said, and something in her seemed to relax. It’s not just you. Life is a hot mess, and when you die your loved ones are sad, but death burns away all the hurts that made you small so they can keep the rest, and people only ever weep for themselves.
Then she had been yanked away.
“Don’t you mind all that,” she heard Nana say again, though it seemed now with a tone less sharp than before. “God made the world perfect. It’s always been exactly the way it is right now.”
“Okay Nana,” Arlen said, and she began to cry.