Tommy knew something was wrong the minute he heard Beth’s voice on the other end of the phone line. She didn’t sound right--her voice tight, conversation short and to the point. Well, that and the fact that she asked him to meet her at Sutter’s rock instead of the cemetery where they always met up.
“Tommy, it’s me. I’m heading to Sutter’s Rock. Can you come?”
“Sheesh, Beth, I don’t know. If I don’t finish this Chevy this morn—“
And there it was. Beth needed him, Chevy be damned. He dropped the oily rag he’d been scrubbing his hands with, washed up quickly in the utility sink in the corner of the garage, removed his coveralls and walked out the door. John would be pissed but he’d worry about that later.
He made Sutter’s field within five minutes. Sutter’s Rock wasn’t much of a landmark as landmarks go. It was just a rock, really, albeit a very, very large rock, but it was the only very large rock in Mr. Sutter’s cornfield which sprawled over several acres adjacent to the cemetery. And if you didn’t know the rock was there, if you’d never been around in the springtime before planting and seen the eight foot in circumference by three feet high, flat-topped behemoth standing alone against the stark backdrop of furrowed soil, well then you would certainly never have found it today.
It was much more difficult to spot during the peak summer season what with an ocean of five foot corn stalks surrounding it. It would be even harder to find in a month when the cow corn reached seven to ten feet tall. Tommy did know it was there though, and he knew how to find it. Studying the tops of the stalks, he identified an almost perfect circle, void of leaves and ears and silks jutting out of the tassels. Quickly he worried his way up the cornrow, swatting leaves aside as he went.
Was she hurt? Had someone done something bad to her? Said something bad? Was she sick? This was one of the first things he thought of now ever since the shock of his mother’s diagnosis.
Reaching the edge of the clearing where the rock lived he could see that Beth was in a prone position, stretched out on her stomach, her head lying on her folded arms. She looked okay, at least physically. Running the short distance to the rock, he leaped up onto it, walked over and sat cross-legged near her head. Beth didn’t look at him, nor did she move or make in any way to acknowledge his arrival. Instead she turned her face away from him letting her hair fall across it as if to hide the tears that marred her cheeks.
“What is it, Babe? What’s wrong?” Tommy smoothed her hair back and wiped the tears away with the back of his fingers.
“It’s nothing, Tommy. You shouldn’t have come.” It didn’t sound like nothing. It sounded like a whole lotta something.
“But you asked me to come! Beth? What is it, Honey?” He continued to stroke her hair as the tears flowed freely.
“I said it’s nothing. Gosh, Tommy, you can’t fix everything! Just go back home and forget I ever called you, okay?”
“Did I do something wrong?” Tommy worried.
“Did someone do something to hurt you?”
“I said, leave me alone, damnit!”
That, however, was beyond Tommy’s natural ability. He rose to his feet, circled around her head, and reached down taking a hold of her arms. Tugging gently, he brought her up and into a sitting position and sat down again directly in front of her this time.
“Beth. Talk to me, Honey. What’s the matter?”
She looked him in the face now and he saw the shadow of pain cross her eyes. She opened her mouth as if to speak, was unable to, and bit down on her lower lip instead. Tommy reached in and pulled her to him, stroking her hair and soothing her with his voice while she cried.
“Its okay, Beth. You get it all out now…we’ll talk when you’re ready.”
It turned out to be quite a few minutes until she was ready though, and Tommy spent them going over every single thing he’d done and said in the past few days trying to determine if he was somehow the cause of all the waterworks. In fact, he had time to come up empty and try again before she drew in a huge gulp of air through her mouth, her nose being completely clogged with grief, and began hiccupping all over him. That was so Beth! She was constantly getting the hiccups! He felt oddly father-like holding her this way. He remembered the day years ago that she’d had a raging case of the hiccups and he’d teased her until she popped him. He could still see her, hands planted on her hips, hiccupping to beat the band, and him laughing his head off until she shot out with a right hook and nailed him hard in the jaw. She quieted now and then emitted another huge hiccup and Tommy stifled a giggle.
“It’s not funny, Tommy,” she warned pulling away from him, but her lip twitched just a little—just enough to hint at the birth of a smile. And just like that, Beth’s smile became Tommy’s smile. Another hiccup and those smiles turned into laughter.
Moments later, and much more relaxed, Tommy stripped off his tee-shirt and began mopping up her face. Casually, he teased away tears and mascara and snot until the only thing left on her face was the smile, and then he tossed the shirt away on the rock.
“How about you tell me what’s wrong now,” he said, growing serious once again.
Beth looked directly into his eyes, and in all earnest, answered him this way:
“I’m a bug.”
And he’d be damned if it didn’t look like she was going to start crying again.
“Whaaa….????” He tried hard to wrap his head around what she was saying, but found the connection impossible to make.
She repeated herself, as if he merely didn’t hear her the first time.
“You know…I’m a bug. I’m the bug,” she stressed. Tommy grew nervous all over again.
“You’re a bug? Chrissakes, Beth, a bug?”
He couldn’t believe he was hearing this. This was what he was probably going to get his ass kicked for later on when John got home and saw that he hadn’t finished changing the oil in the Chevy like he was supposed to have. She was a bug?
“Yes, a bug.”
And then she did start crying again—crying and gulping for air, spitting out random sentences in between.
“I’m a huge… (gulp) hairy… (another gulp), flying germ-fest (gasp)…of a bug,” she cried. “I have a proboscis!”
“You have a probo—what?” Tommy looked at her in disbelief. He stood up now and began walking away from her toward the far side of the rock. Circling, he looked desperately for a way out of this. Nothing ahead but corn, nothing behind but a bug. His bug, he reminded himself and walked back.
“Can you please stop crying and try to make some sense?” he pleaded, as he sat back down.
“Don’t you remember Kafka?” she answered. “English class last year with Miss Counts?”
“English class,” he repeated, “You’re kidding, right? You’re upset about English class from last year? And you’re telling me this now?” He was confused as hell but at least she had stopped crying again.
“Don’t you remember reading that story Metamorphosis? The one Kafka wrote about the kid who turned into the giant bug? The one who’s family was so horrified because they had a son who turned into a bug?”
“Okay, right.” He was starting to see now. Kind of. He did remember the story at least. “So what does that have to do with you, and with all of this?” He meant drama, but he didn’t say so.
“My sister was at the coffee shop the other day.”
And just like that she stopped. It was as if this was supposed to make complete and total sense now-- as though that one statement explained everything.
“Okay…” he answered, trying his level best not to think about the trouble he was going to be in later. “And?”
“And she was with her snotty friends, you know, her very religious friends. The squeaky clean ones.” As she said this, she rubbed at a stubborn spot of oil that remained on Tommy’s cheek. “You know her friends, Tommy. They’re the ones who married well; have two-point-five children, and two-story houses with outrageous mortgages?”
Kathy was a full ten years her senior.
“Yeah, I know them,” he answered. “They’re the same people who come to our shop to get their oil changed. What about them?”
“Well, this is Kathy we’re talking about. Kathy—the one who wouldn’t even be in that two- story house if she hadn’t had an affair with Jeff Spencer that broke up his marriage to Joanne. Kathy who married Jeff within months of causing his divorce—”
“I know all of that.”
“And that was after her own divorce, which happened because she had another affair with Brian Douglas, and I don’t think his wife knows about any of that yet!”
“But what does any of this have to do with you?” Tommy pressed.
“Mr. Sutter was there.”
And she did it again! She abruptly stopped talking, as if he should understand completely now. Clearly he did not. Beth sighed and went on.
“Apparently he stopped by their table and mentioned that he’s seen us hanging out in the cemetery a lot. Wondered what we were up to.”
“Ahhh…” He was beginning to see now.
“And you know how she is. She built her fancy house out of the rubble left over from destroying other people’s lives, but she’s found Jesus now, and she’s all cleaned up!”
Light finally dawned for Tommy. “And because we’re hanging out in the cemetery, she assumes that we’re having sex all over hallowed ground? That we’re doing it on old, Mr. Jackson’s grave?” Tommy giggled.
“It’s not funny, Tommy! She talked to Daddy about it!”
“Uh oh,” Tommy answered. It was starting to sound like it might not be so funny.
“Apparently, we’re scandalizing her and she’s embarrassed. She wants him to make me stop seeing you!”
“Nah, not yet, anyways. Daddy likes you a lot. But he doesn’t think we should go to the cemetery anymore. She also told him that I have an obsession with death and that it’s not normal. She hates my art, hates that I make art prints out of grave-stone rubbings. Says the poetry I put on them is dark, and just weird.”
“Well, it is a little…unusual, Beth.
“I thought you loved my art?” There was definite tension in her voice now and this was starting to not go well.
“I do love your art!” he protested. “You know I do.”
“Well she’s got Daddy thinking that I am living my life with one foot in the grave and he’s even wondering if I’m suicidal now!”
“Your sister’s a self-righteous idiot and God probably hates her.”
“Oh, that’s right. Only you can say that about your sister, huh?”
“Listen…I know that and you know that, but Daddy’s starting to look at me like I’m a bug! He watches me out of the corner of his eyes—studies me, like I can’t see what he’s doing. She’s got Mom all worried too. It’s freaking me out, Tommy! I feel like I have eight legs!”
“You don’t have eight legs,” he answered calmly.
“Ya know what the worst thing is?” she said. “The worst thing is that this is Kathy we’re talking about. Kathy! The one who slept her way to being a pillar of the community! Now Kathy is the good one and I’m the bad one? Because I like to do grave rubbings? And make art?”
“And ummm…have sex on Mr. Jackson’s vault?” Tommy laughed.
“It’s NOT funny!”
“Well, she’s right, ya know,” Tommy said. “She has a point.”
“Huh?” It was Beth’s turn to be confused and her facial expression reflected that.
“Yep,” he answered. “You are a bug.” He stood up again and held out his hand for hers. She took it, rising as well, and he went on as he led her off of the rock and into the corn row. “To her you are a hideous bug. A really gross, gigantic black fly-thingy with a probo-whatever and acid spit, which you puke up onto people food to soften it up and make it deliciously gooey so you can digest it.”
“I am?” she asked in surprise. They had reached the road now and it was obvious that Tommy was leading them towards the cemetery.
“Yep. But being a bug ain’t so bad, Beth. I’m a bug too. The problem is that we’re bugs trying to live with people who don’t like bugs. The problem is that a bug belongs with other bugs--bugs that can be their friends and accept them for what they are. You know…bugs who actually like other bugs.”
Beth seemed to consider this as they walked through the gates of the Hundred Oaks Cemetery.
“And a bug has got to do bug things,” Tommy continued. “A bug has got to do what makes a bug happy, not what makes a bug’s family happy. So I say, fuck ‘em if they don’t like it! They can’t make us do anything.”
Beth was smiling again. In fact, she was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
“Potter’s field?” Tommy asked.
He saw the resolve cross her face and relaxation set in.
“Potter’s field,” she answered happily.
They walked in silence now, hands entwined and swinging gaily in the space between them. Every so often Tommy spotted a new flower arrangement on one of the well-tended graves and broke away momentarily, pulling a bloom out of each, giving a sincere ‘thanks’ to its owner and returning to grab Beth’s hand again. A rose here, a carnation there, they walked with a surety--with the grace of people who knew where they were going and had been there a hundred times before.
By the time they reached Potter’s Field, it was as though none of the drama had ever existed. They chatted easily as they divvied up the flowers, each taking half of the bunch to distribute one blossom at a time onto the graves of the poor and forgotten souls laid to rest there.
Doing this made Beth happy. It always had even before she started doing the gravestone rubbings. She remembered those first days that she and Tommy had come here and how she’d had to teach him graveyard etiquette, back when they were twelve and still a bit intimidated by it all. They’d held their breath when they entered the cemetery back then, so that wandering spirits didn’t enter their bodies through their mouths. She always made him remove his shoes in the summertime, and they’d wander barefoot through the lush grass. And how many times had she had to remind him not to step on the graves themselves as they explored the grounds?
The first time Tommy had kissed her had been in Potter’s Field. She’d been slightly embarrassed then, feeling like they were being watched and that it might even border on being disrespectful. It was still nice though. Loving Tommy Cooper came as easily to her as loving the sunny, peaceful grounds of the cemetery. Loving Tommy Cooper was her very own holy ground and honoring that by spreading flowers made her happy.
These days, she liked to think of the flowers as a form of payment given the dead in return for the images she took of the passing of their lives. She wanted them to know that they weren’t in fact, forgotten, and that someone still cared that they had once walked this Earth. She loved rubbing sticks of charcoal across the rugged surface of the stones, revealing their names and sometimes subtle hints about the pursuits they had engaged in while they were alive.
As she gently laid a white carnation on the grave of one Thomas Bedford, 1877-1923, she heard a snigger off toward the brush and through the trees on her right. Glancing up, she saw the child. This one was new—one she’d never seen before. He stood there, hands on hips, a playful grin on his face.
Beth looked around to see if Tommy had noticed. He hadn’t. In all the times they’d come here, he never had. His back was toward her and he was busy handing out his share of the flowers. For some reason he couldn’t see them like she could, couldn’t hear them either and she’d never told him that she could. Being a bug was bad enough when it was your sister thinking that. She couldn’t bear the thought of Tommy thinking she was a bug as well.
When she looked back, the little boy was still there. He was dressed in short pants, stockings and a white blouse with a little bow-tie at his neck. She guessed his age to be about seven or eight years old. Aside from the old clothing, he looked pretty much like any other little boy to her, with the exception of being, well…not quite, as in not quite there. Eighteen hundreds sometime, she guessed.
He beckoned to her…Come! Come with me!
Beth was uncertain at first but his impish grin won out.
“Hey, Tommy,” she said. “I’ll be back in just a minute.” He’d assume she was going in the woods to relieve herself.
“Sure thing, Babe,” he answered, not even glancing around.
The child turned and disappeared into the brush and Beth followed. He had about a ten foot lead and for a minute she lost sight of him in the undergrowth. But then, just up ahead, the bushes rustled as though shaken by a mischievous breeze. He was playing hide and seek with her!
Just beyond the brush, she saw a rough, stone pathway. Thick, soft moss grew on the rock and blades of grass shot randomly through it. She heard him giggle again and was sure that was where the giggle was coming from.
As she pushed the brush aside and stepped onto the path, she found herself in a section of the cemetery she had never seen before. The canopy of the surrounding trees was thick here, and the sunshine filtered through it, bathing the clearing in soft green light. The glade itself was neatly kept, grass cut neat-as-a-pin short as though some caretaker had only recently left there. Only the weathered headstones spoke of the age of the place, mottled by acid-rain and stained a permanent dark gray. Several of them jutted out at odd angles as if the ground had tried to heave them up. She guessed there were around fifty headstones in various shapes and sizes; many of which looked to have been hand-chiseled.
“Hello, Elizabeth.” The child’s voice was melodic and almost sounded as if it came from underwater.
Turning to locate the voice she saw him sitting on top of a small crypt to her right. His hair was a very light blonde, and looked as though it had been dusted with sunshine. He had round, dark eyes, set in a wide cherubic face. He wore a curious expression, regarding her closely as she came.
With all of the time she’d spent studying the cemetery, she’d never seen anything like this crypt. Nestled in a natural depression at the roots of a small copse of trees, it almost looked as if it were underground. Moss and lichen had attached to its walls over the years adding to the camouflage effect. It was about five feet square and smooth-sided. On top of the crypt lay a poured-stone slab that was roughly level with the ground beyond. To the front of it, two additional stone walls had been constructed and acted as retaining walls to keep out the soil that might have washed to its fore. And there, right on the front of the crypt, a hole had been cut into the rock and a small piece of glass inserted instead. The crypt had a window!
“Hello,” repeated the boy. He was sitting on the left front corner of his crypt, legs dangling carelessly over the side. “This is mine,” he stated, the sound of his voice coming in waves.
The simple words ‘Nathanial’s Tombe’ had been carved on a placard above the window.
“It’s beautiful,” Beth responded, which made him smile. “But I have to get back now before he gets worried and comes looking.”
“Don’t go,” he pleaded. He looked sad now…and lonely.
“I’m sorry,” Beth answered. “I have to.”
“You’ll come again?” he asked.
Beth shook her head in the affirmative.
“I promise,” she stated solemnly.
Nathanial smiled again. It seemed he liked promises. As she took a final look around and turned to leave, he waved goodbye to her and blew her a kiss. Her cheek began to tingle and she rubbed at it as she walked off. She could feel his kiss! It had been no more than a gentle vibration against her skin but even that much had never happened before and it left her with a warm feeling about her face and chest.
When she got back to where Tommy waited she said nothing. It was hard enough being a bug, but at least she was a bug with a friend. If Tommy were to find out just how much of a bug she really was…well, she wasn’t ready to find out what that might mean to her today.
Unfortunately, being a bug in a world full of people is not something one can conceal for very long.