TO: Esquivel, Roberto
FROM: Site-67 Secure Connection
RE: thought you'd like this
announcing yourself, Roberto? found this in the fall issue of Route 5. you're a literary type, you should pick it up. unless you saw it before it went to press. sly old bastard :) i think you're going to fit in around here.
The Stars Over Misty Veil
by Lila Stone
The moon shone sharply through the cold night air, as Roberto Esquivel, six feet of lean muscle and too old to have anything to prove, informed me that we stood at the grave of George Herbert Walker Bush. I laughed. But he isn't dead yet. And anyway, here, in the middle of Nebraska?
By that point I didn't care if he was toying with me. I found him in the center of no less a group of personages than Nathan, the farmer and secret painter; Gertie, the mechanic and not-at-all secret theater critic; and Juan, poet-in-residence at Lucy's Diner. New in town and already admitted to the deepest of inner circles. He ordered three cups of coffee at once, saying he liked it hot, warm and cold. By the end of my shift I was determined to find out what game he was playing.
He solemnly smoked his cigarette, a South American brand I had never heard of that tasted of flowers and ash. He addressed the plain gray headstone that read only Tested by Fire. One day, George Bush was no longer George Bush, he said. Soon after he became head of CIA, he learned a few things. And then he stopped doing it. Someone else had to do it. He ended up here.
I was going to tell him that this one didn't count, you couldn't just make up secrets, it wasn't fair. But I stopped. The things you learn to trust are the reactions that people can't fake. You either learn that or you get hurt. And this man, gray at his dark temples, lines around his kind brown eyes and scars on his knuckles, could not have made up the awe that I heard in his voice as he told me this. Not if you put a gun to his head. I wasn't sure what to make of this. The only thing I could do was go next; my turn to divulge a secret about our surroundings.
That space over there was a blank stone, I said to him, pointing a few rows over. This was one of the things that only I knew about Misty Veil Cemetery, a place where I could have a smoke break and read a book in solitude while the patrons of the diner waited patiently for my return. Solitude is hard to find in Dotson.
The stone disappeared one day without explanation. It must have been stolen, I told him, since the grave had not been disturbed. Re-interment was out of the question. I completed my trade for the secret fate of the 41st President of the United States. His turn again.
But he stopped. I had thrown him off balance somehow, this remote traveler with a center of gravity deep beneath the earth. Surely that can't top the secret grave of a famous person. My laughter died on my lips before I had a chance to regret how girlish it sounded. That serious look crossed his face again, and I knew my secret got into him somehow, and with that we now were well past the point of flirtation and curiosity. I shivered a little.
Tell me who you think is in that grave, he said. It wasn't a command, but he knew that I had an opinion on that. And he knew I would answer.
I had thought often of who lay beneath the smooth, featureless stone. I had deduced that he must have been from out of town. Nobody dies in Dotson without someone knowing the body. Strangers in Dotson tend to be artists, so he must have been somehow connected with the scene. But then an artist in Dotson will always be known to someone, so maybe he was connected in some other way. The stone was nice, so someone cared about him. Maybe Reverend Abernathy could have arranged that, but it wasn't like him to leave no message.
Roberto's eyes stayed locked on me. He didn't move a muscle. My logic was sound, he said. But this was beyond logic, and I knew it. He told me that not as an accusation, but almost like a professor, prodding a student. He was full of little distinctions like that, things that could be easily taken a different way if you didn't pay enough attention. That's probably why I was really out here. And anyway, he said, how did I know it was a man?
I smiled. Just a hunch.
What other hunches do you have? He remained serious. Transfixed.
At times, as I stared at the horizon beyond the blank stone when it was here, I thought about that. But it felt like I was doing something untoward. Making the dead fit my own story, when they couldn't fight back. Letting daydreams and fancies cheapen the tranquility of this man and his resting place. Something in Roberto's eyes gave me permission.
I think he was from somewhere far away, like you, I started. I imagine a man who lived a life that wasn't concerned with jobs and deadlines and bills. But he still understood all kinds of people. I think he would have been interested in what a waitress had to say, just like you. Whenever I came out for a smoke, I could imagine him lighting my cigarette and telling me a story or a joke.
A slight nod. I kept going.
Someone loved this man. Many people did in all kinds of ways, but this man shared something with somebody that goes farther than any of that. See, that's why the stone was blank. There weren't any words that could have gone on it. Nothing would have suited. And his monument had to be something mysterious, frustrating, inspirational. It makes me sad, to think it's been stolen.
In that moment, it did indeed make me sad. Why does talking about something help us to grasp it? Why had the enormity of this loss of a monument only become clear to me now? None of that mattered. Something about the two of us here, this time and this place. There is nothing so intimate as sharing a stranger's grief. There was so much about this night that I did not understand, but I knew something about who these two men were now.
I wiped tears from my eyes, strangely unashamed. The proper thing would have been to not intrude on what is clearly someone else's life, something that no one except these two men could have shared. But this was a night where things that were true held sway, brilliant little points of experience that streaked into our vision like falling stars in the darkened sky. Decorum be damned. I moved closer to Roberto.
He would have found your monument to be perfect, I said to him. A blank signpost for someone who was a guide to so many, he would have found it funny. But there's another meaning to it, something deeper. The truth of it comes to me like starlight, Roberto. Like out of the air.
He smiled now. Did I find it strange, to have something take hold of me like that, he asked.
I said that this had been a strange evening. I returned the smile. This is to be expected, in a place like Dotson, with a man such as you.
He took the compliment. Gravity crept back into his smile a little, the lines in his face somehow looking deeper. We understand far less of this world than we think we do, he said to me. Reality is not a settled thing from moment to moment. He took both my hands. But that's not something that you can just tell someone. You need to bring them to it, in the right places, at the right times. And then deeper truth comes forth from them, true understanding. Something I learned from my friend here.
We shared a few moments together with these thoughts, the mist of our breath an offering to the stars that shone in this place. We turned to leave, both knowing where we were going next without speaking. As I reached the gate, he touched my shoulder.
Turn around, he said. And so I did.
Behind me, the stone marking the grave of this man was back. Planted firmly in the frozen earth, impossibly undisturbed. It had never been removed at all.
In that moment, I should have been startled. I should have doubted my senses, suspected the stranger I was with. Instead I thought of the thresholds I had crossed to come to this moment. I left behind the poisonous security of my career. Cut my ties to my family. Let phone calls and messages from former friends go unanswered for months. All to come here, but something was missing. Having burned down the effigy that I had pretended to be, what was I now? Something held back the answer to that question.
This was a signal. I was in a truly unknown landscape now, a realm where God knows what held sway. I had thought I succeeded in the act of tearing down, destroying. But now, I knew I had the blank space in front of me that I had sought. Something else was stirring inside me now. The way forward was shining out into the night.
Roberto's hand remained on my shoulder. I like this town, he said. You'll have to show me around tomorrow.