You worked one summer at a warehouse across the street from Spring Grove Cemetery, which is the third largest cemetery in America.
At lunch, you would sit with a couple of co-workers at an open loading bay and look out to the headstones and willow trees. The cemetery, known for its gothic monuments and its natural beauty, was founded in the mid-nineteenth century. You told them what else you knew about it; that Union soldiers were buried there and other noteworthy people. When you said some of the names, your co-workers shrugged.
Any actors or ballplayers?
None that you knew of.
They liked to give you a hard time because you were a college boy.
For that summer, you didn’t mind being one of them. You felt that work was important, no matter what type of work it was. You didn’t want to be the type of person who seemed better off than a warehouse worker. You didn’t talk about your plans for the future, which had nothing to do with working in a warehouse.
During your lunch break, you’d witness a man in a delivery driver’s uniform and steel-toe boots jogging along the sidewalk outside the cemetery. The man, who had a squarish head and ash-colored hair, would jog to the end of Gerhardt Street, then make the left turn at Spring Grove Avenue and continue along the fences outside the cemetery. You would watch until he disappeared in the distance. He wouldn’t come around again. One lap around that cemetery was a considerable workout.
You and your co-workers wondered about him; for example, why didn’t he wear running shoes? Sweat clothes? He, too, must’ve been on his lunch break, perhaps didn’t have time to change. He was on the heavy side. Doctor’s orders; better get in shape, or else. He probably worked at a warehouse nearby, had a dull, repetitious job. You and your co-workers agreed that jogging on the sidewalks outside a massive cemetery could at the very least help to remind the guy that he was still alive.
You think of this now as you lean back on a bench in the city park, trying to catch your breath. You are fifty-six years old. You’re wearing a jacket and tie, you’re in street shoes. You wear a face mask. You just ran what must have been six city blocks. You weren’t trying to catch a train or chase down someone who’d picked your wallet. You just started to run and . . . you ran.
You work from home these days, just a few blocks from here. You usually dress in jeans and a t-shirt; a polo shirt if you are Zooming or Skyping. You don’t wear shoes half the time. Today, you’re dressed the way you are because you had a lunch meeting with a business associate. You met at a restaurant with outside, socially-distanced seating. You had a productive discussion. Things were all right, business could be better, but it would look up, maybe after the election. It was the type of meeting you’d been used to, before the pandemic. It reminded you of the life you’d been leading, the way things had been going.
After lunch, you bumped elbows with your associate, then you each went in different directions. To start, you walked a half block at a leisurely pace. You started walking faster. Then, you were sprinting. You went against any number of Don’t Walk lights. No brakes were slammed, no accidents occurred. Thankfully, traffic isn’t what it used to be.
You sit on a bench in the park; you touch the cuff of your jacket at your brow. You try to calculate how many blocks you ran; there was Crescent to 13th to 12th to West Peachtree . . . did people notice? Of course, they did, they had to. Maybe there was a policeman or woman who spotted you and wondered . . . but they wouldn’t stop a man in a jacket and necktie who was doing nothing more than running as hard as he could. Not a white man, anyway.
You’ve adapted well enough to working from home. You and your wife have a townhouse; she works upstairs and you work downstairs. You do the work you did when you had an actual office to go to. Your work isn’t as interesting as it was before. You’ve come to wonder about it, if it was interesting to begin with. You’ve told yourself that it will be good if and when the office is open again. But you’ve come to sort of hate the idea of this, too. You think of those quick affairs, to offset the stress, the tedium. Your wife had them, too. Who was she kidding?
Once the city went into shutdown, you and your wife agreed one benefit would be having more time together. Making-love wise, you joked that you’d need to try and pace yourselves. You’ve made love one time, that happened in the spring.
From the bench where you sit, you can see people going at different speeds around the running track. A couple in matching bright red tracksuits speed-walk together. A handful of young women in gold and blue outfits, probably from the track team at Tech, lope along, cover ground effortlessly. Inside the track are a couple of baseball diamonds. The sunlight falls across the diamonds and the track oval. It’s approaching fall and there are touches of yellow and scarlet in the leaves of the trees.
You feel like talking, and it doesn’t have to be with someone who knows you. Next thing, on your phone, you’re looking up the number of Spring Grove Cemetery. Then, without any thought as to what you’ll say, you’re dialing. You raise the phone to your ear, remember to pull down your mask. The answer is automated, a male voice says, Please select from the following four options:
You touch “2” and on the second ring, a person answers, a woman, older. “Oh, hello,” you say. “I’m calling to . . . see . . . about maybe visiting. Anyone can do that, right? I used to work up there. I used to have a job in a warehouse.”
“Yes, of course,” she says. “Visiting hours are eight to six. Feel free to come and enjoy. We have literature at the office, you don’t need an appointment.”
“See, I wanted to be . . .,” you say. “As far as literature goes, you mean?”
“Oh, all right.” You have a living will that states you’d prefer to be cremated, but you haven’t stipulated yet where those ashes are to be spread. It’s been hard to imagine a fitting place. Maybe you can ask her about it sometime, if this type of indecision is something that happens to a lot of people. For the moment, it seems to be too complicated of a subject. Her voice is kind. “Well thanks,” you say. “Maybe I’ll see you.”
“We’ll be here,” she says.
You hang up, look out to the baseball diamonds; one is empty and at the other one, a man is underhand pitching batting practice with softballs. Four teens are spaced apart in the outfield.
She said, Enjoy? Well, it is a garden and a cemetery.
And, what did you want the poor woman to say, anyway?
Your breathing has become steadier. You examine your shoes, see if they’ve been scuffed on the run. You settle back into the bench.
Your wife has a Zoom meeting this afternoon; she’s told you when, but now you can’t remember. If she’s in the middle of something, she can just not take your call. She answers on the fourth ring. You say, “I didn’t catch you, did I?”
“I came downstairs to get some lunch. What happened to that turkey and cheese sandwich we had in here?”
“That? I ate it last night. The bread was stale anyway.”
“Where are you, how was lunch with … uh?”
“Okay. I’m just sitting here on a bench in the park now. I need to get back, I know it.”
“You can take an afternoon away.”
You say, “Do you remember any of your summer jobs?”
“Sure,” she says, after a pause.
“Tell me about one, real quick, just for the hell of it.”
“Okay . . . all right.” You understand that she is being patient. “I need to get out more, too.”
“I’m watching softball practice.”
“Cool,” she says, “Yeah, I was a tour guide at one of the antebellum homes. I had to wear a dress with all these ruffles and lace gloves.”
“I think you told me about that.”
“It was either there or the Sonic, serving road kill to Bubbas and sons of Bubbas. Being a tour guide paid better. I just did it the one summer. I felt like a goddamn fool.”
“Let’s do something tonight, sit up together and watch TV or something.”
“Sure. That sounds good.”
“You pick the show.”
“Okay. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m just thinking about things. We’re still allowed to do that, aren’t we?”
“I think so, sweetheart.” Her voice is light. “Look, I’ll see you when you get back here.”
You slide the phone into the pocket of your jacket and look out to the diamond where the coach is pitching batting practice. In a moment, you rise and walk in the direction of the field. You stand along the first base line, watch the coach underhand another softball in the direction of the batter. The coach wears a red ballcap, white baseball pants with black pinstripes and a t-shirt with three quarter-length yellow sleeves. Uniforms from different teams. His pulled-down mask rests at the base of his throat. He’s a black man who might be a few years older than you and you nod when he glances in your direction. The kid at the plate has his mask down, too; he smacks line drives all over. “Drive it with your legs, that’s right,” the coach says. After a few more pitches, the coach turns to the outfield and waves in the left fielder. Another kid starts running in with his head down.
You say, “Hey, mind if I hit a couple?”
He is reluctant, you can see that. You’re dressed the way you are. But maybe he understands enough. “Sure, Buddy. Go right ahead. Hang on there, Tony.” The kid running in from the outfield winds up near third base.
You retrieve the aluminum bat lying next to home plate. You get into a batting stance. The coach lobs one in, you swing and miss. This happens again. He says, “Just make contact.”
“Right,” you say, in a murmur. You watch the next ball all the way in. You hit a slow roller to third base. The kid standing there bends down to scoop it up. The coach holds up an index finger and you nod. It’s the same result, a grounder to third. You walk down the third base line, holding out the bat handle to the kid. You keep your distance. You give a wave to the coach. As you head in the direction of where you live, you give a final wave to the outfielders.
Later that night, you and your wife are situated on the couch, watching an episode of Better Call Saul. At one point, you reach over, take your wife’s hand and kiss it. Credits roll. You agree to watch another episode. You think of those grounders you hit to third. What did you expect, when was the last time you’d even stepped into a batter’s box? And on top of that, you were in street clothes. You remind yourself of that. You think of the park, the way the sunlight falls across the baseball fields on a late afternoon near the end of summer.
Andy Plattner has published four books of literary fiction and has a forthcoming story collection, Tower, to be published in Spring 2022 by Mercer University Press. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and teaches world literature and fiction writing at Kennesaw State University.