Darling Lauretta Duerrstein is dead. She died before her eighth birthday. Nearly a hundred years later I sat on her grave trying to sketch her stony likeness. She holds a headless dove on her left arm, while her right hand rests on a petrified stump. A bonnet and flowers lie strewn at her dainty stone boots. Her eyes stare beyond the shadows that shift across her long hair.
As the city's past is torn down and paved over, I can still find remnants of its history in the cemeteries. But my pencil is too slow to trace the wind-worn inscriptions of immigrant names before they recede into the stone. I sat in the scratchy grass not knowing where to begin my drawing.
A peripheral flash of blue and a thump on the sod distracted me. A redheaded boy ran between the headstones. Lauretta's hand cast the shadow of three o'clock. I stared at my blank sketch pad. A rough outline slowly took shape on the page after several erasures. The thumping reverberated closer.
I sketched quickly, ignoring the schoolboy as best I could. He was vaulting over low headstones, pretending not to notice me. My pencil jerked in queasy strokes, knowing too well that curiosity always overtakes boys with time on their hands, especially when they would like to see how accurately a girl can sketch a rock. My drawing was doomed. A thump hit the sod directly behind me.
"That's pretty good," he said. "Did you know her?"
I told him I was interested in peculiar graves and that this girl had died a few years younger than him. "Really?" he asked. He read the inscription aloud: Our Darling Lauretta Duerrstein. Born Feb. 13, 1891. Died Aug. 1, 1898. "Wanna see Freddy Krueger's grave?" he asked, hopping from one foot to the other. Yeah, right, I thought. But what the hell.
He told me his name was Christopher. He hurdled over every low stone on the way, assuring me you could win a gold medal and make lots of money if you were good at jumping over things. He told me that his father, two brothers, a cousin, and a baby had died. I told him he must be the lucky one in his family. He pointed to a helicopter flying overhead, saying that his grandfather had one just like it and had taught him how to fly. Yeah, right, I thought.
Mr. Fred Kruger, it turned out, has been dead since 1958. However, his tombstone looked suspiciously new.
"Do you like kids?" Christopher asked. I nodded. "I know some baby graves around here." He ran off to vault over another tombstone. A grave-tending couple, righteously infected with death, stared at us when he yelped, "Baby graves! Baby graves! I found 'em." A pack of pigeons fluttered and resettled with each step we took. Souls rumbled the ground, as perceptible as the sound of the flapping wings.
Bumper stickers fell from my sketchbook when I held it up to make a rubbing from a mausoleum gate. The stickers said "The Daves"--a rock band from Philadelphia. Christopher asked me if he could bring one home to his father because it was, coincidentally, his father's name. Yeah, right.
An engine whined down the cemetery path. I slapped my sketchbook shut. Christopher waved as a pair of grave diggers pulled up in their yellow cart, and I looked back at the mausoleum to make sure I hadn't left any stray pencil marks. When I turned back Christopher was sitting in the cart, laughing and slapping fives with one of the guys. The other jumped out of the cart with a rake and introduced himself as Fernando.
As any grave digger will tell a female, he only took the job temporarily--he was waiting for something to open up in construction. For now he clipped grass from the headstones. He was continually amazed by the dates on the stones. 1871 was the earliest. "Man, is that long gone," he said. "All of it. It's so long gone."
Christopher squawked for his joyride. Fernando shrugged his shoulders and grinned, "See ya later."
I trudged toward the middle of the cemetery in halfhearted pursuit of pigeons and souls. The yellow cart puttered around the path. They yelled my name and waved. Fernando jumped from the cart again and jogged up. "I thought you was his sister, but you aren't, huh?" I shook my head. "Well, like, I don't know what his parents do, but he hangs out here every day. Rain or shine, he's here. I was wondrin' if you could maybe innarest him in drawin'. This ain't really a place for kids, you know?"
"What'd he say to you?" Christopher asked as the cart drove away. I had hoped for a wild diversion, but I couldn't come up with anything better than "Not much."
Christopher stared at the ground and brushed a gravestone with his foot. "You know this color," he said, "this is the color of my dad's ashes. I have them in my room." He pointed to a stone urn crowning a tall tombstone. He had asked the grave diggers if he could bury his dad somewhere in the cemetery "And guess what?" he asked. "You're standing on the exact spot I picked out." He didn't want to draw because he didn't think he would be very good. I told him to draw whatever he saw and promised to give it to my husband as a gift, cross my heart and hope to die. So he drew a cross that he saw nearby. A buddy of his could draw good, he told me, but they got busted stealing supplies from an art store. Actually, his friend pocketed the pencils and got away while Christopher was nabbed with nothing. He had to call his mom from the cop station. Which reminded him, what time was it? I showed him how to tell time by the sun's shadows. That thrilled him until I mentioned that it didn't work on cloudy days. We walked toward the main gate, humming "Great Balls of Fire." He stopped to pick up crow feathers and vault over tombstones a few yards ahead. I reopened my sketchbook.
He wove between the shadows cast by the stately tombstones. The setting sun blazed against them, washing out the names of the dead in a brilliant glare. I looked up and saw Christopher smile.
He asked when I would come by again. I said I didn't know.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.