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#137

Grave Light



              Clarissa knew everyone at the viewing thought that her grief had made her stupid when she decided that her dead boyfriend Alfonso looked cold in his casket, but that didn’t stop her from driving to his apartment, fetching his thick, orange bathrobe, and then driving back to the viewing and wrestling his body into it. When she was done, he looked a lot warmer and that made her feel better. She knew it was just a body and it wasn’t feeling anything – well, she knew that as well as anyone could claim to know that – but, so what? First, she thought he looked cold, and then, with the robe on, she thought he looked warm and comfortable. If that seemed extra tragic to some people and they shook their heads at her in hopeless sympathy and cried even more than they already were, well, she wasn’t going to explain it to them. She wasn’t even going to try.

 

                Alfonso’s grave was in a big, old, almost treeless cemetery behind a little church outside of Multioak. There were brown corn fields butting up against the north and east sides of the cemetery. The southern end of the cemetery crept up the side of a small hill and there were a few old trees hunching over the rows of tombstones, but that was the older section of the cemetery and Alfonso’s grave was in the newer section, in the northeast corner, not far from the corn.

Alfonso’s parents paid for everything except the grave light. The grave light was Clarissa’s contribution. Alfonso’s parents didn’t even want there to be a grave light by their son’s final resting place, Clarissa could tell, but they let her stick it in the ground next to Alfonso’s headstone without saying anything disparaging. The grave light was made of frosted glass and shaped like a vase. It stood on a thin, black rod that was two feet tall and the rod had a little sign on it just below the light engraved with the words “In loving memory.” The grave light was solar powered, meaning it charged up during the day and then shone all night, tastefully illuminating Alfonso’s headstone, although in Clarissa’s mind, the light was its own thing because there wasn’t really much to read on the headstone. It just had Alfonso’s name and it said, “He died before his time at age 41. He is missed.” It didn’t even have his birthday or date of death or anything. Clarissa had spent 125 dollars on the grave light, which the online store where she’d purchased it claimed was marked down from 250, and she thought that was pretty good considering she and Alfonso had only been dating for five months when he’d died. And people would probably think this was stupid too, but it made Clarissa feel better to wake up in the middle of the night and think about the grave light out there in the cemetery, its soothing glow keeping the darkness at bay, holding the darkness back from Alfonso’s grave, but not in an aggressive, defiant way. It was more like the grave light was keeping the darkness at bay with softly-spoken reason, diplomacy. Leading by example. Yeah, Clarissa liked that thought. She wished she could purchase the equivalent of a grave light for other areas of her life too. Like, things she could buy, set up in close proximity to places that symbolically represented areas of concern in her life, and then just leave them to do their things so that, as she went about her day, the knowledge that those things were out their doing their things would bring her peace of mind.

                But then, eight days after Alfonso’s burial, Clarissa woke up in the middle of the night and something was wrong. The thought of the grave light did not bring her peace of mind and that could only mean one thing: the grave light was not shining.

 

                It was almost 2 in the morning when Clarissa arrived at Alfonso’s headstone and discovered that the grave light was, in fact, still shining. The night was cold and windy, but Clarissa felt much better shivering in front of Alfonso’s headstone in the glow of the grave light than she had at home in her own warm bed, worrying about the condition of the grave light. She tapped the grave light with the back of her hand and it did not flicker. Its glow was unwavering. Then, from somewhere nearby, Clarissa heard a small cough and her muscles seized up in fright. She couldn’t even imagine how scared she would have been had she not been standing so close to the perfectly functioning grave light.

                “Hello?” said Clarissa. “Who’s there?”

                “Sorry,” came a man’s voice. “I didn’t mean to cough like that. I was trying not to disturb your moment of reflection.”

                These were not scary words and Clarissa began to calm down. She walked around behind Alfonso’s grave and looked along the row of headstones to her right where she saw a dark lump lying in the shadow of the fourth headstone down from Alfonso’s.

                “I’m in a sleeping bag,” said the man. “That’s why I just look like a blob in the dark, probably.”

                “What are you doing out here?” asked Clarissa.

                “This is my son’s grave,” said the man. “I’m making sure his favorite action figure, which we glued to the base of the headstone, doesn’t come unglued and tip over. I forget the action figure’s name and I forget what show its from and I forget what it’s supposed to be, as in what kind of creature it is, I mean, so don’t ask.”

                “I wasn’t going to ask that,” said Clarissa. “How long have you been out here?”

                “Well, we buried my son five years ago, but we found the action four days ago,” said the man. “So, ever since then. Not since he died, since we found the action figure.”

                “Has the action figure ever tipped over?” asked Clarissa.

                “No,” said the man. “So far the glue has held. So far.”

                “I have similar worries,” said Clarissa. “I worry that my boyfriend’s grave light will go out.”

                “It’s been going strong ever since I got here,” said the man.

                “That’s good to hear,” said Clarissa. “That’s a big relief. You have no idea. Well, you probably do have an idea. Probably better than anyone.”

                “Yeah,” said the man. “You know what I worry about?”

                “No,” said Clarissa. “What?”

                “I worry that when I came out here four days ago, I left my house’s back door unlocked.”

 

                The address the man had given to Clarissa was way up on the north side of Multioak, not on her way home, and, as she tried to navigate the narrow, poorly-marked streets of the man’s evidently low-income neighborhood, she regretted agreeing to check the back door of his house to make sure it was locked. After turning around in three different driveways and two cul-de-sacs, Clarissa pulled her car up against the curb in front of the man’s small, dark house, shifted into “park,” and unfastened her seatbelt. She’d driven past the house twice during her search, but hadn’t realized it was the place she was looking for because the driveway and the front yard were filled with cars, trucks, and vans. There had to be at least fifteen different vehicles crammed onto the modest property.  Clarissa did not want to get out of her car, make her way through all those vehicles and around the house, and try the back door. She wanted to leave. So she fastened her seatbelt, shifted her car into “drive,” and left.

               

                Five days later, Clarissa woke up in the middle of the night and her room was far too dark. She knew why right away: the grave light was out. She crawled out of bed and groped about her room in the dark for her warm shoes, warm coat, and warm hat, which was difficult. It was only after she was in her car and headed for the cemetery that she realized she’d put on her thin canvas shoes by mistake.

                The grave light was again not out, but rather on, just as it should have been and, in fact, was. The night was colder than last time Clarissa had been out to the grave to check on the light, but less windy. She stood flexing her toes, gazing at the grave light with one hand resting on the top of the headstone, and she felt like a conduit, like the soft light was passing through her and down through the headstone and into Alfonso’s casket, and that didn’t mean Clarissa thought it was doing Alfonso any good, she knew he wasn’t really “there,” so to speak, but it made her feel better.

“Did you find my house all right? Was my back door locked?”

Clarissa recognized the voice of the man keeping watch over the uprightness of his dead son’s favorite action figure. “Yes,” said Clarissa, only answering the first question, but not bothering to clarify that point to the man.

“That’s a relief,” said the man. “Thanks for checking for me.” He paused. “So what are you going to do if you come out here some night and the light is off?”

“Um, what do you mean?” asked Clarissa.

“Are you an electrician? Are you handy? Do you know how to fix lights?”

                “No, I’m not any of those things.”

                “So what would you do if you came out here and found that the light was off?”

                “I don’t know,” said Clarissa, feeling a twinge of panic.

                “ ‘Cause, OK, take me for example,” said the man. “If my dead son’s action figure tips over, I’ve got a bottle of glue right here with me and I’ll just put some fresh glue on the bottom of the action figure’s feet and I’ll stand it back up. It’s simple, anyone could do it. But fixing that light, well, I wouldn’t know where to begin, personally, and I was wondering if you were in the same boat.”

                “I am in the same boat,” said Clarissa.

                “That’s no good,” said the man. “Because, listen, let’s say my dead son’s action figure tips over and I’m not here to set it back up. Then it becomes not a loving tribute to my dead son, but it becomes a mockery and it turns my dead son’s grave into an object of fun and derision. People would come by and snicker at the sight of a grave with an action figure lying face down upon it. See what I mean?”

                “You’re saying the light’s like that,” said Clarissa. “If it goes out and I can’t fix it, then it disgraces the memory of my boyfriend Alfonso.”

                “Yep,” said the man. “You’d be better off just pulling it out of the ground at that point.”

                Clarissa shuddered at the thought. Both options sounded just terrible. But maybe the grave light wouldn’t break, maybe everything would be fine. But, on the other hand, she had purchased it for half of its original price. Maybe that was because this model was faulty?

                “One other thing you might consider,” said the man. “Is getting yourself a good quality sleeping bag.”

 

                The next morning, Clarissa called the grave light’s manufacturers for information on how to fix it if it were to break. They were not helpful. They just kept asking her what was wrong with the light and she kept telling them that nothing was wrong with it yet and overall it just seemed like they were trying to get rid of her. In the end, she decided that if the light were to go out, she would call an electrician or handyman. But it was imperative that the light be out for as little time as possible. So she would need to know the instant that it went out so she could be on the phone to the electrician or handyman right away. So she would need to spend her nights next to the grave. So she would need a good quality sleeping bag. So she went to Multioak Outdoor & More Suppliers & Equippers and bought a good quality sleeping bag.

                Clarissa spent the rest of the afternoon at her house, turning the TV on and off, eating little bites of food that might eventually add up to a meal’s worth of sustenance, and through it all, fretting about the grave light. She decided that she would need to be out at Alfonso’s grave before sundown in case the light had already stopped working. Would an electrician or handyman come out to the cemetery at all hours of the night? She didn’t know. Surely there was someone who would provide 24-hour electrical repair service. She didn’t want to waste her phone’s battery searching for one once she got out there, though, so before she left, she added the number of every electrician and handyman in Multioak to her contacts and then turned her phone off.

                It wasn’t quite five o’ clock, yet, but Clarissa was tired of waiting, so she grabbed her new sleeping bag, loaded it into her car, and headed for the cemetery. When she got there, the first thing she noticed was that Alfonso’s parents were visiting his grave. Their white car was parked on the narrow gravel road twenty yards away from Alfonso’s grave and they stood side by side in front of the headstone, Alfonso’s dad’s arm wrapped around his wife’s shoulders, and beyond them the setting sun was easing itself down among the dry corn stalks. Well, that’s what it looked like. If the sun actually eased down among the corn stalks the whole world would be destroyed.

 Since Clarissa planned on being in the cemetery all night, she left her car in the church parking lot and walked out to Alfonso’s grave with her sleeping bag under her arm. Thinking about what she would say to Alfonso’s parents prevented her from noticing the absence of the grave light until the exact moment that she opened her mouth to greet them.

                “What,” she said, her voice trembling, “happened to the grave light?”

                Alfonso’s parents must not have heard Clarissa’s approach, because they both gasped as they whirled to face her.

                “What happened to the grave light?” Clarissa asked again. “Where is it?” She knew she sounded desperate and she was fine with that.

                “We don’t know,” said Alfonso’s dad. “It was gone when we got here. We assumed you’d taken it down.”

                “No!” said Clarissa. “I did not take it down! Why would I take it down?”

                “Because,” said Alfonso’s mom. “It was tacky.”

                “I knew it,” said Clarissa. “I knew you took it!”

                “We didn’t take it,” said Alfonso’s mom. “But we’re glad it’s gone.” Her eyes were bitter cold.

                “How can you say that?” asked Clarissa.

                “Because,” said Alfonso’s dad. “That thing was terrible. Alfonso would have hated it. We hated it. The rest of our friends and family hated it. You were the only one who liked it and you only dated our son for five months. You barely knew him. And, as long as we’re talking about it, most of us hold you responsible for his death.”

                “That light was beautiful!” said Clarissa. “It was comforting!”

                “For you,” said Alfonso’s mom. “It made me sick every time I saw it. It was a disgrace to my son’s life!”

                “I know how to solve this,” said Clarissa. “My friend will know where the light went. He’ll know who took it. He’s been out here day and night.” She threw her new sleeping bag on the ground, walked around behind Alfonso’s row of headstones, and there, four graves down, was the shape of the man in the sleeping bag. “Hey,” said Clarissa. “Sir, I’m sure you heard us talking. Who took the grave light? Did you see what happened to it?”

                “Who are you talking to?” asked Alfonso’s dad, walking up next to Clarissa. “Are you talking to that sleeping bag?”

                “It’s a man,” said Clarissa. “He’s watching over his son’s grave.”

                “That’s just the bed of some vagrant,” said Alfonso’s dad.

“It’s a man in a sleeping bag who understands the importance of the grave light on a very personal level.”

                “I’ll bet he does,” said Alfonso’s mom. “His son’s grave has an ugly old action figure lying on it. Tacky and disgraceful. It’s disrespectful to the memory of the son.”

                “Lying on it?” asked Clarissa. “The action figure should be standing.” She walked around to the front of Alfonso’s headstone again and looked where Alfonso’s mom was pointing. “Oh no,” said Clarissa, hurrying over to the headstone and crouching in front of it. The action figure, a purple creature of indeterminate type, was lying flat on its face, its arms bent behind it, its fists clenched in either impotent rage or futile determination. “Sir!” said Clarissa, standing upright again and placing both hands on top of the headstone as she leaned over it and looked down at the lump in the sleeping bag. “Sir?” The man did not respond. Clarissa walked around the headstone and knelt next to the sleeping bag. She reached out to shake the man awake, but when her hand touched the sleeping bag, it did not feel as if there was a man inside of it. It felt as if the sleeping bag had been stuffed full of old rags which, when Clarissa looked inside, she discovered was the case. Clarissa grabbed the sleeping bag by the bottom and upended it, shaking all the old rags out onto the browning grass.

                “You see?” said Alfonso’s dad. “A vagrant’s bed. We’re leaving. Do not touch our son’s grave, put nothing on or near it, and we’d prefer that you stop visiting it too. Good night.”

                Clarissa did not say goodbye. She looked around among the rags for a bottle of glue, but there wasn’t one. She walked back around to the front of the headstone and tried to balance the action figure on its feet, but it just kept toppling onto its face, so she gathered up the action figure and her sleeping bag and walked back through the cemetery to her car.

               

                It was fully dark when Clarissa again pulled her car up to the curb in front of the man’s house. It looked as if more cars had been added to the property, or as if the cars had been rearranged, or both. The house looked almost as dark as it had the first time Clarissa had seen it, but not quite. The windows were a slightly fainter shade of black. With the action figure in hand, Clarissa got out of her car and made her way across the lawn, weaving through the silent, somber vehicles, and around the side of the house to the back yard which was filled with even more cars, three of which were crushed under a massive fallen tree.

                Clarissa, crouching as she walked now, moved between the cars to the back door and tried the knob. The door was not locked and Clarissa mentally thanked the cowardice of her past self. She stepped into a dark kitchen and could just make out the blocky shapes of cabinets and counters and appliances. But, across the kitchen and through a doorway, Clarissa sensed more than she saw a hint of lightness in the darkness, and to her, it felt welcoming.

                Clarissa passed through the doorway and, with her right hand trailing along the wall, crept all the way to a door at the end of the hallway. A faint light came out into the hallway from underneath the door, Clarissa could see it now with her actual eyes. She placed her hand on the knob and pushed the door open to reveal a small windowless room suffused with the unobtrusive light of at least thirty grave lights of different sizes and shapes, hers among them. Clarissa wondered where they got the sunlight to power them through the night. Maybe they were moved out into the yard during the day? Just inside the door, two steps led down to a hard-packed dirt floor in which the grave lights were mounted. On the far wall was the giant portrait of a smiling little boy, painted gripping a familiar purple action figure in his extended fist. The artist had gone to great lengths to emphasize the whiteness of the little boy’s knuckles on the hand with which he gripped the action figure. Above the portrait was a scarlet banner emblazoned with the words “Haven of Comfort” in gold letters. Beneath the portrait’s left edge was a small table with a glass bowl placed on top of it. The bowl was filled with keys. Beneath the portrait’s right edge, a bronze arm extended out through a hole in the wall. It was the size of a small boy’s arm and it was posed exactly like the arm of the boy in the portrait, except the bronze arm’s hand was empty.

It took Clarissa a few seconds to take it all in, and then a few seconds more to understand what all was expected of her. She turned and looked over her shoulder and down the hall. None of the collected light in the room could penetrate the darkness behind her, it could only weaken it almost imperceptibly and form a barrier against it. But maybe with more grave lights there would eventually be enough accumulated power to push back? Clarissa wondered how many grave lights that would take. Probably more than would fit in this room. It wasn’t a very big room. She descended the two steps to the dirt floor and walked among the grave lights to the bronze arm. “Here,” she said, and she placed the action figure in the bronze hand. It fit perfectly, of course. “But you’re not getting my car keys and I’m taking my grave light.” She didn’t know who she was talking to, but she felt like it was important to verbalize her defiance. “I don’t want to pool my comfort. Collective comfort isn’t good enough for me.” She walked over to her grave light and pulled it out of the dirt. Turning to face the portrait again, she said, “This makes me feel better.” And as she walked back up the steps and into the hallway and through the kitchen and out the back door and through the cars in the back yard and through the cars in the front yard and as she climbed into her car and drove home through the suffocating streets of Multioak, the grave light, leaning against the passenger’s side window, did not waver, and Clarissa knew it never would. It would stand beside her grave someday, and although she would not be alive to take comfort from its humble glow then, the mere thought gave her great comfort now. Smiling, Clarissa reached over to give the grave light an affectionate pat and, as soon as her hand touched the frosted glass, the grave light went out, the night swooped down, and Clarissa was plunged into a darkness from which neither an electrician nor a handyman could ever save her. 




Discussion Questions

  • What are some costume ideas you could take from this story? How about dressing up like a grave light? Or like a sleeping bag stuffed with old rags?



  • Is there something in your life that gives you comfort even though it shouldn’t? What steps are you taking to eliminate your dependence on such a dumb thing for comfort? What steps are you taking to eliminate your need for comfort?



  • This question is admittedly only semi-relevant to the story: How come some people feel the need to blurt out the phrase “comfort food” whenever they hear someone mention food that is, for lack of a better term, comfort food?



  • But why the cars?



  • Do you resent the way in which the previous question seems to imply that everything else about the story makes perfect, logical sense except for the cars? As if that’s the only element without an obvious explanation? Do you resent the way that this question seems smugly delighted with this story’s perplexingness? You can say “yes.” I would. And I do.



  • Has it been clear that by “comfort,” I haven’t been talking about the sensation one experiences when pants fit well?