“Cursum Perficio” is a Latin Phrase that means (more or less):
“Here at Last I Rest” or perhaps “The Course Ends Here”.
The phrase was inscribed over the doorway of Marilyn Monroe’s last home.
They met on a Monday in May, a day without rain, a day without cloud, on their first day as “Summer Temporary Employment Program (“STEP”) workers in a public cemetery.
“I’m Beth,” she said, taking off her gloves to shake his hand.
“I’m Andrew,” he said, taking off his hard hat to shake hers.
“Y’all are a little old to be students aren’t you?” said the foreman. “This program – usually we get students.”
“I’m going for my Masters” said Beth. And the foreman led them up out of the cemetery proper, past rows and rows of stones, into the section where the cremated were now comfortably interred beneath bronze plaques with names and numbers and dates.
“It’s a drain on the public purse to maintain and mow around headstones” he told them before he left, “And the families don’t come to tidy up on their own after about a year, but you can ride the table mower right over the plaques and keep everything just so. The two things I want you to remember are, firstly: Your overalls have to be up at all times. We do not want the public to see, upon the occasions that they come to visit their loved ones, some young lady in a tube top and cut-offs trying to tan or some shirtless young man flexing a skinny and blue-veined bicep as he trims the hedges. It’s undignified. Secondly: Wear your hard hats at all times, especially when you are under those Florida oaks that border the cemetery. The reason for that is that those damn starlings, those cemetery blackbirds, nest there in the hundreds and they will fly off in a great commotion when you mow underneath their branches – and they will shit on your mower, shit on your shoulders, and shit on your head. If that happens – especially in the morning, the morning of what will surely be a hot day – it makes for a long and unpleasant shift. So wear your hard hat.”
With that he was gone, and left them in the small shop at the top of the slope overlooking the lines of brass plaques and the great green spaces, spaces right up to the oaks that were the domain of the starlings. The shop itself consisted of a small room with high benches, two tall stools, and two small windows. Adjoining it, built at a later date, was a small machine shed which held the table mower and rakes, shovels and other implements of labor. An oscillating fan was the only concession to comfort, and the windows had a layer of dark film attached over the outside, the effect of which was intended to let those within see out but make it hard for those outside to see in, with the ancillary benefit of keeping the place a little cooler.
“I’ve done the math,” Beth told Andrew, “And here is how we can work it. We get two fifteen-minute breaks per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and forty-five minutes for lunch. We’ll work through our breaks but we’ll take an hour and fifteen minutes for lunch. I need it to read, I’m going for my masters. You have an hour-fifteen to do whatever you want. It’s fair to us and fair to them,” she said, meaning their employer, and not the ashes of the interred, who no longer keep track of hours and minutes.
Andrew smiled and from his backpack brought out a hammock, and said, “I’ll sleep – so you can read. I’ll set this up in the machine shed.”
“Sleep but don’t dream,” Beth said. “Dreams are the point at which our world and theirs (meaning the bodily interred, and not the ashen) meet. No one should dream in a cemetery. My Grandmother told me that when she heard I got the job here.”
“I never dream,” he said. “I sleep like the dead!” and he laughed.
And so their first week passed, he in his hammock alongside the table mower, she on one of the tall stools with a book at the workbench. Beth quickly figured out that she could sit on the work bench and, taking off her boots and socks, put her bare feet against the window facing the sun, so she could sit in the shade with the oscillating fan on and press the soles of her bare feet up against the window and enjoy the warmth of the sun against her toes while she read. Andrew half-slept, his eyes slightly open, looking in at her feet up against the glass. Every so often she would flex her toes, settle them against the glass in a slightly different position, and he could at times see a small groove, a particular line, on the ball of her foot and he wondered if that was a scar of some sort or possibly some specific trait, some hand-me-down of her family’s – no doubt matrilineal – and he thought it charming. A tiny spider had built a large web in the corner above his head and it bothered him not at all.
On Friday a quarter of an hour away from the end of their manufactured lunch break Beth took her feet down from the window and called to Andrew, half asleep in his hammock, his red hair half hanging into his eyes all green. “Oh my,” she said, “You must see this. A lady is crying.” Andrew left the hammock and the spider above him in the dark corner of the machine shed and came to the window behind Beth. She knelt on the bench and the soles of her feet faced him. Her hair, her ponytail, a blonde so blonde it has been made almost silver by the summer sun hung nearly to her heels and those distinguishing marks on the balls of her feet faced him. He had to fight the urge to trace his finger over them. Through the window, not far away, a woman in black knelt at one of the plaques and cried until her body shook.
“A widow, I bet,” said Beth, greatly sympathetic. “A young widow, not much older than we are. See how she cries? Now that’s true love.”
Andrew didn’t speak, overcome as he was by the vision at the grave of ashes. The girl there had long black hair that hung straight to her shoulders, so black that it reflected the sunlight in opaque hues, like the wings of starlings. She wore black leggings that ran all the way into black leather pumps with a magnificent chrome heel and some sort of black blouse tied at the waist but he was lost in her hair and in her heels and the two lines of her tears that came from her eyes so sad and so blue.
Beth watched Andrew in silence and noted that he was, in his own particular way, handsome. Hair on the red side of blond, freckles, green eyes and he stared, open-mouthed, at the girl in black before them. He looked handsome even when he looked stupid she thought, maybe more handsome than when he was not being stupid, where he would be on the pretty side of average. So he watched the crying girl and Beth watched him, the girl kneeling under a cloudless sky, and they hidden in the interior shadows of their shop.
After a time, the last tear having been wrung from her body by her grief and the sun, the girl in black slipped a small piece of paper under the plaque – slipped it between the plaque and the small concrete slab it was bolted to. She then took off her heels, black leather the color of damnation and those steel heels, and walked barefoot down the path back down to the parking lot where they lost sight of her through the trees.
“She’s beautiful,” Andrew said, turning to face Beth.
“I can’t believe she got up here in those heels,” Beth responded, still looking out.
“I think that I could comfort her. Is it right that I go see the note?” Andrew asked, looking back to Beth. She knelt on the counter now, her face to the glass, and her feet over the lip of the workbench, those particular grooves symmetrical to one another as she balanced there.
“Let me put my boots on,” she said “And I’ll go with you.”
They walked out, each with a tool in hand, to look as if they were working, and walked along the rows until they found the plaque with the scrap of paper wedged beneath it. She removed it carefully, with ceremony befitting, and handed it to him. He read it aloud:
“I miss you”
Was all it that she had written.
“Awwww. I told you,” Beth said, “True Love,” and she spoke with each word capitalized.
The name on the plaque was simply “H. C. House” and the dates indicated that he had died just short of his 50th birthday. The phrase Cursum Perficio was underneath the dates.
“Young,” was all Andrew could say, and he looked past the line of trees bordering the cemetery and thought of the starlings standing watch and of the blue eyed young woman walking there, alone and barefoot, her heels in her hand.
On impulse – what impulse guides a young man’s hand, save love but that he thinks it only kindness – He took a flat carpenter’s pencil from the front pocket of his overalls and with the piece of paper on his knee wrote, slowly and carefully
“I miss you too”
And replaced it beneath the plaque of one H.C. House.
They walked back to their shed without talking. When they got there and prepared for the rest of the day Beth said simply “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain.”
The weekend passed without rain and the next week began with long lunches, according to the math Beth had done on their first day together. From her perch on the workbench with her feet on the window Beth could see into the machine shed and see him there, asleep in his hammock. He slept, in his hour, like a baby, and she approved of his red-gold hair and the freckles across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose that bespoke themselves of sun and youth. His hands she admired most of all. Because he wore gloves outside most of the time his hands did not tan and his hands were white and proportioned in such a way that she thought him better suited to art than labor. She could imagine that he could paint, or play the piano, or hold a baby. Resting in his hammock one of his arms came up involuntarily to rest across his forehead, and she could see the palm of that hand open to the ceiling and the other flat across stomach and she thought him beautiful, like a painting or prince of some lost Celtic nation. He was trying to grow his hair longer, so it would come out from beneath his hard hat and show what young men admired as “flow” and it was long enough that some hung down through the hammock in loose curls and she thought of the foreman’s advice about wearing their hardhats at all times to ward off the depredations of the starlings and she almost laughed out loud. So she would watch him, on his netted bier, and the tiny spider above him bothered her not all. It was a dream-catcher, a mandala, and its magic kept him dreamless in that place between the bodies of the buried and her.
Friday came, and Andrew mowed under the Florida oaks, their trunks very nearly black in the shade of their leaves. The starlings above darted like shadows and fled to quieter confines within the cemetery borders. He dared not look up while they flew, and no harm came to him. A lone Cardinal, black masked and crimson feathered – a red so red as to “out-Herod Herod” – sat on a fencepost and watched him intently. He stopped the mower and reached out to it, and it wasn’t until he had almost touched it that it too flew away, up into the leaves and away out of sight.
At lunch the black-haired woman came, walking up the path that lead to H.C. house, outlined against the darkness of a far off summer storm. She wore black leggings again, but a red blouse, and red shoes.
“Those are suede,” Beth said, and Andrew, hearing this, came up from his hammock like a ghost to join her. The woman came up, a vision in black and red, and even from where they watched they could see the tears on her cheeks, the set of her mouth showing how she was trying not to cry. In her hand she had a single piece of paper, a white so white, folded in half, and when she got to the plaque she got down upon her knees and wept openly and again her body shook. Beth and Andrew held their breath but, complicit, did not stop watching.
“I don’t know how she got up here in those,” Beth said, again referring to the shoes. They too had a ridiculous heel, a vision in red suede. Andrew only half heard Beth. Instead he leaned, his face almost against the window, to watch the woman’s lips move as she spoke aloud to the brass marker of H.C. House’s last place on earth. At long last she took the paper, and slid it beneath the plaque and its concrete base. There she found the note from last week and withdrew it.
She read it holding it in her left hand and with her right fingertips touched on the raised lettering of the plaque. Done, she straightened up and looked around, first to the rows of stones and the main shop, so far below, then to see if she had been followed, and lastly to the small shop, wherein two Summer Temporary Employment Program workers hid behind a dark window, in shadow, and tried not to breathe, not far from a tiny spider’s veil.
She kept the note and got up, taking off her red suede heels and walking back barefoot from whence she came, alongside but not on the path. And Andrew thought that he could see that her toenails were painted the same vivid red as her shoes, or perhaps the same red he’d seen on the fearless Cardinal earlier, and he wondered if the week before they might have been painted black.
“She wore the same leggings,” he said to Beth, after the woman was far enough away he was sure she could not hear.
“She’s a rich girl,” said Beth, “Did you see those heels? She probably has twenty pairs of the same black leggings. In fact, she probably never wears the same pair twice. She gives them to charity once she takes them off. I know the type!”
“She is so beautiful,” said Andrew. “Her eyes are so blue,” and then without waiting for Beth he went out to get the note. Beth had to walk out with him barefoot, her own socks and boots still on the floor by her chair. When they got to the plaque they looked once more to see that they could not be seen from the parking lot before taking the note up from where it lay.
I love you
Was all that she had written.
Andrew quickly wrote:
“I love you too”
On the back, refolded it and secured it. He looked off to the distant storm. “We’re going to get rained on. The note will be destroyed.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Beth said, “That storm is across the river. Storms don’t usually cross the river. I don’t know why but they can’t – unless they’re really bad. My grandfather told me that once.”
They worked to the end of the day and the storm did not cross the river and instead moved away to the southeast. The starlings returned to their roosts in the oaks and the weekend came on in shadows, indistinct, and without a sound.
The next week walked in heavy, still and dry, and it was so hot in the shed he could not sleep, and the spider, with no dreams to catch and no souls to ward retreated to the dark corner of its web and would not come out. The window would be too hot by noon for her to put her bare feet against it and Beth, like the spider, retreated into a corner and set the oscillating fan on high, which disturbed the pages of her book.
“What are you getting your Masters in?” he asked her, speaking slowly in the heat.
“Marine Biology,” she said. It was hot enough that she had to think about her answer.
“Don’t do it,” he said. “There’s no money in it. Got good marks? Sure, you’ll get a couple of research assistant positions here and there, but they won’t pay. You’ll live grant by grant and usually it’s someone else’s grant. You’ll get hit on by some hairy-legged, glasses-wearing, shaggy-bearded teaching assistant in flip-flops and a Tilley to the point where you’ll be afraid to drink when he’s around – and more afraid to be around when he drinks. Eventually you’ll marry some guy you meet in a bar, some guy with a finance degree and a cubicle in a small branch of a big bank. After the kids are big enough you’ll start going to yoga and eventually become a part-time instructor. You may hold a real-estate license too. If you want to swim with the dolphins do it in Cancun when you go to some all-inclusive, child-friendly resort. Trust me.”
She laughed in spite of herself. “I don’t think I love you any more either,” she said.
“It’s the heat,” he said. “I apologize. Enjoy the dolphins.”
And so the week passed, sleepless and without books, until Friday came again. In the morning Beth was summoned by the foreman to come and work with the crew amongst the headstones, the old markers, the shallow indentations of those buried with the wealth marked by granite and the less wealthy by concrete. Andrew, alone, mowed above the cremated. The starlings were silent – gone, and he saw, blue-feathered and fury-eyed, a number of blue jays in the Oaks. Blue Jays are the spree killers of the bird world, and killed the starling young where they found them, smashed their eggs, and stole their nests. This must have happened before the sun rose, Andrew thought, as he had not seen a great wheel of starlings leave the trees at all that morning but still they were gone. In their place the jays puffed out their chests and called out their scorn and here or there threw the murdered starling chicks to the ground without getting too close to him.
He rushed to finish and after he’d parked the mower in the machine shed and closed the door he walked out to the plaque marking H.C. House. He looked again – a serious storm was building up to the west, an indigo sky with white streaks promising hail like a scourge, and he looked to the parking lot for the beautiful black haired girl but could not see through the movement of the trees and then to the shop below to see if Beth was walking back up and when he was satisfied neither had seen them he replaced the original note, with one on white paper, written just so:
I love you too
I wish that I could feel the heat of your skin, like sun on sand, pressed against me. I remember the taste of your mouth. I dream, even in this, a deep and dreamless sleep, of your hand, your hands soft on me and we press together so tightly that we tumble and roll together and are one.
Life is temporary. Eternally we will be weightless. We will be without gravity. We will forget how to speak, what the words mean, what words are.
I do not want to forget how to speak. I should not want not be consumed. But I will forget how to speak; I have only forgotten to breathe.
After when we are together again we will be a little bit closer to living than to dying. This is just a temporary purgatory made of inches apart that is the sentence we share between our embraces.
He got back into the shop a few minutes ahead of Beth, who had walked up from below. Neither said anything as they sat and ate and looked out the window. In due time, the black-haired girl appeared, walking up the hill ahead of the approaching storm, her arms wrapped around her, unsteady in the wind. Leaves torn off of the oaks, feathers from dead starling chicks, and all manner of tiny detritus moved up into the air in the updraft moving into the sky. They all had the appearance of being moved by their own spirit.
“Look. At. Those. Heels.” Beth said, not even trying to be quiet. The vision in black wore the same suede heels as last week only in vivid blue, blue suede the color of the Blue Jay’s wings, a lightning strike, the color of her own eyes. She wore the black leggings (they did look new) and a white blouse. Andrew could see a note in her hand and see that her nails were blue, an exact match for the shoes and he stared, open-mouthed again, and in awe.
“I told you,” Beth said firmly. “Rich chick. Red rinse, Blue rinse. Red heels, blue heels. $120 a pop for the hair and $300 for each pair! She’s rolling in it. And what’s more she’s not a widow. She’s an heiress! She’s his daughter!”
Andrew looked at Beth, open-mouthed, unusually stupid. Lightning flashed and lit up the shop even through the tinted windows and the thunder shook the panes and the spider, the tiny spider in the shed, dropped from its perch and struggled to find the center of its web.
“Come again?” was all he could say.
“Yeah,” Beth said. “Did you not notice her hair? A rinse to match her shoes and nails. Every time. You are so cute when you’re thick. And yeah. In the main shop they have a computer and on that computer is the cemetery map. Plot by plot, name by name. Dates too. And – for most of the new ones – a link to the obituary. I didn’t have time to print it out. But I remember thus much – Henry “H.C.” House, financier and philanthropist, a bunch of blah blah blah survived by his one true love, his own image, his daughter Veronica. No mention of a wife so that means he probably had an ex-wife – or more than one. He was rich. There was some ‘private ceremony’ stuff and a request that in lieu of flowers donations be made to some foundation.”
“You told me she was a widow!” Andrew said, his voice cracking like a twelve-year old’s.
“I was just guessing,” Beth said. “How could I know?”
Out, kneeling at the plaque, in front of an approaching wall of blackness in the sky, the beautiful girl, bereft of her father, tore Andrew’s note from where it had been wedged and read it with her eyes dry, her hands shaking. She crumpled it up and looked around, and then looked right at them. The wind came up and it began to rain, cold and hard, the first three drops descending like anger and ricocheting off of the window and the tin roof of the shed.
“It’s going to hail,” said Beth. She got down and lay under the workbench, her book in hand. “In case the window breaks,” she said, looking at Andrew. He stood there, close-mouthed, in the center of the room, and watched Veronica in blue walk towards the shop. Lightning flashed and the thunder followed less than a second behind, the lightning bright enough to cause Beth’s boots and socks to cast a shadow, lightning bright enough to see her curl her feet together as she lay under the bench. The spider’s web in the corner by the hammock shook.
Veronica slammed her hand against the window where formerly Beth had warmed the soles of her feet and it echoed inside the shed and the rain started to fall like wrath but she did not speak. Beth tried to read. Andrew stood still and held his breath. Veronica slammed the note against the window, the rain holding it there, wet, and the ink began to run. Beth motioned with her head – “let her in” – but Andrew stood. He could see the outline of Veronica’s hand on the paper, the ink running in lines along her palm, making a shroud of her palm print, indistinct but visible, arguable, subject to interpretation. The hail came like a sentence, the thunder and lightning with it as one, and her hand came away and left the note to be dissolved and even the ink washed away in the fury of the storm.
“Let her in,” Beth pleaded, her eyes up from her book, “Let her in! She’s going to get killed out there.”
In the corner of the shed where his hammock hung the spider came out of her corner, out onto the fury of the storm to hold her shaking web in place with the strength of her legs. Andrew walked to the door and opened it. Veronica stood there, wet but not too wet, her blue high heels in her hands, barefoot in the freezing air of the storm.
Beth waved with four fingers shyly, and Veronica stepped in, not even looking at Andrew. His head down, he looked at her feet. Her toes were painted blue, electric blue, just like the shoes in her hands. No one said anything. No one could have heard anything as the hail fought in suicidal waves against the tin roof of the shed. The concrete floor of the shed was cold, and for a brief moment all three could see their breath as the coldest part of the storm passed over. The spider, with a grip like death, held her web in her corner.
At last the hail softened to rain, and the rain diminished to fall in one’s and two’s, and the darkness left the room as the sun appeared again out on the west. Veronica turned on her heel and walked, barefoot, down the path towards the parking lot. Her heels in her hands she never looked back. The starlings returned in her wake, returned in ones and twos and threes and then greater numbers and sought their ruined places in the oaks.
“What did you write on that note?” Beth asked, coming out from under the workbench, sitting on the floor to put on her socks, left foot first as always.
“Ah, you know. Just some stuff. Wanted her to feel better – her being alone and all.” Andrew said. He watched Veronica walk down the path. She seemed to go deliberately slowly this time, picking her way barefoot over the branches and debris left in the passage of the storm. Never once did she look back.
“Well whatever it was, it was too much, and you are going to get us fired.” Beth said, standing up to step into her boots, her socks all the way on.
“Only if she complains,” he said. “The note was destroyed in the storm.”
“If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s an optimist.” Beth said. “Let’s go.” Clean up is going to take days.”
In the corner above Andrew’s hammock a tiny spider relaxed her grip on her web and brought her legs in, warming in the sun as it came in to her.
Steve Passey asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work