On the 15th of August, 2040, with the summary order papers issued by the Cemetery Reclamation and Transformation Committee, and two empty tin coffee containers stuffed in his backpack (two, because the directions had not indicated what type or size container to bring for the ashes), forty-two-year-old Greg Sawicki approached the corner of Clark and Irving Park and the entrance to Graceland Cemetery, final resting place of some of Chicago’s most famous politicians, mob bosses, architects, painters and writers. In the ten years since his father had passed, and eight since he buried his mother, he had only visited the cemetery once—the time his mother’s sister tearfully begged him to accompany her during his uncle’s visit to Chicago a few years back. Still, he forced his way past the growing number of protesters narrowing—but not blocking—the way in. He could have used their presence as an excuse to turn around, but he didn’t.
He was at Graceland because Sherry—who he’d wed only a month earlier in a civil ceremony at the Marriage and Civil Union Court—had found out that the anniversary of his mother’s death was coming up, and as she had not had the pleasure of knowing his parents, insisted he go. She sent him off early to avoid the rush of loved ones eager to get the conversion over with, and the potential for disruption expected from a fast-growing clot of anti-conversion zealots. She wanted him to get the whole “conversion thing” over with, so she could “experience them (his parents), in a way.” Her parents were still alive and had attended their City Hall nuptials—Greg likened the ceremony to "getting a dog license, only quicker”— along with two of her girlfriends and two of his softball team buddies. The empathetic judge had noted how sad it was that the groom’s parents could not be there to experience such a joyful and significant milestone for their son, and on their honeymoon—a two-nighter at the Palmer House—the judge’s ad lib of sweet sentimentality was all Sherry could talk about. After crying herself to exhaustion, she recovered and treated Greg to every sexual fantasy he could dream up. He could not refuse her anything after that.
It would have made more sense for her to accompany him and have a look-see at his parents’ gravesite, before all the changes. He could have bowed his head in some semblance of religiosity and escaped cleanly. But while he was procrastinating—the park softball league had started its playoffs—the Cemetery Reclamation and Transformation Options Period began. It was a development that fit nicely into Sherry’s plans.
“You’re going to have to choose an option for your parents, sooner or later,” she had argued. “And this is what I want. You’ve never liked going there anyway, so do it now, and get it over with before things get really ugly.”
The Cemetery Reclamation and Transformation Options Plan had never made it onto Greg’s radar. It was the direct result of U.S. House Bill 2040B, a compromise solution to the dangerous overcrowding of large American cities that had led to more violence, more tribalism, and more dysfunction of basic services than anyone could stomach. Land in cities had become scarce; less populous states had opted to close their borders; wealthy people had colluded with one another to buy up large swaths of open land in order to close it to development; new state laws required proof of a job offer in order to resettle in their less populous cities.
Greg knew little about the Cemetery Reclamation and Transformation Act itself, other than what had been proposed for Graceland: all the land was to be repurposed for residential living and a blend of aquaponic and traditional farming—"mid-rise agriculture” interposed with mid-rise apartments.
It was clear why elbow room was scarce: for the last twenty years, America had opened her arms wide and accepted enormous numbers of tired—and poor—immigrants. Huddled masses yearning to breathe free got their wish and packed cities to bursting. Nearly two decades after the Supreme Court’s decision allowing legislatures to criminalize abortion, no amendments had been passed granting women full autonomy over their bodies. The reaction of the left was—to put it mildly—unexpected. Over the previous decade, liberal America, it turned out, had felt more inclined to increase, rather than reduce, its numbers! And while rioting had intensified, it had not turned deadly. It appeared that no one, in this already packed-to-the-gills world, felt like killing anyone anymore, at least not as social policy, or even as a stress reliever. Not fetuses. Not criminals. Not even nonbelievers. It turned out all everyone really yearned for was a little more elbow room.
Had the sixteen-inch coed Lakefront Softball League schedule been affected, Greg might have paid more attention. He would have supported the National Reclamation and Transformation Committee’s first proposal—to acquire and repurpose approximately sixteen percent of the nation’s 2,244,512 acres of golf courses. If you had picked any ten voters at random, nine of them would’ve voted for it. But the wealthiest one percent of Americans owned most of that real estate, and they were not about to allow repurposing of their properties.
While Greg was smacking blooper balls onto Montrose Avenue, farmers were lobbying successfully to prevent valuable farmland from being repurposed; environmental activists were persuading congress to vote against using national and state parks. The day Greg’s left middle finger was dislocated when he misjudged the speed of a line drive, some researcher in the Department of Interior remarked at a Senate Hearing that in the U.S., cemeteries took up approximately 145,000 acres of otherwise useable land—by crazy coincidence the same amount the Reclamation and Transformation Committee said would be needed! The entire chamber gasped as the charming bureaucrat blithely described how a hundred-year-old government “lift and deepen” plan had allowed old graves to be re-dug deep enough to hold as many as six stacked coffins. There will be no more of that, remarked the Committee Chairwoman. Live people are more important than dead people! And forthwith this convenient information morphed into the final proposal.
There were cries of “insanity!” voiced by reasonable people and religious zealots, but the proposal moved forward—momentum being the operative word in politics—and America watched the process unfold the way race car fans grab their plastic seats as expensive stock cars are destroyed in slow motion. You can’t look away—and you are frozen in your seat.
Anti-transformation groups formed and disbanded in repeat cycles over the next year, unable to sustain a singular focus on why this was a bad idea. They fought each other more than the policy decision. When people in the big cities looked out their windows, it was like looking at bacteria through a microscope, multiplying in front of your eyes.
Then, like a bolt of lightning on a cloudless day, the proposal became law. Shock turned quickly into awe, as the wheels of bureaucracy turned more smoothly than anyone thought possible, and work began in earnest. Funeral homes got on board, and mortuaries too, when they realized their business models wouldn’t substantially change, seeing as how traditional burial and cremation both required coffins. Bond issues were passed to compensate both city-owned and private cemeteries. Girl Scouts at tables in front of Starbucks propped up “We support the Cemetery Reclamation and Transformation Act” signs, promising that all cookie sale profits would help fill the funding gaps. They were having a banner year.
Everyone who had a relative buried at Graceland Cemetery received summary order papers explaining their options—the papers Greg now carried in his backpack.
Even though pretty much everyone in America felt queasy about the emptying of graves and the burning of the remains of their loved ones, no one could articulate a meaningful opposition rationale. What were you against, really? Since cremation had become the markedly preferable choice in the early 21st century, what freedom was really being trampled? What moral and ethical codes were being violated? The arguments pro and con played out on Meta and other social media outlets, but no headway was gained by those opposed to this whole idea. The protestors by and large just wanted to know where all the bodies of those who refused the cremation option would end up. You were, it turned out, free to remove your relatives from the cemetery at your own cost, but then where would you take the bodies? To another cemetery? They were all on board with, essentially, their own extinction. Find some like-minded people and create your own cemetery? What to do with the coffins in the meantime? Going against the proverbial grain seemed like just a postponement of the inevitable. You were going to run afoul of the Health Department unless you were willing to dig a hole in your own backyard (too bad apartment/condo/co-op dwellers!) and you had to do so on the down-low. This was not an alternative likely to endear you to your neighbors.
All in all, it was easier to go with the flow.
So there it was: Cremation of all remains was the answer to America’s population problem, like it or not. Who needed a cemetery when a single mantel would do? Except for Eastern Orthodox, Jewish Orthodox and Muslim faiths, everyone accepted the solution. Politicians on both side of the aisle opined that you were never going to get everyone to agree on anything, much less something as volatile as this, so why try? Those religious minorities were free to whine and take the more costly and difficult route. But even the Catholic Church, historically unsupportive, ended up making room for the new policy, provided a proper Funeral Mass took place beforehand.
Once plans were in place, and all the big cities were at the “get set” stage, opposition started to grow again, with small, peaceful crowds gathering at entrances to cemeteries. All this activity had escaped Greg’s attention. The City sixteen-inch League Playoffs were in full swing. But after Sherry put her foot down, she had given Greg a crash course in the social impact—and personal responsibility—this Act had placed on every city-dwelling American. On the first day of the Options period, protests exploded all over the country, like dying embers that had been carelessly left unattended, until a wisp of a breeze ignited them. Government officials began to worry that the same kind of religious furor that had fueled the rollback of abortion rights was about to be brought to the doorsteps of America’s cemeteries. The protestors Greg encountered as he passed through the gates of Graceland’s fabled brownstone entryway were not zealots, however. They did not carry signs, or yell hateful slogans at the people who only wanted to do their small part in the crusade for more elbow room. He did not feel threatened by the swarming mass of people. There was a police presence, but no one really believed that this odd mix of class and race and religions had a coherent enough agenda to turn their energy into violence.
Greg was going to sign whatever papers he had to sign, cremate and collect his parents’ ashes, and leave quietly. He didn’t have a choice really, after the two-nighter with Sherry at the Palmer House. That morning she had doubled down: Just thank God we don’t live in a Muslim country, she’d said as he prepared his backpack for the trip to Graceland. Or Israel, he’d added, aware that her parents were Jewish—but Conservative, which oddly enough meant liberal thinking. Just get your ass to Graceland, she’d retorted. She wanted those ashes—even if he didn’t. You make me a better person, he’d said, the sarcasm lost on her, when he left their apartment. You fucking bet I do, she’d said, kissing him on the cheek and shutting the door.
And here he was, sweating where the backpack pressed against his spine, walking through one of America’s most iconic cemeteries—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—and about to become the former final resting place of famous politicians, mob bosses, architects, painters and writers. It was also an arboretum, a sumptuously designed landscape of greenery, lakes, trees of all kinds, broad lawns and flowers, and not just flowers strewn among the headstones—plantings that rivalled the gardens of the most famous castles in Europe.
Halfway to quadrant four, the northeast corner where the small, stone markers for Katherine and Barney Sawicki were located, he stopped and surveyed the cemetery. White information booths lined the first hundred yards of pathways, each one sporting a sign of a different religion. He could hear the dull roar of portable incinerators. There were indications that some bodies had already been removed, as if a polite group of vandals had rearranged some of the headstones and forgotten to smooth over the evidence. Squinting against the sun rising over Lake Michigan, these minor violations jarred him into an appreciation of the beauty of the place: the sweep of grass, a fairy-tale green in all directions, with not even a hint of yellow, as if painted by the sun itself, reminding him of the elegantly sculpted lawns behind the gardens of Versailles that disappeared into the horizon. It never failed to amaze him—how much resources and time were spent making the surface above thousands of dead bodies look so elegant.
Greg had always tossed aside ruminations of death like empty bottles into a recycling bin. To what end this display of beauty? A salve for the eyes and the spirit? A distraction for visitors silently agonizing over the ruthless finality of death? The peaceful layout of the grounds and the uniform rows of unobtrusive headstones had been designed to soothe visitors with a hint of heaven, and didn’t most people assume that heaven was organized? Coherent? Comforting in its predictability? Hell had to be the opposite: confusing, haphazard. Unpredictable. In its current state, Graceland Cemetery gave out a mixed message.
He passed small open wounds in the ground where headstones had been carted off. The city had hired groundskeepers from dozens of surrounding country clubs (an irony lost on Greg!) to plug the holes where coffins had been removed, just like holes on golf greens when the pins had to be moved, only a much bigger plug. The cemetery was not as crowded as he’d expected, given Americans’ penchant for wanting to be first in line. Individuals and couples wandered about, entering and leaving booths, some standing stiffly at the foot of gravesites. With numerous headstones already removed, and coffin holes plugged, the grass as smooth as a manicured green at Pebble Beach, visitors had a hard time counting the number of plots in the row where their loved ones were buried. Hats off to those groundskeeper guys! said Greg to no one. Workmen were careful to keep flowers clean of dirt and untrampled. That the place still felt, well—heavenly—you could thank those new immigrants—still tired, still poor—for the care they apportioned to every plot, no matter how humble the headstone, that had already been repurposed. Never mind that all of Graceland would be unrecognizable in a few months.
He took a detour to peek behind a few of the rows of large poplars and pines—veils signifying the upper crust sentiment of not wanting to shame the bulk of the population who could not afford anything as ostentatious as the massive granite slabs and marble monuments erected by their heirs. As he expected, the wealthy had by and large already moved their loved ones’ remains, and the garish palaces that had once housed them, stone by stone, marble slab by marble slab. Of course, the rich had made their move before ordinary citizens! They were not about to leave their expensive edifices to the bureaucrats to repurpose, or the masses to plunder.
Back on track, heading northeast, Graceland still had the cumulative effect of confirming the prevailing aesthetic of its architects: individually, death still held its power to frighten and provoke; collectively, the landscape worked to minimalize death’s visual impact. Greg smiled at the thought of this place being in the early stages of its own death.
The closer he got to Montrose the more clearly he could see what was in store: dump trucks and front-end loaders, excavators and bulldozers, forty-ft high cranes pointed directly up into the sky like church steeples, monstrous diggers with four-ft diameter augers, and concrete mixers—all ready to move in once the Options period had expired. Inside the cemetery, he had counted half a dozen pulverizers, silent but ready to begin the task of reducing the unreclaimed marble and granite headstones to useable aggregate. He took a closer look at one of the portable incinerators (who knew there was such a thing?), with an opening big enough to fit the largest coffin.
With his parents’ headstones in sight, a man fast-walked out of one of the white canopy-tent booths and approached him. He held a sleek new iPad 36 in one hand and a brochure in the other. He had the confident smile of a born-again Christian, too smarmy and self-righteous for Greg’s taste. The man stopped and stood several yards away; he was in his twenties, clean-shaven, buzz-cut blond hair, bright blue eyes, grey suit and blue tie and looked directly at him, hands clasped in front of his belt.
Greg’s parents’ small headstones were minimalist. Just the names and time they’d spent on earth: Katherine Sawicki neé Bledsoe 1960-2032, Barney Sawicki 1958-2030. Polished stone aggregate, reddish-orange, sans-serif font, not too deeply engraved. Hard to read. The dimensions of a small section of parking curb. As impactful as their lives, which is to say—relative to the collection of big shots all around them—not much.
“It’s Ok if you don’t feel like saying anything out loud,” said the young man, too enthusiastically for Greg. “I can wait.” But Greg didn’t believe in mourning. Dead meant gone, and gone meant out of mind, so as to make room for more pleasant thoughts. He did, however, bow his head, giving the man the impression he might have been praying, or grieving, or both. Greg wondered how the man might react if Greg said, “No problem, I was just wondering if my wife would actually deny me sex tonight if I don’t come back with two cans of ashes.”
When Greg finally turned, the man approached briskly and held out his hand. “I’m Norm Dreesen, Options Facilitator for this quadrant,” he said energetically. He tilted his body towards the headstones, squinted, leaned closer, and rose up again. “This quadrant’s not very busy right now, so anything you want, anything you need, I’m here for you.”
Greg looked at the man. On his chest was a pin that read: Norm Dreesen. Facilitator. “What exactly is a facilitator?”
“Of course, of course. This is not an easy process to wrap your head around, is it? I’m here to explain the options available to you.” He scrolled through his iPad. “You must be Gregory Sawicki, the son.”
“That I am,” said Greg, suddenly feeling superior; like, if he wanted to, he could wind this poor guy up and spin him out of control.
“So, you’ve probably got questions about the various options. Are you thinking of having the headstones removed and arranging for delivery to your home?”
“How old are you?” inquired Greg. It didn’t matter, really.
“Excuse me?” said the young man.
He shook the question off. “Never mind. Norm, is it?” said Greg. “I wonder if you could tell me what will happen to the graves—the bodies, or the remains, whatever you call it—of those who are left here, those people no one claims.”
“That’s an excellent question, sir. And I’d be happy to answer that for you. The answer is, environmental rehabilitation.”
“Environmental what?” replied Greg.
“When the repurposing begins, all the earth here will be tilled down to a minimum of six feet and after extracting wood and stone and other artificial materials that can be recycled or repurposed, whatever is left in the ground will be thoroughly mixed with the soil. Then construction begins.”
“Is that one of the options?” asked Greg. “I could do nothing, and my parents would become part of whatever it is that’s going to replace the cemetery? The coffins and headstones will be sorted out, but the bodies that are left will be ground down like in a sort of corporeal blender? That’s what you’re saying?” Greg looked at the name tag again. “Norm?
“Yes, sir,” said young Mr. Dreesen. Norm. Greg smiled. This was news. None of the newspaper articles, none of the TV news shows had mentioned this option. But it didn’t help his situation with Sherry, who was expecting Greg to return with a couple coffee cans full of ashes. “However, we do not recommend it,” added Norm, before Greg had a chance to visualize the future, one in which his parents no longer had a place—so to speak—to reside. “If you sign off on that option, you are liable for all unexpected costs.”
“Well, for example, some of the larger tombstones are polished aggregate and have hidden rebar in them. To separate that iron from the aggregate may seem simple, but once we are gone, that process will be turned over to an outside contractor who will want to be paid, and you will be liable for all costs associated with the pulverizing, separating and offloading of the materials.”
“No, there may be legal challenges brought by one family against another if by chance there is any dispute as to whose remains are in which coffin. That could get expensive. However, we are the arbiters of record during the Options period and any and all expenses accruing from disputes will be paid by us.”
“You’ve thought of everything, it seems,” said Greg.
“It’s our job,” said Norm.
Greg sighed heavily and swung his backpack to the ground. He removed the summary papers and handed them to Norm, who examined them, folded over the pages, and pulled a ballpoint pen from his breast pocket. In a few seconds it was over.
“So,” said Norm, tearing off the bottom portion of the document and handing Greg his copy of the agreement. “What have you got for them?”
“What do you mean?” said Greg.
“What sort of urn, or vase, have you brought?”
Greg extracted the two coffee cans from his backpack and handed them to Norm. For the first time since they’d met, Norm didn’t smile. He examined the two red tin cans, snapping and unsnapping the plastic lids. Greg asked, “Is there enough room for both of my parents?”
“I’m not sure. It varies with the age of the casket, if it’s wood. More recent and the wood would be thicker. We have plastic storage bags if you come up short, only that’ll take a bit longer since the ashes will have to cool first.”
“Where should I go while I’m waiting?”
“You’re free to go anywhere on the grounds, Mr. Sawicki. Just check back with me here—” he pointed towards the white booth he’d emerged from earlier— “in a half hour.” Norm pulled out a cell phone and made a call. Within a minute, four workmen and a mid-sized Caterpillar excavator arrived, and the crew began working. First the men cut into the sod and peeled back a large rectangle of grass. The excavator moved in and began the digging process. After less than five minutes, three of the workmen hopped down into the hole, shovels busy, while the fourth attached four cables to the shovel head. It only took another five minutes to attach the cables to one of the caskets—Greg couldn’t tell if it was his mother’s or father’s—and lift it onto the flatbed of a truck that appeared out of nowhere. In short order both caskets were on the flatbed and the truck drove away. Greg was in awe. You guys are good! Bet you could’ve built Willis Tower in half the time!
Sherry would be pleased. Possibly offer him a repeat of the two-nighter.
They’d go out to dinner first, though, and she’d grill him about his experience at Graceland. He wouldn’t tell her about his misgivings or the conversation with Norm.
He walked north towards all the construction vehicles parked on Montrose but turned around when he heard yelling from a distance and the shouting of orders through a bullhorn, or perhaps several.
“Spread out! Spread out!” was being yelled over and over.
“Leave the cemetery now!” was repeated through several bullhorns. “Or you will be arrested!”
A large mass of people was spreading like a slow-moving flood, past trees and through swales, then bursting over hills, moving towards him with alarming speed. “Find the bastards!” yelled a man who looked directly at Greg and made a beeline straight for him. He was dressed in running shorts and a loose yellow t-shirt but was too thick waisted to be a real runner. He sported a scruffy beard and dark, unruly hair. “Round ‘em all up!” said another man near him, dressed in tan khakis and a blue polo shirt; he looked like he could have played this morning on one of those golf courses whose groundskeeping crews were helping out at Graceland. The golfer set his sights on the small booth where Norm was doing whatever it was that came next—calling for another cart to carry off his parents’ headstones to the pulverizer, tracking the progress of their coffins, checking the availability of, and wait time for, incinerators. The overweight runner closed in on Greg.
He stopped when he was a few feet away, bent over and wheezed. “You one of them,” he said, catching his breath. “Or one of us?”
Before Greg could answer, the polo-shirt guy grabbed the not-a-runner guy and pulled him towards the white booth Norm had entered a few moments earlier.
By the time the two men returned, the incinerators had stopped running. The last tendrils of smoke rose, and thinned, and blended into the blue sky. Greg was seated by himself on a lovely wrought iron bench crafted in the Art Nouveau style, watching the hordes of protestors ward off the greatly outnumbered police, who seemed unwilling to use force. Batons remained tethered to belts. Pistols holstered. No mace or tasers were displayed as threats. Their efforts to control the mob were entirely verbal—and ineffective.
Norm’s booth had been dismantled, the cloth and rods lay scattered on the lawn; in the light breeze, individual brochures flittered across the grass like small animals looking for shelter. The jaunty facilitator was nowhere in sight. Greg couldn’t see his bright red coffee containers.
“You still here?” said Not-really-a-runner. He sat down next to Greg and lit a cigarette. He held a second out, and Greg declined with a wave of his hand. The man stared out at the line of vehicles on Montrose Avenue. “You realize how fucked up this is?”
Greg assumed it was a rhetorical question. Polo shirt, standing to the side, wasn’t looking at him either. “When you were ransacking Norm’s booth over there,” Greg proffered, “did you happen to see a couple of red coffee cans?”
“Who’s Norm?” said Polo-shirt.
“The guy who was helping me.”
Not-really-a-runner turned his attention to Greg. “Help you do what?”
“Yeah, what?” echoed Polo-shirt.
Greg felt like he was in a cheap film noir. Nothin’, I tell ya! I didn’t do nothin’! “The cans were for my parents’ ashes.”
“You bought into this insane plan?” said Polo-shirt, with a surprising shift in tone. His face reflected sympathy. Did they feel sorry for him now?
Not-really-a-runner took over. “You realize this whole deal goes against human nature,” he said, shifting his position so that he faced Greg, indicating that he had more to say, and was damn well going to say it. “It’s not a religious thing. Hell, I don’t even go to church any more. But my folks—my whole family since the 1950s—are buried here. Grandfolks, great and great-great. Uncles, Aunts.” He took a long puff and exhaled slowly. “You got others? Other relations here?”
“Nope. Just my parents.”
Not-really flicked his unfinished cigarette to the ground. “So, anyways, it’s not just about keeping their memory alive, you see. It’s about society. Keeping society going. Places like this,” he gestured with a broad sweep of his arms. “Places like this are the real glue that keeps us from fuckin’ killing each other.”
“That’s right,” said Polo-shirt. “It ain’t no Ten Commandments—”
“Although those help,” interrupted Not-really.
“Or those moral codes like treat others as you would like to be treated,” Polo-shirt continued. “You forget that shit awful easy when you’re stressed out.” Not-really nodded affirmatively. “The glue is right here. Under our feet.”
“Before and after,” said Not-really.
“Before and after,” echoed Polo-shirt.
“Everyone together,” said Not-really. Greg thought he saw tears begin to form in his eyes. “For eternity,” he said. He hit the word eternity hard, as if it were the last word he would say, as if there were no need to say more.
After a few moments of silent staring, Greg said, “Well, they’re dead.” He hit the word dead hard, and waited for the two men to react. “So, of course it’s forever.”
“Exactly,” said Polo-shirt. “This place says that forever and together are…” He paused and brought his two hands together, interlocking his fingers and tightening his arm muscles. “Like this.”
“Without the forever,” said Not-really, wiping the nascent tears from his eyes. “There is no together.”
“It’s like that French guy, what’s-his-name,” said Polo-shirt.
“Sartre,” said Greg.
“Yeah, him,” continued Polo-shirt. “If there’s just the here and now, just this moment, then before you know it, everyone is going like, What’s the point? Why should I care about anything? Is that what you want?”
There were too many holes in the two men’s’ philosophical take on life for Greg to know where to even start, so he nodded his head and said, “Yeah, man, I see what you mean.”
Not-really patted Greg’s back gently. “You just needed to get a little common sense back into your life.”
“A little perspective,” said Polo-shirt. “You got caught up in it, that’s all.”
Greg wasn’t going to let these guys off that easily. “So, what’s your plan? You going to try to put a stop to the whole Reclamation and Transformation Act?”
Polo-shirt stood and stretched. “We’ve got groups in every state. We’re well-organized. We kept under the radar until now, when we can be most effective—like with you.”
Not-really said, “We took over Calvary yesterday and put a stop to everything, just like here. The cops aren’t doing anything to stop us, really. That should tell you something right there.”
“What if they call in the National Guard?” offered Greg. “Like in the ‘60s down south, when the cops did shit to protect the black kids who tried to go to school with white kids?”
“Not the same,” said Polo-shirt. “This movement runs across ethnic lines, religious lines, class lines. You shoulda seen what happened at Oak Woods down on 67th. The white cops joined right in! Shut the thing down in less than half an hour.”
“Went even quicker today,” said Not-really, smiling broadly. “And it’ll keep gettin’ easier. I think folks are just realizing what they bought into, and that they got kinda swept up in the need part and didn’t think enough about the why part.”
“So, you would’ve voted to transform the country clubs, I guess.”
“Hell yeah!” both men said excitedly, in one voice. Polo-shirt continued, “Only downside to that is rich folks would have to create new spaces to play. Use new land to build new courses.”
Not-really laughed. “Think of all the jobs that would create, though!” He noogie’d his pal’s upper arm.
Polo-shirt joined in the laughter, and added, “Shit! You’re right! Two problems solved!” he cried.
Greg broke the ensuing silence by asking the two men if he was free to go.
“Of course,” said Polo-shirt. “Did you think you were some kind of prisoner?”
It was true Greg had thought it. How far were these men and the rest of the protesters willing to go? In retrospect it was foolish thinking: what would taking hostages do except provoke a negative reaction from the people they were trying to “awaken.”
“I’m going home, then,” said Greg. “I gather you all are going to keep this up for a while?”
“As long as it takes,” said Not-really.
“You know you can’t win, though, right?”
Polo-shirt laughed. “Says who?”
“Yeah. Says who?” added Not-really.
“The government’ll just wait you out. Once you leave, to go back to work, to eat, to be with your families, they’ll be right back at it.”
Polo-shirt gave Greg a sharp look. “Well, we shall see, eh?”
“We’re willing to die for our cause,” said Not-really. “Are you?”
Greg held his hands up in mock surrender. “Hell, no. If you guys had broken in here an hour earlier, I wouldn’t be in this pickle.”
“What pickle is that?” asked Not-really.
Greg explained his situation, and the two men listened attentively. They seemed genuinely moved by his story, faces contorted into that special I’m listening really hard expression. When he stood up, both men offered him their hands, which Greg shook firmly. The gesture awakened something in him and in a way confirmed what the men had been preaching. Graceland wasn’t just a place to pray, or mourn, or to contemplate your own death while walking amongst the dead. It was a place where your purpose in life could be reaffirmed. Certainly, these men embodied that! Graceland, and all cemeteries for that matter, were where the weird idea of sharing your most troubling and intimate thoughts with people—yes, dead people, but people! —who couldn’t hear you, who had no thoughts of their own, and even if they did, even if souls had thoughts, couldn’t speak them!—that weird idea was actually an action that comforted, and unified. Here, in Graceland, color didn’t matter, class didn’t matter, sex didn’t matter. Here, we are all together! Like the men said: Glue!
As the shadows of the tallest poplars shrunk, Greg felt as if the heat from the idle incinerators had permeated the air. He headed for the entrance at Clark and Irving Park, which he had passed through just an hour ago—or was it longer? He had lost track of time. He walked by the remains of Norm’s booth and once again scoured the ground for his coffee tins. There will be hell to pay with Sherry if I come back empty-handed! He decided a prayer—a real prayer, the simple kind he had whispered in his youth, in isolation, with the bedroom door closed, hands pressed together, fingers pointed towards heaven—was called for. A one-word prayer.
“Please,” he said aloud. He passed by an inactive incinerator, next to which was a table with a dozen or so metal and ceramic urns and vases, all more or less a foot tall, all silver or grey, some tinted slightly blue or green. He paused to look for the red cans. No luck. He veered off his intended path and decided he needed to check out all the tables at all the incinerators. He saw a man in a grey suit, like the one Norm had worn, wandering aimlessly among the protestors.
“Norm!” he called out. The man didn’t respond. As he got closer he could see it wasn’t Norm. Wrong hair color. Lighter skin at the neck. But he asked the man anyway, “Could you tell me how many incinerators there are?”
“A dozen,” said the man wearily. He was much older than Norm, but just as friendly. “They’re spaced all around the place. You looking for one in particular?”
Greg explained what had happened and described the coffee tins he’d brought with him.
“Well, you could be here awhile,” said the old man. His name tag read Max. “A lot got moved around when the mob broke in. For a while, we couldn’t tell if the protesters were taking the urns just to spite us, or if the right people had them. It was all we could do to protect the few we could. But there seems to be kind of a truce now.” He let out a lengthy sigh. “Sorry I can’t be of more help. What quadrant were you at?”
Greg swiveled and pointed northeast, up the hill he had walked down. “The fourth. Up there. A facilitator named Norm was helping me.”
“Well, he’s a good guy, and I’m sure he picked one with the least amount of wait time.”
“So it could have been any one of the twelve?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Max, a look of sympathy caressing his face. Or perhaps it was just weariness.
It took over an hour for Greg to check all the incinerators but one. The last was near the exit, and his hopes by then had faded. Visitors—people like him, not protesters (but this was just a guess)—crowded around multiple tables, each of which held dozens of urns and vases like all the others he’d checked out. A half-dozen facilitators in grey suits struggled to deal with the onslaught of requests. Everyone, remarkably, behaved as if they had all the time in the world. No one pushed. No one tried to shove their way to the front. Not far away, at the exit, protesters spoke to everyone leaving with their beloveds’ remains, exhorting each person to just leave the containers, but no one did. The scene reminded Greg of a busy train station during rush hour, lots of gentle jostling, but no pushing or shoving, no raising of voices, not even a hint of violence.
On each table, almost all the containers had been labeled, and it was just a matter of connecting the requester to the container and checking the summary papers. As Greg weaved his way closer, he examined each table, prepared to wait, like everyone else, as long as it took to retrieve his parents—if they had made it to an incinerator before the mob had overrun the place and shut down operations.
His red coffee tins were not there.
He made the rounds a second time. No luck.
I’m so sorry, Sherry. He practiced the speech he would have to make. The mob. The whole thing, I—tried. Really I did.
But then, suddenly, one of the facilitators lifted up two large pewter urns and handed them to waiting hands in the crowd—and there they were, his two bright red coffee tins, with the plastic lids firmly in place.
Please, he might have said aloud. And again, Please! as he maneuvered his way into the place that had been occupied by the couple that had just retrieved their urns.
“Name and papers?” said the facilitator, who had taped over his nametag.
Greg handed over his copy of the summary papers. “The two red tins, to your right,” he said.
The man smiled and handed Greg the two tins.
“Were they able to—was there time to,” he asked the man, who was already dealing with the next request. “You know, before they shut everything down? To…”
“You can’t tell from the weight?” He moved his hands, palms facing the sky, up and down a few times, before a middle-aged couple slid between them.
Greg waited until he was clear of the crowd and had passed under the arched entrance to Graceland before examining the contents of the coffee tins. The light changed, and he was swept up in a surge of humanity that carried him across Clark Street, in the direction of his apartment, where Sherry waited for him. She had not called to wonder aloud what had taken so long, to ask if he’d got the job done. That was a good sign. He decided he could afford to walk all the way home.
Thank you, he said, looking skyward. Maybe it was a prayer answered. Maybe he had just thought the words. If anyone had asked who he was thanking, he would’ve said that guy Norm, or Polo-shirt, or Not-really-a-runner. Or Max. He’d have mentioned those amazing groundskeepers. He would’ve been lying. But who cared, really? Sherry would be pleased. And that was enough.