by Shirley Hilton
The Mt. Auburn cemetery was much larger than I’d expected. The town itself had practically become a ghost town over the years, as if its very mission were to empty its houses year upon year, feeding the cemetery until all the residents resided on that quiet patch of land.
I parked at the top of the hill and stood beside my car. Gravestones surrounded me, hundreds of granite markers precisely lined up, silent and serious as soldiers in formation. The grass was long, in desperate need of mowing, and still wet from the night before. Which way to go?
“You’ll have to help me out here, Norman,” I said out loud.
Norman had come to me that morning as I sat at my kitchen table sipping coffee and doing my daily writing. As my pen made its way across the page these words appeared: Norman Coots was my first reader, my first editor. I wasn’t surprised so much as curious. I’ve practiced stream-of-consciousness journaling for many years. Weird stuff showed up from time to time: splashes of memory, random quotes, sometimes an epiphany, sometimes a puzzle. So what was this about?
Norman died some thirty years earlier, pinned under the tractor he was trying to repair. I lived abroad at the time, but somehow the news of the accident had reached me, perhaps through the grapevine of classmates planning the class reunion, perhaps with the clippings from the local newspaper that my grandmother sent periodically. It hadn’t surprised me to learn that he became a farmer like his father. Farming fit him. The Norman I knew when we were kids was as generous as Iowa soil, gentle as her rolling hills.
My most vivid memory of Norman was from Miss Becker’s seventh grade study hall. We sat across the aisle from each other at the very back of the room. Even back then I had dreams of writing novels and I was busy creating my first one on the thick tablet I’d salvaged from my father’s gas station. At the top of each page was printed Phillips 66 in big bold letters, but beneath that heading the pages were lined and free for writing. I was busy filling up those lines with a story.
When Norman finished his homework, he’d get my attention by tapping his pencil on the desk and pointing his chin in the direction of my tablet. I’d tear out a page or two and hand them across the aisle, careful to ensure Miss Becker wasn’t looking. She might think we were passing notes, and I certainly didn’t want her confiscating my writing and reading it aloud to the class. That was the kind of thing old Miss Becker was known for.
Norman would read my pages then hand them back, sometimes pointing out a misspelled word. “It’s good,” he’d whisper. Or, “Give me some more.”
Standing in the cemetery so many years later, farmland all around me, it was easy to imagine him in his fields or with his livestock, coaxing things to grow, just as he had once encouraged me. Norman was my first reader, the first person who made me believe I could write something worth reading.
A pickup truck with a flatbed trailer hauled equipment into the cemetery and soon the buzz of machinery disrupted the quiet. Down by the fence a man maneuvered a wide-based riding mower, cutting the swaths not yet occupied by graves. A woman with a trimmer made her way around the headstones. I didn’t appreciate them interrupting my rendezvous with Norman. And where was he anyway?
I began my search walking straight down the hill, and oddly enough my path took me right to Norman’s grave. It was as if my old friend was guiding me. The front of his headstone carried his name, Norman D. 1953-1982, along with his wife’s name, and their son Jay. I didn’t know he’d had a son. On the other side, the name Coots was carved in big block letters, under which were two pigs facing each other and the words Hogs are beautiful. I couldn’t help but shake my head. So like Norman, I thought. I recalled his mischievous smile, the gentle farm boy who frequently came to school in overalls and work boots.
Suddenly the air felt hot and wet, pressing in on me. I wiped the perspiration from my forehead. My stomach roiled with butterflies and vertigo overtook me. I lowered myself to the ground and sat on the edge of Norman’s cement slab, closed my eyes and rested my head against the cool stone marker.
After a while the woman approached me, turning off her trimmer, a look of concern on her face. “Can I help you?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“Thank you. I’m fine. I found what I was looking for.” I stood up and wiped my hands on my pants. “Thank you,” I said again.
“Sorry the cemetery is such a mess. We couldn’t get out here until today. Our house was hit by that tornado that went through town last week.”
“Oh?” I said. “I hadn’t heard about that.”
“Yeah. We’ve been busy moving,” she said. “Looks like maybe it touched down out here, too. There’s a big swirl in the grass and a spot of bare mud other side of that hill. I don’t imagine it disturbed these folks much though.”
She chuckled. I shrugged.
“Norman Coots,” she read, tipping her head toward the grave. “Did you know him?”
“We were in school together.”
I wandered around the cemetery reading names and dates until the mowing was done and the couple loaded up their equipment and drove away. They left behind the pungent odor of freshly cut grass, air that felt heavy and hard to breathe. Clumps of grass clung to my pants and shoes. The headstones were plastered with clippings. It seemed wrong to leave my old friend in such disarray.
I found a rag in my trunk and used it to wipe the grass from Norman’s marker. In the front seat of the car was the notecard I brought for him. I scribbled a thank you inside, sealed the envelope, and leaned it against his headstone. Only for a moment, I wondered if someone would find it. What would they think? Or maybe the wind would just carry it away. Didn’t matter.
I let my mind wander back to those two kids sitting at the back of Miss Becker’s study hall. Seemed like yesterday. My heart ached a little. “Yup,” I said to Norman. “Still working on it.”
Making my way up the hill to my car, I thought about the work I’d been avoiding. My manuscript had come back from the editor several weeks earlier, all marked up and awaiting revisions. I’d been too overwhelmed to touch it.
The rest of the day was like any other Saturday. I visited my aunt in the care center, ran errands, did some laundry, got groceries. That night I went out with friends.
I had all but forgotten about Norman until he made his presence known again.
Arriving home late and tired, I slipped out of my dress, left it on the floor and climbed between the sheets. When I turned off the light and snuggled my head into the pillow, I was suddenly aware of the heavy scent of freshly mown grass.
I lay there for a moment, then turned on the light and got out of bed. There had to be a logical explanation: the shoes I’d worn that day, my jeans. But I’d left the shoes in the garage and my pants were downstairs in the laundry room. All the windows were closed.
I walked through the house sniffing the air. Nothing. Not even in the bedroom when I returned to it. The smell was gone. Had I imagined it?
When I got back into bed and turned off the light, there it was again. I lay there for a while, breathing him in, contemplating the reason for Norman’s visit. My first reader, asking me for more.
“Good night, Norman,” I said into the darkness.
Shirley Hilton is a personal and career coach with over 25 years experience in corporate leadership. Recognizing the power of storytelling, she encourages her clients to examine their own stories in order to discover and move toward their full potential. Shirley writes fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The Cedar Valley Divide and Women’s Edition magazine. She is currently completing edits on her novel Bougainvillea, the first in a trilogy.