A writer struggles to get a hold of the story of his grandmother-in-law's Christmas wish, for a bench that will sit by her tombstone.
Photos by Paulo Morales
This begins on a Christmas Eve in the mid 2000s when, for her present, my wife's grandmother receives a bench to put at her grave. I react with mild amusement to this obviously macabre gift, which, in fact, my wife's grandmother has asked for. Nearly everyone else reacts with mild amusement, too, as the want of a grave bench strikes each of us as perfectly her. But after this I don't think about the grave bench, not really, for years.
In July 2012, my wife's grandmother dies. We do not drive to Texas for the funeral, because my wife, only weeks before, has given birth to our son. My mind is not on the grave bench.
Then, early in 2015, the grave bench suddenly radiates. A grave bench for Christmas! Here is a story. I crave a simple form, linear, ten pages at most. I briefly consider the grandmother's point of view, but I can't see my way into her. She wants the grave bench, she gets it. Where's the drama? The main characters will be versions of myself and my wife. The story will open with the wife's father charging these versions of ourselves with the project of picking up the bench and keeping it until Christmas Eve, when they are to sneak it into the wife's grandparents' house.
I model the grave goods shop from which the husband and wife collect the bench on the one I passed every day in high school. That shop was small, more a hut, and was surrounded by a lawn of sample gravestones. In life, I never once ventured inside this shop, and I brood over what the interior would look like, what person would wait behind the counter. The next time I am home, perhaps, I will go to the shop. But when I search for a picture of it on Google Maps, I find the gravestones gone, and that the hut has become a taco and drinks stand named Coco Bongo. So I invent: cheap laminate paneling, dust from marble and granite, a scrawny old man.
After they pick up the grave bench, the husband and wife keep it in the trunk of their car. While they drive around their hometown, making visits, the bench's disassembled pieces occasionally thud. This is meant to add a subtle stroke of darkness, of doom. But with each draft, I worry. Would the disassembled pieces of a grave bench actually thud? Would they lift and fall in response to a pothole? In response to a speedbump? Would the sound they make be a thud?
Focusing on the detail of the thud with such intensity pulls from me a memory of my father. Years ago, for days, then weeks, as he drove around East Texas in his Toyota he heard ghostly chimes whenever he stopped the car. He began to fear they were the announcement of his death. Did every dying person hear them, but never speak of it? At last he opened his trunk and found amidst the constant clutter the source of the ghostly chimes: an old clock that he'd bought for the antique booth he and my stepmother ran as a sideline to their community-college teaching and then forgotten about. The story has little value except as a preserved piece of my father. Still, for this reason alone I want to keep it. I give the memory to the husband. But it proves unwieldy and eventually I cut it.
From the detail of the thuds the story transitions to the night before Christmas Eve. The husband and wife meet an old high school friend, Autumn, at a Mexican restaurant, Papacita's. I base Autumn on a real friend, Autumn, and Papacita's on the real restaurant. With each draft it grows increasingly important for me to capture Papacita's—the faux hacienda building trimmed in neon, the puffy tortillas and paprika-coated chips, the fact that it stood not in our town but in a nearby city, the nearest city with a mall, and that there, for the first time, in freshman year of high school perhaps, I was handed a square light-up buzzer to tell me when a table was ready, like they'd do in Dallas, out in the far, wide cosmopolitan world.
After a much-worked-over description of Papacita's, the husband and wife have dinner with Autumn and tell her about the grave bench. They are practicing the story as something they will tell when they return north, to amuse the people they know there. I intend some ambivalence. I, too, used to hone such stories and give them away without reflection. But, more important, in laughing about the grave bench, the husband and wife are being reckless.
Autumn says they should put the bench together in the parking lot of Papacita's and all three sit on it, as a joke. This doesn't make much sense. But the story needs it. And, to be honest, it is in the character of the real Autumn. So, after dinner, they put the bench together, sit on it, and each pretend to speak to whomever it is that lies already in the grave, that person they themselves will lie beside when they are dead.
The husband and wife have mocked the grave bench, and the grave bench—which, with each subsequent draft, takes on a malevolent agency—will have its revenge. Later that night, after the husband and wife have sex, the wife asks the husband if he really thinks they will be buried together. It is a roundabout way of her asking him if he thinks they will last, a question spurred solely by the pretend speeches on the bench. The husband should answer yes and move on, but he can't. He is suddenly crippled by the fear of making such a declaration, as if to make it is to somehow risk hubris, to jinx their future. His inability to answer leads to a silence between him and the wife, an angry silence the husband comes to believe the marriage might not survive.
The next day is Christmas Eve. The husband and wife are to deliver the grave bench early in the afternoon and hide it in a closet so that, later that day, the wife's father and aunt can surprise the grandmother with it. The wife and husband perform this task amid the continuing silence. The wife goes inside her grandparents' house and talks to her grandmother, to keep her occupied, while the husband carries the pieces of the grave bench into the front of the house and hides them in the closet. The husband first sneaks in the seat, then comes back for the legs. On the front walk, where I have carefully established that there is a deep crack, he trips and loses the legs. One he catches, but the other falls and breaks in two.
When the wife comes out, the husband shows the broken leg to her. At least now, he thinks, she will speak. She doesn't. He drives back toward the wife's parents' house and worries over how he will explain the broken leg. All is lost. The bench, the marriage. Then the husband has an idea. Without stating this plan, to either the wife or to us, he turns the car around and drives to Super Walmart.
I spend a great deal of effort describing this Super Walmart. I write of the pine forest the Super Walmart replaced, the railroad tracks that run behind it (once owned by Jay Gould, a detail I research), and the now torn-down smoky dive where, in high school, I used to go for huge plates of chicken-fried steak. It is too much and the sentences keep falling apart.
The husband comes out of the Super Walmart with superglue. In the parking lot, he repairs the leg, resting it on an old pink towel that has been mentioned several times in the story for no other reason than to bring in the necessary particularity that will make the story feel real. I worry over the physics of this repair. I go back to the moment of the leg breaking and specify that it was a clean, single break. Once the husband has effected this repair, he drives himself, the wife, and the leg back to the grandparents' house. There, he sets the leg gently in the closet and hopes the next few hours will be enough time for the glue to cure.
That evening, at the Christmas Eve gathering, the gifts are opened youngest to oldest. The husband sits on the couch, next to the wife—their silence remains—and worries over what will happen when the wife's father and aunt present the grave bench. At last it is the grandmother's turn. The husband is now fully sick with fear. The grandmother covers her eyes. The wife's father and aunt bring the grave bench out. To the husband's relief, the leg is still in one piece. They assemble the grave bench, and the leg stands. The husband rejoices, imagines the certain rapprochement between himself and his wife.
Then the grandmother says she will sit on the bench.
I am no longer proud, but ashamed. Ashamed of every falsity, every forced move. The story is trash, five pages of trash, and on this five pages of trash, I have wasted weeks, months.
In reality, this did not happen. At least, I don't remember it happening. I only remember my wife's grandmother crying at the sight of the bench and talking with delight of how all of us would visit her once she was gone.
But in the story the grandmother sits on the bench. The leg holds, for a second. Then it collapses.
This moment proves difficult. I worry again about physics. How exactly would the bench fall? And I worry about brittle, aged bones. Would the injuries be severe? In some drafts, paramedics are called. In others, they aren't. In every draft, though, I have it confirmed the grandmother is only bruised. Even if she is fictional, and even if my wife's real grandmother is already dead, and so beyond suffering, I hesitate at hurting the story's grandmother too much.
With the collapse of the bench, the story has now reached its crisis point. The husband's failures, real and metaphorical, are made public. Here is the key turn: The rest of the family reacts in horror, but the wife, unable to help herself, laughs. Thus their silence is broken and the husband realizes he and the wife have remained united all along.
The story closes with a staggered denouement. The first part of the denouement comes when, later that night, the wife's father confronts the husband and wife. The husband lies about the bench, and the wife backs him up in this lie. The second part of the denouement comes yet later that night, when the husband and wife are having sex. Spurning any jinx or hubris, they declare cheerfully that they will be buried together. The third part of the denouement comes much, much later. After a years-long leap in time, the grandmother has died, and the husband and wife have not made it to the funeral. The wife has just given birth, a detail used to show, simply and quickly, that they have indeed survived. (And lifted, of course, from life.) On their next trip home, the husband and wife visit the grandmother's grave and—this is the story's last line—together sit without thought or worry on the bench.
I am immensely proud of this ending. So subtle and yet so clear! And I am immensely proud of the use of the grave bench, the way it threads through the story, taking on different valences of meaning. At the 12th draft I have ten pages, which I show to my agent. She suggests I make the story shorter. I show the ten pages to my wife. She likes it. But she finds it strange reading this skewed version of ourselves, and she is upset. In reality, it has been three years since her grandmother died, and we have not once gone to visit her grave.
Moved by this guilt, the next time we are in Texas, in summer 2015, my wife asks her parents to take us to her grandmother's grave. It is in a different cemetery from the one I had imagined for the story. Also, at the grave, there is no bench. I ask, later, as casually as possible, about the grave bench's absence. It is somewhere still in the grandparents' house, my wife's parents think.
Meanwhile, I have taken the story through 11 more drafts and sent it to my agent. I have whittled the story down to five pages and my agent now deems it too short. In all this drafting, the story has died. I am no longer proud, but ashamed. Ashamed of every falsity, every forced move. The story is trash, five pages of trash, and on this five pages of trash, I have wasted weeks, months. I set the story aside, give up.
Then, before the following Christmas, my wife's grandfather dies. Again, we miss the funeral, though for the boring reason of logistics. However, we will be home for Christmas, as will my wife's older sister, who also lives far from Texas, and it is decided that the family will have a private, informal service at the gravesite. At this moment, too, I learn, the grave bench will be erected.
The only day we can all make it to the cemetery is December 30th. The soil on top of the grandfather's side of the grave is fresh and raw. The bench has already been put together, by my wife's father, and he has set it behind the gravestone, so it won't be in the way of the cemetery keepers when they come by after the new year to cover the raw dirt above my wife's grandfather with sod. Earlier on this trip home, I overheard that the bench had not been brought here before because the cemetery forbids such benches. It may well get carted off, but at least now my wife's father and aunt will have honored their mother's wishes. That is the thinking.
As we stand around awkwardly in the cold—only in the last days has it turned cold—I work my way through the small crowd of us to study the bench. I had forgotten the subject of the poem etched on its seat, about the pleasures of having friends and children, and the bench's material, which was a detail I had agonized over, and which I see now is closer to plastic than I had remembered.
I don't have time to study the bench long. Our son, three and a half, has been running among the gravestones, playing with his cousins. He appears at my side with a plastic flower, and I hiss for him to show me which grave he took it from.
I think about the story and I don't think about the story. Then, on our first Sunday morning home from East Texas, I vacuum the insides of our refrigerator. I even remove the refrigerator's back panels, so that I can suck the dust from its bowels. I am doing this because the refrigerator has made a funny noise, and we cannot, with unthinking ease, afford a new refrigerator. While embroiled in this arch-domestic task, something clicks. Perhaps it is the dismantling of the back of the refrigerator and sticking the vacuum's hose in among its normally hidden working parts. At any rate, I re-see the story of the grave bench. The way to write it is to disassemble the story, look at its parts in all their earnest falsity, and in that looking capture the real reality the pretend reality has failed.
The next morning, newly charged, I sit at my desk and write this. The only problem, now, is how to end. I try for something grand. This is a story about immortality. That is what my wife's grandmother and the story's grandmother wanted, immortality, and that is what the story will achieve for her, for me, for everyone and everything contained in it—even my father's ghostly chimes.
This soon falters. I'm overreaching. I wait months, yet more months, and then, at last, I understand. The cemetery keepers, the fate of the grave bench. That is the story's heart, where it ends. Did the cemetery keepers come for the bench, or did they let it stay? The truest answer I can write is this: I have no idea. Since the day the bench was left, I haven't asked, and I haven't been back to the grave to see.
© 2016 by Ben Stroud