Broad Street runs straight as a Creek Indian’s arrow, south to north and directly through the heart of Marbleton. Travelers have passed this way for 150 years, first on foot, then by mule or horseback, and much later on bicycles, motor cars and buses. On a clear day you can stand in front of the Baptist church with the stained-glass depictions of the life of Jesus and see all the way past the storefronts, on past the city government buildings and the old depot, all the way to the high school and the football field before the road bends eastward around the city park. Broad is the street that everyone in town and the surrounding countryside knows — the avenue where the citizens of Marbleton worship and trade and mark the events that accumulate into the sums of their lives.
For one traveler on this March day, it is a street of what might have been.
His girls might have shopped in the Five and Ten and the Dianne Dress Shoppe on Broad. They might have attended high school and gone across to the soda fountain at the drug store afterward each day and bought a cherry coke with their friends. They might have marched with the band in the homecoming parade, or went to one of those churches on South Broad, or watched movies at the old Martin Theater. They might have even gotten married and settled in their own homes in Marbleton. By now, he might have even had grandchildren to spoil.
But none of these things happened.
The traveler and his dog turn right just past the big church onto a side street that leads to a hilltop cemetery, the oldest one in town. They pass through the wrought iron gate, on past markers with names and dates long-forgotten and into the last section of newer graves, the most recent now two decades since interment, bones of the occupants rendered chalky and brittle with the rise and fall of the water table within a single stratum of red clay. They pass by smooth marble and weathered granite headstones, all lined-up facing east. Cold stone pages of an old register, the silent remaining testament to those awaiting the final blast of a trumpet and a shout. A life-size statue of the Savior occupies a place among the markers here, kneeling in frozen supplication and anguish on His final night in a far-away garden, marble pupil-less eyes fixed upward as if He too awaits a whispered answer from the deafening silence of the leaden sky.
The old man stops and sits on a stone bench, his body stiff and cold from the journey. The dog spins in circle three times and settles at his feet, also weary from the long walk into an unfamiliar place.
The town is quiet, her residents mostly indoors since the storm. A warm south wind blows, and in this late afternoon hour water drips from melting ice that clings to every surface and structure. The dripping from trees and monuments alike is as soft as a morning rain, collecting and forming rivulets that run almost imperceptibly toward Broad.
The two travelers remain motionless for the better part of an hour, the man simply looking at the small headstone, no longer pondering or questioning the events that have led to this time and place. The pistol lies on the bench beside him – eight in the clip but only two required. He will not leave the dog to suffer that which he has endured.
He hears the rusted squeal of the gate and looks up to see the cab pull away toward Broad. He watches her as she passes down the rows of markers, her eyes searching the stones. He slips the gun back into his coat pocket, not wishing to frighten the stranger.
She moves through the stones with a deliberate intent, and to the old man she appears to be so focused as to be unaware of his presence. She stops only momentarily, gazing at the markers as if mentally assembling the pieces of an abstract jigsaw puzzle.
She comes slowly but methodically onward, until she stops at the marker directly in front of him. She stands in the quiet for an eternity, then turns and focuses on his face, as if noticing his presence for the first time.
Their eyes meet for what seems a long time. Both are expressionless. She breaks the muted silence.
She sits beside him for the next hour until the coming of the night bids them go. No more words are spoken in the gathering dusk. The dripping of the water from the melting ice is reminiscent of the ticking of an old mantel clock from a lifetime ago.
Dear reader, if you ever find yourself near the old city cemetery just off Broad Street in Marbleton, you might take the time to seek out a small headstone near the statue of Jesus in Gethsemane. The marble slab has a carving of a lamb across its top, and the scrolled inscription below it reads “And His sheep know His voice.” Underneath, this the chronology of the brief life of a little girl:
Jannette Lynne Nelson
Born: March 31, 1962
Died: March 13, 1968
*Part of a series beginning with “Night Things.”