Gil and I immediately separated, moving to opposite corners of the cemetery. As I was walking swiftly to the corner I wanted—down by a thick cluster of trees, the darkest place in the entire lot—I turned back a couple of times to watch Gil hurrying off the other way.
I also saw what other kids were doing. Some had stayed as close to the entrance as possible (no need to waste any energy on an English assignment!); others were moving in little groups, together. I saw Harriet and one of the other cheerleaders settle right in the center of the cemetery where they appeared to be taking notes on gravestones that were right next to each other. Harriet saw me looking and gave me the little wave she used when she wanted me to know that she was thinking of me—but didn’t necessarily want whoever she was with to notice—or comment. She was weird now, Harriet, trying to be both popular and loyal to very unpopular me.
In the farthest corner I found an old sandstone grave marker whose inscriptions time and weather had nearly entirely smoothed over. I was barely able to make out the name and other information:
Sept. 6, 1795 – Dec. 13, 1852
He tried—but failed.
I’m going to confess here that I’d been to this cemetery before and already had done my best to read some of the gravestones. But I’d picked this one because I thought the epitaph was about the strangest I’d seen: He tried—but failed. Tried what? Failed at what? I thought I could have some fun with that idea in my poem.
I quickly copied the information, then looked again over toward Gil, clear across the cemetery. I saw him finish writing something, then move to another stone a few feet to his left. I started walking toward him, then broke into a trot when I saw him staring at the stone, then slumping to the ground, as if he’d fainted.
Other kids saw me hurrying by but didn’t really do anything. A look at me; a look back at their work. They were used to seeing me do weird stuff and had long ago quit wondering about it. I did hear Harriet’s voice as I passed her. “Vickie …?”
As I got closer to Gil, I saw him struggle to a sitting position, where he sat staring at the old stone right in front of him.
I called out to him.
He turned, smiling weakly, his face as pale as paper. “Hi,” he said, his voice matching his face. He sounded as if no breath carried his words.
“Getting a closer look?” I asked him.
“Have you seen this?” He pointed, and as I was reading it, I felt myself slump right beside him.
Marguerite Damville Leon Jan. 1, 1818 – Feb. 1, 1851
Beloved Wife of S. T. Leon
“And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” — Shakespeare
Mary W. Leon Feb. 1, 1851
“She lived but an hour.”
S. T. Leon 1822 –
A shadow fell over us. I turned and looked. Harriet.
“You two all right?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
[i] Once again, Vickie seems to be playing with us. The long-ago feminist Frances Wright was born and died on the exact dates that Vickie records here. She was one of Mary Shelley’s friends, a woman who started a community in Tennessee—Nashoba (near Memphis)—where she tried to teach former slaves (whom she’d purchased) the skills they would need to survive in freedom. Begun in the mid-1820s, it lasted only three years.