*Over the course of writing Justice in a Bottle, there were many edits and cuts and rewrites. From time to time I’ll post bonus chapters that never made the final cut (all mistakes are my own, these have never been through edits). We’ll call this one, The Cemetery.
Mr. Melvin and I shuffled past the Sunnyside Market, where things had been cleaned up and put back together. The boarded-up window was the only reminder of the most recent burglary, and thinking about that my mind drifted to my latest assignment until I shook it off and focused on Mr. Melvin.
“So do you visit the cemetery a lot?”
“Once a year since I got out. On Mary’s birthday.”
He hadn’t mentioned how Mary died, or how long ago she’d died. But asking seemed a little tacky under the circumstances. His breathing rattled as we inched along. A car honked in passing, Tamika’s mom, and I wondered if it was strange to people, me walking around with old Earl Melvin? Maybe, but he didn’t seem too crazy to me anymore. And besides, I was no longer sneaking around, Mom knew where I was, what I was doing.
The City Cemetery was hidden from the main road, it’s gaudy headstones buried back in an old neighborhood behind wrought iron and brick walls. I’d been a few times, on Halloween when they did ghost tours and stuff. We cut left at the sign. Mr. Melvin was wheezing something terrible. He didn’t look so hot. I began to wonder if I should have tagged along.
I cleared my throat. “Mr. Melvin, do you want me to let you…?”
He shook his head, set a heavy hand on my shoulder. “No, no, come on Nita. Mary loved children. We always wanted a little girl.”
It was cool in the shade. We walked beneath the row of cherry trees, entering through the gates. The distant whoosh of traffic forgotten as it was as peaceful as church in there. The angels and crosses, all the headstones and statues sanctioned the cemetery off from the rest of the town. Peace was plentiful up on the hill. The ivy-clad structures and moss-covered rocks reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Scotland in textbooks and online.
“She’s just over here.” Mr. Melvin wheezed as we climbed past the wildflowers flickering pink and yellow on the hill. He slugged forward, his body still tired and weary, but the look on his face was that of a little boy.
I followed him past a great chestnut tree, its branches sprawling low and wide. A cool breeze cut over the headstones as we came upon an old slab of concrete.
Mary Werrins 1944-1970
So many questions. And I turned quickly to Mr. Melvin—my inner journalist blaring in my head–but Mr. Melvin held his hat to his chest, his mouth tight and his face deep in thought. A crow cawed somewhere in the distance.
She’d been so young. And staring at her gravestone, that’s when it dawned on me. She’d died of unusual circumstances. Like heartbreak. The same reason Mr. Melvin only sat in that apartment living in the past.
All of it was turning over in my head so fast I could hear it in my ears. But there was nothing but the breeze and the birds outside. Mr. Melvin swept Mary’s stone clean of the grass and dirt and it began to feel like I was intruding.
When he started talking to her I drifted off, towards the confederate part of the cemetery, where the iris stalks swayed, clutching the beauty in their spears.
There was a little bit of everything in that old place, stories of all walks of life. From slaves to confederate soldiers to state senators to ordinary people like Mary Werrins.
It was dusk by the time we got back to the apartment. I crept past our door, knowing I should get home but my curiosity doubling with each step. Entering Mr. Melvin’s apartment I just came out and asked.
“Mr. Melvin, do you mind if I ask what happened to Mary?”
He shook his head, returning from the kitchen with a bottle of beer. He’d removed his coat and his hat, his white button down was yellowed and frayed around the collar. His suspenders exhausted from the day’s work. I think he only wore his suit when he went to see Mary.
“I was in jail when she died.”
The journalist in me wanted to reach for a pen. The human in me wanted to reach out to him.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, because what else was there to say?
He set the bottle down and scooped up his guitar. “Me too, Nita. Because it still hurts.”
He started picking at the strings. Slow at first and then faster. Pretty soon he was singing out, loud and clear in his apartment.
His voice was hollow that evening, carved out with hurt. But as his fingers moved up the frets, I found myself tapping along with his on the floor. Then he did something I’d never seen. He finished his beer with a gulp, then took the neck of the bottle to the strings, making the guitar wail and spill out sounds from his soul, crying out with all the hurt he must have felt in that old lying heart of his.
When he was finished, I realized that my mouth was hanging open. Because it was right there that I learned exactly what it meant to have the blues.
He was the blues.
Mr. Melvin hung his heavy arms over the guitar. “Mary brought out the best in me. She said she could tell I had a good soul. But her parents weren’t about to see their youngest daughter fall in love with… me.”
With a grunt he got back to his guitar. When he was done, he went for another beer. And yeah, Mom might’ve been warming up to the old man but she wouldn’t be too happy if she knew I was hanging out in his apartment while he drank beer. But like Mary, I knew a good soul when I saw one.
He returned with his bottle and looked to be in the mood for a story. “Anyway, she used to sing while I played,” he said, looking up at the peeling plaster on the ceiling. “She had the voice of an angel.”
He strummed a gentle chord, as though playing the soundtrack to his memories. “We should’ve run, Nita. I wished we’d run off and gotten married.”
Another strum of the strings. Another song. Outside a siren wailed. The world was still riddled with crime and hurt and too little kindness. I knew I had a long way to go on my quest for world peace, but sitting there, watching him play, I only hoped the old man could find his own.
When I got home Mom was at the sink doing dishes. She pointed to the stove, where stuffing sat in the pan. One of my favorites. I grabbed a bowl and took a seat at the table. On television, some weight loss show blared on about points and calories, but she didn’t seem all that into it.
“So, you going to tell me about it?”
I took a bite, chewing on food that wasn’t hot or cold. I knew it was killing Mom about why we had gone to the city cemetery, and I can’t lie, it was a little bit fun watching her squirm with sudden interest.
She turned off the water, dried her hands, her eyebrows arched and threatening.
“We went to Mary’s grave. She died a long time ago.”
“Mary?” Her eyes blinked to life. “Oh, you mean…”
I nodded. The woman he was accused of assaulting.
“Why in the world did he want you go with him?”
“I don’t know,” I said between bites. “But he still loves her very much. I tried to stay out of the way, but he didn’t mind. He’s been through so much, Mom.”
I think I was finally getting through to her that Mr. Melvin wasn’t all that dangerous, or crazy. He needed company. She walked to the living room and muted the television, then settled in across from me at the table. “So he gets all dressed up and goes to her grave on her birthday?”
“Yeah, it’s really sweet. Then he played some songs when we got back. He can really play that guitar, you know.”
“That was him? I thought ya’ll were singing along to a record.”
“No Mom, he’s good. I think I’m going to try to get him to play down at Crawford Hall. He used to play there a lot.” I set my bowl on the side table, knowing that what Mr. Earl Melvin said and what he did often didn’t match up.
“Nita, why are you so worried about helping that old man?”
I laughed. “Because mom, if I don’t, who will?”
Mom reached over and gave me a hug, which kind of took me by surprise. She kissed me on the forehead and rubbed my arm. “You are something else, Nita Simmons.”
Justice in a Bottle by Pete Fanning Available March, 2020