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08/02/2012

A Visit

Presca Ahn

The Catholic cemetery near the border with the North had no fence around it, but it had a gatehouse. Past the gatehouse, up the driveway, was the custodian’s lodge: a one-room building with a corrugated metal roof. These were the only buildings in that part of the countryside that visitors ever saw— except, perhaps, the nearby church, whose thin spire was visible from the road that led to the cemetery.

It was two in the afternoon. The sun was hot on all the graves, the grass was motionless. Under the stunted cypress in front of the custodian’s lodge, two men were sitting. The men were not employed by the cemetery, and had anyone asked them why they were there, they would have said that they were friends of the custodian, Mr. Lee. But now, at two o’clock, Mr. Lee was eating lunch at his desk with the door closed, while the two men sat on their heels in the dust under the cypress.

“The problem with you,” said the older of the two, “is you’re a coward.” It was the continuation of a conversation they had had on the previous day.

The younger man took this in with dropped eyelids, partly from lassitude and the heat, and partly from the desire to appear indifferent to the criticism. He made a show of pulling on his cigarette and pushing out the smoke very slowly. “What does that mean,” he said, finally.

“Here you are, a young man, healthy, smart, and you sit here, doing nothing, making no difference to the world.”

You’re here.”

“I’m not a university graduate.”

“It wasn’t a very good university,” the younger man said morosely, and looked up at the dark leaves.

There was a gentle scraping noise from up the road that gradually became louder. The men listened. Presently, a large black car appeared and stopped by the custodian’s lodge. “An Equus,” noted the younger man, who pretended, for his self-respect, to take an interest in cars. They watched the driver spring out and open the rear passenger door.

A woman and two children clambered slowly, calf-like, out of the back seat. The children, a boy and a girl, looked similar in age, possibly twelve or thirteen. The mother had permed hair, cut to her shoulders. She wore a diamond necklace.

The three of them blinked briefly in the sun before beginning to speak to each other in what sounded like English. The father got out of the front passenger seat; in one hand, he held a bunch of plastic roses, doubtless from the old woman who peddled them by the gatehouse.

The four of them went into the lodge.

“From America, I guess,” said the older man. “What were they saying?”

“I couldn’t really hear them,” the younger man lied. Though he liked to quote from American movies and books, he had trouble understanding English unless it were spoken slowly, the way it had been by his teachers at school. His quotations were often a little wrong, but neither his mother, with whom he lived, nor the older man, who was his frequent companion, ever realized. This depressed him more than he knew.

The driver had gotten back into the car, and now made an ostentatiously large loop as he turned the vehicle around, put it into park. He didn’t get out.

“You can bet that driver’s a snob,” said the younger man. “You do that kind of job for a while, you start to act like you’re rich yourself.”

The older man said, “How would you know?”

The custodian’s office had two laminated sofas, a wooden crucifix, a small color television. It was cramped, possibly not clean. There was a fan on the ground, but it was unplugged, with the cord wrapped around its base and a grotty aspect to the buttons.

The custodian rose heavily from his desk as the family came in.

“Good afternoon,” the father said, using the elevated voice he reserved for lectures. He was a professor of art history. It had taken him a long time to perfect a jocular manner; his shyness had been crippling at first. Expertly, he pumped the custodian’s hand.

“How do you do, sir,” said Mr. Lee.

“I’m here about my grandmother’s grave. Han Sophia?”

“Ah, yes. Yes, of course, sir.”

There was a brief silence, during which the custodian smiled fixedly at them, and the professor, on his part, regretted coming in. With the previous custodian, there had been a delighted welcome, a cup of barley tea, an exchange of vague memories about his grandmother. But this new man barely seemed to recognize her name. The professor felt himself redden.

“Well, I’ll be by afterward to talk about the—anything we have to settle up, from the last year,” he said lamely.

The custodian bowed deeply as they went out.

The family began to walk up the road that curved through the cemetery. As they left the lodge behind, the professor’s mood began to lift. He had looked forward to this visit for weeks; it was proof, a deed, his heart swelled with it. He was a man who loved continuity.

“Remember how to get there, Paul?” he asked his son.

The boy squinted at the wall sloping up to their right. “Isn’t it behind this?”

“You’re going to have to do better than that, if you’re going to find it on your own one day. Come on. How do we get there?”

“I think you go behind this wall, and you walk up that way.”

“Well, lead on, if you’re sure about it.”

“But I’m not sure.”

“Try anyway.”

“I know where it is,” the girl, Anne, said.

Her father said, “Let Paul try.”

They picked their way through the grass, up the hill.

The woman, Agnes, shaded her face with both hands. She was thinking about how the grandmother had always disliked her. More than once, unsubtly, she had implied that Agnes was a fortune hunter. Even when dying, in full dementia, she had harbored some spite: Why don’t you go home, dear? You shouldn’t stay so late at our house; it’s not proper. Go home.

“You shouldn’t have dropped by the office first,” she said to her husband. “I saw him looking us up and down. He’ll probably make up a ridiculous invoice.”

“Maybe,” said her husband lightly. “But what can you do?”

“Well, you could try not to let him swindle you.”

“Let’s wait until he does it, before we accuse him of it.”

Their daughter, who had been listening intently, piped in, “Could you really do anything about it? If he were swindling you.” She had noticed that sophisticated people, adults, friends of her parents, talked like this. They discussed their problems, especially problems that had to do with money, in casual, aggravated tones. It was not difficult to imitate.

“I mean, what are your options?” the girl said, enjoying the sound of the words. “Can you move her to another cemetery, if this one has bad service?”

“It’s not a hotel,” said her mother.

“But you have to pay to stay here.”

“Well, we own the plot,” her father explained. “But we pay them a little every year, for maintenance.”

“Like a condo.”

“Really, Anne,” said her mother.

“It’s a little like a condo,” agreed her father solemnly. “What do you know about condos?”

“Lexi’s family lives in a condo. I saw it on a sign in her lobby, and her mom explained it to me. Her mom’s a real estate agent.”

“Lovely,” Agnes sighed.

Ahead of them, alone, Paul climbed in silence, feeling the burden of leadership. He had been made to show the way to the grave last year, too (he had been unsuccessful; he had brought them to the duck pond), all the while hearing a speech about the duties, in Korean society, of the eldest son of an eldest son (“I’m your only son,” Paul had interposed. “And, I’m a twin”). Now here he was again, struggling through the tall grass, thirsty, confused.

He reached a terraced level of graves, edged by larches. Three faint paths, long depressed bands in the grass, curved off in different directions.

His sister caught up to him.

“That way,” she whispered.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

She was two minutes older than her brother; her opinion was that seniority conferred responsibilities.

The parents followed, some yards behind, talking to each other out of the sides of their mouths. In the ascent, they had all become slightly short of breath. Paul’s polo shirt was dark under the arms. No one knew why he perspired so much, so easily; it wasn’t a family trait.

The grave, the children remembered, was on the highest part of the hill, on a terrace of its own. They had heard the story from their father: Sophia had chosen the location herself; it was the condition on which she had donated the land around it—land which now comprised half the cemetery. She had also designed her own grave, which Paul and Anne agreed was an extremely creepy thing to have done, though there was nothing very special about the design. A large, boxy granite structure, topped with a bed of grass. A marble statuette of the Virgin at its head. A horizontal tablet bearing her name, and the names of her husband, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Paul and Anne’s names were on it, and they agreed that this, too, was extremely creepy. Neither of them could remember her.

The terrace on which the grave stood was accessed by a tall, narrow concrete stairway. The children began to climb it, taking the steps two at a time, counting out loud. “Two, four, six…”

“Paul, you did it!” Their father’s voice floated up to them.

“Twelve, fourteen.” Their feet pushed up from the last step; they were there. They walked forward.

“God. It looks awful,” said Paul flatly.

“Dad’s going to freak.”

The grass bed they remembered had been superseded by a tall shock of weeds, yellowing, withered, vaguely comical. The granite frame that bordered the bed was coming apart into its constituent beams; all were loose, one of them actually askew. The Virgin Mary bore stains of something like moss, or possibly only grime, in the depression of her neck, along the indentations in her robes, on her cheek. The whole place had a loose, dissipated air. As they approached, wheat-like stalks grazed their thighs.

The professor was distraught. “I don’t understand,” he muttered, staring around helplessly. “This is terrible. It’s never been like this.”

“They haven’t been doing maintenance,” said Anne sagely.

They walked around the grave, inspected the damage. There was something fascinating about how completely it had gone to seed.

“Well, we had better get started,” the professor said.

Slowly, they began removing the weeds on the grave itself, stooping down, pulling laboriously with their hands. As they worked, the sun fell on the backs of their necks. Somewhere around, cicadas sawed wildly in the heat.

From a little way off, the weeds had looked flimsy and brittle, but they had pale, rubbery roots that snuck deep, and clung. Drops formed on Paul’s upper lip as he concentrated, worked slowly. It was satisfying to make an entire weed come out at once, roots and all, though pulling too hard on the larger stalks left tiny little needles along the insides of his hands, a blind defiance.

Anne applied her sleeve to the Virgin Mary’s face. “This is gross,” she said. Her mother cried, “You’re ruining your blouse. Ask Paul for one of his socks.” “That would be grosser.” Privately, Paul rejoiced that his sock was not required.

Resolutely, the professor kicked one of the loosened granite beams into place, but a moment later it rolled to the ground, partly landed on his toe. He yelped in pain. When he removed his loafer, there was a dark purple bleed under the nail. “Shit.

“I thought I heard voices up here. Good afternoon!” A man in coveralls, his face darkly tanned, had come up the stairs, and was smiling around at them all. He bowed. In one hand he held a spade edged in dirt.

Agnes prepared herself to be indignant. “Are you a gardener here, sir?” she asked tensely.

“No, ma’am,” said the man, laughing. “Well, I do some odd jobs for them, now and then, but I’m here on family business now. My parents are next door, so to speak– just down this way.”

The four of them walked to one edge of the terrace and looked down. Sure enough, there was a neat pair of graves there, one level below. There was also an arched trellis flanked by planters, five patio chairs, and a mini charcoal grill. Sometimes he liked to come and have dinner with his folks, the man said. He brought the kids, the wife, they cooked a little dinner, updated his parents on life.

“You’re lucky you can come so often,” said the professor. “This is my grandmother’s grave. We were just talking about how badly it’s been kept up.”

The man in the coveralls peered at Sophia’s grave and made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Yes, that’s too bad. If you don’t do it yourself, it doesn’t get done. Have you come up from Seoul, then, sir?”

“Yes, but we live in America. New York.”

New York!” He let out a wondering noise. “Well, how about that. I never met anyone from New York before.”

“We only get out here once a year. But we’ve never seen it in such bad shape, any time we’ve come.”

“New York,” the man repeated. “You must be very successful.”

The professor laughed politely.

“I tell you what,” said the man, putting his head to one side. “I’m friendly with Mr. Lee, down at the office. If you like, I could go down and just have a word with him about your situation here.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. We’ll speak to him ourselves,” the professor said. “We told him we would.”

“Of course, of course,” said the man. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Wonderful to have met you all. Safe travels back.” He bowed, then hastened towards the stairway, swinging his spade.

“He’s going down to tell Lee about the stones,” Agnes observed. “He’ll say you’re very successful, so they can charge you something ridiculous.”

“Would you stop?” said her husband. “So they’ll charge me something ridiculous. I don’t give a fuck.”

The children, who had been gathering up the discarded weeds, paused briefly in their task, then continued.

“Oh, how high-minded of you, John. It must be so nice, not to give a fuck. Is your life nice?”

“Enough.”

“Is it nice being everyone’s fucking fool?”

She turned away. The children were marching towards the woods behind the terrace, their arms full of weeds. She watched them fling the armfuls in among the trees, watched the weeds disperse in the wood-barred dark. “We should go down soon,” she said, in an altered tone.

Her husband retrieved the plastic roses from the ground, and propped them up against the foot of the statue. The children came back, swiping stray grass from their clothes. The family stood in a neat row by the grave.

“Well, we’re here, Grandmother,” the professor began, self-consciously. “I’m here with Agnes, and Anne and Paul. We drove up from Seoul today.”

He looked around at the others. They were staring at their feet, waiting. Waiting it out. He sighed. What were the chances that they would do this for her, if he were gone? What were the chances that they would ever do this for him?

“Let’s say a prayer,” he said.

Afterwards, the family went down the hill in silence.

When they reached the custodian’s lodge, the professor said he would go in alone. As he lowered himself gingerly onto one of Mr. Lee’s sofas, he reminded himself that he was a learned man, a respected man; people found force in his arguments; he was well-liked. Still, the prospect of confrontation filled him with panic. He couldn’t help it. More than once he had overlooked a student’s plagiarism, unwilling to make an accusation. He permitted himself to be cheated of small sums at the grocery store, in shops, at restaurants; he never disputed a bill.

“I’m sorry to have to say that I… have concerns, Mr. Lee,” he began carefully. “When we went up just now, the condition of my grandmother’s grave was… not ideal. For one thing, the stone frame around the grave bed is falling apart.”

Mr. Lee immediately assumed a pained expression, as if this were an old wound for him. “We had some terrible rains last summer, sir,” he said mournfully. “Many of the graves were affected. We were quite overwhelmed. But of course, I’ll be happy to see to your grandmother’s myself. If you will come round to my desk–”

“Well, but—” The professor willed his voice not to quaver. “That isn’t all, I’m afraid. In fact, the worst of it is how– how overgrown it all was, when we got there. As if— as if no one had been tending it, since the last time I was here.” Mr. Lee was silent. The professor went on: “The whole place was covered in weeds. Completely. How could that have happened, do you think?”

Mr. Lee cleared his throat. A little stiffly, looking down at his hands, he murmured, “I mean no offense, sir, but when families don’t visit, the graves do get a bit wild. I know it’s the times we live in: people are busy, they can’t attend to the resting places. It’s old-fashioned to expect it. No one is to blame,” he added.

Softening despite himself at this absolution, the professor struggled to remember his point. He sputtered. “But—but there’s a basic level that has to be kept up by you and your staff, isn’t there? Basic tending, during the year?”

“Of course, sir. Of course. We are always tending, it’s the main thing.”

“Well, it hasn’t been done in our case. I mean, it’s obvious.” He gave an uncomfortable little laugh.  “I do feel that there’s been some— neglect.”

“I am sorry,” said Mr. Lee, in an injured tone, “that you have not found our work to your satisfaction, sir. We are so overworked here, it is sometimes impossible to anticipate exactly when a family will be visiting, and then–”

“But surely, Mr. Lee, the graves must be kept up, whether a family visits or not. I’m willing to pay whatever charge applies…”

“We have a policy, sir, for anything beyond the normal upkeep. Whenever a family member comes, our staff is happy to weed the grave for you, at the time of your visit. But a family member must be present.”

“Why is that?”

“We have had problems in the past,” murmured the custodian. “Families would come, they would see a few weeds, and they would refuse to believe that we had been tending the graves at all. They would demand refunds…”

“I promise to take your word for it that the job’s being done.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Mr. Lee, my family lives in America. We can’t possibly come back here every time the grave is to be tended. You must understand our situation.”

“I do, sir. But please understand mine. Such a large cemetery. We serve so many. Without the policy, things would become unmanageable.”

“But the—policy is for people who live here, who can come often to their family graves.”

“The policy is for everyone, sir. We can’t make exceptions. It wouldn’t be fair, when so many people have difficulties.” As he spoke, Mr. Lee began to feel that he was standing for an idea, protecting it. No one could say he wasn’t egalitarian. “I’m a humble man, sir,” he continued, becoming excited. “I just do my work, and I’m happy to do it. But there’s always so much to be done. Too much. And at the end of it all, I am blamed, when families come, and they see that there are a few weeds! But it’s not that there has been no tending. It’s only that there are always weeds— no, please. There are always weeds. They grow back so quickly. And if it’s not weeds, it’s something else. It’s the condition of the soil here. It’s nature.”

After a moment, he said, in a pacifying voice, “But as for the matter of the stonework, of course, there is no problem. I will see to it myself. If you will come round to my desk, I have prepared an invoice…”

Some minutes later, the professor left the office, holding his yellow receipt.

“That’s how the rich are,” the custodian thought, watching the door close. “They think they can buy new rules for themselves. But a man like me can’t be bought.” In another life, he thought, he might have been a judge.

Under the cypress, the younger man and the older man were playing cards. They paused to watch the American leave the custodian’s lodge and walk quickly toward the car. The children and the mother were already inside.

As the car pulled away, the older man said abruptly, “Go abroad. That’s what you should do. If I were you, I’d go abroad.”

The younger man gave a low, bitter hoot. “Great idea. And where would I get the money to go abroad?”

“That’s an excuse. If you wanted to find the money, you could.”

“How do you figure that?” The younger man’s voice rose, aggrieved. That morning his mother had told him that his old rival from middle school was living in Seoul with a position at Samsung, and a wife. “I’ve got nothing,” the young man said. As he said it, the sound of it almost pleased him; it sounded serious, it was a serious condition. “I have nothing,” he said again.

“You have everything,” said the older man sadly.

On the highway, the Equus passed under a sign indicating the direction to Seoul. The driver had had the idea of turning on an American oldies station for the benefit of his clients, and the radio played “Summer Wine,” very low. The clients, however, seemed not to notice. The father, sick with anger, pretended to sleep. In the back seat, between her children, the woman stared down at the roped veins in her small hands, and thought about her youth, gone now, and also about how tired she was, and about her parents, long dead– how they would grieve to see her like this, irritable, full of regrets. What the children felt was a mystery, even to themselves. They would not know until years later, when they returned to the cemetery, what their feelings had been on that day.

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