Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ghost Story

My husband and I like to visit cemeteries. In Santa Fe, New Mexico we took the dogs away from the crowded Plaza and headed instead to the oldest graveyard in town, a quiet, neglected strip of land on a busy street in a noisy, industrial neighborhood. Pull through the gates in late winter or early spring, and what you'll find are bare trees. Dead weeds. Row after row of gravel lanes, pocked with holes where the prairie dogs have burrowed under the caskets. Headstones marked with German names. Hispanic names. Some dating to the Civil War. Some, older still, broken away, names missing. Some of the newest are handmade: wooden boards inscribed with what looks, oddly, like silly-string, but on closer inspection turns out to be bright blue caulk. In one corner lie nothing but children who died in 1939. "Baby Boy." "Baby Lady." "Whom," one inscription goes on, "our arms never held, yet now hold so dear."

I jump at a sound. It's a pick-up truck pulling fast through the gates. Something about its speed and the scowl of the driver tells me we're in trouble. My husband puts the dogs on leash and waits to one side.

The driver pulls up to me. He seems angry.

"You're trespassing. And your dogs have to be leashed in this town."

I nod carefully at the strong, heavy-set Hispanic face with its light speckling of freckles. Something about writing this blog has taught me not to assume all hope is lost when two wary human beings meet for the first time.

"I'm very sorry," I say as my husband leads the dogs away. "We couldn't resist. This cemetery is so amazing. Beautiful. Does it have a name?"

"It doesn't have a name. It's private. And the dogs have to be--"

"I'm really sorry again. You're absolutely right. They're leashed now. But it's just so beautiful here, we couldn't resist coming in." I introduce myself. "Are you taking care of this beautiful place?"

He relaxes a bit, points to a red adobe house at the edge of the property.

"That's mine. And those are my German Shepherds, there. They're trained to chase intruders out. They're chained right now, or they could have seriously hurt your dogs."

That explained his anxiety. And now he goes on to explain, relaxing a bit more, that he and his wife have taken over the cemetery, after years and years of neglect, crime and vandalism. They were very protective of it.

"It doesn't have a name," he repeats. "A hundred years ago, it used to be something for the rich ladies of Santa Fe to take care of. But then it got handed to foundation after foundation, and each of 'em took worse care of it than the last." He shakes his long black hair over his steering wheel. "You should have seen it then."

After the state of New Mexico retired the cemetery's debts, including an unpaid $100,000 water bill, Pete, a landscaper, was allowed to take it on--providing he planted new trees and removed the dead ones, and obeyed a new law that didn't allow him to plant or water any grass.

"So," Pete sighs, "that's why it looks the way it does. But the families of the deceased are just glad someone's taking care of the place now. Used to be a drug den. The dealers would hide the stuff in the urns. Someone would come to pick it up. But I'm not afraid of thugs. I'm retired military, Special Ops. Airborne. I was in Columbia during the drug wars. I was there when we, you know, weren't there. So punks don't mess with me. It's just the prairie dogs that are the trouble now."

Especially the ones that liked to bring skeletal human hands and bits of chewed coffin to the surface.

"The families don't like that," Pete tells me.

"What do you do?"

"I have to gas them. I don't like that, either."

He points to some land connected to the cemetery and tells me it's where a concentration camp once stood. "That's where they put the Japanese during World War II. The barracks were right there. That wasn't so good, either."

"Is it scary here sometimes?"

"Yes. You see things. My wife and I both do."

"Like . . . ?"

There was a little girl. Both he and his wife had seen her many times. She seemed to live in their house. A white girl in a white dress, with short blond hair. She liked to let the dogs off their chains. They would hear her, and come out into the yard to find the dogs free.

I remembered all the children's graves in the corner.

"What happened in 1939 that so many people died, Pete?"

"Smallpox. They just . . . died. Sante Fe was just a hole in the wall in the old days. No medicine. No real doctors."

"Are you afraid of ghosts?"

His tattooed arms grip the steering wheel. "No. The spirits only bother you if you're a bad person. And I take care of this place. I planted all these trees. You should come back in the summer. It looks different then. Really green."

"I think it's wonderful you're bringing this place back to life."

"Well . . . I try. But sometimes it's not easy. The records are so bad. One time, when a film crew was here, we accidentally dug up an unmarked grave. There are all kinds of people under our feet we don't even know about."

"I guess we just have to be careful."

"You do. If you come back, keep your dogs on a leash."

"We will. Thanks."

We shook hands. As I leaned into the window I noticed Pete's black boots, his black jeans and his black sweatshirt with the full, black hood behind it.



  1. Woa, this is a great beginning for a book. I love his character and passion for the cemetery. Must have been great to meet him.

  2. Beautiful, poignant post. My wife and I find cemeteries fascinating. Death is close. The names, dates, plastic or real flowers, and illegible markers remind us that this is but a brief foray of the beating hearts. Thank you for invoking this unique place.

  3. You are welcome, kind readers. It's true there was, not just a story, but an entire book in that afternoon. I was reluctant to finish it, prop that last stone in place. Every ending is also a little death.

    But soon I'll find another story . . .

  4. Way cool. And I agree that it's a great beginning for a book. And great comment, Dan.