A journal of narrative writing.
Vacancies at Mt. Zion

There is nothing impractical in a cemetery, and even the cats know it. Sun warms the street-facing sides of the headstones and by noon has drawn the moisture from each minted slab — the narrow space between stone and soil is the perfect shape for a languid feline body, and they always make use of it. Because most of the graves on this side are relatively recent — 1912 is recent for this cemetery, at least - the earth is still slightly swollen at even intervals, and from the sidewalk, only the very tops of their ears can be seen above each grassy mound. The gray cat is fatter than his orange companion and has a black tail and feet. They wander between the headstones like groundskeepers, comfortable with the grass and granite and relative silence.

The stones are mismatched, not only by row but by column, so that the whole lot reads like a patchwork of black granite and gray marble, stars and crosses and flags and flowers all quilted onto the background of the greater Hartford ghetto. The cats don't discriminate, but they keep close company, always resting their backs against adjacent stones as if the warmth of one might indicate the temperature of its shadier neighbor.

No one, in fact, human or animal, seems vexed by the arbitrary location of Mt. Zion Cemetery. Men with heavy-lidded eyes lean against the iron gates along Ward Street smoking cigarettes, and the white florist's van rounds the corners like his wheels recognize the sudden dips in pavement. Three girls sidestep puddles as they walk along the north gate — the one on the left drags her fingertips across the rungs as if testing a harp. The hood of her sweatshirt clings uncertainly to the crown of her head, as if supported only by the bulk of hair beneath. From this angle it is impossible to see their eyes, but no one turns to face the cemetery, and the loose, happy movements of their walking limbs suggest that it's never been a place treated with much heaviness or formality. One gets the feeling that tennis shoes have been tethered to power lines inside the graveyard gates just as often as they have been outside them.

The cemetery has been inoperative since 1948. It remains a public domain, but a painted signboard fastened to the chain-link border is far from inviting. Among the activities that are unlawful or otherwise improper in a cemetery are, as listed: dogs, picnics, tree-planting, tree-cutting, and the promotion of any loud or raucous noise or disturbance. Potted plants are another category entirely — cut flowers are permitted only if displayed in the proper container (clay pots no more than six inches high and ten inches in diameter, or "rustic baskets" with handles no more than twelve inches in diameter). Artificial decorations of any sort, including plastic flowers, are prohibited during the growing season, from May fifteenth to November first. Only a few graves boast the rebellion of winter — synthetic wreaths with red plastic bows are partly submerged in banks of snow, looking rather like half-buried tires.

The headstones read like a registry of British immigrants — Barron, Scott, Tully, and Lennox flank the left side of the walkway. On the right, Ambrose Wellwood lies beside his wife, Minnie Hale, and their daughter, Martha H. Wellwood. At time of death, the three were fifty-two, seventy-eight, and forty-six years of age, respectively. Ms. Hale outlived both her husband and daughter.

Less than a mile up the road, McGovern Granite Co. was once the primary producer of monuments and cemetery lettering for Mt Zion. These days, it looks like the loss of the cemetery's patrons hasn't affected business much — indolent jazz is audible even from the parking lot, and store hours posted in the window (9:30 am to 3:00 pm, Monday through Friday) have no suggestions of urgency. On the fa├žade of the building hangs a large clock, at least three feet in diameter, under which faded italics tell a fateful message — It's later than you think.

Norman Glesser is the proprietor of this establishment, and speaks with the cautious sympathy of one accustomed to dealing with grieving widows and spouses. He has a certain disregard for personal space, but the closeness of his face to mine as we discuss Mt. Zion is more comforting than irritating.

"It's a craft", Norman tells me, sharpening a pencil and pushing it behind his ear like a confident artist. "we have a studio in the back, you know — carve more than half of the headstones right here on the premises, with stone from as far away as South Africa. Good granite is hard to come by, because a lot of these quarries collect from sites with a high limestone deposit. Makes the stone too porous to work with". McGovern Granite is responsible for the fine selection of stone at Zion's Hill, where even the oldest graves, the ones from the mid nineteenth century, are delicately engraved and impeccably polished. Norman has spent the last twenty years replacing headstones to which the last century has been unkind.

"Some sort of religious conflict", Norman explains, "that's why they stopped interring bodies. If you wander around in there, there's a small lot, up at the northeast corner, has a different name. Beth Israel Cemetery — the temple reserved the land, but when they ran out of room, had no legal claim over the rest of the place. Only laid some two-hundred-odd people to rest before moving the plots to Wethersfield. Rest of the cemetery's been dead ever since". Norman is startled at his own unintended pun, and begins to chuckle, his laughter slowly growing until the loose flesh beneath his chin begins to tremble.

But out on Ward Street, things are different. A soccer ball and an empty Keystone Lite Crate have worked their way between the rungs of Mt. Zion's gate, and passersby don't seem to take any particular notice of either the litter or the inactive graveyard. It's a bit of an ordeal, flagging someone down to question. It's like no one looks up from their shoes, or I'm not speaking loudly enough. Eventually, a curly-haired Latina wanders by with a stroller, looking down and cooing at her young son. She is surprised at the sound of my voice when I stop to ask her a few questions, as if speech is careful and infrequent on this block. Theresa — she won't give me a last name — seems puzzled by what I ask her.

"I don't really know", she says, her Dominican voice rhythmic and rolling. "I never really thought about it, I guess — I live just right down the street, but never thought nothing of this place. I mean, it's like graves, you know? I wouldn't want to come here at night." She laughs at her own foolishness and picks up Julian's stuffed duck from the sidewalk. "I never heard of anyone passed away who had a funeral here. I thought it was some kind of historical landmark. I wouldn't even go in, just for a visit or something. I guess there's a lot of history, but it doesn't seem right, you know? Like it's wrong to disrespect the dead, god bless 'em." I'm not sure Theresa even believes her own excuse, but it seems safe, and I don't blame her. If she doesn't want to concern herself with a cemetery, she shouldn't have to. When I tell her that Mt. Zion has been holding vacancies — holding, never filling them — for the last half-century, she isn't shocked. "I mean, it's loud here," Theresa says, "and busy and smelly and all that. I wouldn't want to be here, no thanks." It strikes me, this statement, and Theresa barely seems to notice the irony of her words. Not buried here, sure, but she is here. At least when you're dead, the noise doesn't keep you up at night.

"It's not so safe here now". Theresa stops smiling, and nods her head. "I mean, I don't know if it ever really was, maybe a long time, like twenty years ago, but it's bad now. There are a lot of guns. I live right near, I hear them". She looks ashamed to have told me about the crime levels with which we are both familiar. Theresa hasn't even told me the name of her own street, and I doubt she will.

In this part of town, they don't trust what they don't know. They don't know me or Mt. Zion Cemetery, and it doesn't seem important to change that. In such an urban working-class neighborhood, known by its frequency in police logs and the low intensity of its Dominican rap music, history doesn't matter much. It matters less where you come from than where you're going. Call it a survival instinct, but really, the people who live around Mt. Zion, on Ward and Allen and Campbell Streets, are still fully living, and need no reminder that eventually, it really is going to be later than they think. There's a certain polite, if slightly callow, don't-ask-don't-tell policy about the cemetery, and this little neighborhood in the South end of Hartford works just fine around it. Eventually, maybe, they'll set up some conservationist project to save the history hiding under the litter, but for now, Mt. Zion cemetery is just a grey, forgotten place where the block ends, and where the cats can still appreciate the warmth of a headstone.

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