Basically, it’s about how talking to a grave can prevent a nervous breakdown…
It was raining when I woke up and I wasn’t sure what day it was. But the sun was rising and my wife was in our bed with me, so I knew it was probably Saturday. (She is always up before the sun on any weekday, you see.)
Saturday is a holy day for Jews and gunfighters. It is the day when they take their traditional rest. The Jews don’t lift anything heavier than the meaning of peace and god. Gunfighters will take a drink of whiskey, but generally leave their guns in a drawer with letters from women they will never marry, and other things they don’t want to heft.
So I decided, because of some troubling things on my mind, that I needed to go see Wyatt Earp in Colma.
“Make it count while it lasts,” I often tell myself, “because I don’t believe there’s anything after.” Nope, I surely don’t. But I guess when I see after Wyatt Earp, and have a chat with him now and then, I’m betraying the idea that there’s something left of us in the after, something to suckle the wonder of the living and serve their need to talk to ghosts.
It’s a strange way to live. But then ol’ Wyatt lives in a strange place. And since I had some things to say, I didn’t mind driving to a graveyard in the rain, not much. See, I think Mrs. Earp likes me, and has for several years.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp died when he was 80, and as far as I know he never had a heart attack. (He might have caused one or two, but that’s apocryphal.) I did have a heart attack when I was 39, and I am nearly 49 now, and it scares the shit out of me that I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning.
I cry about this sometimes. But when I got to Colma and the cemetery I had most of my tears dried away. I didn’t want Wyatt to see I’d been weeping, even though it was still raining and, without a hat and with raindrops hitting my face, I doubt even his sharp eyes would have noticed. So I walked from my car to the nearby headstone, which has been taken by thieves a few times over the decades, and stepped as best I could between each drop of the now receding rain. I wanted to look as nice and dry as possible for the folks I’d come to see.
I usually had one long, thin cigar to put on the tombstone grave. A good guest always brings a useful gift. I know Mrs. Earp didn’t smoke but Wyatt did. The gifts I could possibly bring to the receptive bones of a 19th-century woman were too delicate for the cold stone of a Northern California graveyard.
So before I talked to Wyatt, I apologized to his wife and said nice ladies’ things are best left for when I came back happy in the spring or summer sunshine. Then I sat on the grass, it was still lightly raining, but I always sit on the grass. There’s no way to keep your illusion of ghostly protocol and possibly imagine your buried host would ever want to reach for you, to touch you, through anything but the natural earth.
The granite tombstone is an ornament and as strange and cold as the cancer or bullets that puts true Western heroes in the ground. It is here they often become some other men, they acquire components and stories, and grow into composites of the truths they lied so well to tell.
So I sat, and I waited for what felt like the right time to speak. There’s a right time to wait, and a right time to speak, and sometimes it’s okay to do neither.
I said the first thing on my mind, which is never about me when I talk to Wyatt Earp. I said: “You only ever killed one man, huh, Wyatt? I wonder how you got through it all, through the hazards of the land and the time of your days, with that violent potential all around you. A beast, I bet it was, always looking for you and hoping you’d feed it a little more blood than it needed.
Then I sat quietly for awhile, and thought about what Earp would be saying if this were an actual conversation. But I always get something out of this, well not at first, but eventually. It’s the only reason I come here, and by now all the groundskeepers know my face.
After a bit, I decided to speak more to Mr. Earp, to the ghost of the true American west. I said: “The days are getting more and more like this one for me Wyatt. And let me tell you what I mean.
“On the way over here to see you and the missus, I stopped briefly at a donut shop. I ran into a man I have known for 22 years. I remember speaking to him, keep in mind this was half an hour ago, but I’ll be goddamned if I remember shaking his hand. Man I’ve known for 22 years, Wyatt. We always shake hands. Sometimes we hug.
“But today… I get scared, these things scare me. I’m not afraid I’m losing my mind, I am starting to think I just don’t care enough to form new memories. That would be just the most hell of a thing, don’t you think?” I didn’t expect an answer, but I left time for one anyway.
I thought for awhile in the rain by the graves, with the ghosts, by the generations of bladed grass that will outlive both. I thought about a rose bush from Tombstone, Arizona. It’s a souvenir, and it’s growing in my back yard. “It’ll turn into a rose tree,” my wife and I were told. If it lives long enough to get that big.
I call our rose bush “Tombstone, Jr.” It started as a clipping from the largest rose-tree-bush in the world, planted in 1886. But to me, and I’ve told the Earps this before, it is like having an organic, living part of the blood of every wretched western hero and gloriously insane outlaw who ever died for a reputation. The hope of a flowering rose in my back yard sits where smallpox and encroachment killed every living indian around the tiny place just outside San Francisco where my town stands.
It’s like there’s a circle of beauty forming a wreath woven from the vinegar-softened bones of the dead. It’s like that snake, rolling downhill with its tail in its mouth, doing something obvious and impossible. It’s like talking to the grave of a giant’s myth, knowing the suit rotting in the earth you stand upon was last fashionable in 1929. But I do it anyway.
“Thanks for understanding, Mrs. Earp, ma’am. This is mostly between your husband and me.”
I never wear a wide-brimmed, western hat when I go to see Wyatt Earp. I have one, but it looks kind of foolish on me, even though my cherished wife bought the hat for me from an auction lot left behind by an old and respected Navajo medicine man. Besides, nobody ever wore a wide-brimmed western hat the way Wyatt Earp did. Me and my Navajo hat, we’d show up at Wyatt Earp’s grave and all we’d look like is a lesser angel trying to fit into the robes of god.
“Whatever happened to your Los Angeles hat, Wyatt?” I asked in a still moment between rain clouds. “Is it in a museum some place? I bet it is. I bet it has people walking by it all the time. I figure men try to get their heads close to your hat, see if they could fit the soft flesh encasing their rubbery 21st-century skulls into it.”
I thought about this for a few seconds, then I said to myself “I guess I probably would too.”
Then I just started rambling…
“I’m troubled, Wyatt, and I’m probably, in some ways, no better than any bullet-fucking bastard (Apologies, Ms. Josie, ma’am, for the language) you pistol-whipped on a Whiskey Downtown Saturday night and threw in jail for the love of mankind and peace.
“I lie to myself when I need to, chastise myself when I feel like it, and examine what I do on a level that would bore most men and maybe drive some crazy. I feel sometimes there’s no hope for me, that I’m trapped between the violence of my anger, and the peace of my intentions. I suppose, and you may take it as hero worship or something trivial like it, that my impression of you, Mr. Earp, has always been that you also lived in the void between anger and peaceful intent.
“And I wonder, as I stare down what often appears to me as the short rifle barrel length of the second half of my life, how in the hell you dealt with it. I wonder that a lot, I do. So I talk to your grave, and whatever spirit might make a comfortable home there, and I pat myself on the back for at least taking an original approach to saving on psychiatry bills.”
And I supposed us both having a laugh at that, and, divining my overall intent, Mrs. Earp forgiving me for harsh language in the presence of her fine, upstanding myth.
It was time for a smoke and a sandwich. I had peanut butter and ham on sourdough bread, a favorite of mine. When I come to see Wyatt Earp I always wrap my sandwich in wax paper. This is the only time I do this; it feels like the old way of doing things is comfortable for a graveyard, and in today’s rain very much.
There are too many plastic flowers here, on cold stones in the 21st-century light, and I don’t want my food to be part of it. Wax paper. It’s the kind of thing a man would wrap around his food so he could slip it into the hip or inside chest pocket of a black wool frock coat, to have later after an arrest or a shooting in the streets where he enforces the law.
So I ate in the silence of congealing thought, and had a look around at one or two people visiting other graves. They didn’t look happy, and they didn’t look sad. They were just there, not looking at me, and that was just how I wanted things.
I should have carried an umbrella with me, it would have made me seem more prepared. But the rain was diminishing to the point of dryness, and this made me feel smart. I spoke to Earp a bit more: “There were never bullets bathed in the love of Jesus, were there Wyatt? But there have been some righteously shot into the brains of depraved and dangerous men. I once thought this could be the life for me, to be a priest of the gun and a protector of the weak and the law.
“Then I met a woman, and my position on leading the pistol life changed for the sweetness of her kiss. I’ve lived a longer and better life this way, I think.” I paused a second, to have a taste of the air and the dying rain.
Both were good. They are always good.
“Regrets are funny. Every time you consider one it’s a way of editing your autobiography, the one you read over and over in your mind, in your sleep, and in those waking moments when your eyes are so out of focus you can almost see into the past through the blur. I have a lot of regrets, Wyatt, things I would change. But you can’t, you never can. It’s like being buried, you can’t move once the buckets of earth are heaped upon you. The choice is out of your cold hands. Some would say that this is as true in life as it is in death. I was dead once for a short time, I didn’t much like it, and I fought hard for the choice to come back.
“You were 80, I’m almost 49, and I hope I get to live as long as you, even though it must annoy you to basically be dead and yet immortal.” When I was done speaking, in that moment I realized I had just sung Wyatt Earp a vampire song.
“Wyatt Earp: Vampire Killer.” I should trademark that shit right away.
It’s almost impossible to imagine stink rot in a cemetery despite all the dead beneath your feet. One of my favorite places on Earth is called Aoyama Cemetery. It’s in Tokyo (Wyatt Earp never went to Japan) but I have not been among those slender Buddhist tombstones since 2008. Funny, I went half way around the world with my wife to Japan, and showed her rows of Japanese dead. But I have never driven her the five and one half miles from our house to come calling on the Earps. I suppose I should wonder why.
But my mind was wandering, and I knew I had taken a big enough chunk for today of Wyatt and Josie’s immortal eternity. I had a couple more things to say, but my words needed to end soon with “Goodbye.”
It had stopped raining. Fortunately clouds still blocked the sun. Tombstones look cleaner in the overcast, their permanence sadder and deeper. There’s no chance for the false hope a sunlit graveyard gives you that there is more you will ever know in death than the ashes you become or the hundreds of pounds of dirt heaped upon your bones. I started to get up, to take my leave of Wyatt and his wife. There were kinks in my knees, I didn’t have these ten years ago, and it took me a full five seconds to fully get to my feet.
I looked down at their tombstone and said: “Thank you, Wyatt, thank you, Josie. I appreciate the courtesy you always show me, the things you let me say to myself, thinking any part of you could possibly listen. I’ll be back. I don’t know when. I didn’t know I was coming today. It’s a whim, but deliberate. Something I dream about and then do. That’s about all there is to it. Thanks again, and goodbye.”
I turned and headed to my car, and I was halfway to it when I thought it, turned towards the Earps, and said it. I said: “Is it anything like swimming, when the rainwater drips far enough down from the grass through the dirt to your bones?”
I wonder if I will get an answer to that the next time I go see Wyatt Earp in Colma.
(Because Josephine Marcus was Jewish, she and Wyatt Earp are buried in the Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma, California. I have been to their grave a few times in the last 20 years, and many details in this poem-story are autobiographical, but I have never sat in the rain and had a sandwich while talking heavy personal shit with Mr. and Mrs. Earp. Maybe I should.)