Anthony Garcia (He/ But I'll Never Be Him) is a writer, reader, wizard, dungeon master, educator, and semi-professional grifter from Hell's Waiting Room (South Florida).
He received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts and his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Central Florida. His work can be found in GutSlutPress, Headcanon Magazine, Flash Frontier, and on Twitter @AGWritesTrash
The humidity in this place had taken as many lighters from her life as it had people. She thought she had finally found the one that might go the distance. Wind resistant. Waterproof. It was Prometheus at the flick of her thumb, ready to bear the responsibility of bringing her world out of a sober darkness and into a nicotine-soaked light.
If it worked.
The concrete overhang of the four-story mausoleum protected her, her near-empty pack of Winstons, and her new lighter from the powers that be. She knew it would only be a short reprieve from the steadily rising winds and sideways rain, but she took it.
She lit a cigarette with a single raindrop staining the crisp white paper around the middle between her lips. She spent a long moment letting the smoke stain what was left of her lungs before a cough sputtered the smoke out. She could hear her Abuela clearly between attempts to take in air: “Mija, I don’t smoke anymore. I just taste. I just taste.”
A storm this late in the season wasn’t entirely unheard of and the rains dampened more than the streets. It was already deep into that time of year when people gathered to eat, drink, and pretend they enjoyed the company of those gathered. The storms tended to be unkind to her soft packs of cigarettes as well.
The power was usually on in this place, even with the storms battering against its windows and foundation. The stones and bones could feel the wind just as well as she could, but the power stayed on. Not even a flicker. That was the trick about building something in South Florida: keep it on the school’s power grid.
She smoked and looked out to the parking lot. Boarded-up windows peeking out through the sheets of rain. Her cigarettes were layered on top of one another in an empty planter near the entrance. She wasn’t sure if they didn’t care enough to clean this part of the graveyard or if they just missed the planter, but she was sure how she could count the years she had been coming to this place in the stack of butts and ashes. If she only had the tools to bisect the pile and count the filters like the rings of a tree, she might know. She added one last crumpled filter to the pile.
The graveyard was next to the church where they had taken her when she was growing up. With the storm, she knew there would be no sounds of a badly tuned organ peeling the wallpaper off the thin walls. No poorly sung hymnals would make the saints weep in their mosaic tombs. The only thing she could hear was the sound of her heart scraping the bones in her chest and the rain falling on the grave like a constant splintering of glass.
Rain used to be a way for her to set her clock. It would speak to cold tiles on bare feet on a warm summer day. Rainbows from balconies as the sun shined through the showers. Now the familiar scent just held the regret of coming back. She looked at the stairs she had climbed dozens of times. She would walk with her mother or father up these uneven steps to visit people who had been moved back to their homes decades ago. She counted the steps every time just to have something to hold onto other than the way their faces looked. She took the elevator.
It didn’t hum or ring as it reached its concrete destination, instead choosing to herald her arrival with the loud scrape of metal on metal and a shake that put the fear of the power that controlled this into her. Florida Power and Light, not God, of course.
Rows and rows of nameplates, small portraits, and wilted flowers lined the walls. The Corinthian columns stood in odd contrast to the hurricane-proof design the diocese had chosen decades before she was born.
The wind pushed against the barricade the shutters created. She would have to thank Father Morton for insisting they be left up throughout the year. She couldn’t imagine his ancient form trying to take down the third-floor shutters once a year let alone twice. The power clicked off.
She counted the time between her steady breaths. After ten, the breathing became a little less stable. At twenty, she started to feel around her pockets for her lighter. At thirty, she realized that they must have messed up something during the renovations. And right at thirty-three, as her thumb flicked over the metal ring, she heard a loud cough of a generator from somewhere below, and the emergency power kicked on.
The emergency lights kept the place in an amber hue. Something about the tone reminded her of how harsh hospital lights could be.
After the redesign and abundance of new boarders, she had to figure out a better system for finding her destination. She was bad with directions but good with names.
Left at Poldry.
Right at Ramirez.
Six above Davidson.
With these nine words, she followed her memories along carved marble, etched bronze, and dirty concrete.
Darlene Poldry had a plush German shepherd that hung by its collar where flowers would normally be placed. There was a folding chair against a wall whose seat was nearly caved in from the weight of prayer or family. She could never be sure which.
There was a large floor to ceiling window. It was shuttered, but the shepherd had been sitting there long enough, that the summer sun had singed its synthetic fur into a flat surface and glazed its eyes into off-white tones that made the dog look like it had cataracts. There were a few flower pots around for other graves, but the only thing that looked alive were the fake roses on the floor underneath the dog.
She walked over and gave the dog a pat on the head, wiping away some of the grime from the button nose and the portrait next to it.
Alfredo Ramirez kept good company. She remembered him giving her a ride to school when the bus was late. The bus was always late then. It’s probably still late now. He let me cram into the back of his car with his brothers, sisters, friends, and anyone else that missed the bus and didn’t want to walk.
There were a few spaces around him that all bore the same last name. Two bronze plates were secured into each niche. Alfredo Ramirez. Born July 14th, 1994. Died 2009. Julio Ramirez. Born April 19th, 1997. Died 2009. Jacob Ramirez. Born 1995. Died 2009. Olga Ramirez. Born 1995. Died 2009. Anna Olinda Ferreda Ramirez. Born 1957.
Davidson was always the hardest to find. The row was the longest in the structure. Unlike Alfredo`s, the names on these niches were two or three to a space and none of them shared a family name. But, if Alfredo and Darlene signified lines on her map, Davidson was the X that marked the spot.
There were empty spaces where bronze had once adorned the niches. No dates, just names. Some of the tiles had popped out, leaving bronze scattered along the floor. She was scared to touch them.
Putting the wrong name in the wrong place. Risking the wrong prayer for the wrong person. Her want to help was outweighed by the anxiety over what might come with a mistake. Davidson’s name rested at the top of a stack on the floor, caught underneath the bottom lip of the molding.
She looked up toward the place she was looking for and then around the space. Empty concrete halls. Shuttered windows. Water crept in through the cracks that hadn’t been properly filled letting it pool at the intersections between rows of the dead. She then settled on the concrete bench across from the pile, below where her grandmother rested.
The rain had soaked into her jacket, but the candle and Ziploc were dry. She brought out a lighter and began to flick the flint against steel, hoping the wick would catch as it had before.
A lifetime’s worth of burnt-out Bics could finally rest easy in the knowledge that a distant cousin served its purpose. She brought the lighter to the candle, and the flame went out. Again it lit. And again, it went out.
Each time she brought the flame toward the candle, it extinguished itself. She was prepared for this disappointment and took a moment to mourn the memory of the lighter she thought might be the one before tossing it onto the ground. This was why she brought with her the Ziploc filled with matchboxes and packs.
Unfortunately, all the bars and hotels she had collected them from had not done their due diligence in keeping the humidity away. Two packs and three boxes later, she finally got one to light properly. She held her breath and moved the candle, rather than the flame. Watching it burn toward her finger as her heart beat a little louder against the prison bars that held it. She didn’t know the name of the saint that was wrapped around the glass but had seen his iconography plenty of times around the house. A balding man surrounded by animals who held a pensive smile on his face as easily as the baby in his arms.
She let out her breath down the windless hall, far from the flame, and sat quietly for a few moments with her flickering companion. She made a sign of the cross. The gesture meant nothing to her but did mean something to the people she came to visit. She mouthed words she had practiced in front of airplane mirrors and in the back of taxis and closed her eyes to speak to them in the quiet place at the back of her mind.
“It took a lot for me to get here this time. It always takes a lot for me to come back to this place. Your place. I can still hear Feliz Navidad on that battery radio. The CD dad burned for you only had that one song. I can still smell roasting pig in the backyard and hear the sound of dominos clacking against plastic tables. Words mixed and drowned by accusations that the yams came from a can. A veritable inquisition speaking with mouthfuls of spite and mojo. You swore on the cross we put in there with you that everything came from the garden. Just like you made me swear that if anyone asked, I never saw the Bruce’s cans.
“You never taught me your language.” She could hear herself say.
She hadn’t noticed she was quietly muttering her makeshift prayer, and those words had been the loudest of all. Her voice caught in her throat like a broken shutter in late August. Too hot to close by hand. Too dangerous to leave it open. Too stubborn to buy the proper tool. So she burned herself to create safety.
“Hers.” she continued in a louder voice. “I left to find answers and came back to full graves. Each time I come here, I think about resolution, closure, and acceptance, and how those things will always be out of reach if you sit sealed behind that bronze plaque with your name.
“I spent all these years coming back hoping I could forge building blocks of truth from these conversations. But I can’t.
“The only truth I have left is my own. The one I create. Which is why I’m here. To create an ending. An ending better than the one you both left me with. What you left her with. Empty words about death and dreams exchanged like we could put a price on memory. Empty words were spoken to a room full of people who speak a language I can’t call my own. They were left in tears by the beauty of it all, and I was left to interpret meaning from the occasional translation from Father Morton.
“My voice never felt like my own after that. Like I’ve always been chasing your ghosts, hoping the echoes would coat my throat and give me power. But it just left my heart dry and my voice a whisper.
“This is the last time I will come here. The last time I will burn candles and speak of memory. I will let you rest so I, too, can know peace.”
She awoke to the sound of the rain beating the shutters like a bat. Harsher, harder, than it had been falling before. The only thing left of her candle was an empty shell of glass. A small pool of wax near the bottom sloshed like an airport cocktail when she touched the sides. The last embers still burning on the wick.
She went to move off the bench and found tears spilling over her cheeks toward her neck like her eyes had been an overfilled wine glass suddenly tipped too far. She leaned over the candle, closed her eyes hard enough to let the drops fall into the wax, and quieted the smolder with a breath.