Monday, May 30, 2011

To the Dead, the Half-Dead, and the Riddles of Paradox

I can just imagine running into 
One of your faithful family some day
In Moab or Fruita or some damn place
And being recognized as the weird guy
Who desecrated your cemetery
And on Memorial Day of all days.
Even as I drove away, in my head
I was already explaining myself
To my insulted interlocutor,
Unskeining tangled, loopy narration.

How far back do I start? Two days ago,
You see, I was telling my wife Sarah
About Decoration Day in the South,
About how seriously country folk
Took the ritual of fixing up graves,
Something akin to ancestor worship,
Although the symbols of flags and crosses
Paid highest homage to Christ and country.
I wasn't thinking of Colorado.
It was a casual conversation.

This morning began with no thought of graves,
Only frustration at feeling housebound 
By the holiday hordes swarming our town.
How to get out without getting crowded?
We decided to bundle the baby
And a picnic of simple sandwiches
And drive until we reached somewhere quiet,
Preferably somewhere we had not yet been.
We looped south around the La Sal Mountains,
Until we dropped down into Paradox.

We'd heard of Paradox before from friends,
I'd even wandered down the valley once
Alone on an autumn drive. One friend said
It was Castle Valley's doppelgänger,
Another said it was the same valley
Bisected by the mushrooming La Sals.
Either way it bore some strange relation
To our home valley on the other side.
The name alone made a visit tempting,
So we turned off the main road and drove in.

In the center of the valley, a hill,
Just a bump compared to the towering
Red-rock rim and heaped-up snow-capped giants
Surrounding it, circled by a wire fence,
Sported a slightly battered wrought white gate
Proclaiming "Paradox Cemetery."
It just seemed too perfect for a picnic,
Under all that windy, cloud-sweeping sky,
And when we drove around the loop of plots
We were charmed by all the decorations.

In addition to fresh flags and flowers,
Mostly brightly colored silks and plastics,
Numerous more idiosyncratic 
Touches flourished among modest headstones,
A grave covered in white-painted pebbles
Beside a grave covered in colored glass,
Graves with dangling ornamental abstracts
In brass or copper, or hanging lanterns.
And there, the largest tombstone on the hill,
Drab slab with one word facing us: "Riddle."

We stopped there. We meant no disrespect, but
How ideally improbable is that:
A Riddle is buried in Paradox?
On the far side of the Riddle's tombstone,
Lay the pair of graves, one with white pebbles
By one with colored glass, and a small shade tree
Over them, beside a tumbled cherub.
We spread our picnic by the little tree,
Facing the Riddle, and Sarah, who's slept 
Hardly at all for weeks, made a droll toast:

"To the dead, the half dead, and the Riddles
Of Paradox!" I laughed, the baby cooed,
The wind tossed the sparse leaves of the lone tree,
And the Memorial sun shone brightly
On the American flags, the crosses,
The newly placed, fluttering silk bouquets,
The faded fragments of past years' bouquets
Now scattered in the tufts of new-mown grass,
And down the whole, long valley, green with spring.
After lunch I lay back and thought I'd nap.

Sarah could take photos of the gravesides,
The baby could snooze in pale shade with me,
And maybe a profound thought might occur
To one of us, worthy of the setting.
Then biology trumped profundity.
A squelching sound like a boot stuck in mud
Came from under the baby. I sat up,
Sarah got the diaper bag from the car,
And we surveyed the damage: our cherub
Had soiled three layers of onesies and pants.

We got her up and stripped from the waist down,
Balanced upright while one of us mopped up 
The front side of her, the other the back.
That was our family tableau,
Three strangers, unrelated to the dead
Buried and decorated around us,
When your family pulled up in two trucks,
A stout troop wielding rakes, hoes, and flowers.
What could we do? We cleaned up our daughter,
Waved at the Riddles, packed up, and drove home.

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