Tom took to doing his work at night to avoid angry confrontations with the bereaved or people sympathetic to them. His wife Rosemary worried about it. She did not like having him out late at night on New Jersey highways. She said it wasn’t safe.
“Safety is what’s it’s all about,” Tom told her. “These things are hazards. They cause accidents.”
“I’ve never heard of them causing accidents,” said Rosemary. “They’re just a way for people to mark the spots where they lost loved ones. Just for remembrance.”
“That’s what cemeteries are for.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“And they’re against the law,” said Tom.
“You and your law,” she said, with a muffled laugh.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tom put his knife and fork down and looked at her.
“I mean why don’t you just let the police take care of it?” said Rosemary. She stared down at her meatloaf with its red clot of ketchup.
Tom said nothing. He just continued to look at her.
“Eat, it’s getting cold,” she said.
Tom picked up his knife, but not his fork.
“All I’m saying is that if they’re not bothering anyone and if the police don’t care, why should you?” She glanced up at him. His long face was sallow in the yellow kitchen light. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, honey,” she added hastily.
Tom put the knife back down on the table. “I don’t want anything to happen to you either, Rosemary.”
“When do you think you’ll be back tonight?”
“When I’m finished.”
Rosemary looked back down at her plate and didn’t look up again until Tom got up and left.
Tom sat in his black Ford Ranger pickup at the curb in front of his house. It was dark. The light in the cab wasn’t working so he used a flashlight to look at the road map spread out in front of him across the steering wheel. But he wasn’t really looking at the map. He was thinking about Rosemary.
Since his retirement six months ago from the New Jersey State Prison, Rosemary seemed different. In 40 years of marriage they had always gotten along, more or less. They had the comfortable kind of relationship where they didn’t have to say much to each other, Tom thought. Sure, they had their little spats, just like any normal couple. But he had never laid a hand on her, although he had to admit he’d come close. Once, when she had pushed him too far, he punched a hole in their bedroom wall. Later, he bought her flowers and patched the hole so well the damage was invisible unless you knew exactly where to look.
But the way she tiptoed around him lately and the way she looked at him, when she thought he wasn’t looking, bothered him. It was just that she wasn’t used to having him around all day, he thought. She didn’t know what to do with him. She had even mentioned looking for a part-time job, just to earn a little extra money, she said. He’d told her to forget about it, that they didn’t need extra money, they had all they needed, as long as she didn’t spend foolishly. She had never had a job and she didn’t need one now. She said all right, but he didn’t like the way she said it.
It was the same way she’d said all right when he told her he was going out to remove the roadside memorials marking the spots of fatal accidents on highways big and small throughout their part of the state.
Tom ran the yellow spotlight of the flashlight over the road map and the shifting of the light seemed to make the web of red, blue and black lines writhe with life. The way the lines crisscrossed, merged, split, scattered and met again gave him the uneasy feeling that there was really only one road metastasizing wildly in all directions and once you got on it there was no getting off.
On a yellow legal pad he kept a list of all the locations where he had found and removed roadside memorials. The list had grown substantially over the last few months, as he spent more and more time on the road. At first he just cruised the busiest highways in the afternoon, before rush hours, and pulled over when he found a memorial. But he had more than once run into problems.
On I-80 someone had arrived and pulled over just as he was dismantling a weathered wood cross with a floral wreath. The man turned out to be the father of the girl who had been killed, come to place a fresh plastic wreath. Even thought Tom had explained to him that the memorials were not only distracting to other drivers, but illegal, the man was so irate he threatened Tom with a hammer he was carrying to nail the new wreath to the cross. Tom, who was a big man, felt curiously unthreatened by the man with the hammer. But he got back in his truck and sped off, the man crying and cursing after him. On more than one occasion, passing motorists yelled obscenities at him as they drove by. One woman rolled down her window and threw a cup of hot coffee at him. A policeman had pulled up once and asked him what he was doing. When Tom explained he was just enforcing the law, the policeman told him not to worry about it, he’d take care of it. Tom had circled back after a while and found that the memorial was still there. The cop hadn’t done anything at all.
And so Tom decided to do his work at night, when there would be less likelihood of confrontations with the grieving or observation by other drivers. The later he left, the lighter the traffic became, the roads more deserted. Soon he not only got used to working the roads in the dark, he came to be comfortable with it.
As the months passed Tom became more methodical in his work. He found a number of websites that listed accidents on New Jersey highways and roads, including those with fatalities. He put the locations and dates of the fatal accidents on his list and waited a week or two before going to the site. Not always, but frequently, a memorial would sprout up on the spot and he would find it and root it out. He would, of course, still keep his eyes open on his patrols for random sightings. Some accidents were too old or too insignificant, fatal or not, to be noted on the websites. But they would not escape his attention.
Tom decided on I-78 West for this night’s patrol, not so much for itself, but as a practical route to US-22, where a fatality had occurred two weeks ago, and more particularly for the country road off 22 around Gravesend. The road in Gravesend had become a particularly vexing problem for him. There, in the shadow of an old oak tree, was a fairly large memorial, a white cross surrounded by stones and small statues of angels. He had cleared it away three times and three times it had reappeared. He could have simply left it alone; the road was not a well-travelled one. His finding the memorial had been accidental, the simple result of a wrong turn on his way to somewhere else. But the law was the law, he told himself, whether anyone cared about it or not. And it irked him that someone seemed so determined to thwart his efforts.
Although it was after nine o’clock, there was substantial traffic on 78, a broad highway of three lanes, well lighted by the glare of headlights on speeding cars. A cold moon was high in the sky, adding to the illumination. Tom kept in the right lane, doing under 60, scanning the right shoulder, which widened at spots into grassy knolls and clearings. As he approached an underpass, something caught his eye, and he pulled over to the shoulder. He put on his blinkers and got out of the truck. He walked up a slight incline and took a closer look. What had looked in the moonlight like a small monument was just a white cardboard box, about as big as a mid-sized TV or air conditioner. Tom gave it a kick. It fell over sideways and something spilled out of it. He leaned forward to take a closer look. It was a white cat. The cat sat in the grass and looked up at Tom. Its eyes were large and glowing. “Scat,” said Tom. He took the box and headed back to the truck. He turned and looked back just in time to see the cat leap at him. It landed on his shoe and clawed at his pants leg. Tom looked at the cat and thought of his wife. With a quick kick he sent the cat flying into the grass. He put the box in the back of his truck, got in, and merged back into the traffic.
Tom thought about the white cat Rosemary had once. It didn’t like Tom, but it never came close enough to bother him. It died one day for no apparent reason. Rosemary was heartbroken. Tom, who was good with his hands, made a little wooden tombstone and buried the cat in the backyard. He bought Rosemary flowers to make her feel better and she put them on the cat’s grave. He didn’t say anything but he didn’t buy her flowers again for a long time.
US-22 was a smaller road than I-78, just two lanes, and with much less traffic. Tom cruised slowly in the right lane until he passed the Exit to Stone Cold Creek, where, according to the listing on the website, a fatal accident had occurred two weeks before. Two boys, one nineteen and one twenty, had taken the curve too fast and jumped the metal guardrail, turning over twice. The driver, the nineteen year old, was killed; his older friend just suffered a broken collarbone. Tom peered into the darkness as he rounded the curve, but saw no sign of a memorial. He slowed down and kept going and saw up ahead something small and white attached to the metal guardrail. He pulled over to the shoulder and got out. Attached to the bent metal rail was a Styrofoam heart surrounded by blue vinyl flowers. In the middle of the heart was a plastic-encased photograph of a boy in cap and gown with the broad smile of someone finally escaping high school. Below the photo on the white Styrofoam was written in red marker We Love You Bobby We’ll See You in Heaven. “They sure went all out,” said Tom, who had developed a certain contempt for half-hearted efforts for the dead, legal or not. A car came up the road, slowed down, and pulled over ahead of his. “Shit,” he said. He walked over to the car and the driver lowered the passenger side window. He was a middle-aged black man wearing what looked like a clerical collar under his open jacket.
“Did you know Bobby?” the black man asked.
“No,” said Tom.
“That’s what I said. Are you a priest?”
“I’m a minister. Bobby’s folks are in my parish.” He hesitated and seemed to take a long look at Tom. “Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be all right?” asked Tom.
The minister didn’t seem to know what to say. “All right,” he said finally.
Tom didn’t like the way he said all right. It reminded him of how Rosemary said it sometimes.
“I’ve got to go,” said the minister. He seemed uneasy.
“When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go,” said Tom.
The minister rolled up the window and took off, too fast, up the road.
Tom went to the back of his truck, opened his tool chest, and took out wire clippers. Somewhere close by a dog started barking. He took the baseball bat he kept in the back of the truck to ward off whatever might be lurking in the dark and walked back to the Styrofoam heart. Two clips and it was off the rail. He threw the heart in the truck, replaced his wire clippers, and took the bat into the cab with him. It was almost eleven and he had one more stop to make before heading home.
The country road off 22 in Gravesend was just one lane bordered on both sides by woods and the occasional house. There were no lights on the road but the moon was bright and Tom knew just where he was going. As he got closer he put on his brights and as he rounded the turn, sure enough, there was the big oak tree and in front of it the memorial, resurrected once more, just as it had appeared on the three separate occasions he had dismantled and dumped it into the back of his truck. He was not surprised.
He got out of the pick up with his flashlight, but didn’t turn it on, as the moonlight was bright enough to see without it. The oak tree was so big you couldn’t see the top of it. Its massive trunk had barely a mark on it, as if a little thing like a speeding car crashing into it was too trivial to make much of an impression. Before the tree was the white cross, about four feet high, with the name Rose LoBianco neatly inscribed on it. At the foot of the cross was a bouquet of flowers, natural, not plastic, a circle of stones, and a little legion of foot-high plaster angels, six or seven, standing like sentinels, glowing in the moonlight. It was all familiar to Tom, as if it was part of a recurring dream.
“LoBianco,” muttered Tom and leaned over to get a closer look at the cross. He felt chilly and zipped up his jacket. He had known two men named LoBianco, which, he suspected, was not an uncommon name after all. One had been an inmate in the prison and the other had been a fellow guard. It was the incident with the inmate LoBianco that had precipitated his early retirement. The incident had surprised most, although not everyone, as over the many years Tom had worked at the prison he had never had a problem with an inmate before. Inmates, even the bad ones, seemed to want to have as little interaction with Tom as possible, and so mostly just did what he told them to do, or avoided him altogether. Tom hardly ever even raised his voice.
It was unclear what the inmate LoBianco had done to cause Tom to use what in the investigation was termed “excessive force.” Neither the inmate, when he recovered, nor Tom himself, shed much light on what happened. No charges were brought against Tom, but he was given an official reprimand. As he was close to retirement age, and the prison was being forced to reduce staff due to budget cuts, he was offered an incentive package to retire early. At first Tom turned the offer down, but the warden, who knew Tom well, gave him no real choice. He told Tom he needed to leave one way or the other. Tom was given a commendation by the state for so many years of service and a big flat screen TV from his fellow guards. They laughed about what he would do with himself now and said they’d all come over to watch football and drink Tom’s beer. But no one ever came over or ever called Tom and he found he didn’t care.
Tom turned back to his truck and was surprised to find a man standing next to it. The man was short and stocky. His face was in shadow, but his white hair was plainly visible in the moonlight. “Who are you?” said the man.
“Who are you?” said Tom
“I’m Joe. That’s my wife Rose,” he said, with a nod toward the memorial. “I’ve been waiting for you to come back. I should’ve known you do it in the dark.”
“Sorry for your loss,” said Tom. “You want to get away from my truck?”
“So you’re the one who’s been taking everything down,” said Joe. “Three fucking times?”
“These things are illegal. They cause accidents. Drivers get distracted,” said Tom.
“Are you a cop?”
“No, I’m not a cop. But I could call one.”
Joe took a step toward Tom. “I know all the cops in this town. And they know me. They know Rose, too. What did you say your name was?”
Tom walked to the truck and Joe stepped away from it. “I’m just a concerned citizen, that’s all.”
“And this is what you do? Go around and spit on people’s graves?”
“I don’t spit on anything,” said Tom. “And these aren’t people’s graves. They’re a hazard. And an eyesore.” He put his flashlight down and took a shovel and a green plastic trash bag from the back of the truck.
Joe stood in front of the white cross and faced Tom. “You’re not touching this shrine to my Rose.”
Tom shook his head. He looked up and down the road. “Why don’t you get back in your car and go home?”
“I am home,” said Joe. “You see that house up the road? You can see the lights in the windows. That’s our home. Me and Rose.”
“Well, you should go back there then,” said Tom, “and let me do what I have to do.”
“You want to know how Rose got killed?”
Joe turned and looked at Rose’s cross. “She was at her sister’s house in town. We’d had a little spat, ‘cause I didn’t want her to go out that night. She went anyway. I called her and told her I was having chest pains and I needed her home quick.” He turned toward Tom. “I wasn’t having chest pains. I lied. Just to get her to come back. She came back all right. In a hurry. Too fast. She hit a patch of black ice, they say. This is as far as she got. She broke her neck.”
“You’re breaking the law,” said Tom.
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you have a heart? What if it was your wife here?”
Tom took a step toward Joe. Joe put up his hand. “You don’t touch her now. You leave her alone.”
“Isn’t she buried somewhere? Why don’t you go there?” said Tom through clenched teeth.
“I go to the cemetery. But I don’t feel her there. This is where I feel her. Right here, where she died.” Joe stepped forward and the moonlight fell on his face. He was old and wore thick glasses and his eyes looked big behind the glasses. He was breathing hard and his breath came out in white puffs in the frigid air.
Tom looked at him and tightened his grip on the shovel. It felt heavy in his hand. The night was heavy too, dark and thick and so quiet he could hear himself breathing. Tom’s heart was beating hard. He took a few deep breaths, turned and dropped the trash bag and the shovel in the back of the truck with a clang and got back into the cab, moving the baseball bat that had fallen across the gearshift to the passenger side. He turned the ignition and the truck groaned to life, the headlights flooding the road with light. Joe stood by the memorial and watched him. He pulled out and drove down the road.
Tom drove for a few minutes, past Joe’s house, then made a broken U-turn and came back up the road. As he came past, he saw Joe, kneeling on one knee, in front of Rose’s cross. The back of Joe’s head glowed white in the moonlight. “Fuck!” said Tom. He stopped and turned off the headlights. He took his bat and got out of the truck.
Rosemary was awake when Tom got home, but she pretended to be asleep. She lay on the bed, listening to the water run in the bathroom. Tom was taking a long time. When he was finished he came out of the bathroom and sat on his side of the bed, facing away from her. “Rosemary?” he said.
Rosemary turned over on her side and looked at Tom’s back. “Tom?”
“Yeah, who do you think?”
She glanced at the clock. It was past one. “It’s so late. Where’ve you been, honey?”
“I haven’t been anywhere. I’ve been right here. With you.”
Rosemary sat up in bed. “What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. I’ve been here all night. We watched TV. Together.”
Rosemary took a deep breath. “Tom, what’s wrong?”
Tom turned and looked at her. His face was dark and still, like a mask. “Nothing’s wrong. You just got to remember that I didn’t go anywhere tonight. Just in case someone ever asks. Which they won’t. Okay?”
“Okay.” Rosemary lay back down and moved over as far as she could to her side of the bed.
“I’m through with this roadside shit. Nobody cares about it but me. And you’re right. It’s not safe out there.”
Rosemary lay on her back and pulled the blanket up to her chin. She felt the bed move and the blanket shift as Tom settled down next to her. After a while, she heard his regular, heavy breathing and knew he was asleep. She lay in bed, eyes open wide, staring up at the ceiling until morning.