Remember Me Not, by Matthew Wiegand
Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash
The cemetery sat silent and desolate at the top of the dusty hill. The sun beamed down onto the faded and crumbling gravestones providing a constant slight erosion. The graveyard was unkempt, with patchy sage growing throughout the space. Many of the graves were unmarked, their memorials having crumbled or faded away into pebbles.
Nick handed the water bottle to Sarah. “Drink up,” he said, smiling at her.
“Thanks. This place is so cool don’t you think?” Sarah lifted the bottle to her lips to wash the dryness from her mouth. Nick looked around, breathing heavily from climbing the hill, but trying to conceal it from his girlfriend.
"Yeah, I guess. I mean, it's an old graveyard with, like, eight tombstones still standing. Barely," Nick said as he tapped a tilted tombstone with his canvas shoe tipping over a rock as he did so.
Sarah was so focused on the grave yard, she didn’t even glance at him. She slung around her camera, freshly purchased by her parents, and began snapping pictures.
"You have no imagination!" she said in between mechanical clicks. "Try to see it the way it was. Mining accidents, cholera, gunfights!"
"Yeah, the past sucked. You're right," Nick said. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, resisting the urge to pull out his phone to avoid being scolded. “This isn’t what I imagined when you said you wanted to come to the graveyard.”
Sarah continued to explore and kneel and click her camera. “This is the desert Nick. If nobody comes out and maintains the graves, the sun and the heat just eat it away to nothing. Ooo! Come look over here!" Sarah exclaimed as if she had just discovered a Christmas present hiding behind the tree.
Nick looked up to see his girlfriend crouching in front of a rusted gate encompassing three sides of a sun bleached and uneven hunk of rock that used to be a tombstone. One corner had fallen off years ago leaving behind jagged edges in the shape of a distorted crescent. Nobody had bothered to repair it. He walked up the broken trail and had to step on a few sagebrush bushes, as well as a few graves to get to her. There was no clear path.
Sarah stepped into the fenced area and hunched down in front of the grave. This was the only grave that was fenced in. Sarah wondered if the disarray of the cemetery was on purpose, or just the passage of time.
"Pierre Riddell," Sarah translated, squinting her eyes, and even touching the engraved letters. This grave was one of the very few that had been maintained, if only shoddily. "1848-1889. A Pioneer of the Golden West. Shot and killed in a land dispute. It is believed whiskey was involved," Sarah read from the plaque covered over in patina. "This is his picture. People looked different back in the day, you know?" The picture embedded in the greening copper plaque depicted a serious-looking man. He was tall and thin, and wearing an old black hat folded back to reveal his unkempt face.
"I feel like whiskey was involved in everything then," Nick said coming up to Sarah's side. "Pierre. Probably not a lot of Pierres around here." Nick pulled out his phone and took a picture of the plaque. “There we go. It’s almost five. The brewery should be opening soon. Want to grab a drink and get out of this-” Nick looked around at the cemetery, filled more with twisted sagebrush than dead people, “place?” He finished. His tone was light but slightly petulant. Like a teenager who bemoaned having to spend time with their family instead of their friends.
"This is history, love," Sarah said with enough force behind her voice to remind him that she would leave when she was damn well ready to leave.
Pierre Riddell desperately wished they would leave. He sat on the bench, dedicated to the memory of someone named Bob Hatch, and let his face slump into his hands. He invisibly watched the couple begin to argue, and step on and off his grave, bickering. The boy, named Nick, danced momentarily on it to prove that this entire thing was pointless. The girl, Sarah, yelled back at her husband. He was disrespecting Pierre's grave. Pierre didn't care about any of it, to be frank. He stopped caring about that nearly ninety years ago. He had seen this whole act play out before.
“I don’t even know why I go along with you on these stupid day trips. They are pointless,” Nick yelled. He stopped resisting his impulses and checked to see if his recent social media post had gotten any attention.
Pierre slumped on the bench. “You’re right, Nick. You should leave,” Pierre said without looking up. Deflated hopelessness sounded in his voice like his existence was a record stuck skipping for eternity. As if every day were the same day spent inside the world’s most boring DMV.
“All you ever want to do is sit on your phone and get into fights online. Who will want to sleep with someone who’s idea of social justice is liking something on the internet? You can be so aggravating,” Sarah said.
“She makes a good argument Nick. I know I wouldn’t want to sleep with you. You should go. See the world,” Pierre said to nobody in particular.
Sarah started back down the hill, walking under the arch that had the word "Cemetery" sliced out of the center. She called back to Nick, "Let's just go. Sorry I ever try to do anything," she said not bothering to turn her head. Pierre sat alone on Bob Hatch's bench, and sighed, head bowed in defeat. He finally lifted his head, and then stood. He dusted himself off and headed into town, praying that he wouldn't be summoned back to his grave site today.
It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was heading for its slumber behind the formidable, but not quite mighty Sierras. Pierre headed up the main street, Shepard Street, which looked more like the Shepard Street from his time than a modern main street in an insignificant California town. The sidewalks were laid wooden planks that had bent and twisted with time. They were made to look a hundred years old, but they were only installed sometime in the '90s. Exact dates were difficult for Pierre. He walked past the half dozen volunteer daytime actors who played at being cowboys and ladies in fluffy dresses or skimpy corsets for the more risque of them. Shepardville's only homeless person who owned a donkey and sold pictures to tourists for donations was coughing wet and loud in an alley. His mule, patiently waiting for her next carrot. Pierre walked unnoticed by them all. Not that he felt like talking to any of them anyway.
He walked into Salvatore's Saloon. It was a saloon to Pierre, but to everyone else, it was the "Shepardsville Museum of the Old West", dedicated to the preservation of town history and legend. It was mostly bullshit, filled with fake props and fake memories. Selling to retirees the dream of the west that came to them from the movies they watched as kids. The saloon supplied a hub for those without substance to congregate. Pierre walked through the door, literally, to not much fanfare. There were nearly thirty faces in the museum, all here to hopefully find a friend to spend a small but monotonous fraction of eternity with. Most of the faces were ones that Pierre was very familiar with, but there were some newer folks that he hadn't yet gotten around to memorizing, and there were always a few non-corporeals that would pop in just to say hello, stay awhile and share a drink.
"Hiya Mr. Riddelle," Said the Salvatore behind the bar. Pierre saw him as an old-timey western bartender with greased hair parted down the middle and a curly upturned mustache but others saw him the way they imagined a bartender would be. Sal was different for everyone. One thing Pierre Riddelle had not counted on when he woke up dead one evening was that there were more than just ghosts in the afterlife, if that is what you could call this anyway. There were spirits, energies, wisps, feelings, magics, cosmic beings, ideas, and things that simply defied labels. They all appeared in a very unromantic fashion. They all existed together, mostly minding their own business, and not giving a damn about anyone else's.
"Hello, Sal," Pierre said, and then sitting at the bar.
“The usual?” Sal said. Pierre just grunted. Sal wasn’t named Salvatore, he wasn’t named anything, really. Sal wasn’t the ghost of the previous owner Salvatore Bertollini. He was a hospitality spirit. His purpose was to serve, listen, and provide kindness and respite for all those who seek it. Standing behind the bar and passing out refreshment however unofficially granted him the moniker of Sal. “Good day?” Sal said pouring Pierre a double whiskey.
"Average," replied Pierre. He threw back the whiskey and winced, coughed a little, and then pushed his glass forward for another.
“How many?” Sal asked, not even bothering to cork the bottle again.
“Two couples. One old. One young, and one goth.”
“I love goths. They are so sweet. So dedicated to your kind,” Sal said, as pleasant as a spring breeze. He didn’t get angry. He didn’t get flustered or embarrassed. He didn’t hate or even get annoyed. Every action Salvatore the bartender took was caring, considerate, and kind. Pierre often found himself jealous of the spirit.
"They are idiots," Pierre said, now sipping at his whiskey unflinching. "It's damned hot outside and they are wearing all that black and leather. Kids these days," Pierre said.
“Pierre!” a booming voice called from the heart of the saloon. Pierre sighed and twisted in his chair. He saw a tall man, mustached, with a crooked smile and a silver tooth walking over to him. Pierre raised his glass.
"Howdy Shepard," Pierre said.
Andrew Shepard was the town's founder and was the only deceased person residing in the area to take a real interest in the town's well being. He attended council meetings, looked over books, and even endorsed political candidates in elections. Not that anyone living ever knew it.
“Pierre, you husk! What a day we had! Stop acting like a corpse and celebrate! The town was booming!” Shepard said, and he slapped Pierre on the back. The liquid in Pierre’s glass tilted and wobbled but did not spill. Pierre wondered if alcohol ever spilled here, and why he had never noticed it before.
"I'm happy for your town, Shep," Pierre said. Shepard scoffed.
“Our town! It’s our town, my boy! Yours and mine and theirs.” Shepard lifted his beer mug and saluted the other manifestations that were hanging about the saloon.
"The town. I'm happy for the town," Pierre corrected. He wanted to ignore Shepard. He wanted to brood in peace until he was good and drunk, and only then would he consider interaction with Shepard.
"Oh, I guess you're in one of your moods eh Pierre? Well, when you are feeling more cheerful come over and share a drink with us!" Shepard said and he turned and marched back to his table. Sitting there were two other human ghosts, Angus McLark and Rupert RunningDeer. Two people who Pierre knew everything there was to know about having talked with them again and again for over a century. There was also a shade. Just a shadow of a thing, shuffling cards and smoking a cartoonishly large cigar.
Pierre turned back to the bar and laid his head down over his arm. With his other hand, he began flicking his glass trying to get the whiskey inside to gently slip over the top when someone new walked in. It was a woman; her black hair was short and parted to the side. She filled out her jeans that had a few rips in them and had a tee-shirt with some kind of horse silhouette on it, and checkered red shoes. This woman was attractive, nervous, and confused.
“Ah. A fresh one,” Said Salvatore. “Come in. Come in my dear. Welcome to Salvatore’s! We have everything you could want. Mostly strong drinks, but there is also Pac-Man!” Salvatore pointed to the Pac-Man machine in the corner. The woman inched towards the bar.
“I think I am lost. You see I-” Salvatore cut her off. Warm smile drawn like a gun at high noon.
"We know dear. You died and then arose, confused and lost. Don't worry. We know. Everyone in here has experienced the same thing."
Shepard shouted for more drinks at his table, and Salvatore acknowledged him. He put out his hand over the bar and squeezed the new girl's arm gently. The girl gave a grin, surrendered, and sat at the bar. Only Sal's kind could make someone so comfortable so soon after death.
“You’re okay,” he breathed, “This is just what happens. Here, meet Pierre. He’ll explain things,” Salvatore said and then he turned and whipped up four frothy beer mugs seemingly out of thin air and walked over to Shepard’s table.
Pierre eyed the girl. She was looking around as if she expected to wake up from a dream.
“Is… is this heaven or hell or limbo or…” She trailed off.
“Uh, yes to all I guess Ms.?”
"Margaret. Margaret Crane," She said.
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Pierre Riddelle. Murder victim and pioneer hero of the golden west," Pierre said sardonically. "I'm guessing you are wondering why you are here and not surrounded by clouds and angels and whatnot."
“I’m not that religious but yes,” Margaret said, calming down a little, “also, why am I dressed like- I haven’t dressed like this in years.”
“That’s too bad,” Pierre said. “You look nice. It’s a little hard to explain. This,” Pierre gestured to all of Margaret, “must be a combination of how you see yourself and who you are. Your most true form. It’s a subconscious thing, you can’t really control it.”
Margaret nodded and her eyes wandered. Pierre smiled at her and threw back the remainder of his liquor. He smacked his lips and inhaled with satisfaction.
“You must have been a decent person. People who aren’t decent come back as... well, nothing good.” Pierre had learned not to burden the recently deceased with too much of the more graphic sides of being dead.
Sal was once again behind the bar and came over to fill Pierre's glass. "You should have something," Pierre said. "It helps."
Margaret thought, trying to recall what she had done in bars before. Trying to remember herself. “I don’t suppose you have a Guinness back there do you?” She said.
Salvatore smiled, "Miss, we have everything you want. One Guinness coming up!" He chimed. He turned and within a second he had in his hand a frosted glass, filled with black liquid, and a frothy top. "Here you go," Sal said and he placed the drink in front of Margaret.
"Do I pay? Or…" Margaret said, tapping her pockets looking for a wallet or purse.
“No ma’am. It’s just what I do. Happy to serve.”
"Cheers," said Pierre, raising his whiskey. Margaret joined him. Pierre sipped and let out a breath of satisfaction. Margaret raised the dark beer to her lips and didn't stop until the entire thing had disappeared. Pierre smiled and nodded in respectful acknowledgment. It looked like Margaret took a moment to take in and register the feeling of the beer as it slid down her throat and into her stomach, like it was a new sensation. She gulped it down, and let out a breath of satisfaction. "It's been two years since I had a drink," Margaret said, she wiped her chin with her arm.
“Another?” Sal said from down the bar. Margaret looked at Sal who was serving what looked like some kind of cloud.
"Please," Margaret said, trying not to stare. "So this is death," she said.
"Who knows," Pierre said back. He turned and looked at the patrons who were lounging about. Some happy, some sad, some lonely, some surrounded by others, but still lonely, except for maybe Shepard. "This is the next step, and where this leads nobody in here can tell you, or they won't," Pierre said, shooting his eyes to Salvatore who raised his hands in a noncombatant fashion and went back to filling drinks.
“So, do all dead people end up here or…?” Margaret asked.
“Not all. Barely anyone shows up here in our little hamlet. I’m guessing you died here in town?”
Margaret nodded. "My grandparents had a home here and the family kept it. I used to come here as a kid. When the chemo wasn't having an effect anymore, I told my husband I wanted to come here. Be around the memories. The last thing I remember I was watching the water flow by in the river and thinking how peaceful everything was and I swear I could smell my grandmother's cookies."
Pierre frowned and nodded. “Cancer. That’s a rough one. Makes me thankful mine was quick. Pretty instant actually. Bullet through the heart.” He opened his coat and tapped his chest. Margaret leaned in a little, and then laughed softly.
“I was half expecting-”
"A bullet hole? You'd be surprised how common that thought is. No, we are not tattooed with our deaths. Thank god," Pierre said.
Silence covered them. Margaret looked around, pretending not to notice. Even in the hereafter, the difficulties of conversation remained. Pierre took a breath and launched into it.
“So you want to know what is going on,” Margaret nodded. Not eagerly, but more like a patient nodding to the nurse when they call out your name in the waiting room. “The quick version is you are remembered. Somebody here in town remembers you. If you are remembered, you aren’t dead. You aren’t alive for sure, but you aren’t dead. You are just here. You die, proper die, when you are forgotten. When nobody thinks about you, you move on. Until then, you end up wherever you are remembered.”
Pierre raised two fingers to Sal who raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment. "I imagine you will travel fairly soon. A few days probably." Sal arrived with the refill of Margaret's beer and a topper for the whiskey. She took a sip and nodded.
“How long until I move on to- wherever it is we go?” Margaret asked. Pierre shrugged.
“That all depends. Got kids?” Margaret shook her head. “Well, you’ll move on quicker then. A few decades maybe. Off and on. You aren’t just floating above all the people who ever knew you. You only come back when you are being thought about, and for most of us, that is intermittent. Where were you before you died?” Pierre asked.
Margaret sipped her beer. “Sacramento. I’m an attorney. I mean, I was. You?”
“Oh, a little of this and a little of that. General drifter. Until I died. Now my occupation is town legend and belligerent spook.” A boom of laughter came from Shepard’s table and Margaret turned to look. Shepard was gyrating up and down with giggles as were Runningdeer and McLark. The shade did not seem amused, but then again, they never did.
"So Pierre, who is remembering you?" Margaret asked, her eyebrows raised. It impressed Pierre. Most people didn't take to death that quickly. Most people rejected the concept or attempt to escape back to life somehow. He had seen the recently departed jump back into their corpses as if trying to jump the battery in their car. Recently dead who had taken a long time to die though, they were the ones that took to the afterlife more comfortably.
“Me?” Pierre clarified, “Tourists. Edgy teenagers. Goths. The town council. Nobody I ever knew. I don’t know who it was who came up with the idea that they should visit graveyards for entertainment purposes, but here we are. It’s funny, when the town was healthy and booming I was only called up a few times over the years. I didn’t have a lot of relationships in life.” Pierre sipped his whiskey. “Then the town started dying. They needed a reason to get people here, to spend their money, you know. So they turned it into ‘The West’. Propped it up to look like a John Ford western movie and my shooting became a local town legend. A picture of me hangs in the visitor’s center, and the graveyard is one of our jewels of tourism.” Pierre shook his head, disbelievingly. “So, now, in this new millennium, people come up to my plot, read my name, read my story on a bronze plaque donated by the town, and then I show up.”
Margaret had finished her second beer now. She placed the glass in front of her indicating the urge for more.
“You know films?” Margaret asked, surprised.
"I may have died in the 1800s but I don't live there. Well, you know what I mean. I can go to anyone's house I like when I’m around. There are a few film buffs here in town that I frequent. Used to even go to the theater, back when we had one. There are also books. Art, it turns out, has a soul. Don’t know why Pac-Man is here though. Still figuring that one out."
Margaret laughed a sweet, soft, and beautiful laugh. “Well, limbo is better than expected. Do you like it? Death I mean?” She asked. Pierre took in a slow breath searching for the appropriate words.
"I will say there are those who have it worse than me so that in itself is a kindness but," Pierre paused searching for the words to say, "This whole thing," Pierre motioned his drink in his hand to the saloon. Ghosts and spirits and things that anyone would have trouble believing, socialized, and drank and passed the evening as if it were the most normal night in the world. "This thing is a dream that I can't seem to wake up from. Not a nightmare mind you, I'm thankful I'm not covered in boils or anything like that, but not a pleasant dream. You don't feel it now, but you will, an urge to move on. A need to wander. Every day though I find myself stuck here in this eddy of an afterlife. It's not bad, but it's not life," Pierre finished. He threw back his drink and winced slightly.
They went on like that for hours. Margaret was full of questions, mostly about the misnomers of the old west, and Pierre asked her about her law practice, and how Sacramento was getting along. He had been there a few times in life and once in death, but not recently. They laughed and got to tell their stories to each other. Pierre was pleased to have a conversation, and Margaret was pleased to have a conversation that had nothing to do with her health, her disease, or her “strength” that people seemed to point out with every interaction she had with them.
Sunset had come and gone and the moon and stars shined down on the small town of Shepardsville. Most of the tourists had either returned to their cities within a few hours drive or had retired for the evening to their quaint B and B’s. Only the karaoke bar was still blasting out signs of life, but there were not too many people. The air was cool and crisp, it felt like putting your feet up after a hard day's work. Salvatore had made sure the drinks stayed filled and Pierre and Margaret laughed and smiled and grew warm as the mountain air around them grew cold.
Pierre looked at Margaret. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t babbling about husbands or boyfriends or achievements not quite finished. She was someone that he would have liked to know in life. Someone strong.
“Are there places we can go?” Margaret said. Pierre’s eyebrows shot up. “To rest I mean. I don’t want to have to spend the night in the morgue.”
Pierre shook his head with a smirk, “There are always plenty of empty hotel rooms, and if they fill up, they have beds in their basements and there are a few ‘the way it was’ bedrooms in the museums. Do you feel tired?” He asked.
"No," Margaret said. Pierre nodded. Margaret took her beer in her hand and drank. "I have spent the last two years dying Pierre. Compared to that, this may as well be heaven." She looked at him now. Looking at him as if he were a person again. Alive again. It was a moment. A genuine moment of something with substance. "Pierre, thank you for- for easing me into all of this." She reached out her hand and took his. Pierre tightened his fingers anxiously at first but then loosened them. It had been a long time since he had made any real connection with anyone. Pierre's chest tightened and now he was gripping Margaret's hand tight too. She felt warm and soft and alive. "Do you think you can show me where I can pass some time Pierre? You've been so kind." Her eyes sparkled green. Tonight was a gift and Pierre hadn't received a gift in a very long time. Margaret said, "If you want you can-"
Pierre blinked his eyes. He was outside. Under the stars. Back in the graveyard. Standing on his plot. Looking down at three teenagers, wearing black shawls, and black coats, with black candles lit, passing a black pipe between them and reeking of marijuana.
"Oh Pierre Riddelle," girlish voices chanted, "We feel your anguish. We feel your pain. We know how you suffer. We are here to free you of your torment." One girl began a strange high pitch moan which sounded like the babbling of an infant.
"Oh god damn it! Dammit! You little goth shits!" Pierre yelled to the trio who could not hear him.
“Sam, get the board,” one girl said.
“No! Not a stupid Ouija board. No. No. No.” Pierre yelled at them, to no effect.
“Tabby has it,” said the girl. “Tabby, get it out. It’s almost midnight.”
“Right. Sorry,” apologized Tabby, rummaging through her backpack. Pierre sprinted down cemetery hill, darting back to town when he blinked and was back at his plot.
“Shit on me!” He screamed. “Shiiiiiiit!” He bellowed up to the stars and the heavens and anyone who may be watching.
“Oh Pierre Riddelle, show us how we may aid your soul and help you onto the great beyond,” said the third girl, who Pierre knew as Tracy. This was not the first time the trio had met like this.
"Come on, put your hands on it," Tracy said to the other two.
Pierre got down into Tabitha's face, "Oh, you want me to show you huh?" He grunted. "Here." With significant effort and force of will, Pierre moved the lens of the Ouija board. Moving things in the living world was exhausting, but it could be done if you had the experience. Pierre moved the lens over the letter F.
“You guys! It’s working!” Samantha squealed.
“Shhh. Let him talk to us.”
Pierre moved the lens over the letter U.
“I can feel him you guys! He is here!”
"Samantha, shut up and focus," said Tabitha. Pierre began to move the lens to the next letter when like always, one girl took over, and moved to an unintended letter, easily overpowering him. Eventually, the girls ended up with the letters F-U-L-P-T-Y until they started accusing each other of moving the lens and ruining their whole "like thing".
Pierre eventually sat back on the “In memory of Bob Hatch” bench and buried his face into his hands again. The girls kept at it for three hours. Chanting Pierre’s name and mistaking every gust and crack of twigs for a communique from beyond the grave. By the time Pierre made it back to Salvatore’s the sun was peeking over the Sierras.
Salvatore greeted Pierre with an empathetic smile. “Where is she?” Pierre pleaded.
"She's gone, my friend. About an hour and a half ago. Guessing the truck headed back to her hometown for… you know." Salvatore said, cleaning the bar spot Pierre occupied.
Pierre wanted to scream. He wanted to kick over bar stools, throw tables and jump out of windows. After a moment though, he just slumped over the bar, slid a stool underneath him, and dropped his head in defeat.
“She was nice Pierre. Real nice,” Sal said. Pierre didn’t look up. “I explained to her what was probably happening. Who was it anyway?”
Pierre spoke without looking up. “The Werner sisters again.”
Sal chortled. "Those three? I think they have a crush on you. Anyway, she left you a note." Pierre lifted his head enough for Salvatore to slide the paper down in front of his face.
It read: “Pierre, thank you for your time, and your kindness. In case I don’t get to see you again I wanted to say that all dreams end. Until mine does, I’ll be thinking of you.”
“Need a drink?” Salvatore asked, bottle ready to pour. “Yes, but I’ll hold out for now. Think I’ll take a walk. Maybe along the river. Keep it warm for me though. I’ll be back,” Pierre said.
"I know you will," Salvatore said as Pierre walked out of the saloon, literally through the door. The morning had arrived, and the retired dentists masquerading as bikers were mounting up, the coffee was being poured, and the town of Shepardsville prepared to once again welcome the coming guests to their small piece of the Old West.
Matthew Wiegand is a Middle School Reading teacher in Reno Nevada. He also performs stand up comedy in the Sierra Nevada area. He has two daughters and a very cool wife.
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