Recommendation for a Stone Man
I’m running up the long incline of the Ponquogue Bridge from the beach side. It’s July 2012 and this is training, for my second NYC marathon in 13 years. Unbeknownst to me at that moment, the November race would be pre-empted by Superstorm Sandy. All I know is that I’m on the return trip after reaching the jetty, a shadeless distance. There was no shade, or breeze either, between the bay and ocean on Dune Road, but as I climb the bridge, air starts to move. The view becomes high and huge, water and sky. On foot, I’m able to take it in slowly, not like when you’re driving over. Back when I was a kid, crossing the old drawbridge, my eyes went to the mussels in Shinnecock Bay. They were everywhere packed to capacity on the sandbars, just begging to be picked. When the tide was low, sometimes we walked out and brought back buckets full.
As I reach the top, lost in this memory, my phone rings. It’s the Stone Man. We need to arrange to meet sometime today. I blurt out my current location and that it’s beautiful up here, which probably sounds a little random to him. He says something equally awkward about how it’s good that I’m out running. Maybe, when I told him where I was, he had thought that I was planning to jump? I smile, because even though I barely know him, I can tell he’s a nice guy. My husband couldn’t stand the first one we met with, and my sister said I should find someone local.
I’m not local, although if forced to identify, I am what my $40 beach sticker says: “Resident”. “Resident” means my name is on the deed of two Hampton Bays properties that sit across the street from each other, and that I share with my siblings. There are a lot of us; two small houses aren’t enough, but we manage usually. We inherited one place from my father who was a year-rounder for his last 17 years, until he died in Southampton Hospital at the age of 88. “Resident” means that I’ve got a side rear car window full of past beach stickers. Also, my brother Fran has a black and white photo of me as a toddler, standing on Shinnecock Bay, drawbridge behind me. There is no date imprinted on the back, but since I’m all bundled up, I’d bet it was taken the in winter of 1964, just before our family started coming out to Hampton Bays. Probably a Sunday drive shot, my parents out here to look at the house. It’s been 51 summers now in the same house, a little renovated.
I suppose, in that conversation at the top of the bridge, I was trying to tell the Stone Man how much I love it here. How all those years ago, my annual pair of flip flops from John’s Bargain Store gave me blisters from the hard stem plugged to the bottom between my big and second toe. How without something on my feet, my mother refused to let me walk to the end of the dirt road as many times a day as I wanted, to sit on the steep, concrete steps that led to Tiana Bay. How today I also walk to the steps, usually with a glass of wine at sunset, where I see several of the neighbors, some of whom I babysat for and now have their of own kids. There are a lot of stories I could tell after 51 summers, but this is a recommendation for the Stone Man. After all, he had guessed that my feet were on a blistered journey that summer of 2012.
Later that day, I drove straight at the end of Springville Road, crossing over Montauk Highway, to meet him behind the Methodist Church. You’d think it’s quite the cliché posted on the sign I passed: “Good Ground Cemetery”. When you know that Good Ground is the original name for Hampton Bays, not the “forgotten Hampton” as it’s also been called, it’s not as much of an oxymoron. And when you actually have people in the ground there, it’s weirdly welcoming to read.
When I pulled up, the Stone Man was waiting in the way, way, back. My people are in the last row, with only a thin line of trees between them and the Sunrise Highway. In summer you can hear the cars whizzing by. It bothers my husband sometimes, but I’m used to noise, coming from a big family. My mother, the first one buried here 26 years ago, chose this place because she wanted to be where we couldn’t help but visit her. She knew we would keep coming to Hampton Bays. My daughter, the last to follow, came here by default. There was a vacancy because my father had bought a double plot for my brother. We buried my brother Bart, a year after my mother; both died from cancer. I felt badly taking the spot for Hayley, because my father had intended it for my sister (she was single at the time of purchase), but the others reminded me, it’s first come, first served. Being one of the last in lineup, this was finally working for me. An older niece might get grandma’s diamond; my daughter got the extra plot.
At Good Ground, the Stone Man talked. He would need to pull out some of the plants, like the azalea next to my father, but the lilacs would be fine. He had found a very dark gray stone, instead of black like my parents and brother have, because it would blend better. He explained their color had faded over the years. We took a tour of other stones he had installed. He said the rose we wanted to use could be etched on her stone so it would be exactly as she had drawn it, or it could be carved to look very close to it. He took down notes and dates, and asked for exact spelling. I don’t recall if we met two or three times or which meeting it was, but at some point, he asked what had happened. I remember I was able to answer “suicide” without crying. I didn’t say that I literally sat on my mother’s stone when we buried my daughter between her uncle and grandparents, watching as the mourners filed past, each one shoveling some dirt to fill the hole in the ground. Or that it was a strangely comfortable seat from which to watch. He did tell me though, with just a few words, that he knew how hard it was to be a parent.
That day, when I gave him a check to buy the stone, I told him we still hadn’t figured out the epitaph. He said he’d saved two lines for it on the rendering. Once I got the exact words to him, he would send the revised, true-sized blueprint for my approval and signature. The rest of our transactions were by phone or mail. The job got delayed because of Sandy, and it was late winter by the time the stone was actually in. He enclosed a photo with the bill for remaining balance. My husband and I drove out to see it. Since then, we have taken many, winter Sunday drives to visit Good Ground. We bring our fold up chairs. Sometimes I play Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” or “We are Alive” from the playlist on my phone. It drowns out the din of Sunrise Highway. Always, I admire the stone. It is very beautiful.
So, if you are looking for a good Stone Man, I recommend this one. Like I said, he’s a nice guy. You never know when you are going to need one. I think his office is on the Sunrise extension in Southampton, but I only met him at Good Ground. It’s ok to use my name; he’ll probably remember me. Tell him that I didn’t mean to be late with the remaining payment and I hope my check got there in time for his payroll that winter. Tell him I’m still running, trying to use my make-up entry from 2012 for this year’s marathon. Tell him I’m not planning to jump, in case I scared him that day. Tell him I’ve decided on my own epitaph: Resident. Forget all that, just tell him how much I enjoy Hayley’s stone, and that his help made all the difference.