Bones in a City Graveyard
She was downtown, below 14th Street, standing on the corner of Bowery and Broome. She'd been standing there for some time, a harsh cold rain whipping around her. It had only been a four-block walk to the drugstore, but she stopped because she needed to rest. Her legs ached. The harsh cold rain on her body was mixed with sweat.
She glanced at her watch. Almost six o'clock. She was running late.
She tugged her frayed raincoat tighter and thought about how best to allocate the time when she returned back home.
First, she would take an extra-hot bath to melt away the icy chill. Then, the long, soothing ritual of oils and creams. Maybe tonight she would even sprinkle a few rose petals in the water for good luck, then put on her makeup by the warm, soft glow of a honey-scented candle.
Yes, she decided. That would set the mood perfectly.
She started walking again, turning off Broome onto Bowery. She had avoided this street earlier on purpose but was now too tired to take the longer way back home.
She kept her head down, dreading what might be ahead. If the surly looking bodega owner was slouched in his doorway, he'd watch her like a hawk, then shake his head and spit in disgust. She looked up. The doorway was empty. Beyond that, she saw the upside-down crates where the domino players sat. The rain had kept them inside too. That was good. They loved to shout curses in Spanish and throw empty beer cans whenever she passed. She didn't see any teenagers either. That was even better. There was usually a small group slouched in front of the pizza shop like scowling dead bodies. They were always the cruelest of all. They'd laugh and point whenever she passed, then follow her for a block or two, making oink, oink sounds and yelping like a pack of cruel hyenas.
Like always, she wondered how hard they'd all laugh if they knew the real joke.
She used to be beautiful.
But she was also another person back then. In fact, she could barely be sure about all the details because so much about her life had changed.
But she did remember this.
She came from Ohio, because she wanted to be famous. She always thought she was special, because that's what everybody told her when she was growing up. Her beauty sprouted early and propelled her towards a destiny she thought was hers for the asking. She was the head cheerleader, the Prom Queen, and voted the most beautiful in the yearbook. You should be in movies and on the cover of magazines, everybody said. It was a small-town chorus she heard so often it had to be true. So the summer she graduated from high school she got on a bus and came to New York City.
She remembered this too.
She had tried. She had tried as hard as she possibly could, but the dream never got very far. Audition after audition, meeting after meeting, day after day, year after year, in a city so big and overwhelming it forced the brightly colored memory of her hometown to get smaller and hazier.
There had been a few successes, but not very many. Just enough to keep the dream alive, as the years tumbled by. For most of those years she had tried to be patient, always believing her "big break" was right around the corner. But the occasional modeling jobs never led anywhere, and the small parts in off-Broadway plays never lasted long enough to get attention from "the right kind of people."
Then late one night, she finally understood what had happened. The reason for all her bad luck. It came to her in a nightmare.
Her life had obviously been cursed, and this curse was responsible for everything.
That's what the nightmare told her.
In fact, it was probably the curse that had lured her to this cold and cruel city in the first place, shrewdly disguising itself as an innocent dream. Pain and punishment, that's what the curse was really all about. What else could explain her brutal misfortune? She had only been in the city a few years when the curse had suddenly killed both her parents back home in Ohio. Evidently, the curse loved blood and the ashy smell of burning flesh, because the car accident was a head-on collision in broad daylight.
But that was just the beginning.
Pain and punishment. Punishment and pain. Month after month. Year after year. None of it made any sense, but the curse was relentless.
It brought bad boyfriends and wrinkles, two rapes, and three muggings. Most of all, it brought endless bad luck and missed opportunities, until the only comfort she had left was the little bit of money her parents had left her. It was barely enough to live on, but that was part of the curse's diabolical scheme. It wanted her to be desperate. It wanted her to live in filth and darkness. So this is what it did.
It pushed her.
The island of Manhattan was long and slender, jagged on the edges. When she first moved to the city, she found a five-floor walk-up on West End Avenue in the nineties. It had friendly neighbors, but the rent kept going up and her succession of odd jobs couldn't keep pace. Her next apartment was in the fifties, another walk-up, but she was only there for a few years, unable to afford that either. Her next apartment was farther south, and the one after that, farther still. But the curse kept pushing and pushing, until she finally ended up all the way downtown, with the rats and the rubble, in the grimy dark shadows of the Bowery.
And lately, the curse had been sending her a brand-new message, whispering it in the gloomiest hours of the night.
Playtime is over, now I want you dead.
She was scared, of course, but she also came up with a plan. The curse had power and cunning, so she needed help. What she needed was a partner. The curse was on the verge of winning, so she desperately needed someone to help her fight back. After all, she kept telling herself, she just needed what most women already had.
For the past year she'd been placing a personal ad in small magazines and newspapers. The response had been encouraging. Actually, she'd been surprised by the number. But it's a big city, she told herself, so there's probably a large number of just about anything, including men who responded to personal ads.
So far, the encounters had been disappointing, but she wasn't about to give up hope.
Her trip down the block had been without incident. She turned the corner. The doorway to her building was a short distance away, so she tried to accelerate her lumbering, slow pace. On this block there were no bright lights or passing cars. There was only darkness and dirt. Despair and desperation. Sordid secrets the rest of the city knew nothing about.
She climbed the two crumbling steps, then pushed open the rusted door of her dilapidated building. The inside entranceway was as dark as a cave. The only escape was the shadowy stairway rising up in front of her. She stared at it for almost a minute. This was always the part of the trip she hated the most.
Her rain-soaked foot landed on the first step with a heavy, wet thud. She took a deep breath, then raised her other foot. The zigzagging climb up the six flights of stairs would take more than twenty minutes. She took another step, then another, then another. The old wooden boards groaned from the strain, and her legs were already on fire.
Yes, the curse was evil, all right. It had ruined her life by turning her into the kind of freak drunken old men threw beer cans at. She stopped at the landing, utterly exhausted, but she still had five more flights to go. She sucked in another wheezing breath, then she climbed and climbed, stopping again and again, the shadowy stairway moaning and groaning with every pounding step. When the torturous ascent was finally completed, her trunklike legs were shivering with pain, and her body was a blubbery swamp of stink and sweat.
Because evil always takes away what you love the most, and this is what the curse had accomplished. It had taken away her beauty by smothering it beneath hundreds of pounds of suffocating flesh. She came to the city with youth and beauty, and she came because she wanted to be famous.
But it was now more than twenty years later, and she weighed almost four hundred pounds.
Drenched with rain and sweat, she stopped in front of the grimy door to her apartment. Her exhaustion and the pain in her legs was so ferocious, the dusty air was swirling in circles. She fell against the wall for support. When the wave finally passed, she took out her keys and unlocked the door. Lumbering inside, a single hope was all that gave her the strength to keep moving forward. Maybe tonight would be the night she fell in love.
He was late.
When the buzzer finally shrilled she had been anxiously waiting for almost an hour. The sudden harsh sound was magic. A tingle rushed over her body. Her growing doubts about the night instantly disappeared. She pushed herself up from the sofa and shuffled to the buzzer that would open the downstairs door.
At least she'd put the time waiting to good use. The apartment was cramped and musty, with a permanent smell that lingered like a fog. Outside, decay was all around, so she treated her meager living space like a private sanctuary she could control. She'd spent most of the last hour sweeping and dusting, obsessively searching for dirt and grime.
Sitting on a small table was a bottle of red wine and a plate with cheese. She always explained that she preferred a quiet evening at home on a first date, and most of the men had readily agreed.
She put her ear against the door, better to hear the footsteps slowly climbing the stairs. Her skin was still tingling. It always did. It was tingling with excitement and hope. But there were darker thoughts nagging for attention too.
She felt ugly.
It was a constant feeling she couldn't shake. It was always there, clawing inside her, tearing away at her heart and soul. At first the weight had come slowly, a few pounds at a time. But then it began to appear with monotonous consistency, day after day, week after week. It was somewhere around three hundred pounds when the other changes came too, the more drastic mutations in her changing appearance. This is where the curse had demonstrated its spectacular eye for detail and brilliant talent for punishment. Men worshipped beauty in women, so the curse had gleefully pushed her into a body that was the exact opposite of what men considered beautiful. Her face was now as plump and round as a perfectly full moon, and her bright blue eyes had turned dark and angry. The weight of her flesh had bent her spine forward. Even her hair seemed heavy, hanging like a fright wig above her mushy round face.
On the phone he'd said he was an electrician and he lived in Queens.
The knock on the door was sharp and loud. She opened the door slowly. The sight that greeted her was not unpleasant.
He was dressed in a black leather jacket and a black cowboy shirt. She normally didn't like mustaches, but his was trimmed and neat. What she did like was this: he was still standing in front of the open door smiling. All of this after he had clearly witnessed her size and appearance.
"You must be Phil."
"That's me, all right." "It's nice to meet you, Phil."
"Same here, doll. It's a real pleasure."
Now she was smiling too, because this brief exchange had lasted longer than most of her past dates. Then he followed her inside, which was even better.
This is when her fantasy took flight.
They sat together in the cramped, musty living room. He in the chair. She on the tattered brown sofa. He quickly opened the wine and filled their glasses. Yes, she thought, he could very well be the one, her own Prince Charming. He had climbed the shadowy staircase to rescue her like a hero in a fairytale. He was going to fight the curse and win. Her heart began to soar.
She watched him finish his wine in a single gulp. Now he was on his feet stumbling towards her. He fell down next to her, mumbling something she couldn't understand. She smelled the sharp stink of whiskey on his breath. He jumped on top of her, shoving his hand under her dress. She felt his callused, thick fingers crawling between her thighs like a giant spider.
"C'mon, honey, let's have some fun."
"Hey…don't be a bitch…relax…"
But she couldn't relax. Because now she was scared.
After all these years, she had finally gained a small advantage in her battle against the curse. She could sense when it was near. She felt it now. It was close. It was very, very close. He was still riding on top of her like a drunken cowboy, one hand jammed between her thighs, the other roughly groping her massive breast. She closed her eyes.
It's time, the curse whispered. It's time. I
t happened in a flash, it always did. The curse snapped her knees shut with stunning force. The cheese knife was now in her hand. His shocked expression was followed by bloodcurdling screams and death-rattle wails, as she stabbed him again and again. The sounds were deafening, but all she could hear was the whispery sound of the curse happily giggling with wicked pleasure.
The two cops had gotten the radio call from the precinct house a few minutes earlier. The Hispanic super met them at the door. Climbing the stairs, the super continued his story in angry streams of broken English.
Not much made sense, but it had something to do with a fat lady and a locked door. For the past few days neighbors had been complaining about the smell, and the super had finally gotten around to calling the police. At the fifth-floor landing, the older cop stopped to catch his breath. His name was Ramirez, and he knew this much already: he hated climbing stairs, and he hated that smell, because he knew what it was.
On the sixth floor the super stopped in front of a grungy brown door. He swung a key ring from the back of his pants and flipped through the keys. The first few tries didn't work. Finally one did.
The super mumbled angrily to himself as he pushed open the door and switched on the light. Ramirez turned around and looked at his partner. He was hard to read, which was fine. Welcome to the graveyard, Ramirez thought. But that talk would come later. Every job had its own unique rite of passage. Ramirez guessed his rookie partner was about to have his. The younger cop was an Irish kid named Rafferty. He'd just graduated from the Academy six weeks earlier. So he was a virgin with all his tidy little beliefs still intact.
Inside the apartment, the smell was overwhelming, thick and musty like smog.
The super was already standing in front of another closed door, pointing out the obvious. The smell was coming from behind that door, but he didn't have a key to open it. The older cop nodded to the rookie. That's why they brought the crowbar.
The rookie was a strong kid and a few inches over six feet. He shoved the crowbar in deep at the door's edge. Leaning low, he shoved hard once, then again. The door popped open.
The rookie quickly straightened back up, giving him the first look at the contents of the room. When he turned back around, his face was drained and white.
Ramirez walked past the kid into the room. What hit him first was the thicker smell. It was stomach turning, much worse than the outer room. Then he saw what was lying on the bed. The body was naked and decomposed, rotting into grayness like the carcass of an animal. It was huge, a blubbery mass of human flesh. Right now, only one rat was visible, quietly nibbling at one of the toes, but there must have been others. The nose and eyes were gone, most of the fingers too.
Turning around, Ramirez saw the super had already stumbled back a few steps, cursing in Spanish. The kid was still standing in the same place, clutching the crowbar. His face was drained of everything but shock. Every job has its own unique rite of passage. The rookie cop just had his.
Ramirez smiled grimly, turned back to the room. Time to go to work. Looking around, he saw a lamp on a small table next to the bed. Putting a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, he walked quickly across the room. The sudden light didn't make the sight on the bed any prettier, but it sent the rat scurrying away, out of sight.
Ramirez walked around the perimeter of the bed, randomly poking the giant corpse with a pencil. The smell was almost unbearable, even with the handkerchief. The skin was tough and leathery, but spongy too. He was looking for evidence. A bullet hole, a knife wound, needle marks, whatever. A couple more pokes, then he stopped.
So far, cause of death unknown. He turned his attention to the room. Not much there either. A bureau, movie magazines, makeup, plastic bottles, perfume, shoes, old newspapers. He walked to a closet door and opened it.
What tumbled out was like the pieces of a horrific sick puzzle. Hundreds of bones spilled out of the closet and scattered on the floor. Skulls, leg bones, rib cages, thigh bones, every kind imaginable, and all of them, every single one, was completely white and impossibly smooth.
What Ramirez had to explain to his rookie partner was the legend of "the graveyard." He did it two nights later at Morans, the neighborhood bar down the block from the precinct house.
Ramirez led him through the chattering crowd to the quieter room in the back. Its nickname was "the blue room" because that's where the cops usually sat.
For the first couple of beers the conversation wandered over the usual topics—sports, women, precinct politics.
Then Ramirez brought up the events on Monday. They had already talked over the facts that had accumulated in the last two days. The medical examiner determined no foul play was involved in the death. The cause was a sudden heart attack brought on by the woman's extreme obesity. But the medical examiner had also discovered something else in his autopsy. Traces of human flesh in the woman's digestive tract. The connection to the smooth, white bones hidden in the closet was horrifically clear. The final piece of evidence was found during another search of the apartment. Stashed under the bed, in tightly bound bundles, were letters from hundreds of different men and copies of the personal ad she'd used to attract them. In the ad she described herself as "rubenesque."
The rookie shook his head and grabbed his beer. "What I don't understand is why the newspapers aren't jumping all over this story."
"Actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about."Ramirez glanced around at the nearby tables. It was time to educate his virgin partner, but it wasn't the kind of story he wanted strangers to overhear.
"The graveyard" was the macabre term the powers-that-be in city government had coined for the decaying blocks hidden in the crumbling gloom behind the Bowery. It was called that because that's where all the lost causes of the city eventually ended up. Accepting this, the powers-that-be also recognized that what happened in the graveyard was so far beyond the limits of accepted normalcy, it was in the best interests of the city to withhold selected information about the day-to-day crime rate. But the cops obviously knew because that was their job. Their job was to contain the problem.
In the graveyard, sick things happened every single Day, because some of its inhabitants were known to adapt lifestyles that had mutated far beyond the scope of public understanding and tolerance. It was a place where delusion and insanity were the medication of choice. Simply put, the graveyard was the neighborhood where all the monsters lived.
That was the story he had to tell.
Before he started, Ramirez leaned back in his chair and took a leisurely look at the face in front of him. His new partner was twenty years old. He probably grew up watching cop shows on TV, just like he did. He'd already told him becoming a cop was his childhood dream. But Ramirez had learned a horrible fact in the last twenty years. This was real life. Not TV. And this was New York City. Not anywhere else.
"Welcome to the graveyard," he began.