Judith Mercado

Posted on April 13, 2011

5


Visiting Zora

Sarita didn’t really know where she was going. Before leaving for Ft. Pierce, an hour north of where she lived in Palm Beach County, she had not found the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery on any map. She knew for a fact, though, that the place existed. Novelist Alice Walker had tracked down Zora Neale Hurston’s abandoned grave there and marked it with a stone memorial.

Sarita had seen a picture of the headstone. Never mind that Walker had had no idea where in the snake-infested, weed-choked field Zora’s body really was. Somewhere in that cemetery, Zora’s remains resided underground. Before this scorching hot day was over, Sarita meant to pay her respects by leaving gardenias and azaleas from her garden.

She took the first exit off I95 that mentioned Fort Pierce. Heading east along the busy, commercial road, she couldn’t help but notice the put-em-up-fast-got-to-have-my-business-running architecture. No Palm Beach Mizner Spanish architecture here. What you got instead was the desultory kind of store that shudders into existence to service farm workers at an agricultural hub. Oranges. That’s what folks did around here. Grew them, picked them, sold them. And once, for a brief time, Ft. Pierce had provided shelter for a destitute and ill literary genius at the end of her life.

At the third gas station Sarita came to, she figured she’d better go in and buy a map. Otherwise she’d eventually reach the ocean, where she knew Zora’s grave couldn’t be, though Zora had once lived on a houseboat for three years.

The first thing she noticed when she turned in was that everyone pumping gas was black. Great, she thought, if anyone’ll know where a famous black woman had been buried in 1960, surely these people might. Zora Neale Hurston had to be a celebrity among local blacks.

She walked inside the convenience store. Not a person over thirty, she noticed immediately; thankfully, still all black. In the old days here, cemeteries had been segregated. Maybe their grandparents had been buried at the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery.

When Sarita came up to the counter, the cashier, a moon-faced girl with shiny relaxed hair, slid her eyes away from her. So Sarita turned to the tall young man standing next to the newspaper display, holding his toddler son.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for a cemetery called the Garden of Heavenly Rest,” she told him. “Can you tell me where it is?”

He drew back a bit and would not meet her eye.

It took her a while to realize what had just happened. Her chest constricted as she acknowledged that the young man had probably written her off as a Strange Old White Woman. Not that she was old. She might seem old to him, but forty-five wasn’t that old.

As for the white part, maybe she was as guilty of racial profiling as he. Would she have asked him about the Heavenly Rest cemetery if he were white?

“Well, I don’t know,” he said finally in his soft southern burr. “I don’t know about that Garden of . . . well, there are two cemeteries I know about.” He pointed to the side road next to the gas station. “If you take that road. Follow it until it dead ends into another one, go with that one til it—I believe it turns into, let me see . . . .”

“I’d better get a map,” Sarita said. She walked to the counter, found a Ft. Pierce map, and paid the round-faced cashier with shiny relaxed hair. The girl still wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Sarita shook the map open in front of the young man. He moved his son to his other arm and looked down at the map, pursing his lips as he examined it.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the map. “Here it is.”

Sarita looked down at where he was pointing. The White City Cemetery, the map said.

This couldn’t be Zora’s cemetery. Not with a name like White City. “Are you sure there isn’t another one?”

He examined the map closely again. “Well, here’s another one.”

He had pointed to a cemetery in another part of the city. The map gave it no name. Could it be Zora’s cemetery?

“But I think the first one is it though,” he said, nodding firmly. “That’s the one you want.” He looked over Sarita’s head at the cashier.

Sarita noticed the look and felt like sighing. I’m being dismissed, she thought. “Thank you very much for your help.”

Once in the car, she opened the map on her lap before turning onto the side road. She still had her doubts about that White City Cemetery, but maybe they had changed the name of the cemetery. It had been quite a while since Alice Walker placed that memorial on Zora’s grave. Which reminded her, why hadn’t she asked that young man specifically about Zora Neale Hurston’s grave?

Well, she might have except she felt like they were trying to get rid of her.

When she arrived at the White City Cemetery, she took in its manicured lawns and tall, draping trees and shook her head. This looked too gentrified to be Zora country. The sassy, unapologetic Zora who wore a pistol belt while gathering folklore stories of the South wouldn’t think of being buried in such a meek, colorless place.

Still, Sarita didn’t turn around and leave. It was possible that Hurston’s status now as a lauded author had led to her grave being moved to a more opulent setting. Sarita’s eyes grazed the orderly aisles between headstones. Well, it was a cemetery. Maybe the audacious Zora had found a place here, after all.

She started walking around, wiping her brow frequently because of the oppressive heat. After about an hour, during which she never saw a single black person visiting a gravesite, she decided that this White City Cemetery might have plenty of trees, even some old gravestones, but it sure didn’t house Zora Neale Hurston. No, siree. Sarita’s first instincts had been right. Zora, a black woman who had died broke and disabled, would not have been welcomed here in 1960, when this part of Florida was still the old South.

She drove away to find the cemetery on the other side of town. When she got there, Sarita didn’t bother getting out of her car. This wasn’t Zora country either. Too many well-fed white folks walked the grounds.

She examined her map closely again. The White City Cemetery and this one she was parked next to were marked clearly, but no other cemetery appeared. She looked through the windshield. The lighting was beginning to take on the graininess of a threatening storm. Maybe she should just head home. Why was she so hell bent on finding Zora, anyway?

She couldn’t explain it, except that, ever since Sarita read Their Eyes Were Watching God, she had felt a kinship with Zora that perhaps only a fellow preacher’s kid could recognize. How many novelists included God in their titles? Or used the incantation of a Baptist minister to proclaim the truth about the Negro South in the early 20th century. Sarita was a writer too—over 30 short stories—and in Zora she found a kindred spirit who kept finding the language of spirit slipping into her writing, even when not intended.

She looked down at the gardenia blossoms resting on the car floor. Their unapologetically feminine scent filled the air. Right beside them were some azaleas cuttings. Sarita had read that Zora, at her last house, a one-story, one-room cinder-block house filled with orange crates for furniture, had had azalea bushes out front.

So do I, Zora. I have azaleas planted right in front of my living room bay window. They greet any visitors I might have, not that I have many. They’re in bloom right now, Zora. Whoever comes to my front door is greeted by a hedge of salmon-colored blossoms that announces that the person living there is someone who loves beauty, even if ephemeral. Is that why you planted azaleas, too, Zora?

None of this explained, though, why earlier today Sarita had gotten up in a daze after finishing a Hurston biography and known she just had to go visit Zora Neale Hurston in Ft. Pierce that very day. Nor could it explain fully why Sarita had spent the better part of a blisteringly hot afternoon tracking down a grave that didn’t seem to want to be found.

Where was that gravesite? Sarita couldn’t continue to randomly drive up and down Ft. Pierce searching for the Garden of Heavenly Rest cemetery. She decided to go look for Zora’s last home instead. She had the address. 1734 School Court.

When she got to that street, she found small cinder-block buildings with front entrances close to the street; paint-faded houses that probably had not changed much in decades. This finally looked like a place where Zora could have spent her last days, except Sarita couldn’t find 1734 School Court. No matter how many times she went up and down the street, all she could find on the spot where 1734 School Court should be was a relatively new school.

Well, Zora, I guess you don’t want to be found. At least not by me today.

Sarita shoved her map into the door pocket and started toward I-95. She had gone about six blocks when she noticed two elderly black men working on an old pickup truck in front of a dilapidated garage. Right age, she thought. Startling them and herself, she brazenly turned into their driveway.

They gazed at her warily as she walked up to them. This time she wouldn’t beat around the bush. In fact, she didn’t know why she hadn’t been more direct earlier, except she hadn’t figured it would be this tough to find an old cemetery.

“Excuse me, sirs, I wonder if you can help me. I’m looking for the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery.”

Their faces were blank, if not evasive. No eye contact.

“It’s an old what‑used‑to‑be‑segregated black cemetery,” Sarita said, hoping that bringing up the subject of segregation wouldn’t upset them. “You know where that is?”

Still that same studied noncommittal expression. One of the men lowered his head into the engine compartment, as if to show what he preferred to be doing.

“I want to place flowers on her grave,” Sarita said in a rush, fearing she was about to lose to the men’s uneasiness her last chance to find Zora’s grave.

The two men looked at each other out of the corner of their eyes. She could guess that a No’m, we don’t . . . was coming.

“Zora Neale Hurston’s grave, that’s what I’m looking for.” She hoped these men had sense enough to know who one of the premiere black writers of the 20th century had been. Of course, hanging over a beat-up pick-up truck like that, maybe not.

The man looking at the engine straightened up. “Oh, you mean Zzzzuhh … Ffffuhr… the one who wrote all them books?”

“Yes.” They knew who Zora was. Hallelujah!

“Well, ahah, yes’m, she’s over there where they bury the poor people. They don’t use that place no more. Yeah. Go on up two stop signs. Turn north. Go on up to the end of 17th Street. Cain’t miss it.”

Cain’t miss it. Cain’t miss it. She kept repeating this to herself until she realized that the men were waiting for her to leave.

“Thank you very, very much,” she said and tried not to run back to her car.

She found the end of 17th Street. It dead ended on a weed-filled field fronted by a concrete wall. No sign said Garden of Heavenly Rest. She parked just outside the wall and started walking across the parched field.

It was a cemetery. Here and there white-washed stone coffins—maybe they were concrete—protruded a few inches from the ground, presumably the protective cover for a casket beneath it. A few graves had stone grave markers. Otherwise it was a sorry, rutted field with occasional small metal plaques stuck randomly into the ground here and there.

She bent over to read one of those plaques. It had someone’s name and date of death written in fading ink. Whoever was buried beneath that plaque didn’t have long before entering true oblivion. And she wondered just how many penniless black people were buried beneath her feet. Maybe these days even poor white people were buried here.

In any case, none of those plaques or stone markers was Zora’s. Plus, she’d expected a large memorial stone, like the one she’d seen in Zora’s biography.

Zora Neale Hurston

A Genius of the South

1901-1960

Novelist, Folklorist,

Anthropologist

That’s what Alice Walker had inscribed on the face of the memorial stone she had donated to mark Zora’s grave.

Sarita scanned the far end of the field, which ended in a distant hedge of spindly trees, a grim patchy sky behind them. The sun barely filtered through the heavy clouds, but it remained hot enough to make standing out in the open almost dizzying.

Then her back stiffened. About three quarters of the way down, almost off by itself, she saw a gray headstone sticking up from the weedy ground. She didn’t move for a while, feeling far removed from that end of the field. That gravestone seemed so lonely in the midst of this scrubby field. Eventually, she started toward it.

As she got closer, she noticed that a perimeter of upright scalloped white pavers bordered the white-washed cement rectangle rising a few inches off the ground. Azalea bushes, albeit struggling and thirsty, were planted beside the low border. Six feet shy of the grave, Sarita stopped cold. She had just seen the 4″ by 6″ black‑and‑white photograph leaning against the memorial. She didn’t need to get any closer. That was a photograph of a laughing Zora in her Harlem Renaissance days.

She pivoted and ran back to her car. She picked up the azalea and gardenia cuttings, removed the moist paper towel she had wrapped around their stems, and grabbed the old jelly jar she had filled with water at home. Then she ran back across the field, skipping over the metal markers stuck in the ground.

When she arrived at Zora’s grave, Sarita knelt by the memorial, noticing all the necklaces tossed over the top of the headstone. Pictures of Zora leaned up against the headstone. Fresh mums filled a nearby vase. Coins lay strewn across the white-washed, low cement casket cover.

For the first time today, Sarita felt a sense of relief about her mad dash to visit Zora’s grave. Others had been here, too; moved, like her, to bring Zora a gift. She wondered, though, at the use of coins because surely the visitors weren’t asking Zora for luck. Zora’s luck had been spotty at best in her lifetime, and in her last days, nonexistent.

Sarita inserted the gardenia and azalea cuttings in the jelly jar, her eye never far from the picture of the laughing Zora. With a happy reverence, she placed the jar at the base of the headstone.

Then she burst into tears. Unaccountably.

She quickly wiped away the tears and then started pulling out weeds from inside the border. After a while, she began to suspect it was too hard to distinguish weeds from grass. Maybe what looked like a grass field was only weeds that had recently been mowed.

Sitting back on her heels, she stared across at the other graves. It was a lonely sun-baked field. No trees curtsying over graves like they were back there at the White City Cemetery. Certainly, no large slabs of marble, granite urns or protective angels gave cover to the bodies buried here.

It made her so sad. How could someone who had written Their Eyes Were Watching God, who had studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University, who had been a star of the Harlem Renaissance—how could she end up here in a pauper’s field? How could Zora, so sassy and having reached so high, end up destitute and disabled, cast aside and forgotten until an Alice Walker found her again?

What demons brought you down, Zora? You, whose words sang in the cadence of sermons and folkways, why weren’t your gifts protected by the Gods? Why didn’t the Florida humidity now hanging heavily in the air sate the thirst of this parched ground where you now lie?

Sarita looked at Zora’s laughing face in the black-and-white photo. Why have you touched me so, Zora? Why do I feel as if you and I have walked in the same dusty tracks and sung the same song of heaven only to now find each other at last after a long, long silence?

Why was that?

Her only response was that wide, open-mouthed toothy smile of the Harlem Renaissance Zora.

Sarita got up and stared at the far end of the field with its spindly trees. Then she let her eyes graze the paupers’ graves scattered here and there. How many of their stories had died before being broadcast to the world?

At least Zora’s had been heard.

***

Judith Mercado’s multicultural fiction frequently explores the tensions among conflicting religious perspectives, as well as those between the Latino and Anglo cultures. Sometimes it simply examines the essential mystery of the human condition.  Her short stories have been published in numerous literary reviews.  Her essays have been published in Latina Voices and Being Latino. She blogs at Pilgrim Soul:  www.judithmercadoauthor.blogspot.com.   Her novels await publication. 

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