It’s late summer. We're just about to set off on a drive up 880, past brown and worn East Bay hills, flattened suburbs, on a quest. Colleen sits beside me packing what little shake we have into the pipe. She takes a drag and passes it to me while it’s still lit and we continue this process til it's dust. As the world becomes a little more magical she tells me how pissed her mom is at me for rearranging the rocks in the backyard.
“Had to be done.”
“I know. She’s really pissed, though.”
“And it’s my fault.”
“Yeah, you’re the bad influence.”
“It was a full moon.”
“The yard looks like a minefield anyway. She just flipped out like she does. I think she had some random design going and we ruined it.”
“But there were thirteen rocks. They had to become a wiccan circle under the light of the full September moon.”
“Of course, M. We did the right thing.”
We glance at each other with knowing smirks then laugh. Colleen gazes out her window at the industrial parks and parking lots, the treeless sun-scorched hills beyond and the yellowed summer sky. We slip into silence. The Bay lays west, there to my left, but even it seems torpid and toxic under the glaring noon sun.
Shiny industrial parks become abandoned packing plants and warehouses as we cruise north. Fremont becomes Oakland, we are diverted east around the ruin of freeway that pancaked in the ‘89 earthquake. We nearly miss our connecting offramp, we almost end up in downtown Oakland, two little white girls in a new Toyota. But we escape the jungle, survive the maze and breathe sighs to find ourselves passing safely through Berkeley, Alameda, over the bridge, through San Rafael, through the beige but cooler hills of the west side of the Bay. Eucalyptus groves appear in windbreaker formation, designating fields, while oaks hold conference on the crests of rises. Beyond, Mount Tamalpias and her sisters are lushly green with growth fed by the coastal morning fogs of summer. We cruise 101, El Camino de Real, pushing north the way the Fathers did in their search for fortune.
We pass into Sonoma County, the sign is where it's always been, there, just as you begin the wide arc around the massive clump of eucalyptus and the tavern nestled at their bases. My heart races. No one ever told me where he was buried but I recall Mom mentioning that it was a small private ceremony near his hometown. Sebastapol, Occidental, Camp Meeker. I figure there can’t be too many cemeteries around there. I figure we’ll just day trip north, cruise around and ask at each place if there’s a Gio buried there. I have a vague feeling that it’s something I’m supposed to do.
Colleen and I have driven almost the entire two hours in silence. When we get into Sebastapol I drive down familiar streets remembering snatches of us here or there - at the laundromat, 7-Eleven, on that frontage road going to buy speed from some creepy hick with a massive Rottweiler. I have to shake my head to make them fade back into the shadows of my mind and Colleen notices the movement. I smile weakly, not willing to dump more inconsequential memories on her. She’d listen, comment simply and care and maybe I’d break into tears and that’s not what this journey is about. Not yet anyway.
We pass through downtown then turn onto a road that I know will take us to an old expansive graveyard. Being within a city’s limits, off the open highway, somehow wakes us up and we realize, though not high any longer, that the world is still a little glossy, our eyes a little red and heavy. On our right we pass a hitchhiker, a cute guy with a backpack full of what must be schoolbooks. We’re on an adventure so we decide to turn around and pick him up.
Soon he’s directing us down a dirt road that passes through an apple orchard. He points to a yurt just off to the left and tells us it’s his home. He asks us in, invites us to pick famous Santa Rosa apples. He’s a charming young college guy living in a big dome yurt sparsely furnished and sprinkled with his spiritual intent. He meditates, I assume, and plays soft guitar songs and burns incense. He probably offers his lover massages with Eastern oils and braids her long brown hair at dawn. He makes me smile at his wistfulness, his earnest practice of living with the land. He walks us into the nearby redwood grove where the tall trees welcome us in rustles and whispers. He shows us a sweat lodge set in a sacred old circle of rocks. I move off the path, away from them and find a perfect spot to sit within a ring of five full redwoods. Feathery needles form a mat on which I sit in silence. I breathe. I remember. I see his face and the sweet way he’d say he loved me.
Then it’s time to go, if only because we are too comfortable with this boy we’ll never see again. So Colleen and I put two brown bags of apples in the back of the car with promises to make juice and pies. We wave to him through the lifting dust as we drive away, newly high on apple scents and the whispers of the grove.
Colleen glances at the map as we turn onto the main road. There is a small graveyard very close to where we are. After a five minute drive we pull into the parking lot of a modern-looking cemetery. The headstones are clean-lined granite, the central building is of unobtrusive prefab construction with blocky designs recessed into the cement. A massive chain link fence surrounds the entire area. We pull open the plate glass doors of the building and enter a dark, cool foyer. A suited gentleman stands ready to assist us. I ask him about a recent burial, about two and a half years back, a local guy last-named Gio.
“Yes, we have a Gio, a Pete Gio, about three years ago.”
“That’s his uncle I think, Helmut Gio’s brother.”
“His brother, yes.”
“I’m looking for Helmut’s son, Erich.”
“I don’t recall that name.”
“No Erich Gio?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“I suppose that you heard of his death though. It was a bad accident. He was young. He grew up here.”
“I haven’t heard of anything like that. I’m sorry.”
“Do you know if he was cremated?”
“No, but it was a bad motorcycle accident, so maybe.”
“I’ll double-check my records because all the burials in the last ten years in this area have been here.”
He looks into his ledger, then raises his head and says apologetically, “No. Once again, I’m sorry.”
“Is there any place else I can look?”
He tells me about the big cemetery I already know of and another old small one down the road. I thank him and push through the plate glass doors back into the sun’s glaring heat. I am shaken. I tell Colleen that it seems odd to me that he, in the business of death and in such a small town hadn’t even heard about Erich. As we drive to the next graveyard I tell her a story about a phone call I got.
It was maybe a month earlier. I’d just come back into town from Seattle and was living at my parent’s house in Cupertino. I was home making lunch when the phone rang.
“I’m looking for Erich Gio.” My heart stopped. Maybe he’s alive!
“Who is this?”
“You need to tell me who you are.”
“Are you a relative?”
“Just tell me who you are!”
“Well, I’m from a collection agency. He’s owed us money for a while now.”
“He’s dead. You won’t be collecting anything from him because he’s dead!”
“Uh, I need to know what he’s left behind. Are you his family?”
“Whatever he had left, a pair of jeans, a motorcycle, a leather, he took down with him. Forget it. You’re not getting anything and no I’m not his family.”
“Do you know where his family is? ....Are you still there?”
“O.K. His dad lives in Ben Lomond. Helmut Gio. Good luck.”
And I slammed down the phone.
I ate lunch in a daze, then figured I should try to call Helmut to warn him or at least let him know I gave the info. My motives for wanting to call, needing to talk to that hard man went deeper, I knew, since I had been unable to get myself to contact anyone who was a part of Erich’s life in over two years. And I was the only person who knew the story of his last days, of his last years. This collection agency call was only a prompter getting me to finally do something I’d long needed to do. I picked up the phone, dialed information, and got the phone numbers for his father’s private and business lines.
After a few deep breaths I called. I got an answering machine on the private number, a message in Erich’s stepmother’s voice asking me to leave a message for Gio Construction or Linda or Helmut. I balked and hung up the phone.
The next day I knew I had to drive down to Santa Cruz, maybe even up to the house in Ben Lomond where Helmut and Linda lived. Halfway there I realized that I’d forgotten the phone numbers. No big, I’d just look in a phone book. So I pulled over at a phone booth and looked in the directory. Gio wasn’t listed. Not the company, not the home phone. The directory was new. I called information.
“City and name.”
“Gio. G-I-O. Santa Cruz County.”
“Ok. Gio Construction. Same spelling.”
“In Santa Cruz?”
“Ahh…sorry. No listing. Thank you for using…”
“Wait! It was listed yesterday.”
“I’m sorry. It’s not in the white or yellow pages.”
I hung up. I went into the ice cream shop I was in front of and asked to look at their phone book. The girl behind the counter heaved a ratty old directory onto the counter. It was from two years ago. Good. I flipped through the white pages to Gio. Nothing. Yellow pages. Nothing. No ad for one of the most successful masonry companies in Santa Cruz County. I'd seen that ad. Now, nothing. I froze. Then I gave the girl back the book and climbed into my car. I’d have to go up to the house. I wound my way through the beautiful hills to his father’s house. I parked the car, sucked in a deep breath and stepped up to the doorbell. I pressed, no one answered. I didn’t recognize the truck in the driveway but it was a construction truck. I dared to peek into the massive front window. The ugly dated furniture was the same. I glanced at the mail in the box. Unknown names. I slowly turned away from the door, walked back to my car and pulled away from the house.
Colleen listens intently to this story and like a great friend lets it lie like a mystery without trying for mundane explanations. As I tell it I think it doesn’t really sound as spooky as it felt at the time. Now it sounds like a twilight zone episode but, to me at the time, it felt like something trying to push me away, something that shrouded Erich’s death in a cloak of secrecy. It was on that day that I knew I had to find his grave. Otherwise how was I to know if he was truly dead?
We get to a tiny old cemetery and walk through the fallen eucalyptus leaves, past faded headstones. There is neither a new block of stone nor a caretaker in sight. Colleen stops by an angel carved of marble and perched delicately on top of a worn marker. It’s for a child buried in 1909. We move on.
The vast county cemetery, our final option, is well cared for. Sprinklers spray arcs of water and the sound of a lawnmower rises from behind a small hill. Colleen wanders toward an old monument while I head slowly up to the office trailer near the main gate. The mower engine turns off and soon a tall lanky man appears on top of the hill. Colleen sees him and crosses to me and we all merge toward the trailer. As he gets closer I realize he looks just as I’d expect a ranch hand to, from the comfortable cowboy boots to the broken-in old hat on his head. He’s very tall up close and lankier than imaginable. His face is shadowed by the hat brim in the late afternoon sun but his long dark mustache can be seen reaching its way to his jaw. Jeans and a long-sleeve work shirt fit close. We meet just outside the office trailer. I tell him I’m looking for a grave and he invites us inside.
Colleen and I step through the sliding glass door of the trailer and take comfortable seats in front of a neat desk. The caretaker follows in a relaxed stride and crosses behind the desk. He pauses just a moment before sitting and in that moment his belt buckle winks in a ray of sunlight. It’s a beautiful brass oval with a well-defined marijuana leaf stamped on it. As he bows to sit Colleen and I glance at each other suppressing smiles.
I begin by giving Erich’s name and date of death. The man leans his long frame back in his office chair and listens.
“I don’t know if it was a cremation. He was in really bad shape though. No helmet.”
“Was he from here?”
“His mom’s in Camp Meeker. He grew up in Occidental. Her maiden name’s Eagle.”
“We haven’t had many burials since 1985. Did you check the new cemetery up the road?”
“Yes. But it was weird. The man we spoke to hadn’t heard of any accidental deaths in any of the families around here. But he knew the family name, knew who Erich’s father was. He buried his uncle.”
“It’s a small town.”
“Have you heard anything?”
The man sways his frame closer toward the desk, leans on his elbows and pushes the hat back off his face. He looks at me intently with eyes of a startling brightness. Brown eyes, clear and honest.
“I’ve been here all my life and I know most of the families in the surrounding area. But it’s funny, you know, because I don’t recognize the family names you gave me. And I haven’t heard of any accidental deaths, no local young men who’ve passed away, no news of ashes or bodies coming here from outside the area.”
“Oh.” I drop my eyes. I feel the cloak of secrecy fall again over Erich and his death. He speaks again, his voice deeper, more confident now. He hunches closer over the desk toward me, pauses until he holds my gaze securely.
“Ma’am, I’ve watched people spend years trying to find someone’s grave. They go to every cemetery possible then start on the ones that aren’t possible. I’ve seen it and it’s sad. Endless grieving.”
I want to look away, stare at the floor until his words can sink in but I know he isn’t finished. I blink slowly and take a long deep breath. He relaxes into his chair.
“Sometimes the dead just need to be left dead. You could spend a lot of years looking for it but you may never find his grave.”
And I know he’s right. He's telling me something, he's part of the mystery, in on it, on the way it all works and he’s there to tell me to stop trying to make Erich less or more gone. I smile weakly and rise. He walks with us outside the trailer to the low wall. I reach out to shake his hand.
His face is now lit by the richness of the late afternoon sun. His eyes twinkle almost absurdly bright in the light.
“You’re welcome. Good luck.”
The drive back is long and nearly silent. We're tired, full of apples and the heavy September air. We're both rolling the puzzle pieces around until there's no other solution but the obvious: I have to let go, and trust that, just like Dad said, we’ll see each other again next time around.
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