The Labors of Leonard Vogel
By Martin Itzkowitz
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone . . .
– Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
Putting on his overshoes and about to begin his working day, Leonard Vogel heard his wife call from the next room: “Lee, you have to be crazy to go out in such weather!”
“It’s not so bad, Ev,” he replied, “a little cold, a little wet. Besides, I’m local today, not schlepping to Queens or Staten Island.” He paused reflectively then added sotto voce, “Snow would be another thing. I couldn’t see the markers.”
“So, go then,” he heard her call again. “As usual, there’s no stopping you. But bundle up.”
Though hardly in response to her command, Vogel buttoned his fleece-lined raincoat over two sweaters up to the neck, pulled his broad-brimmed black-leather cowboy hat (this item a rare indulgence) down to nearly his ears, fitted its drawstring to his chin to guard against the wind, then grabbed a leather briefcase with a well-gloved hand and set out.
He had been doing the work for years now. It seemed to him a far cry from running the tie shop. There, toward the last, his trade had not been very brisk, even before Father’s Day and Christmas. Casual Fridays had been increasingly followed by casual Mondays through Thursdays. And in the age of T-shirts and jeans, who needed ties? So he gave up the business and retired, the shop becoming first a gyro joint and, more recently, a vegan café.
His new occupation, obsession some would say, had come upon him gradually, a consequence of his random strolls through the grounds close to home and increasingly precise observation.
He ran an interior monologue as he walked. “Five-six blocks to the gates, maybe fifteen to twenty minutes, an hour or so inside, then another fifteen to twenty back. About an hour and a half altogether. If I get tired or too cold, I can always take a break in the office. They’ve known me there for years and will offer me a cup of tea or hot chocolate.” Then again, aloud: “And the walking does me good—though that’s beside the point.”
The point lay, in great part, in the contents of the briefcase.
He had gathered the small stones himself, choosing the smoothest and (preferably) those with one flattish surface. These were gleanings from his own small backyard, public parks, patches of earth surrounding street trees, and those dotting the pedestrian median along the Parkway. He could have, with fewer pains, purchased stones from any hardware store or garden supply shop, but the impersonality of purchase was not simply irrelevant to his purpose; it was antithetical.
Now, twenty yards or so inside the gates, he paused at the first cluster of graves. The site had prompted his work long ago, and he visited this section regularly, for sentimental reasons among those more pressing. The markers here dated from the second quarter of the last century to the first few years of the current one, with a single significant exception. More slender, darker, more tarnished by time than the rest was that of Oskar Lowenthal, died 1883. For years, Vogeldiscovered, it had stood alone, but as spaces became increasingly scarce elsewhere on the grounds, Lowenthal’s monument had been joined by its now surrounding neighbors.
Beyond the marker’s physical appearance, what had caught Vogel’s attention that first time was that Lowenthal’s grave was the only one in the group that seemed not to have been visited. Unlike the neighboring sites, there was no traditional “calling card” of a small stone placed atop the marker or on the grave itself. Each of the others bore several stones, some a dozen or more, a few even several scores. For him, Vogel had thought, there is no one left to remember. Or, if left—maybe a great-great grandchild, but maybe also too distant—in miles as well as time. And then a sudden, inexplicable resolve: So, Mr. Lowenthal still with the two dots above the o, then I’ll remember. Whatever it is—the birthday, your Hebrew name, the day you left us, that you were here for sixty-one years. Not very much, but enough. A person like all of us. And with that, he retreated briefly to the unpaved walkway then returned to place a stone on Lowenthal’s memorial.
Afterwards, he had left one at each of his annual visits, or, in the early years, as needed, since the stones might be removed by high winds, torrential rains, or thieving hands intending them for use elsewhere. While those on other markers in the section were subjected to the same forces, their numbers and collective weight assured that many were left in place. And, as Vogel observed, in the vast majority of cases, those remaining were added to over time.
Today there was no special need to add to the stones on Lowenthal’s marker. Those he had seen two weeks earlier on the anniversary of the first encounter, including the one he had placed then, were still there.
Bending before the wind and rain, he moved on, amazed still at how long it had taken him to realize that Lowenthal’s case was hardly unique. Not until the second anniversary did it dawn on him that such abandoned dead were to be found throughout the cemetery and, as an all but certain corollary, in every other cemetery as well. By the third anniversary, he had devised a plan to address the problem. He would make regular pilgrimage to each of the cemeteries in the five boroughs and in the Long Island counties beyond Queens, acquainting himselfwith those denizens, who, like Lowenthal, had otherwise been neglected and apparently forgotten.
Depending on the age of the establishment, his visits might last a day or two, or more than a week. Having completed the work, he would return after a time to check for chance omissions. Such a check is what brought him out in today’s foul weather, his briefcase (just one for follow-ups) filled in the event of oversights.
Apparently, he had been quite thorough two weeks before, having only to deal with four or five omissions before reaching the office.
From the start, the challenge of the work had not been weather or travel time and distance but the secrecy to which he had pledged himself almost unconsciously. This required subterfuge. To wit: he was doing genealogical research; he had taken up the hobby of collecting rubbings of unusual markers; he was studying the decline in familiarity with Hebrew or Yiddish given names as evidenced by variations among markers in family plots.
All of these explained the briefcases, housing a laptop computer, notebooks, and various art supplies—beneath all of which lay the stones. He went so far as to jot notes, compose observations online or download genealogical materials, and take two or three rubbings on most of his visits, sometimes sharing them with Mrs. Vogel. The two laughed together at such inscriptions as Beloved husband, beloved father, beloved grandfather—all lies and What she went through, you shouldn’t know from it. But she would chide him if she noticed the stones:
“What’s with the rocks? The rest of your gear isn’t heavy enough?”
“Builds muscle,” he might reply. “Or at least maintains it.”
“I see. A Charles Atlas of the senior set. Wouldn’t it make more sense to work out with a few dumbbells and leave the rocks at home with the rest of the collection? And, by the way, how many hobbies does a man need?”
Still, Evelyn Vogel was a tolerant sort, even putting up with his overnights and extended stays at motels in places like Farmingdale, where cemeteries were manifold and whose inhabitants vastly outnumbered the local citizenry.
“Call me eccentric,” Vogel had said, “but I think I’ve earned the right to a little eccentricity.”
She had agreed. They still had their shared time—movies, shows, vacations, dinners, falling asleep together on the couch while watching TV. And twice, preceding trips to New England and Quebec, she had accompanied him on one of his Long Island visits, amusing herself for a couple of days at the motel pool or shopping mall while he worked, and afterward ferrying together across the sound to Connecticut to begin what she considered their actual journey. He didn’t gamble. He didn’t drink. True, he had begun to chase women, but, she laughed as she recalled a rubbing, such a chase and such women “you shouldn’t know from.”
“Ah, Mr. Vogel,” a cheery voice greeted him from behind a counter as he entered. “Not such a good day for those rubbings of yours, I’m afraid.”
“How are you, Jeffrey? No, not such a good day.”
“A cup of tea, Mr. V?” the woman seated at a desk facing Jeffrey’s offered.
“That would be great.”
“Two sugars, right?” she asked as she rose.
She poured a cup for each of them, and the three chatted as they sat and sipped for ten minutes or so in the waiting area, interrupted only by a couple of phone calls. Small talk, nothing more about Vogel’s business or theirs, except to note that it was a slow day with just a single burial scheduled after noon. Having drunk his tea and exhausted such topics as rain, rising prices, and reckless drivers, Vogel thanked them and then took his luggage and his leave, with all of them wishing better weather for his next visit.
Nice people, Vogel thought as he headed back, bent still against the elements. A little more of a relationship with them than with the others in the hinterlands. But this, of course, is home base for me. I’m here sometimes even when I’m not working.
He smiled at the last word, reflecting on whether it was appropriate to his spontaneous and apparently self-imposed labors. In all the years there had been nothing oppressive about his task. Yes, there were inconveniences—foul weather (today a case in point)—traffic jams—a cantankerous groundskeeper or two, but nothing negative concerning the essence of his commitment.
Still, there was something he found unsettling. Once or twice each year or two while placing stones, he seemed to see another figure similarly engaged—always at a distance, never clearly or completely revealed. He might perceive the back of a hand, a nose, a hat brim, a pant leg or hem of a skirt. And at times this would recur in another venue weeks or months later—for instance an April Monday in Brooklyn, then an August Thursday in farthest Queens. At such times his response was to turn away—almost instinctively. After all, he told himself, I can’t do it all, and it’s not like I have a monopoly. His unease lingered for a day or so, then faded away. And until the next occurrence, he went blithely on.
And then as years passed, less blithely on as the weight and woes of age began to press more heavily upon him. At first, he shortened his work week from four days to three, and later from three days to two, cutting out the follow-up visits in the process. I’ll catch them in the next cycle, he reasoned. Then the territories shrank, with the more remote parts of Queens and all that lay beyond abandoned. Toward the last, he was paying a weekly visit, weather permitting, only to the establishment nearest home. His sleep, erratic enough, was further troubled by thoughts of a succession that he could not possibly arrange.
In the twilight of his own fading sun, Leonard Vogel lay quietly in the hospital bed, eyes closed, Evelyn holding one hand. The others gathered round. “Who?” he seemed to ask, his breath raspy and shallow. “It’s me, Dad,” his son and daughter, recently flown in from disparate parts, whispered almost simultaneously. “Me, Gramps,” his eldest grandchild added. Vogel rolled his head slowly from side to side, and with his free hand slapped feebly at the mattress. “Who? Who?” he seemed to say again, the sound now bubbling up with the dark secretion that stained his lips. If it was, in fact, a question, this time there was no answer. In any case, the man was now past hearing.
Just as Leonard Vogel breathed his last, Luisa Vidale bolted upright in her bed half a world away, beaming with inexplicable revelation. Stepping briskly across the small room, past a loom with its knotted tapestry in progress, she reached for one of several identical boxes on the upper of two shelves. Then, clutching the carton to her breast, she sat cross-legged on the thin carpet covering the splintered floor, and opened it.
She ran her fingers through the small stones. Most of them were smooth, almost polished, having been retrieved from riverbanks, beaches, and the rims of tarns. Dressing quickly, she transferred the cache to a canvas tote bag and made her sandaled way along the dusty road toward the ancient burial ground.