Maddie mccann

The Dead Next Door

Nyack Hospital is snugly situated between two open spaces: the football field where my high school graduation ceremony was held and a giant, sprawling cemetery. This past summer, I spent five days holed up there with a mystery illness no doctor was able to pin down. Lying in wait with no cure in sight, my limbs grew gaunt, my belly grew swollen with IV fluids, and I listened to an elderly man down the hall hoarsely call out “Hello?” to no one in particular every night. As hour after hour dragged on, I came to the conclusion that the narrative of my life was foreshadowed in front of me: graduation served as a deceptively auspicious beginning, the hospital housed the drama of the middle, and the cemetery symbolized my forthcoming end.

I later found out that I have Lyme disease, one of the most common conditions afflicting upstate New Yorkers, and the only thing the team of upstate New York doctors didn’t properly test for. In short: I didn’t die. But when my dad’s car pulled out of the hospital parking lot after my release, I felt like I had barely made it out alive—not only because of the abhorrent level of medical care, but also because the tripartite omen was so disturbing. The cemetery, especially—in view of hospital windows, very visible on the way to and from the emergency room, and ever-visible in my thoughts—was deeply unsettling.

I am the kind of person that is always dealing with some sort of debilitating ailment: I’m like a hypochondriac, except things are actually wrong with me. I’ve been in and out of a million hospitals and doctor’s offices and prescribed medications for a million different reasons, so I don’t have any illusions about the fragility of my body. Lyme disease is just another thing to add to the list. I often think about how in things like cable news reports, the families and friends of murder victims, or people who die suddenly in general, always say that “you never think something like this is going to happen to you”—I always think something like that is going to happen to me, but usually I can distract myself with “Vanderpump Rules” or delicious pastas. With a cemetery in my face, this was a far more difficult task. I became curious about how people who see that image every day of their lives deal with it. If you live in view of a cemetery, are you constantly confronted with your own mortality in the same way that I was in that hospital room?

I conducted several interviews with cemetery-adjacent homeowners to try to gauge how dramatic I was being. Some kind strangers let me into their homes, others agreed to speak on the phone, and one couple preferred to talk to me through a chain link fence. Their outlooks varied.

Dawna, a Colorado Springs woman who had moved into her home just three weeks prior, said that the cemetery sealed the deal in the purchase of her house. Her grandmother had always lived near a cemetery. “Never on purpose,” she added. “It was just one of those things that follow you.” So when Dawna drove up and noticed the cemetery, “it was like a sign of comfort from my grandmother. It’s just a part of her being here with me.”

Miles, another Colorado Springs local, explained the thought process behind purchasing his house through a more business-like lens. He wanted to get in early on an up-and-coming neighborhood and, for him, the cemetery provides reassurance that no development projects will disrupt the area’s scenic surroundings. However, his future-centric, investment-driven outlook makes him feel as though the property allocated to cemeteries is not being used to its full potential: “I think that there’s a lot of land out there that’s reserved for cemeteries that could probably be put to better use,” he said, adding, “You know, you plant people and they don’t grow other people.”

But the most consistent aspect of all the responses was the fact that each person had reconceived the cemetery in a way that made death less central to it. For Dawna, it was the spiritual connection with her grandmother; for Miles, it was the promise of an unobstructed view of the mountains. Answers ranged from historical connections to simply enjoying a hilly place that provides good exercise.


Julia and David, the couple I spoke to through the chain link fence—safely cordoned off from me and the other “scumbums” that pass through their neighborhood—said that even though they had family members buried in the cemetery abutting their home, it didn’t affect their feelings about those losses. When I asked them if they felt closer to those relatives because of their proximity to their final resting places, Julia scoffed and replied with a definitive “No.” The closeness they have with those family members “comes from Jesus, and that we know we’ll spend eternity with them someday in heaven. It has nothing to do with them being buried in the graveyard.” David agreed: “They’re not there. Sorry! Once you die, your body goes in the ground, spirit goes somewhere else.” For them, the cemetery is just a pretty, peaceful place to walk, an asset to the neighborhood, graves be damned.         

After nearly 100 percent of the homeowners I spoke to reported that the cemeteries either had positive or no effects on their lives, I came to realize that it must take a certain kind of person to choose to live near a cemetery—a breed stronger and more well-adjusted than my sorry ilk. However, I am not alone: Nancy Blaker Weber, Broker Associate at Nyack Rand Realty, told me that in her experience, a view of a cemetery will often give clients pause, and even affect a house’s buyer pool (the percentage of customers active on the market with potential interest). “If the house is perfect, you’d get 100 percent of the buyer pool,” Nancy explained. “But as things are usually not perfect: if there’s no central air you’d lose people, if it was on a noisy street you might lose some people, and if it was right next to a cemetery you might lose some more people.” But every client is different: “Some people just feel things more deeply than others.”

Nancy recalled showing a cemetery-adjacent house to one particularly sensitive woman. It was beautiful, built in the 1800s—a really special find. “She was loving it and loving it, and we’re going through the house, and I hadn’t actually realized it, because last I had seen it there were leaves on the trees, but now it had been on the market a while and the trees were bare. She looked out one of the bedrooms and she could see the cemetery, and she immediately wanted to leave … She said it was just very unlucky.”

The position of a house in relation to a cemetery seems to factor into a buyer’s level of discomfort. Nancy remembered showing another house whose view of a cemetery was only through one side window—not one as personal or as prominent as that of a bedroom. Only about 20 percent of her clients took issue with the view, while the other 80 percent were unbothered by it. The amount of eye contact made all the difference.

The psychological undertaking of living next to a cemetery seems to be mediated by not only the directness of the view, but also how “dead” the cemeteries are themselves. Thomas, a longtime neighbor of St. Peter’s Cemetery in Lewes, Delaware, admires the cemetery for its historical significance and quaint, New England, “founding fathers” appeal. The cemetery, which houses graves from as early as the 1600s, no longer allows burials due to a lack of space and instead now functionally operates as more of a historic site. A little box on the property offers visitors a guide booklet that directs them to some of the cemetery’s more ornate headstones and tells the story of those buried beneath them. Families buried there go back five or six generations, which Thomas appreciates “from a legacy perspective.” To him, a cemetery “marks time, it marks people, it creates family trees. It has an enduring quality to it that I think has a lot of value.”

As a child, Thomas would go to Ireland to visit his extended family, and when he and his siblings arrived, they were required to go visit their family plot: “The first day, first morning, we had to go out to the cemeteries, because it is all about respecting your ancestors, your loved ones. And we were the Yanks, we had moved away, we didn’t really know them very well. We got a family history by going to those cemeteries. When I think of what my family tree is, and I remember who’s who, I largely think of gravestones, because that’s where they’re marked and how they’re marked.”

But for him, the connection to the past that cemeteries create is limited. His feeling is that “the further away you are from the actual people in it, the more connective it is; the closer you are, the more disconcerting it is.” When discussing visiting the graves of his parents, Thomas clarified, “I don’t find any comfort in it as a personal matter. Like, I don’t think they’re there. I don’t want to think about them there. I don’t want to think about my parents, you know, in a box in the ground. And because the relationship was so personal, the gravestone for them feels cold to me. They weren’t cold stone, they were warm people. So I find it very discordant in a very personal, intimate relationship.”


While I can’t claim that my hodgepodge of interviews equate to a formal sociological survey on this topic, it does seem like those who live cemetery-adjacent have all honed a specific skill: the intellectual separation of actual people, including themselves, from the place. There is no one way to achieve this—everyone seems to subscribe to a slightly different brand of peace with death. As Thomas put it: “If you’re not comfortable with the idea of death, you’re not going to be comfortable living near a cemetery.”


Going into this somewhat strange and dismal winter break mission, I knew that cemetery views were not for me. My stint in Nyack Hospital cleared up any confusion there might’ve been about this. But apparently I was so preoccupied with my discomfort that I had forgotten some very pertinent autobiographical details. Perhaps she figured I already knew, perhaps it had just occurred to her, but after weeks of discussion about this article, my mom casually texted me,

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It’s characteristic of her to deliver information bluntly and without punctuation via text, but the nonchalance was unbelievable! Come on, Mom! Dumbfounded, I replied with frantic virtual laughter:

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And then it all came back to me.

Immediately to the right of the giant, sprawling cemetery that haunted me this past summer is Village Gate Way, the condominium complex my mom and I lived in for most of my elementary school years. Though our house didn’t have a direct view of it, apparently we were frequent visitors. “We used to walk around and look at the deer,” my mom wrote. “There were always a lot of deer so you liked that.” This checks out.

I have one memory of the two of us at that cemetery. We had gone one evening to do grave rubbings, armed with printer paper and green and purple Crayola crayons. The cemetery was filled with fog, so much so that you could barely see in front of you. But, after a while, the fog parted, and over the rolling green hills, perfectly framed in the distance, was the most majestic buck I have ever laid eyes on. Mid-stride, directly facing me, muscle definition like a Greek god, antlers that just wouldn’t quit. I’m sure time has dramatized this image, but when I described it to my mom, she replied with a classically terse “Yes.”

Before the text bombshell, as far as I knew, that was the only time we had visited the cemetery. I hadn’t put two and two together in terms of how close it was, and I had no idea how frequently we had gone. My mom remarked that it had been a safe place to walk:

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The safety or fun factors weren’t something I had seriously considered. Both Thomas and Julia shared memories of playing with their nieces and nephews in their respective cemeteries, riding bikes or running around with their dogs, but I had chalked this up as a symptom of their comfort level with the whole enterprise. Apparently, it’s not so uncommon.


After this conversation, I conjured up an image of young me frolicking around, surrounded by graves, having a grand old time—it still seems pretty weird, but in a way, it kind of makes me feel better. If I can hold onto the reminiscence of little me as opposed to focusing on the dust and bones of future me, is it possible that I’ll set up post-grad shop in front of a cemetery somewhere?

Unlikely, but no longer unthinkable.

Bad Issue | February 2019

Will This Madness Ever End?

The heat was bad, sure, but there was something thicker in the air this time. A haze was everywhere; it consumed everything. The windows of the Hansen and Third corner store fogged up so much you could only see the silhouettes of the men behind the counter—every window in the adjacent building was either open or housing an AC unit. Sounds of all kinds cut through the stranglehold of the heat and poured out into the street: the occasional shout, the clang of a dish, the voice of a DJ coming and going from a passing car radio. “This next one’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ but this Ju-ly—goddamn!”


1.     The Balcony

Todd Greenbaum, premature balder, had decided to brave the haze. Todd owned no AC or fan for fear of a follicle-tugging breeze, so his apartment felt more like a sauna than a studio. He sprawled across the balcony wearing nothing but a white tank top and tattered boxers, not even his toupee—an act of sheer desperation. Todd had been sensitive about his hair condition since the seventh grade, when he slow-danced with the already-five-foot-eight Suzy Henderson at the Spring Fling. A full head taller than Todd, Suzy had a direct view of his scalp, where the signs of hair loss were already showing. She made this known to the whole seventh grade class. After this, he wore a baseball cap every day until he graduated, then purchased an expensive, jet-black hairpiece to start college as a new man. In 14 years, he hadn’t so much as looked out a window without it.

The toupee’s absence was noticed. Mrs. Kazan, the tiny 81-year-old widow who lived across the hall, wearily lumbered across Third Avenue with a small bag of groceries tucked into the wire basket of her walker. Condensation from a carton of milk threatened the durability of the brown paper bag.

As she got closer, Mrs. Kazan grew more and more suspicious of the strange man on the balcony. Her eyes were going, but she had memorized a blurry approximation of every single person who came and went from her building, and this guy wasn’t in her mental registry.

“HEY!” she shouted up at the figure while swatting away a swarm of gnats. “What’s the big idea, hot shot? Who the hell are you?” She steadied herself—shouting in the dizzying heat had thrown her already precarious stance off balance.

Todd, ever conscious of his head’s appearance, knowingly replied, “Mrs. Kazan, I know I look different, but it’s me, Todd. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Squinting with her whole body, Mrs. Kazan grumbled, “Todd? Todd, what happened to you? I can’t keep anything straight anymore. I tell you, I’ve never seen a summer like this. Something has to be done about this, this godforsaken place…” She trailed off as she sluggishly entered the building. A gnat whizzed its way through the door just as it swung shut. Todd sighed, wiping sweat off his waxy scalp.


2.     The Hall

Mrs. Kazan paused in the entrance to catch her breath. The confines of the building were hardly a respite from the suffocating air—inside it was hot and stale, like no one had opened a window in weeks. Every crease in her face held a layer of sweat; walking any distance in the heat was no easy task, and it had taken all her energy to yell at Todd. Unfortunately, Leslie Dratch, her overly-attentive neighbor, waltzed into the hall to check his mailbox at that exact moment.

“Not this loon,” Mrs. Kazan mumbled under her breath. Leslie didn’t miss a beat.

“Mrs. Kazan, you poor thing!” he exclaimed, rushing over, scanning his beloved neighbor’s body for mysterious bruises or swollen joints.

Forcing a smile, she replied, “Really nothing to worry about. It’s a disaster out there, but I’m fine.” Mrs. Kazan summoned her remaining strength and tried to forge onward through the hot vacuum of a hallway, keeping her head down and avoiding eye contact. Leslie was not dissuaded in the slightest—Mrs. Kazan’s limp attempted escape only made him want to help her even more. He stood up straight, pulled his damp button-down taught, and pushed his sweat-drenched bangs to either side of his forehead. With the determination of a superhero, he said, “Let’s get those groceries into your apartment.”

Mrs. Kazan had had it. She edged her walker around to stare up at Leslie. “You know how they say the murder rate is at a record high?” she asked flatly. “No problem making it go higher. None. Catch my drift?”

They stared at each other until Leslie laughed uneasily. “You’re something else, Mrs. Kazan, you know that? You go ahead on your own this time, but don’t hesitate to ask me for help later! You know where I live!” Mrs. Kazan tried to block out his grating voice as she hobbled over to the elevator.

“Uh huh,” she said, “I sure do.” She did not bother to turn herself around—the elevator doors shut with her back to them.   

It was unlike Leslie to accept that someone could do something on their own, but the haze had gotten to even the most abrasively neighborly of neighbors. Sweating from every pore, Leslie reluctantly accepted defeat—surely there would be a better time to flaunt his helpfulness, when he could operate at 100 percent. Leslie smiled to himself as he sauntered back over to the mailboxes. His was empty.


3.     The Dratch Home

“Nothing today, honey,” Leslie cooed. He swung the door shut behind him, infusing the first-floor apartment with the hot muck of the unventilated hallway. He wiped sweat from his forehead, smearing his sopping wet bangs across his brow.

“Thanks for checking, sweets,” his wife, Lesley, said without looking up from the TV. Even with their AC blasting, the room was stuffy. Lesley had covered herself with as many frozen things as she could find: an ice pack was nestled in each armpit, a bag of frozen green beans was tucked under her tank top, and a frozen ribeye laid across her bare thighs. A fan was trained directly on her, no oscillation.

Leslie grabbed a canned lemonade out of their fridge before walking over to join Lesley on the couch. Lesley gingerly placed the ribeye on her husband’s legs, gazing up at him dotingly. They each puckered their lips and kissed the air between them before turning back to the TV. “That’s right, Elaine, we’re talking 45 percent of these United States dry as a bone,” said a crisp-suited news anchor. “Both the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers are dried up completely—we’re coming to the point where we’re gonna have to just sit back and watch the fish die. Now let’s go to Scott with this week’s forecast.”

“Oh no, those poor fish,” garbled Leslie while taking a gulp from the lemonade can. Lesley silently patted his thigh. “I like fish, you know? All kinds. Cod, bass, trout, salmon, tuna, yellowfin tuna,” after a gasp of air Leslie continued, “tilapia, catfish, swordfish—”

“I know honey, I know,” Lesley delicately interrupted him. On a regular day she would’ve had the patience, and even some enthusiasm, to absorb Leslie’s every thought, but the heat had reduced her to a mere regular level of courtesy. “You always order fish when we go out. I’ve never once seen you order a pasta or a chicken breast.”

“Exactly,” Leslie said. “These poor guys are probably just flopping around in the dirt. They don’t stand a chance.” He pouted, crossing his arms over his chest. Lesley tried to comfort him. “Don’t get so broken up about this, honey bunch. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

Lesley smiled timidly, suppressing a chuckle at her own joke. She reached under her shirt, grabbed the bag of green beans, and playfully whacked Leslie with it. He smiled.

“Okay, okay,” Leslie said. “But I’m serious! An entire river drying up, fish dying by the thousands? Doesn’t that sound bad to you? Like ‘end of days’-type bad? Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” Leslie visualized himself single-handedly replenishing the river, pouring in thousands of gallons of water by hand. The couple’s smoke alarm cut the fantasy short.  “Oh!” exclaimed Lesley, “That damned thing is going off again. Would you shut that off, honey?” Just as Leslie rose from the couch, the building’s fire alarm started blaring.

“... record-breaking temperatures. 1988 is just inches away from clinching the title of the hottest year in history. Stay cool, folks,” the weatherman signed off, drowned out in the cacophony of beeps and bells.


4.     Leslie’s Rescue

Leslie and Lesley shared a brief look of panic until Leslie sprung into action. “Mrs. Kazan,” he whispered to himself, before leaping over the couch and running across the apartment. “Go outside!” he yelled to Lesley over his shoulder. Lesley’s “Where are you going?!” didn’t register.

As soon as Leslie opened the door, he was overcome with a smothering wave of smoke and heat that nearly knocked him over. He staggered backwards, reaching out to the wall for support, then using it for leverage, pushing off the wall and propelling himself towards the stairs. He clumsily lurched and stumbled to the stairwell, feeling like he had been shot out of a cannon. The superhero resolve returned to his face.

Leslie ran up to the third floor as fast as his legs could carry him. He arrived at Mrs. Kazan’s apartment, panting and coughing, just as she was shutting her door. “Mrs. Kazan,” he said hoarsely, his hands on his knees, “I’m here to help!” He fell into a violent coughing fit.

“Oh Christ,” Mrs. Kazan rolled her eyes. “Let’s get this over with.” With a huff, she let go of her walker and held out her arms, knowing that allowing Leslie to help her was her only choice. Her feeble body trembled as sweat rolled down the bridge of her nose. The fire alarm persisted. The smoke from the first floor started to creep up the stairs.

Leslie hadn’t thought this far into his rescue operation—he had envisioned a heroic entrance and nothing else. There was no way he would be able to carry Mrs. Kazan on his own. She was small, but he had expended all his energy getting to this point and his lungs were filled with smoke. His mind was racing trying to think of a solution when a man with hair slightly askew hastily exited his apartment.

“Todd!” Leslie wheezed. Todd jumped, startled, jostling his toupee so much it slid to the back of his head. His hands shot up to protect the hairpiece—one holding it in place, the other covering his exposed scalp. “Please, we need to get Mrs. Kazan down those stairs.” Leslie, nearly keeled over, gestured towards the barely-visible exit route. Todd nodded, wide-eyed, and took in the fear on his neighbors’ faces. He allowed the toupee to fall to the floor.

“Let’s go already!” Mrs. Kazan barked, choking down a cough. The two men hurried over, both dripping in sweat and coughing. They shakily lifted her, each supporting an arm and a leg, but looked at each other doubtfully as they gingerly walked toward the staircase. Just as they began their descent, they heard something in the distance, slowly getting louder and louder, cutting through the continuous ringing. Suddenly, Lesley appeared through the haze, fighting her way up the stairs like a football player emerging through a fog-machined tunnel.


5.     Lesley’s Rescue

Nobody had time to think. Lesley, running on pure adrenaline, swept Mrs. Kazan up in her arms and immediately pivoted with ballerina-like precision to turn and run back down the stairs. Eyes bloodshot, vision blurred, and arms quaking with the weight of old woman, Lesley held her breath as she battled her way to the building’s exit. After a moment of brief, stunned silence the two men snapped back to reality and followed suit. Down the stairs, through the hall, and out the front door, they burst out onto the street and were met with chaos. The residents swarmed the sidewalk. Red-faced and completely beside themselves, they cried and yelled as fear and complete shock collided under a canopy of sweat.

“I know it’s that bitch in 4C! She’s always forgetting her oven is on! Always!”

“I got takeout from Sakura tonight, asshole!”

“I bet the landlord did it for the insurance money—that shifty motherfucker!”

“Whiskers?! Where are you kitty, where are you?”

“Will this madness ever end?!”

“Well, that’s a little dramatic,” mumbled Mrs. Kazan. She stood off to the side, surveying the commotion, leaning on Lesley for support. Todd and Leslie jogged over to where the women were standing. Leslie wrapped himself around his wife, nearly breathless; Mrs. Kazan shifted her weight to Todd. Lesley stood tall; Leslie looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Todd held his bald head high as Mrs. Kazan’s rigid body clung to his. Though the heat was still unbearable, the mayhem before them was a temporary distraction. They all turned to look up at their building churning out black smoke, engulfed in flames. Sirens clamored through alleys and around corners until the fire trucks finally pulled up to Hansen and Third.


6.     The Aftermath

The next day was filled with seemingly endless news coverage.

“The first calls came in at 8:37 p.m., and within a minute, several units were rolling. The first units arrived on the scene in six minutes to enter a battle that would last three hours and 42 minutes from start to finish. The fight and the fire escalated quickly. There was no underestimating the size and potential of this fire,” the news anchor said with fervor from behind a slick, glass-topped desk. “There were 40 people inside of the building when the fire broke out. Some got out on their own, after frightening experiences.”

Helicopter footage of the building ablaze cut to an on-site interview. Leslie, Lesley, Todd, and Mrs. Kazan stood in front of the camera. Leslie spoke with pride, his bangs pushed up off his forehead at a 90-degree angle. “I could barely see the stairs, or the exit, because of the smoke. I feared for my life, but I always put the needs of others before my own. Luckily we were able to work as a team to save our beloved neighbor Mrs. Kazan and carry her to safety.” Todd and Mrs. Kazan looked at him incredulously. Lesley’s face was blank.

The anchor appeared on screen again. “The fire's origin has been attributed to an overload of the building's electrical system, but the precise source of ignition was not determined—the fire department can only conclude that its cause was spontaneous combustion. Almost too hard to believe, but there it is. Back to you, Elaine.”


After a few days, the news coverage stopped. The heat persisted a while longer, but it eventually broke. The wiring in the building was repaired, a sprinkler system was installed. Furniture that had been destroyed was replaced. Todd bought a new, even more expensive toupee. Mrs. Kazan started to pretend to be deaf so she could ignore people more easily. Leslie formed the Anti-Hazard Coalition of Hansen and Third and appointed himself president. Lesley stayed home. Everyone forgot what it was like beneath the haze, and couldn’t bear trying to remember.

Heat Issue | November 2018