Some days, the smell is unbearable.
Of course, if the bodies are pretty old—say, eighty years or more—then you hardly have to worry. Most caskets back then were just cheap lumber, wooden boxes, plywood—and the smell isn’t bad once you get in. It smells hardly different than the earth—the soil itself—that’s been settling around the casket for decades. The wood has decayed, is soft, brittle to the touch. And the body itself—nothing but bones.
But if it’s a recent grave, with those new-fangled caskets that are designed to preserve the body—although morticians tend to exaggerate this—the smell is almost unbearable. What morticians fail to explain to their unsuspecting new customers is that embalming only keeps a body fresh until the funeral is over. And while these new “protected” caskets do keep water out—which sounds like a good idea in theory—these caskets do not keep the body from decomposing. Not at all. In fact, if the casket is sealed as well as advertised, it only interferes with the natural dehydration that would otherwise occur. Fluids and gasses are released from the body as it begins to decompose, and the casket is likely to rust out or rot from the inside. The wealthier people tend to buy these protected caskets more, because they cost more and the poor can’t afford them. Apparently, the wealthy takes solace that their loved-one’s body in death won’t fester—no matter how badly they treated the person when she was still alive. It’s strange. Why anybody would care the way his dead relative’s body is stored is beyond me.
It makes much more sense to go into the older caskets than the newer ones. Even though the merchandise you find in the older caskets may not have cost as much when purchased, it might bring in more in the long run. Of course, the antique factor helps, especially for wedding rings. Plus, the quality is usually better—sterling silver, 24 karat gold, quality diamonds. And, as I’ve said, it’s much easier to get into these caskets, and the bodies are usually nothing but skeletons. Easy on the nose.
What many people may not know is that you don’t have to dig up the entire top of the casket to get into it. You really only need to dig a hole about 36 inches in diameter, about where the neck to navel would be on the body. Then you just take your spade or your HoeDag and break through the top of the casket. If the person was wearing jewelry when buried—which I generally already know from my research—the jewelry will almost always be between the neck and navel. Funeral Directors typically fold the hands of the deceased across her chest, which makes my job much easier.
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. It’s a living. I know it’s a crime. But it’s a victimless crime. I don’t hold anybody up. I don’t threaten anybody. I don’t go into people’s homes. I don’t take anything from anybody who is still living, who had plans for their money or their possessions. I only take things that were buried six feet underground, things that were never going to see the light of day ever again, things that do no good being buried with the body—as if they can use those things once they’re gone. I mean, even if there is an afterlife—and I’m not saying there is—what good would a ring or necklace do those people once they’re dead? The jewelry doesn’t go to the afterlife with them. It just sets there on rotting flesh in the ground. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would bury something with them when they die. Myself, I have a notarized piece of paper that describes what I want to happen to my meager possessions when I die—whether it’s my van, my ring, any cash I have—it all needs to go to the Foundation for Children with Disabilities in my hometown of Laxton, Iowa. That way, it will do somebody some good.
Really, what I do is no different than someone using a metal detector on the beach. Does a person who finds a rare coin or ring with a metal detector feel guilty for finding something of value that was lost by another person? If so, very little. They are on their way to the pawn shop. Just like me.
I really hated cemeteries when I first started out doing this job. The mere thought of being in a cemetery at night, alone, the air filthy with ghosts of the past, terrified me half to death. It was the worst thing I could think of to do with myself. I guess that’s why I did it.
The only thing I’ve ever liked about this job is that I don’t have to deal with people much. Over the past 30 years, I’ve developed a pretty strong aversion to people. They always want to know things about you. They want to know what you “do.” They want to know about your family, your job, how you make a living. They make quick judgments of you, based on whether you are a janitor, a teacher, a banker, a CEO. Who cares? Nobody wants to know what you’re thinking, what you’re reading. I’m pretty convinced that no matter how much we think we know someone, we really don’t. We think we do, but we don’t. We all have secrets. Everyone.
Your mind wanders a lot when you are alone in a graveyard in the dead of the night. A lot goes through your mind—both good and bad. Mostly bad. Sometimes you think about that person—those people—from your past, those rare exceptions of people who made an impact in your life, who made life worth living. But you try to shake that from your mind, just as you shake the layers of dust, of soil, from your hands as you dig into the earth. Or you think in your mind what you might say to that one woman who looks nice, gentle, if she came over to you at the library.
What are you reading?
It’s a spiritual book. Trying to figure out who I am.
And what have you discovered?
Still working on it. How about you? Have you figured it out?
No. Just hope there’s more to life than…this.
I know, I know.
Do you believe in God?
Do you believe God punishes people for their sins?
Maybe—but I think most people punish themselves for their sins more than God ever could.
What about Heaven? Do you believe in Heaven?
I believe in death. I wish I could believe in Heaven.
So, you don’t believe in a soul?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I think of the soul the way that Emerson thought of it, the way the Preacher Jim Casey thought of it in Grapes of Wrath.
Wow, that’s interesting. You mean, like, that the universe is one huge, collective soul, and all living beings are one small piece of it?
In a nutshell.
So that would mean…?
I guess that all of us are connected in some way.
Yes. That’s a really nice way to look at things. Do you think Steinbeck was suggesting that Jim Casey was a modern day Messiah?
Well, the Preacher does have the same initials as Jesus Christ. Coincidentally, so do I.
It’s hard work, what I do—and not just physically. I scope. I research. I scale walls and fences. I dig. I buy equipment. A really good pickaxe costs over a hundred dollars. A good digging spade even more. I can’t use any power tools, of course, due to the noise—I have to use those old-fashioned augers, the ones that you have to crank by hand. It can all get expensive. But unlike businessmen, I can’t write off a thing, which kind of pisses me off. I mean, so-called “legitimate businessmen”—they can write off a trip to the tittie bar or golf course for a thousand dollars a night. And I can’t even write off a digging spade? Is that fair? They get a corporate credit card. They get the entire west wing of their house written off. Me? I get nothing. I pay for it all with hard-earned cash—my tools, my ladder, my van—which is also my house. I spend days, weeks, in libraries doing research, looking up old obituaries, sometimes on microfisch—which is hard to read without proper glasses, which I usually can’t afford. Hell, I could probably write off my eye glasses if I was a CEO or in Sales for a company selling stupid shit, like fine crystal, or golf clubs.
In some towns, I get kicked out of libraries. I guess I look homeless—like that’s a crime or something.
Sorry, Sir—you’ve been here for several hours today. You are making some people…uncomfortable
But most of the time, the librarians are nice, helpful. They help me find what I’m looking for—old obituaries.
Thanks. I’m the Genealogist of my family. We’ve got a family reunion coming up in a few weeks. I hope to have some fascinating new information to share with them.
I don’t spend all my time in the libraries researching obituaries. Sometimes I just read—I like classic literature the best. Or philosophy. I don’t necessarily like to talk to others in the library, but I like it that there are people around. I like it best when there are no less than five, but no more than 25 people in the library at the same time as me. I don’t go to large cities, never more than 35,000. I hate big cities—the traffic, the congestion, the people, the confusing intersections, the difficulty finding places, the one-way streets and dead-end roads. Even though sometimes you can be much more anonymous in big cities, I just don’t like it. I feel claustrophobic.
Sometimes I’ll read old articles in newspapers, very sad articles from the past. I try to avoid them, to fight the urge. But like an alcoholic who keeps a bottle in a cabinet—sometimes it beckons you at your most vulnerable. There are a lot of sad stories out there, making you wonder if there is any good at all in the world.
Two people, a woman and her son, were killed yesterday on Exit 267 off I-80 when their car, driven by the woman’s husband and child’s father, crashed into the metal partition…”
I didn’t set out to be what I am. I didn’t study “Grave Robbing” in college. In fact, I was an English Literature major. Well, come to think of it, I don’t know what else I planned to do with that degree. I once was a Technical Writer for a toy company—I wrote all the “how-to” instructions. So you can blame me if, at Christmas, you saw those three words that everyone loves to hate—“some assembly required”—and you felt the directions were shitty. Sorry. I did my best. But I really wasn’t all that enthused by that job—it didn’t give me any real sense of accomplishment. Forty hours a week, working for other people, getting yelled at or belittled by the boss, bored half to death. But it was a living. It helped me support a family early on.
It’s a lonely job. About ten years ago, I had a cat for a week—or, I should say, the cat had me. She was asleep under the hood of my van. I heard something when I cranked it up, like a high-pitched scream in a horror movie. The engine of the van was so loud I could hardly hear it. I quickly turned off the engine, got out, opened the hood of the van, and there she was. A tough looking cat, orange and white, dirty as hell. Matted hair. One eye seemed infected. She was pitiful. But resilient as hell.
I took her in for a while. Fed her, kept her warm. But the more I enjoyed her being around, the worse I felt. I didn’t want to think the way I did, but I couldn’t help it—I was going to outlive that cat. And the closer I got to her, the harder it would be for me when she died, which we all inevitably do. Of course, it was possible that I would die first, but that would even be worse—the poor thing would have been trapped in my van to die. So I put up a flyer at the library in Woodward, Oklahoma where I found her, and within a week she had a good home. It was nice, too, that I got to meet the people who were taking her in. I got to see the reaction of the little boy when he first set eyes on the cat. He’d never had an animal before, and the cat went right to him, purring as the boy hugged her. I tried not to think about how badly the boy would feel when his cat died on him someday. It’s a shame that in nearly every relationship, one has to outlast the other—inevitably forcing the living one to muddle through life thereafter in a dazed purgatory.
School Gymnasium Packed as Student’s Friends Pay Last Respects to Classmate…
Sometimes I think about the person I’m digging up. Sometimes, I read more about her life than I should. It’s better if I don’t do that, if the person is somewhat anonymous. I mean, yes, you have to read the obituary, and maybe even find out a little more about her than what a standard obit tells you. But it’s best not to learn too much about the person, about her family, about her loved ones—those she left behind, the ones who truly suffer. But sometimes it’s nice to make up stories about the person in the casket while you’re digging. You imagine the person doing mundane things, like cooking in the kitchen with her husband, or washing grass stains out of her child’s baseball pants. It helps pass the time being alone at night in a graveyard, death all around. Sometimes you think of something funny, like I once thought if I ever finally got caught in the act and the judge asked me if I liked spending so much time in graveyards, I would reply, “What? Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.” And then everyone would laugh.
Recently I thought I had the perfect find in a town near Reno, one that would set me up for a while, two years or more. The lady was buried in 1959, was married for 51 years, and the obit said she was buried with her wedding ring, which had been given to her by her grandma, whose husband—an immigrant from Italy—had it made by a famous jeweler there. This would be worth thousands, possibly $10,000 or more. And Reno has a lot of pawn shops, which means it’s easy to haggle. All you have to say is another place already offered more, and they’ll usually tack on another 10% to their offer.
I scoped out the cemetery for days and made my plan—point of entrance, time of night, all that. My arms and shoulders aren’t as good as they used to be, making the job more and more difficult to perform. First, you have to carry your tool bag up the ladder—which weighs close to 40 pounds— and throw it over to the other side. Then you have to straddle the fence or wall—which I use an old folded up towel between my thighs—and pull the ladder up and over so you can use it to get out as well. Then, of course, you have to do a lot of digging. It’s getting harder the older I’m getting.
I am very careful not to deface the property—at least, to the naked eye. Out of respect for those still living, those who may visit, I have a special shovel to skim off the top of the earth, preserving the grass in a layer of topsoil—like sod—and carefully set it aside. I lay out a polyethylene tarp near the hole I’m digging, putting all the dirt onto it to avoid a mess. Once I get what I’m there for, I carefully shovel all the dirt back in from my tarp before putting the sod back on top, packing it all down as tightly as possible. By the time I leave, I’d bet you couldn’t even tell what had happened there. I’m like a phantom in the night, leaving no trace. It’s very important to me that this gets done this way. If I wasn’t able to do it this way, I wouldn’t do it at all.
Escaped Inmate Found at Cemetery Where Relatives Buried, Returned to Prison…
It was a sultry night in Nevada, but there was dew on the grass—which helped because I could get my hands wet from the dew and wipe my face, my forehead, my neck—keeping me cool. The moon was nearly full, which put a faint light over all the headstones and trees, causing some daunting shadows.
As you dig, you sometimes can’t help but look around, where headstones—and, thus, bodies—flow as far as the eye can see. You can’t help but think about the bodies, even so much as feeling a little sad. I’m not so sad for the dead as I am for the living, for those they left behind. Don’t get me wrong—many of the bodies surely belonged to some real fuck-ups: wife beaters, child molesters, cheaters, conmen. Good riddance to them. But most people, I believe, have at least some good in them. Some more than others, for sure. And when those good people die—especially when they die too young—I feel really bad for the living who were left behind; those people who could hardly stand it without them, who desperately try to forget them in an effort to end the pain, but then feel guilty for trying to forget them. It’s an endless cycle for the living.
I was very hopeful that this grave near Reno would fund me for years, possibly allow me to retire altogether as I’ve learned how to live quite frugally ever since I stopped drinking some years back. But as soon as I saw the ring, I knew I’d been had.
It was nice, don’t get me wrong. But it was no one-of-a-kind, Italian original. Obviously, this family just wanted to represent themselves with superiority when this woman died, when the obit was written. Either that, or the Italian immigrant who originally bought the ring intentionally made false claims to his bride-to-be to make himself look better. Either way, it screwed me over. But what are you going to do? It was still possibly worth as much as $1000, but that’s only a fraction of what I hoping it could bring.
Jamie Cloninger Sentenced to Two Years for Vehicular Manslaughter…
The very first Pawn shop I visited, the guy offered $650. I told him I had another place already offer $700 and it was easily worth more. He said he’d give me $700 as well, but not a penny more. I really didn’t want to go all over Reno for the possibility of getting just another $50 or so, so I sold it.
While I looked around in his store, he immediately got on the phone.
“Joel, it’s Max. I think I’ve got something just like you’re looking for. It’s over 100 years old. I’m sure Heather will love it. Well, it’s not quite in your price range, but close. Why don’t you bring her down and take a look.”
I went back to the Pawner. “Is someone going to buy that ring?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He looked me up and down. “Why?”
“Oh, no reason. But can I…well, I’d like to stick around and see if they like it. Is that all right?”
About thirty minutes later, Joel and Heather came in. Max showed the ring to Heather, who literally squealed.
“Oh my God!” she yelled. “It’s just right. Is it, like, 100 years old?”
“And then some,” Max said. He cocked his head towards me. “There’s the guy that brought it in. How old is it exactly?”
I cleared my throat. “It was bought by my Great-Grandpa in Italy in 1866 for my Great-Grandma. When my Great-Grandma died, it was given to my mom—who wore it until last year when she died. I hate to get rid of it, but I don’t really get attached to things. My mom kept a journal her whole life, and that’s worth more to me than any piece of jewelry.”
“It’s from Italy?” Heather asked, her eyes glowing. She looked back to Max. “How much?”
“Oh, I know I can get $1200 for it. But I’ll…”
He sighed, as though it pained him to do this. “I’ll sell it to you for $1000. But I need it within 48 hours.”
Joel and Heather looked at each other.
“Can you give until Friday?” Joel asked.
Max shook his head. “Sorry.”
Heather looked to Joel, her eyes pleading. They were young, maybe 19 or 20. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but they both looked as though life had already dealt them a tough hand, as though they’d suffered more than the average person—and by a long shot. Then Heather turned her body sideways, and I saw the beginnings of a rounding belly, protruding straight out through her tight camisole top.
“Come on, Max,” I pleaded, as if I’d known him for years. “You’ve only had the ring for 30 minutes. Can’t you just sell it at cost? Or knock it down a little?”
Max gave me a look.
“You stay out of this. I’m doing business here. I’ve got to make a living too. I’m behind in my own bills.”
“Look,” Joel said. “I’ve got $500 right now. I can…I can probably get the other $500 by Friday. Will you do that, Max? You know how much this means to Heather.”
Max sighed. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll hold your $500 until Friday. If you get me rest of it—every penny—by noon on Friday, you can leave with it. But if you don’t have every penny by noon on Friday, then I keep your money, and the ring.”
Max then shook his head, sighing. “I can’t believe I’m willing to do this for you, not after the way you’ve screwed me in the past.”
“I know,” Joel said. “I know—I’m sorry. But I did pay you, eventually I did.”
“OK,” Max said, a look of disgust in his chubby, bearded face. “Is that a deal?”
Joel looked to Heather, nervous as hell, his eyes like a puppy.
Suddenly, unconsciously, I found myself walking towards the counter, to Max. Then I looked to Joel.
“So, you two planning to get married?” I asked him.
Joel smiled, seemingly forgetting the precarious position he was in at that moment. “Yes Sir,” he said excitedly. “She’s my girl.”
I looked to Heather, who wiped her stringy, unkempt hair out of her eyes, smiling as well. She had a small piercing on her nose, another one on her lower lip. Her teeth were slightly crooked, somewhat decayed. She grabbed his arm, holding on tight, placing her cheek against his shoulder. I noticed a resemblance between her and Max, possibly siblings.
I pulled the $700 wad out of my pocket. There were two $100 bills, two $50 bills, and the rest $20’s. I counted out $500.
“You say you’ve got $500 right now?” I asked Joel.
His eyes widened, unsure what was transpiring. He nodded slowly.
“Let’s see it,” I said.
He looked to Heather, his eyes narrowing. He reached in his pocket, pulling out money, opening his hand to show me.
“Put it on the counter,” I said.
He put it down, and I put mine next to his.
“Count it up, Max.”
Max looked at me suspiciously.
“Well, it’s not counterfeit, I can guarantee you,” I said. “It’s the same money you gave me.”
Heather and Joel both started to protest, but I waved them off.
“Consider it a wedding gift,” I said.
Max counted up the money.
“You’re five dollars short,” he said, somewhat smugly. But maybe he had his reasons.
I pulled out another twenty, setting it on the counter. Max took the twenty and found a ten and five from Joel’s stash, handing them back to me.
Joel was ambivalent—thankful, but unsure.
“Mister, we just can’t take your money like this. You…give me your address. I’ll repay you, I promise,” he said. I looked to Heather, who had tears in her eyes.
“Max, give Joel the damn ring already,” I said.
“What’s your address?” Joel asked again.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“No,” Heather said. “We insist. We have to give you something. Look,” she said, putting both fingers up to her ears. “These earrings, they’re worth something. Joel got them for my birthday, they cost $60. Max, these are only two months old. How much for them.”
“I don’t need any God damn earrings that people can get at Kohl’s,” Max said.
“Max, don’t be an ass hole. Come on…”
“Look,” I said, putting my hands up in the air. Max still had the ring in his hand. I held out my hand, and Max handed me the ring.
“Come over here with me,” I told them both.
We walked away from Max into a corner. I put my hands on their shoulders, looking back and forth between them.
“Listen, you two. I’m just an aging man, all alone, and I don’t have much time left on this earth.”
“What’s wrong?” Heather asked.
“I’ve got cancer,” I lied. “And the only reason I sold my great-grandma’s ring was because I had no one to give it to, no kids—no family of any kind. And I wanted that ring to go to a nice couple, a couple who are starting out their lives together, a couple who has nothing but each other. I never imagined I would have the chance to see how this ring might bring such joy to other people. I mean, that ring represents nearly 90 years of marriage—my great-grandma for 48 years, and my mom for 40. I don’t want this ring to go to just anybody. I want you two—no, I need you two—to just accept this ring and be happy about it. Do you like it, Heather?”
“I…love it,” she said, her eyes welling.
“Then please—help a dying man out and just accept this gift. Please. It would mean more to me than you could ever know.”
I held the ring out in front of Joel, who I forced to take it.
“Thank you so much,” Joel said, his eyes misty as well. He hugged me. Then Heather hugged us both simultaneously. They were both crying.
“Alright, then,” I said. “Good luck to both of you.”
I turned to leave.
“Wait,” Joel said.
I turned back.
He bent down on one knee in front of Heather, putting out his hand in front of her. Her tears got stronger as she gave him her right hand. He slipped the ring onto her finger.
“I love you more than anything in the world, Heather,” he said. “Will you make me the happiest man ever and be my wife?”
She jumped up and down, literally. “Yes, yes, yes!” she yelled.
Almost brought a tear to my eye.
We hugged again. They thanked me profusely. They promised they would never let that ring go, that it would stay in their family forever.
“You ever been married?” Heather asked.
I shook my head. “No,” I said, offering a slight smile. “I’m too damn tough to fall in love.”
I got on the road immediately. I had a new cemetery to visit, one I didn’t have to research; one I didn’t have to wait until night to enter; one for which I didn’t have to scale the walls; one I wouldn’t need any tools.
I pulled into the cemetery two days after leaving Reno, nearly driving straight through, having eaten nothing but what I could get from gas stations along the way.
I pulled into the Laxton, Iowa cemetery in the early afternoon, the sun hot, a steady breeze hitting my sweaty body as I got out of my van. I walked to two headstones, headstones that hadn’t been visited in ten years or more. Which was a shame.
The names on the headstones immediately caused my throat to swell up. Swallowing became difficult as I was holding back tears.
Jennifer Cloninger, Wife and Mother
Jeremiah Cloninger, Loving Son
I lay on my back between their headstones, looking up to the sky, thinking of Jenn and Jeremiah, of Joel and Heather and their unborn child, their future children. I replayed our conversation over and over again, from the first moment I spoke with them to the last word I said.
And as I looked to the sky, the white clouds racing high above me, the only movement around me the swaying leaves of the tress, I closed my eyes tightly, wishing desperately that everything I had told them was true.
Every last word.
Each day I wear my grief
like metal mesh. I see you
as spirit burdened to speak.
You try to comfort this field
of wounds. You tend the amputees
and bound the screaming with soft song.
But it is hard for you to stay,
to not let go completely into the light.
I let you go. I make this year my bridge.
Though my heart has ruptured and cannot heal,
though forever overcome with this sadness
of our love silenced by brutal, unnamable death,
I will build a new house, dive with both hands
into my yard until the evergreens grow.
I will contain you as more than memory –
in my harvest will bloom many sunflowers
of your great generosity. And your fiery blood
will sprout the roots and flesh of passion fruit.
The maple tree will grow large like you, protecting all
within its strong and tender shadow. And children
will be drawn to this yard, to play there amongst
the tall dramatic grass, and then sit still to watch
with wonder the many shades of sky, reflecting
the warmth of your paternal sun-setting colours.
– Willa Cather
First published in McClure’s, 1905. The story also appeared in Cather’s short story collection, The Troll Garden and Selected Stories.
A group of the townspeople stood on the station siding of a little Kansas town, awaiting the coming of the night train, which was already twenty minutes overdue. The snow had fallen thick over everything; in the pale starlight the line of bluffs across the wide, white meadows south of the town made soft, smoke-colored curves against the clear sky. The men on the siding stood first on one foot and then on the other, their hands thrust deep into their trousers pockets, their overcoats open, their shoulders screwed up with the cold; and they glanced from time to time toward the southeast, where the railroad track wound along the river shore. They conversed in low tones and moved about restlessly, seeming uncertain as to what was expected of them. There was but one of the company who looked as though he knew exactly why he was there; and he kept conspicuously apart; walking to the far end of the platform, returning to the station door, then pacing up the track again, his chin sunk in the high collar of his overcoat, his burly shoulders drooping forward, his gait heavy and dogged. Presently he was approached by a tall, spare, grizzled man clad in a faded Grand Army suit, who shuffled out from the group and advanced with a certain deference, craning his neck forward until his back made the angle of a jackknife three-quarters open.
“I reckon she’s agoin’ to be pretty late ag’in tonight, Jim,” he remarked in a squeaky falsetto. “S’pose it’s the snow?”
“I don’t know,” responded the other man with a shade of annoyance, speaking from out an astonishing cataract of red beard that grew fiercely and thickly in all directions.
The spare man shifted the quill toothpick he was chewing to the other side of his mouth. “It ain’t likely that anybody from the East will come with the corpse, I s’pose,” he went on reflectively.
“I don’t know,” responded the other, more curtly than before.
“It’s too bad he didn’t belong to some lodge or other. I like an order funeral myself. They seem more appropriate for people of some reputation,” the spare man continued, with an ingratiating concession in his shrill voice, as he carefully placed his toothpick in his vest pocket. He always carried the flag at the G. A. R. funerals in the town.
The heavy man turned on his heel, without replying, and walked up the siding. The spare man shuffled back to the uneasy group. “Jim’s ez full ez a tick, ez ushel,” he commented commiseratingly.
Just then a distant whistle sounded, and there was a shuffling of feet on the platform. A number of lanky boys of all ages appeared as suddenly and slimily as eels wakened by the crack of thunder; some came from the waiting room, where they had been warming themselves by the red stove, or half-asleep on the slat benches; others uncoiled themselves from baggage trucks or slid out of express wagons. Two clambered down from the driver’s seat of a hearse that stood backed up against the siding. They straightened their stooping shoulders and lifted their heads, and a flash of momentary animation kindled their dull eyes at that cold, vibrant scream, the world-wide call for men. It stirred them like the note of a trumpet; just as it had often stirred the man who was coming home tonight, in his boyhood.
The night express shot, red as a rocket, from out the eastward marsh lands and wound along the river shore under the long lines of shivering poplars that sentineled the meadows, the escaping steam hanging in gray masses against the pale sky and blotting out the Milky Way. In a moment the red glare from the headlight streamed up the snow-covered track before the siding and glittered on the wet, black rails. The burly man with the disheveled red beard walked swiftly up the platform toward the approaching train, uncovering his head as he went. The group of men behind him hesitated, glanced questioningly at one another, and awkwardly followed his example. The train stopped, and the crowd shuffled up to the express car just as the door was thrown open, the spare man in the G. A. B. suit thrusting his head forward with curiosity. The express messenger appeared in the doorway, accompanied by a young man in a long ulster and traveling cap.
“Are Mr. Merrick’s friends here?” inquired the young man.
The group on the platform swayed and shuffled uneasily. Philip Phelps, the banker, responded with dignity: “We have come to take charge of the body. Mr. Merrick’s father is very feeble and can’t be about.”
“Send the agent out here,” growled the express messenger, “and tell the operator to lend a hand.”
The coffin was got out of its rough box and down on the snowy platform. The townspeople drew back enough to make room for it and then formed a close semicircle about it, looking curiously at the palm leaf which lay across the black cover. No one said anything. The baggage man stood by his truck, waiting to get at the trunks. The engine panted heavily, and the fireman dodged in and out among the wheels with his yellow torch and long oilcan, snapping the spindle boxes. The young Bostonian, one of the dead sculptor’s pupils who had come with the body, looked about him helplessly. He turned to the banker, the only one of that black, uneasy, stoop-shouldered group who seemed enough of an individual to be addressed.
“None of Mr. Merrick’s brothers are here?” he asked uncertainly.
The man with the red heard for the first time stepped up and joined the group. “No, they have not come yet; the family is scattered. The body will be taken directly to the house.” He stooped and took hold of one of the handles of the coffin.
“Take the long hill road up, Thompson–it will be easier on the horses,” called the liveryman as the undertaker snapped the door of the hearse and prepared to mount to the driver’s seat.
Laird, the red-bearded lawyer, turned again to the stranger: “We didn’t know whether there would be anyone with him or not,” he explained. “It’s a long walk, so you’d better go up in the hack.” He pointed to a single, battered conveyance, but the young man replied stiffly: “Thank you, but I think I will go up with the hearse. If you don’t object,” turning to the undertaker, “I’ll ride with you.”
They clambered up over the wheels and drove off in the starlight tip the long, white hill toward the town. The lamps in the still village were shining from under the low, snow-burdened roofs; and beyond, on every side, the plains reached out into emptiness, peaceful and wide as the soft sky itself, and wrapped in a tangible, white silence.
When the hearse backed up to a wooden sidewalk before a naked, weatherbeaten frame house, the same composite, ill-defined group that had stood upon the station siding was huddled about the gate. The front yard was an icy swamp, and a couple of warped planks, extending from the sidewalk to the door, made a sort of rickety footbridge. The gate hung on one hinge and was opened wide with difficulty. Steavens, the young stranger, noticed that something black was tied to the knob of the front door.
The grating sound made by the casket, as it was drawn from the hearse, was answered by a scream from the house; the front door was wrenched open, and a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking: “My boy, my boy! And this is how you’ve come home to me!”
As Steavens turned away and closed his eyes with a shudder of unutterable repulsion, another woman, also tall, but flat and angular, dressed entirely in black, darted out of the house and caught Mrs. Merrick by the shoulders, crying sharply: “Come, come, Mother; you mustn’t go on like this!” Her tone changed to one of obsequious solemnity as she turned to the banker: “The parlor is ready, Mr. Phelps.”
The bearers carried the coffin along the narrow boards, while the undertaker ran ahead with the coffin-rests. They bore it into a large, unheated room that smelled of dampness and disuse and furniture polish, and set it down under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a “Rogers group” of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax. Henry Steavens stared about him with the sickening conviction that there had been some horrible mistake, and that he had somehow arrived at the wrong destination. He looked painfully about over the clover-green Brussels, the fat plush upholstery, among the hand-painted china plaques and panels, and vases, for some mark of identification, for something that might once conceivably have belonged to Harvey Merrick. It was not until he recognized his friend in the crayon portrait of a little boy in kilts and curls hanging above the piano that he felt willing to let any of these people approach the coffin.
“Take the lid off, Mr. Thompson; let me see my boy’s face,” wailed the elder woman between her sobs. This time Steavens looked fearfully, almost beseechingly into her face, red and swollen under its masses of strong, black, shiny hair. He flushed, dropped his eyes, and then, almost incredulously, looked again. There was a kind of power about her face–a kind of brutal handsomeness, even, but it was scarred and furrowed by violence, and so colored and coarsened by fiercer passions that grief seemed never to have laid a gentle finger there. The long nose was distended and knobbed at the end, and there were deep lines on either side of it; her heavy, black brows almost met across her forehead; her teeth were large and square and set far apart–teeth that could tear. She filled the room; the men were obliterated, seemed tossed about like twigs in an angry water, and even Steavens felt himself being drawn into the whirlpool.
The daughter–the tall, rawboned woman in crepe, with a mourning comb in her hair which curiously lengthened her long face sat stiffly upon the sofa, her hands, conspicuous for their large knuckles, folded in her lap, her mouth and eyes drawn down, solemnly awaiting the opening of the coffin. Near the door stood a mulatto woman, evidently a servant in the house, with a timid bearing and an emaciated face pitifully sad and gentle. She was weeping silently, the corner of her calico apron lifted to her eyes, occasionally suppressing a long, quivering sob. Steavens walked over and stood beside her.
Feeble steps were heard on the stairs, and an old man, tall and frail, odorous of pipe smoke, with shaggy, unkept gray hair and a dingy beard, tobacco stained about the mouth, entered uncertainly. He went slowly up to the coffin and stood, rolling a blue cotton handkerchief between his hands, seeming so pained and embarrassed by his wife’s orgy of grief that he had no consciousness of anything else.
“There, there, Annie, dear, don’t take on so,” he quavered timidly, putting out a shaking hand and awkwardly patting her elbow. She turned with a cry and sank upon his shoulder with such violence that he tottered a little. He did not even glance toward the coffin, but continued to look at her with a dull, frightened, appealing expression, as a spaniel looks at the whip. His sunken cheeks slowly reddened and burned with miserable shame. When his wife rushed from the room her daughter strode after her with set lips. The servant stole up to the coffin, bent over it for a moment, and then slipped away to the kitchen, leaving Steavens, the lawyer, and the father to themselves. The old man stood trembling and looking down at his dead son’s face. The sculptor’s splendid head seemed even more noble in its rigid stillness than in life. The dark hair had crept down upon the wide forehead; the face seemed strangely long, but in it there was not that beautiful and chaste repose which we expect to find in the faces of the dead. The brows were so drawn that there were two deep lines above the beaked nose, and the chin was thrust forward defiantly. It was as though the strain of life had been so sharp and bitter that death could not at once wholly relax the tension and smooth the countenance into perfect peace– as though he were still guarding something precious and holy, which might even yet be wrested from him.
The old man’s lips were working under his stained beard. He turned to the lawyer with timid deference: “Phelps and the rest are comin’ back to set up with Harve, ain’t they?” he asked. “Thank ‘ee, Jim, thank ‘ee.” He brushed the hair back gently from his son’s forehead. “He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child and the kindest of ’em all–only we didn’t none of us ever onderstand him.” The tears trickled slowly down his beard and dropped upon the sculptor’s coat.
“Martin, Martin. Oh, Martin! come here,” his wife wailed from the top of the stairs. The old man started timorously: “Yes, Annie, I’m coming.” He turned away, hesitated stood for a moment in miserable indecision; then he reached back and patted the dead man’s hair softly, and stumbled from the room.
“Poor old man, I didn’t think he had any tears left. Seems as if his eyes would have gone dry long ago. At his age nothing cuts very deep,” remarked the lawyer.
Something in his tone made Steavens glance up. While the mother had been in the room the young man had scarcely seen anyone else; but now, from the moment he first glanced into Jim Laird’s florid face and bloodshot eyes, he knew that he had found what he had been heartsick at not finding before–the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in someone, even here.
The man was red as his beard, with features swollen and blurred by dissipation, and a hot, blazing blue eye. His face was strained–that of a man who is controlling himself with difficulty–and he kept plucking at his beard with a sort of fierce resentment. Steavens, sitting by the window, watched him turn down the glaring lamp, still its jangling pendants with an angry gesture, and then stand with his hands locked behind him, staring down into the master’s face. He could not help wondering what link there could have been between the porcelain vessel and so sooty a lump of potter’s clay.
From the kitchen an uproar was sounding; when the dining- room door opened the import of it was clear. The mother was abusing the maid for having forgotten to make the dressing for the chicken salad which had been prepared for the watchers. Steavens had never heard anything in the least like it; it was injured, emotional, dramatic abuse, unique and masterly in its excruciating cruelty, as violent and unrestrained as had been her grief of twenty minutes before. With a shudder of disgust the lawyer went into the dining room and closed the door into the kitchen.
“Poor Roxy’s getting it now,” he remarked when he came back. “The Merricks took her out of the poorhouse years ago; and if her loyalty would let her, I guess the poor old thing could tell tales that would curdle your blood. She’s the mulatto woman who was standing in here a while ago, with her apron to her eyes. The old woman is a fury; there never was anybody like her for demonstrative piety and ingenious cruelty. She made Harvey’s life a hell for him when he lived at home; he was so sick ashamed of it. I never could see how he kept himself so sweet.”
“He was wonderful,” said Steavens slowly, “wonderful; but until tonight I have never known how wonderful.”
“That is the true and eternal wonder of it, anyway; that it can come even from such a dung heap as this,” the lawyer cried, with a sweeping gesture which seemed to indicate much more than the four walls within which they stood.
“I think I’ll see whether I can get a little air. The room is so close I am beginning to feel rather faint,” murmured Steavens, struggling with one of the windows. The sash was stuck, however, and would not yield, so he sat down dejectedly and began pulling at his collar. The lawyer came over, loosened the sash with one blow of his red fist, and sent the window up a few inches. Steavens thanked him, but the nausea which had been gradually climbing into his throat for the last half-hour left him with but one desire–a desperate feeling that he must get away from this place with what was left of Harvey Merrick. Oh, he comprehended well enough now the quiet bitterness of the smile that he had seen so often on his master’s lips!
He remembered that once, when Merrick returned from a visit home, he brought with him a singularly feeling and suggestive bas-relief of a thin, faded old woman, sitting and sewing something pinned to her knee; while a full-lipped, full-blooded little urchin, his trousers held up by a single gallows, stood beside her, impatiently twitching her gown to call her attention to a butterfly he had caught. Steavens, impressed by the tender and delicate modeling of the thin, tired face, had asked him if it were his mother. He remembered the dull flush that had burned up in the sculptor’s face.
The lawyer was sitting in a rocking chair beside the coffin, his head thrown back and his eyes closed. Steavens looked at him earnestly, puzzled at the line of the chin, and wondering why a man should conceal a feature of such distinction under that disfiguring shock of beard. Suddenly, as though he felt the young sculptor’s keen glance, he opened his eyes.
“Was he always a good deal of an oyster?” he asked abruptly. “He was terribly shy as a boy.”
“Yes, he was an oyster, since you put it so,” rejoined Steavens. “Although he could be very fond of people, he always gave one the impression of being detached. He disliked violent emotion; he was reflective, and rather distrustful of himself– except, of course, as regarded his work. He was surefooted enough there. He distrusted men pretty thoroughly and women even more, yet somehow without believing ill of them. He was determined, indeed, to believe the best, but he seemed afraid to investigate.”
“A burnt dog dreads the fire,” said the lawyer grimly, and closed his eyes.
Steavens went on and on, reconstructing that whole miserable boyhood. All this raw, biting ugliness had been the portion of the man whose tastes were refined beyond the limits of the reasonable–whose mind was an exhaustless gallery of beautiful impressions, and so sensitive that the mere shadow of a poplar leaf flickering against a sunny wall would be etched and held there forever. Surely, if ever a man had the magic word in his fingertips, it was Merrick. Whatever he touched, he revealed its holiest secret; liberated it from enchantment and restored it to its pristine loveliness, like the Arabian prince who fought the enchantress spell for spell. Upon whatever he had come in contact with, he had left a beautiful record of the experience–a sort of ethereal signature; a scent, a sound, a color that was his own.
Steavens understood now the real tragedy of his master’s life; neither love nor wine, as many had conjectured, but a blow which had fallen earlier and cut deeper than these could have done–a shame not his, and yet so unescapably his, to bide in his heart from his very boyhood. And without–the frontier warfare; the yearning of a boy, cast ashore upon a desert of newness and ugliness and sordidness, for all that is chastened and old, and noble with traditions.
At eleven o’clock the tall, flat woman in black crepe entered, announced that the watchers were arriving, and asked them “to step into the dining room.” As Steavens rose the lawyer said dryly: “You go on–it’ll be a good experience for you, doubtless; as for me, I’m not equal to that crowd tonight; I’ve had twenty years of them.”
As Steavens closed the door after him be glanced back at the lawyer, sitting by the coffin in the dim light, with his chin resting on his hand.
The same misty group that had stood before the door of the express car shuffled into the dining room. In the light of the kerosene lamp they separated and became individuals. The minister, a pale, feeble-looking man with white hair and blond chin-whiskers, took his seat beside a small side table and placed his Bible upon it. The Grand Army man sat down behind the stove and tilted his chair back comfortably against the wall, fishing his quill toothpick from his waistcoat pocket. The two bankers, Phelps and Elder, sat off in a corner behind the dinner table, where they could finish their discussion of the new usury law and its effect on chattel security loans. The real estate agent, an old man with a smiling, hypocritical face, soon joined them. The coal-and-lumber dealer and the cattle shipper sat on opposite sides of the hard coal-burner, their feet on the nickelwork. Steavens took a book from his pocket and began to read. The talk around him ranged through various topics of local interest while the house was quieting down. When it was clear that the members of the family were in bed the Grand Army man hitched his shoulders and, untangling his long legs, caught his heels on the rounds of his chair.
“S’pose there’ll be a will, Phelps?” he queried in his weak falsetto.
The banker laughed disagreeably and began trimming his nails with a pearl-handled pocketknife.
“There’ll scarcely be any need for one, will there?” he queried in his turn.
The restless Grand Army man shifted his position again, getting his knees still nearer his chin. “Why, the ole man says Harve’s done right well lately,” he chirped.
The other banker spoke up. “I reckon he means by that Harve ain’t asked him to mortgage any more farms lately, so as he could go on with his education.”
“Seems like my mind don’t reach back to a time when Harve wasn’t bein’ edycated,” tittered the Grand Army man.
There was a general chuckle. The minister took out his handkerchief and blew his nose sonorously. Banker Phelps closed his knife with a snap. “It’s too bad the old man’s sons didn’t turn out better,” he remarked with reflective authority. “They never hung together. He spent money enough on Harve to stock a dozen cattle farms and he might as well have poured it into Sand Creek. If Harve had stayed at home and helped nurse what little they had, and gone into stock on the old man’s bottom farm, they might all have been well fixed. But the old man had to trust everything to tenants and was cheated right and left.”
“Harve never could have handled stock none,” interposed the cattleman. “He hadn’t it in him to be sharp. Do you remember when he bought Sander’s mules for eight-year-olds, when everybody in town knew that Sander’s father-in-law give ’em to his wife for a wedding present eighteen years before, an’ they was full-grown mules then.”
Everyone chuckled, and the Grand Army man rubbed his knees with a spasm of childish delight.
“Harve never was much account for anything practical, and he shore was never fond of work,” began the coal-and-lumber dealer. “I mind the last time he was home; the day he left, when the old man was out to the barn helpin’ his hand hitch up to take Harve to the train, and Cal Moots was patchin’ up the fence, Harve, he come out on the step and sings out, in his ladylike voice: ‘Cal Moots, Cal Moots! please come cord my trunk.’”
“That’s Harve for you,” approved the Grand Army man gleefully. “I kin hear him howlin’ yet when he was a big feller in long pants and his mother used to whale him with a rawhide in the barn for lettin’ the cows git foundered in the cornfield when he was drivin’ ’em home from pasture. He killed a cow of mine that-a-way onc’t–a pure Jersey and the best milker I had, an’ the ole man had to put up for her. Harve, he was watchin’ the sun set acros’t the marshes when the anamile got away; he argued that sunset was oncommon fine.”
“Where the old man made his mistake was in sending the boy East to school,” said Phelps, stroking his goatee and speaking in a deliberate, judicial tone. “There was where he got his head full of traipsing to Paris and all such folly. What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City business college.”
The letters were swimming before Steavens’s eyes. Was it possible that these men did not understand, that the palm on the coffin meant nothing to them? The very name of their town would have remained forever buried in the postal guide had it not been now and again mentioned in the world in connection with Harvey Merrick’s. He remembered what his master had said to him on the day of his death, after the congestion of both lungs had shut off any probability of recovery, and the sculptor had asked his pupil to send his body home. “It’s not a pleasant place to be lying while the world is moving and doing and bettering,” he had said with a feeble smile, “but it rather seems as though we ought to go back to the place we came from in the end. The townspeople will come in for a look at me; and after they have had their say I shan’t have much to fear from the judgment of God. The wings of the Victory, in there”–with a weak gesture toward his studio– will not shelter me.“
The cattleman took up the comment. "Forty’s young for a Merrick to cash in; they usually hang on pretty well. Probably he helped it along with whisky.”
“His mother’s people were not long-lived, and Harvey never had a robust constitution,” said the minister mildly. He would have liked to say more. He had been the boy’s Sunday-school teacher, and had been fond of him; but he felt that he was not in a position to speak. His own sons had turned out badly, and it was not a year since one of them had made his last trip home in the express car, shot in a gambling house in the Black Hills.
“Nevertheless, there is no disputin’ that Harve frequently looked upon the wine when it was red, also variegated, and it shore made an oncommon fool of him,” moralized the cattleman.
Just then the door leading into the parlor rattled loudly, and everyone started involuntarily, looking relieved when only Jim Laird came out. His red face was convulsed with anger, and the Grand Army man ducked his head when he saw the spark in his blue, bloodshot eye. They were all afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no other man in all western Kansas could do; and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed the door gently behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the courtroom, ears were always pricked up, as it usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.
“I’ve been with you gentlemen before,” he began in a dry, even tone, “when you’ve sat by the coffins of boys born and raised in this town; and, if I remember rightly, you were never any too well satisfied when you checked them up. What’s the matter, anyhow? Why is it that reputable young men are as scarce as millionaires in Sand City? It might almost seem to a stranger that there was some way something the matter with your progressive town. Why did Ruben Sayer, the brightest young lawyer you ever turned out, after he had come home from the university as straight as a die, take to drinking and forge a check and shoot himself? Why did Bill Merrit’s son die of the shakes in a saloon in Omaha? Why was Mr. Thomas’s son, here, shot in a gambling house? Why did young Adams burn his mill to beat the insurance companies and go to the pen?”
The lawyer paused and unfolded his arms, laying one clenched fist quietly on the table. “I’ll tell you why. Because you drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers; because you carped away at them as you’ve been carping here tonight, holding our friends Phelps and Elder up to them for their models, as our grandfathers held up George Washington and John Adams. But the boys, worse luck, were young and raw at the business you put them to; and how could they match coppers with such artists as Phelps and Elder? You wanted them to be successful rascals; they were only unsuccessful ones– that’s all the difference. There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn’t come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels. Lord, Lord, how you did hate him! Phelps, here, is fond of saying that he could buy and sell us all out any time he’s a mind to; but he knew Harve wouldn’t have given a tinker’s damn for his bank and all his cattle farms put together; and a lack of appreciation, that way, goes hard with Phelps.
"Old Nimrod, here, thinks Harve drank too much; and this from such as Nimrod and me!”
“Brother Elder says Harve was too free with the old man’s money–fell short in filial consideration, maybe. Well, we can all remember the very tone in which brother Elder swore his own father was a liar, in the county court; and we all know that the old man came out of that partnership with his son as bare as a sheared lamb. But maybe I’m getting personal, and I’d better be driving ahead at what I want to say.”
The lawyer paused a moment, squared his heavy shoulders, and went on: “Harvey Merrick and I went to school together, back East. We were dead in earnest, and we wanted you all to be proud of us some day. We meant to be great men. Even 1, and I haven’t lost my sense of humor, gentlemen, I meant to be a great man. I came back here to practice, and I found you didn’t in the least want me to be a great man. You wanted me to be a shrewd lawyer– oh, yes! Our veteran here wanted me to get him an increase of pension, because he had dyspepsia; Phelps wanted a new county survey that would put the widow Wilson’s little bottom farm inside his south line; Elder wanted to lend money at 5 per cent a month and get it collected; old Stark here wanted to wheedle old women up in Vermont into investing their annuities in real estate mortgages that are not worth the paper they are written on. Oh, you needed me hard enough, and you’ll go on needing me; and that’s why I’m not afraid to plug the truth home to you this once.
"Well, I came back here and became the damned shyster you wanted me to be. You pretend to have some sort of respect for me; and yet you’ll stand up and throw mud at Harvey Merrick, whose soul you couldn’t dirty and whose hands you couldn’t tie. Oh, you’re a discriminating lot of Christians! There have been times when the sight of Harvey’s name in some Eastern paper has made me hang my head like a whipped dog; and, again, times when I liked to think of him off there in the world, away from all this hog wallow, doing his great work and climbing the big, clean upgrade he’d set for himself.
"And we? Now that we’ve fought and lied and sweated and stolen, and hated as only the disappointed strugglers in a bitter, dead little Western town know how to do, what have we got to show for it? Harvey Merrick wouldn’t have given one sunset over your marshes for all you’ve got put together, and you know it. It’s not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he’s been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could ever have from such a lot of sick, side- tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City–upon which town may God have mercy!”
The lawyer thrust out his hand to Steavens as he passed him, caught up his overcoat in the hall, and had left the house before the Grand Army man had had time to lift his ducked head and crane his long neck about at his fellows.
Next day Jim Laird was drunk and unable to attend the funeral services. Steavens called twice at his office, but was compelled to start East without seeing him. He had a presentiment that he would hear from him again, and left his address on the lawyer’s table; but if Laird found it, he never acknowledged it. The thing in him that Harvey Merrick had loved must have gone underground with Harvey Merrick’s coffin; for it never spoke again, and Jim got the cold he died of driving across the Colorado mountains to defend one of Phelps’s sons, who had got into trouble out there by cutting government timber.
Winslow Homer: watercolor
Darker shades of
grey on black,
thickening into an
encroachment of night,
on River Thames;
rowers bent about
their last diurnal
task, unaware of
in the manner of Turner
An intensity of
smog & smoke.
clings, the dark
moves its feral
Almost surreal horizon
swathed in midnight sun
light, a halo of primary
colors above white
in the bay the whales
their songs echoing
There goes Godzilla, destroying the city.
Again. The glassed in poster in Davis Square
mirrors a see-through phantom me, looking
kind of squirrely as lesbians rattle by like
smug bumper cars and the tattooed man
in the sideshow is every other guy.
“In the Valley of the Lost,” the movie should be.
Reefer drifting like sweet exhaust.
Texters on the street who walk like dreamers.
The indoor life bruited about on the cellular sidewalk,
“Ah don’ care what that ho’ said! That bitch
is dead to me! You know I mean it!” As do we all,
young man, as do we all. Oh where are we?
Tokyo should be so crowded and who is
lonelier in a crowd than Godzilla?
I begin to grow. I begin to change. Hipsters
become alarmed as I become engorged, enlarged,
enhanced, happy. I swing my arm and the
fusion restaurant across the street crumbles.
Like Japanese extras, the ice cream strollers
scramble for safety, wherever that may be,
stumbling over each other (and their little dogs, too!)
terrified through their interesting eyewear.
Mike’s Pizza is gone with a back kick. And
the little shops I snuff with a thumb—Magpie,
Davis Squared, Buffalo Exchange,
JP Licks, Comikaze, Blue Shirt Café
Every move I make is a catastrophe.
Every step I take is a disaster movie:
blinding dust, heaping bricks, shattered glass,
the screams of the dying, the stench of the dead.
There goes Godzilla, destroying the city. Again.
Roy worked at the poison factory for twelve years. It actually had a different name but everybody called it the poison factory. He lived in a one room apartment a block from the factory above a Cuban fast food restaurant. The one block walk meant he didn’t have to own a car. He always took his dinner in the fast food restaurant after his eight hour day at the poison factory. He worked in a huge room full of stainless steel vats where most of the chemicals were blended and cooked. The room had cinder block walls and a thirty foot steel ceiling and the vats were lined up in rows which seemed the length of a city block. Alone all day in the vat room, he read gauges and turned valves and swept the floor and polished the vats and wore his stiff blue uniform and steel toed boots with pride. And every Friday afternoon, his supervisor would come and meet him at two next to vat number twelve and ask him how things were.
Great, he said, smiling. Another five days, another five dollars.
Good Roy. Great job. Have a nice weekend.
These nine words were all he said every week. The vat room at the poison factory was under control. And now the weekend faced him, like a great brick wall. There was no way to hammer down or plunge through the wall to get to Monday. The wall was solid; Saturday; Sunday; Sunday night—the wall was solid but brick by brick it began to give way and at last swept past all at once in a rush, and he was back in the vat room at eight on Monday morning with his vats and valves and piping and hoses and gauges and mops and brooms and pails. This was his life, in the poison factory, for twelve years.
Then something changed.
On Friday at two o’clock he stood by vat number twelve waiting for the supervisor. The steel door opened as usual, but two people came in, not one; the supervisor and a stranger; a short middle-aged blonde woman, who also wore a blue uniform and steel toed boots. She smiled at him narrow-eyed, as the supervisor spoke.
This is Jill, he said smoothly, fingering his tie—she’s going to handle the vat room on the second shift.
But there’s no second shift in the vat room, said Roy quickly, raising a hand. We shut down every night. I close the valves, cut the pressure, stop the flow, and lock the place up.
Not anymore, said the supervisor; we need to increase production now. We’re going to run the weekends too. I’m hiring a part-timer for that. There’s a big demand for our chemicals all of a sudden—but anyway—you’ll be training Jill. She’ll work with you starting now, and all next week. But how are things going now? Got any questions?
No—I guess not, said Roy, forcing his usual end of week smile, not looking at Jill, but only at the supervisor—another five days, another five dollars.
Good Roy. Great job. Have a nice weekend.
The supervisor left.
They stood there.
He considered her. He considered how to train a person. He didn’t know how—as a matter of fact, this was the first time in his twelve years in the poison factory that someone else had been in the vat room with him, other than the supervisor visiting each Friday. His palms grew hot and his stomach grew heavy. He could not look at her for a long moment. Then, at last, he forced himself to look at her, and to speak.
There isn’t much to do right now. Things are about closed down for the weekend.
Okay, she said.
They stood there. He looked away from her. His palms came together, damp. He longed for the day to end, for the two hours to pass, to escape into the wall of the weekend.
Do you think you could show me around? she said, causing him to look at her.
Oh—sure—okay. Well, he said, waving—this is the vat room, and these are the vats.
What do the vats do?
Uh—the ingredients get combined and mixed here in the vats. You got to watch the pressure and the flow. But—there isn’t much to do right now. Things are about closed down for the weekend.
Silence rose between them. What would she say next? What would she want now? He glanced at his watch—there was too much time and not enough to say—
Well, she said softly—could you show me how to watch the pressure and the flow?
He looked at her again. Her eyebrows were raised and her face turned up at him. What is this woman thinking? I have watched the pressure and the flow for today. Let the time pass more quickly—let the weekend come; and all at once he realized this was the first time in twelve years he had longed for the week to be over. It was a bad feeling—a tense feeling. Nervously, sensing the silence between them had gone too long, he opened his mouth to hear what would come out. He listened as his mouth moved. It made sense.
You watch the gauges. You make sure none of them go into the red. If they move toward the red, you open the valves and bring the readings back down to zero. At the end of your shift, you close the valves and shut the flow completely down.
Sure, she said, nodding. I get it.
Once more he looked down the row of gleaming vats. He had trained her! He was training her! He knew how—and it was easy. Suddenly he realized he was breathing again. He had been holding his breath. He opened his mouth again and it moved making more words.
You sweep the floors. You mop the floors. You dump the trash. You keep the place neat and clean. And to tell you the truth, that’s about it.
Yes it made sense it did it did—
Oh yeah, he said smoothly, surprising himself—but there’s a hundred and fifty vats to mind. It’s no small job—no small job at all.
Pride filled him with a warm feeling in his stomach. His job was important and was not small. The silence came around them again. It was like liquid—it made her hard to see. He looked at his watch. The round dial came clearly. It was time to shut down. He blinked his eyes to see her in the mist and he spoke again, this time knowing what he was going to say before it came out.
Come on, he said—we have to go to each vat, close the valves, and zero the gauges. That’s the routine for shutting down the shift.
It came to him that he had long since lost count of the number of words he had spoken today. He usually only spoke the nine words to the supervisor each week—but now he had lost count. He thought to think back and count the words he had said but he knew he would never remember them all. It was then he first felt he was losing his grip. He had said more words it seemed than he had said in a lifetime. He shakily gripped the valve of vat number twelve.
Like this, he forced from his mouth, as he turned the valve. Turn these until the gauge reads zero. You take the next row. I’ll do this one.
Okay, she said, and she faded away around vat number twelve into the next row and he was glad to be alone again, though the air felt different—there was someone else in the vat room. He moved down the row of vats turning valves. There was someone else in the vat room, yes—there was someone else in the vat room. The valves all felt different. They turned harder and rougher. He moved more slowly than usual hoping to fill the rest of the day, so the weekend will be here; oh no; there was someone else in the vat room.
When he was about halfway down the row she reappeared around the far end.
All done, she said. Is there anything else to do? Should I help you with this row?
No! he blurted. I’ll finish this. Grab a broom, they’re in the corner. We’ll sweep the floor until quitting time.
Nodding, she turned. He kept turning valves. She swayed like a woman. She was a woman. A woman was going to do his job. A woman was doing his job. The valves turned. There were about ten more vats in his row. That is nine words. There were about eight more vats in his row. That is also nine words. He used to say just nine words. She swept her way past him, without looking him in the eye. Her eyes were on the broom, on the floor. That is nine words too. He finished the last vat. She had disappeared again. He moved toward the brooms, but then, the bell rang. He looked at his watch.
The day was over. The week was also over.
That was nine words too. She put her broom back.
See you Monday.
He nodded. They left, and he locked the door without speaking
And that is nine words too.
He faced the brick wall, but it was different. He left the building and walked to the Cuban restaurant and had his dinner. But it was not the same. They greeted him, he nodded—but it seemed they spoke somehow differently than before, though the words were the same.
Hello Roy. Good to see you. Will you have the usual?
He nodded yes, but no, no; things were not as usual. You have spoken to me somehow more brightly; more brightly, and with a look, as though you know something. Do you know something? Do I look different somehow? Why do you look at me?
After eating quickly, he went up to his room and he drummed his fingers on the table.
Why is this all happening? To me, to me—
The twilight slowly came up in the single small window and all the while he sat. At least this was as it always was—and this will not change. Twilight will come each day, into that same window. And he will watch it. But when it comes up there will be someone else in the vat room—it will not be closed and locked and dark as it ought to be when he is not there. But at least tonight, tonight it is as it should be—and all next week it will be as it should be, at night, during twilight, locked and dark. So he went to bed peacefully later that evening, when night stood out in the window and matched the quiet darkness of the vat room. He had never been in the vat room before when it was dark. His eyes closed tighter as he drank in the feeling of being alone there, like he’d been for the last twelve years. Something special was coming to an end. He at last spiraled down toward the deepest sleep known, as all feelings fell from him and everything stopped and a deadly pale smile slowly and delicately draped his silent still face.
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Dead Car in a Farm Field – Tom SlatinRead More (Untitled)