“The Memorial.” MCC Literary Review (2005): 28-37. First Place Award, Community Short Story Divsion.
“You got to learn to take pride in your work, boy. I won’t always be around to show you how to do the job right. These here folks may be dead, but they countin on you and so’s they family.”
“Yessir, I’ll try to do better.”
“That’s the spirit, boy. Now grab that spade, and let’s finish the job.”
“Yessir, I will, but it ain’t easy diggin. Pop, this is got to be the rockiest dirt I ever saw.”
“That’s why they call this part of the cemetery Rocky Glade. Got its name on account of all these rocks. My Daddy’s buried right over yonder and my Step-Mama, too. Dug both the plots myself. Dug em good and deep too, so’s they’d rest easy.”
“Yeah, but do we have to dig em all so deep?”
“Lemme tell you somethin. Back a couple a years ago, up at Mt. Olive Cemetery, they buried folks near about four feet deep. And that’d been alright too cept one time it came a flood at Bard’s Creek and caskets was floatin everywhere. Old man Lester called me in to help get them poor people back in the ground. Course they fired him after that on account of the fact that he weren’t doin his job right. It musta been bout two months later, Lester just couldn’t take it no more, his wife and children was starvin and all. So he took a shotgun to his mouth and pulled the trigger so his folks could collect the insurance money. Sheriff Yancy officially reported the whole thing an ‘unfortunate accident’ on account of his widow and young uns. Considerin the circumstances, I buried him here. Right over yonder, under that Sycamore. Paid for the headstone myself.”
“So, he was a friend of yours?”
“Acquaintances you might say. A brother in the trade. It just didn’t seem fittin that a man like that oughta be put in the ground with nothin on top to remember him by.”
“But a headstone costs a lot of money, Pop. How good d’ya know him?”
“Bout as well as I do most folks round here. You’re pretty new here and Pumpkin Center is a small town. Everybody knows everybody, or at least whose people they are. Take Belchard right there. He used to run the old sawmill out on the county line. Good man, he was. Always had a smile on his face. Even when the big buildin boom came to a stop, there he was, without a cross thought in his head. He made sure that all the widow ladies in town had plenty of firewood in the cold season. Mostly scraps, but they was free and they burn just as hot. That’s a mighty fine stone he’s got there, too.”
“Sure is, Pop.”
“Yessir, tombstones is the only way people has to remember a body by. Most folks is so busy that they don’t take time to remember. And that’s a dad gum shame. You know….”
“What’s that, Pop?”
“It ain’t important in life who you is, but how you is. All the money in the world don’t make a bad man worth nothin. It’s in the heart where it counts. Bout got that one squared off boy?”
“Yessir. Got the sides pushed out near the bottom just like you taught me, Pop.”
“Good boy. Climb on out now and let’s go check in up to the funeral home. Yessir, it looks like it’s gonna be a fine day for a funeral tomorrow. You done her proud, boy.”
And the sun did shine brightly that next morning, just as Pop said it would. Miss Margaret had a fine sendin off and near everybody in town was there. They even closed the stores on the town square. Miss Margaret had played the church piano most say for about fifty-two years. Everybody in town wanted to tell her goodbye. It was a beautiful sight, standin there with folks dressed in their Sunday finest. Instead of havin church that day, we met at the grave and the preacher gave the finest sermon I ever heard. We were proud to be a part of it. After all the weepin folks left, we changed clothes, went back to the shack, grabbed our tools, and covered Miss Margaret up.
Pop talked to her all the while, tryin to make her comfortable in her new home. He always told me that it was the most important part of the job. He knew that Miss Margaret was in Heaven, but figured that somehow she could hear him. He had no way of being sure. So I began talkin to her, too, even though I had only known her for a little while. And pretty soon I was convinced that she could hear me too.
Pop was smart for a man who had no schoolin. He knew things. More than what they teach up to the eighth grade, anyway.
And I don’t reckon there was anybody on God’s green earth to be any kinder, either. After Momma had died, things kinda fell apart for me. I packed up everythin I owned, including my only picture of Momma, into an old canvas rucksack and walked the eight miles to town. That night, I made my way to the rail yard and I hid in one of the empty freight cars near the end of the line, waiting to get caught or to head off to parts unknown. At daybreak, the train slowed so I jumped off, hoping I’d found my new home. I spent the better part of two days hungry and lookin for work, when old Bill Hanks down at the grocery told me that Pop was lookin for help here at the cemetery.
So I told Pop about Momma and all, and how I was looking for a place to call home. He eyed me up and he eyed me down, drawin on his pipe, and then he said, “You look like you got a strong back, boy. We’ll give you a try—and see how things work out.” And that was it. I’ve been here ever since.
Pop taught me the finer points of the gravedigger’s life. I liked the work cause it kept me busy and out of trouble, as Momma used to say. Momma used to quote the Bible saying that idle hands were the devil’s workshop. I took to the work like a natural, Pop said, so the devil didn’t stand a chance with me.
The earth smelled sweet and wet like after a rain. It changed colors the deeper I dug. Each hole was different, though Pop taught me to call em plots when we was up to the funeral home. But I liked working in the holes, all by myself, listening to the birds sing as I worked. There’s no better view in the world than from standin in the bottom of a hole and starin up into God’s beautiful blue sky.
Pop taught me the trick to gettin rid of the tree roots, and after a while, they were no problem for me. I even got used to bustin up all the rock in Rocky Glade.
He was getting old and would be retirin soon. He was tryin to teach me everything he learned in his forty years, so I could take over. It was an awful big responsibility, but I listened real close and tried to learn.
“Now always remember, boy. You make a wooden frame for each grave. May seem wasteful to you, but most of these folks ain’t had much in life–always gettin second rates and hand-me-downs. Give em the best you can. It’s important. Remember that, boy.”
“Yessir, I will.”
“And every frame needs to be exactly three feet by eight feet. Can you remember that, boy?”
“Not no extra inches than that or less for sure, cause then the box won’t fit in the ground. There’s a lesson for you boy.”
“I got it.”
“Main thing to remember is that everybody gets the same treatment here at Pumpkin Center Memorial Gardens. When you lay the frame on the ground be real careful to get it in the right spot so’s you don’t disturb the good folks around you. Can’t be buryin folks on top of each other now, can we?”
Pop always talked to me with purpose. I never got to talk much. It was just like when I was in school. All work and no play, but, that was okay cause I was learning a valuable trade, even if there were a lot of things to remember.
“Back when I was in my prime I could dig a grave in four hours flat. Now it takes me near a whole day. But you’re diggin em in about six hours. Not bad boy, not bad. I bet before winter comes, you’ll be diggin em in three.”
“Thanks Pop. I hope so. I want you to be proud of me.”
“Do it for them boy, not for me. That’s the spirit.”
Summer came and I learned how to keep the grounds lookin their best.
“Use the push mower whenever you can and then use them big hand scissors to do the rest of the job. Clip the grass as close as you can to the stones. But be careful. Don’t ever hit one of the stones with the mower, boy. Some of these here stones is older than I am and they’ll crumble down in a minute. And then what’s folks got to remember you by?
“Yessir, I see what you mean. I’ll be real careful.”
“And sleep real light in the summertime, boy.”
“Well, I don’t reckon that nobody knows it but me, but when them Barton boys gets out of school, they sneaks down here at night and tries to make off with a body or two.”
“What? What do they want with em?”
“Only God knows what goes through them boy’s heads. All I know is that I caught them boys out here the past three summers tryin to dig a body up. It’s criminal, that’s what it is. Probably should have called the sheriff last time. They done had Mary Ann Tarpley up out of the ground and was tryin to pry open the box.”
“Maybe they was after her jewels, Pop.”
“Don’t know for sure. They’s too busy runnin from buckshot to answer me.”
“You shot at em?”
“Yep. And they deserved to get hit, too. Sorry unreligious trash is what they are. That oldest boy, Stephen, is in the federal penitentiary right now. Got what he deserved if you ask me. So always be on the lookout, boy. I only pray that little Mary Ann forgives me for what happened.”
“I’m sure she has Pop. I’m sure she has.”
Fall came and Pop was movin slower. It took him the better part of two days to dig the mayor’s grave. He wouldn’t let me help him neither. Said he started the job and was gonna finish it. He was gettin old quick and I think he knew it. But he wouldn’t admit it, even to himself. I was takin over most of the work and had learned to do everything he taught me. I cut back the roses around the fence and pruned the bushes on the property, while Pop looked on, drawin on his pipe and smilin between naps. It made me feel good that he trusted me enough to do the job alone.
The Barton Boys never did show up that summer. I guess the buckshot treatment did some good. Pop never mentioned em again, though. Mostly, he just sat on the front porch of the caretaker shack, smilin. At night after the final rounds check he fixed dinner for him and me. After we cleaned up the table, we’d sit on the front porch together. More and more he’d talk about retiring. Said that he thought that he was gettin too old to do this kind of work anymore. Maybe he was.
He thought he’d move out West and look up his nephew. Even though Pop wasn’t much help around the grounds no more, it seemed awful to think about his bein gone and all, but there was no changin his mind.
Winter came too soon. I buried the grocer Bill Hanks, baby Martha Whitner, and old man Elija. And with December, the first snow came. Pop was packin up to leave. I owed the man everything. He was the most kind and understandin man I ever met. I was gonna miss my friend and teacher. I still remember wonderin if I could do everything he told me, the way he told me.
Soon, I would be in charge of the grounds, just like Pop was for so many years. The next day I came home after makin the final rounds check and Pop was sittin on the porch as usual. He was smilin. He was also dead.
His pipe lay on the ground by his feet. Tears flooded my eyes as I picked up the pipe and put it in my shirt pocket.
Then I picked up his body and put it on the dinin table, took some dried-up daisies from the jar on the fireplace and placed them on his chest. Then I headed up to the funeral home.
They fixed him up real nice, too. Made him look near twenty years younger. Buried him in his Sunday finest. It was a fine sermon. I even said a few thoughts myself. It was just me and the preacher and Pop. Nobody else showed up on that cold day in December.
I still think on that sometimes. I mean, how come nobody else showed up to help us send Pop off? It just didn’t seem right. It wasn’t right. Of course, I paid for the headstone myself. I was glad to do it and it seemed only right since he taught me so much; after all, he was a brother in the trade.
I dug his grave myself with no help from anyone. I built me a nice new wooden frame, exactly three feet by eight feet, no more, no less. Dug it good and deep so’s Pop would rest long and easy. And I pushed the sides out near the bottom too. I think he’d of been proud.
In the evenings, when the day’s work is done and I’m sittin in the big rockin chair drawin on my pipe, and if the moon is good and full, I can just make out the headstone inscription I found in one of Judge Malone’s books:
“Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.”