Main­te­nance

New England Review - - William Gilson - Wil­liam Gil­son

Ihave spent the last twenty-one years work­ing here. Many so-called im­por­tant peo­ple are buried in this ceme­tery. Two that are in fact im­por­tant to me are my wife and my daugh­ter.

Jack is my helper. Even he has re­marked that River­side is beau­ti­ful, and if any place can cut through Jack’s al­co­holic buildup then it must have some force. As Greta would have said, Jack is thick, at least when he’s on the booze, which is al­most all the time. But he can get lively and even ac­cu­rate.

I was in Korea, in the war, and I lived through it, which ev­ery day still amazes me. It was com­plete chance. You’re talk­ing about tol­er­ances of a thir­ty­sec­ond of an inch or less, fly­ing steel. Or rounds aimed right at you from an ac­cu­rate ri­fle, miss­ing.

Greta would say I was kept alive by the grace of God, but about that I choose not to spec­u­late.

And the fact is that Greta and Marti did not make it through, at least so far as I have made it through. They are un­der­ground, and I am sit­ting here look­ing at re­tire­ment. You no­tice I did not say they are in heaven. Heaven is a claim I have never seen backed up, but I can back up as a fact that they are un­der­ground.

So I am a man on his own, have been for eleven years. I guess I am used to

it.

My pur­pose just now is to go over in a more log­i­cal way what I would go over any­way, and do in fact go over ev­ery day. Owen Lars­ford, the big boss, pres­i­dent of the River­side Ceme­tery As­so­ci­a­tion, has asked me to set down some ba­sics as to how I run the ceme­tery, con­sid­er­ing I’ve run it for fif­teen years and worked in it six be­fore that, so the new man, when they take him on, will have guide­lines. Owen said it is a tes­ta­ment to the type of job I have done. I fig­ure I will have to go over this again, as I am not used to such a pre­sen­ta­tion, which needs to be log­i­cal. Let’s get to the prac­ti­cal as­pects. The method of bury­ing a body. Not many peo­ple know how it’s done. I mean in the de­tails. Why should they? Who is in­ter­ested? There is not much to it, re­ally; you are ba­si­cally putting the per­son un­der­ground and leav­ing things neat on top.

I get here ev­ery morn­ing at twenty min­utes to seven. I drive in through that

gate­way that was built in 1853, and it is barely wide enough for a car, and one morn­ing Jack, com­ing in at around eight thirty, late, hit the gate it­self and one of the gran­ite posts, and you’d be sur­prised how lit­tle dam­age was done to the gran­ite, and even the gate was not bent by much. That was the morn­ing Jack fell into the pond and I fired him. But he did not stay fired. To re­place him, I hired a man named Lou Pa­grista, who was strongly rec­om­mended by Owen Lars­ford. I needed some­one right away, but I should have lis­tened to my own doubts. Lou turned out to be one of those peo­ple who can­not shut up, even for a few min­utes. Some­one such as you might find your­self hav­ing to ride for a long dis­tance with in a ve­hi­cle, and he talks on in such a way that you’re about ready to open your door and fall out just so you don’t have to hear another word.

That’s what Lou Pa­grista was like, and I fired him, and I re-hired Jack. Jack can be a prob­lem, but I can han­dle him, and I like him, and on the day he came back he smelled strongly of al­co­hol but I was glad to see him. And he got right onto the back­hoe and dug a grave with no prob­lem.

Marti died of the chicken pox, but it wasn’t the chicken pox. It was the wrong medicine. And that was the end of Greta, she didn’t have the strength. Which I did have, though I did not know it then. Let’s start over. I should ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty, and the luck, and just be­ing alive. But when you know you won’t meet them in heaven, that that’s a lot of crap, you some­times have trou­ble fig­ur­ing why you go on. Some­times I think it is noth­ing more than the body, it just will not quit, at least not easily. But then you fig­ure Greta’s body quit, as did Marti’s. Some die, some live. Jack lives. He has a belly like a bas­ket­ball, which he calls his “Mil­wau­kee Tu­mor,” Mil­wau­kee hav­ing once been a beer cap­i­tal. I have a dog. And I own my house out­right, it is well main­tained. As I main­tain this old ceme­tery, within the lim­its that I can, namely that the city does not give me much money and the River­side Ceme­tery As­so­ci­a­tion is nearly broke. They have a small ta­ble just in­side the gate with a sign ask­ing for do­na­tions. It is sum­mer now and I’ve got two kids cut­ting the grass. There is a big tulip tree up in the old sec­tion near the Scovil fam­ily that might need to come down. I would cer­tainly hate to see it go, but it has a size­able area of de­cay at the base.

Get to know all the trees. There are about two hun­dred, depend­ing on what you count as a tree, and some are old beau­ti­ful giants, such as the red oak on the rise above the pond near the bronze elk.

There was a young fel­low named Har­ri­son who worked for me part of one sum­mer five years ago, and the day be­fore yesterday he stopped in to see me. Har­ri­son was my fa­vorite of all the tem­po­raries. And there have been quite a few. So good to see him again. He looks a lit­tle older, some­what more tired, as if he’s gone through some hard times. Also, he’s grown a beard. He said, Tim,

are you sat­is­fied with what you’ve done? He came right out and asked me. He meant the whole thing, my en­tire life, though I at first thought he meant just the main­te­nance. His ask­ing didn’t sur­prise me be­cause Har­ri­son is what you would call a philo­soph­i­cal type per­son. In that he would ask that kind of thing while we were drink­ing cof­fee at the main­te­nance shack or stand­ing at a grave while Jack worked the back­hoe. He would come out with some­thing that you had to think over, and the rea­son would be that he him­self was think­ing it over.

It seems he has in­her­ited some money, pos­si­bly enough to make him a free man. That is, so to speak a free man.

A man hang­ing from a noose is a free man. I am some­what of a free man, that is, I can come and go as I please. And it ap­pears that Har­ri­son also is, in that his mother and fa­ther are dead, his sis­ter has moved to Texas with her fam­ily, and he him­self has no wife or girl­friend. And now he has some money, so he is won­der­ing what to do. And of all peo­ple, he asks me. I had to laugh. It was good to see him again. While work­ing for me that sum­mer five years ago Har­ri­son al­most killed him­self, which was a mem­o­rable event. He fell off a roof. One night, chas­ing af­ter a girl.

He liked work­ing here. Not ev­ery­one does. Bod­ies and burial never both­ered Har­ri­son. Not that you ac­tu­ally see a body any­way. Very un­usu­ally some bones in the old sec­tion.

Dur­ing the war I had a friend killed next to me. It was win­ter, bit­ter cold, Korea is the cold­est I have ever known. I had a lot of peo­ple killed near me dur­ing my time over there, but the one that al­ways comes back is Quinny, my best friend. I can still hear the sound. Not the round be­ing fired but the sound of it hit­ting.

The old M1 was a heavy gun. Putting your thumb down in the cham­ber in that cold. Pull it out fast, it’ll snap back on you.

The sound was like a fast-pitched base­ball hit­ting a burlap bag full of wet sand. I said to Har­ri­son, maybe I’d travel. But we both felt with­out say­ing it, it’d be bet­ter to travel with some­one. Har­ri­son will get some­one, he is young, he is in a tem­po­rary dis­tur­bance be­cause a woman in Cal­i­for­nia where he was liv­ing left him and he came back here.

I said, yes, Har­ri­son, I would say I am sat­is­fied. But I’ve had some bad luck, is all. My wife had a stroke. My lit­tle girl’s face. Chicken pox. A sim­ple child­hood dis­ease. Not a fa­tal dis­ease. Not in this day and age. I thought of killing the doc­tor. I still do. I killed at least twenty-two men in Korea. That was be­fore I stopped count­ing.

Walk­ing along frozen roads with my feet numb, my legs numb, my arms

numb, no toi­let pa­per to shit in the snow. The moun­tains of Korea. At­tack­ing. Run­ning for my life, drop­ping my ri­fle. Pieces of steel com­ing at me in that cold air.

The car­bine was smaller and could fire au­to­matic. But un­like the M1, it jammed. I am drift­ing. Let’s get to the main points. One, the main peo­ple in my life are dead. Two, Greta was a small woman. As our daugh­ter, Marti, would have turned out to be small. And funny. Greta made me laugh. I wish I could re­mem­ber one of her jokes but I seem to have for­got­ten them all. Three, I’m go­ing to re­tire this Septem­ber and they’ll give me a din­ner and I’ll go home. It’s a nice house, I keep it well main­tained, it’s com­fort­able.

I would just as soon keep com­ing to work, to this old ceme­tery. I could at long last get around to fix­ing all the vandalized grave­stones. A grave­stone is an easy tar­get, it can not duck or run away. When the Chi­nese came down in massed at­tacks, that was some­thing I never thought hu­manly pos­si­ble, men run­ning against gun­fire like that. I was twen­tytwo years old and I learned some­thing about what is pos­si­ble.

Al­ways make your work­ers get to the job on time and when they don’t, give them strong talk. Al­ways be fair and don’t be­grudge their breaks, sick days, time off. To which they are en­ti­tled, as are you. In fact, help them to what they have com­ing.

And a per­son look­ing in from the out­side might say, how can you stand it, the whole place is full of stiffs.

The world is full of stiffs. And most of the world is not half so lovely as River­side.

Greta died dur­ing the night and I slept through her dy­ing and woke next to her. She was cold. Al­ways keep a good main­te­nance pro­gram. Lay it out clearly and even if you can’t al­ways hold to it, try to keep on with it, al­ways get back to it. In other words, know what you are do­ing, don’t guess. Cre­ma­tion is a space-saver. And most im­por­tant for your av­er­age per­son, a money-saver. I have started a sec­tion near the up­per wall, I have called it Sec­tion 12, where I took down two trees, dug up the stumps, and lev­eled the ground.

What you are do­ing is bury­ing a small box. Most peo­ple who fa­vor cre­ma­tion do not gen­er­ally want a stone, as a ground-flush plaque will do. For some peo­ple not even a ceme­tery is nec­es­sary. The ashes can be kept in an urn on a shelf, or even in a sim­ple can, any­where. Jack knows some peo­ple who put a man’s ashes in a ma­son jar and at­tached his eye­glasses with a rub­ber band.

My­self, I do not fa­vor cre­ma­tion, ei­ther the ba­sic idea of burn­ing or the small burial. But I pre­dict in ten years it will be the most com­mon way, and a cof­fin burial will be old-fash­ioned.

Har­ri­son is a funny guy. The sum­mer he worked here, when he just missed

killing him­self fall­ing off that roof, he said it was a mir­a­cle.

I am not a re­li­gious man. Un­like my mother. Who is not un­der­ground here, but in another ceme­tery, a very old one.

It was all be­cause of his girl­friend at the time, a girl if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly who was tem­pes­tu­ous and a cheater. Har­ri­son climbed up the side of her house and fell off from the third floor when the trel­lis broke, liv­ing through it with a mere few scratches and a sprained an­kle. Jack said it was the booze that saved him, but I said it was also the booze that put him up there.

Well, now it is the present day and Har­ri­son has come into some money. I said buy a lit­tle farm and he said it’s not enough for that, and I said, well, a down pay­ment.

Why did he want to come talk to me about it? I was glad to see him. He had left the job very sud­denly, that sum­mer, he wanted to start over some­where else.

Al­ways rel­e­gate all re­spon­si­bil­ity back to your­self. Take the blame, as you are the boss. It is not up to Owen Lars­ford in the end, you are the man with his hands dirty. Keep the back­hoe well main­tained, es­pe­cially the hy­draulics. In fact keep ev­ery­thing well main­tained, from the truck to the hand clip­pers to the low­er­ing de­vice. I can not de­fer to that prin­ci­ple too much.

Have re­spect for the liv­ing and the dead. The dead are just as im­por­tant, it is pretty much their place. Even though I do not be­lieve that any of them, not a sin­gle one, is in heaven.

As far as hell goes, I don’t think there is such a place. If there was one we’d all be there. Ex­cept for pos­si­bly the chil­dren.

But the way the world is set up is not log­i­cal. Which is why we have to be log­i­cal, to have some­thing to hold onto. It has been nearly a month since I have worked at the list of in­struc­tions. Owen Lars­ford is champ­ing. I want to fin­ish, as it is a mis­take to leave a job in­com­plete. But in the mean­time I have met Claire. Who I am afraid has got an old wi­d­ower feel­ing foolish.

Although I pre­fer not to go into it I more or less have to, it is that much on my mind. And not in a com­pletely log­i­cal way.

It hap­pened through Har­ri­son, as she is Har­ri­son’s mother’s sis­ter. One day, it was a Mon­day, I was at the shack try­ing to fix one of the ro­tary mow­ers that had sud­denly stopped run­ning. I sus­pected the kid us­ing it had done some­thing on pur­pose. She is not thin, as was Greta, and I have never pre­ferred a heavy woman. You could ac­tu­ally say fat, at least some­what. But her face, and all of her ac­tu­ally, I find pleas­ing, very pleas­ing. In such a way that I had for­got­ten, but now the mem­o­ries of old plea­sures have been get­ting clearer. Two months ago this was some­thing im­pos­si­ble, and to­day I feel

al­most that I am a younger man again.

The main change and plea­sure came when I found that she felt it too, it all hap­pened very fast. And, my fear is, too fast. But I am go­ing on sixty-five, and so is she. Al­most to the day we are sim­i­lar ages, though dif­fer­ent birthdays. So we both ap­pre­ci­ate that we don’t have all that much time left, when we look straight at it.

I like her face, it has a kind­ness as well as a jok­ing­ness. When I first saw her she was sit­ting some­what low in the seat, it is a way she has of rid­ing in a car, mak­ing her seem shorter.

She has gray hair, straight and cut short, and right away I felt I knew what it would feel like to move my hand through it, to brush my hand back and forth. She has dark eyes but is not over­all a dark type.

Her hus­band, whose name was Glenn—that’s a first name—is dead, has been dead six years. And she has thought, as have I, that she was alone for the du­ra­tion.

In Korea, which was be­fore I met Greta, I used to imag­ine a woman. It was part of what got me through. And when I met Greta, she was not that woman that I imag­ined, but it did not mat­ter. But Claire is, some­what. Although with more weight. If you were to be watch­ing this from the out­side you might laugh, an old gravedig­ger fool­ing him­self. Risks. Just like Korea. Some­times they are nec­es­sary. And there is Har­ri­son, who I trust. “Tim,” he said, “you two were made for each other.” I have never been an early riser, only get­ting up to go to work, hav­ing cof­fee with my break­fast at Track’s diner on West Main. I used to read the pa­per while eat­ing but I lost in­ter­est in the news.

These days I am wak­ing be­fore the sky is get­ting light, which at this time of year is pretty early. I have break­fast and cof­fee at home while Claire sleeps.

A ceme­tery is much like any other busi­ness or ac­tion in that you have what comes in and what goes out, though in this case what comes in stays. That is, in the ground. And of course you must there­fore give at­ten­tion to your space, your land, as there is only so much room. For that you need to keep your map ac­cu­rate, though there will al­ways be in­ac­cu­ra­cies as you are in­her­it­ing di­rec­tions from peo­ple who went long be­fore. And you will now and again cut with the back­hoe into a cof­fin. If you are care­ful and are watch­ing, and here you have got to keep your eye on Jack, you hold back at once. Most likely it will be old with­out a liner as the con­crete didn’t come in un­til more re­cently, so there will be wood and bones. And maybe not much wood. Then it is judg­ment. Given your need for the grave, you will have to make room.

But in gen­eral and where at all pos­si­ble let the dead be.

The sky gets light very slowly, it is hard to tell when it starts. I haven’t wanted to see it for many years and un­til now I did not en­joy the early hours be­cause of the war where I re­mem­ber the dark cold­ness and a man, a friend, frozen to death. That he was dead be­came vis­i­ble in first light. Ev­ery­thing has changed. We are sleep­ing to­gether, she has pretty much moved in. The first time, she said, “Not bad for a cou­ple old fo­geys.” We had a good laugh. Like two kids, naked un­der the sheet. She said she liked my wrists, and my strong hands.

How it hap­pened was that when she and Har­ri­son drove in that day, Claire sit­ting low in the seat, Har­ri­son at the wheel, I walked up to the driver’s side to speak with him. She was quiet. But watch­ing. And I could feel her look­ing at me and then out at the pond, then back to me. There was some strong feel­ing. I wasn’t used to it. Jake is go­ing on ten years old, and he is gray around the muz­zle. Claire re­marked right away about his sad­ness, as peo­ple of­ten do, but if you know him, the way Claire is get­ting to know him, you un­der­stand it is not sad­ness so much as Jake just try­ing to make you feel sorry for him, as that way he can get you to do things, such as give him a dog bis­cuit or a piece of food you might your­self be eat­ing, or just give him a pat on the head. I am not a per­son who claims great in­tel­li­gence for an­i­mals, es­pe­cially dogs, but I do see that Jake knows more than he wants to let on.

A corps­man I knew, on the way north he adopted a puppy. He car­ried it in a sort of pouch. But not for long. A sin­gle 4.2-inch mor­tar round, one of our own, took them both.

Jake’s ears are so long they touch the ground when he is check­ing a scent, which is most of the time, as he is that kind of a dog, part bas­set.

It is also a fact that his penis al­most touches the ground, and at an an­gle that can make you un­com­fort­able to watch. Claire said one night as we were sit­ting on the couch and Jake was stand­ing in front of us, as he of­ten will do, his lower eye­lids droop­ing, she said, “His pri­vate parts are so vis­i­ble.” Which made me laugh, as I’d never thought of it ex­actly like that, but once you con­sider it, it’s true, he walks around or just stands there with ev­ery­thing show­ing.

I guess I am get­ting a lit­tle like Jake, which is also funny, as I am no Tarzan, but it is Claire’s do­ing, and what can hap­pen when you trust. She can walk or sit stark naked, when it is just the two of us, and she is no Brigitte Bar­dot. So there’s the two of us naked, the house warm, the cur­tains pulled, sit­ting on the couch watch­ing TV and eat­ing a pizza. This is af­ter we have had a time for our­selves in the bed­room, which I have to say is fairly of­ten.

I choose not to spec­u­late on how long this fre­quency will last, as I know noth­ing lasts. But my hope is that when it ta­pers off it will hold at a cer­tain level. It is hard to imag­ine us get­ting com­pletely tired of it.

I es­pe­cially like the way she smells, twenty-four hours a day, as it changes. And I’m pretty sure the re­verse ap­plies. Quite a length of time has gone by. And time has speeded up, as it can. And I am ready for it to slow back down. Some good, some bad has hap­pened. I have not done any­thing on the list for Owen Lars­ford, and that is not like me, once I have set to a task.

How­ever, that par­tic­u­lar is­sue, namely who will get my job, may some­what take care of it­self.

The first thing is, I hired Har­ri­son to paint my house. I should say our house, as Claire is in it and I hope is here to stay. I should ex­plain that the house has two floors, as I bought it when Greta was alive and Marti was a baby, and I have paid it off over the years and I now own it clear. I had thought to sell the place and get some­thing small, but I never did. I like it, Claire does too, and I’d say we are here for the du­ra­tion. Which has made me think more about main­te­nance. So I said to Har­ri­son, how about paint­ing the house, I’ll pay you the go­ing rate, and he said okay.

Har­ri­son does care­ful work, he has primed it and has nearly fin­ished a top coat, a very hand­some dark red cho­sen by Claire. But we will be glad to see Har­ri­son wind up the job. This is be­cause of his prob­lem with heights and lad­ders.

Har­ri­son could have bro­ken his neck. It hap­pened one af­ter­noon when I was at the ceme­tery and luck­ily Claire was home. He was paint­ing up un­der the eaves at the back and the lad­der started tilt­ing side­ways un­der­neath him. He had to let go of al­most a gallon of paint, but he was able to grab onto the rain gut­ter with both hands, and it was a very good thing that I had prop­erly main­tained that gut­ter. It held. Claire, hear­ing his yells, man­aged to get out­side and raise the lad­der back up be­fore he lost his grip.

It was three days be­fore he could get back on the lad­der and be­gin to fin­ish the job. I told him he didn’t have to, that I’d get some­one else, but he said no, he pre­ferred to see it out him­self. I said okay. And since then he’s had that lad­der tied very se­curely. Ev­ery time he moves it, he ties it again.

His keep­ing on, his brav­ery, his steadi­ness and his ded­i­ca­tion to get­ting the job done, this has all added to my de­ci­sion to of­fer him my job, run­ning the ceme­tery.

Claire and I ex­pected him to turn it down, as he has been talk­ing about trav­el­ing, spec­u­lat­ing about a trip across Rus­sia, and then he seemed about to go to Ire­land, as he likes to read books by Ir­ish writ­ers, and it seemed to us that the last thing he’d want to take up at his age was gravedig­ging, but Bob’s your un­cle, as Claire says, he is go­ing to do it.

Owen Lars­ford will need some arm-bending on this. I feel sure that he will

come around, as he al­ways has. He likes to see him­self as Mis­ter Neck­tie be­hind the pol­ished desk, and he wants to run River­side the way he runs his bank, but in the end he must ad­mit I’m the one who knows where the bod­ies go.

Now that Har­ri­son has done the house paint­ing, he has been com­ing to work with me ev­ery day, go­ing over the ba­sics. He has a sharp mind and re­mem­bers. He has even found a book about the history of ceme­ter­ies. It goes way back be­fore the Egyp­tians. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered a grave made by cave men where they laid flow­ers on the dead per­son’s chest.

Claire is a good cook. I have started to en­joy the ap­proach of a meal. She is also try­ing to teach me to knit, which to my sur­prise in­ter­ests me, the weave, how what is ba­si­cally a ball of string be­comes a piece of cloth. But my hands have not taken to it, nor my eyes, and I may have to give over.

I have wished that Greta could come back and visit, to see me sit­ting on the couch naked, knit­ting. Last night I told Claire some­thing that I was wary of telling any­one.

It was in the weeks af­ter Greta died, when I was alone in the house. My daugh­ter and my wife were gone, and in the morn­ings I had to drive my­self into work and pass the day in the place where they were buried. It got to where I was feel­ing life was too hard. Maybe it might be bet­ter to have no life at all, noth­ing. I’d never felt that be­fore, not even in Korea. The feel­ing got so strong that I had be­gun to fig­ure by what method. And one morn­ing at Track’s I looked down at a fried egg on my plate and I felt like maybe it was time. Then, as if my hands were do­ing it on their own and I was just watch­ing, I picked up the Repub­li­can. I turned the pages, not pay­ing much at­ten­tion, and I saw a story about outer space. It was a small story and I read it. Some sci­en­tists had launched what they called a “probe.” My eyes went to the word be­cause it was a com­bat word we used. There was a pic­ture of the de­vice, it was a sort of Sput­nik, it was small and com­pact and had fuel. They had launched it in a rocket out past the grav­ity of earth so it would keep go­ing. They were send­ing it to look at some of the plan­ets, to send back pic­tures. In the story one of the sci­en­tists said that if the probe kept go­ing it might keep on for thirty or forty years. He said he hoped it could last that long. Then he also said, and here he said he was just “dream­ing,” that there was an ob­ject, a gal­axy or such, that he was per­son­ally in­ter­ested in, but that ob­ject was so far away that if the probe was to get to it, it would take ten thou­sand years.

That num­ber set me back. I didn’t fin­ish my break­fast, in fact I never started it. I drank the cof­fee, but that was all. I got in the car and drove to River­side. All day, thoughts of that lit­tle ma­chine kept com­ing back to me. The idea that any­thing at all might keep go­ing out into space for ten thou­sand years. That there was that much dis­tance out there.

Now, why did that make me feel I could not kill my­self? I have puz­zled over that ques­tion ever since. Some­how it made it seem that the only thing to do was

to keep on. To see what would hap­pen. To see my days out to their nat­u­ral end.

That same week I ac­quired a dog. A man who was work­ing for me, do­ing what is now Jack’s job, his dog had a lit­ter and I took one, and that was Jake’s mother. Her name was Kate, and she even­tu­ally had a lit­ter, five pup­pies of which I gave away all but one, and that was Jake. For a while I had two dogs and then Kate died at the age of six and Jake and I kept on to­gether.

When I fin­ished telling Claire this she had tears in her eyes. She shook her head and hugged me and said, “I don’t un­der­stand, Tim. But I love you.” It was morn­ing and we were get­ting ready to dig a grave. I’d sent the two lawn­mower boys to cut the pond banks and trim the flower beds. Har­ri­son and Jack and I were fin­ish­ing our cof­fees. Jack said to Har­ri­son, “Why’d you shave off the beard?” “Claire said she didn’t like it.” I said I un­der­stood that. Jack took a long draw on his Camel and then coughed. “Pussy­whipped,” he said. “The freakin’ two of you.” First was knit­ting, and now has come fish­ing.

Claire owns a rod with spin­ning reel, and some other pieces of equip­ment, and we went to Blake­man’s in Water­town to get a rod and reel for me. She said I’d need a chair, and when I saw hers—the can­vas was split and about ready to let go—i took the op­por­tu­nity to buy two brand new ones, alu­minum fold­ing with each the same color can­vas, dark green.

Af­ter Blake­man’s we went to Claire’s older sis­ter’s house, also in Water­town, where Claire lived af­ter Glenn died. I was want­ing the sis­ter, Ade­laide, to look on me with trust and not feel sus­pi­cious of a gravedig­ger.

Peo­ple gen­er­ally like me, although they find me quiet. At such times I try to help along what­ever it is that makes them feel in­clined to friend­li­ness. We ate lunch at Ade­laide’s kitchen ta­ble. The two sis­ters are sim­i­lar in ap­pear­ance. It is cu­ri­ous to note that the dif­fer­ences be­tween close rel­a­tives can seem small when you look at them but dif­fer­ences of the per­son­al­ity can be large.

It re­minds me of when I helped herd a bunch of Chi­nese in­fantry that we cap­tured on the way back north af­ter the re­treat. How they all looked al­most ex­actly alike, but it wasn’t long be­fore I be­gan to no­tice their dif­fer­ent ways. Some laughed and made jokes in spite of be­ing cap­tured. That prob­a­bly had to do with their be­ing out of the fight­ing.

Ade­laide and I got on all right. Claire had al­ready told me that she was a widow and that her hus­band, whose name was Ben, had fought in Korea be­fore she mar­ried him.

“He got wounded north of Taegu,” Ade­laide said. She pro­nounced it

“Teegu.” “He was a for­ward ob­server and he got mortared.” “What weapons was he ob­serv­ing for?” “How­itzers I think it was. When he got mortared he nearly lost his leg. Had a pin. You could feel it.” “What unit?” “I for­get. The Twenty-third some­thing. The Eighth Army, I know that.” “Peo­ple prob­a­bly asked him about MASH.” “Oh, sure.” She has a kind of a bark­ing laugh, not at all like Claire’s. “I got a pic­ture,” she said.

She went into the next room and came back with a photo with a crease where it’d been folded on the di­ag­o­nal. It was a typ­i­cal shot from the war days, black and white, two young guys stand­ing close, smil­ing, fac­ing the cam­era. Right away I thought the guy on the left looked like Pete Quinell, “Quinny”— my pal who’d been killed.

But of course it wasn’t him. The guys in the photo were in a main­te­nance out­fit. “Ben’s on the right,” Ade­laide said. “Yes,” I said. There was a pause. “Ben al­ways talked about the smell. Hu­man shit. He said the whole coun­try—” “Yeah.” I handed the pic­ture to Claire and I said to Ade­laide, “Yeah, that looks like Korea.”

Claire looked at it but didn’t say any­thing, then handed it to her sis­ter. I could feel Claire look­ing at me but I didn’t look back.

I felt like they both were ex­pect­ing me to say some­thing more, but I couldn’t get talk­ing. Fi­nally Claire said, “Glenn never got called.” “Lucky,” I said. I had to clear my throat to say it. Fi­nally Ade­laide changed the sub­ject. “So, Tim,” she said, “I un­der­stand you know our Har­ri­son.” “Oh, yes. He worked for me and he’s an old friend. Quite a char­ac­ter.” “He’s our lit­tle sis­ter’s old­est. Sheila. Lit­tle Sheils. She’s dead. Can­cer of the breast. Her hus­band died last win­ter out in South­bury. He left Har­ri­son some money.”

“Which is burn­ing a hole in Har­ri­son’s pocket,” Claire said. “He asked Tim for ad­vice on how to spend it.” “What’d you say?” “Buy a farm.” “Hah! You’d be as good with money as Har­ri­son. Men.” “Tim’s good with money,” Claire said. “His house is paid for.” “Wish this one was.” Af­ter we left Ade­laide’s we headed for Long Pond. I was driv­ing and Claire was over against her door, sit­ting low in the seat, and there was a si­lence be­tween us. All the way down 6A I could feel the buildup of ten­sion. Just be­fore the

turnoff to Wind­fer Road she said, “Tim, what’s go­ing on?” “What d’you mean?” “Tim. Please don’t bull­shit me. It’s not like you. At least I hope it’s not. I don’t want another silent man. Please.” She moved closer and gave me a lit­tle pat on the thigh. I had to clear my throat again. “It was the pic­ture. The guy her hus­band was next to, he looked like Quinny. My pal.” “The guy who got killed.” “Yeah.” “You think maybe it was?” “No. No, Claire. The guys in the pic­ture, they were two guys in a main­te­nance unit. I don’t get it, be­cause Ade­laide said he was a spot­ter for ar­tillery. Maybe he got moved around. But—” “Or he lied to her.” “Why would he?” “Does it make a dif­fer­ence?” “Not to me. Any­way it wasn’t Quinny. It just looked like him. I got spooked.” “But you’re okay? ” “Yeah. I’m okay.” I looked at her. I could see cau­tion in her face. I smiled, want­ing to re­as­sure her. “It’s the war, Claire. Even now, it comes back. I was scared all the time.” “And it was how many years ago—” “Forty-one.” “But—tim—when it comes back again, try and talk to me? It’ll save us some trou­ble.” “Sure.” “No, re­ally.” “Okay. Yes. Re­ally.” “Prom­ise?” “Prom­ise.” “Okay. Now let’s fish.” The walk to the pond was a short one, and I car­ried the chairs and she car­ried her pole and tackle box. Since I didn’t yet have my li­cense, she fished and I watched. We sat side by side, me on the left so she wouldn’t hook me when she cast. I could see she knew what she was do­ing but she didn’t catch any­thing. “Ade­laide sticks up for Ben even though she hated his guts,” she said. I laughed at that. “It’s true. You wouldn’t know it the way she brags about him.” “You two’re dif­fer­ent.” “You think I’m nicer?” “Yes.” I could sense her smil­ing even though we were both look­ing out at the wa­ter. I touched her arm as she reeled in.

“So when you look back on it, Tim, you don’t have re­grets?” Har­ri­son was sit­ting at my kitchen ta­ble, we were drink­ing cof­fee. Claire was out in the yard spad­ing up the gar­den. “Oh, I have re­grets, Har­ri­son. Be­lieve me. But ev­ery­body does. It’s nor­mal.” “I’ve got too many.” “You’re down on your luck is all.” “I’ve got a book of po­ems now.” “That you wrote?” “Yes. But no one wants it.” “Har­ri­son! That’s quite an achieve­ment. How in the heck do you write po­ems?” “With a pen­cil.” We both laughed but there was a sad­ness that we weren’t look­ing straight at. “Now I’m gonna write a novel.” “About what?” “A man who com­mits sui­cide.” “Har­ri­son—” “Oh, he may not. But he thinks about it all the time.” “Put some jokes in there.” “Yeah. I should. That’s good ad­vice.” “Maybe you should get out of Colch­ester. Are you sure you want this River­side job?” “Def­i­nitely. I can do it for a few years. I’ll like it, Tim. I love River­side.” “So do I.” “Later, I’ll go to Africa. The Congo.” “What for?” “I’ll go up the Congo River in a ca­noe. Be a lot to write about.” “I’d stay away from there. They got ter­ri­ble fev­ers.” “Do you re­gret not hav­ing more ad­ven­tures, Tim?” “Korea was enough. Plenty.” I sipped my cof­fee. Har­ri­son was thought­ful for a long pause. “I’ve got a con­fes­sion, Tim.” “Oh?” “The rea­son I didn’t get drafted for Viet­nam was be­cause I pre­tended to be crazy at the phys­i­cal.” “No kid­ding.” “I fooled the shrink. The psy­chol­o­gist who in­ter­viewed me, I fooled him. I pre­tended I wanted to go in. But I made up so many crazy things I’d done, he told me he had to re­ject me. He said he was sorry.” “I never thought of try­ing that.” “And I told him I thought I might be a ho­mo­sex­ual. I said I’d never done any­thing but I had de­sires.”

“What’d he say?” “He said that’s nor­mal.” “There’s a lot of guys, if they’d done what you did, they’d be alive to­day.” “You know what both­ers me? That I was so be­liev­able.” “About be­ing a ho­mo­sex­ual?” “About be­ing crazy.” “We’re all a touch crazy, Har­ri­son. Be glad you’re above ground.” We heard Claire on the back porch and a few sec­onds later in she came. She gave off a good smell, a mix­ture of fresh dirt and sweat. She went to the sink and washed her hands. “I need lunch,” she said. “What’re you two look­ing so grim about?” “Har­ri­son thinks he might be crazy.” “Con­firmed on that,” Claire said. A per­son’s luck takes turns in go­ing up and down, and it may seem for a while that one di­rec­tion will keep on, it won’t go into re­verse or even ease up. That is not log­i­cal.

For a while now Claire and Har­ri­son and I, all three of us, have been in a pe­riod of go­ing down, and it be­gan one evening when I was in the bath­room run­ning hot wa­ter into the tub. I heard Claire yell and then she yelled a sec­ond time and the door opened and I knew it was trou­ble.

“It’s Jake!” She turned as she said it, and I fol­lowed her into our bed­room where he was ly­ing on the bed and I thought right away he was dead. His chest wasn’t mov­ing and his eyes were open but they didn’t seem to be see­ing and some yel­low­ish liq­uid was com­ing out of his nos­trils.

Poor Jake. He was breath­ing but only barely and I picked him up off the bed and we wrapped him in a blan­ket and put him in the back seat of the car and took him to the vet, Doc Stephanic out in Mil­lville. I’ve known Doc ever since his wife died and he buried her at River­side, and I knew it was okay to knock on the door of his house at a late hour. There was no use to it, though, as Jake was dead. Doc said he could do an au­topsy to fig­ure out what killed him but both Claire and I said what’s the point.

We took him back home and the next day we buried him at River­side next to the com­post pile. Har­ri­son dug the hole and he and Claire and Jack and I stood for a few min­utes, as if it was a fu­neral. Jake was still wrapped in the blan­ket from the night be­fore. I took the shovel my­self and filled the grave.

About a week and a half af­ter that, things got worse. As if Jake had given us a warn­ing.

I had a meet­ing with Owen Lars­ford, and it did not go ac­cord­ing to my pre­dic­tions.

When you are look­ing at Owen Lars­ford you are not see­ing a pleas­ant sight. I some­times think of his wife and I pic­ture her not be­ing glad when he comes home from the bank, or when she wakes in the morn­ing and there he is, his

head on the pil­low next to her. He has a small mous­tache that he keeps closely trimmed, and it is a light shade of gray but the tips of the hairs are dark, al­most black. Two-toned, and I do not un­der­stand how that has come to be, for it never changes. It’s not as if the hairs could get dark as they grow, dark at the tips while the shafts stay light. Maybe he dyes it that way, but why would he? The hair on his bony head is gray and thin and he combs it straight back. His eye­brows are black. They curve up and back down with a look of an­gry sur­prise. His fore­head has deep fur­rows.

As usual he was at his desk and we shook hands and I sat fac­ing him and he asked me how I was get­ting on. He praised the job I was do­ing and said he was go­ing to miss me when I re­tired. Then he told me that he had de­cided that my plan to hire Har­ri­son as my re­place­ment was “un­for­tu­nately not a good idea.”

“Not enough ex­pe­ri­ence, Tim,” he said. “I’ve de­cided to bring in Lou Pa­grista to fill your slot.”

I looked at him and there was a si­lence. He has a habit of paus­ing with his eye­brows raised. I said, “Why?” “Be­cause Lou is the man I con­sider qual­i­fied for the job. Be­lieve me, Tim, I am aware that you and Lou do not see eye to eye.”

In a sit­u­a­tion like this I of­ten do not talk enough. My ar­gu­ment wasn’t force­ful. I re­gret this. I should have fought. He said Har­ri­son did not have “the nec­es­sary qual­i­fi­ca­tions.” Owen Lars­ford re­minds me of cer­tain of­fi­cers in Korea, in par­tic­u­lar a bat­tal­ion com­man­der we very sel­dom saw, a man who made the plans that usu­ally left our men dead. “Lou doesn’t have a log­i­cal ap­proach,” I said. “He talks more than he works.” “That’s my de­ci­sion, Tim.” He stared at me for a sec­ond as if he was feel­ing sorry for me. Then he said, “Lou’s son Tony will take Jack’s place.”

I opened my mouth to speak but be­fore I could he said, “Tim, we are go­ing to have to let Jack go. We can­not have a drunk work­ing at River­side. Op­er­at­ing equip­ment. This is a ceme­tery with prom­i­nent peo­ple buried in it. The Scov­ils, the Tut­tles. Henry Goss.”

“Jack’s a good man,” I said. “A good worker. He’s been with me for go­ing on seven years.” He ig­nored this. “Tony has been putting in a new sep­tic tank and drainage field at my place out in Mil­lville, and he does solid work.”

Owen has a big es­tate up on South Street. And he is a mean cheap son of a bitch and I wish there was a heaven so he could be de­nied it and get shunted down the rails to hell.

He also re­minded me they would be giv­ing me a farewell din­ner. I said that un­der the cir­cum­stances I would forego the din­ner.

“Well, that is up to you, Tim. But I would pre­fer to round off this mat­ter with­out hard feel­ings.”

I chose not to take up this ar­gu­ment any fur­ther and said good­bye and left

his of­fice. I could see no good rea­son to start com­ing back at him with hard words, although I did feel the urge. Claire said I should have told him to fuck off.

I had to ad­mit that might have felt good, at least for a time. Two days af­ter my meet­ing with Owen Lars­ford Lou Pa­grista made a visit to River­side. By the very fact that he did this, you get an in­di­ca­tion of what type of a man I am talk­ing about. He brought his son Tony with him and they pulled up at the main­te­nance garage where Jack and I were chang­ing the oil and the fil­ter on the back­hoe.

“Tim!” he said, walk­ing up to me as if we were long­time friends. He held out his hand. I didn’t pause, I shook it, but that is some­thing I could not do a sec­ond time.

I will say this: Lou has a cer­tain way of seem­ing like­able. Claire would say “charm.” I have to ad­mit, I can get caught off guard by that type of per­son. You get to be my age and you re­al­ize you are still mak­ing the old mis­takes.

Lou has a round face and smooth skin and he wears glasses made with brass­plated wire. When he works he has a habit of re­mov­ing his glasses and clean­ing the lenses with his shirt. That’s when he is li­able to get to talk­ing, and if you’re work­ing with him you have to wait.

“It’s gonna be an easy fit, Tim,” he said. “You re­tir­ing and me and Tony slip­ping right in. You been keep­ing ev­ery­thing ship­shape, and I know all how it goes. OH—I for­got—this is my son Tony—”

Jack and I shook hands with Tony. He looked like a de­cent sort. I think he was em­bar­rassed by his dad.

Af­ter they left Jack and I didn’t say much. We knocked off for lunch. The day was clear and sunny and we sat in our chairs in front of the shack and af­ter a while we ex­changed some sharp ob­ser­va­tions about Lou and Owen Lars­ford. We agreed Tony didn’t seem so bad. My re­tire­ment has got­ten un­der way.

Soon af­ter my last day I went up to Owen Lars­ford’s of­fice at the bank and told him I was go­ing to take Greta and Marti and Jake out of River­side and re­bury them some­where else. I didn’t say where.

This caused Owen’s eye­brows to raise higher than I’ve ever seen them go, then snap back down. Which I en­joyed, but I did not crack a grin. Af­ter a pause he said, “Well, if that’s the way you feel, Tim.” “It is,” I said. I pretty much set the terms, I was that fed up with him and his ways. I spec­i­fied that Claire and Har­ri­son and I would come in to River­side on a cer­tain day, it was a Fri­day, and first thing in the morn­ing we would dig up Jake. I said I

did not want Lou and Tony nearby, and I did not want them watch­ing from any dis­tance. And I spec­i­fied that later that morn­ing I would ex­pect Jack to be able to run the back­hoe and open the graves of my wife and daugh­ter. I ex­plained that I had ar­ranged for two men from C & K with a flatbed truck with a lifter to come in and load the coffins onto the truck. And again, I made it clear I did not want Lou or Tony or any other per­sons nearby or watch­ing. Owen agreed to all of this. He knew I meant busi­ness. A few days later I drove out to Mil­lville and stopped in to see Jack and his wife, Bob­bie. They didn’t look too well, but they could un­der­stand my talk. I gave Jack a per­sonal check in the amount of five hun­dred dol­lars and I apol­o­gized for not be­ing able to save his job. His bleary eyes were merry as usual, but when he looked down at the amount on the check he started to cry. I pre­dict most of the money will go for drink, but that is his and Bob­bie’s busi­ness. I asked Jack if he would be able to run the back­hoe at River­side to open the graves and he said yes. And he held to it, he was there. I ex­pect Jack and Bob­bie won’t last long, but, again, that is their busi­ness. It was rain­ing. We drove to River­side as planned. Lou and Tony stayed in the shack and we dug up Jake. Har­ri­son and I had made a ply­wood box and we set him care­fully into it, still in his blan­ket. He had by then be­gun his de­com­po­si­tion and the smell was strong.

Jack got there soon af­ter, and he started up the back­hoe, the old In­ter­na­tional. Lou and Tony had the good sense to stay in­side, although I did see Lou peer­ing through the win­dow. Jack, with his nico­tine yel­low fin­gers on the levers, wear­ing his dirty T-shirt, opened the two side-by-side graves. He lit a cig­a­rette which the rain ex­tin­guished but he kept it in his mouth as he worked.

The C & K boys showed up with their truck right on time. Both coffins were in­side con­crete lin­ers which they lifted out with­out a prob­lem. I did not take the lids off and look in­side. Jack and Har­ri­son helped get both lin­ers se­cured onto the truck with ratchet straps. I had Jack fill the graves so there would be no com­plain­ing from Lou, which I know there will be any­way. I am done with River­side. I will never go through those old gates again. The drive out to Mil­lville was slow. I kept close be­hind the truck. Claire sat up front with me, Har­ri­son rode in the rear seat. There wasn’t much to be said. Jake’s box hadn’t fit all the way into the trunk so we’d had to tie it, leav­ing the trunk lid up. We could hear the rain drum­ming on the ply­wood. Peo­ple turned and looked at the truck and the two lin­ers, it was pretty ob­vi­ous what was in­side them, the rain smear­ing the dirt on the sides.

As we passed the Water­town Road I looked in the rearview mir­ror and I could see that Har­ri­son was hav­ing trou­ble keep­ing back the tears. “They’ll be bet­ter off out in Mil­lville, Har­ri­son,” I said. Claire turned and looked back and said, “You feel­ing sad, hon?” He nod­ded. She reached for his hand and said, “Tim said you shaved your beard off for me.”

“I knew you’d pre­fer it gone. I re­al­ized I never did like it.” Claire laughed. “It was a bit thin.” “I’m not go­ing to Africa,” Har­ri­son said. “I’m go­ing to Ire­land. Writ­ers in Ire­land don’t pay taxes.” Claire said, “Are you sure, Har­ri­son? Have you ac­tu­ally looked into that?” “No, I haven’t. You’re right, Claire. I’d bet­ter check on it. No use mov­ing over there and find­ing out I was wrong.”

I had got­ten per­mits from the City of Colch­ester and the town of Mil­lville, and I had ar­ranged with Bob Fenn, an old friend who is in charge of the Mil­lville ceme­tery where my mother and fa­ther are buried, to have the new graves ready.

Bob was wait­ing. His back­hoe is a new Kub­ota, and he was sit­ting in the cab. The C & K boys did a good job of low­er­ing the lin­ers care­fully into the holes, with Har­ri­son and me steady­ing. Greta and Marti have a nice lo­ca­tion at the top of a small hill.

The pre­vi­ous week, when I’d met with Bob, I’d bought two plots for Claire and me, not far from Greta and Marti. I showed them to her. She had told me she didn’t want to be next to Glenn out in Prospect.

We drove home. It rained harder, ham­mer­ing onto the roof of my old Honda and onto Jake’s box. Har­ri­son and I had al­ready dug a grave in the backyard and we put Jake in and filled it. Har­ri­son came into the house and the three of us stood at the kitchen ta­ble for a few min­utes, not say­ing much. We each had a shot of brandy. When Har­ri­son had gone Claire and I turned up the ther­mo­stat in spite of it be­ing sum­mer, and we took hot baths. Then we got into bed, naked un­der the blan­kets. We hugged and Claire cried some and then we just lay quiet, hold­ing hands. Af­ter a while we slept.

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