The C.P.F cont'd

Week 43

Time to move a little forward. Here is Chapter 3 of The C.P.F. for your Easter gift from this Jewish mother.

Chapter Three

Ghosts and Grave Robbers

The graveside service lasted the usual hour, but Truman and his siblings lingered for at least another forty minutes, so I guessed that the old girl did not get to rest under the sod until closer to three. I also had to be back in the office by two preparing the final documents, answering the telephone and dealing with vendors or nursing home/hospice administrators who thought they should be entitled to group rates for the indigent dead we buried in our Potter’s Field. I could not get back to wiping down and replacing headstones under after dark. And I would not be in time to stop Old Sharpe.

Rain hadn’t fallen in fact for a few days, so the grass clippings didn’t stick to most of the flat surfaces.

It was the scraps and bits of moss that clung to the ornate designs and inscriptions of the wealthy dead that eat up time and nick my fingers. The middle class’s stones are simpler. Names, birth dates and death dates for the most part. Here and there you get a design or a quote, but nothing excessive. Potter’s Field “residents” get brass plaques flush with the grass with no one to really care about them.

Now nineteenth century folks who had money could and did drive this twenty-first century caretaker crazy with detailed carvings of sheep and angels and weeping women in long gowns full of moss- and mold-growing folds, not to mention the extra words to describe the loving mother, faithful father, beloved child and so forth. I realize it’s all to comfort the surviving family, but, after living all of my thirty years in a cemetery and reading the records and hearing the ghosts’ gossip, I have to wonder how much of those endearments are wishful thinking.

Take Old Man Sharpe, and I wish somebody would.

The official records of the time list him as Benjamin Sharpe, born 1831 and died 1881. The newspaper obituary described him as a “leading citizen who loved God and served his fellow man.” He left neither widow nor children, except for the town’s orphans housed in Heaven’s Angels Children’s Home and the women of the three Magdalene houses he oversaw with other leading citizens. Benjamin Sharpe was upright man, as the white marble stone stated in Gothic script over his grave in the southwest corner of Section A’s front skirt.

But there’s more to Benjamin Sharpe. My grandparents spoke of him as “Der Parekh,” a bad man, but that is all I knew until after they died. I pulled the records from the library’s stacks, made hard copies from their microfiche and, on my own time at home, Googled his name. A notice in the newspaper, dated the day after his death, announced an inquiry into his death, hinting that a man of 50 in “splendid health” might have died under suspicious circumstances. His maids Bridget O’Doole and Mary Kate Bailey were being held for questioning. “Obviously Irish,” the article went on to note. The reporter omitted, or assumed the readers would add with a shudder, the words “and likely Catholic.”

“The good people of Sayresville demand an answer,” the article concluded.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and a few late hours on the Internet, I found the record of the inquest and the maids’ testimony.

As it turned out, it was a good public relations move to publish the obituary before the inquest. The maids, the cook and Sharpe’s valet told stories of Sharpe’s quick temper and his regular nighttime habit of draining two bottles of brandy, and then walloping the tar out of both maids with a specially knotted belt. According to Bridget, on the night of his death, he’d cornered both girls in their narrow bedroom. He’d bent them over a bed with their shifts raised to their waists and had the belt ready to flay them when he “wheezed a bit like he was took by surprise” and fell down dead. The valet, a “small Canadian” named Richard according to the inquest records, offered to tell more of Sharpe drinking and then being unable to find the privy. The valet further hinted that the upstanding citizen had more than once peed on stray dogs and late-night walkers.

The officials cut the inquest short at that point. The determination they made official was death by natural causes.

But “natural causes” in the corporeal sense does not explain a ghost still wandering the cemetery and harassing other ghosts nearly 130 years after his death. And that is what Old Sharpe does when Varney knocks loose Sharpe’s head stone as the mower did after any funeral. As Varney did the day of Eulalie Plutarch’s funeral.

I know this because the two ghosts I call my gossips caught me heading out to finish the wipe-downs that night.

“He’s out again!” yipped the first one, who was Missy Drucker. She had been a housewife who died at the age of 37 in 1951 of a burst appendix. Her family buried her with a headstone complete with Psalm 23 and a rare color photograph of Missy. She’d been a pretty brunette with vacant blue eyes dressed in pastels. Six years ago, the plastic or whatever cover that held the photograph onto the stone fell off, as did her photograph. The required search for family members turned up no Druckers in upstate New York that acknowledge a Missy Drucker, or a Michelle Drucker nee Baker, let alone give permission and funds to replace the photo or the cover. Regs would not allow me to do so, either. It’s a vain hope that someone someday might come to claim that fading picture, but I keep it with my ledger. I like to be prepared.

“He yelled at me to raise my dress!” the other told me. This was Mischa Bridey, born in 1892 and died in the influenza pandemic of 1919. She must have been a spinster school teacher. It may be that her white shirtwaist cinched too tightly at her waist over a heavy dark skirt that swept along the gravel. Or her blackish hair stayed now for eternity in a tight bun that gave her headache. Or maybe, back in her living days, she really needed to get laid. She never has anything good to say about men and she is, in general, a bespectacled, pinch-faced grump. Then again, until seven years ago in the spring, someone had come every June to lay six yellow roses on her grave. I found the last bouquet dried out from a rainless July and “borrowed” one of the petals for my ledger. You never know about some people. Or ghosts, for that matter.

You have more questions: yes, ghosts exist. I see them most nights, occasionally during the day, and have done so since I was a baby. I’ve felt the cold that surrounds the ones whose bodies died by violence and the softer coolness of those who passed more peacefully. Ghosts, spirits, “hain’ts,” etc. - they’ve gone by all sorts of politically correct and incorrect labels, but the CPF has a fair share of the haunters for Onondaga County.

Yes, I talk with them.

And no, I don’t really know what a ghost is in the physical sense. I also don’t know if ghosts realize they are dead or not. It seems rude to ask. Furthermore, I doubt they’d behave any differently than if they did realize it. I would be willing to bet Old Man Sharpe wouldn’t.

“I know,” I said to Missy and Mischa. “I’m on it.”

“Well, hurry up before he gets over the hill!” Missy snapped.

“Well, I could if two nosy hain’ts would clear the road!” I snapped back.

These two are the first ghosts I’d met who had an overwhelming desire to always be relevant; it is likely they found themselves behind the times while they lived and spent that life and this afterlife trying to catch up. To do this, this pair had observed and learned reactive “moves” to do in unison. This night they gave me the Cat Move: their opaque and vaguely pink hands raised to ear level, then fingers curl for claws and a nasal “Re-e-e-eowwwww!!” from their ghostly gobs.

I walked away before they celebrated their unified dissing and high-fived each other right down to their non-corporeal elbows.

Sharpe’s grave was on the southeast end of Section A. The Board approved more tall poles with more blue-white lights back there rather that install the motion detectors the police recommended to dissuade drug deals and lovers with a fetish for having sex on graves. As security for the living-wise, it was a help. To find a ghost whose color was fading to white and gray, not so much.

By the oak tree, where I’d stood only a few hours ago, floated the white shape of a dead martinet. He had to have been a lump of a man. His spirit wasn’t much taller than my five-foot-four height and he spread out from belly to butt. He had goggling pale eyes and a beak of a nose over flabby lips. His ears under the white fronds of hair reminded me of a harp that sagged at the bottom. He was clothed – they still buried them in something like their best back then – but Sharpe had faded so much, it was hard to detail his garments beyond shirt open at the neck under a waistcoat and over trousers. Tradition held that he be buried barefoot, so I was glad the end of his trousered legs were a blur. No doubt he’d had knobby feet with talon-length toenails. And he had the knotted belt they’d buried with him raised in one lumpy hand over his opaque head. I braced myself for the howl. Sharpe’s voice, whether in death or reminiscent of his living squawk, ranked right up there with fingernails on a chalkboard.

And Benjamin Sharpe was a howler. “Bridget, you strumpet! I know you broke that china cup! I’ll blister your hindquarters for that! Where are you, girl?”

It is wise to approach ghosts, slowly, particularly agitated ghosts. Hands down at the side, head slightly down but off to one side so there can be modest eye contact. It is a literal pain in the neck after a while.

“Care for the residents,” I muttered. “Mr. Sharpe!” I said somewhat louder. “Mr. Sharpe, it’s Grace. Isaac’s granddaughter.”

Sharpe halted and undulated for a moment. The belt came down to his side. “Grace. Yes. Your grandfather is a good man. He took the stones out of my grave before they lowered me into it. Wanted me to be comfortable, he said. So I could rest.”

“That’s right. You look tired, Mr. Sharpe.”

“I am tired. They all want so much from me! Those brats! Those whores! How much more do I have to give? I’m only one man!”

It is also advisable that, if a ghost on the loose wishes to howl against what he perceives as injustice, he be allowed to do so before you herd him back to his grave. It may take a while, but interrupting can leave you standing there with him until dawn. Ghosts will follow you if you walk away. There’s also no telling if the ghost has not finished his or her diatribe at sunrise, that s/he won’t follow you to continue throughout the day. A ghost’s voice registers over the telephone as either white noise or a television on too loud to a bad soap opera – not something to have going on over your shoulder when you’re trying to sound professional and organized on the phone.

I waited for a gap in his complaint and tried again. “You need to rest. Why don’t you come with me and let’s get you back to your rest.”

“It’s that Bridget!” he snarled. “She broke the cup. I know it! She’ll pay with her hide!”

“So she will, but you rest first. You need your strength to – “ I swallowed my disgust – “do the job properly.”

“She’ll bleed for it!”

“If you rest first, of course she will. Now come on.”

You cannot reach out and offer to touch a ghost, so there was no leading him by the arm. I had tried once as a toddler to take the hand of the ghost of the first body buried at the CPF. All you get is a handful of icy cold and an annoyed ghost.

And there’s no pointing. Ghosts like Sharpe like to point, but to be pointed to or at would only start him off again through the cemetery in twice the rage. I stepped onto the gravel path with a slight bow towards his plot.

As I suspected, Varney had taken the corner too quickly again and knocked the stone to an acute angle off its seat and there was a nice three-inch gap to the right side. I stood a respectful half meter from the gap and offered it to Sharpe with a modest, open-handed gesture. “See? It’s all ready for you,” I said. “You tuck yourself in there and rest. Bridget is not going anywhere.”

Which was true. County records showed she died in 1948. St. Agnes’ Cemetery holds her body. Now, if she has a loose headstone and wanders, too, I’ve not heard of it. And it’s not my problem. Her late addle-pated employer, however, routinely is my problem.

Sharpe floated into a horizontal position on the sod that had been well-packed by living feet for one and a quarter centuries. He seeped back like foul water back into the earth with a mournful “Bridget!”

I straightened the headstone. Then I packed it down with moss and some extra dirt and gravel from the path. If the rains held off, Old Sharpe would stay put for another two weeks.

Back to the questions and possibly the Big Question: why do ghosts, souls, spirits, whatever you want to call them, hang around? There are probably two or three answers for every one person you might ask. The sort of “it’s this way, but maybe that way, too” thinking that leaves the listener more confused and not a little bit frightened.

I have only heard one explanation that makes sense – and, as with anything else, it’s open to debate. My Grandpa Dov said that Midrash assigns five levels to each living soul. Three, starting with the lowest, reptilian senses, are attached to the physical earth. Only two of them are on the spiritual level and yearn to reunite with the Creator. Therefore, the odds that a soul will pass on are sixty-forty against.

People in the past knew this and invented headstones. Headstones are meant to hold the sixty-percenters down until the dead realize that’s as far as they are going to go. Their spirits pass on then, with little or no notice given to the living.

Some souls, however, cannot take the granite or marble slab hint and insist on hanging around. I sometimes think they were the last ones to leave a party while they were living. Either way, the stone keeps them where their families buried them. But, like so many of the best laid plans, things do go awry. The CPF has drainage ditches, soil erosion and jokers like Varney and Trumbull. Ergo, we have ghosts walking the grounds most evenings. And I’m the one to walk them back and tuck them in again.

Old Sharpe was tucked away for this night. I wanted to go to bed and to dive back into my book (I’d fallen asleep just as the clothes were coming off and the strong masculine arms were outstretched), but something felt wrong.

Derek and his band of merry bloodsuckers were long gone to wherever they fed tonight. Missy and Mischa hopefully had returned to their plots or were having hissy fits over the crowding in the Potter’s Field. The CPF was not quiet. It never was at any time, but that night there were newer noises I did not recognize and did not like.

I ran up the hill again and stood beside the oak tree. Two small Coleman lanterns sat beside Eulalie Plutarch’s still open grave. The chairs were gone, the fake grass and brass frame for the hydraulics were gone, but the diggers had not filled in the grave the way regulations said they should have done once all the mourners departed the site. I felt cold and looked around for a wandering Eulalie. But the night wind had picked up, promising either rain or a dust blow from the middle school’s dead grass and playing fields. No ghosts that the living eye could see.

I hopped over graves and between plots to go down the broad backside of the hill, careful to stay out of the pole light’s glare. Here and there I slipped and had to apologize to the occupant of a grave for the intrusion. Stepping on the residents’ graves and thereby on them is not good public relations. Even if the grave I apologized to would be empty, it set those still lingering at something like rest.

Varney hadn’t loosened any more headstones that I could see, but some ghosts are only a slight disturbance of the seating away from joining the nightly rounds. Especially for the newly buried. I knew Eulalie Plutarch by sight from the newspaper society pages and her son’s behavior (neither one flattered her). Her ornate pink granite headstone was set, but the grave was still open and I did not want her ghost haranguing me about the “abysmal service” offered here at the CPF.

I stopped in the dark at the edge of Section A before the path that led to B. The Coleman lanterns burned on high, one at one long end of the grave, the second at the other. A head of thick medium brown hair bobbed up and down at the rim of the grave, consistent with someone digging. I heard scraping and the occasional thunk! Of hitting the mahogany, brass-embossed coffin.

“Dammit, Jerry! You told me you left the casket unlocked!” barked a somewhat attractive baritone voice from inside the grave. I moved over to the edge perpendicular to the rest of the Plutarch plots. I stood in the glow of an eighteen inch kerosene lantern and looked down.


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