Back to the Cemetery & Potter's Field

Passover is upon us. Less than a week before I have to have my Ashkenazi chametz out of my pantries and set aside for a week of re-dedication to the principles of Judaism and this particular "New Year". True, Rosh Ha-Shanah is also called a New Year, but, to put it closer in human (and thereby fallible terms), the work of creation began on Rosh Ha-Shanah. With the Exodus and establishment of the Hebrews as the Jewish People, it is accomplished; and isn't the completion of any major endeavor truly a new day? A New Year. Some music and a new chapter as my Pesach gift to you.

Week 45

Chapter Four

That Which Hosts the Undead Would Be as Scary

The men in my romance novels are unfailingly handsome. That breed of handsome that takes the breath away from however many readers it takes to create a “bestseller”. Such a man may have a scar – physical or mental, take your choic – but it becomes him, makes him that much more vulnerable and therefore more attractive. The authors of my romances, I’m told, write them that way for maximum arousal and some mental drooling (actual drooling I’d rather not consider; it damages the book). My point is, the hero could have a hairy mole, for crying out loud, but the authors are careful to place such flaws where they will cause the strongest visceral reaction among their readers.

By comparison, however, this gravedigger turned grave robber in the Plutarch grave fell a bit short. Yes, he was the same man who “stirred” my feelings from a distance that afternoon. I knew him from the union shirt and the jeans that fit so well (especially there). I knew and wanted the big hands pushing at the shovel’s handle on my own body while his square jaw sagged in profanity because he could not pry the lid open.

But the face?

I’ve had time and proximity since that night to try to find the words for the face as I saw it in the yellow Coleman light on that April evening. First, take my Grandpa Dov’s favorite comic strip hero, Dick Tracy. Remove the yellow Fedora and make the hair brown, wavy and wind-blown. Second, widen the eyes enough to tell from a few yards that they are brown, a soft, sable brown. Next, soften Tracy’s building block of a nose a little while you’re at it. Last, put that head on good shoulders on top of a strong chest that narrows down to those perfect-fitting jeans and there he stood, straddling Eulalie Plutarch’s coffined remains in pretty well-worn black Nikes. I almost envied her the view of that inseam.

A rustling in the hedge that separates Sections E and F told me Jerry tried to hide out of the light. I stood at the edge and kicked some of the loose dirt down into the grave. The digger turned robber lifted those eyes to me and scowled.

“Who the fuck are you?”

He told me later than I flinched. All I remember is that his question offended me. I can appreciate well-timed profanity. I’ve uttered my share in the appropriate circumstances. But when you’re caught (excuse the expression) dead to rights in a felony, I’ve always considered it bad manners to lead with the f-word.

I kicked in a little more dirt before I answered. “Well, since I pay the union who pays you, I guess that indirectly makes me your boss.”

He drew the shovel upright, balancing it on one of the brass handles on the side, and leaned on it. Then he smiled. I won’t say I was a goner when he smiled because that’s one pun too many for one scene in a cemetery. But, as I recall it, the night had grown a little less chilly.

“So you’re the lady in charge. Farmer, isn’t it?”

“It is. And you are?”

He started to laugh with a sideways glance. “Charlie. Charlie Tischler.”

“OK, Charlie Tischler, what precisely are you doing? You’re over five hours late filling in the grave and I would think standing in it is not the ideal position to do the job. Nor is the time particularly good, seeing that you’re digging in the dark.”

He chuckled. “You got that right. But do you know who this is?”

“From the death certificate and the papers, yes.”

“She’s the richest b-“

“Don’t say it. Neither of us knew her that well when she was alive.”

He stared at me for a moment. Not his most endearing expression; he looked like a snapping turtle who’s been poked from behind. He rephrased. “She was extremely rich and she wanted to be buried with a lot of her jewelry.”

“You know this how?”

“Her sons hung around after the service. They were fighting over letting diamond rings and pearl drop earrings and gold necklaces that are now in the ground on a rotting corpse. Must have gone on at each other for quarter of an hour. They agreed to let it lie for now. But, as you can see,” here he gestured to the shovel and the dirt on his hand, “I disagreed with their decision.”

“And the coffin lid is locked.”

His arrogance sagged a little with his jaw. “Yeah. I have a little turd for a partner. Looks like he ran for it.”

“And here we are. In point of fact, you’re screwed.”

“If you’re calling the cops, I guess I am.”

I suppose I did think it over too long because his mouth was just starting to curl up in that smile again. Not one of the heroes in my books had that smile.

I tried to look – and feel - indifferent to that smile. And him. “OK, I’m not going to run back to my office to call the police because, by the time they arrive, you’ll have filled in the grave and run off. Yes, I have your name and a description to give them, but I don’t think you wouldn’t have an alibi and I’m in no mood to get into a he said/she said spat that the newspapers will eat up and that will cost me my job.” His smile widened to show teeth so straight he had to have endured yesars of sadistic orthodontists and their metal braces. “But what I will tell you is that you’d better fill in the grave and get out of here as fast as you can. I am by far the least dangerous thing in this cemetery.”

He laughed. A low, rolling sound that left me a little dizzy. “Why? You telling me there are ghoulies and ghosties around?”

My Grandma Rose always said deep breaths clear the mind and stiffen the backbone. That smile and that laugh had me wobbling, so I took three. “I have no idea what a ghoulie is, but, yes, we have ghosts and vampires here. They’re all very territorial. I know they won’t take kindly to someone violating a grave in their cemetery.”

He laughed again. “And what will the werewolves think?”

“I can’t say. This is a cemetery. A place for dead people. Technically, werewolves are still alive.”

You insert a quick question: do werewolves exist? I’ve heard that they do, but I cannot prove it one way or the other. I’ve never seen one since I live at the CPF and I rarely venture into Syracuse. However, I have heard of a pack running near the university. And that’s enough to keep me from going downtown when there’s a full moon.

“Look,” I said, “there about two dozen vampires who will be returning from feeding in Syracuse before long. They may be sated or they may not. For all I know, some of the younger ones might like you for dessert and the older ones can always make exceptions for people who piss them off. So, if they find you here still trying to break into Eulalie’s coffin, they will hurt you. They may even kill you. I strongly suggest you get your ass out of there, fill in the grave and leave.”

He studied me a long time. Long enough for me to look over all of the adjoining sections and count a few headstones. “You’re serious,” he said. “I almost believe you.”

“I’d recommend you do. In short, Charlie Tischler, you’ve got choices here. You can decide that I’m crazy,” I told him. “You can take your chances and keep working at the latch – which will give after a while, by the way. But you won’t live through the night if you do. Or –“ and, looking back, this is where I lost my mind before I lost my heart – “you can come to the house on your next night off and I’ll introduce you to some of them.”

He narrowed his eyes. I braced for more laughter or a string of profanities to insult my intelligence. He did neither. He did something decidedly un-manly: he listened and considered what I had said. “I’m tempted,” he admitted, “but I don’t know when I could do that. I work two jobs and a lot of double shifts at the Book-of-the-Month club. Might be a week, might be two weeks.”

Might be never. “Fine. They’re not going anywhere and neither am I. Leave me a phone message about which day. The union office has my number. Only give me a few days’ notice to make the arrangements.” I turned away and walked a little, then turned back for the effect. “And plan on coming between nine and nine-thirty. Our residents don’t care much for the sunlight.”

I was reasonably sure Charlie had taken my advice to do without Eulalie Plutarch’s jewelry. If he hadn’t, if Derek and his “family” had found him and, as I suspected, feasted on him, I’m sure Missy and Mischa would have come screeching into my bedroom about the mess and how was I going to clean that up? The publicity alone would doom me.

Besides, the grave was filled in the next morning.

And here you ask another question: How did I get to such a razor’s edge with the Board? I’ll try to make the long story a little shorter than plowing through over a hundred and fifty years of documentation.

My family’s relationship with the Board of Directors has been strained from the very beginning, or ever since Jacob Baumann applied for the caretaker and gravedigger job in 1840. It is never a good start to an employer-employee when the interviewing committee’s secretary, the Reverend Dieter Bruner, makes notes like these next to a badly-printed copy of the foundation’s charter:

Next to the First Article: “We get only one applicant and it’s a filthy Jew not four months off the boat. I’ll bet my hat he speaks no English.”

Second Article: “I’d have lost my hat. He speaks English. Speaks it better than Halberforth (Abernathy Halberforth, President of the Association). Speaks it better than Mason (Raymond Mason was the Association’s attorney), for the love of God! The Devil’s in this!”

Third Article: “In agony now, wanting to laugh and yet I want the man arrested for (a trail of blotted ink here) WITCHCRAFT! He’s got Meecham (Jerome Meecham, the treasurer) agreeing that the advertisement misrepresented the offer of compensation!”

Fourth Article: “Lord God in Heaven, save us sinners now and at the hour of our death, which has to be nigh! This man has us in his thrall!”

Most of the rest of the drama queen’s notes are smeared, but they seem to be in large part expressions of mental anguish and a pious whining at Life in general and the Divine Being in particular. I can’t read it without thinking it would make a sensational blog. Lots of followers and people to “Like” the page. That is, until readers tired of the whining – I’d give it a week at best – and they told Bruner in text and tweet to get an f-ing life.

Either in spite of or because of the Reverend’s side notes, the Board hired Jacob. They and their heirs tolerated him and his male heirs, despite having to give them a house, a carriage house, and eventually electricity by the time Jacob’s grandson Isaac was caretaker. Over the next 160 years, the Board saw quiet men who did their job and had families that caused no public comment satisfied them, whether the Board honestly was happy about their employees or not.

To be fair, the relationship wasn’t all unspoken tension. Once, around 1920, in what I can only assume was a fog of patriotic fever, the Board issued my great-great-grandfather Isidore and his son Jack a public commendation for their “good and faithful” service during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Between the two of us, however, I still think the Board wanting some good publicity to come out of having the space for so many bodies.

But the bad feelings returned soon enough. Great-grandfather Jack took them to court to force the Board to pay for the installation of indoor plumbing. Grandpa Dov fought with them to the point of filing a lawsuit over cost-of-living increases, insurance and the like after the Second World War. And the current Board members were none too keen on my crazy father Barry, who had wandered the cemetery at night to “tuck in” all the residents, had scared off his wife after producing one female child, and then had driven my grandfather’s Buick off the then incomplete 690 bypass all by the time I was five.

Grandpa Dov and Grandma Rose died after I graduated college with a Business degree, so the position came down to me. But, in the Board’s eyes, I was a single female of child-bearing age with no observable marital prospects. They exercised some interpretation of their prerogative so that I had to endure an application and interview process, despite Jacob’s contract article requiring that members of his family stay in the job to the end of the family line. Heaven knows these descendants tried, but they could find no escape clause and found themselves honoring the contract with a woman.

It must have bruised their egos. I kept their books and records as well, and in most cases, better than my grandparents because I could use a computer. I don’t even keep a cat. And yet, it has always been a precarious existence for me. One sixteenth of a column of bad publicity and I could be fighting for my house and my job.

I sat up in the office for an hour and a half after leaving Charlie standing with his mouth open in Eulalie’s grave. No ghosts, no vampires, not even a soft spring breeze disturbed the quiet. I had only to calm the disturbance Charlie Tischler had created in me: a roil of hormones and other bodily responses I hadn’t had since the age of 14 when I’d picked up my first romance, A Love Unknown. Grandma Rose had thought I had menstrual cramps and recommended an ice pack and chocolate. I didn’t say no.

Age, however, turns such indulgences to fat, so I had to quell the (let’s be honest) arousal in another way. That took several deep Grandma Rose breaths, a dose or two of reality and the promise of better company in my books.

So I went up to bed and let the pull-up-toned arms of Brett Shackleford, the hero of His Arms, take my mind into a tight and promising embrace.

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