May 21, 2021
The Dead Girl’s Brother
By Bryan Starchman
The shovel was for finishing work but the backhoe did the real digging. The soil wasn’t like rich coffee grounds filled with plump impressive worms ready to gorge themselves on the flesh of the newly deceased. It was a rusty orange that rejected hand digging. Wet it down and it became as thick as the clay he used to fling up at the ceiling in ceramics class. Thrust a shovel in its soaking maw and it would suck at the blade, making for back-straining work. It would cling to the cuticles and the ridges of your boots and sometimes get matted in your hair, later hardening and making a mess of your steering wheel and floor mat and headrest.
There was a metallic smell when it rained, a smell Lloyd assumed was a premonition of cancer, of sickness, of something evil. But what did he expect a graveyard to smell like? He did not feel that it was a safe work environment but it seemed appropriate. Working with the dead should not be pleasant. It would seem almost macabre considering they were dead and he was alive.
He had been digging graves at the old cemetery since he was nineteen. It seemed like the only way to make a name for himself since Jennifer’s death. He didn’t want to be the dead girl’s brother any longer. Instead he became the grave digger. It sounded much more sinister than it was but at least he was known for his own merits and not for his association with a tragedy from over a decade ago.
His sister had been pretty and well-liked. A dancer. And in a small town starved for entertainment nearly everyone had seen her perform at the local high school. This made her somewhat of a celebrity, a shared experience amongst the grocery shoppers and church goers. Three hundred pairs of eyes had watched her glide across the stage to Tchaikovsky even though none of them knew how to spell or even pronounce the composer’s name.
He sometimes wondered if the town would have made such a fuss if she had been homely or graceless or awkward. People whispered that he was “the kid whose sister was killed” and he wanted to scream out, “People die every day!” Why did they have to label him as the dead girl’s brother? Why did her death have to define him?
They called her killer a “distracted driver”. Lloyd called him a murderous prick. A privileged former jock who decided refilling his lip with dip was more important than keeping his eyes on the road. He drifted into her lane in his big pickup, a lifted Ford that advertised his insecurities for all to see. He slammed into her front bumper and her tiny Toyota fused to his swinging dick of a truck. He walked away with a scratched face.
They kept her coffin closed at the wake.
The jock showed up to her funeral, slouching at the graveside wearing an un-ironed shirt, Wrangler jeans, and a clip on tie. His lawyer stayed in the car but insisted that his client attend to gain favor with the judge. The asshole looked bored as they lowered Jennifer into the ground and Lloyd caught him checking the time on his digital watch. He wanted to rip his throat out but Lloyd was seven at the time and the asshole was a local football hero, second only to Jesus.
The jock got community service and a slap on the wrist and went on to marry a pretty girl who he later beat with his fists. But he wasn’t remembered as the guy who murdered Jennifer. He was the former football player who took over his dad’s well-drilling business. A good old boy who always sponsored a car in the demolition derby and got slapped on the back at the bar. Simply admired because he had been able to run and tackle and had familial roots in blue collar work.
Lloyd still saw him sometimes, driving a new Dodge Ram, and he’d imagine the forty-something jock playing on his iPhone instead of keeping his eyes on the road.
This morning Lloyd leans against the clay coated tractor and sips his coffee, munches on an apple as he watches a family bury their grandmother. There are different types of funerals and he has witnessed them all. The somber ones where a mother is buried after succumbing to cancer. The dubious ones where the parents had searched Crockett Lake for their teenage son and still held out hope, not wanting to believe the bloated body recovered by the divers could really be their little boy. The lonely ones where an old hermit has been forgotten and no one but the devout Father Ryan is there to send him to the great beyond. Today’s funeral was an obligatory one. An old woman had died and had been creeping towards death for the past three years. Now that she was dead it was customary to bury her and so the adults took a half day off work, the kids missed school, and all of them checked their phones just waiting for the priest to go through the motions.
The first-time mourners are almost always shocked by the black plastic that lines the graves. Another fallacy of movies and literature. We are not buried to return to the earth to grow into a tree that will flower and multiply. Instead we are preserved and packaged like a shelf-stable snack for future cannibals. Bodies are not buried the apocryphal six-feet-under. They are only buried four feet deep and sometimes the graves, like the one today’s ex-grandmother was being lowered into, is reinforced with concrete so that her final resting place doesn’t turn into a sinkhole under the tires of Lloyd’s Bobcat tractor. The entire grave is lined with thick black plastic so the juices can’t seep into the soil and leech into the groundwater because families who live below the graveyard don’t want to drink and bathe in the dead.
The ex-grandmother was being buried where the road had been until Lloyd diverted it just last week. One of the ex-grandmother’s kin, a puffy man in a Target sports coat who smelled like donuts, was very upset that the plot was almost in the road. Lloyd noticed that they were burying their loved one in a reinforced cardboard coffin, the cheapest you can legally buy. Maybe that’s why the man was so indignant about where his ex-grandmother would be resting because he couldn’t afford an actual pine box. But in the end, what did the coffin matter if it’s wrapped in plastic? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, garbage bag to garbage bag.
Lloyd apologized. There was nothing he could do and so after the blustery man wore himself out he went back to the inconvenienced family. They shuffled off, realizing that replacing a gravesite wasn’t like returning a sweater or asking for another bowl of soup without a fly drowning in it.
One time Lloyd was digging and the backhoe punctured the corner of a grave from the 1980s. The remains spilled out like some foul expired juice box. He covered the ooze with a bucket full of clay, not reporting the accident to the county, and knew the water might be unusually tangy if it seeped deep enough. But he didn’t lose sleep over it because nothing could truly seep through the thick clay.
Lloyd had decided long ago to be cremated and something about this decision made him feel oddly unfaithful. He didn’t want to be buried where he worked and he definitely didn’t want to be wrapped in plastic for eternity. He would have his ashes spread somewhere pretty or maybe mixed into the river so that he could swim and flow instead of just lying there and rotting like so many of his tenants.
The days were usually quiet. Sometimes tourists would come looking for the graves of gunslingers and he would have to explain this wasn’t Dodge City or Deadwood. There were graves from the days of the Old West but most were penniless prospectors. A local drunk would swing by the graveyard in search of fresh flowers every time he needed to apologize to his girlfriend for his bad behavior. Lloyd wondered if she knew where the bouquets came from but he never stopped the thief; the dead don’t want flowers. The dead don’t want anything.
The only grave he singled out was Jennifer’s. Once upon a time it was visited regularly by his parents, by her classmates, by people who didn’t truly know her but still mourned the loss of a promising life cut short. Girls who had danced with her left their ballet shoes, dozens of pairs, but the years had not been kind. Swollen and decaying, the once pink shoes now looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. In his dreams they were rotting eggs that would hatch to reveal sentient feet with mouths full of sharpened toenails. He would wake up dripping with sweat and soon he would feel guilty. Guilty for not maintaining her grave. Guilty for being too weak to gather up the old shoes and just throw them away. She deserved to have her tombstone swept, to have fresh flowers, to be honored in death. Every time he had the dream he promised he would take care of it.
Tomorrow, he would face his demons and man up and clean off his sister’s grave.
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