By Ben Sumner
“Where the hell is this place?” Tim Crawford pulled over his Chevy and looked at the map again. There was no left turn there. It was bad enough that he agonized over the decision to take the trip, but now even the map didn’t want him to find this place. He crumbled it up with one fist, tossed it into the passenger’s seat and continued driving through the tree-shaded Croppleton neighborhood.
He had been in that area once, about 30 years earlier for his uncle’s funeral. Michael Crawford had gotten drunk at the pub – which wasn’t unusual – started a fight, and ended up leaving in a body bag while his brains remained on the floor with bullet shells.
A flurry of multicolored leaves suddenly shot toward the windshield like charging crows. Tim slammed on the brakes and watched them split into random directions before hovering to the ground.
A moment later, he swung a right onto Banks St., instantly feeling the tires tread over crumbling pavement. The funeral home wasn’t there. He peered between the houses to see if it was on the other side, but he only saw towering trees, swaying in the wind like stoned hippie concertgoers.
Something moved in the middle of the street and he again slammed on his brakes. HONK!
A gray tabby cat was sniffing, perhaps eating a dead squirrel. As the horn sounded, it ran straight for the curb, arched its hind legs, leaped to the top of a chain-linked fence and scampered underneath a nearby bush.
“Watch out, mister!” A redheaded freckle-faced boy of about 10 stood in a front yard, holding a baseball bat in his hand. “You almost ran over my cat.”
Tim felt like telling the snotty kid to shut up. He knew that if he had been drinking that day, he just might have.
“Sorry, I didn’t see him,” he said calmly.
“Her,” the kid blurted, swiping his wrist across his nose.
Tim forced himself to smile. “Hey, can you tell me how to get to the Hayden Funeral Home?”
“What are you going there for, mister?” The boy grabbed the top of the fence with one hand and swung his legs over, still holding onto the bat.
“I need to visit.”
“I’ll tell you for a quarter,” the kid said, holding out his open palm as if he had made the proposition several times before.
Though he figured he would eventually find the place on his own, Tim pulled a coin from his wallet and handed it to the young businessman through the window.
“It’s down the street to your left.” The kid jammed the quarter deep into his front pocket as if trying to hide it, then pointed in the direction Tim was already heading.
Slowly driving down the street, Tim expected another surprise along the way, like a rabid mutt to jump out and block his path, or one of those trees to crash onto his 62′ Stepside. He drove past a few more run-down houses, all of which were owned by unschooled, blue-collar drunkards known elsewhere as the Croppletonfolk. Each one had a rotting-wood porch with a swinging bench, a torn screen door and at least one boarded-up window. They really weren’t so different from his house in Brenton County. Only, he vowed to fix it up as soon as he ran into some cash.
It didn’t take Tim long to get to the end of the road, which turned out to be a dead end. There were only trees and bushes around him. His face quickly turned red. “There’s no left turn here!”
Tim thought about going back and grabbing the kid, squeezing his neck and snatching the coin from his pocket.
A sudden gust of wind swept down, lifting a pile of leaves from their resting place. They flew to the right and landed on a gravelly, weed-infested road. Tim wasn’t sure how he missed it.
He turned the wheel and continued driving. The path was uneven and he bounced around his seat as he rounded the corner. Then he saw it.
The building, tarnished with gray peeling paint, barely stood its ground. A wooden sign that read “Hayden Funeral Home” hung from a rusted metal pole across the rim of the roof. The black marks around the edges made it look as if lightning had struck it multiple times from all angles, even on the bottom. There was a wooden ladder leaning against the rusted gutter. The oak door looked like the structure’s only solid piece, somehow sparing itself the rot and infestation that the walls and floorboards had suffered for years. A sheet of paper that read ‘OPEN’ hung from taped corners inside the window. A chain-linked fence surrounded the yard of dirt and overgrown patches of grass.
Hearing his tires crackle on the gravel, Tim parked his truck on the right side of the building. No more than five cars could fit there at a time, and he wondered how often mourners had to fight for the spaces. A dog’s chain was tied around a tree in the center of the front yard, but there didn’t appear to be a dog, or anything living for that matter, nearby. A Chevy truck, much like his own, was parked in the front lawn, with a pine coffin partially hanging over the end of the bed.
Slowly, he remembered this place. Thirty years earlier, the grass was shorter, greener, and covered the entire yard. The building had fresh paint, and the area seemed pleasant, even for a cemetery. The trees certainly didn’t look as threatening, wind or no wind shaking them violently.
Tim walked through the gate, over the cracked concrete walkway and onto the porch of decaying wood. He could feel his footsteps squish into it. As he reached for the knob, the door swung open.
“Hello.” An old man appeared from behind the door.
Tim stepped back, startled. “Holy shit, you scared me!”
“Sorry about that. I just heard ya pull up.” The man was at least 60, had a gray scraggly beard and dark circles around his eyes as if someone had punched him on either side. An old stitched-up scar stretched down his right cheek. The fly of his plaid, dirt-stained pants was open.
“I’m here to visit my uncle’s grave,” Tim said through clenched teeth, feeling a chill scramble over his skin. He could smell dirt, and had to blink multiple times to get dust out of his eyes.
“Come on in.” The man flashed him a toothless grin as he opened the door all the way, holding out his hand in a welcoming gesture. “The name’s Fred. I’ve been working since I was a boy, 50 years to be exact. I’ve been running the place myself for the past 35. I’m a mortician, digger, accountant, everything that goes on here.”
As much as he hated looking at this rickety old coot, Tim didn’t want to turn away because he was afraid Fred would do something, like grab the large fire extinguisher from the corner, nail him over the head with it, and toss him into the open hole that he could see through the back door.
“Sign here in this book your name, the date, and the person you’re coming to visit.” Fred opened the ledger, which had yellowing parchment and a musty stench. Tim saw that the last visitor had come three days before.
As he began writing, another stink hit him, but this one smelled much worse. Tim grabbed for his nose, coughing several times as he caught a whiff of embalming fluid. He looked to his right. There was a room with several chairs, and a stand for a casket. Then to his left. Through an open door, he saw a set of milk-white bare feet hanging off a table.
Fred slammed the door shut. “Sorry about that. I get so busy painting them faces that I forget to cover them up when visitors come in.” He smiled, showing his discolored gums. “Now, who is it you’re looking for?”
“Michael Crawford.” Tim wrote his name, his uncle’s name and the date in the book.
“Michael Crawford? Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“He was buried here 30 years ago.”
“Thirty years ago?” Fred asked, looking puzzled. “Don’t remember you or him.” Then he smiled again. Tim would do just about anything to get Fred to stop parting his lips.
“Yes. Thirty years ago.”
“Let’s go take a look.” Fred walked out the back door, and Tim followed.
“Any recollection where he’s at?” Fred asked.
“Uh, no. I was 10 years old when it happened,” Tim said, hoping Fred was just joking, and knew precisely where Mike was buried.
“Well, there’s a lot of tombstones around. Let’s look. I’ll check this side, you check that side.”
Oh my God, Tim thought. He walked to the far end of the yard. Gravestones were scattered throughout the field in odd positions, unlike the straight and organized ones that he saw at his friend Steve’s funeral in Brenton. Here, they were facing different ways, some back to back. Some looked so bunched together that Tim wondered if the caskets collided.
As Fred strolled to the other side of the field, Tim looked at each individual headstone.
Nancy Abigail Franklin – In Loving Memory – 1869-1941
Thomas Leigh Franklin – Now With The Angels – 1939-1942
Robert James Jackson – 1881-1941
Emma Louise Miller – A Loving Wife and Mother – 1900-1941
Roy Wayne Hicks – 1930-1965
Tim stopped and looked at that particular arched rock, which had another from 1941 beside it. What the hell is this doing here?
“Find it yet?” Fred yelled from the other side of the graveyard, which looked more like a field of Druid ruins surrounded by a tall wooden fence.
“No!” Tim spat, wondering why Fred didn’t have a map. This town is more backward then I remember it, he thought. I bet there’s just a bunch of redneck drunkards in here.
A soft breeze blew through the grounds. Tim tensed up, feeling as if the souls had heard what he said. Any worse and they would have clawed their way through the soil, knocking down their markers on the way up. They would still be wearing their overalls and bandannas around their necks, holding a bottle of moonshine in one hand and a shotgun in the other. One would smile a tobacco-chewing grin and snarl, “You mind repeatin yerself, boy?”
“What was his name again?” Fred cupped his hands around his mouth.
Tim sighed. “Michael Crawford!”
“I have a Michael Crane over here!” Fred replied. “1931!”
“That’s not him!” Tim growled. Another breeze swept through the yard, swooping up leaves and scattering them elsewhere. Some flew right over the fence.
Tim continued walking along the gnarled rows of tombstones, skimming the chiseled markings on each one. He wondered if all of the bodies were even in caskets. Maybe they were in shallow graves, and bones protruded from the mud after rainstorms. Tim could picture Fred running around, piling on more dirt and hammering them back where they belonged.
Twenty minutes passed. Finally, Fred and Tim met in the middle.
“It’s gotta be around here somewheres.” Fred looked genuinely concerned.
“Where is it? I drove 50 miles to get here!” Tim felt like punching Fred in the face and knocking him unconscious, then rolling him into that open grave.
“All I can tell you is if he was buried here, he’s around here somewheres. Are you sure you looked at every tombstone?”
A sudden spark came to Fred’s eyes. “You know what it might be?”
“What?” Tim’s hands went to the air.
“Fifteen years ago this place was ransacked by some local boys. Some of the stones were knocked down and cracked all the way through. It wasn’t easy putting them all back where they belonged, and some of them I couldn’t even make out. They must’ve gotten lost, somewheres in the middle.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Tim restrained himself from yelling any louder.
“Because it was 15 years ago, and usually someone comes and visits between now and then. You look in those books and you won’t see one visitor for Michael Crane, ever.”
“Does that mean his plot should disappear?”
“It means he’s lost in here somewheres, but 15 years is a long time – or what’d you say, 30? I apologize. I would’ve told you but there weren’t ever any visitors for him until now.”
“I drove here for nothing!” Tim’s heartbeat quickened and he balled his fists.
“He’s here in spirit, I can tell you that. You came to visit, didn’t you?” All of a sudden, Fred was trying to be soothing and sensitive. Tim sighed, trying to calm himself.
Fred continued. “It’s quite all right that you yelled at me. You have every right to. Some of the people who visited the graves that got lost could identify where they were at, but you are the only one who couldn’t. I understand why you’re upset, and I’m truly sorry.”
“Whatever,” Tim said, then headed back to the building. On the way, he got a closer look at the coffin-sized hole near the back door. There was a shovel sticking from the center like a flagpole, and dirt was piled on either side.
When he got back to his truck, he sat there for a moment, facing the old building.
“Where the hell are you?”
The sun had disappeared behind the trees, and the wind blew, hitting him through the window, whisking his hair.
He ain’t in here…
“Uneven graves,” he murmured to himself.
Tim saw the tall trees, over the building and behind the graveyard, waving around.
“A 65′ next to a 41′.”
The wind blew harder, trying to knock down those trees with mighty gusts. Leaves flew through the air like a flock of disorderly birds.
Nobody had visited Uncle Mike in the 30 years since they laid him to rest. No one would have noticed that his tombstone disappeared.
The tree branches were fighting like cats, clawing away at each other and knocking off twigs and leaves. The trunks looked like they were about to snap midway down.
Tim started his truck and drove back into the neighborhood. The little redheaded boy stood in his yard, swinging his baseball bat at nothing in particular.
“Hey, is your daddy home?” Tim said, forcing another smile.
“I’ll give you a quarter if you get him.”
“Lemme see it.”
Tim pulled out another coin and tossed it to him through the window.
“I’ll be right back, mister.” The boy ran inside with the bat, sticking the money into his pocket. “Pop! Someone out here wants to see you!”
A minute later, a large, burly man in his early 30s, wearing a wife-beater and blue jeans, came out with an unlit cigar between his lips. “What?”
“Hello. How long have you been living here?” Tim asked.
“Because I need to know about the graveyard around the corner.”
The man’s head cocked to the side and his skeptical expression changed to a curious one.
“Come on in,” he gestured, removing the cigar from his lips.
Tim parked the truck by the curb and followed the man into his house. They sat at the kitchen table.
“Sorry about the mess. My name’s Ronson. Ralph Ronson.”
“Tim Crawford.” They shook.
“So what brings you to Croppleton?” Ralph asked.
“I just went to visit my uncle’s grave, but his tombstone was missing.”
“What did Fred tell you?” Ralph pushed his cigar back into a plastic case with the chewed end poking out.
“He told me there was vandalism there 15 years ago. He said some of the tombstones got broken and he couldn’t return them all to their proper places. I was wondering if you would know anything about that, or if this guy is just off his rocker.”
Ralph hesitated, scratching his chin. “I’ve been living here all my life. I think I would have heard by now if there was vandalism done to that place. But no one had the balls to play a prank on Fred. I mean, we were all scared shitless of him! Even now, we hear him firing his shotgun outside, target practicing. ”
Tim just looked Ralph in the eyes, wondering how such a monster of a man could be afraid of the old gravedigger.
“Fred lied to you.” Ralph said. “If your uncle’s grave is missing, it ain’t because of vandalism.”
“I know what happened!” The boy came walking into the room, still holding the bat.
Ralph swung his head around. “I don’t want you lying no more, Chuck.”
“I ain’t lying! I swear. I peeked my head over the fence one evening after supper and watched Fred pulling a casket from the ground and moving a stone. He stuck it on his truck.”
“You sure about that?” Ralph’s voice deepened.
“Honest. Then Fred saw me, asked me what I saw, but I told him nothing. Then he gave me a nickel if I kept my mouth shut. I was scared he was gonna git me if I said anything.”
“Do you thinkÃ¯¿½” Tim began, but Ralph finished.
“I think that man is digging up plots that haven’t been visited and reselling them. I bet he’s been doing it for years. Ain’t no one gets buried there except for whores and local drunks. They don’t get no visitors.”
“Holy shit,” Tim whispered.
“We’ll call the sheriff.” Ralph went for the phone.
“Wait. How are we gonna prove it outside of your son’s testimony?”
“You think we can catch him in the act?” Ralph asked. “Do a stakeout?”
“Uh, I can’t stick around here for that. I’ve gotta get back home.” Tim really wasn’t in any hurry to return to his house. His roadwork job didn’t start for another two weeks, and he hadn’t been able to find any work until then, even at the fabric factory. But he certainly didn’t want to hang around Croppleton with one of the locals, waiting for Fred to dig up a grave.
They were silent for a moment. Ralph stood and walked to the refrigerator. “Where you from, Tim?”
“Brenton County. I used to live not too far from here, over in Ridge Creek. I only lived there for ten years. Then my uncle died and we moved. Been in Brenton ever since.”
Ralph grabbed two bottles of beer and returned to the table.
Tim continued. “I drove here solely to visit the grave, only to find this mess.”
Ralph flicked off each lid with a bottle-opener and placed one in front of Tim. A thin mist rose from the neck like smoke.
Tim hadn’t had a sip any alcohol in more than a week. Though he wanted to believe he was cutting back because drinking made him angry, he knew the real reason was that he hadn’t any money to spare.
He drank a mouthful. One beer wouldn’t hurt.
“You know, maybe we should just go to the sheriff after all, and let him handle everything. We’ve got my son’s testimony, your testimony, and they might be able to find some others.”
Tim didn’t want to testify, if it came to that. He wanted to leave Croppleton and never return. He took another sip of beer. A long sip. He had more important things to worry about than the whereabouts of his uncle, 30 years deceased, and whether a scar-faced mortician resold the plot.
“Hey, listen. It’s getting late and I really need to get going. If you wanna take this up with the sheriff yourself, I’d be grateful. Lemme leave you my address in case you need me.”
“All right,” Ralph said, handing Tim a scrap piece of paper and a pen. “I’ll file the complaint in the morning.”
“Look, I really appreciate it,” Tim said as he scribbled a fake address, then downed the rest of the beer in two massive gulps. “This is just way more than I wanted, you know?”
“Thanks for the beer,” Tim said, leaving the empty bottle on the table.
They shook hands at the front door, and Tim walked to his truck.
“Bye mister!” Chuck said from the front yard.
“Chuck! Get inside! You’re not supposed to be outside when it’s dark out!” Ralph hollered.
Tim glanced at the boy, who ran into the house, still holding his bat. He wasn’t a bad kid. He knew how to make a buck. It wasn’t so unusual for someone his age to take money from people, to do a little favor, or to keep a little secret.
Tim started the truck. He sat for a moment, waiting. He didn’t know what he was waiting for, but he continued to sit, staring through the windshield at nothing in particular. He felt a buzz in his head. It wasn’t much, but he normally didn’t feel so much as a twinge of unsteadiness until he finished at least four bottles.
The wind blew through the open window.
With the headlamps off, Tim turned the truck around, drove down the street, and parked on the side of the road. Hesitantly, he got out and walked over the path, hearing crunches of gravel beneath his feet. The paper on the window of the Hayden Funeral Home, barely legible in the darkness, now read ‘CLOSED.’
Tim walked around back, listening to the rusting of the trees, and seeing leaves hover through the darkening sky. He grabbed the top of the wooden fence and pulled himself high enough to look over into the cemetery. Fred wasn’t there.
The wind blew again, and Tim heard a creaking sound coming from the very far end of the fence. The back gate was ajar. He hurried over and slid through.
With the wind blowing against his back, Tim walked through the graveyard, careful to avoid running into one of the oddly placed tombstones. He suddenly noticed that the buzz was now saturating his head as if he had chugged an entire bottle of gin. Lightning lit the sky, followed by thunder.
The shovel was still in the hole near the back door. Careful not to slip on the dirt and fall in, Tim reached for the handle and tugged it out.
The back door was closed. Tim knew – assuming it was unlocked – that it would surely squeak if he opened it. Lightning lit the sky again. Hurrying for the door, Tim pulled it open just as the thunder rumbled, overtaking the sound of the rusty hinges.
The house was dark, but he could see a light from underneath the door of the room to his right – the room with the corpse. Perhaps Fred had left that light on, but he was hiding in the shadows, ready to slam that fire extinguisher over Tim’s head, and then drop him in the open grave that other bodies had once occupied.
Tim screamed as he kicked the door open and charged into the room. There was Fred, hunched over the corpse, his pants around his ankles and ass sticking out.
Holding his breath to avoid the stench of the embalming fluid, Tim swung the shovel like a baseball bat against the mortician’s shoulder. Fred tried to move but tripped over his pants and fell face-first to the floor.
Tim raised the shovel and slammed it onto Fred’s skull. A deafening crack hit the building and a flash of light shined through the window for a split second.
Dropping the weapon, Tim sprinted around the corner and through the front door, looking back to see fire on the roof, lighting up the “Hayden Funeral Home” sign. The wind continued blowing, spreading the flames, and he could see a pillar of smoke as turned onto the main road.
The rain never did fall, but Tim hardly noticed as he drove back to Brenton County. That weekend, he didn’t read in the papers that the building had burnt to the ground, nor did he see the photo of the tombstones covered with ash like black snow, and autumn leaves scattered decoratively on top.
Tim sped down the highway, sweat pouring from his forehead. “I’m gonna get caught and go to jail. They’ll know it was me. My fingerprints are on the shovel, my footprints are in the ground, my name is on the ledger, Ralph and Chuck know I was there…”
Tim rolled up the window. The wind, the wind, stopped blowing.
“Uncle Mike. I hope Fred grabbed your ass like you did mine. Gave me two pennies not to tell. I was gonna destroy that tombstone anyway, spit on it and see that you were burning in hell.”
The wind blew once more, but Tim did not need to feel it to know what it said.
Now we can rest in peace.