Joe works with me. He goes to classes at the University at night, but I have no idea what he’s going to be because he’s always changing his mind. I’ve been studying electronics with a correspondence school ever since I got out of high school five years ago. It’s pretty complicated, but I’ve stuck with it.
Mrs. Bailey, who works in the office near the main gate keeping records and making out checks and things like that, says that the “proper nomenclature” of my “position” (she actually talks like that) is “Park Custodian.” She get’s mad at me when I say I’m a grave digger.
I’m not saying that’s all there is to the job. Joe and I do a lot of work keeping up the cemetery, like cutting the grass and keeping the walks neat, but still the biggest part of our job is digging graves. So no matter what Mrs. Bailey calls it, I’m a grave digger.
That’s my job. Like I said, I’ve been doing it for five years and Joe about three. We figured out once that we’ve dug enough graves to take care of a small town. And the work’s steady—somebody’s always dying—and it’s not too complicated.
The only trouble with the job is how people feel about it. Like Mrs. Bailey, I mean. A lot of people feel funny about what I do, so that the only friends I really have are the guys I work with at the cemetery. Joe says he doesn’t care about how people feel, but I sure do.
I like people, but every one I meet either gets all scared, or they laugh at me. I feel kind of sad about the ones who get scared (I’m not good-looking or anything, but I don’t think I’m so ugly that I should scare people), but the ones that laugh make me mad. I mean, what’s so funny about digging graves? Sure, it’s a different kind of job, but heck, there’s lots of people with different kinds of jobs. I know a guy that makes a business of horse manure! You know, for fertilizer. He comes to the cemetery lots of times with a load and God! The smell is awful!
And he’s married!
I can’t understand that. I can’t even get a girl to come out with me.
Anyway, they shouldn’t laugh. There’s nothing funny about dying, so why should they laugh at grave-digging? And it’s something that some people couldn’t do very well, because it’s more than just digging a hole, you know. You have to figure on things like what time of year it is, how wet or how frozen the ground is, and where the grave is going to be, and things like that.
And besides, the ones who think it’s so funny probably don’t remember that sooner or later everybody, no matter who they are, has to come to me. I’m the guy (along with Joe, of course) that’s with him when everything’s quiet and the crowd has gone home. I’m the guy that’s around when he’s getting used to the idea of being dead.
I remember saying something like that to Joe while we were busy digging a grave for some big-wig with one of the car companies.
“Joe,” I said to him, “do you realize that this guy we’re digging for is one of the richest men in town?”
“So what?” he said real nasty-like. He’s having trouble with his girl, who says she can’t stand his working in a cemetery.
“Well, doesn’t it make you feel funny to think that he has to come to you at the end?”
“Funny!” he shouted. “It makes me feel sick! The capitalist pig! Even in death, he exploits the working class!” And then he spit.
I have trouble with Joe sometimes. Today, he decided he was a socialist or something, and he’d say some of the screwiest things. Like when he called me a “stupid blind dog.” I didn’t think I was a stupid or blind. And I certainly wasn’t a dog. I didn’t know what he wanted me to do to prove that I wasn’t. But having him be a socialist was better than dealing with a Hindu yogi, or whatever he was a while back. As a socialist, he worked like mad, because feeling exploited made him feel like a martyr. But when he was a Hindu yogi, he’d just sit around all day with his legs folded and arms crossed and stare straight ahead, while I did all the work. No matter how I’d yell at him, he wouldn’t hear me. Or at least he said he didn’t.
I was hurt because he spit.
“What do you want to talk like that for, Joe?” I said. “The poor guy’s dead and he’s not hurting anybody.”
He spit again.
Joe’s a good guy, but you just can’t talk to him when he’s being a socialist. He’s convinced he’s right and won’t listen to anything. Most of the time, though, I think he feels about things like I do. The sadness of it, I mean. Not only because it happens, but because you know it’s going to happen, except that you never really know so that you can be ready for it.
I mean, you’ve got things to do, like a bill that you want to pay, or maybe a letter that should be written. Nothing’s finished and nobody cares but you, because they don’t know. So that just at the time you’re finishing up, Mr. Jones, down the block, is swearing because somebody scraped the fender on his new Chevy. Or Mrs. Jones is bawling out the butcher because she thinks he cheated on the meat scales. See? They don’t know.
But if they did know, it would be different and they might be sad and quiet and speak in whispers. And they’d remember and it wouldn’t hurt so much that the sun was still shining and that all the rest of the world was going on just the way it always would. And maybe they wouldn’t laugh at me.
I was thinking about this when a horse and wagon came out of the deep valley, just at the foot of the hill we were working. The wind was in back of him, so I knew right away that it was Charlie. He’s the guy with the manure business. I yelled at him and walked down the hill to talk with him for a while. I stopped when I was twenty feet from his cart.
“How’s business?” I yelled.
“Fine,” he yelled back. “Just fine. And thank you for asking my friend, but let’s not discuss it further. The day is too lovely for the discussion of business.”
He took off his black derby hat and took a deep breath.
“Just smell that air, sir,” he shouted.
I was and it was making me a little sick, but Charlie probably couldn’t smell anything but the flowers.
“You are a lucky man, my friend, to be working amid this beauty all day,” he yelled, “while I must ply my trade in the crowded, dirty streets of the city.”
He reached into the suit coat pocket (he always wore a blue serge suit and a black derby hat) and pulled out a cigarette case.
“Have a cigarette?” he asked.
“No, thank you,” I called back. I’ve always been kind of suspicious of those cigarettes. But Charlie was right, it was a beautiful day. The cemetery looked real nice. The trees were a bright green and kind of swaying. A lot of people think it’s silly for a cemetery to look beautiful when it’s just for dead people, but I don’t.
“There’s going to be a big funeral, today, Charlie,” I told him.
“What?” he shouted. “Speak up. I can’t hear you.”
“I said, there’s going to be a big funeral today!”
“That’s fine,” he shouted happily, “fine! It’s good to see the cycle of life go through its turns. Life... death...life...death. It’s good to be sure of dying.”
“It’s not good, Charlie! It’s not good at all!”
“The world goes on,” he said; he whistled at a sparrow chirping from a nearby tree. “People live and people die. And each death is like a grain of sand in the desert. It’s not important, my friend. Place each death in its proper position in the whole picture of things and what is it? Nothing, just nothing. The only thing that’s important is that you dig your graves and I haul my manure, until it’s time for us to die, then someone can take our place. And there’s always someone.”
That wasn’t right. I knew that wasn’t right at all, but my voice was tired from shouting and I couldn’t tell him.
Charlie stood up and stretched again.
“Ah, truly this is a glorious day,” he shouted. He tipped his derby and picked up the reins. “Good-bye,” he said and started up his horse. “Good-bye.”
“Bye, Charlie,” I called after him. “You’re wrong but you’re my only friend.”
“That’s as it should be. It’s fitting. The manure merchant and the digger of graves.”
I watched him leave. He waved to me from the gate. I waved back and returned to the top of the hill, and Joe and I waited for the funeral.
It was about six when the long funeral procession wound into the cemetery. I think it must have been the longest one I’d seen.
“He knew a lot of people,” I said.
“It’s Saturday,” Joe grumbled. “And they’re looking for somewhere to go.”
The light was starting to go. Some of the trees kind of glowed. People in black moved around the hole in the ground. From up here, it looked like a bleeding cut. Heads bowed towards the ground. One head was up towards the sky—a white face, the minister’s.
I looked for the wife. She was standing between two boys and leaning against the taller one. She didn’t move at all, and she kept one hand up to her eyes. The smaller boy reached behind to scratch his butt.
I wondered how often people had stood around a grave at the foot of a hill. I wondered how often someone had to scratch while someone else died. I wondered how many were sad, how many were something else, how many were tired and didn’t care anymore.
The wife threw what looked like a rose on the casket and stayed looking down at the bright red of it. The minister raised his hand and everyone bowed their head. The light brightened, like it sometimes does for just a little while before leaving for good, and it made all the white head-stones that went up and over the hill look whiter and like faces—sitting and watching in rows and aisles like it was a stadium.
I turned and looked towards the valley to the right.
“Look Joe,” I said and pointed.
An older couple and a young girl were walking under the trees. The light made it seem as though you might be able to see through them if you wanted to. They were away from us and getting into the shadows so that it almost seemed like they floated towards the headstone, standing near the scotch pine that I planted last year. They stood with clasped hands for a minute and then knelt to bless the ground.
“Fools,” Joe said, “they should forget the dead.” And he looked away quickly, picking up a pebble to throw at a lonely sparrow. He scared it off.
“Why, Joe?” I asked. “What would they do on the weekend if they didn’t come here?”