The Lazy Gravedigger
The gravedigger had six graves to dig before sunrise. It was his first night on the job. He’d never before dug a grave, so six seemed excessive. He wasn’t going to complain, though. He planned on making a strong first impression.
When the gravedigger turned the backhoe’s ignition key, the machine grumbled only halfway to life. After a few seconds, it choked out. When the gravedigger tried again, the engine gave no response.
The boss was unperturbed. “It’s fine. I have a good feeling about you.” He handed the gravedigger a shovel. “Make sure you dig each grave at least six feet deep. Smooth and flat as a made bed, ok?” The boss swept out his hands like he was massaging a surly duvet.
Mist fell. Rich wet soil scent rose from the shaggy grass. A moon hung somewhere behind the gray sky, evenly backlighting the scaly clouds. The gravedigger began a mental calculation. Six graves, each at least six feet deep, three feet wide, five to six feet long depending on how tall each person was. … These numbers blended into soup in his head. The gravedigger scooped a test shovelful. The black loam wriggled with worms. There was no use working out total cubic feet. He already knew he couldn’t dig that much.
The graves were to go in the back corner of the graveyard by a rusty chain-link fence. Six deceased, wrapped in stamped white vinyl body sacks, lay against the fence, side by side. These came from the county bughouse, dropped off by the county van.
“They’re indigents. No family, no funeral. Each gets one of these.” The boss gave the gravedigger a sack of palm-sized stone markers with names and dates. Once everybody was in the ground, the gravedigger was supposed to set the markers on top of the graves.
“Don’t sweat whether or not you match folks to markers,” said the boss. “What do they know? Just dig the graves and dig ‘em right. The key is to make these graves at least six feet deep, smooth and flat as a made bed, ok?”
“Why smooth and flat?” It seemed odd to be lax about markers but strict about smoothness and flatness.
“You don’t like lumps in your mattress, do you? Do you?” The boss jabbed a short finger into the gravedigger’s chest, “Do you?” then left to manage something else.
“What do they know?” the boss had asked. The gravedigger tended to agree. What did dead people know about markers on their graves? For that matter, what did they know about how much dirt got piled on top of them? How flat their beds were? The gravedigger could by no means dig six graves six feet deep, but he could probably dig six graves two feet deep, especially if he didn’t worry about making the bottoms pretty. This is what he did.
The gravedigger was thumping down dirt on the last grave when the tip of the sun appeared. He tossed markers onto the graves, headed into the cemetery office, and bought himself a Fresca from the vending machine. He took his drink outside. The rising sun made him sleepy, but he was not eager to return to his apartment. There was nothing for him there but another can of chili and the empty bed. He hesitated, staring into the cemetery rows. Then the boss appeared and grabbed his arm.
“Come see what you did!”
The boss pulled the gravedigger back to the corner of the graveyard. He pointed to the fresh, now vacant graves. The dead, still in their sacks, were up and hopping in circles. Some crashed into the fence. Others were off bonking their shins against the elaborate headstones of paid customers.
“Jesus. They’re still alive.”
“No, still dead. Just not buried. Thanks to you. If the sun warms the topsoil, if their beds aren’t comfortable, they get a little squirrely. They wiggle around, shift loose, and from there it’s ‘hmph,’” the boss acted it out, “as easy as doing a sit-up.”
The dead were noisy. They sounded from inside their sacks like they were crying, joining together like a flock of agitated sheep.
The boss frowned. “No memories, no knowledge. Feelings they don’t know what to do with. Like newborns with worn-out bodies. All they want is sleep.” The boss picked up the shovel. “They’re like crabby babies when they can’t sleep. Waah, waah. It’s disgusting. The dirt is like a blanket to them. You have to swaddle them.”
“They don’t feel claustrophobic?”
The boss ran around like a sheepdog, poking the dead with the butt of the shovel back towards their graves.
“No, no, it’s good for them. They like it. They need to be swaddled tight, real tight. If you keep them under for a whole day and into the following night, they stay down for good.”
The gravedigger hadn’t known any of this. “I’m sorry. I feel awful.”
“You should. You fucked up,” said the boss. “Now they’ve gotta stay like this forever.” He had them herded into a bleating huddle. One sounded like a sick young woman mumbling in her sleep, the way Kelly sounded, so like Kelly that the gravedigger started to sniffle.
“Cut that out,” said the boss. “I was joking. It’s not the end of the world. You just have to wonk them back out, like so.” He went to the sleep-mumbler and tapped her head at the temple with the shovel handle, gently, like a cop rousting the usual drunk from a bus stop bench. When the handle touched her, she swooned back onto the grass and was still.
“She’ll be like that for hours. Enough time for you to dig your ass off. You remember what I said, right?”
“Six feet deep, smooth and flat as a made bed.”
“At least,” groused the boss. “At the very, very least. It’s a funny business.” He yawned, then studied his cuticles. “You didn’t know about any of this?”
The gravedigger shook his head. The boss handed him the shovel.
“Nobody does, nobody does.” The boss scratched his belly and smiled proudly. “The end is like this, and nobody knows.”
The gravedigger could hardly be surprised by these secrets of death. The world was full of secrets. When Kelly was in the later stages, with the most expensive treatments, the gravedigger needed a night job after his day job at the video store. He found one in the factory where they piped Spaghettaroni into cans. As a kid, he loved Spaghettaroni and the twenty-seven proprietary flavors in its chunky sauce. Everybody loved Spaghettaroni. After just one shift, though, he no longer enjoyed any of these flavors, knowing now their dark provenance. Even today, when he saw one of those cans, he heard the glop the sauce machine’s proboscis made when it spurted out a calibrated canful of umber juice. Now he stuck to chili. He knew the chili surely kept its own secrets, but he didn’t know them himself.
At the start of the night, it had seemed impossible to dig six graves, but now, beside the bodies, the gravedigger dug with inhuman speed. He finished in the hot late afternoon. His limbs felt lifeless. He’d never traveled so deeply into the realm of exhaustion. The boss came out from the office and handed him another Fresca.
“On the house. Hope you learned your lesson.”
The boss inspected the six graves. He gave each top an approving stomp.
“Don’t beat yourself up. It was your first night. They’re not squirming now,” he pronounced, as if reading the gravedigger’s mind. “It’s cold down there, too deep to feel the sun.” The boss glanced to the front gate. Landscaping crews were arriving, and staff from the funeral homes. “Hey,” he said to the gravedigger, “the county called earlier. Their van broke down. They won’t be by ‘til tomorrow night. Go get some sleep.”
Back in his apartment, the gravedigger took off his boots and surveyed the living room. He’d left a mess: empty chili cans scattered between the couch and the television cabinet, dirty towels wadded on the bathroom threshold, and piled on the coffee table, inscrutable paperwork from the hospitals and the insurance companies. Kelly was still present in the apartment, but veiled. Her clothes and books, Goodwill-bound, sat boxed by the door. On the wall shelves, the pictures of Kelly were turned facedown. A spare key, Kelly’s copy, hung on its peg under the light switch. The day’s last hour of sun streamed through the window.
The gravedigger went to the bedroom and climbed onto the bed in his muddy clothes. Lately he’d slept in a sleeping bag on top of the bare mattress. He crawled headfirst into the bag, pulled his feet in, and closed his eyes. Sweat pooled in his crotch and armpits, between his toes and up the backs of his knees. He twisted out and turned the thermostat down to sixty. Then he climbed back into the bag and again lay unmoving.
“What would the sun feel like on a body bag?” he wondered. The bedroom had no windows. Eyes closed, he rolled to the edge of the bed, planted his feet, and hopped toward the bedroom door. When he bumped into the wall, he sidled along until he reached the doorway, then hopped through into the living room. He stumbled toward the window, toward the invisible sun, until his temple struck the unexpected shelf and he tumbled into blackness, where Kelly waited.
Joe Aguirre comes from Mobile, Alabama, and writes from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. He’s driven a laundry truck, practiced maritime law, and sorted organs in a pathology lab. His story “L’encyclopédie du Mime: Selected Entries” was published in Fugues’s fall issue as the 2019 Prose Contest runner-up, and his story “Three Riffs for the Devil” appeared this fall in The Conium Review as its 2019 Innovative Short Fiction Contest winner.