It was just another boring day in the graveyard. We had no burials planned and it wasn’t raining so there was no excuse to stay in the office with the air conditioner watching Jerry Springer or Maury. Instead, we—and by we I mean Chris and I, the ones that did the hard work—had to pretend to look busy. I did, at least. Christ sat against the bucket of the tractor and smoked a cigarette, either watching me pretending to weed whack or watching the squirrels in the trees behind me. I couldn’t tell and frankly didn’t care. I couldn’t tell our boss, Frankie, to fuck off for making us work when there was truly nothing to do, either. I was summer help. I needed the money, as bad as it was. That’s what happens when you go home for a summer in college, I realized. You end up digging graves for petty cash.
At about ten Frankie said we’d dig the hole for a burial the following day. I think he finally saw that we weren’t doing much. As old as he was, he was probably bored, too. A car drove up as Chris and I met him at the spot where the plot would be. Shiny and new, it was the exact opposite of everything around us. I liked it for that. Part of me wanted to touch it to run a finger along the body like my friends who were actually into cars did from time to time. I don’t know if they got off on that or something, but I had sworn to myself to try it some time. I would’ve done it there if Frankie hadn’t warned me multiple times about interacting with people in the cemetery.
“Don’t talk to them,” he said. “Just don’t. If they’re here, they’re in mourning and the last thing they want is to see your face and hear your voice.”
Frankie had known me since I was a kid and I didn’t know how much of that was serious, so I just followed the rule regardless. In my short time working there, there had only been one person I would’ve talked to anyway. A girl who had to be around my age who visited a grave I guessed belonged to her grandmother. She came just about every two weeks. I didn’t know her name, so I called her by the name on the grave, Diana Salvaggio. As much as I wanted to talk to Diane Salvaggio, I didn’t. If I could, I probably wouldn’t have. As much as it sucked to just watch, I wasn’t equipped with a set of balls that would allow me to do much else. I could literally put someone in the ground, but I couldn’t talk to a girl to save my soul. I was an English major and they call that irony.
The man driving the car stopped a few feet away. The three of us turned and watched him get out. He had a Yankees cap on a balding head. Frankie shook his hand as he walked up, his other hand coming to rest on the man’s shoulder.
“Touch,” Frankie had told me, “is important in the business of death. People want to be touched when their loved ones die.”
“Hi, Pal,” Frankie said. Frankie called everyone Pal. If he liked you, you were Pally. The man nodded. Frankie turned and told us to hang on, to have a smoke if we wanted. He’d let us know when he was ready.
Chris shrugged and walked away. I trailed a few feet behind, trying to think about the last time Diana Salvaggio had shown up, but I couldn’t remember the date. She’d brought daisies. I told myself that daises were the real Diana’s favorite flower. I’d remember that. Maybe some time if I saw daisies, I’d pick them up. Then, when Diana Salvaggio returned, she’d thank me for the flowers for her dearly departed grandmother and start a conversation with me. If she talked to me first, I’d be A-Okay. I could do that. It was the starting the conversation that was the problem.
Frankie and the man talked for the next thirty minutes. I walked between headstones in no particular order, feeling like Pacman. I wondered if that’s where the idea for the game came from. After a little bit, Chris told me to sit down, I was making him nervous. He was always saying that to everyone.
“Cut that shit out, yo,” he’d start, and you knew right then that you were making him nervous. He never explained why he’d get nervous. I thought drugs, but knew better than to press.
I nodded and sat down across from him. He looked up.
“I ever tell you that I hit a guy with a car one time? A beaner,” he said, as if we were discussing something as simply as the World Series.
“Oh?” I said. The upturn in my voice made it seem like I was interested and Chris laughed.
“Yeah, the stupid bitch was behind my car over on Broad Street. I was pulling out and he wasn’t paying attention and I backed up into hm. It was his fucking fault.”
Chris paused to slide another cigarette out of the pack, light it, and take a drag. He coughed.
“I mean, I called 911 like you’re supposed to. The guy wasn’t dead. But then I left. I didn’t need to be there. I had a blunt under my seat, too.”
He took another drag.
“He followed my fingers when I moved them in front of his face and shit, too.”
I made a noncommittal noise. I really didn’t want to hear about how much of a convict my coworker was. I figured when I signed up for the gig that I wouldn’t be working with the best and brightest, but that didn’t mean I wanted to think about it. There had been another guy at the beginning of the summer. Tony or Tom or something. He always talked about how he wanted to get away to Nampa, Idaho. He said it was beautiful. He also said he’d be able to avoid child support payments. The name Nampa, when it came out of his mouth, was like a fire siren the way Tony or Tom stretched out the first vowel the way that most people from Jersey and New York did. I didn’t do it and it annoyed the hell out of me. He’d never be able to hide in Nampa.
Chris lapsed into silence. I watched a blue jay hop from headstone to headstone, pecking at the tops like they were trays of seeds. Frankie and the visitor kept talking. The visitor’s shoulders were slumped and his jacket looked too heavy for the summer. I wondered if he was sweating. You could see Frankie’s pit stains from across the graveyard.
“I’m done with this. If he wants us, he can walk his lazy ass into the office and get us,” Chris said, standing up.
“I’m going to stay out here,” I said,” I like the breeze.
Chris dusted off the seat of his pants, flicked the spent cigarette into the grass. He gave me a look, but said nothing and walked away.
Another ten minutes passed. The cemetery was expectedly quiet. Even the Garden State Parkway, which was just across the fence and down a hill, was muffled by the trees that lined the fences. I thought about all the people, alive, that passed by every day. If you didn’t know the cemetery was there, you’d drive right by. It wasn’t like the other cemetery over in Newark that was bisected by the Parkway. No matter what, you saw graves. It had unnerved me as a kid when we had to drive through at night on the way back from my aunt and uncle’s. I held my breath like my father told me to, hoping to ward off the ghosts I wasn’t sure I believed in. This cemetery, though, this one was hidden. You didn’t have to hold your breath when you passed. If a ghost wanted to haunt you, I realized, all it needed to do was hitch a ride.
More time passed. The only good thing was that I was getting paid to sit around. I had begun to doze, my head dipping against my chest like a fishing bobber when I caught movement in my peripheral. My head shot up. Frankie was waving me over. The other man had driven away.
“Pal,” Frankie said. “Go get the tractor. The keys are in it. You know how to drive it?”
Frankie used a checkered bandana to wipe sweat from his forehead. I nodded. He didn’t need to know that I didn’t. I’d told him I’d driven one before in hopes that he’d let me drive it earlier in the summer. It couldn’t be that hard. I’d spent enough time staring at the pedals and switches on the dash while riding on the back of it.
Frankie nodded and sat down on a nearby memorial bench. He let out a whoosh of air as he did. He sounded like a radiator releasing steam. I went and hopped up on the tractor. This was my big chance, my shot to prove that I could drive the hell out of a tractor. Life skill, check. If I did it well—quickly, efficiently—maybe Frankie’d let me drive it more often. I could be his tractor chauffeur.
I took a moment to look around. It was like climbing a mountain, almost. Everything looked different from on high. I’d ridden on the tractor before, sure, but this, this was different. I was in charge. I was the driver. The sound of snapping fingers reached my ears and I saw Frankie motioning for me to hurry up or, more likely, hurry the fuck up.
The tractor kicked to life and I breathed in diesel exhaust. I wondered if you could get high off it. I breathed in again, deeper. I wondered if Diana Salvaggio would show up and see me on the tractor. That’d be something. She’d probably be impressed.
The hundred-yard drive was uneventful. Diana Salvaggio didn’t show up. Frankie didn’t even say thanks, he just nodded and told me to cut the engine.
“We’ve got to go pick some stuff up from the church,” he said. “We’ll dig when Chris and I get back.”
He brought Chris with him, I suspected, so that Chris didn’t do any damage. One of the days Frankie had gone to the church alone, Chris and Tony or Tom had a lawnmower race. The build-up to the race was entertaining—trash-talking amongst the dead and bets that would never be fulfilled—but the race itself bordered on tortuous. There is only so much fun you can have watching two machines tutting down a gravel road at five miles an hour. I figured Frankie had heard about it and didn’t want Chris out of his sight.
Frankie started walking toward the office. I followed. When we got back to the office, Frankie stood for a moment in front of the sole window. It looked out on the back part of the cemetery, the newer portion. He told Chris they were going to church and stopping at Quick Chek after.
“You want anything, Pal?”
“Gatorade,” I said. “Blue.”
“Sure thing, Pal,” Frankie said, accepting two folded ones I pulled from my pocket.
Frankie had reached the doorway when he stopped. Chris was out and had started the cemetery pickup already. The big man turned to face me.
“You know that guy I was talking to before?”
“He’s out there right now.” Frankie pointed out the window behind me. I nodded again.
“We buried his best friend last week and he’s pretty upset about it.”
A week into my job, I learned to distance myself from any sort of emotion the people at funerals felt for their dead. It wouldn’t be beneficial for the gravedigger to be crying along with the family.
“Okay,” I said.
“He told me before he doesn’t have much to live for and he may have said he has a gun in his trunk.” Frankie pointed out the window again. “Keep an eye on him.”
I didn’t have a chance to respond before he turned and closed the door behind him.