John sat on his stoop smoking and staring across the street to the neighborhood cemetery. It was small and neglected, not much like the well-manicured parks where the New Orleans tourists flocked. With their wrought-iron gates, famous dead people, plastic flowers, and marble, they were not as haunting as this shabby place. One could not forget death here. Although there were some tombs in the grand old-world style, with winged sentinels standing atop peaked roofs, there were many more crude wooden boxes, crumbling brick mounds and sad toppling crosses. The fence surrounding the Greene Street Cemetery merely suggested security. Garbage more clearly marked the border between the houses of the living and the dead.
A groundskeeper was mowing the same patch of grass for a good ten minutes and John thought that he could do a better job of it. As the guy stopped to smoke, John realized what a perfect job it would be for him. He could just roll out of bed and get to work and it would be during the day so he could easily keep his shift at the Abbey. He could definitely use the money. As a kid in Maine, John had worked in a graveyard for two summers. He liked the work. Mowing lawns allowed his mind to wander aimlessly while his body toiled in the heat.
John walked over to the guy, who had mowed right around a busted garbage bag, bottles and papers spilling out of it.
”hey man. You know if they’re hiring here?” John asked him.
“You know who I can ask?”
“Mrs. Twyman’s the boss, but she ain’t here today. Might be Old Spec can help you.”
“Yeah. Old Spec Samson’s buried every body in this park for at least thirty years.” He smiled slyly. “Knows ‘em all personally.”
“Hmm, then who’s Mrs. Twyman?”
“She’s in charge of all the uptown cemeteries. That’s her office right over there,” he said gesturing.
“Thanks man,” said John, thinking it looked an unlikely shack.
The guy called after him. ”Think Old Spec’s over there on the other side of the park.”
John followed the pointing finger. In that corner stood his favorite tomb, an enormous cement platform looked after by an angel with a demon-beautiful face who seemed to pray for strength to keep the dead put. John liked to lie on the cool expanse at night and watch the clouds fly by between the angel and the moon. One night he had fallen asleep and awoke with a start to find the heaven sent beast looking down at him, its stone eyes questioning his being there.
John almost reached his angel when he saw a tall thin black man walking towards him. He was a little stooped, and held a shovel in his right hand like a staff.
Old Spec turned his head towards him and stopped. John walked over and held out his hand, but the gesture was ignored and he dropped it. “Uh, I was wondering if you guys needed any help around here.”
“Yeah, I’m looking for a job.”
“You want to work here.”
“Yes sir. Do you have any openings?” asked John, feeling ridiculous and not knowing why.
“Why do you want to work here?” Old Spec asked without looking at him.
“Well, I live right across the street, and. . .”
“You thought it’d be mighty easy to just roll out of bed and dig a couple graves,” Said Old Spec, seeming to lose any trace of interest he might have had in this stranger.
“Yeah, I thought it would be convenient, but I also thought you might have need for a good worker.”
“What made you think so?”
John regretted his words, but decided to go ahead and be honest, the way things were going it couldn’t hurt. Besides, it sounded like Old Spec Samson was not even the one who would hire him. It was the woman in the office he had to win over.
“I’ve noticed that most of the guys working over here are slackers. They take all day to mow one patch of grass, and don’t even pick up the garbage that’s all over the place.”
“So you think you could do a better job?”
”I know I could do a better job.”
“Mrs. Twyman ain’t here today. In any case, she’ll not see you until you fill out the paperwork. If you’re serious you’ll go to City Hall, fill out the paperwork and bring it back to her tomorrow,” Old Spec said, turning his back on John.
John looked at his watch. He had time. He retraced his steps and saw the guy he had first talked to, smoking another cigarette.
”Yeah,” John said, pulling out a smoke. He lit it and asked, “How long you been working here?”
“Been working this park for two years. Pretty easy job.”
“Seems like that old guy could be tough.”
“Old Spec? He ain’t any fun that’s for sure, but he don’t order me around unless there’s something to bury. Most times he just wanders about the park and don’t say a word. It’s like I ain’t even here.”
“Hmm. Well thanks.” John said and walked away.
“Arright.” The guy said and started his mower.
John walked over to his house and up the three steps. He picked up the coffee mug and downed the last sip. He took it and the newspaper inside. He lived by himself in a shotgun. The first room was bare. A couch and books were in the second room, then a short hall and bathroom, then the room with the bed and stereo, and last the kitchen with its leaky refrigerator and cockroaches.
He laid the newspaper down on the table and put the mug in the sink. He put on a clean shirt and walked back into the light. He locked the door, checked the mailbox, and put on his helmet. He got on his motorcycle and headed downtown.
At City Hall he found the office closed though, according to the hours on the door, it should have been open. He stepped out for another smoke, and when he returned the door was ajar. A man sat at the front desk. John asked him what papers he needed to fill out for a job at the Greene Street Cemetery. The man eyed him suspiciously then sifted through forms. He handed a thick application to John and told him to fill it out and bring it to Mrs. Twyman.
John took the application to Cauldy’s, and drank another cup of coffee while deciphering bureaucracy. When he was finished, he realized that he should get something to eat. He put the application in his backpack and did not think about it until the next morning.
* * *
John woke up late. It was already noon. Mrs. Twyman would be unimpressed. He gulped coffee with a cigarette and stepped out of his house into another bright muggy day.
He walked across the street to the one room office. He knocked, and a woman’s voice said to come in.
”You are looking to work here?” asked the grey-haired lady from behind her desk and stacks of papers.
”Uh, yes I am.”
”You came by yesterday. Did you complete the paperwork?” she asked holding out her hand.
”Yes, here it is.”
Mrs. Twyman took the application, and looked it over without saying anything. John stood, feeling awkward.
“So you’ve worked in a cemetery before. Have you buried bodies?”
“I dug some graves, but I mostly mowed.”
“Often it happens that, after a good rain, the bodies resurface. Mostly there are just a couple of bones to rebury, but occasionally decomposing bodies must be dealt with. Would you have a problem with that?”
John could not quite imagine it. He figured he would find out when it happened. “No I think I’d be okay with that.”
“You think so? All right then Mr. Conrad. Mr. Samson informs me that you believe yourself to be a hard worker. He also said that you thought the groundskeepers we employ at the present do not do a very thorough job. I cannot argue with you there. So although I have my reservations, I will give you a try. You have another job, is that correct, working at a nightclub?”
”Yes I work at Abbey Bar on Decatur one night a week, but it won’t interfere with my schedule here.”
“Just so long as you show up on time, Mr. Conrad. Find your way to the shed for eight o’clock Monday morning.” She eyed John over her papers a moment and then said, “Good afternoon,” and looked back down.
John hesitated at the door. ”Thank you,” he said and walked out and across the street to his house. He sat on the stoop. He smoked and gazed at the cemetery. He thought he caught a glimpse of Old Spec Samson walking slowly through the rows of tombs. John considered him. He did not seem interested in John at all yesterday, so why had he spoken to Mrs. Twyman about him, and apparently even recommend that she hire him? He doubted the few words exchanged in her office would have convinced her. He supposed they were both tired of seeing the cemetery looking like a mess and were desperate to find somebody who was willing to work. He was not convinced. John thought the lawnmower guy would follow orders if they were given him. John shrugged and went inside. He would begin work on Monday and perhaps things would become clear or perhaps not. In any case, he had a second job, and it was, as far as he was concerned, pretty ideal.
* * *
The weekend passed uneventfully. John worked on Friday and had a few shift drinks. After he went on to the Hide Out and saw some people he knew. He ended up drunk. The sky was just getting light when he rode to the Verdi Mart for breakfast. Riding back uptown, he was quite sober and tired. He slept and read all day Saturday and went out again that night. Sunday was the same as Saturday only with the Sunday paper as a bonus.
He went to bed early but could not fall asleep. Staying out sometimes well past sunrise had become the norm for him in New Orleans. He could not remember the last time he went to bed before two, and it had been much longer since he had anywhere to be at eight in the morning.
He fell asleep at about three and woke up to a buzzing alarm, a buzzing head, and the remnants of a disquieting dream: He had gone down the steps into a dark pond and was caught up by the serenity of the deep still waters, as if they could pull him under forever.
By the time he got dressed, drank a quick cup of coffee, smoked a cigarette, and walked across the street, the dream and its effects were gone.
As he approached the cemetery, he saw the lawn mower guy loafing around the shed. The shed was right next to the office and was even more run down. “Hey.” said John.
“Got yourself a job, huh? Guess we’ll be working together. Name’s Virgil.” He put out his hand.
“Looks like it.” John smiled and shook hands. “I’m John. Just then Old Spec Samson appeared. He stepped out from between two stone tombs and turned onto the dirt road that cut through the middle of the cemetery. Shovel in hand, he walked slowly past them to the shed and unlocked it.
”Morning sir,” said Virgil.
“Hello Mr. Samson,” said John.
“Good morning,” Old Spec said absently. ”The two of you mow this morning. After lunch, meet me in the south east corner with your shovels.” He turned and walked away.
“See? What I tell you? He don’t say nothing he don’t have to.”
“Hmm, well I guess I’ll start over there.”
Virgil looked at him, sizing him up. John did not think Virgil would understand his eagerness to work hard. One of the reasons John wanted this job was to simply expend energy. Explaining this to Virgil would be like explaining a low-fat diet to a famine-stricken man. John did not have a precise understanding of it himself, but he knew he wanted to tire himself out.
He pulled a mower out of the shed and headed off towards what he figured was northwest. He began by picking up trash then started mowing. Along the fence, the grass was tall and full of weeds. John suspected it hadn’t been mowed in years. He returned to the shed and got a weed whacker. He worked steadily and saw no one. As the sun rose, he sweated, so that his shirt was drenched and his face was dripping. He mowed in straight lines whenever he could. Back and forth, he contemplated his lines. He planned his attacks on the weeds and grass. He felt the motor tremble his whole body. He pondered forming blisters and his muscles working. The smell of fresh cut grass swept memories in and out of his mind like the tide of a bay. Memories rolled back and forth with the weed whacker, back and forth with the lawnmower. They washed over his conscious mind and were carelessly wiped away along with the beads of sweat on his upper lip and forehead. When something snapped him out of his reverie – a car, bird, or yell from across the street—he would be made aware that he had been thinking, but it was lost to him or meaningless now.
John was considering how much he had done and how much there was yet to do when he saw Virgil coming towards him. “It’s lunchtime Tarzan. We got an hour before we dig for Old Spec.”
“Yeah? Is it noon already?”
“Straight-up. Come on.”
They walked to the corner store. At the counter, John realized he was hungry. Since summer, he hadn’t had much of an appetite, but right now he was really hungry. It felt good. John followed Virgil’s lead in ordering two cheeseburgers dressed. They stepped outside and sat on the stoop next door.
Virgil evidently lived in the neighborhood and had a greeting and a smile for all. Often the people stopped to chat with him.
After he finished eating, John pulled out a smoke and lit his and Virgil’s. “Is Old Spec from around here too?”
”Old Spec’s been working here since I was a kid and before I was born even. He knows where every body in that park is. Don’t know what else he does but bury and rebury. He don’t help out with the look of the place.”
“Hmm, seems that way.”
“Where you from?”
“I grew up in Maine but I moved here from San Francisco.”
“California? My cousin lives out there. Like to visit some time. What brought you out here?”
“Seemed like a fun place. I guess I move around a lot, and this was my next stop.”
“Strange you moving all the way out here to work in a place like this.”
”Yeah, I didn’t plan on it, but it’s alright.” He lit another smoke and stared across the street.
“It’s a hot one,” said Virgil.
“Mm hmm,” agreed John. The stones of the cemetery glowed with heat. The sun was out full force, and the air was thick with moisture. He had been warned about summers in New Orleans and had joked that it would be like sex all the time. It is in a way. But come summer after a hot spring, it becomes stinky, sticky and overbearing.
Back at the cemetery, each grabbed a shovel from the shed. John followed Virgil to where Old Spec stood. He did not look at them, but as soon as they stopped in front of him he turned towards them and said, “These bones need reburying.”
John looked down at the grave and saw what looked to be a forearm. Where it lay, half buried, he could imagine the rest of the skeleton lying in its entirety under the earth, like sometimes you can see the shadowed part of a new moon.
Old Spec stood by as they pulled the bones. The skeleton was by no means complete and in no formation. They finished pulling them out, then started digging. They dug six feet down, placed the bones back in no particular order, and threw dirt over the top. They worked without talking.
When they finished, Old Spec moved about ten feet away and stood at the foot of another misshapen grave. This was the section of the cemetery where the concrete box was a luxury item, as was the headstone. Here the typical grave was a crude wooden box set in the ground, marked with a slanted wooden cross, transitory testimony. Almost all the boxes were cockeyed, one end sticking up out of the ground a couple of feet, the other end buried. In places, the grass was chest high, the weeds thick and sturdy. John and Virgil walked over to Old Spec, who inclined his head indicating another bone. They repeated their actions. By the time they were done, the old man was nowhere to be seen.
“Get used to it,” Virgil said. “Like this all summer. We bury them and the rain pulls them back up.”
John went home tired, sore, and starving. There was nothing to eat, so he ordered a pizza and lay down. He was woken before he knew he was asleep by the pizza boy, and ate the whole thing while reading the paper. He smoked and did not even think about going out. He did not think, and slept more soundly than he had in a long time.
* * *
Tuesday morning his alarm woke him right up, but he lay in bed for a while, feeling his sore muscles. He made coffee, smoked, then walked across the street to the cemetery. The day was dark, thick with clouds and wetness, pregnant with the storm to come. He got to the shed without seeing anyone. The door was open so he took out his mower. He returned to yesterday’s work and surveyed what he had done. It really wasn’t much. He started up again, and worked hard while the thunder rolled in the distance and dark clouds flew passed bright patches of sunlight.
Suddenly it rained on top of him, heavy and without mercy. Soon he could not see for the drops in his eyes and the mist. He continued mowing until the motor died. He paused and felt the muddy earth shift beneath him. As when standing on a beach one feels the tied receding pulling with it the feet out to sea, he felt the mud, as if it too were under the domination of the moon, pull him in. Slow and firm and heavy, the mud and the earth and the moon sucked him into their obscure and sodden depths. When he understood the pull, he drew his feet out, and walked, slowly and with effort, to the shed.
He felt a little disoriented when he saw his angel above him. Had he passed her earlier? Had she always been a girl? She stood, her figure wrapped in droplets bouncing, her face indistinct through the downpour. He stood still and stared, but not for long. He felt the mud’s determination to suck him into its mire.
Back at the shed, he found Virgil. “Thought maybe you’d gone home for the rain.”
“No,” said John, “I don’t mind the rain, but the mower does.”
”I don’t mind the rain neither. It’s the mud that gets me. Sometimes it feels like they’re pulling you down with ‘em.”
John was watching Virgil who wore a strange smile, when Old Spec Samson appeared in his periphery. ”You go to lunch. Can’t be nothing done now. There will be plenty to do later.” His thin silhouette melted back into the watery light.
John and Virgil sat in a cramped booth in a dark diner and ordered sausage po-boys. They drank coffee and smoked till the rain stopped. The sun brought the steam and the summer brightness. Back at the cemetery, Old Spec waited.
John and Virgil took up their shovels and the three moved through the stone sepulchers with peaked roof seraphim to the uncovered boxes.
Old Spec would bow his head in the direction of a bone or two. John and Virgil would pull them and dig, uncovering more as they moved down. Then there would be nothing. Deeper still, they placed the bones and covered them.
It was odd how some bones resurfaced and others were pulled down all the way, not to be encountered again, even at six feet. John imagined that the bones would continue to resurface until they were sucked down and accepted into the bowels of earth, far under the crust, into the molten foundry of the world, to be reworked into something quite new and inhuman.
The afternoon passed. John went home exhausted and mindless. He ate, read, smoked, drank a beer, though it didn’t taste as rewarding as he anticipated, and finally he slept.
* * *
He awoke with the sensation of having dreamed many dreams, but they left only vague uneasy impressions. He smoked, drank coffee and crossed the street to the cemetery.
He spent the day mowing. He cleaned up a good chunk and went home tired, sweaty, and satisfied. But that night it stormed violently. Great booms drawn out into rumbling shook his little house. He lay on his couch with the lights off and
Looked out the window waiting for lightning.
He thought about the bones that would have to be reburied. It was unsettling. Those people, while on earth alive and whole, reduced to a few bones. Is that it? Life then disintegration? He found it impossible to conceive of a soul flying up to Heaven or being thrust down into Hell. No such thing as a soul? Perhaps he existed as an individual only because of his body? As he fell asleep, he was convinced that the cold black annihilation of existence was far more terrifying than any fiery torture offered by Hell.
* * *
It was difficult for John to wake up on Thursday. He hit the snooze button again and again. No time for coffee. He lit a cigarette as he walked into the cemetery.
He spent the morning mowing. The afternoon he and Virgil followed Old Spec Samson from grave to grave, reburying. At the last grave, he saw no bones, but smelled decay, and his stomach churned. He remembered Mrs. Twyman’s words, and knew that there would be rotting flesh on these bones.
The face appeared a death mask. The spots and patches of mold and worms composed the body. Blues and greens and black and brown mingled together in a putrefying human shape. The stench was overwhelming, and John shut his mind to it all. After it was over, he did not think of it. It was like a nightmare that flies away to nest in the unconscious.
John decided to go out that night. Over dinner, he flirted with the waitress. Then marched straight to the Hide Out, determined to get wasted and laid.
He did not think about the cemetery. He did not think about the decay. He thought only of the booted legs, the belted waists, the gartered thighs, and the wrapped breasts parading by. He settled on a girl with long blond hair and a phenomenal body in white vinyl. She seemed a little self-conscious in her sex appeal, probably because she was young, but he was drunk, and he wanted her, so he moved in.
He felt at once that he would have an easy time of it. Soon enough, in a flash, he saw them having sex and waited, flirting patiently, until it happened.
* * *
Friday morning he crawled out of her bed with nausea and a headache, grabbed his clothes on, and fled to work. He was late, but nobody was there to notice. He worked slowly and painfully throughout the morning. He went home at lunch and fell asleep without eating. He woke up with a start and ran back to work, but again no one was around, and he was thankful. He went to his corner and finished his day without speaking a word. He had seen Virgil down the road a bit and waved, but he did not make a move to talk and Virgil let him be.
That night was his shift at the Abbey. Before work, he ate dinner and drank a few beers while he went through his mail. There were the usual bills along with a postcard from his buddy Denny in Brooklyn. John had planned to stay in New Orleans for another year, but he was beginning to get bored. The biting humor of New York City would be refreshing after the slow sensual stupidity of New Orleans.
He started his shift half drunk and kept drinking. The blond from the night before showed up, but she was not in vinyl. She attempted flirting and he tried to be nice. His longing for her body tonight weighed against his longing for solitude in the morning. In the end, he got drunk and sloppy as he worked and she fled, leaving him sick and sad and tired.
After he closed the bar, he wanted to go home, but felt compelled to move on. He walked down to the Hide Out. He hoped to find her again, but she wasn’t there, so he drank another drink and tried to catch the eye of a beautiful red head, but had neither the focusing power nor the charm to do it. He finally left, got on his bike and did not remember driving home.
* * *
Saturday he spent reading and sleeping. He thought about very little, and was sure that he was not in the mood to go out, but when midnight rolled around, he became restless and rode downtown. He saw the beautiful redhead and flirted. They joked about themselves and their lifestyle. She was a happy boozer too. She had moved here from Seattle, and they made fun of the fog and the cold of the West Coast. He thought that they might go home together, but they both got too drunk to manipulate the situation in the right direction.
Sunday he worked on his bike, then rode to the levy. On his way home, he grabbed a forty-ouncer and a frozen pizza. Finally, he fell asleep.
In the dream, he was waist deep in the dark pond. His angel, walking slowly on the surface of the water, held something glinting and dangerous in her hand. He tried to get away. He moved towards the steps that led out of the pond, knowing that if she reached him she would pull him under forever. Her demon-beautiful face was serene and determined, and he awoke, powerless to stop her.
It was predawn night. He turned on the light and smoked. The dream and the cemetery with its rotting flesh haunted him. Suddenly he thought he might not be up to this job.
* * *
When morning proper came, he went to work and mowed. On his way to the shed at the end of the day, John passed his angel. Her demon-beautiful face, darkened by the sun behind, stared out above him. He remembered his dream, and saw that she might well walk on water.
John went home, read the paper and ate. Later he rode to Checkpoint Charlies. His friend’s band was playing. The show was fun and there were a lot of familiar faces. He drove home sober. Vaguely lonely.
* * *
He woke up before his alarm. He lay in bed smoking. He contemplated not going to work. He figured that he did need the money, so he decided to count on a day like the one before. The possibility of mowing all day comforted, but when he stepped onto his porch he saw the black clouds, felt the thick air, and knew that before long it would be storming.
He went into the shed and greeted Virgil. ”Hey.”
“How you doing?”
“Job getting to you already?”
“Mm,” John affirmed.
“Yeah it does. You’ll get used to it.”
“Yeah, I guess I will.”
”Maybe you won’t neither. Who’s to say?”
John looked after Virgil as he walked down the little dirt road, then he walked in the opposite direction to where he had chosen to work. John mowed until the rain fell. By the time he made it back to the shed, it was as if he had jumped into a pool. He wanted to go home, and thought that he would try to find Old Spec in order to ask if it would be okay.
He walked outside the shed and peered into the water. The old man would probably be coming back soon, but he decided to look for him rather than wait. Before long, he found himself on the other side of the cemetery. Through the rain, he saw the fuzzy silhouette of the tall thin stooped old man. He was standing head cocked atop a tomb, one arm crooked, shovel in hand. John walked towards him, thinking that at any moment the old man would see him, but he didn’t. He moved closer to Old Spec, who seemed to be listening. The din of the torrent was deafening.
John stood directly in front of Old Spec and looked into his eyes. The eyes stared directly at him, but saw nothing. With a creeping sensation of horror and understanding a thought seized him, tugged at his throat and was released in a yell. ”You’re blind!”
Old Spec Samson started slightly and then waved him away. He was definitely listening to something. Or somebody.
Sluggishly John’s mind clicked over the events of the past week. A vision of the old man leading himself and Virgil through the cemetery straight to the risen remains. He always knew where they were. John looked at the old man who was hearing. . . what? The question lodged in his throat with the bile.
He bent over and vomited out the mud, the bones, the putrefying flesh, the alcohol, the sex. All the vile events of his life. When he was finished, the old man was gone, and so, because there was nobody to ask, he screamed his question to the swirling wind and the heavy rain, the swaying trees and the still seraphim, ”How does he find them?”
* * *
Wrapped in rain, tended by his angel, John sat for a long time. He imagined the bones and the decomposing flesh talking to the old blind man, leading him with his staff to the spot where they lie. Perhaps they scream at him until they are reburied. Maybe six feet of dirt merely quiets the screams to low moans. John shuttered to think that these dead piles of bones and flesh would not be silenced until they reached the fiery foundry and were obliterated.
He left the next morning for his new home in New York City, taking with him only what fit in his backpack on his bike. He drove out of New Orleans and left behind what he would not carry. The states flew by, and at each state line he dropped a bone, a bit of flesh. He tossed aside the seraphim, and even his angel. He drove away his past and was thankful he could move.
Every so often he thought of the old blind man, walking amongst the people he buried. The dead are very predictable. One does not need eyes to find them. He wished he had never met Old Spec Samson and tried hard to forget what he had learned. John knew now that he had a soul. His soul, like all the others, was destined to fall apart and rot with the body, crying for mercy until the good earth gave it the nonexistence it longed for.