Life and Death Story
You Never Know
In this Life and Death Story, the practical details of death must be managed carefully. Managing the living was another whole matter.
As Lucy stared at the wafts of steam spiraling up from her cup into the frosty air, a bittersweet pang fluttered in her chest. So like the incense they use at Mass. Frankincense clouds rise toward the heavenly beings painted on the ceiling. She always felt like she was being left behind somehow.
She tapped her numb fingers on the mug to ensure circulation. It wasn’t right, sitting here in the truck, out of the blasting wind, while the men dug the hole. Granted, they had a huge machine to do the digging. She only had to record the fact that the deed was done in the right place and mark it on the map. Perhaps she didn’t need to be here at all.
But no. It was her job. Had been for years and everyone trusted her to do it right. No one was ever buried in the wrong plot under her watch. A couple of families squabbled about who would go where, but that was quickly settled with cheerful tact and abundant patience.
But this time? There certainly were no squabbles. Even the deceased didn’t specify exactly where he wanted to be buried. Only “in his hometown.” He could have wanted to be buried in someone’s basement for all she knew. Why didn’t anyone ask him to clarify his wishes before it came to this? And put some money down while they were at it?
Lucy placed the cold mug in the cup holder and clapped her gloved hands together, sending prickling stings along her fingers. She could turn on the engine and warm up…but that’d be like telling the guys she was tired of waiting. Or too cold to stand it. They’d turn her way, looking apologetic. But then, they’d still have to get back to work and open the grave before it got any darker. Bothering them wouldn’t make this go any faster.
With a sigh, her exhaled breath clouded the scene. She glanced at the folder in her lap. Might as well open it and appear to be doing her job. She flipped the thick, stapled papers to the last page. Section P. There were really only seven sections, A through F, and by all rights, this one ought to be labeled G, but someone around 1902 must’ve thought that future generations needed a little help keeping things straight. So he or she labeled this section P. For pauper.
She didn’t know much about Mr. Keelson. Oh, there were Keelsons living throughout the county. But this particular twig must’ve snapped off long ago since no one knew him or his history. When the funeral home called and said that a Mr. Thomas J. Keelson had left a scrawled note in the hospital, requesting to be buried in his hometown, she had recorded all the relevant info sure that, in time, some knowledge of him or his family would surface.
Mr. Thomas John Keelson was born in the town as the records stated, but not one person claimed him or his family. The Keelsons that lived over on Six Sisters Road had no idea who he belonged to. And Velma, the patriarch of the country, said she’d never clapped eyes on the man. It was a mystery. A sad one, at that.
A knock on the glass startled her. She looked up. Glen waved a couple of stiff fingers with his dirty-gloved hand. His tight smile tried to appear cheerful, but his frosty white cheeks and squinting eyes bore testimony to a north wind that just wouldn’t quit. He shouted through the glass as if the cold had made her hard of hearing. “We’re ready.”
She nodded and flipped the book back into her folder. She knew the lot number by heart. Seven-two-three. Block P. Three from the top. Three from the right. Nestled between Mrs. Eula Patel and open ground. There was an oak nearby. With an iron bench situated just under the heavy boughs. In the springtime, it looked picturesque. Today it sat between forgotten and forlorn. Her heart throbbed more painfully than the rheumatism in her joints. She climbed out of the truck and braced herself against the wind. She didn’t even notice that she let her muttered thoughts loose as she tugged on her cream-colored crocheted mittens and then stuffed them into her oversized coat pockets.
“Why don’t people think about the future? Surely…”
“What’s that?” Glen, huffing through his scarf, still shouted. He tucked his hands under his armpits. His coat, as well as his frame, was so thin, she imagined that if the wind grew any stronger, it would surely knock him back all the way into block A.
“Oh, nothing. Just wondering why no provisions were made. It’s not hard to pick out a plot, and they’re not expen—”
“Family is probably all dead. Maybe he had one but gave it away like that Joseph guy in the bible did for Jesus.”
Lucy shook her head and felt the wind bite her ears. She yanked her hood tighter around her head. Glen’s gentle heart always looked for the best in folks.
Once she reached the graveside, she nodded to Paul. Short and stout to Glen’s tall, lanky build, the two made a study of contrasts. Paul hardly ever said a word. Just did his work as carefully as ever a man could. A state inspector might review every grave dug in the last thirty years under Paul’s watch but would never find a single fault.
The movement of the hearse backing up caught her attention. It stopped with the flash of the brake lights, and then the engine died. The door swung open and Berta swung out. The woman practically sprang from the front to the back like a released rubber band.
Being a funeral director, Berta had a certain gift for dramatic style. Despite the fact that there was no real assembly to speak of, the power of her movements retained their usual vigor. The back doors swung open, and the two men stepped forward in lockstep. The king’s guard would’ve been impressed with the stately manner in which they carried the cheap wooden coffin from the hearse to the plot.
It took a bit of managing to get everything lined up just so, and the box down smoothly, but despite the wind howling in her ears, Lucy felt warm relief flood her whole body as Mr. Thomas J. Keelson was finally laid in his eternal resting place.
Once the process was completed to Berta’s satisfaction, she grinned, waved, and then retreated from whence she had come like a motion picture star going off stage.
Glen and Paul began to fill in the hole. There was nothing left but to wait in the truck. Lucy climbed in, shoving her notebook and papers aside. It was too cold. She eyed the key in the ignition.
They won’t mind.
The truck roared to life, and Lucy turned the heater on full blast. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes to the sound of the tractor shoveling dirt into the hole. She tried not to imagine it in her mind.
Her phone chimed.
After yanking off one mitten, Lucy tugged her phone from her coat pocket and smacked it against her ear. “Yes?”
“Mrs. Lucy Harden?”
“Speaking.” Lucy felt her heart constrict. She didn’t recognize the voice, but who on earth would be calling her this late on a Friday evening?
“Sorry to bother you, but I just discovered that my dad’s body was taken to your cemetery to be buried.”
“Your…dad?” A chunk of ice caught in her throat.
“Yeah. He’d been ill for some time and couldn’t remember things so well. I’ve been living on the west coast. There’s no one else. When he was sick, I made sure that the funeral home would do right by him…but I never actually specified where he was to be buried.”
Lucy shook her head. Tears sprang into her eyes. “He left a note saying he wanted to be buried in his hometown. So we did.” She grabbed a breath and choked it down. “Just now.” Tears sprang into her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you existed, or I would’ve let you know. The funeral home never told me—”
“Oh, they didn’t know. See, my dad and I didn’t get along. He was a terrible dad, as a matter of fact, and a worse husband, if you know what I mean.”
Lucy’s gaze drifted to the two men adding the final touches to the grave, piling on the last of the dirt and rounding the edges. Their backs were bent and the oak’s black branches seemed to claw the air above them like a menacing monster.
She made a proper grieving sound. As she must.
“But despite everything…I knew my dad was terrified of being cremated. He thought it was a prelude to hell. Used to say that if we had him cremated, he’d come back and haunt us. I figure he won’t have any say in the matter…but still. I can’t explain. I made sure he wasn’t cremated. But I just couldn’t bury him.”
Lucy couldn’t think of a thing to say. Her nose and ears burned like hellfire.
A knock on the window nearly wrenched her out of her skin.
Glen looked so happy through his dog-tired eyes, and Paul waved as he hustled to his own dirt-splattered truck.
Lucy nodded. To no one in particular.
Glen climbed in the driver’s side, slapped his hands on the wheel, and grunted. “Thank God!” He saw her frown and froze.
Lucy spoke into the phone. “Sorry. But, what did you say your name was?”
“Oh, yeah. Thomas, like my dad. Though everyone just calls me Tom. Named my son is Thomas too. Tommy. My wife insisted; she loves the name…”
A tear rolled down Lucy’s cheek, and she couldn’t for the world explain to Glen why she was crying. I did my job, after all.
“Well, Mr… I mean Tom. You can rest assured that your dad is buried properly. If you ever want to visit him, he’s in section P.”
“Thank you, mam. I just wanted to know. I doubt I’ll ever come.”
Lucy could hear Tom shift the phone against his ear.
“Maybe my boy will, someday. Never know.”
Another tear followed the first.
“But I’m just glad it’s over. Maybe now I can forget it all. Thanks…Bye.”
Lucy stared at the silent phone as if it might dissolve in her hand.
Glen sniffed. “He had a son? Sorry he wasn’t here to say a few words over his dad, I suppose. Poor guy. But he can come in the springtime—Memorial Day. We get a real crowd then. Maybe he’ll even meet up with some long-lost family members.” Glen put the truck into gear and headed onto the main road.
Lucy dropped her hands, still holding the dead phone, onto her lap. She stared at the houses with lit windows shining onto Main Street. Each a personality unto itself. Miniature little worlds.
Glen cleared his throat and jutted his jaw as if to defend a point of honor. “Well, you never know.”
Lucy nodded. “You’re right. You never know.”
A. K. Frailey is the author of 17 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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