Robert B. Cooke
Location: Birmingham, AL
Date of Birth: 9/5/55
THEY SLEEP, THEY WALK
If you haven't visited yet, you will. If you haven't done the duties yet, you will. Every human finds himself or herself in a graveyard once. Or twice. Or uncounted numbers of times.
A graveyard in Tuscaloosa, between midnight and cockcrow.
It's not really dark, country dark. Any cemetery in use is too close to town for that. The streetlights and signs glow dim red against the clouds. An airplane beacon flashes from the top of a radio tower.
The cicadas are whining nervously as I park the car and step across the chain at the gate. People complain about the heat and humidity in Alabama, but it's not bad at night. Less than 80 degrees, probably. Maybe. Wearing cotton helps. I'm still sweating. Every now and again, there's a little breeze. They blow cold on my back.
The gravel drive crunches under my JC Penney running shoes. I'm carrying my flashlight in my right hand, but I haven't turned it on. I can see tree and monument shapes dimly, and that's enough so far.
Too much coffee, too much fried food, not enough sleep. It's been a long few days. A week ago, I didn't know I'd be doing this. My stomach slides queasily. I swallow against a surge of reflux.
In a graveyard after midnight, before cockcrow. There's a person-shaped blob at the foot of the slope. I hadn't expected to meet anyone. He flashes a tiny, black aluminum light, like mine, against the ground to let me know he's there.
I think he's a man. It's hard to tell in the dark. Medium height, medium build, black clothing with a loose jacket, medium length black hair, light ashy skin. When he speaks, his voice is a smooth tenor/alto.
"Be careful where you step. If you step in a fire ant bed, it's a pain getting enough light to get those little buggers off. Not to mention pulling your pants down to get them off your calves."
"Thanks, I'll be careful."
"Are you taking out or bringing back?"
"Is this your first time?"
"Does it show?"
"We all have to start sometime. What have you got with you?" I show him the plastic collection bags connected to their silver-content needles.
"Come give me a hand with this, and I help you get your fluids."
We walk across the cemetery together, up the slope. I think I could have done this alone, but it's good to have help. Needles have always bothered me.
He flashes his light occasionally to guide us. "This one, the one I'm doing, is a were-cancer. His wife is one of the ones helping to bring him back."
He stops by a box, already on the surface. I hold my light high, and it casts a dim circle around the box and us. Circle enough for our need. His ears show pointed against his hair.
The box doesn't look big enough for a coffin, somehow. More like an oversize suitcase, or a footlocker. Plain, so plain. So very ordinary looking.
"Here we go. I'll pry the lid up and you check inside. I hate getting the wrong box." He stands behind the lid, grabs the edge, and takes deep breaths. He heaves. He grunts, snorting and panting as he strains and jerks against the wood.
I kneel down and bring my face close to the lid, close to the crack. The wood is a rich, warm brown with a rippled grain. I can see his fingers shifting in the tiny circle of light as he takes another grip. He braces his foot against the back of the box and yanks again.
The pads of his fingers seem to compress against the lid. The joints straighten, then bend, impossibly backward. His nails grow white with pressure, and still he pulls.
Then he groans. There is a rending, cracking sound. The lid separates and begins to open a narrow crack, almost too small to see. I smell spices, and a whiff of rot.
He pulls up, against a strong tension that holds the box closed. The crack widens. His hands cord and shake as he grips the edge of the lid. I peer into the box with the light, careful to keep my body outside, far away from the straining lid, but all I can see are spots of blue and white among the shadows. Cloth and collars in a small stack.
"I can't see anything but work shirts."
"Well, look on the tags and see if there's a name label."
I reach into the box and paw over the collars. Reading upside down. "Yes, here's something. V I C T O... Nevermind, that's just a brand name. OK, here's the label. Tom Joad."
"Yeah, that's the right one, all right."
A woman comes up beside us. She walks old, heavy, slow. She is wearing gloves in August in the 80-degree heat, sunglasses in the Tuscaloosa night, and has a scarf wrapped around her face. She sloshes as she squats next to us and holds out her hand. When I take her hand, I can feel the flesh flow away from the bones in her glove. "Have you found him?"
"Yes ma'am. Here he is."
"Oh, good. I'm going to be the lungs. I'll carry him over to the site."
She picks up the coffin easily, like a mother hauling a child onto her hip, and starts away over the grass, sloshing with every step.
"Thanks. Now let's see if we can get what you need. Let me have the bags."
He's gone scarcely long enough to blink, but the bags are full when he hands them to me.
"I've got to go and finish Tom. Cockcrow will be here before we know it."
"Thanks. We're of one flesh, you and I."
He starts and jerks back, angry. "Don't admit me to your communion! I'll stay on the outside and help anyone who can pay!"
"Sorry, I just meant..."
"Never mind. You're here out of love too, aren't you?"
"It's OK. I couldn't do it if I loved them. I've got to stay objective. Take care; maybe we'll meet another time."
I stand for a while. The bags are heavy in my hands, bulging with dark fluids. The needles are capped now, impotent, harmless. Across the graves, I hear a cry. Maybe joy, maybe pain; certainly release.
The sky begins to lighten as I walk across the grass toward the car. Somewhere, not far away, a cock crows.