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3rd Annual Contest Finalist

 

The best time to invest in real estate is when the market’s down. That’s when I got in.

They were burying Little Roy, but thinking about that hole in the ground made the space between my fingers feel like poison ivy. I left to go check out my property. I trucked across the sandy mud of Elysian Fields cemetery, still steaming from the last batch of summer rain. A few of the guys looked at me funny when I turned away, but I hardly recognized them. Back in the day we were all footballers and brawlers, but now everyone looked soft. Lots of them still had the ponytails, just no hair on top. All us guys had long hair in the 70s, but once the top goes it’s time to quit.

 

In the church, they had played that music, the echoey kind that sounds like the mall at Christmas. If churches want folks to take mourning seriously, they need to play Hank Williams. Little Roy would have hated what they played. I hummed a little Hank.

At least when I went, I’d have Little Roy nearby. My plot was number D409 and Little Roy was only as far away as the K row.

They must have been doing some kind of groundwork. Or gardening.

My plot of land, my only real estate holding, had recently been dug up. About six feet of it. Maybe I was in the C row rather than the D row. No, I could see the small metal markers. That rectangle of semi-sandy earth was number 409, like the cleaner. Each of the gravesites had a number so everyone could find the dearly departed. I checked, double-checked, and walked up from a new angle. It was D409.

Someone was newly buried there.

 

Really, who would bury someone in a random grave?

Mobsters.

Husbands who snapped and strangled their wives.

People who were ridiculous about their pets. Maybe a mangy spaniel lay curled on one of those flowery pillows.  Someone had to be out of their socket or up to no good to steal a final resting place, that’s for sure.

I had even made a speech to my boy the last time I saw him and took him to the swimming hole. “I bought some prime real estate for you, son” I said. “Are you going to swim with your t-shirt on? It’ll get in the way.”

“No, I like it on,” Danny said, crossing his arms across the points of his flabby chest. The kid could use some swimming against the current.

“So when I kick it, you don’t have to worry about a thing. Don’t go for anything fancy either. Say a few words over me, and go have some beer. If you’re old enough of course,” I added. I slapped his back with a wet thwomp and he turned to stare at a group of teenagers in a bright rubber raft.

“What’s the real estate, Dad?”

“The plot. In the cemetery. So when I go, you don’t have a bit of trouble.”

He didn’t seem to hear me, or at least he didn’t have any comment. We never did have much to say to each other. As my only son, I thought he’d at least appreciate it.

 

The cemetery mud covered my dress shoes like icing. I hate any shoe that attempts to put human toes into unnatural shapes and I drove home from Elysian Fields fast. Plus, my friend Cody was going to come pick me up before the social part of the funeral, which I knew from experience would last a long time and leave me in no condition to be behind the wheel. After our friend Roxy’s funeral, I lost my license for a year and a half.

Cops don’t take bereavement into account on DUIs.

Stepping out of my truck, I waved to my next door neighbor. Her long dark hair swirled around her head as she poured birdseed into one of her feeders. Every day she filled them up, and I had never seen so many birds around here. The word was out. When the neighbor lady wasn’t watching birds, she shuttled her son back and forth to several major cities, Washington, Baltimore and Philly, to a bunch of doctors. The little kid was dying. That was probably what made her hands so nervous, always fluttering around. Still, she had a way of wearing blue jeans I could appreciate. But she couldn’t be more than 25 and plus I could never remember her name. She had told me so many times that I couldn’t ask again.

“You’re all dressed up,” she said.

“Yep. Funeral for one of my buddies,” I said.

Her face shut immediately. Are you not supposed to mention funerals to those with sick children? “I’m so sorry,” she said in a voice that seemed more like a hum.

“Well, we’re sad but not surprised. Little Roy lived hard,” I replied. I tried to drag my shoes on the grass to scrape off some of the mud.

“Do you need anything?” she asked.

“No thanks. I’m just changing into something softer for the party.  My friends throw a rowdy funeral.”

She didn’t even smile. I had said the word funeral again.

“I hope everything is a comfort,” she said, stepping backwards onto her porch. I couldn’t ever say the right thing. The next time I walked by her mailbox, I’d have to look closely, to see if it told me her name.

Birds pushed and argued as they swooped down to the newly filled feeder.

The summer rain had stopped but the land was saturated. Everything hung lower to the ground with the weight of water, and the air itself was heavy. Those birds sounded drunk with it.  Right after rain, birds can hardly contain themselves. Changes in the weather meant new plans, new flights, and new ideas.

 

In his sister’s yard, Little Roy received the part of his send-off that he would have enjoyed; free beer, fresh barbeque, and his name as the center of conversation. Sure we all knew he overdosed, but we focused on the funny stuff.  He once wrestled a live bear in a Charleston bar; we agreed that has to be illegal these days. We tried to name all his girlfriends, all his arrests, and all his lies.

Little Roy had the same legal name as his father, Big Roy.  That fact allowed for many funny jokes and Little Roy’s self-destruction. Big Roy had a prescription for Oxycontin, a big-time painkiller for small town folks, to ease his final days. That refillable prescription put Little Roy in the ground.  Usually, or at least in younger days, Little Roy could handle anything he put in his system, more than most men twice his size. Shots, tokes, enough acid that one time in Atlantic City to have him declared legally insane. Who would have thought that something prescription would have done him in?

“Little Roy would have loved this party,” we said.

I had forgot about the time he hid the frozen fish in his sister’s car until she told the story. The guffaw caught me by surprise and I drooled salad dressing down my shirt. At least I wasn’t wearing my one nice button-up anymore.

 

A.A. saved his marriage, but sobriety gave Cody a whole mess of us to drive home. After Cody dropped me off (with five drunk men still in the back of his pickup yet), I hesitated in the driveway, swaying slightly in what might have been a mild breeze.

Maybe I should knock on that pretty neighbor lady’s door, whatever her name is. Show her what an older construction guy knows. Nailing. Screwing. Laying wood.

I made myself giggle and put a hand on my fence to steady the sway. Her window glowed.

Naw. If she started dating me she would gain weight. They all did. Something about me made women’s sweet voices go shrill while their hips went wide. Then my friendly neighbor wouldn’t be able to fit into those fine faded jeans. Plus, chances are she would say no to a scruffy man smelling like beer, salad dressing, and cigarettes. (All vices come back at funerals.) Besides she had soft paperbacks split open all over her house. What kind of woman reads that many books at once? I felt pride at my logic. Patting myself on the back would have spun me off balance.

Still leaning on the fence, I felt the pack of Merits in my breast pocket. They weren’t mine; I’d just grabbed them and the nearby matches from that table at Little Roy’s sister’s and started to smoke.

Little Roy would have been proud.

There was only one limp cigarette left. Pretty thorough for a non-smoker. The night stuck to my neck and cheeks; the humidity hadn’t broken, it just hankered down on the grass like dew.

After a few tries I managed to get my last smoke lit. Or whoever’s last smoke. The fire jumped from the wooden match, suspended in the air for a moment, and then died. The gray air pushed into my throat and squatted in my lungs.

Something moved in the corner of my eye. Something yellow blurred above the fence.

A chicken? Maybe her birdfeeders actually attracted poultry, although my experience of chickens suggested that they weren’t bright enough to fly around and scavenge. I blinked and focused.

Were chickens still able to fly? Or had domestication bred it out of them? I had seen a chicken hang-glide down off of a fence, but I had never really seen one fly. Did wild chickens fly? Was there any such thing as a wild chicken anymore?

With a graceful arc, the large chicken swooped away and then glided closer to the fence. The chicken wore yellow pajamas with white plastic feet. I closed my mouth around the cigarette, breathing the smoke out of my itching nostrils. Four feet in front of me, my neighbor’s eight-year old son dove and leapt from the ground like a yellow leaf tossed by the wind.

I was proud of my calm silence; I made the transition from chicken to child without freaking out.

Maybe I am sick, with fever, I thought. Maybe I am just way too drunk.

The boy jumped through the damp night air and paused before floating back down. He flung his thin arms in front of him to change direction. At the end of his yellow pajama arms, pale fluttering hands had visible bruises. The chances that I was imagining all this onto some chicken in my neighbor’s yard were slim. The spirals of motion began to make me feel the circles in my stomach. With a long arc, the boy veered towards the oak tree and seemed to toss a reproachful look in my direction.

Rocks skittered beneath my feet until I felt the concrete lip of my porch and stumbled up. I tried not to yelp as I bashed my shin, and tried not to fumble the door. Was this a miracle? Or a delusion? Or a scientific oddity? Anyone I called might think I was drunk and addled, seeing things on my way home from a funeral.

But even worse, people might run to ask that poor child questions.

 

Birds can fly because they are just barely enough stuff not to blow away when they scratch the earth for worms. Their bones are completely hollow, almost on the verge of collapse. Why, you could snap a bird bone between two of your fingers. Instead of being a weakness, these eggshell bones are the reason that birds can move with the wind. Penguins have strong bones for climbing across icebergs and braving Arctic winds, but they lose the ability to fly. Other animals that can “fly” work on different principles. Bats and birds have hollow bones. Flying squirrels and flying fish—just stuck with the wrong name. Those things can’t fly. They’re just good jumpers. I looked everything up in my leatherette-bound, seven-volume Encyclopedia Magnifica, as I attempted to keep my hammering skull quiet. And I thought I would never use the things.

Thank goodness I could spend Saturday drinking cranberry juice and seltzer, leafing through encyclopedias. If I had to lift a hammer, I would be in serious trouble. Earlier in the week, the contractors had called to ask if I wanted double-time to finish the roof on the Sylvan Way job this weekend, but no one could say I lacked foresight. I turned them down flat. No way was a roof safe the day after a funeral. I was still in my robe when the mail came, and still in my robe when I walked the small hot length of my driveway to retrieve three catalogues and my electric bill. My head hurt.

“Hey there,” she said. I checked to make sure I wasn’t hanging out of the robe. I must have looked like death.

“Hey,” I said. “So what’s wrong with Dell?” I had heard her calling to him, so I knew the boy’s name at least. If only he called her something other than “Mom.”

“Dew. Like Mountain Dew.”

“Sorry. What’s wrong with Dew?” I might as well know, since he was flying around my hallucinations.

“He’s named after my uncle Dolittle. Except I couldn’t quite give him the whole thing – just seemed too sad to stick a baby with such a depressing name.”

“Dew is cute,” I said. “Like springtime.”

“Well, he has leukemia,” she said, moving her hands around her shirt, as if she was wiping away dishwater.  I felt a panic. My instincts for trouble sure hit home on this one. I had an urge for flight. I was no good to a woman with this kind of problem, my visions of birds were bullshit. She shoved her hands in her pockets to quiet them.

“Do you want a beer?” she asked.

I most certainly did, hair of the dog, but not here, not now. Not near her swept front porch by the 20 birdbaths. Not where I would have some responsibility to respond to what she just said. “Sure,” I said.

I took a deep breath as the wood door banged crookedly behind her.

“I could tighten up those hinges for you,” I offered.

“My boy is just being eaten, some kind of mutiny in his bones. Nothing I can do or say can help, because it’s all on the inside, making him hollow,” she said, running her hand violently through her hair. I felt like an evil person for noticing the way her breast pushed upward with the motion of her hand. I turned away from her still-lovely stress, as Dew made a small sound on the couch. He did look hollow, an almost unnoticeable lump on a fine secondhand couch.

Water ran beneath the ground, birds covered my neighbor’s trees squawking weather talk, and in between a boy in yellow pajamas defied gravity. Sick boys were supposed to be tied down with medicines and tubes, forbidden to jump and play. Now the ground could not keep him close, much less cover him up. All of it tumbled in my head like laundry, and I figured I must still be drunk from the night before.  I needed to chug the light beer she handed me and to haul my ass back to bed.

 

Sunday, the official day of inertia, I wandered through my house picking up all the things I had knocked over or left out. Since my whole house reeked (a hot combo of stale beer, cigarettes, and old food) I threw open my windows and doors. My curvy neighbor stood sweeping her front porch.

“Hey, do you guys have a trampoline?” I asked. She put her hand on her hip and tilted her head like I was out of focus.

“No. That’s not really something we thought to get,” she said.

“Good, good. Those things, well, they aren’t any good anyhow. Kids fly off and some get paralyzed. Or worse.” Why did talking to this women compel me to bring up about death and other deadly conditions? “Nope, tramps are definitely not safe.”

“I won’t buy one then. Do you let your son jump on one?”

“Who, Danny? No I don’t think he would ever want to. He’s not the athletic type.”

“Does he ever come to visit?” she asked. And this was where women’s mouths set in those lines, when they find out that Danny doesn’t come over much. Even though he prefers to stay at his mom’s house. I don’t even have cable here, and the guest room is more of a closet. But women just shake their heads as if I chose everything just so.

“Sometimes. Well, I have to go to the cemetery. To check out my grave. I think someone is buried there. At least it seemed like it at the funeral.” No sense even trying to dig out of this one. I turned and hightailed it to my truck. In my rearview mirror, I saw her fade back into the house.

 

Apparently, families visit relatives on Sundays. The graveyard at high noon had quite a few visitors. Before checking my plot, I checked in on Little Roy. Someone had left him a full can of Budweiser amid all the flowers—maybe the guys did it Friday night. I leaned in to pick up the hot can and thought I would swoon from the sick-sweet smell of the sun-fading bouquets. Bud in hand, I stepped right onto the spot where I though his belly must be and pulled the tab. Luckily it didn’t explode, although Little Roy would have gotten even more of a laugh. I poured the beer carefully onto the earth, ignoring the stares of some uncomfortably dressed couple.

I got my bearings carefully before going on to D409. It was right next to this lady’s ex-husband who had D408. Or right next to where her ex-husband will be eventually. When they divorced, she had me come in and finish the basement. The guy had been promising to do it for years. She didn’t really have any cash, so she signed over her cemetery plot to me, since she couldn’t stand to be anywhere near her ex.

On D409, my grave, a twisted piece of driftwood now sat on top of the turned-up earth. No. Actually, the piece of driftwood was carved. What looked like a random shape from a distance, now clearly was a crude carving of either a swan or penguin. Probably a swan. Penguins don’t seem like they would have the same sentimental value. Beneath the curve of the neck/wing, a ground-bouquet of violets wilted. Someone had been here in the last two days, maybe in the last two hours.

How many Mafia hit-men would return to place violets on the grave? Or to carve driftwood? Maybe some old guy just didn’t really understand the rules on how to bury his wife, thinking he was still in the old country. Maybe some kids just buried a dog, a well-loved Rover.  I felt a pang, remembering how broke up my son Danny had been when our old dog Zeppelin died. I forgot to tell him for a while; the dog stayed with me since the ex couldn’t have pets in the condo they rented across town.  I had already buried Zep when I told Danny on the phone. I could tell by the change in his breathing he had started to cry.  The kid was probably old enough to take it better, but Zeppelin was the sweetest dog, even half-blind.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Danny said.

“I just did. Listen, I’m sorry. But he was old, a geezer in dog years.”

“Did you bury him already?”

“Yep. Out by the clothesline.”

At this Danny began to sob like a five-year old, full of mucus and air. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” he said.

“For God’s sake, Danny. He was dead. What’s there to say goodbye to?”

I couldn’t tell what was going on but the phone line rustled and crackled. Danny’s mother finally came on the phone and said, “Can’t you just be nice at all? Ever?” Now that I had just had few words with Little Roy down at the cemetery, I felt bad about Danny not getting to talk to Zeppelin.

 

After work on Monday, I drove down to the Elysian Fields Cemetery office. After eyeing me (and my overalls) suspiciously, the Elysian Fields manager had promised to check into my grave break-in; he would “double-check the files” and let me know what happened. The cemetery man didn’t look anything like what I imagined (corpse-y, creepy.) Instead he wore a button-down preppy shirt tucked into khaki pants. Some overgrown frat boy who managed gravesites rather than a bank.

I walked around while Mr. Preppie Grave did his detective thing.  I was seeing more of Little Roy now than I had in the last three months of his final, pain-free binge. In those last days, he hadn’t returned many calls. Cody and I thought he must have convinced another hot young thing with his crazy stories.  After a few words with Little Roy (and righting the Bud can more firmly in the dirt in front of his stone so it wouldn’t fall over every time it rained) I returned to my own real estate.

“Well sir, do you have any relatives who knew about this plot?” the cemetery manager asked in a bill-collector’s voice.

“What? No. Well, my son. Maybe my ex-wife?”

“Any chance that one of them would have used it without your permission?”

“Used my grave? It’s not like borrowing the car.”

“Sir, we have to ask. Not only do we have no records of anyone being interred in D409, your plot, but we have no records of any burials in that section since the Fourth.”

“But that’s two weeks ago. The ground there is freshly turned up.”

“Yes, you’re right. I checked it. Someone or something does seem to be buried. It could be some sort of a prank. Could you please check with your family members, and we’ll proceed with the investigation on our side.”

I wasn’t about to call the ex.

 

Tuesday, we worked late. This lawyer wanted his fancy beach house finished so that he could throw a late-summer party for political friends. We went to high school with the guy. Back then he never had fun, never had a girl. We would pull away from school piled into Little Roy’s orange Mustang laughing at people like him, with cave-fish skin and warped priorities. Driven folk never stayed around shore towns and we mostly never left. This guy’s closets were going to be bigger than bedrooms.

When I got home, I stood in the rocky weeds of my yard. Should I call my ex-wife about the grave? No. Although she resented the hell out of me, she would have called if someone died. Across the fence, my fresh-faced neighbor sat varnishing a slab of wood, probably for another birdfeeder, singing Patsy Cline. I listened for a minute, lulled by her unsteady-but-sweet voice.  Nearby, Dew reclined on a plastic lawn chair, with one pale arm flung above his head. Through half-closed eyes, he watched his mother’s measured strokes in the darkening evening.

“Howdy guys. Hi Dew,” I said, trying to make eye contact with him. “Aren’t you up past bedtime?” She looked up at the sound of my voice and Patsy’s song drifted off.

“I don’t really have a bedtime,” Dew said, lifting his thin arm off his eyes a bit. His head seemed too big for his fragile body, barely able to support its own weight, much less perform circus stunts. His eyebrows were falling out and he had that angel-child thing, the shine. I looked for a sign in his steady gaze and considered making some kind of a joke (“Hey kid, what’s flying?”) But that would be a sure way to convince a mama I was a few eggs short of a dozen.

I wanted to ask Dew questions. How does it feel, Dew? Floating around at night? But his arm changed my mind. Inside his elbow sat tracks and lines worse than those of my friends dead of their demons. He was scarred up like any addict from poking and prodding, needles and tests. I could be someone who didn’t ask dumb-ass questions about the kid’s bones. And someone who didn’t try to jump his mother’s bones.

“Well, goodnight,” I said. Both Dew and his mom mumbled.

After microwaving dinner, I pulled down the ladder to the attic, more of a crawlspace really, to find a few photos of Little Roy for some scrapbook Cody was making. I crawled over to the triangular window by the vent. I pushed and tugged but the thing seemed to be painted shut.  I leaned against the glass (cool at least) and looked over the house next door. Her bedroom had a soft light, probably from a reading lamp next to her bed. I couldn’t see anything except the corner of her dresser. A movement in the unlit backyard distracted me from feeling like dirty peeping Tom. I shaded my eyes from her bedroom glow, so they could adjust to the dim yard.

One still moment, and then yellow pajamas with white plastic feet kicked above the treeline.

 

At work on Wednesday, my head still felt like the attic, hot and too-full. A squirrel jumped over my feet on his way across the beams; I nearly tumbled off the roof.

“Man, I’m not going to your funeral next. Be careful,” one of the boys below me said.

“I’m fine, like a cat.”

“Yeah, you smell like it anyway.” The boys cranked up the Eminem. My coworkers on the construction crew got younger and younger each year, many not old enough (or bright enough) to graduate from high school. Every other day I let them choose the music. Although they complained about Merle and Hank, I caught several of them singing along. Today, unfortunately, was their turn; the screech and discord barely distinguished itself from the sound of scrapes and hammers.

When I finally got home, I thought I conjured my neighbor’s voice with just wishing. “Hey, could you come into my bathroom?” she called before I could get in my door.

“What is it you need?” I said, restraining myself from making the jokes that bubbled to my mouth, ever-present from years of bar-talk.

“I just… that came out wrong. My toilet won’t stop running. I tried to pull up on that black plunger thing, but it just keeps going. It’s been going for an hour or so and I really don’t want to have to pay a plumber.”

“Those fellows are crooked as pipes,” I said. “Let me look at it.”

“Thank you,” she said. Her face had white spots on it, as if ice cubes had been held to different parts, but most likely she had just been crying a lot.

“Any news on the grave?” she said.

“Nope. No one knows anything. Not the cemetery manager, the coffin sellers, or the embalmer. There’s only one embalmer in this po-dunk town, so he would know who’s been done up or not.”

She winced. I did it again, mentioning the town embalmer to someone might have to call him. Oh well. She brought it up.  I rolled up my sleeve and tightened the water valve in her tank. Even with my hand up to the elbow in the pot, her bathroom smelled like Juicy Fruit gum.

I do miss how they smell.

 

By way of thanks, she insisted I stay for dinner. Just jar sauce and spaghetti with canned beans. But she cooked up the garlic bread spicy hot. Dew drove a Tonka earth-mover across the tablecloth.

“Sweetheart, eat your spaghetti,” she said.

Lulled by tomatoes and candlelight, I almost answered.

“My belly still hurts,” Dew answered. He smiled at her to deflect the concern that welled up in her eyes.

“Dew is being super-brave about chemotherapy,” she said to no one in particular.

“Did you find out who they buried in your coffin?” Dew asked me. He must have been listening to us when we talked about D409.

“Not yet. The police are looking into it.”

“Because they stole your plot?” she asked.

“No. I didn’t even want to call them. But apparently burying a random body is a big-time crime. In case it’s not just some hamster they have to proceed as if it’s a big-time murder. So they need to do DNA and the works.”

“What’s DNA?” Dew asked.

“Stuff in your body that makes you different from anyone else,” I said.

“Like leukemia?” asked Dew. His mother jumped up to refill his milk.

“Today I saw a blue jay, Dew, while you were napping,” she said loudly. “It was so beautiful, the color of your Superman jammies.”

After dinner I fetched my toolbox, to fix her backdoor. It didn’t latch anymore. Doors and windows around here change shape in the heat and need to be pounded back into shape.

“Thank you for doing all of this,” she said.

“Hey, no problem. You make better spaghetti than me.”

“I used to be able to call the landlord for this kind of stuff. Owning a place is great and all. Dew needs the stability of it, but it’s just that so much can go wrong.”

“Murphy’s Law.”

“Do you own your place?”

“Nope. I rent.”

She seemed to lean into the shoulder of my slightly damp t-shirt and breathe it in. With a last unnecessary tap, I put the Phillips head back in the box. The sky outside had faded, with the last light showing like a glow beneath a closed door. From somewhere behind her kitchen wall, pipes groaned.

“You can stay for a while, you know?” she said, allowing one of her fluttery hands to sit still on my forearm. “We could have a beer?”

Here it was. My invitation. I recognized the shininess in her eyes. I grabbed her hand for a minute.

I let her soft hand go and grabbed hard plastic of the toolbox handle.

The thing about real estate is you have to know when to get out.

 


Kristie Letter’s short stories have been published in The North Dakota Quarterly,  Washington Square, Passages North, Pangolin Papers, and Southern Humanities Review. As a day job, she teaches Hamlet to high school seniors, while raising a bunch of kids with her husband in Colorado. Her current writing project considers Shakespeare and cancer.

Photo credit: twenty_questions via photopin cc

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