Mike Sharlow lives and works in small city in Wisconsin on the banks of the Mississippi River. He has had numerous short stories published in magazines and anthologies. Also, his novel Welcome to the Ranks of the Enchanted is included in the Charvat Special American Fiction Collection at the Ohio State University.
Discarded Bones Working at the Cemetery
In late June I got a job at the Elm Grove Cemetery. I didn’t think about death. I thought it would be like working in a museum. The gravestones were the exhibits with dates, each telling a story. Not until I began working there, did I understand that the job involved shit pay, hard work, and discarded bones.
On my first day Big Adam gave me a hand drawn map of the cemetery. I’m sure he was the one who drew it. The cemetery was about a half mile long and about a quarter mile wide, depending from where you would measure. Sections of the cemetery were named: Civil War, Vets Hill, Adult Singles, and Babyland. Civil War and Vets Hill were self-explanatory. Adult Singles was also self-explanatory, but it sounded like a dating section for the dead. Babyland was, as it was called, where babies were buried. Fortunately, it wasn’t a huge section. I thought it sounded like the title of a horror novel or movie, maybe both. Babyland was an appropriately chillingly name for the nightmare these parents endured.
Mondays were usually flower pot watering days. “Watering pots” was not a leisurely activity. I dragged around 150 feet of hose up and down the landscape of the cemetery and weave through the rows of grave markers, which the hose would annoyingly get caught on causing you to back track to unhook it. There were faucets scattered throughout the cemetery. I connected to one, watered as many pots as I could reach, then dragged the hose to the next. It was a workout, but not quite as grueling as trimming.
What we called trimming, most people called weed whacking. Rick, a fat guy about my age with gray hair and glasses, rode the mower, and the rest of us followed behind trimming the long grass around the grave markers, and other areas he couldn’t reach. We spent the entire work day, three days a week, doing this. It was a grind. The constant vibration made my left wrist ache and my hands numb. Trimming for hours in the sun when it was ninety degrees with humidity that felt like steam, was brutal. This was hard labor, like a chain gang cutting brush along the ditches of a highway. We spent a lot of time hiding from Big Adam. while we took long break. He got pissed off when he caught us hanging around the work truck, a rusty, old, brown, Dodge pick-up, while we sipped ice water from the cooler. The trimmers were lined up in the bed and leaned up against the tailgate like rifles taking a reprieve from battle.
“I spent the last ten minutes watching you guys sit in the truck,” Big Adam barked, directing his bitch mostly at Beef and Josh. He had a hard on for them.
Granted, Beef and Josh were usually the first ones back to the truck after we finished trimming a section, but the rest us soon followed one by one a minute or so later.
Beef groaned and took a hit off his cigarette.
“And you’re not supposed to smoke in the cemetery,” Big Adam pointed his finger.
“I’m gonna smoke.” Beef took another hit from his cigarette. Rusty, Rick, Little Adam, and Alex also smoked in the cemetery, but they didn’t blow it in Big Adam’s face. Beef’s real name was Eric. He was a sturdy decent looking kid with dark brown hair, but he said offensive things like, “Too many niggas around here,” for no reason or provocation. I liked the kid, but I equated “Beef” with “Meathead.” He wasn’t stupid, but he was incredibly ignorant and stubborn.
“It’s really hot out. We need a break,” I said.
Big Adam acted like he didn’t hear me. “How far are you guys?”
“We’re caught up,” Alex said, and a couple of the other guys echoed.
“Well, you guys can pick up sticks and pine cones while you’re waiting for Rick to get ahead.”
Josh and Beef got fired a couple of weeks later for being perpetually late for work. Josh was Beef’s ride. Big Adam disliked Josh more than Beef. Josh was a bit “slow” as the others called him. These guys had gone to high school together and graduated together three years ago, and as friends, had knowledge of each other’s character defects. The numerous times when Big Adam warned them about being late, primarily looking at Josh, Josh would stare at him like he either didn’t understand or care. When Big Adam fired them, Josh appeared surprised. Beef knew it was coming and didn’t give a shit.
The cemetery was adjacent to the marsh, therefore there was a lot of wildlife, including foxes that wandered into the cemetery. Rusty brought doggy treats and sometimes leftovers, like chicken bones, scraps from last night’s dinner. Rusty was Rick’s younger, but not much younger. He was in good shape despite being an alcoholic. He drank every day. He mixed Sunny D with vodka. Sometimes he drank at work, but Big Adam didn’t care, because Rusty always showed up for work, and he busted his ass. He was a good looking guy except when he smiled; he was missing more teeth than an old school jack-o-lantern.
First thing in the morning, we drove along the edge of the cemetery, and four or five fox pups would usually pop out from the woods looking for treats. When the truck stopped, Rusty would jump out to feed them. He named one, “Blackie” because of its front paws. Blackie almost got close enough to eat from his hand. I thought it was kind of dangerous and stupid. I could see the fox biting Rusty’s fingers off and running away with them, while Rusty chased it, “Blackie! Blackie come back!” So, I took videos of the foxes and him feeding them because it was cool, but if something weird happened I would also have that.
I took a couple of other videos of Rusty. I took one of him dragging his hose off the back of the truck, then waving good-bye to me. I took another one of him tamping down the newly laid sod on a grave. Rusty and I helped Rick lay the sod, and then Rusty and I took turns using the tool tamper to pound it down. The base of the tamping tool was an 8”x 8” flat of steal weighing about ten pounds. You raised it up then slammed it down on the sod over and over. It was a workout. While I took the video, I didn’t think much about it, but later when I watched it, I thought about the freshly buried body below. I wondered how one might react to someone pounding the grave of their loved one. It was a very physical, almost violent act, the dead thump! thump! thump! resounding through this lonely corner of the cemetery.
On a hot, humid, sunny day, about a week after the 4th of July, Rick asked me if I wanted to help dig a grave with Rusty and him. This got me out of trimming, and I was curious to see how a grave was dug. There was more preparation than I thought there would be. Most of the digging was done by a small front-end loader. To get the loader and the flatbed truck with all the other equipment from the road to where the grave was to be dug, sheets of plywood had to be laid down end to end to prevent ruts in the grass. No one wanted to see tire tracks across their loved one’s place of eternal slumber.
Rusty and I laid the path of gray dirty plywood, worn from being used on hundreds of graves, while Rick backed the front-end loader off the trailer. After we unhooked the trailer, Rick backed the truck and front-end loader down the plywood path. Space between the plots was narrow and afforded just enough room for the truck to get through, only a couple of inches from headstone to headstone on either side. I thought Rick was kind of a lazy dolt, but it took a steady hand and a good eye to navigate the truck down this narrow aisle.
Rick set a wood frame jig on the ground for the grave. With a square shovel, he scored the grass. Rusty and I used hoes to break the grass away into rolls of sod, which we set aside. Then Rick used the front-end loader to dig the grave. He dumped about half of the sandy soil on the ground; the rest went on the truck. The concrete vault with casket inside would account for about half the space in the hole.
“Rusty, put the ladder in the hole,” Rick ordered then climbed into the grave.
“Sure Rick.” Rusty quickly grabbed it off the truck.
“Here.” He handed the ladder back to Rusty, so he could finish digging and squaring off the hole without the ladder in the way. Rick had worked at the cemetery for over twenty years, and so he had probably dug over 2000 graves. Sweat dripped off his chin. He was wearing an olive-green t-shirt. It fit snugly against his big round belly, quickly getting dirty. Rick puffed, battling the heat and humidity. At this moment I was thinking, if you weren’t such a fat fuck it wouldn’t be so hard for you.
Rusty saw his struggle. “Want me to get in there and help?”
“Yeah, get in here,” Rick heaved, removing his dirty cap and dated wire rim glasses for a moment to wipe his brow.
When the digging was done, Rick used sheets of plywood and 2x4s to create forms to brace the walls of the grave to prevent a cave in, especially with sandy soil. Rick had me kneel at the edge of the grave and hand him the plywood and 2X4s. It happened so fast I didn’t even have time to react, but the ground suddenly and eerily moved beneath me, and the side of the grave Rick was trying to brace caved in. It buried him to his knees.
“Fuck! Get back!” Rick made no attempt to get out of hole.
“Want the ladder?” Rusty asked nervously.
“No, just get in here and help me dig out.” Rick was annoyed. I thought maybe at me, but I found out later he pissed at Big Adam who just drove up in the Mule, the four-wheeler.
“Should I get in, Rick?” I asked. I was standing about ten feet from the grave.
“No, just stay there and hand me the wood.”
Big Adam got off the Mule and looked in the hole. “Cave in, huh? That’s why you shouldn’t take short cuts.”
“Didn’t. It’s this fucking sand.” Rick didn’t look at him.
“Dig over to the next vault.” Big Adam stood on the edge of the grave and stared in.
“That’s what I was planning.” Rick had already reached the neighboring vault. His shovel scraped and clanked the concrete.
Big Adam got back on the Mule and drove away.
“I know what I’m fucking doing. He always does this.” Rick pointed at the plywood and I handed him what he needed.
“Does this happen very often, the cave ins?” I asked.
“No, but more so with sandy soil in this part of the cemetery. One time we had a cave in while they were doing the graveside service. The casket and the rack fell into the hole.”
The rack? He must be talking about the thing that lowers the casket into the vault.
“It damaged the casket. We had some pretty unhappy freaked out people.” Rick pointed to another piece plywood and 2x4, and I handed them to him quickly like I was assisting a surgeon.
Christians believe in signs from God. I wondered what the interpretation of this kind of calamity would be. Although, Christians tend to spin both bad and good things that happen to them. If something good happens, it’s God smiling on them. If something bad happens, it’s not a punishment, it’s a test, often a test of their faith.
Once the grave was dug, we covered the hole with plywood, drove four-foot stakes around the perimeter and strung them with yellow CAUTION tape. At this time tomorrow, a body would be in the ground.
It was August, some of the hottest days of summer. The mowing and trimming were both done, so Big Adam had us chop, cut, saw, and trim the overgrowth on the path leading down to the dump. Presently, the path was barely wide enough for the truck. Vegetation of all kinds had encroached upon it. To the northside of the road was the marsh, which was also the natural border for the cemetery. To the south was thirty yards of woods. It was a jungle. We had the mosquitoes, heat, and humidity. It reminded me of the scenes of the Vietnam War movies where the squad was on patrol, soon to engage the enemy in a firefight. As a group we walked like that, carrying our trimmers like they were weapons.
Little Adam, Alex, and Jake walked about twenty feet ahead of me, and Rusty was another ten feet behind me.
Little Adam was eighteen, slight of build, an inquisitive nervous nail biter. He listened and asked questions when I ranted about the injustices of the world. He always wore white t-shirts and had his hair buzzed just like his older brother, Alex. Alex was twenty-four and suspicious of me. He was a man, built like a linebacker, and unlike the other guys, he didn’t show me deference or respect for my age. He didn’t like the father figure role I had taken in his brother’s life while at work. I didn’t really get it until I learned that their father had committed suicide about six months ago.
Jake was lanky good-looking kid with long dirty blond hair. He had a face like a Rockstar, but he dressed like a redneck. He was a hunter and fisherman. He wore a camo hat, a Gander Mountain t-shirt, and green knee-high wader boots to work every day.
I was apprehensive and cautious about where we were going. I wanted to be sure where I was stepping, and what I might be stepping on or into. Rusty lagged behind me. He was more cautious than I, kind of paranoid. He kept looking left, right, and then behind him like something, or someone, was surely sneaking up on us.
This was the first time I had been down to the dump. It was overgrown with tall grass. There were piles of dirt, both old and new, that had come from digging graves. There were also the remnants of old and broken flower pots piled with faded plastic flowers and Christmas wreaths turned brown.
While Rusty and I were looking around, the other guys disappeared through an opening in the woods. I wouldn’t have noticed the opening, if they hadn’t walked through it. I followed, and Rusty hesitated then followed me because he probably didn’t want to be left behind. “Where those guys goin’?”
“I don’t know, Rusty. We’ll see.” I turned around and looked him in the eye. “It’s kind of like one of those horror movies you’re always talking about where some maniac comes out of nowhere and hacks everybody to pieces with a machete or something.”
“Mick, don’t say that. Shit like that happens.” Rusty said nervously, and he swiveled his head left to right.
Honestly, the place gave me the creeps. I wasn’t superstitious. Like Isaac Asimov said, “I believe in reason and logic, not superstition. Reason and logic is the way to understand the universe better.” But this place, tucked into the fringes of the cemetery, had a dark vibe, an oppressiveness, a heaviness like depression.
We ducked through the camouflaged opening, and it immediately opened to a narrow path. The grass was thick, undisturbed, and waist high. It was like wading through water. Rusty fired up his trimmer and began cutting a swath in front of him. Rusty was a trimming maniac. In this case, I think he was mowing down the tall grass because he was afraid of what might be lurking in it. He reminded me of one of those crazy fuckers in Apocalypse Now that fired their machine guns at ghosts in the jungle.
When Rusty and I caught up with the other guys, they were milling around a recently used small fire pit. This was made by either the homeless or underage kids partying. If I had to guess I would say it was the homeless, just by the intimacy and semblance of order. There wasn’t any broken glass or signs of destructiveness. There was a small pile of fish bones, which was a good indication that someone had caught, cooked, and eaten them right here.
Behind a pile of junk plywood and 2x4s was the former sign from The Elm Grove Cemetery leaning crookedly against an actual Elm tree like a proud old sentinel. I’m sure the sign wasn’t in this bad of shape when it was replaced and put here, but the fertile moist ground it was standing on was slowly rotting it, consuming it, bringing it back the earth. I took a picture of it with my phone.
“There’s bones,” Jake said. “Animal bones.”
“Let’s see.” I turned on the video on my phone. I panned getting the old sign in a shot then pointed my phone at the ground, as I walked. “Where are they, Jake?”
“Down this trail.”
“What?” Alex asked.
“Bones.” Jake said.
“Really?” Little Adam asked.
“Here’s some.” Jake pointed with the toe of his boot.
“Some vertebrae.” I shot this small section for a couple of seconds.
I came across more. “What the fuck is that?” It was a tight group of bones. It looked like the tail bone of something along with five others I didn’t know. One was maybe part of a rib. When I watched the video later, I realized that the bones appeared to be arranged in kind of a circle about eight inches in diameter. It looked like it could be symbolic. It probably meant nothing, but I was sure that these bones didn’t end up in this arrangement by accident. These bones were all by themselves. There wasn’t another stray bone in the general area. About twenty feet away there was another tight arrangement. “There’s more bones there. They look like animal bones though,” I narrated the video. This time they weren’t in a circle. There were four bones, one at each corner, forming a symmetrical six-inch by eight-inch rectangle. Inside the rectangle there were about another six or seven bones very close together, most of them touching. About a foot away from this pile there was another bone, probably a tail bone about five inches long. I kicked it over. Two feet below that bone was another pile of about eight bones. Initially, the pile didn’t look symmetrical, again until I watched the video later. There was a small spine with the ribs still attached. To each side of this there was a bone in the shape of a boomerang. These were too big to belong to the spine and ribs, so someone, or something, had to have put them there.
As I walked around, I found other bones scattered in the area. I continued to narrate as I shot. “What are all of these?”
“Jawbone?” Little Adam was standing next to me.
“Looks like the back of a vertebrae.” Everywhere I turned there were scattered bones. “There’s a whole bunch of bones over here.”
“Really? Wow.” Little Adam walked over. He was the only one as interested in them, other than Rusty and I. The entire time Rusty had been hovering quietly nearby.
“Yeah, a whole shitload,” I said as I continued to video. All the bones, mostly white, had been worn and picked clean by nature. They now rested, scattered about on a bed of dead dry leaves and twigs among the old gray junk lumber.
Rusty had gathered up a bunch of the bigger bones. Jake thought they were probably from a deer. I hadn’t taken video of these. Rusty had grabbed them, before I had a chance to.
“What do you want them for?” I asked.
“I’m gonna use ‘em for Halloween decoration,” Rusty said.
Using fake commercially manufactured plastic bones and skeletons specifically designed and sold for Halloween was socially acceptable, but creating something from real bones, possibly human bones, was a bit creepy. I had Rusty spread out the bones on the ground, so I could take a couple of pictures.
At lunch I told Big Adam about the bones we had found.
“Bones? What bones?” The talk of any bones found in the cemetery was cause for alarm. Bones without a home in a cemetery was a problem.
“I think they’re deer bones,” Jake said then took a bite of his sandwich.
“Where are they?” Big Adam demanded.
“Rusty took some of them.” I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t. “He said he’s going to use them for a Halloween decoration.”
Big Adam stomped off. Rusty walked into the open from behind the garage, and Big Adam met him in the middle of the parking lot. “What did you do with the bones?”
“Over there.” Rusty got them from behind the garage. He had put them in a plastic grocery bag.
Big Adam put them in his office.
Rusty was usually chatty at lunch, but he quietly ate his sandwich and went back to work early.
Big Adam sidled up to me, his belly stretching his Harley Davidson t-shirt, which almost touched me. He didn’t want the other guys to hear. “Last year Rusty got in trouble for his Halloween display. It was so gory that parents called the cops. I guess it was really fuckin’ weird. It was even on the news.” Big Adam shook his head and stuffed his hands in the front pockets of his baggy jeans then kicked a small pebble across the parking lot with the toe of his black biker boot.
“I guess the last thing you need is to have the cops catch Rusty with real bones from the cemetery.” I could see Rusty getting questioned by the police.
“Where did you get the bones, sir?”
“The cemetery I work at.”
“Are they human bones?”
After lunch, when we were walking back to the dump, I asked Rusty about his Halloween display.
“The cops came and told me to take it down. Scaring people too much,” Rusty scoffed. “A friend of mine got a deer. He gave me the rib cage. I put a torn-up flannel shirt around it. Then I wrapped barb wire around it and hung it from the tree in the front yard.”
“What the hell, Rusty? You live on George Street.” It was one of the busiest streets in town.
“Yeah, I know. People driving by didn’t like it. Kids didn’t want to come to the door to trick or treat. Ma got mad. We had a lot of candy leftover. I didn’t care. More for me.”
Ed Gein came to mind. I googled images of Gein on my phone, as I walked with Rusty. The juxtaposition of the photos I had found and Rusty’s face was uncanny. In almost all the photos Ed Gein was wearing a well-worn plaid cap and his face was unshaven and a bit gaunt. Rusty was wearing a generic dark green cap, dirty and sweat stained. He had a scruffy, two or three-day, beard, face also a bit gaunt.
The book and movie Psycho was based on Ed Gein. Did Rusty have a mother like Norman Bates? No, not exactly, she wasn’t dead. She picked up Rusty from work every day in an old, blue, beat up Pontiac four door sedan. Walking out of work one day Rusty introduced me to her. She was a friendly petite woman with a smoker’s growl.
At the end of August, I got a different job working for a non-profit that provided services for adults with disabilities. I soon discovered it wasn’t much different than working with some of the guys at the cemetery. I finished out the week, and on the following Monday morning I texted Big Adam and told him I quit. He never texted back.
I waited a couple of days then emailed the videos and photos of the bones to Channel 8, the local TV station.