“And this land is full of these little graves in the valleys, plains, and hills.
There's angel too for each little grave an angel procession fills.
I know not how but I sometimes think that they lead us with gentle hand
And a whisper falls on a willing ear from the shore of a far off land.”
--“Grave on the Green Hillside,” Aldine S. Kieffer
He doesn’t know her, this old woman, but she is here again. She is here again and she wants to speak to him, he can tell. Her mouth moves. She gestures. She has something to impart. Bob Quinn sits on the edge of his parents’ old bed in anchor pajamas, his unslippered feet resting on a woven oval area rug, mostly brown, on the wood floor. He can hear nothing but the hum and whoosh of the oil furnace kicking on. The woman’s look turns to confusion, then frustration. She ceases moving her lips as if she knows there is no sound. This always happens. Every time she speaks words he cannot hear.
For two weeks now he has been seeing her, and how odd that it happens here, in his house, and not the graveyards, where ghosts should be. Bob wonders if she could be an ancestor, but he knows that his paternal grandfather built this house and this woman resembles none of the family pictures. His impression of her clothes is old-fashioned, but somehow he can never see them clearly, always drawn to the uncertainty in the woman’s eyes, always shattered to the bone for her failure to communicate. She is not at rest. She needs his help somehow.
It feels like an agreement of sorts, a justification of his work. Perhaps her mortal remains are in jeopardy. Maybe he can discover who she is and fight to protect her resting place before it is gone forever. And maybe on that day she will appear to him no more. It fits but, then again, this is his first ghost.
He reaches for his cell phone and she is gone. He doesn’t understand why he never thinks of taking the picture first.
He bounces up and down and back and forth in the driver seat. He shouldn’t be taking the Caravan out this road. It’s a 1998, falling apart. Bob imagines pieces of the minivan strewn behind him as he weaves around rocks and ruts, wincing in sympathetic pain at every hard drop-off. A mile out, the road turns into dried riverbed, green with scrub weeds and hearty grasses, and he realizes there will be no other traffic. He stops the Dodge in a spot where it looks like he’ll be able to turn around, and gets out, proceeding on foot the rest of the way.
He doesn’t know if there is anything out here. He has come on the word of an elderly woman from his church, Rosie McNaughton, who said she remembered a graveyard out this way, said her granddaddy called it the Pratt Cemetery though she’d never known any Pratts personally, only Peters and Pringles. Bob has spent the last several days researching the Pratt family name, going to the library and the courthouse, and searching online. The only surviving family members are in Florida now and sold their land to American Coal years ago.
Technically, he is trespassing, but he knows sometimes lines have to be crossed, and as of tomorrow, he has the Burke kid for a month, so he needs to do this now. It wouldn’t do to break the law in front of a kid serving his community service sentence.
The way is mostly uphill and forty-eight-year-old Bob is soon breathing hard. The uneven terrain challenges his game leg, requiring more effort than normal. His mouth, already in a perpetual frown from his overbite, draws tighter as the physical effort increases. Beads of sweat pop from his forehead and flow like irrigation into his failing crop of hair. It is hot for early October, but the weather hasn’t been right for years now, and Bob understands about global warming. It is one of those things he's learned along the way. There are a lot of things he's learned along the way. One thing about being an activist is that you end up talking to a lot of other activists. He stops to rest, unconsciously rubbing his fingers over the small bunch of cotton fabric in his pocket, a binkie, of sorts.
He wasn’t always an activist, and at one point even worked for Delphi Coal, but that was before they tried to cheat him from his Worker’s Comp and Disability when he was injured. Then a different company out of Kentucky, Murphy Energy, made the last years of Mama’s life a living hell when they bought the land that held her family cemetery. That whole experience had changed forever how he saw the industry. What he’d learned since had changed how he saw companies in general.
Further on the dilapidated road, he spies an opening beyond the trees to his right, an area of grass and saplings which looks to have once been a path. He works his way through the rocks and brush carefully. Hot days, late in fall, bring the snakes out to sun on the rocks. He reaches the clearing and looks around at the thigh-high wheat grass, still clinging to a pale remnant of green, giving way to brown. Some of the dead stalks are already bent over, fatally creased, ready to be vanquished by the first snow. The rest of the small meadow remains defiant.
To his left, he sees the telltale form of carved stone, its arched countenance visible through the thinning weeds. Now, looking at the size of the area, he wishes he had brought a sickle. He makes his way to the stone and clears the grass around it. The marker stands about a foot and a half high and an inch and a half thick. Dark grey lichen swirls over its face in a fractal pattern, casting doubt about the stone’s original color.
Bob pulls a can of shaving cream from his backpack. He wipes a generous portion across the face of the stone and uses a rag to clean off the excess, leaving only the inscription filled with the white foam.
Daniel Evans Pratt
b. 1801 d. 1857
The shaving cream will not harm the stone and will wash off in the next rain. He writes the name and dates in a notebook, then stands and looks around. This is going to take a while. He begins kicking through the weeds, keeping a sharp eye for stones set flush with the ground and even broken pieces. He begins to hum an old bluegrass gospel song and eventually the words spring from him in high nasal tones. “How peaceful the slumber, how happy the waking, where death is only a dream.”
He moves through the brush, stooped, clearing out the weeds to expose the stones and, as the sun crests above him, Bob Quinn sings to the dead.
“A lot of people don’t realize how long bones last,” he says.
“Yes,” the clerk at the convenience store says, “that’s interesting.”
At home, he sits at his computer and opens his notebook. He transfers the names he was able to recover from the stones, etching them into silicon, into a data file titled, “Pratt Family Cemetery.” If he can prove someone noteworthy is buried there, he can apply to the West Virginia Historical Preservation Society for protected status. Too many of these old family graveyards are gone across the state, across the country.
The family cemetery issue came to his attention when the blasting began on Spenser Mountain and he overheard Jim Perkins at church, talking to a group of parishioners about how the Walker Family Cemetery was being turned under. The thought had shocked him. The bones of all those folks, all that history, lost, scattered, buried deep under landfill by those who would have everyone forget the past-- and the future-- if they had their way.
Then after what happened to Mama, and what she had to go through to get that company to relocate those graves, all the while crying at night wondering if her kin would be there for the resurrection, well, he sees now. He didn’t always. The thought of such desecration still offends him, more even than it did when he first heard of the Walker cemetery, scattered to the wind and folded into the earth.
He adds the Pratt Family Cemetery file to his pending research folder.
Bob turns his attention to the blinking light on his home phone sitting on the hutch next to the kitchen doorway. Three messages. Two of them are from the Charleston Medical Center Department of Oncology, one is from the county prosecutor's office. He erases the hospital messages before the woman's voice can remind him that he needs to schedule his follow-up appointment. He listens to the third message. “Mr. Quinn, this is Margie at the prosecutor's office. I'm just calling to remind you that Mr. Burke is scheduled to begin his community service with you tomorrow. Hopefully, by now, you've gotten the forms in the mail. Just fill those out as you go along and mail them back when the thirty days are over, and please, let us know immediately if Mr. Burke does not report for work. Thank you and call if you have any questions.”
He walks into the kitchen, an addition to the back of his grandparents' two-story, box-structure farmhouse. He lived here with Mama for eighteen years, first working as an electrician for Delphi, before the transformer explosion crippled his leg, and then taking care of her and the house as she was less and less able. When she died a few years back he stayed in the house alone. He keeps everything exactly as she left it.
The forms from the county are lying on the faded blue tablecloth that covers the kitchen table, painted off-white. They are unfolded and partially conceal the unopened envelope from the hospital laboratory that contains his test results. He thinks about his phone conversation with the Burke kid, already with an attitude before the job has even started. Bob isn't looking forward to this. He feels a knot in his stomach. The kid is a bad element. Everyone in town knows that. Bob microwaves a frozen meat loaf and takes it back to the living room, where he eats on a tray in front of the television.
He cleans his mess in the scarred, white kitchen sink and returns to the computer where he checks his email and logs on to the cemetery preservation chat group. He spends the rest of his time before bed doing searches on some of the names found earlier in the day. None of them are noteworthy, it seems. It makes him angry, what constitutes noteworthy. The lack of respect. And then there are punks like Dewey Burke, who get a kick out of knocking over headstones.
As Bob readies himself for bed, he wonders, would anyone think his Grandpappy Wilson, or his daddy even, were noteworthy? Or him?
Grandpappy Wilson’s funeral was held at the Vernon Funeral Home in Trevelton and he was buried on family land. After the service, friends and kin gathered at the home of his sister Mae, a farmhouse a few miles out of town. Family came from all around Bergen County and beyond, Parkersburg, Richmond, Cincinnati. They filled the house.
Young Bobby Quinn, just seven years old, was fawned over by relatives he didn’t even know, and drug out to play with cousins upon cousins in the great yard. It was a kind of paradise for an awkward late-arrival like Bobby. His older brother and sister were married and moved out by this time, and Daddy had begun to slow down. He would be gone in ten years time. Everybody told Bobby’s mama what a miracle he was, to which she wearily agreed. But miracles, being so few, are lonely things.
Every surface of Aunt Mae’s house was decorated with covered dishes: corn on the cob, fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, breads, homemade jellies and jams, cookies and cobblers, pastries, pies, and cakes. All through the day, as relatives caught up with each others’ lives, on the porch, in the kitchen, around the living room and the great dining room table, the joys of family were celebrated. Bobby had barely known his grandpappy but thought he must have been a truly great man for so many to have loved him. Rather than a moment of sadness, it solidified in the young boy’s memory as a moment of perfection, and the funeral, to Bobby Quinn, became a place of strange joy.
“Hello, Mr. Quinn,” Senator Greenback’s secretary says, the enthusiasm of her phone salutation dropping off a cliff. “I’m afraid the Senator is in meetings all morning. Can I help you?”
“I’m just calling to check on the status of Bill 223-B, Lucy. Has the Senator said anything about it?”
“No, Mr. Quinn, I haven’t heard a thing, sorry.”
“It’s important that we get that bill out of committee and onto the floor this session. Has the senator spoken with any of the committee members yet?” Bob paces the living room as he speaks into the wireless handset, up and down in front of the fireplace mantle, then across in front of the hutch, adjusting items in both locations each time he passes. A family photograph, taken in the late sixties.
“Mr. Quinn, the legislative session doesn’t begin for nearly four months, so I think it’s hardly an issue yet.”
“I disagree Lucy. These restrictions need to be applied soon. All it takes is the mineral rights and these people could mount a drilling rig right next to my mother's grave.”
A small blue porcelain ballerina.
Bob is noticing that he needs to dust. He puffs himself up. There is a need to display some authority here.
“The coal company has to respect these limits. State government has to respect these limits. For pete’s sake, even hunters have to abide by the five-hundred foot distance. Why are we having such a problem applying them to the gas industry?”
“I don’t know, Mr Quinn--”
He straightens a stack of envelopes on the hutch.
“Would you want to visit your mother’s grave next to a drilling rig?”
“My mother’s not dead, Mr. Quinn.”
“That’s hardly the point, Lucy, now is it?”
She sighs as Bob turns a picture of his maternal grandparents slightly to the left. “I suppose not, Mr. Quinn.”
“And has the Senator said anything about the family cemetery legislation idea I talked to him about?”
“No sir, he hasn’t.”
“Not said anything about writing it and having you type it up for the next session?”
He fiddles with the latch on the door of the old wind-up clock on the mantle, casually checks through the glass to see if the key is still inside.
“When will he be in?”
“Oh,” she pauses, “he’s in meetings all day. And I think he’s traveling tomorrow. I’m not sure.”
He stops at the hutch and grabs a pen and paper.
“Will he be here in his district?”
“Honestly, Mr. Quinn, I just don’t know at the moment. My appointment book seems to be missing.”
“Can I leave a message for him?”
“I already have your inquiries written down for him, Mr. Quinn. Is there anything else?”
He is dismissed from the halls of democracy. He puts down the pen and paper, hangs up and stares at the phone in his hand. He jumps as it rings while he’s looking at it. There is laughter behind him. Charleston Medical Center. He puts the wireless unit back in its cradle without answering. He turns and flinches when he sees the old woman across the room, standing right next to where Dewey Burke, who had incredibly arrived on time some fifteen minutes earlier, sits on the couch. She is trying to speak and failing again.
The kid does not appear to see the ghost. Bob closes his mouth quickly.
“So,” Burke says, “This is what you do, huh?”
“What do they pay you for this?” asks the Burke kid. He is raking the leaves and branches from between headstones. Bob pulls the last of the weeds from around the stones. This will be his last round of clean-ups for the season.
“I don't get paid,” he says, “Maintenance on these private cemeteries isn't covered in the county budget. This is volunteer work.”
“So all these people got you doin’ their work for ‘em for free.” He laughs. “Sucker.”
“The county owns some of these, the state, some are still owned by the mining companies, and some owners don't live around here no more. So there's nobody else. Just me, and for the next thirty days, you.”
“How many of these are there? I only knew about Sunny Hills and the one by the church.”
“The one you desecrated?”
Burke doesn't answer.
“Why would anyone do that? Knock over headstones.”
The Burke kid continues to rake and then says, “Ya know,” a pause. “It's my personal opinion that this here place would be a sight prettier with the leaves still layin’ about.”
“We're going to rake them up anyway.”
“Whatever you say, Mr. Quinn.” He sings it, the flannel-clad shit.
This is not starting well. The kid's been a smart-ass the entire day. Twenty-nine more days of this. He must get hold of it now.
“Those headstones you knocked over were someone's relatives, someone's grandparents, great-grandparents. Would you want someone to do that to your grandparent's grave?”
“Seein’ as how I ain't never met a grandparent one, I guess I just couldn't give a fuck. So spare me your fake outrage, Mr. Quinn.”
Other than by the coal company, Quinn has never, in his entire life, been called a fake. He pulls weeds as if he’s ripping Burke’s head from his shoulders.
“You know, I'm thinking more and more like I might need to call the prosecutor's office and cancel this whole thing if I don't start getting a little respect here.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Quinn.”
Quinn stops yanking native flora, sighs, and then says, “Maybe you call me Bob.”
“Well, not when you say it like that.”
Twenty nine more days.
“You know, even after cremation there’s still bone fragments left,” he says to Mrs. Collins at the county courthouse in Trevelton.
“Even after cremation,” she says. “I’ll be.”
Daddy’s death was the first time Bob felt profound sadness at a funeral, the first time he cried, the first time he’d really pondered eternal absence. When the preacher had finished and most of the family had already walked away, Mama stood by the coffin as it was lowered and sang “See That My Grave is Kept Green.” She sobbed between verses, sometimes between words. She couldn’t finish.
At home, the family gathering paled to those of the past. There wasn’t as much food. There was fewer kin. Bobby was too old now for playing in the yard, and he was awkward with these few cousins who were strangers to him. At his first opportunity, he stole out the back door and sequestered himself in the garage.
The side door of the garage opened behind him just as he was finding his solitary sorrow, head in palms. His cousin, Hattie, slipped inside, looking over her shoulder. At sixteen, Hattie has changed from the last time he saw her, and seventeen-year-old Bob finds himself uncomfortable in her gaze.
“You okay in here?”
“Sorry about your dad, I mean, Uncle Frank.” She walked over to where the push mower sat in the corner and ran her hand along the push bar.
She sat down next to him on the wooden bench, once painted red, now flecked dark red and gray.
“So,” she said, “how have you been, I mean, other than today?”
“Alright, I guess.”
“You gotcha a girl?”
“No.” He looked away from her. She had on a knee-length light-blue dress. She was dark haired with a wide nose and full lips, an Eastern-European sort of beauty.
“What!” she said. “I don’t believe it.”
“Don’t make fun.”
“I’m not making fun. Just don’t believe it is all.” She reached above her head and pulled tentatively at a coil of rope that hung from a nail.
“I’m not what you’d call a prize, Hattie.”
“Aw, it ain’t all on the outside, Bobby. And you ain’t all that bad.”
He kept looking at his father’s workspace. Screwdrivers in their proper slots, hammers of all sorts, a power drill. His left hand gripped the edge of the bench with the strength of the desperate. Hattie stayed quiet for a few seconds and then stood, touching him on the shoulder and turning in front of him. “I tell you what,” she said. She slipped the straps of her dress over her shoulders and let it slide down her body, gingerly stepping out of it and draping it over the front of the car.
“Hattie Wilson! Put your dress back on!” Bob looked around in panic, trying not to stare at her. Her bra and panties fell to the floor and she stepped toward him.
“Hattie! We’re cousins! Cousins aren’t supposed to-.”
She reached down and took his hand and put it on her round, perfect breast.
“Mutant babies.” His voice had already mutated.
“We’re second cousins, silly. That’s okay.” She began moving his hand down her belly. “And ain’t gonna be no babies.” She leaned down and whispered, “I’m on the pill. Don’t tell Mama.”
Bob couldn’t take his eyes off her now.
“Go ahead,” she said, “stick a finger in there.”
“If the remains have been disturbed, how will they rise for the resurrection?”
Reverend Mooney gives him a thin-lipped, sympathetic smile, his head tilted slightly. “You’re doing God’s work, Robert,” he says.
The next morning, Quinn tells Burke to wait in the van and makes a quick stop at the Sunny Hills Cemetery where he drops off a thousand dollar check to the caretaker, all that is left on his balance. His plot is secure.
As he's pulling out, the Burke kid says, “Phew, I was thinking we had to clean that whole place. Scared me for a second.”
“No, I just had some business to take care of.”
“Oh yeah? What kinda business?”
“Nothin’ for you to concern yourself about.”
“No seriously, ya'll got some kinda secret society of weird graveyard guys or somethin’?”
Quinn doesn’t answer. The radio isn’t on.
Burke is mercifully quiet for about a mile down the road. And then, “Did you ever wonder what it'd be like to fuck a corpse, Bob?”
Bob swerves the car off the road and slides to a stop. He turns to yell at the kid only to see him bent in laughter.
“Damn, Bob, you really need to learn to take a joke.”
“That wasn't funny.”
“Was for me.”
Quinn pulls the minivan back out onto the road.
“You're a strange bird, Bob.”
Twenty eight more days.
“The coal companies are stealing our heritage right out from under us,” he says, fingering the worn fabric in his pocket.
The woman in the Wal-Mart parking lot edges her buggy away, nodding with a friendly smile. “It was nice to meet you,” she says.
The Parker cemetery is their seventh stop in as many days.
“So you never did tell me how many of these little pissant graveyards there are.” Burke toys with the rake.
“Twenty-one in Bergen County that we know about. Twenty-two if you count the Pratt cemetery I found a week ago.”
“You go lookin’ for ‘em, too? Holy shit.”
“Bring the rake and stuff from the back.”
Quinn uses a kneeling support to get down and pull the weeds, otherwise he wouldn't be able to get up easily. His leg hurts. He should make the kid weed, but they are especially sick of each other today, and he doesn't want to disturb the dead with an argument.
He kneels in front of a stone marked, “Winnifred Parker, 1873-1921.” He hums because he is self-conscious about singing and that makes him feel guilty. Then, as he pulls out a clump of goldenrod, something tickles his thigh.
“What's this hanging out of old Bob's pocket?”
Quinn turns and sees him holding a pair of panties aloft. His mind bounces around like it’s in a pinball machine. To the moment when Hattie, back in her dress, pressed them into his palm with the words, “Something to remember me by.” To six years later, when he’d heard she died of an overdose, and sobbed into them every night for months. He reaches for the panties, but the Burke kid pulls them back.
“I didn't know, Bob!” he says. “I did not know that you had a thing for the ladies underwear.”
Before Quinn can react, the kid pulls out a cell phone and aims it at him, holding the panties up in the foreground. Bob stands there, unable to act, as the device beeps.
Burke puts the phone back in his pocket and begins examining the panties. Turning them around, mock-sniffing them.
“I've been wondering what you had in that pocket that you had to touch all the time. I was beginning to think you was some kind of pervert.” Burke turns them around and around, scrutinizing. “I wasn't too far from the truth there, eh, Bob? What is it? You like to wear ‘em? Look at yourself in the mirror? Do they make you think of little girls?”
First a fake, now a transvestite and child molester. Bob screams and leaps for the kid. He grabs at the panties but the kid yanks them away. Bob’s momentum carries him forward, pushing Burke backward against a stone. The marker falls over and hits the ground a half second before the kid does, breaking in two. Burke’s eyes are wide and he is laughing. Quinn stands above him, quaking, horrified, his desperation gathering in the corner of his eyes.
“Give ‘em back!”
The kid scrambles backward, away from Quinn, and jumps to his feet.
“Here's how I see it, Bob. I'm gonna finish out the day for ya here... and then I think my community service is done. If you don't want everyone knowing that you assaulted me, or that you carry ladies underwear in your pocket, then you'll just go ahead and fill those forms out here in a couple weeks like I finished my service with flying colors. That sound okay to you?”
Bob can see nothing but his shame and endless heartbreak flapping in the breeze. He nods silently, his hand stretched out in front of him, his eyes begging.
“I think I'll keep ‘em,” says Burke.
Burke scrutinizes him, rolls his eyes, and tosses the underwear to him. “Here's your panties, Bob.” He grabs his rake and resumes clearing leaves and branches and they work the next few hours in silence. Every once in a while the kid emits a malicious chuckle.
Bob stands at Mama and Daddy’s graves and tells them that he will just be a few rows down. He thinks about Mama, standing here singing, and wonders who will keep his grave green. Who will sing? No one, he supposes.
Everything used to seem so permanent: family, mountains, graves. Now it’s all slipping away into some black hole. He looks around the cemetery at the few stubborn clover blooms, recalling that it was another year without bees. Bees. What could be more eternal than bees? The graveyards used to be alive with them and now they rarely cross his gaze. He’d read of entire colonies never finding their way home, set upon by marauders, decimated by mites that eat them from the inside out. Bob suspects everything is being eaten from the inside out.
At home, he worries. Does the whole town know his secret? The whole world? Would everyone be laughing at him more than they already do? He deletes his phone messages, searches tombstone names until his head nods, and goes to bed.
He is awakened in the middle of the night from a dream that he cannot recall. In the dark, he sees the old woman again across the room. He starts, sitting up in bed, throwing his legs over the side. His rush of surprise does not last long.
“What do you want from me?” he asks.
Again the mouth opens and no sound emerges. Again the furrowed brow, the frustrated facade. Again, with the thoughts of the day still in the front of his mind, he wonders.
What is she trying to tell him? Is she telling him that there is something permanent? Or is she telling him nothing is? Why is she here?
This time he doesn’t reach for the cell phone to take a picture. Instead, in the quiet of the hundred-year-old home, in the dark of night, Bob Quinn clears his throat, rubs his eyes, and begins to softly sing “Grave on the Green Hillside.” His mind is filled with recurring images of Dewey Burke holding Hattie’s underwear and laughing. As much as he wants to hate Burke for mocking his life’s tragedy, he can’t get over the feeling that he envies the kid his freedom from caring. He briefly wonders if he is afraid of not dying.
He looks back up to see her smiling, a peaceful smile, a loving smile like his mother would give him, a smile that contains both weariness and contentment. He has the overwhelming impression that her grave is already gone and it doesn’t matter. One thing about the smile seems obvious to him. She wants him to live.
He hangs his head again and takes a deep breath, absently examining the anchor design on his pajamas, trying to find the part of himself that wants that too. When he looks up again she is gone. He gets out of bed and walks across the bedroom toward the stairs. The October night rises through the floorboards and chills him to his bones. Downstairs, an envelope waits in the dark, like the future.