Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Groundskeeper

I wasn’t convinced the rigors of travel alone produced this kind of unrest. It was more than likely the broken vow to never return that plagued me. While I still considered Dallas my home, a second layoff and an over-zealous divorce lawyer had pushed me into a corner. My father opened his home and regretfully I knew he would. Sleepy towns and people like him never change. I gauged his obsession with caring for strangers to be terminal in nature. What he called a gift from God, I considered a curse, and to complicate matters he appeared content frittering away his life caring for the dead.

My opinion of his character was starkly different than any other. The townsfolk held him in high regard and I supposed by now were making plans for his sainthood. Although he spoke often of tolerance and understanding, he extended neither in my direction. On his best days he barely tolerated me and made no effort to understand my life at all. Even a young boy learns to cut his losses. Kept at arms length, I learned that caring for your father is far removed from loving him deeply or ever wanting to be like him.

“Son, you don’t know how good it is to have you back.”

“Temporarily, Dad…I’m only here temporarily.”

I remembered how Momma asked me to be understanding and patient. Dad was slow in dealing with a terrible accident involving a neighbor boy that happened some years ago, but my own hurt continued to fester. I hated the cemetery and what it had done to him. It was awkward watching my mother run out of excuses for his absence from school activities. I understood the time spent engraving stones; it was the profession he had chosen, but the non-working hours he lingered there and the inability to let go were particularly damaging. As far as I was concerned, he was as empty and hollow-eyed as any spirit roaming there. I suppose more than anything I wanted for him to admit that I had done nothing wrong; that it was his inattention to his only son that predisposed me to a life of failure.

He still moved pretty well for an old man. Hustling about the shop he gathered objects and placed them into a tired wheelbarrow; one I remembered having more red paint than rust. Most of the contents consisted of maintenance related tools, yet a few seemed out of place. He offered no explanation and I had no intention of asking; it was still like that between us. After perusing the items one last time, he gripped the worn handles, and motioned with his head for me to follow.

“Red Foster had taken care of this cemetery for years. Red was a righteous man, started cuttin’ grass here when he was in his twenties. Some say it helped pass the lonely days after losing a wife—you know they wasn’t married more than a couple years. Anyhow, Red done fine work; even the fussy widows that build their lives around findin’ fault, had nothin’ but praise for him. But in time, Red passed. He left behind a son, but he never was much count—bad seed, I guess. Old Red didn’t deserve most of what he got in life, ‘specially that boy. Roy showed up two day late for his daddy’s funeral and drunk as three-hundred Indians. He took to smashin’ bottles and cussin’ his old man for not leavin’ an inheritance. Truth was Red didn’t have nothin’ but a big heart and he give most of that away.”

The mention of Roy sparked a flurry of memories, most of them only partial recollections. During high school he and I were a couple of misfits who enjoyed more than one bender and the mischief that accompanies too many beers. Each morning before first bell we gathered under a tree across from school grounds and shared a cigarette. Memories of those Lucky Strikes triggered an urge, and I stopped long enough to light one.

“Hey, Pop. Is that how you see me—some kind of no count renegade?”

The extended amount of time he spent stroking his chin made me nervous, but on the other hand I wanted to hear him say what I always suspected.

“What makes you think something like that?”

Without saying more he lifted the handles and began moving again.

“As I was sayin’—‘cause of the commotion and since I was the caretaker now, I had to escort Roy from the property. There ain’t no merit in drivin’ a boy from his father’s grave, but I felt a sight better after me and Red had a long talk. He said I done right, ‘cept he’d a taken a chunk of his hide before he sent him packin’.”

He stopped abruptly, but said nothing; leaving me to believe the extra steps had provided time to reconsider my renegade status.

“Don’t be leavin’ your butts layin’ around, especially not by Ernie’s marker. Died of lung cancer in ’82 and he can’t stand the smell of smoke.”

I only nodded in affirmation. It was difficult knowing my father believed he spoke to the dead, and a painful reminder he preferred their company to mine.

He handed me a garden spade along with instructions.

“Make a small trench, leading away from her grave—see how the water’s building up.”

Everyone knows the vaults are sealed, what was a tiny bit of moisture going to hurt? In the short time it took to process the thought my father observed hesitation.

“Time’s a wastin’—get to it!”

The frustration in his tone turned to velvet in an instant when he turned his attention from me to the stone.

“We’ll get it taken care of—don’t you fret none.”

I began to wonder how terribly disturbed a man had to be when he found a deeper connection with those below grade than above.

“For the life of me I can’t explain why—but I still worry about you. Honest to God, Pop, tell me you don’t actually hear these corpses speak?”

It was as if kicked him in the gut.

“First of all, don’t call ‘em corpses! Sounds like one of them stupid zombie movies. Of course I hear ‘em talk and on bad days I hear ‘em cry.”

His finger traced the dates on the stone, lingering over the second.

“In the winter of seventy-eight, Mrs. Barlow hit an ice-patch on route 62. Her Plymouth went off the bridge and broke through the ice. Waiting to drown must be an awful way to go. She don’t ask much, just to keep the water away from her.”

Before I’d had time to fully consider the first story, he gripped my shoulder tightly. It was the first time I could remember feeling his touch and then I noticed the sadness welling in his eyes.

“Son, I know you deserved better, and I wished I could have give it too ya, but turned out I wasn’t strong enough. You can’t hate me any more than I already hate myself. I ain’t makin’ excuses, I’ll take full responsibility for screwin’ up your life, but what I’m askin’ for now is a little forgivness.”

He guided my steps to a plain small white stone before continuing.

“I’m sure you’re momma told you what happened. That we was watchin’ the neighbor boy when she had to run to town and left him with me. He was almost two years old and into everything. While I was cussin’ my work he wandered off. I didn’t notice he was gone for some time—long enough for curious legs to carry him over the hill and into an abandoned well. It tore me up when they pulled that little man’s lifeless body out—knowin’ what I’d done.”

Father lifted a teddy bear from the wheelbarrow and placed it gently by the stone.

“Most of what your momma told ya was right, ‘cept it wasn’t a neighbor boy. You’re older brother’s name was Billy.”


The morning heat rose from the valley restless and willing. In shimmering waves it climbed and clawed at the scrub brush. Its roost was temporary as a gentle breeze swept it away. The duo traveled a winding path of rising ground to where my father and I stood. As the gust arrived, more of it traveled through me than swirled around, and when it passed it spoke more clearly than it ever had.

“A single day can change a person’s life, but only if he is willing. He must cast aside the familiar so that his arms are free to embrace the promise of tomorrow.”