Image by Kristin Beeler
Jefferson pulled the lever and the backhoe creaked and bucked, fighting soil hard-baked by months of record heat.
These Yankees liked the holes six feet deep by ten feet wide, just like in Georgia, but today the hole was one hundred and sixty feet long. He filled the bucket and then dumped the dry earth to the side.
Jefferson sopped sweat from his brow. He looked down from his perch and saw two priests and a small crowd of official-looking types. No one was in mourning clothes; no one was crying. He was digging the hole on account of those who died in that terrible 1995 summer. He looked at the line of pine boxes. Old folks who’d died in their apartments listening to the weather on transistor radios, afraid to turn on a fan for the expense on their bill, fearful to open a door or window in neighborhoods rife with crime. They were Chicagoans, accustomed to deep cold, but not to hundred and twenty degree heat. No names marked their grave, not even why they died. They were all as one, buried side-by-side in solidarity; they lived alone and apart in life, now trench-mates for eternity.
“Hot enough for ya, Georgia?” Rylowicz said. He was the boss over the county’s graveyards. He had a nickname for everyone, a different one every week.
“Name’s Jefferson, or Jeff.”
“Yeah, sure. It gets hot here in Illinois, too,” Rylowicz said. “Got that cracker?”
“So, go get your drink of water and get back to digging that trench. These muckety-mucks all think these bodies are important,” Rylowicz said. “Bunch a bums getting a free hole, if you ask me.”
“I want boxes in the ground in two hours, you got that, Georgia?” Rylowicz said. “It’s too friggin’ hot for this crap.”
All the boxes were lined up and unmarked. The wood of some had split, some were warped, others nailed wrong. Jefferson was sure no body was dressed in funeral best; there were no open caskets today. No family here no way. He made extra sure to scrape the edges of the trench, to square the corners just right. He could do that much for the departed. Someone should do as much for him when his time came. After digging all these holes, he was damn sure due a nice one of his own.
In Atlanta, he’d been restless and wanted a change, so he hopped a bus in the middle of the day after cashing his final paycheck from Oakland Cemetery. He had no wife, no dog, nothing to keep him hanging around. Jefferson meant to escape his past, and his mistakes. He’d close the door on all of it. A fresh change might help him get his family back, or at least they’d be farther away so it’d hurt less without them. All Chicago offered so far was flatland smart-alecks, and more heat. At least he arrived after the most brutal weather had passed.
Several day laborers were on hand to help him out, Mexicans who didn’t speak much English. They all agreed in a common language of nod and gesture to place the bodies in the ground with care. Ropes and spare lumber eased the caskets to rest.
A reporter showed up with a pad of paper and asked questions. “What are the dimensions of the hole?” She adjusted her glasses and spoke with efficiency. Jefferson noted her new clothes, her heels wobbling in the loose dirt. He answered, then returned to work. He didn’t want to talk too much, knew these people were just like him. To the reporter, they were a novelty, newsworthy fodder for a fish wrapper. Jefferson knew they were as close to family as he had in that moment. The reporter was an alien in this world.
They picked up the pace and each of the six hundred bodies was placed in the hole. Jefferson waited in his rig while the Reverends recited the Lord’s Prayer and sprinkled holy water. After the priests, officials, and the reporter left, he covered the dead, using the back of the scoop to tamp the dirt with care.
“We got ’em all in the ground, boss,” Jefferson said.
“What’s with this ‘boss’ crap?” Rylowicz said.
“Just something to say, I reckon.”
“Yeah, well, I guess you want to go home or something like that.”
“Not if there’s more work to do,” Jefferson said.
“Get out. Be back tomorrow at six a.m. in the morning,” Rylowicz said. “There’s five regular holes to dig and some yard work, too.”
Jefferson stopped by the mass grave on his way to the bus stop. He pressed the dirt under his boot and spit. His head hung a bit and the world took a step back from him. He wandered to the bus, dazed, lost in thought, detached. He paid the fare, collected his transfer, yet was surprised to find himself several stops down the road. He was in a bubble, removed, bouncing down pothole avenues, a million miles from the thugs, drunks, and prostitutes who were with him on the bus. All six hundred lost and alone, he thought. No family, no friends, no money for a proper burial and a headstone to show that they lived, that they mattered on this earth.
He didn’t feel right and couldn’t sit still. He wanted to be numb, wasn’t even sure why, but he didn’t want to feel. He thought back over the hole, examining each move of the shovel in the eye of his memory. A wine smell from the seat behind him stung his nose; it reeked of sweet. His mouth watered. The aroma crawled through his mind, through memories of smooth afternoons and riotous evenings. Jefferson watched an elderly woman roll a fully loaded cart of wilting groceries down the steps of the bus, one at a time. Thump, step-step; thump, step-step; thump, step-step.
He could picture the label on the wine. He’d woken up next to it enough times; the smell was stronger in his memory than his mama’s biscuits. It had caused him so much pain and sickness, that was what he needed to remember, the loss. The wino made a joke to the woman next to him and it was funny. Jefferson felt a little easy, he found himself laughing, and the man’s laughter wafted a haze of wine-breath. He felt his back loosen as he chuckled; he felt better already.
“Whaddya want?” The bartender was Chicago-quick and to the point.
“I want me a Darth Vader tattoo just like that,” Jefferson said.
“Only me and one other guy got one,” the bartender said. “Lemme tell ya what – he ain’t you, pal.”
“Beer and a shot of whisky,” Jefferson said. “Tall beer, short whiskey. Haha.”
“Never seen you here, bud,” the bartender said. “You new to the neighborhood?”
“Been here a few weeks.”
“Well, welcome, pal.” The bartender picked a white chit from under the bar top. Diggers Pub was printed around the outside of the thin disc. “You use that whenever you need it, it’s good for one drink only.”
Jefferson laughed and pulled a bronze coin from his pocket. IX was engraved on the medallion, along with AA slogans and symbols. “I tell ya what, I’ll trade you even.”
The bartender took the coin and held it at a distance, then grabbed his reading glasses to inspect it. Jefferson eyed the coin in the other man’s hands and it looked insignificant, a cheap piece of brass with words printed on it. Not worth a damn.
“Tell ya what, and you think about this,” the bartender said. “You wanna leave those drinks on the bar, we switch coins and I don’t charge ya.”
“Or, you drink what you have and I continue to serve you all night,” he said. “You can only leave that stool to piss or play pool until I clean up after closing. Only then can you leave. But, you have to put down everything I pour for you. Still, no charge.” The bartender crossed his arms. “Your choice.”
“I only wanted one drink.”
“Why’d you already order two?”
“Fuck it,” Jefferson said. “I can put down whatever you set up, man.”
Jefferson looked hard into the bartender’s eyes, picked up the shot glass and took the first drink. The whiskey burned all the way down. His eyes watered and his head buzzed a bit. He felt familiar to himself, free from care. The beer was cold and soothed the burn. He pulled a cigarette from a fresh pack and lit it. He coughed.
“How long since you quit smoking?”
“What’s your name, anyways?”
“Where did you get that cute Southern accent?”
Francie’s perfume was strong enough to cut the cigarette fog, and it helped Jefferson keep his concentration. He hadn’t had a drink in almost ten years and his low tolerance was showing. But he still wanted more and Harold obliged. Her lips were shiny and red. She was talking about her boss or her ex-husband. Jefferson wasn’t quite sure.
“I’m from Georgia,” he said. “North Georgia.”
“Oh, it’s nice down there, warm,” she said. “I been to Florida, to visit my sister and her kids. Orlando.”
“Hot enough up here to kill damn near six-hundred people.” Jefferson adjusted himself on the stool. Harold poured two shots of vodka.
“Oh, them,” she said. “Them people just didn’t know enough to turn on a fan or nothing.”
Jefferson offered her the extra drink and she gladly took it. “Nobody even came to their funerals. Just some goddamn priests and a reporter.”
They clinked their glasses and drank, a slice of lemon crusted with sugar chased the liquor. Jefferson didn’t recall bars doing fancy tricks like that back in Georgia.
“Yeah, well,” Francie said. “Why did ya come up here to this hellhole? You know it snows like a bastard. What do they say, Harry? Two seasons in Chicago? Winter and road construction! Ha!”
“Why not? I wanted to see something different,” Jefferson said. “Besides, I thought it wouldn’t be so damn hot up here.”
“Don’t nobody miss ya back there?” Francie said, “Kids? Wife?”
“Not no more, I don’t reckon,” Jefferson said. “No dog, neither, but I’m looking for a dog.”
Jefferson woke up on the floor of his hotel room at ten o’clock the next morning; he lay in a crusty puddle of vomit. His brain pounded, he had a black eye, and his shoulder was blazing with fire. He couldn’t recall how he’d gotten back home, nor could he recall much after leaving work. But he knew he’d been drinking, that almost ten years of patience and hard work was lost in one single evening. He figured that if no one important knew, then maybe it didn’t really happen at all. There really was no one, anyways, he figured. He was free. Fuck it, he thought. Fuck it all to hell.
Someone pounded on the door, so he opened it.
“Mr. Williams, you got to go,” Mr. Novak, the hotel manager, was standing there with his arms crossed. Novak was backed by a larger, taller man who also held his arms crossed, accentuating superhuman chest muscles and the neck of an oak tree. “We heard about last night, goddamn Mikey’s gonna lose some of his teeth. I don’t care who started it, either. You gotta go.”
“I can explain.”
“If you can do it while you pack, then fine.”
Jefferson shoved clothes into his duffel bag. He’d just begun to use the dresser that came with the room and he took the neatly folded and stacked clothes and shoved them into his old army sack. On top, he placed his two books, a Bible and his first and only copy of Alcoholics Anonymous. He’d carried that book with him ever since a man gave it to him at the shelter back in Atlanta. Every page was marked with notes, definitions and guides for helping others to understand the book and find redemption. It just wasn’t right to throw it away. Not yet.
He had one framed photograph of his children. Their mother had sent it once he’d found a halfway house. He’d begged her for it in between shouting matches. The note that came with the photo used the word “disappointment” five different times. He counted the important words in her letter just like he’d counted words in his Big Book. Each one meant more than the last.
“Hey, if you need to call someone,” Novak said. “Like you need a ride or something, you can make some local calls in the office.”
Jefferson showed him the photograph, “None of ’em would answer, even if they was local.”
He walked down filthy streets, aimless, patches of broken glass dotted the sidewalk like little welcome mats to hell. The sun burned on his balding head. There were young kids scattered up and down the sidewalk on either side and Jefferson recognized the set-up for an open-air drug market. Whispered offers slithered from shaded mouths.
“Straight or looking?”
“Lookin’ for work?”
“Got the rocks, got the rocks…”
He shuffled past the muffled, shadowy questions. He wasn’t looking to get high, yet. He wanted to vomit from the heat. His eyes felt like they were hanging in wet sacks, floating around his head. He turned down an alley to piss.
He hid himself behind a dumpster to relieve himself. He must not have pissed the whole night before, from the feel of things. He heard a rustle in the dumpster, possibly a rat. The pee kept flowing. Another rustle and a noise, but not a rat noise. He lifted the lid, too curious to wait for his bladder. He pissed on his shoe. He craned his neck to see into the bin and saw a man’s hand. When it jerked, he pissed on his foot again.
His body emptied, he stood on a brick to peer over into the garbage. A man rolled around, bewildered. Jefferson extended his hand and the man grabbed at it, but missed. He leaned in, grabbed the man by the coat, and pulled him out of the dumpster.
“What you doing in the garbage, mister?”
“Don’t know,” the man said. “Kids must’ve done it.”
The man smelled of urine, feces, body odor, and garbage. Jefferson pretended not to notice and swallowed hard. The man’s face, once white, was ashen. His eyes swam in bloody, bloodshot goo.
Jefferson knew this man, or thousands like him, thousands now dead or who would be better off dead. He’d seen them take their first showers and rejoice to the preachers, then return to the streets and live like rats. One out of them could come back to life and learn to comb his hair, dress himself proper, hold a job. Jefferson was one man who no longer needed to wake up in filth and squalor. Maybe there could be two.
“You live out here, huh?”
“You got a dollar?”
Jefferson gave the man a dollar. He turned, shuffled away, hobbled. Jefferson watched him, felt the lame leg, knew the search for survival.
“Hey, buddy, your leg okay? You need help?”
The man waved him off, dropped his head a bit more and continued down the alley, checking the other dumpsters for food scraps, soda cans with a sip, or shiny objects to hold. Jefferson offered help once, twice more. The man kept moving away. Jefferson turned around and walked back out to the sun-scorched sidewalk.
“Who’s this?” Rylowicz said. “This goddamn Georgia?”
“Where the hell are ya?” Rylowicz said. “You was supposed to be here at 6 a.m. in the goddamn morning.”
“I’m sorry sir, I, I got sick.”
“Drunk, you sound like you got drunk.”
“That is the truth, sir.”
“You be back here tomorrow?”
“Last chance, jagoff,” Rylowicz said. “You’re lucky you dig a good hole, else I’d drop you like a bad habit.”
The air was thickened in the phone booth, Jefferson could hardly breathe and he couldn’t turn around. He looked out across the street where a liquor store stood with the door wide open. A shopping cart loaded with cans sat outside on the sidewalk.
“Yes boss, I won’t let ya down.”
Hobie Anthony is a Portland, Oregon writer who lives under the radar, behind the hedges, and at your backdoor. He holds an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte and has been published or is forthcoming in such journals as Jersey Devil Press, Wigleaf, Rose and Thorn, Gloom Cupboard, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. He is currently at work on a novel and more short stories.