The following is a short story I wrote for a work writing contest. I had little time to write it and no control over the prompt.
For a brief period during my years of wander I worked at a cemetery. The grounds were located on the outskirts of a small pastoral town in central New York. I was hired by the municipality to perform all maintenance on the property. This was mostly physical labor.
As you might expect, grave digging was a common task. I didn’t find much pleasure in doing so. The worst times were exhumations. Relocations and investigations meant that sometimes bodies needed to be dug up. It was nauseating to see what became of us once we died. I much preferred keeping the grounds. The wilds reclaim a cemetery much in the same way the earth reclaims our bodies.
Aesthetic standards had to be maintained for visitors of the deceased. The paths had to be kept clear and grassy. No weeds or plants of any kind should sprout near headstones. Wilted flowers and offerings had to be collected and trashed. It was not that different from any other sort of landscaping gig, barring the constant face-to-faces with death.
I mentioned that this was during a time where I did not know where I was going nor why I was going there. I worked 6 days a week at the cemetery and spent my nights with furrowed brow ruminating over the future. I was hopeless, lost and directionless. Each day I was faced with the eventuality of it all: a dark eternal slumber in the dirt.
My final responsibility was to be a solemn but friendly face. A person who mourners could come and speak with and feel comfortable knowing their loved one was in good hands. After a while you get a sense of the types of things people in mourning want to hear, so over time I had developed bread-and-butter remarks to offer them. Speaking with visitors was a nice respite from labor, but my words were banal and empty.
I met the kid during the warm and vibrant days of spring. But, my memories of those times are gray, images stained with the dull atmosphere of my mind. I was making my rounds along the paths, pulling up seedlings and sprouts and plants that don’t belong, and moving sticks out of the way so I could get the lawnmower through. It was blisteringly hot and I felt like death. I wore a sun hat with a neck cover which kept my face perfectly shaded. In one hand, my bag of weed scraps, and in the other a bundle of sticks. I had found a particularly large branch with an odd curve at the top, which I used as a walking stick.
It must’ve been early in the day, since I remember I was surprised to see a kid out of school. He was young, maybe eight or nine. He was alone, crouched in front of a grave that was much too old to have been anyone he had ever known. His clothes were picturesque — he wore plain sneakers, a red tee-shirt, and khaki shorts. He had a black rucksack and was crowned in a nondescript baseball cap. The all-American kid. In this grayscale dream, I remember him vividly.
As I walked closer to him, I started to prepare my phrases in my head. I went through the list, trying to find the right thing to say to a kid who might be dealing with his first run-in with death. ‘Hi there’, I would say, ‘Are you visiting someone?’ From there, I could follow my platitudinal verses and hopefully do my duty as a convivial conversationalist. But as I got closer to the kid, I saw that he was holding something in one hand, and patting the ground with the other. I kept walking closer, and opened with “Hi there”. My opening line was thrown off when I saw that what he had in his hand was a seed packet. In an inappropriately stern tone, I asked “What are you doing?”
He looked at me and saw the sticks in my hand and my sack full of uprooted weeds. Ignoring my question, he started the conversation on his own terms, “Don’t you think dandelions are beautiful?”
I stared at him with bemusement. I was trying to carefully pick my words, but I could only speak reactively. “When they’re flowering and yellow, all spread out in a field, then yes, I think so too.” When I said that, he eyed my bag which was clearly overflowing with yellow dandelions.
He picked at a dry booger and flicked it away. “I feel differently about them. I like it when they have the fuzzy head.”
“It’d be a problem if I let one come to its seed head. I’m the one who’s responsible for cleaning them up if they spread out.” I placed the bag down and wielded my walking stick in two hands. I made a silly scything motion with it. “So I need to get them early, when they’re still flowering.”
“I just like how they kinda look like skinny people with big heads.” He paused for a long while, appearing to study the gravemarker in front of him. Then began, “If a flower is too beautiful, it gets plucked.”
“If a flower isn’t beautiful it won’t get pollinated.” I shifted my weight from one leg to another. I felt uncomfortable in his presence.
“Maybe it’s best to be a normal flower. Then you won’t get plucked and die.”
“All flowers die eventually.”
“Which is worse, for a flower to get plucked and die or wilt on its own?”
“You’d have to ask the flower.”
“I’ve never tried talking to them before.” He remained facing away from me.
“Where are your parents?”
“So who are you here for?”
“Myself.” The kid clearly wasn’t going to be receptive to my clichés and platitudes. So I just needed to be upfront.
“Look. You can’t leave seeds here. It’s my job to keep the path clean.”
He turned and our gazes met, “Are you going to stop me?” As our eyes locked, I saw fire within his.
“No. I’m not going to stop you,” I buckled a little under the intensity of his stare. “But I’m just going to tear them up as soon as they poke through the ground. There’s no point in planting anything here.”
He asked me, turning away once more, “Can you read who this headstone is for?” I moved behind him and squinted, trying to follow the forms of stone-worn words.
“Abigail S. Moore,” I said, being pretty sure of myself.
“Abigail lived from...” He ran his fingers within the grooves of the year marks. “1889 to 1901.” He did some counting on his hands. Then he studied the dedication. “Says here that she died of...” The stone was chipped on the word. “Tubencubsis.”
“She didn’t really live that long of a life.”
“No. She didn’t.” I felt sad. Who was Abigail? What did she like? What did she hate? What were her hopes and dreams? I fell back on one of my prepared lines, “There is a lot one can enjoy, even in such a short life.”
“12 years of life and then death takes her away.” He ignored my banality again.
“Kid, I really need to keep going here, there’s going to be a funeral later today. I have to make sure everything is squared away.”
“How old are they?”
“They were eighty or ninety. Long in the tooth.”
“Isn’t that funny? Some people live to eighty. Some people live to twelve.”
“I guess so.”
“I wonder why that is.” He said it with an intonation in his voice that I had a hard time placing. It was the voice a teacher uses when they know something that you don’t, but more accusative, as though I should’ve known.
“Do you?” He fired back sharply, his words on the heels of mine, as though he had known what I was going to say.
“I’d think you’d understand it better than anyone else.” He stood up and circled behind the gravestone. When he was on the far side, he bent down for a moment and then stood up. “Oh, and by the way, you did miss one, Grim.” He held up a white fuzzy dandelion, pursed his lips, and blew the seeds into the air. “You can’t get them all while they’re young.”
I walked away from the kid, my brain swirling. As I passed by the next few graves, I saw that he must’ve been going down the row. Freshly seeded patches sat in front of almost a dozen headstones. I wheeled around and faced him, and called out, “Even if I pull all these up, are you going to stop?”
He flashed a toothy smile, ear-to-ear, and shouted, “Never!”
I continued pulling up the dandelions I saw, but no longer with vigor. My squats became ponderous and I paused pensively each time before gripping the rosette and yanking out the plant, root and stem. A pang of guilt stabbed my stomach each time. By the time I reached the end of the row, I had no emotional wherewithal to continue.
Within the next month, hundreds of headstones had small green sprouts growing in front of them. I continued to prune weeds as I saw them, but left the kid’s buds to grow. Out of curiosity, perhaps.
Later in summer I had a complaint forwarded to me from the township. They told me that a visitor from a few weeks ago thought their father’s gravesite was overrun and not being properly cared for. I was sure that it wasn’t. He was probably seeing these whatever-they-are shoots growing. But, to be sure I wasn’t missing an area during my groundskeeping, I checked the records and found where he was buried, and went out to take a look.
I passed by lines and lines of headstones, now each with their own little gardens in front. Bulbous gray-green heads on the brink of bursting forth. I can’t say how I felt looking at them. The feeling of having adopted a cemetery full of them was fire, but the feeling of imagining myself pulling them all out after bloom was ice.
I continued my march to the farthest end of the cemetery and as I crested a small hill, I looked down on a patch of graves and saw swathes of color, a speckled sea of yellows and reds and oranges with buoy-graves poking out from below the surface. There was hardly even a path to get to the headstones, and so I got down and began clearing some of the fledgling flowers out. I left as many untouched as I reasonably could, and apologized to those that I couldn’t, and painlessly pruned them.
When I finished, I turned and began to climb back up the hill I had come over. But, the sun vanished. I was shaded by a silhouetted figure. His features were hard to gauge, but I could make out the contours of his baseball cap. He exaggeratedly turned his head towards my bag full of flower cuttings, and then snapped his gaze behind me to see that I had left most of the flowers intact.
“These ones are going to wilt on their own. I think.”
“I think so too.”