In the Company of the Centuries of the Dead


by T.R. Healy

Hunched over the headstone, his tangled hair tucked under a filthy Mud Hens cap, Woodruff soaked the bristling nylon brush in the bucket of bleach, his rubber gloves squeaking against the sides. A familiar spasm of pain shuddered across his shoulders but he scarcely noticed. Then he proceeded to scrub away more of the debris and grime that had accumulated on the ancient marker, slowly bringing it back to life he thought to himself. Behind him gleamed the row and a half of white headstones that he had cleaned the past two weeks.

It would probably take the rest of the summer to spruce up all the stones in the Old Burial Grounds but he didn't mind. He liked working in this corner of Cedar Springs Cemetery because he was usually on his own and didn't have to talk to anyone. No one had been interred there in close to a hundred years. He wished he could spend all day in this corner instead of just the morning.

Around one of the narrow turns in the lone road that wound through the cemetery appeared a silver station wagon and, at once, he got up and stood behind one of the cedar trees. He was concerned it might be the garrulous Hungarian whose arm he had put in a splint when the elderly gentleman landed on it after slipping on a concrete slab covered with lichen. Harlan, his supervisor, told him yesterday the man wanted to thank him in person for what he did but he made it clear that wasn't necessary.

"All he wants to do is shake your hand and say thanks."

"He'll want to do more than that."

"I don't get you, Von," Harlan said in mild exasperation. "This guy intends you no harm but you act as if he wants to give you a subpoena."

The station wagon continued past the low brick wall that enclosed the Old Burial Grounds so he relaxed and stepped from behind the tree and resumed scrubbing the headstone.

* * *

Woodruff was always pretty reticent but after the accident he became even more so because all anyone wanted to talk about, seemingly, was how he was coping with the loss of his wife and daughter. And he did not handle it well, turning more and more to a bottle to keep from having to think about what happened to his family. Noreen and their daughter, Sandy, were visiting a friend of his wife's who lived in the west hills when, around three o'clock in the afternoon, a bright orange single-engine plane fell out of the sky and crashed into her friend's modest house. Immediately it erupted into flames that spread to three other houses in the neighborhood. Several people were injured but other than the Sunday pilot, the only fatalities were Noreen and Sandy.

When he was notified of the accident, he thought some sick soul was playing a trick on him and hung up the phone. Then the dispatcher from the fire department called back, her voice full of compassion and strain, reiterating that his family had indeed been killed earlier that afternoon.

"I can't believe it!" he shouted into the receiver.

"I am so very sorry," the woman said, sounding sincere, "but strange things happen sometimes. Things we can't possibly explain."

"I won't believe it! I can't and I won't!"

"Sir, is there someone with you? Maybe there's someone I can call for you?"

He started to tell her the only people he wanted to be with were his wife and daughter but instead kept quiet and set the receiver back in its cradle. Absolutely devastated, he still couldn't believe it wasn't some awful prank and stayed up all night waiting for Noreen and Sandy to return from the west hills. He didn't know why they had been gone so long but he certainly was going to scold them the moment they came back because he had been so worried about them.

What a fool, he thought a couple days after realizing what the dispatcher told him was true. What a complete and pathetic fool.

Often he had a drink in the evening but after the accident he started to imbibe as soon as he got up in the morning and increasingly became dependent on shots of bourbon to get him through the day. Before long, he lost his job at the rental agency where he serviced cars then for eight months drifted from one menial job after another. He just could not seem to concentrate on what he was hired to do so, inevitably, he was let go after a sharp lecture on the importance of personal responsibility. When he took the position as a groundsman at Cedar Springs, he didn't think he would last more than a couple of weeks, but to his surprise working outdoors all day made him feel better than he had in a long time. He was alert again, full of energy, doing what was expected of him, able finally to sweat the poisonous alcohol out of his system.

The first few weeks all he did was cut grass, cruising up and down the slopes of what Harlan referred to as "stone city" in a clattering riding mower. The work was monotonous but he didn't complain because he could do it without anyone looking over his shoulder. He was on his own, just as he had been in the garage at the car rental agency. Then one morning Harlan assigned him to the clean-up project in the Old Burial Grounds, which had recently begun as part of a privately funded program to refurbish some of the neglected tracts of the cemetery.

"Some of these headstones haven't been cleaned in decades," he informed him. "So you'll need to roll up your sleeves and apply some elbow grease."

Woodruff smiled and started to roll up his left sleeve.

"There are a lot of Civil War veterans buried there so you might learn a thing or two," he told him. "Not only about the soldiers but about the country."

Woodruff wasn't sure what he meant but nodded as if he did.

"This is the kind of work that gives you something back."

"Sorry?" he said, puzzled.

"You'll see. If you're there long enough, you'll see what I mean."

* * *

Woodruff had been working on the marble headstone nearly twenty minutes and still was only about halfway through, but he always proceeded cautiously because he was concerned if he hurried he might cause some damage. Throughout this section of the cemetery were strewn bits and pieces of granite and marble that had broken off of the fragile headstones. He didn't want to add to the debris so he took his time, scrubbing only as hard as was absolutely necessary.

Some day he intended to ask Harlan if he would allow him to see if he could restore some of the smaller fragments that littered the ground. Certainly he had no training in such delicate work but, as a mechanic, he was always pretty good with his hands and thought he could do a competent job. Also, he figured it might be a way of staying on the payroll longer because he knew once the bad weather set in the grass wouldn't have to be cut as often and some of the groundsmen would be let off until the spring. As the most recent person hired, he would likely be the first to go.

When he finished scrubbing the headstone, he turned on the hose and thoroughly flushed the entire surface, making sure to dissolve any remaining bleach. Then he stepped back, pleased with his effort. Every letter and numeral was again legible:

Cpt. Albion Clark

1843-1862

"He Did What Was Necessary"

Slowly removing his gloves, he stared at the gleaming white stone. The soldier was only a couple of years older than his daughter when she died. Just too young, he thought bitterly, bending over to pick up the bucket of bleach and move on to another stone. Too damn young. Of course, from the inscription, he recognized that the relatives of the soldier were convinced he died for a worthwhile purpose. That sentiment was shared by almost all of the Civil War stones he had cleaned. He could not quarrel with it, knowing that to perish in the struggle to preserve the integrity of the country made sense. Certainly a lot more sense than having an airplane fall on you.

* * *

Moments later, another car appeared on the road and instinctively Woodruff ducked behind one of the trees, pulling his cap even farther down on his forehead. It seemed much too small to belong to the gigantic Hungarian but he could not be sure so he regarded it closely as it crept past the memorial pond. He was a little surprised how emphatically his heart was pounding even though he knew he didn't want to speak with the obviously grateful man. He almost wished now he hadn't bothered to help him the other day.

In another minute another car appeared on the road then another and another until there was a whole procession of them with their headlights burning in the pale sunlight. At once, he relaxed, remembering then Harlan telling him that a burial was scheduled that morning on the north slope, and stepped from behind the tree. Calmly he walked back to the headstone he was working on, wishing he was not so reluctant to talk but knew it was best that he didn't.

"You don't talk much, do you?" he recalled a woman he waited tables with last winter saying to him one evening.

"I suppose not."

"Why's that?"

He shrugged. "I guess I don't really have much to say."

"You must have opinions," she insisted. "You must have things you want to get off your chest."

He didn't reply, certain this woman would not want to be subjected to all the bitterness and rage inside of him. No one would, really, except perhaps some counselor whose only interest was in making some money off his troubles.

* * *

His shoulders aching, his back too, Woodruff knew he needed a break and slapped his gloves across the side of the bleach bucket. Then he got up and stretched the ache from his arms, shook out a cigarette and lit it. Deliberately he inhaled the smoke into his lungs, gazing across the grounds at the mourners on the north slope. They were too far away to make out their faces, still he could see the tears welling in their eyes. He was glad he was working here not there, he thought, inhaling some more smoke.

Often when he took a break he strolled around the Old Burial Grounds, reading the inscriptions on the scoured headstones. Some of them he knew by heart, he had walked by them so many times. "He Always Did The Things He Thought He Couldn't Do." "His True Wealth Was In His Generous Heart." "Only Those Who Risk Going Too Far Will Ever Know How Far They Can Go." He almost felt as if he had engraved them, they were so tarnished with age until he made them visible.

Harlan was absolutely right when he told him there was much to learn from working at the Old Burial Grounds. "You'll feel as if you know some of the folks buried there," he said.

Woodruff squinted in disbelief.

"You don't believe me now but if you work there long enough you'll understand what I mean."

"If you say so."

"Oh, I do, Von. I most certainly do."

To be sure, there were some soldiers he imagined he knew. There was the lanky first lieutenant slain at Cold Harbor mounted on a maple red charger, a cutlass circling above his head, the bugler with freckles as bright as rose petals, the craggy buck sergeant who fell at Antietam with a musket on his shoulder, the scrawny corporal who starved to death in the prison at Andersonville. But what he liked most about working in this corner of the cemetery was the stillness; it was a place where he didn't have to worry about someone asking about how he was getting along without his family. Here the veterans were as quiet as he was, leaving him in peace.


BIO: T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such publications as The Boston Literary Magazine, Knock, Limestone, and The Red Cedar Review.