This story is by Jim Rhyne and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
For twenty years, Bob Miller woke up to an Army trumpet playing reveille. When he retired, his wife, Helen, gave him an alarm clock. For twenty years, he’d never changed the setting on the alarm clock. At 6:00 AM that Thursday, he turned the alarm off and got out of bed. He showered, dressed in his work uniform, and wore his slippers out to the kitchen. He slipped them off on a mat next to his work boots and shiny dress shoes. As he put on his boots he checked the calendar. For the past twenty years, he’d been the head groundskeeper at the city cemetery.
He walked over to the refrigerator and opened the freezer drawer. Inside were seven stacks of frozen dinner boxes. He grabbed the Thursday meal, lasagna with spaghetti, and put it in the fridge to thaw. He remembered the day Helen left him five years before. She surprised him that night with a homemade lasagna. He fussed at her for wasting money and ate his frozen dinner. He looked around the kitchen. It still had the yellow drapes over the sink she picked out, with the matching towels hanging from the rack next to the stove. The stove she wanted that matched the color of the walls.
He ignored the light flashing on the answering machine and the letter he received from Charles Elliott, Esq. He hated lawyers. Helen’s bloodthirsty attorney tried for alimony. She refused it and said she just wanted out. His buddy, Joe, saw him through all that. They served in the Army together and told wild stories to each other every Friday night after the meatloaf.
Bob drove his old Buick to work. The car was a retirement present to himself. Helen had wanted to go on a cruise. Bob parked at the cemetery and went into his office.
“Good morning, Bob,” said Julie Matthews, the cemetery manager. She handed him an envelope from human resources. He opened the envelope, read the letter inside, then dropped it in the trash.
“Well?” Julie said. Bob gave her a hard expression. She smirked. “No grumpy face. What was it?”
“Twenty years. No big deal, Matthews.”
“Fine,” Julie said and shook her head.
“It’s just a job.” He looked at the invoice in her hand.
“Only one today, in Boot Hill.” Julie walked over to the cemetery map on the wall. “Spot C-15.”
“Alright, I’ll get right on it.” Bob walked toward the door.
“Wait. The water department needed the backhoe to fix the water main on Grove Street.” Julie grimaced when Bob stopped and turned around. “They’re sending someone to help you. That was good of them, right?” She nodded her head at Bob as he crossed his arms and tilted his head.
“I have to show someone how to dig a grave?” Bob walked out of his office and into the equipment garage.
“You taught me,” Julie said, following behind him.
Bob glared back at her.
“I have to go see the City Manager. You want lunch?”
Julie watched as he put two shovels, two dirt mats, and the grave frame in the back of their work truck. Julie opened the garage door.
A young man stood outside. He wore the same city uniform as Bob, but it was less faded and his boots were newer.
“Who’re you?” Bob said.
“I’m Robbie Newsome.” The young man stepped into the garage. “The water department sent me over to help you out today.” He held his hand out to Bob. “To be honest, I volunteered.
“What the hell for?” Bob said.
“A new experience.”
“It’s just a hole, Newsome. How old are you?”
Bob rolled his eyes at Julie.
“It’s just a hole.” She shook Robbie’s hand. “I’m Julie. Thanks for helping.”
“No problem, Miss Julie. Happy to help.”
Bob got in the truck. “Newsome, let’s go.” Julie watched them leave then went back inside.
“Where’s the grave?” Robbie said.
“Over in Boot Hill.”
“Boot Hill? Like Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Boot Hill?”
Bob looked at Robbie. “Something like that. It’s where we bury the charity cases. Usually, homeless people and prisoners that die in jail.”
“Who’s this grave for?”
“I never ask. I just dig the hole and fill it up.” Bob stopped the truck, grabbed his tape measure, and they got out.
“Say, there’s no gravestones here,” Robbie said.
“Boot Hill graves just get a marker with the name and dates.” Bob walked into the grass and poked around in the turf. “Grab the grave frame. Here are the corner marks.”
Robbie set the grave frame down and Bob measured to make sure it was in place.
“Say, that spot there has two markers on it,” Robbie said.
“We stack ‘em two deep to save space.”
“Well, I’ll be.”
“They get buried out in the main cemetery like that. Husband and wife stacked up. Grab the shovels and mats.”
Robbie retrieved the equipment and they laid the mats out. They marked the hole with the frame, set it aside, then removed the sod and stacked it on a mat.
“Newsome, you start in that end.”
“How far down does this need to be?”
“Five feet.” Robbie tossed his first shovel-full of dirt in the center of the mat. “Spread the dirt around. Don’t just dump it all in one spot.”
“I see, thanks. Say, how long you been working at the cemetery?”
“Twenty years. Make sure your sides are going straight,” Bob said.
“Okay, like this?” Bob nodded. “I’ve been in the water department for two years. I’m going to school at night to get my treatment certificate. I finish up next month, then I’ll move up from pipe maintenance to the treatment plant.”
“Watch your edges there when you toss the dirt,” Bob said.
“Yes, sir. What did you do before this?”
“I was in the Army for twenty years.”
“Wow. Thank you for your service, Mr. Miller. My Dad was in the Navy, but just four years. He runs the treatment plant. You go all over the world?”
“You can call me Bob, okay?” Bob stopped and watched Robbie dig for a bit. His side was already six inches deeper than Bob’s. “Yeah, I got to see a few things.”
“I’ve only ever been here and up to the capital on a school field trip. My wife wants to travel some when we save up the money. She’s going to community college and works at a bank. You married?”
Bob spiked his shovel into the dirt.
“Oh, sorry,” Robbie said.
“It’s alright. She left.” Bob’s next few shovels had a bit more dirt in them.
“Oh, jeez. My folks fight sometimes but they always fix it up.”
“Say, what you do after work, for fun and all?”
“On Fridays, my buddy Joe comes over and we play cards and watch a movie.” Bob checked on Robbie’s progress. His end was already a foot lower than Bob’s.
“Hannah and I don’t watch much television. We go for walks when we have time. I take her dinner if she’s over at the library studying. Most weekends we go hiking and camping up at the state park. You ever get up there?”
“No. I did enough of that stuff in the Army. I don’t get out much.”
“Oh, we’d go crazy if we were stuck inside. There’s too much to see and do.”
Bob started digging faster. “I’ve seen plenty. More than most.”
“There’s always stuff happening in town. Heck, each time we’re camping we see something different going on. Nature keeps moving I reckon.”
Bob ignored Robbie as he talked about the places he and his wife wanted to see, about a summer trip they were planning to Yosemite, and her college classes.
“Helen and I took a trip when I was stationed in Germany,” Bob said, then grimaced. “We boarded the wrong train and ended up in Paris. I think she did it on purpose. Dragged me all over that damned town.”
“Wow, Paris. Hannah would flip. Say, is this deep enough?”
Bob got his tape measure out. “We’ll see,” he said as he turned around. Robbie’s side was near perfect. The sides and bottom were smooth and the corners were sharp. He stared at Robbie a moment. “Um, well, hop out of there and I’ll measure it.”
Bob stepped down into Robbie’s side and pulled the tape down. “Fifty-nine and three-quarters. Not bad, Newsome.”
“Let me get the last bit out.”
“No, it’s fine. Give me a hand with my side.”
“Sure thing,” Robbie said. He looked at the sky toward the southwest. “We better hurry. A storm’s coming.”
Together they finished Bob’s half.
“Bob, you think I could head over to the shop and use the restroom?”
“Take the truck.”
“Nah, I’ll walk. Be back in a minute.” Robbie climbed out of the grave and headed off.
Bob shook his head, then started cleaning up his half of the hole. He stopped when Robbie returned.
“Say, Bob, I called my wife. She’s making homemade lasagna tonight. Would you be interested in coming over for dinner? Best lasagna in the county, bar none.”
Bob looked up at him. “No, I’ve got plans.”
“Plans for what?” said Julie as she walked up and looked in at Bob. “Wow, who dug that half?”
“Still just a hole,” Bob said.
“The crypt is on the way. Think we can get it in before the storm?” Julie said.
“Yeah,” Bob said.
“Don’t worry, Robbie. I’ve been inviting him for dinner for years and he always turns me down.”
“Well, Bob, the offer still stands. Say, Miss Julie,” Robbie said, “who is this grave for?”
She opened the folder in her hand and read the invoice. “Um, let’s see. Hopper, Joseph Hopper.”
Bob dropped his shovel.
“He had no family apparently, and with no response from the listed executor of his estate, the city had to take over.”
Bob fell to his knees. He beat his fists on the ground as tears filled his eyes.
“That’s sad. No one at all?”
“It happens, though most are homeless or drifters passing through.”
“Bob?” Julie and Robbie hurried to the edge of the grave. Bob looked at Robbie’s clean side and then his.
“Oh, my Lord, Bob,” Robbie said, “was Hopper your friend Joe?”
ob nodded and put his hands over his face. His body started shaking.
“Bob, come on,” Julie said, “let us help you out of there.”
Bob didn’t move.
Robbie knelt down. “Bob, it’s never too late. Give me your hand, let’s get you out of there.”
Bob looked up at Julie, then at Robbie. “Robbie?”
“Yeah, Bob. Let me help you out.”
Bob looked up at the sky, down at his dirty hands, then at the ground at the bottom of the hole. His eyes flared and he stood up as though the grave was trying to swallow him. He put his hand on the edge of the grave. He looked at the grass as though he’d never touched it before. He glanced around, then past Robbie and Julie at the dark storm clouds rolling in. He turned to Robbie and held his hand out.
“That’s it,” Robbie said. He gripped Bob’s hand and helped him out of the grave.
Bob steadied himself and placed his hand on Robbie’s shoulder. “Thank you, Robbie. You too, Julie.”
“In seven years, Bob, you’ve never called me by my first name. Always Mathews this and Mathews that.”
Bob brushed the dirt of his uniform and looked at Julie. “Yeah. And Joe, Staff Sergeant Joseph Hopper, was a veteran. He has a plot reserved up at the state cemetery. I’ll get it straightened out.”
“So we can fill this hole in then?” Robbie said.
Bob looked at the grave a moment. “Not today.” Then he turned to Robbie and smiled. “Say, what time’s supper?”