The folks here call me Grave Digger. I’ve been shoveling dirt here at St. Phillip’s for almost seventy years. Some of the folks here I know from town. Most of them I met after I started working here. It’s a good job. Pay’s decent. I don’t have a 401K or anything, but my work keeps me young. I get to work outside, and I get the holidays off. People say things about all cemeteries, but this one really is unique.
I’ve learned a lot of history working here, too. Like, I know Count Franklin Schmidt IV founded this town in 1762. I know his son, Franklin Schmidt V, fought in the war of 1812. The countess was a real kind lady named Emeraldine-a very friendly sort. With his young wife, Louisa, Franklin Schmidt V had a son the couple named Bartholomew Alastair Conroy Schmidt. After the war, Franklin Schmidt V took a government office, and when young Bart was old enough, Franklin offered him a position. But Bartholomew had a taste for the sea, and he took off with a merchant ship in the summer of 1845. Bart worked legitimately for a time, but just like too many men during his era, he discovered the real profit was in freebooting. He turned pirate somewhere around his thirty-eighth birthday. In the fall of 1862, Franklin Schmidt V, who was then nearing his eightieth year, watched his only son dangle from the hitch. Louisa, having succumbed to cholera in the spring of 1847, was spared the tragedy of losing her only child to the gallows.
Lady Leona Betancourt arrived in our city from Paris in 1856 with her elder husband, Old Man Williams. Some folks said she only married him for his money, but Leona claimed there was a burning passion between her and the old man from the moment they met. Only two people know the truth, and both of them are dead. Old Man Williams’ demise, though he was quite up in age, was deemed mysterious. Leona was visiting her sister in Lyons when the old man was found by neighbors, soggy and dead in the bath. The widow inherited every bit of his wealth, including properties on both sides of the Atlantic. Rumors speculated she’d taken a lover, but no one had any accounts of ever meeting the mystery man. Some said he was a sailor, and postulated his being off at sea was the reason no one actually saw Leona with her lover. Tales grow tall amongst the elite in this city. Leona was ostracized when her acquaintances decided Old Man Williams’ death was a murder conspired by Leona and her unknown lover, the supposed sailor having carried out the deed himself. Leona lived in her Uptown mansion, alone but for a housemaid, until her own death in 1862. The housemaid discovered Leona at the bottom of her high marble staircase, skull split apart like a cracked coconut. The housemaid was never suspected of foul play, however, since Leona left a note simply saying she could no longer bear to exist on this Earth with her true love. Leona was buried in her favorite crimson frock, the last gift she received from her husband.
The pocket watch my old man left me ticks in my coat pocket, reminding me that the night is approaching the proverbial witching hour.
“Got a cigarette, Grave Digger?” Comes a corroded voice through rotted vocal chords. I turn, and with a flick, I ignite my Zippo’s orange flame, illuminating my companion’s deteriorating visage. His empty eye-sockets, home to various pests, are fixed on my own eyes. He leans forward and lights his cigarette then returns to an upright position. Smoke wisps out of the head, the eyes and the center of the skull where a nose once was, resembling an incense burner fashioned after a Death’s Head. Insects scurry about, irritated by the intrusion of the smoke.
“You’re working late,” he observes. He straightens the sleeves of his threadbare dress coat and tosses the rope that hangs from his neck over his bony shoulder.
“I decided weren’t no reason to go home all by myself when I can stay and finish up this job,” I answer.
“Seems a man like you would want to rest his back,” says my companion, “seeing as it’s so crooked.” The fingers of his skeletal hand rattle as it slaps my wasted spine.
“I’m old, Bart, but I ain’t dead,” I say, lighting my own cigarette.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks, peevish. “Well,” he continues after a silence, “you’ll be dead in enough time, mate. Believe me.”
I smile. Not soon enough, I want to say. Some essence of this accursed graveyard has delayed the Reaper’s visit.
Headlights appear on the road in the distance.
“You reckon’ it’s a new neighbor?” Bart asks.
“Nah,” I say. “They don’t bring them in this late.”
The headlights are stationary for a moment, and then make the inevitable turn all lost vehicles make when their drivers discover they’ve traveled too far down a dark, unknown path.
“Gone the wrong way, I figure. Don’t want to get lost on this route, eh?” Bart chuckles and tosses his cigarette into the open hole I’m digging. He looks at me. “That wasn’t disrespectful or nothing, was it? I don’t mean to disrespect the dead.” He howls with laughter, throwing his smooth, hairless skull back so far it seems it will break from the spine. The cranium appears luminescent from dew in the moonlight. I think of some folklore about crystal skulls.
“I like you, George, old man,” he states, his voice reminds me of the groan of warped wooden ship bows that have been too long at sea. “I hope you don’t mind me leaving that cigarette.”
I shake my head without responding. I know Bart’s incorrigible, even in death, and always will be. I watch as he ambles away. Another figure joins him, a petite frame swathed in a tattered crimson frock that sways with the motion of its wearer’s hips. Bart bows and addresses his escort, “Madame Betancourt.” She curtsies. Bart throws his bony arm across the lady’s shoulders. They stroll together along a well-traveled avenue among their neighbors while I observe the now enlivened festivities and finish my cigarette.