by Michael L. Woodruff
I am a cemetery by the moon unblessed.
This is the moment when lights dim. A faint mummer, a creak in the aluminum and a light cry escape from an old section of the football bleacher at the edge of the cemetery located under a walnut tree. The ground is littered with small green balls. The bleacher is used for funerals. The sounds are a plea in a place that sleeps. It softens the morning. But it doesn't help.
You should have kept your mouth shut.
The grounds are immaculate, manicured, surrounded by low wrought iron fencing that goes on for seeming miles along highway 69. There are acres of gravestones, all precise and carefully etched. The grass is cut so clean you can have a Sunday picnic on it, and often, people do, spreading blankets atop the lime colored grass, complete with coolers and food baskets and folding chairs; they come to visit their deceased loved ones. Children run through the maze of gravestones like they do through the hallways of the houses they live in. The adults freshen up the final homes of lives that no longer care. American flags and plastic flowers dot the granite memorials. A wooden sign with listed rules exhort visitors to keep their endearments current by taking the old flowers away. Please do not leave anything over 30 days. Show community pride. The place looks more like a fourth of July festival than the home of the dead.
Her mother's right arm drapes across the body. The girl's clothes are wrinkled, awkwardly pulled back up her legs, her socks and shoes are off, inches from her feet. Her small tangled panties are rolled into the dirt, twisted when they were pulled off. Her cell phone is cracked and placed carefully on the bleachers, just above the girl’s head. Her mother scratches at her daughter's naked stomach. It's a soft scratching, intended to sooth. And for the first time, she sees how small and innocent her daughter really is. Her skin is vulnerable. She's a silent flower, weak and wilted. She tried to grow up too fast. The mother reaches for understanding in her head. Why? Things like this don’t happen in our town.Her daughter left the evening before with friends. She didn't ask who. It's a small town. Everyone knows each other. It shouldn't have mattered.
Mama, I'm sorry. It's the whisper of her last gasp. I should have been more careful.Her eyes close, sweet, like a baby's self-awareness and her escaping words are a final witness, creating a fiction her mother will never hear. Her hair smells like shampoo and dirt. She's a beaten animal.
This never had to happen. Her greatest sin was not cooperating.
A pick-up truck missing a wheel is propped up by a 2 by 6 wedge, the identified culprit--the diversion. It looks desperately abandoned. It's at the edge of the road to the back of the cemetery. It's out of place in this pristine landscape: guilt by misfortune. Out of place, like her mother with a dead girl's head in her lap, out of place like the mother's crying, out of place like her presence in the cemetery so early in the morning; the world is still asleep. Her mother didn’t make it in time. She doesn't have a car. She had to walk.
Ag City is a maze of silos and box shaped buildings and houses, business buildings, agricultural buildings. Everything about the town hinges around these businesses. And in Ag City, local business is a hobby, a purse that never empties. There's an endless well to draw from--the poor and the passer-bys along highway 69. And of course, exports. Businesses blend with the local houses. It's the shuffle of the deck. They are one. It gives the town its polished image: a pristine high school with cheerleaders, white like Sunday lilies--intellectually fragile. Old men in overalls, with thick wallets, ancient and bewildered, stagger into the cafes with walls lined with sport clippings. They sip weak coffee and talk proudly about the local football heroes who are without blemish. They stand confident in their knowledge of the past. They are the stewards of all things sacred. And the young boys: they are as strong as tree trunks, and they swim thoughtlessly through the town like unfettered bulls. The town’s main church, meek on Jesus, with the American flag flying high and dignified next to the Queen Anne structure, the only architecture of antiquity left in the community, is painted heaven white and is the center of anything new and appropriate, polished people with polished cars. Each member invites the minister to lunch once a year to remind him how wonderful they are.
New enameled tractors, Massey-Ferguson, reflecting the sun, line along highway 69 as unassuming as the fast food restaurants that garnish its banks. There’s a small shack with a sign: Guns and Tiresand a graveled parking lot filled with camouflage hunting blinds. Proud new buildings overtake the rusted tangle of the past, the powdered crumble of concrete walls with faded paint--Wonderbread and Pharmacy, along with other old buildings, sink, undetected, into the earth. They are replaced by galvanized and vinyl pre-fabbed structures. They are absent from the blemish and the stain of original sin. They gleam. Perfectly bound bales of hay sleep in fields along the Blackland prairies like huge nuggets of shredded wheat. They are sweet grass, the warm smell of summer, the hint of rural passion. Every parade and every town picnic is designed to showcase a community in bliss, the substance of the celebration, excess, reduced to paper cups and plates, trash, and left for cleaning the next day—it has a smidgen of charity, the reminder of a good time. It provides jobs to those with little money.
Wood planking lie on a flatbed trailer, unused, having sat there four years forgotten by the white trash who own it. They never learn. They leave their better intentions in splintered piles. They lose their drive and money. They are never quite able to bring a task to its conclusion. They take what is free with little inspiration concerning its use. They are blank slates. The town is a place where white propane tanks of the past still heat many of the houses, the broken houses that nest in the weaker lots like sad reminders. Cottonwood trees hang heavy, splayed out, over the concrete sidewalks, an umbrella over these same older houses.
Hedge posts skin the sides of highway 69 while yellow and light green brome, the grass not baled, fill the ditches and spike into the wind. Houses along the highway sport custom mailboxes supported by western plows and milk containers. This morning, the sky is different than it was in the days past; it's now a confused blanket of light blue, lacking mid-day clarity. The angels in the clouds have disappeared leaving feathered streams of white. There are holes in the air where the rays of light penetrate and the sun spots the landscape below.
The freshly painted water tower with solid legs wears the pride of the city-Class B champions 1962. It's the promise of future victories without consequence. These fast food restaurants, Taco Bell and Subway, the whole lot of them, have invaded the city long ago, one by one, forever cemeteries, numb of any personality. The poor you have with you always, a conflicting message at best. They populate our town like a plague. And as a result, there are needs for jobs. But, these poor are expendable. They are here for the convenience of others. They are eaten daily. These fast food restaurants are a concession without any real economic impact, the illusion of growth and success. Being a shift manager is still not going to cut it.
Her mother gets the call about 15 minutes before...there are noises from the phone falling, the girl's voice screaming,no, and then, mama, I'm at the cemetery. The phone call is abruptly ended, the drone of her ringtone. Her voice sounded like a plea for the mercy of god--a flawed redemption. It's in these times that the eyes of god are plucked from their sockets, his presence ineffectual. Absentes Vero. Prayer is always an act of desperation, a salvation poorly planned, and the early morning air is mute.
People drip out of their houses surrounding the cemetery. They hear a weak cry in the morning rime. And they start to gather, blinking out the morning dew. Their mouths drop and somehow in their minds they're thinking something about the girl's lifestyle, careless thoughts that make its way to a conclusion, what they think they know, what they imagine it to be, late night bars with wild music, dances; their perception is that she parties nightly, using a fake ID, people talk, it’s how news spreads in Ag City, and her reputation is somehow responsible for her death. And her mother---what does she know, she allowed it all to happen.
-What a tragedy. But if you play with fire expect to get burned. The community is already preparing its lie.
One of the young girl's breasts poke out of her threadbare blouse, and men, with pink faces, as guilty as candy-stealing children stare. Her mother pushes it as best as she can back into the blouse, but the blouse is torn and weak and her daughter isn't wearing a bra.
-We called the police, one of the men says flatly.
She just shakes her head; she's buried in her daughter's face. She’s going to miss work today at the convenience store, and it’s something she can’t afford. She has a mortgage on a house that disappears daily into the landscape. She can’t afford the repairs. Its roof is chaffed and the siding scraped to the naked wood, gray and cracked. The yard is full of abandoned junk. The inside of the house has the thick scent of unwashed blankets. There’s no air-conditioning.
-These people are used to this kind of thing, another man concedes. They suffer daily. Most of their children die in birth. All Okies, with weak values, it’s no wonder bad things happen to them. That’s life.
The others agree.
-Just white trash--very sad. We’ve never had this shit before. It’s a recent thing. It happened when those damned fast food places started coming to town, creating bad jobs for people to buy once perfectly good houses, letting them go to hell, property that will never be repaired. And tattoos: How do these people afford their tattoos? The town is disappearing into the Blackland plains. This used to be a good place to live.
The woman whips her hair behind her shoulder and looks in the direction of the men and glares.
-And I’m fat and stupid, too.
They back up with a steely guilt.
-Come on guys, let's go. The police are here.
The police cruiser pulls, quietly, up to the bleachers, the crunch of gravel under the wheels. The lights on the cruiser spin chaotically: red, white and blue. The siren is silent. There are beer cans, murdered birds, sprinkled around the bleachers.
She already knows what’s going to happen. She knows it's those boys, the rich ones with the cars that sparkle. They drive around town every night like vultures. They hunt, stalk and never go home until something is broken or destroyed, a victory over the night. She can't do anything about it. They own all the respectability in town. She warned her daughter: Hon, never try to be like them, they will hurt you. You are not like them. You are less in their eyes; you will always be less in their eyes. And here she is...below her arm. She’s pale and limp; the wave of her soft brown hair, thin like a small child, blows over her knees. Just dig a grave now, put her into the cold ground, we’re already here, there’s no reason to move her body, and why pretend there’s anything else important to do? She’s been abused enough. No one cares. All that’s left is the sprinkle of a little charity, the brown dirt of the earth.
In this small town she knows who she is--her place. And we keep her down on purpose. Her life is like this cemetery, absent the words involving conscience, forever void. Let my daughter down in her grave, softly, in peace, she whispers, please, let the earth comfort her;it’s a soft begging sound. These people can’t afford to bury their death. But her whisper accompanies the hundreds, the thousands of others, the community of the forgotten, among the big mausoleums filled with the immortals, forever in their place. There is a line drawn between worlds. It’s always there. But it’s more visible in Ag City. It's intended to insure order, maintain the stability of the community. It’s there to create a sense of place, identity, and each person is assured their measure of decorum. It's solidified in the paint and mortar, in the glass and the asphalt that criss-crosses the town. It’s visible in the homes people occupy, the degree of comfort; it tells the world who you are and some of the houses are very ornate. It’s displayed in their ignorance of architecture, in their hunger for all things practical. Our community is a museum for the culturally untrained.
We designed and built the house ourselves.
At this point, you have to understand our town to understand what happened, and to understand these desperate people who pack themselves in the unseen corners of our community—the convenience store and fast food restaurant workers. I know my picture is vague and mean. But something is slipping away. My eyes are no longer blind. Yes, I killed the girl. I watched and I imagined, as it all unfolded, moving branches as I spied her mother sitting on the bleachers with her dead daughter's head in her lap. I watched the neighbors mock. I guessed their thoughts. I assigned a reality to it. I know everything. And these white trash people who clutter up our community, whose intentions never slip past my thoughts, they think they are entitled to something that we have, things they will never get. The poor you have with you always. Again, Jesus was right. Pour the perfume on my feet where it belongs. Let its sweet fragrance save my day. The whole thing was set in history, long ago. Who can argue with that?
I'll find a way to clean up this mess. She's a small person in a larger world. The girl's life had imagined value, as unnoticed as the dirt I walk on. How dare she reject me: the little slut. I gave her things—trinkets—things that shine. She never turned them away. And her mother: she’s a confused woman. She's a couple months behind on her mortgage. I know. My father owns the bank. He's been patient, too patient, and I suspect she will soon disappear, moved to a different town, forgotten. The Mexican whose truck broke down at the edge of the cemetery has no idea what is about to happen to him when he comes back to claim his property. They, too, are starting to fill our town. Our town suffers scourge after scourge. The whole thing is planned out in my head. Yes, I had to kill the girl. It was necessary. She would have ruined everything. This is a good place to live, filled with good people and good families. I have many friends here. I plan to stay. This cemetery is filled with monuments to our past, of the people who truly belong here and have a promise of a future—our eternity. These gravestones are precious gems, lessons to the community on the value of our history, the cornerstone of our beliefs—the substance of our God. She wanted to put a stain on everything. I shook her to get her to understand. She swore she was going to tell everyone that I forced myself on her. I didn’t force anything. It was just sex; it was done before each of us even blinked. Why did it matter? But, no, she spit in my face and tried to tear herself away. She struggled. But my grip was a vise. She's not going to do it. She's not going to say a word. Not if I can help it. No, definitely not.
It's time for me to get to my car, drive around the block, come back, and pull into the cemetery disheveled and distraught. After all, I just lost my girlfriend and I’m deeply pained.
Michael L. Woodruff is a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While at the Workshop he received the Reikes Scholarship for Writing.
His stories have appeared in Summerset Review and the Main Street Rag.
His poems have appeared in Live Poets’ Society Vol. V 2018
He is a 2019 Nominee for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
He was born in Los Angeles, California, and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition to writing and reading, he spends his time hiking the deserts of New Mexico.