Jet Streams


The heat of the dreadful summer of 1980 combines with a young man's bizarre obsession in this macabre story.

I have been a man for two years, seven months and two days.

That's unusual, isn't it. To know precisely when a youth becomes a man? I can tell, physician, by your twisted features: You do not believe me. You are not alone. But ask yourself: Are there others here who are as confident of their entry into manhood? Even among the staff? Are there others here in this institution who are as self-assured; who recognize names and remember dates as well as I? Are there?

You bristle at the word "institution." Forgive me. "Hospital" sounds better; better than asylum, anyway. The word "hospital" implies that I'm only sick, and holds forth hope that I will return, someday, to health. But tell me, physician, what is it like to be "mentally healthy?" I mean, what is it like to healthy beyond the mere ability to interact with your neighbors without resorting to stuffing them into a meat grinder as did Joe Balson, who lives just down the corridor. Yes, I am observant; I am a good, and quiet, listener. I am also quite normal. Now, I guess. Yes. Now I am.

Anytime. Turn on your recorder anytime now. I've told the story a dozen, a thousand times, and there is no change. Listen to the tapes of your predecessor. The voice, the intonation, even the words; it will all be the same. I wish I could promise a story of a quiet slide into madness; no, too harsh a word, I can tell by your reaction. I wish I could promise a story of a quiet slide into this advanced disassociative state. But it was not gradual.

Before we begin, may I ask you something? Tell me, doctor, what is "sane"? Why are you a psychiatrist? Why are you here in Jacksonville, working for the state? Did you come here to help the unfortunates with disassociative personality disorders? Or are you here to chink up some monster roaring in the empty corridors of your mind? "Physician, heal thyself" is still sound advice.

Yes. I am ready.

*****

Jason Kelly was good at what he did. I worked with him for nearly three months that awful summer, and never once did he crack a crate.

It was that awful summer the summer of 1980 when it was so brutally hot. That was the year that dozens of people were found dead in their torrid hovels, bloated by the heat. Outdoor work was difficult. Jason and I were young, I was 20 and he was 21, yet the heat occasionally succeeded in knocking us senseless. We struggled in the sweltering humidity, would struggle to bring our abused bodies under control, and we worked despite the sun; the temperatures. Some men said they got used to the 105-degree days. I never did. Neither did Jason.

It was, perhaps, the most macabre job a young man could hold. The General Assembly of the State of Illinois, in its own brand of wisdom, had decided several months earlier to widen a stretch of highway outside of Liberty from two to four lanes. Liberty is where I grew up; it's little more than a wide spot in the road about 15 miles east of Quincy, a river town Mark Twain occasionally cites.

Problems, however, lay in the way of a newly widened highway. Exactly 131 problems. Some were men, some were women and the rest were children or were infants who never had a chance. The new edition was to run through the middle of a cemetery three miles east of Liberty.

******

"State law is a peculiar thing, don't you know," Jason told me the second day of that horrible job.

He had an unusual way of speaking. Sentences which were interrogative in structure were declarative by intonation. His remarks were frequently neither questions nor statements, but something in between.

Jason spit some tobacco which had worked out the end of his hand-rolled cigarette.

"You know," he said, "law requires you to do some things that are, well, weird. I mean, it's not like we're being told to do something or not do something for our own good. It's much more intrusive than that.

"The ancient Greeks believed best laws were those which made you a better person by forcing you to do certain things or perform certain acts. They used to make laws which forced their citizens to decide what was wrong or right. Now all we got are laws telling us what not to do: Don't speed, don't spit, don't smile. Anything you are instructed to do by law usually involves losing freedom or money."

"Yeah," I said, not really understanding the point of Jason's rambling diatribe. "Ain't it strange."

"Take this." Jason swung an arm in a broad sweep, embracing all of the 131 problems before the State of Illinois. "The governor never heard of these people. Most of them were dead before he was born. But he jots his name on a document called a `highway funding bill' and you and I get jobs pulling dead people out of the ground." He sighed, spent. "Seems a shame. I'd think after 50 or 60 years in the same spot, a body'd not take lightly to being moved."

Despite the heat, I shuddered; not so much the words but the thoughts invoked. Jason -- with his home-spun philosophy and hand-rolled cigarettes -- was one morbid son of a bitch, I'd decided after the first day. But I liked him.

That's youth, don's you see? Older men pick friends by measuring similarities, backgrounds. Young men pick friends through shared experiences. We'd split a six-pack after our first day of work and shared beers are often all that's needed as a foundation of friendship between young men.

I stood in shorts, a white t-shirt and gloves, leaning on the rear wheel of Jason's backhoe, watching him smoke. He was about two inches taller than me just over six feet tall. I probably outweighed him by 20 pounds, but only because of my peculiar build. I'm more compact, solid, closer to the ground. Jason was taller, lean and athletic in a different sort of way. The foreman knew instinctively we'd complement each other. We were assigned as a team the first day, and remained together until Cheryl broke us apart.

Excuse me. I get ahead of myself.

Our first day of work was spent in lectures and learning the machinery. Our foreman, a tiny man named Richard Dixon, bellowed at us as we sat in a stifling company trailer near the 131 graves.

"We have to move `em one-by-one to a new site," Dixon howled. He apparently had lost his hearing after too much proximity to loud machinery and thought everyone shared his affliction. "Be careful when you pull `em. A lot of `em are in old crates that'll crack right open and dump everything. And if you ain't careful, you'll find yourself puking your guts out while some old man's eyeballs roll around under the wheels of your backhoe."

The "crates" were to be exhumed, then placed in over-sized wooden boxes. They would then be transported to another cemetery four miles from the work site for re-internment. The contractor recognized the sensitivity of the job so if a crate popped open, we were instructed to scoop everything up. Everything.

"You gotta be careful," warned Dixon. "If you bust a casket open, be sure to shovel up everything and put it back in the box. Even the old casket. Everything goes to the new site."

The second day of work the first day of moving the dead was June 2nd. Jason had finished his cigarette and was puttering with something on the `hoe while I glanced across the cemetery.

Many of those asleep under the soil had died before the first car rolled through Liberty, I thought while leaning against the tire. They died before it all happened. Before cars, airplanes, men in space. All our history up until their deaths was insignificant and boring. Now's the best time to be alive, I thought.

It was all so curious: When someone is buried, he is done away with. Nothing of him exists.

Now, we were about to exhume that which had been forgotten, which had ceased to exist.

Perhaps, I thought, we would be better off if they were left alone; the asphalt of the new four-lane simply applied over their bones.

"Huh?" I jerked myself from my musings. Dixon was standing next to me, arms folded over his chest.

"I said, `Let's get to it,' nimrod." He gave me The Look.

I've seen The Look on the faces of many other folks. Mostly, I've seen it on the faces of teachers who have just called on me to answer a question and either caught me daydreaming, or playing in the far corridors of my mind, where the best toys lay.

Jason smiled. It wasn't a condescending smile, but was the smile of someone who had been there before. Who knew the road and was willing to give directions. Jason started the backhoe and rolled into the graveyard. I followed on foot; union rules forbid more than one man on a backhoe at a time.

I don't know what Jason would have been, but he'd have made a wondrous surgeon. He manipulated the `hoe as deftly as a mother helping a baby take his first step. I knew he'd operated the machine for two years, but I still expected awkwardness. There was none.

A backhoe is not an easy machine to master. The one Jason drove looked like a farm tractor with a small blade up front and the vital digging arm on back. The arm was operated by a hydraulics system controlled by the driver. An 18-inch wide bucket was on the end of the mechanical arm. It, too, was controlled by hydraulics.

The graveyard was laid out in a peculiar fashion. A grass waterway cut it into two parts. A small section of about 50 newer -- between 1954 and 1966, when the cemetery was declared full -- graves was at the east end of the yard on a small knoll. An empty patch, where once stood a church, was to the south of these new graves. Jason and I were to work in the western section were approximately 85 old-time Illinois residents had been at peace since between 1860 and 1944.

There were three crews of two men each. Dixon was directing the other two crews, who had been assigned to the more recent plots. These crates were to be moved more quickly as family survivors were likely to yet live in the community. The older plots, for the time being, were our business; these dead were without advocates.

Jason drove the backhoe carefully, as if he hoped to leave no sign of his passage in the unruly grass between the two sections. He brushed by trees and the backhoe seemed to glide as if on a cushion of air; the only remnant of its passage was the pungent scent of gasoline exhaust which reminded me that I was alive, and that the dead didn't notice.

"We'll start here," Jason called out above the noise of the `hoe. I nodded and jogged to catch up. He maneuvered the machine until it was behind a tall, white stone from the early 1940s.

The stone was tall, slender and round with an inscription. I paid no attention to the name at the time, but the inscription caught my eye. I still remember what it said. It was peculiar, this saying on a 20th Century tombstone:

We Shall Not Let Them Roam.
They are awake beneath the loam.

For the second time that day, I shuddered. Not so much the words, but the thoughts they invoked. I imagined a grieving relative, huddled in black, arguing with a cadaverous stonecutter. Demanding that the phrases be inscribed as written, or the stone would be purchased elsewhere. And I imagined the sense of foreboding that exuded from the stonecutter when he finally acquiesced to the family's eccentric demands.

Before beginning his excavation, Jason paused and read the stone. I think I saw his lips moved, but I heard nothing lucid above the put-put-put of the idling `hoe.

I watched Jason silently for several minutes. Then I nervously kicked the grass.

"Hey man, let's get to it," I said. "Dixon'll be over here in a little bit kickin' our butts if we don't get a move on."

Jason looked at me. His face held a dreamy, glassy, almost romantic expression. It was the kind of look you see on the face of a puppy happy to be at your feet, or on the face of a boy who's fallen in love for the first time. Glassy, dreamy; kind of scary, too.

"Dixon's dead," he said.

His words were faint; I started. I don't think he meant for me to hear him. But there was a peculiar nature to the heavy humid air on this side of the graveyard. It muffled some sounds, like the clucking of the idling backhoe, and magnified others. If Jason noticed I had heard him, he gave me no indication. Instead, he turned to the backhoe and began handling the hydraulics that motivated the rear bucket.

The way he moved that bucket! He brought poetry to the act of digging a hole in the ground. Gravedigging, you'd think, would probably be abhorrently boring to observe, on a par with watching water evaporate out of a pothole, or watching mud dry. Yet Jason made the task fascinating . He raised gravedigging to high art and a person could be awed by Jason's command of his over-sized artistic tools.

Jason scraped off a layer of earth, about a foot deep, then he paused and waved me into the expanding grave. My job during this part of the excavation mostly entailed prodding the earth with a thin metal rod. Jason told me to poke the rod into the ground as far as it would go. I did, and felt nothing obstruct the rod along its 18-inch length; there was as yet, no casket.

Jason scraped off a second layer of earth. I jumped into the hole and prodded again. Again nothing.

After Jason pulled the third layer of soil, I bounced into the hole and poked the dowel into the ground. It sank just six inches.

"I must have hit a rock," I said. "This is too close to the surface to be a casket." Jason shook his head and pointed to my left.

"There," he said. "Try there." I poked the rod into the soil and got maybe eight inches deep before it hit something solid, and stopped.

"Could be a big rock," I said. Jason motioned that I should repeat the operation. I poked into the ground at a third site; there the rod sank its full length unimpeded. I tried a fourth site, and the rod stopped, again at six inches.

"I think we have something," Jason said.

He flicked on a spotlight at the rear of the `hoe. The light wasn't much in the bright sunshine but was enough to illuminated murky corners of the forming grave. Jason searched the ground thoroughly. Then he shaved the soil away; gently, first two inches, then an inch, then just millimeters at a time. In less than ten minutes, he had roughly outlined the coffin of James Sole, 23, a victim of World War II.

Jason killed the engine and hopped off to join me. I was trying to pull shovels off the side of the `hoe; Jason rolled a cigarette while I untied the tools.

"The soil here has unusual characteristics," observed Jason. "They buried him, what, forty years ago? And he moved up, what, about two, maybe two and a half feet?"

I grunted a wordless affirmation. The shovels were tightly bound to the backhoe, unwieldy and unwilling to pop loose. I was digging for a pocket knife to cut the twine the bound them to the machine.

Jason stuffed his hand-made cigarette into his mouth and lit it. He sucked deeply, then sighed.

"He's a couple of years older then me." Jason spit some of the loose tobacco. "Always will be, just 23. Never getting any older. Maybe he's lucky."

"I doubt it," I said, finally freeing the shovels. "Think how he died: Shot up or stabbed or blown up on some rock in some part of the world he didn't know existed until his Uncle Sam tapped him on the shoulder."

Jason raised an eyebrow. "Pacifist?"

"Yeah, sorta." I didn't got into it then. I'd lost a big brother a decade earlier in Vietnam; a country Billie hadn't known existed until his Uncle Sam tapped him on the shoulder. It was strange, but Billie was buried in the same cemetery to which these folks were being transferred. Maybe he and Mr. Soule could be neighbors.

Now that we'd gotten this far, I was at a loss. I knew we'd have to extricate the crate, but the exact process escaped me. We were studying my first crate when we heard one of the men on the other crews scream.

It sounded like a woman's scream. It was a high-pitched undulating sound. I'd never have thought it could come from a man's throat. I glanced back and saw William Rogers pushing and pulling levers on his `hoe while his ground partner, a guy called "Weird Vic" by the rest of the work team, ran for a small cropping of trees with his hand firmly fastened to his mouth. Rogers had bounded off the `hoe and was following his partner when his guts exploded. Rogers fell face-first into the long green grass, and was horribly, vocally, violently ill.

As we approached Rogers' backhoe, I noticed Dixon, who was been supervising the third team. A grim look settled on his face -- satisfaction, I thought.

Jason mounted the now-idling backhoe and gently raised the bucket. He kept face forward as goo and slime slid off the bucket, dripping into the hole. I stopped short at the sight of the grimy, gory bucket.

"You gotta be gentle with them," he softly admonished the distancing Weird Vic and the still-ill Rogers. "You gotta be real gentle with them." I didn't know if he meant the backhoe, or the dead.

I approached the hole more slowly, leery. Then it hit the odor of the cracked crate. I can still dredge the memory from the permanent file of smells locked away in distant corridors, near where the best toys lay. Even now, I feel queasy remembering.

The smell was sickly sweet mixed with a tinge of pungent chemicals. I grew up on a farm, and know the smell of dead animals: acrid and potent smells that punch their ways into your lungs.

But the stench of the embalmed dead is different, more horrible. It wafts, absent; then suddenly present. It overwhelms the other senses. I couldn't feel the green grass at my feet nor see the splendid sky. I could no longer feel the heavy humid air around me. The sound of the idling backhoe folded. All that existed then was me and that sick, sweet smell. My body very nearly rebelled and if I had lacked control, I would have found myself tossing breakfast onto my boots.

Even Jason, who I knew had done this kind of work before, showed signs of being affected by the odor, though not as badly as myself. He shut off Rogers' backhoe and jumped to the ground, then smiled greenly. "It's something you'll never get used to. You'll get numb, but you'll never get used to it. It's better if you don't bust them open, don't you know."

Jason's words pulled me back to the day and to the task at hand. Dixon was beside me, this time temporarily at a loss for words. He walked to the gaping grave and gazed in. Then he broke his brief silence.

"Now ain't that special," he said.

I hadn't yet screwed up my courage enough to look although my body had gotten somewhat used to the smell. Weird Vic was still absent. Rogers was on his hands and knees, but he had suppressed his vomiting. Finally. It had been several minutes since he'd cracked the crate.

"Well. What do you think you should do?"

Jason shook his head, walked to stand near Dixon at the lip of the open grave. He whistled: "They made a mess of him, didn't they?"

"Him" was John Fredrick Nodaway, 72, who died, I am sure, a quiet death. Besides his ruined corpse and the goo dripping off the bucket, all that remained of Mr. Nodaway was the foul, offensive odor.

"Patterson." I jerked up. "Get up here and give your partner a hand."

I think Dixon was hoping I'd blow a gut. But despite my stomach's sympathetic syncopation with Rogers' now less infrequent belches, I walked toward the grave. I'd rather have pulled my own brother's body out of the ground than look into that hole. Yet I stiffened my resolve, and strode forward.

Jason watched me, curious.

*******

I was sitting in a booth, the cool air evaporating the day's perspiration off my back and out of my t-shirt. The smell still clung to the hair inside my nose and to my mustache; the only thing I could think of that would clear the smell was to belly up to a pitcher of beer and drink until I was numb.

Jason was at the bar of the Gone Broke Bank, the only tavern in Liberty. It is, as one might guess from the name, housed in a former bank building on Main Street. The old bank State Bank of Liberty moved to a new facility at the edge of town leaving this wonderful relic behind. A crafty entrepreneur seized the property and turned it into a popular middle class beer joint.

Farmers, businessmen, gravediggers. All were welcome in the embracing shadows of the Gone Broke Bank.

I was shaken. I had never seen a dead man. I mean, I had never seen a dead man up close. I'd been to funerals, but that doesn't count. When you see a man chopped in half, it doesn't matter that he can't and couldn't, feel pain. It does matter that he once did feel pain. Perhaps Mr. Nodaway had been in this building twenty or thirty years before, standing where Jason stood, trading silver for bills or dickering with a bank officer over a percentage point for a farm loan.

I wanted a beer.

I guess what got me most was that Mr. Nodaway was still dressed in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, just as he'd been dressed when buried over a decade earlier. Not that anyone would have mistaken him as being even remotely human: The casket was only half-exposed and the other half was firmly buried. Weird Vic and Rogers were a lot sloppier than Jason and me, and had not as carefully excavated. The backhoe's bucket had punched through the casket, no mean feat as the casket was solidly built, and had chopped Mr. Nodaway in two, right across his thin chest. Despite the clumsy scalpel, Mr. Nodaway's parts were fairly independently intact. His hands were folded on his chest, even after he had been chopped in two. I had built a resistance to the smell, and wrapped a handkerchief over my face while Jason and I help pick up the upper half of Mr. Nodaway. I commented that his hands didn't unfold: Jason pointed out the hands couldn't unfold; they were bound together with baling wire.

Couldn't have the guest of honor waving at the crowd in the middle of his eulogy, he said.

A beer. I needed a beer.

We completed moving Mr. Nodaway to an over-sized box. We loaded him, and Weird Vic and Rogers took him to the new cemetery the one my brother is buried in where a fourth crew was digging new graves for exhumed state problems. Then Jason and I finished our work with Mr. Soule. We dug with our shovels, slipped a metal bar underneath the casket, and tipped it just a little; just enough to get a grip on one of the handles. It was heavy, yet Jason and I were able to manhandle it out of the ground. We'd finished packing Mr. Soule for his trip when Weird Vic and Rogers returned from their errand and volunteered to drive Mr. Soule to his new resting place. Jason and I accepted. I hoped Mr. Soule would like it there.

Work finally ended. At the rate of two caskets a day, it would take us a little more than three and a half months to empty the graveyard, Dixon had howled. Step it up, we were told

I was numb.

Dark windows muted the sharp sun. Jason was still talking to the bartender, showing identification. I'd given him my driver's license. For some reason, I didn't want much to do with the living. Not just yet. Jason understood.

I heard the air conditioner whir, felt the cold air circulating around my neck. The heat prompted one of the farmers to comment to a dour-looking beer buddy.

"I heard a weatherman in Quincy say this could be a hot one because of the jet streams," he said. "I thought those jets, flying as fast as they do, would screw things up. Remember? We talked about that once, Buck. Why, I'll just bet them could winters we've been having came about because of those jet streams."

Buck nodded.

"I hear they're always doing something with them jets. You know; soup `em up so they go even faster. I bet that'll just make it worse. They don't know what they're doing."

Buck nodded.

"Them astronauts; what do you wanna bet they punched a hole through the atmosphere and all our air's leaking out. I'll bet that has something to do with the weather, too."

Jason saved me by plopping a sweating pitcher of beer in front of me. The amber waves of foam beckoned; I reached for a glass, filled it, and pitched the beer back as far as it would go. I slurped, glugged and finally, swallowed. Some spilled out of the corner of my mouth. For a crazy minute, I thought about taking the second glass and pouring it down my face, across my shoulders and down my chest and back a sort of alcoholic baptism.

"It's good." I set my glass down. Jason wordlessly refilled it. Instead of wearing the beer, I drank it, more slowly this time, until I drained the glass.

Jason tossed my driver's license to me. Then he sat down in the booth across from me. "Don't worry. It gets easier."

"Digging or drinking?"

Jason looked at dirt under the fingernails of large, delicate hands. I wondered what he was looking for: A piece of Mr. Nodaway perhaps? He finally answered after a long minute.

"Both, I guess." Jason tipped his beer. "State law's a funny thing."

"Yeah. You said that before."

"No. I mean, just six years ago, you couldn't have gotten a drink here because you weren't twenty-one. Now, you're twenty, but since the drinking age is nineteen, you can legally get soused. And if you're stupid, you can get behind a wheel, head down the road and maybe kill yourself and someone else. That's why there's talk about raising the drinking age back to twenty-one. Too many dead, drunk kids."

"Jason, who cares? One way or another, everybody dies. Remember Soule? He got it in the Pacific. Poor Mr. Nodaway; looked like he died of cancer or consumption or something. There's a hundred twenty-nine more dead people who'll be just as dead if the drinking age is nineteen or twenty-one, or if they stay in that graveyard or move somewhere else." I tossed down my third glass and looked at him Jason sat in his chair, looking at me curiously, steadily. "Yeah," I said. "I hear they're talking about raising the drinking age back to twenty-one. As long as they wait a couple more months, I could care less. It might even be a good idea."

I went for the second pitcher. Jason was pensive, sitting behind his still-full second glass when I returned. I put the pitcher down.

"Thanks."

"For the beer? You bought the first one."

"No. For not getting sick. That meant a lot to me."

"Why?"

"Shows you have a lot of self-discipline and self-control. Shows you're tough. Means you'll be a good partner and that we'll get along fine. Means we'll get he job done pretty fast; you're a quick learner." He fell silent, then tossed the beer down.

"Dixon was hoping you'd get sick. When you kept your cookies, his face about fell off his head. Shocked him, I guess. He's a pure and refined, 100 percent son of a bitch," said Jason.

I was feeling a buzz. The three beers -- I'm not much of a drinker now and was even less of one -- then hit me, subtle, like the odor of the busted crate.

"He is not a pleasant man," I observed.

Jason shook his head. "Dixon doesn't like college kids. He thinks they're punks; couldn't do a day's work if their lives depended on it. I worked with him last year and he hasn't changed. He'll never change."

"Then we'll just have to be the best crew he's ever seen," I said. "When the summer's over, he'll beg us to come back and work for him next year."

Jason lifted his glass as a toast.

*******

We worked. Hard.

And it got hotter. Weird Vic didn't report back the third day. Nor the fourth. Dixon got a replacement.

By then, Jason and I had moved twelve caskets from the older section of the cemetery. And I think it was on the fifth day that Jason noticed Cheryl.

Her name was Cheryl Conley, and she'd been dead sixty-eight years when Jason fell in love with her. Pretty weird, huh? Here we were, gravediggers, and Jason became emotionally attached to one of his subjects. She would have been nearly 90 if she were alive.

But for some reason, the unchanging nature of death and the dead fueled a darker part of Jason's imagination.

It was casually mentioned the fifth day. Jason pointed to her grave and remarked she'd be one of the last we'd move. I didn't attach any significance to his remark and identified it as one young person observing and commenting on the fact that another young person of similar age had died. The young tend to note the age of the dead; particularly if the age is shared.

It rained three days the second week, and Jason and I worked doubly hard when the weather broke on a Thursday. It was humid, hot and stifling. Wet ground made our jobs more difficult as water would fill the graves almost as quickly as we excavated. The other crews were not working as quickly as Jason and I, and Dixon was obviously displeased. We were college kids, and the other crews were made of veteran workers. Dixon's attitude stayed gloomy both Thursday and Friday.

Jason seemed disaffected Thursday, but when he bolted from the company trailer after receiving our assignments, his outlook improved. He seemed like a young man nervously preparing to meet a girl he'd heard had a crush on him. He was fitfully preparing for the ritual of courtship; Jason was nervously groomed and curiously neat for work. His attitude surprised me and we made great progress. Friday was more of the same, only we moved three crates to one apiece for the other crews. Friday afternoon, I asked Jason if he wanted to go out for a beer.

"Only one. I've got plans," he said.

We went to the Gone Broke Bank and assumed our booth. The bartender waved and brought us two tall glasses of Budweiser.

"Plans huh. Who is she?"

Jason looked surprised. "Oh, I don't have date. I'm doing some research at the library, an I want to get up there before it closes."

"Sure. Uh huh. Doing some research on some `figures' I imagine," I said, pushing.

Jason colored. I guessed at his discomfiture and relented. We drank our beer, wished each other a happy weekend, and adjourned until the next workday.

The weekend passed, as did other weekends. June, 1980, went into the record books as the hottest ever recorded in Downstate. But if June were hot, July was hell.

We had a day off for the Fourth of July and I made a fool of myself; I got drunk during one of those famous Downstate parties where everyone in town forgets, just for a few hours. I went to Liberty's fireworks display, which is considered one of the best small town Fourth of July salutes in the state, and I parked myself beside an American Legion keg. Since my brother had died in Vietnam, I was allowed all the free beer I could drink, and I abused the allowance. I didn't get sick right then; that came later after about three hours in a bed I couldn't get to quit spinning.

When 6:30 rolled around, I could barely move. I made it to work and found nearly all the other men looking not much better. Even Dixon, the complete jerk, showed the signs of holiday revelry.

Not Jason. He looked good; he looked as if he had never had a bad day in his life. The June sun had darkened his skin and he wore contrasting white which set off his tan even more. He even wore white painter jeans and all his clothes were meticulously clean. I guess he must have spent hours each week, just cleaning his work clothes.

We adjourned from the company trailer with Dixon exhorting us at the top of his lungs to work faster. By now, Jason and I had moved fully as many caskets as the other two crews combined. Our efficiency seemed to annoy Dixon.

My stomach wouldn't settle down, and time dragged slowly. I was sweating profusely, much more than Jason. We quickly excavated one casket this one from the late 1930s and I paused, leaning against a tire of the backhoe.

"You okay?"

I shook my head. "No. I feel awful."

Jason reached into his pocket and pulled out a package of cigarette tobacco. "Here. Try some of this. Just put a pinch between your gums and your lip."

I plucked a pinch of tobacco and inserted it as ordered. It was like chewing a dirty gym sock, but did seem to settle my stomach.

We pulled the casket and packed it into one of the over-sized boxes. We secured it to the end-loader on the front of our backhoe and began rolling toward the large flatbed truck which was used to transport the caskets to the new cemetery.

Jason rolled across the waterway that bisected the graveyard.

Jason, who had been doing some research on the old graveyard, told me that the part of the cemetery we were working in had graves dating back to before 1860, but that no one knew precisely where those dead were buried. Which was just as well, he said. These dead were the only victims of cholera in Downstate. And cholera purportedly could remain in the soil indefinitely.

The sun burned. And even though my body was working overtime, pumping out toxins in the form of sweat, it wasn't enough. I had followed Jason's backhoe maybe a hundred feet before I pitched face-first into the tall green grass.

I lay there probably two minutes before Dixon found me. But it was the longest two minutes of my life. I could see Jason's tires pulling away as he obliviously headed toward the flatbed. I noticed the grass was crisply green. It would later be a burned-out brown.

My consciousness slipped. I could hear noises. I could hear earthworms in the soil below me whispering secret things to each other. I could hear the grass roots digging deeper, searching for more water. Words. Phrases. Bits and pieces of conversations heard weeks, months, years earlier. Billie slapping me on the back. Sad-eyed teachers reprimanding me for not paying attention in class. Dixon hollering orders at me. But what hit hardest was the conversation I'd hear in the Gone Broke Bank weeks earlier. About how the weather was going to be brutal this summer because of the jet streams. And I recalled the solidly built farmer telling Buck it was going to be hot and get hotter because the astronauts had punched a hole in the sky and our protective air was leaking. No, not sky; punched hole in the atmosphere. Atmosphere. Atmosphere. Mosphere. Mosphere. Must fear. Must fear. Fear. Fear. FEAR. FEAR.

Dixon rolled me over. I saw his worried eyes. And behind him a saw a jet. A tiny speck, it trailed a massive white plume behind it, bisecting the cool blue sky.

"Are you all right?" Dixon shouted.

Except for my hearing, yes. I could barely make out Dixon's words, and Dixon never spoke below a roar.

"I passed out, I guess. Must have drunk too much last night."

"Huh?"

"I drank too much. Last night." I could feel tobacco sliding down the corner of my mouth. I brushed at it with a gloved hand. "I got loaded. I guess. I'm still. Hung over."

"Sure it ain't the heat?"

"Probably had something to do with it." I saw Jason jogging toward us. "Can you give me a hand?" For some reason, it was important to me to be standing before Jason got to us.

Dixon grabbed an arm and tugged. I pushed off the ground, and gained my feet.

"Kelly, get your partner into the trailer. Keep him off his feet until he's feeling better." Jason nodded.

"Here, Neil, let me give you a hand." Having Jason help me walk after I got to my feet didn't bother me; but being on my feet meant more than anything; I think I'd have died, joined my brother, if I hadn't been vertical when Jason reached me.

"Hey man. What's wrong?"

"Hung over. Feel like . . . "

"I can imagine. Didn't used to drink before you started this job, did you."

I shrugged. "I drank. This job don't mean nothing to me. I just over-did it last night. You know, during the Fourth of July celebration in Liberty."

"Wasn't there. I had some other business."

Jason had his arm around my back and under my shoulders. And although I'm heavier than he was, he carried me easily into the trailer.

Inside was a filthy army cot. I collapsed into it and Jason stood over me while I folded.

"Should never have taken you pinch," I said.

"That had nothing to do with you passing out. You've been tempting the sun, Neil. Keep it up, and you're going to have heat stroke. Some people never recover from a heat stroke. You out to at least wear a hat while your outside."

"Hat makes it worse; makes your head hot. You wear a hat when it's cold."

"You wear a light cap to keep the sun out of your brain," said Jason. "Otherwise, you'll collapse again. And might not recover."

"I'll be all right."

Jason went to the front of the trailer and fetched back a glass of water with several ice cubes. I sipped the glass of water, and vowed to drink no more beer that summer.

*******

On July 16, it was 103 degrees by nine in the morning. On July 17, it was 105 degrees by noon. The high topped 111 degrees, shattering an old record set 37 years earlier.

And I never felt better.

Despite my fainting spell, I showed no more signs of ill health. Jason, though, seemed to suffer more from the heat, but still radiated power and vitality.

And we worked like fiends. We had, by the middle of July, moved fully 60 of the old caskets and hand only 25 more to go. The other two crews were only about half done with the newer graves. Dixon had given up on them, and spent most of his day in the trailer where he filled out reports, read dirty magazines, and honed his skill at Solitaire. The trailer had an old, wheezing window unit air conditioner that could only knock the heat down to about 80 or 85. But even that felt good. I never thought 85 degrees in the shade would feel cool but in that summer, lows at night barely dropped out of the 90s.

The afternoon of July 23, the high temperature was 109 degrees. And Rogers busted open his fourth crate. He also lost his second ground partner; Dixon hired a replacement the next morning. On July 24, the driver of the other crew, Frankie Edwards, busted open his third crate. He vomited all over his backhoe and didn't come to work the next day. His groundsman never came back; Dixon hired another replacement.

I'd gotten numb to the bodies chopped in half by a backhoe. For some reason, Jason and I could separate ourselves from the goo and slime melting in the bottom of a crudely cut grave and could pick up what remained, pour it into one of the over-sized boxes, and go back to our jobs. We never cracked crates. We never got sick; we just did our jobs with a cool professional detachment that made interacting with the other two crews after work impossible. They thought we were ghouls. I wasn't. Maybe Jason was.

After work that day, Jason and I went back to our table at the Gone Broke Bank. The bartender brought Jason his tall glass of Budweiser, and brought me my now customary glass of Dad's Rootbeer.

Jason was clearly excited. He couldn't keep his seat but would hop up, look around, and sit back down again. I guessed aloud that he had a date, the way he was carrying on.

"No. But I do have some plans. I have something to show you."

After our brief respite, we adjourned to his car. He drove to his home, which was about halfway between Liberty and Quincy near the Baldwin Field Airport. Jason lived in a large farmhouse with his mother, father and a younger sister, all three of whom were absent.

"C'mon." He urged me out of the car and into the house. We cut through the kitchen and went to his room upstairs.

"What's so important," I huffed.

Jason paid little attention to me, but rooted underneath a bed (must-fear; must-fear; fear, fear, FEAR) and pulled out a box.

"Look here," he said, pulling out some old newspaper clippings and photo copies of newspaper stories.

The clippings detailed the life and death of one Cheryl Conley, who had died in 1912 at the age of 20. the news accounts were written in the stodgy style of small-town journalists: And because the style was stodgy, the words carried even more grimness.

"See? This is the girl we'll be moving soon. Remember? I think I pointed her out to you three or four weeks ago."

"I remember. But what is it that has you so cranked up?"

"Have you ever wondered how she looks now; nearly 70 years after she died?"

"You're sick," I said. "She's nothing more than a pile of cloth, some dust and bones."

"No." Jason's eyes burned for just a second. "You see, when they buried them back then, the local law required caskets able to withstand 50 years of burial before cracking open. That was to keep any disease confined until it couldn't possibly do any harm.

"Medicine, inoculations, improved. But the law stayed on the books until about 20 years ago, when embalming became more prevalent. That's why some of the caskets in the newer part of the cemetery look so bad -- worse even than the ones we've pulled that are 30 and 40 years older. So she may not have aged at all."

"Aged?" I shook my head. "Jason, she's dead."

"Read on; read on."

And I read: I read a story of a girl who in her earlier days had suffered from an illness. She had nearly been buried alive twice already, according to a story, dated 1907.

Miss Conley, it seemed, suffered from a strange malady which caused her pulse to dip until it was almost imperceptible, wrote the stodgy journalist who probably rested with Miss Conley and whose remains we may well have already moved.

I realized from by readings that Cheryl Conley suffered from what is now called "Sudden Infant Death Syndrome." Her mother told the reporting journalist that when Miss Conley was a mere infant, she had to be watched closely; her breathing would often slow or stop. Her parents would take turns watching her sleep -- she was four when the practice was discontinued, which made sense, I thought -- because of her frequent lapses in breathing. The journalist used no direct quotes; he told the story straight and without embellishment. And he concluded with the remark that Miss Conley had apparently outgrown her affliction.

There were other clippings; she was graduated from Liberty High School, the class of 1910, and was accepted at a women's college in Quincy. A third clipping detained academic honors she'd won and had probably been submitted to the paper by her parents. It was just three paragraphs long.

A final clipping detailed the death of Miss Conley. She apparently suffered a seizure, lapsed into a coma, and died without awakening.

"So?" I asked, after reading the clippings.

"Don't you see? She suffered from SIDS. She could have lapsed into a deep coma, but still have been alive. They may have buried her alive!"

"How horrible," I said. "The poor girl. What a horrible way to die."

I shuddered. The poor girl. Imagine being buried alive; all the soil, the weight and the darkness. Not knowing at first just where she was. Thinking maybe she was in a bed, hospital, a car. Then realizing suddenly where she was. The hopelessness, the helplessness she must have felt. And the horror! Darkness around her and the heavy, silent earth besides her; solidly unmoving; no noise; earth muffles all the sound about her. Suddenly, she must knave known what darkness is; she must have known what hell is. You think hell's hot? Maybe. But I'll wager that those damned to hell never sleep: They suddenly open their eyes in their coffins. And they realize that's as good as it gets; that the darkness and coldness and silence is the best it gets. No movement, no sound at first. But the hearing improves the longer other senses are deprived of input. Eventually, they can hear walkers along the road; wind blowing through the grass; leaves waving at God, and earthworms fondling the latches of their caskets, willing to wait the 40 or 50 or 60 or hundred or thousand years it'll take for the caskets to crack open just a little. Just enough to let first one in, then the second, and the third, just enough to let the worms in, letting them in to crawl over what is/was; slither inside and outside and carry off the parts that are/were the damned; parts which the dead no longer have any use for.

"If she were buried alive, she wouldn't have lasted long," I said. "We've pulled some old crates that are solid as stone and tight as a drum. She'd have suffocated soon; she'd have had no air."

"Precisely. That's why we have to be particularly careful when we pull Cheryl's casket."

"I'm not following you," I said. The fact that he referred to Cheryl Conley by her first name hit me as curious, but not particularly unusual. Not at that time, anyway. Later, they told me I should have suspected what was going on. I guess maybe Jason was right about the hot sun.

Jason pulled a book from the shelf. He tossed it to me. I caught it and noticed there were two bookmarks jutting out of the top of the volume.

"Check the marked passages," said Jason.

The first passage was about Egyptian mummies and how they were carefully entombed in what was a virtually perfect atmosphere for preservation. Dry and cool, the bodies had lasted thousands of years. In fact, seed grains found inside the pyramids were still able to germinate and grow despite the passage of millennia.

The second passage in the book, which turned out to be an old high school science text, told about certain Dead Sea shrimp which were 2,000 years old and which appeared lifeless. When added to water, however, they revived and picked up life where it left off.

"Are you thinking . . . . " I couldn't finish the thought.

"Houdini could live on a supply of air that wouldn't have kept a mouse alive more than a couple of minutes. If Cheryl could have dropped into such a deep coma that her life signs were imperceptible, her body temperature would have dropped dramatically maybe to 56 or 57 degrees. And the soil temperature at six feet is . . . . "

"Approximately 56 degrees," I said.

"Right. And people have had their body temperatures drop as low as 60 degrees and have come out of it all right."

"But not after 68 years," I said.

"Look. If her body temperature dropped to 56 degrees, and the ground temperature remained at a constant 56 degrees, what need would her body have for calories?"

"I don't follow you."

"To live, you need food, water and air. Unless you can shut down the body to where the amount of food and air needed is negligible. Cheryl's body temperature is probably 56 degrees. The ground temperature is 56 degrees. So she needs no calories for heating or cooling her body. Ergo, she needs no food.

"As for moisture, there would be moisture in what little air she inhaled and exhaled and I think she would be able to live on such a small amount of air and moisture for decades if her body had shut her metabolism down to keep her just barely alive. So she doesn't need food, water or air . . . . "

"Doesn't need them because she's dead, Jason," I said. I left unsaid the opinion I had that Jason had flipped.

"I don't think so," he said. "I think we have before us a special opportunity." Jason pulled down a second book, one that I'd seen before.

It was a compilation of all the composite photographs of the graduating classes of Liberty High School from 1890 until 1969. My brother's picture is there on page 70 for the Class of 1968.

Jason turned pages, then handed me the book. "There," he said, pointing to a page of photos. A young woman's image had been circled.

Cheryl Conley stared out of the photograph at me. She didn't smile -- it was considered rude to smile in photographs until the late 1920s and early 1930s when photography became more readily accepted.

Her hair was bundled in a style proper for 1910 and her eyes were nearly lined and her eyebrows were thin and light. Her hair, too, appeared to be light in color. She had classic beauty: High cheekbones, ivory-colored (as best I could tell from the photo) skin and wide-set, intelligent eyes. There was an air of melancholy, though and her eyes made her look, not old, exactly, but worn. She looked worn for being such a young, beautiful woman.

I could see how Jason could fall in love with a dead woman fully 20 years older than his grandmother. Things began to fit together for me.

"Every year, millions of people over 65 die," said Jason. "They leave nothing behind; no legacy, no history. Think of the things she could tell us about life, Neil! About what it was like to wash your face with homemade soap; about what kids did on dates; about the first cars and no pollution and laws and wisdom. Neil, we could learn so much!"

I handed Jason back his book.

"We'll do it," I heard myself say. "We'll try, anyway. We'll do it."

*******

It was August 1, midway through that awful two-week stretch when temperatures stayed above 100 constantly. Working in the open, as we did, in such suffering heat, made is crazy, I think. Jason and I met frequently after work, plotting how we were going to move Miss Conley's body without attracting attention. It was a sign of our imbalance that we thought we could get away with such madness.

It hadn't rained since late June and the grass was brown and dying. Jason was showing signs of some deep stress; his face was lined and his eyes seemed filled grim intensity. Every day, as we drew closer to Miss Conley's grave, he worked faster, more feverishly. He didn't crack a crate, but he scraped one deeply with a metal tooth of the backhoe. The near-error brought him back to his senses, and Jason, though he still worked quickly, toiled more cautiously.

On August 7, Jason pulled me aside.

"Tomorrow's Saturday. We'll move Cheryl in the morning. Can you get here around five?"

*******

The morning of my madness saw at 5 a.m. temperature of 91 degrees. If things progressed, the high would reach 113 the highest ever recorded, a nasal weatherman on KHQA-TV told me as I got ready for the task.

I walked out to my car -- it was a sky blue 1971 Chevelle -- and made ready to come to the graveyard. I sat behind the steering wheel for a long minute before starting the engine. The temperature had already climbed a degree to 92, and I was sweating profusely just sitting quietly in my car. My eyes burned from lack of sleep and from dust kicked up by a waterless wind that blew through my apartment complex.

"What am I doing here?" I asked myself. I glanced across the instrument panel: gas gauge, radio, speedometer and tachometer all gazed back with wide-opened features: Wide open, like the mouth of a grave. Blank features, like the face of Mr. Nodaway whose crudely bisected halves still danced in my dreams.

I felt my t-shirt sticking to my back, sticking to the seat cover. I felt as if gallons of sweat were poised to start pouring from my body. I had been in the sun too long.

"I've a job to do today. It is not a pleasant job. But someone has to do it," I said. I started at the squeaky sound of my voice. "There is a chance she is alive. It's not a great chance. It is possible. Isn't it?"

I started my car.

*******

Jason was waiting for me; had been for some time, I guessed. He had the tools stacked by Cheryl Conley's grave, and was hopping from one foot to the other like a child with a bladder control problem.

"What kept you?"

"I had trouble starting my car. My carburetor's screwed up. I think I got it fixed," I lied.

It was 5:30 and barely light. If Jason and I did our best work, we'd have Cheryl Conley's casket out of the ground and moved by 7:30. Jason had it planned. We'd load one of the over-sized boxes used to carry the coffins to the new cemetery with dirt and rocks. We'd take Miss Conley's coffin (I couldn't yet bring myself to call her Cheryl) and put it in the back of Jason's pickup. Then we'd go to his house and proceed with our resuscitation efforts. His family was gone on vacation and we wouldn't be disturbed.

Despite the temperature, I felt chilled. Jason started his backhoe and rolled into the work site, eager to begin. Ever mindful of union regulations, I followed on foot. I remembered our first day of work so many weeks ago and how confident I was. How convinced I was that I could do this grim work. That Saturday, however, my conviction had eroded. I was afraid; afraid of what we might and might not find in Miss Conley's coffin.

Jason was convinced. I was less assured.

Jason backed to Miss Conley's grave and flicked on the light at the rear of the backhoe. He began his artistic excavation while I waited nearby with my metal dowel.

Jason scraped off a foot of dirt. I bounded into the hole and poked the dowel into the soil. It sank unimpeded its full 18 inches.

Minutes later, Jason had scraped away a second layer of soil, and I prodded with the metal rod. Nothing.

Fifteen minutes later, I repeated the exercise. Still nothing. And fifteen minutes later; and again nothing. Jason idled down the backhoe a moment, and stood beside me at the lip of Miss Conley's grave.

"Still nothing?"

"Nothing. There's nothing there. Yet," I said.

Jason scraped a fifth layer of dirt. I bounded into the hole, and the dowel sank its full 18-inch length. It should have struck something, but there was nothing there.

The sun was a little higher in the sky; it was nearly 7 o'clock and while there was little traffic on the roadway, we didn't want anyone seeing us at work on a Saturday. Whenever a car barreled down the road, Jason and I hid behind the backhoe's tires. A car approached then, and we hid. It slowed as it drove by the graveyard, then speeded up and hurried away.

Jason seated himself on the `hoe, and we pulled a sixth layer of dirt. The hole was now a little over six feet deep and I needed help getting into it. Jason idled the backhoe and gave me a hand down. He tossed me the dowel. I prodded the soil; the rod sank its full length and struck nothing.

"Did it hit anything?"

"No." I glanced up into Jason's worried face. "There's nothing here."

Jason sighed, leaned against the rear tire of the backhoe. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his tobacco. He pulled out some rolling papers, methodically measured the tobacco onto one sheet, and rolled it. He licked the edge and inserted the crude cigarette between his lips. He flicked his Zippo open, thumbed the flint, and inhaled.

He slowly exhaled the blue-gray smoke. "She's got to be down there somewhere," he said. He split some loose tobacco. "She's got to be."

I could see Jason leaning dejectedly against one of the rear tire of the backhoe. I squatted to the bottom of the grave, felt the cool earth suck the warmth out of my body. I took the dowel and pitched it onto the soil behind me.

It rebounded off the dirt with a metallic ping.

"Jason," I called, suddenly excited, "we've got something here."

I had been prodding about a foot from the end of the casket, we decided. The casket had settled about a foot deeper into the loam, and had sunk toward the west away from the usual burial location. Jason lengthened the grave and in a half-hour, had crudely shaped the coffin of Cheryl Conley, 20, a victim of a seizure.

Jason stood beside me as we looked into the grave. "Let's get her," he said.

"Hold it. Let's take our time here. She's been buried for nearly seventy years there's no need to rush this and screw it all up," I said. Jason agreed.

I lowered myself into the grave and began digging away at the sides of the casket, working to expose handles. Jason waited above me. I dug away at the left side of the casket and found a badly corroded handle. I decided it wasn't stout enough to hold the coffin so I stepped to the other side and began to dig, to loosen the soil enough to enable us to tilt the coffin and wrap a rope around it.

Jason, worried, look down. "Can I do anything?"

"No. Just turn the backhoe around so we can pull this thing out with the front-end loader," I said.

I finally loosened the loam and was able to poke a long crowbar under Miss Conley's head. I pushed down on the rod, and felt the casket shift, move.

"Can I get some help down here?" I shouted at Jason. He bounced into the grave with me and together, we leaned on the rod. Miss Conley's casket began to jut out of the embracing soil. I leaned on the rod while Jason looped the rope under the coffin and knotted it about a foot from where Cheryl Conley's face would have been. As I loosened the coffin more and more, Jason worked the rope down until he got it to the middle of the casket near its center of gravity. I boosted Jason out of the grave. He mounted the idling backhoe and gently touched the hydraulics. The end-loader -- it looked like an over-sized snow shovel -- lifted, and Cheryl Conley's coffin eased out of the soil which had confined it so long.

I steadied the coffin as Jason pulled it from the grave. There was no need to rush things now; time was on our hands. If Jason were right, time was all we had.

When the coffin cleared the lip of the grave, Jason gently swung the casket to my left, and set it down in the brown grass. He killed the `hoe's engine and jumped down. He reached into the grave, and pulled me up and out.

"Let's finish up," he said.

We pulled down one of the oversized boxes and put Miss Conley's tombstone in it. That would, we though, throw off Dixon and the work crews. We sealed and put it on the back of the flatbed truck. Then we filled in Cheryl Conley's grave. We were so engrossed with our work that we didn't even notice Dixon until he was nearly standing on top of us.

"What you two college kids up to?" He studied us with venom.

Jason jumped, spun around and saw Dixon before him. A fire began to smolder in his eyes. "We're in the middle of a project," Jason said. He reached into his pocket for some tobacco, measured it, rolled it, and lit up. He smoked slowly while Dixon stood before him, sweating. "We have something special we're working on. Don't bother us."

Dixon was no fool. He had seen the casket and the carefully refilled grave.

"Grave-robbing is still a serious crime," Dixon said. He bunched himself up, scowled at Jason. "What gives? Find some rich old lady buried with her jewelry?" Dixon's eyes narrowed, filled with an intensity equal to Jason's madness. "Or did you find some rich old coot, buried with his pockets filled with gold or silver?"

That was it, I thought. Dixon thinks we're here filling our pockets. If he knew what we were really doing, he'd run screaming, I thought.

"We're here on an errand . . . . "

"You're here robbing graves," Dixon said coldly. He smelled money. His close-set, piggish eyes burned with greed. "You are illegally using company property to rob graves. If you are not out of this cemetery in one minute, I'm calling the sheriff."

"Jason, let's go," I said., I grabbed his arm; he shook me away. I felt a blast of frigid air that erased the 99-degree temperatures.

"You fool," hissed Jason as Dixon pivoted and walked away. Jason slowly, carefully mounted the backhoe. He looked for the world like a man surreptitiously loading a rifle.

Rope still dangled from the end-loader. Jason took his seat.

"Hey! Hey, man, what are you doing?" I shouted.

Jason ripped the hand accelerator down, and the backhoe leaped after Dixon.

Despite his deafness, Dixon heard the backhoe's engine rev wildly. He spun around and his eyes flew wide. The backhoe was 15 feet away and closing fast Dixon didn't have a chance. Just before the end-loader sliced into him, Dixon mouthed words. His legs folded. But the end-loader was a crude scalpel Dixon's abdomen still clung tenaciously to his lower half.

Jason stopped the backhoe; dismounted, and walked to the front. He glanced into the bucket.

"Dixon's dead," he said softly.

"What did you do that for," I babbled. "You didn't have to kill him. He was bluffing. He thought we'd found gold or something and he was going . . . . "

"Shut up," said Jason in a low, dangerous voice. "Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP!"

I shut up.

"You think I wanted to do that to him? Ihad no choice. Cheryl's out of the ground; her casket's warming by the minute. We don't have time to jack with this crap," said Jason. He looked at me steadily we. "Remember Cheryl. That's what we came out here for." And he pushed me toward Cheryl Conley's casket.

I had no choice: At best I was an accomplice to grave-robbing and desecration. At worst, I was an accessory to murder. I had no choice; that's why I went along with him.

We loaded Cheryl's coffin into the back of Jason's pickup. I had hoped to slip away, hoped that in his current state, Jason would allow me my freedom. He did not.

We left Dixon on the backhoe. His feet kicked a little as we loaded Cheryl's coffin. Kicked a little; sort of a death dance. A scuffed toe digging into the dying brown grass. Tap-tap-tap. Waking earthworms and slime inches below his oozing, congealing blood. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap. Silence.

We drove to Jason's house.

Jason thumbed a radio garage door opener. The door slowly rolled upward. He pulled into the garage, and it closed behind us, sealing the heat and humidity from us.

Jason slowly swung the pickup's door open. He got out and turned on a naked 100-watt lightbulb.

"C'mon. Let's get to it," he said.

We dropped the pickup's tailgate and pulled the coffin until it dangled precariously, half-in the pickup. Jason went for tools, leaving me alone with Cheryl.

The smell of musty earth exuded from the casket. The lightbulb cast and oblique shadow onto the cold concrete floor. I could see my head merged with the coffin in the shadows. Earth still clung to the coffin. I plucked a few pieces of loam and tossed them onto the floor. I pulled a large clod of clay from a handle, and found an earthworm, wrapped around one of the coffin's latches. Patient, ever patient; waiting for just one opening, a little opening. How ever did he dig so deep?

Patience, my boy.

I flicked the worm onto the concrete and ground him into moisture.

Jason returned with tools two crowbars and a pair of bolt cutters.

"This ought to do it," he said. He took a broom and began sweeping away the dirt, loam and clay that clung to Cheryl's expensive casket. Unlike most other coffins of the era, this one lacked a faceplate. Which was good; faceplates were comforting to the family and allowed everyone a good look at the tightly sealed coffin containing an unembalmed body that was three or four days dead by the time of the funeral. But face plates soon cracked, allowing worms (patience, my boy) their access. The body rapidly deteriorated. If Jason were right, we should find a perfect, living woman inside this coffin, if it were tightly sealed.

The latches were secured with old locks. Jason took the bolt cutters and snipped the locks away. They folded and dangled impotently from the latches. When he had made his rounds, Jason pulled me into the pickup bed with him.

"This could be a historic moment," Jason said. "In a few minutes, we could be looking into the eyes of someone who lived life in a way we can only imagine. This is a very important moment." I didn't ruin Jason's moment by reminding him that he had murdered a company foreman, whose halves had probably been discovered by now, and that we'd probably spend the next few decades of history behind bars.

Jason pried with a crowbar. Nothing happened; nothing moved nor shifted. He pried at a different spot; still nothing. He handed me a tool, I pried, and again nothing. Together, then, we pried, and we felt the coffin lid give just a little.

"There," Jason hissed. "C'mon, you can do it." We both pressed and complaining hinges which hadn't been used in over a half-century creaked, moaned and whined as the coffin's lid twisted and shifted.

Suddenly, the lid jerked, whirling upward. A rush of stagnant air escaped and hot, modern air flooded into Cheryl's bed.

She lay as she had lain; dainty, beautiful. I had expected someone taller. She was barely five feet tall. Her face still had the ivory color I'd expected from her photograph. Her eyebrows were thin. And a garland of flowers roses lay on her breast; placed there by a grieving mother, or perhaps a boyfriend. She was dressed in white, as if for her wedding, and she wore high-topped black leather shoes that still retained their shine. The shoes were yet tied, perhaps knotted by the undertaker or a friend who had carefully prepared Cheryl for her trip. She lay yet in comfort, in silk. And the silk retained its bright radiant red color: There were no water spots, supporting Jason's theory that she was buried in an air-tight, water-tight coffin.

Jason stood by in awe. Tears welled up in his eyes, and his lips trembled as he gazed at Cheryl.

"She's so beautiful," he said. "So beautiful."

Jason's plan was to revive Cheryl by administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I would be her lungs; he would be her heart. And we would force her sluggish body into life would try to make her live by the force of our combined wills, and bodies.

"Start. Dammit, let's get started," Jason hissed.

I looked down at Cheryl. Her face, so soft, so gentle, beckoned for me to kiss her. I leaned forwarded, gripped her behind the neck, and slid my right thumb between her cold, white lips. I leaned forward, took a deep breath, and exhaled into her lungs.

Her chest rose; Jason began CPR a half-beat before he should have. He pushed down and fetid air flowed into my lungs; I hadn't pulled away quickly enough. I looked up to admonish him, and saw Jason's eyes curl open wide.

I looked down at Cheryl: Her eyes were quivering; they opened and black empty holes gazed out at us. Her lips pulled back from her teeth and her clothes her white, beautiful clothes began to turn brittle and yellow in Jason's hands.

Her flaxen, beautiful hair turned hard and coarse and fell from her skull. Her lips -- her beautiful cold lips -- curled into a rictus and finally disappeared. Her hands Jason had gently placed them at her sides gnarled and shriveled and turned to dust even as we held her. Her head broke free from her neck and I gazed into an empty skull; a large black beetle poked antennae out through an empty eye socket (patience, my boy) as the deterioration concluded.

She turned to dust in my arms.

I felt the fetid air she had blown into my lungs swirl about the nooks and crannies of my respiratory system. I looked at Jason, and felt my gorge rise. I said nothing; I leaned over the side of the truck and became horribly, vocally, violently ill.

The stench it was the smell of the long-dead. It was dust and earth and moldy silk and rotted flesh all rolled together. I pushed more breakfast onto the concrete. And even again, I retched.

"It's something you'll never get used to," Jason said softly. "You'll get numb, but you'll never get used to it." I retched for a fourth time. I turned back to where Jason sat on the near side of the casket. His eyes, if it were possible, were even more blank than the skull which had been Cheryl. Nothing dwelled there anymore. He was in the land peopled by the dead; his soul fled leaving this husk behind; pumping blood and breathing, but no one left to dwell. I retched again.

******

You want more, physician? I am sorry. That's all I can tell; have told.

Officers found my friend, sitting vacantly in the back of his pickup; playing with ancient human bones. His face lacked expression: "catatonic" I believe is the word you would use. He was clutching Cheryl's skull to his breast, but made to effort to keep her when the officer pulled her from him. As I understand it, Jason's not said a word since that morning, two years, seven months and two days ago.

I guess you know where I was found. I walked from the garage and headed to the cemetery to where we had been moving the crates. I remember looking into the eyes of the young -- he must have been only a year or two older than me -- Adams County sheriff's deputy who came to get me. I had dug into my brother's grave about two and a half feet. That's why I have no fingernails to this day. I tore them off digging bare-handed. The deputy had his pistol drawn, and I think that, just for a second, he though about killing me. But it was too hot -- the KHQA-TV weatherman was entirely too accurate in his prediction. The deputy pulled my ruined hands behind me, ratcheted the handcuffs tight, and took me from Billie's grave. I've made my home here ever since.

Why did up my brother's grave? What did I hope to prove? Silly questions, physician: Surely you know that I was quite mad, no, sorry. I was in an advanced disassociative state when I came upon my brother's grave.

Whatever was it that possessed me? A peculiar choice of words, physician. You imply that I was being acted upon by some outside force. That I was not accountable for my actions.

But I am accountable for my actions, doctor. Just like Joe Balson. He was sane when he ground up an entire family just for the hell of it that awful summer. Joe knew exactly what he was doing. Like me, he just didn't know why.

I went to Billie's grave to find out why. Don't you see? Can't you understand? I was trying to find out why.

You know what was truly strange, physician? I dug with my hands 30 inches into my brother's grave. Thirty inches. And I didn't find one earthworm. Not one! I didn't see one! He's down there; his eyes are open. Not one worm, doctor. He's gotta be all right. Not one.

Not one.


Copyright, © 1996, by Jim Roberts, 501 Melrose Lane, Liberty Missouri 64068-2833

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