I was standing outside the emergency room door waiting on one of my men who fell into an open trench and busted up his collarbone (which is another story in itself), when Carl, the ambulance driver, tells me “Leland, you’ve got to come and see this.” And here they got this little kid on a gurney, all skinny like you see in the pictures of the death camps in W-W Two, a tube stuck down his throat since he didn’t eat for so long. His eyes are all alive though and he’s got this busted alarm clock they couldn’t pry out of his fingers. He holds it up like he wants me to hear it, so I put my ear down but just then he sets off the alarm and kind of jerks like he’s laughing in spite of the tube. I was deaf in that ear for a week.
There’s no such thing as a secret, especially in this town, and I knew right away, before Carl even told me, where he came from. I called the sheriff once myself when I found another of the kids running around nearly naked by the toolshed one day, and he told me all about it. From then on I kept an eye on the property—Where that three-story wreck out South 91 burned to the ground two Christmases ago? The sheriff said a woman with six or eight kids still lived in what was left of the tarped-over basement there, though it was so dead quiet at first we thought they’d left with the minister.
Carl says the sheriff was already heading on out, and I had to go back that way anyway, so I took off. Before I could even get out of the truck, the sheriff and a couple of deputies were already kicking in the basement door, and you could see the sun boom down in that hole like a searchlight.
Inside it was a sewer. The beams overhead were black with water and looked all fuzzy until I saw it was roaches. Somebody had stuffed a pair of rubber baby pants up in a crack to try to keep the water out. The kids were lying around on old gray mattresses or playing with pieces of junk~a grimy rubber doll with no head, the top of a rusty rake, a beat-up old table leg. A tall, bony woman in a baggy house dress stood next to a potty holding a baby in her arms. She started bawling when the sheriff came up to her, and gave the baby to him. Sheriff never said a word, she just handed it over. It stared at him, not scared at all, sucking on three fingers it had jammed into its mouth.
My older sister, Ada, told me how she wasn’t surprised. One time she’d gone to a service held by the woman’s husband. He went on and on, she said, about how religion gets you to judging people: who was a believer, who was a heretic, who was a sinner, who was righteous, who was with you and who was against. When it came down to it, he said, it was only people, anyway. Who were we to judge? He said that true faith was such that it included everyone—all of us—and that it generated a kind of heat that caused differences to melt like snowflakes on the ground. “We’re all one under the earth,” he said.
The minister’s name was Diamond and maybe he was supposed to send back for his wife and kids, but never did. Later, I must have forgot where it came from, you know like you do with a TV commercial? And I would keep going back to the things he said like they were my knuckles I was cracking.
But right then, the whole thing rubbed me raw and I was only too happy to testify at the hearing that the woman was unfit. I even showed Judge Rinehart different things that you couldn’t see in the pictures they gave him, like where the baby pants were. The last picture was of that little kid on the gurney. I must have looked at it a good, long while because Williams, the city attorney had to ask me for it back.
Needless to say, the woman was put away and the kids were all split up, But that picture must’ve gotten to Roger Stipp, too. He was fresh in his first term as mayor then and made good on all his talk of setting a civic example by adopting into his own home that little boy.
Well, Wylie—the boy’s name was—turned out to be a real trial of the mayor’s charity. For if Wylie was mad at the world about his father being gone and his mother over the edge, he only fought it off with fun. He was always shooting off bottle rockets into someone’s upstairs, or sticking a potato on the end of someone’s tailpipe, or a mousetrap in someone’s mailbox. Roger had only to raise up an eyebrow for Wylie to get out of it, of course, and the boy would never get straight.
When he was old enough, to nobody’s surprise, he got a job with the city, first in the general labor pool where they worked him where needed, managing to find some kind of horseplay to get in no matter where he wound up, anyway. In the carpentry shop, for instance, he pounded a dozen nails in a board, cut off their ends and set it on top of a guy’s leather jacket so it looked for all the world like it was nailed down. He screwed another guy’s toolbox to the floor so the guy nearly pulled his shoulder out of its socket trying to pick it up. In the plumbing shop, he put dye in the soap dispensers and dead mice in the waders which took a week or so until somebody put on a pair and figured out where the smell was coming from. Sometimes one of my men at the cemetery would laugh at these stunts, but I always made it clear that I didn’t care for that good-ol’-boy kind of crap. I told them jokes were only another way of settling a grudge and practical jokes one of the meanest. I told them some day someone would catch him up on it.
But nobody ever did, and it looked like he was going to get off Scot free when he got drafted into the Navy. When he only had a month to go before he was called, though, he slipped some wood shavings and glue into a sandwich that belonged to one of the men in the prison furlough program and the foreman told the mayor that for Wylie’s own good, he’d better find a safe harbor to wait out his ship. The mayor assigned him to my crew which was about the only place in the city he hadn’t worked.
There was good reason for this. You see at that time, I wasn’t as mellow as I am now—go ahead, laugh. I was proud of being the biggest shoebuster on the city payroll. I had grievances stacked up thick as your Bible. I was pretty particular how I wanted things done: the flag at the main gate run up every day at dawn and down at dusk, folded in a triangle and put in the special box I made for it; the whitewashed rocks at the edges of the paths touched up if you drove a truck over them; a sign-out sheet for tools in the shed and you’d better return them up clean and hung on the right hook. Don’t get me wrong; I was generally fair and even-handed, but nobody ever accused me of such weaknesses where things being right were concerned. And maybe I had my reasons, too. Somebody had to take charge of all that out there.
So, one day, second week on the job, I put Wylie to work with another man–Longino Smalls, a big, quiet guy, who I thought would calm him. I had them dig out a grave between two others in the old part of the cemetery where I couldn’t finish with the backhoe, since the graves are so tight together there. The grave was to be for Hollis, the councilman, so this must have been back shortly after he died, and it was to be lined with a vault—a big cement thing like a little room almost—that we had to lower in. To get it in right, there was a lot of handwork needed to be done. I’d already done what I could and fitted an auger to the power-takeoff on the backhoe so I could go dig some post holes, and I left Wylie and Longino to their work.
I know what happened next from Smalls’ statement. As he tells it, Wylie says to Smalls something like: “This Leland, he takes things a bit too seriously, wouldn’t you say?” Smalls is down in the hole gouging at the clay with a spud bar and doesn’t say anything. “He’s got no sense of humor as I see it,” says Wylie. “What we need is something to break him up. He’s just too tight”~Tm sure he said “assed”–“is all. Some fun.” And right then, Smalls takes the bar to a lump sticking out of the side of the grave, and a whole piece of the sidewall caves in, and they can see a hole and then something falls out of the hole. Smalls, big man though he is, uses the spud bar like a high jump pole and he is out of there right now. When the dust clears, they see something brown down at the bottom. Wylie jumps in and sees it’s a skull and brushes the dirt off it, and fixes the jawbone back on.
“Let’s put it back,” says Smalls. “I got a better idea,” says Wylie, and he lights up a cigarette and puts it between the skull’s teeth.
The next part I know only too well. I was putting in some new fence posts out where the cemetery runs along the highway, noticing how such a small pile of dirt was coming out of the holes, not like a grave where you get a whole truckload. Up behind me comes Dorset—the minister who replaced Wylie’s dad— and he wants to look up a grave he’s supposed to say some prayers on. So I take him back to the shed—he’s walking on alongside and talking about how good I keep the place—and I open the door to the shed and let him in and he comes backing out so fast he nearly knocks me down. I’m right behind him, and I figure maybe he’s falling or something, so I help him in, thinking to sit him on a chair, and that’s when I see it: Some big hulking thing with a skull for a head, wearing my jacket and spare bibs with a scythe on its shoulder. It scared me so much I swallowed my gum and I got a sharp pain in my chest and I had to lean on the doorway for a breath. Then I heard all the laughing and took off-minister or no. Just got on the backhoe and stormed out of there before I lost it and brained someone.
Now, that should’ve been the end of it. Wylie was leaving for the Navy soon, and I knew I’d been cleanly had, and when I got back to the shed later the thing was gone and my spare bibs and all were back where they belonged and everybody was at work like nothing happened. Like I said, I have no love for such stunts, but what I’m going to make a bigger ass of myself with the mayor protecting Wylie as he did and the evidence gone, and the men saying “Yeah, Lee, and tell us again…How tall was it?” So I let it drop. But Dorset, the minister, worried it like a dog with an old rag, and brought it up at the Saturday minister’s meeting how graves were being desecrated in the city cemetery, and next the mayor was calling me up.
I told him my suspicions, and later he told me that Wylie owned up to it right away, and told how he’d wired the skull up to a rake and wired on the spud bar for arms, and generally seemed proud of the whole thing. That is until the mayor said if he was old enough to serve his country he was old enough to serve time, and with the public outcry and all, he had no choice but to let Wylie be charged. Then Wylie came to me with the skull, all serious, and said he wanted to put it back, but when he told me where he got it from, I saw that it was too late since the councilman was already buried in his vault and there was no way of getting into the grave next to it where it come from short of digging the whole thing up.
So Smalls and Wylie filed their statements, and Judge Rinehart, who was still on the bench after all these years, was going to hear them and make a decision. They asked if I would say something, too, but I passed since by then I’d already done my piece and had nothing to say. I’d been sitting, eating my lunch in the shed, feeling uncomfortable with that skull sitting on top of the file cabinet staring down at me. I couldn’t get it out of my mind that it just wasn’t right, that skull being off the head of its proper owner. I also kept thinking about Wylie and how he might do jail time and way back to that picture of him in the hospital when he was a little kid and finally, I put the skull in an empty seed sack, took the backhoe and drove over to the grave where Wylie told me it came from. I stretched out on the grave and drew an outline around my head in the dirt with a stick. Then I lined up the auger and bored down as far as I could go. I pulled the auger up, and took that skull and dropped it clean down in the hole, straight as I could, filled dirt over it, and sprinkled on some grass seed from the bottom of the sack.
“So what I’m telling you,” I told the city law director,”is that everything’s back the way it was and that’s all I’ve got to say in the matter.”
The director said that was all well and good, but still didn’t change the issue of the skull being taken in the first place, but he told the judge what I did anyway. I don’t know if that did any good either, but when it come to sentencing Wylie, the judge only gave him thirty days house arrest, after which he was supposed to report to the Navy anyway.
But that wasn’t the last of Wylie. A couple of months later, I got a letter from him from Norfolk where he was stationed. I think he was thankful in his own way for me not saying anything against him, and he apologized for any trouble he’d caused and said how he’d mended his ways and given up his practical joking and had got to feeling bad about the whole business. In the envelope was $20 which he said he won in a card game, and he wanted me to buy flowers with it to put on the grave he took the skull from. All part of making amends, he wrote.
Even though I’ve worked that cemetery all these years, I still get a little confused sometimes when the paths are all covered, and when I got out there next morning, the flowers in my hand, I had to read names until I found the one Wylie said in the letter. I set the flowers down and stood back, glad to see it all done with, and was about to go when I felt something nagging on me.
I checked the headstone on the other side of the councilman’s grave and started shoving away the snow with my boot. It was deep, but I finally moved enough of it to see what I wanted. About a foot down from the stone was a circle of newer grass, still bright under the snow, right where I’d augered the hole and dropped in the skull.
I pulled out the letter and checked, but according to Wylie, where I put the flowers was the right one.
Maybe he told me the wrong grave back when I augered it in? Or did I mix them up? I thought I’d call up the law director, and have him check the record, but then I thought the better of it. If I did happen to put the skull in the wrong place, I guess it was close enough on this little Earth, and those down under are past getting upset about such things and I realized it would all get sorted out right no matter what I did, anyway, when the day for such judging comes.