by SPENCER K. M. BROWN
Everything was fine and then it wasn’t.
Jakob, my daddy by blood, had sent a letter and I was thinking about that of course, but I knew things were gone to hell when I saw a raven on the trailer this morning. It was an omen. But as I was pushing Loretta around the property in the wheelbarrow so she would go down for a nap, the Down’s Syndrome girl from next door came over and started shouting at me. They say bad comes in threes and that girl was number three.
The thing is, if Loretta don’t nap, you might as well call it a day and ready yourself for her to break all hell loose. She used to nap in the folding lawn chair outside the trailer door, but the lawn mower boy got the notion to put my momma in the wheelbarrow and roll her around until she fell asleep. He did it so he wouldn’t have to work much when the afternoons got hot. I haven’t any idea where momma got the money to pay a lawn mower boy but God bless if the wheelbarrow don’t work like a charm. Give it five minutes and she’s out cold and the world is better for an hour or so.
Today though, there’s been two omens and the Pettijohn girl was the third.
Loretta’s eyes were heavy and flapping like a dead pigeon, but here comes Ms. Mississippi Pettijohn, raising her father’s hell for him.
“Daddy says you ain’t paid rent, Luke,” she shouted, top of her Goddamn lungs.
I shushed momma, avoiding a thick root raised in the dirt.
“Get on home, Mississippi. I’ll come talk after Loretta sleeps.”
“No no no no no no no, Daddy said get rent or blow the back of your head off.”
Mississippi Pettijohn held a pistol up. It was too heavy for her and that’s what made me more nervous than anything.
“Can’t I just get momma to sleep first? God bless, Mississippi.”
“No no no, daddy said you’s as slippery as Satan and will always have something to say. Money, or I’m to blow your head off.”
I stopped the wheelbarrow and Loretta’s fat body squirmed like a beached man-of-war. I stared at Mississippi and her large eyes and dirty sundress. She had the faint line of dirt or a mustache above her lip that she kept licking at.
“All right, just put that away.”
She fired the pistol and the round hit the dirt a few inches from my bare feet.
“Good God, Mississippi, you’d have blown my toes off!”
Momma stirred in the wheelbarrow and started whining. I stroked her head and shushed her again.
“I’m supposed to blow the back of your head off.”
“All right . . . shhhhh momma, just rest now . . .” I rocked the wheelbarrow up and down and watched the sweat bead-up on Loretta’s upper lip. The sweat made her make-up or dirt run down her cheeks and left little scars in its wake.
“Let me just get her inside and I’ll run a check by in ten minutes, all right?”
“Okay,” Mississippi said. She looked down the pistol at me and giggled and then ran her chubby self off back across the field toward home.
Loretta started squirming again so I grabbed the handles and hurried her back to the trailer. Somehow, on the way back, there seemed there were more roots and washouts then I remembered and hurrying, I hit damn near every one. Momma’s head bounced all around and I imagined her mind was scrambled eggs. I rolled her into the shade and she was snoring like a drunk. All the make-up or dirt had sweated down her face and made mud pools in the thick folds of her neck. She was horrible looking. For a moment I didn’t know why I did any of this for her, worked my ass off, cooked all the meals, even slept on the lawn chair outside just so she’d be happy. I kissed her head and went into the trailer. When I found the checkbook all the checks were gone and the balance book said we were overdrawn by five-hundred dollars. Most of the checks had been written to CASH. Momma had a gambling problem. Whenever I was on a job she somehow found her way to internet cafes and stayed all night until she was broke.
I just stood there and Jakob’s letter got into my head again.
Luke, I’m getting married. This letter is to inform you all that you are hereby cut-off from my life. You are both from hell, and shall be consumed by it. I can no longer fund evil and its horrid faces of sloth and gluttony which the two of you serve. Good-bye, son.
–Reverend Jakob Lee Colligan.
God bless, what a waste of a soul. Thing is, Jakob, my daddy by blood and money but nothing else, he would’ve kept up our allowance if he wasn’t betrothed to Rebecca Quade. She’s the one made him become a preacher, she’s the one made him adopt her two little crap face kids, she’s the one who got it in his skull that his money should go to God and them and not us.
Yesterday, at this time, everything was fine. The sun was shining, work was picking up. But you can’t ever trust the sunshine. Because, same hour today, everything is fucked. When you live on a tightrope of starvation and feast, of having and having not, you live almost ready for things to go to hell. Momma and me, we’ve been dogs under the table for as long as I could remember. Eating scraps, licking splatters off boots, but we were still in the house at least.
Our little silver bullet Airstream trailer sat on the edge of his pasture like a rusted out submarine waiting for a great flood. We paid him five hundred a month for the land, but nothing else. We got water from a well I found. We bathed in a pond out in the pasture, but ever since Loretta’s gout started flaring up, she can’t trek out there much. If I’m feeling up to it, I’ll roll her down there in the wheelbarrow. I usually ain’t feeling up to it though.
I found a new book of checks and wrote one out to Nathan Pettijohn. If I was lucky, he wouldn’t get to the bank by closing time, and that would give me the weekend to scrape together the five-hundred we owed. I never have been lucky though. I leaned on the flimsy foldout table and stared at the clock, cussing Jakob in my head.
There came a sharp bang against the side of the trailer. Another quickly followed, then another. I looked out the window of the kitchenette.
Loretta was standing in the yard throwing stones at the trailer. She threw little hissy fits as she scanned the ground for more rocks, then cried out, whining as she heaved stones.
“God bless, quit it, momma,” I hollered, but she couldn’t hear me or didn’t wish to. The rocks hit the rust splotched roof like dead birds and rolled down with a loud clanging ruckus, then fell lifelessly to the hot July ground.
I stepped out the door and a jagged stone got me right in the ear.
“Good Christ, you hit me in the ear Goddamnit. Quit your whining, Loretta. Look what you’ve done.”
She slumped down and started pouting in the grass. The hot air was splotching her cheeks a violent pink. The sweat just poured out of her thinning hair. I walked out and gathered her up. Her bottom lip protruded far past her teeth and she gave little gasps as I shushed her.
“Just calm down now, momma. Sit here and be still.” I got her into the lawn chair where I usually slept, all the while holding my breath as the smell and shape of her assailed every one of my senses.
“I’m sorry, Luke. I just get so worked up. I don’t know why, I just . . .”
“It’s fine, Loretta.”
“No it ain’t. Look at your ear, you’re bleeding.”
“Well, don’t throw rocks at me and that won’t happen.”
“I should’ve done better by you, Luke. I should’ve.”
“Quit that, you did what you could, Loretta.”
“Go and get me my medicines and some wine, would ya?”
I went inside and got her the pills and wine. There was a time when I used to refuse to get her things; when I used to pour all her wine down the sink and heave the pills out into the pasture. And then I realized I couldn’t really take her without those things. She became more needy, more worthless without them. The pills and wine made the mother I knew, and shaped the person I had become. Without them, the both of us became two monsters in our little cave, each scared of the other, each terrified without them.
I handed her the medicines and wine and she swallowed them down.
“Good Lord, it’s hot,” she said.
“Just sit in the shade awhile. I gotta go see Nathan about something.”
“No, no, don’t leave me, Luke. I don’t wanna be alone.”
“Relax, momma, I’ll be right back.”
She whimpered a little, sipping her wine, as I walked across the pasture.
When I got over to Nathan Pettijohn’s, Mississippi was sitting on the porch stroking a chicken in her lap.
“Daddy ain’t here,” she said.
“Where’s he at?”
“Dunno. Drove off a minute ago. Should’ve come a minute ago.”
I looked at her hands and saw the chicken was dead. Its neck drooped lifelessly over her knuckles, eyes rolled back, talons dangling like cut vines.
“That bird dead?” I asked.
“Yeah. They never let me pet them so I always gotta wring their necks first. Then they calm right down,” Mississippi said.
I tried not to stare but did anyway.
“God bless,” I said, and felt a little sick as she kissed its head. “Well, I got a check for your daddy. I’ll just come back later on, I suppose.”
Beside her was the pistol and I looked at it, and her eyes followed mine. She picked it up.
“Why you such a lousy piece of shit?” she said.
“Daddy says you’re a lousy piece of shit. You are aren’t you.”
“No, I was just born into a life. And sometimes it’s hard to get out of it.”
“No no no that’s just a bunch of crap coming out your mouth.” She laughed and waved the pistol as she did.
“Well lease I’m not a retarded little brat,” I said, and started down the path.
“You can’t say that,” she screamed. “You can’t say that! Say you’re sorry.”
I looked at her and she had the pistol pointed at my chest. For half a second, I wished she’d shoot the damn thing. Shoot it and blow the back of my head off.
“I’m sorry Mississippi. I didn’t mean it.”
She sat back down and resumed petting the dead bird.
“I’ll tell him to stopped by,” she said.
I walked off again and looked back when I was a little way off. She was looking down the pistol at me, murmuring little “bangs.” The chicken’s head bouncing as her gut rolled with giggles.
When I got back home Loretta was asleep in the wheelbarrow in the middle of the yard. I walked up to her, thinking she might be dead of heat stroke, half hoping on some dark level maybe, but she was sawing redwoods with every fetid breath. Her body stunk up the air around her like a rotting aureole for ten feet in each direction. She hadn’t bathed in some weeks on account of her saying the pond was too cold lately. “It’ll be warmer come August,” she said. She always said that and August proved no warmer than July and she smelled up the whole trailer. That’s half the reason I took to sleeping in a folding chair outside the trailer in the summer. That, and I suppose I got feeling strange about having to share a bed with my mother.
As I was looking over her and checking for signs of life, I heard a “shhhhh” from somewhere. I looked up and saw the lawn mower boy with a green finger pressed to his lips. He carried hedge clippers and grinned a weird smile.
“Just got her down,” he whispered.
“What’re you doing?” I said, walking over.
“Your Momma wanted me to cut through that wisteria that was choking her butterfly bush.”
“She ain’t have any butterfly bushes.”
“Shhhh.” He grinned again.
“Whatever. I’m getting a cold drink.”
“Mind if I get one of them? Damn hot out.”
“Long as you’re off the clock,” I said, and went into the trailer.
I came back out with three cold beers. The lawn mower boy had rolled momma into the brush and out of earshot. I glanced at her and the wheelbarrow and almost mistook the sight for a heap of forgotten trash that needed burning.
“You old enough to drink?” I asked, handing him the beer.
“No sir.” He opened the can and drank a long slug.
“How much is she paying you?”
“Ten dollars a day.”
“Jesus, and you come most days?”
“Tell you the truth, I think she mostly likes the company and to get a good nap in. I got half a dozen nieces and nephews and the wheelbarrow always does the trick.”
“Yeah, well, I think you’ve got her addicted. She won’t sleep without it now.”
“See, it works.”
“Pain in the asshole’s what it is.”
He sat in the grass he hadn’t cut yet and leaned against the trailer.
“Don’t know if she mentioned it, but we probably can’t keep you on anymore.”
“Yeah?” he looked at me, surprised, then moved his eyes to Loretta.
“Time’s is tight, you know.”
“Yeah, Goddamn they are. We’re all choked, you know. Choked. But they say, God chokes but he don’t strangle.”
“What? Where’d you hear that?”
“Made it up. Either that or I overheard it somewhere. Stuck with me all the same. God chokes but he don’t strangle.”
I looked out at the pasture and our trash-strewn lawn and finished my beer, cracked open the other one.
“You know, you’re sort of peculiar,” I said.
“How so?” he said, burping.
“I don’t know. You don’t act like a normal kid I guess.”
“You know, if you need some money quick, I might know how you can get it.”
“That sounds sketchy as hell coming from you, boy. I ain’t gonna do something to get myself locked up again. Been there before and I ain’t going again.”
“No, no, it ain’t illegal. At least, not much.” He took a drink and looked around as if someone were gonna walk up on us. He lowered his voice. “So, I got a few jobs, you know. Landscaping and whatnot. One of them is for this cemetery. Saint Vincent’s down the road there. So, I’m cutting the grass between stones and all, then I see there’s a funeral going on. I kill the motor, out of respects, you know. Small little family. Old lady, a husband and wife, and preacher, and that’s all. Kind of strange though cause they weren’t crying or anything. They were just listening to the preacher read from the Bible but he could’ve been reading a take-out menu by the looks on their faces. Anyway, so after they leave the fella with the Bobcat who’s gonna fill the hole in waves me over. ‘Yeah?’ I say. And he tells me he had three burritos for lunch and has to take a shit and did I know how to work the Bobcat. I look around a moment while he’s doing this little hopping two-step shit dance and all. I tell him of course I know how. So he runs off all wobbly and I crank up the Bobcat . . .”
“This story got a point, kid?”
“Just wait. So, I’m driving, but I have a sort of epiphany. I ain’t ever seen anyone dead before. Only in movies and whatnot. And I got the notion that I just had to see this old guy or gal or whoever. Not real sure why, I just had to. So I kept the Bobcat running, just in case that fella was listening. I climbed down into the grave and broke off the lock . . .” he looked at me. “You know they put locks on caskets? Like, what the hell? They think someone’s gonna get out? But then the second epiphany came. Maybe it was to keep people from getting in. So, I broke off the lock. I lifted the lid and you know what I saw?”
“A dead man?”
“No. Fucking money.”
“Money. Stacks of money. No dead anyone. Just stacks and stacks of money and papers, dude.”
“Jesus, you’re full of shit, boy.”
“Full of shit nothing, dude. I swear to anything. Stacks filled that whole damned box.”
I just stared at him, waiting. “So . . . what’d you do?”
“Well, that fella was coming back so I hopped out and filled in the hole. But I marked the grave. Had a headstone and everything. Name on it was Fernando V. Pecunia. That was the name carved there. Fernando V. Pecunia.”
“Come on, you’re full of it.”
“I swear to you. This was two days ago.”
“And you didn’t take nothing?”
“Nope, but I’m planning to.”
I looked at him, taking a drink. “So why tell me all this?”
“Well, guess you look like you could use some help and all. I always see you sleeping in that lawn chair . . .”
“I don’t need any charity from you, boy.”
“Shitfire, this ain’t charity. It’s a damned empty grave full of money, dude.”
I went inside and got another beer. When I came back, he was rolling Loretta around the yard in the wheelbarrow again.
“She was stirring,” he half whispered.
I walked out toward him. “You telling me the truth, kid? About all that?”
“Why in the motherfuck would anyone bury a casket full of money.”
“All I can figure is that they stole it. Or came about it some way that they don’t want anyone to know about. And they’re all in on it. Probably that preacher, too.”
I stared at him, at his grass stained fingers and peroxide-blond hair. He was shushing Loretta and then lowered the handles gently, leaving her out in the middle of the yard. He walked back over and lit a skinny, pocket-crooked joint. He took a long hit and held the smoke in.
“Okay, so there’s just a grave full of money . . .”
“And besides whoever buried it, only you and me know . . .”
“Yep,” he said, still holding his breath.
My mind was racing.
“And it was ill-got money you’re saying . . .”
“That’s my guess.”
“So we go get it then, right?”
“That’s what I’m saying, dude.” He smiled. “You take what all you need and I’ll keep the rest cause I found it and all, you know. But yeah, let’s go get it.”
I heard something from around the trailer and motioned for him to be quiet.
“Who’s there?” I said.
I walked around the rounded nose of the trailer and heard her giggling.
“God bless it, Mississippi, what the hell are you doing sneaking around here! Get on home!”
She ran off toward her house, white feather from the dead chicken she carried fluttering in the wind behind her.
“God bless . . .”
“What was that?” the lawn mower boy said, holding in a another toke.
“Nothing, the neighbor girl.”
“She hear us?”
“Doesn’t matter. She’s retarded.”
“You know, you shouldn’t call people that. It’s impolite and really not accurate . . .”
“Let’s go tonight. Be back here before dark and we’ll go.”
He relighted his joint and looked at the smoldering tip thoughtfully.
“What, what is it?” I said.
“I just had me another epiphany.”
“Yeah, and that makes three now. So I can’t just ignore it.”
I looked at him, and suddenly felt an odd connection. Three omens, three epiphanies. Something was balancing out.
“Yeah, guess you can’t. What is it?”
“You know, most people would go and do things like we’re fixing to do . . .”
“You mean grave robbing.”
“Remember, it ain’t a grave,” he said, and grinned. “But most would go and do something like that at night, see. And that’s just when all those cameras come on and a security guard is on alert and whatnot. But I had a thought. I work there. I got a uniform, I can get you a uniform easy enough. Why wouldn’t we just go right now and act it out like we’re supposed to be there digging something or burying something.”
I drank thoughtfully a moment, ten thousand things rushing like sardines through my head. He was high, I was on my way to drunk, but I couldn’t find anything wrong in his logic. It was perfect. Anyone who might see us would just take us for a couple working fellas and wouldn’t give it a thought.
“That’s not bad, kid, but there’s one problem.” I nodded toward Loretta laying out in the wheelbarrow. “She’s bound to wake up soon, and when she does and I ain’t here, she’ll raise all sorts of hell, might even call the cops.”
“Call the cops?”
“It’s happened before. She’s woke up and I had gone to the store and she thought I was dead or kidnapped or some shit. It’s her medicines. She ain’t well.”
The lawn mower boy stabbed out the joint and stared off at her. “All right, let’s just bring her with. Hell, we could use the wheelbarrow worst case, just roll her off into some bushes to rest awhile.”
“Roll her into the bushes? She ain’t some sort of slug, boy.”
We both looked at her a moment and were silent.
“All right, we’ll take her.”
“Yeah, now,” I said.
The lawn mower boy got an extra uniform out of his backpack, a green collared shirt with the name of a lawn care service faded on the left breast pocket. The shirt probably fit him fine but was about two sizes too small for me. The buttons did all they could not to pop across my chest and what I’d just realized was the beginnings of a fat gut on my belly. I roused Loretta a little and she opened her eyes in a sleepy daze to the midday sunlight.
“Here, Momma, take your medicines,” I said.
She opened her mouth like a baby bird waiting for worms and maggots. Out the corner of my eye, I saw Mississippi wandering around the pasture.
“God bless it,” I whispered.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. Here,” I said, handing him the bottle of pills. “Give her a couple of these and let her wash it down. Make sure she’s out.”
I walked out toward the pasture and picked up a stone. I threw it as far as I could toward the girl. “Get on home and mind your own business, Mississippi!”
The girl skipped away in the tall grass. When I came back Loretta was settling back down.
“That should keep her out for a while,” I said to the kid.
She lay there in the wheelbarrow and was half asleep mumbling something like, “The fish hide gone to bed by true.” Or maybe, “I wish I’d done better by you.” Either way the sound of her rasping fatty voice made my eyes water and I didn’t wish to hear it.
“Do we need any tools?”
“Grab a shovel if you got one.” he said.
I found a shovel leaning up against the back of the trailer. We both stood beside the wheelbarrow, looking at Loretta a moment.
“You wanna push her?”
“I can’t, I got my bicycle here.”
“You can’t ride a damn bicycle there.”
“I always do. They might think it peculiar if I don’t.”
“Fine. I’ll push her, just lay the shovel across the handlebars then. And get me that tarp over there.”
He got the tarp and I laid it out over Loretta, tucking in the sides so it didn’t get caught in the wheel.
As we came along the roadside, me rolling my comatose momma in a wheelbarrow and a stoned lawn mower boy wobbly on his three-speed bicycle, I couldn’t help but wonder how I came to such a place in life. I blamed Jakob for it. But he would get his own due, sooner or later.
We were silent, except for the constant clicking of the kid’s bicycle gears. I was running little lies through my head, things I’d tell any passersby who thought the scene odd enough to stop and ask about it. We were just a couple workers doing a job. Yep, a pile of dirt in the wheelbarrow. Oh yes, sure is a hot mother today. But to my surprise, no cars passed. It was as if the road and day conspired with us and kept others away. The road seemed to rise with us and I swear I could have rolled the wheelbarrow a hundred miles.
“Why is it this is happening?” I said suddenly.
The lawn mower boy circled back and rolled up beside me. “Why’s what?”
“All this. How come you found the money and I was the one you told. Why not anyone else?”
“I don’t know for sure, but what I figure is that sometimes God gives us a little something to ease all our troubles every now and then. Sometimes there comes that little bit of sunshine during the storm, you know.”
“Yeah, well, I been fooled by that sunshine before.”
“Maybe not this time,” the kid said. “What do you think you’re gonna do with the money?”
Pushing the wheelbarrow, I was quiet a moment. The wisteria climbing on the roadsides spilled over into the road and gave a sweetness to the heavy air. Insects buzzed in wild random all around us, cicadas and crickets wailing in the drawling summer from the shadows.
“Guess I want to make do something for her,” I said. “I wanna give her a good life for once. How she gave me life and cared for me, you know. She’s a pain a lot of the time, hard to do anything, but she’s my momma.”
“Yeah,” the kid said.
“What about you?”
“I’m gonna retire,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m gonna sit and drink and smoke and loaf for as long as I want.”
“You don’t really need money to do all that.”
“Doesn’t hurt. Plus, I’ll have a story you know.”
There was no one at the cemetery when we came through the gate. We came up the long driveway toward a white mausoleum. The kid got off his bicycle and laid it against the side of the building. He ran off toward a maintenance shed and came back with a shovel a minute later. Stones and monuments speckled the rolling hills of the cemetery in every direction. Hundreds, thousands of headstones marking the final resting places of people I never knew. Far off there was a lawn mower humming.
“How many people are working today?” I asked.
“Not sure, but never more than one or two. Probably just Gary,” the kid said.
“It’s fine. He’s legally blind and can’t see nothing.”
“How does he mow grass around stones then?”
“Not well. I always gotta go back and fix his shit. He ran into a stone angel a few weeks back.”
“All right, let’s go then.”
I followed the kid down a path through the graves. The wind ruffled the tarp covering Loretta. I realized what this might look like suddenly, if someone were to come up on us. Two guys with shovels, a knocked out woman covered in a tarp in a wheelbarrow. I looked up at the shining sun a moment and tried to clear my head of such things.
“Here it is,” the lawn mower kid said. I let the wheelbarrow down and wiped the sweat from my face. “Fernando V. Pecunia.” He turned and smiled at me.
I just stared at the name. Until right then, part of me didn’t believe any of this was real.
“So we just dig?”
“Yep.” The kid took the shovel and started tossing the dirt in a pile behind him. I picked up the other shovel and got to work.
We made fairly good time, but still after twenty minutes, it seemed like we hadn’t done a thing. My arms were all but lifeless vines after carrying Loretta all this way. I kept picturing that coffin full of money though, and somehow found a second and third wind.
The kid was first to hit the wood of the coffin. We both stopped and smiled, letting out a little whoop of excitement, like two prospectors striking oil. We dug faster, flinging dirt wildly everywhere. We got another foot down and scraped out the the outline of the box. The kid laid his shovel down and took a long breath, then opened it.
We stared down at the money. Stacks of it filling the length of the box. In truth, I still couldn’t believe it. How, why? Life had been a big joke from the gods all my life, so why now? Why me?
“Told ya, didn’t I,” he said.
I reached in and started picking up the neatly bound stacks when the kid stopped suddenly.
“What is it?”
“Ah, shit,” he said, looking off behind me.
I turned and saw someone riding up on a lawn mower.
“Don’t say anything.”
“Who is that?”
We watched the machine come rolling up through the wobbly haze and park a couple yards from us. The old guy sitting on the machine killed the motor. His eyes looked like the heads of pins behind the thickest glasses I’d ever seen. His face was dirty and tobacco juice stained his lips in stripes.
“Who’s that?” he said, his accent thick and almost incomprehensible.
“It’s Pete,” the kid said.
“Pete. Someone there with ya?”
I stood silent in the open casket, holding the money in my hand. I looked at the kid.
“Yep, this is the new guy. Just training him a little.”
“New guy?” Gary spit and cocked his head as if to see better. “Ya know, they don’t tell me cockshit any more. Been here thirty-seven years, and they don’t tell me shitall about what’s goin on. Well,” he said, spitting again. “What ya’ll doin?”
“Found a box full of money,” the kid said.
I looked at him, my eyes widening with fear.
“Ha! That’d be somethin,” Gary said, adjusting the sun-faded trucker’s hat on his sweaty brow. “Ya know, one time I was buryin this fella over in acre 22. Everyone had already cleared out. I was shovelin the earth back on him, this was before all the machines and whatnot. But as I was going I heard somethin knockin around in the box there. Nearly shit myself. So I opened it up and there’s this old feller just layin in there in his best suit. He says, ‘What the hell is going on?’ So I tell him, ‘Mister, you’re supposed to be dead I reckon.’ But he wasn’t. So helped him climb out and we walked back up to my truck and went and got a bite to eat. Been friends ever since. His name was Randall Quade. He died for real about ten years ago. Got hit by a truck.”
“Yeah, you’ve told me that story about thirty times, Gary. Can we get back to work now?”
“Oh sure, won’t get in the way of a workin man.”
He cranked the motor back up and rolled off, making swerving cuts in the green grass as he blindly moved through the stones.
“What the hell, kid. You weren’t kidding. He’s blind as a mole.”
We stacked all the money on the grass beside the hole. The kid had run up to the maintenance shed and brought back a dozen empty sacks of grass seed. We filled each one and laid them out. After a while, we stood around the empty grave and took in all our work.
“How much is here do you think?” the kid said.
“Seventy, eighty grand at least. Probably more.”
He just ginned. I must have too. “How are we gonna carry all this back?”
I looked around but there was only the wheelbarrow beside us.
“Let’s load that up,” I said. “Maybe I can wake momma enough so she can walk.”
I pulled back the tarp from her face and saw momma laying there. Her neck was bent a little oddly and she smelled terrible. I pulled back the rest of the tarp and it took only a few seconds before flies were swarming around her. The smell of her assailed my nose and I couldn’t help but to gag.
“What’s that smell?” the kid said.
“It’s her, I think she soiled herself.”
The kid bent and dry-heaved over the empty grave.
“Momma,” I said, gently shaking her. “Momma, wake up now. Momma.”
She didn’t budge. I shook her harder and then looked at her. Her chest was motionless, all of her was still and chillingly so. I looked on at her as a wave of shock flooded into my blood.
“Kid . . .”
“How many of them pills did you give her?”
“All of them,” he said. “You said to make sure she’d be out awhile.”
I wiped at the sudden dryness of my lips, staring down at my dead mother lying there in a dirty wheelbarrow. Calmly, I turned and picked up the shovel and looked at the lawn mower kid.
“What’s wrong with her?” he said, his voice shaking.
“You know what you done?” I said, walking over to him. “You killed her. You killed my mother, you little shit.”
“What? No . . . no, I didn’t I just . . .”
Before he could finish, before I could even think, I had smashed in the side of his head with the shovel. He fell to the grass, squirming like a toad for a second. I’m not sure how many times I hit him after that, but I kept going until I felt my blood settle. I stood back from him and looked around. Gary was far off, zipping around graves in a wild pattern, leaving patches of long grass everywhere.
Something primal and dark came over me. As naturally as planting a garden, I simply rolled the kid into the empty grave. Then I looked at my poor momma. I walked over, holding my nose to the stench, and rolled the wheelbarrow just to the edge of the hole.
“I’m so sorry, Loretta. I wanted to give you a good life for once, but I never had any luck.” Tears came suddenly, freely, as if without command but on some animal impulse within me. “Maybe this is best after all, momma. You can rest now.”
I tilted the wheelbarrow and Loretta’s body slid into the grave, slumping like deer carcass on a roadside. I picked up the shovel and started tossing the dirt down on the box. I stopped just as quickly as I heard her giggling.
I turned toward the noise and saw Mississippi Pettijohn’s head sticking out from behind a carved Celtic cross a few stones away.
“God bless it, I thought I told you to mind your own, Mississippi.”
She giggled again, stepping out from behind the cross, and still carrying that dead chicken.
“I seen what you was doing,” she said.
“You didn’t see a thing.”
“I saw you hit that boy and then what you done to your momma.”
I chewed my tongue, gripping the shovel tight in my hands.
“You’re not about to end this for me,” I said. “I’ve finally gotten something here. The sun has shined down on me for once in this messed up life, and I’m taking it. You hear me?”
“Yeah, but daddy sent me after you again cause he never got his money.”
“You said you was gonna run it back over but you never did and he got all upset.”
“I have it,” I said. “It have all of it right here, look.”
“No no no no, too late he said. And I’m supposed to blow the back of your head off.”
“Mississippi, just cut it with all that. Come here a minute,” I said, slowly lifting the shovel.
She took small even steps toward me, the chicken in one hand, the pistol in the other.
“Look, ya’ll can have some of the money, that ain’t a problem anymore.”
“I heard daddy say the only problem was you and your momma and that he was done with ya’ll. That’s why he sent me to blow the back of your head off.”
She raised the pistol, pulling back the hammer. I stared at the chicken wedged under her sweaty armpit. She looked down the sight at me, giggling to herself.
I dropped the shovel and looked up at the sky. I closed my eyes and let the sunshine rest on my face. It was gone in a moment as clouds rolled in. I looked at Mississippi as tears streamed down my face.
“How’s about I count down?” she said, grinning and showing her dirty yellow teeth. “Five . . . four . . . three . . .”
In the distance, I watched Gary’s lawn mower slam into a headstone, nearly tossing him out of the machine, and I couldn’t help but to laugh.
“Two . . . one . . .”
SPENCER K. M. BROWN is is a poet and novelist from North Carolina. He is the winner of the 2016 Penelope Niven Award, 2018 Flying South Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Prize. His second novel, Hold Fast, will be published this fall.