By Jason Ropp
This short story is one of a series set in the fictional town of Damnatus.
The midnight air was crisp. The fog wrapped around the tombstones, the outbuildings, the small gas lantern, and the lone figure in the cemetery. The fog, sensing something amiss, attempted to hold back each repetition of the earth-hungry knife. But the sweating figure was focused, maddened by what he had decided to do.
Disparate thoughts played olympic style ping-pong in his head. But whenever the ball came close to the net he felt sane again, if only for a second; it was at these moments that he had the short lived thought that this was neither of utmost importance nor entirely insane, that it was both understandable and silly. So it went like this for several hours…Keep digging, I have to know! Yes he was a bit much. But this? Really? But no, you’ve gone crazy! They all know you’re here. They’ve known you’d do it all along.
A crowing rooster stopped both ping pong players in their tracks. The ball hit the net and bounced on the floor, sounding increasingly like a machine gun as it lost the battle with gravity. His neurosis, terrified by the thought of daylight, left him alone to devote all his capacities to digging. He was supposed to be done and gone an hour ago, but he was not the man that he used to be and never the man that he should have been. Even in his days of dedicated exercise he somehow found himself the least athletic of all the athletic people. Had there been a row of grave diggers here now, they would have probably been done and gone an hour ago. Stop! Focus! Chunk, swoosh, thud. Chunk swoosh thud. KONK. The hollow thud reverberated though the fog chamber, but he didn’t stop to see if anyone heard. He had noted with hope during the burial ceremony that while the Reverend was beloved, the local citizens were also cheap. As everyone knew, the casket and the man would slowly melt into earth anyway; why spend $3,000 dollars to delay the process? Even the mortician Davis advised against it, a kind gesture since he would benefit from its purchase. He fell to his knees, sinking below the grave’s horizon. A weeping mixed with the sound of dirt being brushed from old wood, then a creaking sound, then silence. Terrified silence. His head popped from the grave with the intensity of a groundhog. The look on his face expressed what he said anyway; “I wasn’t crazy after all.” The courthouse bell called for the people of the town to come see the sight. They were not waking with the sunrise, so it called to them again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
Daryll, better known to the town as Barber Hopkins, didn’t feel like hanging around. There was no guarantee that anyone would see things the way he did. So he ran, carrying with him a small envelope, not bothering to close the coffin lid. He just left it there exposed to the world, bags of corn seed, three to be exact. Had Daryll taken the time to weigh it, he would have found the total weight of the coffin to be 162.5 lbs. Above the wound in the earth was a slightly mossed marble tombstone that read,
Rev Martin S. Thompson
Dec. 3, 1962 – Dec. 8, 2011
A man of heartfelt friendship and devotion to God, Family, and Faith. An example set for generations to come.
The Reverend drilled a hole through the laminated paper; perhaps he was digging for oil as his gaze was fixed on a spot in the pink expanse of Texas, the most isolated spot he could find on the map. It screamed at him. He lusted after it, then turned his eyes away.
One of the more portly elders, Mark, was in mid diatribe when Thompson rejoined reality. The elder spoke with a bit of an obstruction in his throat, or rather outside his throat. Thompson could swear that at times he counted a third chin somewhere about halfway down the bullfrog-like bulge in the man’s neck. It must have pressed against his Adam’s apple, because he remembered Mark’s voice sounding less like a muppet when they used to play together in the church yard on Sunday afternoons, or when they talked about which of the fifteen girls in their school they thought were cute, or even when they worked together at the factory before he left for seminary. The man’s neck puffed in and out as he practically shouted, “It’s just ridiculous! Who really would have the nerve to leave? You don’t just leave family, right Martin?”
The question tied to his name made him blush. How did they find out? No Martin, they don’t know. You haven’t told anyone, you haven’t written it down. He’s just asking you a question, “Well it certainly did surprise me. He did buy a grave plot in the church yard a couple years ago.” But he knew that didn’t hold much significance. To raise funds for a decaying church building, plots were put on clearance. Practically everyone in the town bought one. Everyone but Melanie, the outsider, the one who had run the factory ever since they were bought up by some company from the south a few years ago. Even some excited kids talked their parents into buying them a plot. Now in high school, groups of them liked to go hang out at their graves and drink. But he was surprised that Derek had left, though it all made sense now.
Several times when Martin saw Derek at the post office, which sat on the edge of town, he caught Derek looking at the horizon like he looked at Jessica—that is, before Martin had married her. He would say something disarming like, “Derek! You act like it’s the first time you’ve seen a buzzard sitting on a fencepost in Damnatus before.” Derek would blush a little (like Martin had just done), then shift the conversation. Other times Martin saw Derek at the little travel agency, looking at brochures, and he would say something like, “Aren’t thinking of leaving us for a while are you?” He would again turn red and stammer that he just liked looking at the pictures.
Martin snapped back to the meeting. He had been talking on auto-pilot for a while now, which wasn’t uncommon. The Reverend was expected to have something to say, to be the figurehead of wisdom, the representation of the town’s long-standing adages, idioms unique to Damnatus. Things like, “Going the path of a Melvin is sure to bring you the poverty of a Parker.” Which was a saying that had picked up in the 20s referring both to the laziness of the Melvins, but also, consequently, to their treacherous driveways filled with potholes. The story goes that a patriarch of the Parker family had broken an ankle in one of those Melvin potholes just before harvest and almost lost his crop and entire farm to the bank as a result. The Parkers still lived in the shabbier part of town, and only recently had begun to exit their position as the living literal fulfillment of a proverb. The Melvins were still considered the laziest sons of bitches in the county, but were tolerated as they made everyone else feel better about their own work ethic. He visited from time to time, always reporting back to the Deacons what they hoped to hear, that he had informed them of their reputation and what the good Lord wished they were.
Martin faded back into conversation. Mark had apparently shifted the conversation to a group of old ladies who were complaining about new carpet in the church. It hadn’t been walked on by their long dead grandparents and was therefore unacceptable. He was quiet for a moment, staring at pink laminated Texas wilderness. The thought of being somewhere else removed all repercussions of what he might say. Like a small gas flame it had slowly then suddenly worked him up to a boil. For the first time in thirty years of steady ministry, Martin himself, not the Reverend, spoke. “Well, I don’t give a damn! Let ’em pick out the carpet, dig up their ancestors and roll ’em all over the thing if they want. I wouldn’t consider myself a pauper if I never hear another thing about the church trimmings again in my life.” By the time he realized what he was saying, it was too late. They just stared at him as if he’d pulled off his skin and stood before them with bulging alien eyes, casually informing them that he had in fact abducted Martin several months ago and had been exploring their culture in his place. For the first time he felt clearly that he would rather be on Mars without a suit than be in Damnatus at this moment, at least he wouldn’t have to deal with the tapestry concerns of those wenches. No more would he have to see that bag on Mark’s neck inflating and deflating and hear the croaking that followed. Then he thought of Derek looking at all those brochures. He saw him look off into the sunset, only this time the pastor went back and joined him in reverent silence, in awe of the freedom from the only world he had ever known. But he couldn’t leave, they wouldn’t understand, they’d track him down. If only he’d had Derek pretend to kidnap him. They could have left at the same time, but it was too late. But those thoughts of freedom fell like rain on his dry heart and brought to life a seed planted by his now dead wife Jessie, as well as the still living Melanie, the one who had given him a taste of the outside world.
The Reverend left that meeting with smiles and handshakes, ignoring the elephant that had entered the room by way of his sudden outburst. That was the last that anyone but Melanie, and of course the now slightly wealthier town mortician ever saw of the dear Reverend again.