Dewey Myers had been working at Forest Lawn Cemetery since he was in high school, twenty years before. He had started out cutting grass on weekends and after school; it was easy since he lived right across the street. He had been the youngest on the crew but now everybody was under him but Bill Cassing, the sexton.
There was a newer, nicer cemetery on the southwest side of town, where the new housing developments were going up. Forest Lawn had been laid out shortly after the town was founded in the 1800s; it had been on the outskirts to the north and the east, then the town grew out to where it was and surrounded it.
The little houses that lined the streets running away from the cemetery had been built for the families of the men who worked in the railroad shops. The people who lived in the neighborhood kept their properties up, with a few exceptions. Still, if you wanted a nice home you would buy one on the southwest side of town, and if you wanted a nice funeral when you died, you didn’t think of Forest Lawn.
There was only one synagogue in town, over on the west side, but the Jewish families tended to have their plots in Forest Lawn. Anybody could be buried in either cemetery, but the country club wouldn’t admit Jews for a long time, and people thought of the southwest area, where all the new homes were going up, as “the country club district.”
When Bill Cassing got the call from Mr. Greenblatt to say that his son Stephen had died in a car crash driving back to college Saturday night it had already been raining hard for two days. “He needs to be buried within twenty-four hours,” Mr. Greenblatt had told the sexton, who was more a manager than a gravedigger. “I understand,” Cassing had said, although he hadn’t until it was explained to him. As soon as he was off the phone with the father Cassing called Dewey. “Mr. Greenblatt from the department store, his son was in a car wreck. We need to get him buried by the end of the day under Jewish law.”
“We can’t bury him now,” Dewey said.
“Why not?” the sexton asked.
“Ground’s too wet. The casket will float right back up.”
Cassing was silent for a moment as he thought about this. “Can’t you just bury him deeper?” he asked.
“Same difference,” Dewey said. “When the ground’s sopping wet like this it don’t matter how deep you put them down.”
“Well, these people own a family plot and they’re entitled to bury their son according to their religion. You’ll just have to start digging and hope the rain stops,” Cassing said.
“All right,” Dewey said, and hung up.
Dewey called Bird Dog, a lanky black man, to see if he wanted some overtime.
“It’s Sunday and it’s raining,” Bird Dog said.
“Sexton’s in a hurry cause the boy’s Jewish and has to be buried quick. You’d get time-and-a-half.”
“I don’t see why I got to do it,” Bird Dog said.
“You don’t have to, Dog,” Dewey said, a little irritated. “I just thought you might like the extra money.”
“Not this morning,” Bird Dog said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right,” Dewey said. After he hung up he put on his rain gear, got in his truck and drove to the cemetery maintenance shed.
He looked up the Greenblatts’ plot number, opened the garage door, and drove the backhoe down to where it was located. The digging took longer than usual because the ground was wet and heavy, and the sides and corners weren’t as sharp as he usually made them. When he was done he stood over the grave and looked down into it as it filled up with rain. “Nobody listens to me,” he said to himself, before driving the backhoe to the shed.
He made himself a pot of coffee and called the sexton. “The grave’s all set,” he said. “I suppose you want me to stick around.”
“If you could. I don’t know what time they’re gonna get there. I’ll come over once I hear from them.”
“Okay, I’ll sit tight.” Dewey had a television set in the shed, and he turned on a baseball game. It was getting close to noon, and he took a sandwich he had brought from home out of the refrigerator. He turned on the space heater to burn the chill out of the shed. Might as well get comfortable, he thought.
After he finished the sandwich he fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until the sexton called close to one thirty.
“I just heard from Mr. Greenblatt,” Cassing said. “They should be there shortly. I’ll head on over.”
“Okay,” Dewey said. He was still a little groggy as he spoke. “Is there anything I can do?”
“You can get down to the gate and wait for them,” Cassing said sharply.
No need to snap at me, Dewey thought. He poured the rest of the coffee into his thermos, opened up the door to the garage bay where the pickup truck was parked, backed it out and headed down to the main gate. He parked the truck and left the engine running with the heater and the radio on. Every now and then he had to roll down his window because the windshield would get fogged up. The third time he did it he saw the funeral procession winding its way up from the stop light at Lamine to the entrance, and he got out to unlock the gate.
“We’re the Greenblatt funeral,” a short man with a beard and a hat, dressed in black and holding an umbrella, said to Dewey through the gate after getting out of the passenger side of the hearse.
“Okay,” Dewey said. “Let me get this gate back then y’all can come on in.”
Dewey opened the gates, the hearse drove in, and Dewey came around to the driver’s side. “You know where you goin’?” he asked the driver, who was also wearing a hat.
“Mr. Greenblatt says he does.”
“Okay, go on ahead.”
Dewey got in the cab of the truck and waited until the cars had passed through the gate. He was about to put the truck in gear when he saw Cassing drive up. “I’ll follow them down to the grave site,” he said, and Dewey drove behind him.
Dewey didn’t know what everybody was in such a hurry for. If the boy was buried right away he would sure as hell float up to the surface. There were ways around it; you could put bricks or stones on the coffin, but he figured the family wouldn’t like that. Since Cassing seemed to want to be in charge, he figured he’d just leave it up to him.
After the eulogies, the family sat while some of the mourners came forward to fill in the grave. They seemed superstitious to Dewey, each one holding the shovel in a certain way, throwing in three shovelfuls of dirt, then sticking the shovel in the ground instead of handing it off to the next person. The way they went about it meant he couldn’t have loaded down the coffin if he had tried.
After the people left Dewey set to work, and the rain turned to a drizzle. Bird Dog showed up when he was almost done.
“You got good timing,” Dewey said.
“I figured I’d come on over since the rain slowed down.”
“I ‘bout got him covered.”
“I’ll finish him off,” picking up a shovel.
“I bet Cassing don’t pay you the minimum.”
“How’s he gonna know ‘less you tell him?”
“He was here for the service.”
The two men finished filling in the grave and built up a little mound on top to allow for settling.
“That oughta do it,” Bird Dog said.
“Good for now. Unless I miss my guess, we’ll be back here soon enough.”
“Don’t say that. I don’t mind burying ‘em but I don’t like to think about ‘em comin’ back up.”
Dewey went home and fell asleep on his couch, then woke up around eight o’clock not knowing at first what time it was or why he wasn’t in bed. He had a hard on, and when he got up to go to the bathroom he had to bend forward to piss.
He fixed himself a dinner of fish cakes and beans and had a bottle of beer with it, then watched TV for awhile. He felt like he should try and go back to sleep rather than stay up late, and so he had another beer and went to bed.
He woke up at five a.m., earlier than usual, and saw that the rain had stopped and the sun was burning off clouds to the west, like it was blowing them away. He made himself breakfast, then drove over to the cemetery. Rather than stop and make a pot of coffee, he went straight down to the Greenblatts’ plot to check things out.
As he drove down the hill and got closer to the plot he saw what he expected but still felt a shiver when he realized he’d been right; the casket had floated up; the mound of dirt had expanded like a bubble, and the end where the boy’s feet lay was sticking out.
“Goddammit to hell,” he said as he stopped the truck and got out.
He went over to the grave site and gave the coffin a little push with his foot; there was too much water in the grave, and it didn’t give more than about an inch.
He drove back to the maintenance shed and called Cassing’s number.
“You got to get down here, the boy’s floated back up,” he said when Cassing answered.
“I told you he wouldn’t stay down with all this rain. Now he’s floated back up and one end of the casket is sticking out.”
“I never heard of such a thing.”
“Well, you heard about it now. I told you it was gonna happen.”
“I can’t get down there for a couple hours, I got to take my wife to the eye doctor.”
“Well what do you want me to do?”
“Call the family. The number’s on my desk. Somebody’s got to look at it and say the corpse wasn’t disinterred—otherwise we got to report it to the police. Tell ‘em as soon as the ground dries out we’ll bury him again.”
“All right,” Dewey said, and Cassing hung up.
Dewey called the number on the family’s forms and a girl answered.
“Is this the Greenblatt residence?”
“This is Dewey Myers—out to the cemetery?”
“Who am I speaking to?”
“This is Debbie—I’m Stephen’s sister.”
“Is your mom or dad there?”
“No—they’ve gone over to Columbia to get my brother’s things.”
“Oh. When do you expect ‘em back?”
“Not till late tonight. They have to do the paperwork to get a tuition refund.”
Dewey hesitated for a moment. “Well, uh, because of all the rain, your brother’s casket floated back up.”
“Floated back up? What do you mean?”
“When you try to bury people too soon after it’s been raining the water gets in the grave and the air in the coffin makes it float back up.”
“It’s okay—we just have to wait ‘til the ground dries out a little.”
The girl was silent.
“I need somebody to come out here today and inspect it. Are you old enough to drive?”
Dewey got the impression the girl was proud that she was there to take responsibility. “How soon can you get out here?”
“Fifteen minutes maybe.”
“Okay. My boss should be here pretty soon. I think he wants you to sign something.”
“All right. I’ll be there in a little while.”
Dewey walked down to the gate to wait for the girl. She drove up in a little yellow car that hadn’t been in the funeral procession. “Hi,” Dewey said after she rolled down her window. “You know where it is, right?”
“I’ll ride down with you and then we’ll go over to the office after you take a look at it.”
He got in the car and they drove to the grave site. “This wouldn’ta happened if he was buried up on a hill,” Dewey said. He thought if he made conversation the girl might not start crying.
“It’s a little late for that, I guess,” the girl said.
They reached the gravesite and got out on the asphalt path. “Can you see it okay?” Dewey asked.
“How much do I have to see?”
“I guess enough to say nobody dug it up.”
“Well, I can’t see that from here. And I don’t want to get my shoes muddy.”
Dewey thought for a moment. The girl was short, and didn’t look like she weighed much. She had on corduroy pants and a coat that came down to her hips. “I could carry you down there—piggyback.”
The girl looked at him, then looked down into the little hollow where the newly-dug grave was located.
“Can’t you drive your truck down there?”
“No–it’d get stuck.”
The girl considered the situation for a moment, then said “All right.”
Dewey turned his back to her, and she jumped on. He grabbed her legs and she threw her arms around his shoulders. Dewey started walking, and the ground was firm enough to hold them as they headed down to the grave.
“I could’ve kept your brother from coming back up,” Dewey said as they walked down.
“You put stones on top of the coffin, that holds it down,” he said.
“I don’t think my parents would have liked that.”
“I know, but when you get as much rain as we’ve had here the past few days, it’s what you gotta do.”
Dewey’s pace slowed the nearer they got to the coffin as the ground got softer.
“See there,” Dewey said as he stopped, afraid to go further.
“It just looks like a mound of dirt.”
“See there the corner of the coffin’s stickin’ up higher.” He walked a little closer.
“It’s okay. I just need for you to see it ain’t dug up.”
“I can tell you didn’t.”
“Not just me—anybody.”
“That’s what I meant.”
“All right. Let’s head on back.”
Dewey lifted his right foot and tried to turn, but the girl’s weight made his left foot sink lower, and he nearly fell forward before regaining his balance.
“Don’t drop me,” the girl said.
“I’m okay, it’s just sloppy down here is all.”
They made their way up to the asphalt road, Dewey’s footing improving as they struggled to increasingly higher ground. As they reached the road, Dewey turned around and allowed the girl to climb down on the asphalt. When he turned around, he saw Cassing driving up in the truck.
“Hello,” Cassing said evenly, although Dewey could tell he was angry and would have yelled at him if the girl hadn’t been there. “I’m Bill Cassing, the caretaker here,” he said.
“I’m Debbie Greenblatt, Stephen’s brother—I mean sister,” the girl said.
“I’m awful sorry about what happened,” Cassing said, taking his hat off as he spoke. “We’ll fix things just as soon as we can.”
“My mom and dad will be back tonight. You’d better talk to them. I just came out because Mr., uh, Dewey here said you wanted me to sign something.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to just write out a statement saying you examined the grave site and it appears it was disturbed by natural causes and not any human that you know of.”
“I guess I can do that.”
“Why don’t you follow me back to the office.”
Dewey got in the truck on the passenger’s side and Cassing made a three-point turn and headed back towards the gate.
“What in the hell were you doing with that girl?” he asked Dewey.
“She couldn’t see the grave, and she didn’t want to walk down to it, and I didn’t want to get her car stuck, and the truck sure as hell wouldn’t have made it down there.”
Cassing noticed that Dewey was breathing heavily. “So what did you do?” he asked.
“I took her down piggyback, she saw what she needed to see and we came back.”
“Jesus H. Christ.” Cassing drove on in silence, then stopped the car at the wooden office building next to the shed. “Just let me handle this from here on out, all right?”
“Suit yourself,” Dewey said. “This never would’ve happened if you’d listened to me.”
Dewey got out of the truck, went into the shed, took off his coat and started the coffee maker. Fuck him, he said under his breath. He saw the girl pull up to the office and get out. The only thing that was muddy was her short boots, the kind with the colored uppers that the kids were wearing. Cassing didn’t have to treat him like he was stupid, Dewey thought. His idea had worked.
Once the coffee was ready Dewey filled his mug and took it outside to drink it in the first sunshine he’d seen in a week. Cassing was talking to the girl over by her car, then shook her hand and said goodbye. Once the sexton went back inside the office the girl came over to Dewey.
“Thank you for taking me down there,” she said. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
“That’s okay. That’s how he gets his daily exercise—yelling at me.”
The girl laughed. “Kind of like Lazarus, isn’t it?”
The girl put her head down as if embarrassed. “Except Stephen isn’t coming back to life, is he?” As she said this her voice fluttered, and Dewey noticed she was crying.
“No, miss, I don’t believe so.”
“Well, thank you anyway.” She looked up at him, her lips pursed together in resignation. She walked to her car and drove away.
The next day Mr. Greenblatt drove into the cemetery as Dewey was collecting the larger branches that had fallen from the rain and the wind and throwing them into the bucket of a front-end loader. Mr. Greenblatt stopped his car and got out, his face compressed like a spring, crossed by tight lines ready to uncoil.
“Howdy,” Dewey said as Greenblatt approached.
“Are you the fellow who carried my daughter piggy-back down to my son’s grave without informing me or asking my permission, or having the common decency . . .”
“Wait a minute,” Dewey said. “The sexton told me we had to do it right away, or else call the police.”
“I’m the one who should be calling the police!” Greenblatt yelled. “And then she comes home telling tales of miracles!”
“It warn’t no miracle,” Dewey said. “It’s a natural thing any time it rains like that. You get too much water in the grave.”
“Where did she learn about Lazarus and Jesus then?”
“She mentioned Lazarus, but we didn’t talk about Jesus.”
“Then where did this come from?” Greenblatt snapped as he pulled a pamphlet from his coat pocket. It had cartoon drawings and words on it. On the back it said “Jews for Jesus.”
“I never seen that before,” Dewey said.
“My daughter came back from here that day and said she’d seen a sign. Must I banish her from our table because of what you have done?”
“I didn’t do nothing,” Dewey said. “I just took her down to the grave and showed her what happened. He’d risen up, just like I said he would.”