BY JERROD EDSON
Jerrod Edson was born in Saint John, NB, in 1974. This is an excerpt from his novel, A Place of Pretty Flowers, published by Oberon Press, and posted here with Oberon’s permission. Copyright is held by the author.
The Burial: THURSDAY, AUGUST 11, 2005
A LONG LINE of cars sits along the gravel path at Prospect Point in Fernhill Cemetery in Saint John. It is a gloomy August morning. The fog has rolled in from the bay and there is no view of Rothesay Avenue, or of the highway beyond it, just a white abyss and the tops of a few tall trees poking out. They look like ghosts. Now and then, faintly through the whiteness, there is the rumble of a dump truck, or a car without a muffler, down on Rothesay Avenue.
Nobody except Joan and Jerry Finch has gotten out of their car. Everyone waits, staring at the plot, that flat space of grass where the hole should be, but isn’t. Some of them are talking.
“Poor Joan,” one woman mutters.
“They’re cursed,” her husband whispers.
“Doomed,” she says.
Joan Finch is tall and sickly thin. She is wearing a tight black dress that accentuates her bony legs, the crookedness of her body. She looks like a burnt matchstick. She has a tiny mouth with slightly puckered lips, giving her a look of sternness she accepts without regret. She is always stiffly composed, like a robot, even today as she buries her 29-year-old son, Kevin, who was killed in a car accident while driving home from a wedding in Hampton.
The cemetery grass is covered with dew, and looks more blue than green. In some places it looks black. Tiny droplets, where the dew is thickest, sparkle gloomily. Joan paces over the exact area she had chosen as the spot to bury her son. Her footsteps make a mess of prints in the dew. Sometimes her heels sink into the earth and she holds back from kicking the grass, struggling to stay composed. Don’t kick a thing, she thinks. All these people here and you pacing about like a madwoman. I’ll kill that caretaker when I see him. I’ll choke him and kick him and take his shovel—Yes! I’ll beat him with his own shovel. The thought brings a tight little smile to her mouth.
Her husband, Jerry, has walked over to her. He is dressed in a navy blue suit that encases him. He does not wear suits often and it shows. It looks unnaturally stiff, the shoulders disproportionately square as he slouches, his hands deep in his pockets.
He has not spoken to Joan since they left the church. It was there, in the churchyard, that something awful had happened, something dark and ugly and frightening. He is still shaken from it, from thinking how in that brief moment he thought he’d won something over her. This had never happened before today. But there aren’t any winners in this, he thinks. Just losers, both of us, equally, for the first time since forever. He thinks a moment more. Since 1980. (It pains him to even say the year in his head.)
He looks down at the grass, trying to act as if nothing had happened. “I’m going to find the caretaker,” he says, but he speaks too confidently, too carefree, and he gives himself away.
Joan thinks he is trying to hold onto this, this silent victory. It is something that has belonged to her always before today and she is not about to let it go. “You tell him we’re calling a lawyer,” she snaps. She is still pacing and does not look at him. “You tell him that if he doesn’t have this hole dug in the next few minutes he’ll need to dig two!”
Jerry knows he is losing again, and the feeling smothers him. It’s a feeling Joan has always thrust upon him, knowing that it smothers him, but right now he is too weak, too broken to respond, and so he does what he has always done—he says nothing.
“I mean it,” Joan says, her teeth grinding in restraint.
“Calm down,” Jerry says.
Joan stops pacing. She puts her hands on her hips. Her elbows stick out. “Have you forgotten what you did to me? Has that left your mind already?” She looks over at everyone watching from their cars. “All these people here and we look like fools, Jerry. Fools! I can just imagine what they’re saying; ‘Poor Joan and Jerry can’t even give Kevin a proper burial.’ It’s making us look awful and so help me, when I see that caretaker…”
Jerry looks at her, at the bitterness, the hardened shell, and he thinks of the woman he had married, that young and vibrant woman so full of joy. When are you gonna come back? he thinks. Is it buried that deep inside you? He walks away, looking down at the grass, saddened. It is buried that deep. Way too deep. His shoulders are slumped as he walks by the hearse, his hands in his pockets, and it hits him hard, a sudden thud in his chest, knowing that his son lies behind those tiny black curtains, still as a statue.
Sitting in the hearse is Jeremy Wiggins, 22, of Wiggins Funeral Home. He is dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a thin black tie. He has a wild mop of curly hair, like a young Bob Dylan. He looks around the cemetery and grins to himself. He used to come here in high school with his friends, reading the headstones, smoking dope and making out with girls. He taps his fingers on the steering wheel before feeling around his jacket pocket for the joint he rolled earlier in the morning. When his fingers find it he feels how perfectly rolled it is. It’s a work of art, he thinks, grinning. It’s a damned Picasso is what it is. He looks at his watch. “Come on, come on…” He turns on the radio and listens to a Wacky Wheatley’s ad before turning it off. He looks over at Joan Finch and sighs. “Where the fuck is the hole?”
He quickly straightens up as Jerry Finch walks by. He sees the sadness in Jerry’s face, and he feels guilty for swearing in front of his dead son. He twists around and looks at the casket. “Sorry, dude.”
Two cars back, behind the Finch’s limousine, is a Ford sedan. Reverend Richard Grey has a full head of white hair parted neatly to the side the way old men do. He is fixing his hair when he sees Joan Finch pacing about. He knows he should go and console her, but he is hesitant. It’s your job, he tells himself. She needs you. It’s as easy as walking across the grass and standing there—let her do the talking. Just do your work—God’s work, isn’t it? He sees the blandness in the day, the colourless fog, and he chuckles to himself. Sure, sure, keep telling yourself that; keep pouring it on old fool and you’ll be fine. He pauses. But you were good in there today. You’ve never been better. Or have you? Yes, you have. Of course you have. You were better for the Anderson funeral. He pauses. But that was a month ago. Of course you were better then. Everything was better then. But you were fine for Sunday’s services, and fine today too. This relaxes him, briefly. Yes, you can still pull it off just like before.
After a moment he sighs. But how much longer can you go? A month? A year? No, surely not a year. By then you’ll be finished. He checks his hair in the mirror and climbs out of the car. Do your job, he tells himself, and help this poor woman. He is severely bowlegged and walks across the cemetery grass with an exaggerated caution, as if barefoot on glass.
At the back of the procession is an unmarked police car. Detective Harry Ross is slouched behind the wheel. He is 62 years old and is dressed in a plain brown suit that accentuates the fact that he is as wide as he is tall. He has a shiny bald head and his chin sags where his cheeks have overlapped the jaw line, appearing to sag down his neck and onto his collar, as though his face were melting. He wears thick square glasses that keep sliding down his nose. Without his glasses he is practically blind, but with them his sight is perfect and so he accepts the bother of always pushing them back up.
He is uncomfortable in his seat and is trying not to show it. He sees out the corner of his eye the young officer sitting next to him. Don’t let this young buck see you like this, he thinks. Goddamned hemorrhoids. Why now? Why this week? He shifts again, trying to ease the pain. Because you’re getting old, that’s why. A pause. But you don’t think like an old man yet, do you? No sir, you’re still sharp as a whip. This youngster will be bragging to everyone at the station when we wrap up this case, right now, this morning. He smiles to himself. Christ, yes— you’re still a damned good detective and you’ve still got a year or two left before you hang ‘em up. He breathes. So sit still, old man. Sit yourself as still as you can and don’t think about the pain and it’ll go away once the suppositories kick in. He breathes again. They better kick in. You don’t want that joke going around the station. He feels the itch and the pain under him, inside of him, the pressure of his weight against the cushioned seat, and he winces. The young officer next to him, whose name is Constable John Ladd, notices, but says nothing.
Constable Ladd is 27 years old and is in the process of being promoted to Detective. He is with Ross for two reasons: to listen and to learn. He is a bright young man with a freckled face, red hair cropped short and a thin moustache. He is dressed in a sharp blue suit and he sits upright, his feet spread apart, careful not to scuff his new shoes. He has only been out of uniform for a week and he is proud in his new suit, flipping down the visor mirror, making sure his tie is straight. The two of them together look like father and son; Dad worn down from the grind; Son snappy and ready for life.
Ross and Ladd have inadvertently followed the procession too far into the cemetery. “Hell,” Ross says. “We might as well wait here with everyone else. I don’t like pulling away when people are still in their cars. It looks bad.”
“You ever seen anything like this before?” Ladd asks.
Ross frowns. “A funeral without a hole? Nope.” He sees Reverend Grey walking across the grass. “Look at that old fart. He looks like he shit himself.”
Everyone in their cars sees him too.
“I heard it’s cancer,” one woman whispers to her husband.
“It’s some sort of rare blood disorder,” her husband says. “It eats through the organs one at a time.”
“How awful,” she mutters. She takes one last drag from her cigarette, rolls down her window and flicks it out.