Forty

The rope tightened around my ankle and my right leg was jerked straight, but I didn’t move. I could feel the rope straining against the pillar I had inched around five feet behind where I was now laying. I would have to move back enough to go around the pillar and unkink the rope.

Caught in the bright glare from my headlamp was the man in the dirty cream-colored shirt and butternut pants. The cop. The man who looked like the cop. The man who couldn’t be the cop. He thrust the little girl aside. She cried out, ceased her weeping, and shoved her thumb into her mouth, her eyes wide, casting back and forth between the two of us.

He lurched forward, up into a crouch, leaning beneath the beams of the overhead floor, with the stuffing of dripping pink insulation. He assumed the position of a spider, ready to leap.

I inched back, holding the shovel up between us. As if that would deter him. If I could get past the pillar, unkink the rope, I could get away. Maybe.

He gathered himself, eyes narrowed. It was as if, in the bright glare, I could feel his intention a millisecond before he made the move. I dropped the tote bag.

He leapt forward; I slammed the shovel into his head. He fell back, the look of determination changed to surprise. Well, it surprised me as well. After the hit I threw the shovel at him and scrabbled to the left, which unkinked the rope. I heard it whizz against the pillar then, free, it jerked my leg back, me with it, crabbing backwards as fast as I could go, which wasn’t fast enough and my legs were yanked straight and I slid over the plastic ground cove, slippery from a thin dry layer of dust and dirt that had accumulated over the many years. I saw the man recover, toss the shovel aside and come after me. My hand rolled over a round shape, a rock, which I grabbed thinking I would hit him with it when he was close enough, and he was almost that close when Mark made what must have been a superhuman last-ditch effort and dragged me to the ledge over the deeper portion of the crawlspace where the furnace was. I fell off over onto the dirt floor.

“OK! OK! Stop!” I shouted.

I glanced back and Mark was crouched on the stone steps; if his face was pale before, it was stark white now and he was staring not at me, but beyond me, back under the house. I made it to my knees and looked back and saw the legs of the man scuttle around the corner of the pillar and disappear. I untied the rope.

“What the hell was that!” Mark asked. No humor in his voice now, no knowing, You’re-Full-of-Shit joking. “Who the hell was that?”

“Rafe said there might be another one under here. He was right. I told you about him. The cop. Only not the cop.” I noticed the fishing pole leaning against the wall. “Shit, the bones.” I realized I was still holding the rock. I handed it to Mark. A wail came from behind me. Ada. Or maybe it was something in my head, a sound of dread, maybe it was my wail.

I picked up the fishing pole and began reeling in the line. I felt it snag and stop. The goddamned pillar. I threw the pole down and grabbed the fishing line, feeling it cut into my skin as I pulled. It held, I thought it would break; slowly I felt the tote bag inch around the pillar and then it was free and sliding back to me as I reeled it in hand over hand. I caught the bag as it tipped over the ledge. The bones rattled. The bag felt, not full, but there was a substantial weight. Enough, I hoped. I turned, pushed Mark ahead up the steps and we came out into the night. I closed the door and threw the outside lock into the hasp. Not that it was going to keep anything in, or at least not anything that really wanted to come out.

I untied the line around the hood of my protective suit and unzipped it down the front. It tangled around my ankles; I peeled it over my shoes and kicked it away. It pooled on the grass. I pulled off the headlight.

We both stood, silent, gasping in the night air, grateful that it was a thousand times cleaner than the dust of the ages beneath the house.

“The cop, but not the cop,” he said.

“I can’t explain it yet, but I think I’m beginning to understand.”

Mark looked down at his hand. “Jesus, take this thing,” he said, handing me the rock.

Except that it wasn’t a rock, I knew what it was from the feel, but I turned on the headlamp.

A skull. Not a child’s skull, but that of a full grown man, dirt and bits of I don’t know what still clinging to the teeth, the crease down the length of the cranium, holding that skull rictus that we know so well from photographs and drawings, the ironic manic smile of the dead. I switched off the light, eager to not be looking at it. “Like I said, Rafe told me he thought there was another one under there. You saw it?”

“The man, yes I saw him. He was coming after you. Jesus.”

That was twice Mark uttered a swear word, a rarity for him.

He shook his head. “Jesus.”

Three.

Neither of us said anything as our night vision gradually came back online. My breathing and heart rate slowed back to normal, or as close to normal as it was going to get for a while. I thought. I made up my mind.

“You up for some more?” I asked.

“Some more what?”

“More of what we’re doing?”

“Are you really going back under there?”

The thing was, I was tired of continuing on the same path, wandering around the house in the night, the weeping, never knowing if it was going to end, keeping Sherry in the dark (as it were). I still had the plan; I was through the second part and had one last push to go. “I want to finish it. Tonight. Not under there.” I nodded at the door to the crawl space.

“Where.”

“The graveyard. I’m going to bury the bones.” I nudged the tote bag of bones with my foot. Gently. You could hear a soft dry rattle as they shifted against each other.

“You’re going to bury that?” Mark asked, nodding at the skull that I was still holding. I had forgotten it. Hard to forget an ancient skull.

“No, I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but having it is a good thing. A protection, I think. Right now we’re going to bury Ada.” And finish it. As much as it can be finished.

“We’re going to give her peace.”

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty-nine

Bison Grass Vodka        Green Chartreuse

Brisket and White Beans

Mark knocked on the front door around midnight. I opened the door, and though I hadn’t turned on the porch light I could see he was carrying a fishing pole and wearing a fisherman’s hat. The kind that sported several lures hooked into the hatband.

“You look ridiculous,” I said. He laughed.

“You look like a huge potato,” he said.

I was wearing my white protective suit. I hadn’t put the hood up and strapped on my headlamp yet. “Just wait,” I said. “It get’s worse. What’s with the fishing gear?”

“I told Bonnie we were going night fishing. I had to tell her something.”

Mark’s wife is extremely smart; I’m sure she didn’t believe him, but she’s also a good sport. She probably thought we were up to something, but she isn’t the suspicious type. There were lots of ridiculous things Mark and I could be up to at midnight, but they’re mostly, like I said, ridiculous rather than dangerous.

Except tonight.

This afternoon I found Mark working in his garden and talked him into an afternoon drink at the Penny. I had a Bison Grass Vodka and a Green Chartreuse. I realized, or rather remembered that I had had my first and only taste of this Polish vodka specialty almost fifty years ago when I attended an event at the Polish Embassy in Washington, DC. I have no idea why I had been invited; I assumed at the time it was a mistake. I was a hippie back in those days, or at least I looked like one; hair way down my back, beard, groovy clothing. After knocking back several shots of the curious vodka, which a passing waiter told me was a “special flavored vodka, a drink made only in Poland,” an embassy aide came up and asked me if I would have a private word with the ambassador? Of course I would. He took me into a back room where an attractive older lady was sitting in a chair that looked like a throne with several suited minions scattered around her. One of the minions introduced her very formally as the Ambassador; I introduced myself. We made some small talk, very small as she barely spoke English and no one bothered to translate, and I asked her about the vodka: How was it made? She said, very clearly, that it was made from “squashed peasants.” I nodded gravely and we chatted for a few more minutes. I could tell she was interested in my hippyness; I suppose that functionaries on her level didn’t get to mingle with street creatures like me, at least not back in those days. Then she asked me to come to lunch some time, at least I think that’s what she asked. I never followed up on it, I kept thinking about those squashed peasants. When I took a sip of my Bison vodka at the Penny, the taste rushed me back to that afternoon of yesteryear, like an alcoholic version of Proust and his Madeline.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Mark. I hadn’t seen him much in quite some time, so I filled him in on my events with the underhouse creatures, concluding with my adventure to the graveyard last night. As always, he sat through the recitation with his mild smile of amusement that shouted, “You’re crazy!” I explained my three-part plan, and he agreed to help me out with tonight’s excursion, the second part.

So he came in and waited while I gathered up my gear: headband light, a thirty-foot length of nylon rope, and a purple tote bag from Weavers, the local organic grocery store. He took off his hat. “Bring the fishing pole, it might be useful,” I said.

We marched through the house – I kept the lights off – went out the back door, and around the side to the entrance to the crawlspace where the furnace is. I had leaned the shovel that Mark found under the house many blog posts ago against the door.

“Tell me again why we aren’t doing this during the day?” he asked.

“The last time I went under there during the day the house almost fell on me. And my camera that I bought off the Internet ended up smashed into one of the pillars. And I didn’t see any evidence of the little girl. I don’t think she likes the daytime, and I think it pisses off the house.” He nodded, as if ‘it pisses off the house’ was a perfectly normal thing to say.

I tightened the drawstring around the hoody till only a round blob of my face was uncovered. I strapped on the headlamp and switched on the light. I could hear Mark sniggering behind me. I fooled around with the shovel for a minute, hefting it in my right hand, tote bag containing the rope in my left. I was building up my nerve. After a few minutes of this foolishness I said, “Let’s go,” and descended the four stairs to the dirt floor of the crawlspace. At this point we could stand up, with just our heads touching the hanging stalactites of pink insulation.

“OK, here’s the deal,” I said. “I’m going to tie the rope around my ankle. If you hear me yell Pull! drag me out of wherever I am under here. I can crawl backward, but if I’ve got you hauling on me I’m going to go a lot faster than If I’m on my own. I’m only going to holler if I’m in trouble.” Mark’s in good shape, so I figured he could add a good bit of speed to my escape. As they say, what could go wrong? I sat down on an ancient stone ledge, took the rope out of my tote bag and tied the end around my right ankle. Now that I was doing it, it seemed stupid, only slightly better than tying the rope around my own neck. I pushed these self-doubts away: stick to the plan. I tried to forget the well-known military axiom that in war even the best-laid plans survive for only the first 30 seconds of battle. After that, who knows? Chaos, usually.

“Hand me the fishing pole,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing. He handed it to me.

It was a regular spinning reel and rod, heavy enough for what I had in mind. I took the bobber off the line, put it on the shelf beside me, and attached the bare hook to the handle of the tote bag. “When I say the word, reel the bag in. It’s going to have bones in it, I don’t know how many, but it should be light enough to drag out of there.” I gestured vaguely into the dark beneath the house. The headlamp was bright enough to throw most of the expanse into deep shadow. In the glare, Mark’s face appeared extremely pale, but he gave me his usual, You’re So Full of Shit, smile. I tried to return it, but to tell you the truth I was scared. I’m not sure of what, but something. Whatever was there in the dark.

I tuned into my senses for a moment and listened: no weeping. Dead silence. This was almost as unnerving as hearing the weeping.

I ducked under the main heating duct, crawled up on the ledge and began making my way into the dusty, rocky crawl space. It was a longer distance to the back of the house than if we’d gone into the side where I set up, or tried to set up, the camera, but the opening there faced the next-door neighbor’s house, and if they happened to be looking out the window they would be witnessing a very strange scene involving a night fisherman and a large white ambulatory potato. Going in where the furnace is located kept me out of view from anyone.

It’s amazing how painful even the smallest rock is underneath the knees of a portly 73-year-old man. I was now further along beneath the house than I have ever been. The light was very bright, so I flicked it onto the red setting, which made everything look like those scenes in submarine movies where the sub is deeply submerged and the main power system has been blown. I stopped to catch my breath and allow my eyes to adjust. The weeping began, not in my ear, but inside my head: forlorn, afraid.

I dragged myself around a thick pillar made up of stone blocks, grey, the grimy color of the weathered gravestones in the Town Cemetery only now suffused with the blood-red hue.

And there, ten, twelve feet away from me was a shallow trough, beside which was a neatly stacked pile of bones. And there, five feet beyond the bones was the little girl, only now there were no sewn lips, this was no Nightmare Before Christmas doll, this was the real thing, or to my eyes the real thing, diaphanous, indistinct but clearly visible, surrounded by a thick, jelly-like mist that curled heavily around, beneath, and above her, as if clutching her in a translucent embrace. She saw me, and wailed a pitiful tone of hurt, loss, and despair, of no hope, only abject misery.

I didn’t, couldn’t, take my eyes off her as I inched toward the bones, putting my hand with the shovel forward, dragging myself along while I inched the Weaver tote bag along in my left hand.

My breath sounded like a bellows in my ears; the weeping lament became a rising howl of pain. I tried to ignore it, pushed on against it, now keeping my eyes on the bones, afraid to look at her, until I was close enough to stop, drag my bag up in front of me and begin piling the bones into the bag. Leg bones, arm bones, a chunk of skull, small chunks of finger bones, I was guessing they were fingers, a pelvis, scooping them up and jamming them into the bag, my breathing rough, gagging from the dust, hoping that these bones would be enough bones because there was no chance I was going to do any digging, knowing this was it as far as my nerve was concerned because I was on the very tipping edge of screaming loud enough to drown out the wailing howl of pain. If I could have stood and run, this would have been the moment I would have thrown it all down and fled.

I looked up, the last of the bones in the bag, and something — to this day I don’t know what — made me reach up to the headband light and flick the switch from the deep red position to the white, white, white glaring light.

It was as if I was in some movie theatre in Hell and the film just jammed and there in the glare, clear and crisp, was Ada, and the misty presence that flowed around her was revealed to be a man, and I could see him clearly, he was dressed in a pale, dirty white shirt and rough butternut-dyed pants, and he was the cop who had driven me home the night before, the hooked-nose man of indeterminate race with the knowing, evil eyes, the same man, the same man who had promised me there would be Hell To Pay.

 

“PULL!”

 

Thirty-eight

For those of you who are keeping track, I am nearing the end of my 69 drinks. It doesn’t seem so if you add up all the drinks recorded on these pages, but I’ve actually had more than I have listed here. Most of them were uninspiring, in either a good or bad way, just drinks that you might encounter in any regular foray into any regular bar. There have been few revelations: I still loathe tequila and choking those five varieties down was a test of my resolve and honesty, but I did it. Would I lie to you? The scotches all went down easily, ditto most of the bourbons except those that were too sweet. Does anyone still drink Southern Comfort? Disgusting. The specialty drinks – Becherovka, Green Chartreuse, Fireball, others – were equally disgusting.

Over the last year the Lead Penny has gone through some major changes – moving three buildings north on Churton Street being the main one, but it has remained the fabulous friendly bar it has always been. The wait-staff is efficient, patient, knowledgeable, good-natured and good-looking, man and woman alike. Even when the place was jammed they had time to discuss with me what drinks were still undrunk and what strategy would be employed that afternoon or evening. The chicken wings are always good and the rest of the food is well-cooked and innovative. Here’s a tip, the plain black beans are maybe the best I’ve ever eaten.

This is beginning to sound like I’m saying goodbye before walking into the ocean with stones in my pocket, but I just want to make sure I say my thank-yous before this last bit of action. I don’t think they’re going to let me have my laptop in jail, so no more blog if they put me in the pokey, or maybe some rookie cop will shoot me mistaking a 73-year-old, portly old man digging a hole at night in a graveyard for a cat burglar.

I put Sherry into the car and gave her a kiss goodbye. “I don’t know where you’ve been going at night recently,” she said to me, “you can explain it all when I get back.”

“It’s time you read my blog,” I said. “It will explain everything.” She backed out of the driveway, gave me a wave and headed north.

I packed my shovel in my backpack, added a few other supplies, and read my book until midnight and it was time to go. I was dressed for it: black jeans, black T-shirt, sneakers in case I needed to make a run for it, nothing special, this is what I wear every day; in the colder months the black T-shirt is long sleeved.

The weather was good, as if making up for the Florence disaster: warm without a hint of rain. The sky was clear and the moon was showing at about a quarter, which the Internet tells me is called either a waxing or waning crescent moon. I stood by the car looking up at the sky for a few minutes, telling myself I could just walk back inside and go to bed, but that barely-heard weeping was still there, grating against my nerves, and I thought it would always be there if I didn’t try to do something about it. I opened the car door and put a piece of dull silver duct tape over the button that turned on the overhead light. I waited a minute to see if it would pull off, but it held. Good old duct tape, the cat burglar’s friend. I climbed into the car, put my pack on the passenger seat and pulled out for the short drive to the parking lot near the graveyard.

I sat in the car in the lot, near but not quite right next to the row of cars that I assumed belonged to the patrons in the Nash Street Tavern. I went over the plan again, though I wasn’t sure if I was still trying to talk myself into it or out of it. While I sat, I sipped from a pewter flask of George Dickel bourbon that I had prepared earlier. It held a bit more than 6 ounces, and I was careful to leave a couple of ounces in the bottom. I screwed on the cap and ran my thumb over the letters engraved on the front. I had the flask engraved when I was working on my first blog, thethrillerguy; the message was one I used to flog my readers with at the time: Sit down; Shut up; Get to work. Good advice, then and now. Get to work.

I put the flask in the pack, it clanked against the shovel; I made a mental note to be careful about that. The light stayed off when I opened the door. Yes! I was sure no one saw me when I cut across the parking lot and into the trees at the far end. I would wait there until the bar crowd came out. I was afraid that if I stayed in the car I would drink the rest of the whiskey and fall asleep.

Eventually the bar doors opened and the patrons began to straggle out and across the street to their cars. They got in and in a couple of minutes the last one pulled out of the lot.

This, I reasoned, would be my most dangerous few minutes. I didn’t want to try and creep into the graveyard by cutting through a small forest and a large backyard, which I think would have been possible but would leave me open to barking dogs, if there were any, or irate neighbors with shotguns. I walked out of my little woods, into the street, onto the sidewalk in front of the one house between the lot and the graveyard, strolled up the sidewalk like I was an honest citizen out for a late night stroll with a shovel in my backpack, made it by the house (no lights were showing) and into the graveyard.

I was glad that I had done my reconnaissance days earlier, because it was darker than I thought it would be. What are the clichés? Darker than a well-digger’s ass? Darker than the inside of a cat? Even though I knew it was there, I still tripped over the low fence that surrounded the three lonely gravestones. I stumbled but didn’t go down, clutching the backpack to my chest so the flask didn’t clank. I slowed my breathing and skirted the fence, moving off into an even darker patch of shadow, feeling my way into the copse I had scouted earlier. I stopped again and waited, giving myself five minutes (I assume it was five minutes, it felt like half an hour) for my eyes to completely adjust to what dim light there was from the moon (not much) and the streetlight on the edge of the graveyard (still not much.)

When I decided I was never going to see much of anything anyway and I should just get on with it, I swung the pack off my back, unzipped it and removed the shovel. I put the pack on the ground and pried the shovel blade from where it was bent back against the handle and muscled it into position. It made a click that was loud enough to freeze my blood but after standing rock-still for a minute I decided no one could have heard it unless they were a few feet from where I was hidden.

I knelt down and felt around at my feet. I was in the very center of the grove (luck) where the ground was fairly free of brush or tree growth. I put the shovel into digging position, got my foot on it and pressed down. It sunk into the earth like the proverbial hot knife through butter; I was amazed at how much easier it was than trying to dig in the hard red clay of my front yard. The blade sunk in up to the haft, I scooped up as much as it would hold and dumped it several feet off to the right. I stopped and listened: nothing. Not even crickets. I went back to it. There was only the soft sound of the shovel doing its work. Every once in awhile I flinched at the metallic click when the blade hit a stone.

Here’s what I was thinking, both then and back when I was planning this first part of my three-part strategy. First of all, I had no idea how many bones were under the house, or what volume they would take up once I had gathered them together. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to have an entire skeleton on my hands. If that turned out to be the case, I’d have to rethink the whole thing. So I dug until I had a hole that felt like it was at least eight inches deep, maybe a foot in places, over a couple of feet square. It wasn’t hard work, but I was sweating when I decided I was finished. I gathered up some loose sticks and brush and put them over my makeshift grave. It probably wouldn’t disguise the hole completely, but I thought that the chances of anyone stumbling across it were pretty slim. The greater danger was me falling into it in the dark.

I put the shovel in the backpack, took out the flask, and dumped the remaining two ounces of George Dickel on my shoulders and shirtfront. The empty flask went comfortably into my back pocket, and I stepped away from the hole, feeling my way into the small trees until I came across a low bush that kept me from going any further. I knelt down, found an opening where I could stash the backpack and crammed it as far under the bush as I could.

The slow, fumbling trip out of the graveyard was uneventful, meaning I didn’t fall into the hole and there was no one walking their dog to see me. I checked my watch: 1:30 AM. I turned toward home. The walk back would take around 20 minutes.

It was ten minutes before a black and white cop car slid up beside me. I had seen the lights coming as I was walking in the center of the street, and I moved over so the car could pass, which it didn’t. It stopped. I leaned down as the passenger side window whirred open. My heart was pounding, and I kept telling myself: you knew this could happen, follow the plan.

“Good evening,” the cop said. I nodded. “My name is Officer Bradley Warren. You wouldn’t be Mr. Allen Appel, would you?”

For the first time since I began this evening’s caper, I felt a wash of gut-chilling fear flow over my pounding heart. It rocked me back a little so I had to put a hand on the car door to steady myself. “That would be me.” Why was he here? How did he know my name? Had he been looking for me? Visions of Sherry in a car crash flitted through my mind.

“Would that be your car in the parking lot of the Nash Street Tavern?” He was glancing at a little notebook. The page glowed neon green in the illumination from the lights imbedded in dashboard.

“Yes.”

“And why are you not driving your car?”

I leaned in close to the window. “Because I’m drunk.”

He mulled that over for a minute. I was hoping the George Dickel fumes both on my breath and from my shirt were wafting through the car to where he was sitting. He gave me a long, appraising cop look, and nodded again.

“OK. Get in the car, I’ll give you a ride home.” I thought about declining, saying I could use the exercise, but when a cop says get in the car you get in the car.

“I live…” I began.

“I know where you live.”

The four-minute ride was accomplished in silence. In the close confines of the patrol car I was aware that I not only smelled like I had been on a two-day bender, but that I had, while I was on that bender, taken a swim in a vat of whiskey. Had I overdone it?

We rolled to a stop in front of the house. The silver metal shingles of the roof made it glow pale in the dim moonlight. There were no lights on in any of the windows.

“Think you can make it inside on your own?” he asked.

I tried to assume a dignified, slightly annoyed though drunken look. ‘I’m sure I’ll be fine, Officer.” I fumbled with the door and couldn’t get it open.

“You’ll pick up your car tomorrow after you’ve slept this off?” he asked. I nodded. “You left it unlocked,” he added. “I got in it when I went through your glove compartment. Do you know your interior light is not functioning?”

Again that wave of fear.

“It must be burnt out.”

Silence.

He was giving me that cop look again. The kind that loosens your bowels. The one that says he knows there’s something not quite right, but he just can’t quite put his finger on it. He went on. “No, actually, the bulb’s not burnt out, someone has put a piece of duct tape over the switch that turns it on when you open the door. Would that be you, Mr. Appel? And why would you do such a thing?”

I turned to him, giving him the full benefit of my whiskey breath and my innocent expression. “Are you married, Officer?” I asked. He nodded. I looked over at the house.

“So am I. My wife is sleeping soundly inside that house, but she is a light sleeper. She might not hear me drive up, but she could very well see the light from the car when I opened the door. This is not my first late-night trip to a barroom.” I gave him what I thought was a sly, man-to-man look. “Maybe you are married and are saying to yourself, why would she care, but when you’ve been married as long as I have, you’ll understand at this time of the night… ” I glanced at my wristwatch and couldn’t see anything,  “… morning, under these circumstances there are some discussions you don’t want to have with your just-woke-up wife.”

We sat there looking at each other. By now my eyes had adjusted to the greenish glow from the dashboard. It cast a ghostly, blurry illumination that looked like what they show in the movies when someone puts on a pair of night vision goggles. He was a lean man, with a hook nose, his ethnicity was unclear in the wash of green, his eyes were dark and suspicious. We stared at each other for several hours. (Several minutes.)

He pushed a button and I heard my door unlock. “Just a second,” he said. He reached up and flipped a switch on his interior light and gave me a condescending smile. When I opened the door the light did not come on. I waved my hand in thanks and turned to the house.

The walk from the patrol car to the front door was at least three or four miles (thirty yards) and I held my breath the entire way. I walked carefully, but not too carefully, I was drunk, remember? I got my key out, opened the door and went inside. Looking back out I could see him, bathed in the ethereal green light. He was writing in his little book. He looked up in my direction, and I felt like he could see me, easily, even though I was in complete darkness, I could feel him look deep inside me, I could hear his words, in my head, in a voice that made my skin crawl, deep down where the little girl wept, the words, knifing into me: “You’re a goddamned liar, Mr. Appel, A goddamned liar. I will CATCH YOU! AND THERE WILL BE HELL TO PAY!”

Eventually, he drove away.

This was not part of the plan.

 

 

 

Thirty-seven

I have a plan. Last night after Sherry was asleep I dressed and drove down to the bar near the Margaret Lane Cemetery where I’m going to park when I go to bury Ada’s bones. I pulled the car into the large lot and sat for a while. The bar was doing a good business and there were ten other cars lined up near me. I rolled down the window; there must have been a live band as I could hear music floating along on the night air. I was there for an hour; during that time I saw cop cars drive by three times, though probably it was the same car. One of those times after they passed it looked like they drove up the street past the cemetery. Then I fell asleep. The bar closed down around 1:30 and the patrons wandered out and into their cars and drove away. The sounds of the cars and people talking woke me up. I left along with the others, drove home, and sneaked inside and went back to bed.

So, a cop drove-by, three times. Maybe more when I was asleep. Obviously they keep a pretty close eye on this particular bar, or maybe it’s just the neighborhood, which is a mix of nice houses, (a graveyard), and some project involving the rehabilitation of an old mill.

The plan is to dig the hole for the bones first, before I go under the house to acquire them. This shortens my time in the graveyard, and the first time I’m there if I’m caught I won’t have any bones with me. I assume that the crime would be judged worse if I am in possession of human remains, so I’ll leave them at home.

Tucked into the middle of the graveyard down at one end there’s a narrow, brambly copse of brush and small trees that I scouted the first time I was there. It’s the sort of natural shelter I liked to hide in when I was a kid. You can’t really see into it unless you’re very close, and at night it would be impossible unless you knew exactly where to look. I shouldn’t be digging in there that long, the ground is still damp from Hurricane Florence, and my new shovel is very sharp.

And when will all this commence, you may ask? Soon. Sherry leaves tomorrow on a trip to Washington to go to a ball game and see Leah for a few days. Then she’s headed to Ohio to see her sister Barbara and Barbara’s husband Don who is ill. The date of her return is uncertain; I’m thinking a week or maybe even weeks. I hope to be done with all of this by then.

When I was sitting in the car last night, before I fell asleep, I could still hear, faintly, over the music from the bar band, Ada weeping. I don’t think this was truly auditory, I think that it has now become a part of me, coursing along through my bloodstream, singing in my ears, the way you can sometimes hear the whoosh of silence, sometimes hear your own heartbeat. I can’t go on like this.

Enough with the drama.

OK, I’ve just spent the afternoon reading websites about possessing human bones, digging in graveyards and the penalties thereof. I’ll keep it short, and if you’ve decided you want a nice human skull to place on your desk for luck while you write your best-selling crime novel you can do your own research.

In general, it looks like just digging a hole in a cemetery with no intent to disinter bones buried there would be a pretty minor misdemeanor.  You’d have to have a good reason for doing so, but the most they might get you for would probably be trespassing. And maybe not even that. So the first part of my tri-part plan — digging the hole — seems fairly risk free.

Now to the part about actually possessing human bones. It turns out, that unless the bones are of Native American ancestry, it’s not illegal. If you would like to own some bones, maybe the skull of a young child, you can peruse the shop listed here. Skull prices vary, expect to pay anywhere between $1,600.00 https://www.boneroom.com/store/c1/Featured_Products.html to $8,575.00 for a really beautifully carved specimen. https://realhumanskull.com/t/real-human-skull fancy skull

(If these urls don’t connect correctly on your computer, simply use a search term like, “human bones for sale” and you’ll find your way to the proper sites.

If I try to bury the bones in a graveyard and I get caught, it’s unclear what would happen, legally. As near as I can tell from reading the proper statutes — https://cemeterycensus.com/law/nc-law.htm— it might also be a misdemeanor, but it’s fairly clear that you would have some pretty serious explaining to do. They could probably get you for trespassing or property destruction but since you wouldn’t be technically grave robbing, you could probably keep yourself out of jail with a decent lawyer. Of course your case, because it’s so odd, would undoubtedly make the pages of the local newspaper after which you would become a weirdo, shunned and ridiculed everywhere you go. You would probably then be known as “the grave guy” and your wife would be “the grave guy’s wife.” No one wants to be the grave guy.

The upshot being, don’t think I am undertaking (inadvertent play on words) any of this lightly. I’m hoping I can get under my house without the house falling on me, find the bones, and place them into the Margaret Lane cemetery, into a proper burial without my existence ever being hinted at. Why? Why? See my comments above, the constant undertone of weeping is driving me crazy and somehow, for some inexplicable reason, it just seems to be the right thing to do. Sorry, I don’t mean to shout.

To tell the truth, before reading the above sites about buying bones, it had not occurred to me there might be an actual skull. All along I have envisioned a pile of smallish bones,bones the biggest being a femur or other leg bone, nothing grotesque, nice and clean like you see in a museum. After spending the afternoon looking through the various found-bones websites, I see now that is a vain hope. The best I can expect is that Rafe has done a good job digging things up under my house, and I will be spared any horrors. So, over several days, I will don my suit, my strap-on head-set light, climb under the house and collect whatever bones Rafe has already dug up, dig around in any obvious site and collect more bones if there are more bones, crawl out and ready myself to go to the Margaret Lane Cemetery, go, bury the bones in the previously-dug hole, sneak home, go to bed, find myself free of the incessant ongoing moaning, weeping from the little girl I’ve grown to know, and not to love, who will just not leave me alone.

That’s the plan.

 

 

 

 

Thirty – six

Dickel Barrel Select

I forgot to look and see what the food special was.

Do spirits get wet? Did it flood under my house? Evidently not, is the answer to both questions. This week past was the week of Florence, the massive storm that crept through North Carolina and Hillsborough dumping many inches of water. I checked the crawl space and found it, amazingly, pretty dry. In fact, I am seeing the last of Florence’s rain as it continues, off and on, all this afternoon. Right now.

I did, though, venture out several times.

Other than one afternoon when the power was out, the Penny was open most of the time, I drove down and dashed in to have a drink, a good one because I was sick of drinking the crap that I still had left on my list of 69. I had a George Dickel Select, of which I had some personal experience during my trip a few months ago when Sherry and I visited their distillery in Tennessee. One of the whiskeys they gave us after the tour was the Barrel Select, which is a newish addition to their line. Readers of this blog might remember that Dickel 12 is my house whiskey, so I was looking forward, first at the distillery, and now at the Penny, for a taste. We learned at the distillery that this whiskey was actually a mistake. They hold the barrels for aging in several different buildings. Every several years it’s someone’s job to go move the barrels around so that those that were in front are now in back and vice versa, but one year they forgot to do it in one area so they ended up with ten barrels that were aged longer than they were supposed to be. So they called it Select and charged more money for it. It’s a good whiskey, but I still prefer the Number 12 that I usually drink. The Number 12 is a bit rougher and at 90 it’s higher proof than the select, which is 80. As a footnote, I recently learned that the number 12 on the bottle no longer means the whiskey was aged for 12 years, as it used to mean. I don’t care, I still like it best.

Transgressions. I’ve been thinking about the meaning of this word as I plan my bone-burying foray at the Margaret Lane cemetery.  I don’t really think of this as an actual crime, though I imagine there are some sorts of statutes about it. I have never been much of a criminal. My old pal Allan Bridge, now deceased, may he rest in peace, enjoyed various criminal acts: shoplifting, blowing stuff up, shooting out shop windows, nothing really heavy, but I found it difficult to go along with these shenanigans. So I tried out a late-night stroll around the block just to see what I was in for.

There are many small things that can turn a perfectly reasonable action into a transgression. The time of day can make all the difference. I can go for a stroll around the neighborhood at 2:00 in the afternoon and no one will even look at me. But if you do it at 2:00 in the morning, if a cop sees you he’s going to stop and ask what you are doing walking the streets at that hour. And you’d better have a reason besides rehearsing your moves for when you’re off to dig a hole in the graveyard to bury some old bones. So last Wednesday night when the hurricane paused and there was no rain, I waited till Sherry was asleep and then when out and walked around for a while.

Everything was dripping wet and it was very quiet. It’s not really that dark because there are streetlights and plenty of people have outdoors lights that they leave on all night. A couple of cars passed me, which scared the shit out of me as I thought any of them could have been cops patrolling. But none were, and after about a half an hour I was back in the house and glad to be there. I’m going to drive down to the area where the parking lot is where I’ll park the car when I make my run on the cemetery. I’ll get out and walk around if it looks safe. Safe meaning I’m not going to get caught doing my recon, or doing the actual deed.

I have a new piece of gear for my upcoming adventure. head lightThis is a light on a headband so you can keep your hands free for digging or fending off ghosts. I’ll wear it when I head under the house to dig up bones. It has a setting that is just red lights, which seems like it might be less obtrusive than the very bright light setting. I will wear this with my white suite with the hood. And speaking of which…

No, I’m not going to post pictures of me in my white suit, so you can quit sending me emails telling me that I must post some pictures. If I don’t already look stupid enough in the hoody suit, I’m going to add on the headband light and I will then look like an animated potato about to descend into a coal mine.

When my kids were little, hell, they actually still do this, when we would go on vacation and visit stores that sell tourist gear they find it great fun to have dad try on hats. It is well known in my family that I have no, what my pal Allan Janus calls, “hat sense.” Meaning I look really stupid in hats. Any hat. So we’d be standing in a store and the kids would goad me into trying on one hat after another while everyone — Sherry, the kids, the shop owners, gawking tourists, babies in strollers –would howl with laughter at how stupid I looked. I took it like a good sport, but if anyone ever thought I looked dumb in just a hat, you should see me in the potato suit. With the headband. So, no, just no. This is serious business. I’m about to put myself in harm’s way, and all you folks can think about is how funny I look.

Notice something else in the picture. Behind the head light is the bottle of ancient, what? Whiskey? Over time it is getting lighter. It started out the color of weak coffee and now it’s just barely tinted. I wonder if it’s turning into whatever Rafe drinks at the Penny, the frosty cold drink in a shot glass, as clear as an angel’s tear. But I’m not ready to open it. Some day I may need it, but not yet.

 

 

 

 

Thirty-five

Becherovka

 Ham and Cheese with Deli Ham, Deli Pickles, Peppercorn Mayo, Lettuce, Swiss and Cheddar on Toasted Marble Rye.

I ducked into the Penny to have another disgusting drink. I’m nearing the end of my quest and most of the drinks that are left are the ones I didn’t want to consume, but a deal is a deal. I knew I was in trouble when I ordered the drink and my server said, “Oh, you mean the Christmas Tree drink.” It’s heavy on the ginger and cinnamon, so I get the Christmas reference, but I would rather eat a branchful of pine needles than ever order this drink again.

On to this week’s entry…

The Margaret Lane cemetery is located, obviously, on Margaret Lane. I can walk to it from my house, but I’ve always driven as I’m casing the grounds for when I make my move. I have decided, as all of you have gathered by now, that I’m going under the house to retrieve the bones that I believe Rafe has already dug up, dig up more if I can figure out where they are, and then I’m going to rebury them in the Margaret Lane cemetery. Hopefully this will bring peace to the unhappy spirit living beneath my house, she’ll stop weeping and I’ll be left to my own peace.

Trustees for the Margaret Lane Cemetery were appointed by the city in 1854, but like the Old Town cemetery it is supposed to have existed from before that date as a burial ground for slaves owned by landowners in the surrounding area. Like many slave cemeteries, it has a history rich with mistreatment by the white citizens of old and present Hillsborough. As always, I am boggled by the perfidy, thoughtlessness, and criminal acts of these people.

The cemetery was filled to capacity by 1931. A local historian, Mary Claire Engstrom wrote in a small self-published book in 1973 that at one time the cemetery was enclosed by a low brick wall on the west and north sides. It is unclear how the pigs and cows were kept out in the early days, probably no one cared. There are now no obvious indications of any graves except a single small wrought-iron fence and gate in the southwest corner. Only six identifiable gravestones remain in the cemetery. Three are preserved in a brick memorial on the site, two are in the wrought-iron enclosure and an obelisk marks the grave of one George Hill, who died in 1900.

And where are the rest of the gravestones, you may ask? Those of you who have been keeping up with the blog know that the slave graves were not usually prepared or attended to in the way white graves were. Often the markers were made of wood, or if stone was used they weren’t usually inscribed. The various shells, urns, lamps, and bowls and other ephemera used to indicate the graves have long been plundered or lie hidden under the dirt and vegetation on the two acres of the yard.

I always park my car about a block from the site in a large gravel parking lot that faces a row of businesses: a couple of excellent bars, a pet food store, an ice cream shop, and the Hillsborough BBQ restaurant that has some of the best BBQ in the area, if not the entire state. It’s a huge parking lot and there are often plenty of cars in it, even late at night, a fact I’m counting on when I undertake my grave digging. There are also many earth moving-type machines scattered around as this area of town is undergoing a major revitalization.

The cemetery is like a park and you can often find folks walking their dogs there, but it’s really a very quiet spot. After some infighting about who owned the property, the two lots were turned over to a citizens committee to take care of; the cemetery was rededicated in 1987. It was a mess before they restored the grounds.

Over the years (before 1987) the citizens of my fair town showed their indifference to history or at least any history that didn’t feature the noble confederacy and their gallant war with the North. This was a slave cemetery, a black cemetery, and the great majority didn’t give a damn about it. It was overgrown with tall weeds and scrub brush; the gravestones had all been stolen to make walkways and as underpinnings to houses. (I wonder about my house and half expect to someday come across a gravestone jammed under a pillar.) But in 1987 those that did care cleaned up the property and rededicated it. This is what it looks like now.Mln cem 1

Besides the six gravestones there now, there was another that had been found and was at the rededication. It was leaning against the dedication stone and had the name of the slave, Dinah Thompson, crudely carved into the stone. Several days after the dedication it was destroyed by vandals.

It always surprises me to find that physical changes to the landscape, the earth, the ground, usually remain changed, unless someone comes along and completely reworks the land. In this case, the sites of the hundreds of years old graves are sunken, making the landscape a series of rolling hummocks. When you walk across it, you have to be careful not to trip over the unevenness. It is said that after a light snow the grave impressions can be easily seen.

In 2006 the firm Of Grave Concern did a study of the sunken areas, the general surface conditions, and controlled probing. They identified 142 graves and thought there might be another 32 that they weren’t sure of. Each authenticated grave is marked by two small marble markers at ground level at the head and the foot of the grave.  These are difficult to see, which is just as well as if they were more obvious someone would probably steal them.

If the small park is lonely even on the nicest days, it is far lonelier in the middle of the night. I’ve made several reconnaissance trips there around 1:00 to 2:00 AM. At 1:00 AM, there are still cars in the big parking lot, but by 2:00 anyone walking around is going to be suspicious. But it’s dark and the folks that live around the perimeter of the cemetery seem to go to bed well before then. There are few outside lights that remain on, so a guy dressed in black skulking through the deep shadows with a rucksack that contains some old bones and a fold-up shovel would have a pretty good chance of pulling off a minor interment. I wonder what the law is anyway? I don’t know who actually owns the cemetery now; I don’t know what the law is about burying old bones. I have a feeling that a decent lawyer could get an old duffer like me off by declaring that I’m sort of crazy anyway, it was all just a prank, or maybe research for a novel. Or a blog.

Anyway, I’m going to break it up into three forays: one, go the graveyard in the middle of the night and dig up a spot and see if anyone notices or calls the cops; two, head under the house and get what bones are there and/or dig some more up; three, rebury the bones in the cemetery.

Wish me luck.

tombstones and fence

Thirty-four

Wild Turkey AM Honey

3 Bean Local Beef Chili, Fries

I ducked into the Penny while I was in town paying my water bill. I had a quick shot of Wild Turkey Honey and found it, as you might imagine, disgustingly sweet. I used to drink WT as my house bourbon before I switched to Dickel. I haven’t had the regular version (either the 80 or 101 proof) in years, but I imagine it’s still pretty good. Hunter Thompson was a famous drinker of Wild Turkey and mentions it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I once was at a small lecture in Montana where Thompson was scheduled to speak. About thirty of us sat in a small, overheated classroom at the University and waited on him for an hour after he was supposed to start. He finally wandered in, smacked down a bottle of Wild Turkey on the teacher’s desk, sat down and said something on the order of how he didn’t understand why anyone would come to hear him speak and in particular why anyone would wait an hour to hear him speak. I wondered that myself, stood up and walked out.

This entry is a bit rambling. I find it harder to concentrate these days. I don’t sleep much as Ada’s weeping reaches me wherever I am in the house, even upstairs in bed. It feels now like it comes directly into my brain. I don’t “hear” it; it’s just there. If you don’t know who Ada is you need to go way back to the front of this blog and start there. And the band that I sometimes hear at night, it seems like it’s always there in the background as well. I see Sherry giving me odd looks, like she knows something’s going on, but she hasn’t figured out enough of it to ask the right questions. She doesn’t hear Ada or the band. She’s going away soon on a trip to Washington soon; that’s when I have to act. This can’t go on. Rafe’s not here, so I’m going to do it myself.

Since I decided on my current plan, I thought I would probably end up in the slave cemetery fairly near my house, the Margaret Lane cemetery. The Old Town Cemetery, described two entries ago, was for rich people, certainly for white people only; I know my Ada, the annoying, frightening, sometimes diabolical spirit that lives beneath my house would not be happy there. And the New Town Cemetery, described in the last entry, even though parts of it date from the 1870’s is, well, to my eyes, too new. And so we move on to the Margaret Lane Cemetery. Here’s an old slave song that I find haunting.

I wonder where my mudder gone;

Sing, O graveyard!

Graveyard ought to know me;

Ring, Jerusalem!

Grass grow in de Graveyard;

Sing, O Graveyard!

By the mid 1700s there were laws stating that slave owners had to have some sort of graveyard where deceased slaves could be buried. Usually this was a piece of unwanted land. These slave graveyards were kept up by the slaves themselves, in what little “free” time their masters allowed, though none of them was ever as elaborate as the white graveyards. Slave cemeteries were not particularly orderly, and it wasn’t important to keep family members in plots that were separated from others. Markers, when there were any, were often painted on boards or were simply indicated by offerings left on the surface of the graves.

From an article I found…

“Probably the most commonly known African-American grave marking practice was the use of “offerings” on top of the grave. One of the most detailed discussions of this practice is provided by John Michael Vlach, in The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. He notes that the objects found on graves included not only pottery, but also “cups, saucers, bowls, clocks, salt and pepper shakers, medicine bottles, spoons, pitchers, oyster shells, conch shells, white pebbles, toys, dolls’ heads, bric-a-brac statues, light bulbs, tureens, flashlights, soap dishes, false teeth, syrup jugs, spectacles, cigar boxes, piggy banks, gun locks, razors, knives, tomato cans, flower pots, marbles, bits of plaster, [and] toilet tanks.”

As noted above, families were not necessarily buried together like they were in white cemeteries…

“Although generations of related kin would be buried at the same graveyard, the tie was to the location, not to a particular 3 by 6 foot piece of ground. The Bennett Papers, in the South Carolina Historical Society, reveal several stories of African-Americans wanting to be buried in very specific graveyards, although specific plots are never of concern. In one case a black was reported to have specifically warned his friends, “don’t bury me in strange ground; I won’t stay buried if you do. Bury me where I say.”A somewhat similar account is provided in an article from the Journal of American Folklore. An article recounts the legend of a slave who begged not to be buried in the graveyard of his mean-spirited master. When his dying request was ignored, he found retribution by haunting the plantation.

I have supplied the above italics.

All of this is reflected in what Rafe told me some months ago when explaining Ada, my under-the-house spirit. That she was not given a proper burial when she suffered her unknown, unfair, untimely death, that somehow she ended up under my house and that he, Rafe, was digging up her bones and would, I assumed, bury her somewhere permanent and respectful. Well, where the hell has Rafe gone?

Here’s more of my research…

“Cynthia Conner, an archaeologist who studied South Carolina low country plantation cemeteries, remarked that the very ideology of black and white graveyards is fundamentally different. In white cemeteries, the idealization of death is paramount. The romanticization of the landscape is intended to create heaven on earth in the cemetery grounds and deny the blunt reality of death. This is initially accomplished through placement [of the white cemetery] in a favorable location. The setting is further enhanced through the simultaneous control of unrestrained natural growth and the use of a few select trees such as live oaks to create a park-like atmosphere.  The black cemetery, on the other hand, is not directed toward a park-like environment, or, I believe, the denial of death.

African-American cemeteries have grave depressions and mounded graves. There is no attempt to make grass grow over the graves or create special vegetation. Trees, typically, are neither encouraged nor discouraged. Cemeteries, as previously mentioned, appear “neglected” or even “abandoned” in contrast to the neat, tidy rows of a white cemetery.”

So I went to the remains of the slave cemetery near my house. I will report on this next week. Meanwhile, my latest Amazon purchase:

NACATIN Portable Folding Shovels, Tactical Military Collapsible Camping Shovel with Nylon Carrying Pouch and High Carbon Steel Handle

  • LIGHTWEIGH AND FOLDABLE: The tri-fold shovel weighs only 1.33 pound which is ultra light for you to carry. (Easy to hide in a backpack.)
  • MULTIFUNCTIONAL TOOL: It can works as shovel, pickaxe, saw, hoe, etc. Our folding shovel is a helper for your car, garden and outdoor activities. (I have a different outdoor activity in mind for the shovel.)
  • HIGH QUALITY AND COMFORTABLE: The camping shovel is sturdy and labor-saving with triangle handle, high strength carbon steel sharp blade and non-slip grip. The triangular handle is strong and fits comfortably in either hand.
  • EASY STORAGE: It comes with a nylon carrying case. (Like I said, easy to stash in my backpack so it doesn’t look suspicious.)
  • WIDELY USED: Designed for exploring, camping, traveling, hiking, gardens. It is also great for keeping in your vehicle in case of getting stuck in snow/mud. (Also, great for digging graves in the middle of the night.)