Because the gravedigger agreed when Jack asked to ride with him, Jack is in his truck waiting for a mid-winter funeral to finish. “I keep my distance,” the gravedigger says. He shifts his body to expose more of his window, leans back as if he expects Jack, a student at the nearby university, to calculate the yards between them and the gathering by the grave. To show respect, Jack is wearing a topcoat instead of a hooded sweatshirt. It nearly covers his jeans.
The funeral is in blue and white, the team colors of the same university where Jack is a senior. There are enlarged photographs of football teams, all of them too distant for faces, names or years. At the end of the just-completed season, the university’s team had suffered a devastating bowl game loss. Jack’s father had watched the game on television. Twice, during the game, he’d called to tell Jack the score. “It’s a close one,” he’d said both times, leaving that message on Jack’s voice mail.
The windows fog the funeral away, and the gravedigger does not rub his side window or any part of the windshield clear. He says, “You never want to park too close, so you learn how far away is necessary to be discrete.” He taps the dashboard. “And for damn sure,” he adds, “never play the radio.”
When Jack asks about the difficulty of his work in winter, the gravedigger falls into storytelling. He says there are times he has shoveled by hand for infants and the cremated, holes too small for the oversized spade of machinery. For those, weather is important; the earth, if frozen, is a bitch. The funeral, by now, is invisible. When the gravedigger goes quiet, Jack looks straight ahead, breathes a small cloud, and remembers.
Below zero, it was, the day his mother was buried, backhoe visible on a nearby rise, mound of earth covered by something designed to look like summer sod. The minister labored at turning January into meaning, snow and zero entwined until everyone at the gravesite chorused the chilled amen of erasure. His father had stood by himself at a distance. Like a visitor. By the time Jack and his mother’s sister had thanked the minister for being willing to hold part of the brief service outside despite the cold, his father was gone.
Out loud, but nearly whispering, Jack tells the gravedigger he has watched, recently, as an urn was laid into a grave behind a local church. The girl was a suicide. The mother a neighbor, the father in another state. Their one surviving daughter, the same age as Jack, shoveled soil while the minister recited a prayer everyone could follow by reading a printed program. When he reached the bottom of the page, Jack felt like shrieking. The minister invited everyone to a covered-dish lunch. Jack sat with a small plate of untouched food as if an uneaten sandwich could stand in for a phrase of sympathy.
The gravedigger nods and wipes his side window clear. The small crowd has begun their retreat to roadside cars. A woman is carrying the oversized photographs. Two men have easels in their arms. “A child must be the most difficult,” Jack tries, and the gravedigger says that he’s opened and closed the earth for his father, that now his mother has entered hospice. Jack muffles the remainder of his experiences until they are smothered.
“Whatever you can bear,” the gravedigger says, and he opens his door, the weather rushing inside the truck, reminding Jack to follow.
GARY FINCKE — Gary is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction. His books have won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction, The Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Nonfiction Prose, and what is now the Wheeler Prize for Poetry. His collection of flash stories The Corridors of Longing (the title story was reprinted in Best Small Fictions 2020) was published by Pelekiesis Press in 2022.
Art by MELISSA SAGGERER — Melissa is an artist and writer living in New Hampshire. She has work in JMWW, Cutbow Quarterly, Rejection Letters, HAD, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. Her prose has been nominated for Best Microfiction and a Pushcart. Her pieces are collected at melissasaggerer.wordpress.com and you can follow her on twitter @MelissaSaggerer.