Buddy of mine set me up with three or four days of work doing security at the Havelock Jamboree. Under the table pay. Fifty thousand people camping and drinking in a field, listening to country music. I stood near a fence and nodded at concertgoers as they walked by flashing their wristbands. By the time it got dark that first night, though, I was feeling pretty useless, so I started to get drunk. Cub came by and we started getting drunk together, standing by that fence.
Cub said, “Rupert, do you even like Trace Adkins?” Cub wouldn’t have known what to say if I’d asked him what he was doing there, so I didn’t. I said, “Call Frank. Let’s go see Steven.”
We’ve all got sadness like a rot in the timbers, but Steven’s the only one who ever did anything about it. So now, every once in a while, we take a couple of bottles and go visit him where he lies beneath an elm tree in the Marmora Common Cemetery.
Cub texted Frank and Frank said he was in. Cub and I filled our pockets with cans and found his car. I said, “Can you drive?” and Cub said, “I can drive.” I said, “What are you drinking?” He had a can of that stuff that tastes like melted popsicles.
“It says,” he said, studying the can as we passed beneath a floodlight, “sophisticated vodka cooler.”
“Pretty sure anything actually sophisticated doesn’t need to have ‘sophisticated’ written on it,” I said.
“Look, though,” he said, tapping the can. “Palm trees.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “That establishes it.”
I don’t know how late it was. I was kind of bombed. But the night felt a lot like the time we were far enough gone that we’d got it in our heads to dig Steven up. That night, time felt wispy—a thing rolled out in front of us, a thing that got longer and longer as we scraped and dug, but also thinner, like it could just disappear.
I hoped we wouldn’t try that again—digging him up. Frank had used his pocketknife to cut the sod and somewhere approaching dawn they found me on my knees hacking away at the dirt with Cub’s mom’s gardening trowel. I think we got down a foot, maybe eighteen inches. Being caught might not have been so embarrassing if we’d actually managed to dig a decent hole.
Frank was already there. The easiest thing to do was to park at the Foodland right next to the cemetery and climb up the hill. Frank’s Civic was parked there under the light, and he was leaning against the driver’s side door, smoking a cigarette. Frank has a moustache like a janitor and prescription glasses shaped like aviators, with heavy lenses tinted brown.
The air was thick and fragrant as honey. Frank said, “I feel like a bag of glass.”
Cub said, “You look like a bag of shit.”
Once life opens up a bit, once things settle down some, you start to think maybe the sadness is something you can get out ahead of. But that never happens, and eventually the sadness gathers you in and you become a part of it, and it of you, so that there’s no separating the two. Steven knew that.
He and I worked two years side by side installing roofs. I mostly enjoyed it, felt like being up there and looking down on things gave me some perspective. It made the big, scary things seem smaller, like I could get above, and maybe beyond them. Steven felt differently.
We crested the little hill and walked among the rows of stones. The grass gave off a wet coolness, and the stones seemed to radiate cold air into the warm night. We moved toward the big elm. In the slight wind it gave off a hissing like tires on a wet road.
We found Steven’s plot and just sort of stood around him. We kept away and to the sides, like he was lying on top of the grass and we didn’t want to step on him. Cub saluted, then walked around the other side of the elm to take a piss. Frank smoked.
“Sometimes I’m angry with him,” I said. “Sometimes, you know, the thing’s he’d say.”
Cub called, “I hear you.” It’s healthy, we believe, to say the things you feel, even to the dead. We tell Steven, or say in his presence, exactly what we feel.
“He could run his mouth, yes,” Frank said, “but the whole Toronto thing? You did that to yourself. Don’t pin that on Steven.”
“There was no job,” I said. “I got there and I said, ‘I’m here for the job’ and they looked at me like I was a fucking idiot. I moved everything I owned.”
“You threw a chair at the HR guy,” Frank said. “Steven didn’t make you throw that chair.”
“I was upset,” I said. “I was upset with you, Steven.”
Cub tossed his cooler can away. It landed a couple of rows over and skipped off a headstone.
“You should pick that up,” Frank told him. “It’s disrespectful.”
“I’ll get it on my way out,” Cub said, pulling a new can out of the pocket of his hoodie. Frank and I shuffled a bit, looking over at the can where it landed.
Things half done, things done poorly, the things we fail to maintain. That’s where you see it. There are no ways around it. My grass is never cut. My car leaks oil. All the girls not kissed. All those TV series I never stuck it out to see the end of.
We stood around not saying anything for a time. The wind knocked things together and cars whipped past on Highway 7. The light from the Foodland parking lot lit up the western end of the cemetery like a movie set.
“I still can’t get my head around that he’s down there,” I said. “I mean, him. Steven.”
“Only not him,” Cub said.
“You know what we should do, don’t you?” Frank said. “We should do it again. Finish it this time.” He was sitting on a stone nearby with his arms folded over his chest, holding his smoke in front of his face with two fingers.
“Do it again?” I said.
“Yeah. Get him out this time, let him breathe a bit.”
Cub said, “Hell, yes.”
I said, “I feel like that’s a bad thing to do. I don’t know. Like if we’re caught there’s probably already a note on our record about the last time and they’ll see that and so we’ll be kind of fucked.”
“There’s no note,” Frank said.
“Maybe there’s a note,” said Cub, “but I don’t care. Fuck the note.”
“Fuck the note,” said Frank. “But there’s no note.”
“No note?” I said. Cub was already toeing the grass near Steven’s marker. Frank’s arms were still folded across his chest, something in the set of his mouth looking like a challenge.
So we started to dig him up again.
This time, though, we had a decent shovel. Frank’s an electrician and always has a trunk full of tools. I don’t think he generally carries a spade, but this night he had one. He went down to his car, out front of the grocery store, and came back with it. He put the point of the blade into the turf and stepped up on the curled rim. The word “premeditation” bounced around inside my skull. So did “decomposition.”
There was a field behind me, and country music, a kind of bullshit good time hokum, people dancing in stupid hats, people sitting in lawn chairs keeping time on their knees, people having sex behind Porta Potties. I could hear it all, though of course I couldn’t really hear any of it. It was fifteen minutes down 7, or a hundred miles away, or a thousand. But it was there, in my ears, as Frank’s spade cut the sod and Cub stood holding his can of vodka cooler. How do people have fun, I wondered.
I stood dumb while Frank began the work and soon there was a small hole about three feet from the base of Steven’s stone. This is my opportunity to stop this, I told myself, if that’s what I really want to do.
But I didn’t do anything. I was silent. And while I said nothing I thought about how for nearly ten years I hadn’t done anything because doing something felt like opening myself up to more sadness.
The hole was getting bigger, and I realized this was what I wanted. For that hole to get bigger and bigger.
Frank worked like a machine for the duration of the first shift, breaking into a sweat as he found a rhythm that actually lulled me. I don’t know how long he was at it. It might have been fifteen minutes and it might have been an hour, but I know that at the end of it Cub bounced up and grabbed the shovel and dove right in, though it was obvious from his first stroke that he hadn’t anticipated just how labourious a thing it was. He was a fair bit slower than Frank.
Eventually it was my turn. The earth smelled so rich, so earthy, so full of nutrients and life. It made a lovely sound against the blade as the shovel bit in and I pulled hard and lifted such weight that the wood of the shovel’s handle buckled. I hoisted it above and to my right, feeling my shoulders burn and my right elbow twinge as though it might give way. My palms were red and pregnant with blisters.
Steven was down there, and by this time I had in my head notions that we’d be freeing him from something unpleasant, some bothersome life he’d be pleased to escape for a short time. We were doing him a favour.
“We’ll take him to the Jamboree,” I said between breaths, leaning on the shovel.
“Ha! Just, like, prop him up in the back seat with a wristband on, then get him out and walk him around,” Cub said. “That’d be so real. So, so real.”
“Steven wasn’t a real big Wynonna Judd fan,” said Frank. “I don’t think he’d be so hot on that idea.”
“Just to be out,” I said, “to see people. To feel things.”
“Well,” said Cub, “we’ll just get him out, let him breathe. See what we feel like doing then.”
Sweat poured from me. Cub disappeared a moment. I heard his car door open and shut, and he came back with more coolers tucked into his pockets. He handed me one and I took it gratefully. Cherry-pear-melon, or something. Cracked open, it smelled like summer. I drained it, then placed the can on the lip of the hole, which was now a good four feet deep. I gripped the shovel again and drove it into the dirt.
Damp, fuzzy light from the parking lot lamps filtered through the trees and fell on us, fell on the gravestones, the grass. In that light we were beautiful and tragic, all three of us. Sweat dripped from us like baptism water. Cub looked like a baby. A man shaped like a baby. Frank looked like a sage. Quiet and wise. I felt pure. Oh, hell, I’ll say it: I felt like a saint.
I’ve always felt that labour had a way of washing me clean, scraping me down, making me somehow more whole. Like I could sweat out the bad with the poisons. This—digging up Steven’s body—fit with that.
The only dead body I’d ever seen in the wild, which is to say not in a funeral home or church, belonged to a freshly killed boy from our high school who’d bolted out onto the road, right out front of the school, and been clipped by a Dodge Ram and then lay there on the pavement while the life drained from him. A dozen of us watched this happen from the sidewalk, the Smoking Section, we called it. A girl named Lindsay buried her face in my chest while I watched the boy—his name was Chris, he was in grade nine—lay there and die. That was a strange moment for me, because while I didn’t want to see Chris or anybody else get killed, I was very glad that Lindsay Matthews was touching me. A couple of people went over to Chris, and a teacher came out, then the principal. Traffic stopped. An ambulance came. But he was dead. I’d seen his face, turned toward us, slacken and go blank. The skin hung loose, his mouth wide open. But he was still obviously a person, because everything was in the right place: eyes, nose, hair, ears. A person, but suddenly without life.
I knew Steven wouldn’t look like that. I knew there’d be a lot less of him, and that what was left wouldn’t look like Steven. But whatever was left, I wanted to know.
The closer we got the more it began to feel like a ceremony we were performing, a ritual. A happy thing, I almost want to say. I climbed out of the hole and handed Frank the shovel and I said, “When we get closer we should call Nancy. She’ll want to see him.”
Nancy is Steven’s mother. She used to be the receptionist at the high school. It was her voice you’d hear doing the announcements. Four-foot-ten. She’d let us smoke cigarettes in Steven’s room. Now she watches fourteen hours of television and calls it a day.
“Nancy would want to know,” agreed Frank, “but she wouldn’t want to see him like he is. We’ll call her tomorrow.”
“What about Sarah?” said Cub, and my brain began fogging up. Sarah is Steven’s sister, younger by two years, and so devastatingly beautiful to me that the thought of her still caves my chest in. We dated for a year and a half before Steven put an extension cord around his neck. Our love did not survive that. A few months later she moved to Toronto, and what she did there, I still don’t know.
“You still talk to Sarah?” I asked Cub.
“Sometimes,” he said.
Frank said, “Maybe Sarah.” Then he took the shovel and slid down into the hole. I held my hand out toward Cub and he tossed me another vodka cooler. The shovel bit into the earth, the sugary, liquory syrup sloshed down my throat, I stared up at the elm tree, at the place where it met the dark, and I thought of Sarah.
She was 20 and I was 22 and how do you know then what you want? You don’t know anything. I knew only that my favourite things in the world were the skin on the side of Sarah’s neck, and drinking beer at quitting time on a Friday afternoon with Steven.
As Frank dug again I eased myself down into the damp grass and leaned back against the stone of a man named Albert Crowe. Cub was holding a can in one hand and playing with his phone in the other.
“Don’t call Sarah,” I said to him.
“Okay,” he said, and grinned.
“I won’t call her. But I already texted her.”
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” I said.
Shortly before Steven did what he did, Sarah and I were in Norwood for the fall fair. It was early September and summer was ending. The night had that sweet, fine edge to it, where I knew it could just tip over and spill out at any moment. My hair was just cut, so I could feel the night air on my neck. She was wearing her hair down, tight jeans and a jean jacket. She still had sunglasses sitting on her head. Sandaled feet, toenails freshly painted a deep, shining red. We’d spent an hour or two in my car, talking, listening to the radio, kissing. Finally, somewhere near ten o’clock, we got out of the car and walked over to the front gate of the fair. There was a security guard there. I said, “How much do we owe you for admission?” He said, “Sorry, we’re closing up, I can’t let you in.”
He was seventeen, maybe eighteen. I could see this was his first job. He was short and solidly built, probably played hockey or football, maybe both. His white short-sleeved shirt was tucked into his trim black cargo pants. The patches on his chest and shoulder read SECURITY. I said, “Come on, I’ll give you ten bucks, just let us walk around a bit.”
He smiled shyly and said, “Sorry, sir, I can’t let you in.” The walkie-talkie on his belt crackled.
I balled my fists, tied the muscles of my forearms into knots. Sarah put her hand on my shoulder. The lights of the fair—the Ferris wheel, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Gravitron, the Pirate Ship—all shone up into the hazy night air, making a cup shining over our heads. There were still racing tractors over by the grandstand. We could hear them, and we could faintly smell the exhaust, mixing with the scent of popcorn and cigarette smoke, the grass beneath our feet, and the damp, cooling night air. The lightest mist had begun to fall.
“Come on, man,” I said, like it was the best entreaty I could offer. “Just let us in.”
“Sorry, sir.” Sarah’s hand was in mine, though she didn’t usually like to hold hands, and I could feel her whole body tensing up. She was staring up into the lights, at all the fun to be had on the other side of a flimsy string of plastic snow fencing. The security boy stood with his hands on his hips, as though to make himself appear bigger.
What had been a lark, a laugh—the fair on a Saturday night—now felt like necessity, like the direst, darkest need.
“Come on,” said Sarah, pulling on my hand. “It’s okay.”
I turned my back to the gate and looked her in the eye, and I whispered, “How fast do you think he can run?”
She smiled and said again, “It’s okay. We’ll find something else to do,” then she squeezed my hand. We began to walk away. The security boy said, “Goodnight. Sorry.” The Norwood Fair rang on behind us. Lights flashed, tractor engines revved, rides spun and shot up and dropped suddenly. People screamed and laughed, music played. The whole scene seemed a bit unreal, the way it lit up the darkness. We walked along the wrong side of the fence, divided from a hot dog stand and an exhibit of stock cars, and I worried that what had happened was that my courage had abandoned me. What if we had run? What if we had hopped that fence?
Sarah held my hand still, and she seemed determined to make something good happen. She smiled at me, said again that it was fine. We walked and soon we were past the end of the fence and among houses, quiet and dark, and I was certain things would be fine, because I was with her. But the moment felt instructive: it felt like proof that the world would not let us in. It would not grant us admission. We’d arrived late, and so would have to find our own pleasure.
Then she looked me in the eye, gave me a sly little smile, and led me by the hand. We walked down the road, crossed one last street, and then out into the wet grass of a field beyond. It was dark there, and she turned and threw herself at me. Soon we were in that grass, my jacket laid down like a blanket, her on her back, and me sort of in disbelief. She went for my belt and I have to tell you, it was like the Norwood Fair had just never existed at all.
“You texted her?” I said to Cub.
“Yup.” Sometimes you just want to hit Cub.
“Jesus,” I said. “What did you say?”
“I just said we were doing this.”
“Let me see.” He ambled around to my side of the hole and fiddled a bit with his phone, then handed it to me. I read this:
Me: We r digging steven up
Sarah Wiggins: Again?
Sarah Wiggins: Sure. Send me a pic.
Me: Will do
Sarah Wiggins: Serious?
And that was it. I wasn’t sure from the way it left off if Sarah was expecting to hear from Cub again, or if that was the end of the conversation, if she’d decided this late night nugget was just more of Cub’s usual bullshit. I looked at it again and saw that the time on the message was after 3 o’clock. So that’s where we were, somewhere between three and four in the morning. I couldn’t have told you that otherwise.
I looked at it once more, at the few words she’d typed, and I felt awful and small. I felt lost. I tossed Cub his phone. “Hey!” he said.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” I said again, then leaned harder into Crowe’s headstone and felt my heart spinning as I thought of Sarah’s eyes and hair.
About three weeks after the night at the fair, Steven did what he did. The next morning we all got that phone call. Sarah and I hung on for a few more weeks, through the funeral and such, but by mid-November we just couldn’t. She was a ghost, a wisp. She’d walk in the room and drag herself through it and wouldn’t know I was there.
She said, “I can’t be with you anymore,” and I was nearly destroyed. It ruined me. I drank myself under, came up for air for a day or two, then sank again. I remember Frank saying to me, “The sun sets on everything.” I said, “I wish you’d kill me, Frank, because I can’t do it myself.”
He said, “I love you, Rupert, but you’re not worth the jail time.”
Eight years later and here we were, digging Steven up. What the hell—he was there every day anyway. He was always there, sitting in on conversations, making us feel the way we did. We might as well look him in his empty eyes.
It was my turn to dig again. Frank tossed the shovel onto the grass and hauled himself up, sprawled his arms on the ground and kicked his legs until he could push himself out of the hole. He stood and handed me the shovel, and I slid back down.
The smell of the dirt had changed. In the air hung traces of our exertion, and the slow rotting smell of the death all around us. It was cooler down there, and damp. I saw a rock peeking from the side of the hole and I thought it was a skull, which made me jump.
When I bent to drive the spade into the dirt, the ground was at eye level. A plastic Foodland shopping bag blew between the stones like a tiny ghost. I said to myself, this is what it’s like to be dead.
I dug for ages. The sky lightened just a bit, the darkness growing fainter. I had sweat through my shoes. Earlier, as I watched Frank on his first shift, saw a triangle of sweat darken his white t-shirt between his shoulder blades, I had thought this would be a bit of hard work, but not too bad. After all, I’d spent time carrying bundles of asphalt shingles up ladders and across roofs under murderous summer suns. But now, down there, in the close but cooling night, my socks were squelching and my hair was plastered to my face. The dirt clung to my damp skin, and every shovel heaping with dirt weighed a thousand pounds.
I got us close. With each pitch and shove of the blade I thought it was imminent, that hard thing just beneath the surface. I worried about going right through soft wood, my shovel meeting Steven square where the bridge of his nose used to be. But I hit nothing, and eventually I ceded my duties.
“So close,” said Cub. “I can feel it. He’s right there.” I tilted the shovel’s handle toward him and he grimaced. “I think Frank should,” he said. “I’m pretty spent.” So I tilted the smooth wooden shaft toward Frank, who reached out and grabbed it, muttering, “You lazy little shit.”
Questions flew around in my head like bats at dusk. I tried to grab them, because I felt like these questions were important, that we should probably address them before lifting that final shovel of dirt. But we were getting nearer and nearer to him, and Frank was chugging along now, a machine, an excavator. Cub was shirtless, standing on the rim of the hole, cheering, with his arms raised above his round head. There was no time. No time to stop, no time to talk, no time to prepare.
Were we trying to bring him to us, or us to him?
Would he still have the long, thick hair he’d had in life?
Could I stand to see his straight, white teeth gone yellow with death and burial?
Within a few minutes the shovel gave a thick, flat thudding noise. “Jesus,” said Cub.
“Well, guys,” Frank said, and then nothing else. He looked back down and began taking out small piles of dirt. Then he leaned the shovel against the side of the hole, got down on his knees, and started using his hands. I could hear his breathing, a mix of windedness and fear.
The first birds were starting to sound. After a few more minutes Frank had cleared away all the dirt from the top of the box, a black casket that I remembered from where it stood in the funeral home, heavy and ominous. It was duller in sheen now, lying beneath the earth, but no less heart-stopping. There were silver accents, lines and finials along the edges and corners. They still shone in places, catching traces of light.
Would the top be locked or clasped?
Would we have to break the thing wide open, smash it apart, to drag him out?
Would he come out in one piece, or would things begin falling off of him?
We had flown into this so unprepared, just like we had entered into every last thing we’d ever done. You can’t just dig things up, I thought. But then maybe you have to. We wanted to bring our old selves to the surface—that was part of it. We wanted to compare them to what we’d become. But I think now the broader goal, if we had one, was to see what it looked like when the sadness finally left you. At this remove of years I can honestly tell you that I wasn’t prepared for what we would find down there, whether Steven was a rotting hunk of meat or a gold-skinned angel in heavenly repose. It wouldn’t matter. He was out and away from us, and he’d escaped the thing that held us. He’d done it. Now the closest the rest of us could come was to dig up his corpse on a drunken August night in the shadow of the Jamboree and the Foodland and Sarah’s love and all the shit we’d torpedoed on our way to this sad, sick place, and no matter what we found down in that hole or what we did with it, Steven would never be ours again. The lucky bastard.
Andrew Forbes’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Found Press, The New Quarterly, PRISM international, This Magazine, and Hobart, among other places. His fiction collection, What You Need, will be released by Invisible Publishing in the spring of 2015. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario. Visit andrewgforbes.com for more information.