The Cemetery: A Story of New Palestine

i found this one while completing the other story posted yesterday. It was first written in the early ’70’s. Again, i caution readers from my hometown, none of the characters represent a real person from my past. i drew two of the main characters here from two wonderful men with whom i worked in the Cedar Grove Cemetery during high school summers. But it is only the idea. Neither of those two men were like the characters in this story.

The Cemetery

News item from The Eagle, New Palestine, Tennessee, July 13, 1958:

Mrs. Lucinda Mae Quarry, age 88, passed away at the Hilda Burton Nursing Home in New Palestine Sunday morning after an extended illness. Remains are at the Quentin Howser Funeral Home.

Mrs. Quarry was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy and a member of the First United Methodist Church South of New Palestine. Her husband, Bernard A., was a merchant in New Palestine. He expired in 1908.

There are no survivors. Rites will be at 2:30 p. m. Thursday at the funeral home with interment in the New Palestine City Cemetery.  

Imperturbable, Boaz sat silently on the tombstone, munching his sandwich noisily, Buddha-like. Even in the heat of July, he wore the threadbare, soiled blue serge sports jacket over his bib jeans. His ham-size hands protruded from the coat sleeves. The one good eye, jaundiced, peered from beneath the worn and sweat-stained fedora.

With a final gulp from the fruit jar, he arose and spoke to the boy beside him.

“I reckon we better stop mowing and get on that grave on the south side. With it as dry as it is, it’ll take us most of the afternoon and tomorrow morning.”

The youngster left his cool refuge, the flat marble tombstone under the shade of the big elm reluctantly. The two trudged across the cemetery.

“Good thing Mr. Johnny came out this morning and showed us the plot,” Boaz considered, “I don’t know nothing about those old graves over there. Mr. Johnny is the only one who knows who is buried where, especially in that old section.

“That’s the only reason they keep him around,” Boaz continued after a brief pause, more to convince himself than the boy, “He’s too old to be good for anything else.”

Hite had heard of neither Boaz nor Mister Johnny before he started his summer job. After he began his mowing, trimming around monuments, and finally digging graves, he quickly discovered the rumors ran throughout the town about each man.

Mr. Johnny’s great-nephew was a mechanic for Hite’s father, R. J. Beard, Sr., at Wilson’s Tractor Sales. Most of Hite’s information about the old man came from the boy’s father, the mechanic.

Mr. Johnny Bream was ninety-three. He had returned to New Palestine around 1916 after several years of playing minor league baseball. By the time Mr. Johnny had arrived back in Tennessee, almost half a century before, one of his teammates on the
Augusta Tourists in the South Atlantic League, Ty Cobb, was the toast of the nation, and Mr. Johnny became somewhat of a local celebrity by association. Though he had several more lucrative offers of employment, the city had offered a house adjoining the cemetery property along with the small salary, and Mr. Johnny realized that the job would afford him a great deal of free time.

His days became highlighted by the activity around the courthouse in the midst of the tobacco-chewing, cedar whittling men sitting on the courthouse steps. On afternoons following a broadcasted ballgame, he would reign supreme among the old-timers. His sagacity as a baseball tactician was never questioned, and he always managed to get in a story about his days of playing with the great “Georgia Peach.”

He had thoroughly learned the geographical makeup of the cemetery during his tenure as cemetery custodian. In 1952, a fire in the attic of the county courthouse had burned the majority of the cemetery’s records, Mr. Johnny became indispensable. He was the only man in the county who could say with any degree of certainty where a body was buried.

Hite was awed by the old man when he learned of the Ty Cobb episodes. The boy had made baseball his main concern since the age of seven, and anything relating to the sport gained his whole-hearted attention. The old man actually recalled little from his playing days. His fabrications were evident even to a naive and potentially gullible youngster. Hite’s growing lack of interest was further hastened by Mr. Johnny’s constant demands to be carried on various errands by Hite in the old Pontiac R. J. had let the boy use for the summer. The old man dribbled brown juice from the chaw of tobacco he always had lodged in his jaw, and in addition to having dried trails of tobacco juice through the stubble on his chin, he would spew a fine mist over anyone near whenever he talked. Not long after Hite began work, he learned of Boaz’s hatred for Mr. Johnny.

It amazed the boy to find the big black man docile in the face of Mr. Johnny’s harangues. Boaz cursed the old man constantly when he and Hite were working alone in the cemetery. The hatred evidently stemmed from when Boaz first began work for the city nearly two decades before Hite became a summer assistant. The initial cause remained vague though Hite had drawn out enough from Boaz to learn the original disagreement had come in a confrontation shortly after Boaz had started at his job.

It was a common occurrence for lovers to park in the cemetery, especially if the affair was illicit. Having just started his job, Boaz was unfamiliar with the problem. He had come across a married woman with a man other than her husband while he was working alone one day. Boaz consulted Mr. Johnny as to what he should have done. From Boaz’s invective-filled description, the old man had viciously, though only verbally, attacked him for even discovering any white man and woman in such a situation.

Hite also had learned of Boaz’s past from other sources. The boy played basketball on the grammar school courts with several black boys in the late afternoons of summer, and during the rest periods they had responded to his questions about Boaz with tales the boy barely could believe possible.

Boaz had dropped out of his freshman year at the county’s negro high school to become a laborer for a brick laying concern. His skill and strength assisted in a quick rise to mason. But on the weekends after he turned sixteen, he drank almost solidly and traveled to all the black night spots in the communities through­out the middle of the state. His popularity with the women soon became renown among the blacks. This resulted in numerous fights until one cuckolded lover caught Boaz across the face with a beer bottle. The bottle shattered and Boaz lost his eye. The story concluded that the assailant had suffered multiple broken bones and nearly died.

After the loss of the eye, Boaz’s drinking became a constant, rather than a weekend occupation, until he was fired from his job as a mason. He could not get a job for two years until the grave­digger’s position became available with the city. The two years had subdued the big man and his drinking was now restricted to several beers on Friday afternoons at a small tavern in the center of the negro district. The area was named the Black Elbow because it was formed around a sweeping curve in Highway 127 on the west side of the town. The incident with the discovered lovers had occurred shortly afterwards, and though the enmity increased between the two men, Boaz had never spoken crossly nor acted perturbed in the old man’s presence.

But this day, the boy’s major concern lay with getting everything completed as quickly as possible. His baseball team was to play at Travisburro that evening, and the team bus was to depart in the early afternoon. Hite had decided he could make the bus if he left work thirty minutes early.

Hite remembered how relieved he had been when, on digging his first grave, Boaz told him the required depth was only four-and-a-half feet and not six as was commonly assumed. Boaz explained there was the water table was just a shade deeper than four feet, and they could not dig much deeper without risking filling the grave with water.

After the second round of digging, the two stood back-to-back in the middle and cleared off the ends. Standing in their new positions at opposing ends, they worked toward the middle again. The earth became progressively harder, and the depth of each layer dug correspondingly decreased.

The grave was for one of the older ladies in New Palestine. Mrs. Lucinda Mae Quarry had been a staunch, militant member of the Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1928, she had led the irate Daugh­ters in a march on the old yellow-brick courthouse when the first proposal to move the statue of Gen­eral Lucas Hougenby from the middle of the town’s square was tendered.

Mrs. Quarry’s husband, Bernard, had been killed by a mule’s unfortunately aimed kick at the turn of the century. The owner of the square’s largest store, Bernard had been buried in the old cemetery, one block from the square itself, only to be exhumed and relocated at the present site in 1923. The Church of Christian Elders bought the old cemetery acreage from the city to construct a new building, forcing the city to move the bodies to the new location.

When Bernard had been unearthed and moved, Mrs. Quarry had her father’s CSA ring nailed to the coffin. Her father, Charles S. Stetson, had been a cook for General Hougenby. Several years after Bernard had been relocated, she began to claim her husband had been a lieutenant for the South. She neglected to point out in her accounts of his valor that he had only been eight when the conflict ended.

It was as if the ring, nailed to the coffin, had transferred the glory of battle to the dealer of harnesses.

The work slowed with the progression of the afternoon. Boaz had taught Hite that brute strength was less effective than smooth, rhythmic motion. The boy still tired much quicker than his tutor, but his anxious desire to finish early this afternoon in order to catch the bus drove him to work quickly.

It was approaching three when the two spotted Mr. Johnny slowly working his way through the tomb stones with a cane, more to steady himself rather than required for walking. His gait was tempered by the frailties that hinder the aged.

Hite was thankful it was his turn with the pick when the old man arrived at the diggings. “You know, I got to thinking this afternoon,” the old man’s voice quavered.

“I ain’t rightly sure the plot wasn’t three feet to the left.”

“Goddamn,” the exasperated Boaz exclaimed, “You mean we might have dug this damn thing in the wrong place?”

“I just ain’t sure is all,” Mr. Johnny apolo­gized. “It looks like you all are about done, so there ain’t no trouble evidently. I just recollec­ted about some trouble with the stone about twenty years ago, and we moved it a couple of feet.”

“Well, goddammit, which way did you move it?”

Boaz persisted.

Hite’s pick struck something hard, pene­trated and stuck.

“Boaz, I’ve got something besides dirt.” “Goddammit,” the black exclaimed again, scram­bling into the hole. He took the pick from the boy, pried it several times and jerked it loose. The ensuing odor almost choked Hite. He could almost see the gas, and he believed it had to be green, a vile and sickly pale green.

“I knew we moved that stone,” the old man mut­tered almost smugly as Hite leaped from the grave for air while Boaz stood futilely holding the pick at his side.

The odor slowly dissipated. The boy controlled his coughing, and the three figures stared down at the broken earth.

“I reckon we hit a side of the casket or straight on,” Boaz observed. “If it ain’t straight on, we’re going to have one helluva time getting it ready by tomorrow afternoon.”

“I just can’t recollect how far we moved that stone,” Mr. Johnny contributed.

“Well, the only thing to do is to scrape away the dirt until we know exactly where we are. Then, we’ll have to figure what to do,” Boaz said.

“I just hope we’re flat dab on top because then we can fill it up and start on the old lady’s again.”

“Damn,” Hite thought, “I’ll never get to that bus on time.”

Mr. Johnny took Boaz’s tombstone seat and the two diggers began to gingerly remove the loose earth.

After several moments, Boaz said, “Looks like we’ll be all right.”

Hite’s shovel was scraping across the top of the wood when it caught and held. “Feels like a root, Boaz.”

The boy leaned down and caught a reflection of light. It was a stone, a gem, surrounded by a dirt-encrusted ring. Inexplicably, he picked up the ring and quickly put it in his pocket before the two men saw the ring or noticed his action.

“Man, whoever built the coffin didn’t do it like they regularly do,” Boaz said as he examined the nail which had pinned the ring to the coffin. Mr. Johnny had left his seat quickly and was bent over the grave, squinting down.

“Let me see. Let me see,” he said excitedly. “What’s wrong with you, Mr. Johnny?” Boaz queried.

“That’s where they nailed the ring,” the old man said for an explanation.

“What ring?” Boaz asked.

“Old lady Quarry had her father’s Confederate ring nailed to the coffin when they moved it up here from the old cemetery.”

“That’s crazy,” Boaz dismissed the possibility.

“And besides, if it’s so, where’s the ring?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Mr. Johnny said. “It should be there. Look for it,” the old man commanded.

“Why should we?”

“Because it’s worth all sorts of money, dammit,” Mr. Johnny said. “Look, if we can find it, I can take it to this man in Nashville I know and he can sell it for us.”

“Old man, you’re dreaming,” Boaz said.

Hite, with his hands jammed into his Levi pockets, fondled the ring with his right hand.

“Come on, damn you,” the old man said.

“You’re as dumb as all the rest. I made a lot of money doing this before I was too old to dig. You’re too damn lazy to ever amount to anything.”

Boaz appeared to swell upward. The anger brought to his countenance a fierceness triggering Hite’s thoughts of beerhall fights with Boaz as the center figure.

“Now listen, old man,” Boaz seethed through his lips. “I’ve taken your guff for seventeen years and now I’ve got you.

“I don’t give no damn about no ring. Hite and me are going to fill this grave up and then we’re going to start on the old woman’s grave.

“And if you give me any trouble, I’m going to tell people down at the city about your grave rob­bing. Now you get the hell out of here, old man, so we can get this work done.”

The old man stood motionless for a few seconds as if vexed at his position, then turned and with the aid of his cane, hobbled off without speaking.

Boaz and Hite began to fill the grave without any discussion. The work went quickly.

As they were tamping the last returned dirt, the boy checked his watch.

“Boaz, do you mind if I leave now? There’s only thirty minutes left until quitting time and I’ve got to catch the team bus. “

“No, you go on,” Boaz said. “I’ll get this other one started, and we can finish up tomorrow morning.”

Hite walked back to his car studying his prize. It was gold with a red stone. Around the stone, “Confederate States of America” was engraved. On the inside, the letters “C. S. S.” were faintly visible.

As he pulled out of the cemetery onto the highway, Hite saw the distant figure of Boaz persistently digging out the beginnings of the new grave. Then as he passed the house bordering the corner of the cemetery, he saw Mr. Johnny rise from his porch chair, next to the old radio, and wave frantically at the car.

But Hite turned his head and drove past.

Crossing the small bridge over the creek that even­tually ran through the center of town, back past the cemetery before spilling into the TVA lake, he checked to see if there was any traffic in either direction. When he saw there was none, he slowed at the middle of the bridge and tossed the ring over the railing into the swirling water.

He smiled when he checked his watch while accel­erating. He could even eat a sandwich and still have time to make the bus.

 

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