by Anna Saikin
Somewhere past Lampasas, Paige realized that she had forgotten the directions to Glenwood cemetery. She’d been on the road for an hour and a half and was tempted to turn around. She could easily lie to Mom, say everything was in order. In Paige’s mind, Grandma wouldn’t have given a damn—she hadn’t liked to put people out of the way.
“But I’m going,” said Paige to the empty car. “And I expect your lemon cake to be waiting for me when I get there.”
Decades ago, Grandma had purchased six plots in Wild Oaks before anyone needed them. She bought enough for herself, her husband, and her two children and their spouses. Then, before Paige was born, a great uncle died, and Grandma insisted he be buried with the family. One by one, all six spots were filled, the last taken by Granddad. By that time, she was too old and exhausted to think. She put him in the ground without considering how she would fit next to him. When she died, she was sent to Glenwood at the edge of town.
Then Glenwood sent her parents a letter: TxDOT had decided to expand the highway and her body would have to be moved. And miraculously, the same cemetery that had rejected Grandma was the receiving location for the displaced corpses.
Mom had insisted Paige go to make sure everything was being handled properly. “You’re the closest,” Mom had said. “You know the drive is difficult for your father.”
“What about Aaron?”
“He would if he could, but he’s in medical school, dear.”
Mineral Wells was indeed closer to Austin than it was Jacksonville or Galveston, but she still thought the request was unreasonable. Drive four hours there and back to make sure Grandma was reburied correctly. Was her mother serious?
Yes, she was. So here was Paige, lost in the middle of nowhere. The swath of road was charred on either side, remnants from the forest fires that swept over the state a few years back. Tall, blackened sticks of trees punctuated the carpet of grass. Luckily, she spotted a Sonic through the thinned out brush. Dad never wanted to eat there because they didn’t have a restroom, but he wasn’t driving and she wanted a milkshake while she looked for directions. She pulled into a spot and waited for a carhop.
While she waited, she thought about her own request to Mark ten years ago. They had been dating six months, an inordinate length of time. Grandma had been in a nursing home, no longer able to care for herself after a heart attack. Her death came as a shock to Paige. She assumed Grandma would live forever. Her sense of humor alone! Who knew an eighty-eight year old could be so funny?
Paige kept crying into the next day. Mark couldn’t understand why she was so upset. (Mark Childress, that was his full name, not even a middle initial.) She asked him to go to the funeral. They lived in Fort Worth at the time, so the request wasn’t that unreasonable. Mom slipped in and out of tears the entire drive to Mineral Wells, but Paige was too electrified by Mark’s presence next to her. She wanted to hold his hand, but he stiffly rejected it, complaining that the air wasn’t getting to the backseat. He fell asleep not long after they left the city limits, and the short drive turned into an agonizing exercise in self-loathing for Paige. She felt so guilty for bringing him with her that she nearly doubled over in relief when he gave her a shoulder squeeze after they arrived at the funeral home.
The open casket posed another surprise. It was dark mahogany, lined with purple silk. Her uncle stood next to it, and a receiving line spanned the width of the funeral home, from guest book to body. In the midst of her panic and confusion, Paige felt a moment of pride. Good for you, Grandma.
Mark backed out of the room, mumbling an excuse about needing to find something in the car. Paige would have followed him, but at that moment, Mom leaned on her arm. Paige had never seen her like this, and it scared her. Dad stood behind them, and Paige looked at him for support. Shouldn’t he be the comforting one?
With a bit of regret, Paige remembered the feeling of adolescent rage that filled her throughout the evening. Dad led them, not to the casket, but to the next room. Flowers were stacked to the ceiling. The scent overwhelmed her, and she could feel her sinuses start to close. She took a Zyrtec and waited for it to work. When she still couldn’t breath ten minutes later, she unlatched herself from her mother’s side and left to find Mark.
His back was facing her, so she didn’t see his cigarette immediately. She watched as he brought his hand to his mouth, and saw the cool grey smoke elegantly snake its way upward. Her shoes crunched the gravel, and he turned, flicking the cigarette away from him with a swift motion.
“It’s ok,” she said. “I won’t tell.” But her insides were coiling. He hadn’t told her he was a smoker.
“Cool.” They looked at each other for a moment, neither speaking. He said, “It gets pretty real in there, doesn’t it?”
She wasn’t sure what he meant, but she tried to sound chill. “Mom’s upset.”
Another moment of silence. Then: “So, funeral’s tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” said Paige. She opened her mouth to say something flirty, like, “Can’t wait ’til we get back home.” But she didn’t want to do say those things anymore. She put her hands over her face so he wouldn’t see her tears.
“There, there,” he had said. “There, there.”
She saw Mark only once more after they broke up, about two years after the funeral. Paige was at the grocery store, on break from college. She wandered the aisles, her cart half-filled with snacks. She turned the corner, and saw Mark talking with a woman—Paige was too far away to hear exactly. Then Mark picked up a fussing baby in the cart. He held it close to his chest, and began rubbing its back, with the mechanical motion of a man who has done it several times. Paige felt like she would choke, and she crouched behind a display of Campbell’s soup cans to watch them further.
“Is this what you want?” The woman held a box of cereal in her hand.
“Sure, fine,” said Mark. “Don’t forget the Cheerios, too.” He bounced the baby on his hip and cooed at it. How long had they been apart? Time ran together, but she didn’t think it had been long enough for him to have a baby able to eat real food.
The woman said something from another aisle. “Coming, Sahala,” he said, and pushed the cart around the corner
She had waited until he was safely out of eyesight before she stood and half-ran out of the store. Why did she care if he had a kid? A ten-year-old kid? Screw that! It would be in fourth grade by now. Mark would be balding. And she had been stupid enough to love him. Paige shivered, partly from the thought, and partly from the brain freeze she got from drinking her milkshake too fast.
She was on the road again, the pavement getting dustier from the dirt kicked up by the wind and drought. She was forty minutes away, then twenty-five. Even though she had taken this drive too many times to count, she didn’t recognize any of the surroundings. She remembered Mineral Wells as kind of a run down town. They didn’t even have a Target, let alone a mall. When she visited Grandma, her family went to a local state park or to the drug store. More than once they headed to the Crazy Hotel, and she had a collection of the old glass bottles in her garage to prove it.
Ten years had changed the city entirely. The hotel was still there, and the bumpy roads. But new developments dotted the sides of the roads. A new fast food restaurant was nothing to sniff at in Austin, but here in the middle of nowhere it felt like paradise. But not just fast food chains—the boarded up shops downtown had new windows, and storefronts that had been closed forever were reopened. Not that it was a buzzing metropolis, but the town felt like it had been given a fresh coat of paint.
Glenwood was easy to find, despite the lack of signs. It was a two-lane road, and Paige had to wait for the steady stream of traffic to pass before she could turn into the circle driveway. The entire cemetery looked like a construction zone. An 18-wheeler was parked out front. A yellow plow was digging up a fifty-year-old grave. Two men in hardhats stood nearby, smoking and watching a third who piled dirt next to another grave. All of the tombstones had already been removed from the graves and were lined up near the front entrance, plastic tags hanging from them.
Paige stood for a moment, embarrassed that she was there, embarrassed that she had no idea where Grandma was anymore. She knew she should feel sad—isn’t that what people did when they visited dead relatives?—but it was all she could do not to smile. Grandma would be so pissed. She hated when things weren’t organized, and this looked like such a cluster fuck. She was tempted to get back in her car, but then a man wearing khakis and a button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up approached her.
“Can I help you with something?”
Help me figure out why I can’t stop thinking about a guy I dumped ten years ago. Help me understand why I’m not sad.
“It’s nothing.” He was silent, so she felt compelled to elaborate. “My grandma’s buried here. I’m here to make sure …” Now that she was asked to name it, she didn’t know what Mom wanted her to do after all.
“That’s wonderful!” His voice carried over the bulldozer next to them. “I’m Stephen Gates, the rector here.”
“Oh yes, lovely to meet you. It’s so noisy out here,” he said, as if noticing the plow for the first time. “Why don’t you come into my office?”
They walked up the long, slopping hill to the church. It was the first time Paige had noticed that Glenwood was next to one, though that would make sense. Paige wondered why her family had had the funeral service somewhere else, when they could have had it right here.
“You wouldn’t believe how many phone calls I received when the city announced they were planning to move the cemetery. Letters, too! Oh yes, people were outraged. But you’re the first person who has stopped by. Funny, don’t you think?”
Is it? Paige wondered. Why did she have to drive three hours if no one else had bothered to? It made her errand seem even more ridiculous.
Stephen Gates continued talking as he led her into his office. It was an old-fashioned affair, with wood-paneled walls that managed to look rustic without feeling stuffy. There were bookshelves on two of the walls. Paige glanced at the titles—all hardbacks of semi-famous preacher-men or mystic texts on the Bible, but they looked fairly recent. Paige was impressed with this grey-haired Rector’s ability to keep up with the times, even if it was only to determine the End of Times.
“Anyway, I don’t know if you’ve been reading the paper or not—”
“No,” Paige said. “I don’t live here.”
“I didn’t think so. We printed up the plans months before the move was scheduled, as we mentioned in the letter we sent your family. We did our best to contact every living relative, but a lot of the letters bounced back. Electronic communication.” He shook his head. “People think they don’t have to register physical addresses anymore, but they do. We estimate that only 30% of the families we contacted actually know that we’re making this change. They might not come when I’m here, but they’ll come eventually. Especially the genealogists. Now that’s a group that has expressed a lot of interest. Cousins and such. Wanting to know their heritage.”
Paige listened to his rambling as long as she could, but her patience was wearing thin. “The plans?”
“Oh, yes, they’re in this file, right here. You wouldn’t know from the look of it, but we’re really quite organized. I’ve got the registered plans with the city in this folder, and then—ah, yes! The travel itinerary in this one.”
The folders were thick, and every page bore the embossed stamp of a local notary.
“Fairly routine,” said Stephen Gates.
“I’m not sure I would recognize a fairly routine interment if I saw it,” said Paige.
“Oh, yes, they happen very frequently, if you would believe it. A final resting place is very rarely that.”
Paige looked at the plans for a moment and then glanced out the window. “It’s getting late,” she said. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to finish.”
“Oh, no, they won’t get done today. It’s just the first day. It’s likely to take the rest of the week, maybe next, depending on the weather.”
“Two weeks!” Paige had not signed up for this.
“Oh, yes, of course,” he said. “First we marked and categorized the graves. Since this is a new cemetery, we have up-to-date records, but some of the older ones, you have to be careful. I’ve heard stories where one or two residents get missed. Terrible tragedy for the town. And the family. But that won’t be a problem here. As you can tell, the grave markers are ready to go to Wild Oak, but they won’t go up until we moved the bodies. It helps to get them out of the way. Then we’ll start the real work. If we’re lucky, we can move up to thirty a day. If we’re lucky.”
“I see.” Some of the emotion in her stomach was starting to unlock, but she didn’t want to cry in front of a stranger. She stood up. “Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”
“Would you like to see your grandmother?”
The rector’s question startled her. Paige imagined seeing the dark casket opened, the purple lining. She couldn’t look at her during the wake—was this to be her atonement?
He must have seen her grimace, because he quickly added, “Oh, no, nothing so gothic as that! I only meant her grave—one can get lost so easily.”
Paige wanted to leave as soon as she could, but she didn’t want to be rude. “Sure, I guess. Her name is—was—is Eugenia Davis?”
Stephen Gates consulted a ledger—it looked like a printed Excel spreadsheet—and scribbled something on a slip of paper.
“God bless you,” he said when he gave her the paper. She folded it and slipped it in her pocket without looking at it. She nodded, and left his office without shaking his hand. When she left the church, the bulldozer’s motor was shut off, and the three construction workers were sitting on a curb. She hastily wiped her eyes, and headed straight for her car.
On the one hand, Paige was off the hook. There was no way she could stay up here for a week. Even Mom would understand that. Yet as she walked back to her car, she noticed the rows of mounded dirt. She had assumed that the graves were already empty, that the bodies had been moved. Now Paige realized the caskets were still down there, ready to be placed on the flatbed that still blocked the street. Grandma was in one of those holes. Paige felt incredibly lonely for her. She was never much of a traveler. It must have been difficult to reconcile the act of moving with getting what she wanted the most before she died. Paige wanted to be with her a little longer, even if she couldn’t supervise the whole thing.
There was a good four hours left before sunset. Mom always said you had to be respectful around the dead, but Paige figured that if there was a tractor driving over the brown grass and making those horrible beeping sounds, she could make a quick phone call.
Mom picked up on the third ring. After the usual pleasantries, Paige broke the news to her. “The rector says that it’s going to at least a week, maybe more, to sort this out.”
Mom sighed. “I thought that might happen.”
Paige waited a beat before she replied. “The rector seems competent,” she said. Then: “I got to see the plans.”
“That’s nice.” For someone who had demanded that Paige go, her mother was curiously quiet.
“I could stay here,” she said without thinking. “Not the whole time,” she added. “I’ve got work. But I could stay a little longer. Maybe the night. No telling when they’ll get to her.”
“No, I don’t think that’s necessary,” said Mom. “If you think they’re doing a good job, then I trust you.”
These were the last words Paige wanted to hear. She didn’t want to be trusted with the move. This wasn’t fair.
“It’s up to you,” she said, flinging responsibility back to her mother. Both women were quiet, the buzzing heat pulsing against Paige’s skin. “Listen,” she said, finally breaking the tense static. “I’ll stay another hour or two. Then I’ll come back in two weeks to check on her. How does that sound?”
“If that’s what you want to do,” said Mom.
Paige didn’t want to come back anymore than she did coming here today. But she replied: “Alright, sure. I’ll call again when I get back in town.”
“Of course, dear. Be safe.”
She hung up. This always happened—Mom twisted her arm by not saying anything at all. Unfair, unfair. But wasn’t it unfair that Grandma wasn’t buried with her family in the first place? All of this could have been avoided if she had gotten her way ten years ago. Paige felt her anger leaking all over the place. She was mad at the bulldozers and the rector and Mom and Grandma.
The piece of paper the rector gave her was still in her pocket. She unfolded it and read: John 14:1. Let not your hearts be troubled. Lot 14.19. At first Paige thought the rector had included a second verse, a reference to Genesis. But she realized that the “Lot” was not the man who fled Sodom but Grandma’s location.
The day of the funeral had been too bright—the sky was too blue, the sun was too warm. She felt stifled in her black cardigan, but she didn’t dare take it off because she had decided to wear a sleeveless dress. Paige could practically feel Grandma’s disapproving gaze watching throughout the ceremony. She stared at the ground, and tried not to faint. Mark looked uncomfortable too, but he had chosen to leave his jacket in the car. His white shirt and blue tie stood out against the blacks and greys of the other mourners.
The heavy plastic tent trapped the heat and held her down. Steady drops of sweat had trickled down her neck and soaked her bra and her pants. The mourners went away and the tarp was packed. The ground had been uneven, so Paige stared at her feet. The air stirred and bits of ragweed settled on the grass. Dad sneezed and took off his glasses. As he wiped his forehead, the sun caught the lens and a rainbow appeared on the ground. Paige gasped. She was back in Grandma’s kitchen, playing with the morning light scattered by the crystal birds above her window.
She wanted to share the memory with Mark, but he fidgeted with his damn tie until the knot was twisted and wrinkled beyond repair. His crumpled grin that she used to think was adorably impish now looked juvenile. She looked at her hands and noticed the skin on her knuckles was cracked. She was getting older and could practically feel the years multiplying by the second. But at the same time she felt impossibly young, and she no longer wanted to waste her time on Mark, a boyfriend who refused to sit still for one moment, who couldn’t realize that time was everything. She wanted more of it, and she knew without realizing that he would only suck hers away.
Row 14, number 19.
“I’m here,” said Paige. “It’s time to go.”