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June 17, 2024

The Burial

By John Paulits

A Small Town


I didn't know what to expect when I began working for Oliver Watson, owner-editor of The Brunton Bulletin, the town's three-times-a-week newspaper. I didn't know, and I didn't care. Being some sixty years younger than I am today, very little scared me, and I'd convinced myself I could handle anything life threw at me. My time in Brunton, Pennsylvania, however, proved me wrong.

Oliver Watson had steadily lost interest in the paper after turning sixty-five the year before, and inside of three months of being hired, the bulk of the paper's operation was in my hands. This suited me fine, and I decided that Brunton was the town for me.

On one glorious and colorful fall morning before I opened the office, I decided to take a walk. The graveyard was a few minutes from the south end of town -- a lovely place, well kept, its green grass and flaming autumn leaves offering a delicious air of quiet and serenity. I browsed its silent aisles, noting the names and dates on the tombstones. The earliest I saw -- Sarah: born, 1834, died 1837, a sad tombstone, indeed.

Clay Weller had the job of caretaker. Gently put, Weller was the town derelict. It had been a prime item of both gossip and amazement when he somehow persuaded a woman from a neighboring town to marry him. Three children followed in rapid order and rarely could the family make ends meet. Weller prowled Brunton looking for handouts or odd jobs. He finally found employment suitable to his talents, small though they were -- caretaker for the town cemetery. From that point on, the family prospered. The caretaker job gave Weller a small but reliable income. A house, old but well kept, came with the job, along with some pigs and chickens thrown in for good measure. Weller put the pigs to use and gained a reputation for selling hams notable for their savoriness, and this brought a tidy addition to his income. He'd even become a churchgoer. His was a nice story, and I'd often thought of doing a piece on his reclamation in the Bulletin.

"Hello, Clay," I called as I approached. "Working hard?"

He'd begun a new hole but so far had only dug below the surface of the grass that grew on the spot. He wiped his brow and looked up at me. "Yeah." He pointed to an adjacent tombstone. McGinchy, it read.

"McGinchy?" I said in surprise.

"Yep. I hear McGinchy's worse, so I'm getting ready for him. I like to be prepared. That there was his dad." He indicated the tombstone again.

"McGinchy!" I exclaimed again, ignoring Weller's come-what-may attitude. "He's worse? When did that happen?" McGinchy owned the two department stores in Brunton and had been a three-time mayor of the town.

Weller shrugged. "I dunno."

"So, how did you hear about it?" I asked with some impatience.

"Doc Kramer passed by half-hour ago and told me what was going on. He was on his way there. I took it as a hint." Weller began digging again.

"Doc Kramer? Are you sure? McGinchy would never let Doc Kramer near him. They hate each other like the devil."

Weller paused again, and this time leaned on his shovel. "Doc Perskin is out of town visiting a sister or something. Family had no choice. Needed a doctor." Weller chuckled. "McGinchy probably had a stroke when he saw Doc Kramer walk into his bedroom."

I left Weller chuckling and digging and headed back toward town. This was news. Sickness, death, any kind of change in familial status was fodder for the Bulletin -- especially if it involved an important man like Orville McGinchy. Most especially if he was being treated by Martin Kramer. The entire town knew of their years' long feud. McGinchy had married late in life. The doctor had never married, though he had once been engaged. Everyone knew the story -- a story that didn't need any help from the Bulletin to spread like wildfire when it happened. The engagement between the doctor and his fiancée had been hastily terminated when McGinchy proposed to the same girl: the woman who was now his wife of twenty-plus years. The two men had actively avoided one another ever since. I knew McGinchy's condition must be serious indeed if his wife called in Doc Kramer. And I knew Doc Kramer would respond to her only if it were a life-and-death situation. So, always on the lookout for a good story, I hurried to McGinchy's.

Madeline McGinchy answered my knock. "Oh, it's you, John."

"Is he very bad?"

"Martin sent me out of the room. I don't know why. I'm afraid I'm going to lose him," she said with a sob.

I put my arm around her shoulders, not knowing what else to do. I sat her down on the sofa and waited next to her. Nearly an hour went by. Finally, we heard the bedroom door creak above, and we tensed as Doc Kramer shuffled down the stairs.

How haggard he looked! Normally a robust man, his face conveyed a pallor most unnatural to him.

"What is it, Martin?" I asked.

He lowered his head and mumbled, barely audibly, "I'm afraid he's gone."

With that, Madeline lost control.

Martin reached out to touch her but stopped midway and pulled his hand back. I put my arm around her again. "I'm so sorry, Madeline," I said.

Doc Kramer and I stood silently as the new widow wept. Finally, between sobs, she asked, "What do I do now?"

I cleared my throat. "Well, arrangements need to be made ..."

"Would you like me to do that for you, Madeline?" Doc Kramer asked in a soft voice.

"Oh, would you? I just couldn't. I ..." She broke down again.

Doc Kramer looked at me. "I'll take care of everything. I'll do it quickly. Tomorrow afternoon, Madeline?"

Madeline agreed but then another round of uncontrolled weeping followed. We settled Madeline down, and stayed with her until she made a few phone calls. When her sister arrived, Martin administered a sedative and beckoned me to follow him outside. Grasping me tightly by the arm, he said, "If you pass by Weller's, can you let him know what's happened?"

"I just passed his place, and he's probably knee-deep in the grave already."

Martin hurried off without saying another word.

I put out a special edition of the paper that afternoon and another the next morning, focusing on the death of Orville McGinchy. Doc Kramer arranged for the viewing to take place the next afternoon, with the burial immediately following. The sun was setting as Weller lowered McGinchy into the earth. The ebbing of light from the scene seemed appropriate.

Oddly, Doc Kramer skipped the viewing and the trip to the graveyard. Madeline thanked me for my Bulletin story, mentioning specifically her gratitude for my adding the angle of a twenty-years' feud ending upon the deathbed of one of the participants, though I had little basis for the story.

After putting the regular edition of the paper to bed that evening, I walked home, but I couldn't keep from wondering why Doc Kramer hadn't attended the funeral. Then my obit hit me. Maybe my suggesting the feud had ended on McGinchy's deathbed had embarrassed or offended him in some way. I had no way of knowing what really happened at the end between the two men. I knew when I wrote the obit I was going out on a limb, but the facts seemed to tend that way, Plus, it made for such a good story. The more I thought of it, though, the more I feared I'd unintentionally offended or humiliated the good doctor. I turned and went straight to his house to talk to him. One lone light burned in an upstairs window. When I knocked, the door opened quickly, as if the doctor had been sitting close by in the dark.

"Come in. Come in," he urged, pulling me by the arm and closing the door behind me. He went behind his desk, and I sat in a soft chair. I could see even in the dim light he had not shaved that day, and I noticed the same wretched pallor in him I'd noticed the day before. Sparkles of what I identified as fear glowed in his eyes. Yesterday afternoon's special edition of the Bulletin lay open, spread across his desk.

"Doc," I began, "I want to apologize about the story I wrote, the obit." I could see he wasn't listening. I tried again. "About what I wrote, Doc. I may have gone too far."

"Gone too far? Yes. That's it. Gone too far," he said as if in a trance.

"I wasn't thinking."

"Yes, I wasn't thinking. I shouldn't have done it. I can't conceive how I even considered of it. I need your help." His head turned my way, and his haggard eyes bored into me. "You must help me."

It struck me that he and I were talking at cross purposes. "Help you do what? What do you mean?"

"Why? Why?" he demanded, pounding his desk with a fist and looking upward. He rose and moved around the room with increased agitation, and my own panic rose accordingly.

"Doc, tell me what you're talking about."

Kramer fell into a chair. "I saw a chance and took it. I don't understand how such a thing could even rise up in my mind." He looked at me, seemingly on the verge of weeping. "I took my revenge on McGinchy. You must know the story. I'd been waiting twenty years for it. I saw it offered to me, and I took it." A fierceness had crept into his voice.

"Revenge on a dead man?" I asked, leaning forward. "What are you talking about?"

"McGinchy is not dead."

A ghastly pause ensued as I tried to comprehend. "Not dead? Not dead? What do you mean he's not dead?"

"A powerful soporific. I administered it. I stood over him, the needle in my hand, trying to decide. Would I let him die unpunished for what he did to me? The more that question pounded at me, the more I couldn't let it happen. Unpunished? For what he did to me! So I gave in and administered it to him. I told him it would make him rest. It would make him sleep, I said." Again, Kramer's eyes bored into me. "Sleep, John, sleep. Sleep with imperceptible heartbeat and respiration. For at least thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours, he would seem dead. But then he would awaken."

I leaped to my feet, grabbed him by his rumpled shirt, and pulled him to his feet. "You had him buried alive?"

"I did. I did. He will awaken to utter blackness," Kramer sobbed.

"My God, man!" A tide of outrage and disbelief swept over me. "Wait. You said 'will awaken.' Is it possible he still sleeps? Or has awakened and not yet gone mad?"

Kramer caught his breath.

"Is there still time, Martin?" I repeated.

"I don't know. The dose is imprecise. It is possible."

"Good Lord. Let's get right to Weller's." I pushed McGinchy out into the street, and we both started on the run.

"We have to get Weller to open the grave," I said. "We'll swear him to secrecy."

When we reached Weller's, I banged on his door. Weller answered it, still chewing on his dinner. I could hear a radio playing in the background. I dragged him out onto the porch.

"Weller, we must open McGinchy's grave. He may not be dead," I told him.

Weller coughed, choking on his food. "Open his coffin?" he gagged. "No, I won't do it. I won't permit it. It's ... it's sacrilege. It can't be done."

"It must be done," I cried. "The man may be still be alive, I tell you. There's been a terrible mistake. We aren't disturbing the dead. We're saving a living man."

Weller sagged backward against the wall. "No, I won't let you. You can't."

"What's the matter with you, Weller?" I shouted. "Where are the shovels?" I hurried through his yard, avoiding the pigs and chickens running wildly about and found a shovel in back of his house.

"This way," I called.

Weller followed crying, "You mustn't disturb the grave." He threw himself at me and knocked me to the ground.

I arose, furious, and brandished the shovel at him. "Weller, stand off. I warn you."

True to his word, Weller did nothing to help us. I dug like a madman. Doc Kramer on his knees next to me, pulled dirt from the grave with his bare hands. When my shovel hit wood, a grim moan burst from behind us.

"Don't be so damned superstitious, Weller," I chastised him. "We're trying to save the man's life."

We quickened our work and were soon struggling to lift the heavy coffin up onto the ground to give us room to operate. We scrambled from the hole and began prying the lid from the coffin.

"No, no," moaned Weller, but neither the doctor nor I paid him any mind. In the deepening gray of the evening, we lifted the cover from the coffin.

The doctor and I gasped in unison.

"Empty! Weller, it's empty," I cried. "The body; I saw it in here. What happened to it?"

Weller had slumped to the ground, his arms around his knees, his head hanging down.

Kramer yanked his head back by the hair. "Where is he? What's happened to him?"

"I warned you. I told you not to dig him up."

"Damn your warning," I exploded. "Where is McGinchy? The man wasn't dead, he was alive. Do you hear me? Alive. He was alive in the grave. He was going to awaken in the grave. Where is he, Weller?"

The loud slam of Weller's back door halted our inquisition. Weller's wife walked down the three steps to the yard, carrying two large buckets.

I looked back at Weller.

"I wanted to help my family," he agonized. "I had to help them. I used everything I could. All the bodies. His body. Don't say he was alive. Don't say it."

"Where is he?" I demanded again.

"There," he said simply, pointing toward his wife.

We watched Weller's wife dump the contents of the two buckets into the pigs' trough. The pigs rushed over, and their heads began to bob inside the trough, as they munched contentedly on the food Weller's wife had just provided for them.

Article © John Paulits. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-10-23
Image(s) are public domain.
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