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Peter Di Chellis
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gravedigger.jpg
Art by Mr. Byron İ 2013

Gravedigger Blues

 

by Peter DiChellis

 

Dixon saw nothing but trouble in the new gravedigger. The man stood tall as a giant and looked strong as an ape, not like the old gravedigger, the little skinny one who put caskets in such shallow holes for so many years.

“This new fella will bury ‘em deep,” Dixon told Pervis. “And pack the dirt tight on top of ‘em.”

And that meant trouble. Because Dixon and Pervis made a living robbing graves. And it was easy here. Whenever a big storm sent rainwater streaming down the hills that surrounded the isolated graveyard, the entire cemetery would flood, and caskets floated out of the shallow graves, the loose dirt and thin sod unable to hold them.

And Dixon and Pervis would sneak through the night, pop the casket lids open, and rob the bodies of jewelry and watches. And then they’d close the lids to make the caskets look proper again, drive to a distant town, and sell their loot to a shady pawnbroker they knew. It had been steady work. The cemetery served all the neighboring towns, so Dixon and Pervis could rob graves almost every rainstorm. But with this new gravedigger...

“Hell fire, we're gonna be unemployed,” Dixon continued. “Goddamn throwed out of work by a big gravedigger.”

That was depressing for both men. These were hard times to find good work. And Dixon and Pervis, friends since grade school, were built for work. Tall and stocky, big hard bellies, wide backs. Their eyes set them apart, though. Pervis wore a mean stare he’d crafted in county jail, while Dixon’s eyes shone warm as a friendly hound dog’s, a lingering reminder of his boyhood dream to become a salesman, to joke and laugh with customers, and travel to cities and towns all over the state.

Dixon mulled a recent grave robbing. With rain pounding down on them, he and Pervis had wrestled floating caskets, slipped on wet grass, and kneeled and sat in sloppy mud. Dixon had found a rich casket that night, an old burial. The woman’s hair had grown wild, bunching into a tangled gray pillow beneath her withered face. Deep crevices split her skin. Her sunken eye sockets stared upward while an earthy smell fought its way into Dixon’s nose and squatted in his throat. But the woman had a gold wedding band on her bony finger, a silver bracelet on her scrawny wrist. Payday.

“Yessir, I've worked worse jobs than snatchin' these floaters,” Dixon said. “You’re outdoors, not on your feet the whole time, and you know your workday's comin' with the weather.”

“How you like reachin’ around them dead bodies?” Pervis asked.

“Some look frightful, no denyin' it. But every line of work has drawbacks.”

Dixon and Pervis knew how to overcome drawbacks. For example, sometimes the same caskets they'd already robbed floated again. But Dixon, who remembered people, always spotted the repeaters as soon as the casket came open.

“It's that bald fella again,” he might say. “The one who used to have that nice watch.”

What to do now?

“I gotta put food on the table,” Dixon said. “I need work.”

“We’ll rob live people,” Pervis decided. “Least we can see what they got without pullin’ off a lid.”

“Don’t make sense,” Dixon said. “Live ones fight back.”

“We’ll rob old ones, near to dead. No fight in those.”

So they drove to another town, where nobody knew them. The town was much like theirs. Grubby stores and cinderblock apartments bordered ancient factories that once hired workers, but were automated with machines now.

Dixon considered the lonesome factory buildings. “Caskets for jobs,” he said.

He and Pervis watched and waited, smoked cigarettes, and nipped whiskey from a half-pint Pervis kept in his ramshackle car. Two determined hillbillies with no work skills, dirt under their fingernails, and families to feed.

As dusk became darkness, the half-pint emptied and an old woman tottered past. A streetlight revealed her tiny frame, grandma white hair, and a ring and necklace. She wasn’t wearing a watch.

“Good as a floater,” Pervis said.

The two robbers yanked her into a filthy alley. The necklace looked like cheap crap, but the ring was worth plenty, Pervis saw.

“Gimme the ring,” he told her.

“Kiss my ass, butt face,” she screeched. “This ring belonged to my mother!”

Pervis grabbed her, covered her mouth.

“Get the damn ring,” he told Dixon. He spun the woman around and jammed her throat into the crook of his elbow, squeezing.

“It’s tight on her finger,” Dixon said. “Gonna take a minute.”

When Dixon got the ring, Pervis let go. The woman dropped to the ground, motionless.

“Oh Lord, is she dead?” Dixon asked.

“Ain’t staying to find out.”

They drove away to visit the shady pawnbroker. He figured the ring at about five grand, so he paid the two robbers $150 each.

“Lookit here,” Pervis cackled. He waved his share of the money at Dixon and grinned. “What’d I say about them old ones, near to dead?”

“Yessir,” Dixon said. “We got a new line of work. Though I do wonder what became of that poor old woman.”

A week later, the big gravedigger returned to a fresh gravesite, dug yesterday. The casket lay in the open grave, the dirt not shoveled in and packed down yet. The mourners had left, the sun had set.

The gravedigger raised the casket and lifted the lid. A tiny old woman with grandma white hair. Wearing her best dress, no doubt. No ring, no watch, just a crappy-looking necklace.

He took it. Better than nothing, he thought.

***


***

This story is an original work of creative fiction. All people and events described or depicted are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual individuals or events is unintended and coincidental.

ym_76_oct19_stegmansbasement.jpg
Art by John Lunar Richey İ 2019

Stegmann’s Basement

 

by Peter DiChellis

 

 

Am I alive? Dead? Dying? I’m not sure.

I can smell thick, fetid air.

I feel insects crawling on my skin, beneath my clothes, all over me. Tickling me with their tiny legs. Then biting and stinging.

But I can’t open my eyes. Can’t stand or sit up. Can’t move at all. Can’t talk. Can’t plead or scream or even whisper.

And through it all, my mind won’t stop thinking and remembering.

***

Old man Stegmann saw us coming. Saw Tommy and me. Coming to rob him, to rob Steg’s Corner Deli. His neighborhood shithole. Old man Stegmann let us get close, then shot Tommy in the face. I dropped my gun, and a cop rushed into the deli yelling, “Police! Police!” Old man Stegmann shot the cop dead, too. And now, alone with my mind in Stegmann’s basement, I think maybe Tommy and the cop were the lucky ones.

Because when I ran scared through the doorway to Stegmann’s basement, he laughed. “You go down there, you won’t come back,” he hollered. “It’s a special hell down there.”

And then he shot at me, again and again. I heard the bullets zip past and watched them rip open the wall. I stumbled down the stairs to the basement, swallowed by the blackest darkness I ever knew. Heard low buzzing, and slithering sounds, and soft crunching every time I took a step. Then tickling and biting and stinging on my legs. Then numb dizziness and bottomless gloom and the cold concrete floor against my face.

***

Back when Tommy and me were little kids, old man Stegmann terrified us. Fat and mean. Ugly as poison. Dirty and sweaty. We never went inside his deli, of course. Partly because we never had any money. Partly because we didn’t dare. But on summer afternoons, we stood on the sidewalk outside the deli, watching cars go past. Wishing our families could afford cars, too. Some days old man Stegmann would step outside, right onto the sidewalk, to chase us away. We always ran.

One time a neighborhood kid named Dooley said he peeked through the grimy window into Stegmann’s basement. Said he saw dead people hanging on meat hooks, covered with bugs. Tommy and me didn’t believe him. We figured we would’ve smelled dead people, even from the sidewalk. But the next day, the window was covered, and old man Stegmann seemed scarier.

***

Tommy and me finally got into high school, and we decided to rob old man Stegmann because we learned he bought a new Buick every year. And we knew we’d have to ride the bus our whole lives, just like our parents did. But fat, mean, ugly, dirty, sweaty, scary old man Stegmann had himself a Buick. A new one every year. It was just too much for Tommy and me to stomach. I remember it all, every bit of it, and it makes me wonder: Am I alive?

 

***

 

“Stegmann’s Basement” originally appeared at Spelk Fiction, in October 2017.

 

 

Peter DiChellis concocts sinister tales for anthologies, ezines, and magazines. Two of his mystery stories were Finalists in the 2019 Derringer Awards for outstanding short mysteries. For more, visit Peter’s Amazon author page or his blog celebrating short mystery and crime fiction, A short walk down a dark street.

 

***

 

This story is an original work of creative fiction. All people and events described or depicted are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual individuals or events is unintended and coincidental. Buick is a registered trademark of General Motors Corporation.

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