Always Bury Your Mistakes (He Wrote – Week 05)
by Dave Smith
The ballasts buzzed for a few seconds before the fluorescent lights flickered to life, slowly brightening as they warmed to operating temperature in the chill of an early fall morning. Ansel Greenwood, clad in his Dickies work uniform, dark brown trousers and khaki shirt, stood by the switch, clutching a beaten red lunchbox with his name permanent markered on the side.
He laid his coat down on the wooden workbench, slid the lunchbox into the mini-fridge, and opened the metal overhead door. His boss, Pete Hammond, was standing just outside.
“Hey, Greenwood, I was just coming to see you. You sure you’re up to working today?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay, Pete,” Ansel replied as he made his way to warm up the backhoe.
“You sure? Men are allowed to be human these days. Don’t have to put on a macho show all the time, y’know. I can call in a guy from our partners in the next county if you need me to.”
“No, really, I’ve got this. It has to be done right.”
“I don’t know how you do it, man. Let me know if you change your mind,” Pete said.
Ansel nodded and fired up the big diesel engine of the backhoe as Pete walked out the door. Ansel was the sole gravedigger and grounds keeper at the Bella Vista Memorial Gardens, a landlocked cemetery in a small lake resort town known more for wild Spring Break and holiday lake parties than anything else. The job paid only slightly more than work at the local big-box retail store, but had the benefit of far more anonymity. Dig hole, watch graveside memorial ceremony from a discreet distance, lower vault, fill hole, clean up. And mow the grounds occasionally. An ideal job, really. Lots of time to think, minimal rules, and no human interaction. At least not with living ones.
Only this day, Ansel was an integral part of the graveside service. Cherith, an artificially beautiful, busty young girl with a cute little ski-slope nose and petite chin – all recent enhancements – was the guest of honor at the burial. It’s said that James Dean was fond of the phrase “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” What a damn fine-looking corpse Cherith left. Whether or not she knew the quote or even knew who the hell James Dean was, she had followed the advice to the letter.
She was also Ansel’s twenty year old daughter. But Ansel’s anonymity and her scandalous reputation meant her only mourners were her father, Mr. Hammond, her long-time friends Amy, Erik, and Carrie, and a reluctant Presbyterian pastor.
Cherith’s and Ansel’s relationship had been intermittently volcanic since her mother died, around the time she ran away at sixteen. She never really grieved fully or came to grips with the loss. She and Ansel could go months with a neutral, if not chilly, father-daughter relationship, then that thin veneer would crack, unleashing her misguided fiery wrath. But she was still blood, still his child and he loved her. He was obligated to see that she was laid to rest lovingly and respectfully, and he was the only one who could do it properly.
Cherith, known to most as Cherry, grew up in the same small resort town where she’d earned the dubious distinction of being something of a careless homewrecker. Whether or not she initiated all the relationships remained questions whose answers now rested in her modest coffin and with the men she had slept with. Wealthy men – resort owners, seasonal travelers, lawyers, business owners – who gave her everything she desired. Cars, beach homes, drugs, foreign travel, new tits, a new nose, or a resculpted chin; if she asked for it, she got it.
Those same men couldn’t even offer the slightest hint of a goodbye now that she was gone.
Ansel closed up the grave and stayed, silently, by it long after the memorial was over and everyone had left. The full moon and occasional cigarette lighter were his only sources of light. Carrie, Amy, and Erik soon arrived with a large bottle of cheap vodka, their own way of remembering Cherith. They hadn’t planned on running into Ansel there that late.
“Mr. Greenwood, sir? We … uh, me, Erik, and Amy … just wanted to let you know … just wanted to say how sorry we are for your loss,” said Carrie, stammering to find the right words.
“Carrie, I hope you’re going to share that bottle you’ve got there,” said Ansel. “I could use some.”
“Uh, sure. Help yourself,” she said, handing him the bottle.
Ansel cracked open the plastic twist cap and took a heavy swig.
“Phew! That’s better!” he said in apreciation before taking another drag from his cigarette.
He hadn’t eaten all day and the warm feeling of the alcohol in his stomach told him the buzz wasn’t far away.
“I know you guys are probably here to see her off in your own way. I need to get home anyway.”
“No. Really, it’s no big deal if you stick around,” said Amy.
“Thanks, but I really have to go. Don’t freeze out here. Don’t want to put you all down there anytime soon,” said Ansel, trying, but failing, to be lighthearted. He turned and walked to the workshop to get his car.
Ansel arrived home a little before midnight. He walked up the three steps to the wooden porch and grabbed for the keys in his pocket. All he turned up were the car keys. He always kept them separate from his house keys, but he realized the day had left his thoughts cloudy and he left his keys hanging over the workbench at the cemetery. His only options were to break into his own home or go back to get the keys.
It might have been a pain in the ass, but it was cheaper to go retrieve the keys. When he arrived, he could still see the kids talking and remembering Cherith.
Her grave site was lit with the eerie blue glow of moonlight and the orange flicker of cigarettes, with wisps of smoke and human breath steaming in the cool night air. Their chitchat, which started out with funny childhood memories, turned toward the circumstances surrounding her death. Ansel started to interrupt, but stood in the shadows to listen. He hadn’t heard any news about how Cherith died, but was afraid they’d censor themselves if they knew he was near. So he waited.
“So, Mrs. Atchley visited me at the nursery the other day,” said Amy.
“Did she give you the cold shoulder too. She wouldn’t give me the time of day when I saw her at the bar. What did she want from the nursery?” asked Erik.
“No, she was friendly. Friendlier than I’ve ever seen her. She wanted to order another Indian Licorice plant.”
“What in the hell is Indian Licorice?” said Erik.
“It’s a tropical plant. Wouldn’t grow well here. Told her so when she ordered the first one, but she insisted. Said she was making jewelry with the seeds.”
“Well, she does have a greenhouse. Maybe that’d work.”
“Yeah, probably. I had to order it from overseas. Took a month to get here, but she was excited,” said Amy.
“Do the seeds look like ladybugs?” Carrie asked.
“A little. Now that I think about it, they look a lot like them.”
“Those are cool! She gave Cherry a bracelet like that as a ‘no hard feelings’ gift. Must’ve been those seeds,” said Carrie.
“What? A ‘no hard feelings’ gift? Who does that?! Especially for the girl who’s been fucking your husband for a year. That’s just weird,” Erik chimed in.
“Whatever. The Atchleys were together more for show anyway. She cheated on him way before he dropped trou for Cherry,” said Amy.
The ‘gift’ sounded odd to Ansel too. He pulled a receipt from the inside pocket of his jacket and made a note to look up Indian Licorice.
Ansel arrived at work early enough to call the landscaper the cemetery bought plants through. He had to look it up and call back, but the information wasn’t what Ansel expected.
“Ansel, that’s a weird plant. Are you thinking of ordering for the cemetery?” Horace asked.
“Not specifically, but a client asked for an arrangement with it and we had no clue what it was.”
“Well, it’s not really arrangement material. See, the seeds from that plant can be very toxic. Like deadly toxic. I wouldn’t put one anywhere like an arrangement kids might get hold of.”
“Oh,” said Ansel. “What does it do?”
“It’s a mess. Causes all kinds of problems. Vomiting, low blood pressure, fluid in the lungs. I could go on. It’s pretty brutal, but pretty undetectable without looking deeper,” explained Horace.
“Now the seeds alone are mostly okay, but if they’re cracked and injested or inhaled, well, all bets are off.”
“So you can touch the seeds without problems?”
“Okay, well, thanks, Horace. Don’t worry about the order. I’ll tell the client we can’t get it.”
Cherith died after a violent illness with similar symptoms. It wasn’t out of the question and it made sense. Wives murder their spouses’ mistresses all the time. Whole television channels are dedicated to those stories. But the bracelet couldn’t do it. Mrs. Atchley must’ve extracted the toxin.
Ansel had several graves to dig and prep for the next day. It took a little longer than usual. The ground was dry and cool and harder than normal, but he finished them up and took a drive.
The Atchleys lived on the west part of town, at the end of a street lined with trees that covered the road like a canopy. Ansel parked at the gate of their driveway and walked through the unlocked passage gate nearby. Mrs. Atchley was alone and easy prey for Ansel.
“Oh God! Ansel! I know what it looks like, but I didn’t kill Cherith!” Mrs. Atchley pleaded.
“How did you do it?!” Ansel asked, remaining unconvinced.
“I didn’t! I swear I didn’t do it!”
Ansel beat her unconscious and loaded her into his car. He drove to the cemetery and found one of the graves he had dug earlier, one dug a foot or two deeper than normal. He moved the safety cover, dropped her still-living body in, covered it with dirt and compacted it enough to look like the bottom of a normal plot. He restored the cover and went home.
The next day was filled with the usual tasks; filling and digging graves, mowing, and cleaning up some downed trees on the south side of the gardens.
The day after that was the same. And so was the week after. No one questioned the missing Mrs. Atchley. Everyone thought she left Mr. Atchley for another man. It’d happened before.
Because Cherith was so young and her death was sudden, the coroner had sent bloodwork off for a full toxicology screen. It took right at two months to get the report back. No abnormal chemicals such as ricin or abrin were found. The final cause of death was determined to result from complications of botulinum toxin, likely from food poisoning.
The next day, the day after that, and the day after that, Ansel prepared a few graves, cleaned up the grounds, righted some overturned headstones from vandals. Cherith’s place was always immaculate and always well cared for. The usual, low human interaction day. Just the way he liked it.