The short story is more like flash fiction, but I am very happy with it. I am using today to post the rough draft and see what you all think. Keep in mind this is based on a real person with a lot of fictional elements thrown in. I hope you enjoy it! As of now it is untitled. I may start a poll for a title at a later date. Please feel free to suggest a title for it in the comments. Without further ado, here is my untitled story.
Lawrence Marek stood leaning on his shovel handle, surveying the ground beneath him. With a sigh, he took the spade and dug it into the soft earth just inside the long rectangular wooden form he had placed on the ground. He had lost count at 900. That was the number of graves he had dug at Willard State Hospital’s cemetery during the first fourteen years.
Miss Jane’s grave needed to be perfect. They all did. They all deserved the dignity in death that they did not receive in life. Miss Jane had been an odd one he admitted to himself. She often muttered incoherently and carried a small, smooth stone in her hand. It was her lifeline to the life she’d had before the asylum. He just knew somehow that is what that stone was to her. She guarded it with her life. She was often left sitting in a puddle of her own urine, crying and wailing. No one knew why. It was just Miss Jane.
With a flick of his wrists, Lawrence turned the spade over, dumping a pile of black dirt into the grass next to the wooden frame. He could already smell it, that earthy fresh smell of newly turned soil. He had often thought he would have made a great farmer, standing in a freshly plowed field and inhaling the scent, feeling the dirt in his hands as he sifted it between his fingers moist, crumbly, and wholesome. He could see it as far as his eyes wandered in his mind. Dirt was the foundation of everything, the foundation of him.
Lawrence had been confined at Willard since 1918 and had been tending the cemetery since 1937. It was now 1958 and at age 80, his back was still as strong as it had been in his youth. After shoveling several spades full of earth aside, he stood and leaned on the shovel handle once more, allowing his eyes to flit from site to site. Cast iron numbers stared blankly at him, whispering nothing. It seemed a pitiful way to mark someone’s life and passing, but so it was and so it would be for him in another 10 years. He wondered who would care for this grassy field after he was gone. He didn’t know who would tend the soil or love its effects on the senses the way he did.
There was always and air of sadness in Lawrence’s countenance on the days he dug graves, though the staff never seemed to recognize it. All they ever saw were the big dirty boots clomping down the hall on the way to the kitchen. They rarely noticed how perfectly each rectangular hole had been dug, how much care was put into filling the hole once the pine box and it’s occupant had been laid to rest. There was not much conversation to be had with Lawrence. His English was still broken even though he’d been in New York since 1907. He’d known asylum life before in Germany. It had never come up during his admittance on Ellis Island. By 1916, he was committed once again and 2 years later he found a permanent home at Willard.
He supposed it was a long time to be in an asylum, but no one ever seemed to leave on their own two feet. They all ended up with a balding man with a thick mustache taking them on their last walk, but they could never have asked for a more attentive caretaker in death than Lawrence. The voices and visions of his youth had left him around age 55. He took no medication and yet he remained Willard’s solemn caretaker. He had nowhere else to go. No one would hire him with his mental health history. He had no family in the United States. They were still in Austria-Hungary if they were still alive. He had a roof over his head and food to eat along with privileges not given to other patients there.
Lawrence glance up at the sky as a drop of rain hit the top of his bare head. Digging in his back pocket for his hat, he put it on perfectly straight as he stepped lightly down into the hole that had formed and continued digging. Miss Jane deserved a sunny day for her memorial. He had seen in her what others didn’t. Behind her sadness and confusion was kindness and gentleness. He could see her for the soft person she really was, but he never spoke to her. He only looked into her eyes as he would pass her in the hallway. He had always felt lucky that he wasn’t like Miss Jane, that he had his faculties about him, especially at his age.
Digging graves never felt like an odd or frightening experience to Lawrence. He took his job seriously and saw it as an honor to look after all the neglected people who rested there. It was physical work and it made him forget the folly of his youth, the drinking, the fighting, the outrageous behavior that had landed him in an asylum in the first place. This was his penance. It was what he had to do to make himself right with his maker. Never mind that someday he would only be a cast iron number that would later be cast aside to make mowing easier, that his beloved grounds would look more like a pasture. He was there to make it look perfect today. He couldn’t worry about forever. No one could. No one would be there to see it. But they could see it now, smell the earth, feel the grass, see all the perfectly aligned numbers and know that at this time, someone cared about the final resting place of these people. His people. He did not mind sometimes wrapping the bodies for a dollar or two. It was his privilege, his honor, his duty.
Small dark clouds seemed to skitter across the sky as a breeze blew over the grave. Lawrence dug more quickly, filling a bucket and tossing it out. He ran the shovel along the dirt walls and squared all six feet of each corner. No roots dangled out from the surfaces. They were all packed in tightly into the perfect rectangle. He leaned on his shovel again, critically checking to make sure nothing was misaligned or out of place. With his hat, Lawrence wiped small droplets of sweat from his brow, shoving the brim back into his rear pocket. Satisfied, he climbed out of the grave with his shovel and bucket. From above, he made one last survey, fixing the hand and foot holds he had used to climb out.
He glanced up once again and saw the sun’s rays trying force their way through the dim clouds. Yes indeed, he thought to himself, Miss Jane would smile if she could see how perfect her final resting place was. And if he thought hard enough, he could remember what that smile looked like. He had seen it long ago. It looked just like that ray of sunshine trying to peer out around the clouds.