Living with the Dying

Living with the Dying

In Short Story by Peter Durantine

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Photo by moritz320 @ Pixabay

Cumberland stood in a remote part of the state. Judge Nathaniel Q. Wilkins wanted to send me as far away as he could from my old haunts and temptations in the city where arrogance and avarice could consume a man, if he let them. After climbing for hours over rivers and mountains and through soaring rocky passes, the Amtrak train slowed, coasting into the station of the old lumber town.

From the train, I spied church steeples poking above yellows, reds and browns while atop brick chimneys gray-white smoke rolled lazily into a leaden sky. Autumn comes early to the high elevations. A trackside billboard proudly proclaimed the town, World’s Lumber Capital.

I was the only passenger getting off; the blue-cap, uniformed conductor nodded and smiled as I stepped to the wood-plank platform of a station that appeared as pristine as it did when it was built in the 1920s.

“You’re the first passenger to get off in Cumberland in nearly fifteen years, least that I recall,” the conductor told me. “Don’t know why we have a station here.”

A moment later the horn blasted and the engineer pushed levers that made the engine shudder. The conducter tipped his cap and stepped back into the car. The locomotive rolled slowly forward, leaving me alone on the platform. I stood watching as the train disappeared around a bend in the tracks, listening to the horn wail in the distance. I started for the station office window. Inside, a bony-faced old soul sat, gray-haired and palsied. He lifted a trembling hand to open the window. I noticed an old telegraph wire on his desk.

“Don’t tell me you still use that,” I joked to him.

He smiled good-naturedly. “Why certainly not,” he said, pointing at two early 20th century communication devices – the Motorola radio and the worn, black rotary dial telephone. “Cumberland has modern conveniences.”

Yeah, I thought, they’re only fifty years old. I was without a cell phone, part of the conditions set by the Judge, who told me when I argued for one, “Where you’re going you can’t get reception anyway,” he said. “So, what’s the point?”

Cumberland, the Judge said, is too remote for cell towers. Other than the train, which takes a spur line that Amtrak and Union Pacific keeps threatening to abandon for lack of passengers and freight, there’s only an old two-lane road between here and the closest town, the county seat fifty miles away. None of the telephone companies believe it worthwhile building cell towers for the community. “I don’t think there’s even a computer there,” the Judge said. “The town is a little behind the times.”

Standing on the platform, I heard someone call my name.

“Mr. Cantwell?”

I swung around to a white-haired old man with deep blue smiling eyes. He lifted a brown, sweat-stained fedora in a way once commonly polite years ago and apologized for not being there when I arrived.

“Tom Ebersole,” he said, holding out a hand that I briefly shook. “Awfully sorry; the cemetery keeps me busy, as you’ll see.”

He nodded at the stationmaster. “How’re we doin’ Joe?”

Suspicious, the stationmaster nodded at me with a raised eyebrow. “Is this young fellow your charge?”

Tom smiled and reached for my suitcase. “Sure is.”

“Ok,” he said, as he closed the window. “I’ll be seeing you, then.”

We walked around one end of the three-room station to a ‘52 Ford pickup. Tom put my bag in the flatbed and told me to hop inside. He climbed in, rattled the stick shift, pulled the throttle, and turned the key. The engine cranked, hesitated a moment, then came to life with a throaty roar. He kept the interior immaculately clean.

We drove through the tree-lined town, past old Victorian homes and a square that looked preserved from the late 19th century. Tom steered the truck half-way around a park, where a white-latticed gazebo and stone fountain stood amid a green lawn.

The town appeared stuck in a bygone era, one I’d never believed true, although I would hear my grandparents and parents wax on about it.

“Pretty town,” I said.

Tom nodded, then down-shifted for power to ascend a steep hill. “Yup, we sure like it; not much changes, and that’s the way we like it.”

Granite and brownstone markers dotted the lawns of Cumberland Cemetery, spread across the crest of Mount Olive that overlooked the town and the narrow, forest-filled valley. A strong wind whistled through the tombstones. Tom said the wind always blows through the cemetery.

At the black, wrought-iron entrance, twisted-metal letters arched overhead to form the words, Heaven’s Gate. The truck passed through, down an uneven brick road, patched with aged asphalt here and there, to a moderate-sized stone cottage.

Inside, Tom showed me my room, designated for the assistant caretaker. It was small with a bed, a dresser, a desk and a window from which to view the valley. Tom was a friendly enough sort, but as I got to know him that afternoon and over a dinner of chicken and waffles, which he prepared nicely, I sensed a deep, abiding resignation.

He repeated, several times, the line he gave me earlier about the town: “Not much changes here, and that’s just the way we like it.”

Later in the evening we sat in worn, overstuffed chairs before a crackling fire that burned in a large, soot-stained stone hearth. Tom smoked a long-stemmed pipe and told me about our duties. The cemetery had nearly one thousand people buried in it, their tombstones dating to the late 18th century. He motioned with his pipe and told of soldiers from the American Revolution having been buried in the cemetery.

“Sometimes you hear things out there,” he said.

I tried not to laugh. “Like what?”

“I don’t know,” he said, now hesitant over my skepticism. “Voices, perhaps, or just the wind making strange sounds.”

Tom leaned forward and struck a long-stemmed match against the worn, but polished wooden floor. His pipe had gone out and he needed to relight it. He held the flame to the bowl of tobacco as he spoke out one side of his mouth between puffs. “I know you’re paying a debt to society, don’t need to know why; it’s your business, if you don’t want to say.”

Judge Wilkins used those words: debt to society. I sat silently. Tom rose from his chair and bid good night. I watched the flames lick the hearth, feeling thankful for my lawyer. He convinced the Judge, who wanted me behind bars, on this alternative sentence because it was my first offense and because he could employ some political connections I had in city hall and the state house.

“I don’t know if that’s constructive in this case,” the Judge had said. “Mr. Cantwell clearly has no remorse for the victims who don’t have the money or clout that he has to rely on when he’s in trouble.” Those victims, my brokerage house clients of middle-class means who dreamed their safe investments would make them rich one day, were fools. True, I used some – not all – their money for high-risk investments that failed to fulfill the promise of greater returns. I would have returned their money had my investment strategy worked. They should have known not to trust anyone. After carefully applied pressure by my lawyer and my connections, the Judge, though resentful at the tactics, agreed to the alternative sentence, but on certain conditions. “Mr. Cantwell will meet the responsibilities of his punishment in the town of Cumberland,” the Judge said. “He is to live and work in Cumberland for twelve years; under no circumstances is he to leave the town, and if he does, I will send him to prison to finish his sentence.”

I was more than happy to agree to the conditions. I stood in the courtroom before the Judge and tried not to smile. To serve this sort of sentence for fraud and embezzlement could not be easier.

Next morning found us on a slope, digging a grave for a burial in the afternoon. It had been awhile since I had been employed in manual labor. At first, each shovel of dirt I tossed seemed to get heavier, but as I kept at it, each shovel-full seemed to lighten.

Tom worked with ease, leaning on his shovel most of the time, not saying much except to offer direction. We finished excavating a coffin-size hole, six-feet deep, then carried a tombstone from the flatbed and set it in place. Tom had not yet chiseled in the deceased’s name.

Our duties took us elsewhere in the cemetery, raking leaves for the remainder of the morning. We ate lunch at the cottage then returned to the gravesite we had prepared earlier. The funeral party was leaving as we arrived. The old minister prayed over the pine-wood box as we carefully lowered it into the ground using heavy ropes. We filled the grave with dirt. It became a ritual that we performed at least once a week, sometimes more. One day, after I tossed the last shovel of earth over a grave, I realized that although manual labor was tough, the exercise from tending to the cemetery week after week was starting to change me, physically and emotionally. I lost flab gained from a lifestyle of sedentary luxury, built muscle, and acquired a broader outlook on life.

Two months into the work I was starting to enjoy the cemetery and the quaintness of the town, but I found there wasn’t anyone living here under age sixty-five, twice my age. The young, Tom said, leave and never return. The last of them left about twenty years ago. “It’s sad, but we can’t get the young people to live here,” he said. “I guess I can’t blame them; not much changes here, and that is the way we like it.”

Something attracted me to this town. What, I could not say, but I started to think I could live here, if there were more people my age, maybe even open a business and serve on the town council; there was only the mayor and four council members – Tom was one of them – but not one of them was younger than seventy. To my surprise I suddenly realized I was no longer thinking about my life in the city or what I would do when I returned.

One chilly afternoon in late November, after filling another grave, I noticed the tombstone was blank and wondered when Tom would put the name on it. We spoke little on the drive back to the cottage, passing row after row of tombstones. It was then I noticed another tombstone without an inscription, and then another; and another … none of them had names.

Tom was dismissive at my astonishment. “I told you,” he said, “people here don’t like change, and that’s just the way we like it.”

I sat, dumbfounded. “But how do you know who’s buried here?”

“Why’s that important; they’re dead,” Tom said.

Before I could respond, he turned the wheel sharply and swung the flatbed down a rutted lane into an older section of the cemetery. He drove about a hundred yards then put on the brakes; the truck stopped with a jolt.

“There,” he said, pointing to a tombstone with an inscription. It read: Frederick V. Mackrel, 1945-1968. “That’s the last time we marked a stone in this cemetery.”

I climbed out of the truck and walked over to the grave and noticed the view just beyond Fred Mackrel’s white, sandstone marker – Cumberland, and the forest-filled valley below. The ever-present winds picked up as I studied the tombstone.

“Who was Fred Mackrel?”

“That don’t matter none,” Tom said. He remained behind the wheel, puffing his long-stemmed pipe. “What matters is what happened here when he died; it’s why things don’t change much.”

“What happened?”

Tom puffed, thoughtfully. “Things changed.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The Indochina War took all but a handful of our young men, and some of our young women. Cumberland’s future was gone; it’s been slowly dying off since and we’ve not seen a need to keep reminding ourselves of it by writing names on tombstones.”

I climbed back into the truck without offering a word. Tom started off. “You see, nobody’s ever coming here; located as remotely as we are,” said, negotiating a narrow cemetery lane. “For this town to survive, it needs the young, but they’re gone and never returning because there is nothing here for them but a dying old town.”

Only a few hundred people were left, he said, to keep things looking neat and to run the lumber mill twice a week using trees nature felled. No one chops wood anymore; they hadn’t in nearly a generation; the thick forests attested to that. The owner of the mill, in his late sixties, expects to close early next year because demand for his lumber has dropped off – not enough fills the train car that picks up the wood each month, and the labor force is dying off.

“Everyone is old and tired,” Tom said.

He steered the truck to the work shed and stopped. We climbed out and I followed him to the back, where he worked on tombstones. One was set against the shed wall. “That’s mine,” Tom said. He puffed on his pipe. “This town needs someone like you – young and ambitious – to rejuvenate it. Hell, you’re bright enough to run this town, certainly this cemetery, and it’s going to need a caretaker soon.”

I started to protest, but he shook his head. “Why do you think the Judge sent you up here? He’s from this town – left when he was young. He’s never been back.” Tom kicked a stone with his shoe. “Truthfully, though, nothing can help. The only visitor we get regularly is the truck that brings fresh food to Pa Jones’ grocery every two weeks.”

“So, what’s left for the town?” I asked.

“What’s left? I guess waiting for the last of us to die and then closing it all down,” Tom said. “Considering seventy-something is the average age in this town it looks like you’ll be one who’ll have the chore of doing the closing.”

I stood, stunned at how my arrogance blinded me. The Judge had known what he was doing when he sentenced me. I had been too smug to consider that I might have been eluding one prison for another. Worse, I now realized that until I came to this town I was dead, a soul-less man who lived for no one but himself. Now I was living with the dying.

A few months later Joe the stationmaster died. Shortly after we buried him Amtrak and Union Pacific finally stopped threatening and ended their service on the railroad spur. The only way to town now was a long, lonely asphalt road. Tom died the following year, and I became the caretaker of the cemetery, digging several graves a month, burying the last of Cumberland’s population, and knowing that for the next few years not much would change here.

About the Author

Peter Durantine

Peter Durantine is the author of a murder mystery/suspense novel, The Chocolate Assassin, and a crime novel, Leave the Canoli released on Kindle. He has been a journalist for nearly 30 years, writing on a range of subjects, from business and education to government and politics, and for such organizations as the Associated Press, Roll Call, The New York Times, Philadelphia Daily News and The Wilmington News-Journal. He was a co-founder and editor of The Burg, a monthly community newspaper for Harrisburg, PA. He now works as a staff writer for the Office of Communications at Franklin & Marshall College.