by Aliza Dube
I attended elementary school in the shadow of a bone yard. Our teachers loved nothing better than to drag us to this cemetery across the street for field trips any chance they got. They justified it under the guise of teaching us local history. We lived in a little town along the muddy and vile banks of the Connecticut river. The ivory trade had stalked these beaches, there were still fossil footprints of slaves in the sand there. These shores were red with the blood of someone else’s ancestors. It was important that we understood that we so often swam in haunted waters. Or at least, that’s what our teachers told us. But really, I always just thought they appreciated how quiet we got, when confronted with a line of gravestones as uneven and chipped as our remaining baby teeth. Death for us was still a campfire story, it was still something that happened to other people. But not to us, we would be the generation to outsmart it, of this we were sure.
The best of these stories was the tale of an unnamed man whom the police department and the coroners office had simply christened “XYZ” before placing his tattered remains in the ground for all eternity. The history goes that the year was 1931 and the Depression was hitting the Connecticut River Valley hard. The slave trade had dried up more than half a century before and the constant flow of ivory that used to be carted from passing ships like the bones of the starving had done likewise. People made their piano keys from plastic now. There was no more music in the Valley anymore. The factories, brick and sullen, had all been converted into apartments that no one could seem to afford anyway. The affluence of the Rockefellers and Astors blew its second hand smoke from its high seat an hour’s train ride away from here. These people liked to keep their distance, seemed to revel in the death throes of the Valley rif-raf with the air of someone who would attend a hanging for entertainment.
The bank guard hated his job, but never complained because after all, he was one of the lucky ones. He had bread on the table. His child could be described as chubby and his wife could manage to stay home to raise it. But the night shift was slowly killing him. The hours made him feel like a vampire, a creature banished to the night for sins he didn’t remember committing in a past life. He’d sit for hours in the lobby, a rifle slung across his lap, protecting a vault that maybe contained a twenty dollar bill if anything at all. The banks were dying, the people were dying. And the biggest issue the night guard had was trying not to fall asleep on the job.
But one night, as the guard dozed and the tree peepers croaked outside along the river bank, there was a crack. The shattering of glass cascaded across the lobby like teeth chattering in the mouths of the freezing. The guard shook himself awake, hooked a shaking finger around the trigger. He tip-toed over to the window with the hesitance of a man staring into the mouth of a nightmare. A man’s body hung half in, half out of the window, his face half covered by a handkerchief as red and angry as blood.
“I’m going to warn you only two times; go back to where you came from, or I’m going to have to shoot,” the guard said, reluctant. The guard was a religious man. He didn’t believe the Lord would forgive him for spilling blood over something as soulless and insignificant as money. And these were hard times, after all. It drove people to do desperate things, like hang out of bank windows when they’d be better off sleeping. The man in the window continued to move, pulling the lump of his body further into the bank, without speaking a word to the guard. He moved silently, like a ghost, despite the struggle he seemed to be in.
“Sir, I’m only going to tell you once more, go back to where you came from, or I’m going to have to shoot,” the guard warned a second time, his voice wavering a little as he did so. Would he have the courage to pull the trigger? Would God forgive him? Could he forgive himself if it came to that end? What would he tell his son?
With one last heave, the man in the window hurled himself through the pane and landed with a thud, dead on the tile of the lobby floor. The guard had shot him through the face before he had even hit the ground. In the end, the killing of him had been easier than the guard had ever wanted to imagine possible. The guard sunk to his knees before the dead man, pulled off his handkerchief in an attempt to see who it was he had ended. The town was small then, everyone knew their neighbor by face and name. Logic followed that the guard would know the man he had killed, that he would have to alert a widow, or an orphan come day break. The fabric fell to the blood pooled there on the tile to reveal nothing but the hollow of a skull where a face had once been. There was no nose, eye, only the grimace of a reaper’s grin where someone’s father or husband had once been. The bullet had taken all of it away and now there was nothing left.
In the days following, a bulletin was put out. The police patiently waited for a wife, a mother, a child to claim and identify the faceless body that lay in the back room like a ghost beneath a sheet. But no one ever came and the days were getting hotter. It was August, after all. There would be flies soon, maggots too, come to claim what their human counterparts would not. One cannot hang on to the dead forever. They would have to bury the criminal soon, even if in doing so, they would bury all the answers too.
They buried the man in a simple pine box on the tax payers’ dime. A fat and grey pastor read the typical passages over the closed casket to a gathering of grave diggers and few others. He droned to no one in particular about the Valley of the shadow of death and each man gathered, with his fist white knuckled on the stem of his shovel winced a little, looking around him at the way the mountains always seemed to have them cornered lately. They gulped at how much God seemed to know about valleys and the helplessness that could be found within them. The pastor closed his good book with a thump and collected himself into the car the parish had bought for him. The grave diggers shoveled into the dry and tasteless earth as if it were Thanksgiving pie, grateful to have this small scrap of work. The shovel in their hand was the only thing separating them from the man in the casket. And tomorrow may be different, but today they were still the buriers, the mourners, not yet the buried, not yet the mourned. They still had faces, they still had names.
Legend tells us that no one came to mourn XYZ that day, but decades of teenagers and smart asses alike made it a habit or a joke to leave coins on his headstone. Visiters were ironic and cruel, giving money to a dead man who died in the pursuit of it, who could no longer spend it. Somewhere along the line this became a good luck practice. It became a curse, if you were brave enough to swipe one of XYZ’s coins from the dead grass that coiled up from where his body lay. One kid from our school would always snag one, Matt, a beautiful Italian looking child with too-long bangs and a shit eating grin. Matt grew up to become addicted to heroin and employed at the local gas station. Coincidence, I think not.
The closest thing XYZ ever got to a personal visit, to a proper mourner of any kind was the lady in black. She was a woman dressed in the most midnight of lace, with an onyx veil that came down to obscure her face. She looked just like the shadow of a bride. She would return to the gravesite each year on the anniversary of the bandit’s death to leave a single red rose on the stone. Then she would go, disappearing for another year without a trace. These were the only flowers he ever received. As the decades wore on and the roses kept coming, the people of the Valley wracked their brains for an explanation. Was she his widow? A ghost? The devil himself? But no one could ever prove a thing. Seventy Augusts later, the roses kept coming, strewn there amongst the pennies and the marble and the rot and the rust.
This story made some of my classmates cry with fear. They whined the tale would keep them up at night. Some swore that they saw the lady in black in places she could not be; in the corners of midnight kitchens, looming over their race car beds at the stroke of the witching hour. Other proclaimed too loudly and boldly that they were not afraid, as nervous sweat pooled down the sides of their armpits and they became incapable of looking at anything other than their feet in a child’s feeble attempt at bravery.
I felt neither fear nor embarrassment but rather a choking sense of second hand heartbreak. I could not imagine what it was like to be her, a woman just as nameless, just as faceless. She got no bulletin, no one was asked to claim her. What a way to spend eternity if that was indeed her lot. I would trace the parched and time worn petals of whatever dead flower still remained there and wonder about a love so timeless that it survives death and reason. A love so unconditional that neither crime, absence nor infamy can mar it. My child brain would marvel at the bond that drags a woman back to the dead lifetimes after the burial. And I’d wish, on every one of the bandit’s treasure pennies for something like that; immortal, damned and beautiful all the same. Some day. It’s what we all want really, to believe that that kind of love is more than a campfire story. Sometimes, we want to believe in ghosts.
About the Author:
Aliza Dube is a recent graduate of University of Maine at Farmington. She has a degree in Elementary Education and Creative Writing. Her writing has been described as raw, brutally honest and eerily relatable. She is currently living in Manhattan, Kansas and teaching at an elementary school on an army base. She is currently seeking publication for her first full length manuscript.