by Chris Dungey
I don’t know why anyone would want to be buried up in the Lakeville Cemetery. I suppose it’s tranquil enough if you imagine your eternity in some pastoral setting. But, in a rural township, this one isn’t well maintained. It’s set at the top of a wooded hill above Lakeville, a three-way stop in northern Oakland County. What village there is threatens to slide down the boat-launch ramp of the Lakeville lake. There’s a convenience store and bar/pizza joint. The lake is supposed to be the water-moccasin capital of Michigan. That hasn’t prevented cottages from being thrown up on every foot of its marshy shore. There are always speed-boats and pontoons churning. One of my Gramps’s sisters used to live just a half-a-mile from here and her husband was always killing Mississauga rattlers on his riding mower.
We get to the graveyard by driving up a gravel road, probably unimproved to keep the taxes down. There are some fine looking gentleman farms along the way. Horses graze in the small meadows that are greening up. I’ve got great-grandparents buried up here, my Gramps on Pop’s side and soon Grandma Wilma.
“Hector, please tell me you don’t wanta be down here,” my wife Cheryl says. “I’ll need the Garmin to find it.”
“No babe. I’m gonna break with family tradition.”
I know she won’t end up here. Her people have some extra plots staked out over near Flint. And I’ve already told my parents that I won’t be delivering their grave blankets until after the first hard freeze. I hate reptiles with an unreasonable passion.
Grandma Wilma’s memorial was held up at Sandusky Presbyterian. We have to wait for all the principal survivors and her friends to make their way down here after the luncheon. It takes over an hour and some of the drivers are quite elderly. We take the time to meditate over the family monuments. Dad does some grounds-keeping around Gramps’ headstone with some clippers. I stay on high alert. All of the grass looks a little too long for my comfort.
Finally, the aunts, uncles and most of the cousins begin rolling in. They park off the narrow, pitted macadam. Car doors slam in the muggy stillness. A strong May sun has broken through some thin overcast. Coats and jackets are left behind. Any ties have already been tugged off hours ago in that church basement.
The late arrivals make their own brief tour of the ancestral Fritch markers. Children who’ve been dragged along hide and chase among the slabs. When Dad brings Grandma Wilma’s urn from the car, everyone gravitates toward the freshly opened grave. I’ve never heard of this. I’ve always been under the impression that cremated ashes are scattered in some favorite spot or shunted to the end of a fireplace mantle. The displaced dirt is hidden under green felt, just like for a regular casket.
“If everyone’s here, I guess we can get started,” Dad says.
Just then, another car turns in, trailing wisps of oil smoke. It’s a rusting Ford Escort, missing at least two hubcaps. The engine dies.
“Well, Stan made it after all,” my Aunt Muriel says. She’s Dad’s youngest sister. She married a Polish plumber from up in Bad Axe. That’s the union that gave me most of my cousins. “He wasn’t sure about his car,” she explains.
Cousin Stan is her baby. He’s been involved in various difficulties over the years, including at least one minor check-kiting grift. After a short term in stow at Huron County Jail, he settled down to forging prescriptions and suing a string of employers over work-related injuries. The last I’d heard, he’d finally wrangled a disability settlement from one of them. He was using a cane at the church.
“He coulda rode with somebody,” Dad says.
Aunt Muriel rolls her eyes. “I offered. It’s complicated, as usual.”
Aunt Carol, the middle sister, lays an arm around Muriel’s shoulder in sympathy. Dad looks past the relatives, now closed in tight around the hole. He gives Stan a few moments to cross the lawn, walking like he’s on eggshells.
“OK, well. My sisters and I want to thank everyone, again, for their kind words and the memories we shared earlier. Right now, I’m just going to place Mom to rest.” He stoops to kneel on one of his knee replacements. The green felt keeps his slacks clean. The urn is lowered gently into the small vault. There’s a cover to put over that and then my brother, Patrick, helps him to his feet.
“Why don’t we just close with the Lord’s Prayer.” Dad’s voice catches, but he gets it started.
It’s a strong unison effort, even with split between debts and trespasses to be forgiven. The Catholic offspring of Aunt Muriel stop early for some reason. I guess their version is different. Everyone lingers in a silence broken only by a distant outboard motor far down on the lake.
Cousin Stan is the first to speak. “Listen, folks. I’d like to share something, if you aren’t in a hurry.” Everyone turns. Some of the mourners hadn’t seen him arrive. Now I notice he’s carrying a grocery bag in his free hand, “You’re all are probably aware I’ve had some misadventures in life, but I hope you’ll gimme a minute. This wouldn’t’ve been right to do at the church.”
No one walks away. Stan lifts a fifth of amber liqueur out of the sack. “I was living at home for a few months last winter. It was just temporary. Thanks again, Ma. Anyways, it was about the same time we had Grandma with us. She didn’t wanta go into hospice. We had a hospital bed set up in the front room. We watched a lot of game shows together.”
Now he lifts a stack of small plastic cups out of the bag. I guess they’re just a little bigger than shot-glass size. The label on the liqueur reads Peach Schnapps.
“I was trying to have just one drink in the evening.” Stan has to pause. He swallows hard. Lifting the cane, he nudges the corner of one eye with his shirt cuff. He hands the cups to Aunt Muriel. “Just to help me sleep,” he continues. “So this one night, I offered Gram a shot. She perked up and had a sip. She talked about how Gramps used to share his beers with her, a little glass from each one he opened for himself.”
“And always, when they were fishing for blue-gills,” my dad confirms. “Or cleaning them.”
“Right. That was on her mind, too,” Stan says. “It turned into a regular time we shared until I got another place.” The tears are streaming now. I wouldn’t have been able to keep speaking, if it was me. But Stan goes right on. “Mom would you pass these around? I hope you’ll all join me.” He twists the cap on the schnapps, breaking it loose. He steps in closer to the grave so he can face everyone.
I suppose his story is plausible. I remember those glasses of beer Gram shared with Grandpa Fritch. They went bluegill fishing at least one night every week during summer. Aunt Muriel hands out the cups with a smile and more tears. I’m pretty sure she would have called bullshit on Stan had he made it all up. When everyone has been served, he lifts his cup: “Cheers, Grandma. Rest in peace.”
There are a few sobs, a few ‘here-heres.’ I watch Stan touch the shot to his lips. Then he bends and spills it at the foot of the grave like you see soldiers do in movies. A tribute libation into the dust. The peach schnapps smells great but I’m not even tempted after twenty-five years sober. So, I offer mine the same way. Some people at the back begin herding their kids toward the cars. Aunt Muriel collects the drained cups. Everyone is hugging, renewing intentions for a family reunion soon. Dad shakes Stan’s hand. “Nice touch,” he says.
I shake Dad’s hand, too, and hug the elderly aunts one last time. Then Cheryl and I head for the car. We let some others clear out ahead of us, impatient great-grandchildren with their own little ones. The AC hasn’t been used since last fall, so we let it run for a bit.
At the bottom of the gravel road, I wait for a few cars to go by, headed down into Lakeville. In the rearview, I notice Stan in his beater waiting behind me. I beep the horn and wave. He waves back. I make my left and just as I’m straightening the car out, there’s a snake in the road. It darts off the shoulder onto the warm, dark asphalt, really moving.
“Jesus!” Cheryl blurts, in unison with my louder “Fuck!”
The thing is fat and fast, a blue racer probably. It’s a yard long if it’s an inch. I jam on the brakes and we skid over it. I can feel it bump under the tires. In the mirror it’s still flopping, halfway into the opposite lane. I see Stan swerve to nail it again.
My heart is pounding with adrenalin. There’s a satisfaction, despite all I’ve learned about their benefits in the ecological order. Even I know it’s a pretty ugly attitude. Regrettable, but I suspect these phobias must be passed down like family plots. They’re practically coded into the DNA from prehistoric times. Anyway, what am I supposed to do, find one and handle it until I’m cured?
“Cheers to you, Cousin Stan,” I whisper, gathering speed.
Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker in MI. He rides mountain bikes, feeds two wood-stoves, follows Detroit City Football Club and Flint City Bucks soccer, and spends beaucoup time in Starbucks. He has more than 67 stories published (in 2019 at Fleas on the Dog, Sweet Tree Review, and forthcoming in Free State Review and Oasis).