The Last Grave
by Ken Wetherington
Efforts to locate next of kin had failed. Only the gravediggers and I stood in the ancient cemetery among the mounds of exhumed plots encircled by high-rise apartment buildings blocking the morning sun.
Otis murmured something about a skeleton crew. The others laughed and leaned on their shovels. I checked my watch—already a quarter after. The media would not be coming. I nodded to Otis. He climbed aboard the gravedigger, started its engine, and steered it over to the sunken rectangle. The claw descended and scooped up its first load of dirt.
Ten years ago, the Cremation Initiative had provoked fierce controversy. Exhumations were slow in the beginning until media attention declined, and the citizenry moved on to other concerns. A few grieving families made feeble protests, but disinterments proceeded at an ever-swifter pace, creating a boom for the cremation business, columbaria, and real estate companies, which scooped up the properties for development.
A Dragonfly appeared in the sky, made a tight loop, and landed twenty yards away. Its door opened, and a young woman emerged. She wore the ubiquitous video headgear of a news reporter.
I signaled Otis to halt the exhumation. He frowned and gave an exasperated shake of his head, but complied.
The woman approached. “Jillian Maye, Dallas Video News.”
“Guy Singleton, Federal Reclamation Project. Thanks for coming.”
“This the last one?”
“As far as we know. I’m sure there’re others that have been built over or paved over, and some are in former coastal cities, now submerged. They’ll turn up from time to time, but we won’t be searching for them.”
Jillian pointed to the dates on the headstone: October 18, 1939 – November 24, 1963. “I guess life was short back then.”
“It was a lawless time. Everyone had a firearm. I don’t think many died of natural causes.”
“That’s a bitch. Man, it’s hot as hell here. What’s that smell?”
“What smell? Oh, I think you mean the dirt.”
“Sure. It smells like dirt. How long’s it been since you’ve stood on a patch of earth?”
“I don’t remember. When I was a child, I guess.”
I shrugged. “What do you need for your story?”
“A short interview with you and then some footage of the … uh, what do you call it?”
The filming and interview went as I supposed they would. She asked predictable questions, and I responded with clichéd answers. Our obligations completed, I seized on the chance of making a routine day memorable, though I was probably twice her age.
“How about a drink somewhere?”
Otis made a sound. A snicker, I think.
I expected a refusal, but she said, “It’s kinda early for that, but okay.”
I half suspected her acceptance had been designed to counter Otis’ derisive sneer. I cast a smug glance in his direction. “You fellows finish up here.” He scowled and restarted the gravedigger. I turned to Jillian. “Your Dragonfly or mine?”
“Mine, I guess. DVN’s paying for it.”
The bar at Dealey Tower offered an expansive view of the hard, gleaming city in the mid-day sun. Skyscrapers danced in a wavy mirage of heat. The serene, refrigerated air of the bar barely disturbed the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
“So, Jill, how long have you been with DVN?”
“Don’t you have a better line than that?”
I reappraised her. She’d been around. “How old are you anyway?”
“Well, at least that’s direct. Twenty-three. You?”
“Thirty-four,” I lied.
“So, is your work done? I mean, there are no more graves to, uh …”
“Right. Why can’t I remember that word? What’s next?”
“More of the same.”
“But there’re no more—”
“We’re compiling a database of columbaria. Sooner rather than later, they’ll be targeted and outlawed. Of course, some citizens keep ashes at home. Not many places left to scatter them. I’ll bet you have some at your apartment.”
“Well, yes. I have about a half-dozen ancestors in a closet.”
“What about your family four of five generations down the road? How will there be space to store everyone? What about your parents? Considering your age, I assume they’re still living.”
“Yeah. They’ll be around for a long time, I think.”
“By then, all the columbaria may be gone.”
“There’ll be protests.”
“Not so many as you think. Most people are less attached to ashes than they were to bodies. We’ll roll out an ad campaign in advance to mold public opinion.”
“What will happen to all the ashes?”
“Still working on that. Dumped somewhere, oceans most likely. Some suggested shooting them into space. It’s a romantic notion. Maybe we’ll present that to the public as the ultimate solution, but it’s way too expensive. It’ll never happen. All this is off the record, you know. Can’t have this getting out before we’re ready.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Her eyes held mine for a moment. “I’m sad for you. It’s a lousy job.” She touched my hand.
“There are so few jobs. I’m glad to have it.” I let several seconds pass. “Come home with me.”
She sighed and gazed out the window. “I don’t think so.” She withdrew her hand. “I’d better get back to the office. Thanks for the drink.”
“Give me your number. I’ll call you.”
She shook her head. “No, but it’s okay to tell your gravedigger crew that you slept with me. I didn’t like their snickering attitude.”
“That’s not my style.” I had been a long time without a girlfriend but didn’t feel the need to impress Otis and his crew.
She gave a tilt of her head. “Suit yourself.”
I declined her offer of a lift back to the cemetery and watched her leave, wishing for a different ending. It had become so hard to connect with anybody. I signaled for another drink before returning to work.
Ken Wetherington lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife and two dogs. His stories have appeared in Ginosko Literary Journal, The Fable Online, Borrowed Solace: A Journal of Literary Ramblings, The Remington Review and others. His first collection, Santa Abella and Other Stories was honored with the BRAG Medallion from the Book Readers Appreciation Group. When not writing, he is an avid film buff and teaches film courses for the OLLI program at Duke University. He may be reached through his website: https://kenwetherington.com