From the author: “This story is loosely based on a real person, and when I first heard of the real-life “Tommy” I couldn’t help but think the dead would show their gratitude if they could. I’m a huge fan of Tales from the Crypt stories in which nefarious evil-doers get their come-uppance, but I also wanted to show — and then erase — the artificial lines society uses to divide human beings into varying degrees of worth.
In the first draft, my outstanding critique group of David Powell, Vanessa Reid and Tony Sarrecchia, all pointed out I’d given my Tommy no reason for his compulsion to attend the indigent funerals. I found that reason in the pandemic and its heartbreaking stories of people dying alone in the ICU with no family or friends there to comfort them. I then had PseudoPod alum and ER/trauma nurse L’Erin Ogle read the revision to make sure that scene was accurate. Ultimately, the point of both the story and how it came to be is that none of us should have to do any of this life – even the end of it – alone. We all deserve to have someone give a damn. And while the motivation for the real “Tommy” differs starkly from the fictional one, I take comfort in knowing he is out there, tending his field.”
By Nathan McCullough
Tommy found the graveyard peaceful.
It was a strange feeling to be sure, especially given what they were there to do, but with the world on fire, an afternoon with the dead seemed a welcome respite.
The slightest of breezes puffed up his long black hair a bit but did nothing to cool him off. It was a hot Georgia day, about the only kind this part of the world seemed to have anymore. Between the four months without a haircut (the COVID cut they called it) and the cloth covering his face, he felt like his head might burst into flames. His body was only slightly more comfortable. He’d drawn the line at a suit jacket today and instead wore a short-sleeved button-down shirt and a tie. He felt like an IT guy in a bad TV movie.
He stared just beyond the gravesite, ignoring the activity to his left. Where his gaze fell, the dead rested, though most of the living didn’t know they were there. Hundreds of unmarked graves lay shoulder to shoulder holding Atlanta’s unknown, unclaimed or down and out. And their footprint on this patch of Palmetto earth was about to grow just a little bit bigger, like kudzu creeping into the road but stopping just where the tires pass by.
The old pauper’s graveyard in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery had been full for decades, so this field in Palmetto was the current final stop on the city’s saddest hearse ride. Tommy had read a story about it a few months ago in the paper, about how the city buried its homeless, its John and Jane Does and its indigent in cardboard boxes in unmarked graves, usually with no mourners present. People who usually went through life alone went through death that way, too.
The story had also been about Grady Carlson, the lone reverend who volunteered his time and services to preach over the deceased on their final day above ground.
Reverend Carlson had been making a trip or two a week to this place for years, usually no one but the city gravediggers to accompany him. Occasionally a family member or two of the deceased would show up, usually too poor and often with too many troubles of their own to afford to do anything other than to stand quietly while the reverend said a few words. But more often than not the folks buried here got buried with no mourners in black, no flowers, no tears.
Tommy couldn’t stand that. And so he’d started joining Carlson when he could. Between his classes at Georgia State and his job he couldn’t make it every trip, but he came as often as he could and stood reverently and mourned people he’d never known.
Sometimes he wished he’d known them. Other times he was glad he didn’t. With as many funerals as he’d attended the past few months, he couldn’t imagine the grief he might feel if they’d all been familiar faces.
The sadness he felt each time was palpable. He hadn’t gotten numb to it, and that had been an actual fear early on, that he’d grow indifferent, bored, that his good deed would fall victim to routine.
It hadn’t though. Each time he felt the effects of the same emotional cocktail that was three parts sadness and one part joy, a concoction that said at least someone had shown up that day. He tried to keep pity and pride out of it, but the truth was he’d first come here because he’d felt pity and kept coming back because he felt good knowing that the someone who’d shown up was him.
Tommy didn’t broadcast it though. Few knew about his role as a volunteer mourner, and despite being firmly in the demographic that lived life digitally he’d never been one to offer a blow by blow of his life on social media. Lately he’d shunned it almost completely. Some of his college buddies had taken to calling him Boomer over his pullback from a digital footprint and his newfound preference for the tangible and the visceral. His trips to Palmetto checked both of those boxes and the spiritual one as well. He wasn’t all that religious, but his parents were, and one Bible verse he’d learned in Sunday school had always stuck with him:
Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.
In other words, do something good because it needs to be done, not for praise. He’d always thought that made a lot of sense, no matter to which God you prayed.
“About ready, Tommy.”
He looked over at Reverend Carlson, nodded and headed toward him. As he walked he heard a car pulling up and he glanced over his shoulder. An old shitbox Dodge was turning in. The car looked like it was held together by nothing but rust and hope, a lone, severe-looking old man at the wheel. Beyond it Tommy could see the actual cemetery across the street, where the dead got buried in shiny coffins, their final resting place marked with broad tombstones.
“Three today,” Carlson said. “Not sure who that might be.” He jerked his chin at the Dodge, which had stopped. “Nobody called about anybody here.”
Tommy looked down at the three cardboard boxes at his feet, each lined up perfectly with the hole in the ground that was just big enough to accommodate them. That was all a pauper got: cardboard. Not even a pine box these days. All the state could afford. People liked to argue about money for the living a lot more than money for the dead. Not that money for these particular folks alive or dead had ever been a concern of most anyone.
Having laid out the three departed, the diggers hopped in their city van and retreated to the edge of the field where they kept the little backhoe they used to excavate the graves and where there was some shade – the indigent weren’t afforded a tree branch to block the late afternoon sun either. Plus, on this August day, the diggers would stay in the van with the air conditioning running. They would come back to lower the three boxes and cover them up after the reverend finished.
Carlson had been ready to start, but he waited on the old man getting out of the Dodge. As the man walked up, clad in Goodwill clothes that were probably as close to being dressy as he ever got, Tommy could see he wasn’t really all that old, his unmasked face marked more by hardship than years.
“You the preacher?” he asked Tommy before noticing the Bible in Carlson’s hands. “Oh, guess it’s you.” He stared at the tall black reverend, a look on his face that couldn’t be read. “Lady down at the city said my brother’s here today.”
Carlson looked down at the boxes. The one on the left had a small label that read Flemming, James A. The middle box read Jenkins, Tanya. The third box had no label.
The man’s face turned quizzical at how the reverend had deduced that, then he spied the labels on the boxes, his own powers of deduction answering the question.
“Yeah, that’s me.” He didn’t offer his first name but turned to look at the box. “So that’s Jimbo in there, huh?”
“Yes, sir. If James was your brother.”
“You can call him Jimbo. Nobody called him James.”
The reverend nodded, and they all stood silently for a moment. Then the man walked around the hole to the side where his brother lay and knelt down. He put his hand on the box briefly and read the little label again. Then he grabbed the edge of the lid a bit more firmly, shook it a bit as if kicking the tires on a replacement for the old Dodge. The Reverend Carlson cleared his throat.
“Don’t worry,” the man said without looking up. “I don’t need to see inside. Just don’t seem right is all, a cardboard box. Buried the cat in a cardboard box.” He stood back up. “Then again, Jimbo probably slept in one for the last ten years at least, so maybe it’s fitting.” He grinned as he said it.
The man’s irreverent demeanor made Tommy uncomfortable. He always felt intrusive anyway when family showed up and usually tried to retreat, which he did now.
“I think I’ll just step away,” he said to the reverend, and started to turn.
“Who are you?” the man asked before he could go.
“I, uh, assist the reverend. With the deceased who don’t have anyone. But when mourners show up I usually-”
The man stopped him with a wave of his hand.
“Nonsense. More the merrier. Jimbo might’ve been a drunk and a bum, but he never met a stranger. Hell, he hadn’t been so friendly to the other losers he’d have probably wound up here a lot sooner, way he lived.”
He looked over at Carlson.
“OK, preacher. Roll with it. Let’s get it over with.”
Tommy grimaced but stayed, and Carlson began.
The rest went fairly quickly. Carlson preached over the late Jimbo Flemming, his nameless brother saying thanks afterward and leaving. Then Carlson did the same for the late Tanya Jenkins and the one known but to God. The clapping shut of his Bible signaled the diggers it was over, and the van started to creep back toward the gravesite.
“Well, Tommy, as usual, glad to have you. I know they were, too.” He nodded toward the boxes. “What say we get out of this heat?”
“Think I’ll hang out a bit today, Reverend.” Tommy did that sometimes, staying until the graves were covered, like a scarecrow watching over a crop. Carlson was familiar with this occasional part of Tommy’s ritual and didn’t argue.
“OK, then. See ya soon, I reckon.”
Tommy nodded. In other years they might’ve shaken hands, but they bumped elbows instead. Carlson headed for his car, plucking his mask off and using it to wipe sweat off the top of his bald head as he got in and drove away.
Tommy pulled his own mask off and shoved it in his pocket. He started to head for his car, to get inside and get the A/C going so he could watch from a place of comfort, but instead he decided to cross the narrow road to the cemetery proper where there was a little bench just off the pavement beneath a young Japanese maple tree. The maple didn’t seem to be faring too well in the Georgia sun, but it gave a little shade nonetheless.
Tommy plopped down on the bench and loosened his collar, pulled off the tie and used it to wipe sweat from his forehead before shoving it in his pocket as well. His shirt clung to him, and he pinched it away from his body, trying to get some air moving underneath as he set about watching the gravediggers transform into the grave fillers.
Even he didn’t quite understand why he stayed sometimes. It just seemed … fitting. He’d put it together in his mind that it was usually either after a family member had shown up for one but not all or when there’d been an unknown person. They’d had both today, so that was probably it. But he’d never quite put his finger on why he felt compelled to ferry some of them all the way.
Maybe it was that pity he tried to tell himself he didn’t feel. Or maybe just lending credence to the term paying respect.
The city guys were efficient but reverent. Each box was lowered carefully but quickly into its grave, and then one man fetched the backhoe and covered each hole just as quickly. In a half hour they were gone, leaving Tommy alone on the bench between two boneyards, one a place of dignity, the other reduced to little more than a human landfill.
Tommy felt profoundly sad and a bit angry. Something about the way Flemming had joked about his brother living in a cardboard box and how he was in a hurry tore at him, and he wondered if Flemming had ever tried to help Jimbo or if he’d just followed the old adage about letting people sleep in the beds they’d made.
But he suspected he knew the answer.
A tear threatened to leak out of his eye. He squeezed both shut and turned sideways on the bench, pulling his knees up to his chest, and then he stretched out on his back. He stared up at the branches of the maple. Golden dots of light were sprinkled between the green leaves rustling ever-so-slightly in an almost undetectable hot breeze. In a couple more months, the leaves themselves would turn orange and gold and then brown before dying, falling to the pavement and blowing away, forgotten.
Tommy turned his head and looked over at the fresh graves and the field of dead beyond, and then the tears came. He put a forearm over his face and tried to stop them, but they wouldn’t be contained, running down his face and mixing with the sweat.
His mind and heart had ached for so many months. Now the dam was bursting and he let it. He sobbed and shook and ultimately cried himself to sleep.
As he slept, the sun sank, and the world grew darker around him.
“It’s your turn Tommy.”
His mother hands him something, a rectangle of hard plastic and glass. Tommy looks down: an iPhone. His grandfather’s face is staring back from it, his eyelids heavy, a clear hard-plastic mask over the lower half, a tube running out of it. Tommy can hear erratic beeping coming from the phone’s speaker and a faint hissing of air: Whiiiiissshhhhhh. Fooooooo. Whiiiiissshhhhhh. Fooooooo.
With each whiiiiissshhhhhh his grandfather’s chest rises, and with each fooooooo it falls.
Tommy’s voice breaks as he speaks, and he barely gets out two words.
His Granpop blinks acknowledgment and his lips move underneath the plastic, but Tommy can’t hear him. Tommy taps the mute icon on the screen and turns to his mother.
“I don’t know what to say. This is so … wrong. We should be there with him.”
“I know, son.” She puts her hand on his shoulder. “But they’re not letting anyone in.” Her own voice breaks as she says the next sentence: “This is the only way to comfort him.”
Tommy looks back at the screen. Granpop’s eyes are closed. Tears run out of Tommy’s and he begins to shake his head.
Tommy tries to think of something happy to say, something comforting, but he loses all focus as Granpop starts to cough, great, dry hacks with wheezes in between. He curls up from the bed, the mask almost popping off his face with the force of his coughs, the sounds drowning out the machine that is fighting a losing battle. The picture jostles around as the nurse holding the phone does something off screen.
In a moment the coughing spell subsides, and the video stream stabilizes, showing Granpop as he settles his head back into his pillow. He opens his eyes, but they are glazed, unfocused. Then they roll over white.
Disembodied voices blast from the phone’s speaker.
“Get the cart?!”
The phone is dropped and comes to rest on its side, its camera eye staying on Granpop, trying to focus on his hand.
Tommy begins to tap the screen. He screams for Granpop again. His mother puts her arm around him and reaches for the phone but he shakes her off. His taps turn into desperate stabs, and then he breaks the glass trying to reach through it.
“Hey! Wake up!”
This voice is not Tommy’s. It’s not coming from the phone. It’s not mom or dad. Who-?
“I said wake the hell up!”
Tommy felt someone shake his shoulder and he woke with a start. Someone was yelling at him. Tommy tried to draw back away from the person, but the bench back blocked his retreat. He didn’t know who the person was or where he was. Utterly disoriented, he tried to shake the cobwebs from his head.
“Whatcha got, man? Huh? Gimme your wallet. That watch, too.”
Tommy raised up on one elbow, tried to focus. It was nearly dark. Two flickering street lights at each end of the cemetery were losing their fight with the shadows. The person yelling at him had his back to one and the tree was blocking the light from the other, so Tommy could only see an agitated silhouette at the end of the bench.
“Wha-?” Tommy rubbed his eyes and sat up. Then he rode a rocket back up from the murk when he saw the blade.
A man about 30 leaned in close and showed it to him, not pointing it but holding it perpendicular to the ground at his own eye level, displaying it like show and tell. The man drew back and waved it around, snatches of light occasionally glinting off it.
“Cut you, muthafucka! I said gimme that money.”
The man was missing a couple of teeth and hopping around like a boxer prior to the bell. He wore jeans that were a size too big and a dirty wifebeater tanktop. He had a crewcut and was covered in tattoos, including on his neck and face. They mostly bled together so Tommy couldn’t make out what they were, but two stood out starkly, even in the dim light: a swastika the size of a saucer on his shoulder, and the letters GFG across his throat.
Tommy thought for a second. GFG. Ghostface Gangster. Redneck meth-mouth tweakers. Georgia’s prisons were filled with these murderous mushheads.
Tommy put up his hand.
“Alright, alright. You can have the watch.” He took it off and held it out. The guy eased warily up to him and then snatched it quickly and retreated, like a skittish dog taking food from a stranger.
“And the wallet?”
“Don’t have it on me. In my car.” Tommy reflexively glanced across the road where his car was parked in the potter’s field and instantly regretted it.
The tweaker followed his gaze.
“Over there? That’s your car? Well let’s go get it, boy!”
The tweaker hopped in the direction of the car, and for a moment Tommy thought he might lead the way, giving him a chance to run, but the guy pulled up and stopped.
“C’mon!” He motioned with the knife for Tommy to get going.
It took less than a minute to reach the car. The light was even dimmer in the pauper’s yard.
“Open it up.” The tweaker motioned with the knife again, still bouncing around. Tommy reached in his pocket and pulled out the keys, dropped them. His hands were sweaty and shaking, and he felt hot all over with adrenaline.
“Better get them keys, get that door open, ‘fore I open you.”
The tweaker tried to glare at him menacingly, but he was so drugged out, so bombastic that he looked almost comical. Almost.
Tommy stooped down and swiped up the keys. He tried to put them in the lock without turning his back completely to the tweaker, afraid he’d feel steel hanging out of his back at any moment, put there on the whim of a meth head. But he couldn’t get the key in the lock by feel, so he had to turn all the way, concentrate. He squinted in the fading light, found the keyhole and opened the door. He held it open, assuming the guy would want to rummage around himself.
“Oh, no. You get in there and get it. I get in you might close the door on me or run away.”
It made absolutely no sense, Tommy thought as he started to climb in the front seat. Anyone with even a remote amount of brains would be afraid I had a gun (he didn’t) or that I’d drive away.
The latter suddenly occurred to the tweaker but not the former.
“Give me them keys first.”
Tommy handed them over and sat down in the front seat.
He leaned across, reaching for the glove compartment.
As he did, he swore he could hear something. A chittering, whispering noise. Almost like people talking.
Lying across the seat, he opened the box to get his wallet at the same time the tweaker screamed.
Tommy popped back up, banging his head on the roof of the car. He rubbed his head and then looked out the door, trying to see the tweaker, see what was going on.
In the darkness he could hear the chittering more clearly now. The whispering. Moans. Grunts. Something that sounded like teeth clamping shut.
The tweaker was screaming and cussing, an incoherent, drug-fueled soliloquy of disbelief and confusion.
“No, man, no! NO! Whatthefuckwhatthefuck?!”
His shouts were cut off abruptly. Then Tommy heard a wheeze and a gasp. He peered through the crack between the door and the car frame, trying to see what was going on but couldn’t.
He heard shuffling in the dirt, the noises all moving out in front of the car, feet being dragged, grunts and groans. He heard the tweaker still struggling, but his voice was muted, like he’d been gagged. He sounded like he was crying.
There was a loud pop, like a board breaking, and the tweaker screamed against whatever was holding his voice back. Then more pops.
Tommy looked through the windshield, squinted. All he could see were shadows, blobs of varying degrees of darkness moving around. He caught a flash of the white of the tweaker’s wifebeater, but that was it.
He reached for the light knob, then pulled his hand back like it’d been burned.
He wanted to see. But he also didn’t.
He reached out again, withdrew again.
In a moment, all went silent.
Tommy tried in vain to see through the windshield without turning on the lights, but it was hopeless, especially with the car’s cab light on. He reached over and depressed the little button in the doorway that turned out the light.
His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, but still all he could see were shadows. But the shadows were moving, slowly and away. And down. Down, down, disappearing into the earth.
Tommy swallowed and his throat clicked, dry. His hands still shook, and he gripped the wheel to try to stop them. When he did the cab light came back on, and everything beyond the windshield went black again.
Something bumped into the door and nearly gave him a heart attack. He didn’t so much scream as he yipped, his breath caught in his throat.
Someone stood just on the other side of the half-open door. Slowly, the person pulled it all the way open with a creak.
Tommy’s heart nearly gave out it was beating so hard.
Is it the tweaker? Whoever attacked him is gonna attack me? Who-?
Then he saw.
A man stepped around the edge of the car door, his arm outstretched, dressed in worn-out clothes. He was muddy. A stained shirt. Knees out of the pants. A tattered plaid coat that hadn’t been in style for decades. His hand was clutched palm-down in a fist. On the back of his hand Tommy saw a tiny tattoo, a word written in an arc between the thumb and forefinger.
Tommy’s eyes went wide and he froze in place, too scared and too perplexed to move.
The man shuffled forward another step, reaching into the car, his fist almost bumping into Tommy’s chest. His eyes were cloudy but focused intently on Tommy. Tommy stared back into them in terror and wonder.
The man turned his hand palm up and opened it. Tommy looked down.
His keys. And his watch.
Tommy looked back at the man, who said nothing, showed no emotion, just waited patiently.
Tommy slowly reached out and took his stuff, his fingers brushing the man’s palm as he did. It was cold as the ground six feet down.
The man withdrew from the car, turned and ambled back into the shadows.
Tommy waited an eternity before he finally dared to move. He closed the door and then, trying not to think about it, turned on his headlights.
There was no sign of anyone. Not the tweaker. Not Jimbo. No one.
But the ground wasn’t the same. The three graves from that day were no longer neat, long rows of dirt. And the four from the week before weren’t smoothed over anymore. The ground was churned up, displaced, with lumps here, divots there. The same for the three beyond them.
Tommy had been here for all ten funerals.
The graves beyond that, the hundreds more, lay undisturbed, grown over with grass.
The tweaker was nowhere to be found, but out about 5 yards in front of the car, Tommy could see his knife sticking out of the ground.
He continued to stare for another minute. Then he laid his watch in the passenger seat and pocketed his keys. He got out, walked out into the beams of his lights and picked up the knife. He turned it over in his hand and shook his head.
Tommy looked back out at the unmarked graves with their disturbed earth, the churned up ground. He glanced across the road at the cemetery with its mown grass, its neatly trimmed shrubs, polished-to-a-high-gloss marble tombstones and flowers in copper pots. Then he looked once more at the fresh, unkempt graves. His graves.
He walked back to his car, popped the trunk and rummaged around for a bit. He found his old backpacking gear and among it a folding spade. He pulled it out, swiveling open and locking the shovel head and extending the handle. Throwing it across his shoulder he walked back to the car door, reached in and switched on the high beams. Then he headed out to tend his field.
He never once thought about whistling.
About the Author
Nathan McCullough was afraid of everything as a child, but he faced and then embraced his fears, developing a love for all things dark and frightening. As a grownup, Nathan is an award-winning journalist, writer and editor. His work has appeared in various newspapers, magazines and digital outlets, and his novella/short story collection, Drag You Down, is available from Amazon. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram @bulldawgnate or online at nathanmccullough.com.
About the Narrator
Hollis Monroe is an award winning radio producer, opera and jazz singer and Shakespearean. He served as executive producer and also read for Iowa Public Radio’s “The Book Club” for many years and is an active voice actor, emcee and singer.