Laura Maylene Walter
Outside, it rained. The necrophiliac sat in her office and gazed out the window overlooking the angel statue. The tip of the angel’s left wing had broken off years ago, long before she had taken this job, and sometimes she wondered if the jagged edge was sharp enough to cut. Just thinking of it was enough to remind her she was alive, and on a good day, that was all she needed to stave off temptation.
The new groundskeeper appeared in her doorway, his shirt speckled dark with raindrops.
It’s pouring out there, he said.
The necrophiliac oversaw the cemetery’s four groundskeepers, whom she silently referred to as gravediggers. That morning, she’d given this new employee a tour of the grounds. He was polite and stoic, and at one point, she caught him staring intently into a grave. Now the rain brought out a smell in him, cologne or deodorant, something too sharp and alive.
The other groundskeepers usually wait in the maintenance building when it rains, she told him.
He nodded but lingered a moment longer, peering at the artwork on the walls while standing too close to her desk. When he finally left, the necrophiliac shut the door behind him. She picked up her coffee mug and clutched it just below her chin for the heat. When she turned to the window, she caught a glimpse of the gravedigger hurrying across the cemetery, his shoulders hunched against the rain. Then he disappeared.
She’d worked in the cemetery for two years. Two years of caskets, of grave plots, of hearses, of black skirts and black umbrellas. Two years of widows and widowers, of grieving adult children, of mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. Everyone in the world was related to someone dead. Everyone in the world was grieving or on the verge of it.
In the beginning, she reveled in the job, which she saw as the culmination of a lifelong yearning. She studied the names of the newly dead in her database with the same shivering thrill that had followed her since puberty. She read obituaries online until her eyes grew damp. She took slow strolls past tombstones and newly arrived caskets. She thought about peeking but never peeked. She thought about touching but never touched. She went home at night and brought the blankets right up over her head, making it so hot she could barely breathe. Is this what it’s like under there, she thought, under the weight of all that dirt. She touched herself, there under the covers.
Two years later and the necrophiliac still did not peek, did not touch. She gave tours and sold grave plots and went home alone. One night she slept in an awkward position and woke up with her entire left arm numb. She loved this, the way the limb was unfeeling, not really a part of her body anymore. She tried to move it but it was dead. She tried to touch her own body with it but felt nothing. It was proof she was capable of disappearing, piece by piece, into the void.
Eventually, pinpoints of pain prickled up and down her sleeping arm. This pain moved in a scattershot pattern, shocking her arm back to disappointing life. She lay in bed while her arm reanimated, trying hard not to think of the gravedigger. In this way, she thought of nothing but him.
The new gravedigger brought cupcakes to the office kitchen. The necrophiliac chose one with chocolate frosting so dark it looked black. She took a bite and told the gravedigger it tasted like Halloween.
You’re funny, he said. I bet not many people know that you’re funny.
There’s a lot people don’t know about me, she said.
That afternoon, she hid in her office and watched from behind the curtain as the gravedigger strolled outside, pruning shears in hand. He was a handsome man, the kind other women would call a catch. But the necrophiliac watched him, shielded by her curtain, and thought of his ticking heart. Tick tick tick, like a bomb.
She gave a family a tour of the cemetery shortly before closing time. When she returned to her office, another cupcake sat waiting next to her computer. This one had dark red frosting. She pulled off the paper wrapper, sheening her fingers with buttercream, and started to eat. It didn’t occur to her to save the cupcake for later or refuse it altogether. She already denied herself so much that when a simpler pleasure came along, she claimed it without hesitation.
The groundskeepers mowed grass, raked leaves, tended flowers. They also operated backhoes, moved earth, lowered caskets. Afterward they smoked cigarettes behind the maintenance building, talking and laughing in low voices. But the newest gravedigger was different. He held himself apart from the others, wouldn’t accept a cigarette. The necrophiliac caught him, more than once, staring raptly into a grave after the casket had been lowered. She thought she recognized that expression. She thought it might be one that she often wore herself.
On her lunch break, the necrophiliac headed to the far corner of the cemetery. She chose one of the oldest headstones, the carved letters nearly smooth against her palm. She stroked the stone like a cheek and lay down on the manicured grass. Before long, she felt a chill. The cold came up from the soil, up from the dead body splayed somewhere beneath her. She closed her eyes and imagined her own body like rainwater: seeping down through the ground, trickling inside the coffin, and rushing through the bones of the dead like a waterfall. Like a laugh.
The necrophiliac was a Virgo. As a child, her astrological sign embarrassed her, the way it was too close to virgin. Now she stood in the bathroom at work and stared at herself in the mirror, saying Virgo Virgo Virgo Virgo four times fast. Somewhere outside, the groundskeeper sprayed pesticides on dandelions.
He’d asked her that morning. He did it all at once, like yanking a weed: Let’s get together Friday after work.
Actually, the necrophiliac realized, it hadn’t been a question at all. It was a statement, an assumption. But she’d said yes like he’d asked her with a question mark, like he’d said, Hey baby, what’s your sign? And now she was standing here, in the bathroom, repeating Virgo to identify herself. As if the word could transform her out of whatever she really was.
She went shopping for a new blouse for her date with the gravedigger. She hadn’t been on a date in a long time. The last one had been a favor for her mother, who worried too much and still sent folded-up bills tucked in the necrophiliac’s birthday cards. But her mother did not know about the gravedigger, about the way he crouched over the graves in his jeans and cemetery-issued polo shirt, how he could fit nearly half a ham sandwich in his mouth at once. Everything he did, he did alive.
The store was fluorescent-bright, depressing. The necrophiliac didn’t know how other women did it. The staggering racks of clothes, those metal hangers that made her fingertips come away gray. Tiny dressing rooms with insufficient locks. If you looked closely enough, you could always find a stain on the carpet.
She bought a rose-colored blouse made of silk. It was the opposite of dirt against her skin. She thought of calling her mother. She thought of living in the world, really doing it this time.
She thought of the clack of bone, the press of cold blue lips against her exposed throat.
. . .
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