Under the Ground

John Stieggson leaned on his shovel. He was behind a large bunch of bushes and a tree where Mitch had declared a “safely-out-of-the-attendee-awareness-zone.” John had always thought that Mitch had a slight ego but he never commented on it. Much like John would never tell Mitch that it was correctly pronounced “yon” like yawning and not John. It’s not that he thought Mitch wouldn’t apologize and correct himself; more that Mitch would apologize too much and make sure that every other employee knew it was pronounced ‘yon’ like yawning. Mitch meant well and that was enough for John.

Mitch liked to ruffle John’s silvering hair. “This guy’s my buddy” he would say again and again. John would always give a wry smile and keep his mouth shut. He almost wished he wouldn’t because maybe then he would not feel Mitch’s words so much, and he could go on pretending to be indifferent.

Mitch hated his job, and John was the only one who knew it. John knew that Mitch felt guilty about being so good at it, as if Mitch believed he was supposed to be another element of darkness in a dark place.

It was a drafty spring day. The kind that is neither particularly pleasant, nor particularly unpleasant. John Stieggson leaned on his shovel and listened. It was just him and Mitch.

“It was a suicide, John. He was just a kid.”

Mitch always started like this. A sentence, something informative followed by the kind of comment you’d expect from any community minded person.

“There’s a lot of them at this one. There are usually less at a suicide. The ones who were truly alone, we buried them alone. This kid was just… too quiet.”

John knew that Mitch did not judge other people on their character. Mitch only believed in circumstance.

“You know we’re all kind of like animals. A large herd going through our own wilderness, and when we’re in trouble we bellow and make noise. But some people don’t make noise loud enough or soon enough. All the other animals crowd around the loudest noise possible, for us, the noise of silence. And maybe if this kid had been a little louder a little earlier the animals who signed his stupid picture would have signed his yearbook instead.”

John nodded. He felt this ache in his chest every time that Mitch started talking at a strangers funeral, well out of sight and earshot of the grieving family.

“John, they can’t understand why I do this, and I hate it so much, but I have to. I don’t think that anybody else could do it right. It isn’t about the body. It’s about the image.”

In the 7 months that John had worked for Mitch, John could swear that Mitch’s shoulders sagged a little more each time he put someone else to rest.

John had written down every word Mitch had ever said to him in his brief talks he would have ‘between men’ whenever it was the two of them on duty. Mitch had been a poet, once. Mitch was secretive still. John knew that Mitch had inherited the job from his aunt and that the secretiveness ran in the family. More than simply having taken the job from a lack of something else to do John suspected that Mitch was on the run from himself.

Mitch was smoking a cigarette, mourning his own habit more than he was the mourning the child at this point. A pensive stare into the distant sky was how the small talks always ended.

John wished he knew how to tell Mitch to stop working this job. But first he would have to hear Mitch’s story and Mitch wasn’t ready yet. The kid still visited his aunt’s grave, every evening, and John would stand in the distance. When Mitch would finally tell John his story, John would tell Mitch his. John already had a buyer lined up for the property, a respectful company, interested in decency over profit. They would leave together, then; yet, they might not leave at all. But John hoped. All John wanted was to share the story of Ellen Djerkic with her nephew, and to let him know they missed her together. Mitch was not yet ready. John would wait for him, and one day hope that Mitch could tell John Stieggson’s story, and maybe pronounce his name right too.

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