The crew stopped working when they discovered the girl’s grave. The two brothers sat on the tailgate of the pickup and ate their sandwiches. The college kid with the smirk and the blisters on his palms tried to keep busy raking, but there really wasn’t much point since no leaves had fallen since yesterday and the crew hadn’t gotten much of a chance to make a mess this morning. Their foreman, Robert, sat shuffling papers in the ratty cab. The front door of the house opened and shut, and a tall, lean, man walked to the driver’s window of the pickup.
“Lunch at 9:00?” Dean said, and his mouth smiled.
“We got a problem,” Robert said. He tossed his clipboard onto the truck’s bench seat and opened the door, and he walked quietly toward the construction site.
“There are no problems, only opportunities,” Dean said. He followed behind Robert, watching the way the muscles in his upper back moved when he walked. He tried to imagine the muscles in his own back and shoulders, the trapezii and rhomboids holding up his frame like the steel trestles of a bridge, but all he could feel was bone and tendon. Too many years at a desk, he thought. Robert stopped just inside the stakes marking the perimeter of Dean’s new kitchen and pointed to the flat rock barely jutting out of the ground.
“So? Can’t you dig it up with a back hoe?” Dean asked. Robert brushed his foot across the stone’s face. His tan boots were spattered with cement, mud, and paint. The red clay fell away except for the bits lodged in the shallow crevices of the stone. Dean leaned forward and put on his reading glasses.
“Sarah Proudfit. Born 16 June 1858, died 18 August 1858. I’ll be damned.”
Robert said: “She’s been here since about when your house was built I’d say.”
“I’d imagine that’s about right.” Dean scratched along the marker’s edge with a stick. His glasses slipped to the end of his nose. “Think you could get a pry bar under there?”
The college kid stopped raking. The two brothers looked at their shoes. Robert spoke deliberately but politely. “The county won’t allow that. The Historical Commission. We’ll need to reconsider your floor plan.”
“You let me worry about the legalities. All I want to know is whether you can get this stone up in one piece.”
Robert took off his hat and raked his forearm across his wide forehead. “’Can’ and ‘will’ are two different things.”
“If it’s possible it has a price,” Dean said. “Look at the veins in that marble. That will polish up nicely. Too small for a hearthstone, but we could set it in the center and build around it.” The headstone was now clearly outlined. Dean poked at its edges, trying to drive the stick into the hard clay and beneath the marker.
“I’m not disturbing a baby girl’s eternal rest for your custom kitchen,” Robert said.
“There’s no baby there anymore, just dirt and an engraved rock. She’s long gone.”
“All the same, I ain’t touching it.”
Dean looked at the college kid leaning against his rake. “What about you? Want to make a hundred bucks?”
“Get in the truck,” Robert said, and the young man hustled toward the red pickup. The brothers pulled up the tailgate and scooted back against the cab’s rear window. Robert hopped into the driver’s seat and pulled the door closed behind him. “You can take your money and your kitchen and stick them where the sun don’t shine,” he said, and the old truck lumbered down the long driveway. One of the brothers flipped Dean the middle finger, and the pair giggled like schoolchildren.
He sat on the parson’s bench in the entryway and pulled off his dirty shoes. His silk socks whispered across the heart of pine floorboards to the parlor. He sunk behind his big mahogany desk and stared at his reflection in the PC monitor. This place was supposed to be a new start, but it had become a burden– not the house so much as the locals’ death grip on the past. Can’t change the patio. Can’t put in a pool. Can’t, can’t, can’t. These hicks are romanticizing a horrible time in our nation’s history. Even Robert refers to it as “The War of Northern Aggression,” and he’s one of the smart ones. What a horrible cliché, the Southerner still fighting the Civil War, but goddammit. What the hell kind of place is this that a man can pay cash for a house and not be able to do what he wants with it? There were fewer CC&R’s in his last neighborhood, and that was a gated community outside of San Jose.
Dean walked to the window and looked at the tiny stone jutting out of the bare ground. “I hate to tell you this, Miss Sarah, but your daddy’s house slaves probably drowned you like an unwanted kitten,” he said.
He spent the rest of the day trying to dig up the grave marker. The evening was spent on the phone. No handyman, contractor, or ditch digger would touch the job. He was the irresistible force and they were the immovable object, both sides entrenched, dug in.
Dean parked directly in front of the police station, the king cab and the duelies hanging like love handles over the lines of the parking space. The sheriff stood outside, smoking a cigarette and palming a coffee cup. “What’s a rig like that cost?” he asked as soon as Dean stepped down out of the cab.
“Sticker’s around 86 grand, but I have a way with car dealers,” Dean winked.
“I didn’t pay 86 for my house,” the sheriff said. He walked around the shiny truck and poked his head over the tailgate. “Lot to spend for a truck that don’t haul nothing. How can I help you?”
“I bought a place out off highway 11 a couple of month’s ago. My name is Dean.”
“I know who you are. What can I do you for?” the sheriff asked.
“Well, I’m doing some work on the house. A lot of work. When it’s done you won’t even recognize it. And it’s going to be safer, too, with all of that knob and tube wiring gone and no more lead pipes. I’m starting from scratch on the kitchen, a whole new addition–”
“Did I put a quarter in you?” the sheriff asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Well you’re singing me this whole damned song, I thought maybe you were a jukebox. Why don’t you just tell me what I can do for you.”
“I have a contract,” Dean said. “I have a contract but I don’t have a contractor–walked off the job, won’t return my calls. All I have to show for my down payment is a muddy patch where my new kitchen should be.”
“You want me to arrest somebody for not answering the phone?”
“I don’t know what I want, exactly,” Dean said.
“I’ll tell you what I want,” the sheriff said. “I want you to get back in that fancy truck of yours and go home. Call Robert and apologize for expecting him to upset that little girl’s grave.”
“It’s just a piece of stone,” Dean said.
“If you had kids of your own maybe you’d think different,” the sheriff said.
Dean fiddled with the shapes on his computer screen while Alan’s voice blared from the cellphone on his desk. “I can call and strongly encourage him to get back to work, but honestly I don’t know how much good it will do. Your best bet would be to cut bait. Find another contractor.”
“I’m not going to find anybody else,” Dean said. “The whole damned town knows about this.”
“Well, maybe you need to get a little Zen about it. Water doesn’t flow through the rock, it flows around it.”
“As a philosopher you make a great attorney,” Dean said.
“No money in philosophy,” Alan said. “Speaking of money, you might want to wrap this up. This call is billable.”
“Thanks for nothing,” Dean said.
“You called your kid yet?” Alan asked.
“Now you’re a family therapist, too?” Dean disconnected and slid the phone into his pocket. He walked to the back of the house and stared at the rolling hills that lay to the south and the big, square wound directly in front of him. The little girl’s tombstone floated in the red clay like the last marshmallow in a cup of cocoa. She always stopped drinking when the marshmallows were gone, and Dean would get so angry. It was a stupid thing to fight about, a hill hardly worth dying on, but he couldn’t let it go. After a point it wasn’t about the wasted cocoa but rather about who would blink first.
He pulled the phone from his pocket and dialed. “Let’s put this behind us,” he said. “Let’s start fresh.”
It rained on Saturday, huge sheets of chilly autumn rain clapping against the bare red clay just outside the parlor’s window. Dean shrugged off the cold air hissing through the tired window panes and focused on Sarah’s family tree. “Tree” was the wrong image. That works for a generation or two, but he had cobbled together ten generations of Proudfit history, dating back to an ancestor in sixteenth century Sweden. Even reduced to five percent of its actual size, the Proudfit family history would not fit on his large monitor. Dean likened the graph more to a peacock with Miss Sarah as its body and her many ancestors fanning out behind her like exotic feathers. Feathers, fathers.
He clicked the mouse’s button, and the printer resting atop the sideboard whirred to life. Two hundred pages, each bearing strange names in uniform boxes, each box bearing dates of birth and death, each with a thin black line entering one end and exiting the other, except for Miss Sarah, of course. Her box led only backward, to Samuel and Katherine, who in turn led back to George and Edna and Hiram and Beatrice, who led off of the page and into oblivion, at least until he patched the pages all together. A two hundred piece jigsaw puzzle of identical 8 x 10 pieces.
Dean shoved the mahogany desk against the wall, rolled up the antique rug, and began reassembling Sarah’s family tree. Carefully he taped the pages together, ensuring that the seams were straight and the tape didn’t wrinkle or bubble. The names rang so odd in his ear, so foreign and old. Abraham. Ezekiel. In a couple of spots he was startled to find cousins marrying, though he realized his surprise was an anachronism. He worked the numbers in his head, quickly calculating the age of the person resting in each of the boxes: 75, 92, 88. Wonderful genes followed by tragedy: 19, 11, six. June 16, 1724, saw a husband and wife die together. Six hours passed while he taped the sheets of paper together. When he finished two rolls of tape were gone, and he had a wall mural: three thousand bodies laid out in the parlor. Dinner time had passed, and the rain was still falling. What was supposed to be a custom kitchen now was a muddy wasteland with Miss Sarah’s stone as high ground. He slipped into his duck shoes and his Land’s End jacket and laid a tarp over the grave marker.
Whether the congregation grew agitated when Dean slipped into the back pew was purely a matter of projection, he decided. It’s not possible for all of these people to hate me. They hardly know me, and I hardly know them. No, this must be all me. What could they possibly have against me? I’ve been a model neighbor, never once bothering them with favors and what not. I’ve taken a derelict farmhouse and made it worthy of Architectural Digest, or at the very least Southern Living. They have me to thank for their increased equity. I am just being paranoid.
Brother Fred was preaching about giving as the deacons worked the aisles: first the regular plate, then the building fund plate. Dean felt a tap on his shoulder, light but deliberate. Beneath the combed hair and the pressed shirt he recognized him: Deacon Robert, the kitchen contractor. Dean extended a faint smile and slipped a twenty out of his money clip and into the collection plate. “Thank you, brother,” Robert said, and he moved along to the populated pews.
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” Brother Fred said.
“Amen,” his flock replied.
“That’s Luke chapter 14, but it’s in Isaiah where the true meaning of our glorious new facility can be found: ‘And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.'”
“Praise the Lord.”
The deacons moved along the aisles, six of them, middle-aged men like Dean, but with strong backs and thick thighs; their haircuts ten years out of date. Calloused hands passing the felt-lined plate to fragile old women with trembling fingers, and all the while Brother Fred’s voice booming over, under, around them all, pious, insistent, urgent.
“There is no love like Jesus’s love! There is no truth like God’s truth! Look into your hearts, brothers and sisters! Give with your hearts so that we can build a house worthy of our Lord God Almighty! A house big enough to hold His love, His truth, His gifts! He gave His only son for our sins, the least we can do is open our pocketbooks and show Him how much we love Him!”
Dean lingered outside after the services, pacing near Robert’s truck. The big man strode down the wooden front steps of the church, dress shirt untucked and sleeves rolled to the elbows.
“I didn’t know you were a deacon here,” Dean said.
“Well now you do,” Robert said.
“Very nice service.”
“Can I help you with something?”
“I was hoping we could talk about the situation over at my place,” Dean said.
“What’s left to talk about?”
“When I sold my house in California I made a killing. I mean a killing. Look, money’s no object. I just want to make this right.”
Robert stared at him. “I told you, I won’t do that kind of work,” he said.
“I know, but you’re kind of a part of this now. I think it would be good for you, too. Just think about it. Blank check. Give me a call later today and let’s get it worked out.”
Dean watched through the parlor window as Robert’s old truck rattled up the long driveway and parked near the construction site. The passenger door opened and the college kid stepped out with a big stretch and lumbered to the tailgate. The brothers jumped out with shovels in hand and walked toward the grave marker. The college kid grabbed a flat of flowers out of the bed of the pickup and followed them.
Robert emerged from the truck’s cab. Dean waved from the parlor window. Robert waved back, and then he slid a wrought iron park bench out of the truck and followed his crew to Sarah’s grave. Dean closed the drapes and made his way to the kitchen for a cup of cocoa.