by Nate Ragolia
“Do you ever wonder about the fence?” the grave digger asks his partner.
The second grave digger, his name is Jones, sighs and shakes his head.
“Why would I wonder about the fence?” he asks, wiping the muddy sweat from his brow.
The first grave digger, his name is Carter, stabs his long spade into the damp earth four feet below the grassy surface. He grunts as he does this. He always grunts, but he is no longer sure why–his body, though tired, is tuned to the dig. His effort requires no sound.
“It just seems kind of silly,” Carter says between splashes of gravel and earthworm. “If everyone in here is dead, what’s the fence protecting?”
“All dead and bones but us, Ke-mo sah-bee,” Jones grunts. “And it’s grave robbers.”
Carter slings a shovelful over the edge of the grave. Still two feet to go. Still a few hours before sunrise.
“Grave robbers?” he challenges. “No one does that anymore. Those people use computers now. They steal people’s lives long before they’ve lost them.”
“You and that internet,” he scoffs. “Just a passing fad, Carter.”
Jones chips away at the floor of the grave with his pick. The metal blade rings almost supersonic as it cuts through generations of earth; memories trapped in ore and mineralized.
“Only two things in life are certain,” Jones continues.
“Don’t finish. I know it,” Carter interrupts. “But people ain’t buried with their finest gold and jewels these days. People go into their graves like babies, swaddled in something someone else picked out, and otherwise naked.”
Jones laughs again. He tosses the pick aside the edge of the grave onto the lawn and retrieves a pack of cigarettes that sits beside the transistor radio they bring to every dig, but have yet to turn on. He perches the cigarette on his lips and lights it from a book of matches he draws from the cellophane guarding the carton.
“Grave robbers aren’t out to steal stuff any more,” he says, exhaling a rolling white cloud. “Who needs stuff anyway?”
“You could pawn a watch,” Carter replies.
“You could pawn a watch,” Jones mocks. “And then what? Take my thirty dollars and sail around the world?”
Jones laughs again.
“Fine,” Carter sighs. “What do they steal?”
Jones holds the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and points at Carter, the red hot cherry as some period on whatever claim he is about to make.
“Fingerprints,” he says with a smile.
“Fingerprints?” Carter asks.
“You’re the digital expert, right, Ke-mo sah-bee? How do you suppose all these dead people secure their offshore accounts and devices and whatnot? It isn’t a happy ‘I promise I’m who I say I am’ I’ll tell you that much.”
Carter drops another load of subterranean ecosystem onto the mounting pile and sets his shovel down. He beckons Jones for a cigarette, and receives one, lit swiftly with another match. The two men lean against the ends of their grave, like the head and foot of a dining table, and smoke.
“So by your logic, the fence is there so someone doesn’t ramble in here with an inkpad and start stealing dead fingerprints?” Carter asks.
“Inkpad?” Jones coughs. “You’re darling. No, these grave robbers take the whole hand. A dead guy isn’t bound to miss it anyway, is he? Hell, you think, take them both.”
“I admit that it doesn’t sound impossible, but ain’t no evidence I’ve ever seen. No dug up graves. No late-night break ins. Nothing. I think you’re pulling my leg, Jones.”
“A good grave robber doesn’t leave evidence. It’s a victimless crime, anyway,” Jones replies. “Any next of kin worth their salt is canceling accounts the second a fella drops dead.”
“You’re talking in circles here. If there ain’t nothing to gain from taking a person’s fingerprints, then why bother taking them at all?” Carter prods.
“Maybe a fella’s a little on the bent side. Maybe he wants a trophy.”
“That’s disgusting,” Carter replies.
Jones takes a drag and exhales.
“I’m kidding. You need to lighten up. Besides, most of them go just that way, with kin and love and all their matters attended to. They’re robber proof from the day they’re carted in here,” Jones says. “But sometimes they’re not.”
“And that’s why we need a fence?” Carter mocks.
“That’s why we need a fence,” Jones continues. “Take this guy here.”
He grabs the paperwork nestled under the radio.
“Mr. Aloysius Waterford. He just stopped ticking altogether one afternoon last week. Neighbor found him on his porch, sitting in his favorite rocking chair, pitcher of lemonade beside him on a little metal table. Neighbor walks up and says, ‘howdy’ and old Mr. Waterford is just a blank slate. Could’ve been there a day or two, really. Weather nice as this, people are out at all hours in a quiet neighborhood. And not a kin in the world. One of those lifelong bachelor types.”
Carter shoots him a skeptical look. “How’d you know all that detail about him?”
“I read is all. Everything is on that internet of yours. You know that.”
Jones stubs out his cigarette, draws another from the pack, lights it and inhales.
“So maybe, if poor Mr. Waterford here is gonna lose all his hard-earnings to the government anyway, it wouldn’t be so bad to ‘redistribute’ them,” Jones says.
Carter eyes widen. His mind races with gruesome images. Hands detached; bodies desecrated for all eternity. He sees the smile growing on Jones’s face. He stubs his cigarette in the dirt pile, and reaches for his shovel without thinking about it.
“Are you telling me that you cut off Mr. Waterford’s hands, Jones?” he asks.
“Nothing of the sort,” he says.
Carter exhales with relief. He lets go of his shovel.
“It’s a two man job,” Jones says. “Can’t use a saw ‘cause it’d be suspicious. What’s a digger need with a saw anyway? Nah. You’re going hold old Mr. Aloysius Waterford’s arms real steady for me, and I’m gonna come down on the wrists with your spade until we got ourselves a real handle on the situation.”
Carter turns quickly, his heart racing, suddenly fully alive, and grabs at the shovel again, but the familiar ratchet of a hammer drawing back freezes him where he stands.
“Suppose I refuse,” Carter says, gazing toward the iron gates a few hundred yards away. “What are you going to do, shoot me?”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. But I don’t see you running.”
Jones holds the revolver steady.
“Funny thing about fences, Carter,” he says. “They’re as good at keeping people in, as they are at keeping people out.”