By Sarah Sheppeck
Edward coughed as the 507 to Oak Ridge slowed to a stop in front of him. The bus shuddered as it struggled to break, belched thick gray exhaust toward the cars behind. He gestured to the woman standing beside him—an attempt to indicate that she should board first. She shook her head, put up her hand in silent protest, but boarded ahead of him anyway.
Edward followed, tapping his boots against the bottom step of the stairway to dislodge some of the dirt. He dropped a handful of meticulously counted change into the collection slot and took a window seat behind the driver, slouching a bit in an effort to make the best of the molded plastic chair. The plexiglass barrier behind the driver’s seat reduced Edward’s leg room, but he liked this spot. No one else ever sat near the driver, and Edward valued his peace.
Today, though, a man boarded at the next stop and took the aisle seat directly beside him. Edward straightened, made a show of looking around the mostly empty bus, as if to make clear to the man that he could have chosen a seat absolutely anywhere else. The man simply smiled. Edward gave him a curt nod, leaned his head against the window, and closed his eyes.
He dozed for maybe two or three minutes. His thoughts drifted to a sunny, cloudless day. He saw lush, green trees and blooming wildflowers. He also saw headstones. In front of one was an older couple, maybe in their early-to-mid seventies, dressed in black and holding hands. They were crying.
Edward opened his eyes. The man in the aisle seat was staring at him. Edward gave an awkward smile that looked more like a grimace and turned his face back toward the window.
He knew how he appeared to most people. Fingernails caked with dirt, hands calloused, jeans permanently discolored from countless failed attempts to remove the stains. Most people looked at him and thought construction worker, maybe, or mechanic. On bad days maybe they even thought he was a bum. Yeah, he knew what he looked like. But he couldn’t help but start when the man in the aisle seat said, “Buddy, you look like a gravedigger.”
“Sorry?” Edward said, voice thick and gravelly from disuse.
The man’s smile faltered a bit. He cleared his throat. “I said, ‘You look like a gravedigger,’” he repeated.
“Funny,” Edward said, and coughed. He swallowed twice, attempting to lubricate his dry throat. “I am.”
“You are what?”
“No shit,” the man said, emphasizing both words.
“Yup,” Edward said, and was silent.
The bus rumbled on and no one spoke, which was how Edward liked it. It gave him time to think. Which was why he started again when the man next to him said, “So, what’s your story?”
Edward turned his full gaze to the man beside him, making no attempt to disguise his frustration. “I don’t have one,” he said, in intentional monotone.
“Everybody’s got a story,” the man said, and smiled. His grin stretched in a manner that was almost grotesque. His ears protruded noticeably, and his front teeth displayed a gap that Edward could shoot a quarter through. “Gravedigger, huh? I know you’ve seen some shit. Hey, do you really bury people six feet under?”
“I don’t bury people. I bury bodies.”
The man blinked. “Right, but six feet deep?”
Edward sighed. “What’s your name?” he asked.
The man’s smile extended. Edward wished he hadn’t asked. He imagined pinching the taut skin at one corner of the man’s lips and pulling it around the circumference of his skull like a zipper, until all of the flesh was able to be lifted off like a dust cover. “Charles,” he said.
“Edward,” Charles enunciated carefully, as if he was testing the feel of the syllables in his mouth. “So, Edward. Is it?”
“Is it what?”
Charles exhaled through his nose. “Six feet.”
Edward sighed again, more loudly this time. “No,” he said.
“How deep is it, then?” Edward’s eyes flickered. “Ah,” Charles said. “Of course, you don’t want to talk about work. Who does, really? I’ll stop bothering you.”
Edward nodded and leaned his head against the bus window. He wondered how many other people had placed their heads against it just this week. He wondered how many of them had, like him, come from a long day of physical labor, sweating onto the hard plastic seats, leaving a film of shiny residue in the shape of their ass cheeks on the surface. He wondered how many people came onto public transit with lice. He wondered how long lice could survive without hair. He lifted his head away from the window.
The bus drove over a pothole, and all of the riders lifted slightly out of their seats as the bus bounced over the dip before reconnecting with gravity. Edward’s head began to ache. He grasped his temples with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand and rubbed hard.
“Aspirin?” Charles extended a bottle of Bayer.
Edward shook his head no, hand still grasping his temples. He wondered how Charles had produced that bottle so quickly. Had he been staring, just biding his time? Did he just keep it in his sleeve and wait for people to look uncomfortable? What if it was dope and offering it as aspirin was how he hooked his customers? Edward dropped his hand to his jaw, attempting to conceal the smile he felt growing there.
“No problem there, Eddie,” Charles said, pocketing the pills. Edward’s infant smile melted seamlessly into a frown.
“Edward,” he said gruffly.
“It’s Edward,” he repeated, hearing the exhaustion in his own voice. Then he added, “If you don’t mind.”
“Oh, of course,” said Charles. “My apologies.”
Edward leaned his head back against the window and closed his eyes. A grave, two by four instead of the usual two-and-a-half by eight, Darling Catherine, salt-streaked cheeks and white lilies. His eyes snapped open again. He inhaled through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. His eyes closed. He began to doze again, but he found his thoughts drifting to one of the handfuls of times a visitor had stopped to watch him work. He hated being watched, but he never asked anyone to leave. Edward reopened his eyes and waved a hand in front of his face, as if shooing away a fly, but he could not shake the sensation of being stared at. He turned his head. Charles was already meeting his gaze, grinning his zipper smile as if he hadn’t moved.
“What?” Edward said, louder than he’d meant to.
Charles blinked, but his smile never wavered. “What, what?”
“You’re looking at me.”
“You’re looking at me, too.”
Edward felt his face reddening. “Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m not a chatty kind of person, okay?”
“Sure,” Charles said. Edward exhaled. “I’ll just talk, then.”
Edward looked toward Charles in disbelief, but Charles had turned to face forward for the first time since boarding. Edward faced forward as well, crossing his arms over his chest. He stared fixedly at the back of the plate glass that separated him from the driver and grunted.
“I moved here from Albany about six years ago. I hate it,” Charles said to the air in front of him. Edward found himself wanting to ask if that was Albany, New York, or Albany, Georgia, but kept from opening his mouth. “Everybody said LA was like a sunnier, friendlier New York, but that’s bullshit,” Charles continued. So that answered that question. “Never met more self-involved people in my life. No offense,” he added as an afterthought.
Edward waved his hand in front of his face again.
“‘Course, I didn’t really think I’d offend you too much with that one,” Charles said. “You’re not from around here. I can tell.”
Edward adjusted his position, slouching down farther in his seat and making sure to tilt his knees away from Charles. Charles was right about his being from out of town, of course, but he wasn’t about to ask how he’d known.
Charles continued on, giving an exhaustive list of all the things he hated about Southern California, seemingly in alphabetical order, beginning with “actors.” By the time he had reached “freeways,” Edward had dozed off again.
The digger who’d trained Edward had been at the cemetery forty-four years. His name was Sam. Edward never learned his last name, mostly because Sam refused to give it. Any time Edward would ask, Sam would say, “I don’t want you to know when you’re digging a space for me.” Edward would always laugh. Sam never did.
Sam’s father had worked at the cemetery for four decades as well. Sam had always planned to bring up a son to do the same, but his wife had had a daughter, and the daughter died in infancy. They decided not to try for a boy. Edward had always noted this story with vague amusement; for the rest of his life, he’d never meet another person who’d followed the family business so exactly.
Sometimes, Sam would sit Edward down, attempting to anticipate the questions he could expect to be asked about digging. He called it “coaching.” He told Edward that people always made the job out to be more exciting than it really was. “But it’s pretty boring shit, six days out of seven.”
“You can say that again,” Edward said, sloughing the dirt out from beneath his nails with a toothpick.
They followed a routine. They’d meet early in the morning, discuss the day’s digging over coffee, and dig together. “Goes faster as a two-man job,” Sam would say. Edward hadn’t had a frame of reference at that point. He used to get frustrated when their shovels would clash towards the bottom of a new grave. Now that he was the only digger left, he knew Sam had been right.
They’d dig until 10:30, then stop for lunch. This was usually when Sam coached him.
“People always ask about ghosts,” Sam said once.
Edward had laughed, a hearty, genuine guffaw. “People still believe that shit?”
Sam frowned. “What shit?”
Sam set his lips.
“Adults ask you that?”
Sam fixed Edward with a stern glare. “The ghosts are real, son. You’ll find that out soon enough.”
The bus hit another pothole, and Edward jolted upright.
“I don’t ever ride the bus, you know,” Charles said.
Edward snorted. “You don’t say.” He hadn’t meant to speak, but thankfully Charles continued without acknowledging the comment.
“I bike most of the time. Good for me, good for the environment.” He glanced out the window against which Edward had been leaning. Another bus rattled along beside them, spitting more thick exhaust into the air. Charles wrinkled his nose. “But it got stolen, of course. The bike, I mean. Had it locked up outside a bookstore. Someone brought bolt cutters. That’s LA for you.” Charles sniffed. “How a city this big could have such crap transit is beyond me. You know? Every country in Europe has its shit figured out. Trains and so on. And what do we have? Shit.”
Charles trailed off. The bus made a stop. Nobody got off, but a young woman in a simple black blouse and pants boarded and sat behind Edward. She was crying. Every so often Edward thought he could make out a word or two, but he was unsure whether she was speaking or if it was just the way she wept.
“It is shit,” Edward said aloud.
“Sorry?” Charles said.
“The transit system. It’s shit. Takes two hours to get somewhere you could drive to in twenty minutes. Or, at least you could ten years ago. Now, with the traffic, it’s bad all around. I don’t have a car. Gas is too expensive—” Edward’s throat caught mid-sentence. He blushed and turned to look again at Charles, who was again grinning his disconcerting grin and nodding fervently.
“You can say that again. I don’t know how anyone can afford to have a car here.” Charles began to prattle, talking about carbon emissions and fossil fuels and alternative oil sources. Edward found himself nodding, too, as if he was actually somewhat interested.
He’d been married once. She’d died. He hadn’t dug the grave.
He remembered loving everything about her, except for her fascination with death. When he was young, he believed that was what had attracted him to her to begin with. She was always coming home with books about unsolved murders and asking him how many burials there had been at work that day. After Catherine, she continued to ask. He no longer found it charming. But her eyes glittered when she spoke, and she loved to tell dirty jokes, and she sang while she cooked dinner. She was a terrible cook, but he adored the way she had always plated her inedible creations as if she was serving them at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
When the illness came, she kept telling him that she wasn’t scared.
“I don’t want you to be,” he would say. “But you’re not dying.”
“I am,” she’d reply, long before the doctors confirmed it. “But it’s okay. I’ll finally know.”
“Know what?” he’d asked once.
“What it’s like!” she said, and laughed.
The bus made another stop. Half a dozen passengers stepped off. No one got on.
“Do you have long before your stop?” Edward asked.
Charles’s eyes glimmered. “Sorry, Eddie, you’re not getting rid of me just yet. We’ve got a few more stops to make.”
Edward opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Sorry.”
Now it was Charles who waved his hand, as if batting at the apology. “Please,” he said. “I mean, I appreciate the apology, but it’s not necessary. Usually the people who need to apologize don’t think they did anything wrong, you know?”
Edward knew. “Like the people who rear-end someone in traffic and then blame the person in front of them for it.”
Charles snapped his fingers. “Exactly. Or like supervisors at work who tell you that you’re not doing your job, but they haven’t actually watched you work. You don’t see me interact with customers. You don’t know what I’m doing during my shifts when you’re not on the floor.” Charles’s cheeks had flushed and a vein in his temple had begun to bulge.
“I take it you’re speaking from experience,” Edward said.
Charles rolled his eyes. “I work for a cable company,” he said.
“Yes, me. Surprised?”
“Yeah, well. We’re supposed to go around the floor, ask customers if they’re being helped, if they have questions. We’re supposed to upsell them on TV service, phone service.”
“I’m familiar,” Edward said, with more bitterness than he’d meant.
Charles worried his mouth apologetically. “Well, anyway. I’m a good salesman. I mean, really good.” Edward smiled a bit. He could see it. “I just talk to people, you know? And after ten minutes of talking to them, they’re ready to add more channels to their cable package, or buy faster Internet. That’s the job. Now, my boss …”
Charles went off again, this time about how his boss seemed to pick on him more than the other workers on the floor. Edward knitted his brows, vaguely irritated on Charles’s behalf.
“That’s pretty lousy,” Edward said.
“You can say that again,” Charles said, and continued on.
“You can’t upset the visitors,” Laura, the caretaker, had told him. “It’s bad for business.”
Edward looked up at her. He was kneeling in a shallow furrow. It had rained two days before, and the ground was still soft. His hands and shins were covered in thick, black mud. Later, he would remember thinking how small he had felt; dirtier than usual, kneeling before his employer.
“I’m not upsetting anybody. They’re already upset. It’s a goddamn cemetery,” he said, sweat dripping down his face. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, streaking his face with mud. “And I don’t see how anything can actually be bad for business. It’s not like people are just gonna stop dying.”
“Don’t cop an attitude with me,” Laura had said, glowering. “All I know is I’m doing my rounds, ass crack of dawn, and there’s this hysterical woman—”
“Like I said,” Edward interrupted, turning his attention back to the eighteen-inch hole he’d been deepening. “It’s a cemetery. People cry.”
He continued digging, and Laura left. He didn’t apologize, and she didn’t bring it up again. He did not tell her that he had, in fact, upset the woman in question, though he was sure she knew that already. He also did not tell her that the woman was the parent of the seven-year-old whose grave he was currently digging. Even later, when he told his wife, he did not mention that the woman had been upset not because her son was being buried, but because Edward had been weeping as he dug the grave.
“Got any kids?” Charles asked.
Edward flinched. His cheeks stung as he worked his mouth, deciding whether to answer. Deciding how to answer.
The zipper grin shrank. “Me either,” Charles said.
They sat. Edward closed his eyes.
“You know I could have been famous once?” Charles asked. Edward waited. “I was in a band back in the day.”
“Like, the school band?”
For the first time since they’d begun speaking, Charles frowned. “No, Edward.” He spoke Edward’s name in the same tone a teacher might use when chastising a student. “Not the school band. We played metal.”
“What?” Edward said, and laughed as he had when Sam had first mentioned ghosts. He quieted, immediately bashful. To his relief, Charles began to chuckle as well.
“I know, I know. No one ever believes me when I tell them. I probably have a picture somewhere …” He fiddled around in his pockets, as if he might be carrying one with him. He thought better of it, closed his hands in his lap, and continued. “I played bass. We played a few local gigs, and one night, I shit you not, this producer comes up to us and says he wants us to record a demo. He was a legitimate producer too, you know? Not one of those phonies.”
“So, what happened?”
Charles shook his head dolefully. “The band was all for it, and for some reason I thought we’d find something better. Thought if we were good enough for one producer, we’d get an offer from another. So, I went off to go start making connections. Made zilch. Band recorded without me.”
“Wow,” Edward said, and meant it.
“Producer ended up signing the band, they made a little money off their first album. But then the sales flatlined and they got dropped.” Charles smirked. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little good about it. But then—and here’s the kicker—the band hunted me down and told me they wanted me back. I didn’t want to play anymore, but I told them I’d manage them. I got those fuckers a gig on Letterman.”
“How the hell did you pull that one off?” Edward asked.
Charles winked. “Charm.”
“So, then what happened?”
“They did a tour, went gold. I should’ve asked for a bigger cut.”
“You’re such a liar,” Edward said, and felt the corner of his lips turn up.
“I shit you not, friend. Made a cool million and quit. They all turned into divas. Wasn’t worth it.”
Edward crossed his arms again and gave Charles a look.
Charles placed one hand on his heart and raised the other in a half salute. “On my life.”
“Careful,” Edward said warningly. “Might have to bury you.”
Charles laughed, and his laugh was tinny and shrill. “Counting on it, friend.”
“That’s why they say everyone’s got a story, you know?” Charles added. “Experience equals stories, doesn’t it?”
Edward nodded again. He swallowed. “You know, my—”
“This is me!” Charles said, standing as the bus screeched to a halt. “Great talking to you, Eddie.”
“Bye,” Edward said, but he had gone. He bit his lip and gnawed on the skin. He wished his wife was home, waiting to meet him. She would have liked to hear about Charles, would have tried to imitate his zipper grin. He wished he could tell her about all the invasive questions, that someone else was as fascinated with his work as she was.
The bus reached his stop. He walked home, and told her anyway.
Sarah Sheppeck is a graduate of U.C. Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English with minors in dance and history from the University of Rochester and her Master’s in Secondary Education and Curriculum from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Born and raised in upstate New York with stints in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, she now lives in northern Maine with an ever-growing roster of rescue pets, where she pays the bills by ghostwriting books for motivational speakers.