Subcutaneous Magazine Fall 2016 - Page 74

I 'm William Davis, sixty-five years old, though everyone calls me Bill. I’m the caretaker at the West Pilsbury Cemetery, and my first stop every morning is the grave of my wife, Sally. After talking about what’s new – these days, nothing much with me – or news I’ve heard about her family – they don’t stay in touch – and after I report on the weather and doings in town, I go wandering down the hill, rolling back the years, reading my ancestors’ names from their headstones. My family has been in West Pilsbury since 1843, when my Welsh ancestors came to work in the weaving mill, since converted into condominiums. There’s an East Pilsbury, but it’s closer to the thruway and that’s where all the chain stores can be found. I first met Charles about twenty years ago, he was maybe fifteen years old and I was forty-five. He was midway down the hill, studying stones like they were books. I remember thinking, that boy is odd, the first time I saw him. I don’t remember when we first spoke, as Charles couldn’t stand eye-to-eye contact, but we fell in the habit of hello, how’s the weather. Ten years back, when Len Carbo died, the town offered me his job of caretaker at West Pilsbury, and I accepted. Being there every day, Charles got to talking to me in his mumbled voice about different stones. His father was a mason, and he’d taught Charles the art of stone cutting. My little house is across from the cemetery. Sally protested the view when I bought it, but I pointed out that we’d never have quieter neighbors; she was a loving wife until the cancer got her and she joined those on the hill. I made her headstone, but initially I couldn’t make more than a bookmark, name and dates. One day Charles joined me at her grave. “I might could he’p you make it prettier,” he mumbled, looking away. I agreed, figuring if he messed up I could just redo it. He cut some nice curlicues into the edge, added a pair of praying hands and made the letters nicer. I polish the stone once a month, a special labor for her. “I may not have given you the home you wanted in life, but I’ll try to do better from now on.” About Charles; he didn’t present well. He was a Saturday night bather, a habit inherited from his parents, who thought daily bathing unhealthy. He couldn’t quite grow a beard but he wouldn’t shave, either. His clothing came from the public bins, where perfectly fine garments can be found, though the pant legs may run long or short or be frayed at the cuffs, and the shirts are often stained. He sometimes washed his clothes, but I’m not sure how ‘cause I’ve seen his cottage and he didn’t have a washing machine. He brushed his teeth when he bathed, and a dentist would have gone to town on Charles’ chipped, dark teeth. He cut his own hair, though I offered to help him even it out, and he wore a knit cap pretty much year round, probably for the best. He had his father’s tall height, his mother’s gentle face. Disliking vegetables, he tried to live off the land but there’s no hunting season in this part of the state. He got survivor’s benefits from Social Security. I put up a small mailbox at the caretaker’s office so he could get his checks and visit the grocery store. Denied children, I came to think of Charles as a distant son. I remember him as a teen, lanky and quiet, pretty much every day riding his rickety bike along the paths and between the stones, laboring up slopes, whizzing back down, standing with the bike between his legs, reading. Like me, he seemed to want to know everyone. I cautioned him once when he rode among the stones. “Some folks seem to think their loved one is lying down there, awake, pointing up at you, and cursing ‘cause you’re riding over them. That’s ridiculous, but don’t ride over any graves if you see folks out here.” That was one of the rare times I was parental to him; he was respectful and did as he was told. I remember asking him one day, as he popped a wheelie, something boys do to show off to others, “don’t you have any friends? Someplace happier to be?” He just shook his head. Some folks are born old, I’ve noticed, and I guess he was one of them. West Pilsbury Cemetery fills ten acres that I mow on a rider, and climbs a hill draped in maple, oak, and some willows; it’s truly beautiful in the fall. The oldest graves, concentrated in the front, the original burying ground, are the most interesting, carved with death heads and angels’ wings and stern warnings to the living, To dust you return, presuming the dead still have a few things to teach us. Some people left legacies, some full biographies; ‘Rev. Joseph Mennan, moved to West Pilsbury May 1, 1744, First Minister Congregationalist Church, First selectman, 1789, Doctor and Patriot’. Rev. Mennan’s is a tall stone, it has to be for all those accomplishments. His wife, ‘Dear Emily’, short and square, is next to him. Mr. Daniel Abate, dead since 1874, ‘Died saving others in a fire’ at the age of 19. ‘John Farmer, born May 3 1843, d March 11 1889, Taken prisoner at the battle of Cold Harbor, Confined in Andersonville Prison, Discharged May 3 1865’ still chills my blood. And my great-uncle John Davis’, a more modest stone, 1875-1934, ‘union organizer, IWW Workers unite!’ always makes me smile. 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