Aryan Bollinger: Folks Below (fiction)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in the foothills of North Carolina, and Lord willing, that’s where I’ll be buried. Grampa Grover had a chestnut tree on one of those hills, each tasty morsel encased in an urchin-like shell. I was three (and barefoot) when I ran underneath and encountered a mine field of fallen nuts.
Grampa asked which foot hurt. I screamed, “All of’em!”
The cemetery was the first thing a passenger saw when driven past Granite Hope Baptist. The church was old and normal, shunted to the background of gray stones on the hill. Kyle thought it was kinda funny.
He hoped the dead beneath him wouldn’t mind. He had a job to do.
Kyle had been mowing the cemetery grass for a long time. Years. And he lived a short ways away, just down the road. He rode his lawn mower, a red, rusty Murray, down the quarter mile or so of highway to the church every week during the summer. Kyle tried to go during the evening, when people should be at home eating their supper: he didn’t want to back up traffic by doing five in a fifty-five.
The mower moved on, lines becoming shorter, passes by new stones marking his progress. Kyle wondered why folks wanted the sides of their gravestones to be smooth, polished…but wanted the tops to be rough-hewn. Like it was stylish. Like it made a damn bit of difference!
Kyle wondered if the folks under him minded his mowing. Could they feel the vibration? Of course, that was bullshit: they couldn’t feel anything. His momma had said–and she should know by now, she’d been underground for a few years herself–they weren’t really there. Sure, their husks were, their earthly clay, but they weren’t. The dead were in one of two places, and that was that.
Only Kyle wasn’t so sure.
He lived close to the church, but wasn’t a member. He hadn’t been back since his momma died. People thought he was depressed. They sent him cards and fruit baskets and vegetable soup, told him he was missed whenever they saw him at the flea market.
Kyle would nod and look at the market’s dirt floor and pretend to consider. But he wasn’t depressed. Though he missed his momma, Kyle stopped going to church because there was no one left to nag him into going. He never married, and when Bernice Flemming passed away, he felt free for the first time. Hell, he hadn’t known he’d been caught until the chains fell away.
Almost done. Only a few more passes, then he could head home. Kyle loved the smell of cut grass–it was a firsthand smell.
No one had to ask him to keep mowing each week. After all, he’d been doing it long before Mrs. Flemming had gone to the Lord. He just kept doing it. He’d considered letting it go, but for some reason being that free scared him. No, Kyle would do his job, and he’d do it well.
But what if the dead could feel him? Maybe they weren’t down there, buried alive so to speak, but what if they knew? Kyle pictured himself after death: just gray and gray and gray…but every now and then a vibration would come through. He could see it, like ocean waves but made of sound and pressure. Waves that would break the monotony of the gray. Kyle would love whoever did that. Maybe the folks below loved him.
Finished. Kyle made sure his last pass brought him to the same grave every time. Disengaging the blades, he turned off the Murray and pulled a white flower from a compartment on its fender. He didn’t know what the name of the flower was and didn’t care.
He laid the flower in front of the stone. The stone was nice, what people called old-school: a thin piece of granite with a rounded top. Name, dates, and something else so worn he couldn’t make it out. Nice, old, solid.
Kyle believed the stranger beneath him knew he was there, knew he cared. He didn’t know why he believed it, but he did, and it filled him. Kyle believed faith wasn’t a thing you could learn in Sunday School.
The mower started and its vibrations left the cemetery.