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“Dirt Man”

by A. Elizabeth Herting

_

William “Old Bill” Dickerson III was what was colloquially known as the town drunk.

He didn’t exactly have his own cot at the local cop shop, but they did keep a bag full of his possibles stored there on those rare occasions when he meandered into town or just had a hankering to pass the evening with Dave Miller, his favorite deputy sheriff and the closest thing to a best friend Old Bill had ever known.

Bill was a “Dirt Man,” the senior caretaker at Fort Benson military cemetery and had been for over thirty years. He was given a wide berth just as long as he promised not to ever take the golf cart out on the grounds when he was in his cups, or leave any bottles laying around near the graves.

Not that he ever would. Old Bill was extremely respectful of his silent charges, toasting them each evening as the sun fell over the yardarm and he lowered Old Glory for the day, folding her into precise, crisp triangles. Bill had been an Army “desk jockey” in his younger years, caught in the limbo of being too young for service in Vietnam and too old for the hostilities in the first Gulf War. He was perfectly content with his lot in life, such as it was, serving the heroic men and women in this hallowed place. Old Bill felt it was his sacred duty.

The over sized garden shed in section 29A served as a makeshift home for Old Bill on the nights when he wasn’t keeping Dave company. He could be found there, puttering around his personal rose garden and chasing geese away from the long rows of stark white headstones that ascended out of the dark green grass like sentinels in a storm.

Every Sunday afternoon, at precisely four o’clock, Old Bill would make his way across the grounds to one very special headstone placed under an oak tree. The late afternoon sun lit up the chiseled marble as the old man reverently traced the writing of the names, placing a single, long-stemmed pink rose upon the stone. This was the one time he left his bottle back at the shed, for he knew that Lorna would not approve.

His wife and young son, William Dickerson IV, were surrounded by heroes in this lovely place, killed together some thirty years ago in an auto accident. Sundays at four were the only time Old Bill ever knew any real peace without the bottle and he would linger there, sharing with Lorna and his boy all the secrets of his tired old heart.

He tried to picture Billy as he would be by now, a man fully grown, perhaps with children of his own. The despair of such waste always sent him back into the blackness that only the whiskey could dull. One day he would join his wife and son right here, always marveling at the fact that he was standing upon his own grave. They would flip the stone around and place his name on the front of it, giving Old Bill “top billing” as the army veteran. He would request otherwise, if they would let him. His little family would continue look out from this beautiful spot just as they had done for many years. It would be his final wish.

Placing his hand upon the smooth stone, he bid his family a good night, making sure the rose was perfectly arranged. He’d added the inscription “My life, my love” to the stone several years before. It was the ultimate declaration that everything he loved, would ever love, was buried right here, in this quiet patch of earth.

Every Sunday when they were married, Old Bill would bring home a single pale pink rose to his wife as a token of his devotion. His rose bushes were the only living things he took care of now, continuing the tradition for Lorna’s sake. Since flowers were the only thing he could do for her now, he would damn well make sure to grow the very best roses he possibly could.

**

On his way back to the shed, he would stop by his favorite places. Bill loved to tend to the very old graves, wanting to pay his respects to the forgotten ones whose families had long ago disappeared into the mists of time.

Fort Benson had started out as a frontier outpost and soldiers had continued to be buried here for well over one-hundred and fifty years. It was just about filled up, only the elderly spouses or occasional veteran still being interred. Before long, it would reach capacity and once Old Bill shuffled off this mortal coil, Fort Benson would be complete.

**

Bill made sure to always leave a rose at the grave of Frank Lear, a man who had seen action in France during WWI, dying in the Battle of Belleau Wood at the tender age of eighteen. Four rows over, he would place a stone upon Norman Lowenstein’s memorial in remembrance of his service in the Korean Conflict. A local hero named Phillip Rogers lost both his legs and eventually died from his service in Afghanistan. Old Bill always made sure that there was never a weed to be found around that fine young man’s marker.

Way back in the oldest parts of Fort Benson, he would remove every last trace of the ever-present hoards of geese from the Buffalo Soldiers of the Civil War and the Spanish American veterans, scrubbing down their ancient stones until they gleamed.

A two year old girl, Marjorie Graves, who died in 1894 always tugged at his heart. Her headstone simply read “Sleep Baby, Sleep and made him think of his Billy, so he tended to her plot with special care.

Vietnam vets slept near soldiers from WWII and every conflict in between, all here together in peace with Old Bill looking out for them all. It was the best part of his meager existence, giving him the only real purpose he’d known since the loss of his family.

The grave of Vito J. Pizzatola and his wife Maria was usually his final stop before he reached the shed for the evening and poured his first three fingers, throwing the whiskey back in a neat, well practiced motion.

As darkness enveloped Fort Benson, Old Bill fell into a blissful, pain-free state, eventually falling asleep on the ancient, over-sized stuffed chair in the corner. The silence of a thousand graves protected his slumber which was why, on this particular night, he was jolted out of a light doze by the soft tones of an old song, floating over him like an errant breeze.

**

Over there, over there! Send the word, send the word over there! That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming…”

Bill fell hard to the packed earth of the shed, banging the side of his face on a rusty old shovel. There had been a few instances over the years when he’d had to shoo morbidly curious individuals away from Fort Benson late at night. Kids usually. Halloween or drunken fraternity rituals, running off as soon as Bill approached.

He sighed and reached for the lantern. Old Bill had gotten one of those new-fangled electric lanterns a while back. The damned thing would short out all the time so Bill switched to his trusty old battered one, remembering he and seven-year-old Billy camping underneath a thick blanket of stars, the glow of the lantern lighting up his eager young face. Eyes of green with just a touch of brown. His mother’s eyes. Sighing once more in resignation, Old Bill lit the flame and stepped out into the black night.

It took a minute for his eyes to adjust, but Bill swore he saw something moving down in section 30B. He made his way over, careful to walk as close as he could behind the rows of graves, so as not to step directly on top of where folks were buried. Bill had become an expert in this art over many years, remembering his mother’s admonition that it was disrespectful to do it any other way.

So prepare, say a prayer! Send the word, send the word to beware…”

The music wafted over the graves, a tinny old-fashioned sound. Like something you would hear in a vintage black and white movie. Old Bill hunkered down as a light mist sprung up from the earth, giving the cemetery an ethereal, greenish glow. He saw a shadow, pacing back and forth, the red tip of a cigarette piercing the darkness.

We’ll be over, we’re coming over! And we won’t come back til it’s over over there!”

The music faded away and Bill heard a voice, impossibly loud amongst the complete stillness of the graves.

“Dearest Mama, thank you for the socks. I can’t tell you how good it felt to have them in the trench, all the boys were jealous of my warm feet. Please give Corinne my love and devotion, it won’t be long now before I shall behold her lovely face again!”

Old Bill jumped back, the young man’s urgent voice causing goose flesh to break out all over his body. The man paced back and forth, smoking and talking out loud to himself as if dictating a letter. Bill decided to confront him, there was no earthly reason for anyone to be here at this ungodly hour. He sprung up and addressed the man, trying to make himself sound louder and braver than he actually felt.

“You there! You’re trespassing! The cemetery closes at sundown, it’s posted right there on the gate. If you do not leave, I will call the police!”

“Please, Mama, if something should happen to me, commend me to father. I always tried to be a man, the kind of man he wanted me to be. Keep me in your heart, Mama. I am and always will remain, your loving son, Frankie.”

“Sir! I warn you,” Bill sputtered, the hairs on the back of his neck standing at full attention. “You need to leave. Now!”

The man paused mid-stride, regarding Old Bill with large, dark eyes. Eyes that were sunken and steeped in anguish. Bill could see him fully now, recognizing the green khaki of his uniform bellowing out of  his dirty, fabric-wrapped boots. Bill was enough of a history buff to know that the strips of cloth that wound around his legs, from ankle to knee, were called “puttees” and completed the “Pershing trench boots” worn by soldiers during the Great War. The first World War, over one-hundred years ago.

The song started up again as the man regarded Old Bill with a sad half-smile, picking up his relentless vigil right where he’d left off.

John-nie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun! Take it on the run, on the run, on the run!”

Bill backed into a headstone and went tumbling over, hard onto his back. He closed his eyes for ten full seconds, trying to clear his head. Something was very, very wrong. A girlish giggle tickled his left ear, Bill sensing movement as two tiny, satin-covered feet came into his lopsided view.

She was a vision in her lacy white dress, a tiny doll-like creature clutching a faded stuffed lamb in one chubby fist. Bill swiveled his aching neck as high as it would go, straining to see her from his undignified position. Fine, white-blonde curls framed her face, causing his heart to skip a beat as she bent down to him, clapping her hands in delight. She leaned in to give him a kiss, miniature butterfly wings dancing across his cheek, as an uninvited tear escaped from his eye.

“Thank you, Marjorie, my sweet,” he whispered in wonderment, her wobbly footsteps running off into the darkness. Painfully he hoisted himself onto his side and grabbed the nearest stone for leverage, lifting himself off of the ground and into another world, altogether.

A symphony of sights and sounds came at him from every direction and frequency, an entire population miraculously appearing as if from thin air. Murmured conversations, disjointed music, laughter. Crying and despair. A precise marching cadence caught his attention, a shadowy platoon wearing Union blue marching in perfect synchronicity right past Bill’s astonished gaze.

“Reginald? Are you here, Reggie? Reginald Baker?”

Bill spun around at an old woman’s plaintive cry, watching as she methodically searched every row looking for what, he assumed, was her still living husband. A man sat atop Norman Lowenstein’s grave, lovingly cleaning his rifle. He sat right in the spot where Bill had placed the stone hours earlier, eventually looking up and giving him a half-salute in acknowledgment.

Deciding that the whiskey had gotten the better of him this evening, Old Bill turned back for the shed. A baby-faced Marine in a wheelchair cut him off, twirling in circles up on two wheels as he whooped and hollered in pure excitement.

“Good to see you, Phillip! Godspeed!” Bill called out as the young man raced away to his grave, the tracks of his wheels leaving ghostly imprints on Bill’s perfectly manicured lawn.

The strains of an old Glenn Miller tune reached his tired ears as Old Bill rounded the final bend back to the shed and merciful sleep.

He saw them then. The haunting strains of “Moonlight Serenade” surrounding the couple like a gossamer mist as they danced, swaying together in perfect harmony, matching each other move for move. She looked up into his face, radiant and filled with love as the music played on.

Vito and Maria had eyes only for each other as they flickered back and forth, appearing in the first blush of youth before transforming into a gentle old age, dancing together all the while. Old Bill was happy they were reunited, knowing Maria had just been interred last week. Bill had dug the hole himself. What a reunion they are having! Bill thought he’d never seen such adoration in a woman’s eyes until a sudden revelation hit him like a freight train, making his tired old knees actually buckle.

Throwing off the shackles of exhaustion, Bill ran past the otherworldly couple and straight to his roses. Even in his great excitement, he painstakingly extracted the perfect one, the rose he had been cultivating for a very special occasion, for he was certain there would be nothing more special than the reunion he would have this night.

As he gently cradled the rose, Old Bill stopped to consider for a moment the possibility that he was dead and decided it was a welcome thought. He quickly tamed his unruly gray hair with shaking fingers and whisked the dirt off of his shirt, holding the pale pink beauty out in front of him like a talisman. Lorna was a lady, after all, and you never went to call on a lady without the perfect flower.

With an energy he hadn’t felt in many, many years, Old Bill set off into a joyous run. Past the tableau of a thousand lives and a thousand deaths, the citizens of Fort Benson cheering him on in their shared midnight escapade.

It was the boy he saw first, a gangling youth just past his tenth birthday, staring up at the stars in the sky looking for constellations. Bill tried calling out to him, found himself hoarse with emotion until the words finally broke free.

“Billy! I’m here, son, I’m here!”

His son brought his gaze down from the heavens, locking eyes with his father as Lorna stepped out in front of Billy, stopping Old Bill dead in his tracks. They stood a room’s length apart, Bill suddenly becoming nervous to see her again, like a bashful schoolboy.

The cacophony of the dead was all around them, the sounds rising into an ear-splitting volume as Bill crossed the final distance to his love, shyly offering her the rose. Lorna gave him a radiant smile, lifting the dark weight of dread off of his soul as the noise came to a complete stop. The residents of Fort Benson all watched in respectful silence as Old Bill reached out to finally embrace his wife and son.

The Dirt Man had come home at last.

**

Sheriff David Miller quickly scanned the area before furtively pouring the whiskey from his flask into a shot glass, holding it out in tribute to the grave before him. They’d found Old Bill dead, laid out on his wife and son’s grave, clutching a single pink rose. Dave held back tears, knowing how much the old man would have wanted it that way.

Bill had been almost ninety-five years old when he finally expired, a fixture at Fort Benson Cemetery for sixty years. Dave had been his friend, through thick and thin, no matter what the people in town had to say about it.

For years Bill would sit with Dave at the precinct in those lost, dark hours, keeping him sane until that last time over twenty years ago when he suddenly stopped coming. He would never tell Dave what had happened to him, but he seemed completely at peace, like a man transformed.

Whenever Dave would visit him at Fort Benson, he found Old Bill in a frenzy, tending to his garden and regaling him with stories of the different folks buried there. It was surreal, almost like he knew each one of them. Dave knew he never quit drinking whiskey altogether, but he was pretty sure Old Bill had cut back quite a bit, something about wanting to please his wife when he saw her at night. Dave didn’t want to remind him that his wife was gone, so he simply listened as the man wove his whimsical tales.

Bill had changed in some fundamental way, of that Dave was certain. For the rest of his long life, Old Bill had a twinkle in his eye, a newfound zest for life. It was a confidence that manifested itself into the most amazing rose bushes Dave had ever seen. When Dave won his election for sheriff, Old Bill brought him three dozen yellow roses and a pint of Maker’s Mark. It was from this bottle, that Dave now made his final toast.

**

He poured one onto the grave before refilling it and throwing one back for himself. Before he turned to leave, Sheriff David Miller placed three long-stemmed pink roses on top of the new headstone, tracing each name with reverence. Fort Benson wanted to switch out Bill’s name on the front of the stone with his family’s names on the back, but Dave wouldn’t hear of it. There were certain benefits to becoming sheriff, and this was definitely one of them.

Dave made sure that all three names were etched on the front of the stone just as his friend wanted, right beneath the inscription “My life, my love.” The city even erected a small monument in tribute to the “Dirt Man” of Fort Benson, a real badge of honor, placing it at the front gate for all visitors to see.

As he returned the flask to his vest and turned back to his squad car, Dave swore he could hear a faint song in the air, a song he was sure he’d heard somewhere, sometime before.

Over there, over there, send the word, send the word over there….”

A peaceful feeling settled over Dave as he turned to take a final look at Old Bill’s grave, the glorious autumn leaves of the oak tree gently raining down upon his friend as the song gradually faded away, returning Fort Benson back into a blissful, eternal silence.