CHAPTER 43 (Winnie)
You would think exhuming a body would be difficult—that there would be police and lawyers and reams of paperwork involved, and that you’d need to have a good reason, like evidence of a crime or valid, verifiable religious grounds. But as it turns out, all it takes to dig up a grave is a shady funeral director and a thousand bucks. Given how cheap and easy it is, it’s a wonder people don’t do it more often.
Charlie and I waited in Mom’s parlor for Nathan to pick us up. We could have dug our mother up during the day, under the guise that we had found a plot we liked better, or had environmental remorse and wanted to save the earth and have her cremated. But instead we went full spooky and scheduled it for that night at midnight, after the groundskeepers had gone home and only the grave robbers and ghosts were about—because why miss an opportunity to make something ghastly even ghastlier? I was buzzing pretty good on my four-finger pour of Jack Daniel’s as Nathan’s car purred up the drive. If digging up a body in the dead of night wasn’t an occasion to get wasted, then what was?
“You ready?” Charlie asked as Nathan’s car pulled up, and I nodded, even though it was a stupid question. No, I wasn’t ready to peer into the casket of my dead mother—that’s what the damn whiskey was for.
“Hi, Nathan,” I said as I climbed in beside him. It was warm in the car, but I still felt chilled. People think it doesn’t get cold in Southern California, but late-October nights can be quite frigid, and this one was hats and gloves worthy.
We drove in silence for the fifteen minutes it took to traverse the Valley. Forest Lawn cemetery was right behind the Warner Bros. lot. I figured Mom had chosen it because it would make haunting her old stomping grounds quick and easy—no commuting required! The gate to the graveyard was open, so we drove straight through. At first I thought it strange that there was no one standing guard, but then I realized the well-being of the residents had long since been compromised, so why bother with security?
I fought back a wave of nausea as we bounced along the access road that snaked between the grave sites. The combination of whiskey and weirdness was making me dizzy, and I had to keep my eyes glued to the dashboard to keep the contents of my stomach where they belonged. Nathan’s fancy halogen headlights cut a slim, oblong path through the black night, giving the outing an eerie Blair Witch Project vibe, complete with creepy backstory, bumbling investigators, and vengeful dead witch ripe for resurrection.
“We have to walk from here,” Nathan said as he slowed and parked in a turnabout. The day’s rain had given way to a cloudless night, and the moon was rose-colored and nearly full. Nathan handed me a flashlight, which I shined on the ground to light my steps. Nathan somehow knew where he was going, so I fell in behind him as he led us across the squeaky, wet grass. We were high up on a hill, and city lights winked at us from below: “We know what you’re doing, you naughty girl,” they said. And I forced myself to look away.
I tried to count the headstones as we trudged between them—fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. The car had been completely gobbled up by darkness, and without Hansel or Gretel to leave a trail of breadcrumbs, it was the only thing I could think of to help us find our way back. I tried to walk between the graves, not on them, but the beam from my flashlight was weak, and I couldn’t see the dull granite gravestones until I was practically on top of them.
We rounded a small grove of trees—twenty-one, twenty-two—and Nathan suddenly stopped.
“There,” he said, pointing.
I looked up. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could see their lanterns—three of them, glowing like a tiny constellation of stars—about a dozen grave lengths ahead. As we approached I saw the three torchbearers. All men. Two were young, maybe in their late teens, and the third was balding and stout. Nathan greeted the portly one with a nod.
The chubby ringleader gave the signal to the two teens, and they started digging. The boys worked in tandem, like two sides of a kayak paddle rising and falling on opposite sides of a boat. Mom had only been buried this morning, so the ground was still soft and loose. Their shovels made rhythmic thumping sounds as they tore into it, and I let myself slip into a memory of practicing piano to my metronome: 123, 223, 323, 423 . . .
I glanced over at Charlie. He was either lost in thought or hypnotized by the shovels’ rhythmic cadence. The boys had jumped into the hole and were digging themselves down into the abyss. Down, down, down they sank, their sharp spades slicing through the spongey earth like spoons through dense chocolate cake. I could only see the tops of their heads now, bobbing up and down like buoys in a dark sea. Dirt sprayed out behind them like an angry wake, forming a mound that swelled in all directions, like bread dough when it rises. Finally, one of the shovels thumped against something hard. One of the boys kept digging, while the other scrambled out of the hole and grabbed a pair of nylon straps. I peered into the hole to watch as he worked the straps under the human-size wooden box, one strap at one end, one at the other. The boys worked together to cinch and secure the straps, then helped each other out of the hole. I marveled at their speed and coordination. It seemed we were not the first weirdos to exhume a loved one in the middle of the night, and I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or mortified.
The straps were attached to a winch, which one of them operated while the other steadied the load to keep it from swinging. As Winch Boy turned the crank, the coffin floated out of the hole like a moonrise, slow and steady against the black sky. Once aboveground, two sets of hands reached over and swung the box away from its crumbly trough, then eased it onto the earth by our feet. Stout Man offered a crowbar to one of the boys, who jammed it under the lid, then jumped on it to break the seal.
With a hollow pop that sounded like a jar of spaghetti sauce opening, the crowbar pierced the seal. The coffin lid shuddered as the boys stepped back and hung their heads. The stillness was terrifying. I half expected Mom’s bony fingers to slither out from under the lid, then throw it open to reveal her undead head. Would she be scowling? Or happy to see us?
When Mom did not pop out of her coffin on her own, our corpulent host took a step toward it.
“Shall I?” he asked.
He was looking at me, so I looked at Charlie, who bit his lip and nodded.
“Go ahead,” Nathan said, hunching forward for a better view.
The portly man bent over and lifted the lid.
I steeled myself, then took a tentative step closer.
I’d been scared to look at her, scared to be forever haunted by the image of her chalky dead face.
But when I peered inside, I didn’t see the ghastly visage of my dear departed mother. I saw something that scared me a whole lot worse.