The sky above the mountains was stained with the last pastels of a mediocre sunset.
Headlights approached from the east.
Cruz climbed from the raw dirt to the bucket, jumped from the bucket up to the ground, killed the diesel, and prepared to meet the maintenance supervisor halfway between the fresh grave and the truck.
The work was running late.
The Ford rolled to a stop on the crushed granite with its brights aimed directly at the grave. Ramirez stepped down from the pickup's cab and marched toward the hole. Crazy shadows bent every which way as the beams from the truck and the wash from the floods above the excavator competed to obliterate the creeping darkness.
One at a time, Ramirez rubbed the tops of his cowboy boots on the calves of his jeans. Not content with the results, he polished the leather on one boot a second time before he tucked his right hand into the pocket of his down vest, turned his head, and spit. Ramirez kept his boots shinier than a new quarter. If he was outside he almost always spit before he spoke a word.
"Should've been done an hour ago. Two things," he said to Cruz, holding up his left hand like a peace sign. "Don't like one-man crews." He folded down his index finger, leaving his middle finger pointing skyward in unintended profanity. "Don't like digging in the dark. Alonso knows that. People get hurt. I'm two-hundred-twelve straight days nobody hurt. Tomorrow's two-thirteen. Understand?"
Cruz's eyes were focused on the ground in front of Ramirez. "All done diggin', Mr. R. had to pull a couple big rocks. That slowed us, but I'm just about to get the placer set and the drapes hung. Alonso said it's an early internment, wants everything ready before I go. I know that's the way you like it too."
Ramirez was oblivious to being played. Alonso joked that the man wouldn't spot an ass-kiss unless the suck-up used Crazy Glue for lipstick.
The boss looked around the trailer with the folding chairs wasn't near the grave. "What about chairs?"
"Alonso'll bring 'em out in the morning said nobody wants to sit on a chair covered with dew."
"Doo?" Ramirez asked. "Why the heck would there be any doo on the chairs?"
Cruz coughed to disguise a laugh. "Sitting out at night? That kind of dew?"
Ramirez spit again. He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and angled it so that it was illuminated by the Ford's headlights. "I want forty-eight. I want a center aisle, and I want 'em in place by eight-fifteen. Not eight-twenty." He stuffed the paper back into his jeans and gestured toward the fresh rectangular scar in the sweep of bluegrass. The lawn was just beginning to green up for spring. "Right there. Between there and the path. Sun at their backs."
"No problem, Mr. R."
The shiny chrome components of the equipment that would manage the weight of the casket as it was lowered into the grave were already lined up square beside the hole. Ramirez knew his grave digger's job was almost done. He spit again, shooting saliva four feet to his left through the fat gap in his front teeth.
"Eight-fifteen. I mean it. Gonna be cold. Some wind maybe. Where the heck is Alonso anyway?" he asked.
Alonso had worked maintenance at the cemetery for eighteen years. He operated the compact excavator at gravesites. His most important job, though, was keeping the short-timers in the corral, which saved Ramirez a lot of work and even more aggravation. Alonso used up most of the accumulated goodwill trying to keep an eye on his adopted teenage daughter. He used what was left to create some cover to for the younger members of the crew, kids like Cruz who tended to be less diligent than their mentor.
Cruz said, "Toothache. Dentist."
Getting Alonso to take off early had promised to be the trickiest part of what Cruz was doing. The plan had been to fake an emergency call from Alonso's daughter's school. It seemed that happened at least once a week, anyway. The abscess was a gift.
Excerpted from Dry Ice by Stephen White, Copyright © 2007 by Stephen White. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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