Photo | Joe Livernois
By Clark Coleman
“Do you think this is a good idea?” Jared asked as the night air flowed in through his passenger window.
“Of course,” Robert said, as if Jared’s question was born from stupidity. “It’s up to us to correct certain wrongs.” The ash fell off Robert’s cigarette. He grabbed the dashboard lighter and relit it.
“I don’t know about this.” Jared looked out the back window, expecting to see a car following their vehicle. Though vehicle is a strong word for the ‘68 El Camino they drove through the Salinas Valley.
The cab of the El Camino was a swirling olfactory roller coaster of smells of freshly worked soil and Marlboro smoke that played like tiny ghosts in the car before flying out the windows.
“Look,” Robert said with exasperation. “You are a writer, right? You write about injustices done to those without voices, the underdogs of society. People read your shit everyday.”
“Let’s not get carried away,” Jared said with a scoff. “Thank you for the vote of confidence but it’s just a blog. Christ, everyone who has a computer and basic knowledge of language has a damn blog.”
“True, but you have a lot of followers. Besides,” Robert said with a smirk-induced sideways glance, “this was your idea.”
“Don’t put this on me,” Jared said, shaking his head. “It was only an idea for a story, that’s all. This is crazy.”
Robert muttered a laugh. “You were always one to be cautious. Hell, we are in our forties and only have a limited number of trips around the sun. Help right a wrong.”
Jared looked up in an attempt to convey common sense and prudence to Robert. “I have a wife and a nine-to-five gig. I don’t want to jeopardize what meager income I make now.”
Robert’s expression turned serious. “Do you know where you want to be buried?”
“Of course,” Jared said. “You know where. Though it’s not as spectacular as you and your wanting a Viking funeral on a kayak off Pescadero Point.”
“Well, what if you were buried in a town somewhere where you were loathed by its citizens? You wouldn’t like that, would you?” Robert turned for a moment and cast a gaze at Jared.
“No,” Jared said sullenly. He looked out the window as the fields yielded to developments and carbon-copy houses.
“That is why we have to dig up John Steinbeck,” Robert said.
“What was that?” Jared was incredulous. “Did I hear you correctly?
Robert nodded. “You did. In 1939, the residents of Salinas burned copies of The Grapes of Wrath on Main Street. They felt the book betrayed Salinas. Well, this backward blight of a town does not deserve the distinction of being John Steinbeck’s final resting place.”
Jared didn’t know what to say. He went along only because he didn’t think Robert would be serious; but as they drove through Salinas, he was beginning to wonder.
“And then what?” Jared asked, playing along. “What exactly are we going to do with the cadaver of a Nobel Prize winner?”
“Bury him in Pacific Grove, of course,” Robert said. “I thought you studied Steinbeck in college. Didn’t you do a thesis paper on him?”
“No,” Jared said. “Can’t you get it straight? It was Brubeck. I studied Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist.”
“Shit,” Robert said. “I knew that.”
“Well, you seem to know more about Steinbeck than I do.”
Robert smiled. “Gotta love the Internet.”
Jared shook his head. He began to really get nervous.
“Grab the small penlights from the glove compartment,” Robert said, as he mashed his cigarette out in the dash ashtray. “They have red bulbs to preserve night vision. Astronomers use these.”
Robert slowed the car and cruised among industrial buildings that bordered the graveyard.
Jared crossed his arms. “You never told me how we are going to get Steinbeck buried in P.G.”
“I have a plot already prepared. I know one of the maintenance workers there who owes me.” Robert said, smiling at his plan. “We just drive in tonight, set John in his new resting place, America’s last hometown, and shovel in the dirt and my guy will clean it up and tamp it down in the morning. Unmarked, of course.”
“Holy shit,” Jared said. “We are really doing this. I need to stop sharing my short story ideas with you.”
“No way,” Robert said as he parked the El Camino by a warehouse next to the cemetery. “Then how can we come up with new adventures?” He opened his door. “Come on. Grab the picks and shovels.”
Jared sat frozen, looking out of the windshield. “Before you involve me in this hillbilly psychodrama I need you to understand one thing.”
Robert leaned down and rested his arms on the edge of the car door and looked at Jared. “What?”
“That at any sign of a security guard, a cop, anything weird, I am running and you’re on your own. I will hide until the coast is clear and Uber home, if need be.”
Robert looked sideways in the same direction Jared was gazing, thought for a moment, then turned back and looked at Jared with the intensity of a visual handshake. “Understood.”
“I can’t believe I am doing this.” Jared got out of the car and met Robert at the rear bed of the El Camino. Robert handed a penlight to Jared.
“Come on,” Robert said as he began to walk quietly toward the cemetery fence. “I scoped this place out the other day. There is a small section that has a gap we can sneak through.”
Robert slipped through first, then Jared handed him the tools. Robert gathered up the shovels and looked out along the expanse of headstones. There was some peripheral light from adjacent streetlights and industrial buildings. As Jared ducked through the scraggly opening in the fence, Robert handed him a shovel.
Robert headed off among the headstones. Jared hesitated, muttered “shit” to himself, then followed.
“Almost there,” Robert said, stopping, ”We need to be out of here by 3:30 a.m. so we have time to plant him in P.G.” Robert jogged ahead of Jared.
Moments later, Jared approached Robert, who was crouched by a tree. Robert gave the sign to stay low.
“We got company,” Robert whispered. “Look.”
About 60 feet away was a hearse with its back door open and two boys in their early twenties, digging up Steinbeck’s gravesite.
“What the…” Jared went to lean on the tree for a better vantage point but sent one of the shovels toppling on a grave marker with a clang.
Robert quickly jumped up into the beams of the gravediggers’ flashlights. “We’re not cops or security. It’s cool.”
Jared and Robert listened to the guys murmuring something. After a few moments, they got the okay to approach.
Robert hoisted a shovel in the air. “Looks like we have the same idea.”
One of the boys was leaning on his shovel. “Wait. You want Steinbeck? What for?”
“He doesn’t belong in Salinas,” Robert said. “He needs to go home to Pacific Grove. What about you?”
The boy laughed. “We are taking him to his alma mater, back to Stanford University. We’re students there.”
“I am guessing this expedition is not sanctioned by the university,” Robert said.
The man smiled. “Give that man a beer for guessing correctly on the first try.”
There was a pause that became eight months pregnant and then uncomfortable.
The boy looked to his partner. “No, really, I am not being smart, give this man a beer. We have plenty.”
“How were you able to drive in?” Robert asked. “And in a hearse, no less.”
“Picked the lock. We closed the gate behind us as to not attract attention.” The boy continued. “We bought the hearse from a guy who just got a sales job in tech. They wouldn’t let him go on sales calls in a hearse. We had to paint over some Marilyn Manson and Misfits decals.”
Digging boy number two walked to the back of the hearse and opened a casket that contained a 12 pack of Guinness. He grabbed two and handed one to Jared, then, as he handed one to Robert, he introduced himself. “Brett.” He leaned closer to Robert and whispered, “I don’t really want to be here but it is part of my pledge initiation.”
“I’m Stan,” Digger 2 said.
After everybody was introduced to each other, Robert spoke again. “I am not sure why you want to take him to Stanford. He dropped out without taking a degree.”
Jared leaned against a tree.
Stan laughed. “True. But everybody knows he went there.”
Robert looked around. “Okay. I get it.” He scratched the top of his head. “Hey, why don’t we cut him in two? You guys get half and we get half. Of course we’ll have to flip a coin to see who gets… .”
Jared rocketed up off the tree. “What the fuck!” he yelled. “Do you hear yourselves?”
Everyone said shhhh and looked around.
Jared continued. “There is no way in hell we are going to do that. It’s bad enough you people want to dig up Steinbeck but then to split him like he is a dinner salad. That’s fucking sick.”
Stan and Brett looked at Robert and exchanged nervous glances.
Robert slapped his knee. “I’m just kidding. That would be ridiculous.”
Jared walked near Steinbeck’s grave. “I suggest we all just drink our beers and discuss this. I personally don’t think we should do this.” Everyone nodded.
“I’m nodding to the drinking beer part, not the part where we should not be doing this,” Robert said, as he started to flex his right arm. “Ah, mosquito. Look.”
Jared turned his red penlight on Robert’s arm. Sure enough, a mosquito was feeding on flesh. Jared switched the light off.
“No,” Robert said, “turn it back on. Watch this.”
“What?” Jared turned the light on.
“I once heard if you flex your arm when a mosquito bites, your muscles clamp down and he can’t release his proboscis and continues to intake blood whether he wants to or not until… .”
“What?” Stan walked over for a closer look. The mosquito’s legs started to flail and its abdomen began to quiver and grow like a balloon being inflated.
“Teach you to bite me,” Robert said, as he watched the mosquito fill up with blood, growing larger. “You all might want to… .” Before he could finish his sentence the mosquito burst, making a sound akin to a grape being stepped on.
“Not cool!” Jared yelled. “I think I there’s blood on me.”
“Nonsense.” Robert shined his penlight over Jared. “You’re good.”
“No, I felt something.” Jared held his arms out, twisting them over for a look.
Stan slammed the rest of his beer and looked between Robert and Jared. “You guys are nuts. We have no intention of digging up Steinbeck. Besides, you didn’t do your homework. His ashes are buried here, not his body. We just wanted to see how far our pledge, Brett, would go.” He turned to Brett. “You’re in. Welcome to Delta Phi Beta Kappa Kappa Delta Delta Phi Epsilon.”
“Yes!” Brett did the overused college exclamation of happiness with a fist pump. Another year and he will be a jaded sophomore.
“Oh shit,” Stan’s head went up like that of an ostrich and looked beyond Robert and Jared. ”I think I see security heading this way. You guys better jump in back otherwise you’ll never make it out in time.”
Everyone scrambled and picked up their implements. Robert and Jared tossed their tools in the back of the hearse. Jared ran to squeeze in the front seat with Stan and Brett. Robert, not seeing any room next to the coffin, did the next best thing and got inside the coffin.
As Jared got into the front seat under the dome light, Stan and Brett looked at his face in horror.
“What?” Jared flipped the passenger visor down and saw his face was sprinkled in blood. “Robert, you asshole! I am covered in mosquito blood.”
A muffled what? emanated from inside the casket.
Stan started the engine. “The blood never showed earlier because you’re using red flashlights. Red doesn’t show in red light.”
The casket lid opened. Robert peeked his head up over the edge. “I’ll show you guys where to drop us off.”
Stan smiled. “We still have tons of beer, the rest of our fraternity is in a hotel nearby. Come party with us.”
“Hell, yes!” Robert exclaimed.
“Hell no,” Jared sighed. “I’m done. I work in the morning.”
As the hearse drove out of the cemetery and hit the streets of Salinas, a security truck pulled up slowly and parked next to Steinbeck’s grave. Two guards with flashlights got out and surveyed the scene.
Fifteen minutes later, a Salinas police officer pulled up. The officer got out and looked at the guards.
One of the guards looked up at the cop. “More fans of Steinbeck,” he said.
The second guard squatted and shone his light on Steinbeck’s marker. “Faint blood splatter. Fucking weirdos. Who knows what they did here.”
The cop nodded, looked around and started writing a report. He stopped for a moment, then looked over his clipboard at the guards. “I never knew Steinbeck was buried here.” He paused for a moment. “I’m writing a novel, too, you know.”
“Of course you are,” said the second guard in a weary tone. “Of course you are.”
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