Journalist | Essayist | Novelist | istist

The Sexton

The Sexton
By Benjamin J. Gohs

On to the next secret rendezvous where, in Charlie’s mind, anything could happen—anything bad.

St. John’s wounds were visible, but his motive Charlie could not see. Swollen lips and bloody nose, reddened cheeks and snuffling crimson he tells the truth now all.

“This what really happened.” St. John gazed side-eye until Charlie nodded.

Charlie’s nervousness expanded with the painful pressure of impending terror. Numb fingers, tingling toes. Dizzy devils spun his head. Let St. John do the talking just to see what he’d say. Charlie’d been around enough pathological liars and compulsive deceivers. Learn the tells or play the victim. Let them drone. Listen without interruption.

“Everybody’s got some fucked up childhood shit. Right?”

“Sure. I guess.”

Charlie more than guessed. He always laughed inside with pure sweet hate thick as molasses when piss-asses would drone on about alcoholic fathers and overbearing mothers. Try losing a sister to an accident, father to suicide … spend the next ten years eating your mother’s hatred.

“Middle-Class boy from Middle-Class parents. Dad was recovering-Catholic. Mom? Liberal but devout Muslim. Of course, they shunned her for loving an infidel.

Oh, that old story?

Charlie smiled and nodded again. That’s what always gets the liars—they have to talk, and they can’t stop. Like they’re terrified of the silence. Puts the fear in them like nothing else. Experts call it “oversharing.” Any reporter worth his bourbon can spot a liar in ten sentences. Charlie could. Or, at least he use to. Housewives, bad husbands, priests and insurance adjusters and judges, they know too. Takes one shit-heel to know another.

“Things were dicey. That’s life in America. Life anywhere, I guess. Sure, we were insulated. Surrounded by folks from back home. Safe as refugees in a bubble can be. We watched out for each other. Before the millennium, you could disappear in a place like Southern Michigan, make a life for yourself. Hell, everybody had at least one undocumented friend or relative living with them. We had two—my uncle and his son.”

Charlie waited for him to make his point, but it was slow in coming. When they came to the next stoplight, he quietly waited for St. John to point the way.

“What that have to do with you? Not your fault your family broke the law. You were a kid.”

“Cousin died a long time ago and I’m all Uncle Moosha’s got.”

Down dusty roads flanked by rusted barbed wire and Lombardy poplar—the brown and yellow of Earthly decay complementing each other in their respective autumns.

About halfway to the other business when St. John paused his story and said to find a party store. Charlie waited the car. Watched the first loose leaves escape their deciduous confines and race off on their own cruel errands.

St. John came out with a small paper bag containing a pint of whiskey and a pack of menthols.

“Hold up.” Smacked the cigarette pack against his palm three times before peeling cellophane and sniffing fresh tobacco. Offered Charlie a smell. Minty sweetness made his mouth water.

“Nothing worse than born-again smokers.” Charlie patted his pants and chest out of habit.

St. John opened the whiskey and took a long pull—three shots worth. Lit up.

“Go easy.”

“Here.” Handed over the bottle.

Charlie took it with surprise.

“What. We may be getting into some profound unrest here pretty quick-like. I need you steady.”

“OK by me. Just a little—”

“I don’t drink often. Don’t mean I don’t drink.”

Charlie filled his mouth, held it in puffed cheeks, let it slide down. Took another and another. Guts burned. Shameful tremor of warm glee wiggled inside.

“Smooth.” St. John winced.

“Get one of those?”

Traded bottle for pack and lowered the windows. St. John downed some more of the liquor and capped the bottle.

“Pappy’s favorite.” Rubbed his thumb over the label. On it was a guarantee of smoothness, its handcrafted tradition assured by red ribbon and sketch of trees in some southern backwater where people never stumbled over fruit pails in the moonlight or struck their wives after pool tournaments or short-changed food stamps for cigarettes.

Charlie exhaled a long stream of smoke. Smiled and wiped his hot face. Attitude of the day had improved remarkably.

“You got that .38 handy?”

“Yeah.” Charlie patted his leg.

“Good. We get there, you stick it front of your pants. Let everybody get a good look.”

“Then what?”

“Look mean. Pray.”


Back on the road. Charlie had to fight the unconscious urge to drift in his lane. Not drunk. Just right. And generally not too concerned about much of anything. St. John found a rock station with more music than static. They caught the end of some familiar tune about longing. Charlie searched for some bigger meaning. Beautiful ache of the wayward. Inviting illusion of distraction as joy. Maybe it was just good timing.

“In a couple miles, you turn right on County Home Road. Then right again when we come to Haddock.”

Rolled up slowly to the intersection and Charlie shut off the car. “Never did finish your story.”

“Yeah?”

“Since whatever this is sounds like it might be pretty dangerous … I think I have a right to know.”

“Know what?” St. John looked around outside. Nothing but gravel behind and blacktop ahead, field and forest for as far as far could see. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I should’ve asked you first. I need this done. Over with. Tried to avoid the bullshit … but it’s caught up with me. You wanna hang back, I can drop you in town somewhere and come back. I’ll understand.”

Maybe it was the alcohol. Or liar’s fatigue. Either way, the impatience chaffed.

“Answer the question.”

St. John’s eyes widened. He sat up straight and lit another cigarette. “You ever heard the story of the sexton?”

St. John had a drink.

Charlie took a drink. “What’s a sexton?”

“Guy who takes care of a cemetery.”

“Then no.”

“OK. There’s this guy and he’s lost in the desert. No food, no water, no nothin but the clothes on his back. He’s been there for days and he knows he’s gonna die. Stopped asking for God’s help a long time ago. He’s lying there, on his side, waiting for the end and thinking about all the things he would have done with his life. Better choices. All that. He’s scooping up hands of sand and dirt until there’s this little hole. Bored. Got nothing else to do. So, he digs a little here and there until he passes out from exhaustion.

“On the fourth morning, he hears a voice. Maybe it’s a hallucination or maybe it’s God. It says, ‘Dig.’ Guy figures hell with it. Voice tells him dig his own grave cause nobody else going to do it for him. Be a man. Do for yourself. Take responsibility for once. Nourishing corn and all that.”

“Was God quoting Emerson?”

“I always thought that was Thoreau. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, he digs and he digs. He’s digging away. And the hole’s getting deeper and deeper. He’s committed now. It’s the first thing he feels right about in a long time. He’s digging, and the sun is beating down something brutal. Pretty soon the hole is too big for him to dig from the ground around. He has to get down inside. Once he’s in there, he realizes the edge of the hole is casting a shadow. Holy shit. He’s built himself some shade.”

“And God said, ‘Let there be shade.’”

“Nobody likes a smartass, Charlie.”
“Everybody likes a smartass.”

“Anyway. Feels good to be out of the sun. He sleeps all day. Wakes after dark and, by now, it’s freezing. He’s not sure he can take another night of the cold. So, he goes back to digging, and the exercise warms him. All through the night he digs and digs, deeper and deeper he goes.

“Now the hole is higher than his head standing up. He figures he’s about as deep as he needs to be. A grave is six feet and he’s done at least that. He’s thirsty and tired and it’s right before dawn. Figures he’ll dig a little more and rest until his time comes. Light breaks over the top of his hole as he’s taking his last scoops of dirt.

“This guy’s out of gas. No more fight left in him. Couldn’t crawl out the hole if he had to. He calls out to the God or whatever it was, says, ‘I’ve done as ye commanded. Now what?’ No answer. He’s fading fast. Falls in the dirt, calling for his mother. Too dehydrated to cry. And then he notices something strange. Dirt’s moist. Not moist but wet. He digs some more and it’s soggy. He digs and digs and digs until a puddle forms. He sips at it and it’s good.”

St. John took another drink of the booze. His eyes had welled. “It’s good.”

Charlie thought about nothing, his blank mind stalled in the silence of the car on the lonely highway in some blank stretch of wilderness. He looked left, down the crossroad which led away from the trouble. Then he looked right. The dancing heat on the road overhead was thick, a clear fog. Wanted to push him for a straight answer. Wanted not to have to push him.

“Then what?”

“Then nothing. That’s the end of the story.”

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