Eliza Tucker

A few miles out from Route 82 in the low glow of dusk, two men descended on Bell Lane Church in a quiet fury. Having grown up in Clanton, Alabama, Jude and his younger brother Petey knew the church well–they had snickered during sermons and pulled faces at each other from across their mother’s lap in the pews. More importantly, though, they knew Bell Lane Church had a habit of cremating their fallen congregation members and burying the urns out back under rows of granite gravestones. Jude had paid for one himself, and it wasn’t cheap. He noted how the cemetery had grown in the years since he left. He had, a long time ago, attended Sunday services alongside Petey and their ailing mother with militance until she passed. Jude was 18 then, freshly done with high school and looking forward to few prospects. Odd jobs here and there lasted him until he was 20, and Clanton suddenly had no space for him. He figured his quick hands and sweet talk would do better in the bustle of Tuscaloosa, so he went north and took little Petey with him. The pair lived low lives for the better part of a decade, scamming and stealing and being wholly unprincipled. Shady business in Tuscaloosa, though, was better done by worse people, and the brothers found themselves scheming to take from Clanton what it had taken from them.

Jude was smart in a practical sort of way. He knew which pawn shop jewelry looked expensive and which young men looked desperate enough to buy engagement rings from a stranger on the street. A natural storyteller, Jude got his way more often than not. Petey, on the other hand, was plain stupid. He didn’t care much for school or trade but followed Jude around like a lost dog. Their father had died shortly after Petey’s birth, having day-drunk himself into a machinery-related accident on a construction site; he was flattened by a falling log and completely unfit for an open casket. That day, their mother pledged allegiance to Bell Lane Church, and they graciously paid for half of his funeral services, cremation included. When Petey was old enough, Jude would take him out to the plot where their father rested and tell him inventive stories about how he was a real man, a good, strong provider. Petey, for lack of a better role model not confined to anecdotes, imprinted on Jude. His life was as good as set in stone. 

“There’s more people’ve died here.”

Jude turned to Petey, stunned that it had taken him so long to point out the obvious.

“If you’re gonna keep making these dumbass observations, you can go back to the truck and count your fingers. God knows it’ll take you a while,” sneered Jude. He spat when he talked, mostly due to his mother’s indifference to his poor dental habits as a child.

Petey shifted a shovel between his hands and walked on towards the plots. Jude took the lead, eventually stopping in front of a squat headstone. 

“Here’s as good as anywhere,” he said, dropping a burlap sack on the ground and plunging his trowel into the crumbling earth. Petey hesitated, taking a moment to work through the engravement on the granite.

In Loving Memory of JESSICA RANDALL. Born May 7, 1948, Died November 23, 1957. A Light To All.

“Damn Petey, we ain’t at a library. Quit reading and help me dig,” Jude said, not even looking up from the blade of his trowel as it met the dirt.

“I knew Jessie. Her family sat in front of us on Sundays fore they stopped going.” Petey thought on Jessie, how he would pull on her pigtails in Praise and shoot spitballs at her during English lessons. He remembered how, one unspectacular Sunday, Pastor John told the congregation through gritted teeth that Jessie was killed in an accident. An impaired driver barreling down I-65 mowed into her family’s car, ending a family road trip before it had crossed state lines. Pastor John asked for prayers for the surviving Randalls before the collection tray was passed around. Donations to the church, of course, were always appreciated in such trying times.

“I think you should stop,” said Petey. Jude kept his eyes on the plot and kept digging.

“Why should I stop? I’m damn near halfway there, no thanks to you.”

Petey lost his nerve and turned away, not daring to invoke Jude’s anger by looking him in the eye.

“It’s just that, she was so little. That urn’s gotta be little, and that’s a big waste of time. We should look for the old folk.”

Jude paused, his knees planted firmly in the dirt. Clouds crossing the waning moon smothered the already dim light he was working by, and he silently nodded. Petey, of course, couldn’t see his brother’s rare endorsement on account of the darkness, only that he had returned to turning the earth.

“Quit digging that damn grave Jude!” Petey boomed, reaching for Jude’s shoulder to disrupt his work. Jude whipped around, the trowel still in his hand, and slashed Petey across his cheek. Petey recoiled, tripping over a headstone and landing flat on his back. Jude, ignoring the distant blubbering of his brother, turned back and dug up the little urn. He cursed his brother under his breath, swearing he would kill him if he got them in trouble. The moon came back into view, and he looked to Petey in the dim light. He had his palm held firmly on his cheek, and blood trickled down between his muddied fingers. His eyes, beady and glazed, gleamed with fear as they made contact with Jude.

“I ain’t stupid. I know what I’m doin’–I was nearly done digging when you got your bright idea. I was keen on agreeing with you, but we’ve got time,” hissed Jude. He tossed the urn to Petey, still sniffling on the adjacent plot. “Put it in the sack and get to work,” said Jude as he walked to the far end of the graveyard.

Petey rose slowly and lumbered to the ditch Jude had left in his wake. Lifting the urn to eye level, he examined it; it fit snugly in his hand, and the polished bronze offered a distorted reflection of his face. The gash on Petey’s cheek was deep, extending from his temple down to the corner of his mouth. It was caked with blood and dirt, but despite the pain, he thought he looked like a real man. He turned the urn in his hand, smudging it with bloodied fingerprints, before dropping it into the sack with a smile. He picked up a shovel.

The brothers passed the night this way, digging up the urns of Clanton’s townspeople and dumping them into a burlap sack. Jude, the mercenary he was, even began to chip away at the bronze plaques on the newer headstones, mangling the names in the process. They loaded their spoils into the back of their truck as the sun peaked out over the hills, and with a few sputters of the engine, they were gone. In one night, the brothers wiped away two centuries of Clanton’s history, leaving only two plots undisturbed.

Had Jude been less imaginative and Petey a little smarter, they would have thought to break the flimsy locks on the church doors and steal the collection box. Had they still been so hellbent on collecting scrap metal to sell, they would have thought to grab the golden candelabras, or even the silver collection tray itself. But this never occurred to the pair, even as they barrelled down I-65 with their seatbelts off and the urns rattling around in the truck bed. They paid no mind to the JESUS SAVES sign posted on a telephone pole, nor the white cross, adorned with withering wreaths, planted on the side of the highway. Jude spent the car ride to Tuscaloosa whooping and cursing Clanton, betting how much money he would fetch from this much brass and bronze while Petey leaned his good cheek on his hand and stared out the window, thinking up an impressive story to explain away his new scar. Satisfied, the two paid no mind to the ashes streaming out from the sack behind them, marrying the wind as they sped.

Eliza Tucker is a freshman majoring in journalism in Medill with interests in creative writing and design!