FIT FOR BURYING by JoLynne Buehring
“Ed, he’s gone. Banjo’s gone. He died this morning,” the woman cried into the telephone. Between hiccups and blasts on a handkerchief she said, “I need your help. He wanted . . . I thought that you could . . . he told me his wish was . . .”
“Ramona, take it easy, calm down,” Ed said, “and when you’re ready, tell me what you need.”
After a loud thump of the receiver being dropped on a wooden surface, followed by several long moments, interrupted by honks and snorts, Ramona came back on the line. “Ed, Banjo wanted to be buried here on our property.” Okay, that was a reasonable request for someone who had lived in these hills for nearly forty years. “And he wanted you to build his coffin.”
Banjo, a former member of a notorious motorcycle gang, and his third, or was it his fourth wife, Ramona, a self-proclaimed shaman, were not Ed’s favorite neighbors. He had always been thankful they lived three deep arroyos, one ravine and a prickly pear forest away. He seldom saw them, occasionally bumping into them at the line of mailboxes just off the highway. However, everyone knew everyone else. Back here, twenty-two miles of twisting, rutted roads, it was inconvenient to visit any but the closest neighbors, and then only for a specific purpose. When there was a crisis, though, they helped one another. Ed was usually the first to offer and consequently, the first to be asked for help. The whole loosely connected community knew he rarely said no to any request.
“I’d be happy to help you out, but I don’t have any lumber for that kind of job,
“Oh, that’s not a problem. Banjo said to use the planks from that old barn we tore down last summer. There should be plenty there, and he said just a plain ol’ box would be fine. He didn’t want anything fancy, said a shoebox would be fine except he’s too big.”
With a sigh, Ed said, “I’ll be over in an hour or so. We’ll see what you’ve got to work with.”
In the high lonesome hills of southern Arizona more than fifty miles of rough backroads from the nearest undertaker, the county permitted burials without benefit of mortuary services as long as a law enforcement officer verified the death was from accident or natural causes, and interment took place in 72 hours.
The area had often been compared to the hillbilly-inhabited Appalachians. Every resident was a unique character. In spite of each property being so isolated there was still an active, if not accurate, grapevine disseminating information. Apparently Ramona had been on the phone to someone else and word spread. Before Ed could get his work boots laced up to go see about the makings for a coffin, he had calls from three other people in area.
Mule, one of Banjo’s old biker buddies, offered to use his backhoe to dig the grave. Tiny called to say he’d help haul lumber and the finished coffin. Tiny could carry the burial box on his back, thought Ed, appreciating the offer from the big man.
There was plenty of lumber, all right, weathered and splintery pieces of four to eighteen inches long. When he told Ramona the only way to make a box out of the collection was by patching it together, she insisted Banjo wanted only Ed to do it, using the barn wood. Ed, always sensitive to others’ feelings, reluctantly agreed but reminded her that it would not be a work of art, merely a work.
Banjo had not been a handy man, and if something couldn’t be fixed with a piece of baling wire or duct tape, it didn’t get fixed. He had no tools, so Tiny helped Ed haul as much of the salvageable wood as his truck could hold back to Ed’s well-equipped workshop.
After several splinters, one nasty cut, and many hours of cursing, the box was ready to be transported back to Ramona’s land. To make the coffin sturdy enough, layers of pieces had to be fastened together, creating one very heavy final resting place. It was a good thing Tiny, all six feet six, three hundred ninety pounds of him, had offered to help. At four foot eight, a hundred seventeen pounds, Ed could never have moved it.
While the carpentry project was underway, Ramona had Mule following her all around the hillsides of her land. She decided the northern slope of one hill would be the perfect spot. By the time Mule got his backhoe maneuvered to start digging, she changed her mind.
“The wind really howls over that hill in winter time. Banjo will get cold. The south side would be better. No, that’s too hot in the summertime, besides Ol’ Red’s cows crap all over there.”
After getting the measurements from Ed, Mule was finally able to start digging in the rock-laden hardpan. Both he and his tractor motor were about to burn out by the time the hole was dug.
Tiny backed his pickup to the side door of the house so the body could be moved without too much carrying. Raybelle, the wife of another neighbor, Possum, had helped Ramona lay Banjo out in his favorite flannel shirt and best bib overalls.
Mule helped Tiny carry Banjo out and deposit him in the barnwood sarcophagus. Ed fastened the lid on with several screws. Because there was no road to the grave site Ramona had finally settled on, it took a lot of bouncing and jouncing around boulders and clumps of scrub to get there. When they finally arrived, the coffin had slid to the edge of the tailgate. Braking quickly on the slope caused it to tip out of the bed of the truck and stand on end.
The five or six neighbors who had gathered with the widow and work crew heard the slither of the plastic liner and then the body thump on the bottom of the patchwork box. Tiny said, “I guess Banjo was skinnier than we thought, huh, Ed?”
Four of the men grasped the side handles to carry it to the graveside, jostling the coffin to settle the body back in place. Bruce, one of the pall bearers, began a running complaint about splinters in his fingers. Discussion ensued about how they were going to get it into the hole. Wanting to do things ‘properly’, Ramona said, “Two boys from across the border are supposed to be here with one of those sling things for lowering. We’ll have to wait for them. I want to take another look at Banjo and make sure his head is at the right end of the grave. He wants to face west.” This necessitated taking the screws out of the lid, turning the coffin around and replacing the top.
Forty-five minutes later in the hot sun, a shrimpy guy and his tall, skinny partner were trying to put together the elevator device. This took a lot more discussion and hand waving since neither of the men spoke much English or knew what they were doing. When they were finally set up and ready for the coffin, Ramona let out a wail. She was a champion wailer. “I forgot Banjo’s favorite blanket. We can’t bury him without it. I promised.”
Again Ed unscrewed the cover, having to wait for Ramona to tuck Banjo into his ‘blankey’ and wail some more about how pretty his white hair was in spite of having survived chemotherapy.
The coffin began to sink into the hole until someone noticed that only one side of the box was descending. The other side of the mechanism was hung up. It took a lot wrestling with the straps to start the descent again. Two feet down it came to a halt. The measurements for the hole did not take into account the two handles on each side. The process was reversed and the offending handles were removed, with great effort because when Ed does a job he does it thoroughly.
Down, down to two feet, three feet, abrupt halt. It would go no further. Since the scoop of the backhoe was tapered, the hole had sloping sides, smaller at the bottom than the top. No amount of effort could make it go any further. With lots of hand motions and Spanglish, the smallest man volunteered to get into the hole and scrape away at the sides.
Dirt filled in behind him, and he was trapped in the hole, not able to find enough room to get himself out. Tiny, named for the size of his brain rather than his body, gave the little man a mighty jerk that dislocated the poor guy’s shoulder. Pain propelled him out of the cavity. Ice for a cold pack was located in the cooler of beer Possum had brought to toast Banjo’s passing.
The second ‘technician’ crawled onto the box. He jumped up and down, repeatedly apologizing, until the coffin finally hit the bottom, and the infernal equipment could be removed. Each of the mourners dropped in a flower and said their farewells to Banjo, accompanied by moans of agony from the worker and wails from Ramona.
At last the deed is done, Ed thought. He reckoned too quickly. The mourners looked at each other, waiting for completion of the funeral.
“Isn’t it time to close up the hole?”
“Are we supposed to put in a handful of dirt?”
“We can’t move all that rock. Where’s Mule?”
Mule had already left with his backhoe because he was due at a motorcycle rally.