Lest Ye Be Judged by Shannon Greenstein
Come on, I say. Hurry up. Someone is going to see us.
It is so close to the end of twilight that it’s practically night. It is unbearably cold, despite my gloves, despite my down jacket, despite the scarf and hat and layers of cloth which camouflage my form in non-varying shades of black. We have a flashlight, one of the portable torches reserved for rescue crews searching for teeth in the dead of night around the debris of an accident site, but it is only for emergencies; we would prefer not to advertise our presence. I have a penlight attached to the keyless keychain which guides my path through the foliage and rough terrain. He carries only a Zippo.
Did you remember the bag this time? I say, looking back over my shoulder.
He conjures a travel-size flame in the palm of his hand long enough to reveal the padded strap of the canvas bag slung over his back before extinguishing the light with a grating metal sound. The darkness is a liquid in which we are nearly drowning, except that there is nothing humorous about the forest at night. Without light, humans are no longer the fittest species in this Darwinian environment of natural selection.
We are trekking through the forest only because it provides the one path to our destination where our entrance will go unnoticed. We began on the highway at sunset, leaving the car in a parking lot of anonymity by a roadside rest stop and continuing on foot. We have been struggling through the forest for about half an hour, our journey perfectly timed to coincide with the onslaught of full darkness as we near the end. We have done this four times before, and four times, we have been lucky.
My companion is in desperate need of money to fund his violent gambling addiction. He is more enslaved by the compulsive gene in his DNA which drives him to gamble than the skinniest, shakiest, rock-bottom junkie I have ever met. He owes more thousands of dollars to individuals and institutions than I have ever managed to earn in all my years of gainful employment. As on our previous excursions, he entertains me with a whispered, optimistic, nearly manic monologue detailing his plans for getting out of debt, for ending his gambling habit once and for all, for regaining custody of his children, for having the luxury to spend his money on toothpaste and underwear and orange juice rather than horses and football games and the roulette wheel.
Will you shut up? I say. The guards are going to hear us, I say. I think there’s a spider in my hair…will you get it out? I say.
My need for money goes beyond covering overly extravagant spending. Morally, I am no better or worse than the addict at my side picking arachnids from my clothing, but my reasons for this nighttime sleuthing are born from a fundamental will for survival that far eclipses his need for poker chips. I am a Type 1 Brittle Diabetic; eventually, I will need a kidney transplant. If scientists manage to harvest the pancreas within my lifetime, I’m going to need one of those, too. Before that happens, I might go blind. And before THAT happens, every day, I need insulin. Have you ever paid for a twice daily insulin allotment without medical insurance? Have you ever been in the market for a kidney? I have. Take my word – it is a fiscal impossibility.
We went off course, he says.
He points to my right, where the iron lattice work of the rear gate is visible in the dull gloom
provided by recessed security lighting. We traverse the slope until we are standing directly in front of the perimeter fence; it towers above our heads like the Gates of Hell: Abandon Conscience All Ye Who Enter Here.
He cups his hands together and offers me the makeshift step. Lamenting my lack of cheerleading experience, I step into his palm and hoist myself up onto the lip of the fence. From this vantage point, I can see everything. The markers stretch out in all directions, following the gently rolling terrain and winding paths between the headstones. A number of elaborate mausoleums are clustered in the center of the graveyard; even in death, the upper crust cannot deign to share real estate with the lower classes. Directly across from where I am perched, I can see the front entrance and the back of the iron sign attached to the gate, a message in mirror writing from my perspective: Laurel Hill Cemetery, established 1836.
I anchor myself with my left hand and stretch my other arm down to pull my partner in crime up onto the wall. He lowers himself down first, reaching up to catch me around the waist as I jump. Now that we are inside, I am relieved; I’ve always found breaking in to be the most nerve-wracking aspect of this entire debacle. I am lulled into a false sense of security by the absence of movement, the muffled noises of civilization that are deadened by the dense forest, the protective enclosure provided by the fence. The rest of the world seems very far away.
Let’s do this fast, I say. It’s your turn to pick one.
I follow him in a crooked path around the headstones and bouquets of flora in varying states of bloom and decay. Even at night, it is obvious which gravesites have been lavished with attention by the living. Those without a loving spouse, a child, or a prison pen-pal to regularly tend the grass and stone markers stand out like melancholy orphans. Dead flowers or battered artificial wreaths lie forgotten on the ground in front of crumbling marble stained with dirt and grit.
I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle as we walk by the first of several mausoleums. A perverse compulsion that I cannot control forces me to stare into the depths of the crypt through the open marble archway. I can see the massive concrete sarcophagi lining the walls and my brain helpfully provides a mental image of what the contents of those coffins must look like after a century and a half. I try to ignore that which sounds eerily like the whispering of a multitude of human voices as we leave the mausoleums behind and approach the central point of the cemetery.
Contrary to popular belief, grave robbing is not a terribly difficult task. Like anything else, it just requires a fair amount of planning beforehand if it is to be completed successfully. Obviously, carting around picks and shovels and other tools reminiscent of excavation is something to be avoided; it’s nearly impossible to scale a fence under the radar of human attention with the entire third isle of the Home Depot strapped to your back.
With a limited supply of tools comes a limited supply of graves from which one can choose to plunder. Those which show signs of recent human housekeeping are naturally out the question; family members tend to notice when a plot has been disturbed and its contents reburied. The older graves that have been left untouched for decades are also something to be avoided. Without the proper tools, it is nearly impossible to get through ground which has frozen and thawed for countless seasons in a row.
The ideal choice is a plot which has been dug only recently. The dirt has yet to become heavily packed and is easily manipulated with a minimum of instruments and effort. Of these new graves, the potential grave robber should be on the lookout for markers indicating an individual who will not be receiving a great deal of visitors in the coming months. Virtually ignored plots with ornate headstones suggest a fair amount of both guilt and wealth on the part of living relatives. It is the wealthy, after all, who are usually buried with their jewelry, their heirloom watches, and their prized material possessions.
He leads me to a gravesite where the grass has not yet started growing over the recently tilled dirt. The headstone is a rich marble the color of espresso, a phallic column of rock that reaches the level of my eyebrows. It is marked only by a name (Paul Matthew Wexler) and a life span (born, August 2nd, 1928 – died, July 14th, 2018). At the bottom left corner of the pedestal upon which the headstone is situated, a modest brass plaque is visible; it reads, “Funded by a generous grant from the Wexler Family Foundation.” It is ostentatious. It is impersonal. It is not decorated by a single flower arrangement, American flag, or stuffed bear lacking patches of its fur due to exposure and mange.
It is perfect.
Good choice, I say. We’d better hurry, I say.
I remove the simple garden trowel which I have slipped through the belt at my waist; he lowers his pants and rips off the tape adhering the small crowbar and shovel to his thigh. It’s best to use only those tools which can be easily concealed on one’s person. Getting caught leaving a closed cemetery in the dead of night would be messily compounded by the presence of incriminating pieces of evidence.
We have learned that tools can actually complicate what is already a very delicate procedure. I have found digging to be the most efficient with nothing more than my hand trowel and the fingers of my left hand; he prefers scooping dirt between his legs like an over-enthusiastic beagle in a vegetable patch. Either way, it’s a several hour undertaking. There should be no illusions about the level of work that is necessary for this task; it is an all-night affair, and that’s only if one is lucky enough to finish by sunrise. Other than that, grave-robbing is no different from the huge holes I used to dig in the sand at the Jersey Shore.
Contrary to advertising these days, it’s surprising the number of grieving widows who do not opt for a concrete seal around the lip of their dearly departed’s casket. One good thrust on the crowbar after it is inserted under the lid and it pops right off. After several hours of digging and enough dirt suspended in the air that it crunches between my teeth, I am watching as the upper hinged lid of a gold and mahogany casket is pushed ajar by the metal teeth of the crowbar.
While it’s not my favorite view in the world, I can stomach the sight of a corpse if there is a higher purpose involved. I glance at the contents of the velvet-lined box by the light of the Zippo, disregarding the regal navy suit and sunken cheeks of its occupant in favor of the heavy gold watch decorating one of the wrists folded upon his chest.
Is it you or me? I say, glancing at the sweaty face of my companion.
It’s you, he says. I climbed down there last time, he says. I’ll watch your back, he says.
I waste no time in stepping lightly into the gaping mouth of the ground at my feet. I straddle the coffin, one knee on either side, and draw myself along the lid until I reach the open section at the top.
Mr. Paul Wexler, May He Rest In Peace Despite My Intrusion, is visible from the waist up, his legs disappearing into the depths of the box on which I am now sitting. In addition to the watch, he is wearing a thick wedding band with a ring of diamonds and what appears to be a large sapphire on his pinky. There is an ancient bible lying under his folded palms. I have no way of knowing whether it holds any value, but I tug it free from his death grasp and flip through the pages. I find four or five baseball cards, ranging in dates from 1923 to 1951, and several autographed black and white photographs of baseball players in uniform. They may very well be worthless, but experience has taught us that the prized trappings with which people are buried are usually worth the taking. I reattach the clasp and toss it to my companion along with the watch and rings.
Finally, taking a deep breath and steeling myself for that which is my least favorite part of grave robbing, I reach forward and open the corpse’s mouth. I try to ignore the black mass congealed to the roof of his mouth that used to be his tongue as I shine my penlight into the depths of his mouth. Gilded fillings decorate most of his back teeth, and I can count at least one molar made entirely of gold. I make short work of the scrap gold with the point of the nail file also attached to my key chain and pocket the handful of metal I’ve collected. That done, I close his mouth, slide back along the coffin, close the lid, struggle to my feet on the curved dome, and catch the offered hand of my partner to be hoisted from the grave.
We quickly scoop and kick the piles of dirt along the perimeter back into the grave, filling in whatever we may have lost with a hidden layer of leaves and other foliage. The first colors of the sunrise are decorating the sky by the time we are done. He leads the way back to the wall, the backpack containing tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry bouncing on his back with every step. We’ve never found sports memorabilia before; I have a feeling we’re going to be grateful for this particular choice once I get home to do some online research into the value of the players Mr. Paul Wexler collected.
I feel no guilt whatsoever. A girl has to pay the bills one way or another, and until we live in a society that properly rewards watercolor renditions of a lake at sunrise, this is the way it has to be.
We are over the wall in a matter of minutes. I find that I don’t mind the forest nearly as much now that the sky is brightening and my bank account has grown by five figures. We are back at the car by the time the sun is visible in the East. I am exhausted, of course, but it is the best kind of weariness – the kind that accompanies hard labor, work ethic, and dedication to a goal. It is the kind of weariness that speaks of a night spent improving one’s station in life. The shards of gold jab my hip through the denim of my pocket like a needle of insulin, and I’m reminded of the sense of pride which comes from properly managing one’s health.
Shannon Frost Greenstein is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Scary Mommy, Crab Fat Magazine, the Ghost City Review, and a variety of other publications. She tweets under @mrsgreenstein and comes up when you Google her. Follow her work at www.shannonfrostgreenstein.wordpress.com.