The Voyeur

By Arthur Davis

t began this past April.

It was a bright, sky-blue Wednesday. I once thought it might have been April first, April Fool’s Day, the birthplace of lunacy, mayhem, and ill fortune.

I was working in a machine shop and doing odd jobs around town. No one took particular notice of a stocky, unremarkable thirty-four-year-old man with a slight stoop, who children considered peculiar and parents made a habit of acknowledging, if only tentatively, on the street.

Then, on that fateful April morning, beyond wandering around the endless garden plots, over the meandering paths that twisted and wove a labyrinth that enveloped my birthplace of Bainbridge Falls, Illinois, I took a lingering notice of the town cemetery.

I walked toward the cemetery, moving cautiously up the winding road, and paused between the mighty bronze gates, a gift from a local metal stamping company that went bankrupt in the early 1970s.

From the hilltop you could see all of Bainbridge Falls, although the town of four thousand wasn’t much of a sight. I roamed through the hodgepodge of overgrowth and weather-worn tombstones, reading the names and dates, making note of how peaceful such a lonesome stretch of earth could be.

I was quickly aware of a sense of belonging, yet this consecrated soil had been here all my life, swelling with life’s unfortunate finalists.

I continued my walk and absently slipped my hand into my pocket, and with my fingers traced the outline of what felt like a drill bit. I removed the object from my overalls and let it roll back and forth in my hand.

The five-inch, threaded strip of steel was so light that it felt like a bright metal feather. There wasn’t a scratch on the shank or tip of the gunmetal shaft. It was warm, and oddly comforting, though I couldn’t recall how it got there.

“Where’d you get this?” Gregory Clemmons asked, examining the bit the following afternoon in his machine shop.

Thoughts have always had a difficult time transforming themselves into speech for me, and when they finally arrived, they invariably had a way of exposing my simplicity.

This made many suspect. It gave them cause for concern and kept them at a distance. It gave them an excuse to turn their eyes away and pretend I wasn’t there. And so I learned not to be there for them, or for myself.

“Found it,” I managed to eke out. “Around.”

“Well, I never seen anything like it. Feels funny too.”

Gregory Clemmons was a large, beefy, indifferent sort, who had inherited the machine shop from his father, a man who elevated himself from junkyard dealer to mechanic to machinist to serving two short terms in the state penitentiary over in Joliet for auto theft. The father repented his sins, recanted his misdeeds, and became a devoted family man settling in Bainbridge.

Gregory worshipped him and in kind inherited his father’s late-blooming compassion for those less fortunate. So, when I showed up at his door a few years back he generously gave me what his father had taught him, what God would have wanted for the less fortunate.

“Yeah.” Then, in my halting stammer, I asked him if the silvery bit he had dropped back into my hand would cut through two or three inches of hardwood.

He first considered me, then my question, as though both were incapable of occupying the same space at the same time. “You going to use it in a drill press?”

“No,” I said with a short head shake. I often communicated with the slightest movement of eye, head, and lips, a shrug, wince, or frown.

“Hand drill?”

I picked up an electric drill.

“Small rechargeable hand drill?”

I nodded.

“Through two or three inches of hardwood?” he repeated.

I nodded again.

“Don’t know,” he said flipping a dog-eared catalog across his work bench, “but if you have any questions, whatever you’re looking for is probably going to be in there.”

The 1986 Everett’s Handtool Catalogue came from California, which I had heard was a place of decadence and desire. I carefully flipped through the pages. The schematics and detailed descriptions fascinated me.

I took the catalogue over to my cramped workbench and, page by page, flipped from electric sanders to power saws until I came to drill bits.

“It’ll take a month of Sundays if you do it that way, boy,” Clemmons said and returned to flirting with the Foley twins, a pair of overweight twenty-year-old girls who, it was rumored, liked to share their boyfriends.

I pulled the bit from my pocket and set in over many of the hundreds of illustrations, but none matched.

I put Everett’s Catalogue back with the dozens of other worn testaments to mechanical ingenuity and reexamined the plan that had wakened me this morning.

And it wasn’t that it came to me strange, from remote parts. It was just there. Fresh in my mind like the crest of a new midnight moon.

A week later I borrowed a battery-powered hand drill from Clemmons’ shop, salvaged a hollow aluminum tube about six feet long and two inches in diameter from the scrap heap out back, and returned to the exact spot on the side of the hill in the middle of the cemetery where it was difficult to be seen from every direction.

The gravestone of Linus Millard, the town’s last blacksmith, stood as a helpful marker.

I pressed the hollow opening of the tube into the soft earth directly over Melvin Connaught’s three-year-old grave. I pressed it down into the earth while rotating the tube in my hands, over and over. Every few inches I withdrew the tube and tamped out the core of earth that had collected in the bottom.

I’d never met Melvin Connaught and only learned of his death over in Rider Junction through the newspaper. He was a pharmaceutical salesman and lived with his stepfather. It was only when I saw him in my dreams, selling little red and blue pills, what the article described as amphetamines, to children that I knew he was the one.

The end of the tube was down around my knees when I felt it strike an obstruction. I pulled it up and emptied the core again.

Small rasps of wood were embedded in the bottom edge of the raw aluminum shaft. It was the coffin, and only four feet or so below the surface.

I wanted to go tell someone, anyone who would understand, but there was no one near and no one in my life who could grasp the importance of my mission.

I lived all my life this way, a kind, gentle soul living every moment in isolation and shades of failure, locked between the jaws of speechless abandon, yet infused with bubbling intentions.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing over there?”

I spun around sharply. It was Rusty Garner, the cemetery groundskeeper.

Instead of letting outright panic get the best of me, I simply raised my hands in surrender and walked toward him.

“Oh hell, man, it’s only you. You got me scared there for a second,” Rusty said. “What the hell are you doing up here?”

I shook my head and pointed to the wet stain on my knees.

“You fall?”

I nodded.

“Lost?”

I nodded again, this time with craven calculation.

“Spooky place,” Rusty said, setting his thumbs under his belt and looking down toward town. “Been up here so long, whenever I get visitors I think they’re intruding on my private property. Sounds crazy doesn’t it?”

I pointed to the path he had come up on and shook my head up and down, hoping to direct his attention away from where I had been caught.

“Come on,” he said, motioning me ahead of him, “and we’ll get you out of here.”

I walked back to town, crestfallen. I had been given a righteous task, and though the complete plan was not yet clear to me, it was mine, and it was exciting, and no one had handed it to me as a gratuity for which I was bound to be eternally beholden.

I was busy for the next few days, making repairs on a dozen small chain-saw motors a man named Hutchinson had bought in bulk from a dealer over in Lancaster. I liked the work. It kept me busy and I was good at it.

I finally mustered the courage to retrieve my equipment and drill bit. That was the week Doc Martin got pneumonia. He brought most of us into the world, and had he not been on vacation and left my mother to the incompetent devices of his young partner, Brian Willoughby, I believe my life might have turned out different.

A week of worsening illness finally took Doctor James Pearson Martin from those to whom he had devoted his life.

I planned to attend the funeral and honor the devoted eighty-four-year-old. I wanted to go, but seeing an opportunity, I decided to stay in town that stagnant, mournful, May afternoon.

I went around back to his office, pushed open the window and slipped into his examining room. I went to the sideboard and removed a small black case, opened it up to examine the contents, locked it up again, and left.

I knew this made me a thief, but not of Doc Martin, only of his loathsome partner, who I would have preferred be laid to rest in his place. And if it cost Willoughby something to replace what I had taken, then it was small compensation for leaving me maimed like this on the delivery room floor.

Dr. Brian Willoughby arrived that night in the delivery room drunk and, with the assistance of Ms. Carmine Dennison, his first cousin and as sorry an excuse for a registered nurse as there ever was, wrenched me from my mother’s womb, compressing my spinal column in such a fashion so as to leave me with a permanent twist in my frame, one side of my face frozen for all time and a weakening of my mind.

The next day I got up before dawn with my canvas bag of equipment and made my way to the cemetery through a different route to where Melvin Connaught was resting.

I sat on my haunches and scanned the rolling contours of Bainbridge Falls’ illustrious graveyard. I was again beset by that sweet, enticing silence. I felt at home. I could taste the warm welcome that surrounded me.

The hole I had driven in Melvin’s grave was barely noticeable. I picked up the piece of tubing and slipped it back into the hole and struck the coffin.

I attached a flexible extension rod to the mouth of the portable electric drill, and locked the bit onto the other end of the rod. I slipped the bit down into the tube until it could go no further.

I hesitated before turning on the switch. What had I done in my past lives to earn my incapacity, and which now left me hovering over a man’s grave and festering with suspicions that plagued me night and day?

I switched on the drill and pressed down. I could feel the bit grind into the hardwood coffin. I pressed down again, more cautiously this time. The magic bit easily breached the lid of Melvin’s tomb. When I pulled it up, there wasn’t a mark on it or a curl of wood snaking along the groves of the shaft.

I opened the wooden box I had taken from Doc Martin’s office and removed the two yards of flexible fiber-optic cable. Holding the cable in hand, I quickly realized how easily I had deceived myself.

“Stupid,” I moaned. “You forgot the monitor.”

Trying to get past the setback, I dropped the probe at the end of the black cable into the top of the aluminum tube, manipulating the control device at the other end of the instrument.

Instead of peering up into a live patient’s rectum, this had to count as some measure of success. I tried to imagine old Melvin down there. The clothes he was buried in would have to be sagging from what remained of his skeletal frame.

“What if he’s alive?” I considered, and pulled away from the grave. “Melvin?” I called out softly, my lips grazing the top of the aluminum tube. “Melvin, if you’re alive, knock twice.”

I had to make sure.

Nothing.

Maybe he stepped out for a smoke, or to get lunch? I grinned at the imagery.

I worked the flexible cable controls long after I told Clemmons I would return to repair a chain saw he had set out for me the night before. But I couldn’t tear myself away from the possibilities waiting before me in darkness.

Finally, I removed the cable and aluminum tube, packed up my kit, and walked down the hillside to the rickety old fence at the back side of the cemetery as though I had been transformed by this singular event and was immune from discovery or regret.

“Hey, you did a great job with the chain saw,” Clemmons said the next morning.

I wasn’t listening.

Connaught, for all his evil, died in the prime of life. Then, as quickly as I bordered on sympathy for the man, I realized that I had been blindly moving my probe into the darkness below for all that time without encountering any resistance.

But that couldn’t be. Where was Melvin Connaught?

Where were his remains or the fabric surrounding his body? Then I considered the possibility that I hadn’t pushed the probe deep enough into the coffin to actually make contact.

In my apprehension and ignorance, I had misjudged the distance between fact and fright. Melvin lay beyond the tip of the scope, probably laughing to himself about the fool who had tried to invade his privacy.

“Too bad about Doc Willoughby,” Clemmons mentioned, more to himself, when I entered.

I rapped on my workbench. It meant I wanted his attention. Sometimes it worked; mostly it took two or three tries for him to gather enough interest in my behalf to respond.

“Yeah?”

“Willoughby?” I muttered.

“He’s in the hospital,” I overheard one of the twins say. “It would be a shame to lose him after what just happened to Doc Martin.”

“Is he dying?” I motioned.

“No,” Clemmons said, “but he’s having a pretty bad time of it.”

As I reluctantly considered entering Doc Martin’s office, the idea of invading Willoughby’s space possessed me with absolute exhilaration.

“Liver problems. You know, he’s always been fond of the bottle.”

I knew. Everybody knew.

“I’m sure he’ll pull through, just as long as he isn’t treating himself,” Clemmons said and attended to the ringing phone on his desk.

Before the sun broke over the horizon I was inside Brian Willoughby’s office.

A large monitor rested on a corner table, which I started to separate from its electrical moorings then noticed a small leather suitcase in back of Willoughby’s examining table. I opened the suitcase cover and pulled out a small hand-held camera with a black connecting cable whose twisting configuration looked all too familiar.

It was a compact, portable version of what I was so laboriously trying to assemble.

Uncoiling the flexible black cable minutes later, I set the probe into the aluminum shaft, connected the cable the small hand-held camera, and switched on the light at the other end.

In the dream that had pitched me in this direction and toward this singular man without reason, I only saw myself cutting into the thick, arched top of the coffin, never beyond. Now, hovering with the scope in hand, I was well beyond the boundaries of my greatest fears.

It took some time before I was able to manipulate the probe below and focus the camera image on the small, hand-held monitor.

I scanned the length and into every corner. There were no remains. No bones. No deep purple shroud. No wonderfully soft pillow and rich robe that traditionally enshrouded the body.

A drop of rain crashed into the back of my head. Another drop. I looked up at a large, billowy white cloud hovering directly over Melvin’s grave.

It had spit out two droplets of water at me and me alone. I suspected they were a warning.

I worked the tip of the probe toward the top of the coffin. I pushed the tip right up against the apex of the corner as though I were nearly blind and needed to touch it to believe it was real. I then ran the tip along the length of the side until I came to the base. I moved the tip across the base then back up the other side to the top of the coffin.

I could feel myself fall into a sadness. I knew the feeling well. It had followed and plagued and rattled me as any unforgiving taskmaster.

After searching for the obvious, there was no doubt that Melvin Connaught’s coffin was empty. There was also no evidence that Melvin was ever there.

My brain and body froze with the possibility.

Why was I so driven to this moment, to this place in time, taking risks that could compromise my life and what little hope I had for a future I had only recently been able to cobble together?

I wiped the sweat from my eyes, quickly ran the scope back and forth in the empty space, simply to enjoy the bitterness of what I had discovered when I noticed a faint line cutting across the grain at about the bottom third of the casket. I let the probe trace the line from one side of the coffin across to the other.

Then I realized that even the lining of the coffin was gone.

I positioned the tip of the probe over the line, which was more a groove, a cut in the wood that was as straight as if it were set there by machine. I pressed the probe down with a little more force and the faint fine line abruptly thickened into a wide crack.

I applied a little more pressure to the tip and a two-foot-long section of the bottom dropped out from the floor of the coffin.

Two drops slammed into the back of my neck. I turned my head toward the sky,

“Stop it right now. You ain’t a-goin’ to scare me off of what’s mine. So stop your antics and leave me alone.” The puffy white cloud held its position and so did I. “I’m warning you. Enough of that. I ain’t going to tell you again.”

And in that moment I heard my voice as never before: unyielding, threatening, and resolute with clarity and purpose.

It didn’t take long to snake the illuminated tip down between the base of the coffin and beyond the section that had fallen away. I pointed the tip straight down into the crevice.

The probe light penetrated a good seven or eight feet into the dirt opening under the casket. Beyond that was total darkness.

I pulled up the probe and made sure the warm bit was in my pocket before I made for town.

“Where the hell have you been?” Clemmons asked. “And for Christ’s sake, you look like you was rolling around in the mud like some barn animal. Hey, Fred, look here. Our mechanical genius has been wallowing in the mud with the pigs.”

They made fun of me that afternoon in ways I haven’t heard since I was a kid. I grew up in the shadow of ridicule and resented the lash of their laughter.

The next day I awoke a different man. This time there was no fancy technology involved in my mission. I stood over the grave, crossed myself twice, and jammed the edge of the shovel deep into the soft earth. At about four feet I struck the top of the coffin.

I bent down and cleared away the dirt from the top. The drill hole in the top of the coffin had vanished.

“Impossible,” I said, and mustered up enough resolve to tear away the lid of the coffin and the evil I had been tasked to expose.

I bent down and tried to pry off the top of Melvin’s coffin as voices approached me from behind.

“There he is,” one said accusingly.

“I’ll get him,” said another.

I planted my feet beyond the edge of the lid and tried again to pry it loose.

“Over there.”

I had to unearth this before they got here and threw me in chains. That’s what they do to grave robbers. They throw them into chains and then into the deepest pit in the deepest jail, so reprehensible is the act they committed.

“Hold it right here,” I heard Rusty threaten.

I continued to pull up on the sides of the lid.

“Stop where you are,” another demanded.

“Hey, it’s the idiot mechanic who works for Greg Clemmons.”

“This is Lucas Donner, the sheriff. You stop what you’re doing right there, son.”

I could feel myself gain strength with each threat. I could feel the power in my arms, the lift in my back, the desire in my heart. I managed to wrench up the lid another five or six inches when the first hand reached down and grabbed my shirt.

The lid slid sideways another few inches when I felt fingers grab hold of my neck. With whatever remained in my soul I gave one last tug, lifting the lid just enough to see the body of a man, along with the trimmings of material that enrobed him, being slowly taken down towards the base of the coffin.

I saw his legs disappear and reached out to grab his hand when a blow to the back of my head sent everything into darkness.

I awoke in jail, though not in chains. The back of my head hurt terribly. Blood had crusted on my cheek. I was filthy, thirsty, and sadder than I had ever been in my life.

A court-appointed lawyer appeared on the second day of my incarceration and read the charges.

“I’m trying to get the trial venue switched. We don’t want it here where everyone’s ready to lynch you. Besides the theft, if you tried to rob a grave a few decades ago, you would never have made it to the safety of a jail.”

I agreed with him.

What he didn’t know was that Linus Millard’s grave was on my left and not on my right when I was overtaken. I was so agitated, so completely caught up in my mission that I had approached the gravesite from a different direction; now from the front gate rather from the frayed iron fence and didn’t realize it until right before I was pulled from the grave of Calvin Lawrence who passed away less than a month ago.

The passion and possession that drove me to the cemetery, that I was summoned by the Almighty to protect those from the evil that I knew had taken hold over that sacred ground and do battle with the most pernicious of his foes alone, I believed would convince a judge of my intentions and innocence.

What I was about to explain to the court, what I saw of Melvin Connaught’s empty coffin and the remains of Calvin Lawrence being dragged down to the sanctuary of hell itself, would forever change the soul of Bainbridge Falls.

I had been summoned, skillfully chosen by the highest of higher powers, who because of my difference, recognized the purity of my heart and spirit.

I had done what was asked and sacrificed myself in the process. Whatever I was facing because of my commitment was so much less fearful than failure.

“Invoking the excuse that the Lord had chosen you to a task is of little legal merit,” my attorney advised, “and the appearance of a magical bit is hardly grounds for a defense.”

“I’ll tell the judge that I knew what I saw, and if she doesn’t believe me she can follow me out there and set me loose among the sea of empty coffins.”

The character of my voice was as great a surprise to those who had known me all my life, as it was to me. And yet that transformation was of little interest to me.

And so it went.

Greg Clemmons never came by and, as far as I know, never inquired. And that made sense. Who would stand by a grave-robber anyway?

My first and last visitor appeared in my darkened cell late that same night, long after the jail lights had gone out.

I gazed up at him with less surprise than what might have been expected.

In a clear and menacing tone, Rusty cautioned me that, “If you set foot in my cemetery again, with or without a judge or your attorney, you will not leave alive.”

I could not help but stare at the apparition before me, as real and threatening as he was when he dragged me from Calvin Lawrence’s grave.

“And if you speak of what you saw, the sheriff or one of the guardians of the cemetery will find you and end you.”

I think he was waiting for a response, recognition that I understood the consequences of my story and my defiance as I considered how little life remained in my spirit.

“What happened to Calvin Lawrence and the others will be insignificant,” he promised, “when compared to the eternal fire of your fate.”

“It’s wrong,” I said clearly. “It ain’t meant to be that way.”

Maybe it was the depth of blackness I saw in his eyes. Maybe I finally understood that no one would believe what I had seen or the mission I had embraced.

Maybe it no longer made a difference.

Finally, when the silence could no longer be sustained, he pulled out a long piece of torn sheet from his overall pocket and snaked it in a pile on the concrete floor next to where he stood.

A guard came by my cell, glanced in and moved on.

When I looked back to where Rusty had been standing, he was gone.

I was alone, sitting on the edge of my bunk, and realized I had peed myself.

The stain in my crotch drained over to my pocket. Without thinking I reached in and felt the drill bit. It was warm and sharp. It was in my pocket when I was arrested, strip-searched, and issued prison overalls.

I must have been frisked a dozen times in the last few days and yet it clung to me as I clung to my beliefs. There were no scratches or flecks of wood on it. It was as perfect as the day it found me.

It was a sign. My destiny had been fulfilled.

Now, with absolute certainty, I wound the sheet tight into a long rope, coiled half of it around my neck and the remains around a cell bar high overhead.

It was Wednesday. That brought the faintest smile to my lips.

The rest was simple, quick, and I found, of uncommon relief.

___

Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times and in Crain’s New York Business, taught at The New School and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has advised The Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain’s committee on boxing reform and testified as an expert witness before the New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Over eighty tales of fiction have been published. He was featured in a single author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Write Well Award and, twice nominated, received Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. More at www.talesofourtime.com.


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