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The Cemetery Tender

Why did Livy ever start talking to the dead?

At first, it was all fun and games—pulling weeds from neglected graves, planting flowers, learning about history in a way school didn’t teach. But everything changes when one of the underground residents in the small-town cemetery asks her to set a decades-old misunderstanding to rights. Young Livy is soon entangled in a web of deceit, bad choices, and thwarted dreams. As she comes face to face with racial prejudice, injustice, forbidden love, and insurmountable heartache, a tragic drama comes roaring back to life, one involving the town “crazy lady” and Livy’s own dead relatives—one of whom terrified her when alive and one whom Livy thought was the saddest person she’d ever met. With only herself to depend on, Livy must unravel the tangled threads of decisions made years before she was born so the dead can finally rest in peace.

Told in multiple timelines and from the viewpoint of all the people involved—dead and alive—The Cemetery Tender is a mix of pathos and humor, a deep look into the past, a study in how far we will go to protect those we love, and a testimonial that everyone—even the dead—deserves forgiveness and a second chance.

If you like paranormal stories without the creepiness, this is the book for you!


PROLOGUE:  1962, Livy Malone  

If she’d known what she was getting herself into, Livy would’ve run away that day as fast as she could and never returned—but it was too late to back out. Too many people were depending on her. 

CHAPTER ONE: 1940s, Rosie Bell  

Rosie Bell prowled the streets of Faravine, Texas, like a ferocious black kitten. She mumbled to herself or to someone only she could see or to the air itself, for all anyone knew, and she punctuated her words with many twitchings of her chicken-necked head. Rosie’s arms waved in great, graceful swoops or swift, staccato chops—depending on the tone the conversation took—and folks said watching her was like watching Lucifer conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, not that any of them, tucked away in the tiny backwater town, had seen the New York Philharmonic, or, for that matter, any other orchestra. 

Rosie made her rounds every day but Sunday, first to the businesses and then to the homes within reasonable walking distance. If not for the state blue laws, she would’ve been on the street seven days a week. As it was, her Sabbath Day ramblings were limited to the couple of hours that grocers and pharmacies could open in late afternoon to sell bread and milk and medicine and a precious few other essential items. Whatever day of the week, Rosie went into a store with one objective: to pilfer some item small enough to hide on her person, whether she needed it or not. On the infrequent occasion when she actually needed an item too bulky to conceal, say a jug of milk, a cooking pot, or a crate of tomatoes, she hugged the item to her chest, much as a python hugs a pig, and planted her small body directly in the path of incoming customers, who invariably became outgoing non-customers the instant they saw her standing there. 

The more astute merchants knew within seconds when Rosie entered their stores. There was a sudden hush as customers left off their neighborly visiting and scurried off to finish their shopping as quickly as possible, grabbing only the most essential items. Helpful, too, was the odd shift in odor that occurred a minute or two after Rosie’s entrance, going from the clean, earthy smell of produce or the sharp yet sweet, refreshing scent of a Pine-Sol-mopped floor to an odor more fundamentally not as nice, more fundamentally Rosie. The merchants flapped their hands at her, as if she were a stray dog or a chicken that had wandered inside. Failing to shoo her away (the flapping never worked), they tended to give her whatever she asked for—and, truly, she never asked for much. 

Rosie wore the same dress every day for a week. People assumed she washed it Saturday night (the night she washed herself) because she always appeared in a different dress on her Sunday forays. She had three: a dingy red-and-white-striped shirtwaist with bright blue quarter-size buttons running down the front all the way to the hem; a tea-length purple sateen party dress with rows of tarnished sequins on the bodice and a large chiffon rose clinging desperately to one  shoulder; and, her favorite, a wild outfit consisting of a wide, gathered skirt printed with bright stylized flowers in every color imaginable and topped off with a faded black peasant blouse. Half the blouse’s tiny ruffles had come unstitched and looped down Rosie’s scrawny chest to her waist. This ensemble had undoubtedly come from the closet of a woman much stouter than Rosie, and when Rosie wore it, she looked like a bedraggled Bantam rooster in a Gypsy caravan. To complete her look, Rosie wore a black wool coat missing most of its brass buttons—regardless of the season—and a pair of too-large, down-at-the-heel men’s brogans tied on her feet with pieces of baling twine. 

The one variable in Rosie’s day-to-day appearance was her hat. Like her coat, Rosie’s hats weren’t dependent on season or temperature. Rosie’s hats were clues to Rosie’s frame of mind, and if folks had paid closer attention to them, they’d have had an easier time. 

Rosie’s sunhat was lemon yellow and wide brimmed and looked as though a milliner had dumped a bowl of miniature plastic fruit on it. Bright red apples rubbed shoulders with oranges and lemons and green pears, with clusters of purple grapes and triads of crimson cherries. A wide blue and white polka-dot ribbon bubbled up through the abundance of fruit, encircled the crown, and tied in a big bow at the back, its ends long enough to brush Rosie’s narrow shoulders. Inexplicably, this was Rosie’s foul mood hat, and her foul moods could range from slight annoyance to rattlesnake mean. 

Rosie’s purple beret meant that she was in business mode. In her purple beret Rosie refused to take no for an answer and would stand at the grocers holding a sack of potatoes until they started to sprout. On purple beret days, merchants could have saved themselves a lot of time and customers if they’d dispensed with their hand-flapping and given Rosie what she wanted as soon as she asked for it. 

Her black velvet cloche, with its torn veil and ragged silk roses, was what most women called a “funeral hat.” Paradoxically, it meant Rosie was in a good mood. She seldom wore it. 

But the most important thing to know about Rosie is that she hadn’t always been this way. 

CHAPTER TWO: 1938, Leland Delaney  

Leland Delaney stared at himself in the clouded bathroom mirror. He saw a face older than its twenty-nine years, with a pale, wide forehead under straight, coffee-brown hair. Nice hair as far as hair went, it was blunt cut and parted in the middle in the ubiquitous style for the time. It was a look some men carried well, but on Leland it was less like the style de jour and more like a pair of thick parentheses enclosing a block of invisible text on his pallid forehead. Below the cheekbones, the face narrowed before flaring out into a square, slightly jutting jaw with a wide mouth that seldom smiled, but when it did, it revealed strong white teeth, too big even for Leland’s frog mouth. 

But the eyes in the mirror were striking: deep-set and dark brown and luminous, matching the mouth’s sadness and resignation but with an occasional flicker of hope and framed by a thick fringe of the blackest lashes. Some folks said it was a shame for God to waste such eyes on any man, more so on the likes of Leland Delaney. 

Leland frowned at his unshaven face in the mirror and wished for the ten-thousandth time his reflection came up higher. At five foot three, he was shorter than all but the most petite women in town. At five foot three, when he shaved, he had to stand on tiptoe to see his face above the mirror’s dark spots where the silver backing had deteriorated. Shaving was a daily ordeal since the fates that had given him his odd appearance had also given him a thick, fast-growing crop of whiskers. They were the manliest thing about him, and he had to dispose of them daily, sometimes twice daily if his mother required an escort on her infrequent evening activities. 

Sighing, Leland reached for his shaving cup and brush, added hot water to the cup and worked up a thick lather which he applied to the lower half of his face before reaching for the straight razor. Hold the skin taut with one hand, scrape with the other. Hold and scrape, hold and scrape, switch hands, and hold and scrape on the other side. A simple job for most men but agony for Leland’s twisted body, with one shoulder hunched up and forward, the result of congenital tuberculosis of the spine, a country doctor ill prepared to treat the condition, and a family too poor to pay for it anyway.

 His face scraped smooth, Leland rinsed and put away his shaving instruments, patted his face dry with a threadbare towel, and reached for the clothes hanging behind the bathroom door: white twill pants and long-sleeved shirt and a wide-billed white canvas cap—traditional garb for both housepainters and wallpaper hangers.

Leland had a sharp mind, and if his family had had money for his education, he might have spent his working hours in a comfortable chair in a comfortable office. As it was, he spent his days forcing his body to make a living, forcing his spraddled legs to climb up and down a ladder, and at the end of the day, his hips and knees and shoulders burned from the constant dipping and stretching and bending and up-and-down movements that sent even able-bodied men home in agony. 

CHAPTER THREE: 1962, Livy Malone  

Faravine, Texas, didn't have much to offer in the way of entertainment, so Olivia Ann Malone, called Livy for short, spent many of her waking hours sitting on the tombstones in the town's tiny cemetery while she talked out loud to herself. This wasn't a problem until the people under the tombstones started talking back. 

The first time it happened, Livy was perched right over Agatha Simpson absentmindedly bouncing her red tennis-shoed heels against the carved forget-me-nots on the pink granite tombstone. Miss Agatha had died over half a decade earlier when Livy was barely five, and all she remembered about the old woman was her foul moods. 

Being dead hadn't softened Miss Agatha's temperament. "Girl, stop that infernal kicking. The pounding's about to make my skull fall clean off my neck bone.”

Livy froze. Then deciding she'd imagined the whole thing, she resumed her foot bouncing. 

"I said, ‘Girl, quit that kicking!’" 

Livy jumped off the tombstone, landing quite solidly on the slight hump of weedy soil marking Miss Agatha's final resting place.

 "Dammit, girl, you like to broke my backbone!"   

This time Livy jumped sideways, right onto Mr. Simpson's portion of the shared gravesite. 

"Dammit, girl, can't you do anything right? Don't you dare wake that old man up. He never knew when to shut up when he was alive, and he ain’t changed one bit now that he’s dead.  Rest in peace, hell! Ain’t nobody could rest in peace listening to his jibber-jabber all the time.” 

Disbelieving her ears, Livy, nevertheless, stepped carefully and softly off Mr. Simpson, backed up until her heels touched the concrete curbing around the burial plot, and stood at the end of Miss Agatha's grave. 

Not knowing what else to do, and feeling foolish for asking, Livy said, "I ain't on your feet, am I?" 

"No, girl, you're a good three inches off  ‘em." 

"In that case, Miss Agatha, can I ask you something else?" Not waiting for an answer that might be a denial, Livy continued. "Are you really talking to me?" 

"I think that's obvious, girl. Ain't you hearing me?" 

"Uh, yes, ma'am, but I thought I might’ve been going crazy. You know, like those people that hear voices in their heads on those scary Alfred Hitchcock shows on TV." 

"Which you ain't got no business watching," snapped the dead woman. "But if you want to talk crazy, I'll tell you about crazy. 'Crazy' is what having weeds growing down and sending their roots all over your tickle spots makes a person. One’s slithering around my nose right now. It itches like the dickens. I tried yanking it out, but weeds don't yank down, only up, and pulling on it just made the root come back worse. And I was afraid of waking Claudie up." 


"Dammit, girl, the old man! Claudie Simpson. I was yoked to him for sixty years. Sixty-three if you count the time I been underground with him. He got here three years ago. My first two years were right peaceful. Then he showed up." 

Livy didn't know what to say to that and scratched her own suddenly itchy nose. 

"Well?" demanded Miss Agatha. 

"Well, what?" asked Livy, scrambling to add "ma'am" in case the old woman mistook her confusion for insolence. 

"You gonna stand there all day scratching your honker, or are you gonna help a poor old dead woman with hers?" 

Livy’s eyes widened in terror. Surely Miss Agatha didn't mean for her to stick her hand down in the grave and scratch her nose. She thought about the skeleton hanging from a chain in her science teacher's classroom. It didn't even have a nose, just a hole where its nose used to be. Before she could puzzle that out, she remembered the phrase "six feet under." Weren't graves six feet deep? Even if she wanted to, she couldn't reach Miss Agatha's nonexistent nose above ground. She inspected her arm and surmised it to be a few inches short of two feet long. She'd have to dig a hole big enough to stand in over four feet deep, and, even if she accomplished that, how could she get her arm through the lid on the old woman’s casket?

And if she did reach Miss Agatha by some miracle, who knew what the old woman would do? She might latch onto Livy's arm with her bony fingers and try to pull her in. Miss Agatha had been dead for five years. Was that enough time for her to turn into a skeleton? What if Livy succeeded in reaching the woman's nose and it was slimy? Or what if there were worms? Didn't people talk about worms in graves? Livy remembered a song her father had taught her one day when her mother wasn’t around to stop him: "The worms crawl in; the worms crawl out; the worms play pinochle on my snout." Suddenly, the song wasn’t so funny.


"Brilliant and heartfelt. Pure love. Couldn't put it down."

"In the top five of the best stories I've ever read."

"Written with such humour and tenderness. Every time I lay flowers on my mum's grave, I think of The Cemetery Tender, and it comforts me."

"A great mix of humor and heart." I didn't want it to end."

"This Southern story reflects a long-gone, much-loved time when innocence meets history in the form of lives already lived and another life just getting started."