by Brooke Nottingham
On the evening of the hottest day of the hottest month, in the hottest city of the hottest state, there is a dinner party inthe Archer City cemetery.
A brigade of berry-sized ants, driven mad by the heat, tickles the graves awake.The party’s guests begin to climb out, and the cemetery comes alive with echoes of bone scraping bone, and creaky voices that sound like water gurgling through walls.
First-time guests, freshly dead and plump with flesh and muscle, pick through the cobbler crust of their graves.They brush dirt off their suits and glance around while the old-timers hobble toward each other, their eyeglasses tumbling from their bare skulls.
Ellen Cartwell is the first to hoist herself from the ground. Her party is immaculately set: Rows of stone name plates fan out, charmingly crooked and flanked with cheerful tea lights and bouquets of silk flowers.
The party planning committee had fought the silk flowers.They said, isn’t a decoration that can’t die, well, tastelessly ironic? And Ellen had argued no, because they were never alive to begin with. And the bursts of color are just so lovely. Didn’t anyone remember last year? The dying flowers were positively depressing. Henry Blackerwhite had declared it proof that not a single thing can thrive in Archer City, and had flung himself back into his grave to pout.
Ellen picks up the teapot next to her headstone, and fills it with oily water from the North pond. The parched earth has split itself into dense slabs. It reminds her of her husband’s sun-clawed face. He visits her grave each week to leave fresh tulips (and how she wishes he wouldn’t) and to say that he’ll be with her soon. He’s said that since his face was a puddle of cream, and now it looks like a handful of potato chips. He looks deader than she does.
The dinner party is sputtering to life. Snatches of radio static tumble through the air. The wind sighs and the flags flap like heartbeats.
Ellen pours cups of brown water and sets them in rows atop her headstone. Henry Blackerwhite boasts that his headstone is the grandest, but to Ellen it’s just a giant wedge of bleached stone. So what if it’s three times bigger than almost everyone else’s? How ostentatious. She doesn’t need the side of a barn advertising her remains, thank you very much. Hers is a simple block of granite, with nubs of twinkling glass.
But she smiles to Henry as he limps up to her. His flesh has completely dried off his bones. All that’s left is a stained skeleton and a crudely cut skull that makes Ellen think of an ape.
“Ants for dinner again this year?” Henry croaks. He tips back his cup of pond water and it sloshes through his rib cage.
“Ants again!” Ellen says. Her son, Eli, is collecting the ants with baskets woven out of brittle grass. Guests scrape the ants out of the baskets with whatever is left of their lower jaws, and the ants swarm their decaying bones. The prickling is the closest feeling to being alive.
Henry grumbles and ambles toward a family across the lane. It’s a chatty couple, built from petite bones. Their infant daughter is propped up in a pile against a mesquite tree.
The line shifts. A young man slinks up and reaches for a cup of water. Ellen realizes that he was buried maybe a month ago. He’s young, maybe in his early twenties, with skin like wet cement. He has the sheepish look of all those who died in wrecks at the Central Street stop light.
“You sure put on a nice party,” the young man says finally. And then, hastily, he sticks out his hand and says, “John Macker, ma’am.” His skin is gloppy and oozing from decomposition, but Ellen suspects that he used to be handsome. She can see sharp cheekbones through his chunks of decaying face.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Ellen answers.
John lingers. “D’you know if anybody … You know, else comes to these parties?” John is trying to figure out if his living relatives might stumble upon the dinner party. Most of the newly dead still cling to seeing their families. But Ellen doesn’t get it—the last time her husband saw her, she was pale and plump, like a porcelain vase. She couldn’t stand it if he saw her in a spirited state of decay. How absolutely ghastly.
“No one else comes to these things.” She directs him across the cemetery, where Eli is handing out baskets of ants behind the tractor. Guests use the four giant cement blocks as dining tables.
“How long do we get to stay?”
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Ellen says.“Meet some folks. See if you recognize anyone.”
John touches the tip of his dishrag tongue into his cup, and nods politely to Ellen. Then he totters off for dinner.
In a few hours, after all the water returns to the thirsty ground and the ants finish exploring the skeletons, the sun will rise and the dinner party guests will embrace each other, clacking somberly. They’ll crawl back inside their cool graves and the spirit will leak out of the cemetery. And again they’ll wait for the evening of the hottest day of the hottest month, in the hottest city of the hottest state.