Cockroach Wells loved to dig graves. We often said that he was always ahead of schedule.
Sometimes he brought a flashlight into the graveyard and Mrs. LaRoque would watch the dim light from her living room window across the street and call the police. He had no business messing around in the graveyard, disturbing the dead’s peace, she’d say. And the officers would come and Cockroach would put up a terrible fight and he’d spend the night in jail.
Cockroach was an odd looking fellow – he had a messy black beard that was always littered with crumbs, a slump to his shoulders and a little march to his walk, like someone had him on strings. And always mumbling – perhaps talking to the voices in his head.
One moonless night my friend and I snuck out of our beds on a dare to test our bravery in the graveyard. We crept along the stones – the names and dates on some of them worn clear off, others marking deaths 200 years old – giggling in whispers, carrying our own flashlights and hoping Mrs. LaRoque didn’t notice and call the police again.
And then we ran into Cockroach – he’d turned his flashlight off and sat in the blackness, Indian-style in front of one particularly old and moss-covered tombstone, chatting away.
“That must’ve been just awful,” he was saying. “Were you injured?” Cockroach stopped as if hearing a reply. “And that dun you in, eh? That’s a shame.”
He sensed the two 11-year-old boys watching and turned around. When he smiled, his mouth opened onto toothless gums – a wet cave above the bristling beard.
“This here feller just tellin‘ me bout his days in the Civil War,” he told them, motioning to the grave to introduce the dead soldier.
We just nodded and kept on walking – Cockroach didn’t seem to need our company. As we hustled between the stones, we could hear his low grumble of a voice continue his one-sided conversation. Who am I to say no one spoke back?