Sue Ellen enjoyed the drive from Cincinnati to White Burley more than she was willing to admit. The trees and fields looked clean and fresh. She was a city girl, and all the seemingly untamed land seemed like some kind of frontier to her. She felt like she imagined the colonists must’ve felt entering the “virgin” woods. Except, of course, for the fact that it wasn’t at all “virgin.”
“So you’re saying southern Ohio is a whore?” Joan said when Sue Ellen told her. This was during the first time Sue Ellen made the drive, to check out the town neither of them had even heard of before Sue Ellen got the internship.
The town was essentially a cluster of businesses along one main road, none of them chains, with a few houses radiating out from it. It was difficult to tell if all of the businesses were even open; one that claimed to be an auto parts store appeared closed, for example, until the women watched a man exit. There were a handful of people walking along the street or between buildings.
“What are there, four hundred people in this hamlet?” Joan said.
“Four thousand,” Sue Ellen said. She took Joan’s hand, but Joan jerked it away.
“You want to get us lynched?” Joan said. “Two black girls holding hands out here? You might as well paint a target on us.”
“Come on,” Sue Ellen said.
“My momma didn’t raise no fool,” Joan said. “Until we get back to civilization, we are two straight girls. And I’m Puerto Rican.”
Sue Ellen laughed, in spite of herself.
“This is a really good opportunity,” she said. “Do you realize how lucky I am? I had had no internship. I was the only one in my class before—”
“Because you put it off till the last minute so this was all you could get.”
“Yeah, well. Call me lucky.”
“You’ll think lucky when Cletus and Jethro get a hold of you.”
Joan wouldn’t look her in the eye. “Honey,” Sue Ellen said.
Joan waved her away. “I get it,” she said.
“This is huge. It could be the biggest anthropological discovery in southern Ohio.”
Joan laughed, but at least she finally made eye contact. Sue Ellen laughed, too.
“Thank God for Wal-Mart,” Joan said. “So if it’s such a big deal, why are there only a couple people working it?”
“Money,” Sue Ellen said. “We’re going to be like the advance scouts, laying the groundwork and securing the site.”
They passed the town and went out to the site where Sue Ellen hoped to be spending most of her time.
“Nice place to settle down, raise some kids,” she said.
Joan mimicked shooting herself in the head.
Sue Ellen pulled over. There was a field beside them, roped off with wooden pegs and twine. A little ways away, a bulldozer sat, impassive. Near it, they could just make out plastic sheeting on the ground.
“This is it?” Joan said.
“According to the GPS.”
“The greatest anthropological discovery in southern Ohio, huh? This is going to propel you to fame and fortune?”
“Dr. Yeager says I’ll probably be able to publish,” Sue Ellen said. It sounded lame in her ears. Joan wouldn’t look at her again. “I’ll be home every weekend,” Sue Ellen said. “Maybe you can come stay with me a few times. Might be nice to get out of the city.”
“Not a chance.” Joan turned from the window. “I like the city. But if you want to stay out here, you go right ahead.”
It was a grudging acceptance, but Sue Ellen took it. She turned the car around and headed back for Cincinnati. After they passed the town, Joan let her hold her hand again.
Two weeks later, Sue Ellen pulled off onto the road that led to the dig site and slammed on her brakes inches from the lines of pickup trucks blocking the dirt drive. There were a half-dozen of them and several smaller, junky, American-made cars as well, all bearing American flags and bumper stickers Sue Ellen knew better than to read. A group of locals—had to be—were gathered near them, most of them sitting in tattered nylon and aluminum lawn chairs, or the cheaper plastic ones. They held signs that said things like “Wal Mart is good for White Burley!” or “Let the past stay Buried!” There were big, bearded men, and angry women with children running around. She texted Joan quickly, OMG There are protestors!
Joan texted back, Are their signs misspelled?
Sue Ellen laughed. They’re scary, she texted back.
Easy for you to say, she thought. She set the phone in the passenger seat and breathed deep. The protestors stared at her with malevolent eyes—well, a couple of them did. Most of them just looked bored, actually, and several of them weren’t even paying any attention to her. She edged around them and eased past, followed by boos. She flinched and sped up when she heard the impacts as they threw empty cans and bottles at her. She heard Joan’s voice in her head yelling, “Those are recyclable, assholes!” It gave her strength.
There were a couple sheds probably from Lowes containing the generators and all the equipment they had, which, Sue Ellen had been shocked to discover, was far inferior to what she regularly used in lab classes back at the University of Cincinnati. Only a few of the bodies had actually been removed; most had simply been exposed and were covered with plastic tarp to protect them from the elements. The ones that had been unearthed were stacked inside the sheds, along the walls. None of the bodies had been removed from the scene for two reasons: one, because at first Milo, the coroner Sue Ellen was actually working for, was afraid they might be American Indian remains and would have to be reburied anyway; and two, there was nowhere else to put them.
Before she got out, Sue Ellen twisted all the way around in her seat to make sure none of the protestors had followed her, but they were all still back in their seats by the road. Thank God for diabetes, she mouthed. Milo was inside the first building, bent over a body.
“What’s with the protestors, Milo?” she asked.
Without looking up from the body he was examining, he spoke, “They’re afraid we’ll take away their Super Wal-Mart.”
She stared at him. He pointed to his desk. There was a copy of the Brown County Citizen with a story on the front page about the dig.
“Hey, we’re famous,” she said.
The gist of the article seemed to be that because of the bad press, the locals were afraid Wal-Mart might pull out and go to a different county, which they thought would be devastating to the local economy.
“Don’t they know Wal-Mart is bad for small towns?” Sue Ellen said.
“Folks get tired of driving forty-five minutes for groceries.”
“Even if it means every other business in town dies?”
He shrugged. “Take a look at this.” He stepped back so she could get close to the body and then swiveled a light over. “You’re the student, here; what do you see?”
She leaned in close. There was nothing left of the body but bones, which Milo had laid out on the table. They were in bad shape. Most of the ribs were broken. The pelvis was shattered. It was hard to tell if it had even been male or female.
“He didn’t die well,” Sue Ellen said. She flinched a little when she said it. The first skull she’d examined had been the first one unearthed. It had strange markings on it, and Sue Ellen had declared that they resembled knife marks, even butchery marks. Milo had led her out to the bulldozer still parked outside and showed her that the marks matched one of the treads. The skull had been damaged when it was unearthed. Sue Ellen felt like an idiot.
This time, though, Milo nodded. “How do you know it’s a he?”
Sue Ellen shrugged. “Seems to be pretty big, probably male.”
“My guess as well.” Milo’s eyes twinkled a little. “So what does this tell us?”
She thought about it. “They’ve all been like this, victims of severe trauma.” It was true. Many of the skulls were practically shattered. Most had broken bones. “There’s no evidence of healing, so they were probably beaten to death or…” She searched for an alternative. “Died in some kind of disaster.”
He smiled. “Exactly.”
She examined the skull, which was in good shape. “Seems to be African American. The lower vertebrae are fused, so this was an older black male with arthritis.”
“Well, that works with our pauper grave theory.” Milo’s theory was that the cemetery was a pauper cemetery, which would explain why it lacked grave stones. “I mean, life would be hard for poor people, especially during the Depression.”
“And the fact that they’re all black…well, black people were traditionally poor. But the violence is odd.”
“We got the dates back,” Milo said. He found a folder on his desk and showed her. The bones had been dated to about ninety years ago.
“So some time in the ´30s, a couple hundred blacks, mostly men, were either in some kind of…” She tried to think of possibilities. “Train crash? Or…what?”
He shrugged. “Who knows?”
“How long have you lived here, Milo?”
“How old do you think I am?”
“No, I mean, did your parents or grandparents ever talk about anything like this?”
He shook his head. “I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Sue Ellen. I transferred to Brown County because it seemed like an easy gig. So in the twenty-three years I’ve been here, no, I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
“Weird,” she said. “I followed up on the pauper cemetery theory.” She dug out her own folder and gave it to Milo. “The old hospital you mentioned that used to be here? I found one that was actually several miles away. And the nearest prison is a hundred miles away, and their cemetery is pretty well documented. There are records for two other old pauper cemeteries in the area, as well as several other cemeteries. So why is this one undocumented?”
“Good question,” Milo said. He turned back to the bones. “Let’s see if we can find anything else.”
That evening, Sue Ellen picked up some fast food and went back to her hotel room to Skype with Joan.
“What are you eating?” Joan asked, immediately. “Is that fast food again?”
“I don’t have time for anything else,” Sue Ellen said in between mouthfuls.
“It’s a bag of grease,” Joan said. “No wonder you’re so tired all the time.”
“I’m tired because I don’t have time to sleep. And there’s nowhere else to go, really, for food around here.”
“Do they have a store? You could get a can of soup or something. But make sure it’s low sodium.”
Sue Ellen grunted.
“At least get some fruit to eat.”
Sue Ellen held up a French fry slathered in ketchup. “Ketchup’s a fruit according to the government.”
“I’m serious,” Joan said. “I’m not there to take care of you, so you have to take care of yourself.”
“Yes, mother,” Sue Ellen pouted.
“So what earth-shattering discovery did you make today?”
Sue Ellen told her about the evidence of violence on the bodies. “Milo thinks there are at least a couple hundred bodies, just about all buried without caskets. Every time we dig, we find one. Mostly men, but we’ve found some women and children as well.”
“So what is it, some sort of massacre?” Joan was distracted but at least trying to look interested, which Sue Ellen appreciated.
“Probably a pauper cemetery,” she said. “Poor people live violent lives.” Sue Ellen finished her food and tossed it in the trash. She made a mental note to take the trash out to the lobby so it wouldn’t make her room stink like grease.
“Huh,” Joan said. “Listen, I can’t do this weekend. Something came up with my mom. I have to go see her.”
“Is everything okay?” Sue Ellen asked. “Is she off her meds?”
Joan shrugged, noncommittal. Joan’s mother was bipolar and recently born again, which she was using as an excuse not to take her meds.
“Listen, honey, you can talk to me.” Sue Ellen sat up on the bed.
“You’re not even here,” Joan said.
“I can be. I can be there in a couple hours.”
Joan shrugged. Sue Ellen was already mentally packing—the fact that Joan even mentioned Sue Ellen not being there for her was tantamount to another person breaking down and pouring out their life’s story. “You’re busy,” Joan said. “And tired. You’ve got to get back to looking at dead bodies first thing.”
“I’m on my way. I’ll text you when I’m in the car,” Sue Ellen said. She slammed the computer closed, ran to the bathroom and did her best to freshen up, and grabbed her keys. She was out the door and to her car in less than five minutes.
Friday evening, Sue Ellen drove back to U. of Cincinnati a little early to meet with her advisor, Professor Yeager, who was actually the dean of the history department, a relationship from before Sue Ellen switched from majoring in history to anthropology. She’d made the appointment once she learned Joan wouldn’t be around that weekend.
They met in a dive bar near campus called Flanigan’s where all the students and professors hung out.
“How’s White Town treating you?” Professor Yeager said with a smirk. He was a middle-aged white male who, Sue Ellen believed, would’ve done just about anything not to be.
He laughed and took a drink. “And the difference is?”
“Actually…” she told him about their findings. “It’s weird that we can’t find any records. There are at least two hundred bodies, maybe more.”
He was swaying a little in his seat, but she was nervous about asking him anything too personal. “From the 30s, you said? And they mostly met violent ends?”
Yeager considered this. “Do you know where the name White Burley came from?” She shook her head. “Tobacco,” he said. “It’s a strain of tobacco that became enormously popular. It was created near where the town now stands. After the Civil War and up through the early part of the 20th Century, Brown County was primarily an agricultural area. It still is very agricultural, but back then the main crop was tobacco.”
“You think they were tobacco farmers?”
He shrugged. “The interesting thing is—what’s the racial breakdown of White Burley nowadays, do you think? 95% white?”
“I’d say 99 at least.”
“Traditionally, who tended to do the actual labor of farming tobacco, do you think?”
“Blacks,” she said.
“Nowadays, you go there, and it’s 99% white, but it wasn’t always.” He checked his watch. “I’ve got to run.”
“Wait,” Sue Ellen said. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t know,” Professor Yeager said. “But you want to be careful you don’t uncover any hornets’ nests.” He drained his drink and swayed on his feet. “Call me next week and let me know how it’s going.”
The next morning, she hit the University library to search the archives but didn’t have a lot of luck. On a hunch, she drove to Columbus to hit the city library. She spent the day searching the newspaper archives and called Milo after they kicked her out for the night.
“Sorry, I know it’s your day off,” she said. “But I’m working something out.”
“Tell me what you have,” he said. That was something she loved about Milo—he never acted annoyed or put out; he was always supportive.
“I still haven’t found any records of the cemetery,” she said. “But I started thinking that was kind of evidence by itself. So I searched the archives for the Brown County Citizen and all the papers I could find in the state from the 30s, and from March through June, 1932, there are no archives. For any of the papers.”
She made herself pause to hear his reaction. He hardly had one. “Was there some kind of fire in the library, maybe?”
“I checked two libraries,” she said. “The university one and the one in Columbus. And I called two other ones. None of them have newspapers for that four month period.”
“That is strange,” Milo finally said.
“I’ve got an appointment in Wheeling, West Virginia tomorrow,” she said. “At the Jesuit college, there.”
There was a long pause before Milo responded. “Remember the bulldozer. Don’t get too worked up when you might well find out there’s a simple explanation for this. Probably is.”
“I know,” she said. “But I want to know what it is.”
After she hung up, she texted Joan. Joan’s mother lived in Columbus. Joan agreed to sneak out for coffee. When she got to the coffee shop, Sue Ellen could see Joan had been crying.
“She called me a whore of Babylon,” Joan said. She laughed, but not with her eyes.
“That’s absurd,” Sue Ellen said. “You’ve never even been to Babylon.”
Joan didn’t acknowledge the joke. “John Von Impe, this televangelist she watches all the time, said homosexuality is a sin, so now I’m the whore of Babylon because I went to the prom with my girlfriend. She’s been calling me. I didn’t tell you about it because you’re busy and everything. But she’s been calling me and proselytizing and everything.”
Sue Ellen took Joan’s hand. “She’s sick. You know this.”
“I know,” Joan said.
“You can’t let her get to you.”
“What can I do?” Sue Ellen said.
Joan turned bloodshot eyes to Sue Ellen. “Come home.”
Sue Ellen stared at her and didn’t answer.
The next morning, she left the hotel room she and Joan had rented and hit the library as soon as it was open. She made a note to keep her phone on in case Joan called, but she got so involved in the research, she forgot about it.
She called Milo late that afternoon, but he didn’t answer. “I’ve found it,” she said to his voice mail. “Get this: The Wheeling Gazette has a series of stories referencing a riot in Brown County, Ohio. They blame it on an unnamed man, an African American, a sharecropper, who supposedly attacked and killed the owner of the tobacco farm he worked for. You have to read between the lines, but the black guy was shot, along with his family, who were hiding him, and then some kind of riot broke out, apparently. The rioters were tried and a bunch of them executed. That’s who we’ve found, Milo! The rioters, but it’s way more than the newspapers reported.”
She’d had to turn her phone back on to call Milo, and after she left the message, a voice mail came through from Joan. Her voice was frantic. Sue Ellen could hear tears, which scared her more than anything Joan could say. Joan’s mother was definitely off her meds. She’d disappeared and left a note threatening violence against several people, apparently. Sue Ellen called Joan, but she didn’t answer. She drove over to Joan’s mother’s house, but no one answered the door. She drove back to the hotel and waited.
Sue Ellen decided she should watch the news in case there was a story about Joan’s mom. She waited through the opening story about politics, the sports, and weather, until the newscaster got to the local news.
There was a story about a dog that stayed with its mate for sixteen hours after the mate died, which was sad and kind of beautiful, but not what Sue Ellen was looking for. They went to commercial, and she tried calling Joan again. She didn’t answer, and the news came back on. All that was left was the last couple minutes before primetime started. They usually put quirky, little stories there.
“Construction workers at the site of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter in White Burling made an unusual discovery recently, when they found the remains of a pauper cemetery from the Great Depression. But the discovery has stirred controversy in this idyllic town.”
There was footage of the site and an interview with a protestor. Sue Ellen felt her jaw literally drop, and her phone rang. It was Joan. She answered, and Joan wasn’t crying or injured-sounding. Sue Ellen thanked whatever deity might be listening.
“Hey, sorry,” Joan said. “I’ve been trying to find mom. She ran off.”
On TV, Milo was being interviewed about his theory that the grave site was a pauper cemetery. “Because of the poor record keeping,” he said. “It would be nearly impossible to find the families of the deceased.”
“Hello?” Joan said.
“Hey…” Sue Ellen forced herself to focus on Joan. “Are you okay? Is your mom okay?”
Joan laughed. “Yeah, I’m just tired.” She continued, but Sue Ellen was only half listening. The news report went back to the anchorwoman who said something about Wal-Mart agreeing to pay to relocate the remains to the site of another pauper cemetery.
“They’re nice folks at Wal-Mart,” she said.
Sue Ellen was stunned but she also remembered that Joan was telling the story of her day. Her mother, apparently, had attempted to attack the manager of a bookstore that sold adult magazines.
“They were going to let her out tomorrow morning on bail.”
“She’s in jail?” Sue Ellen said.
“She stabbed the guy with a chopstick!” Joan said. “So I had to get the lawyer to convince them she needed psychiatric observation, which really shouldn’t have been that hard. Money, you know?”
“Yeah,” Sue Ellen said, her mind still racing from the news report. “So is he okay?”
“Yeah. He was already released from the hospital. He even said he didn’t want to press charges, when he found out her condition. But that would’ve meant they let her out even sooner.”
“Listen, where are you?” Sue Ellen asked.
“I’m at the courthouse.” Joan laughed. It was close to becoming something more.
“I’ll come get you. You’ll stay with me tonight.”
Joan didn’t argue. “We can eat fastfood if you want.”
“Are you kidding?” Sue Ellen said. “That stuff tastes like crap.”
As soon as she hung up with Joan, Sue Ellen called Milo. He answered as she got out to her car.
“I saw the news,” was all she could think to say.
“They say the camera adds forty pounds.” Milo chuckled.
“Did you get my message? I don’t think it’s a pauper cemetery, Milo.”
He sighed. “I know.”
She waited for him to elaborate while she typed the courthouse address into her GPS.
“I know you have a theory,” Milo continued, picking his words carefully. “And it’s a very attractive theory. But we don’t have any evidence, do we?”
“What do you mean?” Sue Ellen slammed on the brakes to keep from running a red light and cursed. “I’ve got newspaper reports from six different papers saying there was a race riot.”
“Okay,” Milo said. “Do any of them mention where the bodies were buried? Do they even give the number of victims?”
“They’re all whitewashed; you have to read between the lines. There was a riot.”
“How many victims do they mention?”
“It doesn’t matter!” She screamed.
“And do they give the location of a cemetery? Do they even say there was a cemetery?” Milo continued, ignoring her outburst.
She turned into the parking lot behind the courthouse. “I don’t get it,” she said. “You know—you have to know there’s something going on here. This is bigger than a pauper cemetery.”
“It’s over,” he said.
Joan waved and moved toward the car. Sue Ellen hung up and put her head to the wheel.
It was a few days before Sue Ellen could bring herself to return to White Burley. Joan came along for moral support and managed not to complain the whole way, though Sue Ellen hardly noticed. When they got to the site, the portable buildings were gone. There were crews of men with backhoes dumping dirt and bones into trucks. Sue Ellen felt Joan’s hand on hers and realized she was crying.
Milo answered his phone on the first ring.
“Where are you?” Sue Ellen asked. “Have you seen what they’re doing?”
Milo paused before answering. “You should go home. You did a great job, but it’s over.” He sounded tired, defeated, even. It made Sue Ellen soften her tone.
“It’s not over,” she said.
“I’ve already written you a recommendation and sent it to your department head and advisor.”
Sue Ellen didn’t know what to say to that, but she wasn’t about to say thank you.
“I’m going to talk to the media,” Sue Ellen said. “And to the mayor and to anyone I can.”
Milo sighed. “Do what you have to do, but don’t ruin your career over this before it’s even started. This isn’t a fight we can win, Sue Ellen.”
It struck her that he’d said “we.”
“You’re not even trying,” she said. “What, did Wal-Mart pay you off?” She felt like an idiot for saying it, but it was out there.
“Who do you think paid for the equipment we used, for the research we did? Wal-Mart. Now they’re paying to move the bodies.”
“But they can’t move them! We have to study them! We have to find out the truth!”
Milo sighed again. “I’m sorry this happened,” he said. “The truth is, we don’t have enough evidence to go any further with this.”
When she got off the phone, she called the mayor’s office to make an appointment, then she called the Brown County Citizen.
Sue Ellen met with her advisor a few days later, this time in his office, at her insistence. She felt older, haggard. None of the newspapers she’d contacted would run the story. The mayor had agreed to meet with her but cancelled at the last minute. She’d contacted Wal-Mart several times and gotten nowhere.
Dr. Yeager was on the phone when she knocked. He waved her in, and she sat down. A moment later, he hung up the phone. “Buddy of mine is looking for a couple interns for the summer to work on a dig with him. He was really excited by the rec. I forwarded from that White Burley thing. How do you feel about Peru?”
He grinned, and Sue Ellen couldn’t even answer. Afterwards, back in her car, she started to text Joan but ended up throwing her phone into the passenger seat. She wanted to punch the steering wheel or maybe drive the car into the building. She’d written several letters to the editors of newspapers all over the country, and now she was thinking of writing her theory up and maybe trying to get it published somewhere, anywhere, really. Maybe even just put it on a blog or something. Then people would think she was a kook. The phone rang. It was Joan.
“How’d it go?” Joan asked.
Sue Ellen started crying. She hated it, she hated herself for it, but she couldn’t stop. “I’m going to Peru,” she managed.
“Honey,” Joan said. “Come home.”
C.L. Bledsoe’s most recent book is Riceland, a poetry collection. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife, the poet Jillian Meyer, and their daughter.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I’ve been reading a lot about racial violence, which led me to write this story. There’s a prevailing attitude that race riots either have been exaggerated or didn’t happen, or that they happened so long ago they don’t matter. I wanted to address the idea that these things happened and are still relevant.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: I write wherever and whenever I can: at work during lunch breaks, in the evenings at home, or wherever I happen to be. My writing space is essentially my laptop and wherever I can plug it in.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: It differs from piece to piece. I’ve sat on stories for years trying to get them right. Others, I’ve typed out in one sitting. I think you have to be flexible. If you can only write under optimal circumstances, you aren’t going to get much done. One thing I do that’s different from some other writers is I edit as I write, even if that means going back and reworking a significant portion of a piece before moving forward. I’ve found this to be more time effective.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?
A: I really enjoy Terry Pratchett. He writes fantasy parodies. He’s incredibly talented and funny. That’s who I read for fun. I’m currently reading Etgar Keret, who is a somewhat Kafka-esque flash-fiction writer. Most of my favorite writers are dead. Donald Harington. Italo Calvino. Laurence Sterne.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: This story is part of a series of stories about racial violence, something like a left-leaning Turner Diaries. I’m working on the last story in the series, along with a novel about a private boarding school.