Ray and Manny are cemetery workers, digging graves by hand today. The aftermath of yet another school shooting.

A short, short story that helps me deal with the horrors we inflict on one another in our country. I hope it speaks to you too.

Too Small for the Backhoe

Bob Gillen

Ray tossed a couple of shovels in the back of the dark green pickup while Manny lit up a smoke.

They both leaned back against the truck.

“We shouldn’t have to do this,” Ray said.

Manny inhaled deeply. “Someone should burn in hell for what they did.”

The two men gazed at their work. Four small grave sites lined up alongside the cemetery road. Small, not the usual three feet by eight feet. At each site lay panels of plywood. Some held neat stacks of sod. Others were piled high with loose dirt.

The graves were cut precisely, clean rectangular lines on all sides.

Ray turned to walk away. “Would you mind taking the truck back to the maintenance shed? I need to get out of here.”

“You got it. See you tomorrow, man.”

Ray came in the back door of his home, unlaced his dirt-caked work boots, left them at the door. His wife Rosa was setting out a couple of pizzas. She looked at his dirty clothes, his grim face. “You don’t look good.”

“Manny and I dug four graves today…by hand.”

“Oh. Too small for the backhoe.”

Ray nodded. He pulled up a chair at the table.

“Want coffee?”


Rosa reached up to a tall cabinet, pulled down a bottle of scotch. She poured him two fingers and handed him the glass.

She sat. “Children’s graves.”

Ray dipped his head, gazed into his glass.

“The ones from the school shooting?”

His eyes came up, held hers for a long moment.

“That was the next county over. Why your cemetery?”

Ray sipped his drink. “The guy who owns our cemetery donated the four plots…and the coffins.”

Their fourth grader, Gracie, stepped into the room. She kissed her dad. “You look tired, daddy.”

She reached for a slice of mushroom pizza.

“Your dad had to dig graves by hand today.”

“That means kids’ graves, right?”

Ray nodded, grabbed a pizza slice. “How was your day?”

Gracie shrugged. “Pretty boring. We had a sub today, and he repeated everything we did yesterday.”

After supper Gracie went to her room to do homework. Ray skipped his usual after-dinner shower, nestled next to Rosa on the sofa. They both stared at the TV, saw nothing. An hour later, Gracie came downstairs in her pajamas, her hair brushed back in a tight ponytail.

“Did you brush your teeth?” her mom asked. 


“Okay. Sleep well.”

Gracie opened her hand, offered Ray four lengths of red ribbon.

“What’s this?”

“Would you put one ribbon in each grave, please, daddy? Tomorrow, before the people get there for the services.”

Ray squinted. “I don’t know…”

“A ribbon for each kid. They can tie it around their arm when they get up to heaven. That way everybody up there will know, these kids were shot in their classroom. They’ll get treated special.”

A tear crawled down Ray’s cheek. “I can do that. I’ll carve a little groove in each hole and hide the ribbon there.”

Her mom said, “Gracie, that’s beautiful.”

Gracie turned to leave the room. She hesitated, turned back. She opened her palm to reveal another piece of red ribbon, crushed in her fist. She handed it to her dad. 

“Save this one for me. Just in case.”