Two college friends accompany a classmate home to say goodbye to a loved one.
"What does that sign say? Forty miles?"
"No. Ninety." I sat back against the passenger's seat of Graham's car and looked at Carlyle. He was blinking a lot - too much to be in good condition to drive.
"You need me to take over?" I asked.
"No, no," he said turning the air conditioner vents to his face and adjusting the dial to full blast. "No, I'm good." He ran his long, thin hand through his thick, sandy-colored hair and fixed his pink-tinted green eyes on the road before us. "He still sleeping?"
I looked into the back seat where Graham lay, still motionless, still silent, still feigning repose.
"Yeah," I said. For the next half hour or so, Carlyle and I said nothing and soon we passed a sign welcoming us to God-knows-where, Mississippi. Then, guided by Grahm's flat voice, we pulled onto a gravel road that dead-ended at a two-story home bathed in dingy brown paint and neon moonlight. A porch, comprised of gray blocks and a cement floor spanned the width of the residence, its roof shingled in black to match the top of the house. Lights shone through the two lower windows and as we approached, figures appeared outside. Two people sitting on some sort of bench appeared to be female based on the slightness of the silhouettes and the other, a very large male figure, leaned against a pillar at the edge of the porch and puffed on a pipe. The eyes of the male were fixed on us before we exited the car and remained there, unwavering, until we met at the single cement step that connected the dirt with the floor of the porch.
"Wilbur," Graham said with a nod of recognition toward the figure. As Graham approached the screen door of the residence, one of the female figures rose and embraced him.
"You made it, baby," said a scratchy, unsteady voice. "She might be up." The other figure rose now and both followed Graham inside. Carlyle and I just stood there a few feet from the porch unsure of what to do or say. Wilbur continued to smoke his pipe and watch the smoke as it left his mouth and rose above him. He seemed unaffected by our presence. After a few long moments, one of us finally came to our senses.
"I'm Carlyle," my companion said to Wilbur, "and this is Frances. We go to school with Graham."
"Gooda y'all to come," Wilbur said without looking at us. "Might as well have a seat. Ain't nobody goin' to sleep tonight."
A thick fog obscured hues of sunlight as I sheepishly came-to the next morning. A layer of dew covered the windows of the car, further blurring the light that hung beyond the line of treetops that framed the house. Carlyle was stretched out in back, his head propped on a duffel bag and drool seeping from his mouth. I had no idea what time it was. As I searched for my cell phone, I surveyed the lack of motion from the house. No one was on the porch and it was too foggy to see light or movement inside. Finally, I retrieved the phone from beneath the passenger seat. Eight-twenty-seven a.m.
If not for the call of nature, I would have remained in the car until I could confirm some sign of motion in the house, but I couldn't wait. I roused Carlyle and explained that we were going in.
"I can piss outside," he mumbled as we approached the porch.
"Aren't you just a goddamn wonder," I whispered over my shoulder. I stopped outside the screen door and took a deep breath. The front door was open and it was dim inside. I quietly grasped the handle on the screen and carefully and silently pulled it open. I stepped just inside and held it for Carlyle. For a moment, I was hopeful that he would take the lead, but I was granted no such luck. I wandered into a carpeted living room and made my way toward the light that flowed from an adjacent archway. I maneuvered between a few motionless sleeping bags and the furniture arranged around them and stepped onto the white linoleum floor of the kitchen. Wilbur, a brown-eyed bald man whose stature gave him away as last night's greeter leaned against a row of L-shaped dark wood cabinets that covered the wall opposite the doorway and most of the wall to its right. Another man, blond-bearded and small sat at a round, white table with Graham. After a moment, our friend looked up and noticed us. He greeted us with a stoic countenance and two somber words: "Mama's dead."
It was nearly two full hours after we entered the house that someone finally arrived to remove the body of Graham's departed mother. I later heard some miscellaneous voice note that she had died just after seven. I would have been appalled at the leisurely arrival of the funeral workers had I not been so shocked at the growth of the home's population as news of the death spread via some quiet source - a combination of texts and phone calls I'd guessed - and mourners came to pay their respects at the home itself. After Graham assured us that we weren't needed, we headed out for breakfast. When we returned, we found ourselves about to embark on a journey we could not have anticipated when we insisted on accompanying our friend home.
"We need to go find the grave," Graham told us as we stood outside and observed random people entering the house with covered dishes. "Felix oughtta be here soon and we'll go find it. She marked it years ago when Mammaw died and we need to see my uncle about it."
Neither Carlyle nor myself were clear on what our true objection was. Where was the graveyard and what did the uncle have to do with it? How difficult could it be to access in a cemetery? It had to have roads for people to visit and to get the heavy machinery to dig the graves. As I turned the problems over in my head and attempted to answer the questions, I was alerted to the arrival of a familiar young couple by a nudge from Carlyle. The man was little more than a heavier version of Graham; the same cold black hair, dark brown eyes and square jaw. The boys' noses were nearly the same, perfectly proportioned triangles, identical except for a slight bend that marked a tee-ball injury of Graham's that he had told us about not long after meeting him. Felix and his wife were instantly recognizable from the matrimonial picture that sat on a book shelf in Graham’s and Carlyle's dorm, with one glaring exception, Halle's very pregnant belly. I thought the timing of the death particularly tragic now.
Sometime after noon, Graham and Felix joined us out back where Carlyle and I sat on the patio out of the way. Graham said simply, "Let's go," and we followed him and Felix through the yard and into an abyss of trees.
"Anybody talked to Eustess?" Graham asked Felix.
"He knows," Felix answered settling my curiosity of Eustess's gender. The uncle, I guessed. "Lima said he'd be ready for us."
"Who is Lima?" I decided to ask.
"Great aunt," Graham explained. "Eustess is her son. They have a place back in the woods. Been there forever."
"We've been burying people out near there for years," Felix offered. "Our great-great-great... Hell, I don't know how many greats it is, but all around here," Felix waved his hand at the trees, "was bought by a great grandfather of mama's."
We continued on a dirt path through the trees until we came upon a small, aluminum home. A few yards away sat an old, green Jeep Wrangler. Felix stepped onto the bottom of a three-tier set of iron-caged steps and rapped on the door. When it opened and a heavy, white-haired, excessively-wrinkled woman appeared in the entryway.
"Hi Lima," Felix nearly shouted to the woman. "Is Eustess home?"
The elderly lady looked puzzled for a moment and said, “John Harvey? Is that you?”
“No, its me Felix and here’s Graham. We’re John Harvey’s boys," he paused for a moment. "Sherilynn’s sons.”
“Oh, Felix. Eustess is back out tendin’ the business. You go find him.”
Felix agreed and we all took up on a path behind the trailer. We walked a few hundred yards toward a creek and met a man dressed in camouflage tending what appeared to be a moonshine still.
“Boys,” Eustess greeted us, then he paused for a moment and nodded at me, “girl.”
“Hi,” I said quietly. Eustess stepped out from behind the still and looked at Graham. “Sorry ‘bout your mama.”
“We need to get to the grave,” Graham said.
“Yep,” said Eustess, “I guess you do.” The man sat on the stump of a tree and adjusted a camouflage cap on his salt-and-pepper hair. A thin man, he seemed too old to be the boys’ uncle and I tried to calculate his true place in the family from the information given at the beginning of the trip. He looked quietly at Felix and asked about the baby.
“Any day now,” Felix said. “Mama almost made it.”
Minutes later we waited with Eustess as Felix went to retrieve ties that would be used to mark a pathway to the grave. It was then that Eustess let us in on his real feelings about the miracle of life.
"This shithole world ain't no place to bring up a innocent child," he declared. He followed the deadly statement with an unapologetic and hefty slosh of liquid from one cheek to the other, then looked up at Carlyle, peered at him authoritatively and spat onto the ground next to him. The brown stain settled over a small area of gravel and seemed the perfect accent to the filthy terrain beneath us. I felt instantly at one with the disgusting truth of the world. When Felix returned we took a 45-minute trek to a cemetery, tying knots around trees as we traveled. I didn’t count all of the gravestones in the cemetery, but I estimated that there were at least 30 as old as a century and as young as five years. “Caralee Johnson Foster Beloved/ Mother and Grandmother/ July 4, 1906 - June 14, 2008,” read the stone next to the site Eustess marked for Graham and Felix’s mother.
“Quite a long life,” Carlyle remarked. “Your grandmother?”
“Great grandmother - Mammaw,” Graham said.
Back at Lima's, we sat on mismatched furniture covered with tattered afghans and ancient quilts which bore stains so ingrained and faded that I imagined them to pre-date the existence of even Lima herself, a woman of at least 80 who looked one hundred or more thanks to the harshness of her circumstances. In such instances I always try to be thankful, but I regularly ended up allowing my mind to drift to the millions of unfortunate creatures that would have found Lima's aluminum shack filled with hand-me-down effects and clean, running water a miracle. The world was indeed a shithole; one both entirely too terrible and perfectly fit for humanity. We made it back to the house just before 6:30.
The next morning, Carlyle and I had breakfast as Graham and his family arranged the funeral.
"Will there be a graveside service?" I wondered allowed over bagels at a local diner. "I mean I can't even think how they'll get something up there to dig the grave, much less how a procession of cars could make it through the tiny dirt road through the woods. How in the hell will they do it?"
"It's pretty obvious, Fran," Carlyle said. "The service will end before the coffin makes it to the cemetery. Think about it. Pallbearers will probably have to walk it."
"Jesus," I said. "That's over a mile." Then a very creepy thought entered my mind. "God. People will have to dig the grave."
"What do you think we'll be doing later?" he asked.
"Grave-digging?! They won't ask us. Dig a grave?!"
"We're here for Graham and he'll probably be there. And Felix. What the hell else are we supposed to do to help?"
I shuttered. "Ewwww." I considered the possibility for a moment. It would require being in the grave to dig it. In a grave. Deep in a grave with only a couple of feet of earth between me and the corpses that were already buried there. The idea left Carlyle and me mostly silent for the next hour. We got back to the house just a few minutes after the family returned. We didn't have to wonder long about the arrangements. We joined Graham on the patio and he informed us of the plans. A visitation was scheduled for the following evening, with a funeral service and burial to follow the day after.
"In the meantime," he looked off to the trees, "we'll have to get started on the grave."
My stomach dropped, which was curious, because I thought that it had already done that back in the diner.
"How? I mean what's the plan there?" I asked softly.
"Felix and some of our cousins and uncles, they'll be here soon and we'll go get started."
"Can you get a backhoe up there?" I asked.
The way Graham looked at me then made me feel like an idiot.
"Every grave there has been hand-dug," he told me. "We can dig one more. It won't hurt us." He was quiet for a moment and then he said, "You don't have to help."
"Of course we'll help," Carlyle said. "We're here for you. Whatever you need."
Two hours later, Carlyle, Graham, Felix, and I headed toward the grave site, shovels and maddoxes in tow. The others, whoever they were, would be meeting us up there. The grave needed to be finished before the family prepared for the visitation the next night which meant that we would likely be digging into the evening. I felt uneasy about what was about to unravel and somewhat guilty about my reluctance. Graham, Carlyle and I had been friends since our freshman year of college and we had grown quite close. They were better than brothers because we all had different baggage having emerged from such different circumstances - Graham from a small southern town, Carlyle from a big family in the midwest and me the only child of a boring couple from the east coast. The empathy we lacked for each other was equaled by the sympathetic ears we each lent to the unfamiliar stories.
Graham's family, we knew, were very religious and conservative and the area he was from was more rural than I could have imagined. We arrived at the grave site and within an hour, our team had grown to nine. There were Graham and Felix's cousins, Frank and Aaron, an uncle named Ted, and two family friends, Josh and Nathan. A short man in his mid-twenties, Nathan wore a generous, un-tucked maroon polo shirt and dark jeans over his pudgy frame and smiled like a con man surrounded by a charitable brethren. He was particularly religious and as he talked with a southern drawl about how we should celebrate the departure of Sherilynn as she had indeed ascended to heavenly pastures, I considered announcing my agnosticism just to see his expression. I decided against it.
As we took turns digging in groups of four and five inside the perimeter of the grave, Nathan continued his crusade. "Oh Lord, she'll be happy over there," he practically sang. "I know you boys will miss her, but we'll have a fine reunion one day!"
I found Nathan's attitude to be very insensitive. When I confided this in Carlyle he pointed out that the man was trying to make the boys feel better about their loss. But all I could see was Nathan exploiting a tragedy to push his agenda. After a little while he looked at me and Carlyle with a grin.
"Y'all know Jesus? Christ our Lord?” he asked. I wanted to answer, to tell him that my soul was none of his business, but Carlyle spoke first.
“Yeah,” Carlyle nodded. “We both were raised in church.”
He was lying and I was irked that he had done so. We owed the man no explanation about our personal faith and I thought it was rude to ask. Given the delicacy of the situation, however, I felt that I better remain silent.
“Well, I hope you still go. Don’t take long to backslide.” Nathan smiled at me and looked me up and down. Then, he turned his attention to Frank with whom he was also apparently acquainted. “Ain’t seen you in a month of Sundays, Mister!” Nathan slapped his acquaintance on the back. “When we gonna see you back in church?”
“The kids’ been sick,” Frank meekly responded. “We’ll be back soon.”
“Don’t let the devil get in your way,” Nathan advised. “Remember you’re in the way, or you’re in the way.”
With that Nathan took over Graham’s shoveling duties and the conversation turned to a local football game. I was still focused on Nathan’s behavior. The big secret about religion, I had decided once, is that it doesn't matter if it's true, it matters how it makes one feel. Graham's family, it turned out, believed in the Baptist faith, and although I had never personally found comfort in unseen promises, I hoped that it might help Graham.
Within a couple of hours I was waist-deep in a grave and inching ever closer to six-feet down. I could feel the corpses on either side of me and in front and back of me too. I felt as if bugs were crawling all up my spine. I strained to focus on the fact that my emotions fell dead last on the list of priorities. I began to concentrate on breathing steadily and silently and listened to the stories that provided the soundtrack for the grim deed. While we dug, Aaron recalled a story in which Graham and Felix’s mother defended him.
“We were at Mammaw’s one Saturday and I smarted off to Dad,” he began. “He told me to get him his a coke from the fridge and I was playing and I don’t know what got into me but I said, ‘Get it yourself!’” Aaron laughed which made me think that the next part would be funny. He continued, “He didn’t want to get up to hit me, so he threw a mug at my head,” he chuckled. “It took four stitches to sew up. Sherilynn gave it to him good! She said that next time he’d lose his throwing hand!”
A few of the guys chuckled and I was appalled.
“What did he tell the people at the ER?” I asked.
“He said that he threw a cup and it hit me,” he said as if I just asked a ridiculous question.
“And there was no investigation?”
“No,” Grahm said. “It was the ‘80’s and this is Mississippi. It wasn’t that unusual.”
I was reminded of Eustess’s earlier insight and decided not to pursue a further explanation of the incident.
“She sounds like a good woman,” I said.
“The best,” Felix agreed.
As we hit the fifth foot, the sun was setting and a familiar face emerged from the woods. Eustess was still sporting camo and a distrustful countenance. He set an army-green satchel on the ground and nodded to Felix, then Graham.
“How’s it coming?” he asked.
“Coming along,” said Felix.
“Y’all could use a break,” he replied and then he nodded at Nathan. “Preacher.”
“It’s just ‘brother,’” Nathan corrected. “How you been Eustess?” Nathan looked at the satchel on the ground. “Did you bring water?”
“I figured y’all had water.”
“We do,” said Graham.
Nathan looked at Eustess, then the others. “Ain’t gonna help a bit, you know.”
“You’re the judge,” Eustess said. “Judging, judging, all the time.”
“I ain’t for me to judge, but -”
“No, it ain’t.” Eustess took out a jar and unscrewed the top.
Graham looked at me like he was trying to communicate a thought, but I didn’t catch on. Finally he said, “Dogwoods. Mama always liked Dogwoods. Nate, do you think you could find us a dogwood to get a start from? I’d sure like to plant one up here. You’re the gardener.”
Nathan paused for a moment and then said, “We did pass some good ones on the way up. You all gonna stay here?”
Graham looked at me again and this time I was afraid that I knew what he wanted. I had no interest in being alone with Nathan, but once again my feelings lost the battle for prevalence. At least, I thought, I won’t be in a grave.
“I’ll come,” I said. Nathan perked up. “Well, let’s go darlin’. We’re about out of light.”
Reluctantly, I followed Nathan back down the path as the guys lit lanterns and prepared for a short break from their troubles. I wondered if they would leave me some of Eustess’s supply or if all would be over when we got back. In the meantime, I patted myself on the back for getting the wet blanket away from the mourners. Nathan, who no doubt considered himself a gentleman, led the way, holding branches for me that obstructed the path and made small talk about different trees and plants as we passed them. Finally, we arrived at a dogwood. Nathan took out a small pocket knife and began to carefully trim a piece from the tree.
"There," he said, holding the piece of branch out for me to inspect, "that there's a good start."
I nodded. "The boys," I began, weakly improvising, "Graham and Felix, they'll appreciate it." After a few minutes more, I added. "It will be beautiful."
Nathan moved closer to me and his hand made it's way to my face. "You're beautiful," he said.
"Thank you," I said, stepping back. "We should head back before it gets dark."
"Now don't get skeered. I ain't nothin' to fear. I just like the look of a pretty woman." With that, I felt his pudgy hand on my waist bidding me closer. I pulled back and he pulled harder. I hardly knew what I'd done when it was over and he sat on the ground, dumb-founded. Later, the sound of an off-key chorus greeted me and I approached the intoxicated grave-diggers with relief.
"If I could hear my mother pray-ay again!" the hymn ended. The grave, now completed, was covered with a tarp held down with rocks and Graham, Felix, Carlyle, Eustess and Aaron, I think, sat on the ground around it. A tear fell from Felix's eyes, but a calmness hung in the air. After a moment, Graham looked up at Nathan where he had arrived behind me and burst into laughter. As looks of surprise and slight amusement appeared on the faces of the others, I turned to see what evidence of our encounter had formed. There stood Nathan with a red, puffy eye and a sour look of irritation.
"Well," said Graham, "I think we're done here."