A young woman weighs the state of the world as a friend faces the death of his mother.
| "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, Appalachia. Then, guided by Graham'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 cigar. 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 woman who spoke followed Graham into the house and the other turned to us.
"Y'all need something to drink?" she asked.
"No thank you," I replied. She nodded and picked something up from her lap. It was hard to tell what she was doing in the dark, but I guessed that she was knitting something. For a few moments, 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 the woman, "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."
The two of us took a seat in rocking chairs on the porch. This put us closer to the woman.
"So... what are you making?" I asked her.
"It's a cross for my boy Joseph. I'm Flo, Graham's aunt. Wilbur there, he's my oldest and Joseph is his brother." She smiled. "Joseph's always been a mama's boy."
"He's always been a kiss up," Wilbur remarked.
Flo looked at Carlyle and me and said: "Wilbur's a little prickly. Any how," she continued, "Joseph's goat ran off. He raises goats, and his favorite, the first one he raised from a kid, well, he just up and disappeared one day last week. He's been sad. Thought this might cheer him up. He needs a new one to hang on his truck mirror."
After a while, maybe an hour or so, Carlyle and I decided to camp out in the car and bade our new acquaintances good night.
A thick fog obscured the morning light 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 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. Carlyle and I kept to ourselves and tried to stay out of the way. We sat on an old iron lawn set near the woods and remained there alone until Wilbur came out for a smoke.
"Y'all been here the whole time?" he asked Carlyle.
"No, we went out for breakfast. How is everybody doing?"
"Holdin' up," he said. Then, with a shrug, he added. "They always do."
After an awkward silence, I tried to engage Wilbur.
"So, your brother raises goats? Is that common around here?"
Wilbur gave me an irritated look and said "I guess. A few people do it. 'Course most people don't think it's that impressive. Mama acts like Joe discovered electricity. It's just a damn goat."
"What do you do?" I asked, wondering if I should keep talking or not.
"I work on a tobacco farm. And I been here for two days with Mama. What do you do?"
"I'm studying history," I said.
Wilbur dropped his cigar to the ground and stamped it out. "Well," he replied, "That'll get you far. Huh!"
"He's kind of a bastard," I told Carlyle after he left.
"He's a pessimist, Fran. And his aunt just died. Let it go." No one could call Carlyle a pessimist. I am much more high-strung than he and I suddenly wondered if I was ever as unpleasant as Wilbur. Long before I came to a conclusion on the matter, Graham came out to where we were.
"We need to go find the grave in a little bit," he told us. "Felix oughtta be back soon and we'll go find it. She picked the spot years ago when Mammaw died and we need to see my uncle about it. You guys wanna come?"
We readily agreed to go and sometime after noon, 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, but Carlyle said that the new life would help the family heal. Within minutes, Graham and Felix joined us out back. 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?" Felix asked Graham.
"He knows," Graham 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 something from Lima's to outline the gravesite. 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. When Felix returned we headed west, even further into the woods. 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.
"This is wrong, Eus," Felix said. "She was supposed to be over there." He pointed to a Dogwood tree.
"No," Eustess replied. "She and Victor worked out a new place a while ago. She gave him the Dogwood. It's his favorite. 'Cuza Jesus's blood he said."
With that, the debate was put to rest and a Felix and Graham marked a large rectangle next to their great-grandmother's grave with some string and stakes.
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, I momentarily decided; 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 aloud 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 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.
We arrived at the grave site and within an hour, our team had grown to nine. There were Graham and Felix's cousins, Jake, Josh, and Aaron, an uncle named Ted, and Wilbur's brother, Joseph. A short man in his late twenties, Joseph 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 two or three inside the perimeter of the grave, Joseph 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 Joseph'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 Joseph 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.” Joseph smiled at me and looked me up and down. Then, he turned his attention to Jake with whom he was also apparently acquainted. “Ain’t seen you in a month of Sundays, Mister!” Joseph slapped his acquaintance on the back. “When we gonna see you back in church?”
“The kids’ been sick,” Jake meekly responded. “We’ll be back soon.”
“Don’t let the devil get in your way,” Joseph advised. “Remember you’re in the way, or you’re in the way.” With that, Joseph took over Graham’s shoveling duties and the conversation turned to a local football game.
Within a couple of hours I was knee-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. As we hit the third foot, I continued to mull over the state of the world. While Eustess, and I suspected Wilbur, expected little from life, Carlyle and Joseph seemed happier with their outlook on things. The latter two, however, would be hit harder by disappointment I knew and which side had found more truth was still a mystery to me. By the time the sun began to set, I had tired of the problem. Soon, 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 Joseph. “Preacher.”
“It’s just ‘brother,’” Joseph corrected. “How you been Eustess?” Joseph looked at the satchel on the ground. “Did you bring water?”
“I figured y’all had water.”
“We do,” said Graham.
Joseph 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 of clear liquid and unscrewed the top.
I continued to dig with the help of Aaron as some of the others, excluding Joseph, passed around the jar. As I wondered how long it would take for our beverage break to come, Aaron caught my eye. His gaze shifted from my eyes to direct me to the tip of his shovel. It was red. Blood red. Together we gently removed dirt to discover the carcass of some animal.
"Uh... Boys," Aaron said. "There's something in the grave."
"What?" Graham asked. I stepped out of the grave and the others moved in to inspect the discovery.
"It's a dog," said Carlyle.
"No," responded Joseph turning wan, "it's a goat."
For moment everyone was silent and someone passed me the jar. I took a long drink and picked up the shovel I had just laid down. Eustess picked up another shovel and I looked at him and at Aaron who still stood in the grave.
"Well," I said, "nothing to do but move the goat."