This is the 9th chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE. Wednesday I’ll have a post about some changes to the book that I’ve found need to happen through this process, and the evolution of a novel, so if you’re enjoying these posts, come back
Walking amongst the dead always brings me peace somehow. I know it’s the opposite for a lot of people, but I find the company of the resting dead awful relaxing. As much time as I spend with the restless dead, it’s exceedingly peaceful to walk among those that have gone on from here.
So that’s what I did. I walked along the front row of the cemetery, right there on Front Street, with my truck parked all cattywumpus like I’d been drunk as Cooter Brown when I pulled into the parking lot. I lingered for a second in front of the three-sided monument that Cousin Bowman had collected money from everybody in the family to put up back in the 1964. My daddy gave him twenty dollars and bought three four copies of the book he wrote about our family’s travels across the ocean from England to the South Carolina upstate, and told Bowman to get the hell out of his face and not to never ask him for another dollar while he was trying to eat.
In defense of Daddy’s manners, he said he was trying to eat some of Aunt Eller’s coconut cake, and her coconut cake always was everybody’s favorite. She’d make this three-layer white cake so moist if you squeezed it you could get water for days. Ellen always made Cool-Whip icing with a bunch of shaved coconut all through it, so you got some coconut in the icing between the layers of the cake, too. It wasn’t like some of them store-bought coconut cakes, which is basically a white sheer cake with some coconut sprinkled on top. I tried for years to learn how to make cake like Aunt Eller, but I never could figure it out. Then she passed, and then Daddy passed, and I never married, so I didn’t have anybody to teach me, nor anybody to eat it, so I just quite trying. It’s probably been a month of Sundays since that old Tupperware cake carrier has seen any use.
I looked at that monument, tracing the Carters, and the Thomases and the Feemsters all the way back to whatever little piece of English soil they sprang up from. The original Johnny Thomas in this part of the world was from Wales. He was about old Sheriff Johnny’s grandpappy with about a dozen greats in front of it. Me and Johnny always knew we were some kind of kin, but being Southern, we just called it “cousins” and let it go at that. My mama always could rattle off what number cousin you were to somebody and how many times removed, but I never got the hang of it.
I walked a little further, and took a seat on a headstone in front of my Granny’s stone. I was sitting on Mr. Bo Mickle’s stone, and I usually made it a point to apologize to Mr. Bo for disrespecting him that way, but I’ve been doing it so long by this point that I reckon Mr. Bo would have found some way to let me know if it bothered him.
“Hey, Granny,” I said. She wasn’t there, of course. Granny died when I was about thirteen, and she didn’t linger but a couple of days. I met her right here the morning after her funeral and watched her walk into the light. It wasn’t like she walked up into the clouds like the end of Highway to Heaven episode, but there was a bright white light, and she told me she loved me, and told me to be good, and then she turned around and went away. So I knew she wasn’t listening in, but somehow that made it easier to talk.
“Granny, I’m having a terrible time with this one. The poor little girl wants my help so bad, but her mama and daddy won’t have any of it. Her mama won’t, anyhow. That preacher Turner has got his hooks into her so deep you’d think she was going to make a big donation or something. I’m sorry, that wasn’t very Christian of me. But he just makes me so mad sometimes. It’s like he knows I want to help people, and he keeps trying to get in my way anyhow.”
I got down off the top of Mr. Bo’s rock and moved over to sit cross-legged on the grass right in front of Granny’s stone. I’d done this forever, but the older I got, the harder it was to get up off the grass when I was done. I reckoned it wouldn’t be too many more years before I was going to have to have a cane or some kind of walking stick if I was going to go traipsing around in cemeteries. This one wasn’t too bad, but some weren’t maintained as good, like the one where Pap was buried.
Yeah, Granny and Pap didn’t lay to rest together. They weren’t even in the same town. Granny was right here in Lockhart, but Pap was way over in Chester. He remarried after Granny went, and that was about the last we saw of him. It was like he wanted nothing more than to forget our family and go be with a new one. I didn’t like it, and I could tell it hurt Mama something awful, but we respected the old man’s wishes and left him alone. He lived a long time after Granny passed, ’til he was well into his nineties. I only heard about it when he died because I read the obituary. There was no mention of our family in the listing of relatives. Since I wasn’t family anymore, I didn’t go to the visitation.
I did go to the funeral, though. I stood back away from everybody and watched them lay the old man to rest. When all the rest of the mourners got back in their cars, I walked up to the graveside and stood there for a minute watching the men lower the casket into the dirt. I was just about to walk back to my truck when he stepped up beside me.
“You still see ghosts, Lila Grace?” my dead grandfather asked me.
I nodded. I didn’t really want to talk to him. I didn’t know what to say. This was the man who had made me a rocking horse for Christmas when I was three years old. A rocking horse I had until I was a grown woman and gave it to a young couple at the church who had a little boy who loved to play cowboy. This was also the man who abandoned my mother when she needed a parent most, when she was burying her own mother in that ugliest cycle of life. The man that turned his back on my family for over two decades, and now stood next to me while I watched his body being lowered into the ground and tried to decipher my feelings.
“I expect you got some questions. If you’d see fit to come with me for a minute, I’d like to answer ‘em.”
Well, the old man knew he had me then. I was so curious when I was little that he used to call me “Cat.” “Get on out of here, Little Cat,” he’d say when he caught me snooping in his or Granny’s closets, trying to find Christmas presents or birthday presents, or just old pictures of him from the War or of Granny when she was young woman.
None of that curiosity faded as I grew up, and getting older did nothing to tame that curious Little Cat, so I followed the old man. He walked around to the back of my truck and motioned at the tailgate. I opened the tailgate and sat down on it. He sat next to me, and this let us sit together without being forced to look at one another. I liked that arrangement.
“Best thing about driving a truck, Little Cat,” he said. “You carry your car, and a table, and a seat with you all in one.”
“Don’t call me that,” I said, my voice suddenly that of a seven-year-old girl again.
“Why not? It’s what I’ve called you for years.”
“No,” I corrected. “It’s what you used to call me. You ain’t called me nothing in years.”
“Well,” he said, looking at the laces on his boots. He was dressed like I always used to see him, in a checked flannel shirt, blue jean overalls, and brown work boots. Most ghosts present wearing what they died in, but some wear what they’re most comfortable in. Sometimes they’ll get a look at their funeral, and all of a sudden it will switch to what they were buried in. Dickey Newton showed up one day wearing nothing at all, dead as a doornail and naked as the day he was born. I sent Dickey away and told him not to show his face, or any other part of himself, around me until he learned to manifest himself at least a pair of britches.
“What are you still doing here, Pap?”
“I stayed to see you. I’m glad you came to the funeral.”
“I felt like it was the right thing to do.”
“For me or for you?”
“For me. What you thought hasn’t been on my mind much since you wrote us out of your new life.” I could hear the bitterness in my voice, but I didn’t care. He hurt my feelings when he just up and abandoned us like that, and I reckoned he could know it.
“I am sorry about that, Lila Grace.”
“If you hadn’t done it, I reckon you wouldn’t have nothing to be sorry for.”
“Well, you’re right about that. It was wrong, and it was selfish.”
“So why’d you do it?”
He didn’t say anything for a long time, and when he finally spoke, his words were slow, like he was picking them carefully. “After your Granny died, I was a mess. We had twenty-seven good years together. I guess that ain’t really true. We had twenty-four good years, with enough bad days throughout to make up a year or two, and the last year was pretty rough. When your Granny got sick, I didn’t do nothing but take care of her for a year. It was hard on me, but that’s what a husband is supposed to do.”
“Well, when she was gone, I didn’t have that purpose any more. I couldn’t remember what it was like to be anything more than the man with the sick wife, and every time I saw your Daddy, or any of my family, all I saw was her face. It didn’t take long until I couldn’t stand that anymore, so I left.”
“You always told me that a man faces up to what’s hard.”
“That’s true. I just wasn’t much of a man right then. So I went away, and I made myself a new family, and I loved them. I know you probably don’t want to hear that, but I did. It was a different love than what I had for y’all, but it was a true thing just the same. But I never forgot you. I never forgot any of you.”
“I never forgot you, neither, Pap. I tried real hard, but I didn’t.”
“Thank you for that.” I saw a bright light start to form out of the corner of my eye, and Pap turned to see it. “Looks like my train’s ‘bout to pull out of the station,” he said.
“You stayed here just to tell me all that? What if I hadn’t come?”
“You would eventually.” He smiled at me, got off the back of my truck, and walked into the light. It flashed brighter than the sun, then popped out, leaving me blinking and rubbing my eyes. I was alone in the cemetery, and I went back over to where the men had been running the backhoe and I shed a tear over my Pap’s grave. Not for his death, but for the life we never shared.
I sat there for about an hour, just talking to Granny about Jenny, and Shelly, and the idiot Baptist preacher, and her soaps that I still watched every day so I could keep track of who’s alive and dead for her. After a while, though, my knees started really giving me fits, and my spine started to knot up down in my lower back, so I got up and moseyed on back to the truck. I ran my fingers across the stones as I walked, liking the feeling of the different granites used. Some were buffed to a high polish, but plenty were either too old for that, or just never cared to pay for it.
I got to my truck and looked at myself in the mirror. I was born lucky – I have a complexion that lets me cry without turning into a red, blotchy mess. I fixed my makeup and put the truck in gear, pointing the old girl down the street toward the sheriff’s office.