Just A Memory

Memories are funny things. Sometimes they are as crisp and clear as yesterday. Sometimes they are hazy, like a foggy morning in the mountains. I think this one is somewhere in between. (These memories are completely unedited. They are written in one sitting and I feel if I go back and edit them, my mind will tell me something is wrong and want to make changes. )

My grandparents lived in the mill hill in West Columbia, not more than a couple hundred yards from the Congaree River. My brother and I spent a lot of time at the river, more times than not getting soaked because we were either stupid, daring or both. We skipped rocks, broke bottles (yeah, with rocks), and even got in trouble one time when the pretty little girl who lived on Alexander Road stepped on some of the glass we had shattered with a bunch of rocks we couldn’t skip (we caught hell for it and had to go down to her house and apologize for being idiots—that’s what my uncle called us). 

We walked those streets like we owned them, even though we knew if we did something wrong, our grandparents would know before we got back to their house. 

There were few kids in the neighborhood, most of them like us who were only around when they visited their grandparents. There was Wayne and David—popular names back then, apparently, and I knew three sets of brothers with those names. There was another Wayne and David who were not brothers (they were cousins) who visited from time to time. Bryce lived on the corner of Sortwell Street for a while and Susan visited her grandmother from time to time (whew, she was a sight for young boy eyes and the only girl on the street). There were the Burnette Brothers whose names I can’t recall now to save my life—they became the models for the bullies in Cory’s Way. They were the local bullies, mean as hell, ugly as hell. Then there was Tony C., not to be confused with my buddy Tony M., who I often called T. 

Tony C. was not much to look at as far as boys went in the late seventies and eighties. I can’t really say I was either, but I think I grew up and became better looking with age. His face was loaded with freckles, his hair was dark brown, skin fair. He was thin and his voice was kind of higher in pitch. He was a part time friend who always tried to intimidate the rest of us. We tolerated him because sometimes there was no one else around to hang out with. We played marbles in my grandparent’s front yard; played cops and robbers at his grandmother’s house two blocks down. We got in more fights when he was around than when he wasn’t. I don’t think we ever truly became friends. 

There was this one time … I think it was the only time any of us really showed some sort of compassion for each other. I was walking down the street by myself. I don’t recall why my brother wasn’t with me, but he wasn’t. I was, maybe nine, maybe ten—memories don’t always recall time too well. I passed Tony’s grandmother’s house to see him sitting on the porch, his knees pulled up to his chin and his arms wrapped around them. His back was against one of the porch pillars. He was wearing bluejeans—he always wore bluejeans—and a T-shirt that I think was white, but I honestly can’t remember. 

I asked him if he was okay. He looked up. He had a shiner that would get worse before it got better. He had been jumped by the Brothers and the fight didn’t last long. I remember thinking he had probably ran his mouth at them and his face paid the price. Maybe that was true. Maybe it wasn’t. It didn’t matter. I opened the gate and entered his grandmother’s yard. I went up the steps and sat beside him. I have no clue how long I sat beside him, but neither of us spoke for the longest time. His sniffles dwindled and he wiped his nose. 

His grandmother came to the door and said it was time to eat. We looked at each other and stood. I shrugged my bony shoulders as if I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t. He wiped his nose again, then Tony C. went inside and closed the door. 

That was the last time I saw him. 

Fast forward many, many years later and my baby brother and I stopped one day in the parking lot of a Bi-Lo’s. We got out and walked. We talked about life and other stuff, but mostly life. We made our way to my old stomping grounds and I took that stroll down Memory Lane. I pointed out things, like where the German Shepard had chased me and my older brother and where some of my friends lived and where the old park used to be and the house where another pretty, but older girl lived and would wash her car in a bikini during the summer—yeah, us boys spent some quality gawking time at that park during the summer.

We passed by Tony’s grandmother’s house and a man was out in the yard. I stopped and asked about the lady who lived there once upon a time. I also asked about Tony. Turned out, he was Tony’s cousin. 

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

“Tony’s dead,” he said. 

I was stunned at this matter of fact statement. The story went like this: Tony had been in all sorts of legal troubles during his life. He had spent time in prison, and as was his life, he got into some more trouble. Instead of going back to prison—which he surely would have, even though his cousin said Tony didn’t do anything wrong—he committed suicide. We talked a little while longer, then said our ‘goodbyes.’

I often think about Tony C., and our tolerating relationship. I also think about the last time I saw him. It was an unspoken understanding we had that day. He needed comfort and I provided it, though I didn’t realize it then. I’ve often wondered if I would have done something different, said something, tried to make him feel better, something other than just sitting there with my elbows on my knees looking out at the street in front of us. I don’t think I would have. I think that understanding: ‘I know you’re hurt and I won’t say anything,’ from me and a simple, ‘Thanks for that,’ from him was the only thing we ever shared that wasn’t argumentative or spiteful. I think it’s the only good way to have ended a friendship that never really was. 

Someone’s Sad On This Day–A Short Story

The first thing I saw out the window this morning was the gravedigger hard at work. I guess that’s not the best thing to see when one wakes. It was still dark in my room and a chill hung in the air. The furnace had not switched on in the night. I stood, grabbed my robe from the bedpost and wrapped it around me. It didn’t do much to warm my body—it had belonged to my grandmomma before it became mine and was mostly threadbare with holes in the elbows from years of wear and tear. Still, I cinched the sash and wished I had her old slippers on my feet as I crossed the room. 

At the window, I pulled the curtains back. The hangers rattled on the rod above me. 

The early morning sun peeked out over the horizon, promising clear skies. I looked out over the yard from the second floor of my grandparents’ home. Ancient trees stood, some tall and reaching for the sky, their branches like the waving arms of concertgoers or church parishioners rapt with their religion and swaying from side to side without care one. Other trees stood, not so tall, bent at what I think of as their waists, knotted and gnarled in what could only be an arthritic curse they suffer from. The grass was tall and gray, having not been cut in months and now the cooler temperatures of a southern fall wither them away to husks of their once vibrant blades. 

The cemetery sits beyond the yard, no real walls encircling it, but rocks and stones, cobbled together, stacked one atop the other in a helter skelter manner. I always thought they would topple over with a good gust of wind during one of our summer storms or during hurricane season in the fall, but they never have. From where I stood, I could see graves more ancient than the hundred year old house I now live in, their rounded tops chipped, the names of the dead and their epitaphs faded long before I came into this world. The mausoleum that house the once wealthy members of this small province stuck out against the fading purple background. 

house-2187170_1920And the gravedigger dug his hole, not with a backhoe like they use in the big cities and the well kept cemeteries, but with a pickaxe and a shovel and a strong back and arms. He wore his usual blue coveralls, one suspender strap dangling down around his knee. Heavy clod hoppers covered his feet, dirty from years of digging holes two yards deep, two yards long and a yard or so wide. An old straw hat covered his bald head, one that already had early signs of skin cancer splotching it in places. He drove the spade into the earth, stomped on it just to the left of the handle, shoving it further into the ground. Then, as if he wasn’t satisfied with what he had done, he lifted the shovel up, pulling with it a clump of dirt that he tossed onto a growing mound. 

I watched for several minutes, fascinated by the piston-like movements of his feet and arms and back. There was no slow down in his motions, no hesitation, no grabbing of his back from a twinge of pain. He shoveled, and if I would have stood there for another two hours, I would have seen him dig until the hole was deeper than he is tall. Then the shovel would fly from the hole and land on the mound. He would crawl out, grab the shovel and walk away as if he had been playing cards at a table with a bunch of old men like himself instead of doing the hard label of grave digging. 

But I didn’t stay there. I closed the curtains, not needing to see the sun continue its rise to its perch in the sky; not needing to see the grave digger preparing someone’s last bed. 

Someone somewhere is very sad today, but it is not me. 

I showered in the bathroom of the house I live in, the house my grandparents once owned, but now only one grandparent remained with me. Near the toilet was my grandmomma’s old slippers. They were once a light blue color and had been fuzzy, like the bear, but only was he? They, like the bear, were no longer fuzzy, and dirty as well; more gray than blue. I slipped them on and walked through the house in the threadbare robe that still had Grandmomma’s scent of arthritis cream and death. 

I went down the main stairs, each step cracking and groaning like old bones in protest. I listened to the sounds, enjoying every pop. I used to go down on my bottom when I was younger, plopping from step to step to step, laughing as I went, but age caught up with me a while ago and my back and hips can no longer take such fun endeavors. 

In the kitchen I made a big bowl of cereal—Special K was what my grandparents ate, so it is what I ate. I sprinkled sugar on it—a lot more than Grandmomma would have approved of—and ate it with all the zest of a six-year-old in front of the television watching Saturday morning cartoons. I spilled the milk down my chin when I tip the bowl to drink the last of the sugar-made-sweet liquid. 

At the sink I saw from the kitchen window part of the graveyard. The trees block most of it from the view. From here I can always see some of the stone wall and the top of the mausoleum, but the headstones and the gravedigger are obscured by the wooden bones of the ancient trees, some of which are dying, either by age or disease … much like people do. I thought of the gravedigger and his gnarled hands and knotted fingers; his sagging jowls and pooch of a stomach, his thick nose that looks like a strawberry, reddened and ripe from years of tipping the bottle. He’s not a bad person, but a drunk who speaks few words.

I washed the bowl and went back upstairs. I needed to change into something more than a thin robe and worn out slippers. You can’t attend a burial in your bath clothes.

My closet is lined with dresses and slacks, blouses of different colors and coats pushed far to the back. I selected a black skirt that falls to below the knees and a light gray top, sensible in every way. Best to be respectful on a day of mourning, after all someone is sad today. Flats go on my feet and I didn’t put on any makeup, after all the dead don’t care about those things. Only the living, and the living didn’t matter this morning. 

In the kitchen I waited until I heard the back door open, the heavy sounds of boots on linoleum in the mudroom, and then the whisking sound of socks on the floor outside of it. The stairs creaked and groaned and I could almost picture them as people laying, belly down, mumbling and grumbling as weight was first put on their backs, then gone a second later.

Above me the shower turned on and water ran for a good twenty minutes. Then the tell tale signs followed of someone walking around upstairs slowly, as if the feet couldn’t be bothered to lift themselves off the floor and set themselves back down.

Another twenty minutes pass and the stairs protested again.

“It’s time.”

I looked up from the where I sat at the table, my hands folded in front of me. He no longer wears his overalls and the one suspender that always hung to his knee has been replaced by a belt. His boots were gone, replaced by a nice pair of Sunday shoes, and he wore a pair of dark pants, one fit for such a moment. His nose was still a strawberry in the center of his face, and his eyes blue and clear, like the sky in mid-July in the south—nothing clouding them at all; no cancer, no alcohol, no worry.

“Okay, Grandpa,” I said and stood.

“Ya look nice, Marjorie.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Ya ready?”

“I reckon so.”

We left the house and made our way across the yard to the cemetery. We passed through an opening in the cobbled together stone wall and weaved in and out of headstones too tired to hold themselves erect any longer. Soon they will all be lying on the ground like the dead beneath them.

At the hole we stopped. It was longer than the six feet the gravedigger normally made them. One end was sloped like a ramp, leading down into the hole. A freshly built pine box sat at the head of the sloped end. I could smell the strong scent of pine sap. The casket sat atop logs cleaned of all bark and made smooth. Two ropes were attached to the foot end of it, used to pull the casket across the logs so it would roll into the grave. 

“Ya have any words to say, Marjorie?”

“Yes, Sir.”

I walked over to the pine box and tapped on the head in.

“Grandmomma. Ya in there?”

The muffled scream came back to me and I smiled. She was in there and she wasn’t too happy. She beat on the inside lid, nailed down every three or so inches. 

I stepped back from the casket. “I changed my mind,” I said. “I got nothin’ to say.”

“A’right, then,” he said, bowed his head and closed his eyes. He prayed, said his amen and grabbed one rope. I grabbed the other. It was time to put Grandmomma to rest. Yeah, someone was sad on this day, but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t Grandpa either.

AJB