A Gathering Misery Excerpt
Deborah walked around to the driver’s side and slid in behind the wheel even though she knew she had no business driving and would probably go to jail if the police noticed enough to stop them while they were on the highway. She was nowhere near old enough to have a license, or even to want one for that matter, but Nonny insisted on being chauffeured to the grocery store, church, and the cemetery on account of her being an old widow woman and it not being proper for her to have to drive herself around. So Deborah sat propped up on a pair of old football cushions that read “Go Knights” in faded yellow letters and made involuntary fart sounds every time Deborah shifted her weight. For some reason, the cushions reminded her of Brent. She almost smiled thinking of how he would have cut up to hear those cushions toot and try to place the blame on Nonny.
Deborah noticed that no other young people seemed to be driving their widowed grandparents places, but Nonny appeared to be oblivious to the rules of the outside world. She operated on her own sense of propriety, which as far as Deborah could tell, made about as much sense as putting a screen door on a submarine. Besides, it didn’t take long for her to learn that there was just no arguing with Nonny. Deborah figured this was why Mom kept a wide berth, and it became clear pretty quickly that maybe July Mountain wasn’t quite far enough away from Nonny’s reach.
Deborah navigated onto Rescue Road where Papa and a bunch of other dead relatives she didn’t know were planted in a naked, treeless field just across the road from a church that had seen better days. She parked the Chrysler on the gravel parking lot that occupied the front yard of the church. Not so much as a privet hedge separated the parking area from the whitewashed door with the word Sanctuary neatly hand-printed in black.
“Just pull right up there to the door, Little Debbie,” instructed Nonny. “You ain’t gonna block nobody today, and I’ll be damned if we don’t take the good spot while the getting’s good.”
Nonny got out of the Chrysler with ease and fairly trotted as she crossed Rescue Road without even a glance for traffic. She could be fit and spry or a pitiful old woman, whichever served her purpose at the moment. “Nonny,” Deborah called, “you didn’t even look before you crossed the street!”
“Child, even God ain’t got a cruel enough sense of humor to lay me low while I’m crossing the road to talk to Levin. On, no. He’s got other plans for me, and for you, too, Missy.” Nonny called Deborah Missy whenever she suspected sass. She heard teachers at school call girls Missy, too, when they were back-talking, but only Nonny thought poorly enough of Deborah to call her that name, and only Nonny said it with such a tone of disgust that it made Deborah feel guilty whether she was or not.
Someone had embedded a set of concrete steps on the ditch bank, the kind folks sometimes put in front of trailer doors when they don’t have the wherewithal to put up a proper deck. The steps were cracked from the top down, right down the middle. Deborah thought of that part in the Bible where the Lord rent the curtain that the temple in half right at the moment Jesus keeled over on the cross. It was like He’s opened up the pathway from Heaven down to earth so folks could just holler straight up to Him instead of having to ask the preacher to do it for them.
Deborah didn’t really understand why people had to use Sadducees and Pharisees and such to talk to God back in the Bible days, but the King James Bible Nonny make her spend unending hours with seemed to point that way. It was hard to tell with all the thees, thous, and begets, but the Word of the Lord kind of grew on her after she’d given up on fighting Nonny and just let the reading happen. She remembered loving a set of Bible storybooks when she was little. The memory of those books brought back a flood of images surrounding the green house in Woods Cove…Fat Sarah’s sweet singing and hard eyes; the exposed and tangled roots of the oak tree, dripping clay like blood clots after the tornado struck; the body of GodLutherYouStink, the dog with an unforgettable name and an odor she’d recognize even now; the steps where Grandpa met the Lord.
Nonny mumbled something unintelligible that brought Deborah out of her reverie and had her scrambling up the split steps to enter the graveyard proper. The steps were the only thing that marked an entrance to the graveyard. No fence or trees lined it. The headstones stood erect in straight lines, not quite parallel to Rescue Road. Deborah noticed this the first time she brought Nonny here to talk. Although the gravesites were neat and trim, the entire graveyard was out of kilter. It was as if whoever set the plumb line for the headstones was off the mark just a tad. It was off-putting, and Deborah said so.
“Don’t you speak ill of the dead, Missy!” chastised Nonny. “Most of ‘em’s been dead longer than you’ve been alive, so they know a thing or two about how they lie resting. Besides, the graveyard was here well before Rescue Road got laid, so I’m betting it’s the road that is cockeyed and not the graveyard.”
Nonny made a beeline for the center of the graveyard, which was where all the family awaited the trumpet call that would make the dead arise and ride on a cloud behind Jesus all the way to Heaven. Deborah figured that made Jesus a sort of glorified bus driver and tried to imagine Him honking the horn on a giant cloud-bus to wake up the dead folks. It didn’t seem very God-like to have to haul a world’s worth of people, living, dead, or dry rotted away to nothing, all the way to Heaven. What it seemed like was hard work. Wouldn’t it be easier for God and Jesus to just set up house down on Earth?
Thinking of that imaginary cloud-bus got Deborah to thinking about black folks and worrying over whether the ones who died before they could ride anywhere they damn well pleased on the bus would know they didn’t have to move to the back. She didn’t have any problem with who sat where on a bus and didn’t really see where the color of skin made a hill of beans in the case. All the same, she had enough sense not to reveal that she had sat beside a milk chocolate-colored girl with tiny braids sticking out all over her head all the way to Montgomery on the fourth-grade fieldtrip to see the state capitol. She was the odd child out, and the teacher asked Debbie special to ride beside the shy girl because Debbie was “growed up enough to know they ain’t no cooties on ‘em.” Her pride outweighed her common sense, and she didn’t think Daddy would know the difference, so she agreed. The teacher, however, picked a pair of boys to sit together on the return trip just to be fair.
“Deborah! Quit daydreaming and come help me over here,” Nonny called.
Nonny knelt down beside the headstone that read “Levin Walker Clemm 1907-1978 At Rest in Jesus,” her craggy knuckles clutching the granite for support. Deborah thought Nonny was about to start praying, but her free hand plucked the volunteer dill weed growing next to the stone, uprooting it and tossing it aside. She tamped down the ground where she uprooted the weed so the grave didn’t look pocked.
Deborah got on her hands and knees and began to crawl across to get to the weeds sprouting out of Nonny’s reach on the far side of the headstone. “Don’t you get on that grave. It’s disrespectful and dangerous. Go around the other side of the stone to get at those weeds.” Butted up on the backside of Papa’s marker was another marker, an L.R. Leederman who must have really likes racecars since there was one engraved on his stone. Still on her knees, Deborah crawled a respectable distance around L.R. to circle back to the task at hand.
“What the devil are you doing crawling clear down there?” Nonny had her head up over the stones. Her sizable rump stuck out to the side and she looked for all the world like her head had been separated from her body. That odd plastic hairdo protector glinted in the sunlight and created a halo effect about her head, which only added to the impression.
“I’m crawling around this grave like you said,” Deborah replied plaintively.
“Don’t be a damn fool. It’s your own family you don’t disrespect by wallowing on their graves.”
“Oh,” said Deborah and just crawled around faster. Keeping up with all the rules for family conduct was ponderous, indeed, and had not gotten any simpler since she started living at Nonny’s house. It was like she was expected to know all of the rules automatically and to know that those rules only applied in certain situations. It wasn’t like a formula where you did the same thing every time. She just couldn’t seem to get it right. Deborah cleared out the rest of the dillweed, being careful not to put too much weight on her grandfather’s grave.
Nonny unlatched the alligator feet that held her pocketbook secure and brought out a small bottle of whiskey like one of those they have in fancy hotels on TV shows. She sprinkled the amber liquid across Papa’s grave. “There’s your snort, Levin. I wouldn’t let you have it in life, but I ain’t going to deny you in the hereafter. So, you remember that, and just keep yourself put down there in that grave where you belong. Don’t you come wandering back up to the house at night rifling through the closets and looking at me lying in our bed. I ain’t asleep, and I see you. You ain’t going to have to guzzle down no more cough syrup. I got your snort right here. You just stay put, now.”
The hairs rose up on Deborah’s arms. Nonny was talking to that headstone like it was a sounding board. “I’ve brought your granddaughter, the one who got your head busted up so you could meet Jesus. If you hadn’t been trying to make it up to your own daughter, you’d still be here. You always told me to just let the past lie right there in the past because it’s not any use anymore. You know you was wrong about that now, don’t you?”
“Nonny?” Deborah placed her hand on Nonny’s shoulder, and Nonny’s head shot up like she’d been caught whispering in church. She sloughed off Deborah’s hand.
“Hush, child. Can’t you see I’m talking? Go on over there a piece while I finish up. Go find some of the babies. Their headstones have little lambs engraved right on them.”
Deborah could no longer hear Nonny’s graveside muttering as she wove her way through the headstones, doing the math on the ones whose families didn’t kindly provide the number of years spent here on earth before crossing that bridge into the hereafter. She almost chuckled at some of the old-fashioned names—Beulah, Winnifred, Augustus—and did tittle at some poor toddler forever remembered at “Little Stinky”. There were several markers that indicated a grave shared by a mother and her baby. These were the saddest, all that hope tamped down in a grave. Deborah wondered if there was a little baby casket down there in addition to the mama’s casket. Maybe the miniature casket was tucked inside the larger one so that the bones wouldn’t get mixed up. Maybe the baby was just placed in the mama’s arms so she could hold it forevermore. She wanted to know if gravediggers charge per grave or by the person.
Deborah was now in the far corner of the cemetery, in what looked to be its oldest part. Here, the markers were untended, weedy. The engravings on the stones were weathered and tired-looking. Some of them were even askew as the ground around them had puckered and settled, fault lines evident in both the markers and the occasional concrete slabs that staked a final earthly claim. Here was a Horace, with three wives laid out beside him: two Anne’s ad an Aethel. It was hard to read the dates, but all three wives died in childbirth. Only Aethel had the baby “infant son” with her. Deborah hoped the other children lived, but they would’ve died out by now. Maybe nobody was left to tend the old graves. Deborah got to work and weeded around the stones of Old Horace and his wives. As she pulled, she discovered that one of the Anne’s, the one on the left, was “beloved”. Beloved as she was, two other wives rested between her and Old Horace. Deborah wondered what she thought about that and whether they all got along in Heaven. She imagined the three wives strolling down a golden street, pushing the carriages of the babies who had killed them getting born, with Old Horace just a-grinning like the cat who ate the canary.
Just beyond Old Horace, a junk pile of beat-up wreaths and faded out fake flower sprays marked the boundary of the cemetery. Even though it was snaky, Deborah waded in and plucked out a couple of decorations that weren’t worn slap dab out. She put a bouquet on Beloved Anne’s marker because she felt sorry for her having to make way for two other wives. She placed a water-logged stuffed lamb toy at Aethel’s spot for the nameless infant son. It rankled her that Old Horace didn’t bother to name the baby. Maybe he just gave up.
Maybe that’s what happened with Mom…She still had me, but she gave up anyway. I’ll never forgive that. Deborah was surprised by the sudden venom she felt toward her mother and, by proxy, Old Horace. It rose like bile, and she hocked a wad of phlegm onto the headstone. “That’s for giving up, you old bastard,” she hissed. Immediately, she looked around to make sure Nonny remained out of earshot. No telling what Nonny would do if she heard Deborah use such a word. Nonny used damns and hells frequently, but it was a grievous sin for a girl to pepper her language with trashy talk.
Nonny was already across the road, leaning against the bumper of the Chrysler, waiting. Deborah hurried along, weaving through the headstones and jumping plots to avoid stepping on graves. She was breathless when she reached Nonny but felt some better.
“Looks like you found plenty of folks to talk to, Little Debbie,” Nonny said equably. “That’s the thing about graveyards; they’re great for clearing out what you got bottled up on the inside. Ain’t nobody but you talking, but plenty of folks listening. The trick is to make sure those listening are dead.”