Whenever we visited Grandma’s house she insisted on a trip to the cemetery, as if the sight of the living made her miss the dead more than ever. We’d barely have all the luggage stacked in her spare bedroom when she would tie a silky scarf around her thinning, beauty parlor hair and put on the same threadbare cardigan, with the same dusty wads of Kleenex in the pockets, that each year hung a little looser on her shoulders.
“I want to go see Mama,” she would say, as if her mother still lived in the run down duplex across town where she died just after I was born. I’d never seen her mama, except in black and white photographs that made it hard to tell if they were taken before or after she died. But her things were all over Grandma’s house: her hairbrush, her dust pan, her doilies under every lamp. Grandma was like the curator of one of those ragged little pioneer museums in western towns that the Interstate went around. New stuff we gave her every Christmas was still in the box under her bed. Waiting for us to die, I guess.
I didn’t mind trips to the cemetery, and I agreed with Grandma that Great Grandma’s ghost was still around. I felt her when I sat in the rocking chair in the hall, or when I stood at the back of the closet where some of her dresses hung. She was at the cemetery, too. Sometimes I thought she might be in her marble headstone, in the angular script that held her vast life like bookends: Ida Sue Leevey, AUG 1861-DEC 1955. Or maybe she lived in the dandelion puffs, or down the snake hole in the ditch across the fence, where I spent most of my time on those visits. Daddy once said if she was anywhere at all she was in the sticker patch at the edge of the dirt road where we parked the car.
This year Daddy told Grandma he wasn’t going to go the very minute he walked in the door after eight hours in the car from San Antonio. He was going to stretch his legs and eat a sandwich and be around alive people a bit first. Every time we visited he tried to get her to load some of the dead people’s stuff into the car and take it to Goodwill. He said we weren’t Japanese and didn’t need shrines to our ancestors in the bathroom medicine chest.
Besides, he said that day, there was a storm coming if she’d care to look out the window. Just then, as if every frontier ghost from every forgotten grave jumped out of the ground at once to punish him, a blast of sandy wind hit the house and shook it until it creaked and popped. The windows filled up with the red darkness of a scouring West Texas dust storm.
“Herman passed two years ago next week,” Grandma shouted, beginning to cry, which usually didn’t happen until we were within sight of the cemetery. Herman was Grandma’s third husband. The coins and key chain he took from his pockets the day he died were still on Grandma’s dresser top where he left them. Grandma took out a tattered tissue, found a corner big enough to wrap over her nose, and blew. I could hear it even over the gale outside. Then she picked up her shiny black purse and sat down in the arm chair by the door. My parents had fought for a lot of miles on the way back home after these trips about whether Daddy had any backbone when it came to standing up to Grandma.
“She’s worse than a kid,” Mama would say. “She plays you like a honky-tonk juke box.”
“Oh, and I suppose you think you’re any different,” Daddy usually replied. “Your high society folks come to visit and I don’t understand a single word you say for days.” He’d imitate the way Mama’s dad, a retired lawyer from Dallas, used fancy words just to say good morning, like he was making a speech for the jury. Mama usually sounded just like him by the end of the visit. Sometimes those arguments went on all the way to the Dairy Queen half way home, where we always ate lunch.
This time, though, Daddy was determined. He looked at Grandma sniffling into her Kleenex and said, “Two years, huh? Well, then, I guess he’s good and settled in. I expect he’ll still be there when we arrive.”
Daddy never liked Herman, a brooding barber who always smelled of Brill Cream and the blue sanitizer he soaked his scissors in. He spent all day talking to his customers about everything in creation, and by the time he got home at night, all he wanted to do was watch TV. I wouldn’t have minded that, except he only liked news and ball games; baseball, basketball, football, tennis, golf - anything with a ball in it. At least he brought me handfuls of bubble gum from the shop, the kind with comics inside. Once he did a magic trick where he pulled a half dollar piece out of my ear. I got to keep the half dollar.
The dust storm blew for more than an hour and then turned the reins over to lightning and thunder and a deafening downpour of rain that sounded like all the fans stomping their feet on the bleachers at a Friday night football game. I sat by the window and watched the parched yard turn into a swamp and the street into a hurried muddy river. A few times the flash and boom came holding hands and the window panes rattled. Grandma kept her scarf on and never let go of her purse, but she did move to the kitchen table where she could listen to the radio for news of tornadoes. Mama tried to distract her with questions about all the relatives, usually guaranteed to produce more conversation than you bargained for, but this time it was too one-sided, so Mama just flipped through magazines and clipped out recipes. Daddy took a nap in Herman’s fraying old La-Z-Boy, with a two-year old TV Guide still in the pocket on the side.
Then, suddenly, the rain stopped, and even before the little rivlets of water had finished draining off the window glass, the sun came out like the whole thing was just a big joke. But the river in the street had annexed the sidewalk and part of the yard.
“I want to see Herman,” Grandma said by the door, loudly enough to wake Daddy. He sat up slowly and pulled the handle to put the footrest back under the chair. His hair was sticking up in the back and his lips were tight, the same look he got whenever the car wouldn’t start, or when I’d borrowed one of his tools without putting it back.
“He passed on two years ago next week, and the least you can do is pay him a visit once a year when you can tear yourself away to come see us,” Grandma said, tightening her scarf.
“Us? Us?” Daddy said. “You got a roommate I don’t know about? Herman is dead, Mama. He’s dead. There ain’t no ‘us.’”
That’s when Grandma went and got in the car.
And that’s how we came to be driving under the big iron gate that spelled out “Rosewood Cemetery” in an arch. The road was low there so the water, which was the color of rusty hot chocolate, came almost to the tops of the tires on our car. Grandma sat beside me in the backseat dabbing tears out of her eyes like the funeral was today. The southern sky was filled with the rumpled backside of the storm, now orange and flame yellow in the early evening sun.
Rosewood was like most West Texas cemeteries where there wasn’t enough water or enough money to make them into English parks with bright green grass and shrubs and armless statues everywhere. There weren’t any marble benches where you could contemplate anything, just gravestones and barbed wire, which kept out the cows and tried to make the big emptiness hold more meaning than cotton fields could convey. Some of the gravestones stood higher than the fence posts, which practically made them Egyptian monoliths in country as flat as a chalk board. Others hunkered down low to the earth like everything else that still had a memory of buffalo hooves and bobcats.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Grandma began to wail as we turned down a muddy track that led to Herman’s grave. She leaned forward and pounded on Daddy’s shoulder as he stopped the car. “Oh, sweet Jesus, what have you done?” she cried.
“Okay, okay, it’ll be okay,” Daddy said, noticing whatever she saw long before I did.
“Ohhh!” she moaned and rocked in her seat, front to back. Daddy got out of the car and walked toward the grave. I opened my door to follow him.
“You stay here, Daniel” Mama said, as she reached back over the seat to take Grandma’s hand. But I pretended not to hear and ran after Daddy. Then I saw what the commotion was about. There, tucked in the corner of the fence, was Herman’s gravestone right where it always was, except this time it was leaning half over on its side, nearly submerged in sticky red mud. A big sink hole, more than a foot deep, had opened up right over where Herman’s chest would be, and extended all the way over into the spot where Grandma always said she expected to be buried before our next visit. Daddy walked around the mess a little, testing the ground with his weight, then went back to the car.
“It’s not so bad,” he said through Grandma’s window, which she had rolled down. “The ground’s more solid than it looks. Come on, I’ll help you.”
“I don’t want to go over there! Herman is all washed away! I’m all washed away, too!”
I was used to Grandma’s theatrical flair, but this was different. I saw real fear on her face as she strained to look past my dad to the ruined graves. Her eyes flashed all around us as if she expected to see Herman’s muddy body lying on the ground somewhere, or maybe like she felt him just behind her, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
“It’s just a little mud, Mama,” Daddy said. “The gravediggers’ll get out here tomorrow and fix it right up.”
“No, no, no!” she yelled. “I’m all washed away with Herman!”
“Oh for cryin’ out loud, Mama, Herman is gone,” Daddy shouted back with more emotion in his voice than I’d ever heard, even when he was at his maddest. “Your mama’s gone. They-” he swung is arm out wide around him. “They’re all gone. You are here, and I am here. Did you notice that Mama, huh, did you?” Daddy clutched the shirt on his chest and pulled it so hard I thought the buttons would pop. “Did you notice that I’m standing right in front of you?”
“Oh, dear, sweet Jesus!” Grandma sobbed and looked past him toward the listing gravestone.
He turned and kicked the nearest stone, which belonged to Felix Norwood, January 22, 1901-June 7, 1967. Grandma wailed.
“Stop dying, Mama,” Daddy said with the veins standing out on his forehead. “Stop it. The only thing that washed away today was a little good for nothin’ dirt. It’s clean out here, and alive!” He lifted his arms up over his head. I couldn’t tell whether he was surrendering or celebrating. He walked away from the car and went over to lean on the fence, breathing hard, looking far out toward the horizon.
I noticed a snake near the fence, lying dead-still in the mud, and I thought Daddy was wrong about nothing getting washed out by the storm. I went to move its body over into the ditch where it had a chance to rest in peace. The green scales on its back shimmered in the setting sun like wind-waves in tall grass. Just as my fingers touched its cold head, it sprang forward, whipping away through the mud-stained weeds under the fence and into its hole. Before long the snake’s head reappeared, so deep in the darkness that I could only see little hints of sunlight in its black eyes and the ghostly shape of its head.
I stood there a long time, until Daddy started the car and honked the horn for me. I was thinking about things that live down holes too deep or too narrow for me to enter, and about what is really gone and what is not.