Everett Duncan drove along the valley’s back roads, thinking he’d remember his childhood spent there, but nothing came to mind. Not much was in the valley in those days, except miles and miles of grazing land and a couple of farms. The thought occurred to him the road on which he drove might have once been a cattle trail. There certainly weren’t cars in those days. Not in this part of the world. And there certainly weren’t all the homesteads and houses that now dotted the country highway. The only thing he recognized were the mountains to the east.
“Sorry to say, but you’re late, mister,” the cemetery grounds-keep said when Everett arrived at the Mountain View Cemetery’s funeral home. Everett apologized. The drive from Barrettsville took much longer than the man at the filling station said it would.
“Well, I guess I can point you in the right direction of where you think your family is buried, but you’ll have to forgive if’n I cain’t take you out there myself. Daylight’s fading and I got a service t’marra mornin’.”
“I’m OK to find it. Just point me in the right direction,” Everett replied.
The section with the unmarked graves—what folks used to call the pauper’s grave yard—was on the far southern edge of the cemetery, on a hillside that faced away from the view of the mountains that gave the cemetery its name. Somewhere among the hundreds of plots defined by only by a chunk of un-carved granite were Everett’s parents and sisters. All four were laid to rest in just two unfinished clapboard coffins, one containing the bodies of his parents and the other his sisters, buried one on top of the other in a single plot. On the next hillside over stood several large mausoleums. Everett had to bend over to shield his eyes from the unbearable glare of the setting sun bouncing off one gilded crypt. Even in death, Everett grumbled to himself, the bastards have to lord it over these wretched souls.
A cousin told Everett the grave was 26 paces due east of a tree that stood in the middle of the pauper’s grave yard. Everett spotted the tree and made his way to it. He noted the setting sun’s location near the horizon, then turned his back to it, and marked 26 paces. He stopped and reviewed the granite stones in his immediate vicinity, looking for one with a small yellow cross his cousin told him to look for, but saw none. He broadened his circle, walking several rows of Jane and John Does, but the marked granite was nowhere to be found.
The grounds-keep pulled up in his tractor. A black lab in the back jumped out and ran toward Everett, tail wagging.
“Find it yet?” the grounds keep called out.
“No, not yet. My cousin said there’s a rock with a painted cross. Something my aunt did so she could find it when she came to visit. Ring a bell?”
“Nope. Don’t mean it ain’t there. I only been here a couple years, m’self. If your family say it’s there, I’m sure it’s there. C’mon, Roscoe!” the grounds-keep called to the dog. The dog looked up from its rooting around and barked. “C’mon, boy!” The dog barked again and flopped down where it stood.
The grounds-keep chuckled. “Stubborn mutt. Well, then. If you’re OK, mister, I gotta keep working on getting ready for t’marra. Mind if my dog keeps you company?”
“No, sir.” Everett reached down and gave the dog a scratch around the ears, and resumed his search. The dog popped back up and resumed its sniffing about. It raised a leg and let out a stream that splattered against one of the granite markers. As Everett watched, a feeling of emotional disgust came over him.
All these people, he thought, as if it wasn’t enough they had to stare at the hillside beyond with all the rich-folk’s mausoleums, they also get pissed on in death as they did in life. Frustration and a tremendous sense of guilt overcame him. Everett sat down on a nearby bench to gather his thoughts and calm his mind.
He ought to have come home when he got news about the fire. His family’s deaths were shocking, naturally, but at the time it simply didn’t occur to Everett to attend the burial of people from whom he had grown so distant. It had been nearly 15 years since Everett had seen any of his family. He sent a telegram to his aunt and uncle stating it was not possible to get the time off of work to come home, wired a few dollars to help with to cost of the burial, and put anymore thoughts about his family out of his mind. That was twenty years ago.
It was during the memorial service in honor of his eldest son that memories of his parents and sisters came flooding back. Watching his daughter-in-law hold tight to her infant son, sobbing pitiful tears into the baby’s blanket, that it grieved Everett his infant grandson would never know his father, or anything about him. Everett was ashamed he never took the time or interest to keep in touch with family.
The decision made to right a wrong, Everett set out on a trip back to his childhood home. During the trip, Everett tried to recall specifics about his parents and sisters. He remembered his mother had a high forehead. He would stare at her for long periods of time, because her pronounced forehead looked so strange to him. She had very thin hair, as well. So thin you could see her scalp. Or, maybe the picture of the woman in his mind was his grandmother, or maybe even his aunt. He spent as many days in those women’s care as he did in his mother’s.
His sisters, however, he definitely recalled. Identical twins. Toddlers, the last time he saw them. Carrot tops with pale blue eyes and freckles. They weren’t happy, laughing children, as his own had been, or as his grandson was now. He remembered somber, shy waifs. One had a bad leg and wore a make-shift wood brace. He couldn’t recall, though, if it was Ellen or Elaine who wore the brace.
His father was a sullen, dark figure; a broken soul who passed briefly through their daily lives like a silent apparition. The most time Everett ever spent in his father’s company was the last time he saw him. At the age of nine, Everett was sent to work in the cotton mill in Concord. The only words Everett remembered his father speaking to him was as the train to Concord pulled into the station.
“Boy, listen’ here: They tell me there’s a school there, so you learn t’write your letters, reads books and do your numbers. I don’ wanna hear nothing ‘bout you not goin’ to dat school, ya hear? And when you learnt these things, you see to sendin’ your mam a letter. She’ll wanna know you’s getting’ on. They’ll have paper and pencils at dat school, I reckon, so yous can write a letter, but ask polite, don’t just go takin’ it. Never, ever just go takin’ things. That’s against the commandments. You remember we’re God-fearin’ folk. Anyway, the company store’ll have a post.”
The train car door opened and without another word, Everett’s dad lifted him onto the first step, handed the conductor a ticket, then shooed him on with a wave of hand. And that was that.
A breeze had picked up, and the sun was nearly set below the horizon. Everett knew his search for the grave was hopeless. His cousin would feign surprise when he phoned her later that night to say he couldn’t find the stone with the small yellow painted cross she swore was there. Over time, the elements and the lawn mower mostly likely chipped the mark away. Not that there was much he would have learned about his family if he did find the plot. The actual point of coming all this way was that, at long last, he could say he visited his family’s grave. Everett realized he’d harbored a little notion that, if he found it, he would arrange to bury his family in proper plots, each to their own, with proper headstones. Maybe on one of the hills overlooking the view of the mountains. Defeated, he accepted none of that was possible now. He said a short prayer asking for forgiveness, and then made his way back to the funeral home, the dog respectfully trotting along behind him.
As he pulled out onto the road, Everett knew he was once again putting this part of his life behind him. When his grandson was old enough, Everett vowed to himself he would share with him as much about Everett’s life and his family’s history as he could remember. He prayed again, this time to be granted a long enough life to do at least that for his grandson. Beyond that, who he was and where he came from would have to remain unknown, and his family would remain in their unmarked grave, like all the others laid to rest in all the other anonymous graves, each a dim reminder of all that once was.
I felt so blah about my first go at the prompts, I had to take another stab. It was fun to retry.
BTW… the prompts are: Of course, she was surprised when I told her; shielded his eyes; the dog flopped; an unmarked grave; a high forehead; “you’re early,” he said.