Me and Son Gundy are sitting in our lawn chairs, right here at the intersection of Yellow Road and St. Maggie’s. It is cold and it is snowing, and it’s only ten degrees. We lifted these chairs from Goodwill because no one was foolish enough to buy them. The manager – that would be Joe Bodine, him from over on Hiatt Street next to the old Courthouse – he helped us load them in the back seat, folded them proper so they wouldn’t get snarled. They’re decent enough chairs for when you’re sitting in the cold, waiting on accidents.
We pass a Thermos back and forth, and it’s filled with black coffee and Gram’s Special: two parts brandy and one part never-mind. We watch the cars slide through the intersection, brake lights flashing, but no pavement to grab hold because of the ice. The cars sometimes slide sideways, slide up against a No Parking sign or a power pole, sometimes up on St. Maggie’s Church lawn, but usually into each other.
Me and Son don’t mind. In a small town, it’s the only day-time entertainment we have. There may be a world of excitement somewhere, but it ain’t in Horse so you can cross that off your list.
We wait on accidents. That’s what we do. We watch them scuttle towards us and we sit still, waiting for fate to fall into place. We hope for the best, but maybe deep down we believe they are ordained. Son would laugh if I ever said such a thing out loud. The words that come from our mouths and the words we have in our heads aren’t always the same. They get tangled and sound foolish, even to our own ears. But with Son and me, we know what we really mean. So I don’t mind it when he laughs. It means he’s listening and figuring it out for himself.
The letter was written in old-man’s scrawl: small letters, densely packed, in blue ink. The writing was legible, but it made the boy squint. There was little space between the words. They were like boxcars mashing down a hard grade.
You will always miss the mountain. It will aggrieve and chaff you, and your bones will crack under its weight. You will mourn hard when you leave. The stillness is in you, and it will live in you and it will follow you into the darkness. You will leave this mountain in spite because you are young and have an appetite for sidewalks and sit-down restaurants and jazz drifting out of doorways. These are good things, and a boy should know them. He should write them down in his history book. He should feel the trumpet against his lips. He should provoke folks to dance and hoot like their legs are afire. You will do those things, and your sweat will be honest and your ledgers will be true. Those appetites will fill you fast, and your need for hush will outrun you. Boy, you will come back. One day you will come back.
The letter was written on old foolscap, undated, unsigned. It was addressed to him. He was ten years old and he had never left.
The placidness of doom. That’s what my grandmother called it. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. It is in that moment when fear of the inevitable comes to light. “Gram,” I said. “How can you be calm when the worst is happening?” She would not say. Maybe she did not know how to explain it because it hadn’t fully come to her yet.
She knew inevitable. She had seven grandchildren and four of them were born out of wedlock. Back then, that was a black mark upon her name, but mostly it was against her no-account kin. Gram knew those children would grow up, get tangled in their own messes, and move on to face whatever dirtiness still lived inside them. None of them were worth a damn near as I can tell, but she loved us equally.
She lived most of her life as if she were lifting sacks of grain, toting us from one place to another, always tired, but not yawping about it. She kept lifting us up and setting us down in a comfortable place, even if that place wasn’t as comfortable as we would have liked. Her heart would break every time one of us left for good, or got jailed, or made pregnant, or turned out as worthless as she expected. She carried us the best she could.
Every Sunday morning, she would spread us on the living room floor and tell us Bible stories after breakfast, about Moses and Jesus and Job. I think she liked Job most of all, because it was like a mean joke you were allowed to tell. Job was a man who kept slipping on the banana peels God set before him, but he didn’t cuss his troubles. He went on stepping on those dang peels and he didn’t turn mean. Even a boy like me could figure out what she was saying: it was the placidness of doom. Everything will turn out all right if you don’t bare your teeth. It was a good story, and some of us learned it better than others. I reckon I took it to heart.
After the Bible stories, she would parcel out the Sunday funny pages. We would not snatch them from each other, or scatter the papers, or holler “my turn, my turn”. We would read them carefully, and then retell the funny parts in funny voices. Gram would sit in her ladder-back, hands on her knees, lean forward, and watch us laugh. I think that was her most favorite time of day. The inevitability of doom, for her, was far away in those moments, though surely she knew it was waiting on her, and for the rest of us. But there was calmness in her eyes. She didn’t call it doom. She called it life, and sometimes it could be good.
Thank you for reading, and may you have a calm and fruitful 2017
2016: what can I say? It’s been a long year, personally and professionally. Struggling with physical pain, difficult work deadlines, and creative inertia. Overworked and under-cooked. So it’s time for a rest. I haven’t abandoned writing. Discouraged and disappointed. A little poetry here, some flash there,clawing away at a novel. I haven’t lost the love of writing, but lately — to quote Springsteen — I’m just tired and bored with myself. My head’s not there. I’m not in the game. It’s time for a reset. And this seems like a good time. Rest, reset, renew.
So I’m taking some time off from blogging, to reassess and reaffirm what I’m doing, if the writing is still there, if it can be as good as I need it to be. No self-pity, no whining. Rest and resume.
To everyone who follows my little blog: thank you. You’ve been been incredibly supportive and kind and your comments have been so generous that I’m often overwhelmed. Thank you! I’ll be back after awhile, hopefully with more vigor. And more stories. Have a wonderful holiday season.
Ordinary Handsome and A Very Tall Summer are still available here.
This might as well be Mars, scarred and unrepentant, too distant to glow in heaven.
Our monuments to youth built with hurried hands, then toppled, then covered with sand.
Do you recall the worth of compassion, of rejoicing in our slaked passion?
No more, we say, no more.
And so we study upon the sky with our vainglorious trickster eyes,
our wisdom in cushioned layers, hurling shrill and jagged prayers,
standing alone, bare and barren,
with pleasures unfulfilled, and more monuments to build.