They say parents should never have to bury a child. But that’s what Mom and Dad were about to do the late May morning I began to discover that daydreams were more than mere fantasy; the day I discovered life is not just what we see. It’s what we say.
Hannah and me were riding in the back of Meemaw’s bright blue sedan, near the front of the funeral procession. Everyone in town was trailing behind us. If misery were a hotel, it was a no vacancy kind of day.
We were third in the caravan of cars, led by a black and silver hearse carrying the body of Charlie Forman, hometown football hero and my big brother.
Mom was ahead of us, driving the station wagon. Dad was ahead of her, just behind the hearse, driving his freshly polished Corvette. The car I was never allowed to sit in, even after Charlie was gone. Or maybe especially now that Charlie was gone. I guess Mom and Dad didn’t want to share that ride with anyone, even each other.
My suit was too small. I’d last worn it for sixth grade graduation. My socks showed when I walked. Seventh grade had been full of growth. My body increased in height and my face increased in zits.
The formal outfit was annoying but I was glad to be wearing pants; otherwise my legs would be sticking to the vinyl cover on the bench seat in the back of Meemaw’s car.
“Atlas? Why did the drunk man crash into Charlie?” Hannah’s barely-there voice asked from the seat beside me. I glanced over at her, bit my lip, and blinked fast to squelch the tears. In spite of the ache in my heart, I couldn’t help marveling at her tender confusion. She was a sweet little bundle of innocence.
Mom had curled Hannah’s red hair into spirals that hung around her freckled face. Her light green eyes were tinged pink from days of crying. Mom made sure Hannah got a new outfit, a light blue and pale yellow plaid dress. She looked like one of the porcelain dolls Meemaw had in her spare bedroom, the room with dusty ceiling fan and the painted wicker furniture. I glanced above the neat bow in Hannah’s hair and saw a puff of white tissue rising from the gingham-checked crocheted tissue box in the back window.
“Why Atlas? Why?” Hannah insisted.
“M-m-mom s-s-s-says he w-w-wasn’t…” I stopped talking and clenched my fists. Stupid stutter. Like a tomcat with a dead rodent, it toyed with my tongue. Always lingering, ready to pounce and make a mockery of my words with ridiculous sounds.
“It’s ok, Atlas.” Meemaw’s low gravelly voice, produced by her faithful inhalation of two packs a day since she was seventeen, interjected. The stress of the funeral caused her to break her rule about smoking around us kids. She puffed away as we drove toward the cemetery.
Her window was cracked, drawing out the smoke as we drove along. The passing breeze had no chance at sucking away her car’s ever-present stale smoke odor. Not that she noticed; Meemaw wore that bowling-alley aroma like a second skin.
“Don’t talk now, Atlas. Hannah, dear, sometimes bad things happen.” She turned up her hillbilly music a little louder and whispered to herself, “Seems to me most of the bad things happen to the really good people.”
I guess she thought we couldn’t hear her. But we could. It’s surprising how often grown-ups think kids aren’t listening. We’re always listening.
We reached the T-intersection that marked the edge of the civilized part of Pinesburg, Kentucky. Our family home for four generations, Pinesburg is a hick town surrounded by hick towns in coal country, near the West Virginia border.
Meemaw turned right, barely two breaths behind Mom’s car. The repetitive click of the hazard lights produced a mechanical backbeat to the squalling fiddles playing in the speaker behind my ear.
We were just a mile or so from the cemetery. Meemaw squished her cigarette butt into the plastic tray her third husband Marty had velcroed to the top of the dashboard. About three years earlier, Marty had been buried in the same cemetery we were now approaching.
Marty was a clever guy and a lot more fun than Meemaw’s first husband, my mom’s dad. But no one called him Grandpa. Mom wouldn’t allow it. I remember her saying often, “You have one Grandfather, and he’s in Heaven. You better believe this man, Marty, is nothing like your grandfather.”
Meemaw cleared her throat and added, for Hannah’s benefit, “We can’t understand everything in this life. You’ll come to find out that’s the truth more often than not. Charlie is in heaven now. And when you’re really old and go to heaven, you’ll get to see him again.”
Hannah looked down at her shiny black patent leather shoes. She pushed her stubby fingers against the clear plastic between her chunky thighs and the seat.
“Daddy says you’re older than coal, Meemaw. Does that mean you’ll get to see Charlie first?”
I snickered. Then I laughed out loud. I looked in the rear view mirror at Meemaw’s tired eyes and raisin-skinned lips. They began to stretch into a grin.
“Your daddy says I’m older than coal, eh? Well he is…” Meemaw smiled as she caught her tongue.
“Yes, Hannah, I suppose so.” Then she laughed. It was unexpected, but she kept laughing while crying. Then she started coughing hard like she was choking.
“Meemaw!” I shouted. “Are you ok?”
She gasped several times and finally stopped coughing.
“I’m fine, Atlas. Hand me those tissues.” She waved her nicotine-stained, turquoise-ringed hand at the back window.
I reached over Hannah’s head and as I did, I looked out the back window. Cigarette smoke drifted up from the open windows of the cars behind us, giving the impression of dozens of portable miniature chimneys. I guess everyone was breaking their rule about smoking around the kids today.
I grabbed the stiff plastic tissue box and paused, pulling out a clump of tissues for Hannah and me. I handed the box to Meemaw.
“Thank you,” Meemaw said.
Her chest rattled as she reached for the depths with a lung-clearing cough. She hacked up the obstructing gunk, gushed it into the wad of tissue and tucked the whole mess into her purse. Two minutes later, we were parked next to mom’s wagon at the foot of the hillside where Charlie was to be buried.
Mom was standing in front of her car, waiting for us to get out of Meemaw’s car. Mom’s face was puffy and her nose was runny yet she still looked pretty. Her bobbed auburn hair accented her pale slender neck. Through the tears, her glistening blue eyes kept a quiet strength, matched by the physical strength of a petite frame that had competed in many a triathlon over the years.
I stuffed the tissues into my suit coat pocket and tugged on the door handle.
“I’ll get Hannah,” Meemaw said as she lurched out from under the cracked plastic oversized steering wheel, “but first, straighten your hair and your tie.”
I looked at my reflection in the car window. My familiar gangly body, capped by my long narrow face and lopsided ears, looked back. Dark circles hung below deep-set hazel eyes. A handful of strands of dark hair stood straight up at the front of my part. A fresh trail of zits streaked across my forehead like a constellation of pink stars.
Straightening my hair is the least of my concerns, I thought.
I pressed down as hard as I could, holding my hair in place for the moment.
“That looks better,” Meemaw said.
Mom silently walked toward me, her trembling arms extended. A silver monogram pendant flashed in the sunlight as it dangled from her neck. Charlie and I had given it to her for Mother’s Day, less than two weeks ago.
The gravity of her grief sucked me into a bear hug before I could say a word. I think she mumbled, “I love you,” but I couldn’t be certain. She was just a bundle of blubbering gasps and gurgles.
Mom’s grip squeezed the façade of calm right off me. I couldn’t fight it anymore. First, a couple of watery dribbles trickled out of the corner of my eye. Then, a flood. We rained tears onto each other’s shoulders and stared through the hurt at the cracked asphalt beneath our feet. As I wept, my nose filled with that dirty paper smell of a cigarette being lit. Meemaw was standing just behind us holding Hannah’s tiny hand, but in that moment, everyone else seemed miles away. Especially Dad.
I stepped back from Mom and as I wiped at my face with the tissue, I looked at Dad standing halfway up the hillside, like a soldier, itching for his orders. Dad never waited for anyone. He called it being a leader. I call it being inconsiderate.
“Atlas?” a tiny voice behind me whispered.
I felt Hannah’s fingers brush my thigh, then grab the hem of my suit jacket. I looked down at her and sniffled. I couldn’t look her in the eye or the waterworks would pour once more. I silently gripped her hand. Our sweaty palms pressed together like an envelope being sealed, locking us together for the dreaded climb up the hill to Charlie’s grave.
As we slowly walked through the overgrown grass, I looked over my shoulder and saw Wyatt Jamison, my one true friend. As usual, his blonde hair was parted on the side and slicked down tight against his head, except for the cowlick in the front corner of his part. His athletic frame was swallowed whole by his older brother’s tent of a hand-me-down sport coat.
“I’m real sorry Atlas, everyone’s real tore up about Charlie,” Wyatt whispered as he approached.
“Thanks Wyatt,” I replied, turning my head down.
Wyatt picked up on my let’s-not-talk vibe, and contrary to his nature, complied.
Through the checkerboard pattern of crumbling brick-sized grave markers we walked, careful not to step on them. The dates were old and nearly worn away but not a single one memorialized an adult. Most were infants and toddlers. All of us locals knew the story about this patch of graves. I had heard since I was a boy about how our town almost disappeared over one hundred years earlier.
In 1883, Pinesburg nearly got wiped out by the consumption. That’s what the old folks called tuberculosis. More than half the kids died and most of the parents wished they’d had. Pinesburg dwindled down to less than a hundred people. Just when the townsfolk were considering abandoning the whole place – there was just too much dark, everywhere – hope returned. The spread of the disease stopped. Literally, they say, a line could be drawn down the backside of the street where I live. From that line out, no one got sick anymore.
Some of the old-timers say there were guardian angels that showed up to end the suffering. Others talk about healing spirits that live in the hills all around our valley. A few even tell about mysterious lights in the sky and life returning to Pinesburg anew. Most everyone agreed that something supernatural happened.
Something natural happened around the same time, as well. Speculators found a huge vein of that black rock in the hills. Coal. They mined it and the money started pouring in, bringing new people with brighter memories than the locals and most important, brighter vision for the future. Ancient animal life, now a fuel for the factories up north and heat for the homes all around the hills, brought new life to Pinesburg.
I held Hannah’s hand tighter as we reached the top of the hill. Mom and Dad and Meemaw walked under the corner of the green cloth awning stretched over the hole in the ground. Charlie’s coffin, a black steel box with silver metal handles, was suspended over the hole with dark nylon straps.
The sight of it stopped me in my tracks. My parents and Meemaw kept walking. They didn’t look at it. They couldn’t look at it. My grip on Hannah loosened and she ran to the space between Mom and Meemaw. The three of them kept walking until they took their seats in the front row of plastic folding chairs on the other side of the open grave.
Wyatt stood beside me as I stared at the gleaming metal coffin. It was hard to accept Charlie was gone. Unexpected tragedy always is. I closed my eyes and thought about Charlie. The last time I saw him, in the intensive care unit in Louisville, he was all coiled up in tubes and wires like he was in a plastic snake pit.
I blinked a couple times and squeezed my eyes tight. I wished those healing spirits that saved Pinesburg had been around to save Charlie. Or taken me.
As I stood there, eyes closed, my hand reached out for the cold edge of Charlie’s metal box. My heart raced. My desire to escape intensified. A cluster of bright yellow spots danced across the inside of my eyelids and appeared in the space around my head.
“Just follow us,” a chorus of high-pitched voices whispered.
A rush of wind blew through my hair.
So much for keeping it looking nice. Sorry, Meemaw.
“Can you fly?” The high-pitched voices asked.
“No,” I replied.
The spots of light flashed across the ground, zoomed up into the awning overhead and came rushing back toward me. The bright spots combined into a cyclone of light just before colliding with my pimple-dotted forehead.
I staggered backward as it spun before me, banging into Charlie’s coffin. As I tried to steady myself, I grabbed at his Pinesburg Wildcats football jersey, messing up the arrangement. The large flower wreath spread across the lower end of the coffin loosened and slid toward the ground.
“Atlas, Atlas,” a voice whispered. The high-pitched chorus was gone. The dots of light were gone.
“Atlas.” Wyatt was still beside me, whispering my name.
He tilted his head and arched his eyebrows, motioning for me to look across the coffin. My family was staring at me. Dad’s eyes were so large and bugged it looked like a crawdad was stuck behind them trying to get out. Clearly, nearly knocking everything over next to my brother’s coffin was not the proper thing to do. Another daydream, causing me nothing but trouble.
I dodged Dad’s angry stare and looked at the crowd quietly moving into the rows behind him. Nods of hello and grimaces of sorrow filled the faces. Hushed voices of sadness filled the air.
As I walked to take my seat in the empty folding chair between Hannah and Meemaw, a glimmer of red light from beyond the rows of somber attendees flashed through the air. I would say it flashed through the sky, but it was pretty close to the ground. As I paused to look, the red light pulsed through the air a second time.
“Reckon I’ll see you after,” Wyatt whispered and walked off to join his family.
I didn’t reply. I was trying to locate the source of the strange red glow and moved closer to the front row while scanning the space behind the last row of seats. In hindsight, I’m pretty lucky I didn’t trip over something. That would have been typical.
“Get to your seat and quit your infernal daydreaming,” Dad growled as I walked between him and the coffin.
“Leave him be,” Mom replied. “His brother’s dead, for God’s sake.” She started crying again and buried her face in a burgundy and black swirl-patterned scarf.
As I sat down Mom rubbed my arm, trying to comfort me from Dad’s correction. Or maybe trying to comfort herself. I half-grinned at her, which only caused her to wail more loudly.
“It’s ok, Mom,” I whispered and slid my fingers inside her black-gloved hand. Even though it was closing in on summer, my insides felt like it was the dead of winter. As Mom shivered next to me, more from heartache than lack of heat, I wondered if I’d ever stop hearing voices and seeing things that weren’t really there.
“It is an inexplicable tragedy. The passing of the young.” A nasal-intoned baritone announced from the other side of the coffin. I glanced over as it continued.
“We can never be sure why these things happen but we can be sure that God has the dearly departed in His loving arms…”
It was Brother Westler, the pastor from First Baptist. I couldn’t look at him without recalling what Marty said every time Meemaw dragged him to church:
“That fat preacher ain’t much to look at, and he sweats like a bunch of bananas in a plastic bag, but he’s gonna durn sure scare the devil out of us and make sure we’s all born again by the end of this service.”
He’ll probably try to make sure we’s all born again, even at a funeral.
Especially at a funeral, I thought.
“One never knows when their time will come…” Brother Westler continued. Marty was right, this pastor was not an easy listen. There had to be something better to hold my attention until he was done talking. I turned my head and looked past Mom’s shoulders, and out over the crowd.
As I looked beyond many familiar faces, all trying to avoid eye contact as fervently as I was, I felt one pair of eyes that refused to look away.
I vaguely recognized the moist feminine eyes tracking my movement. As soon as I saw the dark hair that hung long and silky around her face and shoulders, I knew without a doubt. I had been staring at that shimmering hair every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon in History class all year long. Like a black waterfall of temptation, it often splashed onto the front corner of my desktop. The dark hair and those moist eyes belonged to Aamilah Shamad, the cutest girl in school, at least in my rankings. One glance from her usually turned my face seven shades of red and tied my tummy up tighter than a guitar string one strum before it breaks.
Now she was sitting behind me. Way behind me, but directly in my line of sight. She was sitting in the back row, next to her mother, who was all wrapped up in a black robe dress. I don’t know what they call those outfits, but it’s what her mother wears every day. At least, I’ve never seen her without it. Aamilah’s dad is a doctor, and they moved to Pinesburg from Egypt just a few months ago, just before we started seventh grade.
At least ten seconds passed and she held her stare like she was afraid I’d disappear if she blinked. I couldn’t take it anymore. I abandoned my mission to avoid listening to Brother Westler and turned back around in my chair with the unmistakable impression that her eyes were still peering at the back of my head.
Is my cowlick popped up again? I wondered.
I slid my hand over the back of my head. As I did, I could feel those squirrely strands poking into the air like an airplane tower with the blinking red lights. I pushed them flat in futility, knowing they would jump to attention the moment I returned my hand to my lap.
“Charlie was like no one else. He was a wonderful son…”
Dad was speaking. He stood, tall and shiny, facing the crowd. His trademark smile was reduced to a resolved grin. His blue eyes danced like wave tops crashing against the shore and his perfectly parted salt and pepper hair capped his tanned face. He looked like a department store catalog model. He couldn’t stop being handsome, even while grieving over the loss of my big brother.
“I’ll never forget the time Charlie came home from school, upset because some of the other kids were picking on a handicapped girl. Charlie stood up for the things that matter most. Ya’ll know what I mean. He was all that’s good about this world – and he did all that he could to stop the bad. He was a Pinesburg kind of boy.”
The crowd nodded in unison.
Mom sobbed and sputtered into her silk scarf.
“That’s right, Preston.” A voice whispered from a few rows back.
I couldn’t tell if Dad was mourning Charlie or running for mayor. A little of both, I guess. Ever since Dad’s dad – the grandpa I never met – died as a hero in Vietnam, it was like Dad was trying to prove himself worthy of that legacy.
It was impossible for Dad to separate his ambition from his actions. If an occasion called for a speech, C. Preston Forman, III, Esq. was at the top of the list. Actually, in Pinesburg, he was the list.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh, as was said by the prophet Job. We can not comprehend the ways of God.” Dad finished with Scripture even though he hadn’t seen the inside of the church since Christmas.
As Dad sat down, a satisfied tightness crept across his lips. The rustle of someone standing in the middle of the crowd interrupted the moment’s silence. The unmistakable crinkling of unfolding paper followed.
“What’s that?” an elderly lady whisper-shouted to her nearly deaf husband a few rows behind me.
Everyone turned to look.
A lanky man with graying temples and thick glasses stood in the middle of the seated mourners. His close-trimmed neck beard reminded me of a leprechaun. He was far too tall to be a leprechaun, though. He held a piece of paper in his hand and didn’t look up.
I hooked my elbow behind Mom’s chair and craned my neck to study the unknown eulogizer. He looked the part of the unexpected mourner, with a faint layer of dust atop the shoulders of his dark double-breasted suit. He likely wore his suit less frequently than me. His tie was a milky and lavender striped number, and his pale hands nearly blended in with the paper in his palm. Clearly an outsider, he looked nothing like Pinesburg’s mostly blue-collar citizenry.
“Noble is the son who gains respect as he dies. Nobler still is the son who earns respect as he lives.” The man’s voice pierced the silence, crisp and clear as the morning air during deer season. It reminded me of the whistle of Wyatt’s crossbow arrow before it thwacked into the side of his first kill last November. He forced me to go hunting with him, because that’s what best friends are for. It was all right, but I’ll never forget the way that deer yelped and trembled before it died.
As the strange man continued speaking, the crowd looked as stunned as that deer before it collapsed in the mud.
“The death of one lingers in the mind and heart longer than the death of thousands. But better, far better, is the loss of one than that the whole of the people perish. Though you struggled to find your compass on Earth, your Atlas remains for the good of us all. Rest in peace, Charles.”
Dad stood and glared at the man, whose gaze never left the ground. The man stepped into the aisle and started to limp away. His hobble was so exaggerated it must have been for show. He practically dragged his right leg as he exited the audience, lamely staggering into the open field beyond the folding chairs without another word.
Unlike Wyatt’s eight-point buck in November, the audience was able to shake off the daze of the dramatic stranger’s pronouncement. It took a little longer for me, which might explain what happened next.
Brother Westler regained his composure by clearing his early stage emphysema lungs. The rattling phlegm chamber that was his chest caused half the people to sit up like soldiers.
“Is there anyone else who’d like to share a testimony about Charlie?” he asked. My hand and body shot up before I could stop myself.
Brother Westler looked as stunned as I felt. His perpetually judgmental brow furrowed deeper than the trench Charlie was about to enter.
What was I doing standing up? I didn’t speak. I never spoke. I couldn’t speak.
“I r-r-r-rem-em-em—em-”, I couldn’t get the words out. “I-I-I-”. Come on Atlas, spit it out. I clenched my fists and jammed them in my pockets. My forehead beaded with sweat and my heart raced like the starving greyhounds at Marty’s favorite dog track. “I r-r-r-remember Charlie’s sm-sm-smile.”
As I slid backward into my seat, I saw that red glimmer again. This time, its reflection appeared in the silver trim on Charlie’s coffin. I turned half around in my chair and looked back.
Just beyond Aamilah in the back row, a large willow tree stood alone. It seemed out of place. Maybe it was because there were no other trees within several hundred yards. It wasn’t just alone; it seemed lonely. Its branches drooped with disappointment, like a beagle’s ears. As I looked one last time, half of the tree shook like they do when a big thunder boomer is coming and the hot air gets pushed up and the cold wind blows. But there wasn’t any wind. A second later, the red glimmer shot up from the trunk through a few branches, and out of the leaves into the air.
Other than the red streak of light, the sky appeared typical. Just a few clumps of marshmallows suspended in the eternal light blue veil above.
Hearing voices. Seeing lights. Are my daydreams getting stronger? Or is this really real?