by Marjorie McAtee
I don’t know what happens to people after they die. Maybe they go to Heaven or Hell or Purgatory, like I was taught in Catechism class as a girl. Maybe they lurk in old houses, making the walls bleed. But they don’t hang around in the cemetery, waiting for visitors.
The first time I visited my father’s grave was when we buried him in it. It was 1988. I was five years old, and I wore the sky-blue dress I’d been meant to wear to his brother’s wedding. I don’t know which of his four brothers was getting married, nor to which of their considerably more than four wives; I just know that I didn’t go, because my mother had a fight with her father-in-law, my Grandpa Forrest, on the day that I was to leave with them. I remember standing on the sidewalk in front of their house, hand-in-hand with my father, watching my mother and Grandpa Forrest shouting at each other on his front porch. My memory tells me that Grandpa Forrest advanced on my mother and shoved her shoulders with both of his hands, and that she stumbled backwards off the edge of the porch, which was about a foot high. My memory does not tell me whether she hurt herself. It does not tell me how my father reacted, or if he reacted at all. It does not tell me whether Grandpa Forrest shoved my mother in self-defense, or whether he was the aggressor. It does not tell me why they were fighting. But later – maybe years later, maybe the next day – my mother said, “They weren’t taking you to a wedding. They were going to kidnap you because they thought I wasn’t good enough for your father and they wanted nothing to do with me.”
So I didn’t go to the wedding. I wore the blue dress to my father’s funeral instead.
My mother had my father cremated because she was angry with him for dying, but then she felt guilty, and decided to bury the urn, because a burial was what he had wanted. The undertakers dug the grave with a post-hole digger. My memory insists that it was both raining and beautiful on the day that we buried him. My memory insists that when they dropped my father’s urn into the round hole, it fell with a shoop noise.
My father’s death had been sudden. He’d been working for the West Virginia Department of Highways, directing traffic around a road crew, and a driver didn’t stop. Thirteen years later, when I was eighteen years old, I would spend a summer working on the same crews with the same men who had worked with my father.
“He didn’t even slow down,” said Tom, a man who’d been working with my father that day. “He kept on driving full speed right through the work site. He was halfway through before we realized he was dragging your dad. We all had to jump on his hood to get him to stop.”
My father was taken via life flight to West Virginia University Hospital in Morgantown, where he spent two weeks in a coma. My mother spent those two weeks at his bedside. I spent those two weeks with my mother’s parents. I remember watching the news the night they interviewed my mother; I remember how red her eyes were, how she wore a brown pageboy cap, how she seemed to sway a little under the weight of the cameras, but I don’t remember what she said. I remember sleeping on my grandparents’ brown-and-white toile couch, flopping in the night like a fish. I remember how the walls looked blue under the starlight when I’d wake, confused. I remember asking Grandma and Grandpa where my parents were and when they’d be coming back. I don’t remember what they said.
When my mother returned, she came alone, but I was excited. “Will daddy take me to the carnival tonight?” I asked her. The carnival was no longer in town, but that was not the most pressing concern.
My mother got down on her knees, so she could look me in the eyes. “No,” she said. “He can’t, because he’s dead.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means he had to go away, and he’s never coming back.”
In the months that followed, I remember not understanding why my father was gone. I drew him pictures and wrote him letters, confident that my mother would deliver them to him, wherever he was.
When I drew my father a picture of a big, golden key labeled “The Key of Life,” my mother said, again, “He’s not coming back.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“He’s dead,” my mother said. “Remember what I told you? Dead people go away forever and they never come back.”
I thought for a moment, and then asked, “Does he want to come back?”
After that conversation, I stopped drawing pictures for my father, because I decided he was trapped in the sewers.
When I was very small, my father had a big, bushy beard. Then one day, when I was three or four years old, he went into the bathroom and shaved it all off. I’d never seen my father without a beard before, so when he came out of the bathroom, I asked, “Are you my daddy?”
“No,” he replied, “I’m an impostor! Your real daddy slipped down the drain!”
And I believed him. For a long time afterward, I was afraid to take a bath. I was convinced that I would slip down the drain and be replaced by a silky-smooth doppelganger. My mother was furious; my father, amused. But after I knew that he was never coming back, I remembered what he said about slipping down the drain. I stopped being afraid of the bath, and instead, I started standing right over the drain until the last water was gone. He was down there somewhere, and if I tried hard enough, I could find him again. I knew it.
I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was eighteen years old. It was 2001, the summer after my first year of college. It took me three tries to pass the test, but once I did, I drove out route 20 to the Methodist graveyard north of Buckhannon where my father was buried, to visit his grave for the second time. He wasn’t a Methodist, but we happened to own the plot, because my maternal great-great-grandparents had sold off some of their real estate holdings and invested the money in Upshur County burial plots. Thanks to their foresight, my mother’s family has had places to bury their dead for five generations. My older sisters, Jill and Susan, who died within hours of their premature births, are buried in another cemetery, but my great-great-grandmother, Mabel Hinkle, and my first cousin, John Steven, are buried at my father’s side.
My father is buried at the back of the cemetery, up on the hill, beyond the old graves with their crumbling, weather-worn stones. When I first saw his tombstone, I was shocked at its size – a slab of red marble at least five feet tall. It’s engraved with a poem my mother wrote, called, “That Voice We Loved Is Silent.” The poem has four or five stanzas. I don’t know any of them.
I stood in the cemetery for a while, staring at the stone, unsure of what to do. I had forgotten to bring flowers. I should bring flowers the next time I come, I thought. That’s what mourners do, right?
Flowerless, I laid my hand on top of the rock, and found that it was just a rock. I stood there feeling awkward, as if I were trapped with a casual acquaintance to whom I couldn’t think of anything to say. What happens now? I wondered. Am I supposed to do something? Feel something? Is there supposed to be a presence, maybe? But there wasn’t a presence. There was only, as always, just me.
Eventually I decided to leave, but bright colors at a nearby grave caught my eye. When I drew closer I realized that the colors were those of toys – plastic trucks and tiny earth-movers arranged across the plot as if a child had been playing with them, just now, and had been called away to supper. The grave was that of a little boy, only three years old. His portrait smiled from beneath an oval of glass. The toys on his grave were new and clean. Fresh flowers lay on the stone.
When I was three or four my father started working nights and couldn’t be there any more to read my bedtime stories. So he bought a tape recorder and recorded himself reading my favorite books. Every night, after my mother put me in bed, I’d lie there alone and listen to the tapes.
After my father died, my mother threw away his things, including the tapes. Before I lost it, I had one picture of myself and my father. In it, he was sitting in a recliner, and I was standing between his knees. He was leaning forward, arms wrapped around me, grinning. I was holding a teddy bear and smiling. When I’d shown people this picture, they’d said, “Wow, you look just like him.”
Before I lost it, I had one picture of my parents and myself. In it, I was sitting cross-legged on the tan linoleum of my grandparents’ living room floor. My parents were sitting on the red corduroy couch behind me; the photographer must have been sitting on the brown-and-white toile couch that faced it. In the picture, my mother was young; her skin was unlined and her hair was cut short, and she hadn’t yet gotten the large, pink orchard tattoo that, from the year after my father’s death, would cover her entire right cheek. In the picture, there was space between my father and my mother on the couch, and in the moment when the shutter had clicked, my mother had had her face turned toward my father, so that the camera had captured her in silhouette, mid-sentence, mouth open, arms crossed, forehead drawn into a frown. My father, too, was pictured speaking, but he had avoided her gaze. He’d stared instead at the floor before his feet, his gaze baffled, his shoulders frozen mid-shrug.
I alone looked into the camera, diligently picking my nose.
The third time I visited my father’s grave was during a reunion of my mother’s side of the family in 2003. I went with my cousins – John Steven’s siblings – and his mother and step-father, and some of my mother’s sisters. They wanted to see John Steven’s grave, which didn’t have a stone at all. While we were there we looked at my father’s grave, and I learned why his stone was so big.
“When he died your mother didn’t have much money for a stone,” my Aunt Donna said. “She ordered the smallest, cheapest one they had, one of those flat ones that lays flush with the ground. But when she went to check the engravers’ work they’d spelled his name wrong. She raised such a big stink that they offered her any stone in the catalogue, with any amount of engraving, for free, just to get her to leave. So she picked the biggest, most expensive one they had, which was this one, and then she wrote this poem to have engraved on it.”
“Wow.” I was impressed, but not surprised. No one can rage like my mother.
After we finished looking at our family graves, we all wandered over to look at the grave of the child that none of us knew. The toys were still new and clean, still arranged as if he’d just finished playing. The flowers on the stone were fresh. The little boy’s face grinned from his photo.
“It’s so sad when a child dies,” said my older cousin, Roxie, whose brother John Steven had been a baby at the time of his death.
“No! You’re not going to sleep!” Gene grabbed me by the upper arm and yanked me out of bed. I thudded to the floor. This was a normal Sunday night.
“I have to work tomorrow!” I protested, from my new position on the Berber carpet. It was 2008. I’d been living in Asheville, North Carolina, for three years. I’d washed up there after a year of post-college drifting around the country, mostly in California, where, at about this time, I was wishing I’d stayed.
“Get up!” he shouted, and yanked my arm again. He was only about 5’4” – too small to pull me to my feet – but it hurt, so I stood up and walked into the living room. He followed, shouting, “I can’t believe you treat me this way!”
The job I had to get to the next day was as a cashier in an adult store in Candler, a suburb about fifteen minutes away. Two years earlier, Gene, who’d been out of a job himself at the time, had been looking through the newspaper classifieds when he saw their help wanted ad. “Here,” he’d said, pointing it out to me. “This’d be the perfect job for you, since you’re such a slut.”
I’d gone in for an interview, and the long-haired, snaggle-toothed manager, Dave, had hired me on the spot. I’d taken the job out of spite, but I’d kept it because, when I’d arrived on the first day, Dave had asked, “Did you bring a book?”
“No, sir,” I’d replied, “I’m here to work.”
Dave had nodded and said, “Well, from now on, you’re going to want to bring a book.” Business, it had turned out, was slow at the adult shop; state law prohibited them from running advertisements anywhere but on the radio, so, aside from the crowd of lunch-rush regulars who came in to use the dirty video arcade, customers were few and far between. There was about an hour’s worth of cleaning to do every day, but mostly I spent my shifts reading my way through the entire collections of the Asheville Public Library, writing long letters to my college friends about how miserable I was, and gossiping with George, a regular I’d befriended.
I was one of two cashiers who worked at the store; each week, one of us would work a twelve-hour double shift so the other could have a day off. Monday was my double-shift day, so on Sundays Gene always found a reason to pick a fight. He’d follow me around the apartment all day and night, yelling. “You’re a horrible person! You’re so selfish! You don’t care about me at all! Everything’s always about you!” Every day he’d find new things to be angry about, but he’d always use the same words to express it. When he got really worked up, he’d scream, “I HOPE YOU HAVE A HORRIBLE MONTH!” because one bad day wouldn’t cut it.
I was almost always on my own in the adult store. The manager, Dave, lived five minutes away, and if I needed anything, I could call him. But I usually didn’t, and he usually didn’t check in. But one Monday he came to collect that month’s security tapes.
“Whoa, you look rough,” he said. “Do you need to go home?”
“No, I’m fine, I was just up all night fighting with my fiancé.”
Dave didn’t say anything about that; he just took the tapes and left. But an hour later, he and Pete, the owner, showed up with a sofa.
“I just need to store this in the office,” Pete said, as I buzzed them through. I shrugged. What he did with his furniture in his store was of no consequence to me.
After they dropped off the sofa, Pete left, but Dave lingered. State law said I had to check every customer’s ID before allowing them into the store, so there were two doors – one that opened onto the street, behind which I sat at a glass counter filled with bottles of lube and packs of dirty playing cards, and a second one that opened to give access to the vibrators, butt plugs, and DVDs within. An alarm blared whenever anyone came in, to summon me from anywhere in the building.
Dave milled around in that liminal space between the outer and inner doors for a few minutes, while I checked the security cameras to make sure no one was having sex in the video arcade in the back. It was lunch time, and the regular crowd was back there. Sometimes they stayed in their respective booths. Sometimes they bought sodas from the vending machine and chatted. Sometimes they got naughty with each other. I was supposed to shut that down, which I usually did by getting on the intercom and saying, “Sirs, I can see you.”
Dave cleared his throat. “You know, if I were working a double shift, and I hadn’t got any sleep the night before, and the store was empty, I might just go back in the office and take a nap on that couch,” he said.
“Well, I might, if these guys leave,” I said, and nodded at the monitor, which displayed two regulars drinking Pepsi and chatting in a porno theater on their lunch break from work, you know, as one does.
Dave narrowed his eyes somewhat. “If I were your father, I wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. He wasn’t talking about the porno theater.
“My father’s dead,” I said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Dave said, and left.
I had wished my father alive every day since the day I first understood what dead meant, but I had never wished him alive as fervently as I did after I met the man I would promise to marry, then walk out on. While Gene kept me up all night the night before a double shift, screaming at me about how selfish I was, I thought, If I could call my father, he’d take me out of here so fast. When Gene took a bite of the steak I had cooked a little too long, spit it out, and then shattered the plate on the wall while shouting, “I can’t believe you expect me to eat this shit!” I thought, If my father were here, he’d feed you that fucking thing. When he screamed at me for hours in the car while we were driving home from visiting his mother in Utah, I thought, If my father were here, he’d tell me to leave your ass on the side of the road. Dave had been right; my father wouldn’t have stood for it. But what he would or wouldn’t have stood for didn’t matter, because he was dead.
Every time I tossed Gene out, he’d come back pounding on the door and threatening to break it down if I didn’t open it. I’d call the cops, and he’d go away, and then come back the next day. A friend of his lived up a cross street; he could watch my movements from her porch. I thought about getting a restraining order, but I knew it wouldn’t stop him from hurting me, so I decided to leave town instead.
I say that like I planned it carefully, but I didn’t. I left and went back, left and went back, left and went back. One day I got home from work before he did. I was reading a novel from that week’s stack of library books. I don’t remember what it was about, but I was engrossed. I sat down on the couch and started to read; not long after, Gene stomped through the front door, slammed it behind him, and got right to shouting.
“Look at you! All you ever fucking do is read fucking books! You think you’re better than me just because you went to college? You’re not better than me just because you have some piece of paper! Why don’t you do something useful instead of wasting your time with those stupid books?” And then he snatched the book out of my hands and tossed it on the floor.
I hadn’t said a word. I was still in my work clothes. I looked at the book lying on the hardwood; the cover was yellow like coal mine canaries, and it had something like a biological hazard symbol on it.
I stood up and bundled my cat into its carrier, threw some clothes into a bag, and left. I drove to Black Mountain, to the home of a friend with whom I’d stayed the last time I’d left. I sat on her couch and wept sobs that were almost screams, while she sat beside me, speechless and terrified, and my cat glared at hers from his perch behind my shoulder. Later that night, or maybe it was the next night, I felt guilt rolling behind my belly button, hot, heavy, and huge. I went out and sat in my car alone, in the dark, and opened the flip phone I shared with Gene. I had turned it off so he couldn’t call it. I sat there under the jaundice glow of the streetlights and stared at the little blank screen for what felt like a very long time. I rested my thumb on the power button, feeling that hot, heavy ache expand in my belly, but I didn’t press down to turn the phone on. If my father were alive, I knew, he’d never have let things get this far. He’d have saved me long ago. But he wasn’t alive, and he couldn’t save me; I’d have to do it myself. So I broke the phone in half, and went back inside.
I spent the next two months bouncing like a pinball between Asheville and Buckhannon, WV, arguing with Gene over who got to stay in my rented apartment and who got to keep the car that I bought in my own name and paid for with my own money. I thought that I ought to keep both car and apartment, and that he could fuck right off, and told him so, but as the weeks passed it became clearer that I would have to at least get another place. When he wasn’t at work, Gene would sit on the porch of the friend down the cross street and watch my house. Every time I tried to move any of my stuff out of the apartment, he’d appear to make a scene. “You’re not going anywhere!” he’d scream, and when I ignored him, “You’re not taking the car!” To this day, I still have dreams that I’m in that apartment, trying to grab what I can before he comes back. Of all the things I had to leave behind, it’s the picture of me with my father I miss the most.
I felt like I was disappearing, and I wanted to. At college, I’d studied in Paris, and I’d been homesick for France for the entire four years since then. At night I’d walk the curious streets of a dreamlike city, and in the morning wake confused, not knowing, for a moment, where I was. I’d made a mistake, and it was time to correct it. I’d been talking to a friend who lived in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, and I thought I’d take my cat and go to France for a few months, just to clear my head.
The longer things dragged on in Asheville the better that sounded, and I stopped thinking about my father. When Gene came pounding on the door and screaming, “If you don’t open this door right now I’m gonna break it down!” I thought, I’m going to Europe, and it’s gonna be okay. When he broke the lock on my back door and smashed the framed photos of Paris I’d had hanging on my walls, I thought, I’m going to Europe, and it’s gonna be okay. When he stormed up to my packed car and yanked open my unlocked door and tried to wrench me out of the seat where I was belted in, screaming, “You’re not taking the car!” I stomped on the gas and knocked him down, and then I thought, I’m going to Europe, and it’s gonna be okay. When our mutual friends knocked on my door, saying things like, “If you ask me you’re just being silly and overreacting. You know he loves you and you love him. Give him another chance,” I nodded and said, “I’ll consider that” and thought, I’m going to Europe, and it’s gonna be okay.
Before I left for France, in the summer of 2008, I visited my father’s grave for the fourth time. I took my youngest aunt, Martha. She’s ten years older than me, more like a sister than an aunt. I took her to the cemetery because I thought she could answer my questions.
“What should I do? I mean, what does one do at a grave?” I asked, as we stood before the stone, which was still just a stone. “Should I feel something? Should there be a presence?”
Martha took a drag of her cigarette and looked at me askance. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sentimental.”
I knelt on the grass, and placed my palm on the cold, slick stone and felt the edges of my mother’s words etched sharp into the surface. Martha stood behind me, smoking. I forgot to bring flowers again, I thought. I knelt, while the sun warmed my shoulders and the earth cooled my knees, and felt, between my ribs, an emptiness twenty years wide.
Help me, I thought. Please help me. I pressed the stone’s surface harder, as if I could press my need into it, as if by pressing hard enough, I could make it matter. Please. Help me. If you’re there, please help me.
But he didn’t help, because he wasn’t there. There was only, as always, just me.
The fifth time I visited my father’s grave was in 2010. My few months in France had turned into years, and I couldn’t say that my head was clear yet, but I was home for a visit anyway.
I pulled up to the cemetery gates in my rental car on a spring day when the sun gleamed off the green hills. On the gate, I noticed a small plaque that read: “This cemetery is maintained by Matthew Tennery.” I remembered Matt; we’d graduated high school together. I wondered if he remembered me. I wondered if he knew the big, red marble stone on the hill was my father’s.
No one was there that day, and I walked alone through the rows of old graves, with their stained, slanted stones, to the newer ones toward the back. At my father’s grave I remembered at last to get flowers; again, I hadn’t brought any. I looked around, hoping to see some growing nearby, but the grass and the fence line were immaculate. Matt was doing a good job.
I stood there and looked at the stone for a while. What else does one do at a grave? It’s the question to which I have never found an answer.
After a bit, I wandered over to the other grave, the one of the child I didn’t know. The photo on the stone was washed out to nothing; water had seeped beneath the glass. The toys were faded and broken, though still arranged as neatly as they’d always been. I imagined Matt carefully picking them up, mowing the grass, and then putting them back.
As I walked to my car I thought, as I always did, I ought to bring flowers the next time I come, if there is a next time.
About the Author:
Marjorie McAtee is a professional writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience. She was educated at Hollins University, the Sorbonne University of Paris, and West Virginia University. Her humor writing appears online at Don’t Call Me Marge, and her creative nonfiction has appeared in Amarillo Bay, The Blotter, Flashquake, and Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts.