We stepped out into the night air. My face and hands stayed warm. Daniel and Steven’s faces were both red. We staggered up the hill, through the trailer park, and into the graveyard. The early fall moon shone brightly through the spindly sticks of the trees on either side of the rows of graves.
Most of the families in the hollow had relatives buried in the Maplewood Cemetery. Like most things in the region, Maplewood spread out from a valley up into the hills on either side.
“Do you think they dig the graves up every once in a while to make room for new people?” Steven wondered aloud.
“What kind of question is that?” I shoved him and he stumbled, catching himself on a headstone.
“Well, I mean it’s not like this here is all the people who’ve ever died in the hollow, right?”
“It’s not counting the ones that were murdered or drowned and never had their bodies recovered. They’re too busy haunting people’s houses.”
Daniel glanced over his shoulder. Steven did the same. They both got paranoid when they smoked weed, and walking through a spooky graveyard during the witching hour guaranteed that they would be easily rattled.
“It’s not cool Mike.” Steven frowned.
“Yeah,” Daniel agreed.
I backed off. Even though it’d been six months since Charlie died, the wound was still fresh for Daniel. Some off handed comment or activity would remind him of his father, he’d stare off into space for a moment before shaking off the memory and coming back to the present. I suspected that I’d just shoved him back into a memory. I felt bad about it.
“I think the real question we need to answer is whether or not they dig the graves slanted or are the bottoms level?” I tried to change the subject without making it too obvious.
“What are you talking about?” Steven cocked his head at me.
“I’m saying, right, a grave is supposed to be 6 feet deep right?”
“I guess so.” Steven shrugged his shoulders, disinterested.
I could tell this line of conversation wasn’t going anywhere, but the silence was deafening. “You guys aren’t getting it.”
We walked without words. Perhaps it was the grave yard, perhaps it was the cold evening, perhaps it was our present awareness that Daniel and Steven had both lost their fathers, but a sudden sullenness fell over us as we walked. My fingers started to go numb. I took a pull on my water bottle full of liquor. The others did the same.
“I’ll be glad when we are out of this graveyard.” Daniel groaned.
“Whoa, guys, look.” Steven pointed through the darkness where the moonlight reflected off brass railing erected around an open grave. There was a mound of dirt resting on a green tarp near the hole. We walked to the edge of the grave, not sure how to react. Daniel and Steven both seemed to be elsewhere, thinking or reflecting. They had both experienced such great loss. I never had. Both of my parents were married and alive. All of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles were alive. My family had not yet been visited by death. I had no context through which to process the open grave. Daniel and Steven saw something in the darkness that wasn’t there. I saw a hole in the ground, and I had only an abstract understanding of a deeper meaning.
I thought to lighten the mood by making a night of the living dead reference, but I decided against it. Instead, I tapped Daniel on the shoulder. “Come on,” I smiled gently, “those hot dogs aren’t gonna get themselves.”
Daniel seemed to appreciate the gesture, “No they won’t.”
We reached the edge of Maplewood and faced a choice, the short way through the forest or the long way along the road.
“Which way do we want to go?” Steven looked back and forth, trying to puzzle it out in his head.
“Do we want spooky and quick, or do we want slow and well lit?” I asked, already knowing the answer for myself.
“I don’t know that I’m up for spooky, Mike.” Daniel started left toward the distant glow of the street lights.
“Well, I guess that settles it.” Steven followed behind. “I’m not goin’ through the woods by myself.”
We walked the rest of the way to Sheetz, sticking close to the asphalt and sidewalk. We strolled under the street lamps, and talked about everything and nothing, stumbling over every crack and lip in the concrete, and laughing at ourselves as we did.
It was a relief to finally reach Sheetz. For the uninitiated Sheetz is only second to McDonald’s in the esteem of West Virginians. Tastes change, but at the end of the day, Sheetz always remains. In the Hollow, for a large part of the population, Sheetz was the restaurant, grocery store, and gas station. Sheetz was the closest thing the hollow had to a community center. Everyone shopped there, lawyers and drunks, bankers and bums. It’s interesting how not having any other option can bring people together.
We crossed the parking lot through the gas pumps. Skateboard Freddy was standing out front, leaning against the back of the kerosene pump that stood near the door. I flipped my phone out of my pocket, it was near midnight. Freddy stood bundled in a green army coat, he was newly clean shaven, thin. His hair was newly cut, and his eyes were blue and bloodshot. “What’s up Freddy?” I tapped him on the shoulder as I walked by.
“Hey Cousin!” Freddy grabbed a hold of me before I could continue on inside. Freddy was my mom’s cousin; I still don’t understand how. But Freddy loved to shoot the shit. He trapped people through the forcefulness of his story telling. “Listen Mikey, I just got back from Camp David.”
“Oh yeah?” Freddy was a celebrity in the Hollow. He wandered around town from sun up to sun down, just walking, stopping people in the street to tell his wild stories. When Freddy was a teenager, he was climbing mountains over by the old mine. His hand hold gave way, and when he fell, he landed square on his head. The resulting traumatic brain injury, gave Freddy a somewhat tenuous grip on reality. Freddy couldn’t distinguish between events he imagined and those that actually happened. Freddy swore up and down that he taught Tony Hawk how to skateboard, that he played guitar with Angus Young and smoked weed with David Lee Roth. Before the fall, Freddy was a good student and had a bright future. Now he couldn’t keep the bottle out of his hand long enough to do anything other than stumble around town.
“Yep,” he nodded gleefully, “I was up there painting for President Clinton.”
“No shit?” Bill Clinton hadn’t been president for a few years. Dubya was in the White House, and by extension Camp David. Freddy didn’t know what year it was, and I didn’t want to burst his bubble. Mom told me Freddy had been a handy-man who painted houses, but local folks stopped hiring once his drinking started to get out of hand.
“Yep, you wouldn’t believe what they paid me.” Freddy leaned in like he was about to tell me something life-altering, “One-hundred twenty-five.”
“That’s good Freddy. A hundred twenty-five bucks will buy a lot smokes.”
“No, no Mikey,” Freddy shook his head, “One two five grand.”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“The government pays that prevailing wage shit. Big, big bucks.”
“Well, you gonna share some of it with me?”
“Well, the check ain’t cleared yet.”
“Oh. Well, Freddy I’ll catch you later.” I turned to go inside.
“Mikey,” Freddy called after me.
“Yeah,” I turned, “can you buy me a pack of smokes? I’ll pay you back when the check comes in, with interest.”
“The usual? Newport 100’s?”
“Freddy you gotta start smoking cheaper cigarettes if I’m gonna be buyin’ em.”
“Remember Mikey, paid back with interest,” Freddy winked.
“The air curtain fans blew harshly and warmly from the ceiling and blew my hair around violently on my head. Daniel and Steven stood at the touch screen kiosks ordering their food with enthusiasm. I slipped Daniel a ten dollar bill to buy two packs of cigarettes, one for me and one for Freddy. I still wasn’t old enough to buy them myself.
“What’re you buying that bum cigarettes for?” Daniel wondered. I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t have a good answer. My mom beat it into my head again and again that people like Freddy belonged to the town. Even the Freddys of the hollow had fathers and mother, sisters and brothers. When we had enough money to go out to eat, Freddy always got our leftovers. When I was kid mom would pull alongside Freddy, and I would hand the Styrofoam clam shell full of half eaten food out the window. Freddy would take it with a smile, say “thanks little man,” and then scurry away gleefully to find a quiet place to eat.
My dad always asked the same question Daniel was asking now, “why’re you feeding that bum?” He’d say, “he needs to take of himself.”
My mom’s answer was always the same. She sighed, and simply said “if he was my son, I’d want someone to feed him.”
I couldn’t give such a sentimental answer to Daniel. I just shrugged and dodged the question. “I’ll get my usual; get Freddy a pack of Newports.” Daniel nodded, “what’re you getting?”
“I’m getting a sub.” Daniel replied.
Steven’s head snapped, “a sub? what kind of bullshit is that? Hot dogs or nothing,” Stevie held his hand out for a high-five.
I slapped his hand, “two for a dollar until I die.”
“It might happen sooner you all keep eating that shit,” Daniel ripped his receipt from the dispenser and stood on tip toe to look over the counter.
“Nah, it’s like a full meal. Got some onions for vegetables, chili for meat, grains, nacho cheese for dairy,” I explained.
“It’s God’s perfect creation,” Steven said.
“He really did make up for all of man’s misery by giving him hot dogs.” I punched my order into the kiosk between Steven and Daniel. The total came out for a little over three dollars- six hot dogs.
We each paid in turn, and once we were safely outside, Daniel handed me the two packs of cigarettes. I walked over to Freddy and handed him two hot dogs and his pack of Newports. “There ya go Freddy.”
Freddy thanked me, packed the tobacco, and then put one to his lips. He patted his pockets. “Got a light Mikey?”
“Goddamn Freddy, want me to smoke it for you too?”
“Awe, come on Mikey.”
“Relax, I’m just fuckin’ with you.” I tossed him a lighter. I had a handful of them in my car, and more than one in my jacket pocket.
“Thanks again Mikey, I really appreciate it.” Freddy struck the lighter and lit his cigarette. I didn’t bother to remind him that he was leaning on a kerosene pump.
“You’re welcome Freddy.”
“I don’t get it, Mikey.” Daniel said when I returned to the group. We started walking down the highway toward the trailer. “Why spend your money? You had to work an hour to buy that bum a hot dog and pack of smokes.”
“What you do to the least of these my brethren, you do also to me,”I mumbled quietly.
“Oh, that’s how you know Mikey’s drunk. Starts quoting the Bible.” Steven shoved my shoulder.
“Mikretes, the greatest philosopher to ever eat a chili dog,” Daniel piled on.
I just laughed. I knew they were right. Alcohol made me introspective, thoughtful and philosophical. I quoted the Bible most frequently, but I also liked to talk about mythology, philosophy, and politics. I talked about what I perceived as the wrongs of the world. Throughout high school, I made effort to hide my intelligence. I cultivated an image as the tough guy. I was a fat kid until middle school, and the bullying was relentless. Not many people have it harder than a fat, poor, bookish kid. I dropped thirty pounds in a few months. I just stopped eating, and my parents were so worried that they took me to see a therapist, a luxury we couldn’t afford even then. The therapist helped me redirect my energies toward things that were more helpful. I started eating again, little by little, and I started lifting weights. My parents enrolled me in a Tae Kwon Do class so that I could learn to defend myself and build some confidence. It turns out competitive fighting and power lifting make people think twice about fucking with you. I played up the tough guy persona because what I wanted more than anything in school was to be left alone. But I used how people saw me to stop bullying as well. The only time I picked a fight was when I saw a kid who reminded me of those days when I couldn’t stand up for myself, and I prayed that someone would stand up for me.
But that persona was built around physicality. I kept the fact that I was a voracious reader and writer a secret. That is, until I got drunk around my friends. Alcohol lowered the barrier that I’d built around myself, and my closeted bookworm escaped in fits and starts. Daniel and Steven often got me drunk to ask me for advice. When I was sober, if someone asked me to solve a personal problem, I usually just shrugged and played dumb. When I was drunk, I wrote decision charts, quoted the bible, and discussed the philosophical basis of existence. Sometimes Steven and Daniel needed that discussion, and I was unwilling to offer it sober, but they always disguised their need for deeper conversation behind ridicule. And I understood that agreement.
“I just want to help him out. Someone has to,” I put my hands in my pockets.
We walked the rest of the way back to the entrance to the grave yard. We stood at the front gate, deciding how to proceed. “Do we want to walk back through the graveyard?” Daniel asked.
“I really don’t,” Steven sighed. Looking up the road as it wound around the boundary of the cemetery. Not cutting through the cemetery would add more than twenty minutes to our walk. We were all piss drunk, swaying back and forth, looking for some way to avoid both a longer walk and the spooky, somber graveyard. There were no alternatives.
“I’m not walking around,” I shrugged. “Sack up boys. Let’s just get it over with.”
“Not me, Mike.” Steven reiterated. Daniel seemed to agree.
“Alright boys,” I grabbed my bag of chili dogs and hugged it against my chest. “I’ll see you all at the trailer.”
“Good luck Mikey.” They started walking away, “Don’t fall in that grave,” Steven shouted over his shoulder.
I walked over the grass, through the rows of tombstones, stopping occasionally to run my hand over them. I stopped to read some of them. I wondered who these people were in life. The moon was covered by clouds, and everything grew much darker. I was nearing the center of the cemetery now. The street lamps and the house lights are too far to see anything but a distant glow.
Now, which way do I need go? I realized that I was turned around. I couldn’t tell from which direction I entered. And I had no idea how to get to the trailer park. My feet were already heavy. The world was spinning, and my eyes were half closed. I spun around and picked a direction. Looks good to me, I thought and started between the rows.
I found one of the paved roads that intersected the graveyard. It would lead me one of three places: a subdivision near the highway, the trailer park, or back to the road.
I was tragically, hopelessly lost. I decided to turn left on nothing more than a gut feeling, and I prayed that I was headed toward the trailer.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was Daniel. I answered, “hello?”
“Dude, where the hell are you?” He laughed.
“I’m on my way. Don’t worry about me.” I was suddenly more aware of the slurring in my voice, and the sound of my feet shuffling on the ground, the cold settling into my toes and fingers.
“He’s lost isn’t he?” I heard Stevie shout from the background. “Yep. He’s lost.”
“You should’ve beaten us here by twenty minutes,” Daniel reiterated.
“I went exploring. Reading grave stones.”
“Well, where are you now?” Daniel sounded more anxious.
“I’m walking down,” before I could get the thought out, a hill and saw the subdivision. I had gone the wrong way. “Shit.”
“I’m at the subdivision.”
The volume of the laughter coming through the phone caused the speaker to crackle with distortion. I hung up the phone and turned around. At least I knew where I was now. I just had to make the trip all the way back down the cemetery’s access road, the way I’d come. Then walk the rest of the way to the trailer. The bag of hot dogs was beginning to hang heavier. I’ll just eat them, I thought, won’t have to carry them, and they’re getting cold.
I sat on the ground at the back of the nearest grave stone, it read Arizona Henry. The ground and the darkly colored headstone were still warm from the day’s hot sun. I unwrapped each messy, soggy package and savored the smell, taste and texture. They were barely warm and barely food, but they were the best thing I’d ever eaten.
The silence of the grave yard was a comfort. The only sounds were the barking of distant dogs, and Jake brakes. I took a cigarette from my coat pocket and held it out in the dim light. It looked like each end had a filter. My eyes worked as if they had a layer of wax over them. The features of the world were blurred and doubled. I squinted at the cigarette and brought my eyes into focus. I took a deep inhale, and the familiar burning let me know that I lit the right end.
I inhaled again and stared at the moon and stars. They looked beautiful hanging, suspended from nothing, seeing everything. I thought about the woman whose gravestone served as my backrest; she saw the same stars when she was alive. I looked at the neat rows of marble and granite grave stones. They seemed poor memorials, names and dates.
The cigarette burned down to the filter. I flicked the cherry out with my finger and put the butt in my pocket. I pushed against the ground in an effort to raise myself from the ground, but I couldn’t. The softness of the grass and the warmth of the tombstone called to me. My body was heavy, full, satisfied, drunk. I’ll just rest here for a bit, I thought, and the world blinked into and out of existence.
“Mikey!” Daniel and Steven were shouting from the road. The dark was still laying over the cemetery, but it had changed. The air was thicker, darker, and the moon was hidden behind the clouds. My clothes were damp, and condensation settled on the gravestone. I clumsily stood up and dusted myself off.
“Over here,” my voice has hoarse and weak. I pulled the pack of cigarettes from my pocket and lit one before gathering the hot dog wrappers up and shoving them in my coat pocket.
“Mikey!” Daniel waved from the road but made no move to walk toward me. “Jesus man, we’ve been looking for you for the last hour.”
“Yeah, man, we are ready to go to sleep. But we couldn’t leave your dumb ass out here to freeze to death.” Steven shouted even though I’d already reached where they were standing.
They were still drunk, and so was I.
“Alright, well I’m here now.” I took another drag from my cigarette. My hands were shaking from smoking too much.
“Did you pass out?”
“No, I was,” I broke eye contact, “just resting my eyes a minute.”
They roared with laughter, “alright there old man river.” Daniel smiled while Steven did his best impersonation of a half-crippled old man. “You’re like my mom every time she thinks she knows a shortcut.”
“You must’ve been pretty drunk to sleep with a gravestone for your backrest.”
“Well, I sat down to eat the hot dogs, and the rest of it just kind of happened.”
“But there’s a perfectly good bench right there,” Steven pointed to a bench that was less than 50 yards from where I was sitting.
“At the time, that was too far to walk.”