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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Something to Remember You By

I bought my father's grave marker yesterday.  Nearly four months after he died.  I don't know what took me so long -- for awhile there I actually forgot about it.  I'm not big on visiting dead relatives, although I love cemeteries.   My loved ones aren't really there. But it's a testament that someone has been here, made their mark on the world and left.   I'd made big plans to put his Natchez poem on the stone, but in the end I decided it wasn't appropriate.

So I drove out to Natchez Monument Company and looked through their catalogue.  It's amazing the array of stones and benches available.  You can have pictures put on them.  Lazer etchings that look three dimensional.  You can add a photo of your loved one if you like.  You can get black, white and pink granite, polished or unpolished.  Slanted markers, straight markers.  But they all look so new.

I love the Natchez Cemetery.  The old grave markers are works of art.  Marble angels, obelisks, broken obelisks with ivy carved on them, pedastals, lambs, cradles, tree trunks, mausoleums, all softened with the patina of hundreds of years.  Some have elaborate wrought iron fences around them.  Some only have the gate left or part of the fence, all nestled under the moss-laden branches of ancient, giant oaks.  It makes the shining new monuments look almost garish in comparison.

In the end I decided an obelisk would be the closest I would come to an old-fashioned monument.  I wondered what to put on it.  Finally, I simply decided on this:

William Howard Pritchartt, Jr.

April 14, 1926 - March 5, 2013

Beloved Father

Veni, Vidi, Vici

When we said our prayers as children at night, we always ended with, "Veni, Vidi, Vici."  I came, I saw, I conquered.  And my father did that.  He was a self-made man who grabbed life by the horns and rode it for all it was worth.

I drove to the cemetery in the evening and looked at our family plot.  There's room left for one more.  I'd like to be buried there when my time comes.  The grave is settling, the mound a little lower than before.  The remains of some peacock feathers were strewn about, put there by a dear friend who knew how much my father loved the peacock she tends at a crumbling old mansion in the country with its own ancient cemetery.  Some of my own ancestors are interred there.  Ancestors I didn't even know about until recently.  Some of the stones are so old, it's hard to see the names, like many at the Natchez City Cemetery.

I thought back to a day I spent with Daddy in the country when he was feeling his mortality.  He talked about people dying:  

"You know, when people die," he said, " really doesn't matter who they were or what they did.  Theyre only remembered by the few people who knew them.  And once those people are gone, you're forgotten.  It's like you were never here at all."

He couldn't imagine not being remembered.  It reminded me of a novel I once read called The Brief History of the Dead.   In the story whenever someone died they went to the realm of the dead, which was very similar to the realm of the living.  As long as someone remembers the person who died and the world they lived in, they lived an alternate existence.  It wasn't until the last person died who remembered you that your own little universe -- and you -- truly ceased to exist.  There was a plague and everyone was dying.  Universes expanded and winked out of existence until the last person on earth had died.  And I guess that's kind of how it is.

Sleep well, Daddy.  You are not forgotten.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Country Roads Magazine Short-Story Winner

Hey, y'all.  I won!

Driving Home:  A short story by Elodie Pritchartt

They waited out the morning in a sad little coffee shop just off the interstate, one of those places two hundred miles from nowhere that claimed it was famous around the world for its special chili and pecan logs.

It had looked like an exciting place to wait for the weather to let up, but it was just another tired diner with dirty floors and bad coffee. Like motels, she thought. They seem so nice, but when you get there and check into your room, there’s always one pubic hair in the tub.

“I wonder if anybody famous ever stopped here,” she said, looking around at the rows of shelves with ceramic praying hands and little glass bells with gold lettering telling one and all that, Oklahoma is the OK state!

A metal stand offered personalized nameplates for children’s bicycles. Do kids even ride bikes anymore? She couldn’t remember—Jane, Matthew, Amanda, Johnny—not a Pilar among them. Her mother had wanted a special child with a special name.

“Those names are common,” she’d said. “We’re different.”

Pilar picked at her salad–iceberg lettuce with freezer burn, a mealy tomato, and a slice of hard-boiled egg.

“If you’re not gonna eat that, I’m getting a go box,” said Joe. He reached across the table. “Want that egg?”

“You know I don’t eat eggs,” she said, and sighed, her eyes on the door. “You know that.” After fifteen years of marriage, you’d think he’d know.

It was on a road trip to the coast the summer she was five. Her brother got carsick and threw up in the pail her mother had brought along for such emergencies. It was hot in the car. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck and a wet film on the backs of her legs made the plastic seat covers slippery as she tried to get purchase on the seatback in front of her, searching for fresh air that didn’t smell like bile and urine. Tried not to see it.

Her mouth full of rubbery egg, she suddenly couldn’t swallow.

“Spit it in the bucket,” Mother said.

But, she couldn’t lean into that bucket. She couldn’t spit it out and she couldn’t swallow, and she was trapped in the car and began to cry until they finally pulled over and she tumbled onto the macadam, where she spat and wretched, and pee ran down her legs and soaked her socks as an 18-wheeler blew past.

It blew its horn and rocked the car with a sudden blast of heat that felt like rage.

No more eggs. But that was a long time ago.

“You know,” said Pilar, “if it wasn’t for people needing to pee, this place probably wouldn’t even be here. Why can’t we ever stop someplace nice?”

“Get a job and we can stop someplace nice,” said Joe through a mouthful of Reuben on rye. A fat drop of greasy cheese dripped down his chin.

He watched as the rain mixed with sleet outside.

She looked at her husband.

“Can we go by that little town with the square on the way home?”

“We got to get back early,” said Joe. “I want to wash the salt off my truck.”

The truck. Joe spent every weekend on the truck—changing the oil, adding mud flaps, bug guards, trailer hitches. With the money spent on that truck, they could probably buy a house instead of renting the run-down little place by the railroad tracks in Burbank.

“Must be something bad wrong with that truck,” said Don the next-door neighbor. Standing in his own driveway, beer in his hand and Led Zeppelin playing on the radio, he watched the never-ending work. 

“Never saw anything like it. What’s wrong with it this time?” A smirk teased the corners of his mouth.

“They missed a spot with the clear coat up here by the mirror,” said Joe, pointing to the door. “See?”

“Nope,” said Don.

“Look. Lemme pull it into the garage. If you lay down on the ground and look up the side of the door into the light, you can see a spot right there.”

“Nah. That’s okay,” said Don, shaking his head. “I’ve got stuff to do.”

“If they don’t fix it, it’ll rust out. Be a big problem down the road,” said Joe. Don waved him off and went back into his house.

“You pay $30 grand for a truck, they better make it right,” said Joe, shaking his head, his voice getting louder.

“Nothing’s ever perfect,” said Pilar. “Why does it have to be?”

There would be an argument at the dealership. It would turn ugly. Just like the time they painted the house. Like the time they ordered carpet. She’d come to dread the words, “I want to talk to your supervisor.”

“If they’d get it right the first time, it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Joe, like it’d teach them some lesson, like they’d change how they do things.

Joe pulled the ticket for the food from beneath the napkin box.

“Let’s go.”

He examined each item. The leathery little woman who’d waited on them sat behind the register by the door.

Pilar wondered where she lived, where she went when they closed, way out here in the middle of nowhere. Pilar looked outside.

“I wonder who’s buried in that little graveyard over there. There’s not even a church out here. Why’s there a cemetery? Nothing around for miles except a place to pee and a place to die.”

“They probably died waiting to get some service in here,” said Joe, and glared at the waitress, who slammed the cash drawer and shoved his change at him. Pilar pretended not to notice.

On the way out, Pilar bought a souvenir, an ashtray with a little green snake coiled around it. Written in the base: A pot to hiss in.

Back on the entrance to the interstate, they edged forward behind a line of other cars.

“I wonder where all these people are going,” said Pilar. “Wouldn’t it be fun to pick a car and follow it, see where it goes?”

“I need you to follow me to the mechanic in the morning,” said Joe. “I want them to check a valve.”

“When I was in high school, I used to fantasize about driving past school in the mornings and seeing where I ended up,” Pilar said. “Just keep on going until I found a place to stop and start over. Be someone else. You know?”

“Where’d you put my toothpicks?”

“You left them in the console.”

They pulled back onto the road, merging with traffic as the car found its speed and eased into a rhythm between the seams on the roadway ticking the miles like a second hand on a clock. Pilar thought about her best friend from school, wondered where she was and what she was doing. They’d been so close. And now? Just gone. The rhythm of the seams made her drowsy.

A teal-blue Honda crossed in front of them and took the next exit. Pilar watched as it rolled down the ramp and turned left onto the straightaway that stretched off into the distance, the landscape as alien as a distant planet. She hoped someday it would look like home. It must look like home to someone. But not to her.