I didn’t even want to go to the graveyard, but Ruby told me I had to. She was giving my uncle Stanley hell about it for weeks, until he finally said: “Oh shit, Mother.That old road up there is rough as hell. What are we going to do if I get my truck stuck up?” My uncle Stanley just lived down the road, so he was always stuck with taking us places.
But she kept going on and on about it, saying: “Oh Lordy, I’d like to go to the cemetery. I don’t know when I’ll get back up there.” She told us there was a grave up there she wanted to put flowers on. There was a grave up there she needed to see before she died.
My uncle Stanley finally gave in. He picked up some plastic flowers from the dollar store and drove her up to the graveyard in his truck. He drove down into Prince and we listened to the radio—99.5 The Big Dawg in country. Lord have mercy, baby’s got her blue jeans on.
We drove through the places where Ruby had given birth to babies in shacks that no longer stood, and where my grandfather sold moonshine. We gunned it up Backus Mountain with my uncle Nathan, sitting in the back of the truck trying to hang on with his palsy legs. Then we finally pulled up the hill and into the Goddard graveyard.
Stanley stopped the truck, and on top of the cow-paddy hill we got out.
He said: “Damn, it’s bad enough being buried up here, let alone having to come up here when you’re still alive.”
But my grandma wouldn’t listen to him and started walking through the grass. I remembered to watch my step because my uncle Larry stepped in cow shit one time up here when he was wearing flip-flops.
I told Ruby I didn’t like graveyards. She told me it didn’t matter.
Even though I was only fourteen years old it was no telling when the angel of death might come to get my ass.
I stepped over a big fossilized cow paddy and then I stepped over another as Uncle Nathan laughed at us from the truck.
Earlier that day she fed me peanut butter fudge she made and told me: Nothing lasts.
Now we walked past the graves of all the people she knew.
There was Grandmommy Goddard and Daddy Goddard and Great Grandmommy Goddard and Virginia Goddard.
And there was her aunt Mag Goddard who starved herself to death. Ruby stood in front of the grave and said, “No one knows why. She just locked herself in her room and starved herself to death.”
Then there were other graves and she started walking through them. She said: “I don’t think they’ve been mowing it very nice out here.” Then she stopped in front of one.
I asked her if it was her mother.
And Grandma said, “Yeah, that’s Mommy. The day of the funeral they tried putting her in the ground facing the west. I just hollered and carried on ’cause she was facing the wrong way for the resurrection.” Then she was quiet and smiled a gummy grin.
Then she walked on.
“Oh, look at all the little graves,” she said, walking past the grave of her uncle.
She turned to it and said, “They had to bury him on his stomach. He always said he never could sleep on his back. So he had them bury him on his stomach.”
Then she said she never could sleep on her back either.
She had me pull away some tall grass from the graves.
She said that it seemed like all there was to do anymore was die.
That’s all people did in this day and age. She said she couldn’t even get the ambulance to pick her up anymore when she needed them. Of course, I knew that they stopped coming because she called every day claiming she was dying. When they got her into the ambulance, it seemed like she was always feeling better and just needed them to just take her down to Rogers and get a gallon of milk. Finally one of the ambulance people told her: “Now, Miss Ruby, you call us when you’re having an emergency, not just when Nathan runs out of 7-Up. The taxpayers can’t be paying for your trips to get Nathan’s 7-Up.”
But I didn’t say anything about it. She walked away from the graves and I noticed all the tiny graves beside her mother’s grave. There was a grave here and then there was a grave there—the stones all broken off and covered up by the grass.
“Whose graves are these?” I asked and then I wondered: “Why all these little graves?”
I knew the answer. They were baby graves.
I walked away, looking at the end where Ruby was.
And I thought about her own mother losing baby after baby after baby after baby after baby and still going on—surrounded by the graves of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who never were. They were in this ground—all this great big lump of flesh we call Earth.
I had even looked in the back of Ruby’s mother’s Bible with all of it written in the back. There was a date and then—baby died. There was a date and then—baby died. There was a date and then—girl baby died.
So I said, “You want me to put the flowers down here? Are these the graves you wanted to see?”
But Grandma just shook her head.
She pointed to a couple of graves at the edge of the mountain and said, “That’s where I want to put them.”
Ruby moved her walker and started moving closer to the graves, past the grave of her own little baby who died, and then past her husband, my grandfather Elgie, who died of his fifth heart attack when I was three.
I heard my uncle Stanley from far over at the edge of the field say:
“Daddy would have shit himself if he knew you put him up here with all these goddamn Goddards.”
Ruby got mean and said: “Well, I figured I wanted him where I wanted him. And I put him where I put him.”
She hobbled along some more and I walked behind her.
She said: “This is the grave I wanted to see. This is the grave.”
I asked: “Whose grave is it?”
I walked in front of the stone and I saw…
… IT WAS HER GRAVE.
It was the grave of…
Ruby Irene McClanahan Born 1917. died . . .
. . . and then there was a blank space—the space where they would put the date of her death.
She touched the shiny stone and explained how Wallace and Wallace gave her a really good deal on the tombstone. She told me I should start saving. It was a good investment.
So Grandma pointed to the grave and finally told me to put the flowers down. And that’s just what I did. I put the flowers down on my grandmother’s grave. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a camera.
She said: “Well, come on now, Todd. You want to have your pictures taken by Grandma’s grave?” I told her for the thousandth time. “My name’s not Todd, Grandma. My name’s Scott.”
My uncle Stanley shouted at her: “Ah hell, Mother. Just leave him alone. He doesn’t want to touch your grave.”
Then she started in on my uncle Nathan, who was still sitting in the back of the truck. “Hey, Nathan. You want to come and sit in front of Mother’s grave? It’s a pretty thing.”
Nathan just sat in the back of the truck and shook his head like:
I finally gave in and Grandma took my picture next to her grave.
Then she waddled over to the side of the shiny marble tombstone and I took her picture.
I looked through the camera and all I could see was my grandma Ruby standing beside her stone.
Ruby Irene McClanahan Born 1917. died . . .
and then the blank space.
Here was the date of her birth, and the date of her death, which we didn’t know yet, but which we passed each year without knowing.
So I got ready to take the picture and I saw her smile.
I saw the graves filling up all around her and I saw how Grandma would be here beneath it one day and then Nathan and then one day Stanley, and then one day . . . me. So I saw her whisper “Oh, Lordy,” and claim she was dying like she always did.
I wished we were already back at home so I could eat some more peanut butter fudge. Nothing lasts.
I snapped the picture and it was like she was already gone.
It was like I saw that she was dying right then—real slow—and she knew the secret sound. It’s a sound that all of us hear. It’s a sound that sounds like this. Tick. Tick. Tick.
But there is a way to stop it. I promise you there is a way to stop it.
We can devote our hearts to its opposition.
So I ask you now. Will you? Will you devote your heart to its opposition?
by Scott McClanahan