Dennis can’t believe Terry and I will give up a vacation day to visit the family cemetery, but once I convince him that I’m not kidding, there is silence on the phone. I hear him breathing—a concerning wheeze that carries across the ether of our connection—until he says, “Well, if you’re going to be there, check to see if he’s in it.”
He, meaning our father.
I promise I will.
There’s a speed trap at the edge of town. I don’t remember it until I see the worn WELCOME sign with seagulls and a shrimp boat painted in dulling colors. The sun glints off the bayou, slightly choppy under a breezy December sky. On a piling ten feet from the edge of the road, a pelican perches. At first I’m not sure it’s real, but it moves, turning slightly to face the sun.
“Look at that,” Terry says, like the tourist he is. “Is that usual for this time of year? I mean, don’t they migrate someplace warmer?”
Warmer than Louisiana? I shrug. I don’t know. I haven’t lived here in forty years.
“Slow down,” I say. “There might be a cop car hiding behind that sign.”
Terry slows, his foot hitting the brake too hard, and my hand whips out to the dashboard. While we’re being welcomed to town, the speed limit abruptly drops 20 mph.
We both turn to check behind the sign. No cop car.
“False alarm,” I say. “There’s usually one hiding back there. Everybody knows about it.”
“Everybody, huh?” Terry teases. “How old were you when you left this place?” The way he says “place” instead of “town” makes clear his first impression.
“Seven. Dennis was five,” I say, but I’m staring out the window, looking for familiar sights. Memories. Is that red brick building the hardware store where I got my first bike? That pinkish one with Library painted on the door where I got a library card? A shuttered white building on the bayou side might be a snowball stand, a tumbling down one with a rusting pole reaching to the sky the old Frostop.
There’s no traffic. It’s a Tuesday, mid-morning, and a bypass was built behind town so the oil industry workers could zip along in their white pick-ups without getting caught in the speed trap. An abundance of white pick-ups means the economy is healthy, someone at the conference told Terry. We’ve been counting white pick-ups all morning on the drive from New Orleans toward the Gulf.
There are no white pick-ups going through town. The locals must be sleeping in.
I continue my memory tour. The Sheriff’s Annex looks new, but it’s in the same spot as the old one. Why do I remember where the jail would be? I am not sure, but as if a hand touches the top of my head and swivels it, I turn and peer through the windshield, across the bayou, across the road, to a street on the other side. My hand lifts, my index finger points.
“Across the bayou, on that street. First house on the right side,” I say. “Where we lived.” Directly across the bayou from the sheriff’s office. Maybe that’s why I remember the jail?
Terry slows—if you can go slower than 20—but there is not much to see. A street lined with wooden houses, some of them shotguns, some of them cottages, one square red brick which sticks out like it fell from the sky. Yards full of azaleas and china ball trees. Chain link fences, one or two strung with Christmas lights.
A few houses are painted pastels, but when we lived here, your house was white. If it was painted at all. I glance down at my feet and picture myself sitting on an unpainted porch, dangling my bare toes over tangles of sweet peas, while through the screen door behind me voices argued. Where was Dennis? Not beside me, and I dropped into the too-long grass and went hunting for him. He had a few regular hiding places—under the cistern, beside the shed, beneath the front porch when the weather was dry, behind the small concrete statute of Our Blessed Mother in the front yard. The statue was painted blue and white, and seasonal flowers grew around it: lilies in spring, petunias in summer, some hearty bloom in fall. I don’t recall finding Dennis, but I must have. I always did, always sat beside him and waited out the fight, while across the bayou, black and white police cars sat in front of the Sheriff’s Annex.
I turn my face and stare at the road. Now I remember why I remember. Daddy used to tell us if we were bad, the Sheriff would put us in jail. We believed him because one of the deputies was his brother, my Uncle Dale.
“The church is coming up,” I say. “After the school.”
Terry points to a small, pale purple building painted with green vines and bright pink flowers. It sticks out more than the red brick house. A sign in front says MOIRA’S DINER.
“Should we stop first?” Terry asks. “I could use coffee, and some more of those beignet things if they got ‘em.”
“You’re such a Yankee,” I say, but I’m glad we’re stopping. For the coffee, and the beignet things, and to gather myself.
I can’t recall anyone in my father’s family named Moira.
I take his hand as we walk the few steps to the diner. Terry is always amiable, but since Dennis’s diagnosis, he’s been extra solicitous. Dennis and I are all that’s left of my mother’s family—no cousins, no family reunions, no Thanksgiving meals reminiscing about how your mother was always stoned and your father disappeared one day. After Mama overdosed, Grandmama told Dennis and me we’d always have each other; before she was gone, we had to promise to stay close. We didn’t keep the promise physically, but we talk or text almost every day. Grandmama’s heart would be warmed, but she was wrong. Dennis and I won’t always have each other.
With no treatment, weeks to months. With treatment, two years.
“You’re not taking this trip because of me?” Dennis asked. “You don’t think you’ll go in the family cemetery and find a headstone that says ‘Died of liver cancer at 45, so avoid liquor and fatty foods’?”
“Yes, Dennis, that’s why we’re going, because everything has to be about you,” I say. The old joke between us. Which, we’d both admit, is a little bit true. “But if I see a headstone like that, I’ll Instagram it to you.”
“Please do,” he says.
Moira is a white-haired lady in a dark purple dress that matches the bistro tables and chairs. Suns and moons and stars are painted on the dark blue walls. The ceiling is yellow.
Terry pulls out a chair for me and whispers, “Did we take a wrong turn?”
There are no beignets on the menu, only tea cakes, muffins, and scones. Lots of teas, but also coffee. Moira might be an anomaly on the bayou, but she has business sense. We order coffee. Terry, sad resignation in his voice, orders a blueberry muffin.
Moira is back in no time with our order. She’s frankly curious about us, so frankly that she asks. “Where’rey’all from? I can tell you’re not from around here.”
Terry says, “Philadelphia. We’ve been in New Orleans for a conference. I wanted to see the Gulf of Mexico, so we drove down the scenic route.”
The response sounds practiced, like a cover story. Which it is. But I am intrigued by Moira’s use of “where’rey’all” as one word, so I add, “I was born in the area.” I name the town of Grandmama’s birth, not really in the area but where we escaped to after Daddy disappeared. Before she can ask for details, I say, “What about you? Moira’s not exactly a down the bayou name.”
She laughs. “Oh, my darling, I gave myself this name. My given name’s Mary Madonna. There were four Marys and three Madonnas in school with me, so I changed it. I thought it would make me special.”
“It fits you,” Terry says, jutting his chin toward the stars and moon and the sun ceiling overhead.
“Or maybe I fit it,” she says, but she’s eyeing me, and I start thinking of Marys and Madonnas in my father’s family. Surely there were some, whether I remember or not.
I ask to use the restroom and stay in there as long as possible. When I return to the table, Terry’s had my coffee put into a go cup and his muffin is down to crumbs. I want to bless him for the hundredth time.
“Moira was getting a wee bit nosy,” he says as we go back to the car.
“I know.” I am shaken, as if encountering a white-haired lady in a purple dress was dodging a close call.
I don’t have to point out the church to Terry. The sign is planted almost aggressively close to the road, and the white stucco exterior is striking against the towering live oaks overhead. We turn into the parking lot, and I tell him to drive around the back of the church. I have no reason to go inside, though Dennis and I were baptized here, and I wore a white dress and a hat with an itchy elastic chin band on the day I made my First Communion. We were gone before Dennis made his.
There is a tall black fence surrounding the cemetery. That is new, and my stomach drops. What if it’s locked? Would we have to find the pastor and ask permission? I am not sure I want to do that.
We get closer. The gate is open. I sighed, relieved. Terry frowns as he side-eyes me.
“You all right?”
“Yes,” I say. “See if you can find us a good parking spot.”
The line of spots alongside the church is empty. Terry pulls into the first one. We both jump as something hits the roof of the car.
“What the hell?” Terry says.
“It’s just an acorn,” I say, knowing before I see it. “The church grounds are surrounded by oak trees.” I explain briefly how the deep roots are supposed to keep the in-ground graves from floating away during hurricanes.
The wind has pushed piles of acorns against the edges of the parking lot. They crunch under our feet as we get out of the car.
“Cripes, you sure can’t sneak up on anybody here, can you?”
That is probably a good thing, but after a few feet of cringing after each step, we start laughing. It’s so loud, it’s absurd. I expect flocks of blackbirds to fly out of the oaks, but though I hear them cawing between our steps, they stay put.
At the gate, I stop. “Oh, shoot, I forgot the papers in the car,” I say.
Terry says, “I’ll get them. You look around.”
He crunches away. I hear another “Cripes.”
At home, I did research on the grave sites of our relatives, but I am certain from memory that our grandparents’ tomb is on the fifth row on the right side. Daddy would bring us here on Father’s and Mother’s Day and lament the loss of his parents. His father died at sea when a rogue storm blew in and nearly capsized his shrimp trawler. He pitched over the side and drowned before his crew could pull him in. Daddy was a teenager. His mother died later, in a car accident caused by a drunk driver.
The tombs are above ground, in the sun, and the cemetery blazes as if buckets of whitewash have been poured over the whole plot. It’s December, only a month after All Souls’ Day, and even after forty years away, I know the social ramifications of not white-washing the family tombs by the day after Halloween. We did it in the morning, half-sick from too much candy, Mama dragging us here with Grandmama helping. Daddy was the oldest son and it was his responsibility to tend his parents’ resting place. Which meant it was Mama’s job, which meant Grandmama did the actual work. Grandmama who moved in when I was a baby because Mama was incapable, and stayed after Dennis was born for the same reason. Grandmama had Dennis and me help paint the low parts or the back of the tomb, where nobody would look. When Daddy asked if we helped, we could honestly answer “yes.”
Fifth row, second tomb, right side. I shuffle through scattered acorns and stand as far back as I can, the backs of my knees butting against the grave behind it. My maiden name in carved across the top is unsettling. My grandparents are listed one after the other—beloved husband/wife and father/mother—followed by Uncle Dale. His death was twenty years ago. I hadn’t heard.
Beneath Dale is my father’s name. His date of birth. A hyphen. A blank.
So now I know—though I assumed all along, because we’d have been alerted by some government agency or lawyer or something, but the stark black letters on the family tomb makes it official in my mind. He’s never been found.
I take a photo and text it to Dennis. I don’t know what to say so all I send is the photo. A few seconds later, he texts back: Not very helpful, is it?
I text back: He never was.
Terry returns with the papers I printed with the locations of my cousins and aunts and uncles. We go up and down the rows, kicking aside acorns, and find them. I take pictures of each one and text Dennis, who sends back responses:
A long and happy marriage, bless ‘em.
Is that name for a man or a woman?
Thank him for his service.
Seven months? That’s sad.
- The Spanish flu, maybe?
There are a few tombs with photographs attached to them, small oval pictures behind convex glass coverings and a silver framed embedded next to the deceased’s name. These freak Terry out.
“That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says, recoiling, but I find them fascinating. I study each one—usually old women or men, some so warped I have to check the name to figure out the gender. There are a few couples, but no children.
Only one of our relatives has a photograph, a woman who died in the 1960s at an advanced age, though the photo must have been taken at midlife. Still, the black and white photo shows a face lined from working outdoors, gray hair pulled back in a bun, a sharp chin and hawkish nose, arms folded over a plain dress and striped apron. No smile. I suspect she’d had a hard life, but I feel sympathy about the photo. Who chose to memorialize her with this unforgiving image?
Then again, maybe there was a good reason.
I hear crunching of acorns. Terry. I point at the photo.
“I wonder if that’s Moira’s grandma,” I joke.
He bends forward. “Yikes.”
I send a photo of her to Dennis with the text: Cousin Violina
He texts back: You have her eyes.
We stay an hour. Terry is getting restless; there’s only so much to see in a small cemetery half covered in acorns. There are no more photos to send to Dennis, no evidence that we were pre-deceased by anyone with the same liver disease that will take my brother away too soon.
But that’s not why I came.
We walk back together, debating po-boys or gumbo for lunch, but when we reach the fifth row, I tell Terry, “Go on ahead. I want another minute.”
I run my fingers along my father’s name. I can’t picture him, and that my brain’s choice if not mine, because the human mind sometimes protects itself from what’s too hard to recall. Traumatic amnesia. I have a mended bone in my right arm from the time he broke it, and Dennis…Dennis has more. He remembers more, too, though he was younger.
My hand turns into a fist. I press it into his name. “You son of a bitch,” I say.
“He was that,” a man’s voice says, and I swing around, so startled I can hardly catch my breath. I didn’t hear any acorns.
The man is tall and lean, wearing a deputy’s uniform. I turn back to the tomb and double-check the date. Dead twenty years, but here he is.
He tips his old-fashioned police hat as if I am a stranger on the street.
“I figured you might come back someday,” he says. “How’s the boy?”
The boy. Dennis. My little brother. We were supposed to always be together.
I shake my head. My eyes fill with tears. “Not so good,” I say.
He doesn’t look surprised. “I’m sorry to know that,” he says. “Tell him, when the time comes, I’ll be watching for him this time. I should have done a better job of that before.”
He pulls off the hat, turns it in his hands. A breeze rushes up, and the acorns begin to roll, twirling and bumping up against each other before settling back into a pile.
I try to remember. There was a fight, but not with Mama. Mama was with Dennis and me, hiding. We were in the front yard, crouched under the porch, Mama rocking Dennis back and forth, his head bloody. His eyes were open but he wouldn’t cry.
Above us, voices raised and footsteps pounded and then it was silent. We stayed under the porch, but I could see clear across the bayou at the Sheriff’s Annex, and after a little while, a cop car pulled out from in front of the jail and showed up at our house. Not to take us away because we were bad but because Grandmama had come in . . . and said never again . . . no more . . . .
“You knew where he was?” I say. Guess. “You knew all along?”
Uncle Dale nods, says yes, and puts his hat back on.
I face the tomb again and look at the blank behind Daddy’s name. No date, no information I can confirm or verify.
I ask. “Where?”
I turn around, but Uncle Dale is gone.
I back up and, ignoring the sacrilege, sit on the lower grave behind me. There is no wind and, I realize, the blackbirds have all gone silent. No one else is here. No one else has come since we arrived.
On the tomb, black letters say Beloved Husband and Father beside the grandfather I never knew. I look at Daddy’s name, but I still can’t picture his face.
Maybe a person can only disappear if nobody goes looking for them.
The grave feels cold and hard under my bottom. Dennis wants to be cremated. No grave or marker or brick in a remembrance wall. Fling me to the winds. Don’t waste a bunch of money on funereal nonsense. I agree about the nonsense but not the flinging. At night, I look at urns on the Internet but I don’t text photos to my dying brother. I wish I could ask Grandmama: If I put him on my fireplace mantle, is that staying together? Would that be keeping the promise?
I think of what Uncle Dale just said. Tell him, when the time comes, I’ll be watching for him this time.
Around the tomb, the piles of acorns quiver. I stand to go. Terry is waiting in the car.
Ramona DeFelice Long’s short fiction and personal essays have appeared in regional and literary publications such as The Delmarva Review, Literary Mama, the Parhelion Review, Lunch Ticket, and the Arkansas Review. Ramona has received multiple writing grants, and in 2017 she was awarded a Masters Fellowship in Fiction from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She is a transplanted Southerner now living in Delaware though she can most often be found at open mics, literary readings, and writing retreats.