Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in western North Carolina and that’s still where I live now under the shadows of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Except for a stint in Washington DC (which is still pretty close to the South), I’ve lived in the South my whole life from Williamsburg to Winston-Salem from Hickory to Blowing Rock. The South seeps into my writing, my poetry effortlessly making an appearance here or there with a particular character or with a certain verse or lines. I am comfortable in the South, I am comfortable sticking close to home.
The Care and Feeding of Cemeteries
It wouldn’t work now – what we did with the cinder blocks behind the nursing home. We worked till dusk stacking and unstacking the gray blocks. Some were covered with moss or dirt. Some were cracked or moldy. We scraped our hands and knees to lift and move them. We turned them into shapes. Thrones. Spaceships. Teepees. Hideouts. Whatever we were into at the time.
I was thirteen. Andy was fourteen. His Dad ran the only nursing home in town. When I visited his home, we’d listen to his disco records and smoke cigarettes in his closet. It was an old white house, large with two floors.
The closet was walk-in and had plenty of room for Andy’s sleeping bag and mine on the other end. Andy had cut a small hole in the wall to the outside to get rid of the smell from our cigarette smoke.
They lived in the bottom floor of their grandparent’s house. His Dad worked all the time and we weren’t allowed upstairs where Andy’s grandparents lived. They blamed Andy’s Dad for their daughter taking off and never coming back. They owned the town’s only nursing home. It went to Andy’s Dad after they passed away.
I looked at the large white building and grimaced. It was set deep into a hill. If you looked at it the right way, it leaned at an angle. It was the perfect horror movie scene. It wasn’t much better inside the nursing home. It had the smell. That disinfectant decaying bodies leftover food and feces type of smell. The one the people who live there and work there don’t notice because they become immune to it over time. Me, I never got used to it or to anything I saw while I was there.
There was a lobby with a TV, two floors of rooms and a basement. A medical center and cafeteria were in the basement. I never ventured anywhere I didn’t have to in the old building. At night when it was quiet, everyone said they heard strange noises. I’d heard them, too. Andy’s Dad always blamed the pipes.
My job usually took place far away from the pipes out back outside near the cinder blocks or what was left of them. Andy didn’t work at the rest home. He’d moved to Chicago to go school and later got a job there, too. His Dad had inherited the nursing home. No one was ever sure what became of his Mother. She wasn’t around when we were teens and that never changed. His Dad took pity on me and gave me a job when no one else would after I flunked out of high school. I flunked out of mechanic school, too. My parents were like Andy’s Mom. Absentee. I was raised by my Aunt. She ran the floral shop. After my Uncle passed, she remarried, sold the shop and moved to Arizona to retire. That left me on my own. She let me stay in her old apartment, but I had to rent it from her. I worked for Andy’s Dad to pay my rent.
My name was Pete Shoals, but I was known as Petey Shoals. I was hired to take care of the nursing home cemetery.
Maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t unusual for a nursing home to have its own cemetery in back. It garnered its share of jokes. There was a need for it so that couldn’t be argued. A lot of folks who ended up at the Top of the Hill Rest Home didn’t have any family. No one to make the tough decisions so strangers did it for them.
The nursing home’s cemetery sat where the cinder blocks had. It had been a vacant lot. The cinder blocks were left in piles right behind the home. The lot had been purchased and a palette of cinder blocks left for building a new home foundation. The lot went into foreclosure so Andy’s Dad picked it up for about half price. He was able to get it zoned for a cemetery.
I spent my days weeding, digging, pouring and scooping mulch, planting flowers, planting trees, and scraping away gunk, dirt or moss from the headstones. I used a sculpting knife, a chisel, old toothbrushes, whatever I could find to polish up the markers. People said I did good work. By that I thought they meant they could at least find their loved ones when or if they paid a visit. For most, there were no visitors. For most, there were no fresh flowers, teddy bears, plastic flowers in plastic pots, pictures in plastic bags taped to the stones, or any other mementos. If I had the time, extra money or got a deal on some fake flowers I would clean them up and arrange them at some of the lonelier looking stones.
There was never a stone for Andy’s Mom, Grandparents or even a sibling. Andy had been an only child which wasn’t too hard to believe since his Mom had nothing to do with them and Andy’s Dad had never remarried. The majority of the spots were ones negotiated for when the resident got a spot in the Top of the Hill Rest Home. If the families couldn’t or wouldn’t set up for a spot, other arrangements could be made. Sometimes, some of the residents had already completed a burial plan with the funeral home. In that case, they didn’t need a spot at the Top of the Hill Rest home cemetery which locals nicknamed Bottom of the Hill.
I learned what I knew about plastic flowers from my Aunt and her flower shop and I learned what I knew about caring for cemeteries from Bottom of the Hill. It became my hobby to find neglected ones and give them a little attention.
The word got out from the residents or their relatives or maybe even Andy’s Dad himself and soon neighbors in other parts of town wanted to hire me to clean up other old abandoned cemeteries. I got letters talking about souls crying out for help. Some of the old headstones were dated from the 1800’s or early 1900’s. I dug out rusted stakes and decayed fencing, removed brush and built new fences. I had to get permission if the cemetery was truly abandoned with no known affiliations to a place, church, or family.
Taking on the abandoned ones that no one else would touch or take care of gave me a good feeling, a sort of hobby and sometimes some extra cash or a free meal. Everyone was always grateful like the residents of the cemetery even knew what was going on. Their relatives, friends, or even those just passing by or stopping at stop lights and looking over seemed to appreciate a well-marked well cared for graveyard.
Of all the cemeteries and stones I worked with, the hardest stone I had to look after was in Bottom of the Hill. It didn’t seem to belong. The space had been made and the marker set up. It was a murder from a drive by or from a too late walk in the big city in the wrong place at the wrong time. The guy had been out to fetch something from the store. A case of beer, a loaf of bread, a pack of gum, or a bottle of soda or maybe something far worse that you couldn’t buy at a convenience or bread store. No one was really sure. The case remained unsolved.
For this stone, I used some of the cinder blocks I had rescued before they were destroyed. I changed them up every so often making shapes in front of the giant headstone.
It was the largest headstone in Bottom of the Hill. Today I made a captain’s seat. I sat on it and leaned back. I imagined Andy and I were commanding a fast sleek space ship up to Mars and back. I imagined we were captains of a pirate’s ship. I imagined we were racing a speed boat in a race around the world. I imagined we were piloting airplanes. I imagined all that I could think of and all that I could remember.
Once a week, I would move the blocks, check this stone and just remember and imagine. Each time I went to this lone marker, I did one other thing. I imagined that it didn’t belong to Andy. As hard as I tried, I knew that it did.