It seemed fitting that for Memorial Day, we took a detour deep into the nothing of Alabama, down some dark, shaded roads to nowhere that did eventually lead somewhere in the haze of my memories (although usually that somewhere was a place I did not wish to go; yet the path materialized mile by mile before my eyes as I drove and drove, never veering, never lost) and there we found ourselves wandering through a deserted cemetery as sunset and rain showers battled for prominence on a hazy Southern spring day.
None of us live in Alabama any more.
Those of us in my family who survived it fled north, to the cities, to the light - away from the mud and the dung, the small vocabularies and smaller minds, the darkness that lasted even into day, as far as we could get from the packs of feral children who scavenged the gravel-scoured trailer parks and spared no mercy for those who might cross their turf. No small-town childhood bullies were these, no coming-of-age scoundrels who faltered and learned their way, but truly Damaged Ones.
We fled - eventually, a decade gone by, perhaps, but eventually - from the bullies (or super-bullies, I'd say);the brutal attack on the eight-year-old forster child named Star, right there in the elementary school playground - attacked by a 5th grade boy. We never saw Star again.
But the boy came back, like any good demon would.
After his suspension (for that was certainly adequate punishment, right? suspend him from school, that'll teach him!), he stalked the schoolyard that next day and oh! how he laughed so hard at the petrified teaches who barred themselves inside the school like frumpy chickens in a coop, locking themselves safely in a classroom, locking out the beast, but locking out the other children too, locking them all out together in the schoolyard, where the boy stole purses from the girls huddled in a shivering clump by the swings. (He could have done worse, but they cried for their pennies and their treasures and they cried harder when he ripped their precious photographs to shreds as they watched and watched with bleary saucer-eyes, but he could have done worse, they tell themselves now, if they ever dare to remember, if they ever think about Star).
We fled the scabbed hoards of neglected, mangy dogs, ever trailing their abusers in the hope of scraps or a word of affection that never, never came. We fled the solid wall of woods just across the dirt road called Adams Street; those impenetrable trees quivered with a threatening silence redolent of fear in the night, sheltering shadows and tales never told of madness and mystery, the evil of men, the lies of a friend and the desolation of a lost childhood; the true demons of this world lived and breathed among those trunks, growing stronge as they watched us scamper helplessly, hopelessly through our meager lives.
Those woods lurk still on the edge of my night terrors, although, on the better days, they sparkle with the fairy twinkles of that one firefly summer.
We fled the shredded corpses of dogs that were left dangling above garage doors in the warm months, beheaded, crucified. Pitiful. Dripping their last life blood into thick black pools on the concrete and why? At the time, the police (those who dared, who cared, to investigate) cried Satan! Cult! Drugs and Rock and Roll! But none of us believed it was as simple as that - evil's name is never quite so obvious or so easy.
There was nothing for me there. I fled. And during the long nights, I am still running.
But my grandparents remain, buried in a quiet plot of earth beyond the tiny spot named Rainbow City (although there's nothing much "rainbow" about it, either in color or disposition so don't go thinking sunny day thoughts over that romantic name; it's a run-down offshoot of a down-and-out steel town, barely an exit off of the expressway. Oddly enough, it was, indeed, raining through the sunshine as we walked those still, humid grounds. Alas, even yet, no rainbow.)
We left them there years ago, my grandparents, nestled together in the ground. They were the ones who led us to Alabama so long ago, after all. It was their world, their South, not mine. Not ours. They might belong there, but I do not. I never did.
But we stopped by for a visit, a salute, if you will, Ben and I and our wee Doolin. My grandfather was, after all, a war veteran. He served in the Air Force, back in World War II. I still have the letters he sent to my grandmother during his time in the Philippines in the 1940's, before my mother was born. The letters, though - they do not sound like him, or at least, not the him that I remember.
He died in 1993, my junior year of college, fading from life in a paper-thin blue and white hospital gown as I clasped one of his hands and my mother caressed the other. Almost exactly four years later, my grandmother died; this time, I was far away. I had made my escape from the South and worked evey hour I could find to make sure I would never have to go back. I was not there for her, in the end. But then, she wasn't always there for me either.
We didn't stay long in the little green cemetary, even though it's good spot, with a hill in the distance and lanky bridge. Night was coming and we had miles to drive on to Atlanta and another stop to make along the way. But there wasn't much to say now, after all. We left our flags and took our photos and felt the day's heat seeping from the granite stone into our palms, pressed flat over the gravestone.