Mike’s great-grandmother and great-aunt decided to go to the cemetery on a Friday, and forced him to come along. He dawdled, playing in the sandbox with his orange plastic alien action figures, then pretended he could not hear when his great grandmother called. Finally, she came after him and asked him to go get a switch. “I’m gonna get a hold of ya. Get a big switch. You get a small one and it’ll be worse,” Milly, his great-grandmother, said, hands on her broad hips. At seventy she was plump, dark-tanned, wrinkled and strong. Mike remembered yesterday’s beating, after he had drunk her last Mellow Yellow. It had been hard, but short.
“Okay,” he whined, dropping two action figures into his shorts pocket, brushing off the white sand and dashing past her to the driveway, to where the long, white 1970s sedan burned in the August sun. Liz, his great aunt, who lived alone on the far part of Milly’s property, was standing by the passenger side. She was sixty-eight and resembled Milly save for being thin and having a sour, pinched face. “Mike’s showing his ass again!” she called to her sister as he gingerly opened the hot car door and piled onto the searing upholstery in the back seat. “You ought to beat that youngin’ more often, Mill,” Liz said as she sat in the seat. She turned back to Mike and sneered, then looked ahead.
“I reckon I beat him often enough,” Milly said as she sat behind the broad steering wheel and started the car. “Put your seat belt on, Mike,” she said. After he complied, saying “Ow!” several times, Milly carefully and slowly backed the huge, sweltering car out of the driveway and sent it flying down the highway towards the Memorial Cemetery, which was out past Raleigh, about forty-five minutes away. Mike stared out the window at the passing trees and ditches and hoped they’d stop for hamburgers. He had suddenly gotten hungry, and squirmed.
The car hummed long in silence until Liz said, “What’s wrong with you, Mike?” She peered back at him, her eyes hard coals in her face.
Mike wiped his forehead and said, “I’m hungry.”
“You done had breakfast! Your grandmother cooks for you all the damn time. You wanna get fat? Fatter than you already are?” she asked him. When he didn’t answer, she asked “Do ya?”
“No,” he said. The windows had been open for a while, and it was not so hot in the car. Mike tried to end the conversation by looking out the window at the tobacco fields they were passing.
“Then stop eating so damn much. And being such a burden on your grandmother.” She turned around and looked ahead.
Milly said “You are alright, Mike. We’ll have dinner before too long.”
Mike continued to stare out the window. He got bored looking at the seas of deep, dusty green, and wondered why exactly they were going to the cemetery. “Grandma, why are we going to the cemetery?”
“That’s none of your business, boy! Stop showing your ass.” Liz said, not looking at him.
“Because we need to go,” Milly said.
The humming of the car and the smells of the highway filled the car for a few minutes, then Mike asked “Do we know somebody who died?”
“Lots of damn people died. Your Uncle Buddy died, my mother died, your damn, drug-taking mother is probably dead, and who knows when your grandmother and me will die, and then where will your ass be?” Liz said with an angry glance at him. Then her face was suddenly soft, and she looked away. “Dying’s the way of things, boy.”
“Liz, be quiet, and don’t scare Mike. Ain’t no one dying any time soon. You’re too full of the vinegar of meanness to die.” She threw a quick smile back at Mike, and then looked at her sister.
“He ain’t done nothing wrong by asking.” Milly said. “Yeah, we know somebody that is there,” she added to Mike, and then both women were silent.
Mike wanted to ask more, but the silence was like a layer of dark dirt over the inside of the car. Mike wondered who the dead person might be. He knew his Great Uncle Buddy, mentally retarded and sick in his liver, had died last year, but was not buried in Raleigh. Where his mother was, nobody knew, but she was definitely not dead, he refused to believe that. All of Milly’s children were dead a long time ago, her grandchildren all alive, and it was absolutely impossible to imagine Great Aunt Liz with a child or husband. Mike could not think of why it so all-fired important that they go see this person’s grave.
The car pulled off the highway, and Mike expected to see the gates of the cemetery, but the car was still speeding down a county road. The farms and woods and old, ramshackle buildings on the side of the road were all baking in the heat. He saw not a single person save the three of them, and no cars passed them. Mike imagined that they were the last people alive in a great empty, sunburnt wilderness. With a duty to visit the dead, he guessed.
Milly slowed and stopped at the side of the road in a dusty lot, where a man was selling vegetables and preserves out of the back of an antique red pickup truck. He was an old farmer, with leathery skin, a yellow CAT cap, and oily overalls. Milly and Liz got out of the car without speaking to Mike. He hopped out after them, and walked around to stretch his legs. His great grandmother and great aunt were speaking to the man, and he saw them buy something. When they came back he was disappointed to see it was a wreath of flowers and not some squash or beans or cauliflower or some strawberry jam.
“Goddamn it, Mike, quit showing your ass and get in the car,” Liz said. All of them piled in and the car set off down the road. Liz clutched the wreath, which was yellow and blue and green, in her arms and seemed to be staring into it. Mike hoped they had also gotten him an apple or an orange, but nothing was given to him. He pulled the action figures out of his pocket and slumped down in the seat, making them fight over his slim stomach. No one spoke.
Soon he felt the car slow down and turn. Sitting up, he saw the gates of the cemetery pass, and the car wound its way through the tombstones until Milly brought it to rest beside a huge juniper bush. Liz left the car quickly and walked off. Milly sat in the driver’s seat, looking ahead.
Mike asked, “What’s Aunt Liz doing, Grandma?”
His grandmother was silent for a full minute. “Visiting a grave.”
Mike waited for her to explain, then said, “Why don’t we go? Whose grave is it, Grandma?” Mike said, hot and sticky, hungry and bored. He stood up and put his belly on the top of the front seat, leaning forward. “Who is it?”
“I reckon it would be your much older cousin John,” his grandmother said at last.
“Who?” asked Mike, never having heard of such a cousin.
Milly turned and looked at him. “Her baby died after six days. Tiniest baby I ever saw, and you know I was a nurse. She never had another.”
Mike sat back, feeling hot and puzzled. Milly left the car and walked away, but Mike sat there, not knowing if he should or was allowed to visit the grave. Finally, he pocketed the figures and left the car. Several feet away was a row of tombstones, and his great aunt was sitting in front of the smallest. As Mike walked slowly up behind her, he saw it had been corroded and dulled by weather, and had an almost faceless stone baby on the top. Liz was slumped, looking at the grass on the grave.
Mike looked at the grave and his great aunt for a moment, before she leaned backwards and put out an arm behind her. Mike stood still. Milly was nowhere to be seen.
“Come here, Mike. Please,” Liz said quietly. Mike inched forward. He saw then that his great aunt, the thin, pinched, bitter old woman, was sobbing lightly. She wrapped her arm around him and hugged him to her side, crying on his arm. Her felt her heat and the soft rising and falling of her chest, smelled the suggestion of whiskey. Looked at the grave and saw the tiny words “Beloved Child, John Pinch” carved into it, along with the figure of an angel and a six-day period in 1947.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Liz,” Mike mumbled. His great aunt was squeezing him hard.
Suddenly Liz stood and dropped the wreath before the grave. “Sorry my ass. Ain’t a damn person what lived that hasn’t died. Not even Jesus.” She looked him in the eyes, her face angry. “When you die, they’re gonna bury you not far from here. Your grandmother and me will be there long since. Nobody to visit you. Remember that, boy.” She glared down at him like an angel of judgement, though she was not much taller. “Get in the damn car.”
Liz walked off, but Mike felt frozen in front of the tiny grave. It was like a weight. He noticed flies buzzing around it, and swatted them away. Then he could move again, and felt his great aunt’s drying tears on his forearm. He wondered if the two old women, and now him, were the only ones who still remembered John, the last ones to visit. He tried to imagine what his great aunt’s son would have looked like, but all he could come up with was a small, raisin-like being, crying loudly. A boy. Mike got an idea, and walked towards the tree behind the grave, a tall pine. He looked around for his great grandmother or great aunt, but neither were around. Off looking at the graves of other people they had known, he guessed.
He knelt before the pine and began to dig in the earth before it. It was hard and full of ants, but he dug anyway, about an inch down. He took the two action figures out of his pocket, and wished he had brought more, like ten thousand. Ten thousand witnesses for John. He planted the figures in the dirt, then covered them up. He imagined years and years passing, and the soil and weather and bugs and whatever trying to eat them up, but being plastic they’d stay. One day he’d come back to see if they were still here, and visit the grave of his cousin John. He heard his great grandmother call him. He got up and ran off.
Gary Charles Wilkens, Assistant Professor of English at Norfolk State University, was the winner of the 2006 Texas Review Breakthrough Poetry Prize for his first book, The Red Light Was My Mind. His poems have appeared in more than 50 online and print venues, among them The Texas Review, The Cortland Review, the Adirondack Review, The Prague Revue, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume II: Mississippi.