Carry Me Over
by Marla Cantrell
“Let the dead bury the dead,” J.T. says, and then honks and tries to switch lanes. We are inching across the Midland Boulevard bridge that crosses the Arkansas River. This used to be the easy way to get from Fort Smith to Van Buren, but then the road crew started fixing up Interstate 40, shutting down lanes, and now it’s like rush hour in New York City pretty much all the time.
“What?” I ask.
J.T. says again, “Let the dead bury the dead, that’s scripture, ain’t it?”
“Right,” J.T. answers, and then he cranks up his Hank Williams CD.
“I miss Hank,” I say.
“You miss everybody,” J.T. says.
The tail pipe on the termite truck just ahead of us is blowing smoke. “What do you mean by that?”
“Everybody you love is dead.”
“That isn’t so.”
J.T. nods his head toward the truck bed. In it six wreaths lay, ready for the cemetery.
Just then, somewhere way back behind us, brakes squeal, metal hits metal, and the bridge, already quivering from the weight of us all, shimmies a little more.
“Another fender bender,” J.T. says. “I wish I was in the body repair business.”
My daddy used to cross the Arkansas River, drive straight over it when it froze solid in the dead of winter. It doesn’t freeze anymore, not even when we hit zero.
One of the wreaths is for him, God rest his weary soul.
The light at the end of the bridge has gone green and we are moving now. The Crawford County courthouse appears, the church with stained glass windows nearby, just big pieces of glass in bright colors. If a kid was to draw a church it would look like this one.
“I work a full week for what you spend on graveyard flowers,” J.T. says. He’s not from here. He’s not from anywhere. A drifter. His daddy was a sharecropper. Moved the family across the South. Moved them twice in one year when J.T. was sixteen. He’s been here with me longer than he’s been anywhere. His people get burned to ashes, get tossed into oceans, get set on fireplace mantles in little vases when they die. Cemeteries, they don’t mean much to a man like him.
We pass La Huerta, a Mexican restaurant J.T. pronounces La Hurt Ya. “Could’ve ate there if we hadn’t bought the flowers,” he says.
“We have to buy the flowers,” I say, and J.T. snorts.
“Sure we do,” he says. “Sure.”
I used to see some sparkle in J.T. I used to sparkle myself when he’d come calling. We’d stay up nights, and I’d tell him stories. I’d tell him how my grandma was once walking down Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith, how the elastic popped on her underpants, and how when they dropped to her ankles she stepped out of them, just kept walking, she said, and acted like nothing happened. The purple wreath is for her. That woman loved purple.
At Paul’s Bakery we go in and get two cream horns and two bottled Cokes, and I say hi to the two Bettys behind the counter. There used to be a mural painted on the front of the building. Deer in deep woods, a squirrel up a tree, a hunting dog down below, that’s how I remember it. A man named Bye Golly painted it. My grandpa said he had the hands of God and a taste for whiskey. I don’t know if that’s true.
One of the wreaths is for Grandpa. The one shaped like an artist’s pallet is for Bye Golly.
We pass by First Baptist, a big blond brick building that takes up a full city block. I fell down laughing inside the sanctuary when I was eight. My friend Calvin was getting baptized. I’d never seen anybody dunked before and I broke up as he went under. I got a whipping for it later.
One of the wreaths is for Calvin, who made it through the baptismal waters but not Vietnam.
“Why you go to the graveyard so much?” J.T. asks.
“Decoration Day’s next week,” I say. “I like to go early. I like being first at something. I tell you that every year.”
“I been thinking we should get out of here, try living somewhere else. Like Tennessee,” J.T. says. “Never lived in Tennessee. And there’s a guy there has a raccoon named Gun Show, has another raccoon named Rebekah who takes showers with him and drinks Pepsi Cola.”
“You do aspire to greatness,” I say, my voice a little hateful, even to my ears.
“We could make friends,” J.T. says. “We could raise goats. You always liked goats. You could quit your stinking job down at the auction house.”
“But,” I say, and J.T. asks, “But what?”
And that is where I stop. We are pulling into Gracelawn Cemetery, easing through the entrance where Arkansas limestone makes up the two giant pillars. Up ahead is Grandma’s plot. Her stone has that verse on it that begins, “Two ships that pass in the night.” She went through three husbands in the fifty-five years she spent on this earth. She’s buried beside the second one. Grandma picked out her own stone, back when she was still working at Moore’s Café six days a week. “I want something substantial,” she said. “Something that says I lived a life reading books instead of pouring coffee for truck drivers with wandering hands.”
Her best friend Inez is buried beside her. Inez never married. The sixth wreath is for her. Her stone is pink marble. She lived eighteen years after my grandma died. The back of her stone says only this: Gone to Wal-Mart.
We step out and I wait for J.T. to hand me the first wreath. He’s got his pliers and he’s bending a wire hanger so we can secure the wreath to the ground.
He kneels and hooks the wire through the purple bow. J.T. will leave for Tennessee one day soon, I know he will. He’ll probably buy an old trailer and learn to love raccoons. The thought makes me catch my breath, makes my heart hurt.
I asked him once where he’d scattered his mother’s ashes, and he said he’d driven her across Arizona, a place she’d never been but wanted to go, sifting her out a little at a time. “When there wasn’t but a few tablespoons left of her, I took her to Oak Creek Canyon and let her go,” he said, “every bit of dust gone. The campers next to me come over to watch. I sang “I’ll Fly Away.” The littlest kid, he was maybe four, pulled a few yellow weeds and threw them into the creek.” He shook his head. “The grave swallows you up. The water carries you over. I ain’t one for getting swallowed up.”
We walk to Calvin’s grave. I wish I could go back and watch his blond head dipped in the water again and understand the gravity of it all. I wrote him every day he was in Vietnam. The last three letters I wrote were never opened.
J.T. is a ropey man, long-limbed, weathered face. Here in the cemetery, he looks older than he usually does. When it gets cold he limps a little. An old bull riding injury, he says, but who knows for sure. He reaches over, takes the wreath from my hand and tacks it to the ground.
“Not everyone I love is dead,” I say, and I rub J.T.’s back.
“It is,” I say.
“You got something to tell me, girl?” he asks, and he smiles then, for the first time in a long time.
I love this time of day, the sun dipping low. I have lived my whole life here. When I first gave J.T. directions to my house, I said, ‘Turn right just past where Bo Monte’s Restaurant used to be.’ He laughed at me and said, ‘How the hell would I know where anything in this town used to be?’
“I do have something to tell you,” I say. “I will not house a raccoon, nor will I bathe with one.”
“That sounds reasonable,” he says, and then he scuffs the grass with his work boot. “But you will go,” he says, the sentence right on the verge of being a question.
One of the caretakers drives up in his rusty truck. He waves at me and rolls down his window. “How are you, Miss Mary?” he asks. I recognize him. He’s one of the Odom boys, though I can’t place which one.
“Never better,” I say. “Going to be moving soon. To Tennessee, up in the hills.”
“Do tell,” he says.
“Sure am,” I say.
“Well, good for you,” he says, and then I think he notices I’m crying.
“I’ll look after the plots for you,” he says. “Make sure the stones don’t sink. Clean ‘em up with that organic spray, keeps the moss away, don’t hurt a thing. I’ll even set out your flowers if you need me to. Or we could plant some rose bushes along here,” he says and points to the row of stones.
“I do appreciate it,” I say.
“I’ve been to Tennessee,” the Odom boy says, “up where Dolly has the theme park. Nice, nice place.”
And then J.T. says. “We’re going to raise goats. We’re going to do all kinds of things.”
The Odom boy tips his cap and drives away. He will go home and tell his mama and she’ll tell her sister and by morning time the whole town will know.
J.T. takes me by the shoulders. He pulls me to him and holds me tight. I think I might fall to the ground if he takes his hands away. But he does not. He stands still as a rock and he holds me steady while the day falls away.
Tomorrow I’ll wake up, a woman changing her circumstances. “Let the dead bury the dead,” I say into J.T.’s shirt collar, but if he hears me he doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t say anything at all in this land of my people, the sanctuary of everything I ever was.
Marla Cantrell is the managing editor/senior writer for Do South Magazine, based in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She loves writing about the great people of the South, particularly in the short story form.