Away From Home
BY PAT LITTLEDOG
waited almost a year for someone to take Vernon’s belongings. Once or twice a week I would go to his cottage and watch television. But nobody came. Or wrote. Or even called. Not his sister, not his brother, not even his son, who lived in the house in Waco, where Vernon used to live, almost 150 miles away from my house. Where he had died suddenly, with me. Where the relatives had come hastily to take him away. And then finally one day my daughter, Brook, said that she would take me to Waco to the cemetery. Her son Corey would go too, since second grade was out early that day; Tamara, my daughter-in-law, also wanted to go. It took me at least a week to decide what to do with Vernon’s belongings, but when Brook arrived in a rental truck, I was ready. We loaded the truck with nine or ten bags—mostly clothes, but papers and photographs, books and books-on-tape, as well. It was cold and the sky was gray, but it wasn’t raining. When we got to Waco we got lost near the famous projects that Vernon once told me was the heart of the black side of town. It was already after three. Brook pulled out the map and soon we turned onto Dearborn. The houses were small, but they all had trees and were freshly painted—all except one. I wasn’t really sure that anyone still lived there. The front porch roof sagged; the windows were shut tight. Other than a barking dog behind a wire fence in the back yard, there was no sign of life. I spotted a mailbox. I had written Tim, Vernon’s son, to say that we were coming. But the mailbox was empty. Just then a car drove up to the next house, and a black woman, about 40, in a white uniform got out. “Excuse me!” I called to her. “Does Timothy still live here?” “Yes,” she said, pausing. “Yes, he does.” She told me that he worked nearby, at a barbershop in back of a liquor store. While she gave me directions, Brook and Tamara hauled out the bags and left them on the porch. Even if it rained, they wouldn’t get wet. When we got to the barbershop, we found that it was locked. The man behind the counter at the liquor store assured me that Tim still worked there and would be right back. Then he picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Hey, Tim, you’ve got a customer.” “I’m not a customer,” I said, as I turned toward Tamara. Brook had already walked out with Corey. (He was able to read the sign: “Unlawful to enter—Anyone under the age of 21.”) I began to worry that by the time we reached the cemetery it would be too late; somebody would have locked the gate. But the man at the counter insisted that Tim would be five minutes at the most, and Brook didn’t want to leave without seeing Tim: “I wouldn’t want to just drop some bags off at his place and not say hello to him.” So I waited outside. I noticed the Stop-N-Go across the street, then tried to peek in the barbershop. All I could see was the bottom of two barber chairs. On the outside wall you could make out a faded sign, “T. Wayne.” Inside, the light was bright; the black-and-white linoleum was sparkling clean. It wasn’t long before an old white Cadillac drove up and Tim got out. He was about the same age as Brook—but darker than Vernon and more muscular. “Hey!” I gave him a hug. “It’s good to see you.” “Good to see you, too.” “I don’t know if you know Tamara—my daughter-in-law—my oldest son Morgan’s wife.” I wanted to mention Brook and Corey, too, but somehow they had disappeared while Tamara and Tim shook hands. “We just left some bags of Vernon’s over at your house.” “I know. I just got finished putting them inside. There’s a lot of improvements I’m going to make on the house you know.” He unlocked the door to the barbershop and we went inside. “Now see, I have an envelope for you. It’s right on top of the bag where I put some other papers—like the taxes for instance—” “Yes—the taxes…” “The legal papers, too, with lots of handwritten notes of Vernon’s, and some of mine, too—like the house getting paid off and belonging to Vernon, Freddie and Glenda,” I told him. “Oh, I’ve thought a lot about it. But I’ve realized that Freddie and Glenda didn’t want to have anything to do with it any more, so I decided to give it to you.” He looked a bit pained, a bit stricken, but also a tiny bit proud. Maybe it was the responsibility of all those papers. He walked inside and as he did, a customer followed and sat down. Tim began to put a towel around the man’s shoulders. “Do you have much to say?” he asked. “Because I’m with a client now. “I’m getting married in July.” He began to cut. “And I want to make improvements in the house so I can rent it out.” t was almost four by the time we got to the cemetery. It was very windy; what had started out as a faint drizzle had turned into a cold, icy rain. Brook drove slowly past the myriad graves and their little stone markers until we reached a mausoleum. There must have been at least 50 vaults. I remembered the mausoleum—that’s where Vernon’s friends and family had brought him last year. I remembered the exact spot where they placed his coffin. And I remember that at the time I was pleased that it was two vaults above ground. But the space was empty. And Vernon? Where was he? “I am looking for the grave of Vernon MacFarland, who died about a year ago,” I told the middle-aged woman behind the desk at the office, “We were at the mausoleum last year, but now his space is empty.” “Oh, that’s where people come first,” she explained. “No, Vernon’s been put into the ground by now. Okay—now see here.” She pulled out a small map. “Here he is—lot 60A—She pointed to a lot site two blocks up, close along the road. “It might be hard, though, to actually see it if he doesn’t have a marker.” “Doesn’t have a marker at all?” Somehow I had never thought of that. I had been hearing stories about old black people, very poor as well, who had been buried decades ago without markers. But I never realized that could happen to Vernon—until now. She nodded. “But if it’s only been a year, there might not be much grass on the grave. So you might be able to spot it.” hen we got to the beginning of the third block Brook stopped and parked the truck. Maybe “block” isn’t really the right word, since there had never been houses or buildings, only woods. And little by little the woods had been grazed to make way for grass and gravestones, a concrete roadway and the rectangular drive that went around the mausoleum. If the projects were the heart of black Waco, then the mausoleum was the soul of the black burying ground. We got out and began to look for Vernon’s grave. The markers were small and embedded in the ground. I didn’t see the name MacFarland. Then I saw Brook kneel to the ground. The grass was still sparse. I couldn’t be sure that there was really a coffin under there. Maybe the gravediggers had simply taken the body out of the coffin and buried him right there—no one would know the difference. Maybe he still couldn’t sleep very well either. I started to imagine that they had left him with his back raised up and his left leg in an awkward position. There was no marker, so how could we know that it was really Vernon who was buried there? “Well, if this isn’t him,” said Brook, “it’s someone who’s glad we came to pay a visit.” I went to the truck, took out a bag, and carefully walked back to the gravesite. Tamara lit the sage. Corey ran around counting gravestones. The wind blew and the air turned dark. I took out a wad of paper and unwrapped it to reveal a candle set inside a large glass holder to protect it from the wind. I placed it where I thought Vernon’s feet must be. Then I took another wad of paper from the bag, unwrapped another candle, and placed it where his head should be. “I wonder where we can go now so that Mom can be alone with Vernon,” Brook murmured to Tamara. But I didn’t want to be alone. I clutched them both. “We’re all in this together—three in one—four with Corey. We’re not going to be here long anyway,” I told them. “It’s too cold.” Brook sent Corey to go count angels. Then she lit the candles and placed the matches near Vernon’s head. Tamara put the smoldering sage into the ground, near his middle. “We miss you, Vernon!” Brook called. “Yes, we miss you, Vernon!” Tamara repeated. “Yes!” I called, “I miss you, Vernon! I love you” “I love you!” Brook called. “I love you!” Tamara called, “except the body, all of you, except that!” Maybe I should have contradicted her, I should have said including that, but then she was my son’s wife. Instead I said, “I’ll see you real soon, Vernon!” “No! I think it’ll be a long time before she goes,” Tamara insisted. Just about then, Corey ran back to tell us how many angels he had found. I don’t recall the number, but I know there weren’t many. Most had fallen and were broken. We walked back to the truck with the candles still burning. We left the smoking sage and the matches on the ground. “Last thing?” I said to them. “I want to go to H.E.B.” t was only a couple of dollars for a little helium balloon that said I LOVE YOU. It bounced up and down; a plastic weight was tied to the string. As soon as I paid for it and walked outside, I started taking the ribbons off the weight. I must have been busy with the ribbons when I heard Brook yell, “Mom, watch out!” Suddenly a gray Land Rover was coming toward me. She pushed me aside to let it pass. Without pausing, I continued untying the ribbons. “Boy,” exclaimed Brook. “That would be something. To first see Vernon’s grave, and then for you to die in the H.E.B. parking lot.” I let go of the balloon and watched it fly away until all I could see was a tiny dot flying south to more familiar territory. When we got back, it was already night. I went to bed but couldn’t fall asleep. Why, why, why didn’t Vernon MacFarland even have a simple number to put him to rest? I kept thinking about the gravesite over and over, how he must have been hunkered up—in pain, it seemed to me. And then there were snippets of memories: When he first came to live with me in the apartment; when he moved out into the woods with me; his constant kindness. When he came to bed with me, his shoulder coming into mine… When the sun came up, I made coffee. At nine I called the funeral home in Waco. I gave my name to the man who answered, and added, “I’m the one whose home Vernon MacFarland died in.” “Oh, yes,” he said. “I’ve heard of you.” “Yes. Well, I’m wondering if money is still owing for the gravesite where Vernon is buried.” “Yes, there is, as a matter of fact,” he replied. “I was speaking to Tim, coincidentally, just a short while earlier. “Let’s see—I have the file with me.” “So how much is owing on the account?” I asked. “$476.00.” “476.00,” I repeated. “Okay. I can’t pay that right off, but I can pay a little bit at a time. “And then once it’s paid, I would like to have a little marker for his grave—not large…” “That would begin at around $400. You could give his name, the birthplace and death date, plus maybe a brief saying.” I hung up and went to Vernon’s cottage. I fed the chickens, the cats, the goats. Then I went into the woods, where a table and two chairs waited for me in a secluded study. There were two nametags tacked onto two of the trees. One of the nametags was tied to a branch, just above a horse’s skull that had been carefully placed in front of the tree trunk: Vernon MacFarland Catering The other nametag simply stated: VERNON Banquet 7 A reminder that Vernon’s lively spirit had never left home after all.
Pat Littledog lives in the woods in Caldwell County, Texas.