A Grave Matter

 A Grave Matter


I'm standing on the grass, staring down into the rectangular opening in the ground, and the casket in which my stepfather lies. Not moving. Afraid to breathe.

I was ten years old standing still, just like now, hiding behind a corner, watching my mother stretched out on the floor, blood on her cheek, a bruise on her chin, her red-checked blouse torn at the sleeve. And over her, my stepfather standing there, lurching over, screaming, his coarse gray hair flying every which way, streams of spit flying from his mouth as he shouted over her prone body. My mother was getting to her knees, trying to push herself up. Again. I felt like I was watching a prize fight, losing my stomach at the reality of it, wanting to say, “No, no, stay down for the count,” but she didn’t, she never would. She was a no-shit-taking kind of woman, my mother, at least when it came to him. To us – to me and Robert – she rarely ever lost her patience, rarely ever said a harsh word despite what we did. But with him she took no shit, none at all. Or, as she would tell me years later, she was beyond taking anything from him. She was not afraid of him and she would die by his hand rather than show fear, be afraid of a man.

She was getting up…again. Fifth or sixth time. And I didn’t say anything. Nothing at all. Just cowered behind the wall, clinging, watching from around the corner. Where was Robert, my older brother? I don’t know. I don’t remember. But I remember standing there, saying nothing as I watched as if in slow motion, his big fat fist wound up and, just as she reached her feet, met her in the mouth, blood flying everywhere, as she crashed to the floor, out cold this time. Definitely out for the count. Then he turned around with that terrifying mad scowl, looking at me, saying "What the hell you lookin' at, boy?"

I live with that image to this day. I stood there. Just stood there and didn’t help my mother.

            But then there was this: Mom is hurrying my older brother Robert and me into the car. We’re in our pajamas. I don’t know what time it is, but she woke us up and made us follow her downstairs in the middle of the night with our pillows in hand. In the garage there were three suitcases, just sitting there, waiting for us, and the garage door was open, staring out into the dark night. A band of crickets is playing outside and there’s the echoing sound of a dog’s distant single bark. And the swishing by of a lone car, its headlights lighting the road for an instant, then passing on in the night.

Mom has a red and black scarf over her head, and her dark green raincoat on, even though it doesn’t seem to be raining. Robert says, "I have to go to the bathroom."

 He says it too loud. Mom shushes him. "You can go when we get on the road. But, you have to be quiet."

            "Why?" Robert asks. "What’s going on?"

            He doesn’t know. But I know. He hasn’t seen what I’ve seen.

            "Just get in the car, Robbie. Now."

            He doesn’t say anything. He knows that tone of voice and does what she says, opens the back door of the Impala, and slides right in. I start to follow him in, but Mom tells me to sit in front with her. She piles the suitcases in the back next to Robbie, who’s already stretched out on the seat and I move to the passenger side of the car and get in next to her.

            "Don’t close the door all the way, till we’re out on the street," she says. I don’t question her, bring the door almost all the way closed, as she starts the car and steps on the gas, easing us out of the garage and out on the driveway.

            A light goes on in their upstairs bedroom window. Mom sees it, too, and she guns the engine.

            "Shut your door, Marty. Shut it now." I do and we’re on the road. I turn around for a second and see him standing there in the doorway in his boxers and sleeveless T-shirt, his mouth moving but I can’t hear any words.

            And then we’re on the road. Mom is putting her foot to the floor. Her hands are shaking on the wheel. She’s nervous. I’m not sure why. We only have the one car. He can’t follow us. I don’t know what she has planned for us. Where we’re going or what we’re going to do.

            But we survived. Somehow, we survived it all.

And ten years later, back in the town we had long ago escaped, the blazing sun bearing down on our heads, after listening to the stout preacher with sparse dyed black hair, do his little eulogy, acting like he knew our stepfather, talking about what a good man he was (in what life, I wonder?), bible in his hand, sweeping his sweaty brow with a yellowing hanky pulled from his back pocket, walking, in the line of mourners, past his gravesite, I stop and stare down at the cherry lid of the box, trembling, wanting to spit, just spit down on the casket, on him. But, instead, I follow the lead of those who passed before me, bend down, pick up a handful of dirt with shaky hand, and hurl it down on the casket with all my might like I’m throwing a fastball, the anger, the memories, swelling in me all at once. And then I breathe in and breathe out. And I walk on.

Mitchell Waldman

Mitchell Waldman's fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Ariel Chart, Fictive Dream, The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (Wind Publications), and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. (For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com)


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