Nothing But A Ghost–Free Fiction Friday

“Nothing but a ghost,” Bobby said as he looked from the ground where rails were covered in mud and weeds to the rusted out locomotive jutting out of the water.

“It’s a steam engine,” Hannah said and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She wiped snot on her pants, sniffled and dug both hands into her pockets. She didn’t care much for most boy clothes—she wore hand me downs she got from her older brother, Tucker, and hated them—but she liked those pants. The pockets were deep and she could stick her hands all the way in (unlike all of the ‘girl’ jeans her friends had).

“How do yah no?”

“Look at it.”

“I am looking at it. It’s nothing but a rusty locomotive.”

“But it’s more than that, Bobby-O.”

“Yeah, I guess so, Hannah. By the way do you know what a locomotive is?”

loco-178092_1920.jpgHannah rolled her big hazel eyes, not trying to hide it from Bobby. “It’s a train.”

“Nah. That’s not what it is.”

“Then what is it?”

“Crazy motion. That’s all. Crazy motion.”

Again, she rolled her eyes and shook her head to go along with it. Hannah stepped into the muddy water. Her shoes and ankles were suddenly cold, but she wouldn’t turn around. No, once she got something in her head, she followed through and she aimed to get a better look at the train in front of them. 

“What are yah doing, Hannah?”

“Checking it out.”

A few steps in and her right foot slid, almost sending her to the muck she now waded in. She corrected, regained her balance and looked back.

“Yah trying to take a spill?” Bobby asked with a snicker. “Yah almost went face first right into the river.”

“But I didn’t, so stop your laughing.” 

Hannah put her arms out at her sides and waded through the deepening water. She reached the front of the engine and put one of her hands on it. The heavy rust that covered it felt like chalky nubs of glass, not quite sharp enough to slice skin if she was careful, but if she wasn’t, oh the gashes it could cause. She put one foot onto the side rod. Water fell from her pants and sloshed out of her shoe as she reached up, grabbed hold of another rod and pulled herself up and out of the river. 

“Yah see anything?” Bobby called from the bank.

“Hold your horses and let me look.”

She shook her head, a little in disgust, a little in annoyance. Bobby was two years older and about six inches taller, but a hundred percent more chicken than she had ever been. Yup, his yellow streak ran from the back of his skull all the way down to his oversized tailbone. 

Hannah eased along the rod, and slid her hand on the side of the locomotive until she reached the cab. She leaned just enough to peak inside the open window. Sludge and weeds covered what she could see of the floor. There was a bench seat, rusted and corroded springs jutting from the ruined upholstery. Sitting on the bench were the skeletal remains of the engineer. Though his clothes were mostly tattered rags, a striped  conductor’s hat still remained on his fleshless skull. 

“What the …?”

She stared, her eyes big, her mouth open. Then the skeleton moved, its head shifting on its boney shoulders. It seemed to look at her with its blackened sockets and its forever grin. Hannah’s hands slid away from the locomotive, her left foot slipped from the rod and she tumbled backward. A second later, she landed in the brown water of a river that was once a lake and that one day, maybe even one day soon, would be a pond, then a stream, then nothing but a memory. She went under the surface for a moment, then popped up, took a deep breath and gathered her legs under her. 

Hannah stood, looked at the locomotive for another five seconds, then she turned back toward the bank. She said nothing until she reached a very dry Bobby.

“What d’yah see?” he asked.

“Nothing but a ghost,” she said and walked by him, water dripping from her clothes, her feet sloshing in her shoes.

Free Fiction Friday–Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

(The family and I took a trip one spring break to St. Augustine, Florida. It was a fun trip—at least I think it was. I don’t know what the kids thought. They might have a different definition of fun. You would have to ask them to find out if they enjoyed themselves or not.

We took I-26 toward Charleston and then I-95 toward Savannah, Georgia. I-95 took as all the way to St. Augustine. Shortly after we crossed into Florida, Cate saw a man sitting in a lawn chair by the interstate. He had a drink in one hand and seemed to be staring off at nothing. She pointed the man out to me.

Over the next few minutes, I jotted down a few notes, mostly about the man’s appearance. Then I wrote the word ‘Why?’ Why was he there? Why was he sitting in a lawn chair with a drink in his hand? What was he staring at? Well, he’s staring at ghosts,A.J., my mind chirped. Of course, he was. Over the course of the next couple of days I wrote Rite of Passage, mostly at night when everyone was going to bed in the hotel we stayed at.

Some stories you just fall in love with. For me, this is one of them. The reality for Jake Eberly is he was not long for this world and he knew the parade of ghosts was an omen of death, in this case, his own. He faced his mortality and he was ready to move on, to join the rag tag band of journey folk. But not before letting his grandson see the rite of passage.)

____________________

The truck slowed almost a full two hundred yards before it needed to. Jake Eberly held the steering wheel tight, his old hands hurting, the knuckles white. They would be sore later. His arthritis would flair up worse than it ever had. He licked his lips and his breath hitched. Jake swallowed dryness. He pulled off the road, coasted to a stop, and killed the motor.

“Grandpa, why are we stopping?”

Jake looked to the passenger’s side where his oldest grandchild, Camden, sat. He wasn’t an Eberly like him, not in name at least. His mother was Jake’s only child. She married a Hartnett. The bloodline might carry on, but in time it will be nothing more than an infinitesimal amount and the Eberly name will be no more. 

Staring up at him was a good looking kid. Hazel eyes stood out against his creamy white skin; his hair blond and his lips very much like his mother’s. At ten, he was older than Jake was when he was brought here, to the place he now parked.

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?”

Jake looked out the windshield, then out both side windows. “Here. Now, help me get the chairs out the back.”

Jake opened the door as a semi went by and rocked the truck on its tires. He got out and held back a grimace as the raw pain of Cancer punched him in the gut. He didn’t think he had much time left. Maybe the end of the day. Maybe tomorrow. He was weak and tired and the pain that stabbed at his stomach constantly made him want to throw up. After today, after getting the boy home, he thought he might just lie down one last time and never get up. He looked over at Camden. “Come out this side, Son.”

Camden scooted across the seat, slid from it and closed the door behind him. They went to the back of the truck. Jake put the tailgate down. 

“Grab those, Camden,” he said and pointed at two folded lawn chairs. “I’ll get the table and the cooler.”

The table was nothing more than a square fold up card table, one that had sat in the basement of the old house on South Street since he, himself, was a young boy. Camden grabbed the two lawn chairs, one in each hand, and Jake grabbed the table. 

“Come,” Jake said and went to the front of the truck, his legs weak, and his insides being gnawed at by a disease only death would cure. He set up the card table, pushing down on it to make sure it wouldn’t topple over. With a nod of satisfaction, he looked to Camden. “Let me have one of those, if you don’t mind.”

Camden dropped one on the ground and unfolded the other. He set it down in front of his grandfather. Jake saw pride in his eyes. He couldn’t help but smile. The young boy set the other chair on the opposite side of the table, and then went back to the truck. A minute later he returned with a beat up red and white IGLOO cooler. He set it on the table. 

“Have a seat, young man,” Jake said, reached into the cooler and pulled out two sodas. He handed one to Camden, set the other on the table, then placed the cooler on the ground beneath it. He picked his soda up and sat down. His legs seemed to sigh in relief, but the biting in his stomach continued. He popped the top and took a long swig, letting the carbonated water both burn and chill his throat on the way down. 

“What are we doing, Grandpa?”

The kid looked at him with the curiosity of any young child, something he gathered most kids had at that age, one he certainly had. “We’re sitting down, having a drink.”

“Is that it?”

Jake gave a small smile. He understood impatience quite well. “We’ll probably talk some, but mostly, we’ll wait.”

“Wait for what?”

Another smile was followed by Jake taking a swallow of his soda. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “You’ll know it when you see it.”

Camden shook his head. There was no smile on his face, but more of a disappointed frown. He picked up his soda, popped the top and drank from it. 

They sat in silence, grandfather and grandson, both in their own world of thoughts, both probably seeing things far differently than the other. Though Jake didn’t know what Camden was thinking, he had a good idea. He, too, had sat on the other side of the card table between them, when he was only eight. His grandfather, known to him as Gramps, had brought him here in his old Ford back in 1952. ‘We’re going for a ride,’ he had said, and that is what they did. They stopped on the side of the road, back before it became I-95. It was just another road back then, and only two lanes at that. There were more woodlands and less traffic. Sitting by the road with a jug of water between young Jake Eberly and Gramps was as boring as watching paint dry. He would have rather done the painting than sit and do nothing. He told Gramps as much. Gramps gave him a nod, placed his yellowing ivory pipe between his lips and puffed on it. Gramps was patient with him then, just as Jake would be patient with Camden now.

GHOSTSLike Gramps before him, Jake stared off across the busy roadway and spoke words he remembered as if he had just heard them. “I reckon this isn’t much fun.”

“No, Sir, it isn’t.”

“It wasn’t much fun when my grandpa brought me here either.”

Camden looked at him with his big hazel eyes. He was his momma’s boy for certain. “Then why are we here?”

“It’s a rite of passage, Cam,” Jake said.

“A rite of passage?”

“Yup.”

“What is that?”

Jake smiled again. It was a good question, one he didn’t think to ask when his time had come to be here. Even so, he knew the answer.

“My grandfather brought me here when I was a kid. His grandfather brought him before that and his grandfather did the same before that.” He took a deep breath. The explanation, he believed, only got harder from here. “A rite of passage is like a point in someone’s life, much like graduating high school or getting married. They’re important moments in life. Like birth. And death. This … this is one of those moments.”
“Sitting by the road drinking pop?”

Jake laughed at this, then took another swallow of his soda. He smacked his lips, said nothing and stared straight ahead. Cars, trucks, an occasional motorcycle and quite a few semis sped by, most of them doing well over eighty. Occasionally, Camden would let out an exasperated huff that Jake ignored.

“Grandpa, can we go?”

“Not yet, Camden.”

“I’m bored.”

“I’m sure you are, but …”

“I want to go,” Camden said firmly. His brows were creased downward, just as his lips were. His eyes held an angry storm in them. He stood and started for the truck. 

“It’s not time to go, yet.”

Camden turned around. His drink was still in one hand, but some of it had sloshed out of the can. “I don’t care, Grandpa. This is dumb. I could be at home, watching tv or playing video games, or I don’t know, doing anything but sitting here bored out of my mind, watching cars go by.”

“Camden, sit back down.”

“No. I want to go home. I thought we were going to do something fun, or just do something. We’re sitting here, doing nothing.”

“We’re slowing down, son,” Jake said. “We’re smelling the roses, so to speak.”

“The only thing I smell is smoke from the trucks going by. If I would have known this is what we were going to do, I wouldn’t have come.”

Jake set his drink on the table. With quite a bit of effort, he stood, even as his insides burned and grumbled. His shoulders slumped. Children weren’t what they were when he was a kid. They were more impatient and intolerant of things. They were less respectful and more argumentative. As he looked at his grandson, Jake realized something he hadn’t before. Maybe it isn’t the kids who are different. Maybe it is the adults who changed. He gave a simple nod. Yes, that’s it, he thought. And he, like so many others, had changed. 

“Okay, Cam …”

Then, as if time knew it was running out, across the road Jake saw what he came to see.

“There,” he all but shouted and pointed.

“What? Where?” Camden asked. “I don’t …”

Then they both grew quiet. The world around Jake Eberly didn’t matter at that moment. The rot in his gut that had grown worse over the last few months was nonexistent. His smile, something that had been forced a lot over the last year or so, was as real as it had ever been. 

“Grandpa …”

“It’s okay, Camden. Just watch.”

And they did.

From out of the woods came a young man. He wore a white button-down shirt and black pants held up by suspenders. His hair was brown, long and pulled back in a neat ponytail. He held one arm up above his head and slightly out in front of him. In his hand was a lit lantern that gave off no light at all. A rag tag processional of people followed, dressed in clothes Jake thought Camden had never seen outside of a movie, and maybe not even then. The women wore long dresses, and most of them had their hair up in some manner of a bun. The few children wore long pants, mostly browns and blacks, and button-down shirts tucked neatly into their waist bands. Some of the men wore long pants and long shirts; some of them carried muskets and wore floppy hats. 

“Grandpa, who are those people?”

“They are who we’ve been waiting on.”

“There’s something wrong with them.”

“What is that?”

“I don’t know, but …” Camden’s voice changed, as did the direction of his words. “Are they going to cross the street?” There was alarm in his words.

“They most certainly are, Camden.”

“But they’ll get hit by a car.” His voice rose with each word. 

“Just watch.”

The ghostly procession neared the interstate. 

“Hey!” Camden yelled. He stood beside the card table and waved one hand frantically, trying to get their attention. “Hey! Stop! Don’t cross the street!” 

The people neither looked left or right before the man with the lantern stepped off the grass and onto the shoulder and then into the road. 

Camden screamed as a semi rumbled by, going through the young man in the lead. Jake looked down at him to see his hands over his eyes and his back turned to the dead coming toward them. 

“It’s okay, Cam,” he said. 

“No! It’s not. That truck just hit that guy and …”

“It didn’t hit him,” Jake interrupted. 

“Yes, it did. I saw it.”

“You saw the truck go through him.”

“It hit him and …” His shoulders shook, and Jake heard the tears in his voice.

“No, Camden. The truck went through him. Cars can’t hit ghosts.”

“Ghosts?” 

“Yes. Ghosts.”

By the time Camden looked back up, the young man leading the parade of dead had made it to the center of I-95. From that distance, Jake could see his face was ashen and his sockets were sunk in. He looked more like a corpse than a ghost. When he looked back at Camden, the young boy’s eyes were wider than he had ever seen them. Jake didn’t think he was scared, but maybe awestruck by what he saw.

“Are they really ghosts?” Camden asked, his voice dreamy, as if he had just awoken from a long nap. 

“Oh yes. They are the ghosts of your ancestors.”

“My ancestors?”

“Your family—all the members of the Eberly clan who have died are right there.”

The young man was now halfway across the lane closest to them. His hair was dark, and his bottom lip hung open. His eyes were distant, as if he didn’t see them. Several vehicles went through him as they went along their way to wherever they were going. The drivers didn’t seem to notice the ghosts as they sped by. 

Jake looked at his grandson. His eyes were still wide, and his mouth worked up and down as if he were trying to say something but couldn’t find the words. He looked like he wanted to run away. The hand holding the soda can shook badly. His breath came in sharp, terrified bursts. His shoulders still shook, and his cheeks were wet from the burst of tears a few seconds earlier.

“It’s okay, Camden. They won’t hurt you.”

“Are you sure?” His voice quivered.

“I’m as sure as you’re standing there right now.”

“Grandpa …”

Jake sidled over next to him, put one arm around him and rested the hand on his shoulder. Camden wrapped both arms around his grandfather’s waist and buried his face in his side.

“No, Camden. Don’t look away. You may never get to see this again, and if you do, it won’t be for a long time.”

He felt the boy’s face shift from in his side to toward the road, but the kid’s arms still latched tight around him. By then, the leader was in front of them. Jake pulled Camden to the side and let the procession of spirits pass by and through the card table. One by one, men, women and children walked by, their eyes forward, never slowing for the last of the Eberly’s and his grandson. 

As the final ghost made his way across the busy interstate, the strings on Jake’s heart gave a tug. With cane in hand, his grandfather made their way toward them. Hanging from his mouth was the old ivory pipe he used to smoke. Jake remembered his mother asking if anyone had seen it after Gramps died. No one had—and no one ever did after the day Jake and Gramps visited the side of the road.

Tears formed in Jake’s eyes as he recalled being here as a kid and not knowing that would be the last time he saw his grandfather alive. The next time Jake saw Gramps, the old man lay in a coffin in the foyer of the church his grandparents attended. If he would have known then what he knew now, he would have hugged his grandfather tighter that last time; he wouldn’t have complained about watching paint dry; he would have made sure to say, ‘I love you,’ even if it wasn’t the cool thing to do. 

“Gramps,” he said as the elder Eberly reached them. Like the others, he didn’t stop. Unlike the others, he turned his head just enough to look at Jake. 

Not much longer, Jake, he whispered. He puffed on the old pipe, nodded and continued through the table and into the trees behind them. 

Jake didn’t know how long he stared into the woods after the dead were gone, but it was Camden who pulled him free of the trance he had been in. 

“Grandpa, are you okay?”

Jake took a deep breath and let it out. His chest shuddered and the pain in his stomach had come back. He fought the urge to double over and grab his midsection. He nodded and said, “Yes, Camden, I’m okay.”

“You’re crying.”

Jake wiped his eyes and then his nose. “Sometimes it’s okay for a man to cry.”

“Like now?”

“Yes, like now.”

He took one last glance at the trees. The remnants of the dead were gone, but he knew that wouldn’t be the case forever. They would be back. And so would he, most likely on the other side of the road. He rubbed Camden’s head. “Let’s get you home,” he said. 

Camden grabbed the cooler and made his way to the back of the vehicle. Jake reached down for the soda he had been drinking. The can held icicles all around it. He picked it up, felt the freezing cold on his fingertips. He squeezed the can. It was hard like ice. He set the can on the ground by the road and folded up the card table. By the time he was finished, Camden was back and closing the chairs. 

With everything in the bed of the truck, they got in, both doing so from the driver’s side. Jake turned the key and the motor rolled over, caught and rumbled to life. He put it in gear, looked in the side mirror and eased onto the interstate. He glanced in the rearview mirror at the can he had left behind. It didn’t matter that it would be gone when he came back. Like all the grandfathers before him, he left a little piece of himself behind, a little piece of familiarity so when Camden came to watch the parade of ghosts in the later stages of his life, he would remember the day he came here as a young child. 

Jake Eberly took the first exit, circled back across the overpass and entered the interstate going in the opposite direction they had come. He didn’t look to the side of the road when they passed. With a tearing pain in his gut, he drove, hoping he would get the boy home before the pain grew too intense. 

“Grandpa?”

“Yes, Camden?”

“Was that your grandfather—the one who spoke to you?”

Jake licked his lips, nodded and said, “It was my Gramps.”

“What did he mean by not much longer?”

Jake let out a long breath. “You’ll understand soon enough. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

Camden didn’t respond. He just turned his attention to the world passing outside the truck. 

At Camden’s house, he let the young boy out and talked with his mother for a minute or two. They exchanged their goodbyes. When he started to get into the truck, Camden went to him. He put his arms around Jake’s midsection and squeezed. It was everything Jake could do not to grimace and let out a groan from the pain. 

“I love you, Grandpa.”

“I love you, too, Camden.”

The boy held on for a few more seconds, then let him go. When he looked down at Camden, there were tears in his eyes. 

“It will be all right, Camden,” Jake said and patted him on the shoulder. 

“I’ll come see you.” He wiped his eyes. “I’ll come see you.”

“I know you will,” Jake said, and then his grandson, with Eberly blood running through his veins, but not carrying the same name, stepped back. 

Jake got in the truck and smiled. A minute later he drove off. In the rearview mirror he saw the boy waving. He stuck his hand out the window and returned the wave. The boy held his soda can in the other hand.

(Rite of Passage appears in the mammoth collection, Beautiful Minds, which you can find HERE.)

 

Through the Lens

I’ve always felt like I’ve lived my life on the outside looking in. It’s as if I see myself and my actions through a camera lens. There is a crack that runs down the center of that lens. On the left side everything is clear and easy to see and understand. On the right side everything is blurry and odd and I struggle at everything. Very rarely do I see through the crack where everything makes sense.

It sounds crazy. I know.

dscn1629This is the way it has always been for me. It’s as if I am watching myself through that lens, whether on the left side or the right side, and sometimes in the middle. It is through that lens that I bring you this story.

[[The lens zooms in on him, possibly starting with one blue eye and then panning out, showing the blemishes of age on his face and the gray in his dark hair. It would show a kitchen, the light on, and he would be letting the dog out for the morning.]]

He has been awake far longer than he wants. His face is unshaven. He wants coffee. He wants the almost bitter taste of it, sprinkled with a bit of sugar and some cream. He wants the first hot sip and then the last deep warm swallow. He wants the aftertaste that will stay with him for an hour or so, at least until he either drinks another cup or brushes his teeth.

He can’t have coffee—not the real stuff, at least. Decaf is okay (and yes, he knows it has a touch of caffeine in it anyway). Though he wants the coffee, he wants a drive as well. He wants to take to the road and follow the nose of the car to wherever it leads. He doesn’t care where he ends up, as long as he takes the journey. For him, that’s really what it is about, what it is always about: the journey.

It’s unusually warm for February—already in the upper sixties by eight in the morning. A crispness hangs in the air. Dew dampens the ground and has fallen on the car, and covers the windshield. He dons shorts and a T-shirt, socks and sneakers and he is out the door, leaving the family to sleep in on that Saturday morning.

The car is fairly new and comfortable. Behind the wheel reminds him of all those Saturday mornings before he and his better half had child number one and then three and a half years later, child number two. On those mornings he would be up before six and out the door half an hour later. And he drove with no particular place to go, just him, the car and music. Sitting there he recalls how he ended up in Spartanburg one morning and Newberry another and Charleston another. Sometimes the drive was all he wanted, maybe even needed.

And so it is that he pulls from the yard and drives away. At the stop sign he makes a right and shortly after that, he turns the radio on, finds the grunge channel and follows the road.

dscn1683[[The score for this scene and several that would follow with him driving would begin as he makes that right turn. We wouldn’t necessarily see him, but we would hear the music. He likes the grunge from the nineties, so chances are the song that would play would be something from Nirvana or Bush or Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam. Maybe Temple of the Dog would say hello to Heaven or maybe they will go hungry.]]

Song after song plays as mile after mile disappears beneath his tires. Small roads lead to larger ones and larger ones lead to longer ones. Those longer ones lead back to smaller ones, until he is moving along a country road, passing country houses and fields.

The sign catches his eye. At first he just glimpses it. He’s not even sure he saw it after he passed it. He slows, checks the rearview mirror and sees the reverse side of it is the same as the front. A smile forms on his face and he turns the car around. Heading in the opposite direction he slows and reads the sign: WARRIOR BASEBALL. An arrow points in the direction of a street on his right. He turns, follows the road as it winds through a small neighborhood with nice cars in driveways of even nicer homes. The houses thin out. The road ends in the parking lot of a baseball complex. It’s not as new as the neighborhood, but it still stands in what he takes is the heart of the area.

A moment passes as he sits in his car in the middle of the parking lot, the motor purring. The beating of his heart matches the smile on his face. He parks between two faded white lines, flips the music off (currently Pearl Jam is singing Wish List. Eddie Vedder’s voice is cut off as he wishes he were a brake peddle you depended on). He is out of the car and popping the trunk even as the door closes and locks.

At the back of the car, his smile grows wider when he sees his wife’s back pack. If he is right, one of her cameras is in there. He unzips the front pouch and there the camera sits in its own case. He pulls it out and opens the case. He presses a small button and the camera turns on. The lens extends and he unfolds the view finder. The battery has a full charge.

[[If this were a movie, the scene would pan out and away from him. We would hear the trunk close and possibly the sounds of pebbles crunching under his sneakers. Then we would see him walking toward the baseball field, the camera in hand.]]

He approaches the field. Though it is old, it has recently been graded and then smoothed. The grass has been cut. Chalk lines run down the first and third base lines and form the batter’s boxes, the pitcher’s circle and the on deck circles just outside of each dugout. The lines aren’t crisp and clean—the field has been played on.

dscn1707He walks through the dugout gate. A metal bench stretches the length of the dugout. He leans down, sets the camera on one end so the view finder shows the entire bench. He presses a silver button and the camera clicks twice. In the view finder he sees the bench. On it are three little boys, each one wearing a red and white uniform with the team name, Warriors, written in cursive script across the front. One of them is blowing a bubble from the gum in his mouth. The other two are laughing at some unknown joke. It’s probably something to do with passing gas.

As he looks at the image, he thinks, oh yes, passing gas.

[[The scene would go from the image on the camera to the bench in front of him. One would show the ghosts of children’s past, while the other just shows a metal bench.]]

Outside the dugout and on the field, he looks around. Just beyond the infield is a dirty ball. No, it’s not a baseball and not a softball, but one that is in between. It is yellow and dirty and looks as if part of the rawhide has been scorched. He smiles.

[[Again, the film would show his feet, the sneakers crossing the hard packed orange ground. We would see the backs of his legs as he steadily approaches the ball. Then we would see the ball between his feet and his hand pick it up. He brings it to his face, where we see his blue eye again.]]

The ball gets placed by first base. He sets the camera on the ground, presses the button and waits for the click. Then he looks in the view finder. It’s almost perfect. He backs up fifteen or so feet and takes another picture, this one of the first base bag from a standing position. In the view finder, a little boy with blond hair and a gray uniform with no words on the front, but the number 3 on the left side in red. He is bending down to pick up the ball.

He nods, walks over and plucks the ball from the ground. He tosses it into the outfield. Before the ball can fall to the ground, he has the camera up and snaps several shots. In those images, a young child with skin the color of smooth chocolate has his glove up, his eyes on the ball. He thinks the boy calls ‘mine’ before the ball reaches him.

He takes a snapshot of the pitcher’s mound next. The boy standing there is caught in full wind up, his leg kicked up, arm back and ready to throw the ball.

[[In the movie about the man, we see him turn and take pictures and we see the boys of yesteryear in them. They may be just in his head, but they are there, none the less. We would hear music, maybe Centerfield by John Fogerty or even the Eddie Vedder tribute song to the Chicago Cubs for finally winning a World Series.]]

The sun is now overhead, but it is still comfortable outside. He checks his watch. It is after eleven.

dscn1703I should get back, he thinks. He makes his way toward the dugout and stops. He’s still holding the ball in one hand. He turns and cocks his arm back to throw it. He stops, looks at the ball and lets out a laugh. Instead of throwing it, he tosses it in the air, catches it and leaves the field, a hum on his lips.

[[Here we fade to black or maybe we just pan out as he walks away, the camera in one hand, the ball in the other and that hum … that hum is probably a song he likes, maybe Boys of Summer by Don Henley. We see him get in his car, and we hear the car’s engine come to life. Then it pulls out of the spot and he drives away. Like all good films, we would hear the lyrics of the song, the music, he had hummed on his way to his car. Then, the car would be out of sight and the credits would roll. And yes, there would be a fade to black …]]

As I said earlier: I’ve always felt like I’ve lived my life on the outside looking in. It’s as if I see myself and my actions through a camera lens. There is a crack that runs down the center of that lens. On the left side everything is clear and easy to see and understand. On the right side everything is blurry and odd and I struggle at everything. Very rarely do I see through the crack where everything makes sense.

For me, baseball is one of the things in that center. When I find a new field, I see myself, my actions, and my thoughts, not as if I am living them, but as if I am watching them. Sometimes, that is not a bad thing.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Grave Stories

There is  a dirt road off of Highway 176 in South Carolina. Like many dirt roads around the country, if you blink you might pass it without realizing it exists. That almost happened to us on Friday as we drove along in search of old cemeteries. If not for Cate’s eagle eyes, we would have never seen the road, and we would have never came across the Tabernacle Cemetery just outside of Cameron.

20161104_084141We backtracked and turned down the dirt road that didn’t look to really be off the beaten path. It was littered with small branches and leaves that scraped along the car’s undercarriage as we drove along. We stopped about halfway down the dirt road. A large tree branch lay in the way, most of it shattered into pieces. There was no moving the core of the branch, so we parked and walked the rest of the way.

As we got out the car, two deer ran from the trees on the right into the trees on the left about seventy yards away. They were quick, and in the blink of an eye, they were gone.

Time to walk.

It only took five or so minutes to reach the cemetery off to our left. Before reaching it, three more deer appeared in the distance, just on the edge of the woods where the road dead-ended.

The cemetery wasn’t quite shrouded by trees and shrubbery, but there was plenty of overgrowth and broken branches. There was a tree down about fifty yards from the road, probably felled by Hurricane Matthew, a storm that skirted the edge of South Carolina, but had the reach of winds and rains that spread beyond the Midlands, some hundred plus miles from the coast.

DSCN1404.JPGThe graves, most of which dated to the early to mid-1800’s, felt as if they had been forgotten over the years. The grass was shin high in places and leaves crunched under foot. Like the road, there were small branches everywhere. Tomb stones leaned forward; others had crumbled over time. A few had broken in half. Many of the graves belonged to Confederate soldiers or to the Dantzler clan…or both. There were some smaller headstones, babies and children who passed much too young.

As we wondered around the open cemetery (which I imagine was last kept up about six years or so ago), the sounds of Mother Nature spoke to us. A wind whistled softly through the trees, leaves rustled and fell all around us in ballet pirouettes, deer walked or ran through the woods not far from us. Out in that grave yard, all those sounds gave the place a somewhat creepy atmosphere.

We had seen the large tree from the road, many of its branches b
roken off and scattered about. As we approached it, high-stepping tall grass and other branches, we saw that none of the tombstones along its length had been damageDSCN1413.JPGd when it fell. It was as if the tree had laid down right between several headstones for a little rest. It was like the tree had a respect for the dead that
most of the living
don’t have.

Where the top of the tree lay were three larger markers, Confederate soldiers, an
d Dantzlers alike. The branches hung above them and around them. Some of them brushed up against the markers, as if patting them gently. It was one of the neatest sights we have seen in an old cemetery.

As we left and headed back up the dirt road to where our car sat (waiting patiently for us, perhaps?), I stopped and looked back. The scene before me was eerily quiet. The wind no longer whistled through the trees. The leaves no longer rustled and fell to the ground in ballet-like pirouettes. The deer had left the area or had just stopped moving about. Could they sense something about to happen?

Now, here is what I want you to picture, and no, this did not happen. But this is where my mind painted a picture oDSCN1408.JPGf three men, all Confederate soldiers in their winter coats and britches. One wore a gray hat and sat on the long trunk of the tree, one foot on the ground, the other firmly planted on the tree, knee bent and his elbow on it. He bit into an apple, that in my mind’s eye, looked too red. I heard the crunch of his teeth sink into the apple.

The second guy was older, a salt and pepper beard on his face, a wooden pipe in his mouth. White smoke billowed up from the pipe. He stood on the other side of the tree, sharpening a knife on a wet stone. In the picture being painted in my mind I sniffed the air, thinking I might be able to catch the rich smell of the tobacco, but couldn’t. I can’t say there wasn’t disappointment on the face of my mind’s version of me.

DSCN1401.JPGThe third soldier—the one that felt the most real to me—was kneeling down a few feet from the base of the fallen tree. There was a white bandage around his midsection in place of the shirt he wasn’t wearing. He reached into the ground, his hands clearly disappearing into the dirt of the grave where a small headstone was. A moment later he stood, a baby in his arms. He turned to me and our eyes met. He was smiling as he snuggled the baby against his chest.

I stood for a few seconds, watching these three men, one eating an apple, one sharpening a knife and one holding a baby. Then they faded away, leaving just the graves and woods behind. And just like that, my mind released me from the image.

I stood a couple of seconds more, and then ran up the road to catch up with Cate. We would leave the grave yard behind. Maybe someone else will come along and the ghosts will plant images in their mind. Or, maybe, it’s the other way around. Maybe their minds will plant images on their surroundings and bring the ghosts alive, if only for a few seconds…