4632 words (18 minute read)

Chapter 1

I got off the interstate to commit suicide.

It was one of those dead, pointless exits in rural Tennessee that serves perhaps a dozen people a day. Left was the interstate underpass and then nothing but blank road and green trees. Right was the same. I wanted a quiet place to do it. I went right, out into the wilderness, leaving the world and all its problems behind. The car road unlevel on the spare. Heat radiated from the sunroof, and the empty road and limp afternoon trees depressed me even further, but I kept driving. I drove for miles, waiting for a shady gravel patch to appear where I could pull off and rest for a minute.

I found a road instead. It was nameless and so much a part of the dull forest that I almost passed it by. But it did catch my, and I swerved onto it carelessly, immediately found myself in a winding kaleidoscope of fragmented sunlight and pavement that sucked me into the breathless forest. The road was so narrow that to stop would have been to stop whoever came along that way, either in ten minutes or ten years. Above all else, I wanted my death to be unobtrusive. Perhaps this was an ironic preservation of the illusion that I did not matter – the same illusion that was driving me toward death.

I was almost ready to do it, the flashing sunlight through the trees and sharp turns nauseated me so, when I rounded a corner and saw the trees end abruptly and the glowing whiteness of the afternoon open up again like the gates of Heaven. I stopped at the edge of the shade, unwilling to leave behind the thing that I had searched for – the quiet, cool place to leave the world behind.

Beyond, a bridge of ancient concrete baked in the sun. It spanned a slow green river. On the far side rose, or rather rambled, the bleached bones of an ancient town. I squinted through the windshield. The curiosity that has inspired my writings for this magazine for the past six years staved off death a little longer. Cursing myself, I edged forward into the glare and across the bridge, casting a sidelong glance at the water seventy feet below. I flinched at the flutters of curiosity that tickled my heart as I drove through the town. I passed filling stations signs now faded pink, and hazy drugstore windows, and weed-infested alleys, and a silent cinema façade. I didn’t see a soul until I reached the end of the main street, where the town petered out into forgotten lawns and broken drives running up to ivy-shrouded houses. It was then that a man leaped from the grass surrounding a light pole and charged toward the car. Perhaps I should have pushed on the gas. Perhaps I should have reached for my gun. Instead I stopped. He ran up and pounded on the tented glass. I rolled the window down and looked at him dully. He was old, but wore a clean grey suit and a fedora. His face froze in surprise when he saw me. “You’re not the doctor!” I continued to stare at him “Are you the doctor?”

I started to speak; my throat was dry.

“Go on then!” He shouted. From my perspective, in the bland fog of depression, the command seemed to come from beyond time and space – perhaps this man was an angel sent to pull me back from the brink. I coughed slightly, “Go where?”

“He didn’t tell you? First left! Straight. You’ll know it when you see it.”

I obeyed. I turned left at the first road I came to, still in sight of the town, still with the man visible in my review mirror. As I drove down the road I began to wonder if I was in a dream. My angry girlfriend, her dead mother, my tenuous job position, and now driving down the straightest road in Tennessee minutes after driving on the curviest. It was like a green tunnel. No splinters of sunshine from above, just even, dreamy light. Not a sound came from the closely packed trees – mud-scented wind touched my face.

Three miles later I passed back into the sun, crossing a clay-stained bridge that traversed a dark creek. The rough road that followed separated more forests on the right from thick, silent fields on the left. They ran down a mile to the river. I examined all this from the perspective that: yes, I was in a dream. It was in this state of mind that I first saw it. – “The House of Dust.” Southern Gothic.

            He would have sped passed if that silent, mysterious presence possessed by things that wait hadn’t pulled his head over.

            The house was up among the trees. Brad turned onto the gravel drive. Sticks popped beneath the tires. The car crept through the shadows and light, following the path as it bent away from the house, then swooped around and drew up before it. He stopped in the little clearing. The scant groundcover that the trees allowed consisted mostly of tall, gangly weeds. Climbing from the care, he glanced up at the patch of sky. It was filling with clouds. The light was subdued. He walked around the car and looked up at the house. It was grey, though from age instead paint. It had a huge front porch, accessible by a few central steps, and covered by a sloping roof that climbed to three windows spaced along the bottom of the tapering roof peak. The whole front seemed swollen somehow, like a smaller house blown out of proportion. He decide he would call “achy” and “dismal” if he ever were to include it in a story. Of course, there wouldn’t be many more of those when he finished committing suicide.

            Before he could proceed, his eye was caught by something up in the peak where the eves met. Something rusty and old. He squinted. A bicycle wheel? Odd decoration.

            He climbed the steps and crossed the porch which was cluttered with at least two dozen rocking chairs facing in all directions. The door was warted and almost black. As he lifted his fist to knock the bicycle wheel appeared again, this time embossed in the wood in tarnished brass.  Two quick knocks, then he stood back.

            It occurred to him after a while that since he was supposed to be a doctor, the person he was calling on was probably in bed, unable to respond. He tried the door and found it looked. He shook his head. Turning away he looked back at the car and half smiled. The gun way waiting in the glove box. His eyes strayed to the nearest rocker. Peaceful, alone, miles from everything . . . It would probably inconvenience the resident, though.

            He turned to the door and knocked again, rapidly. Finding his voice he called, “Anyone in?” In the deepest recesses of the house, his sound was only a muffled tap. He moved along the front door, peering in the windows. They were grimy, and there were no lights on inside. He left sweat stains on each pane of glass. Annoyance built up inside of him as the minutes dripped by. He wasn’t a doctor, and he couldn’t do anything for the person inside – if there was anyone inside. He was stalling. He’d thought he’d been ready for this. The pressure had been building since yesterday, after the funeral was over, and it had built up enough to push him off the interstate onto that abandoned exit ramp. Great, now it was all back. He was slipping out of the suicidal stage back into the despairing one, replaying it all over in his mind: the fight with his fiancé after her mom’s funeral about going out to eat – he really didn’t have the money – then argument about where she would live now that her mom was dead and her house was being repossessed – he really didn’t have the money for a bigger apartment – then the email from Heather at Southern Gothic, telling him his employment would be terminated in three months, then the call from his fiancé telling him their engagement was terminated, then the blowout on the interstate from Nashville. He had decided while he was changing the tire that he would kill himself. It was surprising how easy it was to accept. After all the hours of stressing over what to do it almost made him happy.

            He looked at the tire now, standing at the porch rail. He took his glances off and cleaned them, then put them back on. It wouldn’t get him back to Atlanta. It wouldn’t get him to a better spot, either. Someone would be annoyed no matter where he did it, even if it was just the tree the bullet scraped after it had obliterated his skull. He went back down the steps and walked to the car. The darkness inside the glovebox split as he popped it and pulled the gun out. It was cheap. It would probably misfire and paralyze him, or leave him to blead for hours. He’d written about plenty of crime for the magazine, but most of them had been fifty years old.

            The muzzle was beautifully cool against him temple. From among the trees, the sun could be seen gleaming off two things: the gun and windshield of his car. From the vantage of a wheeling buzzard it was three surfaces: the gun, the windshield and the sunroof. His finger tightened on the trigger. A hum floated through the trees. It wrapped itself around that finger, then his whole hand. He lowered the gun and turned, looking over the roof of his car. Another vehicle, an old pickup, was coming down the road, flashing into and out of visibility between the trees. There was no doubt where it was headed.

            He slammed the door. This was no dream with guardian angels, it was a nightmare. No way to take his own life! Of course if he weren’t so picky . . . But it was understandable to want to have the right circumstances to die under. He walked out of the clearing and up the side of the house. Weeds and ivy, weeds and ivy.

            The truck was tearing up the driveway as he reached the back of the house. He stopped. The gun, for a moment, was limp in his hand. A smaller, screened in porch buttressed the rear of the building. More of the land was clear back here. Neat beds of flowers, segregated by color, ranged across the gentle slope, and grass grew between them. He wandered out into them like a wondering child.

            Now this would be a fine place. The house behind, the trees walling him in, the congealing sky above, and the flowers all around. He raised the gun, placed it to his skull, and said the word his dad had said right before he died, “Amen.”

            Then he saw the body. It lay placidly in a bed of deep red flowers half a dozen feet away. It wore a white, knee-length dress with red dots – flowers, too, he realized as he approached. It also had white hair that reached the shoulders. A woman. An old woman. The person he’d been looking for, no doubt. “Uh, ma’am?”

            The thud of a truck door slamming carried around the house. He stepped closer, pistol back at his side. “Ma’am? Can I help you? Are you alright?” He stooped down by the timber barrier of the tract and reached into the blossoms and took her hand. He was not surprised to find it unresponsive. She was dead. When he was so close to the same state, the idea did not frighten him. He laid her hand down and then folded his own. The face was placid, he decided. Or at least resigned. It had known what was coming and accepted it. It was hard to tag an age to the face, though. She had been a beauty, with wide-set eyes and full lips. It was young face, but one that had existed for a very long time. Rather like a stature. Instead of wrinkling and collapsing, she had simply eroded. Yes, statuesque. That was what he would call her should he ever include her in an article. Or perhaps “iconic”, because “statuesque” suggested stiffness, which he did not think had been true of her. Not at all.

            When he heard the footsteps he remembered the gun. It had fallen when he had taken her hand. He snatched it off the grass and stuffed it into the cool soil beneath the flowers. If they were armed they might shoot him before he could get a word out, and if there was one thing he didn’t want it was to have someone shoot him. He rubbed his hands together and stood up. He listened to the footsteps thudding down the slope from the house – old, overweight men, two of them. Turning, he looked up at them gravely.

            “What did you bring her out here for?” The one he had seen in the town demanded. He was sweaty and red in the face. His eyes were black.

            “I didn’t.”

            The second man, silver-haired and wearing a dress shirt and khaki pants, moved passed him, carrying a bag.

            “She’s dead.” Brad assured him. “Was dead when I arrived. Nothing I could do.”

            “Don’t pretend,” the town man said. “You’re no doctor.” But as Bradley looked at him it seemed that all the air was sucked out of the man. He sat down suddenly on the grass and his eyes became very wide. “She’s dead?” He said softly. “Dead of . . . dead of what? Doctor?”

            “I have no idea.” The doctor had stepped into the flowerbed to examine the woman. In the cool twilight beneath the leaves, ants traversed his feet and the gun, mere inches apart. “She’s just dead. At her age it’s usually the heart. Nothing violent, obviously. Fairly peaceful, given her posture.” He stepped out of the bed and dusted off his pant legs. His voice was rich, like a documentary narrator. “I’m sorry for you loss, Mr. Walsh. I know you and this community loved her deeply. I think we all knew this was coming, but I understand it’s still a shock.”

            “She’s dead,” the town man repeated.

            “I’m afraid so. Will you need be to contact a coroner for–”

            “No! No, we’ll take care of . . . her ourselves.”

            “Very well. Good luck to you all.” The doctor glanced at Bradley and, he thought, made the slightest intimation with his eyes, then walked up the hill.

             He dug his hands into his pockets and kneaded the fabric, glanced back at the place where his gun lay, then walked up the hill as well, leaving the man Walsh staring into space.

            When he got around to the front of the house the doctor was placing his bag in the back seat of a silver Dodge. He took a little brush out of the door pocket and proceeded to go over his clothes inch by inch. He smiled as Bradley stood, hands in his pockets, watching. “You notice things, I’m glad.”

            “What do you mean?” Bradley asked.

            “I wanted to talk to you, but not many people would have notice my invitation. Are you an artist?”

            “Writer.”

            “Close enough. Don’t mind this,” he flourished the brush. “I’m paid to be a germophobe. This dust out here just sticks to you like sin. How’d you end up in my shoes?”

            He hesitated. “Oh, that guy back there jumped out at me as I was driving through the town – thought I was you and sent me out here.”

            “Thought you were my partner – no, I’ve been coming out here for a few years. Probably the first outsider to interact with them since 1968. The woman decided her health was going downhill and the herb teas weren’t doing the trick. Who do you write for?”

            He took his hands out of his pockets and folded his arms. “Southern Gothic – it’s a magazine, not too big.”

            “Looking for a story? You could probably find a few around here.”

            “I wouldn’t turn one down.”

            “You’d need a crowbar to pry anything out of these people.”

            “How many are there?”

            “People? I have no idea.” The doctor finished with his shoes. “Okay then, guess I’ll be heading along.”

            “Was there anything you wanted to say to me?”

            “Not especially. Just what I said – careful around the people. I didn’t know if you were just a guy who got lost back here, or if you were house hunting, or a government guy. Wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing.”

            “Honestly, I have no idea how I got here.”

            “You might want to be careful then. Doing medicine for these rural people you see some weird stuff. You’re alright, aren’t you?”

            “Me?”

            “Your eyes look a little red. Look like you’re running a fever.”

            “I am a little sick.”

            “I have to tell you to rest, then. Just my duty.”

            “Sure.” He shifted. “Thanks.”

            “Well, take care of yourself. If you do decide to stick around and find out about this place send me a copy of the story.” He glanced up at the house. “I’d sure like to know.”

            “I’ll do that.”

            The guy climbed in his truck and closed the door. The glass was tinted black. He started up with a roar, pulled around through the weeds, and roared down the drive, leaving Brad in a cloud of dust.

           

            He remained motionless until it cleared. He turned to look up at the house himself, and felt a piano playing in the back of his mind. That melodramatic music always came on when he felt the winds of life change. The music had played as he changed the tire. He had thought how it would be his last task, and the last the world would see of him. People would read about a guy found dead in his car and think, “huh, I wonder if that was the guy I saw changing the tire on the side of the interstate yesterday.” But of course all that was spoiled now. Something about this place was monumental for his life. He could feel it. He’d always had a second sight about these things – he could feel it. Through a film of dust on his glasses, he looked at the house for a long time.

            “Hey!”

            He blinked and looked over. Walsh had come around the corner of the house. He was holding the dead woman. “You want to atone for your sins?”

            The words sounded weird in the man’s country drawl. They were also just plain weird. “What are you talking about?”

            The man walked forward, holding the body reverently. “Your car can carry the Queen of Hearts to her final resting place. Then maybe they won’t be mad at you for lying.”

            His hands began to itch for his gun. “You want to use my car as a hearse? Is that what you’re saying?”

            The man nodded slowly. “Atone for your sins.”

            “I’m afraid not. Not today.” He turned and walked quickly to the car.

            “They’re mad at you!” Walsh called.

            “Most people are, my friend.”

            Thunder rumbled. The land sucked in a breath and held it. The driver door squeaked loudly as he opened it.

            “But . . . they’d be very grateful.”

            Simple, plaintive words in the dead air. He froze halfway into the crouch to sit down. Curse that piano! He stood and looked over the hood at the man in his soiled suit and the old woman in her young dress. “Who would be? The community?”

            “Yes.”

            “You think they’d let me stay around for a bit?”

            The man came all the way to the car, then looked back at the house. “You want it?”

            “Is it for sale?”

            Walsh looked up toward the eves. “It’ll always be here. No reason you couldn’t use a little of its time.”

            “Then I’d be happy to help.”

            As they placed the woman in the rear seat of the car, a low, chill exhalation from the river swept across the field, and up through the trees, and around their feet, lifting dust into the air, swirling it uselessly toward the sky. The curtains inside the house shivered even though the windows were tightly shut.

            “Hurry,” Mr. Walsh said as Bradley turned down the drive. “We must bury her before the rain comes.” 

           

            “By the way,” Mr. Walsh said as they drove down a road west of the town, followed by an entourage of fifty-year-old cars. “Are you married?”

            “. . . No.” He glanced over.

            The man looked back at him quiet seriously, as if it mattered. “What’s her name?” He asked.

            “Not to offend, but I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

            “Begging your pardon, but anyone living in the house is our business.”

 

            He stood by the car during the service. More like a ceremony, really. The people stood among the tall grass and weathered headstones while a couple of the old men dug a lopsided hole with blunt shovels. They all talked amongst themselves while this was going on, but none seemed to hear the other – each was carrying on an intimate conversation with themselves, delivering their own eulogy, preaching their own sermon.

            The cemetery was on a little peninsula of land sticking into the green river. The ruins of a church sat on the tip of the peninsula, and behind it here were the graves. The erratic wind whipped the grass back and forth and set the leaves of the trees across the water to singing. His eyes followed a small group of birds that were dancing across those leaves. Something rose up from the forest perhaps a mile down the river – a derelict, industrial looking tower. It was grey, matching the clouds behind it. He mentally archived it, deciding it would be a good example of picture he would paint of this town and these people, should he ever chose – but that was why he was still alive, wasn’t it? He had chosen. Frustrating, how he had let something as simple as suicide slip by. But he couldn’t help the excitement, too. Perhaps, at long last, this would be a piece of work his editor, Heather, would smile and nod at him over. “This is good, Bradley – this is the reason we hired you.” If he could just get the old flame back, then death would be as scary for him now as it had once been. It was when he had let that fear drive him away from the best stories that his material had gone downhill. Well, time to remedy that. Time to make fear into a shiny hook, stab it through his chest, and let it drag him around.

            He pushed away from the car and walked to the outskirts of the crowd. The hole was finished. The body was being laid straight in the ground, without casket or shroud. Everyone – a crowd of perhaps fifty – was huddled around the hollow, watching as Mr. Walsh and a man with an extremely boney face arranged the body. When they both climbed from the ground where he could get a good look at his face, Brad decided boney-face was the youngest member of the gathering at around fifty-five.

            The babbling from shriveled lips ceased for a moment as they all stared down at the body. Those around him went up on tip-toe to try and get a better view. He expected some mention of the resurrection or dust-to-dust. Instead, an elderly man with a full and slightly shaggy head of grey hair, dressed in a white suit, walked to the head of the grave. “Well,” he said. “That’s that. Everyone go home.”

            Just like that, like a flock of sparrows scared by a falling leaf, they scattered, threading through the grass back to their cars. He was left with bony-face and Mr. Walsh, who set about filling the hole. Thunder had been prowling around the sky in a ten-mile circle for the past half-hour. Now it closed in, and the wind blew from all directions at once. When the first cold raindrops splattered like bird droppings on the ground, Mr. Walsh dropped his shovel and scampered toward the dwindling row of cars. Bony-face, jaw tight, kept working.

            He walked up to the grave and picked up the spare shovel. Everything but the woman’s face was covered; it seemed to be an allergic spot to pour dirt. Brad stepped to the mound, dug out a healthy scoop of orange earth, and dumped it right on the silent face; the last part he saw was the mouth, smiling slightly. When he looked up, boney-face caught his eye and nodded slightly. “Name’s Brad,” he called through the wind.

            The man just nodded.

            They worked faster as the rain fell harder. When the hole was gone and the dirt was mounded up, the man held out his hand and took the shovel. He ran to his car through the rain. Brad lingered a moment longer, watching the earth disintegrate into mud. When he turned to follow the man was coming back, carrying something. He slogged up, panting, and let the object thump onto the mound. It was one of those weird, bicycle wheel shaped symbols, made out of stone. The man nodded slowly at the mound and wiped his hands, backing away. Then he ran off to his car. This time he didn’t come back.

            He looked at the white object, already staining with orange mud, then went to his own car. He got his phone out and dialed his fiancé. As fate would have it, she actually answered. “Honey,” he said. “I think I’ve found a place. 

Next Chapter: Chapter 2