You take the back roads to get there. From off 181, it’s a right and then a left, then another right – then, you lose track of the turns. You can be guided by memory, further back into the live oaks, as the pavement turns to chip and seal, before sand that slides off onto the shoulder.
As you leave the highway, the strip mall hellscape fades back into the rear-view mirror and soon it’s small farms strung along a rural route. Most folks don’t grow cotton anymore, though in the fall there are still some fields with sticks bearing white stubble. Everything else has given over to the latest cash crop, soy. Here and there peanuts remain still.
There’s a restaurant bearing the name of the old highway, from back when it was a fresh artery bringing tourists and their money to the area, before the dismal tide turned against the land and her people. Now, the folks that sit at the wood tabletops can hardly make out a living, until they sell off the little they have left and move to a suburb or away.
They should spit at the name of the old highway, but instead they named a restaurant after it out of pride that they’ve misplaced – for it was the thing that had brought about their ruin.
Staying on the road, you can almost feel it pulling you closer as you nose the truck down the sand road.
It’s set back off the road, so you wouldn’t see it, unless you know it’s there. When summer foliage is in full bloom, a local would be forgiven for losing it in the den of smilax, copperleaf, and azaleas.
About fifty feet back from the roadway there’s a small fence, built up to knee height with what rocks churned out of the sandy soil, surrounding the small grave plot in a bent square.
Here and there, limbs have fallen from the live oaks overhead. These go in the bed of the truck after the tools are unloaded. Later the branches will be broken and burned in a fire pit at dusk, but now it’s mixing the gas and cursing a leaking bubble from the ethanol fuel you knew you shouldn’t use, but bought anyway because the price is right.
Three dozen markers are clustered in small groups, a husband, wife and their young dead daughter here, his cousin and his family there. Your own grandfather’s marker is a stone slab, a relic from better times, not the gaudy polished marble affairs, but rough hewn and brought in from somewhere in the north of the state, carved with his name, which is your name, and the time God gave him.
The weedie chews up the green undergrowth and spits it out like green confetti, covering denim and boots and flicking bits of rock and grit up and always finding a way to tumble down the forehead and into eyes covered by safety glasses.
The plot is small and the work doesn’t take long, but still you stay awhile after the limbs are cleared and the brush has been beaten back. It’s fall now and besides the leaves that have fallen and are raked back, there isn’t much here. It’s still hot and will be for some time, but you can feel it beginning to break. There are no real cold snaps until the start of the year but the trees and bushes still see fit to give way for this time.
Back on the roadway there are people piling in from up North, some flew to Atlanta and made the drive, headed to swill fruity drinks at the chain restaurants that dot the strip lining the water. They will spend a few days in monstrous condo buildings and move from air conditioned hole to air conditioned hole. They will leave and others will take their place, less as the season wanes but still coming and making the place unfit for those that call it home.
But back here, keeping the family plot, it’s quiet and serene and gives peace and understanding that God has built the shape of the seasons into a circle. And, surely as His will, the wheel will turn back over.
-By William AG