Cemetery Dance Epilogue
Upon the Death And Burial of My Father
The McKenzie Cemetery is old and dusty, and filled with the sounds of the West Texas chaparral pasture. To reach its century and a half old rocky fence, you turn off a blacktop Texas highway that rolls on and on, connecting San Angelo and Colorado City. Between those oil boom towns is nothing but road, barbed-wire fence, and short, spindly grasses that give way to wild, roving expanses of mesquite trees. The trees are of a gnarled shape with cracked, black-brown bark that fans out suddenly into needle-sharp leaves of a green the eyes can only find in this part of the world. It is a color that exists, like the cemetery between the two towns, as a particular kind of treasure only revealed by those whose ancestors have passed along the secret of its existence.
Turning off the road, one passes over the triple-bump shock of a cattle gate, where a powdery, dirt road stretches not too far to reveal the cemetery’s simple, square expanse.
The cemetery is a quiet place. Airless in its heavy silence that is broken only by the braying of Hereford beef cattle, grazing, or by the West Texas wind that when it comes, comes whipping and howling, sharp and sandy. The silence also breaks in this place when mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, extended family and friends find themselves turning off the blacktop to make use of one of the plots. Many of those plots in the cemetery were filled a long, long time ago. So long ago that even the great grandchildren of those who lie there have died.
The morning is the only time to make use of those plots. The time when the Texas dawn is just beginning to lose its velvety purples and scarlets and wildflower pinks. When the sun is the gold of a swollen peach, not quite ripe. Like the cemetery’s location, like the unique green of the mesquites, there is a betweenness to the time that is best to make use of this place, before its hard, unforgiving sunlight makes the day too hot for fellowship or mourning, so bright it hurts the eyes.
One of those plots was opened two days ago, the dusty ground and impacted caliche chewed into easily by a backhoe driver who has no idea for whom he is digging a grave. A day later, backhoe driver nowhere to be seen, the plot is adorned with a canvas canopy under which are set three rows of chairs set atop the bristly, green shag of a faux-lawn carpet.
A long, white car arrives.
Within the hearse are two men. One of them is a driver. A professional man dressed in a suit who is the last chauffeur his singular passenger will ever have. The passenger laying inside the black and brown casket composed of repurposed tobacco barn oak, is of medium height. His face made-up to counterfeit the skin to that of the healthy, tanned complexion captured in photographs his family will look upon for years and years when they want to remember.
Inside the casket, set upon a cream-colored pillow, the passenger lays tranquil. Still. Eyes closed forever. The passenger wears a blue-white, almost silver shirt embroidered with black diamonds that match the leather belt and washed-out wranglers. The passenger rests inside the hearse for a short time, and eternally, waiting. And then, the people who knew the passenger arrive in the comfort of multiple caravans comprised of his friends, his extended family. Where they wait until the passenger’s immediate family arrive as prepared as they can be.
The passenger is born out of the hearse into the golden burn of the West Texas sun, untouched in that moment by all the light he cannot see, hidden away in the casket. Then, the passenger is carefully rolled toward the grave by two sons, two nephews, an uncle, and a brother-in-law.
All those who knew the passenger are drawn-in by the approach of the casket and the gravity of the man inside. Bundled together, the people stand beneath the late-morning golden light flaring yellow, bringing with it the heat that has forged the hard men of this harsh, rudely beautiful landscape for hundreds of years. The mother, the sister, and the children of the passenger sit, and for a short time, the wind comes blowing eastward, snapping the canvas flaps like funeral banners.
A preacher welcomes the waiting crowd, many of them with lumps in their throats. Ashes where their hearts should be.
A song is played. A George Strait tune about fathers and their children and the hereafter.
The preacher speaks again. Corinthians and Romans and the prophet Isaiah have their timeless words called out. The cattle lowing along with the preacher’s message of comfort and peace, Alpha and Omega.
Another song is played. A Willie Nelson gospel tune about those called, the vellum of their lives rolled-up like a scroll.
The second son of the passenger gets up, and taking a deep, measured breath, heart racing, hopes that he can, with words written by his hand, give a voice to all the many feelings he and his siblings have felt over all the many years they have known this man. Because he, their brother has, while writing about the father they share, thought wholly upon them. Thought about the illimitable gratitude and largess and mending they have, each of them, provided the rest. The work and the challenges. The debates. The laughter and the tears. The pain they share. And all the unmistakable heavenly glory residing in each of them.
“We are so glad you are here. We only wish it were under better circumstances.”
And with the deepest breath he may ever take he speaks to the crowd, letting them hear the last gift he will ever give to his father.
“My family is worried that my long-winded nature will make a prisoner of all of us in this moment. They are afraid, and rightfully so that I will go on and on, spilling over with stories and voices, jokes and metaphor and similes, like so many tumbleweeds blowing through the West Texas chaparral flats where we, all of us, came to know this man.
But they don’t need to worry, because how much time could I take to tell you? How much time could I spend? To tell you all that you already know about this man.
He was born Max’sl Karl Humble on September 23, 1960. He was a part of the graduating class of 1979 from Snyder high school and hear him tell it, he was the fastest son of a bitch to ever run the 400 m hurdles.
He was a hard man raised on this unforgiving landscape, by other hard men, who were hardened by the times and circumstances they grew-up in. A man who cowboyed through life, always riding hard, and cutting a lean, beveled silhouette, against the Texas skies that only his fore-bearers knew better.
He was a son. He was a brother. A husband. He was a father of four children, who called his eldest son Bubba, his first daughter Sis, me he called son, and having what might’ve been the singular prophetic moment of his life, he named the last child after himself- always calling her Max’sl.
Dad was beloved by many people. Those in his younger heavy haul trucking years, knew him as the mule. Those who worked underneath him while he was a truck pusher, the best truck pusher to ever slide on a pair of boots, called him boss.
To his many female admirers and girlfriends and paramours, he proved, with eyes the blue of sunlight kissing the topmost spindle of a glacier, to be the most charming rake they would ever know.
And this, his charm, was, along with his deep, personal definition of fidelity to his friends, was the part of him that shined the brightest.
Dad was uncommonly likable.
Even to those who argued with him, those who fought with him, those who were once his enemies, all of them, found it very difficult to never become his friend.
Dad’s love was a rough kind of love, unvarnished. Always direct. Here at the end, it is a love, seismic in its power and utterly unique, that will stay with all of us in different and impactful ways.
And he was a man, more man than any man who came before, that proved true the troubadour words of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, “Cowboys ain’t easy to love, and they’re harder to hold.”
Words said, the airless silence of the cemetery returns and he sits.
Another song, I Come to the Garden Alone, comes pouring out over the friends, the family, the father in the casket, down into the empty, waiting grave, and then, up and up and up. On and on, past the cattle, the gate, over the brush and the mesquites. All the way to the singular, blacktop highway that provides the only road whereupon the McKenzie Cemetery can be found. Her newest occupant, resting within a casket, within a vault, within earthen tomb, laying quiet.
Resting, finally, now that his hurried, hot-hearted life has come to an end.