CHARLOTTE HAD NO NOTION of blasting the top off Major Tidwell’s tall and elaborate Woodmen of the World monument. It was shaped like a tree with its limbs sawn off and, as anyone could see, it was an easy mark. Under normal circumstances, she would never have dreamed of it. The only reason she did it was pure frustration and perhaps she was tired, she later told the sheriff’s deputy.
The day had started out well enough. She reached up in her closet for the velvet heart-shaped box that held Cameron’s cremation urn and prayed she wouldn’t drop it. She didn’t. Then she went into Cameron’s room and searched for the skull-and-bones pirate keepsake box their mother had given Cameron when he was thirteen. It held all his precious things. His first lost tooth. The first dollar he earned. Mexican jumping beans from Six Flags in Houston. A picture of Darla Shay, his best friend in high school. The enormous blue bowtie he wore to the junior-senior banquet. Charlotte had decided she would bury the keepsake box right alongside Cameron’s ashes. Cameron would have said she was going Egyptian on him, but it felt like the right thing to do and Charlotte always went with her feelings.
Cameron said Charlotte was cursed that way, that she was a victim of her feelings and didn’t have a shred of logic in her brain. He’d warned her about going off the deep end after he died.
“You better get control of yourself,” he said, reaching out an emaciated arm, his voice a hoarse whisper. “Pull me over. I’m hurting.” Charlotte pulled him over and he groaned. She sniffled and wiped her nose across her sleeve. “You’re like a child,” he said. “You need to pray to God you don’t fall apart without me.” His eyes were large and black, dilated and empty, like he’d already left and was crossing over the Jordan even as he spoke.
“I’ll be okay,” she said. She squeezed his hand. He didn’t smile like he used to. He just breathed through his mouth and stared past her.
“I don’t want to die,” he said. “There’s a lot I want to do still.” He looked at her suddenly, held her in focus for a moment.
“I know.” She couldn’t think of what else to say. Usually she couldn’t stop talking, but now she felt weak in her words. There were none.
“I’m tired.” He shifted and picked at the sheets. “I’m just lying here rotting. No one’ll even come see me. Afraid they’ll catch what I got.”
“That’s not true,” Charlotte said. “I tell them you’re too sick for visitors.”
“You don’t have to lie to me. They’ve already written me off. Wrote me off twelve years ago when they heard what I got.”
“I tell them you’ve got cancer.”
“Yeah, and they know what else I got, too.”
“You’ve got cancer. That’s what I tell them and that’s the truth.”
Not long after, Cameron went into a coma and the death rattle started. It filled the whole house. There was nowhere you could go and not hear it. The hospice nurse said it could be a few hours or a few days. Sometimes, Charlotte sat by Cameron’s side with the pain pump in her hand and pressed and pressed and pressed. She watched religious shows on the TV in his bedroom and prayed with the faith healers. She laid hands on Cameron when Benny Hinn came on. But the death rattle continued. After three days, Cameron’s lungs stopped pulling in and expelling air. The house was silent.
Cameron had been born on the side of a highway on the way to the charity hospital, right on the line dividing two Louisiana parishes. A state trooper assisted in the delivery. Charlotte had been there, five years old, peering over the front seat of the Chrysler, a powder blue one with fins, long as a swimming pool. Their mother had wanted to give birth in a hospital and not at home, not the old-fashioned way, the way Charlotte had been born. She wanted to wake up from a pleasant sleep and be handed the baby. She wanted to be pampered and fussed over and told how to bottle feed. She and Charlotte set out for town as soon as the contractions started, but Cameron would not wait. He burst forth blue and covered with mucus and blood, staining the back seat of the Chrysler, and he screamed until he turned a scarlet-purple. Charlotte held him briefly, took in his musky smell as the trooper carried her mother to the back of the police car for the ride to the hospital.
“Don’t you drop him,” her mother warned as the trooper lifted her up. “You hold him tight.”
Charlotte held him tight and even supported his head. He was wrapped in the trooper’s jacket, but she was afraid he might get cold on the chilly December morning so she turned her back to the wind. There was frost on the grass on the side of the road, so frosty it crunched when you walked. The tall pine trees swayed and bent and creaked. “Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,” Charlotte whispered. The baby looked at her and quieted.
“Give me my baby,” her mother called. The trooper stalked over. He was tall and his face was flushed and worried. He had bloodshot eyes and looked angry, like he’d been roped into something he didn’t want to be roped into. Charlotte had seen her father look that way. Instinctively, she backed up, but the trooper reached down and snatched up the baby. Cameron began to wail and so did Charlotte.
“Hush,” the trooper said. Cameron cried louder.
“Give me my baby,” her mother called again, even though the trooper had already deposited Cameron in her arms.
The next time Charlotte could remember seeing her mother, a nurse was pushing her into the hospital lobby in a wheelchair. She held Cameron and gazed only at him, cooing and stroking his cheek with the tip of her index finger. Charlotte tried to show her the picture of Cameron in the manger she’d drawn. “Cameron is playing Baby Jesus in the Christmas show,” she said as they entered the parking lot. “See Mama?”
“Yeah, hon,” Mama said, not looking. “Give me a cigarette, Gene.”
“That stain ain’t coming out of the backseat,” Charlotte’s father said, patting his shirt pocket where the cigarettes stayed, but not getting one out.
“Well what was I supposed to do, cross my legs?”
“You were supposed to wait for me to get home, Maureen.”
“You never were for me having this baby in the hospital. You’d just as soon me bleed to death than take me to a hospital.”
“I want you to know that mess in the back is going to prevent me from ever getting a good price for this car. So look around and get used to it. We’re going to be keeping it a long, long time.”
“Fine with me.”
When Cameron was old enough to understand, Charlotte told him he’d made the stain, the Shroud of Turin–like imprint that bore witness to the fact that he’d been born right there on the silver cloth upholstery. She stroked his corn-silk hair as she told him about the frosty morning and the trooper, who had become saint-like in the story.
“Daddy said we’d keep this car forever because of your stain,” she added. “That means your stain’s special and so are you.”
“I don’t like that stain,” Cameron said. “I don’t like to be anywhere by it.” He scooted closer to Charlotte. She put her arm around him and held him close.
“What are you two whispering about back there?” Mama demanded.
Their father frowned in the rearview mirror. “No monkey business,” he said, “or I’ll get the belt out when we get home.”
“I don’t love Daddy,” Cameron whispered, drawing close to Charlotte’s ear and pushing her hair aside. His hot breath on her neck made her shiver.
A few months later, as Charlotte was finishing fifth grade with all A’s, Daddy brought home a new Buick, brown, the color of mud.
From the very first time Charlotte saw Major Tidwell’s monument when she was six, she’d been fascinated. She wanted to climb to the top of it and sit on the upper branch, then jump. If the adults hadn’t been there, she’d have done it. Mama said not to walk on the graves because it was disrespectful to the dead, kind of like stepping on an old person’s foot or knocking the cane out of their hand. Also, you couldn’t yell or talk loud or play rough with the other children. The dead liked it quiet because they were sleeping under the grass.
As Charlotte grew older, she became used to the ways of the graveyard. Once a year all the descendants of Major Tidwell converged on the Tidwell cemetery at the old Tidwell plantation to inspect the graves, cut the grass, and pick up tree limbs. It was also their family reunion so everyone brought a covered dish and after the work was done, the men ate first because they worked the hardest, then the women and children. It was good to be a Tidwell descendant because Major Tidwell was a Civil War hero and a state senator, not mere sawmill trash like the rest of the people in the parish. You could say, “I am a Tidwell,” and people knew you meant business. At least, that’s what Mama said. She was a Tidwell. Charlotte was a Busby because she had to take her father’s name. She was just Charlotte Ann Busby, not to be taken seriously at all. Cameron was Cameron Tidwell Busby, which meant that Mama expected a lot from him. He was to carry on the Tidwell name for her branch of the family. When Mama spoke to Cameron about something serious, she called him Cameron Tidwell.
“Cameron Tidwell, you better get that math grade up,” or “Cameron Tidwell, you will try out for the basketball team.”
Cameron liked to hang out in the far corner of the cemetery where ancient weathered pieces of wood marked the graves of Major Tidwell’s slaves, whose names were long lost.
“What is your name?” Cameron would ask, and pretend to be in a trance, communing with the dead. “Speak, spirit!”
“What are they saying?” the younger children would whisper. “Tell us!”
“They say…none of your business!”
The children backed away. “Aw!”
“And they say you’re ugly children and don’t know how to act and they wouldn’t tell you nothing even if you begged.”
“They’re really saying all that?”
“They’re saying worse than that. They’re saying Major Tidwell was a mean master and as soon as they can get their hands on him they’re going to yank his chains good.”
“He’s got a chain link for every slave he beat and he’s got yards and yards of chain he’s dragging.”
Then Cameron would jump up and wave his arms around like he was possessed, and the children would shriek and run and hide. Mama always laughed. Cameron was her favorite, her hope for the future.
“He certainly has a flair for the dramatic,” the other mothers would say and exchange knowing glances, their penciled eyebrows raised.
“Can’t you just see my Cammy in a courtroom? He’s so smart, he’ll make a doctor or a lawyer one day and then I won’t have to worry.”
Mama and Daddy were forever fighting about money, especially when Daddy got laid off at the paper plant when Charlotte was in high school. “Why did I ever marry Gene Busby?” Mama said one evening over a sink of steaming dishwater, as if it were a mystery that no one could ever solve.
Charlotte didn’t tell Mama she’d had Cameron cremated. When Mama found out, she pitched a fit.
“That was no way to treat his body,” she sputtered. “Like it was nothing. Like it was something you could just burn and throw away.”
“I haven’t thrown him away,” Charlotte said. “He’s in a nice urn, pewter in fact, with eagles on it. And the eagles are golden.”
“What are you going to do? Scatter his ashes over Bayou Seville? Or maybe over the seminary? Or the French Quarter? Don’t you know his remains need to be at peace, not scattered like trash? He needs to be buried.”
“I’m not planning to scatter him anywhere. He’ll stay in my closet.”
“In your closet? Don’t tell me you’ve put him in a shoebox.”
“I don’t know why you think you should have any say,” Charlotte finally said, and that made Mama hang up the telephone. From the time Cameron decided to go to the Baptist Seminary in New Orleans, Mama had been angry with the both of them—with Cameron for not wanting to be a high wage earner and with Charlotte for taking his side.
After their daddy left town with the redheaded cashier from the Big Star supermarket, after all the humiliation of finding out what everybody else knew Gene Busby had been up to, Mama assumed a new piety and returned to the church founded by her esteemed ancestor in 1849—Tidwell Memorial Baptist Church, whose original membership list included the Tidwell family and twenty-one slaves. She had her children baptized in Bayou Seville, just as she had been, just as every Tidwell had been, and after that, they never missed another Sunday. Charlotte tried to explain to Mama that Cameron’s interest in religious studies could be traced to this decision, but she refused to listen. It was a waste of a fine intellect, she said. What she wouldn’t have given for a son who was a doctor. It would have brought her peace of mind.
When Cameron graduated from high school, the pastor let him give his first sermon. He spoke on the subject of repentance. “Our text today comes from the book of Jeremiah, the sixth chapter, the twenty-sixth verse.” He paused and breathed deeply and then his voice filled the dark wood-paneled sanctuary. “O daughter of my people, gird thee with sackcloth, and wallow thyself in ashes: make thee mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation: for the spoiler shall suddenly come upon us.” The congregation was mesmerized. Darla Shay sat on the front row with her mouth open. Afterwards, the old ladies gathered around Cameron and wanted to shake his hand.
“You’re like a young Billy Graham, son.”
“You come back, Cameron. I want you to preach my funeral.”
“Why didn’t your mother come today? She must be so proud of you.”
Charlotte walked up to Darla Shay who was waiting for Cameron under the oak tree that shaded the parking lot. She was a pale girl with long black curls, a contrast in darkness and light.
“I suppose you and Cameron will be getting married one of these days,” Charlotte said.
“Are you kidding?” Darla gave Charlotte a slap on the arm. “That’d be like marrying my brother. We’re only friends.”
Cameron left for New Orleans that fall and Charlotte began working as a secretary for a realtor in town. After a while, Cameron’s calls home became rare, and he never answered the phone when they called him. Mama sometimes threatened to go down to New Orleans and drag him home, but she never did.
Once she saved enough money, Charlotte moved out of Mama’s house on Bayou Seville and rented a house on the highway closer to her work. The new manager of the Depot Diner began paying her special attention when she and her boss, Mr. Fontaine, went to lunch.
“Well,” Mr. Fontaine said one day, “I can tell you have an admirer. Won’t be long before he asks you for a date. I’ll make sure I tip him good.” Charlotte blushed and looked down at her plate of garden salad, dressing on the side.
It was that afternoon she found Cameron waiting on her front door step, the door of his Honda left ajar, his face tear streaked. They sat on the back porch and Cameron chain-smoked. She’d never known he smoked. The motion of his hand was elegant, like he’d smoked for years. It was spring, and the evening air was soft and cool. In the woods behind the house, the dogwoods glowed white in the fading light. A breeze began to pick up and carry through the tree branches above the house, muffling the sound of the passing traffic on the highway.
“I just found out I tested positive for HIV,” Cameron said and then took a long draw on his cigarette. Charlotte felt as if she’d crossed into the unknown right there on her own back porch, in her own world. Everything had slipped and shifted and changed right under her. It was like the day Cameron was born, but this was the beginning of the end of Cameron. She wept and Cameron comforted her when she should have been comforting him. She couldn’t bring herself to ask how it happened. She already knew how hard it was to track him down in New Orleans for the last few years, how the seminary office had told her mother they didn’t have a Cameron Busby currently enrolled, how her mother had argued with the woman on the phone and had spelled Busby twice.
She cried in her pillow most of that night and fell asleep at dawn. The sound of Cameron’s car engine woke her. By the time she made it to the window, he was headed down the driveway. She dashed out of the house, barefoot, still in her pajamas, and caught him just as he reached the highway, his turn indicator already flashing. She banged on the window and he lowered it, not looking at her.
“Why are you leaving? You’re going to need us.”
“I can’t be here. I can’t be Cammy. I can’t be what Mama wants. I never will be what she wants now.” He rolled up the window and drove away.
Charlotte walked back to the house and circled the date on her Fontaine Realty wall calendar hanging in the kitchen—May 11, 1985. Then she called her mother and broke the news.
The next ten years were a holding pattern, or a long intake of breath. Charlotte heard from Cameron only occasionally. A Christmas card here or there with a New Orleans postmark and no return address. Always a birthday card. Doing fine. Miss you. Mama refused to talk about him or mention his name. Still, word got out among the family and then the town. Did you hear about Cameron Busby? Someone started a rumor that he’d killed himself because of his diagnosis. Jumped off the Mississippi River Bridge is what I heard. The manager of the Depot Diner never asked Charlotte out. Mr. Fontaine said he never liked a man who listened to his mother.
“If I weren’t so old, I’d ask you out myself,” he said.
Charlotte went on with life, always ready for the news that Cameron really was dead, or that he was in the hospital, or that he was cured because they’d figured out how to make it go away, how to annihilate it with a pill or a shot. When the phone rang, it was always her mother.
The years passed and Mr. Fontaine became forgetful. His son took over the business and told Charlotte he didn’t need her. His wife could do her job for free. Charlotte got a job at D&D Stop-n-Shop, dispensing Icees and ringing up gas. On Sundays, she took her mother to church and watched her become smaller, more withered and birdlike each week, like she was being consumed by something Charlotte couldn’t see. Charlotte, on the other hand, grew fat and brought bags of microwavable burritos, nacho-flavored chips, Snickers bars, powdered doughnuts, and soft drinks home from D&D’s. In the evenings, she no longer sat on the back porch and listened to the crickets and thought about the manager of the diner. Instead, she sat on the sofa, stretched out and watched television, anything that would keep her from thinking about what the future held. Sometimes, she felt like time was drawing close and tightening around her.
But when she did allow herself to think about Cameron, she didn’t think about him chain-smoking and delivering bad news. She thought about stroking his hair, telling him about how she’d seen him born, how it was better than watching kittens be born, and how she, of all people, had held him first. She had not dropped him.
When he showed up, Charlotte was not surprised. He had no car. A friend had dropped him off around noon. She got home from work at three, and there he was on the back porch looking drawn and tired.
“I suppose you want to know what I’ve been doing all this time.”
“It doesn’t matter.” She took his hand and squeezed it. It was so warm she held it to her cheek. “To me you’re still that baby in the back of the Chrysler. I don’t give a damn if you’ve been to Mars and back. All I care is you’re here now.”
“Oh God, I hate to do this to you,” he said and the tears welled up in his eyes.
“More bad news.”
She’d told herself she wouldn’t cry this time and she’d rehearsed it over and over. She would say, “What’s your news?” And so she said it. “What’s your news?”
“I’ve got cancer. They say it’s AIDS-related. Terminal.”
“You’ll stay here then,” she said quickly, still composed.
“I appreciate it. I’ve got no one else. No one I can really depend on.” He let out a sigh and dropped his head. “I wanted to spare you. I really did.”
“It’s all right. You knew you could always come to me,” she said, her voice cracking.
Most members of the Tidwell family didn’t know that the major had left Louisiana in 1892. He’d lost his senate seat to a populist candidate, someone who carried the banner of the sawmill workers and subsistence farmers. The lower classes had run him out of office, and so he boarded a train bound for Kansas City where, for a decade, he lived the life of a gentleman with his tiny grim wife Charlotte who, the older relatives always claimed, nursed him through a stroke, sat by his bedside hour by hour. Then she accompanied him home on the train so he could die in Louisiana, among his descendants, who by this time had begun to work in the sawmill and marry into the ranks of its workers until they became indistinguishable from them.
The major died with his eyes wide open, the old folks said, and though they laid silver half dollars on his eyelids, they wouldn’t stay shut. It was an eerie thing, like he was still in that body and only his eyes still worked. His Woodmen of the World insurance policy paid for a fine tall monument befitting such a man, a hero at Shiloh and a public servant, a monument that dwarfed all the other headstones and reminded the living Tidwells that they were somehow unique, although most of them weren’t quite sure why and couldn’t tell you exactly who Major Tidwell was. No one alive was old enough to have known him.
Charlotte cared for Cameron by herself a full two years and she often thought about the story of Major Tidwell’s wife, sitting alone in Kansas City, stroking the major’s hand and promising to take him back to his home on Bayou Seville. She wondered whether her name had conveyed upon her some special burden-bearing strength or whether it proved the existence of a generational curse of biblical proportions. Her mother came to see Cameron only twice in those two years and both times she kept her distance and stayed only a few minutes. They never spoke of his illness, only the weather and some family gossip. Sometimes Mama made a casserole and called Charlotte to pick it up.
“It would be nice if you’d bring it yourself,” Charlotte always said when Mama handed her the tinfoil-wrapped dish.
“Another time,” Mama would say, her eyes lowered.
Charlotte agreed to remove Cameron from his resting place in her closet and bury him in the Tidwell Family Cemetery at the next annual family gathering. She wanted to make Mama happy.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” Charlotte had asked after church. “It’s a historic cemetery. They might not want a new gravesite.”
“Of course it’s okay,” Mama said. “I’ve already talked to Cloyd Harper. His mother and my daddy were first cousins and he’s president of the cemetery board. It’s just a little old urn anyway, not some big whopper of a casket. I told him we’ll take that corner where Cammy used to play, over by the unknown graves. Not anywhere near the major. You’ll just dig a little hole for the urn and cover it up. I’ll order a small marker and that’ll be that. Cloyd even offered to say a few words. It’ll be nice for everyone to say goodbye to Cammy and then we can go on with the reunion like we always do.”
“They could have said good-bye when Cameron was sick.”
“Now, look here,” Mama said, and her tiny frame seemed to grow slightly. She shook her finger at Charlotte. “I don’t want you getting all high and mighty with the family. People have their own lives to be concerned about. Everyone’s running here and there, trying to make a living and raise their kids—not that you’d know anything about that.”
The next week Charlotte drove out to the graveyard down a sandy road that ended in a clearing between two ancient live oaks whose limbs grazed the ground. Some cotton-haired children were nested in one of the trees and were pelting the arriving vehicles with their arsenal of acorns. Charlotte smiled and waved as the deluge poured down upon her windshield. Mama was already there, having ridden with her cousin Cloyd and his wife Hilda, a former German war bride whose accent had blended strangely with the local tongue over the years to make it difficult to place. Mama and Hilda had their plastic lawn chairs set up along the inside of the cemetery fence under the shade of one of the oaks. A group of men dressed like Confederate soldiers stood nearby, talking and laughing.
“Mama,” Charlotte whispered. “You didn’t tell me these guys were going to be here. What are they going to do? Reenact a battle or something?”
“Of course not. They’re here to honor the major. It’s about time he got some recognition, considering all he did.”
“What exactly did he do? Enslave people?”
“I don’t know,” Mama hissed. “All I know is he was a hero.”
The morning wore on and the kin arrived bearing floral arrangements, rakes, and food. The able-bodied set about cleaning the grounds of fallen limbs and weeds. Mama never made a move toward burying Cameron’s ashes. When Charlotte brought it up, she’d change the subject or attempt to bring Hilda into the conversation.
“Hilda, tell Charlotte about the first time you tasted peanut butter. You know, Charlotte, they don’t have peanut butter in Germany.”
After the graves had been tidied, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, as Charlotte soon learned they were called, gave a lengthy presentation about Major Tidwell and his war career and about all the long-forgotten famous places he’d fought, and the kin yawned and shuffled their feet or dozed in their chairs. A baby began to cry near the end, and the children began a game of tag outside the fence and had to be shushed. The event ended with a twenty-one-gun rifle salute that woke everyone up, followed by a tape-recorded version of taps, played on a boom box situated behind the major’s monument to give the illusion of an invisible bugler standing alongside the grave.
“The major would have loved it,” Mama said knowingly. All her gray-haired cousins nodded their heads while the younger generation looked at their watches and hollered for their kids to come and eat from the long row of covered dishes on the portable tables set up just outside the cemetery gate.
“When are we going to bury Cameron?” Charlotte asked as Mama picked at her pasta salad and deviled eggs.
“These deviled eggs are the best I’ve ever had. I wonder who made them.”
“Mama, it’s getting late and I’ve got to go to work tomorrow.” Mama said nothing so Charlotte headed for her car and took Cameron’s ashes from the passenger seat where she’d buckled the heart-shaped velvet box in to secure it. She grabbed the pirate keepsake box from the floor of the car and stacked the velvet box on top of it. She’d brought along a short-handled spade and she retrieved it from the back seat, closing the car door with a bump of her rear end. She started for the corner of the cemetery where the slave plots were. Cameron would have liked that, she thought. Now he’d be able to chit-chat all the time with those spirits. A woman stepped in front of her and blocked the gate.
“Excuse me, but I thought we’d informed y’all that they’ll be no burial today,” the woman said. She was short and had Cloyd’s bulbous nose and Hilda’s blue eyes.
“No one told me,” Charlotte said, stumbling over her words.
“I’m the president-elect of the board,” the woman said, “and we voted last night against this, considering, well…you know.”
“Look,” the woman said, “we don’t want any vandals in this cemetery. Everyone knows what your brother had, and you know how ugly people can be about it. It’s for your own good.”
“Are you saying he can’t be buried here?”
The woman looked at her sternly and crossed her arms. “No, he cannot. Especially under the circumstances. We’ve got to protect the cemetery.”
A crowd had gathered. “It would be a disgrace to the major,” someone murmured.
“Daddy,” the woman said, pulling Cloyd to her side, “I thought you told them.”
“I did, sweetheart,” Cloyd said, glancing sideways at Mama. “I told Cousin Maureen.” Mama sat in her lawn chair and looked at the paper plate on her lap.
It came across Charlotte in waves, first the embarrassment, then the frustration, and finally the rage. She stood still and tense and the crowd began to disburse.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said and walked away, shaking her head.
Charlotte was so angry she’d begun to tremble so she knelt and placed the boxes and the spade on the ground. Inside the velvet box was the pewter urn and inside the urn was Cameron, now a pure and refined powder without decay, made innocent and incorruptible by his suffering. And over there was the major under his fine monument, once a mass of decomposing flesh, now a pile of blackened bones, unclean then and now. All that was left of him was what the worms didn’t see fit to eat.
When she stood up, one of the riflemen brushed by her. He was the only one wearing jeans under his Confederate jacket, instead of uniform trousers, and the only one carrying, not a Civil War–era reproduction musket, but an ordinary hunting rifle like the one her father had used to hunt deer and had taught her how to shoot one morning after he killed a ten-point buck. Mama said Cameron was too little to touch the rifle so Charlotte had to learn to shoot that day. “I’ll make a hunter out of one of you,” her father had said, his face flushed with excitement.
Charlotte found herself wresting the gun from the hands of the man. She steadied herself, pressed the safety off, and took aim from right there at the gate. She fired and a chunk of granite from the very top of the monument was gone. The blast echoed through the woods. Several women screamed.
“You were supposed to use blanks, Carl,” one of the other riflemen said. “Dad-burned amateur!”
“Damn,” one of the children in the live oak said.
“Hot damn,” another one whooped.
“I thought I did,” Carl said, grabbing the rifle back from Charlotte. “What do you think you’re doing, lady?”
“I’m getting the sheriff,” the president-elect said, fishing the car keys from her purse.
Mama burst into tears and the gray-haired cousins patted her back and glared at Charlotte. “Look what you’ve done,” they said. “That’s no way to treat your mother.”
Charlotte opened the velvet heart-shaped box and removed Cameron’s urn. The golden eagles were bright in the late afternoon light that filtered through the oak branches. She traced an eagle with her finger. “Wallow thyself in ashes,” she whispered as she removed the lid.
“Don’t you dare,” Mama said, pushing up from her lawn chair.
Charlotte gently shook the urn and Cameron’s ashes took flight in the breeze, spreading across the cemetery and the kin. Mama put up a hand to stop Charlotte but found herself caught in the midst of the ashes. She limped away, coughing, her arm shielding her face. All over the cemetery, people yelled and cursed, brushing the ashes from their shoulders and the tops of their heads. The children trampled the gravesites and knocked over floral arrangements as they shrieked and swatted at the remaining particles that floated around them.
Then Charlotte took the spade and buried the skull and bones pirate keepsake box in the far corner of the cemetery. It was the sunniest spot, the place that seemed the least gloomy, the place Cameron had liked so much when he was little, a cotton-haired child himself back then. The children gathered around her and watched her dig even though their mothers scolded and tried to pull them away. They asked her what was in the pirate box and whether she was burying treasure. Later, when she and the sheriff’s deputy drove off together down the sandy road, the children waved and shouted and ran behind them throwing acorns and shooting pretend rifles at the disappearing tail lights and, to Charlotte, they looked like a dozen versions of Cameron, all fading in the dusk.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.