My car was the only one in sight, traveling down Highway 49 in east Arkansas on a Wednesday afternoon. The entire thing was a little bit crazy. “I’m actually crazy” I said aloud in the car to no one, “What am I doing?” That morning I had set out from my home in central Arkansas to drive across the state to meet someone at a gas station to get pie filling.
A few months before, I had not cared at all about sweet potato pie. I figured it was okay, I could take it or leave it. Then, in a random turn of events, a friend had introduced me to her cousin’s somewhat famous sweet potato pie and my life had been changed. Suddenly, it was simply divided into “before” I’d had Penson’s sweet potato pie and “after” I’d had Penson’s sweet potato pie. My continuous raving about the tiny taste of heaven on earth in a pie dish had led to Penson offering to sell me some of the pie filling so I could make the pies at home myself. He lived across the state but agreed to meet up with me somewhere halfway to make the sale.
That was how I had ended up driving across the state to meet him at a gas station to make the exchange. “Bring a cooler” he told me. When we met up, he gave me the pies and detailed instructions on how to cook them. I really hoped I’d do the pies justice when I made them at home. I also secretly hoped no one in my immediate family liked them, just so there would be more for me to eat myself.
It was after the pie exchange that I first felt the pull. It started off as just a random thought, “I wonder how close I am . . .” and it grew from there. Eastern Arkansas had never been my favorite. I was a Northwest Arkansas native, born and raised in the foothills of the Ozarks with beautiful mountains and lakes and scenery that took your breath away when you least expected it. Eastern Arkansas held no such appeal at first glance.
It was a flat land, heavy with humidity. Though the Mississippi river was miles and miles away, it was almost as if it was not content in its own gigantic existence of rushing water that led through the middle of America to dump into the Gulf of Mexico. It wanted more. Its aura spread out for miles on either side creating a humid marsh that was inescapable. In this area, men might stand outside and talk about the beautiful day it was, while sweat poured off them and didn’t have the decency to evaporate. People in this part of the state had a different definition of a beautiful day than I did. I supposed that the vast expanses of farmland that afforded views miles long held their own appeal.
I had some good friends from this part of the state, the part that was currently calling me to drive over and have a look. One of those friends had been through a lot. He had lived a life that had been filled with more than his share of violence and inhumanity. When I first met him, that was what had drawn me to him. Those of us that have walked that road sometimes recognize each other, as if we have a mark that is invisible to the happy and healthy that walk with us on the earth. As we had gotten to know each other and the events that shaped us into who we were, I’d sometimes wished that he had a little less of the bad parts. I wished I could endure one or two of the events he had gone through for him if it would give him one less bad memory to sleep with at night.
The pull that drew me was both a surprise and also somehow, expected. I had been born with a gift that I had mostly considered a curse. I ignored it throughout my life, pretending it did not exist, explaining it away quickly and readily. The dead spoke to me. Oh, I mostly ignored them. They were insistent in the places I went. For some years I simply pretended that my home or office space or other places I visited were haunted. It was easier to think of the anomaly as affecting random buildings I encountered rather than affecting me personally.
My grandmother had the gift too. She was obsessed with all things regarding the afterlife and she would watch TV shows and read books religiously about the subject. I just chalked it up to her childhood spent growing up in a funeral home. She was the type to listen intently to Sylvia Brown, and if you took a photo of her with an old camera and got the filmed developed, there were always orbs around her. Sometimes she would look at me when I was freaked out about the noises, or lights flickering or toys going off that always happened when I was alone, like she wanted to say something to me or clue me in. Seeing the “No way” look on my face, she bit her tongue and held back. I imagine she wanted to impart to me that the spirits just wanted to tell me something. The ones that were trapped here and had not passed on couldn’t talk to just anyone. They needed the right person. The problem was that I didn’t want to be the one they talked to. I had largely ignored them.
Today, though, the ghosts of the past would not be ignored. For the first time, I was going to welcome the contact. I had turned on 49 headed south to visit a spot that I knew was significant. It wasn’t the burial place of a person long departed, but it was the place I knew that what was left of him would linger. I could no more explain how I knew than I could have explained the math problems my children brought home from school.
The departed soul I searched for was the one who had inflicted some of the pain on my friend. Some of the story had been told. Pictures had been shared that evoked sadness. I had felt the draw, the inexplicable pull even from the time I had seen the photos. I had once again ignored it. That day, though, it would not be ignored.
Recently I had acknowledged a difficult truth about myself. I was good at standing up for others with whom I shared a sense of loyalty and kinship. I was, conversely, somewhat terrible at standing up for myself. I could work on changing that when I had the free time, but this time I was going to maximize the strengths I knew I had. I would use the things I was able to do and save anything else for another day.
When I arrived in the tiny town of Rich, outside of Brinkley, I made my way to where Our Savior Lutheran Church sat on one side of the highway. Directly across from the church was nothing. Nothing at all. The only thing that remained in that location was some broken up sections of old blacktop and a couple of long forgotten utility poles that had once heralded a gas station. Who knew how many people had come and gone from that location when it had thrived as a center for fueling up? The remnants of such a time would hardly even be noticed unless someone looked for it specifically.
The existence of such a place now only existed in memories. I parked my car on the side of the road and got out. It was cloudy overhead, the forecasters had called for storms. As I got out of my car, I shut the door and locked the vehicle out of habit. I had not seen a single other car in some time, but habits are habits for a reason. If I got out of my car, I locked it. I picked my way across the ground, somewhat wary that whoever owned this land now would just show up out of nowhere to chase me off for trespassing.
I stood directly on a broken chunk of concrete and took a look around. There was nothing to see here, at least nothing that was visible to the naked eye. He was here though, I felt him. I knew him. He didn’t know me, had never known me in his short span of years on the earth, but I knew him. “Where are you?” I murmured, turning in a slow circle.
The wind picked up, blowing my hair across my face, temporarily obstructing my view. He knew I was here now. One half of the sky darkened, as the clouds from the predicted front began to roll in. In this place, a storm could come up on you quickly, leaving no time to seek shelter or safety. I pulled the hair out of my eyes and made another slow circle.
“You don’t know me, but I know you” I said out loud. I got the distinct impression he snickered at me and said, “Why the hell should I care?” I was startled by a piece of grass caught up in the wind when it blew across my arm. I swore I heard a rusty laugh in the distance. “I know exactly who you are and what you did” I said quietly. I recognized him. His type was familiar to me. The latent anger disguised as bravado that permeated the air in this location was almost oppressive. “What the hell are you going to do about it?” he seemed to ask me. The sky overhead darkened and lightning flashed in the distance. His anger grew.
I did not have to try very hard to imagine this anger born out on those around him when he had lived. He was quicksilver, laughing in hilarity one minute, angry and storming the next. His demeanor matched the eastern Arkansas storm front as it moved through. It was unpredictable, wild, and capable of causing immense destruction. In these parts, people may or may not witness it, they may or may not ever even know it happened.
I was not afraid anymore. I knew this. I knew what to do. I smiled to myself, as the knowledge settled over me. The wind picked up and blew around me, trying to knock me over. I was unmoved. The trees off in the distance held branches that were still. There were no signs of wind in the distance. It was centered right where I was.
I smiled again and closed my eyes. I absorbed the hot, heavy wind. I drew the anger to myself and breathed it in. I would be the victor this day, not because of any actions that I had taken, but simply because I still lived, and he did not. I could take in his anger, absorb it, and breathe it out on a smile because his impact was limited to what he had done before he left. My actions were not limited. I could still show kindness where he had shown hostility. I could still show love where he had shown hate and disregard. It pained me that I could not undo what he had done. I took comfort in knowing that I could outdo it, though.
I felt a couple raindrops on my arm. The rain had come. I took one last long look around at nothing, then ran back to my car. I scrambled to unlock it quickly and hopped inside. Just as I closed the door a deluge of rain fell from the sky. I laughed. The downpour washed away what had remained there. Oh, it wasn’t gone forever. I did not have that kind of skill. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, though, that my friend would sleep easy tonight. Today had been conquered.