The End of October

The End of October

Unbelievably, everyone in my family still talks to me.  More than that, they have never wavered in their love and support, despite my weird and heinous acts of October 30th nine years ago in Kalamazoo.  I devastated more people that night than I care to speculate on, and yet, some still love me.  There is no explaining this strangest of human emotions, one we have all, at times, taken for granted, but shouldn’t.

You should see the unloved here who do not get letters, have anyone to call, or to come visit them.  You should see the men with no links to the outside world, except maybe their television set.  By all rights I should be one of them, but I’m not.

My mother and father live just outside of St. Louis, MO (in Michigan you have to add the “MO” as there is a St. Louis, Michigan); and they drove for two days and six hundred miles to come see me the last weekend in October.  Pictures were taken by the prison photographer ($2 for two copies, taken by an inmate with a digital camera and a printer).  They stayed in a hotel near the Gerald R. Ford airport in Grand Rapids, and visited twice on Sunday and once on Monday.  We had a nice time.  They looked great and they said the same about me, though in the pictures from Monday, despite it being 4 in the afternoon, my eyes were puffy, and I look tired (I seem always to have had bags beneath my eyes—people around here are always saying, “Did you just get up?”)

I’ve said this in reviews before, but visits are quietly emotional for everyone involved.  I get into enough of a routine to sometimes forget that I’m here.  A visit brings everything home:  the fact that I am not at home, and what I did to get here.  Add to this visit the fact that the week was the ninth anniversary of “that” night, and maybe it was a little more emotional than usual.  Also add to that that the question my dad asked soon after they arrived for the second visit on Sunday afternoon.  Here’s the gist:  “Before spring, your mom and I are going back home to pick out burial plots. Do you want us to buy you a plot there too?”

The cemetery they will be visiting is in Oskaloosa, IL, ten miles or so from the tiny town where I grew up.  I think I have great-grandparents buried there.  I don’t know what the cemetery looks like, but I wistfully imagine a wrought-iron fence around an acre of land, tall leafless autumn oaks in the middle of cold cornfields, a brisk wind whipping over the lonely tombstones.  I can hardly get the image out of my head.

Let me quickly say this: It is nothing but thoughtfulness that my parents are thinking of me in this way.  It’s responsible and forward-thinking.

Newsflash, folks:  We are all going to die.  I say that often, as I also say this—I’m ready to go at any time.  That seemingly confident statement is easy to say, but when you are confronted with the actual mortality of your parents and yourself, it’s kind of like walking from the warmth of indoors to the outside in the middle of winter when the wind-chill is well below zero.  It sucks the air out of you.

There is no way BULL’s book liaison, Andrea, could have known any of this when she had Badger Boneyards sent to me at the beginning of that strangest and darkest of months. But there you go—coincidences converging with a cold whirlwind of weird.

I like cemeteries just as much as the next guy, so I was interested in this book.  Who doesn’t like to wander around a graveyard and come face-to-face (sort of) with death?  It’s not really death, of course, it’s stone monuments and carefully dug squares, the dead safely laid six feet below.  This whole-body proximity is, at least, a mark in favor of burial over cremation.

A brief digression on cremation:  As much as I would love to embrace the ashification of our mortal coils, I just can’t completely.  I’m from the Midwest and ashes just seem so—I don’t know—breezy.  And a scorching fire in a high-tech pizza oven is just a few steps removed from a chain restaurant with a funny-looking roof.  Give me a lot of dirt displaced by loud machinery and words etched in black in granite.

Badger Boneyards is a “Greatest Hits” of thirty-two Wisconsin cemeteries written by a newspaper man from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  I mention that Mr. McCann is a newspaper man, because the writing reflects the terse, get-to-the-point style of the news.  The chapters are short, as is the book:  140 pages.  There is not a lot of description, and that is what I miss most about a tour of graveyards, though I realize a more meditative tone in no way could have been the purpose of a book published by the Wisconsin Historical Society.  They are in business to promote tourism.

There are some interesting stories surrounding many of the graves.  “Tombstone Pizza” originated in Medford, in a bar called the “Tombstone Tap” because of its proximity to several cemeteries.  John Heisman, who has a trophy named after him, is buried in Rhinelander which, by looking at the handy map on the first page, is upper-central Wisconsin.  There was an eight-year-old boy, Emmanuel Dannan (1843-1851) who turned in his parents for killing a man, robbing him of his horse and wagon, and was then murdered by them.  The “smallest man on  record” (19 pounds-27 inches high) is buried an hour west of Milwaukee.  Multiply facts like those thirty-two times, and that’s basically the book.

I couldn’t help but want a little more than the basic reportage of the buried.  If the author had brought along a tent and spent the night in one, or several, of the cemeteries—I’d like to hear about things like that.  We want more from our visits with the dead than a simple list of facts.

What we really want to know is:  Where are you now?  What’s it like?  We hope that by visiting where they now live, we can get a sense of what, if anything, comes after.

They can’t tell us anything, of course, and in the end stories about the dead are only a diversion from what none of us want to think about:  We’ll all have an answer sooner than we’d like to imagine.

Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story
Dennis McCann
Wisconsin Historical Society Press (2010)

Buy from Amazon

About the Author

Curtis Dawkins is BULL's chief book reviewer. He earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan. His short story collection, Prison Ink, is the first release from BULL Books.