OffCite invites short essays, reviews, and observations on specific moments and places. Interested in contributing your own? Let us know.
The way the girls kept their distance made me think the dog wasn’t theirs. They stood in their yard facing each other but looking across their shoulders at the small dying animal in front of the house. If it was theirs, maybe they were so disturbed by its death – the violence and uncertainty – that they left him alone. The woman who hit the dog was the only one who gave any impression of urgency. But she stood impotently outside the car looking and wouldn’t move past the open driver’s side door. Death is ultimately a private moment. The dog was still and quiet in the road.
I drove slowly past this scene in Hearne, Texas, on the way to see my grandmother. I had traveled the two hours northwest from my home in Houston because of a story I remember my grandfather telling me nearly a decade before he died. So many years later, I wasn’t sure if I had made it up or gathered it from a movie or book and added it to my memories of him. It was about a grave in the middle of a road. A cemetery had been moved, a body left behind, and now cars had to drive around the headstone. I hoped that my grandmother had heard the story, and that, true or not, she would remember where it came from.
My grandparents had lived most of their lives in small Texas towns. They were both born in Cleburne, which I’m told was a lot smaller then than it is now. They lived together in towns like Alvin, Vernon, Bryan, Bellville. My grandfather was a salesman and always sought the next opportunity in another town, but besides that I imagine that his experiences in the war had something to do with the reasons they moved so much. He was a POW, captured in Hatten, France, and his feet froze as he was marched barefoot through the snow. What he saw during the war, the people he met – some who remained his friends until he died – and the stories he collected defined him as much as anything. When he came home he stuck with Texas. Thirteen years ago, he and my grandmother chose Hearne for their final move. Three years ago, my grandfather died from emphysema and was buried in Hearne’s Norwood Cemetery.
The character of a town is something you can’t really glean as an outsider – you cannot define it, only gather impressions. Hearne seems about the same as any other small town that clings to the highways cutting across Texas. Its slogan, “The Crossroads of Texas,” describes its position at the intersection of two highways and two railroad lines. Most Texans know one of the highways, Highway 6, because it passes Texas A&M University in College Station 18 miles to the southeast. The four-lane road is reputed to be one of the most dangerous in the state, at least for a stretch. But its passage through Hearne is uneventful. It slows and bleeds through alongside a rusted rail yard. It parallels the thin steel tracks stretching across the town like tendons.
I learned from my grandparents that Hearne was a transportation hub and home to a military pilot training base and even a POW camp during the war. But today its Downtown – a march of buildings a couple blocks long – is mostly empty. Old homes and unkempt yards lie just behind the small commercial buildings that border the highway. The neighborhoods stretch back a few miles before the town just kind of fades away, though the roads continue to the horizon. My grandmother’s home is a couple blocks from the highway, off one of the neighborhood streets so short you could nearly survey from beginning to end from any place along its length.
My grandmother wasn’t sure whether the story of the grave was true. She had not seen it. She has macular degeneration, which erodes vision from the center outward. I hear you keep your sight on the periphery – you know what room you’re in – but you can’t recognize faces. Whatever you look at, whatever you try to focus on, escapes you. It is a hereditary disease. I am prepared for my vision to be swallowed by a cloud. Or maybe soaked in ink that spreads as if through water.
My grandmother called a friend in town who thought she knew of the grave and where it might be. At midday, it was warm but windy as long spans of clouds moved across the town. I drove slowly through the neighborhood, and leaves and clusters of oak pollen dragged along with the breeze and settled in the seams of the streets. I saw a small group of teenagers walking through the neighborhood. They only stared as I drove past.
I turned right onto a street that seemed wider than most in the neighborhood, and I saw the grave. It was marked beneath a large oak on a small median. Though the other trees on the block were growing green and swaying in the wind, the oak behind the grave was naked and its branches small and frayed at the ends. The median was a long oval – almost a sliver with pointed ends – and the street seemed to be cut by the front curb like water at the bow of a ship. The concrete flowed past before reuniting on the leeward side, just behind the oak. Brick pavers topped the median, and small tufts of grass had found their way through the cracks. In the middle of the pavers was a weathered concrete marker, rotated about 30 degrees off of the street grid. “Come Ye Blessed” read across a small oxidized copper plate anchored on the surface, along with the name Hollie Tatnell.
Behind the grave was a modest sign erected by the Texas Historical Commission declaring the lone grave a historic Texas cemetery:
The neighborhood roads were dotted with pools of rainwater as I headed to Highway 6 leaving Hearne. I had stayed at Hollie’s grave awhile. It seemed somehow unjust that, in the end, she was shadowed by a state marker. As I drove, I thought about blindness, how Hollie’s grave could be marked as a part of the town’s history, passed unnoticed by teens on the streets, remembered only as a vague rumor. I thought of my grandfather buried in the cemetery across the silent railroad tracks, of the distance everyone kept from the dog killed in the street that morning. The leaves along the edges of the road were soft from the rain and stained the concrete. They’d probably tear if you touched them.
By Colley Hodges
Read all our CiteSeeing posts.