Peggy, Ruben, and Patrick sat in the front. Out of respect, Terrence and Rice were seated in the pew behind them. The musicians all sat in the back of the congregation, clothed in a somber black.
Peggy and Ruben held hands as the pastor delivered their mom’s final service. Patrick was the only one who cried outwardly.
After the service and the burial, Ruben stayed in the churchyard. He knelt in front of her grave for the longest time, when everyone else had left.
Patricia Alison Reid
Musician and Poet
Loving mother & grandma
August 2, 1944 – March 7, 2012
Ruben remembered her poems. God, how he remembered her poems.
Dylan sat cross-legged in the grass behind him, pulling up blades. Both of them wore sunglasses. Ray-Bans. The older model. Dylan’s seemed to fit him better. Ruben’s felt necessary though: nobody got to see his eyes.
His knees sank into the dirt.
He apologized to his mom for leaving. For not visiting that often. It wasn’t like he never called, but still, he could’ve done better. He could’ve done a lot, lot better, to not be like his dad. He promised his mom that he did take after her, a lot more than he took after him. He apologized for his name.
When Ruben Craig stood up, Dylan handed him a 40 oz. The two walked farther into the churchyard.
“Ever been here before?” Ruben asked.
“You never took me,” Dylan said, lighting a cigarette as they walked.
“Yeah, didn’t think so. Let me tell you about it. That one there”—Ruben pointed to a black headstone, as tall as either of them. He explained that that one belonged to a witch. The other kids would take turns walking up to it in the middle of the night. Anyone who touched it got chills. Ruben and Peggy went out there once and they got chills too, but that didn’t count, apparently, because they were together. You had to be alone, were the rules.
Ruben pointed out another stone in a family plot, this one shorter than their shins, and grey. There were initials on the top. MM. No other markings or features. My mutt, my man, my mistress. Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. Mickey Mouse. Marshall Mathers, maybe, if Kipper Lake was still guessing and they didn’t know how old the stone was.
“What about that one?” Dylan asked, nodding at blue-tinted marker.
“I don’t know about that one,” Ruben said. “You tell me about that one.”
“Well that one’s mine,” Dylan said.
“Is that right?” Ruben asked, grinning, kind of.
“Well you don’t know, you haven’t read the news, maybe it could be,” Dylan continued, kind of grinning back. “Maybe I died a week ago. Maybe I died yesterday and they buried me here and you missed the funeral, you son of a bitch. Did you think about that? Don’t read the news though. Don’t bother. Let me tell you about that grave. That grave belongs to Mal, how about that?”
Ruben smiled to himself. “I like that. Not Malcolm though?”
“No, course not,” Dylan said. “Course not Malcolm. He’s fine, wherever the hell he is.”
Ruben and Dylan reached the far end of the graveyard. There stood a marker, knee high. No dates. No list of accomplishments. Just the name.
Ruben tipped the malt liquor out over the crisp March dirt, until the bottle was empty. Then Ruben bared his teeth, and behind his shades his eyes were a Brimstone: he cracked the bottle against the granite, cutting into the letters of his father’s last name.
Ruben Reid left the churchyard. Dylan sang a new song as they walked. On the way out, Ruben touched the witch’s marker. It was cold on his palm, and he stood there for a long time, waiting for the chill to spread, but he felt alright. All things considered, he felt pretty good.
Ruben and Dylan walked down the gravel road to a small house in the woods, tucked safely behind miles of trees, fields, and open blue skies. When they arrived, they found that Rice’s car and Peggy’s SUV were both packed with luggage. Standing beside the vehicles were Ruben’s friends and family: a cowboy, a performer, a sister, and a nephew.
“We’ve been waiting for you, buddy,” Rice said when Ruben arrived. “If we’re still on for Mount Rushmore next, then somebody has to work the radio.”
Ruben crossed his arms. “What makes you think I’m riding with you, punk?” he asked, and he grinned down at Pat.
On the first leg of their road trip, Ruben sat with his nephew in the back seat of an SUV, showing the kid how to play the guitar. No chords yet, or even songs. Just scales. But it was a good start. The kid learned fast.
The group called it a night in Minnesota, and pulled in to the next hotel.
Ruben and Dylan split a bottle of minibar scotch. They spent the night playing music, and talking, and laughing. It had been a while since Ruben played music. He was never even a musician, per se, and he still didn’t consider himself one, but it put him in a good mood. Dylan had said so himself.
“But you’re always in a good mood after you make art,” Dylan said, gesturing with his cigarette.
“I’m not an artist,” Ruben said back, trying to work out how a B minor worked with only three fingers. “When did I make art today?”
“Earlier when you smashed that bottle against your dad’s name, that was art. When you and Peg were holding hands, that could be art too. Right now,” Dylan said, pointing to his guitar in Ruben’s lap. “That struggle is art.”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Ruben said, taking his left hand off of the instrument.
Dylan rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t have to mean anything, who said art had to mean anything? Who said there ever needed to be a message? You did it and it was art because you’re an artist, get over yourself.”
“You think it’s that easy?” Ruben asked.
“I don’t think you want it to be,” Dylan said, not laughing anymore. He stared at Ruben Reid. “Malcolm went back to painting you know. It took him two weeks. Maybe three. But he was back at it almost as soon as he’d quit forever. Isn’t that like him? Why can’t you just give it another try? What’s the point of being stubborn if you’re wrong?”
Ruben lived the rest of his life with nightmares, but they fueled a better part of him. He never made it back to Manhattan. Terry was the only one who did. Rice stayed on the West Coast, where he bought an electric guitar, and a shovel to dig up a massacre gun. Peggy and Patrick went back home to Kipper Lake, and Ruben visited them often. But in his heart, Ruben was a graffiti artist. He and Dylan went from town to town and highway to highway, finding billboards that didn’t have a message, and giving them one. Always a smiley face to cover the ad, and then one word underneath to give the whole thing meaning: Laugh. Sing. Relax. Dance. Call mom. Make art. Give love. Let go. Smile.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015