Memory leaks out of an old man like fine sand from a burlap bag, and I must write down Luke Robertson's story before the details sift away and become lost. Just yesterday I tried to recall the name of that fellow at the dam who found Luke's ledge on the canyon wall, and it was a full ten seconds before "Bob Coleman" popped into my head. Power plant engineer. Worried about the river and the salmon. Sure, now I remember. But what about all the other voices and places and events from Luke's story? Can I recall them? Details matter.
I have mixed feelings about this undertaking. At the center of the story is a tragedy, a school explosion that happened ten years ago in 1937. Here in East Texas the memory of that event is raw and unhealed, and some people will say that writing about the tragedy is like tearing at the wound. I worry that those people might be right.
But I believe Luke's story needs a permanence, and writing it down is the only way to achieve that. Luke is not a writer. I am the one to do it, and now is the time, while my health is still good. I'll be seventy-one in January.
Luke's story links with my own. I have lived the past ten years in a fog of fear and uncertainty. I have held a secret, and the fear of someone learning that secret has caused me to live a solitary and careful existence. But now I see a purpose. I have handed my fears, and my secret, to the winds.
His story begins where many stories end, in a graveyard. I first encountered Luke at Pleasant Hill Cemetery, in the heart of the East Texas oil country, at sundown three months ago.
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The cicadas sang loudly on that breezeless July evening. Their choruses swelled and died away in a gentle cycle, a celebration of nightfall as the sun dipped beneath the derricks and pines under a cloud-free sky.
I had finished my weed cutting earlier, but the peaceful dusk beckoned me to stay a while and enjoy a quiet reverie. I sat against an oak tree at the southern edge of the cemetery, my face toward the fading western light, and began to wonder: Why do the cicadas sing in concert? Do they follow a leader? Or is the rise and fall of their songs timed by some compelling inner force?
I was pondering that very question when my side vision caught a movement. I looked to the north and saw a man come through the cemetery gate and head south. But where did he come from? I would have heard a car pull in at the little chapel across the road.
The man stopped, looked at a headstone, and eased himself to the ground. He just sat there, staring at the marker. A few minutes passed. I decided it was time to leave. The reverie was broken. Sometimes two live men in a cemetery are one too many.
I stood up, stretched, grabbed the scythe and started toward the gate. My path took me about twenty feet behind the fellow at headstone. My first thought was to keep walking and pay no attention to him. Like me, he might well have wanted to be alone. But then my curiosity rose up and bumped aside my better judgement. When I neared the man I cleared my throat and said "Evenin'."
He jerked his head around and stared. A few seconds went by, and his silence told me I should have kept walking. The cicadas started a new song, and I was grateful for the racket. But then their chorus faded, leaving only silence and the stare of a bearded man.
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