Five Points, Vol. 21, No. 3
Gather Dust No More
Laura Ingalls Wilder • Mansfield Cemetery • Wild Strawberry
In 4th grade, I read all of the books, all nine, with their stories of survival and ingenuity, of fierce blizzards and cozy trundle beds, of spirits perseverant and plantings in spring. I remember most distinctly the passages about the slaughter of pigs, how Pa refused to waste any part of the animal; how even the tail was salt-roasted and sucked clean, the bladder inflated and turned into a plaything for the children. There was a boundless appetite in those pages: buckwheat pancakes and maple syrup, crab-apple jelly and johnny-cakes, rhubarb pie and buttermilk. When I visited Laura’s grave, I removed my sandals, sat in the grass, and made fists in the earth with my toes. There was a wild Missouri strawberry growing just beneath the headstone, but when I plucked and sank my teeth into the fruit, it was waterless and bitter.
James Dean • Park Cemetery • Dandelion
When I was twelve, Mom was driving us through Indiana on the way to Washington, D.C. My sister Bonnie and I had just seen Rebel Without a Cause, and it struck such a chord that we dedicated an entire issue of our homemade newspaper (circulation: 1) to the subject. This was when my mother abused us equally, and before she succeeded in playing us against each other, so we teamed up and insisted on a detour north of I-70 to see the final resting place of James Dean. “We’re getting to D.C. past midnight as it is,” said Mom. “When you’re adults, you can come back on your own time.”
“When I’m an adult,” I said, “I won’t be wasting my free time on a boring state like this.” I guess I was wrong about that.
James’ headstone was pink granite, just like Laura’s, though hers was not stained with the rosy residue of a thousand lipstick kisses. I picked a dandelion and chewed it, from the stem to the blossom. It was sweeter than I expected.
Passengers of the RMS Titanic • North Atlantic• Kelp
I was fourteen the first time I danced with a boy. It was at an orientation mixer, a week before high school began. The song was “My Heart Will Go On.” He was a senior, I was a freshman, and for a moment it felt like a slice of pure magic, the kind of perfect tableau that Hollywood promised would dominate my teenage years. Then he said, “Man, this song is so played out, I’ve been hearing this shit all summer,” and left to chat with his friends.
The Titanic had been an obsession since early childhood. It was one of those iconic disasters, like Challenger or Pompeii, undeniable in its iconicity, almost ideal in its misery, lyrical in its execution.
A wealthy friend of mine paid good money for a Titanic diving tour. I’d told her about my interest, so she retrieved a strand of kelp for my collection. It tasted of dead fish and black water.
Jean-Michel Basquiat • Green-Wood Cemetery • Thistle
Sara, my roommate at NYU, was an art major with a serious Basquiat fixation, and I suppose I caught it, too, by osmosis. Near the end of freshman year, I was in the process of changing my major from Communications to Studio Art and decided to drop out instead. (I’d begun to comprehend the debt I’d been racking up and didn’t feel like quadrupling it.) After my walk of shame, with cardboard boxes dragged on dormitory steps, I discovered that Sara had gifted me with the Basquiat posters from our room. I still have one of them. It’s too crumpled to hang.
Jean-Michel’s headstone was simple: gray and black granite. True believers came here to Brooklyn to leave behind art supplies, fliers for their latest exhibitions, and coins to weigh down the fliers. I yanked a thistle out of the ground and used a penknife to shave its spines. When I communed with the bitter green, I felt the weight of a young and tortured life and wondered if it was mine.
Flannery O’Connor • Memory Hill Cemetery • Crabgrass
After New York, to Bonnie’s delight, I moved back in with Mom. I felt like I was doing the same damn thing as Flannery O’Connor, except I didn’t have any peafowl for company.
I started working at a carpet place and tried desperately to avoid anyone who might recognize me. I cut my hair short and acquired contact lenses. I took up new and exciting hobbies, like drinking on Thursday mornings before work.
In my sister’s mind, I’d flown East on the wings of pride and fallen rightly on my face. I’d borrowed emotional capital from Mom, squandered it, and somehow, because I’d failed, she could never leave. That I lived at the mercy of Mom’s impulses in a faded guest bedroom and Bonnie lived in her own apartment made no difference. I read a lot of O’Connor then. Life was monstrous and stagnant, but sometimes there was grace at the bottom of the carrion pit.
I found Flannery in Milledgeville beneath a white marble slab, flat in the ground. I took a handful of crabgrass, which plucked easy from the gravel. Some people commemorated the formative events of their lives with scrapbooks, photo shoots, curio cabinets, or tattoos. I was doing this.
Ludwig Van Beethoven • Wiener Zentralfriedhof • Chickweed
When listening to Beethoven, you are often filled with a vast and mysterious anticipation, like you are lost in the dark of the labyrinth and the Minotaur has begun his charge, but you do not know from where his horns will strike. There is a somber inevitability, a great turning in the earth, which can end in triumph or cataclysm. I didn’t know how it would turn out for me, but I was on my own. Empty, perhaps, but free.
Behind Ludwig’s obelisk, I found a patch of chickweed and swallowed it down. Supposedly, when Ludwig was exhumed the second time (before he was interred here), Anton Bruckner broke through the crowd and planted kisses on his naked skull. Is my project so different? I had consumed these figures, intellectually, at the critical junctures of my life, and now there was a chance I was communing with their actual substance, filtered through centuries of rot and soil and growth and renewal. There was an emptiness to fill, and I was filling it. This was my drug.
Mary Wollstonecraft • St. Pancras Cemetery • Clover
Sometimes things are broken, and they’re not even worth fixing. My mother, Bonnie, and I could’ve talked it out like adults. We could’ve gone to therapy. But who has the time?
Wollstonecraft was the most important voice of her generation, and she died, in agony, after giving birth to Mary Shelley. I won’t die that way. And unlike Mom, I will never possess a single daughter to cannibalize, much less two.
Mary Shelley had a good enough relationship with her mother that she saw her grave as a pedestal, a safe haven for her and Percy’s midnight rendezvous. At forty, by broad daylight, I tore a handful of clover from the earth there and chewed it without sentiment, green juices trickling down my chin. I was full, if not sated.