Authors: Tommy Hays
We bring stories to life
First published by Egmont USA, 2013
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New York, NY 10016
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a North Carolina State Historic Site operated by the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. This work has not been prepared, manufactured, approved or licensed by the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties or the State of North Carolina. Neither the author of this work nor the publisher are in any way affiliated with the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
What I came to tell you / Tommy Hays.
Summary: A boy finds solace in his art and community after his mother dies and his father retreats into himself.
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WHO DISAPPEARED FOR HOURS INTO
S BAMBOO THICKET
OFTEN STAYING TILL DARK
WHO WAITED AS PATIENTLY AS A MOTHER COULD
TO CALL THEM IN FOR SUPPER
efore their mother became Buddhist, she would take Grover and his sister to the First Presbyterian Church downtown. The minister talked about God being everywhere—
was the word he liked to use. But what Grover believed more and more, if you could call it believing, was the omnipresence of absence, the everywhere of gone.
The feeling was with Grover as he and his sister, Sudie, walked out of the Bamboo Forest and headed up Edgemont Road toward the cemetery. Between them, they carried a stiff weaving that glinted with autumn leaves Grover had carefully worked between tied sections of bamboo. Biscuit, their little mutt dog, followed them. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in October, six months and two days since the dog’s leash had snapped and sent Grover’s family reeling.
The cool breeze picked up, tugging on the weaving. Grover glanced at Sudie to make sure she had a good grip. Lately it had
seemed that his sister, who had turned ten in September, looked more and more like their mother—with her high cheekbones and winter blue eyes. Grover, who was twelve, knew all too well that he’d been looking more and more like their father. Whenever he found himself in front of a mirror, he saw a skinny, stoop-shouldered kid weighed down by his father’s caterpillar eyebrows.
A sudden gust of wind pushed on the weaving.
“Hold on,” Grover said.
Sudie held her end with both hands. Grover’s eyes lingered on his sister’s face. The first sign of tears and he was taking her right back to the house.
“What?” she asked.
The wind died the moment they entered the wrought iron cemetery gates, as if they’d stepped into a room. Riverside, the city’s oldest cemetery, was where the writer Thomas Wolfe was buried. Wolfe, who some people—especially if they weren’t from Asheville—hadn’t heard of, had once been as famous as Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald. He’d written several long books, the most famous being
Look Homeward, Angel
Riverside was also where, twenty years ago, Grover’s parents had met. Grover’s father had been a tour guide for the Thomas Wolfe house before he became its director. Grover’s mother had been a student in a college English class that was studying Wolfe’s novels, and their father had taken them on a tour of Riverside.
If it wasn’t for Thomas Wolfe, their father liked to remind Grover and Sudie, they wouldn’t even exist. Grover’s parents had held their wedding in Riverside and bought an old house on the edge of the cemetery. Their father had wanted to be close to Wolfe and all the other historic graves. Their mother had liked the view from their large upstairs bedroom window. More like a park with headstones, Riverside stretched across eighty-seven acres of rolling hills and thick-trunked oaks and tulip poplars. Their mother had set up her little Buddhist altar so that every morning, as she meditated, she looked out on the cemetery.
Carrying the weaving, Grover and Sudie walked over one hill, passing the Jewish section. They heard the scrape of a shovel. A man with long gray hair, a beard and a battered hat was digging a hole. A sapling rested on the ground, its root ball in a burlap sack. Grover recognized the fan-shaped gingko leaves.
“Another one?” The man set down his shovel and came over to look at Grover’s weaving, which they had rested gently on the ground. He squatted down, looking it over closely. Jessie, a landscaper, did a lot of work for the cemetery and lived three doors down from Grover’s family. He’d become close friends with Grover’s parents long before Grover was ever born. Sometimes Grover went on jobs with Jessie, helping him weed or plant shrubs or mulch flower beds. Jessie told wild stories about growing up poor in Charleston. He had a way about him that made Grover think of Yoda, Yoda with a Southern accent.
Jessie walked around to the other side with Biscuit following him. “Some intricate work here.”
Grover felt his face heat up with embarrassment. He respected Jessie’s opinion.
Biscuit sniffed the weaving.
“It’ll look good with the others,” Jessie said. “I went to straighten up over there a little bit this morning but I saw that you beat me to it.”
Grover shook his head. “I haven’t straightened it.”
“Me neither,” Sudie said.
“Oh, I bet it was Matthew,” Jessie said. “He’s my new assistant. I’ve got him working over in that area this morning.” Jessie often hired assistants from the University of North Carolina Asheville to help him part-time. “Has your daddy seen this one?” Jessie nodded at the weaving.
“He’s at the office,” Sudie said.
“As usual,” Grover couldn’t help adding. Their father had always gone over to the Thomas Wolfe house on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays to catch up on paperwork. What surprised Grover was that he’d started back working weekends only a couple of weeks after the accident. At first he thought it was his father’s way of dealing with it all, throwing himself into his work. But lately, he’d kept even longer hours. From overheard conversations, Grover had gathered that the Wolfe house was in some kind of trouble. So he couldn’t tell where his father’s sadness stopped and his worry about the Wolfe house started.
“Your father has a big job,” Jessie said. “A lot of people count on him.”
It was something their mother used to say when their father
didn’t show up for a soccer game or Meet Your Teacher Night or the Fall Fling. Grover picked up the weaving and walked away.
Sudie ran after Grover with Biscuit behind her. She took up her end of the weaving. They passed a worn headstone with a little statue of a lamb curled up on it. A lamb or any kind of animal meant a child’s grave.
Lily Starbuck 1910–1918
. Grover’d noticed many graves of people who’d died in 1918. Their father’d said a lot of people had died then because of the Spanish flu, spread by soldiers coming back from World War I.
At the top of the hill was Thomas Wolfe’s grave, surrounded by his family’s graves—his mother, his father and his brothers and sisters.
Wolfe’s marker read—
W.O. AND JULIA E.
A BELOVED AMERICAN AUTHOR
OCT. 3, 1900—SEPT. 15, 1938
“THE LAST VOYAGE, THE LONGEST, THE BEST.”
LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL
A couple of folded notes rested on the bottom ledge of Wolfe’s marker. People often left cards and even letters to Wolfe. The notes usually praised his books. Sometimes there’d be a note from someone sounding desperate—their boyfriend had
just broken up with them, or their wife had cancer, or their father had died of a heart attack.
Grover and Sudie arrived at the Johnston family plot, mostly old, worn, gray markers, some newer-looking than others. Their grandparents, their father’s parents, were buried here. Great-aunts and uncles. A white marble marker gleamed in one corner. Propped against the marker were all sizes of bamboo weavings with leaves and grasses and bark woven together. The first ones were the smallest. They’d faded and started to come unraveled. Not really aware he was doing it, Grover had made each weaving a little bigger. They leaned against all sides of the grave marker, covering everything but the inscription.
JEAN CAROLINE JOHNSTON
MARCH 10, 1967—APRIL 6, 2011
“WE ARE NOT WHAT WE THINK”—THE BUDDHA
More weavings covered the ground around the marker, like a gigantic quilt. Sudie helped Grover move the most recent weavings to the side and set the new one at the foot of the marker.
Several plots away, a man in a green Army jacket raked around several headstones. Grover guessed this was Matthew, Jessie’s new assistant.
“She’ll like your new weaving,” Sudie said, resting her hand on the marker.
Grover watched his sister’s face darken.
“Now you said …”
“I know. I won’t …” Her lip trembled.
“We better go,” Grover said, starting to take his sister’s hand, but she jerked away.
“God is stupid!” Sudie said.
Grover sighed. “Not Him again.”
“Well, He is!” she said louder. “If He can’t think of anything better than having everybody die in the end!”
Crows lifted from a leafless dogwood, and Matthew had stopped raking and was looking in their direction. He was chubby, pale, and wore thick-lensed black-framed glasses.
“Keep your voice down,” Grover said.
stupid,” Sudie said, “and I don’t care who hears it!” Her shoulders slumped and she sank down on the ground beside their mother’s headstone. She clutched a tiny silver cylinder that hung from a necklace that she never took off. Grover had kept his in his dresser drawer.
He sat down beside his sister but didn’t say anything.
Sudie wiped her nose on her coat sleeve. “It just seems so …” Then she said softly, “Stupid.”
“You won’t get any argument from me,” Grover said.
“Is that how come you don’t believe in God?” Sudie asked, petting Biscuit.