Read an ExcerptCoffin County
By Gary A. Braunbeck Dorchester Publishing
Copyright © 2008 Gary A. Braunbeck
All right reserved.
"My quiver is once again empty ..."
This may seem a bit helter-skelter at first, jumping around like water on a hot griddle, rolling like leaves across an autumn sidewalk, tumbling about like a paper cup caught in the wind; but just as the millions of meaningless individual dots in a newspaper photograph will merge into a single, identifiable image when viewed as a whole, everything will gradually be connected. It has to be. The dead demand it of us. And they must not be ignored.
They will not be ignored. That's been tried before. Didn't exactly work out.
Around here I'm know as "The Reverend," and I need for you to come along with me for a while.
Admittedly, that doesn't quite have the poetic punch of such classic attention-grabbers as, say, "Call me Ishmael," or "My name is Arthur Gordon Pym," or "I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic," so let's establish right off the bat that I know it's not what you'd call a literary stunner, my introduction, but you work with what you've got.
Around here I'm known as "The Reverend." I run the CedarHill Open Shelter on East Main Street, just over the bridge that leads into the area known as "Coffin County." It wasn't always called that, just as I wasn't always called "The Reverend." Both it and I had another name at one time-in my case, I've had several names, at least one of which you'll learn in a little while-but before I tell you about that, and before we step through the gap to experience the night of an appalling slaughter that took place in this town that likes to call itself a city, we need to look a little closer at the place itself; for, like sins of omission, it shares a measure of responsibility.
There was a book written by a man named Geoff Conover, who once lived here, albeit briefly, and in this book-presented ostensibly as fiction, but we who call this place home and who have read it know better-he offers what is to my mind the most accurate description of Cedar Hill that one could possibly hope to find. Not being foolish enough to try to improve upon precision, I submit that description to you now:
If it is possible to characterize this place by melting down all of its inhabitants and pouring them into a mold so as to produce one definitive citizen, you will see a person who is, more likely than not, a laborer who never made it past the eleventh grade but who has managed through hard work and good solid horse sense to build the foundation of a decent middle-class existence; who works to keep a roof over his family's head and sets aside a little extra money each month to fix up the house, maybe repair that old backdoor screen or add a workroom; who has one or two children who aren't exactly gifted but do well enough in school that their parents don't go to bed at night worrying that they've sired morons.
Perhaps this person drinks a few beers on the weekend-not as much as some of their rowdier friends, but enough to be social. They've got their eye on some property out past the county line. They hope to buy a new color television set. They usually go to church on Sundays, not necessarily because they want to but because, well, you never know, do you?
This is the person you would be facing.
This is the person who would smile at you, shake your hand, and behave in a neighborly fashion.
But never ask them about anything that lies beyond the next paycheck. Take care not to discuss anything more than work or favorite television shows or an article from this morning's paper. Complain about the cost of living, yes; inquire about their family, by all means; ask if they've got time to grab a quick sandwich, sure; but never delve too far beneath the surface, for if you do the smile will fade, that handshake will loosen, and their friendliness will become tinged with caution.
Because this is a person who feels inadequate and does not want you to know it, who for a good long while now has suspected that his life will never be anything more than mediocre. He feels alone, abandoned, insufficient, foolish, and inept, and the only thing that keeps him going is a thought that makes him both smile and cringe: that maybe one of his children will decide for themselves, Hey, Dad's life isn't so bad, this 'burg isn't such a hole in the ground, so, yeah, maybe I'll just stick around here and see what I can make of things.
And what if they do? How long until they start to walk with a workman's stoop, until they're buying beer by the case and watching their skin turn into one big nicotine stain? How long until they start using the same excuses he's used on himself to justify a mediocre life?
Bills, you know. Not as young as I used to be. Too damn tired all the time. Work'll by God take it out of you.
Ah, well ... at least there's that property out past the county line for him to keep his eye on, and there's still that new color television set he might just up and buy....
This is the person who would look back at you, whose expression would betray that they'd gotten a little lost in their own thoughts for a second there.
It happens sometimes.
So they'll blink, apologize for taking up so much of your time, wish you a good day, and head on home because the family will be waiting supper. It sure was nice talking to you, though.
Meet Cedar Hill, Ohio.
It is a place that you would immediately recognize and then just as quickly forget as you drive through it on your way to someplace more vibrant, more exciting, or even just a little more interesting. It is filled with houses like every other house, on streets like every other street, and if you lived here, and if you could, you'd burn rubber on your way out, making damn sure the tires threw up enough smoke to hide any sight of the place should you cave and glance in the rearview for a last nostalgic look at this seemingly unremarkable white-bread Midwestern town.
However, as you'll realize quickly enough, this place is far from unremarkable; in fact, we have a local saying that often draws chuckles from visitors passing through, but isn't nearly as tongue-in-cheek as these outsiders think: "This is Cedar Hill. Weird shit happens here. Get used to it."
We'll come back to that soon enough, you and I. Right now, we need to look at some things; the pages, ghosts, people, places, what-ifs, wherefores, and whys that make up what is known for lack of a more accurate term as "history": imagine all of this history as being the light trapped by early cameras, the illumination carried to obscuras where chemicals in trays will summon forth the scenes, the memories, the moments, the forgotten faces, the locations once treasured by those long gone that are now empty lots of dust and detritus where children sometimes play in the noonday sun, all of it surfacing out of time and memory to meet us where we are now, on this page, in this paragraph, at this sentence where these things are once again given life, given an identity, given back the warm flesh and bright sparkle in the eyes that sang of life and hope and meaning; and perhaps if all goes well, these phantoms will fully emerge to find their voices once again, still waiting in the place where they spoke their final words, and these spirits will whisper: Here is our story, the story of how it all began; if you listen carefully, at the end, you'll be someone else....
Excerpted from Coffin County by Gary A. Braunbeck Copyright © 2008 by Gary A. Braunbeck. Excerpted by permission.
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