A Long Day at the End of the World

It seems especially fitting that I finished Brent Hendricks’s affecting new memoir, A Long Day at the End of the World, on Easter Sunday.   More than anything, this story of a son’s attempt to make sense of his father’s place in the largest mass desecration in modern American history is one of resurrection.  It’s a sober, impressionistic mediation on what refuses to stay buried, of disturbed soil and the things that bloom in upheaval.  It’s also a rich root system of tangled connection, personal and historical, where a mis-folded American flag leads to musings on an extinct breed of lake snail, the explorer De Soto’s doomed gold-seeking march across the American South, and the displacement of the author’s Cherokee ancestors on the Trail of Tears.  Past is present in this book, so closing the cover, it was easy to appreciate the synchronicity of its last pages coinciding with the Christian calendar’s ultimate celebration of life over death.   

The Hendricks family story begins grimly.  In 1997, having developed a phobia about worms and wanting her late husband closer to her, Hendricks’s mother had his father’s body exhumed from its original resting place and sent to the Tri-State Crematorium in northern Georgia.  She took great comfort in the ashes they sent her and conversed with them daily.  Then, in February 2002, news broke that a few dozen decomposed bodies had been discovered strewn across the grounds of Tri-State.  Over the next weeks, that number rose to 339 — rotting corpses were found buried in shallow pits, sunk in the property’s artificial lake, abandoned in the woods along with an upended pool table.  Authorities speculated on owner Brent Marsh’s motives.  Was this respected African-American businessman and former local football hero a psychopath?  A  hoarder?  Or merely disorganized?   During the period when 300-plus bodies had been left for rats to gnaw, 660 others were properly cremated. The Hendricks family waited, and soon enough, word arrived that one of the first corpses found decaying in the woods was that of Ron Hendricks, identified by the personalized cowboy boots in which he’d been buried.  The ashes on Mrs. Hendricks’s mantle were nothing but concrete dust and fragments of animal bone.

Over nearly 200 pages, Brent Hendricks slowly doles out these details, along with dispatches from the trial and Marsh’s ultimate sentencing.  But the facts are mere way stations on a peripatetic, internal pilgrimage that begins with desecration and ends with — well — the End Times.  In his father’s disinterment, Hendricks (who confesses himself in possession of “the apocalypse gene”), finds a metaphor for all historical and environmental cataclysms, none more poignant than in the soil of the South itself. “There are flowers that grow mostly in disturbed areas,” he writes, listing them like an incantation. “Black-eyed Susan, Venus looking glass, Queen Anne’s lace, fleabane, blue toadflax, kudzu, poison ivy.”  The disruption was worked into his family’s DNA, beginning with his father’s birth into the turbulent Oklahoma Dust Bowl.  His hometown would later be wiped from the map, purposely flooded by the Army Corps of Engineers with the damming of the Verdigris River. This Great Flood would come to symbolize all that was lost, not only for Ron Hendricks but for his later family, uprooted for corporate jobs in  Tulsa, Missouri, and Connecticut before finally settling in a suburb just north of Atlanta. There, a disaffected teenage Brent would drink beer in half-built houses on dead-end cul de sacs, struggling to fit into the New South’s suburbia, where the red clay soil was “constantly under siege.”

His father’s Lazarus-like return — twice dispatched, twice risen — finally forced Brent to confront their estranged relationship.  In 2010, seven years after the first bones were discovered, Brent set off on a day-long drive from his home in Alabama to what remained of Tri-State, carrying with him his father’s military funeral flag, conversing with it as his mother had with her ersatz ashes.  Yet, the paradoxes he found in the riven landscape of the ex-Confederate South served only to recapitulate his own internal divisions.  On the road, Brent found himself alone and alienated, feeding, as he called it, “his addiction for cataclysm…[seeing] signs of the Tribulation everywhere.  Everything was disturbed ground.” He grew increasingly obsessed with the physical reality of dying. “Without the protection of a supernatural belief, I was suddenly confronted with the finality of my father’s death – his animal death, and my own.  With all ritual displaced by Brent Marsh’s conjuring of alchemical concrete dust and bone, I was alone with death itself, as exposed as my father in the close woods.” 

Much of this memoir is spent looking for signposts in oblivion. Alchemy, transmutation, photography, extinction, historical massacre — all come back to personal loss and inexorable change. At times Hendricks strains for connection or pushes a metaphor too hard.  As he draws closer to Tri-State and the end point of his pilgrimage, the poetic language which has served him so well sometimes becomes overcharged and vague.  His father’s frail life is forced to carry too heavy a weight of apocalyptic rhetoric.  He recovers, however, in his final grappling with Brent Marsh’s apology letter to the family. As a last insult, Marsh manages to get Ronald Hendricks’s name wrong, referring to him as Robert.  If Brent was hoping for answers, he received none.  Marsh asks the family’s forgiveness but offers no explanation for his actions.  Having never taken the stand at his trial nor issued any formal statement, his intentions remained, to the end, as unknowable as the mind of God.  Why were some bodies cremated and others left to rot?  Why were certain families and not others visited with pain and horror?  In this final reckoning, Hendricks’s human attempts to make meaning — all his close rhymes of De Soto (whose own body was dug up, reinterred, and ultimately drowned), the Civil War, the wounds of Southern race relations, and earthly topography — fall away before the incomprehensible.   

All pilgrims set out with a destination in mind, only to discover the journey is what sustains them.  Brent set out to feed his need for apocalypse, but the act of acknowledging universal estrangement allowed him to regain his father, almost as if he had been corporeally resurrected. Leaving Tri-State behind, the author understood his father had not returned.  But then he writes that “suddenly I was crying and he was there in the car next to me, a shape, a presence, and I could feel him again as I had felt him as a young child.  He was a vision — sprung from a flag case and from history, from the End and from the road.  That’s all I can say for sure.  He was there for a while and I could feel him, real as a crush of flowers.  He was close by and then he was gone.”