Rib Of Twilight
Written as a companion to the photography of William Eggleston, and for fellow photographer Matthew Staton.
MY FIRST MEMORY OF NEW MEMPHIS IS PINK.
Pink sky all the time like morning had perpetually confused itself with twilight. A beautiful effect. No rose colored glasses needed.
Sometimes the air, tho’. That smelled like alligator sweat or an unwashed sleeping bag. Bone River wasn’t too far off from the house where my grandma grew up and we now lived. And a secret play place was an old barn no one had yet bothered to tear down holding up the oldest end of the largest farm for miles. It’s long gone now. But oh the spiderwebs and the weeds and how the dust would move even while rain sounded on the roof like something you hear at the end of the world. And it was. That place was always a noble terrain beaming into tomorrow. On toward its own transit of liberated dreaming which provided nothing much more but dreams.
So much the better this. I trafficked within the scope of play and luminous musings.
My best friend was John. This was my grandad’s name too, altho’ I’m quite sure that’s got nothing to do with how well we got on.
He had this amazing ability to find food just by drifting thru the neighborhood. Like he’d put a spell on people and they’d want to feed him. They’d feed me too if I came around with him.
One time we were throwing rocks under some Bone River viaduct in the east end and when I turned around he’s sitting yards away and up in a copse with his hand in a bag. There were two bags I saw on approach. He handed me one. It was filled with a round loaf of bread and it’s still warm. I ate it right then without thinking. Only later did I comprehend, over breakfast cereal, how I never got sick and how that wasn’t weird at all. His aunt too seemed to have an endless supply of candy bars.
My grandparents owned three massive quarries that bordered New Memphis. I could say it’s hard growing up not knowing your parents at all, and sure, I wondered about them. So many little stories I made up, like anyone with half a brain is supposed to, about your dead family. That’s not it, tho'.
Grandpa John was hard working. Grandma Betsey made me laugh and was insanely good at storytelling. I loved them and they loved me and let John stay over any time. We got to see how it was working in the quarry without feeling like we were being groomed for the job. Some of the guys who worked for Grandpa John scared the piss out of me for how big they were. They smelled like woodsmoke and mountaintop granite like they were made of the stuff. Brisk and robust and necessary. Each man on the team was a station of the cross.
Remember that old barn I was talking about? The day I found it out and made it a thinking and hiding place was the same day Grandma Betsey told me about Miranda.
Miranda Blake was New Memphis’ own ghoulish tragedy. She was a child beauty pageant queen turned horse whisperer. She was just a little older than Betsey then — a teenager — and the toast of the town. Everyone loves her and she trains horses so well and she’s just gorgeous. Anyway one afternoon she goes on a ride and says where she’s going and that she’ll be back at dusk. But dusk came and went. And then the horse she was riding shows up early the next morning on the opposite end of town with no rider and no tack. Miss Miranda is gone. She never turned up. Not one sign of her.
So many little stories I made up, like anyone with half a brain is supposed to, about your dead family.
Now all this piqued me. It made me think about death and unknown things. Things I hadn’t thought of before even with my own parents being gone and all. But their story had resolved.
And anyhow, what if I could find Miranda? What if my grandma told me this mystery so I would be the one who solved it? This meant it was time to start looking at things more closely and maybe start asking better questions.
I know at least once Grandma Betsey regretted telling me that story, because I ran with it as far as I could. She indulged me. Talking and talking over and over it. But one day I fell asleep in the barn and the woman thought I went and pulled a Miranda on my own with no horse. And I made it worse by keeping a secret of where I’d been. But all Grandpa John had to say was if I liked sleeping outside so much he’d make sure to bolt the doors after hours so I could do it more often.
That’s around the time I started wearing a watch, I’m sure.
I had a dream right after that which cured me of thinking about Miranda. Woke right full up after it and remembered the whole thing. I don’t think it was me in the dream. Me, I guess, but also just a plain observer.
I walked from the barn into a dense place in the woods I never go into in real life only because it is so dense I’m afraid to get lost in there. But I know she’s there, so I go. It doesn’t take me long to get to the place I know she’ll be. She rises up out of a patch of soft green moss and lots of powdery white mushrooms. She’s wearing a flowing gown in lavender to match the twilight. She walks, I follow. I sit with her on a wide rock and she tells me she’s happy. She’s not lost, but in fact she belongs to something now that she always had a little part of, and do I want a little part of it too? And I’m back to really being me so I say yes. And I’m close enough to see how her skin and the dress are one and the same color. Maybe even made of the same thing. And she reaches into the dress, into herself, and brings out a wand but I know instantly that it’s a rib. One of her many ribs that hold so much magic. But all the light is in this one, it goes deep into it — collects in it, and I’ve got to reach out and grasp it before everything around it goes dark, which is happening fast and as I reach out I almost touch it. But waking life catches me and I bolt up.
I never could have touched the rib. I know all the things the rib means, and some of those meanings are like invitations to parties I wasn’t ready to go to just yet. Still not ready, you know? Like, maybe my own funeral party. I said yes, but I didn’t really mean yes. Not all the way, anyway. Miranda is patient, tho’, I believe. She can wait for me. And hopefully, much later, she’ll try me again for the hand off.
JOHN AND I GOT OUR FIRST JOBS in the dining hall at the largest retirement home in New Memphis called The Twelve Oaks. This courtesy of his aunt who also worked there and thought it was best that John palled around with me because I was a “good egg.” Her name was Ginger, but I always called her Miss Winter.
The Twelve Oaks wasn’t hard to get to. But every day was a trip if you know what I mean. I might ride with Grandpa John past the north quarry junction and jump out at the fork, walking just up over the hill and into town. Then it was busy from the moment I got there and by the end of shift I sometimes got to feeling a little raw, and keen for silence. Those walks home, long and dusky, away from demands and order and back out into the pink. That limbo where I truly belonged… I needed it.
I needed this time to think more than ever after Bernadette started. I had been on the job two months before she arrived and captured my interest.
A while after, for the first time in a long time, John and I were on the same shift, and the evening was inviting, so he asked if he could walk me back. He was acting a little different and looked a little different that day too, and I couldn’t figure it, but I felt it was better, anyhow. More open than he’d been lately.
He smiled and spoke quickly and the fading light matched his blue eyes. “I’m just going to talk.” He said “You don’t have to say a thing.”
He told me, steady and clear, that he knew I liked Bernadette because she liked me too. It didn’t matter how he knew. That he'd asked Ginger to throw a party for him for his sixteenth, and hoped we both would be there. And also, tho’ we were growing up fast, he valued my friendship and hoped that we would always remain friends and friendly, and that this wouldn’t change just because he was gay.
He sighed after he told me this last part. I looked at him and saw his face relax like a cloud coming apart. And time stopped for a while as I hugged my friend and said nothing. I didn't cry. I'm not one to be moved to that, really. But he had given me so much just in those few moments, tears wouldn’t have been out of place.
Up until then I don’t think I knew that gay was something you could be. But then I understood completely. And everything felt right and good.
And soon after September comes and I’m sixteen now too, and Bernadette and I have been steady for nearly a month and she’s met Grandma Betsey a time or two and I know they get along fine. Soon enough she meets Grandpa John and I meet her parents and everyone knows everyone else a little thru the wayside besides. That’s just protocol for the people around here, New Memphis being comprised of citizens more old than new, it seems.
School has started. As usual for me, some of it is easy, some hard. I like it so long as there isn’t too much homework, which is kind of a thing you could say about anything that doesn’t have much to do with school either.
Another year passes and they tear down the barn to connect two roads. After that I start using my camera more often.
Bernadette’s little brother Jake has taken a shine to me and asks to use the camera a lot, so this means for some reason we’re out in the graveyards a bit. Really, it’s for the light. It’s best there at dusk, and Jake seems to love staying out just as late as he is able. I do my best to be more escort than babysitter. That’s for both our sakes.
He wants to get into back yards and all sorts of places we shouldn’t go and asks all these forward questions about his sister he knows aren’t his business but pries anyhow and it’s almost sweet. Keeps me from having to move the conversation along.
Jake was the first person to show me to myself as older. Thru him I saw myself as an adult with responsibilities and lots of life coming my way. I would get old. Most likely right here in New Memphis and it was as fine a place as any. I went to work and looked at things and counted my blessings.
One day I told Jake about Miranda Blake. I’d never told anyone else about her who didn’t know about her already. But that was the first Jake heard of it and of course he asks me all million questions to follow, like I asked of Grandma Betsey, which made me smile to remember it anew.
I’d like to think Jake knew I was sharing something special. Then again we were all of us a bit enamored here and then with stories of vanishing and disappearances.
He wanted to know if I had anything that belonged to her, or what kind of things did she leave behind? And that gave me pause, because I’d never thought of her, or her case, that way before.
Then the question for me got caught between that place where you consider what you might leave behind and what is left to you, which is kind of all the same thing. Like a big merry-go-round of belongings all changing hands from life to life. That thought brought me back to Miranda’s rib. But I didn’t tell him about my old dream. I just remarked “Don’t be surprised if you dream about her.” And he searched my face suddenly to see if I was trying to scare him. I guess my smile was enough to tell him he shouldn’t be scared. He grinned then. In that way he liked to do when he thought we had a secret going.
I’ll be he did dream about her. But never did say anything to me about it if he did.
And we didn’t see too much of one another after that.
He got a job right out of the fifth grade helping his uncle Wes with his lawn and garden business, and this too was around the time Betsey fell ill and passed within two weeks.
She was only in the hospital for the last three days. It was as if she spent more and more of every day in bed with something that felt to her like the flu. Until she couldn’t get out of bed at all.
Cousins and kinfolk I’d never before met descended on the house like it was some kind of inaugural convention, and most of them were so nice I wished they’d stay. Or, at the very least, live here in New Memphis so that we’d have some extra support for Grandpa John, who needed me more and more often to drive him up to the quarry when he wished to go, which I was fine to do, naturally, as it was less and less often that he wished to do so. By that time he’d sold the quarry production operations off to the Morton Brothers effective at Grandma Betsey’s passing. The Brothers had worked for him for years. Maybe even from the start. They revered him and he knew they would take care of him and see to the proper goings-on and prosperity of the quarry. He talked of it often as “the right thing to do.” As if this was his way of showing me he wasn’t sorry to make the decision to keep me out of a business I didn’t want much to do with in the first place. Bless it.
To this statement I always replied “Absolutely, sir.”
A WEEK AFTER WE GRADUATED, I bought a ring. I thought I’d be sensible about it and give it some time. Wait until we were nineteen to ask. If that seems almost too young, well, it is. But it wasn’t done for lack of a better thing, or anything else, to do.
I only wanted very much for Grandpa John to be there, and to have a good party for everyone, and to see my Bernadette looking so sweet and pretty. I felt all the pride in the world beam from me to be next to her. In the week following she was set to begin at the nursing academy.
We didn’t care to travel as much as we wished to start building a house of our own, and did, on a lot bequeathed to us by Mr. Huntsman, Bernadette’s daddy.
I walked along it one day and realized I could practically throw a stone and hit one of the old quarry pits. Our new place would be up over a wooded hillside and on sound ground, but it reminded me how close by industry was all the time. As close as one’s own fantasy world, featuring all the play of the old times and more. That perhaps, if the one existed, it meant the other did too. Had to.
I'LL NEVER FORGET THAT WEEK, OF COURSE. That dear, kind time after we were married, but before we took off properly into our new stage of life in New Memphis together. Bernadette and I stayed near one another enraptured in the giddy bliss of newlywed love. Free with jokes and sensuality. As impractical as if we’d only just met and had been married at thirteen.
We took the time then to begin the conversation we knew and hoped it would take the whole rest of our simple, delightful, incredible lives to finish.
It was late June then, and pink. A pink as pure as at the start of the world. Our walks along Bone River stretched fluidly from noon to twilight and the unchallenged privacy of them afforded us pleasure and peace. I fell in love with her mind and her spirit all over again, and we merged memories and thoughts as smoothly as we had so recently merged our futures.
Everyone we had ever known was walking behind us. Just close enough. Holding up the pink like a backdrop for a dream.
A beautiful life. No rose colored glasses needed.