Hey, Angela, sorry to hear your cousin killed his wife and shot himself. It’s Christmas-time in Hollis.

I had just finished pumping gas into my car and was screwing on the gas cap when I heard someone yell out, “Oh my God!  Angela, is that you? You’re home for Thanksgiving, I see.”

It was a former classmate of mine, one I hadn’t seen since we graduated high school 25 years ago, back in 1989.  I recognized him vaguely but couldn’t remember his name.  I did notice he’d lost a substantial amount of hair over the past couple of decades.  His camouflage jacket was zipped up to his chin and he had on red gloves, which struck me as rather unpractical for staying hidden while stalking deer.  Camouflage is the standard mode of men’s dress in eastern North Carolina.  I stood there, smiling but squinting as I tried to recall his name.

“It’s me Larry.  Larry Perry [editor’s note:  name changed].  We’re friends on Facebook,” he said, hugging me.  I hugged back and immediately recalled I had never really been friends with him back in high school and didn’t even know we were Facebook friends.   Larry used to be part of the woodshop crowd, a low-key, quiet group of boys who mostly smoked cigarettes behind the lunchroom and dated plain girls who were destined for motherhood and not much else.   As a member of the drama club, I rarely had time for boys who listened to country music and made overly-shellacked shelves for their mothers and those boys weren’t interested in a girl who listened to the Grateful Dead with vaguely gay miscreants obsessed with amateur dramatics and Boone’s Farm “Tickle Pink” fortified wine.

“How are you?” he asked.  “When did you come home?  I know you live in Raleigh.  I read your Facebook posts.  They are always so crazy and interesting.  And I always read your blog, that “Muumuu” thing you do. I like the way you write.  I don’t really like to read usually but I like to read your stuff.”

“Wow, thanks, Larry, I appreciate that,” I said, feeling myself warming up to Larry immediately.   I am imminently susceptible to flattery of all kinds.  “Yeah, I’m just here for the day visiting my dad.   I’m about to head back.  How are you?”

“You know, gotta keep on keeping on,” he said.  “Just working for the tax man.”  He paused and shook his head.  “That was rough news, about your cousin.”

“What cousin?”  I asked.  I am not close with my extended family and hear little to no news about them.  Most of my mother’s side of the family has remained in this part of the state for centuries (yeah, that’s right centuries – as in since the late 1600s.)  This clan of dozens is thick as thieves, spending weekends together, going to church together, calling each other daily, and staying very in tune with the minutiae of one another’s lives.   The narrative of their blissful existence reads like a John Cougar Mellencamp song:

Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob’ly die in a small town
Oh, those small communities

Educated in a small town
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town
Used to daydream in that small town
Another boring romantic that’s me

Well I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in this small town
And that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me 

Ah!  There’s something seemingly pleasant and charming about such an innocent existence but, in fact, the dark, gossipy, judgmental, racist underbelly of that small town existence becomes apparent about five minutes after you roll into the county.  I wondered what dark gossip Larry had for me.

“Your cousin, Mike Waters, your first cousin,” he said.  “I saw him.”

Mike.  Mike.  Oh yeah, Mike Waters.  I hadn’t seen him since I was 15 years old.  Quiet guy, about 10 years older than me.  “Oh man, Mike.  He’s been in the Air Force for years.  Where did you see him?”

He looked at me incredulously.  “At my work.”

“Where do you work?” I asked, getting annoyed with how drawn out the conversation was becoming.

“At the funeral home,” he said. “I work there part-time.  Didn’t you notice my job on my Facebook page?”

I had never seen Larry’s Facebook page in my life.  “What was Mike doing at the funeral home?  Who died?”  I figured it must be my Aunt Mary, Mike’s mother.  She must be near 85 by now, so she’d probably moved on to the next life and was somewhere up in heaven, possibly still on Weight Watchers.  All of my aunts have been on Weight Watchers since the 1970s and have probably lost about 10 pounds total among them in four decades.  Ours is a meaty, ever-hungry family.

“Mike’s dead.  He shot himself,” said Larry matter-of-factly.  “He gunned down his wife, shot her several times in the back, and then shot himself in the head.  Over in Corpus Christi, Texas where they were living for the past few years. They flew his body back here to be buried at home.”

I was stunned.  “Are you sure?”  I asked.

“Of course, I’m sure,” said Larry.  “I saw his body.  It was terrible.  It’s a terrible thing.  No funeral, though, just a graveside service.  You know, given the circumstances.”

“Jeez,” I said.  “I didn’t hear a thing about this.”

“Not even on Facebook?” asked Larry, pursing his lips in surprise.

“I’m not friends with any family members on Facebook,” I said.  “I don’t like to see my aunts’ and cousins’ endless tripe and trollop about their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  They’re too obsessed with one another’s lives.”  I was sure this explanation was a bit too detailed and bitter for Larry, who probably had plenty of photos of his own children, dressed in tiny camouflage outfits, posted all over social media.  As a single, childless, highly-educated and uncannily enlightened person devoted to the pursuit of freedom from family constraints, I was probably rapidly moving outside the tenuous barriers of meaningfulness contained in this bizarre conversation.

“Yeah,” said Larry, ignoring my last comment, “evidently the wife had a restraining order put out on your cousin and said in the police records that she was sure that he was capable of killing her and was seeking protection.  But before they could go to court, he beat her up a few times and then finally shot her.  In the back.  He shot himself in the head.  Oh wait, I already said that.  It’s online on some news sites if you want to Google it.  It happened about two or three months ago.  Back in September.”

“Two months ago?!? And I’m just now hearing about this?  Thanks, I…I guess I’ll look it up.  Good Lord,” I said, still trying to wrap my mind around the news.  “It was good to see you.  I need to get back to Raleigh.  I’m on my way back just now.”

“It’s so good to see you,” he said, grinning widely.  “Man, you look good.  I always thought you were really cute in high school.  I asked you out once, do you remember that?”

I didn’t.  But his words rang sweet and I felt a funny little high-schoolish boy crazy tingle like I used to get often back then.  I hugged him.  He smelled warm and musky and soapy.  It made me sad.  More sad than the news about my cousin.

“I do remember you asking me out,” I lied.  “It was so good to see you, Larry.  I’ll write to you.  On Facebook.”  For some reason, instead of saying “good-bye” I blurted out “ciao for now!”  The words were silly and pretentious and I jumped into the car.  My dog Tater was sitting in the passenger’s seat, staring at me intently.

I rubbed his head.  “All right, boy, we’re heading out now.  We’ll be back home soon.”  Tater licked the spot where his balls used to be.

I sat there behind the wheel for a few minutes, staring across the street at the tiny hospital where I was born.  I wondered if my cousin Mike had been born in that hospital.  I figured most of my family members were born there.   And a lot died there.   As I stuck the key in the ignition, I saw a smallish black bear trundling across the hospital grounds, away towards the edge of the woods surrounding the east side.

“What the fuck?”  I mumbled, surprised.  Bears should be hibernating already, shouldn’t they?  It looked like the bear had a giant white bird hanging limply in its jowls.

I turned the key and Run DMC’s song “Christmas in Hollis” was blasting:

It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens
Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens
Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese
And Santa put gifts under Christmas trees
Decorate the house with lights at night
Snow’s on the ground, snow white so bright
In the fireplace is the yule log
Beneath the mistletoe as we drink egg nog
The rhymes you hear are the rhymes of Darryl’s
But each and every year we bust Christmas carols.

I looked over at Tater.  He’d already curled up and was asleep and snoring, happy in the knowledge we were leaving.  “Ciao, little town,” I said.  “I’ll see you at Christmas.”  I needed to get back to Raleigh and Google my cousin Mike’s name to find out what exactly had happened in Corpus Christi.  I wondered if the bear across the street was having one last meal before it was time to go down in his den.  I wondered if bears dream.

*Some of the names and the facts in this vignette have been changed. 

I looked over at Tater.  He’d already curled up and was asleep and snoring, happy in the knowledge we were leaving.  “Ciao, little town,” I said.  “I’ll see you at Christmas.”  I needed to get back to Raleigh and Google my cousin Mike’s name to find out what exactly had happened in Corpus Christi.  I wondered if the bear across the street was having one last meal before it was time to go down in his den.  I wondered if bears dream.

*Some of the names and the facts in this vignette have been changed. 

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