This is a story about art. Not big city museum art or coffee shop hipster art. Not even Grandma Moses. Those things are either admired or laughed at as each of us sees fit. This pile of words concerns roadside things that occasionally appear along backroads and in old beat-up places. Behind churches and by-the-week motel yards. Carved tree trunks and concrete Jesuses—stupid things. It’s a strange story.
Let’s go to this dirt hill in Columbine, Colorado, by way of explanation. This dirt hill is the same as a lot of dirt hills around here. Rebel Hill, it’s called—we can relate to that. It overlooks the high school there and sneaky kids sneak up there to tell spooky ghost stories at night. You know how kids can be and it is a haunted place.
The sky glows grey and orange behind the hill and the sky is vast in Colorado.
Around 11 a.m. on April 20, 1999 two boys carried backpacks full of guns and homemade bombs into the high school that stood in the shadow of Rebel Hill. In a little more than an hour the two boys murdered 12 other children then committed suicide in the library. Outside there were cops, television reporters and helicopters in the sky. It was all a bloody mess. The TV said there were dead children scattered everywhere.
Later, there were rumors of two awkward boys and football team bullies. But that was silly.
We wanted to know why these two children did this. How could two awkward young boys murder all those other children? What was wrong with them? The boys were made fun of, tormented and cast out. So what. Lots of people are. They were beat up and spit on. Humiliated and laughed at. Well, that’s just boys being boys. Teachers condoned it all and parents turned blind eyes. So. One of them once had a paper cup full of shit thrown on him at school one time. That’s not the same.
That’s not killing someone.
It was all inexplicable.
A few days later a man named Greg Zanis came to Columbine to build crosses to memorialize the dead children, including the killers. The crosses were built from hardware-store fence posts and he painted them white. He wrote the name of each dead child on seperate crosses and planted all of them atop Rebel Hill. He did this at night so no one would see. A hundred thousand visitors came to see the crosses in the days that followed. They left flowers and sad mementos.
Brian Rohrbough, a father of one of the dead children, didn’t like what Greg Zanis had done. He too climbed Rebel Hill and wrote on one of the crosses: MURDERERS BURN IN HELL. EVIL BASTARD was written on another. Two of these children were “evil,” Brian explained, and that’s why this tragedy had happened. These “evil” children had no place among the others, who were angels. Innocent people agreed with him. Those who disagreed with him were also called “evil”.
Later, seeing that he’d created a bit of a stir, Brian phoned CNN and told them to bring a camera crew. He marched up Rebel Hill again with the cameras close behind him. Other innocent people followed, too. Brian further desecrated those two crosses. He swore at them, pulled them down and tore them into pieces. He explained that the dead children represented by these two crosses didn’t deserve remembrance. God could not accept them. These two children were full of hate, Brian said, not love. He threw their desecrated crosses in a dumpster.
Brian Rohrbough later became a spokesman. He speaks about terrible things, about all of us. He says you are morally corrupt. He says your children are killed because God is not in our schools. TV shows interview him and he speaks to us about terrible things. You’ve moved away from God, he says. Suicide has become acceptable when it shouldn’t be. Jack Kevorkian was evil, too. Brian speaks about how pro-life God is.
Let’s come back to Chattanooga now. Columbine is not a place I want to stay too long—just wanted to let you know where I’m coming from. Let’s go out to Ooltewah, right down the road. A place called Summitt. I used to ride around out there with Malcolm Witherow when I was a boy.
Malcolm you may have heard of—he was the black man recently convicted of first-degree murder for shooting an old white girlfriend in 2008. Word is she wore a wire for the cops trying to bust Malcolm selling the dope she smoked. They said they found her lying dead in the middle of some dark country backroad. She didn’t deserve to die the way she did. Nobody deserves to die like that. She did the right thing working with the cops and Malcolm will die in prison. Most people say he deserves to.
But Malcolm had a golden smile and a deep laugh. This was 20 years before that girl was killed. He drove an old pick-up truck and he’d do concrete work back then. He did whatever else he could, too, to get by.
I rode shotgun in the middle one day with Malcolm’s four-in-the-floor gear shift slamming against my left leg. It was a hot August day and the windows were down. Malcolm was driving and my old man was on my right, hollering over the antenna radio. We curved around past trailer parks and fenced-in livestock. Mick Jagger sang Jumping Jack Flash on the radio while Malcolm and my old man threw empty beer cans out the windows and into the ditches.
We stopped by this old graveyard out there. Malcolm wanted to. They got out and I followed them. The graveyard was overgrown and vile. Small pine trees and weeds had grown up everywhere. Dead mothers and siblings rotted under the ground and the county landfill was nearby. You could smell the dump and a pig farm across the road. Rats and rabbits crawled through the grass. Buzzing bugs flew by and the sun was hot.
Malcolm had family buried there. My old man went with him and they talked like men do. The weather, the dry yellow grass, the cemetery’s upkeep and the county’s plan to close down the dump. They laughed some. Drank the beer they’d brought with them. Talked about who they knew buried in some of the other graves. Didn’t talk about anybody being sad, though. That’s not what men do.
I wandered off. That’s what boys do and I was a boy. The dry grass crunched under my feet. They hollered after me to watch out for snakes.
I walked past knocked over tombstones. Old names appeared out of the blackberry bushes. Some of them appeared on fancy crooked marble markers. Some of them just said last names and that God loved them. Some of them had young babies names. I saw a cement brick with MOTHER hand-carved into it. There were places that were nothing more than unholy indentations in the ground and I was afraid to step over them.
Black crows squawked. Dump trucks poured over the road and I could smell the garbage at the landfill. Bugs buzzed in the air.
I looked up toward the middle of the graveyard and an old Jesus statue was there. The statue’s hands reached out to bless the dead but his concrete fingers were broken off. I looked up at his face. Old Jesus. His head didn’t move but his eyes could see. He looked at me but didn’t say anything. I stood there awhile and he let birds light on his head. His broken concrete hands held up the blessing sign all the time.
He looked across the cracked grass and watched the blackberries choke all those marble gravestones. Sinkholes in the bushes mark the spot where women were buried. Some chunked up piles of red dirt just had rocks around them—those dead were nameless. They were all pauper’s graves. Mothers, some of them, but paupers still—nobody was supposed to remember them. These were supposed to be people whose living family didn’t give a damn about them. Not enough for anyone to come and mow the grass, anyway. They were all in the hands of the Lord, according to some of the tombstones.
A sudden loud crack startled me and I ran back to where Malcolm and my old man were. A long black and green snake was writhing into itself on the ground in front of them. Malcolm had shot it. My old man said it was only a chicken snake and told Malcolm he should have left it alone. “You’re crazy,” my old man said. “Somebody’s calling the cops right now. Put the goddam gun up and let’s go.”
Malcolm said he’d kill any snake that crossed his path.
But that was a long time ago, and I was a boy then. I’ve got a boy of my own now and he rides with me. His name’s Simon. Madcap’s his name in our secret club, but don’t tell anybody. One of the duties of our secret club is to hunt out the places ghosts may be hiding. That’s the mission Simon and I were on the other day.
We rode around the backside of Lookout Mountain and through Tiftonia. Tiftonia is another one of those half-dead towns still percolating because of a super Wal-Mart. Dead motels and kudzu line the main road through there. There are as many For Rent signs in storefront windows as there are windows with Open signs flashing. It’s about two miles worth of a town. Old scratched-up and fading signs invited us to visit Raccoon Mountain and the Alpine Slide. Simon wanted to go so we went.
We soon learned that Raccoon Mountain is an RV park with a cave in the back. The Alpine Slide was closed years ago when a newly developed subdivision out there complained about the noise. You can see a private golf course through the trees there. It’s part of the subdivision that didn’t like the noise the Alpine Slide made.
On the way back out we stopped at an old motel at the top of the road there. It was called the Alpine Lodge. A sign out front advertised “Color RCA TV’s”. On the outside walls of the motel were handpainted scenes of eagles flying over mountains or perched in great big trees. Undying plastic flowers were in pots everywhere. Bright red, yellow, orange and blue. I didn’t see any cars there so I pulled in.
Around back Simon said, “Look at that.” I parked the car and got out. There was a figure carved from a cedar tree that once stood there. The figure was a life-sized owl-faced woman with angel wings. Beady eyes and a hook nose stared down accusingly and angel wings were folded at her side. Her feet grew into what was left of the cedar trunk. Moss and old tree bark hung on to the back of her wings. But her eyes seemed to damn anybody that looked at her.
A man came out of the motel office’s back door. He walked toward us. I waved hello and he nodded toward me. When he came closer I saw he was an older middle-eastern man. He asked us what we needed and Simon stood close behind me. I told him we were curious about the statue.
He didn’t know anything about it. It was there when his brother-in-law bought the place, he said.
He didn’t know who carved it.
I told him it was a strange statue to be in a motel’s back yard. I wondered if the same person who carved this weird angel did all the paintings on the outside of the buildings, too. The man thought so. He said that a long time ago Tiftonia wanted to offer something to the thousands of tourists who visit the big attractions on the mountain every year. Ruby Falls, Rock City and all those places. Tiftonia built the motels, put the Alpine Slide up outside the Raccoon Mountain cave and restaurants suddenly appeared. The man who created the Alpine Lodge and all the paintings and carvings there was one of those people who believed the town would build itself up that way. But it never happened. Nobody came.
“They were hoping too much,” he smiled. His brother-in-law planned to sell the place soon. “It’s two acres. Someone could doze everything down and build eight houses here. It’s nice property.”
I told him I didn’t have any money and he laughed. I asked him if Simon and I could look around a little before we left. He didn’t mind and went back inside.
Simon was out in the grass wandering around.
He followed me to a gazebo that was further up the hill. It was at the edge of the property near the woods. I sat there with all the big plastic flowers hanging in pots and looked down at the owl-face woman with angel wings still accusing me.
Simon couldn’t stay still. He said this was the perfect place for ghosts. He pointed his finger toward the woods and said he knew there were ghosts hiding in there. He said he was going to find them. I told him to go ahead but don’t go too far.
Watch for snakes.