I’ve been in a rare fit of melancholia for a week or so, flitting among numbness, raw sorrow, and a general aching pressure that sits on top of everything. Perfect internal weather for remembering the dead. So it’s hardly surprising that after a lovely skate today in perfect 77° weather, I sat to watch the sun skirt the horizon so its beams only hit the tops of the longleaf pines at the Loxley Municipal Park and thought of Nicole. Something about being still after skating hard enough to feel the familiar pressure of my heart beating against my ribcage made the world seem clearer, sharper, not just an obstacle course to move through, navigating this or that potential pitfall. The tall trees’ small swayings, a squirrel’s frenetic, explosive maneuvers, the distant moaning buzz of the season’s last grass being cut, and the tell-tale sent of that cut grass, browning pine straw, and dirt underneath, drying from last night’s rain each made itself present, prominent in my perception. When had I last felt the full presence of such a landscape–this combination of longleaf pines on mown winter grass, this autumnal angle of sunlight, this scent of iron-rich earth?
In another park on the other side of the bay, I remember a February afternoon, warm until the sun began to lower. It was Nicole’s birthday, Valentine’s Day. I don’t remember the year. It was the first time I saw Japanese magnolias bloom, or the first time I saw them enough to notice them. That day they became my favorite trees. We had a picnic. Others were there. Craig, Monica, Steve, Kaely? I’m not sure. I only remember Nicole. She tried to teach me something like a dance. Palms facing but not touching, we mirrored each other in some ouija-like movement. I couldn’t tell, minute-to-minute, who led, who followed. Later, after the chill began to creep back, we folded the blanket we’d picnicked on together. It was another dance, the way the wind lifted the blanket like a belly-dancer’s veil. I remember, too, years later (I presume), after she and David had married and moved away, sitting on the dam and either writing to her or in the diary she’d given me. The still high water on my right, the crashing down water on my left. Nicole, Nicole who is gone and who knew and loved a part of me I often have a hard time holding on to.
Tonight, I’ve been reading the closing arguments of the Beulah Mae Donald suit against the Klan and the various conspirators. Morris Dees is moving. So too, strangely, is Tiger Knowles who asks the jury to find him and the other defendants guilty. And here I find myself, back at the computer, googling the name of an unfamiliar Klansman (Tommy Rowe, the Klansman/FBI informant who rode in the car with the men who shot and killed Viola Luizzo in Selma and whose deposition had been read in Donald vs. the United Klans of America). Internet way leads onto internet way, and I read a profile of a woman, pictured holding a rainbow flag, daughter of a Klansman turned civil rights worker, whose son was beaten for being gay. And I think of Ky Clanton.
Twenty years on and there are great fuzzy gaps in my memory. How long did I know him? I remember a year’s worth of freshman homeroom conversations, but surely I knew him in middle school too. We were both outcasts, picked on miserably (though, thinking back, I must have had it easier). He was a willowy black boy with long fingers on delicate hands. His voice sounded like laughter–rising, falling, light and joyous–except in those whispered conversations. He told me how much to his own horror he found himself kissing older men and liking it, lifting his shirt to show me the rows of hickeys on the brown skin of his narrow chest left by a college boy. He hated how all those years he’d denied being gay to his tormentors, how he believed it, but now his mother would sneak into his room at night and sprinkle him with holy water to try to ward off his sexuality. What to do, what to do? He had problems bigger than any kid should have. The world seemed to hate him, his mother seemed to shun him, and he was lost. I can’t remember what I said to him, whether I gave him advice or comfort or just listened, except that we kept talking. That was his last year of high school. He was floundering and miserable and maybe starting to get into trouble. He found some kind of internship for high school students and moved to Key West. Before he left, he gave me a small stuffed rabbit with tremendous ears. I can’t remember anything about him giving it to me now. What he said, why he was giving it to me (except that he was leaving), whether I understood at the time, or if, as I commonly did, I only pretended to understand. Some time later, after he was gone, I was in my room looking at the stuffed rabbit, and I became suddenly frightened for Ky and did my best version of a prayer for his protection. Many months after that I found an obituary notice in the newspaper (though I never read the obituaries). I think I learned from a teacher that he’d been missing for nine days before his body was found floating in a canal in Key West (do they even have canals?) with blunt wounds to the head.
Through all of my moves I have kept the stuffed rabbit. Now I keep it in a bin of often used office supplies on a shelf near the folding table that passes for a desk. In Cincinnati it was in the same bin but inside the drawer to my night stand. I don’t remember where I had it in Columbus. Before that I think it stayed in a drawer of the mahogany dresser that was once my mother’s.
It is good to hold on to the gifts of the dead.