What Became Of The Bear State

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Driving east to Mississippi, I think about cause and effect, and the silly things people say about butterflies and hurricanes. I think about Hell’s fury, and whether it could hold a candle to a woman scorned. I think about freshwater falling on my face and all the people I’ve known and the way my name must look, forever carved into their shattered hearts.

Peter’s great-great-grandparents moved to Misfit when it was nothing more than a pasture halfway between El Dorado and Peterson, when Arkansas was still The Bear State, long before John W. Huddleston discovered diamonds in Pike County. They had old money and four sons, and the house they built still stands down on Stead Lane between Jacob's Pond and the apple orchard. Those original Martins built the general store, and the fire department, and the elementary school they turned into a retirement home almost a decade ago. Peter’s grandmother told me more than once, "Misfit’s Martin made."

I taught math at the high school where Peter’s picture still hung beneath the State Champions ‘09 banner outside the gym. I lived on Wagon Road with two other teachers. Our first night, we made pizza. The flour Abigail spilled on the counter looked like a blanket of snow. Micah drew angels with his fingers while we ate.

From the day I arrived to the day I left, ten months and four days passed. In that time, the people of Misfit held two weddings, twenty-four picnics, seven Christmas parties, one high school graduation, thirty-one funerals, and a vow-renewal ceremony. Peter’s grandparents renewed their vows on October 15th, and we were all invited.

It had rained for a week, but the sun came out on Saturday morning to stream through the stained glass windows of a church adorned with buttercups and roses. Dressed in burgundies and ambers and browns, we looked like Autumn leaves raked in from outside, celebrating fifty years of two people in love.

One weekend in early November, Peter drove Micah and Abigail and me up to Lake Chicot State Park to hike a trail he used to hike with his father and brothers. Walking through the woods, Peter named every tree we passed.

“Carya illinoinensis,” he said, pulling me forward. “Pecan.”

“Carya illinoinensis,” I repeated. Then, turning to Micah, “Pecan.”

Like a game of telephone, Micah called to Abigail.

“Hey Abby,” he said, gesturing to the wrong tree, “this one’s a pecan.”

At each new tree, Peter dropped Latin names in our hands like marbles. We passed them down the line to keep as treasure in our pockets.

Taxodium distichum.

Quercus texana.

Platanus occidentalis. American sycamore.

That night, back in Misfit, I fell asleep with ancient words rolling off my tongue, savoring the warm and braided sounds of a buried language.

It was raining on March 25th, and I taught a lesson on the chain rule in my third period class. Andy Hurtz interrupted me three times to ask if someone had come in to fix the fans yet. Two boys were missing from Andy’s class. Around eleven, they drove from their houses ten miles along Route 4 to the high school and met in the parking lot. If I'd glanced through the window on the back wall of my classroom at just the right moment that morning, I might've seen them out there—huddled together in the heavy rain, hurrying through rows of parked cars to the entrance at the end of the hall.

Elijah Packer’s first shot killed Andy. His second and third shattered the window behind my desk. Fierce winds blew rain horizontally into the classroom, soaking the seat in the back row where he should've been sitting. He took another step into the room, and fired again. Two girls slumped out of their desks, hitting the floor. Two rooms away, Tim Jones interrupted a class discussion of Jane Eyre to shoot Micah twice in the head.

I lost count of Elijah's shots, but not of the steps he took into my classroom. Two more and he fired again. One more and he turned to me.

He shot me by the broken window, and I must've fallen, but I can’t remember. All I have is this scar on my shoulder and the phantom feeling of freshwater falling on my face.

We buried Micah on the last day of March. Sweating and stiff, we stood in the inadequate shade of a white oak. Quercus alba. A soft ache spread from the bandages on my left shoulder down my arm, suspended in a polyester sling. The Minister read from Romans.

“None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.”

I thought about Micah, and the dog he’d brought home a month after we moved in.

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.”

Together, they’d barreled into the kitchen where Abigail and I sat with paint chips spread across the table. A rescued German shepherd, drooling and jumping up to meet us, and Micah, grinning, clumsily explaining that the dog’s name was Evie, and he’d already ordered her a personalized dish set.

“So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.”

I thought about Micah, and the way he would talk during movies.

“For to this end Christ died and lived again,”

He’d keep checking if you liked the movie, if you thought the girl should’ve turned the car around, if you thought the dad shouldn’t have died. He’d laugh out loud at funny parts, then turn to you, eyes flashing like fireworks, to make sure you were laughing too. Watching a movie with Micah wasn’t like watching a movie at all. Watching a movie with Micah always ended with you, enchanted, watching Micah watch.

“That he might be Lord both of the dead,”

The tall grass tickled my ankles. I thought about Micah.

“And of the living.”

If I hadn’t stopped at home before heading to the diner on April 18th, I would’ve missed Abigail altogether. I stepped off the road into the driveway as she emerged from the garage. She frowned when she saw me. I stood in the cold rain and she explained.

“They shot us,” she said, dropping the box into the backseat of her car. “I came here to teach. I was doing something good, and they shot us.”

I pitied her, damp and shivering, cramming everything she owned into an ugly two-door, hobbling around on a broken ankle. She hadn’t even been shot, just shoved to the ground by a frantic student.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be driving yet,” I answered, pointing at her foot, “with your cast still on.”

Even if she’d begged me to forgive her, to understand, I wouldn’t have. She didn’t though. She bowed her head and walked over to the driver’s side. I noticed Evie in the passenger seat.

I didn’t watch Abigail get in the car. Instead, I turned on my heel and walked with soaking boots into the house and through the front hall. Without missing a beat, I took every plate and bowl and glass we owned, and one by one smashed each against the red and faded kitchen wall.

My phone rang at 11:56 PM on May 23rd. By 1 AM, May 24th, I was sitting in a cold plastic chair in the Chicot Memorial Medical Center waiting room. Peter’s younger brother, who’d called me, sat across from me. His mother paced between us. His father had gone in search of coffee.

The doctor that talked to us was young.

“Peter had severe crush injuries to his abdomen and lower extremities and a massive brain bleed.”

I felt suddenly cold.

“We took him into surgery immediately. However, the damage he sustained from the fall was catastrophic.”

I wracked my brain for Latin names, for something sweet and soft to hold beneath my tongue.

Platanus, I thought. Platanus something.

“We did everything we could,” he said. “Unfortunately, Peter’s accident was fatal.”

Platanus occidentalis. American sycamore.

Driving east to Mississippi, I think about all the things that scared me when I moved to Misfit: alligators and chiggers and Southern politics and snakes. I think about the hospital room where an old doctor wrapped my shoulder in its sling. In his thick Southern accent he told me how lucky I was.

“Couple of inches over and it would’ve hit your heart.”

I think about what my heart might’ve looked like busted into a thousand pieces, scattered through my chest like litter on the sidewalk. I think about snow angels drawn in flour on the counter, and people dressed in Autumn colors next to buttercups and roses. I think about freshwater falling on my face.

Driving east to Mississippi, I think about all the Misfits we buried, all the Misfits who loved me, all the Misfits I held in my nearly shattered heart.


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