It’s Memorial Day and I, like millions of other American goons, wake up with a bleeding hangover. The afternoon is spent adjusting and readjusting myself on the sofa to accommodate variable nausea and the battle-ax digging its way around the equator of my skull.
The ways in which people respond to these minor blows of shame—be it the hangover, the lie, that thing you shouldn’t have said out loud—says a lot about one’s sense of worth. Emotionally stable and healthy individuals usually resolve guilt as quickly and quietly as possible. The rest of us deal with guilt contrarily: we capitalize on it, excavate, dig our graves, and sculpt the headstone.
Soon it’s 7 p.m. and I can practically hear my canine’s bowels grumbling, so I throw on last night’s party dress and sunglasses and drive to Memorial Hill, the Milledgeville, Georgia, cemetery where Flannery O’Connor and confederate notables disintegrate below ground (in the South it is typical for there not only to be a gravestone, but a whole bed-sized concrete slab jutting almost foot above ground, indicating the body, its earthly breadth). The canine takes off after birds and squirrels and leaves. It’s about ninety-nine degrees and sunny, though a breeze surges and a dark storm cloud threatens from the East. Tropical Storm Beryl is cycloning across Georgia.
I find a big oak tree and lie down in its shade, little sticks pricking my back—a small pain compared to my enduring hangover. A weird realization pushes through: I’ve spent most of my life horizontal. I have. I don’t like sitting up—erect necks and raised heads are burdensome, and I’m never sure quite what to do with my shoulders. We should do activities lying down as often as possible: movie viewing, reading, writing, bathing instead of showering, drinking, sleeping (sex perhaps the only exception). Shit: I’d make a damn good dead person! This thought soothes me. For the better half of my “adult” life I’ve anticipated my death on a daily if not hourly basis, a life-defining angst, one I am convinced will, strangely, be what kills me in the end. So this moment of total, like, “chillness” with death is a real delight, and I jut up from the hummock and shade in search of the canine.
Making my way across the cemetery, I notice a fleet of SUVs parked along an alley. Oldsters are angling this way and that, each with a bouquet of six-inch plastic American flags. A man holds a woman—her small jerking body—beside one of the larger monuments: a young soldier of WWII. Suddenly I feel very small, like a rodent-sized voyeur lurking about, feeling somehow entitled to my bite of this grief, so much so that I could lie here and brush it off: death—“I could do that.”
Right on cue, it starts to rain, though the sun still bounds across the sky from all directions—merciful evening light. “The Devil’s beating his wife with a frying pan,” they say down here during these sunny showers. The flag-stickers jog back to their SUVs, opening umbrellas and unfolding ponchos. They know the weather, know what’s coming. I stand there in the open in a little black cocktail dress and rain-speckled sunglasses, scanning for the canine. He comes bounding from the fence-line, chasing a squirrel to where it’s slithered up an oak. The canine is always befuddled by each squirrel’s ability to shimmy up to heaven, leaving him cock-headed and gravity stricken.
After twenty plus minutes of coaxing the canine back to the car with peanuts, I start the engine, blaring the AC, blaring NPR. The sunlit sky is still raining in horrific globs that sheathe my windshield. And out of nowhere I begin to cry. I feel it is necessary, now, to be dramatic. To die before one has the chance to cultivate an understanding of death, to die for some abstract concept bred from blind but mighty faith, to die on foreign land where they scoop you up from some hillside. And the sheer shame of just living to know this, to sit inside an air-conditioned car and listen to the soothing voices of public radio attempt to allay your futility, your guilt.
Shame exists to propel us from the easy cycle of self-absorption. We do a lot of damage—to ourselves and maybe others—but eventually that cyclone has to settle and dissolve, and the people must collect what is left of their lives and start over, and just keep. Fucking. Going.
Elizabeth Bohnhorst's poetry has appeared in The Pinch, Camroc Press Review, Word Riot, The Austin Poetry Anthology, The Dunes Review, and elsewhere. She has a terrible short-term memory and would love advice on how to remedy this.