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nonfiction



by Davis McCombs



Limited Run


 

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine

–John Keats

 

 

Twenty years ago this January, my family and I moved from Kentucky to the far northwest corner of Arkansas, near the southern and western edge of the Ozark Mountains. In those two decades, nearly all of which I’ve worked as director of the creative writing program at the university here, we have accumulated a small cluster of the local dead—people who have passed in and out of our lives, and of this world, in the time we’ve lived in Fayetteville. A few of them sleep forever up the steep hill and among the stones of Evergreen Cemetery.

 

Established in the 1840s, the cemetery covers a little over ten acres on a slope just south of Dickson Street. Many of our town’s most noteworthy citizens are buried there. And just across from the cemetery’s southern entrance sits Geraldi’s. On weekend evenings it can seem as if everyone in Fayetteville loves the little restaurant as much as we do. The atmosphere is cozy, unpretentious, and the food is really good, especially when Andy, the owner, is present.

 

Back when our kids were living at home, and so much of our schedule revolved around their work in school and local theater, we made a family tradition of going out to dinner at Geraldi’s after whatever show they were working on at a given time closed. Months of running lines, building sets, finding props, fitting costumes, and designing lights almost always culminated in a final Sunday matinee performance. I don’t know if it was the ephemeral nature of any staged production or if it was the restaurant’s location across the street from Evergreen—or perhaps some peculiar combination of the two—but there was always something sweetly melancholy about those Sunday evening meals.

 

In addition to its proximity to the cemetery, Geraldi’s is situated near the source of Tanglewood Branch, which bubbles up in a little rock-edged pool across from the parking lot. From there, the stream clatters away, plunging below the railroad tracks and through an underground sluiceway to where it eventually joins Spout Spring Branch on the western edge of Walker Park.

 

One cold Sunday evening several years ago, the four of us were sitting at our favorite table. Carolyn and I were drinking wine before our dinner arrived, and I happened to look up as someone was opening the front door of the restaurant. For just a second, an instant so fleeting as to be almost nonexistent, I mistakenly thought that the person entering was someone who will never again be coming to Geraldi’s. It was eerie, but the moment quickly vanished. Once it happened, though—and for reasons that remain mysterious to me—something similar kept happening on those evenings, with different people, and on different nights. Just glimpses, flashes, resemblances: someone laughing at another table, or wading across the reflected glare of the restaurant’s large front windows. I wouldn’t say that this was a frequent or even a regular occurrence, but it happened often enough to make me feel that, in a strange way, I was being visited by ghosts. These apparitions, if indeed that’s what they were, flickered through the slimmest aperture between our world and theirs, attached themselves for an infinitesimal instant to the living, and then melted away.

 

Several of these local spirits were, like us, writers. These were people who, in a way I understand intimately, spent great portions of their lives scrambling to leave some trace of their essential selves behind after death—not an afterlife or a ghosthood exactly, but some residual energy that might linger like the fragrant echo of the flowers my mother once kept pressed between the pages of a thick dictionary.

 

What I think I know of the dead (most of them, anyway) is that if they still can want, what they want is to be here. Back when I was still on social media, I started noticing that each year around New Year’s Eve—surely one of the most melancholy nights that exists—I’d see people posting sentiments such as “Goodbye 2010. And good riddance!” or “Four more hours of 2012, thank god!” I could guess at, and perhaps understand, what they meant, of course, but then I also very quickly thought, “Oh, but there are many worse years coming. For all of us.”

 

I don’t mean to be grim. The melancholy I felt on those evenings at Geraldi’s was always tangled up with something—and here I must confess this—not entirely unlike pleasure. And so I’d order another glass of Chianti, and I would think how very sweet and precious it is to walk into the bustle and clink of Geraldi’s on a winter evening, to sip wine and share a meal and laughter, even while the stage set is being heaved into a dumpster outside the theatre’s loading dock, and while a coal red sunset billows and flares over that hill of cold and leaning stones.

 

a sleeve of water

rippling over rippled slate—

a streetlamp flickers

 


 

Davis McCombs is the author of three books of poetry: Ultima Thule (Yale), Dismal Rock (Tupelo), and lore (University of Utah). He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Oxford American, among many other publications.

 

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