To Dust

by Dean Graham

Editor's note: the pieces in our Interregnum 2016 series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XII at The King's College. The following piece placed first. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Churchill.

 

“cursed is the ground because of you;

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

—Genesis 3:17-19

I.

Tucked among the rolling hills and tree groves of Greenwood Cemetery—the 478 acre oasis for both the dead and the living hidden in the heart of Brooklyn—a cobblestone path runs to the top of an unassuming knoll. The stones are old and worn and in the fall clumps of brown leaves gather along the edges of the path. As the path wanders across an uneven asphalt road and begins to make its way up the hill, another shape appears scattered among the pointed edges of the leaves. First, it is the dull red of a single apple, closer in size to a young tomato. As the path continues to climb, the apples strewn along the ground become increasingly frequent.

After a minute or so, the path cuts sideways across the hill and the crest comes into view. At the top of the hill stands a large, ornate grave marker, taller than a man, with the three points of a triangle and names inscribed on its three concave sides. Small, plain gravestones sit in imperfect rows all around it. Draped over everything are the long, ancient branches of a single apple tree. Its branches, exhausted from carrying the weight of a century, droop down and touch the ground behind the monument. On a crisp fall day, crooked shadows mix with the weakening sunlight in a dance that is alive yet wary, resigned to the coming winter. The air is full of the sweet scent of ripening apples. The ground is covered with the dull brown of dying leaves.

 

II.

My parent’s house in North Carolina—the house I grew up in—was designed to imitate a farmhouse, even though it is in the middle of a neighborhood and they have a city address. It is a large house, covered in stone and white wooden siding. A narrow porch wraps around the front of the house and along one side, until it connects with the screen porch in the back. The side of the porch looks out over a small lake. The lake is always a muddy brown color, but it is pleasant to look at. A set of wooden stairs descends from the porch and points toward the lake. When I was in high school, I would sit at the top of these stairs, lean back against one of the columns supporting the roof above me, and read through the evening.

One evening when I was a junior in high school, my mother came out on the porch and asked what I was reading. I don’t remember the book, but it would have been either a classic novel or a theological book recommended by a teacher from my small Christian high school. Either way, it wasn’t schoolwork. I spent very little time worrying about school then, and I think my mother knew that.

“Are you done with your homework?”

“Enough of it. I’ll do some more in the morning when I get to school.”

For years, I had enjoyed the nonchalance of a student who gets very good grades and puts in very little effort, partly because I didn’t have to and partly because I didn’t see the point. I wasn’t ignoring my homework for the sake of playing video games or sleeping in. I spent free time sitting on the porch, reading Fitzgerald and Nietzsche and Calvin. I thought this was the proper way to learn: quietly, intently, focused on the learning itself and not the sort of the application-building that my school guidance counselors were starting to talk about.

But recently, the idea of a future that was somehow at stake had begun to take root in the back of my mind. Being captain of my school’s swim team was more than just a fun afterschool activity or a futile attempt to get girls’ attention by breaking records. It was a line item for my resume. Leading a Bible study for other students on Friday morning before school was about studying God’s word, but it was also great leadership experience. When I chose to read Paulo Coelho on a Thursday evening instead of doing calculus problems, was I exchanging a good college, and a good job after that, for a few pleasant evenings on the porch?

I explained all this to my mother. I told her how I wasn’t that worried about my grades or about going to a great college, even though I could probably get into one. One of my teachers that year, Mr. Cohen, had worked hard trying to help his students understand that satisfaction and self-worth shouldn’t have anything to do with your grades, the college you go to, or how much money you make afterward. Mr. Cohen had received a full scholarship to the University of Florida. When they found out, his parents bought him a brand-new Mustang. He gave it back.

I don’t know what my mother thought as I explained all this too her. I’m sure I was telling her nothing she didn’t already know. If she worried about my future, she didn’t show it. She told me I was right, that the college I went to would not define me. That I didn’t need to worry about the future, things would work out great. She probably also told me not to neglect my homework too much. Looking back, I wonder if she was just glad to see me in a peaceful state of mind.

 

III.

The breath caught in my throat as I listened to the phone ring. I stared at the string of numbers as they lit up across my screen. I closed my eyes, opened them again, reached for the iPhone on the desk in front of me. Hello?

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I had gotten permission to use my professor’s office for a phone interview for an internship the coming summer. It was a successful, exciting startup company, and having recently transferred to my college’s business program, I knew this internship was my chance to prove myself. I had researched the company thoroughly. I had done a mock interview with a professor. I had been confident. Relaxed. Ready. Now I could barely release the simple hello lodged in my throat.

My interviewer was a graduate of my college, which is how I had gotten the opportunity in the first place. This was the first time we had interacted outside of email, and while she was polite and maybe even friendly, there was no warmth in her voice. Maybe that’s why I choked. The first question was barely a question at all: Why don’t you walk me through your resume? Shit, why didn’t I have a copy of my resume in front of me? Why was I talking so fast? Why was I talking so much? After what felt like ten minutes it occurred to me that maybe she wanted the chance to speak again. Do you have any questions about any of that? I asked. Yes, I do. Her voice was cold.

A few minutes later, we exchanged awkward goodbyes and she hung up the phone. I knew I had blown it. I could write a good cover letter, and I had done great interviews in the past for small time writing or editing internships. But this was for a real job, a respectable job, and I was out of my league. My mock interview that morning, the one I had done so well in, that had made me feel so ready, was part of an exercise in my Business Communications class. My classmates had been excited when the professor mentioned that my mock interview wasn’t just theoretical; it was practice for a real interview that very afternoon. As I walked down the hall past empty classrooms and tried to think about something else, I turned a corner and walked by one of those classmates.

“How did the interview go?” he asked, his voice full of optimism. I froze. Should I admit how embarrassed I was, how badly I had messed up this opportunity? If I invited him in to see my failure, would he have words of encouragement, of advice?

“It went fine,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I hear back from them.”

 

IV.

“It’s not about Christianity. It’s about image.”

My friend leaned forward as he spoke. We were sitting at a table by the bar at the Chip Shop, a small pub in Cobble Hill that I frequented for their fish and chips and rotating assortment of British and Irish beer. I had just finished telling him about a story I was writing for a school competition. A memory had recently resurfaced in my mind, I had explained, of myself in high school, sitting on my porch and telling my mom that I wasn’t worried about college or my future. This had been just a few months before I heard about the college I would eventually attend, enthralled by its call to excellence and talk of “Godly ambition.” That night on the porch had been a moment of peace and clarity, and I told my friend I wondered how I could get that back.

My friend had done everything right. He was kind and well liked. He had aced his classes in college and graduated a semester early. Now he was working a good job in New York City. He was also suffering from depression and existential crisis, the side-effects of realizing that he had spent years of his life striving for something that ended up being profoundly unsatisfying. As we sat and reflected on the nature of our small Christian college, where I was still a student, I explained to him how another friend, someone I considered myself close too, had begun avoiding me at school. How I had confronted her to ask what was wrong and she had told me, with an avoidance of specifics that was almost impressive, that she had issues with my reputation. What did I do? I had asked. Her response: I don’t know. I didn’t ask.

I looked across the table at my friend. He was wearing a sleek sports coat and slacks that fit perfectly. He wasn’t even coming from work; he had spent the evening alone at the Whitney. I was wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans, a worn hat covering my long, unruly hair. I had spent my afternoon watching Netflix and writing stories, recovering from a late night. By most accounts, I should have been learning from him, asking for advice, trying to emulate the success he had achieved. But here I was, taking a large sip of Kilkenny Cream Ale as I listened to him talk about crossroads, uncertainty, what his life was and what he thought it should be. I wondered how we could both be so lost.

 

V.

Deep into Greenwood Cemetery, past the apple tree, there is another, much larger hill. Groves of tall trees climb the hill on every side. The crest is narrow but long, stretching out across the center of the cemetery. I climbed this hill with Andrew on a Saturday afternoon. We had met that morning at a small coffee shop in Windsor Terrace. I forgot to bring cash, so Andrew paid for my coffee. As we sat at the narrow bar along the back of the coffee shop, Andrew told me he had left his job as an accountant to take an internship at a small production company in Hoboken, New Jersey. He had recently been made a full-time employee at the accounting firm, complete with healthcare benefits and his first trip to the dentist in years. Now he would be working the same sort of internship I might find as a college student. We sat at the bar and talked about books, about movies, about the web series he would be working on at his new job. We finished our coffee, and as we walked out into the November sun and turned our feet toward Greenwood Cemetery, we were happy.

At one end of the hill, there sits a large mausoleum from the early 1900s. Heavy stone walls climb toward an ornate green roof fifteen feet off the ground. Rows of small gravestones stretch out from the base toward the trees on every side. Above the stone entrance, something is inscribed in large Greek letters. It was the most impressive grave marker that Andrew and I had come across in our many hours walking the cemetery. After some searching, we found the name of the inhabitant inscribed on the stone. We searched the name on our smartphones and learned that this man had been intelligent, had worked hard, made large amounts of money, and had great influence in New York City. I would tell you his name, but six months later, I can’t remember who he was. Neither can Andrew.


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.