A Long Day at the End of the World: A Story of Desecration and Revelation in the Deep South by Brent Hendricks is a memoir by a man whose father's remains were discovered during the scandal at the Tri-State Crematory in 2002 (available March 12, 2013).
In February 2002, hundreds of abandoned and decayed bodies were discovered at the Tri-State Crematory in rural Georgia, making it the largest mass desecration in modern American history. The perpetrator—a well-respected family man and a former hometown football star—had managed to conceal the horror for five years. Among the bodies found at the Tri-State Crematory was that of Brent Hendricks’s father. To quell the psychic disturbance surrounding the desecration, Hendricks embarked on a pilgrimage to the crematory site in Georgia.
This is a small book with a large impact. There's not a lot of plot—in fact, the really major plot point is one readers probably already know quite a bit about, given the amount of press the Tri-State Crematory scandal generated.
Brent Hendricks is a poet, and the language is what strikes one most about this book. Yes, the story is a strange and tragic one, but Hendricks tells his tale with a poet's voice, right from the start:
Because a picture is a sort of dream, the big moon circles the whirling earth that follows our little burning star, and my father hasn’t entered the third state. He’s not stretched out here in the backwoods of nowhere, becoming the ground. All the stars are flying away, the universe emptying out, my father emptied by the moon’s glare until he’s all shadow and light, beautiful almost, so overexposed he could be a young man in a photograph.
Light-seconds above, orbiting Hubble aims its lens—always backward into the night that was. Clicks a portrait of the artist as a young bomb.
We measure the future by measuring the past.
So where did he go? Where did the light go that was his body, the blood that cycled his veins, the too-bright picture of him with his sweetheart (my mother in her saddle oxfords and he in his jeans), their white shirts fused into the stone of an Oklahoma high school? Six years later he’d be flying out of a SAC base in Topeka, up to the North Pole and back, heavy with a single bomb.
This is our introduction to Hendricks's musings on his father's life and death, a sort of circle he imagines and re-imagines as he crosses the south.
And make no mistake, this book is southern through and through. In particular, it is about the disturbances that mark the history and the land, and leave their marks on the present. Those disturbances occur in relationships, yes, as they did in Hendricks's own family, but they also occur on the land itself:
There are flowers that grow mostly in disturbed areas. In the middle of May, when I turned onto University Avenue in Tuscaloosa, I was thinking about those flowers. Passionflower and mistflower. Morning glory and fleabane. A copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southeastern States, which I’d spent some time with the previous evening, pressed against my father’s burial flag on the front seat. I was thinking about those flowers, and the idea of those flowers, as I rode through the old downtown.
To be honest, the phrase “disturbed areas” had always bothered me in my occasional searches regarding plant habitat—I really didn’t know what it meant—and yet last night that ambiguity seemed suddenly strange, almost ominous. I could easily imagine the other landscapes offered by the field guide: “moist pinelands,” “meadows,” “thickets,” even the more poetic “rich woods.” And I could see the “ditches” and “roadsides” that some species favored. But the phrase “disturbed areas” was so abstract. If it didn’t include marred ground such as “ditches”— if it meant something more—then I could envision only horribly dug-up places, unearthed and scarred.
I was considering this phrase, then, as I drove past the rubble of what was until recently the home of, respectively, Norris Radiator, Auto Trim & Tire, and the Firestone Tire and Service Center. I passed the old post office—set for destruction next—and gazed down Sixth Street, where soon the Diamond Theater would disappear forever, along with KSV restaurant (a soul-food buffet that doubled as the Orchid nightclub), and the longtime Tuscaloosa News Building. City planners had also scheduled demolition for various other businesses—two shoe-repair shops, a barbershop, a pool hall, a paint store, an antiques shop, and several furniture stores. Maybe the place would be better off in the end. I didn’t know—it was okay the way it was. Yet there were no flowers springing from these ruins; this was not a disturbed area in the strict sense of the phrase.
On the other hand, I knew of at least one place that had to be a disturbed area, if that meant a natural location generally torn up by backhoe, a place where the earth was moved from here to there, trenches dug and the ground cleaved. Black-eyed Susan, Venus’s looking glass, Queen Anne’s lace, Carolina cranesbill, peppergrass, chickweed, fleabane, southern dewberry, blue toadflax, Asiatic dayflower, painted leaf, kudzu, poison ivy, prickly sow thistle, horrible thistle—at least some of those flowers must have flourished at the Tri- State Crematory, blooming among the dead.
Hendricks is traveling with the flag from his father's coffin because his father was originally buried, before his mother's claustrophobic fear of burial and worms caused her to dig him up and send him to Tri-State for cremation. These peculiarities he glosses over; they are merely part of life, the life of families everywhere. That glossing over, of course, that matter-of-factness, makes the peculiarity stand out more to readers.
If you're looking for a sort of quiet, morbid beauty, this book is for you. It won't take you too long to read, but you should go slowly and savor. Stop, as it were, and smell the Morning Glory.
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Laura K. Curtis lives in Westchester, N.Y., with her husband and two madcap Irish Terriers who’ve taught her how easily love can co-exist with the desire to kill. She blogs at Women of Mystery and maintains a website at laurakcurtis.com. She can also be found on Twitter and poking her nose into all sorts of trouble in various spots around the web.
Read all posts by Laura K. Curtis on Criminal Element.