There didn’t use to be graves on Howard.
Howard Road, it’s the only connection between my house out on the lake and anything close to civilization. A ribbon of black asphalt underneath cobalt Texas sky, it used to snake through the hills without care.
Then one night, when I was driving home on Howard, I was stopped.
Twilight was falling just then, I remember. It had been a long day of friends and wakeboards and surfboards and Arizona iced tea. The salt of the lake was still in my hair and the taste of the sun on my lips as the sunset sank dying into the lake’s purple lap like a picture straight out of The Lion King.
But I had to come to a stop on the road. Lights were glittering in my eyes in the dusk, red and white and blue. The kind nobody wants to see. Ambulance lights. Police car lights. Fire truck lights. And flares lay flickering across my path. Must’ve been one heck of a crash.
There’d be no taking Howard home tonight.
Had to take Old Italy ’round instead.
A day or so later, the crosses showed up. Simple white wooden crosses nailed up to a chain-link fence by the roadside—a little white scar on Howard’s shoulder. I barely noticed. Wondered for a half a second why I’d never seen them before, then forgot about them.
I drove by them every day. I should have known there was a reason there were fresh pink flowers always carefully placed underneath.
I just never stopped to think.
Weeks passed, and the silent crosses faded into the rest of the landscape cradling Howard. I ceased to notice them at all, though I passed them every day. I passed them to go to work, to church, to the bank, to the movies, but I didn’t see them anymore.
Then one afternoon, there was a man standing on the side of Howard.
A cowboy if ever I’d seen one, he stood with his bare head low, the back of his neck deep red and beaten hard with a lifetime of honest outdoor work. His arms were strong, his hands thick and hard where they hung at his sides. Square-toed boots poked out from beneath his sun-faded Wranglers.
I saw him as I drove by, saw him standing there with the gangling sturdy stance of a true Texas man, and I wondered. What was he doing, this strong man in his prime, standing by the side of Howard with his head bowed?
He should have been playing an old acoustic guitar or barbecuing brisket or drinking sweet tea on a back porch somewhere. Maybe horseback riding with a pretty Texas girl with cobalt eyes just like the sky, or making plans to go to the Rangers game tonight.
So what was he doing standing there looking down at those white wooden crosses?
Then all at once, I knew. I knew what he was doing.
The crosses were grave-markers, I realized with a tightening throat. Grave markers that had shown up since that night I’d had to take Old Italy around. I remembered that night, remember how it felt to be driving home, and it hurt to remember, because I realized that I had been slightly inconvenienced while this man had had his heart gutted out.
Whom had he lost? Mother? Sister? Daughter? The pretty Texas girl with the cobalt eyes?
And here he was, coming back to say goodbye again, bringing new pink flowers, standing over the graves to protect them because he could no longer protect those who’d been laid in them. He was grieving.
For one sacred broken moment, I was the only guest at a mute funeral for people I didn’t know. For an instant, as I drove by without stopping or slowing down, that stranger and I, we grieved together.
Because there didn’t use to be graves on Howard Road. But now there are.