The People by the Side of the Road

Have you ever had a moment of inexplicable sorrow? Have ever you visited a place, then left, but it refused to leave you?  

Though I’ve lived in Atlanta for nearly 30 years, the northwest quadrant of the city is mostly foreign to me. It is mostly residential, and I know no one who lives there. For the sake of a new experience, to get to a camera store just outside the northwest city limits, I decided to drive through that unexplored corner of the city.  

The most direct route was past Georgia Tech and up Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. The initial segment of the parkway, closest to downtown, is a reviving industrial area of old warehouses and railroad tracks, along with an assortment of repair shops, second-hand stores, and such. Slowly the businesses give way to half-century old or more, one-story homes, some nice, some not. Further on arises a jumble of overgrown lots and abandoned buildings, and oddly enough, fairly new or new apartment complexes. Then it becomes quiet, few cars, fewer people, and a brief area of bucolic stillness — a wall of trees on either side completely draped in kudzu—that were it not for its brevity, would blot out the city-ness that came before. 

Going around a slight bend, one emerges into a cleared area of flatness where the wall of trees and kudzu steps back a few hundred feet up and down a slope on either side. Here, a sign of civilization reappears in the form of a moderately sized, nondescript brick building. On seeing the building, I puzzled over why a business would possibly locate in such an obscure place–until I saw the gravestones. 

They were on a gently sloping hillside to the left. And my first thought was, “Oh, it’s a cemetery.” But, immediately, I became uneasy for no apparent reason. Seconds later, I realized the graves that seemed far enough away actually came all the way down to within a few feet of the narrow sidewalk that separated them from the street. Then it struck me—there was no fence! The graves were so close to the sidewalk that one could stumble onto them if momentarily distracted. At this point, curious and disquieted, I slowed down and stared. In the early spring stillness, there were no cars save mine in any direction and few sounds other than those of the breeze and birds seeking partners. Quickly, my curiosity was replaced by mild indignation. It seemed somehow disrespectful that those laid to rest might be so easily disturbed by an inadvertent stumble or an errant car. But, I was on my way elsewhere, and this had to remain a curiosity to relate over dinner.

As I slowly picked up speed, a small ledge appeared to my right, slightly behind a thicket of brush and trees that initially had seemed to be a remnant of an old cement wall. It was barely six feet, maybe fewer, from the car with perhaps three feet of dirt separating the ledge from the asphalt.

Then, I saw the people by the side of the road. 

The people by the side of the road

On clearing the thicket, the old wall became a tier of graves placed close enough to the road to invoke a sense that the people resting there could observe those going by. To their right, being claimed by weeds and underbrush, was a mound of stuffed animals, plastic flowers and an occasional cross—a collection left by those grieving, now itself aggrieved by cans, wrappers, and cigarette packs. Here I lingered, overwhelmed with sorrow.

In the foreground, tokens of affection left by mourners

No cars passed, none could even be heard in the distance. The stillness deepened, and I became aware of my sorrow, and on becoming aware of it, I tried to assign its cause. Those buried here died long before I was born. There were no ties. It wasn’t because of death. I have sat at bedsides and watched people part–with members of my family as well as others as they became quiet. That sorrow made sense; this, none at all.  

Judging by appearances, the people who rest there have long faded from memory as have those who were expected to remember them. Perhaps, unwillingly, unintentionally, I have been drawn to pen a lament on behalf of myself and others who, one day, shall be lost to the bustle and involvement of the present times–whenever those present times might be. On realizing I had stopped in the middle of the road, lost in thought, I pressed on the gas. For the next week, I was haunted by my visit with the people by the side of the road. I told everyone who would listen. After a few days, I realized I had to go back. I could not stop thinking about that place—the stillness—the way the forest was slowly reclaiming its territory, erasing evidence of existence. So, I went back. 

This time I parked near an old store that maybe once was a filling station, standing a few hundred yards away from the tier of graves. The pumps seemed not to have worked for years. They sat alone in equal stillness with no customers and signs for products from 50 years ago. I imagined the owner to be someone who, save the store, had nowhere else to be, nothing remaining to do. 

View walking back to tier of graves from the old store.

Walking back to the tier, I stopped and read the faded sign — “Hollywood Cemetery.” Standing there, I realized that passing by in my car had been like seeing it on TV–real but in a disconnected way that one can walk away from to get a snack. Stopping by in my car was more a “passing through” than a visit; in the same way that one, driving through a town without stopping might rightly say, he’s been there, yet never got out of the car. I needed to visit, to take in the reality. The sorrow returned.

Bus stop

After a little while, I walked up to the intersection where Hightower Road joins Hollywood and noticed a bus stop sign in the grass, only a few feet from several graves. And I pondered how this cemetery was once so woven into daily life. 

Before returning, I had found what information I could and discovered that a streetcar line once linked the cemetery to the city. At that time, the closeness made sense. Loved ones could easily visit those they missed. But that time has long passed, and now nearness to oblivious traffic is an affront to its sacredness. No partition separates those to be mourned from those reading a newspaper, eating a sandwich, or having a smoke—no barrier denotes what should be respected. 

Walking back to my car, I noticed the cemetery engulfed the entire intersection on all sides for acres, and many graves had disappeared into a disinterested overgrowth of saplings and kudzu. The people were becoming lost, their homes no longer recognizable, passing from remembrance. In the stillness, pondering, going back to my car, I took a short cut through some grass near the old store and nearly stepped on a grave.  

The sorrow left after that visit—a proper one. Whatever caused it, ended it as well. I feel no need to go back again. It does cross my mind from time to time, but then I try to think of something else–usually successfully. Next time I head to the camera store, it will be I-75 to the Perimeter; I will not go back that way again. I visited the people by the side of the road—it’s someone else’s turn. 

— A cemetery is a physical lament born of the certainty of an outcome —

7 Comments

  1. I’ve sometimes thought that when I pass, those loved ones remaining will remember me until they pass, and then I will cease to be even a memory. Our light is a temporary one, hard as that is to accept. Your post awakens and honors the memory of those who no longer have folks to remember them. Beautiful.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your comment! It was a very sobering experience for me, and one that has lingered.

  2. Poignant and with a sense of melancholy, but hauntingly beautiful and though-provoking.

  3. Just beautiful, very poignant. I didn’t have to see the images to visualize it; the words did it all!

  4. Very, interesting. It makes me wonder who will be next to visit. What other stories are hoping to be told. Indeed they have one to carry on their memory.

    1. Beautiful, Beautiful, thought provoking sometimes we don’t have answers to life’s unexpected surprises but, then we are left with wonder whys. Wonder why I had to see this is there a message here for me? Meanwhile I will pay my respects to those still honored and remembered by the ones who pass by just like me… wonderful words of reflection.

  5. Well versed story. Grabs the attention of the reader. A “short story” indeed. A great piece of literature.

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