Marble City Mourning
By Mariah Rigg
"The New Loss Is Not Like the Old Loss," 2022. Duraclear and archival pigment print on LED lightbox, 44 x 38 inches by Melanie Willhide. Courtesy the artist and Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles
Six nights before my friend Sam and I hike through Ijams Nature Center to Alvis Williams’s grave, Mama texts me about Hunter’s death. It is 9 p.m. on a Tuesday and I have just gotten home from the bar. I’m tipsy and working on my novel—inspired by the loss of my brother’s best friend, Micah. Annotations are spread across my bed.
It had rained, and because I sat outside at the bar to lessen my chances of COVID, I am naked, having stripped out of my wet clothes. I cry first, nestled into the hollow of my secondhand mattress. Hunter was my stepdad Wyatt’s oldest friend. He’d spent many evenings on our outdoor lanai after paddling races and simulator training with my pilot stepdad, and it was on these nights that I had borne witness to Hunter’s many transformations—from a bachelor to a newlywed to a father, from a divorcé to a happily married man once again. Hunter was like an uncle to me, and, throughout my monosyllabic childhood and shy teens, he was the only one among my stepdad’s friends who’d never failed to talk to me, to try and make me laugh.
I call Mama once my tears are spent. Beneath my damp body, the annotations have crumpled. A breeze from the open window beside my bed tickles up my back. On the phone, Mama recounts how Hunter had passed: he had a heart attack while crossing the Kaiwi Channel. One second he was paddling a one-man canoe, the next he was in the water. The people in the escort boat tried to pull him out, but, slippery as a fish, he kept falling back in. It took them forty-five minutes to get Hunter to the hospital. By then, he couldn’t speak. A machine had to breathe for him.
The doctor told Hunter’s wife he’d suffered a fatal traumatic brain injury and nothing could be done. Mama says Wyatt has flown to Maui to be with Hunter. That they have unplugged Hunter today. She says I should call my stepdad. But when I hang up, I can’t call. I don’t know what to say to Wyatt. And, selfishly, I cannot stand, in hearing more about Hunter, the thought that any day, one of my own parents could end up dead.
Sam is the first to show me Stanton Cemetery, and is the reason I even stumble upon the letter left by a descendant of one of the miners buried there. We go in April, at the height of everything’s bloom, with a plan to walk through Ijams Nature Center until we are hot enough to swim. Besides yoga and the occasional walk through North Knoxville, I have not exercised in months, hibernating in what, for me, has been the coldest winter. Sam tells me Knoxville does not compare to Chicago, where they lived for eight years, or South Bend, where they grew up, but I am from Hawai‘i, where anything below sixty-eight degrees warrants two layers and a jacket.
Dutch clover creeps in around the trail. It is seventy degrees, and I am in shorts and a tank top, a choice that would shock my twelve-year-old self. But the humidity adds at least five degrees, and besides, after seven years, I am finally beginning to acclimate to the continent. I pant up the soft slope of Tharp’s Trace. My eyes are on my feet, willing them to continue. When the trail flattens into a graveyard, I am too tired to notice. It is not until Sam says, look up, that I realize we are among the dead.
My family and I have suffered countless losses, grieved endlessly over long-distance calls and texts in the two and a half years I have not returned home because of COVID. I often wonder if it is possible for them to still know me, and more than that, if it is possible for them to still love me after thirty months apart.
Hunter and Wyatt grew up together on the beach in Kahala, next to a cemented-in river so small it does not show up on Google Maps. When I finally text Wyatt to ask how he’s doing, all he says is, It’s hard. In the twenty-three years I’ve known him, I have never seen him cry, not even when his own mother passed.
I wonder, after texting Wyatt, if my grief for Hunter is earned. If the tears I shed are for him or myself. Because Wyatt is right, it is hard. Hard, in a world of never-ending loss, to tell what it is that I mourn. To stop long enough to grieve a single person.
Sometimes I wish I could write a book about everyone I meet. A library of my life, more solid than the memories in my head. In Hunter’s book, I would write about the protea farm we stayed at for his first wedding on Maui, how I held the flower stamens of those blooms—soft and round, delicate as a drowned bee’s thorax—in my nine-year-old hands. I would write about the standup paddleboard relay he and Wyatt raced, suffering through the novice escorting of my brother and me to win their division. I would write about the first time Hunter visited after his daughter’s birth, his smile so wide it was froggy as he held her on the green couch of our lanai, laughing at my stepdad. I would write about the comfort of Hunter’s voice through the airplane’s headset I wore the first time Wyatt let me land his dad’s Cessna, how Hunter’s encouragement as the tower operator was the only way I was able to find the courage to push the throttle down. I would write about how he and Wyatt cheered as I bounced down the runway of Kahului Airport.
But even if I wrote down all the memories I have of Hunter, I am not sure it would be enough. I am not sure that, even if I compiled all the memories of everyone living and dead who knew him, I could reconstruct him.
The day after Hunter dies, Wyatt texts me again. We miss you. You are doing really good up in Tennessee getting your PhD. Everything is the same here and it will be when you are ready to come home. But how can it be the same when Micah, Hunter, my step-grandmother, and so many of the people who populated my childhood are dying or dead? How can I call Hawai‘i my home when I have not swum its waters or hiked its hills in over two years, when it, and I, have changed so much in my absence?
Online, all the pictures of Stanton Cemetery are from autumn—kudzu reaching up naked trunks, five-starred maple leaves carpeting the frosted grass in red. But on the afternoon I go with Sam, daffodils melt like butter over sun-warmed graves. White aster waves in the wind.
What a beautiful place to rest, I say.
And sad, Sam adds.
Behind us, the hill falls to Mead’s Quarry, the lake a sliver of black through the trees. From the mid-1800s through the Great Depression, the quarry’s marble was used to build all across the U.S. from the National Gallery to Grand Central Station—and during that time, it was the main source of jobs in eastern Tennessee. Because of this, Knoxville was named Marble City. After the Depression, the quarry switched to gravel and limestone, and by 1978 it was no longer a mine but an illegal dump. As the years passed, the quarry flooded, until it became a place for the residents of Knoxville to swim.
Sam leads me past a hundred-year-old hand-carved headstone marking a baby’s grave, past the scalloped headstones of William and Martha Stanton, after whom the graveyard was named, to a marker at the edge of the cemetery’s plot. The old marble of the marker is spotted with moss that grows like tufts of hair from a chest and streaked by the rain of many seasons. A rust-chewed silver frame leans against the headstone, the letter inside it curled and yellowed, the words half-stolen by Southern humidity. Alvis Newton Williams, the letter begins. I kneel to read the faded print written by Linda Williamson, Alvis’s great-granddaughter, and as she recounts the story of his death, I wonder how Alvis lived. I think of Hunter’s life and wonder who might one day remember it.
Later, when I look up Alvis Newton Williams online, when I search for him in the University of Tennessee library archives and ask the people at the Ijams’s front desk, all I will find is what I already know: the location of his grave. Like so many others, Alvis is remembered not by his life, but by his death.
The death of Alvis was like folklore to me when I was growing up. I had heard the stories of my great-grandmother Susie Annie Williams having a dream where she saw her husband in a casket without his head, and how she begged him not to go to work, but he went anyway, to prove to her it was only a dream. She had reason to worry because he worked at Mead’s Quarry cutting marble. I know it didn’t happen the next day, but some time, at a later date, one of the saws cut loose and Alvis was decapitated.
After my grandmother died in 2009, I found the newspaper clipping of his accidental death in the bottom of a chest in her room. The newspaper said he had worked there for 18 years, and he was a sawyer. They also listed his name wrong, calling him “Albert Williams.” They didn’t mention the decapitation.
My grandmother, Nora Williams, was only 10 years old when this happened and her family was still grieving the loss of her 17-year-old brother Charlie. What a blow that only 3 months later, on New Year’s Eve, her father, who she loved dearly, died at the young age of 37. Not only was the family bereft, but they were also plunged into the worst poverty. They had always been poor, but they had a roof over their heads and food on the table. Life would become much more difficult for the Williams family.
I write these narratives about Alvis and his son Charlie because I want people to know that they were real, they were loved, and they were dearly missed.
After we read Linda Williamson’s letter, I tell Sam of Hunter, and then of Micah, who died only last year. We sit on the cemetery bench and imagine what it was like to live in Knoxville a hundred years ago, when they were still mining marble and the hills were blasted bare. But soon the bugs come, so I follow Sam out of the clearing and back into the trees, where we descend through ash and gingko, pass lookouts and spring-fed falls, until we get to the discontinued railroad.
I followed these tracks for miles once, Sam tells me. All they led to was a suburb.
I wonder if Marble City would feel like home to Alvis without the mining and the marble. I wonder if, knowing how he died, he would even grieve any of it. And while, for the most part, I can catalog the changes to Hawai‘i in my two-and-a-half-year absence, there is a chance that Alvis might not recognize his home now, just as the people who live in Knoxville do not remember him.
When Sam and I walk the rails, we treat them like balance beams, our feet sliding down the tracks.
We don’t dig graves where I’m from. Our cemetery is the ocean. Instead of under headstones, my family rests in the surf spots of O‘ahu’s South Shore. I cannot count the number of times I have paddled out to spread ashes, the soot of a life sticking to my fingers as I reach into a canvas bag. I cannot count the number of plumerias, pua kenikeni, pikakes, orchids I have picked from my mother’s garden only to throw them into the ocean, the blossoms swirling with ashes, washing up on the sand where they are taken home by tourists. And though there is no possible way that those I love stay in the places they are scattered, there is a comfort in the act of paddling out to visit them, a sense of resonance in the fact that their final resting place is the reef that circles the island, protecting O‘ahu from tsunamis and storms.
Hunter’s family schedules his paddle-out for the end of May, a day I cannot make. His ashes are not spread at the surf spots in which he grew up—Tongg’s or Old Man’s, where my own family swims—but he is instead laid to rest in the water outside of Ukumehame Beach Park on Maui, a place he grew to love as a husband and father. On the day of Hunter’s paddle-out, I google his name from a sunny deck in Tennessee and find a picture of him and Wyatt—twelve years old and at a six-man regatta, paddles in hand. Glare illuminates the specks of dust on my dirty laptop screen and I wonder, looking at the picture, if sixteen-year-old Hunter would have lived his life any differently if he knew how he would die. I wonder, if fifty-one-year-old Hunter could choose a single day from his life, which one he would choose to live again.
Two days later, Wyatt texts me pictures. Hunter’s send off, he says. It was really good. Love you. I scroll through the pictures until I get to an aerial shot. Hundreds of colorful boats and boards gather in a circle, the people who ride them so small I cannot tell them apart. To the left, a jet ski speeds, its wake marring the aqua of the Pacific. I can almost hear the whine of its engine buzz, can almost taste the salt of its spray. When I zoom in, the ocean is so clear that I can see the reef below.
I have never lived farther from the Pacific than I do now. Sometimes, the distance suffocates me, and it is on these days that I need most to swim. Though the fresh water of the quarry is calmer than the ocean I grew up in, it is enough, even on cold days when all I can do is dip a finger, to soften the rock of longing that hardens in my chest. Because of this, I am grateful for the quarry, grateful for friends like Sam who suffer my driving for the fifteen minutes it takes to cross the river to South Knox. On the weeks I shut myself in my apartment, Sam is the one who texts me, how is your heart? The one who gets me back into the world, whether that’s to the quarry or to the grocery store or simply to class. I would not have survived the first year of my PhD studies without our long walks and conversations, without our swims and late-night noodles.
Things happen in cycles, Sam says, as we talk about Hunter and Micah.
Last semester, our fiction professor told us things happen in threes. I wonder who I will lose next, or if I have already lost them. I wonder who Nora and Susie lost, or if—as it seems to be in a world infected by capitalism and mass shootings and an unending pandemic—their losses, like ours, were constant. Did they have any time to grieve Alvis or other family members, or were they thrust into the immediate struggle of keeping themselves housed and fed? Were they forced to survive instead of feel? To push their grief aside so they might live?
In the film class I take with Sam, we watch a selection of home movies made by Walther Barth, a German doctor and skilled amateur cameraman. Shot in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the movies are from his time in Europe, pre-World War II, and after, when he moved to America. But we do not watch Barth for this, nor for the shots he got in Berlin during the rise of fascism, but because his home movies include the oldest known footage of southeastern Tennessee. In his hours and hours of film, there are a few shots of Barth flying above the Tennessee River and driving through the Smoky Mountains.
The Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound received a seventy-thousand-dollar grant to restore the footage of Barth’s life, and I can’t help but think about how else the money could’ve been used: to tell the stories of locals from the area like Alvis, or better yet, to change the stories of those who live now, people I see every day evicted from their homes below bridges and in parks. I will never accept how some people’s stories are told and others erased, why, in the library of history, those like Walther Barth are remembered, while others like Alvis and Hunter, or even Sam and me, are slated to be forgotten. Every day I write, I write to change this, though I know that, alone at least, I cannot.
Alvis’s pick rises. Hunter’s paddle falls. How far must I be from my grief to write it? Sam and I stand at the edge of the main dock. Before us, children splash in the quarry, disrupting the sheen of oil that sits atop the water—runoff from the road and hundreds of sunscreened bodies. When Alvis died, there was no way he could have known that the marble he mined would one day be under water. That the mine where he spent his days would one day be where the people of Knoxville swim.
Jump on three? I ask.
Sam clutches their stomach. It looks cold, they say.
I’ll go first then, I say, and before they can agree, I dive in.
The top layer is lukewarm, but below that it is freezing. When I open my eyes all I see are a few spinning leaves and silt all the way to the bottom, wherever that is. This is what grief is to me: jumping in a lake without knowing if it is warm or cold, how far it is to the bottom, or if anyone will follow you in. I surface and turn to Sam, who stands ten feet from me on the rocking dock, waiting for my verdict.
It’s warmer than I thought it would be, I tell them.
Sam jumps in, and when they surface, they are wide-eyed. It’s colder than I expected, they say.
Maybe this is what grief is like, too: never knowing how it will hit you, only certain that, like the loss that bears it, the grief will remain ever-close, and constant. Sam and I swim until we can’t feel our toes, until our fingertips have pruned beyond recognition.