All the Beautiful Dead (Along the Side of the Road)
This happened ten years ago, back when I was living in Des
Moines. My marriage had ended and my ex-husband had taken
off to the west coast with his new love. After he left, I quit my
job at Olive Garden, put everything in storage, rode my bicycle
to Dubuque. My sister lived in Dubuque with her two girls, Liz
and Dar. I needed to see them. But I needed to get there slow,
wrap my head around what had happened.
Being so close to the surface of the road, I began to notice all
the dead animals along the shoulder. It was shocking how many
there were. You never notice the bodies when you blow down
the road at fifty or sixty miles an hour. Sometimes I would stop,
crouch next to them—hummingbirds, possums, cats, turtles. I
still don’t know why—to let them know that someone saw them,
acknowledged that they were part of the world, that they would
On Highway 151, just outside Marshalltown, on an empty stretch
of road sandwiched by cornfields, I came on a live great blue
heron, standing on the road’s shoulder, right next to a blue bird’s
stiff body. The heron didn’t move for a good fifteen minutes, just
stared and stared into the corn. It came to me, out of the blue,
that this heron was some sort of god, a protector, of all the dead
along the side of the road. I imagined that she flew from body
to body—all day, all night—guiding each one into the afterlife.
That night, I saw the roadside god in a dream: foxtail headdress,
pheasant necklace, raccoon tail ring, a gown of bone. She
kneeled over the crushed shell of a snapping turtle, touched
her claw to the bloody head. A stream of flies flew from the
dead mouth, up, up, into the mouth of the burning sun. I was
left standing in the middle of a long, straight road, alone. Heat
rippled past my face from the sunbaked concrete. Something
rustled in the tall weeds to my right…
I don’t always remember the names of the dead, but I recognize
faces. I see them sometimes, at Price Chopper, Toys R Us. I’m
not talking about ghosts. There’s no such thing, not in my world.
I simply catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye and it looks
just enough like a former patient to make me turn, look again.
I administer the drugs, keep them comfortable. Feed tubes,
morphine drips. Sometimes they talk. I listen...most of the
time. My best friend Ellie once asked me “What is death?”
as if I would know the answer. Why should I know? I deal with
cachexia, the body wasting away.
This afternoon, I visited the mother of a man I nursed for the
past two months. She watched as his body slowly decayed
from esophageal cancer and chemo. When he could no longer
swallow, he was hooked to a feed tube. That’s when I arrived. In
the final two weeks the cancer broke through the skin, opening
holes in his neck. He died last weekend. He was thirty-eight.
We drank coffee. She talked about the possibility of snow, about
the music for the funeral. Did I want to hear his favorite song?
As I was leaving I touched her arm and looked into her eyes—
the boy’s death was all I could see—and, for the first time in
my life, I understood the urge to ask that impossible question
“What is death?”
When I got home I stood in the middle of my kitchen in the
dark, keys in hand, unable to move; so still. I swear I could
feel the earth spinning beneath me; the stars turning above,
following the sun to their graves...
Christien Gholson is the author of All the Beautiful Dead (Bitter Oleander Press, 2016); On the Side of the Crow (Hanging Loose Press, 2006); and a novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind (Parthian, 2011). blog • contact