October is special month to me. My baby brother's birthday, my anniversary and birthday, which I share with my grandson, and Halloween are all within this one special month! All the places and street names, including the landscape and description, really exist in Southern California. We can be just as spooky here as Salem, Massachusetts! Please enjoy my short-short Halloween story, illustrated by my very own ghost dog...as my Halloween trick or treat to you!
COLD GRAVE ROAD
Does a loser-ville town infect its residents?
Or do the losers infect the town with their own personal brand of horror?A visit from a dying artist puts everything into perspective…
The name on the sign said, “Cole Grade Road,” but none of the locals called it that. Originally labeled “Coal Grade Road” after the ancient train refueling stop, the mapmaker had goofed, much as the city of “Name?” had become “Nome, Alaska” to another error-prone cartographer. The Realtor warned the young woman who moved into the death stretch that the locals called it “Cold Grave Road” for a reason.
Cole Grade lay in the dust and chaparral of the sparsely settled southern California desert among other whimsical names such as “Disney” and “Gopher Canyon.” A straight shot to the inner canyons, it traveled past where mouse met gopher and battled for fruit on Strawberry Hill and beyond, where rattlers triumphed over both near Old Snake Road.
Cole Grade Road had become Cold Grave Road more than a century ago. Those who settled along its once-dirt, now two-lane choppy asphalt had nothing but trouble. The original inhabitants were the first to die fighting over water rights. Those Native Americans weren’t thrilled to share their meager supply with the White man, nor did they appreciate the train-tracks during the gold rush cutting through already overtaxed desert resources.
The train employees died next, thanks to arrows, lances, and later, bullets. When the grape-growers from Italy disembarked from the trains with big plans for the Southern California soil and climate, they discovered that rattlers patrolled the arbors with an ardent passion that matched the Italians’ for wine making.
Add desert heat, thirsty Native Americans, livestock, fouled, diseased waters, rabid coyotes, and Cole Grade stacked up the casualties. When a group of early rancheros died from either strawberry allergies or tainted fruit—no one knew which in those days—Cole Grade Road finally earned its morbid label.
Years ago, some local teen with a can of black spray paint defaced the first brown aluminum sign to read, “Warning -- Cold Grave Road,” and on the last, “We tried to warn you.” The city founders refused to spend money correcting what everyone knew to be true, and left the two spray-painted signs to fade in the desert sun, as everything and everyone else faded with it.
The Realtor swore to the prospective tenant that the place was jinxed, and took care to point out the big “RIP” someone had spray-painted in black on the cracked cement driveway.
“You won’t drag me into court,” The Realtor warned. “I’m giving you full disclosure. Run, don’t walk, to your car and let me find you someplace else to rent. If you want to live, that is. This place is bad news.”
The woman actually smiled, despite the oppressive heat, depressing atmosphere, and compressed, shabby house. “I’ve got cancer, and haven’t the guts to off myself. If this place kills me faster, great. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. I haven’t the strength or the money to sue anyone. Now give me the papers to sign.”
The Realtor, a lousy salesman because of his honesty, tried once more to talk her out of it, this time with his cell phone's recorder going, “For both our protection.” But in the end she had her way. The young woman with the cancer—no one found out exactly what kind it was—moved into the sad façade of what had never been a happy home.
The surrounding cow, horse, grape, fruit, and flower raisers kept curious eyes on her. The local bar had long maintained a break-the-lease gambling pool for anyone foolish enough to live in the single house on Cold Grave. This time, the point spread on a tenant move-out date had to factor in the cancer. This made the betting more interesting, and the dumpy little bar with its fly-specked windows made enough money to actually paint the outside, and fix the cracked pipes in the men’s room. Much to everyone’s surprise and the bar-owner’s delight, she hadn’t yet left or died. So the bar started a second pool, and the curious crossed their fingers for their share of the money, waited, and watched the newcomer.
Pale and gaunt, the tenant put gas in her rusting car, purchased a few groceries, and, to the dismay of the curious, had her medication delivered by courier. Supposedly she’d had a promising career as some kind of artist until cancer and chemo had taken away her hair, her strength, and her inspiration.
Everyone knew California was full of would-be artists with promise, but never before had one come to Cold Grave to die. The few people in the excuse for a town were torn between sympathy and envy—sympathy because not to be so wasn’t polite—and envy, for a fast death, even a cancerous one, seemed preferable to the slow death of boredom they were stuck with.
That boredom changed one Sunday. First a cattle trucker, then a grocer, noticed the addition of new paint to the old billboard on Cold Grave Road. A combination of grinning, traditional Halloween characters mixed among grim, realistic images of cancer-ridden people repelled yet fascinated all viewers with its artistry.
And it certainly was art. Even the most obtuse could see the genius in it. More images appeared. Scenes of death by snake, death by heat, or death by arrow covered older, graffiti-covered buildings and old signs along Cold Grave. A painting of a tombstone with snow and attached icicles appeared on another billboard, the icicles formed from the IVs hanging above, and dripping either green pus or chemo chemicals...no one was sure which there, either…to freeze as they hit the granite slab.
Her art, the Cold Grave art, continued. A grim scene on the side of the abandoned barn depicted where hundreds of hoof-and-mouth infected dairy cows had been shot and burned. The strawberry field’s abandoned wooden roadside stand writhed with life-size images of suffocating ranch hands with fruit-induced rashes and closed windpipes. Road kill from skunk to possum to snake to unlucky domestic pets had their last images reproduced in vivid red on unconventional canvases beneath the sun.
Death adorned the road everywhere one looked, so much so that the bar nervously refunded everyone’s bets on the second death-pool, and the city politicians, all three of them, actually held their first meeting in years where a quorum was present…but decided nothing. Someone not in politics decided to deface the paintings, ended up in the hospital with a burst appendix, and almost, but not quite, ended down in the hospital morgue.
Superstition and fear overtook the inhabitants, and they left the art—and the artist—alone. Months went by, then her six-month lease was due to expire. New art stopped appearing. Soon after that, the artist decided not to renew. According to The Realtor, she packed her bags and filled her portfolio with carefully taken photos documenting her work.
Before she drove away, she told The Realtor that her cancer was gone; miraculously vanished without a trace. The doctors didn’t believe it at first, nor did she, but the tests and her robust appearance proclaimed otherwise. She was going back to finish her art major at the university.
Oh, and by the way, she said, if “this sick town” had nothing better to do with their money than host “even sicker” pools, they might consider contributing to the nearest cancer ward for children.
The Realtor walked her to her car, marveling that such a now-beautiful woman could have painted such morbid scenes. She smiled, and said the inhabitants of the town themselves had painted the town with death. She’d merely reproduced it. That’s why Cold Grave couldn’t kill her. She’d given the road the dying part of herself, and the healthy part remained free to go home.
The listeners at the local bar that night shook their heads. “Insane artist,” some mumbled. “Must be the pain killers,” others said. Or “illegal drugs,” a few of the more unkind added. “She’s in denial,” the local know-it-all asserted. The Realtor got tired of answering questions over and over and got roaring drunk for the first time since his own college days.
In the morning, Cole Grade Road, where mice and gophers battled King Rattler in the strawberry fields under a blazing hot sun that peeled and ruined both paint and lives, remained Cold Grave Road…
To all but the foolish--or the very wise.