Midnight Ramblers

Digital Painting by Stephanie Khattak. iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, Adobe Fresco

Nights were dark behind the pine curtain. I have written before about our relative comfort with cemetaries. I’ve been thinking on that a little more lately, perhaps because it’s the “spooky season” and it’s getting dark a little earlier. But there is more to say, because the bigger picture is that we were just pretty fearless.

We were never really afraid of the dark, period. Literally or figuratively. We weren’t afraid to go out at night, we weren’t afraid to take risks to pull pranks or do silly things. We loved who we loved, no matter what, and we were so loyal to each other long before “Ride or Die” became part of the pop culture lexicon.

As the Bible says, to paraphrase Romans 8:31, if you are for me, then who can be against me? The verse is referencing God, but for us, it was each other as well.

During slumber parties, after we tired of making prank calls, we would inevitably clean out the hosts’ toilet paper supply and load into someone’s car. (Sorry for any rude awakenings, moms and dads!) We would then drive to a house or two or three and proceed to toss toilet paper into the trees, across the shrubs, over the mailbox and whatever else we could. When plain toilet-papering became too predictable, we upped our game to “Oreo-ing” (Take an Oreo apart. Stick the icing half to house or car windows. Eat the other half.); “Forking” (Plant a million forks in someone’s yard); “Hot-Tamale-ing” (Similar to the Oreo, bite a Hot Tamale candy in half and stick it to windows” and general sign leaving (posterboard, markers and phrases that ranged from encouraging to amorous.)

During these attacks of extreme creativity, we were chased by angry people on four-wheelers; had popper firecrackers thrown at our legs, bumbled into a herd of geese and were almost always made to go back and clean up, if the victims’ parents knew ours. Once, in an impressive counter-attack, someone was hiding in a tree watching for us, jumped down and ran to his neighbor’s house (next on our list!) and woke him up so that they could lie in wait for us. I don’t remember what they did to defend themselves, but it was extremely well-played. (Unsurprisingly, that person went on to join the military and plan counterattacks and defensive actions for the government.) Another time, a house light came on and in our infinite wisdom, we fell down in the yard and “played possum.” That person didn’t confront us then, but his college-age girlfriend was absolutely ringing my phone the minute we got back home.

When you’re a champion, others try to knock you down. Once, a group of guys planned to wrap MY house when I was having a slumber party. Luckily (for us!) my mom had turned a mailbox into a bird feeder and hung the metal part from our biggest tree. One of the wrappers, sneaking around, stood up under it and saw stars. They all had to come inside for the adults to decide if he needed medical attention. (He was fine.)

All of these things took place after midnight with very, very minimal supervision. Before we could drive, our parents drove us, but then we were set free. My friend Courtney and I were recently brainstorming ways to entertain her daughters. Wrapping came up, but was then dismissed with “well, now they’d just get shot.”

We could just as easily have been shot then! Or the cops could have come, or someone could have come out of their house and cursed at us, or hurt us in other ways. Were we naive? I don’t think so. I think we were just confident in the dark.

Because we may have been vandals, but we were a UNIT of vandals! My bestie may have thrown that particular toilet paper roll, but if it knocked over a rose bush, we accepted that were all in trouble. We had faith in God, too but at the time we didn’t really articulate it as such. We certainly didn’t go around saying “Every Oreo Stuck Perfectly. God Bless Us, Every One.” or anything like that. But we did have a basic faith that something, someone, somewhere would make sure we would be ok.

And I know we were lucky. I do realize, especially as a grown up, that in some communities and some groups, this kind of “fun” would not be fun at all. We were lucky, and privileged. The worst we got was cleaning duty.

It’s October, almost Halloween, and I had originally wanted to write about things that scared me. But honestly, looking back, the things that scared me weren’t shadows in the dark or bumps in the night, or even the desolate streets and spooky back roads we drove after dark in our clackety “starter cars” before cell phones existed. As I have thought about this and other things we did, I think “wow, we should have been more scared!” Some of the things we did make my heart skip.

But my friends were with me. We were emboldened. We were safe. If we were together, if we were for each other, then who could be against us? There were so many things I truly was scared of – being made fun of, doing something wrong, the asshole on the school bus, my English teacher. But not this. Not this darkness, and not these risks. WE were the things that went bump in the night. WE were the prowlers, the instigators, the throwers of toilet paper and catchers of fireworks and consequences. And we loved every minute of it. Call it naivete’ or call it faith, I mostly call it friendship.

Looking for Our Names

“Looking for Our Names” by Stephanie Khattak. Mixed-media watercolor, ink, gouache and acrylic tape collage.

We were never afraid of cemeteries. In rural East Texas, they were often tucked into curves in the road near our houses, set against our properties’ back pastures and in other ways integrated into our daily lives as just somewhere else to be. The cemetery, while always a place of respect and to be treated as such, was also place to walk safely, to contemplate quietly, to “visit Grandma” and in our older and more mischievous years, to pass through on hayrides, and to park in and kiss boys. Now, I don’t like them after dark, but back then it felt normal to be there.

Our town’s biggest cemetery was just on its edge, past the local community college and in between the “ritzy” neighborhood and the evangelical campgrounds. It was alongside a major highway, and spread across many acres. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was larger than any of our city parks. It was certainly nicer and safer.

Late at night, we would visit this big cemetery, park our car, and walk. Reverent, careful to stay on the footpaths, we would scan the headstones as we talked. “Looking for Our Names,” we called it.

It was 1990-something and “Michelle” and I, with our friends “Renee'” and “Mallory” had just discovered The Smiths, particularly their “The Queen is Dead” release. We wore out those tapes in our cars: “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” and “Cemetery Gates,” among other tracks.

We were fairly privileged teenagers – middle class, stable families, no real barriers and no real experience with the malaise that Morrissey sang about.

But, by the time we were 16, we had already started losing young people – classmates and church friends and peers from other schools in our area. Just as cemeteries themselves were integrated into the fabric of our lives, so was the circle of life itself.

As we “looked for our names” we sometimes encountered the accidents, overdoses and suicides who had once sat beside us in Algebra class.

I’m pretty sure that “Cemetery Gates” was the theme song behind this activity, but now I think a more accurate soundtrack would be “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

Looking back as an adult, I wonder if our seemingly-cavalier relationship with graveyards, through this activity and others, was a way to normalize what was happening around us each year. Or if it underscored how normal it felt to be in such a place. I’m not sure that we lost more peers than other school districts, but our world was a lot smaller. Regardless of how well we knew the person, we did know them, almost every single one. There was a very defined hole in our daily lives after each midnight phone call. And back then, I don’t remember any special counselors, after-school vigils or anything like that. We went to the funerals, hugged grieving parents and siblings, and were released back into our routines to figure it out on our own.

There is a light and it never goes out.

When I think of Michelle, Mallory, Renee’ and myself, I think of us at that age, almost exclusively even though I am still in touch with most of them and am fully aware that they’ve aged as I have. (And by that, I mean with strength, grace and beauty of course.)

There is a light and it never goes out.

My lost peers, acquaintances and friends, too are in perpetual youth. We’ve outlived them by so many years. What would their lives be like? When we were still in the “same timeline” it wasn’t something we really thought about. Now, looking back over 25+ years that not everyone got to have, seeing my friends’ children approach the ages etched on some of those headstones, it brings a greater depth and a profound sadness.

There is a light and it never goes out.

Our relationships with cemeteries may seem strange, or even disrespectful to some. But there was also a message in the familiarity. It said “we remember you,” “we aren’t afraid,” “we can still be where you are.” It said, “don’t be lonely.”

It said, “one day, our names will be here, or somewhere like here. But for now we are as alive as we will ever be, and in this moment, within this light of memory and shadow of loss, so are you.”



*This was a story I really wanted to get right, so I had a few versions of the art. While the top piece is my top choice, I liked this little messy one, too: