Two Inadequate Voices


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M L Casteel
Second Sunday in May

As tradition dictates, the second Sunday in May entails a family trip to Liberty Hill to pay respect to the dearly departed and visit with the few remaining relatives “down home,” as we call it. In preparation, my brother had assembled a selection of perennials to plant on our grandparents’ grave, taking care to choose the native varieties they had favored. It was a typically sweltering day and we hadn’t been at the cemetery long when we ran into Michael.

“Isn’t that your cousin,” exclaimed my father, never one to pass over an opportunity to catch up with family.

Waving to gain the attention of the lanky figure standing a few plots away, dad enthusiastically beckoned him over.

“I haven’t seen y’all in forever,” Michael said in a barely intelligible drawl as he sauntered towards us.

It had been quite a few years since we had last seen Michael, and I doubt I would have recognized him under different circumstances. But in a community as small as this, a chance encounter with a distant relative is not entirely surprising, and the longer I looked the more I began to connect this face to memories of my cousin.

As a boy, Michael had been a timid, somewhat squirrely kid. Rail thin with big ears and freckles, he was shy and a little goofy, but always courteous and exuded an air of inherent kindness. I recall how excited he was when he had first gotten his driver’s licence. Eager to exercise his newfound mobility, we piled into his beat-up blue Chevy pickup truck and rode down to the convenience store to buy candy bars and sodas.

The man that stood before me bore little resemblance to the kid I used to know.

“How y’all been,” he asked, squinting with the sun on his face.

Michael’s aunt would later comment on how much better he looked than he did when she had seen him a few months prior. As we stood together in the cemetery, I was struck by how much older than his actual age he appeared. Truthfully, I was surprised to hear Michael being spoken of in any positive terms in the family, given that he had attempted to rob his own grandfather last year.

Hubert, a 101-year-old veteran of World War II and survivor of D-Day, is the salt of the earth. He had played an outsized role in Michael’s upbringing and has always done whatever he could to support his grandson. But Hubert also appreciates the value of hard work, and he refused to give him money when he knew it would just go to waste. So, in a fit of drug-fuelled desperation, Michael busted into Hubert’s bedroom, snatched his jeans off the floor and bolted, expecting to find a wallet in the back pocket. As it turns out, Hubert had left his billfold on the bedside table the night before, so Michael came up empty-handed aside from the worn-out pair of Wranglers. He eventually returned Hubert’s pants, but Michael hasn’t been welcome at the house ever since.

It’s likely that Danny, Michael’s father, is the person who first introduced his son to drugs. He had returned from Vietnam with a habit that spread through the family like a brushfire. It began with Danny’s siblings and their children, but would later ensnare his own kids as well. I’ve been told that they were dropping acid before they were teenagers. But there are many rumours and few people left who can confirm or deny them. Either way, the wave of devastation that crashed into this small community of relatives nearly wiped it out.

Danny’s brother Charles and his sister Nancy would both end up dead due to overdoses. His daughter Kimberly met a tragic fate as  well, dying in a drug-related car accident when she was eighteen. She had been on an apparent bender, cruising the backroads in the early morning hours, geeked out and high as a kite. The guy she was with lost control of the vehicle and crashed headlong into a tree. Kimberly was pronounced dead at the scene. There’s a photograph of her and I as youngsters, standing back-to-back to see who was taller. We were the exact same height. Same age too, nearly to the day.

In the 1990’s, Danny became an informant for the police. He had been arrested so many times over the years that his rap sheet seemed endless. With his record being leveraged against him, he had  agreed to turn state’s witness and gave up the dirt on the family of outlaws that lived just around the bend. Not long after, his car was found parked haphazardly in the loading zone out front of a run down strip mall. Danny was in the driver’s seat, slumped forward with a needle hanging out of his arm. There has been speculation of foul play, that he was set up or given a hot-shot, but no formal investigation was ever opened. After languishing in a coma for a week, Danny succumbed to organ failure and died. He was 54 years old.

Back at the cemetery, Michael helped us get the plants in the ground, breaking the handle of his rusted shovel in the process. Before we left, he obliged to let me make his portrait. Afterwards, I watched as Michael used a cracked flowerpot to shuttle soil from the heap of powdery red clay on the graveyard’s perimeter, quietly tidying up his father’s grave.

American born, M L Casteel is an award-winning photographer and educator whose work focuses on the perils and triumphs of the human condition. Casteel attended the Hartford Art School International Limited Residency Photography Program and gained an MFA in Photography (2015). His work has been featured in TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, CNN, and the Guardian, amongst other publications. Casteel’s first book, AMERICAN INTERIORS, was published by Dewi Lewis Publishing (2018) and was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards: First Photobook Prize. Featuring essays by Jorg Colberg and Ken MacLeish, the book is available at