“Just in Case.” The Sucarnochee Review (2005): 17-24.
Just in Case
My name is Will and I’ve never actually seen a dead body before. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to today. I’m standing outside the side entrance of Parlor C, the largest room at the Smithson Funeral Home and Burial Gardens. I know this because Aunt Resa tells everyone as they walk up to the door.
We’re standing here in a line like we’re going shopping at Loveman’s Department Store for an After-Thanksgiving Sale. Only everybody is sad and crying and anxious. It’s Uncle Carl’s fault we’re here so early. Grandpa said that Uncle Carl is always early. He was wired that way from his military days. Uncle Carl always said that Grandpa will be late for his own funeral, but I think he was wrong on that one.
It’s Thursday at 8:55 in the morning. I finger the quarter in my right pocket, trying to stay busy. The sky is bright blue and filled with six clouds that look like running dogs. I squint my eyes, tilt my head, and watch them race to the finish line, the upright piece of the cross on the Baptist church across the street. The little dog wins and the other dogs dissolve just before a giant, three-winged dragon swoops in and cooks them in mid-stride. He almost had some hot dogs.
I’m standing here, dressed good enough for church, waiting for the doors to open. I wish Grandpa was here with me. I stare at the cracks in the sidewalk and watch as they disappear under leaves of gold, red, blue and orange for a moment, before the wind scoops them up again, carrying them into the street.
Finally, at 9:07, according to Uncle Carl’s Navy Seal diver’s watch, we hear the lock turn. Standing in the doorway is a severe looking man dressed in black, wearing the saddest smile I’ve ever seen. When I realize he is speaking, I wonder if his face is frozen that way. He says, “Thank you all for coming. We’re almost ready for you. Is the widow here?”
Uncle Carl wheels Grandma through the makeshift family reunion and Old Frozen Face takes the handles of the chair, pushing Grandma onto the red carpet just inside the big double doorway. He turns, creates an invisible force field with the wave of his hand, and commands us to wait where we are until Grandma has a few moments with Grandpa alone.
We all lean forward on our toes, as a group, as Grandma gets closer to the polished wooden box at the end of the wide red runway. The left side of the box is open, but I can’t see inside. Old Frozen Face helps her to her feet and she looks at her husband. She cries out, “Oh Lord, Lord, Lord. Is that really him?” She grabs Old Frozen Face’s coat lapels and pulls—pulls hard until they are standing nose to nose.
Mostly because Grandma hasn’t spoken since her stroke four years ago, we are shocked.
All of a sudden, I remember this trick. When I was six years old, she’d do this to me. She’d ask me if I was the one who took the extra cookies out of the kitchen cookie jar. She’d ask me if I was the one who busted the window with a baseball. She’d ask if I was the one who hid her dentures. I’d deny it, every time, ‘til I turned blue in the face, and then she’d do this nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball trick, and I’d confess. Every time. Grandma, like all grandmas, had ways of seeing the truth.
I watch as she uses her Grandma powers on Old Frozen Face, but this time, I don’t think she can see anything new. She screams, “Oh Lord, Lord, Lord. What am I going to do?” Then, she takes a moment to catch her breath, sobbing like a three-year-old girl with a skinned knee.
“Is that really him? It doesn’t look like him.” Then, she turns her eyes toward the ceiling and shouts, “God, why couldn’t you have taken me before him? You bring him back now. You bring him back right now, you hear?”
I can’t believe that even God himself could refuse her request. I half expect him to sit right up in the box. She pleads again and again. But, after a brief spell, I realize, she realizes, that he’s really dead. “I can’t believe he’s really gone. He’s gone! Oh Lord, Lord, Lord! Lord, Lord, Lord.” She collapses into the wheelchair and slumps over, and for a moment I think, we all think, that she’s just joined Grandpa.
Nobody moves. Finally, Uncle Carl is the first to break the spell. He runs to comfort his mother and he looks into the coffin himself, which he should know not to do, and now there are two of them there, crying out of control. Old Frozen Face leaves his post beside the wheelchair and walks toward us, motioning with his arms, but he’s nearly trampled.
Grandma comes back to life with a whiff of Aunt Lulene’s smelling salts. Auntie L carries so much junk in her purse it weighs 100 pounds. I know; I’ve tried to lift it. Grandpa says she’s got everything in there including a kitchen sink–then he laughs, knowing, in her case, it might actually be true. Aunt Lulene always says, “If you ever need a kitchen sink, we’ll just see. Until then, Old Sport, you just keep your big mouth shut.” That’s what she always calls him, Old Sport, or she did until a couple of days ago.
Momma is the first one to say anything. “He looks good, don’t you think?”
The crowd uncomfortably nods.
“Yes, he looks so . . . natural,” Uncle Carl blurts out.
“They did a really nice job on him, don’t you think?” Momma asks.
“He looks so natural,” echoes Auntie L.
“Yes, he looks so natural,” says Aunt Resa, with authority.
Everyone crowds around the casket, and I am getting pushed to the back of the room.
Uncle Carl says, “He looks so good, I half expect him to sit right up in the coffin.”
“That’d be just like him, don’t you think?” says Momma. I can’t tell if she’s still crying because she’s wearing her sunglasses. She wears sunglasses a lot, even inside, even at night, especially when the makeup won’t cover daddy’s knuckle prints. Her voice seems steady, hopeful.
“You’re right about that, it’d be just like him to sit right up and start talking to us,” says Auntie L.
“Like it was all some big joke,” says Aunt Resa.
“Yeah, like it was a joke or something,” adds Aunt Myrtlene, who has never had an original thought her whole life. Grandpa told me so.
“But doesn’t he look good?” says Uncle Carl.
In fact, he doesn’t look good or natural at all. He looked natural three days ago, when we were fishing at Bard’s Creek, but today he’s just rubbery looking, wearing more makeup than my Aunt Myrtlene.
Momma reaches into the casket and adjusts Grandpa’s tie, maybe his handkerchief. I hear her pat his chest and watch her arm move back and forth as she readjusts his thinning hair. “I had them put him in his favorite blue suit; I think he’d like this one, don’t you?” Momma says to Grandma. Grandma doesn’t answer; she may as well be dead. Grandma stares at that invisible point five feet in front of her. Her bottom lip vibrates again, nonstop.
“Yes, I always liked that suit on him,” says Aunt Resa.
You know what? I don’t think he’d like it at all. The only time he ever wore a suit was at church, and I don’t think he liked it any more than I did. He spent most of his time fidgeting, that’s what Momma calls it, fidgeting, with his collar. I think he’d rather be wearing one of his red flannel shirts, his championship rodeo belt buckle and his favorite pair of old work boots.
I want to scream, Hey, look over here, my Grandpa is dead! Don’t you get it? Tomorrow when you get up, he won’t be here. He’ll be in the ground like one of Momma’s tulips, only he’s not going to grow into something beautiful. He’s just going to lay there and rot, fishing worms crawling in and out of his nose.
“He looks ten years younger,” Uncle Phil says. “Maybe fifteen, the lucky bastard,” he adds.
Lucky? Why don’t you jump in that box and take his place, Uncle Phil! You know that bet you made with Grandpa about which one of you would outlive the other? You won. But I don’t think he’s going to pay off on that one.
Uncle Phil then turns his attention to me. “So, Will, I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age. How you been? How’s the wife and kids?” He snorts.
“I’m only ten, Uncle Phil. I don’t have a wife,” I tell him. He’s such an idiot. He’s not really my uncle, but my great uncle. Grandpa’s older brother; only I don’t call him that because there’s nothing great about him. “I’m still in school, sir,” I add, hoping to change the subject.
“School,” he says, “What do you mean you’re still in school? I figured you’d be running your Grandpa’s bank by now, boy.” Then, he takes his big right hand and musses up my hair while he laughs so big I can see all his dental work. His belly jiggles like the world’s largest bowl of plaid Jell-O. He wore his hunting clothes to the funeral home. I guess he won’t be staying long. “Will’s Bank. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” Then he slaps me so hard on the back that I stumble forward. Snort, snort. It’s so hard to believe that Uncle Phil and Grandpa never got along.
Over in the corner, next to the portable organ, Grandma comes to life again saying, “Oh Lord, Lord, Lord. What am I going to do?” Her hands are spastic, reaching out in front of her like she’s trying to get a handle on things. Miss Margaret, her nurse, works to calm her down, trying to cover her with her black shawl. “Who’s going to plant the garden this year, that’s what I want to know,” she asks. But Grandma hasn’t had a garden in over five years. “Who’s going to mend the fence?” she cries out. Funny thing is, Grandma never had a fence. “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?”
I have no idea. I can’t believe we have Grandma with us again. Her lower lip stops shaking, her eyes are no longer fixed on that imaginary spot.
Then, as quickly as she came, she goes again.
Aunt Resa is right, at least about one thing. Parlor C is giant. Grandpa could park 20 of his cars in here, even the big ones like the Packards from the twenties, with room to spare. There are 128 uncomfortable, straight back chairs against the walls; I know—I counted them all—twice. Overall, there are fourteen boxes of tissue, twelve lamps, on twelve mismatched tables, and four wingback chairs covered in an ugly floral print. The carpet, which used to be bright red judging from the edges of the room, has aged to a darker Alabama crimson, the color of blood I think.
All in all, 278 people sign the guestbook. Not one of them can talk about my Grandpa for more than five seconds straight. I walk around listening to pieces of conversations. Most of the men are talking about business deals, sports, boats, sometimes women, but they stop when I get too near. The women swap recipes and talk about what the other women, who are not standing in their circle, are wearing. I float, listening for stories about my Grandpa.
“And my broker told me . . .”
“You know, Homer’s boy. He went to school with you for half a year in ninth grade. He married that Tully girl from Opelika. They had two girls. No, wait; that was Elmer’s boy, Todd. You remember Todd. He just got out of the Army last spring. Anyway, he was . . . he was . . . what was I talking about, anyway?
“I told that prick that if he ever came over here again, I’d . . .”
“Martha, you have to use just the egg whites or it just won’t come out right . . .”
“She had the biggest set of . . .”
“What are they going to do about his Will?” someone asks. I stop and turn to the voice. I’m thrilled they are concerned about what will happen to me. It takes me a full two minutes to realize that they’re not talking about me at all, but about dividing up Grandpa’s stuff, what they call Grandpa’s estate. Grandma, according to my cousins, won’t be around much longer. The buzzards.
He was the greatest man who ever lived and all you can talk about is money? Or work?
Grandpa taught me how to play baseball. He took me fishing and taught me how to catch my own crickets. He took me to my first major league game—all the way to Cincinnati. He taught me to see the constellations in the heavens, like Taurus the Bull and Orion and his belt. He taught me to play golf. (I have a 17 handicap.)
But most of all, Grandpa saved my life the night father went insane. That night, after the police left and took father away, he gave me this magic quarter, this one in my hand right now. Just in case. Listen: I know everybody thinks this quarter is for magic tricks, sleight of hand. I’m pretty good at it too, thanks to Grandpa’s instruction and years of practice. But that night, Grandpa was very clear. I remember he said, “You keep this quarter with you always. It’s a magic quarter. Watch this,” he said. Then he ran through a bunch of tricks, a complete routine of vanishings and reappearings. I was mesmerized. “I want you to know that if you or your Momma ever need me again, I’m just a phone call away. Keep this quarter with you always, and you can always get help if you need it.” Even after Momma and I moved in with him and Grandma in the big house, he always made sure I had my quarter with me. Just in case. Then, after Grandpa retired about two years ago, we spent all our time together, every day after school and all day long for the past two summers.
The prerecorded music I’ve been trying to ignore sounds Hawaiian now. Aunt Ethelene begins to shift her weight from foot to foot, causing her hips to shake like one of those dashboard hula dancers in the back of Cousin Louie’s half-restored GTO.
I overhear, “He’s in a better place now.”
How could he be in better place than right here with me?
“Anyway, how’d you do on the Cincinnati game?”
“And at eight and a half percent interest, you can double your money in twenty years . . .”
Who cares? Can we use the money to bring back Grandpa?
“Yeah, I saw him, what, about two weeks ago, and he didn’t look good. Isn’t that what I said, Buck, he just didn’t look good? Anyway, I guess I saw it coming, I just didn’t say anything. I bet you anything it was those damn cigars. You ever get feelings about things? I do; all the time. Feelings, I mean. I swear, sometimes I think I’m psychic. Like the other day when we dropped Beth Ann off at the ball field and . . .”
I am walking. Walking. Walking in a giant oval. Walking in a racetrack maze full of laboratory mice.
“I got this dress at Emma’s Boutique on 23rd last week. Don’t tell anyone but I got it for half price! I think they may still have some left in your size if you hurry. I mean, how can you go wrong with basic black?”
“I heard he left William completely out of the will. Oh well, I guess that just means there’s more for the rest of us. Speaking of being stinking-ass rich, did you ever hear the one about . . .”
I stop walking when I see Mother. She is beautiful. Most everyone says I look just like her, but I think I look more like my father. I mean, who wants to look like a girl, right? Then again, I’m not sure looking like father is such a prize, either. I watch her “work the room,” the perfect hostess for Grandpa, substituting a box of tissues for her usual tray of drinks or finger sandwiches. She’s busy greeting everyone at the door, making sure they sign the guestbook. I smile at her, trying to see her expression hidden behind her dark glasses. The corners of her mouth lift slightly. She’s okay. She should have never let him in last night. I would have stopped him, I would, but I was already in bed, asleep.
My father cuts his eyes toward me. He’s been sitting alone since he got here about an hour ago, in the corner opposite Grandma, his mother, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. He never got along with Grandpa. Secretly, I think he’s glad he’s dead. He’s been drinking, I’m sure of that. He drinks on any day of the week that ends in a Y, according to Grandpa. I look at Grandpa, and look at my father, and say a prayer that they could change places right now. But, since it didn’t work for Grandma, I doubt it will work for me. He just sits, rubbing his swollen red knuckles, only getting up to refresh his drink.
I wish new people would stop coming. They all say, “Sorry about your Grandpa. I know he loved you a lot. He talked about you all the time, Will.” Then, after they pat me on the head, they don’t know what to say. Or what to do. I guess giving the kid a buck makes them feel less guilty when they leave me standing here, all alone. “Hey kid, why don’t you go and get yourself a coke and something to eat?”
“No thanks,” I reply. I mean, how much coke and junk food does a kid need, anyway? So far, I’ve taken in $47, in ones and fives.
I don’t want to be here.
I want to go home.
I want to go fishing with Grandpa.
It’s day two at the Smithson Funeral Home and Burial Gardens and Grandpa is really packing them in. The service is in about two hours, more or less, I don’t know. I can’t find Uncle Carl to get the exact time. I check the guestbook count and there are 389 names, 111 more than last night. People here yesterday didn’t sign in again.
You might be surprised to know the stained glass window above the casket has 348 individual panes of glass in 11 colors, if you count the three purples in Jesus’ robe. I know, because I’ve counted them three times; every time, I get the same numbers. I’m good at math, but what I really like to do is count things, kind of like Grandpa.
I see the Blue Hair Brigade, that’s what Grandpa called Grandma’s Sunday School Class, coming my way, but I can’t get through the crowd fast enough to get away. Some of them witnessed Grandma’s miracle revival yesterday, and now they’re all here, even Widow March. Me, I call them The Pinchers, because they pinch my cheeks so hard, my face looks like the Crypt Keeper’s that runs this place. I smile, take their compliments, and their painful pinches, and run.
I head outside to get some air. But before I get to the main door, I look in Parlor A, I can’t help myself, and there are just two people inside, crying. I look at the guestbook. There are three names and the third name is apparently the Reverend. I feel bad for “Iverton, C. A.,” so I sign my name underneath the preacher’s, and I walk in and tell the two women standing there that Mr. Iverton will surely be missed; they should be glad that he’s now in a better place. I hug the woman in the blue print dress. I smile at the other lady, probably Iverton’s sister, judging from the jut of her jaw and the shape of her nose. I lie. I tell them that I met Mr. Iverton when he helped me fix my bicycle so I’d be home in time for supper. He’d saved me from a whipping, sure enough. I think they can tell I’m lying, but they want to believe, need to believe, that someone else cared for the dead guy. I tell them, “I hope you don’t mind, I signed the guestbook.”
The lady in blue says thank you. She tells me she saw me here yesterday and wonders who died in Parlor C. Then she catches herself, and almost smiles. “What I mean to say, is, are you here for someone close to you?” I tell her about Grandpa, how we were best friends and all. She asks his name, and recalls that Grandpa loaned her and Mr. Iverson money to buy their first home forty years ago. “We hated when he retired from the bank. I mean, your Grandfather was the bank to us, but it sounds like he had a good life with you, Will. It is Will, isn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sure your kind words will mean a lot to my Momma, but I want you to know that they mean a lot me.”
“You come from fine stock, boy. You’ll do just fine, just fine, you’ll see,” she says giving me a big hug. Iverton’s sister watches, wiping the corners of her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief.
I tell the ladies that I have to go back to the other room, but I duck outside instead. It’s raining. I stand under the back porch and watch the rain form big puddles in the yard. I look up and the sky is as black as my heart. No more running dogs, dragons, or blue sky. The rain is blowing hard to my right. Sideways, almost. I realize I’m working the quarter, practicing making it appear and disappear, over and over again, without thinking.
But not real magic. I can’t make Grandpa appear again. Not like he was, anyway. I work the quarter until my hands become numb from the blowing cold. I go back inside.
People are starting to clear out of Parlor C, running to their cars in the side lot to get out of the cold and the rain. They’re all lining up behind one another, just past the fat, white line that reads, “Stop Here,” under the overhang behind the long black limousine. Old Frozen Face asks everyone who is not immediate family to pay their final respects and get in line to drive up to the church to hear Pastor Cauley’s sermon, I mean Grandpa’s service. Now there are just sixteen of us and we all quietly fall in line behind Uncle Carl to say goodbye for the last time before the lid on the coffin is closed forever. There’s Auntie L, Aunt Resa; even Uncle Phil came back today, and father. Then, Miss Margaret pushes Grandma, who seems to have reverted back to her old self. I wish I knew what she saw in that imaginary spot. Next is Aunt Myrtlene and her boy Phillip. Aunt Ethelene, still doing the hula, this time to “How Great Thou Art,” waits patiently behind them. Then there’s the handful of relatives that Grandpa and I don’t claim. Grandpa called them Moe, Curly and Larry, though, for the life of me, I can’t think of their real names right now. Uncle Carl ought to be in this group. Then Cousin Louie. And then Miss Evelyn, Grandpa’s secretary at the bank for 30 years. Then there’s Momma. Then me.
After every turn, Old Frozen Face escorts them through their tears, one by one, out the side door. Finally, it’s my turn. Momma turns and asks me if I’m going to be okay. I nod and wave her off. I slide out the little step stool and take two steps up so I can see Grandpa really good. I tell him things, private things, things that I’ll never repeat again; they’re for his ears and God’s ears only. I remind God that I go to church every Sunday and I put 10% of my money in the collection plate every time it comes around, that I pray every day, sometimes twice on Sunday, and that I expect he’ll just have to listen to me and do what I ask. I tell him I expect him to do right by my Grandpa. He was a good man. Better than father. I warn God that he better take good care of my Grandpa, or else. And I leave it at that. Then I step down and walk toward the waiting hand of my Momma. She smiles, the same kind of smile Old Frozen Face wears, and we walk the short hallway to the limousine parked behind the hearse.
“Wait, wait!” I yell, running to the casket for one last look. Old Frozen Face pushes the lid open again and steps back. Momma calls for me, but I don’t care. I reach in to my right pocket, grab my quarter, and drop it on the white satin at Grandpa’s elbow. Then it hits me. Heaven is far away; it might be long distance. So I reach into my left pocket and give him $64, all the ones and fives put on me. You know, just in case.