I don't know if this is good form or not, but I thought I'd share the first few pages of "The Fixin' Place," my latest obsession. Understand that the completion is several months away, but I think if I'm at least sort of accountable to some of you, then I'll be more likely to not get stonewalled along the way. Enjoy, and feel free to post any comments. I'd appreciate it!!
I remember the first dead person I ever saw. Uncle Jack – actually, he was a great-uncle - was one of those relatives who seemed to me when growing up to be older than time itself. My recollection of him was of a man, stooped in such a way that he looked like a living comma, with his head valiantly held erect so that he could at least see where he was going rather than looking at the ground. He came back from World War I shell-shocked, as the term used to be, and was prone to mutter to himself in idle moments. Someone said that in his last days, as he slipped in and out of a coma, that he believed the Germans were after him again. I was glad I was spared hearing him rant. Just thinking about it disturbed me. I was seven years old.
I guess Mama and Daddy felt that insulating Sarah and me from death was not the right thing to do. It is not as though they rubbed my nose in it. They came from the generation of rural Alabamians who didn't treat death like the sterile and distant event it is now. In their days, someone died and the body would lay in state in the house, usually in the parlor. Uncle Jack had made the comment that he sure didn’t want to be left up at the funeral home by himself. His reasoning was that if the family had been able to put up with him all those years, one more night wouldn’t hurt.
And, of course, that wish was honored. Uncle Jack and Aunt Belinda’s house was one of a half-dozen on a dirt road that wandered off Highway 137 about five miles out of St. Helena, going southeast toward the Canaan community. Aunt Belinda kept a neat and well-groomed yard. Their house was in front of a row of six chicken houses, the smell of which hovered close to the ground, a musky, organic odor which wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I believed then, as I do now, that chickens are some of the nastiest creatures to inhabit God’s earth, but Uncle Jack loved them and they had given him a good living.
Their house had belonged to Aunt Belinda’s parents, who had long since passed. The house’s front porch sagged in spots, and the boards creaked and popped when we walked across them to the front door. Mama and Daddy nodded and spoke gravely to the various kinfolks and friends who were huddled in sad little knots on the porch and in the yard. Death was very much a social event.
I didn’t know what to expect when we entered the parlor. There was Aunt Belinda, clutching a hankie, her eyes bright and large, as though she were trying to look chipper. Their twin girls, Anna and April, were there, along with their husbands and children. I barely knew them – Anna and her family lived in Columbus, Georgia, and April and her brood lived all the way out in Midland, Texas, which to my mind was as distant as Babylon. Everyone was whispering, as though Uncle Jack might be offended if someone spoke too loudly. Sarah, two years older than me, crowded up alongside Mama as though she wanted to bury her face in Mama’s skirts. I just wanted to see what the fuss was about.
Daddy obliged me. Uncle Jack was actually Mama’s father’s brother, but I learned later that Jack and Daddy had been closer than I had realized. I looked up at Daddy, and saw that the muscles in his jaw were working, as though he wanted to say something but was restraining himself. I noticed, too, that while the smell from the chicken houses was noticeable in the parlor, there were other odors – of baked goods, of fried meats, and one unidentifiable medicinal aroma – that competed for attention.
Daddy walked me toward the casket, which seemed huge to me, and the people standing close by parted as we approached. The casket gleamed in the dim light and was sitting on a steel cart covered by a drapery. I wondered why the lights were so low – it wasn’t as though Uncle Jack would be bothered by just a bit more illumination – but when I got my first look at him, my questions didn’t seem all that important.
I was just tall enough to peek over the pleated and ruffled edge of the lining of the casket. My eyes were about level with Uncle Jack’s nose, which I remembered to be mottled with spider veins. His nose was the first thing I noticed, because I had never known him to have such a clear complexion. Like the dorsal fin on a dolphin, it rose above his face in stoic grandeur, and was a translucent and perfect peach color. After I got home, I got down my box of Crayolas – the sixty-four count box with the little plastic sharpener in the side – and sure enough, I had a crayon that matched his nose perfectly.
The other thing I noticed was his mouth, stretched way too taut and thin. It seemed to begin and end too far along his cheeks, like the corners of his lips were split. The whole effect was one of a clown’s face without the white and red makeup. That, and the total immobility of his whole face, is something I can yet see in my mind’s eye after all these years. It was as though he were a stranger wearing an Uncle Jack mask. It just wasn’t him. That intrigued me.
Aunt Belinda had appeared at our side during my time of study, and made some comment or another, something to the effect of “isn’t he sweet,” and Daddy cordially responded with another bizarre comment – “he does look good.” And I’m standing there thinking, well, he looks dead to me. Daddy’s shoulders had begun to shake, just a little, and his jaws were all knotted up again. I turned around to check to see what Mama and Sarah were doing, and Mama was already crying, as I knew she would. Sarah was, and is, the kind of girl who was prone to cry when other folks did. This time, though, she wasn’t crying – she was just standing there in abject horror, pale and rooted to the spot. That was as close as she ever got to the casket.
I turned back to observe Uncle Jack again. He hadn’t moved, although it would have been alarming if he had. I felt two separate sets of hands on my shoulders – Daddy on one side, and Anna’s husband’s on the other. I guess they thought I would faint, or needed to be restrained because I might run from the house screaming, so they were probably disappointed when I did neither.
I did make it out of the house and into the yard. Several people were eyeing me, evaluating me, to see if I had survived this rite of passage. I felt like I had been initiated into some arcane club – I had seen a dead person. Looking back, I suppose it was a life-changing experience for me. Nevertheless, I just didn’t see the big fuss over a corpse. I was more interested in going out back to peek into the chicken houses, and thought it would be fun to throw some little stones at those wretched birds just to watch them flap and squawk. I didn’t want to hurt any of them, but I figured they might appreciate a change in their routine and boring lives. Uncle Jack wouldn’t have anything to say about it, that’s for sure.
There was some debate between Mama and Daddy as to whether or not Sarah and I would be allowed to attend the funeral the next day. In the end, they decided that we should both go. At seven, it was supposed that I would be oblivious as to what was going on, and that I had weathered seeing Uncle Jack laying up there as a corpse just fine. So I was forced to put on the starchiest white shirt you can imagine, which I thought was going to rub my neck raw, along with a ridiculous bow tie and shorts with suspenders. Sarah was dressed in multiple layers of petticoats, and I wasn’t sure if the funeral was more about how nice we looked more so than how Uncle Jack looked. I guess subconsciously Mama and Daddy wanted us to look better than the dead man, although I’m sure they would have denied it.
I’d been to “big church” a few times before, although I found it to be stifling and way too long to have to sit still. Well, the funeral was a thousand times worse than big church ever was. For one thing, folks were all grim and mournful, with most of the women clutching little crumpled tissues and the men looking like they’d been drinking pickle juice. Second, when the preacher got around to doing his part, the congregation was already wrung out with manufactured emotion. It’s like people were trained to cry on cue. A lady named Mrs. Honeycutt sang “Abide With Me,” and it was just awful – it’s like someone had pinched her with pliers. Then the preacher prayed, and read some scripture, something about “the resurrection and the life,” and it made no sense at all. Then Mrs. Honeycutt wrapped her nasally voice around “In the Garden,” and I wondered who “Andy” was, because there was this one line that went, “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own,” and I thought the song was supposed to be about Jesus.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the preacher mounted the pulpit and did his very best to make everyone cry some more. His face was all pinched up and his brow was furrowed, as though he had gas pains, and again he took off on something about how we were all going to be raised incorruptible – I wasn’t sure what all that meant, but it did have something about dead bodies coming out of the ground, and for a little while he had my attention, because I thought that would be something to see.
But he lost me soon afterwards, and I got to looking at the stained glass windows, which were a frosty blue and had no designs other than swirls and smears, which reminded me of an aquarium. I had managed to sit still – Mama had already threatened me – but I’d had enough. But then the preacher “amened,” and the family was asked to rise, and we got to march out in front of the casket, which had been closed all this time.
At Aunt Belinda’s request, the casket was reopened so we could all get one last look at Uncle Jack, which I thought was pointless, because we’d already had plenty of opportunities to inspect him. My parents weren’t aware that I’d been privy to the conversation they’d had the night before, saying that the casket should have stayed closed, because it might upset everyone and undo all the good the preacher had tried to accomplish in giving some comfort and closure. I’ve since learned that funerals bring out the strangest things in people, and Aunt Belinda had insisted on the casket being opened once more, so there you are.
Turns out Mama and Daddy were right. As soon as Aunt Belinda walked in front of the casket, she let out a wail that caused the whole congregation to gasp in unison, and before it registered with anyone what was about to happen, Aunt Belinda had reached down into the casket, grabbed Uncle Jack under his shoulders, and lifted him upright in the casket to a sitting position. His head flopped backwards like it was on a hinge, and Aunt Belinda hollered “OH JACK” as she threw her own head back, too. Then she wailed.
Anna and April’s husbands sprang into action, with one of them prying Aunt Belinda loose while the other, grimacing, tried to gently lower Uncle Jack back down. The preacher stood by stupidly, watching this spectacle.
Uncle Jack didn’t want to cooperate; he was already pretty stiff, even though his neck was still pliable, and April’s husband Freddie was trying valiantly to get him arranged back in place. The funeral director and two of his henchmen shooed Freddie away and managed to situate Uncle Jack back into the casket, and just as efficiently clamped the lid down.
By this time, of course, the congregation had absorbed this drama with a blend of horror and fascination. The pallbearers were able to wheel the casket down the long center aisle of the church and out toward the front door – family members and the other congregants had to part to let them get by. The ritual of the funeral, choreographed like a Broadway musical, had been disrupted beyond repair, so the best that could be hoped for was a semi-dignified graveside service. I don’t know how it all ended – Mama went on to the graveside, and Daddy pulled Sarah and me aside, with the promise of popsicles later.
If I live to be a thousand, I’ll never forget Uncle Jack’s funeral. This, I believe, was what started my lifelong fascination with death. And it was also the first time that I began thinking about God and heaven and other things I was expected to believe in, just because it was the way I was raised. If a belief in God was supposed to bring comfort, I sure didn’t see anything very comforting that morning, and even at seven years old, I decided that God was pretty much a myth, and was done with Him. No hard feelings.
That’s how I felt then. It was six years later that I came to understand that while death can’t be avoided, it can be postponed. Or even reversed.