“Rubygene, if you didn’t even like Mr. Davis, why go to his funeral?” She never did make any sense, and this time was no exception. “Just stay home. Be content to read his obituary, especially with the weather hot as it is.” The inside of the car was a furnace, even with the windows down. Hell is real. It’s an old Pontiac at noon in late July.
My great-aunt shifted her girdle around in the oven of the driver’s seat, steering the massive automobile with just her knees. Surely we would hurtle to our own deaths within a quarter-mile. “Myrtle Mae,” she snapped, “there are some things in life you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them. Besides,” she said as she inexplicably rolled up the window, “funerals are never for the dead. They’re for the living. What’s that sticking out of your pocketbook?”
“Nothing.” I eased a hand over to stuff the racing forms back into my purse. The tires on my side of the car made a fierce rock-slinging noise as they rolled off the pavement and onto the too-soft shoulder. “Watch where you’re going!”
She nudged the car back between the faded white lines and cut her eyes again to the floorboard. “Great day in the morning. Bringing the devil’s playthings into the house of God. You ought to be ashamed.” And I was ashamed, but not for the reasons she was hoping. So we baked on down the road to the Primitive Baptist church, which was no more air conditioned than that tank of a car. Foot-washing, tongue-speaking, grave-digging, and oven-roasting all in one day. I don’t care what your McGuffey Reader says: there is no fun in funeral.
In the worn, sandy churchyard, the old ladies’ cars pointed out like a Detroit starburst: grilles to the road, and fins either to the church, the parsonage, or the clubhouse. Seasoned funeral veterans, they were no fools—set that bad V-8 in Exodus Mode, and let the rear axle throw gravel as soon as the last handful of red clay scattered across the top of the vault. Rubygene did them one better. She parked the Catalina at the farthest edge of the yard, half on the velvety carpet of moss under the last oak tree, and half on the grassy strip alongside the black gravel-dust road. I had to admit it was a pretty good getaway position.
Rubygene shoved the shifter into Park, cut the motor, and swung open the heavy door. “Pull down that hem. Button that dress all the way up.” I did as she said, then grabbed my bag. “Oh no, missy. There is not even a hint of gambling in the Lord’s abode.”
“Yes, Rubygene.” I stuffed my purse and what was left of my dignity under the front seat, then followed in her dusty footprints to the church steps.
The sanctuary was so full of floral offerings that, even outside in the churchyard, the smell of carnations hung thick in the air. They were “death flowers,” far as I was concerned. In the fourth grade, Otis Hardeman gave me a crumpled little bouquet of them for Valentine’s Day. I was giddy until third period elocution. That’s when Willie Ann Sprayberry pointed and laughed and said he snatched them out of his grandmama’s funeral wreath in the wee hours before the school bus careened down Butler Road to pick us all up. I loved Otis for six more years, but carnations and I were through. Now their sweetly numbing scent mixed with the tacky evergreens in the cemetery, swirled up my nose with the musty oil-soap perfume of the floor and pews. With all these smells, and with it being so hot, I just knew I would vomit by the last “Praise Jesus.”
Deep summer in Georgia means there is no reason for wearing sleeves, girdles, stockings, or dark colors. Yet here we were, in front of God and everybody, breaking every single one of these rules in the name of propriety, tradition, and good manners. Talk about a Lost Cause. Itching, sweating, soaking up every sunbeam, and not even enough sense to stand under the shade of the red oaks yawning out over the cinderblock picnic tables. After we signed the book and nodded to Mr. Quattles from the mortuary, Rubygene creaked on up the rickety front steps of the church. And her with that hat, good grief. It was black and iridescent green, made of moth-eaten felt and the rooster feathers she’d so carefully collected after the original plumes crumbled to dust. The color said “funeral.” The shape said “Phenix City whorehouse.”
Once we were in the door, Rubygene removed her now-sweaty black linen coat. “Had enough of this thing, now that we’re here…”
In the middle of the church, the red velvet-trimmed silk crepe number screamed louder than a Pentecostal party of twelve when Morrison’s runs out of dinner rolls. And sleeveless, when she made me wear this long-sleeved torture chamber of a dress. Right then, I swore to God and Rex Humbard that I would get her for this. But we had arrived so close to the start of the service that there was no time to plot my revenge.
The casket was still open. Miss Rainey, whose old maid piano teacher stylings underscored every funeral I had ever attended, wrapped up “He Touched Me” and segued into “Blessed Assurance.” Rubygene lurched up the aisle, dragging me along. Heads turned. Silk flowers practically vibrated atop Methodist and Southern Baptist hats. “But I don’t want to—”
“Didn’t nobody ask you what you want.” She scanned the congregation. “Come on. Let’s pay our respects.”
“Our respects? I didn’t even know the man.” This was the longest walk of my life. All these foot-washers staring us down, with their plain bare no-makeup faces and straight long hair and ankle-length skirts in this heat. Lord, if You’ll just get me out of this, I prayed silently, I will never ever ask You for anything ever again. Which naturally was a bold-faced lie, but good people do bad things under duress.
And there he lay.
Poor old Vote Davis. He was stretched out against the quilted powder-blue satin, as bald and waxy as ever, except now a sickly pale somewhere between buttermilk and pork brains. Heart attack, they said, but his face sure did have a shellacked, patched-together look. His wife must have hated him to let Quattles dress him in that double-knit number. The smell of carnations was extra-strong up here. I felt my stomach heave, and turned to Rubygene.
But she was staring hard, straight ahead into the casket. Maybe she was having another fit. Paw-Paw had warned me about this. Where did I put that syringe? She spoke in a low growl, low like the rumble of far-off thunder across swampland.
“Well. It’s a pleasure to see you again, Vote. But this time, the pleasure is all mine.”
“Rubygene?” Oh, God. I had left my purse, and the syringe, in the car, stuffed under the seat with my racing forms.
“Eyes closed. Mouth closed, for once. Legs out straight. Arms by his sides. And his hands—” She craned her crumpled brown paper sack neck to see over into the casket. “Folded over his pecker. Of course.” Over on the piano, Miss Rainey trudged through “Blessed Assurance” a third time, waiting for us to get the hint. Yet my grandmother’s sister stood there, immovable as Moses before the Red Sea, and perhaps was about to lift her own arms and work an obscene miracle here in the Primitive Baptist sanctuary. Lord, have mercy.
“They’re about to start! What are you doing?”
“Making sure he’s dead.”
Miss Rainey switched to “He Is Coming Again,” this time pianissimo to signal the start of the service. Someone made a half-coughing noise, and one of the deacons’ chairs groaned against the varnished floor. Rubygene sighed a loud, dramatic sigh and raised her voice so that even the old biddies in the back pew, with their near-dead hearing aid batteries, could listen in.
“I declare! He just looks so lifelike, as if he could set right up and sing along,” she said. “Poor, poor Vote. Gone before his time. He was a good one, yessir. Mighty, mighty, mighty good.” Her voice grew dry and cold at this last. Over the faltering piano strains, I could hear the whooshing rhythm of a hundred cardboard church fans speed up. In a normal world, I would be sitting in one of those musty pews, semi-cooling myself with one of those ugly fans. Suddenly, I missed Cardboard Paint-by-Number Jesus and His strangely blond hair so much I could cry.
Rubygene went on. “And he sure done a lot for this county. Laid a lot of pipe between here and Mobile. And Tupelo, and Columbia, and Memphis. Maybe not the smartest man, but good. Why, if you put his brain on the head of a match, it would roll around like a muscadine in a truck stop parking lot”—she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief—”bless his heart.” She spun us both around.
Inez Davis stood square behind us. Her boiling red face, almost as red as Rubygene’s dress, seemed as wide as the aisle. “Hussy. You brazen hussy.”
Rubygene said nothing. She kept her eyes locked with the beady little brown ones buried in the rolls of fat on Miss Inez’s face.
“How dare you disrespect my husband.” The woman’s face burned nearly crimson. “How dare—”
“How dare you defend him,” Rubygene said. “Of course, if you don’t know by now who he really was, you probably never will.”
“You whore!” Inez hissed. “Whore, whore, whore!”
“Never could quit talking about yourself, could you?”
Miss Inez dropped clean in the floor.
I can’t recall how we got back out in the churchyard. All I remember is seeing Inez Davis’s eyes slide up as if to look at her forehead, and four hundred pounds of Jesus freak roll out of my field of vision and into a puddle in the middle of the Primitive Baptist church. Bet they didn’t have that much excitement even at Revival. Before I knew it, we were back in the car. Rubygene was straightening her cathouse hat and draping the black linen coat over the seat so it wouldn’t wrinkle any more. She finally saw my face, and spoke.
“You all right? Sick to your stomach?”
“A little.” As with much of what had just happened, I wasn’t sure how true this was.
“We’ll have us a cold ginger ale when we get home.” She paused, looked over her shoulder at the commotion pouring forth onto the church steps, and frowned. “Remember when I said there are things you just do, especially when you don’t want to do them?”
“What you saw in there is a perfect example.”
“But—” My belly hurt so bad. “You’re not a—whore. You’re a decent woman. Whores have sex for money.”
Rubygene shook her head, rustling the defiant feathers that arched from her hat. “Every woman has had sex for money.” She turned the key in the narrow slot of the ignition. “Most just don’t know it.”
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)
NOTE: I first posted this piece on 14 February 2014. It appears here today with revisions. With any luck, Myrtle Mae and Rubygene will soon return in a new scene.