I reckon all of us remember the first time we saw a dead body. I do, at least. But then again, I remember just about everything. Even things I would like to unknow and unsee but can’t for the life of me. And I torture myself with these things to this very day, with no earthly way to erase the reality of them, all of which burn like hot coals in my mind and lurk behind my eyes when I’m drifting off to sleep.
She laid there in her blushing pink casket, one that she had picked out for herself a few years earlier, her hair coiffed and permed as it always had been, and dyed a rich dark brown, the very shade that nature had given her, and I recognized her face, as waxen and stretched as it looked to me as I studied it, and the pale pink lipstick the mortician had carefully dabbed on her unnaturally set lips, but she wasn’t in that tomb of a corpse. I knew better. She was as gone as last summer’s balm. And Mamaw Evangeline would have never worn that shade of pink lipstick. She wore scarlet red, and better than anybody else could ever dare.
And no doubt Aunt Norma Jean had picked out the dress that her body wore, and would for all earthly eternity, with dainty roses and lines of green ivy and white lace detailing around the neckline and cuffs of her folded arms. Her hands were stiff and cold. I touched them for only a second or two, until I couldn’t stand the thoughts of it at all, but they were hers. I recognized them. I knew the rings upon her ring fingers, the mother’s ring and the wedding band and the square diamond, and Daddy had said that they were her rings, and they’d go with her, even though Ambrose had mentioned under his breath that they could have paid for her funeral with what that diamond was worth alone. He was less than human, I swear to God.
Lord only knows what he thought of me. Uncle Ambrose hadn’t said a good ten words directly to me in all my born days, and I didn’t care. I held my head high anyway. I was, I’d just realized, the Evangeline Nicewander. I was no longer just some little red-headed girl who had been named after her grandmother. And I looked damn good standing there in my black suit—never mind that it was Valerie’s—and standing in the very scarlet heels that had been my dead Mamaw’s. And I figured maybe he resented me for that notion alone. The gall I had. Mamaw Evangeline would have loved it.
I couldn’t stand to look at her anymore, the dead woman dressed in that godawful frock that she would have never picked out for herself. I gave Uncle Ambrose a glance as I sat down in a highback chair there at Cedar Bluff Funeral Home. He had his scrutinizing eyes on me, and I could almost hear his thoughts. Just like her no count mother. And that slut, Pearl McCoy. Just another pretty red-headed no count.
I looked away from his scowling face and forced the thoughts out of my head.
And then I couldn’t help but recall Mamaw Evangeline telling me the stories about sittin’ up with the dead back in Kentucky, and how she would shudder and praise the Lord, just for good measure, at the remembrance of it all. She had sworn she had gone to a funeral once, in a neighbor’s front yard back in Rockhouse, and it had been mid-summer and hot as blue blazes, and the dead man in the pine box was sweating like a mule. The preacher kept wiping sweat off the dead fella’s brow, she had said. And if it wasn’t a horrible enough sight to see, the very notion of that dead man not really being dead was beyond decent thought. But I thought it. Maybe that poor man had awoke after he was buried, whatever affliction that he suffered long worn off, and he realized too late that he was buried in the ground, and would never see daylight again.
I imagined there just might be a coffin somewhere up in a Kentucky holler with old bones in it, eye sockets and teeth agape, with claw mark attempts of escape and what was left of furious bits of fingernails clinging to the nailed down wooden lid, if earth itself hadn’t crushed any recognizable remains of it or the once very alive man inside, the damp dirt soaked with his desperate sweat and nobody left to wipe it away.
I hoped he was good and dead long before he was covered with earth and shut away forever.
And other dead people, the ones that had started to reek, those were the ones they all sat up with. All night long, by the light of oil lamps and moonshine and grief, while the Baptist church elders sang their stirring and direful dirges about Hell and the hereafter into the wee hours and the kin women wailed, fueled by the sad church hymns sung by lamplight, and the distant relatives fixed coffee and put the children in their places on pallets of blankets just inches above the dirt below the wooden slats of the floor. It was just to keep the rats and vermin from getting’ to the bodies, she told me. That’s why we did it. There was even somebody swattin’ the flies off the dead. And the men folk would go about their ways, as they always did, out on the porch smokin’ pipes and associatin’ like there was no tomorrah while the women bellered and kept the critters away from the dead bodies. The men folk got it easy. Don’t let ’em fool ya none. Ain’t none of them had it as bad as us.