Last Day with The Dead
by William Puryear
The coffin lay in the den propped open on an old piano bench, but the boy, peeking around the doorway from the hall and into the den, only smelled roasted turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots and green beans, wafting up behind him and wrapping around and filling his nostrils like Christmas supper, and he turned away from the coffin, went into the dining room and got in his seat and sat stiffly to wait on the others to come, because he was hungry; he did not eat breakfast that morning, because he didn’t want to, because she could not, but later that morning he sat in the church pew with his stomach growling and they arrived back home and it began to coil inside of him like a sheet of tin being twisted into a gnarled silver rope; he had to sit and wait to eat, stiff and anxious, his hunger like dead weight pulling him down into the chair and his feet not touching the floor at all.
The food lay out on the sideboard. They came in and Aunt Lindy fixed him a plate. His father sat at one end of the table and his Granddad sat at the other, carbon-copies of one another, only one had white hair and the other brown and graydusted, both of them tall and broad with beer guts which stuck out solid as a boulder, not hanging, nothing hanging, not even the aged and spotted skin drawn taught across their faces, their broad square jaws. Nothing sagging but still inert. A potent, erect inertia; proud. The dead woman in the coffin. I brought her her coffee this morning before anyone had even got out of bed, six thirty in the morning.
One last day with her like a festival. The boy wondered when the mail came, if there’d be any for her. He ate a lot, shoveled it in, sucked gravy from his fingertips, mopped his lips with his little red tongue.
Aunt Lindy walked around the table pouring sweet tea into their glasses from a plastic pitcher and sat down, her thin, rodent-face puckered, her hands laid out flat on the table like attending a seance, and said: “There ain’t nothing God won’t give you you can’t handle.”
“Yep,” said Granddad. “These potatoes are good.”
“What time does the mailman get here?” asked the boy.
“It’s come already, I just haven’t checked it,” the boy’s father laughed. “You don’t get any mail, what do you need to know about the mail for?”
“Mail run on Sunday?” asked Uncle Bob.
“Yeah, that’s right. Mail doesn’t run on Sunday.”
“You said the mail come already,” said the boy.
“Well you don’t get any mail, Eddie,” cried Aunt Lindy. “Little boys don’t get mail.”
“How do you know?” asked Granddad.
“Don’t be silly, Pop.”
“Hush,” said the Eddie’s father.
“Mail don’t run on Sunday,” cried Uncle Bob.
Everyone got quiet for a while and looked at their plates, shoveled food in.
“I wondered if mama got any letters,” said Eddie.
Everyone sat and ate, quietly, for a moment, then Granddad sat upright in his chair and belched, looked at the boy and laughed. Then they all laughed. Eddie sat and ate and stared into his food so hard he could have overcooked it.
“Might get a television today in town,” said Eddie’s father.
“I better put my face on, then,” said Aunt Lindy.
“You don’t need no face,” said Uncle Bob.
“I can’t go to town without no face. I need my face, my tote bag, and that’s it. All I ever needed in life was a face and a tote bag.”
Aunt Lindy dropped her fork onto her empty plate, drew her tote bag up from her side, rummaged around in there and pulled out a roll of yarn and some big knitting needles, sat there and knitted. They sat and ate quietly. Then they all finished eating and got up. Eddie waited, got up, and fixed a plate at the sideboard. His father and his Granddad and Uncle Bob went into the parlor, lighting cigars and sitting by the fireplace. They talked in there, but Eddie couldn’t hear what they were saying.
He brought a plate of food into the den. The food still hot and steam rising up and drifting as he walked, holding the plate with both hands stretched forth. The top half of the coffin pulled open, her hands folded over her chest, her face drawn tight, larvaecolored and dry. The coffee mug still sitting next to her shoulder, propped upright, wrapped in silky-white coffindressing, and Eddie thought they haven’t taken it out yet but the cup’s still full. They haven’t taken it out yet and cigar smoke drifted up behind the boy as he stood, very still, and he laid the plate of food on her chest between the hands crossed into an X and the larvaecolored face.
Someone knocked on the front door. Eddie balled his hand into a small, tight fist and rapped on the closed bottom-half of the coffin, keeping steady time. He stopped, then the knocking at the door commenced. His father called from the parlor: “Eddie, get the door.” Then: “Lindy, could you get the door?” Then Eddie rapped on the coffin again. I’ll bring you something you can take. You won’t drink your coffee, but maybe if I leave you alone you’ll eat. If you don’t eat it, I’ll give you something else you can take and keep.
Behind him the sound of the front door opening and making the slow squeaking bursts like a door that hadn’t been opened in a hundred years, and Aunt Lindy crying: “Oh father, father, thank the Lord, we’ve been expecting you all day,” and the boy turned around and watched Reverend Beecham step into the parlor, the curved back in the long black wool coat and the hair, lightning-white and hanging to his shoulders limply from the thin crown around the great bald spot like a buzzard’s. Eddie heard talking without hearing what they were saying, and a moment later the four men came out of the parlor and into the den smoking cigars and Reverend Beecham smoking too, smoke pluming from his thin wrinkled lips and his eyes set back far into his head, pecan-shaped, glassy and black like obsidian, his eyebrows like gnarled white caterpillars. His nose a great hook and his cheeks sunken. His crown of white hair flaring behind his ears like angel’s wings. Reverend Beecham looked at Eddie and smiled.
“Hello, boy,” he said. “Let me see your mama.”
He took a long one from his cigar, a red glow swelling on his face and the smoke creating thunderheads beneath the ceiling.
Reverend Beecham reached both hands into the coffin. He picked up the plate and held it, presented it to Eddie’s father.
“Damn it, son,” said his father, and “Eddie McCallan” cried Granddad, and “I don’t think she’s hungry, Eddie,” said Uncle Bob. Eddie turned around, his mother lying in the coffin. He turned back around, looked at his father and said: “I just wanted to give her something to eat.”
“We’re sorry, Reverend. Boy, if Reverend Beecham weren’t here I’d take a switch to your ass, by God. I’m sorry. Are you hungry, Reverend? Have you had anything to eat?”
“Oh, I’m perfectly al–”
“Just take that plate into the dining room and have you some dinner.”
“Oh no, I’m quite alright. Not hungry at all,” he said, and he handed the plate to Eddie’s father, who quickly stepped away toward the kitchen and slid the plate into the refrigerator, so as not to spoil the leftovers.
Reverend Beecham stood, peered into the coffin, leaned down and pulled out the coffee mug. He smelled it, dipped his finger into it.
“Brrrr,” he said, and took the cigar from his lips and put it out on the inside of the mug. It hissed in the cold coffee, and Granddad cried: “Aunt Lindy. Pour Reverend Beecham a hot cup of coffee.”
“Eddie thought that cup of coffee was going to wake the dead,” said Uncle Bob.
“I’m about to have him pick a switch out there and I’ll wake the dead on his ass,” said his father coming back from the kitchen.
They went into the dining room and sat down and had coffee. Eddie sat at the table with his head down, his feet dangling, floating above the floor. Aunt Lindy circled the table and poured coffee.
“You coming to town with us, Reverend?” Asked Aunt Lindy.
“I’m thinking I just might,” he said, and he leaned back in his chair, balancing on its hind legs and relighting the cigar with a copper-colored Zippo.
“She went to town with us every Sunday,” said Granddad. “She always had the energy. My little girl was always fit to go to town. Could have been a city girl. She could’ve fit herself into just about anywhere.”
“Anywhere,” said Eddie’s father.
They piled into Granddad’s ’46 Ford Wagon and headed out along the driveway by the crape myrtles, the Bradford pears stinking in the spring air, the gravel crumbling and growling beneath the tires and the sun raised high above the trees and glaring sharply into the car, and Eddie looking out the back window, the house squat and low behind the trees, thinking we left her we left her we left her. We are going to town but we left her, we could have put her in the back. There’s a trailer out back we could have pulled, too.
But I’m going to get her something she can take and keep.
On Main Street the buildings sat plotted in two rows stacked two-high and the sun buzzing and people alive and coming in and out of places and shuffling and talking. Lights blinked across a marquee. Music played from an open balcony and blew on down the road, a yawing dobro and a school of fiddles, their raspy whines and their buzzing spectra. They trailed behind Beecham on the sidewalk beneath shop awnings. They passed a candy store and a fat man in the window poured praline dollops on a big strip of wax paper. They passed by a pet store, dogs in their cages and yapping through the glass, birds in their cages and chittering and bouncing on toothpick legs. A brief gust of something horrid fled into Eddie’s nostrils as they passed. Aunt Lindy pinched her nose, too. Reverend Beecham cocked his head back and flared his nostrils. A small dog pawed at the glass and yelped and Eddie thought a pet, a little dog for mama, to grow up and get big in there just like Eavey. Something she can pet and feed, something she can keep and love. Eddie felt at his pockets, felt the allowance he’d saved up, money he’d saved bringing the paper to Mr. Kidd on his farm out back where the main road doesn’t go. The coins rattling and a few bills scraping together in his pockets. He frowned.
“I’m going to make us a big cake, Reverend Beecham,” said Aunt Lindy.
“Mmmmm. Lord, Miss Lindy,” said Reverend Beecham.
“She makes a good cake.”
“Lily made a good cake, too” said Eddie’s father.
“Let’s make mama a cake,” cried Eddie.
“Damn did my baby make a good cake,” said Granddad.
“All them McCallan women know how to,” said Beecham. “Knew how to curb that sweet tooth, yep. Y’all all know how to curb that sweet tooth, Miss Lindy.”
“Oh, Father,” cried Lindy.
“Oh, Lord,” said Uncle Bob.
“I’m going to make an Eye-talian cream cake,” she said.
“Hot Lord, mama,” said the reverend. “An Eye-talian cream cake? Please, don’t torture me.”
“Make a chocolate one,” said Granddad. “Lily used to make a Coca-Cola cake. Shit-damn she made a hell of a good Coca-Cola cake.” Then Granddad hacked and spat on the sidewalk in mid-stride, pulled a cigar out if his front shirt pocket, flared a heavy match and lit it.
“If Miss Lindy wants to make an Eye-talian cream cake then that’s all right with me,” said Reverend Beecham.
“I want a Coca-Cola cake,” cried Eddie. “Make a Coca-Cola cake.”
“I’ll make a Coca-Cola cake on your ass, boy.” his father said.
Johnson’s was around the corner from the candy and pet shops, the biggest store on Main Street, set back off the road and sprawling. One half of the store was filled with produce stands and grocery aisles and the other half stuffed with racks of clothing, mannequins dolled and eyeless with painted lips, a row of television sets against a wall.
“Lindy, you get some cream and condensed milk and we’re going to look at some television sets,” said Granddad.
“You need to get you a television set,” Reverend Beecham said.
“Been wanting one. May get one.”
“Maybe Lily would like one,” Reverend Beecham said. “Last day before her burial, a nice big RCA. Whoo, look at that one,” he pointed.
An RCA on four wooden legs. A nice round screen in the middle. Little white dots dancing and scrambling around the screen, sporadic, myriad. They stepped over in front of it and glared. Beecham petted the top of the television, ran his fingers delicately up the antennae.
“I’m going to help Aunt Lindy in the grocery,” said Eddie.
“Boy oh boy, son, this might be your lucky day,” Reverend Beecham said. He gripped Eddie’s shoulder, glanced over at Granddad and winked at him. Granddad winked back.
“You been talking about it,” said Granddad.
“Last day before her burial,” said the reverend.
“My little girl.”
“Y’aint going to toss no television set six foot in the ground are you?” asked Uncle Bob.
“Shoot no,” said Eddie’s father. “Eddie. Go help your aunt out in the grocery.”
Eddie hurried away and caught up to Aunt Lindy in the grocery section, followed her by the dairy coolers.
“I’ll help you carry that tote bag of yours, Aunt Lindy,” he said.
“Well shoot, it is getting heavy.”
“Here, let me carry it.”
“Well, aren’t you sweet,” she cried.
He snatched the bag and tossed the strap over his shoulder.
“Alright,” he said. “I’m going to go back over to see about that television.”
“Oh. You do that, sugar,” she said. “Wait a minute. I need that tote bag to tote my groceries around with.”
“I thought you just needed a couple things, Aunt Lindy.”
“Well, I guess,” she said. “You’re acting mighty sweet, young man.”
“I know you always have your things in there, thought it might be kind of heavy.”
“Well,” she said. “Acting mighty sweet. Y’aint up to no good are you?”
“Alright then, sugar. Go help them out with that television. Shoot,” she smiled. “You are a growing boy.”
The men stood huddled by the television with Henry, a stout, bald salesperson.
“This is the one,” said Reverend Beecham.
“You can’t do better. Can’t spend better neither,” explained Henry.
“Last day before her burial.”
“Boy,” said Henry. “I can’t tell y’all how sorry I am. But hell, the lord won’t give you nothing you can’t handle.”
“That’s the truth,” said the reverend.
“My little girl.”
“Alright,” said Eddie’s father. “Let’s haul this sumbitch in the back of that wagon.”
Aunt Lindy emerged with the carton of cream and two big cans of condensed milk.
“I got everything I need,” she cried. “Lord. Are y’all really buying that thing?”
“It’s your lucky day,” said Beecham. He lit a cigar and watched as Henry and Uncle Bob hauled up the big box with the television set and loaded it onto a flat-cart.
“Shoot,” said Aunt Lindy, and she touched the back of her hand to her forehead and bent herself backward like a mock fainting. “Praise God,” she said. “Well that was all kind of sudden.”
“It’s the right time,” said Beecham.
“Last day before her burial,” explained Eddie’s father.
“Where’s Eddie?” said Granddad.
“I thought he was with Aunt Lindy.”
“I thought he was with y’all.”
“Well then,” he said. “Let’s haul this sumbitch and then we’ll find him.”
They opened up the hatch of the ’46 Ford Wagon and lifted up the box, Aunt Lindy and Reverend Beecham watching. A cigar sat smoldering from Beecham’s lips.
Eddie strolled down the parking lot with the tote bag, swinging it around like a thurible of incense. Eddie’s father, while struggling with the box as it wobbled around, all the men straddle-legged and tottering toward the back of the wagon, glared at the boy and grunted: “There’s that little demon,” and Reverend Beecham placed his palm on Eddie’s hair and said: “How you doing, boy?”
“You didn’t know you was going get a television today, did you?”
“Well, sometimes good things happen just as sudden as bad things does.”
They loaded the box into the back, shut the hatch, and Eddie’s father said: “I’ll deal with that boy later. Everybody get in the car.”
“You going to hang on to that tote bag, sugar?”
They got in the car and rode out. Eddie sat smashed in the backseat between Aunt Lindy and Granddad. Uncle Bob sat squashed next to Lindy by the window. They drove on down the road and a wild effluvium of rot filled the car.
“Good God a-mighty,” said Eddie’s father. “It smells something God awful.”
“I know it. I may vomit,” cried Aunt Lindy. “I mean it, I may very well vomit right here.”
“Good God, roll all the windows down,” yelled Granddad. “Christ.”
“I will,” she cried. “I’ll do it. I’ll vomit right here.”
“Not on me you won’t,” cried Uncle Bob. “Not on these new pair-a pants.”
“Christ a-mighty,” Beecham said. “That’s the smell of a good new purchase is what it is.”
“No it ain’t,” cried Lindy. “It’s whatever’s in, it’s, it’s coming from that tote bag.”
“I’m going to have to stop the damn car. Yep. I’m stopping the damn car.”
“Settle down, children,” Reverend Beecham cried, and he pressed his palms to the roof of the car. “Settle down.”
“Open up that tote bag,” screamed Aunt Lindy. Eddie drew the tote bag in close, crunched it against his chest. “Open it,” she screamed. “In God’s name, open it.”
He did, and she screamed. Eddie’s father screeched the car to a dead halt on the shoulder of the road. “Yep, that’s it,” he said. And Aunt Lindy blew out the door, throwing herself over Uncle Bob and hooking him with her foot, and him rolling out of the car and onto the ground, covering the back of his head with his hands like avoiding the commencement of gunfire. Aunt Lindy stood at the shoulder of the road and vomited.
“Shit-Christ,” yelled Granddad. “That’s a dead dog in there. There’s a dead dog in that tote bag.”
“What in God’s name, Eddie,” said his father.
“Last day before her burial,” Beecham whispered.
Granddad opened the door and got out, told Eddie to get out, took the tote bag from him. Aunt Lindy screamed and Granddad upturned the bag. It fell out and hit the ground. The air was filled with it. Rot filled their nostrils and Aunt Lindy vomited more. Eddie’s father stepped out of the car and hunched himself over, pale-faced and drooling.
Reverend Beecham slid into the driver’s seat. “I’ll take the wheel from here,” he said.
Out back behind the house the men stood in front of three small tombstones, side by side, beer cans in their hands and slurping from the cans and Beecham handing out cigars. The sun sat well behind the trees beyond the house. A dull rosy glow, a dark line at the upper rim of the sky carrying a faint spray of stars. It got darker. Lightning bugs whirled and blinked. A bloodcolored band of light settled on the horizon.
Last day before her burial. A faded tombstone for Granny McCallan, a swelling of the land overgrown with pansies lying before it. A few dead bouquets. A small tombstone next to that one: Eavey, it said. A small swelling of the land and a few old dog bones lying there. The next tombstone read: Lilith McCallan, 1921-1953. Married Allen McCallan. Mothered Edgar McCallan. Loved all. The Cancer Taketh.
A rectangular hole in front of that tombstone, it getting darker out there and the hole like a depthless black shaft. The men stood, solemn and austere for one single moment, the sun receding farther behind the trees out there.
“And there she’ll stay,” said Allen McCallan.
“Only her body,” said Beecham.
“Well, what the hell else is there?” asked Uncle Bob.
Granddad squinted his eyes, turned toward Uncle Bob and said: “Her soul, damn it.”
“The Lord takes them early,” said Beecham.
“The purty ones,” said Uncle Bob.
Granddad closed his eyes and sucked his lips in, as if he were about to cry.
“A trashcan behind the pet store,” said Allen. “Can you believe that?”
“Have mercy,” said Uncle Bob.
A soft wind blew. Beecham’s ghost-white and spiderweb-thin hair fluttered and tilted in the wind, a few red embers drifting away from the cherry of his cigar. It smelled like fall out there, like leaves burning. Granddad held his belly in his hands and sucked his lips in.
“Boy’s a damned heathen,” said Allen.
“No,” said Beecham, and he gripped Allen’s shoulder. “He’ll be fine. He’s a good boy.”
“I ain’t going to let him out of that room the rest of his damned life.”
“Good thing we threw away that tote bag. Poor little Lindy,” said Uncle Bob.
“She baking that cake in there still, sick as she is.”
“A saint,” said Beecham. “You’re a lucky man, Bob.”
Granddad started to cry.
“Only the purty ones. Only the good ones.”
“God won’t do nothing you can’t take and handle.”
It got darker.
“Well,” Allen said. “What y’all say we unload that television?”
The television sat in a corner of the den opposite the coffin. Full dark outside and the dark spilling in through the windows. The four men huddled around the television and the small screen filled with static spectra, spare in the black screen and bright in its scrambling phosphorescence, its rushing sounds like waves crashing on a beach yet constant and fluid. The only light in that room being the static and a faint orange glow emitted by the fire burning in the parlor across the hall. Faint sounds of Lindy clanging dishes in the kitchen.
“It looks like, snow,” Uncle Bob said.
“Yeah,” said Granddad. “Like snow.”
“And so winter has come already,” the reverend said, laughing.
They stood very still, as still as the woman in the coffin, the snowy static reflecting in the pools of black beneath their corneas. Reverend Beecham stepped quietly to the coffin, peered inside. The larvaecolored face drawn tight, sick-looking and begging to be submerged beneath the dirt. Day before her burial.
The boy Eddie lay on his side next to the mother, sucking his thumb, staring wide-eyed at the reverend. “Ah,” he whispered. “You sneaky little devil, you,” and chuckling, cigar smoke dribbling from his lips. He took a long drag from it and the cherry lit his face, a bright red swell, smoke rising and clouding the ceiling and the three men standing very still and facing the television, still and silent, eyes flashing and scrambling. The static and the snow. The boy sucked his thumb. Reverend Beecham pulled his cigar from his lips and handed it to the boy, who took the cigar and he sucked on its wet end, licked it and sucked at it. Reverend Beecham chuckled, took back the cigar and took another drag from it, reddening his face. The boy held on to his mother.
Reverend Beecham reddened his face again, smiled, reached into the coffin and put out the cigar, then he pressed his palm to the side of the coffin. And he could feel the Eddie’s heartbeat, beating through the wood, through the side of the coffin.
He shut it.
William Puryear is a young writer from Chattanooga, Tennessee. When he’s not reading authors like William Gay, Barry Hannah or Flannery O’ Connor, he’s fly fishing the Hiwassee River, bartending in downtown Chattanooga and searching for stories. Puryear is also the fiction editor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s literary journal Sequoya Review.