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Elvis and the Dearly Departed
By Peggy Webb KENSINGTON BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Peggy Webb
All right reserved.
Chapter One Love, Vodka, and Red Pasties
Elvis has just peed on my shoes, which is my life in a nutshell. Every time I think I'm fixing to forge forward, somebody comes along to rain on my parade.
Not only do I have the most arrogant failed show dog east of the Mississippi, but I have a beauty parlor that's more outgo than income, an almost ex-husband I'm fighting for custody of my dog and my inconvenient libido, and a mama who makes withdrawals as if I'm the Bank of Callie Valentine Jones.
Currently Elvis is taking umbrage over getting dog chow for supper while Dr. Laton's California relatives eat all the T-bone steak. Uncle Charlie always offers the out-of-town bereaved a place to stay, and my two-story, white clapboard house in Mooreville (population six hundred and fifty) on the outskirts of Tupelo is the only one in the Valentine family big enough to accommodate Janice Laton Mims, her husband, Bradford, and his three teenaged boys, plus Janice's seven-piece matched set of Louis Vuitton luggage. The only good thing I can say about the invasion is that I don't have to worry about being bushwhacked in my own bed by Jack Jones.
I bend over to scratch behind Elvis' ears. Ordinarily this would make him forgive me, but just when I'm about to placate my opinionated basset hound, one of Dr. Laton's step-grandkids-Rufus, Ithink-runs up and pulls his tail. Major mistake. Elvis prances over and hikes his leg on Janice Laton Mims's Prada purse.
"Somebody get that animal out of here," she yells, never mind that she's a guest in my house.
"Don't worry. I'll clean it up. It'll be just like new." Collaring her purse and my dog, I escape to my kitchen.
Some people don't know the meaning of gratitude.
I'm happy to say I'm not among that number. I'm putting up with the Laton bunch because it makes Uncle Charlie happy, and I'd do anything for the man who has been my surrogate father and my stronghold for most of my thirty-seven years.
His motto at Eternal Rest is "laissez le bon temps rouler," which sounds strange for a funeral home unless you know the Valentine family. Although we have our serious side, we believe in letting the good times roll through every stage of life and that includes the leave-taking. Mama provides jazzy music and fancy headstones, I do the deceased's hair and makeup, Lovie eases the bereaved's pain with dishes featuring vodka, and Uncle Charlie sends the dearly departed off in high style to that big tent revival in the sky-or in the opposite direction.
The Valentine family has death covered. What we don't have covered is keeping our own leaky boats afloat, especially in the treacherous waters of finance and love.
As if to prove my point, Lovie calls my cell phone while I'm in the middle of trying to rescue the overpriced purse.
"Callie, you've got to stall Daddy on Dr. Laton's family viewing."
"Because Kevin Laton's going to be a little bit late."
"I don't know. It depends on how excited he gets over my crotchless panties and how long he can hold out."
Lovie's the most outrageous woman I know. She can walk into a room and bring everybody to their knees with laughter. But there's so much more to her than entertainment value. She's a strong, resilient, one-woman comfort machine.
Every time life clips my wings, Lovie picks me up and lets me glide along in her tailwinds till I'm strong enough to fly again.
After Daddy accidentally drove his tractor into the Tombigee River and floated off to Glory Land, I holed up in my bedroom determined to become the only ten-year-old recluse in Mooreville. Even Mama couldn't get me to come out. But Lovie marched into my bedroom and said, "If you don't come outside and play wedding Barbies this instant, I'm going to quit wearing clothes."
"Nobody in this house cares, Lovie," I told her.
"I bet the preacher will. Next Sunday I'm going to church naked."
And she would have, too. Even at nine, she was as bullheaded as the team of mules Granddaddy Valentine used to plow the vegetable garden. I left my malaise behind and didn't pick it up again till Jack left. Lovie came straight over with a six-pack of Hershey's bars and an armful of I Love Lucy DVDs, and brought me back to life.
If I had her capacity for cures, I'd save her from her bad choices in men.
But I don't, so all I can do is tell her, "Kevin's a playboy. He's never going to settle down."
"Who said I wanted to settle down? Besides, you married God's gift to women and look where that got you."
A yearlong standoff in the divorce court. That's where. Over a fracas involving the Harley that I refuse to discuss.
"That's tacky of you to remind me, Lovie."
"I'm a tacky, shallow person," she says, which is the exact opposite of the truth. "Just do this one thing for me, Callie, and I'll take Elvis to the vet the next time he has to go."
Taking Elvis to the vet is my personal Battle at Waterloo. He hikes his leg on everything from the car tires to the vet's pants leg, and that's when he's in a good mood.
"All right. I'll stall."
I make this promise reluctantly, not because stalling will be hard to do-the way the Laton teenagers are ripping around my backyard it'll take a lasso to get them started on the fifteen-minute drive to Eternal Rest in Tupelo-but because I worry about Lovie. She can't say no. More than one man has mixed up the name of her catering business-Lovie's Luscious Eats-and called it Luscious Lovie Eats.
She's the only woman I know who can make a hundred and ninety pounds look like a bombshell.
Beside her I look like a swizzle stick. No butt, long, skinny legs, size 34-B bra, which I refuse to stuff with push-up pads no matter how much sexier Lovie thinks I'd be. It's not sex I'm aiming for; it's commitment. Love everlasting and a house full of children.
Of course, my eggs are drying up even as I speak. If Jack keeps me hostage in the divorce courts much longer, I can forget progeny.
I'm getting ready to head outside and round up the California Latons when Mama calls from her monument company.
"Callie, I thought you and that California bunch were headed up here to pick up Mellie Laton. That mousy little tightwad is driving me crazy. It's time for my bedtime toddy."
"It's just five thirty, Mama."
"It's bedtime somewhere. First, Mellie picked out the cheapest monument on the lot. Then she wanted me to have it engraved with rest in peace. As if I'd ruin the entire reputation of Everlasting Monuments just because she has no imagination."
Mama's a colorful woman, partial to neon-pink caftans featuring Hawaiian flowers and tombstone engravings that proclaim He boogied on up to heaven and Saint Peter's holding the trumpet solo for Leonard Laton.
"Where is she now?" I ask.
"Sitting on my genuine Naugahyde couch in her ugly brown shoes drinking all my coffee and complaining because it's not Colombian. I'm going stark, raving mad. What I need is a little restorative trip to Tunica. You don't happen to have five hundred cash lying around, do you?"
"As I recall you didn't pay back the last hundred I loaned you."
"This time it'll be different. I feel a winning streak coming on."
What I feel is another big hole in my finances. I know I ought to be sensible and say no, but I never can refuse Mama. Ever since Daddy died, I've been trying to make up his loss to Ruby Nell Valentine.
Of course, she has to me, too. Even a little hint that I'm blue, and she races to the piano and belts out "Side by Side" in her lusty contralto. Then she hugs me and says, "As long as we've got each other, kid, we're okay."
I believe her. She'd never win anybody's Mother of the Year Award, but she has taught me to value the things that really count-family, friends, and a faithful dog.
"All right, Mama," I tell her now. "But just one more time."
Pigs are likely to grow wings and fly before Mama keeps that promise, and both of us know it. But we laugh and pretend otherwise because that's the Southern way: look on the bright side, no matter what.
One hour, two BC powders, and an act of God later-a big thunderclap that has driven the California Latons inside-I'm in Uncle Charlie's office at Eternal Rest.
"You look a bit frazzled, dear heart," Uncle Charlie tells me.
When he hugs me it's like being embraced by a combination of Santa Claus and a Sicilian godfather who wouldn't hesitate to cut off the head of an enemy's prized racehorse and put it in his bed.
"I'm fine, Uncle Charlie." Not exactly the truth, but I don't like to worry him. He takes his job as head of the Valentine family seriously.
"If all the Latons are here, we'll commence."
"Everybody's here except Bevvie."
"And where is she?"
"Hunting big game in the African bush with an arsenal of weapons that would make the U.S. Army green with envy." Lovie struts into the office sporting a hickey on her neck and a hairdo that looks like it was styled by a Mix Master. Red. Titian number six. Compliments of yours truly. "I pumped the information out of Kevin."
"Well, good for you, sweetheart."
Uncle Charlie offers both of us an arm, and if he's aware of Lovie's double entendre, we'll never know. He can win your new Cadillac in a poker game and make you think he's doing you a favor, wear a fifty-dollar suit and make you believe it's designer, show off a niece and a daughter with a dubious family tree and make you think we're blue-blooded aristocracy. "Shall we go into the viewing room and unveil the good doctor?"
The Latons are waiting for us in the sitting area off the viewing room. The rowdy Mims teenagers are lined up like bowling pins behind their daddy, Bradford, the middle-aged jock type, who has his hand on his wife's shoulder. Janice Laton Mims showed more emotion over her defaced Prada purse than she's showing over her deceased daddy. Of course, it could be her face-lift. Her skin's stretched so tight she can hardly blink, let alone move her mouth.
Mellie, too, is composed-her patent leather purse clutched in her lap, lips and legs pressed tightly together. Wearing glasses that went out of style with Herbert Hoover, she looks like she wouldn't say boo to a fence post.
And I won't even comment on the doctor's adopted son, Kevin. A hunk, granted. Lovie naturally gravitates toward brawn.
Uncle Charlie seats Lovie and me in two wingback chairs, then moves to the front of the room.
"Dr. Leonard Laton was a brilliant man and an asset to our town. It's an honor to assist you in making his journey to the hereafter memorable."
Leading us into the viewing room, Uncle Charlie sweeps open the casket to display the late doctor in his final splendor.
Janice screams, Mellie faints, and Kevin says, "I didn't know the old boy still had it in him."
In plain view on Dr. Laton's chest is a pair of red sequined pasties.
Uncle Charlie slams the lid shut. While I fan Mellie, Lovie plucks the pasties out of the casket.
"I was wondering where I left those." Any fool can see she's lying. These pasties wouldn't fit Lovie's fist, let alone the ballistic missiles she likes to show off with low-cut blouses. "I was in the casket trying it out for size."
"Kinky," Kevin says, and Janice whacks him with her Prada purse.
"I'm sure Uncle Charlie will get to the bottom of this," I say. "Meanwhile, the powder rooms are right down the hall. After we freshen up we'll retire to the reception room for some of Lovie's good food."
Janice perks up at this information. No self-respecting survivor would put Kentucky Fried chicken and potato salad featuring mustard on the table when they can have shrimp jambalaya, grits soufflé, and Prohibition punch made by the most famous caterer in Tupelo, if not the whole state of Mississippi.
I leave the Laton sisters in the powder room pressing wet handkerchiefs to their foreheads and putting on hot-pink lipstick that doesn't match a thing they're wearing. Then I race toward the kitchen.
Lovie tosses me a bottle of bourbon. "Quick, Callie, dump some in."
"Everywhere." She's emptying a vodka bottle into the punch and I pour in the bourbon.
If we're lucky the Latons won't even remember their names tonight, let alone that the late Dr. Laton was in possession of a set of red pasties complete with tassels.
Dr. Laton's funeral will be memorable, all right. But for all the wrong reasons.
Chapter Two Hairdos, Body Heat, and Bubbles Malone
After yesterday's fracas at the funeral home, it's a relief to go to work.
I never meant to settle here in spite of the local saying, "When you die, if you're lucky you go to Mooreville, Mississippi." After college I was going to move to Atlanta, make a life for myself as wife, mother, and pillar of the community, and a name for myself as a hairstylist.
But Mama had to have knee surgery, and my best friend and cohort in crime (as Lovie and I call ourselves) had started a catering business she didn't want to leave. Plus, this great little shop came up for sale.
This is my domain, the one little segment of my life that's completely manageable. I renamed the shop Hair.Net and installed a manicurist's station (sans manicurist, which I can never afford until I pay off my mortgage and my credit card bill at Lucky's Designer Shoes).
Mama's Everlasting Monuments is conveniently located next door (or inconveniently, depending on the day).
Now I'm here rolling the hair of one of my regulars, while Elvis snoozes nearby.
Personally I'd prefer to be giving Bitsy a modern cut and a blow-dry, but I pride myself on three things: keeping my mouth shut, satisfying my customers, and wearing cute shoes.
This is life as I know and love it. Outside, a Peterbilt rig puts on air brakes at Mooreville's one and only four-way stop, the King's hit "All Shook Up" blares from the video store next door on my right, and Elvis rouses from his nap in the sunshine by the front door to howl.
"Good Lord." Bitsy covers her ears, and Elvis, sniffing with disdain, sashays toward the break room and the comfort of his duck-down doggie bed.
In this lazy ebb and flow of my days I can almost forget that I lost Jack Jones to a Harley, my prospects of children and financial solvency get dimmer every day, and the California Latons are sleeping off Lovie's punch in my upstairs guest bedroom.
Mama breezes in with a five-hundred-dollar plate of brownies. That's the way I've learned to look at the loans I make to subsidize her predilection for poker chips.
I give her the cash and she gives me a hug. Plus, unsolicited advice.
"Honey, now that you've cut Jack loose, women are drooling all over him."
She worships the quicksand he walks on.
"Mama, I don't care." Unfortunately, this is not true. "Don't forget to shut the back door on your way out."
By the time Mama and my last morning customer leave I'm four hundred and twenty dollars in the hole.
On the bright side, I don't have anybody to answer to and so far Elvis hasn't peed on my favorite shoes, a cute little bronze and silver pair of Salvatore Ferragamo sandals that lace around my ankles and make my legs look longer than Julia Roberts'.
"Elvis? Are you ready for lunch?"
Usually the mention of food brings him running.
A quick check shows his bed empty, his second-favorite spot under the washbasin vacant, and the back door wide open. Running around the small yard yelling for my dog, I see my custody battle turning in favor of Jack.
Panicked, I race inside and dial his cell phone. He answers on the first ring and I don't know whether to come clean about Elvis or cry.
I do both.
"Sit tight, I'm on the way."
Holy cow! Now here I am, my good intentions and my willpower taking a powder while the man who knows how to turn every surface in my beauty parlor into a pleasure playground roars this way with eight hundred pounds of horsepower between his legs. I might as well strip and throw myself across the pink vinyl cushions on my love seat.
With the distant roar of his Screamin' Eagle putting goose bumps the size of hen eggs all over me, I make a mental list of every reason I should hate him.
There are about eight hundred and seventy-five, so this could take a while. Topping the list is that I don't even know who he is. Sure, he says he's an international business consultant named Jack Jones, but he also said-in French, mind you-that his parents were diplomats in Paris and couldn't come to the wedding, which proved to be a big fat lie. Turns out he's an orphan who was such a hell-raiser, nobody would adopt him. And I didn't find that out until three years after I'd said I do.
Excerpted from Elvis and the Dearly Departed by Peggy Webb
Copyright © 2008 by Peggy Webb. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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