As Kevin helps his parents with the family mortuary, his dream of working for National Geographic seems a million years away—until he and his friends are picked for a special science class at Armadillo Middle School. The class is taught by Dr. Alfred Leopold Wallace, the pompous proprietor of the local Arkansas Marsupial Museum and Discount Souvenir Outlet. Kevin’s friends aren’t keen about the doctor or his possums, but Kevin’s sure that Dr. Wallace can help him become the youngest biologist in history. All he has to do is get Dr. Wallace to notice his scientific genius! The harder Kevin tries, however, the worse his projects flop—including the midterm tarantula project that escapes and terrorizes the funeral home. The class trip to Seven Devils Swamp is Kevin’s last chance—if he doesn’t let his pride get in the way of his final project.
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Funeral Home Evenings
Kevin Kirk Chronicles
By Patricia Wiles
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Patricia Wiles
All rights reserved.
Three Months Later — January
Grandma Kirk believes in the old superstition that if you do something on New Year's Day, you'll end up doing it every day for the rest of the year. That's why my grandparents never visit us on New Year's. Grandma says it's bad enough to eat Mom's cooking for one day, so why take a chance on having to eat it all year long?
I'm not superstitious. Still, I can't blame Grandma for finding reasons to avoid Hoppin' John. Mom is into the traditional New Year's food thing, so she always gets up early and cooks enough Hoppin' John to feed the entire Arkansas National Guard. Hoppin' John is a disgusting conglomeration of black-eyed peas, hog jowls, and rice. It looks like something John barfed up, and nothing like food John — or anyone else — should eat. It never fails to send me hoppin' right over to the cabinet for a bowl and a box of Frosted Flakes.
Mom's birthday is January second. By taking Mom out to dinner, Dad and I usually avoided the Hoppin' John leftovers. This year we had a visitation at the Paramount, but that didn't stop Dad from developing a plan. Right before the visitation started, he slipped me two twenties. He told me to go upstairs during the service and call Pete's Eatza Pizza.
"Order the two-for-one special, a side of super-cheesy breadsticks, and the chocolate dessert pizza. Tell the delivery person to come up the back stairs too," Dad said. "We don't want him walking in on the Hunsacker visitation."
While waiting for the Eatza Pizza person, I gave Hoppin John a proper burial down the garbage disposal. I set out paper plates, got the expensive paper napkins out of the pantry, and stuck a few cans of soda in the freezer to chill. After a hasty search for a centerpiece, I settled on a leftover Christmas poinsettia. Then I whipped up a quick Happy Birthday card on my computer and signed it with my best ink pen: Thanks for being a great Mom. I love you. Kevin
The Eatza Pizza person arrived. The total was $36.88, so I gave him the whole forty bucks and told him to keep the change. It would be a while before Mom and Dad were finished downstairs, so I stuck the boxes in the oven and decided to spend the time waiting in my room.
I flopped onto the bed and opened up the combination Bible/Book of Mormon my parents gave me for my baptism gift. I'd tried before my baptism last summer to read the Book of Mormon from beginning to end, but I couldn't get past the And It Came to Passes in 2 Nephi.
I turned to 3 Nephi. I kept Dani's eighth-grade photo tucked inside chapter 17, where Jesus Christ blesses the Nephite children one by one. It was Dani's favorite scripture, and she'd shown me how to find it.
The Hunsacker visitation was over. The time had passed quicker than I thought.
Mom bounced into the room and gave me a hug. "I'm so happy to see you reading the scriptures."
I didn't have the heart to tell her I was thinking about Dani instead of reading.
"Let's eat dinner. I'm starving to death."
Dad had already taken the pizza boxes out of the oven and set them on the table. He pulled Mom's chair back and motioned for her to sit.
"Tonight, I wait on the birthday girl," he said. He unfolded a napkin and draped it across her lap. He put a big slice of pizza and two cheesy breadsticks on her plate.
I took our cans of soda from the freezer. "I made a birthday card for you. It's stuck in the poinsettia."
"I can't believe you boys would do all this for me," Mom said, adding a small sniff for emphasis. "I feel like a princess."
For a few minutes, our family enjoyed the pizza without much conversation. When we were ready for the dessert pizza, Dad told Mom to imagine there were candles on it. We sang "Happy Birthday," and Mom pretended to blow the candles out.
Dad pointed to the chocolate pizza. "You missed one."
Mom giggled and blew a puff of air across the pastry.
On any other birthday, Dad would have whipped out a present — something like the collector's edition DVD of Ernest Goes to Jail, wrapped in goofy paper with rubber ducks or teddy bears on it. This year, he was empty-handed. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. We've been so busy, I haven't had time to shop."
"Oh, Arlice," Mom said, "you're the best present a girl could have."
I frowned. "Do you guys have to get mushy? Some of us are trying to eat."
Dad ignored me. "Tell me what you want for your birthday, Freda. Anything you want. Name it, and it's yours."
Mom grasped his hand. "Do you mean it? Anything at all?"
Mom took a couple of deep breaths. Then she said, "I want you to go to church."
Dad's lower jaw almost hit the table. Now he was the one taking deep breaths.
I wanted Dad to go to church with us every bit as much as Mom. But did she have to use such sneaky tactics to get him there? "That's entrapment," I said. "You're not playing fair."
Mom shrugged. "He said to tell him what I want."
Dad pulled his hand away and sat back in his chair. I was certain he'd say, Forget it, Freda. I'm not going to church. Not yet.
Instead, he said, "OK."
Now my mouth dropped open.
Mom wrapped her arms around him. "This is the best present ever."
Dad tried hard to sound positive. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have some nice jewelry?"
"Oh, no." Mom shook her head so hard I could almost hear it rattle. "This is all I want. It's perfect."
Dad gave Mom a defeated smile. "Your happiness is important to me. I don't know if I'm ready, though. It's been a lot of years."
"You've got to start sometime. You said so yourself, remember? Right before Christmas, you said you-needed to go back, for us — and for Kevin."
"If you don't do it now, you never will."
"I know you're right," Dad said.
"Then why haven't you gone with us before?" I asked.
"I've been putting it off," Dad answered.
Mom spoke up. "I'll help you. You'll see. I'll support you and help you do everything you're supposed to do —"
"Hold on a second." Dad wagged his finger at Mom. "I agreed to go to church. That's all. Let me decide when I'm ready to do anything else. I'll say prayers when I'm ready, I'll speak in church when I feel like it, and don't push me into the priesthood meetings, home teaching, or other activities. Understand?"
"I won't push you into anything you don't want to do," Mom said. She let her left hand drop off the table, out of Dad's sight. She moved it behind her back, and I wasn't a bit surprised when she crossed her fingers as she said, "I promise."CHAPTER 2
On Sunday morning, Dad pulled the S-10 into the parking lot of the old Fix-Rite Hardware store. He checked his watch. "We'd better get inside and find a seat. We don't want to walk in late."
I remembered the first Sunday I went to church with Mom, back before my baptism. I'd expected to see stained glass windows, red carpet, and an organist playing an organ the size of a U-Haul, like all the other churches I'd seen on TV.
Let's just say the Armadillo branch was not what I'd imagined.
No stained glass windows — only the plate-glass ones in front of the store. No red carpet — instead, we had black and white floor tiles like the ones in the school cafeteria. And no monster organ — rather, a beat-up, out-of-tune piano no one knew how to play. The congregation sang hymns karaoke-style to music on CDs. There were no pews, no statues, no candles or crosses. There weren't even any real walls. Plywood panels divided the inside of the building into rooms.
I wondered how Dad would react when we entered the makeshift meetinghouse — especially the entering part. I was certain no other church in Armadillo had talking pneumatic doors.
We approached the In door. It opened with a loud swish.
"Welcome to Fix-Rite," the door said in a cheerful automated voice.
Right after we walked through, Mom remembered she'd left her pocket pack of tissues in the truck. "Arlice, be a sweetie and get them for me."
Dad turned to go out the way we came in. The door shut in his face, and he was chastened by the electronic Voice of Doom: "Error. Error. Please clear the doorway."
Embarrassed, he leaped onto the rubber mat in front of the exit. "Thank you for shopping Fix-Rite," the exit door said as it swung out. "Please come again."
Dad ran to the truck, grabbed Mom's tissues, and ran back. The entry door was just as happy to see him the second time. "Welcome to Fix-Rite."
You'd think God would have taken it easy on our family and sent us to a simpler church — for Dad's sake at least, since he'd been away for so long. At least He could have sent us to one where the doors didn't talk to you.
There were thirty-five, maybe forty, people in the improvised chapel. President Carter, Dani's father, conducted the meeting and read the announcements, but he didn't preach. We listened to three speakers: a nine-year-old boy, a woman who spoke while holding a restless baby, and an elderly gentleman who had index cards full of notes and read verses from a large-print Bible.
The fact that we were meeting in a commercial building rather than a church building didn't seem to bother Dad at first. He was his usual, jolly self. He talked to everyone he knew, which was practically all the people in the building. I relaxed a little after the sacrament service was over. It appeared as if Dad was going to adapt to coming back to church just fine.
After sacrament meeting, I followed Dani to Sunday School. Our Sunday School teacher was the yard sale woman who'd given me her missionary son's Book of Mormon. Sister Hooper was supposed to teach from the New Testament, but any scripture she read reminded her of a tidbit she'd recorded in her Book of Remembrance — which Dani told me later is like a binder used to organize information about your family. So in Sunday School, we were learning a little about Paul, formerly known as Saul, but we were also learning all anyone would want to know about Isaiah Hooper, Sister Hooper's husband's great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
When Sunday School was over, I went to priesthood meeting. There were no other boys my age at church, so I sat with Brother Conrad and listened in on the old folks' lessons. I was glad to see Brother Conrad saved two seats so the three of us could sit together. I thought a lot of Brother Conrad and enjoyed his company, but it was nice to finally attend priesthood meeting with my father. I wondered how Dad felt about it.
The second priesthood was over, Dad was the first one out the talking door. He didn't even stop long enough to say good-bye to anyone. It was like he was afraid of something, but I wasn't sure what. Maybe it was going to be harder for Dad to adapt than I thought.
During lunch, Mom reviewed the main points of the sacrament meeting talks as if we didn't get them the first time. Afterward, she quizzed Dad about his roast beef sandwich. He said it was quite tasty.
"Aren't you glad I prepared for Sunday by buying a good selection of cold cuts? I'm keeping the Sabbath day holy by not cooking anything."
Dad patted her arm with one hand and stuffed potato chips in his mouth with the other. "That's nice, Freda."
If not-cooking made a day holy, my mother had been racking up Sabbath points for years.
As far as my stomach was concerned, any day Mom didn't cook was a good day.
Mom dropped a spoonful of French onion dip onto her plate. "An idea came to me during Brother Mackey's talk when he mentioned not shopping on Sunday. Maybe we should consider closing the funeral home on Sundays."
Dad choked on his gherkin. "What gave you that idea?" he asked after he finished coughing.
"I don't want to encourage people to break the Sabbath."
Dad fingered his moustache and stared thoughtfully at the wall for a second. "So if someone calls us to come and get her great-Aunt Ida, we should tell her people aren't supposed to die on Sunday, but we'll be there first thing Monday? I doubt great-Aunt Ida would stay fresh that long."
"I'm only trying to make sure we keep the commandments," Mom said. "What if we pick up bodies, but refuse to schedule funerals?"
I was sure I knew what Dad was saying. "Remember when I was in fourth grade and fell out of the tree and broke my arm? You had to take me to the emergency room on a Sunday. If the doctor hadn't helped me, I'd have been in a lot of pain by Monday," I said.
"Good point, Kev," Dad said.
Mom was like a dog with a hollow bone. The argument wasn't worth much, but she didn't want to let it go. "But we're working when we have a funeral or visitation."
Dad bit his lip. "Honey, you're taking this way too seriously. Yes, our business is open on Sunday, but people die every day of the week. It's our job to care for their families, whatever their religion — even the ones who have no religious belief at all. I know you want to do what's right. But I'm not convinced visitations or funerals break the Sabbath."
For a few minutes, we ate in silence. Then Mom spoke again. For some reason, she couldn't let the topic die. "If we're going to have to keep working on Sundays, at least we can agree on appropriate activities for when we're not." She was hoping one of us would ask, Like what? It sure wasn't going to be me.
When we didn't answer, she dropped a hint. "Four letters ... Starts with a P . .. Something Arlice needs to do ..."
I groaned and dropped my pickle and pimento-loaf sandwich.
Mom wanted Dad to get over his fear of praying out loud.
My father didn't know a stranger. He could talk for hours to the old men in the barber shop. He consoled bereaved families. He spoke to every stray dog he met on the street. Yet Dad couldn't carry on a conversation with God. Dad was either in awe of Him or scared to death.
Whatever the reason, my dad just couldn't say prayers in front of other people.
"What's so hard about praying, Arlice?" Mom asked. "You open your mouth and speak. That's it."
"He's not ready, Mom," I said.
Mom eyeballed me. "How do you know?"
Dad gave me an appreciative look and reached for the bottle of squeeze mayo. Mom's not-so-subtle hints had resulted in a couple of loud, late-night conversations between my parents. I couldn't help overhearing them. However, it probably wasn't a good idea to let them know. I decided I'd better not say anything else.
"No need to gang up on me, boys." Mom threw away her empty paper plate and nabbed a couple of cookies from the jar. "I'm going to read next week's Sunday School lesson. Kevin, make sure you finish reading your scriptures tonight."
I helped Dad clean up the rest of the lunch mess, then I went to my room and shut the door so I could have some privacy. Why did Mom have to nag us? I didn't need her to tell me when or how much to read.
Before bed, I set out my current journal — Volume XXIII — and a newly sharpened pencil so I'd be ready for the next morning's backlot wildlife observations. I got out some clean clothes and double-checked my backpack. I wanted to make sure my stuff was ready for school. It would be the first day back after the holidays.
As I turned down the covers, I realized I'd forgotten to read my scriptures like Mom told me to do. Then I thought, no, I didn't forget. I didn't want to read in the first place because she'd told me to do it. So I put it off, and now it was bedtime. Too late.
I hit the light, crawled into bed, and watched through the big bay window as the animals feasted on the corn I'd sprinkled in the backlot. The moon rose above the treetops and became a lighthouse, sweeping its beam across the waves of dead grass on the lawn, lighting the way for weary night travelers.CHAPTER 3
Big news awaited some of us eighth-grade honors students after the opening bell. We discovered we'd been moved from Honors Science to Life Sciences 806.
Dani shrieked and slammed her agenda book shut. "They can't make me go. No way." She crossed her arms and cowered in her seat. "You've heard the rumors. The stuff that teacher keeps in his room. What he makes you do."
Doctor Alfred Leopold Wallace had taught eighth grade life sciences for two years at Armadillo Middle, but rumors about him were already layered thicker than the paint on the walls of the eighth-grade wing.
I rubbed my palms together. "I can hardly wait."
Dani eyed me with disgust. "You're as bizarre as he is."
"I'll consider that a compliment, as long as you don't think I look as bizarre as he does." I guess living in a possum museum could make anyone, even Doctor Wallace, grow a long, pointy snout.
LS-806 was Doctor Wallace's only class. His real job was proprietor of the Arkansas Marsupial Museum and Discount Souvenir Outlet, which was fifteen minutes outside of Armadillo off an obscure exit of Interstate 55. Doctor Wallace drove an old cargo van with cartoonish possums painted on the sides and advertising across the back doors.
Excerpted from Funeral Home Evenings by Patricia Wiles. Copyright © 2013 Patricia Wiles. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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