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I handle the bodies.
That's what I say when people ask me what I do for a living. I find that gets one of two responses. They drift away to the other side of the room and give me a sideways glance the rest of the night or they let out a nervous laugh and move the conversation in another, less macabre direction. I could always say I work at a funeral home, but where's the fun in that?
Every once in a while, when I was in the Corps, someone would see me at Starbucks or that modern mecca Wal-Mart in my utility uniform. Sometimes they'd catch me in my dress blues after a military ball just trying to grab something before heading back to the base. They would walk up to me and say, "Thank you for your service." I'd mumble something like "No, thank you for your support" or some other pithy rejoinder, and they would wander away with a nice satisfied look on their faces. Sometimes what I wanted to say was, "I took care of the bodies. The bodies with the legs blown off or the hands shredded. The bodies full of ball bearings and nails and whatever some kid could find to build his IED. I loaded the bodies up and dragged them back to the base, then went back out on another patrol and prayed to a God that seemed to be only half-listening that today wasn't the day that someone would have to take care of my body."
But I don't think that would have given them the same warm and fuzzy feeling.
Now I take care of the bodies at the Walter T. Blackmon Funeral Home in Queen County, Virginia. Today, the body I was taking care of was Mrs. Jeatha Tolliver from Mathews, the next county over. Momma J, as she was known throughout the community, was a deaconess and Temple elder who dropped dead at 78 while she was in the middle of berating her bingo neighbor for moving her lucky Jesus statue. I'm sure she would have ended the diatribe with, "Bless your heart" which is Southern for "fuck you, bitch" if she hadn't expired.
I was standing at the back of the funeral home chapel while Rev. Duke Halston yelled into the microphone about Hell and damnation. The crowd shifted in their seats like they could feel the flames licking at their backsides. Duke had a bone-anchored hearing aid sitting on the back of his head like a mini satellite dish. He yelled when he was talking to you after the sermon. He yelled when he was in the supermarket. I think he lost the volume control years ago. Once he called for the undertakers to take over the service. My cousin Walter, his fellow funeral director Curtis Sampson, funeral assistant Daniel Thomas, and I would walk up to the casket and ferry the body along like four black-suited Charons. My suit didn't fit me quite right. It seemed to be cut and sewn at awkward angles. The knot in my tie kept trying to travel left or right in advance of unraveling. That's what I get for buying my formal wear from a thrift store.
"Now we uh, turn over the uh, services uh, back to the uh, hands of the uh, undertakers." Rev. Duke stammered. Walter nodded at me, and we began to make our way down the center aisle of the chapel. Despite the air conditioner running full blast, the air was stale and stifling. The flap of the hand-held fans reminds me of a flock of buzzards taking off after a full meal of warm carrion. We directed the stoic pallbearers to stand just outside the chapel door, three on one side and three on the other, as we transported Momma J for her final car ride. The pallbearers, her grandsons, apparently couldn't be bothered to wear suits for their grandmother's funeral. Some were wearing un-tucked dress shirts, some were wearing basketball jerseys and t-shirts emblazoned with Momma J's face. I'm sure Momma J was looking down with pride as the cast of a low-budget hip-hop video loaded her into our hearse. As Daniel began herding the crowd to the door so we could head to the cemetery, Walter motioned for me. My cousin was a plump chocolate drop of a man whose caramel-colored forehead seemed to be perpetually sweaty. He hung on to the jheri curl flattop with a tenacity that would have impressed Javert. His black suit was more expensive than mine but each button on his coat seemed to be screaming for help.
"Nate, you drive the flower van. I'm gonna get Curtis to drive the hearse. Hopefully, we'll lose some people on our way to the cemetery, and we can get back here by four. I'm so hungry I'm seeing bow legged biscuits going down molasses lane," Walter said. His face was pinched into a minor scowl. My cousin loved three things: his wife, his money, and his food. I could tell he had already calculated the time it would take to arrive at the cemetery, put Momma J in the ground, and get back to the office in time to catch the dinner special at Nick's restaurant. Before I could respond, we heard raised voices and shouts from just outside the chapel doors.
I slipped past Walter. Momma J's son Carter and his soon to be ex-wife, a woman by the unfortunate name of La'Unique, were arguing near the hearse. I saw some people holding up their cell phones.
I also saw some folks trying to separate them. These must have been the family members who still believed in respecting the dead. A lithe figure slipped through the crowd. I saw something metallic in his hand. It caught the last light of the setting sun and glittered for just an instant.
I pushed forward and grabbed the thin man's arm as he raised it behind Carter's head. He was holding the ball end of a trailer hitch. His tiny rat-like eyes appraised me with a mix of shock and anger. Carter turned.
"La'Unique, see your man gonna hit me in the back like a punk bitch? And this who you left me for? Fuck you and him!" he yelled. The man tried to twist out of my grip, but my hand was bigger than his whole arm. He turned his head and tried to bite the inside of my forearm. I kicked the side of his left knee with my right foot, and he dropped like he was about to propose. It was a love tap really. I didn't want to break his leg. I twisted his wrist counter clockwise and plucked the trailer hitch out of his hand.
"Everyone, please make your way to your vehicles," I said. I let my voice go as loud and as deep as I could. I must have been louder than I thought, or maybe seeing me disarm Ratboy calmed the crowd because most of them complied. After Carter got in his truck, I let go of Ratboy's arm. I gave him back his trailer hitch.
"Go get in your car, man," I said. If looks could kill, I would have been on the embalming table that instant. He limped backward, keeping his eyes on me the whole time.
"I'm a see you again playa," he said. I shrugged in my ill- fitting suit and walked back inside the building. I had just embarrassed him in front of his woman. If he hadn't threatened me I would have been disappointed. Walter was waiting for me.
"Fools and flies both I do despise but the more I know of fools the more I like flies," he said with a grin. I smiled back. A good sense of humor was one of the requirements of working in the funeral business.
"Hopefully, there won't be any more theatrics at the graveside," I said.
"Yeah, I hope not. We just gotta get through Trudy Wise going full Pentecostal at the grave and doing the holy worm across the cemetery. I really can't fool around out there now. Just got a call from the ladies at Rev. Watkins' Temple. They finally got hold of his daughter. I guess I'm gonna have to get Gloria to bring me some dinner," Walter said as we made our way to the front door. His shoulders slumped noticeably.
Rev. Esau Watkins had been the pastor of New Hope Baptist Temple over in Mathews County. About two weeks ago he had been found dead in his house. Sheriff Laurent and his crew were being tight-lipped about the details, but the local rumor mill was whispering suicide. Rev. Watkins was a widower with no brothers or sisters. His only daughter had left town a few years after I had entered the Marines. No one had heard from her since. I couldn't say I blamed her.
Rev. Esau Watkins had been known as E-Money Watkins. He was a local thief, drug dealer, and sometimes illegal pawnbroker. He had owned a barbershop down in the lower end of Queen County. At that time, it was the only black barbershop on this side of the Coleman Bridge. I could remember going in there as a kid with my dad. I could still see the eyes of the men in the shop appraising my father as we sat and waited for my turn in the chair. The bathroom was behind a gaudy beaded curtain. Just outside the bathroom door, you could see VCRs and televisions and anything else of value that people would bring to E-Money in exchange for a few dollars for the electric bill or to pay for school clothes or to buy a rock for their shiny new crack pipe. I remember Watkins eyeballing my dad when he helped me into the barber chair. It wasn't until I was older I realized they were envious of Dad because he was a white man who had married one of the prettier black women in the county.
Sometime during my time with the Corps, Esau Watkins found religion. By the time I came home, New Hope Baptist Temple was the biggest Temple on this side of the James River. The week my parents were killed, they had just broken ground on a new temple three times bigger than the first one. People in the county, black and white, were shocked and a bit aghast when Rev. Watkins built his Temple smack dab in the middle of what was supposed to be protected wetlands near some high-priced waterfront property.
"Well, that should be interesting. I haven't seen Lisa Watkins since she sat behind me in Dramatic Lit class in high school. She was a skinny little thing back then. I always thought if she coughed too hard her sternum would crack." I said.
"I don't remember her, but I was a senior when you was a junior so that would make her a freshman. Us seniors didn't have time to learn you lower classmen. We had toilets to blow up," Walter said. I shook my head.
After the funeral for Momma J, I had driven up to Richmond to retrieve E-Money from the Medical Examiner. Since his daughter was coming in to make the necessary arrangements, we could take possession of the remains. Every time I went there, I encountered a different pathologist or intern or attendant. Not everyone who works in a morgue is strange or weird. That's a stereotype that funeral directors have to fight as well.
I had just gotten back to the office and placed Watkins's body bag on the embalming table when I heard the doorbell ring. I walked up the hall and answered the door.
There were two perfectly lovely older black women standing on the front step. One was tall and slim with a bit of a twinkle in her eye. The other was shorter with a face that had seen its share of hard days, but she had more laugh lines than wrinkles. My conscious mind acknowledged those ladies, and I nodded toward them politely.
The savage that lived south of my waistline noticed the woman standing behind them. She was tall as well but built like a brick outhouse. Her body had curves in places most women had nothing but hopes and dreams. She was wearing an off the shoulder clingy white blouse and a black mini-skirt so tight it could have been a tattoo. Her long legs ended in black stiletto high heels. Her brown skin was covered with a glossy sheen that reminded me of melted chocolate. A honey blonde mane swept down her back to her narrow waist. She had spent a pretty penny on her hair extensions, but no man that met her would mind. Her bee-stung lips seemed to promise the fulfillment of every dark fantasy you had and some you didn't even know you desired. Her emerald green eyes gave me a quick once over then turned cold and dark. I motioned for the three women to come inside.
"Uh, Mr. Blackmon is in the back, but I can let you ladies into the office. He'll be with you in a minute," I said. The two older women smiled and said thank you as they headed for the office to the left of the front door. The brick house trailed after them. Her black mini-skirt rolled with every swish of her hips. She didn't smile, and she didn't speak. I tried to adhere to the three second rule as I watched her walk. If I looked longer than three, I was straying into pervert territory. I figured the two older women were the trustees from New Hope. As to the third member of their triumvirate, well, I guess Lisa Watkins had grown up.CHAPTER 2
I poked my head in the dressing room where Walter was changing from his formal attire to business casual and grumbling to himself because Gloria was working overtime at the hospital and wouldn't be able to bring him any dinner. Then I went to the little cubby hole in the back of the building that I called home and changed out of my off the rack suit and put on my everyday attire. Black t-shirt, jeans, and black combat boots. After I changed, I went outside through the garage and started to wash the hearse and the van. The weather had reached that perfect temperature that only happened between the end of September and the beginning of October in the south. The days never got over 75, and the nights never dipped below 60. Good sleeping weather if you were inclined to sleep. I usually could only manage three or four hours a night.
I was rinsing off the hearse when I heard the unmistakable sound of high heels tapping across the concrete. I glanced around the corner of the carport, and I saw the woman I figured had to be Lisa Watkins leaning against a black Lexus. She was puffing on a cigarette like she had been poisoned and the antidote was in the filter. I turned off the water hose and walked around the corner.
"Hey, you okay?" I asked. I was used to people rushing out of the office while making arrangements. A loved one is dying was one thing but seeing the details of their final interment in black and white brought home the finality of the situation for some people. Sometimes it was too much for them to bear. The woman puffed on the cigarette again. Her eyes were dry. But her chest was heaving.
"I'm fine. Those two old ladies think they know who my daddy was, but they have no idea. They are sitting in there talking about fancy caskets and ordering limos for his deacons to attend the service. Like he was the goddamn pope. I'm just here to sign off so they can put his ass in the ground. I don't need to hear that shit," she said between puffs.
"Weren't you behind me in Dramatic Lit in school? We had Mrs. Stone. She got in trouble for always trying to pray before class. Remember she told Tim Dawson he was going to hell because he listened to Danzig, and he told her she was going to hell for staring at the boys' basketball team when they practiced?" I asked.
The woman smiled for just an instant. If you had half-blinked, you would have missed it.
"I'm sorry, I don't remember you," I extended my hand.
"Nathan Waymaker. It's cool. I was a junior when you were a freshman. I didn't expect you to remember me. Lisa, right?" I said.
"Yeah. So did you know my dad?" she asked.
"When I was a kid I went to the barbershop a few times. But I never attended his Temple." I said. She nodded her head.
"The Temple. Those poor ladies in there torturing themselves over every little detail. You know what my dad told me bout that Temple the last time I talked to him?" "No, I don't."
She took a deep drag off her cigarette. "He said it was the best hustle he had ever gotten into. Even better than the drug game. That was my dad for ya," she said. I wasn't sure how to respond to that so I resorted to some mannerly funeral home jargon I had picked up from Walt.
"We'll put him away nice, Lisa," I said. At first, she didn't react. Then she laughed. It was a sharp, brittle sound. Like a pane of glass cracking from the cold.
"I don't give a fuck how you put him away. Just bury him deep so he's that much closer to Hell," she said as she flicked her cigarette butt on the ground.
Before I could come up with another brilliant funeral home catchphrase, Curtis pulled up and hopped out of his tiny hybrid car.
"Hey, Nate. Hello, ma'am," he said as he approached us. Curtis was short but as clean and neat as new money. The creases in his dress pants were sharp enough to slice cheese. His beard was incredibly well groomed. I suspected he manscaped, but I had never asked for him to confirm it. I watched as his eyes lingered over Lisa.
"Hello," she said. She turned and walked back into the office. Once she was gone, Curtis looked at me and gave me a conspiratorial nod.
"That right there is some USDA grade A beef! I think I just met my next ex-wife," Curtis said. At the tender age of 35, Curtis had been married three times. I could admit I had a healthy appetite for the opposite sex. But where I was mildly promiscuous, Curtis was ravenous. He put notches on his bed post the way a hunter put heads on his wall.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Darkest Prayer"
Copyright © 2019 S.A. Cosby.
Excerpted by permission of Intrigue Publishing, LLC.
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