Uncle Billy’s Funeral ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Hoi Polloi III A Literary Journal for the Rest of Us, 2009.)
Mr. Eames was taking a back roads shortcut and had somehow lost the way. The road was not as he remembered it from childhood. There used to be a big barn where they always turned and a little bridge but, no matter how far he went, he didn’t see the barn or the bridge.
“Are you sure this is the same road?” Edith asked. She was sitting forward on the seat, watching for signs. Her upper lip was moist and her hair frazzled from the heat. She was nervous they were going to be late for Uncle Billy’s funeral, or, worse yet, miss it altogether. If she didn’t get there until after the casket was closed for good, she would never forgive herself.
Nolas and Elvie sat in the back seat. Elvie was fifteen and, as her mother liked to say, at the smart-mouthed age. The last few days she had been in a dreamy state because she was in love with a tough older boy named Ricky Timms. She had already been out with him two times in his pickup truck. He smoked cigarettes and had a tattoo. She was beginning to think he was the true love of her life. Nolas was an awkward thirteen. His face was covered with acne and he had gained seventy-five pounds of fat in the last year and a half. He was going to be a short fat man like his father. Given time, he would even be bald-headed.
“There used to be a gas station around her somewhere,” Mr. Eames said.
“Don’t tell me we’re out of gas!” Edith said.
“Not yet,” he said. “When we’re out of gas, the car won’t run anymore.”
“Watch out, daddy!” Elvie said. “There’s a big dog up there in the road. I don’t want you to run over it.”
“I see it!” Mr. Eames said. “And I don’t need you to give me driving directions from the back seat!”
“Go ahead and hit it, then. I don’t care.”
“I’m hungry,” Nolas said. “Could we stop and get some chicken?”
When Mr. Eames went up a steep hill, the car chugged a couple of times as if it would die. All the way at the top of the hill, he gave the car too much gas and went down the other side far in excess of the speed limit. At the bottom of the hill was a sharp curve to the left; as he struggled to keep the car on the road, he ran over the center line and had to pull back sharply to keep from running into an oncoming car.
“Be careful!” Edith said. “Are you trying to get us all killed?”
“That would keep us from having to go to Uncle Billy’s funeral,” he said with a laugh.
“Oh! You are despicable!” she said.
“Mama,” Elvie said, “how much longer is this going to take? I’m getting so tired of sitting!”
“You just be quiet and count your blessings! You don’t know how close you came just now to joining the angels.”
“Uncle Billy’s an angel now,” Nolas said.
Elvie groaned and leaned her head against the door and took a strand of her brown hair into her mouth and closed her eyes and thought about Ricky Timms’ tattoo. He had another tattoo, in a private place, that he was going to let her see any time she wanted to.
When the car began to overheat, Mr. Eames pulled off the road into an old country cemetery, stopping just inside the gate. An old man who was working in the cemetery, tending graves, stopped what he was doing and went over to the car just as Mr. Eames was getting out.
“Car trouble?” the old man asked.
“Just overheating a little bit,” Mr. Eames said. “I think I’m losing water somehow.” He opened the hood and removed the radiator cap, releasing a cloud of steam.
Edith got out of the car, smoothing her dress down over her hips. “Are we ever going to make it to Uncle Billy’s funeral?” she said disgustedly.
“Why don’t you call them and see if they’ll wait to start until we get there?” Elvie asked, opening the car door and putting her feet out on the ground.
“They’re not going to do that,” Nolas laughed. “You don’t ask people to wait to start a funeral.”
“Oh, yes,” Mr. Eames said to the old man. “We were on our way to a funeral and I thought I remembered the way, but I guess I didn’t. I took a wrong turn.”
“It was all your own fault, too!” Edith said. “If you had only listened to me, we would have been there long ago instead of spending all this time wandering around like lost chickens!”
“Do you happen to know where the Moss and Sons Mortuary Chapel is?” Mr. Eames asked, ignoring Edith.
“Well, now,” the old man said. “Let me see. That’s over near the crossroads, I think, about twenty miles from here. The main road is closed down for repairs, so you’ll have to take a detour to get there.”
Edith groaned, “twenty miles!”
“I thought it was right around here somewhere,” Mr. Eames said feebly.
“How could you have missed it by so much?”
“Just don’t get so excited,” Mr. Eames said. “It’s not the end of the world as we know it, you know!”
“Uncle Billy will be in the ground before we even get there!” She groaned and put her hand to her forehead as though she might faint.
“Just go down thataway a couple of miles and turn east on the other side of the old shoe factory,” the old man said. “After you turn, go about four or five miles until you come to the old state highway. Take the old state highway west to Granville, and when you get to Granville, go through the town. Out the other end of the town, you’ll see an old cow barn that looks like it’s about to fall down. It’s a national historic monument. At that old barn take a right turn and…”
The old man gave Mr. Eames a bucket of water to pour into the radiator and, after the car cooled down, they were ready to start again. Mr. Eames opened his wallet and took out some bills and tried to give them to the old man, but the old man waved them away and spit on the ground and turned his back and went back to his work.
Now that they were underway again, Mr. Eames was in a much better humor than he had been when he was lost. He was smiling, and Nolas and Elvie were smiling in the back seat, but Edith was sniffling and crying. She had been denied the opportunity to bid a proper farewell to Uncle Billy. She would never see Uncle Billy’s face again on this earth, until she met up with him again in heaven.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mr. Eames asked her when he saw that she was crying. “All your problems are over. We’ll be there before you know it.”
“Uncle Billy,” she said chokingly.
“I thought you hated Uncle Billy.”
“I thought I did, but I know now that I loved him.”
A half-hour later, as Mr. Eames was pulling up in front of the Moss and Sons Mortuary Chapel, thirty or forty people were standing around talking just outside the door. They had about them the look of just having gone through an ordeal. When Edith saw them, she jumped out of the car before it was stopped and ran up to the door.
“Is it all over?” she asked of a man in an ill-fitting blue suit with a carnation in his lapel. When he failed to answer, she ran past him through the open door.
The service was over and the undertaker was in the act of closing the lid on the coffin for the trip to the cemetery. When Edith saw what was happening from the back of the chapel, she gasped and ran up the aisle. The undertaker turned at the commotion, the downward motion of the lid arrested, and saw Edith running toward him.
“Wait just one damn minute!” she said.
She explained to the undertaker what had happened, that she was on her way for the funeral of her dear uncle and was delayed when her fool of a husband thought he knew the way and didn’t and ended up getting lost. She was afraid she had missed seeing Uncle Billy’s dear face one last time on this earth before the coffin was closed for good. The undertaker raised the lid back to its open position and stood back patiently.
She threw herself on Uncle Billy’s chest and kissed him on the mouth, leaving a smudge of her blood-colored lipstick on his pale lips. She wept copious tears, running her hands over his head and face, as if she wanted to remember, not only the sight of him, but also the feel of him. When she was finished, she fell to her knees and thanked the Lord profusely for allowing her to get there just in time.
After the brief graveside service, and, after Uncle Billy was laid to rest in his grave, all the mourners (who were by this time behaving like celebrants) went to the home of Miss Nellie Kessler, Uncle Billy’s formidable unmarried daughter and Edith’s cousin, for an impromptu potluck supper.
To complement the abundance of food (chicken, turkey, ham, fish, casseroles, salads, cakes, pies, etc.), Nellie Kessler provided a keg of beer from the package store in town that she owned part interest in. While everyone ate and drank, there was much talk about what a good man Uncle Billy was. Even those who didn’t particularly care for him had good things to say about him. He was a good businessman and was kind to animals. He had a bad temper, but he would go out of his way to lend a helping hand to somebody in need. He always paid his taxes on time.
Edith had no appetite from all the excitement of the day, but she kept a plate of food in front of her nevertheless, occasionally taking a bite from it that she didn’t taste. She was too busy greeting all her cousins and other relatives, some of whom she hadn’t seen in twenty years or more. She felt rather like a queen, sitting at the end of the big table with everybody coming up to her and shaking her hand or pecking her on the cheek or patting her on the shoulder.
The story had circulated about how she broke down at Uncle Billy’s casket just as the undertaker was closing the lid, though few had actually seen it, and everybody sympathized with her. Those who knew her best commented on what a sensitive creature she was and how much she had loved Uncle Billy. With all the greeting and hugging and hallooing back and forth, she was able to forget briefly that Uncle Billy was gone, but any time she was reminded of it her eyes welled up with tears and she pulled a silk handkerchief out of the sleeve of her dress and dabbed at her eyes with it.
Mr. Eames, for his part, was all but ignored. He had always felt out of place with Edith’s family, and Edith was punishing him with silence for getting lost and almost making her miss Uncle Billy’s funeral. He sat alone on a settee in the corner of the big room, sipping beer and halfheartedly eating from a plate on his knees. Nolas had eaten his fill and was outside in Nellie Kessler’s back yard playing a game of tag with some of his young relatives whom he had never met before.
Elvie was in a confab in the bedroom with some of her girl cousins. They were talking confidentially about kissing experiences they had had with boys. Elvie listened with a smug expression on her face while the girls related their own tame experiences and then she told them about how she had been out on dates (more than one) in a pickup truck with a much older boy who had tattoos (more than one) and was quite handsome and sophisticated. When one of the girls asked her if she was going to marry the boy, she giggled and looked down at the floor and blushed and hinted that she might if he didn’t get away first. All the girls hooted with laughter.
Toward dark, when everybody was beginning to go home, Nellie Kessler confided to Edith in a whisper that Uncle Billy had remembered her in his will.
“Money?” Edith asked.
“Either money or property,” Nellie Kessler said. “He didn’t tell me what he left you, but I know he left you something. He was very secretive, and he was changing his will all the time up until the end.”
“Do you think it could be money?”
“You won’t know that until the contents of the will are revealed.”
“When will that be?”
“You can call his lawyer and find out.”
She wrote down the name and phone number of the lawyer on a scrap of paper and gave it to Edith, who shoved it down the front of her dress for safe-keeping.
“I’ll call him as soon as I get home,” Edith said.
“Tomorrow morning is soon enough,” Nellie Kessler said with a flick of her wrist.
When Edith went to find Mr. Eames to tell him it was time to leave, he was dozing on the settee where he had been sitting for hours. She put her hand on his shoulder and he awoke with a start.
“Go round up the children,” she said, “and let’s go home.”
“That’s the only sensible thing I’ve heard all day,” he said.
On the way home, Edith was unusually subdued and spoke little. She didn’t fuss with Mr. Eames about his driving or with Elvie and Nolas about making too much noise. She was thinking about what a grand day it had been, the best day she had had in a long time. She loved every minute of it, and she really hadn’t minded so much their getting lost, especially since the day had turned out so well. The irony of enjoying the day of someone’s funeral escaped her.
She wasn’t going to tell Mr. Eames or Nolas and Elvie about Uncle Billy’s bequest to her; not yet, anyway. They would get carried away with how she was going to spend the money, if it did in fact turn out to be money. She would rather have money, but it might turn out to be property. She remembered hearing once a long time ago that Uncle Billy owned some oil-rich land in Oklahoma. Now, that would be something worth getting! Life suddenly seemed rich with wondrous possibilities.
When she got into bed that night and turned off the lights, she wasn’t able to go to sleep for a long time. She was thinking about all the bad things she had said about Uncle Billy in her lifetime—the names she had called him—and she was sorry she had ever quarreled with him. She was sure, though, that now that the old weasel-faced porcupine was up in heaven he would be in a very forgiving frame of mind.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp