I usually write stories, both true and false, about my service and my Navy. Every now and then, I tell a different story.
By Garland Davis
I grew up in a rural county in the hills of Western North Carolina. As I reached my teens, I thought to get a job after school and on weekends to put some jingles in my pocket. I had the misconception that if I had money, the girls would like me more. Didn’t work out that way. The Hillbilly Mamas kept a close watch on who their daughters were paying attention to and who was paying attention to them. Being a well-known bootlegger’s grandson and a prison guard’s son, I didn’t meet their criteria. (I learned years later, in an island nation out on the Pacific Rim, that my misconception was a misconception and that the more money you had, the more girls you had.)
My first job was sacking groceries, toting them out to the cars, and sweeping up at the local store. It was billed as the first supermarket in the county. Compared to today’s megamarkets, it was a medium-size store. It didn’t pay much but provided the opportunity to be criticized and ordered around by all the bitter old women in the county for putting too much stuff in the sacks and by the store owner for using too many sacks. It didn’t take me long to start looking for a different job.
As a child, I was fascinated by the ventriloquists on television. I ordered a book from the back page of a Superman comic book that purported to teach a person to “throw” his own voice. I also found a couple of books in the school and county seat libraries and worked hard at learning the techniques of talking without moving my lips and making inanimate objects talk.
I made my sister’s dolls talk until I got my ass whipped for making the dolls say dirty words. A real ventriloquist’s dummy was out of the question; they cost a fortune.
Before I could quit the job at the store, I got fired. One of the old biddy’s who found something wanting in everything I did was looking at a whole chicken from the butcher display. She picked it up, sniffed the rear cavity, and said to the butcher, “This chicken don’t smell so good.”
The chicken said, “And, I’ll bet your skunky old ass don’t smell so sweet either.”
She threw the chicken, let out a scream, and went running from the store. The owner had been standing behind me when I made the chicken talk. He said, “I told you to knock that stuff off, boy. I cain’t afford to be losing customers. I’m gonna have to let you go. Come to the front, and I’ll pay what I owe you.”
That’s how I ended up sitting on the bench in the shade of the oak tree in front of the funeral home, smoking a Camel. A man, who I learned was the owner and funeral director, came from the front of the building and asked as he lit a filter tip, “What are you doing here, boy? Do your folks know that you smoke them cigarettes?”
“Well, I was sacking groceries at the store, but they let me go. Now I got to wait till five-thirty when my daddy comes by from work to get a ride home.” I answered him. “And yeah. My old man knows I smoke. He don’t care as long as I don’t steal his smokes.”
“Why did the store let you go?”
I told him about the ventriloquist stuff and what I had done. He chuckled and told me, “Well, boy. If being around dead people doesn’t bother you, I need somebody to sweep up here, wash and polish the hearse and the bereaved car, and help move coffins around. For that stuff, the jeans and shirt you are wearing are fine, but you’ll have to wear a black suit for the viewings and funerals. I’ll advance you the $21.00 to buy one at Yon’s Haberdashery.” He mentioned an amount of pay that was almost twice what I was making at the store.
As far as sweeping up goes, most jobs I’ve had in my life involved some sweeping up. I must say that the Navy took it to the extreme. I guess I spent a good part of my life “sweeping up.”
I wasn’t too sure about dead people. I had never seen a deceased person, but I had officiated at funerals for a couple of my sister’s cats and a dog. I had assisted a few chickens over the bar so my granny could cook Sunday dinner. I told my new boss that I would take the job.
He instructed me to go to Yon’s for the suit. He said he would call Mr. Yon to arrange everything. He told me to come at eight the next day.
I went down pst the store to the Haberdashers and went in. Mr. asked, “Are you the boy the funeral director just called me about?”
I allowed as to how I was. He led me to the back, took out a tape measure, and measured me all over. I thought he was gonna de-nut me when he shoved his fist into my crotch
He looked at his notations on a scratch pad and said, “It looks like we can fit you right off the rack. The only alteration I’ll have to do is hem the britches. If you can come at 3:00 I will have everything ready for you. The suit, and two white shirts.”
That’s how I ended up working in a funeral home. Over time I had taken on the task of sometimes helping the owner and the part-time mortician move the bodies around. Getting them on and off the tables or into the coffins. They thought it was funny when I made the bodies talk. Although I was cautioned to keep the ventriloquism in the back room.
It was about six months later when I put Mrs. Ledbetter in the Crazy House. She had been one of my least favorite customers at the store, always complaining to the owner that I packed her groceries wrong causing her to drop stuff. If she ever smiled, I bet her face would crack into a hundred pieces.
Mrs. Ledbetter’s husband George had died of a heart attack and was Layed out in the back room. The director and the mortician were hurrying to get him ready for a seven o’clock viewing. I had swept up the viewing and waiting rooms and positioned the flowers that had been delivered.
The window to our dressing room where we changed clothes to suits for the receptions and viewings. There was a bench just under the window and we could often hear people sitting on the bench. As I was getting my stuff ready, I heard two women talking. One was Mrs. Ledbetter, I had heard it complaining about me too many times to mistake it.
She said, “I can’t say I am sad the old Son of Bee is gone.”
“Did he leave you enough to live on?”
“He had $48 in his billfold and $400 in the bank. There was an insurance policy that will pay to bury him with about $4,000 leftover. The house is paid for and with my Social Security, I’ll be fine. I am better off with him dead.”
The other voice said, “Now, now Irma you don’t mean that.”
“I do too. The last few years he has been sneaking out at night, telling me he is going coon hunting when he was sneaking out to that Widder Essie Mae’s place over on Culpeper road.”
The other woman gasped, somebody told me she ain’t nothin but a whoor. I heered, she will do it for a sack of flour and some canned goods.”
“Durn, I’ll bet that’s where my sack of cornmeal and them pork and beans I thought I had gone to. That dirty old man traded them for that nasty stuff.”
I heard a male voice say, “Mama, Uncle Jim and Aunt Kate ain’t coming. I stopped to pick them up and they say they are so saddened; they just can’t face people tonight”
The funeral director came out and said, Mrs. Ledbetter, Mr. Ledbetter is in the viewing room if you would like to spend a moment alone with him before we let the mourners in.”
A scheme had popped into my mind while listening to the two women. I hustled from the dressing room to the viewing room and hid behind the curtains at the rear of the coffin.
Irma Ledbetter came in, putting on a show of crying. She stopped by the coffin and said, “I hope you are in a warmer climate, you nasty old man!”
George Ledbetter said, “It’s pretty good here. Better than being there.’
Irma jumped and asked, “Who’s there, who’s talking.”
George replied, “It’s me, you old bat. Is that Widder Essie Mae gonna come here tonight?”
“I knowed what you been doin’ with her. I don’t care, it kept you from trying to do it to me.”
“If you had moved ever now and then, stead a laying there like a plank a wood, you mighta liked it.” George opined.
“Where are my brother and sister, are they coming?” he asked.
“Jim and Kate ain’t coming. They say they are too sad. Probably don’t care about you no more than anybody else.”
“Who did you leave at the house?” George asked.
She replied, “They ain’t nobody there. Everybody is coming here.”
“You stupid woman. Jim and Kate are probably there looking for all the money I hid. They’s always sneaking around, and you left the house empty.”
Irma suddenly turned and ran for the door, yelling for her son, “Junior, Junior, get the car, we gotta go home! Hurry! Hurry! Before they steal my money.
“But, Mama, what about the viewing”
“Fuck the viewing; they’re there right now stealing my money,” she screamed running toward the parking lot. “If you ain’t coming, give me the leys. I’ll drive myself.”
“But Mama, you can’t drive!”
“Then, I’ll learn on the way.”
Junior had never seen his mother this distraught. His aunt Irene said to him, “It looks like she is taking George’s death real hard. You better do what she wants. Take her home, and I’ll call Dr. Garret to stop by. Maybe he can give her something to calm her down.”
As he drove her home, Junior listened to her talking. She seemed to be asking George about the money. He asked her, “Mama, what money are you talking about?”
“The money your daddy told me about.”
“When did he tell you about money?”
“Just now at the funeral home. Drive faster. We gotta get there and find the money before they steals it.”
Irma had the door open and was out of the car the instant it stopped and running toward the house. She fumbled her keys and unlocked the door, and disappeared inside.
Junior parked and went into the house to find his mother throwing his father’s things close onto the floor from the hall. She seemed to be pleading with George to tell her where he had hidden the money. She ran into the bedroom, dragged the mattress off the bed, and then started pulling drawers from the dresser and dumping them on the floor.
She was tearing apart his desk when the doctor arrived. Junior said, “Doctor, I have never seen her like this. She is wrecking the house, and she keeps talking to my father like he was alive. She told me that he talked to her in the viewing room t the funeral parlor.”
After observing her for a few moments, the doctor filled a syringe, walked behind her as she was going through the pockets of a pair of pants looking for secret maps, and gave her a shot of a powerful drug that would put her to sleep in minutes. He said to Junior, “Let’s get her to the couch before she collapses, and then I’ll call for an ambulance to take her to the hospital.
After a short stay at the hospital and evaluation by Psychologists, she was committed to the NC State Menta; Hospital at Morganton. There she spends her days talking to George and promising him a myriad of sexual favors if he will only tell her where he hid the money.