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Sitting Up With the Dead

Arnell tugged on my shirttail and looked up at me with eyes as big as cucumber slices. He looked sheepish as if he had suddenly come to doubt what little he knew of the world, and pointed to the coffin resting on top of the living room table. He leaned close and whispered. “You reckon Meemaw’s going to stay in there all night?”

I patted Arnell on the head. “I hope so.”

I was older than Arnell, old enough to know that dead people do not get up during the night. I was pretty sure of it, anyway. Friends had told me what to expect. Folks didn’t take their relatives to the funeral home. People were poor, so they paid the undertaker to embalm the body and the relative with the best carpentry skills built a coffin out of hickory or poplar. The family placed it in the living room and visitors trickled in all day delivering casseroles and paying their respects. When the house emptied and the sun set, the men in the family took turns sitting up with the body.

Because Daddy was dead, Arnell and I were the oldest males and the duty fell to us.

Mama said that sitting up with the dead showed Meemaw we would not forget her, and I wondered if Arnell and I would have to sit there the rest of our lives. I figured the sitting was to keep Meemaw from getting lonesome, but Mama said the practice kept the devil from overtaking Meemaw’s body. She’d been so mean to me that I wondered if he had already claimed her, and I decided right then and there that if the devil showed up during my shift, he could have her.

Before Mama went to bed, she handed me a flyswatter, the same one Meemaw had used to whip my fanny. “What’s this for?” I asked.

“To keep the flies off your grandma.”

Swatting flies off Meemaw didn’t seem right. She wasn’t a pecan pie at Decoration Day.

“What if a fly lands on her dress, Mama?”

“Then swat away, boy.”

“What if one lands on her nose?”

Mama thought about that. “Then just shoo it away. Quit asking such nonsense.”

Mama told us that sitting up with Meemaw would assure us she was really gone. I had no doubt. When I had seen her earlier in the day, frowning as always and lying stiff as rawhide in the coffin, her face white as Sevin Dust, she had looked dead to me. But what did I know? Meemaw was the first dead person I had seen.

Now, my wondering was sure to keep me up all night. I didn’t tell Arnell she might get up. He was already holding onto me as if any minute grandma might crawl out, open her eyes, and break a switch off the red plum tree.

Arnell and I each sat in a rocker dragged in from the front porch. His feet couldn’t reach the floor and mine barely did. The chairs still lined the walls of the room. At the far end, the coffin rested on the living room table, and the butterfly quilt Mama had made lay folded across the foot of the coffin. A fly landed on the quilt and I swatted it like

Meemaw would have, hard enough that it stuck to the quilt.

An odor I had noticed since they carried in Meemaw’s coffin burned my eyes and throat. The smell reminded me of pickling season.

The night closed in. The wind blew against the shutters and the screen door clacked against its frame. Silence magnified every noise. Arnell and I looked at each other and I tried to act like the man of the house.

Along toward midnight, the wind picked up and whistled around the north corner of the house. Rain pelted the tin roof. Lightening flashed and thunder echoed off the mountain and shook the house. I thought I heard footsteps on the porch and looked at the doorknob. Was the devil coming to get Meemaw? Did he have red skin and a long tail? Was he carrying a pitchfork?

I almost peed a little bit.

Arnell was hugging me like a monkey with his arms around my neck and legs around my waist. With Arnell in tow, I hurried to our bedroom, grabbed my trusty Louisville slugger, and returned to the living room. Arnell shimmied onto my shoulders and sat there perched like a hoot owl while I turned back and forth scanning the room. I held the bat like Daddy had taught me, my hands choked around the bottom of the handle.

Arnell shivered and balled up as small as he could. “I’m scared,” he said.

“What you scared of?”

“I don’t know. I just scared.”

I tried to keep the tingling of my spine from turning into a full-blown shiver. I needed to be a grown man. “Well, there ain’t no reason to be scared, Arnell. We just sitting up with the dead.”

When I was too tired to stand, I settled into the rocker and lay the bat on the floor. Arnell plopped in my lap and we rocked fast, counting the time between the lightening and thunder. Two seconds. The wind howled and lightening flashed outside the windows and lighted the swaying trees. The dogs whined and bumped against the screen door.

I was wrung out and needed to change the mood. I said, “Arnell, let’s have a little fun. Let’s tell some stories about Meemaw.”

Arnell smiled, nodded, and loosened his grip.

“You know how Meemaw always looked angry when she cooked? Once after she chased me out of the kitchen with the flyswatter, I asked Pawpaw why she was always mad. He said she must’ve taken to sucking on persimmons from the tree in the back yard, that the sourness made her whole face pucker up and she couldn’t smile.”

Arnell grinned. The rain slowed to a patter.

“That must’ve been why she spank me with her rolling pin every time I tried to steal a warm biscuit. Lord, she could cook, couldn’t she Arnell? I like how her fried chicken was crispy even without the skin.”

Arnell licked his lips. “I’m hungry.”

I led him by the hand to the kitchen and handed him the flyswatter. “You stand in the doorway and keep an eye on Meemaw,” I said.

I was rummaging through the kitchen cabinets looking for the salt when behind the flour and shortening I found a mason jar filled with water. The odor almost curled my eyebrows. I had heard that moonshine calms the nerves, that even God-fearing Christians keep a tad tucked away to cure a cold or the croup. Maybe it would fix the jitters, too. “Come here, Arnell,” I said.

I carried the moonshine, two plates of hash brown casserole, and a jar of sweet tea into the living room and placed it on the table next to the coffin. I poured Arnell a glass of tea and topped it off with a slosh of moonshine. “You reckon Meemaw’s thirsty?” I asked Arnell.

Arnell shook his head and I handed him the glass. He gagged and coughed. “Go ahead,” I said, “medicine ain’t supposed to taste good.” Arnell choked it down and I poured myself a batch.

I do believe the concoction helped. After awhile, a dead person lying in a box on our living room table seemed normal. I snickered. “Arnell, were you here today when Preacher was trying to preach Meemaw right on up heaven?”

Arnell wobbled, giggling. “Jesus!” he said, raising his hand in the air and laughing so hard he fell out of his chair.

“Jesus saves!” I responded, and I started flailing around the room like a holy roller and Arnell fell in behind, dancing a jig. “Glory Halleluiah!” I said, “the never-ending, soul-cleansing, life-giving power of Jesus! Got to have some of that. Get you some!”

Arnell and I were parading around the dining room, dipping and swaying and warding off the devil when Mama poked her head into the room. She looked as if she were dreaming something awful. “What in tar nation?”

Arnell and I whirled and spun and jumped, proclaiming the power of the Lord, and Mama snatched me by the collar. “What’s going on here? Ain’t y’all supposed to be sitting up with the dead?”

I beamed. “We are, Mama. We keeping the devil away.”

Mama frowned and thumped me on the back of the head. “You ain’t supposed to make fun of the dead. What would your Meemaw think?”

Meemaw’s expression had not changed one bit. “I don’t think she minds, Mama.”

Mama looked at Meemaw and her face went slack. She walked to the table and leaned against it and then her mouth fell open and she looked at us as if we’d killed the barn cat. “You boys been in the medicine?”

Arnell giggled and I thumped him on the head and put on my most humble expression. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You know that’s only for grown-ups, for sickness?”

I nodded. “I’m sorry, Mama. We was just scared and needed something to get us through the night.”

The pulsing in Mama’s temples slowed and her jaw loosened. She gazed at Meemaw as if she were still alive, whimpered like a puppy, and cried. I pulled up a chair and drew Arnell beside me, and we all stood there pondering Meemaw. I held Mama’s hand and tried to think of something comforting to say, tried to remember what the adults had said and done. “Don’t Meemaw look peaceful, Mama? I’ve never seen her so happy.”

Mama started shaking and bawling. I rubbed her back for a minute and then poured her a glass of tea. Her tears slowed and she, sniffling, reached for the glass. She paused when she saw the spoon next to the jar of moonshine, her eyes shifting back and forth between her glass and the spoon. She sighed and then picked up the moonshine and drank straight from the jar.


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