By Charlotte Jones
My big sister, Billy Ann, was in the shower, getting ready to sneak out with that handsome new lawyer in town, when she slipped and hit her head on the edge of the bathtub. At least that’s what her husband Russell said, and he’s sticking to it. God knows, she cheated on him every chance she got, so I don’t blame him much. I haven’t spoken to her since she made a pass at my husband three years ago. He delivered the mail one day, just like every other day, when she greeted him at the door in some fancy-pantsy negligee and invited him in. When he told her no, she had the nerve to get mad at me, like it was my fault.
Anyway, the police chief ruled her death an accident – probably because he owed Russell a favor, ever since Russell caught him bare-assed and red-handed with Billy Ann and didn’t shoot him.
So there we were, me and Russell, sitting around the kitchen table eating breakfast with Momma and Daddy, trying to determine the final resting place for Billy Ann’s body. My husband couldn’t be found. He was down at the hunting lease shooting himself a deer.
“I say we cremate her,” Russell said.
I figured he was trying to get rid of the evidence. But I did know that’s what Billy Ann would have wanted. When we were little, she used to tell me, “If I go first, don’t you bury me. I don’t want to spend my eternity with critters crawling in and out.” Then she’d drop a worm down the front of my shirt and I’d run crying to Momma.
“That just isn’t Christian,” Daddy said as he took a bite of bacon. “We all know Billy Ann had her faults, but I’m not going to the funeral if you fry her up like, well, like this shriveled piece of bacon here. I won’t be party to something that just isn’t natural. True Christians don’t cremate their loved ones.”
“More creamer, Georgie Sue?” Momma said to me. She had set her grief aside and fluttered around the kitchen with her apron on, just like she always did, trying to make everyone else feel comfortable. She always taught us girls that a mother’s job is to make sure everything turns out right, no matter what the situation and no matter what you have to do. Probably why Billy Ann and I never had kids.
“Well, cremation IS what Billy Ann wanted.” I decided to speak up. While I wasn’t a big fan of Billy Ann’s, I’ve got enough respect for the dead that I figured my sister ought to get what she wanted. I think she would have done the same for me, if I’d been in her shoes. ’Course, I’m not in her shoes.
“In that case,” Russell said between mouthfuls of biscuits and gravy, “I’m gonna bury her. She always got everything she wanted in life. I think it’d be fitting if just this once, Billy Ann didn’t get what she wanted.”
“So, it’s settled then,” Daddy said.
“I don’t know, Dad,” Momma said. “Seems to me we ought to do right by Billy Ann and cremate her if that was her desire.”
“I said, it’s settled.”
So later that day, me and Russell went over to the funeral home to pick out a casket. The funeral lady met us at the door and talked to us in soothing tones about how grief is God’s way of calling us unto Himself, and how surely we must want the very best for our dearly departed loved one. Then she guided us into the casket room where they had the most expensive caskets displayed at the front. I guess most people buy the first one they see, but when I saw the $9000 price tag on the bronze model complete with a guaranteed rubber gasket seal and a stainless steel American eagle on top, I said, “Do you have anything less shiny?”
I wasn’t going to spend any more on my sister than I absolutely had to since she had already dipped into my inheritance by stealing from Momma and Daddy. She did it by pretending to be the good daughter and doing their grocery shopping for them. When the money they gave her should have purchased two bags of groceries, she brought home only one, making some excuses about how high the prices were. Then she’d pocket the rest. I can’t prove it, but I know she did it. Russell knows it. Momma and Daddy know it, too. She had too many nice things, like one of those singing trouts you hang on the wall, and Russell knows he didn’t buy them for her. I doubt any of her lovers could’ve afforded them.
Well, when I asked for something less shiny, you’d have thought I’d asked if the funeral lady believed in ghosts. The mood in the room turned icy and her tone of voice wasn’t all sweet and soothing anymore when she said, “We do have some wooden models, but they do not offer eternal protection for your dearly departed like these stainless steel models.”
“Protection from what?” Russell said. “She’s dead.”
The funeral lady glared at Russell. “We do have one pine box in the back,” she said. “We keep it around for, you-know, Jewish people.”
No, I didn’t know, but a Jewish pine box sounded just fine to me.
“What’ll God think, a sweet little Christian girl showing up in a Jewish box? As if she’s headed to heaven anyway.” Russell loved it.
“Just don’t tell Daddy,” I said.
“That’ll be $477,” the funeral lady said through tight lips.
“Can I put this on lay-away, or you know, pay it over time?” I asked.
Now the funeral lady glared at me.
On our way out, we ran into Momma. She looked as surprised to see us as we were to see her. “What’re you doing, Momma?” I asked. “I told you me and Russell would look after things.”
“I’ve got some business here, that’s all. Now you run along.” Momma pushed right past us.
“That’s funny,” said Russell with a puzzled look on his face.
“That’s Momma,” I said.
There was no telling what she was up to. She didn’t come back until late that evening smelling faintly of hickory smoke.
So the arrangements were all made. Nothing fancy, just a graveside service with cocktail wieners back at the house when it was over. The cousins were all called, the minister was notified. The funeral home even put a notice in the paper. Billy Ann always did want her picture in the paper. We used her favorite — the one from high school when she was crowned Miss Pork Sausage by the FFA.
We were sitting around at Momma’s and Daddy’s drinking coffee on the morning of the funeral when Russell decided he’d better double-check everything, almost like he wanted to make certain she wasn’t coming back. After he hung up the phone, he called me into the other room.
“The body’s gone,” he hissed while peeking around the corner to make sure Momma and Daddy hadn’t heard him.
“What do you mean, the body’s gone?” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“You’re not pulling some kind of joke are you, Georgie Sue? It’d be just like you to pull some last-minute stunt on your sister.”
“Excuse me, but you seem to have me confused with Billy Ann. I’d never do something like that! Probably one of her lovers saw the notice in the paper and decided he wanted Billy Ann for himself, you know, bury her in his own back yard so he could dig her up every now and then and see her.”
“You could be right, Georgie Sue. God knows there are enough crazy people in these parts. Should we tell your Momma and Daddy?”
“That’d only upset them. I think we should just go through with it as planned. The whole family is here. It’s going to be closed casket anyway, so nobody’ll know if she’s in there or not.”
“The pall bearers will know. The box won’t be heavy enough.”
“Maybe we can stick some bricks in it. That’ll make it heavy. I say we go through with it. We can figure out where her body went later.”
So after the service and we’d put Billy Ann, or rather Billy Ann’s box, in the ground, all the relatives came over to the house. Nobody seemed the wiser. Momma was busy setting out the trays of wieners and pouring coffee for everyone. I noticed she had a new flower vase on the table, one I’d never seen before. Looked right pretty, even if there weren’t any flowers in it.
I sat stirring my coffee, trying to get that creamer to dissolve when Momma came up to me and said, “More creamer, dear?” She shoved that flower vase under my nose and scooped some more into my cup.
It was that little glint in her eye that caused me to reexamine the gray lumpy powder floating in my coffee. I looked back up at her in horror. “Momma, please say you didn’t . . .!”
Charlotte Jones has seen her work featured in over 60 literary and commercial magazines including Bordersenses, Nerve Cowboy, Barbaric Yawp and Zygote in My Coffee.
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