The Late Clerk’s Tale by Dennis Humphrey

Well, I never much cared for the way Annie Mae Miller lorded herself over folks when she was alive with her goody-goody ways, and you won’t catch me claiming otherwise now that she’s gone, unlike most of the “good” people here in Riverdown. My lands, though, the night of her visitation, you’d have thought it was the signature social event of the cultural season. More flowers than a Rose Bowl Parade float, and just about as tasteful, if you ask me. Naturally, you won’t. Seems I can’t get anyone to give me the time of day since that horrid night. Folks just look right through me like I’m not even here, like city folk look right past homeless people wallowing in filth. I can’t say as I blame the city folks for that, but some thanks I get after all the sorrows I’ve consoled for these “good” people while performing my duties as clerk of the late shift at Riverdown Funeral Home, the oldest, most genteel edifice in this increasingly tacky town.

Anyway, that night, I sat behind my polished mahogany desk as usual near the wide oak front doors of the funeral home, watching the whole town file by, counting how many checked their look in the big wall mirror opposite my desk, craning their necks to see who might notice them coming in the doors. Thanks to the mirror, I can see clear around the corner to the viewing chapel and take in all of the show without ever leaving my seat. The mirror, so I’m told, is the largest and oldest of its kind in this whole region, with a grand, ornate gold frame, but its silver backing is fading just a bit in an uneven pattern like antique mirrors sometimes do. Some think we should take it down, put up a bright new one so they can see themselves better. I’m of a mind that most of them should be thankful for the softening influence.

Sometimes, I fancy I can see all sorts of things in that old silvered pane. It has a way of rendering even crowds like the one just then between me and its darkling glass with a sort of grandeur from bygone days. Many reflections that I see in the mirror, my own reflection included, seem dark, a mere shadow amidst the other images. I attribute that effect to the angle at which I view my own reflection as compared to other reflections. Perhaps to look straight into it, one is hindered by a sort of blind spot in its reflective properties. It seems, somehow, it wasn’t always so—I mean I have worked the late shift here for a very long time—though I can’t recall just exactly when anything changed in the way the mirror worked. I never have subscribed to the superstitions many people hold regarding mirrors, so my guess is that it’s just another effect of the mirror’s deterioration. Strange thing is there are other people’s reflections that seem almost to have a soft light about them, like the dim halo around streetlights on foggy nights. I couldn’t rightly figure why, but a good many of Annie Mae’s visitors were positively glowing. It seemed just another gaudy layer to an already tackily ostentatious event. As I said before, I assume this dark or light aura business in the reflections occurs as an effect of the deteriorating silvering on the back of the glass or perhaps the angle at which they are viewed. I have puzzled over it many an hour sitting here with no one to talk to. My old mama would have told me to put such things out of my head, that it’s a bad omen when folks begin to see things they had not seen before. I don’t put much stock in mama’s old superstitions either, but I do allow that I don’t know it’s done my mood any good to dwell on such notions.

Anyhow, as Annie Mae’s devotees filed by, I could hear them swapping stories, like a competition which of them had the best Annie Mae story. ”She gave us blankets when our house burnt,” one would say, and another would try to top that with “She took food to the homeless shelter every week” and here would come another with something like “She would go over to the old folk’s home and read to them every Tuesday.” I even heard one or two going on about how she would march for other people’s “rights,” like those boys that got killed in the garbage truck in Memphis back in ’68, or that kid, some minority or other, who got shot by the police down in Little Rock just a while back. Annie Mae did this. Annie Mae did that. Like a bunch of dang kids trying to one-up each other with their stories of Annie Mae’s saintly adventures. I was just at the point of wondering if someone was going to announce which ones of them had been voted president and vice president of the official Annie Mae fan club, when it happened. Right there in the middle of Annie Mae’s grand exit, in the midst of the tragically best that Riverdown’s cultural elite had to offer, in strode the two most backward-looking, inbred bumpkins that ever crawled down off the back side of Trinity Mountain. To tell the truth, I take back that inbred part, because I suspect there was some kind of mixed influence going on—not that I can say for sure, but they had that look about them, what folks back in the day called “high yellow.” Oddly enough, in the mirror, they looked washed pure and clean, with an almost golden glow about them. It somehow seemed the crowd parted to accommodate them without ever really acknowledging them directly, and the distance left open around those two was almost exactly the same as the edge of that golden glow around them in the reflection, like the ones with shadowy reflections especially couldn’t bear to have that light touch them, nor their reflections either. I shook those silly notions from my head, though. Shows what comes of reading too much into things. I could see these two for what they were my own two eyes, and not just the questionable ancestry part. For example, these two mongrel-looking men’s overalls were patched so many times it was hard to tell what parts were original. They sagged from their shoulders like they were strung up on a bent wire hanger. Who goes out like that—to a funeral home no less? It appeared neither man was very handy with a razor, nor a washcloth either, and they looked every bit like they’d been dragged to town behind a pack of wild mules down forty miles of bad dirt road. No, I sympathize with that parting of the crowd, I surely do. The hushed mumble of funeral home gossip from Annie Mae’s bereaved admirers fell silent, and they acted as though two bristly boar hogs had just walked in on their hind legs.

The older of the two new arrivals eased his greasy co-op ball cap from his frizzy head to a spot just over his heart. The other one was still gawking at the grand chandelier in the foyer, slack-jawed and oblivious. The older man elbowed him, and the youngster hastily doffed his cap as well. The duo shuffled toward me, slowly, like men walking on ice that they’re not entirely sure will hold their weight.

“Ma’am?” The older man dipped his head down and forward as though nudging the word in my direction.

“Can I, help you?” I was about to let him have a hot buttered piece of my mind, but then my eyes met his, raw and deep-set in his sagging face. The starch went out of my voice, and its intended hardness wilted. I‘d seen eyes like those before. It wasn’t the look of fashionably brave, social grief. It was the genuine article.

He eased out with what he wanted, still all humble-like. “Ma’am, we’re here for mama.”

For just a fleeting moment, I dared to hope he was referring to Annie Mae, and a flash vision of the post-mortem mortification that such a revelation would cause to fall upon her enshrined reputation verily thrilled my heart. “Your mama?” I asked, glancing to the reflection of the viewing chapel where Annie Mae lay, noting with passing curiosity the deepening blackness of my reflection in the old mirror.

The man swallowed hard and said, “Yes ma’am. Mrs. Leola Chuckwaller.”

My visions of Annie Mae’s tarnished legacy stopped and melted away like a fluttering frame of movie film stuck before a hot projector lamp, and it took me a moment to recover from my disappointment. “I am sorry, but we have only the one visitation scheduled for tonight. Are you sure you have the right funeral home?”

He said, “Ma’am, we ain’t here for a visit. We’re here to pick her up.” By then I could sense by the attitudes of the crowd around the two men that a significant number of Annie Mae’s mourners were wondering what I was going to do about those two rustic, mongrel interlopers, and suddenly it was all back on me. A lump of injustice swelled in my gut like rising bread dough when it turned out not only would this not forever tarnish Annie Mae’s memory but also that this intrusion on the townspeople’s pilgrimage to pay homage to Saint Annie Mae was all somehow my fault. I will allow that a goodly part of my irritation was with myself for trying to be nice in the first place. Still, in spite of it all, I remained professional, saying evenly, “Let me check our records.”

The older man kept watching me with the most pitiful ache in back of his eyes. The younger one still looked like he was catching flies with his mouth hanging open.

“Oh, well here it is. We got her in this morning, and there’s paperwork here for transport. Have you arranged transportation?”

He perked up a little then. “Yes, ma’am, we’re going to take her to Gulf Shores. She always wanted to go down to Gulf Shores.”

As soon as I dispelled the image of them sitting on the beach under a big umbrella with their dead mama on a folding chaise lounge lawn chair, I smiled. “Very well, but have you made arrangements for someone to transport the body?”

Well, now, this was when the older fellow up and said, “No ma’am. We got us a truck outside.”

And I said, “You mean to say you intend to drive her to Gulf Shores yourselves?”

“Yes ma’am.” He said, matter-of-fact as you please. “If you could just let us get her, we’ll be on our way.”

“Well, I mean, I don’t know. This is highly irregular. I’m afraid you’ll just have to come back tomorrow during business hours and straighten this out.” I hated to be so blunt, but really, if you don’t put your foot down, these kind of people will run all over you.

He knitted his brow up and set his bottom lip at that. “Ma’am, we already set it up with the manager. It took us the better part of the day to come up with a truck, and we can’t afford to keep it an extra day. We spent most our whole life savings already on mama’s casket. We got to leave tonight.”

Well, it was just like Walter Junior to not tell me about it before he left. About then, Brother Frank sidled up, a sad half-smile on his face, and holding the same floppy old Bible he always waved around when he preached.

“Eula,” he said in a voice that hummed like a plucked fiddle string, “is there some problem with these good people?”

“Brother Frank,” I said, “I don’t know these people from Adam.”

Then the older of the two men chimes in, “Ma’am, I got me a driver’s license, if that’s what you need.”

“Well, that’s not it, Brother Frank. That’s just not it at all,” I said. “I just can’t let folks come in here in the middle of the night and drive away with…” I paused and shifted down to a whisper. “…with a body.”

Brother Frank kept on with that smile. “Well, Eula, why don’t you give Walter or Walter Junior a call? I’m sure they could clear this up in no time at all.”

Well, now that did sit sideways in my craw. “Brother Frank, I don’t want to go bothering them at home.”

Well, what do you think Brother Frank said next to me? I’ll tell you, he said, “Eula, do you think they’d be happier for you to cause this much distress to Annie Mae’s family and friends and to the family of these two gentlemen?”

That was all I could stand, right there. I snatched up the transport paperwork and said to the two men, “Come with me.” I marched straight back, and sure enough, the casket sat pretty as you please on a church truck, just waiting for pick up. It was the highest priced casket we sell, too, the one they show first to induce sticker shock, before showing the cheapest one in order to guilt people into buying the one we really want to sell them. I had never, in all my days working here seen anyone go for the highest price one, which, by the way, was also the heaviest one.

“Well, come on,” I said as I started pushing the heavy casket and church truck toward the double doors of the loading area.

The older man hesitated before laying hands on the casket, like he thought it might be hot to the touch. The younger man’s eyes were open as wide as his mouth had been, and he was wringing his hat like he aimed to twist it in two. I turned to him and said, “Young man, could you go on ahead and open the doors for us?”

He jumped a little and scurried to the doors, and we rolled on through without losing any momentum. Then I saw the truck. It was a U-Haul. Swear to God, it was one of those twenty-five footers for moving whole houses of furniture, with a big lime green picture of a tyrannosaurus rex right on the side of it, its toothy mouth open, its tiny arms reaching.

“It was the smallest one they had.” The older man said, evidently noticing my reaction to the truck.

The height of the truck bed was nowhere near the height of the church truck. The older man looked from the casket to the back of the truck several times like he expected each time that the church truck had magically gotten taller so it would be level with the truck bed.

“How do we get her up inside?” he asked.

I said, “Well, I’m sure I don’t know. Usually, people pick up caskets in vehicles with the right equipment for loading and unloading them.”

He chewed his lip, and asked, “Can you help us lift her in there?”

“Why, that thing must weigh a quarter of a ton if it weighs an ounce!” I said.

Then a soft voice from behind us said, “Papa.” We both looked, and the younger man was pointing to the back end of the truck. “They’s a ramp here we can pull out. Maybe we can roll her up that.”

The young man pulled the ramp out and set the end on the ground.

“Come on boy,” the older man said, and the two of them began to push They actually made slow progress up the steep angle, pushing a foot or two, setting one foot as the other slid forward. Then, when they had all but made it to the top, the boy’s foot slipped and he rolled off the side of the ramp to the pavement. The older man bowed up for all he was worth, but his feet slid down the ribbed ramp with a rattle that made my teeth ache. I guess that was more than I could watch, because before I knew it, I was right there beside him pushing as best I could. Somehow we stayed in front of the casket, slowing it down, but at the bottom of the ramp we both tripped backward, and the church truck wheels stopped cold at the sudden change of angle.  The whole business tipped up longways toward where we were sprawled backward on the ground, the heavy casket looming over us, and for a moment it was all frozen in perfect balance. In the parking lot lights, it looked almost like a black and white still photo you might see with a caption “Last Moment Before Disaster.” Then the casket slid clean off the church truck. I closed my eyes, but I still heard the casket end crunching into the pavement, or…into something, anyway. The other end slammed down onto the ramp with a boom like two boxcars colliding, the sound echoing like a great bronze gong, rolling away like thunder does far off into the distance. Somewhere in the silence that followed, I heard the twisted wreckage of the church truck clatter to the ground like an upended shopping cart. I opened my eyes to see the T-rex’s mouth hanging open as if in mute horror, as its ineffectual arms reached out, empty, useless.

The boom of the casket on the metal ramp drew the most pathologically nosy of Annie Mae’s fan club outside. I guess I somehow rolled clear, as I was suddenly yards away as the crowd moved in around the scene. In between the milling bodies of these voyeurs, I caught only glimpses of the boy kneeling beside his father, who was pinned half under the downward edge of the heavy casket. There was something else pinned under the casket beside him I couldn’t quite make out. I thought it looked something like my sweater, somehow fallen off in all the commotion, but I could feel clearly that mine was still about my shoulders, for all that it didn’t seem to be keeping the evening chill out of my bones anymore. I pulled it closer around me, craning to see more.

“Papa!” the young man cried out, half out of breath. “Papa! Papa!”

I shuddered to think of the old woman jumbled in the downhill end of the casket after that ride, too. Then a glow started up around the man as his hunched shoulders shook and heaved a few moments, and then he just stopped. I was just at the point of wondering where the all the light was coming from when the twin spots of headlights swung over the scene as a big sedan pulled into the lot and stopped. A figure got out of the car and walked toward us. With the headlights behind him, the figure was a walking black hole in a field of bright light. As he reached us, I just knew it was Walter Junior, though I still could not see him. I would bet anything it was Brother Frank that called him. I could feel Water Junior’s stare against the side of my neck, so I said, “Why, I knew it was a bad idea. The very idea, a U-Haul in the middle of the night.”

Walter Junior said, “Eula?”

Well, that just went all over me. “What was I supposed to do? Not a bit of this was my idea, not a bit of it!”

“Eula!”

I couldn’t form another word.

Walter Junior turned to Brother Frank, who had just sidled up. “Brother Frank, do you think you could persuade some of the young men here paying respects to Miss Annie Mae to come give these poor people a hand?”

Brother Frank nodded and swallowed hard, not smiling for once, and his voice stammered out, “Why certainly, Walter. Certainly.”

Walter Junior said, “Thank you,” then without even so much as looking in my direction said, “Oh, Eula. Whatever were you thinking?”

I didn’t say anything—not a thing—but the look I gave him as I walked back to the doors would have soured milk, not that he noticed. I saw my shadow on the double loading doors as I walked toward them, cast by the parking lot lights and the light of the headlights, I suppose. The shadow seemed somehow wrong, too thin, but still black as coal. I could hear the men grunt and strain as they began lifting, and it seemed for a moment my shadow became darker and thinner as the light behind me brightened almost like broad daylight, but I chalked it up to the fact that it all was just the light angle the closer I got to the building. I went in the doors just as someone was rushing out toward the truck, and I let the doors slam shut behind me. Back at my desk, I avoided looking in the mirror at all, like I often do at night in my bathroom when the lights are off. No sense looking for things you don’t want to see anyway. I sat there like that the remainder of the night, the first of a long string of nights I can’t rightly count or account for. No one even came to tell me how it all worked out.

Later that night, after the last of the pilgrims trudged through to view Annie Mae lying in state, I happened to glance up at the mirror in spite of myself, and there was my dark smudge of a reflection, seeming even darker, like it was pulling all the light from the grand chandelier toward it. For a moment, I thought I caught a glimpse of something else in the mirror, like two old women, one white woman and one black woman, both glowing gold, promenading through the viewing chapel arm-in-arm. There was a flash of light, something bright like before outside…and I turned to look directly that way, rather than through the mirror’s reflection, but there was nothing there but two candles still burning. Walter Junior came in and went through all the motions of closing up, which was supposed to be my job. He still looked upset, but I was every bit as upset myself. Why, he never spoke a word to me as he closed up, and I wasn’t the one to give in first in his silent treatment. He went into the viewing chapel to Annie Mae’s open casket, and I got up to shadow him. The dancing candlelight made his shadow flicker on the chapel wall, but I couldn’t see mine at all. As he blew the candles out, the dancing ceased and there was only the still, dark image of his shadow from the streetlights coming in through the stained glass. As I looked down into Annie Mae’s casket, I swear her prim little mouth was slanted in that same smirk she always wore to let me know how very sorry she felt for me, though she never would’ve admitted to such condescension, always that smug little look. As the lid came down over her, I returned to my desk before the great mirror, where I have been ever since. I don’t know how long ago that happened. It seems…so…long. I don’t know why no one will talk to me or if anyone can even hear me, or how long it will be until I can just go home. All I know is that last image of Annie Mae’s smirk is still burning deeper into my mind. Gawd, I never could stand that woman!

 

 

 

About the Author: Dennis Humphrey teaches writing and literature at Prince William Sound College in Valdez, Alaska, and he is a founding member of the Valdez Feral Writers Guild. He has a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana Lafayette, and he has published fiction in such places as storySouth, Southern Hum, Clapboard House, Prick of the Spindle, BloodLotus, SN Review, Silver Blade Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and Bull & Cross.

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