i drove a hearse to mississippi
CHAPTER SEVEN — finale
Hattiesburg doesn’t seem like much of a city, really. Or maybe it’s considered just a town, I don’t know, but we end up driving around in circles looking for the funeral home. Dad’s holding the wheel with one hand and trying to decipher a crumpled up map, and very nearly runs over a pedestrian and twice blows through a red light. I’m certain we’re going to get pulled over. By now Dad’s getting all flummoxed, I can tell, so I grab the map from him.
“Dad, just pull over and ask that man standing over there where the Ezra P. Grimsby Funeral Home is.”
Surprisingly, Dad actually listens to me, and I feel that it’s further proof of him respecting me and trusting my judgment and intuition. Being barely sixteen, you just never know, right. Especially with a dad who always had his way with you, or imposed his will on you … or worse, ignored the hell out of you half the time. But things seem to be different now, changing for the better, as the past couple of days have proven, right. Especially since he decided to share his intimate war stories and the other story (under wraps!) with me after holding them in and letting them eat away at him like a cancer for all these agonizing years.
We’re amazingly right on time. Mr. Grimsby greets us with circumspect formality. He’s a hollow, old bony sack of a man, Dickensian in character, and smelling vaguely like, um, fish and cigars. At first, I’m like, this guy looks just like Dad, only a bit older and more decrepit. I have a hard time keeping a straight face over his ironic name, and I’m definitely grossed out by his bodily aroma, or rather the stench about him, that come to think of it, is more like the stench of death than fish and cigars. After a few pleasantries, Mr. Grimsby announces in a scratchy Mississippi drawl with a hint of throat mucus choking his words, “Mr. Waldrip’s body is downstairs in the morgue. Shall we proceed.”
I cringe when I hear the word morgue. As kids, we used to sneak down and play “dead man” in Uncle Scoop’s cold morgue until we got creeped out and would repair up to the fancy wood-paneled parlor, where we’d make believe we were forensic scientists, autopsy specialists and coroners. Pretty macabre stuff for kids, don’t you think. This is bringing back all those memories now. And, wait! Now that I’ve gotten a closer look (and smell!), Old Man Grimsby doesn’t look so much like Dad as he does Uncle Scoop! Color his thinning gray hair red and add a strawberry pasty look to his ashen pall and you’ve got Uncle Scoop! I get such a kick out of this, and check Dad out, wondering if he sees it, too, but he’s too busy with Mr. Grimsby preparing paperwork and making final arrangements while I’m lost in my boyhood memories, which, come to think of it, are not all that long ago, ’cause, technically, I suppose, I’m still a boy, right, being just sixteen years old.
A winding staircase leads down to an uninviting basement reeking of acrid chemicals and — fish and cigars? Mr. Grimsby points to a lumpy figure heaped on a cold steel table. “There he is, he’s all yours. Come, I’ll help you get him in his casket and ready him for transport.” He pronounces the words “casket” like “cuskut” and “transport” like “trunsput” and I can hardly keep from laughing over his funny accent.
Mr. Grimsby slips around a corner, then reappears pushing a dolly with an upright standing fancy silver and black casket with gold trimming. It must have cost a fortune. He sets the casket down near old man Waldrip’s reposed cadaver, now uncovered and on full grim display on the table, and asks Dad for a hand to ease him down into the death box, outfitted in a black suit with his arms folded across his chest in the “death pose”, and, almost unbearable to look at, a creepy smirk is frozen on his lifeless pale blue face. I guess the old geezer had died of cancer, or something, so his body was all shriveled up like a prune, but Mr. Grimsby had done the best job he could of making him presentable for the open casket ceremony to be held back at Uncle Scoop’s funeral home. I’m watching the whole thing unfold, Mr. Grimsby and Dad engaged in this macabre bit of teamwork to pick the corpse up in “one-two-three” fashion and dump it into the casket once and for all. It all seems rather unceremonious to my way of thinking, but what the hell, it’s a grim job, and who better cut out for the unglamorous task than a man named Grimsby and my Dad who’s certainly seen his share of death up close. So, I embrace the scene with a sort of stoic giddiness. At sixteen, well, I’ve never seen death up close, but after hearing Dad’s stories, this is nothing, especially since old man Waldrip actually looks so calm and perfectly at rest and natural in his lifeless state. He might even be sleeping if I didn’t know better. The eternal big sleep we’ll all fall into sooner or later.
Once old man Waldrip is safely ensconced in his coffin, lid firmly slammed shut, we wheel it out on the dolly and hoist it into the back of the Hearsemobile, at which point, all paperwork signed and no need for further pleasantries, we bid adieu and take our leave. I’m so glad to be leaving Mr. Grimsby’s horrible death stench in our wake. Off we go to make the return journey home, an estimated thirty hours of driving.
We make it out of Hattiesburg without incident, even though a cop car follows us to the edge of town, what with us in a hearse and all, with far-away out of state plates, who knows, we might be up to no good, but the cop lets us proceed and Dad soon makes it clear he has some big ideas about hiking the Natchez Trail, fishing and camping in the national forest, and even visiting Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, but it’s all just pie in the sky pigs can fly, right, just Dad schemin’ and dreamin’ because if the alligator farm was so far out of reach, what the heck does that make all of this? Plus Mom’s expecting us back by a certain time, and besides, even if we do go off on a wild goose chase of an adventure in the Mississippi backwoods, what the heck are we going to do with our constant companion corpse? And what if we have another flat tire, or what if, my mind spins horrible thoughts, something . . . what if something worse were to happen?
With all our hopes, dreams, ideas, visions, schemes and dreams properly shot down as sheer fantasy, we settle in for a long fairly uneventful straight-shot ride back home. It’s hard to explain, because it’s like the whole thing is a whirlwind of a blur of a dream wrapped in a passing vision from the car window. If you ask me, I barely remember stopping to get gas, stopping for a rest or bathroom or food break, where or what we did for sleeping arrangements, nothing, or anything.
Dad’s fallen silent, and a bit sullen, too, like his cathartic purge and admittances and confessions just took so much out of him. So, it’s like just me and the radio on, listening to those heart-rending country songs, just driving home with old man Waldrip’s formaldehyde preserved shell of a body in the back of the Hearsemobile, our sleek black sepulcher holding the old timer we picked up at the Ezra P. Grimsby Funeral Home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. But I can’t shake the macabre feeling of it all, of having a dead body in tow — such creepy cargo, right.
Now, get this, though! For reasons not wholly clear, the casket hadn’t been securely fastened back there, so every time I brake, or go barreling down a hilly stretch, that unruly sucker rolls forward and collides with a loud thump up against the back of the cab where I can feel it rattle my bones.
It gets to be a running joke. “Hey, Dad, who’s that bangin’ on the back of the cab?”
Dad grins. “Aw, ain’t nobody but Old Man Death, I don’t suppose.”
Funny enough, I do suppose. I can’t shake an uneasy feeling, a premonition of our death. When Dad was telling his war stories, I cringed and blocked out images of horrible demises. When I first saw old man Waldrip, I cringed. Indeed, it seems that Old Man Death is haunting us now, especially with the unruly casket in the back that keeps on a-knockin’ at our door. I suppose, though, at some point, we all must experience it — and it’s not so much that I’m frightened of death or dying, being just sixteen, way too young for it yet, it’s just the way I don’t want to envision how it might happen that scares the living daylights out of me.
The gloomy specter of the Grim Reaper catches up with us at the next hill we come to, not that Mississippi has a whole heck of a lot of hills, but on the verge of cresting one on a stretch of two-lane blacktop, I can’t see over the dashboard at what’s coming head-on over the rise. I have exactly one split second to react as a speeding Pontiac LeMans suddenly appears swerving over into my lane!
One split second to react. One split second from a grisly head-on collision and instant death. No time to think.
Unconsciously, with God as my auto-pilot, or a mystical Guardian Angel intervening, or maybe it’s the spirit of old man Waldrip orchestrating our salvation — I do not know — but my youthful, lightning quick instincts kick into gear. I don’t over-react or try to over-control the Hearsemobile. In that one split second of life-saving prowess, it’s almost like it happens in slow-motion. I veer over to the other lane, barely avoiding a major collision with the asshole in the LeMans, and — THANK GOD! — no vehicle was in the opposite lane because, because now I’m white-knucklin’ the steering wheel and fishtailing like mad, just doing my best to keep my wits about me and bring the Hearsemobile under control and to a complete stop.
I’m trembling, even as I finally manhandle the Hearsemobile and bring it to a safe stop off to the side of the road. Thank God, or thank my Guardian Angel or thank old man Waldrip, ’cause I can’t imagine dying like that, like classmates Jack Graves and Doug Patterson did in gruesome car accidents last year, except in both cases, they were drinking and speeding, but still, poor souls, they died way too young.
The swerving and weaving and commotion causes Dad to suddenly come to. He’d been dozing off cradling a half-empty cup of cold coffee, and in a flurry of sputtering expletives he crushes the Styrofoam cup in his hand and coffee goes flying everywhere.
“Holy shit, son! What the hell’s happening? What in God’s name did you do?”
“Dad, Dad, oh, Dad, you won’t believe it!”
Breathlessly, I relate the details of our near death experience. How I’d successfully avoided a certain death head-on accident. How I’d successfully managed to keep the Hearsemobile under control and bring it to a safe stop by the side of the road.
“Everything’s okay, Dad! I’m fine! I’d say we’re pretty dang lucky.”
Dad looks skeptical, noticing me panting heavily.
In the calm aftermath, I’m experiencing a rush of pure adrenaline and unmitigated excitement flushing my body. “No, seriously, Dad, it’s all okay. This stupid car was speeding right at the top of that hill back there, and at the top, he was about ten yards in front of me coming right at us in our lane going like a hundred!”
Dad shakes his head disbelievingly. “In our lane! Right at us? Wow! I don’t know how you did it, son, but you did! You faced death head-on and beat him!”
Dad then begins to shower me with praise as things really begin to sink in of what could have been: a gory death scene. A fatal collision on a bloody stretch of lonesome Mississippi blacktop. A reunion in the Great Beyond with old man Waldrip and Jack Graves and Doug Patterson and all Dad’s dead and gone Marine buddies who tragically perished long before their time.
“Son, son,” Dad repeats a hundred times.
“Son, that was a helluva job you did, son. I don’t know if I could of done it any better. I don’t know how you did it, son, but that was something special. I’m proud of you, son. I’ll take over from here, now. You need a good break from what you just went through, son.”
And that — well, that is about as close to a high five as I think I ever got from Dad. Once back on the road, our talk was exhausted, but I sensed that something had clicked in our relationship, now that we had shared so much together. All the stories unleashed from their cages, all the secrets released from Dad’s heart, have bonded us, finally — Father and Son, a relationship restored, made whole, born from the confessions and sharing of the most buried of stories and secrets in a man’s soul.
Finally, as we cross the border into Indiana, about two hours from pulling into our driveway, Dad says, “This was a mighty fine adventure, don’t you think, son. Something to remember, I reckon. I know you fancy yourself a writer, and you’re pretty good at it. Maybe you can write up this story someday. I hope I’m around to read it.”
I blush over Dad’s unexpected plaudits about my so-called writing talent. “I hope so, Dad, I hope so, because there’s a lot to tell, isn’t there. And who’s gonna believe it anyway unless I write about it.”
Dad nods. Then, one of those tension-filled pauses I’ve come to expect: “And just wait until our next trip I’ve got planned for us, son!”
My eyebrows raise. “Next trip? What are you talking about, Dad? This one’s not even over yet!”
Dad flashes his mischievous grin I’ve come to know and appreciate. “Well, take a guess.”
I draw a blank and shake my head and shrug. “I dunno, Dad. What do you have in mind? I can’t imagine. Maybe visiting Uncle Gizzepp in Chicago to see a Cubs game? Yeah, that’d be a blast!”
Dad pulls out his wallet, and fishes around for that little picture he’d shown me before. He holds it up for me to see.
“Son, when you turn 17 next year, for your high school graduation present — guess what — you and I are going to take a little trip to China to meet Li-Na.”