May 11, 2018

Fiction by J L Higgs: "Lee's Funeral, Emmy's Wedding"

J L Higgs' short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America.

He has been published in over 20 magazines including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

"Lee's Funeral, Emmy's Wedding"

My fingers stealthily unwrap the cellophane around the hard candy without making a sound. Withdrawing my hand from the outside pocket of my black suit jacket, I palm the candy in my fist. Pretending I’m clearing my throat, I raise my fist to my mouth and slip the hard candy inside. The sweet taste of strawberries spreads across my tongue.
“Stop that fidgeting,” says Marlene. “They're about to start.”
I tuck the candy into my cheek with my tongue. “This is just plain weird,” I say. “And this bench is hurting my butt. It’s hard as a concrete block.”
“Now you hush, Jimmy B.!” she says. “You agreed to come, so if you really didn't want to you should've just stayed at home.”
“It's still weird,” I mutter.   Caught rolling my
eyes, I give Marlene one of my best angelic smiles.  
    When the phone call had come three days ago it had been a shocker.  
“Daddy's dead.”
“Dead?  What do you mean Lee's dead?”
“Just what I said, Uncle Jimmy.  Daddy's dead.”
“You sure, Emmy?”
“Of course, I'm sure.  Daddy’s dead,” she repeated.
“Lee's dead,” I said to Marlene, clamping my hand across the mouth piece of the phone.
    “Give me that phone,” she said, snatching it out of my hand.  “Emmy honey,” she said in that sing-song butter melting voice.  “Lee’s dead?”
    “Yup.  He's dead.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that, honey.  What about the wedding? I guess you all are going to postpone?”
“Why’s she getting married anyway?” I whispered.
Marlene covered the phone's mouth piece with her hand, “Shush, Jimmy B,” she said.
”Shush, Jimmy B,” I mimicked back softly so Emmy wouldn’t hear me.  
“Nope.  We're gonna go ahead and have it.”    
“Do you all think that's a good idea?  I mean, given the funeral…”
“Well, I talked with Momma.  Since everything is ready for the wedding, she felt we should just go ahead and have it.”
“Alright then.  Well, you tell your momma I'm thinking about you all and I'll be keeping all of you in my prayers.  We'll see you in a few days and in the meantime if there's anything I can do for you all just give us a call.  And let us know when the funeral’s gonna be.”
“Well.  That's why I called.  You and Uncle Jimmy need to come about an hour earlier on Saturday.”
“That's no problem at all, honey.  I'm happy to do anything I can to help with the wedding.”
“Well I appreciate that, but we're all set with the wedding.  We just need you to come earlier for Daddy's funeral. It's gonna be right before the wedding.”
So, here I am at Lee’s funeral on a beautiful October day.  The mountains are a brilliant sunlit patchwork quilt of yellow, red, and orange.  It's been years since I’ve laid eyes on them. Thinking of this small town in the mountains, with its few black families sprinkled about like pepper on grits, as home is barely a distant memory to me now.  I wanted out as did Lee. That, along with thousands of other reasons, probably accounts for why he and I were such close friends.
Hunting deer, turkeys, and rabbits through autumn leaves and deep winter snows.  Fishing for yellow perch, lake trout, and large mouth bass. Swimming, camping, and hiking; Lee and I had been as close as two boys who weren’t brothers could be.
In about a week’s time, today's colors will start to dull.  The fluid flowing through each leaf's veins will begin to slow down until it finally stops.  Cut off from its sustenance, each leaf will eventually die, then fall to the ground. What remains standing will be stark bare skeletons awaiting winter’s cold and snows.
As the Wedding March begins to play, we all stand-up.  Marlene takes my hand in hers. She gives me a quick sweet smile.   As Emmy walks down the aisle, her light brown Shirley Temple curls bounce like springs.  A bouquet of long white lilies covers the small bump of her almost six-week pregnancy. It’s a tossup which will happen first, Emmy graduating from high school or the baby being born.  Emmy’s always been one for surprises. Even from the start.
Peg's family had moved to our town when we were all eight years old.  From that day forward, the three of us, Peg, Lee, and me were practically inseparable.  We went through school together and a few years after we graduated high school they got married.  Shortly after that I acted on my own and escaped this town, leaving it behind me.
Almost immediately, Lee and Peg wanted to start a family.  But after years of trying, they learned that conceiving a child was a remote possibility at best.  That's why everyone was shocked when Peg became pregnant. By the time Emmy was born, they’d been married nine, almost ten years.
Throughout her pregnancy, Lee had hovered around Peg like she was made of glass.  Determined that nothing would go wrong he’d taken control of everything. He barely even let her get up or move around.  By late in her eighth month, his well-meaning over attentiveness had just about driven her insane. That was why she’d called me.
“Jimmy B.,” she said when I answered the phone, “You better come on up here.”
“Why?”  I asked, “What’s the matter?  Something happen to Lee?”
“For now, your best friend’s fine,” she said, “but if you don’t get up here and get him to give me some peace, he won’t be!”
That was how I came to be up at Lee and Peg’s the day Emmy was born.  After Peg's phone call, I’d told Marlene I was going up visit Lee because Peg was one hair’s width away from sending him to meet Jesus.  Marlene laughed and asked if I wanted her to come with me. I told her no. Peg had said she just needed some quiet time to herself.
When I arrived at Lee and Peg’s, the issue of him giving her some breathing room was still far from settled.  Lee was adamant that in a woman’s final month of pregnancy her husband should be even more vigilant. Peg reminded him that her due date was two weeks out and that women had had babies for hundreds of years without men being present.  Ignoring Lee's hang dog expression, she shooed us out the door.
“Go do some sugaring,” she said.  “Half the season's already passed.”
As Lee started up the quad, I hooked the short bed trailer to the hitch.  Then we loaded two empty 50-gallon barrels onto the trailer. I slammed its tailgate shut and we headed down the trail into the woods.  At each tapped tree, we checked its small hanging bucket for sap. We gingerly removed each full bucket, so as not to slop any of the crystal clear sap over the metal bucket’s edge.  Then we emptied the precious nectar into one of the barrels. Once the barrels were full, we mounted the quad and rode to the ramshackle sugar house we’d thrown together when we were boys.
“Damn.  Still standing,” I said, nodding toward the shack as I wrestled one of the barrels off the trailer.
“We should do something about it, one of these days,” responded Lee.
“Yeah,” I replied.  “Just not today.”
Lee chuckled.  He tipped a barrel up onto the edge of its bottom rim and wheeled it hand over hand into the shack.
As I started the fire, Lee began pouring the sap into the large silver steel boil pan.  After poking and prodding the fire a bit and tossing on more split wood, it was roaring.  Black soot from its smoke started to coat the underside of the pan. Then bubbles began forming on the bottom of the pan.  Once the bottom was completely covered in bubbles, they began to rise through the hot liquid. They burst through its surface in a rolling boil.
“Candy, Lee?” I asked holding out my hand.
He started to reach for the candy, then stopped, his hand in mid-air.  “You didn’t swipe it now, did you, Candy Man?” he asked, eying me.
“Sure as shit did,” I replied, alluding to when we were kids and Lee got caught stealing candy from Shorty's Gas Up, Grab & Go Country Store.  “Hell. I’ve been holding on to this particular piece of candy for over twenty years, just so I could give it to you today.”
“Well in that damn case, I'm happy to be your partner in crime.”  Lee plucked the candy from my palm, tore off the wrapper and popped the candy in his mouth.  Then he smiled like he was the happiest man in the world.
Lee stooped, picked up the wire mesh strainer and skimmed its head across the surface of the boil.  He lifted the strainer from the pan and flung the foam trapped in the mesh onto the ground.
As the liquid in the pan began to turn a light caramel color, he added more sap to the pan while I continued to feed the fire.
“Hot enough for you?” asked Lee.  He chuckled as he unbuttoned his large red plaid fleece lined denim jacket.  
“Shit, I bet you feel right at home since I know there’s a place reserved for you in hell,” I replied.
He began laughing so hard he was about doubled over when the rickety door to the sugar shack burst open.  In the doorway stood Peg.
“Lee,” she said.  “I think it’s time.”
“But you’ve got..”
“I said it’s time.  We’ve got to go!”
Stunned, Lee grabbed Peg by the arm.  His eyes darted between the boil pan, Peg, and me.   
“You heard, Peg,” I said.  “We got to go.”
Snapping into action, Lee dashed out the shack, darn near dragging Peg.  At the quad and the trailer, he hesitated.
“Just get in the damn trailer,” I yelled, jumping aboard the quad and starting it up.  Lee leaped into the trailer, then turned and helped Peg up into its bed. She sat down carefully with her legs dangling out over its open gate.
I slammed the quad into gear and took off.  As we tore through the woods the trailer careened wildly, striking protruding tree roots, rabbit holes, and ditches carved by runoff from melted snow.  
When we reached the house, Lee yanked Peg out of the trailer and they piled into his big truck.  He started it up and swung it 180 degrees, spraying gravel and dust into the air. Then the truck screeched to a halt.
  “Jimmy,” he yelled to me through his open window.  “The maple syrup!”
“Just get on to the hospital,” I hollered back.  “I got it.”
With that, Lee slammed the pedal to the metal.  The truck shot down the driveway, wheels spinning and gravel flying every which way.  Thirty-five hours later, on April Fool’s day, Emmy was born. For someone who had seemed in such a rush to get here, she sure changed her mind at the last minute.
Emmy stops at the altar.  Derek is standing there. He's got a huge grin on his face like he's won a blue ribbon at the fair. His white blond bed head hair is sticking out in all directions.  The suit that big country boy’s wearing looks like something that was last in style when his grandad was a boy.
Derek slides over until he's standing right beside Emmy.  She smiles up at him and he down at her. As we retake our seats, I slip another hard candy into my mouth.  Butterscotch. One of my favorites. I wonder what Lee would think of all this if he were here? Then, I think, well, he is here, sort of, if lying in an open casket next to your daughter at her wedding could be considered being here.  
As the ceremony begins, Peg starts crying.  That sets off a chain reaction through the women in the church like something contagious.  Sure enough, beside me, Marlene is silently crying. I reach in my pocket, pull out my clean white handkerchief, and hand it to her.  She thanks me and begins dabbing at her eyes. For a split second, I consider offering her a candy, but then I think better of it, and don’t.  While the young white minister talks, I stare at a stained glass window. There, a white Jesus is dying for my sins. Really?
I’ve heard this part countless times.  There ain’t nothing unique about a wedding ceremony.  But a combination funeral/wedding? That’s unique! That's why I didn’t think there was anything wrong or inappropriate when I had asked the minister if he’d ever done a funeral/wedding before.  Of course, that got me “the look” from Marlene. But the minister didn't seem the least bit offended. In fact, he smiled and was downright pleasant as he told me that this was his first.
Now if anything could be considered inappropriate, it'd be what ole Bone Head Earl said when we were standing there paying our respects to Lee before the funeral started.  
“He looks good.  He looks just like himself,” Earl whispered to me.
“Are you stupid, boy,” I snapped back.  “First off, that’s like saying Lee’s looked like a dead man all these years.  Secondly, if he looked the least bit like you or me, then one of us would sure have something to worry about.”
“Well, I didn’t mean anything bad, Jimmy B.,” said Earl, twisting the frayed brim of a Lake Monster ball cap in his hands.  “I just meant he looks like he’s sleeping.”
“Then that’s what you should’ve said,” I responded shaking my head as he shuffled off.  Given my experiences with the stupid things some white people say to black people, I often wonder if their brains are ever even engaged before they speak.    
As I hear the words, “you may kiss the bride,” my attention returns to the ceremony.
The wedding having ended, we line up to shake hands with everyone in the receiving line.  When we reach Emmy, she pulls me close and gives me a kiss on the cheek.
“Daddy would've been so glad you came,” she whispers in my ear. “We've missed you, Uncle Jimmy.”
“I've missed you too darling,” I say.  “Boy,” I say turning to Derek, “You better take good care of my god daughter and the little one that'll be here soon.”
“Yes, sir.  I will,” says Derek pumping my hand a little too enthusiastically.  “I've got a job all lined up and everything. I'm gonna be stocking the shelves at the hardware store.”
“Well that's good,” I say, pulling my hand free.  “I'm sure your father is looking forward to having your help.”       
Marlene tucks my blush smeared handkerchief into her pocket book.  She pulls out a small silver tube and reapplies her lipstick.
“Isn’t that George?,” she asks, stowing the capped lipstick back in her pocket book.  My eyes follow hers across the room. They land on a 400 pound man in a red polo shirt, wearing white khaki pants.    
“Yup,” I say, “that’s Skinny George and Silent Cathy.”    
“I heard his wife just disappeared.  Up and left him,” said Marlene.
“Looks to me like he might’ve eaten her.  I sure hope you ain't got no peanuts in that bag of yours.”
“You better stop,” she said covering a laugh with her hand.  
Skinny George, ever the politician just as he was when he was our high school class president, stops here and there to chat up the other funeral/wedding guests.  Silent Cathy, like a pilot fish, moves in perfect synch with Skinny, smiling politely and saying nothing. After not uttering a single word aloud during our school years, Silent Cathy shocked us all when she delivered the valedictorian address at our high school graduation in a clear strong voice.      
“Hello George,” said Marlene.  She tries giving him a hug, but her arms barely make it even half way around his body.
“Hey, George. Hey, Cathy,” I say.
“Hey,” replies George as Cathy smiles and nods hello.  “It’s a darn shame about Lee.”
“Yeah, sure is,” I say.
“How you all been?  Lee used to keep us up-to-date, but we ain’t heard much the last year or so.”
I shrug.  “We been fine, George,” interjects Marlene.
“Well, we missed you at the last reunion, Jimmy B.  Sure be nice if you could attend the upcoming one next July.”  Cathy smiles at me and nods in agreement.
“Well, I don’t know George,” I say.  “I don’t...”
“We’ll see what we can do,” says Marlene cutting me off. She graces Skinny with a sweet smile while I stand there as mute as Silent Cathy.
“Well, we’ll see you all downstairs,” says George, reaching out and shaking my hand.  Then he moves on, meeting and greeting his subjects, with Cathy following in his wake.
“You ready to head downstairs to the reception?” asks Marlene.  “I did promise Emmy and Peg I’d help set up.”
I look at the doorway to the staircase that leads downstairs and catch a glimpse of Emmy.  She gives me a happy wave and I wave back. Then she disappears down the stairs.
“She's certainly glad to see you,” says Marlene, touching my forearm tenderly.  “Now aren't you glad you came?”
“Marlene,” I say.  “What ever do you think she sees in that boy?”
“Huh.  That's what my momma used to ask me about you.”
“And I bet you told mother dear that I was as sweet as candy,” I say, smiling from ear to ear.
“I told her you were just a fool and that I took pity on you since no one else would've.” Marlene lets out a cackle and gives me a peck on the cheek.   
“Now Jimmy B.  Your god daughter's got a good head on her shoulders.  If Emmy's decided to marry Derek and have his baby, then you should just accept that she knows what she's doing.”
“Yeah.  You're right.”
“Of course, I am, Sugar.  And she was a beautiful bride.  Little Emmy all grown up. Lee would be so proud.”
“Yeah, he would.”
“So.  You coming?”       
“No.  You go on ahead,” I say.  “I’ll be there shortly.”
Marlene, my social butterfly, easily joins in with the folks heading downstairs.  They're all going on about what a nice wedding ceremony it was and how Emmy was such a beautiful bride.  Finally, with the church cleared out, it’s just me and Lee. I walk over to the casket and look at my best friend.  He's lying there so still it seems unreal. I try to speak. My lips move, but I can’t get out a single word.
“You should come up in April and do the sugaring.”  
I turn toward the voice.  Peg walks over and takes my hand in hers.  She rests her head on my shoulder. Whereas some women age, Peg, like Marlene, just gets more and more beautiful as time passes.  Her graying hair doesn't make her look old, but mature and wise.
“The baby should be born around April,” she says.  “Lee won't be here. You should.”
“Well, I'm not sure..”
“Earl and George have said they'll tap the trees,” said Peg.  Taking a step back, she looks me straight in the eyes. “There’s no point in them doing that if no one’s gonna do the sugaring.  Lord knows, I ain’t gonna do it.”
“Well, it probably wouldn't be right if I...”
“That was Lee’s and your thing, Jimmy B.,” she said.  “Y’know, Lee ain’t done no sugaring the last year. When I asked him why, he said he was waiting for you.  Well,” she said, taking Lee’s hand in her free one while still holding mine in her other, “it looks to me like time done run out on both of you.”
Tears start to fill my eyes.  I try to hold on and keep them at bay.
“I don’t know what you all had your falling out over.  Lee never told me. And I never asked. But that shack you all built is still standing.”
I try to speak, but I can’t.  It takes everything I got to keep the tears from breaking loose.
Peg lets go of Lee's hand, then mine. “I’m gonna go downstairs now before they start looking for me,” she says as she starts to walk away.  “I’ll leave you here with your best friend.”
As she reaches the vestibule, Peg stops and turns back toward me.  “Jimmy B.,” she says, “No matter how far or how fast a person tries to run away from home it's where their heart is and where the people who truly love them will always welcome them with open arms.  Don't you think it's been long enough? It’s time. It’s time for you to come home.” Then she turns away and leaves.
I wipe at my tears.  I feel small. Smaller than I’ve ever felt in my life.  Why didn't I stop myself from yelling, “fuck you, Lee,” and slamming down the phone.  It wasn't as if he'd never teased me before that he'd only gotten caught stealing the candy from Shorty's because I'd confessed that he'd done it. But those angry words had been the last words he'd heard from me.    
“I’m sorry, Lee,” I say, touching his cold stiff hands.  “I am so sorry.”
Out of habit, my right hand goes into my pocket.  It fumbles around until it comes out holding a candy.  “My last one,” I say. I slipped it between his folded hands.  “I miss you so much, buddy.” Then I walk away, to join the wedding reception.
First published in The Writing Disorder
~J L Higgs

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