brother used to scrub bodies in a mortuary.
like the Packard V-12 hearse Slade Hyde owns. I want to
own one someday."
it get to you?" I asked.
when they got holes in their heads," he answered.
worked for a florist in Hebron delivering gladioli arrangements
to funeral homes, jonquils to mothers of newborns in the
hospital, and pink carnation wrist corsages with pipe
cleaners to prom dates. Service people had to enter mortuaries
through the rear, past the hearse, flower car, and limousines.
The shade of Slade Hyde's 1930 Chrysler and Packard fleet
was deep purple. Set off from the fleet sat an exquisite
hearse with elaborate carved mahogany paneling around
and under the oblong windows in its viewing compartment...and
lying naked on a metal table opposite the driver's side
was Hebron's eminent surgeon, Willard Dodge. Tom was scrubbing
the doctor's chest with Bon Ami and a horse-bristle brush.
Christ, don't ever do that!" he cried, damn near
soaking me with the hose.
are you doing?"
him for display."
in Hebron knew Willard Dodge. He always wore a stiff,
white collar fastened with a gold stud, no tie, and a
tailored, black worsted suit. The word around town was
that he specialized in "women's problems." Tom
and I had no idea what that meant, but we thought he must
be a good sawbones because we couldn't figure out Ma.
Couple of times we heard Father suggest she ought to arrange
to see physician Dodge.
get old Doc's head wet," Tom said.
was still holding the basket of gladioli with a saffron
ribbon stuck in it. Gold script letters pasted on the
ribbon read B.P.O.E.
Hyde's still working on it."
shut off the hose and gestured I look closer. Well, the
right side of
Willard's head had been packed with a sealing wax the
same shade as the rest of his skin. The doc had no eye,
no socket even.
his left eye?"
his face, too. But Slade...he's like an artist I tell
you. Once he puts the marble back in Willard's head, powders
some blush back into those jaundice cheeks of his...why,
under the proper lighting conditions the mourners be whisperin'
to old Willard like he were takin' a nap.
here, James, I want to show you something."
opened the doors of a giant metal cabinet, a walk-in closet
set against the wall of the cavernous garage. On one side
were shelves of car door handles, carburetor heads, boxes
of spark plugs, distributor caps, oil filters, wiper blades,
waxes and polishes, floor mats; and on the opposite side,
trays of eyes—every shade imaginable—false
teeth, reading glasses, drawers of toupees, vials of coloring
to shade the paraffin wax, limb prostheses, plus a separate
compartment where mourning suits and dresses of every
the old doc do it, Tom?"
Dodge lived in the finest estate in town alongside the
Masonic Cathedral. The shingled house had a magnificent
piazza appointed with wicker furniture and chintz pillows;
in the summer, ladies gathered there for tea and, later,
croquet on an enormous lawn that stayed sylvan green when
the rest of the grass in Hebron burnt to straw.
heard Slade Hyde gossiping to his driver."
Willard was havin' trouble seeing."
that isn't any reason to kill yourself."
aim the shotgun down his trousers."
both glanced at the dead man's member.
it was the eyesight," I said.
But you never know for sure."
wasn't like Tom to be reflective. Seems washing down the
deceased of Hebron was causing him to step back from life.
Maybe even pondering his own mortality...though he was
too damn young.
snapped a white sheet free of its folds and fanned it
over the corpse. "That's the one I want," he
said, pointing to the purple Packard Phaeton V-12 hearse.
"Ain't she a beauty?"
I could remove myself from the vehicle's one and only
reason for being, yes, it was one of the loveliest carriages
I'd ever encountered.
would you ever do with it?" I asked.
it across America."
anybody in it?"
it was Doc Willard's choice on the method for leaving
town. Tom whistling while he was washing the old man down...but
thinking about the allure of dying with a splash. Who
Hebron there existed an unnatural desire to escape the
town's sentence. Classmates dreamed of becoming movie
stars. World War II's close soured the rhapsodies of young
men becoming Audie Murphy. Some of us would rise to the
level of Union Trust bankers or J. C. Penney store managers,
but most would manually toil the remainder of our lives
for Bell Telephone, Neshanock Pottery, or the Johnson
Bronze Company. Not much in between.
classmate, Joyce Kramer, had applied to air hostess school.
We held a grand sendoff party in her honor. Within six
months she reappeared and secured a position with the
billing department at Penn Power Company. The sentence.
Air hostess school, we collectively believed, would free
Joyce of Hebron's gravitational pull.
nobody in our extended family had ever broken loose. Father's
brother traveled with the Mills Brothers Circus for 15
years...but he returned home. A sign painter today, Uncle
lives up alongside
Gaston Park in a bungalow where his wife kept vigil for
him all those years. "Always believed he'd show up
one day on the porch stoop," she said.
course, their children were all grown by the time Luke
Jakes reappeared, his barrel chest concave and wracked
by a catarrh cough.
believe Tom studied the dead at Hyde's mortuary
instead of his purported lusting for the antique Phaeton
Packard hearse. The stiffs were the exclamation points
on the uneventful sentences the citizenry of Hebron served.
After hosing down so many of them, a man's destiny sinks
in pretty fast. "One day somebody will be scrubbing
my body down. A piddling wash job, a hair comb, some talc,
and a set of mourning clothes...their trousers pauper's
cloth, cardboard-soled shoes—stage props."
matter if it was a male or female cadaver—the only
real public recognition that it once walked and breathed
appeared in the Hebron Chronicle's obituary notice.
Mary Hartman, aged 52, the final 30 of those years
as a cashier at Murphy's Five and Ten on Washington Street.
No surviving kin.
Slade wheeled Willard Dodge, M.D., into the mortuary's
garage and unzipped the body bag, I know seeded the notion
just how my Tom would deny the town its judgment. The
physician had held the shotgun barrel up to his left eye
and fired. The other stiffs had merely succumbed, but
old Willard took matters firmly in his hands and blew
himself off Hebron's stage—in style.
a front page headline in the Chronicle. Townsfolk
began wagging their tongues about the woman-healer's masterstroke.
The viewing room in Slade Hyde's mortuary would be standing
room only for many afternoons and evenings. Yet not one
citizen could recall how Mary Hartman expired.
the only reason I offer for what transpired that radiant
Sunday afternoon one August.
days earlier, Tom showed up at our house mid-day, declaring
he'd quit Slade and was joining the Air Force. He wanted
to become a pilot.
to me it sounded like one of those faded dreams that fueled
us when we'd file out of a movie theater on Saturday night
thinking we were Jimmy Dean or Marlon Brando, hop in our
cars, and our girlfriends would suspend their disbelief
for a night—or maybe a weekend. But we all knew
that was a lie. Time to accept the sentence, in our case,
like men. Tom was having trouble swallowing his.
pilot!" I said. "Hell, you're a runt. Plus,
you ever see a four-eyed pilot?"
see," he said with a splintered grin.
World War II Spitfire airplane sat tethered by guy wires
in front of the Hebron's landing strip. Just like a Civil
War cannon sat anchored in concrete on its square. Tom
was fancying climbing into that fighter aircraft, pulling
on a leather helmet and aviator's glasses, flashing a
thumbs-up signal from its frosted cockpit—then thundering
off into the sky. A man-sized desire of what Joyce Kramer
had fantasized. All these dreams were the same—one
way or other, a Quixote was going to catapult to glory.
see yourself in the cockpit of that relic Spitfire at
Hebron Landing, don't you?" I asked.
of a fact, yes."
got no engine. War's over. You'll be pushing papers in
some damn sweltering office in Georgia or Alabama if you
join the Air Force."
come that Sunday, Pap got a call. It was the police.
in the car?" Pap asked.
said do you know where Tom—he's my son—d'ya
know where he is? He was driving that vehicle."
Jesus have mercy, sir, can you tell me what happened?"
quite know for sure, Mr. Jakes."
an idea, but was loath to share it with the old man. When
we borrowed the neighbor's car to go out to Lawrence Country
road and see for ourselves, my only concern was what kind
of news did Tom intend to make?
I remembered the Spitfire.
our old Ford Fairlane that Tom had borrowed from our old
man that morning lay an empty 5-gallon tin of gasoline.
The hood of the car was propped up and its driver's side
door hung wide open. The front seat's upholstery was singed
and stank of burning hair. Across the road a trail of
charred grain stubble ran like a scar through the alfalfa
field. The path the width of a man running with his arms
the isinglass goggles, a leather bombardier's jacket,
its sheep fur collar turned up about his neck, Tom hadn't
quite got airborne. First, he was going to fly over the
house, buzz our bedroom window, shoot me the bird from
the open cockpit—then circle twice before heading
off to slam into the Ulysses S. Grant statue in the center
of Hebron's diamond. One mighty conflagration.
the measly Chronicle's obituary.
hesitated outside Tom's hospital room.
go in," I urged. "He ain't going to surprise
gently pushed open the door.
brother was coiled in cerecloth, the nurse holding a cigarette
at his lips. He'd take a drag then in a studied arc she'd
lift it off his lips before flicking the ash.
greeted us with his signature wry grin.
were you thinking about, son?"
off the ground."
gave him another drag.
left a mighty nasty scar in Scroggin's alfalfa, boy. Like
a bolt of
lighting blazed a trail right through it..."
makes you run, Pap."
laughed, only it sounded tinny, as if it had been transcribed.
looked across the field and seen this boy yelling for
me to beat my wings harder. He was flapping his arms.
Then I saw his mother come out on the porch, and she too
began waving her arms in the air. Down field I spy this
old farmer in bib overalls. He'd a spade shovel and was
twirling it on his hands like a baton. Mouth open wide
and out of it rose the whistle of a propeller—whirring,
whirring...for me to get airborne.
whole lot of them boosting me on.
my wheels, my sticks—I could hear pieces of the
aircraft cracking in
midair. Cracking like maple kindling. And then I knew—Jesus
Christ, I cried, I'm on fire!
hear, Pap, I'm, on FIRE!"
bent over Tom like he was checking under a car's hood.
The nurse doused the cigarette in the palm of her hand.
can I do for you, boy?" Pap said.
me," he said.
you open a window, ma'am?" Tom cranked at the nurse.
arm rose to gesture she hadn't. It's shadow fell like
a crow on the window shade.
this day I wonder if the boy relished the irony of riding
in the Simonized Phaeton V-12, his sweet countenance gazing
over the Hebron countryside as the cortege motored to
marble hill. Slade Hyde in the driver's seat, attired
in a livery coat and chauffeur's hat with the patent-leather
bill, me alongside. Father and friends snaking behind.
Our headlights illuminating broad daylight. We passed
the antique Spitfire, it's shark snout missing a propeller.
cortege excruciatingly slow.
we moving, or is the countryside slowly passing us by?
I wondered. Ten automobiles back sat Joyce Kramer, sans
her hostess wings, wearing a navy blue empire dress and
white leather belt with matching pumps, excused for the
morning to pay respects to somebody else who crashed.