It was 10:00 a.m. and Jesse was three beers into officially drunk. It was a little early for intoxication, but with his daddy dead and being back in Toweata, Texas, he felt justified. He’d sworn to never walk these streets again, and he’d have kept that promise if it weren’t for the badgering of his older brother. They were the James brothers, Frank and Jesse, their father’s one and only joke—naming his sons after the notorious outlaws. Even for a man of the cloth, the last name of “James” was too strong a temptation when it came to naming his two boys. Jesse sighed and shook his head. If his mother were still alive, she’d have planted the Good Reverend James, and Jesse wouldn’t be sitting at the undertaker’s waiting for his brother, but she was gone and now Daddy was too.
Gail Thorton, the receptionist for the Purvis Brothers Funeral Home, walked into the receiving room where Jesse James sat slumped in a chair next to the “Eternal Rest in Paradise” display, their top-selling and cheapest interment receptacle—the preferred term for the duded-up boxes sold to the grieving families of Toweata. Her boss and owner of the funeral home, Walter Purvis, was very particular in the language they used with the bereaved. Souls were interred in the earth—nobody ever got “laid out” or “planted” or even just “buried.” It seemed like a lot of nonsense to Gail, but that was the mortuary business, and now it was her business.
Gail looked at Jesse with a professional sadness that came with the job. As she did, she noticed a small mustard stain on his collar along with a few bread crumbs glued to the right corner of his mouth, and if she weren’t mistaken, she detected the faint smell of beer and cigarettes.
“Is there anything I can get for you, honey?”
Jesse looked up at the undertaker’s lady and tried to place her in the long list of local folks he couldn’t care less about. There was something familiar about her. He couldn’t quite place her face, but she did have a nice rack. It was worthy of a quick peek down her blouse as she leaned over to speak to him.
“Well, darling, you got any beer in this gyp joint?”
Gail snorted and replied, “You are an outlaw, Jesse James, but then you always were.” Noticing his roaming eyes, she straightened herself and placed her hands firmly on her hips. “Of course we don’t have any beer in a funeral home, but I can get you some fresh coffee. You look like you could use some.”
Jessie put on his best lady-killing smile and said, “No, thank you, Ma’am, but I appreciate your kind hospitality. Maybe we can get that beer a little later?” Where did he know her from?
Gail dodged the pass and switched back into her sincerity mode. “Jesse, I’d like to offer my condolences on the passing of your dear father. I didn’t know the reverend well, but I did know your sweet mother and how much she loved him. I talked to her many times down at the beauty parlor, and she was such a wonderful soul, so proud of you and your brother—your brother owning the lumber yard, and you, well, just doing all the interesting things that you do.”
“Oh yes, she was a great liar, my mother.” Miss Chatterbox’s rack was getting less impressive by the moment. He wished she’d just leave him and his hangover in peace.
“Shame on you!” said Gail. “I doubt your mother told a fib in her whole life. She took great pride in her boys and in her husband’s good works.”
“I suppose she did,” said Jesse. “Love will make you do crazy things.”
Gail contemplated Jesse in his three-day stubble and worn leather jacket. She’d known him in high school. He obviously didn’t remember her, even though he felt her up in the Genie movie theater back when they were juniors. He was still sexy in a broken-down fashion, but when a bad boy inches up on forty, all that sexy turns sour pretty quick. She reached out and touched him on his shoulder before departing. “Sugar, if you need anything—just holler. I’ll be right out in the foyer.”
Jesse nodded and watched Gail’s backside as she walked from the room. Her face didn’t look familiar, but her sway struck a chord. He wondered if she was that metal-mouthed girl that he’d felt up in the Genie theater back in high school.
Frank James pulled into the Purvis Brothers Funeral Home ten minutes late for the consultation. He hated being late, especially with Jesse waiting on him. Usually it was Frank who was waiting on his younger brother. Jesse, whose smart mouth caused a thousand dust-ups between them, was sure to notice their role reversal. Frank had grown out of all that childishness, but Jesse never would grow up.
Frank looked at the large Purvis Brothers sign planted in the front lawn and shook his head. Everyone knew that Walter Purvis was an only child. Vanity was all it was, or maybe the old man thought that “Purvis Brothers” sounded more substantial than just “Walter E. Purvis, Undertaker.” Frank didn’t know or care about the burying business; his job was running F. J. Lumber & Hardware, and with the new Super Low Depot opening up soon, his business was shaky at best. As ashamed as he was to admit it, Daddy’s death couldn’t have come at a better time. If they could sell his father’s house quick enough, the extra cash might hold him over until he could unload the store before the Big Box closed it for good.
As Frank came through the door, Gail dashed around the reception desk and gave him a quick hug before escorting him in to see his brother. After Gail watched the brothers nod at each other and Jesse tap his watch and wag his finger at Frank, she escorted the James brothers to the consultation room to meet with Walter Purvis. Perfunctory greetings and heartfelt condolences were exchanged, and Gail departed, leaving the three men to discuss the arrangements.
Walter Purvis was well over six feet tall, thin as a reed, and wore a bad toupee that contradicted his otherwise solemn demeanor. As they settled into their chairs, Walter dropped his countenance into a most serious gaze and began, “Boys, there’s a problem with your father’s contract, and I’m afraid it’s a substantial one.”
“Oh, here we go,” muttered Jesse, shooting a sideways glance at Frank. “Let the gouging begin.”
Frank shot his younger brother a stern look then addressed the mortician. “Walter, I understood that Daddy’s needs were all taken care of years ago by our mother. Is that not correct?”
“Well, yes and no,” said the spindly old man.
“Get to the ‘no’ part, grave digger,” said Jesse.
“There’s no need for that kind of rude talk, young man,” said the mortician. “Your mother did indeed take care of all the service requirements for interment. The problem lies with your father’s mortal remains. To be exact, with his size.”
“Is he too fat to fit in the casket?” asked Jesse.
“Shut up, Jesse! Show some respect!” snapped Frank.
The brothers glared at each other as Walter Purvis continued, “That’s an indelicate way of approaching the subject, but yes, the size of your father’s remains prohibit the use of the Blue Paradise model that your mother picked out for him, nor would he fit in an Eternal Rest, or even one of our oversized Golden Slumber units.”
“What about just cremating him? You don’t need a fancy box for that,” said Jesse.
“That is true. However, there remains the problem of your father’s … broadness. As you know, in the later years of his life, your father, well, he became much larger. We could barely fit him through the morgue’s double doors let alone through the span of the—”
“You can’t get him in the oven. Just say it.”
“Dammit, Jesse, that’s our father you’re talking about!”
“Frank, the Good Reverend Edward James is gone. What we’re talking about here is five hundred pounds of dead weight.”
“You’ve become a spiteful man, Jesse,” said Frank, “and a mean-hearted son of a bitch.”
Jesse looked at his older brother and decided to pass on the pissing contest. Turning back to Walter Purvis, he said, “All right, grave digger. What’s the bottom line for getting Daddy into the dirt?”
The mortician nodded, dashed a number down on a piece of paper, and then pushed the note across his desk to Frank and Jesse.
As the brothers contemplated the long line of zeros, Walter Purvis explained, “I can acquire a lovely receptacle appropriate for your father from an associate in Dallas who deals in these custom situations, but the cost of the receptacle alone is $48,000 before tax, shipping, and handling. Then we’ll need a crane at the gravesite to lower him into the earth. We’ll also need a flatbed truck for the procession and possibly a fork lift to assist with placing your father onto the vehicle. I assure you that all of this can be done tastefully and with the utmost respect for the departed, and that the number I’ve given you is a great discount on all the many costs I will incur. I hope you realize that I offer this in light of the good work your father did for this community. May God rest his soul.”
Frank stared at the yellow note and saw his inheritance vanish.
“I appreciate that, Walter, but I have a flatbed at the lumberyard and I’ll get us a crane from Bob Jones Construction. How much will that save us? You gotta understand that things are tight right now. We can’t go whole hog on this thing.”
“What if he wasn’t so big?” asked Jesse. “Could you cremate him then?”
The old mortician wrinkled his hawkish nose in distaste. “If you are suggesting a dismemberment, yes, it is a possibility, though I would need to discuss this with my attorney before agreeing to such a violation of the earthly remains.”
“Now wait just a damn minute, Jesse,” said Frank. “We are not going to butcher our father like some hog to slaughter.”
“Hog’s about right,” said Jesse right before his brother’s fist caught him on the jaw and sent him flying from his chair. Jesse came up off the floor, threw himself at his brother, and the two of them crashed around the consultation room, knocking flower vases to the floor. The old undertaker rose to his feet.
“Gentleman, please! Control yourselves! Show some respect! This furniture is new and any damages suffered today shall be included with my final bill!”
After their hurried departure from the Purvis Brothers, Frank and Jesse decided to let cooler heads prevail and meet up later for further discussions. Frank returned to the lumberyard and Jesse spent the afternoon at the Rack Em High Pool Hall. At 7:00 p.m. Jesse drove to the Red Barn liquor store and purchased a case of beer and two bottles of whiskey. He wasn’t about to spend the evening in his childhood home without plenty of alcohol.
Frank was waiting outside when Jessie pulled up. This time it was Frank tapping his watch and wagging his finger. The place was pretty much as the boys remembered it though it seemed smaller somehow. The grass was overgrown and the house needed a paint job, but Frank thought they could get decent money for it if they gave it a minimal touch up.
Inside the James residence, many of the household items were gone, taken by brazen relatives and self-proclaimed friends. Jesse had wanted none of it, nor did he care about selling the house. Frank could sell it, keep the money, or burn it to the ground—it made no difference to him. All Jesse wanted was to resolve his father’s burial plans and say good-bye to Toweata forever.
The brothers settled around the kitchen table, each taking the seat they occupied as boys. Jesse pulled the tab on a can of beer and passed it to his brother, then opened one for himself. Looking around, he could almost see their mother coming out of the kitchen with a meatloaf and a mountain of mashed potatoes.
“How’d Daddy get so fat, Frank? I mean, he was always big, but Jesus H. Christ, when I saw him at Mama’s funeral, I hardly recognized him.”
Frank took a pull on the whiskey bottle, then chased it with his beer before replying, “It was after you left and Mama died, that’s when things went south for Daddy. Mama had the cancer, but it destroyed them both. If you’d ever come around, you’d have seen that. I tried to talk to him, but I don’t think he wanted to live without Mama. Being a preacher, he wasn’t the type to kill himself, not in a sudden way, anyhow.”
“Something broke in him, I guess. Man proposes but God disposes. Happens to the best of us.”
“That’s right, little brother. And he was the best of us. More man than you or I will ever be, whatever his size.”
Jesse downed his beer and opened another. “Death by cheesecake, eh Frank? The preacher’s poison—you can’t drink or sin, so you double-up on the ala mode. We always had plenty of ice cream in this house.”
“We did, didn’t we? The James gang never suffered for Rocky Road, that’s for damn sure.” Frank took another shot and added, “Mama used to make the best peach cobbler in the world. Do you remember that?”
“Of course I do. We’d fight over who got the largest piece. You were always such a baby, Frank, always acting like you got slighted somehow. Half the time we didn’t get any ‘cause Daddy would send us to our rooms for fighting.”
Frank’s smile faded as he reached for the bottle again. “Mama always gave you the bigger piece, Jesse, because she favored you. God knows why, but it used to piss me off something fierce. Even when she was dying and you weren’t around, she’d talk about her little boy and her face would light up.”
Jesse looked at his brother with a drunk’s pity. “Maybe she did favor me, but she shouldn’t have. You were the one who took care of her and Daddy. I couldn’t wait to be rid of all of you. You earned their love and respect, not me. For what it’s worth, you have mine.”
Jesse opened another beer and handed it to his brother.
“Frank, what are we gonna do about Daddy?”
Frank took a couple large gulps and sat his beer down. “Well, here’s what’s not gonna happen. We’re not choppin’ up the Good Reverend James like so much firewood. We’re gonna give Daddy a decent burial like our mother intended. I don’t care what it costs or what we have to beg, borrow, or steal to do it.”
“You have that kind of money, Frank?”
Frank shook his head. “No, I don’t. And I was hoping to get a little something out of selling this house, but the way the market is … I guess we’ll have to get a loan and use the house as collateral. Maybe I can get Rodger down at the bank to mortgage the lumberyard again, if it’s still worth anything. Beth and I have a little retirement we can throw in and—”
Jesse cut his brother off. “What about an Indian burial? Daddy was always talking about being half Cherokee and how they used to bury their own. None of that embalming, casket bullshit. You and I—we do it, as brothers. We bury the old man with our own hands.”
“Do what? Like wrap him in a blanket and plant him under a tree somewhere? You can’t do that anymore. There are laws, Jesse, and old man Purvis ain’t gonna go for that. No, I’ll try and get something for—”
Jesse reached out and grabbed his brother’s arm. His eyes narrowed and his face hardened.
“Frank, our Daddy was a preacher man who spoke the Word of God. He taught us that Adam raised Cain, and our Daddy, our good and decent father, raised Frank and Jesse James. Now, are we gonna sit here and talk about the law or are we gonna give our father the respect he deserves?”
Frank stared at his brother then chugged down the rest of his beer. By the time the beer was finished and the first whiskey bottle was empty, Frank and Jesse James had decided to rob the Purvis Brothers Funeral Home.
A large truck sporting an F.J. Lumber & Hardware decal weaved down the road, pulling a trailered Dozer Cat behind it. Fortunately, the streets were clear and the good people of Toweata, Texas, had long since gone to bed. Frank slammed on the brakes, throwing himself and his brother forward as they came to an abrupt stop in front of the funeral home.
“Nice driving, Dillweed,” said Jesse, looking down at his whiskey-soaked shirt.
His brother reached over, grabbed the bottle out of Jesse’s hand, and finished it off. “Well, I got us here, didn’t I? Now let’s get to it.”
The boys abandoned the vehicle and stumbled up the driveway toward Purvis Brothers. The full moon offered plenty of light to see by. It’s too bright out here, thought Frank, who would have preferred a darker night for this kind of undertaking.
Jesse bounded up the stairs and was about to bang on the door when his brother hissed at him, “Get your ass down here, Jesse. Don’t wake the old bastard! We’ll go around to the side—to the morgue entrance.” Frank belched and stumbled off toward the back of the property. Jesse wavered for a moment, considered ringing the bell and running, then thought better of it and turned to follow his brother.
On the backside of the building, the brothers found a loading area and two large double doors.
“This must be where they bring in the stiffs,” said Jesse. “The White Zone is for Baptists and Evangelicals only. All you Catholics and Hebrews leave your bodies out back. Y’all are going to hell anyway.”
Frank shoved his brother and said, “Be serious, Jesse. You’re gonna wake the whole damn neighborhood with your foolishness.”
“I doubt I’ll be waking anyone around here, hoss.”
Jesse tried the door and found it predictably locked.
“Looks like we’re gonna have to shoulder it. C’mere, big boy, and give me a hand. Sure hope there’s no alarm.”
Frank joined his brother and on the third try the doors popped open.
“That was easy. Now, let’s find Daddy. But first let’s find the damn light switch.”
Jesse fumbled around the doorframe, looking for the switch. Not finding it, he remembered his cell phone and the flashlight app that helped guide his key to the door after many long nights spent imbibing. The men crept through the cold morgue using the cell phone’s light until they found their father at the back of the room, stretched across two gurneys. Jesse waved the phone over his dead daddy, and, to his horror, he noticed that the sheets around him were moving ever so slightly.
“There’s something weird, Frank. He’s moving, man. I swear to God I just saw him move!”
Frank took a closer look and reassured his brother that no paranormal activities were taking place. “They got a box fan on him, dumb ass, plus, they loaded him down with ice bags. Trying to keep him cool. Probably couldn’t get him in the refer, being so big and all.” Frank hiccupped and let out a large belch.
Jesse waved at the air. “Damn Frank, what’ve you been eating, skunk butt?”
“Cut the crap, Jesse. Let’s get Daddy and get out of here.”
The boys got on each end of the gurneys and began pushing and pulling, trying to swing their father around and point him toward the door.
“Good Lord, he can’t weigh this much! Why won’t he move?”
“I dunno. Maybe there’s something with these tables … wait, what was that?”
“What? What was what?” whispered Jesse.
“I thought I heard something. Just be quiet and listen.”
Jesse and Frank stood in the dark, the body of their dead father between them, and listened. Out of the silence came a low groaning like a strangled cat or a drowning baby.
“What the hell is that?” asked Jesse. “I don’t need that kind of crap—not in here.”
“Be quiet and listen,” said Frank. “And don’t be such a wuss.”
The groaning came again, this time sounding like the mournful cry of the damned. More silence, and then it came again, and again, and slowly the wailing took on an unmistakable rhythm that had nothing to do with the whispers of the occult.
“If that’s a ghost, it must be Saturday night in the cemetery,” said Jesse. “Frank, somebody’s gettin’ laid up there.”
“Must be old Purvis ploughing a field. Probably got some blue-haired widow lady with him. That’s a break for us—she’ll keep him occupied until we can figure out this damn contraption.”
The moaning continued as the boys crawled around the floor, inspecting the wheels on the gurneys. Frank noticed the locks first and pointed them out to his brother. Within minutes they unlocked all eight wheels and were finally on the move. As they approached the loading entrance, Jesse bumped into a tool cart and sent stainless steel instruments flying to the floor, creating a cacophony within the morgue.
The moaning stopped and Frank hissed at his brother, “Don’t move! Just be quiet and wait.”
The brothers stood deathly still for what seemed like an eternity until a light snapped on revealing Old Man Purvis in “hot stuff”boxer shorts, his toupee on backwards, and wielding a sawed-off shotgun. Huddled next to him was his receptionist, Gail Thornton, dressed in sexy black lingerie and clutching tightly to Purvis’ side.
The James brothers looked like two drunken deer caught in the headlights. Jesse broke the silence and said, “Gail? Gail Thorton? I remember you now. From the Genie theater. Are you screwing that old goat?”
Walter Purvis pointed his shotgun at Jesse and demanded, “Never mind about her. Just what is going on here? Are you boys trying to remove your father from this facility?”
Frank stepped forward and said, “That’s exactly what we’re doing, Walter. We don’t have the money for all your double-wide, silken-rest, eternal bullshit. We can’t afford it and my daddy wouldn’t want it. We’re gonna bury him ourselves, Indian style, and that’s all there is to it.”
Purvis took a step closer to Frank and addressed them both. “Breaking and entering. Body snatching. Damage to my property. You’ll do nothing but answer to the law for this and I’ll be calling them directly.”
Jesse waited for the old man to shuffle a little closer then quick as a rattlesnake, he reached out and snatched the shotgun from the mortician’s hands. Turning the gun back on the old man, he said, “Well hello there, Grave Digger. I don’t think you’ll be making that phone call. Haven’t you heard? We’re the James boys and we got no use for the law.”
Gail stepped between Jesse and Walter Purvis and scolded her former classmate and one-time, consensual groper.
“Put that shotgun down right now, Jesse James! You’re not an outlaw and you’re not about to shoot Walter or me. I don’t think you two should be taking your poor father anywhere. You’re both drunk and this is a big mistake. Now just give me the gun and we’ll all sit down and work this out like adults.”
Jesse lowered the shotgun a bit, gave Gail the once over, and said, “Gail, you are one fine-looking woman. Are you really sleeping with that old man? You can do a lot better.”
Gail rolled her eyes and answered, “It’s complicated, Jesse. Walter’s a nice man and ever since my divorce things have been hard.”
“Now listen here,” said Old Man Purvis, “you boys are trespassing on my property and, and, you just can’t do this! There are laws for civilized society. You are not certified to transport human remains or remove a person from this facility. You need to put aside all this foolishness—”
Frank cut him off. “Walter, I’m sorry, but we’re taking my daddy. You can help us, or you can stay behind. That goes for you too, Gail.”
“I’ll have no part in this,” said the old man.
Jesse smiled devilishly at Gail and asked, “You got any duct tape, sweetheart?”
Gail reached out and took the shotgun from Jesse’s hands, then said, “There’s some in the utility cabinet by the sink. Just be sure he can breathe properly.”
The Texas countryside was bathed in a soft purple light and the air was warm and sweet. The Dozer Cat crept slowly across the field, making its way toward a ridge that overlooked a small creek. Resting inside the shovel of the Dozer was a five-hundred-pound preacher, his head gently cradled in the lap of his oldest son. Driving the Cat was the youngest son who laughed and held tight to the half-naked woman riding beside him. At the top of the ridge stood a live oak tree where a mother and father had once sat and watched their boys run wild. There was an outlaw moon in the sky and no law in sight.
Anthony Roberts c.2013, “Dead’r Than Elvis: Tall Tales of Texas Bullsh*t http://amzn.to/19nzpEc