Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was raised in central Kentucky, southern Indiana, and southern California. The events in this story happened a long time ago, at the end of a war that few remember.
An Early Death
Robert sat next to his mother on the hard leather seat of the railroad car. It was 1946. He was four years old and taking his first train ride. He observed with interest everything around him, especially the woman sitting in the seat opposite him. She had a pointed chin and cheekbones that stuck out like nobs on either side of her face. She was wearing a black dress, a black coat and a green hat. She smelled like soap.
His mother was dressed in a dark green skirt and jacket with a white blouse. She was wearing a white saucer-shaped hat that sat at an angle over her long black hair. She smelled like the honeysuckle that grew along the fence in his grandmother’s back yard in Cincinnati. Yesterday, she had taken him to a store and bought him a black suit, white shirt, black tie, and new shoes. He liked how he looked in the suit, but the tie was too tight around his neck. He wanted to take it off, but he knew if he did, his mother would be angry.
A few days earlier, he had heard his mother tell his grandmother she was going to a funeral in Louisville. His grandmother said he could stay with her. He ran into the room screaming he wanted to go. His mother threatened to paddle him for butting into adult conversations, but his grandmother said it might be a good experience. After much whispering between his mother and grandmother, his mother said he could go.
The following day the journey was foremost in his mind. His mother told him they would be riding on a train called The Humming Bird. He talked about it so much she became aggravated and told him to go outside and play. Outside in the big yard behind his grandmother’s house, among the peach trees, apple trees and sweet smelling honeysuckle, he still could not get the trip out of his mind. He did not know what a funeral was or why it was happening in Louisville, but he was excited about the train ride.
He climbed the fence at the back of the yard and jumped down in the alley. His friend, Raymond was riding his scooter up and down the alleyway. Raymond was older, taller and had skin almost as dark as the buckeye he gave Robert for good luck. He rode up to Robert and spun his scooter around in front of him.
“I thought your mama told you, you couldn’t play in the alley,” said Raymond.
“She don’t care as long as it’s not after dark. Do you know what a funeral is?”
“Yeah, it’s like a wake, why.”
“I’m going on a train to a funeral in Louisville. What’s a wake?”
“It’s a big party adults have when someone dies and is about to be sent off to Heaven.
“Don’t you ever go to church? Everybody knows about Heaven.”
“I never heard of it.”
“Well, it’s a big place up in the sky.”
Robert looked up at the sky. “I don’t see nothing, but clouds.”
“It’s up there all right, but it’s a long ways away. You can’t see it from here.”
“Well how do you know it’s there?”
“You just do.”
“What’s it like?”
“I don’t know for sure. I’ve heard folks float around on clouds playing guitars, singing and dancing, and having a good time.”
“I wouldn’t mind doing that. How do you get there?”
“You got to die first and then this man in a chariot swoops down, scoops you up and drops you off in Heaven.”
“What’s a chariot?”
“It’s a big chair with wheels and a team of horses with wings.”
“I ain’t never seen a horse with wings. The junk man’s got a horse, but it don’t have wings.”
“Well these horses got wings ’cause they have to fly to get to Heaven.
“Have you ever known anyone that died?”
“My Grandpa, but I don’t think he made it to Heaven. They put him in box and lowered him in the ground. Ma said he was a right mean one anyway.”
“If you don’t go to Heaven, what happens to you?”
“You go to the other place down in the ground.”
“I don’t see nothing down there, but dirt.”
“You can’t see it anymore than you can Heaven. They got to lower you down to it.”
“Do they play guitars and dance down there?”
“I doubt it. Our preacher says it’s full of fire and brimstone and stinks like rotten eggs.”
The train arrived in Louisville and Robert, his mother and the woman in the green hat left the train and entered a big room full of people. The room smelled of cigarette smoke and food. He was hungry and hoped they would stop to get something to eat, but his mother took his hand and led him quickly across the room. They went through the doors at the other end and stepped out onto the street. His mother made a motion with her arm and a car pulled up in front of them. They climbed into the car and his mother gave the driver an address.
Louisville was a big city like Cincinnati and it took a long time to get to where they were going. Finally, they stopped in front of a house next to a hill. His mother gave the driver some money and they started walking up the sidewalk toward the house. He tried to see what was on the hill, but all he could make out was a wall along the top. There were green leaves hanging over the wall.
What’s that Mommy?” he said pointing to the wall.
“What’s the cemetery?”
“The place people go when they die.”
“Don’t they go to Heaven?”
“Of course, Robert.”
“How can they go to both places?”
“Come on, Robert,” his mother said irritably.
His mother opened the door of the house without knocking. He thought that strange. Before when he had gone with his mother to someone’s house, she always knocked on the door and waited for someone inside to open it.
They entered a room full of people. Some were standing together talking and smoking cigarettes. Others were sitting in chairs along the wall. Two of the biggest women he had ever seen were sitting on a sofa in front of a half circle window that looked out onto the street. Each had a small box on her lap. At the opposite end of the room was a long black box resting on two chairs. The box shined like his grandmother’s dining room table. At either end of the box were bunches of flowers. There were more flowers on small tables around the room. His mother took his hand and led him up to the box. Inside the box was a man.
Who is that, Mommy?”
“He’s your father’s cousin. He was in the Army with Daddy.”
“Why is he lying there like that?”
“He died, Robert. He was hurt in an accident.”
“Is the man in the chariot coming for him?”
“Where did you hear that?”
“You shouldn’t be playing with Raymond. He’s too old for you.”
“He’s my best friend.”
“Well Raymond doesn’t know everything. When a person dies, they bury him in the cemetery. That way his family and friends can visit him whenever they want.”
“Oh.” He was not convinced, but he knew better than to argue with his mother.
He leaned over the edge of the box. The man inside was wearing a blue coat, white shirt and blue tie. His head rested on a shiny yellow pillow. He appeared to be asleep. Robert hoped his mother was wrong and the man in the chariot would come for him. He would like to see those horses.
The box smelled like the woman on the train. He turned around and she was standing behind him, looking over his shoulder. He began to feel sick to his stomach. His mother took his hand and led him away.
She stopped to speak to a woman and a man who were standing in the middle of the room. The woman had black hair and was pretty like his mother, but not as tall. The man was even shorter and old like his grandmother. They spoke quietly to Robert’s mother, but ignored Robert.
Robert left his mother side and wandered about the room looking at the flowers. He liked the colors, but when he sniffed them, all he could smell was soap. He stopped at a small table near the front door. On the table was a picture of a man in an Army uniform. It reminded Robert of the picture of his father in his mother’s bedroom.
He walked over to the window where the women with the boxes were sitting. He could see the boxes clearly. They were cigar boxes, like the one he kept his soldiers in. The women were dropping coins into the boxes, one at a time. Their lips were moving, but they were not speaking.
“What are those two doing?” He heard a woman say. He turned around and there was the woman from the train again. She was speaking to a man in a grey suit. They were talking quietly, but he was close enough to hear them.
“Probably counting their take,” said the man. “That’s the stepmother and her sister. Several of us sat up with the kid last night playing Tonk. Those two won most of the pots.”
“That’s dreadful,” said the woman.
“We had to do something to pass the time.”
“I guess you’re right. That poor boy. You know, I taught him in fifth grade. It’s so sad.”
“Yeah, he gets through the war without a scratch, comes home and crashes his car. He always was a bad driver.”
“Was anyone with him?”
“No, he was alone. Run off the road and hit a tree. Broke his neck.”
“Are his parents here?”
“I haven’t seen the mother, but that’s his father and sister over there talking to that tall woman.”
“Who is she?”
“The wife of the dead kid’s cousin,” said the man. “That’s her child over there.” He nodded his head towards Robert.
“Yes, I know. They were sitting across from me coming down on the train. Such a strange little boy.”
“Yeah, he don’t look much like his old man.”
“Where is his father?”
“Still overseas. Last I heard he was missing. Probably killed.”
Yeah, it’s a damned shame.”
“Come on Robert,” said his mother. “We have to go now.” She took his hand and led him through the door out into the bright sunlight. Outside the air was fresh, full of the odors of spring. He was glad they were leaving that house. He did not yet understand hate, but he knew he hated that house and its smell. He never wanted to go back there again.