Lulu and Butterbean
Wake the Dead
Did you ever know Boyd Berdeaux from over in Gulledge? Most obstinate man in Flathead County, I swear. Once Boyd got a notion in his head, wild horses and a twenty mule team couldn't shift it out. No sir, Boyd Berdeaux was the kind of fellow who stuck to his guns, right or wrong. A real stubborn old coot. Well, Boyd was called home a while back, and let me tell you, brother, he didn't go to his eternal reward without first causin' a peck of trouble for everybody concerned.
The way it happened was like this: Boyd had a bum ticker, but he would insist on re-roofing the house during the hottest day of the year. His wife, Eulalia - who happens to be my great-aunt - tried to argue him out of it. Boyd wasn't having any. Up he went with tar paper and nails and shingles, even though his heart wasn't what it used to be. Sure enough, Boyd had a massive coronary. Dead before he hit the ground, said the doctor. Boyd landed right in the middle of Aunt Eulalia's prize-winning petunias and mashed 'em flat. I don't know which hurt her more - losing her husband, or the utter ruination of her petunias just a couple of days before the flower show.
Now Boyd's funeral was the social event of the year in Gulledge and beyond. Between them, Boyd and Eulalia are related to half of Flathead County by blood, and the other half by marriage. I haven't seen so many casseroles and Jell-O salads and pecan pies and cobblers and fried chickens in my life. If somebody had been thoughtful enough to bring a walk-in freezer, Aunt Eulalia would've been set up for life in the food department. As it was, the undertaker had to let us borrow space in his cooler for all them dishes, 'cause Eulalia was holding the wake in the Layaway Funeral Parlor's meeting hall.
The funeral was beautiful. Boyd's hunting buddies sang Amazin' Grace, accompanied by little Ginny Herlong on the accordion. Walleye Berdeaux, Boyd's younger brother, read a eulogy that left not a dry eye in the house. The service was conducted by Boss Tott, pastor over to the Church of the Everlasting Honey-in-the-Rock in Gulledge. Boyd lay there in his coffin, looking peaceful in his best Sunday-go-to-meeting suit, which I think he'd only worn once in his life, and that was at his wedding.
After Boss Tott finished boring us with "begats," he commenced to sermonizing without once mentioning "hellfire" or "damnation." I reckoned that was right tactful of him, considering Boyd Berdeaux was about as heathen as you can get in Flathead County. The only interruption came from Cousin Charlene, who got filled with the Holy Spirit and started speakin' in tongues till she remembered that this wasn't a charismatic service. Charlene was mightily embarrassed as she lay there on the floor. I ain't seen a face so red since that notorious nervous farter Winsome Dale had a solo in a school concert, and every time he fluted, he tooted, too. That was a duet that brought down the house, and then some.
Anyhow, we all went over to the meeting hall where the undertaker, John Layaway, was ready to press flesh and dispense coffee along with the sympathy. Don't get me wrong, I like John Layaway, even if he does look somewhat like a bloodhound that got kicked and was feelin' sorry for itself. He knows his business. He had the coffin wheeled in and placed amongst the flowers, so we could continue to admire Boyd to his face, and talk trash behind his back while we ate up the feast. It's funny, how folks say you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but they'll do it in spades before the body's cold.
Lulu Cantrell was in the thick as usual, looking mighty fine in a black ensemble that she saved for special occasions. Lord, how I love that woman! That sad day most especially, as there's somethin' about a funeral that stirs up the carnal appetite, if you know what I mean. Provided that the funeral ain't your own, of course. Lulu was eating a slab of coconut cake and talking a mile a minute to Momma McCall about the time when Boyd got caught dynamiting for bass. I was just about to sidle up and suggest to Lulu that we might like to go home early, when Aunt Eulalia let out a screech that could've been heard as far away as Dead Mule Pond.
I turned my head in time to see Boyd Berdeaux clambering out of his coffin, knocking over vases of lilies left and right. Eulalia let out another screech and passed out in the potato salad.
Eulalia's sister, my Aunt Jessie, is made of sterner stuff. "Boyd," she says, "get yourself back in that box right now! Don't you know that you're interruptin' your own funeral?"
"Well, Jessie," says Boyd, looking around at all the people staring at him, "I know it ain't polite to interrupt, but I just don't feel dead."
And that was the problem. Remember what I said about Boyd Berdeaux bein' the most obstinate man in Flathead County? If he didn't feel dead, then by God, he wasn't going to be dead, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Nobody knew what to do. We all stood there, dumb as rocks, while Boyd helped himself to the fried chicken. Dolly Cantrell dragged poor Aunt Eulalia out of the salad, laid her out on some chairs, and tried to wake her up. Everybody gave the chicken a wide berth.
"Mr. Berdeaux," says John Layaway, "I assure you, sir, that you are indeed dead."
"Nope," says Boyd, gnawing on a chicken leg, "I ain't dead 'cause I don't feel dead."
"I've been an undertaker for thirty years, man and boy," says John Layaway, "and I can tell you, Mr. Berdeaux, that I have never seen a corpse more rigid than yours." He was starting to sweat. I reckon he felt that Boyd's surprise resurrection was reflectin' badly on the family firm.
Boyd flexed an arm. I swear to you, his elbow creaked like a rusty hinge. "Arthritis actin' up," he says.
Eulalia roused herself, probably because Dolly had poured about half a pint of whiskey from a hip flask down the front of her widow's weeds. "Boyd," she says, "you fell off the roof last Saturday and mashed my petunias to hell and gone. If you ain't dead, then what are you?"
Boyd finished his chicken and started on a plate of pigs in the blanket. "I have no idea, wife. All I can tell you is that I don't feel dead," he says. "And I'm sorry about your petunias."
Boss Tott decided to have a try. "Boyd Berdeaux," he says, "I command you to return from whence you came."
Boyd says, "But Pastor Tott, I was born and raised in Gulledge. Where else am I s'posed to go?"
"To Heaven," says Boss Tott. "Although I ain't sure that the Pearly Gates will be your final destination."
"No, thank you," says Boyd. "I reckon I'll stay right here, if you don't mind. Pass me that Watergate salad, will you? I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse."
"If you ain't dead, Boyd, then how come we're havin' a funeral?" says Aunt Jessie.
"I don't rightly know," says Boyd. "It can't be for me, 'cause I'm feelin' fine and rarin' to go. Do dead men eat? Do dead men walk around? Do dead men kiss their wives?" He puckered up and went for Eulalia. She fended him off with Meemaw McCall's walking cane. I don't blame her. Morning breath don't even begin to cover the stink comin' out of Boyd's mouth. I could smell it from where I was standing.
Well, the more everybody tried to argue Boyd back into that coffin, the more stubborn he got. He thought the whole thing was a joke. Boyd kept eating, which meant that nobody else would touch a morsel of food. Finally, Aunt Jessie came over to have a word with me.
"We can't let this go on," she says. "He'll start turning green and stinking in a few days. Not that he don't already smell fairly raunchy "
I agreed with her, as the weather was still pretty damned hot. I didn't know what to do about it, though.
Lulu gave Aunt Jessie a smile that was sweeter than molassas. "Butterbean will figure it out," she says, "or I'll slap her naked and hide her clothes."
Why does it always have to be me?
Needless to say, the women folk were real happy to put the burden on poor ol' Butterbean Shirley McCall. Even my own momma thought it was a good idea, and that is the woman who raised me. Meanwhile, Boyd was eatin' everything in sight. I swear, that man had a hollow leg. Lulu was giving me looks that like to have curled my hair. The relations were getting restless. Uncle George and Walleye Berdeaux were muttering about meat saws. John Layaway wanted to call the sheriff. Aunt Eulalia was having an attack of the vapors every five minutes, and we were runnin' out of hip flasks. I had to think of something fast.
For once in my life, Fate didn't make me the ground floor tenant in a two-story outhouse. I had an idea.
I borrowed a handkerchief from Aunt Jessie, loaded it up with my secret weapon at the food table, and went over to Boyd. "Hey, do me a favor," I says to him, "sniff this and tell me if it smells funny."
"What is it?" he says.
"Cousin Cindy Lou's tuna casserole," I says, knowing it was his favorite dish. The only reason he hadn't started on it was 'cause he liked to save the best for last. "I think it went off."
"Gimme that," Boyd says, grabbing the handkerchief and sticking his nose inside.
Only thing was, it weren't Cindy Lou's tuna casserole. No sir, I had filled that thing full of black pepper.
Boyd turned tomato red, then the color of strained peas, then kind of purple. I snatched the handkerchief away, clapped my hands over his mouth, pinched his nose shut, and held on for dear life.
The explosion was muffled, but messy.
It got real quiet after that. Me and Boyd stood there a minute.
"I reckon I really am dead," says Boyd.
"Yes sir," I says. "That's what we been trying to tell you."
"I'm sorry, Eulalia," he says, turning around. "I'll go now and bother you no more, I promise."
Aunt Eulalia was white as a sheet, but managed to stay conscious. "I know, Boyd. I'll miss you, but it's time to go," she says.
Boyd says to me, "Would you kindly hand me back my eyeballs? I believe they landed in the lime Jell-O."
"Actually," I says, "they're in the pickle jar."
Well, we didn't have no more trouble with Boyd Berdeaux. He went to his coffin as meek as a lamb. John Layaway offered to cremate him for free, but Aunt Eulalia decided that since she'd paid for the plot in the graveyard, somebody ought to use it. We did nail the coffin shut, just in case Boyd changed his mind and wanted to take a whack at the dessert table.
Do you know, Aunt Jessie took credit for the whole thing?
There ain't no justice, I swear.
On the other hand, Lulu was mighty sweet afterwards, but I had to burn my shirt before she'd let me lay a hand on her. Next time you're up at the Peaceful Slumber cemetery, go say "hi" to Boyd Berdeux. You never know, he might say "hi" right back at you, especially if you're carrying Cindy Lou's tuna casserole.