Uncle Cohen didn't look right lying there in the casket. Partly it was that his coloring was too pale, his lips a drowned blue under the dim lighting. The color of the fabric was all wrong, the swirls of taffeta competing with the deep wrinkles of his skin. But mostly it was on account of he wasn't dead.
"He's done it again." CeeCee slapped a hand to her forehead. "After he done swore he wouldn't!" More than half drunk on "Sweet Lucy," he'd gone and fallen asleep in one of the caskets.I looked down at him, his mouth part open and dentures slipping, crooked and awkward. I push them back to plumb with one finger. His skin's all waxy, the paleness contrasting with the veins around his nose and cheeks, warm and red with alcohol. Plus he hadn't shaved. His breathing is a sound like air being forced from a great greasy bellows, and shifts almost imperceptibly. The sachet in the coffin lining releases a slickly sweet smell, something called mountain berry jubilee. It didn't smell like mountains, or like berries, and I have no clue as to what a jubilee was supposed to smell like, but Cohen liked the name and so there you are. Both Madie and I were like to remind him that the dead didn't smell anything underground, but Cohen insisted, telling us it wasn't seemly to deny niceties to the dead simply on account of they couldn't enjoy them.
"Why'd he have to go and do this?" CeeCee whined. "I've got a hair appointment with Madie." She tapped her watch, her fingernails clicking on the scratched face. "I got one in ten minutes, for heaven's sake." I'd always thought it a little strange that she got her hair done by the town mortician, and I told her so on more than one occasion. But Madie had years of practice and charged a fair and decent price for her cuts, even if she said "there now, you look as good as living" at the end of each appointment. She even threw in nails for free.
"You aint got but twenty feet to get to it," I said. "You'll make it just fine." I surveyed the problem, trying to think. He looked fairly well planted and CeeCee would be less than helpful.
"Well, how we gonna get him outta there?" she wanted to know. "I don't want Madie hearing."
"We could dump him out," I said.
"Don't you talk like that," she said. "Don't you talk like that of the dead."
"That's the point CeeCee. He ain't dead. Least wise, not yet." I tried to shake him awake . "Get up damn you."He only giggled, gave a half snort, and snuggled down further. He's wrinkling the taffeta fringe, his smell getting intimate with each fold and crevice. Sadly, the sachet he himself concocted is no match for him. It only makes him smell dead for real. He turned slightly and farted, and CeeCee sits down hard. Her head almost hangs between her knees.
"I don't think I could stand it if Madie were to come in," she said. "No sir, I just can't take the thought of it."Cohen's a big man, not fat, just what he likes to call big boned. He tops out at over six feet, so I guess he needs his bones big. I let out a gust of stale air, knowing we're going to have to lift him out.
"Get up CeeCee."
She looks at me and then shakes her head. "You got a whole other think comin Jennie Lee."
"Come on." I motion her up but she doesn't budge.
"Huh uh," she says, shaking her head so that I think it'll fly off. "Last time I hurt my back. LeeRoy had to keep heating pads on it for a week." I knew that wasn't even close to being true. Last time she'd winded herself and lost an earring. We never did find it, but to tell the truth we didn't look too hard for it.
"Well, this time just lift his legs, OK?" I popped the bottom half of the casket up, and it was only then that I realized he'd taken off his pants. He was all pale hairy legs and droopy black socks. One horny toenail stuck through a hole, clawlike and wild.
"Hells bells..." I paced behind the display, trying to sight his pants and shoes. "Where the hell did he put them..."
"What are you looking for?" CeeCee asked. I pointed and she peeked in.
"Oh dear lord." Her hands hover at her neck, but she peeks again. I know she wanted to laugh, but won't because I'm there. "I swear!" she said.
"You can at least look for his clothes." She nods, walking slowly around the room, nosing in corners and behind other displays. Meanwhile, I try to take away his whiskey bottle, which of course is uncapped. Just as the bottle's about lost to his grip his reflexes kick in.
"Gimme the damned bottle." I try simply holding on til he tires, like you would to get a fish worm out the ground. "Come on, you malicious cow turd..."
"I found his shoe," CeeCee hollers.
"Shhhhhh," he says, half opening one eye. "You'll give me a headache."
CeeCee hands his shoe over, sole up, so that I can see every minute of wear, the years of stepping and scraping, and something goopy I hope is gum. I hand the shoe over to Cohen, and like a sleeping child, as he takes it his grip loosens on the bottle. I slipped it into the back pocket of my jeans and try to get him rolled back over.
"Is he missing a sock?" CeeCee calls, waving it like a little flag of surrender. I recheck his feet, both cotton shod, and shake my head no. She drops the sock with noise of disgust. She continues her search, hands high in the air like everything around her is too infected to touch.
"Come on now..." I manage to get him sat up, but he slides around, boneless and loose. I pull his legs out, letting them dangle over the faux cherry sides, one sock dangling off his toes. Then I climb in, get my shoulder wedged behind him and start maneuvering him so that he's sitting with his back against the edge of the casket.
"I found 'em!" CeeCee says. She comes running, the pants flapping slowly as if they're tiredly chasing after her. She puffs and wheezes, leaning over so she's pinning the pants against the side of the coffin.
"CeeCee, you got to exercise yourself more."
"Hush yourself," she manages.
"Get yourself one of those Richard Simmons tapes. Sweat with the oldies. Get yourself that Deal a Meal maybe."
"Don't kid me now," she says. "Honestly. Let's just get his pants on 'em." While I'm trying to push him out she's threading his legs though the pants. I can feel his bulk giving itself grudgingly to gravity when the door opens. The form there is haloed in light, a slender looking woman with a large handbag at her hip. She staggers back a step, one hand going to her head, the other to her middle. I'm still hunched in the casket, Cohen is lolling open mouthed, and CeeCee is backing up so quick that she pulls his pants back off. Something clicks softly and I realize without seeing it that his dentures have hit the floor. For a fleeting moment I have visions of this poor, frail, grieving woman fainting dead out, suing, or just spreading horrible half lies about us all. But then I hear she's laughing. The door finally swings shut all of a second later, and our eyes adjust enough to tell it's Rainey, our mail woman.
"If that ain't the damdest sight," she says.
"His pants was already off," CeeCee says.
"How gone is he?" Rainey asks.
"I swear to god, he took em off himself..."
"Sweet Lucy's near empty." I shrug. "He's stone pissed."
"Or liquidly challenged." She tosses our mail in Cohen's lap but doesn't move to go.
"Think you could give me a hand?"
"And I don't know who that old sock belongs to..." CeeCee sat down, gathering the pants in her lap. She was suddenly aware she had them, and threw them to the side.
"Sure," Rainey says. She set her mailbag over by the office door, then rubs her hands together. "We wanna get his pants on him first?"
"Madie won't give a monkey's ass about him running around half dressed and full drunk. The spirit's in the spirit is all."
"OK." She curls her arms around his legs and grunts as we lift him out. "I've never carried this kind of male before," she says. "Don't aim to have to again either." Rainey is pushing 60, I know, but she hardly even strains as we carry him over to the office. That's what near 15 years carrying tons of words and paper will do for you though, I guess. We set him in his chair, still holding his shoe, and CeeCee throws his pants in from the doorway.
"You all is on your own," she said and ran for her appointment.
"Thanks awful Rainey."
"No problem." She hefts her bag. "Just watch out for Madie."
I know she means this in both senses. I took the bottle out of my jeans. Some of it had spilled down my leg, but there was enough left for a good draw or two. I offered Rainey first dibbs, out of politeness.
"Thanks," she said and tipped it back. She pointed it at me. "Your butt's all wet."
"Yeah." I took the bottle and swallowed the last of the whiskey. Behind us Cohen spilled out of his chair and onto the floor. His head sounded like a wet pumpkin when it hit and a moment later he rolled over.
"Ouch," he said and went back to sleep.
"See you tomorrow then," Rainey said and left me to pick up the mail.
At dinner that night no one spoke. Uncle Cohen just held his head and drank glass after glass of water while Aunt Madie stared at him. I took the opportunity to sneak my radishes into her salad bowl. They always made me belch something terrible and I'd been putting them in her bowl since god was a pup. She never cottoned on, or at least she never said nothing, so I saw no reason to stop. Anyway, she was too busy watching Cohen.
"Lord God, woman," he said finally. "No matter how hard you try, you ain't never gonna see clear through me." Then he got up and shuffled off toward the living room. The tv clicked on and Aunt Madie turned to me as a car crashed in the next room.
"He thinks he's got himself a headache you know." She picked up his clean empty plate with a dish towel, careful not to touch it. "As if he could have a headache."
"I'll get the dishes," I said.
She picked up his water glass with the dish towel and stared into it. "It wouldn't bother me you know. Him eating or not eating. But ghost or no ghost, shouldn't he at least clean up the dishes from time to time?"
Aunt Madie labored under the delusion that Uncle Cohen was dead, and had been for years. She'd never been quite all together, and one warm August day she'd found him passed out in the yard, face down and dead drunk. By that time I'd lived with them for maybe a year, and seeing him drunk was nothing so new. But I stopped peddling my bike and straddled it, watching to see what she'd do. Earlier he'd been snoring in great nosefulls of dirt and sneezing them out again. Now he was still, and she hunched over him like a gigantic chicken, her neck outstretched and her arms tucked back so as not to touch him at first. Her shadow bunched round her like an overinflated innertube and when she plucked up the courage to lift one of his flaccid arms, it moved to obscure his head. She waved his arm, shaking it harder and harder, and when it fell back to the earth under the influence of gravity, she'd assumed the worst.
"He's done had himself a heart attack," she cried. "Door nail dead, and not even fifty!"
"He ain't dead Aunt Madie," I said. "He's just sleepin."
"Oh child child." She wiped her arm across her eyes. "Lazarus he's not."
"He's had himself a brain stroke," she howled. "I told him about that damned Microwave, but he had to try it. You just had to," she yelled at him. She'd warned him that the micro waves would sneak in through the backs of his knees and turn his brain inside out, the same way she warned me that going barefoot would let little yard worms burrow into my feet and they'd eventually eat up my guts and my brains.
"He's just sleepin An' Madie," I said. "He had himself some Sweet Lucy..."
"You go put you some shoes on or you'll get the same as him," she said. I stayed still, watching her pet his head and peer into his ears. "Micro waves done ate up his head. He's done had a brain stroke. My Cohen's dead." She stood and kicked his behind. He moved a little, but didn't wake up. "Here he's dead and never fixed that screen door." She sat over him and cried for maybe a half hour before she went inside and fell asleep out of shock and grief. I wandered inside and made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and before I went to bed I covered Uncle Cohen up with the afghan Madie had knitted out of odds and ends of yarn. I watched him for a while, moonbathed and motionless, and all he did was sweat. I went in after I got tired of flicking the bugs off him and went to sleep. The next morning Cohen wandered into the house and passed out again, nearly making it fully onto the couch. I woke up to hear Madie screaming about zombies, and forever after that she'd tell us all about how the ghost of her dead husband had come to visit and had simply never left off. We played tricks from time to time, Cohen enlisting my aid or the other way round. I once reasoned that if a person could be scared to death, then maybe a ghost could be scared to life, and we set up a pretend shocker. Afterward Cohen claimed he was alive again, but Madie didn't bite. So we were left to the peculiarities of living with a "dead man" in the house. Which meant under no circumstances was he to sleep in her bedroom, and it sore vexed her that he still needed to eat, shit, and wouldn't walk through walls. Half the time he'd fall asleep and wake to find her poised over him, applying make up for his final rest. God only knows what ever would have happened if she'd decided to start with the embalming first.
"He's no cleaner as a ghost than he was in real life," she said, scraping mashed potatoes off her own plate with one finger. A volley of gunshots cracked out from the tv set and Madie frowned.
"Funny, I'd always heard cleanliness was next to godliness. Guess we know where ol Cohen ended up then."
"It's bad enough I have to work with him," she said. "But then he follows me home."
"He does live here." I turned on the tap, waiting for the water to warm up.
"Yeah, well you think he'd of dried up or something. You know, evaporated into the air by now. Don't ghosts sort of fade after a while?"
"Ain't no guarantees or warranties on ghosts I expect."
"You'd of thought he want to go some place better." She nibbled on the potato peelings from the sink. A slow smile crept over her face. "If it was me and I was the one dead, I'd of wanted to be a flyin with the angels." Her head leaned toward her shoulder and she hugged herself, thinking about it.
"Maybe he loves you."
She nodded, considering it. "Yeah, mebbe so. But it ain't natural."
I looked at her and had to admit it wasn't.
I'm busy routing out a runner for a sleigh bed when CeeCee and X come in. They're waving at me, then holding thier hands over their faces so they don't have to breathe in any wood dust. I turn off the router and pull off my goggles.
"Help you?" They don't catch that I'm annoyed to be bothered while I'm working. I don't know what it is that brings people in to watch, but they get all bored and fidgety and start bugging the lovin hell outta me.
"Well, have you seen Madie?"
"S'her day off." I shrug and start to turn on the router again.
"It's just that...Well..." She bites her lip and tries to look worried.
"What is it?"
"I wanted my nails done. I was gonna have her write Bingo on my hand for Bingo Night." CeeCee held out her hand, her blank slate, waving it so I could see what a shame it would be if it didn't happen. "Then if I won, all I do is wave my hand around and holler BINGO!"
"Why not have her write this space for rent?" I said.
"That's too many letters to fit," CeeCee said. "I only got so many fingers."
"What do you want?"
"I was looking for Madie."
"So you said. Now what do you want?" She made to sit down, and I didn't bother telling her she'd come up with a butt full of dust. She patted an empty space next to her, and I just stood there.
"You're such a booger," CeeCee said. "What it is is this. I'm worried about Madie."
"You always have been."
Thursday night was card night, and as soon as I'd closed up shop I beelined it back to the house. It hadn't taken long but they'd of course started without me. I waded in past the chaw, the thick smoke, the bottles and crushed cans. It always looked like that picture of poker playing dogs in the front room, only the dogs were better groomed. With the exception of Rainey, none of them had shaved in days, and probably hadn't showered either. Their t-shirts were stained with laziness and they smelled of sweat and earth, dry grasses and engine grease. But it was somehow familiar and comforting, especially when mixed with my own smell of wood shavings and lacquer.
"Hey, ya'll," I said, and they barely nodded over their beers. I went into the kitchen and Madie was busy washing her hands at the sink. I kissed her cheek and she shooed me away, her hands still dripping. She gives me a quick once over and flicks something off my head.
"You still got sawdust in your hair," she said.
"Least it aint bugs," I said and helped myself to a beer from the stash I keep hidden in the back of her fridge.
"What's Rainey doing out there anyway?" Madie asked.
"Delivering dead letters."
"Don't see that it would do much good. Most of that lot couldn't read when they were alive." She put her hands to her back and stretched. "I don't mind when he's in, but I do get mightily annoyed when he invites his friends. I knew some of them when they were alive, and I didn't like them none then either."
I motioned toward the living room. "Madie, some of them Are still alive," I said.
She peeked out the door, and pulled back tentatively. "Well, maybe there's Billy Tavner, but he don't look none too good."
"A card carnival of the undead."
"It ain't a funny thing to have your house a haunted by a bunch of dim-witted heatherns. Honest, I don't see how you can play with them." She made a distasteful face.
"Cuz sometimes they let me win."
"If he's going to bring other dead people to play cards, why doesn't he bring over some one nice?" She put raw pop n fresh biscuit dough on plates for me to take out. She'd cut them into shapes with cookie cutters, to impress all the dead guests. There was also a dish of sugar cubes and slices of frozen orange juice concentrate that was starting to slip off the sides of the dish. I had just enough time to slide the dough out of sight when her back was turned. "You know," she said, "Maybe he could bring over some famous dead person." Her eyes lit up. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to meet The Duke? I love his movies. Even that Green Beret one that's so long that I always fall asleep." She marched in place, humming the theme.
"Why not Elvis?" I prompted. "You always said you loved the way he sings Amazing Grace."
"I'm so glad he died after he cleaned himself up," she said. "The military did wonders for him. He was so clean afterward."
"Oh, clean cut, definitely." I simply wouldn't bring up the sequined jumpsuits and the megatons of heroine he'd ingested. She's bust a gut if she knew he was stoned out of his fuzzy tree when Nixon swore him in as a special deputy.
"I wouldn't have wanted to meet a gyrating ghost." She picked up the plate of dough. "If you all didn't want it you could have told me," she yelled out to them. "Honestly, I can't take them materializing stuff all over the place sometimes."
"Tell you what, cook those up and I'll eat them. I don't mind ghost germs."
"OK then, I'll bring em out fresh and hot. Go on out there and play your cards."
When I sat down they all giggled at me. LeeRoy nudged my arm.
"What'd she say in there?"
I sometimes felt guilty for reporting back on my aunt's craziness but tonight wasn't one of those times. I picked up the cards I'd been dealt and arranged them methodically. "She said..." I paused, pretending to rearrange. They leaned forward. "She wants to know why you don't bring over some famous stiff instead of this bunch of dead jack asses." They laughed at this, and Cohen nearly lost the toothpick he'd been chewing.
"Billy," he said. "Does your cousin Ethel still have that Minnie Pearl hat?"
"She surely does."
"Reckon she'd come over next week and do her Minnie Pearl for my Madie?"
"She'll be here," Billy swore.
"Can we play cards here?" Mitchell said.
"Someone's got himself a good hand," I said.
Mitchell blushed. "No I don't. I mean, I mean, it's none of your bidness what I got. You'll just have to wait and see, won't ya?"
"He's got himself a hand," LeeRoy agreed.
"How's that super deluxe special coming?" Cohen asked. Normally I made cabinets and furniture, but I was building a special custom designed coffin for one of the town fathers. It'd taken me a long time to collect up all the ebony he wanted, but it was a beautiful piece of work I'd grown proud of. I'd been thinking lately I didn't want to see the old fart die after all. I'd be sad to see it stuck in the ground after all my hard work but taking pictures of it didn't seem right either.
"Could ya'll not talk bidness while we're playin cards?" Billy said.
"It's near done," I whispered quietly.
"Mine's near done too." Cohen too was building a custom job, and had been for years. Only thing was, it was his own, and it was shaped like a 31 Packard, complete with miniature tires, chrome headlights, grill, and bumpers, and an authentic period license plate. Front and back.
"Ah fer shit's sake." Billy threw down his cards. "Don't go startin in on that damn coffin."
"You can go out in a paper sack if you want to," Cohen said. "Me, I'm going out in style."
"This ain't go fish we're playin here gentlemen," Rainey said. "And I use the term gentlemen very very loosely."
"I always thought it was goldfish," Mitchell said. "Hell, all this time it's been go fish." He scratched his head. "Go Fish..."
"Shut yer pie hole and make a bet," Rainey said, and after that our business was cards.
Since I was little, Madie and Cohen had been my family. My father ran off to Mexico during Vietnam, because making it to Canada seemed too far to risk.
"Besides," he supposedly said, "that Mexican food is closer than what I'm used to than that French stuff they got them up there in Canada." After the war my mother went to bring him back, and dropped me off at "Aunt and Uncle Death's place." She sent me a postcard from every place she stopped on the way, and I'd hang them on the wall as geographically correct as I could. I knew with every picutre postcard that came they were that much closer to being home. But she decided once she got there that she liked it so much she'd stay on for a bit. Twenty eight years later she still hasn't come back. So Madie and Cohen raised me, and I spent a good deal of time in the bowels of their mortuary. Truthfully, I had a curious interest about what they did. It wasn't every kid who had seen the insides of someone's insides, and I was a natural at anatomy. Still, everybody knew I wouldn't stick around to inherit the business. I liked building things more than taking them apart, and used my woodshop to occasionally supply them with an order or two. They stayed busy enough, since they'd been for a long time the only mortuary in two counties, and the greater percentage of the population was over 60. Cohen sometimes complained the business was so good that others would pop up just to handle the traffic in the elderly, but he said that less and less every year. And the news that two new mortuaries were going into our country was met with hardly the raise of an eyebrow. They had a small decent staff, but when they were short handed, I sometimes helped out. It was odd and quiet, surrounded by flesh, surrounded by peace. The ritual of death was calming, even if it were a bit messy. Cohen always kept music playing, not just what he liked, but what he thought would suit the taste of each cadaver. There was Sousa for Old Man Greenlaw, the near deaf music instructor at the elementary school. Old Civil War tunes played for The Colonel, who was really just a sergeant in theVirginia regiment, and he played the Beatles for the banker who had been a war protestor in his youth. But he hated Senior Honeywell over at the DMV so bad that he stuffed his own ears with cotton and played speed metal rock and roll the whole damn time he was being laid by.
Madie might have been crazy as a skunk about some things, but she was a good manager. She was the one that kept up with the trade, developments in technique and technology, and she watched every penny, squeezing them so hard Cohen used to say he could hear Lincoln screaming. But she and Cohen both were generous in their service. They'd let people borrow or rent out the high class coffins for viewings, then put them in the real deal when everyone was gone. A number of people had running accounts because they couldn't pay all at once, and they'd even let business go to the barter system. I was kept in school shoes most of my life on this system, even though I didn't realize it til I was grown. When I was really small I remember Gadding McCrady got hit by a car. His wife, poorer than dirt, came in, embarrassed to even be seen. She asked simply for a pine box to put round him, and everyone knew she couldn't even well afford that. I was peeping over the floor models, catching her eye from time to time. Sunlight bounced off the polished lids, and stuck to her outline like a shining liquid.
"Really," she said. "Just a box. I'd build it myself cept I don't know how."
"Gadding was a poor git," Cohen said. "But he was a good man. He should go in a little more style."
"I can't," she said.
"Look," Cohen said quietly. He touched a plain model, sleek, but obviously more expensive than she could afford. "This one's a nice one. Just look at how warm the wood looks." She stomped her foot in anger but started crying, slow tears that threatened to build to something immense and unstoppable. "Aw hell," Cohen put one hand on her shoulder. "I wasn't trying to milk you. I can let you have this one for the same as a plain ol pine box is all."
She looked up at him. "I don't want to take no charity..."
"It's going on sale," he said. "Honest. And let me show you something else..." He left her standing and trotted off. She looked at me for a moment, leaning against the side of a black lacquer model called the Knight's Chariot. I was suddenly aware of all the finger prints I was leaving and stood up straighter. She looked down as Cohen came back. He had some brass hardware, and set it over top the bland hinges and clasps.
"Don't that look much nicer?" he said.
"I can't afford the upgrade," she said.
"No upgrade," he said. "I'll just let you borrow it."
She started crying then, and Cohen dropped his hands to his sides. He noticed me standing there. "You go on out and play," he said. I left them standing together, not knowing then how many times I'd see the same scene repeated.
After she told everyone Cohen was haunting our house, Madie was upset to find he still came to work. It was one of the few times I can remember her being glad he didn't walk through walls. But she tried everything to keep him out, sometimes locking the doors, perplexed when he produced a key. She tried hollering and shouting, all to no avail. She'd even called the Sheriff to have him bodily removed, and the local minister to lead his spirit away. Finally, she got used to it and it was only on occasion that she remembered her objections to having a dead man as her business partner. You just never knew what would set it off, and one evening Cohen gave me a ring. They were working on the Johnson family. The two boys had drowned, one trying to save the other they say, and when Big Jimmy Johnson had found them he'd shot himself in the head out of grief. Cohen had plenty of work to get done for the viewing, and Madie was hampering him.
"Can't you just come on over here and take her out for coffee or something?"
I was glad he hadn't asked me to help. I wanted to stay in, and I'd had a very long day myself. "It's late for coffee," I said. "But I'll talk to her."
"You comin over?"
I looked out the window and across the field. I could see the lights on over there, and imagined if I focused hard enough I'd see Cohen or Madie at one of the windows. "No. Put her on." I waited as the phone exchanged hands. In the background the soft strains of Songs for Children was playing.
"I been yellin and yellin at him to stop," Madie said. "I guess the dead don't hear so good."
"They hear just fine," I said. "You know Cohen was always just stubborn."
"I got three bodies I got to get laid by," she said.
"Then you should be glad for his help."
"Don't you think it odd for him to be working with the dead, him being dead himself?"
We'd been over this argument dozens of times, but I think the fact they were children had put her off. I know the sight of half size coffins really upset her, and she'd known the boys fairly well. "No, I think it's just about right. It makes them comfortable knowing they've got someone there who's been there himself. Someone who understands." There was a pause.
"Well, I guess I never did think on it that way before. It makes sense."
"So you just work with him. Help each other out."
"They're so little," she said. "And he was crying. I just didn't think ghosts did that."
The phone clunked back down on the counter, and a moment later Cohen picked it back up long enough to say thank you before hanging up.
Friday night I run into Cohen at Bo Jr's Grill. There's a big sign over the door that says "Eat and get the Hell out," but no one pays it any mind. I was on my second plate of mudbugs and my third beer when Cohen came in. He's with Julie, a cute redhead ten years his junior. Uncle Cohen of course fooled around. Can't say that I blamed him. He had to - Madie had rules and one of them was no sex with corpses, no matter if it was the walking talking corpse of her dear dead husband. He'd stayed honest for almost a full two years after Madie pronounced him dead, and he'd been solidly with Julie that whole time since. He'd gotten more than half serious about her, but rarely spent more than a night or so away. He felt guilty, but so did Julie, even though no one in town was bad talking them. In fact, we were all waiting for him to up and leave Madie so he could marry Julie. I didn't mind her. She was funny and smart, remembered my birthday every year, and loved Cohen with the ease of truth. But I think she expected me to be upset, judgmental even. When I wasn't, she was doubly confused. It took years of beer drinking and elbow rubbing, but we were on fair terms now. I look at her now in the half light of the bar, nestled in up under Cohen's arm. They're so happy together, so natural that I suddenly feel Madie's loss for her. I brush my hair back and Julie waves. She smiles at me, and they move to my table.I buy us a round. After the second round she takes herself off to the bathroom.
"She's some little number, innit she?" Cohen said.
"Oh yeah. So what'd you tell Madie to get yourself outta the house?"
He gave me a sour look. "That I had to commune with the spirits." He gestured to the fortress of beer bottles he'd collected around himself. "And in a minute I'll be letting the spirits back out in the lil boys room. Ghosts aren't supposed to pee in the house."
"Why do this?" I gestured at the beer bottles but he stuck with the ghost track.
"Kinda leaves me free to do what the hell I please."
"You did that before."
"True. But you ever try to convince Madie of something she thinks isn't so?"
"I meant your drinking actually."
He looked like he was about to answer when Julie came back. "I swear Jennie, you got such nice skin," she said.
I didn't see how she could tell what kind of skin I had in the dark, but I knew she was trying. "Comes from all those nice creams Cohen orders for his stiffs," I said.
"Sugar, if that were true, I'd be over there helping out." She motioned to the waitress for another round to be brought out, but I shook my head.
"I got work tomorrow," I said.
"And I got work tonight." She gigged Cohen in the ribs and they both grinned. "Oh, I'm sorry sugar. But I do just love your uncle. You know that."
I shrugged, mad but not mad. "I'm not mad," I said. "I just feel sad for Madie sometimes."
"You gotta let go and live your own life sometime soon, sugar," Julie said. "You're a long..."
"Madie ain't lonely," Cohen cut in. "She's got CeeCee over there, and Billy sent Ethel over again to play Minnie Pearl."
I nodded. It wasn't exactly what I'd meant, but he was trying too. I think Julie knew what line I was thinking on, because she changed the subject.
"Well, if you truly got work to do, you best get it done real quick," Julie said. "The rain's coming."
"Ain't you heard? They're callin for the storm of the century girl. Biblic perportions and all that."
"The sky is just supposed to unzip itself."
I'd been busy but wondered how I hadn't heard of it. She laid her hand over mine. "Honey, if I were you, I'd start building me an ark."
Julie was right. It's been raining for days, great grey curtains of water hissing and spitting down. On the radio and television they're talking that the river's up, and not to get on the bridges unless you really really got to. I've been to check, and the river is indeed up, swallowing down tree roots and earth. It slips quietly out of its own bed while we sleep at night, and I've never seen it so high or fast. I've made several store runs for in case, but no one seems interested in battening down the hatches but me. Madie and Cohen are busily fighting, but not with words. He's got that damn coffin up on saw horses, inside the house, using a drill buffer to polish the chrome and paint. In between coats of wax he sneaks off to have himself a little drink. Madie stalks around it, fists tucked tight under her arms, glaring and glaring. It's beautiful really, with a top that lifts off and a hood that opens. He's even got a steering wheel carved in, trimmed with a leather steering wheel cover. The tires are quarter size and mounted directly onto the sides. They spin, but since they don't touch ground they're really good for nothing but show. He's been polishing what seems like days now, and Madie just gets madder and madder. I'd of thought she'd be happy since it according to her logic it signaled him leaving, but she was mad that he was making such a mess and such a racket.
"What the Sam Hill does he think he needs a coffin for at this stage of the game?" she asked me. "I mean really, if he ain't rotted by now, what's he got to worry about the worms getting at him."
"Don't tell me you're on his side." She hovered at the kitchen door, refusing to go out or quite come in. "Don't tell me you take the side of a dead man over your flesh and blood."
"I'm not on anyone's side," I said. "I cut out of work to help you get the gutters cleared out, and I just want to get done." The gutters hadn't been cleaned out since I did it last summer, and now they're overflowing and sending water flooding into the basement. There are more than a few shingles loose and I figure as long as I'm up there they might as well get fixed. The last thing we need is water in the attic. "Besides, even dead, he's my flesh and blood."
"Was," she corrected, finally coming back in. She sniffed me and stepped back. "You're all wet," she said. "He can't get wet, so he should be the one out there crawling around on the roof. He can't break his neck if he falls off."
Her cabin fever was getting to me. I set down my cup of coffee and decided to get back to the job. The rain is chill, and even after days of it, it still sends up steam from the asphalt and the rooftops. It sounds like a million rattlesnakes, like beads being shaken in a tight dry skin. I hammer down a shingle, hearing a new sound underneath it all. I pause, listening, and hear it again. A crashing of something, a hollow sounding thud, and then the door flies open so hard I think it's getting torn from its hinges. I lean half over the eaves, almost hanging upside down. I can see the top of her head, the crease where she parted her hair looking pink and hot.
"You dead bastard," Madie yelled. "I won't have it. No more!" She struggled backward and I see that she's dragging the coffin out the door with her. "Out!" she yelled. "Both of you out!" The whole thing slides free and it's only then that I realize she's gotten it up on a hand truck.
"Madie," I yell down to her but she takes no notice. I stay kneeling on the roof as she heaves and haws into the parking lot between the house and the mortuary. She looks like a lone float in a lunatic parade, but I don't laugh. "Madie!" I yell again. She dumps the coffin off and marches back toward the house. She stops when she sees me.
"What the hell are you looking at?" she demanded. "And what the hell are you doing up there?"
Moments later Cohen staggers out, shirt tails out and holding onto a bottle. I drop my hammer and rock back on my heels. He goes across to where years of work sits, water beading up off the wax. He strokes the plane of the hood, slicking the water off it in sheets. Then he climbs in.
"Get on outta there," I yell. But he sits in it, drunk, screaming his head off. Below me the door slams hard enough to make the roof shake. Even though I know where she keeps the spare key, I can only hope she hasn't locked it. Across the lot Cohen's still screaming, shaking his bottle at the rainy sky. I climb down the ladder, thinking I'll just try to talk him in. If I can't get him out I figure I can try and load the thing in the back of my truck and take them both back to my woodshop. At least there it'll be dry, and I got a little fridge and a microwave oven.
"Stop jackassing about," I yell at him. "She's done took the hand truck back, so I'll need you to help me load up." I pull on him but he grips the wheel and looks as if he's burrowing in deeper. "Come on now," I say. I hear myself swelshing. Water is up over my ankles, and I tuck my hands under my armpits, trying to find warmth.
"I'm ready to meet my maker." He pounds himself on the chest. "I'm not coming out."
"Stubborn ass hair." The wind is screaming, but I don't feel it. "We're both gonna freeze out here. Freeze right to death." There's a rumble at me feet, and for a moment I think I'm just shivering. But then I hear the water roar. It's funneling down the street, coming at me in a dreadful slow wave I know I can't out run. Every last thing I should do in this situation flashes through my head, and all I can do is stand there and think, well, that's a lot of water all right. Beside me Cohen hoots, and I make a last attempt to pull him free. The coffin raises on a wake and slams me down. I slide against the asphalt, feel water pouring over my head and holding me down. I hit something hard and roll up the side of it. It turns out to be my truck. I manage to hold tight, and pull myself up over the bumper and into the back. When I look up, Cohen is leaning back, his hands on the immovable steering wheel, shooting past me like a mad canoeist on temporary rapids. My head spins and rings as I watch him speed out of sight. His coffin is water tight after all.
We looked for Cohen all the next day. The flood had made a real mess, taking telephone lines out, tearing trees down and the like. My truck had moved almost all the way across the parking lot with me in the back, hanging on like a tick. I'd been lucky to escape with some scrapes and bruises, a dislocated shoulder and a stomach full of escaped river water. Madie cried and cried, thinking I'd fallen off the roof and it was all her fault. She didn't know about the flash flood and I guess I was lucky she didn't believe me dead on the spot. So after the doctor pronounce me fit, I called CeeCee to stay with Madie and got a few of us together to go out looking for Cohen. We found his coffin just after two o'clock, crashed into the trunk of a tree. The end was filled with dirt and muck, all kinds of debris. I had visions of him crammed up at the front end from the impact, sealed into place by the fury of the rushing water. I just looked at Rainey and LeeRoy.
"I'm not doing it," LeeRoy said. Rainey shook her head, leaving the job to me. I looked again at the splintered grill, so meticulously carved, the chrome headlights smashed in.
"Aw Cohen," I said. "What a way to go."
"Go on," LeeRoy said. "Sooner done's the better." Shaking, I pried up the hood. But he wasn't there.
"I'll be damned," Rainey said.
"Where the hell is he?" LeeRoy asked. He leaned in, as if Cohen were in there hiding somewhere. A horn blast made us all jump. We turned, and Julie had pulled up beside us.
"You looking for this piece of drift wood?" she asked. Cohen sat beside her, his face a haven for bandaids, swollen and puffy. We rushed the truck, actually rocking it a little on its shocks with our excitement.
"Oh my god, I thought you was dead for real," I said.
"Haryall," he said.
"Hush up now," Julie told him. "He don't talk so good right now. Busted jaw. All wired up."
I touched his hand and he tried to smile. It looked terrible, but I couldn't have been happier. "I'm so glad you're ok," I said. "Last I saw you looked like some mad canoeist..."
"Schrry bdoo," he said.
"He says he's sorry about you getting hurt," Julie said.
"I'm right as rain," I said. Cohen made a noise and Julie nodded.
"He says you look like a pissed off raccoon."
I laughed, wiped at my eyes. "Well, what now?" I asked.
"I'm taking him home with me." Julie said. "I think it's where he belongs."
"Huh," LeeRoy said, and Rainey elbowed him in the side.
"Well," I said. I went to scratch the back of my head, but my arm wasn't up to it. "What...What am I gonna tell Madie?"
"Tell her he's only gonna haunt her part-time from now on," Julie said. "Tell her anything you want to."
I looked at Cohen. For a minute he couldn't meet my eyes. When he did they were full of certain sorrow, but also a kind of hopefulness. I knew it was what he wanted. "Ya'll just leave everything to me," I said. "I'll collect some of your things and bring em over later today."
"You mind me telling you something sugar?" Julie leaned close to the window. "It's something my momma used to tell me, and I think you oughta know." Cohen nodded and gestured for her to continue. He squeezed my hand harder.
"Sugar, you're a long time dead. You best start living your own life from here on out." I stood there, mute, and Julie continued. "Let Madie to her craziness. And leave Cohen and me to take care of all this. Go on out and get yourself a boyfriend." She looked at Rainey and they both grinned. "Or a girlfriend if that's what you fancy. But get out there and live before it's too late." With that she put the truck into gear and glided off. I stood there for a moment, watching the back of Cohen's head through the window, disappearing from sight for the second time. It was gone for some time when I realized I was just standing there, staring into space.
"Well, then," I said. We started walking back toward Madie's. Strange, it was just Madie's now, when really it had been all along.
"What we gonna do about his death car?" LeeRoy asked.
"Leave it to him," I shrugged. Rainey laughed.
"You're takin to this mighty quick," she said. "Next, you'll be moving out of that house."
"I'll give her a week or two to adjust," I said. "But yeah, I think it's near about time."
"I ain't using my whole upstairs," Rainey said.
"I'll think about it," was all I said.
I told Madie that Cohen had passed on after CeeCee and Ethel left. She frowned, but she didn't cry. She wanted to know if he felt any pain.
"No. No he's feelin pretty happy. He wants you to be happy too."
"We never did have a proper funeral for him," she said. "He'd never let me." She stared up at the sky, her lids half closed against the new light. "Think he'd let us have one now?"
"I'm sure he would."
She went back inside, and came out later with a small collection of his personal effects. A comb, a photo of them together in a gilt frame, his razor, some loose change, his playing cards, and a pair of his shoes. She put all the objects inside the shoes and together we dug a small hole out near the lilac hedges. She put a planter at the edge of the mound and then we sat down. She rested her head against my shoulder, her hand wrapped over mine.
"Think he'd mind if I repainted the bedroom?" she asked.
"What about if I hired a new man? I'll miss his help I reckon."
"I'm sure he'll come back to help when you need it."
"That'd be so nice." She nestled in closer. "What about if I was to find me a new man?"
I hesitated a moment. Cohen had been openly dating, but I never figured on Madie. "A boyfriend?"
"A man friend," she corrected. "I always thought Mitchell was pretty nice."
"I reckon Cohen would be happy if you were happy."
"Good," she said. "But I don't really like Mitchell anyhow."
"Me either," I said, and held her as she fell asleep.