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Homer Barnett’s Last Worry

by E. J. Pace

Homer and Myrtie Barnett got married right after they finished high school and moved in with her folks; frugality and poverty were inborn traits as natural to both as breathing. Anything else would have been an affront to their kinfolk. The lifestyle in their Texas Hill Country was as predictable as Lone Star beer on Saturday night. When goat-shearing time or hay-baling season rolled around, going to school was secondary to the constant struggle of earning money.

If any man of these parts could have been gifted with omniscience, the cast of the die would have snuffed out any candle-flickers of incentive. They were all born wrinkled and most of them stayed that way forever, because of the hot summer wind and the eyeball-chapping winters. They scrabbled bare-handed on the stern land in one way or another, fighting the whimsies of Texas weather, choosing a place to exist until they died, and then seeing how quickly they could go about it.

And die they did, inevitably, leaving their families in the stunned shock of disbelief every time. Myrtie’s daddy dropped dead one July afternoon when he stopped mending the barbed wire fence long enough to tear off a fresh plug of tobacco. He was fifty-two and looked sixty-eight and, if he could have, he’d have told his grieving family to cut out the caterwauling ’cause he was plumb wore out and glad to be restin’ for a change.

Myrtie’s daddy’s funeral was typical and indicative. The service was held in the funeral home which squatted in its yellow-brick ugliness on the corner of Main and Seventh, smack-dab in the periphery of averted eyes. No pedestrian EVER deliberately walked on the path bordering the mortuary’s front and side entry which boasted of newly-installed double doors to make the passage of wheeled coffins less of a struggle. The Johnson grass crowded around the ugly building, never mowed down except before a funeral, because the prevailing winds whipped the dry soil back to the hills when the weeds were short. Sometimes, the only way the townspeople knew someone had died was when they noticed Red Smith, the embalmer and handyman, wrestling the old push mower through the dancing weeds.

The procedure, never deviated from, was a religion in itself. The family sat in a separate section, hidden off to one side, facing the foot of the open casket over a railing of wooden posts stained to mimic mahogany. There were six ten-foot pews in the family’s area, and sometimes extra folding chairs had to be clanked and whanged in the middle of sobs and whispers, if the deceased happened to have been a popular individual. Everybody who attended the service walked solemnly in front of the family and up to the casket, “paying their respects” to the departed lying there.

Red, the embalmer, was a bandy-legged wino and sometimes he overdid it, one way or another. Most of his finished products resembled the originals, but occasionally, as in the case of Homer’s father-in-law, the corpses were a closer match to mahogany than was the railing of turned posts.

As the friends of Myrtie’s daddy stiffened up their faces with their idea of the proper look and walked up to the coffin, very few could avoid revealing their shock. Red had been drunk for two days before he mowed down the weeds and embalmed Myrtie’s daddy. He had finished another bottle of muscatel as he worked on the old man, humming to himself in the dimly lit cellar of the funeral home.

Usually the funeral director, Mr. Chapman, double-checked Red’s end results, but on the day of this funeral, the sky was black with storm clouds and the cellar was darker than ever. Mr. Chapman, growing tired of being ostracized because of his profession, had a terrible hangover and didn’t give more than a passing glance to the body of Myrtie’s daddy in the shadowy ready-room.

As the mourners began to file alongside the bier, one gasp followed another. The storm clouds had drifted away and bright sunlight filtered into the orange-carpeted place of death like a sudden reminder of the fires of Hell.

Unfortunately, one of the widest beams of light shone directly on the dead man’s face, like a spotlight. His skin was dark brown against the white stain, which was not too much of a surprise considering Red’s track record, but the rest of the make-up job was grotesquely bizarre.

The shaggy gray eyebrows had been arched and dyed black, over bright blue eyelids. Upon each hollow, weatherworn cheek, Red had rouged a perfectly round bullseye. The previously stern, thin lips resembled the pursed mouth of a perch swimming upstream and were painted a garish persimmon red.

Myrtie’s daddy had always worn his hair slicked down flat, parted on the side, but since he was rarely seen without his hat on, nobody but his wife knew he had never had a curl in his life except on his chest and around his privates. The day before the old man died, Red had finally received the mail-order curling iron he had wheedled out of Mr. Chapman. With enough muscatel under his belt, Red convinced himself he didn’t have to wait for one of those tightly frizzed old ladies whose hair sometimes went limp if they had been sick very long, so Myrtie’s daddy enjoyed the dubious honor of being the first curly-headed corpse Red had ever presented.

Myrtie’s daddy’s hair curled up splendidly, all over, framing his old face in perfectly formed ringlets. The grieving family sobbed louder than ever, hoping nobody would notice the really embarrassing part.

Usually Red folded the corpses’ hands neatly across their chests, although with massively buxom women he sometimes had more of a problem getting the hands to meet. Evidently, by the time he got to Myrtie’s daddy’s hands, he had been too long at the curling iron and much too long at the muscatel. The left hand was fine, curling itself into disconcerted naturalness, but the right hand, silhouetted against the white satin, had its middle finger stiffly extended, with the other fingers folded in as neatly as could be. Myrtie’s daddy’s hand was frozen in the age-old symbol of defiant vulgarity.

Red Smith came to the funeral, of course, with his permanent smile jutting his prickly chin out even farther beneath his toothless jaws. He beamed like a proud father, his rheumy eyes blinking as slowly as those of a horned toad, occasionally remaining closed two or three beats longer than normal. Homer, as white in the face as an Angora goat, couldn’t take his eyes off the corpse and didn’t bother even to glare at Red swaying in the line of mourners. Red smiled and nodded at the whole group, and Myrtie could tell he was still drunk. Not only that, but he acted proud of his work.

A few months after the funeral, Homer was still in a terrible depression. Night after night he had weeping nightmares. Myrtie talked him into moving away from her family, telling her folks Homer would be fine in his own place, away from all those pictures of Myrtie’s daddy.

Somehow, with Myrtie’s income from her job at the Texan Café, the Barnetts managed to pay down on a tiny shack that sat square in the middle of a half-acre of dusty rocks. For nearly six months after they moved, Homer was almost normal.

Then Myrtie’s Aunt Tillie died, and Homer, the head pallbearer, fainted dead away in front of the funeral home. After that, Homer’s nightmares began again and got worse.

Homer lost interest in everything and finally even stopped taking Myrtie to her job at the café. He didn’t seem to notice when Myrtie fussed about the old pickup, or the house payments, or the leaky roof. All he could do was sit in his rocker on the front porch and worry about how he might look in his own coffin. Even when Myrtie promised, over and over, she would keep his casket closed, he couldn’t quit worrying about it.

But she did, anyway.

Copyright © 2017 by E. J. Pace

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