Previously published in The Storyteller magazine.
WHAT HATTIE CORRINE WANTED
As the Reverend Holcombe Witt towel-dried his hair that morning, he neglected his habit of running fingers through it to check the increasing thinness or measure the amount of pink scalp showing near the top. While he shaved, he forgot to grimace at the lines around his mouth and at the definite beginning of a double chin. In fact, regret for his faded youth found no hold in the good reverend’s mind that day. Instead, his thoughts swarmed with single-minded purpose around the funeral he was to preach at 10 o’clock. He was not fully prepared. If truth be told, he would never be prepared, and almost resented that he had to conduct the thing.
The subject of the funeral, Hattie Corrine, as everyone called her, had spoken to him about it less than two weeks ago in her tiny, suffocatingly hot house.
“I don’t see why we have to talk about this now,” he had said to her. “Your health is…well, good, isn’t it?”
She glared at him. “I’m ninety-two, for God’s sake.” Eighty years of Lucky Strikes consumption gave her the voice of a bullfrog. “It’s a wonder I’ve made it this far.”
She stubbed out the microscopic amount of ash left on the filter, then switched on the oxygen tank next to her faded red chair.
Reverend Witt leaned forward. “But, really, wouldn’t you rather–”
She flipped one scrawny hand, cutting him off.
“I’ve thought about it, and here’s what I want.” She held out a sheet of lined stationery, yellowed from age or smoke, or both.
He took the paper and read it, then looked up.
“You want these songs?”
“Yep.” She reached for the Lucky Strikes, shook one out, and picked up her lighter.
“Turn off the oxygen, for crying out loud!” How many times did the old woman light up with her tank cranking out the gas? He had to remind her at least twice every time he visited. It was a miracle she hadn’t blown herself into eternity before now.
She favored him with a dirty look from keen brown eyes but reached out and switched it off with the brownish-yellow tip of her index finger. That finger matched the center of her lips, the end of her nose, and the color of her walls. She spoke around the cigarette as she fired it up.
“Something wrong with my songs? Not religious enough for you?”
Reverend Witt blinked as fresh smoke invaded his corneas. He read her selection list aloud: “‘In the Mood’, ‘Mairzy Doats’, and ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000’.”
Meeting his gaze, she blew out a plume of smoke with noise and gusto.
“They aren’t religious at all,” he replied, “but of course, neither are you.”
“Damned right! And never will be, so don’t you even start with me.”
He held up one hand. “I’m not starting anything. But at most funerals–”
“We’re not talking about most funerals. We’re talking about my funeral, and I want what I want.” She dipped her head toward the list. “Read on.”
She wanted to be buried in the red flapper costume she wore when she first met Billy Guy.
“Who’s Billy Guy? You’ve never mentioned him.”
She took a deep draw. “None of your bees wax, but the dress is in a white box under my bed. Keep readin’.”
“‘Serve all my guests gin, if they want it.’” Being a tee-totaler who preached temperance, the preacher winced at this, but he read the next item. “‘Have the picture of me and Willie Nelson displayed so everyone can see that we were friends.’” He glanced at said photo on the table next to the ashtray. The frame and glass were dusky from years of smoke. “‘Read that poem from Alice in Wonderland that I like so much.’”
“‘The time has come to speak of things, duh da duh da duh da….”
He nodded. “ ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.”
“That’s the one.” She crushed out and consigned the latest butt to the overflowing ashtray. “Keep your talk short, and don’t you dare Godify it, either. If you do, I’ll crawl out of Hell and haunt you to the end of your days, I swear to God I will.”
Reverend Witt stared down at her list of wants and rubbed a place just above his eyebrows that felt like his brain was trying to ooze out. How in the world would he ever pull this off?
He folded the paper carefully in quarters and stowed it in his shirt pocket.
“Well,” he said, finally, “we don’t have to worry about this for a long, long time. I mean, you’re fine…and you’re feeling good, right? Aren’t you?”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Good God, if you haven’t got something better to worry about than an old woman, you must have it pretty good.”
Ten days later, when Reverend Witt made his regular visit, he let himself into the house calling, as always, “It’s just me.”
He walked into the living room to find the old woman in her faded red chair, head tipped forward, a fresh, unlit cigarette between her fingers and her lighter in the other hand. He figured she’d been dead an hour or two.
Through the surprise and sorrow that began to filter into his consciousness, the undercurrent of taking care of her funeral tugged at him. And today, as he knotted his black tie then slipped his arms into sleeves of his suit jacket, the preacher felt sick to his stomach. How could he preach this funeral?
When he had said as much to Hattie Corinne before he left her for the last time, she’d pinned a hard stare on him through a thin stream of rising smoke.
“I’ll swear, Holcombe Witt, you are the oddest preacher I ever knew. You get up there in front of everybody and just do it. Why should I have to tell you how to do your job?”
Somehow, he stumbled through it, every item on her list, even down to having a bottle of gin and glasses for the ones who wanted it. A couple of the deacons surprised him. He stood near the bronze casket and shook hands with the ones who’d come to send off the old woman who’d made their lives merry and miserable by turns.
“Well,” said one woman, “this has been an experience.”
To which her husband added, “I never been to a funeral service quite like this one.”
The preacher could only nod.
“You done good, pastor,” said Doris Flanders. “Don’t know as anyone coulda done better. I know it was hard for you.”
Tears filled his eyes as the woman squeezed his hand.
When the final mourner passed him and went out of the chapel, he turned and looked down at the remains of Hattie Corinne. Her limp, gray hair had been styled, and a touch of pink bloomed on her lips and cheeks. Every trace of nicotine stain was covered by cosmetics, even on her fingers. She looked younger than he’d seen her in a long time.
He placed his hand over her small cold one.
“I followed your list and did everything you wanted. I hope I did it all right.” A lump closed his throat for a moment before he could swallow it down. He blinked hard then gently kissed her forehead.
“Good-bye, Mom. I love you.”
copyright 2008, K.D. McCrite