And Never Let Us Cry, Part 3 of 5
April 14, 2006
By William Christy
A series of stories sliced from life during the thirties
in the central and Sandhill areas of Nebraska
Part 3 of 5
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The cemetery blended well with the pasture of which it was part. The older markers and tombstones were partially hidden by irregular growths of wheat grass, foxtail, and sunflowers. Here and there a diminutive clump of soapweed tenaciously clutched at the sandy soil and sent spiked blades courageously skyward. A few tumbleweeds squatted about like ancient blighted shrubs. The shorter brown and grey vegetation seemed to flow around the larger bushes, weeds, and markers in an unending stream which spilled under the cemetery fence and surged on unemcumbered to the horizon.
They arrived early while there was still enough moisture on the grass to restrain the dust. A meadow lark was singing somewhere past the tombstones, and several more, still further away, joined to produce an imperfect harmony. The cool air made the reverberations so distinct that the effect on Mart was quite hypnotic. He detected insects in the prairie grass. The crickets and grasshoppers seemed to move each time there was a pause in the song of the larks. Mart listened carefully, but the crickets weren’t chirping this morning. He hurried to catch up with his parents and Aunt Elmira.
Aunt Elmira marched slightly ahead of the others, her heavy black oxfords leaving large prints on the grass. Her plain starched cotton dress snapped and switched about her legs as if protesting the exertion of her hasty, jerky movements. She carried a small bouquet of beautiful white and yellow roses which she had picked from Mother’s garden the evening before and had kept fresh in water over night. She clutched the stems tightly in her right hand and held the bouquet vertically as though it were a pitcher filled with some precious liquid which might spill. She walked straight ahead little heeding where she placed her feet; consequently, she walked across several graves which the others went around. Then, suddenly, she halted and gazed down at her feet with strained dignity. Her right foot was planted firmly in a pile of cow manure recently deposited by some obliquitous animal that had wandered through the fence during the night.
“Anyone,” announced Aunt Elmira, “who would allow his cattle to enter a cemetery is a heathen!” She paused dramatically as though expecting an affirmative comment. No one spoke; so Aunt Elmira gave an exasperated snort, scraped the sole of her oxford across the top of an unobtrusive marker, and stomped on breathing heavily.
Mart looked at the marker Aunt Elmira had used as a foot scraper. It was a simple device of galvanized pipe protruding about a foot above the ground; bolted across the top was a flat metal plate containing a small glass window; behind the window was a card with two faded and illegible words printed upon it. Because Mart was imbued with that rural stigma relative to cow manure which silently condemns the misuse of this valuable product, he took a handful of dry grass and wiped the marker clean. Then he hurried on again.
Now, Aunt Elmira stopped at the foot of Uncle Andrew’s grave. Mart and his parents gathered about her. For a long time no one spoke. The scent of roses was heavy on Mart’s nostrils. He had wanted to bring some flowers from the garden, too, but Father had shaken his head. “Uncle Andrew hated flowers,” he explained.
“Let’s not force them on him now.” So Mart stood empty handed, waiting.
“It’s a nice stone,” Mother commented at last.
“Well, it should be,” replied Aunt Elmira. “It cost a hundred and fifty dollars, and that didn’t include the engraving. If he had saved some of that money he squandered on liquor, I could have bought him a stone three times that big with angels on it. He just didn’t seem to have no sense of values though. I tried to straighten him out, and that was a burden. I never complained, of course, because I’m not much of a hand to say anything, but he was a constant burden – a constant burden.”
“But,” said Mother, “he was a kindhearted fellow. He …” “It was his own fault,” interrupted Aunt Elmira. “If the idiot had taken care of himself and listened to me, he’d be alive right now. You know how he was! A person couldn’t tell Andrew anything. He wouldn’t listen. Always claimed he couldn’t hear. Well, he could hear! He could hear things he wanted to hear; don’t think he couldn’t. And I told that man about his health, too. Many a time I told him his health was failing. I’d say, ‘Andrew, your health is bad, and you are going to die if you don’t settle down!’ He never paid a bit of attention. And now he’s dead just like I said he’d be.”
Elmira began to cry with great and awesome earnestness.
It was difficult for Aunt Elmira to stop crying once she executed the first few convulsive ululations. These sobs set her crying pattern, and she could go on and on crying without deviating from the established one, two, three, rhythm which was peculiar to her emotional outpouring. First, she inhaled through her nostrils with a gasping guttural snort so prolonged that it seemed her lungs should burst. Then she opened her mouth to its extremity and at that instant emitted an explosive, vomiting detonation. The final and most horrendous phase consisted of another great intake on air through and around loose dentures. This produced a crackling, gurgling racket of almost unbelievable repugnance.
Mart ground his teeth together. The cow, which had wandered into the cemetery, ran bawling toward the fence, gave a clumsy leap, and fell to her knees on the other side bleeding from a scratched udder. She arose, as Mart watched her, and limped away bellowing, slobbering, and looking back with fearful eyes. Aunt Elmira continued to cry.
Andrew had married Elmira for some strange reason; stranger still, he had lived with her for thirty-eight unhappy years. Then he had died, suddenly, at a clandestine poker party held late one night in Lew Wright’s garage.
At the time of his demise, Andrew had in his possession those worldly items which pleased him most: a partial pint of the best bourbon, some cash (two ten dollar bills and three ones), two aces, a joker, and a pair of threes. His friends, seeing that he could have opened the game had he lived, played out that last hand for him as a sort of tribute. Needless to say, Uncle Andrew lost everything except a slight smile which had crept across his face when he had first glanced at his cards.
Elmira never forgave him for dying so casually. She felt that death was a rather pious ceremony and should be attended by weeping relatives, friends, doctors, nurses, and clergy. Nevertheless, she had arranged an elaborate funeral service, and it did go well until an old friend of Andrew’s – one he had played poker with – commented upon how nice Andrew looked. Elmira nearly frightened him witless by bursting into tears without warning. The startled fellow became so baffled and overwhelmed that he could hardly control his lanky undulating body and bewildered mind. (He was not at his social best at funerals.) Apparently without considering what he was doing, he brought forth from the bib pocket of his overalls twenty-three dollars in wadded bills, pressed the money into Elmira’s hand, executed a clumsy pirouette, and stumbled away blinking his eyes with startling rapidity. Elmira said later that she had smelled whiskey on his breath, so he shouldn’t have been there anyway.
Reverend Stormwell had never held a funeral service before, but he had bubbled with enthusiasm at the prospect. Many people, strangers to the church, would come to pay their last respects to Uncle Andrew. By using Andrew as a training aid representing the ultimate in life’s pitfalls, he had foreseen an opportunity to gather scores of new converts. This exciting challenge had made the young minister depart from his usual procedure to such a degree that he prepared part of his sermon in advance and practiced timber-shaking phrases in front of the length mirror on the door of his bedroom. During these rehearsals his tiny wife had looked on proudly and frequently said, “Amen.”
Reverend Stormwell was not a scholarly man, but he possessed an abundance of nervous energy and spoke with booming authority against sin. Even the most conservative members of the community church had to agree that “he preached a mean sermon for a young feller.” He had read the Bible several times, and as was the custom in that region, interpreted scripture with puritanical fervor. Although his Sunday orations frequently lacked coherence, they were seldom dull. He believed there was a sermon in anything tangible and prided himself on being able to draw great truths from miscellaneous objects which he carried in his pockets or solicited from the parishioners. This part of his sermon was always a great favorite with the faithful.
He would walk through the aisle until he spotted a likely looking item. Then he would hold the article aloft and expostulate. “What is this?” he once asked as he held up a pocket watch. “It looks like an ordinary timepiece doesn’t it? This my friends is a symbol of the life of man. It seems to be running along smoothly doesn’t it? But who among you can tell me exactly when it will stop? No one can tell! It may stop in a few moments; it may run for a long time, but sooner or later it will quit. Like the life of man, it will stop! Are you prepared? Are you prepared for that hour when time is gone? Ah, yes, brothers and sisters, we know not the hour that our time runneth out!”
Only once had Aunt Elmira enticed Uncle Andrew to endure one of these sermons. Uncle Andrew had dozed peacefully during the scripture reading; he was still dozing when the minister began searching the congregation for a topic. Deftly Reverend Stormwell lifted a cellophane wrapped cigar from Uncle Andrew’s bib pocket and expounded upon the evils of tobacco.
Uncle Andrew contained his anger rather well, but those sitting near heard such muttered epithets as “pompous ass” and “pick pocket.” After the service Uncle Andrew maintained that a person shouldn’t put much trust in a man who couldn’t tell the difference between sin and a good ten cent cigar.
The service pronounced over Uncle Andrew’s remains was not the success that Reverend Stormwell had anticipated. Aunt Elmira cried; so did most of the other women and children, and many of the men. Reverend Stormwell couldn’t make himself heard above the turmoil; and in a state of angry frustration, he also shed a few tears. Lew Wright noticed this and patted the preacher gently on the arm when the service was over and told him not to take it so hard because everyone would pass away sometime, and there would be many funerals to deal with in the future. “We know not the hour when our time runneth out,” Lew quoted sagely. When Reverend Stormwell turned his back, Lew thought that it was a movement the minister made to hide his crushing sadness. This action so moved Lew that he joined the church the following week. He was the only new convert that spring. Mart had been spared the ordeal of the funeral in spite of Aunt Elmira’s protestations. His parents insisted that a funeral service sadly failed to soothe anyone’s sorrow, and Mart was unhappy enough. They would take him to the cemetery later. And thus it happened that he stood in this small portion of a cattle pasture wondering what he should do.
His eyes focused on a fruit jar at the head of a nearby grave. It contained the stems of some withered flowers and a large bumble bee that was trying to get out by bumping against the glass. Mart wondered what it felt like to be inside a glass jar. He glanced at his fellow sufferers, but they didn’t seem to realize that he was among them. He turned his attention once again to the bumble bee. He wished he could change places with the insect. Perhaps if he squeezed his body together … The idea gave him a vague taste of gruesome satisfaction. He was growing smaller and smaller. Now he was inside the fruit jar. He closed his eyes and savored the experience. Nothing could touch him, but he could see. Then, he became frightened. He wanted out. No one could hear him. In his mind he observed his mouth open and close silently. He pounded on the glass sides of his prison: “I want out! Let me out! Help me!”
“What’s wrong, Mart?” asked his mother as though she thought he could explain.
Mart realized what he had done. He beheld the bloodshot eyes of Aunt Elmira looking directly into his face with unconcealed hatred. He wanted to look away, but their eyes were locked, and Mart couldn’t unlock them. He hunched his shoulders, strained his muscles, and squinted terribly. He heard the faint buzz of the bumble bee and it seemed to grow in volume until his ears were ringing. With a supreme effort he clasped his hands over his ears and closed his eye tightly.
“Something is wrong with that boy,” proclaimed Aunt Elmira in a icy voice. “He never did act just right. Kind of a puny thing too. Better watch him. He could cause a lot of trouble if he isn’t dealt with firmly.”
“There is nothing wrong with Mart,” said Mother coolly.
“Well,” announced Aunt Elmira, “if there is nothing wrong with him, why don’t he act right? Why does he scream to leave when his poor old Uncle Andrew, who was so good to him, is a lyin’ right in that there grave hardly cold yet? A boy that don’t have no respect for the dead – a relative at that – certainly ain’t all there if you know what I mean?” She tapped her head significantly with her forefinger. “
Of course things like that runs in some families. Andrew there,” she indicated with a dip of her thumb, “he never did always act like a person who was just right. He drank considerable though and never did keep regular hours.”
“There was nothing wrong with Andrew’s mind,” said Father. “Andrew was a good man; he was honest; he was sincere; and he …”
“Did he help build the church?” interrupted Aunt Elmira.
“Did he help with the revival meetings?”
“Did he gamble?”
“Did he drink?”
“Did he smoke?”
“Did he swear?”
Did he call Reverend Stormwell a pompous ass?”
“And he went to hell!” Elmira shouted. “He sinned and he went to hell!” She shook the flowers in Father’s face.
“No, he didn’t,” replied Father calmly.
“Are you calling Reverend Stormwell a liar?”
“No, but he may be a little confused.”
“I guess,” countered Elmira in a less hysterical tone, “you don’t know much about Reverend Stormwell because you don’t know much about religion.”
Aunt Elmira began to explain religion to Father: “It’s like this. There are two kinds of people in this world. There are people who do good work, and act right, and build churches, and stuff like that. Then there are sinners. Sinners are people who drink, and smoke, and swear, and gamble, and don’t act right, and make fun of people who do. Now, it’s up to religious people like me to help them that don’t know the Lord, so they can be redeemed and go to heaven. That’s what religion is. You either have religion or you don’t. I’ve got it, and Andrew never did get it, and now he never will. I tried to save him all his life, and now it’s too late!” She threw the flowers violently upon the grave.
She wept bitterly again. And as Mart watched wonderingly, several large tears dripped onto her black oxfords, mingled with the drying manure, and ran down to dampened the loose sand of her husband’s grave.