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Never Met a Stranger: Wenceslaus at rest

By T.W. Burger

(Some details changed to avoid getting beat up or sued.)

It was winter in the Deep South, which often meant two young men like me and my buddy Jubal could sit in our short-sleeved shirts on the front porch of the Digges’ Funeral Home.

The Home was housed in a beautiful old three-story house built a few years after the Civil War. Some said it was haunted, of course, but I never really saw anything.

Don’t get me wrong; winters in what used to be called “Dixie” could get plenty nasty. Generally, an ugly winter day had temps in the mid-to-upper 30s, with rain and wind. A few hours out in it and you would swear that you would never get warm and dry again.

But this was one of those good warm evenings. Even with an intermittent breeze, our shirts were warm enough. We sat in rockers, working them so that the wide wooden porch rumbled like thunder. We chain-smoked, and Jubal, a member of the school chorus, sang Good King Wenceslaus in his big tenor.

It was nowhere near Christmas; he sang it at every opportunity.

His joyful singing rang off the downtown buildings just over the hill, it was that quiet.

I tried singing along, but my voice sounded like a frog’s croaking compared to Jubal’s, so I simply rocked along, smoking and enjoying myself.

We were in our late teens, and, of course, figured we would live forever. So, working at a funeral home barely bothered us. We found it vaguely amusing most of the time.

It was often exciting. Way back then it was traditional in that part of the country that funeral homes would provide ambulance services. Each home competed with the others to get to traffic accidents and such, so it could get hectic. As far as I know, none of us had any training, which meant that if you were still alive when we got you to the ER, it meant that God wasn’t ready for you yet; it wasn’t because of any skill of ours.

Jubal, like his voice, was big, and prone to fidget. Possessed of a kind of nervous energy, he seemed always in motion. He had a temper, and I believe he would rather fight than do most anything else, but we got along well.

It was late, around midnight, in the middle of the week, and things had been slow enough that evening so that we were both wishing something would happen. We knew that if we were busy, somebody else was having a very bad day, but we were young.

As I said, it was very quiet, in town and on the streets, the skies overcast and dark. During a pause in his caroling, Jubal stopped abruptly and asked: “What’s that?”

We heard what sounded like the shuffling of feet, and an unhappy mumbling.

Youth or not, odd sounds in the middle of the night at a funeral home are unsettling.

We sat still, the blue-gray smoke from our cigarettes curling uneasily into the fretful air.

We made out a figure on the darkened sidewalk, moving unevenly, swaying from one side of the concrete path to the other, sometimes stopping, then moving on.

The shadow came to the big Digges sign that marked the walkway to the porch where we sat.

The figure turned toward us.

We had no clients at rest in the viewing rooms, so it was not a late mourner.

The figure lurched closer unevenly, as a dark cloud might be tugged and pushed by the wind. A stray zephyr wafted from the strange figure directly to us.

“Well,” said Jubal, taking a drag off his Winston, “he don’t smell too good.”

We were used to bad smells, but this fellow was an over-achiever.

The man stopped, finally illuminated by the porch lights. He was a mess.

He seemed alive all right, though his body odor still left that in question.

He wore an old fedora and a suit that might have been fashionable two decades earlier. The suit had an unhealthy shine to it. He wore a necktie bearing an archaeological record of many of his meals over what seemed a long period of time. It, too, had a sheen.

It was clear he had had a skinful.

The ruined landscape of his face hinted that such was not a rare occurrence.

“Good evening, sir,” said Jubal, in his best funerary piety, his red eyebrows arched grandly.

“Gentlemen, I am tired,” the man said, his voice a soggy rasp. “Tired of this life and every sorry thing in it,”

I just nodded, not knowing how to respond.

“I see,” said Jubal, in his most buttery voice.

The man made his best attempt to stand at attention. All things considered, he did well.

“You people buried my daddy and my mama, and my baby sister who was stillborn. You all did a real good job.”

Finally finding words, I thanked him for his kind words.

“I’m ready to go now,” he said calmly. “I want y’all to fix me up and make me look good.”

I opened my mouth, but no useful sounds stumbled out. He looked very earnest.

Jubal, however, seemed not rattled at all.

“Why, certainly, sir,” he said, rising from his rocker and towering over the fellow. “Let me and my assistant help you up the stairs and we’ll get right on it.”

“Assistant?” I thought. But then, I had bigger fish to fry. I had a strong feeling that embalming somebody who still walked, however unevenly, among the living, could get us in a lot of hot water. I whispered my concerns to Jubal, who was obviously having a great time.

“You let me worry about that,” he said, with a frightening sureness.

We helped the fellow up the stairs and into the grand hallway of the home. In the enclosed space, he smelled even worse. Even Jubal’s eyes were watering.

Figuring I was in it anyway, I joined Jubal in reassuring the guy that he was going to be fixed up nice. In fact, we had a Winter Special going on, and he would be proud of what a spectacle he would provide for friends and family.

“I ain’t got none of them,” he slurred morosely.

We kept scooting him along the fine, picture-hung hallway to the back of the structure and took a hard left into the embalming room.

It was a startling change. The room was maybe nine by 12 feet, an odd mix of linoleum, dark wood, and stainless steel.

The embalming table, a gleaming slab with a drain at one end, stood atop a rotating pedestal. Several pumps with big glass tanks affixed to their tops stood ready in various corners. A couple of wall cabinets stood open, festooned with trocars, assorted small gadgets used in the various processes of the art, and a handful of saws and ecstatically sharp scalpels.

Bill – he had finally revealed his name, it case we needed it for paperwork – stood looking around the room, I thought a little uneasily. It was not, I would have to confess, a good room in which to be drunk.

“Here, let’s help you get up on the table here, so we can get started,” Jubal said, helpfully.

The three of us got him situated. I have to say, it was the first time somebody had helped me get themselves on the embalming table.

We laid him out and put the red rubber block under his neck to keep his head at the right angle, straightened his legs, and crossed his hands on his lap. Bill, who had kept of a steady mutter of his unworthiness, began to quiet down.

I was beginning to worry again. I mean, there was a point at which we were going to have to bring this charade to a close. Jubal kept winking at me, as if to say: “don’t fret.”

I pulled the worktable over and started laying out the scariest-looking instruments I could find, holding the sharp and pointy ones up to the light to admire them. I do have my melodramatic side.

Bill’s eyes, ever more protuberant, followed every move.

I should mention that, in addition to all the grim scenery in the chilly room, a stainless-steel embalming table is terrifically cold to the touch. Not that we had had any complaints.

In what must be a record for watching somebody sober up, I saw Bill’s eyes stop wandering around the room and focus completely on the wicked-looking tool I held in my hand and the calm, friendly face I still managed to wear.

“I’ll be god***ed,” he said, very clearly and with fervid passion.

In the smoothest movement we had yet seen from him, he swung his left leg up and over and landed flat-footed on the linoleum floor. I swear his shoes squealed and he launched himself out the door and down the hall.

Jubal and I exchanged alarmed glances. We just realized that had we not only not figured out an end game, other than the felonious one, but we had not counted on Bill punctuating the evening’s entertainment by skipping out without so much as a “See y’all.”

By the time Jubal and I reached the hallway, the big front doors were closing in Bill’s wake.

Gasping and wheezing, we ran out those doors and to the street, and looked up and down. No Bill. Nowhere, No how.

In fact, we never heard anything, not from the police, (which we expected,) or from Bill, (which we did not.) In the following couple of weeks, both of us in our daily routines scanned the faces of all and sundry, but no Bill.

All these years later, I keep an uneasy eye on the obituaries. I mean, he cannot put it off forever.

I am not in the funeral business any longer, nor is Jubal as far as I know. I wonder if he still likes to sing Good King Wenceslaus into the thick darkness of a winter night. As for me, I still cannot sing, and I no longer rock on the deck on dark nights.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

President of Marsh Creek Media, he has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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Apr 09, 2021

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