"Heat"

Bernestine Singley © 1997


It was hot for more than one reason.

For one thing, it was the middle of July in the middle of the day and we were on our way to Uncle Alphonse's funeral.

For another thing, it was hot because Alma had chosen to throw down on a bunch of people for the entire week leading up to the funeral which she did not attend for reasons not associated with heat as I have previously spoken of it.

Even before Alphonse was good and dead, a whole lot of mess had already started. So, Alma stoked the fire of her own verbal furnace and bathed her friends and relatives with its hottest part. By funeral time, she had washed her hands of all of them.

Uncle Alphonse had been Alma's favorite brother; a sort of husband substitute; a sometime reminder of the son she briefly had. For her, Alphonse’s death closed the chapter on a trinity of losses.

That's why it was so hot long before the Saturday my husband and I pulled into town. That's also why my sister, older and wisely, decided to pass up this gathering.

"I gave him his flowers while he was living," she had said over the phone. "Not much point in coming to stare in his face now that he's lying up there too proud to speak."

But somebody had to be here to represent our branch of the family. Like wearing black and driving to the cemetery with your lights on, it is funeral protocol. So here I am.

I squeeze our car into a space at the tail end of the line of family cars and step out into a sea of relatives I haven't seen in years. I kiss and hug my way through them, right into the funeral parlor. For a moment, I feel like a starlet plowing through paparazzi just before an Emmy celebration. But, the suddenness of the funeral parlor chill reminds me that someone else is the star of this show.

It isn't hot anymore.

Somehow I end up sitting next to the one relative I have who deserves not to live. I should know. After all, daughter of Alma, steeped early and long in her tea of moral rectitude, I am supremely qualified to judge who should live, who should die.

Then, too, there is the fact that this particular relative did murder his young wife. By repeatedly stabbing her in the back as she lay sleeping. He thought she was going to kill him first. But she was black, and they were poor and this is North Carolina. So, now he's sitting next to me, clutching his 10-year old daughter, orphaned by her father's act of self-defense.

And, I am getting hot again.

On every pew, I see a lot of people who look like me, but I am not sufficiently versed in family history to know if they are kin or not. Even so, I do know that there were enough unholy and unnatural alliances all through these Carolina sand hills to make brothers and sisters the fathers and mothers of their nieces and nephews.

Uncle Alphonse was the closest thing to a father I had, though as I understand it, he was no father to his own kids. Like he told me last summer, he came home from work one day back in the '40s and fell asleep as usual. When he woke up, his family was gone. Those who claim to know, say they left for good reason.

I lean over and whisper to my relative the murderer, "Where is the one that cursed out Momma?" He reluctantly fingers the guilty party.

She is Uncle Alphonse’s granddaughter, a 1990 Marston College graduate, the object of Alma’s wrath only two nights before. It took four of my male cousins, all over six feet tall and all under thirty, to hold Alma back. Something they managed to do by lifting her just high enough to keep her feet from touching the ground and the Graduate.

"Dry up and die, you…you…you….” The Graduate had sputtered at Alma.

“You think we don't know you got Granddaddy's insurance policy stuck away somewhere? You…you…old witch!” she had screamed, having finally riffed the full range of her vocabulary keyboard.

No one was surprised that Alma, frail and 73, squared off against The Graduate, a woman 50 years Alma’s junior and more than thrice her size. Like shooting the one that shoots your chickens: It's what the situation required.

Now sitting only a few feet from Uncle Alphonse's casket, I can't decide if I should finish the job Alma started or if I should leave well enough alone. I am helped in this decision when The Graduate stands to sing a solo. She outweighs me by at least 200 pounds. I decide to leave well enough alone.

As it turns out, she can't sing. I relax on the pew.

I see Cousin Leora, regal and comfortably retired, in the crowd. She was sixteen that summer she finished chopping tobacco in the field and came upon her father beating her mother in the kitchen. Which he did with the regularity of eating supper, there being, perhaps, a connection between the two in his liquor-drenched mind.

So, Leora punched him out. One blow. Broke his jaw. Made him the laughing stock of his wife-beating friends and her a hero in my eyes. Not much later, she left home and moved in with us.

As any fool with one eye and half sense can see, heat is hard on the women in our family.

But today, we girl cousins find shelter beneath the lush shade trees bordering the cemetery. We stand close enough to see, but too far to hear, the final act of this death pageant. When everyone else closes their eyes for the benediction, I keep mine open, half expecting to see Uncle Alphonse flying down the road in his rose pink Eldorado, hand flipped in a wave, brim cocked just so on his impeccably groomed head.

"So, what happened?" I ask Alma the day after the funeral she did not attend and has not yet acknowledged. I want to hear her version of the story.

"They come down here sniffing around Alphonse like vultures circling carnage," she fumes.

"Where were they when he was dying in that hospital bed, asking for his children? Not a one of 'em ever showed their face. Now they're down here raising stink because they think there's money somewhere. If they'd known anything about Alphonse, they'd know everything he's got is going right down into the ground with him."

"Well, they might have been in that same place where he was when they were growing up," I say slowly and to no one in particular.

Alma’s eyes cut to me in an unmistakable warning and I move closer to the back door. The tiny kitchen is hot from the oven warming up our supper. A breeze barely moves the dish towel on the clothesline outside the door. It is clear that we have exhausted funereal musings for the day.

One day sits down on the next. It's been three days since Uncle Alphonse staked his eternal homestead. It is high noon again and we are driving past the cemetery.

The green awning still covers the mound of red dirt. My husband slows down the car under the scorching sun.

I flip down the sun visor and lean forward to adjust its mirror. I use it to find Alma in the back seat. Her head is ratcheted away from the cemetery. Her eyes nail mine straight through my sunglasses.

The graveyard slides out of view.

Suddenly, Alma's voice punches through the silence as she needlessly pats her hair into place.

"Y’all, stop up here at Grits 'n' Groceries for a minute. This heat had taken away every bit of my appetite. But now I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse."