And Joab sent to Tekoah, and fetched thence a wise woman, and said unto her, "I pray thee, feign thyself to be a mourner, and put on now mourning apparel, and anoint not thyself with oil, but be as a woman that had a long time mourned for the dead."
II Samuel 14:2
The chapel started to grow warmer, as if the crematorium lay below the floor and the heat was beginning to seep through the fibers of the carpet. I was getting nerves. It was show-time.
The black-haired preacher paused after he read scripture, lost in his notes “And now I’d like to invite Sammy Goodman, a good friend of Brad’s, to lead us in song.”
Truth was, I never knew Brad Cox. I hadn’t seen his face in person until that day in an eastern Kentucky funeral home. The past couple nights I had spent scrolling through his Facebook page and soaking up every word he ever wrote, and anything directed back at him. He was a real piece of work. In the eighties he had too much to drink before he got behind the wheel of his pickup with his wife. A collision with a tree took the lady’s life. The community turned on him, yet he never left. There might have been three teeth behind that sorry mouth of his that had insulted everyone in some small place in the mountains called Quicksand. Now that he had passed, his daughter wanted to make the ceremony inspire some sense of mourning, which was where I would come in.
My real name doesn’t matter, but at this funeral my name was Sammy Goodman. A talented musician who had befriended Brad in his later years of bitterness and alcoholism. In a twisted way, I was made to play that part. I had played the charismatic villain in quite a few murder mysteries in the nineties at the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville. It got cut short when the drugs and whiskey got the best of me. I hadn’t really been clean since, and eventually my parents decided that they were tired of their goodwill being taken advantage of and cut contact. It was always hard for me to come by friends, it might have been different if I’d made it to Broadway or something, but I still lived in small-town Appalachia. I’d kept in contact with an actor buddy that let me know of the work she had done between jobs. She posted advertisements online that she would help families mourn at funerals by playing the part of an old friend of the deceased. I followed her advice once the final nail had been put in my acting career and posted ads of my own on Craigslist.
NEED HELP MOURNING?
Allow me to help your family and friends make peace with the loss of someone dear to you. I am a professional who can assist your family by attending ceremonies, singing hymns, and grieving alongside your loved ones. When you are ready to give your loved one a meaningful and emotional goodbye, give me a call.
There’s not a body in all of Kentucky that would have guessed how many phone calls that one got me. I only took the high-paying gigs -- at least a hundred-fifty an hour. Diane Cox was the third call that I agreed to. She was the forty-year-old daughter of Brad who had enough brains to move out to Lexington instead of anywhere in a stones-throw from her father.
She spoke with quick sentences on the phone. “The only thing that could have brought me back to his sorry-ass was his dyin’.”
At the time, she was headed back to Quicksand to sort through his things that had piled on his front porch while his house stayed empty. She had called me just after she’d arranged the funeral, since she had no idea if there was a soul that would take enough pity to attend it. Certainly there was not a gentleman or lady who would show any kind of sadness for the loss of this monster: so she bought one.
The pastor stepped back and craned his neck down to stare blankly at his polished black loafers. I stepped up to the podium teary-eyed and cleared my throat. “I’d like us all to sing one of Brad’s favorite hymns, Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
I pictured myself center-stage at the Grand Ole Opry as I began to sing the gospel unaccompanied by anything but the hum of the brightly lit Coca-Cola machine in the back corner of the room. There I led my imaginary choir in another round of “In the sky, Lord, in the sky” except I was standing in in front of “Chapel C” in the Hill Funeral Home. It was barren in there with no flowers for Brad or any framed pictures of him. It looked more like a hospital cafeteria with a casket at the front of the room with tables replaced by stiff wooden pews.
Looking out at my audience and choir, I had counted about ten faces. Nobody had stood for the hymn, and certainly no one had sung. The attendees had a glazed numbness that hung from their faces, like extras in a movie with no purpose other than to be. I had doubt in my mind that any of these people actually believed I had befriended a wretch like Brad Cox, with my face no older than thirty or forty years. It was possible that I would get caught in a lie. After all, it’s easy when I haven’t really been there for the small talk with Brad on cloudy days and haven’t seen his anger when the night would come and leave him alone again. The past couple funerals went smooth, but at some point, I was bound to run into a problem.
With fragility, I sat back down and mimicked the slouched position of an old man across the aisle. The preacher had begun to repeat platitudes like “This isn’t an ending, but a new beginning” and droned on about how the funeral was really a “celebration of life.” Working funerals as a preacher seemed like a breeze compared to my job. I had to learn the part, study the dead, and improvise throughout the event. It was comedy, really. The preacher prepares his routine and works it over with the crowd each night, then he introduces a guest on-stage who has nothing but their sense of improv to navigate it in a new way. The preacher had an uneasy attitude about him that made me wonder if he’d ever done this before. He was a young son of a Southern Baptist, accustomed to short sermons so the congregation could make it in time to their Sunday dinners. Diane might be paying the preacher man less than me in honorarium, then again, she may have had to give a little extra if all the local preachers refused.
One of the funeral home workers walked up the aisle on my left and stretched his arm out beside me, motioning me to be the first in line to give condolences to Diane and inspect the body of Brad one last time. I led the line to Diane, who was wearing what looked like a derby hat without the color and with some dark fishnet fabric bundled at the top like a bird’s nest. She looked up at me and placed her gloved hand over mine, sniffling, “Thank you for coming, Sammy.” She stood up and I reached out to hug her tight in front of our small crowd. My hands wrapped around her back and rested on her shoulder blades. There was padding beneath her jacket that crinkled as she shook, crying. I pictured the ending of Where the Red Fern Grows and cried on her shoulder for what felt like a couple hours with the sound of that Coke machine purring. I couldn’t quite tell if Diane was crying her crocodile tears, or the death of her father had actually evoked some kind of sympathy. It might have been regret for the way things turned out for Brad, maybe even regret that I had been hired for the occasion. All I knew was at some point in the embrace, I didn’t have to imagine anything to keep the tears flowing.
When she pulled away, I situated myself and looked out the door that had opened behind me, with warm sunlight and the scent of fresh-cut grass pouring in. The light had just stopped short of the casket, which I approached and once again I shed tears as I looked upon the face of Brad. I felt the preacher approach me from behind and he began patting my back and grabbing my shoulder reassuringly. Surely if my bit worked on anyone, it had been the man of God. The corpse’s cheeks were caked in powder and something about his lips seemed as if they were about to whisper a threat. I didn’t want to hear it. I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my suit jacket, thanked the preacher, and headed for the door.
The reception was to be in a building adjacent to, but still a part of, the Hill Funeral Home. There was a concrete path laid out between the two buildings which I followed to a wooden door propped open with a stone the size of a fist. I could have sworn that I’d just walked back into the room where Brad lay, the atmosphere was getting to me. I felt like plastic. The nerves were back. I’d felt nothing like it from my time on the stage. As the few attendees strolled in to pick up finger-foods and a solo cup for soda, it was unbearable. I hadn’t been caught. These people may have thought I was trying to pull one on Diane for some inheritance, but nobody said anything.
I walked back out the door, searching my pockets for a lighter for my cigarette that hung loose from my lips. Diane came out the chapel door and made her way over to me, watching her feet.
“Anything wrong, hun?” Her voice was like porcelain, I took it that those tears had been real in front of the casket.
“I guess I’m just wondering if Brad was ever a decent man.” I said. She cocked her head, then turned to look out to the parking lot.
“It’s hard to say. He had a bad childhood, but my momma must’ve thought something of him.”
I nodded and lit the cigarette. Diane waited beside me.
“You don’t have to stay any longer, y’know. I really do appreciate you coming.” She put out a gloved hand. “Here.” She held a check folded small as a pack of matchsticks.
I slipped the check into the pocket of my slacks and walked towards my little beat-up Impala. As the engine turned, those unbearable thoughts came running back. If my car were to run off into some deep holler and leave my corpse limp, I’d not be much different from Brad Cox. The only person that would stand in line and give my face a good once-over in the casket would have to be paid a hundred-fifty an hour. There’s little pity for the prideful man who denies help as his boat sinks.
I might have imagined the way Billy felt burying his pups in Where the Red Fern Grows to muster up the tears inside of Chapel C, but more tears were born from the thought of myself sorry as a dog - being buried on the hill with no one to see. It occurred to me that my performance today at the Hill Funeral Home couldn’t have been too convincing, considering how I’d left. But I had to leave. The hum of that old Coke machine was too damn loud.
-Michael Cole Allen