The year before I started school and entered the Dick, Jane, and Sally world of homogenized white bread, I didn’t know that every family wasn’t as weird as ours — though perhaps those long Sunday trips to Rembert to see Tante, my father’s aunt, should have clued me in. Contained within our Ford station wagon, we steeped in the mix of my father’s cheap cigar smoke and my sister BJ’s Jungle Gardenia perfume and my parents’ ongoing battle over whose side of the family hosted more certifiably insane people.
Exhibit A for Mama’s side of the argument was always Tante, with her antebellum home with peeling paint and crumbling structure. (It never occurred to me at the time that “Tante” had not been her given name. It was only years later that I learned “tante” is the generic Dutch and French word for “aunt.”) Tante never ventured out onto her wrapped porch to see the light of day. Instead, the world came to her — from the bushel basket of books the library sent her each month, to the bootlegger’s whiskey delivery every other week, to the bewildered grocery boy’s regular deliveries.
The month before this Sunday trip, Tante had called Mama, all excited about a book she read: The American Way of Death, by Jessica Mitford. The author had produced an exposé on the funeral industry, which, as Mitford put it, took advantage of people at their worst moments in order to sell them expensive coffins they really couldn’t afford. Tante, who had had part of her tongue removed from mouth cancer after smoking millions of cigarettes, grew incensed and lisped, “Tharah, we all need to buy caskets now. I called a local company and the man thaid he would thell them in bulk if we all ordered now.”
For some strange reason, Mama, nor any of the other few relatives Tante called, wanted to hop on the death bandwagon. But Tante’s caskets-for-all plan gave her ample ammunition for this hour-long drive. “So Charley, did you want me to pre-order death-in-a-box for you?”
My father chomped down on his cigar, unwilling to give Mama an inch. His pet name for her was “Terrible Diabolical Awful Snapdragon.” Knowing how much she hated smoke, he exhaled a big gust in her direction and stewed for the rest of the trip. (He was a master of passive aggression. For example, he had named our black lab “Satan,” so that on Sundays, when the rest of the family attended the next-door Methodist Church, he would call Satan’s name from our backyard loudly enough to be heard on summer days when the back of the sanctuary was open to relieve the heat.)
When we got to Tante’s, we walked onto the sagging, paint-flaked gray wraparound porch. Daddy turned the hand-crank door ringer, and Tante answered — cigarette between yellowed fingers, her dog Pie by her feet. Naming her Cocker Spaniel after a dessert didn’t seem stranger than anything else about Tante, though later we learned the name was in fact “Pi,” after the Greek letter for that ancient Babylonian calculation for a circle’s circumference.
“Come on in, Charley, Tharah, girthz.” In her customary housecoat, Tante looked like Golda Meir with intelligent-looking eyes and a face road-mapped with deep interstate and secondary routes etched in colliding trails. She shared my father’s disdain for church attendance, though she had designed the parish house for the Church of the Ascension.
Tante led Mama and Daddy back to the one room of the old mansion where she lived, and we followed. In the room, piles of books and magazines rose above the chair rail. Mama and Daddy brushed dog hair off an old gold couch as I looked at Tante’s desk, a mahogany antique I coveted even at age six. Papers, pens, magazines, books, and a mountain of spent matches and dead cigarette butts cascaded over the glass ashtray onto the hardwood floor. Tante wandered over to the bootleg stash to fix Mama and Daddy a drink while Mama motioned for us to go play somewhere else in the house. Obviously, Tante didn’t put much stock in children.
Often, the four of us girls would venture upstairs to explore the burial mounds of old National Geographic Magazines, an exhumation that forever welded for me the words naked and Aborigines. This time, however, we went back through to the parlor, a room dusty and darkened from thick curtains, perennially pulled shut. Once our eyes adjusted, we spotted it, there in the corner: A pine coffin — long and rectangular, square on one end and hexagonal (why not?) on the other.
Sally, who answered all siren calls of oddness, went over and opened the top. “Hey, look over here,” she said, motioning to the three of us still standing in the doorway.
Cami, the oldest of the four of us and the most conventional, muttered, “Shut that thing. Do you want Mama coming in here?” Sally foraged in the pink silk until she drew out rope and some kind of document.
BJ walked over. “What’s the rope for?”
“To tie the casket shut, I guess. But lookie here. Tante’s will,” Sally said as she drew the papers closer to read.
Cami lingered in the doorway, looking back at the study where smoke from both Tante’s cigarette and Daddy’s cigar both billowed like a foundry at full speed. Faint laughter filtered out as Cami drew closer, suddenly interested. “What did she write?”
“She’s leaving the house to Joe and some money to the church,” Sally said as she added, “That’s a joke, I didn’t think she ever darkened the door there.” Cami made a grab for the document. Sally moved it out of range and continued, “Hey, look at this section. If she dies, she wants to have Pie killed so that she can be buried with her.”
The real animal lover in the crowd, BJ shrieked. “You can’t kill Pie if Tante dies before her!” she wailed. She looked from one of our faces to another. “They wouldn’t really do that, would they? I mean, kill a healthy dog just because she doesn’t want to go heaven alone?”
“Heaven? Oh please,” Sally said. “Looks like she’s leaving Daddy some money, but I don’t think we rate anything.” She placed the will half-dangling off one of the dust-laden end tables, and hoisted a leg, minus penny loafers, into the casket, which balanced on the seats of two chairs.
At that moment, I heard that lilt in Mama’s voice generated by the first glass of moonshine. Tight-lipped Cami gave a sort of whisper scream,”What are you doing? Get out of there!” She charged toward Sally, who lunged the rest of the way into the coffin.
Mama’s voice edged up a notch, indicating she was moving closer to the door in the study. “I haven’t heard anything from the girls; I’m just going to poke my head in there to check on them.” Realizing she didn’t have time to yank Sally out of the box, Cami closed the lid, and motioned to BJ, who sort of hoisted me atop the pine box. They then scooted onto the couch, causing dust to rise. As Mama walked into the room, she furrowed her brow. “What are you all doing?” And then, in a sweeping view, “Where’s Sally?”
Noting Sally’s empty loafers, Cami tried to keep Mama talking, probably seeing, as we all did, her slightly flushed coloring, an indicator of moonshine rising. “You know Sally, she’s upstairs going over all the old magazines.”
Looking over to me, Mama started toward me, but Cami nudged BJ, who stood, grabbed me under the armpits, and lifted me down. “Why did you put Kiki up there?”
“School,” I said. We always played school on the steps going onto our front porch at home. When we got a question right, we advanced up one step.
BJ looked from me to Mama and said, “She hasn’t started school, so she only had one step.”
Mama eyed us all and said, “Don’t play with that casket. In fact, don’t touch that thing.” She then walked back to Daddy and Tante.
Cami crept out into the hallway so that she could hear Mama’s re-entering the conversation, then turned back to the casket. She opened the lid, hissing to Sally, “Get out the there!” She and BJ then began to pull Sally up. Their hoisting shifted the box’s precarious balance. Sally leapt out, hitting the end table, and we all righted the box before it could hit the ground and bring Mama back. Sally’s collision with the table knocked the will to the ground, and in our grappling with the box, somebody’s foot ripped it. Once we all heaved a collective sigh of relief, BJ looked down to see the will, now halved on the floor. I followed her eyes and said, “Uh oh.”
Cami summed up all our feelings when she exhaled, “Shit.”
Sally just looked down. “Just put it back in. No big deal.”
With clenched teeth, Cami replied, “Yes it is a big deal. If you tear, write on, or in any way deface a will, you invalidate it.”
“What are you suddenly, Perry Mason?” Sally responded.
Suddenly, BJ’s eyes got wider. “You mean because we tore the will, Pie won’t die?”
Cami glanced at BJ’s grin. Once again, Mama’s voice got louder, and we realized she was moving toward the door. Cami motioned, “Put it back together as closely as you can and close the lid.”
On the way back home, nobody talked much. Mama looked back at us suspiciously. “You left that coffin alone, right?”
On cue, Cami responded, “Who wants to mess with a coffin until you have to?”