By Jessica Nettles
Lily stood at the weathered wooden door of what had been Marvis-Dorna funeral parlor back in the day. She smoothed the skirt of her black dress and adjusted her hat and veil with her gloved hands. The dress was uncomfortable and hot, not one you’d wear on a late spring afternoon in Alabama, but it was the only one she owned. Had Mary Kat, her daughter, still been with her, she’d have teased Lily about clinging to traditions that no longer mattered to anyone else in town. She wore the dress, hat, and veil to assure herself that she was respecting Edwin like a good Southern wife would. Rules may have changed when folks started going off, but that didn’t mean she had to.
A tear rolled down one cheek, and she reached into her small black purse and pulled out one of Edwin’s handkerchiefs she’d nabbed before she left to make this final step in the ritual of the dead. Her family had always said she was a bit cold, but that wasn’t true. After people started going off, grief was something that just held her back from helping others, so she shut it away altogether. Can’t be strong if you’re a blubbering mess. Loving Edwin meant being strong once again. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and knocked. The door opened.
“Ah, Miss Lily, come right on in, we’ve been expecting you,” said The Coroner. He was wearing an immaculate black suit with a matching black tie, as was the custom. His hair was slicked back like an old-time Baptist preacher’s.
The Coroner took her arm and led her to an office, which was fine by her since her arthritis was acting up something fierce since Edwin’s fall in the kitchen only an hour or so before. Even though she’d taken one of her pills, her hips and feet were aching. She sat down in a floral wing chair while he moved behind his polished teak desk.
“Would you care for some coffee or tea?” he asked with a gentle smile.
“Iced tea? Oh, I’d sure like some,” she answered.
The Coroner rang a tiny silver bell. A girl in a clean apron and a black dress brought in a tray holding a sweating tea pitcher decorated with blue and purple mophead hydrangeas like the ones in full bloom by Lily’s porch and two tall glasses filled with ice cubes. She smelled of gardenia and walked with a small shuffle. Lily studied the girl’s pockmarked face. The last of the children went off last year after a wicked wave of chicken pox, a disease once eradicated. Was that the Dickerson girl? Maybe not.
The ice clinked in the glasses as The Coroner stood, took the tray from the girl, and nodded for her to leave. She hissed softly through her bared teeth as she stood, hands still extended. The Coroner snapped his fingers right at her nose, and her hiss stopped short.
“You may leave now, Rose,” he said.
Rose Dickerson. I was right, thought Lily. She remembered when the family had Rose in lockdown before the little thing had gone off. The girl was the last of the chicken pox group. Folk were chattering for weeks after, saying that maybe whatever caused the going off was moving on. Lily had almost believed this was a possibility, and then a whole cluster of folk who lived by the depot at the edge of The Community, went off on Saturday afternoon for no good reason.
The girl’s pox-scarred arms dropped to her sides. She walked right into the doorframe, backed up and did it again. The Coroner set the tray on a serving table next to Lily’s seat. He approached the girl from behind and set her in front of the door, patting her back as she exited.
“Rose is still … in training,” he said, approaching Lily, who fidgeted with her hat, trying not to stare. “Shall I pour?”
“Please,” Lily replied, charmed that she could hear music in the background. It was a song from back in the day, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. Canned music was a luxury these days.
She took the cool glass of tea and sipped it, pleased that The Coroner took his duties seriously. She considered what she’d written in his job description after his role was deemed necessary in the changing environment.
“Civility is a skill The Coroner must have since he will deal with the citizens of The Community daily.”
Not only had this particular Coroner been civil, but he’d also proved to be proactive in ways they’d not dreamed of three years ago. He brought changes that, at least in her observations, had made The Community a better place for everyone, including the Gone-Off. As she sipped iced tea, which was perfect in the teeth-cracking way tea was at Homecoming dinners when preachers were still sent here and church was still a thing, The Coroner sat back down, folded his hands, and smiled at her.
“My Edwin. He passed earlier, but he ain’t gone off yet,” Lily said. “I’m sure you know that.” She knew what he was going to say but felt like she needed to speak the words anyway.
Edwin hadn’t ever liked the way this was done, but she’d told him it was the best they could manage considering the way things had gone, and it was better than folks doing things that would worsen their predicament. He’d voted against the changes suggested by The Coroner after he was hired, but she’d stood with The Council, especially since she was the head at the time. That one thing had become the one bone of contention between her and Edwin till an hour or so ago. As much as she knew that what The Coroner did was the best thing for all involved, for some reason losing Edwin was harder than she’d dreamed it would be.
The Coroner frowned and said, “We can’t take him if … “
She hung her head and said in a whisper, “If he ain’t gone off.” She took a sip of the iced tea, letting it run down her throat. Then she asked, “What if he didn’t want you takin’ him?” She knew she’d gone off script now but didn’t much care what The Coroner thought about that. She knew what he’d say. It was law.
“Mrs. Smith, you of all people should understand how this works.”
She nodded, and said, “But he never wanted all this.”
“None of us did, Lily,” responded The Coroner. In another time, folk might think he was one of those Baptist evangelists who did tent revivals in August.
He moved from behind the large, shiny desk and pulled a chair up next to her. Then he took her hand in his own. Even through her gloves, his hands were like ice and made her own hands ache the way the cold from Edwin’s body had when she’d moved him earlier.
“You and The Council wrote the rules for a reason. Making exceptions wouldn’t serve The Community,” he said.
She pulled her hands away, rubbing them.
“Can’t I keep him at the house? I need the help. We got no kin left to help. He won’t be any trouble, I promise,” she asked.
“The entire community needs him. Keeping him home is selfish, Miss Lily,” he said.
The grief she’d packed away over the last three years, flushed over her and took her off guard. This wasn’t the first going off she’d attended to, but of all of them, this was the worst. She started gasping and tears flowed down her cheeks. She was losing Edwin twice. She’d been able to manage herself better when Mary Kat went off by pretending her girl had gone off to Auburn for school again. This time, pretending wasn’t an option and besides, Edwin deserved to have his wishes respected after all he’d had to accept the last few years. She dabbed her wet cheeks with Edwin’s monogrammed handkerchief as she fought to regain some self-control.
“I just want to give him some dignity,” she whispered.
“And he will be treated with the utmost in dignity just like your Mary Kat and all the rest. He’ll be of service to The Community, just like he’s always been.”
“So if something … like a tooth or somethin’ falls off while you’re workin’ on my Edwin, could you save it for me?” she asked.
He shook his head but snickered. “No, ma’am. Unfortunately, you know we cannot allow keepsakes.”
Lily nodded and took one last sip of tea, which soothed her. Business concluded, The Coroner stood. As he guided her to the door, he picked up the tablet off his desk. Lily could see the screen, which was filled small photographs of members of The Community. Lily could see Edwin’s photo flashing red.
The Coroner tapped his tablet and said, “I can see that you locked Edwin down. That’s excellent. Now, you just go on home. You wouldn’t want to miss the grand event.”
She looked up at him and said, “Edwin won’t be hurt?”
Lily saw little comfort in this promise. The Coroner guided her by the elbow to the front door and bid his goodbye as she stepped out. The sky faded from fuchsia to deep azure dotted with pale clouds as she walked down the as-of-yet unlit street back to her house. By this time, she and Edwin would have had supper and been sitting outside on the porch, watching the sunset. It was one of her favorite times of the day because they would sip the last of the tea from supper, have dessert, and talk about the day. Or they would reminisce about the days before the wall when they could go to the movies or go to the famous fish fries at Screamer Church nearby. Sometimes Edwin would sing hymns with her, and the neighbors would come and sing too. After the wall, the hymn singing happened less and less, as they seemed pointless to most of their friends. Edwin would still sing them once in a while, especially at sunset. Now Lily wasn’t sure she could handle a sunset without his growly voice.
As she passed her neighbors’ houses, she could see some of them eating supper at picnic tables in their back yards. It was cooler to eat outside this time of year, especially for those without air conditioning. A few sat out on the porch and waved as she got closer to her own home. Now that they’d seen her in the black dress, it wouldn’t be long till everyone knew one of the elders had passed. She imagined that some of the men would be taking bets on when Edwin would go off even before she began eating her own supper.
The house was quiet and shadowy when she unlocked the door. She was used to Edwin listening to the local radio reports in the evenings before supper, so the silence emphasized the emptiness of the house, which echoed through her. As she walked by the radio, she turned it on. The warm light of the console chased away the darkness spreading through the living room, and the voice of Chuck Landers from down by Screamer filled the air as he reported the safest parts of the lake to fish. At least she could pretend that Edwin was with her for now.
Lavender-scented Pine Sol made the entire house smell like Friday cleaning day even though it was only Tuesday and she’d only scrubbed the kitchen floor and counter where Edwin had fallen hours before. She touched the yellowing page touting the rules of The Community posted on the pantry door and thanked the Great Whosit that she’d done her best to follow the law. She also gave thanks that Edwin hadn’t gone off and tried to take a hunk out of her arm – something The Coroner would fix – while she bathed his body to prep him for the lockdown room.
The law was for the best, but right now she hated every part of it. Edwin was right when he voted against this new order, and she knew, if he could, he’d be shaking his head and saying he told her so. He’d also tell her she’d done her best and that he couldn’t criticize that.
She remembered how deaths were handled before the wall was put up and The Coroner came to town. Sometimes caskets would be open so that everyone could take a last look at the deceased, all made up, dressed up, serene in his or her repose. They’d be surrounded by family, friends, onlookers, and a mountain of flowers in all shapes and forms. People would bring food to the family of the deceased, sit around and tell stories after gathering at the church to tell everyone how wonderful the person who passed had been in life. She tried to remember the last one of these affairs she’d attended. Jo-Jo Walsh. It had been a quiet affair at the funeral home where The Coroner now lived. Quiet until Jo-Jo sat up and bit Reverend Jackson as he stood for the benediction.
After that, funerals weren’t considered exactly practical by The Community. Death could no longer be a sentimental moment. As she ate her supper and listened to Mimi Landers, Chuck’s wife and co-owner of WSCR, talk about the latest murder at the Screamer Hardees, she mourned those days as much as Edwin’s passing. After she joined The Committee, she had to be strong. No more weeping. The Coroner was right. Her request to keep any part of her husband from The Community was selfish and so was any sentimentality she may feel about Edwin’s death.
She had no time or option to go to pieces or sit with friends and remember Edwin’s kindness and the happy moments they’d shared over the last fifty years. Instead, her memories of his last moments would include how she grumbled as she dragged his death-weighted body from the tub to the lock down room, knowing that if he went off, she’d be gone too.
When people started going off after they died, the living had to take steps to take care of them before the town suffered the fate of other nearby towns. At first, Lily remembered voting to turn people out on the far side of the lake in what used to be Comer. The Council figured that they could keep them out of town with one of those invisible electric fences till they could figure out how to control things better.
That didn’t work. Electric fences worked for dogs and horses, but not for those gone off.
The dead returned home. Once that happened, there was an emergency vote. The Council got all the men together and they first built the wall around town The Community. Then they required lock-down rooms in every home. There were gatherings to help build the lock-down rooms each weekend all that first year or so. The ladies would put out a spread of food at the community center and the menfolk would work till they connected the room to the grid at what was the funeral home.
She could see part of the high metal wall from her light green porch glider, where she sipped on a glass of sweet tea and watched the moon begin to rise and cast a silver glint on the pines on the other side of the fence. A slight breeze blew, and she heard the rustling of her pink and blue hydrangea, which was in full bloom. The delicate scent of sweet olive wafted past, and Lily breathed it in. At least some things were evergreen, she thought to herself.
In the gloaming, Lily could see her oldest friend, Mary-Walton, wearing her cat-eye glasses, which glinted silver-purple in the brightening moonlight. Her curly silver hair made her look like she had a halo around her head.
“I brought y’all a pie,” she called to Lily.
“Mary-Walton, he’s passed,” Lily said.
Her friend paused halfway up the walk. “Oh my Lord, Lily! You shoulda called me! Has he Gone-Off yet?”
“Not yet,” Lily said.
Setting the pie down on the porch rail, Mary-Walton joined Lily on the glider. She pushed her foot forward to start a little rocking movement. Lily smiled at the comfort it brought her but said nothing because there was nothing to be said. Her friend understood, and they sat together for a spell. One street light fluttered at the corner down by Mary-Walton’s house, and the radio had gone fuzzy in the background. A white truck marked with a large blue C rolled by. The back of the truck was filled with hoes and baskets of ripe tomatoes. Fred Whitmore, one of the Community farmers, waved from the driver’s seat. There was groaning coming from the trailer it pulled behind it. Both women waved at Fred because that was part of porch sitting and it was just plain polite.
“Edwin’s going to a better place, Lil’,” Mary-Walton said.
“I want to believe that,” Lily said. A tear rolled down her cheek. Her friend looked surprised but pulled out a tissue from her flour-powdered apron.
“It’s better than turning him loose,” she said.
Lily patted Mary-Walton’s hand and said, “You mean turning him out.”
“You wouldn’t want him comin’ back after you.”
“He said to me that he didn’t want to go this way. Ain’t his wants important?” said Lily.
Mary-Walton frowned and said, “You wrote the laws, you know.”
Lily nodded. She’d wrote the rules with The Council. They’d all thought this would be over after a spell. The laws were meant to take care of everyone, even those who’d gone off.
“If there weren’t laws, we’d have to shoot ‘em all. You coulda shot him instead.”
“Yes. I could have,” said Lily.
When the Coroner offered to upcycle the gone-over, The Council immediately voted and approved the motion. No one discussed how he would do this because the idea would serve The Community in a positive way and keep people from having to shoot their kin.
The green light next to the kitchen door began to flash. Lily looked over at Mary-Walton.
“Well, I guess it’s time.”
“Well, I guess it is.”
After just a few minutes, a white panel van bearing the familiar blue C arrived. Two men got out. One had a noose stick, and the other wore a shoulder holster.
Both said, “Evenin’, Mrs. Smith.”
“Mighty fine evening, Phillip,” she said.
“Mighty fine, Mrs. Smith,” the brawny man replied.
“You okay, Mrs. Smith?” asked his partner Darrell Grover, who was younger and blond. Lily remembered dragging the boy to his mama after Sunday school the day he said a word she wouldn’t repeat to Angie Daniels. Any other time, she’d ask how his mama was.
She nodded. Mary-Walton put her arm around Lily’s shoulders. The men entered the house. Lily could hear one of them unlock the metal door. All Pallbearers had master keys for Lock Downs. She heard loud snarling and she heard someone say, “Whoa there!” Then there was a scuffle. Soon the young man led Edwin out onto the porch. Gone-Off Edwin turned his head and snarled at Lily, reaching toward her. His face was gray.
Mary-Walton snatched her away quickly.
The second man came out of the house, and quickly put a snub-nosed shooter at Edwin’s back. There was a thwip followed by a grooooan.
“Dammit, Darrell! You weren’t supposed to bring him out here without the hood!” he yelled.
“Sorry, Phillip,” said Darrell.
Lily couldn’t stop staring. That…thing…wasn’t…couldn’t be…no…not Edwin…not…
“Mrs. Smith…” said Phillip.
“I’m…I’m fine. What—” said Lily. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen someone gone off, but this was different. It was her Edwin.
“He’s going to a better place, Lil’,” said Mary-Walton.
“There is no better place than The Farm,” said Phillip.
Edwin had become placid, his snarl replaced with a blank stare that went right through Lily.
Philip looked at Lily, tipped his hat, and stepped off the porch. Young Darrell led the slow-moving Edwin to the van, where he was loaded in the back. Phillip drove the van into the gloaming as Lily stood and watched silently. Mary stood with her.
“Mary, I think I’d like some pie about now,” said Lily.