Gloria Gompers’ first husband died from a stroke on the third day of their honeymoon. It was a terrible inconvenience for Gloria, having to bring his body back from Hawaii to New York so her husband’s parents could hold a funeral. Had it been up to Gloria, cremation in Honolulu would have sufficed.
“I would have brought the ashes back in a nice urn,” Gloria told her mother. “But his parents wouldn’t stand for it.”
She said that Max’s parents, Hyman and Maxine Stein, had a big living room with mahogany woodwork and that she had found a lovely urn the exact same color. It would have looked nice, she thought, in the middle of the long mantel. She described the urn to the Steins by phone the day Max died. But they didn’t care if it was a good fit.
“It would mean Max would be with you forever,” Gloria told Mrs. Stein, who was crying and not impressed.
Gloria understood Mrs. Stein had had to have time to mourn but decisions had to be made. Max was dead and getting colder by the minute.
Eventually, Mr. Stein got on the phone.
“Be nice now, Gloria,” Hyman said. “And bring Max back to New York. We’ll take care of everything.”
There were Jewish burial rites that had to be observed, Mr. Stein explained. Gloria didn’t know what to say. She knew a little about kosher food but nothing about Jewish traditions. She had been trying to learn how to say Rosh Hashanah. And her in-laws were dismayed when she asked at dinner one evening if Yom Kippur was a fish. Max had worn his “beany,” as Gloria called it, only once–at their marriage ceremony under a tent in the Steins’ big back yard.
“It was more like a park than a yard,” Gloria recalled.
And stepping on that glass after the ceremony really befuddled her.
“It was a very nice glass,” she told her mother later. “Why break it?”
On the night of their engagement, Max had told Gloria she was a “rural princess” and not to worry about what his parents said. They had never met anyone like Gloria and she was as mysterious to them as they were to her.
“Give ’em a little time and they might come around,” Max said.
Mr. and Mrs. Gompers hadn’t attended their daughter’s wedding. They decided to remain at the family home in Sleeper, Missouri, rather than take the Greyhound bus to New York. They told Gloria they couldn’t find anyone to milk the cows. And three old hens were still laying eggs.
It was just as well, Gloria thought. Her parents and the Steins probably wouldn’t have had much to talk about. Her parents liked beer in the afternoon and sometimes into the evening. The Steins were fond of different colors of wine at dinner but didn’t drink at other times. Gloria had never seen white wine before and she hadn’t eaten much fish except for the sandwich they sell at McDonald’s. She liked to order that once in awhile back home.
Gloria finally gave up on the urn. She was able to get the funeral home in Honolulu to ship Max to the Steins’ mortuary in New York. The Steins paid for everything. Gloria had to admit the funeral was impressive. She had never seen anything like that in Sleeper.
Back home, the pastor and family members would gather at the gravesite, say a few nice things about the deceased, and then the casket would be lowered slowly into the ground. One time, however, the straps broke and the casket dropped in a hurry. Everybody jumped and groaned, Gloria recalled, but the lady was dead anyway.
Butch Clinton, a high school classmate of Gloria’s, worked at the cemetery. His job was to open the grave, stand in the background during the ceremony, and cover the casket after the mourners were gone. Apparently Butch was pretty good at his job because he had been doing it since graduation.
Actually, Butch was more than Gloria’s classmate in high school. She and Butch used to date, if you could call going on hayrides and to the movies dates. Some girls would like that kind of thing but not Gloria. She had been on enough hayrides with Butch to know he wasn’t going to take her anywhere in life. She had a far better future in mind for herself.
After Max had been dead two years, Gloria decided to leave New York and go to Chicago. She had heard nice things about Chicago and she thought she would like it there. This time she traveled by train, not by Greyhound. Once she arrived, it took her a little time to settle in. She found a good bank to manage the proceeds from Max’s estate. And then she found a pleasant job selling perfume in a nice store on Michigan Avenue, even though she didn’t really need to work. Max had provided for her very well in his Will. She never knew he had so much money. She knew his parents lived high off the hog, so to speak, but she didn’t know Max had been that rich. It was a pleasant surprise.
A few months later, after work, she was walking down Michigan Avenue and met Kevin O’Brien, a very nice man with bright red hair. It stood straight up like a tall crew-cut, as they called that style back home. His sister, a co-worker, introduced them.
After a short courtship, Gloria married for a second time. As it turned out, however, her luck hadn’t changed. Kevin died from a heart attack one month shy of their first anniversary. It was a complete surprise. Kevin had been a track star in college and still jogged two miles a day. She told her mother how Kevin had died and Mrs. Gompers wanted to know why Kevin bothered to run when he didn’t have to.
“It wasn’t like someone was chasing him,” she said.
This time Gloria didn’t have to make any immediate decisions about the remains. Kevin had died at his desk in the office. The body was taken directly to a funeral home at the behest of his company. She had to drive to the mortuary, of course, and make an official identification of the body.
“He looked the same,” Gloria told her mother. “Like he was sleeping, except he wasn’t snoring.”
This time Gloria had to attend a funeral of a different sort but it was no less lavish than the one held for Max. It was a big Catholic funeral in a posh suburb of Chicago. Kevin’s family chose to have a traditional Requiem Mass. It was said in Latin, a language Gloria knew nothing about.
Back in Missouri, the only church in town was the First Baptist. Anyone in Sleeper who went to church went to First Baptist. Everyone else was figured to be a drunk or an atheist or simply not quite right. She had tried to explain to Max and Kevin the difference between “not right” and “not quite right,” but neither one seemed to catch on.
“Meshuggana is meshuggana,” Max had said, trying out his limited Yiddish. Kevin just nodded and said, “You mean ‘nuts’ and ‘half nuts.’ I get it.”
It was raining the day of Kevin’s funeral and Gloria had to borrow an umbrella at the cemetery. What’s more, she thought she looked a little out of place in her yellow dress and sun hat with the feather sticking up in back. She couldn’t understand a word of the priest’s prayers prior to the lowering of the casket.
The brunch afterward, however, more than made up for the bad weather. Kevin’s family had money, maybe more money than Max’s family, and the O’Briens pulled out all the stops at a very nice hotel. It was buffet style and Gloria had never seen so much wonderful food. Everything from Eggs Benedict, whatever they were, to Prime Rib, a fancy name for what folks back home in Sleeper called roast beef.
Gloria, however, was most impressed by the hash browns. She told her mother they were better than Digby’s, a diner in Sleeper. Digby’s was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and sometimes as late as midnight if Mr. Digby had been drinking. Everyone in Sleeper liked the food at Digby’s. Some people just stopped in for an afternoon snack. His pickled pigs’ feet were known for miles around. A couple of gelatinous feet and a cold beer and you weren’t hungry till supper.
After Kevin’s funeral, Gloria didn’t know what she should do next. She was only four years out of high school and twice a widow. She’d have to sell the nice house that Kevin had bought her if she wanted to leave Chicago. Sitting on the patio and staring at the stars with a glass of iced tea wasn’t her idea of excitement but it beat hayrides in Sleeper. So when the phone rang in the middle of the night and her mother said her father had passed away, Gloria told her she’d come right home and help with the funeral. After two dead husbands in less than three years, Gloria had learned quite a bit about funerals.
When she got back home, the first thing she noticed was that the town hadn’t changed since her last visit. She had made it a practice to visit Sleeper prior to each of her marriages. The visits gave her a chance to show her parents and a few friends photos of her future husbands.
On this visit, however, her friends were baffled. They just couldn’t understand how one woman could have been widowed twice in such a short period of time. And now Gloria was back again, but this time with no new husband in mind and no photos. Would she leave again or settle down, they wondered. It was even money as to what she would do.
Butch Clinton, though, was downright pleased to hear the news. He had never married and he figured maybe it was time to get to know good ol’ Gloria again. He had quit his job at the cemetery after his parents were killed in a highway accident. He inherited the family pig farm and it was a thriving business. Butch understood pigs, having grown up on that farm, and he had the moxie to run the place right.
“Pigs may stink,” Butch told Gloria’s mother, “but there’s a lot of money in them. All you have to do is fatten ’em up and take ’em to market.”
Butch had stayed in touch with Mrs. Gompers ever since Gloria had caught the Greyhound and left town. And it didn’t take him long to run into Gloria, since her mother had told him where he’d be able to find her. He strolled into Digby’s Diner after church one Sunday and walked right over to the table where Gloria and her mother were finishing off eggs, bacon and hash browns with side orders of biscuits and sausage gravy.
“Neither of my husbands ever had biscuits and gravy,” Gloria was telling her mother when Butch walked up. He was all gussied up in a new red plaid shirt and neatly pressed bib overalls. He even wore a new John Deere cap, and it looked mighty nice on him, Mrs. Gompers said right away.
Gloria didn’t know what to say to Butch but her mother kept complimenting him. Finally Mrs. Gompers asked him to sit down and have some breakfast.
Since Butch was single, just like Gloria, Mrs. Gompers had a right to hope for the best. If Gloria would marry Butch, she’d probably stay in Sleeper. And Butch wouldn’t be dying any time soon. He was one strong fellow. Taking care of pigs seven days a week is no job for a weak man, especially when sows had piglets. Butch needed a wife, Mrs. Gompers thought, but she didn’t know how Gloria would fit in with the pigs even if she caught a hankering for Butch.
The breakfast reunion went well, Butch thought, so he was happy to hear that Gloria planned to stay in town for a while to help her mother adjust to widowhood. Butch had made it a practice during Gloria’s absence to take Mrs. Gompers to dinner once a week and now Gloria could come along, too.
Mrs. Gompers did most of the talking whenever they went to Digby’s. Gloria didn’t have to say much. In fact one night, after Butch had taken them home, Gloria told her mother that it was too bad Butch was so young.
“The two of you seem to get along real good,” Gloria told her, underscoring the obvious.
It was then that Mrs. Gompers suggested that Butch would make a fine husband. Gloria was dumbfounded and told her that there was more to life than pigs and Butch. But as time went on, and the dinners continued, Gloria began to see a side of Butch that she had never seen before. He was nice to her mother and nice to her. And he wasn’t any fancy pants like Max and Kevin. He ate biscuits and gravy just like she and her mother did.
It took a full year before Gloria would let Butch take her to the movie in town. They went out for a drink afterward. He ordered beer for both of them. Gloria had never really taken to wine with Max, and Kevin’s whisky just about knocked her over. But she could handle beer real well. One night Butch, after three beers and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, came right out with it.
“What say you and me get married, Gloria? I make a good living. I got hired help. You won’t have to mess with no pigs, and we can even get some lady to handle the laundry. My overalls stink somethin’ terrible. Your mother can live on the second floor so she won’t be lonely. I’ll take real good care of both of you.”
Gloria didn’t say no and she didn’t say yes. She told Butch she’d think if over. She really didn’t need him to take care of her with all the money she had inherited from her two husbands’ estates. She had never told Butch about that money. Her mother knew she had a few bucks but had no idea of the actual amount Gloria had in the bank. She just knew it was a big bank in a pretty big city and that Gloria did all of her business by phone, usually when Mrs. Gompers was taking her afternoon nap. The bank sent Gloria statements and a banker would call to get her okay on any new investments.
“He likes to move money around,” Gloria told her mother, “to keep up with market.” Mrs. Gompers didn’t know what she meant but agreed that made a lot of sense.
Three months later, urged on by her mother, Gloria surrendered. She told Butch she would marry him. He bought her a nice ring, half the size of her other wedding rings but bigger than any ring she had seen on any other woman in Sleeper.
A month later, they had a beautiful wedding at the First Baptist Church. Pastor Jones had baptized the two of them in eighth grade and now he was marrying them. Gloria’s mother sat proudly in the front row and bawled all over her double corsage. Mrs. Gompers was happy she had helped to arrange the marriage. Now maybe Gloria would stay in Sleeper. You can live better with your own kind, Mrs. Gompers had told her a number of times.
Mrs. Gompers turned out to be right. Butch lived for another 30 years and Gloria gave him six children, three boys and three girls, all with the right number of fingers and toes, although two were cross-eyed. She had never been happier. But she still kept her “Max and Kevin money,” as she called it, in that bank in the city. She never did tell Butch or her mother about it. She figured if Butch ever took to drinking too much or cheated on her, she’d leave him and hop the Greyhound to Atlanta.
A magazine Butch had bought for her said that Atlanta was a very nice city. After looking at the magazine, Mrs. Gompers had agreed that Atlanta looked like a nice place but so was Sleeper. A couple of months later, she died of a brain aneurysm. Gloria took care of the funeral since she had experience in that area.
Now it was just Gloria and Butch at the home place, as Butch called it. All the kids had grown up and moved off to big cities of their own selection. Four of them had married and had children and the other two were still prospecting. So Gloria decided to sit tight and keep an eye on Butch to see what would happen. Since she had that money in the bank, she could stay in Sleeper or live anywhere she liked.
If Butch died first, she would move to Atlanta. She didn’t care how old she was. She was very healthy and planned to keep it that way. She had quit eating fatback years ago although Butch still wolfed it down with pinto beans and cornbread. But she had to admit Butch and his pigs had provided a nice living for her and the children. She never had to touch her savings.
Gloria certainly would miss Butch if he died, but if he did, she wouldn’t be surprised. His father had died young. His arteries were all clogged up, according to the medical reports. He liked his fatback even thicker than Butch. And he wouldn’t say no to a nice hog jowl now and then.
Every Sunday at church, Gloria would thank God for Butch and his pigs. She’d get him all cleaned up on Saturday night so they could sit in the front row, which was informally reserved for folks who tithed. After services, it was off to a nice table in the back of Digby’s.
Even though Mr. Digby had died, his children were running the diner and the biscuits and gravy were as good as ever. You wouldn’t find anything that good in New York or Chicago. But with Atlanta being in the Deep South, there had to be pretty good biscuits and gravy down there. She figured if the biscuits were fluffy, and if they put enough sausage in the gravy, it might not be such a bad place to live. She’d keep that in mind just in case the fatback caught up with Butch.
- That Ghost on the Tree
- Black Pearls