Uncle Wayne appeared to be praying. He was on his knees at the edge of the sidewalk, dressed in a navy blue suit and bending low before the front columns of our funeral home. The glow of the late afternoon sun rimmed his white hair like a halo.
In the backseat of my jeep, Democrat whimpered his concern. Then my uncle scooted to his left and revealed a flat of blue and pink petunias. The man was planting flowers.
Democrat scratched at the window impatiently. I honked the horn warning Uncle Wayne his petunias were in immediate danger of being trampled under by the four paws of a five-month-old cyclone. As I pulled into the driveway of Clayton and Clayton Funeral Directors, Uncle Wayne stepped up on the front porch where the yellow lab’s greeting could do the least damage.
I kept Democrat on a short lead and steered him away from the temptation of freshly dug dirt. “Aren’t you a little overdressed for gardening?”
“I wore the suit because you said we had dignitaries coming. I didn’t want them thinking we aren’t as good as a big city funeral home.”
“And the petunias?”
“Hardware store had them on sale. Buy one flat, get one free. Couldn’t resist. Thought they might liven up the place. I’ll put some here and the rest along the back driveway.” He looked at his purchase and scowled. “But they’re kinda puny. Need to get them in the ground.”
“I’ll plant them if you don’t have any old clothes here.”
He clucked his tongue like he was scolding me at age five. “I can have them planted in less time than it takes to change. I’ll be careful.” He crouched down and planted his bony knees in the center of the frayed LC of an old WELCOME mat.
“But we’re not receiving guests tonight. Visitation’s not till two tomorrow.”
“Archie Junior came by saying there’d be movie stars and even a general, and there’s no telling when they might come by.”
“Archie Junior doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Archie Donovan Junior had been a schoolmate of mine and had gone into his father’s insurance business. He always had some scheme guaranteed to make a fortune. So far he was batting a thousand—all strikeouts.
“Then I don’t have to rush.” Uncle Wayne continued to dig. “That’s right. And you don’t have to be out here in a coat and tie. People will think you sleep in that undertaker getup.”
My uncle chuckled. “But isn’t that the way we do our planting?”
The front door opened and my mom stood on the threshold, a red-checked apron covering her plump body. She and Uncle Wayne shared a head of thick white hair, but where Mom barely broke five feet, her brother was over six and thin as a rail.
“Barry, I saw your car. Are you here for supper?”
Democrat whined and strained against the leash, anxious to greet the woman who ruled the kitchen. “For supper and for the night,” I said. “If that’s all right.”
“Fine. Anybody else coming?”
“No, but tomorrow promises to be hectic. I’d just as soon be here in case we get any last minute questions. Mr. Eban’s causing quite the stir.”
“Celebrities.” Uncle Wayne jammed his trowel into the dirt. “I read the article in today’s Vista.” Mom frowned at Uncle Wayne. “He was quite the hero.”
“He didn’t even clean under his nails,” Uncle Wayne mumbled.
My mother sighed. “The poor man had cancer, Wayne. He was in no condition to worry about his nails.”
I could feel a sibling squabble brewing and knew that both Mom and Uncle Wayne were reacting to the pressure of conducting a funeral service attended by a group of out-of-towners, including a U.S. senator. “I’ll take care of them.”
“Already done.” Wayne never broke the rhythm of his troweling. “Used a toothbrush and Soft Scrub. Ink’s what it was.”
“Do they look okay?”
“Of course. You know that’s part of our reputation. Mr. Y’Grok gets nothing less.” Wayne mispronounced the Y as why instead of a long E.
I looked at Mom, who rolled her eyes. We’d both heard Uncle Wayne extol the virtues of our meticulous grooming of the deceased. He’d even suggested a motto for an advertising slogan: “Clayton & Clayton—Where every body cleans up nice.” Fortunately, my mother always had final say on our marketing materials.
“Y’Grok,” I said, emphasizing the E sound. “And the Y sorta means mister.”
Wayne just grunted and kept digging.
“I’m going to bring Democrat around to the back.” I gave a tug on the leash. “Don’t want him thinking the front rooms are no longer off limits.”
Mom started back in the house. “You can let him loose in the kitchen. I’ve got the gate across the top of the stairs.”
I had to drag Democrat a few feet past Uncle Wayne and his wilting petunias until the dog realized we were heading for the back porch. Then I had to struggle to keep him from pulling me over. Obedience school couldn’t come soon enough.
When Mom mentioned the gate was across the stairs, I knew my father was up in either his bedroom or the den. The toddler’s barrier served a dual purpose. It kept the dog from making a sudden appearance that could startle Dad, and, more crucial, it kept Dad from wandering downstairs and out of the house.
Democrat’s claws made the kitchen’s linoleum floor sound like a snare drum. I grabbed his collar to hold him still. “Would you rather I put him in the backyard so he won’t be underfoot?”
My mother turned from the sink where she was snapping string beans. Something simmered on the gas range, and the air was rich with appetizing aromas. No wonder Democrat was hyper. “It’s after five,” she said. “We’ll eat in about thirty minutes. Why don’t you take Democrat up to see your father?”
I lifted my squirming puppy and carried him over my shoulder like a burlap sack of feed corn. At the top of the stairs, I stopped at the gate and called out, “Dad, it’s me, Barry.” I could hear some song playing on The Nashville Network. Music videos and cartoons were the extent of my father’s TV attention span. “Dad,” I repeated. Alerting him that you were about to enter his space seemed to reduce his spontaneous anxiety.
As I unlatched the baby gate, I heard the faint response, “Barry?” and couldn’t tell if Dad was questioning whether it was me or whether “Barry” was an unfamiliar word. With his Alzheimer’s, he had good days and bad days.
My father sat in his easy chair with a half glass of iced tea on the end table beside him.
I stepped in front of the screen and gave a little wave. “It’s me, Barry.”
He looked up and smiled. “Barry,” he repeated. Then the smile broadened into a grin. “Democrat,” he said. Today was a good day.
The puppy wriggled at hearing his name. I set him on the floor and he bounded into my father’s lap, both of them oblivious to the fact that Democrat’s days as a lapdog were over.
“Do you want your tea?” I pointed to the glass.
He shook his head and I made sure one less item could be knocked to the floor by Democrat’s tail.
“Then I’ll take this down to Mom.”
Dad nodded, but his mind was on the adoring dog licking his face. As unruly as Democrat was, he had a sense that something was different about my father. Democrat heeded Dad’s short commands to get down or jump up much better than anyone else’s. My girlfriend claimed he was a good candidate for a pet therapy dog at the hospital where she was a surgeon. Canine candy stripers are eagerly awaited by kids in need of cheering up.
Downstairs, Mom set out four places at the kitchen table. “Wayne’s going to join us for supper. He couldn’t resist my rhubarb pie.”
“Rats. Less for me.”
“I baked two. Wayne only knows about one.”
I gave Mom a grateful kiss on the cheek. “Dad and Democrat are guarding each other. I’m going to check on Mr. Eban.” I opened the door to the business part of our funeral home. “Give me about a five minute warning.”
The embalming room, which we always referred to as the operating room, was on a separate wing of the house. The body of Y’Grok Eban lay on the stainless steel table discreetly covered by a sheet. I folded the sheet back to his waist and examined Uncle Wayne’s work.
Y’Grok had been around sixty, a Montagnard from the central highlands of Vietnam. I didn’t know much about Montagnards, other than they had been staunch allies with the U.S., particularly in support of our Special Forces troops that had operated in the central highlands during the war. My friend, Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkins, had direct experience with their courage. “They saved my sorry ass,” was his succinct comment.
According to Tommy Lee, the man lying before me had been instrumental in getting a number of downed pilots and ambushed platoons to safety. Soldiers don’t forget those who laid their lives on the line for them, and news of Y’Grok’s death had spread rapidly through the military veteran’s community. No less than a U.S. senator, a three-star general, and a Hollywood movie star had planned on attending this funeral.
I lifted one of Y’Grok’s hands. The skin around the nails was a little lighter where my uncle had scrubbed them, but it was less noticeable than ink stains.
When preparing a body for burial, we were sensitive to having the deceased look as natural as possible for the comfort of the family. If we didn’t know the person, a recent photo was our best aid. We had no pictures of Y’Grok and were unfamiliar with the ethnic subtleties of the Montagnard race. Tommy Lee had told me they had darker skin than the majority Vietnamese population. They also lacked the skin folds around the eyes common to most Asians. This man looked more like a dark skinned Polynesian. Uncle Wayne had been careful to control the concentration of embalming fluid so that the skin didn’t appear discolored.
I slid the sheet away from his thighs to check the incision points where the fluid had been injected. The cuts were neatly sutured. Then I noticed a tattoo on his right thigh. Viet was handwritten and the number 2000 centered above it. Both would have been upside down if the man were standing. I lifted the sheet from the left leg and discovered more tattoos. The word Nam and a circle of letters were upside down on that thigh. I moved the leg for a better look.
“Barry?” Mom’s voice came through the intercom. “Would you get your father? Supper’s on the table.”
# # #
I replaced the sheet and turned out the light.
After a full meal, complete with two slices of rhubarb pie, I spent a quiet evening watching cartoons with Dad.
A little after ten, I closed the door to the guest bedroom. The shelves along the wall still bore some of the trappings from when the room had been mine—model cars, sports trophies, and school pictures. Democrat had a dog cushion on the floor at the foot of the bed. I kept him with me so he wouldn’t be tempted to wander into my parents’ bedroom. The last thing I needed was Mom or Dad tripping over a dog if they got up during the night.
I slipped between the cool sheets wearing only my underwear. Early April was still too soon for sleeping with open windows, but in a few weeks, I would enjoy a night breeze laced with the scent of honeysuckle. With such pleasant thoughts, I fell asleep.
Democrat’s whine pulled me back to consciousness. I checked the clock radio. 2:55 a.m. “Democrat,” I whispered. “Quiet.” The puppy whimpered at the reprimand and started scratching the door. He had never acted that way before, even at my cabin, where plenty of wildlife roamed outside the walls.
I got out of bed, concerned that he might be desperately trying to adhere to his housebreaking training. I could hardly discipline him for an accident if I refused to let him out.
Not bothering to dress or grab a robe, I followed Democrat into the hall. He pawed at the webbing of the child’s gate. I didn’t want him to outrun me down the stairs, so I picked him up and released the latch spring.
The kitchen table and counters were barely visible in the moonlight. As I walked across the cold linoleum, I heard a scraping noise coming from the operating room. Democrat gave a sharp yip.
If we had burglars, I didn’t know if I wanted to confront them, or start shouting to scare them off. I decided to investigate further before waking Mom and Dad.
The back hallway to the operating room was pitch black. I stepped slowly, keeping my eyes on the moonlit seam of the door ahead. Democrat yelped again, and I thought I heard a footstep. When I reached the door, I hesitated. The only sound was the infrequent drip from a worn faucet.
“Sshhh,” I whispered, and set Democrat down. Then I turned the doorknob. I eased into the room, quickly searching the shadows for an intruder.
I flipped on the overhead light. I was afraid of who might be in the room. I was stunned by who wasn’t. Y’Grok Eban’s body was gone. The empty table registered for a split-second, and then Democrat lunged past me. Before I could move, someone slammed the open door into my head, knocking me backwards. Democrat gave one growl and then a high-pitched yelp. The puppy’s body flew across my field of blurred vision like a football kicked through the goalposts. I staggered toward the doorway, a shout for help rising in my throat. A dark figure came from nowhere, blocking my retreat. A black ski mask hid all but the pale bridge of a nose and cold brown eyes. I threw up my arms to ward off another blow.
I never saw my attacker’s hands move. A lightning punch to my stomach scattered my solar plexus in a thousand directions, and the call for help transformed into a whoosh of air as my lungs emptied. I struggled forward, trying to get past the attacker to the outside door. I saw a shimmer of moonlight reflecting off the curve of a dark metal fender. Cold air hit my face and I desperately tried to fill my lungs. Then my feet tangled with an unseen barricade on the threshold to safety. In an instant I knew I was walking on top of a body.
Two hands gripped my shoulders and spun me around. The world kept spinning as the assailant threw me back into the room. I saw a flash of silver rushing toward me and felt the impact of the embalming table smashing against my forehead. I clutched at the cold stainless steel surface but my hands skidded along, unable to stop my momentum. I fell to my knees, my lungs burning and blood blinding my eyes. Then a burst of white light exploded in my head.