The Summons - Page 12

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They rolled Judge Atlee down the center aisle in his fine oak casket and parked him at the altar in front of the pulpit where Reverend Palmer was waiting in a black robe. The casket was left unopened, much to the disappointment of the mourners, most of whom still clung to the ancient Southern ritual of viewing the deceased one last time in a strange effort to maximize the grief. "Hell no," Ray had said politely to Mr. Magargel when asked about opening things up. When the pieces were in place, Palmer slowly stretched out his arms, then lowered them, and the crowd sat.

In the front pew to his right was the family, the two sons. Ray wore his new suit and looked tired. Forrest wore jeans and a black suede jacket and looked remarkably sober. Behind them were Harry Rex and the other pallbearers, and behind them was a sad collection of ancient judges, not far from the casket themselves. In the front pew to his left were all sorts of dignitaries - politicians, an ex-governor, a couple of Mississippi Supreme Court justices. Clanton had never seen such power assembled at one time.

The sanctuary was packed, with folks standing along the walls under the stained-glass windows. The balcony above was full. One floor below, the auditorium had been wired for audio and more friends and admirers were down there.

Ray was impressed by the crowd. Forrest was already looking at his watch. He had arrived fifteen minutes earlier and got cursed by Harry Rex, not Ray. His new suit was dirty, he'd said, and besides Ellie had bought him the black suede jacket years ago and she thought it would do just fine for the occasion.

She, at three hundred pounds, would not leave the house, and for that Ray and Harry Rex were grateful. Somehow she'd kept him sober, but a crash was in the air. For a thousand reasons, Ray just wanted to get back to Virginia.

The reverend prayed, a short, eloquent message of thanks for the life of a great man. Then he introduced a youth choir that had won national honors at a music competition in New York. Judge Atlee had given them three thousand dollars for the trip, according to Palmer. They sang two songs Ray had never heard before, but they sang them beautifully.

The first eulogy - and there would be only two short ones per Ray's instructions - was delivered by an old man who barely made it to the pulpit, but once there startled the crowd with a rich and powerful voice. He'd been in law school with the Judge a hundred years ago. He told two humorless stories and the potent voice began to fade.

The reverend read some scripture and delivered words of comfort for the loss of a loved one, even an old one who had lived a full life.

The second eulogy was given by a young black man named Nakita Poole, something of a legend in Clanton. Poole came from a rough family south of town, and had it not been for a chemistry teacher at the high school he would have dropped out in the ninth grade and become another statistic. The Judge met him during an ugly family matter in court, and he took an interest in the kid. Poole had an amazing capacity for science and math. He finished first in his class, applied to the best colleges, and was accepted everywhere. The Judge wrote powerful letters of recommendation and pulled every string he could grab. Nakita picked Yale, and its financial package covered everything but spending money. For four years Judge Atlee wrote him every week, and in each letter there was a check for twenty-five dollars.

"I wasn't the only one getting the letters or the checks," he said to a silent crowd. "There were many of us."

Nakita was now a doctor and headed for Africa for two years of volunteer work. "I'm gonna miss those letters," he said, and every lady in the church was in tears.

The coroner, Thurber Foreman, was next. He'd been a fixture at funerals in Ford County for many years, and the Judge specifically wanted him to play his mandolin and sing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." He sang it beautifully, and somehow managed to do so while weeping.

Forrest finally began wiping his eyes. Ray just stared at the casket, wondering where the cash came from. What had the old man done? What, exactly, did he think would happen to the money after he died?

When the reverend finished a very brief message, the pall-bearers rolled Judge Atlee out of the sanctuary. Mr. Magargel escorted Ray and Forrest down the aisle and down the front steps to a limo waiting behind the hearse. The crowd spilled out and went to their cars for the ride to the cemetery.

Like most small towns, Clanton loved a funeral procession. All traffic stopped. Those not driving in the procession were on the sidewalks, standing sadly and gazing at the hearse and the endless parade of cars behind it. Every part-time deputy was in uniform and blocking something, a street, an alley, parking spaces.

The hearse led them around the courthouse, where the flag was at half-mast and the county employees lined the front sidewalk and lowered their heads. The merchants around the square came out to bid farewell to Judge Atlee.

He was laid to rest in the Atlee plot, next to his long-forgotten wife and among the ancestors he so revered. He would be the last Atlee returned to the dust of Ford County, though no one knew it. And certainly no one cared. Ray would be cremated and his ashes scattered over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Forrest admitted he was closer to death than his older brother, but he had not nailed down his final details. The only thing for certain was that he would not be buried in Clanton. Ray was lobbying for cremation. Ellie liked the idea of a mausoleum. Forrest preferred not to dwell on the subject.

The mourners crowded under and around a crimson Magargel Funeral Home tent, which was much too small. It covered the grave and four rows of folding chairs. A thousand were needed.

Ray and Forrest sat with their knees almost touching the casket and listened as Reverend Palmer wrapped it all up. Sitting in a folding chair at the edge of his father's open grave, Ray found it odd the things he thought about. He wanted to go home. He missed his classroom and his students. He missed flying and the views of the Shenandoah Valley from five thousand feet. He was tired and irritable and did not want to spend the next two hours lingering in the cemetery making small talk with people who remembered when he was born.

The wife of a Pentecostal preacher had the final words. She sang "Amazing Grace," and for five minutes time stood still. In a beautiful soprano, her voice echoed through the gentle hills of the cemetery, comforting the dead, giving hope to the living. Even the birds stopped flying.

An Army boy with a trumpet played "Taps," and everybody had a good cry. They folded the flag and handed it to Forrest, who was sobbing and sweating under the damned suede jacket. As the final notes faded into the woods, Harry Rex started bawling behind them. Ray leaned forward and touched the casket. He said a silent farewell, then rested with his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands.

The burial broke up quickly. It was time for lunch. Ray figured that if he just sat there and stared at the casket, then folks would leave him alone. Forrest flung a heavy arm across his shoulders, and together they looked as though they might stay until dark. Harry Rex regained his composure and assumed the role of family spokesman. Standing outside the tent, he thanked the dignitaries for coming, complimented Palmer on a fine service, praised the preacher's wife for such a beautiful rendition, told Claudia that she could not sit with the boys, that she needed to move along, and on and on. The gravediggers waited under a nearby tree, shovels in hand.

When everybody was gone, including Mr. Magargel and his crew, Harry Rex fell into the chair on the other side of Forrest and for a long time the three of them sat there, staring, not wanting to leave. The only sound was that of a backhoe somewhere in the distance, waiting. But Forrest and Ray didn't care. How often do you bury your father

And how important is time to a gravedigger?

"What a great funeral," Harry Rex finally said. He was an expert on such matters.

"He would've been proud," said Forrest.

"He loved a good funeral," Ray added. "Hated weddings though."

"I love weddings," said Harry Rex.

"Four or five?" asked Forrest.

"Four, and counting."

A man in a city work uniform approached and quietly asked, "Would you like for us to lower it now?"

Neither Ray nor Forrest knew how to respond. Harry Rex had no doubt. "Yes, please," he said. The man turned a crank under the grave apron. Very slowly, the casket began sinking. They watched it until it came to rest deep in the red soil.

The man removed the belts, the apron, and the crank, and disappeared.

"I guess it's over," Forrest said.

LUNCH WAS tamales and sodas at a drive-in on the edge of town, away from the crowded places where someone would undoubtedly interrupt them with a few kind words about the Judge. They sat at a wooden picnic table under a large umbrella and watched the cars go by.

"When are you heading back?" Harry Rex asked.

"First thing in the morning," Ray answered.

"We have some work to do."

"I know. Let's do it this afternoon."

"What kinda work?" Forrest asked.

"Probate stuff," Harry Rex said. "We'll open the estate in a couple of weeks, whenever Ray can get back. We need to go through the Judge's papers now and see how much work there is."

"Sounds like a job for the executor."

"You can help."

Ray was eating and thinking about his car, which was parked on a busy street near the Presbyterian church. Surely it was safe there. "I went to a casino last night," he announced with his mouth full.

"Which one?" asked Harry Rex.

"Santa Fe something or other, the first one I came to. You been there?"

"I've been to all of them," he said, as if he'd never go back. With the exception of illegal narcotics, Harry Rex had explored every vice.

"Me too," said Forrest, a man with no exceptions.

"How'd you do?" Forrest asked.

"I won a couple of thousand at blackjack. They comped me a room."

"I paid for that damned room," Harry Rex said. "Probably the whole floor."

"I love their free drinks," said Forrest. "Twenty bucks a pop."

Ray swallowed hard and decided to set the bait. "I found some matches from the Santa Fe on the old man's desk. Was he sneaking over there?"

"Sure," said Harry Rex. "He and I used to go once a month. He loved the dice."

"The old man?" Forrest asked. "Gambling?"

"Yep."

"So there's the rest of my inheritance. What he didn't give away, he gambled away."

"No, he was actually a pretty good player."

Ray pretended to be as shocked as Forrest, but he was relieved to pick up his first clue, slight as it was. It seemed almost impossible that the Judge could've amassed such a fortune shooting craps once a week.

He and Harry Rex would pursue it later.



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