At the gravesite, I parked behind his truck: a Dodge RAM 2500, as black as the night is long. He stepped out with his black boots, the top of his head showcasing a stiff, black cowboy hat. The spiffy boots and especially that pristine hat really brought the ensemble together neatly.
If Johnny Cash had missed his calling, Brother Kerley would be a decent stand-in for the Reverend Cash. For the occasion he wore a black suit with a white dress shirt and a black tie. The shirt and tie were loosened at the top in that slightly disheveled manner, unconsciously cool in homestead Tennessee.
Earlier, during the church service, Bro. Kerley warmly peered down from the pulpit at Joseph Floyd Elmore. In spite of the puffy, cornflower blue lining adorning the inside of grandpa’s coffin, he was lying there essentially in a glorified wooden box. There was a lot of existential talk throughout the day about whether or not he was really there, because of course he had no breath or air or spirit.
Bro. Kerley looked out at those of us who looked back at him. “This isn’t goodbye,” he said, in the direction of Grandpa Joe. “It’s see ya later.” It was the absolute perfect delivery for a 60-year-old preacher boy, and in a country accent similar to the Man in Black himself. The preacher went on to express his assured beliefs about life, death, and what comes after, albeit without Reverend Cash’s lyrical grit.
I listened from the front pew, a traditionally fashioned mahogany bench with a burgundy banner draped over the backside cushioning me from the blows of death ever so gently. The banner had a single word sewn into it in gold letters: “Pallbearers.” I glanced down the front row at my fellow bearers, then looked at Grandpa Joe, only a few feet but several thousand miles away. The casket was open wide as if any of us could just casually look into a man’s soul.
As Bro. Kerley told it, one fine day he was busy mentoring a green pastor-to-be. Suddenly, there came Joe, ambling into the same garden center where Bro. Kerley and the young man may or may not have been discussing the parables of Jesus among the azaleas and fruit-tree saplings. The preacher offered his protege a mission impossible. “There,” he said, pointing at Joe, “go practice witnessing to that fella. He’s a member down at the Kingdom Hall.”
To no one’s surprise, attempting to witness to a Jehovah’s Witness, especially one who wasn’t actually one, proved more than the novice could handle. Bro. Kerley finally broke the interreligious tension with a hearty laugh. The next time he and Joe crossed paths, he remembered, Joe quipped: “Just came from worshipping over at the Kingdom Hall.” The preacher paused, allowing space for that sort of fondness unique to loss.
Roaming the church hallway before the funeral service had started, I noticed a plain sheet of white paper tacked to a small cork-board hanging on the wall. It hung near a plaque memorializing former church members; former, in the sense that they were now deceased. Like a fill-in-the-blank question on a standardized test no one wants to take, the plaque contained empty brass plates awaiting new, former church members.
The white paper on the cork-board listed the names of who was bringing what to the post-funeral potluck. Religiously speaking, of course, potlucks are to Baptist churches what the Mass is to the Catholic Church.
Connie, the sheet noted, was scheduled to bring cornbread. Carolyn would provide the “Mexican bread,” which, despite its generic name, apparently had no borders or walls: it would be gratefully consumed in Middle America. Grandpa’s widow, “Miss Thelma” as I grew up calling her, had volunteered to make homemade dinner rolls, despite the obvious reality that Joe wouldn’t be there to swipe the last one.
Sitting so close to death and facing death square, as we all were, the taste was palpable. There were no more tomatoes pulled from the vine and eaten like apples. No more stories or jokes. No fishing in idyllic ponds or driving to the Homestead Fuel for ice cream.
No mispronounced foreign-language words or high-crowned, foam-and-mesh trucker hats. No Vienna sausages and moon pies before dawn out on Watts Bar.
No more sighs of unexpressed regret, and no more saving the world.
No working the land, waiting on the land, or traveling this sandstone land.
When Bro. Davis followed Bro. Kerley, it felt like a tag-team wrestling duo trying to pin down a slippery ol’ devil. He stepped into the kaleidoscopic ring of heaven and earth wearing a charcoal-flecked gray sportcoat. I must say: I couldn’t quite make-up my mind. There was a folksy sincerity about Bro. Davis, a la Fred Rogers, if Mister Rogers was a screaming Tennessee Baptist instead of a stoic Pennsylvania Presbyterian. There also was a discernible, televangelist quality about him, a la Jimmy Swaggart, minus the speaking in tongues.
He cheerily framed the narrative of grandpa’s passing as a home-going, then went on to call Joe a “great” man in this life. Which is obviously not the same thing as calling Uncle Herschel’s Breakfast at Cracker Barrel “great,” which it is! Maybe there were stark or sustained glimpses in Joe, as in each of us, and I for one loved him for those glimpses.
I leaned back against the pew, cushioning myself again against the Pallbearers banner. I tried to bear the weight of that word. For the 784th time I realized how ill-equipped our species was at making that evaluation. Every person’s living colors have been so profoundly shaded and so desperately hued by all the days and all the decisions.
Standing in the mid-July sun, by now in a distracting reverie that included fried chicken, deviled eggs, and Miss Thelma’s homemade rolls, I watched her receive the fabled red, white, and blue. As the military representatives dropped the immaculate triangle in her lap, drops of sweat ran down my back like a meandering river. The glorified wooden box had been shut and Grandpa Joe’s body was headed underground.
Not a cloud in the cornflower blue sky.