Folk Tale
Lucas Boyd
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The Prodigal and Other Short Stories

“The Prodigal”
“There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar.”

The scratchy strains of “The Sweet By and By” came haltingly over the speakers in the Gilroy’s Funeral Home and Chapel. Wilbur Gilroy hadn’t bought a new record in over fifteen years, even though he’d gotten some complaints on the quality of his music. Complaints didn’t move him. He was the only undertaker in Bent Tree, Alabama. If anybody wanted better music, let them bring their own at their expense.
“For the Father waits over the way,
to prepare us a dwelling place there.”
The sound coming from the tin-can like speakers was uneven at best. Some of them had quit working and Wilbur reckoned as how he would have to call in Smokey Floyd from down at the radio shop if many more went out. Some of the funeral homes in bigger places were going to tape systems but Wilbur wasn’t about to do something that expensive.
“In the sweet (in the sweet) by and by (by and by),
we shall meet on that beautiful shore; (by and by);”
Nelda Mae Cunningham’s cheap casket sat at the front with the lid up. It was surrounded by a respectable number of flower arrangements. Some were beginning to wilt in the heat.
“In the sweet (in the sweet) by and by (by and by),
we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
All the windows were up and the back door was propped open

but the oppressive heat seemed to suck all the energy from the air, causing it to lay over everybody like a hot, humid comforter - felt but unseen. The hand-held fans fluttered in nearly everyone’s hands, stirring the heavy air. Some said the advertising side with the big black printed letters and the color picture of the funeral home produced the best breeze; others swore that the side with the picture of the Last Supper gave more relief. Wilbur was proud of his fans. He had placed an ample supply in all the churches in town.
“We shall sing on that beautiful shore
the melodious songs of the blest.”
The pews to the right of the small speaking platform were reserved for family members. Only two people sat there: Jessie Wayne Cunningham, Nelda Mae’s second husband, and Lissie Sue Haycraft, a “friend” from the shirt factory, who had come to provide solace and comfort in Jessie Wayne’s hour of bereavement.
“And our spirit shall sorrow no more,
not a sigh for the blessing of rest.”
Jessie Wayne looked bored with the whole proceedings. He was a tall, lanky man whose limbs appeared to unfold when he rose to his feet. He had an angular face. Each feature seemed to be competing with its neighbor in some sharpness competition. He kept crossing and uncrossing his legs, revealing droopy socks and sharp shinbones.
“In the sweet (in the sweet) by and by (by and by),
we shall meet on that beautiful shore; (by and by);”
Lissie Sue was dressed all in black. Her short, tight dress struggled to contain her ample thighs and buttocks and exposed a considerable amount of flesh when she crossed her legs. Her shoes were pointy-toed stilettos and the broad-brimmed hat had a heavy veil that covered the top portion of her face. Her lower legs were encased in black, fish-net stockings which ended in wide elastic bands just above her knees. The little bowties woven within the mesh added a formal air to the outfit. She sat close to Jessie Wayne and patted him on the shoulder from time to time. She was aware of the condemning looks and the whispered comments among the other mourners. She seemed to be flaunting herself and the situation before them and daring them to do anything about it.
“In the sweet (in the sweet) by and by (by and by),
we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
Brother Eustis Tutweiler, pastor of Bent Tree’s First Southern Missionary Baptist Church, sat on the platform behind the pulpit mopping his florid face with a red bandana. He’d not preached a long sermon. He was new in town and hardly knew Nelda Mae. He was glad this was the last song.
“To our bountiful Father above,
we will offer the tribute of praise”
As the third verse began, Wilbur and his assistant came forward, closed and locked the lid, and placed the pall on the casket. Suddenly, there came the sound of tires squealing on pavement and rocks being thrown aside by a car coming into the gravel parking lot at too great a speed. Next came the sound of the vehicle sliding to a stop and a car door slamming. All heads turned to the rear although the parking lot could not be seen from the chapel. Wilbur rushed out to see what was happening. The sound of angry voices came through the open door but the words were indistinguishable until the speakers got closer. Wilbur was heard to say, “But the casket has been locked,” to which a strange voice replied, “I don’t give a damn. If it can be locked it can surely be unlocked and if you won’t do it, I will. Even if I have to break it open, I’m gonna see Mama one last time before you put her in the ground.”
“For the glorious gift of his love,
and the blessings that hallow our days.”
A tall man with a determined look on his face strode through the rear door. Wilbur trotted behind. A startled gasp went up from the mourners. Even though he was bald except for a dark ring of hair at ear level and even though they’d not seen him in years, most recognized Nelda Mae’s son from her first marriage. Randall Lee Lattimore had finally come home. They began to whisper amongst themselves.
When they got to the front, Wilbur motioned for his assistant to help him remove the pall. Then he took the locking tool from his coat pocket and unlocked and raised the lid. Randall Lee stood looking down on his dead mother.
“In the sweet (in the sweet) by and by (by and by),
we shall meet on that beautiful shore (by and by).
In the sweet (in the sweet) by and by (by and by),
we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
As the song ended, the sounds of Wilbur’s teenage son removing the record from the turntable came over the speakers. Randall Lee raised two fingers to his lips in a farewell kiss and then pressed them on his mother’s cold lips. He stood at the casket for several minutes before going to the family area and seating himself on the far end of the pew occupied by his stepfather and “friend.” For the first time he seemed to take note of Jessie Wayne. Their eyes met but no nod or other greeting passed between them.
Wilbur and his helper got the casket closed again and rolled it to the wide side doors where the hearse was backed up and waiting. The pall bearers put it into the vehicle. Wilbur came back inside and invited everyone to follow the hearse and family up the hill to the cemetery. Most did mainly because they were fascinated with this prodigal son who had returned after so many years.
As Randall Lee walked up the gravel drive behind the slow-moving hearse, he took out his handkerchief and mopped the sweat that was running off his bald head and down his face. He had forgotten just how hot summer could be in Alabama. Jessie Wayne and Lissie Sue fell into step beside him. Lissie Sue was having trouble maintaining her balance in the loose gravel with her high heels and clung tightly to Jessie Wayne’s arm.
“How’d you find out?” Jessie Wayne hissed.
“I have ways,” responded Randall Lee.
“You been gone so long you just shoulda stayed gone. Warn’t no need in coming back now.”
“That’s not your problem,” replied Randall Lee.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” asked Lissie Sue as she fluttered her fake eyelashes behind the veil. One lash got caught in the mesh and she worked to free it.
“This is Randall Lee Lattimore, Nelda Mae’s long lost son,” said Jessie Wayne. There was sarcasm in his voice. And then turning to Randall Lee he said proudly, “This here’s Lissie Sue Haycraft. She’s a friend of mine from down at the shirt factory. She works in the office.”
“So pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Lissie Sue. Her lashes continued to flutter. Randall Lee just nodded.
“Looks like you could have spent a little more and gotten a decent casket,” Randall commented.
“Fancy boxes don’t make no difference,” retorted Jessie Wayne. “They’re all going in the dirt and they’re all gonna rot along with what’s in ‘em. No sense in paying extra.”
“It’s so gratifying to know that you’re just as stingy as ever,” said Randall Lee as he picked up his pace and left the two behind.
Most of the mourners crowded in under the shade of the canvas canopy that covered the gravesites. Reverend Tutweiler began delivering his final remarks. As Randall Lee sat in one of the folding chairs, his thoughts turned to the last time he’d seen his mother and the circumstances of his departure.
They had a good farm, a little over four hundred acres of good land. He and his daddy worked it with the help of their tenant, Barney Fowler. It was the fall of his senior year after the crops were in, when the tractor turned over and crushed the life out of his daddy. It wasn’t long before Jessie Wayne began to come around. Randall Lee never liked him right from the start and told his mother so. “He’s just after the farm, Mama,” he’d tell her but she wouldn’t listen. The next spring he and Barney had gotten the crops planted and he had graduated from high school. Jessie Wayne came for supper one night. After the meal, his mama broke the news.
“Jessie Wayne and I are gonna get married.” Randall Lee sat dumbfounded. He tried to speak but couldn’t. His mother continued, “Jessie Wayne thinks it’s best that we rent the place out. He’s got a good job at the shirt factory and running a farm is a lot of work.”
Randall Lee found his voice. “But me and Barney can run the place. We’ve already got the crops planted and Jessie Wayne could help some.”
“I ain’t interested in helping,” said Jessie Wayne. “I don’t do farm work. We can sell off the livestock and equipment and make more on renting than we could farming it.”
“But what about Barney?” asked Randall Lee. “He’s been with us since before I was born.”
“He’ll just have to find himself another place.” Jessie Wayne was uncompromising.
“Well, what about me?" Randall Lee asked. “This farm was what I’d planned on doing.”
“You’ve finished school and you’re eighteen now. It’s time for you to make your own way,” said Jessie Wayne.
His mother’s silence told him that Jessie Wayne spoke for her as well but he turned to her in desperation.
“Where am I gonna make my own way, Mama? There’s nothing for me to do in Bent Tree.”
“Then you’ll just hafta find another place.” Jessie Wayne had spoken quickly before Nelda Mae could respond.
“We think it’s best, dear,” his mother replied. “You’ve got some money in your bank account and I can spare $500 to help you get started.”
Randall Lee’s whole body was numb. His world had collapsed around him. He wanted to smash in Jessie Wayne’s smirking face but he controlled the urge. He got abruptly to his feet and went to his room before the two adults saw the hot tears that were running down his cheeks.
After Jessie Wayne left, she came to his room and handed him $500. He tried to reason with her but she wouldn’t listen. The next morning he packed his clothes in a cardboard suitcase and left without saying goodbye. He drove the pickup into town and closed out his checking account. He parked the truck at the bus station and put the keys under the floor mat. Jessie Wayne could worry about getting it back to the farm. He bought a ticket and boarded the bus for Birmingham.
The loud “amen” brought him back to the present. Reverend Tutweiler offered syrupy words of condolence as he shook hands with Randall Lee, Jessie Wayne, and Lissie Sue. The service was over. As they got to their feet, Jessie Wayne turned to Randall Lee, “There’s a sack of stuff at the house your mama wanted you to have. You can come by and pick it up sometime.” He didn’t wait for an answer but took Lissie Sue by the arm and headed back down the hill.
There was an awkward silence under the awning. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the next person to make the first move. From behind him came a voice, “Randall Lee, you turn around here and give me a hug.” He turned and embraced the little white haired lady warmly.
“It’s so good to see you, Mrs. Talley,” he said. “Thanks for sending the telegram.”
“It was the least I could do.”
“But how’d you know where to find me?”
“We’ll talk about all that later after supper tonight. You’ll be staying with us just like you used to,” said Mrs. Talley. Randall Lee started to protest but she would have none of it saying, “We’ve got some things we need to talk about. Now these folks want to speak to you,” she said, sweeping one arm toward the crowd. His mother’s long-time friends came around and shook his hand or hugged him. All said they were glad to see him back.
Finally, after everything had been said that could be said, the crowd gradually dispersed. He turned for one last look at his mother’s grave. The grounds crew was shoveling in the dirt. It made a hollow sound as it hit her coffin. He and Mrs. Talley walked down the hill together. “How’s Mr. Talley?” he asked.
“Oh, he’s fine.”
“Is he still at the post office?”
“Yes, he’s the Post Master now.”
“That’s great. You said we needed to talk about something.”
“Yes, we do. We’ll do it after supper,” said Mrs. Talley as she got into her car.
“I’m gonna drive around and look at all the changes in town. Then I’ll be right on over,” said Randall Lee.
There wasn’t much new to see - a couple of new stores, some new paint, some new landscaping, a new fence and a new brick entrance to the shirt factory. As he drove, he couldn’t help but think of Lester Ray Talley. They’d been best friends growing up, played ball together, been in Korea together but in different units. Lester Ray’s unit had been in the front line with two ROK units on each side when the Chinese attacked. The two ROK units pulled out leaving Lester Ray’s company out on a limb. They got cut off and suffered heavy casualties before a counter attack got through and rescued them. Lester Ray didn’t make it. Every time he thought about it, Randall Lee got angry at those damned yellow-bellied Koreans for running off and getting his friend killed. He wondered how he was going to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Talley about Lester Ray. He had avoided saying anything at the cemetery because he didn’t know what to say. He dreaded supper for that reason.
He parked in front of the Talley home and got his bag out of the trunk. Mrs. Talley met him at the door. “Come on down to your regular place,” she said as she led him down the hall to Lester Ray’s old room. Not much had changed in fifteen years. The twin beds sat in the same place. It gave Randall Lee and eerie feeling. “I believe you always slept in that one,” Mrs. Talley said pointing to the one on the left.
“Yes, that’s right,” acknowledged Randall Lee as he sat his bag down.
She put one arm around him. “It’s so good to have you back. It’s like a part of Lester Ray has come home. You remember all those nights you spent here after you all played in those late night ball games and all those weekends he spent with you hunting and fishing on your farm? We all had some wonderful times together. I still miss him so much.” Mrs. Talley pulled up the corner of her apron and dabbed her eyes.
“Of course I remember,” replied Randall Lee. “Those kinds of things you don’t forget. You were a second mama to me.”
She put both arms around him and hugged him tightly for a long moment. Finally, she dropped her arms and said, “That’s enough of this. We can’t live in the past. Let’s just be happy right now. I’m going down and finish up supper. You freshen up and get those traveling clothes off and into something comfortable. Then come on down to the kitchen.” She left still wiping her eyes on her apron.
As Randall Lee was washing up, he heard Mr. Talley come in. He changed into jeans and a t-shirt and headed for the rear of the house. Mr. Talley greeted him warmly, pumping his hand and slapping him on the shoulder. “Boy, you’ve turned into a fine looking man. But what have you done with your hair?” Mr. Talley always liked to tease about something.
“I left it in Korea.”
“I didn’t know they were still taking scalps in that war.”
“They weren’t. I think my scalp froze one night up by The Chosen Reservoir. Hair began to come out in hunks and never grew back. I’m just glad it wasn’t my feet. Say, since you’ve brought it up, looks like the same thing has happened to you,” said Randall Lee as he rubbed a hand over the older man’s shiny pate. They both laughed.
“I see you two haven’t forgot how to needle each other,” said Mrs. Talley. “Now come on to the table before the food gets cold.” They sat down to a sumptuous meal.
After they had helped their plates, Mr. Talley asked, “Okay, how about giving us a sketch of what you’ve been doing since you left?”
“Well,” Randall Lee replied, “I went to Birmingham and got a job in one of the steel mills. After a few months, I decided I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life so I got accepted at the Police Academy, graduated, and started with the Birmingham Police Department. I’d also joined the National Guard and when the Korean War broke out, we got called up. You all knew Lester Ray and I ran into each other there. Anyway, we had done some training at Camp Carson, Colorado, and I sort of liked it out there, so when I got back, I got on with the Denver Police Department. They have a program where you can go to school along with the police work so I used my G.I. Bill, went to class at night and on weekends and got a degree in Criminal Justice. I’m a Detective now and do a lot of undercover work. But changing the subject, how in the world did you know how to reach me?”
“We’ll go into all of that later,” replied Mrs. Talley. Randall Lee’s detective’s antenna was beginning to pick up some vibrations. Something wasn’t right - it didn’t exactly fit together. He wondered what it was.