Always in Character
There were cars and trucks, mostly trucks, in the parking lot and the front porch lights were on at the Braceyville Funeral Home, a sure sign that some local resident was laid out in the front room with the lid open. Like moths attracted to a streetlight, the townspeople were drawn to the funeral home’s brightly lit porch. Whether they knew the deceased well or not, it was a good time to visit as well as to pay last respects. Most everybody in town could be counted on to drop by sometime during the evening.
On this particular evening, the honoree was Tub Pickett. He lay in a cheap coffin surrounded by two or three scraggly flower arrangements. Tub would not be much missed.
Most folks supposed that Tub got his name because of his extra large beer gut. It was the largest any of the local residents could remember seeing. It drooped somewhere near mid-thigh and was about the size of a wash tub. But Tub got his name when he was a mere infant and before he had ever tasted beer. He had an older brother who was assigned the chore of watching out for him when his parents were both away from home. This brother loved to hunt and fish, so as soon as his parents were out of sight, he would put the infant under a number three wash tub somewhere in the yard and head for the woods or the creek. One day the Picketts came home early forcing the older boy to stop this practice. The tub was gone but the name remained.
The visitors spilled out onto the front porch and into the front lawn. Few cared much about Tub Pickett; they were here to see Miss Jenny May Shannon. There was an air of expectancy. Those who came late would ask, “Miss Jenny been in yet?” and there were other comments:
“I bet she ain’t comin’.”
“I bet she does.”
“Would you come iffen you wuz her?”
“Nope. But I ain’t her and she ain’t missed comin’ in more’n fifty year.”
“There’s always a first time.”
”Not fer Miss Jenny they ain’t.”
Miss Jenny May Shannon had taught English and directed plays at the high school in the little coal company town until she was nearly eighty. The consolidation of grades nine through twelve into Lake City and the fact that she had no way to get there had forced her into retirement. She had taught everyone in town who had gone through Braceyville High. Tub Pickett had not been one of her students. If he had been, things might have turned out differently.
Miss Jenny always came to the funeral home with words of comfort for the grieving family and always with something nice to say about the deceased. It was one of Braceyville’s traditions. Most people wouldn’t think it was a proper burial unless Miss Jenny said some complimentary words about the dear departed and shed a tear or two. But then, none of the others had been Tub Pickett.
Tub had not been one of the town’s more exemplary citizens. He had worked as a miner for the Bracey Coal Company, the largest coal company in that area of Appalachia. His days had been spent in the mine. His nights—until closing time—had been spent at Darryl’s Tavern drinking beer. It was Tub’s nighttime activity that had gotten the whole controversy started. One evening he was headed home after several hours of beer consumption. He had parked his truck in front of Miss Jenny’s house, a few doors down from the tavern. When he got to his vehicle, he realized that he had not emptied out the last gallon or so of beer. There was a large geranium bush in the corner of Miss Jenny’s front yard by the sidewalk which exactly fitted Tub’s need at that moment. So, he proceeded to relieve himself in the bush before driving off.
This initial act seemed to awaken some perverted instinct deep inside Tub. On future nights when he parked down toward Miss Jenny’s, he would make it a point to give her geranium a good spraying on his way home. Pretty soon he began to park in front of Miss Jenny’s every night on purpose just so he could pee on her bush.
This nightly dose of urine was not good for the bush’s health. It soon began to wither and die on the street side. Miss Jenny noticed its condition but was at a loss as to why just part of an otherwise healthy geranium would die. She thought it might have something to do with the terrible smell that was so prominent on that side but she could not figure out the source of the odor either.
Then, one night the truth came out. Miss Jenny usually retired early but this particular night her cat had not come back in. She was out in the yard looking for him when Tub Pickett came reeling down the sidewalk. Not wanting anyone to see her in her nightgown, she stepped behind a large maple tree to await his departure. Her eyes widened in horror as she observed Tub performing his nightly ritual. Forgetting her state of dress for the moment, she rushed out of her hiding place waving her cane and shouting in a high-pitched voice. “You stop that, Tub Pickett! You sorry no-good! You’ve been peeing on my bush and killing it. Now stop messing up my yard and get out of here!”
Miss Jenny’s verbal attack hardly fazed Tub. He continued until his bladder was empty and then staggered to his truck, laughing at her.
From that point on, Tub became more sadistic. He would shout insults and cuss at her each night as he wet down the geranium. This disruption of her sleep began to tell on Miss Jenny. She went to the town constable but he was afraid of Tub and said that he couldn’t do anything unless he caught him in the act. Of course, he never could seem to get around at the right time. Soon the whole of Braceyville knew what was going on. The bush continued to die.
Then one night Rick Stagg, who had been working late at the coal company office, stopped by Darryl’s for a beer on his way home. He had been one of Miss Jenny’s best students and had been the lead actor in several of her plays. He worked in the coal company’s office keeping records.
Tub Pickett was in his usual place. Because he knew Rick was interested in such things, Tub began talking to him about the new CB radio he’d just bought for his truck. Since it was near closing time, he invited Rick to come down to his truck and see it.
As the two got to where the truck was parked, Tub veered off course toward the geranium bush unzipping his fly. “Wait jest a minute while I tend to this first.”
“Don’t do that, Tub.” There was an edge on Rick’s voice.
“And jest why not?” Tub asked sarcastically.
“Cause Miss Jenny’s a nice lady and she’s old and there’s just no sense in making her last years miserable and peeing on her bush.”
Rick’s words sent Tub into a frenzy. “You little pencil pusher! Jest cause you work in the office you think you’re better’n me and can tell me what to do! Les’ see how you’d like a good dose of ol’ Bessie!”
Tub lurched to his truck and grabbed the shotgun from the gun rack. When he turned around, he was looking down the barrel of Rick’s forty-five automatic. Since he had to carry money and important papers for the coal company, they had gotten him a permit and insisted that he carry a gun.
The pistol and the look in Rick’s face brought Tub to a momentary halt. But it only lasted a few seconds. “Why you little shit. You ain’t got guts enough to use that thang.” With that he started to pump a shell into the gun’s chamber. He never finished. The forty-five made two large holes in the middle of Tub’s chest and drove him back against the truck’s side and down onto the asphalt street.
It was getting close to eight o’clock and no sign of Miss Jenny. Suddenly, her porch light came on, her front door opened, and Miss Jenny May Shannon, dressed in her black mourning clothes, stepped out. As she made her way along the sidewalk, a hush fell on those in the funeral home’s front yard and gradually extended to those on the porch and then to those inside. The only sounds were an occasional throat clearing and the tap, tap, tap of Miss Jenny’s cane. The crowd parted for her as the waters had for Moses as she made her way across the porch. She went on inside and sat down with two ladies, Mrs. Whitney and Mrs. Helton, sisters with whom she had taught for many years.
The three made polite small talk for a few minutes. The murmur of other voices began to increase in volume but no one’s eyes left Miss Jenny for very long. All wondered what she’d say about Tub Pickett, the man who had peed on her geranium nightly and who’d gotten himself killed in front of her house for doing it.
Finally, Miss Jenny heaved a big sigh. “I guess it’s time to give Tub a last look,” she said as she got to her feet. The room fell silent. She walked toward the open casket with Mrs. Helton on one side and Mrs. Whitney on the other. Each put an arm around her as if to give support and comfort. Miss Jenny really needed neither of these. The two women intended to make sure they heard what Miss Jenny had to say.
They stood before the open lid for several minutes. Tub looked better in death than he ever had in life. At length Miss Jenny broke the silence, “Well, I’ll have to give him credit for one thing.”
There was a long pause. The sisters looked at each other. “What’s that, Miss Jenny?” asked Mrs. Whitney.
Drawing on her many years’ experience in directing drama, Miss Jenny replied, “He always stayed in character.”
Miss Jenny turned to go. It was obvious she intended to say no more. There were more quizzical looks between the sisters. Mrs. Helton felt that it was her turn to ask for clarification, so she put her hand on Miss Jenny’s arm to delay her departure. “In character, Miss Jenny?”
‘Yes, in character,” answered Miss Jenny. “He was an asshole to the very end.”
Luke Boyd, B.S., M.A.,Ph.D., is the author of Coon Dogs, Outhouses, and other Southern Samplings. He is also ghostwriter for Don't Call Me Hero by Jim McGregor. Seven of his short stories were published in three volumes of Our Voices: Williamson County Literary Review, and one article appeared in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Boyd, retired after forty-eight years in education, served as principal of Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tennessee, for nineteen years. He is a member of the Tennessee Writers Alliance.