Opal

johnny franklin terry 3

 

1960

Opal was doing as she always did during the early hours of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. She was walking up and down the rows of uneven headstones in Piney Cemetery. From time to time she’d encounter a snake slithering about, but she never got startled when one got under her feet. Most creatures, animal and human alike, seldom bother you if you allow them to do whatever it is they do.

She and her husband of forty years lived in a small house off Rich Road, near where it intersected with Mopac Road and 39. The roof was tin and most of the sides of the house were covered in tar paper disguised as bricks. Opal kept a line of rose bushes across the back of the house. She insisted that Earl let them grow wild, a demand that often caused Opal to laugh as she heard her husband cursing at the thorns as he got too close. She often reminded him that her garden’s size more than compensated for the hassle of dealing with the roses.

After her husband Earl retired from police work, they moved from Little Rock back to Monroe County. They got the place Earl’s brother Frank inherited from their eccentric parents. Frank took off for Mississippi when he found out Earl and Opal wanted the old place. He claimed it was because the mosquitoes were so bad here. “Like birds,” Frank would say, over and over. It made little sense, either, because the mosquitoes on that side of the Mississippi were worse. Earl opined that perhaps the generous availability of good barbeque and moonshine might have contributed to his brother’s enthusiasm for a move. Frank liked to associate with people who might otherwise catch his brother’s attention. He loved saying things like, “Bad apples still make good wine.”

Earl had donated most of the extra land around the house for the farmers who owned property nearby. Not only did it save him having to pretend to keep it presentable, but the farmer would drop by and give him beans or corn from another crop in repayment. When the crops were in full bloom, their house would be rimmed by cotton or beans. Earl swore he’d never farm, unlike many of his family. Earl didn’t ask for signatures or handshakes; he expected people to honor their word.

As for the Rich community of Monroe County, it was mostly a place of good souls. There were a couple of mean drunks and a pair of men who enjoying hitting their wives. Most of the angry drunks learned their lesson a few years ago while Opal lived in Little Rock. Melvina Mull came home one night after church to find her husband sitting on the porch with a shotgun and drinking whiskey. Though the details are still argued about, the little community woke up Thursday morning to the news that Melvina had enough beatings and opted to put an ax in the forehead of her husband. She was arrested and charged. The trial was held a week later. The jury acquitted her after 2 minutes of deliberation. Judge Bryant just shook his head and said, “Justice is swift in these parts.” The judge did take a moment and recommend that Melvina might reconsider getting remarried if the urge to do so arose.

Many people in the Rich community lived such private lives that they didn’t see how oddly they often behaved. As for loyal neighbors to be counted on, all of them were fiercely willing to lend a hand to anyone, anytime. The austere farm life often demanded precisely that. Many of the locals had no indoor bathrooms. Almost all used wood heat and left their screened-in windows open day and night.

Away from the prying eyes of her infernal husband, Opal could partake of a bit of dry snuff. She could spit wherever she wanted to that way. Her neighbors snickered behind her back. The idea of walking sounded bonkers to everyone she knew, especially once she turned sixty. Opal walked to Brinkley more than once, which was eleven miles. Monroe was closer, but the mercantile wasn’t always open. Opal was in great shape despite her taste for both snuff and alcohol. She kept a big garden and built chicken coops or a storm shelter for anyone who needed one. While living in Little Rock, she had challenged several men to arm wrestling. All but one left with a new outlook on feminine toughness.

She skipped her walk on Wednesdays because her Wednesday night gospel duties included providing at least one dish and one dessert. She took great pride in preparing for the church meals, much to the chagrin of her husband, Earl. He’d sit on the porch and complain about starving away to skin and bones. As far as Opal could tell, it would take a grand bout of going without a bite to eat to starve him out. Anyway, Earl thought she’d given up her snuff. He hadn’t found the supply of strawberry liquor, either. Opal kept it in a bleach jug, one she’d washed until it had no bleach smell. She carefully drank a cup of it each night after supper. That liquor had saved her marriage frequently. It also helped her to sleep during the nightly ritual of Earl snoring so loudly that even the dogs would howl for a few minutes. The mutts weren’t hers, though. They belonged to that no-account neighbor about a half-mile down the road. They spent more time under her porch and in the shade at her house than they ever did at Cousin Spendly’s tin-roofed house. Everyone called him Cousin, which was odd because as far as she could tell, no one much claimed to be his kin.

Some mornings, Opal would see Old Lady Elvertie riding her three-wheeled contraption down the road, her long skirt making it look like she was moving along by magic. Opal had encountered a drunk or two sleeping it off in the cemetery over the years. They’d mostly been coming back from Monroe or Blackton after drinking too much. Ever since the railroad spur from the lumber mill had been closed, the drunks were becoming less frequent. The spur line was falling out of repair; in some places, bushes and grass were growing wild. Sometimes a tractor would go by a little too fast, creating a dust storm that left nonsense in her teeth for an hour after it had passed. Opal would make a note of it was and make sure to get on the party line and mention it, so word would get out that someone’s husband was speeding and causing a commotion.

After so many years of marriage, Earl didn’t require much maintenance. He’d drink at least 6 cups of coffee and eat toast. Sometimes he’d eat biscuits from the day before. He’d eat bacon, eggs, and sausage too, like any good Southerner, but he preferred to wait until lunch to un-notch his belt and stuff himself senseless. Opal would always make a tin of biscuits.

Last night’s church service had been particularly lively. Reverend Samuel pounded the pulpit as if he were calling Satan himself to come to have a word with him. The congregation had been worked to a frenzy, resulting in them drinking a record number of glasses of iced tea after the service.

Most Wednesday night services in the summer were sparsely attended due to the crops but last night was a surprise. Even Jasper, the area’s only known atheist, showed up at the service. He told everyone that it was his job to keep the pastor honest. Everyone loved Jasper and his dry sense of humor. Jasper also had almost all of the New Testament of the King James Bible memorized, and on a couple of occasions had been used as a Bible when one wasn’t available. Jasper’s wife Emelda was a devout Methodist, which was strange, as she’s been attending the Baptist Church around the bend for twenty years. “I’m Methodist,” she’d say, almost without thinking. She was just about the most Baptist Methodist anyone could ever meet.

As Opal neared the eastern end of the cemetery, she shielded her eyes against the sun, which had been up for about forty-five minutes. With no warning, she fell into an open grave without realizing she was approaching a hole in the ground. There was no mound of dirt piled carelessly to one side to draw attention. Her straw hat tumbled to the side while she tumbled headfirst into the freshly dug grave.

On the way down, she thought it would be the death of her. As she braced herself to hit the soil on the bottom of the pit, she found herself instead falling on top of a body.

The person under her didn’t jump or push away, which she found to be strange. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up like icicles as she realized that the person under her was dead.

Being practical, Opal stood up in the grave. Opal had seen many bodies during her husband’s career. Truth be told, she was less skittish about it than he was. Her head was still a foot under the rim of soil. Most graves weren’t dug six feet under. This one seemed to be deeper. Since the person was dead, it wasn’t going to do her any harm. Not unless she couldn’t get herself out of the grave. Likely, no one would visit the back of the cemetery for a full day. Shouting like she’d chopped a finger off wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention either unless someone was going by slowly. No one on a tractor would be able to hear her. She resisted the urge to look down at her companion in the grave.

She stood on top of the body and jumped with as much force as she could muster. Her arms cleared the edge of the grave, and she pulled and scratched at the grass to get leverage and crawl out. Just as she was beginning to slide back down in the grave, a pair of hands grabbed hers. Opal screamed like a squirrel had jumped from her drawer of unmentionables.

She felt herself being dragged from the grave. She fell face-first in the grass and then rolled over to see who had helped her out of the grave. The sun was behind her rescuer, and all she could see was a blinding silhouette without much form.

“Mrs. Opal, what are you doing in the bottom of a grave?” Pastor Samuel asked. His voice was unmistakable. For a pastor, his voice sounded like that of someone who’d spent a lifetime in the coal mines. To the horror of more than one of his church members, the Pastor loved smoking. He preached many sermons about the benefits of the vice. Opal wouldn’t be surprised if Lucky Strikes didn’t pay to have their logo placed on the steeple of the church.

“I ain’t practicing, if that’s what you’re getting at, Reverend.” Opal continued to lay in the grass, shielding her eyes.

“I came by to put flowers on Ivey George’s grave for his wife. She was feeling poorly last night and asked me for the favor. I’m on my way to Henderson’s Corner to see Emma Lou.” As Pastor Samuel talked, he leaned down to offer a hand to Opal. She grabbed his hand and yanked herself up much more quickly than the Reverend expected. For a moment, he wondered if he might topple over into the grave.

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear my old Ford as I pulled in over there,” the Reverend said as he waved vaguely toward the entrance marked by an overhead arch. “I saw you dive into the hole just as I pulled in.”

As Opal looked over toward the Reverend’s ugly old car, she stopped. Pastor Samuel noticed that her eyes went a little wide and looked around too. “I didn’t dive in there…” she started to say, her voice trailing off. Opal curiously looked around the grave and wondered where all the excavated dirt from the hole went.

On the edge of the road, Old Lady Elvertie stood, both feet planted on either side of her three-wheel bicycle. She had her hand over her mouth and looked like she was in shock.

Opal waved toward her.  The Reverend took a couple of steps toward her to give her a shout to let her know that all was well.

No sooner than he had moved toward her that Old Lady Elvertie jumped up on her pedals and began to madly push up and down on them. She was fleeing the scene like she’d seen a familiar ghost.

Opal and the Reverend laughed as they watched her scramble away from them. They stood by the grave trying to decipher where all the dirt from the grave had gone.

“It just beats all,” the Reverend decided. Opal declined the Reverend’s offer to drive her back to the house as he walked back to his ugly Ford to get the flowers.

Thirty minutes later, Opal walked back up the dirt and gravel driveway in front of her house. It didn’t occur to her that she hadn’t mentioned the dead body in the grave to Reverend Samuel. It seemed to be relevant now that it crossed her mind again, especially since he hadn’t mentioned one, either.

Earl was waiting, his legs hanging off the closest end of the wooden plank porch. Two of Cousin Spendly’s mutts were underneath him, beneath the porch, both lazily watching Opal approach.

“Did you have a commotion, Opal?” Earl was grinning and full of himself.

“Whatever on Earth do you mean? Have you gone soft in the head?” Opal was a little sore from doing gymnastics into the boneyard.

“Mildred called in a tizzy. She said Old Lady Elvertie stopped in at her house, babbling about seeing Pastor Samuel bring someone back from the dead, straight from the grave. Mildred couldn’t get much sense out of her. She said Old Lady Elvertie drank a hot cup of coffee in one swallow and took off again.” For Earl, that was a speech.

“Like all rumors, part of that’s true. I ain’t dead yet, but the Reverend did yank me out of a peculiar grave. And there was a dead body in it.” Opal was flustered. Earl was going to pick and poke at her for forgetting to mention that the grave had a body in it.

At the mention of the dead body, Earl’s right eyebrow shot up like a startled bird. Opal could see ten years of wrinkles disappear from her husband’s face. His day would be filled with questions as his old skills and days investigating people doing stupid things came flooding back.

Expecting Earl’s attempt at humor, Opal scolded him. “Yes, I know graves are supposed to have bodies in them!”

“I’ll give Sheriff Bryant a call, if Mildred will get off the line. He might be interested in a body.” Earl stood up and started stamping his feet. The edge of the porch had put the back of his legs to sleep. His nimble mind was already racing though.

 

*

Sheriff Bryant stood near the grave that Opal discovered earlier. As always, he was dressed in overalls and a cowboy hat. His star was pinned on the shoulder of his overalls. He didn’t wear a uniform. “I’m one of y’all,” he was fond of saying. If he carried a gun, it was often shoved into one of his pockets as an afterthought.  Earl stood next to him, shaking his head in disbelief. “Where did the dirt go?” had been uttered at least a dozen times. The dirt’s disappearance seemed more perplexing than the body at the bottom of the grave.

“I called Deputy Win to bring a ladder and his sons over here. There’s no use in one of us jumping down there and getting stuck until they get here.” Sheriff Bryant never hurried. His dad was the same way. People joked that the old Sheriff Bryant took a week just to get to his own retirement and would be late arriving at his own death.

*

I’m seventy years old now. I can’t believe sixty years have passed since Opal found the unidentified body of a woman in that grave. Her husband Earl got deputized to investigate the alleged murders. After he decided that Pastor Samuel had killed the woman, the quiet community almost erupted in a civil war. Although I was just ten when it happened, I can still smell Opal’s roses blooming behind her house, even though those roses were plowed under in 1993 when the farmer who owned the land grew tired of renting the house to a series of poor occupants.

That time and place has vanished, but not a day passes that I don’t wish I could go back and relive 1960 in Rich. I could have saved Opal and her retired husband from the disruption in their lives.

If you’ll give me a few minutes to consider how I can tell this story and do it justice, I’ll collect my thoughts and get back to you…

I’ll leave with a picture I have of Opal and Earl. I can look at this picture and feel the excitement for life that Opal radiated. She wasn’t my kin, but she was my kind of person. I’d love to live in her world again. I’d trade all the money I’ve made to walk in that world and sit on her porch.

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