Fetching Dead Red Home, or, Mardi Gras the Hard Way

January 25, 2009

In Greek mythology, it was Charon who ferried the dead across the River Styx to Hades.

Dead Red had to settle for me and Freddy and a blue ’64 Dodge station wagon. And Athens, Ga….well, its resemblance to Hades depended a lot on which neighborhood you lived in.

Dead Red was apparently unhappy with the arrangement because he did not behave very well, and insisted on calling attention to himself.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Call.

The phone rang late one afternoon in our little apartment in Parkview Homes, a euphemism for some ancient public housing warrens just downhill from downtown. Mary took the call and said “It’s for you.”

It was Mr. Peeler, one of the owners of the funeral home where I had worked two years earlier, while I was still in high school.

“How would you like a trip to N’Awlins?”

Mr. Peeler was VERY Southern.

Turns out one of our local residents had traveled to see Georgia embarrass itself against the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl some weeks back, and had collapsed during the game. Well, the final score had Alabama winning 16-2, so there’s no surprise there. Unfortunately, the fellow’s infirmity had as much to do with about a half dozen conditions he had, all of them terminal, as did the Bulldogs’ sloppy performance.

His doctor had told him he should stay home and forget going to the game, but I can tell you, based on many years of experience with the breed, that the only thing that will keep an ardent Dawgs fan away from a championship game is a lack of pulse.

Well, Dead Red had one when he arrived. By the time Mardi Gras rolled around, he didn’t have one anymore. That’s where Freddy and Mr. Peeler and I came in.

Freddy was slick. He was a mortician at the home, and had been one of the drivers back when the funeral homes operated ambulances as a community service. I worked as an attendant on the ambulances, and as an apprentice embalmer. We weren’t EMTs. Most of us had no formal first-aid training. If you were still alive when we got you to the emergency room, it was because God didn’t have your room ready.

Freddy chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and drove over 100 mph in the ambulance, one hand on the wheel and the other flicking his cigarette over the ashtray. He was never nervous, even when we got sideways at 90 or so on a wet highway in the big Caddies. When I met him, he had just got out of the hospital after a wreck in which the attendant had died. In ambulance wrecks back then, it was usually the attendant who got killed.

I was the dead guy’s replacement.

My dad got me the job.

Anyway, I escaped unscathed, the funeral home stopped running ambulances because the insurance and minimum-wage requirements got too high, and I was out of a job. Still, I’d go sit with Freddy on the front porch of the old pre-Civil War home in which the funeral home was situated. We would smoke cigarettes and talk about the sort of things guys who have worked in the midst of mayhem talk about.

So, it was to be me and Freddy and a jaunt to New Orleans in one of those comfy Cadillac hearses, a nice night in a motel during Mardi Gras, and a trip back, with Dead Red resting quietly in the back.

Turns out, I was wrong about everything except that it would be me and Freddy.

Mr. Peeler was too cheap to give us the gas-guzzling Caddy or to pay for a motel. He gave us the auxiliary ambulance, which was an ordinary 1964 Dodge wagon with a gurney in the back. We were to drive straight to New Orleans, load Dead Red in the back, and come straight back. It was about 600 miles each way, on two-lane roads, as this was well before there were Interstate highways.

I was unemployed. The job paid $25 and my meals were covered. Not a bad deal. A weird deal, yes, but not bad.

So, when did we need to leave, I asked.

“Freddy will be there in about 10 minutes,” said Mr. Peeler.

So, at around five, Freddy and I took off down the Atlanta Highway, bound for the fabled city.

I assume the trip was uneventful, because I don’t remember a thing about it. We were both pretty excited because I had never been to New Orleans. Freddy had, but said most of his time there he was in such a condition that he didn’t rightly remember any of it except for needing a series of injections afterward.

We came to The Big Easy and the funeral parlor at dawn. The wizened old lady in charge of the place – think of the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz, but with Southern charm – took us into her office and had Freddy sign a bunch of papers, then took us back to the embalming room to meet Red

Red was a big’un.

I’d say he would have stood six-six or six-eight, if he was doing any more standing. He wasn’t fat, but massive, with big broad shoulders and size 13 or 14 feet. He also had a thick shock of blazing Dead Red hair that stuck out every whichaway, set off eerily by the line of stitches around his skull where the county pathologist had performed a cranial autopsy.

In point of fact, Dead Red was pretty much a mess. Between old surgery scars and the autopsy incisions, he had a certain country Frankenstein aspect to him, sort of a patchwork version of Huck Finn.

Freddy and I lifted Dead Red onto the gurney – no easy task, even considering he was sort of hollowed out and all – and right away we had a problem. For picking up dead folks, we always carried a burgundy chenille cover with an elastic edging. The idea was you laid out the deceased on the stretcher and snapped the cover over them so that when you went down the hallway or out to the waiting hearse you didn’t alarm the neighbors or frighten children. It fit sort of like a shower cap.

Did I mention that Dead Red was tall? I mean, really tall? Well, we got Highpockets on the thing all right, but the cover wouldn’t stay on. After a period of struggle punctuated by old Anglo-Saxon phrases, Freddy said to Hell with it, we’ll just tote the sumbitch the way he is, top half of his head sticking out one end, and his big old bare, ghost-white feet sticking out of the other.

So, we did. We locked the gurney in place along the driver’s side in the back. Freddy said to be gentle with braking when I was driving because the clamps that held the gurney in place were “no damn good” and could un-clamp if the car’s brakes were applied too hard.

And we headed off for the French Quarter, just as the sun broke the horizon.

We Take Dead Red to Mardi Gras, Sort Of.

It was full daylight when we rumbled the Dodge down to the French Quarter. We had hoped to see some of Mardi Gras, but it had just ended, so what we caught was more or less the dregs. The city had bulldozers collecting trash and confetti, gingerly, lest they scoop up the disoriented and somnolent.

Here and there a few souls walked or stood around. What with their collective states of mind, I could only imagine what they thought when they caught sight of rigid Dead Red in the back of the car. The station wagon did not have tinted windows, so Red’s mop of hair and glowing white feet really stood out. One sailor, desperately trying to keep a light pole from falling over, took off his cap and held it over his heart. He tried to get to attention, but the light pole started to teeter and he thought better of it.

We drove around for quite awhile, sometimes forgetting all about poor Red, until some kid would point and say “Mama, LOOK!” We tried as best we could to keep a low profile. And we were thoughtful. We stopped for breakfast at some little diner, and had the presence of mind to park around back while we went in for breakfast. We figured that leaving a dead man out in plain view in front of a restaurant would be detrimental to business, though it might make it easier to get a table.

We stopped at a liquor store so Freddy could stock up his den at home, as our own county was dry, at least in the sense that you couldn’t buy liquor there legally. Meaning that anybody who wanted it badly enough could get liquor just about any time they wanted without much in the way of real risk. Freddy joked that if he got caught, he’d say the liquor was Red’s.

Bootlegging was a real problem in Georgia. It was so bad that a couple of sheriffs I won’t name came up with the novel solution of taking over the bootlegging operation and running it themselves. It kept things running smoothly and kept out the criminal element.

Home Again, Home Again.

Freddy and Dead Red and I finally headed off for home quite a bit later than Mr. Peeler would have liked, but Freddy and I figured we’d blame our tardiness on traffic or some such, and Dead Red sure as hell wasn’t going to spill the beans. So, we took it easy, extending our chances for free meals. But it was winter and got dark early, and without the sightseeing factor, the trip got a lot less interesting. We were tired, maybe a little weary of one another’s company, and Dead Red sure wasn’t much for conversation.

That didn’t stop him from injecting himself into the picture.

The gurney clamps were worse than we thought. I drove most of the way back because I was more awake. Freddy alternately smoked and napped, slumped against the passenger door. Dead Red, however, was chummier. Every time I would hit the brakes, the gurney would slip from the clamps and roll forward, and I’d find myself with Red’s head on my shoulder.

Mind you, I’m not superstitious or all that squeamish. But having a corpse resting his cranium – one that looks and feels like it’s got a zipper around it — on your shoulder in the middle of the night is really a bit much. I must say, however, that I was a lot more awake after each time it happened.

Freddy thought it was pretty damned funny, even when it was his turn to click Dead Red back in his place and give him a few colorful admonishments. By around two in the morning, I was ready to leave the redheaded bastard, gurney and all, on the side of the road, but Freddy said it was against the law.

An hour or so from home, I told Freddy that I just had to stop for awhile. Nature was calling, and I needed coffee, preferably about a gallon of it.

We stopped at a little diner carved into a hillside. It had no “out back” to park in, so I parked right in front. And hurried in. When I came out of the restroom, I could see that the five or six customers were talking in hushed tones, now and then looking out at Dead Red, his feet and hair shining in the parking lot lights. Nobody said anything to us, which was just as well. I just wanted to get on my way and get the hell home.

Freddy had already gotten himself a polystyrene cup of coffee. I ordered a large. As the pale faced girl at the counter turned to get it, I stopped her.

“Tell you what. Give me two cups.”

I wanted plenty to take with me. The girl’s eyes got wide, looking over my shoulder. I turned and realized she was looking through the windshield of the Dodge, right at the top of Dead Red’s embroidered head.

I don’t know what got into me. I really don’t.

“He gets cranky if he doesn’t have his coffee,” I said.

Her eyes got REALLY wide. All talk in the diner stopped. It was so quiet, I could hear the hum of the electric clock on the wall behind the girl. Freddy froze, looking at me. I think he was trying to figure out if he could convince the crowd that I wasn’t with him.

And then the girl laughed. And then everybody started laughing. The place was roaring. Then, of course, we had to tell everybody the whole story, including the witch at the funeral home and the sailor’s saluting and the bulldozers pushing confetti. We were there for a long time, and we left with plenty of coffee, and some free donuts to boot. They were stale, but I swear they were the best I ever had.

Freddy dropped me off at the apartment. I said my goodbyes to Dead Red. Hell, I felt almost as though we were old friends by then. Freddy waited to be sure I got up the stairs to the door without getting shot or mugged. It was that kind of neighborhood.

Mary let me in and I went to run some water in the tub to wash off the road grit. She picked up my shirt and spotted the Dead Red hairs on the right shoulder and gave me a look. I started to laugh. Then I had to tell the whole story all over again.

© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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2 Responses to “Fetching Dead Red Home, or, Mardi Gras the Hard Way”

  1. valwebb said

    Ow! Ow! My sides are aching from laughing so hard. This is my new Favorite Burger Story. I don’t suppose you remember the name or location of that funeral parlor… surely not the old Bultman Funeral Home on St. Charles?

  2. Terry said

    It was a funeral home in Athens, Ga. in an antebellum home. The company is still in business, but the old location is long gone. Now they’re in a boring modern brick-and-concrete facility on a major highway.

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