The night before his uncle Marley’s funeral — that would make it the night before Christmas Eve — it was Buddy’s turn to take the dog out. “Come, Addie,” he said as he walked by her.
He headed to the back door, grabbed his coat, and slipped it on as he walked, stepped out onto the stoop while holding the door open for Addie. The half-moon was as bright as a full moon it seemed, and Venus or whoever was very bright, and Buddy stood at the top of the four steps as Addie walked into the shadow of the head-high cedar tree there in the backyard.
The lot they lived on slanted down into a floodplain. On summer nights, when he brought Addie out, he’d listen to the frogs in the trees and in the Clarks’ pond beyond the hedge. Sometimes he’d sit on the steps and rub Addie’s head. He missed hearing the frogs in the winter. On some cold nights he imagined their sounds, but that was hard — like he was losing his place in a piece of music. He could never get it quite right when it was in his head only.
Addie had stopped in the shadow of the cedar tree, and she looked like a still darker shadow — darker than the cedar shadow. For sure she was squatting, peeing. She didn’t move, and then still didn’t move. Was that her? It had to be her. She really had to go.
The air was cold on his ears. He imagined his tan hat with the warm earflaps. It was hanging on the coatrack inside. He blew warm air into his hand. He stish-stished his tongue against the back of his teeth, and the black shadow turned, moved toward him, and then appeared in the bright moonlight. He could see her clearly against the sand at the bottom of the steps — like black paper pasted onto white — and then on up the steps she came, her toenails clicking. He bet she was tired because they’d let her run behind Billy Ray’s pickup in the Hoggards’ field that morning.
She followed him back in, and he closed and locked the door. He thought about the right hand banjo patterns he’d be doing on taps at Uncle Marley’s funeral tomorrow — he’d use that instead of the one-note harmony. He should practice again before bed. This was the first time the funeral militia would be doing a banjo along with taps. Aunt Laura, Uncle Marley’s wife, had also asked for “Away in a Manger” for the end of the service since it would be Christmas Eve.
They were doing the whole military funeral thing free for Uncle Marley’s funeral because of family ties.
Snake would be wearing an Air Force uniform they got from Army Surplus — like the other uniforms — and he, Buddy, would be wearing his new Boy Scout uniform when they stood beside each other and played taps. The trumpet and banjo combination would be $30 extra when they started doing this for paying customers.
He’d only gone to the funerals before to listen to Snake and to listen to the guns shoot and watch Uncle Buster hand the folded flag to the lady (usually a lady, except on a recent one the flag went to the man’s son because the wife had died).
All in all, the makeup of Funeral Militia was Buddy, his daddy, his two older brothers, two uncles, two cousins, and his granddaddy. That made nine. Everybody called his granddaddy, Dad. To make it work best, Dad said, they needed 14, using only seven at a time, because when it got busy people would have to be missing work, and then eventually the Funeral Militia would be full-time for all of them because they’d be traveling all over. They didn’t have a name for the business yet.
A few weeks earlier, Buddy explained it all to the new student Myra Tilson, also 10 and in fifth grade. They’d been in the middle of a conversation.
Buddy: People find out you can have one without being in the Army or anything. Most of the time the American Legion does them for people that’s been in the Army or Marines or something. We go to nursing homes and look for people who want a military funeral. They sign this paper that says which parts they want — if they’re not mentally impaired. Snake is supposed to use a bugle to play taps but he uses a trumpet. My uncle Charles won’t have anything to do with any of it because he said it was disrespectful, but Dad — we call my granddaddy, Dad — he said he couldn’t imagine anything more respectful of the whole idea of a strong military, and that it’s a play, that’s what it says on the paper they have to sign, and Granddaddy, he said we lived in a free country and that the Supreme Court said you could wear an Army uniform in a play anytime you wanted to and why didn’t Uncle Charles just move to Russia.
“That song that goes: ‘Da Da Daaaaaaaaah. Da Da Daaaaaah. Da Da —’ ”
“Yeah, I know that one. And you … how do you do that on the banjo?”
“I’d do some rolls to back him up probably — a thumb pattern and a forward-backward roll. Come to Uncle Marley’s funeral. He’s real sick and supposed to die anytime.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s got cancer. But he married in. Dad says nobody in the blood family ever had cancer and never will. Dad comes by our house every Saturday night and eats vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup and peanuts.”
That night of the bright half-moon, the night before Christmas Eve and Uncle Marley’s military funeral, Buddy pulled up his cover, bunched the pillow beneath his head, and visualized the air rifle he was getting for Christmas and the motorized Army tank and the Death Squad video game for his DSi. He’d wanted a new DSi but that didn’t work out. His daddy was out of work. That’s one reason Dad started the Funeral Militia. Other reasons were his oldest brother and a cousin being out of work. Dad said they could sell franchises once they got things rolling. As best Buddy could figure, a franchise was something like a fried peach pie that you’d eat after the funeral.
When Buddy started drifting off to sleep, he pretended he could hear the frogs in the backyard like he did on the warm summer nights — one starting, then another, then a bunch together — summer nights when he and Addie and the family and uncles, aunts, and cousins cooked out on the grill out there and watched the TV set up in the window of the garage. His mama had taught him three ways to fall asleep. First was to hear a sound and then hear it over again — something that built up like the frogs. The second way was to push-plow a garden row by row in your mind and plant it out. Then the third way usually worked to get him asleep if the other ways didn’t. For that method, he thought these words over and over again: Gloria, Grover, 64.
Addie slept between his bed and Norman’s — his other brother’s — on her new pad from Walmart that she got early for Christmas this year.
On Monday, Christmas Eve, the day of the funeral, the men, dressed in uniforms and with their rifles, after parking their cars and trucks out front and in the driveway, met at noon at the garage behind Buddy’s house. The funeral would be at 2 o’clock. They stood around eating fried chicken that neighbors had brought.
Buddy looked at the men through his bedroom window as he dressed in his Boy Scout uniform — his mama laid it out. He started down the back steps just as Aunt Laura came around the house to Buddy’s right. The garage was on the back, left corner of the lot — in the floodplain — and it flooded a lot.
“You look so nice, Buddy,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Buddy as he stepped down into the yard.“But I’m not going to be able to go through with the military part.” Her lipstick was red and her hair white.
“Because it don’t fit, Buddy. I gotta tell Dad.”
Buddy stopped walking, watched her walk on toward the men in uniform, the brother, the cousins, the red on the collars of the Marine uniforms, the Air Force flight cap that his cousin, Cole, was wearing. There were six of them. In the middle, leaning against the hood of his Ford truck, was Dad, who took his hat off when he saw Laura, showing his gray-with-tinges-of-red hair. His complexion was red, his Army coat a little tight in the shoulders. He was leaning back against the truck with his legs crossed at the ankles, his pants about an inch short, his shoes spit-shined.
“I just don’t think I can do it, Dad,” said Aunt Laura.
“Do what, Laura?”
“The military part.”
“You’re canceling the funeral?”
“No. Just the military part.”
“We done planned this, Laura.”
“I know, but I just can’t do it.”
Buddy’s mother and father came out on the stoop behind him. Buddy turned and looked at them standing at the top of the steps. His daddy wore a Coast Guard uniform. When Dad first saw it, he’d said, “Coast Guard?”
“Why would you do that, Laura? It’s something Marley wanted, won’t it?”
“Well, yes, but … I, I just don’t think it all fits together on Christmas E—”
“It’s Marley’s funeral, Laura.” Dad smiled, showing his missing tooth.
“Well, I know, Dad, but he told me to plan the funeral, and I got to thinking about —”
“Laura, if you’re going to —”
“Let me finish, Dad. I want Sister and Buddy to do ‘Away in a Manger,’ though.”
“Well, gosh. Hell, it’s free, Laura. Why not go full hog like Marley wanted?”
Aunt Laura had stopped between Buddy and his granddaddy. Buddy stepped to the side so he could see Dad.
“Hey, Buddy,” said his granddaddy. “You and Snake done worked up taps, ain’t you?”
“What a shame. What a shame.” He brought his hand to his ear like he did sometimes. “Your aunt Laura here wants to cancel the military part. What do you think about that?”
Buddy felt some heat around his neck. He turned and looked at his mother and father, then back at his granddaddy. His Aunt Laura had turned halfway around and was looking at him.
“I don’t know,” said Buddy.
“Don’t know?” said Dad. “Don’t know? Well, I don’t think I know, either.” He straightened up, put on his hat. “Let’s go home and change clothes, boys. So we won’t be late to the funeral. We’ll see you at the church, Laura. I hope too many people won’t be disappointed.” Then he whispered, “Jesus.”
That afternoon at the funeral, while Sister played guitar and sang “Away in a Manger,” and he played banjo, Buddy listened to the words and felt a little like he might understand the problem.
That night, Christmas Eve, he took Addie out to pee. It was cloudy, no bright moon, and kind of warm for Christmas. He could barely see her but imagined she went to the same spot she had the night before. Later, when he was in his bed, for the first time in his life on a winter’s night, Buddy heard the frogs crank up, for real, and he was amazed.
This fiction story originally appeared in Our State‘s December 2012 issue.
About the author:
Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, a memoir, short stories, and essays. His work has been published in Best American Short Stories, Our State, and Garden & Gun. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of the North Carolina Literary Award, and five of his novels have been New York Times Notable Books. His newest book, a nonfiction work called “Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers”, will be out in May 2013 from Little, Brown and Company. He is a member of The Fellowship of Southern Writers and teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He lives in Wilmington with his wife, Kristina, and their children.