I remember the first time I saw a dead body. It wasn’t gross or gruesome or anything like that but, never having seen a dead person before, it was, if nothing else, informative.
Mr. Brewer had been a friend of my grandparents since well before I could remember. I assumed he was older than Grandpa because even though they both had grey hair, Grandpa had more of it. Mrs. Brewer had died long before I arrived, and her loss was Grandma’s excuse for why Mr. Brewer’s house looked shabbier and more piled up with every kind of junk each time they came by.
Mr. Brewer was old, but he was strong. He would come to Grandpa’s workshop with his battered pickup and rattle-trap trailer and buy a few logs from Grandpa’s last foray into the woodlot. So that the logs would fit into Mr. Brewer’s vehicles, the men would use the block and tackle to maneuver the logs into a pair of X-shaped braces then, with a two-man saw, cut them to size. Using the same block and tackle, they would swing the cut logs into the pickup bed and into the trailer, Grandpa handling the rope, Mr. Brewer working the peavey pole. It was then that Mr. Brewer would give my grandfather a few crumpled bills and a handful of pocket change that Grandpa never counted, then drive off, his wheezing old pickup spitting gravel from under the tires as it made its way up to the paved county road.
A few days later, driving into town, we would see a crude sign as we approached Mr. Brewer’s place at the bend in the road, a sign announcing he had ready-split stove wood for sale. Around the bend, there he would be, stripped down to his trousers, boots, and tattered brown fedora, the skin of his back glowing pale against the grey morning mist. His axe rose and fell with a thud, the wood split with a crack, and the new wood thumped onto the stump in a predictable rhythm that I would tap out silently with my feet on the carpet of the back seat. I would watch him through the back window of Grandpa’s pink Nash Rambler until he was out of sight.
I wouldn’t say Mr. Brewer was a favorite of the family—he was never invited to dinner or picnics or anything—he wasn’t very sociable and Grandma said he “never met a bar of soap he liked well enough to lay hands on.” He was what my father called “hard up.” Charity was neither offered nor asked, but while Grandpa and Mr. Brewer cut the logs, Grandma would come across the road with lunch. Usually that consisted of giant sandwiches of homemade bread stuffed with left-over chicken or roast beef and studded with Grandma’s pickles and generous wax paper-wrapped portions of her latest cake or pie. She deliberately packed more than they could possibly eat and, without a word being said, Mr. Brewer took the extra food home with him. When Grandpa came in and handed Grandma the money Mr. Brewer paid for the logs, they both knew it was less than Grandpa could get for them at the sawmill, but “It saves the gas money and the trouble of loading up the truck,” they would tell each other.
I remember it was a Sunday when we found him because I was dressed up and wearing my beloved shiny black Mary Janes with the strap around the ankle. “Waste of hard-earned money,” Grandpa had said when Grandma took me to the shoe store and bought them for me.
“Every little girl should have a pair at least once in her life and since she didn’t have any before, she needs them now.” Grandma’s lips were purse-string tight.
“Before what?” I had tried to ask, but Grandpa changed the subject and I understood that “before” was one of those topics I was not to bring up.
As we approached Brewer’s Bend, Mr. Brewer’s sign advertising his stove wood for sale still leaned against a puny pine at the roadside but as we rounded the bend, Mr. Brewer was not out splitting wood on the old stump. “Odd,” Grandpa said. “Wonder where Brewer is. Mebbe goin’ to church?”
“Well, if that’s the case, I sure hope he found a bar of soap first.” Grandpa chuckled at her own remark.
I looked out the back window, as was my habit at this point in our journey to town. Something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it until Grandpa suddenly stepped on the gas and the Rambler made a kind of snertling sound that always reminded me of Mr. Brewer’s old truck. Mr. Brewer’s truck! That was it!
“Grandpa,” I turned and, standing on the floor of the back seat, I put my lips to his ear. “Grandpa, Mr. Brewer’s truck is still there.”
We motored on a bit longer, when Grandpa pulled to the side of the road.
“Are you sure, Squirt? I didn’t see it when we went by.”
I nodded my head with vigor. “It was parked behind the house.”
“Okay, then,” he said, putting the car into gear and making a U-turn in the middle of the road. “Let’s go make sure Mr. Brewer is all right.”
When we got to the dirt track that led to Mr. Brewer’s tumble-down shack, Grandpa stopped the car and surveyed the scene. What passed for a road was dotted with rain filled puddles, no telling how deep they were. “Better walkin’ in,” he said, almost to himself. “Get me my mucking boots from the trunk,” he said to Grandma, who leapt to comply. “You stay here, Squirt,” he said to me. “It’s wet and muddy and I don’t want you to ruin your Mary Janes.”
I looked down at the gleaming shoes on my feet and nodded my agreement. I had spent hours with an old diaper and a little pot of petroleum jelly, spreading the jelly on the leather, then buffing and polishing the shoes until they glowed. I did not want to waste all that effort picking my way through the mud and the junk littering the property. I tried to watch, but the window fogged more and more with each breath, so I cranked it down. I felt a pulling in my gut to watch Grandpa, as if keeping my eyes on him would keep him safe.
But despite my vigilance, Grandpa disappeared out of sight, putting both me and Grandma into a near panic.
“Stay here!” Grandma commanded as she leapt out of the car and headed for Grandpa’s last sighting. “I’ll be back in a minute!”
One minute turned to two, then to three, and I looked down to admire my Mary Janes. When I looked up again, Grandma was gone. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” I said, imitating my other grandmother’s words of surprise and dismay. “Grandma! Grandpa!” I called but no matter how many “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippis” I counted, nobody answered back.
Finally, telling myself I was worried for their safety rather than my own, I decided to sacrifice the patent-leather miracles on my feet to save my grandparents. I opened the car door and stepped out into the ooze.
Just keeping my balance was a task, never mind picking a path that would save my shoes. I got to the spot where I last saw Grandma and stopped. There was a big fallen log in my way, the bottoms of a pair of Mr. Brewer’s old cast-off boots tucked under one end. This man collected everything—there was even a white china toilet laying on its side, but there was still a privy out behind his old shack just like there was behind ours.
I could hear Grandma and Grandpa talking on the other side of the log.
“We’ll probably have to go all the way to town to call an ambulance,” Grandpa pronounced it “am buh lance.”
“Horse feathers!” Grandma snorted in her scolding voice. “I seen enough dead chickens in my day to know the man is dead as a doorknob, Lawrence,” which she said “lornse,” as if it was all one syllable. I wondered briefly why I didn’t talk like they did.
I leant against the log to steady myself, the ground beneath me only slightly better than sucking mud, and marvelled at the pretty rainbow patterns on the surface of the pools and puddles surrounding me. The dirt here was full of oil or maybe diesel. No wonder Mr. Brewer didn’t have a vegetable garden. Grandma said plants won’t grow in that kind of earth and, sure enough, not even a weed sprouted in the tainted soil.
Deciding that Grandma and Grandpa didn’t need to be rescued, I picked my way back to the car. I didn’t realize how cold I had become until safe inside that cocoon of sheet metal and fabric-covered foam. My breath soon misted the windows again, but now I felt safe and enclosed. Fetching my rag and pot of petroleum jelly from the purse Grandma had given me to carry, I tried to wipe off the mud and polish the shoes but without clean water to rinse the rag, it was hopeless. I was worried that they were ruined, but somehow I believed that Grandma or Grandpa or perhaps both of them, could resurrect my perfect Mary Janes.
Just as I was setting them aside on the seat, Grandpa opened his car door. “What happened to your shoes, Squirt?” He asked. His voice was deep and solemn, like when we read the Scriptures in church.
“I had to pee,” I said, pointing to a bush I had passed at the outset of my expedition to the big log. “Is Mr. Brewer okay?”
Grandma opened her door and sat in the seat with her legs outside the car. “I am sorry to tell you, Honey, but Mr. Brewer has passed away. We have to go home and call the sheriff.” She paused to let out a long sigh. “No church today.”
Sitting in the back seat, lulled by the motion of the car, I started to drift off to sleep. In my half-awake state I dreamt that Grandma and Grandpa were talking about the demise of Mr Brewer as if I was not even there.
“You are sure he didn’t suffer over much?” Grandma asked. She sounded like she was about to cry.
“I seen this before, up to the logging camps,” Grandpa replied. “Most times the feller dies of fright afore the tree even hits him.”
“Most times? What about the other times?”
“One feller I knew got hit acrost the chest and guts by a big un like that and he was still alive when we got to him. He didn’t feel nothin’—no pain a-tall—until we winched that tree up off’n him. Just as soon as we got that almighty piece of wood lifted above his body, he gave out a howl that would curdle yore blood and he died, right then.”
“So…” Grandma drawled out. “So you are saying that Ed Brewer didn’t feel no pain? He died whilst the tree was still on him, after all.”
I felt kind of sick in my throat, and goose bumps ran up and down my arms and through my hair. But I understood Grandma, wanting to be reassured that Mr. Brewer didn’t suffer. I felt the same way.
A week passed before we left the farm again. Grandma and Grandpa, between them, were able to resurrect my Mary Janes but somehow, I wasn’t very excited about it. On the Saturday after we found him, Mr. Brewer was laid to rest, and we were invited to the funeral by his brother, his only known kin. We were given a place of honor, sitting with the family and following behind him in the procession to pay our last respects.
Both excited and scared, I stood behind Grandma, clutching her gloved fingers. I had never seen a dead man before, but I knew about ghosts and I worried if my behavior at the funeral would have any bearing on whether Mr. Brewer came back as a ghost to haunt me.
“You can kiss his cheek if you want to,” Grandma whispered, catching me off guard. Chills ran rampant over my body and that sick feeling in my throat returned.
“Uhh,” was all I could muster.
The line began to move and Mr. Brewer—the live one—bent and placed a kiss on the face of his dead brother. I shuddered.
Grandma stepped up to the burnished wood casket and she also bent over to give Mr. Brewer—the dead one—a kiss. And now it was my turn.
As if reading my mind, Grandpa picked me up by my middle and held me so I could see Mr. Brewer and decide for myself whether to kiss him or not. I gasped when I saw the man in the casket: it was a complete stranger.
Again, Grandpa had anticipated my reaction. “He cleaned up pretty good, didn’t he?”
I relaxed against Grandpa and looked back into the white satin-lined coffin. The man was wearing a suit and tie, his bushy, grizzled beard was gone and his wild, wiry eyebrows trimmed and tamed. His few strands of grey hair had been combed up and stuck to the top of his skull, and his wrinkles and bags seemed to have vanished. Most amazing, however, was his smell or, more accurately, his lack of stink. Mr. Brewer had always succeeded in keeping me at an arm’s length with his unique stench of old sweat, cheap whiskey, and deer musk. Here, he smelt like flowers. I bent from the safety of Grandpa’s arms and, as a charm against future haunting, placed a small kiss on Mr. Brewer’s cold, smooth, flower-scented cheek and wished him a speedy journey to heaven.
And that was my last picture of my first dead body. The man I had known who was as bushy as a ruffled hen and rancid as an old billy boat, went to meet Jesus in an immaculate white shirt and smelling like flowers.
“Grandma?” I found her in the kitchen, aproned and up to her elbows in bread dough. Funeral or no funeral, life goes on. “Grandma, will Mr. Brewer get into heaven?”
“Of course, Honey,” she said, wrestling with the sticky dough. It needed more kneading. “What would make you ask a question like that?”
“When we went to see him at the funeral, I didn’t know who he was, he looked so different all cleaned up. Will Jesus know who he is even without his big beard and curly eyebrows?”
“I am sure he will, sweetheart. Jesus knows us by our hearts, not our faces, you know.”
“Mmm,” I said, grabbing the vegetable leavings and heading out the door to take them to the compost heap.
I kept picturing his face, so smooth and serene and peaceful. I could not find a hint of the bowed and bent man who came to his neighbors with a silent plea for succor and whose neighbors granted it just as silently. He had nothing left but his dignity in the end, but his neighbours helped him to protect it, even as he had to depend on their charity to survive.
Mr. Brewer did clean up nice and, even from a distance of more than fifty years, I remember that clean-shaven cheek and his neatly groomed eyebrows, his face calm in repose. But I also remember Mr. Brewer’s tangled mane of hair, his grizzled explosion of a beard, and those intimidating eyebrows, his daunting stink and his quiet pride in being able to pay my grandfather for the logs he came to collect. I still remember Mr. Brewer, both alive and dead.