CORPSE DANCING

CORPSE DANCING
Teresa Burns Murphy

After Mitch Perkins got kicked out of the Sunset School of Preaching, he made the eleven-hour drive from Lubbock, Texas, to his hometown of Kennerly, Arkansas. He called his father collect from a pay phone in Wichita Falls to say he was on his way home.

“We’ll discuss it when you get here, Mitchell,” his father said and hung up.

Around midnight Mitch turned into the driveway of the small frame house where he’d been raised. His father’s Mercury wasn’t in the carport, so Mitch parked on the grass alongside the concrete retaining wall that separated the house from the highway beyond it.

“Dad?” Mitch called as soon as he was inside.

Moonlight streamed through the lace curtains, casting a gauzy glow over the living room. Mitch flipped on the overhead light and set down his bag. A bed pillow and rumpled blanket were on the couch, causing Mitch to wonder if his father had been sick. As he walked toward the couch, he noticed his brother Paul’s photograph had been moved to the coffee table. All Mitch’s life, Paul’s picture had occupied the same spot on the piano.

Mitch pushed the blanket aside, catching a trace of his father’s signature scents – Brylcreem and Old Spice. He sat down and picked up Paul’s picture. Paul, in his army uniform, not a strand of hair out of place, the same determined look in his blue eyes Mitch’s father had, resembling him so much that when Mitch was growing up he believed the photograph was of his father. Eventually, his mother told him about Paul. He’d planned to be a preacher too, but was killed in Vietnam in 1971, the year Mitch was born. What had Paul really wanted?

Mitch put the photograph down and walked over to his mother’s spinet. He ran his fingers across the dusty fallboard, remembering the sound of his mother’s voice as they practiced “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” when he’d been cast as Curly in Oklahoma! during his senior year of high school. Was it possible that had been just three years ago? Now she was gone, and the house was quiet except for the ticking of the wooden owl clock, its bulging eyeballs moving back and forth as the seconds went by.

He picked up his bag and went into the kitchen. On the table, where, as a child, Mitch had reeled off Bible verses to his then-proud father, was a note:

Mitchell,

 

I’ve gone to the hospital to sit up with Brother Campbell. I’ll see you when I get back.

 

Mitch wadded up the note and tossed it into the trash before heading down the hallway to his old room. On his chest of drawers was a dog-eared copy of The Bacchae, his last high school play. Mitch’s theater teacher, Mr. Ivy, had selected the play after one of the mothers objected to “the sexual overtones” of his original choice, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Mitch chuckled and shook his head, thinking of Mr. Ivy’s defiance and how he wore it like a suit of armor. Mr. Ivy’s forehead was furrowed, his thick eyebrows often angled downward as if someone had infuriated him every day of his life. Mr. Ivy made no secret of his disdain for teaching high school theater. His aspirations had once been performing on Broadway. And yet, Mr. Ivy was not a person to be outdone. He instructed his students with the ferocity of a high-powered director. Rumors about Mr. Ivy’s private life were rampant. One guy claimed he’d seen Mr. Ivy with a younger man in the passenger seat of his Miata driving at a high rate of speed down a highway south of Kennerly. “Y’all should have seen it,” the guy said. “Mr. Ivy had the top down. He looked wild with that long hair of his blowing every which way.” Everyone laughed, speculating as to where Mr. Ivy was taking the young man – maybe to a gay bar or a seedy motel in Little Rock.

But students had conflicted feelings about Mr. Ivy. Though they often joked that he might be a bit “light in the loafers,” he provided a respite from the staidness of the other teachers at Kennerly High. Their respect for his skills and sheer boldness ensured that none of them would betray him when he proclaimed, “These idiots have no idea how subversive The Bacchae is. They think it’s high culture because it was written by an ancient Greek.” Mr. Ivy, casting Mitch as Dionysus, had become a raging maniac shouting relentlessly during rehearsals. “Dionysus is the patron saint of the theater! My God, men sacrificed their balls to him! Don’t act, Mitch—Be!” Mr. Ivy had gotten so angry at one rehearsal he threatened to take the role away from Mitch and perform it himself. Mitch had left his copy of the play behind when he went to college.

***

The next morning Mitch woke up to the smell of bacon frying. In the kitchen, his father stood at the stove. His father had already showered and shaved, his white undershirt tucked into his black dress pants, his waist as trim as ever, his arm muscles still firm.

“Morning, Dad.”

“Mitchell,” his father said without turning around.

“How’s Brother Campbell?”

“He passed away during the night.”

“I’m sorry.”

“He was a fine Christian man. He’s in a better place.”

Rolling his eyes, Mitch pulled a chair from the table and sat down just as his father turned to face him.

“What’s this business about failing your courses? You know the scriptures backward and forward.”

“I stopped going to class.”

Mitch’s father pulled his head back, his jaw tight with disgust.

“Dad, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a preacher.”

“Is that so, Mitchell?”

“I don’t know.”

Mitch’s father put his hands on the table and leaned toward him. “Boy, you’re twenty-one years old, and you’ve never taken hold of anything. First you flunk out of college and now this?”

“I’ve been thinking about trying acting.”

“Son, we’ve been all through this. That way of living—it just isn’t the right path for a man…for a Christian man to take!”

“I think I should give it a shot.”

Color rose in Mitch’s father’s face as he stood up straight. “I’ll tell you what I think. I think it’s high time you pulled yourself together. My father died when I was six years old. My brother and I took on odd jobs to help our mother while we were still in grade school.”

Mitch held up his hands. “Look, Dad. I’m not you. I’m not your brother, and I’m not Paul.”

“Well, you’re certainly not Paul.”

Blood pounded in Mitch’s temples. “I need some air.”

“Oh, sure, Mitchell, when the heat is up, you run.”

Mitch was tall and he’d always been stocky, but he had gained so much weight since his mother’s death he’d become unsteady on his feet. He knocked over the chair as he got up and headed for the front door. Grabbing the half-empty flask of whiskey he’d hidden in the glove box of his truck and shoving it into the hip pocket of his jeans, Mitch stormed down the street. He left behind the boxy houses with their well-kept lawns and waded out into the field beyond the cul-de-sac.

Spring green vines shot out every which way. Mitch had to watch his step as he passed through the thickets. Coming into a clearing, he stumbled over the carcass of a possum, its bones bleaching in the morning sun. Eventually, he hit a dirt road that dovetailed in two directions. One led back to town, the other to a place called “Fort Ash.” Mitch took the road to Fort Ash, a brick ranch house that stretched across a flat-topped slope lined with ash trees. A Vietnam veteran named Warren McCloud built the house in the seventies. He raised livestock and took in vets who were down on their luck.

Mitch snapped off a stalk of Johnson grass and chewed it the way he’d seen his father do the dozens of times they’d traveled this road together. When the vets first came to Kennerly, Mitch’s father had been so excited, taking them meals and inviting them to church. He took a particular interest in Eugene Stubblefield, a guy from Louisiana who’d lost both his legs in Vietnam. Everybody, except Mitch’s father, called him Stubbs.

“Did you know Eugene had a scholarship to play football at LSU?” his father had once said. “He gave it up, of course. That’s what people do for their country, Mitchell.”

The comment stung. Paul had been Kennerly High’s quarterback. Once Mitch got to high school, Paul’s old coach approached him about playing football, but Mitch had already fallen in love with acting. Mr. Ivy was always telling him, “If you don’t want to end up like me, Mitch, you better get your ass in gear. You’ve got a real shot at making it.” When Mitch told his father that Mr. Ivy had encouraged him to pursue a career in theater, his father had asked questions. “Is he a family man? He isn’t from around here, is he?” Mitch said Mr. Ivy was single, that he was born in Kennerly, but had been raised up north. Though his father allowed him to participate in theater, he never accompanied Mitch’s mother to a single performance. The summer before his senior year, Mitch told his father he planned to apply to acting programs.

“I forbid it!” his father had said.

Mitch’s father had given up trying to convert the vets to what he called “the truth” and hadn’t visited Fort Ash in years. But Mitch had found an advocate in Stubbs, and he went to see him every chance he got. Mitch tossed the stalk of Johnson grass onto to the ground and pulled the flask, a gift from Stubbs, out of his pocket. He traced the outline of the comedy and tragedy masks engraved across the front, remembering how proud Stubbs had been the day he’d given him the flask. Stubbs had once told Mitch that his own father had shamed him into going to Vietnam. “When I got back, I was even more ashamed of what I’d done. Others could hide what happened to them. Deny it. You know I used to tell people I’d been in a bad car wreck.” Stubbs always helped Mitch run his lines and never missed a show. When Mitch told Stubbs about his father’s opposition to his college plans, sparks practically flew from Stubbs’s eyes. “You tell that son of a bitch to go to hell!”

Mitch took a drink of the whiskey and shoved the flask back into his pocket. As he made his way up the hill, Mitch spotted Warren lumbering across the yard.

Catching sight of Mitch, Warren grinned and stroked his full beard. “You got here just in time. I need a guy with a strong back to help me get Stubbs out of the truck.”

“Is he okay?”

“Got a little rash. Doc said not to use the legs ’til it clears up. How you been, Mitch? They give you time off from preaching school for good behavior?”

“I got kicked out,” Mitch said, feeling heat flood his cheeks.

“You didn’t get in a barroom brawl down there in Texas, did you?”

Mitch laughed, recalling the night of his high school graduation. He’d gone with Warren and Stubbs to the Silver Moon, a blue-collar honky-tonk about thirty miles from Kennerly. All the regulars knew the table closest to the dance floor was reserved for Stubbs. But on that night, a big blowhard named Bull had refused to move until Warren and Mitch, rather forcefully, insisted.

“No,” Mitch said, the smile from that memory lingering. “But a whole lot of drinking and even a little fighting figured into it. Dad’s pretty upset.”

Warren cocked his head to one side and adjusted his cowboy hat. “I expect he is.”

Stubbs sat so low in the cab of Warren’s truck, Mitch could barely see the back of his head. A wheelchair was parked next to the open passenger door.

Stubbs’s eyes lit up the second he saw Mitch. “What you doing here, man?”

“Came by to check on you.”

“Like hell you did. Now stop your gawking and get me out of this damn truck!”

Leaning into the cab, Mitch smelled a musty odor that couldn’t be concealed with the fresh scent of aftershave. Stubbs groaned as Mitch shifted him in the seat. He was so light Mitch almost fell backward when he lifted him out of the truck. Mitch was aware that Stubbs’s legs had been amputated just above the knees, but a shock rippled through his body when Stubbs’s stumps struck his own legs.

Warren offered to help, but Mitch said, “I can manage.”

Stubbs cackled and in an impishly mocking voice said, “You can manage. I see you’ve got your flask there to help you manage. I didn’t know they let preachers drink whiskey.”

Warren peered at Stubbs over the top of his aviator sunglasses and shook his head. “Mitch’s decided he ain’t going to make a preacher after all.”

“Well, praise God and glory hallelujah!” Stubbs said, snatching the flask from Mitch’s pocket and taking a swig.

* * *

When Mitch returned home, his father was gone. On the kitchen table was a copy of The Kennerly Times opened to the help-wanted ads. Mitch applied to the three available jobs, but the only offer he got was for a temporary attendant’s job at the Hinson Funeral Home. At his father’s insistence, Mitch took the job.

Mitch had worked at the funeral home for almost a month before he got up the nerve to go to Kennerly High. School was out for the day, but Mr. Ivy’s Miata, along with a few other cars, was in the parking lot next to the auditorium. Sickened by the lily-of-the-valley smell that clung to his clothes and hair after a day at the funeral home, Mitch rolled down his window just as the door of the auditorium swung open and the guy who had been his understudy in The Bacchae stepped outside. The guy had grown tall and had traded the preppy clothes he wore as a freshman for a black T-shirt and a pair of ripped jeans. As he strolled past the truck, he glanced at Mitch, his gaze lingering as if he was trying to place him. Registering no recognition, he walked on. Mitch looked at his own face in the rearview mirror. His chin was rapidly receding into a puddle of neck fat. He glanced at his gut lapping over the leather belt he wore with his dress pants and imagined himself the way that guy must have seen him. Mitch watched the other kids emerge from the auditorium, envying their hopeful faces with the same bitterness he felt watching successful actors on television night after night.

After the last student drove away, Mitch pulled out his flask, took a swig of whiskey, and headed for the auditorium. When sunlight from the opening door shined on Mr. Ivy, he was on stage positioning a floor lamp next to a fainting couch. Mr. Ivy’s mass of curly black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he was dressed in a tank top, tucked into a pair of pressed jeans, and brown Top-Siders. Cocky and nimble as ever, he spun around and eyed Mitch suspiciously.

“Mr. Ivy,” Mitch said, bounding up the steps on the left side of the stage.

“Mitch Perkins?” Mr. Ivy said, thrusting his head forward.

“How’s it going, Mr. Ivy?”

“Well, I’m okay, but you look like forty miles of bad road.”

“I’ve had kind of a rough time lately.”

“I was sure sorry to hear about your mother.”

“It was tough.”

“I can imagine. So, are you home for spring break?”

“No, I’m actually living with my dad right now.”

“I see,” Mr. Ivy said.

“I got a job, just temporary, down at the Hinson Funeral Home.”

Mr. Ivy raised his eyebrows. “And how’s that?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Oh?”

“I was thinking about trying acting again.”

“And your dad? If memory serves me correctly, your mother was the one who supported your theatrical ambitions.”

“She was, but not enough to go against Dad.”

“And what about you, Mitch?”

“I thought maybe you could help me.”

Mr. Ivy looked askance at Mitch. “I believe we’ve been through this before.”

Mitch’s gut tightened as he remembered all those tangled feelings of longing and incompetence he’d had on this very stage. “I know, but this time…”

“This time what, Mitch?”

“It could be different.”

“It will be harder. You should know that.”

“I do, Mr. Ivy.”

“So tell me what you’re doing to prepare? Have you hired an acting coach? Obviously, you haven’t started a fitness program.”

Mitch put his head down.

“Oh, I get it. You want me to do all the work.”

“No, Mr. Ivy.”

“Let me ask you something, Mitch. Remember all the hours I spent working with you? All those recommendation letters I wrote?”

“I do, but…”

“What exactly do you expect from me?”

“Well, I didn’t expect a sermon. I can get that at home.”

“That’s right, Mitch, blame everyone else.”

“I’m not.”

“Just look at yourself,” Mr. Ivy said, patting Mitch’s belly. “How far do you think you’d get in the meat market?”

Mitch shrank from the touch of Mr. Ivy’s hand. “I’m willing to try.”

Mr. Ivy narrowed his eyes, dark and mercurial, capable of conveying compassion, but at this moment expressing contempt. “Far better men than you have tried and failed. What do you know of the cattle calls and getting up your hopes only to have them dashed!”

“Obviously, this was a mistake,” Mitch said, turning and heading toward the stairs, fearful he wouldn’t get out the door before he started crying.

“You need to man up, Mitch!” Mr. Ivy yelled.

But Mitch didn’t turn around. He hurried from the auditorium, got into his truck, and peeled out of the parking lot. Where did a fag like Mr. Ivy get off telling him to man up! He pounded the steering wheel and hissed, “Damn you, Mr. Ivy!”

When Mitch got home, he had to sit in his truck for a while to calm down enough to go inside. As he entered the living room, he saw his father sleeping on the couch—his jaw slack, his face pale, a closed book moving up and down on his chest. Mitch had a fleeting thought of covering his father’s mouth with a pillow and holding it there until he stopped breathing. When Mitch shut the door, his father sat up with a start.

“Home early, Mitchell?”

“Mr. Hinson let me have the evening off.”

Mitch’s father smiled. “I’ll bet he’s going to give you a permanent job.” He put his hands on his knees as if he was about to stand up. “Oh, before I forget, Warren McCloud called. He wanted to let you know that Eugene Stubblefield passed away this afternoon.”

“What?” Mitch said, moving closer to his father.

“You remember Eugene. One of the vets we used to minister to?”

“I know who he is, Dad. What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“And you didn’t ask?”

“I didn’t think it was important. It’s a shame Eugene never accepted the truth.”

“The truth?”

“You remember how hard I tried to get him to accept the gospel, but—”

“Are you kidding me? That’s all you’ve got to say?”

“I’m sorry, Mitchell, I didn’t realize you’d be this upset.”

“He was my friend, Dad.”

“Well, there’s nothing to be done about it now. Maybe I gave up on those guys too soon.”

Mitch’s hands were trembling as he walked over to the coffee table. He picked up Paul’s photograph and flung it onto the couch. It bounced onto the braided rug and landed next to his father’s black shoes.

“There’s your truth, Dad.”

Instantly, Mitch’s father was on his feet. He slugged Mitch in the stomach with such force, Mitch doubled over in pain.

“How dare you speak to me like that!”

Mitch straightened up and drew back his fist. His father glared, daring Mitch to strike him. Mitch turned away, his legs shaking so badly he wasn’t sure he could get to the door. As he headed down the street, his father called out to him, “Wait, Son! Come back!” But Mitch was running now, the remnants of sunlight barely bright enough to get him through the woods and onto the Fort Ash road. Dusk had fallen by the time Mitch made it up the hill, and every light in the house was on—except one.

* * *

On the evening of Stubbs’s visitation, Mr. Hinson stood in the hallway in front of Mitch’s office waiting for him to return from supper break.

“Mitch, I have to go with Tommy down to Mayfield to pick up a body. You think you can handle things here ’til we get back?”

Mitch said he could. After the men left, he went inside the small office and took his flask from the breast pocket of his suit coat. He’d taken a couple of swallows of whiskey when a door at the back of the funeral home banged shut. There were no other visitations scheduled for the evening or even any bodies down in the embalming room, and everyone else had gone home.

Mitch put the flask back inside his pocket and crept along the corridors, flipping on lights as he went. He passed through the room where the coffins for sale were displayed. When he began working at the funeral home, Mitch had been so shocked by the price tags, written in black Magic Marker and affixed to each coffin with masking tape, he’d asked Mr. Hinson why they were displayed like that. The diamonds in Mr. Hinson’s rings caught the overhead light as he flicked his hand in the air and smiled wryly with his eyes. “People want to know precisely how much death is going to cost them.” Mitch hurried through the room and into the alcove where florists dropped off their arrangements. A wreath of red plastic roses with the words, Honor Those Who Served, in glittery blue letters across a white ribbon had been dropped off—a late delivery.

Mitch scooped up the wreath and carried it to Stubbs’s parlor. He’d been in and out of the room all day preparing it for visitation. Now that Stubbs’s body was there, Mitch would have to open the coffin. He set down the arrangement and took a gulp of whiskey. As he lifted the lid, Stubbs’s hands came into view. The freckles and the crescent scar above his right index finger were barely visible beneath the heavy makeup. How many times had Mitch looked at those hands as they held his playbooks? Stubbs’s cheeks were full and pink. “All part of an undertaker’s bag of tricks,” Mr. Hinson had said, “to comfort the family of the deceased.” And where was Stubbs’s family now? Were they deceased?

Mitch chugged the whiskey and looked down at Stubbs. Why hadn’t he asked more questions? He wished he’d asked Stubbs why he hadn’t defied his father, why he’d gone to Vietnam when he didn’t have to. Mitch had been too embarrassed even to ask Stubbs how he’d lost his legs. There were so many things he didn’t know, and now Stubbs’s lips were sutured shut forever.

“Hey, man, you know why I got kicked out of preaching school? I stayed up all night drinking. Imagine that—me drinking. I had this class called ‘The Four Gospels.’ You should have seen the uptight bastard that taught it—so buttoned-down in his polyester suit and tie, his face all smug when he talked about the truth.”

Mitch sucked down more whiskey. “I gave him a lesson in my truth, and I didn’t even put on a shirt or pair of shoes to do it. I just burst into his classroom one morning, right in the middle of his for-God-so-loved-the-world speech, and I said, ‘If God wanted to sacrifice somebody so damn bad, why didn’t he sacrifice himself?’ I’ll never forget the sting of that SOB’s palm on my face. You should have seen it, man.”

“Seen what, Mitch?”

Prickles of fear crept up Mitch’s spine. He turned his head and saw Mr. Ivy standing in the doorway.

“Mr. Ivy!” Mitch said, spilling whiskey on his pants. “What are you doing here?”

“I felt bad about the other day. When I saw Stubbs’s obituary, I thought I’d stop by.”

Mitch had witnessed Mr. Ivy’s mood swings before, but there was something particularly unsettling about him. For one thing, he had never seen Mr. Ivy when his hair wasn’t pulled back in a ponytail. Now, it hung in heavy coils around his face. And he was wearing a satiny leopard-print shirt with black bell-bottoms that looked as if he’d pulled them from the costume closet of a seventies disco show. A woodsy smell emanated from him, causing Mitch to wonder if he was high. Mitch was starting to feel a bit of a buzz himself.

Mr. Ivy adjusted the shoulder strap of his leather bag and went over to Stubbs’s coffin. “You know, he still came to my shows even after you graduated.”

“Really?”

Mr. Ivy whirled around and regarded Mitch with a look of pity and revulsion. “Yes, really. And you know what he told me about you?”

“What?”

“He said…” Mr. Ivy’s voice trailed off when Warren and another guy from Fort Ash appeared at the door.

Warren nodded at Mr. Ivy before turning his attention to Mitch. “You don’t mind if we listen to a little music, do you?” he said, holding up a boom box.

“No, it’s fine,” Mitch said.

Warren set the boom box on the guest table and cranked up some Creedence Clearwater Revival. Before long a crowd of people filled the room, men and women Mitch recognized from Fort Ash and the Silver Moon. Mitch considered striking up a conversation with a couple of them, but he was starting to feel woozy, and it seemed that every time he turned around, Mr. Ivy was there, taunting him.

When Warren brought an ice chest into the parlor and started handing out cans of beer, Mr. Ivy said, “Do you think Old Man Hinson would approve?”

“Probably not, but the thing is…”

“Maybe you should have a beer too. Or maybe some of this.”

Mr. Ivy pulled a bottle of wine from his leather bag and removed the cork.

Mitch took the bottle. “Hey, what were you going to say about Stubbs?”

“Maybe I misspoke.”

Mitch tipped the bottle toward his mouth and took a big drink. “Come on, Mr. Ivy, what were you going to say?”

Mr. Ivy leaned so close, Mitch could feel his hot breath on his neck. “He said you didn’t have any balls.”

“He didn’t say that.”

“Maybe not in so many words, but he implied it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know very well what I’m talking about. You have a chance, Mitch. Stubbs knew it, and I know it. Are you going to throw it away and work in this death house for the rest of your life?”

“I told you this is a temporary job.”

“People get trapped, Mitch.”

“I’m not trapped.”

“Would you even know it if you were?”

“I just need a little help. That’s all.”

“Don’t you see that’s what I’m trying to do?”

“By lying about Stubbs and making fun of me? Is that your idea of help?”

Mr. Ivy folded his arms and scowled at Mitch. “Nothing gets through to you, does it, honey?”

“Look, Mr. Ivy, why don’t you just leave?”

“You want me to tell you what Stubbs really said?”

Mitch turned his face away, but Mr. Ivy moved closer. “He said when you went to that honky-tonk together he would have danced with everyone there, but you never did. I believe his exact words were, ‘Two good legs, and Mitch never uses them.’”

“He never said that!”

Mr. Ivy raised one eyebrow seductively and sneered. “Why don’t you dance with him now?”

“You think I won’t!”

Mr. Ivy shrugged.

Mitch pressed the bottle of wine to his lips and drank so greedily crimson rivulets streamed down his face, onto his neck, and inside the collar of his shirt. He sucked down the wine until the room began spinning like an unhinged carousel. He grabbed a woman and pressed his body against hers, grinding and gyrating until she screamed.

Warren put his hand on Mitch’s shoulder and said, “Hey, buddy, settle down.”

Mitch spun around. The chandelier pulsed like a strobe, flashing light onto the faces of the people in the crowd. As the light blazed brighter and brighter, every face became a blur. Waggling his hips and laughing joyously, he sashayed across the floor, shoving aside everyone in his path, impervious to their angry voices. He pulled Stubbs’s body from the coffin. Stubbs’s empty pant legs unfurled, his head lolled back, and fluid seeped from the corners of his eyes as Mitch, dancing to the drumbeat of blood pounding through his veins, whirled round and round and round.

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