When Callie’s Aunt Norma died, there was nothing else to do but gas up the car and head for Alabama. Callie’s husband, George, might have had other ideas, but he wasn’t consulted. Family deaths meant you turned out for family funerals, and that’s just the way it was, so off they went on the long drive between Atlanta and Bugshuffle, Alabama.
Picturesque as a postcard, the Bugshuffle Church of the Assembly of Saints nestled among the towering pines beside an unpaved, one-lane road. Callie and George were greeted at the door by effusive hugs from the church ladies, and tantalizing aromas.
“Dinner on the grounds,” Callie whispered by way of explanation.
The church ladies had been cooking non-stop since Norma’s demise. Out back under a tin roof stood long pine picnic tables, soon to be laden with fried chicken, fried okra, fried catfish, barbeque, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, sweet potato souffle, potato salad, cornbread, corn muffins, corn fritters, corn casseroles, congealed salads in every color of the rainbow, and then there were the pies and cakes and banana puddings. George felt his salivary glands salute. Things were looking up.
He and Callie made their way into the sanctuary where Aunt Norma lay in state. Approaching the open casket, they beheld her going-to-glory get-up: tightly curled iron-gray hair, spectacles firmly in place over closed eyes, liver-spotted hands crossed primly on her navy-blue clad middle.
“Don’t she look like she’s just sleeping?” a fellow mourner said softly.
“She purely does,” Callie replied, her voice suddenly a honeyed drawl, “like she could open her eyes any minute, as natural as can be. Bless her heart.”
George looked at his urban wife in surprise, wondering where this country girl had been hiding. They turned to inspect the floral tributes. The ones he liked best were the garden flowers, pink peonies nodding fragrant heads and spears of blue iris arranged in Mason jars. But pride of place clearly went to a huge red and white wreath of mums supported by its own easel. Nestled in the flowers was a little toy telephone and a purple ribbon reading, “Jesus is Calling.”
George tried to turn his snort of laughter into a cough, but Callie knew him too well. Her sharp elbow bruised his rib and she hissed between clenched teeth, “You behave yourself, you’re at a funeral!”
They took their places in the front row with the rest of the family and settled down to hear the sermon. Unfortunately, the preacher had decided to use Jesus is Calling as his recurring theme, and every time he said it, George grew more hilarious. He hid his face in his hands, but his shoulders shook with what he could only hope looked like weeping from behind. He believed he might have at least two broken ribs from Callie’s jabs, but even the pain didn’t dim his mirth.
Finally, the preacher wound up with an old-school altar call. “You could be the next one a’layin’ in a coffin,” he told the mourners solemnly, “for we know not what hour may be our last. Yes, brothers and sisters, heed His call, for truly Jesus is calling.”
And at that moment, George’s cell phone – which he’d forgotten to turn off even though Callie’d told him to – at that very moment, it rang. Worse yet, his ring-tone was the opening bars of the University of Georgia’s rally song, Glory, Glory, and there he was in the midst of a crowd much more likely to Roll Tide right over him.
Options flashed through George’s mind: make a run for it; pretend to have a heart attack; actually have a heart attack; but then he was struck by genius. He answered the phone.
“Hello, Jesus? Yessir, she’s ready. We’ll send her on directly. ”
The congregation murmured a soft chorus of “Amens”. Beside him, he heard Callie say, “Bless your heart.”