Sitting Up with the Dead
by James William Gardner
“If you ask me, he looks right natural,” said Loretta Hubbard. “It looks like he just walked in and lay down and closed his eyes just as peaceful.”
“Yes, Stuart Wiley and them do an awfully good job,” agreed Thelma Shively.
“It’s a real pretty casket, too.”
“It ought to be as much as Granny give for it. That’s the simulated mahogany.”
The two women sat in folding chairs beside the casket, greeting folks as they filed solemnly by.
“Y’all, there’s food set out in the dining room now. Help yourselves.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Virginia Carr with tears in her eyes.
“Well, Virginia, he had a good, long life.”
“He was a good man. I know in my heart that he’s in a better place.”
“Oh yes,” agreed Loretta Hubbard. “There ain’t no doubt about that.”
“Where’s Bill and Ronny and them?” asked Dalton Carr.
“Oh, the men are all out on the front porch,” she answered.
“Virginia, honey, I believe I’m going to step outside a minute and pay my respects.” He squeezed his wife’s arm and then turned and walked toward the door.
Outside, the men were talking and smoking cigarettes. Bill Shively was telling about how he and Wilson Hubbard used to go coon hunting and how much Wilson loved it. He was telling about the time that Wilson stepped in a groundhog hole and broke his leg one night chasing the dogs.
“Ain’t nobody ever loved to hunt more than Wilson,” he said.
“He used to take me and Daddy,” said Curtis Hubbard. “What was the name of that one dog. The one that won night champion?”
“That was Hubbard’s Blue Bell,” said Bill Shively. “Now, that was one remarkable animal I’m here to tell you. She’d climb half way up the tree. I never seen nothing to beat it in all my life.”
“Lord, I remember that old dog,” said Lee Shively.
“What do you say, Dalton?” said Bill Shively, throwing up his hand.
“How’re y’all boys? Ronny, I’m awful sorry about your Daddy. He was a mighty fine fellow. I’m sure going to miss him.”
“Thank you, Dalton,” said Ronny Hubbard. “I appreciate it. I know Daddy was awful fond of you and Virginia both. Is Russell coming tonight?”
“He had to work this evening. He’s coming tomorrow for the funeral.”
“Here, Dalton,” said Lee Shively as he handed him a jar of corn liquor. “Have you a drink. Don’t let Loretta or Missus Hubbard see you. They’ll have a fit.”
“Well, I don’t see why,” said Bill Shively. “There weren’t a soul that loved a drink of liquor more than Wilson. I’ve seen the time he could have drunk that whole quart by himself and not bat an eye.” He laughed.
“Daddy could damn sure hold his liquor and that’s a fact.”
“I remember back when we was just youngons,” said Bill Shively. “We drove to Richmond in my Daddy’s Hudson Hornet convertible. I don’t know how much Wilson did drink that night. We went down to see Elvis. That was back before anybody knew who Elvis Presley was. It was when the Louisiana Hayride come. We had two old girls with us. Hell, we didn’t get home until five that next morning. I bet you didn’t know that your Granddaddy was such a wild man did you, Curtis?”
“You better hush, Bill,” said Ronny Hubbard. “Momma and them are liable to hear you. The windows are open.”
“They can’t hear me with that fan going. Besides, they’re busy talking.”
“Hey Bill, tell them about when you and Wilson used to run liquor,” said Lee Shively.
“You and Granddaddy used to haul bootleg?”
“Shoot yeah,” said Bill Shively. “Me and Wilson and old Neville Coleman and a bunch of us used to run it for Wes Philpot and them. Me and your Granddaddy used to carry it down to Winston most of the time. Now, you want to talk about a wide open town. It was Winston-Salem. There was this one old place, a little drink house on Fifth Street right off Three-Eleven. You talk about a wild damn place—prostitutes and gambling and I don’t know what all. That place really went through the liquor. Anyway, me and Wilson used to deliver there. One morning, old Wes come up to me and said, ‘Where the hell is Wilson?’ I ain’t seen him in three days. I said, ‘I didn’t have no idea.’ Well, that Friday, he comes dragging in looking like he was about half dead—eyes all bloodshot, all pale, and sick looking. Come to find out he’d been shacked up with some woman down at that little place on Fifth Street all week. Said she mighty neigh killed him.
That was back before the damn revenue boys got a hold of Wes’ brother Connor. It was Connor Philpot that actually ran the still. Well, they carried him up to Rocky Mount and that damned old Judge Basham give Connor six years in the penitentiary, so Wes and them just shut down the whole operation.”
“Is that when Daddy started driving for the Lovells?” asked Ronny Hubbard.
“I reckon that was around fifty-six,” said Bill Shively. “That’s about the time Wilson started racing. Donny and Frank Lovell had a garage over in Oak Level and I mean to tell you those boys could build a damn race car. They loved Mercurys. That first car that Wilson drove down in North Wilkesboro was a fifty-three and that thing would flat out fly.”
“You mean Granddaddy raced at North Wilkesboro?” asked Curtis Hubbard.
“Shoot yeah he did. Done raced down there several times as I remember. Oh, we went all over—Southside Speedway, Martinsville, Rockingham, even went to Myrtle Beach. Old Wilson could drive a race car. The problem was that he drove like he did everything else—flat out. He didn’t know no other way. Frank finally pulled him. Said he couldn’t afford it. Said Wilson was wrecking too many of his damn racecars. After that, they give the job to old Bobby Underwood.”
“Well, I sure didn’t know Wilson Hubbard ever drove no stock car,” said Dalton Carr. “I always thought of Wilson as a sort of quiet, easy going sort of guy.”
“Hell yeah, he drove for the Lovell Brothers for a couple years back in the middle fifties. Shoot, there weren’t nothing quiet or easy going about Wilson, not back then. One time, and this was after he married your momma so for the Lord’s sake don’t breathe a word of what I’m about to say. Me and your daddy and a guy named Clement Blackwood drove down to Daytona to see the race. Ronnie, I reckon you was just a little thing. Anyway, Clement got tickets and we went down. We went out drinking the first night at some old bar down there and got in a damn fight with these boys from Alabama over something and we all got thrown in jail. We missed the damn race and everything and had to pay three hundred bucks a piece fine to get out. That was the year that LeeRoy Yarbrough won the thing and we didn’t even get to see it.”
“It’s hard to imagine Granddaddy getting into no fight,” said Curtis Hubbard.
“Man, he had a temper back them. I ain’t kidding. It didn’t take nothing to set him off. I seen him beat Melvin Tabor once within an inch of his life and you know Melvin was a great big man. Hell, Wilson didn’t give a shit. Melvin was going after this little girl Wilson was with one night up at the Armory and he just flat laid Melvin out!”
“What do you reckon caused Granddaddy to change so much as he got older?”
“Well sir, the way I figure it, a man has just so much vinegar in him and once you get it all out of your system, you calm down.”
Just then, the screen door opened and Loretta Hubbard stuck her head out. “Y’all boys better come on and get you something to eat,” she said.
“We’ll be in directly, Loretta,” said Lee Shively.
“What are y’all doing anyway, besides smoking and drinking?” she asked smiling.
“We’ve just been remembering Daddy,” said Ronny Hubbard.
“He was a mighty fine man,” said Loretta Hubbard.
“Yes Ma’am,” said Bill Shively. “He always was.”
A native of Southwest Virginia, James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary American south. His work has appeared in Deep South Magazine, The Virginia Literary Journal, The Mulberry Fork Review, and elsewhere.