At 10 o'clock on a warm August morning, an old but immaculate big blue Buick slowly pulled up and parked by the front gate of the largest section in Serenity Springs Cemetery, Azalea Falls' oldest, biggest burial ground. Heavy-set, eighty-two-year-old Averilla Finney and her almost as heavy-set, eighty-year-old sister, Zabel, slowly emerged from the car, surveyed the sprawling array of graves stretching over the hill above, and sighed. Averilla's forehead was shielded from the sun by a floppy straw hat covering her jet white hair. She wore an old orange dress and carried a bouquet of artificial red and yellow flowers. Zabel's mostly white hair was covered by an Atlanta Braves baseball cap. She wore a faded yellow dress.
"Jumping Jehosaphat, Averilla. It's liable to take us all day to find that grave and it's already 80 degrees and getting hotter by the minute. We could be here till dark and still miss it," Zabel complained.
"Well, it ain't our fault the sexton wasn't in his office to take us right to it." Averilla defended herself.
"And that's all the more reason why we oughta just come back when he is," an already exasperated Zabel replied. "And it's Saturday, Averilla. So that man ain't gon' be here 'till Monday anyway."
"But you know I'm fixing to leave town this afternoon, and no telling when I'll be back. Now, Zabel, you was with me the last time we visited sweet ol' Luna Laughton before her daughter took her up north to live with her family. And the last thing that dear ol' Christian lady said to us, with tears in her eyes, was to beg us to look after her baby boy Luther's grave if he died before she did. And dog if he did too. She knew he was all messed up with drink and drugs and was just a tragedy a waiting to happen. And that poor boy ain't got no close kin left in these parts, and here it is almost a year since he died and we still ain't even visited him. I feel just terrible 'bout this 'cause we gave Luna our word, and Lord knows what kinda shape Luther's plot's liable to be in."
"You mean you gave your word," Zabel noted in a lower voice looking uphill.
"Well, sister," Averilla said pointing at her. "Now you were there too and you sho' didn't say nothing otherwise. And I say it's a real sin and a shame when folks don't keep their word, and how sad that poor Luther likely ain't got nobody to check on his grave and visit him."
"Yeah," Zabel said shaking her head surveying the multi-acred, hilly cemetery with thousands of graves. "And maybe Mr. Luther should have thought of that when he was a doing all that drinking and drugging."
"Well," Averilla sighed. "He led a hard life and it sho' caught up with him."
"All right," Zabel conceded. "I know better than anyone when your mind's made up. So come on. Let's start looking. It's only getting hotter. But if we ain't found that grave by lunchtime, I'm going home – and I'll walk if I have to. For goodness' sake, Averilla, you've been retired for years. I don't see why you can't come back on a weekday when the sexton's here and he can just take us right to it. Whatever. Suit yourself" She waved her hand.
"Well," Averilla observed. "At least we know Luther ain't buried with the Hebrews or in the colored quarters – or the Confederate section. So that's narrowing things down something considerable."
"Oh, yeah. I reckon that leaves us only 'bout eighty percent of the cemetery." Zabel shook her head.
The two old maids entered the gate and began reading the names on every tombstone. There was no consistency of gravestone architecture, and old and recent graves were often side by side, especially in family plots. Though admiring all the pretty purple, pink, and white azaleas, as well as the bright red bougainvilleas creeping over several family mausoleums, the Finney sisters most relished the mighty magnolia trees providing some coveted shade as they slowly walked uphill.
"Lord, with this incline, I sho' wish I'd thought to bring my cane," Averilla said looking up at all the graves ahead.
"Well, I'm happy to come back when you've got it," Zabel stated hopefully.
"No, I'll manage, seeing as how we're already here," Averilla said softly.
"Well, would you look at kind old Mr. Fodis Franklin buried right between both his wives." Zabel chuckled as she stood in the Franklin family plot. "He sure was a sweetheart. I used to love to go in that man's store growing up 'cause he always gave us a piece of candy. You remember him?"
"I sho' do." Averilla nodded. "His was the only store in Azalea Falls with Bit-O-Honeys too. But, I declare, being planted right smack in the middle of your first and second wife. I just don't rightly know what to make of that. Good Lord, they look just like a mess of Mormons."
"Oh, fiddlesticks, sister. Momma said they was Lutherans, and it wasn't like Mr. Fodis left the first Mrs. Franklin for the second. Flora Franklin died after being eat up with cancer for years, and then he married Miss Aubrie a few years after that. And, look, all three of 'em are right here smack dab in the middle of the family plot. So, see, it clearly don't bother their own kin none."
"Well, I still say it don't look proper," Averilla pronounced pensively.
"Now come on, we ain't got time to be figuring on that a spell." Zabel sighed looking at how little ground they had covered and how much more was still ahead, and all uphill.
They continued carefully inspecting the names on each tombstone. Making the search harder was that there was no Laughton family plot, nor a separate section reserved for more recent burials.
At the sight of a flower vase turned over or anything out of place, Averilla carefully put it back in order. She was also intrigued by all the information on the gravestones and often paused to try to make connections between the various residents and recall whether she knew them or their descendants.
"Now please don't be slowing us down by fixing up each plot, Averilla." Her sister looked at her with her hands on her hips. "Dog if we ain't gon' be here all day and half the night at this pace. Just what do you think the sexton and all his staff do here anyway – and are paid to do?"
"Well, I do hate to see anyone's final resting spot in such disorder. I declare, Zabel, I sho' hope you have a better attitude 'bout tending my grave. I don't rightly know but that maybe I oughta just go ahead and pay extra for the perpetual care option."
"Oh, good Lord, sister," Zabel replied. "You know good and well I'll check on you regular. I do hope you know the difference between taking care of your closest kin's grave and some stranger's. Besides, you probably gon' outlive me anyway."
"Well, if that's the Lord's will, I'll be sure to look after your plot and visit you regular."
"Well, what a powerful comfort, dear. And now that we've settled that, can we please speed up?" Zabel pointed to the heavens. "Look. The clouds are parting. So it's gon' get even hotter."
They continued slowly walking uphill, with Zabel always ahead and periodically looking back in frustration at Averilla's far slower pace. Just when she felt sorry for her sweating sibling, she recalled all their local young great nieces and nephews who could have been asked to put the plastic flowers on Luther's grave.
"Well, bless my soul. Would you look who's here?" Averilla suddenly smiled and clapped her hands. "It's Floppy Flanagan. I haven't seen her since our 60th class reunion."
"Won't be seeing Miss Floppy at any more of 'em," Zabel observed.
"And would you just look at this mess?" Averilla shook her head at all the flower vases lying on their sides in the Flanagan family plot and slowly bent down to fix each.
"Now they's Flanagans all over Azalea Falls," Averilla stated. "You'd think at least one of 'em woulda bothered to check on their kin here. I'm right disappointed with Floppy's folks."
"Well, that's for Floppy's people to worry about. It's already almost 10:30, sister," Zabel lamented. "I never had much use for ol' Thunder Thighs anyway. I was nothing but nice to her but she wouldn't give me the time of day. Thought she was something special being a cheerleader in high school and all. Yeah, she stood out, all right, 'cause ol' Thunder Thighs was the fattest one on the whole squad. I always figured her momma -- Miss Florina -- being on the school board is what got her on the squad. Miss Floppy sure couldn't do all that acrobatic stuff the others did." Zabel laughed.
"Well, she just needs our prayers," Averilla noted.
"I b'lieve it's a little late for that," Zabel replied. "Oh, look, Averilla. Here's Dr. Hank Lewis. Now if he wasn't the finest doctor Azalea Falls ever had."
"Or all of Evander Law County." Averilla smiled.
"Amen to that, sister." Zabel stopped to look at her long-time favorite doctor's tombstone. "And what a fine-looking man too. Had him that silver mane a going. Mmm. Yes, sir, he was one mighty looksome fellow, a real 200-proof, industrial strength man too."
"I knowed you always sure was sweet on him." Averilla grinned as her sister started fanning herself with her cap.
"What was it that killed Doc Lewis, Averilla?"
"Oh, sweetie, I can't recall. He had long since retired and was old as the hills. I reckon just age and mileage."
"Yeah, that'll eventually get even the best of 'em." Zabel sighed. "Good Lord, it says here he's been gone twenty-two years now. Well, I sure have been to a whole mess of new doctors since then too. 'Course, I reckon if it wasn't for doctors' appointments, I 'spect I wouldn't have no social life no how."
Zabel frowned looking uphill again and realizing how far they still had to go. After they moved up some more and stopped to rest a spell in the shade of a big magnolia, Averilla suddenly smiled.
"Well, looky who's resting right beside us. If it ain't none other than Scilla Nicks," she exclaimed.
"Now talk about good-looking," chimed in Zabel. "My money's on Miss Scilla being the best-looking blonde ever to come out of Evander Law County."
"Yes, ma'am, and the pipes on that little lady. Gracious alive, she could sing louder than anyone in the whole First Baptist Church or Arnold Elzey High School," Averilla announced.
"And a songwriter and a poetess to boot," Zabel added. "Oh, look. Here's a poem of hers on her headstone…. Huh. It don't rhyme. Well. But she sure was always good to me."
"And just as sweet as she could be to everybody. She sho' never let her looks go to her head," Averilla stated.
"Remember all that pretty singing at her funeral, both hymns and even some tunes she wrote?" Zabel asked.
"I sure do. That was the most fun funeral." Averilla beamed.
By 11 a.m. the Finney sisters reached the middle of the cemetery's main section and stopped at the Finney family plot. They both removed leaves and any other debris as they carefully inspected their relatives' graves and were relieved to find each one in good shape.
"Wooh, I sure do wish we had us a fine big magnolia or oak standing over us to spare us some shade," Averilla announced.
"Sister, while we're here, I want to bring up something I shared with Thad at the last family reunion. Come here and let me show you." Zabel looked very serious as Averilla walked to her.
"Now you see, they's just three more spaces left in the whole Finney plot – for you, me, and Thad. They's one on each side of Momma and Daddy and then that other one in the corner yonder. Now, sister, you see how they's lots of room here on either side of Momma and Daddy. But look at this little iddy biddy space in the corner. Averilla, in case I go before y'all, please promise me you won't plant me in this little corner. Look how tiny this space is. You know how claustrophobic I am. If y'all squeeze me in here, I'll never rest in peace – and I may just haunt y'all too. Now I'm as serious as cancer 'bout this, sister."
"All right. Quit your fretting. So that's what you and Thad was a jawing about so at the reunion. Well, that's fine. You want to be put by Momma or Daddy?"
"Oh, it don't make no difference. Either one's fine with me. Big thanks, Sis.' And Thad said he didn't care none neither. But if I ever get wind that I'm destined for that little corner, then I'm getting cremated."
"No, you will not!" Averilla exclaimed.
"And why not?" Zabel looked at her with one hand on her hip.
"I don't want none of our kin cremated." Averilla waved her hands.
"What particle of difference does it make?" Zabel furrowed her brow and frowned.
"Well, when the Good Lord comes back to claim His people, I just don't rightly see how He's gon' take back a bunch of ashes. Now I'll just be frank with you, sister," Averilla announced authoritatively as Zabel rolled her eyes and sighed.
They resumed the search, albeit at a slower pace amidst the rising heat and humidity. Each sister acknowledged what a swell job the grounds crew did cutting so much grass and maintaining all the many flowers, shrubs, and trees. They just wished there were a whole lot more trees.
By 11:30 Zabel's patience was nearly exhausted. Drenched in sweat, she saw they had traversed most of the cemetery's main section, but still had many more plots to explore.
"Gracious alive, Averilla, we gon' soon be knocking on noon. Are you absolutely certain Luther was even buried here? Remember, neither of us was able to go to his funeral on account of Thad being in the hospital then. Now if it turns out Luther wasn't even buried here, dog if I'm not gon' scream."
"Oh, don't blow a bowel, Zabel. I know good and well Luther's here 'cause Luna done wrote and told me so."
"Well, maybe they put him in the Jew section," Zabel suggested.
"The Laughtons ain't no Hebrews. They're Methodists, every one of them," Averilla stated emphatically.
"Then maybe they ran out of room and dropped him in the colored section," Zabel countered.
"And maybe somebody's getting a little swimmy-headed in all this heat," Averilla mused.
"Yeah, and maybe we gon' both collapse if we don't get out of this sun soon," Zabel remarked. "I'm serious, Averilla, if we don't kick it into fifth gear, they're liable to find two old women laying out here dead of heatstroke."
Sweating, drained, and harboring serious doubts about ever finding the elusive grave of Luther Laughton, the two old ladies soldiered on as fast as they could, grateful they at least both thought to wear a hat, though Zabel wished her baseball cap was much wider. Near the top of the hill and the back of the cemetery, they came upon the largest, gaudiest gravestone of all.
"Well, would you just take a gander at that? If it ain't none other than the most successful windbag in all of Evander Law County, the illustrious Lester Haggen, 'the people's lawyer.'" Zabel laughed. "That old scudder."
"The most successful skirt-chaser in the county too," Averilla observed, catching her breath.
"You sure shared the gospel truth there, sister," Zabel agreed.
"Though he married hisself five wives, I don't see a one of 'em here with him," her sister observed.
"Well, maybe that's 'cause he was a cheating on each one with the next," recalled Zabel.
"Now I will say," Averilla added. "That last Mrs. Haggen — "
"The one thirty years his junior," Zabel noted.
"That's the one. She was awful nice to me every time we met in a store or somewheres. I sure hate to think she was a cheating with him while he was still hitched to Number Four."
"Oh, I heard they was definitely doing the dirty, all right. In fact, I hear tell he ditched his fourth'un so sudden 'cause he thought his new love was pregnant."
"Is that why he gave Number Four that great big multi-millionaire dollar settlement?"
"Uh, huh." Zabel stated confidently. "To minimize the scandal, he gave her everything she asked for. The only catch was she had to sign one of them confidentiality forms and leave town."
"To think that's the richest man ever to come out of Azalea Falls." Averilla shook her head.
"And the only man I ever knew to get rich drunk," Zabel added in awe.
"Or win cases under the influence. Shoot, Mr. Lester was a far sight better lawyer drunk than the rest of 'em sober," Averilla marveled. "Still, it was right sad him dying in that plane crash. I knowed it had to hurt his children and grandchildren something terrible to lose him that way, 'specially on account of them having had him so long. He was pushing 90 and still flying hisself when that private plane of his went down."
"And I bet you a dollar to a donut he was flying under the influence too," Zabel speculated. "I always figured that car wreck he had was on account of his drinking too. 'Course, after flying right into that mountain, I doubt they was able to piece near enough of him back together to tell what he'd been drinking."
"Well, it's just as well, 'specially for the poor family's sake. Say, how'd you like to fly in an airplane someday, Zabel?"
"Averilla, I don't get no higher than picking corn or lower than planting taters. And look
where flying got Mr. Lester."
"Well, you're right about that," Averilla agreed as she admired the attorney's large and elaborate tombstone. "And he sure didn't take any money or that fancy fine house with him, neither."
As they approached the big bushes bordering the back of the burial ground, Zabel looked at all the acres of graves they had carefully examined for the better part of two hours. She shook her head and then faced her sister.
"Averilla, what do you want to bet that boy's grave is on the very last row? We shoulda knowed the fastest way to finding anything in a big batch is to start at the back of the stack."
Stopping to get her breath, Averilla Finney looked up at her sister.
"Well, maybe he's downhill somewheres and we just plum missed him."
"And if you think I'm just gon' turn around and walk all over these graves again, shug, you're the one's who's sho' nuff 'swimmy-headed' indeed, 'cause as soon as we get to that last row, I'm heading straight to your car. And if you ain't with me, I'll just walk home or maybe hitchhike. Good Lord, it's well-nigh noon, sister."
With her hands on her hips, Averilla proceeded to wipe her sweaty forehead and fan herself with her floppy hat. She then started scrutinizing the names on the last rows of gravestones, knowing full well she would never hear the end of it if they could not find Luther's.
"Lord, I sure could do with a great big glass of lemonade 'bout now," Averilla exclaimed.
"And I could drink the whole pitcher," Zabel replied. "It's a miracle we ain't both passed out from dehydration."
To her right, Zabel saw a pair of large family plots, as well as a fairly fresh-looking little flat marker sandwiched between them. Walking to the grave sitting by itself, she dared hope their search might at last prove successful.
"Well, hallelujah! 'Luther Abraham Laughton,'" Zabel read. "Thank you, sweet Jesus."
"Oh, praise the Lord," Averilla added. She quickly walked over to join her sister.
"And just two rows from the top, but we'll sure take it. Oh, Lord have mercy, what a morning," Zabel declared and wiped her brow. "Now come on, sister, let's hurry up and place them flowers and head home for lunch. I've worked up a powerful appetite something fierce, and I bet you have too."
"Well, now just hold your horses," answered Averilla as she slowly bent down to wipe some dirt off the small smooth stone bearing only a name and dates. She then straightened up the grave's empty flower vase and carefully inserted the little plastic red and yellow bouquet she had been carrying before Zabel helped her up.
"Bless his heart. It's sure not much to show for a life, and just 36 years old." Averilla stared at the headstone before looking up and taking in all their surroundings.
"All right. We've kept our word," Zabel declared. "Now I don't know what more we can do. So can we now finally please get back to the car and be sure and crank up that air conditioner?"
"Yes, but first we gon' have prayer," Averilla announced.
Zabel looked away and took a deep breath before turning back.
"Fine, but, please, sister. Just not one of them long, soul-saving prayers you're so fond of. I do b'leive it's a tad late for brother Luther."
Averilla bowed her head and closed her eyes. Zabel clasped her hands and did the same.
"Dear heavenly father," the elder Finney began. "We come here to honor one of your children who has passed on. We thank thee for blessing him with such a fine Christian home and giving him good health and a first-class college education too. Now we know Luther … had some troubles, Lord -- like everybody -- but he was a Christian and we beseech thee, o Lord, to welcome him into thy loving arms. And, Lord, we also ask that thou please comfort all his kin, 'specially his dear momma, Miss Luna, since all of 'em have surely been grieving their loss something terrible. And we thank thee so much, Father, for leading us to Luther's grave. In Christ's name we pray. Amen."
Neither Miss Finney said anything for a while, and for the first time that day they were enveloped by a breeze. First Averilla and then Zabel turned around to start walking downhill toward the car. Soon Zabel looked at her older sister.
"That was a real fine prayer, sister. Miss Luna would be right proud…. And Mr. Luther."
"Thank you, darling. I just wish sweet Luna was able to visit her boy. I do so hope and pray he's now with the Lord."
They continued walking under the noon sun and Zabel helped her sister step down from a granite-ringed family plot while dreading how sunburned her arms would be. At least they had fulfilled their promise and would never have to do this again, she assured herself.
Suddenly, Averilla stopped and looked up. Startled, Zabel turned to her.
"You know who's also up here?" Averilla asked excitedly. "Luna and Luther's cousin Phineas. As a matter of fact, Luna wrote that Cousin Phinney was resting just a stone's throw from Luther!"