Chapter Five
Beyond This Pointe, Thar Be Dragons

At half past four in the afternoon, Miriam found herself bolted to her bed. Although she'd gotten up for life's little necessities, she'd returned time and time again to the comfort of her giant sleigh bed in an attempt to ward off the evil spirits still lurking about from the fish fry. She felt as if the entities that were chasing her would never find a resting-place, but she wanted to give them every opportunity to flee from her head and the pit of her stomach voluntarily, before calling for an exorcist. There were those lurking outside her body also, tormenting her head with phone calls disguised as Laverne and Maddy. She allowed the machine to pick up each time, in hopes they would go away. However, she knew she'd have to pick up soon, because Laverne's last call threatened to "come out and git ya if ya don't call me back."

Miriam was right last night when she supposed Laverne would turn her Saturday night social call into a Sunday afternoon affair. Her first and second messages requested that Miriam be there by noon to eat some of the red beans and cornbread that she was cooking for lunch. Already nauseous from an over indulgence of beer mixed with her medications, Miriam blew chunks just hearing the menu. By two o'clock, the message changed to dessert: fruit salad and Aunt Sally's spice cake. The next call was to inform her that the gang from Dallas would be leaving soon if she wanted to say 'good-bye.' Miriam waved from the confines of her bed and bid them all safe travel. From Laverne's last message, Miriam could tell by the tone of her voice that she'd certainly come out if Miriam didn't do something fast. So Miriam was working on it. She constructed a game plan that would exert as little energy as necessary to return Laverne's call, starting with retrieving the cordless phone. That is to say, as soon as she sat up that's what she would do.

Calling Laverne to let her know she was semi okay and not to come, Miriam explained that she'd call her back after her shower. Miriam soaked her head for a long, long time, then took the phone to her bed to give Laverne a progress report. Laverne insisted that she come into town and Miriam finally caved in, feeling as if a drive might help settle her stomach. Miriam made Laverne swear that there would be no remnants of beans or cornbread or Polk Sallet casserole when she got there, which made Laverne break into "haws" and reminded Miriam to take more drugs for her headache, and eased toward the medicine chest. Leaving Laverne with the impression that she'd be there by six, Miriam crawled back into her bed. The rain tapped lightly on her windowpane and she unintentionally drifted away to sleep.

A pounding at her garden gate jolted her from sleep at 6:45. "Miriam, it's me. Open up." It was Laverne; she'd lost track of all time. Yelling out to her from her bedroom window, Miriam scrambled to put on her bathroom robe as she headed out the back door and down the path. "Miriam, can ya hear me now damn it?" Laverne called again.

"I hear you, Vernie. I'm coming." She located the hidden key to unlock the gate, and announced "I'm here."

"Hey, Girl, it's a damn fine thang, too! Are ya all right, or do I need to git ya some help or somethin'?" Laverne had taken Miriam's hand and began to pat on it like she was a sweet little old Sunday school teacher. "Ya look jest awful. Matter a fact, ya look like shit."

"Thanks, Verne, but I'm okay. Let me lock this gate."

Laverne continued. "Well, ya see, I waited on ya 'til after six, then I thought I better come on over to check thangs out. One never knows in this day and age."

"I apologize, Laverne. I didn't mean to scare you." Miriam took Laverne's hand and led her down the crooked garden walk toward the door, "let's go inside." Miriam quizzed her as they breached the door. "What can I get for you in the way of refreshment, Verne?"

"Nothin', Girl. Git yourself dressed and let's git ya outta here fer a minute. The house smells like puke, no wonder ya feel so dern bad."

"Sorry, Verne. I've been sick a couple of times since last night. It's not the drinking that's hard anymore, it's the recovery." Miriam muttered, as she wobbled down the hallway.

"I see it is," was Laverne's reply, knowing Miriam was well out of earshot. Laverne busied herself with looking intently around Miriam's kitchen and living room, paying close attention to the bits and pieces of paper that were scattered across the dining table and around her computer. "Hey! Yummy, what's this 'thunder in the soul' stuff ya got wrote here? Can I read it?" Miriam hadn't heard a word Laverne had said, but she took the silence that followed to mean 'yes.'

Miriam headed back down the hallway with shoes and socks in hand, knowing that the longer she left Laverne alone, the more she might have to explain. Sure enough, Laverne had managed to unearth some of her writings. "Hey, Verne. What ya reading?"

Startled, Laverne jumped and quickly began tucking the paper into its folder. After clearing her voice, she said, "ready to go?" When she moved back from the desk she saw Miriam wasn't ready, then offered, "take yer time."

"So, are we going back to your place, Verne?"

"Well, I thought we might, Yummy, lest there's somewheres else ya want to go."

"Verne, now that my headache's pretty much gone," Miriam rubbed her brow for emphasis and then smiled wide, "I think I feel like a cheeseburger. What a ya say?" Miriam finished with a grin and elbowed Laverne lightly.

"Sounds good to me, them beans ain't set too well. And I don' think ya could handle 'em to tell ya the truth. So a cheeseburger from the 69 is fine with me." Laverne said, making a chivalrous gesture offering the way to a lady, "shall we go?"

Miriam lead them to the front door, then asked politely, "Do you want to take my car? I forgot to ask."

"Best not, Sugar Breeches. I'm not so sure yore in any condition to drive." And so off they went.

Once they started to pull out of the drive, Miriam said, "Hey, Vernie? Can we go toward the lake and make the circle?" As they began their descent, Miriam filled her thoughts with Esther. She hadn't yet managed to recall all of the events of last evening, but she was in hopes that at least she hadn't done something she would regret later. However, fuzzy though it was, she was pretty positive that she had parted from Esther on a high note. She surveyed the Watson place purposely in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Esther's presence, but the house was dark and the Mustang was absent.

Taking notice of Miriam's observation, Laverne asked, "the Watson place is well kept, ain't it?"

Miriam felt exposed suddenly. She wanted to keep Esther hidden from Laverne if she could, and quickly answered yes. "Did you bring your friends out to see the lake yesterday?"

"Naw, there wadn't enough time for that. They'll be back though, they told me 'fore they left that they liked it here." Laverne continued to talk about her new friends during the long drive to the 69. Miriam threw in an appropriate 'uh huh' on occasion, but she thought only of Esther all the way, trying to piece together every small detail.

They skirted just the edge of Cool Lake on their way through town, eliminating a glimpse of the coffee shop where Miriam thought she might see Esther's car. Thinking twice, Miriam speculated that Esther wouldn't have been downtown anyway perhaps, because everything in Cool Lake was closed on Sunday. Everything except the Piggly Wiggly, of course, since anyone might need groceries on the spur of a moment, thereby fulfilling the Rose family's need for greed. If one wanted something more, it was likely that they would travel toward Sabine Springs, because on the highway toward the college, travelers would be apt to find a variety of chain stores and fast food restaurants open at any time.

Miriam began to regain her senses halfway through her double cheddarburger with extra onions. She found the bottom of her vanilla coke, but had yet to quench her thirst. Laverne had talked non-stop from the time they departed, but only now was Miriam able to focus on the conversation. "...and you skinny girls, well ya'll can sure put away the food. Hell, I'm so fat already, I can just look at a basket a French fries and gain ten pounds." Laverne finished her sentence by viscously ripping a French fry in half with her teeth and nodding her head for emphasis.

Miriam laughed to spite herself. "I know what you mean, Verne. Remember? Just after I came to Cool Lake I blew up like a house."

"Yeah, I 'member. It was all this clean living you wadn't used to. But you looked purty then, and you still look purty now. Even if ya do have mustard on the side a yore mouth," Laverne burst into haws, leaving Miriam somewhat embarrassed and tickled at the same time.

When the waitress came to refill her soda glass, Miriam was reminded of Gladys and happened to think of the Franklin Curtis incident. "Hey, Verne? Whatever became of Franklin J. Curtis III?"

"Aw, Honey. Now you don't wanna go stirring none a that up again," Laverne looked away as if in deep thought, attempting to close the subject.

Miriam persisted. "No. C'mon Laverne. Do you know whatever happened about the money?"

"We ought to just let sleeping dogs lie, Perry Mason. Fergitting 'bout it is the smartest thang." Laverne waited a moment before she looked at Miriam, who stared at her companion intensely, and saw in an instant that Miriam was not for letting the subject be. "Oh, you and them puppy dawg eyes, they git to me ever time," Verne said and shook the stardust from her head. "Well, I'll tell you the story, but you didn't hear it from me. Deal?"

Miriam smiled wide in triumph, "deal." Miriam didn't feel much like participating in a conversation anyway, so this gave Laverne the opportunity to continue with most of the talking and her the opportunity to finish her burger.

"Ya know 'bout what I told ya 'bout Patsy, right?" Miriam shook her head in agreement, signaling for Laverne to continue. "Well, Franklin J. came clean with the Smithey boys 'bout what predicament he found hisself in 'bout the money, and it pissed Hirum off terrible. Oather tried to stop Hirum from whooping his ass, but it didn't do no good, Hirum whooped his ass anyway." Miriam's mouth was stuffed with fries but she nodded in agreement, then Laverne begged again. "This is a long story, Yum. Are you sure ya want ta hear it?"

"Yes, Verne, I want to hear the whole thing." Miriam pulled more liquid through her straw. "C'mon, it surely can't be that bad."

Laverne warned her. "Oh. It can be that bad. It can be worse. I gotta go back and give you some history 'fore you can git the true meaning. And it ain't like it wadn't front page news or not a lotta old timers still living that couldn't tell ya, so I ain't telling no tales that you cain't find out fer yourself. Okay, Angela Lansbury?" Miriam again shook her head. "Don't be going to this one and the next one saying Laverne said, 'cause everbody knows it by heart and they'd think a me as crazy for dredging the whole damn thang up."

After Miriam held up two fingers in Girl Scout's honor, Laverne began "it all started back when I was younger. I went out to school at Tech and studied pre-law 'cause my daddy thought I'd make a good attorney. Well, after I graduated from there, I decided I'd take some time off 'fore I headed to Austin to finish up my schooling, and I went to work fer the Sheriff's department as a Deputy. I found out that I liked law enforcement, I liked it a lot. The folks I was working with said I was a natural at it and so I decided to keep working for a while longer 'fore I went. That was a mistake on my part, 'cept I went on to do a good job for the county. Me and Gray, you seen him last night at the fry, we was out patrolling one night like we'd done a hundred nights before, but that night was different. Somethin' in the air was different. Him and me even talked 'bout how we could feel troubles brewing. And 'cause a that feeling, we kinda took extra caution driving 'round. Otherwise, we'd a missed it altogether."

"We went out by the fairgrounds and we went down to the lake to have a look around, then right 'fore our shift was over, we decided we'd better make a run out by the cematarry while we was at it. Low and behold, the gates was swinging wide open. From that moment on, our lives changed forever. Merciful God." Laverne shook her head and looked away, and then spoke as if in distant thought. "I was riding shotgun, so I git out with my flashlight to push the gates on back while Gray inched the car through, and he follered me in. I was walking 'head a the car, using his headlights to guide my feet, and sweeping my flashlight 'cross the graves figgering I'd locate some couple out necking or somethang. We git nearly to the end a the first row and my light caught somethin' moving 'bout thirty yards in. I told Gray I seen somethin' move and he got outta the car to back me up. I said, 'freeze,' like they do on television and the figure stood up and began backing away from us. And when Gray said, 'freeze,' the figure took off running. We got to where this guy had been standing and we found an open grave with a body drug nearly half outta its coffin. We went on to follow him t'ward the back a the cematarry, and then saw that there was two other fellers out there with him. When they seen us coming, they all started running from us."

Miriam noticed that Laverne had focused on something to her right, and was speaking factually, as if she were reliving the event. Laverne's eyes began to glaze as she recounted the ghastly tale almost in whispers. "That's when I fell in. I come face to face with a corpse swelled as big as a turnip truck and cold as ice. At first, I was horrified, Yummy. I didn't know what to do. Gray, who was still chasing them boys, said I was screaming to the top a my lungs, but I don't 'member. But then when I got 'hold a myself, I began to scramble myself free a that woman and that casket, and I clawed my way outta that hole like my ass was on fire and the hole was full a gasoline. I laid there in the damp grass no telling how long plum scairt to move, and Gray come back in awhile with one a them boys in cuffs. That boy was Oather Smithey."

"He was covered in dirt from digging up the graves, and was grinning from ear to ear like he was starring on the Dragnet show or somethin'. Gray laid him down on the ground and come to help me up. When I stood up, I could tell my wrist was broken and that I'd bumped my knee purty hard. Gray was in shock when he shined his flashlight in the hole and then up on the tombstone, it was Alana Ewing, Mrs. Diamond's daughter. She'd just been dead 'bout a week or so, died a cancer. Well, I had to git away from all that for a minute, so I hobbled back to the squad car and called fer some back up. I told 'em we needed a ambulance and the coroner and the Sheriff, and who ever else they could dig up in the wee hours a the morning." Laverne stopped cold and apologized to Miriam. "Oh, shit. I said 'dig up' and shore didn't mean to say it Yummy. Shit."

"It's okay, Laverne." Miriam scooted a glass toward her friend. "Do you need some water or something?"

"Naw, anyways, I told the old girl dispatching that if she couldn't find nobody else, please find Sheriff Murphy, we needed him the worst. Me and Gray didn't hardly say nothing to each other while we's a'waiting. Oather kept saying thangs like 'wow, this is cool' and 'oh, what purty colors.' We just ignored the hell outta him, 'cept to try to git him to tell us who was with him, but he just kept on talking crazy outta his head. Gray surveyed the first grave we found, it was a Mizz Gaston that had been shipped in from somewhere's else for burial in the last week or two, I didn't know her but Gray said he did. Here's the hard part, Yummy. When Gray got back down to the second grave site where I was, he said he could tell by the looks a thangs that them boys mighta been having sex with them dead women. He said he'd stake his badge on it. I said then, 'Gray yore 'magination's gone wild, they's just out here robbing the dead people.' Well, come to find out, he was right. After the experts did all their testin' and all, that's exactly what they wuz doing out there. Havin' sex with dead women. There's sure a name for it, but luckily I done forgot."

"Necrophilia, Verne." Miriam defined "it's a sexual obsession with the postmortem."

Ignoring Miriam completely, Laverne continued, "anyway, just 'bout daylight, when relief come, I volunteered to transport Oather to the jail myself, so's I could git away from all that mess. Gray nearly blew it for me by startin' to say somethin' 'bout my wrist, but I shot him a look that woulda killed him, and he shut up." Slapping her hand down on the tabletop, Laverne said "and damned if I didn't git in trouble again while takin' Smithey to the jailhouse. Just as I passed the Post Office, Mr. Moore, the old Post Master we used to have, was runnin' in the middle a the street wavin' me down a screamin' and a hollerin'. When I stepped outta the car he pointed up, and glory be to God if there wadn't a corpse hangin' from the flagpole like a star on a Christmas tree. I thought then that I couldn't win for losin', so I called for the dispatcher to send the city boys to the Post Office, and I left there as soon as they arrived. I called the sheriff and told him what I found, and then thanks to Gray, I was instructed to go right then to the hospital over by the college to git my wrist taken care of, then report back for duty."

"Well, I did as I was told. After they X-rayed my knee and casted my arm, I got back to the cematarry in time to watch the photographer take the photos for evidence. He was a college student that worked for the Fisherman's Daily, but moonlighted for the Sheriff's department once in awhile on stuff like that. None a them photos ever hit the paper a course, they used 'em fer the trials and got them all sealed away. Thangs looked a lot different by the time I got back to the graveyard. Nothin' had been moved er nothin', I jest mean that to me it didn't seem so bad as when I left. On the other hand, Gray was sittin' on the passenger side of a cruiser with the door hangin' open, sippin' hot coffee and cryin'. I hugged him up and told him how brave I thought he was, and what a good job he done, and Miriam, he hugged me up like I was his momma, didn't thank he was ever gonna let loose a me. Bless his heart. Course, he stayed there the whole time and watched everthang while I had a chance to git away for awhile and git my mind on other thangs. Me and him don't talk no more, seems like it just brings back bad memories, I guess."

Miriam took Laverne's hand before speaking to her softly, "Verne, I'm sorry that I asked you to tell me. You don't have to say anything else." They sat quietly for a long time, and Miriam could tell that Laverne was thinking things through.

"Naw. I've come this far, might as well finish it, Miriam. Ain't that much more to tell anyways really. Sheriff called me down to Mrs. Ewing's plot and asked me if that was the grave that I'd fallen in, and I said 'yessir' kinda low, thinkin' I was in trouble. Then he asked me if I had clean uniforms at the station and again I told him 'yessir.' Then he radioed in to have one a the deputies bring out a clean uniform for me, and 'splained to me that mine'd have to be used for evidence, since I was actually in the grave itself. I kinda gulped lookin' around to see where I'd change my clothes, and Sheriff said that I could use the outhouse up by the brush arbor where they hold services and picnics and stuff. Then the coroner put this white paper gown over my clothes, and they told me not to eat er drank nothin' till my fresh uniform arrived. Murphy told me they'd collected quite a few specimens, but my uniform might a picked up a different specimen when I fell in. I obliged 'em when my uniform arrived, and gladly turned my old one in as evidence. Hell, I sure as shit didn't want it no more. They said later that they found some fibers from Oather's and Hirum's clothing on my uniform but not Cleavis', which turned out to be vital important later on."

"Sheriff Murphy called in to see if they had a confession yet from Oather, and the dispatcher said, 'affirmative, he's implicated two of his brothers. One Hirum Smithey, aged 16. One Cleavis Smithey, aged 17. Do you want the suspects taken into custody?' The Sheriff said, 'affirmative', and then asked 'he didn't implicate his brother Markall?' 'Negative,' she said. 'Locate the JP,' meaning the Justice of the Peace, 'explain briefly what situation we have here, and have him issue warrants for their arrests.' Without waitin' for the warrants to be issued, Murphy sent me and Gray and two more Deputies out to the Smithey residence. These folks lived on some secluded land past the lake and at the tip a Texas near Oklahoma, a spot in the road called Amen Acres. They lived simple like the Amish or the Mennonites do, ya know, no runnin' water or 'lectricity or nothin'. Anyways, they was both there when we arrived on the scene, carryin' on with their daily life like nothin's wrong. One was in the barn doin' the milking and the other was choppin' wood beside the house. Nobody else was there. Later on, we found out that Markall Smithey, the eldest boy, and his sisters and parents had gone up in to Oklahoma so the boy's marriage could be arranged. Had been gone two or three days, with instructions left for the younger boys to take care a thangs while they was gone."

After a very long pause, Laverne made a frown and then posed a question. "Ever heard a what they call 'mushroom tea,' Miriam?" Laverne had taken a look around before leaning in and quietly asking.

Miriam leaned in and answered, "yes, Laverne. Why are we whispering?" Miriam was amused.

"'cause I'm gonna tell you what it can do to people and I don't want everbody to hear me talkin', that's why. Mushroom tea was what them boys had drank that night out at boot hill. They tested their blood and their urine and that's what they come up with. Them boys was on some psychedelic trip what made 'em do such a thang. Otherwise, them was good boys till then. But anyways, they drank too much or boiled it too long or got some bad mushrooms or somethin', and they went outta their fuckin' minds."

"After the 'vestigators got through workin', they put the puzzle pieces together like this, a course we all knew it pretty much, ya see, but it helped to hear it all at one time. The three Smithey brothers drank the tea that Franklin Curtis concocted. He drove 'em to the cematarry and they looked for the freshest graves they could find. They dug the first grave, which was Mrs. Gaston, and each of 'em had sex with her. Then they looked for 'nother one, which was Ella Fay Carpenter hangin' down at the Post Office. They dug her grave up and had sex with her, too, but then Cleavis, and I suppose Curtis, drove her body in to town and hung her on the flagpole. By the time Cleavis went back to his brothers out at the cematarry, they'd started in on Mrs. Ewing, that's when me and Gray come along. She's the poor ol'thang that I fell on top of." Laverne shivered as if she became suddenly cold, "Jesus! Gives me the willies just thankin' 'bout it."

"But they all got what they deserved for doin' what they did, and Cleavis was the dumbest one a the bunch. Remember they was checkin' on the fibers from my uniform?"

Miriam only shook her head, she was too engrossed to speak.

"Well, that's what got him good, thank the Lord. Since the Post Office was involved, it brought in the FBI with all their fancy 'quipment. They run lab tests on the fibers from his clothes, which was found on the first and second bodies, but his fibers was absent from the clothes a Mrs. Ewing, provin' he was the one that went to town while the other boys stayed out at the burial grounds. Because he went on to Federal property to do his thang, he went to the Federal penitentiary 'stead a the State prison like his brothers did. He was nearly eighteen, too, so they tried him like he was a adult. He ain't outta there yet, rest yore soul."

"This all happened in, let's see '72 I believe, no '74. That was the year I quit at the Sheriff's office. I just couldn't take nothin' else like that happenin' to me again in my lifetime or a million years. Hell, for that very reason alone, I decided I'd open a lumberyard. I knew I wouldn't stumble in to no graves doin' that. Never looked back, but I ain't sorry for nothin' neither. Gray was forced to take a mandatory leave a absence, too, like I was, but he decided to go back doin' the same job. I'm glad that he could, 'cause we need good officers like him 'round here. But I just couldn't. They took the trial down to Texarkana, 'cause we didn't have no place to try 'em here, a course. Hell, it was a headache, I tell ya, but them boys got just what they deserved. Prison."

There was silence between the two, each frozen amid their own thoughts about the events of that night in '74. Then, as if a light bulb flashed in Miriam's head, she raised her eyes slowly toward Laverne, and said, "but, Laverne, they're morticians!"

"Our very own. What ya thank a that? And no law to stop 'em." Laverne pursed her lips and her face started to be flushed. "Leastwise, they come back to Cool Lake so's the law here can keep up with 'em. I guess that's a plus, but I try not to thank about it. What else is there to do? They done their time legal, and 'cause they was kids their records are sealed to the public. They went out to California to some school, and come back with embalmin' certificates a mile high."

"But Verne, they're morticians for gosh sakes, surrounded by a town that knows what they did. How could this happen?" Miriam spoke humbly, as if pleading with Laverne to give her a better answer. She was given in response, what Miriam felt was a weak cop out.

"People forgit and forgive is all I can say, Miriam. I don't know. It shook me up, too, in the beginnin'. Shit, it shook up the whole damn town. But there wern't no law against it then, and there ain't one against it now. Period." Laverne had been placed on the defensive by Miriam, and she began to boil under the pressure. "Now see," Laverne started angrily, "if I hadn't told ya, you wouldn't be the wiser."

"I didn't mean to make you mad, Laverne. I'm just in disbelief that something as horrible as this could occur, and then to find out that they're in that kind of business right here under our noses...I'm...I'm...I'm shocked, that's what I am. I'm just shocked."

"Hell, I shoulda just kept by big mouth shut, then you wouldn't go lookin' at me like its all my fault 'cause they're undertakers. Heck, there wadn't nothin' I could do to stop it, Yum. There wadn't nothin' nobody could do to stop it. Nobody." Laverne was shaking her head and wringing her hands in frustration. "Nobody. We had a town meetin' when all this happened and there was no law or ordinance anywheres in Texas that said they couldn't do it. We tried. So we just decided we had to come to terms with it, that's all. We all had to realize that we'd have to bury the dead so-to-speak and go on with it, or let it destroy what we'd built up here as a community. See? No two ways about it."

They both fell silent, and like before, it was Miriam that renewed the conversation again. "Laverne? How does Franklin Curtis come into play with the Smithey Brothers?"

Looking surprised that Miriam wouldn't let it be, she whined "Aw, now. There ya go again. Cain't you just say he does and leave it alone?"

"No. If you have the strength left to tell it, then I have to know the whole story, Verne. I need to know the truth, so I can be aware of any danger that might come my way. Right?" Miriam was attempting to manipulate Laverne into believing she'd be doing the right thing if she were to complete the story, rather than to leave it alone. "I mean, what if I were to innocently become involved in something horrible just because I didn't know any better? That would be a terrible thing, wouldn't it?"

After a long pause, Laverne spoke. "I guess yore right, Miriam. I wouldn't want ya to be in no danger 'cause a somethin' I didn't tell you. I got enough stones in my heart already than to have one more."

Laverne acted so pitiful, she left Miriam with the feeling that she was the bad guy for wanting to know more details. "No. You're absolutely right, Laverne. If you don't think that I should know, then we'll drop it."

"Ya mean we don't have ta talk 'bout it anymore?" Laverne seemed quite relieved, but then she recanted, "naw. Ya need ta know, 'cause I don't want you to git in no trouble if ya was to go snoopin' 'round like an ol'hound dawg for the rest of it."

Miriam was elated to hear that Laverne would tell her, and quickly said, "tell me, Verne. Go ahead, I need to know."

"Well. Ya don't need to know but you do, so I'm gonna tell it. It really ain't that big a deal really, but it is to a certain extent. I'd rather you know the real story from me, than to go snoopin' aroun' like I know ya'd do..."

Miriam interrupted Laverne's internal war with, "tell me, Verne or I'm gonna shake the daylight out of you. Tell me, now. Stop beating around the bush."

"Okay. All right. Don't rush me. I'm tellin', I'm tellin'. Franklin Curtis and them Smithey boys has had somethin' on each other for a long, long time. Curtis is actually the one that owns the mortuary, but he don't know nothin' 'bout dead people, 'cept for the fact that they're dead. The way the story's always been handed down is that Curtis was along with them boys that night. He's suppos'ably the one that cooked up the mushrooms and drove 'em to the cematarry to drink it. But they never found no evidence convincin' enough that he played a part a them diggin' up the bodies. The FBI even gave Cleavis a reduced sentence tryin' to pin this on Curtis, too. But even with him squeelin' on Curtis like he did, there just still wadn't enough to convict him. As a result, he got off free as a bird. That's where the mortuary thang comes in. Curtis, Hirum, and Oather made this sorry ass agreement that the buildin' and licensin', well the business parts would be all be put in Curtis' name, and the Smithey boys'd run it. All legal-like, simple as that. That's why the town couldn't stop 'em, it wadn't 'cause we all didn't try. We couldn't. Well, anyways, that's how the funeral home came 'bout. Curtis bought the damn thang when it come up for sale, and Hirum and Oather went to school and learned how to fix the bodies."

Taking a sip of her soda, Laverne quickened her pace "Well, Curtis was weak where them boys was concerned. I don' know if it's 'cause that he got away with it and they threatened him or what. But anyways they pushed him to the background and took over everthang for themselves, 'ventually even changin' the name of it from Curtis-Smithey to Smithey Brothers. Thangs has been quiet for a long time now, since before you come along it was quiet, it just got to the point that they's all comfortable with their little arrangement. Now, when Franklin got caught out here at the 69 messin' 'round, it shed a whole new light on the way thangs was. Sheriff started snoopin' in to thangs up there at the funeral home, and Hirum didn't like it one eye-ota. That's when Hirum tore in to ol'Franklin and whooped his ass for bein' so damn stupid. Franklin's gone missin' now, ya see. Nobody can locate him."

"Oh, dear, Laverne. Do you think he could be dead really?" Miriam's eyes were wide and bright with curiosity.

"If they'd ask me, I'd tell 'em what I thought. But since they hadn' ask me, and I reckon they don't really care really, I'm stayin' outta there where I don't belong. That's all." Laverne finished by folding her hands together and laying them on the table.

"I'm asking you, Verne. What do you think has happened to Franklin? Do you think he's still alive?" Miriam was supremely sincere, and actually hated the thought that Franklin might be dead.

"Miriam. I thank he's dead as a doornail. I thank the Smithey boys has buried him. Either that or they cremated him when they cremated Kitty Cleveland, God rest her soul. They been wishin' him outta the pitcher for a long, long time. I thank that he prob'ly knew a lotta thangs goin' on at the funeral home what's kept him there so long in the first place. With him outta the pitcher, there ain't no tellin' what might go on in there. No tellin', and I don't wanna know. Now if yore through eatin', let's git outta here. Girl, I got one mighty powerful headache." Laverne didn't wait to see if Miriam was ready or not, she stood and dropped cash on the table and went outside.

She was leaning on her car as Miriam approached her, and Laverne began to blow her nose and wipe her eyes on a kerchief. "Hey, Verne," she called to get her attention, "I don't know about you, but I need a hug." They embraced silently for a long while, until Laverne had fallen silent, and then finally Miriam spoke. "Okay. Okay. Take your hands off my ass and let's go."

Chapter Four
Chapter Six

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