The thing that vexed people the most about the death of AnaMae Futrell wasn't the secrets she took to the grave with her, butthe ones that would come to light after she died.
And the thing that stunned people the most about Ana Mae'spassing on to glory wasn't the fact that she'd dropped dead of aburst aneurysm while cleaning Doc Hardison's toilet. What everybodywanted to know was, who the hell was Howard?
Ana Mae's obituary in the Ahoskie Times & Union Reportsaid she had a son. But nobody had ever heard of him. And evenfewer people than that believed that Ana Mae had ever lifted thehem of her holiness dress long enough to get knocked up.
Then there was the business about the "life partner." None ofAna Mae's kin still lived in town. They'd all high-tailed it out ofHertford County as soon as they could legally get away—and atleast one of them before even that. The baby in the family, AnaMae's brother, Clayton, was a homosexual. Of course, some folks,the ones who remembered when all the Futrells lived in the littlehouse over on Clairmont where they grew up and that Ana Maestill called home, already knew that. That Clayton was kind ofsissy-acting as a boy. But lots of people also carried a quite a bit oflatent curiosity about him. Nobody had ever listed a "life partner"as a survivor in the local newspaper. To be honest, most folks weresurprised they even let that sort of thing in a family publication.
Needless to say, Ana Mae's wake and funeral promised to be aspectacle—if for no other reason than plain curiosity.
So for the better part of two hours, people from all over thecounty had been trudging into the Rollings Funeral Home onMaple Avenue in Ahoskie, the "big" town next to Drapersville, topay their respects to the late Ana Mae Futrell. The family wouldarrive any minute now.
* * *
Ana Mae's kin offered some much-needed entertainment inthe town. While many who showed up at the wake wonderedabout Ana Mae's brother, the homosexual who lived in San Franciscoand had the nerve to put it in the newspaper so everybodywould know, just as many others wanted to know whatever happenedto the two sisters. Nobody had seen skin or teeth of eitherof them for nigh on about twenty years, though Ana Mae alwaystalked about them like they just ran out to get a pack of cigarettesor some milk from the Day-Ree Mart.
And as at wakes all over the place, some people just wanted tosee who all else was there.
Ana Mae was so good at keeping secrets, not even her bestfriend knew about that Howard thing.
Though she was one of the biggest gossips in town, RosaleeJenkins prided herself on being able to keep a secret when it mattered.It hurt her that Ana Mae hadn't confided in her about thisson of hers. So at Ana Mae's wake, Rosalee stood near the casketand fussed at her friend.
"I'm mad at you for dying, Ana Mae. And I'm mad at you fornot telling me about that boy."
"She can't hear you, you know, Sister Rosalee."
The gentle words came from the Reverend Toussaint le Baptiste.He stood tall, slim, and as good-looking as he had been backwhen they were young and before he'd found the Lord. Many atime, Reverend Toussaint, as most people called him these days,had been asked if he was related to the singers El DeBarge orChristopher Williams. He had the lighter than café au lait skin, thewavy "good" hair, and a slim moustache that added a dashing ErrolFlynn touch to features that women gravitated to like honey.
"I know, Too Sweet. I just miss her so much."
"Ana Mae is wearing a crown and walking the streets of goldright now."
The minister pulled a tissue from a box discreetly tucked at theside of the coffin. Pressing it into her hand, he said, "I miss her too,Sister Rosalee. I miss her too."
* * *
Across the room, a small group huddled, surveying the survivors."Ana Mae never had no kids," someone whispered loudly.
"Shoot, far as I know she was so holy she never spread her legsfor anybody."
The person who said that blanched when the commentearned her an evil-eyed look from Zenobia Bryant. "Y'all ought torespect the dead," Zenobia hissed. She glanced around trying tomake sure none of Ana Mae's immediate family had heard thenasty remark.
Truth was, though, townsfolk in Drapersville and Ahoskie,North Carolina, weren't the only ones asking who the hellHoward was. Ana Mae's family wanted to know too.
JoJo, a former showgirl in Las Vegas, stood near the door waitingfor a cue from the funeral parlor staff. Her husband, Lester, glancedover his shoulder at his brothers-in-law getting out of the car.
"I was expecting your brother's, uh, er, well, his boyfriend ..."
"His life partner," JoJo said, as if explaining—again—to anone-too-bright child.
Lester snorted. "Yeah, his partner. I expected him to be morefaggy. But he's like a regular guy. Even played some football in college."
JoJo narrowed her eyes at her husband. "You can be so vile."
He raised an eyebrow. "What?" he asked, as she stomped away."What'd I say? I was giving the man a compliment. For a homohe's not all that bad."
"Don't know what she's all in a huff about," Lester muttered ashe patted his breast pocket for his smokes. He might have time forone before they had to go inside. "She told me to be nice to herrelatives."
* * *
Twenty minutes later, the Reverend Toussaint le Baptistecleared his throat at the lectern—for the third time. No one in thefuneral chapel paid him any mind.
"Our Father, who art in heaven," he yelled above the din ofthe mourners come to pay respects to the Futrell family.
By the time he got to "Thy kingdom come ...," the place hadquieted down, and others intoned the old and sacred prayer withhim. After the Amen, the minister clasped his hands around hisBible.
"On behalf of the Futrell family, I want to thank you all forcoming out tonight. Sister Ana Mae was a faithful member of thechurch, and she truly loved her some God."
Heads bobbed in agreement. In the back, near a display ofmums and gardenias nearly as tall as he was, Lester muttered toJoJo.
"That's the preacher? What they got in the water down here?Would you look at that? Wrist just as limp as your brother's."
JoJo poked him in the ribs with her elbow.
"Shh," several people said, turning to glare in his direction.
"Can't you just hush up for half an hour?"
Blood rushed to Lester's neck. "I don't see why we have to dothis. Why we even had to come out here. You didn't even likeAnnie Mae."
"Her name is Ana Mae. And just because we weren't close didn'tmean I didn't love my sister. And, Mr. High Roller, I didn't ask youto come here with me."
With a scowl toward the back of the room, an indication thatJoJo and Lester's hushed conversation wasn't so shushed, ReverendToussaint extended his hand toward Delcine.
"Sister Marguerite Futrell—some of you all might rememberher as Delcine—is going to say a few words."
Lester rolled his eyes. "Ah, now, here we go. Queen Delcine."
JoJo, with her big teased hair, long false eyelashes, and tootight,sequined red dress, cussed under her breath, then inchedaway from her husband.
"Excuse me," she said to a man wearing a camouflage greenhunter's jacket. She needed to put some distance between her andLester before they got into a fight right here in the funeral home.
She paused next to her brother-in-law, Delcine's husband, whosilently switched places with her. Clayton took her hand in his andsqueezed it.
JoJo offered her brother a thankful smile, then turned her attentionto their sister.
Dressed in a royal blue fitted suit that looked like it was tailoredjust for her and that probably cost more than the trailer thatJoJo and Lester lived in, Delcine went to the center of the room,where she could address the crowd of about eighty or so mournerswho had ventured out to come to the wake.
"My sister, brother, and I thank you for coming tonight. Weknow you loved Ana Mae very much. Her passing will leave a voidin many hearts."
"Spoken like a true diplomat," JoJo said out of the side of hermouth.
Clayton Futrell smirked. "At least we all showed up. I doubtAna Mae even expected that."
Delcine cut a glance at her siblings, her eyes narrowed and herlips curved up in her familiar smile-snarl.
Both JoJo and Clayton recognized it as a clear sign that theirmurmuring was reaching her ears. Flushing, they both lookeddown at the floor. While JoJo was genuinely contrite, she doubtedif Clayton was. He'd never minced words on his feelings about eithertheir hometown or the sister he didn't really know. Therewere a lot of years separating them. Clayton had always had a closerrelationship with JoJo, who was just eighteen months older.
Clayton was gorgeous. He'd gotten the best of the family'sgenes, and JoJo was proud of all he'd accomplished. From the subtlewhiff of an expensive aftershave to the custom suit, he exudedthe wealth and the privilege that came of being a successful doctorout in California.
Delcine lived with her family in upper-middle-class suburbanluxury outside Washington, D.C. She and her husband both hadimportant and high-ranking government jobs that afforded them alifestyle JoJo envied only when she was feeling sorry for herself.And that was even though it was never quite made clear just whatit was that Winslow—or Delcine, for that matter—did for a living.As far as JoJo was able to determine, Winslow had something to dowith government contracts, and Delcine worked as the director orassistant director in some kind of government office.
JoJo was a Futrell who, like Ana Mae, hadn't made much of herlife. Yeah, she lived in Las Vegas and used to be a sought-afterdancer in the top shows on the Strip, but that was fifty or sixtypounds ago and before she'd hooked up with Lester. He'dpromised her the world, and he'd given her a trailer park and apack-a-day cigarette habit. She'd kicked the cigarettes to the curb.Now if she could just do the same to Lester.
Too many times now she'd heard tourists exclaim that shelooked like a black Peggy Bundy. She couldn't help thinking thatthat had once seemed like a compliment, but that now, comparedto her living-high-on-the-hog and well-put-together siblings, shelooked like what she was: trailer trash.
Years as both a bureaucrat and a Beltway wife had taught MargueriteDelcine Futrell Foster how to sound sincere withoutmeaning a word of what she said.
In a way, she was sorry that Ana Mae had died. But part of herwas glad. Her last tie to this dismal little town was finally severedand she was freed from the past. Of course, her present didn't rankas anything to be proud of—or to write home about, even if she'dwanted to.
Ana Mae had always been mean to her, as far as Margueritewas concerned. She steadfastly ignored the fact that had it not beenfor her older sister's little white envelopes arriving a few timesevery semester, she'd have never made it through college.
But that was neither here nor there now. Water under thebridge. Ancient history. Buried, just like Ana Mae would be beforelong.
"The services will be here," Marguerite said. "Tomorrow, ateleven."
The preacher cleared his throat.
"Uh, pardon me, Sister Futrell."
"Foster," Marguerite corrected.
He bobbed his head, pulled out a handkerchief, and dabbed hisforehead. "Sister Foster. The funeral tomorrow will be at thechurch. Sister Ana Mae wanted a church funeral."
Marguerite bit back rising panic. She glanced at her brotherand sister. Clayton was eyeing a young man across the room. JoJogave her a "don't even think about it" look.
Marguerite gestured for the undertaker. Mr. Rollings glidedtoward the front of the parlor and sidled next to Marguerite.
She gestured for him to lean down so she could consult withhim privately.
"We will not pay for limousine and hearse services to cart thatcasket all over town."
Rollings opened his mouth, apparently thought better ofwhatever he was about to say, then bowed his head ever so slightly.
"Transportation is included in the cost of our services, Mrs.Foster."
Marguerite brightened. "Oh, well, in that case." She lookedback out at the crowd and a little too cheerfully announced, "Tomorrowmorning at eleven at ...," she looked at Reverend Toussaintle Baptiste.
"At the Holy Ghost Church of the Good Redeemer," he said."I think everybody knows where it is."
As restrained and respectful chatter again filled the viewingparlor, Rollings put a hand on Marguerite's elbow, guiding heraway from the casket.
"I need to speak with the members of the family," he said. "Wecan meet in my office. It's about some of Miss Futrell's finalwishes."
Delcine's gaze darted to her husband's. She jerked her head forhim to join her.
Rollings held out a hand toward JoJo and Clayton, indicatinghe'd like them to join him as well.
"I'll just wait for you here," said a man standing just behindClayton.
Like Clayton, he looked ready to be photographed for thecover of a magazine. The dark-blue striped suit, crisp white shirt,wing tips, and cuff links pegged him as a man who paid attentionto detail. The clothes, the ice-blue eyes, and his blond hair, slickedback and effortless in its salon perfection, gave him the look of oneof those rich white men in Ralph Lauren ads.
"No," Clayton said, reaching for the man's hand. Then, as if rememberingwhere he was, he instead tucked his hand in thepocket of his trousers. "You're my family. I want you to hear whateverit is he has to say."
Marguerite's husband, Winslow Foster, the man of few words,fell into step behind her.
Lester and JoJo Coston followed him.
"This better not be about paying some more money to burythat broad," Lester grumbled.
"You have that right, Lester," Winslow muttered.
Almost simultaneously, JoJo hissed "shut up" to Lester, and ona long-suffering sigh, Marguerite, said, "Winslow, please."
As the family made its way to the undertaker's office, a man inpaint-spattered brown pants and a plaid shirt buttoned the wrongway accidentally bumped against Winslow going the other way.
"Sorry 'bout that, bro," the man mumbled, tipping the brim ofhis rumpled brown hat. "Just coming to pay my respects. Ana Maehelped me find a place to stay."
Winslow didn't say anything, but he brushed at the sleeve ofhis Brooks Brothers suit jacket.
"Ain't you Mr. Dandy," Lester muttered. "Dude said he wassorry."
If Winslow heard the comment, he gave no indication of it.
Delcine—she'd given up on being called Marguerite while inNorth Carolina—looked around in distaste as they followed theundertaker.
"What doesn't at all seem likely is that Ana Mae would leave awill or have any final wishes. What in the world could she possiblyhave?"
"That anyone else would want," her husband Winslow added.
Once the Futrell siblings and their significant others weregathered in the spacious, panel-lined office, JoJo spoke first.
"Mr. Rollings, we had the understanding that all of Ana Mae'sfuneral and burial expenses were prepaid, you know, in advance."
The undertaker nodded as he indicated for them all to sit.
The office was appointed in rich, coffee-colored leathers, andcuriously, Marguerite noted, it smelled of cinnamon. Like somebodywas baking something good. But in a funeral home?
She looked around for a source and saw an original oil by anoted African-American artist. The piece she and Winslow commissionedfour years ago by the same artist, a 36x24 painting of ablack Madonna, had been one of the first things to go.
When she noticed Winslow also studying the painting, sheclosed her eyes for a moment.
"We'd prefer to stand," she said, responding to Rollings's invitation.
"Why did you need to see us? Is it about some additional ..."
"And probably jacked up ...," Lester chimed in.
"... expense for your services?" Marguerite finished with asharp glance in her brother-in-law's direction.
When none of the Futrells opted to sit, Everett Rollings wentbehind his desk and picked up a piece of paper.
"No, rest assured," he said. "There are no additional expensesfor Miss Futrell. Everything has been provided for."
"Well, thank God for that," Lester said.
Winslow, as well, looked relieved.