Ma Frazier died for three days. Hard days. Days filled with groaning and wailing and profanities above and beyond her occasional hells and damns. Reverend Thomas admonished her to maintain her dignity, but Ma kicked at him with her good leg and told him to shove dignity up his ass. The good reverend slipped from the room and joined the men on the porch.
Uncle Doyle sat barefoot in a wooden swing that hung from the rafters of the tin roof by chains. His belly spilled over his belt and pushed out the tail of his shirt. Ben stood against the corner post at the far end of the porch, chewing on a piece of weed he had pulled from Aunt Molly's row of azaleas. He and Uncle Doyle ran a junkyard together and had been friends since grade school.
Conversation fell away when the preacher came out. A red pickup truck rattled up the gravel road and disappeared over the hill, leaving a thick brown cloud of dust in its wake. Over the next couple of minutes, the dust cloud drifted across the yard and added another layer of brown to everything it touched.
The screen door opened and Aunt Molly stepped out, hair disheveled, eyes tired. She took her first breath of fresh air in days, savored it, then sat beside her husband in the swing.
"Momma finally calm down?"
She took Uncle Doyle's hand and gave it a squeeze, then broke the news that his momma had passed. Reverend Thomas led them in a prayer. Aunt Molly and Uncle Doyle sobbed. Ben rubbed the back of his neck because the prayer dragged on too long.
"That was beautiful," Aunt Molly said.
"You have a way with words," said Uncle Doyle.
Ben snorted and spat into the azaleas.
"Your mother confided in me before she got bad," the reverend said after a while. He raked a partially decayed dog turd off the porch with the side of his brown loafer. It hit a pink flower, then dropped through the leaves to the dirt. "I waited until she passed to tell you because that's what she asked me to do."
"You've got some turd on your shoe, Preacher," Uncle Doyle said. His hands twitched because he couldn't get the bottle from the cabinet by the stove with the preacher around. Alcohol didn't own Uncle Doyle but it borrowed him on occasion.
"Did you hear what I just said, Doyle?"
"I know what you're gonna say," Uncle Doyle said. "Momma got on me all the time for not going to church regular."
"That's not it."
Ben left the corner post and joined the group. "Some souls just ain't worth saving, Lester."
"Don't Ben me, Molly dear. Me and Doyle and the good reverend used to stomp these back roads together."
"I'm a different man now," the reverend said. "I'm like the thief on the cross. Redeemed in the Glory."
"Save it for the flock, Lester."
"Don't mind Ben," Aunt Molly said. "He don't mean nothing."
The preacher chuckled. "He don't bother me, Molly. I know where I've been. More importantly, I know where I'm going."
"Remember that time we picked up the Carter sisters -- "
"Shut up," Uncle Doyle said.
"I was just --"
Ben raised his hands, palms out, as a sign of surrender.
"I've been trying to tell you something important," the preacher said to Uncle Doyle. He shifted to the other foot and waited until he had their attention. "Apparently your father buried a large sum of money in the back yard."
Uncle Doyle stopped the swing from drifting. His eyes stroked the preacher. "Did you say money?"
"A large sum."
"Twenty thousand dollars."
Uncle Doyle came out of the swing so fast it almost dumped his wife. "Where?"
"In the back yard."
Uncle Doyle grabbed the preacher by the shoulders and shook him. "In the back yard? Where in the back yard?"
"She didn't say."
"How could she not say," Ben said.
"If you'll stop shaking me, Doyle, I'll tell you exactly what she told me."
Uncle Doyle unhanded the preacher, then looked around like he didn't know exactly what to do with himself.
"Sit down," Aunt Molly said.
"It was Tuesday," the preacher said. "I'd been to the hospital to see Sister Rachel. She had her gall bladder removed."
"We don't care about all that," Ben said. "Skip the salad and get to the meat."
"It's all right, Molly," the preacher said. "Ralph sold some land he inherited from a great uncle.
Apparently he buried half of it in the back yard. A rainy day fund, so to speak."
"Your ole man was a strange bird all right," Ben said. "Probably all that talk radio he listened to."
"Twenty thousand dollars," Uncle Doyle said, gazing at the preacher like he saw clear through him.
"You ever seen twenty thousand dollars, Ben?"
"Not in one place. Say, how do you know she wasn't hallucinating?"
"She was lucid," the preacher said. "Whether what she told me is true or not I can't say, but she was lucid when she told it."
Uncle Doyle glared at the reverend. "Momma never told a lie in her life."
"Yes she did," Aunt Molly said, patting his arm.
"Why didn't she tell me?"
"I can't say," the preacher said.
"Twenty thousand dollars. Right in the back yard all this time. Damn me to hell."
"I didn't mean it literal," he said to his wife.
"How do we go about finding it," Ben asked. "Metal detector?"
"Tommy Harris has one," Uncle Doyle said. "We can't tell him why we need it, though. We can't tell nobody about this until we find that money. You hear me, Preacher?"
"I'm not in the habit of carrying rumors," the preacher said."
Uncle Doyle shook his head. "This ain't rumor. This here's a deathbed confession."
"You're wasting your time with a metal detector, though. She said he buried it in a fiberglass box."
"Fiberglass? Who the hell buries money in a fiberglass box?"
"Your father, apparently. Maybe he didn't want anyone finding it with a metal detector."
"Sounds like him," Aunt Molly said. "Always suspicious. I remember one time he strung tripwires all over the back yard because he thought the Riley kids were stealing eggs from the henhouse."
"Shut up, Molly," Uncle Doyle said, netting himself a stern look from the preacher. He squirmed. "I mean, now's not the time for reminiscing about Daddy, unless you know where he might've buried a box full of money."
"Coins or bills," Ben asked.
"Probably dry-rotted by now," Ben said. "I hope he had the good sense to wrap it in plastic."
"Plastic? That's a fine way to make paper rot," Uncle Doyle said. "Don't you watch TV? You think a rat can chew through fiberglass, Preacher?"
"Rats can chew threw anything, Babe," Aunt Molly said.
"How many times I gotta tell you not to call me that in front of people?"
Aunt Molly rolled her eyes.
"I had a woman who used to call me babe," Ben said. "She said it was reserved for special people."
"You're special all right," Aunt Molly said. "Did this woman have a valve stem in her back?"
Reverend Thomas cleared his throat.
"Sorry," she said.
"You ain't exactly un-driven snow," Ben mumbled.
Doyle looked up from somewhere far away. "I think I got a shovel in the shed, Ben."
"I got one at home," Ben said.
"There's another hole needs digging first," the preacher said. "Let's not forget there's a body in the house."
Uncle Doyle blushed, then jabbed Aunt Molly with his elbow. "Well go call somebody!"
She scurried into the house and left the men alone again.
"We might be digging for days," Uncle Doyle said. "We'll have to close the junkyard."
"Weeks," Ben said. "Too bad we don't have a backhoe. We could rent one."
"What if we don't find anything?"
"Greed has undone many a good man," the preacher said.
"You'll get your share," Uncle Doyle said. "In the collection plate."
"Ten percent is two thousand dollars," the preacher said. "That's the Lord's share, though, not mine."
"In that case we'll give the Lord his share when we see him," Ben said.
"Blasphemy is a free-fall into hell," the preacher said. "You're not invincible, Ben."
Aunt Molly rejoined them and said the hospital was sending an ambulance.
Uncle Doyle and Ben started digging as soon as they returned from the funeral. Reverend Thomas stopped by later that evening and blessed their efforts. Aunt Molly toted ice water and sandwiches.
"Don't you think you should tell them," the preacher said to Aunt Molly.
"Look at 'em dig," she said. "Doyle ain't huffed and puffed that much since our honeymoon."
"Tomorrow," she said. "Maybe."
When they stopped for the night, Ben crashed on the couch instead of going home. At first light they hit the yard again and dug more holes. Aunt Molly couldn't bring herself to tell them that day either.
Halfway through the third day, Uncle Doyle stopped and leaned on his shovel. He stood waist deep in another failure. "Ben, suppose Daddy set this up just to make me work?"
Ben stopped digging and sat on the edge of his tenth hole of the morning. "Damn me if I wouldn't put it past him."
"You think we should quit?"
Ben surveyed the place. Dozens of holes dotted the yard, each marked by a mound of red clay dirt.
"Suit yourself." He stood and stabbed his shovel into the ground for another turn. "I ain't quittin'."
Aunt Molly brought lunch and ate with them on the ground. They ate fried chicken and homemade biscuits, and washed it down with beer from a cooler she had brought out half an hour earlier.
Uncle Doyle tossed a chicken bone into his newest pit and belched. Aunt Molly frowned and shook her head, then cautioned them not to overdo it. It was hot out and they looked spent.
She stood and brushed the dirt from her jeans. "Doyle?"
Uncle Doyle looked up and saw her staring out toward what remained of the chicken coop. He scrambled up out of the hole and followed her gaze. "What the hell you looking at?"
"That rock. Where'd it come from?"
Uncle Doyle looked at the big rock beside the chicken coop. "That rock? I don't know. Momma said it was decoration."
"Most people decorate their front yard," she said.
The two men looked at each other and grinned.
"Come on, Ben!"
They ran with their shovels toward the rock. It was a big rock. A handful for one man, but no match for two. Together they rolled it away and went to work with their shovels. Two feet down, Ben's shovel hit something solid.
"Doyle? Hear that?"
"I heard it."
Molly watched as they unearthed a white box about the size of a washtub. It took another ten minutes for them to get it out of the hole and up onto the grass.
"It's bigger than I expected," Ben said.
"Maybe there's more than twenty thousand," Uncle Doyle said. "There's a hasp but no lock. Why wouldn't he lock it? I'll shoot that damned preacher if it's empty."
"Why lock a box you're gonna bury?"
Ben had a point, Uncle Doyle agreed. Molly told them to open the damned thing and get it over with. Ben lifted the lid and threw it back on its hinges, revealing a large pile of paper money. Tens and twenties and hundred dollar bills thrown into the box in a disorganized heap. Spending money.
"Look at all that green," Ben said. "I say we count it."
Doyle reached in and dipped his hands in the cash. "I say we get drunk."
Aunt Molly trotted to the house and fetched his bottle from the kitchen, along with a garbage bag for the money. While the two men passed the bottle back and forth, she transferred the pile of loose bills into the bag.
They sat in the back yard and drank until both men passed out from liquor and exhaustion. Molly carried the bag of money to the front porch and called the preacher. Fifteen minutes later she heard a car coming up the gravel road, then saw his black Buick come around the curve. He stopped at the mailbox and waited while she ran up the driveway clutching the garbage bag to her chest.
"Last chance to back out," he said.
She reached over and squeezed his thigh. "Shut up and drive."
Copyright 2015 Carl Purdon. All Rights Reserved.