Dorie LaRue

Books by Dorie LaRue for the Backwaters Press

Resurrecting Virgil Resurrecting Virgil by Dorie LaRue

Author: Dorie LaRue
Format: Paperback, 249 pages
ISBN: 0967714966
Published: November 2001

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Prizes for Resurrecting Virgil

The Omaha Prize, 2000

Excerpt from Dorie LaRue’s Resurrecting Virgil

Chapter 1:
Virgil Matthews sits slumped in the pink Naugahyde platform rocker next to the window in the Harrisonville City Funeral Home and picks his teeth. His jeans pull tight at the seams. He can say one thing for his meemaw—she can cook. Virgil has worn a dent in the Naugahyde watching the funeral home’s big Curtis Mathis TV without benefit of antenna or vertical control and eating his good supper she packed for him every night for the three months since he’s started work. But then the TV busts all the way and his boss Harvey L. Sloane did not see the need to get it fixed. Virgil still balances his plate on his knees in front of the screen, even though there are plenty of tables around, and stares at it by habit. He misses M*A*S*H especially, but lately he is not really bothered. Without B.J. and Hawkeye to watch every evening at suppertime, his eyes stray out the window once by chance and fall on an old classmate of his, Lorna Jean Gibson, as she leaves the back doors of the T.C. Haynes Construction Company. Virgil did not even know Lorna Jean works for Haynes, and since he was in love with her from the first time he lay eyes on her way back in high school, it becomes his ritual to catch her leaving every evening and watch her walk off down the alley. In fact Virgil is beginning to feel closer to Lorna Jean than ever just because of all the secret watching. He considers it a small price to pay for reruns of M*A*S*H.

Lorna Jean Gibson always walks down the alley to the corner of Ursuline and Crocket, and then disappears into Speed Maxwell’s red Bronco parked on the curb. She is better than any actress on TV—her entrance onto the street, her hair floating blonde patterns in the wind. Today, when the double doors opens, she is wearing a white T-shirt, a short blue jean skirt

and yellow tennis shoes. Lorna Jean and Speed Maxwell are a couple, but Virgil doesn’t even try to fight his feelings. A couple of years ago in civics class at old Jefferson High, one row over from her, Virgil often followed the lines of her ponytail to the back of her tanned shoulders down to the curve between the seat and the backrest of her desk and then on to the perfect perpetually tanned legs. Virgil burns red, just remembering, guilt and the sweet potato from supper sitting heavily for a second until Speed and Lorna Jean drive off. It is unbelievable the stuff he thinks of, the things no one else would guess he was thinking. He looks around the room until he feels the heat burn off his neck and his breathing slow down.

Despite the shiny tables and the instruments stuck in jars, and the white of everything, the evening sun coats the room, mutes it to a pink softness, making the whole space seem edgeless and colorful. Virgil is becoming fond of the place. Beside the broken-down TV is a bookcase where Harvey L. Sloane keeps all his undertaking books and back issues of Casket and Sunnyside, a surgical trolley, an ordinary chest of drawers full of sheets and towels and finally the newest addition—refrigerated roll-out bins, one of which at the moment, holds a half-dozen boutonnieres. Someone on the day shift is getting married tomorrow.

Actually the mortuary is only half the business. In addition to owning the only funeral home within a hundred mile radius, Harvey L. Sloane also runs a successful Porta-potty company. The Porta-potties are outside in a cyclone-and-barbed wire enclosure. Harvey has a separate number for this business and separate door and sign. It is almost totally obscured from the street. Most of the customers for the Porta-potties make their inquiries by phone anyway.

Virgil brushes the fried chicken crumbs off his lap. Then he gets up and goes to first floor by way of the elevator, as big as a small room, and walks across the foyer to the double-doors that separate the lobby from the coffin room. “Casket” room, he remembers. Harvey told Virgil when he first started working for him not to say certain words. “Casket” is more polite, than “coffin”, Harvey believes. He wants him to say funeral “coach” instead of funeral “hearse.”

It is a cavernous room. Each casket has to have plenty of room, fifty or sixty feet, and proper lighting. Harvey has all the caskets in a certain order, on imaginary streets, like Park Avenue, Subaru Street, and McDonaldland to make it easier to remember prices. Virgil turns down Subaru and goes to a bronze-plated and maple half-couch job (which shows the person from the waist up) and lifts the lid. Virgil uses this one for a hiding place. He reaches in and takes out a heavy, spiral-bound book. He puts it under his arm and heads back to the elevator.Back in his chair on second, he takes off his shoes and gets comfortable. Virgil is taking a taxidermy course by mail and he studies at work because he knows his meemaw would hate the idea. One day, when Harvey’s present assistant is gone, Harvey is going to move Virgil up. Virgil had sent off for the course before Harvey told him that but since he has already paid for the stuff, he still reads the books. Probably it is a little like being a mortician, anyway. Virgil puts his socks up on the nearby trolley of syringes and kidney bowls and settles in to read. He’s barely had the second volume a week and he is already whipping his way through chapter eight: “Choosing the Glass Eye and Headform.”

Presently Harvey L. Sloane comes in. Virgil makes a little show of stumbling his feet to the floor and closing his book but he always has the feeling Harvey barely notices him and has his thoughts fixed on something in the far future. “S-s-s. I’ll tell you what,” Harvey says as way of greeting. He always has this hiss to his words. Not a stutter exactly, but a little sibilance sort of to announce the word. He looks at Virgil with his little pop eyes. Harvey has a conveniently sad, froggy face, and he wears the same style clothes all the time. There is something dashing about them that Virgil admires. Tonight he is wearing a checkered coat of indefinite colors, a pale double-breasted vest, and gray shoes with black suede uppers. Once he told Virgil that he was a showboat operator on the Delta Queen, and Virgil suspects that he gets a lot of his ideas of style from the stage. Harvey rubs his hands together like he does when a body, a beloved one, is about to be delivered. But Harvey says, “S-s. Go ahead and knock off early, s-son. I got an order for the toilets-s-s and I got a little work to do.” His eyes glint.

“All right,” Virgil says. He closes his book not-too-enthusiastically. It is only eight-fifteen. His meemaw and his daddy, Shelby, will still be up watching the end of Unsolved Mysteries. Tonight is a feature on unclaimed fortunes.

As he walks toward home slowly down Ursuline Street, Virgil realizes he has a problem. With Harvey there he has not been able to return The Art of Taxidermy to its casket. Now he has to sneak it into the house under Meemaw’s darting eyes. It isn’t so much that Meemaw would hate the idea of his learning taxidermy, but she would make him hate it. Virgil’s meemaw is a trial. She wears long home-made dresses with old-timey bibbed aprons and big floppy sunbonnets and she carries on in town like she is living on a thirty-acre farm. She raises chickens and vegetables and fruits right in the back yard. Their property is only a quarter of an acre, but Meemaw has learned about tiered rows and intensity planting from gardening books she’s found in the library. Meemaw also has a little yellow-eyed Chihuahua she talks baby talk to and that attacks Virgil crazily every time he comes home, like he didn’t live there. Meemaw named him Mike Hammer after some old favorite TV character. Besides his yipping, he has a weird habit of humping against the furniture legs at odd times. Virgil hates Mike Hammer. But Meemaw is sure Mike Hammer has cured Virgil’s daddy’s asthma. Chihuahuas are known for that. Meemaw believes that Mike Hammer has taken on the disease. And Mike Hammer does look a little under the weather all the time, despite his energy and yippiness, with his runny nose and weird little eyes.

Even without Mike Hammer, Meemaw would have been a pain in the neck to Virgil and would have probably been a pain in the neck to Virgil’s mother if she hadn’t died when he was only one year old. Shelby, Virgil’s daddy, has lived with Meemaw so long he has learned how to put up with her.

Shelby lives in some kind of dream world, anyway. He has invented a lot of things that have not paid off because there is no call for them: a portable electric sock dryer suitable for travel, a smoke alarm that plays “Great Balls of Fire” when it senses smoke, and a toilet seat that glows in the dark and reminds people to leave the lid down with a genuine police whistle sound. Some of them Shelby has even gotten patent numbers on, like the self-tester for halitosis, a complicated contraption of rubber bladders and tubes and straps. None of them ever made a buck, though. About three years ago, Shelby gave up his small engine repair service, where he worked on most of his inventions between customers, and took a nine-to-five at KILLER FOR HIRE CITY PEST CONTROL.

As Virgil walks along going over in his mind the various places he could stash his book—beside the garbage cans, in the junked washer in the garage Shelby has yet to haul off, in his Meemaw’s pea patch—something right off a television show happens. With his head down he bumps, literally bumps, into Lorna Jean Gibson who is turning onto Ursuline Street from Baker. Virgil is stunned. It is the last thing he’s ever expected, even though he’s survived on just such fantasies for years.

“Oh, says Lorna Jean Gibson in-person. “For heaven’s sake. I didn’t see you.” Virgil swallows hard and forces his lips to move. “Well, hey, Lorna Jean,” he says. He realizes with horror his voice is raised three octaves. Then he can’t think of what to do next.

Instead of hurtling on past him as Virgil expects, Lorna Jean stands squarely in front of him, blocking his path. “Say,” she says. “I know you. High school. Old Bitch Tanner’s civics class?”

Virgil nods, suddenly aware of The Art of Taxidermy under his arm. He pushes it up higher so that the title is good and hidden.

“Aren’t you…” Lorna Jean pauses, ” Vernon?”

“Virgil,” says Virgil, dizzy. Lorna Jean has almost remembered his name. He feels like he is about to burst out of his skin. Lorna Jean’s v-neck, white T-shirt exposes her throat and her tan seems to go on forever. He tries mightily to raise his eyes.

“Well, Virgil,” she is saying. “I wonder if you’d do me a little favor.”

Virgil would kill to do Lorna Jean a little favor, but all he can do at the moment is stand there and try to pull his eyes off her neckline and onto her face. When he finally is able to keep his gaze up for more than a second, he can see that her mascara is smudged slightly and that her nostrils are flared and so lovely that he feels a tear in his eye.

“I need to borrow a quarter,” Lorna Jean says in a honey voice. “Do you think you could give me a quarter?”

“Sure,” says Virgil. He reaches in his pocket to pull out his change, but there is nothing but a handful of pennies, a lint-covered aspirin, and an old washer that belongs on his reading lamp at home. “Here,” he says, magnanimously pulling out his wallet and handing her a dollar bill.

“Oh!” Lorna Jean acts as though something has just made her mad. She looks mad but at the same time bored. “I need it for that.” She points over at the pay phone hanging by the entrance of the Kiwanis Club. Virgil is stunned by what he says next. “I just live a little way,” he hears himself saying. “You could use my phone if you want.” Then it hits him. Back home Meemaw is sitting in her chair in front of the TV with Mike Hammer in her lap, and Shelby is snoring by now in his new Home Shiatsu Massage Recliner.

“Oh, could I?” says Lorna Jean even more sugary than before.

“Well,” Virgil stammers, thinking of Mike Hammer’s little T-shirt his meemaw has bought him at T G & Y. Across the front of it are the letters, “I’m the boss!” Then he says, “It’s not too far. But if you’re in a hurry—”

He is about to suggest they go back to the funeral home to use that phone, but Lorna Jean seems to take offense. “Look, if you don’t want me to use your phone, just say so.” She tosses her head and the flame of gold-melded hair causes Virgil to hold his breath a second. He shifts his book helplessly to the other arm.

“Oh no,” he says, doomed. “Sure. Sure you can use my phone.”

And there they are walking down the street towards Virgil’s house, Lorna Jean beside him taking her floating steps, the occasion he would have killed for in high school. He seems to be walking to his execution. And then they are turning into the driveway, with Shelby’s Hyundai sitting in it with its giant plastic cockroach tipping his derby hat on the roof and the doors’ painted KILLER FOR HIRE CITY PEST CONTROL letters gleaming up at them, and then they are passing the junked washer and the collection of odd lawn mowers Shelby takes parts off of to keep the good one going.

Virgil can hear tinkly music and a salesman’s hard-sell voice before he opens the door, and through the window and the dining room’s entrance arch, he can see that Unsolved Mysteries is over and Meemaw is watching the Home Shopping channel with Mike Hammer curled in her lap. All he can make of Shelby are his slippers suspended in mid-air on the footrest of his recliner. He opens the door as quietly as he can and holds it for Lorna Jean.

Mike Hammer comes barreling out, his red T-shirt flashing, yapping all the way through the kitchen-door, catches sight of Lorna Jean, cranks up even higher, and goes ballistic into Virgil’s ankle. Virgil tries to push him back with other foot, gives up and tumbles toward the kitchen, Lorna Jean following. In the kitchen, he points at the phone for Lorna Jean. Then he limps out toward the dining room dragging Mike Hammer like a ball and chain. Virgil tries to position himself in the dining room out of sight of both Meemaw and Lorna Jean, but he hears the rocker squeak.

“Here y’are,” Meemaw says, coming in. She is dribbling brown drool out of one side of her mouth. Meemaw dips snuff.

“Meemaw—” Virgil begins, over Mike Hammer’s growls.

“Meemaw, what?” she says. She peers around him, catching sight of Lorna Jean’s little skirt in the kitchen. “Eh?”

“Somebody to use the phone’s all,” says Virgil, desperately.

“Phone!” snorts Meemaw. “Well, ain’t nobody stopping nobody I can see.” She peels Mike Hammer’s little needle teeth out of Virgil’s ankle, picks up the Crisco can she uses to spit in off the dining room table, and goes back to Home Shopping.

Virgil stands stupidly in the dining room until he hears the receiver click into its cradle, then he edges into the kitchen. Lorna Jean has taken a compact out of her purse and is attacking her eye shadow.

“Would you like some coffee?” he hears himself say. The words sound so almost normal, like he knew what he was doing, he gets light headed for a second.

“Oooooh, I don’t think I do,” Lorna Jean says into the mirror. She tilts her head a minute at her reflection, then clicks her compact closed. It occurs to Virgil that Lorna Jean is supposed to be out with Speed Maxwell.

“Hello,” says Lorna Jean, looking over his shoulder.

Meemaw is sidling into the kitchen still holding Mike Hammer, bug-eyed and rigid. Soft dangerous growls rumble from his little throat.

“Humph,” says Meemaw. “Who are you, girl?” Virgil feels his spine draw up into his collarbone.

“I’m Lorna Jean Gibson,” says Lorna Jean after a second, and then smiles a little. She raises one of her eyebrows.

Mike Hammer quits growling, yips once, and starts panting excitedly with his tiny, animated gulps. His little T-shirt rises up and down with each breath.

“Humph,” says Meemaw, as though she doesn’t like Lorna Jean. Then she says to Mike Hammer. “Oo going to bee-have?” She puts Mike Hammer down and looks at Virgil. “You get fired?” She cackles like a wicked witch on the Saturday cartoons.

Virgil says, “I got off early, Meemaw.”

“At Box City?” she cackles again. She always thinks referring to the funeral home as Box City is a fine joke.

Lorna Jean is moving for the door, Mike Hammer in a dead calm, slowly advancing on her, delicately extending his little nose to her yellow shoe.

“Can I drive you somewhere?” mumbles Virgil, forgetting for a second, he doesn’t have a car. If he is ever desperate enough for wheels, he has to take Shelby’s cockroach.

“What?” says Lorna Jean, tugging at the door.

It occurs to Virgil, suddenly then, that Lorna Jean Gibson is standing in his house, in his meemaw’s kitchen, just inches from where he eats his breakfast every morning, just a few rooms from where he sleeps, and, Virgil thinks crazily, just a few feet from where Shelby cut his toenails that morning over yesterday’s newspaper.

“Boy says can he drive you somewheres?” bellows Meemaw, snapping Virgil out of it. Meemaw can yell louder than a truck driver.

“Oh! No! I’ll just wait for my friend at the corner,” Lorna Jean says. “Thank you all very, very much,” she adds loudly and really clearly, as though the two of them, Virgil and Meemaw, are both stone deaf. Then she gives a little hop, dislodging Mike Hammer, who, Virgil notices with horror, has been in the process of attaching himself to her leg in an amorous hump, and runs.

Virgil stands with his meemaw in the kitchen staring at the door, which has closed after Lorna Jean Gibson. Behind him he can hear the opening strains of an old Gunsmoke rerun from the direction of the living room, and a sudden giant volley of snores from Shelby.

“Tee hee,” says Meemaw. “Matt Dillon.” She looks at his book still under Virgil’s arm. “What’s that?”


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