*”She’s here,” Joel said as he slid from behind the wheel of his grandmother’s brand new 1966 Dodge Dart. It was a crisp and sunny fall Saturday morning, two days before Halloween. Joel left a mask of the Hulk sitting on the front seat. “She got here late last night. Y’all can see her this evening if y’all still want to.”
Of course, we wanted to see her. Andre and I agreed that Miss Mabel Ann Evans was one of the most beautiful women we’d ever seen in all our lives. All 11 years.
She lived a block over from me, on 7th Street, on Oklahoma City’s east side in a neat, red brick building that housed four apartments. Grown ups used to whisper about the early 30-something Miss Evans: she was a “party girl;” she didn’t appear to have steady employment. She was “fast,” whatever that meant.
Andre said he overheard his mom on the phone say Miss Evans “couldn’t get a man.” Now, we knew that wasn’t exactly true–during the summer, bicycling past her place in route to TG&Y for penny candy, we’d see men come and go.
What we knew for sure was that Miss Evans had an incredible body. Modeling a wardrobe of tight black pencil skirts, tiny cotton blouses, pedal pushers and skyscraper high heels, her curves were absolutely devastating. I’d only seen a body like this, in clothes like that, in movies and cartoons. We loved gazing at her.
The Bambi-faced, cinnamon-hued goddess would actually speak to us. While stepping out of a cab in front of her place or sauntering down her walkway toward a shiny, idling sedan, Miss Evans would pause, and from inside her fragrance haze, coo in a honey-glazed lilt, “Hello, boys” or “Hi, gentlemen.”
She asked how we were doing in school in a way that suggested sincere interest. And she always seemed to want to show or teach us something: See that over there in the garden? That’s called Mistletoe. Please pick up your Slo-Poke wrapper.
“Respect yourself and your planet,” she’d say, winking. It was conversation light years ahead of its time and way over the fat heads of fascinated pre teens. But we listened, butterflies fluttering in our stomachs, in order to have license to cast our young brown eyes upon this woman’s compact, magnificent bosom. Yeah, of course we wanted to see Miss Evans.
The problem was, she was dead.
Early word around the neighborhood was that she’d suffered a heart attack while out the night before. In any case, sadly, she was gone–and Joel, the roguish 19 year-old who worked part time at Carven Funeral Home, was offering us one last special opportunity to see her.
I’d seen dead people before. My family lived two doors from Carven. I used to play in their lobby. Occasionally, my friend Donny and I would venture into the viewing room and look at a stranger’s body.
However, Joel was offering something different: the chance to see Miss Evans’s bodacious body nude. Andre and I had never seen a naked woman before. Dead or alive, Miss Evans represented the apex.
I know. It was morbid, sick, disgusting and anything else one can think of to describe a curiosity so creepy and decrepit.
But at age 11 my moral compass was still learning directions, and in the words of the utterly compass-less Joel, fine is fine: A fine woman with a cold, he reasoned, is still a fine woman. A fine woman who is crazy is still fine. The same went for a fine woman with a bad hairdo, bad breath, or both. Andre and I nodded in tacit agreement with Joel’s assessment, even though fine and dead didn’t have quite the same flow.
But that didn’t stop us. At dusk, the lanky Andre and I rendezvoused behind Carven’s, where they parked the hearses. We were busy telling ourselves there was nothing to this, our limp bravado quieted by the disconcerting jangle of Joel’s keys unlocking the back door from inside. “C’mon,” he said nonchalantly, in a white lab coat that carried the faint scent of rubbing alcohol. Or something.
We followed him into the funeral home’s inner sanctum–down a narrow, dimly lit hallway to a door that said PRIVATE. Joel opened it, reached inside the darkness and slid his hand along the wall to turn on fluorescent ceiling lights.
In what seemed like a large storage room were some boxes on the floor, empty wall cabinets with the doors wide open and two ambulance gurneys without bedding. “There she is,” Joel said, nodding his head to the other side of the room toward a table. Lying on it and completely covered by a white sheet looked to be the shape of a human body.
Frozen in the middle of the room, Andre and I tried to appear unafraid. Ghoulishly, we were about to ogle Miss Evans’s dead body. Dead but fine. But dead. And fine. “Ready?” Joel impishly asked, grabbing a corner of the sheet. Before we could say “No!” he quickly snatched the cover completely off the mass, as if unveiling a new car or invention.
In the nanosecond that the sheet came flying off, the first thing I saw were black wing-tip shoes. And then instantly I saw the rest–a rotund body, fully clothed, thank a merciful God, in black pinstriped slacks and a white dress shirt. Both the body and strategically unemotional facial expression belonged to very much alive Carven Funeral Home General Manager, Mr. Dinkins.
“Hiya doin,'” he offered sardonically, rolling off his back and onto his side, as if posing for a magazine centerfold. Screaming for our lives, Andre and I bolted from the room and down the hall, exploding out the exit and into the quiet night as if shot from a cannon, each of us galloping in the opposite direction to our respective homes.
I sat on frayed nerves in front of the TV in the living room, waiting for the phone to ring or a knock on the door–Dinkins reporting to mama what he’d foiled. Remarkably, that didn’t happen. However, the funeral home sat at the portal of my sheer existence–I had to walk pass the funeral home to get to TG&Y. It was only a matter of time before I ran into Mr. Dinkins. When I did, the next day out in front of Carven’s, he discreetly let me have it.
Sternly he lectured that he would have told Margie, my mother, except that he’d gone by Andre’s house last night. After witnessing my friend’s fate at the hands of his furious mom, he thought he’d spare me.
Mr. Dinkins said he was in his office Saturday morning when he overheard Joel, just outside his window, make us the macabre offer. He then confronted Joel and had him go along with a revised version of the scheme. “I fired him last night,” he said.
Gingerly, Dinkins explained that despite my youth, he wanted me to try and understand why we were wrong. True, Miss Evans had passed away, he said, but she was once a person. Her body, now without life, represented who she was, and even in death she was not to be disrespected by our gaping in such a way.
Dinkins asked me if I understood what he’d said. I nodded affirmatively, though I didn’t entirely. He closed with a warning: unless, one way or another we were customers, he didn’t ever want to see me or Andre inside Carven’s.
Needless, to say, I wouldn’t see Miss Evans or her body again. Yet somehow, I felt like she’d lovingly reprimanded me one last time–even if Mr. Dinkins’ voice did lack the honey-glazed lilt.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].