steve ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*”She’s here,” Joel  said that crisp and sunny fall Saturday morning while sliding from behind the wheel of his family’s  brand new 1966 Dodge Dart.   “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, because during the summer, bicycling  past her place  in route to TG&Y for penny candy, we’d see  the 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 a haze of heavenly fragrance enveloping her, 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 those flowers there in the garden? They’re going to be gone when the seasons change. Please pick up your Slo-Poke wrapper.
 “Respect yourself, your neighborhood and your planet,” she’d say, winking.  Generally, it was a perspective 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.  To answer Joel’s question, yeah, of  course we wanted to see Miss Evans.

Problem was, she was dead.

Early word around the neighborhood was that she’d suffered a heart attack while out the night before.  No one seemed to know details.  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  Donnie and I would venture  into the viewing room and look at  a stranger’s prepared body.

However, Joel  was offering something different:  the  chance to see Miss Evans’  bodacious  body nude.   Andre and I had never seen a naked woman before; dead or alive,  Miss Evans represented the apex.

I know.  The mere notion  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.

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 Carven’s back door from inside.  “C’mon,” he said nonchalantly, in a white lab coat  that carried the faint scent of a chemical.

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,  open, empty cabinets and two ambulance gurneys without bedding. “There she is,” Joel said, nodding his head to the other side of the room toward a table.  On it, 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’  dead body.  Dead but fine.

“Ready?”  Joel impishly asked, grabbing a corner of the sheet.  Before we could yell “No!” he quickly snatched the cover completely  off the mass, as if proudly 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 on Sunday  before I ran into Mr. Dinkins.  When I did, 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 told me  he was in his office Saturday morning when  he overheard Joel, just outside his  window,  make us the macabre  offer to view Miss Evans’ body. 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 what we wanted to do was wrong.  True, Miss Evans had passed away,  he said, but she was once a person.  Her body, though now lifeless, represented who she was. 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,  even though she was gone,   I felt as if she’d  postponed her journey,  if only momentarily,  to lovingly reprimand Andre and I one last time–even if  Dinkins’ voice  did lack the honey-glazed lilt.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]