My Uncle Jim passed away in Michigan on the same day as his oldest daughter died in Kentucky. Sandy was killed exactly one year earlier to the day.
Uncle Jim was a big man, strong, a chain smoker who loved his coffee. When he found a cafe near his resort on Cranberry Lake that served free coffee, he would offer to buy anyone a cup who walked through the door. The old man would steal a wad of coffee stirrers and stuff them into his shirt pocket…right in front of the waitress, and then chew them for the rest of the day to keep from smoking.
My uncle was a good man, but he thought of himself as a comedian. “By the time I get to heaven,” he would tell the same waitress every morning, “do ya think they’ll have coffee up there? If they don’t have coffee, I’m not going.” When he winked at people in the cafe a scar on his lip pulled his face, twisting it until it was painful to look at. The poor waitress always laughed even though she had heard the joke a hundred times before and knew the old man was only good for a nickel tip.
Uncle Jim’s daughter, my cousin Sandy, was killed the night of her fifth wedding anniversary party. Danny died in the same accident. It happened just outside Jenkins, Kentucky, my home town, and not far from where she and Danny lived. Their car hit a tree.
Danny was the Preacher’s son. Danny’s mother, Edna, called Michigan to give us the sad news. A week later Uncle Jim drove us the ten hours to Kentucky for what would be the largest funeral the curious folks from Jenkins would ever witness.
The Jenkin’s Crier reported the male victim’s body was warm when it was discovered outside the Ford Escort. He was found in a pool of blood with one hand caught in the door handle on the passenger side of the car. The female was found inside the Ford held upright by a seatbelt. No marks were found on her body, but she was as cold as an ice-cube. According to the newspaper report the driver appeared to have missed the curve, driven off the road and side-swiped a tree. No skid marks were found. The officer in charge stated the driver died from injuries sustained during the crash but was alive long enough to attempt the removal of the deceased woman from the vehicle.
My parents died in Jenkins when I was a teenager. Uncle Jim insisted I move to Michigan to live with them, and I did. Sandy was like a sister to me. We spent summers together wrestling around at her father’s resort on Cranberry Lake. I know Sandy would never wear a seatbelt. She was terrified of being held down.
One summer at the lake she fell in love with a married man, a romance that lasted for over four years. Her lover would not leave his wife. Sandy married Danny on the rebound, but continued seeing the man secretly in Michigan when she came home to visit. Uncle Jim saw them together one night and threatened to kill them both. I warned her to be careful; we both lived in small towns.
Some of the folks I met at the double funeral in Kentucky were at the anniversary party the Preacher and Edna hosted the week before. The strangers confirmed what I had heard. The young couple had been fighting about finances. Other people told me Danny and Sandy left the party early.
One woman said she heard the word divorce. She said that Danny had a nasty temper and was accustomed to getting his way. He had been spoiled by his parents. Everyone agreed Danny was crazy in love with Sandy…crazy and jealous and suspicious.
The woman’s husband was certain Danny had killed Sandy after the party, put her in his car, and then side-swiped a tree to make it look like an accident. He said something must have gone terribly wrong with Danny’s plan.
I wasn’t surprised when other people from the Preacher’s congregation volunteered they thought Danny killed his wife. Not one of the people I talked with at the church believed it had been an accident. No one believed Danny misjudged that curve. He drove stock cars on circular tracks every weekend. The Preacher had the judge and all the police officers in Jenkins in his pocket, so none of this could be proven.
Danny’s father was an odd sort. The first time I met him I knew I had met the devil. He had intense green eyes and pointed fingernails. The old man was crippled and preached from a wheelchair. During one worship service when I was visiting Sandy, I saw him get up from his wheelchair, walk across the altar and claim God had answered his prayers. Then he got back into his wheelchair and finished the service. Sandy said she was terrified of her in-laws.
Sandy told me the Preacher and Edna gave them life insurance policies for a wedding present. The policy stipulated in the event both died within minutes of one another it would be assumed Danny died last. The Preacher and Edna were listed as final beneficiaries and would collect both insurance checks.
The Preacher insisted he conduct his own son’s funeral. At a Jenkins town council meeting he requested a zoning waiver so his only son and his wife could be buried in the front yard of the church. He explained his plan for a small shrine to be commissioned and placed over the grave… at his expense. The town council wouldn’t let him do it. So he put a plaque on Danny’s mangled car and parked it out-front instead.
Uncle Jim got a court injunction to keep Danny interred in Kentucky. He took his daughter’s body back to Cranberry Lake where we gave her a proper burial in the family plot.
The Preacher’s wife, Edna, was as peculiar as her husband. I remember her as thrifty, the kind of person who kept every dime she ever lifted from the church collection plate. While I was growing up in Kentucky, I noticed Edna never invited anyone to the parsonage behind the church for dinner, yet had the oddest way of showing up at meal time when she called on kin, or any of her husband’s parishioner’s homes. I think she was proud of being frugal. She didn’t hesitate to help herself from the refrigerator when she visited our home if she wasn’t offered food and drink. When she was done eating, she packed up the leftovers and took them home.
Edna married late in life. The Jenkin’s rumor-mill whispered she was desperate. It was clear she hated being poor. She told everyone she hated living in Kentucky. She acted like she hated her preacher husband. She strongly disapproved of her son’s choice of wife and even told her so.
Danny’s mother enjoyed telling women in the Jenkin’s sewing circle she wanted to take her half of her son’s insurance money with her when she died. She said she didn’t want to leave it to anyone. The stingy woman didn’t give to family…not charities, not even her husband’s church. Nobody.
Uncle Jim was under Hospice care when he died. I had the director of the Cranberry Lake funeral home put a coffee stirrer in his mouth and a packet of free coffee in his casket before he was placed in the family plot right next to Sandy.
Edna made her husband promise in front of his congregation that he would bury her half of the money with her when she died. Six months later she was dead. Before the Preacher started his wife’s funeral service, I watched her kin search the coffin. I overheard Edna’s younger sister whispering during the service that she expected the preacher would honor his promise to his wife. It was clear her sister didn’t find the cash.
After the burial at the Jenkins Cemetery Edna’s sister attacked the Preacher, flailing her hands at him and screaming. The throng of people stopped moving from the burial site and turned to hear.
“You are a liar. You promised my sister the insurance money would be buried with her.”
The only sounds I heard other than the woman’s accusations and the slap of her blows hitting the Preacher’s chest were the clanging of the burial crew’s shovels hitting the bed of their pickup truck.
The Preacher blocked blows with his outstretched arms as he stepped backwards. “You’re right. I did promise.” Using his Sunday sermon voice he announced to the hushed congregation at the Jenkins Cemetery, “I kept my promise,” and backed out of Edna’s sister’s range. “I kept my promise to my wife. But I never told her how I’d give her the money. I wrote her a check and put it in the casket.”