The Premortem Blessing

Those who had been dead the longest, these “Sons” of Johnsonville, Pennsylvania, were the first to arrive and were gently escorted to their cold stone seats, multi-colored, weathered granite slabs that had been shorn from the quarry more than two hundred years ago when the hardened folks of Johnsonville had opened the mine.

Then there were those, who because of the distance they had to travel to the premortiem, were seated.  For most it was a reunion of sort, as many had not seen one another for as many as a hundred and fifty years.

The bereft of life were dressed completely in black, their clothing, tattered and torn, but still cleaned and pressed, and their black shoes polished to such a gloss that the person next to them could see the reflection of their pasty face in the cracked leather.

The span of time between those who and been dead the longest, and those so newly dead that their body temperature had not cooled completely, made for so many variations of attire that to the uninitiated the affair looked like a costume party.

I sat closest to the front, as the ad-hoc get together had been my idea and I had been cajoled into saying a little something at the end of the ceremony.  For in fact it was a ceremony, something to be celebrated.

The person seated next to me, a woman I recognized from the drugstore that has been demolished in nineteen-twenty-seven, unwrapped carefully the wrinkled wax-paper covering, and offered me one-half her eighty year old bacon and butter sandwich.

A smidgeon of butter was wedged at the left corner of her mouth between her thin blue lips and she seemed to smile at my gesture of kindness as I daubed at it with the sleeve of my threadbare camel hair jacket.  Her eye makeup was an ash of fine pumice ground so finely that is seemed to hover above her waxy skin.  The scores of years in the grave had not served her well, I noticed, as she caught me staring at her parchment-like fingers.  They had a weathered, brittle look.  The skin of each finger had assumed a cinereal coloring, and had shrunken so that it appeared as though it was painted onto each digit.  This, in turn, made her fingernails; yellowed from decades of smoking, seem overly large.

The hard, tasteless sandwich bread sounded like stale croutons crunching underfoot.  For a few brief moments we shared my Royal Crown Cola as I finished the last bite of the uninventive but free sandwich.  The cola had last effervesced during the Nixon administration.  Rising and gripping the ten-ounce glass bottle by its neck, I flung it in the direction of the quarry’s cerulean lake.  The bottle flew in a graceful arch, sun reflecting off of the raised glass, and it made a slight whistling sound, its journey unimpeded and unencumbered by either time or the event about to unfold.


I reflected upon the legend of the last time such a celebration had taken place was when the town was named Adamsville, when its last surviving son had served as the celebration’s master of ceremonies.

The bottle glanced off the roof of the half-submerged station wagon that two days ago was full of laughter as the family of five made its way to the quarry for a secluded Labor Day picnic.  Mr. Johnson and his family were the last people living in Johnsonville, all the others having left when they had closed the mine.  Mr. Johnson sat to my right along with his wife Mrs. Johnson and the Johnson twins who interestingly were born a year apart.

That the ceremony needed to be held was a bit of a surprise, as for several hours it appeared as though Mr. Johnson was going to survive the crash, and he would have too, if he had not dove back into the quarry’s lake to rescue his youngest daughter.  But according to church law, when the town’s last patriarch has died, as was the case with the still tepid Mr. Johnson, and there were no more males of Johnsonville to hold the title of Son of Johnsonville, it would be uncomfortable for any surviving female to hold the title, Son of Johnsonville.

Little Nicole Johnson was dressed in her Sunday outfit, wisps of her blonde, braided hair moved gracefully by the late summer breeze.  Nicole’s dress, a cornflower yellow, contrasted vividly with the drab and colorless clothing of the spectators.  Her feet bore a pair of white patent-leather slip-on sandals, and on the ground beside her was the white patent-leather purse she had been clutching tightly.

She had demonstrated her bravery right until the moment when her father and the youngest of her twin brothers, a sinewy fourteen-year-old, who needed help walking because the crash had destroyed his right femur, bound her ankles and wrists behind her back, thus causing her to lose her grip on her purse.

One by one the dead who had gathered left their seats and cautiously made their way across the granite boulders and large pieces of detritic scree lining the floor of the quarry’s canyon.  The carrions’ pace was slow and deliberate as their desiccated muscles and tendons tried to recall how to function.  It took more than an hour for the crowd of several thousand nattily-dressed corpses to encircle the infirmed and tearful child.  When viewed from above the scene must have resembled that of a black swan of a sunflower; black on the outside with a yellow center.

I motioned for my guests to be seated, and those who could did so.  The hour of the gloaming was upon us, and as I raised my hand, the crowd silenced itself.  Leslie Johnson looked up at me, her eyes filled with tears and pleading, but no words were on her rosy lips.  Leslie’s father lifted the frightened child, which naturally calmed her.  Together he and I walked her once around and amongst the beleaguered guests, allowing each to in their own small way to offer a premortiem blessing.

Leslie had almost fallen asleep in her father’s arms as we made our way down to the lake.  As I looked up at the rim of the canyon, I could still see the shards of guardrail that seemed to have blown out from the others where the Johnson’s station wagon had left the safety of rural highway and careened more than two-hundred feet into the lake.  This was the same spot where I had crashed my Dodge Caravan thirty years ago, and it was only upon my death that Johnsonville’s mayor, Bernard Johnson, had ordered the installation of the guardrail.

Leslie’s father and carried her bundled body the last few steps and then we waded into the lake to the submerged car.  He took a large gulp of air, and the two of the submerged.  It was at the exact moment when Mr. Johnson surfaced that I felt Ms. Robinson, my literature teacher, shaking my shoulder and reprimanding me for daydreaming during her class.

The part I will never understand though is why, if I was daydreaming, were my feet wet?


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