The family gathered in the parlor, which was cold. The cold was good for Virgil, as well as the potato salad, which everyone seemed to bring some concoction of. Hotel California played on an antique cassette player, as everyone made small talk. Murmured variances of “he looks so good” were on everyone’s lips. I didn’t agree. Someone had put a smile on Virgil’s face. I’d never seen Virgil smile in my life. His face would relax from time to time, pretty much the closest to a smile he’d ever had. Typically, Virgil’s expression was an intense quizzical look. Because he was always figuring something out; some extravagant plan to hit the big time. And today’s event brings one of his to mind.
First though I’d like to introduce you to Virgil. Bless his heart, Virgil tried hard. And he was the smartest uneducated man I’ve ever met. Sadly though there was a disconnect between what went on in Virgil’s head, and how the rest of the world worked. I sure did enjoy watching Virgil work though. It was fascinating to no end at the little gems of logic intermingled amidst the chaos. Once when he was laying out the foundation for a hen house, he asked me to help him check that it was square. I was a sophomore at Watkins county high school at the time. I was midway through a watered down geometry class, and thought this might be interesting.
“First off, you measure this side here.” Virgil said, his tape measure slithering to the nearest corner.
“Okay, now write that one down and now we’ll measure this side.” That tape measure singing as he flipped it to the same adjacent corner.
“Okay, with that one written down, we’ll measure crosswise from both those sides.” At this, Virgil indicated the diagonal from the first to the catty-cornered nail. I was now catching on to what he was doing.
“Alright, here’s the hard part. First of all you times each of the first two side by their selves and add ‘em up. Then you times that last one by itself.” Virgil said, his face full of concentration. No greater mind in the history of science or philosophy has focused as much energy as Virgil did. “Now if the foundation is square, what you’ve got from the first two should be the same as what you’ve got for that last one.”
“Wow Virgil, this is Pythagoras’ theory!” I said with amazement. Virgil eyed me hard at this. I assured Virgil I was not making fun, and tried to explain the who and what of Pythagoras and his theorem. Virgil just eyed me suspiciously and turned back to his work.
A few years later Aunt Georgie died, and a bunch of us piled into Virgil’s van to head to the funeral home. While there, Virgil heard granny talking about how much the funeral cost. Now Virgil’s gears could be a mite rusty, and out of line, but when they got started, watch out. Virgil’s lawn care service hadn’t gone over well. Maybe it was the sight of his push mower with the wheels taken off. Or maybe it was the way it didn’t really hover as much as sort of flop around like a landed fish. “Them folks just ain’t ready for the future.” Virgil would mumble. “That’s what the problem is.”
Ever searching for a problem not actually needing solved, Virgil was primed for another enterprise venture. When he got back out to the van, he started sizing it up. You could see the figgerin’ on Virgil’s face.
“What are you thinking about Virgil?” I asked.
“Aww, nothing much really”, Virgil muttered. Looking back into his van, he nodded slightly. “Yep… might just work.” And with that nod Virgil’s newest business idea was born.
I knew Virgil was serious when he picked up a nail from the parking lot and, after measuring with his ever-present tape measure, scratched a rectangle on the side of the van. Richard Feynman, the Nobel winning physicist was renowned for putting his quantum mechanics diagrams on the side of his customized van and tooling around California. Virgil would give Professor Feynman a run for his money. Virgil’s van stell held the scars of schematics, diagrams, and other designs from the rocket powered mailbox to a combined self-cleaning fish tank/litter box. I know Feynman would be proud.
“Yep. That’s where it’d go.” Virgil muttered.
“Where what would go Virgil?” I asked.
“Well, it’ll have to be cold won’t it?!” Virgil said, looking at me like I was a complete idiot.
“Of course Virgil. I don’t know why I didn’t get that.” I said. I realized I’d knew I’d have to hop on this runaway train and see what sort of cataclysmic end it came to.
Virgil dropped me off at the apartment, and took off without saying a word. That was Virgil. I could tell he was in refinement mode by this time. I couldn’t wait to see what had Virgil so amped up.
Friends, I was not disappointed. About five days later I got a text from Virgil, I need some help, be there in ten, was all it said. It’s okay Virgil I’ve got no plans of my own I thought, but truth be told, I didn’t. And even if I had, I likely would have dropped them immediately to see what was being birthed.
No more than ten minutes later Virgil drove up. I don’t know what struck me first; the rectangular hole in the side of the van, the look on his face. He had the most resolute mien I’d seen. I confess I did feel a tinge of worry.
“Good morning Virgil.” I said.
“No time, get in.” Virgil said. “We gotta get finished. My first booking is in three days.”
“Booking?” I asked. “Umm… what kind of booking?” I truly wasn’t expecting an answer. And again I wasn’t disappointed.
Getting to Virgil’s shop, a converted dairy barn, I saw two large window air conditioners precariously balanced on a couple of saw horses. Shifting in my seat I looked back at the rectangular hole in the van, then at the ACs, then back at Virgil. Booking?! We get out and Virgil grabs a template and hands it to me.
“My first hole overlapped a part of the van wall support molding. Or whatever it’s called.” Virgil said. He had a hammer in one hand, and a nail in the other. I swear it was the same nail from the church parking lot. “Can’t have that. The roof might not support the weight.”
“I’m gonna get in and poke this nail through clear of the truss. Or whatever it is.” Virgil said. “When you see the nail pop through, go ahead and tape that template just to the outside of it”. Virgil said — more with his hands than his words — and then climbed into the van.
About twenty noisy minutes later, Another hole was in the other side of Virgil’s van. Virgil threw the sawzall at me as he went to pick up the first air conditioner.
Virgil led me into the dairy barn. Allow me to digress for a moment. Imagine the feeling of awe had one been allowed into Merlin’s cave. Or perhaps sharing the copious time with Galileo and his astronomical instruments during his house arrest. Or lastly to have visited Colorado and seen the seemingly magical delights of one Nikola Tesla, the man who held lightning in his hands. These would be rivaled by the melange of contraptions, gizmos, and whatnots hanging or strewn about Virgil’s workshop. This was truly an awe-inspiring sight. I had entered the sanctum sanctorum. The manifestation of Virgil’s vivid imagination.
And now back to Virgil proper. No words. Virgil was in creation mode. A finger jabbed in the air as he leaned down and grabbed a handle of a portable electric generator. The jab was directing me to grab the other side, which I did without hesitation. We carried the generator, a “gennie” we called it, out to the van. Virgil leant two ladders against the side of the van, and we proceeded to put that gennie right on top of the van. And now I see why the structural support was so important. Several frenzied drilling, cutting, and caulking minutes later we had a mounted, weather-sealed gennie on the roof of the van. Another few minutes, and an electrical box installed through the roof of the van. By the time I had gotten off the van, Virgil had the air conditioners’ cables routed and plugged into the outlet. Virgil leaped satyr-like onto the van roof and fired up the gennie. That machine coughed, spat, and belched out thick grayish smoke before coming to life. The gennie loped and rumbled. The air conditioners clanked and began whirring and vibrating on their mounts. Virgil’s eyes gleamed as this beast came to life.
“Close the doors!” Virgil shouted over the din.
I jumped to the back of the van and closed the rear doors, then each of the front doors. Pausing to wonder at the situation I looked around to see a half dozen curious dairy cows chewing their cud and looking solemnly at the raucous display. After about ten minutes, Virgil opened the back of the van as I stood just behind him. My sweaty t-shirt clung to me as the cold air billowed out. Eureka, Virgil’s face said.
“Yep, that’ll do it.” Virgil said. “Go up and kill the gennie” he spat over his shoulder as he headed to his welding rig in side his shop.
Hours passed as Virgil and I cut angle iron, welded, bolted, and cussed a sliding rail system into place in the bed of the van. Hooks with rubber hoses on them were hanging on either side of the left air conditioner. Worry settled on me when Virgil bungee corded a ten-gallon plastic farm tank into some brackets we’d welded into a back corner of the van.
“Hey, uhhhh, would you ask your sister if I can borrow some of her makeup?” Virgil stammered, “I’m not, uhhh funny you know. I just, ummm need it.”
“What for Virgil?” I asked, hoping the worry didn’t show in my voice.
“Oh nothin’. Well, somethin’. Yeah, just… you’ll see.” Virgil said.
“Okay Virgil. I’ll ask her, but I sure would like for you to tell me what’s cooking inside your head.”
“Oh you’ll love it. This is the best thing that’ll ever have hit Watkins county!”
I can assure you this was certainly the biggest thing to have hit Watkins county. It made the national news. That night after Virgil took me back to my apartment, I showered and called Judy, my sister. “Hey Judy. I’ve got a strange request. Virgil would like to borrow your makeup. Well, some of your makeup I guess.” Judy’s pause prompted me to add. “No, I don’t know what he’s up to.” Another pause. “Yes, I’ll replace it if he ruins it. Okay?” Judy finally agreed, and I sent Virgil a text that I’d have his makeup by tomorrow. I did a fair amount of ceiling staring that night.
The next morning when I went by Judy’s to pick up the makeup, she and I had a chat.
“I know Virgil don’t know a dang thing about makeup, and I’m guessing you don’t either. I just put together the basics. Red lipstick goes with just about everything, so I put a couple of shades in there.” Judy said handing me a plastic grocery bag. “And you don’t have no idea why he wants this?”
“Nope. He’s working on some project, and got his van all weirded out. I have no idea. But it’s big. I think it’s big even for Virgil.” I said, taking the bag. “What are you up to today?”
“I’m heading over to the Hanson’s place later on. Their daughter Trudee died night before last.” Judy said. “They are poor even for Watkins county, and I’m taking them some things.”
“That’s awful good of you Judy.” I said. “Give them my condolences.”
I took the makeup over to Virgil’s, but he wasn’t there, so I managed to stuff it in his mailbox along with at least a week of mail. I left Virgil’s and went straight to work. After clocking in and changing into my work coveralls I left all my stuff in my locker. Johnson’s Trailer Works don’t allow phones on the shop floor. They said it was OSHA, but I think old man Johnson just doesn’t like millinnerals, as he says. *They’re instantgramming all the damned time.”
And this is why I missed all the hubbub. Seventeen missed calls and assorted texts. Judy; mom; the Sheriff; the county Coroner; the mayor; and the last one from Virgil. Let me try to piece this together for you.
I’ll start with the first text from Judy: Jesus Christ Tommy Virgil has took Trudee. Virgil’s, message was short and sweet: “I think we misjudged the welds and the width of the rails. And I’m sure I can get it right with a little more work. And what knucklehead put that crazy intersection downtown? Oh, would you come down to the county jail and bail me out? Thanks.”
As near as I can tell here’s what happened. Judy heard from mamaw Hanson that Virgil had shown up and talked to Jesper Hanson out in the yard. The next thing she said was that they had put Trudee in a plain old wooden box and carried her out to Virgil’s van. She said there were some rails sticking out the back that they put the box on and slid it into the van. Virgil shook Jesper’s hand and drove off.
When I had gotten off the phone with the sheriff, he filled in the rest. The Sheriff said the evidence at the wreck clearly indicated that Virgil was embalming Trudee’s body. Jugs of antifreeze hanging from the top of the van, down rubber hoses into Trudee, and then draining out into that 10 gallon farm container. Virgil said that this was taking too long, so he figured he’d just drive to the cemetery while this was going on. Virgil is a multi-tasker.
As we all know, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and Virgil followed that to a tee. Right through downtown. Virgil doesn’t drive through town very often. So he was not aware of the new Watkins Centennial roundabout the mayor had dedicated two months back. The speed limit was twenty-five through town, and Virgil was doing thirty or a little better. Virgil had never seen a roundabout before, so he swung out to the right. Of course the driver of the transit van expected a normal person to yield. Unfortunately Virgil is not a normal person, and so… irresistible force meet immovable object. The sheriff said that it was the angle of the impact that made this particular accident so bad. The transit van driver jerked the wheel to the left, placing his van his van into Virgil’s trajectory. The two vans collided. Both carrying the mortal remains of some earthly creatures. On impact, the left-side air conditioner came loose and smashed through the passenger-side window of the transit van. The air conditioner tumbled through the van hitting the driver knocking him unconscious. The gennie somersaulted off the top of Virgil’s van and landed upside-down on top of the transit van and proceeded to gush fuel all over the whole mess. This all immediately burst into flames as the soft top of the van melted and proceeded to ooze inside. Virgil’s van spun counter-clockwise, the torque causing the rear doors to come open. And the first thing to come out was the ten gallon container of Trudee juice. All this mixed with the liberal spillage of burning gasoline and spread out quickly. The second thing to come out was the homespun wooden casket with Trudee inside. This, of course, instantly caught fire. The wood Virgil used for this homemade casket had apparently been used in some other farm implement and had some accelerant soaked into it. It was as my uncle Chester, a flamboyant Baptist preacher, would say. A magnificent conflagration befitting eternity.
The transit van tumbled onto its right side, and as it tumbled its rear doors came open and the waxy boxes of chicken scattered onto the street. The wax burned with a colorful glow, and the cooking chickens smelled actually quite nice. Nan Marcum at least said so when she was interviewed by the BNN news van out of Raleigh.
And now I must tell you of the hot dog vendor. Set up just off that corner. He was a city boy from over in Tennessee, maybe Knoxville. Johnny Conklin and his two boys were down there after a Cub Scout visit to the fire station and Johnny was treating his kids to a hot dog. Just as the vendor was handing out the steaming weiners, a flaming box of Trudee came scooting into the cart. Luckily they all jumped out of the way in time. And another lucky thing? Well all that hot dog water actually put the casket fire out. The umbrella from the cart flipped over and impaled Trudee, leaving a truly horrific sight. A charred wooden casket, filled with plump cooked hot dogs, a somewhat embalmed Trudee, and at least the contents of a couple of boxes of chicken, finely sautéed to a golden brown.
By the time the sheriff and the one city police car arrived, the scene was terrific. The looky-loos had gathered. Johnny Conklin had bravely pulled the transit van driver out of danger, and had stripped off his Dale Jr t-shirt and wrapped it around the driver’s head to stop the bleeding. The sheriff took charge and began trying to calm the situation, a situation straight out of a poorly written horror story. Surveying the scene, he focused his gaze on a prominent, though slightly singed, sign loosely flowing from the top of the van with neatly painted block letters: Mobile Mortuary and Express Burial Services. With Offered by V. Stooksbury Enterprises in smaller script at the bottom.
“Ludicrous.” The sheriff muttered and shook his head. He noticed that Virgil was nowhere to be seen.
The deputies found Virgil walking across the baseball fields. Headed home. No doubt cooking up his next venture. It took several years for all this to die down. Amazingly Virgil never went to jail. He did lose his driver’s license, and received a heavy fined. If he ever got a job his entire paycheck would go to paying this off. The thing that devastated Virgil though was having his library card revoked.
Some folks thought Virgil had learned his lesson. Was rehabilitated. Not me. I knew Virgil was just revving his flywheel up to get the momentum for something bigger. Ultimately, Virgil had pretty much hit is acme. Not rehabilitation, as much as that nobody would sell anything to him anymore. At least nothing that Virgil could misuse.
Let’s go back to the beginning of this story. Virgil’s end. I don’t know who it was. One of the Conklin boys had grown up and went in the Navy. Somehow he had gotten nuclear training, and was on a submarine. The whole county was proud of him. I was too if I’m honest. Had to be him who told Virgil about nuclear reactors and how much power you could get out of the smallest bit of the nuclear material. And also mentioned that there was radioactive stuff inside smoke detectors. The last I saw of Virgil he had gotten another cousin to check out some books from the library and was rounding up every smoke detector from the junkyard, the landfill, and everywhere. Well, anyway. Virgil wasn’t the most hygienic fella, and I guess he ate as much of that radioactive stuff as he put into his own version of a nuclear reactor. By the time he went to the doctor it was too late. My wife, who’s a nurse, said he kept begging the doctor to let him take a look at the x-ray machine. That was Virgil. Unfazed. He’d keep going to the bitter end. And he did. I will miss him, and Watkins county is pretty dull these days. Maybe that’s alright. I’ve got kids now and I’d sure hate for them to run into Virgil when he was building one of his ventures.
As for me, I finally finished college. Night classes now that I wasn’t busy with Virgil, and am a science teacher at Watkins high. I’ll keep my eye out for any burgeoning Virgil-like kids. Who knows… maybe lightning does strike twice.