Every Wednesday at noon, Joy Ruth takes old Minnie Hendrix to McDonald's. She pushes the wheelchair up to the counter where the old woman orders a Big Mac, large fries, and a black coffee.
Today, they are sitting in the newly remodeled section which has green plastic ferns hanging from the ceiling.
"My tail bone is killing me," Minnie complains as she eats. She has just turned eighty and is a finicky eater. McDonald's is the only place she will finish her food.
"Raise up a minute," Joy Ruth says, "I'll see if I can fix that skinny tail bone of yours." Minnie grasps the wheelchair and lifts her frail body up from the seat of the chair. The young woman reaches over and fluffs the flowered pillow underneath the old woman.
Satisfied, Minnie sinks back into the pillow and straightens her red satin dress.
Every week the old woman insists on wearing the red satin dress with food stains on the bodice. Joy Ruth always offers more appropriate outfits but the old woman insists on the red satin. When her mind is set, it is set. Like the funeral home issue.
"Miller's got in a batch of new caskets," Minnie says, eating a handful of fries. "Louella went with the Moose over there. To pick out a casket for that poor boy who drove his car into Lick Creek." She licked her fingers. "His daddy was a Moose. Or he was a Moose. Until he shot himself. Now the boy is dead too." She clears her throat. "Louella's on the payment plan over there. I'd pay cash. It can't hurt none. Just to go and look." Her eyes plead with Joy Ruth. "Well. Can it?"
"Mommy will want to go over to that funeral home," said Minnie's daughter, Laverne, as she chain-smoked from a crumpled pack of Kool's. "I bet on it." Her shiny red boots rested on a ladder back chair across from Joy Ruth. Both women were seated at Minnie's kitchen table.
It was Joy Ruth's first day on the job.
"Planning her own funeral is an obsession of Mommy's, and I'll tell you this," Laverne pursed her lips and blew a smoke ring right at Joy Ruth, "there is no telling Mommy no. Not when she gets something in her head."
Joy Ruth had applied for the job just that morning. "Driver and Companion for Elderly Woman Who Has All Her Faculties."
"Well, girl, you got yourself a job," Minnie said with a grin after Ruth had driven the old woman's '55 Chevy up and down the driveway a number of times.
When she returned to the house that same afternoon after taking Minnie to her weekly hair appointment, Joy Ruth found Laverne seated in the kitchen.
"Hell will freeze over before I'll take her to pick out stuff she'll wear when she's dead. I told her so too. I don't think I could make myself any clearer." The tall jean-clad woman lit another cigarette. "Mommy will put you up to asking Hollister. Well, Hollister might be her only son but he agrees with me on this one." She blew a line of tiny smoke rings at Joy Ruth. "Picking out burial stuff while you're still living is a sick thing to do." She smashed the long cigarette against the words "New York" in the bottom of the ashtray. "We didn't even pick out stuff for daddy."
She stood and shook long gray-streaked brown hair around her shoulders. She started pacing across the kitchen floor. "Mommy was too doped up on Librium to make decisions. The undertaker took care of it.
"I say we cross that bridge when we come to it." She went to the refrigerator, took the cap off a plastic bottle of Coke and tipped it to her lips. "Good luck is all I can say, Joy Ruth." She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and returned the bottle to the refrigerator. "You're gonna need it working for Mommy."
From the window of McDonald's, Joy Ruth and Minnie are watching a big car pile up out in front. "Maybe Laverne will take you over there," Joy Ruth says to Minnie and nods her head in the direction of the funeral home across the street. Joy Ruth knows the old woman's daughter won't take her, yet she can't help adding, "It's Laverne's place."
"Laverne's place!" The old woman sputters and spits out a bite of Big Mac. "When did Laverne ever know her place? Both of my kids together don't make one good kid." She starts chewing on her sandwich again. "I ought to change my will." She reaches for the pickle slice Joy Ruth has taken off her sandwich, and pops it into her mouth which is generously drawn on with a bright red lipstick. "That's it," she says, "I'll change my will." She bites into the pickle and puckers her lips at Joy Ruth.
"It's sundae time," Joy Ruth announces, hoping to take Minnie's mind off her will. It's the old woman's next favorite topic after planning her own funeral. The young woman eases herself out of the booth and gathers their sandwich wrappings.
"I want butterscotch," Minnie calls as Joy Ruth heads to the trash bin. "Tell that smart aleck girl to make mine with real ice cream. I hate imitation. Real ice cream. Hear?"
As soon as they returned home the old woman falls asleep in her rocking chair. Joy Ruth runs water over the dishes in the kitchen sink and stares out the window at the plastic flowers stuck in the window box below.
"They bloom summer and winter," the old woman said proudly the day she interviewed Joy Ruth, "no weeding and no watering." She leaned closer to the window to get a better look at her small yard. "See that white plastic duck out there and that bird bath. Laverne gave them to me." She turned from the window and made a sweeping gesture around her kitchen at the various knickknacks, "Laverne and Hollister give me things." She picked up a black and white ceramic cow with the lettering "Niagara Falls" and dusted it with the hem of her dress. "Only they don't have no time for me."
Now, as Joy Ruth washes dishes, suds from the Ivory Liquid trailing up her arms, she can see that the plastic duck with the bright orange bill has fallen onto its side and the ornately carved bird bath is full of dead leaves and rain water. Right then, she decides, she will take Minnie to the funeral home. Goose bumps cover her arms at the thought.
Miller's Funeral Home is never far from Joy Ruth's mind. But it isn't funerals Joy Ruth is interested in. It is Leroy Miller.
Joy Ruth's crush on Leroy Miller has lasted all her life. When he left West Virginia after high school to go to the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, she was sure she'd never see him again. When she heard he'd married a girl from there she stopped looking for him back. But he had returned and he returned alone. That was five years ago and in all that time she has never gone near the funeral home.
"Joy Ruth!" the old woman calls from the living room, "Joy Ruth!"
The younger woman hurries into the next room, wiping her hands on a dancing cow dishcloth. She finds the old woman smiling, sitting up in her chair, refreshed, ready to visit.
"Did I tell you Chenille is the only person who is good to me?" Minnie runs her hand across the afghan on her lap. "You know Chenille, Hollister's new wife? All that girl knows is to polish those long fingernails of hers. Silver. With stars on them. Blue. With a moon on each nail. Sometimes even black. But she kisses me and says, and how are you today, Miss Minnie? She says it every time. It counts for something, I can tell you that. Do you know how many people say, how do you feel today, Minnie?
"Not a one," she answers herself. "They don't want to know. Know why they don't want to know?"
Joy Ruth finishes drying her hands and sits down on the sofa. Minnie points her finger at Joy Ruth. "I'll tell you why. If they know, they might have to do something. Like get Miss Minnie a drink. Or hand her a pill. Or go to the grocery store. People don't want to do for their own people." She shifts her weight around in her chair and resumes her rocking. "I raised some smart cookies, I'll say that for myself." She leans back in her chair and closes her eyes. "Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Joy Ruth. And you can tell Laverne every word I said. I know she pumps you every chance she gets. Do you know how I know? I'm not always sleeping when my eyes are shut."
At home later, Joy Ruth makes a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato wedges for her supper. She eats, washes and drys the Teflon skillet, and hangs it on the wall behind the stove just above the shelf that holds her collection of little wooden houses.
In the living room she runs the remote through all the television channels. She stops at the Inspirational Network. Brother Robison has just finished preaching and is pacing across the television screen wringing his hands. Tears run in two streams down his cheeks. Joy Ruth curls up on the sofa to watch.
"Please brothers and sisters," the man says, "open your hearts and your checkbooks," he wipes his eyes with a white handkerchief, "and send your generous love offering to Brother Robison today. Do it now," sweat drips from the heavy-set man on the screen in front of Joy Ruth, "check or money order. Makes no difference folks. Whatever is easiest for you." He paces back and forth. "Riches will flow upon your life," he says, "and thank you again from the bottoms of our hearts for keeping this ministry alive." He bows his head in prayer as the credits roll across the screen.
His healing show comes on next. It is a rerun and Joy Ruth's favorite. Right off, Brother Robison heals a crippled Rabbi. The man walks off the stage pushing his own wheelchair. Then the minister puts his hand on the shoulder of a woman who is wearing a gold beaded dress. He asks if she knows she has a tumor. She shakes her head no, her eyes wide with fear. He clasps her shoulder tightly and then lets go. She reels backward and then starts jumping up and down pogo-stick-fashion.
Joy Ruth shivers and draws the quilt from the back of the sofa around her. She can feel Brother Robison's power right there in her own living room. Sometimes she has to reach over and place her hand on the Bible that sits on the table to steady herself. She is convinced Brother Robison is on the up and up. Minnie Hendrix believes in him too. They discuss Brother Robison for hours. They plan to visit him down in Houston, Texas. Maybe he can heal Minnie of the rheumatism that causes her legs to be useless at times.
"It's a wonder Hollister can't heal me," Minnie says when they watch Brother Robison's healing show together. They have seen it countless times. "Hollister's the most saved man I know. He gets saved every Sunday. They pray over him to beat the band. That's over to the Church of The Living Spirit. He says he renews his salvation. I guess you can't be too saved. Hollister don't believe in TV preachers. He didn't, that is, until he married Chenille. Her daddy preaches on WDOK."
The next day, Hollister brings Minnie's mail from the post office. Joy Ruth and Minnie are watching Brother Robison. Tears stream down both of their faces. Minnie sits stone-still in her rocker and Joy Ruth perches on the edge of the brown plaid sofa.
"That Robison guy has people right where he wants 'em," Hollister remarks, handing Minnie a Swiss Colony catalog and a statement from Medicare. "In his pocket," he laughs. "Get it? In his pocket!" He lowers himself onto the sofa beside Joy Ruth, his big frame taking up all the available space. "I can't believe people is stupid enough to send that thief money. Love offering. My foot."
Minnie's eyes catch Joy Ruth's and Joy Ruth gets the message loud and clear. With Hollister's eyes riveted to the television, the young woman slides the envelope holding their love offering under the worn black Bible on the table.
By the time the gold-robed choir comes on, Hollister is reclining on the sofa, eating a carton of raspberry yogurt from Minnie's hiding place in the back of her refrigerator, his feet resting on Minnie's brown leather hassock.
"Swing low, sweet char-i-ot, com-in' for to carry me home," Minnie's surprisingly strong voice rings out as she sings along with the choir, "swing low, sweet char-i-ot, com-in' for to carry me home."
"I want this sung at my funeral, Hollister," Minnie says, stopping mid song. "Now listen carefully to these words.
"Swing low, sweet char-i-ot, com-in' for-to-car-ry-me-home.
"Remember that, son." She closes her eyes, and sings with great enthusiasm, "Com-ing-for-to-car-ry-me-home!"
The next Wednesday, Joy Ruth drives Minnie's '55 Chevy past McDonald's and parks in front of Miller's. Her knees shake as she wheels Minnie up the handicapped ramp and into the service elevator where Leroy Miller is waiting for the ride up to the Casket Parlor.
"Let me warn you ladies," he says as the elevator door closes, "all you will see is caskets when this door opens. It may take your breath away. It does some folks that way. Now here we go."
They are quickly swooshed upwards. The elevator door pops open and they face a room full of caskets. He leads them through a doorway and into a sitting room that smells faintly of lilacs. Joy Ruth sees a can of Glade room spray on a little table in the corner.
"You'll want to read this over," Leroy Miller says to Minnie and hands her a form. She barely glances at it and hands it back. He motions Joy Ruth to sit down on a gold brocade sofa.
"We worked out most of the details on the phone," he says, "some of that information may change. Like the addresses of your kids. We can update that when the time comes. But we got the important stuff. Would you like a mint?" He hands Minnie a silver candy dish filled with miniature York peppermint patties.
"Well, thank you," she says, scooping up a handful of the mints and hands the dish to Joy Ruth. Without taking any candy, Joy Ruth places the candy dish back on the glass table.
"You better have a couple of those mints," the old woman says to Joy Ruth, "it's hard to tell how long this business will take."
"This business won't take long," Leroy says, briskly. He wears a dark suit and tie. Joy Ruth's eyes almost meet his but she blushes and turns away. She can't bring herself to look at him. She is aching to know if he remembers her. Everyone in school knew she had a crush on him.
"Now if you're ready," he says to Minnie and stands, "we'll go look at those caskets."
"I'm ready as I'll ever be," she says. She unwraps another peppermint pattie and pushes it into her mouth.
Gripping the wheelchair, the man turns the old woman in the direction of the Casket Parlor. "Let's see if we can find something in here you like." He wheels her from one casket to the other, patiently explaining the various features as the old woman peers into each casket and rubs her hand along each satiny interior.
Joy Ruth lingers in the doorway and twists her belt buckle. She notes Leroy's gentleness, and how from time to time, he pats Minnie's frail arm. Her heart pumps faster. She feels warm. It could be the sight of the caskets. Or it could be the closeness of Leroy Miller.
"I want this one right here," Minnie says, thumping her hand on a gray metal casket. The interior is pale pink.
"Good choice," Leroy says. "It's stainless steel." He walks over and opens a white louver door to reveal a row of chiffon dresses. He pulls out a pink dress and then chooses a lilac one and holds them up for the old woman to inspect. "What do you think?"
"Let me see that one." Minnie points to the pink dress. It comes with a strand of white beads. She takes the dress from Leroy. "This is the one I want. I love pearls." She holds the dress to her, fingers the beads, and turns to Joy Ruth. "How does this one look?"
Joy Ruth smiles and nods. Suddenly she catches Leroy's eye. He is smiling broadly at her. A twinkle is in his blue eyes. He remembers.
"Wait until Laverne sees me in this," the old woman chuckles, "I wish I could be there to see her face. She says I don't have good taste. This'll show her who has good taste."
"If that's the one you want, that's the one you'll have," Leroy says, and cheerfully jots down the style number of the pink dress on his yellow pad. He wheels Minnie back into the sitting room where he sits down behind the desk.
Joy Ruth returns to her spot on the gold brocade sofa.
"Write it all up and tell me where to sign," the old woman says and turns to Joy Ruth, "write the man a check, honey."
"Like I said on the phone," he points to some figures on the form, "one fee covers everything."
Minnie squints at the paper he hands her. "I can't make it out."
"Six thousand even. That includes a good steel vault. The service will be here in the chapel. You can decide on a minister and singers. If you want singers. Or your family can decide. When the time comes."
"I already planned the whole she-bang," the old woman looks at him over her glasses as she signs the check. "I wrote out my instructions. They're in my Montgomery Ward safe. The combination is under my handkerchiefs in the vanity drawer. I want Preacher Cobb," she hands Leroy the check, "he's from Hollister's church. I picked some singers. I like good singing, don't you?" She smiles up at Leroy. "I picked three groups. That's in case some of them can't make it. Who knows? They all may be dead. If so," Minnie starts to laugh, "Laverne can sing. Wouldn't that be a hoot."
"You are doing your loved ones a big favor," Leroy closes the folder on his desk. "Now you go out of here and live 20 more years. You can rest easy knowing everything is fixed the way you want it." He sits back and loosens his tie. "Did I tell you that price includes the hair-do? I was noticing your hair. You have nice hair. Our woman here is good with hair." He smiles. "We haven't had any complaints, anyway."
Minnie laughs. "That's a good one, now. Yes, sir, that's good!" Then Minnie sobers as she looks from Leroy to Joy Ruth. "You come on over to McDonald's with us, Leroy," she offers, smoothing the skirt of the red satin dress, "the Big Mac's are on me."
"Why, thanks, Miss Minnie," he says, taking hold of the wheelchair. I'll do that."
As the three of them move toward the service elevator, Leroy expertly maneuvering the wheelchair through the doorway, Joy Ruth feels light as air. Like she might fly away. She touches Leroy's arm to ground herself.
This story was published as JOY RUTH AND MINNIE HENDRIX in World Wide Writers Magazine, UK, a few years ago. Hope you enjoy!
"All the characters who have housed my stories now have permanent apartments in my head. I still