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Laura's White Castle
by Edward Laughlin

In the early '40s when I was about nine or ten and allowed to explore Huntsville, Alabama, on my wheel, I pedaled down to Laughlin Service one afternoon. Uncle Humes, for whom I am named, and his staff always seemed glad to see me. The funeral home devoted the first floor to funeral services and the upper floors to coffins. The higher you went, the less they cost. Behind the parquet floored rooms on the main floor was the one I liked best. Brightly lit, smelling of formaldehyde, and furnished with lots of stainless steel was the sanctum where the embalming was done.

On this particular afternoon (and the Grim Reaper having taken temporary leave of North Alabama) I was left to sift through Uncle Humes's desk. In a drawer was a Sir Walter Raleigh Pipe Tobacco can, now the repository of fine, gray dust. As Uncle explained, the dust particles were vestiges of Mr. O'Shaughnessy, head man at Chase Nursery who had devoted the better part of his life to caring for prize roses. His final wish was that his remains be scattered among the plants.

Due to a lapse that encompassed the flu pandemic of 1918, the Great depression of the '30s and World War II, Uncle had neglected to honor the request of Mr. O'S. The dusty contents of the tobacco can having brought back memories of promises made to the rose tender's widow prompted an immediate response for restitution from Uncle H., who sought to make amends for his past injustice. "Aleck, bring the car around" was enough to light a fire under the power-behind-the throne at Laughlin Service , a ginger-colored gentleman and pal of mine who washed the hearse and ambulance and took care of Uncle's wants in times of need.

The course to Chase Nursery as charted by Uncle and piloted by Aleck that afternoon took us straight out Meridian Pike by Laura's White Castle. The Packard seemed drawn into the parking lot of a crenelated, very tired, white stucco building. Combination bistro and inn of happiness, Laura's place was an establishment never disorderly and never raided by the high sheriff, a frequent visitor to this pleasure dome. The White Castle catered to those in need, and on this particular afternoon Humes Laughlin was one of the needy.

"Hows about a little libation?" was enough of an incentive to deter us from our appointed rounds. Aleck warped the Packard into a berth in the parking lot and, with his pleas of "don't stay too long" ringing in our ears, the two Laughlins approached the ramparts. Like something out of an old Cagney movie, a small door within the large one opened; no questions were asked, and without hesitation the barrier was opened. Uncle and I were welcomed into a slightly lit room, heady with wafts of draft beer and Evening in Paris perfume. Dim though the room was, I could make out the bar, a bunch of slot machines, and a bevy of ladies lounging around the periphery.

Miss Laura gave Uncle a welcome reserved only for her near and dear. I was included in her welcoming when it became obvious that nepotism ranked among Humes's attributes. Introductions were made all around after which I was given a Coke and instructed as to how to pull a one armed bandit. Uncle H. idled away his time with the ladies, insisting they "call me Humie."

It was only after many rounds of potables hard to come by in our dry county that a faint knock was heard at the door. It was Aleck. "His mama will kill us if we don't have Edward home before dark" was enough to goad us merrymakers into heading for the door. The Clipper surged out the parking lot, bound for the nursery. Due to the constraint of time it was proposed by Uncle H., seconded by me with our pilot's concurrence, that rather than strew the ashes among the roses we could scatter them along the road, the logic being that sooner or later water in the ditch would convey the Old Gardener's remains to the prized plants, thus fulfilling the Undertaker's promise. Dispersing the contents from the moving car reminded me of the burial at sea I had recently seen in a John Wayne movie.

The trip back, at first, was sort of quiet, and I couldn't help but wonder if Uncle wasn't having second thoughts about the disposal and dispersal of Mr. O'Shaughnessy. But the lights of Huntsville, primarily those from the Maple Grove Tourist Court, soon dispelled the gloom, and we cruised back to Laughlin Service in good spirits, accentuated by a flask from the glove compartment.

I parked my bike in the garage as the sun was setting, just before curfew. Ashes to . . . ?


AUTHOR BIO: Ed Laughlin lives in Huntsville, Alabama, and is Professor of Surgery, UAB School of Medicine, Huntsville Program. A native Huntsvillian, he was born 18 years BVB (before Von Braun), when his home town depended on cotton and not rockets. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Duke, and in addition to writing stories for his four daughters he has published two books, Coming to Terms with Cancer and Cancer from A to Z, written for lay persons.

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