I absolutely adore watching people -- especially when they are forced to maintain good Southern decorum in socially adverse situations. As I have observed over the years, there’s a good dose of Jonathan Edwards threaded into the DNA of almost every American, even the staunchest and proudest Roman Catholic (although he may never admit it publicly). A bit of religious repression goes a long way to make an ordinary scrape with the bizarre an extraordinarily delectable dish for a hungry cynic. These sorts of occurrences seem to follow me, and I love it when I am awarded the treat of being accompanied into them by others, and more so if those others suffer under the subconscious influence of the “beaning preacher”. Life is so rich and wonderful and brings us such marvelous opportunities for humor. The following happened last fall when I was still at Fatima Church, Lafayette:
The parish secretary, and I had to make a quick trip to the UPS store one morning. She had been charged with returning to the workshop the metal crown that had sat atop a religious statue. The crown had been crushed in the shipping crate on its way from Portugal to South Louisiana. Actually, it had been flattened,. I needed to return an unused psalter to St. John's Abbey, since it was not the sort of thing I could use. When we entered the store, we filled out our shipping labels and stood in line. A curious object in the packaging area caught my eye. It was some sort of African artwork: a pair of narrow, life-sized legs stained jet black standing on miniature feet, attached to calves at precise right angles. Around the waist was hung a grass skirt to ensure modesty. The secretary didn't see the legs standing sans torso, as she was preoccupied with her little box.
We stood in line for at least 30 minutes waiting as the slowest UPS workers in Christendom worked at a snail's pace to fetch boxes, take measurements, muddle up the packing tape from the dispenser, search for mailing labels and forms. This store must have had a valium automat in the back for the employees' use: everyone donning a UPS uniform behind the counter moved in slow motion. Three clerks were partially operational: ours, Mr. Henri, Miss Charlene in line 2 opposite us and an assistant whose name tag was hanging reversed around her neck from a brown UPS lanyard. Our line grew and stretched ultimately from counter to door. All the while a man maybe 5 feet tall was negotiating with Charlene. To pass the time, bored as we were, we curiously watched the diminutive customer standing directly opposite us, as he dealt with his intriguing postage dilemma. He wore a black straw fedora, form-fitting t-shirt, jeans, and industrial strength shit kickers. He explained to the clerk, "I just need to know how much it would cost to send the sculpture, say, to Alaska. I'm selling it for my girlfriend on eBay." It was delightfully edifying how this generous and thoughtful fellow was spending his morning in a UPS store on behalf of an obviously too-busy girlfriend to check the postage on a life-sized wooded carving of African origin.
The rest of the item was out of sight, over among packing boxes and Styrofoam peanuts. The legs had been weighed before our arrival. They had caught our attention, but only briefly. Valium-toxic Charlene instructed the art dealer-boyfriend that he had the choice of packaging the legs and arms in their own box, suggesting the torso, massive as it was, could easily fit into its own container. "Torso," I thought, “in its own box.” Without a context, this conversation was deliciously macabre. Indeed we weren't prepared for what happened next. "Let me weight the torso and give you a price," instructed dozy Charlene. Reversed nametag girl had been assisting her in the figuring of prices for legs, arms and torso, manipulating the wooden African body parts as if to say, "I think I should respect this more than I do". Charlene inhaled deeply and heaved the torso from the packing table and lunged with it toward the scales. She plopped the wooden half-human onto the weighing platform. Like studied dancers in a chorus line, the queued up customers in front of us turned to face the wall away from Charlene’s business. At this moment, scanning the display area for what they didn’t really need in the line of envelopes and mailers was a safer option than continuing to observe the sculpture autopsy across the room. I wasn’t faint of heart. I looked on with impassioned glee. Encouraged by my heroism, Renella too kept her eyes fixed on the scales.
The head of the thing had been covered with a thick, clear plastic bag, positioned there by the assistant, as Charlene later would inform her customer, "to protect it." The torso was approximately 4 feet in length. The face was dramatic but rather demonic, its wild coconut hair visible through the plastic bag. On the bottom of the torso there was a wide wooden peg extending about 6 inches. The peg would fit into the figure's waist to connect it firmly to the pair of boney legs. I turned to look at Renella. She was trying so much to conceal her natural laughter, that her face was as rigid as the carving on the scales. Tears flowed down her cheeks. Her shoulders trembled. Henri was slow as ever, meticulously untangling his tape, which he always seemed to make fold over onto itself. Waiting was torture. The torso, you see, with its contorted, frightful expression and twisted Tony-perm-gone-utterly-wrong, boasted a set of enormous breasts protruding like cantaloupe halves from the ribcage, or thus reclined, like the two great humps of a dromedary (but without a perky saddle in between fashioned for a stoic desert-cruising Arab). Each hemisphere was adorned by a hard, wooden nipple the circumference of a ping-pong ball, yet sharpened into a crude cone, like the cupola atop the great dome of St. Peter's or a dollop of cream atop June Cleaver’s molded ribbon salad. The fact that both the secretary and I were returning religious objects didn't help matters. The man received his price: only a little over $100.00. Not bad to ship a corpse, dismembered as it was, in two crates. When we were out in the open I had regretted not having interrupted the packaging proceedings to inquire whether the breasts could be detached like the other extruding parts. Perhaps that could have made the torso crate a few pounds lighter.